The Commonwealth Blog
The Commonwealth Club has opened the doors of its new online store, where you can purchase audio downloads of programs (such as the recent sold-out program with Walter Isaacson discussing Steve Jobs), books (including some signed by the authors), and more.
The store has only just launched, so visit it often as we add more and more things to buy. And remember that all of the proceeds go to support the good work of the nonprofit Commonwealth Club of California!
Writer and polemicist Christopher Hitchens passed away today following a fight with cancer. He was 62.
The former leftist turned ... well, what? Right-wing, in some ways. Libertarian? Neo-conservative? People can debate his political journey for years, and being a cause for never-ending debate would probably please Hitchens, who reveled in verbal and written combat. He was one of the most provocative and intellectually brave people on the scene of American politics, which after all was an adopted scene for the UK-born writer. Never afraid of a political scrap, Hitchens angered and pleased his audiences.
But that reputation for combatitiveness was not reflected in his personality. At the Club, we got to have many interactions with him, because he was a repeat presence on our stage. "In my 10 years at the Club, he is by far one of my favorite speakers," said Kara Iwahashi, The Commonwealth Club's associate program director who heads up the organization's Silicon Valley operations. "He was charming, lived life to the fullest, and – despite what many people might think – extremely down to earth. When he was visiting his family in Palo Alto, he called personally, not through any assistant, to accept our invitation to speak at the Club. And despite his busy schedule – he was leaving after our program to travel to Europe to do research for his memoir – he spent time talking to our members after the program and thanking them for coming. The world has lost a great individual."
Hitchens had been scheduled for a return engagement at the Club in July 2010, but only a couple days before the program, he canceled and announced that he had been diagnosed with the cancer, which would finally take his life this week.
You can listen to the audio of Hitchens' July 9, 2009, event at The Commonwealth Club, when he was discussing his then-new book, God Is not Great.
By Pria S. Whitehead
Earlier this month, the United States commemorated Veterans’ Day. For many people, this meant a much-anticipated day off from work or from school. For others, it was a reminder of service rendered or painful loss incurred. For some, it may have brought to bear the frustration of months or years of social and professional exclusion and hardship. To this end, for certain vets and their families, perhaps the day signified or even provoked an impetus for change.
A month preceding Veterans’ Day, on October 4 of this year, the Commonwealth Club hosted four panelists for a discussion concerning the reintegration of today’s veterans into American society. The speakers were Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA); Deborah Alvarez Rodriguez, president & CEO of Goodwill; Ana Thompson, executive director of Schwab Entrepreneurial Foundation; and Mike Myatt, president & CEO of the Marines Memorial Association. Despite the panelists’ varied backgrounds, all of them convened around the severity of that which Rieckhoff termed an “unprecedented disconnect” between contemporary American civilians and recent war veterans. All of them stressed the need for a mobilization of community resources around the creation of jobs for recent veterans, as well as for the dissolution of common prejudices and frameworks through which war veterans are, ostensibly, increasingly perceived. Rodriguez used the term “civic fatigue” to summarize the problems inherent in this disconnect.
The question of civic fatigue is one that has garnered significant attention in recent years from researchers in various political, academic, social and philanthropic contexts. In his 1995 article “Bowling Alone,” which appeared in the January edition of the Journal of Democracy and preceded the publication of a book by the same title, author Robert Putnam cites a variety of studies to illustrate the decline, over the latter half of the 20th century, in the presence of “social capital” in American society. Social capital, defined by Putnam as mutually beneficial social organization, constitutes a valued and measurable commodity in the series of data that he attempts to synthesize. His premise, taking into account a link between the performance and quality of social institutions and the precise networks and associations comprising a definition of “civic engagement,” is that despite the aggregate rise in Americans’ levels of education and wealth – two apparent indicators of a propensity for civic engagement – our tendency to form, and to participate in, civic associations has declined drastically in recent decades. Possible reasons cited include the escalation of women’s participation in the workforce; the increased geographic mobility of citizens; shifting family demographics; and the technological transformation of “leisure” to primarily private, rather than public, forms.
Owing to the more recent explosion of this latter (technological) realm and the onset of social networks anachronistic to the publication of “Bowling Alone,” it is impossible to read Putnam’s set as complete. However, some of the more incendiary points raised by his work arguably have become still more pertinent in light of the recent paroxysm of technologically facilitated networks. For Putnam, technology is primarily television-based, thus inherently private and antisocial. Perhaps more fruitful than a parallel between television and internet, then, would be a comparison between the most recent wave of the technological revolution and the “new mass-membership organizations” toward which Putnam points as comprising a seeming countertrend to the decline in social capital. Putnam’s critique, and ultimate dismissal, of the mass-membership organization as effective replacement of traditional forms of social capital appears to derive from a perceived lack of accountability among its members: “For the vast majority of… members, the only act of membership consists in writing a check for dues or perhaps occasionally reading a newsletter. Few ever attend any meetings of such organizations, and most are unlikely ever (knowingly) to encounter any other member.” He goes on to argue that “their ties … are to common symbols, common leaders, and perhaps common ideals, but not to one another.” Insofar as this critique points to the question of accountability, it can help us to examine the ways in which the online social network might fail to achieve the associational ends of an organization that requires regular face-to-face contact. Nonetheless, we must be careful in drawing such a broad parallel, especially in light of the second half of Putnam’s critique. It might well be argued that the bonds formed and maintained through online social networks – in opposition to those formed through mass-membership organizations – are, indeed, “to one another” and not “to common symbols … and … ideals.”
Taking into account the need for finer nuance, perhaps the utility of drawing such a parallel lies in its bearing on the question of accountability. This question becomes even more compelling when considered alongside Putnam’s later discussion of “the costs … of community engagement.” Here, he notes that “recent decades have witnessed a substantial decline in intolerance and probably also in overt discrimination, and those beneficent trends may be related in complex ways to the erosion of traditional social capital.” This observation begs investigation into the ways in which the social and professional networks made possible by technology have reconfigured the norms of inclusion and exclusion by which our society functions. If recent technological advances, along with advances in globalization, contribute to and/or reflect a reduction in social exclusivity and related social, economic and political corruption, the question of accountability changes entirely. As the ways in which we hold one another responsible for our actions and beliefs have evolved, our paradigms of responsibility have shifted. It is plausible that the erosion of civic responsibility correlates with an increase in other types of social rigor. In light of this consideration, Putnam’s article would appear suggestive with regard to the volatile, ever-changing social and political tenor of our day.
As with many studies, then, it is the lacunae – the missing portions, both chronological and conceptual – in Putnam’s research that invite deeper questioning into its objectives. To which end(s) are we, individually and communally, called to recognize our own “civic fatigue”? Is it enough to harken back to a bygone age in which face-to-face collaboration played a more significant role in our daily lives? Clearly, we must take into account some proportion of the massive changes that our society has undergone since the postwar era. Just as clearly, however, taking into account all of these changes is a multivariate and seemingly impossible task, in light of which grassroots efforts and heterodox fora appear as necessary as publicly- or privately-funded research projects and large policy initiatives. Perhaps the first step for all of us is simply to hold one another accountable for questioning – in small ways – the information and conjectures that we see, hear, read and receive on a daily basis.
And what, one may ask, does all of this have to do with Veterans’ Day? The answer is vague, though pressing. The panelists featured in last month’s event at the Club unanimously affirmed that our youngest generation of veterans is both quantitatively and qualitatively distinct from past generations. Without delving into detail, some differences that stand out are the relatively small size of the most recent veteran population; the newly significant proportion of women in this population; and, more intricately, the undeniable differences in the guiding missions and endeavors of successive generations of military personnel. In the case of this final distinction, the differences are hard to categorize and even harder to articulate; nonetheless, they are wrapped up on several levels in some of our most urgent and topical ideological, political and logistical debates.
The anti-war sentiment that has pervaded many strata of American society since the onset of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is informed by a varyingly concrete perception of the differences between our most recent military exploits and the ones that preceded them. This, along with the fact that the vast majority of today’s Americans have come into little or no personal contact with any member of the military, would appear to contribute to the apathy with which we confront our veterans. With this in mind, we might be called to ask ourselves and one another how to reconcile political disapproval with genuine support for the individuals who have chosen to serve in the military. How might we recognize, and subsequently teach our neighbors and coworkers to acknowledge, that many of the skills acquired through military training and service could serve as valuable industrial and entrepreneurial commodities? How might we better understand the ways in which support for, and rehabilitation of, veterans of the armed forces can indeed form a worthwhile and lucrative investment? How might we avoid the “civic fatigue” that (seemingly inevitably) accompanies the waning of abstract nationalistic ideals?
The insistence on hiring war veterans for their individual acquired skills might appear to contradict the very principle of civic engagement, as it requires many citizens to cast aside their disagreement with – and alienation from – the systems and objectives that govern military service. But if we were to harp on this contradiction, we might be missing the point of civic engagement altogether. According to Putnam’s definition, civic engagement and the ensuing “social capital” are founded on human relationships, not on abstract bournes or pretensions. In his article, Putnam insists that “the theory of social capital argues that associational membership should ... increase social trust.”
What, we should ask, is “social trust”? More important, how might trust play a role in regaining – and in refreshing – the social and institutional fabric of our lives?
The good news is that people seem to be flocking to address this question from a variety of fields and angles. More than ever before, and toward various ends, persuasive and powerful minds are devoting energy toward the goals of human collaboration, partnership, and the potential of world-altering interactions between the public and private spheres. On a more basic level, in our daily interactions, perhaps each of us could be best served by turning our power of discretion away from breaking and toward forming associations; away from criticism, toward empathy; and away from skepticism, toward trust.
Earlier this month, MIT President Susan Hockfield appeared at The Commonwealth Club of California Silicon Valley to talk about American competitiveness and innovation. Those are popular topics these days, as the United States continues to work through a difficult economic recovery and other nations – China, Germany, India, Poland, Turkey – are enjoying stronger growth and employment. Add to this situation the ongoing policy turmoil in Washington, D.C., and you have some leaders sounding the alarm. Add Hockfield to that group of leaders.
As Ken Kaplan notes in his report on Hockfield's appearance, "American Innovation Losing Its Shine?": "American ingenuity and innovation, the twin engine of the country's economy since World War II, is in danger of losing steam and job growth potential if federal legislators allow 'automatic' spending cuts to kick in next year rather than earmarking federal funds to advance education, research and manufacturing, according Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield. Hockfield sounded the economic alarm bell Wednesday at the Commonwealth Club of California in Silicon Valley. 'The big question is: Where will our much needed jobs come from?' she asked. 'Will we let other nations lead or will we seize the lead?'"
Hockfield, a neuroscientist, argued that America needed to invest in the parts of its economy that spawn innovation and growth, according to Alan Weissberger's report on Viodi.com, "MIT President on How to Improve America's Innovation Economy": "During her lecture, Ms. Hockfield discussed a range of 'innovation economy' priorities, including federal government funding of basic research, immigration policy for foreign students, creating an entrepreneurial culture at universities and seizing the opportunities of advanced manufacturing. She believes that the intersection of the life sciences and engineering will be pivotal to innovation and economic growth in the 21st Century."
You can listen to the podcast of Hockfield's program on the Club's website.
Commonwealth Club members were invited by email to participate in a free, members-only teleconference this morning from 9-10 am Pacific time. You can submit your questions for the speakers by using the comment section for this blog post. Our moderator, Commonwealth Club President & CEO Dr. Gloria C. Duffy, will select as many questions as she has time to ask the speakers.
Tax the wealthy? Cut public pensions? Create infrastructure projects and jobs? Raise or lower the debt ceiling? Cut defense spending? Stimulate tech and green sector innovation? How to bring the U.S. economy back to a higher and stable growth path continues to bedevil economists, business leaders and policymakers. The unpredictability of the economy makes business and personal decisions difficult. Hire or not? Retire or not? Invest or not?
Last week the New America Foundation released a White Paper on the U.S. economy, "The Way Forward: Moving From the Post-Bubble, Post-Bust Economy to Renewed Growth and Competitiveness," authored by Daniel Alpert (managing partner with Westwood Capital in New York), Robert Hockett (a professor of law at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY) and Nouriel Roubini (an economist at Princeton University). The paper evaluates the steps taken so far to stimulate the U.S. economy, and it recommends three specific strategies for addressing the continuing economic challenges. Their recommendations have already stimulated discussion in The New York Times.
Does "The Way Forward" as presented by the White Paper make sense, and if so, how can it be implemented? We look forward to in-depth discussion and your questions for Daniel Alpert and Robert Hockett on "The Way Forward."
In an exclusive excerpt on The Daily Beast from her memoir, No Higher Honor, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tells the story of her meeting with the now-dead Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi during the Bush administration's second term. Gadaffi was clearly infatuated with her; she writes, "At the end of dinner [in Gadaffi's private kitchen, he] told me that he’d made a videotape for me. Uh oh, I thought, what is this going to be? It was a quite innocent collection of photos of me with world leaders—President Bush, Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao, and so on — set to the music of a song called 'Black Flower in the White House,' written for me by a Libyan composer. It was weird, but at least it wasn’t raunchy.
Rice explains the political importance of delaying and then having a meeting with the Libyan leader, who, she notes, referred to her as his "African princess." Rice, a member of The Commonwealth Club's Board of Governors, spoke to the Club in October 2010 about her previous book and her upbringing in the segregated South. You can watch a video of that event on the Club's website.
No Higher Honor will be published by Crown on November 1, 2011.
The New York Times reports that the United States seriously considered using some form of cyberwarfare in its campaign to topple the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi. The intention would have been to undercut the Libyan government's ability to counter Western airstrikes in the country.
The idea was shelved, however. According to the Times:
[A]dministration officials and even some military officers balked, fearing that it might set a precedent for other nations, in particular Russia or China, to carry out such offensives of their own, and questioning whether the attack could be mounted on such short notice. They were also unable to resolve whether the president had the power to proceed with such an attack without informing Congress.
Some people might find that reasoning curious, considering the widely held assumptions that cyberwarfare is already occurring, with reports of infiltration and cybertheft of U.S. government, military, and commercial secrets appearing in the news with surprising regularity.
In fact, Mark Bowden will discuss "The First Digital War" in his October 24 program at The Commonwealth Club of California. The event, which will be moderated by Brian Hackney, CBS 5 correspondent for "Eye on the Bay," will take place at 6 p.m. in San Francisco. (Tickets are still available.)
We're said to report the passing last week of Roger Kennedy at the age of 85. Kennedy was the former director of the National Park Service and, before that, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
You can watch a video of his 2007 appearance at The Commonwealth Club at Fora.tv. He talked about "The Politics of Disaster," discussing the ways the United States handles (and mishandles) emergencies.
Cathy Curtis, the chair of The Commonwealth Club's Bay Gourmet Member-Led Forum, will appear on this week's "Check Please Bay Area."
The popular restaurant-review program airs at 7:30 p.m. on KQED TV, Channel 9.
Curtis, longtime leader of the Bay Gourmet forum, is also a certified financial planner and leads Club travelers on popular trips to culinary hostpots locally and internationally.
Cloud computing is a name that gives headline writers smiles of joy, because there are so many ways they can play off the image or idea of the "cloud" in their headlines. But cloud computing is also giving many businesses and individuals smiles, too, as they unload processing or storage tasks from their own systems onto third-party services, which promise to do these tasks less expensively.
Watch the video above for a look at where cloud computing is going. (And please don't say, "The sky's the limit!") You can also listen to the podcast of our September 20, 2011, program "Cloud Computing and Customers: Strategies for Success"