Ron Nirenberg, who in June 2017 became Mayor of our nation's seventh largest city, believes that a blend of pragmatic, progressive and visionary bottom-up governance stands the best chance of having a kind of spillover effect that can make our world more vibrant and inclusive on national and global scales.
To that end, besides an array of pioneering environmental, housing, education, transportation and education initiatives that he seeks to implement at the local scale in San Antonio, Mayor Nirenberg also is Chair of Sister Cities International, created in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, such is his commitment to building diplomatic bridges the world over in an era of increasing nationalism.
"It's extremely important, especially in these days, that people understand who it is that lives next to them," says Mayor Nirenberg, who has attended our thriving annual Conversation with the Constitution in San Antonio.
"And we must all strive to understand the differences between us and the importance of finding common ground and harmony with those people who are not like us. Because we all breathe the same air and drink the same water."
As Mayor Nirenberg eloquently puts it, "It's extremely important," now more than ever, that we strive to find such common ground, "whether it's with the person who lives across the street from us, across the city or across the world."
[Note:I caught up with Mayor Nirenberg on his cell phone just as he returned from Mexico City, where he attended the inauguration of Mexico's new President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador -- and there are a few technical hiccups on this podcast recording, due to a weak cellphone connection from time to time.]
About a year ago, Tobiasz Budzyński, who is from Poland but is living in Berlin, started a Socrates Cafe at a Polish-German bookstore there. He first learned about our gatherings through a childhood friend who has a Socrates Cafe in Krakow. He decided it could be, among other things, a great way to create a greater sense of connection and commonality, "especially because the meeting takes place in a non-virtual world," and explores questions that are as timely as they are timeless, including ones on identity, nationality, and how language shapes our thinking
"I think that’s a very important aspect," shares Tobiasz, who considers himself, more than anything, a "European citizen" and "part of this global village". He is pleased that German citizens have also taken part, and that a group might soon start in the German language as well.
"It takes an effort to come to a meeting," Tobiasz shares. "Then we can talk, we have time for listening to one another, and actually to get to know each other."
In this latest episode of 'The Openist,' Chris is joined by the towering public intellectual and human rights activist Cornel West, an Honorary Board Member of the nonprofit Democracy Cafe (democracycafe.org) of which Chris serves as Executive Director.
To agree or disagree with Brother West is almost beside the point; he aspires to make us think deeply, critically, compassionately. Chris and Dr. West chart their way through sundry timely and timeless issues that have to do with maintaining and evolving open hearts, open minds, open societies in times of rising absolutism and fundamentalism.
Brother West lauded Democracy Cafe's efforts to make our world more thoughtful, understanding and lovable -- he is wowed by what we accomplish with no philanthropic funding but with several generous individual donors. He urged Chris to hurry and finish up his newest book, so he could write the forward to it.
Listen in to Cornel West.
And as an extra, here is a link to a video interview with Brother West:
Rock and Latin music writer and curator Isabela Raygoza has opened my world to an array of artists and great music that I otherwise would not be privy to. She provides vistas, contexts and perspectives that help me and many others see how this rich artistry both stems from and drives American democracy, identity, and greater gender equality at this critical moment.
I once had the honor of having Isabela as a student of mine when I was professor of the graduate Thesis Writing course for the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. She has gone on to do great things, including writing regularly for publications like Rolling Stone, Remezcla and VICE.
Listen in as Isabela shares her compelling take on the music and democracy scene.
Can religion be allowed to control us? What is country? Why is it that some of us don't believe in God? What makes women strong?
Such are the timely, timeless and incredibly bold questions explored so far at the newest Socrates Cafes, started by a young women in the Middle East.
Socrates Cafe has taken off in a big way there (my book "Socrates Cafe" soon will be published in Arabic). It now has expanded in Saudi Arabia (which already has thriving groups in Saihat and Qatif) to Al-Ahsa, a major city in the eastern province, as well as to nearby Bahrain, where participants hail from from Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia -- thanks in large measure to Noor Al-Hajji, a graduate student at Arabian Gulf University who has an abiding passion for philosophical inquiry the Socrates Cafe way.
Listen in as Noor eloquently relates why she believes Socrates Cafe must become an ever more vital mainstay in the Middle East at this critical crossroads. It was thrilling and humbling to me that she believes Socrates Cafe will serve as a lasting legacy, and hence continue to thrive long after my mortal moment is done. "I am so thankful for the brilliant idea of Socrates Cafes," she tells me with palpable enthusiasm, "that I will spread it everywhere I can."
In 1998, 'Civic ideals: Conflicting Visions of citizenship in U. S. History,' was a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History. If anything, the comprehensively insightful award-winning book -- authored by Rogers Smith, who until 2001 was Alfred Cowles Professor of Government at Yale University before then becoming the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science -- is more relevant today than ever.
As Yale University Press, the publisher of 'Civic Ideals,' notes, it "traces political struggles over U.S. citizenship laws from the colonial period through the Progressive era and shows that throughout this time, most adults were legally denied access to full citizenship, including political rights, solely because of their race, ethnicity, or gender. Basic conflicts over these denials have driven political development and civic membership in the U.S., Smith argues. These conflicts are what truly define U.S. civic identity up to this day."
And as Rogers Smiths shares in our thoughtful podcast give-and-take, 'Civic Ideals' "does focus on dimensions of American life that I would like to see eclipsed, including the impulses to exclude and subordinate some and privilege others. But I’m afraid we do see those impulses today."
While these impulses may not be on a more pervasive scale than ever today, Professor Smith believes "there is a significant uptick. The concerns about immigration in this country and also economic inequality, as well as cultural trends away from traditional forms of life, all these have created a mounting longing on the part of many Americans for their vision of an older America that they regard as a better America."
"Unfortunately," he continues, "that is an America that privileged whites, and especially white Christian men, over all others— and we’re seeing renewed efforts to try to reconstruct to some degree that predominately white-governed and -dominated America."
While Dr. Smith, an expert on civil rights and constitutional law, goes on to assert that "we’re not going to recreate that vision as true as it was in the past," he considers it nonetheless "disturbing to see that vision of America on the rise again.”
Listen in as I explore this phenomenon of civic ideals and identity, and much more (including the President's pardoning powers -- and whether he can pardon himself), with Professor Smith.
"A question for you: knowledge and understanding -- how do the words and concepts themselves differ in your eyes?"
That was the message I received from Claire Diao, a very thoughtful former student at University of Vermont who is now applying to study at Brown University even as she continues to work as a bartender.
It's been a long time since I've enjoyed a one-on-one Socratic give-and-take as much as I did this one with Claire, as we explore together the very question she posed to me.
Listen in and you just might find yourself moving further along your own path towards achieving greater wisdom, as I did thanks to Claire.
Democratic freedoms are on the decline. What can be done to arrest this pernicious development and make sure freedom rings the world over?
Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House (freedomhouse.org), an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change and monitors the status of freedom around the world, has an array of timely insights on the matter.
Michael - who before joining Freedom House in February 2017 was director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Levine Institute for Holocaust Education, and before that was National Editor and White House correspondent for the Washington Post -- discusses Freedom House's annual report, 'Freedom of the World,' which they've been producing for nearly a half century. Its key indicators -- which track everything from freedom of the press, to rule of law, to free and fair elections -- show that, as Michael puts it, "after a long period of steady growth of democratization....you've had kind of a reversal of that over the last twelve years... More countries are suffering a decline in political rights and civil liberties."
There is much that can and must be done, as Michael eloquently shares, if this trend is to be reversed. Listen in.
And deepest thanks as always to our engineer Odin Halvorson, who also is an exquisite writer, among many other things. Visit his website at OdinHalvorson.com
When Joaquin Gonzalez heard about the effort of Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig and other compatriots to challenge and prospectively overhaul the 'unrepresentative' way Electoral College votes are distributed via a winner-take-all system, he immediately reached out to offer his services and help bring a lawsuit in Texas.
To Joaquin, a recent graduate of Yale Law School, radically changing the way the Electoral College operates is a key way to bring about a more egalitarian and participatory democracy --- his paramount aim.
As Lessig readily recognized, Joaquin is a force to be reckoned with, and he enlisted him at once to join in the admirable effort. Joaquin, 33, based in San Antonio, where his family is from, is the recipient of the 2018 Shirley Adelson Siegel Public Interest Fellowship. As part of his fellowship, he is working at the Texas Civil Rights Project on voting rights issues and election protection in Texas. TCRP is a Texas-based nonprofit which in its twenty-six year history has brought thousands of strategic lawsuits to protect and expand voting rights, challenge the injustices in our broken criminal justice system, and advance racial and economic justice.
Listen in as Joaquin explains why he feels it incumbent to become a foot soldier in this effort and do all he can to make the Electoral College at long last an entity that contributes to a more representative democracy.
[Apologies for the brief glitch at about the 2:50 mark in this. It just is for a second or two, then smooths out.]
Our representative democracy is more and more unrepresentative. As Lawrence Lessig asserts, American voters are being "essentially silenced by constitutional inequality."
This is made abundantly evident by the winner take all system that pervades the way nearly all states allocate electoral votes -- and yet this system isn't at all mandated by the Constitution; rather, it's been created by the states. The tragic result of denying proportionality in distributing electoral votes is that millions of votes for presidential candidates effectively don't count. It's downright undemocratic.
This is an ever more alarming predicament, as the winner take all system increasingly likens the odds that we'll face more presidential election outcomes in which the candidate with the least votes wins.
Listen in as Lessig, Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard University, shares how he and other concerned citizens are taking on the existing system. As Lessig puts it, such vitally needed change can only come to pass "if we fuel it bottom up."
Our Founders and Framers would be proud of the effort being waged. And Lessig just might convince that you have a key role to play in making our republic a genuinely representative one once again.
We'll have a follow-on podcast on Sunday, the day before Constitution Day, that features Joaquim Gonzalez, a graduate of Yale law school and foot soldier based in San Antonio who has joined the effort of Lessig and company to take on the winner take all system in Texas, which is one of four states -- two red states and two blue states -- that are being sued.
And on Monday, Constitution Day, during our 6th annual Conversation with the Constitution in San Antonio, hundreds of concerned citizens of all ages and walks of life will join me in exploring how the Electoral College winner take all system is abrogating the 'one person one vote' ethos embedded in our Constitution, and hence standing in the way of making our democracy more, well, democratic.
Thanks as always to our volunteer wunderkind Odin Halvorson working his magic on this podcast. His website is OdinHalvorson.com
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