For one week, not writing but speaking

It’s been an exhausting but satisfying and edifying week. I spent all of it speaking, rather than writing, and I learned a lot about the difference.

I) The written word

The occasion was my Special Report on “Democracy in California”, which was on the cover of the previous issue of The Economist, a cover as cheeky as one might expect of us (see above). The cover of the actual report (which is an insert of 11,000 words, eight chapters) looks like this:

It’s my fifth Special Report (we used to call those things “Surveys”). I usually urge people to read a Special Report on paper, or as a PDF, because it is really one single narrative, with each chapter leading to the next and none meant to be read in isolation. Online readers often land on one chapter and don’t realize it is part of something bigger.

Here are the chapters:

  1. The People’s Will
  2. Direct Democracy: Origin of the Species (I had the most fun with this one)
  3. Proposition 13: War by Initiative
  4. Stateside and abroad (this is a short box comparing other states and countries)
  5. California’s Legislature: The withering branch
  6. Education: A lesson in mediocrity
  7. How voters decide: What do you know? (The second-most fun, and most suprising)
  8. What next: Burn the wagons

I tried to remember and list all the sources here, but it’s inevitable that I forgot somebody, so apologies.

II) The spoken word

Once the report was published, two of my colleagues — Amy Jaick and Dayna De Simone, our brand enhancement geniuses — ferried me around California to “market” the report.

As you might remember, I’ve long been pondering the difference between the written and the spoken word, so it was constantly on my mind this week. The two are really completely different. You can write well but speak awfully, or speak well but write awfully. (You can also be good or bad at both, of course).

All of which is to say that this was really a great warm-up for the speaking I’ll probably be doing in January when my book comes out.

In particular, I now appreciate the importance and difficulty of being a good “accordion”. Which is to say: You have to be able to expand and contract at will — ie, to speak equally well about (in this case) all 11,000 written words in

  • 1 minute,
  • 2 minutes,
  • 10 minutes,
  • 30 minutes and
  • 1 hour.

And that takes quite a bit of practice, especially since I don’t believe in using any written notes at all.

The only reason, as far as I can tell, why somebody might want to hear a writer speak (as opposed to just reading his writing) is spontaneity, which equals authenticity. If you’re speaking from written notes, how can you be spontaneous? Whenever I’m in an audience and a speaker uses written notes, the oratory is dead and boring.

So I speak “naked”, as it were, which can, admittedly, be a bit nerve-racking. I did get sidetracked a couple of times. But as the week went on I got better at my pacing. Every talk was partly the same and partly different, and Amy and Dayna gave me great feedback on what worked and what didn’t, so that “the speech” kept improving.

And the reaction from the various audiences was fantastic. At every event, we ended up having a lively debate. I was learning a lot from the audience. And learning is really my main hobby. So I guess it was a good week.

High on freedom and honest debate

I find that a great test of whether your instincts are liberal (as classically and correctly defined to mean freedom-loving) is how you approach the question of legalising marijuana.

In the current issue of The Economist I try to summarize the debate in California about Proposition 19 in November, a ballot measure that would legalize cannabis for those 21 or older.

And in an accompanying podcast, I interview an opponent and a proponent of legalization, both carefully chosen, in an attempt to get beyond mere gut instincts to clarify the arguments for and against. I wonder how you guys would interpret that conversation.

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Video of the debate (California = failure)

And here, as promised, is the video of Tuesday’s debate. (If you’re new to The Hannibal Blog, I’m talking about this debate.) I kick things off, followed by Gray Davis, and it gets both humorous and intense rather quickly.

Your arm-chair analysis in the comments is encouraged. And don’t be polite. 😉



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We won: California IS the first failed state

Here we are (I’m on the left, Bobby Shriver is in the middle, Sharon Waxman on the right), as the vote comes in, telling us that we “won” last night’s debate against Gray Davis, Lawrence O’Donnell and Van Jones.

The motion, as a reminder, was:

California is the first failed state

and we argued For.

We won because we moved more audience members in our favor.

Before the debate, 31% voted For the motion, 25% Against, and 44% were Undecided.

After the debate, 58% voted For, 37% Against, and only 5% were still Undecided.

I’ll be posting the full video here on Friday (Update: I have now posted the video), but just a few remarks.

First, it was great fun. As soon as the debate was over, we went to dinner together (“we’re living a Woody Allen movie,” somebody said as we descended into the quaint, subterranean New York restaurant) and had a great time. I talked for a long time to Gray Davis and his wife Sharon, and they were much more interested in discussing California (and that recall) than the debate proposition. I learned a lot.

Second, as you will have guessed already if you’re a regular reader of The Hannibal Blog, I was savoring the irony of the evening: I’ve been writing a lot about “good and bad conversations”, both here and in The Economist, and have argued that conversations in which one side tries to win are what Socrates considered “eristic” and thus “bad,” whereas conversations in which all participants are looking for the truth are “dialectic” and thus “good.”

Well, we were all trying to “win” last night, but now that it’s over it’s time to say that this was just a great, fun game. The real way to “win” was to edify and entertain the audience and ourselves, to spar and to learn, and we apparently did that. (If you were in the audience, feel free to agree or disagree below. ;))

So the goddess Eris was there, but she had her tongue in her cheek.

Second, and unrelated: What a difference a year makes! A bit over a year ago, I was telling you how I heroically resisted mile-high connectivity. Well, I’m posting this from the sky, in a Virgin America plane back home. And everybody around me is working on their laptops. We are all now Nomads, as I predicted. Don’t shrug because you’ve already done this, too. Don’t take it for granted yet. Join me, as Albert Einstein would, in wonderment.

I’ll have a thorough post-game analysis of the debate later this week.

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Ready to debate California’ failure

So we now have the speaking order at next Tuesday’s Oxford-style debate in New York about the motion:

California is the first failed state.

In the opening remarks, which are 7 minutes each, I go first, followed by former governor Gray Davis. The full line-up is as follows:

  1. FOR–Andreas Kluth
  2. AGAINST–Gray Davis
  3. FOR–Sharon Waxman
  4. AGAINST–Van Jones
  5. FOR–Bobby Shriver
  6. AGAINST–Lawrence O’Donnell

In the closing remarks (2 minutes each), the line-up is:

  1. AGAINST–Lawrence O’Donnell
  2. FOR–Andreas Kluth
  3. AGAINST–Van Jones
  4. FOR–Sharon Waxman
  5. AGAINST–Gray Davis
  6. FOR–Bobby Shriver

May the audience be edified.

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Me against Gray Davis

Well, this should be fun.

An amicable, edifying and ultimately futile debate (the sort The Hannibal Blog loves) in January, between, on one side:

  • Kevin Starr, the preeminent historian of California (and a preferred source of mine), and (see Update below).
  • Sharon Waxman, distinguished journalist and author,
  • Bobby Shriver, Renaissance man and Kennedy/Schwarzenegger clan member, and
  • me

and, on the other side,

  • Gray Davis, the former governor of California, and
  • Van Jones, Obama’s former “green czar”, and
  • Lawrence O’Donnell, cable-TV analyst and, more importantly, father of The West Wing, the most intelligent TV series ever.

My team will argue that, yes,

California is the first failed state.

The other guys will argue the opposite.

Then the audience will annoint the winners.

Feel free to suggest debate strategies/arguments (for either side!) in the comments.

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California: inmates (voters) run the asylum

The World in 2010, our (ie, The Economist‘s) annual sister publication, is now out. This is a magazine in which we and our invited guests take shots at prognosticating the coming year.

My piece is this one on the Constitutional Convention that California is all but certain to call in 2010.

For you regular readers, this (ie, other constitutional conventions) is what I was researching in September when I eulogized James Madison.

On a more general note: Those of you who go to The Economist‘s website a lot might already have started noticing some changes. There will be more over the coming month or so. These changes have been long in the making and were partially cooked up at our powwow last year.

One great thing is that, even though much of the site will be behind a subscriber wall, all incoming links will in future take you directly to the article, whether or not you are a paying subscriber. This means I can keep sending you there. 😉


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American attitudes toward prisons

My policy, as most of you know by now, is not to link to my pieces in The Economist week after week, unless there is a special reason, because that would be, well, tedious and annoying.

So why link to my piece in the new issue on California’s prison overcrowding?

To make two separate and unrelated points:

1) the importance of length, once again.

It always amazes me, after all these years, how short most of our pieces in The Economist are. The pieces inside the regular “sections” are called “notes” in our nomenclature. Because we have fixed (paper-issue) layouts that determine article length, most notes are either 500, 600 or 700 words. For this note, I asked for 700 words, was told to make it 600, and the final piece ended up at 520.

That’s in effect a blog entry. Most people don’t realize how much harder it is to write a short article than a large article. The folks at the New Yorker can blather on and on (“On an overcast Monday afternoon, I strode across Fifth Avenue to interview John Smith, ….”). We have to get to the point. There should be some nuance, some color, and we should cover the main bases, but all in … 500 words!

It’s friggin’ difficult. Then the readers show up in the mostly infantile comments section below the articles, invariably accusing us of utter ignorance, if not downright malice, because they know (or imagine) one little detail that was not in the 500 words.

Beyond that, of course, the brevity often hurts me, the writer. Invariably, I do research for every piece until I am satisfied that I know the subject well enough. I could easily then fill a few thousand words. So much therefore gets left on the cutting floor.

Which brings me to my second reason for linking to this week’s piece…

2) The shame, the horror of America’s prisons and Americans’ attitudes toward them

Among the things I left on the cutting floor were some of the numbers that Barry Krisberg at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency bounced around with me (mostly 2005 numbers):

  • Most people know that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, but did you know just how much higher? America locks up 732 people out of every 100,000. The G7 countries, which should be the appropriate comparison for America, lock up 96 people for 100,000. The country in the world that comes closest to America is Russia, yes Russia, where the number is 607.
  • Was there ever a country for which we have numbers that surpass America’s current incarceration rate? Yes, says Barry, and it was …. the Soviet Union during the years of Stalin’s Gulag!!!
  • America has about 5% of the world’s population but 23% of its prisoners.
  • America also has by far the highest ratio of prisoner to each kind of crime. What that tells you is that there is not more crime in America that would justify more imprisonment.

And on and on. In short, Americans love locking people up. They do not see any irony at all in claiming, often loudly when in the company of Europeans, to be “the freest country in the world” while robbing more individuals than any other country does of their freedom, their dignity, their rights. (This distorted understanding of freedom is what I have been exploring in my thread on America.)

I should add at this point that I have rehearsed the inevitable “debate” that usually ensues enough times that I can confidently predict every objection.

Allow me to give you a sample of the most typical “conservative” opinion on the matter. It is a reasoned, Republican-mainstream opinion taken from one of California’s conservative blogs.

In it, we discover the underlying assumptions that nowadays make America the exception among comparable countries:

The demand by federal judges to provide civilized health care to prisoners is

…forcing us to provide better medical care to prisoners than most law abiding citizens receive…

This is ironic because this particular argument tends to come from people who object to providing health care to those law-abiding citizens as well. And it is telling because its sets the tenor for all subsequent arguments, summarized neatly in this passage:

The only danger [prisoners] face is from each other, really bad people, that is people who have no respect for themselves, their neighbors, or for the rules, can be difficult to live with, without question, but that cannot be avoided.  Prison is for bad people, to keep bad people away from good people so that the bad people cant hurt the good ones.

And here you have it in a nutshell. The conservative and prevailing American attitude toward incarceration is based on:

  • vengeance in the Old-Testament style, not on rehabilitation, which is the assumption that prisoners must at some point be brought back into society. In effect, prisoners become outcasts, with no hope of atoning and changing and playing a productive role in society. Result: the world’s higest recidivism rate, 70% in California.
  • Refusal to see nuance: Nobody, and I mean nobody, is arguing that there are no bad people, no crazy people, no dangerous people that must genuinely be kept out of our neighborhoods. But what about the people who are in there for stealing socks, for smoking dope, for all the many misdemeanors that have increasingly been prosecuted as felonies to please the “tough-on-crime” electorate? There are many non-violent people who have simply made a mistake and end up brutalized in prison.
  • Meanness, lack of compassion. Nuff said.

The reality is that prisons contain:

  • bad people
  • average people who have done bad things but can and want to change their ways
  • and even some good people who have got caught up in a fundamentally unjust system

But in our overcrowded and barbarous prisons, they are all thrown together, so that good people become bad and bad people become worse, and society loses by turning away from justice and civility.

Back to the sample opinion. If you approach the entire topic from the point of view that those in the system are all bad, that they deserve to be brutalized and do not deserve protection in prison, then, and only then, can you conclude, as this commentator does, that

There is nothing wrong with our prisons.


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California as case study in dysfunction

On principle, I do not use The Hannibal Blog to advertise my articles in The Economist, but my piece in the new issue does fit into one of my running threads: ‘the freedom lover’s critique of America‘.

The piece is about “the ungovernable state”–this being California. Consider it a case study that grew out of my thoughts here.

In it, I have fun chronicling the dysfunction, and in the process touch on several themes that I’ve mentioned on this blog before, such as:

My conclusion: I endorse wholeheartedly the growing movement for a Constitutional Convention, which would throw out that ungainly tome and start from scratch to create something clean, elegant and simple.

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