uncharted: the berkeley festival of ideas, oct. 27-28

Berkeleyside’s Uncharted Festival touches on Trump

by Sylvia Paull

By Sylvia Paull / Berkeley Blog / Oct. 16, 2016 — This year’s two-day Uncharted: Festival of Ideas, hosted by local Berkeley news site, Berkeleyside, featured an astronomer, a tree-and-water expert, a Muslim feminist standup comedian, a criminal justice reformer, Eve Ensler, and journalists Jay Rosen from NYU and Kathy Kiely, with BillMoyers.com. Despite the range of expertise these speakers represented, many touched on how this presidential election has affected every aspect of American life: from the environment to education, politics, philosophy, and our cultural values on sex, race, religion, and nationality.

Aaron James, a philosophy professor at UC Irvine, just published a book, Assholes: A theory of Donald Trump, which is selling out in Berkeley bookstores. He defines an asshole as one whose sense of moral entitlement immunizes them from any penalties they would normally suffer as a consequence of their behavior. James defined Trump as a special kind of asshole: an asshole ass clown because of his tendency to entertain rather than inform. James says Trump speaks without regard to the truth – he bullshits, in other words – just for the sake of the performance. And the scary thing is that his listeners don’t expect to hear the truth.

What do we do after the election? James – whose in-laws are all Trump supporters so he takes this issue personally – says we will have to renew our understanding of civil discourse, and reach common agreement on the right to disagree.

Already taking this approach is Scott Budnick, founder of the AntiRecidivism Coalition, a nonprofit that supports juvenile offenders in and out of prison and also campaigns for legislative reforms to rehabilitate rather than punish young people for criminal offenses. He has enlisted the support of conservatives, like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, to work for criminal justice reform because it aligns with their values of reducing government costs for prisons and a shared belief that young people are capable of change. A former producer of the Hangover films, he is raising funds to start a new film company, Good Films, to support media that can create a social impact on legislation.

As NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen spoke about the ongoing transformation of media, a headline from one of his posts flared from the stage screen: “Donald Trump is crashing the system. Journalists need to build a new one.” Rosen argued that political journalism took a wrong turn before this election, when reporters began to identify with politicians rather than address and share the concerns of their readers.

“We want journalists to point out what we should know. Journalists need to have the interests of readers, not insiders,” he said. Asked by the audience how we are going to develop a sustainable model of journalism, Rosen answered, “We’re going to have to pay more. We have to support serious journalism.” He added that this is a vital issue, because it determines “whether we want to choose democracy or not.”

Rosen thinks that Trump suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder. Accused by someone in the audience of demonizing one side over another, he responded, “I don’t know how you demonize a demon.”

Eve Ensler, dramatist and women’s activist, who created the Vagina Monologues, felt encouraged by the undercurrents of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Muslim, Mexican, Islam, anti-Semitism this election has surfaced. She said that now we can deal openly with these hatreds that have always been part of our culture. She ended by saying the most important thing in life was to take care of your body, and then she stood up full frontal (and clothed) to the audience, to say she had survived stage 4 cancer and nearly died.

Health was the concern of two other speakers: Robert Wachter, chairman of the UCSF Dept. of Medicine and author of a book about digital medicine. (He’s also the fourth husband of tech reporter and author Katie Hafner.) He predicts that medicine will look “extraordinarily different five to ten years from today,” because digitization of medical records with portable access to one’s personal medical history will become a fait accompli. And “once it’s digital, it will democratize medicine,” he says. What will make this happen is federal intervention to pressure hospitals and doctors to create interoperable health care data as well as the adoption of metrics for evaluating the quality of care. Asked why it took so long to happen, the doctor said that hospitals and practitioners had no incentive to share data until the federal government stepped in with a financial incentive in 2008.

Intentional (not unintentional, as with Trump) humor was dispensed with much relief by three speakers – including KQED radio host Michael Krasny, author of a new book on Jewish humor, and standup comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh, a Muslim feminist who started off with an anti-Trump pussy pose.

Half stand-up and half serious food critic, Mark Bittman said he came to realize that food was as political as anything else. Why does the presidential caucus begin in Iowa, for example?

“Iowa is ground zero for industrial agriculture,” he said.

Bittman says we should eliminate the USDA because it has contradictory goals: to promote agriculture – think Cargill, Monsanto, and Archer Daniels Midland – and to support health and nutrition. That’s not possible, he says because “40 to 60 percent of what’s sold in grocery stores is not food.”

He points to soda, which calls liquid candy, and says substitutes like Gatorade and Snapple are “soda without the bubbles.” He is on the line about GMOs, saying the more important issue to focus on is whether what you’re eating is supporting your health and nutrition. Asked about sugar, he said it was OK to buy real sugar because his latest book is about baking, and baking takes sugar.

There was music, dance, good food, and expressive civility in this event, a feast for the mind, and like the city of Berkeley itself, a place that welcomes and germinates progressive ideas. Uncharted is becoming a Berkeley classic.