Start making sense

The first panelists for Week to Week (from left): Larry Gerston, Debra J. Saunders and Michael Fox Photo: Steven Fromtling

Blame or credit Dorothy Crain.

I was a teenage political junkie and Dorothy Crain – a longtime family friend – fed my habit by directing me out of the schoolyard-level discussions and arguments toward adult discussions of current events. While I was still in junior high school, she gave me a subscription to The New Republic, which became my political bible throughout the 1980s. When I visited the magazine’s offices in 1991, it was a tiny bit like touring Rome or Jerusalem.

Nerd, I know.

For years, I have written of the importance of people with different viewpoints listening to each other and talking with one another. It doesn’t mean they’ll change their minds, but in this increasingly polarized country, it can be a good opportunity to see that the “other side” isn’t necessarily populated by monsters and cardboard cutouts.

I did something about it a couple months ago by organizing an ongoing series of programs that features people talking about news, including politics, without shouting at each other. Give insight, make jokes, disagree all you want, but no shouting, no personal attacks. The program, Week to Week, began Feb. 24 at The Commonwealth Club as a twice-monthly program where I combine an audience with a couple panelists (who talk about the week’s current events) and a special guest (who goes in depth on one topic). Top it all off with a quick news quiz, and you have a great way to spend your Friday lunchtime.

When I created Week to Week, I told people that one of the inspirations was the weekly news roundup on “PBS NewsHour” featuring commentators David Brooks and Mark Shields. That’s correct, but I could just as well have said that my inspiration was Dorothy Crain.

A month ago, I received an e-mail from a woman asking if she could bring a guest to Week to Week. Her guest, she explained, was her 14-year-old son, who was an avid follower of the news. I felt downright Dorothy Crain-ish as I said she most definitely could bring her son.

But more than providing sustenance for political and news junkies, the goal is to offer a counterweight to the inanity of much of what passes for political discourse today. Check out Huffington Post, Fox News, MSNBC, or a zillion other political sites and you’ll find lots of stories that basically are trying to manufacture outrage because someone said (a) something that was outrageous, or (b) something that the website’s trying to pretend was outrageous.

I can save you lots of time with this nugget of eternal truth: People say stupid things. Don’t make a federal case out of it, as we used to say.

Before the Internet took over the news cycle, revelations of stupid utterances by public figures was discussed mostly in an appropriate setting, such as a tavern, where they could be easily put in context by sports gossip. But on the Internet, people are paid to get your hackles up, to make you blog and reblog and share on Facebook and Google+ and Twitter the stupidities of normal life. It beats doing something hard, like investigating, thinking, and reporting.

The late Dorothy Crain inoculated me from that, at least to a degree. And if I can help build up other people’s immune systems a bit, then I will have honored her memory.

John Zipperer is a San Francisco-based writer and editor. Email: [email protected].
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