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Tom Perkins’ Letter & Civil Discourse

Uploaded: Feb 5, 2014
Local venture capitalist Tom Perkins' letter to The Wall Street Journal two weeks ago, in which he compared the growing hostility towards the wealthy to the plight of Jews under fascist Nazi Germany, has generated a lot of controversy. I think he had a valid concern about attacking people personally for their economic status. Unfortunately, his choice of analogy is what made the headlines, and his ultimate message got lost in the ensuing noise.

The title of my blog is Civil Civics. That is not an accident. When first working with The Almanac editors to nail down the scope of what this online "column" would be about, I came up with the name because I wanted to remind myself, as much as readers, that public debate is healthiest when it has an air of mutual respect and fairness. On any given topic, you may not agree with me, but I hope you will keep an open mind. I know I am far from perfect. I admit that I have a snarky side that may rear its head in, say, a certain "bullet train" article. But even when dealing with subjects involving elected officials or City employees, I try to address the issue, not the person, as much as possible. Whether or not I'm successful is up to you.

The trouble with using certain labels or analogies is that it stops conversation dead in its tracks. When you use an analogy to the holocaust or to the Nazi party, emotions ratchet up and understanding and dialogue cease. To me, it also dampens the true horror of genocide from that chapter of history.

It happens on both sides of the political spectrum. I recently had a conversation with someone who is a leader in his local Tea Party movement. I was curious about the issue of "name calling" vs. dialogue. He recounted a recent story in which he was at his local gym, and overheard another man speaking very loudly about how "racist" the Tea Party was. This Tea Party member approached the man and, very politely, introduced himself and explained that he had helped to organize the local chapter. He offered to talk to the man about some of his concerns about smaller government and fiscal conservatism. The other man wanted no part of it, but instead shouted to the other gym goers nearby: "hey everyone, can you believe this racist wants to talk to me?"

What a missed opportunity for conversation and understanding. Here you had someone actually involved in putting together a local political group who wanted to explain his policy opinions, and the other party couldn't get past name calling. (Again, I know it happens in the reverse with terms like "communist" and "socialist".) You don't have to agree, but listen. Or don't engage but don't name call. If you read the above sentence about what the Tea Party member stated about his beliefs and scoffed, have you ever talked to someone involved with that political movement? I always find it fascinating to go directly to the source because my pre-conceived notions based on the "noise" are so often off track. I'm usually pretty humbled.

I don't know for certain what was in Mr. Perkins' heart, but I believe he is truly concerned that there is a growing trend of vilification of successful people. I think there is truth in that statement, and vilification of any group of people—rich or poor, male or female, blue or orange, is wrong. Mr. Perkins obviously feels personally passionate about it, and I can infer from his reference to Danielle Steel, who he was married to from 1998 to 2002, that he is aware of the emotional toll that personal attacks have. I respect him for wanting to stand up for someone close to him—a loved one he has watched be personally-- and publicly -- attacked. Having money doesn't protect your heart from that.

Comments

Posted by Don't like tea, a resident of another community,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 9:33 am

Tea party has been responsible for some of the most vicious and vile attacks against Obama and democrats in recent years. No need to describe them, but I am surprised Erin is not aware of them and then tries to make excuses for them. The tea party is racist-- check out their comments/actions.
Also amusing is that Erin takes the Tea Party leaders story at face value-- sounds like he was playing the martyr. All tea party folks will tell you how terrible they suffer from insults and name calling
The main character from the HNO show THE NEWSROOM summed it up best when he called the tea party the " American Taliban".


Posted by Erin Glanville, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 9:36 am

Don't like tea,

You've made my point exactly.


Posted by Oolong, a resident of another community,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 9:46 am

The TEA Party is racist, or the basic tenants they espouse work toward unequally dis-investing in certain segments of society and the economy. There is more to it than that, but the gist is that most TEA Party people are very close to Libertarian, and Libertarian basically removed government as a remedy for social injustice and "sells off" the public domain, leaving everything wide open for anything the rich and powerful want to do. So, indeed, when one has heard enough of what TEA Party people have to say you already now they try to explain they are not racist, but either they do not understand what the term racist means when used by someone referring to them or they are just hoping to BS their way through the conversation and be taken seriously when according to most basic American cultural beliefs ... at least outside the deep South and certain other areas they should not be. Just my thoughts on the matter.

Communist and socialist is used in a different sense, the sense of keeping people from hearing from Progressives have to say - in that communist/socialist really does not mean anything other than the name caller disagrees with issues they do not want to have to engage on and cannot really articulate. Whereas racist maybe have several different meanings but it does have a clear meaning that can be talked about. Communist/socialist is a meaningless undefined insult.


Posted by Dont like tea, a resident of another community,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 9:54 am

No, Erin, you just chose to ignore reality. You feel that expressing critical opinions and/or agreeing with someone else who expresses critical opinions is the same as " name calling" ( mommy, mommy, he called me a name. waaaaaaaah). You equate that with the actions of the tea party. Clearly, you are an apologist fr the actions of the tea party ( my opinion, but you will claim it is more name calling). Had the tea party wanted to engage in public debate with " mutual respect and fairness" they could have-- instead this organization chose to go after Obama, as just one example, because of his race and their refusal to believe that he practices the religion that he does


Posted by Oooolong, a resident of another community,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 9:56 am

> I don't know for certain what was in Mr. Perkins' heart, but I believe he is truly concerned that there is a growing trend of vilification of successful people.

This is a malformation of the argument, like saying all rich are bad or evil ... of course they are not and we all know it.

BUT, something is happening in this country at the high levels of wealth and power. I would use the example of very large companies with very well-paid corporate officers and shareholders creating a worker class that is dependent on public assistance for certain aspects of their survival and then talking about how self-righteous that is. My interpretation of capitalism is that if you cannot create a business that makes a profit you fail, you do not push your underpaid employees onto government assistance and then take record raises and bonuses because you are so clever. I think this is the moral problem that is being hidden by just framing this as "vilification of successful people".


Posted by Ooolong, a resident of another community,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 9:59 am

> vilification of any group of people—rich or poor, male or female, blue or orange, is wrong.

Hate to disagree yet again, but I don't really mind it when orange people are vilified ... John Boehner can take care of himself. ;-)


Posted by Erin Glanville, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 10:07 am

>Hate to disagree yet again, but I don't really mind it when orange people are vilified ... John Boehner can take care of himself. ;-) >

And here I thought you might not have a sense of humor....


Posted by Rich Blossoms, a resident of Atherton: other,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 10:32 am

Perceived "vilification of successful people"

Oh, my lawdie... rully?!? Someone had the nerve to cry about that?!!?

Po' rich folk, have to roll up the windows of their quarter million dollar cars so they don't smell the homeless folks whose foodstamps got cut to keep taxes low.

Those po' souls! Good thing they have Jesus on their side!

Oh, wait, has JC been vilifying successful people again?

Something about a camel through the eye of the needle easier than the rich getting into heaven?

I'm with JC on this one.

Lastly: the original Tea Party (before being astroturfed by Freedomworks) was against tax breaks and corporate welfare for the rich, and for corporations (see billions in tax dollars for Big Oil.)

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."


Posted by Oooolong, a resident of another community,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 10:56 am

> And here I thought you might not have a sense of humor....

Hmmm, why would you think that? Were we supposed to joke around or was your original post meant as humorous? If I'm serious it must be because I'm a humorless communist? Everyone has their own set of reactions, some are because they have nothing and others are because the think they might lose something. It's time people left jokes, especially the real clever ones out of the conversation and started getting serious and listening.


Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 11:05 am

It's still always best to let people speak for themselves, rather than labels. The "tea party" is more diverse that some people think; certainly, some people under that banner behave in racist ways, but not all. Give those who don't a chance to defend themselves. (For the record, I don't care for the Tea Party much.)

Even the Nazi Party - the "gold standard" for evil - had members with a conscience. It's good to remember John Rabe, a German who worked hard to protect the safety of Chinese citizens during the Japanese atrocities in Nanking, through the establishment of the Nanking Safety Zone, which protected about 200,000 people. He was there on behalf of the German government and the Nazi party. Check it out: Web Link

This isn't to defend the Nazi Party in general. Rabe returned to Berlin, and tried to publicize what happened in Nanking - but he was forced to suppress the information by the Gestapo.

However - labels always simplify people.



Posted by Oooolong, a resident of another community,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 11:44 am

> The "tea party" is more diverse that some people think;

This is true Alan, but it is more so true of the Republican party as well, and the party as a group of diverse people is distinct from the party of politically influential people who craft legislation for a minority of their peers, true?

I'd pretty much wager that looking the TEA Party the Koch brothers wield more power and influence and get more done for themselves than anyone else including the group as a whole, but that is hard to measure though.


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of another community,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 11:57 am

Most of us in this area are surrounded by successful people, often including ourselves. Of course, it depends on how on you define success, and go from there. Is Perkins successful? I no longer think so. I think he has money and some power, but doesn't know how to *successfully* wield the latter anymore, hence the pickle he created for himself.

Erin - you have missed the boat on this issue, in my view. I venture to guess I'm older than you, therefore, more experienced, and probably have been around "successful" people much longer than you have. Many of them deserve to be vilified - accurately vilified. Many, many of them have screwed over whole swaths of people to make money and gain power and status. Most of them are not noble, or even very nice, underneath their cultivated persona of niceness. Once they achieve a certain level of "success", they wash their money - and their reputations - clean via philanthropy, adding yet another layer to their genteel persona. THAT is why people are so upset about "successful" people. They also remove themselves from the hoi polloi - all by design - where they live, where they vacation, etc. At that point, the only common folk they really deal with are domestics, personal assistants, medical people, household managers, estate managers, personal shoppers.

If Perkins isn't senile, he knows all of this, and he lives it. People have a right to vilify this lifestyle, because they know the rich are getting richer, that the poor are getting poorer and that the rest of us - the middle class - are a disappearing bunch. The last time a class of folks was disappearing so quickly, it was the aristos. Now it's our time to be worried and angry, for good reason. There's a reason that the middle class has been the proud backbone of this country for a long time, and eroding it is a huge mistake.


Posted by Oooolong, a resident of another community,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Well, it's not very productive to vilify people, particularly if they can take refuge in their elite communities and behind their big walls and speed by you in expensive cars with dark tinted windows ... I say let them have their toys ... the correct response is - TAX THEM!

Since Reagan that is what we have not done. We've all been distracted, we have all had our attention diverted. Talking about people's natures is a waste of time, the bottom line is that our country has a cost to run it that has been directed away from productive use for us all and towards the amalgamation of power and wealth for those that already have a lot and clearly are not paying their fair share of the public costs ... TAX THEM.

I don't mind successful people, I mind people who actively hobble other people so they do not have to face competition, and then cheer about how competition is the mainstay of our great capitalistic system!


Posted by Sandy M., a resident of another community,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Most of the replies I've read here miss the point Erin was making about civil discourse and critical thinking. We, as a society, no longer debate the issues with the ultimate goal of deepening our overall understanding validating what we perceive to be the facts. The validation of perceived "facts" would be a very good first step. Civil discourse is essential to achieving that end and that's essentially what Erin was saying. Sadly, the majority of responses to her message weren't worth reading because rants don't contribute to civil dialogue. FYI: The Tea Party adopted that name because it signifies "Taxed Enough Already". The Tea Party is comprised of people from all walks of life, all religions, ethnicities and both political parties. They are concerned about out of control government growth and ballooning debt. Skin color is irrelevant to the Tea Party but often used as a tool for discrediting them by race card playing demogogs who are disadvantaged by the facts. One thing is for sure; Americans are on a collision course with the truth... The US debt clock calculates all revenues minus expenditures including all entitlements, wars etc. not included in the $17T budget. The debt clock indicates the current liability for every US taxpayer is $1.1M dollars! If you're a taxpayer, that's your portion of our current national debt. Those of you who are more concerned with so-called social justice and portraying capitalism as evil ought to focus on how our massive and growing debt is going to be satisfied once you've successfully destroyed capitalism - the most successful, liberating and colorblind economic system ever created.
*Source Federal Reserve and US census.


Posted by Hockeyite, a resident of Portola Valley: other,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Agreed: Perkins made an unfortunate comparison between Nazi's and the wealthy. Perkins has lead a life of admitted self indulgence with ensuing ego gratification, but he has not committed atrocities against mankind. It's unfortunate he does not appear to share a portion of his funds in ways that could benefit others, but in a democracy he is entitled to spend his millions as he chooses. Is it any wonder others are angered ?

Successful people create jobs which reward a worker for talent , contribution and the owner for his/her risk, obligations,etc. There needs to be balance for both. It is unconscionable to lay off thousands and collect millions in bonuses. It is unconscionable to gut a thriving organization in order to line the pockets of a few at the top. Anger can be diffused by creating more opportunities for others to succeed and realize their potential. Opportunities which make ongoing contributions benefit society. A society of have's and have not's does not bode well for anyone.


Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Sandy M. - Yes, there are many, many people who are part of the "tea party" movement who are not racist, and that their main concern is to limit the scope of government. Personally, I think they place too much faith in unfettered capitalism (as opposed to regulated capitalism), and too little faith in the power of government to do anything worthwhile - but it's not a reason to be uncivil.

But it's not remotely difficult to find people who self-identify with the tea party movement who show thinly-veiled racism. A problem in the conservative movement is they often fail to repudiate these people. Look at many comment sections in news articles (like Yahoo! News) - it takes minutes to find multiple racial slurs against the president, mixed in with other ad hominem attacks about any one who is not conservative.

There's a conservatism based on principles (don't over-extend yourself, learn from tried and true methods, maintain traditional values, know what government is and is not good at), and a conservatism that's reactionary (don't trust anyone who's different, don't do anything to shift power away from the privileged, etc). The former needs to part of our political dialogue; the latter tends to be a problem.


Posted by whatever, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Feb 6, 2014 at 6:53 am

Hockeyite - "Perkins made an unfortunate comparison between Nazi\'s and the wealthy."

No, he compared the deaths of innocent millions based on their religion to progressive political speech directed at the wealthy.

Perkins said - "I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its 1 percent, namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American 1 percent, namely the rich."

And Erin - "a loved one he (Perkins) has watched be personally-- and publicly -- attacked." The Chronicle "article" which triggered Perkins wrath was a one paragraph blurb about a hedge hiding a beautiful building. Written by the paper\'s urban design columnist it made no attack on anyone. No one was vilifying Ms. Steel for her economic status.

You say "..vilification of any group of people...is wrong." There is no shortage of "groups" which deserve vilification - from so called churches which protest at the burials of our fallen U.S. soldiers to religious extremists in Nigeria who slaughter innocent women and children - yes there are plenty of groups which need vilification.

As to Perkins\' "ultimate message" - I believe it\'s quite simply "I\'m rich and you\'re a very bad and mean person if you disagree with how I use or misuse my money."


Posted by Tunbridge Wells, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Feb 6, 2014 at 9:05 am

Tunbridge Wells is a registered user.

Tom Perkins asked for exactly what he got by writing such a whiny, self-indulgent piece of nonsense.

And let's be clear: the successful are not, by and large, being vilified for being successful. Keep in mind the newspaper that Tom Perkins complains about so bitterly for demonizing the rich is owned by the Hearst Corporation. Seriously?

Erin, I agree that there is a big decline in the civility of public discourse. I do not agree that vilifying successful people is the biggest problem. I'd point to Joe Wilson shouting out during the President's State of the Union speech a few years ago. I'd point to Frank Luntz. I'd point to Fox News repeatedly reporting on "scandals" that have been thoroughly debunked by the rest of the media.

There's a lot of room for improvement in civil discourse. But Tom Perkins is part of the problem he is complaining about.


Posted by JP, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks,
on Feb 6, 2014 at 9:35 am

It would be intellectually dishonest to not say there is a lack of civil discourse on both sides. (Deficating in someone's mouth?). There is a lot more that can be done in being civil.... Some of the comments here are a case in point. Addressing the issues, not attacking the people, builds credibility.


Posted by Thomas Payne. , a resident of Atherton: West Atherton,
on Feb 6, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Being civil seems to lie in the eye of the beholder. Socialist and racist seem clearly uncivil terms that can be employed in an attempt to silence those that the terms are aimed at. However, merely stating that income tax rates should be increased to make taxes more progressive is often referred to as punishing the successful. This characterization is also uncivil because it casts those searching for a fair method of paying our taxes as jealous people. Warren buffet thinks his tax rate should be increased. Is he jealous of himself? We need to start talking to each other regardless of how stupid we think the others may be because this planet is being destroyed by sociopathic corporations making terms like racist and socialist silly by comparison.


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