Strump speech

For anyone whose love of the theater goes beyond Cats or The Lion King, the historical importance of theater in political discourse is a given. We look back to the voices of Brecht, of Shakespeare, of Aristophanes, and of Caryl Churchill and others in our own time, as a crucial part of the ongoing dialog that a society has with itself.

As I mentioned yesterday, the cast and creators of Hamilton spoke to Mike Pence from the stage after their performance this past Friday. When they respectfully alluded to the inflamatory statements his running mate had made during the campaign, Pence was right to listen and to respond with grace.

Tyrants, when they assume power, instinctively move to silence inconvenient opinions from the stage. Fortunately, it seems that Mike Pence, much as I disagree with him on many issues, does not have the instincts of a tyrant.

Perhaps others in the contemporary theater — particularly theater that speaks to political issues, as Hamilton does — should continue this tradition. Maybe after every stage performance of a play on or off Broadway in which a public official or policy maker is in attendance, the creators of that play should speak to that attendee from the stage.

This could be in the form of praise, if the official in question is doing a great job, or in the form of constructive criticism, if there is a sense that policies are not serving the needs of all the people. Good politicians will come to see it as a badge of pride that they were singled out in this way.

This wouldn’t be quite a political stump speech, since the most important element would be the added dose of reality — a quality which is never far away in true theater. I propose a new term that inserts the “r” of reality into the idea of a “Stump” speech.

This proud new tradition, in which the cast members and creators of a play speak directly from the stage to a politician in the audience after a performance, could be called the “Strump speech”. Whenever those in the theater make such a speech, they will be affirming the first amendment rights which we all value so highly here in America, and they will be reminding us that we still live in a free society.

An opportunity missed

This week the cast of Hamilton realized that Michael Pence, the incoming VP, would be in the audience. They decided to reach out to him from the stage after the show.

Their message was pointed yet highly respectful: “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” he said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

The audience cheered and applauded wildly. After all, this was New York, and those words spoke quite directly to what Donald Trump had said on the campaign stump.

Pence responded with grace, taking the time to listen attentively to what the creators of Hamilton had to say before leaving the theater. He clearly understood that this difficult time of transition requires an ability to listen, to understand that power comes with certain obligations, including an ability to properly read an emotional moment and to respond appropriately.

It could have been a real moment of triumph for Pence. If it had ended there, it would have been an opportunity for him to show the populace that this incoming administrations takes seriously the need to listen to the concerns of American citizens, whatever side of the aisle they may be on.

Unfortunately for Pence, it seems his moment of would-be triumph was immediately dashed by tweets from an internet troll. Alas, I suspect there will be a lot more of that sort of thing in the days, weeks and months to come.

“And I did not speak out”

Kris Kobach, a member of Donald Trump’s transition team, had suggested that the new administration could reinstate a national registry for immigrants from “suspect” countries. So then yesterday, Carl Higbie, a prominant Trump supporter and fund-raiser, told Megyn Kelly on Fox News that he supported that idea.

“We’ve done it based on race, we’ve done it based on religion, we’ve done it based on region,” Mr. Higbie said. “We’ve done it with Iran back — back a while ago. We did it during World War II with Japanese.”

Ms. Kelly seemed taken aback. “You’re not proposing,” she said, “that we go back to the days of internment camps, I hope.”

Mr. Higbie said, in response, “We need to protect America first.”

My very first thought, when I heard that, was that if they start rounding up Muslim Americans, I will immediately go out and register as Muslim. This evening I was heartened to read in the NY Times that the chief executive of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, had had exactly the same reaction. “If one day Muslims will be forced to register,” he said, “that is the day that this proud Jew will register as a Muslim.”

Reading all this, I am reminded of a quote from pastor Martin Niemöller of the German Protestant Church, as he looked back on the Nazi policy of rounding up successively larger groups of “undesirables”:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Rethinking the internet economy, part 2

Continuing from yesterday…

It seems to me that the one thing Americans can do well which people from other countries cannot do well is be Americans. Where, in the future information economy, would this matter?

Well, for one thing, suppose you walk into a virtual diner in a future shared VR world. Who is going to bring you to your table? Who will take your order?

If you are looking for an entertainment experience (why else would people pay such inflated prices for restaurant food), then you are going to want your experience to be authentic.

I am guessing that there is not a single person out there from Bangalore who can do a proper impression of a waitress in a roadside diner in Alabama. Not one.

So that was one example of knowledge work well suited to rural Americans that cannot, by its very nature, be outsourced to other countries. Can you think of others?

Rethinking the information economy

The information economy has been most successful in the more urban parts of our country. That’s where you find large population density, the opportunity to assemble teams with complementary expertise, and an ability to find the resources needed to pivot rapidly as markets evolve.

But what if we redefine knowledge work? Suppose there were a kind of economic value creation that functions particularly well in rural environments? After all, those are places where housing costs tend to be low, community cohesiveness is high, and where people who work at a profession tend to be in it for the long haul. These are very attractive qualities in a workforce.

There was a time when that wouldn’t have been practical, simply because of the cost of technology per worker. In places with low population density, it can be hard to amortize such costs through the use of centralized resources. But that time may be past.

Today you can buy a perfectly functional Android tablet for $50 in the U.S. With proper government incentives to promote rural economic growth, that cost could drop down to zero.

Note that I’m not talking here about a government hand-out. Rather, I’m talking about tax breaks for people who are earning a living. If that sort of deal is good enough for a certain president-elect, it’s good enough for other hard working Americans.

But for such an industry to be inherently stable, there would need to be a good reason why such knowledge work couldn’t just be out-sourced to India or China. I have some ideas about that.

More tomorrow.

Letter from the NYU President

As I walked to NYU this morning, I passed coffee shops and classrooms around campus filled with excited and happy young people, all busily engaged in conversations with people with different backgrounds and perspectives. Muslims and Jews, men and women, straight or gay or transgender, european, asian, african. Just a complete mix of young minds from around the world, all engaged in rapt discussion.

I thought about how fortunate we are to be in a place where can bring your identity with you, yet you are not defined by it. People here are interested in who you are, but they don’t reflexively reduce you to a member of some group.

Coincidentally, this evening NYU’s new president sent an email out to our entire university community. I was so inspired by his moving and thoughtful words that I am sharing the letter with you, in its entirety:

Dear NYU Community Members,

Affected by a sharp national sense of divisiveness, many in our community are worried and unsettled, both by national events and by the echoes here on our own campus.

The effects of the election will play out across the country in the coming days and years. Here at NYU, we should remind ourselves who are we as a community: we reject intimidation and discrimination; we strive for diversity and inclusiveness; and we are a community in which each person takes as his or her responsibility the welfare and well-being of others, irrespective of citizenship, faith, race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or any of the other identities that might, but surely need not, divide us.

A community is defined by its ideals as much as its membership. These are ours. And we should conduct ourselves in accord with them now and at all times.

With that in mind, I wanted to mention two specific items:

First, there was an incident at Tandon School of Engineering earlier in the week that involved the defacement of the door of the Muslim prayer room. The police were called and you can read here the statement we posted which clearly states that this behavior is unacceptable.

Also, I know that many on our campus have specific concerns about the status of undocumented students at NYU. The university’s program to provide funding to undocumented students will continue; it will not be affected by any changes in federal funding. As is the case now, undocumented students will be treated exactly as all other students at NYU with regard to housing, privacy and all other matters.

Our home city, New York, is a “sanctuary city.” This means that municipal law enforcement agencies do not alert federal immigration authorities about the immigration status of undocumented individuals except in very specific circumstances, such as in response to a judicial warrant for an individual wanted for a violent or serious felony. Moreover, NYU’s Department of Public Safety officers are not “sworn peace officers” and they do not have police powers; they are not asked to and they do not convey an undocumented individual’s status to any other governmental entity.

You will find below a list of resources and events that maybe helpful to you.

Above all please stay connected with your colleagues and friends. This is an unusual time as our government undergoes transition, but rest assured that NYU will remain steadfast in adhering to its values and ideals.


Andy Hamilton

The eye of a hurricane

Inside the eye of a hurricane, everything is calm. People walk around, laugh and enjoy the day. Sometimes they have a coffee.

Sure, the sky seems dark and overcast, but nobody sees the need for an umbrella. The wind doesn’t even seem to be blowing very much.

Off in the distance, you can just barely make out the wall of the hurricane approaching. If you strain your eyes a bit, something seems to be flying up in the air. Is that a pile of debris blowing aport, or a building? From here it is hard to tell.

But not to worry. Inside the eye of the hurricane, everything is calm.

Defying the Nazis

This week I went to a number of events related to Virtual Reality. At one of those events I saw a description of a truly beautiful film, with a companion VR piece, Defying the Nazis, co-created by the celebrated documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

The true story being told is of a daring rescue of 29 children from Nazi occupied France — children who otherwise would have been put to death simply for their ethnic identity. The film is transported to an entirely different plane by the way it uses virtual reality.

One of those children — now, 76 years later — is given the opportunity to view that long ago escape within immersive VR. Her response to the experience is a marvel to behold.

I am sure that all Americans will join me in agreeing that there can be no greater way to honor our country, no more powerful affirmation of our nation’s fundamental ideals, than our willingness to rescue innocent children from the threat of death or great suffering, and to welcome them into our land with open arms. I’m proud that I live in a country where every one of us can at least agree on that.

Sense of purpose

In the last four days I have noticed, both within myself and within the people I work with here in NY, a consistent mental state. It is not the one that I might have predicted.

We have not been talking about politics very much. Instead, we all seem to be thinking about how each of us, both individually and together with others, can learn more about how to help make the world a better place.

There seems to be an increased awareness of the troubles of others — particularly in places where we had never had the awareness to look, such as other parts of this country. And then a working through of possible ways to help lighten the burden of those troubles, as well as a willingness to learn more about how we might be helpful, across cultural divides.

It reminds me, in a way, of how we New Yorkers were with one another in the Autumn of 2001. We were aware, of course, that all around us was a maelstrom of rage. But here on the streets of New York, I mostly observed that people, amidst their mood of terrible sadness, were unusually kind to each other. Strangers would smile reassuringly at one another, and make a point of helping each other out.

It seems that New Yorkers are at our best when we have a sense of purpose.