After watching a stream of consciousness speech on YouTube by the ex-governor of California, Jerry Brown, I was left both surprisingly disturbed and strangely encouraged.
The speech was given to the California Chamber of Commerce 93rd Host Breakfast about six months before Brown left office. The brilliance and multi-dimensionality of the man was on full, if characteristically understated display.
Jerry Brown says a lot of true things in this speech, but some clearly false things as well. Regarding the latter, I couldn’t tell which parts he really believes, and which parts were intended for Chamber of Commerce consumption along with the bacon and eggs.
I like Jerry Brown. I feel he was a good, workmanlike governor his second time around. I use that word in the way the great actor Laurence Olivier did when someone told him he was a workmanlike actor. “God is workman, don’t you think?” he said.
Of course, workmen and women, whether temporal or spiritual, usually don’t make a lasting mark on the world. Not that that is the most important thing, but I will, and I think Jerry Brown still can as well.
You couldn’t help but feel for Brown when he came to this area after the Camp Fire (a misnomer if there ever was one) that incinerated the nearby mountain community of Paradise (an irony if there ever was one). I never saw a politician so pained and discomfited as Jerry was as he trailed behind Donald Trump and the incoming governor, Gavin Newsom, in the ashes of the town.
Jerry Brown and I have similar backgrounds and proclivities, especially the tension I see (and perhaps project) in him between the contemplative life and the active life (“vita contemplativa and vita activa”).
Brown took the active and activist path, recalling of how his father, also a former governor of California, said to him after two years in Jesuit seminary: “All you do is pray and meditate. When are you going to start doing something?”
Though I was encouraged to run for Congress when I lived in the Silicon Valley in the early ‘90’s, I stayed on the pathless path of vita contemplativa. I took the advice of a man my age now as I was considering running for office, who said, “Don’t do it, it will corrupt you.” I don’t know if politics has corrupted Jerry Brown, but I hope not.
The parts of Brown’s speech that reflect a change in his worldview from his first stint as governor were the ones that interested me the most. Before his latest turn from 2011 to 2018, Brown was governor from 1975 to 1983. He ran for president three times, giving Bill Clinton a serious challenge in the 1992 election.
Jerry never quite shook the moniker a Chicago Sun-Times columnist, Mike Royko, gave him, taken from a Linda Ronstadt interview in the Rolling Stones, where she affectionately referred to him as “Moonbeam.” Ronstadt, who now has Parkinson’s and no longer sings, remains a friend, an interesting lady with a wry and dry take on life.
Brown has always been both fiscally conservative and environmentally conscious. In his last two terms he guided California from a 27 billion dollar deficit to a 14 billion surplus. His Chamber speech was reported as “highlighting California’s economic growth and the need to continue persevering as the state meets new challenges.”
“We had to build the roads, the bridges, the trains, the tunnels, the schools, the dams, the aqueducts and all the rest of it. We cannot stop,” Brown said, perplexingly adding, “California is not a pristine wilderness. It is a highly engineered, highly sophisticated advanced civilization. That only continues if we continue that investment in infrastructure.”
That was music to the ears of the business community, which swooned to the chords of development, but shut out the discords of the deficit in public sector spending. (California is 60 billion behind in deferred maintenance alone on its infrastructure. In the US as a whole it’s a trillion.)
This “invest, create, engineer” mindset was most jarring when Brown referred to the native peoples of California. “We now have 40 million people in a place designed for 300 thousand,” he said.
The word “designed” is strange, and strains credulity. Designed by whom? And if God did ‘design’ California for 300,000 people, aren’t we going against His wishes by cramming 40 million and growing into the state?
Brown’s prideful remark evoked a painful memory of a crack my father made to me in my 20’s when we were talking about “Manifest Destiny” and the displacement of Native Americans: “Yes, we exterminated them.”
Brown’s fulsome view of California’s history doesn’t come close to that hideous outlook, but it grates nonetheless. Man, ‘employing’ the Western model, is straining the earth’s ecosystems to the breaking point and bringing about the Sixth Extinction.
“I used to think experience was bunk. Now I say, there is no substitute for experience,” Brown said to laughter and applause from the Chamber of Commerce audience. But ecologically, spiritually and politically, we’re in uncharted territory, where experience is not only limiting, but is hamstringing our response.
Confirming this view, Brown ended his speech by saying, “America has never been more divided. California has never been more divided.”
The keyword is unprecedented. We can comfort ourselves with the prevailing wisdom, which says, “Although these times pose unprecedented challenges, we have been through worse. The divisions during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were just as grave and far more deadly. The Depression and World War II were far more consequential. And nothing can compare to the searing experience of the Civil War.”
Don’t compare in any case. But the divisions at home and abroad, and the fragmentation of the earth, have increased beyond anything in human experience. New thinking, indeed a new human being is required.
Though he stepped on his own sentence, the best line in the Chamber speech in my view is Jerry Brown’s opening line: “What bounty we’ve all enjoyed in California, and will hopefully figure out how to use appropriately.”
Jerry Brown’s remarks at 93rd Host Breakfast (about 25 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dhKMZss4BA
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