ADL Torch of Liberty Acceptance Speech, 2/08

Thank you so much. Please forgive our stunned expressions. As venture capitalists, we are entirely unaccustomed to such outbursts of popularity.

I’m the firm’s designated thanker tonight but before I get to that happy task, I ask two indulgences.

The first is a little humiliating. It’s a disclaimer that my partners make me read at events like this. Here goes:

“The views expressed by the speaker are solely those of the speaker and do not necessarily represent the views of Austin Ventures. This is particularly true if the speaker is addressing a large, left-leaning audience in an election year. It is doubly true if the speaker’s initials are a J and a T.

That’s embarrassing, but let’s put it behind us. Second, I ask your indulgence for a story about my late grandmother, Lottie Warren.

Ms. Lottie lived much of her life in Mt. Calm, a tiny town about 90 miles northeast of Austin. Her resilience and stoicism were the products of coming of age in the Deep South as single mother during the depression. Still, there was one thing she never got over: that yours truly had the bad taste to be born on the 100th anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox. Ms. Lottie was a student of omens. And this was plainly not a good one.

Gramma died at 96 having never driven a car nor seen an ocean. I only know this last part because, one year as I was headed to Padre Island for spring break, she said something like, “mmm, mmm. Going to the beach. Bud, why would ya wanna go and do a thing like that?”

I said “Gramma, what do you mean. I like the beach. What’s wrong with the beach?”

“Well, I reckon that the problem with the beach, you’re really never sure who’s been there before ya.”

I wish Ms. Lottie were here tonight. How proud she’d be to know exactly who has gone before us. The past winners of this award represent company that we scarcely deserve to keep. And in our offices it has caused an outbreak of humility which observers of our firm figure is both overdue and unlikely to last.

There are three groups of people we would like to thank tonight.

The first is the entrepreneurs and executives who are the lifeblood of our firm. Without them, we’d have neither the resources nor the inspiration to be involved in our community. Contrary to our own PR, venture capitalists don’t build companies—entrepreneurs and executives do. And if not for people like them, one thing is certain: there’d be no need for guys like us.

The second group we must thank is comprised of the Cookie Ruiz’s and Doug Ulmans and Susan McDowells of the world. These people are the uber entrepreneurs.

Although it pains me to no end given the dubious nature of the source, let me read to you the operational definition of entrepreneurship used by some third rate diploma mill called the Harvard Business School. I think it’s located somewhere east of Elgin.

According to HBS, entrepreneurship is “the pursuit of opportunities beyond the resources you currently control.”

Could there possibly be a better description of the never-ending challenge faced by the leaders of our non-profit organizations? Our social entrepreneurs?

I once asked a long time head of a social service agency what was the key to non-profit leadership. She said, “Simple”. “Know 100 varieties of the old loaves and fishes trick, and be able to do all of them with a smile.” That pretty much says it all. God bless our social entrepreneurs, each and every one.

And now the most important part: to thank the Anti Defamation League for this tremendous honor.

We had the pleasure of hosting Mr. Foxman in our office for breakfast today. And, sir, can correct me if I’m wrong: but I think that I might have been witness to Abe Foxman’s first-ever encounter with a breakfast taco. He ultimately opted to put the taco down and stick with the coffee.  Not quite as unfortunate as President Ford’s infamous encounter with the tamale, but in the same ballpark.

Mr. Foxman is fond of saying that the ADL is a perpetrator of an anti-bias bias. But more than anything, it seems to me that the ADL is one of the great purveyors and promoters of empathy in America.

Empathy is a word I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

First, an academic definition: The intellectual identification with–or vicarious experiencing of– the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. One psychologist writes that empathy is the second most significant accomplishment of the human mind, surpassed only by consciousness itself.

Another writer describes empathy in a way I like a lot: as “elasticity of spirit.” It reminds me of Reinhold Niebuhr’s great riff that “open mindedness is not a virtue of people who don’t believe in anything. It’s a virtue of people who know their beliefs are not absolutely true.”

My dad would have described empathy as “walking a mile in another brave’s moccasins.” He thought that was important.

So you see why empathy strikes me as an organizing theme for the ADL’s activities. This institution has long been a bulwark against hate. And it’s awfully hard to hate someone with whom you empathize.

OK, deep breath. And my partners ask that you remember that disclaimer.

You see, I’m a little edgy these days. I think we all are.

Since 9-11, America’s standing in the world has taken so many hits that a writer in the New York Times recently—and nonchalantly—christened the “post-American” era. We have ample reasons to question our recent economic gains at home, with any *un*questionable gains being very concentrated among a *very* few. And who would argue that since 9-11, a certain measure of—-civility—hasn’t gone missing from our civil society.

I find myself identifying with Professor Malik Solanka, the protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s 2001 novel, Fury. Solanka is an immigrant to the U.S., a really smart, really cranky guy. And he finds himself increasingly out of sorts in his adopted home, New York City just before 9-11, leading him to this observation:

“Rome did not fall because her armies weakened, but because Romans forgot what being a Roman meant. Might this new Rome actually be more provincial than its provinces; might these new Romans have forgotten what and how to value?”

So in my edgy state, I ask: what about the Professor’s question? Is there an element unique to the American experience that we have forgotten whether and how to value?

No big surprise: I think there is. And here’s that word again: empathy.

Our true uniqueness lies in our history as an immigrant nation. For three and a half centuries, we have welcomed—within the limits of our laws– those who are persecuted, or those who simply want to start better lives for their families. It’s been our shared objective—with their help–to make America worthy of their aspirations.

In 1630, an especially ambitious immigrant named John Winthrop laid out a vision for a little startup called the Massachusetts Bay Company. He pledged to build what he called “a city upon a hill,” a place to escape the pressure he and his fellows felt from the Crown—primarily religious, but also economic; and a place that others would aspire to live.

Nearly four centuries later, Ronald Reagan borrowed the phrase, calling America “a *shining* city on a hill” in his farewell address in 1989.

I think empathy really matters to Americans. Sometimes, though, it seems that the overdevelopment of some of our other muscles gets in the way of its practice.

When our celebrated talent for entrepreneurship and economic competition comes unhinged, and billionaires and the indigent uninsured seem to be in a contest to see who can grow more quickly.

When our long-standing sense of community mutates into a hyper suspicion of outsiders. And sure, we can be excused our economic and national security anxieties—god knows– we’ve earned them. But lately it feels like we’re in danger of forgetting what Reagan intended: the glow from our shining city was to be a beacon. Not a search light.

When our abiding optimism compromises our most important empathic relationship: the one we maintain with future generations of Americans. From Day One of the Republic, our ancestors sacrificed some measure of gratification to assure the well being of their progeny. Also known as—the people in this room.

How strange, then, that no real discussion of shared sacrifice has entered our politics for a generation. This, even though sacrifice seems a logical point of departure for almost any serious discussion of policy: fiscal, environmental, education, energy, health care…you name it.

Somewhere along the way, two big, important ideas: “sacrifice” on the one hand and “optimism” on the other–became mutually exclusive. No big surprise which idea always wins, as an almost obnoxious “optimism” has become table stakes for *any* serious candidate running for *any* office. You might say that in a referendum against optimism, sacrifice is assured burial in a landslide.

We often hear about “third rail” issues in American politics—issues so powerfully charged that they electrocute any leader who comes near them. You know the litany: social security, Medicare, drug legalization, conscription; the list doesn’t need any additions.

But I’ll propose one, anyway: It seems to me that *sacrifice* has become the *ultimate* third rail in American politics. We fry our leaders when they touch it, and so they don’t.

The choice between “optimism” and “sacrifice” is false, it is juvenile, and it does our nation great harm. But the temptation for our leaders to make that choice—false, juvenile, and harmful as it–proves simply irresistible. Why? Because we—the electorate—reward the false choice time after time. And so shared sacrifice is almost never on the table.

Hasn’t the time come to throw the switch on this third rail—to shut off the political deadliness of the notion of shared sacrifice? To have an adult conversation about the fact that tax cuts, wars, universal health care, investment in energy independence, $150 billion in short term stimulus to avoid recession: they simply can’t co-exist without borrowing from our progeny. Until we as a nation face the prospect of shared sacrifice, the biggest gift we will give our children is righteousness to match their indignation. Because without shared sacrifice, we just can’t show them the empathy our ancestors showed to us.

We had a really lively discussion this morning about the ADL’s role in our civil society—I could have stayed there all day. It would be nice if Foxman & Company could solve all our ills. They can’t. But as a force for social justice, as a force for empathy, thank God they get stronger all the time.

We simply need the ADL. We need them when hate crimes in America rise 8 percent this year, while almost all other crimes decline to record lows.

We need the ADL when, in the aftermath of the Jena 6 tragedy, there are hundreds of threats involving nooses in the south, after the near disappearance of that awful totem from our culture.

We need the ADL when our nation’s discussion about immigration becomes so shrill in tone and frankly racist in content –that the KKK finds a new lease on life. And when the cloaking of hate speech behind a cyber-wall reminds us of a time before the ADL’s success in passing anti masking laws in the 50s.

We need the ADL. As practiced travelers in unfamiliar moccasins. As crusaders for the elasticity of our common spirit. As purveyors and promoters of empathy.

Mr. Foxman, all of the ADL staff, your board and benefactors: you are marvelous public servants, and your work for our country is a great, great mitzvah.

But most of all, in giving us this award, you honor our firm more than you could ever know.

Thank you, so very, very much.


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