SACRAMENTO -- California Gov. Jerry Brown has been keeping a low public profile this summer, jetting off to Ireland and Germany for a two-week vacation and spending most of his time in his hometown of Oakland, where he’s been managing the affairs of state.
While staying out of the public eye, the governor did take some time earlier this month to attend a three-day conference on the late author and social critic Ivan Illich, a former friend of the 75-year-old governor, held at one of the Oakland charter schools Brown helped establish while he was mayor of that city.
Brown long ago established that his approach to governing is an unconventional one. He’s at least as likely to take his cues from theorists and philosophers as he is from members of the professional political class.
In the 1970s, Brown extolled the “small is beautiful” philosophy of E.F. Schumacher. When Brown was strategizing about how to put a tax hike measure before voters, he dusted off a text from his Berkeley political science professor, Sheldon Wolin. He took time during his recent vacation in Germany to meet with sociologist Jurgen Habermas.
Illich, a former Jesuit priest who railed against institutionalized education, the prevalence of automobiles and modern medicine, apparently looms large in the governor’s thinking. In addition to attending the three-day conference earlier this month, Brown also penned a preface to an upcoming posthumous collection of Illich’s essays, set to be published this fall. Brown also opened the conference with remembrances of the man and remarks on his thinking.
“The governor said it nicely when he said Illich illuminates politics, but his works are not reducible to politics,” said David Bollier, an author and self-described Illich admirer from Amherst, Mass., who attended the gathering in Oakland. “What I would gather is that the governor appreciates him speaking to the human condition from a place of authenticity as opposed to a short-term political plane. Illich is dealing with issues that don’t have much of a forum in public life with cable television shouting matches and all the rest.”
Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said there was no public announcement of the governor’s attendance because it was not an official state function.
“It’s the equivalent of you or I going to a baseball game,” Westrup explained.
But understanding the thinkers who influence Brown continues to be a key to understanding the governor’s own thinking about California politics. “I like political theory," he told political science graduates at UC Berkeley earlier this year. "It is more coherent than political practice."