Bob Schwartz

Cuba: No Democracy, No Embassy, So Recall the Ambassador to China

U.S. Embassy in Beijing

If you listen to those opposing normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, you learn that we should not do so until Cuba moves toward democracy.

With that rationale, we should be ending diplomatic relations with many countries, because no matter what our ideals and aspirations, the world still includes some fairly undemocratic nations.

Such as China. We have had full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China since 1979, a period that includes both Republican and Democratic Presidents and Congresses. There is no way to characterize China as a democratic, democratic-leaning, democratic-seeking nation. So we should immediately recall our latest ambassador, former Sen. Max Baucus, and immediately close our embassy in Beijing.

Of course, that doesn’t make sense. As nothing has made sense in our relations with Cuba, even before Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime in 1959. The U.S. supported Batista and opposed Communism in the hemisphere. Commercial interests, legal and illegal, made money. Once Castro was in power, and refugees of substantial and modest means resettled in the U.S., it was thought that isolating Cuba would make it come around to right thinking and lucrative democracy. That didn’t work, and neither did the one attempt at forcing the issue, the debacle of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

If we had given Cuba the benefit of the doubt that we have given other non-democracies, not to mention the money we have invested in those nations, some good might have come of it, with little downside. But as with many issues, politics in the form of financial support, or the threat of withholding it, distorts what may be for the best.

Which is why, with Obama moving to normalize Cuban relations, you won’t hear anybody calling for the closing of the Beijing embassy, but lots of grandstanding and bluster about how a Cuban ambassador will mean the end of the world.

The Eight Ways of Hanukkah

happy-hanukkah

Hanukkah, which begins at sunset with the lighting of the first candle, may be the most interesting, confusing, and confused of Jewish holidays. Let me count the ways.

1. It is the most historic of the traditional Jewish holidays. The historicity of more important holidays is somewhat shrouded in antiquity, bible stories, and faith. We have a pretty good chronicle of the events commemorated by Hanukkah: the Jewish rebellion of around 163 BCE led by the Maccabee family against the Seleucid/Syrian occupiers of Israel.

2. The best chronicle of Hanukkah is found in the Books of Maccabees. Maccabees is found in the bible, but because of textual happenstance, not in the Jewish Bible. Books of Maccabees are part of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bibles, and are apocryphal books of the Protestant bible. But the Jewish biblical canon (the books officially included) was closed before these books were available. So if Jews want to read this particular biblical story, they have to turn to Christian bibles. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

3. Hanukkah is probably not just about the Maccabees. As with other holidays, including Christmas, it is likely a melding of other seasonal celebrations at that time of year.

4. Because Hanukkah is extra-biblical, it did not achieve the stature of other holidays. You will often see it referred to as a “minor” holiday. In baseball terms, though, Hanukkah is at least AAA minor league, that is, completely ready to play in the majors. Which, as it turned out, it kind of does.

5. How Hanukkah became a much more important holiday than ever is covered by the wonderful book Hanukkah in America. For one thing, the original story of the Maccabees is about fighting not just the occupiers but the tendency of Jews in that situation toward assimilation and Hellenization. This obviously resonated in America, where secular culture and particularly Christmas became a juggernaut.

6. The candelabra used on Hanukkah for the eight nights of lights is usually referred to, by Jews and non-Jews alike, as a menorah. This is not exactly right. A menorah is a lamp, more particularly the seven-armed lamp that is an abiding symbol of Judaism and Israel. The lamp lit at Hanukkah is more properly called a hanukkiah. But hardly ever is.

7. The spelling of the word Hanukkah in English remains an unsettled mess. “Hanukkah” is now prevalent, but there is still plenty of the older “Chanukah” or, less likely, “Chanukkah” or other variations. The problem stems from trying to transliterate a Hebrew word into English—especially a word that has the guttural “ch” sound not heard in English (that is, not “ch” as in China). But as the saying goes: You can spell it Hanukkah or Chanukah, just don’t call me late for latkes. (No, that’s not an actual saying.)

8. This is from a little book that is a century old. The Hanukkah Festival: Outline of Lessons for Teachers (1914) was published by The Teachers’ Institute of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and written by Rabbi Louis Grossmann, its principal. One of the benedictions for lighting the candles goes well beyond Judaism, history, or faith. It should work for just about anyone, tonight and every night.

Eight days long the Lights burned in the homes of our Fathers, and eight days long they rejoiced. One little flask of sacred oil was enough to illumine the Temple and to keep it bright. So each one of us may gladden those with whom we are, and the Light within our heart may make bright all who are about us.

Happy Hanukkah.

Torture Report: Who Is We and Who We Are

Senate Intelligence Committee Report

In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, so much hand wringing, finger pointing, and finger wagging. So much righteousness and defensiveness. So many opportunities to forget for a few days our current troubles and focus, justifiably but still obsessively, on the past.

“This is not who we are.” You have heard this and it will continue to be earnestly said. But within that are two questions that need asking and answering—even if the answers are difficult.

Who Is We

Harry Truman famously kept a sign on his presidential desk that said, “The Buck Stops Here.” As a leader that is a responsible position to take. But it is not the whole story. In a democracy, it is complicated. Whether we voted for a particular official or not, or whether we voted or not, the buck—the responsibility—stops with us. We can make noises disclaiming a President, a Vice President, the CIA, and any policy we find objectionable or abhorrent. But if along the way—that is in real time—we didn’t take it on ourselves to do something/anything to counter what we knew or should have known, our fingerprints may be on this. It’s not about getting a license to criticize and moralize because you didn’t vote for that guy or you thought it was wrongheaded. It is about the reality of where the buck actually stops, no matter how perfidious and mendacious these perps are. They are we. Them is us.

Who We Are

This phrase is meant to point to our moral high ground. But in practice, many of us are involved in bits of moral relativism, or at least moral confusion. The problem isn’t whether moral absolutes exist; the problem is that we don’t much want to consider and discuss them when it comes to our personal, social, or political lives. The discussion is hard, and if you establish those absolutes, keeping to them is, as a practical matter, even harder. This isn’t about good or bad, or good or evil. This is about being human and building and operating human institutions. If, for example, everything in the report happened but the demonstrable outcome was prevention of some dark catastrophe (which it didn’t), many would relent in their critique because the good done outweighed the evil perpetrated.

And maybe that is a morally supportable perspective. And maybe not. But until we actually have that debate—about who is the “we” and who we are, it seems that we are shouting something either noble or scurrilous, but maybe, as Shakespeare wrote, “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The Day the Buddha Woke Up

Buddha Comic Bodhi

December 8 is Bodhi Day, the day on which the Buddha’s enlightenment is traditionally celebrated.

The English word “enlightenment” is so packed with meaning that it might be better to just go back to what the Buddha is reported to have said: I am awake.

This is useful because it leads to the two questions: woke up from what and woke up to what?

The Buddha, sitting there under the Bodhi tree, woke up from a journey. Born a royal son, he had fled a life of accidental privilege to answer ultimate questions about suffering and death—the very same questions that consume religious lives of all kinds. He believed that if he tried a, b, and c (such as extreme asceticism), he would discover some secret x, y, and z. There was some kind of magic formula, and all he had to do was learn it. That sort of magic is still at the heart of much of our religion.

He woke up to discover that there was no magic, not in such an instrumental sense. Nothing was different. Suffering and death would not go away, no matter what efforts we make. The best and worst aspects of life would go on, with and without us. Great fortunes would be made and lost. Great structures would be built and then destroyed, by cataclysms natural and human. Love would be here and gone.

But this: He could see something in all of that that made sense of all of that. There is no big plan in which we are players, active or passive, though we could and do make and execute our own little plans. There are just things, relationships between those things, and change, and of all those of a singular piece. We can and do overlay that with all of our very complicated details and distinctions, which is after all a definition of the life we live. But if we discover that underlying existence, we just might choose to live differently. And in that living differently, make change and wake others up. And on and on.

None of that eliminated suffering and death for the Buddha, as it won’t for anyone. He grew old and tired and, legend has it, died from being given spoiled food. He had told his followers what he had discovered, none of which involved magic. It was all about the infinite depth of the ordinary. For him, there was no more a kingdom in the clouds than the kingdom he had left behind when he started his journey. There was just what is. Strive on with diligence, he told those followers at the last.

The Promise of and Lessons from the Hong Kong Protests

Albert Einstein Institute

The Hong Kong pro-democracy protests appear to be over—for now. The protest leaders have surrendered, and the official plan to have Beijing approve candidates for Hong Kong’s highest office remains in place. The result is disappointing but not surprising. Facing off against the world’s biggest and most powerful non-democracy is by definition quixotic.

Yet for those of us in the U.S. and elsewhere who admire the thousands who engaged in this nonviolent movement, there are lessons to be learned and practiced. As pointed out here before, thinkers such as Gene Sharp at the Albert Einstein Institution have spent lifetimes mapping the path to nonviolent change. Here are a few of the lessons:

Be organized and disciplined. If you watched the news coverage of the Hong Kong events, you got to see an orderly and colorful tent city that served as a base, along with protestors carrying the symbolic (and also colorful) umbrellas, which served double-duty as a shield against police force.

Be specific. Movement goals can range in size and scope, from the ouster of a president to, as in Hong Kong, the right to select candidates for an election, as promised in an agreement. In the U.S., both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War movement had such specific goals. In civil rights, it was piece by piece in a bigger picture: desegregation of public transport, desegregation of restaurants, voting rights, etc. Vietnam was specific and absolute: get out. The recent Occupy movements in the U.S., on the other hand, seemed to be all over the map, even when their complaints were justified. We are now seeing a bit of that in the Ferguson movement. The general discontent over the treatment of black citizens by police and justice is justified, but the power of the protests is diluted by uncertainty about what is being requested. (Possible answer: The St. Louis county prosecutor, having made an unprecedented mess of the criminal charging and grand jury process, can convene another grand jury and do it properly the next time. That’s probably as unlikely as Beijing giving in, but it would be something specific to ask for.)

Be informed. One of the other things you might notice about the Hong Kong protest is that protestors could speak knowledgeably about why they were protesting and what they wanted. Not to keep picking on our Occupy movement, but if you asked a hundred protestors about what it is they wanted, you might well have gotten a hundred different answers.

Be patient. Perseverance furthers. The U.S. civil rights movement took decades to achieve its goals, though some would argue that in fact the spirit of those goals is still far from being reached. Globally, movements for change are like the tides, in and out, high and low. Just this week, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek was cleared of criminal charges in the deaths of protestors at Tahrir Square four years ago. Today, in terms of democracy, Egypt looks different than but the same as it did then. Perseverance can further, but it is no guarantee. Even without certainty, though, organized, disciplined, specific, informed, patient nonviolence remains the best that can be done.

Thanksgiving: Simple Gifts

Shaker Sewing Table

The Shaker dance song Simple Gifts (Joseph Brackett, 1848) is the ultimate Thanksgiving song. It is also the ultimate American song, provided we recognize that in America, the most religious and richest nation on earth, simplicity and humility are ideals worth aspiring to and striving for.

Ken Burns writes this about his documentary The Shakers:

They called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but because of their ecstatic dancing, the world called them Shakers. Though they were celibate, they are the most enduring religious experiment in American history. They believed in pacifism, natural health and hygiene, and for more than 200 years insisted that their followers should strive for simplicity and perfection in everything they did.

Shaker design, including furniture and baskets, may be familiar to you. So may the melody of Simple Gifts. It is frequently used in pop culture, and is most famous musically in Aaron Copland’s orchestral masterpiece, Appalachian Spring. And while the tune is often heard, the lyrics are not as frequently sung. Here is an appropriately unadorned version by Judy Collins.

Even if you can’t read music, you can look at the musical score and see how very simple this song is:

SimpleGifts

Here are the lyrics. Happy Thanksgiving.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Random Beads

Random Beads - Bob Schwartz

Every picture supposedly tells a story. Actually, every picture is a story.

Beading is a glorious craft. In the hands of a talented artist, the results can be beautiful and enlightening.

But like all art, it can be a messy business. In the case of beads, this can mean tiny items underfoot, and with bits of wire, pretty painful ones. Particularly where barefoot is the custom.

A quick post-beading cleanup led to quite a collection of such detritus, like shells on a beach. Tossed in a white bowl, they looked like something. And so the photo above.

If you are a fan of randomness—and we should all be—you will see in this totally spontaneous display any number of things. Gregory Bateson said, “I am going to build a church someday. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” Exactly.

Here is a beader in her natural habitat, the largest bead store in New York. It is filled with beads mostly from China which, as in most things, is able to provide whatever we want or need in seemingly infinite supply. So it is all together: geopolitics, economics, ancient tradition, minerals, pottery, glass, color, art, craft, and, of course, beauty. Note, however, that in this emporium, the beauty of the beader outshines all of the beads.

Bead Store

Interstellar: Not thinking is the best way to travel

Soul Nebula

The new movie Interstellar takes on big questions and concepts. About the nature of everything. It is more like an invitation than a text, more like an appetizer than a feast. How much of that can you pack into a movie anyway?

Whether or not you’ve seen it, or liked it, or tried to understand it, here is something to consider.

What available paths are there to addressing these issues?

Being one of the travelers who journeys to the far reaches of time, space, and the other numberless dimensions.

Being a scientist who theorizes about that.

Being a director who makes a movie about that.

Being a viewer who watches a movie about that.

Being someone who thinks about that.

Being someone who stops thinking about that and journeys to those far reaches.

The list isn’t comprehensive, none of these is exclusive of the others, none of these may be best. But if you did see Interstellar, or have seen the dozens of movies that address this, or read any of the thousands of texts that address this, or are just curious, do investigate that last possibility. You may discover that the place beyond thinking looks like all the wonders of Interstellar. With fewer movie stars and special effects. But much more real.

The President’s Speech: Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Enforcement

CRS - Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration

The following will not necessarily make you smarter than the hundreds—thousands?—of talking heads you will hear opining and pontificating about the President’s speech tonight on immigration. But it just might.

For those who haven’t followed this political drama, the President has long awaited Congressional action on immigration reform, and in the absence of that, has decided to take executive action. Reports are that this will include deferring legal proceedings against a large number of undocumented immigrants. Charges are already flying from political opponents, claiming that the President is exceeding his authority, with impeachment even being discussed.

It appears that the basis for this executive action may be prosecutorial discretion. As you may know (and as recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have highlighted), prosecutors have broad, virtually unlimited and unreviewable discretion to decide who to prosecute and not prosecute. There are principles and theories about how this discretion might be less than absolute, but as a matter of practice, it is quite broad.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is the very valuable but little-known non-partisan government service that answers questions that Congress has about any issue that Congress is interested in. You name the topic or issue, CRS has probably studied it.

Last December, CRS answered a question that is at the heart of the President’s approach to the immigration crisis: What, if any, are the limits on prosecutorial discretion in immigration?

The report, Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Enforcement: Legal Issues is a must-read. It is true that legal opinions on many issues differ (see the Supreme Court), but CRS is supposedly the starting point for any questions that Congress has. Congress members may have disagreements with the reports, but few question the impartiality or skill of CRS researchers.

CRS concludes:

Regardless of whether it is characterized as “prosecutorial discretion” or “enforcement discretion,” immigration officers are generally seen as having wide latitude in determining when, how, and even whether to pursue apparent violations of the INA [Immigration and Nationality Act]. This latitude is similar to that possessed by prosecutors in the criminal law enforcement context and enforcement officials in other federal agencies. Whether and how to constrain this discretion has been a recurring issue for some Members of Congress, particularly in light of the June 2011 DHS [Department of Homeland Security] memorandum on prosecutorial discretion and the more recent DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] initiative. While some Members have expressed support for the DACA initiative, or called for expanded use of prosecutorial discretion by immigration authorities in other contexts, others have sought to prohibit DHS from granting deferred action or extended voluntary departure to removable aliens except in narrow circumstances, or to “nullify” particular policies regarding prosecutorial discretion that have been articulated by the Obama Administration….

In addition, the degree of intrusion into executive enforcement decisions may also impact a court’s review of any congressional response. For example, legal precedent suggests that Congress probably cannot directly limit the President’s exercise of discretion by requiring that the executive branch initiate enforcement actions against particular individuals. On the other hand, Congress would appear to have considerable latitude in establishing statutory guidelines for immigration officials to follow in the exercise of their enforcement powers, including by “indicat[ing] with precision the measures available to enforce the” INA, or by prohibiting DHS from considering certain factors in setting enforcement priorities.

However, the existing judicial presumption that “an agency’s decision not to take enforcement action [is] immune from judicial review,” and the deference potentially accorded to an agency’s interpretation of its governing statute, suggests that such statutory guidelines would likely need to be clear, express, and specific. The use of “shall” in a provision of the INA may not, in itself, suffice for a statute to be construed as having provided enforceable guidelines for immigration officials to follow in exercising prosecutorial discretion. Absent a substantive legislative response, Congress may still be able to influence the implementation of DACA or other discretion-based policies by the immigration authorities, including by engaging in stringent oversight over the DHS program or by exercising its “power of the purse” to prohibit DHS and its components from implementing particular policies related to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion that Congress does not support.

Translation: Congress cannot force the executive branch to enforce particular immigration provisions, which means that an executive policy to defer enforcement is not subject to Congressional control. (This is as good a point as any to mention that President Obama has already overseen a record number of immigrant deportations and he is not “soft” on undocumented immigration). However, in the view of CRS, Congress has “considerable latitude in establishing statutory guidelines for immigration officials to follow in the exercise of their enforcement powers.” That is, Congress could exercise its will by simply passing laws on this significant issue. Or on any significant issue that it claims to be vexed about. But it won’t. So can you blame the elected leader of the American people for being frustrated, and choosing to do what he can to step in where the brave and bold members of Congress are—how to say this politely—too fainthearted to go?

Return to the Four Freedoms

Four Freedoms

As we approach the holiday season, we might think about the big metaphorical American family gathering around the big metaphorical American table. One thing you notice, as with a lot of families and tables, is that there’s going to be a few disagreements, some pretty heated.

But at some point, in keeping with the spirit of the season, the family will be looking for common ground, those shared ideals that unite us. Unfortunately, we seem to be losing sight of those ideals because, to be honest, it isn’t always clear what they are.

In early 1941, while war was already raging in Europe, but almost a year before Pearl Harbor, FDR gave one of the most famous speeches of the era and of American history. It was the 1941 State of the Union address, but it will always be known as the Four Freedoms speech. To bolster American support for our almost inevitable involvement in the war, he enunciated the Four Freedoms we would be fighting for: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

Art turned out to play an important role in keeping these ideals front and center, especially as the prospect of American sacrifice became a reality. The most famous example may be a series of paintings by Norman Rockwell (above), who was then and maybe still the greatest American illustrator. The Library of Congress explains:

Taken from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 speech to Congress, the “Four Freedoms” –Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear–became a rallying point for the United States during WWII. Artist Norman Rockwell created four vignettes to illustrate the concepts. Rockwell intended to donate the paintings to the War Department, but after receiving no response, the painter offered them to the Saturday Evening Post, where they were first published on February 20, 1943. Popular reaction was overwhelming, and more than 25,000 readers requested full-color reproductions suitable for framing.

Some will say that these Four Freedoms are today “controversial” because we don’t seem to be able as a nation—as an American family—to agree on the strategies to maintain and attain those ideals. Those disagreements are undeniable, as are the related invective, disparagement, and even hatefulness that goes with them. But those disagreements can’t make us give up. On the contrary, they should send us back to the words of FDR, getting past the ideologies and labels, and really look within and at the family of Americans.

Do you really believe that these ideals are exclusive to you, and not shared by others of good will? Are your principles and affiliations so very important that you would sacrifice those ideals to be “right?” Or can we come to the table, dig deeper, and not leave until we have given up a little of our own self-importance and focused instead on getting a little closer to the country and world envisioned in the shared Four Freedoms? And maybe just a little closer to each other?