Bob Schwartz

A World Worth Saving

Xul Solar - Puerto Azul

People are justifiably angry, frustrated, and confused when those with all the “advantages” of Western Europe and the United States join violent apocalyptic movements in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. But maybe we can learn a little by asking some related questions: Do these fighters believe the world is worth saving? Do your fellow citizens, friends, and neighbors believe it? Do you?

Almost by definition, those who are convinced to join movements aimed at turning the world upside down believe that the world as it is is beyond repair, and that the world as it is is not worth saving.

What might surprise you, if you think about it, is how many of the people around you, people you know, believe exactly the same thing. They don’t go halfway around the world to kill mercilessly to hasten the end of the status quo. But they do believe that this world is irreparably broken, that many other people (maybe even you) are complicit in maintaining and encouraging that disrepair—in feeding the beast—and that nothing short of the quickest possible end to this world will bring them to the rightness of that world.

We don’t talk much about whether this world is worth saving. There are those true believers just mentioned who think there is nothing to talk about, that it is dogmatic and axiomatic that this world is as good as gone. For others, it can be a bunch of words, about how we will make the ultimate sacrifice to preserve “the American way of life” or “freedom,” as if those were so self-evident that discussion would be at best useless and at worst seditious.

We have to talk about it, not just assume or demand the automatic answer “of course it’s worth saving.” One of the reasons we don’t talk about it is that we would have to think about it, and that is not easy or comfortable. We would, among other discomforts, have to admit shortcomings, some very serious.

When we don’t talk, we end up with some people easily persuaded that maybe this world is so broken that we should start creating a different one, even apocalyptically. That’s the bad news, ripped from today’s headlines.

The good news is that if we did talk about whether the world is worth saving, honestly, without dogma, with no “wrong” answers, we would almost certainly conclude that—with some minor and major adjustments—it is. It’s just getting to that conclusion that can be so difficult.

Newark and Detroit: The Long Hot Summer of 1967

Newark 1967

The last post about James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) skipped a beat about what happened next. What happened in America was the race riots between 1964 and 1966 (including Watts in Los Angeles), culminating with the so-called Long Hot Summer of 1967. During that summer, among the many cities affected, the two disturbances that stand out are Newark and Detroit.

Baldwin did not overstate any prophetic intention in his book. Instead, he simply opened with this epigraph, from which he took the book’s title:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!

Newark, July 12-17, began with the arrest of a black cabdriver for passing a police car. The riots left 26 dead and hundreds injured.

Detroit, July 23-27, began with a police raid of a black drinking club. The riots left 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

There are at least three reasons we don’t hear much or talk much about that summer in the context of Ferguson.

We are abysmally ahistorical. If it isn’t in the latest Twitter feed, it may already be old news. Things that happened forty or fifty years ago might as well be from the Middle Ages.

We want to highlight and not overshadow the clear progress that has been made. Progress to be sure, as reflected in the photo of a black President talking to a black Attorney General about the events in Ferguson.

We are afraid. Afraid that the progress we have made may be as illusory as it is real. Afraid that we solved the easier problems, leaving us with stubborn, intractable ones that are beyond comfortable solutions. Afraid that we may not be as good as we think we are. Mostly afraid that history is TMI, telling us way more than we want to know, showing us images not from the distant past but from tomorrow.

Ferguson and The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin - The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time may be the best and most eloquent statement of relations between whites and blacks in America ever written. From the publisher:

The appearance of The Fire Next Time in 1963, just as the civil rights movement was exploding across the American South, galvanized the nation and continues to reverberate as perhaps the most prophetic and defining statement ever written of the continuing costs of Americans’ refusal to face their own history. It became a national bestseller, and Baldwin was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Critic Irving Howe said that The Fire Next Time achieved “heights of passionate exhortation unmatched in modern American writing.”

Baldwin was one of the great writers of his or any other American generation. He shouldered the burden of being a triple threat to America of the 1960s—a black man, a brilliant and outspoken intellectual, and gay. This he did with unequaled prose grace, and this work and others are required reading for anyone who wants or claims to be a writer.

The first of the two essays is My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation. Brief and unforgettable, it is a summary of how things are and why his teenage namesake cannot give up and in. It does no justice to this book to excerpt it; it stands as a whole that must be read—not the least of all because with the real progress we have made, we are foolish and destructive to over-measure how far we have come. But here is how the essay closes:

And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, “The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”

You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed.

Your uncle,
James

Making No Sense

NASA - Stars

I looked at the stars
Like an astrologer
Saw constellations
Like an astronomer
Saw suns and planets.
I looked again
And saw stars.

The Economist on Israel: Winning the Battle, Losing the War

Economist - Israel and Gaza

If you read the biblical chronicles instead of the newspapers, you know that the Jewish homelands have lived forever from crisis to crisis. In the history of modern Israel, none of that has changed.

When you live in constant crisis, the historical topography can be indistinct—it can be hard to tell which one is bigger than another. But in Israel’s history, Independence in 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967 are epochal. The current Israel-Gaza conflict is still ongoing, but the current crisis of 2014 may join that cohort.

Among the thousands of pieces and millions of words generated over the past few weeks, the new cover story from The Economist, Winning the battle, losing the war is one of best and most even-handed evaluations published about the aftermath of all this.

“Even-handed” and “fair-minded” are hard to find in such a brutal and polarized controversy, and some would say they don’t exist at all. The Economist, for those who don’t know, is one of the most astute and level-headed journals of public affairs in the world. This piece, like others about contested matters, is not without embedded value judgments or opinions. It is just a sharp, worthwhile, and informed point of view that should be heard—even if it is shouted down as somehow biased and mistaken:

For all the blood and misery in Gaza, Mr Netanyahu will soon have a chance to show he has heard the critics. Having won his battle, he could return to the negotiating table, this time with a genuine offer of peace. Every true friend of Israel should press him to do so.

Haftarah for War and Peace: Isaiah

Isaiah

The Jewish scriptural calendar has two parts: a weekly reading from the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and a weekly reading from the prophets, known as a haftarah.

Today’s reading—Isaiah 1:1-27—is possibly the most special of these haftarot. Isaiah is the most famous and read of all biblical prophets, among Jews and Christians. And today’s reading is the very first chapter of Isaiah. It was written in, about, and for the Jewish kingdoms of the 8th century BCE, which were under threat from without and within.

Whole libraries have been written explaining and interpreting Isaiah. (For those who want a very brief, very readable introduction to these readings, there is no better start than W. Gunther Plaut’s The Haftarah Commentary.) One message is that the form of faith, no matter how punctilious and properly executed, is not enough, never enough. God says:

Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. (Isaiah 1:13-16)

The passage that follows this is one of the best known in the Bible:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

 

Isaiah 1:1-27

1The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

2Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. 3The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. 4Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged! 5Why do you seek further beatings? Why do you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. 6From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds; they have not been drained, or bound up, or softened with oil. 7Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. 8And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city. 9If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we would have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah.

10Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. 14Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. 18Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. 19If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

21How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her— but now murderers! 22Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. 23Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them. 24Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes! 25I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. 26And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. 27Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.

Slaughterhouse-Five

 

Kurt Vonnegut

A friend in Israel has been corresponding with me about the current mess there. He is a proud and passionate American-Israeli. In the course of the conversation, he mentioned Dresden.

I, along with millions of others, can’t think of Dresden without thinking of Kurt Vonnegut. There is some chance, if you are of a certain age, that you don’t know Dresden or Vonnegut, so here is a summary.

In February 1945, just a few months before World War II ended, the Allies firebombed the city of Dresden, Germany. Much of the city was destroyed and tens of thousands lost their lives. At the same time, Allied prisoners of war were being held by Germany in Dresden.

Kurt Vonnegut was one of the most interesting and original writers of the 20th century, and he influenced the cultural lives of readers throughout the 1960s and beyond. He was also one of those prisoners of war who was an eyewitness to the destruction in Dresden. He tried for more than twenty years to write about it, and finally in 1969 published his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, a title reference to the Dresden slaughterhouse in which he was held. It is a masterpiece, but not what anyone would expect a novel about the horrors of war to be like. It is, though, precisely what you might expect from Vonnegut.

The first chapter is his factual history of how he came to write this book. That chapter alone is worth reading, even if you think you don’t want or wouldn’t like the rest. In it, he recounts this conversation with a friend:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’”

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.

And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Please read Slaughterhouse-Five (and more Vonnegut if you are so moved). You will be glad you did.

Silence

Ramana Maharshi

“Silence is the eternal flow of language, obstructed by words.”

Ramana Maharshi

Shoes Required and Guns Permitted in Stores

No Gun

Target today “respectfully requested” that customers not bring guns into their stores, even where it is permitted by law. It joins other shops and restaurants in responding to new state laws that are allowing firearms, including automatic weapons, to be carried just about everywhere in public.

Every day at Target, in everything we do, we ask ourselves what is right for our guests? We make all of our decisions with that question in mind. Questions have circulated in recent weeks around Target’s policy on the “open carry” of firearms in its stores. Today, interim CEO, John Mulligan, shared the following note with our Target team members. We wanted you to hear this update from us, too.

The leadership team has been weighing a complex issue, and I want to be sure everyone understands our thoughts and ultimate decision.

As you’ve likely seen in the media, there has been a debate about whether guests in communities that permit “open carry” should be allowed to bring firearms into Target stores. Our approach has always been to follow local laws, and of course, we will continue to do so. But starting today we will also respectfully request that guests not bring firearms to Target – even in communities where it is permitted by law.

We’ve listened carefully to the nuances of this debate and respect the protected rights of everyone involved. In return, we are asking for help in fulfilling our goal to create an atmosphere that is safe and inviting for our guests and team members.

This is a complicated issue, but it boils down to a simple belief: Bringing firearms to Target creates an environment that is at odds with the family-friendly shopping and work experience we strive to create.

Let’s not talk about whether the legal situation, or messages such as Target’s, or video of people walking around American cities gleefully brandishing semi-automatic rifles are insane. There are plenty of other places where ordinary citizens are walking around exactly the same way. Think Syria. Think Iraq. Think dozens of other countries which we aspire to emulate.

Let’s talk about the fact that across the country, virtually all establishments reserve the right to refuse you service and ask you to leave if you show up without a shirt or shoes. Yet some of the biggest businesses in the country are having trouble telling some customers to leave if they show up with weapons. Now that is insane.

But also rational. This is business. If even a small number of Second Amendment zealots turn their sites on a chain, there is no doubt it will hurt the bottom line. The shoeless and the shirtless have no lobby. The gun advocates do.

Maybe what’s needed is another line item added to the classic “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” sign. Or maybe stores will choose to engage a little more forcefully than a simple respectful request.

Hobby Lobby and Peyote

Peyote

Peyote is at the heart of today’s Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case.

Hobby Lobby does not sell peyote. When Hobby Lobby attends church, its religious practices don’t include eating peyote. Its Christian beliefs do include opposition to certain forms of contraception, and therefore it opposed having to provide health insurance under ACA that includes such contraception.

Hobby Lobby’s objections reached the Supreme Court. In today’s 5-4 decision, the Court found that the entity that is Hobby Lobby has a claim to religious freedom from that requirement, grounded in the First Amendment and in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). And that is where peyote comes in.

This begins with the case of Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon vs. Smith (1990). Two employees of the State of Oregon were members of the Native American Church, and ingested peyote as a sacrament. They failed a drug test and were fired. The Supreme Court found that despite their claim of religious freedom, Oregon had the right to terminate them.

In response to this and other decisions, activists from the left and right, religiously and politically, came together to push for a legislative remedy. How universal was support for a fix? The House vote for RFRA was unanimous, the Senate 97-3, and President Clinton signed it.

More than twenty years later, what hath God and Congress and the Court wrought? Characterizing this new allowance for religious exceptions to laws as narrow seems wishful, hopeful, or just plain wrongheaded. There will be more attempts than before to see just how big this hole is and what sort of company policy vehicle can be driven through it on the basis of religious freedom.

Quite possibly, the next big test will be to see exactly what closely held companies that have religious objections will be permitted to do about homosexual employees. We have no federal law on employment discrimination against gay people, and in a country where we can’t even pass equal-pay for equal-work for women legislation, that isn’t likely any time soon.

God apparently doesn’t endorse IUDs but approves of peyote. His judgment on Hobby Lobby and the Supreme Court is still out.