Bob Schwartz

Prisoners Beat Harvard in Debate

Bard Prison Initiative

A team from a prison just beat a team from Harvard. In a debate.

The Washington Post reports not just the victory of the team, part of the Bard Prison Initiative, but the constraints that the debaters prepared under—including having to research without the internet, from actual books and articles, but only those approved by the prison administration.

Too many lessons to count. Among them:

The two million or so people we consign to prison aren’t all there because they are not smart enough or motivated enough to function or excel in the real world.

The people who consign themselves to our most privileged houses of learning aren’t all as smart and motivated as some of those consigned to prison.

If you want to learn, really learn, learn enough to defeat the nation’s purportedly premier scholars, you can do it offline. Just like this prison debate team. Just like Abraham Lincoln.

The Sad Politics of Realism

Besides the politics of pessimism being peddled by Republicans, we have a new wrinkle courtesy of some of Hillary supporters. The sad politics of realism.

While most advise being gentle with Bernie Sanders in the upcoming debate to avoid alienating his supporters, others are pushing her to take him on as promoting unrealistic ideas that are “pie in the sky.” According to Politico:

“I think she needs to show that she isn’t taking the nomination for granted and that Bernie’s ideas are not realistic,” a Nevada Democrat said….

Added a New Hampshire Democrat, “His pie in the sky policy ideas, while wonderful, have received very little scrutiny by the press. It’s about time they did.

The sibling of realism is expedience. Not quite twins, but very close, sharing much of the same DNA.

Optimism and aspiration are never out of place in politics. Without them, all you’ve got left is the past and the present, and a future that looks like some version of that. Of course for some, the idea of redux, of say, another Clinton White House, is an outcome worthy of killing dreams, interesting ideas and hope, unrealistic fables appropriate only for children. Grownups know what it takes to win the real prizes, unpretty and sad as the path may be.

Suddenly the politics of pessimism doesn’t look so bad, or at least won’t be so lonely in the company of its companion, the politics of realism. Please put down that pie in the sky. You just might get ideas.

New Beginnings: The Torah and the I Ching


In Jewish congregations, the annual Torah reading cycle begins again this week with the first chapters of the Bible. In Hebrew it begins with the word b’reishit, and in its best-known translation, the first verse goes like this:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

And with that comes a puzzle.

If B’reishit is the beginning of a very big and consequential story, and if the creators of the Torah were sensitive to the mystical meanings of the Hebrew alphabet and language, why does the Torah begin with the second letter bet (B) rather than the first letter alef (A)?

Looking at a bigger picture, this connects to a related puzzle and an unlikely source: the I Ching.

The I Ching is a classic of Chinese literature and philosophy, a text as ancient as the Torah and just as influential.

Richard J. Smith writes in The I Ching: A Biography:

The Changes first took shape about three thousand years ago as a divination manual, consisting of sixty-four six-line symbols known as hexagrams. Each hexagram was uniquely constructed, distinguished from all the others by its combination of solid (——) and/or broken (— —) lines. The first two hexagrams in the conventional order are Qian and Kun; the remaining sixty-two hexagrams represent permutations of these two paradigmatic symbols….

The operating assumption of the Changes, as it developed over time, was that these hexagrams represented the basic circumstances of change in the universe, and that by selecting a particular hexagram or hexagrams and correctly interpreting the various symbolic elements of each, a person could gain insight into the patterns of cosmic change and devise a strategy for dealing with problems or uncertainties concerning the present and the future.

The first intriguing note is that the I Ching (pronounced Yi Jing) begins with those hexagrams Qian and Kun—known generally in English as Heaven and Earth. The cosmos of change and the I Ching begin then with Heaven and Earth.

It is at the close of the 64 hexagrams that the conundrum appears. Hexagram 63, the penultimate one, is Ji Ji—After Completion. This should be the end of the story. But it isn’t. The final hexagram, Hexagram 64, is Wei Jei—Before Completion. In the end, it doesn’t stop. It begins again. The Book of Changes emphasizes that the changes never end.

This is an explanation of why the Torah does not begin with the beginning of the alphabet. If it starts with A, that presumes a Z, A to Z, or in Hebrew, alef to tav. Creation would thus be represented as a finite element of a finite cosmos. In the text it starts instead, as the Latin phrase goes, in media res—in the middle of things. Just as the Torah will end in the middle of things, after completion of a journey, but with Moses never allowed to experience what is yet to happen, before the next completion. On and on, always beginning, never done. Just like the I Ching. Just like the Torah itself.

Collateral Damage in Afghanistan

In the vocabulary of war, no term is darker or more chilling than “collateral damage.”

There was last week collateral damage in our war in Afghanistan, where a Doctors Without Borders hospital was the target of aggressive American airstrikes. A number were killed and injured, including children, and the hospital was destroyed.

The few facts, besides the destruction, are these.

Collateral damage is unavoidable, though it can and should be minimized.

The Taliban has overtaken the area, though not the hospital.

We are engaged in supporting the Afghan fight against the Taliban, by, for example, air strikes.

Hospital personnel contacted the U.S. military after the barrage began, but it continued anyway.

Now for the rest of the story, which the Pentagon tried to correct this morning.

Early reports were that the U.S. itself called for the air strikes.

Not so, says the Pentagon. It was the Afghans who identified the target as a Taliban position, and then we conducted the airstrikes.

Don’t you see the difference? The difference, of course, being some sort of operational and moral distinction, being entirely responsible for a tragic and avoidable error versus being only mostly responsible for a tragic and avoidable error. Now we see.

It isn’t really about the particulars anyway. It’s about the need for unceasing realization that if you choose war, you choose its worst impacts. The calculus can’t just include the big win and big benefits—assuming there are any—so that those cancel out the ill you do. It doesn’t work that way. So when and if we choose war, it is never illegitimate to keep the costs constantly in mind. In fact, it is always immoral and ill-advised not to.

Otherwise, you might end up with millions of underserved and nearly abandoned veterans. Or a badly damaged economy. Or a dispirited and skeptical nation. Or some of the world’s most selfless health workers in one of the world’s most needy countries watching as their patients and their hospital die and burn.

Underwear and Ideas

Boxer Briefs

The life of underwear is interesting. It begins with elastic that is comfortable and useful. But over time, the elastic relaxes. The underwear still works pretty well, still looks pretty good, and you are reluctant to replace it. Why bother?

Then you finally do replace it, and the new one is an improvement. It really does feel better. Works better too. What took you so long?

It may be worthwhile to consider replacing old ideas and old ways with new ones. You might be surprised how easy it might be, and how much better it works and feels.

Bill Is Houdini, Hillary Is Not

Bill Clinton is an escape artist. It is fact, not conjecture, that he has gotten away with things that would crush other politicians and public figures.

Hillary Clinton helped enable and engineer some of those escapes, some might say against her best interest and integrity. But doing that, she may have drawn a skewed conclusion. She may overvalue those escapes as feats of engineering and scheming, and undervalue the essential role of Bill being Bill.

Bill Clinton is sui generis in American political history, one of a kind, maybe more so even than Barack Obama. The qualities are hard to describe; charm and charisma fail to completely capture it. He is special, the bad boy who is not really bad, just a little naughty, and no matter what you discover or discover he has hidden, it is nearly always alright. At least alright enough to move on.

Hillary is absolutely sui generis too. But she is no Bill and she is no Houdini. And while it is true that Houdini’s escapes were technical wonders, meticulously planned, that is not what made him the star he was. It was the personality and drama he brought to the stage that enthralled people, so much so that audiences actually wanted him to get into big trouble because they wanted him to get out of it—they needed him to get out of it. In that respect, Hillary is no Houdini. Nor is she Bill.

Oregon College Shooting: Republican Debate to Move to Umpqua Community College

How many shot dead today in Roseburg, Oregon? How many more injured?

We will soon have an exact body count. But while we wait for the numbers, here’s another big question: What is wrong with us?

I now hear that certain Second Amendment-loving, NRA-fearing presidential candidates are tweeting messages of sympathy for the community and for the families of those affected.

So here’s the next questions: Are you kidding me?

The answer is not better mental health oversight, treatment and identification, although that would be nice. The answer is not more guns, guns for everyone, so that the supposedly mentally ill shooters will rationally think twice about being gunned down themselves by a teacher or other student.

The answer is as few guns as we can manage to get along with, day after day. Which should be a lot fewer than we have, according to practically every other civilized country in the world. (Of course, those are ordinary countries, as opposed to exceptional America. Exceptionally absurd numbers of mass shootings, that is.)

The answer is to moderate a gun culture that is out of control. One way to do that is to…reduce the number of guns. Anyone who thinks that the current number of guns is a good idea, or that even more guns would be better, because that is what our Constitutional fathers wanted, is not mentally ill. They are historically, politically, and morally ill.

I am not going to cast too broad a net by suggesting that all the current Republican presidential candidates are strong and unconditional supporters of the NRA. But I think that may be true. In that case, I suggest that instead of holding the next Republican debate at the University of Colorado, they move it to Umpqua Community College. There they will be free to peddle all their NRA talking points nonsense to an audience filled with hundreds, thousands of people who understand all too well what the Second Amendment really and tragically means.

Hillary Campaign Aims Preemptive Threats at Joe: We Will Allow You To Go Out With Respect and Esteem

From the New York Times:

This week, David Brock, who created the pro-Clinton group Correct the Record, which is coordinating with Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, told Chicago Magazine his “gut” told him Mr. Biden would not run because “he’ll realize that at this point in his career, he can go out with everyone’s respect and esteem.”

Only the most naïve would not recognize this as a threat. Choose not to run and you “can go out with everyone’s respect and esteem.” Choose to run and…well, we can’t be responsible for what might happen in the heat of an aggressive campaign.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has paid attention to politics. Politics is hardball, and the Clintons play major league hardball. Just because Joe is one of the most beloved and sympathetic figures in current politics doesn’t give him immunity. From any attacks, including from a candidate who was bitterly denied her first shot at superstardom.

Ultimately this is what Joe’s still-pending decision is all about. Beau’s death is only one part of a bigger life picture. As for Hillary, the only thing more dangerous than a healthy behemoth is a wounded one. The circumstances of the Democratic nomination are far from as clear as they were just months ago. What is clear is the Clinton vow, this time, to win. High-minded, low-minded, pretty or ugly. If, as promised, it is going to get ugly, Joe must be asking himself whether he wants to be in the middle of it all. Or whether he’d rather enjoy his retirement, untouched by relentless and vicious attacks. Who can blame him, whatever he decides.

Still, as Americans, we don’t appreciate threats, political or otherwise. My guess is that Joe and his millions of supporters and admirers don’t appreciate it either.

Pope Francis, Kim Davis and Caesar

Caesar Coin

Pope Francis tried very hard in his U.S. visit to watch the line between moral guidance that has political effect and politics itself. He appears, maybe unwittingly, to have crossed the line. In a big way.

His visit with Kim Davis belies a misunderstanding of who she is and what she represents. It’s not that freedom of religious conscience is not an important issue. It’s that Kim Davis is the wrong poster person.

It appears from the context that he may have seen her in the line of great conscientious objectors. He reportedly thanked her for her courage and told her to be strong.

Kim Davis does have a religious conscience. And she does object to authorizing same-sex marriages. But there are two problems.

First, unlike true conscientious objectors, she doesn’t really want to suffer for her beliefs. Civil disobedients and conscientious objectors expect to be punished; sometimes they welcome it. But Kim Davis wants to have it both ways. Martin Luther King Jr. did not write in his letter from a Birmingham jail: For God’s sake, let me out of here. As far as we know, Kim Davis didn’t write any letters from her jail, at least not ones that will be in literary anthologies for the next fifty years.

The second problem is that her objection, at its heart, is that the Constitution and the Supreme Court are wrong, and that’s why she gets to keep her job and perform her duties as she sees fit. As a public servant, she is either explicitly by oath or implicitly by understanding sworn to uphold the Constitution. If she chooses not to, she has no privilege to hold that job, nor is she privileged to be free of sanction. That’s it.

Pope Francis, who I have expressed admiration for, may not understand that or the background of the Kim Davis saga. In that event, he should have followed the advice of Jesus in these situations:

‘Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’

Matthew 22:17-21 (NRSV)

For Me To Be A Saint Means To Be Myself: Thomas Merton and Pope Francis

Thomas Merton

In his speech to Congress, Pope Francis put Thomas Merton back in the public light, where he has long belonged as an American spiritual master:

A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a “pointless slaughter”, another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. In his autobiography he wrote: “I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers”. Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.

Pope Francis, like Merton, is a natural. One of those players who finds their game and becomes a star because their nature brought them to it. This doesn’t mean there aren’t struggles on the way to greatness. On the contrary, the unceasing struggles are an essential part of their nature. At first we may be inspired by the worthy message and outward model. But ultimately, when we explore them, it is the dimensions and shading we come to admire. A child’s drawing is all black and white, a simple sketch. A master drafts with subtle and powerful lines and shadows, in which we see so much depth.

The Pope’s regard and mention of Merton in his speech to Congress is also natural. Merton chose to be a cloistered monk, then rebelled against his voluntary and self-imposed discipline. The demands of quiet and obedience to authority clashed with the imperative of a great writer freely writing and a great thinker freely thinking. Not gratuitous and loose writing and thought. Always guided by a compass that pointed both higher and back to an inescapable benevolent source, always grounded in the reality of daily life, strong and weak. That sort of creative independence in calling seems to mark Pope Francis too.

Merton died in 1968, almost exactly a year before Pope Francis was ordained. To say they would have loved to have met is understatement. Like many of us, Pope Francis met Merton in countless books, by and about him. In those writings, we learn that Merton was a mystic and a man. What else are saints anyway? “For me to be a saint is to be myself,” Merton said. We can’t be our better self without being our truer self, our littler self and our bigger self. No divine without human, the most and best human possible. It’s all about love and awareness. So Merton lived and wrote. So Pope Francis echoes in his life and his messages.

If you want to learn more about Merton, see The Thomas Merton Center. Among the overwhelming list of books, consider starting small with these:

Thomas Merton: Essential Writings

Love and Living, a collection of essays from the later days of his life.

An excerpt from Learning to Live, the first essay in Love and Living:

What I am saying is this: the score is not what matters. Life does not have to be regarded as a game in which scores are kept and somebody wins. If you are too intent on winning, you will never enjoy playing. If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted. If a university concentrates on producing successful people, it is lamentably failing in its obligation to society and to the students themselves…

The least of the work of learning is done in classrooms. I can remember scores of incidents, remarks, happenings, encounters that took place all over the campus and sometimes far from the campus: small bursts of light that pointed out my way in the dark of my own identity. For instance, Mark Van Doren saying to me as we crossed Amsterdam Avenue: “Well, if you have a vocation to the monastic life, it will not be possible for you to decide not to enter” (or words to that effect). I grasped at once the existential truth of this statement.

One other scene, much later on. A room in Butler Hall, overlooking some campus buildings. Daisetz Suzuki, with his great bushy eyebrows and the hearing aid that aids nothing. Mihoko, his beautiful secretary, has to repeat everything. She is making tea. Tea ceremony, but a most unconventional one, for there are no rites and no rules. I drink my tea as reverently and attentively as I can. She goes into the other room. Suzuki, as if waiting for her to go, hastily picks up his cup and drains it.

It was at once as if nothing at all had happened and as if the roof had flown off the building. But in reality nothing had happened. A very very old deaf Zen man with bushy eyebrows had drunk a cup of tea, as though with the complete wakefulness of a child and as though at the same time declaring with utter finality: “This is not important!”

The function of a university is to teach a man how to drink tea, not because anything is important, but because it is usual to drink tea, or, for that matter, anything else under the sun. And whatever you do, every act, however small, can teach you everything—provided you see who it is that is acting.