Bob Schwartz

Thanksgiving for Refugees

No discussion of why millions of people find themselves displaced from home and country. No discussion of where they might go or who will welcome them or who won’t. No discussion of whether there might be terrorists hiding among them or whether circumstances will transform some of them into terrorists.

It is Thanksgiving. You might be thankful that you are not one of them. You might remind yourself that whatever your position and ideology, all the political stuff, nonsense and blah-blah-blah won’t ease a moment of suffering and uncertainty for these refugees.

It is Thanksgiving. Give to the UN Refugee Agency.

War on ISIS: You Can’t Ask About Boots on the Ground Without Asking About the Draft

No poll about sending ground troops to fight ISIS—or anywhere else—is complete without asking questions about the military draft.

A recent NBC News poll taken after the events in Paris asked:

Would you support or oppose the United States sending additional ground troops to fight ISIS (Islamic militants) in Iraq and Syria?

Strongly support: 33%
Somewhat support: 32%
Somewhat oppose: 18%
Strongly oppose: 13%
DK/NA: 3%

The following questions should be added:

Do you have any family members in the eligible age range for Selective Service registration, between ages 18 and 25?

If a military draft was put in place by Congress, would you support or oppose the United States sending additional ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

If your representative in Congress voted in favor of a military draft, would you be more likely or less likely to vote for them in the next election?

(That age range is based on the current requirement for men between 18 and 25 to register with Selective Service. At various times, the draft has covered a much wider range, all the way up to age 45.)

If a military draft was in place, the support for ground troops would likely plummet, if respondents were honest (which they sometimes aren’t). If the mandatory service included women—as it does in Israel, the darling of conservatives—the support number might approach zero. Especially if respondents/voters weren’t sure they could pull strings to get their loved ones out of serving.

Any member of Congress who voted in favor of a military draft, men only or men and women, is almost assured of losing the next election.

This is no way diminishes regard and thanks for the extraordinary valor and service of those who voluntary choose to serve in any military action. This is simply to suggest that those who righteously support such actions in the abstract might have a very different opinion when they, to put it bluntly, crudely and literally, have precious skin in the game.

My Cheap Blank Tablet, My Tabula Rasa

I’ve started keeping a tiny blank black chalkboard on my desk, next to a stick of white chalk.

It is also known as a tablet. But I am not confused between it and the three other devices on my desk that have the same name, though it is just about the same size. This one cost about two dollars at Walmart and stays fully charged and useful forever. As long as I don’t run out of chalk. The others were substantially more expensive and need constant electrification.

There are the expressions “clean slate” or “blank slate.” Clean slate indicates that all is forgotten or forgiven, that one is starting over. Blank slate indicates thought that starts without prior or preconceived ideas.

In Latin it is tabula rasa, a clean, erased, or literally scraped tablet, based on wax writing tablets used by the Romans. Aristotle used this as a philosophical concept, as did John Locke.

I draw circles on it. I draw lines on it. It doesn’t have room for many words, just one or two, so I don’t do much writing on it. I do that on the other fancier tablets. Whatever I do chalk there, I always erase. Blank, for the next time.

It May Not Be Politically Correct to Talk About It, But Is Donald Trump Mentally Healthy?

Donald Trump says he saw something that nobody else did: people in Jersey City cheering as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11.

From the Washington Post:

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says he saw people cheering the Sept. 11 attacks across the river in New Jersey — a claim officials strongly deny.

Trump first told the story Saturday at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, as he pressed the need for greater surveillance, including monitoring certain mosques, in the wake of the Paris attacks.

“I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering,” Trump said Saturday at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama.

Trump repeated the assertion Sunday in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week,” as Stephanopoulos explained to Trump that police had refuted any such rumors at the time.

“It did happen. I saw it,” said Trump. “It was on television. I saw it.”

“There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down,” he said.

“I know it might be not politically correct for you to talk about it,” he added, “but there were people cheering as that building came down, as those buildings came down. And that tells you something.”

It comes down to two possibilities.

One is that Trump is just saying stuff and making up stuff for political benefit. Pretty outrageous stuff, but it’s been working for him so far. There have long been internet rumors to this effect, but every possible objective source—police, news media, even Republican politicians—deny it ever happened. But it is a rumor that is a definite winner among certain constituencies.

Or. There is something creepily genuine about Trump’s profession of belief in this. He saw it on television, he says, even though it was never on television. Which means that maybe, just maybe, Donald Trump has a problem. A psychological one. People do and say all kinds of things that cross all kinds of lines—ethical, moral, criminal—without having mental illness. On the other hand, it would not be that surprising for someone who has skated for so long on the edge of saying whatever is needed—very successfully and profitably—to cross a boundary to the place where things that never happened do appear to have happened. All evidence to the contrary.

If Princeton Expunges Segregationist Woodrow Wilson, Why Not Expunge All Presidential Slave Owners?

Princeton University is considering the demands of activists who want the legacy of Woodrow Wilson expunged from the university.

Woodrow Wilson was President of Princeton, Governor of New Jersey, and President of the United States. He was also a Democratic progressive in many areas. Not as progressive as his presidential opponent in the 1912 presidential election, former President and Progressive Party candidate Teddy Roosevelt. Wilson, for example, was friendly with Wall Street and opposed some financial reforms. (Sound like any current Democratic Party candidate we know?).

Wilson was also a man of his time and place. He was a Southerner and a segregationist, at a time when segregation was legally sanctioned. That isn’t an excuse for maintaining and promoting injustice, just a fact. That he might be less enlightened than current leaders by modern standards goes without saying. But given all the rest, it does not seem the stuff of an indictment.

If there is validity to the demands, then there is no principled reason not to expunge the legacy of all slave-owning Presidents from all settings. After all, slavery is undoubtedly a greater transgression than segregation.

Here’s the list:

Owned slaves while President

George Washington
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
Andrew Jackson
John Tyler
James K. Polk
Zachary Taylor

Owned slaves but not while President

Martin Van Buren
William Henry Harrison
Andrew Johnson
Ulysses S Grant

Let’s admit that as national leaders, some of these slave-owning Presidents are more historically benign and popular than others. (We are looking at you, Andrew Jackson.) Even so, if you eliminate the ones whose legacy is now considered shady, you’re still left with some pretty worthy and venerated individuals—including, of course, the father of our country.

No one is saying that Woodrow Wilson is a George Washington, a James Madison, or a James Monroe. But if you’re going to start making principled distinctions, trade-offs and excuses, it’s impossible to know where to begin.

And that is the slippery slope we really don’t want to walk near. Which leaves us with the choice of leaving certain appropriately contextualized history behind, and making things better going forward. Or taking down the legacy of all of them, Washington, et al., because we want history to be thoroughly cleansed of its dark stains.

As if, Princeton and its activists. As if.

There Goes the Brain Surgeon Stereotype Again

Ben Carson has provided ample evidence that the legendary skill and knowledge of some brain surgeons might be limited to brain surgery.

But even those who don’t think he is up to the job of President still were giving him credit for sensitivity and compassion, demonstrated by his great work as a doctor and by his sincere profession of Christian faith.

Along with his knowledge, that compassion—or at least his role as a compassionate communicator—is now in question.

Here’s what Reuters reports Carson said about Syrian refugees:

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson on Thursday likened refugees fleeing violence in Syria to “rabid dogs,” and said that allowing them into the United States would put Americans at risk.

“If there is a rabid dog running around your neighborhood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog,” Carson, a front-runner in some opinion polls, said Thursday at a campaign event in Mobile, Alabama.

“By the same token, we have to have in place screening mechanisms that allow us to determine who the mad dogs are, quite frankly,” the retired neurosurgeon said, criticizing President Barack Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees within a year.

You might give him the benefit of the doubt. He seems to be talking about the bad refugees who are foaming at the mouth, not all of them. You might say that he is just tone-deaf and chose a completely terrible metaphor to make his point. You might think he is just trying to out-Trump Trump.

But what it really shows is that even if he is just an ill-informed and reckless communicator, which pretty much disqualifies him to lead the U.S. and the free world, that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that if you ask, as I’m sure he does, what would Jesus do and what would he say about it, there is no chance it would sound anything like that.

What Fear and an Abundance of Caution Look Like

On Tuesday, a few days after Paris, a woman on a Spirit Airlines flight waiting to leave BWI panicked when she saw a man, apparently Middle Eastern, watching a news report on his phone. She went to the back of the plane with her child, reported the man, and then he and three others were taken off the plane, questioned, and released.

You might have missed this underreported incident, so here is an extended excerpt from the Baltimore Sun report:

The four people removed Tuesday morning from a Spirit Airlines flight from BWI to Chicago amid concerns about a threat were released without charges after being questioned, Maryland Transportation Authority police said.

A female passenger told the flight crew she saw suspicious activity, which turned out to be someone watching a news report on a smartphone, said Sgt. Jonathan Green, a spokesman for the authority’s police department, which patrols the airport.

“Everything added up to create a situation where she felt concerned,” Green said of the witness. “Everything was done in the interest of safety.”

Spirit Flight 969 was taxiing before takeoff when the passenger alerted a flight attendant, Spirit Airlines said.

“Out of an abundance of caution, the plane returned to the gate,” the airline said.

Officers removed three men and a woman from the flight, Green said. He said those passengers included a married couple, who were traveling with a family member, and a male passenger sitting near them.

Green declined to identify the people removed, including whether they were of Middle Eastern descent, as several other passengers described them….

Moments later, the pilot told passengers over the intercom that the plane was returning to the gate.

“We get back, and two police officers come onto the plane,” Farella said. The officers asked three men and a woman to follow them off the plane, she said. All of the passengers were evacuated later so the plane could be searched, Farella said.

Transportation Security Administration rescreened all of the baggage on the flight, including the bags of the four passengers who were pulled off, said TSA spokesman Mike England. “No threat was found,” he said.

One of the mantras that has been repeated after 9/11—but goes back to the world wars—is if you see something, say something. But this has never meant: If you see anything, say anything.

Under the most normal circumstances (if there is such a thing) different people are more or less fearful of different things. And under those circumstances, when that fear seems very irrational and ungrounded in reality, we might even label it neurotic or pathological. As in paranoia.

When circumstances change, as with actual or perceived terror threats, the measuring stick changes. We not only allow for heightened vigilance; we encourage it.

A lot of people carry around a bit of fear and a bit of intolerance and prejudice. Sometimes they are self-aware about it, sometimes not. Most manage to keep it in check, because life goes on, and because expressing those fears and prejudices is not universally acceptable.

Events like Paris take the lid right off that container. It isn’t surprising that ordinary people have trouble figuring out just how far to go with it. But we do expect experts—airline security, police—to bring some discernment to the situation.

In this case, it is hard to see how a man watching a phone constitutes even the tiniest evidence of a problem. If the woman told someone that was all she saw, the airline and the police should have exercised their own discretion, right then. And if the woman misreported what she saw, we might think she was misperceiving because of her own fear or actually just making things up.

The worst conclusion to reach, but one we’ve already lived through with 9/11, is that anytime a Middle Eastern type is reported to be doing anything that in any way could be construed by anybody as troubling, it will be the subject of suspicion, investigation, and detention.

Which isn’t surprising. Which will be familiar not only to Middle Eastern types, but to black people as well. And which isn’t an abundance of caution. It is just plain old prejudice.

About About

The About page of this blog has been revised.

The previous version of the page was, I have to admit, pathetically brief and uninformative. Especially for someone who regularly turns out thousands of words on any topic under the sun.

So if you are a regular reader of the blog, and are curious to find out a little more, feel free to check it out. If you think that you already know enough, or know too much, or can’t be bothered, no worries. I completely understand.

Thanks for reading and telling others if you like what you read.

Defeating ISIS: Lessons from the American and Israeli Wars of Independence

We can’t “defeat” ISIS. Not if that means declaring “victory” over Middle East-based Muslim radicalism and terror.

There are lessons from the American and Israeli Wars of Independence. This isn’t to suggest any moral equivalence comparing those world-changing events to the monstrosity of ISIS. But there are things to learn.

Both Wars of Independence were attempts to upend empire and established order and create a new model (both uprisings, not coincidentally, involving the British). Both were insurgencies by True Believers, one political and economic, one religious. Both are examples of the power of the heart, because the heart not only wants what the heart wants, it will do anything to get what the heart wants. True belief will find a way.

The British thought that their massive and formal force would roll right over the Americans. They did not count on all sorts of stealthy and tricky techniques, on secret communications, on a guerilla war. Mostly, the British didn’t account for the depth of American commitment: hearts and minds and souls. It may not always work that way, but competitions often go, simply, to the side that just wants it more. And that would be the Americans.

The British were never quite sure what they were doing in Palestine. But they did know something about world order and keeping order. Besides, some Brits didn’t much like the Jews anyway. The Zionists believed, literally, that they had God on their side. As far as hearts and minds and souls getting what they want, doing anything to win did mean the occasional act of terror (for example, the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, leaving 96 dead). As far as who wanted it more, the founders of the modern Jewish state not only defeated the British, but turned back all attempts by hate-fueled neighbors to root them out.

In the aftermath of Paris, just as with 9/11 and other recent terrible events, if we keep talking simplistically about “defeating”, “eliminating” or “building American-style democracy”, we are—there’s no other way to say this—fools. We should eliminate and prevent horror, terror and monstrosity wherever and whenever we can. But if we think that the toxic mixture of true belief, grievance and pathology is just going to vanish because we are purer and more powerful, that would be funny if it weren’t so sad and dangerous.

If you don’t think that hearts, minds and souls matter when it comes to extremism, just look at the sorry record of irresolute and wasteful wars when we ignore that. We may feel righteous and superior, and want to vindicate civilization. But that doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to be smart. Smart about what we face, what we can accomplish and how to accomplish it. So we can do some good, and do less harm.

A Room by the River

A room sits
Alone by the river
Windows open.
Wind flows through
Water flows by.
I wake and sleep
To the wonder of
Water and wind.
The sounds of wonder
The words of wonder
No words of wind and water