Bob Schwartz

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by R.E.M.

Time I had some time alone.

This track by R.E.M. is old (1987), cryptic, frantic, a cascade of consciousness. Also tuneful and upbeat. Like life.

What did you think the end of the world was going to sound like anyway?

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake
Birds and snakes, and aeroplanes
And Lenny Bruce is not afraid

Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn
World serves its own needs
Don’t mis-serve your own needs
Speed it up a notch, speed, grunt, no, strength
The ladder starts to clatter
With a fear of height, down, height
Wire in a fire, represent the seven games
And a government for hire and a combat site
Left her, wasn’t coming in a hurry
With the Furies breathing down your neck

Team by team, reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped
Look at that low plane, fine, then
Uh oh, overflow, population, common group
But it’ll do, save yourself, serve yourself
World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed
Tell me with the Rapture and the reverent in the right, right
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam fight, bright light
Feeling pretty psyched

Six o’clock, T.V. hour, don’t get caught in foreign tower
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn
Lock him in uniform, book burning, bloodletting
Every motive escalate, automotive incinerate
Light a candle, light a motive, step down, step down
Watch your heel crush, crush, uh oh
This means no fear, cavalier, renegade and steering clear
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine (time I had some time alone)

Mann tracht un COVID-19 lacht (Man plans and COVID-19 laughs)

Mann tracht un Gott lacht.
Man plans and God laughs.
Yiddish proverb

Whether it is in one of the many nations that have responded admirably well to the pandemic or in one that has responded exceptionally poorly (like the U.S.) this much is true:

Detailed plans on how to make institutions and enterprises work—people pretending to make the rules—run straight into the wilful realities of the virus. COVID-19 laughs.

We do know some of the broad basics, and if we can manage to persuade or compel people to universally adopt best practices, we can make progress. But more complex questions, such as how to carry on in particular sectors of business and social life, are proving who and what are in charge.

Opening colleges, opening sports, opening college sports are much in the news, and are just a tiny few of the situations where brilliant scenarios appear good on paper but quickly come to look unworkable in practice.

We should continue to be aware, smart and conscientious. But we should also be prepared for our plans, even if we believe we know something and have thought of everything, to be abandoned. COVID-19 isn’t working with us. It’s laughing at us.

Cassandra talks about the pandemic

Cassandra talks about the pandemic

I made a good breakfast
omelet, home baked toast, coffee
but lunch seems too much work
the fresh of a new morning
ground down by news and poor prospects.

Cassandra was cursed by Apollo to be
a prophetess who would not be believed
all because she refused to love him.

If Cassandra came by
I might make lunch for us
not asking about the pandemic
unless she raised it
but even then
could I believe her?

© Bob Schwartz

Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Tulsa and Watchmen on HBO.

Watchmen, the acclaimed graphic novel, was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. Many, including me, agree. In fall 2019 it was transformed into an HBO series.

It is a complicated story, an alternative history of contemporary America. It is about the role of police and superheroes in turbulent times. It is about the ways we deal with the “others.” It is about the power we grant to authorities so that we can be (or feel) safe, and from that emerges the question alluded to in the title, the question asked in ancient Rome: Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Who watches the watchmen?

As with all transitions from page to screen, creative layers were added for TV. The HBO series is set in Tulsa, and begins with a harrowing depiction of the tragic Tulsa race massacre of 1921, an event that is suddenly receiving renewed and deserved attention.

Watch Watchmen, at the very least the opening scene. Read Watchmen, even if you don’t think of yourself as a graphic novel person. You will come away with new perspective, which is what we ask of art.

You do not have a right to not wear a mask or to drive 100mph

You do not have a “constitutional right” to not wear a mask in public if required by your state or local government. You do not have a “constitutional right” to drive 100mph down any road anytime you choose. .

People who don’t like following public safety measures quickly become armchair lawyers, even if, as may be the case, they have absolutely no real knowledge about law or Constitution. What they know is what they want to do, and they use the Constitution as a magic talisman to claim it.

It’s a free country, they say. But you are not free to drive 100mph if it is determined by authorities that the conduct endangers not only you but everyone else you share the road with. And you are not free to refuse to wear a mask in public if it is determined by authorities that the conduct endangers not only you but everyone else you share the public space with.

It really is that simple. If you choose to act like an irresponsible child in private, that is your business. If you choose to act like an irresponsible child in public, that is everybody’s business, and the Constitution won’t support you.

Reason and absurdity

We are no better off relying on absolute reason than we are abandoning to absurdity.

And yet…

Music: Three Little Birds by Bob Marley

Like others, Bob Marley lived a full life even though it was stopped short too soon. He changed the world. And he can change your world right now.

Three Little Birds

Don’t worry about a thing
‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright
Singing don’t worry about a thing
‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright

Rise up this morning
Smiled with the rising sun
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singing sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true
Saying this is my message to you

Unity is a worthy ideal. But as long as we are divided, the question remains which side you are on.

I am a student of religion, a realm as filled with idealism as any, and more than most. Yet along the long evolving paths to the spiritual ideal has come heated and sometimes bitter divisions about how to get there.

In all areas, it is uncomfortable that the ideal of comity and the conflicts coexist. Serious and stubborn differences arise, and with the conflicting certainties of being right, the better angels give ground to barely disguised demons.

In these times, taking sides matters. We wish there was broader middle ground to come together on, and we work for that, but when the powerful make clear it is them against us—against you—we might must resign ourselves for now to division over the big stuff.

That makes me heartsick, as it may you. Every wise word of peace and unity should be tattooed on our souls. But students of religion recognize that the stories of embodied evil are trying to tell us something. Not that people are bad, because we are reminded they and we are only human. But that powerful people can choose sides based on bad principles and actions. And getting along with them, ceding ground to them, may in some cases be a bridge to nowhere good.

James Baldwin on the future of America

“I can’t be a pessimist. Because I’m alive.”
James Baldwin

The video clip below is included in a recent film about the words of James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro (available on Amazon Prime Video and elsewhere):

Master filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished, Remember This House. The result is a radical, up-to-the-minute examination of race in America, using Baldwin’s original words and flood of rich archival material. I Am Not Your Negro is a journey into black history that connects the past of the Civil Rights movement to the present of #BlackLivesMatter. It is a film that questions black representation in Hollywood and beyond. And, ultimately, by confronting the deeper connections between the lives and assassination of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin and Peck have produced a work that challenges the very definition of what America stands for.

In this clip from 1963, Baldwin talks about the future of America:

“I can’t be a pessimist. Because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So I’m forced to be an optimist. I am forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive. But the Negro in this country…the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives…it is entirely up to the American people, whether or not they’re going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long. What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigga in the first place. Because I’m not a nigga.”

Could We Have Survived a Great Depression?

This post was originally published in March 2012. It was just a few years after the Great Recession and the beginning of the 2012 presidential campaign. The title question “Could We Have Survived a Great Depression” seems somewhat resonant today. It contained two overall thoughts: Creativity matters. Optimism matters. They still do.

The Great Recession did not turn into a(nother) Great Depression, and the prospects of continuing towards prosperity, or at least less economic insecurity, seem good. The big question that we now have a limited luxury to ask is this: Could we have survived a Great Depression? The study of that question may be the most valuable we can make.

The Great Depression has spawned an industry for scholars, historians, and thinkers of all stripes, and that has been a good thing. Systems and people are seen truest at their moments of greatest stress, and hardly anything before or since qualifies

Looking at how we managed to survive the last Great Depression – whether it was leadership and action, the normal cycle correcting a horrific anomaly, the fortunate unfortunate impact of a global war, or all/none of the above – tells us something about how we might handle the next. A couple of small starting points:

Creativity matters. Dismissing creative civic solutions out of hand and out of political pique is something we can never afford, and in the worst times something we should never tolerate. Love him or hate him, FDR got boldly creative, pushing the bounds of constitutionality, convention, and common sense. But when things fall apart as they did, common sense is cold comfort. Herbert Hoover, who was in fact a man of civic accomplishment, lacked the boldness and sense of adventure needed for the unprecedented times.

The question is: At that moment in 2008, if things had gone from bad to worse, would there have been the will to be creative and to try things, even if that meant setting aside ideology and political advantage. The answer is that nothing at the time, and nothing today, tells us that there would have been.

Optimism matters. One of the latest political ads from Rick Santorum depicts a cautionary apocalyptic vision of Obama America, something straight out of the Book of Revelation. During the Great Depression, there was no need for a fanciful version of the Apocalypse; it was already there. Books, songs, and movies painted an accurate vision of hardship, but they also tried for uplift and hope. The best and smartest politicians realized that when the spirit of America was already broken, the last thing people needed was a reminder that things could and might yet get worse. Happy days might not have been there again, as the song said, but there was no point in saying that they never would.

So as with the dismissal of creative solutions, the question is, in the face of a 21st century Great Depression, whether today’s politicians could find a way to set aside the darkness and pessimism for a brighter vision of good times ahead, even if it meant faking optimism, even if it meant losing political advantage. There is little evidence of that.