Bob Schwartz

The American Clown and the Circus Back Office

Circuses aren’t as popular as they once were. But they still offer a lesson we can apply today.

While the spectacular show is going on in the three rings, somewhere else is the boring circus back office. The show is filled with clowns, animals and death-defying acts. The back office is all business.

That is what is going on at the highest levels of American government. The circus features a chief clown, who has us bedazzled and befuddled by a bizarre combination of absurd nonsense and erratic behavior. Behind the scenes, in the back office, there is a disempowering or dismantling of institutions and principles that are foundational America. Those who want that American regress know that a clown is in the center ring, but don’t care as long as people in the audience remain distracted.

Distracted we are by the clown and the circus. Even if we somehow manage to fire the clown, the damage will have been done, and the back office will still be hard at work.


Punishing Patriots Who Protest: I Am Not Sitting Through This Movie Again

Loyal opposition is not just a hallmark of American democracy. It is American democracy.

But whenever opposition becomes protest, and protest becomes uncomfortable and threatening, the quick fix for the simple-minded and reactionary (who don’t actually understand democracy, not really) is to label protest unpatriotic and label protesters traitors.

Many of us in America have had to sit through this movie multiple times. If you add historical incidents—such as the Red Scare of the 1950s—there are many more examples.

The latest is the new National Football League rule that players must stay and stand for the national anthem. They can’t leave the sideline, they can’t kneel, presumably they can’t raise their fists in a power salute. Stand, shut up, and play (dance).

This whole scenario was started by the President, who jumped on this as soon as the issue began last NFL season. His most recent pronouncement was that players who don’t stand for the national anthem are not just unpatriotic—they should leave the country. (The irony of the most un-American President in history—who really should leave the country—is hardly worth mentioning.)

So, no, I really don’t want to sit through this movie again. But just as in the past, there is no choice. In the past, though, American democracy—that amazing combination of Constitution and common sense—prevailed and pulled through, though it took a while. The concern this time, in this and other areas, is that balance has tipping points, and recovery of balance can be a very grueling and questionable process once it is tipped over.

Merton’s Last Year: Wisdom is No Vaccine

I’ve been reading the journals of Thomas Merton, and here is a thought. There is never a level of wisdom and awareness that removes doubt, no matter who you are. Never a level of wisdom and awareness that answers all the questions. Only better doubts and questions, unresolved and unanswered.

If you pay attention, you’ve noticed that people you admire, people you study and may try to emulate, are “only human.” They suffer from physical, psychological or soul problems, just like anybody else. This applies to people who may have served, or are still serving, as spiritual guides.

I’ve been with Thomas Merton a long time, reading him, reading about him, visiting his abbey and his Center. I am well aware of some of the questions and doubts that dogged him, especially about the choices of life he had made. Of course, Merton had pushed the envelope and managed a few tricks that benefited us and him. Entering a cloistered and mostly silent order, he produced thousands of words that reached around the world.

One of the things I have not read enough of are his journals, which he kept for decades, and which occupy seven published volumes. I had read his Asian Journal, which he kept on what was to be his final trip, when he was accidentally killed on December 8, 1968 in Bangkok. Aside from that, I had not read much of the journal of his last year, a time when Merton was more expressly reviewing his life and choices.

Knowing what we know about events, some think that Merton “sensed” he was heading towards an unexpected end. But Merton always knew there was an end, and Merton never stopped investigating, whether he had a few more days or, as we would like, many more years.

I am working my way through the last volume of his journal, covering October 1967 through December 1968 (The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey, The Journals of Thomas Merton Book 7). Along with his valuable observations about America and the world in that tumultuous time, we get close to a great man wondering whether the things he had done, for himself and others (like us), was the best use of a life. An unmarried Catholic monk in rural Kentucky, but also a very worldly man, he wonders about other religious traditions, about getting married, about living in California.

Wisdom does not provide immunity, wisdom is no vaccine. If anything, that is wisdom itself.

Trump v. Kim: Who’s the Sucker?

Trump has been played by Kim of North Korea. Just as he is being played by Putin of Russia. Just as he is being played by Xi of China. Just as smart authoritarian rulers everywhere are lining up to see how to take advantage of him.

It brings up a proverbial thought: If you look around the poker table, and you can’t tell who the sucker is—it’s you.

Whose blood? Whose hands?

Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand. Oh, oh, oh!
Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1

And Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose against Abel his brother and killed him. And the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And He said, “What have you done? Listen! your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil.
Genesis 4:8-10

This was originally drafted in response to this week’s Israeli violence, in which dozens of Palestinian protestors were killed and hundreds wounded.

Then this morning, still another high school shooting, this in Santa Fe, Texas, has left at least nine dead.

Worlds apart, these are related. Whenever ideology and belief result in unnatural deaths, questions should be asked by the zealous ideologues and believers themselves. If they are completely and unconditionally convinced that their belief is worth the mortal price that others pay, then they should proceed. But whether those beliefs are religious or constitutional, they are not relieved by justification from asking the questions: Whose blood? Whose hands? Because they know—or should—that the blood is on theirs. They are the keepers of their brothers, sisters and children. Even if they don’t listen or want to listen, or they make loud excuses or evasions, the blood cries out.

Artificial Tears

Artificial Tears

Tears won’t come naturally.
The eyes dry out
Like rainless desert,
Lids in rhythmic arc
Abrade instead of soothe and cleanse.
Tears in a bottle.
Actors cry on demand
Artificial tears instead of flowing
From single or shared sorrow
Or joy or the rough reality of days
Rubbing and scratching
The solitude of morning.
This is no act.


Proof of Dreams

Proof of Dreams

The dreams of last night’s sleep
Are as real and present
As this morning’s coffee.
Otherwise how could they
Poke and tug and shake
As we move on and say
They are over.


Democrats: Micah 2020

Dana Milbank writes in today’s Washington Post:

Hey Democrats! What’s the big idea? No, really. What’s the big idea?

A dozen possible Democratic presidential candidates assembled at a downtown Washington hotel Tuesday for one of the first cattle calls of the 2020 campaign. The good news: There were, on that stage, all of the personal qualities and policy ideas needed to defeat President Trump. The bad news: These qualities and ideas were not in any one person….

For November’s midterm elections, it may be enough for Democrats to say they are against Trump. Congressional Democratic leaders took a stab at a unified agenda for 2018 — “A Better Deal” — and were roundly mocked by progressives.

But to beat Trump, they’ll need more. Trump convinced tens of millions of Americans that they are losing ground because of immigrants, racial and religious minorities, and foreigners. What will Democrats advance to counter that grim message?

Given how lost the Democrats are (and how that might lead to further losing), I suggest that they consider the Bible. Not the weaponized, sectarian and exclusionary interpretation of the Bible that is so popular with selfish and heartless ideologues. But the Bible that demands humane conduct—something that we see slipping away election by election, day by day (and that means you too, Democrats).

The prophet Micah is a great touchstone. The revealed solution for an aggrieved people does not involve greater piety, more sacrifices, or brutal nationalism. All that is required is justice, goodness and humility:

With what shall I approach the Lord,
Do homage to God on high?
Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings,
With calves a year old?

Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
With myriads of streams of oil?
Shall I give my first-born for my transgression,
The fruit of my body for my sins?

“He has told you, O man, what is good,
And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk modestly with your God;
Then will your name achieve wisdom.”

Micah 6:6-9 (NJPS)

Micah is not available to run in an election. But justice, goodness and humility are always available as a platform.

The Slippery Slope Philosophy: How Israel Is Like the NRA

Israel is under real existential threat. The modern state exists because a portion of modern Jewry was not only under existential threat, but actually found itself decimated. This is incontrovertible. Not again, never again.

But existential threat offers possibilities and opportunities. You can engage in deep, serious, measured and open consideration of exactly what that means and how to respond. Or you can treat is a license to do anything, and to reject and attack all those—even Jews—who suggest you can’t necessarily do anything. Giving a moral inch is giving a moral mile, and it is a slippery slope. This is currently Israel’s posture.

This is precisely the position of the National Rifle Association regarding guns and the Second Amendment. It is all or nothing. Even a hint that the Second Amendment might be conditional is dangerous. The next thing you know, “they” will be coming around to take your guns. That can’t be allowed to happen, no matter how many people are killed or injured, how many innocent lives ruined, in the meantime.

Sorting through values is hard work, and the conclusions can be inconvenient and costly.  Easier to deal with absolutes. That way, you can sleep righteously and soundly, without worrying about the victims of your carelessness.

Trump v. Moses: Grievances Win Over Vision

People can be complainers. Grievances can be powerful. Just ask Trump. Or Moses.

Prior freedom and miracles were not enough for the Jews at Mount Sinai. While Moses goes up the mountain, for what turns out to be a monumental visionary moment, the people head in an entirely different direction. They are still chronically unhappy and complaining about their lives and the way things have been going, and so engage in all sorts of crazy behavior. In that story, the vision does end up prevailing, but only after lots more tzuris (troubles) and mishegas (craziness).

The only chance for vision to prevail over grievance is for there to be an actual coherent and enlightened vision, and for there to be widespread confidence among people in that actual vision. Otherwise people, who are just human, will complain—sometimes selfishly and shortsightedly, sometimes justifiably. And they will channel those complaints into strange behaviors and choices.

In America, there are a lot of people with grievances. And there is a vision vacuum, at least among those whose supposed structural mission is to be practical visionaries (for example, Democrats and religious institutions). Even with miracles behind him, Moses had a tough time. Without miracles or vision, in elections and at other times, we may be seeing a lot more golden calves.