Bob Schwartz

Month: August, 2012

Judge Richard Posner: “I’ve Become Less Conservative Since The Republican Party Started Becoming Goofy.”

Last month, Judge Richard Posner of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago gave an interview to NPR’s Nina Totenberg.

Richard Posner is one of the most widely-respected judges and legal analysts in the country. Brilliant and forthright, he is admired by people across the political spectrum for his integrity, insight and elegant reasoning.

He has traditionally been identified as a conservative and with the Milton Friedman school of economics, but lately he has been reassessing that alignment:

“There’s been a real deterioration in conservative thinking. And that has to lead people to re-examine and modify their thinking….I’ve become less conservative since the Republican Party started becoming goofy.”

During the interview, he wondered aloud about what Chief Justice John Roberts must be thinking, having gone from conservative hero to goat because of his vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act:

“All of a sudden you find out that the people you thought were your friends have turned against you, they despise you, they mistreat you, they leak to the press. What do you do? Do you become more conservative? Or do you say, ‘What am I doing with this crowd of lunatics?’”

One of life’s more subtle and hard-to-accept lessons is this: You may think that you are known by the esteemed company you keep, but you do well to pay close attention to the esteemed company you lose.

The Body Electric: Mitt Romney and Walt Whitman

Those who love America and poetry should love Walt Whitman. So should Mitt Romney.

Just as the Civil War was a dividing line in our history, Whitman was the line in poetry and culture. His lyrical innovation and his exuberant celebration of all things human and exciting—including sex and beautiful bodies—limited appreciation by nineteenth century readers. If Whitman seemed out of place then, he is right at home now:

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful—for freest action form’d, under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.

Why should Mitt Romney care about Walt Whitman?

Whitman was more than just an expert on being himself and singing about himself. He recognized that constancy and consistency is not a part of the artist’s makeup. And so he wrote the mantra for all those who stand so accused:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

Romney should also care as a student of the Presidency. The most memorable poems about an American President (and there are surprisingly few) were written by Whitman. On the death of Abraham Lincoln, he wrote not one but two famous elegies that are still read and recited today.

From O Captain My Captain:

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

From When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d:

WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,             5
And thought of him I love.

Finally, while Mitt Romney may have never read the poem I Sing the Body Electric, there is an extraordinary scene in the third verse. It is a pastoral picture of a tall older man—fifteen years older than Romney—standing with his five grown sons. He is deeply beloved for who he is and what he has done. It is not just the way that Mitt Romney wants to be seen; it may be the way he is seen by those who do know and love him:

I know a man, a common farmer—the father of five sons;
And in them were the fathers of sons—and in them were the fathers of sons.

This man was of wonderful vigor, calmness, beauty of person;
The shape of his head, the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, and the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes—the richness and breadth of his manners,
These I used to go and visit him to see—he was wise also;
He was six feet tall, he was over eighty years old—his sons were massive, clean, bearded, tan-faced, handsome;
They and his daughters loved him—all who saw him loved him;
They did not love him by allowance—they loved him with personal love;
He drank water only—the blood show’d like scarlet through the clear-brown skin of his face;
He was a frequent gunner and fisher—he sail’d his boat himself—he had a fine one presented to him by a ship-joiner—he had fowling-pieces, presented to him by men that loved him;
When he went with his five sons and many grand-sons to hunt or fish, you would pick him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang.

You would wish long and long to be with him—you would wish to sit by him in the boat, that you and he might touch each other.

“I Shook The Hand Of The American Dream”: Rick Santorum And The Weirdness Of The Tortured And Overextended Metaphor

This is about Rick Santorum speaking at the Republican National Convention. But it is not about politics.

It is about rhetoric, as in writing and speechifying.

Rick Santorum is a fearless stylist. Some of us love sweater vests, and were happy to see someone so openly and proudly wearing them.

But as a speaker, his RNC speech, while obviously heartfelt and clearly partisan, contained an over-the-top device that all writers and all speakers and just about any communicator needs to avoid: the tortured and overextended metaphor.

To begin with, metaphors are tricky for anybody, even the most seasoned writer. When a metaphor is off by more than a little, the term we use to describe it is “torturned.”

Beyond the tortured metaphor is the extended one. Even an apt metaphor gets its strength from its ability to surprise and hook our imagination. Like all great moments, it is here and should soon be gone. The extended metaphor milks that moment dry.

And so without further ado, this excerpt from Rick Santorum’s speech:

America is still the greatest country in the world – and with God’s help and good leadership we can restore the American Dream.


I held its hand. I shook the hand of the American Dream. And it has a strong grip.

I shook hands of farmers and ranchers who made America the bread basket of the world. Hands weathered and worn. And proud of it.

I grasped dirty hands with scars that come from years of labor in the oil and gas fields, mines and mills. Hands that power and build America and are stewards of the abundant resources that God has given us.

I gripped hands that work in restaurants and hotels, in hospitals, banks, and grocery stores. Hands that serve and care for all of us.

I clasped hands of men and women in uniform and their families. Hands that sacrifice and risk all to protect and keep us free. And hands that pray for their safe return home.

I held hands that are in want. Hands looking for the dignity of a good job, hands growing weary of not finding one but refusing to give up hope.

And finally, I cradled the little, broken hands of the disabled. Hands that struggle and bring pain, hands that ennoble us and bring great joy.

“I shook the hand of the American dream…. Hands looking for the dignity of a good job…And finally, I cradled the little, broken hands of the disabled.”

While Rick Santorum may be wrong on the issues, he has proved himself a man of conscience and conviction (maybe one of the reasons he failed to get his party’s nomination). But as a speaker, the image of those hands with eyes wide open, looking for a good job, may be one that sticks with us.

The Romneys And The Regular People

Wild speculation continues to spin about what the Romneys don’t want to reveal in their tax returns. Low tax rates? Offshore investments? Questionable tax shelters?

Following Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation is that they simply don’t want to bolster what we already know: the Romneys are not regular people. We have seen glimpses of that in the little bits of disclosure, but year after year of low-tax ultra-income would just make the point more overwhelming and concrete.

Ann Romney seems to be a good person who has been a good wife and mother. She has suffered from health problems, maybe more than her fair share. Compassion demands that we regard that suffering without criticism and with open-hearted empathy.

But her speech to the Republican National Convention was ridiculous in the literal sense. She talked about the plight of regular people as if she had long-time close relationships with lots of them and had deep, first-hand understanding of their struggles. Anything is possible, but that is far-fetched. There is nothing wrong with the Romneys’ life. People are entitled to their lives and experiences; sometimes it’s not even a matter of choice when those rarefied lives are foist on them by circumstances.

Over the years that Mitt Romney has clumsily been running for President, pundits of both parties have offered a simple solution to him and, presumably, to his wife: just be yourself, whoever that is. America hates phonies. The Republicans ought to know this, given how often they charge President Obama with that crime.

Mitt Romney is not a regular person, and has never been. Neither is Ann. Maybe you can win the Presidency as an openly stratospherically rich and out of touch person, maybe you can’t. But watching someone try so hard to hide that is not only poor politics, it is downright depressing.

Donald Trump, The Birth Certificate And The WMDs

Donald Trump continues to pump up the question of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, even on the eve of the Republican National Convention. In fact, the big “surprise” he has in store for the convention may have something to do with that (publication of the President’s “actual” birth certificate, perhaps?)

There are two sides to the question of Barack Obama’s birth: one small group that seemingly refuses to accept the reality that he was born in the United States, and one very large group—including plenty of Republicans—who can’t understand how there is a small group still denying that reality.

This is all about reality, and the way that politics deals with it.

The underlying truth about the curious stubbornness of “birther” partisans is not that they deny the President was born in Hawaii. It’s that they deny and refuse to accept that he is the President, wherever he was actually born. They will never be satisfied by any proof that Barack Obama wasn’t born outside the United States, because as a necessary political matter, he really was born outside.

We faced a similar issue nine years ago. In the prelude to the Iraq War, two possible realities fought it out, and there were large numbers of both believers and skeptics about the reality of WMDs, which was the casus belli. Some circumstantial evidence was offered for their existence, which didn’t quite satisfy a number of reasonable people. But as a political matter, WMDs had to exist, and since there was no way of definitively answering the question short of invasion, invade we did. All these years later, there is broad consensus that there were no WMDs. But that hasn’t stopped a small but durable band of believers from still insisting that they were there, because as a political matter they have to have been. For them, there will never be enough proof to the contrary.

It may not seem like it in the midst of this election season, but politics actually has some good uses. Denying reality is not one of them. Politics is supposed to serve reality, not the other way around.

Movies: Force of Evil

The overlooked movie Force of Evil (1948)  is one of the most striking creative critiques of big business in any medium. It was produced by the major, decidedly capitalistic studio MGM, and it featured one of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time, John Garfield, in what many consider his greatest performance. A standout of intelligent film noir, it has a brilliant and poetic script, written and directed by Abraham Polonsky.

Garfield is still a celebrated name in movies. Polonsky is more narrowly known, mostly among film historians. Shortly after Force of Evil, both Polonsky and Garfield were blacklisted in the craze of anti-Communist McCarthyism that swept the movie industry. Polonsky would not work again for twenty-one years.

There are two kinds of political movies. One is expressly and directly about political issues. The other kind—the one that so worried Commie-hunters—are films that look entertaining on the surface, but have a subversive and counter-cultural subtext. Force of Evil is a sort of third wave. You can watch it as a well-acted and engaging melodrama, which it is. But at some points, the politics explicitly but gracefully rises above subtext, in a way that is mostly undidactic, so it doesn’t get in the way of enjoying and appreciating the movie. It is quite a trick that Polonsky pulls off.

One of the archetypes of storytelling is the two brothers who end up on opposite sides of the law—Cain and Abel, the cop and the gangster. In this movie, both brothers are on the wrong side, just on a different scale. Leo is small-time, running a modest numbers betting business. (Numbers, sometimes called the policy racket, is an illegal lottery, long popular in low-income neighborhoods. Small bets are placed on the last three digits of the daily betting take at a race track; the odds are thus 1000 to 1.)  Joe (John Garfield), the younger brother who Leo helped put through Harvard Law, works for Ben, one of the biggest racketeers in New York.

Joe wants to make his first million, and he believes he will thanks to an ingenious plan to rig the outcome of the numbers on the Fourth of July. Since bettors often pick the numbers 776 on Independence Day, when that number comes up, the bettors will win for a change, but all the small-time numbers operators will go out of business, and be taken over by Ben. It is a strategy of forced, one-sided, underhanded mergers. (That’s right, the corrupt big business will play its dirty tricks on the slightly less corrupt small businesses—and on the innocent poor people—on the Fourth of July.)

Joe tries to save his brother by bringing him over to the bigger, richer and slightly darker side. But there are few heroes here. Events overtake characters, and in the end everyone, including a rival boss, is dead—except for Joe and the young woman he loves. While not exactly a happy ending, this outcome led some to complain that this sort of redemption was inconsistent with the rest of the movie. Maybe so, but this was made by one of the world’s biggest movie studios, and anyway, we all deserve a break in the face of this bleakness.

Bleak it may be, but Force of Evil is not some sort of dull lesson in ideology. It is a great, entertaining and rarely-seen film that deserves attention, whatever your politics.

Hints For Hurricane Watchers

In 2005 we became a nation of hurricane watchers. We couldn’t help it: there were so many Atlantic hurricanes and tropical storms that season that the National Hurricane Center ran out of names:

Tropical Storm ARLENE
Tropical Storm BRET
Hurricane CINDY
Hurricane DENNIS
Hurricane EMILY
Tropical Storm FRANKLIN
Tropical Storm GERT
Tropical Storm HARVEY
Hurricane IRENE
Tropical Depression TEN
Tropical Storm JOSE
Hurricane KATRINA
Tropical Storm LEE
Hurricane MARIA
Hurricane NATE
Hurricane OPHELIA
Hurricane PHILIPPE
Hurricane RITA
Tropical Depression NINETEEN
Hurricane STAN
Tropical Storm TAMMY
Subtropical Depression TWENTY-TWO
Hurricane VINCE
Hurricane WILMA
Tropical Storm ALPHA
Hurricane BETA
Tropical Storm GAMMA
Tropical Storm DELTA
Hurricane EPSILON
Tropical Storm ZETA

It turned out to be a season of devastation, not the least of which was the still-resonating aftermath of Katrina. One of the upshots was political: the memorable and controversial response of President George W. Bush to Katrina (“heck of a job, Brownie”) still sticks to him as a mark on his Presidency.

Hurricanes and politics are back again, this time as Isaac heads toward a possible disruption of the Republican Convention in Tampa.

For those who experienced Hurricanes 2005 firsthand, checking the 5:00am advisory on the National Hurricane Center website became a ritual—as did checking the 11:00am, 2:00pm, 5:00pm, 8:00pm, 11:00pm and 2:00am advisories. Besides the text descriptions from “Forecaster Avila” and “Forecaster Franklin” there were the maps.

The maps provided a wealth of graphical information, including the famous “Uncertainty Cone.” This is a prediction, three and five days out, of the broad possible route of the storm, including possible timeline and strength. The cone is meant to catch the attention of all areas that might be subject to the storm’s dynamic path.

That cone is in turn based on very sophistical computer modeling of how storms behave. There are at least eight different guidance models used by forecasters, all them with a different record of successful prediction. Sometimes the models are close to each other, especially as the late life of a storm. But often the models are widely divergent. On a map, these tracks are represented by colored lines; they look like, and are sometimes called, spaghetti tracks.

Maps of uncertainty cones and advisories are still available for viewing on the NHC site, along with educational briefings and a fascinating and exhaustive history of storm seasons past. But something has gone away, as NHC explains:

The National Hurricane Center does not generate a graphic of the guidance models it uses to produce its forecasts. Such graphics have the potential to confuse users and to undermine the effectiveness of NHC official tropical cyclone forecasts and warnings.

NHC is right. If you don’t recognize that one track is more reliable than another, especially in light of current conditions, you could easily jump to an ill-informed conclusion. However, those who don’t have a degree in meteorology but who do have an unofficial certificate in hurricane tracking (those hours in front of the computer in the middle of the night have to be good for something) still love to watch those colored lines squiggle around the map.

If you are watching Isaac, visit the National Hurricane Center website. And then, if you dare to and can watch responsibly, check out the models for yourself. One of the best places to find them is here—which happens to be, by chance or fate, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, just about an hour from Janesville.

Why Compassion Matters

On August 4, in a hospital just a few miles from where this post is being written, John Wise, 66, snuck into the room where his wife Barbara, 65, was lying. They had been married for 45 years. She was suffering, reports indicate, from a triple aneurysm, and her prognosis appears to have been poor. He ended her life, shooting her in the head, though she did not die until the next day. His plan to shoot himself immediately after that was thwarted when his gun jammed. This week, he was charged with aggravated murder and faces life in prison without parole.

This has raised, not for the first or last time, the issue of mercy killing in the face of untreatable illness and declining quality of life. With an aging and ailing population, whether it is our family or ourselves, this goes each passing day from the abstract to the very real.

You can deal with this on an intellectual and practical level, weighing moral and legal issues, determining what you might do or ask others to do under a variety of circumstances. But hearing this story, the most natural thing is to cry. Not out of any failure to resolve those issues, but out of sheer compassion.

Compassion is what matters. All of our spiritual traditions commend it, but maybe none makes it more plainly central than Buddhism. The first truth of Buddhism is the reality of suffering; all else in how we are to live stems from this.

The story is told of a woman whose child had died. She came to the Buddha, who instructed her to visit neighbors and to return with a mustard seed from a house that had not been touched by death. She came back empty handed. This wasn’t to make her feel “better,” which it couldn’t. This was to help her see herself where she was, a living drop in the sea of suffering.

Compassion is more than walking in another’s shoes, more than the Golden Rule, more than “no man is an island.” It is the deepest possible recognition, beyond words, of the need that universal suffering creates. The need to care unconditonally.

If compassion is present in our lives and our politics, whatever we do cannot be completely wrong. If compassion is absent, nothing we do can be right, no matter how good it is meant to seem.

The One The Only The Real Hank Williams

Sometimes something good can come from something bad.

Somebody wearing the ill-fitting name Hank Williams has been going around saying nasty things about President Obama (he’s a Muslim, he hates America). Despite that name being a few sizes too big for him, it appears he has somehow managed to have some success as a musician and as the son of a more famous father. But as with the name, the shoes are also way too big to fill.

Hank Williams (1923-1953) was one of the great musical artists and folk poets in America. He died too young at the age of 29, but had already produced songs that entertained millions and inspire musicians fifty years after his death. His songs have been covered by scores of artists as diverse as Al Green, Beck, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, George Thorogood, Keb’ Mo’, Keith Richards, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Petty.

If you haven’t heard of Hank Williams, you are missing something. If you haven’t heard him, because you “don’t like country music”, you are missing something. Don’t believe it? Believe the Pulitzer Prize Board, which in 2010 awarded him a Special Citation for “his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life.”

So if someone named Hank Williams, Jr. is going around badmouthing the President, what good can come of that?

Just this: In the midst of looking around for things to say about Hank Williams, a brand new independent film came to light. The Last Ride is the story of a fateful trip. Hank Williams was heading out for a series of concerts to end in Canton, Ohio on New Year’s Day 1953. Bad weather prevented flying, so a college student was hired to drive him from Nashville to the concerts. Before reaching Ohio, on January 1, Williams died in West Virginia. Last Ride is the story of that trip. The film has already been screened in New York and Los Angeles, and later this week can be seen in Nashville, Dallas, Seattle and Bakersfield.

There’s plenty of Hank Williams music around. Give it a listen. Because if the only Hank Williams you know about is the Junior who seems so out of touch with reality, there’s someone to discover. Hank Williams—the one the only—was nothing but real.

Hear the lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry

I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide its face and cry

Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die
That means he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry

Mene Mene in Tampa

We should not be surprised by the latest craziness in the Republican campaign. Anything seems possible. Even the mysterious appearance of a finger writing something like this on the wall of a $5,000-a-plate fundraiser:


According to ancient reporting:

King Belshazzar made a great festival for a thousand of his lords, and he was drinking wine in the presence of the thousand.

Under the influence of the wine, Belshazzar commanded that they bring in the vessels of gold and silver that his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. So they brought in the vessels of gold and silver that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace, next to the lampstand….

Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king said…”I have heard that you can give interpretations and solve problems. Now if you are able to read the writing and tell me its interpretation, you shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around your neck, and rank third in the kingdom.”

Then Daniel answered in the presence of the king, “Let your gifts be for yourself, or give your rewards to someone else! Nevertheless, I will read the writing to the king and let him know the interpretation….You have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven! The vessels of his temple have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine from them. You have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know; but the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honored.

“So from his presence the hand was sent and this writing was inscribed. And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE MENE TEKEL PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter:

MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end
TEKEL, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting
PARSIN, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians

(Daniel 5, NRSV)

It is fitting that the writing on the Republican wall may have first appeared in April 2011, when Donald Trump led the field of Presidential prospects (Mitt Romney was third). Fitting because Trump will be appearing at next week’s Republican convention with a surprise “that I think is going to be I think really amazing. It’s going to be great. And we’ll see what happens. I mean, we’ll see how it’s received. But it will be pretty wild.  I think it will be potent.” Fitting also because you can just see Trump not only attending Belshazzar’s over-the-top feast, but hosting it at one of his hotels.

If Trump’s lead in last year’s polls wasn’t the sign, maybe the whole Republican primary season was. Looking back from down the road (“Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind”), people of all political persuasions will have their mood lifted by just the mention of Herman Cain, who also led the polls (and as recently as nine months ago).

The point is not that the Republicans are destined to lose the election because of this craziness; it remains a close race. The point is that we have reached the point in the tale—introduced to all the characters (or so we think: Todd Akin?), to most of the intertwined story lines, and to some of the secrets—that nothing would be surprising, and anything seems possible.

Like a biblical storm.

Biblical as in Tropical Storm Isaac, one of the few names on the National Hurricane Center storm list that comes from the Bible.

Biblical as in the belief among a few that storms are a form of divine intervention.

It appears that Isaac will turn into a hurricane, and that it may be headed near Tampa, the site of the Republican convention. Contingency plans are in the works.

As long as we have a biblical hurricane, we might as well consider whether it is a sign.

Among the Old Testament patriarchs, Isaac stands apart from his father Abraham and his son Jacob. Unlike them, he is represented as passive, pliable and indecisive in his dealings. Noted commentator Gunther Plaut has said that Isaac must be an historic figure, because no tradition would create a patriarch so weak.

We all hope—especially those of us who have lived through the devastation of a hurricane—that Isaac stays far away from everyone and everything, including the Republican convention. But for those who are so inclined, it couldn’t hurt to read the writing on the wall.