Bob Schwartz

Month: October, 2012

Des Moines Register Endorses Richard Nixon


The story of the Des Moines Register’s endorsing Mitt Romney—the first time the newspaper has endorsed a Republican since Richard Nixon in 1972—has been covered with entirely the wrong emphasis.

The point is not Mitt Romney’s potential for success in the office or Barack Obama’s supposed failures.

The point is that the Des Moines Register endorsed Richard Nixon. Yes, that Richard Nixon.

The Register was far from alone among major newspapers endorsing Nixon that year. Unfortunately, no archive has been found with the particular words of praise and support the newspaper used, though the search continues. It would be lovely to read those words—and then to compare them to the actualities of Nixon’s truncated term in office.

Absent that record, it is a good guess that the Des Moines Register did not predict that Nixon would lead a criminal conspiracy from the Oval Office, and that the cover-up of that behavior would include the undermining of the U.S. Constitution. That would not make for a very effective endorsement. Nor did the newspaper likely mention his nickname “Tricky Dick”, an allusion to his reputation for deviousness and ruthlessness.

The well-known moniker began not with his 1968 presidential campaign, nor with his 1962 gubernatorial campaign, nor with his 1960 presidential campaign, nor with his 1952 vice-presidential campaign, but with his 1950 senatorial campaign. By the time of the 1972 campaign, Nixon had been touted by some respectable people as “Tricky Dick” for 22 years.

For whatever reason, the Des Moines Register refused to believe it. They endorsed Nixon, and though we can’t really blame them for the election results—the late George McGovern’s historic loss—they didn’t help, and the rest is history.

Why Vote?

If you are someone who thinks that voting is pointless, that “they” (the people in power) only use it to give you the illusion of power, that “they” (those same people) are all the same, no matter what their party, you are misguided but not beyond redemption.

Today is an early voting day, and those who showed up at the county board of elections offices understand some of the reasons to vote:

It Matters

Do the math. In local elections especially, your vote may represent a fraction of a percent of a major public decision. Even in the broader-scale elections, at the state or national level, we know that elections are regularly decided by a few hundred votes. Yours could be one of them.

It’s Valuable

This is a line that seems a corny cliché, but if you think so, shame on you. Americans have died so that their countrymen and people around the world can enjoy this privilege. Things worth dying for are by definition valuable.

It’s Community

Absentee voting is effective and important, but if you vote at a polling place, you get a unique experience, especially at early voting. Precincts tend to be homogeneous in most places, in terms of class, race, etc. But entire counties tend to cut across those lines. We have precious few opportunities to stand up with the people who live nearby but not next door. Again, it may be corny, but in that polling place, it is no more or less than one person, one vote. Everything else is irrelevant.

It’s Fun

The naysayers and sophisticates may say that, sure, voting is fun, the same way that beanbag and Keystone Cops silent comedies are fun—for a bunch of really ancient and out of touch citizens. Not true. Fill in a little oval on the ballot and you can elevate the worthy and kill the evil, electorally speaking. What could be more fun than that?

You Get A Sticker


Beautiful Quantum Scribbles

In Robert Wise’s classic sci-fi movie The Day The Earth Stood Still, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a visitor from distant space, has come to earth to warn world leaders that their conflicts endanger universal order and must end. To enlist the help of the smartest scientist, Dr. Barnhardt (a fictionalized Albert Einstein played by Sam Jaffe), Klaatu visits the professor’s house. He finds an unsolved problem in celestial mechanics on the blackboard, and quickly corrects the equations. He is interrupted by the housekeeper Hilda:

How dare you write on that blackboard! Do you realize the Professor has been working on that problem for weeks?

He’ll catch on to it in no time now.

How did you get in here? And what do you want?

We came to see Professor Barnhardt.

Well, he’s not here. And he won’t be back till this evening.
(Klaatu scribbles a note and hands it to Hilda.)

You might keep this. I think the professor will want to get in touch with me.

Hilda’s glance wanders to the blackboard and she picks up an eraser, debating whether to erase Klaatu’s corrections.

I wouldn’t erase that. The Professor needs it very badly.

Even if you are not a physicist, and are simply intrigued by the arcana that only geniuses and space aliens understand, this is a memorable moment.

People who are comfortable living in the old high school classroom picture of a determinate universe full of atoms and their constituent protons, neutrons and electrons have another think coming. In the quantum world beyond simple particles, anything is possible and nothing is certain, if certainty itself exists. In the view of some, in quantum physics are hints of rough sketches of the face of God, as well solutions to practical matters such as how to teleport information across the universe beyond light speed. Those of us of lesser minds struggle to grasp even the most basic concepts, while the greater minds solve puzzles beautiful in their incomprehensibility.

Spanish artist Alejandro Guijarro has combined two things at polar ends of research and education. On one end he has taken detailed photos of blackboards, a thinking and teaching tool so primitive that some are surprised to find them still around, and others have never seen one. On the far end, these particular blackboards belong to some of the world’s leading quantum thinkers. Guijarro traveled to institutes and laboratories around the world to record the smudged, chalk-streaked evidence of some of the world’s most sublime calculations…and erasures.

God’s Political Will


In the history of Christian theology, philosophy has sometimes been seen as a natural complement to theological reflection, whereas at other times practitioners of the two disciplines have regarded each other as mortal enemies….

Philosophy takes as its data the deliverances of our natural mental faculties: what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. These data can be accepted on the basis of the reliability of our natural faculties with respect to the natural world. Theology, on the other hand takes as its starting point the divine revelations contained in the Bible. These data can be accepted on the basis of divine authority, in a way analogous to the way in which we accept, for example, the claims made by a physics professor about the basic facts of physics.

 On this way of seeing the two disciplines, if at least one of the premises of an argument is derived from revelation, the argument falls in the domain of theology; otherwise it falls into philosophy’s domain.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Current American politics includes little study and application of philosophy. Some of our founders were steeped in philosophy, being educated sons of the Enlightenment. But even then, the struggling rebel nation was marked by pragmatism: there may be no atheists in foxholes, but there aren’t many philosophers either. Today, even when ideologues throw around the names of Mill or Burke, that is a rarity. Most of our politicians don’t know, can’t practice and don’t care about philosophy.

Theology is another story. Our government and the campaign trail seem to be overflowing with those who consider themselves theologians, whether they call themselves that or not. But even though the ground of theology is distinct from philosophy, the rigor and discipline required is exactly the same. The simplistic adoption of an isolated theological premise is no more sturdy than an isolated philosophical one. A solid theological conclusion must be supported from start to finish. If you can’t answer all (or at least most) of the consequent questions, you can’t be trusted to answer any.

And so when Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock announced that when a woman becomes pregnant through rape, the pregnancy is “God’s will,” the question isn’t whether that is true. The question is: assuming it is true, what else is God’s will?

Mr. Mourdock, and every other politician who claims to know God’s will, owes us a comprehensive list of those things that are and are not God’s will. In the case of Mr. Mourdock, if he is schooled in the fine points of Christian theology, that should be a straightforward matter.

For example: Are the outcomes of elections God’s will? If Mr. Mourdock’s opponent wins, will that be God’s will? If President Obama beats Mitt Romney, will that be God’s will?

There are a raft of sub-questions for the theologian. If God wills an election winner, how does it happen? Are some potential voters kept away from the polls by stormy weather or traffic jams? And how exactly does God decide who the winner should be? Is there a scorecard based on the Ten Commandments or the Seven Deadly Sins? Does a high score on “bearing false witness” or “greed,” for example, make it difficult to get an endorsement?

In the event Mr. Mourdock does not win, it may be God’s will after all. Just a few miles from his home in Darmstadt, Indiana is an excellent school, Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. Trinity offers a number of degree programs and dozens of courses on theology. If his keen interest in theology continues, that could be just the way to spend his time.

The Hamlet Voters

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

T.S. Eliot
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

It is reported that there are voters who are still undecided in this Presidential campaign.

Assuming they actually exist, they are the most simultaneously sought after and puzzling population in this country.

It’s easy to see why they are sought after with such a close election looming.

The puzzlement is slightly more complex. The questions to them roughly run like this: Have you been paying any attention at all to the candidates and the issues? Just how confused are you?

With all due respect and affection for fellow citizens, if you watched any of the focus groups of undecided voters that the news media have assembled, the answers may be: no, and just a bit.

But there is another explanation. The undecided voters are suffering from a Hamlet-like affliction. They are Hamlet voters.

Hamlet, you recall, found himself in the middle of overwhelming circumstances—his uncle had murdered his father, married his mother, and taken over the kingdom. Trying to right the wrong and unseat the chief of state, Hamlet at first feigned madness, and then, as best we can tell, really did go mad. One of his characteristics was an inability to decide and act: his speech considering suicide, “To be or not to be”, is one of the most famous in world literature.

These undecided voters seem to be equally confused and frozen, though their circumstances are not near as dire or existential. There is an important question about who will be the chief of state, but that’s where the similarity should end. Even Hamlet managed to make up his mind, though his action did result in just about everybody dying, including himself.

No one is asking undecided voters to be involved in anything like that. It’s time. Learn what you can, think as best you can. With his dying breath, Hamlet appointed Prince Fortinbras the new President of Denmark. You don’t have to go that far. No sword fights, no poison. All you have to do is decide and vote.

Stamping Eid al-Adha

The relationship between American society and Islam is complicated.

At this point in history, there are few sentences that could be more absurdly understated. In so many spheres, that relationship is, to be polite, messed up beyond all reason.

There is a long and growing list of events and phenomena that contribute to and reflect those complications. How the world’s largest or second-largest religion (depending on accounting) became so toxic in the world’s most tolerant democracy is a story still being written. No doubt having a black President whose father was a Muslim, who spent part of his youth in the world’s most Muslim country, and whose middle name is Hussein is the latest part of that.

The Postal Service, out of a sense of decency and diversity and political realities, rushes in where others fear to tread. This is itself a complicated thing.

October 26 is Eid al-Adha (“Feast of the Sacrifice”), the major holiday on the Muslim calendar.

Islam shares many stories with its Abrahamic precursors, Judaism and Christianity, though some of the scripture is added to or modified. So it is with the story of Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ishmael (Isaac). Ibrahim and Ishmael are said to have built the Kaaba, the building in Mecca that is the centerpiece of the commanded pilgrimage—the hajj. Ibrahim was also told in a dream to sacrifice his son as a sign of obedience to Allah and, as in the Old Testament, was stopped only at the last moment when Ishmael was replaced by a sacrificial sheep.

Eid al-Adha marks the end of the annual pilgrimage and Ibrahim’s faithful near-sacrifice of his son. (For discussion elsewhere, the question of how this deep and fascinating father-son sacrifice in the Old Testament—see, e.g., Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling—is not on the Jewish calendar, but became such a central event of the Christian and Muslim calendars.)

Some think that the Postal Service should not be in the business of commemorating religious holidays and people, given the wall—the admittedly porous wall—between church and state. The Mother Teresa stamp issued in 2010 is just one of those flash points. The Postal Service explains:

Following the announcement of the Mother Teresa stamp, groups such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation objected to the Postal Service’s seeming violation of its own guidelines.

“We received numerous letters saying that we should not be doing religious stamps,” says Terry McCaffrey, manager of stamp development. “But we are honoring her for her humanitarian work, not for being a member of a religious order.”

After all, McCaffrey asks, to what extent should religious inspiration disqualify an otherwise worthy subject?

Over the years, many religious figures have been depicted on stamps in recognition of their contributions to society, independent of their personal motivations or beliefs. Stamp honorees have included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for leading the struggle for civil rights, Father Edward Joseph Flanagan for his work with delinquent and homeless boys, and Padre Félix Varela for his advocacy for the immigrant poor.

Still, the signs of protest for Mother Teresa were stronger than with most stamps.

As for minority religions, the Postal Service shies away (but see Hanukkah below). No Buddhism, for example. Interestingly and somewhat surprisingly, the Postal Service did dip its toe in Mormon waters. In December 2005, it gave a nod to the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth, not with a stamp, but with the much less substantial cancellation mark. Note below that the Postal Service did not issue this postcard; that is privately produced. The only government involvement is the cancellation mark. Also notable is that given it was holiday season, this postcard includes a Madonna stamp to go along with the Joseph Smith cancellation.

Holidays provide a little bit of cover for the Postal Service. Instead of unacceptably eliminating Christmas, the Postal Service went to religious inclusiveness and diversity. So we have a Hanukkah stamp for Judaism—even though Hannukah is a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar.

A few years ago, we were offered a Muslim stamp for the Eid feasts:

This stamp commemorates the two most important festivals — or eids — in the Islamic calendar: Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, and features the Arabic phrase “Eid mubarak” in gold calligraphy on a blue background. Eid mubarak translates literally as “blessed festival,” and can be paraphrased “May your religious holiday be blessed.”

Employing traditional methods and instruments to create this design, calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya of Arlington, VA, working under the direction of Phil Jordan of Falls Church, VA, chose a script known in Arabic as “thuluth” and in Turkish as “sulus.”

As shown above, the Postal Service modified the Eid stamp in 2011, keeping the exquisite calligraphy, changing the color from blue to red, and issuing it as a Forever® stamp:

The U.S. Postal Service® commemorates the two most important festivals — or eids — in the Islamic calendar: Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. On these days, Muslims wish each other Eid Mubarak, the phrase shown in calligraphy on the stamp. Eid Mubarak translates literally as “blessed festival” and can be paraphrased “May your religious holiday be blessed.” This Eid stamp features gold calligraphy against a reddish background.

Saying that the original Eid stamp was issued “a few years ago” is imprecise. It was actually issued on September 1, 2001—ten days before 9/11. It seems that this small step in the direction of recognition and tolerance got lost in some twisted history that as a country we are still trying to straighten out.

The stamp is available for purchase from the Postal Service. And even if you are not among the 1.7 billion people celebrating Eid al-Adha next week, it is still a beautiful addition to any piece of mail—and a beautiful statement.

Android: Eat Dessert Last


On October 29, Google will introduce a new mobile device based on Key Lime Pie, the latest and likely sweetest version of the Android operating system.

This is great news for some. But for many Android users, who are looking for a little more sugar, it is somewhat strange.

The strangeness is that a number of high-end and upgradable devices sold just within the past year are still waiting for the last two Android upgrades. Some running on Gingerbread have been waiting for much of this year for Ice Cream Sandwich (version 4.0). Ice Cream Sandwich devices have been waiting months for Jelly Bean (4.2). Before all that happens for many devices, Key Lime Pie (4.3) will be a delicious reality—for some, but hardly for all.

The cause of the backlog is what has come to be called Android fragmentation (there’s no cute dessert way of saying that). As an open OS, Android is adopted and overlaid by each device maker for selected devices, and the various providers also get involved in the Android experience for each device they choose to carry.

This three-way would be complicated enough if Android were a static OS. But Android won’t stand still—those robot legs may be stubby, but they sure can move. Android is less than five years old, a relatively low-maturity but quickly-developing OS. The striving of the developers is admirable, and they are in the process of evolving Android from good to very good to great.

But every upgrade demands that Android, the device makers and the providers essentially go back to square one, determining which devices are suitable, testing and tweaking so that users will have a positive experience that reflects well on all involved.

That’s the ideal. The reality is that Android and the other players hype the improvements, but then are forced by dreaded fragmentation, and whatever other interests are involved, to make users wait.

It’s not that a piece of Gingerbread isn’t sweet and satisfying; it’s actually a pretty solid OS. And for the luckier ones, they’ve been happy with an Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s just that standing in front of the Mobile Sweet Shoppe, nose pressed to the glass, it’s tough to watch the customers inside scooping out all those colorful Jelly Beans. And now, insult to injury, the shop is passing around slices of Key Lime Pie. Not even lemon meringue, for goodness sake, but Key Lime!

We know, or hope, that dessert is really on the way. It’s just a little frustrating watching someone else eat it.

I Read Newsweek Today, Oh Boy


If we hold a wake for each print publication that dies or goes digital-only, we’d be drinking all the time (which is not a bad response). Newsweek today announced, in spite of recent protestations, that it was indeed ending publication of its print edition this year.

Volumes have been written about this phenomenon, and more will be on the way. You can read them on your computer, e-reader, or mobile device. In the meantime, an observation.

Print media are in fundamental ways different than their digital counterparts as tools. Not better or worse, just different. This is not the conceit of old-school anachronists who defy the new guard to take the paper magazines or books from their (sooner than later) cold, dead hands. To understand how that could be so, read the increasingly unread Marshall McLuhan. The message of the medium is the message is that each medium is particular in granular ways (not sure if McLuhan would have loved, hated, or wished he had coined that buzzword). Those ways are not just meaningful, they are some of the most important meaning. If you can’t make a long list of conceptual, non-practical ways that identical content is deeply different in paper and digital form, you aren’t thinking hard enough, and you haven’t read McLuhan.

Suffice it to say that in ways that matter, the Newsweek that doesn’t require electrons is different than the one that does, even if the content is the same.

After saying all those important and noble things, a small confession of complicity. There was a time when a mailbox full of top-tier magazines was both a sign and a source of erudition. Many news junkies got their start when their parents subscribed to the newsweeklies—one, two or, if you were lucky, all three. Newsweek, Time and U.S. News and World Report every week, highly anticipated and absorbed cover to cover once they arrived.

The arrival of paper magazines is still a thrill. But one by one, the subscriptions were allowed to dwindle. It wasn’t just access to free and instantaneous alternatives; as far as expense, many print magazines priced themselves ridiculously low. It was like a relationship that lapses and fades, even if you know you might well be better off in keeping it alive. It was just the times, the way of the world.

Maybe Newsweek and other print editions would have lasted if subscribers had been willing to make an effort and work on the relationship. But they didn’t. We may look back and see these print magazines as the ones that got away, but we shouldn’t have let them. Just because it’s the way of the world doesn’t mean it’s for the best.

Romney Needs Women


Mitt Romney’s talking about being handed “binders of women,” a quote from the second Presidential debate, is not on its face all that funny, no matter how much it’s gone viral. But as a signal of a bigger picture, it seems to people meaningful.

In the wonderful depths of Mad Men in dealing with personal and social issues of the 1960s, the very first episode of the Emmy-winning series is on point. The execs at Sterling Cooper are about to meet prospective client Menken’s Department Store. In advance, Don Draper asks whether there are any Jews at the agency, and Roger Sterling laughingly doubts it. But at the meeting, there appears “David Cohen from the Art Department”, a nebbish who Roger has actually dug up from the mailroom.

This probably isn’t exactly how it went when Romney realized that as the new chief executive of Massachusetts state government, it would be appropriate to fill some of the jobs with qualified women. But what people are keying on is that it sounds a little like that. Do we have any women around here who are really qualified for these demanding jobs? Does anybody here know where we start to look for them? Hence, the binders of women.

By 2003, Massachusetts had been known for more than two centuries as the home of extraordinary women. While Abigail Adams was long gone, she should have offered a hint of the possibility that one of the most educated and vital states in America might include women of note and achievement. If you believed that they were actually out there, and weren’t some rare and exotic creature like a unicorn. And if you had a clue where to look—outside the mailroom or the binders.

Presidential Debates Without Tears: Politics Isn’t Beanbag


You can’t expect objective evaluations of the first Presidential debate from either campaign. Republicans want to talk hyperbolically about a victory. Democrats may have candid ideas, but few outside the inner circles will hear them.

The significance of any competition, besides the actual win or loss, is lessons learned. After that first debate, four explanations appear:

The President and his campaign were complacent.
They misread the situation.
They could not strategize or execute effectively.
It was just a bad night.

It was probably a little of all of these. Some will think that last one is just an excuse made by losers, but if you’ve watched competitions of all kinds, sports and otherwise, you’ve seen it. It’s circumstances, it’s the moment. It’s a quantum thing.

Nevertheless, that still leaves the other three as explanations and lessons.

The most significant Republican politician of the last days of the 20th century—yes, that would be Newt Gingrich—said straight out during the halcyon days of the primaries that Mitt Romney was a liar. Whether that was said with admiration or dismay is hard to know.

During that same campaign, Romney observed that “Politics isn’t beanbag.” Detractors then and now focused on the absurdity of this reference to an obscure children’s game. It was like his mentions of trees or the Keystone Cops. Who talks like that, they scoffed.

The focus was on the wrong point of the statement. Strange as Romney may appear to many people, one thing that isn’t strange, and shouldn’t be, is his ambition. Few if any politicians have ever played beanbag, or seen a beanbag match, if that’s what it’s called. But every politician knows about fighting hard, with or without rules.

If a banner saying “Politics isn’t beanbag” isn’t hanging from the wall of the Obama debate headquarters, it should be. Everything the campaign needs to know about Mitt Romney is captured in those three words.