Bob Schwartz

Month: December, 2012

Metta New Year

Enso 1

The Metta Sutta—the Buddha’s Discourse on Loving Kindness

This is what should be accomplished by the one who is wise,
Who seeks the good, and has obtained peace.

Let one be strenuous, upright, and sincere,
Without pride, easily contented, and joyous.
Let one not be submerged by the things of the world.
Let one not take upon oneself the burden of riches.
Let one’s senses be controlled.
Let one be wise but not puffed up and
Let one not desire great possessions even for one’s family.
Let one do nothing that is mean or that the wise would reprove.

May all beings be happy.
May they be joyous and live in safety,
All living beings, whether weak or strong,
In high or middle or low realms of existence.
Small or great, visible or invisible,
Near or far, born or to be born,
May all beings be happy.

Let no one deceive another nor despise any being in any state.
Let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another.
Even as a mother at the risk of her life
Watches over and protects her only child,
So with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things.
Suffusing love over the entire world,
Above, below, and all around, without limit,
So let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world.

Standing or walking, sitting or lying down,
During all one’s waking hours,
Let one practice the way with gratitude.

Not holding to fixed views,
Endowed with insight,
Freed from sense appetites,
One who achieves the way
Will be freed from the duality of birth and death.

Corcovado Christmas

It is mid-holiday in the northern tier of North America, caught between Christmas and the New Year.

There is no longer a calendar for Christmas music. Around the world there are radio stations that play Christmas yearlong (hear Radio Santa from Finland), and just as shopping has moved back to Halloween, Jingle Bells seems to have moved with it. Right now, it still sounds like a holiday.

It feels like a holiday too. In the Northern hemisphere, winter has begun, and depending on where you are, it may be cool, cold, or frigid.

In the Southern hemisphere, Christmas comes at the start of summer. To capture that, step away from Christmas music, and walk in the snow and listen to Astrud Gilberto singing Corcovado.

Corcovado is a mountain in Rio, the city’s most famous attraction. A 125-foot statue of Jesus sits atop it, which makes it more than appropriate for this holiday.

Brazil is also famous for Bossa Nova, one of the world’s most seductive and transfixing beats and styles. As glorious as ever, Bossa Nova is not quite as celebrated as it was in the 1960s, when it was a certifiable musical craze. Craziest of all was Astrud Gilberto singing and Stan Getz playing The Girl from Ipanema, a song about a famous beach.

The father of Bossa Nova, and the composer of both Ipanema and Corcovado, was Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim (1927-1994). One of the great songwriters of his era, Jobim’s songs were covered by all the great singers. Corcovado was one of those songs, known by its English title, Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars.

Astrud Gilberto was one of his greatest interpreters, though she may not have had the voice of Frank Sinatra. Her voice, more than a whisper, less than force, captures a simple warm ease that is irresistible, the very same power that Jobim put in the music, the same promise of a Brazilian vision of Christmas. The Portuguese makes it that much lovelier and warmer. What cold? What snow?

Quiet nights of quiet stars,
Quiet chords from my guitar,
Floating on the silence that surrounds us.
Quiet thoughts and quiet dreams,
Quiet walks by quiet streams,
And window looking so to Corcovado,
Oh how lovely.

The World Makes Sense Of America, One Front Page At A Time

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. is America’s news museum. It is a valuable resource that fortunately offers a lot of online content. One of its focuses is the still alive and kicking medium of print newspapers, and the Newsuem offers something that highlights one unique feature of these supposed media dinosaurs. Each day the Newsweum collects the front pages of hundreds of American and global papers and makes them available digitally.

For particular eventful days, like 9/11, the Newseum archives those front pages for posterity. The archive for Saturday, December 15, 2012, the day newspapers first reported about Sandy Hook, is particularly enlightening. Most nations had at least one front page featuring the story. American gun culture is so singular, even in places undergoing short-term or protracted states of war, that the stories mix perplexity with maybe some sense of “we’ve got plenty of problems, but this ain’t one.”

Even for those who love a well-crafted Web page or mobile screen, newspaper front pages remain an expressive art form, a story before and within the story. This is at its truest and most challenging in the face of big events.

The one above is from Medillin, Colombia. Medillin is the country’s second largest city and the infamous home of the Medillin drug cartel, which for about two decades terrorized the nation. Medillin is no stranger to brutality and guns.

The headline reads: “Golpe Al Alma de Estados Unidos”. Blow to the Soul of the United States.

Here are a few more:

Has America Learned from the Pain This Time?

Bloodbath in Kindergarten

God Does Not Like Guns

William Strutt - Peace
God does not like guns. God is also not crazy about nuclear weapons, and about all the easy to use and widely available tools of destruction in between.

This isn’t obvious. As scholars of religion and violence point out, the Old Testament is a compendium of both divine and divine-inspired and endorsed human mayhem. In the continuing battle against moral evil, which often has a religious component or context, the imperative to take up arms goes unquestioned among some, but not all. Finally, an entire eschatological theology is based on a battle that ends and transcends history as we know it, leading once and for all to the heaven on earth we have all been awaiting.

Let us pull back to the now and here, particularly last night in Newtown, Connecticut, where clergy of all faiths talked about God, if not for God.

The events in Newtown opened up a door to a new world. It was not Armageddon in an epic sense, but it was the end of the world for some, and everyone felt that. The door is a passage to the place where we leave the theology of the Second Amendment behind, where we stop listening to the priests of the National Rifle Association and their interpretations of what the founding gods meant.

This is the time to extend last night in Newtown to every congregation in America. There, leaders will explain to congregants whether God loves guns, and particularly whether God loves guns in such massive quantities and destructiveness.

The leaders can then cite Isaiah 11, and explain how “a child will lead them” is not merely some hermeneutic puzzle pointing to a messiah. Instead, it is reflected in the instruction by Jesus: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

The leaders will close by acknowledging that the faithful congregants will hear and themselves espouse practical arguments that stand in the way. Leaders will then patiently explain that all faith is ultimately impractical and heedless of impossibility. God does not like guns, but as his instruments, we are bound to do the worldly work of reducing their number and universal availability. If we claim to be faithful, that is more than just a good deed. It is a divine mission. God, it appears, will be more disappointed than ever if we fail.

Guns: The Broken Marriage of Politics and Public Policy

In a fantasy world, the marriage between politics and public policy is an ideal one. Each loving and respectful partner contributes thoughtfully and constructively, and the outcomes are not just positive, but even better than we could imagine.

Suspend imagining and consider this. The offspring are often so ugly and unacceptable that we avert our eyes, ashamed not of the partisans and pragmatists we have put in positions of power, but of ourselves for our reticence and complicity.

The New York Times reports  that after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in early 2011:

The Justice Department drew up a detailed list of steps the government could take to expand the background-check system in order to reduce the risk of guns falling into the hands of mentally ill people and criminals.…Most of the proposals, though, were shelved at the department a year ago as the election campaign heated up and as Congress conducted a politically charged investigation into the Operation Fast and Furious gun trafficking case, according to people familiar with the internal deliberations.

Even if none of the proposals—some of which would not have required Congressional action—would have altered anything in Connecticut is beside the point. Politics stood in the way of positive policy and brought it to a standstill. Once again.

This election year has been a test. We muster moments of idealism, gathering genuine evidence of progress. But time after time, something happens to draw us back to a lingering cynicism we can’t shake. We have to shake it, for the sake of all of us, for the sake of those who are weak and need our strength, for the sake of the broken who need fixing. But it can be so very hard.

Jimmy Carter was one of the most interesting President’s of his generation. We know that from his distinguished career as a statesman and man of public faith after he left office. But even as President, he brought a certain humanity and candor to the office that was unique. This also left him uniquely vulnerable, as events and political strategy overtook him.

In the midst of the energy crisis of 1979, Carter gave an address since known as the “malaise” speech, even though he never used that word. In it he said:

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy. . . . I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might. The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. . . .

There is no direct connection between that speech and the current circumstances. Except if we don’t use today to start examining “the meaning of our own lives and…the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation”—an examination we suspended for this election year—we are never going to get back to it.

We have to start criticizing those we otherwise like and praising those we otherwise don’t, without worrying about political impact. Every Democrat winning or losing, every Republican winning or losing, is not going to change things. Jimmy Carter’s “crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will” is inexorably tied up with the events of this week. We are going to find that will, starting today.

If Not Now When: Today Is the Day to Talk About Guns

National Rifle Association - Newtown
In the immediate hours after the Newtown, Connecticut shootings, Presidential spokesman Jay Carney was asked whether this would move the President on the issue of gun control. “Today is not the day to talk about guns,” he replied. The focus, he said, should be on the victims and their families.

A few massacres ago, around the time of the Colorado movie theatre shootings, that sounded better. The boldness of those activists wanting to instantly seize the moment and make a point about gun control seemed insensitive. There would be time enough, soon, to talk about public policy.

“Today is not the day,” doesn’t sound so good or so responsible any more. Whether or not we go for years without another incident like this, or whether, as is more likely, it is a matter of a few weeks or months, the day to talk is today.

The National Rifle Association and the related Second Amendment groups are the most powerful and successful lobby in modern America. Grover Norquist is a pretender, thinking that his threats of losing elections have changed America. As much as Americans hate taxes, many love having their guns, and the NRA has helped those Americans get them, keep them and be allowed to use them.

The NRA’s biggest, though not only, problem is that they have constitutional paranoia. They perceive even the slightest hint of regulation as the first step on a slippery slope. That paranoia has mutated and spread to politicians of almost all types. Except that those politicians aren’t pathologically afraid of guns being taken away; they are pathologically afraid of losing their jobs.

Fortunately for him, the President just got his contract renewed for four years. Even if he has something to propose that won’t get the support of his own party, let alone Republicans, even if what he proposes will have trouble passing constitutional muster, that should not stop him, if he is the man of principle we believe him to be.

The dead can’t vote, and in the case of the children killed today at Sandy Hook Elementary School, they weren’t old enough anyway. So we have to speak for them and vote for them. Today is the day. President Obama, lead us and show us what to do.

John Boehner and the Judgment of History

John Boehner
John Boehner says he isn’t worried that compromising on taxes will result in his losing his job as House Speaker. It is a matter of principle.

He may be telling the truth, but it doesn’t matter.

When asked whether Americans will blame the Republicans for the stalemate, his answer isn’t that he doesn’t care, but that it would be wrong. President Obama and the Democrats are to blame, even if polls say that many people believe otherwise.

That doesn’t matter either.

The question isn’t whether Boehner cares about keeping his job (which he does) or whether he cares that many Americans blame him and the Republicans (which he does).

The question is about history.

Republicans have for quite a while seemed to be unconcerned about the judgment of history. There’s a practical reason for this: people vote, not history. And most people aren’t that interested in history. Anyway, history is often equivocal, so in those moments when people do care, history can be spun to say almost anything.

But, for example, history continues to be a problem for the Republicans and their most historic President. The principles of and lessons from Lincoln are not always congruent with current GOP practice and rhetoric. This is how Southern Republicans during the Civil Rights era didn’t just come to distance themselves from the Great Emancipator; they fled the party.

History is turning on the Republicans. An entire two-term Presidency—eight years of George W. Bush—has had to be nearly buried so that the party could move on. The most recent financial misstep, the 2011 debt ceiling debacle, looked at first like it could be blamed on an ineffectual President. But history has stepped in. Obama’s leadership has been established and electorally endorsed, And now that event looks like a dark mirror of this moment—a mirror featuring John Boehner’s face.

When the movie of this moment is made, the question for Boehner is who he wants to be. He’s not going to be Lincoln, he’s not going to be Thaddeus Stevens. The way it looks now, he may be one of those supporting characters, a middling Congressional leader serving as an antagonist, helping to move the action along by opposing it. He is a decent man, he may yet keep his Speakership, and the country may yet, hopefully, avoid another crisis. But history won’t care about any of that. It is ruthless in its judgment, and John Boehner still has time to sway it.

121212 Concert: The Music of Dorian Gray

The QuarrymenThat’s a photo of a very young McCartney and Lennon, not yet the most important musicians in modern history. It’s a picture of promise, holding out the happy hope that from small things, big things one day come.

The 121212 Concert marathon was remarkable in ways related and peripheral to the core cause of Sandy relief. None of these collateral issues—not Kanye West’s leather skirt, not out of control ticket scalpers finding insane concertgoers—compares to the epiphany that rock is not, as it turns out, forever. At least not on stage.

Jethro Tull, at one time Grammy award winners for “Best Heavy Metal Album” (you can look it up), sang: “When you’re too old to rock and roll, but you’re too young to die.”

Chris Martin of Coldplay performed a sweet acoustic set, including a rare appearance by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. But Martin’s most interesting non-musical moments were his remarks about the age of performers. First he joked about his being their instead of One Direction because the late hour was past their bedtime. But then he turned to the other end of the life cycle, suggesting that viewers donate in the amount of the age of the performers, which would raise billions.

Rock has always been about three things: how you perform musically, how you perform non-musically (dancing, stage presence), and how you look. Here, with unreserved love for the recorded music and live performances of those mentioned, are some observations about the ”veteran” rockers.

The Rolling Stones are on their 50th anniversary tour. The music sounds pretty good. Charlie Watts, the most stoic drummer ever—maybe the most stoic rock musician ever—just sits there, an older version of his younger self. Keith Richards no longer looks like junkie and instead looks like a grandmother. Mick…is scary. His singing is not what it was, but it isn’t frightening either. But he is skeletal, his face drawn, his hair of questionable ownership, and his moves jerkily frenetic enough to raise fears of his falling down. Listening is still enjoyable, but you may seriously consider closing your eyes.

The Who were better musically than the Stones. They are on tour performing the entire Quadrophenia album live, and their set included instrumentally near-perfect renditions of those songs. Pete Townsend’s guitar windmills were a little slower and less emphatic than they used to be, but we know he can still play. It has been decades, and still no one will ever replace Keith Moon (tied with John Bonham as the all-time greatest drummer). The Who did what Queen and others have done with deceased essential bandmates: showed a video performance integrated into the live show. There was the video of Moon doing his distinctive vocals from Bell Boy, microphone in one hand, sticks working in the other, and at the end, Roger Daltry saluting him from the stage. Roger Daltrey. He can’t get all the notes, but it’s still an inimitable voice. The singing, it turned out, was not the problem. For reasons still (or never) to be fathomed, Daltrey believed that billions in the audience wanted to see his chest—including the stitch-scars from heart surgery—and so he obliged by keeping his shirt open for a couple of hours. It was actually just a few songs, but it seemed much longer.

Billy Joel redeemed the old guys. He has always written great songs suited to his vocal strengths and limitations, and both his playing and singing were so enjoyable and so not embarrassing.

Which brings us back to where we began, with the cute half of Liverpool’s very young Quarrymen. Paul McCartney has had a good number of big public performances in the past months. He dropped in on Bruce Springsteen in Hyde Park. He closed the Olympics. Some of what we heard was just okay, but unlike everybody else in the 121212 Concert, just okay would have been forgiven and enough because…it’s Paul. As it turns out, no apologies are needed. His own set was fun and memorable. But his fronting the one-time-only reunited Nirvana was a big moment. Kurt Cobain was a Beatles fan, and there is no doubt his unique introduction of hooky, clever melody into hard and dark rock and punk was done under their influence. At the end of the one song, Nirvana’s locomotive Dave Grohl looked down from his drum kit at McCartney, beaming, maybe amazed to be there, maybe thinking how much Cobain would have loved this.

In Praise of Congressional Mediocrity

Roman Hruska
Roman Hruska was United States Senator from Nebraska from 1954 to 1976. He was a leading conservative, and was anything but a mediocre legislator. But when Richard Nixon appointed G. Harold Carswell to the Supreme Court in 1970, Hruska had this to say about claims that Carswell was less than qualified:

“Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

Carswell was not confirmed. And despite Hruska’s accomplishments, he is best known today for his defense of public mediocrity.

As we watch many in Congress talk and talk and talk about why they are not doing anything—except talking—we might remember what Lincoln said: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” Or we might go back to Hruska.

Both the Senate and the House have had their share of greatness. The Senate has been a particularly notable body, even if we can’t have all Henry Clays, Daniel Websters and Robert Tafts. The House is a more mixed bag and, as “the people’s house,” maybe it should be.

But at the heart of Hruska’s statement is the question that faces us every day when we look at our national legislators. Do we want to be represented by people at least as good and capable as us—as honest, as hard-working, as smart, as trustworthy, as caring as us? Do we lower that down to a standard of people merely capable of getting elected? Or do we, contra Hruska, raise our standard and look for people better than we are in all the ways that matter? Even if we can’t have all the best, should we ever settle for mediocre?

Reductio Ad Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was asked yesterday why his writings compare homosexuality to bestiality and murder. Answering a Princeton freshman, Justice Scalia said:

“It’s a form of argument that I thought you would have known, which is called the ‘reduction to the absurd’. If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?”

(“I thought you would have known” seems a bit of a put down. This may have something to do with Justice Scalia having attended Georgetown undergrad, as opposed to Justices Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, all of whom attended Princeton.)

This is a common theme in the logical argument against cultural and moral relativism, particularly when it comes to homosexuality. And it is a provocative argument, as far as it goes. If we are to make no moral judgments about sexuality, then each and every type and instance of behavior is a matter of choice—polygamy, bestiality, you name it. Once we admit morality, we are broadly entitled to hold to it and the distinctions we make, even in the face of popular disagreement.

This is something worth thinking about as we make private and public policy, but it is far from dispositive. Some think we are at our best and doing our best when we hold strictly—including the “strict” construction of the Constitution, or for that matter of the Ten Commandments. But the real world has a funny way of demanding flexibility and fluidity from our philosophers, lawmakers, law interpreters and enforcers.

So Justice Scalia is not entirely wrong. He and all of us are, to avoid the absurd, allowed to attach particular values to homosexuality, bestiality, polygamy, divorce, whatever. There are probably still some out there who believe that slavery is moral; we know at least that it still thrives in the world. As for killing, morals differ for different circumstances; if not we would have outlawed killing entirely, or would admit that we don’t make a clear enough distinction when we seem to be legislating hypocritically.

But the story doesn’t end when we prove logically that different morals are legitimate. In the real world, people suffer at the hands of our “moral feelings” as Justice Scalia calls them. In some ways, it’s always about the suffering. In the face of “moral feelings” among some that there was nothing wrong with slavery, much of America agreed to its greatest national conflict to relieve an equally great suffering. Those who have legitimate “moral feelings” about homosexuality and marriage might want to be weighing their profound discomfort against the suffering of millions, not to mention against the arc of history.