Bob Schwartz

Month: December, 2012

Happy Hanukkah from Matisyahu

Matisyahu is a Hanukkah miracle.

Not because suburban native Matthew Miller named himself after Mattathias, head of the family that took back the Temple in Jerusalem from the Assyrians, giving us the holiday. Not because he became a Chassidic reggae superstar. Not because last Hanukkah he shaved his beard and announced: “No more Chassidic reggae superstar.” Not because this Hanukkah his latest album Spark Seeker is Number 1 on the Billboard Reggae chart, a position it has held for weeks. Not even because his single Happy Hanukkah  is a joyous and irresistible rap reggae celebration about all that is good about the holiday, from which all proceeds go to Hurricane Sandy relief:

Happy Hanukkah
I wanna give a gift to you
Light up the night, my love shine through
From Mount Zion, this is what we do
Bring love to you

Matisyahu is a miracle because he did and is doing what we are supposed to do. Follow your light where it takes you, wherever it takes you. Wherever that is, when you get there, if you get there, shine a light of your own. It is a chance to make yourself happy and to make other people happy. And even if you are not sure you are there, or even sure where you are, celebrate anyway. It’s Hanukkah.

Republicans and the Heroism of Doing the Right Thing

Sir Walter Raeligh
Most of the time, there are no medals for doing the right thing. Holding open a door for someone whose arms are laden with packages is just a civil idea. Laying down your cloak so that the Queen doesn’t get her feet wet probably earns you some bonus points (and a dirty cloak), but it’s not exactly heroic.

It’s now clear that at this moment, the right thing to do about the fiscal [precipice you can fall from] is to extend tax cuts for all but the highest incomes, and have the just-elected new Congress come back in a month to do the hard work of reaching a long term solution. Who knows? Maybe that Congress will find a way to maintain lower tax rates for incomes above $250,000, along with carefully considered spending cuts and overall tax reform.

Republicans and their leaders find themselves caught between irreconcilable considerations. Among them is not just the past election but the evidence that, more than not, they will be blamed if no agreement is reached. Pulling another direction is an absolutist and ideological demand that anything looking like a tax increase is almost literally profane.

In spite of that, there are reports that at least some Republicans are in the mood to make that tax deal—maybe because of realpolitik, but maybe because it is the right thing. Either way, there seems to be some fear in the party that those Republicans will be seen as weak and capitulating to the President and the Democrats. That is one of the last cards that hardliners will play.

Those sensible Republicans shouldn’t worry. They will be seen as heroes by many Americans. That’s one of the dynamics going on right now. Some Republicans are worried about being on the wrong side of demographics and national electoral politics, and they should be. It’s worse, though it takes a bit more vision, to see that you might be on the wrong side of history.

Somewhere in between is being on the wrong side of heroism. Not being a hero is not equivalent to being a coward. Standing by and letting the wrong, or at least not optimal, thing happen is not universally indictable. But nothing beats being hero. Here’s another chance.

Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck - Time OutJazz legend Dave Brubeck is dead at the age of 91.

There is going to be a lot written, but with musicians, the best way to remember or learn is to listen. There’s plenty of Brubeck on YouTube and elsewhere. Here’s Take Five, from the Time Out album.

Right now, the VEVO Hot This Week includes a Justin Bieber song (100,701,925 views), P!nk (27,490,445) and Lana Del Rey (14,931,653). These are talented musicians, and even with the added attention that comes with passing, Brubeck is unlikely to hit numbers like that.

Take Five, one of the most recognizable jazz recordings ever, was written by Dave Brubeck Quartet saxophonist Paul Desmond and recorded in 1959. It’s still hypnotically appealing and head-noddlingly cool today. Time will tell which of the Bieber, P!nk or Del Rey records are listened to, let alone remembered, in 53 years.

In the meantime…

Dadadadada dada da da, dada da da…

Citizens United Lives: Money Will Still Buy Elections

Thomas Nast
In the aftermath of the election, a certain joyous complacency has set in regarding Citizens United and the impact of Big Money on the electoral process. A derisive attitude of “epic fail” has attached to Sheldon Adelson, Karl Rove and all the others who seemingly wasted their billions (or other people’s billions) on influencing the results. Some have wondered out loud about how much real good those billions would have done for a country and world in need.

In fact, the money was merely mismanaged, channeled into outdated and ineffective strategies, and thereby wasted. But that will not last. There are plenty of talented operatives and strategists out there, even now working on better ways to address electoral problems using modern means. Yes, they are outnumbered by old school consultants relying on some combination of charm, reputation and useless technique, but like the blind squirrels, even Big Money will find the acorns sometimes.

And when the billionaires do find the operatives working on the cutting edge of 21st century electoral influence, what many feared would happen in the 2012 election—but didn’t—will eventually happen. Elections will be bought, even on behalf of those candidates who appear to some as unqualified and even clownish.

It’s time to stop laughing at Karl Rove’s misfortunes and start doubling up on the efforts to neutralize the impact of Citizens United. Proposals are out there, ranging from enhanced disclosure to a constitutional amendment. Whatever the approach, pursue it now. It’s the only way to avoid the Wednesday morning in November we didn’t have, the one where we wake up shaking our heads and asking: How in the world did that happen?

I Did Not Know That

Rabindranath Tagore
The Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “If you shut the door to all errors, truth will be shut out.”

There is a corollary: If you think you know it all, truth will be shut out.

Smart people are busy people. They gather knowledge for a lot of reasons—to help complete projects they are working on, to help solve puzzles that perplex them, or sometimes, simply because they are curious and interested in people and the world. But busyness demands a sort of instant knowledge filtering, where information is quickly classified as something not helpful or, frequently, something already known.

That last one is a funny thing. It may seem that what you hear or read is knowledge you already have, and easy to dismiss. But maybe there’s a small spin, a tiny different take, a detail that sheds surprising light on something you thought you knew. No matter how smart you are—or think you are—it can happen.

That’s why, as far as practical, one of the more enlightening ways to go about is ignorant, assuming you know little or nothing. Of course you know things, some very complex things, and that helps you get through your days and your life. You want to build on your knowledge base, and with limited time, you can’t spend it hearing about what you already know.

And yet…that person or thought you are tuning out, because it is something you think you already know, something you can’t waste your valuable time hearing, might be just the thing to advance your work, to solve that puzzle. Think about it. All you had to believe and say is this: I did not know that.

Do Republicans Have A Death Wish?

Sigmund Freud
In the first episode of Mad Men, psychologist Dr. Greta Guttman explains how the health dangers of cigarettes might be used to the advertiser’s advantage:

“I believe my most recent surveys have provided a solution. We can still suggest that cigarettes are “part of American life,” or “Too good to give up,” and most appealing “an assertion of independence”….Before the war, when I studied with Adler in Vienna, we postulated that what Freud called “the Death Wish” is as powerful a drive as those for sexual reproduction and physical sustenance.”

Even though this seems preposterous, account executive Pete Campbell tries it out later at a client meeting:

“At Sterling Cooper, we’ve been pioneering the burgeoning field of research. And our analysis shows that the health risks associated with your products is not the end of the world. People get in their cars everyday to go to work, and some of them die. Cars are dangerous. There’s nothing you can do about it. You still have to get where you’re going. Cigarettes are exactly the same. Why don’t we simply say, “So what if cigarettes are dangerous?” You’re a man. The world is dangerous. Smoke your cigarette—You still have to get where you’re going.”

To which the patriarch of the tobacco company replies:

“Is that your slogan? “You’re going to die anyway. Die with us.””

The Republican Party does not, as far as we know, have a psychoanalyst. And Freud’s so-called “death drive” remains one of his most controversial principles.

But there is no question that individuals and institutions exhibit behavior that surpasses our understanding of what is rational and adaptive. From the outside, it looks like a path that leads nowhere good. Sometimes it is our own shortcoming in not being able to see the complex and sophisticated strategy underneath. Sometimes people are too clever for their own good. And sometimes, there is no conclusion left other than a Freudian one, that there is an instinct not just to fail or epic fail, but to go all the way down. “You’re going to die anyway. Die with us.”