Bob Schwartz

Month: January, 2013

If We Could See the Children of Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook School
Early in the Iraq War, President Bush tried to block taking pictures of the arrival of the coffins of fallen soldiers at Dover Air Force Base. The proposal was couched as a gesture of respect to the families, but the real point was to shield citizens from the ultimate cost of war.

There are different opinions on the impact of viewing carnage, fictional and real. Does constant exposure immunize us from taking violence seriously? Would we pursue wars so readily, or at least try to better distinguish the necessary from the chosen, if we were bombarded by those images? If we saw footage of the early days of the camps in real time, would we have allowed the Holocaust to proceed?

The images of the children killed at Sandy Hook School in Newtown are blocked from us. This choice is almost beyond argument. We have heard the reaction of those who did witness the aftermath, and even those who have participated in war said that scene was worse. We are protecting the dignity of those lives unlived and respecting the immeasurable grief of the families. Our imaginations are already enough to rend our hearts.

And so instead we have pictures of those children as they are remembered, beautiful angels, joy and potential, and we have the testimony and imploring of their parents. But somehow, this doesn’t seem to be quite enough to stop abstract arguments about the essential value of the Second Amendment, how it must continue unconditioned even by sensible restrictions that meet moral, practical and constitutional muster. First they come for my AR-15, this line goes, and next the deer and the police will be hunting me.

There is a way to end this argument, though for good reasons we will not do it. If we ever get to see the killing field at Sandy Hook, there will be little more talk of a free trade in assault weapons and big ammunition clips. There may be talk, but it will be silenced by a new and more powerful outrage. The NRA might try to keep repeating a mantra that is already falling on more deaf ears, and some of their political operatives will follow. But the vast majority of Americans will move from just saying the right thing to a pollster to demanding that the right thing be done. Now.

If we could, as we won’t, see the children.

Assault Weapons: The Art of the Art of the Possible

Bushmaster ACR
Watching Joe Biden back off the primacy of an assault weapons ban in the curbing of gun violence—following Senator Diane Feinstein’s introduction of exactly that legislation—is discouraging. And it brings to mind Picasso and Pollock, among others.

Politics is said to be the art of the possible. The motto is roughly “we fight the fights we can win.” Very pragmatic, and there is something to commend pragmatism. That won’t be much comfort, though, when well-meaning politicians have to show up at the next inevitable massacre and solemnly announce that they aimed at the possible, and even then settled for half.

Exactly what kind of art is politics?

Here’s a style of art, the kind everybody finds acceptable and can endorse. Who is going to argue about Rembrandt?

Rembrandt - Self Portrait
Then again, over time there were a number who wanted to argue about and with Rembrandt. By the time the twentieth century rolled around, artists wondered why they had to pay slavish homage to ideas that no longer suited the times. They determined that new ways were not only possible, but that they must be possible.

And so Picasso

Picasso - Les Demoiselles D'Avignon

and Jackson Pollock

Pollock - No. 5
Maybe every progressive politician who is wavering on support for an assault weapons ban needs to visit some museums with modern art; there are plenty in Washington. Then maybe they will discover what real courageous progress is. The possible is limited only by our imagination, spirit and will. That’s the real art.

The Untouchables: No Justice On Wall Street

The Untouchables
This week, PBS Frontline aired a follow-up to its powerful documentary Money, Power & Wall Street, which covered the origins and aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown. The Untouchables is an equally scathing and disturbing story about the failure of the Justice Department to prosecute any Wall Street executives for fraud, in the wake of their apparently knowing securitization and sale of worthless mortgages.

For those who wonder whether investigative journalism still matters, this happened yesterday:

Lanny Breuer, the head of the DOJ Criminal Division featured in the documentary, resigned. Questions about why criminal prosecutions have taken so long—and whether there will ever be any—linger like a bad odor.

Mary Jo White, a former federal prosecutor, was nominated to be the next chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Richard Cordray, another former prosecutor, was renominated to be director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The president said these nominations would help prevent a financial crash like the one he inherited four years ago.

People say that the new movie Zero Dark Thirty serves as a thought-provoking wake-up call about the role of torture and, ultimately, the effectiveness and judgment of President Obama. It has been said that those who support the president might find the film unnerving.

The Untouchables is much more unnerving, not just in looking at the president, but in looking at Attorney General Holder, at overseers,  and at all the others who seem to be strangely—or not so strangely—beholden to Wall Street.

Watch The Untouchables, then go back and watch Money, Power & Wall Street. Like all great investigative journalism, it is darkly entertaining, and like all unvarnished views of how government works, it is profoundly discouraging. But necessary.

The Real Basics of the Speech

Inaugural Address 2013
Self-congratulation can be unbecoming, even when it is deserved. It can also be unhelpful and even counterproductive.

The immediate aftermath of the election was a storm of emotions for Democrats. It combined exhilaration at winning with relief from avoiding an unthinkable alternative. The first weeks seemed to be filled with a Republican state of denial, to which “elections have consequences and we won” seemed a pretty succinct response.

Then the ice started to break a bit. A few concessions were made, with Republicans implicitly acknowledging that things were different, if not subject to a sea change. Then President Obama delivered his Inaugural address.

Judging by the reaction, for some liberals/progressives, this was the missing second beat of election night. Obama won, and now he was openly announcing where he stood on the supposed left/right divide. Verbal high-fiving, fist-bumping and chest-thumping could be widely heard. The address was pronounced a liberal/progressive triumph.

And looked at one way, it was. But that is a self-limiting analysis, and actually robs the speech of its power, and robs Obama of his vision and careful eloquence.

The speech had three basic points:

These are our shared American principles.
Government works from the bottom up, not the top down.
We have to live in the present not the past.

Labeling that liberal, progressive or otherwise, no matter who is doing the labeling, short-circuits a potentially valuable conversation and possibilities of common ground. The victory lap, even if it is meant to be dispiriting to the presumed opposition, doesn’t help.

Obama supporters say that he was too conciliatory in his first term, that he unwisely—even naively—believed that compromise was possible. Now they see and hear the less yielding partisan they always believed he was.

They are only partly right. Obama will stand more firmly, but if you listen to the speech beyond the specifics you may be happy to have heard, it was all about those three simple points. Set aside the labels and even the initiatives, and just talk about the basics. The challenge Obama set is for those who claim true Americanism to disagree.

Fish and Assault Weapons

Fish Head Bullet Weights
Tomorrow, Barack Obama unveils a series of proposals to curb gun violence. Among them is likely to be a reintroduction of a federal ban on the sale of assault weapons, a ten-year prohibition that expired in 2004. Many are pessimistic, believing that such a measure might pass the Senate, but will certainly not make it through the House.

There is a fair amount of discussion about whether people hunt with assault weapons, and if they do, whether they should. It’s a good question, but not nearly as fascinating as the eccentric question of whether people fish with assault weapons.

The short answer is that up until a few years ago, two states did allow fishing with guns. New York State has since repealed its law, leaving Vermont as the only state where you can legally shoot fish (in a lake, but presumably still not in a barrel—except in the privacy of your own home).

Spring hunting for pike is in fact a Vermont tradition. Here is the law:

Vermont Statutes
Title 10: Conservation and Development
Chapter 111: FISH

§ 4606. Taking fish by unlawful means

(e) In Lake Champlain pickerel, northern pike, carp, garfish, bowfin, mullet, shad, suckers, bullhead, and other cull fish may be taken from March 25 to May 25 by shooting and spearing in other than spawning areas designated under section 4140 of this title. For the purposes of this subsection, Lake Champlain includes all connected waters at the same level.

Gun experts do not generally advise shooting in water at all, for the safety of bystanders. But if you do plan to set your sites on Lake Champlain fish, it is likely that assault weapons will still be legal this spring, so nothing other than a sense of fairness, or good sense in general, should be stopping you.

Adorable Animals Instead of Politicians

John Boehner - Golden Retriever Puppies
It’s a hard life for a political junkie. Not because politics is difficult to find these days. To the contrary, it is everywhere, all the time. If politics is the drug, there are dealers literally giving it away—begging you to take it—at millions of media storefronts. It’s like Amsterdam, where women are on display behind glass and drugs flow like water—except that it’s all free.

The problem isn’t supply. The problem is that once you’re hooked, after a while you no longer get the thrill you once did. In fact, you often feel pretty bad. But by that time, it’s too late.

Last year was the best and the worst of times for political junkies. Not only was it an election year; it was an election year like none other. Talking heads couldn’t stop talking and we couldn’t stop listening and retorting. But it didn’t make us feel good. Whether we liked the outcome of the elections or not, we felt icky, cynical, pessimistic. Maybe, we hoped, we could get a break, enjoy some spiritual renewal as we celebrated somebody’s—anybody’s—savior being born, and could start a new year clean.

No such luck. Politically, the year ended at a low point, and with the new year, the chances of climbing out of the gutter seem slim. If political junkies could only distance themselves from these shenanigans (a great word Joe Biden used last week), maybe we could clear our heads a little.

Unfortunately, with so many serious issues at stake, staying away seems unlikely. Instead, here is a radical solution that might just help.

Every time a politician is mentioned or shown, imagine an adorable animal. Nothing fierce, nothing threatening, nothing ugly. Something unbearably cute and irresistible, guaranteed to bring a smile, however fleeting, to your face. (Note: If you think that the politician mentioned is adorable, cute and irresistible, no substitution is necessary.)

This is loosely based on various cognitive therapies, but the truth is that there is no real science behind it. On the other hand, there is nothing to lose either. If you’re addicted to politics, very little is going to lift you up right now. Any way you look at it, there are too many politicians and not enough adorable animals. This is just a small step to redress the balance in your unbalanced life.

Walt Whitman Helps Launch Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas

Walt Whitman
First it was Abraham Lincoln in the new television campaign for the Lincoln Motor Company (the founder of that firm was a fan of the president, back when the company was started in 1917).

Lincoln Motor Company

Now Walt Whitman, the father of modern American poetry and, coincidentally, a big fan of Lincoln himself, is helping to launch this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (January 8-11).

Whitman will probably not be seen emerging from a mysterious fog as Lincoln does in the commercial, although that would be unspeakably cool.

Instead, Whitman’s most famous line of poetry is quoted (without attribution) in the official description of the very first CES SuperSession

The Digital Health Revolution: Body, Mind and Soul
January 8, 2013, 9:30-10:30 a.m.

“I sing the body electric” takes on new meaning in our brave new digital world, where devices let us monitor everything from our stress levels to our genetic sequences, and devices with 100 real-time biosensors loom on the horizon. Join moderator Arianna Huffington as she leads four digital health leaders in conversation — on the latest innovations in the field, how those innovations have the potential to change lives, and what the digital revolution means for the body, mind, and soul.

The literarily perspicacious will notice that the first line of copy includes allusions to two groundbreaking writers—not just Whitman, but also Aldous Huxley. Huxley’s Brave New World vision is actually much closer to what is going on at CES than Whitman’s. Unfortunately, Huxley will not be coming out of the mist either, though the thought of his joining up with Whitman in Las Vegas to look at the latest gadgets is mind-blowing—even without Huxley’s Soma or LSD. Add Lincoln, and it is the stuff that dream movies are made of (Steven Spielberg, are you listening?).

Back to Whitman, I Sing The Body Electric is included in his Leaves of Grass (1855). Whitman’s work was a sensation, in part because of his unabashed celebration of the splendor and wonder of the human body and sexuality. The poem is just such a celebration, a spiritual anatomy lesson that is like a painting, whose message is: be not ashamed.

It isn’t clear that is what the CES copywriter had in mind, though writers generally deserve much more credit than they get. If the point is that digital pioneers plan to touch every part of our bodies, that works too.

Meanwhile, Whitman—whose use of the term “electric” was itself quite pioneering—would probably be happy to see his poem alive and well in the context of keeping and making people healthy, head to toe, organ to organ. See you in Vegas, Walt.

For the digiterati and literati, here is the closing section of the poem:

O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you,
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are the soul,)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and that they are my poems,
Man’s, woman’s, child’s, youth’s, wife’s, husband’s, mother’s, father’s, young man’s, young woman’s poems,
Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eyebrows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue,
Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the ample side-round of the chest,
Upper-arm, armpit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones,
Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, forefinger, finger-joints, finger-nails,
Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,
Ribs, belly, backbone, joints of the backbone,
Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round, man-balls, man-root,
Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above,
Leg fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under-leg,
Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel;
All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body or of any one’s body, male or female,
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean,
The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame,
Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves, sexuality, maternity,
Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman,
The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!

Holiday from Politics or Holiday with Politics?

Harry Reid Kathy Griffin
Just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in.

New Year’s Eve is supposed to be a politics-free zone. Actually, we assume that, but can’t be entirely sure, because it honestly never came up before.

We needed the break. So what was Congress doing on our New Year’s Eve broadcasts?

Was it maddening to have Sen. Harry Reid et al competing with Ryan Seacrest, Carson Daly, and a bunch of pop stars lip-syncing their hits to preposterously overexcited audiences? Not really. Watching Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin on CNN was a complete antidote.  After six years of their improbable New Year’s Eve partnership, they are one of the great unscripted couples in television history.

Theirs is an unforced chemistry, an obviously loving friendship that viewers get to watch. Kathy is professionally outrageous, determined to say and do anything, the more embarrassing the better. Anderson is famously private, so Kathy aggressively pokes around his peccadilloes, making him demur, squirm, giggle and half-heartedly try to uphold CNN network standards.

Among this year’s highlights was a surprise visit by Psy, who understood little English, so that when Kathy congratulated his success by saying he had “money coming out of his butt,” he graciously replied, “That means so much coming from you.” But nothing beat Kathy’s relentless attempts to go down on Anderson, a sequence prompted by CNN’s report about the custom in Eastport, Maine of “kissing the big sardine” on New Year’s Eve.

Comments indicate that some found this, and much of what Kathy does to/with Anderson, to be crude, vulgar, distasteful, pointless, etc. It is edgy, but also good-natured and even sweet. Watching Anderson, one of the most respected journalists in America, protecting his private parts from her advances is just funny—especially when he made it clear that it was not something he was interested in.

Apparently those objecting to distasteful and pointless on New Year’s Eve were not aware of what was going on in Washington that night. Thank God for Anderson and Kathy. They were way more fun.

Morning Coffee Simple

BodumA while back it was revealed that Howard Schultz, patriarch of Starbucks, did not use some $10,000 piece of equipment to make his morning coffee. And he did not go to Starbucks.

Instead, his preferred brew was a cup of French press. Simple French press.

For those who don’t press, this is how it goes.

Put coffee grounds in the pot.
Pour hot water over them.
Put plunger top on pot.

This is an almost entirely silent process. No machines, no clatter, no hisses and moans. The loudest sound is the cascading hot water. And if you listen carefully, you might hear the whooshing of the plunger descending to press.

When you practice this morning after morning, it is a bit like a Japanese tea ceremony. Each movement and event is precise and focused: watching the waterfall into the pot, watching the eddies as the grounds swirl and sink.

As with the tea ceremony, when you’re all done, you have both an experience and a perfect cup to drink. What more could a simple man or a simple billionaire ask for?