Bob Schwartz

Month: May, 2013

The Voice: “I Hate This Country”

Adam Levine - The Voice
Adam Levine is a popular musical artist with Maroon 5 and a coach on NBC’s singing competition The Voice.

Last night was an elimination round for two of the remaining eight contestants. Each of the four coaches (including Shakira, Usher and Blake Shelton) has members of their respective teams in the competition.

After the typical tense triage, three contestants remained. Only one would survive. Of those, two were from Team Adam, and one was a talented singer named Judith Hill. She may not have been destined to win, but she was a solid performer who had already had a career as a backup singer for Michael Jackson, and might yet get a chance on her own. The two other singers remaining were not in her league.

The camera was on those three as host Carson Daly pronounced the obligatory nail-biting “America has voted” spiel. In the background, you could hear a simple comment from Coach Adam, as he likely sensed that the most worthy of the three was about to be eliminated:

“I hate this country.”

Meaning, one presumes: I hate these stupid popularity contests, even one that I am a part of, where merit matters less than the judgment of numbers and the crowd. I don’t hate America, but I hate it when America speaks like this.

And then, Judith Hill was gone.

Every one of the artist-coaches has built a successful career, and knows that entertainment, like every other field, is not entirely a meritocracy. Still, even accounting for differences in taste, a few minutes of singing can reveal those with consistent control, those who can find and hit all the notes, those who can put power and style in what they sing—and those who can’t.

So Adam, and everybody else who gets frustrated by singing competitions that don’t always give us the best, or political systems that don’t either, embrace your frustration. At least it means that you haven’t given up, that you still have standards, that you still have hope and expectations that the competitions and elections will give us winners who really can sing—even if we lose some worthy ones along the way.

Go Silent on Memorial Day

Go Silent
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) this week launched a new campaign asking all Americans to “Go Silent” this Memorial Day in honor of all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. The “Go Silent” campaign encourages Americans to pledge at to pause and be silent for a full minute at 12:01 p.m. EDT on Memorial Day, Monday, May 27.

The Pew Research Center has reported extensively on the Military-Civilian Gap:

America’s post-9/11 wars mark the longest period of sustained combat in the nation’s history – and never before has America waged war with so small a share of its population carrying the fight.

Military Participation

For more about IAVA.

To donate to IAVA.

Speed Men

Don Draper on Speed
Definition of Phantasmagoria
1. An exhibition of optical effects and illusions
2. A constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined
3. A bizarre or fantastic combination, collection, or assemblage

The latest episode of Mad Men, Crash, is not the first to involve a car crash or the use of drugs. But it does use both as a device and as prefiguring of what is down the road for Don Draper and company.

Previously on Mad Men, besides the limitless consumption of alcohol and tobacco, in this late 1960s era there has been the increasing use of marijuana, and a few LSD experiments. This time, though, the drug of choice is speed.

Chevy is the agency’s new and prized client. Ken takes the Chevy guys out for a booze-fueled night, and drunken speeding results in a crash that leave’s Ken’s leg injured. Chevy is placing impossible demands on the agency, and so a weekend of work is ahead for the creatives and the account people. A sort-of doctor is brought in to inject the senior staff with a sort-of “stimulant”—a combination of vitamins and speed.

Speed heaven and speed hell break out. People are racing each other down office aisles and over desks, playing William Tell by throwing sharpened pencils at each other, wanting sex, talking nonstop. Don has two distinctive reactions. On the mental side, he seems  on the brink of a breakdown. His mind flows back to his growing up in a whorehouse, where we learn the possible origins of his sex addiction and other problems. He loses track of time, something that has happened before.

On the creative side, he has a breakthrough, the kind that speed can convince you (often falsely) that you are having. Don is obsessed by an old agency campaign for soup that he is sure holds the key to Chevy. He ultimately finds the ad, though it is for oatmeal; the soup is from his memory of a prostitute who nursed him back to health and was his first sexual experience. The headline says, “She Knows What You Want”.

But when Don calls everybody in to announce his creative triumph, the speed speaks, pontificating that, no, he hasn’t solved the Chevy puzzle—he has solved the big puzzle of life itself.

Events in and out of the office keep spinning. The speed has apparently “cured” Ken’s injury, as he throws away his cane and starts tap dancing. Don has left his children alone in the apparent, and an older black lady who calls herself Don’s Grandma Ida breaks in, confronts Don’s daughter Sally, and steals some of Don’s watches. Sally doesn’t believe Ida is Don’s grandmother, but since Sally doesn’t really know anything about Don’s real background, anything is possible.

The speed crash comes on Monday, and it is different than any other of the post-drinking hangovers that Don has ever suffered through. We can’t tell exactly what has gone on in his head, or what combination of murky and clear is operating, or whether he has really figured anything out. But he does something he has never done before, because being creative—making things up—is what his adult life has been about. He relinquishes creating for the Chevy account, and says he will only serve as creative director, managing what others come up with.

At this point, as he has a few times before, Don is seeing that if he keeps moving the way he has, he will crash. But he thinks that if he stops moving, he is dead. Of course, Don Draper is dead, killed accidentally and indirectly in Korea by the young Dick Whitman. Just as Draper’s suicidal younger stepbrother Adam Whitman was killed indirectly by Don, as was Draper’s suicidal partner Lane Pryce.

If it doesn’t stop on its own, maybe the uncaring laws of life and physics will take over. Maybe there will be a much more serious crash.

Politics Usual or Unusual

Barack Obama
Most presidents, even the ones you love to hate, are idealists. At least at the start. For some, depending on the times, the makeup of Congress, and the skills of the national CEO , the presidency is where dreams go to die. Since the enemies of Obama–and he has bitter enemies in high places—have raised the ghost of Nixon, it is a good time to honestly set perspective.

The best way to measure the historic egregiousness of presidential misperformance is to count the friends who remained even as it was unfolding. There is a point at which that inchoate thing we might call the honor of the country is at stake, rather than just individual transgressions. Lying in office, either about sex or about phantom weapons, is apparently not enough to turn everybody against you. Killing the economy and then handing a near lifeless body to your successor isn’t either. Blowing up the Constitution is.

So what we have at this moment is not Nixonian by any stretch. What we have is the unpretty side of presidential pragmatism, the point at which feeling forced to play the game as it is played, rather than the way you had dreamed it could be played, is on unflattering display. Obama’s no good very bad week has led to a variety of dancing that no one should watch. There is Republican grave dancing, Obama supporter apologist dancing, and administration pretzel dancing. This last is exemplified by the Attorney General distancing himself from a possibly justifiable but absolutely controversial decision to monitor journalists to discover leaks, and at the same time pushing for a media shield law that would help make the particular investigation more difficult, less likely, or even impossible. That is, stop us before we kill again.

This all adds up to something not that spectacular, but for some a little disheartening in its plainness and obviousness. Politics is a life size business. Once in a while, some come along who stand taller, act more forthrightly, speak a little more inspiringly in ways that make us believe in the possible and in ourselves. We must have this because without vision, the people really do perish. Obama seems to be one of those. This week, though, he is stuck in a moment that is more usual, looking more usual. The unusual will be back, or at least it should, but right now, what it is is governing.

Shavuot and Ruth

Chagall - Naomi and Her Beautiful Daughters

Today is the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. It is said so often that Shavuot is “lesser known” that maybe it is now better known for being lesser known.

Its low profile outside the Jewish communities doesn’t mean it is insignificant, or that a host of meanings and traditions aren’t attached.

Shavuot began as an agricultural celebration. The name literally means Festival of Weeks, one of the three pilgrimage holidays, along with Passover and Sukkot. The Bible commands the counting of the omer, the days from the second day of Passover. After seven weeks, on the fiftieth day, a grain offering is to be made at the Temple. As a harvest celebration, Shavuot is also known as the Day of the First Fruits. If you’re into borrowing food traditions, Shavuot is a dairy holiday, and cheese blintzes and cheesecake are always appropriate.

Shavuot also celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah, the central event in Jewish life. Some make the case that dating this event on Shavuot is biblical. But attaching this event to the holiday seems more a matter of tradition than biblical precision. After the destruction of the Temple, agricultural pilgrimages ended.  This new tradition arose, a tradition that remains at the heart of the modern Shavuot celebration. Among the observances, some people gather and stay up all night reading the Torah, along with other scripture and literature.

There is a holiday calendar mashup surrounding Shavuot. Shavuot and Christian Pentecost often fall within a few days of each other—this year Shavuot starting on the evening of May 14 and Pentecost on Sunday May 19.

There are some holidays on the Jewish and Christian calendars that based on history and theology have a real and important relationship, such as Passover and Easter. There are holidays that may coincide on the calendar but have little to do with one another. And then there are Shavuot and Pentecost, which have an usual relationship.

To begin with, the holidays share the same name, sort of. As a festival marking seven weeks, Shavuot became known as Pentecost among Greek-speaking Jews, because it marks the “fiftieth” day from the second day of Passover.

Pentecost is a major feast on the Christian liturgical calendar. It represents the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and others, on the fiftieth day (Pentecost) after Easter. It is often considered the birthday of the Church.

It is relatively straightforward to deal with the nexus between the events of Holy Week and Passover. There is evidence in the Gospels, and the weight of opinion is that the Last Supper was indeed a Passover meal. But the dueling Pentecosts, and the attempts to harmonize them, have caused nothing but confusion.

It is certain that the Jews of Jesus’ time would have celebrated the agricultural holiday of Shavuot. But beyond this, we have Christians who try to make the case that Christian Pentecost is “historically and symbolically” related to Shavuot, though it isn’t clear exactly how. On the other side, there are a few Jewish writers who claim that the name Pentecost was unknown to Jews, even Greek speakers, and that the name was given to Shavuot by Christians.

Finally, there is this coincidence. In Reform Judaism, youth confirmation is often held on Shavuot, in recognition of the giving of the Torah. In many Christian denominations, youth confirmation is held on Pentecost, in recognition of the work of the Holy Spirit.

If you take a big picture view, you can probably connect the dots and come up with a relationship between Shavuot (Pentecost) and Pentecost. This is especially tempting when the two holidays coincide so closely. But they are two distinct holiday, and harmonizing is a stretch.

As far as Shavuot traditions, maybe the most heart-lifting is reading the Book of Ruth. Separate from its religious meaning, this is a great piece of literature, a short story about unyielding devotion, commitment and loyalty to family—and one of the first and most famous to affirm the family of women. It is the touching antidote to every caustic mother-in-law joke that has ever been told.

In Ruth, the mother-in-law Naomi loses her husband, as her daughters-in-law lose theirs (above, Chagall’s Naomi and Her Beautiful Daughters). Seeming to have little else in common than her sons, Naomi urges them to leave and get married again. One does leave, but Ruth refuses, in words that are sometimes used to signify the power of Ruth’s conversion of faith, but that are a much more universal expression of devotion as solid as that of any marriage:

She then decided to come back from the Plains of Moab with her daughters-in-law, having heard in the Plains of Moab that God had visited his people and given them food. So, with her daughters-in-law, she left the place where she was living and they took the road back to Judah.

Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back, each of you to your mother’s house. May God show you faithful love, as you have done to those who have died and to me. God grant that you may each find happiness with a husband!’ She then kissed them, but they began weeping loudly, and said, ‘No, we shall go back with you to your people.’

‘Go home, daughters,’ Naomi replied. ‘Why come with me? Have I any more sons in my womb to make husbands for you? Go home, daughters, go, for I am now too old to marry again. Even if I said, “I still have a hope: I shall take a husband this very night and shall bear more sons,” would you be prepared to wait for them until they were grown up? Would you refuse to marry for their sake? No, daughters, I am bitterly sorry for your sakes that the hand of God should have been raised against me.’

They started weeping loudly all over again; Orpah then kissed her mother-in-law and went back to her people. But Ruth stayed with her. Naomi then said, ‘Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her god. Go home, too; follow your sister-in-law.’

But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you and to stop going with you, for wherever you go, I shall go, wherever you live, I shall live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I shall die and there I shall be buried. Let God bring unnameable ills on me and worse ills, too, if anything but death should part me from you!’

(Ruth 1:6-17)

Barna: You Don’t Have to Be Christian

Spiritually Homeless
If you have any interest in the state of American religion—or of American society—you must pay attention to the Barna Group. Founded by George Barna in 1984, for decades jit has been analyzing American attitudes towards and participation in religion, from the perspective of informing Christian churches. By its nature, though, this is not necessarily a denominational narrow view. Consider, by analogy, market research by General Motors. That research is not entirely, or even primarily, about consumers and GM cars. It is about consumers and all car companies and cars and transportation in general. Just so, state-of-the-art quality research on religion is valuable to anyone in the field.

Beyond this, it is valuable for anyone interested in America. For example, our public discussion includes the terms Christian, evangelical, born again, etc., being thrown around casually as if everyone knows and agrees on what they mean—except that everyone doesn’t. That lack of rigor isn’t a luxury that Barna has. It has defined these and other terms with surgical precision, so that the research itself can be precise and informative.

The just-released report on Three Spiritual Journeys of Millennials is only the latest example of how fascinating and useful the Barna research can be. When numbers of people flee from organized religion, only the most shortsighted think that this is a just a problem for Christianity or for any other religious institution. A social sea change is a sea change, and not trying to seriously assess its meaning and implications is simply foolish. Those who applaud the phenomenon as a sign of long overdue enlightenment—of people finally coming to their senses—are not thinking it through. Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, areligionist, anti-religionist, this report—and all that Barna does—can help you with that thinking.

Publius Speaks to Congress

Federalist Papers
Publius Valerius Publicola (“friend of the people”) was a Roman consul who helped found the Roman Republic circa 509 BCE. When James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay began publishing The Federalist Papers in 1787, they attached his name to their arguments for adoption of the Constitution.

We don’t know how many current members of Congress have read the Federalist Papers—not even all 85 papers, maybe just a few. We also don’t know how many senior members of the executive branch have done so. We can assume that all nine Supreme Court Justices have; these are, after all, an essential part of the legislative history of the Constitution.

Every time you see politicians brandishing the Constitution as a weapon, well-meaningly or just plain meanly; every time you hear a half-baked political argument or analysis that makes absolutely no sense, but is based mostly or entirely on emotion or ambition; every time you wonder whether a particular politician is taking the best interests of the country to heart or is just interested I getting ahead, the Federalist Papers are your talisman.

The Federalist Papers are a brilliant combination of careful philosophy and political realities—a balance between aspiration and actuality, between the way we want to be and the way we are.

When we hear today about “grand bargains” being struck in Congress—or often not being reached at all—you have to laugh. The very same founders who are treated as saints or even gods had to make the grandest of all bargains so that this nation could exist and endure. And in the Federalist Papers, we find the philosophical intelligence, the political courage and the candid self-awareness to expose how narrow interest and pettiness can stand in the way of solutions. If anything has changed in more than two centuries, it’s that we seem to have fewer Madisons, Hamiltons and Jays front and center in our national discourse:

A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose. To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.

An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good.

It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.

Federalist No. 1

The Great Gatsby and the Great Draper

Gatsby and Draper
At this point, the reviews of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby are mixed, which isn’t surprising. His love of over-the-top spectacle is not to all tastes, and has a tendency to obscure story for fireworks. (His best movie may be his first, most personal and sweetest, the little and lovely 1992 romantic comedy Strictly Ballroom).

Literature to film goes in all directions. Small gets bigger as even the shortest stories are adapted. Big gets smaller, given the need to cut out sometimes huge chunks of narrative. Big gets bigger, as in Gone with the Wind. Big stays big, trying to preserve and show everything, as in Peter Jackson’s still-not-completed Tolkien opus.

The Great Gatsby is a little book. You can read it, even out loud, in a few hours. What has made it endure as one of the great novels is how much Fitzgerald packed into it. Word for word, it is one of the best fictional descriptions of a moment in history; not just that critical moment of the early 1920s either, but maybe every time the country is changing radically, as fortune swings in a blink between good fortune and bad.

Gatsby is not about the parties or the mansions. You can argue that the colorful wildness and glamour and licentiousness make the tragic end starker, so that when narrator Nick Carraway announces that the party is over, we get it. But we can miss the point.

Gatsby is a touching little story about a lost soul in a lost time. The only two ways to tell this story on film are to keep it small, or to actually rewrite and expand the story beyond its outline, to hours and hours of film.

The expanded story is already being made, by Matthew Weiner. Mad Men is the extended, history-spanning story of a fatally charismatic and ambitious man, so ambitious that in keeping with the dynamic times he lives in, he sheds his entire early life and identity to become a successful man of mystery. But he never stops trying to fill the holes that he knows are still there.

Every man wants to be him, every woman wants to have him, nobody knows him. The only difference between James Gatz/Jay Gatsby and Dick Whitman/Don Draper is that so far Draper has managed, somehow, to outlive his younger manhood to reach his middle years without crashing—but coming close almost daily. So just in case the Baz Luhrmann Gatsby doesn’t prove satisfying, don’t worry. The murky madness and capriciousness of Gatsby’s go-and-stop American dream is on view in the epic of Mad Men.

Spring Love Thing: Slinky Spinwheels

Slinky Spinwheels
If you’re lucky enough to love somebody, and even luckier to have that somebody love you back, you’re always thinking of little things that say I love you.

The candy, the cards, the flowers, the stuffed animals are always appropriate. But if you’ve been together a while, been there, given that. Today, one of the first truly gorgeous days of an inconstant spring so far, the aisles of the local Walgreens offered the just-have-to-get-this-for-her item: the Slinky Spinwheel.

Okay, it’s just a happy-colored mylar pinwheel. But consider this. The candy gets eaten, the card gets put in a drawer, the cut flowers wilt, the live flowers need water and when they don’t get it die, the stuffed animals cutely live on a closet shelf.

The spinwheel lives. It spins prettily and magically in the spring breeze. Or in the summer, fall or even cold winter breeze. Just like the one you love and who, if you’re lucky, loves you back.

(Note: For the cynical among you who may think that this sounds like advertising for Walgreens or Slinky Spinwheels, please be assured it isn’t. There are lots of stores that have lots of pinwheels. If it is an advertisement for anything, it is for love and spring. There is never enough promotion of those.)

Pepsi and the Line between Stupid and Clever

Mountain Dew
You’ve got to love the movie Spinal Tap. Below the surface of this hilarious fake “rockumentary”, beyond the wisdom of lines such as “It’s such a fine line between stupid and, uh…clever”, is a genuine commentary about what happens when popular art meets commerce.

When the band tries to revive its fading fortunes with an album called “Smell the Glove”, the record label rejects a cover photo of a woman on a leash being forced to, well, smell a glove. Instead, the album is released with a plain black cover.

Pepsi has long looked at its Mountain Dew brand as the edgiest of its beverages, with potential youth appeal. That would explain why it hired a 22-year-old hip-hop artist and music producer known as Tyler the Creator to create a series of videos for the brand. The storyline is that a goat named Felicia, voiced by Tyler, is obsessed with Dew and angry at its being in short supply. The goat brutally attacks a white waitress. In the third video, the injured waitress is at a police station, looking over a lineup of four black men and the goat. The goat threatens her, among other things reminding her that “snitches get stitches.” She is scared off and will not “dew” it.

After complaints about its being the most racist commercial ever, PepsiCo removed it from the web (you may still be able to see it here).

PepsiCo said, “We understand how this video could be perceived by some as offensive, and we apologize to those who were offended. We have removed the video from all Mountain Dew channels and have been informed that Tyler is removing it from his channels as well.”

Tyler’s manager said:

“It was never Tyler’s intention to offend, however offense is personal and valid to anyone who is offended. Out of respect to those that were offended, the ad was taken down. For those who know and respect Tyler, he is known for pushing boundaries and challenging stereotypes thr[ough] humor. This is someone who grew up on David Chappelle. This situation is layered with context and is a discussion that Tyler would love to address in the right forum as he does have a point of view. As someone who hasn’t had the experience of being discriminated against I choose to respect the opinion of those who have. What I can speak to is Tyler, who represents much more than the current narrative this story suggests.”

“Contrary to what many may discern from this, Tyler is the embodiment of not judging others, his delivery may not be for everyone (which is true for anyone who pushes boundaries) but his voice is nonetheless important to the conversation since his demographic understands what he ultimately stands for and sees the irony of it all. Context may or not help those who are offended and I wholly respect that, but for those who are interested, I can offer the following and leave the rest to Tyler.

“1. This spot was part of an overall admittedly absurd storyline about a crazy goat who becomes obsessed with Mountain Dew, 2. The lady in front of the line-up is the waitress from the first spot, 3. The line-up consists of Tyler’s friends and Odd Future members who were available that day. (L-Boy, Left Brain, Garret from Trash Talk and Errol) 4. He absolutely never intended to spark a controversy about race. It was simply an…admittedly absurd story that was never meant to be taken seriously. Again, we apologize if this was taken out of context and would never trivialize racism, especially now in America where voting and civil rights are being challenged at the highest level. I can however stand firmly by someone I have believed in since we met, only because I know him and I know all of this was never his intent.”

It’s not clear who this “David Chappelle” that the manager mentions is, but Dave Chappelle is one of the funniest, strangest, most boundary-pushing comic artists of recent times. Chappelle created one great piece after another, including a bit where a blind black man is a vicious anti-black racist, because he thinks he is white. That’s brilliant, so let’s start with the fact that Tyler has a long way to go.

Artists are supposed to do whatever their vision tells them, and we shouldn’t be stopping them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes the art is behind or ahead of its times.

But that doesn’t mean that those who pay for the work have to go along with everything that artists conceive and produce. There is actually a bit of cleverness here, but it is plagued by so much troubling text, context and subtext that it could not possibly have passed any feasibility test that any mainstream corporate advertiser might apply.

One thing that makes this even a little more troubling is PepsiCo’s quasi-apology. We are supposed to have gotten used to cleverly crafted statements that are meant to sound like apologies but aren’t quite. That is now the norm. We are not that stupid. “We apologize to those who were offended” is a defensive or even condescending posture: if you are among those who don’t get it (or as Tyler’s manager says, not part of “his demographic [that] understands what he ultimately stands for and sees the irony of it all”), then we are sorry. Mass media have mass audiences, and if you want to put something out there that is likely to cause trouble but you believe will help you, either stand behind it or don’t. Apologize or don’t. It may turn out to be commercially smart or stupid. But at least you’re brave.