Bob Schwartz

Month: July, 2013

The Failure of the American Autopilot

Otto the Autopilot

Congress is going on vacation, again. Will we miss them?

Maybe the greatest thing about America is its ability to run on autopilot, the brilliant way that it manages to handle whatever may come, internally or externally, to right itself, and move forward. Politics, corruption, war, economics, inequities—they have been painful, damaging and upsetting, but America was somehow able to get to tomorrow, and rise a little bit higher when it was all over.

Only once in the past century, before this moment, has the autopilot failed. The Great Depression required action and intervention, and we got it. Since then, and with the victorious end of World War II, it has been onward and upward. We’ve overcome so many mistakes that an entire generation now takes the American autopilot for granted.

This has lulled some into a sense that doing the wrong thing or doing nothing can’t hurt in the long run because, based on history, nothing can hurt in the long run. The problem is that we have hit one of those very rare moments when the autopilot is not doing its job. So that when we have a conspiracy by some in Congress not to do their job—confident that doing nothing is just the sort of medicine that an overactive American government needs—we are in a seeming tail spin. But they simply don’t believe that’s possible, because they have never lived in a time when the autopilot failed and, despite their embrace of vintage America, they may be poor students of history.

The least effective Congress in generations, maybe ever, is about to take another break. The country will still be here when they get back to non-work, and they will continue to engage in embarrassing their opposition, petty insults, ideological blowhardery, and mostly just trying to get elected again.

The American people are much smarter than them. For the most part, we know the autopilot that we’ve depended on is not working, and we know that Congress doesn’t seem to know that, or at least won’t admit it. We also know that Congress isn’t working, and if not them, who exactly is supposed to keep this country running straight, on and up?

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Bob Dylan

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Diana’s Grandson

Diana, William & Harry

An ecstatic caller to the BBC said that Diana would be so proud to see the birth of William and Kate’s son.

No one in the royal family, and few elsewhere, can be far from thinking about William’s mother, the most influential British royalty in recent history. She changed the culture of modern monarchy, making the most of her position even as she navigated the waters between outrageous global fame and real life. She also raised two decent young men under impossible circumstances, one of whom became a father today.

Diana would be a grandmother today. And she would be proud.

Kate’s Baby

Rosemary's Baby

Meaning no disrespect (and if in any way disrespectful, hopefully less so than ten thousand other privacy-invading media sources). For some reason, the frenzy surrounding every detail of the birth of Kate Middleton’s baby, heir to the British throne, brought to mind the final scene of the movie Rosemary’s Baby.

For those who haven’t seen Roman Polanski’s masterful study of subtle scariness—as good as any Hitchcock—the simple plot explanation is that Rosemary’s husband has made a deal with the devil. He will succeed as an actor and his wife will, unwittingly, give birth to the devil’s baby. The entire local satanic coven dotes on her pregnancy, and when the baby is born, they show up en masse to take photos and rejoice at the prospect of a new leader.

Once again, no disrespect, no suggestion that Prince William is the devil or that Kate is implicated in any arcane and complex birth ritual that goes back centuries. This is a bright, happy and hopefully healthy occasion. It’s just a thought.

Detroit: Motown and Corvettes and Tigers, Oh My!

Stingray 1963

Sometimes the best way to tell a story is not to tell it. The news about Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy, the biggest ever in America, is like that. Others will tell it at length. Sometimes the best way is to offer a few items that are interesting and related, and let readers and listeners make the connections, draw the lines, complete the picture.

Just in case your dot-connecting doesn’t make it clear, the story of Detroit’s bankruptcy is the biggest American story of the day, and possibly one of the biggest in many years. It is bigger than the story of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, bigger than last fall’s story of the rich son of a former Michigan governor disastrously running for President (and loving those Michigan trees, though not Detroit), bigger than the continuing economic malaise, but related to all of them.

Fifty years ago, in July 1963, Motown Records, Hitsville U.S.A., released the single Heat Wave by Martha and the Vandellas. It reached #4 on the Billboard Top 100, but did top the R&B chart. Like so many Motown records, who cares about the numbers? Motown is some of the best pop music ever produced in America. Want proof? Just play Heat Wave, or other irresistible tracks by the Vandellas, the Temps, the Tops, or put on another Motown single from fifty years ago that did go to #1, the astonishing Fingertips (Part 2) by 11-year-old phenomenon Little Stevie Wonder. Motown founder Berry Gordy was not just a model of black entrepreneurship in a white country, at a time when black voting rights had still not been established, but was the model for some of the hugest entertainment moguls in the world, including Jay-Z. But that was fifty years ago in Detroit.

Fifty years ago, the Corvette Stingray was introduced. Edmunds not only rates it the best Corvette of all time; it says “A full half-century after its debut, the 1963 Corvette coupe remains one of the most alluring automotive designs ever conceived.” The ad above shows an airline pilot in Los Angeles (back when being a pilot was super-special manly, and LA was the city of the future) ogling the new Stingray. He was envying the Motor City vision. But that was fifty years ago.

This very day, as the second half of baseball season begins, the Detroit Tigers are one of the best teams in baseball, with maybe the best pitcher (Max Scherzer) and certainly the best hitter (Miguel Cabrera), who may be on his way to becoming the first player to win consecutive Triple Crowns. Detroit fans appreciate this, and have been showing up for home games at a solid pace, about 37,000 a game—equal to the attendance for the Los Angeles Angels and way more than the 17,000 fans per game that show up in “ultra cool” Miami.

Saying that Detroit will be back from beyond the brink isn’t just wishful thinking. The idea that Detroit can fail but that everybody else in America will be alright is all wrong. The 17th century poet John Donne said it:

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

And if you don’t go for old poetry that you hated in high school, and would rather forget the troubles of Detroit and the world, Motown has lots to offer, especially on a sweltering July day.

Whenever I’m with him
Something inside starts to burning
And I’m filled with desire
Could it be a devil in me
Or is this the way love’s supposed to be?

It’s like a heat wave, burning in my heart
I can’t keep from crying, it’s tearing me apart

Preston Sturges on TCM Today

Preston Sturges

If you are quick, and have never seen any of the irreplaceable movies written and directed by Preston Sturges, Turner Classic Movies is devoting part of today to him. If you don’t manage to catch them there, and love movies, and can find the best of these elsewhere, find them and watch them.

As TCM describes his work

Featuring razor-sharp wit and astringent dialogue, writer-director Preston Sturges ranked as one of American cinema’s most gifted creative talents.

We take for granted the unified title of film writer-director, but seventy years ago, Sturges invented and perfected that role. He was Woody Allen before Woody Allen, and with all respect for what Allen has managed to do, none of his work is funnier or more biting than the best of Sturges. There were misses, but the best of Sturges includes three movies released in just two years, between 1941 and 1942. Here’s a summary from TCM:

Sturges went on to direct “The Lady Eve” (1941), a complex romantic comedy about a bumbling snake hunter (Henry Fonda) who becomes the prey of a cool, sexy con artist (Barbara Stanwyck). Fonda and Stanwyck enjoy a shipboard romance but he rejects her when he learns of her unsavory past, and in order to win her man, Stanwyck reinvents herself as a British noblewoman. In one of the most memorable set pieces in film, Stanwyck takes a moment on their honeymoon to regale her new husband with a list of every love affair she has ever had. As the scene progresses and Fonda’s jealousy increases, Sturges skillfully employs the soundtrack as a counterpoint; the train enters tunnels with its wheels clacking and whistles blowing, a storm develops and the score swells. Marvelously acted, “The Lady Eve” was a hit for Paramount and boosted the stock of all involved.

 

Paramount gave Sturges free rein with his next films, starting with perhaps his most personal, “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), a satire that focused on a comedy film director (Joel McCrea) who wants to make more meaningful motion pictures. Determined to experience poverty firsthand, he sets off as a hobo with an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake) in tow. For a comic piece, “Sullivan’s Travels” had a dark undertone with the ultimate moral being that people don’t want to be reminded of their situations, they want escapism. As Sullivan says near the end of the picture, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh.” The following year, Sturges wrote and directed “The Palm Beach Story” (1942), a satire on business and greed about a woman (Claudette Colbert) who leaves her inventor husband (McCrea) for a millionaire (Rudy Vallee). When the husband arrives in Florida, he is pursued by Vallee’s sister (Mary Astor) with unpredictable results. The film owed much to the French farces that once captivated a youthful Sturges.

If you see these movies, today or some other time, you won’t forget them, you will want to see them again, and you will wonder how you ever missed them. If you love comedy, and especially if you love comedy with witty language at its heart, and have been disappointed by those who say you “must” see this classic comic genius or other but come away thinking “boring”, “horribly dated” or “stupid”, these are for you. Brilliant, timeless, unforgettable. There was only one Preston Sturges.

Relying on Ourselves and Not Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone - Tsarnaev

This is what upsets us? This magazine cover is our biggest problem?

As of today, some retailers—of those retailers who actually sell paper magazines any more—are refusing to the carry the new issue of Rolling Stone with a cover showing a youthful and attractive photo of Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. They, along with maybe millions in the socialsphere, are making a statement.

But what exactly is that statement, and why are they making it?

If it’s about not giving any more publicity to him, along with any coverage of the Boston bombing and the upcoming trial, you can make a case that that might be healthy for all of us. But since there’s been no call for less coverage, that can’t be it.

If it’s about continuing the coverage, but making sure the coverage only reflects one particular approach, what approach would that be, exactly? And if it’s about not “glamorizing” him, where is the directorate that is going to make sure that all photos, cover and otherwise, of the most despicable people look suitably evil and ugly?

We have reached a point, not unique in history but maybe more now than ever, where reaction to everything is often overtaking thought about everything. The theory of “the wisdom of crowds”—that individuals can be wrongheaded, but heads put together are self-correcting and frequently right—needs to be reconsidered, if not thrown out the window.

If this Rolling Stone cover is a threat to anything, we have a problem. If we think that this cover makes mass murder look “cool” and is a contributor to our social difficulties, we really don’t know what those difficulties are. If we think that we shouldn’t have magazine covers with social and political miscreants, the Magazine Cover Authority will have to make a much broader review of all publications, before they pass them on to the Magazine Content Authority.

We have to start relying on our own thoughts, and when that careful thinking leads to conclusions, on our own abilities to directly address what we find. If a Rolling Stone cover with Tsarnaev is emblematic of anything, it is that Tsarnaev is here, he did what he did, and we should be working on that, and not on choices that magazines make.

For more on self-reliance, you might read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s classic essay of the same name. There was a time when Emerson’s essays were widely taught in schools—back in the Stone Age, before America got so smart and well-connected, before we realized that science and technology were the key to the future, and that the musty, fusty words of some old fart from Boston really had nothing to offer us.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Self-Reliance (1841)

George Zimmerman: Not Guilty. Responsible? Sorry?

George Zimmerman
It’s easy to see how we’ve come to confuse the legal and the moral. Here and everywhere, laws are put in place that offend a general or specific sense of what is right, so we tend to connect the two. We’re also so used to seeing the legal system in media that it occupies a lot of our thinking. Even though those movies and shows try to include moral dilemmas for lawyers and clients, it’s the law that intrigues and entertains us. We have not yet had a hit television show featuring a team of super-attractive philosophers hammering out the fine points of moral right and wrong.

George Zimmerman is not guilty, at least of the crimes charged in Florida. We are awaiting possible federal civil rights charges or a wrongful death civil lawsuit. But we have no official moral court, and so we can consider where he might stand before that bench.

Every minute, people around the world, people you know, maybe even you, cross some pretty bright moral lines, and we don’t put them in jail. Not that they don’t deserve to somehow be punished, but the legal system doesn’t fit the deed, and anyway, our prison overcrowding would be exponentially more critical.

There are lots of killings we allow or sanction, including self-defense, war and capital punishment. (It would be disingenuous and dishonest not to include abortion—not because it is or isn’t killing, but because from the moral perspective of some, it is killing that we legally allow, and we can’t have the already underserved moral discussion without at least mentioning it.)

George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. It is an unrefuted, admitted fact. The legal system, in its first but maybe not last swipe at the situation, has found him not guilty of a particular crime. For the record, for those who think the justice system failed, be aware that it was never enough for the jury to believe that Zimmerman was a liar and that his version of the scenario made no sense at all. The jury could only convict on the basis of another, more damning scenario—a scenario many of us could easily imagine, but a scenario the prosecution could never paint from the evidence they had to work with. The jury is allowed to draw inferences but can’t just use their imagination the way we can.

George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, and many of us have come to the reasonable, non-legal conclusion about how it happened. People who reach that conclusion want him to be punished, not just for retribution, but to prevent something like this every happening again. Even if further legal proceedings don’t end up punishing him, many have the clear sense that he crossed a moral line and he was very wrong. That’s something that gets lost in all the fascinating legal discussion. You don’t have to be guilty to be wrong. And ever if there isn’t some sort of moral jail, that is still a big deal.

Which brings us to the apology. Even giving credit to the Zimmerman account, the killing happened, he did it, and all the legal exoneration can’t take it back or make it better. Apologies have gotten an increasingly bad name; just look at how the Republicans used it as pejorative in describing President Obama’s early “apology tour” of the world. (It does make you wonder what home life is like for some of those politicians, who in the face of expected apology refuse, not wanting to seem weak or ineffectual. Marriage counseling alert.)

George Zimmerman should apologize to Trayvon Martin’s family. Fully and sincerely. In legal terms, he can’t, of course, since there are still proceedings possible or likely. In moral terms, though, experts say that the need to confess is the best friend of police and prosecutors, because truth is a heavy weight that needs lifting. He is actually half-way to a confession anyway, since we know he shot Trayvon Martin. He doesn’t even have to detail the circumstances in any way different than he has, even if it’s not true.

All he has to say is this: I shot him I killed him. Whatever the law says, I was wrong. I’m sorry.

Notes for a George Zimmerman Sermon

Pulpit
This is Sunday, the day after the night before when the George Zimmerman verdict was reached and announced.

There will be countless sermons preached in churches today about the meaning of the crime, the trial and the verdict. The quick take of the media has focused on black churches for obvious reasons. In a case easily seen as having a racial component, the anger and frustration has been color-blind, but members of the black communities have reason to have special interest, if not to take it personally.

That still leaves a large number of churches that are not predominantly black. or more broadly, not non-white, or more plainly, white churches. This isn’t a monolith, nor is this an easy case and verdict to digest. There will be pastors who openly question how well justice was done, others who distance themselves from judgment, and maybe others who find a vindication of something in the verdict. Many more will not touch it at all, either because it has nothing to do with what goes on in church or because even if it does, the right words aren’t yet found to be spoken.

Whatever the identity of those in the pulpits or the pews, here are a few points that might belong in a George Zimmerman sermon.

The laws written by people and the higher laws (whether you call them the laws of God or something else) are two different things. Human imperfection extends to our inability to do perfect justice. Not only is it impossible to do perfectly, it is impossible for people to conceive of how it would be done perfectly in some other “better” realm. If there is a heaven or heaven/hell combination, exactly what are those trials like and what do the statures and rules of evidence look like? Whether you picture the 10 laws, or the 613 laws, or however many laws and interpretive regulations being litigated against you or those you love or despise, how does that case go?

There are some suggested solutions that are widely preached but, let’s say, inconstantly practiced. If we admit we don’t know everything, can’t build everything, can’t “correctly” judge everything, then we might be stuck with just some one-size-fits-all answer: forgive. This doesn’t mean, in the case of George Zimmerman, giving up on changing the laws, or not pursuing further legal tactics such as a federal civil rights suit or a civil wrongful death suit, or being friendly to George Zimmerman if you see him on your street or on your tv screen. Those are the worldly things we should feel free to pursue if that is what’s in our hearts. But in our hearts, where those higher laws are supposed to find a home, we are better off working on the compassion and forgiveness stuff. Especially with a tragic death, when we are the living, still capable of making things better.

Imperfection. Compassion. Forgiveness. Especially in light of this case. Oh God, that is so hard to take.

What Sorts of Weapons Might George Zimmerman Now Carry?

Bandolier
Robert Zimmerman says that his brother George will now be “looking over his shoulder.” There has been plenty of angry and overheated rhetoric aimed at George Zimmerman in the wake of the not guilty verdict in the case of his killing Trayvon Martin. Whether or not he needs to be in fear of his safety and life, that is something he is going to have to reasonably decide—a decision he has experience with.

In case he does decide he needs extra protection, Florida statute gives him lots of options:

Title XLVI, Chapter 790
WEAPONS AND FIREARMS

790.06 License to carry concealed weapon or firearm.—
(1) The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is authorized to issue licenses to carry concealed weapons or concealed firearms to persons qualified as provided in this section. Each such license must bear a color photograph of the licensee. For the purposes of this section, concealed weapons or concealed firearms are defined as a handgun, electronic weapon or device, tear gas gun, knife, or billie, but the term does not include a machine gun as defined in s. 790.001(9). (emphasis added)

So now that George has gotten his handgun back, he doesn’t have to stop there. He is free to add a bigger handgun, a Taser, a tear gas gun, a knife or billie club—or all of them. This is Florida, right on the edge of the subtropics, so it is almost literally a jungle out there. If he chooses not to stay in Florida, which he might deem a good idea, he may feel more comfortable out West, where there are states with conceal carry laws even more accepting of the Zimmerman philosophy, and where standing your ground while armed to the teeth is historically a way of life on the frontier. He might begin a new career writing cowboy fiction, where phrases like “you got me!” would not be out of place.

That was the 19th century, of course, and this is the 21st, but unfortunately for the sometimes glacial advance of civilization, some things never seem to change. If anything, they can look like they are moving backward.

Sharknado

Sharknado
Some of us have been watching and loving the Syfy channel’s ludicrous scary animal disaster movies for years, such as

Dinocroc
Dinocroc vs. Supergator
Dinoshark
Frankenfish
Mega Piranha
Mega Python vs. Gatoroid
Mega Snake
Piranhaconda
Supergator

Then there are the newcomers who just this week discovered the film art of Syfy with the premiere of Sharknado  and have made it an entertainment sensation. If you haven’t yet heard about it, Sharknado, like many of these Syfy movies, pretty much gives away the basic concept in the title. Sharknado combines sharks and tornadoes: “When a freak hurricane swamps Los Angeles, thousands of sharks terrorize the waterlogged populace. And when the high-speed winds form tornadoes in the desert, nature’s deadliest killer rules water, land, and air.”

Soon, millions will be “experts”, comparing the performances of Debbie Gibson (as Dr. Nikki Riley) and Tiffany (as Park Ranger Terry O’Hara) in Mega Python vs. Gatoroid (2011), as well as trying to understand the symbolism of Monkee Mickey Dolenz appearing as himself in the movie.

Debbie Gibson and Tiffany

Being an early adopter of cutting edge art means learning to share with latecomers. So if you are a newbie and want to go back to the classics, be assured that any of the above are worth your attention and time.