Bob Schwartz

Month: October, 2013

There Is Still a War in Syria

Paris Hilton As Miley Cyrus
When there was less to people’s news and info lives—a newspaper or two a day, a half-hour network news show, a couple of news magazines a week—there were stories that rose to the top and stayed there, depending on importance. This didn’t mean that second-tier or frivolous stories didn’t get coverage or traction. People always loved celebrities, always loved hearing gossip, and when man bites dog, that’s always news. The down side was a certain provincialism that came with a narrow channel and less worldly attitudes: if millions were suffering in a place nobody heard of, with people unlike us, most readers and viewers might have no idea.

Now we can know anything, though we don’t know everything, or care about everything. This has left news leaders in a delicate position. There are going to be stories that appeal to a journalist sense and a humanist sense, that deserve at least regular mention, if not coverage that might only say, “And in the misery of this place or that war, it’s still happening, with no end in sight.” The dual problem is that people can find and figure that out for themselves, without a multi-billion dollar media enterprise telling them, and those media consumers might just as well pay attention to something else.

Which is why, unlike its predecessors World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War, the Iraq War was not the top story every day of its ten years. Which is why the current violence in Iraq is barely covered, a turning away that in part must come from some profound but unspoken embarrassment.

For a few moments a few months ago, Syria was a bright shiny object. Red lines, chemical warfare, threats of military action, etc. After some erratic movement, slight progress is being made. But that progress does not include ending the civil war.

The New York Times, still possibly the world’s greatest news enterprise, has an ongoing section devoted to the Crisis in Syria. The increasing numbers stupefy: 6.5 million Syrians displaced from their homes, more than 2 million of them seeking refuge in other countries. Now we hear about a cluster of polio cases among Syrian children.

We have plenty of our own problems, individually and as a country. Some of those are not small at all. But there is no polio. And the entire population of the state of Tennessee or Indiana has not had to leave their homes behind, dodging mayhem, unsure if they will ever return, or if there will be anything to return to.

We shouldn’t expect ourselves to be exhausted or crushed by the miseries of the world; that’s what keeping track of all the problems all the time would do. So yes, you can argue that it is important to learn from the news today that Paris Hilton has spent $5,000 on Halloween costumes so that she can dress up as Miley Cyrus. But for a change of pace, a regular, maybe daily, reminder that there is still a war in Syria might be of value.

The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard

Kennedy Monore Kennedy
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Director John Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence

The Book of Matt by Stephen Jimenez is about the heinous and now-legendary murder of Matthew Shepard. It obliquely brings three people to mind: John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

All three are legends apart, so maybe it is not surprising that legends have grown up about all three in various pairings, and even all together on at least one purported occasion. Whether or not Monroe had an affair with either or both of the Kennedys, whether Bobby was with her on the night of her death, whether evidence of those affairs was covered up or destroyed, is almost certainly never going to be incontrovertibly established. Some will say that some of it appears near certain while other of it is sordid and unsubstantiated conjecture. For the most part, we’ve reached a general consensus that none were saints, none were complete role models, but that we liked some of what they did, and we liked them for what they did, including inspiring us, and the rest is just shades of humanity. JFK helped prevent a nuclear war, Bobby Kennedy helped end the Vietnam War, and Marilyn was just Marilyn. If they didn’t live like saints, they died as complex and heartbreaking lessons.

Jimenez has investigated the Matthew Shepard murder for more than a decade. He concludes that this was not a vicious hate crime against a young gay man. Instead, it is a cautionary tale about the epidemic of methamphetamine. According to this report, Shepard was troubled, and was involved in the Laramie meth scene. The killer, who knew Shepard, was a meth head who had been up for a week, and was trying to get information from Shepard about a meth deal. He intended to coerce the information from Shepard, but out of his mind, simply beat Shepard mercilessly and insanely. The killer and his accomplice pled guilty, which kept details of the local meth market and the killer’s gay dealings with Shepard—trading meth for sex—secret.

The police investigation never involved a hate crime. The now-infamous imagining of Shepard being trussed up on a fence in a crucifix position never happened; he was found on the ground, hands tied behind his back. The anti-gay angle for the horrific event was soon added.

This might present a problem.

Jiminez has found himself in an odd position. He is accused of being anti-gay, though he is gay himself, in which case he is accused of being a “traitor” to a cause. He is accused of being a tool of the reactionary right wing, though he himself is far from being a right winger. What he is, he repeats, is a journalist who wants to do what he is supposed to do: find and tell the truth, as best as it ever can be found and told.

Matthew Shepard has become very important to the movement for gay rights. It is a powerful story: the young man who did nothing wrong, who only wanted to live a free and openly gay life, who had the misfortune of running into a black-hearted, hate-filled, intolerant stranger—the sort that fifteen years ago, and today, you can meet anywhere.

If it turns out that some or more than some of what Jimenez concludes is true, what happens to Matthew Shepard, the young man and the legend? In essence, Jimenez says that nothing happens. The issues remain the same, the good fight remains the good fight, but we will be fighting it armed with a little more truth about the story, convenient or not.

That sort of complication should be welcome, but it may not be, at least not everywhere. We like our stories simple, because so much of life is convoluted and mysterious. There are lines that are clear, but simple stories are mostly for children. Grownups have to work and stretch. This is a warts-and-all age, so we take our big characters as they come: flawed but still valuable. People work every day, their entire lives, on establishing equality—some of those people under the Matthew Shepard banner. That cause isn’t going away, and if we have to accept a little bit of historical adjustment, that’s the price we pay for having our eyes open.

Republicans Miss Another Opportunity to Be a Popular National Party

The shortcomings of the ACA website during its high-profile first weeks could have been a gift to the struggling Republicans. A softball to hit out of the park. While Democrats are understandably busy trying to make the best, to explain how complex systems are frequently troubled when they go live (true), to be, in essence, apologists, the Republicans could have been that thing that Americans of all stripes ache for: problem solvers.

Instead they heard the fire bell/dog whistle (or is it an elephant call?) and marched fiercely into battle mode. The current House hearings on the website seem more like a trial: at one point, one Republican member asked all the testifying contractors whether they had discussed their testimony with anyone from the government team beforehand. (Answer: no.)

What a missed opportunity. If the Republicans as a single voice had said that this is, from their perspective, still an awful program, but that we are all Americans, and if we are going to do something, we don’t do it half-assed, and let us today find a way to solve the problem. In earnest. That would have made any defensive positions by the Democrats more glaringly apologist, and would have made the Republicans not just heroes but responsible, reasonable heroes who don’t deserve to be despised by large parts of America, including some people in their own party.

But to some, this would have made these problem-solving heroes EINO—Elephants in Name Only—that is, goats. Watching this kangaroo court, some others might think that goats might be an improvement.

Which Comes First: Evolution or Revolution?

Tea Party
The 20th century gave us two world wars and an atomic bomb, but the most interesting of the Big Events of the century may be the Russian Revolution. An inequitable and unbalanced way of life gave bloody way to abstract enlightened visions of a better world. The particular inequities ended, Russia moved into modern times, but competition for the “right” vision and ineradicable baser human natures seeking power and control led to decades of national and global troubles. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” the Who said.

The Russian Revolution was grounded in a Marxist vision, which was in turn a Christian vision: a community on earth as it is in heaven, a brotherhood of people in which suffering and want would be softened, if not alleviated, by those who have a surplus of comfort and resource. It was Lennon, not Marx, who said, “You can say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”

What went wrong?

What almost always goes wrong is that evolution and revolution are out of sync. It is easy to say that people and society should first evolve for a while, and then at some critical moment, all that’s needed is that next faster-than-evolution event to take it to the next level.

That turns out rarely to be the case.

Evolution is slow, erratic, and always engenders resistance and reaction. The cliché is that people and society fear change, but that is too easy. They fear the unknown. The expression “better the devil you know than the one you don’t” sums it up. It takes a substantial leap—you might say a leap of faith—the walk into a vision rather than remain in a lesser but familiar reality.

Revolution is both an attempt to make evolution more real and to create conditions where that evolution can continue more broadly and forcefully. But, as pointed out with the Russian experience, it doesn’t always work that way. Revolution is conflict, and conflict creates its own set of conditions sometimes antithetical to evolution. “Fighting for peace” is oxymoronic (some would say just plain moronic), but we have had to live through that. (Note the moment in Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant film Dr. Strangelove where the President scolds his arguing advisers, “Stop it. There’s no fighting in the War Room.”)

One of the exceptional examples of evolution and revolution working together is the American Revolution. It is one of the reasons it worked so well. The founders may have been the fathers of our country, but they were the children of the Enlightenment. That multi-faceted evolution—philosophical, political, economic, spiritual—had gone as far as it could go when it hit a wall. They believed that if they could break through, which did mean war, they could establish an enlightened nation. And, to an extent greater or lesser than some might like or expect, they did.

Evolution, or lack of it, is at the heart of some current American problems.

America is heir to two great evolutions, sometimes unrecognized, often distorted. Some of those obstructionists who fight today hark back to the patriots who were mad as hell and wouldn’t take it any more, and so upended a cargo of British tea. Others who claim this is a Christian nation have the idea that if alive today, Jesus would certainly choose to be an American.

Every American in these dynamic times is free to pick the evolution they aspire to. There are plenty to choose from. We do have two very big ones on the menu. If a rabid revolutionary patriot, you might choose to follow the path of a 21st century version of Enlightenment; you might even study the work of those founding Enlightenists—Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, et al.—for guidance. If a committed Christian it’s even easier. No slogging through the Federalist Papers, or even the whole Bible. Just read and read again the words of Jesus—the ones in red type—and consider just how much evolution he was asking for and expecting. Then again, maybe it’s not evolution he was talking about at all.

The Marijuana Dilemma: It’s About Age

This was going to be a note about the Gallup poll showing that 58% of Americans think that the use of marijuana should be legal, and that 38% have tried it. It would include arguments about how pot stands in relation to other legal intoxicants—alcohol, tobacco, firearms (sorry, that’s the federal law enforcement agency)—and about how our justice system is distorted and how lives are ruined by reflexive, thoughtless, moralistic public policy.

But no. This is about a simple solution. It won’t make everybody happy, particularly those hypocritical it’s-all-bad-for-you-and-society Puritans who apparently missed the Sunday School class where Jesus mentioned getting the log out of your own eye before criticizing someone else’s splinter. But this might work.

Add marijuana to the list of acceptable American intoxicants. Then take the three biggies—alcohol, tobacco and marijuana—and make their distribution to children, particularly younger children, an even bigger deal than it is, so that the jail cells currently filled with marijuana-guilty adults could then be filled by real bad guys. Draconian punishment. Because while adult use of these intoxicants may be equivocal, childhood use of them is not.

We did not need American alcohol prohibition to learn that nothing will stop people using intoxicants. (Another hint: sex, at least if you’re doing it right, is also an intoxicant, the world’s most popular and, yes, one that the Puritans have also tried to circumscribe.) In another missed Sunday School lesson, Jesus did not smash the jars at the wedding at Cana, as he did the moneylender tables at the Temple; he actually made more wine for the celebrants. The poor we have with us always; so too the wine drinkers.

It is widely agreed that none of the three intoxicants are perfect: all of them are abused, all of them have real potential for ruining life and health. (America’s other big intoxicant, coffee, is excepted from this discussion, in part because any regulation of coffee would start a national revolt that really would prompt a new party, the Coffee Party, and in part because it is coffee that makes posts like this possible.) But as much as adolescents want to indulge, and as much as they already find a way to do it, if there’s a beneficial bargain to be made, this may be it. Let the grownups smoke/drink/smoke, let them explain to their kids why it isn’t a good idea for the younger set.

If you are currently a pre-teen or teenager yourself, or you once were, and you indulge in weed or once did, this may seem silly, arbitrary and unworkable. Here’s the news: all social policy is ultimately unworkable, or at least challenging and perplexing. The truth is that marijuana abuse by adolescents, just like alcohol and tobacco abuse by them, really is a bad thing, and really can cause irreversible damage. Adults should be free to get blissed out or ruin their lives (with minimal harm to others); kids shouldn’t be. If we are going to have some sort of marijuana policy, it ought to be a lot more sensible than the one we have now, even if the solution isn’t perfect.
10:39 AM 10/23/2013

Random Notes on Editing

Random Notes on Editing
1. Whether working on a business report, legal brief, story or even a non-written creation, you have either had the privilege to edit others or have suffered the tough medicine of being edited.

2. All works are improvable. Ask God.

3. There is a difference between edits that are improvements and changes based on subjective sensibilities, though there is a gray area in between.

4. It is easiest to identify improvement editing when the creation is discretely functional and results are measurable, as with some sorts of advertising copy. Some would say readability and clarity fall into this functional category—that is, unless tortured readability is a creative choice and can be handled deftly. Ask Faulkner or Joyce.

5. Voice may be the hardest part of editing. It may also be the hardest part of writing. Even the most technical sorts of work can convey a distinctive voice—you will find this in textbooks, in legal articles, even in judicial rulings. Some writers don’t know abstractly what a distinctive voice is because they just naturally have one. Others work to develop it. That is the dual quandary for editors. If a writer has a voice, or the beginnings of one, you want to cultivate it without editing it away. If a writer doesn’t have much of a voice, there is a risk of the editor—who is often a pretty good writer too—to substitute a different voice entirely.

6. The Bible is the most importantly edited work in Western history, maybe in human history. Speaking of voice, imagine being the one responsible for editing the voice of God, Moses or Jesus. Yet somebody did. These editors took no credit, though it is fun to consider what those acknowledgements might look like. “And finally I’d like to thank my editor, without whom these transcripts of my speeches would not have the power that they do. JC.”

Miley Ray Cyrus for Halloween

Miley Ray Cyrus
Millions of children and adults will spend Halloween dressed as some version of Miley Cyrus, which is a scary thought in so many ways.

The first suggestion to counteract this is that people dress as her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, as seen during the heyday of his popularity. But just wearing a mullet and spending the entire halloday singing Achy Breaky Heart seems cruel, with lots of pain and not much payoff.

Then an epiphany. Why not mash up father and daughter, Billy Ray and Miley. Dress as Miley Ray Cyrus. The most outrageous near-nude mullet-headed sex-crazed country dance pop tart in the history of music. Anyway, it’s all in the DNA.

For those who still don’t get it, and still need convincing, here are just some of the lyrics from the remix that you’ve all been asking for, know it or not:

Achy Breaky Wrecky Ball

You can tell my arms to go back onto the phone
You can tell my feet to hit the floor
Or you can tell my lips to tell my fingertips
They won’t be reaching out for you no more

We clawed, we chained our hearts in vain
We jumped never asking why
We kissed, I fell under your spell.
A love no one could deny

But don’t tell my heart, my achy breaky heart
I just don’t think it’d understand
And if you tell my heart, my achy breaky heart
He might blow up and kill this man

Don’t you ever say I just walked away
I will always want you
I can’t live a lie, running for my life
I will always want you

You can tell your ma I moved to Arkansas
Or you can tell your dog to bite my leg
Or tell your brother Cliff who’s fist can tell my lips
He never really liked me anyway

I came in like a wrecking ball
I never hit so hard in love
All I wanted was to break your walls
All you ever did was wreck me
Yeah, you, you wreck me

A Chilly Breeze of Hate, a Hungarian Conductor and the Prospects for American Anti-Semitism

Ivan Fischer
Those of us who grew up Jewish in late 20th century America had a pretty good experience of tolerance, certainly compared to even our parents’ generation. The Holocaust had an immunizing effect, not so much because people saw where such ugly expressions of hatred might lead, but because it was harder to hold those views—at least publicly. There was not an immediate spillover effect, so common prejudices against blacks, women, gays, and other intolerance “classics” continued, while new groups such as Muslims were added all the time. Hate takes no holiday.

The news was not without stories of anti-Semitism. And if we lived in certain parts of the country, we might be more likely to feel like a stranger, and even to hear somebody we liked talk about bargaining as “Jewing” someone down. Oh well, that was ignorance talking, and overall those folks often had a good heart. Maybe the greatest deterrent to taking it too seriously was the Jewish cohort who daily found an anti-Semite around every corner. It wasn’t that there weren’t and aren’t anti-Semites everywhere, including some positions of high profile and power, it’s just that the progress Jews have made in acceptance and mainstreaming made these anomalies. There were other groups still having a much tougher time.

A story from this weekend’s New York Times prodded that complacency, just a little. It comes not from America at all. It is from Hungary. There, anti-Semitism and nationalism are on the rise, to the point where the country’s most celebrated conductor, Ivan Fischer, has written and staged an opera about it. Called The Red Heifer, it is about a 19th century incident in which Jews were blamed for the murder of a peasant girl. But contemporary elements make clear that this is not a story about historical artifacts. The whole world context of the opera is not just Hungary; much of Europe, particularly but not entirely those in the former Soviet empire, are trying to establish new identities in these trying times. That insurgent identity frequently involves a broad menu of nationalistic intolerance. See, for example, the treatment of gays in Russia and the rise of neo-Francoism in Spain. And where there’s a list, Jews are on it. That doesn’t make sense, but not making sense is precisely the hallmark of all this.

It is no secret that certain kinds of intolerance are a little more obviously a part of American life today. There can, for example, be argument about whether the unprecedented disrespect and vitriol for the President is purely political. It isn’t, and most know, or should, that race is near the heart of the hate. Americans too are having hard times that may continue for a while. Even if the current crop of demagogues seems penny-ante compared to “real” American demagogues of the 20th century—the Huey Longs, the Father Coughlins, the Joe McCarthys, the George Wallaces—demagoguery it is. And if we hope and do transcend history, it may be that some things don’t or can’t change: where there’s a list, Jews are on it.

One of the saddest phenomena of recent years is the ultra-ironic sight of a Jewish vigilance about anti-Semitism bizarrely combining with near-paranoid anti-Islamism. E-mails have circulated praising Dutch nationalist politician Geert Wilders, who advocates keeping Muslims out of the Netherlands and out of all (supposedly) white and Western Europe, lest those white and Western values be despoiled, or worse. Why this appeals to some Jews may not be a mystery, but it is moral madness.

And yet. These are stressful times around the world; outside of war, the most stressful in generations. Distrust and fear of “the other” is bred in the human bone. We must work to rise above and to mutate it out. If you have any sense of history—and all of us should study to be amateur historians—you may at certain moments get a little instinct, a buzz, a foreboding that you hope is way off, one that might be as much about you as about the state of things, and thus should be shaken off. On the other hand, there is the cliché: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that somebody isn’t out to get you.

Two truths co-exist in America. Public anti-Semitism has never been at a lower ebb, and will not return to earlier levels. Privately, the truth is that the vast majority of Americans have never met a Jew, and know little about Judaism except the occasional news story or that it is the primitive religious precursor to Christianity. That unknowing is not pernicious, even if it’s not ideal. But seeing what is going on in the rest of the world is a reminder that vacuums can be filled by suspicion, perplexing troubles need someone to blame, and this “other” or that “other” is just too convenient not to accuse.

For American Jews, it is overstatement to call this a chilly breeze. There is not much in the air at the moment. But intolerance is a funny thing. It has a life of its own, and it doesn’t always take the same course. Over-vigilance and paranoia can be counter-constructive and debilitating. This doesn’t mean that closing your eyes works either. What’s happening thousands of miles away is not happening here. But who’s to say who’s next, once the dogs of hate are let loose.

There are never enough occasions to repeat the famous words of Martin Niemöller, the Protestant pastor who was a public foe of Adolf Hitler and who spent years in concentration camps. In a sense it is his translation of Christian (and Buddhist) non-judgmentalism and non-dualism. If you think you are not different but/or are “the right kind” of different, you are mistaken.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Good Gadgets Cheap: Logitech S120 Speakers

Logitech S120
Thousand dollar computers. Five hundred dollar smartphones. Ten dollar speakers.

Sitting on the counter, framing the food processor, mixer, blender and coffee grinder, are a pair of Logitech S120 speakers. Ten bucks, more or less; these come off the shelf from Walmart. They fill the kitchen with decent sounding symphonies, and the sound isn’t too bad overheard in adjacent rooms either.

You could splurge and go for the Z130 and get 5 watts instead of 2.3 watts, at about twice the price. You may already have a more powerful audio setup, one that really offers mind-numbing volume and fidelity to satisfy the most discerning listener. Good. But in that space where you just want to plug your phone into something and happily listen, this can’t be beat.

The bigger point may be that happiness and satisfaction come in lots of packages, and they are not all precious and expensive. Just because it cost only ten dollars doesn’t mean it won’t turn making breakfast—and maybe your whole day—into something special.

Is America’s Past Better Than Anybody Else’s Future?

Millions of Americans believe that America’s past is better than anybody else’s future—including America’s own. That is inherent in an obsessive turning away from progress, from failing to adapt to twenty-first century (or even twentieth century) realities, and a strong longing for the comfortable but mythical past.

The irony is that civilizations with much more history than the U.S.—the youngest of all global powers—have had a much better time moving boldly and successfully into the future. This doesn’t mean that countries East and West have met all or most of the Herculean challenges they may face. And it doesn’t mean that there aren’t people there looking back to the “good old days.” But for the most part, these countries have avoided being distracted by the substantial complexities of who and what they were, and focused on balancing that with who and what they can and must become.

The substantial past of some of those countries may actually be the antidote to nostalgia that has allowed those nations to move forward. After so many centuries of arguments between the backward-lookers and the forward-lookers, the very practical argument wins: seeing where you are going is the best way to avoid crashes, falling off cliffs, or just standing still while everyone else advances around you.

Maybe what America needs is a few more centuries of arguments, where the reactionaries and regressives hold sway and drive the nation into a crash or off a cliff. Maybe then America will know what the older heads in the world already know—that evolution moves forward and not back (if you believe in any kind of evolution), that you have to keep your eyes open, that you have to adapt or die. Unfortunately, those of us alive today, standing by helpless, won’t be able to enjoy the fruits of that learning. We may only be here for the hard lessons.