Bob Schwartz

Month: April, 2014

Project One America from the Human Rights Campaign

poa_maingraphic_1

The new Project One America from the Human Rights Campaign is extraordinary for two reasons. As HRC describes it:

HRC’s Project One America is a comprehensive, multi-year campaign to dramatically expand LGBT equality in the South through permanent campaigns in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas.

That this is aimed at these three Southern states is extraordinary because of the special circumstances and needs it addresses. These states have enjoyed the presence of gay men and women for generations, including some of the very famous: Tennessee Williams, for example, was not from Tennessee but from Columbus, Mississippi. “Enjoyed” is probably not the right word, since until recently—and still in some parts of these states—gay people had the choice of invisibility, damnation, lack of legal protection, or just leaving (which is precisely what many gay Southerners did).

The second extraordinary thing about Project One America is its strategy. Rather than confrontation, part of the approach is one of the front porch—conversations and discussions among family, friends, neighbors, citizens. This doesn’t mean that legal restrictions and inequities won’t continue to be addressed. It means that the South, some historical and present-day evidence to the contrary, does have a tradition of civility and caring. Caricatures are one part truth, one part projection of our own prejudices, one part wanting to feel morally superior, and the Southern caricature is all of these. Gently opening people’s eyes to the realities and humanity of LGBT life—including the lives of those close to them—is a valuable tactic. The lessons of loving and fairness and tolerance, in a place that tightly embraces its faith, should fall of fertile soil.

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World Penguin Day

Baby Penguins - London Zoo

Today is World Penguin Day. There is nothing else you need to know about anything.

The image selected above is of a pair of penguin chicks just born at the London Zoo.

To give you some idea of how essential penguins are, a Google search on “penguin” yields 40,500,000 hits and a collection of penguin images so overwhelming that I am frozen trying to select just one for this post.

There are dog people and cat people. And then there are penguin people. You know who you are and you know why you are the way you are. We thank God that Russell Crowe was able to build that ark and get a couple of penguins on it.

Climate change is a serious concern with serious consequences. But as many vital problems as may result, if it threatens penguin habitats, remember this: when something is wrong with our penguins, something is wrong with us.

And now, a picture. Happy Penguin Day.

Penguins

The Aereo Case and Media Reality

Aereo

Today the Supreme Court hears arguments in the case of ABC, et al. v. Aereo. Some characterize it as the most important media case in decades, one which could destroy broadcasting as we know it.

That is both overstated and understated. The big broadcasters who claim this is the apocalypse won’t go out of business; they will continue, though they might make a little less money or have to work a little harder for it. On the other hand, nothing less than the nature of modern reality is being considered, which is what makes the case so interesting and ultimately so hard to decide.

In a nutshell, this is what Aereo does:

Aereo sets up lots of tiny (thumbnail) antennas in your locality.

The antennas pick up the same over-the-air (OTR) TV signals you would if you had an antenna at your home (but you probably don’t).

You subscribe to Aereo for as little as $8 a month.

When you want to watch something from the stations that are on the air in your locality, Aereo assigns you an antenna, collects and records the signal from that antenna in its cloud, and streams that signal the way you want to the device you want, now or later.

The question is whether Aereo is retransmitting copyrighted content to subscribers, cleverly skirting retransmission fees that cable systems and others must pay, which would be stealing. Or whether Aereo is simply enabling you to do something you are legally entitled to do: receive OTR TV and then watch it, record it, or redistribute it to your own devices for your own personal use.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeal decided in favor of Aereo, with a vigorous dissent and with other Circuit Courts disagreeing, and now the Supreme Court will decide. If you read the briefs you can get an idea of the difficulty and the possible impacts.

One can say, as the big broadcasters do, that Aereo may be trying to fit through a loophole in the law, but that isn’t quite right. Aereo is taking advantage of a reality so profoundly new and so newly understood that every medium and every media business is just barely beginning to come to grips.

When you reduce things to information and can move that information around infinitely and frictionlessly and at relatively low cost, the processes and regulations meant to handle grosser things are of limited value.

First a book was a thing made of paper, then there was a copier which could copy pages on paper, then there was a scanner that could turn paper pages into digital images and, with OCR, characters, then there were entire books that never had anything to do with paper, ever, just pure arranged information. The same goes, with slightly different details, for every medium. The solution for the producers who wanted to control things (often with legitimate interests, such as creators being compensated), was to put the information in some kind of box, which to some looked like an information jail. It was and is this simple: once it gets out of the box, catching it and catching up with it is quite a chore. Because, as Stewart Brand famously said, information wants to be free.

If you had to characterize the actors in this case as good guys or bad guys, it does look like ossified old school versus new school, mega-corporations versus insurgents, or as one of the briefs says, David versus Goliath. Any way you put it though, and wherever your opinion lies, this is a hard case, and the maxim is that hard cases make bad law. In this case, bad law would mean that even if progressive principles are maintained, more looking forward than back, we are still in an astonishing mess when it comes to dealing with all this. One case at a time won’t do, and the expectation that Congress will seize the reins and lead us boldly into an enlightened future on digital intellectual property is, at least for the moment, not in the cards or the cloud.

Record Store Day 2014

Record Store Day 2014
That’s not a record store:

Spotify

This is a record store:

Amoeba Records

Record Store Day
Saturday, April 19, 2014

“I think it’s high time the mentors, big brothers, big sisters, parents, Guardians, and neighborhood ne’er do wells, start taking younger people That look up to them To a real record store and show them what an important part of life music really is. I trust no one who hasn’t time for music. What a shame to Leave a child, or worse, a generation orphaned from one of life’s great beauties. And to the record stores, artists, labels, dj’s, and journalists; we’re all in this together. Show respect for the tangible music that you’ve dedicated your careers and lives to, and help It from becoming nothing more than disposable digital data.”
– Jack White

Easter

Gnostic Bible

I am not a Christian, not in any conventional or even unconventional sense. But I have been a student of Christian religion, literature and phenomena for decades. It is part of a religious triangle—or maybe universe—with my native Judaism and my adopted Buddhism.

One of my earliest Christian experiences was reading the Gospel of Thomas, part of the Nag Hammadi Library, a trove of early Christian writings discovered in 1945. That translation of one of the so-called Gnostic Gospels was done by Dr. Marvin Meyer; I did not know that years later I would work with and become friends with him. What I did know on first reading (and on first meeting) was that the late Dr. Meyer was brilliant. (You may well have seen him on many of the History and Discovery Channel type biblical shows.)

For this Easter, I include a selection from the Gospel of Thomas. It is taken from The Gnostic Bible, edited by Dr. Meyer and by the equally-brilliant poet, translator and scholar Willis Barnstone.

The Gospel of Thomas, often called the Fifth Gospel, is a work of sayings and wisdom; there is no action. Some of the sayings are similar to those that appear in the canonical gospels. Others are more assertively cryptic and mysterious, puzzling in the same way that Zen koans are. This section, appropriately for Easter, is about life and death:

11

Yeshua (Jesus) said,
This heaven will pass away
and the one above it will pass away.
The dead are not alive
and the living will not die.
During the days when you ate what is dead
you made it alive.
When you are in the light, what will you do?
On the day when you were one
you became two.
But when you become two, what will you do?

Willis Barnstone’s most recent work is The Restored New Testament, a monumental achievement in which he single-handedly translated the entire NT (including Gnostic Gospels) and provided hundreds of pages of lucid and enlightening commentary. In that book, he offers this wisdom for a modern age:

In the end, all people are people, and no people should ever be classified for whatever reason as less than another. Any marker of sect and theology that distinguishes any people adversely is human and humane error. So the gospels and Apocalypse should not be seen for the momentary and external conflicts they may contain, but rather for their greater universality of spirit in a world desperately poor in coming to terms with human consciousness within the perishable body. Happily, the call to spirit is deep and needs no name, and no divisive emblem. The New Testament is a book of the mind; it is infused with compassion and courage and the great questions of being, death, time, and eternity. For the perceptive reader, spirit eludes name, dogma, and even word to reside in the silence of transcendence.

The Ukrainian Favor

Ukrainian Contingent Ends Iraq Mission

Commander of the Ukrainian contingent in Diwaniya presents a certificate and gift to
a member of the Qadisiya Province Iraqi Police, during an end of mission ceremony
at Camp Echo, Dec. 9, 2008.

“Are you asking as a friend or calling in a chit? A friend would not ask me to do this.”
“A friend just won’t hold it against you if you don’t.”
Adapted from Suits, USA Network

In 2008, Ukrainian troops officially left the U.S.-instigated Iraq War. Since 2003, 5,000 Ukrainian troops had served there (the third largest contingent in the multinational force) and 18 soldiers had died. No service or sacrifice can be minimized, even if these numbers pale in comparison to the American investment. Ukraine answered the call with honor and valor, as it had in other international conflicts, presumably because there are principles at stake, including the principle that modern internationalism means a commitment to mutual trust and support.

At the ceremony marking the end of the Ukrainian mission, Maj. Gen. Michael Ferriter, deputy commanding general for operations, Multi-National Corps-Iraq, said:

We know that violence is at its lowest level in five years, and the Iraqi Security Forces, partnering with Coalition forces, will take the lead in defending their country. And soon, the Iraqi people will vote in the future of their country in the provincial elections. These changes were not brought about naturally, but were instead brought about by the dedication and the hard work of the men and women from the nations such as yours. You helped create the Iraqi Security Force and instilled in them a solid foundation of skills essential to the future security and prosperity of Iraq.

To Iraq’s benefit, and through Ukraine’s efforts, you have helped ensure a higher quality of life for the people of Iraq. Ukraine forces made contributions that enabled all Coalition partners to be successful here, but it has not been without cost. A precious 18 Ukrainian Soldiers have died here.

Ukraine is asking for help from anyone to hold their country together. Under the circumstances, that is going to be difficult and may not be possible.

Are they asking as a friend or calling in a chit? If we don’t provide adequate or effective help, will they hold it against us? Should they?

Mad Men and Kabbalah

Don Draper - Broken Vessel

“I keep wondering, have I broken the vessel?”
Don Draper, Mad Men, Season 7, Episode 1, Time Zones

Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men show is not about Kabbalah, or so it would seem. It has, though, frequently touched on religious and spiritual matters. In the first episode of the new Season 7, for example, Roger Sterling’s daughter appears to have had some sort of enlightenment experience that allows her to accept her father as he is and to forgive him unconditionally. And at the end of last season, Don Draper’s hitting bottom included his punching out a Christian preacher in a bar. There have been Catholics, Jews, Hindus, and all manner of beliefs in the mix.

And then, in the latest episode, Don grows introspective and candid with a beautiful stranger on a plane. He admits to being a terrible husband, and then assesses his own responsibility: “I keep wondering, have I broken the vessel?”

For some, the image of the broken vessel instantly brings Kabbalah to mind. According to some traditions, God created the world by sending emanations—holy sparks—encased in ten vessels. Had all the vessels arrived intact, this would be a perfect world. But the force was so powerful and the vessels so delicate that a number of them shattered. In an imperfect world, it is our mission to gather up the holy sparks that have scattered, and thus to make the world better.

One of the first people to make Kabbalah popular and accessible in recent times was Rabbi Herbert Weiner. His book 9-1/2 Mystics: The Kabbala Today (1969)  was the introduction for many to the subject. By coincidence, Rabbi Weiner died almost exactly a year ago at the age of 93.

None of that is much to go on. There is no known connection between Matthew Weiner and Herbert Weiner. And as strange as Don’s dialogue sounds, he has said plenty of strange things before, he is an unlikely Kabbalist, and sometimes a broken vessel is just a broken vessel. Still, Mad Men has taken us places we never thought we’d go, so why not? After musing about the broken vessel, and after refusing the advances of his new friend, Don turns to the plane window and opens the shade. Bright morning sunshine washes his face. Not much to go on. But if there is some message there about Don’s awareness of a duty to gather the broken bits of light and heal his world, Kabbalah or not, that would certainly make Mad Men fans happy.

Passover and Freud

Moses and the Ten Commandments

What does Freud want? He might not want people attending a Passover seder, offering prayers to a God who isn’t there. But things are not that simple.

Sigmund Freud was a Jew by birth, an atheist by belief. He abstracted and analyzed religion as a powerful manifestation of powerful forces at work. But near the end of his career, he considered whether there was something in God that was more than a mere reflection of psychic need and dynamics.

In his final book, Moses and Monotheism, he suggests that while there is no God, the positing of one had forced the Jews—and all who followed on that spiritual path—to think and act differently. The gift of the idea of God was the imperative to transcend instinct and old ways, to make new and positive sense of the insensible, and to act accordingly.

Those in the Jewish communities will retell some version of the Moses story this Passover. But only some of those will have completely read the biblical account in the Book of Exodus. Even fewer will have looked beyond the popular stories to see what generations of historians and commentators have to offer.

One of those who does have something to offer is Freud. In Moses and Monotheism, he made a jump, if not a giant leap. Here is part of what Freud wrote (emphasis added):

How we who have little belief envy those who are convinced of the existence of a Supreme Power, for whom the world holds no problems because He Himself has created all its institutions!…We can only regret it if certain experiences of life and observations of nature have made it impossible to accept the hypothesis of such a Supreme Being. As if the world had not enough problems, we are confronted with the task of finding out how those who have faith in a Divine Being could have acquired it, and whence this belief derives the enormous power that enables it to overwhelm Reason and Science.

. . .

Let us return to the more modest problem that has occupied us so far. We set out to explain whence comes the peculiar character of the Jewish people which in all probability is what has enabled that people to survive until today. We found that the man Moses created their character by giving to them a religion which heightened their self-confidence to such a degree that they believed themselves to be superior to all other peoples. They survived by keeping aloof from the others. Admixture of blood made little difference, since what kept them together was something ideal the possession they had in common of certain intellectual and emotional values. The Mosaic religion had this effect because (1) it allowed the people to share in the grandeur of its new conception of God, (2) because it maintained that the people had been “chosen” by this great God and was destined to enjoy the proofs of his special favor, and (3) because it forced upon the people a progress in spirituality which, significant enough in itself, further opened the way to respect for intellectual work and to further instinctual renunciations.

. . .

In a new transport of moral asceticism the Jews imposed on themselves constantly increasing instinctual renunciation, and thereby reached at least in doctrine and precepts ethical heights that had remained inaccessible to the other peoples of antiquity. Many Jews regard these aspirations as the second main characteristic, and the second great achievement, of their religion….

It was this “respect for intellectual work” that Freud so appreciated. Freud may have seen himself as a sort of Moses, leading civilization from benighted antiquity to a new light and new heights. Just as religious innovation led Jews from the old ways to a new land, so he and psychoanalysis would lead to even further self-awareness and progress—without God, of course.

Whether or not you believe in God, Moses, or Freud, whether or not you will be sitting at a seder table this Passover, it can be a good time to consider old ways in a new light. According to Freud, the gifts of Moses are the tools to renounce instincts and move beyond mere legacy. If we are trapped as man or mankind, psychoanalysis and, yes, even a certain religious perspective might be able to liberate us.

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is one of the most popular movies in America right now. Even with the film’s creative liberties, many of the faithful take the movie as cinematic validation of a biblical tale, just as The Ten Commandments was for an earlier generation. But some others of the faithful are bothered, as they should be, by a sense that there is something subversive going on.

Of course there is. Any retelling of our received stories can be subversive, if we are willing to investigate and recreate. In the passage above, Freud could not be clearer that for him the conventional belief in God stands in the way of reason and science. But he then begrudgingly admits that in the right circumstances, some good may and has come from it.

Putin and the Little Engine That Could

Vladimir Putin - Little Engine

The pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and the Russian warnings to stay away and out, are not surprising. A fifth-grader doing a Social Studies assignment (if there is still Social Studies) had this one figured out.

So obviously did the American intelligence and foreign policy experts. They can’t tell us they know because that would give something away, even if that fifth-grader has already guessed. The other reason it isn’t officially talked about is that, officially, few are sure what to do next.

Vladimir Putin is well set up, for something. He can take little bites out of the region, or if Ukraine should erupt in instigated civil war, he can enter on the pretext of assuring the stability and security of a neighboring country. There is plenty of historical precedent for this strategy, and for this strategy working.

We—and this includes those who claim to know him—are not sure exactly who Putin is: cunning statesman, cowboy, sociopath? Whether he has himself killed people, up close, is a matter of conjecture, but many have no trouble believing it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany and knows him, suggests that he is out of touch with the realities of the situation. Former U.S. President George W. Bush just displayed his painting of Putin, which picture says as much about W. as an artist as it does about the Russian President.

Putin is not out of touch with reality, any more than those people who believe that visualizing an outcome will ultimately make it so. He is under no delusion that realizing his reality will be cost free. He is just willing to pay the price, or allow others to chip in, maybe profoundly.

The U.S. may have the most distorted view of war in history. It isn’t that great sacrifice or valiant service haven’t been made. The U.S. didn’t just participate in some of the most significant defenses of human freedom; it helped freedom prevail. But for a few generations, there has been a lot of blood and treasure sacrificed in a sometimes well-meaning, sometimes self-serving fog. The source of the confusion is that for more than 150 years, the U.S. has not experienced national war on its soil. Regional conflicts and shocking, fleet- and building-destroying hostilities, but not a national war, inside or on our borders.

Whatever the list of solutions to international problems and provocations, war shouldn’t just be at the bottom of the list. It should be in some strategic sub-basement, below the last resort. At this moment, war in Europe is where it should be: unthinkable. But if something is unthinkable, then everything else has to be more thinkable, more discussed. Right now, the U.S. body politic is fascinated with other matters major and minor, because we need a break.

But trust this: Putin doesn’t give a care for what happened to a plane that has been at the bottom of the Indian Ocean for weeks. He is single-mindedly like that favorite American children’s book The Little Engine That Could, chugging along: I think I can, I think I can.

We don’t have to be concerned about Ukraine or we can be concerned. We don’t have to take action or we can take action. We don’t have to go to war or we can go to war. What isn’t optional is talking about it in the public square, in a conversation led by the President and others. This is not jumping the gun. It is a sensible prelude to an emerging situation, which could at any moment escalate from blah-blah-blah to something more active and serious.

The U.S. has not been very good at sensible preludes. The run-ups to recent wars have been filled with hyper-drama, fueled by the occasional exaggeration or lie. Ukraine, Europe, and the world need something else. Putin thinks he can. Who knows what we think?

McCutcheon: Is This the Electoral Apocalypse? (Maybe Not)

SupremeCourtJustices_2012_032620121

Six months ago I wrote a post called The Man Who Could Kill Democracy about the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. McCutcheon was asking the Supreme Court, on free speech grounds, to lift federal limits on aggregate campaign contributions. By a 5-4 decision, the Court today agreed.

In that post I wrote:

The First Amendment is central to American democracy, but it has never been absolute. It could be of course, and we would be free to destroy the reputations of others, or talk freely about overthrowing the government, or republish the words of others without penalty, or yell fire in that crowded theater. Instead, as an exercise in social priorities, we argue about balance, though sometimes the argument for the good of the many and “democracy” is cover for what’s good for me and mine.

Today’s decision finds that limits on what an individual can give to a single candidate is allowable under the First Amendment as a way to prevent corruption (that is, you shouldn’t massively buy a single election on a quid pro quo, one hand washing the other basis). But restrictions on what an individual may give in aggregate offends the First Amendment (that is, you are free to try to buy as many elections as your wealth allows).

The majority opinion of Justice Roberts was joined in by Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Alito; Justice Thomas concurred, but believes that all limits on campaign finance are impermissible under the First Amendment. Justice Breyer filed a dissent, in which Justices Ginzburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined.

Justice Breyer writes in his dissent:

Today a majority of the Court overrules this holding. It is wrong to do so. Its conclusion rests upon its own, not a record-based, view of the facts. Its legal analysis is faulty: It misconstrues the nature of the competing constitutional interests at stake. It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions. It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign. Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 558 U. S. 310 (2010), today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.

So is this it, the electoral apocalypse? In the earlier post before the decision I wrote:

Get smart.
Vote.

Without casting aspersions too wide, it does seem that a number of Americans really don’t do their homework on public issues. As far as voting, our abysmal turnout numbers tell the tale. But if Americans did do their homework and did vote, we really could have a pragmatic, centrist, reasonable and successful country—instead of an extremist-obstructed one based more on blustery ideology and vaguely-veiled self-interest. We can hope.

That’s still it. If we have an aware, informed, moral, discerning electorate that votes, there is hope that in spite of McCutcheon (and Citizens United and whatever other shoes the Supreme Court has yet to drop), we can maintain what Justice Breyer calls “democratic legitimacy.” Without that, despite what Imagine Dragons sing, the apocalypse may not be followed by a new age, but by some back to the future America of the overpowered and the underpowered.

If you believe that America has a problem in any of those areas—awareness, information, morality, discernment, voting—then do whatever you can. Don’t blame nice Mr. McCutcheon, or nice Justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Alito, and Thomas (even if they are wrong). And if you are hand-wringing, which is admittedly hard to avoid, do it only for a moment; it is unattractive and useless. Then get busy.