Bob Schwartz

Month: December, 2014

How Good Is America?

CIA Interrogation

How good is America? A just released Pew Research survey about CIA torture tells us something.

More than half of those surveyed believe that the CIA interrogation methods were justified. An even greater number believe that the interrogation methods provided intelligence that prevented terror attacks—despite substantial testimony and evidence that they didn’t.

“Goodness” like so many other positive qualities is vague and undefined, but like those qualities, you know it when you see it. We seem to have slipped beyond “the ends justify the means.” Some are now willing to adjust perspective so that “the ideology justifies the means,” where ideology includes irrational emotion, prejudice, and unsupported opinion. This isn’t the first time in American and world history where people have gone there. And it isn’t the only sector of society where this pertains. But we know or should have learned this: it never turns out well.

More than that, it is never good. There may be exceptional times when doing bad is necessary to prevent the worse, but it is never wholly good to do that or be that. Anyone who was not disgusted by the report of the CIA methods, even those who consider them justified, are a concern. If the half of America in the survey was not disgusted, even as they answered the question, that is a concern. Disgust can be much more valuable than mindless fear, and when we push blithely past that disgust to make a point, that can’t be good, and neither can we.

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Cuba: No Democracy, No Embassy, So Recall the Ambassador to China

U.S. Embassy in Beijing

If you listen to those opposing normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, you learn that we should not do so until Cuba moves toward democracy.

With that rationale, we should be ending diplomatic relations with many countries, because no matter what our ideals and aspirations, the world still includes some fairly undemocratic nations.

Such as China. We have had full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China since 1979, a period that includes both Republican and Democratic Presidents and Congresses. There is no way to characterize China as a democratic, democratic-leaning, democratic-seeking nation. So we should immediately recall our latest ambassador, former Sen. Max Baucus, and immediately close our embassy in Beijing.

Of course, that doesn’t make sense. As nothing has made sense in our relations with Cuba, even before Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime in 1959. The U.S. supported Batista and opposed Communism in the hemisphere. Commercial interests, legal and illegal, made money. Once Castro was in power, and refugees of substantial and modest means resettled in the U.S., it was thought that isolating Cuba would make it come around to right thinking and lucrative democracy. That didn’t work, and neither did the one attempt at forcing the issue, the debacle of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

If we had given Cuba the benefit of the doubt that we have given other non-democracies, not to mention the money we have invested in those nations, some good might have come of it, with little downside. But as with many issues, politics in the form of financial support, or the threat of withholding it, distorts what may be for the best.

Which is why, with Obama moving to normalize Cuban relations, you won’t hear anybody calling for the closing of the Beijing embassy, but lots of grandstanding and bluster about how a Cuban ambassador will mean the end of the world.

The Eight Ways of Hanukkah

happy-hanukkah

Hanukkah, which begins at sunset with the lighting of the first candle, may be the most interesting, confusing, and confused of Jewish holidays. Let me count the ways.

1. It is the most historic of the traditional Jewish holidays. The historicity of more important holidays is somewhat shrouded in antiquity, bible stories, and faith. We have a pretty good chronicle of the events commemorated by Hanukkah: the Jewish rebellion of around 163 BCE led by the Maccabee family against the Seleucid/Syrian occupiers of Israel.

2. The best chronicle of Hanukkah is found in the Books of Maccabees. Maccabees is found in the bible, but because of textual happenstance, not in the Jewish Bible. Books of Maccabees are part of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bibles, and are apocryphal books of the Protestant bible. But the Jewish biblical canon (the books officially included) was closed before these books were available. So if Jews want to read this particular biblical story, they have to turn to Christian bibles. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

3. Hanukkah is probably not just about the Maccabees. As with other holidays, including Christmas, it is likely a melding of other seasonal celebrations at that time of year.

4. Because Hanukkah is extra-biblical, it did not achieve the stature of other holidays. You will often see it referred to as a “minor” holiday. In baseball terms, though, Hanukkah is at least AAA minor league, that is, completely ready to play in the majors. Which, as it turned out, it kind of does.

5. How Hanukkah became a much more important holiday than ever is covered by the wonderful book Hanukkah in America. For one thing, the original story of the Maccabees is about fighting not just the occupiers but the tendency of Jews in that situation toward assimilation and Hellenization. This obviously resonated in America, where secular culture and particularly Christmas became a juggernaut.

6. The candelabra used on Hanukkah for the eight nights of lights is usually referred to, by Jews and non-Jews alike, as a menorah. This is not exactly right. A menorah is a lamp, more particularly the seven-armed lamp that is an abiding symbol of Judaism and Israel. The lamp lit at Hanukkah is more properly called a hanukkiah. But hardly ever is.

7. The spelling of the word Hanukkah in English remains an unsettled mess. “Hanukkah” is now prevalent, but there is still plenty of the older “Chanukah” or, less likely, “Chanukkah” or other variations. The problem stems from trying to transliterate a Hebrew word into English—especially a word that has the guttural “ch” sound not heard in English (that is, not “ch” as in China). But as the saying goes: You can spell it Hanukkah or Chanukah, just don’t call me late for latkes. (No, that’s not an actual saying.)

8. This is from a little book that is a century old. The Hanukkah Festival: Outline of Lessons for Teachers (1914) was published by The Teachers’ Institute of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and written by Rabbi Louis Grossmann, its principal. One of the benedictions for lighting the candles goes well beyond Judaism, history, or faith. It should work for just about anyone, tonight and every night.

Eight days long the Lights burned in the homes of our Fathers, and eight days long they rejoiced. One little flask of sacred oil was enough to illumine the Temple and to keep it bright. So each one of us may gladden those with whom we are, and the Light within our heart may make bright all who are about us.

Happy Hanukkah.

Torture Report: Who Is We and Who We Are

Senate Intelligence Committee Report

In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, so much hand wringing, finger pointing, and finger wagging. So much righteousness and defensiveness. So many opportunities to forget for a few days our current troubles and focus, justifiably but still obsessively, on the past.

“This is not who we are.” You have heard this and it will continue to be earnestly said. But within that are two questions that need asking and answering—even if the answers are difficult.

Who Is We

Harry Truman famously kept a sign on his presidential desk that said, “The Buck Stops Here.” As a leader that is a responsible position to take. But it is not the whole story. In a democracy, it is complicated. Whether we voted for a particular official or not, or whether we voted or not, the buck—the responsibility—stops with us. We can make noises disclaiming a President, a Vice President, the CIA, and any policy we find objectionable or abhorrent. But if along the way—that is in real time—we didn’t take it on ourselves to do something/anything to counter what we knew or should have known, our fingerprints may be on this. It’s not about getting a license to criticize and moralize because you didn’t vote for that guy or you thought it was wrongheaded. It is about the reality of where the buck actually stops, no matter how perfidious and mendacious these perps are. They are we. Them is us.

Who We Are

This phrase is meant to point to our moral high ground. But in practice, many of us are involved in bits of moral relativism, or at least moral confusion. The problem isn’t whether moral absolutes exist; the problem is that we don’t much want to consider and discuss them when it comes to our personal, social, or political lives. The discussion is hard, and if you establish those absolutes, keeping to them is, as a practical matter, even harder. This isn’t about good or bad, or good or evil. This is about being human and building and operating human institutions. If, for example, everything in the report happened but the demonstrable outcome was prevention of some dark catastrophe (which it didn’t), many would relent in their critique because the good done outweighed the evil perpetrated.

And maybe that is a morally supportable perspective. And maybe not. But until we actually have that debate—about who is the “we” and who we are, it seems that we are shouting something either noble or scurrilous, but maybe, as Shakespeare wrote, “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The Day the Buddha Woke Up

Buddha Comic Bodhi

December 8 is Bodhi Day, the day on which the Buddha’s enlightenment is traditionally celebrated.

The English word “enlightenment” is so packed with meaning that it might be better to just go back to what the Buddha is reported to have said: I am awake.

This is useful because it leads to the two questions: woke up from what and woke up to what?

The Buddha, sitting there under the Bodhi tree, woke up from a journey. Born a royal son, he had fled a life of accidental privilege to answer ultimate questions about suffering and death—the very same questions that consume religious lives of all kinds. He believed that if he tried a, b, and c (such as extreme asceticism), he would discover some secret x, y, and z. There was some kind of magic formula, and all he had to do was learn it. That sort of magic is still at the heart of much of our religion.

He woke up to discover that there was no magic, not in such an instrumental sense. Nothing was different. Suffering and death would not go away, no matter what efforts we make. The best and worst aspects of life would go on, with and without us. Great fortunes would be made and lost. Great structures would be built and then destroyed, by cataclysms natural and human. Love would be here and gone.

But this: He could see something in all of that that made sense of all of that. There is no big plan in which we are players, active or passive, though we could and do make and execute our own little plans. There are just things, relationships between those things, and change, and of all those of a singular piece. We can and do overlay that with all of our very complicated details and distinctions, which is after all a definition of the life we live. But if we discover that underlying existence, we just might choose to live differently. And in that living differently, make change and wake others up. And on and on.

None of that eliminated suffering and death for the Buddha, as it won’t for anyone. He grew old and tired and, legend has it, died from being given spoiled food. He had told his followers what he had discovered, none of which involved magic. It was all about the infinite depth of the ordinary. For him, there was no more a kingdom in the clouds than the kingdom he had left behind when he started his journey. There was just what is. Strive on with diligence, he told those followers at the last.

The Promise of and Lessons from the Hong Kong Protests

Albert Einstein Institute

The Hong Kong pro-democracy protests appear to be over—for now. The protest leaders have surrendered, and the official plan to have Beijing approve candidates for Hong Kong’s highest office remains in place. The result is disappointing but not surprising. Facing off against the world’s biggest and most powerful non-democracy is by definition quixotic.

Yet for those of us in the U.S. and elsewhere who admire the thousands who engaged in this nonviolent movement, there are lessons to be learned and practiced. As pointed out here before, thinkers such as Gene Sharp at the Albert Einstein Institution have spent lifetimes mapping the path to nonviolent change. Here are a few of the lessons:

Be organized and disciplined. If you watched the news coverage of the Hong Kong events, you got to see an orderly and colorful tent city that served as a base, along with protestors carrying the symbolic (and also colorful) umbrellas, which served double-duty as a shield against police force.

Be specific. Movement goals can range in size and scope, from the ouster of a president to, as in Hong Kong, the right to select candidates for an election, as promised in an agreement. In the U.S., both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War movement had such specific goals. In civil rights, it was piece by piece in a bigger picture: desegregation of public transport, desegregation of restaurants, voting rights, etc. Vietnam was specific and absolute: get out. The recent Occupy movements in the U.S., on the other hand, seemed to be all over the map, even when their complaints were justified. We are now seeing a bit of that in the Ferguson movement. The general discontent over the treatment of black citizens by police and justice is justified, but the power of the protests is diluted by uncertainty about what is being requested. (Possible answer: The St. Louis county prosecutor, having made an unprecedented mess of the criminal charging and grand jury process, can convene another grand jury and do it properly the next time. That’s probably as unlikely as Beijing giving in, but it would be something specific to ask for.)

Be informed. One of the other things you might notice about the Hong Kong protest is that protestors could speak knowledgeably about why they were protesting and what they wanted. Not to keep picking on our Occupy movement, but if you asked a hundred protestors about what it is they wanted, you might well have gotten a hundred different answers.

Be patient. Perseverance furthers. The U.S. civil rights movement took decades to achieve its goals, though some would argue that in fact the spirit of those goals is still far from being reached. Globally, movements for change are like the tides, in and out, high and low. Just this week, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek was cleared of criminal charges in the deaths of protestors at Tahrir Square four years ago. Today, in terms of democracy, Egypt looks different than but the same as it did then. Perseverance can further, but it is no guarantee. Even without certainty, though, organized, disciplined, specific, informed, patient nonviolence remains the best that can be done.