Bob Schwartz

Month: October, 2015

Red Debris

Red Debris

Red debris
In a green sea of fall.
Monochrome to color
One at a time.
Herald for the forces
That will come
As they always do
To transform
Forest and field.
Asking us to forget
The green past
And embrace
Yellow brown and gold
And cold.

Prisoners Beat Harvard in Debate

Bard Prison Initiative

A team from a prison just beat a team from Harvard. In a debate.

The Washington Post reports not just the victory of the team, part of the Bard Prison Initiative, but the constraints that the debaters prepared under—including having to research without the internet, from actual books and articles, but only those approved by the prison administration.

Too many lessons to count. Among them:

The two million or so people we consign to prison aren’t all there because they are not smart enough or motivated enough to function or excel in the real world.

The people who consign themselves to our most privileged houses of learning aren’t all as smart and motivated as some of those consigned to prison.

If you want to learn, really learn, learn enough to defeat the nation’s purportedly premier scholars, you can do it offline. Just like this prison debate team. Just like Abraham Lincoln.

The Sad Politics of Realism

Besides the politics of pessimism being peddled by Republicans, we have a new wrinkle courtesy of some of Hillary supporters. The sad politics of realism.

While most advise being gentle with Bernie Sanders in the upcoming debate to avoid alienating his supporters, others are pushing her to take him on as promoting unrealistic ideas that are “pie in the sky.” According to Politico:

“I think she needs to show that she isn’t taking the nomination for granted and that Bernie’s ideas are not realistic,” a Nevada Democrat said….

Added a New Hampshire Democrat, “His pie in the sky policy ideas, while wonderful, have received very little scrutiny by the press. It’s about time they did.

The sibling of realism is expedience. Not quite twins, but very close, sharing much of the same DNA.

Optimism and aspiration are never out of place in politics. Without them, all you’ve got left is the past and the present, and a future that looks like some version of that. Of course for some, the idea of redux, of say, another Clinton White House, is an outcome worthy of killing dreams, interesting ideas and hope, unrealistic fables appropriate only for children. Grownups know what it takes to win the real prizes, unpretty and sad as the path may be.

Suddenly the politics of pessimism doesn’t look so bad, or at least won’t be so lonely in the company of its companion, the politics of realism. Please put down that pie in the sky. You just might get ideas.

New Beginnings: The Torah and the I Ching


In Jewish congregations, the annual Torah reading cycle begins again this week with the first chapters of the Bible. In Hebrew it begins with the word b’reishit, and in its best-known translation, the first verse goes like this:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

And with that comes a puzzle.

If B’reishit is the beginning of a very big and consequential story, and if the creators of the Torah were sensitive to the mystical meanings of the Hebrew alphabet and language, why does the Torah begin with the second letter bet (B) rather than the first letter alef (A)?

Looking at a bigger picture, this connects to a related puzzle and an unlikely source: the I Ching.

The I Ching is a classic of Chinese literature and philosophy, a text as ancient as the Torah and just as influential.

Richard J. Smith writes in The I Ching: A Biography:

The Changes first took shape about three thousand years ago as a divination manual, consisting of sixty-four six-line symbols known as hexagrams. Each hexagram was uniquely constructed, distinguished from all the others by its combination of solid (——) and/or broken (— —) lines. The first two hexagrams in the conventional order are Qian and Kun; the remaining sixty-two hexagrams represent permutations of these two paradigmatic symbols….

The operating assumption of the Changes, as it developed over time, was that these hexagrams represented the basic circumstances of change in the universe, and that by selecting a particular hexagram or hexagrams and correctly interpreting the various symbolic elements of each, a person could gain insight into the patterns of cosmic change and devise a strategy for dealing with problems or uncertainties concerning the present and the future.

The first intriguing note is that the I Ching (pronounced Yi Jing) begins with those hexagrams Qian and Kun—known generally in English as Heaven and Earth. The cosmos of change and the I Ching begin then with Heaven and Earth.

It is at the close of the 64 hexagrams that the conundrum appears. Hexagram 63, the penultimate one, is Ji Ji—After Completion. This should be the end of the story. But it isn’t. The final hexagram, Hexagram 64, is Wei Jei—Before Completion. In the end, it doesn’t stop. It begins again. The Book of Changes emphasizes that the changes never end.

This is an explanation of why the Torah does not begin with the beginning of the alphabet. If it starts with A, that presumes a Z, A to Z, or in Hebrew, alef to tav. Creation would thus be represented as a finite element of a finite cosmos. In the text it starts instead, as the Latin phrase goes, in media res—in the middle of things. Just as the Torah will end in the middle of things, after completion of a journey, but with Moses never allowed to experience what is yet to happen, before the next completion. On and on, always beginning, never done. Just like the I Ching. Just like the Torah itself.

Collateral Damage in Afghanistan

In the vocabulary of war, no term is darker or more chilling than “collateral damage.”

There was last week collateral damage in our war in Afghanistan, where a Doctors Without Borders hospital was the target of aggressive American airstrikes. A number were killed and injured, including children, and the hospital was destroyed.

The few facts, besides the destruction, are these.

Collateral damage is unavoidable, though it can and should be minimized.

The Taliban has overtaken the area, though not the hospital.

We are engaged in supporting the Afghan fight against the Taliban, by, for example, air strikes.

Hospital personnel contacted the U.S. military after the barrage began, but it continued anyway.

Now for the rest of the story, which the Pentagon tried to correct this morning.

Early reports were that the U.S. itself called for the air strikes.

Not so, says the Pentagon. It was the Afghans who identified the target as a Taliban position, and then we conducted the airstrikes.

Don’t you see the difference? The difference, of course, being some sort of operational and moral distinction, being entirely responsible for a tragic and avoidable error versus being only mostly responsible for a tragic and avoidable error. Now we see.

It isn’t really about the particulars anyway. It’s about the need for unceasing realization that if you choose war, you choose its worst impacts. The calculus can’t just include the big win and big benefits—assuming there are any—so that those cancel out the ill you do. It doesn’t work that way. So when and if we choose war, it is never illegitimate to keep the costs constantly in mind. In fact, it is always immoral and ill-advised not to.

Otherwise, you might end up with millions of underserved and nearly abandoned veterans. Or a badly damaged economy. Or a dispirited and skeptical nation. Or some of the world’s most selfless health workers in one of the world’s most needy countries watching as their patients and their hospital die and burn.

Underwear and Ideas

Boxer Briefs

The life of underwear is interesting. It begins with elastic that is comfortable and useful. But over time, the elastic relaxes. The underwear still works pretty well, still looks pretty good, and you are reluctant to replace it. Why bother?

Then you finally do replace it, and the new one is an improvement. It really does feel better. Works better too. What took you so long?

It may be worthwhile to consider replacing old ideas and old ways with new ones. You might be surprised how easy it might be, and how much better it works and feels.

Bill Is Houdini, Hillary Is Not

Bill Clinton is an escape artist. It is fact, not conjecture, that he has gotten away with things that would crush other politicians and public figures.

Hillary Clinton helped enable and engineer some of those escapes, some might say against her best interest and integrity. But doing that, she may have drawn a skewed conclusion. She may overvalue those escapes as feats of engineering and scheming, and undervalue the essential role of Bill being Bill.

Bill Clinton is sui generis in American political history, one of a kind, maybe more so even than Barack Obama. The qualities are hard to describe; charm and charisma fail to completely capture it. He is special, the bad boy who is not really bad, just a little naughty, and no matter what you discover or discover he has hidden, it is nearly always alright. At least alright enough to move on.

Hillary is absolutely sui generis too. But she is no Bill and she is no Houdini. And while it is true that Houdini’s escapes were technical wonders, meticulously planned, that is not what made him the star he was. It was the personality and drama he brought to the stage that enthralled people, so much so that audiences actually wanted him to get into big trouble because they wanted him to get out of it—they needed him to get out of it. In that respect, Hillary is no Houdini. Nor is she Bill.

Oregon College Shooting: Republican Debate to Move to Umpqua Community College

How many shot dead today in Roseburg, Oregon? How many more injured?

We will soon have an exact body count. But while we wait for the numbers, here’s another big question: What is wrong with us?

I now hear that certain Second Amendment-loving, NRA-fearing presidential candidates are tweeting messages of sympathy for the community and for the families of those affected.

So here’s the next questions: Are you kidding me?

The answer is not better mental health oversight, treatment and identification, although that would be nice. The answer is not more guns, guns for everyone, so that the supposedly mentally ill shooters will rationally think twice about being gunned down themselves by a teacher or other student.

The answer is as few guns as we can manage to get along with, day after day. Which should be a lot fewer than we have, according to practically every other civilized country in the world. (Of course, those are ordinary countries, as opposed to exceptional America. Exceptionally absurd numbers of mass shootings, that is.)

The answer is to moderate a gun culture that is out of control. One way to do that is to…reduce the number of guns. Anyone who thinks that the current number of guns is a good idea, or that even more guns would be better, because that is what our Constitutional fathers wanted, is not mentally ill. They are historically, politically, and morally ill.

I am not going to cast too broad a net by suggesting that all the current Republican presidential candidates are strong and unconditional supporters of the NRA. But I think that may be true. In that case, I suggest that instead of holding the next Republican debate at the University of Colorado, they move it to Umpqua Community College. There they will be free to peddle all their NRA talking points nonsense to an audience filled with hundreds, thousands of people who understand all too well what the Second Amendment really and tragically means.

Hillary Campaign Aims Preemptive Threats at Joe: We Will Allow You To Go Out With Respect and Esteem

From the New York Times:

This week, David Brock, who created the pro-Clinton group Correct the Record, which is coordinating with Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, told Chicago Magazine his “gut” told him Mr. Biden would not run because “he’ll realize that at this point in his career, he can go out with everyone’s respect and esteem.”

Only the most naïve would not recognize this as a threat. Choose not to run and you “can go out with everyone’s respect and esteem.” Choose to run and…well, we can’t be responsible for what might happen in the heat of an aggressive campaign.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has paid attention to politics. Politics is hardball, and the Clintons play major league hardball. Just because Joe is one of the most beloved and sympathetic figures in current politics doesn’t give him immunity. From any attacks, including from a candidate who was bitterly denied her first shot at superstardom.

Ultimately this is what Joe’s still-pending decision is all about. Beau’s death is only one part of a bigger life picture. As for Hillary, the only thing more dangerous than a healthy behemoth is a wounded one. The circumstances of the Democratic nomination are far from as clear as they were just months ago. What is clear is the Clinton vow, this time, to win. High-minded, low-minded, pretty or ugly. If, as promised, it is going to get ugly, Joe must be asking himself whether he wants to be in the middle of it all. Or whether he’d rather enjoy his retirement, untouched by relentless and vicious attacks. Who can blame him, whatever he decides.

Still, as Americans, we don’t appreciate threats, political or otherwise. My guess is that Joe and his millions of supporters and admirers don’t appreciate it either.