Bob Schwartz

Month: January, 2017

Paris 1968: A Popular Movement That Almost Toppled a Government

Paris '68

One of the most remarkable popular uprisings of the 1960s—possibly of the modern era—started in Paris in May 1968. It would ignite and inspire the entire nation, lead to a national general strike, and almost bring down the French government of Charles de Gaulle. It also captured the imagination of the world.

The movement did die down after a few months. But it left an indelible mark on the way cultural, social and political movements can combine and be conducted. In his Foreword to When Poetry Ruled the Streets: The Events of May 1968, Douglas Kellner writes:

In the historical memory of the Left, the Events of May ’68 in France have attained mythic proportion. The student uprising, workers’ strikes and factory occupations that erupted during a brief but explosive period in 1968 instilled fear in the hearts of ruling powers everywhere. They inspired those in revolt everywhere with the faith that social upheaval is possible and that spontaneous insurgency can overcome the force of circumstances. For an all-too-brief moment, imagination seized power, the impossible was demanded, and poetry and spontaneity ruled the streets.

Of course, the revolutionary energies of the May Events were soon exhausted, order was restored, and since then the significance of May ’68 has been passionately debated. Did the uprising reveal the exhaustion and bankruptcy of the existing political system and parties, or the immaturity and undisciplined anarchy of the forces in revolt? Did the Events indicate the possibility of fundamental change, or prove that the established system can absorb all forms of opposition and contestation? Did May ’68 signal the autonomy of cultural and social revolution, or demonstrate once again that the old economic and political forces still control the system and can resist all change?…

May ’68 demonstrates as well that spontaneous action can erupt quickly and surprisingly, that it can provide alternatives to standard politics, and that a new politics is practical and necessary. The initial inability of established Left political parties and unions to support the students and workers suggests the irrelevancy of politics as usual and the need to go outside of ordinary political channels and institutions to spark significant contestation and change. The Events also suggest the primacy of social and cultural revolution, of the need to change individuals, social relations, and culture as a prelude to political and systemic transformation. The total nature of the rebellion reflects the totalizing domination of the system which must itself be transformed if significant change is to take place….

For a brief moment, the spirit of 1968 appeared to promise fundamental change in France and in other places throughout the world. To counter historical forgetting, to keep memory and hope alive let us now rethink and relive these experiences, find connections with our contemporary situation, and strive to create our own alternative modes of thought and action.

One vital legacy of May 1968 are the posters, graffiti and poetry of the movement. A gallery of posters can be found here. About these posters, Justin McGuirk of the Guardian writes:

While their fellow students engaged in pitched battles with the police and millions of workers went on general strike, students at the École des Beaux Arts in 1968 occupied the printing studios and converted them into the uprising’s very own propaganda machine. Many of the resulting posters have become icons of political design.

Be young, shut up

Be young and shut up (Charles de Gaulle silencing a protester)

We are all undesirables

We are all undesirables

We are the power

We are the power

Sally Yates: The First Sacrificial Ox in the Purge

Only ten days into his administration, Trump has begun the purge of government officials who disagree with him, with the firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. It took Nixon almost five years before he got rid of a conscientious Attorney General. Elliot Richardson left on 20 October 1973, an event now known in history as the Saturday Night Massacre. Things seem to move much faster in the 21st century. There is more of the same undoubtedly to come.

For people of conscience, government posts and titles have always been dangerous. Here is a story from Chuang Tzu (c. 4th century BC), “one of the most intriguing, humorous, enjoyable personalities in the whole of Chinese thought and philosophy.”

Someone offered Chuang Tzu a court post. Chuang Tzu answered the messenger, ‘Sir, have you ever seen a sacrificial ox? It is decked in fine garments and fed on fresh grass and beans. However, when it is led into the Great Temple, even though it most earnestly might wish to be a simple calf again, it’s now impossible!’ (The Book of Chuang Tzu, Chapter 32)

Are We Scared Yet?

“A Republican congressional aide said the House Homeland Security Committee wasn’t consulted on the executive order, and an aide to a Republican House Judiciary Committee member said he wasn’t aware of any committee members or staffers being consulted. On Sunday, a senior leadership aide said congressional leaders had no role in drafting the order.”

“Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who ran against Trump for the Republican nomination, said he had been trying to get more information about the orders but that State Department officials told his staff that they had been ordered not to talk to Congress.”

Random Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 34


Studying a random Torah chapter each Shabbat contravenes the traditional, conventional and sacred process of following the Torah through a fixed annual cycle of portions. I only recently learned from reading the revered and brilliant rabbi and scholar Aryeh Kaplan that meditation on random Torah passages is actually a historical Jewish phenomenon. Who knew?

While working on an extended explanation of my taking this iconoclastic Torah study path, today I offer a poem about breaking cycles:


We see better in discontinuity
The way we see better in the dark.
We strain for every glimmer of light
However small
To make out shapes.
Cycles and patterns are comfortable
The more they repeat
The easier it seems.
But nothing is easy.
We are lulled into false confidence
That we know what is there
And what is going on.
The broken line
Is as powerful as the solid.

Deuteronomy 34 is the last chapter of the Torah. It is the death of Moses.

The Torah begins on a cosmic scale with the creation of everything. It ends with a single man, a very old and special man, sitting on a mountaintop, surveying the future. He will never see or experience that future, partly because he is old and dying, partly because he has been forbidden to enter the land he has led his people to.

Scholars will tell you that as a literary matter, this final chapter may not technically be the end of the text, that the five books (Pentateuch) are actually six (Hexateuch), and this compendium work originally continued with the story of Joshua, which now appears in the non-Torah book of Joshua.

That is an important scholarly debate in some ways, and a silly one in another. The Big Story always begins with an ineffable cosmic moment. It always ends with an old person surveying the past, present and future, with promises fulfilled and unfulfilled, barred by the nature of creation from going any further. This final chapter gets it right.

The Meek and the Mean

And very soon the wicked will be no more.
You will look at his place—he’ll be gone.
And the poor shall inherit the earth
and take pleasure from great well-being.
(Psalm 37:11-12, Robert Alter translation)

But until then, the mean and the stupid may still prevail.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day: Conspiracy


Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Conspiracy (2001) is an HBO movie that tells the story of the Wannsee Conference, held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on 20 January 1942. It was a top secret meeting of senior government officials of Nazi Germany and SS leaders to debate the merits of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution,’ the extermination of the entire Jewish population of Europe.

The excellent movie and the horrifying meeting are both mesmerizing and near-sickening. But whatever your knowledge of the Nazis and the Holocaust, you should—must—see it.

Not only because you should know more about the Nazis and the Holocaust, though you should. See it because you will discover how men of supposed culture, faith, education, and managerial and professional stature (many at the meeting were lawyers) can find themselves not just following a debased and subhuman road, but actually designing and building the road themselves. A highway to hell.

Conspiracy should be made freely available, at least on this one day. Unfortunately, besides free availability on Amazon Prime Video, you will have to pay $9.99 to stream or buy it. You can at least view some clips for free.

A Hundred Uglinesses or A Thousand Stupidities: The Upright Cauldron


Despite a hundred uglinesses or a thousand stupidities, the upright cauldron is naturally beneficent.
Zen Master Hongzhi

A note in Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi says:

As an idiom, “cauldrons,” means simply “uprightness.” The cauldron is a traditional Chinese implement for alchemy and cooking and so is associated with spiritual transformation. Here it is an image for the context of meditation practice and its yogic reliability. Cauldron is the name of hexagram 50 in the ancient Chinese classic Book of Changes, or I Qing: “To change things nothing compares to the cauldron; this is the vessel used to refine the wise, forge sages, cook buddhas, and purify adepts. How could it not be very auspicious and developmental?”

About I Ching Hexagram 50—Ding (Cauldron), Establishing the New—Master Alfred Huang says:

This gua [hexagram] takes the image of a sacrificial vessel to expound upon the importance of honoring and nourishing wise and virtuous persons for the growth of a new country or a new situation. The image of the gua is an inverse form of the preceding one. The preceding one is an act of revolution to abolish the old system or condition. The purpose of revolution is not merely to overthrow the old but, more important, to establish a new situation and a better order. Abolishing the old is difficult; establishing the new is even more so. Both abolishing the old and establishing the new need qualified personnel of extraordinary ability. This gua offers a proper way to reorganize the old order. The key point is to respect wise and virtuous persons and rely on them to establish the new order. On the other hand, eliminating those who are mean and unqualified for their position is equally important.



In the adapted words of a PBS profile:

He was a small man with a crippled foot, a disproportionately large head and a fragile body. He was much disliked because of his malice and ill will, and though a mesmerizing orator, he lacked charisma. Nevertheless, he was a man of tremendous enthusiasm with an endless supply of ideas, and a master of mass psychology.

He was made propaganda chief. After the party came to power, he began to clamp down on all forms of artistic expression. He took control of the news media, making sure that it presented domestic and foreign policy aims in terms of party ideology. He played probably the most important role in creating an atmosphere in the country that made it possible for the party to commit terrible atrocities.

He devoted much of his efforts to boosting morale. He wrote innumerable articles and speeches rousing the people, promising wonders and providing projections he knew were pure fantasy.

Who is this man? And why is he here?

Virginia Peace Medal (1780): Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God/Happy While United

Virginia Peace Medal

The Virginia Indian peace medal was produced by order of Governor Thomas Jefferson in 1780. The obverse side reads: Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God. The reverse side reads: Happy While United

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation says:

This extremely rare Virginia Indian peace medal was produced by order of Governor Thomas Jefferson in 1780. Matchless in the history of relations between the independent Commonwealth of Virginia and the region’s native tribes, the “Happy While United” peace medal was cast in bronze by Robert Scot—later chief engraver at the U.S. Mint— in Williamsburg or Richmond while Jefferson was governor.

Commemorating an unidentified Revolutionary-era alliance between native tribes and the Commonwealth, silver medals were presented to important tribal members, while bronze versions were cast for non-native recipients. None of the twelve silver medals originally produced survive as they were likely traded in for later Presidential Indian peace medals or buried with the native recipients upon their deaths.

At nearly three inches in diameter and more than 2.5 ounces in weight, the medal is based on designs by noted artist Pierre Eugene du Simitiere and New York silversmith Daniel Christian Feuter. A bronze medal, identical to the one acquired by Colonial Williamsburg, was recorded as a gift from Isaac Zane of the Marlboro Iron Works—a patriot munitions factory in Frederick County during the American Revolution—to du Simitiere prior to May 1781.

The medal uses one the earliest versions of the fledgling Commonwealth’s official seal depicting the goddess Virtue standing triumphant over a fallen tyrant—most certainly meant to represent King George III—surrounded by the inscription “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

The reverse side of the medal incorporates a scene from an earlier medal made in New York during the 1760s and depicts a European-American and a Native American seated on a bench sharing a “peace pipe.” To the right is a tree, shading the two figures, and behind them is a waterfront scene with three vessels under sail. The over-arching inscription reads “Happy While United” with “1780” below the scene.

Supremely Lost

First be confused
Conflicted confounded.
Uncertainty an invitation
Not an obstacle.
Vivid and loud chaos
Is dangerous.
What if we surrender
And never return?
But how else can we be found
Without being supremely lost?