Bob Schwartz

Month: March, 2017

The Albatross: REPUBLICAN President Trump

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks       
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross   
About my neck was hung.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Barring extraordinary intervening events such as impeachment (which may not happen), Donald Trump will be president for the next four years. For those unhappy with that prospect, one obvious strategy is to limit his power/damage by reducing the number of Republicans in Congress and elsewhere.

As complex tactics are devised to achieve that end, here is a magic incantation—an albatross—that can help:

REPUBLICAN President Trump

Yes, it is that simple. Three words. It was only months ago that many Republicans were distancing themselves from candidate Trump—trying to hold onto their integrity, dignity, principles and sanity. Once he won, it was understandable that they stood by him, given the power that comes with the office. A lot of Republican dreams could come true with a Republican president, even if it is Trump.

Now Republicans are wondering about the consequences of being attached to the wackiest and least popular president in modern history—maybe ever (after only two months in office!). Not even distancing is going to work, since Trump showed during the campaign that he would attack anyone at any time, regardless of party. Those attacks carry a lot more weight now that he is actually the president.

Even if Republicans try to delicately distance themselves, it should be made as difficult as possible. And the best way to assure that is to identify Trump regularly as REPUBLICAN President Trump. Not President Trump. REPUBLICAN President Trump. REPUBLICAN President Trump.

Let’s see Republicans shake that albatross.

Sharing a Draft

Sharing a Draft

Sharing a draft
Is intimate.
Standing naked is not so private
As getting dressed.
Who is allowed to see?

Surrealism: An Appropriate Response to Now

Sometime during the news today, the word surreal came to mind. Again.

Andre Breton, one of the founders of the Surrealist art movement in the 1920s, defined it this way:

SURREALISM, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express, verbally, in writing, or by other means, the real process of thought. Thought’s dictation, in the absence of all control exercised by the reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.

I think that now and then I may be turning to surrealist art and literature—not to explain things, just because it seems like an appropriate response to now. To things that turn up in the news, for example.

Anyway, surrealism may find its way into these posts once in a while. A work of art, a bit of literature.

Above you will see Juan Miro’s Potato (1928). When you recognize that as possibly/certainly a potato/the potato/no potato/one potato/many potatoes/the idea of potato, you will be on your way to understanding what is going on. In the news, for example. Probably better than me.

The Warmth of Zen

One of the descriptions—it might be a criticism—of Zen is that it is cold and severe. That the core practice of “just sitting” (shikantaza) and thinking non-thinking/beyond thinking is too intellectual and does not include elements of feeling and humanity found in other practices and traditions, including some Buddhist ones.

Not to refute something that doesn’t ask for refutation, but here is a thought. Zen is like building the best fireplace in which the best fires can be set to burn the most cleanly and warmly. Yes, stone and bricks are cold. And you can build fires in the middle of your room or outside, and you may. But it is also good to have a well-constructed place to bring your wood and flame. It may seem impossible to build a fireplace just by sitting. But ultimately, it is actually very warm.

Faster than Flowers

Faster than Flowers

These poems grow
Faster than flowers.
They must be weeds.

Nazi in the White House: Nothing Surprises But Everything Astonishes (Update)

Update: Since publication of this story in the Forward on Thursday, two things have happened:

There has been the traditional muddying of the waters when controversial trump-related matters arise, with comments from various sources that on their face seem to put the basic matter to rest, but never directly address the question on the table. Or don’t address the question at all: neither the White House nor Gorka will talk about it.

The major news media have shied away, at least for the moment, because of their unwillingness or inability to look through muddy waters stirred up in trump-related matters. In many cases, this doesn’t go to journalistic high-mindedness or objectivity, but to weakness and timidity, and in this case, to having been scooped (or alternatively to having sat on the story).

Following the first story, the Forward has gone on to publish multiple stories, including this excellent summary from the following day, March 17. Please read in its entirety:

Sebastian Gorka: What Is The Evidence, And Why Does It Matter?

Sebastian Gorka, President Trump’s deputy assistant, and his chief adviser on counter-terrorism, has undisputed ties to the Vitézi Rend — a far-right Hungarian group who were close allies of the Nazis in World War II. Born in Britain to Hungarian parents, he became a naturalized American citizen in 2012 after marrying Katherine Cornell. No one has suggested that there is evidence he is anti-Semitic or an enemy of Israel but the ongoing political affiliations of White House advisers matter. Here is the actual evidence under discussion, and why it matters.

This from the Forward:

EXCLUSIVE: Nazi-Allied Group Claims Top Trump Aide Sebastian Gorka As Sworn Member

Sebastian Gorka, President Trump’s top counter-terrorism adviser, is a formal member of a Hungarian far-right group that is listed by the U.S. State Department as having been “under the direction of the Nazi Government of Germany” during World War II, leaders of the organization have told the Forward.

The elite order, known as the Vitézi Rend, was established as a loyalist group by Admiral Miklos Horthy, who ruled Hungary as a staunch nationalist from 1920 to October 1944. A self-confessed anti-Semite, Horthy imposed restrictive Jewish laws prior to World War II and collaborated with Hitler during the conflict. His cooperation with the Nazi regime included the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Jews into Nazi hands.

Gorka’s membership in the organization — if these Vitézi Rend leaders are correct, and if Gorka did not disclose this when he entered the United States as an immigrant — could have implications for his immigration status. The State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual specifies that members of the Vitézi Rend “are presumed to be inadmissible” to the country under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Gorka — who Vitézi Rend leaders say took a lifelong oath of loyalty to their group — did not respond to multiple emails sent to his work and personal accounts, asking whether he is a member of the Vitézi Rend and, if so, whether he disclosed this on his immigration application and on his application to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2012. The White House also did not respond to a request for comment.

But Bruce Einhorn, a retired immigration judge who now teaches nationality law at Pepperdine University, said of this, “His silence speaks volumes.”

Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation

What if someone lies in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence? What if that person really believes what he is saying?

Confabulation is the construction of false answers to a question while genuinely believing that you are telling the truth.

This mysterious phenomenon usually accompanies neurological or cognitive disorders, and the puzzle of it has been the subject of some study among researchers. In his book Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation, William Hirstein takes this study further than it has gone before:

“Both a neuroscientist and a philosopher, William Hirstein writes from his unique vantage point with great scholarship, precision, and clarity to tackle some of the deeper mysteries of the human mind. Brain Fiction is full of profound insights, and I recommend it to all who wish to better understand our human nature.”

—Fredric Schiffer, M.D., Harvard Medical School, author of Of Two Minds

Here is a description of the book:

Some neurological patients exhibit a striking tendency to confabulate—to construct false answers to a question while genuinely believing that they are telling the truth. A stroke victim, for example, will describe in detail a conference he attended over the weekend when in fact he has not left the hospital. Normal people, too, sometimes have a tendency to confabulate; rather than admitting “I don’t know,” some people will make up an answer or an explanation and express it with complete conviction. In Brain Fiction, William Hirstein examines confabulation and argues that its causes are not merely technical issues in neurology or cognitive science but deeply revealing about the structure of the human intellect.

Hirstein describes confabulation as the failure of a normal checking or censoring process in the brain—the failure to recognize that a false answer is fantasy, not reality. Thus, he argues, the creative ability to construct a plausible-sounding response and some ability to check that response are separate in the human brain. Hirstein sees the dialectic between the creative and checking processes—”the inner dialogue”—as an important part of our mental life. In constructing a theory of confabulation, Hirstein integrates perspectives from different fields, including philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology to achieve a natural mix of conceptual issues usually treated by philosophers with purely empirical issues; information about the distribution of certain blood vessels in the prefrontal lobes of the brain, for example, or the behavior of split-brain patients can shed light on the classic questions of philosophy of mind, including questions about the function of consciousness. This first book-length study of confabulation breaks ground in both philosophy and cognitive science.

A sample chapter can be read here. A couple of brief excerpts:

Why then does confabulation happen? Confabulation seems to involve two sorts of errors. First, a false response is created. Second, having thought of or spoken the false response, the patient fails to check, examine it and recognize its falsity. A normal person, we want to say, would notice the falsity or absurdity of such claims. The patient should have either not created the false response or, having created it, should have censored or corrected it. We do this sort of censoring in our normal lives. If I ask you whether you have ever been to Siberia, for instance, an image might appear in your mind of you wearing a thick fur coat and hat and braving a snowy storm, but you know that this is fantasy, not reality. In very general terms, the confabulating patient lacks the ability to assess his or her situation, and to either answer correctly, or respond that he or she does not know. Apparently, admitting ignorance in response to a question, rather than being an indication of glibness and a low level of function, is a high-level cognitive ability, one that confabulators have lost. ‘‘I don’t know,’’ can be an intelligent answer to a question, or at least an answer indicative of good cognitive health….

Young children sometimes confabulate when asked to recall events. Ackil and Zaragoza (1998) showed first-graders a segment of a film depicting a boy and his experiences at summer camp. Afterward the children were asked questions about it, including questions about events that did not happen in the film. One such question was, ‘‘What did the boy say Sullivan had stolen?’’ when in fact no thefts had taken place in the film. The children were pressed to give some sort of answer, and the experimenters often suggested an answer. When the children were interviewed a week later, the false events as well as the suggested answers had been incorporated into their recollections of the movie.

Spotify Throwback Thursday: Let’s Dance

Burn, baby, burn
Burn the mother down.
The Trammps

This week’s Spotify Throwback Thursday playlist isn’t hard to figure out: the theme is dancing.

Those raised on EDM may find these classic dance tracks a little slow on the BPM and a little light on the electronics. But if it means anything that the D stands for Dance and M stands for Music, this is the stuff.

Not all of this music was the greatest. But some of the artists are masters and some of the tracks are the mountaintop. An annotated selection from this playlist:

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough (plus one other track), Michael Jackson
It’s so confusing to think about Michael Jackson, in terms of the way his life and his music went. But Off the Wall is one of the major dance albums ever. Yes, the guy on the cover is Michael Jackson.

Let’s Dance, David Bowie
Bowie being Bowie, he couldn’t make dance music like everybody else. He had to Bowieize it.

Take a Chance On Me (plus four other tracks), ABBA
One time I drove almost a thousand miles with ABBA Greatest Hits as my primary soundtrack. I don’t regret it, and would do it again.

I’m Every Woman, Chakha Khan
Chaka Khan. Chaka Khan. If you don’t know that music is magic and Chaka Khan is magic, you don’t know. Also, for those into woman-type statements, this is a goddess singing about being a goddess.

Disco Inferno, The Trammps
People getting loose, y’all. Getting loose to burn the mother down. Is this about dancing?

It’s Raining Men, The Weather Girls
Did you not want to have fun? And depending on your inclinations, not want to see what happens at 10:30 to get absolutely soaking wet?

Le Freak, CHIC
From small things big things come. Here Nile Rogers invents an entire piece of dance pop music.

I Will Survive, Gloria Gaynor
Women have been singing this message forever, on record and off. But never quite like this, before or since. I’ve got all my life to live, I’ve got all my love to give. You’re not welcome any more.

September, Earth Wind & Fire
It’s Earth Wind & Fire.

Last Dance (plus two other tracks), Donna Summer
The story of how the night ends at the club. Go home with the one who brought you. Go home with the one you met. Go home with the one you dance with last. It may not be Donna Summer. It can’t be.

Republicans Need the Eggs

A great classic joke, told by Woody Allen in Annie Hall:

“It reminds me of that old joke—you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.”

“‘People are scared’: Paranoia seizes Trump’s White House”

This from today’s Washington Post:

 ‘People are scared’: Paranoia seizes Trump’s White House

Staffers are leaving their phones at home, using secret apps and monitoring each other’s social media.

A culture of paranoia is consuming the Trump administration, with staffers increasingly preoccupied with perceived enemies — inside their own government. In interviews, nearly a dozen White House aides and federal agency staffers described a litany of suspicions.

The report is essential and surreal reading.

There have been two parallel concerns about the trump presidency:

It would be ruthlessly effective at remaking America in an unrecognizable and un-American form.


It would be totally ineffective at getting anything done, even that which is necessary. In other words, the government would be in leaderless chaos and falling apart.

Many of the stories up to now have been evidence of the first. This story, though, is on-target about the second.

The American ideal is a government led by three branches, each one reasonably aware and capable, each one taking its role as a check and balance seriously. Right now:

The Supreme Court, thanks to the Republicans refusal to fill a vacancy last year, sits one Justice short.

A Republican-controlled Congress is caught between loyalty to the supposed leader of their party in the White House and the realization (something they knew from the campaign) that the president has…problems.

The executive branch? You can watch and read the news, including the above-mentioned report, as well as anybody.

As political theory, some say they want less government. But what if, in effect, we end up with none?