Bob Schwartz

Month: December, 2017

Mrs. Roy Moore: “One of Our Attorneys Is a Jew”

At a final rally before the Alabama special election, Roy Moore’s wife Kayla denied the portrayal of the couple as anti-Semitic:

“Fake news would tell you that we don’t care for Jews. I tell you all this because I’ve seen it all, so I just want to set the record straight while they’re here. One of our attorneys is a Jew.”

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Be an American Maccabee

This Hanukkah in America we are all called to be Maccabees. Not only Jews, but everyone.

Our highest values are under siege, from powerful outside forces and from our own choices. We aren’t necessarily certain of our own values. We are busy and distracted. We don’t know how to respond. It is inconvenient and risky. What if we make things worse for ourselves? What if we lose? Even when the temple is desecrated, we may stand by and feel helpless.

Jews among all people know this situation. Instead of standing by we stand up. The history is mixed and messy, the results not always ideal. But since days of old we do it because we are called.

This Hanukkah in America the lights are still burning, if dimming. We can’t depend on others, or even God, to make sure the lights don’t go out. That is up to us, the Maccabees.

American Nazi Rally, Madison Square Garden

This post was drafted a month ago, but I decided that maybe I had been mentioning Nazi Germany too frequently. If you’ve read some of those earlier posts (here and here, for example), you see that I have never made an explicit connection between the current situation and that one.

Now President Obama has been bold enough to speak of this expressly:

“We have to tend to this garden of democracy or else things could fall apart quickly.…That’s what happened in Germany in the 1930s, which despite the democracy of the Weimar Republic and centuries of high-level cultural and scientific achievements, Adolph Hitler rose to dominate. Sixty million people died. . . .So, you’ve got to pay attention. And vote.”

Naturally, the reaction has been swift from Trump apologists—who already hate Obama—claiming that it is heinous to compare Trump to Hitler, and no such death of democracy is in the offing. On the contrary, they say, we are finally on our way to reviving our past glory.

The message in a democracy is inarguable: know your history, pay attention, and vote. Part of not knowing and not paying attention is the delusion that “it can’t happen here.”

Above is a picture of the American Nazi Rally at Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939. It was a full house of 22,000 “patriots”, with a giant god-like image of George Washington on stage, thought of as the father of their White Christian America.

Those who tried to disrupt the Madison Square Garden rally were arrested. Which is worse: being silent knowing that something is horribly wrong, or not being believed—actually being arrested—when you speak up?

 

Roy Moore Blues: Good Morning Little Schoolgirl

Mississippi is on my mind, as it is always in my heart.

There is the controversy surrounding Trump’s visit to the wonderful new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

Then there is Alabama, the neighbor to the east, suffering through the unending untender political mercies of Roy Moore.

This led to my listening to the blues this morning, and the blues standard Good Morning Little Schoolgirl came on. As cosmically unbluesy as Roy Moore is, this is his song:

Good morning little schoolgirl
Good morning little schoolgirl
Can I come home
Can I come home with you
Tell your mama and your papa
I’m a little schoolboy too

Hillel on Buddhism

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?
Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers 1:14

Hillel didn’t know the Buddha and probably didn’t know those who followed the Buddha’s philosophy. Jesus didn’t know Hillel, but knew people who knew Hillel or who followed Hillel’s philosophy.

This is one of the most famous of all Hillel’s wise sayings, and contains the essence of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and all religions aimed at assisting human evolution.

One of the seeming divisions in Buddhist thought—a division in the thought of most religions—is whether the primary mission is individualistic or communitarian. Should I be enlightened first so that I can help others be enlightened? Should I be saved first and go the heaven first so that I can help others get there? Or should I work on the community first, and then I might achieve that aspirational state and status.

Or both at the same time? Yes, both at the same time.

Hillel could not be more Buddhist if he was in India, China or Japan rather than Palestine.

It’s not just a matter of one making the other possible. These are not just dependent conditions. Your enlightenment does not exist without the enlightenment of others. Your well-being does not exist without the well-being of others. Simultaneously.

We see those who proudly parade their faith around yet, aside from aggressive proselytizing, leave others to fend for themselves. It is as if they stopped at the first Hillel question and felt justified making it all about themselves. When they skip the second question—“If I am only for myself, who am I?”—the possibility of their enlightenment, salvation, heaven, or whatever prize they seek is a delusion, as distant as the diameter of the universe.

Bodhi Day Is Here Again

One who recites many teachings
But, being negligent, doesn’t act accordingly,
Like a cowherd counting others’ cows,
Does not attain the benefits of the contemplative life.

December 8 is Bodhi Day, commemorating the enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha

It is marked in many ways. Some communities hold multi-day sesshins for practice and ceremonies. Some individuals sit all night the night before. There are many sorts of celebrations across the Buddhist world.

A blog post invites different opportunities, including images, videos, sounds and, of course, words. There are plenty of texts to choose from—Buddhist and not-Buddhist, wise and not-wise.

I considered including a Buddha joke or cartoon. Not that I know any off the top of my mind, but it turns out there are lots online. I have always loved jokes featuring religious figures, such as, “Moses, Jesus and Buddha go golfing…” (You will have to finish that one yourself.)

Then there is always silence, the one-size-fits-all Buddhist message.

This Bodhi Day, I gifted myself a bodhi tree, just like the one that the Buddha was sitting under when he was enlightened. Almost just like it. This bonsai ficus religiosa (above) is about 8 inches high, so I will not be sitting under it. Or on it.

I can’t leave this post without letting the Buddha speak for himself. This is from the Dhammapada, a brief (423 verses in 26 chapters) collection of the sayings of the Buddha, the most succinct summary of the heart of Buddhism.

In keeping with the power of randomness, even on (or especially on) Bodhi Day, this is a random chapter from the Dhammapada:

ONE
Dichotomies

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.

“He abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those carrying on like this,
Hatred does not end.

“She abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those not carrying on like this,
Hatred ends.

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.

Whoever lives
Focused on the pleasant,
Senses unguarded,
Immoderate with food,
Lazy and sluggish,
Will be overpowered by Māra,
As a weak tree is bent in the wind.

Whoever lives
Focused on the unpleasant,
Senses guarded,
Moderate with food,
Faithful and diligent,
Will not be overpowered by Māra,
As a stone mountain is unmoved by the wind.

Whoever is defiled
And devoid of self-control and truth,
Yet wears the saffron robe,
Is unworthy of the saffron robe.

Whoever has purged the defilements,
Is self-controlled, truthful,
And well established in virtue,
Is worthy of the saffron robe.

Those who consider the inessential to be essential
And see the essential as inessential
Don’t reach the essential,
Living in the field of wrong intention.

Those who know the essential to be essential
And the inessential as inessential
Reach the essential,
Living in the field of right intention.

As rain penetrates
An ill-thatched house,
So lust penetrates
An uncultivated mind.

As rain does not penetrate
A well-thatched house,
So lust does not penetrate
A well-cultivated mind.

One who does evil grieves in this life,
Grieves in the next,
Grieves in both worlds.
Seeing one’s own defiled acts brings grief and affliction.

One who makes merit rejoices in this life,
Rejoices in the next,
Rejoices in both worlds.
Seeing one’s own pure acts brings joy and delight.

One who does evil is tormented in this life,
Tormented in the next,
Is tormented in both worlds.
Here he is tormented, knowing, “I have done evil.”
Reborn in realms of woe, he is tormented all the more.

One who makes merit is delighted in this life,
Delighted in the next,
Is delighted in both worlds.
Here she is delighted, knowing, “I have made merit.”
Reborn in realms of bliss, she delights all the more.

One who recites many teachings
But, being negligent, doesn’t act accordingly,
Like a cowherd counting others’ cows,
Does not attain the benefits of the contemplative life.

One who recites but a few teachings
Yet lives according to the Dharma,
Abandoning passion, ill will, and delusion,
Aware and with mind well freed,
Not clinging in this life or the next,
Attains the benefits of the contemplative life.

The Dhammapada translated by Gil Fronsdal

First Fire

First Fire

In the desert
The first fire of winter
Comes late
A cold morning
A colder night
Sneaks up
Shivering you realize
Sun and season
Pass the job of heat to you
Ready or not

©

A New World Is About New People Not New Things

How beauteous mankind is! 
O brave new world
That has such people in’t!
William Shakespeare, The Tempest (Act 5, Scene 1)

Those are famous lines from Shakespeare made more modernly famous by Aldous Huxley in his dystopian novel Brave New World.

In the play, Miranda has been isolated on an island with her father Prospero, and this is her exclamation as she gets her first excited view of beautiful and wondrous men. (Prospero, who is experienced and has seen a thing or two, warns her about the seeming novelty: “Tis new to thee.”)

“Brave new world” has come to mean progress in things and processes, whether for good or ill. But the Shakespeare quote suggests a more essential point. A new world is about new people, not new things.

Our difficulty is that it is easier to make new things than it is to make or be new people.

The supply of new things appears endless. But as for new and better people, at least in some highly visible and powerful segments, we seem to be moving backwards. Some of that regressing comes from people who piously and hypocritically claim that they are all about being new and better people.

If we want to consider new things the markers of a beautiful and wondrous new world—and some of them are— we should at least balance that with aspiring towards beautiful and wondrous and better people. New things make it easy to forget this, and the newer and more plentiful the things, the easier to forget.

To a new world with new people.

Treason: Michael Flynn Wasn’t Charged With It But His Colleague and Bosses Could Be

Michael Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI. He escaped other charges, including treason, for transactions, with a foreign power (Russia) during the presidential transition—after Trump was elected but before he took office. During that period, President Obama was in exclusive charge of U.S. foreign policy.

The Treason statute reads:

Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States. (18 U.S. Code § 2381)

From what we know so far about the discussions between Trump officials and the Russians offering to ease Obama sanctions (an indication that Russia was not our friend), the Russians were likely made to feel “comfortable” about their prospects.

Flynn is cooperating with the Special Prosecutor, which makes it more likely that more will be revealed about these transactions and the people involved. Just because Flynn was not charged with treason—though he still could be if he reneges on cooperating—doesn’t mean that others won’t be.

Three final points.

Is treason a “high crime or misdemeanor” under the impeachment provision of the Constitution? You don’t have to be a lawyer to guess that it is.

Will anyone be executed if treason is found? Certainly not, but the range from five years to life in prison is a long one.

Will Trump pardon anyone, including himself, if charged with any crimes stemming from the Russian transactions, treason or otherwise? Yes, with the exception of those, like Flynn, who are cooperating. They don’t deserve his generosity, demonstrating none of the loyalty and obedience that Trump expects and prizes.

Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.
—Edith Wharton

I am tempted to include the entire Preface to Lewis Lapham’s Age of Folly in this post. Instead, I include excerpts and then encourage you to buy the ebook for just $2.99. As with all lucid insights into the current situation, it will not make you happier, but it will provide enlightening perspective.

The book is a collection of Latham’s essays, “essays arranged in order of their composition and stepping off on a march of folly with America’s 1991 invasion of Iraq—a reality TV show armed with self-glorifying high explosives and a nonsensical casus belli—and ending with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, a self-glorifying photo-op bursting star-spangled bombast in air.”


Preface

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.
—Edith Wharton

It’s been six months since Donald Trump moved into the White House with his Twitter account, but I’m still talking to people unable or unwilling to believe he is president of the United States. Eager to bring late-breaking reports of Trump’s uncivil and unconstitutional behavior, they come bearing gifts of high-minded outrage and condescending mockery soon followed by variations on the question, How can such things be?

The short answer is Edith Wharton’s. A longer answer is the one spread across the pages of this book, essays arranged in order of their composition and stepping off on a march of folly with America’s 1991 invasion of Iraq—a reality TV show armed with self-glorifying high explosives and a nonsensical casus belli—and ending with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, a self-glorifying photo-op bursting star-spangled bombast in air. Over the course of the twenty-five years from point A to point B, a weakened but still operational democracy gives way to a stupefied and dysfunctional plutocracy.

To regard Trump as an amazement beyond belief is to give him credit where none is due. He is undoubtedly a menace, but he isn’t a surprise. Product and mirror of an age distinguished by its extravagant displays of vanity and greed, Trump’s positioning of government as trivial pursuit is the way things are and have been in Washington and Wall Street for the last quarter of a century….

The camera doesn’t do democracy. Democracy is the holding of one’s fellow citizens in respectful regard not because they are beautiful or rich or famous, but because they are one’s fellow citizens and therefore worth the knowing what they say and do. The work is difficult and slow; too many words with too little action doesn’t move the merchandise. The cameras on the road with the biggest name on earth weren’t covering a play of ideas; they were attracted to the splendor and flash of money, to the romance of crime and the sweet decaying smell of overripe celebrity.

Because the camera sees but doesn’t think, it makes no meaningful distinction between a bubble bath in Las Vegas staffed by pretty girls and a bloodbath in Palmyra staffed by headless corpses. The return on both investments is the bankable flow of wish and dream drawn from the bottomless wells of human ignorance and fear, from the always rushing river of mankind’s limitless desire. It didn’t matter what Trump said or didn’t say, whether he was cute and pink or headless.

Trump pitched his campaign on the storyline the movie-going American electorate loves beyond all others—the one about the knight errant up against the system and the odds, the lonesome-pine hero in the trail-weary saddle riding into town to gun down the degenerate sheriff and rescue the God-fearing settlers, to set the crooked straight, restore civic virtue, distribute a fair share of the loot to the schoolteacher, the shepherd, and the store-keep.

It didn’t matter that Trump was a prosperous fool. He sold newspapers, boosted television ratings. He was maybe short on sense and sensibility, but he was long on market share. The infotainment media in all of its factions and instrumentations (CNN and the New York Times as well as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads) recognized Trump as a preposterous clown and transparent fraud but nevertheless framed him in the gilt-edged cliché of the underdog outlaw—up there in lights with robber barons Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, gunslingers Eastwood and Stallone, Mafia dons Corleone and Soprano. The unifying and all-purpose product placement won the election for Trump, rewarded the media with a Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold. Already in the first months of the primary season the numbers moving up in the opinion poll leaderboards encouraged Leslie Moonves, chief executive officer of CBS, to assure the network’s bankers at JPMorgan Chase that “Trump’s candidacy may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”…

In office as president of the United States, Trump presents himself as signature endorsement of concentrated wealth, a camera-ready product placement promoting money as the hero with a thousand faces, all of them the face of Trump. Trump at the top of every hour on the networks and cable channels, on page one in every morning’s newspaper. Trump overruling the rule of law, under investigation for obstructing justice, withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, firing FBI director James Comey, ordering fifty-seven cruise missiles into Syria, dropping the Mother Of All Bombs on Afghanistan, signing executive orders lifting regulation of the oil, gas, coal, and banking industries. Trump embodying the Time magazine sales promotion of America, dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome, reshaping norms and creating new realities, saying and doing whatever it takes to discredit government by the people, of the people, and for the people—to nullify it in theory and dispose of it in practice.

The self-glorifying opposition to Trump is as foolish as the man itself. The “Resistance” composed of outraged sensibilities unable or unwilling to believe that Trump is president of the United States—Hillary Clinton voters, Democratic Party nomenclatura and crowd-sourced Pussy Hats, NeverTrump reactionaries, Bernie or Bust revolutionaries, sit-down protesters and stand-up comics—devotes its efforts to the project of Trump’s impeachment. Impeachment will be sought on whatever grounds (yet to be discovered or manufactured) can be cultivated to yield political scandal and tabloid entertainment.

Meanwhile in the White House gilded cage the unscripted and overweight canary sings his ferocious songs of sixpence, and on all sides of every story the voices of objection and dissent rise to near hysteria. Trump accuses former President Barack Obama of tapping his telephones, denounces the news media as “the enemy of the people”; the news media liken Trump to the Devil, accuse him of treason, hear in his frivolous noise the sound of Nazi boots marching into Poland.

The consequence is the destruction of a credible political discourse without which democracy cannot exist. James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, made the point in his 1838 political essay, The American Democrat. The vitality of America’s democracy, said Cooper, is the capacity of its citizens to tell the truth, speak and think without cant….

Age of Folly fills in at least some of the backstory behind President Donald Trump’s appearance as Time magazine’s 2016 “Man of the Year.” The essays in Part I proceed in the order of their composition as monthly columns in Harper’s Magazine; the essays in Part II, all but one written to introduce issues of Lapham’s Quarterly, construe history as means rather than end, a hedge against the despairing of the present and a weapon to defend the hope of the future against the inertia of the past. History doesn’t save the day or provide a PowerPoint presentation of a new and better world. It is the fund of energy and mind that makes possible the revolt against what G. K. Chesterton once called “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who only happen to be walking about.” We have less reason to fear what might happen tomorrow than to beware what happened yesterday.

July 4, 2017