Bob Schwartz

Month: May, 2018

This I Can Almost Do

This I Can Almost Do

When I hear music I think
About playing I don’t play
When I see pictures I think
About painting I don’t paint
When I read I write.
Who are they to lay claim
To words on my lips
At my fingertips
Since words were born.
They don’t own the letters
Spaces stops and starts.
My music my picture.

©

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I AM a Person: The Sign of Freedom for Everybody

Looking back at civil rights demonstrations, you see a sign that was regularly carried: I AM a Man. That is, I am not what others say I am, not how others treat me. I am a complete and independent human being, worthy of all that means.

The particular issue of civil and human rights remains unresolved, a work in progress. But the sign is more than that, and is needed in America and elsewhere more than ever.

Many of us, much of the time, are subject to so many outside influences that shape our own thinking and actions. That shape our expectations. That shape our choices. That is the nature and result of historic levels of hyper-saturated commercial/consumer/celebrity media culture.

We are trapped by those influences because we are trapped by our expectations and choices. We have trapped ourselves. We have marched down a one-way alley. We can party in an alley, and we do. We can live and die in an alley, and we do. But it can get crowded and uncomfortable, and when we sense that we are trapped, we might want to look for a way out.

That’s where that old demonstration sign comes in. I AM a Person. Not that other person, not that message, not that expectation, not that thing. Not what I hear and see, not what I say and show. A person. I AM a person.

They wanted a postmodern president (though they didn’t know it). They got him.

Postmodernism (aka pomo), a wide-ranging and pervasive intellectual concept and movement, is hard to talk about precisely. Many minds have contributed to its complexity, many others have transformed it into a pop culture referent. Its usage grew vague, as it came to try to mean whatever anyone wants to say it means: everything to everyone, nothing to no one. What’s more confounding is that in many quarters, it has now been left behind as an old-fashioned and uncool intellectual fad, even though it is only a few decades old.

Nevertheless, it may turn out to be a useful analytical tool, as we are increasingly drowning in two questions: Where are we and how did we get here?

One attempt at a succinct definition of postmodernism:

A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tried to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.

Postmodernism is “post” because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody – a characteristic of the so-called “modern” mind.

From the PBS show Faith & Reason

Did some people “want” a pomo president? In some ways, yes. Let’s assume we can’t stand still, as individuals, as nations, as societies. Which we can’t. Whatever modern moment we reached, it turned out to be unsatisfying for a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons. One reaction is to want to “get back” to an earlier point. But that is impossible; there is never going back. If you can’t go back, and refuse to continue on the current path, why not, essentially, throw it all away—all the “modern” thinking and principles that got you where you didn’t want to be.

And so, pomo Trump. Defying objective truth, defying explanation, defying principles. The intellectuals who gave us postmodernism believed it to be a way of looking at the world. They also knew that, like existentialism, its wholesale adoption as practice rather than theory was problematic. Like a tree without roots, a house without foundation.

In contemplating those questions—where are we and how did we get here—we are through the postmodern looking glass. The other even more important question—how do we get out of here—is the most important question of the age.

Trump Effect: Ids Gone Wild

 

Let’s let Freud describe the id, one of the three elements of his structural model of the psyche:

It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, what little we know of it we have learned from our study of the dreamwork and of course the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of that is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast to the ego. We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations. …It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.
Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

Along with the id, this “cauldron full of seething excitations”, the super-ego criticizes and moralizes, and the ego organizes these two into a healthy functioning identity. We are born, according to this model, all id.

We don’t say everything we think, we don’t do everything we think of doing. At least relatively  healthy, balanced people don’t, if they wish to occasionally get along with other people they might care about, or if they want to occasionally contribute to a working society.

Some people don’t seem to follow this. Children, especially young children, seem to require at least a little bit of outside guidance to help them get this. Some adults seem also to be frequently or solely driven by their gut, their instincts, their “seething excitations”.

That would describe our current president. And all those others who have been barely holding their own demons inside who now have high-level permission to let it all out. All of it.

Note: The latest racist and anti-Semitic tweet from Roseanne Barr, which just resulted in the cancellation of her hit TV show, was the impetus for this post. It was only the latest in a long series of outrageous tweets from Barr, a big fan of Trump. And only one of many expressions of uncontrolled indecency we are daily experiencing, but should never get used to.

Trump’s Ties: The Tragic Comic Idiosyncrasies of Dictators

“The general contemporary rule of thumb is that your tie should fall right at the top of your belt buckle, regardless of tie length, style of the tie, or how tall you are.”

Sometimes, as the Freudian cliche goes, a cigar is just a cigar. And a tie is just a tie.

In the case of Trump’s ludicrously long ties, which point at his crotch, it’s obvious something else is going on.

Dictators are often known for their idiosyncrasies. Sometimes there is a psychological basis. Sometimes it is a signature, part of a brand. Sometimes it is just a personal preference. Fidel Castro, for example, was associated with his cigar, which he obviously liked, which is Cuba’s best-known product, and which, well, is more than a cigar.

Trump is the first president to regularly refer to the size of his “hands”, his “button”, and once in a while, almost directly, his “penis”. The only evidence we have so far about this is from Stormy Daniels, who has only said that Trump is “average.” God willing, that is the only detail we ever have to deal with. But absent evidence, we only have Trump’s word for it. We all know what that’s worth. So most people don’t believe him. Or his ties.

The U.S. lost track of 1,475 unaccompanied immigrant children it captured last year. Department of Health and Human Services says: “Not our legal responsibility.”

Everything you need to know about Trump and his administration is in this story (or in dozens of other stories). Not that public bureaucracies big and small don’t make mistakes, sometimes terrible ones. But that the appropriate and moral public servant response is to take responsibility, find out what went wrong, and work to fix it.

Instead, the response is either to blame someone else or to fall back on having no legal responsibility. No crime, no foul. We are going to be hearing a lot more of that in the months to come.

How in the world has Trump been able to assemble such an historically rotten administration? Leading by example?

Washington Post:

During a Senate committee hearing late last month, Steven Wagner, an official with the Department of Health and Human Services, testified that the federal agency had lost track of 1,475 children who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on their own (that is, unaccompanied by adults) and subsequently were placed with adult sponsors in the United States. As the Associated Press reported, the number was based on a survey of more than 7,000 children:

From October to December 2017, HHS called 7,635 children the agency had placed with sponsors, and found 6,075 of the children were still living with their sponsors, 28 had run away, five had been deported and 52 were living with someone else. The rest were missing, said Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary at HHS.

Health and Human Services officials have argued it is not the department’s legal responsibility to find those children after they are released from the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which falls under HHS‘s Administration for Children and Families. And some have pointed out that adult sponsors are sometimes relatives who already were living in the United States and who intentionally may not be responding to contact attempts by HHS.

Tilted Room

Tilted Room

Dreams are the tilted room
In the funhouse of sleep.
Outside (you hope)
The world is still level
But when you exit this way
You feel yourself
Falling over.

©

Note: Writing this poem, I realized that some readers have never experienced a funhouse, or even know what it is. It was an essential part of carnivals and amusement parks, before amusement parks became theme parks (and, presumably, amusement became themes). It is an awesome way for children to learn that things are not what they seem, but that that could be simultaneously fun and scary.

And in the spirit of tail wagging dog, or note wagging poem, note that funhouse also served as a titular inspiration for an important but now pretty neglected work of fiction. John Barth’s collection of short pieces Lost in the Funhouse (1968) is considered “a major landmark of experimental fiction.” Barth is better known for novels (often long novels) such as Giles Goat Boy (“a fantasy of theology, sociology, and sex”), but Lost in the Funhouse is an easy introduction to the early days of what is now called postmodern fiction. (A seriously misleading and meaningless conceit, since Joyce and others had been writing weird and wonderful formally transgressive things for decades, writing that delights and defies total comprehension.)

Anyway, Barth writes that the first piece in Funhouse, Frame-Tale “happens to be, I believe, the shortest short story in the English language (ten words); on the other hand, it’s endless.” Endless because it is a Moebius strip:

The rest of the collection, and his novels, are not so brief, filled with many more words of charged and challenging writing:

“One way or another, no matter which theory of our journey is correct, it’s myself I address; to whom I rehearse as to a stranger our history and condition, and will disclose my secret hope though I sink for it.

“Is the journey my invention? Do the night, the sea, exist at all, I ask myself, apart from my experience of them? Do I myself exist, or is this a dream? Sometimes I wonder. And if I am, who am I? The Heritage I supposedly transport? But how can I be both vessel and contents? Such are the questions that beset my intervals of rest.

“My trouble is, I lack conviction. Many accounts of our situation seem plausible to me—where and what we are, why we swim and whither. But implausible ones as well, perhaps especially those, I must admit as possibly correct. Even likely. If at times, in certain humors—stroking in unison, say, with my neighbors and chanting with them ‘Onward! Upward!’—I have supposed that we have after all a common Maker, Whose nature and motives we may not know, but Who engendered us in some mysterious wise and launched us forth toward some end known but to Him—if (for a moodslength only) I have been able to entertain such notions, very popular in certain quarters, it is because our night-sea journey partakes of their absurdity. One might even say: I can believe them because they are absurd.

From Night-Sea Journey

The American Clown and the Circus Back Office

Circuses aren’t as popular as they once were. But they still offer a lesson we can apply today.

While the spectacular show is going on in the three rings, somewhere else is the boring circus back office. The show is filled with clowns, animals and death-defying acts. The back office is all business.

That is what is going on at the highest levels of American government. The circus features a chief clown, who has us bedazzled and befuddled by a bizarre combination of absurd nonsense and erratic behavior. Behind the scenes, in the back office, there is a disempowering or dismantling of institutions and principles that are foundational America. Those who want that American regress know that a clown is in the center ring, but don’t care as long as people in the audience remain distracted.

Distracted we are by the clown and the circus. Even if we somehow manage to fire the clown, the damage will have been done, and the back office will still be hard at work.

Punishing Patriots Who Protest: I Am Not Sitting Through This Movie Again

Loyal opposition is not just a hallmark of American democracy. It is American democracy.

But whenever opposition becomes protest, and protest becomes uncomfortable and threatening, the quick fix for the simple-minded and reactionary (who don’t actually understand democracy, not really) is to label protest unpatriotic and label protesters traitors.

Many of us in America have had to sit through this movie multiple times. If you add historical incidents—such as the Red Scare of the 1950s—there are many more examples.

The latest is the new National Football League rule that players must stay and stand for the national anthem. They can’t leave the sideline, they can’t kneel, presumably they can’t raise their fists in a power salute. Stand, shut up, and play (dance).

This whole scenario was started by the President, who jumped on this as soon as the issue began last NFL season. His most recent pronouncement was that players who don’t stand for the national anthem are not just unpatriotic—they should leave the country. (The irony of the most un-American President in history—who really should leave the country—is hardly worth mentioning.)

So, no, I really don’t want to sit through this movie again. But just as in the past, there is no choice. In the past, though, American democracy—that amazing combination of Constitution and common sense—prevailed and pulled through, though it took a while. The concern this time, in this and other areas, is that balance has tipping points, and recovery of balance can be a very grueling and questionable process once it is tipped over.

Merton’s Last Year: Wisdom is No Vaccine

I’ve been reading the journals of Thomas Merton, and here is a thought. There is never a level of wisdom and awareness that removes doubt, no matter who you are. Never a level of wisdom and awareness that answers all the questions. Only better doubts and questions, unresolved and unanswered.

If you pay attention, you’ve noticed that people you admire, people you study and may try to emulate, are “only human.” They suffer from physical, psychological or soul problems, just like anybody else. This applies to people who may have served, or are still serving, as spiritual guides.

I’ve been with Thomas Merton a long time, reading him, reading about him, visiting his abbey and his Center. I am well aware of some of the questions and doubts that dogged him, especially about the choices of life he had made. Of course, Merton had pushed the envelope and managed a few tricks that benefited us and him. Entering a cloistered and mostly silent order, he produced thousands of words that reached around the world.

One of the things I have not read enough of are his journals, which he kept for decades, and which occupy seven published volumes. I had read his Asian Journal, which he kept on what was to be his final trip, when he was accidentally killed on December 8, 1968 in Bangkok. Aside from that, I had not read much of the journal of his last year, a time when Merton was more expressly reviewing his life and choices.

Knowing what we know about events, some think that Merton “sensed” he was heading towards an unexpected end. But Merton always knew there was an end, and Merton never stopped investigating, whether he had a few more days or, as we would like, many more years.

I am working my way through the last volume of his journal, covering October 1967 through December 1968 (The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey, The Journals of Thomas Merton Book 7). Along with his valuable observations about America and the world in that tumultuous time, we get close to a great man wondering whether the things he had done, for himself and others (like us), was the best use of a life. An unmarried Catholic monk in rural Kentucky, but also a very worldly man, he wonders about other religious traditions, about getting married, about living in California.

Wisdom does not provide immunity, wisdom is no vaccine. If anything, that is wisdom itself.