Bob Schwartz

Month: May, 2020

James Baldwin on the future of America

“I can’t be a pessimist. Because I’m alive.”
James Baldwin

The video clip below is included in a recent film about the words of James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro (available on Amazon Prime Video and elsewhere):

Master filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished, Remember This House. The result is a radical, up-to-the-minute examination of race in America, using Baldwin’s original words and flood of rich archival material. I Am Not Your Negro is a journey into black history that connects the past of the Civil Rights movement to the present of #BlackLivesMatter. It is a film that questions black representation in Hollywood and beyond. And, ultimately, by confronting the deeper connections between the lives and assassination of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin and Peck have produced a work that challenges the very definition of what America stands for.

In this clip from 1963, Baldwin talks about the future of America:

“I can’t be a pessimist. Because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So I’m forced to be an optimist. I am forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive. But the Negro in this country…the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives…it is entirely up to the American people, whether or not they’re going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long. What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigga in the first place. Because I’m not a nigga.”

Could We Have Survived a Great Depression?

This post was originally published in March 2012. It was just a few years after the Great Recession and the beginning of the 2012 presidential campaign. The title question “Could We Have Survived a Great Depression” seems somewhat resonant today. It contained two overall thoughts: Creativity matters. Optimism matters. They still do.

The Great Recession did not turn into a(nother) Great Depression, and the prospects of continuing towards prosperity, or at least less economic insecurity, seem good. The big question that we now have a limited luxury to ask is this: Could we have survived a Great Depression? The study of that question may be the most valuable we can make.

The Great Depression has spawned an industry for scholars, historians, and thinkers of all stripes, and that has been a good thing. Systems and people are seen truest at their moments of greatest stress, and hardly anything before or since qualifies

Looking at how we managed to survive the last Great Depression – whether it was leadership and action, the normal cycle correcting a horrific anomaly, the fortunate unfortunate impact of a global war, or all/none of the above – tells us something about how we might handle the next. A couple of small starting points:

Creativity matters. Dismissing creative civic solutions out of hand and out of political pique is something we can never afford, and in the worst times something we should never tolerate. Love him or hate him, FDR got boldly creative, pushing the bounds of constitutionality, convention, and common sense. But when things fall apart as they did, common sense is cold comfort. Herbert Hoover, who was in fact a man of civic accomplishment, lacked the boldness and sense of adventure needed for the unprecedented times.

The question is: At that moment in 2008, if things had gone from bad to worse, would there have been the will to be creative and to try things, even if that meant setting aside ideology and political advantage. The answer is that nothing at the time, and nothing today, tells us that there would have been.

Optimism matters. One of the latest political ads from Rick Santorum depicts a cautionary apocalyptic vision of Obama America, something straight out of the Book of Revelation. During the Great Depression, there was no need for a fanciful version of the Apocalypse; it was already there. Books, songs, and movies painted an accurate vision of hardship, but they also tried for uplift and hope. The best and smartest politicians realized that when the spirit of America was already broken, the last thing people needed was a reminder that things could and might yet get worse. Happy days might not have been there again, as the song said, but there was no point in saying that they never would.

So as with the dismissal of creative solutions, the question is, in the face of a 21st century Great Depression, whether today’s politicians could find a way to set aside the darkness and pessimism for a brighter vision of good times ahead, even if it meant faking optimism, even if it meant losing political advantage. There is little evidence of that.

Shavuot and Ruth

Chagall - Naomi and Her Beautiful Daughters

Today is the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. It is said so often that Shavuot is “lesser known” that maybe it is now better known for being lesser known.

Its low profile outside the Jewish communities doesn’t mean it is insignificant, or that a host of meanings and traditions aren’t attached.

Shavuot began as an agricultural celebration. The name literally means Festival of Weeks, one of the three pilgrimage holidays, along with Passover and Sukkot. The Bible commands the counting of the omer, the days from the second day of Passover. After seven weeks, on the fiftieth day, a grain offering is to be made at the Temple. As a harvest celebration, Shavuot is also known as the Day of the First Fruits. If you’re into borrowing food traditions, Shavuot is a dairy holiday, and cheese blintzes and cheesecake are always appropriate.

Shavuot also celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah, the central event in Jewish life. Some make the case that dating this event on Shavuot is biblical. But attaching this event to the holiday seems more a matter of tradition than biblical precision. After the destruction of the Temple, agricultural pilgrimages ended.  This new tradition arose, a tradition that remains at the heart of the modern Shavuot celebration. Among the observances, some people gather and stay up all night reading the Torah, along with other scripture and literature.

There is a holiday calendar mashup surrounding Shavuot. Shavuot and Christian Pentecost often fall within a few days of each other—this year Shavuot starting on the evening of May 28 and Pentecost on Sunday May 31.

There are some holidays on the Jewish and Christian calendars that based on history and theology have a real and important relationship, such as Passover and Easter. There are holidays that may coincide on the calendar but have little to do with one another. And then there are Shavuot and Pentecost, which have an usual relationship.

To begin with, the holidays share the same name, sort of. As a festival marking seven weeks, Shavuot became known as Pentecost among Greek-speaking Jews, because it marks the “fiftieth” day from the second day of Passover.

Pentecost is a major feast on the Christian liturgical calendar. It represents the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and others, on the fiftieth day (Pentecost) after Easter. It is often considered the birthday of the Church.

It is relatively straightforward to deal with the nexus between the events of Holy Week and Passover. There is evidence in the Gospels, and the weight of opinion is that the Last Supper was indeed a Passover meal. But the dueling Pentecosts, and the attempts to harmonize them, have caused nothing but confusion.

It is certain that the Jews of Jesus’ time would have celebrated the agricultural holiday of Shavuot. But beyond this, we have Christians who try to make the case that Christian Pentecost is “historically and symbolically” related to Shavuot, though it isn’t clear exactly how. On the other side, there are a few Jewish writers who claim that the name Pentecost was unknown to Jews, even Greek speakers, and that the name was given to Shavuot by Christians.

Finally, there is this coincidence. In Reform Judaism, youth confirmation is often held on Shavuot, in recognition of the giving of the Torah. In many Christian denominations, youth confirmation is held on Pentecost, in recognition of the work of the Holy Spirit.

If you take a big picture view, you can probably connect the dots and come up with a relationship between Shavuot (Pentecost) and Pentecost. This is especially tempting when the two holidays coincide so closely. But they are two distinct holiday, and harmonizing is a stretch.

As far as Shavuot traditions, maybe the most heart-lifting is reading the Book of Ruth. Separate from its religious meaning, this is a great piece of literature, a short story about unyielding devotion, commitment and loyalty to family—and one of the first and most famous to affirm the family of women. It is the touching antidote to every caustic mother-in-law joke that has ever been told.

In Ruth, the mother-in-law Naomi loses her husband, as her daughters-in-law lose theirs (above, Chagall’s Naomi and Her Beautiful Daughters). Seeming to have little else in common than her sons, Naomi urges them to leave and get married again. One does leave, but Ruth refuses, in words that are sometimes used to signify the power of Ruth’s conversion of faith, but that are a much more universal expression of devotion as solid as that of any marriage:

She then decided to come back from the Plains of Moab with her daughters-in-law, having heard in the Plains of Moab that God had visited his people and given them food. So, with her daughters-in-law, she left the place where she was living and they took the road back to Judah.

Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back, each of you to your mother’s house. May God show you faithful love, as you have done to those who have died and to me. God grant that you may each find happiness with a husband!’ She then kissed them, but they began weeping loudly, and said, ‘No, we shall go back with you to your people.’

‘Go home, daughters,’ Naomi replied. ‘Why come with me? Have I any more sons in my womb to make husbands for you? Go home, daughters, go, for I am now too old to marry again. Even if I said, “I still have a hope: I shall take a husband this very night and shall bear more sons,” would you be prepared to wait for them until they were grown up? Would you refuse to marry for their sake? No, daughters, I am bitterly sorry for your sakes that the hand of God should have been raised against me.’

They started weeping loudly all over again; Orpah then kissed her mother-in-law and went back to her people. But Ruth stayed with her. Naomi then said, ‘Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her god. Go home, too; follow your sister-in-law.’

But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you and to stop going with you, for wherever you go, I shall go, wherever you live, I shall live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I shall die and there I shall be buried. Let God bring unnameable ills on me and worse ills, too, if anything but death should part me from you!’

(Ruth 1:6-17)

American pandemic divide: Understanding the difference between linear and exponential growth

When it comes to attitudes toward the the pandemic, American divides keep cropping up. The latest is masks v. no masks. Then there are Democrats v. Republicans, blue states v. red states, trump v. no-Trump, fact v. fiction, etc.

I note today the most basic divide.

The virus follows an exponential growth pattern. One person infects two. Two infect four. Four infect sixteen. It is multiplicative.

It is does not follow a linear growth pattern, with each new infection adding more cases one by one. It is not additive.

If you don’t understand exponential growth, you don’t understand steep curves, peaks and outbreaks.

I would like to think that almost all American understand the difference between linear and exponential growth, and that a number of those simply choose to ignore it.

But I don’t think so. A number of American are somewhat innumerate, which is the number version of illiterate. American innumeracy is well-documented, though its causes are still an open question—whether a result of education or lack of interest is still debated.

Masks, distancing and other directives are essential precisely because the virus follows an exponential path. If people don’t understand that, that along with a general lack of social concern explains how we got here. And where we might be going.

COVID-19 is people!

Not numbers.

The irony of illness spread: Clean hands, no mask

There are a dozen different ways America got off to a bad late start in responding to COVID-19.

To illustrate one, consider this picture.

Two co-workers or friends are standing close together, neither wearing masks, congratulating themselves on their scrupulous hand washing.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Sanitizing hands and surfaces were stressed early on, even as ramping up of diagnostic testing never (and still hasn’t) reached adequate levels.

At first, regular people wearing masks was not stressed. But in the weeks and months since, there is consensus that as a relatively simple measure, wearing face coverings makes sense.

Unfortunately, that message either hasn’t gotten through to people or is anathema to those who have a political/ideological problem with wearing masks—and who resist protecting those who might get sick or die.

You can wash or sanitize your hands every five minutes. But unless you are absolutely confident through diagnostic testing that you and those you stand near to are not infected, a face covering is just prudent common sense. Which seems to be a bridge too far for a lot of Americans.


“Trump’s Press Secretary Displays One of His Checks in a Little Too Much Detail”

New York Times:

On Friday, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, did not just reveal that the president was sending his salary to the Department of Health and Human Services to help “support the efforts being undertaken to confront, contain and combat the coronavirus.”

She also displayed the president’s private bank account and routing numbers.

The $100,000 check she held up like a prop appeared to be a real check from Capital One, complete with the relevant details.

The faithless fool directs the faithful to virus hotspots

Today Trump directed all states to open houses of worship as essential.

Religion is important to a number of Americans, and for a number of those, attending services together is a primary practice.

Religion is unimportant to Trump, except as a political tool. He knows nothing and cares less about faith in general, or about the particular faith he cynically claims as his own.

We know from just a few weeks of churches opening in states such as Georgia and Florida that it is a dangerous situation. Churches have had to close after congregants were infected with COVID-19, and in Florida, a Catholic church not only closed, but the priest has died.

There are few regular gatherings riskier than houses of worship, particularly large congregations. Like concerts and movie theaters—and like political rallies—dozens or hundreds of people together for an hour or more, sometimes vocally (loud voices equaling breathing hard), is an ideal environment for transmission.

Reopening of churches is questionable at best right now, though it hurts to see the genuinely faithful denied their usual style of community. But to see someone so faith-free promote the practice is profane.

Humility in the face of the virus is not a strategy. But it is a necessity.

We are seeing all sorts of people and initiatives at the forefront of the response to the virus. Some are brilliant, some stupid. Some knowledgeable, some ignorant. Some arrogant, some humble.

Humility in the face of a towering task is not acceptance or surrender. As in all aspects of our lives, it is recognition of our limitations while we work tirelessly to transcend those limits.

Among the many examples of this, I am thinking of all the work and talk about a vaccine. There is over optimistic talk about the practical possibility of a safe and effective vaccine being widely distributed by end of year or shortly after, an unlikely long shot. Then there are those experts who want to maintain hopeful realism based on past experience with developing vaccines and on how relatively little we know about a virus that first appeared only months ago. That realism isn’t just less than optimistic; it is added weight to already crushing circumstances.

Humility is always needed and always in short supply. Which is why every one of our religious traditions incessantly promotes it. It is not a paradox that we are at our greatest when we are at our least. It is the character of living, as best we can, the complex and elusive reality of paradise here and now.

Trump: “If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.”


The pandemic has been the period of the stupidest things Trump has ever said, which is saying something.

Even though the pandemic is far from resolved, it was widely believed that his suggestion to inject disinfectant as a cure was as stupid as it could get.

Of course it wasn’t.

Yesterday Trump said the following. Please read it slowly. Just as with the beauty of perfect intelligence, perfect stupidity has its own perverse beauty.

“And don’t forget, we have more cases than anybody in the world. But why? Because we do more testing. When you test, you have a case. When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.”

We are sometimes at a loss to describe and explain the range of shortcomings and indecent venality that Trump daily reveals about himself. It is a multi-faceted tragedy, much like the growing list of symptoms that COVID-19 inflicts.

This one quote captures it all. Needless to say, whether or not you count the people suffering and dying of COVID-19 in America, they are still suffering and dying. They are still cases. Cases are not numbers. Cases are people. Cases are facts. It’s just that without the numbers, the facts can be buried, the public impact softened, and the blame averted.

But sick and dead is sick and dead. Even if Trump doesn’t want anyone to know. Or to know just how tragically stupid he is.

Too late.