Bob Schwartz

Category: Society

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.

“Drunk men screaming Trump’s name try to rip off Muslim student’s hijab as straphangers stand idly by on East Side subway, cops say”

Yasmin Seweid

This is from today’s New York Daily News.

I have mixed feelings about repeating such a negative story. But I am repeating it because Google News shows that at this point it has been covered by only 26 news outlets in America and the world.

Only twenty-six news outlets. Practically any story gets more coverage than that—let alone a story with major social implications, involving the next President of the United States, or at least his name as a rallying cry.

One more thing: Take the hateful actions of these attackers, and imagine their shouting the name of some other President. Imagine these men shouting “You look like a f—ing terrorist! Get the hell out of the country! You don’t belong here!” followed by “George Bush! George Bush!” or “Ronald Reagan! Ronald Reagan!”

Are we ready for this New World?


STRAPHANGERS STOOD BY AND WATCHED as three drunk white men repeatedly screamed “Donald Trump!” and hurled anti-Islam slurs Thursday at a Muslim Baruch College student before trying to rip her hijab off of her head on an East Side subway, the woman told the Daily News.

Yasmin Seweid said she was stunned by the assault — and the fact that no one in the subway car came to her aid.

“It made me really sad after when I thought about it,” she said. “People were looking at me and looking at what was happening and no one said a thing. They just looked away.”

The terrified 18-year-old recounted her harrowing encounter with the hate-spewing trio.

“I heard them say something very loudly, something about Donald Trump … I also heard them say the word terrorist and I sort of got a little scared,” Seweid told The News.

Seweid had left an event at Baruch and was on her way home on an uptown No. 6 platform at the 23rd St. and Park Ave. stop at about 10 p.m. Thursday when the men started taunting her, she said.

They hollered at the business major as she boarded a train.

They kept screaming Trump’s name at her, and then said, “Oh look, a (expletive) terrorist,” she said.

“Get the hell out of the country!” they yelled during the train ride. “You don’t belong here!”

Seweid, who was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Egyptian parents, was shocked.

“I born and raised in this country,” she told The News. “I’m an American, you know?”

When Seweid ignored them, they pulled on her bag to get her attention and the strap broke.

“That’s when I turned around and said ‘can you please leave me alone,’ and they started laughing,” she said.

She walked to the other end of the train, and they followed her and tried to pull off her hijab, a head covering worn by Muslim women.

“Take that thing off!” they hollered.

“I put my hand on top of my head to hold it,” Seweid said. “Then I turned around and screamed ‘what the (expletive).’ ”

Seweid got off the train at Grand Central Terminal on E. 42nd St. and reported the terrifying incident to police.

Her father, Sayeed Seweid, 55, of New Hyde Park, L.I., said he was also angry that no one else stepped in to defend his daughter.

“Nobody even offered to help an 18-year-old girl,” he said. “That means something. Her phone was dying. You offer help — it doesn’t matter the race, religion, or the country.”

After filing a police report, shaking and crying, Seweid made her way to Penn Station where she called her father after finding an electrical outlet to charge her phone, her father said. She was not injured.

He came and picked her up and they chatted with police into the early morning hours before driving home.

On Friday, Seweid sat with police officers and tried to help spot the men on surveillance video, her father said. No one has been arrested.

The incident is another in a growing list of bias crimes across the city since Trump’s election. Cops said that from Nov. 8 through Nov. 27, there were 34 reported incidents compared to 13 in the same period in 2015.

“American Muslims, and particularly men and women who wear religious attire, are being increasingly targeted by hate nationwide in the wake of the Nov. 8 election,” said Afaf Nasher, executive director of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“I was very shaken up … I’m definitely traumatized,” Seweid said. “I’m really scared.”

Of the 34 incidents between Election Day and Nov. 27, 18 have been anti-Semitic in nature, compared to five in the same period last year. Five of the incidents have been anti-gay, and five others, anti-white. Two targeted Muslims and one was anti-black.

More About Jim Wallis: The Truth Will Set You Free

americas-original-sin

Yesterday I posted about Jim Wallis of Sojourners and his post-election essay Time For Healing. And Resistance. Hopefully you had a chance to look at the essay and learn about Jim Wallis and Sojourners.

I just started reading the most recent of his many books about the religious imperative of social justice. The following is from the Introduction to America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.


In the following pages we will take a positive, hopeful, and forward-looking approach. We will talk about what it means to “repent” of our original sin—and repentance means more than just saying you’re sorry. It means turning in a new and better direction, which I believe we can do. We look backward in order to look forward. And this book makes a spiritual statement: our racial diversity and social pluralism are a great strength and a gift for our future, because our primary identity is as the children of God—all of us are created in God’s image. Thinking about ourselves in that deeper way helps us to sort out a lot of things.

So what can the truth do for us?

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you defensive? I think we can do better than that.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you dishonest? I don’t think we want to keep doing that.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you deceptive? We’ve seen way too much of that from public officials, and many people are now calling for accountability.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you bitter? That just makes us miserable, and miserable to live with.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you angry? Anger can be a positive thing, but only if it is channeled toward constructive change and gives us energy instead of hatred. We can eventually move beyond that too.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. I truly believe that would be the best thing for all of us.

To become more free because of the truth.

To become more honest because of the truth.

To become more responsible because of the truth.

To become better neighbors because of the truth.

To become more productive and contributing citizens because of the truth.

To become better Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, people of other faiths, or people of conscience with no religion—all better because of the truth.

To become a better and freer country for all of us because of the truth.

And a big issue for me, as the father of two teenage boys, is how we can all become better parents who are more supportive of other parents because of the truth.

Finally, to become better and freer human beings because of the truth. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at in the Gospel passage.

We can no longer be afraid of the truth about race in this country—past, present, and future—because our fears will keep us captive to all kinds of untruths.

This book is about how to find the truth together in these difficult, challenging, and complicated matters of race in America.

We will try to answer the question Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. named in the title of his last book, released just months before we lost him: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? A new generation will answer that question for a new time.

I crossed the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the fiftieth anniversary of the historic march that helped bring voting rights to all our fellow citizens. It was then I realized that the answers to these questions will be found in crossing another bridge—the bridge to a new America that will soon be a majority of minorities. This book seeks to describe that new bridge and how we and our children can cross it together.

We need to better understand the past so we can cross the bridge to a new, freer American future where our growing diversity is experienced as a great benefit and not as a great threat. I hope you will take this book as an invitation—to explore the truth of America’s racial past, present, and hopeful future so that, yes, together, we might all become more free, our congregations more faithful, and the state of our union “more perfect.”

You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union

ILGWU 1

It’s #LaborDay. My Grandpa Harry was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). He made beautiful coats. I still keep one of his union dues cards among my treasures.

All this talk about “Made in America” is incomplete. If we want things made in America, instead of all the other countries most of us buy most of our stuff from, we will pay a price. Unless we are planning to pay American workers the substandard wages of many of our import nations, we have to be willing to pay more for our goods. Are we willing? Are you willing?

Meanwhile, here’s the once famous song of the ILGWU. Maybe it can be famous again.

Look for the Union Label

Look for the union label
when you are buying that coat, dress or blouse.

Remember somewhere our union’s sewing,
our wages going to feed the kids, and run the house.

We work hard, but who’s complaining?
Thanks to the I.L.G. we’re paying our way!

So always look for the union label,
it says we’re able to make it in the U.S.A.!

And view this ILGWU singing ad from 1978.

Happy Labor Day.

Summit for Change: Streaming Online

The Summit

Summit for Change in Washington, D.C. begins today at 6:00pm and runs through Friday. The event is streaming online. Please watch a little if you can.

The Summit is a gathering of 300 leaders committed to changing the world through faith and justice. This diverse convening creates opportunity for building relationships and cross-sector collaboration. Through meals shared together, inspirational talks, and opportunities for smaller group gatherings, The Summit event provides a space for leaders to connect to their peers and find hope for the future.

The roster of featured participants is mind-blowing and uplifting.

If you’ve maybe felt a little hopeless and frustrated about social progress lately, this could be a dose of something you need. It must be possible. James Baldwin, in his famous essay My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation, quoted a spiritual:

The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

Prisoners Beat Harvard in Debate

Bard Prison Initiative

A team from a prison just beat a team from Harvard. In a debate.

The Washington Post reports not just the victory of the team, part of the Bard Prison Initiative, but the constraints that the debaters prepared under—including having to research without the internet, from actual books and articles, but only those approved by the prison administration.

Too many lessons to count. Among them:

The two million or so people we consign to prison aren’t all there because they are not smart enough or motivated enough to function or excel in the real world.

The people who consign themselves to our most privileged houses of learning aren’t all as smart and motivated as some of those consigned to prison.

If you want to learn, really learn, learn enough to defeat the nation’s purportedly premier scholars, you can do it offline. Just like this prison debate team. Just like Abraham Lincoln.

Oregon College Shooting: Republican Debate to Move to Umpqua Community College

How many shot dead today in Roseburg, Oregon? How many more injured?

We will soon have an exact body count. But while we wait for the numbers, here’s another big question: What is wrong with us?

I now hear that certain Second Amendment-loving, NRA-fearing presidential candidates are tweeting messages of sympathy for the community and for the families of those affected.

So here’s the next questions: Are you kidding me?

The answer is not better mental health oversight, treatment and identification, although that would be nice. The answer is not more guns, guns for everyone, so that the supposedly mentally ill shooters will rationally think twice about being gunned down themselves by a teacher or other student.

The answer is as few guns as we can manage to get along with, day after day. Which should be a lot fewer than we have, according to practically every other civilized country in the world. (Of course, those are ordinary countries, as opposed to exceptional America. Exceptionally absurd numbers of mass shootings, that is.)

The answer is to moderate a gun culture that is out of control. One way to do that is to…reduce the number of guns. Anyone who thinks that the current number of guns is a good idea, or that even more guns would be better, because that is what our Constitutional fathers wanted, is not mentally ill. They are historically, politically, and morally ill.

I am not going to cast too broad a net by suggesting that all the current Republican presidential candidates are strong and unconditional supporters of the NRA. But I think that may be true. In that case, I suggest that instead of holding the next Republican debate at the University of Colorado, they move it to Umpqua Community College. There they will be free to peddle all their NRA talking points nonsense to an audience filled with hundreds, thousands of people who understand all too well what the Second Amendment really and tragically means.

Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’

Laudato Si'

The Pope’s new encyclical, Laudato Si’, has been much in the news. Whatever you’ve heard about it, if you haven’t seen it, you really don’t know the whole story.

You’ve heard it is about the environment and climate change, which is in small part true. You’ve heard Catholic presidential hopefuls such as Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal admonish the Pope, their spiritual father, telling him to stick to religion and stay out of politics.

The encyclical is much bigger than climate change, the environment, and certainly bigger than Bush or Jindal or dozens of politicians. It is a big statement about the moral and religious shortcomings of this modern world and us modern people. You don’t have to be Catholic or Christian or faithful or religious to read and appreciate it. You just have to read it.

It is full of inconvenient and uncomfortable truths. Which is probably why the coverage has focused on the environmental exhortations, rather than on the broader cultural, media, technological and social ones. In essence, it is nothing less than a call for radical evolution, in the spirit of the radical evolutionary upon whom the church is built. There are plenty of established institutions and powerful interests and individuals, including the media, who could be forced to change if such radical evolution came to pass. And many of them don’t want to change, and don’t even want us to listen to the Pope talking about it.

The encyclical is a long and deep but very readable work. Download it, sample it. You don’t have to read it all, or all at once. It is naturally grounded in theology, and in some particular theology, but be assured that the observations and conclusions don’t require you to hold any sectarian beliefs. It only requires that we believe that things are far from perfect, and that after we take a close look at ourselves and others, we believe that we have the power and obligation to make things better.

It is filled with so much quotable inspired thought and inspiration. Here is just one brief excerpt:

114. All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.

Laudato Si’ PDF

Laudato Si’ epub and Kindle

Coming Out: How Cosmetic Surgery Is Like Being Gay

South Park - Tom Cruise

In case you haven’t noticed, the noise surrounding Renee Zellweger’s about face sounds just like the conversations we have about celebrities being gay: did she or didn’t she, is he or isn’t he?

There are three kinds of cosmetic surgery: the public kind that can be explained as the result of exercise and nutrition (body shaping and toning), the public kind that is hard to explain that way (obviously enhanced breasts), and the private kind that is (sort of) meant to be private (vagina rejuvenation, penis enhancement).

Questions about the public kinds can be met with a variety of replies, all of them valid:

Yes.
No.
No comment.
It’s none of your business.

This remarkably parallels the situation of those who are “suspected” of being gay. Sometimes it is made public, sometimes it is kept private, sometimes it is treated matter-of-factly: it is what it is, it’s my life, take it or leave it, so what?

Admitting to plastic surgery is in many contexts (including and especially entertainment) as delicate as admitting to being gay—even if the fact is relatively obvious. One of the many reasons the late Joan Rivers was so beloved, why what was obnoxious in others was endearing in her, is that the fact of her many plastic surgeries was a prime subject of her own bits. As with other topics, she just gave you the finger, laughed, and had you laughing too.

In the scheme of all but the tiniest matters, Renee Zellweger’s face is inconsequential. But as with all the tongue wagging about the sexual preferences of some celebrity, it exposes unanswered and mostly unspoken questions about how people feel about certain things. Many people still don’t know exactly what they think about major or minor voluntary body mod, any more than they may have totally resolved their deepest puzzlement about homosexuality, no matter how genuinely progressive and tolerant they are.

For better or worse, we are actually seeing a bit of that in the Renee Zellweger situation: along with an avalanche of typically mindless chatter, there has been some useful discussion about the nature of celebrity, privacy, aging, feminism, and health. It is unfortunate that this has to fall on a single individual’s shoulders, with so much collateral and gratuitous hurt. But if we are careful, we might just learn something, mostly about ourselves. How rare and valuable an opportunity is that?

Illustration: The obvious illustration for this post would be yet another photo of Renee Zellweger, which neither the world nor she need. Instead, above is a frame from South Park, the 2005 episode called Trapped in the Closet. It is widely considered the show’s most controversial episode, which is saying something. In it, the fearless and brilliant and culturally incorrect Parker and Stone managed to skewer (eviscerate?) both Scientology and the rumored homosexuality of Hollywood stars. In this scene, Tom Cruise won’t come out of the closet (where he will ultimately be joined by John Travolta). Nicole Kidman, his then-wife, is trying to talk him out. As I said, culturally incorrect, and probably intolerant and spiteful in light of all that’s written above. But it is funny, and not surprisingly, it is the equally fearless and funny Joan Rivers who also took on the very same subject. Laughing and thinking. What a combo.

Why Be Curious?

Curious

In his latest book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, Ian Leslie has found an essential key to the way things are and the way they—and we—might be much better.

Social observers are always looking for that one thing, that overriding concept, which succinctly explains how we got where we are, and how, if we are interested, we can use it as a way to move forward. Think Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan. Think Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. Sometimes these concepts are interesting and useful, sometimes faddish and fatuous.

It’s impossible not to notice that something is fundamentally different about—or missing from—these times. It’s too facile just to inventory the innovative tools and techniques we enjoy, though that’s more than enough for the businesses making billions on them. We want an explanation.

Leslie explains:

A society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation, and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the inquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset. In medieval Europe, the inquiring mind—especially if it inquired too closely into the edicts of church or state—was stigmatized. During the Renaissance and Reformation, received wisdoms began to be interrogated, and by the time of the Enlightenment, European societies started to see that their future lay with the curious and encouraged probing questions rather than stamping on them. The result was the biggest explosion of new ideas and scientific advances in history.

The great unlocking of curiosity translated into a cascade of prosperity for the nations that precipitated it. Today, we cannot know for sure if we are in the middle of this golden period or at the end of it. But we are, at the very least, in a lull. With the important exception of the Internet, the innovations that catapulted Western societies ahead of the global pack are thin on the ground, while the rapid growth of Asian and South American economies has not yet been accompanied by a comparable run of indigenous innovation. Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, has termed the current period the Great Stagnation….

Our educational system is increasingly focused on preparing students for specific jobs. To teach someone to be an engineer or a lawyer or a programmer is not the same as teaching them to be a curious learner—yet the people who make the best engineers, lawyers, and programmers tend to be the most curious learners. So we find ourselves stuck in a self-defeating cycle: we ask schools to focus on preparing students for the world of work rather than on inspiring them, and we end up with uninspired students and mediocre professionals. The more we chase the goal of efficient education, the further it recedes.

The rewards of curiosity have never been higher, but our ideas about how curiosity works are muddled and misguided. We romanticize the natural curiosity of children and worry that it will be contaminated by knowledge, when the opposite is true. We confuse the practice of curiosity with ease of access to information and forget that real curiosity requires the exercise of effort. We focus on the goals of learning rather than valuing learning for itself. Epistemic curiosity is in danger of becoming the province of cognitive elites, with far too many of us losing or never learning the capacity to think deeply about a subject or a person. In a world where vast inequalities in access to information are finally being leveled, a new divide is emerging—between the curious and the incurious.

Curious is much more than just valuable diagnosis and description. After fascinating sections on How Curiosity Works and The Curiosity Divide, Leslie proposes a practical prescription, Seven Ways to Stay Curious:

Stay Foolish
Build the Database
Forage Like a Foxhog
Ask the Big Why
Be a Thinkerer
Question Your Teaspoons
Turn Puzzles into Mysteries

No summary or series of excerpts can do this book justice. Well-written and compelling, it is, to repeat, an essential. Read it. Even if you don’t want to apply it to yourself or your children or your colleagues, it is a book to keep handy as we try to remake what isn’t working and navigate unsteadily to a newer world.

See more from Ian Leslie here.