Bob Schwartz

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Birds on Rosh Hashanah

I asked the birds about their plans for Rosh Hashanah, now that the temples would be closed. Not sure how observant or knowing they were, I explained that the name of the holy day meant “head of the year”, that is, the new year. It begins the ten days, called the Days of Awe, that end with Yom Kippur, the “day of repentance”. Sometimes we fashion Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of the world, the anniversary of creation. This year, instead of dressing up in fine clothes to mingle and sing, we will be on Zoom. Maybe we will dress up, maybe we won’t.

Will you be on Zoom for Rosh Hashanah, I asked. Will you dress up? Will you gather together to sing? Will you repent? Will it be awesome?

I got my answer.

Stones along the way

Stones along the way

Today I collect
only green stones
along the way
tomorow brown
the next day red.
Is there a system
a pattern an explanation?
Why those colors on those days?
Why not?

© Bob Schwartz

The only way Donald Trump Jr. got a “bestseller” is to publish it himself and make it free

The only way Donald Trump Jr. got a “bestseller” is to publish it himself and make it free.

I admit to being a little curious about what Donald Trump Jr. had to say in his book, just published a week ago. So I went to Kindle, figuring I could at least read a sample for free.

What a surprise! The entire book is free on Kindle, at least to the many customers who are part of the subscription Kindle Unlimited program, which allows you to read a large selection of books for free. It turns out that Junior’s Liberal Privilege is one of those.

This made me more curious to learn which reputable publisher had actually signed him up to write this book and then offered it free. Again surprised, but maybe not, the publisher of this “bestseller” is…Donald Trump Jr.


I still haven’t opened the book, and may not. If I do, any urge to share will be outweighed by our need to focus, as much as practically possible, on the true and the good. It’s been challenging enough constantly hearing, reading and repeating the words of Senior, who remains a genuine threat. Junior seems to have inherited his father’s unlimited sense of self-importance. But really, he’s just a pipsqueak with a beard.

Trump: Since I’ve led you distrust everybody, you might as well trust me.

It is a diabolical bit of black magic, but history sadly tells us it sometimes works.

First, the demagogue destroys trust in everything and everybody. When it comes to trust, this creates—as strange as it seems—a level playing field. That is, if you can’t trust everyone, you might as well trust anyone.

Second, the demagogue says: If you might as well trust anyone, why not me? I’m no less trustworthy than anybody else.

A logician can blow holes a mile wide in this, but people are not logicians, they are people. People “think” with their feelings (it is common for Trump to reach conclusions about what he “feels” where others would usually offer thoughtful support).

Where suffering could be alleviated by thinking and truth, demagogues offer feelings and lies. Where chaos is self-inflicted, demagogues offer promises of order. Where trust is eliminated, demagogues say “trust me.”

180,000 dead pixels. And counting.

America: Did you think it would always be that way?

A prime part of American exceptionalism is how relatively new the nation is. One result is that for many Americans their sense of history goes back three centuries or less, for some just a few decades, if there is any sense of history at all.

It is ironic in one way. America, even with defections, is still a Judeo-Christian society. Both traditions look back in belief and scripture at least two millennia. That should be a clue that things have been radically different over time, that things of then are not things of now, and that things of now will not always be thus.

Everything changes.

Much of the world knows this experientially. Not only do countries east and west have long histories. Those histories are steeped in changes, some benign, some malign, all a part of natural impermanence.

All things must pass.

America justifiably wants to keep the best of itself and its institutions. That desire has been made more pointed by two overlapping phenomena: a leader who cares nothing for the best and well-being of America and a virus that cares nothing for the best and well-being of América.

The nexus of these has America desperate for the way things were, in ways little and big. Those ways are both existentially significant or trivial. The significant and existential ones should not be lightly abandoned. But as we fight for the way things were, we must acknowledge right now what most nations know from their complex histories: whatever that was or this is, it isn’t forever.

The boy who cried “healthy”

One reason not to lie constantly, or not to ask others to constantly lie for you, is that someday you may find the truth useful.

On a Saturday afternoon last November, Trump was whisked away from the White House to Walter Reed Medical Center. No explanation was provided, at least not a plausible one. There was some excuse that it was the first half of an annual physical continued in April, but this split examination defies standard medical practice.

As for Trump’s health, he is obese, is known to have a terrible diet, and gets practically no exercise (golf with a golf cart doesn’t count). Despite that, his former White House doctor Ronny Jackson was stunned by his good health, saying that he could live to be 200 if he ate better.

Today we have revelations that Trump’s doctor rode with him to Walter Reed—an unheard of practice—and that Mike Pence was also at the hospital, leading to the conclusion that whatever was going on, some temporary transfer of power might be needed.

Trump has directed his current doctor to deny that the visit concerned a number of serious conditions (this doctor didn’t mention how long Trump might live). Above all, however, neither the doctor nor anyone else at the White House will tell Americans precisely what went on at Walter Reed.

Leaving us to speculate that it was in fact very serious. Because if it was not serious, why cover it up? You say it wasn’t serious, but why would we believe you now?

“Mental-health professionals say that no single event since the second world war has left so many people in so many places traumatised at once.”

Mental-health professionals say that no single event since the second world war has left so many people in so many places traumatised at once.
The Economist, August 29th, 2020 (The common tragedy: Worldwide covid-19 is causing a new form of collective trauma)

That one sentence from the current issue of The Economist stunned me. I reread it several times. It is not surprising, given first-hand experience or second-hand reports. That doesn’t make it any less startling.

Just as the diminishing or outright dismissal of the pandemic continues to be dangerous and deadly, so will any similar delusion, as a second “invisible enemy” is following in the steps of the virus.

More from The Economist:

For some, the second half of 2020 will bring much-needed relief. For the time being the number of new recorded global infections has plateaued. In many countries it has dropped dramatically. Yet for those places hit hardest, a full recovery will depend on more than getting the virus under control. In a world paralysed by death, survivors are everywhere: icu patients who faced the horror of covid-19 first-hand, doctors and nurses who cared for them, relatives forced to mourn over WhatsApp and Zoom, families who lost their livelihoods. Mental-health professionals say that no single event since the second world war has left so many people in so many places traumatised at once. How people fare in the months and years ahead will depend partly on how their countries—and, more importantly, their communities—respond….

There were no large-scale psychological studies during the first or the second world wars, though the Holocaust would become the event most deeply associated with mass death and grief. Researchers in the early 2000s found roughly half of Holocaust survivors were still suffering from ptsd. Many had other disorders such as schizophrenia. Even among non-Jewish Europeans who were children during the war, 10-40% still had ptsd symptoms. In communities of survivors, research has shown that “inherited trauma” can be passed to subsequent generations, by growing up flooded with their parents’ memories, and possibly, through genes.

The suffering caused by covid-19 falls far short of the horrors of the Holocaust. Still, Krzysztof Kaniasty, a psychologist and disaster expert, points out that the pandemic presents nearly all the risk factors for ptsd. It has caused sudden death, life-changing events, large-scale social ruptures and chronic stressors like uncertainty and the added hassles of daily life.

The luckiest will suffer mildly from one or two of these effects. Yet more than at any other point in recent history, millions of people have been slammed by all of them….

There is a danger that political divisions, social distancing and economic woes will over time lead to a loss of togetherness in the same way that displacement after the Buffalo Creek flood gave “a degree of permanence to what might otherwise have been a transitional state of shock”, in the words of Mr Erikson. Communities cannot grieve together because the disaster is ongoing and the threat has yet to disappear, says Judith Lewis Herman, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. She describes three stages of healing: re-establishing safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnecting with others. Social distancing complicates all of them.

And so like the pandemic itself, the psychological fallout will require assessment and adaptation. Many doctors are still focused on saving lives, but governments and mental-health professionals should start thinking about “psycho-social” interventions.



The British imposed harsh law and order on the American colonists

It is historically and philosophically strange that Republicans and their supporters make such a big deal about law and order as a patriotic imperative. Of course many of the extreme law and order types don’t seem much like historians or philosophers.

The British worried that the American colonists were getting much too independent and too insistent on their rights. At the last British National Convention (BNC) held in the colonies, speaker after speaker demanded law and order, lest the colonists start getting ideas and moving into the British neighborhoods.

Okay, there wasn’t actually a BNC. But the British did fear change and a loss of control, did look down on the inferior colonists, and did use law and order as a chief weapon to maintain the status quo.

So the next time you hear the law and order pitch, know that these Republicans would have been on the side of the British rather than on the side of our fighting founders. Kind of un-American, don’t you think?

America has so little personal experience with authoritarian leaders that we don’t believe our own eyes

Much of the world has had personal experience, historic or current, with authoritarian leaders: more benign in the form of enlightened monarchies or more dangerous in the form of pure dictatorships.

Not America. That’s why observers who saw the first signs of authoritarianism from the start of the Trump administration were mostly dismissed as alarmist or paranoid. Even at this late date, two months before the election, almost four years into the presidency, some of that dismissal continues, even though the evidence has gone from suggestive to definitive.

We could listen. We could pay closer attention to history and political science. We could read the stories of our authoritarian enemies (or those who used to be our enemies) and learn from the experience of our now-democratic friends (or those who used to be our friends).

Authoritarianism happens to the greatest nations—precisely because people think their brand of democracy is too good to fail. Tragically, that isn’t how it works.