Bob Schwartz

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FDR in time of crisis: Hard truths and inspiring lies

DJT is not FDR. Or Abraham Lincoln. Or any other crisis president. Or any other non-crisis president.

FDR faced not one but two monumental crises—the Great Depression and World War II.

In his First Inaugural Address, FDR uttered these famous words:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

“Nothing to fear” was something of a lie. In the depth of the Depression, Americans had plenty to fear. There was the possibility that recovery might never come and that things would get even worse. There was the possibility, predicted by some, that Americans would actually revolt in desperation.

The lie was beneficent in a couple of ways. It was spoken in a context of hard truths that FDR wouldn’t and couldn’t deny because Americans were experiencing them first-hand. And it was clear that FDR was speaking from a place of competence, strength and empathy, so that the lie was, as some lies can be, inspiring.

In a time of crisis, hard truths and inspiring lies have a valuable place. Hidden truths and uninspiring, self-serving lies don’t.

Trump on pandemic: I never heard about the problem before, it’s Obama’s fault, the dog ate my homework

Excuses, excuses, excuses. Millions sick, thousands dead, much of it was preventable by timely and responsible executive management. Even a child knows that eventually they will get caught. And punished.

We fire wartime generals, don’t we?

General George B. McClellan, fired by President Lincoln during the Civil War

War is the crucible for generals. They have worked their entire careers, demonstrating courage and competence, to reach that level. Those qualities are never more tested than in battle.

Winning every battle is hoped for but not expected. Loss is a natural part of war. But a general who leads the army into a costly and catastrophic loss knows that their leadership position is on the line. Generals who make those kinds of mistakes are fired, both to avoid further losses and to increase the chances of victory.

When the failing general can’t be fired, we do what we can, we hope that other leaders will step in, and hope that the losses can be minimized. The enemy, we know, will not give up.

I Ching Pandemic Edition: Hexagram 13 – Seeking Harmony

An ancient Chinese maxim says, “People in the same boat help each other, sharing weal and woe.”

I have been regularly consulting the I Ching during these strange days. The I Ching embodies the wisdom of thousands of years, from a civilization that has seen it all. Bright days and dark, order and chaos, wise men and fools, humility and arrogance, life and death. They have learned that we do not escape the truth of everything changes.

This is what the I Ching says today.


The Complete I Ching: The Definitive Translation by Taoist Master Alfred Huang

HEXAGRAM 13

TONG REN • SEEKING HARMONY

NAME AND STRUCTURE

Wilhelm translates Tong Ren as Fellowship with Men, and Blofeld translates it as Lovers, Beloved, Friends, Like-Minded Persons, Universal Brotherhood. In Chinese, tong means similar, alike, the same. Ren means person or people. When the two characters are put together as a unit, it means to treat people alike. In ancient China, tong ren also meant people with the same interests. Herein, Tong Ren is translated as Seeking Harmony. It has the connotation of forming alliances. To break through a tough situation, people need to work together in harmony, as in an alliance.

The ideograph of the first character, tong, consists of three parts. The first part looks like an upright rectangle without the bottom line, symbolizing a door frame or a house. Within the house, there is a single horizontal stroke representing the number one. Underneath this is a little square symbolizing a mouth. In ancient China, people were counted by mouths. For instance, if someone wanted to know how many people there were in your family, they would ask “How many mouths are there in your family?” The three parts of the ideograph come together to depict a group of people gathered together as a single unit. Here, the mouth indicates that they are thinking or speaking as one. The Chinese can feel the harmony in the group. The ideograph of the second character, ren, suggests a person standing.

SEQUENCE OF THE GUA: Events cannot remain hindered; thus, after Hindrance, Seeking Harmony follows.

The image of this gua is Heaven above, Fire below. Heaven suggests ascension. The flame of fire moves upward. Fire approaching Heaven gives an image of people with the same interests working together in harmony. There is only one yielding line, at the second place. The ancient sage saw this as a picture of harmony; the one at the second place treated the other five elements at different places equally, with the same attitude. An ancient Chinese maxim says, “People in the same boat help each other, sharing weal and woe.”

According to the I Ching, however, there is no absolute sameness. The ancient sages passed on the secret of obtaining harmony, that is, seeking common ground on major issues while reserving differences on minor ones. Tong Ren teaches that the wise classify people according to their natures, not for the purpose of treating them differently, but to seek common ground. If there is common ground, each one is able to act in harmony with the others. The ancient Chinese dreamed day and night that the world would belong to the majority and the government would serve the common interest of its countrymen. This is Seeking Harmony.

DECISION

Seeking harmony among people,
Prosperous and smooth.
Favorable to cross great rivers.
Favorable for the superior person
To be steadfast and upright.

COMMENTARY ON THE DECISON

Seeking Harmony.
The yielding obtains the proper place.
It is central
And corresponds with Qian, the Initiating.
This is Seeking Harmony.

Seeking Harmony says:
Seeking harmony among people.
Prosperous and smooth.
Favorable to cross great rivers.
It is because Qian, the Initiating,
Is progressing and advancing.

Brilliance with strength,
Central and corresponding.
This is the correct way for the superior person.
Only the superior person is able
To convey the wills of all under Heaven.

COMMENTARY ON THE SYMBOL

Heaven with Fire.
An image of Seeking Harmony.
In correspondence with this,
The superior person makes classifications of people
According to their natures
And makes distinctions of things
In terms of their categories.

SIGNIFICANCE

The Decision says, “Seeking harmony among people.” This is the main theme of the gua. Seeking harmony should be done with absolute unselfishness and among the majority. This was the ancient lofty ideal of a world of harmony. Seeking harmony among people, in Chinese, is tong ren yü ye. Tong ren means seeking harmony. Yü means at, in, or among. And ye is the place beyond the suburbs. Thus, most English translations give ye as “the open.” However, ye also means the folk or the people, as contrasted with the government. Considering the theme of this gua, it is more suitable to employ people for ye. In this way, it brings more sense to the Decision: “Seeking harmony among people. Prosperous and smooth.”

The outer gua is Qian (Heaven), symbolizing firmness and strength. With this quality, it is favorable for a person to cross great rivers, to overcome difficulties. The inner gua is Li (Fire), symbolizing a quality of inner brightness. In this situation, the host is the yielding line at the second place. It plays a leading role. It is a yin element at a yin place, central and correct. Thus, Confucius’s Commentary on the Decision explains that the yielding obtains the proper place and corresponds with Qian. This yin line in the center of the lower gua indicates that one at this place possesses a high morality and is gentle and sincere, humble and modest, and willing to seek harmony with other people. It corresponds to the solid line at the fifth place, which is also central and correct. These two lines symbolize an ideal condition where the time is auspicious, the situation is favorable, and the people are in harmony. This ideal situation results from the circumstance of overcoming hindrance.

Tong Ren reveals the truth that if people deal with each other in a spirit of equality, then peace and advancement are possible. Otherwise, there will be conflict and obstruction. The first three lines of this gua represent the fact that from sameness differences originate. The next three lines tell us that sameness derives from differences. Thus, at the fifth line, people are at first weeping and full of regret and then laughing to celebrate the victory. In ancient times, people called the piping time of peace the Great Harmony.

This gua symbolizes the historical incident in which King Wen formed alliances with neighboring clans to battle the rebellious Rong clan. King Wen proclaimed that seeking harmony with people of other clans would be prosperous and smooth. The Duke of Zhou recounts how there was no hindrance in seeking alliances with different clans, yet seeking alliances exclusively within his own clan caused isolation and brought about unfavorable results. At the very beginning, the alliance took defensive action by placing troops on a high hill and hiding fighters in the bushes. For three years there was no trouble. Later, the alliance besieged Rong’s city walls. After great struggles it was victorious. What began with weeping ended with laughing. At last, the alliance gathered in Zhou’s countryside. There was no regret about the struggles that resulted in success.

Best Breakfast in America: Pete and Jimmy

The morning of the day that Pete Buttigieg suspended his campaign for president, he and his husband Chasten stopped in Plains, Georgia to have breakfast with Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn.

Maybe no event could be a more fitting coda.

Among all the presidents of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Jimmy Carter holds a special place. The political qualities of his presidency are still being debated. The quality of his humanity, evidenced by decades of enlightened, faithful and humble service, are towering. His life and longevity are a gift and a model to us all.

Pete and Jimmy are separated in age by almost sixty years. In terms of spirit and love for people and country, they might as well be brothers. Just as we needed Jimmy Carter to help wash away the Nixon years, we need Pete Buttigieg, or someone like him, to help wash away the Trump years. All of us who support him know that there is no one on the scene right now quite like Pete.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have been married for 73 years. To hear Pete talk about his marriage to Chasten in the speech announcing the suspension of his campaign, he has every intention of being married to Chasten for the rest of their lives. Having seen them together, and knowing Pete’s honesty and thoughtful earnestness, there is every reason to believe that. And to believe in the real possibility that we will thankfully have Pete in our national future for a long time to come.

In the 1930s many Americans thought the destruction of democracy was none of their business. It had nothing to do with America, where democracy would live forever. They woke up almost too late.

UPDATE: Following publication of this post, it was discovered that HBO is about to present a limited series based on the novel. It premieres on March 16th. See trailer below.


In the 1930s it was hard to convince Americans that democracy was in the first stages of dying in Europe and the world or that it was something that America should be involved in anyway. Some of the biggest American companies were doing business with what they considered a benign and profitable dictatorship. The media didn’t know quite what to make of this unusual Hitler guy, but he seemed to be a fascinating new face on the scene, and always good copy. Some Americans even thought they heard something from Hitler that sounded like cultural music to their ears. Above all, this had nothing to do with democracy in America, which no matter what, was never in danger.

Three years ago, I wrote about Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America (2004). It is an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh—Nazi sympathizer and supporter of Hitler—defeats FDR in 1940 to become President of the United States.

America woke? Not even close.

It is not about what is happening in these times. It is about who we are and can be.

Dresden 1945

“Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five

Last week was the 75th anniversary of the Dresden firebombings in World War II. If you didn’t know that, chalk it up to a gap in learning and the media being preoccupied. On February 13 and 15, 1945, with Germany on its way to inevitable defeat, the Allies rained fire on the beautiful and culturally significant German city of Dresden, destroying much of it and killing no less than 25,000 people. To this day, the moral questions surrounding that attack are still debated.

When the author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. died in 2007, here is what a writer in The Economist wrote:

Kurt Vonnegut Jr died yesterday at the age of 84. So it goes. The New York Times offers up a halfway decent obituary, but it is hard to capture the impact of such a man in a few thousand words, let alone a blog post. His best novels—”Cat’s Cradle”, “God Bless You, Mr Rosewater” and the epic, heartbreaking “Slaughterhouse-Five”—spoke to the deepest doubts and fears of a generation. But his books weren’t just beautifully written. They were hilarious, too.

A generation did embrace Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is listed as one of the 100 best novels of all time. The plot, as with most Vonnegut novels, is impossible to condense in short form. Significant is that Vonnegut himself witnessed Dresden as a prisoner of war, as does the main character Billy Pilgrim. In the novel, this has a profound effect on an already fragile Billy Pilgrim, who “comes unstuck in time” and is visited by aliens, learning new and different ways of viewing life and history.

Slaughterhouse-Five had obvious appeal as an anti-war novel, with young readers opposing a pointless and, in 1969, seemingly endless war. More than that, it offered those just starting out in life and history the possibility that there were other ways of being and doing. It turned out that other ways of being and doing are not so easy, but just like reading Kurt Vonnegut, it can be lots of fun. And occasionally helpful.

In America, and globally, what we are witnessing may have us feeling that we are coming unstuck in time. There are plenty of places and distractions to retreat into, which given the currents and demands of our lives, is perfectly understandable. But there remain opportunities for other ways of knowing and being, even if you don’t learn it from aliens. Young or old, be adventurous and bold.

Mistake After Mistake (File a File)

Mistake after mistake: 將錯就錯 [shōshaku jushaku], literally, take a file (rasp) and work on the file. File a file about something. Take up a mistake and settle in with the mistake. Mistakes surpass mistakes.

“When we reflect on what we are doing in our everyday life, we are always ashamed of ourselves. One of my students wrote to me saying, “You sent me a calendar, and I am trying to follow the good mottoes which appear on each page. But the year has hardly begun, and already I have failed!” Dogen-zenji said, “Shoshaku jushaku.” Shaku generally means “mistake” or “wrong.” Shoshaku jushaku means “to succeed wrong with wrong,” or one continuous mistake. According to Dogen, one continuous mistake can also be Zen. A Zen master’s life could be said to be so many years of shoshaku jushaku. This means so many years of one single-minded effort.”
–Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind

“We should understand that, in reality, mistakes are called learning, and the state of no mistake is called nowness. In nowness there is no before or after, no goals, agendas, or fixed direction. Like the meandering river, it twists and turns in accord with circumstances but always knows how to find its way to the great ocean. If you wish to travel like this, you must go alone, not carry any baggage, and trust yourself implicitly.”
–Dogen, The True Dharma Eye

Dark Night of the Republican Soul

Don’t be fooled. Don’t let them fool you. Don’t think they are fooling themselves. Many Republicans, especially Senators, sleep badly and fitfully in a dark night.

The restless nights began for some when they saw Trump likely to win the nomination, as he ultimately did. They were comforted by the uneasy thought that, rooting against their own candidate, he had slim chance of being elected.

By the time of the inauguration, the difficult nights set in. At first, and for years to come, rationalizations, some very practical, such as holding on to their seats, helped. Delusions, drink and drugs might provide a little rest and respite.

But at some quiet moments, awake and alone in the dark with their thoughts, reality grips them. For the more religious, they realize that they can relentlessly lie to America, lie to themselves, but God is too smart for that. Others who have some sense of history imagine the history books they will spend the rest of their lives trying, against the current, to criticize and correct. History books that will paint them at best as selfish dupes, at worst as enablers and accomplices.

Many people have dark nights, brought on by the unavoidable tragedies of capricious life. Those nights are not wished on anyone. Sometimes it is the anguish of bad choices made. Sometimes the sleepless nights never ever end.

Republican Senators are attacking Mitt Romney. Is Bob Dole next on the hit list?

CNN:

GOP senator says Romney ‘wants to appease the left by calling witnesses’ in impeachment trial

Republican Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler targeted her colleague GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah on Monday over the issue of witnesses at the Senate impeachment trial.

In a tweet, Loeffler leveled an accusation at Romney, saying, “After 2 weeks, it’s clear that Democrats have no case for impeachment. Sadly, my colleague @SenatorRomney wants to appease the left by calling witnesses who will slander the @realDonaldTrump during their 15 minutes of fame. The circus is over. It’s time to move on!”

Not so long ago, Trump and the Republican Senators also came down hard on John McCain. Even after he died.

McCain and Romney were, of course, the previous two Republican presidential nominees. Assuming that Republican Senators are targeting only losers, they will skip George W. Bush and go straight for the prior Republican loser, Bob Dole.

Never mind that Bob Dole is 96, was a widely respected Senate Majority Leader, is a wounded World War II veteran and, as mentioned, was a Republican presidential nominee. Republicans seem to have no shame and don’t mind cannibalizing even their most distinguished former nominees for Trump’s sake.

Bob Dole, please watch your back.