Bob Schwartz

Cargo

For RJ and EB

They loaded all they owned, all life had collected, on a cargo ship. The ship crossed the Atlantic. Before it reached Liverpool, they stood on deck and one by one threw the items overboard. Big heavy things that sank immediately. Small light things that floated and stayed afloat as long as they could see. After they threw the last thing over, they embraced.

The captain was watching, concerned that they might be polluting the ocean, concerned that they might throw a crew member or themselves overboard. He asked why.

Homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer.*

I do not speak French, the captain said.

And now you will never have to. What does that matter anyway? We wish to be married again. Will you perform the ceremony?

I would be pleased to, the captain said.

And so he did, with the Atlantic sky and the Atlantic sea as witnesses.

*Free man, you will always cherish the sea.
Charles Baudelaire, L’Homme et la Mer

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“Dear God, Are You There? We are in a deep spiritual crisis that can’t be relieved by politics, or philosophy.”

This is excerpted from the New York Times. Please read it in its entirety.


Dear God, Are You There?

We are in a deep spiritual crisis that can’t be relieved by politics, or philosophy.

By George Yancy

George Yancy is professor of philosophy at Emory University. His latest book is “Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America.”

Aug. 7, 2019

Dear God,

This letter was prompted by the 22 precious lives taken in El Paso on August 3, 2019, by a 21-year-old white supremacist gunman. He told investigators that he wanted to kill as many Mexicans as possible — people who Donald Trump, in his campaign for the office of president, described as criminals “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime,” and as “rapists.”

Just hours after I sat down to write, I heard about the horrible killings of nine more people, this time in Dayton, Ohio, carried out by a 22-year-old white male gunman. How much can any of us take? We are failing ourselves. We are not asking the right questions; we are failing to use truthful and courageous discourse to describe the suffering from human violence, the sort that is nationally and globally predicated upon forms of white nationalism.

Regarding those killed in El Paso, President Trump said, “God be with you all.” Personally, I’ve had enough of empty rhetoric and religious hypocrisy when it comes to naming white supremacy.

I have no idea what Trump means when he utters those words, or what they amount to, other than an effort at mass distraction and obfuscation. To sow seeds of white racist divisiveness, hatred and xenophobia, and then cynically use the words of a healing spiritual message stinks of religious duplicity; it is discourse steeped in denial….

I’m tempted to say that for Trump and his vast evangelical following enough is never enough. And if this is so, something has gone theologically awry. We have not become more loving as a nation. As James Baldwin writes, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” Baldwin doesn’t mean to offend; he is, I’m certain, a prophet of love.

So, why write this letter? Ralph Waldo Emerson argues: “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticisms. The foregoing generations beheld God face to face; we through their eyes. Why should not we also have an original relation to the universe?” Emerson emboldens a legitimate question, though one with a theological inflection: Why can’t I have an original relation to You, God? There is nothing about our universe that proves a priori that this letter will not be heard by You. So, I’ll just take the leap.

I realize that the act of writing such a letter is itself hasty as it assumes that You exist. Of course, if You don’t, and there is no absolute, faultless proof that You do, then this letter speaks to nothing at all. The salutation is perhaps a bit silly. Yet, that is the risk that I take. In fact, it is a risk worth taking….

This letter is not meant to proselytize, to convert. Rather, the letter is meant to entreat that which is perhaps beyond all of the major religions and yet inclusive of all of them, hoping that perhaps each one has something to say partially about You. I say all of this even as I define myself as a hopeful Christian theist, the kind who hopes, without any certainty, that You exist and that the strength of agape, Christian love, is possible and liberating in a world filled with so much existential, social and political catastrophe, where anguished parents cry long into the night because their children have been taken too soon by acts of mass violence.

This letter is a lamentation; it speaks to our human pain and suffering, but it also speaks to this philosopher’s dread in the face of apparent silence. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “It is not just that we are in search of God, but that God is in search of us, in need of us.” That is not a philosophical argument, but I eagerly respond: I am here!…

The weight of myopic fanaticism and dreams of white national purity takes its toll. I’m thinking of the nine who were killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015; the 11 who were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018; the 51 who were killed at the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019.

So, it is with this letter that I seek You, that I ask for something more than we seem to be capable of, more than the routine prayers that are said in response to tragedy and sorrow. I don’t want to simply repeat clichés and recall platitudes. I am a philosopher who weeps; I am a human being who suffers.

This letter is not for me alone. It can’t be. The suffering of others is too great not to be moved by it, not to feel somehow partially responsible for it. So, it is with this letter that I seek an original relation, one that seeks our collective liberation, one that desires to speak especially on behalf of children and to free them from our miserable failure as adults to honor their lives more than we honor flags, rhetorical mass distraction, political myopia, party line politics, white nationalistic fanaticism and religious vacuity.

Assault rifles are personal weapons of mass destruction (#PWMD)

Personal Weapons of Mass Destruction (PWMD)

Assault rifles are personal weapons of mass destruction (#PWMD). America fought a war in Iraq to eliminate imaginary WMDs. These WMDs are very real (250 American mass shootings so far in 2019).

That millions of Americans are supportive of and motivated by social hate—Americans from the president on down—is a difficult problem that won’t be easily fixed. Reducing the availability of assault rifle PWMDs is easier:

Assault Weapons Ban of 2019
S.66 — 116th Congress (2019-2020)
Introduced in Senate (01/09/2019)

This bill makes it a crime to knowingly import, sell, manufacture, transfer, or possess a semiautomatic assault weapon (SAW) or large capacity ammunition feeding device (LCAFD).

The prohibition does not apply to a firearm that is (1) manually operated by bolt, pump, lever, or slide action; (2) permanently inoperable; (3) an antique; or (4) a rifle or shotgun specifically identified by make and model.

The bill also exempts from the prohibition the following, with respect to a SAW or LCAFD:

importation, sale, manufacture, transfer, or possession related to certain law enforcement efforts, or authorized tests or experiments;
importation, sale, transfer, or possession related to securing nuclear materials; and
possession by a retired law enforcement officer.

The bill permits continued possession, sale, or transfer of a grandfathered SAW, which must be securely stored. A licensed gun dealer must conduct a background check prior to the sale or transfer of a grandfathered SAW between private parties.

The bill permits continued possession of, but prohibits sale or transfer of, a grandfathered LCAFD.

What if Hillary had to face these contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2016?

This is a thought experiment.

Back in 2008, Hillary Clinton presumed that she would be the front runner for the Democratic nomination and would be the eventual winner. Then along came the phenomenon of Barack Obama, who wrestled the nomination from her because…well, because Hillary is no Obama.

In 2016, it was planned that Hillary Clinton would have little opposition for the Democratic presidential nomination. Maybe a token opponent to make it look competitive and democratic, but little more than that. Somehow, the most un-Obamaish candidate imaginable came along to almost spoil the party for her again. Bernie Sanders didn’t make it, Hillary became the nominee. Being less than the perfect candidate, Hillary was unable to close the deal in the general election, even against the most reprehensible Republican candidate—one who went on to be the most reprehensible president.

What if we retroject all the current Democratic candidates for the nomination back to 2016—including Joe Biden (who didn’t run against her) and Bernie Sanders (who did)? Do you think she would have still won the nomination?

There are reasons to think she might not. One thought is that her unique status as the only woman candidate would be immediately gone; six women are currently running, two of them high in the polls. Another thought is that while Hillary was severely tested by Obama in 2008, she faced less testing in 2016 before she faced Trump as the candidate. Would she have withstood the attacks that are natural from such a huge field? Would the Democratic Party establishment have been able to “protect” her and still seem fair-minded and even-handed?

Movies and Fairy Tales: Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”
Joan Didion, The White Album

Joan Didion is one of the great essayists, and The White Album may be her finest essay. It gave title to a superb collection published in 1979. The White Album is about the entwinement of her life and life in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, both of which she reflects on as being strange and even surreal.

Los Angeles in the late 1960s is also the subject of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Up a Time…In Hollywood. The center of the film is the event mentioned in Didion’s quote above: the murders of Sharon Tate Polanski, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, Steven Parent, and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca in the Hollywood Hills by members of the Manson Family. But is about much more than that.

The title of Once Upon a Time gives away just what kind of story this is. It is a fairy tale. Fairy tales are not either absolutely light or dark. As modern scholars now regularly say, fairy tales are meant to reflect something about ourselves—who we are, what we need—and in that sense could not be just light or dark. They are merely true.

The opening paragraph of The White Album is one of the best explanations of story ever written:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

If you are a fan of some or all of Tarantino’s movies, you are already planning to see Once Upon a Time. If you are not a fan, or affirmatively dislike Tarantino, you should consider seeing it anyway. As with other movies that play with Hollywood as story (Robert Altman’s The Player is an excellent example), the inescapable point is that Hollywood makes things up, even as the movies may attempt to reflect actuality, because that is what they do. They tell and sell fairy tales. Light and dark. As long as we appreciate the subtle differences and similarities between actuality and story, we can be entertained and the better for it. We do, as Didion writes, tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Rhetoric and reality: Ideal America has always depended on us

It may come as news to the less historically minded, but democracy, the kind we embrace in America, is a relatively new and novel way of government. We are still in the process of learning how it works, how it lives and how it dies.

Rhetoric has always been the way of government, long before modern democracy. Leaders say stuff, citizens repeat that stuff or say different stuff, citizens believe some stuff and don’t believe other stuff, and leaders respond to what citizens say and do.

In its relatively brief democratic life, America has typically embraced rhetoric. Much of it, in simplest terms, concerns just how exceptional and durable—eternal—American democracy really is.

As usual with compelling rhetoric in any sector—government, business, religion, whatever—rhetoric can make us lazy and careless. We come to believe that rhetoric is reality, almost a form of magical thinking. What we say and believe becomes the way things are.

And so, looking at just one aspect, Americans don’t vote in nearly great enough numbers, and those who do vote don’t always study and think hard about the issues and personalities, both of which are complicated. Things will just naturally be alright, we think, because this is a democracy and this is America. Both will last uninterruptedly forever.

But in reality, talk is not just cheap, it can be useless and tragic. All of this, all this glorious American democracy, has always and solely depended on us.

“Trump blames White House air conditioning on Obama.”

Associated Press, July 26, 2019:

WASHINGTON (AP) — In President Donald Trump’s view, even the inadequate air conditioning at the White House is Barack Obama’s fault.

Trump offered the new gripe about his predecessor as he explained in the Oval Office Friday why he’ll be spending some time at his New Jersey resort in August.

The president says “it’s never a vacation” when he goes to Bedminster, New Jersey, and that he would rather be at the White House.

He says that some of his time away from the White House gives crews time to do maintenance work.

He says, for example, “The Obama administration worked out a brand new air conditioning system for the West Wing. It was so good before they did the system. Now that they did this system, it’s freezing or hot.”

In the movie The Caine Mutiny, officers of the USS Caine determined that the conduct of their captain is so erratic that they must attempt to take over command of the ship. In one incident, Captain Queeg becomes obsessed with a missing container of strawberries. At the court martial of an officer charged with mutiny, Queeg testifies—and famously reveals just how psychologically disturbed he is:

Indra’s Net

The Glowing Limit. This illustration follows the mantra of Indra’s Pearls ad infinitum (at least in so far as a computer will allow). The glowing yellow lacework manifests entirely of its own accord out of our initial arrangement of just five touching red circles.

From Indra’s Pearls: The Vision of Felix Klein by David Mumford, Caroline Series and David Wright:

The ancient Buddhist dream of Indra’s Net

In the heaven of the great god Indra is said to be a vast and shimmering net, finer than a spider’s web, stretching to the outermost reaches of space. Strung at the each intersection of its diaphanous threads is a reflecting pearl. Since the net is infinite in extent, the pearls are infinite in number. In the glistening surface of each pearl are reflected all the other pearls, even those in the furthest corners of the heavens. In each reflection, again are reflected all the infinitely many other pearls, so that by this process, reflections of reflections continue without end.

***

Towards the end of the century, Felix Klein, one of the great mathematicians his age and the hero of our book, presented in a famous lecture at Erlangen University a unified conception of geometry which incorporated both Bolyai’s brave new world and Möbius’ relationships into a wider conception of symmetry than had ever been formulated before. Further work showed that his symmetries could be used to understand many of the special functions which had proved so powerful in unravelling the physical properties of the world (see Chapter 12 for an example). He was led to the discovery of symmetrical patterns in which more and more distortions cause shrinking so rapid that an infinite number of tiles can be fitted into an enclosed finite area, clustering together as they shrink down to infinite depth.

It was a remarkable synthesis, in which ideas from the most diverse areas of mathematics revealed startling connections. Moreover the work had other ramifications which were not to be understood for almost another century. Klein’s books (written with his former student Robert Fricke) contain many beautiful illustrations, all laboriously calculated and drafted by hand. These pictures set the highest standard, occasionally still illustrating mathematical articles even today. However many of the objects they imagined were so intricate that Klein could only say:

The question is … what will be the position of the limiting points. There is no difficulty in answering these questions by purely logical reasoning; but the imagination seems to fail utterly when we try to form a mental image of the result.

The wider ramifications of Klein’s ideas did not become apparent until two vital new and intimately linked developments occurred in the 1970’s. The first was the growing power and accessibility of high speed computers and computer graphics. The second was the dawning realization that chaotic phenomena, observed previously in isolated situations (such as theories of planetary motion and some electronic circuits), were ubiquitous, and moreover provided better models for many physical phenomena than the classical special functions. Now one of the hallmarks of chaotic phenomena is that structures which are seen in the large repeat themselves indefinitely on smaller and smaller scales. This is called self-similarity. Many schools of mathematics came together in working out this new vision but, arguably, the computer was the sine qua non of the advance, making possible as it did computations on a previously inconceivable scale. For those who knew Klein’s theory, the possibility of using modern computer graphics to actually see his ‘utterly unimaginable’ tilings was irresistible….

Klein’s tilings were now seen to have intimate connections with modern ideas about self-similar scaling behaviour, ideas which had their origin in statistical mechanics, phase transitions and the study of turbulence. There, the self-similarity involved random perturbations, but in Klein’s work, one finds self-similarity obeying precise and simple laws.

Strangely, this exact self-similarity evokes another link, this time with the ancient metaphor of Indra’s net which pervades the Avatamsaka or Hua-yen Sutra, called in English the Flower Garland Scripture, one of the most rich and elaborate texts of East Asian Buddhism. We are indirectly indebted to Michael Berry for making this connection: it was in one his papers about chaos that we first found the reference from the Sutra to Indra’s pearls. Just as in our frontispiece, the pearls in the net reflect each other, the reflections themselves containing not merely the other pearls but also the reflections of the other pearls. In fact the entire universe is to be found not only in each pearl, but also in each reflection in each pearl, and so ad infinitum.

As we investigated further, we found that Klein’s entire mathematical set up of the same structures being repeated infinitely within each other at ever diminishing scales finds a remarkable parallel in the philosophy and imagery of the Sutra. As F. Cook says in his book Hua-yen: The Jewel Net of Indra:

The Hua-yen school has been fond of this mirage, mentioned many times in its literature, because it symbolises a cosmos in which there is an infinitely repeated interrelationship among all the members of the cosmos. This relationship is said to be one of simultaneous mutual identity and mutual intercausality.

Nuns getting arrested at a U.S. Capitol protest gives us hope

In recent decades, clergy and related religious were literally at the front lines of the civil rights and Vietnam War movements, along with other movements promoting—demanding—social justice, morality and peace.

Seeing the protest pictured above and described below, it seems that the same faithful forces are standing up and speaking out in the face of the very high-level and public devolution of basic moral and ethical principles (such as truth telling and all the other commandments and recommended conduct).

Hope.

Religion News Service:

Capitol Police arrest dozens of Roman Catholic protestors at the U.S. Capitol on July 18, 2019.

Nuns, other Catholics arrested protesting treatment of immigrant children

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Police arrested dozens of protestors, including many Roman Catholic nuns, at a rally Thursday (July 18) opposing the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrant children along the Southern border, treatment that organizers of the demonstration said amounted to atrocities.

Officials with the advocacy groups Faith in Public Life and Faith in Action faithinaction.org   reported that 70 people were arrested after hundreds of demonstrators who had gathered on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol to sing hymns and wave signs with slogans such as “Everyone is sacred” and “Honor the Children: End child detention” crossed the street to enter the Russell Senate Office Building’s rotunda.

Some of the demonstrators stopped to lie down on the rotunda floor in the shape of a cross. They chanted the Hail Mary prayer several times while holding images of what organizers said were immigrant children who have died in U.S. custody.

Capitol police eventually began arresting demonstrators, among them Jesuit brothers and nuns from orders such as the Sisters of Mercy. The group recited the Lord’s Prayer as members were led away to buses waiting outside, leaving images of children scattered across the rotunda floor.

As officers escorted the handcuffed demonstrators into the buses, observers on the sidewalk burst into applause.

About Faith in Public Life:

Faith in Public Life is a national network of nearly 50,000 clergy and faith leaders united in the prophetic pursuit of justice and the common good. Faith in Public Life has played an important role in changing the narrative about the role of faith in politics, winning major progressive policy victories, and empowering new religious leaders to fight for social justice and the common good. Our media expertise, rapid-response capabilities and strategic campaign development have made us respected commentators in the media and valued partners with a range of religious groups working for economic and social justice.

About Faith in Action:

The struggle over the direction of the country is not just about economics or politics. It is a spiritual struggle over who we are and how we are connected. Many people, especially younger people, have lost faith in institutions and have distanced themselves from traditional religious congregations. But people are still searching for spiritual connection and purpose. Through our organizing work, we believe individuals will be able to say “as a result of my participation in Faith in Action, my life is better and I see the world and myself differently.”

Decent Americans Are Suffering from Learned Helplessness

American Psychological Association:

Learned helplessness is a phenomenon in which repeated exposure to uncontrollable stressors results in individuals failing to use any control options that may later become available. Essentially, individuals are said to learn that they lack behavioral control over environmental events, which, in turn, undermines the motivation to make changes or attempt to alter situations….In the 1970s, Martin E. P. Seligman extended the concept from nonhuman animal research to clinical depression in humans and proposed a learned helplessness theory to explain the development of or vulnerability to depression. According to this theory, people repeatedly exposed to stressful situations beyond their control develop an inability to make decisions or engage effectively in purposeful behavior. Subsequent researchers have noted a robust fit between the concept and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Every day, I see those in the news and those in personal life expressing serial frustration at the latest outrage from national leadership. After repeating the sordid details of cruelty and immorality, they then ask, increasingly rhetorically, why those who could do something don’t stop it. Yes some try to fight, yes some succeed or at least delay the worst, but mostly the answer seems to be to wait until the possible, though not certain, election of a new president.

Learned helplessness is, for example, at the heart of abusive situations, such as being married to a narcissistic monster. We didn’t need research psychologists to clinically identify the phenomenon of people being beaten down to the point of powerlessness and just giving up. We know it happens.

And yet…

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas