Bob Schwartz

My Wisdom Teachers Assemble

I stood at the front of the room. I shouldn’t be standing there, I realized, as if I was the teacher, and they my students. It was upside down.

I had called them together, the wisdom teachers I had followed over the years. They had no choice but to come and sit in their chairs. This was my assembly.

Some had identifiable names and lives, most historical and actual, but a few apocryphal. Others were general, not a particular person, but a tradition or text.

Many traditions and sub-traditions were represented: Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and others. Within each tradition, no teacher could claim primacy, no superstars versus stars. There was Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. There was Jesus and Thomas Merton. There was Dogen and Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. Among themselves they might make distinctions. But as teachers who had all given me something significant, they were all at parity.

Were they talking with each other or to me? No. They sat silently, looking at me with calm intensity, waiting for me to answer the unasked question: why had I called them all together?

I did have a reason. But now I wondered if I should ask. The question was whether it was time to give up my practice of drawing wisdom from any and all of them, like a hummingbird feeding from an array of beautiful flowers. Instead, I wanted to know, should I focus on one to the exclusion of the others.

I couldn’t bring myself to ask, because I knew, or thought I knew, what they might say. What a stupid question. Or: You already know the answer. Or: There is no answer. Or: What a stupid question. Or, in the case of a Zen teacher who clung to the old ways, I might be beaten with a stick. And deserve it.

I dismissed the venerable assembly. With thanks.

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Old scripture, new world: The homosexual ban in Torah portion Acharei Mot

This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot, the second part of which is Leviticus 18. It contains very specific laws for sexual conduct, prohibiting practices that Jews must avoid on penalty of death.

Some of the prohibitions are still commonly accepted by most (though not all) in modern times and societies, including bans on incest within extended families and on bestiality. But among them is one that increasingly requires explanation in the face of changing norms–a ban on male homosexual relations. (Lesbian relations are not covered, as Robert Alter notes: “Lesbianism, which surely must have been known in the ancient Near East, is nowhere mentioned, perhaps because no wasting of seed is involved, although the reason for the omission remains unclear.”)

This demands some attention from people of faith who nevertheless believe that homosexual relations are as godly and natural as relations between men and women. The squaring of this circle is actually not that complex, though for some it remains difficult.

It is entirely possible to regard scripture as special, elevated and inspired without treating it as immutable and eternal law. That of course creates its own set of challenges, that is, which of the laws are we to embrace and which do we set aside? The ten commandments contain some valuable guidance we would like generally followed. Not lying, for example, comes immediately to mind.

Here’s the good news. We can do this, we can study and discern what is good and healthy for us individually and as communities. Here’s the inconvenient news. Study and discernment are hard, though rewarding. In my experience, discarding the Bible, or religion for that matter, because of its most pernicious elements and outcomes, is self-defeating and self-denying.

There are people who don’t eat vegetables because, to be honest, some vegetables are pretty terrible or are abysmally prepared. But vegetables are truly wondrous, as taste treats and as part of a healthful diet. You just have to be open to it and work at it a little. And not be put off by the stuff you don’t like and can’t accept.

Bread and Circuses: If Americans are comfortable and entertained, will many overlook the devolution of democracy?

A good economy, at least for the moment. Entertainment and digital diversions to infinity and beyond. If there is also a diminishing—a devolution—of democracy, will Americans care?

In 1985, social critic Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

In 2017, Postman’s son Andrew Postman published a retrospective piece in The Guardian: My dad predicted Trump in 1985 – it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World

Here is an excerpt:

Over the last year, as the presidential campaign grew increasingly bizarre and Donald Trump took us places we had never been before, I saw a spike in media references to Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book written by my late father, Neil Postman, which anticipated back in 1985 so much about what has become of our current public discourse….

The central argument of Amusing Ourselves is simple: there were two landmark dystopian novels written by brilliant British cultural critics – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – and we Americans had mistakenly feared and obsessed over the vision portrayed in the latter book (an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state) rather than the former (a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble)….

Unfortunately, there remained a vision we Americans did need to guard against, one that was percolating right then, in the 1980s. The president was a former actor and polished communicator. Our political discourse (if you could call it that) was day by day diminished to soundbites (“Where’s the beef?” and “I’m paying for this microphone” became two “gotcha” moments, apparently testifying to the speaker’s political formidableness).

The nation increasingly got its “serious” information not from newspapers, which demand a level of deliberation and active engagement, but from television: Americans watched an average of 20 hours of TV a week. (My father noted that USA Today, which launched in 1982 and featured colorized images, quick-glance lists and charts, and much shorter stories, was really a newspaper mimicking the look and feel of TV news.)

But it wasn’t simply the magnitude of TV exposure that was troubling. It was that the audience was being conditioned to get its information faster, in a way that was less nuanced and, of course, image-based. As my father pointed out, a written sentence has a level of verifiability to it: it is true or not true – or, at the very least, we can have a meaningful discussion over its truth. (This was pre-truthiness, pre-“alternative facts”.)

But an image? One never says a picture is true or false. It either captures your attention or it doesn’t. The more TV we watched, the more we expected – and with our finger on the remote, the more we demanded – that not just our sitcoms and cop procedurals and other “junk TV” be entertaining but also our news and other issues of import. Digestible. Visually engaging. Provocative. In short, amusing. All the time. Sorry, C-Span.

This was, in spirit, the vision that Huxley predicted way back in 1931, the dystopia my father believed we should have been watching out for. He wrote:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.

1984 – the year, not the novel – looks positively quaint now. One-third of a century later, we all carry our own personalized screens on us, at all times, and rather than seven broadcast channels plus a smattering of cable, we have a virtual infinity of options….

Our public discourse has become so trivialized, it’s astounding that we still cling to the word “debates” for what our presidential candidates do onstage when facing each other. Really? Who can be shocked by the rise of a reality TV star, a man given to loud, inflammatory statements, many of which are spectacularly untrue but virtually all of which make for what used to be called “good television”?

Who can be appalled when the coin of the realm in public discourse is not experience, thoughtfulness or diplomacy but the ability to amuse – no matter how maddening or revolting the amusement?

So, yes, my dad nailed it. Did he also predict that the leader we would pick for such an age, when we had become perhaps terminally enamored of our technologies and amusements, would almost certainly possess fascistic tendencies? I believe he called this, too.

For all the ways one can define fascism (and there are many), one essential trait is its allegiance to no idea of right but its own: it is, in short, ideological narcissism. It creates a myth that is irrefutable (much in the way that an image’s “truth” cannot be disproved), in perpetuity, because of its authoritarian, unrestrained nature….

I wish I could tell you that, for all his prescience, my father also supplied a solution. He did not. He saw his job as identifying a serious, under-addressed problem, then asking a set of important questions about the problem. He knew it would be hard to find an easy answer to the damages wrought by “technopoly”. It was a systemic problem, one baked as much into our individual psyches as into our culture.

Wind

Wind

who knows
where the wind goes
when it sleeps

©

Ultimately, American democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law depend on sufficient patriots in positions of power. Who would have thought we might fall short?

The founders of America were not fools. They knew history. They knew politics. They knew law. They knew people, good men and scoundrels.

They did their best to craft an elegant and sustainable system. They did as much as they could, and they did it well. But they knew, as we all know, that the best systems cannot build in total safeguards for their benign operation and maintenance. For that, every system depends on a sufficient number of people in control who place the best interests of the system first—before their own interests.

In the case of American democracy, that means sufficient people in positions of power who are patriots. How many patriots in power are sufficient? We can’t be sure, because in all of American history, we have never had to ask the question. We’ve assumed there would always be enough patriots in positions of power to correct our course. How many patriots in power are sufficient? We may be about to find out by falling short.

Now that we have completed heaven on earth, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin says we should start migrating to Mars

The World Bank reports:

The percentage of people living in extreme poverty globally fell to a new low of 10 percent in 2015 — the latest number available — down from 11 percent in 2013, reflecting steady but slowing progress, World Bank data show. The number of people living on less than $1.90 a day fell during this period by 68 million to 736 million.

Buzz Aldrin, one of the first astronauts on the moon, says that both the US and the wider international community

“Should focus on opening the door, in our time, to the great migration of humankind to Mars.”

It’s true that humankind has been able to walk and chew gum at the same time, that is, pursue various initiatives in very different spheres. You can definitely see migration to Mars as simply the next frontier for our pioneering instincts (and our power/mercenary instincts too).

But it is also possible to see this as responsible parties turning their backs on important but seemingly intractable situations. Poverty, as just one example of the areas to address, looks a little brighter, given a one-percent reduction over five years. On the other hand, 736 million people living on $1.90 a day doesn’t sound all that great.

Human beings, as individuals and communities, want to do all kinds of exciting and forward-looking things. We shouldn’t throw gratuitous shade on those initiatives. But whatever the vision of heaven on earth, we shouldn’t pretend that we are anywhere near that.

Who are the biggest bullshitters?

North Americans seem most prone to shameless bluffing

The Economist:

Everybody tells the occasional fib. But whereas liars consciously conceal the truth, reckons Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher, bullshitters are shameless: they say what they want to, without even considering the truth. Bluffers seem to be everywhere: the share of Americans who believe that most people can be trusted has fallen from 48% in 1984 to just 31% today.

A new study of the phenomenon has found that North America is especially prone to speaking bull. John Jerrim, Phil Parker and Nikki Shure, three academics, have used an educational survey of 40,000 teenage students in nine English-speaking countries to find out who is most likely to spout nonsense. They inserted a section into the questionnaire which asked students how well they understood a collection of 16 mathematical concepts. Some were familiar, such as “polygon” and “probability”, but three were fake: “proper number”, “subjunctive scaling” and “declarative fraction”.

The results show substantial differences between countries. Canadian and American teenagers were especially likely to profess knowledge of these bogus topics, whereas the Scots and Irish were perfectly happy to admit their ignorance. In news that will shock nobody, in every country men claimed to be experts more often than women. The rich were more boastful than the poor. More surprising was the finding that immigrants were generally more likely to bluff about maths than native students were.

What explains these differences? The academics doubt that the bullshitters were simply trying to impress the questionnaire’s markers. The students who bluffed about maths were just as likely as the non-bluffers to admit that they had skipped school recently, for example. A more likely answer is that the blaggers over-estimated their own knowledge. They also tended to rate themselves highly when it came to gauging their own popularity, perseverance on academic tasks and problem-solving ability. The data suggest that they might not be consciously lying, but instead be weaving their own fantasies.

When an Attorney General Is a Criminal

On January 1, 1975, former U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and three counts of perjury for his part in the Watergate cover-up.

Media Balance v. Truth: “A Balanced Treatment of an Unbalanced Phenomenon Distorts Reality”

You may have seen or heard about Samantha Bee’s Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on TBS. The first one of these two years ago was meant to point to Trump’s attempt to diminish journalism by not attending, as president’s have for decades. In years past, the WHCA Dinner became known as the Nerd Prom, combining a celebration of a free press, journalists, celebrities and sharp roasting—including roasting the president.

This year, thin-skinned Trump not only held his usual alternative rally at the exact same time, but somehow cowed the White House Correspondents’ Association into abandoning roasting, humor and celebrities entirely, in favor of earnest attention to journalism. Samantha Bee would have none of it, instead offering her own combination of humor, entertaining discussion, and celebrities.

The segment getting the most attention is probably her closing roast of Trump, which was no holds barred. But in the analysis category, no segment was better than the one on how media attempts to offer “balanced” coverage is useless when the matter covered doesn’t really have two civilized and defensible sides. The segment was grounded in this from an op-ed piece by Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann:

We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views.

“Balanced” media coverage, not calling out demagoguery, venality and incompetence at an early stage, is part of how Trump managed to get elected, and how the current devolution of American democracy continues. For more than two centuries, a mostly two-party America could say that there were very fine people on both sides. But it is not only possible that that is not eternally true; we are living through the proof.

Barbara Jordan: Impeachment Is Not About Removal from Office

It is wrong, I suggest, it is a misreading of the Constitution for any member here to assert that for a member to vote for an article of impeachment means that that member must be convinced that the President should be removed from office. The Constitution doesn’t say that. The powers relating to impeachment are an essential check in the hands of the body of the Legislature against and upon the encroachments of the Executive….

James Madison again at the Constitutional Convention: “A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.” The Constitution charges the President with the task of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, and yet the President has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregard the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, conceal surreptitious entry, attempt to compromise a federal judge, while publicly displaying his cooperation with the processes of criminal justice. “A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.”…

If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder!

Barbara Jordan, Statement on the Articles of Impeachment, 25 July 1974, House Judiciary Committee

Politician, legislator, educator, groundbreaker. Most especially orator. Former Congressman Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) was an American hero. And objectively one of the greatest American public figures of all time.

Objectively? How do we know this?

When you review American Rhetoric’s list of Top 100 Speeches you find Barbara Jordan at Number 5 (1976 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address) and Number 13 (Statement on the Articles of Impeachment, 25 July 1974, House Judiciary Committee). Her 1976 DNC speech is ranked below only MLK’s I Have A Dream, JFK’s Inaugural Address, and two speeches by FDR (First Inaugural Address and Pearl Habor Address to the Nation).

The reason her impeachment speech achieved its status is not only because of her unmatched talents as wordsmith and orator. It is because, as she often did, she went to the heart of the matter, which in the case of impeachment is not removal from office, but subverting the Constitution.

Mr. Chairman, I join my colleague Mr. Rangel in thanking you for giving the junior members of this committee the glorious opportunity of sharing the pain of this inquiry. Mr. Chairman, you are a strong man, and it has not been easy but we have tried as best we can to give you as much assistance as possible.

Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: “We, the people.” It’s a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in “We, the people.”

Today I am an inquisitor. An hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.

“Who can so properly be the inquisitors for the nation as the representatives of the nation themselves?” “The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men.”1 And that’s what we’re talking about. In other words, [the jurisdiction comes] from the abuse or violation of some public trust.

It is wrong, I suggest, it is a misreading of the Constitution for any member here to assert that for a member to vote for an article of impeachment means that that member must be convinced that the President should be removed from office. The Constitution doesn’t say that. The powers relating to impeachment are an essential check in the hands of the body of the Legislature against and upon the encroachments of the Executive. The division between the two branches of the Legislature, the House and the Senate, assigning to the one the right to accuse and to the other the right to judge, the Framers of this Constitution were very astute. They did not make the accusers and the judgers — and the judges the same person.

We know the nature of impeachment. We’ve been talking about it awhile now. It is chiefly designed for the President and his high ministers to somehow be called into account. It is designed to “bridle” the Executive if he engages in excesses. “It is designed as a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men.”² The Framers confided in the Congress the power if need be, to remove the President in order to strike a delicate balance between a President swollen with power and grown tyrannical, and preservation of the independence of the Executive.

The nature of impeachment: a narrowly channeled exception to the separation-of-powers maxim.  The Federal Convention of 1787 said that. It limited impeachment to high crimes and misdemeanors and discounted and opposed the term “maladministration.” “It is to be used only for great misdemeanors,” so it was said in the North Carolina ratification convention. And in the Virginia ratification convention: “We do not trust our liberty to a particular branch. We need one branch to check the other.”

“No one need be afraid” — the North Carolina ratification convention — “No one need be afraid that officers who commit oppression will pass with immunity.” “Prosecutions of impeachments will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community,” said Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, number 65. “We divide into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.”³ I do not mean political parties in that sense.

The drawing of political lines goes to the motivation behind impeachment; but impeachment must proceed within the confines of the constitutional term “high crime[s] and misdemeanors.” Of the impeachment process, it was Woodrow Wilson who said that “Nothing short of the grossest offenses against the plain law of the land will suffice to give them speed and effectiveness. Indignation so great as to overgrow party interest may secure a conviction; but nothing else can.”

Common sense would be revolted if we engaged upon this process for petty reasons. Congress has a lot to do: Appropriations, Tax Reform, Health Insurance, Campaign Finance Reform, Housing, Environmental Protection, Energy Sufficiency, Mass Transportation. Pettiness cannot be allowed to stand in the face of such overwhelming problems. So today we are not being petty. We are trying to be big, because the task we have before us is a big one.

This morning, in a discussion of the evidence, we were told that the evidence which purports to support the allegations of misuse of the CIA by the President is thin. We’re told that that evidence is insufficient. What that recital of the evidence this morning did not include is what the President did know on June the 23rd, 1972.

The President did know that it was Republican money, that it was money from the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, which was found in the possession of one of the burglars arrested on June the 17th. What the President did know on the 23rd of June was the prior activities of E. Howard Hunt, which included his participation in the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, which included Howard Hunt’s participation in the Dita Beard ITT affair, which included Howard Hunt’s fabrication of cables designed to discredit the Kennedy Administration.

We were further cautioned today that perhaps these proceedings ought to be delayed because certainly there would be new evidence forthcoming from the President of the United States. There has not even been an obfuscated indication that this committee would receive any additional materials from the President. The committee subpoena is outstanding, and if the President wants to supply that material, the committee sits here. The fact is that on yesterday, the American people waited with great anxiety for eight hours, not knowing whether their President would obey an order of the Supreme Court of the United States.

At this point, I would like to juxtapose a few of the impeachment criteria with some of the actions the President has engaged in. Impeachment criteria: James Madison, from the Virginia ratification convention. “If the President be connected in any suspicious manner with any person and there be grounds to believe that he will shelter him, he may be impeached.”

We have heard time and time again that the evidence reflects the payment to defendants money. The President had knowledge that these funds were being paid and these were funds collected for the 1972 presidential campaign. We know that the President met with Mr. Henry Petersen 27 times to discuss matters related to Watergate, and immediately thereafter met with the very persons who were implicated in the information Mr. Petersen was receiving. The words are: “If the President is connected in any suspicious manner with any person and there be grounds to believe that he will shelter that person, he may be impeached.”

Justice Story: “Impeachment” is attended — “is intended for occasional and extraordinary cases where a superior power acting for the whole people is put into operation to protect their rights and rescue their liberties from violations.” We know about the Huston plan. We know about the break-in of the psychiatrist’s office. We know that there was absolute complete direction on September 3rd when the President indicated that a surreptitious entry had been made in Dr. Fielding’s office, after having met with Mr. Ehrlichman and Mr. Young. “Protect their rights.” “Rescue their liberties from violation.”

The Carolina ratification convention impeachment criteria: those are impeachable “who behave amiss or betray their public trust.”4 Beginning shortly after the Watergate break-in and continuing to the present time, the President has engaged in a series of public statements and actions designed to thwart the lawful investigation by government prosecutors. Moreover, the President has made public announcements and assertions bearing on the Watergate case, which the evidence will show he knew to be false. These assertions, false assertions, impeachable, those who misbehave. Those who “behave amiss or betray the public trust.”

James Madison again at the Constitutional Convention: “A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.” The Constitution charges the President with the task of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, and yet the President has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregard the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, conceal surreptitious entry, attempt to compromise a federal judge, while publicly displaying his cooperation with the processes of criminal justice. “A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.”

If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder!

Has the President committed offenses, and planned, and directed, and acquiesced in a course of conduct which the Constitution will not tolerate? That’s the question. We know that. We know the question. We should now forthwith proceed to answer the question. It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.