Bob Schwartz

Trump v. Moses: Grievances Win Over Vision

People can be complainers. Grievances can be powerful. Just ask Trump. Or Moses.

Prior freedom and miracles were not enough for the Jews at Mount Sinai. While Moses goes up the mountain, for what turns out to be a monumental visionary moment, the people head in an entirely different direction. They are still chronically unhappy and complaining about their lives and the way things have been going, and so engage in all sorts of crazy behavior. In that story, the vision does end up prevailing, but only after lots more tzuris (troubles) and mishegas (craziness).

The only chance for vision to prevail over grievance is for there to be an actual coherent and enlightened vision, and for there to be widespread confidence among people in that actual vision. Otherwise people, who are just human, will complain—sometimes selfishly and shortsightedly, sometimes justifiably. And they will channel those complaints into strange behaviors and choices.

In America, there are a lot of people with grievances. And there is a vision vacuum, at least among those whose supposed structural mission is to be practical visionaries (for example, Democrats and religious institutions). Even with miracles behind him, Moses had a tough time. Without miracles or vision, in elections and at other times, we may be seeing a lot more golden calves.

 

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Mother’s Day: BE NICE

Melania Trump calls her new social initiative as First Lady “Be Best.” It has been somewhat ridiculed for being well-intentioned but too vague and generalized, having something to do with children not using opioids, using social media responsibly, and so on. (She earlier attempted to focus only on cyber bullying, for which she was also mocked, given that she is married to the world’s most famous and powerful cyber bully.)

But she was close to being on to something.

Once you get past all the detailed negatives about Trump and other officials and supposed leaders in America unashamedly acting out, it comes down to one thing: a lot of responsible adults in positions of authority and influence are just being way, way too mean.

BE NICE. Does that sound ridiculous and puerile? “Be nice” seems the kind of message you might hear from your mother. Do you know why? Because Moms know that in your life, two things will happen. People in various positions relative to you will be mean to you, and you won’t always be in a position to say or do anything about it. And you will be in a position to be mean to others, and the same applies. It is a Mom-like cliché-plus to say “If you can’t say anything nice about somebody, don’t say anything.” Moms want our lives to be better, maybe even best, and this can help. Whether you are in kindergarten or the White House, “Be Nice” is supremely wise advice.

Happy Mother’s Day to Moms and children of Moms everywhere.

Which Social Ingredient Is Poisoning Us?

Let’s say you eat a really big meal. A thousand dishes, each dish containing a thousand ingredients. That’s a million ingredients.

After eating the meal, you get sick. More sick than just from being very overstuffed. The doctor says that you have food poisoning. The question for you and the doctor: which ingredient or ingredients poisoned you?

That’s one way of looking at this social/cultural/political moment. There is increasingly a sense that we are poisoned, and that it might be something we ate or are still eating. How are we going to find out for sure? If we do find out, can we stop cooking with and eating that ingredient? Or is it just so tasty, so much a part of so many recipes, that we can’t easily stop or eliminate it?

Nine Prayers: For Those We Like, Love or Suffer When We Think Of

Thomas Merton’s final book, Contemplative Prayer, was published in 1969, a year after his accidental death. In 1995, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh added an introduction. He wrote about his admiration for Merton and about distinctions between Christian and Buddhist prayer:

I first met Thomas Merton in 1966. It is hard to describe his face in words, to write down exactly what he was like. He was filled with human warmth. Conversation with him was so easy. When we talked, I told him a few things, and he immediately understood the things I didn’t tell him as well. He was open to everything, constantly asking questions and listening deeply. I told him about my life as a Buddhist novice in Vietnam, and he wanted to know more and more.

Our approach to prayer in Buddhism is a little different from that of Christianity. We practice silent meditation, and we try to practice mindfulness in everything we do, to awaken to what is going on inside us and all around us in each moment. The Buddha taught: “If you are standing on one shore and want to cross over to the other shore, you have to use a boat or swim across. You cannot just pray, ‘Oh, other shore, please come over here for me to step across!’” To a Buddhist, praying without also practicing is not real prayer.

At the end of the Introduction, he offers a comprehensive set of nine prayers—prayers beyond any sectarian tradition, and prayers that include “the one we suffer when we think of.”


Nine Prayers
Thich Nhat Hanh
From Introduction to Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton

1.
May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May he/she be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May they be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
2.
May I be free from injury. May I live in safety.
May he/she be free from injury. May he/she live in safety.
May they be free from injury. May they live in safety.
3.
May I be free from disturbance, fear, anxiety, and worry.
May he/she be free from disturbance, fear, anxiety, and worry.
May they be free from disturbance, fear, anxiety, and worry.
4.
May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.
May he/she learn to look at him/herself with the eyes of understanding and love.
May they learn to look at themselves with the eyes of understanding and love.
5.
May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.
May he/she be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in him/herself.
May they be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in themselves.
6.
May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.
May he/she learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in him/herself.
May they learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in themselves.
7.
May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.
May he/she know how to nourish the seeds of joy in him/herself every day.
May they know how to nourish the seeds of joy in themselves every day.
8.
May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
May he/she be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
May they be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
9.
May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.
May he/she be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.
May they be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.

He/she: First the person we like, then the person we love, then the person who is neutral to us, and finally the person we suffer when we think of.

They: The group, the people, the nation, or the species we like, then the one we love, then the one that is neutral to us, and finally the one we suffer when we think of.

Attorney Troll

I came across the above image in my folders. I probably intended it to illustrate a post about Michael Cohen. I don’t recall. It is in no way a reflection of or commentary on lawyers in general. But it is too good to pass up.

On Tyranny. Again.

I don’t know the words or the enticements to move people to read the book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. I wrote about it when it was released two months ago. I would write it about it every day. Because American democracy, and the values that support and enable American democracy, are under daily siege—from the highest levels of the republic itself. Using the vast history of tyrannical regimes—tyranny that exists elsewhere right now—we should learn how to respond and act constructively. Rather than running around as if our national hair was on fire or, worse, just giving up and giving in.

1. The book is cheap. Really cheap. $3.99 for the ebook. $6.39 for the paperback.

2. The book is short. Really short. 128 pages.

3. The book is great and essential. Some sample reviews:

“We are rapidly ripening for fascism. This American writer leaves us with no illusions about ourselves.” —Svetlana Alexievich, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

“Timothy Snyder reasons with unparalleled clarity, throwing the past and future into sharp relief. He has written the rare kind of book that can be read in one sitting but will keep you coming back to help regain your bearings. Put a copy in your pocket and one on your bedside table, and it will help you keep going for the next four years or however long it takes.” —Masha Gessen

“Please read this book. So smart, so timely.” —George Saunders

“Easily the most compelling volume among the early resistance literature. . . . A slim book that fits alongside your pocket Constitution and feels only slightly less vital. . . . Clarifying and unnerving. . . . A memorable work that is grounded in history yet imbued with the fierce urgency of what now.” —Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post

“Snyder knows this subject cold. . . . It is impossible to read aphorisms like ‘post-truth is pre-fascism’ and not feel a small chill about the current state of the Republic. . . . Approach this short book the same you would a medical pamphlet warning about an infectious disease. Read it carefully and be on the lookout for symptoms.” —Daniel W. Drezner, The New York Times Book Review

“As Timothy Snyder explains in his fine and frightening On Tyranny, a minority party now has near-total power and is therefore understandably frightened of awakening the actual will of the people.” —Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

“Snyder is superbly positioned to bring historical thinking to bear on the current political scene. . . . These unpretentious words remind us that political resistance isn’t a matter of action-movie heroics, but starts from a willingness to break from social expectations.” —Jeet Heer, The New Republic

“The perfect clear-eyed antidote to Trump’s deliberate philistinism. . . . These 128 pages are a brief primer in every important thing we might have learned from the history of the last century, and all that we appear to have forgotten.” —Tim Adams, The Guardian

“On Tyranny demands to be read.” —The Forward

“The manifesto we need. . . . Snyder detects dangerous trends in American politics that may be less visible to most citizens who cannot believe that our country, with its system of checks and balances, could succumb to illiberalism or authoritarianism.” —Darryl Holter, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Bracing. . . . On Tyranny is a call to action. . . . A brisk read packed with lucid prose.” —Vox

4. The book is popular:

#2 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Politics & Social Sciences > Politics & Government > Specific Topics > Civics
#3 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Politics & Social Sciences > Politics & Government > Ideologies & Doctrines > Democracy
#7 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > History > Modern (16th-21st Centuries) > 20th Century
#5 in Books > Politics & Social Sciences > Politics & Government > Specific Topics > Civics & Citizenship
#6 in Books > Politics & Social Sciences > Politics & Government > Ideologies & Doctrines > Democracy

The chapters in On Tyranny:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

Finally, “it can’t happen here” are infamous last words. And as the epigraph to the book says:

In politics, being deceived is no excuse.
—Leszek Kołakowski

Always the beautiful answer

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question
E. E. Cummings, Introduction to New Poems (1938)

If you are a teacher or a student, it is the time of year to ask and answer questions. Actually, any time is the time for anyone to ask and answer questions.

The best line about questions comes from poet E. E. Cummings. Interestingly, it is not from one of his many poems. It is from the Introduction to his volume New Poems (1938), though the Introduction (see below) is pretty poetic and very Cummings.

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question

It is easy to ask questions, harder to ask good and beautiful questions. Bad questions hardly generate good and beautiful answers. Good and beautiful questions ask for—demand—better and more beautiful answers.

I considered completing this post without an E. E. Cummings poem. But no:

you shall above all things be glad and young
For if you’re young,whatever life you wear

it will become you;and if you are glad
whatever’s living will yourself become.
Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:
i can entirely her only love

whose any mystery makes every man’s
flesh put space on;and his mind take off time

that you should ever think,may god forbid
and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:
for that way knowledge lies,the foetal grave
called progress,and negation’s dead undoom.

I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance


E. E. Cummings
Introduction to New Poems (1938)

The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople– it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings;mostpeople are snobs. Take the matter of being born. What does being born mean to mostpeople? Catastrophe unmitigated. Socialrevolution. The cultured aristocrat yanked out of his hyperexclusively ultravoluptuous superpalazzo,and dumped into an incredibly vulgar detentioncamp swarming with every conceivable species of undesirable organism. Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness. If mostpeople were to be born twice they’d improbably call it dying–

you and I are not snobs. We can never be born enough. We are human beings;for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery,the mystery of growing:which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. You and I wear the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming. Life,for eternal us,is now’and now is much to busy being a little more than everything to seem anything,catastrophic included.

Life,for mostpeople,simply isn’t. Take the socalled standardofliving. What do mostpeople mean by “living”? They don’t mean living. They mean the latest and closest plural approximation to singular prenatal passivity which science,in its finite but unbounded wisdom,has succeeded in selling their wives. If science could fail,a mountain’s a mammal. Mostpeople’s wives could spot a genuine delusion of embryonic omnipotence immediately and will accept no substitutes.

-luckily for us,a mountain is a mammal. The plusorminus movie to end moving,the strictly scientific parlourgame of real unreality,the tyranny conceived in misconception and dedicated to the proposition that every man is a woman and any woman is a king,hasn’t a wheel to stand on. What their synthetic not to mention transparent majesty, mrsandmr collective foetus,would improbably call a ghost is walking. He isn’t a undream of anaesthetized impersons, or a cosmic comfortstation,or a transcedentally sterilized lookiesoundiefeelietastiesmellie. He is a healthily complex,a naturally homogenous,citizen of immorality. The now of his each pitying free imperfect gesture,his any birth of breathing,insults perfected inframortally milleniums of slavishness. He is a little more than everything,he is democracy;he is alive:he is ourselves.

Miracles are to come. With you I leave a remembrance of miracles: they are somebody who can love and who shall be continually reborn,a human being;somebody who said to those near him,when his fingers would not hold a brush “tie it to my hand”–

nothing proving or sick or partial. Nothing false,nothing difficult or easy or small or colossal. Nothing ordinary or extraordinary,nothing emptied or filled,real or unreal;nothing feeble and known or clumsy and guessed. Everywhere tints childrening,innocent spontaneaous,true. Nowhere possibly what flesh and impossibly such a garden,but actually flowers which breasts are amoung the very mouths of light. Nothing believed or doubted;brain over heart, surface:nowhere hating or to fear;shadow,mind without soul. Only how measureless cool flames of making;only each other building always distinct selves of mutual entirely opening;only alive. Never the murdered finalities of wherewhen and yesno,impotent nongames of wrongright and rightwrong;never to gain or pause,never the soft adventure of undoom,greedy anguishes and cringing ecstasies of inexistence;never to rest and never to have;only to grow.

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question

What If Nixon Had Gone to the Russians for the Watergate Money?

John Dean: I would say these people are going to cost a million dollars over the next two years.
President Nixon: We could get that. If you—on the money, if you need the money, I mean, you could get the money fairly easily. From the Russians. (sentence added)
The Nixon Tapes

You can be forgiven if you’re not thinking about Watergate in the context of current presidential corruption. It was a long time ago, and unlike Trump, Richard Nixon, while evil, was actually a very smart and capable man, who did a few good things and some very bad things as president.

I do think about Watergate, and today remembered one of the infamous conspirational conversations recorded on the Nixon Tapes. Here Nixon discusses with his White House Counsel John Dean paying a million dollars in hush money to the Watergate defendants. I wondered what it would have been like if Nixon suggested raising the money from the Russians—then as now our enemies.


Date: Wednesday, March 21, 1973 – 10:12am – 11:55am
Participants: Richard Nixon, John Dean

John Dean: Where are the soft spots on this? Well, first of all, there’s the problem of the continued blackmail—

President Nixon: Right.

Dean: —which will not only go on now, it’ll go on when these people are in prison, and it will compound the obstruction-of-justice situation. It’ll cost money. It’s dangerous. Nobody, nothing—people around here are not pros at this sort of thing. This is the sort of thing Mafia people can do: washing money, getting clean money, and things like that. We just don’t know about those things, because we’re not used to, you know, we’re not criminals. We’re not used to dealing in that business. It’s a—

President Nixon: That’s right.

Dean: It’s a tough thing to know how to do.

President Nixon: Maybe we can’t even do that.

Dean: That’s right. It’s a real problem as to whether we could even do it. Plus, there’s a real problem in raising money. [Attorney General John] Mitchell has been working on raising some money, feeling he’s got, you know, he’s got—he’s one of the ones with the most to lose. But there’s no denying the fact that the White House and [John] Ehrlichman, [Bob] Haldeman, and Dean are involved in some of the early money decisions.

President Nixon: How much money do you need?

Dean: I would say these people are going to cost a million dollars over the next two years.

Short pause.

President Nixon: We could get that.

Dean: Mm-hmm.

President Nixon: If you—on the money, if you need the money, I mean, you could get the money fairly easily.

Dean: Well, I think that we’re—

President Nixon: What I meant is, you could get a million dollars. And you could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten.

Dean: Mm-hmm.

President Nixon: I mean, it’s not easy, but it could be done. From the Russians. (sentence added)

“This is the business we’ve chosen.”

I watched a news panel discussing reports that Michael Cohen is distraught for his family and realizes that his business and professional life is over—not to mention the possibility of years in prison.

Some panelists expressed compassion for someone in his position. But another was less sympathetic, saying that this was the life he had chosen.

I can’t be sure, but this may have been meant to echo one of the many famous lines from the Godfather movies. In Godfather II, the dying Hyman Roth explains his attitude towards the killing of Moe Green, the man who invented modern Las Vegas. Roth knows that the Corleone family executed Green, but Roth explains to Michael Corleone why he set that fact aside:

HYMAN ROTH: There was this kid I grew up with; he was younger than me. Sorta looked up to me, you know. We did our first work together, worked our way out of the street. Things were good, we made the most of it. During Prohibition, we ran molasses into Canada… made a fortune, your father, too. As much as anyone, I loved him and trusted him. Later on he had an idea to build a city out of a desert stop-over for GI’s on the way to the West Coast. That kid’s name was Moe Greene, and the city he invented was Las Vegas. This was a great man, a man of vision and guts. And there isn’t even a plaque, or a signpost or a statue of him in that town! Someone put a bullet through his eye. No one knows who gave the order. When I heard it, I wasn’t angry; I knew Moe, I knew he was head-strong, talking loud, saying stupid things. So when he turned up dead, I let it go. And I said to myself, this is the business we’ve chosen; I didn’t ask who gave the order, because it had nothing to do with business!

“Defense Stocks Rally As U.S. Exit From Iran Deal Adds To Mideast Tension”

“Defense Stocks Rally As U.S. Exit From Iran Deal Adds To Mideast Tension”

There are so many messages in today’s headline from Investor’s Business Daily. None of them good.

1. No matter how enlightened and high-minded—or unenlightened and low-minded—the proponents of war are, there are always going to be those who profit from it. The promise of profiting from war is one way to convince influential people and enterprises to support a war footing. That is not cynicism; it is history.

2. The list of Mideast wars, past and present, is too long to list here. Also long is the list of thoughtful people who think the regional situation right now is more tense than it has been in a very long time, and think that the Trump/Bolton position, popular mostly among the extreme and the extremely nationalistic and uninformed, only adds fuel to the flames.

3. Jared Kushner is officially in charge of peace in the Mideast. So we can all rest easy. Unfortunately, among other poor decisions, he invested in money-losing buildings instead of profitable defense stocks, so he is not sleeping all that well. Wherever he is hiding.