31 March 2008

My Afternoon Cup

Santa Eduviges, Costa Rica: Seasonal coffee workers unload
their baskets of coffee cherries into a transport truck.
Photograph © Erika Schultz*/The Seattle Times/AP.

I am sitting at Boulder Coffee here in Rochester and, for once, have not single-handedly raised the average age of the assembled customers. It is a nice place to hide while finishing up a conference paper. And then I came across this picture in The Guardian, a reminder that coffee comes from people other than your nice, cute, friendly barrista. In your local Starbucks there often are lots of fairly sanitized propaganda pictures hanging about, showing various people employed at various stages of the production chain. In those pictures no one ever breaks a sweat or strains under heavy burdens, whether physical or monetary. If you need another reminder of where coffee comes from, one that illuminates the burdens, see Black Gold.

Back to Boulder - they sell fair-trade beans and host the South Wedge Farmer's market. I supposes that sounds like carbon offsets. Maybe so, but it's a lot better than most purveyors.
* Erika Schultz won a 2005 scholarship from the Alexia Foundation. You can find more of her work here at the Foundation's web page.

Labels: , , ,


Today The New York Times is running this profile of Arianna Huffington, the brains behind The Huffington Post. The profile focuses on the incredible success of The Post in terms of readership numbers and on the process by which it is morphing from blog into an on-line newspaper. The irritating thing about the story is that The Times reporter offers, without comment, a comparison between Huffington and Matt Drudge. You know, Matt is the conservative counterpart to Arianna's liberalism. Unfortunately, the reporter missed the relevant comparison which has to do with journalistic and intellectual integrity. Drudge, a bullshitter and pompous poser (right), is bereft of such qualities while Huffington has them. That is a distinction with a difference. Why can't The Times ever get these things right? Why do they bend over to lend credibility to conservatives who don't deserve to be taken seriously?
Photo Credit: Evan Agostini/Getty Images

P.S: (Added later that same day) In a comment on this post Scott Brauer called my attention to this essay by Eric Alterman in The New Yorker that also discusses The Huffington Post as an emergent alternative to standard newspapers. It is a nice essay. Thanks Scott! I will say that I do not find Alterman's discussion of Lippmann & Dewey entirely persuasive, he does raise a whole set of interesting issues.

Labels: , ,

30 March 2008

Hip Hop in Photography (and other media)

Public Enemy, Professor Griff,
Sunshine Theater, Albuquerque, New Mexico (2002)
Photograph © David Scheinbaum

RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture
February 8 through October 26, 2008.
National Portrait Gallery
Eighth and F Streets, NW,
Washington, D.C., 20001
P.S.: Thanks to this notice in nat creole for bringing the exhibition to my attention.


Dith Pran (1942-2008)

Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran has died. You can find the obituary from The New York Times here. Dith was the inspiration for the film "The Killing Fields" and subsequently both worked for The Times in the U.S. and was active speaking out against genocide.


29 March 2008

Dread Scott, . . . uh, Revolutionary?

At Alternet you can find this commentary by artist Dread Scott on the controversy that has arisen regarding his current exhibition Welcome to America at MoCADA (the Museum of Contemporary African Disporan Art) in Brooklyn. The ruckus seems to have been prompted by the installation pictured above which is called "Blue Wall of Violence (1999)."*

While I condemn efforts to censor artists and their work, I have to say that I don't get what Scott means when he contends "I make revolutionary art to propel history forward." Are you kidding? Scott is calling attention to just the sort of crimes that Rev. Jeremiah Wright condemns from the pulpit. (Or, for that matter, the same crimes James Baldwin condemned in The Fire Next Time - that was in 1963.) However accurate and necessary the condemnation, just where is the revolution? The art gallery as locus of revolutionary fervor.

I guess I find it difficult to take seriously anyone who insists that he has been "influenced" or "inspired" by "Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, U.S.A." That is simply a howler.
* This from Dread the Revolutionary's web page: "The Blue Wall of Violence is an installation that addresses police brutality. It focuses on the object which the police "mistook" for a dangerous weapon when they shot an unarmed person. The project consists of several elements: On the wall are six actual FBI silhouette targets which police use for shooting practice. Protruding from each of these is a cast of an arm. In each hand is an object-wallet, house keys, 3 Musketeers bar, squeegee, etc. In front of this is a coffin and in front of the coffin are three police batons which each strike it every 10 seconds with a loud penetrating bang."


Olympics Politics

I find the notion that the Olympics are a politics free zone pretty much completely absurd. After all, the entire enterprise (oops! did I use the wrong word?) is organized around nations competing with one another. Sure, the athletes and teams compete individually, but their performance contributes to the all-important "medal count." And they march behind their national flag. And there always are questions about whether the games should be held in this or that location, given this or that reprehensible practice or policy of the host country. Those questions are completely legitimate. The difficulty is how one ought to respond.

There already has been talk of boycotts with respect to the upcoming summer Olympics in Beijing. Nicolas Sarkozy, he who now accompanies the beautiful wife, has suggested that the French might boycott the opening ceremonies. German Chancellor Angela Merkle has announced she will not attend the opening. I wonder, though, if the strategy being pushed by Reporters without Borders might not be a more useful one. They are asking those planning to attend the Olympics to wear one of these badges - inscribed with the Chinese characters spelling "Freedom." I suspect that actual politicians like Sarkozy or Merkle would find speaking out in even this muted way more strenuous than staying away. But imagine if thousands and more visitors began wearing the badges around Beijing this summer. Of course, the Chinese authorities might simply ignore the buttons, thereby seeking to display their political openness and tolerance. I doubt they could keep up the charade with any consistency. And there is always the problem that they could point back at those visiting from countries whose governments sanction practices like torture and secret rendition or that flaunt international law in all sorts of ways.

Labels: ,

28 March 2008

Chocolate Jesus (2)

Almost exactly a year ago Jörg Colberg at Conscientious prompted me to write this post - "Chocolate Jesus" - on the mayhem that broke out around a sculpture by Cosimo Cavallaro. Today Jörg posted a link to this inspiring performance by Tom Waits. So here I am again. Perhaps this will become an annual event.

Labels: ,

Artisitic Freedom in Ron Paul's Campaign

My smartest students, especially those who have some degree of political fervor or engagement, tend, almost instinctively, to be libertarian. Their's is a political position that baffles me almost wholly. This, though, is not the place for a 'libertarianism is silly' treatise. Nor is it the place to try to figure out why young people especially seem drawn to libertarian views. In any case, there is one thing that is quite impressive about the presidential campaign of libertarian Ron Paul. According to this story in The New York Times, it apparently has been less controlling than other campaigns on the graphical dimension.

Photograph © Dave Lamarand

Photograph © Dave Lamarand

Labels: ,

27 March 2008

Putting a Stop to Debate About Torture?

The notion of a debate about torture, after all, is idiotic. Everyone agrees that torture is a bad thing. Everyone agrees what counts as torture. And everyone agrees that the U.S. via various military and intelligence agencies practices torture directly and via various proxies does so indirectly. So what is there to debate? To what do we need to put an end? Regardless, The Washington Monthly has published this symposium, complete with contributions by many luminaries from politics and the academy, in an effort to help end the "torture debate."

That is all well and good, but the Editor's intro to the symposium suggests that just maybe not everyone wants to fully recognize the extent of the problem. The intro reads:
"In the wake of September 11, the United States became a nation that practiced torture. Astonishingly—despite the repudiation of torture by experts and the revelations of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib—we remain one."
Yes, despite recent revelations, we remain a nation that practices torture. But let's be frank. Please! We did not become a nation that practices torture only in the wake of September 11, 2001. There is ample, readily available evidence to the contrary [perhaps the Editors at TWM might start e.g., here]. If we cannot look at history with something like an unblinkered eye, how likely is it that we will stop talking bullshit and arguing about the niceties of this or that abhorrent practice?


Lacrosse Update.

Well, after a successful spring break trip to Florida where they defeated two of the top-10 teams in Division III, Nazareth lost yesterday to unranked Utica College 11-9. That is a let down since it also is a league game. On a personal note, although he did not start, Douglas played very well with 2 goals and an assist. He strained his knee in the last minute too, but seems to be O.K. as of this afternoon. Doug has a very proud father. Next game Saturday.

Labels: ,

Best Shots (18)

(44) John Swannell ~ Detail from Marianne Lah Swannell, 1983
(27 March 08)


26 March 2008

Enthusiasms (16) ~ Randy Weston

I have been fortunate enough to see Randy Weston a couple of times in the past decade and each occasion has been a treat. There are several reasons to admire him beyond that fact that at 80 plus years old he keeps on playing inspired and inspiring music. The first is that he sees himself as part of a lineage of great African-American musicians and that he pays tribute to his predecessors whether these be world famous composers like Ellington and Monk or innumerable anonymous African griots. The second is that over the years he has teamed up with arranger Melba Liston, an extremely talented woman in a music dominated by men. The third is that he has recorded in a wide range of settings from solo piano to large ensemble all in extremely compelling ways.

I own each of the records pictured here as well as several other of Weston's recordings and recommend them all. They are difficult to come by but well worth keeping watch for. The Portraits of Thelonious Monk CD is one of a three part series that includes Portraits of Duke Ellington and Self-Portraits all issued by Verve in 1989. The recordings with Liston - The Spirits of Our Ancestors and Volcano Blues - were also issued by Verve in the early 1990s. I hope I'm lucky enough to see Weston again before long. I hope you are lucky enough to see him play too.

Labels: , ,

Transcending Race?

Perhaps when they see this Annie Leibovitz Vogue (April 08) cover, the French will wonder why one of their recent cover stories has been criticized as racially troubling. After all, they are French and can't be expected to be attuned to the racial stereotypes at large in the U.S.! But given that Barak Obama has just spoken of how his own (white) grandmother admitted to being fearful of strange black men whom she passed on the street, it seems that worries about stereotypes of "dangerous black male" remain salient. Well, some writers have criticised the Leibovitz cover as racist because it portrays a black man and white woman together in just that seemingly charged way. The man and woman here are NBA star LeBron James and model Gisele Bundchen. Here is James's response: "Everything my name is on is going to be criticized in a good way or bad way. . . . Who cares what anyone says?" I have offered enough criticism of fashion photography generally and Leibovitz here before to pass on this one. But while James may not care what I say, too bad. Here are some off-the-top-of -the-head comments.

First, I guess I wonder how this photograph is any more racist or sexist than professional sports or fashion modelling generally. That is a topic for another time. Second, the ruckus seems to be about the expression on James's face. But Bundchen has a look so vacant as to be quite disconcerting. Moreover, it seems to me that she is virtually photoshopped into the image - her hair has that bizarre Annie-esque windblown look as though she is laying on her back and notice that James's left hand is barely touching her. Finally, I don't see why James couldn't have been decked out in sharp duds instead of shorts and sneaks. I know, I know, the "story" is about good bodies. Good bodies look good in nice clothes too. (Thanks Stan B!)

Labels: , , ,

25 March 2008

Sonja Thomsen

Crude 6 (2007) ~ Photograph © Sonja Thomsen

Crude 4 (2007) ~ Photograph © Sonja Thomsen

Crude 3 (2007) ~ Photograph © Sonja Thomsen

Crude 1 (2007) ~ Photograph © Sonja Thomsen

Sonja Thomsen is a Milwaukee-based photographer whose work I encountered unexpectedly. I especially like these series with which Thomsen prompts us to think about oil.

Oil Self-Portrait 4 (2007) ~ Photograph © Sonja Thomsen


The Guilt Trip & the Varieties of Self-Deception

I have just finished reading an essay by Chris Hedges entitled "A Conscientious Objection." You can find it here at Truthdig. I normally admire Hedges and his writing. This essay, however, exemplifies a strain of moralism that is naive about the ways political institutions effect outcomes and, as a result, is incredibly un-selfconscious about the futility of the strategy he recommends. Hedges claims that, for those of us opposed to the war, voting for any major party candidate is irresponsible. In the process, though, he articulates what is itself a dangerously irresponsible position. His mistake is to treat opposition to the war as a moral rather than a political problem. Hedges is hardly alone in this moralism. But since he is smart and articulate, he makes the problems with moralism especially apparent.

Here are the most pertinent bits from the Hedges essay:
“Those of us who oppose the war, who believe that all U.S. troops should be withdrawn and the network of permanent bases in Iraq dismantled, have only two options in the coming presidential elections—Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney. A vote for any of the Republican and Democratic candidates is a vote to perpetuate the occupation of Iraq and a lengthy and futile war of attrition with the Iraqi insurgency. You can sign on for the suicidal hundred-year war with John McCain or for the nebulous open-ended war-lite with Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, or back those who reject the war. If you vote Democrat or Republican in the coming election be honest with yourself—you have voted to allow the U.S. government to continue, in some form, the campaign that needlessly kills ever more Americans and Iraqis in a conflict that has become the worst foreign policy disaster in U.S. history and a crime under international law.

[. . . ]

The war would not end under a Democratic administration. It would drag on until the mission collapsed and the U.S. retreated in humiliation. And when pressed, the Democratic candidates have admitted as much. Tim Russert in the New Hampshire debate asked the Democratic candidates to guarantee that all U.S. troops in Iraq would be home by 2013. No one, including John Edwards, was prepared to make such a commitment. Dennis Kucinich, the only Democratic candidate who opposed a continuation of the war, had been excluded from the debate.

[. . . ]

The Democrats, who took control of the Congress in midterm elections largely because of public dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, have continued to fund the war, ignoring anti-war voters. The party, as a result, has sunk even lower in public opinion polls than the president, to a 19 percent approval rating, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Clinton and Obama dutifully lined up with most other Democratic legislators to cast ballots in favor of squandering more than $300 billion in taxpayer money on a war that should never have been fought. And, if either is elected, he or she will spend billions more on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I will skip the rest of the mediocre voting records of Obama and Clinton, which include pandering to corporate interests, failing to back a universal single-payer health care system, refusing to call for the slashing of the bloated military budget, not urging repeal of NAFTA and the Taft-Hartley Act, which cripples the ability of unions to organize, and not seeking an end to nuclear power as an energy resource. Let’s stick with the war. It is depressing enough.

[. . .]

The anti-war movement bears much of the blame. It sold us out to the Democratic Party. . . . If the anti-war movement gutlessly backs pro-war candidates, what credibility does it have? If it fails to support those candidates on the margins of the political spectrum who stand with it against the war, what is the movement worth? Why not be cynical and go home?

[. . .]

The energy and idealism are out there. Nader, in a March 13-14 Zogby poll, took 5 to 6 percent in a race between McCain and either Clinton or Obama. Nader, among voters under 30 and among independents, polled 12 to 15 percent. If the anti-war movement gets behind him and McKinney, if it stands behind its principles, it could begin to shake the foundations of the Democratic Party. It could re-energize itself. It might even force Democrats to offer voters a concrete plan to withdraw from Iraq.

War is not an abstraction to me. I know its evil. It is time, if we care about the state of the nation, to take an unequivocal stand against the war. If Clinton and Obama do not want to join us, so be it. I support those candidates and organizations that fight back. We should, in solidarity, strike with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on May 1 against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We should support Code Pink’s refusal to pay the portion of our taxes that go to funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But most of all, we should refuse to be suckered by Democratic candidates who use fuzzy language and will not commit to a total withdrawal from Iraq. We owe it to the hundreds of thousands of dead and injured. We owe to those Iraqis and Americans who will die in the coming days, weeks and months. We owe it to ourselves so, at the very least, we can salvage our integrity.”
I share the outrage Hedges articulates. I do not dispute the "facts" he adduces. I do not question his assessment of either Obama or Clinton, the Congressional Democrats, or the bulk of the peace movement. What I find totally incredible is his view that that combination of outrage and fact somehow supports the inference that either Nader (whom I consider an egomaniac wholly uninterested in the work of building a coherent, workable political opposition) or McKinney (about whom I know less so will say less) are in any way viable candidates. (I myself would've voted for Kucinich had he not withdrawn prior to the New York primary.) Hedges asks those who might vote for a Republican or Democratic candidate to "be honest with yourself." (He also lapses into the language of "evil" in describing war, thereby placing himself on precisely the same rhetorical terrain as BushCo. That is a mistake that I set aside here.) I think it is important to turn the charge of self-deception back around on the moralist. Here is why:
Premise 0: The political goal is to end the war. That means we are playing to win, not merely to make a moral or symbolic statement. The latter may make us feel better (by, say, reducing our frustration or allowing us to chastise the less pure) but ending the war is a political not a therapeutic exercise. As such we need to be concerned about the effectiveness of the positions and practices we espouse.

Premise 1: Given the institutional structure of our electoral system a 3rd party candidate has no chance of winning. Even if I prefer Candidate 3, unless I seriously think she can prevail over my least preferred choice (say, Candidate 1), my incentive is to abandon Candidate 3 and vote for my second choice, Candidate 2, in hopes that he can prevail. This is true of every single voter the bulk of whom understand the logic. The result is a two party system in which 3rd party candidates are permanently marginalized.

Premise 2: Even setting premise 1 aside, any viable candidate needs to coordinate supporters, so Hedges and anyone he manages to persuade confront a massive strategic problem - McKinney or Nader? McKinney has at least the rudimentary political structure of the Greens. Nader has only his ego but more name recognition. Given the organizational ambitions of the Greens they would not withdraw McKinney. Given his ego, Nader will not withdraw himself. (Note that this strategic difficulty obviates the predictable moralist challenge - "if only everyone would vote for a 3rd party candidate.')

Premise 3: Either Obama or Clinton is better than McCain. (Let's focus just on the war as Hedges suggests, but even if we looked at other issues this premise holds.) McCain explicitly states that he plans to keep U.S. troops in Iraq as long as is necessary to "win" or "succeed" or whatever. Barak and Hilary at least claim that they would like to find a way out.

Premise 4: Even if, contrary to what Premises 1 and 2 lead us to expect, by some miracle McKinney or Nader actually were to win, given the constitutional structure of the U.S. government, it is exceedingly unlikely that they would be able to actually implement any policy, let alone one that required immediate, total withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Conclusion 1: Voting for McKinney or Nader is politically self-defeating. Given Premise 0 and Premise 3, anti-war voters should - however weakly or ambivalently - prefer either Clinton or Obama to McCain. Given Premise 1, any significant (or even insignificant) number of anti-war voters opting for a '3rd party' candidate such as McKinney or Nader diminishes the chances that the democratic nominee will prevail over McCain. Given Premise 2 the anti-war, 3rd party' vote will be split, making the infinitesimal chance (Premise 1 again) of either McKinney or Nader winning the election even smaller. And, even if we ignore all this, there is no way for either of the 'opposition' candidates to avoid the bite of Premise 4.

Conclusion 2: So, while Hedges wants to promote a conscientious electoral strategy - which he contrasts with the irresponsibility of those 'progressives' who might vote democratic - he actually is advocating electoral irresponsibility. We would, by following his advice, be more likely to elect as President a man who has announced that he is intent on staying the course in Iraq.
None of this means we should "be cynical and go home." It simply means that the advice Hedges offers is self-defeating. We need to recognize that the voting booth is a poor instrument of protest. We vote as individuals not as 'the peace movement.' And we vote in a relatively inarticulate way - yes or no on a pre-determined set of options or candidates. We should vote for the best of the viable candidates. And then we should embrace the sorts of direct action Hedges recommends. The war will not be ended by electoral means. Tax resistance, strikes, and other forms of direct action might help end the war. They need to be coordinated, however. They need to be part of a political strategy and not advocated as "moral action" taken for their own sake.* The point, after all, is not establishing our personal moral purity. The point is to end the war.
* Hedges has announced his own strategy of tax resistance in just such moralistic terms here and here.

Labels: , , ,

24 March 2008

Chris Killip

Torso, Pelaw, Gateshead, Tyneside, UK (1978)
Photograph © Chris Killip

I came across this photograph this afternoon and was reminded of this precursor by Emmy Andriesse. I do not know much about Killip at all. But, like Andriesse (and others such as Dorothea Lange, Roy DeCarava) he has here offered a sense of economic hardship by indirection.


23 March 2008

Marking Five Years (2) ~ Faces of the Dead

A gravely wounded U.S. soldier is loaded onto a helicopter for
medical evacuation. [. . .] Suffering from two severed legs and
an open stomach
wound, medics on the ground applied two
tourniquets to the
wounded soldier on the scene where his
vehicle was ambushed
by a grenade attack.
Photograph & caption © Max Becherer/Polaris Images.

"Today when I look into the abyss of the past five years,
it is not black. It is populated with faces. And it is not quiet."

Earlier today I posted some remarks that Rebecca Solnit delivered in San Francisco at a gathering marking the 5th anniversary of the Bush debacle in Iraq. I want to couple her remarks with these reflections from photographer Max Becherer as published by The New York Times. A photojournalist Becherer has worked extensively in Iraq since the invasion. I find his thoughts about how war snatches youth and humor and vitality and commitment, replacing them with death and sorrow and loss incredibly articulate and truly moving. Becherer is affiliated with Polaris; you can find some of his work here too.

Labels: , ,

What Grandma Knows - Poverty is Hazardous to Your Health

There are the many things your Grandmother knows. Then there are the few things social scientists "discover." And the latter too often are a proper subset of the former. Here is a story from The New York Times reporting the astounding discovery that rich people live longer, healthier lives than poor people. And, unsurprisingly, that the unconscionable increases in income inequality in the U.S. over the past several decades have been accompanied by increasingly pronounced discrepancies in this respect.

Labels: ,

Marking Five Years

Five Years Later
by Rebecca Solnit*
Five years ago and more, many of us vehemently, passionately opposed the war in Iraq. We opposed it by marching in the streets on February 16, 2003, in one of the biggest marches in this city’s history, part of the biggest demonstration in world history with people standing up on February 15, 2003, against war on every continent-including the scientists in Antarctica, small towns in Inuit Canada, South Africa, New Mexico, Turkey, Bolivia…. We were right, and now sheepishly, fudging their change of heart, everyone from Hillary Clinton on is busy erasing the memory of being for the war, of buying lies, of dismissing deaths, terrible deaths, the deaths of so many children, so many mothers, so many brothers, the deaths long ago of far more Americans than died on September 11, 2001, the unrelated event used to justify these five long years of slaughter and destruction, the destruction of the fragile psyches of the young, the ancient landscape of Iraq, the bodies that survived this war mutilated and disabled and shaken to need our care for decades to come. Five years ago we opposed this war, and we were right that it would be ugly, a quagmire, an international disaster, that it would make nothing safer, that it was about oil and geopolitics and never ever about justice and utterly unrelated to September 11, 2001. Five years ago here in San Francisco we shut down this business district to show how passionately against the war we were as it began. The war has been terrible, begetting the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the deaths of hundreds of thousands and a new generation of veterans saved by modern medicine from death–but for what life with their shattered bodies and minds?

We the international movement against this perfiditous war were right. And our actions reshaped the war-delayed its start, created dialogue, dissuaded potential allies from joining up or convinced them-like Spain, like Australia after progressives won power-to quit the coalition of the coerced, gave comfort to Iraqis and others in the middle east that we were not all clamoring for blood and indifferent to their deaths. The United States has begun in part to awaken from the long bad dream of its romance with conservatism and belligerence, was woken up by the savage catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina, by the endless grinding sorrow of casualty lists of US soldiers and estimates of Iraqi dead, by the increasingly obvious inadequacy of the far right to do anything but destroy. We stand at a moment of rich uncertainty. Ten years ago, the ideology called neoliberalism promised to privatize the planet. Since the Seattle WTO in 1999, the countering ideologies-of what could be called democracy, localism, populism, anticorporate activism-have remade the world, so much so that nearly all Latin America has undergone an amazing liberation not only from political tyranny but from neoliberal domination by institutions like the World Bank and the IMF. This year the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein wondered in print whether neoliberalism was dead.

We are at the end of a long hard road, the road out of the era of Ronald Reagan, of the post-Soviet romance with the free market, of the belief in American military invincibility even though that belief should have died in the jungles of Vietnam. When the war broke out, so many of the people in the streets with me here believed that somehow Bush had won. Had won everything, forever, that we had lost, that because we had failed to stop the war, we had failed to achieve anything, had never achieved anything, had no power at all. Dismayed by that despair and the amnesia and confusion behind it, I began writing about hope, speaking more directly to the hearts and imaginations of readers than I ever thought I could, to talk about the strange, unlikely routes that change takes, the unpredictable timelines on which it unfolds, the examples that shine like stars in the dark night of history, of for example of the amazing development in the twentieth century of nonviolence as a powerful tool for social change, one that has toppled world powers and dictatorships from the Philippines to Poland, that is at work in Burma and Tibet today. For guns and bombs destroy, but they don’t convert or conquer; the people of Iraq are not conquered, the war is not winnable, and truth is not the property of the strong but of the fearlessly honest.

In the struggle against this war, I saw extraordinary things at Camp Casey on Bush’s front door in 2005, I made new friends through the antiwar movement, I learned about sorrow and about the destruction of the human soul by torture-destruction of the torturers as well as the tortured, I rethought the relationship between the environment and human rights, between belief and action. I wrote, and I want to end by reading you a little of what the outbreak of war prompted me to write five years ago, the opening passage of my book Hope in the Dark:

On January 18, 1915, six months into the first world war, as all Europe was convulsed by killing and dying, Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” Dark, she seems to say, as in inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. Or we transform the future’s unknowability into something certain, the fulfillment of all our dread, the place beyond which there is no way forward. But again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.

Who two decades ago could have imagined a world in which the Soviet Union had vanished and the Internet had arrived? Who then dreamed that the political prisoner Nelson Mandela would become president of a transformed South Africa? Who foresaw the resurgence of the indigenous world of which the Zapatista uprising in Southern Mexico is only the most visible face? There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but by dreams of freedom, of justice, and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of. We adjust to changes without measuring them, we forget how much the culture changed. The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay rights on a grand scale in the summer of 2002, a ruling inconceivable a few decades ago. What accretion of incremental, imperceptible changes made that possible, and how did they come about? And so we need to hope for the realization of our own dreams, but also to recognize a world that will remain wilder than our imaginations.

It’s always too soon to go home. And it’s always too soon to calculate effect. Cause and effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it’s is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.

I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you havee to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope. Anything could happen, and whether we act or not has everything to do with it. Though there is no lottery ticket for the lazy and the detached, for the engaged there is a tremendous gamble for the highest stakes right now. I say this to you not because I haven’t noticed that this country has strayed close to destroying itself and everything it once stood for, in pursuit of empire in the world and the eradication of democracy at home, that our civilization is close to destroying the very nature on which we depend-the oceans, the atmosphere, the uncounted species of plant and insect and bird. I say it because I have noticed: wars will break out, the planet will heat up, species will die out, but how many, how hot, and what survives depends on whether we act. The future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as the grave.

The war is not over. War is not over. Peace is not over either, nor is truth, or justice, or solidarity, or hope. There are terrible forces at work in the world today, and beautiful ones. And there is no neutral position. We are all taking sides every day in every act we choose. It’s not over. This terrible war will end someday, but our work will never be done as long as there are human beings on earth. Our work as activists, as dreamers, as makers, as noncooperating resistance matters; it is one force that shaped the world the last five years, and it will continue shaping this world long after the war is over. What you do still matters, so don’t stop now.
I have come across this text a couple of times on-line, but have not been able to track down the original source. It is interesting to compare this to Solnit's recent essay looking back on the Zapatistas after five years. You can find a alink to that piece here.

* Read on March 19, 2008 at Montgomery and Market Streets in San Francisco as part of the Words Against War, a City Lights Books and Direct Action to Stop the War (actagainstwar.net) sponsored read-out of poets and writers on the fifth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.

Labels: ,

Paying at Home for Bush's Lies About Iraq

I have noted here before some recent, very dire estimates of the costs of the Bush administration fiasco in Iraq. While I was in San Diego this week, the new issue of The Nation (31 March 08) arrived. It contains two useful articles on this theme. The first, "The Wages of Peace" by economists Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier examines the broad negative impact of spending on the war on the domestic U.S. economy. The authors establish the wide-spread, massive opportunity costs involved in spending enormous sums on military adventurism. The second, by economist Michael Zweig, takes up the narrower matter of "The War and the Working Class" drawing parallels between the ways that corporations treat their employees and the way the U.S. military recruits working class kids in return for the promise of economic benefits. Zweig's article is accompanied by this nice graphic identifying the estimated opportunity costs to just the citizens of "one working class city" - Cleveland, Ohio. Nigel Holmes made the graphic.

Labels: , , ,

Cover Story

I have been out of town for several days - hence the paucity of posts. It was something of a relief not to have to hear the handwringing in the local media about the demise of Gov. Spitzer. In any case, I returned to see this cover in which a photograph by Henry Leutwyler is altered ever so slightly by Barbara Kruger. This is very funny.

Labels: ,

22 March 2008

Best Shots (17) ~ John Davies

(43) John Davies ~ Sheffield 1981 ( 20 March 08)

Labels: ,

20 March 2008


I've just come across this publication which seems to be the brain child of Graham Harrison. While I have not yet spent too much time poking arond the site, it seems like a very useful, high-quality undertaking. So go here and check them out.


Philip Jones Griffiths (1936-2008)

"There can be no better way to spend one's three-score-
years-and-10 than as a photojournalist. The little box
worn around the neck is the ultimate passport that affords
every possible experience, from the "morning with paupers,
evening with princes" scenario to a month in an Aids ward.
If you want to be able to check out the world for yourself,
get a camera." - Philip Jones Griffiths (2007)

Philip Jones Griffiths. Photograph © Graham Harrison

Photographer Philip Jones Griffiths has died. Here is the notice from Magnum and the obituary from The New York Times is here. You can find a Guardian column that Jones Griffiths wrote this past fall here.
Updated later: You can find a slideshow of Jones Griffiths's work here at Aperture. There also is a story on Jones Griffiths from npr here and there is a recent interview with him here in which he offers this remark about the realities of social and political life and the difficulties of photographing them:

"While approaching subjects for the purpose of confirming
preconceptions gains nothing, the fact remains that over
time patterns do emerge.

Simply put, they are the "haves" exploiting the "have-nots."
Greed manifests itself as the great motivator in world events.
Capturing the excesses is never easy, and revealing the
underlying machinations even less so."

All that seems just about right to me. Finally, there is a longish appreciation of Jones Griffiths here at Photo Histories.


5th Anniversary

Get Out Now!

Labels: ,

17 March 2008

Our Men in Baghdad

In a photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, Vice President Dick Cheney,
center, is seen at Baghdad's Sather Air Base visiting U.S. commander
in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, Monday, March 17, 2008.
(AP Photo/U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway)*

A short while ago Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a much publicized official visit to Baghdad. At the time, I posted on the irony that, while Ahmaninejad was visiting with great fanfare, U.S. officials had to sneak in and out of the country. I also noted the idiocy of claims that "the surge" is working. John McCain, who currently is making a campaign, ... er 'fact finding' trip to Baghdad, repeated the latter claim in interviews today. As I noted in my earlier post such assertions would be comical but for the death and destruction and mayhem and predictably counter-productive strategies trailing "the surge's" wake. I have mentioned here too that it is crucially important not to lose sight of McCain's dangerously hawkish views. McCain's remarks today will hopefully make this especially clear.

That is hardly the worst of it though. Today we also have Dick Cheney sneaking into Iraq for a visit. (In this instance too, the supine U.S. media too frequently accept Bush Administration euphemisms , referring to this sort of trip as a "surprise" or "unannounced" visit. If things on the ground in Iraq are so good why all the sneaking in and out?) This morning I was listening to the news while heading to work and almost drove off the rode when I heard the V.P.O.T.U.S. declare, seemingly without the slightest hint of irony, that the BushCo invasion of Iraq has been a "successful endeavour." What I don't get is why, when the F.C.C. punishes stations for broadcasting anything resembling profanity on grounds that someone (anyone!) in the listening audience might be offended, they do not similarly sanction stations for broadcasting offensive bullshit like these inane utterances from Cheney absent an advisory warning. At the very least the F.C.C. should require stations to offer a candid caveat stating that the "news" need not contain any truth. Cheney is quoted in news reports as insisting that American forces have made great progress toward achieving "victory" and "completing the mission" in Iraq. Unfortunately, neither he nor any hawk I have hear, offer any clue as to what that might mean.

As if to punctuate the absurd assertions McCain and Cheney were making, a suicide bomber blew herself up in a Karbala cafe, killing another 40 plus people, while in Baghdad itself today apparently only 10 people (including six children) were killed by bombs and mortars (we can leave aside the nearly 100 people reported to have been wounded in all this mayhem). Read some of the news reports here and here. Our right-wingers seem to have lost whatever sense of reality they ever may have had.
* I apologize for using the propaganda photo, but I thought using one showing the aftermath of the Karbala bombing would be gratuitous.

Labels: , , , ,

The Vision Thing

Driving home this afternoon I heard this interview with writer Stephen Kuusisto on npr.* The interview was prompted by an Op-Ed Kuusisto wrote for The New York Times entitled "The Vision Thing" in which he discusses the ascendency of David Paterson as the forst African-American Governor of New York State. Kuusisto, like Paterson, is legally blind. In the Op-Ed he claims: "I think it’s a safe bet that Governor Paterson’s visual impairment will be harder for the public to understand than his race." He goes on to argue that Paterson's "disability" will prove useful to him precisely because he, like many visually impaired people, will have developed a whole set of capacities and abilities that the sighted never have to develop, at least to the same degree. I think Kuusisto is right about these points. I think he is right too in provoking us to think about political milestones in a multidimensional way. He is helping us to see things differently than we might.
* Kuusisto and I attended Hobart College at the same time many years ago. We didn't really know one another, but I have periodically read things he has published. He is a very, very good writer. It is a pleasure to recognize one's accomplished classmates.

Labels: ,

More "Ethical" Fashion Nonsense

Natalie Portman for Te Casan, Photograph: PR
Hollywood star - and lifelong vegetarian - Natalie Portman has collaborated with the New York shoe boutique Casan to create a gorgeous limited edition collection, entirely free from leather or any other animal products. The range includes ballet flats and faux-patent Mary Janes. Rumours have also reached our ears that Casan might be opening in the UK soon, for which we have crossed our fingers. In the meantime, they do ship internationally, though beware customs charges. It used to be easy to spot ethical fashion from its mass-produced counterpart, but no longer - collections like this are desirable and will sell on their own merits regardless of their ethical credentials. If only more celebrities or fashion designers would follow suit and produce ethical collections for fashion-led stores … “As a vegan, it’s been challenging finding designer shoes made of alternative materials”, says Portman herself. “This collection offers a great selection without compromising quality or style.” Portman is also donating 100% of her pay cheque to a charity dedicated to environmental preservation. ~ Kate Carter
Are you kidding? I came across this image and blurb in The Guardian today in the "Life & Style" section. I actually arrived there following a link promising to explain to me why it is that Hilary Clinton dresses like, well, ... like a 60 year old woman. That is another matter. But this little tidbit, which actually reads as though it were co-written by Portman's publicist and the shoe company's advert department, is meant as news?!? Poor Natalie. "As a vegan," she just can't find a pair of $250 pumps that don't include any animal products.

The real story ought to be why anyone ought to care about Natalie's dire predicament. I didn't know who Natalie Portman is so I looked her up. Apparently she is just another rich, vapid actress, selling bad films and, now, expensive shoes that make her feel better. So these shoes contain no animal products. Great. What sort of chemical footprint is created in manufacturing them just so as to accommodate Natalie's moralistic sensibilities? And how many people can afford these shoes anyway? How is this "ethical living"?

Labels: ,

16 March 2008

Making Sense of the Unfathonable

There is a longish essay in The New Yorker this week by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris entitled "Exposure ~ The Woman Behind the Camera at Abu Ghraib." It offers, as the subtitle suggests, a glimpse at Sabrina Harman, the Army Reservist notorious for having taken and appeared in many of the "torture" photographs at the Iraqi prison. It places her behavior in some context, thereby helping me at least, to identify with her rather than distancing myself from her as a socio-path. Harman's actions and those of her comrades, remain dispicable. But they are hardly mad or inexplicable.

The essay is useful in several ways. First, it reiterates what is obvious, namely that only the foot soldiers like Harman were ever prosecuted for what went on at Abu Ghraib. Speaking of Manadel al-Jamadi, the man in the infamous image of the plastic enshrouded dead prisoner on ice, Gourevitch and Morris note:
"Jamadi’s C.I.A. interrogator has never been charged with a crime. But Sabrina Harman was. As a result of the pictures she took and appeared in at Abu Ghraib, she was convicted by court-martial, in May of 2005, of conspiracy to maltreat prisoners, dereliction of duty, and maltreatment, and sentenced to six months in prison, a reduction in rank, and a bad-conduct discharge. Megan Ambuhl, Javal Davis, Chip Frederick, Charles Graner, and Jeremy Sivits were among the handful of other soldiers who, on account of the photographs, were also sentenced to punishments ranging from a reduction in rank and a loss of pay to ten years in prison. The only person ranked above staff sergeant to face a court-martial was cleared of criminal wrongdoing."
Second, the essay reminds us where actual responsibility for what went on at Abu Ghraib (and other U.S. controlled facilities) actually resides. In so doing Gourevitch and Morris suggest how our failure to accurately identify that locus left those like Harman - however culpable they may in fact be - open to vituperation that is more properly directed elsewhere.

"Later, when the photographs of crimes committed against Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were made public, the blame focused overwhelmingly on the Military Police officers who were assigned to guard duty in the Military Intelligence cellblock—Tiers 1A and 1B—of the hard site. The low-ranking reservist soldiers who took and appeared in the infamous images were singled out for opprobrium and punishment; they were represented, in government reports, in the press, and before courts-martial, as rogues who acted out of depravity. Yet the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de facto United States policy. The authorization of torture and the decriminalization of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives in wartime have been among the defining legacies of the current Administration; and the rules of interrogation that produced the abuses documented on the M.I. block in the fall of 2003 were the direct expression of the hostility toward international law and military doctrine that was found in the White House, the Vice-President’s office, and at the highest levels of the Justice and Defense Departments.

The Abu Ghraib rules, promulgated by Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, elaborated on the interrogation rules for Guantánamo Bay, which had been issued by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; they were designed to create far more license than restriction for interrogators who sought to break prisoners. The M.P.s at Abu Ghraib were enlisted as enforcers of such practices as sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, sensory disorientation, and the imposition of physical and psychological pain. They never received a standard operating procedure to define what was required and what was allowed, but were repeatedly instructed simply to follow the guidance of Military Intelligence officers. An orthodox standard operating procedure leaves nothing to the imagination, and as Megan Ambuhl settled into her job it occurred to her that the absence of a code was the code at Abu Ghraib. “They couldn’t say that we broke the rules because there were no rules,” she said. And by taking pictures of the prisoners on the M.I. block the M.P.s demonstrated two things: that they never fully accepted what was happening as normal, and that they assumed they had nothing to hide."

While Gourevitch and Morris in no way aim to exonerate Harman and the others at Abu Ghraib, they do afford some real context for understanding why they were busy snapping pictures - often to document practices and events that seemed unworldly but over which the enlisted men and women had no control. The Abu Ghraib images are not, from this perspective, just prurient trophies. They are in part an effort (flawed, misdirected, complicit) on the part of military personnel to impose some plausible interpretation on practices of dehumanization in which they participated but that amounted to policy among military and intelligence agencies.

Finally, the essay poses the question of why, given all the available gruesome images of torture and humiliation, this picture of the hooded man (who, having been judged innocent, became a 'favorite' prisoner, nicknamed 'Gilligan') has become an iconic image [*] of the Iraq war. Why not, for instance, the photograph of Jamali? This was an outcome that Sabrina Harman found it hard to understand.

Under the circumstances, Harman was baffled that the figure of Gilligan—hooded, caped, and wired on his box—had eventually become the icon of Abu Ghraib and possibly the most recognized emblem of the war on terror after the World Trade towers. The image had proliferated around the globe in uncountable reproductions and representations—in the press, but also on murals and placards, T-shirts and billboards, on mosque walls and in art galleries. Harman had even acquired a Gilligan tattoo on one arm, but she considered that a private souvenir. It was the public’s fascination with the photograph of Gilligan—of all the images from Abu Ghraib—that she couldn’t fathom. “There’s so many worse photos out there. I mean, nothing negative happened to him, really,” she said. “I think they thought he was being tortured, which he wasn’t.”

Harman was right: there were worse pictures than Gilligan. But, leaving aside that photographs of death and nudity, however newsworthy, don’t get much play in the press, the power of an image does not necessarily lie in what it depicts. A photograph of a mangled cadaver, or of a naked man trussed in torment, can shock and outrage, provoke protest and investigation, but it leaves little to the imagination. It may be rich in practical information, while being devoid of any broader meaning. To the extent that it represents any circumstances or conditions beyond itself, it does so generically. Such photographs are repellent, in large part because they have a terrible, reductive sameness. Except from a forensic point of view, they are unambiguous, and have the quality of pornography. They are what they show, nothing more. They communicate no vision and, shorn of context, they offer little, if anything, to think about, no occasion for wonder. They have no value as symbols.

Of course, the dominant symbol of Western civilization is the figure of a nearly naked man, tortured to death—or, more simply, the torture implement itself, the cross. But our pictures of the savage death of Jesus are the product of religious imagination and idealization. In reality, he must have been ghastly to behold. Had there been cameras at Calvary, would twenty centuries of believers have been moved to hang photographs of the scene on their altarpieces and in their homes?

The image of Gilligan achieves its power from the fact that it does not show the human form laid bare and reduced to raw matter but creates instead an original image of inhumanity that admits no immediately self-evident reading. Its fascination resides, in large part, in its mystery and inscrutability—in all that is concealed by all that it reveals. It is an image of carnival weirdness: this upright body shrouded from head to foot; those wires; that pose; and the peaked hood that carries so many vague and ghoulish associations. The pose is obviously contrived and theatrical, a deliberate invention that appears to belong to some dark ritual, a primal scene of martyrdom. The picture transfixes us because it looks like the truth, but, looking at it, we can only imagine what that truth is: torture, execution, a scene staged for the camera? So we seize on the figure of Gilligan as a symbol that stands for all that we know was wrong at Abu Ghraib and all that we cannot—or do not want to—understand about how it came to this."
On the account that Gourevitch and Morris offer we Americans all, to different degrees, confront the same problem in coming to terms with the torture carried out at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Like Sabrina Harman and other military personnel, if less directly, we are charged with making sense of the unfathomable cruelty of American policy.
P.S.: It turns out that this essay is an exerpt from a forthcoming book that Gurevitch and Morris have written: Standard Operating Procedure (Penguin), due out mid-May.

Labels: ,

The Spitzer Fallout

Lauren Berlant has written what by far is the most intelligent commentary I've read on the likely consequences of the Eliot Spitzer "sex scandal." You can find her essay at The Nation. Here are some of the good bits:
"The law, the family, marriage--exit polls suggest that all of these will be the winner here, after being horribly maligned by a man who forgot his oaths to honor them.

Instead, what stories like this really do is to damage the reputation of sex. Whenever there's a sex scandal, I feel sorry for sex. I felt sorry for sex during the Larry Craig brouhaha last summer. What if he liked being married and procreating and giving anonymous head? What if that was his sexual preference? What if he really was not gay, as he claims, but had sexual desires that seemed incoherent? [. . .]

[. . . ] Public sexual scandals revel in the hatred of sex. Disgust at the appetites. The strangeness of sex, the ordinary out-of-controlness of sex acts and sex drives that we all experience (if we're having it). Actually, usually, sex is not a threat to very much. But it feels like a threat to something, which is why so many people stop having it.

So when a sexual scandal happens, people indulge in projections of what makes them uncomfortable about sex: its weirdness (I was just standing up and talking and now I'm doing this?), its sloppiness, its awkwardness, its seeming disconnection from so many other "appropriate" drives (to eat, for example). Then there's the fear of becoming a mere instrument of someone else's pleasure, in a way that one doesn't want.

Nonetheless, I'm just saying, I really like sex. We have no idea what sex would be like in a world that saw it basically as a good. A weird good. A good that can tip you over and make you want to do strange things. A good that can reveal your incoherence, your love of a little disorder, your love of a little control (adjust the dial as you like). A good that can make you happy, for a minute, before the cat starts scratching the corner of the bed, or the phone rings, or the kids mew, or you're hungry and sleepy, or you need another drink or the taxi comes."

Labels: , ,