31 December 2008

One for My Sweet August, Sleeping in a Green Wooden House Far Away

New Year's Eve
Nazim Hikmet

The snow falling hard through the night
sparkled in the starlight.
There is a house on a city street,
a wooden house so far away.

The child sleeping on the pillow
is plump and blond - my son.
There are no guests, no one.
Poor Istanbul out the window.

Shrill whistles screamed outside.
Loneliness feels like a prison.
Munever closed her book
and softly cried.

There is a house on a street in a city,
a wooden house so far away.
the snow falling hard through the night
sparkled in the starlight.
____________
FROM ~ Poems of Nazim Hikmet (Revised & Expanded). Trans. Randy Blasing & Mutlu Konuk, Persea Books, 2002 - at page 178.

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Perspectives on Gaza

30 December 2008

"Leaders Lie, Civilians Die, and Lessons of History Are Ignored"

You can find a pointed, angry commentary by Robert Fisk on the mess in Gaza here in The Independent.

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29 December 2008

Law, Democracy, Social Consensus and Marrying Your Cousin

While doing some holiday shopping a week or so ago (and how the holidays ave gone here are a whole other tale) I came across a new book by Richard Posner who is a Federal Judge on the 7th Circuit (Chicago) and noticed that he cites a couple of papers that my co-conspirator Jack Knight and I have written. Like us, Posner advocates pragmatism in both law and politics. On many foundational issues he and we agree, but our view is that Posner comes up short because he is insufficiently pragmatist. That is a long argument - one we've made in a paper with which Posner takes issue.** In part, our differences revolve around the concept of social consensus - whether such a thing exists, whether judges rely on it in deciding cases and, if so, whether they are right to do so.

When I pointed out to Jack that Posner had nicely taken us to task on this matter in the new book, he replied that many people simply find our view untenable because they hold that there clearly exists social consensus on numerous broad political and ethical issues - especially prohibitions against, say, incest and murder. I will speak for myself here (Jack may or may not agree) but whatever consensus might exist on such matters exists at such a level of generality as to render it more or less useless as a means of making or deciding law. And any 'social consensus' at less abstract levels is more than likely the accretion of imposed 'values' and 'commitments' and so might more accurately be depicted as social acquiescence in the face of long-standing asymmetries of power. (Posner offers the example of the ways contract law is suffused by capitalist values which may be true enough, but there are plenty of people in our heterogeneous society who actively resist and dissent from any consensus around such values.)

As for consensus itself, I would point out that there have, in the past, been equally certain sorts of consensus - mostly concerning the practices we construct around surrounding Elliot's triad of "birth, copulation and death" - that now strike us not just as absurd but as racist, sexist, or both. Think of inter-racial marriage and variety of miscegenation laws. Think of the myriad repressive laws against homosexuality. Can 'social consensus' justify the cruelties and injustice meted out in those domains? Does it count as anything beyond a rationalization of bigotry?

So, what about marrying your cousin? It appears (and here I thank the kind folks at 3 Quarks Daily for their post on the subject) the consensus - social and legal - against it is roughly as ill-founded as those that once rationalized miscegenation laws. As the authors of one study argue, laws against marrying one's cousins "reflect once-prevailing prejudices about immigrants and the rural poor and oversimplified views of heredity, and they are inconsistent with our acceptance of reproductive behaviors that are much riskier to offspring. They should be repealed . . . because neither the scientific nor social assumptions that informed them are any longer defensible." The problem, on this account, is political. And while I have no interest in marrying my cousins nor they me (I've proven a poor bet in the marrying game) I see no reason to have laws against it.
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* Richard Posner. 2008. How Judges Think. Harvard UP.
** See, among other places, Jack Knight & James Johnson. 1996. "Political Consequences of Pragmatism," Political Theory 24::68-96 and Knight & Johnson. 2007 "The Priority of Democracy," American Political Science Review 101:47-62.

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28 December 2008

Israelis & Palestinians

Palestinians gather in the crater of an Israeli missile strike on a building
used by Hamas in Gaza City. Photograph © Khalil Hamra/AP.

A Palestinian hurled a stone toward Israeli soldiers during a
protest against the airstrikes on Gaza
Photograph © Jaafar Ashtiyeh/Agence France-Presse -Getty Images.


I admire John Berger immensely. I came across this open letter from him protesting the latest conflagration between Israel and the Palestinians.
In Face of the Israeli Attacks on Gaza
by John Berger

We are now spectators of the latest -- and perhaps penultimate -- chapter of the 60 year old conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. About the complexities of this tragic conflict billions of words have been pronounced, defending one side or the other.

Today, in face of the Israeli attacks on Gaza, the essential calculation, which was always covertly there, behind this conflict, has been blatantly revealed. The death of one Israeli victim justifies the killing of a hundred Palestinians. One Israeli life is worth a hundred Palestinian lives.

This is what the Israeli State and the world media more or less -- with marginal questioning -- mindlessly repeat. And this claim, which has accompanied and justified the longest Occupation of foreign territories in 20th C. European history, is viscerally racist. That the Jewish people should accept this, that the world should concur, that the Palestinians should submit to it -- is one of history's ironic jokes. There's no laughter anywhere. We can, however, refute it, more and more vocally.

Let's do so.

John Berger

27 December 2008

Berger is too simplistic here by half. There is no excuse. There is no excuse for Palestinian attacks on Israelis. There is no excuse for Israeli attacks - whether those be perpetrated by the Defense Forces or by "settlers" - on Palestinians. I agree with Berger that 'we' must speak out.* We need to speak out against the Israeli attacks on Gaza. And we need to speak out against the Hamas provocateurs. Images of Palestinian youth attacking the IDF with slingshots juxtaposed with the results of Israeli bombings in Gaza may make it seem like this is David and Goliath. There is an asymmetry of force here to be sure. But there also is more than enough responsibility to go around. If the Israelis have made the calculation to which Berger rightly refers, so too has Hamas made the reciprocal calculation that rocket attacks on Israeli civilians are worth provoking predictable response. Not to see that is to disable oneself politically. Is there racism here? Surely. Does it work in one direction only? Hardly. Not to see that is to disable oneself yet again.

As Berger rightly notes, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is indeed complex, perhaps even tragic. If we wait to sort out those complexities and vindicate one or another party we will be witnessing more attacks and counterattacks in perpetuity. Speak out - not by equating Israel and the Nazis or by screaming "Death to Israel" or by automatically identifying Palestinians as "terrorists" - but by demanding peace from both sides. It is time to define a 'we' - one consisting of those sick and tired of all perpetrators of violence in Israel & Palestine as well as their apologists.
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Update: Monday 12/29/08: From John Nichols at The Nation here.
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* I disagree with his calls for a boycott of Israel; if 'we' hope to persuade the Israels to cease and desist it is important to be in a position where they might well listen to our complaints and criticisms.

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27 December 2008

Mapping Cancer Mechanisms

This graphic turned up in The New York Times today as part of this story on the displacement - perhaps not the right word, but it captures my lay understanding of the process - of genes within (blue lines) or between (red ones) DNA chromosomes. Researchers speculate that such displacement may underlay the uncontrolled behavior of cancer cells.

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Space Without Uses

I spend a lot of time at holidays thinking about my boys, missing and wondering about them. On Christmas Eve Doug came by hugged me, laughed, ate dinner, spent the night, then headed, next morning, to spend the day at his mom's house. August is supposed to be here but is not. You can ask his mom why; but don't let her shift the responsibility. Jeffrey won't ever be coming back, but he is here all the time anyway. It has been a while since I've lifted a poem and posted it. This one seems appropriate.
Lacunae
Kay Ryan

Lacunae aren't
what was going to be
empty anyway.
They aren't spaces
with uses, such as margins or highway edges.
Lacunae are losses
in the middle of places -
drops where something
documented happened
but the document is
gone - pond shaped
or jagged.
_________
From ~ Kay Ryan. 1996. Elephant Rocks. Grove Press, at page 49.

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26 December 2008

Daniel Hernández-Salazar

Esclarecimiento (Polyptych, 1998) © Daniel Hernández-Salazar

Daniel Hernández-Salazar is a Guatemalan photographer whose work straddles the line between photojournalism and art in the sense that he labors in both genres. He has used his images to both document genocide and civil war in his own country and to speak out against violence there and abroad. The University of Texas Press published So that All Shall Know/Para que todos lo sepan an overview of Hernández-Salazar's work in 2007. You can find details here.

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Enthusiasms (23) ~ Dave Holland

This post is long overdue. Over the course of the past decade I've spent hours and hours listening to eight consistently impressive recordings bassist Dave Holland has released with ensembles of various sizes (quintet, big band, and now, sextet), each with overlapping concatenations of personnel and instrumentation. You can find a listing on his web site here.

Holland typically puts together a mid-sized working ensemble, occasionally building a big band around it. Nearly all of the compositions on these disks are originals, most by Holland, but nearly always nicely leavened by contributions from other core members of his ensembles. Of the eight releases (and these are just part of Holland's output as a 'leader') the first four appeared on ECM and the last four are on Holland's own Dare2 label. As I've mentioned here before, I find it fascinating to watch artists struggle to create organizations to produce and distribute their own work. This is especially so in cases where someone like Holland has what I presume was a solid working relationship with a respected label like ECM. It would be interesting to talk to Holland about this, among other things.

I have to say that, while the studio recordings are terrific (all, by the way, recorded by James Farber at Avatar Studios), my favorite is probably "Extended Play: Live at Birdland" for two reasons: (i) it is consistently angular, using space and punctuation to wonderful effect in ensemble interactions, and (ii) it demonstrates how remarkable it is when, as the title intimates, a group of musicians works together regularly over extended periods of time.

In any case, the latest offering from Holland is a sextet recording. The title track "Pass it On" is dedicated to the late Ed Blackwell. But I suspect it also signals the appearance of an almost wholly transformed lineup (the lone holdover is trombonist Robin Eubanks) and the aspiration to pass on the efforts and accomplishment of Holland's earlier quintet. We can only hope!

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End of Year Giving (2008) ~ NCDBW

At this time of year many of us have mailboxes brimming with solicitations from worthwhile organizations of various sorts. It often is difficult to determine where to give, especially if your budget is relatively tight. So I am going to make a pitch here for an extremely worthy outfit. It is called the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, "a resource and advocacy center for battered women charged with crimes related to their battering." The NCDBW was founded and is run by Sue Osthoff an old friend of mine from our High School days. The NCDBW is small and, it's fair to say, runs on more or less of a shoestring. If you send them some money it will go directly into providing legal resources for women who badly need them. Sue has been pursuing this "good fight" for more than two decades. She is among the most honest, hardworking, and flat out admirable people I know. I am certain that she and her colleagues will put anything you can send to excellent use. Thanks.

Update ~ December 2008: This is the second year I've made this pitch. I have not really changed anything from last year because there is no need. Thanks.

25 December 2008

Harold Pinter (1930-2008)

Harold Pinter ~ Commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, 1992.
Painting © Justin Mortimer.

Playwright Harold Pinter has died. You can find the initial notices from The Guardian here and here and from The New York Times here. Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005 - on that occasion, the selection committee noted that Pinter "in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms." As I've noted here before, Pinter was an outspoken critic of U.S. mis-adventures around the world.

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23 December 2008

No Comment

Chicago hybrid bus. Photo by by Seth Anderson (CC).

. . . except, of course, that the exhaust is not coming from the bus but from the train a train idling behind the bus - you can see it through the windows.

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Bernard Crick (1929 -2008)

Political theorist Bernard Crick has died. There is an obituary in The New York Times here, a notice at openDemocracy here, and a full handful of notices and appreciations in The Guardian here and here and here and here and here. Crick was a staunch democrat and a socialist. His best known works were In Defense of Politics (1962) and George Orwell: A Life (1980) both of which still bear reading. That is not bad in a time when the half-life of most output by political theorists can be measured in weeks. The titles also give a sense of Cricks own orientations - he was concerned with the central role of argument in politics.

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John Berger

John Berger at Festivaletteratura, 2007.
Photograph © Mauro Albrizio.

I came across this photograph here on a French Facebook page and thought I'd pass it along.

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22 December 2008

Parsing Crminals and Criminals

You will no doubt recall how in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the mainstream media pretty much went berserk, publishing photographs and crafting captions that portray blacks as craven criminals engaged in looting businesses in New Orleans. As critics pointed out at the time [1] [2] [3] the very same media were considerably more charitable when nearly identical images of whites surfaced. While blacks were "looting," the whites apparently kept merely "finding" good and useful items lying about. Alleged assaults on property predictably outraged the nuts at Fox News while over at MSNBC there was much angst about whether it is "ethical" to steal "necessities" during a disaster like Katrina. The outrage and angst had distinctive racial overtones.

I am sure the news networks will vigorously pursue the newly surfacing stories about how, also right after Katrina, white vigilantes shooting and possibly killing African-Americans who happened to, say, be walking through public parks in New Orleans. I recommend this essay by Rebecca Solnit at Tomdispatch and this report by A.C. Thompson at The Nation.

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20 December 2008

On Avedon Portraits of Power (again)

"Avedon never made any pretence to objectivity; the notion of the dispassionate lens he wrote off as delusion. [. . .] Like a caricaturist, he thought that lies and cruelty settled like a crust on the physiognomy. All he had to do was to supply a lit exposure of the particular features in which moral intelligence or its absence had been inscribed." ~ Simon Schama
"I try to allow the people really - if that's possible - to photograph themselves." ~ Richard Avedon

"The pose is a photographic dimension which goes beyond the intention of the photographer and suggests the independence, asserts even the very existence, of the subject. The pose is the key to catch the independent, socially ignored, unsaid unacknowledged i the photographic act." ~ Murat Nemet-Nejat (The Peripheral Space of Photography, Green Integer, 2003)
Avedon's portraits, of course, prompt us to think about the sorts of encounter - actually, of interaction, "encounter" makes it seem too passive on both sides - between photographer and subject. I've commented on this topic here (you can find a link to Schama's essay there too).

In looking at Portraits of Power one of the essays in the book - Frank Goodyear, III "A Brief Intense Intimacy: Avedon & His Subjects" - makes clear that Avedon hardly considered his studio (or any other location in which he made a portrait) neutral territory. He prepared - doing background reading, making sketches, and so forth. In other words, his lack of objectivity or neutrality - whatever that might mean - was studied. But, while preparation might give a photographer like Avedon an edge in his interactions with subjects, even Goodyear, cannot sustain the claim that the photographer managed or even tried to assert what he refers to as "ultimate control." Indeed, the essay makes clear that the relation between portraitist and subject is an interaction, often a contested one. This lead me back to some observation that photographer Jerry Thompson has made about the "struggle for control of the picture" - between photographer and subject - as his teacher Walker Evans made his famous 1936 portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs.

Thompson talks about how the way Evans set his camera so close to his subject prompted a response (discomfort? resistance?) from her, thereby inviting "a truth beyond his prediction or control." As I re-read this section of the book I realized that Thompson is talking about the uses of verisimilitude. But here he is helping us make sense of the sort of intimate interactions that Avedon had with those whose portraits he made. In those interactions there is a struggle for control.

This leads to a final connection I'd like to make, this time to the argument that Murat Nemet-Nejat makes in his terrific little book. He calls attention to the persistent "tension ... between pose as something imposed by the photographer on the subject and pose as something asserted, defined by the subject." He claims that insofar as it trades on the notion that the photographer ultimately is able to assert control of her subject through framing, composition, lighting, and so forth, the pretension of photography to the status of art falls flat. He goes so far as to suggest that in some instances photography is a medium of reflection in which the relationship between viewer and subject succeeds ore or less in "pushing the photographer aside." I want to take this idea up in another post. For now it is enough to refer you back to the comment from Avedon I've lifted above. Perhaps it is possible.
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* Jerry L. Thompson. 2003. Truth & Photography: Notes on Looking and Photographing. Ian R. Dee, especially pages 36-45.

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19 December 2008

So It's Really True ~ Barack Obama Consorts With Radical Clerics?



Among the most prominent episodes in the election season just past was when Barack Obama threw Jeremiah Wright, his "friend" and long-time pastor, under the bus of right wing outrage. I thought he was wrong to do so for two reasons. First, what Wright was alleged to have done was criticize the racial history of the United States in frank ways. Perhaps you found Wright outrageous? Too bad. You might not like Wright's language, but your offense seems a slight inconvenience when placed on the scales with the history he rightly related. Second, guilt by association is an insidious and invidious symptom of paranoia in American politics. It is no more attractive now than it has been historically.

Well, according to this report The Nation, the president-elect now has invited a radical right-wing cleric to participate in his inaugural ceremonies. Let's not ask why any religious leader is involved in saying prayers at the inauguration. That would require that we ponder the little matter of separating church and state. But assuming that most of the oppressive religious majority would be shocked and offended if we only merely said "here is the new president, you can clap now!" and left out all the god-talk, why did Obama pick feel compelled to pick a homophobic, anti-abortion zealot like Rick Warren? Are bigots eligible to pronounce the invocation?

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Beauty as a Tactic

One of my very first posts here and a whole slew of those I've written since then address one or another topic at the intersection of beauty and politics in photography. As I've made pretty clear, I find most discussion of this topic irritatingly simple-minded. That said, I came across this post, entitled "Beauty as a Tactic," by Canadian photographer Tony Fouhse at Slightly Lucid*. Not only do I generally agree with Fouhse that we need to think about the uses of beauty and the consequences of using it. But I am intrigued too by the parenthetical aside in this comment:
"James Nachtwey and Simon Norfolk take their cameras to war, not exclusively, but a lot. Both have an "eye" (though I prefer the word "brain") that can, and usually does, turn the horror they witness into beautiful photographs."
I think too much writing about photography wallows in overly romantic musings about intuition and sentiment and simple luck (although the latter is probably the most important of the three). Seeing is a cognitive activity and that means "brains" are going to be pretty important. It is no coincidence that Nachtwey and Norfolk appear pretty regularly in my posts. They are really smart photographers.
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* Slightly Lucid, by the way, is the very insightful blog of the apparently also very smart Montreal-based photographer Aislinn Leggett.

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Best Shots (54) ~ Terry O'Neill

(80) Terry O'Neill ~ Brigitte Bardot (18 December 2008).

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18 December 2008

Philosophers Coming - In Taxis - to a Theatre Near You

From The Nation: "Examined Life opens February 25 at the IFC Center in NYC with a national roll-out to follow. Filmmaker Astra Taylor explores Cornel West and Peter Singer's thoughts on the importance of an "examined life" at this particular historic moment. West explains that the "Socratic imperative of questioning yourself requires courage...It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield." Singer connects this idea to America's consumer culture, questioning the moral implications of spending when so many are in need. A feature-length documentary featuring eight of the most important philosophers of our time (including Judith Butler, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Slavoj Zizek, and others)."

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17 December 2008

Glimpse: The Art & Science of Seeing

My friend Susan Orr sent me a link to what looks like an interesting new journal Glimpse: The Art & Science of Seeing; you can find their web page here. Not only does the enterprise in general seem like a good idea to me, the first issue (which you can download free) is on a topic close to my own interests ~ "Is the visual political?"

Having not read a word of the magazine, I will say two things. First, I am deeply suspicious of nominalizations, that is, of turning adjectives and verbs into nouns. I do not think there is such a thing, for instance, as "the political." That sets me apart from many political theorists. I think there are politics and I think there are things or actions or whatever that are or are not or might be political. But the political? I have no idea, really, what that might mean. Likewise with "the visual."

Second, why the rhetorical question? Assuming that vision and our visual concerns and capacities are an identifiable domain, of course, the whole domain is political. And the editors/authors surely think that as well. Don't be coy.

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15 December 2008

Passings (3)

Parade Celebrating Integration of Audubon Park
Swimming Pool, 1969. Photograph © Michael P. Smith

Michael P. Smith (1937-2008) long time chronicler of music and culture in New Orleans has died. You can find The Guardian obituary here. And you can find Smith's web page, including a large sampling of his work, here.

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14 December 2008

Recommended Reading (1) - Kevin Mattson

Surprisingly enough, I came across this slender volume in our local big box bookseller not long ago. In the interest of full disclosure Mattson is a PhD from the History department at Rochester. To the best of my knowledge I've never met him. That said, the book - Rebels All! (Rutgers University Press, 2008) - is quite good even if it is too civil by (at least) half.

The title states the theme - conservatives have fancied themselves rebellious, rising against the allegedly hegemonic liberalism of American politics. Mattson is charitable, he views this self-image as a paradox rather than as a symptom of what Richard Hofstadter would call paranoid fantasies. And Mattson leaves under-stated what seems to me to be obvious fact - since the 1950s, the American right has been consistently wrong. It is a feature of American amnesia, for instance, that when William F. Buckley recently died we were treated to much fawning comment from the the press when, instead, and rightly, we ought to have been reminded that, among other things, the pompous windbag supported Joe McCarthy and opposed the civil rights movement. Mattson offers readers a litany of similarly disastrous and despicable political stances running up through the current inanities being peddled by Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, Adam Bellow and other beneficiaries of conservative nepotism. (Didn't I read somewhere lately that blind Bill is claiming we've won the war in Iraq?) Ultimately, what seems to bother Mattson is the aggressive, obnoxious style of conservative intellectuals. He does not like that they are zealots. What bothers me is the policies they push. The problem is not that they are uncivil, the problem is that they are not just consistently wrong, but demonstrably and dangerously so.

Mattson would respond, no doubt, that vituperative, extreme style is a necessary platform for wildly ideological politics. Maybe. The problem is that the reasonableness he counsels in his conclusion is no match for the willingness of ideologues to yell slogans. What I think is crucial here is to shift the terms of assessment from virtues like civility to consequences. Mattson comes close on this. What liberals and the left need to press - and press hard - are the consequences for politics (both discourse and policy) of the right-wing propensity to advocate mindlessly retrograde policies at full volume. I do not think the liberals have it in them to do that. Mattson does. Perhaps that is where we most disagree.

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12 December 2008

Arundhati Roy on Mumbai

"But November isn't September, 2008 isn't 2001, Pakistan isn't Afghanistan and India isn't America. So perhaps we should reclaim our tragedy and pick through the debris with our own brains and our own broken hearts so that we can arrive at our own conclusions." ~ Arundhati Roy
Now there is a notion - think for yourselves. This is from the opening of this essay by Arundhati Roy in The Guardian. A commenter brought it to my attention and made the interesting comparison to the essay Susan Sontag published in The New Yorker directly after the 9/11 attacks (thanks Mike!). I'm sure there will be howls from the right. They'll be making her point.

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Our Criminals ~ It 's "Official"

Well, what has for a long time been common knowledge, is now official knowledge too. High ranking members of the Bush administration endorsed committing war crimes as systematic policy. You can read the story in The New York Times and link directly to the 'bi-partisan' Levin-McCain committee report here. It will be interesting to see how the Obama-ites evade acting on this piece of bi-partisan consensus.

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Charter '08 ~ Chinese Dissidents

"We are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy student protesters. The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values."
Charter '08, a public statement signed by hundreds of Chinese citizens, starts with this statement and goes on to advocate these seventeen reforms - amounting essentially to a demand for constitutional democracy - that, if implemented, would fundamentally alter the Chinese regime:
1. A New Constitution.
2. Separation of powers.
3. Legislative democracy.
4. An Independent Judiciary.
5. Public Control of Public Servants.
6. Guarantee of Human Rights.
7. Election of Public Officials.
8. Rural–Urban Equality.
9. Freedom to Form Groups.
10. Freedom to Assemble.
11. Freedom of Expression.
12. Freedom of Religion.
13. Civic Education.
14. Protection of Private Property.
15. Financial and Tax Reform.
16. Social Security.
17. Protection of the Environment.
18. A Federated Republic.
19. Truth in Reconciliation.
The document as been translated and will be published in the NYRB next month. You can find a pre-publication version on the web here.

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Republican Senators as Union Busters, Our Anti-Social Democratic Legacy, and the Fruits of 'Pragmatic' Bi-Partisanship

The problem with U.S. automakers is not union labor. As this graphic from The New York Times suggests, the differential between American auto workers employed by Japanese and U.S. firms by is hardly massive. The differential exists. No denying that. But the biggest chunk of costs is generated by legacy costs embedded in the current wage structure. In other words the U.S. auto companies are paying for decades during which we've lacked (largely due to Republican policy) Social Democratic provisions for health care and adequate social security.

I am not going to excuse the Auto execs who've been peddling giant gas guzzling vehicles. But let's be clear, the Republican Senators want to do in the U.A.W.; they want to level wages and benefits down. Not only is that bad for individual families, it is bad from the now consensual Keynesian view that we need spending to work our way out of the recession.

And let's be crystal clear ~ the opposition to the auto rescue plan last night was overwhelmingly Republican (according to the Washington Post 31 out of 35 opposed votes were Republicans). So much for bipartisan cooperation. Obama-ites take notice!

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09 December 2008

A Message to Steve Hildebrand

"This is not a time for the left wing of our Party to draw conclusions about the Cabinet and White House appointments that President-Elect Obama is making. Some believe the appointments generally aren't progressive enough. Having worked with former Senator Obama for the last two years, I can tell you, that isn't the way he thinks and it's not likely the way he will lead. The problems I mentioned above and the many I didn't, suggest that our president surround himself with the most qualified people to address these challenges. After all, he was elected to be the president of all the people - not just those on the left."
This is the punch-line to a Huffington Post rant by Obama aide Steve Hildebrand. It is extremely difficult to know where to start with this piece of self-serving hectoring.

In the first place, Hildebrand is peddling the myth that somehow Obama's fund raising departed from previous patterns in a significant way. In fact, instead of in myth, the percentage of donations to the Obama change machine from the 'little guys' was virtually the same as the number of small donors to the Bush war machine in 2004. You can find support that factoid here. The Republicans were correct when they complained that Obama reneged on his commitment to public financing.

In the second place, while it is correct that Obama won with a large margin of the popular vote, he did so by promising change and if, as every indication would lead us to believe, he is filling the administration with the same old, tired personnel, well ... you're damned right we ought to complain. What matters is not a 'make nice' way of dealing in Washington. What matters is that Obama actually change policy - in international affairs and in the domestic economy. While I have never held out much hope that he would do that, the Obama campaign held out precisely that hope. It hardly seems credible for the true believers to now complain when voters and activists actually push Obama to make good on his rhetoric.

We judge people by their records and we should. I have not one iota of faith that Hillary Clinton will advocate anything other than a center right foreign policy. I have not one iota of faith that Larry Summers will be any less enamored of unfettered markets than he always has been. You could go on down the list of Obama's appointments. What evidence does Hildebrand offer that any of these retreads have become born-again? None.

In the third place, the problem with Hildebrand an other self-proclaimed liberal democrats is that they don't get it. The Republicans play to win. You can bet your ass that had McCain won he'd be ramping up to renew our commitment to war and market fundamentalism. The reason I advocate leftist politics and policies is that I think they actually might generate better outcomes for "all the people." If Hildebrand's sanctimony is vaguely representative of the views of this administration you can kiss "change" goodbye. And that is the surest way to 'de-energize' all those new voters who Hildebrand invokes in his piece.

My message to Steve Hildebrand? Shut up and listen. Stop being self-satisfied. Don't treat those who supported your candidate like idiots. And, if you think the criticism you're complaining about is harsh, get ready for a rocky ride. Obama raised expectations he'd better be prepared to meet them.

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Bill Ayers

The right wingers tried, without much success, to tie then-candidate Obama to Bill Ayers whom they painted as a terrorist. Ayers kept his mouth shut, at least in public, until this past weekend when he published this apologia on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. There, Ayers makes clear too that he barely knows Obama and that, in any case, guilt by association is not guilt. On these last points he is correct. On his self-exculpatory claims, however, there is considerably less reason or room for being charitable. Most of those who wrote letters to The Times in response to Ayers essay rightly objected to the sanitized version of history he peddles.

Yesterday, Katha Pollitt posted this column at The Nation that nails Ayers' feet to the floor, all the better to puncture his self-serving rationalizations. Pollitt calls his bullshit for just what it is. Here is some of the good bit:
"Of the many thousands of people involved in the movement one way or another, only a handful thought the thing to do was to form a tiny sect and blow things up in the service of a ludicrous fantasy : ie, creating a white-youth fighting force that would join up with black nationalists, end the war and overthrow capitalism. Oh, and anyone who didn't see why that was the right,necessary and indeed only possible course of action was a sellout and a coward.

I wish Ayers would make a real apology for the harm he did to the antiwar movement and the left. Not another "regrets, I've had a few," "we were all young once," "don't forget there was a war on" exercise in self-promotion, but one that showed he actually gets it. I'd like him to say he's sorry for his part in the destruction of Students for a Democratic Society. He's sorry he helped Nixon make the antiwar movement look like the enemy of ordinary people. He's sorry for his more-radical-than-thou posturing, and the climate of apocalyptic nuttiness he helped fuel to disastrous results, of which the fatal Brinks robbery, committed by erstwhile comrades who became even crazier than Ayers' crew, was only the most notorious."

As is so often the case Pollitt single-handedly makes it worthwhile to maintain my subscription. Ayers simply cannot see that he not only took part in terrorist activity that killed people, but also undermined the progressive politics he professed to endorse.

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08 December 2008

False Idols, Holy Rollers, and All That ... And, of Course, the Opiate of the Masses, Too.

PRAYING FOR A MIRACLE ~ S.U.V.’s sat on the altar of Greater
Grace
Temple, a Pentecostal church in Detroit, as congregants prayed
to save the
auto industry. Photograph © Fabrizio Costantini
for
The New York Times.

So, while workers occupied a small factory in Chicago last weekend in hopes of compelling the employer (Republic Windows and Doors) and its creditors (Bank of America) to meet their legal obligations [1] [2], the people portrayed here were praying for god to sanctify their right to build the sort of big, crappy, useless automobiles that have made a mess of the industry and the environment. I saw this photo accompanying this story in The Times yesterday and couldn't quite believe it. This strikes me as even more absurd than football players falling to their knees in the end zone after scoring a touchdown, a practice that makes me want to holler " You scored because that guy missed a tackle (or because you are bigger-stronger-faster) not because you are blessed! God does not care who wins football games! " As a good atheist, however, I restrain myself since, well ... it should be obvious. Why not occupy the auto plants or the legislative chambers or bank offices instead of the pews at church?

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'Tis the Season ...

From The Last Days of W © Alec Soth

Over at Zoom-in Online, Sophia Betz has written this perceptive post on her "Favorite Photo Books of the Political Season." Among Sophia's list is a new offering from the wonderful Alec Soth. I've not seen the book but am confident Sophia is right to describe it as " satirical, tragic, and joyful all at once." I'm off to littlebrownmushroom.com to order a copy.

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06 December 2008

Chicago Strike

Well, maybe there is more to the analogy between our current economic crisis and the 1930s than we might think! Michael Franklin just forwarded to me news about a sit-down strike that started yesterday in Chicago. In the background to this localized labor dispute is the inability of the employer, -Republic Windows and Doors - to obtain financing from Bank of America. You can find the report from CHI*TOWN DAILY NEWS here. The problem is that the workers, if they get anything, are likely only to get federally mandated severance pay. What they need is for the company to continue to provide them with jobs. That said, this is a signal of labor militancy of the sort that might pressure the Obama-ites to address the economic crisis. (Thanks Michael!)

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Haleh Anvari

From the Series Chadornama © Haleh Anvari

In The Guardian there is this interesting interview with Iranian photographer Haleh Anvari. She has a project - actually a hybrid exhibition/performance - entitled "Power of a Cliché" that sounds quite provocative. In it she objects, among other things, to the convention in the West of representing Iran reductively via photographs of women in black chador. On some points I think she is spot on:
"One of the things I felt I needed to do this for was because both in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Americans used the pretext of women and their plight to justify attacking these two countries against international law. [. . .] But I'd rather wear the hijab and live a quiet life without nuclear fallout. I don't want to be bombed. It's a difficult thing to explain … How many revolutions can a people have in 30 years?"
Actually, I think that Anvari makes things quite plain and easy to understand. I'm sure our outgoing neo-cons who fancy themselves exporters of democracy and chivalrous defenders of feminism, will take note of her assessment. That goes for the Obama-ites who are replacing them (Clinton, Lieberman, et. al.) too.

I also think Anvari correctly identifies our reductionist representations of Iran specifically and Islamic nations more generally. She is right to contest them. But Anvari is also challenging religious and political authorities at home. Here is some notation from her web page: “Colour Sound Movement. Three elements not associated with The Iranian woman, three elements which she has in abundance. The chador wasn't always black, where did the colour go?” So she is quite aware that the authorities have arbitrarily darkened the Iranian landscape. Her complaint is just that we outsiders seem to see only that and proceed accordingly.

So far, so good. I have to say, though, that I'm not entirely persuaded that wearing colorful version of officially mandated uniforms counts as resistance to political and/or religious orthodoxy, let alone effective resistance. Do 'dress down' days at the office represent freedom in the law firms and corporate campuses across America? Is buying this or that morally sanctioned product (say, free trade coffee or cosmetics free of animal testing) a political act? No. Perhaps, one could make the case that the chador and architectural practices embody a distinction between public and private that Iranians can use to fend off the authorities. In general, though, it seems like a stretch to me. Even if the color of one's chador is more than a simple fashion statement, thumbing one's nose at authorities is not resistance if it has no impact. It's thumbing one's nose. Maybe the impact is diffuse, delayed, indirect, even unintended, and so difficult or, at this juncture, impossible to discern. We'll see.

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05 December 2008

Best Shots (53) ~ Jane & Louise Wilson

(79) Jane & Louise Wilson ~ Aircraft Engine, Derby (4 December 08).

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03 December 2008

Think Again

THINK AGAIN are artist/activists who expect something
political from art.

We use images to challenge indifference.


THINK AGAIN is a collaborative project of S.A. Bachman and David John Attyah.
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The THINK AGAIN web site (from which I lifted the samples above) is quite cool and has archives of past projects and a link to their book A Brief History of Outrage (2003). Unfortunately, though, while it works with Internet Explorer, it seems dysfunctional via Firefox.

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Odetta (1930 -2008)

Singer Odetta has died. The notice from The New York Times is here. You can listen to a 2005 npr interview with her here and another, from earlier this year, here. I lifted the unattributed photograph at right from the pbs web page.

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01 December 2008

Terrorism, Humiliation and Voice

I have been thinking about the mayhem in Mumbai, wondering what to make of the mess we are in. I say "we" because, while most of those killed and wounded are apparently residents of the city, the terrorists seem to have been after westerners.

I have two concerns (at least). First, there is no excuse for the sort of terrorist attack we witnessed last week. Period. That said, the last I heard somewhere under two hundred people died in the attacks. I wonder how many residents of Mumbai - population estimated at more than 20 million people, nearly two-thirds of whom live in slums - die of poverty and its attendant maladies in any three or four day period. I'm sure that with a little elbow grease I could find the relevant statistic. Do we concern ourselves with those souls in the way we will with those who died in the attacks last week? No. Will we worry that two nations armed with nuclear weapons might go to war over those deaths? No.

My second concern is to figure out what makes terrorists do the hateful things they do. I've discussed this here before. This time I want to draw your attention to an essay Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk wrote it shortly after the 9/11 attacks.* Here is part of the essay:
"An ordinary citizen living in a poor Muslim nondemocratic country will, like a civil servant struggling to make ends meet in a former Soviet satellite or any other Third World nation, be only too aware what a small share of the world's wealth his country has; he will know too, that he lives under much harsher conditions than his counterparts in the West and that his life will be much shorter. But it does not end there, for somewhere in his mind is the suspicion that it is his own father and grandfather who are to blame for his misery. It is a great shame that the Western world pays so little attention to the overwhelming sense of humiliation felt by most people in the world, a humiliation that those people have tried to overcome without losing their reason or their way of life or succumbing to terrorism, ultranationalism, or religious fundamentalism. ... It is not enough for the West to figure out which tent, which cave, or which remote city harbors a terrorist making the next bomb, nor will it be enough to bomb him off the face of the earth.; the real challenge is to understand the spiritual lives of the humiliated, discredited peoples who have been excluded from its fellowship.

Battle cries, nationalist speeches, and impulsive military ventures achieve the opposite ends. . . . If a destitute old man on an Istanbul island can momentarily approve the terror attack on New York, or if a young Palestinian worn down by Israeli occupation can look with admiration as the Taliban throws acid into women's faces, what drives him is not Islam or this idiocy that people call the war between East and West, nor is it poverty; it is the impotence born of constant humiliation, of a failure to make oneself understood, to have one's voice heard"
So while it is true that terrorists tend not to be terribly impoverished or poorly educated, they do tend to have grown up under repressive regimes that fail to extend civil and political liberties to their citizens. I am inclined to believe that, as Pamuck suggests, humiliation not only breeds anger but derives to a considerable extent from lack of voice. What might be required is less a bellicose response on the part of Indians toward Pakistan (from whence the Mumbai terrorist seem to have come and where they apparently were trained) than pressure from us on the regime to democratize. That may be a long term strategy. It may be less gratifying to those bent on revenge. But it might work.
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* Updated 4 December: You can find "The Anger of the Damned" in Orhan Pamuk. 2006. Other Colors: Essays and a Story. Vintage International. (This collection of writings is really terrific.) And you can find slightly different translations of the same essay under different titles here at The Guardian and here at the NYRB. (Thanks John!)

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