31 January 2010

A Plea for Partisanship

Just about a year ago I wrote this post railing against bi-partisanship. Much of what has gone wrong in the first year of Obama-fest in my view has been driven by an insipid Democratic quest for bi-partisanship and consensus. I stand by what I wrote last January. I recently came across this brief essay in Dissent by Nancy Rosenblum*, a political theorist at Harvard, who not only explains (in ways I find congenial) the reasons why bi-partisanship and non-partisanship and being 'independent' are flawed, vacillating, and counterproductive positions, but argues that, in fact, partisanship "is the morally distinctive political identity of representative democracy."
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* This essay reflects views that Rosenblum develops at considerably greater length in her recent book On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship. Princeton UP, 2008.

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There is an Interview with Joe Stiglitz ....

. . . (albeit a very short one) here at The New York Times.

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30 January 2010

Marc Vallée

Environmental Protest, Kingsnorth, Kent, 2008.
Photograph © Marc Vallée.

On several occasions I have called attention to reports in The Guardian critical of the abuse of photographers in Britain at the hands of police who have an overly liberal (mis) interpretation of the obscenely overly broad "Terrorism Act 2000." You can find a couple years' worth of my posts on the topic here. In any case, the reports in The Guardian have mostly been penned by Marc Vallée who, it turns out, is himself a photographer and a quite good one at that. Among his long term undertakings - from which I lifted the image above - is a political protest project. In some ways many of the images in that project bring to mind the portraits Joel Sternfeld did of protesters at the G8 meetings in Genoa in 2001. I've commented on that work here. Photographers like Vallée perform a crucially important and often quite dangerous task by making visible struggles over the public space necessary to any plausible conception of political freedom.

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Best Shots (98) ~ Rineke Dijkstra

(125) Rineke Dijkstra ~ Portrait of Almerisa (detail) 1994,
(27 January 2010).

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28 January 2010

"Objectivity" at npr?

This evening driving home the weather was especially bad - high winds and lots of snow. I was listening to All Things Considered as the traffic inched along. The npr folk broadcast this segment on Howard Zinn who died earlier this week. Mostly they solicited reflections from admiring friends and colleagues - from people who actually knew him. That is as it should be. But the reporter, Allison Keyes, then interviewed the venomous David Horowitz. I can only imagine that this was intended as a gesture toward "objectivity." There was no indication that Horowitz was personally acquainted with Zinn. And he is ideologically disabled from grappling with Zinn's writing and activism in a constructive way. Horowitz, as could be expected, managed to deride and dismiss Zinn and his work in its entirety.

Horowitz is, to be polite, a member of the lunatic fringe right. Imagine if, when William Buckley or Irving Kristol or Milton Friedman had died, the npr report had included comments from Noam Chomsky or Cornel West or even Howard Zinn. None of them is as far to the left as Horowitz is to the right. Yet it would have been inappropriate to solicit their assessments of these towering heroes of the intellectual right. Why then couldn't the staff at All Things Considered accord Zinn that same respect? Keyes's decision to include Horowitz’s remarks on Zinn indicates a total lack of seriousness. Better to be silent altogether.

*****
When I posted about Zinn's death a couple days ago, I promised links to obituaries. Here are some: The New York Times here; Democracy Now! here; The Nation here; In These Times here.

Update (1 February 2010): There is a nice set of remembrances of Zinn here at The Nation.

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Accepting Obama's Challenge

Here is the challenge regarding health care reform that Obama laid out in his speech last night:
"So, as temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we've proposed. There's a reason why many doctors, nurses and health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo. But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Let me know. Let me know. I'm eager to see it."
Here is the simple, straightforward reply: A Single Payer National Health Care System. It will do all the things he mentions.

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27 January 2010

Passings ~ Howard Zinn (1922~2010)

Historian, activist, polemicist Howard Zinn has died. There is a report here in The New York Times. I've noted Zinn and his work a couple of times here. While I did not always agree with Zinn, he was a smart man and I very much admired his gumption. I will link to obituaries as they appear.

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Oooops!

Adolf Hitler (with Heinrich Himmler) inspects the Leibstandarte
SS Adolf Hitler on arrival at Klagenfurt in April 1938.
Photograph: Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive).

I noticed the following among the bottom of the page adverts over at The Guardian.
Ads by Google
Counterterrorism Degrees
BS/MS in Counterterrorism Taught by Former CIA, FBI and SS
www.Henley-Putnam.edu
Do you suppose they really have former SS officers providing instruction to eager future torturers? Oh, I see it means 'Secret Service'! My mistake?

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Free Umida Akhmedova

The inimitable Stan Banos has forwarded me the link to this slide show from the BBC; it consists in some work by Umida Akhmedova, a Uzbeki photographer put on trial by her government for allegedly creating a negative image of the country!

The captions to the slide show provide some more detail regarding the legal case. But Akhmedova faces a term in prison or at hard labor. You can find a larger collection of her photographs here.* You can sign an on-line petition requesting that Akhmedova be set free addressed to the President of Uzbekistan here. Of course, a government concerned with its reputation abroad can best burnish that image by respecting human rights in conformity to established international standards.
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* Both images in this post © Umida Akhmedova.

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26 January 2010

On the Old Saying 'Be Careful what You Hope For'

"Politics means a slow powerful drilling through hard boards, with a mixture of passion and a sense of proportion. It is absolutely true, and our entire historical experience confirms it, that what is possible could never have been achieved unless people had tried again and again to achieve the impossible in this world. But the man who can do this must be a leader, and not only that, he must be a hero - in a very literal sense. And even those who are neither a leader nor a hero must arm themselves with that staunchness of heart that refuses to be daunted by the collapse of all their hopes, for otherwise they will not even be capable of achieving what is possible today." ~ Max Weber (1919)

"I would not be interested in being a consensus leader. I refuse to determine what is right by taking a Gallup poll of the trends of the time. . . . Ultimately, a leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968)
I have been in class most of the day. That has given me lots of time to think about the travesty of the news leaked this morning that Obama has decided to simply capitulate to the conservatives with his proposed budget freeze. In the process he comes off as either wholly incompetent or remarkably hypocritical - to see why look here.* Between classes I had had the chance to read some of the responses.
Paul Krugman: "It’s appalling on every level." and "Right now, this looks like pure disaster."

Robert Reich: "His three-year freeze on a large portion of discretionary spending will make it impossible for him to do much of anything for the middle class that’s important."

Brad DeLong: "Barack Herbert Hoover Obama?"

Chris Hayes: "It may be a head fake, the fine print may basically have a lot of loopholes, in which case the policy itself won't be terrible, but again it reinforces the enemy's narrative: that government spends too much on "programs," that defense and "security" spending doesn't count for the deficit and that times of economic misery and widespread unemployment the solution is fiscal austerity."

John Judis: ". . . in the past year, [Obama and his administration] have failed utterly to explain to Americans (let alone the bond traders) how deficits function in recessions. Yes, it is hard to do so, but no harder than it was for Ronald Reagan to explain to middle class Americans how regressive tax cuts would actually benefit them. For better or worse--and mostly the latter--Reagan actually tried to explain to Americans what his policies were about. The Obama administration has abdicated. Where are the charts? The graphs? The ads that patiently explain deficits and recessions? The stories, the anecdotes? And it’s not just the budget. It’s the health care plan as well. Or the need for financial regulation."
Not only is the freeze policy bad news substantively, it cedes the debate to the conservatives (and here I mean the so-called 'moderates'). What would I have Obama and his underlings do? How about we end the ridiculously (at least) costly and (at best) questionably justifiable wars? How about we explain why deficit reduction (at best) is a red-herring and (more likely) is actively misguided in the current context [1] [2]? In short, I would have them lead and mold consensus rather than simply search it out. I would have them at least try to extend the bounds of what is possible today. That, it seems, is way too much to hope for!
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* Actually, I think what we are seeing is that Obama's ideal point on economic policy is quite right-wing. In that sense he is simply confirming the view that Adolph Reed laid out here.

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25 January 2010

Taking Offense (3) ~ Dash Snow, Again

Today The Guardian has run this essay and slide show exploring the intersection of two things I find (at best) mystifying: Polaroids and tortured artists who (abetted by various perpetrators and hangers on) squander their lives in paroxysms of self-pity. Call me wholly unsympathetic. The "work" is banal and simply confirms my view that Dash Snow was a poseur with a trust fund, nothing more. In The Guardian piece Sean O'Hagan seems perplexed:
"It is one of the defining tropes of contemporary pop culture that everything illicit should be paraded rather than engaged in discreetly. Everything is not just permitted, but must be photographed, filmed, and posted on the web. In this context, Dash Snow is very much an artist of our times.

Often his photographs seem to celebrate drabness and/or clutter. Grimy bathrooms and dishevelled living rooms abound. The activity he records tends towards the puerile of the criminal, or both. There are snapshots of kids shooting up, kids snorting coke (in one instance on a flaccid penis), kids puking, tagging, flashing and falling down. Blood, nudity, graffiti and cocaine are the recurring themes, as well as Dash himself, the unsteady centre around whom all this determined dissolution is played out. There is desperation in all this too, but it is the now-familiar desperation of the self-indulgently confessional: Nan Goldin without the brilliant composition, the heightened colour or the underlying poetic sadness.

[. . .]

The question is, though, do they amount to anything else? Do they approach the mystery and mastery of art?"

Are you kidding me? If O'Hagan can't answer that question he's got no business hanging out his critic shingle.

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Send Harold Ford Home

Whatever happened to "full disclosure"? Today The New York Times ran this Op-Ed by Harold Ford. It is more or less incoherent - urging deficit reduction, increased spending on health-care, and tax cuts as a "jobs" policy. Standard neo-liberal nuttiness. I will ignore the fact that arguably [1] [2] [3] if we want to promote economic recovery elsewhere than in the financial industry we ought not to become consumed with deficit reduction mania.

What is important is that Ford is writing a political essay (rumors abound that he plans to run for Senate from New York) and the folks at The Times are giving him a pass. They identify him with this phrase: "Harold Ford Jr. was a United States representative from Tennessee from 1997 to 2007." They neglect to point out that since 2007 Ford has been an executive at Merrill Lynch and that he has headed the Democratic Leadership Council. Now, those two entities are in one or another way culpable for the political-economic mess we are in. The DLC has abetted the latent desire of many Democrats to cross-dress as Republicans. And Merrill Lynch is elbow deep in the financial shenanigans that gave us the current economic crisis. Any surprise that Ford is recommending that Democrats move closer to the center and give business more tax breaks?

For succinct political portraits of Harold Ford including lots of reasons why New Yorkers ought to send him packing I recommend this essay at The Nation and this one at Mother Jones.

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Photography Not Terrorism ~ In Chicago Either!


Go figure! The Chicago Transit Authority reportedly has begun posting these ludicrous signs on their trains and stations. The signs are idiotic for several reasons. First, what is excessive? Second, the instruction to be suspicious contradicts the CTA's own policy which states:

"The general public is permitted to use hand-held cameras to take photographs, capture digital images, and videotape within public areas of CTA stations and transit vehicles for personal, non-commercial use.

Large cameras, photo or video equipment, or ancillary equipment such as lighting, tripods, cables, etc. are prohibited (except in instances where commercial and professional photographers enter into contractual agreements with CTA).

All photographers and videographers are prohibited from entering, photographing, or videotaping non-public areas of the CTA’s transit system.

All photographers and videographers are prohibited from impeding customer traffic flow, obstructing transit operations, interfering with customers, blocking doors or stairs, and affecting the safety of CTA, its employees, or customers. All photographers and videographers must fully and immediately comply with any requests, directions, or instructions of CTA personnel related to safety concerns."

Finally, as I've noted multiple times before, there is no particular reason to think photographers (as opposed to, say, drivers of small cargo vans) are terrorists. That closes the 'loophole' that some bureaucrat might exploit by suggesting that photography per se is a safety concern. Unfortunately, this is simply part of a broader pattern of muddled thinking.

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24 January 2010

Assessing Obama

In a couple of weeks I am going to participate in a panel discussion among faculty at the University where I teach - a retrospective on Year One of Obama. The event is being sponsored by students from the Republican and Democratic clubs on campus. It should be fun. Over at The Nation there is a little symposium on the same topic. Here are the two best contributions:
Adolph Reed Jr.
Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

In January 1996 I wrote the following about Barack Obama in my Village Voice column: "In Chicago, we've gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program--the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics."

In 2007 Matt Taibbi described him as "an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind. You can't run against him on the issues because you can't even find him on the ideological spectrum."

In 2006 Ken Silverstein noted Obama's deep financial industry connections. Glen Ford, Paul Street and many others have stressed those and other disturbing connections, including his penchant for supporting more conservative Democratic candidates against more liberal ones.

Obama indicated no later than the summer of 2007 that he intended, if elected, to extend the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan.

The only surprise about his presidency is how many ersatz leftists cling to the fiction that he's anything other than a superficially articulate neoliberal Democrat in the Clinton mold and that his administration would act in any other way.
*****
Glenn C. Loury
Professor of the Social Sciences, Brown University

From where I sit, the high point of President Obama's young administration was its inauguration. Much seemed possible on that glorious day, but it has been downhill since. Hope, it would appear, is more easily inspired than it is justified. And those eloquent speeches about change during Obama's historic and euphoric campaign look now to have been precisely what the candidate's detractors said they were--just words.

Specifically, my hope had been that elevating a progressive African-American Democrat to the nation's highest office would do two things: help to bring about an effective engagement with America's unresolved problems of racial inequality, and begin to reverse our headlong march toward a Hundred Years' War with radical Islam. I did not expect these things to happen overnight, but I did expect to see movement in this direction. This administration has shown scant inclination to do either, which is disappointment enough. But worse--far worse--is the likelihood that Obama's failure even to attempt such changes will discredit the very idea that these are worthy objectives for any Democrat.

Obama has said little of substance about racial inequality since moving into the Oval Office, and what he has said leaves much to be desired. His speech to the NAACP convention was a rehash of his by now familiar "family values" homily. His comments on the arrest last summer of a black Harvard professor were shockingly inept. Our black president seems eager to address the American public with passion about the race issue when his "friend" has been mistreated by the police, but not if it means stressing policy reforms that might keep tens of thousands of troubled black men out of prison.

As for the new American militarism, Obama has not really changed the direction in which we are headed. Indeed, and ironically, his speech in Oslo accepting the Nobel Peace Prize attempted to justify American military hegemony as the necessary precondition of global security and prosperity in the second half of the twentieth century. His conduct of the "war on terror" and, most distressing, his escalation of our involvement in Afghanistan's civil war is eerily reminiscent of the approach of his immediate predecessor.

This is not change of any kind, let alone of the kind that we can believe in.

Most of the symposium consists in one of two types of comment: "its all been down hill" or "stop your leftist whining, be patient." Given what Reed & Loury have to say you can see where I stand. Loury is in the "down hill" mode and Reed thinks its been up hill, as usual.

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22 January 2010

Best Shots (97) ~ Elinor Carucci

(124) Elinor Carucci ~ My mother and I (20 January 2010).

It has been a while since The Guardian has run an installment of this series. (They've done a couple of video version, but I had decided against posting to those.) I thought perhaps they had decided to discontinue following a long run. I'd have missed it. Then they start up again with this! I won't rehearse my objections to Carucci and her work. Let's just say (again) that I really do like this series and want to keep linking to it. So Elinor gets a pass.

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Surprising Republicans

Cindy McCain, the wife of John McCain, posing for the
NOH8 campaign (detail).

Photograph © Adam Bouska/AP.

And just when I figured that all Republicans were wholly irredeemable!

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21 January 2010

PDN: "The 30 Most Influential Photographers of The Decade?"

Just what the title says. A survey of PDN readers. The results, sliced and diced in several ways, are here.

The Uses of Photography ~ "expanding the circle of knowledge" (Susan Meiselas)

There is a nice, brief video produced by the Documentary Photography Project of The Open Society Institute in which Susan Meiselas talks about the uses of 'documentary' photography. She (unsurprisingly!) seems quite insightful and realistic about the impact photography might have:
"This is how understanding is key of we are going to be able to build bridges, and I do think photography is a lot about creating the bridge. People still have to walk over it. I think photographers are the ones who perceive the bridge as a possibility ... and it goes back to that hope that people will feel the connection. And that connectivity is the opening of the door."
I have argued elsewhere that the point of photography is to establish or to help establish solidarity. It sounds to me like Meiselas is talking about just that.

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20 January 2010

PETA Porn

I have written here on several occasions about the irony of PETA exploiting naked women (usually very minor celebrities) in the name of animal rights. Well, in their latest campaign the PETA folks have just gone ahead and featured porn star Sasha Grey (whom they euphemistically describe as "one of the youngest—and most popular—working adult film stars today.")

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Haiti Digest

Amid the flood of media attention to the Haiti disaster I've noticed three particularly interesting pieces.

First there is this hand-wringing blog post at npr in which the author trots out the standard worries that photos of the disaster are somehow exploitative. There is not much new in the argument, but the comment thread indicates that many people find the worries more or less wholly misplaced. I agree. Do you have any idea what it is like to make your way through streets littered with corpses or pancaked buildings? I don't. The images give us some sense. They help us imagine how horrible conditions really can become.

The second piece is a this blog post by economist Ed Glaeser in which he calls attention to research that identifies a strong relationship between the impact of 'natural' disasters (in terms of mortality) and the prior political-economic circumstances of the relevant countries. He rightly suggests that, in addition to supporting immediate humanitarian intervention, we consider as well how to mitigate the conditions that render 'natural' disasters especially deadly.

Finally, there is this audio interview from the CBC with Rebecca Solnit on panicky elites (including many members of the press) and the assumption that if they are not in control everything must be out of control.
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P.S. (added 1/21/2010): You can find a short essay in which Solnoit covers much the same ground here at Tomdispatch.

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19 January 2010

Go Fish

Well, the bad news is that the talented and very funny Dwayne Booth (aka Mr. Fish) has been sacked at The Village Voice/L.A. Weekly. Fortunately, you will be able to find his work here going forward, starting (more or less) with his reflections on the experience of being fired. Both of the images lifted as examples for this post are © Mr. Fish.

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Disclosing Mystery Rather than Providing Information ~ Raghu Rai

Burial of an unknown child, Bhopal 1984.
Photograph © Raghu Rai.

It is remarkable how frequently I come across photographers whom I could not name but whose work I have seen. The image above offers a case in point. This past weekend The Guardian ran this short interview with Magnum photographer Raghu Rai, accompanied by this slide show of his work.

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18 January 2010

Martin Luther King, Jr. ~ Not Only Freedom, But Justice, Equality and Solidarity Too! (again)

Martin Luther King, Jr., Under Arrest, Montgomery, Alabama, 1958.
Photograph © Charles Moore.

This post amounts to this year's installment of has become an annual offering - an attempt to de-mythologize and de-sanitize Martin Luther King, Jr.. The point is that we ought to at least try to celebrate the actual past. What follows is a passage from the final chapter of his final book - Where Do We Go From Here? (1967) in which he advocates a guaranteed basic income.
"In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.

Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils:lack of education restricting job opportunities;poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative;fragile family relationships which distorted personality development.

The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at a similar rate of development. . . . At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor. In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else. I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual's abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber. We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.

[...]

The problem indicates that our emphasis must be two-fold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.

[...]

This proposal is not a "civil rights" program, in the sense that that term is currently used. The program would benefit all the poor, including the two-thirds of them who are white. I hope that both Negro and white will act in coalition to effect this change, because their combined strength will be necessary to overcome the fierce opposition we must realistically anticipate."
There are a few salient features of this passage. The first is that King, unfortunately, was way too sanguine about our having ceased blaming the poor for their own plight. The second is that he had moved beyond a "civil rights" agenda to endorse economic justice and solidarity across races. The third is that there are plenty of good reasons to take the proposal for guaranteed income or even a civic minimum seriously.* There hardly get a public hearing hear in the U.S. - after all that would be socialism!

And Moore's photograph is an additional reminder, if one were needed, of how King actually was treated during his lifetime - even well before he began to publicly endorse radical political-economic policies.
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* For a start see ~ Phillipe van Parijs. Real Freedom for All, Oxford University Press, 1997; Stuart White. The Civic Minimum. Oxford University Press, 2003; Bruce Ackerman, et. al. eds. Redesigning Redistribution, Verso, 2005; Phillipe van Parijs, et. al. What's Wrong With a Free Lunch?, Beacon Press, 2005; Bruce Ackerman & Anne Alsott. The Stakeholder Society, Yale University Press, 2006.

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17 January 2010

Annals of Ideology? The Chicago Interviews

"Q: What about skepticism toward the government: Isn’t that also a key part of the Chicago tradition?

A: Sure. You have to ask why would the government get it right. You can’t just say, here’s a market failure and the government needs to step in and address it. You have to look in detail at what the government might do, and compare the relative effectiveness of the two."*

Over at The New Yorker John Cassidy has posted a series of relatively brief interviews he's done with various key figures in the "Chicago" school of economics. They mostly deal with the response of conservative economic thinking to the financial melt-down. I have commented on this a couple of times here [1] [2] [3].

The first interview in the series, with Richard Posner (who is a lawyer, not an economist) is perhaps the most revealing. It is striking that he focuses on the political aspects of current arguments - conservatives against liberals. He also is blunt that the economists in Hyde Park have engaged in little self-reflection in light of recent events. (That is born out by the subsequent interviews.) This, I think, underscores an ideological dimension that economists generally seek to downplay. But a second striking point is that Posner thinks that, given their faith in markets, economists generally and the Chicago crowd in particular " have lost interest in or feel for institutional detail that might be very important." I think that is pretty much right on target.

It seems to me that the entire debate is dominated by a distinction that has been inflated into a dichotomy - 'free' markets versus government. The problem is that markets do not work absent an (internal and external) institutional scaffolding and government cannot do the distributive work of decentralized institutions. So what we need - as I have argued here several times before [4] - is a more experimental approach to political-economy. Neither the Chicago faithful nor their adversaries seem not to get that at all.
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* From the interview with Kevin Murphy.

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16 January 2010

Stuff You'd Rather Not Think About: Obama's Numbers

This graphic showing the precipitous fall of approval numbers for Obama among white voters is from The New York Times. That is Obama in the far right column. Over at at The Guardian, Gary Younge provides this helpful assessment of the free fall. In large part, white voters didn't much like Obama in the first place. In another large part the opposition is simply lunatic. And in some other large part it represents an accurate assessment of his performance.

The problem, from my perspective, is that Obama has not "failed" as many white voters seem to think. He has gotten more or less precisely what he wanted - a 'stimulus package' that revolves around financial bailouts for corporations, a market-driven reform proposal insuring only that health care remains wholly commodified, amnesia as a response to the criminal activities of the Bush administration, and continued commitment to perpetual war. With the partial exception of the war policy, it is hard to see how any of those policies make anyone happy. What is mysterious is that conservatives think he is a socialist.

Those who are disappointed mistakenly fancied Obama to be something resembling a progressive. A more accurate analysis appears in this essay in The Nation by historian Eric Foner who draws out the resemblance between Obama and the feckless Jimmy Carter.

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15 January 2010

Chicago: Mark Curran The Breathing Factory"

Some time ago Mark Curran emailed to tell me about his exhibition of his project The Breathing Factory in Chicago. I have been remiss about writing the post - only in part because of my laptop fiasco last week. As a result I've missed the chance to plug the opening reception for the exhibition which was yesterday evening. I will not re-describe Mark's project since I have enthused about it here already. The work is very good. So, if you are in Chicago you should get out to the exhibition. It is at the DePaul University Museum through March 19th - you can find the details here.

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Local Event ~ Eric Etheridge Breach of Peace

I have posted a couple of times [1] [2] on the work of Eric Etheridge - a 're-photographic' project called Breach of Peace* in which he matches his current portraits of men and women who were civil rights activists here in the U.S. during the 1960s with mug shots taken of them during their activist youth. I find the project incredibly imaginative and quite powerful. Well, Eric's work is now on exhibit at ArtRage in Syracuse. While that is not exactly local, it is here in Western, New York. You can find the announcement here; the exhibition is up through 27 February and Eric will be at the gallery on the 21st for a talk about the project. I plan to make it over. You should too.
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* Eric Etheridge. 2008. Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders. New York: Atlas & Company.

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14 January 2010

SOURCE ~ Graduate Photography Online 2010

Once again the folks at SOURCE are offering a forum for young photographers. This year they are expanding the project to contributors from outside the UK. You can find the guidelines at the web page noted above.
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Full Disclosure: The folks at SOURCE featured my blog on their web page last year, a gesture for which I am grateful and that I mentioned here. But I already had noted here and here that I think their Graduate Photography project is a terrific undertaking - a fine forum both for young photographers to get some exposure and for those of use trying to keep an eye on what is happening.

Passings ~ Philippa Scott (1918~2010)

Nature photographer and conservationist Phillipa Scott has died. The notice from The Guardian is here accompanied by this slide show of some of her work.

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13 January 2010

Passings ~ Dennis Stock (1928-2010)

Miles Davis, Birdland, 1958. Photograph © Dennis Stock.

Photographer Dennis Stock has died. The announcement from Magnum, where he was a long time member, is here. There is a notice at The New York Times here as well.

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Jazz Masters 2010 and the Perils of Cultural Reporting

I stumbled across this AP report of the new crop of "Jazz Masters" named thus by the National Endowment for the Arts. The 2010 honorees are: Muhal Richard Abrams, George Avaikian, Kenny Barron, Bill Homan, Bobby Hutcherson, Yusef Lateef, Annie Ross and Cedar Walton. You can find them listed on NEA web page here. I am especially happy to see Abrams on the list. (For my reasons go here.) Ironically, I suspect that if he had his way we would not find Jazz ghetto-ized at the NEA and elsewhere.

What I find irksome about the AP report is that it manages to do two things. The first is that the report hypes the eminently uninteresting and self-promoting Wynton Marsalis who was heading the accompanying orchestra at the awards concert last night. He was an accompanist not an honoree! The second thing is that on a list where only three of the members are white, the rest being African American, the reporter manages to spend the bulk of the article talking about two of the white folks. Am I missing something here?

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12 January 2010

Hey! Look At ME! (Part 3 or 4)

At The Guardian today is an article and accompanying slide show in which Sean O'Hagan comments on the opening in London of a new exhibition of work by Elinor Carucci. O'Hagan worries that Carucci's work is too focused on her children and that that might be exploitative. Ultimately, he concludes that the work is "responsible." Actually, I think this hand-wringing is pretty wide of the mark. The problem with Carucci's work, as I have said here regularly [1] [2] [3], is that it is so self-absorbed as to be wholly uninteresting. What O'Hagan misses is that the subject of each of Carucci's images is the photographer herself. This is true even where she herself doesn't appear in the photograph. In short, she treats her children (and parents and husband) as accessories to her own narcissism. As if to punctuate this interpretation, here is the final sentence of The Guardian review: "And, as Carucci acknowledged on Woman's Hour, the really intriguing question here is not just what the children will think of the work when they grow up, but what they will think of their mother." That is why Carucci's work is objectionable.

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11 January 2010

Prison Policy in the U.S. ~ Politically Sanctioned Torture

Recently I was listening to npr on my way into the office and heard part of this interview with Atul Gawande, a surgeon who also writes regularly for The New Yorker. (I guess that traveling in that media universe tags me as a 'liberal.') In any case, I had read an essay or two of Gawande's in the past. The one that sticks in my mind aimed at debunking the notion of cancer clusters caused by 'environmental' (as opposed to, say, occupational) sources. The basic argument was that the etiologies of different cancers are quite diverse, making it very unlikely that one source of environmental contamination (at typically low levels of exposure) could account for an array of seemingly related cancers in a given geographical area. Probably not the last word, but it was a smart and well-written essay.

Gawande has a new book out - The Checklist Manifesto ~ How to Get Things Done - that deals with the task of overcoming not human ignorance but human ineptitude in the face of the "extreme complexity" that our successes in overcoming ignorance has exacerbated. It seems quite smart and well-written. That is a topic for another day.

Here I want to mention another essay that Gawande published last spring and that he mentioned in the interview I heard. It appeared in The New Yorker last spring, was entitled "Hellhole" and asks the very simple question: "Is long-term solitary confinement torture?" The short answer - supported with evidence and reasons - is "yes." But in the U.S. those who run our prisons have come to rely, increasingly over the past quarter century, on extended solitary confinement as a way of dealing with 'problem' prisoners. There is plenty of evidence that this is cruel and psychologically debilitating. There are alternatives. And Gawande suggests that even most of those at the top of state prison systems know all this and themselves oppose the policy of long term isolation.

This leads to the obvious question: "If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?" And here is Gawande's equally obvious answer
"This past year, both the Republican and the Democratic Presidential candidates came out firmly for banning torture and closing the facility in Guantánamo Bay, where hundreds of prisoners have been held in years-long isolation. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain, however, addressed the question of whether prolonged solitary confinement is torture. For a Presidential candidate, no less than for the prison commissioner, this would have been political suicide. The simple truth is that public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door."

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10 January 2010

Photography Not Terrorism ~ Google Maps

M. Dolores Denman Courthouse
(Appellate Division, 4th Department),
50 East Avenue, Rochester, New York 14604.

I was reading The Guardian this morning and came across their most recent (and well earned) criticism of the ways that British authorities mis-treat photographers under anti-terror laws. The piece cites this letter to the editor of yet another British paper suggesting that, given the availability of Google "Street View," no self-respecting terrorist would risk actually taking his own photos of public buildings. (Of course, there is no basis for thinking that terrorists use photography in this way anyhow.) So, I figured I'd see whether this was plausible by searching for the newish State Court House in Rochester. I lifted the photo at the top of the post from here ~ the court's own web page. But try this experiment - paste "60 East Ave, Rochester, NY 14604" into Google Maps, select the "street view" option and see what you get. Interesting.

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The Filthy Rich

Galway Races Festival ~ Ireland, 1979.
Photograph © Martin Parr/Magnum.

I must say (indeed, I already have) that I really have grown to admire Martin Parr. Today The Guardian is running this series of photos by Parr skewering various, anonymous wealthy folks at the sorts of places only wealthy folks frequent. This one is my favorite. And, of course, the title - How the Other Half Lives - seems deliciously, ironically appropriate.

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09 January 2010

Social Democracy in America?

"Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?" ~ Tony Judt
There is an interview, by turns frightening and enlightening, with Tony Judt at The Guardian today. You can find the lecture - What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy? - mentioned in the interview here at the NYRB.

At the outset of his lecture Judt poses the question I've lifted above. And he proceeds to offer an analysis of the way we do think and talk about public goods and problems and of how that way of thinking and talking inform political-economic institutions and practices. So far, so good. But the analysis hovers above the political terrain at what is likely too great a distance. And, in a country like the U.S., where there has been scant provision of public goods (Judt's running example is public transport) it is not clear what there is to retrieve and protect. His 'social democracy of fear' trades upon the notion that there is much to be lost and that the left needs to remind people of all that. I suppose I disagree about how much we had prior to the period of Reagan through Obama (inclusive); whatever that threshold might've been the Republicans and Democrats have connived to eviscerate it. The latest debacle around health reform is a standing example.

So, what I take to be helpful from Judt's essay is this:"What, then, is to be done? We have to begin with the state: as the incarnation of collective interests, collective purposes, and collective goods. If we cannot learn to "think the state" once again, we shall not get very far." That said, Judt has not much positive to say about what role the state ought to play or how or on what terrain. But among the things that political institutions can do much better than the various alternatives (and here I presume, like Judt, that we are all democrats now; in that sense 'political institutions' simply means democracy) is to make decisions about how we ought to coordinate our interactions in various domains, monitor the conditions (often quite restrictive) necessary for alternative institutions such as markets (but not just markets - think churches, bureaucracies, etc. too) to operate in acceptable ways, and debate the criteria we use to assess acceptability. In short, the "state" can provide a forum for democratic contestation and dispute over the character and contours of public action. That is perhaps pitched at too abstract a level. But when Judt quotes Keynes to the effect that "The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all" it is clear that a considerable amount of what government can do revolves around the democracy as much as the social in social democracy.

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08 January 2010

This week Macs Suck

Regular visitors may recall that not long ago I 'came out', admitting publicly that I had made the transition from PC to Mac (post here). That was about two months ago. Tuesday the hard drive on the shiny new Mac failed, leaving me in the lurch and a pretty dis-satisfied customer. So, for a while, posts will be few and far between.

06 January 2010

Chris Hedges on 2nd Tour Hope I Don't Die and Afterwar ~ The Pictures of War You Aren’t Supposed to See

Chris Hedges has written this review of two photography books on war and its effects. Here is his basic thrust:
"In Peter van Agtmael’s 2nd Tour Hope I don’t Die and Lori Grinker’s Afterwar: Veterans From a World in Conflict, two haunting books of war photographs, we see pictures of war which are almost always hidden from public view. These pictures are shadows, for only those who go to and suffer from war can fully confront the visceral horror of it, but they are at least an attempt to unmask war’s savagery. [. . .]

Chronicles of war, such as these two books, that eschew images and scenes of combat begin to capture war’s reality. War’s effects are what the state and the press, the handmaiden of the war makers, work hard to keep hidden. If we really saw war, what war does to young minds and bodies, it would be harder to embrace the myth of war. If we had to stand over the mangled corpses of the eight schoolchildren killed in Afghanistan a week ago and listen to the wails of their parents we would not be able to repeat clichés about liberating the women of Afghanistan or bringing freedom to the Afghan people. This is why war is carefully sanitized. This is why we are given war’s perverse and dark thrill but are spared from seeing war’s consequences. The mythic visions of war keep it heroic and entertaining. And the press is as guilty as Hollywood. During the start of the Iraq war, television reports gave us the visceral thrill of force and hid from us the effects of bullets, tank rounds, iron fragmentation bombs and artillery rounds. We tasted a bit of war’s exhilaration, but were protected from seeing what war actually does. [...]

Look beyond the nationalist cant used to justify war. Look beyond the seduction of the weapons and the pornography of violence. Look beyond Barack Obama’s ridiculous rhetoric about finishing the job or fighting terror. Focus on the evil of war. War begins by calling for the annihilation of the others but ends ultimately in self-annihilation. It corrupts souls and mutilates bodies. It destroys homes and villages and murders children on their way to school. It grinds into the dirt all that is tender and beautiful and sacred. It empowers human deformities—warlords, Shiite death squads, Sunni insurgents, the Taliban, al-Qaida and our own killers—who can speak only in the despicable language of force. War is a scourge. It is a plague. It is industrial murder. And before you support war, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, look into the hollow eyes of the men, women and children who know it."
In part, I admire Hedges and his convictions. Note how he shifts here from a discussion of the books to something of a harangue. I point that out not to criticize the outrage Hedges expresses. But his argument is politically naive and so runs the risk of an empty moralism that is incapable of mobilizing outrage. Sermons are out of place here.

In particular, Hedges neglects at least two crucial matters. The first is whether war photographs might have the effect he supposes. While he shares Sontag's premise from Regarding the Pain of Others that only those who experience war directly can truly grasp its horrific realities, he departs from her skeptical premise that images of those horrors might convey some understanding or sensitivity and that those effects might be motivating. Hedges clearly thinks they might - as he says ". . . if we really saw war." He thereby embraces the role into which Sontag casts Virginia Wolff. And it is on that basis that he praises the shift in focus that van Agtmael and Grinker, on his account, offer. They focus less on the glory and the heroism than on the suffering and the aftermath. But recall that Sontag too dwells at length on just such images and despairs that they might have anything like the effects for which Hedges hopes. In the end both Hedges and Sontag see those effects as haunting.

That leads to the second matter Hedges neglects is whether even if photographs had the requisite effects it would or could matter to the underlying reality of war and collective violence. Suppose the images van Agtmael and Grinker* are viewed widely and impress upon viewers a revulsion at war and the suffering it creates. What then? Will that revulsion be stillborn, generating only diffuse guilt and resentment? Will it, more hopefully, be translated into ameliorative efforts, into attempts to remedy or mitigate suffering after the fact? What chance is there that revulsion at war, its supposed glories pierced by images of pain and suffering, will translate in any way into effective political action to bring violence to a halt? Hedges' moralism blinds him to the realities of politics. And here I am not suggesting that our 'leaders' will adopt his views. I am wondering, instead, whether and how he thinks the rest of us, disgusted and sick to death of war, might coordinate politically to pressure leaders to stop. (That, I suspect, will require re-thinking the presumption that photographs convey 'evidence' rather than treating photography as a means of communicating, but that is a massive question I will set aside.) This naivety is something for which I have criticized Hedges here and here before. Perhaps it is unfair to expect anything like a political plan (or even a sketch) in an essay such as the one Hedges actually wrote. But he has had plenty of opportunity to think about the politics involved in his opposition to war. He seems wholly to have neglected the task.
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* I have mentioned van Agtmael in passing a couple of times before, but am completely unfamiliar with Grinker's work. I will say that I think the fact that her Afterwar focuses on former combatants from around the world is especially insightful .

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05 January 2010

iRape

The folks at Apple must be getting tired of having their logo exploited for embarrassing purposes like this:

An outfit called OmniPeace has developed an "iVideo" to call attention to the systematic use violence that various factions and parties are perpetrating against women and girls caught in the war zone known as the Congo. You can find it here.


Two things seem positive here. The first is that the OmniPeace folks have identified the source of the problem - the conflict in the Congo is a resource war driven by demand from the developed world. Second, the actions that they recommend are not simply consumerist; they recommend contacting political leaders as well as corporate execs. On the other hand, the OmniPeace web site is dripping with (photogenic) celebrities and there is a remarkable disconnect between a focus on a political-economic problem and the notion that there is an 'ethical' solution to it.

Where is the learning? Can't anyone draw the lessons from past campaigns like this? They are that ethical solutions - like 'sourcing' the raw materials that go into our gadgets - don't work well because the companies onto which groups like OmniPeace hope to bring pressure simply design 'standards' and monitoring regimes that rationalize and mask their policies. In Harpers this month Ken Silverstein documents this in the case of 'anti-sweatshop' measures (here - behind sub wall). Lots of guilt assuaged. Not much actual progress in terms of ending political-economic exploitation.

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Bank Politics in Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland: (3 January 2010) Hundreds of people gather outside the residence of the president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, to submit a petition. Photograph © Reuters.

It seems as though, in some countries, when a significant segment of the populace expresses displeasure at government policy, the government actually pays attention. For the second time ever the President of Iceland has vetoed a bill passed by the legislature. The new law would have saddled the country with an obligation (through loan guarantees) to pay back money that Great Britain and the Netherlands supplied to bail out Icelandic banks when they collapsed in 2008. Of course, the British and Dutch governments actually were bailing out their own citizens who had invested large sums in Icelandic financial institutions. I think they were probably right to do so. But there is no reason I can see that the citizens of Iceland should be saddled with the costs of that decision. Apparently large numbers of Icelanders see things the same way - more than a quarter of the nation's population signed the petition objecting to the new law.

The recently vetoed legislation will - according to the terms of the Icelandic constitution - now be put before the population in a referendum. You can read reports from The Independent here and here. And you can find a story in today's New York Times here. Imagine if American citizens showed up at the White House and demanded something reasonable like health care reform or redefinition of the 'war on terror' or a financial recovery plan that is something other than welfare for large banks.

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04 January 2010

Politics and Portraits

This piece at The Guardian today, entitled "Follow the Leaders: the Art of the Political Portrait," is moderately interesting - mostly for the platitudes uttered by the photographers. It reminded me of this earlier, eminently more incisive and insightful piece by Germaine Greer that the paper published (and that I briefly noted) some time ago. I suppose the contrast reveals the difference between being a stenographer and writing an essay.

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02 January 2010

Avoid the Rut, Keep Yourself Cognitively Limber

Yesterday, The New York Times carried this interesting report on research into the problem of how to keep aging brains limber. Here is the punch line:

"“The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding,” says Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California, who has studied ways to teach adults effectively. “As adults we may not always learn quite as fast, but we are set up for this next developmental step.”

Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66.

Teaching new facts should not be the focus of adult education, she says. Instead, continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you “bump up against people and ideas” that are different. In a history class, that might mean reading multiple viewpoints, and then prying open brain networks by reflecting on how what was learned has changed your view of the world.

“There’s a place for information,” Dr. Taylor says. “We need to know stuff. But we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections.”

Such stretching is exactly what scientists say best keeps a brain in tune: get out of the comfort zone to push and nourish your brain. Do anything from learning a foreign language to taking a different route to work.

“As adults we have these well-trodden paths in our synapses,” Dr. Taylor says. “We have to crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up. And if you learn something this way, when you think of it again you’ll have an overlay of complexity you didn’t have before — and help your brain keep developing as well.”"

One interesting implication of this is that diversity is valuable not just socially [1] [2] but individually. In particular, it might prove an antidote for knee-jerk conservative views [3].

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01 January 2010

Our Mercenaries ~ Getting Away with Murder

This from The Guardian today:

"A judge in America threw out charges against members of the Blackwater security company yesterday who were accused of killing Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in one of the most notorious incidents since the 2003 invasion.

[. . .]

US district judge Ricardo Urbina ruled in favour of the Blackwater men yesterday, saying prosecutors wrongly used against them statements they had given under duress. He said the government's case was built largely on "statements compelled under a threat of job loss in a subsequent criminal prosecution," a violation of their constitutional rights. The state department, which employed Blackwater, had ordered the men to explain what had happened."

So, the judge doesn't want to look at the world and see if the Blackwater thugs actually fired wantonly at Iraqi civilians. He instead wants to protect the mercenaries and their constitutional rights. That seems fine to me, although no self-respecting mercenary - who in all likelihood would tend to be politically reactionary - surely would want to be seen as a coddled criminal found 'innocent' on the basis of a mere legal technicality! And, of course, I am certain that the courts trying various individuals accused of terrorism or whatever will be similarly concerned with the use of evidence based on "statements . . . given under duress." I wonder whether any of the mercenaries were water boarded, slammed into walls, or deprived of sleep for extraordinary lengths of time during questioning?

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