30 November 2010

Politics in America: Craven Press, Credulous Public

I want to call attention to two columns that Glenn Greenwald has posted at Salon.com in the past few days. The first is on the putative terrorist attack 'foiled' by the FBI in Portland, Oregon last week; the second is on the reaction to the Wikileaks document dump this weekend. In both offerings Greenwald rightly focuses in on the credulousness of the public and the cravenness of the mainstream press in the face of assertions made by government officials.

Here are some of the good bits from Greenwald's response to reaction to the alleged terrorist plot:

"Media accounts are almost uniformly trumpeting this event exactly as the FBI describes it. Loyalists of both parties are doing the same, with Democratic Party commentators proclaiming that this proves how great and effective Democrats are at stopping The Evil Terrorists, while right-wing polemicists point to this arrest as yet more proof that those menacing Muslims sure are violent and dangerous.

What's missing from all of these celebrations is an iota of questioning or skepticism. All of the information about this episode -- all of it -- comes exclusively from an FBI affidavit filed in connection with a Criminal Complaint against Mohamud. As shocking and upsetting as this may be to some, FBI claims are sometimes one-sided, unreliable and even untrue, especially when such claims -- as here -- are uncorroborated and unexamined.That's why we have what we call "trials" before assuming guilt or even before believing that we know what happened: because the government doesn't always tell the complete truth, because they often skew reality, because things often look much different once the accused is permitted to present his own facts and subject the government's claims to scrutiny. [ . . . ]

It may very well be that the FBI successfully and within legal limits arrested a dangerous criminal intent on carrying out a serious Terrorist plot that would have killed many innocent people, in which case they deserve praise. [ . . . ]

But it may also just as easily be the case that the FBI -- as they've done many times in the past -- found some very young, impressionable, disaffected, hapless, aimless, inept loner; created a plot it then persuaded/manipulated/entrapped him to join, essentially turning him into a Terrorist; and then patted itself on the back once it arrested him for having thwarted a "Terrorist plot" which, from start to finish, was entirely the FBI's own concoction."

His column on Wikileaks is less easy to summarize because its targets are more diffuse. In it he excoriates the press for its servility and various commentators for their hypocrisy and callousness. The ultimate focus is on how Americans seem to be wholly unable to think critically in the face of government duplicity and dissembling.

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29 November 2010

Hard Ground

According to this story in The Guardian last week, Tom Waits has collaborated with photographer Michael O'Brien on a portrait of homelessness. The book, Hard Ground, will be published in the spring.* Regular readers will know from my serial postings that I hold Waits in high esteem. I really don't know O'Brien's work at all (except for some of the images he's made for Waits album covers.) But this seems like an auspicious partnership, even if it might be setting expectations just a smidgen high to compare (as the publisher does) the collaboration to Walker Evans and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In any case, I've linked to the publisher's page below where you can find a sample of the images from the book.
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* Hard Ground. Photographs and Interviews by Michael O’Brien, Poems by Tom Waits. University of Texas Press. (March 2011).

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28 November 2010

There is an interview with Margaret Atwood . . .

Margaret Atwood. Photograph © Lluis Gene / AFP / Getty.

. . . here at The Guardian. In the course of the conversation Atwood nicely notes the central role of creativity and imagination in both art and science. She seems to have a clear-eyed view of political leaders, but it is perplexing to think about the opposition she seems to see between environmentalism and political protections for humans.
"It's become a race against time and we are not doing well. The trouble with politicians [at events like the Copenhagen summit of 2009] is that no one wants to go first, go skinny dipping and take the plunge. Oh, and then you have people arguing about fatuous things like the environment and human rights. Go three days without water and you don't have any human right. Why? Because you're dead. Physics and chemistry are things you just can't negotiate with. These, . . . these are the laws of the physical world."
The opposition cannot be anywhere near that stark, and Atwood herself knows it. Here is her view of the environmental problem:
"We shouldn't be saying 'Save the planet'; we should be saying: 'Save viable conditions in which people can live.' That's what we're dealing with here."
Just so. And the "viable conditions" necessary for human flourishing include matters like robust, enforceable rights and principles, claims that people can make - that they can use - in the face of feckless or predatory political leaders or of exploitative, oppressive political-economic conditions. It seems to me that the task of implementing (institutionalizing) such claims requires just the same sorts of imagination and creativity. Only this time the domain is politics. The fix that Atwood rightly calls for is not, in other words, going to be technological in the narrow sense. We don't need to save "viable conditions," we need to create and sustain them.

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27 November 2010

Keeping Your Eye on the Ball: Burma

Harn Lay (2010). Photograph © Platon, for Human Rights Watch.

It has been roughly a week since the military junta in Burma released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. At the time I noted here that while this was a welcome turn of events, it represented a quite minimal step by the authorities. There are many prisoners being held and many others who have been driven into exile. Cartoonist Harn Lay is among the latter group. He has been in exile in Thailand since 1988. Human Rights Watch has commissioned photographer Platon to portray some of the many others who have born (and continue to bear) the brunt of military rule in Burma. You can find the results of his work on this project here.

The upshot? It is important that we outside of Burma continue to speak out against the junta and its authoritarian policies. And it is more important still to devise policies that might bring pressure to bear on the junta. Many observers think that is impossible given their intransigence. For example, here are remarks (part 1, part 2) made by Amartya Sen at this conference coordinated by Human Rights Watch last month. What is called for is not just moralizing, but concerted political action.

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Best Shots (141) ~ Ben Schott

(168) Ben Schott ~ Enoch Powell circa 1995 (24 November 2010).

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26 November 2010

On Not Shopping

As a general matter I am not an anti-consumption type. I do worry about how much we are prepped to buy and how wasteful much of our 'products' turn out to be. But, in economics I buy broadly Keynesian approaches in which consumption - spending - looms large. But it is easy enough to think about how we might encourage spending on sustainable production that I think it is pretty easy to reconcile my views.

That said, I had occasion this morning to spend some time in the car, listening to npr. The amount of time and anxiety the local station devoted to 'black Friday' and variations on whether and what we should buy struck me as disgusting. On the one had we got lectures about being financially responsible in the realm of personal spending. On the other we got advice about how to plan our post-holiday spree (hint: focus on big ticket items today, since the savings are greater there and the sales will continue on less expensive things). All that was leavened by lots of moaning and anxiety regarding whether merchants would do well enough over the next few days to salvage a respectable year. It was nearly enough to get me to subscribe to Adbusters and their Buy Nothing campaign.

As a long term strategy for economic development in an impoverished region like Western NY this is nonsense. But, as a way of resisting, Ulysses-like, the twin shoals of moralism and profligacy I endured this morning it was yet a third temptation. I (again) recommend Juliet Schor instead. You can find her web page here. And, in case you are wondering, I didn't buy anything today.

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Re-discovering Ernest Cole

“He wasn’t just brave. He wasn’t just enterprising.
He was a supremely fine photographer.”
~ David Goldblatt

"Train Station" © The Ernest Cole Family Trust/Hasselblad Foundation Collection.

"Mine Recruitment" © The Ernest Cole Family Trust/Hasselblad Foundation Collection.

There currently is, in Johannesburg, an exhibition of work by the late Black photographer Ernest Cole (1941-1990) who depicted the humiliations and depredations of Apartheid during the 1960s. Much of his work has been neglected since his death and has escaped the vaults in part due to the efforts of David Goldblatt. The exhibition has generated notices in, among other places, The Independent, The Guardian, and The New York Times [1] [2] [3]. (There is a slide show of some of his work here and a much more extensive collection here.)

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25 November 2010

Heroines: Arundhati Roy (24 Novemeber 1961 ~ )

Arundhati Roy (2010). Photograph: AFP.

I have commented here numerous times on Arundhati Roy and her courage in speaking out on matters and in ways that are politically unpopular. Yesterday was her birthday.

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Clegg, Obama, 'Old-Style Progressives' and 'Pragmatism'

In the U.S. political ideas seem to twist and turn at the whim of various right-wing media mouthpieces. Typically the re-fashioning occurs in cahoots with the right wing politicians. So, as the conservative DLC types in the Democratic Party make a hard charge to the right (which has been ongoing since the late 1980s) there is not much push-back from people who say ... ''Not so fast, that is a bastardization of this or that progressive or liberal idea ... or ... No, actually the constitution or our political tradition (or whatever) don't state or imply anything like what you claim!'

The problem, in part, is that any such voice of sanity is drowned out by the megaphones on the right. And, let's be clear here, I am not even talking about the Republicans with their party organ Fox 'News.' I am talking about the voices of 'moderation' among the Democrats. Of course, those voices are not typically attuned to intellectual discourse; they are concerned to show that they are realists. Think Bill Galston or Cass Sunstein. Think Rahm Emmanuel. No egg-head talk for them.

Here is an example from the U.K. Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg offers this pronouncement on 'authentic' progressive politics in The Guardian. He constructs a dichotomy between old-style progressive who are obsessed with equality and new style progressives (like himself) who are properly re-focused on social mobility as a way of fracturing inherited, hence unjust, patterns. This rhetorical move brings to mind a remark from Vaclav Havel: "... hard and fast categories ... tend to be instruments used by the victors." In this instance, the distinction also fails - as Stuart White points out in this astute commentary - to grasp the actual claims of 'old style' progressives of a liberal or socialist stripe.

Distinctions, in other words, carry consequences. and in this instance Clegg surely is aiming to shift the terms of discourse rightward. It is not enough to say, as he does in numerous ways, 'let's work together,' 'let's think in non-zero-sum terms,' lets embrace bi-partisanship' (to echo our own hoper-in-chief). Because, having constructed a false dichotomy at the start he proceeds to neglect the fact that any reconciliation has profound distributional consequences. And those consequences are, as White notes, precisely the basis for pervasive inequalities that subvert the prospects for social mobility.

There are lessons here for the Obama is a pragmatist crowd. It is not enough to simply listen to everyone and split the difference. One has to look at where we stand, how we got here, assess responsibility and, most importantly, see how political-economic power has been used to shape the current circumstances, before making a plan to move forward. Simply splitting the difference leads to more of the 'winner take all' politics that Clegg claims to abhor simply because it takes the current state of affairs, with its already established winners and losers, as the point of departure. Old style progressives, in other words, insist on getting an historical grip before plunging ahead. Without that historical perspective, a putatively pragmatist focus on consequences simply re-confirms the fixed inequities we currently endure. On health Insurance; on war-crimes; on economic recovery; on foreign adventurism. On all those fronts, Obama has done lots of listening and little serious analysis of the sort I mention above. As a result we get not pragmatism but opportunism. There is a big difference.

Have a nice Thanksgiving.
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P.S.: (Added 26 November 2010) You can find yet another astute reply to Clegg here. The punchline: "This isn’t democracy. It isn’t a new way of being progressive. It is the deep marketisation of our society, carried out at breakneck speed."

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24 November 2010

Passings: Chalmers Johnson (1931-2010)

Political Scientist Chalmers Johnson (no relation) has died. Johnson was a right-wing critic of American military adventurism overseas. I thought his views on many matters were wacked. But his criticisms of Bush-era foreign policy were useful for establishing that one cannot simply identify anti-empire positions as a form of left-wing subversion. And, of course, he provided a role model for those who think that the discipline ought to be engaged actively in public debate. You can read the obituary from The New York Times here

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21 November 2010

Representing Complexity in Graphics


I have posted here numerous times on Ed Tufte and his work on data graphics. I've been working on and off for a while on a paper linking his views with more explicitly political graphics. So, here is an interesting convergence.

Tufte's first book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information concludes like this:
"What is to be sought in designs for the display of information is the clear portrayal of complexity. Not the complication of the simple; rather the task of the designer is to give visual access to the subtle and the difficult - that is, the revelation of the complex."
And here is part of a conversation with my colleague Douglas Crimp that you can find at the ACT UP Oral History Project in which he discusses the graphical strategies that activists in ACT UP devised in the late 1980s and early 1990s:
"I think that maybe one of the great things that ACT UP was able to do was to figure out ways of putting a certain complexity into sloganeering. Silence Equals Death is an extremely vague, and at the same time, extremely resonant image text, that, I mean, the way I wrote about it in AIDS Demo Graphics was that it was partly because one doesn’t necessarily immediately know what it means; what that pink triangle is, for example; why it’s upside down, in relation to the way it was historically used; how it was historically used. That’s not all right there. And yet, it became incredibly resonant for that very reason. So I think that there are ways, graphically and textually, to constitute a certain complexity. And I think that that was one of the achievements of the graphic and other representational work that ACT UP did."
The conversation took place in the spring of 2007, and Crimp is reflecting on events two decades earlier. The remarkable similarity between his language and Tufte's struck me. What strikes me too is that the ACT UP graphics really are data graphics. This is true not just because of the central mathematical symbol in Silence = Death, but because of the statistical materials that appeared in many other ACT UP graphics.

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Sally Goes to Her Polling Place ...

Election campaigns too often revolve completely around the dour, dissembling or irrelevant. Consider, by contrast, this election advert run by the Young Socialists of Catalonia (Spain). Whether or not the advert helps the Socialists win the election, it has gotten them a remarkable amount of international press coverage ~ at the bottom of this report in the BBC are links to similar reports world-wide. I am sure that there will be many who find this "offensive." Is it more offensive than having politicians lie to you? Is it more offensive than haivng them run on programs that are divisive, militaristic, and exploitative?

And, of course, here is one of the funniest movie scenes ever. Coincidentally, it ran on local TV here in Western NY last night. So, before we all get our knickers in a knot ...

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20 November 2010

Anselm Kiefer

"There is a special border, the border between art and life that
often shifts deceptively. Yet, without this border, there is no art.
In the process of being produced, art borrows material from life,
and the traces of life still shine through the completed work of art.
But, at the same time, the distance from life is the essence, the
substance of art. And, yet, life has still left its traces. The more
scarred the work of art is by the battles waged on the borders
between art and life, the more interesting it becomes."
~ Anselm Kiefer

Winterwald, 2010 © Anselm Kiefer.

Not long ago I posted here on a series of inscribed photographs that Anselm Kiefer has published as Op-Art in The New York Times. There is an exhibition of his work - "Next Year in Jerusalem" - running through 18 December in NYC. You can find a range of reviews here (respectful and perceptive, if equivocal) and here (petulant and resentful*) and here (scornful, bored). No doubt there will be more.

There also is a newly released film on Kiefer and his work - Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow - that seems intriguing. One perplexity is how an artist whose work is so dominated by the shadow of the holocaust can (as Kiefer apparently does) take Heidegger seriously.
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* On the subject of pots and kettles: How someone who makes a living as an art critic for The Wall Street Journal (or anywhere else for that matter) can be self-righteous about the well-documented excesses and pretentiousness of the art world is beyond me. It isn't as if critics - especially those whose assessments appear is prominent venues - are anything other than cogs in the machine.

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18 November 2010

Best Shots (140) ~ David Maljkovic

(167) David Maljkovic ~ Anthony Perkins, Zagreb (17 November 2010).

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16 November 2010

Walter Bagehot is Smiling

Well the Royals are going to have wedding. And the young prince has bestowed his late mum's engagement ring on the princess-to-be. (The baubles are reported to have been worth thirty thousand pounds in 1981, so with inflation ... not a bad pay day for the young lady!) No sooner had the excitement begun to gather than the London correspondent for The Nation had the temerity to point out that the nuptials would nicely distract everyone from the Tory budget cuts and from the deal to buy off torture victims. You can find her comments here. I suppose I am not quite cynical enough to buy this line of thinking. But then again, Walter Bagehot pretty much assigned this role to the Royals way back when (see The English Constitution - 1867). While the Cabinet is, on his view, the "efficient secret" of British politics allowing the government to exercise power, the Royals are the "dignified" or symbolic dimension of that politics, being mostly useful for distracting the attention of the common man from the machinations of real politics. So, on second thought, maybe I am cynical enough . . .

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Ai Weiwei on Democracy and Development

Ai Weiwei ~ White House (1999)
"You cannot simply give up fundamental beliefs in human rights for a short-term gain.

This kind of thinking will cause tragedy in the future. It is going to be a strong challenge for the nations of the world to survive economically and at the same time protect civilized values, which come from the long struggle of science and humanitarianism.

We see the tendency in the world to criticize democracy and sometimes even to say that authoritarian countries like China are more efficient. That is very short-sighted. China looks efficient only because it can sacrifice most people's rights. This is not something the west should be happy about. In a town like Guangzhou there are thousands of workers who suffer injuries such as losing fingers in work accidents. They are on low salaries. They have no future.

Since the global economic crisis began, the change in global attitudes is clear to see – and I think it is pitiful. Barack Obama came to China and he is probably the only president of the United States never to mention the words "human rights" in public. You see it in France, with Hu Jintao's visit last week. How can people be so short-sighted? How can they betray those basic values?" ~ Ai Weiwei (7 Nov 2010)

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been in the news both in Britain [1] [2] [3] [4] and back home [1] [2] [3] over the past several weeks. He has taken it upon himself to not only challenge his own government, but to characterize in a straightforward way the craven behavior of Western politicians - "pitiful." His outspokenness has gotten him warnings from the Chinese authorities. Just as an aside, Ai seems to be yet another of the architects who, in one or another way, weave art and politics together as they encounter the world.

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14 November 2010

Enthusiasms (31) ~ Rebecca Martin

I first encountered singer Rebecca Martin several years ago on the fourth installment of the "On Broadway" series that Paul Motian has been issuing since the late 1980s. Her voice was a remarkable feature of the recording. Over this past Labor Day I was in Washington DC for the APSA convention and walked with Susan down to Dupont Circle. We stopped in at Melody Records where, among other things, I bought Martin's newest CD When I Was Long Ago, recently released on Sunnyside Records. On the recording it is just Martin, Larry Grenadier (bass) and Bill McHenry (tenor). The tunes are all "standards" with a twist.* Martin researched early performances of all the numbers in order to peel away some of the historical accretions that surround the way we have heard these tunes over the intervening decades. The sparse instrumentation and Martin's voicings make the recording a startling achievement.
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10 Tracks: For All We Know (1934) J. Fred Coots/Sam Lewis; But Not For Me (1930) George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin; Lush Life (1938) Billy Strayhorn; No Moon At All (1948) Redd Evans/David Mann; Cheer Up Charlie (1971) Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse/Walter Scharf; Low Key Lightly (Lucky In Love) (1959) Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn; Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (1931) Harry Barris/Ted Koehler/Billy Moll; Someone to Watch Over Me (1926) George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin; I Didn’t Know What Time It Was (1939) Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart; Willow Weep For Me (1932) Ann Ronell.

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Matters of Scale

Anti-nuclear protesters block the main road to Germany's interim
nuclear waste storage facility in the northern village of Gorleben
Monday. Riot police clashed with protesters all along the route of
a controversial shipment of Castor containers with spent nuclear fuel.
Photograph © Reuters.

In The Guardian today is this collection of images of what allegedly are the ten most significant mass demonstrations. I have to say that the point of the exercise is ambiguous - are we looking for the "ten best" demonstrations or the ten best pictures of demonstrations? Surely not the latter. And arguably not the former either. So, let's not quibble about the selections. Let's ask instead whether we ought to be concentrating on the whoppers, the momentous protests that draw hundreds of thousands of participants. Let's recognize the importance of more modest, often more persistent undertakings like the recent anti-nuclear protests in Germany. The image I've lifted above (from the 'Pictures of the Week' at Salon.com) is an example.

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An Interesting List

At The Guardian yesterday you can find this column where ten writers were asked to select their definitive "photo of the decade" from those collected in a couple of books and to write a short couple of paragraphs explaining their choice. AS might be expected, the selections are dominated by themes - art & politics.

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13 November 2010

“We haven’t seen each other for so long, I have so much to tell you.”

So, it is reported, said Aung Saw Suu Kyi as she emerged from house arrest. You can read another report here. This is good news. But it hardly is cause for jubilation. Why? . . . well, the Burmese junta has freed one of the political prisoners they've been holding for years. That is a start. One outrage has ended for now. What about the anonymous thousands? What about the travesty elections that the regime just orchestrated?

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12 November 2010

Local Event - Tony Malaby at ROCO Sunday

Saxophonist Tony Malaby will be playing in town this Sunday (14 November) at Rochester Contemporary 8:00 pm. Malaby has played with the best - Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, etc.; this will definitely be worth getting out of the house for!

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Deficit Reform My Keester

President Barack Obama, center, walks with Erskine Bowles,
left, and Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., co-chairs of the National
Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (April 2010).
Photograph © Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

The fully predictable has happened. The right-leaning (Erskine Bowles) and 'aw, shucks' reactionary (Alan Simpson), co-chairs of Obama's "bipartisan" deficit reduction commission, have announced what they think should happen. As Paul Krugman writes in The Times today: "It seemed obvious, as soon as the commission’s membership was announced, that 'bipartisanship' would mean what it so often does in Washington: a compromise between the center-right and the hard-right."

As I have argued here many times before, bi-partisanship is bad politics - it gets us regressive, incoherent policy and, more importantly, it subverts the competition on which democracy itself relies. (If you are interested in reasons and examples aplenty look here and then here.) Fortunately, there are some people and groups out there who seem willing to call the co-chair's proposal what it is - reactionary twaddle. This proposal is clearly meant as an agenda setting move. The thinking goes like this: 'If we make an extreme initial claim we will likely end up with something only slightly less regressive." There is all sorts of talk about 'shared-sacrifice' in the face of deficits. But the sources of our deficits are easy to see (look here and here) and gutting Social Security (for instance) is irrelevant to getting them under control. The working and middle classes, to say nothing of the poor, in America already have undertaken sacrifices as the rich have run off with the goodies. That has been going on for three decades. What we need now is redress, not shared sacrifice.

As Krugman also writes: "It will take time to crunch the numbers here, but this proposal clearly represents a major transfer of income upward, from the middle class to a small minority of wealthy Americans." Obama, like the Clinton-ites before him, is adept at that game. It runs under the guise of bi-partisanship, so Obama can position himself between Bowles and Simpson and look like the great compromise-r. But being between two positions doesn't necessarily make you centrist.

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Best Shots (139) ~ Clarisse D'Arcimoles

(166) Clarisse D'Arcimoles ~ ". . . my brother Emeric"
(10 November 2010).

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11 November 2010

The Guardian Covers Graffiti

In Paris, "Princess Hijab" has been altering fashion adverts in the Metro - a process she apparently refers to as "hijab-ization." You can find her work here.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, the Brits can't still seem to make up their minds what to do about graffiti - some jurisdictions insisting that it be whitewashed, others trying to make it pay - dubbing it a tourist attraction! The sordid tale is here. What I want to know is this: what does making graffiti into a tourist attraction do to its putative outsider, quasi-disreputable, transgressive status?

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10 November 2010

Passings: Jack Levine (1915-2010)


American painter Jack Levine has died. You can find an obituary here in The New York Times. Levine, according to the Times, was adept at 'skewering plutocrats.' His work on the painting I've lifted here - entitled the "Feast of Pure Reason" (1937) - was funded by the WPA. Imagine the government today funding artists to depict the 'patriotic' intimacies that exist between police, politicians and capitalists! In discussions of the economic stimulus spending program there was lots of talk about 'shovel ready' construction projects. No one thought to mention the plethora of 'satire- ready' subjects among the prominent, wealthy and powerful.

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09 November 2010

Arundhati Roy Speaks

Arundhati Roy. Photograph © Jeanbaptistparis/Flickr.

Today The New York Times ran this Op-Ed by Arundhati Roy. And DemocracyNow! ran this interview with her today as well. Roy is a smart, articulate, courageous woman. And that, on top of being a wondrously talented writer. She has, over the course of a decade or so, become a vigorous critic of a host of policies pursued by the Indian government and of uncontrolled globalization. Indeed, she is especially adept at pointing out how the two are intimately intertwined. And she regularly calls attention to the plight of those - typically the poorest Indians - who get squeezed as the Indian state intersects with neo-liberal political economics. This has gotten her into political and legal trouble on several occasions. Most recently she has spoken forcefully about the ongoing violence in Kashmir in ways that have many demanding that she be charged and tried for sedition. But Roy has defenders as well. And much of the discussion about her and the criticisms she voices ought better be focused on Kashmir and the problems there to which she is calling attention. Those problems are complex, as is the way forward. (For a slew of recent reports and essays on Kashmir from The Guardian and The New York Times look here and here.) Roy herself acknowledges as much even as she insists that the way forward must be democratic and pluralist. But complaining about Arundhati Roy is a way of blaming the messenger instead of attending to the message.

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08 November 2010

Hot Off the Presses: Aesthetics & World Politics

"Photography is very related to poetry. It's suggestive
and fragmentary and unsatisfying in a lot of ways.
It's the art of limitation: framing the world."
~ Alec Soth


Among the truly gratifying things that come from writing this blog and more generally pursuing seemingly random interests at the intersection of photography and politics is the excuse all that has provided to make connections with interesting and curious people whom I'd otherwise never encounter. Today in the mail I received a copy of this new book* by Roland Bleiker who teaches international politics at the University of Queensland. While we've never actually met, Roland has graciously tolerated a number of pestering emails from me over the past couple of years. And he has kindly had his publisher send me a copy of the book which ranges across politics, poetry and the visual arts.
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* Roland Bleiker. 2010. Aesthetics and World Politics. Palgrave Macmillan.

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Indifference to Democracy

"The international aid system has a dirty secret. Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, the nations and organizations that donate and distribute aid do not care much about democracy and they still actively support dictators. The conventional narrative is that donors supported dictators only during the cold war and ever since have promoted democracy. This is wrong.

[. . .]

In any case, dictators have received a remarkably constant share—around a third—of international aid expenditures since 1972. The proportion of aid received by democracies has remained stuck at about one fifth (the rest are in a purgatory called “Partly Free” by Freedom House). As for US foreign aid, despite all the brave pronouncements such as the ones I’ve quoted, more than half the aid budget still went to dictators during the most recent five years for which figures are available (2004–2008)."
This, from William Easterly, "Foreign Aid for Scoundrels," NYRB (25 November 2010). So, why the discrepancy between this pattern and what economists like Amartya Sen and Dani Rodrik and Pranab Bardhan would tell us about the ways democracy contributes to development? And, worse, why the discrepancy between this pattern, and the neo-conservative blather about spreading democracy by waging illegal wars?

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07 November 2010

Elections in Exotic Places (3)

Conakry, Guinea: A Guinean woman holds her voting card as
she enters a polling station. Photograph Jerome Delay/AP.


I have been remiss in my effort to build a base of images from which to discuss the conventions that govern 'election photojournalism.' I made some desultory efforts early last summer [1] [2] [3]; consider this a renewed effort. For this installment I offer the image above, lifted from The Guardian.

I have been prompted to take up this task again by reports from Burma on the "elections" being orchestrated there today. You can find the reports here and here; notice that one of them is image-less. Granted, this particular casting and counting of votes hardly qualifies as an election. But does the absence of photographs mean it has not happened at all?

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There is an Interview with Judith Butler ...

... here at Guernica; and while I sometimes find Butler pretty opaque, I often find her astute as well.

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Why Not Rochester?

There is an extremely interesting interview here with a fellow named Ted Howard who has launched what he calls the Democracy Collaborative. This venture sees the intimate relationship between democracy and economic development and locates the contest to reinvigorate that relationship not in some far away land but in Cleveland. (Look here too.) The collaborative works with poor urban communities to help initiate and sustain worker-owned cooperatives that do business with large employers (like Universities and Medical Centers). The aim is to generate jobs in the communities that are green, local, well-paying and not likely to be exported. As a by-product, of course, such businesses will enhance the municipal tax base. This is a model that should fit Rochester - and all the other economically depressed cities across Western and Central New York state - extremely well.

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06 November 2010

Can You Define "Dim Bulb"? Hint: Conservative Democrats in the House


This image, of a donkey poking his head up where the sun don't shine seems appropriate given the post-election whining from putative "moderates" in the party.
“Two conservative Democrats, Representatives Heath Shuler of North Carolina and Jim Matheson of Utah, went public on Thursday with their view that Ms. Pelosi should step aside as leader after devastating losses to House Republicans,” reports The Times’s Carl Hulse. “ ‘This is about being a team player,’ said Mr. Shuler in an interview, adding that he and others did not believe the party can recover if Ms. Pelosi remained at the helm. ‘I don’t see us having the ability to recruit moderate candidates if she were to be the minority leader.’ ” (more here)
So, let me see, the Blue Dog caucus - to which Shuler and Matheson belong - gets it's butt handed to it (losing very nearly half its members in the House) while the Progressive Caucus loses nearly no seats and we should be recruiting more "moderates"?* Are you kidding? Look up "Dim Bulb" in the dictionary and there smiling out at you will be the images of Shuler & Matheson. I am not a big fan of Pelosi, but her mistake has been giving too much credence to wanna-be types like the Blue Dogs. Given a choice between a genuine Republican and impostors, voters seem to have chosen the real thing.

And, another thing, Shuler is going on about being a "team player" after his caucus has spent a couple of years more or less systematically undermining the Democratic leadership in the Congress? We get crappy, incoherent legislation because the leadership has to accommodate ridiculous demands from members like, well, like Shuler.
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* This from a little bit further down the page at The Times: "The Blue Dogs . . . were decimated on Tuesday, and now number only 28 members. Overall, most of the Democrats picked off in the Republican tide — 48 out of 60, by one party strategist’s count — were moderates representing swing districts, resulting in a Democratic caucus that is now more liberal than it was before." The point is reiterated in this report from npr.

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Best Shots (138) ~ Steve Schapiro

(165) Steve Schapiro ~ Rene Magritte at MOMA, 1965.
(4 November 2010).

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Interviews with . . .

. . . writer Rebecca Solnit here . . . Larry Clark here . . . and a baker's half-dozen photographers here.

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05 November 2010

John Berger (5 November 1926 - )

What with all my griping about our recent electoral mayhem, I came close to overlooking the fact that today is the birthday of John Berger (pictured above circa 2008). I admire him immensely. And, unable to totally give up my griping, I want to offer a passage from Berger. I was reminded of it by the harping of the Republicans - McConnell, Boehner and their lot, as they proclaim loudly (as though saying something loudly will somehow make it more persuasive instead of more irritating) - about what 'the American people' were saying in the election. So, here is John Berger:
"The word we, when printed or pronounced on screens, has become suspect, for it is continually used by those in power in the demagogic claim that they are also speaking for those denied power."

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Mitch McConnell

Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, November 2010.
Photograph © Stephen Crowley/New York Times.

And this fellow, the one who looks regularly like the buffoonish class clown among a group of eighth grade boys, has threatened to insure that Obama is a one term President. Now there is a policy agenda for you! The only thing more disappointing than the capitulations of the Democrats is the vacuity and venality of the Republicans. That may seem like an extreme characterization. But the party has offered not a single plausible economic policy and (to take bu a single for instance) voted uniformly against extending unemployment benefits for those workers who lost jobs as a result of the Republican inspired depression.

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04 November 2010

On the Election ~ Why Republicans Are Overstating Their Case

(1) The active 'electorate' for this fiasco was older and whiter by a considerable measure than in 2008. That means blacks and young folks stayed home in large numbers. The Democrats did not mobilize their base - in large part because they were running away from anything resembling "hope" and "change" and in equally large part because over the past two years they have made scant progress in building those buzz-words into actual policies.

(2) Who did old white folks vote for? Not wanna-be conservatives. Compare the performance of so-called "Blue Dog" democrats with members of the Progressive Caucus. The Blue Dogs are Republicans in canine clothing. And they went down to defeat in large numbers (on npr this evening I heard that 48% of the BD Causcus lost their seats in Congressional elections). The Progressives, however, fared substantially better (the same npr broadcast said only 5% of that caucus lost seats). It surely pays to run to the right if you are a Democrat!

Also, despite all the media hype, the putative 'tea party' effect seems to have been relatively weak. Check out this graphic from The New York Times which documents the fact that candidates affiliated with the TP lost at a rate of very nearly two to one. Running to the extreme right seems to pay off well for Republicans! All that the successful tea-partiers will do is pursue a laughable legislative agenda.

(3) Since the Republicans had no viable policies on offer, there was nothing of theirs the electorate could repudiate. It is a commonplace that "the American people" did not express great confidence in the Repubs. They announced they are sick and tired of the status quo. But that does not mean they careened to the right.

(4) The Republicans are obtuse enough to not see any of that. According to this report in The Guardian, they are planning to use their re-appropriated committee positions to "investigate" all sorts of imagined wrong-doing on the part of Obama and his minions. Once they start wasting time and money on that sort of idiocy instead of dealing with unemployment they are dead. In their frenzy to make good on Mitch McConnell's pledge to insure Obama is a one term president they are going to shoot themselves in the foot - scratch that, both feet.

(5) The Republican diagnosis of our economic problems also will be a disaster if they seek to implement it. No need to elaborate.

(6) So the sensible view, which you sometimes hear, is that a hard turn to the right is ill-advised. The problem is how to remedy unemployment and its attendant hardships. The Republicans have nothing to offer there. It remains to be seen if the Dems can shake off the wanna-be syndrome and pursue economic policies that work for regular people rather than the rich. I am not hopeful. Obama is already beginning to grovel.

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Carolyn Drake

A Home in the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan.
Photograph © Carolyn Drake.

Spring in the Suusamyr Valley in northwest Kyrgystan.
Photograph © Carolyn Drake.

Last week I noticed this post at the Lens blog at The New York Times. It presents the truly remarkable work of Carolyn Drake from her project Paradise Rivers focusing on the deography, politics and cultures of Central Asian republics.

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02 November 2010

Zombie Politics

Fear the undead. The rotting remains of our 31st president stalk the land ~ the Republicans will try hard to implement his economic policies, with the predictable consequence of deepening economic crisis. Here he is, Herbert Hoover, offering astute counsel to John Boehner and his cronies. What are people thinking?

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Susie Linfield ~ The Cruel Radiance

"But one of the things that makes looking at such images especially difficult today is that we no longer have the same kind of moral and political framework to help us understand the violence. Capa’s photos of the Spanish Civil War, or of China after the Japanese invasion, were very clear on political context. You knew what to do with your anger and your horror. Today, looking at images from Sierra Leone or the Congo, one can feel horror, disgust, and great sadness—but what to do in response is much less apparent. Which of the twelve militias now fighting in the Congo do you support? Visual atrocity is much clearer today, but we no longer have the political clarity to accompany it." ~ Susie Linfield (ArtForum, November 2010)


And so, liberals, mostly in the north and the west, averse to politics and comfortable with charity blame the messenger. They wallow in resentment - aimed at the photographer - or cynicism. Both reactions (and that is what they are, reactionary) are symptoms of a politics of displacement. They are symptomatic of the emaciated state of liberal politics.

Susie Linfield, with whose extremely smart views I often disagree, has a new book coming out.* It collects (and, I assume, refines and revises) her essays on photography and politics that have appeared over the past over the past several years. She is always worth reading. The comment I lift above comes from a short notice she gives of the book.
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* Susie Linfield. 2010. The Cruel Radiance: Photography & Political Violence. University of Chicago Press ~ find details here.

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01 November 2010

Photography & Philosophy (again)

"I started philosophy looking for answers. But along the way I came to prize exploring the questions. Progress in philosophy consists, I think, in a clearer delineation of the conceptual options, not in reaching determinate conclusions." ~ K. Anthony Appiah
Anthony Appiah, New York, 2003. Photograph © Steve Pyke.

On several occassions I have posted on and borrowed shamelessly from the work of Steve Pyke, primarily his portraits of contemporary philosophers. You can find those posts here. Yesterday, The New York Times published this post by Pyke on its blog 'The Stone' (as in Philosopher's Stone). Here is what he says about the preoccupation with making portraits of philosophers:
"Despite being unknown at a time, the philosophers of an era survive longer in collective memory than wealthy nobleman and politicians, or the popular figures of stage, song and stadium. Because of this disconnect between living fame and later recognition, we have less of a record of these thinkers than we should. Our museums are filled with busts and paintings of long-forgotten wealth and beauty instead of the philosophers who have so influenced contemporary politics and society. My aim in this project has been the modest one of making sure that, for this era at least, there is some record of the philosophers."
Of course, Pyke is assuming that Colleges and Universities will continue to teach philosophy into the future - a sketchy bet given the vicissitudes of intellectual fashion and dire academic budgets! Yet, unlike players in other market places, it turns out that philosophers who play with concepts and questions that are not labeled with a "sell by" date and so have some longevity outside of textbooks and museums.

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Ouch!