31 July 2011

Hope & Change, My Keester

The Republicans got just about everything they asked for in the "compromise" debt deal. Of course, they didn't get a guaranteed vote on a balanced budget amendment. But that was a joke to begin with - just something they could "compromise" on when the chips were down. Here is the summary of the deal* circulating in the press this evening:
  • The president will be authorized to increase the debt limit by at least $2.1 trillion, eliminating the need for another increase until 2013.
  • The first tranche of cuts will come in at nearly $1 trillion. That includes savings of $350 billion from the Base Defense Budget, which will be trimmed based off a review of overall U.S. national security policy.
  • A bipartisan committee with enhanced procedural authority will be responsible for pinpointing $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction from both entitlements and tax reform, as well as other spending programs.
  • The committee will have to report out legislation by November 23, 2011.
  • Congress will be required to vote on Committee recommendations by December 23, 2011.
  • The trigger mechanism -- should the committee's recommendations not be acted upon -- will be mandatory spending cuts. Those cuts, which will begin in January 2013, will be split 50/50 between domestic and defense spending. Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries and "low-income programs" would be exempted from those cuts.
Note first that this is a deal based solely on electoral politics. It postpones further discussion until Obama's second term (should there be one). And it postpones most of the cuts - certain to make the ongoing depression deeper, wider and more persistent - until such time as Obama has no electoral future for the disaster to impact. So much for the "change" Barack.

Note second, that social security and medicare and "low income programs" are not exempted from the negotiations about the second round of cuts. Note too that this hardly is the 'balanced' approach (spending cuts coupled with tax increases) that Obama claimed was essential and that, according to all sorts of polls, most Americans support. And note, finally, that the "defense" cuts are illusory given that Obama is slowly winding down BushCo's overseas adventures. No pain there. But no hope in this feature of the deal.

Finally, note that "bipartisan committee with enhanced procedural authority" is a euphemism for a decision-making procedure drained of what scant democratic accountability characterizes politics in DC these days. Talk about cleaning up the mess in Washington! What we need is not less democracy, but more - democracy aimed at protecting and promoting the interests of regular Americans. The electorate knows that. And they know too, that the vast majority of Democratic elected officials care not one whit for their interests.
___________________
* I lifted this list verbatim from a report at Huffington Post. no permalink available.

Labels: , , , ,

29 July 2011

Local Event - Joe Beard TONIGHT

Joe Beard is playing tonight - six until eight - at Village Gate. Not only is the music terrific, but it is free! Details here. You definitely ought to go.

Labels: , ,

Jerry Liebling's Approach to Teaching Young Photographers

"Jerry Liebling’s photography classes — at least in the late ’70s, when I studied under him — consisted mostly of his lecturing about everything but photography. He would talk about Greek philosophy, German history, Jungian psychology, 16th-century Flemish painting and French cinema. In the same lecture! Only rarely would the names of Edward Weston or Lewis Hine come into the conversation. Then, a half-hour would be devoted to his tough critiques of our photographs.

While the lectures were thrilling, I was often frustrated. Jerry refused to teach technique. He insisted that it was unimportant. No matter how much I asked, he wouldn’t show me how to use a 4-by-5 camera. Learn it yourself, he told me.

I wanted to know the secrets that would allow me to be a great photographer. After all, Jerry had been in the New York Photo League as a young man, with giants like Aaron Siskind and Paul Strand.

But he wanted me to learn to think. He insisted that it was all about what you had to say, not how you said it."
This testimony comes from one of Leibling's very successful students. It seems Leibling's views converge with my own - photography is a tool we use to see, imagine and think with. It is the thinking that counts. As I noted yesterday Leibling died earlier in the week. You can find his web page here.

Labels: ,

Republicans are Only Part of the Problem - But Not for the Reasons the Mainstream Press Suggests

In his column today, Paul Krugman doesn't just excoriate American political elites, he chastises the press for mis-representing the source of the ongoing political disaster in Washington. He concludes by exclaiming: "The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you’re not willing to say that, you’re helping make that problem worse."

In a certain sense I agree. One major source of political and political-economic dysfunction in the U.S. is the reactionary politics of a series of Republican Congressional delegations (and paralleling that, the reactionary politics of the Bush-Bush-Reagan administrations). It surely is hard to argue with Krugman about that. Pretty much everything we know about the rightward shift of American politics in the past several decades locates a preponderate amount of responsibility with the Republicans.

But Krugman is only half right here. He spends a good portion of the column documenting the anemic centrist politics of the current Democrats. They are not now - and have not in recent memory - mounting any credible opposition to the Republican train wreck. Essentially the Democrats are Republican-lite and that is a big part of the problem too. The difficulty they pose is not one of being equally extreme (as the press narrative would have it) but of being craven. No one seems to want to say that out loud either.

Labels: , , ,

28 July 2011

Passings ~ Jerome Liebling (1924-2011)

Photographer & educator Jerome Liebling has died. You can find an obituary and accompanying slide show of his work here in The New York Times.

Labels: ,

What Did We Learn About History Today?

The same tired lesson about Republican hypocrisy. They consistently generate huge deficits all the while blathering on about financial conservatism. Of the $13.3 Trillion in Federal Budget Deficits accumulated since Reagan took office, $9.5 Trillion were run up by Republican Administrations. And an unidentified chunk of the remainder represents Obama's efforts at remedying the depression he inherited from BushCo. Here and here are some nice graphics illustrating the sources of the current deficit difficulty.

Oh yeah, while we are at it, just where is the economic growth that was supposed to be generated by prolonging the BushCo tax cuts to the rich?

Labels: ,

27 July 2011

What Did We Learn About Politics Today?

The first thing we learned is about irony. It was ironic to learn that John Boehner's budget cutting plan - which would've been dead in the water anyhow - really was dead when the CBO announced that the cuts he proposes would not be quite so deep and draconian as he announced. And it was even more ironic to learn from the very same CBO that the putatively Democratic plan advanced by Harry Reid in the Senate would actually cut more deeply than would Boehner's! So, it is not just that the Senate plan is not "balanced" in the sense of approaching the task of deficit reduction by including both tax revenues and spending cuts (it relies solely on the latter), but it actually cuts more than the Republican leadership in the House would like. (Read the report here.) Call all that bi-partisanship in action.

The second thing we learned is that this bi-partisanship takes aim dead at the foreheads of working Americans - or should I say Americans who are not working due to the depression. Spending cuts will have a negative impact on an already depressed labor market. (Report here.) No self-respecting Democrat is saying anything about that. So, thank the lord for Brother West! He is taking his 'call out the President for abandoning working and poor America' show on the road. Not only are the democrats out-doing the republicans at the reactionary deficit reduction by spending cuts game, they are screwing their own putative "base." That would be ironic too, if it were not so predictably pathetic.

Finally we learned about the power of capitalists and their ideologists. What we are worried about - after all, there is no evidence we are worried about the poor and the working classes, those who will bear the brunt of all the deficit reduction shenanigans - are the investors in the bond markets. We already know that they can withhold investment to signal their displeasure. But we're now being threatened by rating agencies too. Standard and Poor's is threatening to downgrade the rating on U.S. Treasury Bonds. If you ignore all of the other links in this post, I urge you to check out this commentary by Robert Reich. Credit rating agencies are accountable to precisely no one. But they sure are throwing their weight around. No irony in that.

One useful thing I did learn is that we really don't need the debt ceiling at all. It turns out that lots of other perfectly functional capitalist political economic systems work perfectly well without any such legal constraint. Read about it here. But why be sensible?

Labels: , , , , , ,

26 July 2011

Best Shots (170) ~ Nan Golden

(197) Nan Golden ~ Children . . . "are wild and magical, as if from another planet."
(24 July 2011).


Usually I don't comment on the images in this series. I simply use them as blog-fodder. But I should say two things. First, thanks to the folks at The Guardian for keeping up the good work. I really like the series. Second, Golden is spot on about children. Having August here reminds me of how non-terrestrial little ones actually are.

Labels: , ,

25 July 2011

Obama and Boehner Do Stand Up

I just listened to the non-event of the evening. Obama gets on the air and says "Washington" has a problem (going out of his way to insist that Boehner and the Republican leadership have been reasonable all along) and asks all us frustrated voters to contact our congressional representatives and counsel them to embrace compromise and moderation. Boehner gets on the air in response (let's set aside the notion that any time the president speaks the networks feel obliged to provide equal time to the Republicans) and he basically says that Obama is the problem. He then hummed the "Cut-Cap-And-Balance" mantra and whistled the non-reality-based ditty about how taxing the rich is job killing. One small irony is that Boehner played the identity politics card to the hilt - "as someone who has run a small business," he said, and "as the father of two daughters" he said. But what is not the slightest bit ironic is that the President has no plan - none! - except telling us to write our Congressmen. Are you freakn' kidding us here Mr. President?

What would I have Obama do? First, start by calling the Republicans what they are -reactionary obstructionists who need to be treated as such. Second, make it clear that if the reactionaries do not cooperate tomorrow, he will adopt the strategy discussed in this piece from The New York Times. In short, declare a state of emergency, set aside the legislation requiring Congressional approval for increasing the debt ceiling, and unilaterally increase it to a level that will get us past the 2012 elections. And invoke the 14th Amendment clause to justify the action. (After all, Obama is willing to buy into the expansionist executive theories of Yoo, et. al. in order to keep incarcerating people without trial and so forth. Why not adopt the approach for something worthwhile?). Third, and finally, sit back and dare the Republican House and the Republican Courts to do something about the move. This last posture is what Bill Clinton counsels and I (for once) agree with the man.

Of course, Obama subscribes to a misguided narrative of American political history as revolving around compromise and making nice. And that prevents him from adopting anything like that line of action. The inconvenience for Obama, is that his narrative apparently is at some variance to the historical record. This whole spectacle is simply pathetic.

Labels: , ,

24 July 2011

Enthusiasms (33) ~ James Farm

Cover photograph © Aaron Parks.

Plowed Field with Blue Sky
Photograph © Blaise Howard, Getty Images / The Image Bank.

The quartet James Farm has put out a quite impressive first album. The collaborative effort consists in compositions by the members - Aaron Parks (piano), Matt Penman (bass), Joshua Redman (Tenor), and Eric Harland (drums). I can't say where the band's name comes from - try here. What I can do is tell you that they make mighty fine music.

Two interesting asides. The first is that pianist Aaron Parks took the cover photo (above). I've lifted the inside picture from the disc here too. And I like the agricultural theme in my recent enthusiasms.

Labels: , ,

19 July 2011

Robb Westbrook

Late in this past Spring Term, my colleague Robb Westbrook was installed as the inaugural Joseph F. Cunningham Professor of History here at Rochester. It is an extremely well deserved, overdue honor. Robb is a remarkably accomplished intellectual historian. This is a picture of him, lifted from this story in The Rochester Review, giving a talk at the investiture. In my years at the university Robb has been an extremely generous colleague; he has twice tolerated my sitting in on his seminar on American Pragmatism. Indeed, it is likely that he's forgotten more about pragmatism than I ever have learned. Over the years he has sent a steady stream of smart graduate students my way - mostly for reading courses in this or that aspect of modern political theory or with requests that I serve as examiner on their oral exams. Given that my own department has virtually abandoned political theory as an area of graduate study, those students have provided a welcome source of insight and discussion. Robb and his students, in short, have been crucial to my intellectual life in Rochester. All I can say is Thanks!

Labels: ,

18 July 2011

Human Rights, Democracy, Pragmatism

"Thus, we come down to what is tangible and conceivably practical, as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtle it may be; and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice" ~ C.S. Peirce (1878) "How To Make Our Ideas Clear"
At The New York Times blog "The Stone" today, Anat Bilezki has posted this nice, deflationary piece on human rights. More specifically, she argues that in one sense it makes no practical difference whether one grounds one's commitment to human rights in secular or religious terms.
"What difference does it make? [. . .] Why do we care, or why should we care, if the practice of human rights is born of religious or secular motivation?

Take a look at how we work on the ground, so to speak; look at how we do human rights, for example, in Israel-Palestine. When Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the leader of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, squats in the mud trying to stop soldiers who have come to set a blockade around a village or fights settlers who have come to uproot olive trees (as he has done so often, in villages like Yanoun and Jamain and Biddu, in the last decade) along with me (from B’Tselem — the Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), or a group of secular kids from Anarchists Against the Wall, or people from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions — and he does this on a Friday afternoon, knowing full well that he might be courting religious transgression should the Sabbath arrive — does it matter that his reasons for doing so spring from his faith while the anarchists’ derive from their secular political worldview and B’Tselem’s and ICAHD’s from secular international human rights law? The end-product, the human rights activity, is similar, even identical; but the reason, the intention, the motivation for it are distinctly different. Does that matter?

In terms of active promotion of human rights, Bilezki clearly thinks the answer to her final question is simple - "no." But looking further into the political context she insists that the answer is "yes, it matters" and here she looks at the way authority works in political discourse, especially political disagreement. She insists, rightly, I think, that properly religious authority, deriving as it does from some belief in the divine - what she identifies as "God's command" - is a way of preempting political disagreement and debate with a call to simple obedience.
"The problem arises not when we act together, but rather when we don’t. Or put differently, when we act together, the problem stays in the realm of theory, providing fodder for the philosophical game of human rights. It is when we disagree — about abortion, about capital punishment, about settling occupied lands — that the religious authority must vacate the arena of human rights. This is not to say that all religious people hold the same views on these issues or that secular persons are always in agreement (although opinion polls, for whatever they are worth, point to far more unity of thought on the religious side). It is rather that an internal, secular debate on issues that pertain to human rights is structurally and essentially different from the debate between the two camps. In the latter, the authority that is conscripted to “command” us on the religious side is God, while on the secular side it is the human, with her claim to reason, her proclivity to emotion, and her capacity for compassion. In a sense, that is no commandment at all. It is a turn to the human, and a (perhaps axiomatic, perhaps even dogmatic) posit of human dignity, that turns the engine of human rights, leaving us open to discussion, disagreement, and questioning without ever deserting that first posit. The parallel turn to God puts our actions under his command; if he commands a violation of human rights, then so be it."
In the U.S., of course, the most obvious recent instance of this phenomenon has appeared in the "debate" over gay marriage in which many opponents insist that it is "God's command" that gay and lesbian people be excluded from equal rights. Invoking God in that context forecloses debate by excluding a segment of the population from the category "human" to which human rights apply. Bilezki, it seems to me, runs aground insofar as she intimates that a commitment to rights is or can be grounded in compassion. That is a topic for another time. But she is just right when she focuses not on agreement but on disagreement and on what we do, how we proceed, when we disagree. This, on my view, places the importance of democratic politics into relief - for democratic politics is best understood as a way of structuring disagreement.

I began with an observation from Peirce. It is a good general rule, I think. But it places pressure on us to consider consequences in the subtle way Bilezki does in this piece.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Best Shots (169) ~ Basil Hyman

(196) Basil Hyman ~ Circus, circa 1950s (17 July 2011).

Labels:

15 July 2011

Charming, Obnoxious, Insecure Egomaniacs .... Oh My!

I stopped off at the local grocery on my way home from teaching this morning and noticed this cover of the current Psychology Today on display in the checkout line. The PT folk suggest that it is difficult - to spot one, that is - and that that is part of the very pathology of the narcissist. All that is some consolation, I find, since I've failed miserably and serially at the task in the past.

Labels: ,

13 July 2011

Political Ineptitude of the Highest Sort

As I read here in The New York Times about the political-economic precipice we are being driven toward, I started to get cranky. The President and Democratic leadership ought not to have let things go this long without calling the Republican's bluff. And they surely ought not to have muddied the issue of the debt by floating all sorts of truly irrelevant issues like "reforming" Social Security. All that, though, is water under the bridge. The Republican leadership apparently has zero control over their House delegation (in a sense this episode is the converse of watching Obama/Reid/Pelosi try to keep the Congressional Democrats vaguely in line on healthcare reform). Indeed, the House Republicans are solidly anchoring the right of the spectrum on budget reduction - making Republican voters look positively moderate by comparison. Moreover, the field of Republican presidential pretenders is being shrill and other worldly as they court their reactionary "base." In other words there is plenty of blame to go around here. That said, the only consolation to be had as the politicians get set to send the economy circling the bowl is that the Republicans will have shot themselves squarely in the foot. Their reactionary posturing is (hopefully) suicidal.

Labels: , , ,

11 July 2011

Best Shots ( 168 ) ~ Kudzanai Chiurai

(195 ) Kudzanai Chiurai ~ The Minister for Education (10 July 2011).

Labels:

10 July 2011

What We Can Learn From Republicans

Yesterday, Betty Ford died. In reading the press reports a several themes came up repeatedly. One read or heard repeatedly that Ford faced a series of personal problems with courage and generosity of spirit. One read or heard, again and again, that Ford spoke her mind in public even when that was not entirely politic. And one read or heard, again and again, that Betty Ford - Republican - supported abortion rights and the equal rights amendment. In short, Ford represented a time - not so long ago - where Republican politics was not all sound bites and talking points and where one did not need to be a blithering reactionary to play a prominent role in party politics.

I've just finished reading this cover story from The New York Times Magazine - a profile-slash-interview of Sheila Bair, who is leaving her position as head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The FDIC is the outfit that insures your bank deposits. The author of the piece is Joe Nocera, whose other work for The Times, has not always been terribly impressive. Nocera depicts Bair as virtually alone among government officials who, in the face of the depression of 2008, kept her eye on what was best for taxpayers, bank depositors and homeowners. (Hint! The other guys have been looking out for the bankers and bondholders.) He portrays her as occupying that lonely role under both the Bush and the Obama administrations. On Nocera's account Bair is "a member of that dying breed, the Republican moderate." There's the reason I started by talking about Betty Ford. Two things are pretty obvious from reading Nocera's profile of Bair. First, she is far to the left of the current Republican mainstream. Second, she seems to be pretty far to the left of the median member of Obama's economic policy team.

Bair is, I will remind you, a Republican. Obama, I'd like to remind him, supposedly is a Democrat. No need to dwell on the obvious, however.

My reason for dwelling on Betty Ford and Sheila Bair is not because I think them saintly. This post is not about ethics or personal integrity even though both women clearly display both qualities. Instead I am relying on the two women as a prism from which to identify the lunatic way our politics has veered to the right as Republicans have grown more extreme and mainstream Democrats have sought to mollify them in increasingly craven ways.

Labels: , , , , ,

09 July 2011

What Is So Christian About That?

There is a remarkably sad story here in The New York Times about what your Grandma knows, but fundamentalist Christians seem not to have learned. The bottom line? If men and women, especially fertile young men and women, have unprotected sex the quite predictable result is babies!

What the Fundamentalists like to call "natural family planning" clearly is not birth control. Neither is it family planning. The couple profiled in this report used "natural family planning" to have multiple unplanned babies in a half dozen years. Neither, after all that, is it natural since it requires men and women to count and calculate and to abstain at the point where fertility and desire are strongest. And refraining or abstaining at that point amounts to intervening in "natural" processes that have evolved to maximize the chance to reproduce.

Now Sam and Bethany are recanting the propaganda they spewed early on about the wonders of "natural family planning." But that is not going to do anything to protect all the earnest young Christians who follow their unsound, irresponsible advice. That is the sad part of the story - these kids were so damned sure of themselves, they embraced their fanaticism so thoroughly, that they freely peddled advice to other kids. That advice turns out to be just so much bullshit. And now Bethany and Sam go on about their lives with a shrug - "oh well!" - and 15 minutes of fame in The Times.

Labels: ,

08 July 2011

Appearance and Reality in Obama's Digital Democracy

I came across this terrific post over at the Harvard Business Review blog. Here is the punch line:
"I'm a citizen of a generation whose future is going up in smoke faster than you can say "credit default swaps." And what you're really telling me is this: in some parts of the world, social tools can fuel the revolutions that topple dictators. Here, in the nation that invented them? They're used for marketing stunts."
The author, Umair Haque, is reacting, of course, to the AskObama tweet-o-rama earlier in the week. He rightly calls it "a meaningless marketing stunt."

So much for appearance. In the reality section we have Paul Krugman here in The New York Times suggesting that it is not just Obama's rhetoric that is disturbingly right-wing. It is his actual political and economic views that are right wing. Talking about Obama's recent interventions in the deficit reduction fiasco Krugman writes:
"So the goal may be to paint the G.O.P. into a corner, making Republicans look like intransigent extremists — which they are.

But let’s be frank. It’s getting harder and harder to trust Mr. Obama’s motives in the budget fight, given the way his economic rhetoric has veered to the right. In fact, if all you did was listen to his speeches, you might conclude that he basically shares the G.O.P.’s diagnosis of what ails our economy and what should be done to fix it. And maybe that’s not a false impression; maybe it’s the simple truth."

That seems just about right to me. After all, Obama appointed the Bowles/Simpson commission and now he is offering precisely the sorts of cuts to Social Security and Medicare that his mouthpieces recommended. There is no surprise here; Obama has been angling to cuts "entitlements" all along.

The next time someone asks what happened to all the moderate Republicans you can reply - They are in the Obama administration.

Labels: , , ,

06 July 2011

Reality Based Talk on Taxes in the United States


Quick, someone tell the Republicans in Congress - and too prominent Democratic mouth pieces like Bill Clinton too - the united States is really not a high tax country. You can find the latest report here; it shows - based on numbers from the OECD, our own Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Census Bureau - that the U.S. actually is, across various dimensions, one of the very lowest taxed countries in the world. Last weekend, The New York Times ran this report (look here too) on the ridiculous amounts that Corporate CEOs are getting paid today - if the companies have that much cash to throw around, then I am not concerned about our Corporate rates being too high. What I am concerned about is why prominent Democrats are on the tax reduction bandwagon too. We got into our deficit mess largely by cutting taxes, any reason to think we will get out of it the same way?

Labels: , , , ,

05 July 2011

Debating Chart Junk

In the current issue of The Washington Monthly is this slightly too adulatory story on the way Ed Tufte'e work has infiltrated Washington and, perhaps more importantly, the national media. As I have mentioned here repeatedly, I think Tufte's work is provocative and important. But there is no reason to treat him like a rock star.

That said, Tufte defends - quite vigorously - a set of views on what he calls "analytical design" that consist in a set of inextricably entangled moral assessments, aesthetic criteria, and empirical claims. And he can come across as, well, moralistic and judgmental. And I find his views generally persuasive!

Of course, Tufte's views are contestable. I recently came across an interesting exchange that assesses his condemnation of what he calls "chart junk" - design features in data graphics devoted to embellishment rather than conveying information. The first installment is this report by a group of computer scientists who conducted an experimental study of Tufte's thesis. The second installment is a defense (entitled "The Chartjunk Debate") by Stephen Few of a Tufte-esque position which you can find here. Few offers a charitable interpretation of what he sees as the flaws in the initial study.

This is an interesting exchange if you like this sort of thing. I know, I know . . . that's a big if!

Labels: ,

Torture and War, Yesterday and Today and Tomorrow - Brought to You By Barack Obama

Glenn Greenwald reports here that, as though nothing important were really happening, the Obama administration has put the BushCo torturers and their legacy of shameful, pointless brutality behind us. Let's just look to the future, folks. No need to worry about those pesky war criminals. And, elsewhere, Eric Posner points out that the Obama administration approaches the matter of executive branch prerogatives in the conduct of foreign military adventures on precisely the same model as the BushCo minions who justified the torture regime. Or, should I say our torture regime?

Labels: , , ,

04 July 2011

Best Shots (167) ~ Catherine Yass

(194) Catherine Yass ~ Lighthouse (3 July 2011).

Labels:

03 July 2011

"The Revolution Will Not Cure 'the Nubs' . . . "

A piece of street art known as "Tantawi's underwear" mocks
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who heads the ruling transitional
military council.

After the revolution, graphic artist Adham Bakry began stenciling
the face of Safwat El Sherif, a member of Egypt's former ruling party,
behind bars. El Sherif was arrested on corruption charges soon after.
Bakry sees the rise of Cairo's street art as a push back against those
who use the uprising as a marketing tool. Photograph ©
Adham Bakry.

This evening npr ran this interesting report on the uses of graffiti in post-Spring Cairo. I thought the resistance to the commercialization of the revolution is right on point. No more iconic Che Guevara tee shirts! This follows nicely on this earlier post on the post-Spring street art in Libya & Tunisia.

Labels: , ,

02 July 2011

Kundera, Koudelka, & Photography

"All previous crimes of the Russian empire had been committed under the cover of discreet shadow. The deportation of a million Lithuanians, the murder of hundreds of thousands of Poles, the liquidation of the Crimean Tatars remain in our memory, but no photographic documentation exists; sooner or later they will be proclaimed as fabrications. Not so the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, of which both stills and motion pictures are stored in archives throughout the world.

Czech photographers and cameramen were acutely aware that they were the ones who could best do the only thing left to preserve the face of violence for the distant future. Seven days in a row Tereza roamed the streets photographing Russian soldiers and officers in compromising situations. The Russians did not know what to do. They had been carefully briefed about how to behave if someone fired or threw stones, but they had received no direction about what to do when someone aimed a lens."
*****
"Yes, the pictures of the invasion were something else again. She [Tereza] had not done them for Tomas. She had done them out of passion. But not passion for photography. She had done them out of passionate hatred. The situation would never recur. And these photographs, which she had made out of passion, were the ones nobody wanted because they were out of date. Only cactuses had perennial appeal. And cactuses were of no interest to her."

PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia—A poster in a window with a dove
stabbed through the middle, August 1968.
Photograph © Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos.

I am just about mid-way through my annual summer teaching gig in Ann Arbor. After class on Friday, one of my smart students asked whether I had read Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, to which I replied roughly: 'yes, many years ago, but I don't remember much of it.' So I decided to re-read the book. I'm not yet through, but Tereza's tromping the streets documenting the Russian invasion and smuggling film out to the Western press surely brings to mind the exploits of Josef Koudelka who, like Kundera, is a Czech ex-patriot. There are indeed many things I failed to recall about the novel, including not just the way Kundera characterizes compassion, but how he makes photography a central theme - philosophically, politically and personally.

It is not just that - as Kundera remarks in the first of the passages I've lifted above - images provide the grounds for historical memory, but that events, especially political events, are - as he notes in the second passage - nearly by definition unique, non-recurrent. So photography affords some weight or ballast, as it were, to what Kundera might see as the "lightness" of events, offsetting "the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature." One thing that seems clear is that security forces no longer need to be instructed about what to do when someone aims a lens. It is funny to think of Soviet invaders as being naive!

One final passage from Kundera, describing the response of Czechoslovakians in the immediate aftermath of the invasion:
"It was a drunken carnival of hate. Czech towns were decorated with thousands of hand painted posters bearing iconic texts, epigrams, poems, and cartoons of Brezhnev and his soldiers, jeered at by one and all as a circus of illiterates. But no carnival can go on forever."
That remark brought immediately to mind the image by Koudelka I've lifted for this post. The anniversary of the invasion is not far off.

Labels: , , , ,