30 March 2012

The Warren Court?

In light of my earlier diatribe about the Supreme Court, there is a revealing portrait of Elizabeth Warren here at In These Times. The author nicely warns us off of canonizing Warren as too many (blindly) did with Obama. The two adopt approximately the same centrist views on many social issues. But Warren is significantly more progressive on economic matters that our hoper-in-chief. One interesting point is that Warren is a high-powered lawyer who has actually experienced the hardships and demands of "normal" life - in ways that the boys on the right edge of the court have not. Here is a promising nominee to the Court should Obama get another bite at that apple.

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Political Science Confirms the Obvious - the Current Supreme Court is Dominated By Right-Wing Ideologues

The not-so-new-news in this post at The New York Times is that the U.S. Supreme Court, as currently constituted, is as conservative as it has been in nearly a century. This is a topic about which I have commented numerous times here before. In anticipation that the Court is about to overturn the Affordable Care Act (of which I am not a big fan*), it is important to point out that should they do so, the Court will be demonstrating both well-studied ignorance of the economics of insurance markets and an astoundingly poor grasp of sound legal reasoning.

There is no surprise in all this. Republicans have been appointing ideologues to the court for decades. Democrats have let that happen and have appointed centrists when the opportunity has arisen. So now the ideologues on the court are doing just what they were appointed to do - they are acting like ideologues for whom accumulated knowledge and sensible reasoning are no barrier to getting the outcome they seek.
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* The primary issue in the current case revolves around the "individual mandate" which we have, you'll recall, because the Obama administration decided to play footsie with the insurance companies rather than actually try to reform the provision of health care in the U.S.; when the court overturns the Affordable Care Act they will be supplying the best "practical" argument yet for implementing a single-payer national health care system.

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29 March 2012

My Mediocre Shot, or they are 99% (Martin Parr)

Tom Hunter, Jane Bown, Ed Ruscha, Terry O'Neill, Jillian Edelstein, Martin Parr, Platon and Taryn Simon . . . Oh My!*
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* Reasons offered here at The Guardian.

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10 Photographers You Should Ignore

Ansel Adams, Stephen Shore, Gary Winogrand, Alec Soth, Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston, Ryan McGinley and Diane Arbus, . . . Oh My!*

Well, McGinley for sure, anyway.
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* Reasons found here at WIRED.

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Passings ~ Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

Poet Adrienne Rich has died. A report is here in The Guardian. I will link to obituaries as they appear.

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Passings ~ Earl Scruggs (1924-2012)

Bluegrass banjo player Earl Scruggs has died. You can find his obituary here at The New York Times.

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Hoodie Politics

I lived for many years on the South Side of Chicago. I recall now-Congressman Bobby Rush as an Alderman during that time. Rush's performance yesterday on the floor of the House was pure political theater. But it was right on point. And the gavel pounding Republican who was presiding should be ashamed. I don't think wearing a hoodie makes you a hoodlum - or a target for gun fixated vigilantes. The suspicious character pictured here is my son August, aged six, just outside his school last week.

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28 March 2012

Hurray for Margaret Atwood! Hurray for Public Libraries!

Imagine - public libraries that are well funded and staffed! And thanks to Margaret Atwood for voicing solidarity with striking library workers in Toronto.

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27 March 2012

Whereabouts

I have been remiss posting over the past week or so mostly because I was traveling. A longish trip to the west coast to visit August. Doug came along and Susan joined us late in the week. Despite the persistent, all to predictable obstruction from August's mom, we all had a pretty darned good time. Susan and I gave papers at a conference in Portland. But we compensated for that with trips to the Portland zoo, and OMSI (Lego exhibit), some good food (which for August means chicken fingers and fries), swimming in the hotel pools and . . . an appearance at parent's night at John Muir elementary school complete with musical performances and dramatic readings! August is seated in the turquoise shirt.

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FEMEN

Guillaume Herbaut won a World Press Photo award (2012) for The New Amazons, a series of portraits of members of FEMEN, a group of young Ukrainian women who are notorious for protesting topless against a range of matters from sex tourism to censorship and political corruption.

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Child porn? No!

Here are posters from a campaign against child pornography be undertaken by Belgian ngo Child Focus. The woman is French porn-actress Pussykat the man is Italian pron-actor Rocco Siffredi. There are all sorts of thorny theoretical issues about consent and exploitation surrounding porn. Here, at least, the actors are staking out a clear line - children cannot consent in any meaningful way.

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22 March 2012

The Politics of Representation

Today I saw this story in The New York Times - portraits of the people who have gotten caught up, directly or indirectly, in drug-related violence in Mexico. The question: "But for Mexico, a complicated democracy* that has historically chosen stability over reform, are talking and sharing enough?" The answer? No. The article points out the need for political remedies. Just so.
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* nice euphemism.

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21 March 2012

Best Shots (199) ~ Lynsey Addario

(226) Lynsey Addario ~ Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, 2007 (21 March 2012).

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17 March 2012

Recommended Reading

Just in case you've got some free time, I've come across a few shortish things to read:
- Jodi Dean and Jason Jones on "Occupy Wall Street and the Politics of Representation" here at the Russian outlet Chto delat.

- Alex Keyssar on "The Strange History of Voter Suppression" here at The New York Times.

- And Hilary Wainright on Occupy too - 'An Excess of Democracy" here at openDemocracy.

- There is an interview with Amos Oz here at Ha'aretz.

- You can find an Op-ED - "Free Trade Blinders" - by Dani Rodrik here at Project Syndicate.

- Arundhati Roy offers "Capitalism: A Ghost Story" here at Outlook India.

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Doonesbury Offensive #4-#6 ...

Three more in the Doonesbury series that the newspapers feel obliged to omit. (All three strips © Gary Trudeau.) I came across this brief interview with Trudeau at the WSJ that addresses the 'innocent kids' complaint:
"There’s always been some concern that adult subject matter should be quarantined from a page that attracts children. Unlike late at night, when South Park and Colbert are on, impressionable minds are wide awake when the newspaper arrives. But as editors well know, the vast majority of comics readers are adult. More to the point, children don’t read Doonesbury. They never have. They think it’s stupid and boring, a view shared by some of their parents. My older son ignored it his entire childhood, until one day when he was around 11, something clicked and he sat down and read 25 years of work in two weeks. I’m not sure he’s looked at it since."
Read the rest too. While Trudeau won't call the editorial decisions to pull the strip censorship, I will. If, as he suggests, the editorial types know that there is no real danger of corrupting youth, they are simply pandering to right-wingers who will howl with outrage nonetheless. This is like saying that we need voter ID cards to prevent electoral fraud even though we can point to no instances of such fraud. The right wants to impose policies and take no flack. The editors are conniving in that agenda.

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16 March 2012

What Genre is This?

Today, the NPR program "This American Life" issued this press release retracting and apologizing for a segment they had run a while back on the way Apple does business in China. I linked to the TAL segment in this post but don't think the fabrications being discussed in the retraction make any substantive difference to what I wrote.

The retraction will likely bring out two constituencies. First, there will be the Apple devotees who simply cannot imagine that Saint Steve or his legacy can be criticized. That resurgence should be squelched promptly by the fact that there have been a plethora of other reports of Apple's troubling policies. Second, there will be the right-wing press who no doubt will take this as an indicator of how the ultra-liberal media juggernaut that is NPR needs to be brought down a notch or two more.

In any case, this episode highlights another recent essay, this one in The New York Times Sunday Book Review a couple weeks back. The issue is how to sort out journalism from fiction from creative non-fiction in reasonably clear ways.* Responding to "The Lifespan of a Fact", Rebecca Solnit sent this letter to The Times in which she suggests why it is important to get that task right:
To the Editor:

I was so pleased to see Jennifer B. McDonald take on and take a stand on one of the big issues in contemporary writing, the mixed-up, messed-up mash-up between truth and fiction. The potential for serious damage grows as this approach creeps out from memoir (where maybe you’re sort of entitled to lie about yourself, if not anyone else) and into works about strangers, including people who — as the stalwart fact-checker Jim Fingal points out — are not going to be publicly represented any other way, and about politically and culturally complex figures and events. When I teach, I tell my students that it’s a slippery slope from the nasty thing their stepfather never really did to the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq never really had.

A good artist is not hindered by her responsibility to both subject and readers, but stimulated to go deeper, look harder, write better. Maybe that’s because the stories don’t belong to you. You belong to them.

REBECCA SOLNIT
San Francisco
And that is why the retraction the folks at "This American Life" have issued is important.
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* I took up this matter a while ago in this series of posts on Ryszard Kapuściński.

P.S.: You can find the report that led "This American Life" to retract their segment on Apple in China here. I will note that part of what provides the background to this episode is the ridiculous notion that moralism is the proper response to political-economic exploitation or hardship. As one of the people interviewed for the follow-up suggests: “Foxconn bad. iPhone bad. Sign a petition. Now you’re good. . . . That’s a great simple message and it’s going to resonate with a public radio listener. It’s going to resonate with the New York Times reader. And I think that’s one of the reasons he’s had so much traction.” (The 'he' is Mike Daisey, who produced the initial TAL segment.) Of course, the point of my initial post on Apple and working conditions in its supply chain were directed specifically at that error.

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15 March 2012

Criticisms of the World Press Photo Award ... A 'For Instance' or Two

A woman holding her wounded son in her arms, inside a mosque
used as a field hospital by demonstrators against the rule of President
Ali Abdullah Saleh, during clashes in Sanaa, Yemen on 15 October 2011.
Photograph © Samuel Aranda/Corbis.

Last month I posted this critical assessment of the image above, for which Samuel Aranda won the 2011 World Press Photo award for 'photo of the year.' Pretty much every year I take the award announcement as an excuse to argue about photography. That is not because, in any given case, I want to question the photographer's motives or talent. Mostly, I pursue my own preoccupation which is with questions of pragmatics - of how images are used, by whom and for what purpose. I am more interested in photography than in photographs.

My complaints were that the Aranda's image was derivative in straight photographic terms (I offered a couple of examples) and, more importantly, that it (1) depoliticized the uprisings across the Islamic world, (2) reinforced traditional gender roles, and (3) assimilated Islamic politics to a distinctly Christian iconographic tradition. In the comment thread I had a frank exchange with Nina Berman, who had served on the Selection Jury. (I will say that I really appreciate Nina's intervention - straightforward and smart without being defensive.) Nina did a good job of shifting the burden of discussion - essentially asking the critics (including, but not just, me) to suggest a more appropriate image. In particular, Nina challenged critics to suggest images that, while strong photographically, also both underscored the role of women in the protests and avoided clichés of gesticulating/screaming/rock throwing demonstrators. Fair enough. This post is an overdue attempt to take up Nina's challenge. I hope simply to provide a somewhat better idea of the sorts of images that avoid the problems I find in Aranda's winning photograph.

Another commenter - Tom White - had suggested this image by Andrea Bruce which appeared (among other places) in The New York Times.

The body of Ahmed Fahran, 30, cleansed before burial;
killed by security forces in Sitra, Bahrain on March 15.
Photo © Andrea Bruce.

And while I do think it meets Nina's first criterion, it leaves women out of the picture (pun intended) altogether. (Nina pointed out that this image was not in the pool the jury was asked to consider, suggesting that if it had been nominated, it was eliminated in a earlier round of assessing.) In any case, Bruce's photograph was included among 30+ images of the 'Arab Spring' in the 'year in pictures' wrap-up published here at The New York Times. That latter threshold seemed to offer a rough proxy for 'quality'; and I found these two images in the same selection.

Anti-government protesters in Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain,
on Feb. 20. The opposition wanted the country, an absolute
monarchy, to make the transition to an elected government.
Photograph © Lynsey Addario.

Young Egyptians posted videos online on Feb. 7 that they had
recorded earlier in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The group collected
testimonies of the protesters and published them on social
networking sites. Photograph © Ed Ou.

I think both of these images are powerful. Are they stronger in photographic terms than Aranda's? Maybe. Perhaps not. But both avoid the aspects of Aranda's image that I thought (and still think) are quite off-putting. Both centrally include women and both focus on the politics not the aftermath. Both avoid the Christian theme. Still, are they stronger in photographic terms?

Instead of sifting through thousands of images and arguing about whether this or that had greater photographic merit, I thought it might be more useful to simply contrast Aranda's image with a previous 'photo of the year' winner:

Women shouting from a rooftop in protest at the presidential
election results in Tehran, Iran, June 24, 2009.
Photograph © AP Photo/Pietro Masturzo.

I posted, almost without comment, when this image by Pietro Masturzo won the 'photo of the year' for 2009. Both then and now it recalls these very early posts I made on the politics of space in the Middle East revealed in various photographs of roof tops. In any case, here again we have an image that focuses on the particularities of oppositional politics in an Islamic (not Arab) country. And, again, we have one that avoids not just the cliché's that rightly worry Nina, but the substantive problems that bothered me.

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14 March 2012

Best Shots (198) ~ Simon Annand

(225) Simon Annand ~ Tilda Swinton, 1989 (14 March 2012).

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Doonesbury #3, Physicians Cannot Be Trusted

We cannot trust women to articulate and pursue their own well-being. But we surely cannot trust physicians! Unless, of course, they are whining about having to provide medical care that they object to on religious grounds. (Comic strip © Gary Trudeau.)

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13 March 2012

Doonesbury #2, Where is the Real Outrage?

As might be expected the Democrat & Chronicle, our local Gannett newspaper, has adopted the most censorious position on this week's Doonesbury strips. Pathetic. The editor at the D&C and her peers elsewhere apparently think the strips cross the bounds of 'good taste.' I think that the real outrage in all this is a bunch of right-wing zealots passing laws mandating that as pre-requisite to obtaining a legal medical procedure women must agree to be impaled by an ultrasound wand and hectored by medical personnel. Where is the D&C's outrage on that?

You can read Trudeau's views on the dust-up here. This is his bottom line:
I chose the topic of compulsory sonograms because it was in the news and because of its relevance to the broader battle over women’s health currently being waged in several states. For some reason, the GOP has chosen 2012 to re-litigate reproductive freedom, an issue that was resolved decades ago. Why [Rick] Santorum, [Rush] Limbaugh et al. thought this would be a good time to declare war on half the electorate, I cannot say. But to ignore it would have been comedy malpractice.

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12 March 2012

Bring on the Curry

A week or so ago I had a periodic medical check-up and discovered that among my other persistent but not life-threatening physical shortcomings I have very modestly elevated levels of triglycerides. Advice? East more veggies and fruit. Exercise more. The usual. Good advice, I know, and I am trying to heed it. But today on NPR comes this report on the virtues of spices, especially turmeric, for moderating (at least in the short term) triglycerides. That reminded me of this report a while back in The New York Times that turmeric also is good for mitigating joint inflammation and pain. That is good for the incipient osteoarthritis in my ankles! And I already like curry.

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Doonesbury Offensive

The Guardian has reported that many newspapers in the U.S. are moving the latest Doonesbury strip (above - © Gary Trudeau) to the editorial page in order to avoid 'offending' readers of the comics section. Some apparently are refusing to run the strip at all. The editorial decisions are simply craven.

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11 March 2012

Politics and Acquiescence

There is a thought provoking Op-Ed in The New York Times today. You can find it here. The specific topic is plea bargaining in the U.S. criminal justice system and what would happen if those accused of crimes refused to take part in the practice and instead insisted on exercising their constitutionally protected rights. Prosecutors in our system of justice have the upper hand. Judges are constrained by mandatory sentencing rules. Politicians pander to public fears. Those accused of crimes typically are made an offer they cannot refuse. And, once convicted of a felony, they are subject to all of the legal repercussions. They avoid the short term risk of draconian punishment in exchange for the long term hardship of never being treated equally again. As the examples in the essay suggest felon disenfranchisement is the tip of the iceberg.

But what would happen if there was a widespread refusal to acquiesce?
The system of mass incarceration depends almost entirely on the cooperation of those it seeks to control. If everyone charged with crimes suddenly exercised his constitutional rights, there would not be enough judges, lawyers or prison cells to deal with the ensuing tsunami of litigation. Not everyone would have to join for the revolt to have an impact; as the legal scholar Angela J. Davis noted, “if the number of people exercising their trial rights suddenly doubled or tripled in some jurisdictions, it would create chaos.”

Such chaos would force mass incarceration to the top of the agenda for politicians and policy makers, leaving them only two viable options: sharply scale back the number of criminal cases filed (for drug possession, for example) or amend the Constitution (or eviscerate it by judicial “emergency” fiat). Either action would create a crisis and the system would crash — it could no longer function as it had before. Mass protest would force a public conversation that, to date, we have been content to avoid.
Of course, there are massive problems of coordination blocking the way. There are informational and power asymmetries galore. And there is no guarantee whatsoever that, if the many were to withhold their acquiescence, the powerful and well-off would not simply insist on implementing some sort of emergency powers to deal with the ensuing difficulties. Anyone want to give odds?

The criminal justice system, of course, is not the only one that presumes the acquiescence of the population to a stacked deck. The coordinated repression of Occupiers in cities across the nation, is perhaps an indication of what would happen if citizens withheld their acquiescence. You might imagine that has little to do with you - law-abiding citizen that you are. But I recently posted on a novel by José Saramago that raises the same issue in the context of a fictional national election. What would happen if large numbers of Americans cast empty ballots simply because the options on offer were an embarrassment?

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10 March 2012

The Difference Data Graphics Can Make: Our 1% and Theirs


These two graphics come from Alan Meltzer and Paul Krugman respectively (the latter prompted by Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson). Meltzer wants to focus on the broad common trajectory and the sweep of history in order to claim that the underlying pattern is driven by international factors not domestic ones. Krugman wants to point out the remarkable discrepancy over the past several decades and wonder at Meltzer's overly active imagination. Keeping the discrepancy in view, Acemoglu & Robinson insist that very much contra Meltzer: "There is therefore a prima facie case that other factors — and yes, domestic and political ones — have also played a major role in increase in top inequality in the US. " Seems about right to me.

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Is GM Part of a Left-Wing Jihad? Is GEICO? Or is this just Capitalism at Work?

Oh, how delicious is this report at The Daily Beast? It seems those dastardly capitalists are out there trying to censor the speech of reactionary blowhards like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage etc., etc. etc. . . . The capitalists, in large numbers, are withdrawing advertising support from the right wing talkers.

Apparently, the right-wing is desperately trying to depict this as a 'left-wing jihad' against conservative talk radio. But for cryin' out loud, how hard to you have to squint to make General Motors appear either left-wing or jihadist? Does conservative paranoia know no bounds? Well, of course, GM did take the bailout money. Perhaps there was a secret clause in the deal they struck with the Obama-ites that compels the company to find an excuse - any excuse - to withdraw advertising dollars from Rush and the seven dwarfs? What about GEICO? Maybe the dreaded EPA plans to remove Geckos from the endangered species list? OK! OK! Never mind!

Perhaps it simply is the case that capitalists try not to go really, really far out of the way to belittle and insult a significant segment of their potential customer base. Self-interest does not mix well with passions like, say, bigotry or blind hatred. (Nerd alert: On this I recommend an oldish essay by Stephen Holmes called "The Secret History of Self-Interest.") That doesn't mean that capitalist firms always successfully avoid acting on such bases. But this is a pretty easy case.

Make the inference. Lots and lots of women use birth control or have sisters, friends, daughters, nieces, granddaughters, who do. Even if Rush, et. al. now grasp that publicly calling all those women sluts and whores for doing so and for expecting third party insurance to cover the cost, we can plausibly suspect that the boys still think that way. Women of childbearing age and older are a big market (see The Beast report for figures). You are the decider in some firm (say GEICO) and you want to sell stuff to that market segment. Are you going to create even the appearance of supporting sexist blowhards who consider your potential customers to be sluts and whores? Isn't capitalism terrific?

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09 March 2012

More Silliness at U of R or, the Landsburg Fracas Continued

"Isn’t there some sort of contract violation here? If the students in class are paying to learn economics, is there any recourse that they have? Is it any different than buying a movie ticket to see Rocky IV and ending up being shown Chariots of Fire?"
That is the response of one of my colleagues, Michael Rizzo, to the fact that students showed up in the class of another colleague, Steve Landsburg, to protest the latter's idiotic attempt to channel Rush Limbaugh. First, let's be clear. Disrupting a class like this is inappropriate. Period. The students involved were wrong to do so. I will leave it to the Dean's to figure out how best to respond to the event.

But, second, what is wrong here has nothing to do with "market fundamentalist" nonsense about contract violations. This complaint would be laughable if it were not so sincerely asserted. Does Rizzo really want to compare his colleague's teaching to a couple of pretty crappy Hollywood films. He said it, folks, not me.

What is at issue is speech and context. Landsburg has a right to his ideas and a right to voice them. The protesting students do as well. But - to the best of my knowledge - Landsburg keeps his opinionating out of the classroom. He peddles his offensive views in other locales. The students ought to keep their protests out of the classroom too. That leaves open the matter of how they might more appropriately voice their dissent.
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PS: I will add that a Professor in our Business School - Ron Schmidt - has taken it upon himself to send an open letter (via an official list-serve) to the entire School deriding the University President Joel Seligman for publicly calling Landsburg out for his Limbaugh-Channeling.

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Passings ~ Stan Stearns (1935-2012)

Photographer Stan Stearns has died. You can find an obituary here at The Los Angeles Times.

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08 March 2012

Steve Landsburg (yet again)

Well, one notable fact about economists is that they live in model-land, and models are not always good at incorporating relevant features of reality. In fact, they are often best at distorting reality in ways that help us appreciate some feature of it more fully and clearly. I already have explained here and here why Steve Landsburg's inability to discriminate between the distorted world of economic models and actual life creates an intellectual and ethical mess for him.

Sometimes, though, models fail. That is especially so when they don't get the relevant matters right. Since Steve's model of reality places sex at the center of Sandra Fluke's world he gets things pretty systematically wrong. Because he was so concerned to endorse the views spouted by the sex-obsessed Rush Limbaugh, Landsburg neglected to notice this very basic feature of Sandra Fluke's initial testimony:
Fluke was not, as Limbaugh and Landsburg have suggested, "demanding" that taxpayers pay for her to have sex; her testimony was originally part of a debate about whether religious institutions should be required to provide access to contraception. Her argument focused primarily on the medical (and non-contraceptive) uses of birth control [source].
Of course, it was the Republican majority on the House Oversight Committee that prevented her from testifying in the first place. They preferred to elicit the insights of a bunch of old men, mostly clerics, on the matter. No matter.

Instead of simply writing a post that said "Here are a half dozen (or three or thirty seven) reasons why contraception should not be covered by medical insurance plans," Steve felt compelled to lead with an endorsement of Limbaugh's paternalistic, sexist attack on Fluke. This led him to endorse basically the same sort of paternalistic, sexist view of Fluke as did Rush. Dumb and dumber.

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Best Shots (197) ~ Tom Craig

(224) Tom Craig - Albania, 2006 (7 March 2012).

I normally do not comment on these entries lifted from The Guardian. But I do periodically take time to point out that they do a real service by continuing this series. It not only includes are remarkable range of photographers, but prompts them to chat a bit about a single image. Often - though not always - they have something pretty interesting to say. Craig, for instance, addresses the complaint that photojournalists often parachute into locations, not know much about the history or context of the story they've been dispatched to cover. Here is his view: "I don't do any in-depth research as I want to be taken by observations, not preconceptions."

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07 March 2012

Steve Landsburg - Again

Earlier today I posted on the fracas growing up around the decision of one of my colleagues at the U of R, Steve Landsburg, to offer a defense of Rush Limbaugh and his name calling. I found the case he made pretty dumb. I thought his follow up to the initial post was pretty dumb too. I still do. So I am not taking back the earlier post. But talking to people on campus today I thought more about why I find Landsburg's views dumb. And, of course, Steve has been picking the scab so to speak. So what follows are a couple more reasons.

Before proceeding, however, I think it is important to say that people, even pretty smart ones, should be allowed to say dumb things. But they also ought to expect that, when they do, others will argue back. I don't take issue, in my earlier post or here, with Landsburg's remarks about legalizing prostitution or the little toy models he trots out to develop his argument or his long, pretty much unpersuasive attempt to deflate critics. That stuff is the side show. What has sparked the reaction on campus and commentary elsewhere [1*] [2] is his effort to endorse Limbaugh without actually appearing to be as crass. I simply do not think Landsburg comes at all close to steering clear of the big pile of crap Rush stepped in.

(1) A grammatical observation: The words slut and prostitute are nouns. (Well, prostitute can be a verb, as in 'to prostitute oneself in the name of an inane ideology like libertarianism.') That surely is the way that Limbaugh used them when he claimed that Sandra Fluke is a slut and a prostitute. Steve Landsburg says this about Limbaugh's observations:

To his credit, Rush stepped in . . . with a spot-on analogy: If I can reasonably be required to pay for someone else’s sex life (absent any argument about externalities or other market failures), then I can reasonably demand to share in the benefits. His dense and humorless critics notwithstanding, I am 99% sure that Rush doesn’t actually advocate mandatory on-line sex videos. What he advocates is logical consistency and an appreciation for ethical symmetry. So do I. Color me jealous for not having thought of this analogy myself.

There’s one place where I part company with Rush, though: He wants to brand Ms. Fluke a “slut” because, he says, she’s demanding to be paid for sex. There are two things wrong here. First, the word “slut” connotes (to me at least) precisely the sort of joyous enthusiasm that would render payment superfluous. A far better word might have been “prostitute” (or a five-letter synonym therefor), but that’s still wrong because Ms. Fluke is not in fact demanding to be paid for sex. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) She will, as I understand it, be having sex whether she gets paid or not. Her demand is to be paid. The right word for that is something much closer to “extortionist”. Or better yet, “extortionist with an overweening sense of entitlement”. Is there a single word for that?

Two points are in order. Since extortion typically requires threats or intimidation, it is hard to see how Sandra Fluke is extorting anyone. (I return to this below.) So, we are back with Limbaugh's verbiage. Second, because slut and prostitute are nouns, they are statuses we attribute to other people. Hence Limbaugh called Fluke a slut and a prostitute. They are not words we attribute to a "position." That means that the fine distinction Landsburg seeks to draw - "While Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being, her position - which is what’s at issue here - deserves none whatsoever. It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered. To treat it with respect would be a travesty." - is pure crap. A position cannot be a whore or a hooker, a lady of the evening or a woman of ill-repute. Simply put, the dodge fails. Perhaps that makes me "dense and humorless," but I am not sure how. Unless, of course, referring to someone like Ms. Fluke as a slut or a prostitute might be defensible in this circumstance. Maybe Landsburg actually thinks so. Maybe not. I think there are good reasons why he shouldn't.

(2) A fable: Imagine a man, perhaps he is a clever economist, teaching at a rich, private University. He has a daughter or wife, or sister, or girlfriend; and his female loved-one has insurance. Indeed, she works for the same company as I and is covered by the same insurance carrier. That insurance covers contraception (among many other things). And perhaps the clever economist's female loved one takes advantage of that particular benefit. Perhaps she does not, but thinks she might, at some future time, do so.

Now, insurance plans are ways of pooling risk, in this case of various medical conditions including, say, pregnancy and childbirth. I, an unmarried man with only male children, may never actually use the contraception benefit. But, because I have to pay the same premium regardless of whether or not I do take advantage of it, some small part of my premium goes toward funding the contraception benefit. Hence, some part of my premium is going to fund the clever economist's female loved one's access to contraception. Similarly, some part of my premium will be going to underwrite the costs incurred by a lot of other people for a lot of other medical services of which I might or might not ever need to avail myself.

But let's stick to the contraception case. Does the fact that I am paying for the clever economist's female loved one's contraception, and hence for her ability to have sex without risk of pregnancy (actually reduced risk, since no contraception is 100% effective as far as I know) make her a slut or a prostitute? After all what is going on is third party payment for sexual activity. Why am I not free to harangue the clever economist's female loved one - and other women in similar circumstances - for not bearing the entire cost of their sexual activity, actual and/or potential? Am I not justified in muttering Slut! Whore! as I pass the clever economist's female loved on the street or at the market?

Of course no one is making me buy medical insurance. Indeed, the woman in question is not an extortionist precisely because she is not coercing me in any way whatsoever. Nor is she coercing the insurance carrier our employer contracts with. Nor is she coercing our employer (even though, as a member of the status of women in the company committee, she is an articulate, even ardent advocate for insuring that reproductive health care and contraception are covered in the standard insurance package with no special riders.) Nevertheless, she is quite clearly getting me - even if not intentionally - and our male co-workers to subsidize the coverage available to she and other female employees. Finding that difficult to accept, I might simply opt out of insurance. I might simply think that, should I need medical attention, I will go to the emergency room and get it without paying. The hospital is legally prohibited from turning me away. (The prospect of turning the uninsured away from medical providers is the sort of thing that elicited jeers and cheers at one of the Republican debates earlier this season.) And I figure I am old enough to be dead before the hospital would ever get it together to go to court to collect the debt, let alone collect a settlement. My decision would have an analogous effect to what I've sketched above. Someone else would be paying (via higher insurance premiums, higher hospital charges, or whatever) for my care or, if I was lucky enough to never need any, for my risk taking.

There are a lot of details left out here. (Note, for example, the ridiculous assumption that contraception is solely a women's concern. Men, after all, need not think about such things at all. Note the ridiculous assumption that shifting the time of pregnancy and childbirth might, in many instances, be an intelligent or ethical thing to do.) After all, this is a fable. And fables have morals. Here the moral is that calling the clever economist's female loved one a slut or a prostitute in this case seems pretty much wholly out of place. That is because insurance pools risk in order to compensate for the inability to make a simpler sort of market for medical care (or other quite risky eventualities).

The moral could be stated more bluntly: in the circumstances sketched in this fable my calling the clever economist's female loved one a slut or a prostitute would make me a jerk, perhaps even an asshole. Hence my view of Rush Limbaugh. I'll withhold judgment on those who are "jealous" of his reasoning and eloquence. Likewise I will withhold judgement on those who agree with the jealous 100%.
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* In The Democrat and Chronicle report, Landsburg is quoted as complaining that Fluke never seriously engaged in argument about her position. He seems to have forgotten that the Republicans on the House Oversight Committee prevented her from testifying at recent Congressional hearings, and hence being confronted with opposing views.

P.S.: Here is Landsburg's lament about being misunderstood and misrepresented.

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On Steve Lansburg

I hardly am a fan of Rush Limbaugh. His recent bad behavior simply confirms my assessment. Turns out that calling Sandra Fluke a slut and prostitute are just the tip of the iceberg; he actually had a multi-day rant about she and her imagined proclivities. And then he offered a half-hearted apology. (I actually don't give a hoot about such apologies. They are empty ritual.) He is losing advertisers in droves. Good. The Republican elite has, predictably enough, basically stood by mumbling. To his credit Obama stepped up.

Now, one of my colleagues at the University of Rochester has decided he really needed to offer his insights into the debacle. Steve Landsburg, economist and peddler of opinion, has defended Limbaugh's language as "analytically astute." You can find a report here at the WSJ. Landsburg's own posts are here and here. The President of the University has made clear his views on Landsburg's screeds. According to the WSJ report, Landsburg insists:
“[While] Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being, her position — which is what’s at issue here — deserves none whatsoever. It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered."
Actually, it is Landsburg who deserves the derision. His primary mistake? Like many economists he mistakes the real world for the fictions captured in economic models. The agents who populate such models are sociopaths. Literally. They lack moral sense. They lack emotion. They are hyper-rational. All that may be - actually it is - useful in making economic models, which are meant to explore the conception of narrow instrumental rationality. But in actual life, such characteristics reflect a genuine tone-deafness. It is just the sort of tone-deafness that we see in sociopaths. Landsburg seems unable to differentiate between living in his textbook and living in the world of actual people. (Do you think of your children as externalities? Do you talk about sex in terms of getting 'the incentives right'? Do you tell that to your kids or your actual or potential partners?) In his various opinion-makings, Landsburg seems to present such thinking as a virtue. That is more than reason enough to take a pass on his various writings.

If Landsburg is as concerned with consistency as he suggests, perhaps he might entertain the notion that one way of treating people with respect entails leaving them to make choices for themselves. Contraception is just a tool for allowing such choice. And calling people bad names when they make choices you don't like. Well, that is not respecting them.

It is easy to anticipate Landsburg's retort. He will point to his gambit of trying to differentiate Sandra Fluke and 'her position.' That is pretty weak tea even for an economist. It amounts to saying "I have nothing against you, it is simply that I don't like what you think or say." Given that speech is action, one is culpable or laudable for what one says just as for what one does. We may not want to toss you in jail for speaking (although there are some who evince no qualms on that score), but I assure you that there are views that make me consider someone an ass or a jerk. How do you reach that sort of conclusion and 'not have anything against' the person you attach those labels to? Good luck with that Steve. In the actual world, if not in some economic model of the world, pretending that for 'analytical' purposes you can treat - and speak publicly of - some actual person as a whore or a slut without demeaning them is an intellectual and ethical failing.

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06 March 2012

G8 Leaders Beating a Retreat from Chicago

As a way to "facilitate a free-flowing discussion" the Obama administration has decided to move the G8 summit scheduled for Chicago in late May to Camp David. The G8 folk were meant to be in Chicago immediately prior to the NATO Summit. You can find a report here in The Chicago Sun Times. It seems that the back-to-back meetings "might" have attracted protesters who offer alternative views on both global economic affairs and security issues. Too bad the President doesn't want to here from them. A "free-flowing discussion" indeed! The bottom line here is that even though the Chicago PD is spending buckets of money getting its officer advanced training in beating protesters, the administration has got to be worried about being confronted with a vocal, energetic opposition in the streets. Maybe the NATO leadership will bring their own personnel?

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05 March 2012

Tom Hurndall The Only House Left Standing

At The Guardian, Sean O'Hagan has published this essay on The Only House Left Standing a new collection of images and writings by the late Tom Hurndall. The essay is accompanied by this slide show of Hurndall's images. Hurndall, that rare thing - an activist/photographer - was murdered, shot in the head by an Israeli Defense Forces sniper in 2003 as he sought to save two small girls under fire in Rafah, Gaza.

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Douthat Follies

I usually find it easy to ignore Ross Douthat, one of several house conservatives on The New York Times editorial page. He is pretty dim and mostly uninteresting. But he now has committed what I take to be journalistic malpractice, comparing two men who died last week - James Q. Wilson and Andrew Breitbart. I have had my say about the unlamented Breitbart here already. I was never terribly impressed by Wilson. Yet it seems a gross insult to mention him in the same breath as Breitbart. To see why, we need is to consider the grounds Douthat offers for his comparison: "They were both prominent conservatives who arguably left their most enduring legacy in the lives of affluent, cosmopolitan liberals." That may be true of Wilson. But Breitbart spread his malicious bullshit at the expense of people who hardly count as affluent or cosmopolitan. Do the poor who ACORN sought to organize fit that description? How about Shirley Sherrod? By describing Breitbart as a "rascal" Douthat demonstrates the same persistent moral tone-deafness as most of his conservative chums. Screwing the less-well-off or less-well-situated - which is what Breitbart practiced in his attacks on the poor and on a decent, creative, accomplished Black public official - is not cute or charming in a boys-will-be-boys sort of way. It is nasty and bullying.

However you might assess his work, Wilson was a serious man. By contrast, Breitbart was simply loathsome. He left no redeeming legacy.

04 March 2012

Geoff Dyer on Thomas Ruff, Porn but (mostly) Himself

From: Nudes - ma 27 (2001). Photograph © Thomas Ruff.

Well, The Guardian ran this promo by Geoff Dyer for an immanent London exhibition of work by Thomas Ruff. The works to be put on display appear to consist in (1) pornographic images that Ruff has appropriated from the web and manipulated in various ways and (2) satellite images of Mars that he also has monkeyed around with. The images definitely seem like they might be interesting.

You wouldn't easily get that from reading Dyer's essay which, posing as reflections on pornography, actually accomplishes two other things. First, exhibitionism. Dyer manages to reveal his early experiences with masturbation and late first encounter with porn. He also revels in his current willingness to be a potty-mouth ("At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, it bears emphasizing that the anus is designed primarily for shitting. Not that you would ever guess this from porn; the asshole, in the overwhelming mass of pornography, is hairless, odourless and shitless.")

Second, Dyer seems unable to resist flaunting his erudition. The essay is just a tad over 2000 words long and here is the list of names dropped: Philip Larkin, Martin Amis (twice), Christopher Hitchens, D.H. Lawrence, John Ruskin, Milan Kundera, Slajov Žižek, Jonathan Swift (twice), Marina Hyde, Michael Fassbender, Steve McQueen, Gerhard Richter, Alberto Moravia, Gustav Flaubert, Marquis de Sade, John Berger. I may have missed a couple. And I'll skip the
various fictional characters from works ranging from The Unbearable Lightness of Being to Blade Runner (the latter a seemingly compulsory reference for the hip). Mostly this dramatis personae have little more than walk-on roles, a bunch of very special guests who do not so much as shore up the reader's flagging attention as further disperse it.

The problem? I couldn't tell you what Dyer actually has to say about either Ruff and his work or about pornography. Dyer makes himself so intrusive that he is an overwhelming distraction. I have in the past posted quite a few complimentary comment's on Dyer's essays and his book The Ongoing Moment. I suppose everyone can have an off day. However, I can't help but recall advice Robert Adams offers about writing criticism. The first rule is to discuss the work and keep yourself, the critic, well off-stage.

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03 March 2012

Robert Fisk on Journalists and Heroism

I came across this provocative essay on war journalism by Robert Fisk at The Independent. I have repeated posted on the deaths and other travails of Western journalists. I've also repeatedly posted on the propensity to ignore the dead and wounded - whether they were intentional targets or "collateral damage" - of American military adventures. My point in commenting about the various risks and actual costs of reporting on conflicts and violence is that absent the willingness of reporters to do so we would typically be even more ignorant than we are about events in the world.

I think Fisk's essay is astute, but it risks condemning journalists for doing their jobs. Only at the end do we get the proper target clearly in focus - the news outlets that define for journalists what their job actually is. Which conflicts get covered? Why? Sontag is only exaggerating slightly when she complains that a war without photographs never really happens.
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Update (4 March 2012): Ironically, I somehow missed this piece by Tyler Hicks that appeared in The New York Times yesterday. In it, Hicks, a photojournalist, relates his experience with Anthony Shadid, a celebrated journalist who died last week covering the ongoing war in Syria. It seems to me that Fisk and Hicks are in conversation and we are eavesdropping.

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Just Two Cheers for Maryland on Gay Marriage

This week, the Governor of Maryland signed legislation legalizing same-sex marriages. My news feed on FB has turned up a whole set of congratulatory pronouncements - like this one from Lambda Legal and this one from the Human Rights Campaign. This is a matter about which, as I've said here before, I am ambivalent. So I was pleased when my news feed also turned up this post - "A Radical Queer Primer for Straight Leftists" - which comes pretty close to my own views on the subject. I agree that "Despite the ranting of the right-wing Christian lunatic fringe, gay marriage is not a radical issue, it’s a way to assimilate, to fit into the dominant heterosexual culture." However, I don't agree that marriage ought to be abolished. Let people do as they please, including getting married or not. That said, marriage should be de-legalized in the sense that it should thereby be decoupled from a whole range of things like one's tax status and the availability of employment benefits of all sorts, and so on. The "Primer" I link to makes two additional very smart points about the relationship of gay constituencies to progressive politics that strike me as being right on target. Indeed, if we hope to de-legalize marriage we will need to implement a progressive agenda on things like health care. Highly recommended.

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01 March 2012

Andrew Breitbart, “duplicitous bastard”* and the Problem With Liberals

Andrew Breitbart, the reactionary wingnut, dropped dead today, apparently of natural causes. He was relatively young and he leaves a family, including four children. For those children this is very sad.

I never met Breitbart. Thankfully. I know of him only through his serial, very public disregard for the truth and his enraged ranting. While I would not wish him dead, I can honestly say I feel literally no sadness whatsoever at his death. What does sadden me is that some liberals feel the need to talk about how a nice a person Breitbart could be over drinks or coffee. You can find a 'for instance' here at The American Prospect. The author of the piece, Sally Kohn, is described in the sidebar as "a political commentator, grassroots strategist and Fox News Contributor." I do not know her or her work at all. What her self-description brings to mind is self-proclaimed bigot Juan Williams, another person who thought he could play both sides of the fence only to discover that hanging out at FOX distorts your view of reality.

Perhaps Breitbart didn't lie about ACORN or about Shirley Sherrod. In each instance he just knowingly - indeed, gleefully - peddled bullshit in the technical sense of the term. In doing so, he repeatedly established his wholesale indifference to the truth. Arguably, that makes him worse than a liar - because he was 'not even' one. And, of course, snotty prep school kid that he was, Breitbart was especially adept at peddling his bullshit at the expense of those considerably less advantaged than he. I have a difficult time imagining how charming he'd have to be over drinks to compensate for that. The problem with liberals is that they can never quite seem to keep their eye on the politics.
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P.S.: The fact that Breitbart repeatedly and knowingly flaunted the truth makes it disingenuous to compare him - as does the author of this piece in The L.A. Times - to Christopher Hitchens (who could be as much a bully) let alone Jon Stewart. Neither Hitchens nor Stewart can be described as a propagandist. Breitbart was one. Period. Efforts to establish a sort of "Tastes Great! - Less Filling!" moral equivalence on this represents the cult of putative journalistic objectivity at its most mindless.

* This, of course, is how Breitbart characterized Ted Kennedy when he died. It seems fitting to quote him here.

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Best Shots (196) ~ Melanie Manchot

(223) Melanie Manchot ~ Making Snow, Engelberg, Switzerland
(29 February 2012).

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Passings ~ Eleanor Callahan (1916-2012)

Eleanor Callahan has died. She was married to photographer Harry Callahan and often served as the subject of his pictures. An obituary is here at The New York Times.

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