30 September 2006

Our Torturers

So, Americans are going to start torturing prisoners to gather "intelligence." Actually, you'll have to excuse me, for that is not quite right. We are going to start admittedly, brazenly torturing prisoners as a matter of public policy, rather than doing so surreptitiously. There are so many things wrong with that policy it is difficult to know where to begin. I thought that it would be appropriate to start with a passage from Jacobo Timmerman, Prisoner without a Name, Cell Without a Number, which is apprently out of print. Timmerman (1923-1999) was a prominent Argentine journalist and editor who was imprisoned by the Argentinian junta during their "dirty war" against subversion. He was imprisoned for thirty months without charges, while his family did not know where or why he was being held. And he was repeatedly tortured. Here is how he reflects on his experience:

"One might logically assume that I knew it all, knew what a political prisoner was, how he suffered in jail, the things a tortured man felt. But I knew nothing. And its impossible to convey what I now know.

In the long months of confinement, I often thought of how to transmit the pain that a tortured person undergoes. And always I concluded that it was impossible.

It is pain without point of reference, revelatory symbols or clues to serve as indicators.

A man is shunted so quickly from one world to another that he’s unable to tap a reserve of energy so as to confront this unbridled violence. That is the first phase of torture: to take a man by surprise, without allowing him any reflex defense, even psychological. A man’s hands are shackled behind him, his eyes blindfolded. No one says a word. Blows are showered upon him. He’s placed on the ground and someone counts to en, but he’s not killed. A man is then led to what may be a canvas bed, or a table, striped, doused with water, tied to the ends of the bed or table, arms outstretched. And the application of electric shock begins. The amount of electricity transmitted by the electrodes - or whatever they’re called - is regulated so that it merely hurts, or burns, or destroys. It’s impossible to shout - you howl. At the onset of this long human howl, someone with soft hands supervises your heart, someone sticks his hand into your mouth and pulls your tongue out of it in order to prevent this man from choking. Someone places a piece of rubber in the man’s mouth to prevent him from biting his tongue or destroying his lips. A brief pause. And then it starts all over again. With insults this time. A brief pause. And then questions. A brief pause. And then words of hope. A brief pause. And then questions.

What does this man feel? The only thing that comes to mind is" They’re ripping apart my flesh. But they didn’t rip apart my flesh. Yes, I know that now. They didn’t even leave marks. But I felt as though they were tearing my flesh. And what else? Nothing that I can think of. No other sensation? Not at that moment. But did they beat you? Yes, but it didn’t hurt.

When electric shocks are applied, all that a man feels is that they’re ripping apart his flesh. And he howls. Afterwards, he doesn’t feel the blows."

The first thing to notice is that throughout this passage the point of view - first person, second, third - shifts continuously. This reflects, I suspect, Timmerman's view that a political culture that sanctions torture will find it difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate those who 'justifiably' can be tortured from those who cannot.

The second thing is that torture renders one - you, he, I - speechless; a howl, a scream induced by extreme pain subverts communication and destroys language (as Elaine Scarry argues so persuasively in The Body in Pain). What we will get via torture is not "information," much less "intelligence" - even when we use it on "high-value" detainees. (And Timmerman might well be describing precisely what happens when American take terror suspects prisoner. Compare his description with the one Mark Bowden offers in his ethically and politically equivocal essay "The Dark Art of Interrogation," The Atlantic Monthly, October 2003.) What we will get is howls and screams from prisoners who will say anything, implicate anyone, to try to satisfy our agents in hopes, thereby, of getting those agents to stop torturing them. And, as I have noted before, what we will get - and here I mean "we," you and I, American citizens - is well-deserved complicity and responsibility. These are our torturers - yours and mine.


29 September 2006

Waterboarding: The Khemer Rouge Did It, So Why Shouldn't We?

We are on our way to taking the unprecedented step of authorizing a domestic official - the US President - to "interpret" the Geneva Conventions and related international agreements to allow for torture and other clearly proscribed practices. It may be a good idea to have a look at what the Congress has authorized. Here are some photos of the apparatus the Khemer Rouge used to "waterboard" prisoners at Tuol Sleng Prison under Pol Pot. Of course, Tuol Sleng is the plaace where tens of thousands of Cambodians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge.

This is not a tool for 'aggressive interrogation.' It is a weapon of terror and torture. Period. You can find discussion of the practice and the images on David Corn's web page. Corn is legal affairs correspondent for The Nation. He obtained these photos from Jonah Blank, "an anthropologist and former Senior Editor of US News & World Report" which is hardly a leftist publication. But, in brief, the prisoner is restrained as in this picture and has water poured over a cloth covering her face. She is then left there to suffocate until the torturer removes the cloth. Unsurprisingly, this induces a sense of drowning. Blank's conclusion is pointed:

"Bottom line: Not only do waterboarding and the other types of torture currently being debated put us in company with the most vile regimes of the past half-century; they're also designed specifically to generate a (usually false) confession, not to obtain genuinely actionable intel. This isn't a matter of sacrificing moral values to keep us safe; it's sacrificing moral values for no purpose whatsoever."

Just so! And, as I noted in my last post, the predictable consequence is that the US will be held up by those recruiting terrorists as a vile regime that defies the rule of law and abuses prisoners. And those recruiters will be right.

[Thanks to my friend Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber for prompting me on this!!]


28 September 2006

Forget About Being Ashamed, Think of the Consequences: Torture is Soon to be the Law of the Land

Yesterday the US Senate voted 65 to 34 to enact legislation establishing military tribunals to try terror suspects, allowing "evidence" elicited by torture to be used against such prisoners, allowing prosecutors to withold evidence from defendants in such proceedings, and essentially suspending habeas corpus. (My understanding is that the legislation also essentially indemnifies those who carry out torture from prosecution under International Law.) This action followed by a day a vote in the US House of Representative that passed similar legislation 253 to 168. It is likely that the legislation will make it to the desk of the President before the end of the week. where he will sign it into law. Here are the reports from The New York Times [1] [2].

This is shameful - it is arguably unconstitutional and surely contrary to our obligations under International Law. However, let's put aside such inconvenient ethical and legal considerations. These votes come in the very same week as a supposedly vigorous debte over a leaked National Intelligence Estimate. That report made plain a consensus among the 16 US Government Intelligence Agencies that our behavior in Iraq has proven to be a boon to the recruiting efforts of terrorist groups. That is hardly shocking news. But let's make a plausible inference. What is the probability that those same terrorist groups will, in the very same way, now use the fact that the US has legalized torture and tossed out central elements of the rule of law to recruit young enthuiasts? What can the folks in Congress possibly be thinking? And let's be clear that the Democrats essentially did nothing to prevent this legislation from passing!


Diebold Variations

A friend sent me this link to a set of humorous advertisement-like graphics that parody Diebold - the manufacturer of voting machines with, to put it very politely, both sketchy relations to the Republican Party and a "product" that has well-publicized problems with accuracy and reliability (e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] ). I recommend the whole lot, but here is a sample:

26 September 2006

"Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States" Take Two

So here is our astute President, quoted in today's New York Times complaining about the fact that the broad outlines of the US Intelligence Assessment have been made public:

"The president was clearly unhappy that findings from the document, a National Intelligence Estimate completed in April, had made their way into news reports. The New York Times disclosed some of the findings over the weekend.

Noting that evidence-gathering for the assessment had been concluded in February, and that the report itself had been finished two months later, Mr. Bush said: 'Here we are, coming down the homestretch of an election campaign and it’s on the front page of your newspapers. Isn’t that interesting?'"

He cannot be quite that dense. The obvious retort goes something like this: "Here we are, in the months running up to an election and a report that paints the incumbant administration and its political allies in an unflattering light is being withheld from the electorate by officials of that very same administration. Isn't that interesting!"

PS: Today the administration "officially" released 4 pages of the 30 page intelligence assessment (the concluding section), leaving nearly everyone wondering what the remaining 26 pages contain that they don't want us to see. This is PATHETIC!

Photographer Bilal Hussein detained by US Authorities in Iraq

Fallujah - Iraqi insurgents fire a mortar and small arms during the U.S.-led offensive against insurgents in the city. [Photo: Bilal Hussein, November 8, 2004. ©Associated Press.]

According to Associated Press one of their Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalists Bilal Hussein has been detained by the US Military in Iraq since 12 April 2006. You can read the AP account of his predicament here and here. I really do not have much else to add to what Lindsay Beyerstein writes about this situation in her excellent post over at Majikthese yesterday. As she states, since there are no legal proceedings underway it is difficult to even assess what the charges, let alone the evidence, against Hussein might be. Also he has been tried in the right-wing blogs already, a fact that might give disinterested observers some pause regarding the likely reasons for his detention. Cases like this are precisely why shredding the constittuion is an inappropriate way to fight the "war on terror." Can you say habeas corpus?

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25 September 2006

"Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States"

The Democrats ought to take the most recent Intelligence Assessment, the one that concludes that the Iraq War has increased the threat of terrorism, and mount a campaign that poses a very simple question to voters - "Are you More Secure Today than When the Republicans took Control of the Executive and Legislative Branches?" The answer clearly is "No." The problem, of course, is that the Democrats simply rolled over when BushCo lied their way into an invasion. So while Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Powell and Rice were spreading innumerable lies about WMDs, Irag-al Queda links, and Hussein's responsibillity for 9/11, the Democrats largely stood to one side and let them get away with it.

Of course, the report is confidential for "security" reasons even if it is merely stating what is obvious; and, of course, the Republicans are doing their best to spin its dire conclusions. But there really is no geting around it. Here are the stories in The New York Times and The Guardian. Let's be clear, this is not the "liberal media" presenting a biased view of a war they don't like (The Times, after all, was supine during the run up to the Iraq invasion too); it is a distillation of assessments by 16 government intelligence agencies. This is what happens when administrations lie - we get perhaps unintended, but hardly unforeseeable bad consequences.

So now we face a double-bind: we cannot simply pull out of Iraq since that would be a disaster even though staying on in Iraq provides fodder for all those budding terrorist groups out there. That is the legacy of Bush's foreign policy.


Clinton & Wallace

I just watched Bill Clinton, who I generally do not like in the least, hand Chris Wallace his head in the "Fox News Sunday" interview. Three things struck me about the exchange. First, Clinton simply had the better of Wallace regarding the facts of the matter. Second, he called Wallace on the double standard that Fox News uses to attack liberals while letting right wingers off the hook ("fair and balanced" my ass!). And, third, Clinton was animated, he had fire in his eye and his voice. Other Democrats ought to take notice!

You can find the interview on Google Video

On the Ethics of Photographic Representation: Fashion Models

I highly recommend this excellent post by Jennifer Ouellette over at 3 Quarks Daily; Jennifer very astutely links up the release of The Devil Wears Prada with the recent "controversy" over emaciated models appearing at major fashion shows in Madrid and London (e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4] ... all from The Guardian since the flap flared during London "fashion week") and from there to social norms about height/weight ratios for women.

Several things strike me as important about this state of affairs. One problem is that the discussion is taking place in euphemisms - such as describing models as "too thin." How about we stop tip-toe-ing around and use the right words - gaunt, sickly, emaciated, and so forth. Since I teach at a University I can say that the sample of healthy 18-20 year old women I encounter only vaguely resembles the "too thin" models strutting down the fashion show runways. The latter are girls (usually) who are selected by Agencies because they are off the distribution for height & weight. They then are placed in situations where the agencies and clients subject them to intense pressure to minimize their weight. It would be fairly easy, I suspect, to thumb through various fashion mags and find images of women to whom the adjectives I suggest easily apply. I don't have that much time. A while back, however, I posted on the misogynistic "State of Emergency" spread in Vogue Italia. Here is a photo of one of the stick figures that appeared there.

Second, banning individual models from the "catwalk" (nice term, hey?) for being underweight hardly addresses the problem. Instead, how about banning the agency (its representatives, its publicity, etc.) that represents any emaciated girl from whatever fashion extravaganza is being staged? Or, instead, why not simply withhold whatever fee the agency would collect from their models for the event in question and donate it to Oxfam or some other likely organization? The models operate within agencies and so should not be held wholly accountable for whatever size that organizational pressures (shock!) squeeze them into. Financial pressure on agencies will go a significant distance toward remedying the "too thin" problem.

The final point is that a considerable portion of the photographic profession is complicit in all this. It is not just that they fall over themselves to land assignments for fashion mags and advertisers; by reproducing the practices of the industry, fashion photographers also reinforce absurd social expectations about the appropriate weight for women and girls. These images turn up in common places like the check-out line at your grocery. So when I read papers and articles criticizing this or that documentary photographer for representing the suffering of people caught in wars of famines or other man-made disasters I wonder why the author isn't focused on a more appropriate target.

By the way, Jennifer Ouellette is a guest blogger at 3 Quarks Daily but keeps her own blog - Cocktail Party Physics.

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24 September 2006

Beauty in Photography (4): The Anti-Aesthetics of Documentary Photography

I want to pick up on a theme on which I have posted periodically [1] [2] [3], namely the convemtional view that photographers who undertake "documentary" projects ought to minimize their "aesthetic" pretensions. In her "Introduction" to Issue #33 of PRIVATE (Summer 2006), the Italian critic Roberta Valtorta offered the following diagnosis of and remedy for the travails of documentary photojournalism in our contemporary, image and information saturated, world.

"Images used in photojournalism today look, to me, like fragments of reality snatched from a complex world which is essentially indescribable. They are isolated moments, fragments of attempted accounts which are no longer possible, because contemporary man, assailed by communication, is tired of watching and seeing, without understanding, images stolen from every part of the world. ... I think that classic black and white photography helps to dramatise this impossibility. In the mythic age when photojournalism, the beating heart of communication, blossomed on the pages of newspapers and magazines, this chiaroscuro* code was an authoritative, symbolic and powerful document, true testimony of things seen and recorded in the places where they happened. Today, on the other hand, it dramatically shows an extreme desire to bear witness, and alludes to the past greatness of photographic documents, but at the same time it shows all our desperation about a world which is too full of events, disasters, changes and shifts. And if we look inside ourselves we know that this world cannot be understood or recounted.

Because of this, photojournalism today is a heroic thing. It is an old song, a last raised voice. Because of this, the strongest and truest photojournalism today is that which outlives itself without straining to be “beautiful”. It stays faithful to its “primitiveness”, its leanness, and far from aesthetics."

Here, Valtorta articulates something like the common view that Sontag describes in her Regarding the Pain of Others when she writes:

"Pictures of hellish events seem even more authentic when they don’t have the look that comes from being "properly" lighted and composed, because the photographer is either an amateur or - just as serviceable - has adopted one of several familiar anti-art styles. By flying low, artistically speaking, such pictures are thought to be less manipulative - all widely distributed images now stand under that suspicion - and less likely to arouse facile compassion or identification (26-7)."

Valtorta surely does not think that documentary photography concerns itself solely with "hellish events," with atrocity, catastrophe, disaster and their atatendant hardship and suffering, although she surely includes such subjects within the purview of such an approach. Rather, what is interesting is her recommendation that, regardlesss of their specific subject matter, practitioners adhere to an anti-aesthetic style.

Two things are important about this, however. First, as Sontag makes clear this anti-aestheticism is itself a style, one that repudiates reliance on "beauty." Second, Valtorta's reccommendation implicitly accepts an invidious distinction between "documentary" and "art" photography that, as I have mentioned here before, was established by some photographers precisely because they thought it redounded to their own advantage because adopting the mantle of "art" would afford them entry into the rarified (and lucrative) curatorial world of museums and galleries. One serious negative consequence of this is that it makes it difficult for those who adopt the stance Valtorta recommends to account for the important aesthetic dimensions of the photography of Lewis Hine or Walker Evans or Henri Cartier-Bresson or Sebastiao Salgado or James Nachtwey. There may be further consequences, but this one seems crucial enough to cast grave doubt on the remedy Valtorta suggests.

* My dictionary offers the following definition for chiaroscuro "Noun. The treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting. - ORIGIN Italian, from chiaro 'clear, bright' + oscuro 'dark, obscure'."

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I found the Autumn '06, issue #34 of the Italian photomagazine PRIVATE this afternoon; the issue theme is "Witness" and it focuses on work by fifteen photographers affiliated with Panos Pictures. As was the case with the summer issue about which I posted a while back, the images - all black and white, conventional documentary - are quite provocative and are accompanied by brief explanatory texts as well as occasional verses of poetry. They are unaccompanied by advertisements of any sort. This is a very nice publication.

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2006 Rochester Labor Film Series

I had meant to post about this earlier, but it slipped my mind. Among the most interesting cultural events in town each fall is The Rochester Labor Film Series, sponsored by the Rochesster Labor Council AFL-CIO. This year the series runs for two months of Friday evenings at the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House.

23 September 2006

Blog's First Birthday

Well, I started this blog one year ago today - 24 September 2005. It has been fun and I've learned a bunch too. Thanks to those who have visited; the numbers are respectable and increasing, which is very nice. Thanks again.

I thought I'd post an appropriate picture and also a succinct justification for the way I trespass across the conventional boundary between photography and politics.

First, a photograph about which I posted some time ago - it is by Robert Mapplethorpe ["American Flag, Fire Island, 1977] and I first encountered it as part of the cover art on a Patti Smith album. But I've said that before.

Then the succinct defense of my project here: "The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude" (George Orwell, 1946). Just so.


“The fact is, both sides killed.”: Pairing Novels and Photographs

I posted a while back on a new novel Mohr by Frederick Reuss that consists in a fictionalized narrative that the author constructs on the basis of recently discovered photographs of his actual, but quite mysterious uncle. It is definitely worth reading and is a very interesting experiment. The pictures and text work together in surprising ways. But what of such pairings that are less closely integrated?

Today in The New York Times there is a story of a soon to be republished novel - Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh (1956) - written in response to the partitian of India and Pakistan a decade earlier. The quoted passage in my post title is the first sentence of the novel. The new edition will include, in addition to the original text, nearly 70 photographs by Margaret Bourke-White. These images have heretofore been wholly unrelated to this text except that they address the same subject. Here are a couple of examples of the less graphic images:

Refugees on the Move (Margaret Bourke-White, 1947)

A boy in a Delhi refugee camp (Margaret Bourke-White, 1947)

I do not know much about Bourke-White beyond the fact that she collaborated on something like Agee & Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (the title of the work escapres me) and that Eavns purportedly thought very little of her work. So here is short passage from The Times story:

"Bourke-White, known equally well in India and Pakistan for her portraits of Gandhi at his spinning wheel and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, sitting straight-backed in a chair, was among the most effective chroniclers of those wounds.

The photographs reproduced in the book are gut-wrenching, and staring at them, you glimpse the photographer’s undaunted desire to stare down horror. There is a street littered with corpses, an audience of vultures looking down from a roof. There is a dead man in a hand cart, his open eyes staring through the spokes of the wheel. There is an old man, only skin and bones, leaning on his pile of bedding, vacantly staring at the sky.

Two years before Bourke-White shot these pictures, she photographed the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald. She was the first woman the United States Army accredited as a war correspondent during World War II.

The photographs were displayed recently at the posh shopping center Khan Market, near Mr. Singh’s home in Delhi; Khan Market was once known as a “resettlement” hub, where refugee traders from Pakistan were offered storefronts. The only thing more astonishing than the images blown up large as life was the number of shoppers who seemed not to register them, marching on instead to inspect the latest running shoes or stem crystal."

The article does not indicate what Singh thinks about the pairing of his novel with the photographs. It strikes me as an interesting idea. Here are some clsoing comments, though, from Singh:

“The wounds of partition have healed,” he likes to say as often as he can. “The poison is still in our system.” .... Mr. Singh, whose father constructed much of Delhi, a city reinvented by the flow of partition refugees, is among the last survivors of the era. For his generation he is unusual for wanting to speak of that horror, again and again. He reminds in words what Bourke-White’s photographs seem to scream on the page. “People should know this thing happened,” Mr. Singh insists. “It did happen. It can happen again.”

Unfortunately there is not yet an American publisher for the volume.

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The Treacherous Medium: Why Photography Critics Hate Photographs

Also in the new Boston Review is an essay by Susie Linfield who, with the possible exceptions of Rebecca Solnit and David Levi Strauss, is just about the best commentator on photography writing today. I have not read the entire essay but recommend her work to you , as I have several times in the past [1] [2] [3]. I would say, though, that like Solnint and Levi Strauss, Linfield departs from the lineage she describes (of photography-hating critics) and that that may account for why her writings are so remarkable.

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Bloggers and Parties

"Blogs have political potential not because they can organize and deliver votes in large numbers but because they have a comparative advantage in debating broad political messages and ideas and, where necessary, transforming them."

So says my friend Henry Farrell in the new issue of Boston Review. I completely agree with this particular conclusion. As you might suspect, Henry argues that blogs are an invaluable resource for Democrats in their efforts to articulate a coherent alternative to our reactionary Republicans. His essay definitely is worth reading and pondering. I myself doubt that the Demcorats actually want to formulate such a coherent alternative. They seem more intent on being like the Republicans. But I am just a crabby old guy, so that might be too harsh.

You can find an earlier essay that Henry published (with Dan Drezner) on the potential policy influence of blogs in Foreign Policy (2004) and his reflections on blogging among academics in the Chronicle of Higher Education (2005). He is always smart and provocative, even where we don't agaree. Henry, by the way, is one of the crew over at Crooked Timber.

22 September 2006

"Islamo-Fascists": How to (Try to) Do Things With Words

In 1946, Orwell wrote: "The word Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies 'something not desirable'." Unsurprisingly, BushCo have picked up on and sought to exploit this meaninglessness by adopting the label "Islamo-fascism." On the true idiocy and actual purpose of using this phrase I recommend two columns by Katha Pollitt in recent issues of The Nation [1] [2]. Pollitt is a wonderfully smart, very funny, politically astute writer; her column is, by itself, worth the price of my subscription to The Nation. As she writes in the first of her columns on the matter:

"'Islamo-fascism' looks like an analytic term, but really it's an emotional one, intended to get us to think less and fear more. It presents the bewildering politics of the Muslim world as a simple matter of Us versus Them, with war the only answer, as with Hitler. If you doubt that every other British Muslim under 30 is ready to blow himself up for Allah, or that shredding the Constitution is the way to protect ourselves from suicide bombers, if you think Hamas might be less popular if Palestinians were less miserable, you get cast as Neville Chamberlin, while Bush plays FDR. 'Islamo-fascism' rescues the neo-cons from the harsh verdict on the invasion of Iraq ... by reframing that ongoing debacle as a minor chapter in a much larger story of evil madmen who want to fly the green flag of Islam over the capitals of the West."

Just so. I posted a while back on the irony of BushCo accusing their critics of "appeasement" and will not reiterate the point here. Instead I will plug Pollitt's most recent book of essays:

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Prosecution of Health Care Providers in Libya

Well, Libya may not be part of the 'Axis of Evil,' and so insufficiently deserving of attention by the US Government, but it is in the process of trying six health care workers (5 Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor) on charges that they intentionally infected more than four hundred chidren with the HIV virus. You can read a report on the case in Nature. The prosecuter in the case has demanded the death penalty for the 'Tripoli 6' while the defense team from Lawyers with Borders has requested a sceintific inquiry into how the children in fact became infected with HIV.

21 September 2006

Moving Walls 12

The Open Society Institute (funded by the Soros Foundation) funds a Documentary Photography Project one of whose primary initiatives is the annual Moving Walls Exhibition. Number 12 is on view at the OSI offices (at 400 West 59th Street, New York, NY) from 14 September 2006 - 11 May 2007. You can view the on-line gallery here. The exhibition features work by a half dozen documentary photographers: Kike Arnal, Jodi Bieber, Donna DeCesare, Nigel Dickinson, Mark Leong, and Kadir van Lohuizen.

20 September 2006

In Case you had Doubts: Dick Cheney is a Liar

I know, I know, all politicians lie. Nearly all are mean, opportunistic bastards, vindictive to any who cross them or even appear to do so. Many are hypocrits who operate on the principle "do as I say not as I do." But our vice president seems to be in an elite class (many of his clasmates also work for BushCo) where lying, opportunism, vindictiveness, and hypocrisy are seen as special virtues. You may think I am being a tad harsh. Perhaps so. But see the more temperate views of Joan Didion "Cheney: The Fatal Touch" in the New York Review of Books this week (10/05/06). It is enough to make you sick. Why are American not more like Hungarians?


Death as Economic Opportunity

I discovered this image on the BBC web page this afternoon. accompanied by the following account:

"Death. James Elder, working for the children’s charity Unicef in Zimbabwe, describes how Aids is affecting family life in the southern African country. Zimbabwe’s is the world's fastest-shrinking economy outside a war zone - unemployment has reached more than 70% and inflation recently topped 1,200%. James traveled to the village of Murambinda, about three hours south-east from the capital, Harare, where HIV prevalence is more than 30%. Here death is one of the few growth industries. " [Photos: © Giacomo Pirozz. Text: James Elder]

This observation helped me reframe a perplexity that I have had about right-wing strategies for confronting the still expanding epidemic of HIV/Aids in the developing world. Is the practice of pushing abstinence policies meant not as a public health measure but as a perverse spur to ecconomic development?

19 September 2006

Rebecca Solnit on Mercury & Gold

Serra Pelada is a massive gold mine in the Amazon region of Brazil that has been a subject for a number of photographers. Perhaps the most famous of these is Sebastiao Salgado, himself Brazilian, who included many images like these in his Workers project as a way of showing how gold, mixed with dirt made its way from the bottom of the mine pit to the ridge of the mine on the backs of laborers. The pictures really are quite astounding.

Serra Pelada gold mine, State of Pará, Brazil, 1986. [All three images © Sebastiao Salgado]

But Salgado was not alone in taking Serra Pelado as a subject. So too did Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar who produced images like these:

Gold in the morning, 1985. [All three images © Alfredo Jaar]

Both Salgado and Jaar clearly focus on the human dimensions of this extractive process. But gold mining has begun to come under increasing scrutiny as a very dirty business in environmental terms. In its contemporary forms is uses large quantities of cyanide to leach the gold out of the soils that contain it. This evening I discovered a new essay by Rebecca Solnit, an activist and writer whose praises I have sung numerous times [1] [2] [3] [4] in the past. She is an extremely provocative thinker and writer. So, her essay is entitled "Winged Mercury & the Golden Calf" and it appears in Orion Magazine.

Pretty much anything Solnit writes is worth reading, I think. Here she is talking about the use of mercury in the process of extracting gold in the United States. And, of course, like cyanide, mercury is highly toxic. One question this raises is how one might use photography to depict the environmental degradation caused by such poisonous practices. I am sure some photographers must have attempted this; I simply don't know of any. Suggestions?

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Truth & Politics

I lifted this image of a protester in Budapest from the BBC web page. It appears there with this caption:"Police used water cannon and teargas against the protesters, who were angry at Mr Gyurcsany's admission that his Socialist government told lies to win an election."

I then read this his is a astonishing and oddly inspiring report from from The Guardian:

"Gutted cars, shattered glass and smashed paving stones littered Budapest's Freedom Square today after protesters stormed the headquarters of Hungarian state television to demand the resignation of the prime minister.

Hundreds of people, most of them young men, burst though police lines to attack the station, having broken away from a much larger, peaceful demonstration against the country's Socialist leader Ferenc Gyurcsany, who admitted to lying to the nation about the state of the economy to retain power."

So, In Budapest, the citizenry will protest when officials lie to win an election; in the US we basically sit back and do nothing when the Supreme Court usurps power and declares winners in national elections; and we acquiesce when the government repeatedly lies to lead us into war. Perhaps rioting is not the answer, but the Hnngarians have every right to be indignant and angry when their political leaders lie to them. So do Americans.

National Academies vs. L Summers, et. al.

A while back I posted on the importance of gender bias rather than "innate" sexual differences as a basis for differential achievements of men and women in advanced education in the sciences. Well, here is the next round on that. (You will notice that this report too incorrectly confuses gender differences which consist in differential norms and social expectations with distinctions due to sex which consist in biological differences.)


Academia Told to Make Room for Women
By Andrew Lawler
ScienceNOW Daily News
18 September 2006

U.S. universities foster "a culture that fundamentally discriminates against women," says a report on the status of women in academic science and engineering issued today by the National Academies. Their underrepresentation is "deeply troubling and embarrassing," according to the report, which suggests that institutions should create a body to collect data, set standards, and ultimately monitor compliance to increase the number of women in technical fields.

"Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering," cites research demonstrating that women are paid less, promoted more slowly, bypassed for honors, and subjected to implicit gender bias from both their male and female colleagues. The 18-member panel--chaired by University of Miami president Donna Shalala and made up primarily of female university presidents, provosts, and senior professors--also finds no scientific basis to the argument that inherent differences between the genders are at the root of the problem.

The fundamental issue, the panel notes, is not attracting women into science but retaining them once they are trained. For example, the report says the culture still favors academics with a stay-at-home spouse--typically a wife. Fewer than half the spouses of male faculty members in the sciences are employed fulltime, whereas 90% of the husbands of women faculty work outside the home.

The gap widens with seniority, the report notes. At leading research universities, fewer than 15% of full professors in the life sciences are women, and in the physical sciences, that figure remains in the single digits. "Women from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds are virtually absent from the nation's leading science and engineering departments," the study adds.

To address these issues, the report proposes an "inter-institution monitoring organization" to set norms for expanding the role of women in the sciences and engineering. The organization would be similar to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which serves as an intermediary between universities and federal agencies. The American Council on Education has agreed to convene several national education organizations to "define the scope and structure of data collection," says ACE vice president Claire Van Ummersen. "This would be a way for the profession to police itself," says Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who chaired a study in 1999 focusing on the problem at her university.

Still, chemist and activist Debra Rolison of the Naval Research Laboratory, criticized the panel for not demanding strict enforcement of a 1972 law, popularly known as Title IX, that prohibits any education program or activity receiving federal funding from denying equal benefits to women. "That's the missing piece," she adds. Shalala acknowledged at a press conference that the federal government has spent more time ensuring equity on collegiate playing fields than in the laboratory. But the report's focus is "not any individual law," she later told Science. "Institutional leaders and professional societies have to make systemic changes to provide opportunities."

For a more detailed news story on this topic, please stay tuned for the 22 September issue of Science.
PS: You can link to the NAS report from the ScienceNOW page.

18 September 2006

Are Global Health Problems a Matter of Charity? No.

I just came across this essay from the New England Journal of Medicine: "Global Health: The Gates-Buffett Effect," by Susan Okie, M.D., who is a contributing editor to the NEJM. In the essay Okie generally (and, rightly in my view) praises the Gates Foundation for its efforts to address problems of global health. She makes it clear that those efforts are in themselves insufficient given the scale of the problems. She suggests in conclusion that "Perhaps the Gates Foundation's greatest influence derives from its assumption that intractable problems can be solved, given enough money and international cooperation."

This essay raises a couple of important points mostly by neglecting them entirely. First as Okie points out:

"Yet the projected cost of solving major health problems in the developing world is far higher than even the most optimistic projections for giving by Gates. In 2000, the United Nations adopted Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015; they included substantially reducing child and maternal mortality, reversing the spread of HIV-–AIDS and malaria, and reducing the prevalence of tuberculosis and associated mortality. It is estimated that to meet these health goals, international aid would have to increase by a factor of three to seven."

This may seem insurmountableble hurdle until we recognize that the share of GNP given international aid by most "advanced" nations is pathetically small. I recently posted on a book by economist Bob Sutcliffe that uses graphics to provide 100 Ways of Seeing an Unequal World; I recommend his way #92 - "Aid as Share of National Income." There we see that only Denmark gives as much as 1% of GNP international aid. The US gives 1/10th of that. On average, donor countries give just 0,35% of GNP for such purposes. And that is total international aid, not just that directed at health problems. So, Okie may be making the wrong inference; it may be that the cost of remedying global helath problems actually is relatively small! It would simply require the nations in the developed world to be less niggardly.

That leads to the second point. I applaud the Gates Foundation; it is doing much good. In particular, as Okie makes clear, the Foundation is leveraging the dollars it distributes into pressure on various actors to start cooperating! But one lesson that people might take from the Gates Foundation's activities is that major international problems are a matter of philanthropy or charity and not a political - meaning governmental - responsibility. Okie is right - all the charity in the world will likely remain insufficient. But that means re-thinking the nature of the task. Global health and other international problems, are simply not matters of charity. They are matters of politics. In that sense Bill & Melinda Gates may be misleading us.

[Thanks to Abbas Raza over at 3 Quarks Daily bringing the Okie essay to my attention!]


HYPE!- Nels Cline 'Covers' Andrew Hill

Here is a good bet musically - due to be released 9/26/06. Ratliff is right (below) about Andrew Hill as player & composer. Nels Cline plays guitar for Wilco which is among my favorite bands. The instrumentation (guitar, accordian, clarinet & cornet) is off-kilter & extremely cool. And, although I do not know the other musiciains in the sextet, Bobby Bradford is an amazing trumpeter. So it seems like a can't miss CD. Here is a pre-release review from yesterday's New York Times.

Nels Cline. "New Monastery: A View into the Music of Andrew Hill" (Cryptogramophone)

The compositions of Andrew Hill, one of the best composers in the last 50 years of jazz, don’t glow with the recognizable style of a certain time. They use unusual harmonies and can sometimes seem to be missing the proper signposts. Nobody performs them as effectively as his own groups, with Mr. Hill on piano. Not even close.

But the guitarist Nels Cline has taken up the challenge; "New Monastery" is a learned and original try. Mr. Cline, who has become more widely known since joining the rock band Wilco two years ago, has a long background in West Coast jazz and experimental music.

He is a fast, articulate player, and no slouch on soloing through chord changes, as his version of Mr. Hill’s "Reconciliation" proves. He dislodges the melodies from these pieces, bringing them forward with the clarinetist Ben Goldberg, the cornetist Bobby Bradford and the accordionist Andrea Parkins. Mr. Hill’s music can be soft and mumbly, but Mr. Cline forces immediacy on it, and frequently leaps beyond a standard jazz guitarist’s tone. He distorts his instrument for stabbing, notated chords during someone else’s solo; he broadens his tone, putting little rips in it, sounding like Mr. Bradford; he plays a line through a digital processor and repeats it, moving the pitch up and down or making it warp and shimmer.

Instead of a pianist the group uses Ms. Parkins on accordion, improvising with fractured aggression. Most of these pieces come from Mr. Hill’s mid-1960’s records on Blue Note. With the exception of Mr. Bradford, who was playing semi-free jazz like this in the early 60’s, and the occasional Eric Dolphy echo from Mr. Goldberg’s bass clarinet, the band doesn’t evoke the old records. Mr. Cline can be a fiddly, punctilious musician, even when building clouds of noise in a free improvisation, or when soloing in blues form on "The Rumproller"; it’s helps him remake the music in his own way. -Ben Ratliff

PS: It is perhaps helpful for me to mention what has gotten hold of me on this post. So here is some history. The cover photo on Cline's upcoming release is a detail of this image that appeared on the cover of Andrew Hill's Point of Departure . That record was was releasd in 1964; it is the best of five very good albums Hill released on Blue Note Records in a roughly 18 month period. It also is among the very first jazz records I ever bought (well after it was released - I am not quite that old!). It helped me to establish some continuuity between the wonderful creativity of Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis from the 1950s (which I loved) and the music I was starting to listen to from, say, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Air, and the World Saxophone Quartet. So, there you have it!

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17 September 2006

Political Consequences of Economic Inequality in America

Not long ago I posted on a hand-wringing essay in The Wall Street Journal about the plight of service workers and laborers in various luxurious communities where wealthy Americans go to relax and kick back. Massive and increasing economic inequality clearly has negative effects on those "left behind." But a pragmatist like me is interested in consequences generally, and so with things that might be less obvious. There is an incisive essay in Open Democracy by Geoffrey Hodgson who discusses his own research and some newly published work by three political scientists I know. It turns out that one consequence of increasing inequality in the US since the mid-1970s or so is the current political polarization in our legislatures. Here is Hodgson who is gracious about the lack of impact his own book seems to have had:

"My book received respectful reviews, but it cannot be said to have had much influence. Now a strikingly similar conclusion has been reached by three scholars - Nolan McCarty (Princeton), Keith Poole (University of California, San Diego) and Howard Rosenthal (New York University) - whose work is much harder to ignore. Their new book, Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches, researches voting patterns in Congress to document what most people would accept anecdotally, that the behaviour of politicians has indeed become sharply polarised. Republicans have become much more conservative, and Democrats have become somewhat more liberal.

In summary, with the full panoply of social science and in a narrative illustrated by showers of graphs, coefficients and equations, the three scholars demonstrate pretty conclusively that political polarisation is indeed related to economic inequality. They show how ideological polarisation and income inequality fell together from 1913 . . . until 1957; and that both inequality and polarisation have been rising again since 1977.

They speculate that this may have something to do with the revival of mass immigration after the late 1960s, this time not from the impoverished corners of Europe but mainly from central and south America. It certainly has a lot to do with the conservative ascendancy since Ronald Reagan became president in 1981.

The three political scientists' most important finding, though, is that the connection between economic and political polarisation remains. Their work has several incidental but thoughtful conclusions, including disagreement with analyses of the 2004 elections that focused on "moral values", and with Republican strategists' belief in the importance of "terror" to voters. As they point out: political scientists observe that those who said fighting international terror was "very important" voted disproportionately for Bush, but it is also true that they were 'whiter, richer, more male and more Republican.'

Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal are cautious, even perhaps ultra-cautious, when it comes to extrapolating from their own analysis. They go out of their way to congratulate their compatriots for the steps that were made towards greater equality in the 1950s, half a century and more ago. "

A couple of things are interesting here and they emerge in this interview with Nolan McCarty. First, our political polarization results predominantly not from Democrats getting more liberal but because Republicans have been moving steadily and sharply to the right. This finding, as Hodgson intimates, falls into 'the grandma knows that' category. But it nonetheless is nice to see that Nolan, Keith and Howard establish it systematically.

Second, this polarization is exacerbated because many of those in the poorer majority are immigrants who are disenfranchised, either temporarily (if not yet naturalized) or permanently (if illegal) and so unable to contribute to an effective electoral check on this shift. Here is some of what is at stake in current debates! Immigration, as it currently takes place, in a sense dilutes the constituency for progressive or even moderate political-economic policy.

Finally, there is the "caution" to which Hodgson refers and that, knowing the authors, I find un-surprising. One source of this is surely their commitment to apolitical social scientific analysis (a commitment I applaud). But what about drawing more explicit implications once the analysis is complete? I think the source of reticence on this score might reflect the political views of the authors themselves - at least two of whom are reasonably (I mean that both in terms of relative political position and in terms of personal demeanor) conservative. If political polarization in Congress is both excessive and has negative consequences, what (to echo Lenin) is to be done?

Do we need policies that alter the composition of the poorer constituencies and so work to legalize and enfranchise immigrants? Do we need policies that redistribute (in a progressive direction), say, wealth, which is highly skewed in the US? Do we need Democratic Party structure that will allow candidates with a bit of political acuity and backbone to emerge and exploit these possibilities? If we have a class society, why not an explicitly progressive class politics (as opposed to the explicitly reactionary class politics that the Republicans already peddle)? That is Hodgson's political point. I think it is a good one.

At the end of my earlier post I recommended a set of books on inequality in America. It seems that I should now plug Hodgson's book - More Equal Than Others (Princeton UP, 2004) - as well as McCarty, Poole & Rosenthal. Inequality has consequences and many - perhaps most - of them are detrimental to the large majority of Americans.

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BOMB Interview w/ David Levi Strauss

Another of the publciations I (re)discovered and added to my sidebar list yesterday (the use of parentheses there makes me feel oh so post-modern) was BOMB Magazine which covers the arts and music and literature and does interesting interviews (including one in 1997 of Emmy Lou Harris by Lucinda Williams); I'd initially discovered (no parentheses) this magazine because they'd done this 2004 interview with David Levi Strauss who is perhaps the single most interesting writer on photography I know. Here is my review of his terrific book Between the Eyes, originally from afterimage, which was one of the very first things I posted on this blog.


16 September 2006

franck de las mercedes.

Well, this evening, I discovered an index containing some interessting magazines that I have added to my sidebar list. One is called nat creole and they have done an interview with artist Franck de las Mercedes (American, born in Nicaragua) who is doing a series of "priority boxes" like this one that he sends in the mail. [Image © Garth Dent.] Others contain similarly fragile things such as Knowledge, Tolerance, Wisdom, Courage ... You can find the nat creole interview with him here.

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Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Johan August Strindberg (1849-1912)

August Sander (1876-1964) [Self-Portrait, 1929]

August Wilson (1945-2005) [Image © Michael Romanos]

I spent a wonderful chunk of yesterday evening walking and talking with my youngest son August Béat Healey Johnson (14 February 2006- ); he is sweet and curious and beautiful and surely doesn't deserve the mayhem. There is hope in his eyes and smile.


PS: (Added: Later that same day ...) You may be unimpressed by artists and playwrites; If you Google "August Johnson" you will meet a coterie of characters ranging from a 19th Century Swede who was a professional strongman, to the fellow from Fargo, ND who invented (not the woodchipper but) the "Jiffy Hydaulic Lubricator Grease Gun" in the early 1920s, to a veteran of the old Negro Leagues who worked in the Physical Plant Dept. at Vanderbilt University for a half century. My little August and I went for a fun swim with his big brother Jeff at the local YMCA this afternoon.

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4 Recent Photography Books on Palestine

I want to call your attention to a brief review in the Fall 2006 issue of Middle East Report (#240) by Michelle Woodward entitled "Not All Black & White." Unfortunately her essay is not available online, but it is worth tracking down as she nicely contrasts the appraoches adopted in four recent publications. The first of these is No Man's Land by Larry Towell [1] [2] [3] [4] and the last is Nazar: Photographs from the Arab World [1] [2] both of which I have posted on before. The essay also discusses two books I have not seen: George Azar w/Mariam Shahin. 2005. Palestine: A Guide (Interlink Books) and Kai Wiedenhofer. 2002. Perfect Peace: The Palestinians from Intifada to Intifada (Steidl). Woodward is Photo Editor at MERIP and offers very insightful comments on how these differently situated photographers (even if all sympathetic) depict Palestine and its residents in quite different ways for quite different purposes.

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War Without End

Cambodia is only one among the many places where warning signs such as this are plentiful. Try Google for a larger multi-lingual selection. Of course, such warnings may not be entirely effective for children or illiterate adults, let alone livestock or pets. But, well, those who wage war always admit that pursuit of their aims may result in collateral damage.

Yesterday I posted on Raphaël Dallaporta's intense photographs of landmines and cluster bombs, weapons used solely to kill and maim indiscriminately. Here is another example (complete with instructions for use) from his "Antipersonnel" project:

I suggested that Dallaporta's work provides a sharp counterpoint to the images by the many other photographers who have sought to convey the dire human consequences of landmines. It might help to make this contrast explicit. So, here are several examples I have lifted from the web, each by a terrific photographer, each published a decade or so ago:

Two Angolan Women who have lost legs to landmines, 1997. [© Sebastiao Salgado].

John #3, Playing Outside, Mozambique [© Bobby Neel Adams].

Afghanistan, 1996 - Land mine victims learn to walk on prosthetic legs at ICRC clinic. [© James Nachtwey].

So, the sleek and shiny plastic and metal devices that Dallaporta presents in the style of advertising imagery, intentionally manufactured to be undetectable once deployed, kill and maim and cripple people the world over; even after some "ceasefire" has been announced or one or another side has declared "victory." ... "FRONT. TOWARD ENEMY."
PS: Again, you can go here to find the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. And, by the way, the United States is among the countries that has not signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. What good company we keep! With the somewhat surprising exception of Finland, there is not another "advanced" democracy on the list of holdouts.

PS2: Here is a document from Human Rights Watch that clarifies the role of various American Corporations suspected of involvement in the manufacture of landmines. It is somewhat outdated (1997), but there is no reason to suspect that any of the companies that had taken steps to distance themselves from the practice have been backsliding. Whether those companies that were unresponsive have changed their ways is another matter.

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15 September 2006

Raphaël Dallaporta

I was perusing some of the work being shown at "Rencontres d'Arles 2006 Photo Festival: Politics and Society" over at lensculture; the guest curator of the festival this year is Raymond Depardon with whom I am most familiar as the early 'patron' so to speak of Josef Koudelka.

In any case, the work of Raphaël Dallaporta caught my eye. The project shown at Arles was his "Domestic Slavery" in which he depicts the affluent residences of people accused and often convicted of keeping housekeepers and nannies (typically young women immigrants) in slavery. The images are glossy and bright, showing the deceptive facade behind which lurks cruelty and de-humanization. The obvious point, I think, is that we need not go to "exotic" places to find barbaric practices. Here are a couple of examples:

On Dellaporta's web page I also discovered his earlier "Antipersonnel" project in which he depicts sleek and shiny objects that turn out to be landmines and cluster bombs, depicting these objects as though he were producing advertising brochures for high-end consumer electronics. I find this project a provocative and effective counterpoint to the work of photographers who focus on the civilian victims of such indiscrciminate weaponry. Again, here are a couple of examples:

[All 4 images © Raphaël Dallaporta].


PS: You can find the International Campaign to Ban Landmines here. You can find useful links on human traffiking and slavery in an earlier post - here.


14 September 2006

American Liberals as an Endangered Species

Here are the final sentences from a pointed essay by historian Tony Judt entitled "Bush’s Useful Idiots" from The London Review of Books.

"We don’t expect right-wingers to care very much about the health of a republic, particularly when they are assiduously engaged in the unilateral promotion of empire. And the ideological left, while occasionally adept at analysing the shortcomings of a liberal republic, is typically not much interested in defending it.

It is the liberals, then, who count. They are, as it might be, the canaries in the sulphurous mineshaft of modern democracy. The alacrity with which many of America’s most prominent liberals have censored themselves in the name of the War on Terror, the enthusiasm with which they have invented ideological and moral cover for war and war crimes and proffered that cover to their political enemies: all this is a bad sign. Liberal intellectuals used to be distinguished precisely by their efforts to think for themselves, rather than in the service of others. Intellectuals should not be smugly theorising endless war, much less confidently promoting and excusing it. They should be engaged in disturbing the peace – their own above all."

Political Graphics by John & Yoko

I am interested in political graphics and especially those used to try to convey aggregate data. So every once in a while I will post items that provide good examples. This one is doubly interesting because it is a photograph too.


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W and his translator on The Daily Show

Who says music and politics don't mix? This clip is hilarious! It makes me wish I had a TV so that I could watch Jon Stewart.

13 September 2006

Making Torture Unfashionable - "State of Emergency" (2)

As I scan the various fashion blogs, it seems that many of the denizens of that domain find Steven Meisel's "State of Emergency" simply "fabulous!" and "sexy!" ( e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4] . . .) Since I think the series is self-indulgent crap (a technical term that is used insufficiently in photo criticism), I thought it might be useful to provide some examples of work that addresses similar themes more effectively, and certainly less offensively. It is not really too difficult to find examples - and that is not just because Meisel sets the bar so low. I will set aside the obvious example of Leon Golub whose several Interrogation series addressed earlier instances of US sponsored torture. (The irony is that while Golub relied on sado-masochistic pornography to imagine what torture might actually look like, Meisel is using images of actual torture to craft and peddle soft-core S&M porn.)

So, for instance, last year Columbian painter Fernando Botero exhibited nearly 50 paintings and drawings reacting to the revealtions of torture at Abu Ghraib. Here is an example:

Photographer Antonin Kratochvil has produced a series entitled "Homage to Abu Ghraib," from which I've lifted this image:

Sculpter Richard Serra produced this "Stop Bush, 2004" poster for the elections; even though he denied (in Artforum no less) that the poster was "art," I believe it ended up in the Whitney Biennial.

And around the same time as Serra's work, a variety of clever iRaq posters mysteriously appeared in several major American cities. (To the best of my knowledge these were anonymous.)

None of these appeared in a fashion magazine. None requires that we look at a plasticized, emaciated woman having faux-military knees and thighs jammed up between her splayed legs. None is "fabulous!" or "sexy!". Each of them makes its point nonetheless.

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