31 October 2007

Double Standards?

Frank Sinatra (circa 1968) © Terry O'Neill

So, here is a post at State of the Art on an exhibition in NYC of photographs of Ol' Blue Eyes taken by Terry O'Neill. I must say that I am not terribly drawn to Sinatra in particular or celebrity photos more generally. What the post raised in my mind, though, is why this image of Frank the tough guy doesn't elicit the same sort of criticism as picures and poses of hip-hoppers who glorify bearing arms and such.

On the Mainstrem Press and Its Critics: What is Wrong with Politics?

Over at The Nation I discovered this link to a study, actually an indictment, published by the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. The report excoriates (in an understated policy report sort of way) what passes for political reporting in the U.S. Media. What I find pretty astounding is that the study criticizes the press for focusing on "political" issues like fund-raising, polls and so forth, thereby colluding in an extremely narrow understanding of what counts as political. Americans seems to want information about policies and institutions and practices and their consequences, in short, about alternative ways of arranging our public affairs. God forbid that debates about such things these be treated for what they are, namely politics.

Photography in NYC

According to this story The New York Times, the city has decided not to criminalize photography in NYC. This is a resoundingly sensible decision even if the initally proposed regulations (about which I posted last summer) were stunningly idiotic. You might want to check out picture new york on this matter as well. I guess my view is that the new regulations are a good move but that it would've been much more positive if the process of drafting them had been open rather than taking place behind closed doors in the Mayor's Office.

Postus Interruptus

I am traveling (and have been since Monday evening EST) ... so posts will be sporadic. I am visiting my sweet August in Oregon and then giving a paper - "The Arithmetic of Compassion" - an early draft of which appears in the sidebar at the University of Oregon on Friday afternoon.

29 October 2007

La Terre vue du Ciel (Earth from Above)

Find Captions: [1] [2]

Here are just two of the astonishing aerial photographs of Yann Arthus-Bertrand. You can find this brief essay on his work in The Guardian.

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28 October 2007

Landless Protests in India (2)

“It’s as though the people of India have been
rounded up and loaded onto two convoys of trucks
(a huge big one and a tiny little one) that have
set off resolutely in opposite directions. The
tiny convoy is on its way to a glittering
destination somewhere near the top of the world.
The other convoy just melts into the darkness and
disappears. A cursory survey that tallies the caste,
class and religion of who gets to be on which
convoy would make a good Lazy Person’s Guide to
the History of India.” ~ Arundhati Roy (2001)

Again, news reports from the BBC on the ongoing mass protest over land reform in India. Still, as far as I can tell, no notice in The New York Times. Monday, according to the BBC, the protesters plan to disrupt business as usual in New Delhi. I am sure the authorities will respond with respect and restraint.


27 October 2007

Bare Bones

The snowy albatross is one of a happy breed that, given
its vast span, can soar for hours without a wing beat.
Photograph courtesy of Editions Xavier Barral, in association
with The Museum of Natural History, Paris.
Photograph © Patrick Gries/Thames & Hudson

This slideshow from The Guardian is pretty amazing.

Landless Protests in India

"Cynics say that real life is a choice between the failed revolution
and the shabby deal. I don't know... maybe they're right. But even
they should know that there's no limit to just how shabby that shabby
deal can be. What we need to search for and find, what we need to
hone and perfect into a magnificent, shining thing, is a new kind of
politics. Not the politics of governance, but the politics of resistance.
The politics of opposition. The politics of forcing accountability. The
politics of joining hands across the world and preventing certain
destruction. In the present circumstances, I'd say that the only thing
worth globalising is dissent. It's India's best export."
~ Arundhati Roy (2001)

According to The Guardian, "more than 25,000 landless farmers are walking 220 miles from Gwalior to New Delhi to ask the Indian government for a piece of land for life." According to the BBC, "the marchers aim to shame the government into keeping its promise to redistribute land." As far as I can determine our own newspaper of record has not noticed this.


The Guardian Guide to Photography

"A fantastic, in-depth guide to all things photographic with contributions from Dan Chung, Tom Jenkins, Eamonn McCabe, Anton Corbijn, Sam Taylor-Wood, Jane Bown, Roger Tooth and Rankin." What more could you want? Try Martin Parr, Martine Franck, Steve Pyke, Gregory Crewdson ... too.

Anthropologists at War: "Hi! We're from the U.S. Army and We're here to Understand you!"

Even the U.S. military seems to have figured out that understanding the people in Iran and Afghanistan ~ and to "Islam" more broadly ~ might prove crucial to our interactions with them. They have launched an unfortunately named "human terrain" program to embed anthropologists with fighting units on the ground. Early this month The New York Times ran this front-page story on the program. Of course, this elicited a couple of rounds of letters from prominent practitioners. And a group called the Network of Concerned Anthropologists has emerged, voicing strong opposition to the program. In the meantime npr has run a couple of segments on the program [1] [2] and The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story on the brewing controversy too. Today there is an Op-Ed in The Times by Richard Schweder that seems sensible enough. I disagree, though, with the way Schweder poses the options. It seems to me that anthropologists and other social scientists could both refuse to cooperate in this program and work toward establishing more appropriate ways of contributing to the education of military personnel and intervening in the foreign policy process more generally.

I've lifted the title to this post from Schweder. This program obviously raises all sorts of matters of professional ethics as well as (more importantly to my mind) flat out politics. While it seems to me that U.S. Troops should be better educated on matters of cultural difference (Schweder rightly notes the irony of sending groups of 'cultural relativists' into what arguably is a battle between fundamentalists) it is not at all clear that anthropologists actively involved in counterinsurgency programs will be able to avoid being swallowed whole. As Scheweder remarks: "It turns out that the anthropologists are not really doing anthropology at all, but are basically hired as military tour guides to help counterinsurgency forces accomplish various nonlethal missions." This is the impression I too had from listening to and reading reports on this program. Better that more missions become "non-lethal," of course. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking it likely that the military missions will become more enlightened by learning about the "human terrain" they are seeking to pacify. The point of military strategy is to elicit compliance, not to treat the Iraqis or Afghanis as sovereign peoples.

I've always thought this old Far Side was quite funny. I guess my view of the "human terrain" program is that what the anthropologists might now risk missing is less the lives of "natives" and the predicaments they find themselves in, than the realities of our military and what it is up to.
P.S. Regular readers may recall that political scientists have encountered similar difficulties in trying to find efficacious ways of intervening in current foreign policy. I've noted this in posts before [1] [2].

Facing Death: Cambodia 1975-79

During the Khmer Rouge terror in Cambodia of the mid-1970s, as many as fourteen thousand people went to their deaths at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh. A teenage photographer Nhem En was, at the time, charged with photographing prisoners as they arrived. He survived and, according to this story in The New York Times, today is providing testimony in proceedings against higher ups in the party who are being tried for crimes against humanity. The images he created are uncanny, of individuals facing imminent torture and death even as, in many instances, they themselves did not quite yet realize it. The images here are Nhem En's handiwork. You can find more here.

26 October 2007

The Baleful Effects of Inbreeding Among Neo-Conservatives

While I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, I paid the rent for a while by working as an academic advisor in the College there. At one late in the year staff meeting we were discussing who should win some awards for special extra-curricular achievments. One of my colleagues announced that John Podhoretz, then an undergrad in the College, ought to win for having established a glossy right-wing student publication on campus. I cannot recall the name of the rag, but it was standard conservative drivel and whining. I take it as an accomplishment in that job to have sucessfully argued that Podhoretz should not win anything given that the resources for the publication came directly from his daddy and daddy's friends.

John's daddy, of course, is the truly loathsome Norman Podhoretz (pictured above), long time editor at Commentary magazine. Although I don't waste a lot of time thinking about the matter, I have always considered Podhoretz-the-elder to be a blowhard and Podhoretz-the-younger to be a mediocre 'mini-me' of poppa-P. One recent news story* reveals not much has changed in the days since I left Hyde Park; who-you-know still trumps merit among the neo-conservative crowd ( see also Bill Kristol and Adam Bellow and the various nefarious Kagans [1] [2] ... ). John has been picked to succeed Norm's successor at Commentary. All of that is, I suppose, to be expected given the extreme intellectual inbreeding among the neo-con crowd. What I find remarkable is the handwringing the neo-cons seem to be engaged in regarding the younger's "intellectual credentials for such a highbrow journal." Are you kidding? Commentary is a propaganda sheet, no more no less. Having written for the Reverend Moon's The Washington Times and The Weekly Standard (I only wish I could say the latter were run by the Reverend Billy or even Biily Crystal instead of Bill Kristol!), the younger has all the 'qualifications' one needs to pilot it. In the meantime, daddy apparently has announced that W will go down in history as "a great president.” Regardless of whether young Podhoretz has any ability, he surely cannot be as out of touch with reality as his daddy seems to be. Norm's friends should take his pen away before he hurts himself.

According to the review in The Times, Norm's new book ~ The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism ~ is standard Commentary fare:

"How good a case does Mr. Podhoretz make for his hard-line views in this volume? Instead of trying to produce a reasoned argument for a forward-leaning foreign policy, he has served up a hectoring, often illogical screed based on cherry-picked facts and blustering assertions (often made without any supporting evidence), a book that furiously hurls accusations of cowardice, anti-Americanism and sheer venality at any and all opponents of the Bush doctrine, be they on the right or the left."

That sure does make you want to rush out and hunt down a copy of the book or maybe re-up your Commentary subscription. And, of course, the notion that there is such a thing as "Islamofascism" is pure propaganda; it would be fine to treat it as an intellectual howler but for the fact that various minions in BushCo seem to embrace the notion.

* It must be a really slow news week for the allegedly "liberal" New York Times to be devoting so many column inches to covering this sort of right-wing intrique.

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25 October 2007

Ernest Withers (1922-2007)

Memphis strike, 1968 © Ernest Withers

Photographer Ernest Withers, has died. Withers chronicled the civil rights struggles in the American south from the 1950s into the 1960s as well as producing portraits of musicians in in native Memphis. The obituary from The New York Times is here. The obituary from The Guardian is here.

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The Price of My Subscription (Again)

Yet again [1] [2] [3] [4], Katha Pollitt single-handedly makes subscribing to the The Nation worthwhile. Her column this week "With Facts on Our Side," complete with an allusion to Dylan, calls attention to a recent essay in The Lancet (Vol.370, #9595, 13 Oct. 07) on the worldwide incidence of abortion. Turns out that (1) making it illegal does not decease the incidence of abortion, it only makes the process more dangerous to women and (2) the best predictor of low rates of abortion is widespread and easy availability of contraception. You would think that 'pro-life' types who want to miniize the practice of abortion would stop their efforts to impose legal restrictions on abortion and start working instead to make sure contraception is widely and easily available. Fat chance.
P.S.: (Added 26 October) From openDemocracy comes this report on an international Conference in London this past week focusing on the task of making abortion safe and available. Also at oD is this report on abortion politics in Brazil.

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‘We close at 5.’

"When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff." - Cicero

In my own experience Judges are an unsavory lot. They make law and they often do so on the basis of narrow-mindedness and prejudice. They are less interested in rendering a fair judgement (or even one that accords with standard legal rationales) than in clearing the docket or imposing their personal views. In many ways they are not much different than rent-a-cops - folks with Associate's Degrees who we put in uniform and set out to defend 'order' at malls and shopping centers. The sole difference is that they have gone to law school and so are especially sanctimonious. Fortunately, in my own experience no judge has had the prerogative to make a life-or-death decision.

The woman pictured at right is Sharon Keller a Texas criminal appeals court judge who confirms my views. According to this story in The Guardian and this one in The New York Times she refused to keep her office open for a last-minute death-penalty appeal when the Defense Attorneys were late filing papers due to a computer problem. She embodies Cicero's aphorism. And in so doing she reduces respect for law and the courts. In the meantime the prisoner was executed even though the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case challenging the constitutionality of the method of killing used by the State of Texas. While the court has not yet decided that case, it was known that it planned to review the use of lethal injection in executions when Keller decided she couldn't be late for dinner - or whatever pressing issue compelled her to act with depraved indifference to anything resembling justice. The man who was executed - Michael Richard - was convicted of rape and murder. He was not a nice man and I have no illusion on that score. But a conviction does not strip a person of constitutional protections. Sharon Keller seems not to notice that.


24 October 2007

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (3)

The shadow of Errol Morris in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Like Fenton, I am looking north and the sun is behind me.
Photo by Errol Morris © The New York Times

In The New York Times today you can find the third and final installment of Errol Morris's somewhat obsessive quest to establish the veracity or otherwise of a famous photo of a Crimean War Battlefield by Roger Fenton. It is fair to say that Morris goes to great lengths in his quest; I won't spoil the ending.

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23 October 2007

Roberto Unger (Again)

My overlapping interests in pragmatism, political economy and democracy have me reading recent books by Roberto Unger [1] [2] and following his move from the legal academy into government [3]. This book is his latest and it is quite interestig insofar as he rightly insists (i) that no abstract institutional model (e.g., an economic model of 'the' market) has a unique instantiation in practice and (ii) that there exists a "punumbra of possibility" around any particular institutional arrangement from which those who inhabit it might, via political action, move to another more attractive arrangement.

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A General Strike as a Sign of Hope

Over at Alternet Jim Hightower asks "Is a Presidential Coup Underway?" From there I was led to a brief essay in Harpers calling for, of all things, a general strike starting November 6th. I am sure most people who read this manifesto will dismiss it. Why? Americans rightly were inspired by the people of Burma who took to the streets in defiance of the junta. If the Burmese could imagine mass resistance to an authoritarian regime that has an established record of brutality to its domestic opponents why does it seem so difficult to imagine Americans resisting the current political drift not just of the ruling Republicans but the barely oppositional Democrats?

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22 October 2007

How a University Compromises Its Principles ~ Not Quite Totally

"Guernica," Pablo Picasso (1937)

About two weeks ago I heard Debra Satz, a friend who teaches philosophy at Stanford, on npr. She was interviewed as part of this report on faculty and student opposition to having former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appointed as a "distinguished fellow" at the Hoover Institution which is located on the Stanford Campus. I admire Debra's work ~ especially her series of extremely smart papers on markets and equality* ~ and her politics. It seems to me that faculty ought to speak out when their University seeks to appoint someone like Rumsfeld, who arguably is a war criminal, to some position or other.

Of course, Stanford has no real control over the folks at Hoover, which is a quasi-autonmous entity. But, I have to agree with the folks there who object to Rummy's appointment. Unlike BushCo minions like John Yoo ~ he of the infamous 'torture memos' ~ who now teaches law at Boalt Hall (UC Berkeley), Rumsfeld was not just a mouthpiece for putrid policies. He was directly in the chain of command. I would object to having Yoo on faculty where I teach but fortunately we have no law school! This is not "left-wing intolerance" as Conservatives (or Liberals who are free speech fundamentalists) are wont to proclaim; it is simply talking back to those who have said things in public that are both dangerous and stupid.** It is an attempt to hold Universities to their own principles. Would I urge the administration at Rochester to deny Yoo an academic appointment? No, but I likely would make clear that I find his rationalizations for torture contemptible. Would I ask the administration at UofR to deny Rumsfeld an appointment? Yes, just as I would in the case of other war criminals like, say, Henry Kissinger. Yoo rationalized torture in his speeches/writings, Rumsfeld actually implemented various dispicable policies.

All of that brings me round to the good old University of Rochester. This past weekend was "Meliora Weekend," part of the PR/Development campaign by which the University seeks to cultivate relations, both intellectual and economic, with alumnae and alumni. Nothing wrong with that. But the Keynote event on campus was an address by none other than former Secretary of State Colin Powell, he of the deceptive BushCo campaign to justify our invasion of Iraq.

This official-style head shot is how the University PR materials depict Powell. That makes sense since, according to the University, Powell is a "fervent purveyor of democratic values." This, unfortunately, seems to me to be considerably more than a stretch. Powell is a liar. In his 2003 testimony before the United Nations Security Council, Powell lied with a straight face about the alleged WMD in Iraq. He did not "mislead" or "dissemble." There is no need to sugar-coat the testimony he offered. He lied. He lied to you and me and the world. And he has admitted as much himself. It is deeply embarassing that the UofR invited Powell to speak on campus. Accordng to the University, while in office Powell "used the power of diplomacy and the universal ideal of democracy to" among other things "build trust"; it escapes me completely how lying to the American people, and to our allies and adversaries, enhances trust either domestically or internationally. Quite the contrary. And to the extent that our premise is that healthy democracy presupposes a reservoir of political trust, Powell seems to me an enemy of democracy.

Here is a far more appropriate photograph of Powell. It is a still taken from the video of his perfomance at the U.N. in the winter of 2003. This is the defining moment of Powell's career in public service. Here he is peddling lies. He is peddling lies that it seems quite disingenuous to suggest he did not know were lies at the time. Why didn't this image appear on our Meliora Weekend web page?

Call me an "absent-minded Professor." I do not pay much attention to Meliora-like events. The only evidence I had that there was a special event on campus last Friday was my inability to find a place to park. So I didn't even know Powell was on the schedule. I didn't know there was a schedule. Had I known I would've objected in advance. As it is, I am objecting now. I'm sure there will be those who chastise me, claiming that Powell has a right to speak. That, of course, is true. But let's be quite clear about what has happened. As part of the Meliora events we didn't just offer Powell an audience; we granted him an honorary degree. That is simply pathetic. It tarnishes the reputation of the University ~ to put it very mildly ~ to lend its name to the "achievements" of an admitted liar. Allowing someone to speak is one thing. Honoring him and his ignominious achievements is another.

I started this post with a reproduction of Picasso's Guernica because it bears witness to the evils of unjust and duplicitous regimes and the consequnces their policies generate. It also is relevant to Powell's defining moment, because the copy of this work that hangs at the U.N. Headquarters in NYC appropriately was covered over during Powell's testimony. Picasso's is a work of testimony. And ironically enough another of the speakers invited to address our alums this past weekend was Barbara Olshansky (BA, Rochester ’82; JD, Stanford '85 ~ how is that for a coincidence?) who, as the Deputy Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, successfully fought the Bush administration's ongoing efforts to shred the Constitution in the name of this or that ill-conceived and deceitful policy. Olshansky now is on the faculty of Stanford Law School and is Litigation Director for the International Justice Network. She is a truly distinguished alumnus.

As far as I know the UofR bestowed no honorary degree on Olshansky; she simply was offered an audience to whom she could provide a report on her honorable work trying to counteract the lies and actions of those like Colin Powell. So our compromise, I suppose, was not total.
* You can find a draft of one of these papers here.
** Steve Holmes dismantles Yoo's views (pardon the rhyme) in this essay in The Nation.

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On the Usefulness of Walls for Politics (4)

Heinersdorf, East/West German Border, 1987 © Brian Rose

In 1985 or so Brian Rose began to document the "Iron Curtain" that divided East and West Germany. Eventually, of course, that border ceased to have any official status. But he continued to document the border after the demise of Communism in 1989. The results are in his book project The Lost Border. We could do with a few more disappearing walls and curtains and fences.

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21 October 2007

Moderating Comments

Well, it has come to this. I have decided to start moderating the comments left on my posts. There is one anonymous commenter who over the course of about a year has shown himself to be a real asshole - bigoted, homophobic, insulting to me and other readers. His comments are uniformly off-point, inane, tiresomely predictable, and offensive. So I will henceforth simply filter them out before they appear. As I note in my profile, I've recently learned that life is too short.

This is truly unfortunate and I apologize to those of you who have been constructive and civil, even in disagreement. You will note that I have added a policy statement to the comments pop-up and sidebar. I will approve all comments that comply with those broad 'rules' as promptly as I am able ~ the blog program makes it quite quick & simple.


The Usefulness of Walls for Politics (3)

Sept. 22., 5 a.m.: The border near Naco, Ariz.,

under the watchful glare of security lights.

Sept. 19, 4 a.m.: Two towns called Nogales, one in Arizona
(foreground) and one in Mexico
Both photographs © Simon Norfolk/NB Pictures (2006),
The New York Times

I came across these images by Simon Norfolk in this retrospective of his terrific work over the past half dozen years for The Times. They seem like an appropriate way to extend my series of posts on walls and politics [1] [2].

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This image (no photographer credit available) is from a story in The New York Times today on the current situation in Burma. I must say that I am amazed at how politically effective the military junta has been in only a couple of weeks. Not long ago, you will recall, hundreds of thousands of Burmese monks and civilians were in the streets clamouring for freedom and democracy and economic reform. And now, quite miraculously, the junta apparently has persuaded them that they were mistaken in pushing those demands when what they really want is more stability and order (dressed up in blind optimism of the sort only a brutal dictatorship can provide). I am certain that this billboard is a spontaneous and sincere expression of popular attitudes.


19 October 2007

Psychological Bases of Conservatism

I came across a citation to an article* addressing the political-psychological bases of conservatism that I think is quite revealing. Here are the concluding paragraphs:

"What Have We Learned?

Understanding the psychological underpinnings of conservatism has for centuries posed a challenge for historians, philosophers, and social scientists. By now, hundreds of empirical investigations have been carried out worldwide, and at least three types of theories have been offered to explicate the psychological bases of conservative and right-wing ideologies. Our contribution here has been to review and summarize this work and to integrate it within the ambitious and broad framework of motivated social cognition. In doing so, we have drawn a number of conclusions, which should be made explicit in order to better understand the various ways in which political conservatism may be thought of as a form of motivated social cognition.

An important conclusion that follows from our analysis is that political attitudes and beliefs possess a strong motivational basis. Conservative ideologies, like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted in part because they satisfy various psychological needs. To say that ideological belief systems have a strong motivational basis is not to say that they are unprincipled, unwarranted, or unresponsive to reason or evidence. Although the (partial) causes of ideological beliefs may be motivational, the reasons (and rationalizations) whereby individuals justify those beliefs to themselves and others are assessed according to informational criteria.

Many different theoretical accounts of conservatism over the past 50 years have stressed motivational underpinnings, but they have identified different needs as critical. Our review brings these diverse accounts together for the first time. Variables significantly associated with conservatism, we now know, include fear and aggression, dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty avoidance, need for cognitive closure, personal need for structure, terror management, group-based dominance, and system justification. From our perspective, these psychological factors are capable of contributing to the adoption of conservative ideological contents, either independently or in combination.

The socially constructed nature of human belief systems makes it unlikely that a complete explanation of conservative ideology could ever be provided in terms of a single motivational syndrome. Ideologies, like other social representations, may be thought of as possessing a core and a periphery, and each may be fueled by separate motivational concerns. The most that can be expected of a general psychological analysis is for it to partially explain the core of political conservatism because the peripheral aspects are by definition highly protean and driven by historically changing, local contexts.

We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear. Specifically, the avoidance of uncertainty (and the striving for certainty) may be particularly tied to one core dimension of conservative thought, resistance to change. Similarly, concerns with fear and threat may be linked to the second core dimension of conservatism, endorsement of inequality. Although resistance to change and support for inequality are conceptually distinguishable, we have argued that they are psychologically interrelated, in part because motives pertaining to uncertainty and threat are interrelated."

The authors review the findings of 88 studies ranging across a dozen countries and half a century. Their "meta-analysis" is insightful and useful. The grounds of conservative political leanings turn out to not just reflect internal proclivities but to be thoroughly situational or circumstantial. Conservatism on this view seems a way that certain sorts of people respond to social conditions they perceive as uncertain or threatening. That said, I want to call attention to the passage I've highlighted.

This paper helps me understand why I so often find it remarkably difficult to figure out what conservatives want or why they think the way they do. It suggests too that progressives, if they hope to appeal to large constituencies, must find ways of addressing conditions that make people feel insecure and fearful. In particular, it seems to me that this research supports the view of Roberto Unger (on which I've posted before) that progressives need to distance themselves from the notion that social and political change must be tied to and result from crisis.

* T. Jost, et. al. 2003. "Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition," Psychological Bulletin 129(3): 339-75.


18 October 2007

Alfredo Jaar

So I chose. I went tonight to hear a presentation by Alfredo Jaar whose work I very much admire. The talk was a tour of several of his public projects. You can see several of these in The Fire This Time: Public Interventions 1979-2005 which was published by Charta (Italy) a couple years back.

There also is a terrific interview with Jaar from Art Journal (Fall 2005) that I highly recommend. (In fact, I have already recommended it a couple of times in previous posts on Jaar, his work and the important questions it raises [1] [2] [3] [4] ). One irony arose in Jaar's talk this evening. In response to a questioner, he asserted that he thinks art is unique in its usefulness as a tool of political change. Indeed, he asserted, referring to himself that "I want to change the world." I think Jaar is sincere in his claim. Let's set aside the matter of how efficacious art can be in processes of social and political change. I am ambivalent about that ~ minimally it is a much more complicated matter than Jaar seems to allow. It surely is one that the audience tonight didn't follow up on in discussion.

The irony is that those charged with running an institution like the MAG can, apparently without any self-reflection, host a speaker like this. The Memorial Art Gallery is as staid and conformist an institution as one might ever have the ill-fortune to encounter. Having lived here a decade and a half, it has (to the best of my recollection) put on exactly two events that came close to being provocative or risky. One was Jaar's talk this evening and he was surely not manning the barricades. Mostly the MAG follows the quite unremarkable tastes of the community rather than seeking to push those tastes in any direction. God forbid that any of our cultural institutions be anything other than solidly conservative.

All of that said, among the things I most like about Jaar is the aesthetic strategy he has perfected of withholding images, of gesturing toward them without actually displaying or even making them. This is a theme in several of his projects. And it is a strategy born of despair, of his sense that displaying images in a commercialized, high speed culture is fraught with difficulties and pitfalls. Jaar discusses this in the interview I link to above. This is part of what I talked about at the conference in Durham last month. I'll come back to it soon.


17 October 2007

Renewble Energy?

"Big Dams are to a Nation’s ‘Development’ what Nuclear Bombs
are to its Military Arsenal. They’re both weapons of mass destruction.
They’re both weapons governments use to control their own people."
~ Arundhati Roy (1999)

"Construction Site", Three Gorges Dam, Photo © Steven Benson, 2006

Various press sources reported last week that the 3 Gorges Dam in China already is creating more environmental havoc than the Chinese government anticipated. As a result a significantly several million more people will need to be relocated due to construction of the dam. Here is part of a report from The Wall Street Journal:
"Already, 1.4 million residents have been relocated to
make way for the dam. On Thursday, China's state
media said the government plans to move an additional
four million residents from the reservoir area created
by the dam because of worries about pollution fouling
up the new lake's waters, as well as landslides that
have made life hazardous for millions who live nearby."
And let's not mention the concerns about seismic activity that might someday threaten the integrity of the dam. These sorts of report remind me of the essays Arundhati Roy wrote about India's big dams. She portrayed them as fiascos that not only displaced millions of people but that never came close to fulfilling their intended purposes. In fact, Roy argues that those purposes were never actually spelled out. Massive projects like this, often rationalized in terms of energy production (compare nuclear plants), seem designed to fail. (She relies, in addition to many government and NGO reports, on Patrick McCully Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams.)

Three Gorges Dam Project, Dam #2,
Yangtze River, China 2002 © Edward Burtynsky

Should you find Roy too irritating or simply too suspect because she is a woman speaking in public on behalf of the relatively powerless (I actually think her political essays are extremely pointed and extremely funny) you might consider Jim Scott's Seeing Like a State (Yale UP, 1998) for a related argument.

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The Depressing Success of the Right-Wing Propaganda Machine

Here are highlights from a truly depressing report from The New York Times:

"The language used to talk about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the language used to take the nation to war in Iraq have been so interlaced that polls show they are inextricably linked in the minds of a substantial number of voters."

"One of the most striking poll findings is the number of people who continue to think Saddam Hussein was behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Depending on how it is asked, more than a third of Americans say Saddam Hussein was personally involved in those attacks. In a New York Times/CBS News Poll in September, 33 percent of the respondents said Saddam Hussein was “personally” involved. In June, when Princeton Survey Research, polling for Newsweek, asked if “Saddam Hussein’s regime was directly involved in planning, financing or carrying out the terrorist attacks,” 41 percent said yes."

The optimisitc note is that directly after we invaded as many as 53% of americans subscribed to this canard. So after five years there is modest progress despite the fact that right-wing liars about whom I have posted before contiue to push it on the public.

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When It Rains ....: Local Events for 18 October

Rochester is an extremely sleepy town intellectually. So it is a bit frustrating when provocative events are scheduled in direct conflict with one another. That is what happens tomorrow evening.

You can go to hear Patricia Williams - on faculty at Columbia Law School and columnist for The Nation - at RIT at 7 pm; her talk is entitled “Conjoined Identities and the Corporatized Body.”


You can go to a presentation by artist Alfredo Jaar at the Memorial Art Gallery, also at 7 pm. His lecture is scheduled in conjunction with the exhxibition "TRANSactions: Contemporary Latin American and Latino Art."

If you are in the area go to one of these at least. Who knows when there will be any similar events in town.

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Rhythm Method

"Many indie bands seemed to be having complex reactions
of their own to musical miscegenation. The indie genre
emerged in the early eighties . . . and originally incorporated
black sources, using them to produce a new music,
characterized by brevity and force, and released on
independent labels. . . . But by the mid-nineties black
influences had begun to recede, sometimes drastically, and
the term “indie rock” came implicitly to mean white rock."

This diagnosis from a recent essay "A Paler Shade of White" by Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker sounds right to me. But is this simply an unfortunate by-product of technological change and social progress (and its dark side "political correctness"), as the author suggests? Perhaps the latter, but not in the way the author intimates. The essay ends like so:

"The uneasy, and sometimes inappropriate, borrowings and
imitations that set rock and roll in motion gave popular music
a heat and an intensity that can’t be duplicated today, and
the loss isn’t just musical; it’s also about risk. Rock and roll
was never a synonym for a polite handshake. If you’ve
forgotten where the term came from, look it up. There’s a
reason the lights were off."

Maybe the problem is that the sexual dimension to rock and roll to which the author refers so coyly here is out of bounds for social and political reasons. Remember that this is a country where glimpses of nipple send folks into paroxysms of anxiety and outrage. Try to play anything vaguely provocative on, say, a college radio station (forget now extinct 'independent' stations) these days. The Deans and the University Counsel have completely sanitized playlists. They are desperate to avoid legal exposure should someone, anyone, in the listening audience be "offended" and call the FCC. None of the hip-skaking, rhythm, insinuation, and so forth that Frere-Jones longs for are allowed. We live in an era where sexuality is repressed and politicians lay prostrate before to the most repressive inclinations in the population.


Nuttiness on the Left

I often enjoy reading Alexander Cockburn's columns in The Nation if only because he often is willing to say things others are not. He seem to have gone off the deep end however in his denial of the human contributions to climate change. This occured most recently past weekend in the context of a diatribe against Al Gore and his Nobel Prize.* I am no fan of Gore. In fact, I conisder him a pretty repugnant moralizer [1] [2]. And Cockburn recounts a set of dubious Clinton-era policies that Gore was in to up to his elbows. I do not know enough about these to judge one way of the other. But I have no reason to doubt Cockburn on that score. Indeed, he is not the only one to criticize Gore's militaristic record [1] - especially while Vice Presisdent under Clinton. Here, though, is Alex on climate change and Gore's campaign in criticizing it:

"The notorious "man-made" greenhouse gasses comprise
about .26 per cent of the total greenhouse gas component
of the earth's atmosphere and the influence of this
component remains entirely unproven, as I have pointed
out on this site many times ... Gore's contribution to the
debate has been an appalling mishmash of cooked statistics,
demagoguery about "scientific consensus" and New Age
hocus pocus about spiritual renewal. Anyone who has
studied the antics of his co-winner of the peace prize,
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will know
that the IPCC's prime role every three years has been to
ignore the work-some of it respectable scientific research-
of its expert panels and issue entirely mendacious and to
issue alarmist press releases designed to win
headlines in the New York Times.

Of course Al Gore has been a shil for nuclear power
ever since he came of age as a political harlot for the
Oakridge nuclear laboratory in his home state of Tennessee.
The practical beneficiary of the baseless hysteria over
"anthropogenic global warming" is the nuclear power industry.
This very fall, ... this industry is reaping the fruits of Al
Gore's campaigning. Congress has finally knocked aside
the regulatory licensing processes that have somewhat
protected the public across recent decades. The starting
gun has sounded, and just about the moment Gore and his
co-conspirators at the IPCC collect their prizes, the
bulldozers will be breaking ground for the new nuclear
lants soon to spring like Amanita phalloides--just as
deadly--across the American landscape."

Gore may well be a shil for Nukes. Has he, in fact, been pushing that particular way around carbon-fuel burning power sources? I don't know that either. But if Gore is pushing dubious remedies why not just criticize those remedies? Why go so far as to deny climate change and the, yes, "scientific consensus" regarding the human contribution to it? It could be that Gore is using scientific research to argue for untenable policies. I would not be surprised. But any such linkage is wholly contingent.

My friend Susan insists that if I criticize nuttiness on the right (e.g., the loathsome Ann Coulter) I need to be even-handed and criticize nuttiness on the left. Cockburn's position here is nutty.

* You can find earlier installments of this nuttiness in The Nation here and here and here and here. Who is Cockburn's co-author Jeffrey St. Clair is shilling for when he sides with the "greenhousers"?

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16 October 2007

On Privacy

My former student Peter Stone mentioned to me this past weekend that my friend and former colleague, the very smart and wonderful Annabelle Lever, has a book forthcoming in the impressive "Thinking in Action" series published by Routledge. The book, On Privacy, should be terrific. And the cover suggests why it especially apropos for me to offer a pitch for it here. It is due out in early December - you should pick up a copy.


Economic Mal-Distribution in the United States (2)

It has been a while since I posted on matters of economic inequality. But when even The Wall Street Journal notices the persistent increase in income inequality in the U.S., it seems like I should call your attention to the matter once again.

The rich are getting richer. This pattern seems to reflect income gained by finance types. In other words the rewards of speculation are exacerbating societal patterns. As I have noted here before the funds passing through Wall Street have little to do with increasing the amount of capital available for productive purposes. They are just speculation, legalized but often unregulated gambling.

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Is Legal Sex Anal?

Tracey Emin: Is Legal Sex Anal? 1998,
Pink neon and dimmer switch.
Photograph: Stephen White/Tate, London 2007

This piece is part of an exhibition "Art & Sex from Antiquity to Now" currently showing in London. You can find it as part of this slideshow at The Guardian. Given the repeated interventions of anonymous homophobes in the comments here lately, I figured it poses an appropriate question. And here is another image that may excite the homophobes too:

Andy Warhol: Blowjob, 1963.
Black and white, silent, 41 minutes at 16 frames per second.
Photograph: The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.

15 October 2007

Taking Tap Water for Granted

There has been a lot of press recently about the negatove externalities of bottled water - lots of bottles in landfills, etc. But (via Colin Farrelly at In Search of Enlightenment) it seems easy to overlook the incredible importance of clean running water, piped in to your tap to drink and bath in and piped out of your house to flush away waste. This story from BMJ (a publication of the British Medical Association) reports on a readers poll that identified running water as "the greatest medical advance since 1840."

2007 Nobel Prize in Economics ~ Mechanism Design, or Why Technocratic Dreams of Dispensing with Politics Don't Work

The prize was announced today in Stockholm and has been awarded to a troika of American economists who work in the arcane area of "mechanism design." Although it is arcane, it also is quite important, mostly because, unintentionally, it establishes the fundamental importance of politics. None of the actual interest in the work seems to have come out in the article in today's New York Times (or in the story on npr). It was not at all clear that the reporters quite understood what the work is about.

Here is the problem. Markets work well (read produce efficient outcomes) only when all participants are parametric. That means that no participant has undue influence over the terms of market exchange. Unfortunately, most of life is strategic, meaning that what is best for any given individual depends on what she expects relevant others to do. Others therefore have influence, whether intentionally or otherwise, over her decisions. So, markets are useful institutional tools only in a quite restricted range of social life. They are very useful in that restricted domain. But they may wreak havoc in domains of interaction where the basic assumption of parametric action does not hold.

I cannot offer the whole argument here*, but it runs roughly like this. In situations of strategic interdependence such as decisions on whether to provide a public good (where, due to strategic interdependencies, markets are not going to function well), a mechanism is an institution designed to mitigate the effects of that interdependence. So, mechanism design models will postulate an impartial mediator who can determine the actual cost of providing the good and elicit honest information from members of the group facing the decision about the level at which they individually value the public good. Such an arrangement is termed incentive compatible.

In some instances honesty then becomes a dominant strategy for all members of the group - except the mediator. This means all members of the group will be best off telling the truth regardless of what other members of the group do when the mediator asks them how much they value the public good. Unfortunately, since the total amount members of the group reveal to the mediator will not be budget balancing (there will always be a deficit or a surplus), she will have an incentive to overstate the cost of the good and pocket the surplus. This obviously is not efficient. Moreover, because the task of monitoring the mediator is itself a public good the group faces a regress.

In other instances honesty will be a (weaker) Nash equilibrium strategy for everyone, including the mediator. This means honesty will be the best policy for each individual given what she expects all relevant others to do. Unfortunately, as is typically the case in such circumstances, there will be multiple equilibrium outcomes and hence another decision problem since those outcomes will distribute benefits and costs to various individuals differentially. Hence again the group faces a regress.

So, in either instance there is a residual political problem - how to monitor the mediator or how to select one among the available, but distributionally non-equivalent equilibrium outcomes. Technocrats weep - there is not a market-mimicking way to elicit honest information about provision public goods that can eliminate politics. We thus face the task of making politics more attractive - hence the importance of democratic theory.**
* So here are two citations for the curious. Neither paper is technical despite the fact that work in mechanism design enters mathematical hyperspace very quickly. Only one of the citations is directly self-promoting!

Gary Miller & Thomas Hammond. 1994."Why Politics is More Fundamental Than Economics"
Journal of Theoretical Politics Vol. 6, No. 1, pages 5-26.

Jack Knight & James Johnson. 1999. "Inquiry into Democracy: What Might a Pragmatist Make of Rational Choice Theories?"
American Journal of Political Science 43: 566-589.

** Since this will seem a leap, you might have a look at this second, self-promoting reference:

Jack Knight & James Johnson. 2007. "The Priority of Democracy: A Pragmatist Approach to Political-Economic Institutions and the Burden of Justification," American Political Science Review 101:47-61.


14 October 2007

Brits Plan Ahead

Lichfield, England, October 12 2007: Today saw the
official dedication of the armed forces memorial by The
Queen. The memorial honours people killed on duty or
as a result of terrorist action since the end of the second
world war. The names of 16,000 members of the armed
forces are carved into the memorial.
There is room for another 15,000 to be added.
Photograph: © Tim Rooke/Rex Features.

This is the first image and opening caption from this photo-essay published in The Guardian last week. The memorial evinces a sense of morbid anticipation, being not just a monument to those who already have died, but foresight of deaths yet to come.


Guns and Lima Beans

Guns. I don't get it. I live in a rural area and I suspect nearly all of my neighbors own guns. Hunting season is approaching fast here in Western NY - and a friend is going to bring his son out to hunt on our land. I am not really "against" owning guns. I also am not a hunter, nor do I see much attraction in owning guns. They definitely don't make me think of safety or security. In fact, it seems quite clear that having a gun in the house is pretty dangerous - almost surely more dangerous than not having one in the house. Of course, gun owners seem to insist more or less indignantly that it is those other people who are in danger in this regard. Maybe so.

In any case, this project Armed America is quite intriguing. It is an invitation to meet your neighbors and co-workers. The photographer is Kyle Cassidy [here too] and from what I can tell he goes out of his way to remain non-judgemental about the people he has photographed. That is admirable. Predictably, reviews* from the left seem to be non-comprehending. Like me, the folks who write them don't get it. What strikes me in the comments that Cassidy records from his subjects is that, as far as I can tell, many own a gun (or several) 'just because'; often they simply want to. Of course, some are afraid, and some equate having a gun with freedom, and some just like collecting stuff and it might as well be guns as Pokemon cards. I think that is what I don't get. Why would someone bring a lethal weapon (leave Mel Gibson aside) into their home for no particular reason.

Mostly it seems that they own guns for no other reason than that they can and they feel like it and they don't have or need a reason to do so. Gun ownership seems to be a lot like liking (or not) Brussels Sprouts or Lima Beans. Of course, everyone knows that neither sort of vegetable kills people, only people kill people.

H.T. ~ I own guns for the same reason that I own fast
cars and fast motorcycles. Something about
the mechanical aspect of riding, and driving and
shooting and tinkering with these machines
that appeals to me. They appeal to
me - that's pretty much it.

Bashir ~ I just think it's a good thing to have.

Portia ~ I learned to shoot a gun when I was 10
or 11. My mother had a boyfriend who was a San
Luis Obispo County Sheriff, and he lived in a
teepee with a "wolf dog". We'd stay out there,
eat ashcakes for breakfast and shoot his guns.
The first time I shot a shotgun, I landed on my
ass and laughed uncontrollably the way you do
when you're a kid.
Anthony ~ I own a gun because I'm a fuckin' American
and a Marine. It's my God-given right.

[All Photos in this post © Kyle Cassidy.]

* This review/essay is originally from The Guardian.

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Banksy's Bobbies

I am not overwhelmed by Mr. Banksy, his work mostly seems like good fun, nothing to get worked ap about one way or the other. But, since the homophobes who persist in leaving anonymous comments here seem to be driven to new heights of desire by images of men kissing, I thought I'd post this. I had never seen this, but another commenter sent it along (Thanks Lee!)


13 October 2007

Day Off

I am driving out to London Ontario to take part in a session at the Association for Political Theory conference. So It wil be a slow day here.

12 October 2007

A Poem After Six Months

My son Jeff died six months ago today. It is hard to know quite what to say or do. It is excruciating to be without him. Every day.

It is the Shape I am Speaking Of *
Linda Gregg

It is the weight more than the night.
The universe with its speed limits.
With its sound barriers, its shape
more than the stars. My body more
than the talking. We don't know
for certain, but we think it is
the shape of an animal.
I imagine I am carrying a box
with darkness in it. I believe
it contains the other. It has
the weight.
* Linda Greg. 2006. In the Middle Distance. Graywolf Press. page 60.

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More Nationalist Censorship

Kissing Policemen (An Epoch of Clemency) © Blue Noses

A couple of days ago it was maurading neo-Nazis in Sweden, now it is the Russian Minister of Culture who is seeking to suppress allegedly decadent photograhs. Today The Guardian reports that the good Minister has ordered this image by the Siberian collective Blue Noses (as well as several other works) removed from an exhibition of Russian art scheduled to be shown in Paris. Perhaps the Minister is trying to avoid episodes like the one earlier this week in Lund; by censoring this show, he is depriving aggrieved Fascists of a potential target. The story in The Guardian reports the Minister as jutfying his actions this way:

"If this exhibition appears [in Paris] it will bring shame
on Russia. In this case, all of us will bear full responsibility"
[. . .] "It is inadmissible...to take all this pornography,
kissing policemen and erotic pictures to Paris."

Perhaps we should petition the U.S. government to take similar measures with artists like Serrano?

How to Detect a Photo Shop Job: Ann Coulter & the Aliens

From the first I suspected this picture* might be a fake. I just couldn't believe that any self-respecting alien would ever get that close to Ann Coulter. I mean, come on!

On reflection, I thought this suspicion might just reflect my well-documented [1] [2] animus toward Ann and, hence, a "liberal bias." The real clincher came, though, when I read Coulter's recent remarks about why Jews need to be "perfected" by becoming Christian; her underlying reason is that if you are Christian "You have to obey." Dissing "faggots," is one thing. But everyone knows aliens are religiously tolerant and so don't endorse the sort of anti-semitic, authoritarian stuff Ann is spewing now. So, QED ~ I conclude the picture must be fake.
Source: Unconfirmed Sources

11 October 2007

The Right to Take Pictures (3)

This is a repeat on a topic about which I've posted a couple of times before. Given recent controversy concerning regulations on photographes in NYC, as well as the fear and suspicion induced in the name of homeland security, it seems appropriate to repeat the post. So here is a brief & useful summary by attorney Bert Krages, II with a reference to a longer treatment by the same author. His publisher is here.

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Who Owns Photographs of 'Dead Celebrities?

Milton Greene's shot of Monroe in a ballerina outfit
is one of 4,900 of images he took of the actress.
Photograph by Milton H. Greene, © Joshua Greene, 2007

On the drive home this evening I listed to this very interesting story on npr about property rights in California. The dispute revolves around photographs of Marilyn and who 'owns' her image. The trial and appeals courts have sided with the son of the photographer, but the State Legislature and Governor Arnold have just enacted a law that sides with the trustees of her estate. Stay tuned.