31 January 2008

It Is Torture, Period.

"The new tyranny, like other recent ones, depends, to a large degree,
on a systematic abuse of language. Together we have to reclaim our
hijacked words and reject the tyranny’s nefarious euphemisms; if we
do not, we will be left with only the word shame." ~ John Berger

Testicles V © Selma Waldman

Waterboarding © Selma Waldman

Today a woman whom I do not know left a comment on my last post. Her name is Susan Noyes Platt; she is an art historian and (judging from one picture of an extremely cute baby boy she 's posted on her blog) grandmother, based in Seattle. You can find the web page with an advance notice of Susan's forthcoming book as well as a link to her blog, here.

In any case, I lifted these two images from Susan's blog. (Thanks!) They are from a series of chalk drawings by Selma Waldman an artist about whom I cannot find much on-line. Both images very much call to mind paintings by Leon Golub about which I've posted here and here and here. Unfortunately, while Golub had to work from images from S&M porn magazines, Waldman can work from the direct descriptions of those who actually have experennced the "harsh interrogation techniques" sanctioned by BushCo.

The second drawing reminds me that Attorney General Michael Mukasey is very nearly as much of a slug as his predecessor. In testimony before Congress this week he adopted a wholly disingenuous position on the use of waterboarding by U.S. Intelligence Agents. [1] [2] [3] For this he is being roundly and justifiably criticized. [4] [5] Soon, like his predecessor and his boss, our current Attorney General will find himself up to his elbows in this filth. His testimony this week amounted to a big step in that direction.

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(Still) Recovering From Listening to W's Address on 'The State of the Union'

Among the especially delusional strains in W's oration the other evening was his interpretation of our current 'successes' in Iraq. He (along with his minions in the administration and the right-wing mouthpieces spread across the think tanks and various media outlets) want us to believe that the "surge" is working. I have posted multiple times on the various folks advancing that prepostrous claim (search on 'surge'). It turns out that I may have been mistaken all along because I have misconstrued the actual aim of W's surge policy.

My colleague Robb Westbrook called my attention to this recent Op-Ed from The Washington Post by historian Andrew Bacevich who is himself a West Point graduate. The essay provides a nice clarification of W's fantasy (the one welcomed with great applause the other evening by the Congressional Republicans). Bacevich remarks that the outcome of the BushCo surge in Iraq "compares unfavorably with the U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina." That, though, seems a mis-statement. For as Bacevich subsequently points out, the surge actually has been an amazing success:
In only one respect has the surge achieved undeniable success: It has ensured that U.S. troops won't be coming home anytime soon. This was one of the main points of the exercise in the first place. [ . . .] The "victory" gained in recent months all but guarantees that the United States will remain caught in the jaws of Iraq for the foreseeable future.
The surge strategy is on this view analogous to the Reagan-ite effort to generate enormous budget deficits, thereby crippling any future effort to implement government policies in nearly any domain. The surge has been aimed at tying the hands of future administrations. In that sense it won't really matter if (as seems very likely) the primary campaigns generate a pro-war presidential candidate from each party; even if an anti-war candidate were elected, whomever inherits W's fiasco won't be able to extricate us from the mess he has created.

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30 January 2008

Democratic Voters 'Transcend' Race & Gender in Florida Primary

So much for transcendence. If you eyeball the numbers printed in The New York Times you will note that Men voted heavily for Obama or Edwards, Women voted just as heavily in favor of Clinton. You will note too that Obama received nearly three-quarters of the African-American vote, with the bulk of the rest going to Clinton. (It is hard to see much in the non-Cuban Hispanic vote; apparently no Cubans vote Democratic in national elections.)

What I find truly stunning is that self-described liberal and very liberal voters opted overwhelmingly for CLINTON, the Republican wannabe, while Edwards who, if anything, has the most progressive policies on economics among the remaining candidates, gets a disproportionate bunch of support from those who deem themselves fairly conservative (can you say white men?). Obama supporters are drawn more or less uniformly from across ideological groups.

My friend Susan Orr points out The Times seems to have missed completely the local issue - a tax reform referendum - that brought people to the polls in Florida despite the fact that "no delegates were at stake."

My own view is that there will be no Democratic candidate in the general presidential election. It will either be Clinton who is Republican-lite or Obama who naively proclaims "change" based on bi-partisanship. So, the Republicans win regardless of whether their candidate is victorious or not. (Indeed, now that Edwards has decided to drop out, this situation is certain.)


29 January 2008

Recovering from W's Address on "The State of the Union" (3) ~ What's the Problem With the Democrats?

I have explained a couple of times why I think "bi-partisanship" is a bad idea ~ a really bad idea. It is bad for democracy, which consists in competition. [1] [2] But let's put aside concern for the system. Let's think about winning. We have a president who has screwed things up most miserably across nearly every domain. And what are the Democrats preaching? Bi-partisanship. The Republicans, even from a position of incredible weakness, play hardball (see my earlier post). And the Democrats say 'Let's make nice,' 'Let's leave partisanship behind,' 'Let's work together,' and so forth. Here is Governor Sebelius (D-Kansas) offering the official Democratic "reply" to W last night:
“Good evening. I’m Kathleen Sebelius, governor of the state of Kansas, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak with you tonight. I’m a Democrat, but tonight it really doesn’t matter whether you think of yourself as a Democrat or a Republican or an independent or none of the above.

Instead, the fact you’re tuning in this evening tells me each of you is, above all, an American first. You’re mothers and fathers, grandparents and grandchildren, working people and business owners, Americans all.

And the American people, folks like you and me, are not nearly as divided as our rancorous politics might suggest.

And the American people, folks like you and me, are not nearly as divided as our rancorous politics might suggest.

In fact right now, tonight, as the political pundits discuss the president’s speech, chances are they’ll obsess over the reactions of members of Congress: “How many times was the president interrupted by applause? Did Republicans stand? Did the Democrats sit?”

And the rest of us will roll our eyes and think, “What in the world does any of that have to do with me?”

And so I want to take a slight detour from tradition on this State of the Union night. In this time, normally reserved for a partisan response, I hope to offer something more: An American response. A national call to action on behalf of the struggling families in the heartland and across this great country. A wake-up call to Washington, on behalf of a new American majority, that time is running out on our opportunities to meet our challenges and solve our problems.”
Well, O.K., let's be clear. Competitive democratic politics does not imply "rancor," nor does it mean attending solely to the pundits or the applause-o-meter. Nor does it entail an inability to "compromise." Instead it focuses on who sets the agenda and thereby the terms of debate and eventual compromise. It therefore does demand partisanship in the sense of laying out competing policies, framed by competing principles (or competing interpretations of shared principles). It means doing so starkly and frankly. It does not mean being "bi-partisan" in this insipid way. It does not mean chanting "hope," "change," "transcend," and so forth as though the resulting mantra were meaningful.

That is the problem facing the Democrats. They now have two plausible candidates for president, neither of whom is staking out a plausible alternative to the Republicans. Hilary wants to be a Republican. Barak wants you to trust them, to pretend that the Republicans are not waiting there to stab him in the back given the first opportunity. Neither strategy is appealing.
Each commits us to continued war in Iraq and to dealing with domestic problems by redistributing from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy. Why is it that I feel ill?

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Three Poems*

Of Love and Other Disasters
by Philip Levine
February 5, 2007

The punch-press operator from Flint
met the assembler from West Virginia
in a bar near the stadium. Neither
had anything in mind, so they conversed
about the upcoming baseball season
about which neither cared. We could
be a couple, he thought, but she was
all wrong, way too skinny. For years
he’d had an image of the way a woman
should look, and it wasn’t her, it wasn’t
anyone he’d ever known, certainly not
his ex-wife, who’d moved back south
to live with her high-school sweetheart.
About killed him. I don’t need that shit,
he almost said aloud, and then realized
she’d been talking to someone, maybe
to him, about how she couldn’t get
her hands right, how the grease ate
so deeply into her skin it became
a part of her, and she put her hand,
palm up, on the bar and pointed
with her cigarette at the deep lines
the work had carved. “The life line,”
he said, “which one is that?” “None,”
she said, and he noticed that her eyes
were hazel flecked with tiny spots
of gold, and then—embarrassed—looked
back at her hand, which seemed tiny
and delicate, the fingers yellowed
with calluses but slender and fine.
She took a paper napkin off the bar,
spit on it and told him to hold still
while she carefully lifted his glasses
up on his forehead, leaving him half
blind, and wiped something off
above his left cheekbone. “There,”
she said, lowering his glasses, “I
got it,” and even with his glasses on
what she showed him was nothing
he could see. He thought, better
get out of here before it’s too late, but
knew too late was what he wanted.
The Museum of Stones
by Carolyn Forché
March 26, 2007

This is your museum of stones, assembled in matchbox and tin,
collected from roadside, culvert, and viaduct,
battlefield, threshing floor, basilica, abattoir,
stones loosened by tanks in the streets
of a city whose earliest map was drawn in ink on linen,
schoolyard stones in the hand of a corpse,
pebble from Apollinaire’s oui,
stone of the mind within us
carried from one silence to another,
stone of cromlech and cairn, schist and shale, hornblende,
agate, marble, millstones, and ruins of choirs and shipyards,
chalk, marl, and mudstone from temples and tombs,
stone from the silvery grass near the scaffold,
stone from the tunnel lined with bones,
lava of the city’s entombment,
chipped from lighthouse, cell wall, scriptorium,
paving stones from the hands of those who rose against the army,
stones where the bells had fallen, where the bridges were blown,
those that had flown through windows and weighted petitions,
feldspar, rose quartz, slate, blueschist, gneiss, and chert,
fragments of an abbey at dusk, sandstone toe
of a Buddha mortared at Bamiyan,
stone from the hill of three crosses and a crypt,
from a chimney where storks cried like human children,
stones newly fallen from stars, a stillness of stones, a heart,
altar and boundary stone, marker and vessel, first cast, lode, and hail,
bridge stones and others to pave and shut up with,
stone apple, stone basil, beech, berry, stone brake,
stone bramble, stone fern, lichen, liverwort, pippin, and root,
concretion of the body, as blind as cold as deaf,
all earth a quarry, all life a labor, stone-faced, stone-drunk
with hope that this assemblage, taken together, would become
a shrine or holy place, an ossuary, immovable and sacred,
like the stone that marked the path of the sun as it entered the human dawn.

Driving Home
by Charles Simic
August 20, 2007

Minister of our coming doom, preaching
On the car radio, how right
Your Hell and damnation sound to me
As I travel these small, bleak roads
Thinking of the mailman’s son
The Army sent back in a sealed coffin.

His house is around the next turn.
A forlorn mutt sits in the yard
Waiting for someone to come home.
I can see the TV is on in the living room,
Canned laughter in the empty house
Like the sound of beer cans tied to a hearse.
* I recently discovered the poetry archive at The New Yorker where each of these poems first appeared. The date below each poet's name indicate the issue in which the poem appeared. In each instance © rests with the poet.

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Recovering from W's Address on "The State of the Union" (2)

In The Times today is an article nicely pointing out the sheer hypocrisy of W's tough talk last night on 'ear marks'; not only are ear marks a tiny portion of the overall federal budget (dwarfed, for example, by insane levels of funding for the Iraq fiasco now and into the future) but W didn't peep about ear marks while his Republicans controlled the Congress. Let's set aside the issue of whether the projects funded by ear marks are admirable or not; after all, funding for W's war in Iraq is in the text of this or that funding bill (hence is not an ear mark) and is mostly indefensible. W played this issue for the applause meter and his Republican cronies obliged. In fact, the threats he issued to use vetoes and executive orders to control ear mark spending are hollow. So, what W offered is hypocrisy with a bullshit garnish.


Recovering from W's Address on "The State of the Union"

I've just gotten done listening to the address. I have two initial responses. First, W is delusional. He simply reasserted every disastrous policy he and his minions have implemented - tax cuts for the rich, no child left behind, Iraq, etc. He droned on about how compassionate Americans are. Please stop! Second, and on a more policy-wonk level, it is important to repudiate his nonsensical claim that somehow nuclear plants represent an appropriate or effective response to global warming. Late last summer Rebecca Solnit in an essay in Orion offered a long list of obvious retorts to that wacky assertion. Why isn't Rebecca running for President?

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28 January 2008


“ …with Tehelka, we have crossed a barrier in journalism.
And what journalism ought to be … ” ~ Arundhati Roy

"Tehelka is a delightful Urdu word that refers to the special
kind of tumult provoked by a daring act. Tehelka has
certainly lived up to its name… ” ~ TIME
How often do you find agreement like this between a vocal social critic and a very mainstream American media outlet? I came across this story in The International Herald-Tribune detailing the financial tribulations of Tehelka, an independent weekly published in New Dehli. It is difficult to get news and perspectives from abroad in anything like a reliable manner. So I thought it would be useful to call your attention to this resource.

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Shadows (2)

Sometimes working on one post leads to an obvious connection to another, earlier one. Having searched out work by Sam Taylor-Wood for my last post, I noticed this series that has an affinity to the discussion of shadows. Notice that the chair casts no shadow - hence the title. I will leave it to you to find a related series by Taylor-Wood from the preceeding year - "Portrait Suspended" - which is wholly shadowless.

Bram Stoker's Chair I (2005) © Sam Taylor-Wood

Bram Stoker's Chair II (2005) © Sam Taylor-Wood

Bram Stoker's Chair III (2005) © Sam Taylor-Wood

Bram Stoker's Chair IV (2005) © Sam Taylor-Wood

Bram Stoker's Chair VI (2005) © Sam Taylor-Wood

Bram Stoker's Chair VII (2005) © Sam Taylor-Wood

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"I have wondered what the connection might be between art and exhibitionism ..."

Fuck, Suck, Spunk, Wank (1993)
© Sam Taylor-Wood

On a quasi-regular basis The Guardian publishes somewhat cranky but typically very perceptive essays by Germaine Greer. I've noted a couple of these here and here. Today there is one entitled "Why do so many female artists put themselves in their work - often with no clothes on?" where she remarks:
It is a truism of feminist history that women have been regarded primarily as body, passive, fertile body, as essential to human survival as earth. If women artists were ever to engage with anything, they were going to have to engage with body as earnestly as Cézanne engages with landscape, and so they did. The model became the artist, but at the same time she clung to her role as model, so that she became her own subject.

Self Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996)
© Sarah Lucas

Greer finds this dynamic perplexing and, only somewhat unfairly, peppers her essay with unconfortable terms like "narcissistic," "exhibitionism," "solipsism," and so forth. Here is where she ends up in answering the quesiton posed in her title:
There is a possible answer, which is that the use of the nude is necessarily exploitative, and therefore a female artist who needs to use a body has no option but to use her own, but surely it can be no more than a sophistry. Why does a female artist need to use flesh in the first place?

The feminist art historian can no more ask these questions than she can ask why most women's art is no good. Her duty is to cry up women's work, to see it as reactive and transgressive, as dislocating tradition indeed, when the painterly tradition is always being jolted and set off on contradictory tangents, more often and more fundamentally by men than by women. The woman who displays her own body as her artwork seems to me to be travelling in the tracks of an outworn tradition that spirals downward and inward to nothingness.

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27 January 2008


Untitled [Hateruma-jima, Okinawa]”
from the series The Pencil of the Sun (1971)
© Shomei Tomatsu

Sometimes there are convergences. Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment (2005) consists largely in pointing them out. [1] [2] And I have noted some similar convergences myself. [3] This one by Shomei Tomatsu brought to mind another Lost Cloud (André Kertész, 1937) that I posted on here quite some time ago.

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A Lying President (Bush) and his Lying Minions

Well, that Bush and his lackeys lied their way (and ours) into war in Iraq is a commonplace, something that, as the saying goes "Your Grandmother knows." But just how much and how repeatedly they lied has been unclear. As a just released study - The War Card: Orchestrated Deception on the Path to War - conducted by the Center for Public Integrity makes clear, the magnitude of their duplicity - individually and collectively - is astounding. Here is a portion of the report:
President George W. Bush and seven of his administration's top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Nearly five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an exhaustive examination of the record shows that the statements were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses.

On at least 532 separate occasions (in speeches, briefings, interviews, testimony, and the like), Bush and these three key officials, along with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and White House press secretaries Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan, stated unequivocally that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (or was trying to produce or obtain them), links to Al Qaeda, or both. This concerted effort was the underpinning of the Bush administration's case for war.

It is now beyond dispute that Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction or have meaningful ties to Al Qaeda. This was the conclusion of numerous bipartisan government investigations, including those by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (2004 and 2006), the 9/11 Commission, and the multinational Iraq Survey Group, whose "Duelfer Report" established that Saddam Hussein had terminated Iraq's nuclear program in 1991 and made little effort to restart it.

In short, the Bush administration led the nation to war on the basis of erroneous information that it methodically propagated and that culminated in military action against Iraq on March 19, 2003.

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26 January 2008

What Use is Game Theory?

In my day job I am a political theorist in a department lopsidedly committed to high-tech game theoretic modelling. This places me in an awkward position because, while I think models are really interesting and useful, I think many of my colleagues are bewitched by a faulty view of why that is the case. In that regard my colleagues hardly are idiosyncratic; they subscribe to much the same faulty view of what makes models useful as the majority of political scientists (regardless of whether they are advocates or critics of the model-making enterprise).

What follows is a passage from a "Freakonomics" column that Steve Levitt wrote in The New York Times a couple of years ago after Tom Schelling finally won the Nobel Prize.
"To my mind, [Thomas] Schelling represents the very best of game theory. He was a pioneer in the field, a man of ideas. Unfortunately for game theory, the simple ideas that are so alluring were quickly mined. What followed was less interesting. Modern game theory has become extremely mathematical, notation heavy, and removed from everyday life. Many of my colleagues would not agree with me, but I think game theory has failed to deliver on its enormous initial promise. I’m not the only one who feels this way. I was recently speaking with a prominent game theorist. He told me that if he knew what he knew and he were just getting started in the profession today, no way would he be a game theorist."
I've italicized what I think is the interesting, unexamined part of the passage. What is game theory (or any other technique of formal modelling) good for in social science? I have views on the topic that are directly indebted to Tom Schelling's writings. They run counter to the canonical (and, I think, if not downright silly, surely unduly narrow) view of the matter among political scientists - namely that we use models to generate predictions/hypotheses that can be tested empirically. I don't want to go so far as to say that that view is not possible; but I do think social scientists very rarely actually approach in their practices. That by no means implies that models are useless. But it does raise the question underlying Levitt's complaint: "What, precisely, is the "promise" of game theory?"

According to Schelling: "A model is a tool." On this instrumental view a model is useful to the extent that it "gives us a head start in recognizing phenomena and the mechanisms that generate them and to know what to look for in the explanation of interesting phenomena." What is interesting, of course, depends on our purposes. And the causal mechanisms underlying recurrent social, economic, and political events (phenomena) are typically not directly observable. Hence we make models to help us depict and examine and talk about causal mechanisms. In that sense, especially when they have a catchy name, models provide "help in communicating."

Notice that Schelling straddles the divide between "realist" and "instrumentalist" views of social inquiry. In so doing he adopts a broadly pragmatist stance. A pragmatist treats models (like concepts and theories and principles and institutions and so forth) as instruments that we use for making our way around in the world. But she also rightly insists that there is a "real" world to be navigated and that that world consists, in part, of causal forces. So, like pragmatists, Schelling thinks of models as tools we use to navigate the real (natural and social) world. It is no surprise that he is not only a superb theorist, but intimately concerned with a range of crucially important policy issues.

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Arundhati Roy ~ "Listening To Grasshoppers: Genocide, Denial And Celebration"

OutlookIndia has published this abridged version of a lecture delivered by Arundhati Roy in Istanbul on January 18, 2008, at a conference entitled conference entitled “Hrant Dink, Human Rights and Freedom of Expression” held to commemorate the first anniversary of the assassination of Hrant Dink, editor of the Turkish-Armenian paper, Agos.

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Transcending Race?

Well, not exactly. My friend Susan called my attention to the graphic at right which accompanies a story in The New York Times today. The current political rhetoric in the U.S. is that we are all just so terrific because a black man is being taken seriously as a candidate for president. This display suggests that we might not get too caught up in self-congratulation. The unemployment rate among blacks is double that for whites in South Carolina. Unemployment in the state is concentrated in those counties with the highest black populaitons. And, before casting aspersions on "the South" as being especially racist, it is important to note that that overall pattern is true nationally too.

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Soldiers Searching Bus Passengers, Northern Highway,
El Salvador, 1980 © Susan Meiselas

I've just has a visit to No Caption Needed where Bob Hariman has written a typically insightful post this one on shadows. The second of the images Bob discusses, in which he notes the seeming vulnerablity of a soldier viewed indirectly via his shadow, reminded me of this especially harrowing shot by Susan Meiselas.


The Capa Cache

I am not terribly taken by questions of the history of photography. Nevertheless, this story does seem to be big news. It is interesting to imagine what Erroll Morris [1] [2] [3] [4] might now do with the suspicions surrounding whether or not Capa's famous photo was staged.


25 January 2008

Spencer Tunick

Mexico City 5 (Zócalo), 2007 © Spencer Tunick

Over at Slate (16 January) you can find an essay by Mia Fineman entitled "Naked Ambition: Why Doesn't Spencer Tunick Get Any Respect?". Here is the punch-line:
[ ... ] The problem with Tunick as an artist—and the main reason, I think, most critics have ignored him—is that he doesn't seem to have anything to say. His installations are spectacular and attention-grabbing, but as for what it all means … well, to put it bluntly, I don't think it extends too far beyond, "Wow. That's a lot of naked people."

Over the past few years, Tunick has created a number of commissioned works in support of political causes. Last August, he photographed 600 naked volunteers on the Aletsch Glacier in southern Switzerland, an installation commissioned by Greenpeace to raise awareness about global warming. (The 15-mile-long Aletsch Glacier, the largest in the Alps, shrunk 328 feet from 2005 to 2006.) And in 2004, at the request of Poz magazine, he photographed 85 HIV-positive men and women posing nude in Manhattan's Florent restaurant to call attention to World AIDS Day. Tunick's shtick, though conceptually thin on its own, is supremely well-suited for this sort of political publicity stunt. Here, public nudity is invested with real meaning, whether as a symbol of the fragility of the environment or as a visible reminder of the hidden politics of illness.

In other cases, such as a recent commissioned shoot at the Sagamore Hotel in Miami Beach, Fla., Tunick has allowed his art to function as nothing more than upscale advertising. The photographs of this installation, which were exhibited at the Sagamore during the Art Basel Miami contemporary art fair in December, show 500 people cavorting in the hotel's pool on fluorescent pink and green floats, standing on the hotel's art deco balconies, and popping open bottles of champagne. They're all naked. Wow.

Switzerland, Aletsch Glacier 1 (Greenpeace), 2007 © Spencer Tunick

Sagamore Hotel, 2007 © Spencer Tunick

I suppose I agree with Fineman about Tunick ~ he doesn't have much to say. His photographs have always struck me as stunts. "Wow!" Unlike Fineman, though, it doesn't matter much to me whether his stunts are commissioned by the good guys, by some advertising agency, or an art fest commitee. They still don't really say anything. Even when they are paid for by the good guys they remind me of nothing so much as PETA pranks [1] [2] only with too many bodies to airbrush. Maybe it is fun for the folks to be all naked together. But "you had to be there" doesn't really cut it.

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Mr. Gandhi & "the Jews" (3)

It seems as though Arun Gandhi has severed his ties to the University of Rochester in the aftermath of the anti-semitic comments he made in the Washington Post - the story from the local paper is here, a comment from the President of the University here.

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More on Invidious Distinctions

Last night I had the pleasure of introducing Steve Kurtz who was lecturing at the University. I thought it might be useful to post my remarks. So, with apologies for the length, here they are.
Introductory Remarks to a Lecture by Steve Kurtz
24 January 2008

We in the contemporary west confront powerful, pervasive pressures to gerrymander the world in such a way that two of our central practices, art and politics, occupy separate, distinct domains. These are pressures that artists, for a variety of reasons - some admirable, some less so - find it difficult to resist. Artists who do approach the frontier of art and politics seem anxious when doing so, even when they themselves are well-established, working in recognized media, and so seemingly less susceptible to criticism and recrimination. Consider a couple of examples.

In the run-up to the 2004 elections, sculptor Richard Serra designed this striking poster that proclaimed “Stop Bush” against the background of a stark abstract depiction of the notorious image from Abu Ghraib of a hooded prisoner standing on a box, arms extended, wires dangling from his fingers. While the politics here are obvious, when queried about the work Serra insisted that it was not “art.”

Elegy to the Spanish Republic #34 ~ Robert Motherwell (1953-54)

Conversely, over the course of several decades Robert Motherwell produced by some counts hundreds of large, powerful, abstract paintings, each entitled “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” followed by the relevant number. While these paintings clearly constitute a massive artistic undertaking, in a 1959 lecture discussing the canvases Motherwell declared that he himself had “no special interest in politics.”

Serra and Motherwell, each from a different direction, seem to struggle mightily to keep art and politics at an appropriate distance. There are, however, dissenting voices who urge us to resist that temptation. For example, in a 1946 essay, George Orwell reminded readers that:
“The opinion that art should have nothing to do
with politics is itself a political attitude.”
And in an essay published just this month, writer, critic and activist Rebecca Solnit notes that:
“Apolitical art and artless politics are the fruit of a
divide-and-conquer strategy that weakens both;
art and politics ignite each other and need each other.”
As member of the Critical Art Ensemble, our speaker this evening Dr. Steven Kurtz has persistently sided with dissenters like Orwell, Solnit, and others in ignoring the common divide between art and politics. That much at least is clear from his title - “Crossing the Line: Interdisciplinary Work in a Society of Fear.” I cannot possibly so much as sketch the entire body of work that the CAE collective has generated over the course of two decades. Suffice it to say that they have produced books, performances, interventions and visual pieces in several media. Their work has appeared in numerous prominent cultural institutions in both Europe and the U.S. They have won a number of awards for their work, including the 2004 Leonardo New Horizons Award for Innovation and, most recently, the 2007 Wynn Kramarsky Freedom of Artistic Expression Prize from the Andy Warhol Foundation.

I want to focus briefly on what I think is a crucial feature of Steve Kurtz’s work with CAE. For what is striking about that work is not just that it crosses the lines purportedly separating art from politics, but how it does so. I take as a point of departure a remark by South African artist William Kentridge who, in characterizing his own work, says:
“I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of
ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures, and
uncertain endings; an art (and a politics) in which
optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay.”
That is an ambitious agenda. It seems to me that by pressing critical questions, challenging standard narratives, and advancing alternative interpretations, Steve Kurtz and his collaborators approach the intersections of art and politics in very much the fashion Kentridge sketches. Theirs is hardly a message of optimism. In the most recent of their half-dozen books Marching Plague: Germ Warfare & Global Public Health, for instance, CAE details how various agencies - including corporations, government bureaucracies, elected political representatives, medical centers, the media, the military and, yes, universities - in various sometimes blatantly corrupt, always threatening combinations, partnerships, and alliances have established overlapping political-economic interests in generating and sustaining an atmosphere of fear in the post- 9/11 United States. There is a daunting, systematic character to the forces that they depict. I for one, find it difficult to sustain much optimism in the face of their analyses and, especially, of Steve’s recent travails.

On the other hand, as their name implies, the collective remains committed to criticism rather than nihilism, activism and resistance rather than despair or resignation. In just the opening pages of Marching Plague the CAE, if sometimes only tacitly or by way of contrast, invokes a panoply of criteria in light of which they (and we) can ground our criticisms of and responses to the depredations of powerful agencies and alliances. I have in mind here the way CAE gesture toward conceptions, however besieged they may be in practice, of individual autonomy, publicity, transparency, reality, truth, health, usefulness, sanity. In keeping with these criteria, their project is not to tell readers and audiences what to think but simply to prompt us to think and reflect and to afford us with resources that will make that reflection productive.

In 1927 philosopher John Dewey, himself extremely skeptical of efforts to gerrymander art and politics, noted that:

“The function of art has always been to break through the
crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness.”
By focusing our attention on the contemporary sources of what we take to be conventional and routine, CAE adopts a challenging task, namely to demystify the workings of power and the origins of our common fears and apprehensions. In so doing they strive to avoid the extremes of both naive optimism and disabling nihilism. For their efforts they have achieved well-deserved recognition from those receptive to their critical perspectives. They also have attracted attention from powerful entities - including the FBI and US Attorney - who, seeing the CAE’s work as a threat, have taken it upon themselves to police the bounds of art and politics. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Steven Kurtz who will speak to us this evening about his work with CAE and what happens when one does cross the line.

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24 January 2008

Mr. Gandhi & "the Jews" (Again)

Not long ago I posted on the outrageous public statements made by Arun Gandhi and urged people on campus to speak out in response. I am happy to say that there has been additional movement on the score. The day before yesterday the Faculty Senate at the University, of which I am a member, unanimously endorsed this resolution:
Resolved: The Faculty Senate of the University of Rochester deplores the statements concerning Jewish identity, the Holocaust, and the culture of violence made earlier this month on the Washington Post website by Arun Gandhi, president of the board of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence housed at the University. While we recognize his right to free speech, we find the religious, ethnic, racial, and cultural stereotyping fundamental to his statements offensive, aggressive, and in direct conflict with our other core values and those of the University, and therefore unacceptable.

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23 January 2008

Tumbling Down: A(nother) Reminder of How Vulnerable Walls are in Politics

Thousands of Palestinians crossed the Rafah border into Egypt.
Photograph © Abid Katib/Getty Images.

Palestinain militanats in Gaza have upended the Security Wall dividing the Palestinian territory from Egypt. The photo above, lifted from The New York Times report depicts some of the reported 350,000 Palestinians who have crossed the border mostly to see relativess or to purchase food, fuel and other scarce commodities, but in some instances as a first step toward emigrating. You can read additional reports in The Guardian and Ha'aretz.


22 January 2008

Witnessing the Future

There are a couple of new essays by Rebecca Solnit out on the web. The first, "Our Storied Future," in Orion takes up her common theme about political possibility and hope and how we might weave those into narratives of progressive politics. I find the essay especially provocative just insofar as it challenges a set of invidious distinctions that disable political thought and action. The second, "Revolution of the Snails: Encounters with the Zapatistas," at TomDispatch. The Zapatistas have adopted the snail as a primary symbol of their movement, exemplifying, for Solnit, her own views about how politics operates over time. But the metaphor also opens possible tasks for those outside the movement. Looking around at current threats to the Zapatistas from the Mexican government and back to the roles adopted by such groups as Witness for Peace in various Central American communities, she suggests:
While killing or disappearing campesinos could be carried out with ease in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, doing the same to U.S. citizens, or in front of them, was a riskier proposition. The Yankee witnesses used the privilege of their color and citizenship as a shield for others and then testified to what they saw. We have come to a moment when we need to strengthen the solidarity so many activists around the world have felt for the Zapatistas, strengthen it into something that can protect the sources of "the fire and the word" -- the fire that has warmed so many who have a rebel heart, the word that has taught us to imagine the world anew.
The task, of course, is to keep watch, to remain vigilant concerning the response of central governments to resistance movements such as the Zapatistas, and to be prepared to speak out and sound alarm. Take steps to protect possible futures.


Summer Fun for Nerds

It may be that there are readers who'd like to spend some time in Chicago this summer. If so, try this as an excuse for heading to the midwest ~ The Stone Summer Theory Institute. This is an upstart undertaking run at The Art Institute of Chicago. Traditionalists out there might rather head to Ithaca (Cornell) for the School for Criticism & Theory which has been around for several decades. And, of course, the NEH runs a set of Institutes and Seminars at various spots around the country for College Faculty and for High School Teachers. Of course, since the latter are government funded, no libertarians are allowed. Finally, for those interested in pragmatism, the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy runs a Summer Institute too.

21 January 2008

Fading Memorials: MLK Murals

House of Fine Arts, 7328 S. Halsted, Chicago, 2006.
Photograph © Camilo Jose Vergara.

For three decades or so, Camilo Jose Vergara has been documenting murals depicting Martin Luther King Jr. in cities across the United States. You can find stories on his work at npr and The New York Times.

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The New York Times as Right Wing Propaganda Sheet

Well, Bill Kristol has taken his propaganda campaign to The New York Times with full force, insisting that critics of the war have been wrong about the BushCo 'surge.' Unfortunately for Bill, The Times also is publishing stories that make him look, once again, like a complete bullshitter [1] [2] [3]. For example, The Times points out that the Government Accountability Office has issued a report showing that the BushCo claims about the amount of money the Iraqis have spent on reconstruction are basically fiction. And, of course Bill's got a crush on David Petreaus who peddled the bullshit on reconstruction funding when he testified to Congress last fall. The day after Bill published his screed, the Iraqi Defense Minister noted on a visit to the U.S., that it would be at least a decade before the Iraqis could manage to maintain internal security and defend their own orders. That sounds like real progress to me! And, of course, Bill completely overlooks the fact that not only was 2007 the deadliest year for uniformed military personnel in Iraq, but that there are several plausible causal stories for whatever improvement he insists on attributing to the surge [4]. (For example, since according to The Times 15% of the Iraqi population is either internally displaced or in refugee status abroad, it just might be that conflict has declined because the combatant populations are no longer in proximity to one another.)

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The Image Economy

According to The New York Times today, Getty Images is going up for sale. The report speculates that the biding price for the company could be $1.5 Billion (U.S.) with the buyer likely being a private equity firm. This sort of move would further centralize the image 'market,' converting into even more of an oligopoly.

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20 January 2008

Local Events: Steve Kurtz Lecture & Screening of Strange Culture

University of Rochester, Humanities Project ~ Two Evenings of Events Concerning Civil Liberties & Artistic Freedom "Post-9/11"

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Dr. Steven Kurtz
"Crossing the Line: Interdisciplinary Work in a Society of Fear"
Graduate Student Speakers Series Inaugural Lecture.
Program in Visual & Cultural Studies
5:00 p.m., Hawkins-Carlson Room, Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester.

Dr. Steven Kurtz, founder of the internationally exhibited art and theater group Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), will explore factors that severely impede critical interventions in and between the fields of art, science, and politics. Using the work of Critical Art Ensemble as a grounding focus, he will examine issues such as the privatization of knowledge and the militarization of scientific and medical institutions, and will show that if these issues are used as framing devices for cultural interventionist projects, they beckon a broad variety of disciplinary agencies. Over the past two decades, CAE has encountered nearly all of them. Police, FBI, Department of Justice prosecutors, corporate lawyers, politicians, church officials, and government bureaucrats have attacked, threatened, or denounced CAE for acting against the authoritarian tendencies of Western societies. This lecture chronicles the reasons why CAE's work has elicited such responses, and how the violence against cultural resistance has escalated and intensified over the past five years.

CAE were awarded the 2007 Andy Warhol Foundation Wynn Kramarsky Freedom of Artistic Expression Prize in recognition of their 20 years of artistic practice.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Rochester Premiere Screening: Strange Culture
A Discussion with Professor Steven Kurtz will follow the Screening.
8:00 p.m., Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House,
900 East Ave, Rochester, NY 14607.

Strange Culture is directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson, and features Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton, Chronicles of Narnia), Peter Coyote (E.T., Erin Brochovich), Thomas Jay Ryan (Henry Fool, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride, My Dinner with Andre); Original score by The Residents.

The film chronicles Dr. Kurtz's surreal prosecution by the U.S. Department of Justice. In May 2004 Kurtz and his wife Hope were preparing an art exhibit examining GM agriculture for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art when Hope died of heart failure. Police who responded to Kurtz's distressed 911 call became suspicious of biological equipment used in the couple's internationally exhibited art practice, and notified the FBI. Within hours the artist found himself detained as a suspected "bioterrorist," as dozens of federal agents in Hazmat suits raided his home, seizing art materials, computers, books, manuscripts, his cat, and even his wife's body. Nearly four years later, Kurtz awaits a trial date on charges of "mail fraud" - charges which carry the possibility of a 20-year jail sentence under the PATRIOT Act. Since the ongoing nature of the case prevents Kurtz from discussing its details, Hershman Leeson has enlisted actors to dramatize parts of the story, skillfully interweaving dialogue with news footage, animation, interviews, testimonials, and footage of Kurtz himself.

Strange Culture, was selected to open both the 2007 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival and the documentary section of the Berlin International Film Festival after its premiere at Sundance. The film is the recipient of the 2007 San Francisco Film Critics Circle Marlon Riggs Prize, honoring "courage and innovation" in film making.

I have posted on Strange Culture a couple of times [1] [2]; I am happy the film is coming to Rochester. I will be introducing Steve Kurtz on Thursday afternoon. You can link to the CAE defense fund here or through the icon on the side bar. The mis-prosecution of Steve Kurtz is a prime example of how over-reaching executive powers are a threat to the 'rights' we allegedly are fighting the 'war on terror' to protect.

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19 January 2008

Blueeyes Issue #17

The latest issue of Blueeyes is evaluable here. I have not had a chance to look closely yet, but will soon. John Loomis and his crew produce a really wonderful magazine. This issue seems to focus on 'vanishing' spaces and places. There is something to think about there. Photographers like Kratochvil and Salgado (to pick to obvious suspects) often are preoccupied with things disappearing and the tragedies that often involves. Is it possible to capture emerging patterns and practice and spaces as they are coming into being?


17 January 2008

Economics of Climate Change

I am travelling and so may not have much chance to post over the next few days. But I came across two interesting papers this afternoon on the economimcs of climate change - both initially appeared last summer at The Economist's Voice. The first is by Thomas Schelling (hardly an alarmist or political radical) who argues that inaction on climate change is an extremist position. I agree with him. The second, by Kenneth Arrow, recommends - based on fairly conservative assumptions and reasonably simple cost-benefit analysis - policies to mitigate CO2 emissions as superior to status quo.


16 January 2008

João Pina - Homage

“In a way, this is my homage to the ones who still fight for what they believe in, not really caring if they have a high price to pay for saying what they think.” ~ João Pina

João Pina is a 27 year old Portuguese-born photographer. He has an exhibition opening in NYC tomorrow at Point of View Gallery. The show, entitled “Por teu livre pensamento”/"For Your Free Thinking" consists of portraits of 25 men and women who were political prisoners in Portugal during the nearly half century (1926-1974) it was ruled by dictatorship. Two of Pina's grandparents were among those imprisoned by the regime. In that respect his work brings to mind the contributors to the recent Los Desaparecidos [1] [2] exhibition. Many of those artists lost friends and relatives who were 'disappeared' as part of programs of state terrorism. His work also reminds me of these matched mug shots and portraits that Eric Ethridge has produced of veterans of the 'Freedom Rides' in the U.S.. I think it is remarkable for Pina and his partner, writer Rui Daniel Galiza, to have undertaken this "homage." They highlight yet another use for photography - not just to record or document, but to honor the struggles and suffering of those who were treated as criminals by a criminal regime.


15 January 2008

Fostering Spaces for Creativity.

Among the things I think about regularly, especially in connection with the decayed city of Rochester, is how to foster spaces for creativity. I have posted on the topic a couple of times [1] [2]. I am less interested in what Rebecca Solnit refers to as places of presentation (galleries, museums, concert halls, 'fests' of this or that sort) than in sites of creativity. Institutions of the former sort are central to the relatively non-democratic plans for 'revitalizing' our city and I hold little hope that they will have the desired effects. Such institutions seem to me to largely amount to welfare for tourists and suburbanites who have little investment in the city.

My current ruminations on this theme have been spurred by two things. The first is this story ("Reclaiming New York for Local Arts") from WireTap magazine that my friend Susan Orr brought to my attention. The story relates the history of ABC No Rio, an organization that sprang up and flourished in a once abandoned building in lower Manhattan that was appropriated by artists and that still provides a forum for creative engagement with the local (and not so local) community. Given the rush to gentrify the downtown sections of Rochester, it seems to me that this story provides a useful reminder of how things might go differently.

The second impetus to my thoughts has been a series of articles by Rebecca Solnit [1] [2] [3] on neighborhoods in New Orleans and Detroit that are struggling to bootstrap themselves out from decay and devastation. Rochester is not as badly off as either of those cities (although given its rates of poverty and crime, the sharp patterns of segregation by race and class between city and suburbs, the flight of decent jobs, etc., it is not far behind). In the essay on Detroit she suggests that it is a city that will never ever be what it once was and that it must rebuild itself along some other vision. I think the same is true of Rochester, only no one has quite said so out loud.

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My 1000th Post
(the last one was)

Lucinda Williams

Had it not been for a delayed flight last April I was meant to be in Chicago at a conference on the evening that my son Jeff died. As respite from political scientists on that trip I had planned to see Lucinda Williams in concert. I never got to use the tickets. Last summer, on the day that the judge announced that August's mom could move him permanently across the continent for no reason beyond her spite and the judge's ignorance, I again had planned to go and see Lucinda, this time for free here in Rochester. I skipped the show that evening.

Those coincidences have proven difficult because Williams is a truly compelling musician [1] [2] [3]. It also is difficult because many of her tunes speak directly to my experience of losing my sons. Here are the lyrics to the title track of World Without Tears for example:
World Without Tears Lyrics
Lucinda Williams

If we lived in a world without tears
How would bruises find
The face to lie upon?
How would scars find skin
To etch themselves into?
How would broken find the bones?

If we lived in a world without tears
How would heartbeats
Know when to stop?
How would blood know
Which body to flow outside of?
How would bullets find the guns?

If we lived in a world without tears
How would misery know
Which back door to walk through?
How would trouble know
Which mind to live inside of?
How would sorrow find a home?

If we lived in a world without tears
How would bruises find
The face to lie upon?
How would scars find skin
To etch themselves into?
How would broken find the bones?

If we lived in a world without tears
How would bruises find
The face to lie upon?
How would scars find skin
To etch themselves into?
How would broken find the bones?

How would broken find the bones?
How would broken find the bones?
You can hear Lucinda perform the tune live here on YouTube. LW doesn't list any upcoming shows listed on her web site. Maybe by the time she does, I'll have put the coincidences to one side.

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14 January 2008

Arun Gandhi and "the Jews"

I work at the University of Rochester. Last October I posted on the deeply troubling decision on the part of the University to award an honorary degree to Colin Powell - the man who as Secretary of State lied to the world in order to rationalize the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is, in my view, an embarrassment to the University that Powell was granted a degree. In large part my criticism of that decision reflects my view that a University ought to be an instrument for pursuing truth. And Powell will go down in history as a liar, a liar who has now been honored by the University of Rochester. At the time scarcely any objection arose from members of the University community - students, faculty, alums, staff, administrators.

Having missed one opportunity this academic year to take a principled stand, the University community now has another opportunity. You may have noticed recent reports at NationalReviewOnline, InsideHigherEd.com, The Jerusalem Post, Commentary and even our local Democrat and Chronicle [1] [2] concerning Mr. Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi, and director of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence located at the University of Rochester. Gandhi is being (mostly) assailed for this comment that he published last week (7 January 08) at WashingtonPost.com. There he not only bemoans the "culture of violence" that seems to characterize much of the "modern world," but insists that "Israel and the Jews are the biggest players" in creating and sustaining that culture. Gandhi subsequently offered this apology but has, even more recently, been quoted as saying “I stand by what I have written, although I concede that it might not have been couched in diplomatic language.” Given the chance to reflect and reconsider, to think again, it seems he has refused.

Mr. Gandhi clearly has a right to think and say whatever he chooses. But, especially when his views are as outrageous as those he expressed last week, he has got to expect that others who think differently will talk back and forcefully challenge him. Joel Seligman, President of the University, has issued a statement expressing dismay at Gandhi's views. I think he is right to do so. Reasonable people may differ regarding the policies of the Israeli government or even of the actions of particular Jews, acting alone or in concert, under whatever self-description, whether in the U.S., Israel or elsewhere. That is not what is at issue here. What is at issue is the outrageous suggestion that Mr. Gandhi makes and continues to embrace that "the Jews" are primarily or uniquely responsible for the perverse violence in the contemporary world.

The difficulty with Mr. Gandhi's views arises not simply because it flies in the face of the banal empirical observation that violence of all sorts takes place in all sorts of places and is perpetrated by all sorts of people. Nor is the problem that he ignores the fact - if less general empirically, observable nonetheless - that there are Jewish peace activists in Israel who embrace precisely the sort of non-violent response to Israeli government policies in the Palestinian territories that Mr. Gandhi presumably would endorse. I have posted here on just that matter before. And it points to the real difficulty.

The difficulty is that when Mr. Gandhi speaks of "the Jews" as a homogeneous group with which he then identifies with the government of Israel and its policies, and to which he then attributes special responsibility for out modern "culture of violence," he is himself doing violence to the people he claims to address. By Mr. Gandhi's own ethical and political lights this is simply indefensible. As an advocate of non-violence Mr. Gandhi surely understands that our words, our speech acts, have consequences. Indeed, any non-violent stance must rely on the effectiveness of language. Yet his own way of speaking, his way of expressing his thoughts, does violence to Jews as individuals and, yes, as members not just of a religion with diverse manifestations, but as members of various ethnicities, as citizens different polities, and so forth.

In other instances, of course, such a mode of speaking would do violence to the reality of those belonging to whatever group the speaker might single out. In this instance, Mr. Gandhi's rhetoric homogenizes and thereby caricatures the lives, experiences, actions, motivations, beliefs, commitments, attachments and achievements, to say nothing of the shortcomings and faults, of Jews, seen not as cutouts but as actual persons replete with all their religious, political, social and cultural differences. It shows him as prejudiced, as bigoted. It raises questions in my mind about whether he grasps the purpose of a University as an instrument for pursuing truth. I hope other members of the University Community will speak up and ask him.

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13 January 2008

Organ Donation

In The Guardian today is a story and set of related materials (blog, podcast, etc.) about proposed changes in the U.K. organ donation system. As many of you know, this is a matter with which I have had recent excrcuciating experience here in the U.S.; when my son Jeff died last spring his mother and I decided to donate his organs for transplant.

The proposed policy under discussion in the U.K. would change their system from an 'opt-in' to an 'opt-out' scheme. Instead of presuming, that is, that a brain dead individual would not want to donate their organs, the new proposal would presume that they do want to donate. Anyone who has an objection (e.g., on religious grounds) has the option to indicate in advance that in the event of their death they do not want their organs taken for transplant. And under the scheme being considered in the U.K., medical staff would have to consult with the relatives of the dead individual before proceeding. The family would have some (as yet unspecified) sort of veto. This is roughly the system now in place in Spain, which has the highest rate of organ transplantation in the world.

In the U.S. we have an 'opt-in' system. An individual has to indicate that they want to be organ donor. And the law requires that medical staff broach the subject with the family of the deceased. I have to say that in my experience the medical staff was kind, sincere, and tried very hard, but seemed completely ill-at-ease. That is hardly surprising. Jeff's mother and I were at the time (and, many days, still are) completely bereft. But once it was clear that Jeff was brain dead, the decision about organ donation was 'relatively' easy and we both agreed readily.

In retrospect it seems to me that one of the residents drew the 'short straw' and thereby got the unenviable task of approaching us. I think that an opt-out system would make all this way easier; medical staff would be able to say "Every indication we have is that your son would have agreed to donate his organs, what are your feelings about that?" It would make the staff's impossibly difficult task less daunting. It would frame the issue in a way that placed the emphasis on what the dead person did or would want, instead of on what the surviving relatives want. It would then take pressure off the family too. And, perhaps most importantly, it would increase the number of organs available for those who might well die otherwise.

I will say that reading the comments over at The Guardian I am stunned at the vituperative self-absorption that many people are expressing. The ranting is simply beyond belief. I am perhaps a hard-ass on this. But if you want to 'opt out' or not 'opt in' depending on the scheme, that is fine. But you ought to then be inelgible to receive a transplant (perhaps lack of willingness could merely count negatively in whatever equation is used to determine your place in the inevitable queue).

Here are some cross-national 'facts' from The Guardian story:

· The UK has an opt-in system of organ donation. People have to be willing to donate some or all of their organs after death. They must sign the Organ Donor Register, a system sometimes called 'informed consent'.

· Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, Japan, Canada and New Zealand operate similarly.

· Many other European countries operate a different system, known as opt-out or 'presumed consent'. Unless a person records in writing their unwillingness to give organs, it is presumed they have consented. This usually, but not always, produces higher rates of organ donation than in opt-in countries such as the UK.

· Spain, Italy and France have a 'soft' opt-out system, whereby the families of potential donors are still consulted and can, in effect, refuse permission for body parts to be retrieved.

· Many British transplant experts cite 'the Spanish model' as the best. Spain has the highest rate of organ donation in the world: 33.8 organs per million of population compared to just 12.9 per million in this country. In Spain, 85 per cent of relatives approve donations and just 15 per cent refuse permission.

· Austria has a 'hard' opt-out policy in which families are not consulted. If the individual has not opted out in writing, he or she is considered to be a donor.

· The US system of 'required request', or required referral, compels health professionals to inquire about the possibility of organ donation when someone is close to death. Under the required referral guidelines, 'it shall be illegal, as well as irresponsible and immoral, to disconnect a ventilator from an individual who is declared dead following brain stem testing without making proper inquiry as to the possibility of that individual's tissues and organs being used for the purposes of transplantation'.

I would urge everyone out there to find out whatever steps are needed to be in the 'yes' column for organ donation. Then take those steps. And get your loved ones into the right column too. I will say - from a position I hope none of you ever actually experience - that deciding to donate Jeff's organs has brought some small consolation for having lost him. I miss Jeffrey every single day. I am glad some parts of him are out there still, helping others go on with their lives. I wish those folks well.

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