30 June 2008

Women in Photography (NYC)

"There are more women working in the contemporary photo world then ever before. Their methods, choice of subject matter, visual language, and processes run the gamut of artistic possibility. What unites them is their passion and the effort they devote to creating extraordinary bodies of work. Women in Photography is a showcase for this work. It is also a resource for photographers, editors, curators, gallery owners, and viewers alike to discover and enjoy the work of female artists. By mixing the work of emerging photographers with artists that have achieved high levels of success within fine art and commercial worlds, the project is designed to open a visual dialogue and create a venue to share work, support, and ideas."
I posted not too long ago about the incipient online showcase Women in Photography being coordinated by Amy Elkins and Cara Phillips. The passage above is their mission statement. While the site started with the unbearable narcissism of Elinor Carucci about which I have commented before [1] [2], they now (through tomorrow!) are featuring incredibly intimate, miniature landscapes by Sally Gall. So the trajectory seems positive to me and, in any case, this is an inspired undertaking. Submission guidelines and contact information appear on the WiP web page, linked above.


Poetry & War

I found this typically smart post from Anna Clark, keeper of the very nice blog Isak. Anna is a writer and reader, among other things, and laments the nearly automatic resistance to any poetry that addresses matters of war and peace. It seems to me that the predicament Anna identifies is an instance of the more general attempt to gerrymander art and politics. You will not be surprised that I largely agree with Anna's lament; much of the poetry I have posted touches on that broader tendency, if only by offering counterexamples. Anna seems spot on when she claims the ratio of good to bad poems about war is roughly the same as the ratio of good to bad poems. So, since I had been tempted to post the following poem anyway, she has prompted me to do so today.
Grace Paley*

The boys from St. Bernard's
and the boys from
Our Lady of Pompeii
converge on the corner of Bleeker and Bank

There is a grinding of snowballs
and a cracking of ice

The name of the Lord is invoked

But for such healthy tough warriors
He has other deaths in mind

They part
* Grace Paley. Begin Again: Collected Poems. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2001, page 21.

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29 June 2008

Assessing Sunday Morning TV ~ 25% is Not Terrible

Back home in Rochester I do not have a TV; here in Ann Arbor the apartment I am subletting comes with one. So this morning I had the mercifully rare experience of watching "This Week with George Stephanopolos" on ABC. The part of the show I caught started off irritatingly enough with a segment on which Ralph Nader ran his mouth about the poverty of the two-party system in the U.S. without, of course, admitting that, not only does he have no chance (because voters are strategically rational) of getting more than a minuscule number votes, but that he has done precisely nothing to build an alternative political party.* The next segment was a talking heads round table that actually consisted of a fairly wide range of ideological views. (Katrina vanden Heuvel from The Nation, Byron York from National Review, Hugh Hewitt of Townhall.com, and Arianna Huffington of Huffinton Post.) The two women basically ate the right wingers for brunch. (Of course, I largely agree with KvH's politics and I greatly admire Huffington's gumption ~ she does not back down from right wing windbags.) But at least Byron York was sensible enough to stay silent while Hewitt repeated the inane mantra "the surge is working," "the surge is working" ... as though, well, as though this did not make him seem like a total idiot.**

Hugh seems to have missed this report, issued last week by the Government Accountability Office. (Summery here.) The report finds that yes, violence is down in Iraq, while noting the significant costs in military commitment as well as the multiple causes for the decline in violence. But it also concludes that:
(1) Despite some progress, in Iraq, "the security environment remains volatile and dangerous."
(2) The Iraqis remain light years away from being able to assume responsibility for their own security.
(3) Progress on political and constitutional matters in Iraq is, politely, lacking.
(4) The Iraqis are not coming close to funding the social and physical reconstruction of their country.
The report then recommends that BushCo articulate a new strategy for Iraq aimed at accomplishing, well, ... accomplishing what the surge was supposed to have accomplished in the first place.

In short, even if we were to overstate the extent to which it has worked on the military dimension, "the surge" - which was, after all, intended to underwrite the process of social, political and physical reconstruction - can be said to be "working" only if you are willing to wholly dismiss the GAO report. Hugh Hewitt, in other words, is a bullshitter. Having said that, there seems only to have been one bullshitter among the four members of the panel this morning and that, I suppose, is not bad for a network talking heads show.
* What's wrong with Ralph? See the earlier posts here and here.
** On this theme see these earlier posts.

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28 June 2008

Enthusiasms (18) ~ Buddy Miller

Buddy Miller, March 2008 ~ Photograph © Thomas Petillo.

Not long ago I posted on the demise (at least in print) of No Depression; well, the final issue, #75, is out and the cover sports this portrait of the inimitable Buddy Miller. So, rather than issuing another lament, I will add Buddy to my list of enthusiasms. This post really is long overdue because I more or less idolize Miller. He can play the guitar like very, very, very few others (he was just named Instrumentalist of the Year by the Americana Music Association); doubters should listen to him accompany Emmylou Harris on her live album Spyboy. But he also produces records and writes funny, ironic tunes that have saved me much bitterness (e.g., "Draggin' the River of Our Love") and equally wicked album titles (e.g., "Your Love and Other Lies"). And as I mentioned here a while back, on his most recent CD, Universal United House of Prayer (2004), Miller revealed a deeply felt religious sensibility but also felt free to include an extended, pointed cover of Dylan's "With God on Our Side." There's a notion! A commitment to Christianity that does not lead to belligerent militarism. (And yes, I know that Buddy's work is intricately interwoven with that of his co-conspirator Julie Miller. I simply want to single him out here.)

Buddy Miller, March 2008 ~ Photograph © Thomas Petillo.

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We Need Economic Experimentalism Instead of Experimental Economics

I've just read this column by Harvard economist Dani Rodrik commenting (very favorably, but hardly without reservation) on the recently released report from The Commission on Growth and Development. In his commentary Rodrik distinguishes between the traditional "presumptive" policy stance taken by economists and the "diagnostic"one adopted by the CG&D.
"The traditional policy framework, which the new thinking is gradually replacing, is presumptive rather than diagnostic .

It starts with strong preconceptions about the nature of the problem: too much (or too little) government regulation, too poor governance, too little public spending on health and education, and so on. Moreover, its recommendations take the form of the proverbial “laundry list” of reforms, and emphasize their complementary nature – the imperative to undertake them all simultaneously – rather than their sequencing and prioritization. And it is biased toward universal recipes – “model” institutional arrangements, “best practices,” rules of thumb, and so forth.

By contrast, the new policy mindset starts with relative agnosticism about what works. Its hypothesis is that there is a great deal of “slack” in poor countries, so simple changes can make a big difference. As a result, it is explicitly diagnostic and focuses on the most significant economic bottlenecks and constraints. Rather than comprehensive reform, it emphasizes policy experimentation and relatively narrowly targeted initiatives in order to discover local solutions, and it calls for monitoring and evaluation in order to learn which experiments work.

The new approach is suspicious of universal remedies."
In other words, the new report is advocating a broadly experimentalist stance toward political-economic problems, one that takes advantage of local knowledge and looks to see what remedies might work where instead of peddling off-the-shelf blueprints. Like Rodrik, I think this is a large, positive intellectual step for a field characterized mostly by policy dogmatism in the form of market fundamentalism.

Of course, many of the problems of "economic development" plague broad expanses of both rural and urban areas of the United States. So, one might hope that a new Democratic administration - one committed to "change" -might embrace the intellectual posture that the CG&D has adopted. Instead (and I have posted on this already), Obama seems to be embracing predictable positions in tired debates on the basis of advice from economists who strike a "presumptive" intellectual posture. Since writing that earlier post I stumbled across this essay too in the NYRB suggesting that Obama's approach reflects the influence of experimental economics. Note that this is very different from the sort of economic experimentalism that the CG&D endorses. The folks discussed in the NYRB essay (Dick Thaler and Cass Sunstein, among others) are simply defining a new presumptive stance based on a new and (to my mind) not terribly compelling basis - the lab experiments of which they are enamored.

What we need is a diagnostic approach to our deep and pervasive political-economic problems, an approach that is willing to experiment with new institutional remedies and policy solutions based on the particulars of situations that we might encounter if we entertain a range of possibilities that might work on the ground. What seems to be in store is a re-fashioned presumptive-cum-experiment approach. This is not the place to even attempt an outline of my objections to work in experimental economics. Suffice it to say that, if the human mind is essentially incomplete, the implication is that we rely necessarily on external contrivances in order to think. These are the sorts of 'prosthetic devices' that Wittgenstein, Bruner, & Geertz mention in the cluster of remarks you can find mid-way down my sidebar. (These passages. of course, merely afford initial warrant. For a more systematic warrant see research by, say, Andy Clark, Edwin Hutchins, or Scott Page, among others.) So, if we think with external resources, it is no surprise that, placed in a lab and deprived of just those resources, we regularly screw up. The anomalies the experimental economics crowd "discovers" - and on the basis of which they advance a new "presumptive" basis for policy prescriptions - actually are artifacts of their basic approach. To the extent he is listening to the likes of Sunstein & Thaler then, Obama remains a "presumptive" nominee. He is mistaking the nature of the relationship between experimentalism and economics. The likely consequences are, in my estimation, not auspicious.

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27 June 2008

Before & After

Higley Hot Dogs, 2005 © Andrew Phelps

From the series Oblivion (2004-2006) © David Maisel

At lensculture there are items on projects by Andrew Phelps and David Maisel that form a nice (I presume intended) complement. Phelps offers "The Last Days of Higley" a photo essay on the small Arizona town where his grandparents' had lived as it is swallowed up by urban sprawl (Phoenix). Maisel offers "Oblivion: Los Angeles from the Air" which is just what the title portends. Both projects are provocative - a sort of Before & After on seemingly irresistible 'advance' of urbanization. That said, while we may lament both the loss of before and the arrival of after, it seems important to me not to romanticize the former nor demonize the latter.

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The Economy of Nostalgia

I am doing my annual stint of summer teaching in Ann Arbor and today stopped by the very good, independent Shaman Drum Bookshop. Using the pretext of a typical late afternoon thundershower, I managed to spend an hour poking around after class. Among the things I found is this book of poetry by Uruguayan poet Cristina Peri Rossi. The book originally appeared in Spanish five years ago, but many of the poems were composed nearly three decades earlier during the early parts of Rossi's continuing political exile. She now lives in Spain and has since 1972. Her poems give voice to, among other things, sorrow, loss, perseverance, bitterness, rage, fear, reconciliation (or perhaps resignation), and, especially, nostalgia. As Rossi explains in her prologue, "Each exile is different, but we all have one thing in common: nostalgia." She explains, as well, that when the Uruguayan military junta relinquished power (1985), she decided not to return to Montevideo. Why? "I did not want to repeat the experience of longing. I do not want to feel a different nostalgia; I prefer to hold onto the same one. I have lived with it, I do not want to live with others." A decision taken in light of the economy of nostalgia.
Cristina Peri Rossi

One learns that the essential
wasn't books
wasn't records
wasn't cats
paraísos in bloom
spilling over the sidewalks
nor even the large moon - white -
in the windows
it wasn't the sea lapping the shore
the murmur fragile against the seawall
nor friends no longer seen
nor childhood streets
nor that bar where we made love with our eyes.

The essential was something else.

Cristina Peri Rossi

I said to you:
"One needs a lot of courage
for so much useless death."
You thought I was referring to Latin America.
No, I was talking
about dying in bed,
in a great city,
at eighty or ninety years old.
* From ~ Cristina Peri Rossi. State of Exile. Translated by Marilyn Buck. San Francisco: City Lights, 2008, pages 105 & 123. Originally published as Estado de exilo. Madrid: Ediciones Destino, 2003.

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26 June 2008

Best Shots (31)

(57) Jacob Holdt ~ KKK Rally, 1975. (26 June '08)


The Uses of Walter Benjaimn

"[Walter Benjamin] ... ranks high as one of the most perfectly
citable authors of all, because you can cite him reverently
without having to figure out what he said. With Benjamin a
citation is the academic equivalent of the purely ritual move,
like a ballplayer's sign of the cross." ~ Lindsay Waters

Waters, poohbah of humanities operations at Harvard University Press, made this comment a couple of years ago. He is politely stating the truth that Benjamin - like Thomas Kuhn, Clifford Geertz, Richard Rorty, and a few other boundary-crossing notables - is much cited while scarcely read. The discrepancy varies among social sciences and humanities with various authors. But humanities types, especially those writing on visual arts, tend to rely on the WB talisman to a truly exasperating extent. The mere mention of his name seemingly is enough to afford the author weight and authority. In my case, it is the signal that the time has come to start skimming.

For his part, Walters has diminished the possibility that invokers can offer the excuse that WB's works are scattered and difficult to track down and so forth. He has just published this new, cheap collection of WB's writings on arts and media.


PRIVATE #41 (Summer 2008)

As the title suggests, the new issue presents contemporary photography from Poland, mostly work by by comparatively young photographers. Here is one image that I especially like by Witold Krassowski:


25 June 2008

Imagination & Possibility

Imagination is among the cognitive capacities that we have for exploring possibilities; it enables us to operate in the subjunctive mode that is essential to both art and politics. It also stands in unavoidable tension with the common demand that art and politics hew a realist line. We should, on this contrasting view, operate in the indicative mode, attending to what actually is the case rather than to what might be. I think that this tension is crucially important, is less a burden than an opportunity, and that both art and politics are richest when we are trying to discover the bounds or explore the borderlands of the subjunctive and the indicative, the possible and the actual.

At the start of his tome The Man Without Qualities, Austrian novelist Robert Musil, while discussing his protagonist Ulrich, offers the following observation.
To pass freely through open doors, it is necessary to respect the fact that they have solid frames. This principle ... is simply a requisite of the sense of reality. But if there is a sense of reality, and no one will doubt that it has its justification for existing, then there must also be something we can call a sense of possibility.

Whoever has it does not say, for instance: here this or that has happened, will happen, must happen; but he invents: Here this or that might, could, ought to happen. If he is told that something is the way it is, he will think: Well it could just as well be otherwise. So the sense of possibility could be defined outright as the ability to conceive of everything there might be just as well, and to attach no more importance to what is than to what is not. The consequences of so creative a disposition can be remarkable ...
Here Musil is offering a hypothetical. Is what he calls a “sense of possibility” parasitic on the existence something like “the sense of reality?” I actually suspect that the opposite is that case. I cannot defend that claim here. I hope to come back to it at some point. For the moment, I love this Orion advert. The facial expressions and the palpable 'sneakiness' the boys evince bring to mind my own experience as a kid. The scene gives some indication why, temporally at least (as opposed to conceptually), imagination comes first.

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Re-Newed Dissent in Central Europe

I have seen a set of recent reports, mostly in alternative media, about the broad, persistent, if precarious, opposition among Czechs to the Bush administration plan to install a "missile defense" system across Central Europe. On top of problems like great financial cost and grave doubts about technological feasibility, there is the obvious fact that the Russians view this proposed system as a hostile move. And the fact that large numbers of Czechs seem not to want the system located in their country counts for a lot too. You can find brief reports on the matter in The Nation, Foreign Policy in Focus, The New Statesman, and (for those suspicious of lefty types) even U.S. News & World Report.


Finally Some Perspective on Saint Tim

Tim Russert died recently. He was a relatively young man. I know what it is like to lose a loved one unexpectedly and feel badly for Russert's family. But I frankly was stunned at the haste with which everyone from Bill Kristol leftward - and that, of course, is nearly everyone - in the media-commentary world seemed to fall over themselves to say what a terrific journalist Russert had been. (See, for instance this list.) I am sure some will think me impolitic for speaking ill of the recently dead. But Russert was an overbearing windbag. And he was, if anything, a right-winger who used his 'journalistic' position to forward his political views. These two characteristics are hard to pick out because he played in the overbearing windbag league of right wing media talkers. You know the names, no need to repeat them here. That he did not stand out in the crowd, however, does nothing to change things. Finally, there is an assessment of Russert in The Nation that offers some balance to all the fawning encomiums. You can find it here.


24 June 2008

Cameras as Weapons

"B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, gives video cameras to
Palestinians to document the attacks and abuses they suffer. Fidaa
Abu Aisha, left, a 16-year-old Palestinian, in Hebron with her camera,
which she uses to capture what her family says are the almost daily
attacks on them by nearby settlers. The police don't believe them or
ignore them. The B'Tselem project, Shooting Back, has resulted
in some startling videos of settler violence."

Photograph © Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York Times.

B'Tselem is among the groups working for peace in Israel that remain largely invisible here in the U.S.; I think this "Shooting Back" project, which aims to bring violence of settlers against Palestinians is a remarkably good idea. Some time ago I noted a book, Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine by David Shulman, himself a member of another Peace group called Ta‘ayush, which means roughly 'living together.' On my recent trip I finally had a chance to read the book. Beyond revealing the routine oppression and humiliation that Israeli policies visit upon Palestinian populations, Shulman also provides an insightful, reflective account of political activism as a string of partial, reversible attempts and achievements. One thing I noticed throughout Shulman's account is the centrality of cameras in the political struggles he describes. They appear in the hands of various agents of the (often foreign) press documenting life in Israel & Palestine, of Israeli police and military officers recording demonstrations and encounters, and of peace activists themselves. They seem to especially be a source of outrage - often provoking escalating violence - to settlers who are trying in various ways to drive Palestinians out of Israel.

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This advert is terrific - even if, like me, you find the whole topic gross. By that, of course, I mean mayo is gross! After all it is merely slimy, smelly, congealed fat that you are smearing on otherwise edible food. Thankfully, just a couple hundred whiners and the advert was pulled; that way no possible viewer could be "offended." Please! For those who worry that they'd actually have to talk to their children about "deviant" relationships, this seems to me an opportunity lost. This advert raises the reality (yes, I know it is a frightening world!) of gay relationships in so non-threatening a way that the truly offensive thing is how little toleration people seem to have.


Two essays

... by Rebecca Solnit. The first from Orion, on the sometime imperceptibility of social and political change. The second, this meandering reflection on protecting nature and preserving self from Manoa, a publication I'd never encountered before.


Photographer's Rights (U.K.)

I discovered this page yesterday and, since I have posted repeatedly on the matter of the right to take pictures in the U.S., figured that this link might be useful for those in the U.K. too. According to the home page: "PhotoRights.org exists to document and record the actions of those who through lack of comprehension, bone-headed officiousness, vested interest or malice, wish to contain and control photography."

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23 June 2008

Road to Freedom

While I was away last week, The New York Times ran this notice of the newly opened exhibition “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement 1956-1968,” at the High Museum of Art (Atlanta). Not mentioned in The Times piece is a second exhibition "After 1968: Contemporary Artists and the Civil Rights Legacy," which also sound like it could be good. Both exhibitions run through early October.


Best Shots (30)

(56) Bert Teunissen ~ Bulgaria/Macedonia, 2007 (19 June 08)


20 June 2008


I have posted about ABC NO RIO here and here. Please note the new icon in the sidebar - it will take you directly to the page where you can lay a few bucks on them so they can build a new building. If you have a blog or web page and want to post their icon I can send you the code.


19 June 2008

What Political Scientists Do and What They Should not ...

I am here in Oxford at a conference pondering the state of political science as a discipline. One of the most influential women in the world - Condi Rice - is a political scientist. And her influence has been uniformly negative (e.g., [1] [2] [3]). But what impact does the discipline have beyond that? Over consecutive days The New York Times offered two reports - one pretty inspiring, the other much less so - about doings among the political scientists.

The first relates studies by Norman Uphoff on the possibility of dramatically raising yields by changing patterns of rice cultivation. The jury is still out, but his efforts are an instance what I think social scientists might do to improve the world. The second story relates new efforts by the Pentagon to fund research among political scientists under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. This seems to me to be fraught with all sorts of ethical problems that its academic mouthpieces seem not to recognize at all. For a related boondoggle see this post too.


18 June 2008


"Hi, my name is Jim ... and I am an addict." That is the standard way to introduce yourself at meetings of twelve step programs. And there was a time that I could've used the line. I was addicted to watching basketball on television. Literally any game would do - University of Akron v. Cal Poly - San Luis Obisbo starting at midnight on the east coast? Great; even though I know nothing about either team or either school I'd be watching. In Rochester between mid-October and June you can usually watch multiple games each night. So, about a decade ago I quit cold turkey. I now have no television.

The source of this addition lies in my childhood. I grew up in Massachusetts during a period when the relevant local teams in other sports were uniformly terrible - we are talking the Red Sox, the Patriots and, dimly since hockey was not an acceptable sport, the Bruins. There were no real big-time University teams in the region at the time. And while my home town was close to NYC, the very thought of routing for the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets or whatever was simply beyond the pale. So, I was a Celtics fan though and through. Basketball became the only real sport. Like party identification in politics, my fan status lasted into adulthood. I routed for the Celtics and gradually began to watch all sorts of games. (It was easy because in graduate school I lived in Michael Jordon's Chicago and had good friends who were Carolina fans.)

For a decade, though, I've watched basketball only in passing. I couldn't tell you which teams, College or Pro, were any good. That includes this past year, even though I knew the Celtics have been dramatically revitalized. Last night the Celtics won their 17th N.B.A. title. And, deliciously, they did so by beating the tar out of the loathsome Los Angeles Lakers! I didn't watch the game, but today I feel withdrawal symptoms again!


The Camera Always Lies

You can classify this one as an "almost local" event. Beth Wilson has emailed me about the opening of an exhibition she's curated at the Center For Photography at Woodstock. The exhibition runs June 14 – August 17 and includes work by Joan Barker, John Dugdale, Jaanika Peerna, Rob Penner, Julianne Swartz, Sam Sebren & Rite Aid, Kathleen Sweeney, Susan Wides and Ion Zupcu. Beth kindly sent me her brief curator's statement:
"The Camera Always Lies takes as its starting point a contrary idea: that despite its apparent directness, photography (like all forms of representation) collapses reality in ways that inevitably shape our experience of the world as it is perceived through that medium—and beyond it, as well. Perhaps the verb ‘lies’ is a bit extreme. I will admit to using it in the title of the exhibition as something of a provocation, calling into question what might be considered the assumed role of photography as a producer of objective documents. This is not a question that has only recently arisen with the emergence of the digital format — from its very inception, the camera has functioned to make a picture of the world, which is something very different from the total (re)creation of one. A “mirror with a memory,” the photographic image insinuates itself between us and the place and time in which it was made, a technology (and a displacement) that enables the wide array of strategies displayed by the artists in this show.

The works gathered for The Camera Always Lies are divided into four categories; Abstraction, The New Romantics, The Anti-Romantics, and The Attractions of Cinema, which are designed to recognize and to advance a conversation between the works featured and the selected artists on themes that reflect various aspects of the larger concept explored in the exhibition. In some cases the same artists and or bodies of work blur the boundaries of these prescribed themes, further emphasizing the elusiveness of established borders and boundaries within contemporary practices. The work in the Abstraction section presses the limits of the medium in departing from the often-assumed literalness of photographic representation, by pursuing seemingly pure, Platonic form. The New Romantics engage projections of desire and fantasy, tapping into the intertwined appeals of history and beauty; the Anti-Romantics expose the flip-side of the coin, puncturing the consumer/commodity bubble that relies so heavily on photography for its persuasiveness. And finally, the work presented in the Kodak gallery, under the rubric The Attractions of Cinema, addresses the intersections of time, place, and perspective, with works that bear various conceptual relationships to the moving image.

While the exhibition focuses on artists working within the region, it should immediately become clear that there is no longer such a thing as a purely regional set of photographic and/or aesthetic concerns. Given today’s extremely efficient, globalized networks of information and transportation, it would be futile to attempt to identify a particular Hudson Valley aesthetic issue or (in the 19th century sense) a stylistic school within the region. Despite the wide variety of aesthetics and approaches included in the show, however, all of the artists selected for this Triennial are united in the sense that nothing seen here is as it initially appears. By bending perception through the selective deployment of strategies such as framing, focus, and shifts in scale or perspective, the viewer is challenged to make sense of the results. It is my hope that these ‘lies,’ taken together, will help to reveal a larger truth about who and what we are now, in a world that is so fundamentally altered and constructed by the photographic image."

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17 June 2008

American Inequality and Its Rosey Future

"Look. I am a pro-growth, free-market guy.
I love the market." ~ Barack Obama

Here, from The Nation is a set of nice graphics that, once again, traces the trajectory of political-economic inequality in the U.S.; here is a set of recommendations for starting to rectify the problem.* And here, from the same source, is a revelatory report (warning?) on the sketchy crowd from whom Barack Obama is getting advice on economic policy. There is little hope that with advisers like these, an Obama administration will do much to address, let alone try to alleviate inequality. Perhaps we can just transcend this problem as we have transcended race?
* (Added a bit later) Which recommendations, my friend Susan Orr impresses upon me, do not include reforming labor law in ways that might make it vaguely plausible to organize workers in the U.S..

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Art in a Time of Terror

I have posted here numerous times on the gratuitous "Patriot Act" prosecution of Steve Kurtz. Earlier in the spring a federal judge threw out the government case (in fact he rightly ridiculed the case as the prosecution presented it) and the U.S. Attorney has now declined to try reinstating the charges. That means that the government has only harassed Kurtz groundlessly for several years. You can find a post-prosecution interview Amy Goodman has done with Kurtz on Democracy Now! here.

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Politics and Public Art

"Of course in sculpture ... the work has to stand or fall according to
it does with space. ... It is the space a work creates within and
around itself
which articulates its strength, its joy, or its suffering."
~ John Berger

Here I am at the "Peace Gardens" in downtown Manchester (U.K.) on my way down to a conference at Oxford. As it turns out, in 1980 Manchester became first "nuclear free" city in the world, the culmination of campaign a by local politicians as part of a broader movement for nuclear disarmament.

The bronze sculpture, commemorating the declaration, was created by Barbara Pearson and is entitled "Messenger of Peace" (1986). The inscription on the stone just behind me to my left (barely legible in this picture) reads: "The World's First Nuclear Free City." And Pearson's messenger creates an inviting, serene , nearly contemplative space in the middle of a busy city.

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16 June 2008

Make War not Art

Jörg Colberg offers this eye-opening comparison.

Germain Greer on The Henson Flap

"Got to hurry on back to my hotel room,
Where I've got me a date with Botticelli's niece.
She promised that she'd be right there with me,
When I paint my masterpiece."

~ Bob Dylan

In The Guardian today is this typically smart essay by Germaine Greer on the recent (apparently ongoing) controversy surrounding the censorship of an exhibition by Australian photographer Bill Henson. (The Gallery page is here.) Apparently,Australian PM Kevin Rudd has pronounced the Henson photos "absolutely revolting." While I am underwhelmed by the photos by Henson that created this uproar (and said so here long ago), Rudd surely is simply playing to the outraged crowd. Greer nicely compares the Henson photos not simply to various well-circulated media and fashion images but to a painting by Botticelli that apparently has been festooned across the London Metro. Referring to Rudd, she concludes, "the man who rejects them [Henson's photos] with exaggerated horror is appalled not by the works themselves but by his own response to them. Innocence is not an option." That is why the Dylan lyric seems appropriate. And, of course, an exhibition of his paintings is making the rounds at the moment here in the U.K. too.

Untitled © Bill Henson

Of course, all this brings to mind the similar flap in London, just a few months ago regarding the advert for a Cranach exhibition that was censored too. Here are Greer's comments on that flap too.

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Best Shots (29)

(55) Tim Walker ~ Cats, 1998 (12 June 08)


15 June 2008

Another Anniversary

Today is Father's Day. I got a great email from my oldest son Douglas, promising a "sweet" present when I return to Rochester. Hearing from Doug has made my day.

Yesterday would've been my second son Jeff's 16th birthday. Here is an email, forwarded by his mom, from Frank Maehr, who coached Jeff as a kid and who now coaches his own youngest son Danny's team:

To: xxx
Sent: Sunday, June 15, 2008 6:32 AM
Subject: Lax


Once again Jeff's spirit was with us on the field. Yesterday I took my 3rd and 4th grade team the the Honeyoe Falls Tournament.
We played well and made it to the finals where we were facing a team who had beaten all their opponents by 10 goals.
Before the start of the game I brought the team together and asked them if they new who Jeff was. Although these kids are only 9-10 they knew of Jeff. I told them about Jeff, his spirit and his love of the game. I said I had spoken to his mom and that you said, today, Saturday was his birthday. I told them a great present to Jeff would to win this tournament.
You should have seen their faces, "really coach"? "is today his birthday? We gotta get him this present. Then the chant started. JMJ23, JMJ23. JMJ23,. Every time we broke the huddle the same chant.
Well at the half we were down 4-3. I said Jeff we could really use you today. Well Jeff showed up and we ran them off the field in the second half. Pittsford won 10-5 thanks to Jeff.
I will get up to Jeff's grave this week or next and leave his his game ball.


I will continue to pray for you and your family.

Frank Maehr
Needles to say, this brought me to tears.
P.S.: (Added the next morning) Lest anyone think I'd forgotten my youngest son August, not so. I am in the midst of arranging his upcoming summer visit. That includes enduring lectures from his mom on various child-rearing matters - as though I've not already had several decades of experience. Unfortunately there is no irony involved; that would require a degree of self-reflection that is in terribly short supply. All that said, I cannot wait until A arrives back east.


Powerlessness and Power: Shows to See in D.C.

The International Herald Tribune today has run a story on a new exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. The exhibition "Access to Life" is meant to impress upon viewers "the positive impact that free antiretroviral drug treatment is having on the lives of millions of AIDS patients around the world." As you can tell from the banner, the exhibition is sponsored by The Global Fund to Fight AIDS and Magnum. From a distance, the show seems to focus on relatively powerless people who suffer from HIV infection and the extent to which their well-being depends on the beneficence of donors.

Coming up at the Corcoran is another exhibition that should prove interesting from a political perspective ~ "Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power".

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Posts have been sparse around here for the past few days as I am in England traveling a bit prior to a conference coming up in the next few days. So intermittent is the operative word. I will be back to regular posting before too long.

10 June 2008

Condi Rice, Slow Learner

Condolezza Rice lied about the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Her lies have cost untold lives. She has collaborated in the breaking of International and Domestic law - most directly regarding the torture of prisoners held by the U.S. military. She is not fit for public office. Nor is she fit for serious intellectual debate. She has written this long article in Foreign Affairs that ultimately seeks to rationalize the foreign policy disasters she has orchestrated. Here are the initial sentences:
"What is the national interest? This is a question that I took up in 2000 in these pages. That was a time that we as a nation revealingly called "the post-Cold War era." We knew better where we had been than where we were going. Yet monumental changes were unfolding -- changes that were recognized at the time but whose implications were largely unclear.

And then came the attacks of September 11, 2001."
Her aim is to justify a policy of exporting democracy in the way we've done so smashingly in Iraq. The itsy-bitsy problem, of course, is that Iraq had NOTHING to do with September 11, 2001 or, really, any other threat to America's "national interest." No matter. Invoking the terrorist threat is a good way to divert attention, to hope readers will place their critical faculties in abeyance.

Rice refers to "untidiness of democracy" a phrase that brings to mind Don Rumsfeld's inane response to the looting of Baghdad after the U.S. invasion. And her qualms are reflected in her vision of the threats to democracy:
"The story today is rarely one of peoples resisting the basics of democracy -- the right to choose those who will govern them and other basic freedoms. It is, instead, about people choosing democratic leaders and then becoming impatient with them and holding them accountable on their duty to deliver a better life. It is strongly in our national interest to help sustain these leaders, support their countries' democratic institutions, and ensure that their new governments are capable of providing for their own security, especially when their nations have experienced crippling conflicts."
So, it seems, our task is to protect leaders from the people who elect them, to make sure that popular demands for accountability are not too dramatic. And we will do that by insuring the security of government's not of peoples. To speak only of "the goal of democratization and modernization in the broader Middle East" Rice can point to the way the U.S shores up, say, the Saudi regime as it strides toward democracy and openness. That provides a nice notion of what she has in mind. If Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are Rice's exemplars her argument seems laughable.

Rice suggests that we need a "theory of victory" but largely holds out the same old platitudes, like shoring up dictatorships because they are friendly to us. Has she forgotten our old pal Saddam? And of course, there are more platitudes about economic development:
"Ultimately, one of the best ways to support the growth of democratic institutions and civil society is to expand free and fair trade and investment. The very process of implementing a trade agreement or a bilateral investment treaty helps to hasten and consolidate democratic development. Legal and political institutions that can enforce property rights are better able to protect human rights and the rule of law. Independent courts that can resolve commercial disputes can better resolve civil and political disputes. The transparency needed to fight corporate corruption makes it harder for political corruption to go unnoticed and unpunished. A rising middle class also creates new centers of social power for political movements and parties."
But here she neglects that beyond being dictators, the Saudis like to play the markets rather than allowing them free reign. Could that be because the middle classes and their demands that Rice sees as emerging almost automatically from market reforms might challenge the dictatorship? And, for those of us who think the mantra of 'free trade' is way oversold, her recommendations are simply not credible. Institutions emerge from strategic struggles between asymmetrically situated agents. there is little reason to believe that the neo-liberal dream will come to fruition. What is required is real political contests that will challenge the elites whom Condi wants most to protect.

The problem too is that her timetable - what she terms "the work of a generation" - is laughable too. She peddles revisionist history, blindness to the failures she has brought us, with an infinitely receding time horizon. Condi Rice has apparently not learned a single thing from her experience implementing BushCo's disasters. The folks at Foreign Affairs have provided her with a very, very large platform on which to demonstrate that fact.


09 June 2008

What Do Terrorist Plots and Photography Have In Common?

Nothing. At least for those who bother to look and to think.

"Since 9/11, there has been an increasing war on photography. Photographers have been harrassed, questioned, detained, arrested or worse, and declared to be unwelcome. We've been repeatedly told to watch out for photographers, especially suspicious ones. Clearly any terrorist is going to first photograph his target, so vigilance is required.

Except that it's nonsense. The 9/11 terrorists didn't photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid subway bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn't photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber didn't photograph anything; neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Photographs aren't being found amongst the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. The IRA wasn't known for its photography. Even those manufactured terrorist plots that the US government likes to talk about -- the Ft. Dix terrorists, the JFK airport bombers, the Miami 7, the Lackawanna 6 -- no photography."
A nice observation from this nice essay in The Guardian last week. The author goes on to note:
"Fear aside, there aren't many legal restrictions on what you can photograph from a public place that's already in public view. If you're harassed, it's almost certainly a law enforcement official, public or private, acting way beyond his authority. There's nothing in any post-9/11 law that restricts your right to photograph.

This is worth fighting. Search "photographer rights" on Google and download one of the several wallet documents that can help you if you get harassed; I found one for the UK, US, and Australia. Don't cede your right to photograph in public. Don't propagate the terrorist photographer story. Remind them that prohibiting photography was something we used to ridicule about the USSR."
Just So. We don't live in a movie. We live in the world. But the way movies reflexively come to govern our assessment of situations and risks is interesting. Framing is a powerful psychological mechanism. One more reason to criticize TV shows like "24" that perpetuate the 'ticking time bomb' scenarios that seem to justify torture.

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Eastwood & Lee

"A guy like him should shut his face." ~ Clint Eastwood

"First of all, the man is not my father and we're not
on a plantation either. ..." ~ Spike Lee

Spike is right about history, about the racism of American media (both in war reporting and subsequent Hollywood romanticization of the war) and about Eastwood's surly remark. My problem is that I like both as directors. Hopefully, this spat will simply fade away. Life is too short.


TELOS ~ 40 Years

When I first began to read political theory as an undergraduate, the journal TELOS was perhaps the primary outlet for various dissident themes and writers. I have not read the journal much over the past decade or so, in large part because it seems to (more or less uncritically) grasp at virtually any non- or anti-individualist intellectual current that pops up. That said, TELOS remains an important independent intellectual journal. And it has survived 40 years now. That is a remarkable accomplishment and a contribution to an increasingly endangered intellectual ecology.
Update: 28 June: I just discovered this appreciation by Russell Jacoby of Paul Piccone who was the moving force behind TELOS until his death in 2004.

Best Shots (28)

(54) Michal Chelbin ~ Naval Cadets, Udmurtia, Russia (5 June 08)


05 June 2008

Aperture #191 (Summer 08)

Among other interesting things this issue contains ~ How Silent Images Can Break the Silence. Photographs by Gilles Peress, Commentary by John Berger. Through words, photographs, and an extraordinary exhibition, Peress and Berger express their responses to Picasso’s Guernica.

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Local Event: Hot Blues for the Homeless (2)

Date: Sunday, June 8th

Where: Water Street Music Hall, 204 N. Water Street, Rochester, NY 14604
(585) 546-3887

Bands: John Mooney, Joe Beard, Steve Grills & the Roadmasters, Fred Vine, Gordon Munding & Curtis Waterman.

Guitar Workshop: 11 to 2 PM

Concert: 4 to 9 PM - The Club @ Water Street.

Information: http://sonhouse.sundayblues.org/
This is at least the second annual Hot Blues for the Homeless event. Last year I went and it was terrific. Unfortunately, I will be in England and will miss it this year. But Son House was a long time resident of Rochester and Joe Beard (who knew House personally) is simply wonderful - an extremely talented composer & musician and a very nice fellow. Hearing Joe will (on its own) make it worth going and the dough goes to a good cause too. So, here are a couple of (not at all secret) different renditions of Son House's "Death Letter". The top is Son House himself, the one on the bottom is The White Stripes.

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The Right to Take Pictures (4)

This is a repeat on a topic about which I've posted several times before. Given ongoing confrontations (e.g., this report) between innocent photographers and overzealous authorities of different sorts (cops, both sworn officers and 'rent-a' varieties) as well as the persistent fear and suspicion induced in the name of homeland security, it seems appropriate to repeat the post yet again. And here is a brief & useful summary of your rights as a photographer in the United States by attorney Bert Krages, II with a reference to a longer treatment by the same author. His publisher is here. There is now a Flickr group devoted to photographer's rights in the U.S..

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04 June 2008

Photo Clichés

Don't get me wrong. I generally like The Guardian. But it has its flaws. And the flaw I want to note here is one it shares with lots of other newspapers. Like other daily newspapers The Guardian runs a section (the name varies from outlet to outlet) called "24 Hours in Pictures: A Selection of the Best Images from Around the World." You can find the feature here. Usually I wait several days to a week or so before scanning the selected images. Each of the images here appeared in The Guardian "24 Hours ..." feature in between May 26 and June 3. The captions came with the images.

I do not know who does the selecting. But the photo editors at the newspaper and the photographers (regardless of nationality or agency) who are feeding them images seem to converge way too much. As a result, what emerges are pretty clichéd patterns, regularized variations on a theme. Lines of helmeted police, resembling Storm Troopers from Star Wars, clashing with demonstrators always is a favorite. So to are exotic people engaged in exotic practices of this or that sort. This week we had a theme of fish at one or another stage of being harvested. And we had food frolics of various celebratory sorts. But we also had these three themes as well.


Cliché #1: Antiquities Dashed to the Floor

3 June ~ Sichuan province, China: The head of a statue
of Buddha lies among the ruins of the destroyed Erwang
Temple, also known as the Temple of Two Kings, in
earthquake-hit Dujiangyan. The temple, which is on the
UN's world heritage list, was built 2,000 years ago
Photograph © Jason Lee/Reuters.

27 May ~ Sichuan province, China: Some of the 108
wooden carvings of China's emperors are seen broken
on the floor of the Fuxing Buddhist temple after the
. Photograph © Nir Elias/Reuters.

Cliché #2: The Hands of the Oppressed

3 June ~ Johannesburg, South Africa: Refugees from
xenophobic violence sit on a bus as they wait to leave
Germiston City Hall for a newly constructed camp.
After living in temporary shelters in police stations
and community halls for nearly three weeks, the
displaced foreigners are now being moved to temporary
shelters, with tents supplied by the United Nations.
Photograph © Jon Hrusa/EPA.

2 June ~ Johannesburg, South Africa: A Congolese national
displaced by the recent xenophobic attacks shows his
identification bracelet
. Photograph © Gianluigi Guercia/
AFP/Getty Images

28 May ~ Johannesburg, South Africa: Immigrants
displaced by violence against foreigners warm their
hands over small fire outside a police station
Photograph © Mike Hutchings/Reuters.

Cliché #3: Boys Throwing Stones

2 June ~ Modin, West Bank: Palestinian youths clash
with Israeli troops during a protest against Israel's
security barrier
. Photograph © Sebastian Scheiner/AP.

28 May ~ Nilin, West Bank: A Palestinian boy hurls a
stone at Israeli soldiers during a demonstration.

Photograph © Abbas Momani/AFP.

26 May ~ West Bank, Palestinian territories: Palestinian
demonstrators hurl stones at Israeli border police during
a protest against Israel's separation barrier in Nilin, near
Photograph © Muhammed Muheisen/AP.

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02 June 2008

Godard & Boycotts

I read this succinct report yesterday morning.

French director Jean-Luc Godard, who was supposed to be in Israel as the guest of honor at the Tel Aviv University International Student Film Festival, has cancelled his trip - apparently due to political pressure.

In his statement to the festival's organizers, Godard wrote that he would not be participating because of "circumstances beyond his control." Last week, heads of the Palestinian movement to boycott Israeli academics and culture appealed to Godard, in an open letter, to refrain from participating in the film festival and to display solidarity with their cause. The writers related to Godard's past political involvement and his "declared" pro-Palestinian stance. (The Jerusalem Post ~ 2 June 08)

And, today, this similar notice appeared in The New York Times.

There are a few disturbing things about this. First, and most obviously, is the fact that, if the report is accurate, Godard equivocates. He did not say that he'd decided not to attend because he is honoring the boycott. He referred only to mysterious 'circumstances.' But I am not concerned with Godard's spine or lack thereof. Second, this is not an isolated matter; the calls for an cultural and academic boycott of Israel have been percolating more or less continuously for several years. Among the supporters of this strategy is the Palestinian Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. And, according to this report The Jerusalem Post the largest Academic Union in Britain recently re-instituted its call for a boycott. I have not thought the matter completely through. But my view at this juncture is that there is altogether too much moralism at work and way too little concern for consequences in the calls for a boycott - at least among those in Europe and the United States. Godard, of course, was asked to join the boycott by a Palestinian group, so perhaps that is irrelevant. There also is, despite my own critical view of the Israeli government's approach to the Palestinians (e.g., increasing reliance on repression, embargoes, walls, and all that), a real risk of aiding and abetting the voices of antisemitism. I resent the knee jerk reaction that calls any criticism of Israel antisemitic. But it is naive to think that there is no possibility of antisemitism at work here. Finally, I have come to be increasingly suspicious of boycotts and embargoes as political instruments simply because they are way too blunt. How would this boycott impact Israeli intellectuals, artists, and writers like, say, Amos Oz [1] [2] [3] [4] or David Shulman and their efforts to work for peace? Isn't it possible that engagement with individuals and groups who occupy the rather large range of progressive politics in Israel would be more effective in articulating criticism of Israeli government policy?
P.S.: You can find an extensive argument on the current calls for Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel in Dissent over the past several years: David Hirsch, Martha Nussbaum, Murray Hausknecht, Mohammed Abed, and Nussbaum again. There has also been a related back-and-forth between Mitchell Cohen and Andrew Arato at Reset.doc [1] [2] [3] [4]; the latter exchange shows how wide-ranging and complex the matters involved have become.

P.S.2: (Added Later that same day.) Some documents. You can find the initial (2006) call by PCACBI for a boycott here. You can find the supporting call from (mostly) Americans & Europeans here. And you can find a thoughtful explanation from John Berger regarding his understanding of the boycott here.

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Bill Kristol Turns His Own Special Brand of Idiocy Into a Terribly Flawed Defense of Military Service.

In case you are wondering, Bill Kristol is still an ideologue. That maybe explains why he is more or less incapable of clear thought. He may not be a complete idiot, but you cannot tell from what he publishes. The New York Times should never have hired him; he single-handedly lowers the average intelligence of essays in their opinion section. Consider his piece today - "What Obama Left Out" - where he opines on a commencement address that Barak Obama delivered at Wesleyan University "on the theme of service to our country."

Let's leave aside the unsubtle title. Perhaps we can blame that on Kristol's editors. But no one ever mistook Kristol himself for being subtle. So we'll likely never know. Let's leave aside too the fact that Obama was delivering the address as a stand-in for a Senate colleague who today is undergoing surgery for what might well be a fatal brain tumor. We should not expect a bullshitter like Kristol to have any sense of propriety; after all he is waging an ideological campaign. And no one would expect him to allow let a big old dollop pure unadulterated bad taste stand in the way of taking some cheap shots. Let's focus instead on the hypocrisy and sophistry of the case Kristol presents.

Bill is all worked up about what he calls "Obama’s sin of omission." It seems - and I have not read the text of Obama's remarks so we'll have to rely on Kristol's characterization - that in a speech about the value of public service, Obama failed to pay proper obeisance to military service as the most important form of public service. With one hand Kristol begins by paying Obama a compliment.
The speech was skillfully crafted and well delivered, the grace notes were graceful, and the exhortations to public service seemed heartfelt but not cloying.

The speech was a success. It’s also revealing — about Obama’s view of himself and of public service.
Unsurprisingly Kristol snatches his compliment back with the other hand by more or less immediately calling into question Obama's motivations and service and sacrifice. For now, though, let's keep our eye on Kristol's hypocrisy. There will be time enough to address his total inability to frame a plausible argument. He proceeds:

But at an elite Northeastern college campus, Obama obviously felt no need to disturb the placid atmosphere of easy self-congratulation. He felt no need to remind students of a different kind of public service — one that entails more risks than community organizing. He felt no need to tell the graduating seniors in the lovely groves of Middletown that they should be grateful to their peers who were far away facing dangers on behalf of their country

Nor did Obama choose to mention all those college graduates who are now entering the military, either for a tour of duty or as a career, in order to serve their country. He certainly felt no impulse to wonder whether the nation wouldn’t be better off if R.O.T.C. were more widely and easily available on elite college campuses.

Obama failed to challenge — even gently — what he must have assumed would be the prejudices of much of his audience and indulged in a soft patriotism of low expectations.

The stench here is overwhelming. A really obvious question pops to mind almost immediately. Has Bill Kristol or any of the other ideologues he hangs with ever worn a military uniform except to a costume party? As is by now well-known, that goes for nearly every single one of Kristol's heroes in the Bush administration too. And it goes, too, for all the kids and grandkids of all the people he hangs with and admires. Those kids and grandkids are the youngsters who do now, or eventually will, inhabit what the Harvard-educated Kristol derides as "elite college campuses."*

It is easy enough to visualize the curl in Kristol's lip as he repeatedly spits out the word "elite." Here we have Kristol playing the anti-intellectual for the masses. But the children of the masses are the ones who must rely on ROTC or service in the National Guard to fund college in the first place. By contrast, the friends of Bill and their offspring rely on Daddy's contacts to get into elite colleges and on Daddy's money (or scholarships from the foundations of Daddy's right-wing underwriters) to fund their studies.

A second really obvious question: has Biill Kristol or any of the other ideologues he hangs with ever taken any risk or made any significant sacrifice for a public spirited end? Before you answer "Yes, of course. They all write for not-for-profit publications all the time," remember that the whole right-wing echo chamber in which Bill plays is a pit of nepotism funded by various right wing foundations [1]. Bill and his chums always had the safety net of nepotism to catch them if they fell. There is no risk if Daddy and his rich friends are underwriting your glossy magazines. And there is no risk if you don't ever, ever have to worry about anyone among the uninitiated (e.g., a non con-neocon-libertareon or whatever variety of right-winger) being in a position to prevent (due, say, to lack of reason or evidence) the pablum you write from seeing print. So, for Kristol to take graduates of Wesleyan or any other college to task for not taking a risk is a real howler.

Those questions are indeed obvious. So much so that I thought of leaving them too to one side. Sometimes, though, it is impossible to resist calling a hypocrite a hypocrite. Bill Kristol is a hypocrite. But enough of that. Let's move on to his sieve-like arguments. Here is the passage where Kristol tries to snatch back his opening compliment:

Obama chooses to introduce the notion of public service from an autobiographical point of view. In college, he explains, “I began to notice a world beyond myself.” So while his friends were seeking jobs on Wall Street, he applied for jobs as a grass-roots activist. And one day, a group of churches in Chicago offered him a job as a community organizer for “$12,000 a year plus $2,000 for an old, beat-up car.”

“And I said yes.”

Those four words form their own paragraph in the prepared text. Obama wants us to be impressed by the drama of his spurning the big bucks, by his bold acceptance of such a pittance of money in order that he could do good.

Leave aside the fact that two years elapsed between Obama’s graduation from Columbia in 1983 and his heading off to Chicago in 1985. Dramatic foreshortening is, after all, sometimes necessary. And leave aside whether $14,000 in 1985 was really such a shockingly low salary for someone recently out of college — in inflation-adjusted dollars, it’s about what we pay entry-level editorial assistants today at The Weekly Standard.

Obama’s point is that he went on to do good in Chicago — and that the college graduates to whom he’s speaking should follow in his exemplary footsteps. Of course, most politicians do admire themselves and their excellent careers. So perhaps one shouldn’t make too much of Obama’s sin of self-regard.

First a simple fact that Bill might've discerned by glancing at Wikipedia (he might've then set the crack fact checkers at The Times loose to find out if the entry is accurate). Obama reportedly spent at least part of the two year period between when he graduated and when he headed off to the South Side working for the New York Public Interest Research Group. Notice that Bill complains that Obama didn't go directly into public service upon graduation. But, were you to look up 'do-gooders' in the dictionary, I'd wager the entry refers directly to such Naderite groups. Obama spent the remainder of the period that so galls Kristol, working for what looks like a consulting/publishing outfit at which he likely made a reasonable salary. But do we need to know that Obama took a salary cut to try, as Kristol puts it, to "do good?" At best, Kristol is here continuing a widely recognized pattern of incredibly sloppy "research" [2] [3] into the topics he opines about. At worst, and I suspect, more likely, he knows what I've just pointed out and simply decided to bullshit his editors and readers.

Second, note the tendentious comparisons Bill constructs. One appears in the initial passage I cited above where Kristol alludes to "public service" of the sort "that entails more risks than community organizing." Here he is winding up to sing the praises of military service. But notice that when Obama graduated from college in 1983 there was no particularly pressing need for another young black man to join the military. There was no war on. And conservatives were singing the praises of the 'all volunteer' military. (The contrast to the older Kristol who never came close to Vietnam is especially stark here.)

A second ridiculous comparison concerns the question of just what sort of sacrifice Obama made by heading to the South Side. Controlling for inflation, Kristol compares Obama's then $14K plus salary to the pittance Kristol himself apparently now pays entry level help at his own rag, The Weekly Standard. Setting aside the waste of youthful idealism that working for that outlet involves, this is an idiotic comparison. The relevant comparison would be to what Obama might've made if, instead of taking up the job of organizing, he'd gone to work for an investment firm or headed straight to law school. What would Obama have made during the four years he was in Chicago if he had been a graduate of Harvard or some other "elite" law school? What Kristol seems to be interested in doing is diminishing Obama's record. His effort, though, simply reveals what a hack he truly is.

I would not accept the sort of faulty evidence or reasoning that Kristol peddles here from students in my advanced undergraduate classes (I am unsure where Rochester counts as "elite" or not, though). And, unfortunately, we have not even gotten to the premise of Kristol's argument, namely that non-military public service is somehow deficient as compared to military service.

Kristol never defends this premise. In fact, he never states it. But unless it holds, the entire structure of his screed collapses. It is pathetic that in this country the only way to gain honor is through military service. That, to be sure, is one way one might do so. But what about kids engaged in Teach for America or the Peace Corps or any one of a number of less well known and even more ridiculously underfunded "public interest" programs? Is Kristol trying to say that those kids should've volunteered to head off to fight in the BushCo foreign policy disasters?

I have several former students in the military. They are terrific, smart, idealistic young men and women. I also have students doing Teach for America - at least two of whom are in New Orleans, the locus of yet another of BushCo's disasters. They too are terrific, smart, idealistic young men and women. On what grounds can Kristol justify even tacitly calling their service into question? If he cannot offer a plausible answer that question he should be fired.
* I would love to know whether Kristol had a selective service deferment while he was at Harvard in the early-to-mid 1970s. Kristol graduated from a private high school in 1970 and from Harvard in 1973 - roughly the time when conscription was ended. He loathed elite educational institutions so much then that, after going to prep school and spending three undergrad years at Harvard, he re-enlisted to get his PhD there too. What a terrible, risky sacrifice he made!

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