31 July 2009

Some Straight Talk on Health Care Reform

. . . by Paul Krugman here in his column at The New York Times. The punch line?
“. . . many people don't understand the way American health care works right now. They don't understand, in particular, that getting the government involved in health care wouldn't be a radical step: the government is already deeply involved, even in private insurance.

And that government involvement is the only reason our system works at all.


Right-wing opponents of reform would have you believe that President Obama is a wild-eyed socialist, attacking the free market. But unregulated markets don’t work for health care — never have, never will. To the extent we have a working health care system at all right now it’s only because the government covers the elderly, while a combination of regulation and tax subsidies makes it possible for many, but not all, nonelderly Americans to get decent private coverage."


30 July 2009

Best Shots (81) ~ Abbas Kiarostami

28 July 2009

Lesson for the Democrats ~ Toss 'Bi-Partisanship' Overboard

Of the seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee,
only Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina voted in favor
of Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Photograph © Brendan Smialowski/
The New York Times.

I lifted this photo from The Times where it accompanied this story on the highly polarized vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon. What the caption neglects to say is that the four really crabby looking guys sitting directly behind Graham are there to whisk him off to the right-wing nutter re-education camp ~ he will be deprogrammed in hopes of restoring his resistance to wildly liberal beliefs and judgments.

I'd say 'kidding aside,' but I am not kidding. The lesson the Democrats and especially Obama et. al. ought to take from this is that the Republicans have no plan to play nice. The Dems ought to be in every Hispanic community in the country trumpeting the fact that the Republicans didn't think Sotomayor was qualified. Actually, they should wait until the Republicans vote against her en masse on the Senate floor and then beak out the trumpets.

I have said it before and I repeat myself now, bi-partisanship is bad for democracy and it is bad politics if you want to win.

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27 July 2009

Mapping Visitors

According to the folks at Clustrmap, I've had 126,916 visitors over the past year. My 'fiscal year' runs from July 28th because that is the date I added the Clustrmap counter a few years back. In any case, tomorrow I should begin accumulating a new set of red dots. Today I get the chance to thank all those who've stopped by. Thanks!


26 July 2009

Obama, Gates and the American Black Man

Yesterday The New York Times ran this Op-Ed - “Obama, Gates and the American Black Man” by Glen Loury. I have posted on his sensible views regarding race and crime in the U.S. here before. This new essay hits the nail squarely on the head.

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Pretty regularly my Google alerts take me to offerings from wacky right-wing media outlets. It is astounding to me that there are folks going on about Obama's birth certificate and other conspiratorial fantasies with great vigor. In any case, I found the image above on one of those sites and, in keeping with this earlier post, thought it is worth sharing.

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25 July 2009

Taking Offense (2): Dash Snow

Every once in a while there is a story about some tortured artist committing suicide that just makes me want to spit. There is a long example of that genre on offer in The New York Times today. You can find it here - a sketch of the life and death of Dash Snow. As The Times report makes clear, Snow met "a pathetic end." There are many striking things in The Times story ~ the resentfulness of friends (like the ass who complains that, unlike Snow, he has to go out and work for his heroin), the self absorption of family members who tormented Snow as a child, the indulgence of his grandmother who set up "expense accounts" to underwrite his bad behavior, the irresponsibility of those members of "a certain downtown scene" who enabled Snow's pathetic existence.

Ultimately, though, we cannot blame all the travails of life on the actions of others. I wrote the following in a post about the suicide of another tortured artist a while back:
"Simply put, while it is too bad he died as he did, Clarke's death was as self-indulgent as his life. In other words, it was plenty self-indulgent. And his work is not worth much more than a passing look."
This pretty much captures my view of Snow too. Although the "feral" existence he seemed to have created seems contemptible to me, I would not wish him dead. And I recognize that the experiences of rich kids trapped in the conflicts among rich narcissistic adults are hurtful. But Snow seems never to have really attempted to do anything other than act out his hurt ~ abetted, of course, by other self-indulgent rich folks in his life. It is difficult for me to summon much sympathy for a life squandered. Apparently Snow created some of his masterpieces by jerking off onto pages from newspapers and magazines. The reporters from The Times couldn't quite bring themselves to draw the clear analogy. Snow seems to have been a jerk-off in pretty much every domain of life. That life - and the death which ended it - are no more than a cliché.

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24 July 2009

Helen Levitt & André Kertész . . .

. . . have, to the best of my knowledge, nothing in common ~ unless, of course you count the fact that both lived in NYC for a period of time. But there is a nice slide show of Kertész's photographs here at The Guardian and there is an interesting essay on Levitt here at The Nation. So, now the two masters of photography have in common that they appear in this post.

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22 July 2009

Best Shots (80) ~ Perry Ogdan

(107) Perry Ogden ~ Violet, Natchez, Mississippi, 1997
(23 July 2009).

This series keeps going strongly at The Guardian. I especially like this one because Ogden has chosen a photo of his daughter ~ and his description of his relationship with her is touching. He also, from what I can tell on the web, is active in the anti-racism movement in Ireland where he lives.


Hypocrisy You Can Believe In . . .

You can read the report here at Talking Points Memo. For the extent of the dissembling and double-dealing it is worth following the links on their post.

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How Not to Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police

After having a heated disagreement with my friend Susan about the fracas surrounding Skip Gates's recent confrontation with the Cambridge police, I came across this clip. Humor is a wonderful thing.

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21 July 2009

Passings ~ Jimmy Forsyth (1913-2009)

'Gatters' McElderry, c1957
Photograph © Jimmy Forsyth/Tyne & Wear Archive.

Jimmy Forsyth, a half-blind, but quite talented and insightful, socialist photographer who chronicled life in Newcastle upon Tyne for half a century has died. You can find an obituary here and slide show of his work here in The Guardian.


Crisis & Change in Progressive Politics

Yesterday I received a notice of recently published essays in The Economist's Voice, which is an on-line journal of opinion pieces. Among the essays is a very interesting offering by John Roemer
a political economist at Yale. Roemer's essay is entitled "Changing the Social Ethos is the Key." You can find it here. Essentially, Roemer is arguing that political economic crisis, because it distributes risk more equally, can lead people to support more solidaristic political-economic policies (say, universal health care) because it is in their self interest to do so. He sees this - potentially - as the basis for an endogenous process by which more and more progressive policies might be adopted - even in the U.S.! His, in other words, is a vision of incremental, yet quite radical reform. Here is a chunk of the argument:
"Crises (wars and depressions) tend to induce greater social insurance. I believe one major reason is that a crisis tends to place all people in the same boat (or at least, it reduces the difference in the sizes of their boats), and if all people are in the same boat with respect to the risks they face, it is in each individual’s self-interest to pass universal insurance. (If everyone in a population of risk-averse citizens faces, for example, a 10% probability of unemployment, then the optimal tax policy for each is to pay 10% of his/her income into the insurance pool when employed, and to collect 90% of his/her salary when unemployed.) Conversely, if people face very different degrees of risk (that is, the probability of a bad event is much higher for me than for you) it becomes politically much more difficult to arrange an insurance plan which is simple, and which all will find in their self-interest. If a crisis changes risk exposures so that all people become more similar in that respect, then the political obstacles to designing universal insurance decrease. My argument is not that citizens immediately become more solidaristic because of a crisis— it is that with common risk exposures, it becomes the self-interest of all to implement universal insurance. The Depression in the U.S. placed a large number of citizens in the same boat; similarly, the Second World War significantly reduced wealth differences in Europe, thus making the former well-to-do much more similar to the former poor with regard to risk exposure, which facilitated the passage of social insurance.

I do not wish to imply that this is the only reason that crises induce social reform. Class struggle may also be magnified due to crises: for instance, those who fought and risked their lives as soldiers in World War II returned with a feeling of entitlement and became more demanding of redistribution and welfare-state benefits. This was certainly important in the post-war period in Europe. A more nuanced version of my thesis is that crises tend to homogenize the risk exposures of the working and middle classes, who then form a sufficient majority to pass social insurance, even should the capitalist class oppose it."*
An even more nuanced version of the argument might recognize that among capitalists there may well be disagreement and conflict over the attractiveness of say, government provided health care. Some sectors, say the insurance industry, might remain unalterably opposed while other employers might see public health provision as quite attractive - if, indeed, it meant that they would be able to off-load significant benefits provision onto the state, thereby becoming more competitive relative to firms located in countries where such costs already are born publicly. But it is a safe bet that talk of "class struggle" is very likely to insure that Roemer is not among the economists whose views Obama and company are soliciting.

At first reading it seemed to me that this view ran counter to views about the reliance of progressive politics on "crisis" or "calamity" that Roberto Unger advances in his work.* But on second thought it seems that Roemer and Unger are simply identifying different mechanisms in different domains. Roemer is thinking about the way political organizations (e.g. political parties) might find constituents who, first based primarily on self-interest, but increasingly on solidarisitc grounds, would support progressive policies.** Unger actually is more concerned with another imperative: "the effort to loosen the dependence of change upon calamity, and to design institutions and discourses that organize and facilitate their own revision. ... It should be possible to be changed without first being ruined. We must redesign our institutions and discourses accordingly." It seems to me that Roemer's vision is probably prerequisite to Unger's, even as Unger's is necessary to solidify the "stable state" for which Roemer hopes.

In the recent past the right in the U.S. has proven especially adept at mobilizing working and middle class voters on the basis of "fear" (Unger) and "insecurity" (Roemer). The point here is that progressives need to figure out how to turn those motivations to their own political advantage. Whether that is possible, of course, is a major question.
* Roberto Mangabeira Unger. 2005. What Should the Left Propose? Verso, pages 18-19, 37f, 61.

** The endogeneity continues: "crises homogenize risk exposures, creating a democratic demand for insurance (economics and politics), which then induces preference change in a socially-oriented direction (psychology) which then induces a demand for more insurance, and so on, until some new stable state is reached."

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20 July 2009

Enthusiasms (24) ~ Trio 3

It has been six months or so since I posted the last item in this series; I'm not sure how I fell out of the habit, but there is no need to abandon the theme! While I was teaching in Ann Arbor I ordered these two discs by the collaborative undertaking by Reggie Workman, Oliver Lake, and Andrew Cyrille called Trio 3. You can find their collective presence on the web here and here. These discs (the latter including pianist Geri Allen) were released in 2006 and 2009 respectively on the Swiss label Intakt. As far as I can tell Trio 3 has released five other recordings all on equally obscure labels ~ Live at Willsau (Dizim, 1999), Encounter (Passin' Thru, 2000), Open Ideas (Palmetto, 2002), Trio 3 + Irene Schweizer, Berne Concert (Intakt, 2007) and Wha's Nine (Marge, 2008). The music is simply terrific ~ lot's of open space so that the angles and tempos play off of one another in all sorts of oblique and convergent ways. I have said this before, but it really is astounding how much of what I think of as being terrific jazz is being made by musicians in their sixties and seventies.*
* So, by my count, that is seven discs in a decade. And each of theses fellows has produced multiple other releases with other ensembles. That is pretty remarkable.

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Diversity . . . Even in Economics!

In keeping with my ongoing theme of how important diversity and experimentation are in thinking about economic affairs, I want to point out that over at his blog, Paul Krugman makes the following point regarding the intellectual monoculture that otherwises known as the Obama administration:
"A lot of people supported Obama over Clinton in the primaries because they thought Clinton would bring back the Rubin team; and what Obama has done is … bring back the Rubin team. Even the advisory council, which is supposed to bring in skeptical views, does so by bringing in, um, Marty Feldstein.

The point is that even if you think the leftish wing of economics doesn’t have all the answers, you’d expect some people from that wing to be at the table. Yet I don’t see Larry Mishel, or Jamie Galbraith … Jared Bernstein is it.

Joe Stiglitz stands out because in addition to being on the progressive wing, he’s also, as I said, a giant among academic economists. But I think the real story is more about excluded points of view than excluded people."
Recall that when French President Sarkozy decided to underwrite some economic big-think he approached Stiglitz and Sen [1]. Not so with Obama, who generally leans from right-of-center further rightward. All those folks who placed their "hope" in Obama as an agent of actual "change" or, conversely, who shriek that he is a "socialist!"ought to take a look at where all the ideas really are coming from. We are getting the same tired ideological analysis from economists who remain thick as thieves with ... well, with the thieves and the hucksters [e.g., 2, 3].

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19 July 2009

On Walter Cronkite

It seems somewhat ironic that in a summer in which the biggest story about the American media has been the spectacle of one of the nation's elite newspapers - The Washington Post - being busted for climbing, more or less unabashedly, into bed with political elites and hucksters [1][2] that we also are being subjected to sanctimonious press reports marking the death of Walter Cronkite. The fracas surrounding The Post simply highlights what everyone's grandmother knows; the mainstream American media is not reliable let alone oppositional. In other words, The Post is hardly alone in the obsequious posture it maintains toward the powerful in the American political economy.

You can find appreciations of Cronkite here by Glen Greenwald at Salon.com and here by John Nichols at The Nation. Both contrast what Cronkite represented with what has come to be accepted as "journalism" today. I grew up watching television in the Cronkite era. He was not, I think, nearly as daring on a daily basis as Greenwald and Nichols might lead you to believe. But they are both correct in saying that it is nearly impossible to imagine any of the stars in the mainstream media (to say nothing of the right-wing ranters over at, say, Fox) displaying the gumption he did when he called our failure in Viet Nam a failure.

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18 July 2009

Passings: Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009)

"I wish to live in a small rustic cabin, on the edge of a great forest,
located at the intersection of the Champs Elysee and
52nd Street in Manhattan" ~ Leszek Kolakowski

Some time ago I posted on one of my graduate school teachers, philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. I use his "wish" as the basis for part of a lecture here in Ann Arbor each summer. In the news this morning I learned that Professor Kolakowski has died at the age of 81. This is a great intellectual loss. You can find the notice from the BBC here. And there is an appreciative essay in the NYRB here. Today I am traveling, so I will have to wait to offer some proper comments.

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A Saturday Poem on the Personal and the Political

Lawrence Ferlinghetti*

I didn't get much sleep last night
thinking about underwear
Have you ever stopped to consider
underwear in the abstract
When you really dig into it
some shocking problems are raised
Underwear is something
we all have to deal with
Everyone wears some kind of underwear
The Pope wears underwear I hope
The Governor of Louisiana
wears underwear
I saw him on TV
He must have had tight underwear
He squirmed a lot
Underwear can really get you in a bind
You have seen the underwear ads
for men and women
so alike but so different
Women's underwear holds things up
Men's underwear holds things down
Underwear is one thing
men and women have in common
Underwear is all we have between us
You have seen the three-color pictures
with crotches encircled
to show the areas of extra strength
and three-way stretch
promising full freedom of action
Don't be deceived
It's all based on the two-party system
which doesn't allow much freedom of choice
the way things are set up
America in its Underwear
struggles thru the night
Underwear controls everything in the end
Take foundation garments for instance
They are really fascist forms
of underground government
making people believe
something but the truth
telling you what you can or can't do
Did you ever try to get around a girdle
Perhaps Non-Violent Action
is the only answer
Did Gandhi wear a girdle?
Did Lady Macbeth wear a girdle?
Was that why Macbeth murdered sleep?
And that spot she was always rubbing -
Was it really in her underwear?
Modern anglosaxon ladies
must have huge guilt complexes
always washing and washing and washing
Out damned spot
Underwear with spots very suspicious
Underwear with bulges very shocking
Underwear on clothesline a great flag of freedom
Someone has escaped his Underwear
May be naked somewhere
But don't worry
Everybody's still hung up in it
There won't be no real revolution
And poetry still the underwear of the soul
And underwear still covering a multitude of faults
in the geological sense -
strange sedimentary stones, inscrutable cracks!
If I were you I'd keep aside
an oversize pair of winter underwear
Do not go naked into that good night
And in the meantime
keep calm and warm and dry
No use stirring ourselves up prematurely
‘over Nothing’
Move forward with dignity
hand in vest
Don't get emotional
And death shall have no dominion
There's plenty of time my darling
Are we not still young and easy
Don't shout

* Lawrence Ferlinghetti. These Are My Rivers: New & Selected Poems, 1955-1993. New Directions, 1993, pages 130-132 [The poem originally was published in 1961].


17 July 2009

Passings: Julius Shulman (1910-2009)

The Castle, Los Angeles (circa 1966).
Photograph © Julius Shulman.

Architectural photographer Julius Shulman has died. You can find obituaries here at The Guardian and here at npr, where you can also find a slide show of his work.


Lillian Bassman: Capturing Intimacy

Personal Touch, 1948. Photograph © Lillian Bassman.

I am not a big proponent of fashion photography. Mostly I view it as a waste of talent that might be more usefully deployed for other purposes. But sometimes it is actively problematic in one or another way. I've spent some time here discussing such work. That said, this astute article on Lillian Bassman and her work appears in The New York Times today. Two passages in the article caught my attention. The first identifies the difference between Bassman's work and the fashion photography that emerged in the 1960s: "Hers was a world of adult sexuality that wasn’t ranted about. " And then there is this characterization of her work from the 40s and 50s.
"In the period dominated by Avedon and Irving Penn, Ms. Bassman was one of the few female photographers in the fashion business, and her work had a distinctly different cast from the outset, one less distancing. In most of the lingerie pictures, for example, the faces are averted or obscured, the result of the Ford agency’s insistence that its models not be identifiable in such provocative advertising. The effect of this constraint is not cold anonymity but an unusual intimacy that leaves the images feeling almost entirely divorced from commodity, as if they were the visual entries in the personal journals of the women photographed."
And for those who chimed in to the recent fracas about diversity in the photo industry [1] [2] [3] to insist that what counts is "the work" and not the race, gender, or whatever of the photographer ~ well, The Times correspondent - Ginia Bellafante - argues that it was precisely her gender that allowed Bassman to capture the images she did. No surprise.

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16 July 2009

Best Shots (79) ~ Wolf Suschitzky

(106) Wolf Suschitzky ~ Guy the Gorilla, London, 1958 (16 July 2009).


15 July 2009

The Second Part of the Schelling Interview ...

... is here - once again at The Atlantic.

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14 July 2009

Amartya Sen on Justice

My friend Susan pointed out that today The Guardian ran this short essay on justice by Amartya Sen. Here is the punchline:
"The idea of justice demands comparisons of actual lives that people can lead, rather than a remote search for ideal institutions. That is what makes the idea of justice relevant as well as exciting in practical reasoning."
OK, I suppose. But in making comparisons of "actual lives" we (meaning not just Sen or I as analysts, but the people whose lives we are discussing) clearly need institutions to structure and coordinate those lives. And at a further remove we also need some institutional arrangement that will allow us to reflexively assess which institutions might we might rely on to best effect in different domains. This is not a plea for constructing ideal schemes - I have posted repeatedly about institutional experimentation, after all. So, while Sen is correct to reject contractarian approaches to questions of justice and injustice. He goes too far if he diverts attention from the importance of social-poltiical-economic institutions.

This essay is an advert of sorts for a forthcoming book in which Sen lays out his views on justice more expansively. The book is due out in September.

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Yourspace at Look3

Yesterday npr ran this segment on the niche allotted to amateur photographers at the Look3 photo festival in Charlottesville. For the slide show look here.


There is an Interview With Thomas Schelling . . .

. . . here at The Atlantic. It is the first of two parts. I'll link to the second when it appears.

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13 July 2009

Thoughts About the Sotomayor Confirmation Hearings

(1) The Democrats ought to stop with their rags-to-riches identity politics saga. Sure, it is important to have a diverse court. But diversity is, as I've argued here and here before, is not a good in itself. It generates better decisions. The Democrats ought to simply make that argument and let the Republicans choke on it.

(2) The Democrats ought to stop with their rags-to-riches identity politics saga. They ought to calmly remind the Republican whiners on the judiciary committee (and their abettors among the right wing commentariate) that Sotomayor is more accomplished - both academically and in terms of legal and judicial experience - not only than any member of the Senate but, arguably, than any member current member of the court.

(3) The Democrats on the Judiciary Committee ought to continue pointing out two things to their Republican colleagues. First, the Court arguably is as right-wing today as it has been for a long time. And, second, our extremist justices have also refined - through repeated practice - the art of judicial activism. I commented on these patterns here and here during the election campaign last year - follow the links. So, the Republicans are simply blowing hot air when the drone on and on about the danger that Sotomayor will politicize the bench.

(3) The New York Times ran a good story about the pattern of judicial appointees being coached to "speak capably" but "say little." Sotomayor's remark about "fidelity to the law" is of a piece with that pattern. But The Times has also run this editorial urging the members of the Judiciary Committee to suddenly reverse their traditional practice and pose penetrating questions during the confirmation hearings. I don't recall the Editorial Board being so concerned during the confirmation hearings for any of the current right wing justices. Given the composition of the court, lets start that new pattern the next time a Republican President appoints a nutter.

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12 July 2009

Warrantless Wiretapping Score Card

So, here is an interim assessment on the BushCo domestic surveillance program:
(1) The report issued Friday (compiled by the Inspector Generals of the various Intelligence Agencies) claims that it was much more extensive than BushCo made out;

(2) The CIA (at least) lied to Congress about the extent and operation of the program - that according to the current Director of the Agency;

(3) The then Vice President Dick Cheney ordered that lying;

(4) The same group of Inspectors General conclude that the domestic surveillance program was ineffective in generating "intelligence."
This comes from reading these new reports in The New York Times ~ [1] [2] [3] . . .

The upshot seems clear: Bush and his minions played on fear to design a program of surveillance that allowed them to sidestep judicial oversight; they then lied about to Democratically elected representatives charged with providing political oversight; they thereby subverted democratic arrangements and infringed individual liberties for a program that was useless in practical terms. You couldn't make this stuff up.


There is An Interview with Nik Kowsar ...

. . . in The Washington Post yesterday. You can find it here. Kowsar is an exiled Iranian cartoonist.

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Not Quite a Flock of Seagulls, But a Pair

UNITED KINGDOM. Scotland. 1977. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

This image arrived in my inbox as Magnum's 'photo of the week' a couple of days ago. I had seen it several times but this time it brought to mind another, somewhat eerily similar image by Sarah Moon that I'd posted here last fall. Read Moon's description of how she composed her photograph and it contrasts with Koudelka's broader vision. But the gulls might be cousins and they are both casting a sideways glance at the viewer. And, of course, this seems to be yet another instance of what Geoff Dyer calls 'the ongoing moment.'

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11 July 2009

Louise Glück ~ From "October"

From: "October"*
Louise Glück


It is true the there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.

I am
at work, though I am silent.

The bland

Misery of the world
bounds us on either side, an ally

lined with trees; we re

companions here, not speaking,
each with his own thoughts;

behind the trees, iron
gates of the private houses,
the shuttered rooms

somehow deserted, abandoned,

as though it were the artist’s
duty to create
hope, but out of what? What?

The word itself
false, a device to refute
perception - At the intersection,

ornamental lights of the season.

I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against

this same world:

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.

* Louise Glück. Averno. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2006, pages 13-14.


Are the Democrats Going to Show some Leadership on Health Care Funding?

It may seem surprising, but the Congressional Democrats seem ready to propose a health care reform bill that would be - gasp!!! - funded in a mildly progressive manner. As this report from The New York Times indicates:

"The proposal calls for a surtax on individuals earning at least $280,000 in adjusted gross income and couples earning more than $350,000, said the chairman, Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York.

It would generate about $550 billion over 10 years to pay about half the cost of the legislation, Mr. Rangel said. As the proposal envisions it, the rest of the cost would be covered by lower spending on Medicare, the government health plan for the elderly, and other health care savings."

One would think that this were a radical proposal with a broad based "tax" - and that is surely how the right will portray it. However, according to figures for 2006 from the Census Bureau, a gross income of $250,000 places a family in the top 2.5% of the income distribution in the country. The total number of families in that bracket is just under two million. And the tax will be progressive even within the category of the very wealthy.* Boy, those Democrats sure are sticking their necks out!

Even so, as The Times report makes clear, it seems quite unlikely that even modest a tax will pass even the House of Representatives:
"But it remains unclear whether the Senate will go along. Most Republicans there, or perhaps all, oppose the idea, along with some centrist Democrats.

Even in the more liberal House, where Democrats have a majority of 255 to 178, the tax proposal will most likely cost a substantial number of Democratic votes. The Blue Dog Coalition, made up of 52 fiscally conservative Democrats, expressed apprehension this week about the unfolding health care legislation, and that was before Mr. Rangel’s announcement Friday."

Do you think the Obama administration will be out there expending political capital on this gesture towards redistribution? If you do, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you.
* According to The Times: "The surtax would be increased for individuals earning more than $400,000 and couples earning more than $500,000, and step up again for individuals earning over $800,000 and couples earning above $1 million. The precise extent of these increases has not been announced."

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Is It a Pattern for Sarkozy?

While getting ready for the official G8 picture, a female
assistant accidentally drops some papers.
(Unattributed Photograph lifted from Huffington Post.)

10 July 2009

Obama busted?

I came across this story at The Guardian this morning and thought it was worth sharing. After all there is no actual news coming out of the G8 meeting, right?
Obama's eye for controversy

The US president may have to face the wrath of the first
after being caught looking at a pert behind.
Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy turn their heads towards
Brazil's Mayara Tavares at the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy.
Photograph © Jason Reed/Reuters.
Has Barack Obama been hanging round Silvio Berlusconi too long? On first inspection, this snapshot from the G8 summit in L'Aquila suggests the US president is as easily distracted by a pert derriere as his Italian and French counterparts.

What would Michelle think? He'll be sleeping on the sofa, according to Gawker
This is surely meant to be humorous and it is. But of course, here in the U.S., the image of a black man ogling a white woman has ~ in my lifetime ~ been enough to get him killed.
Update: According to this report, an examination of the tapes suggests that Obama may not have been ogling the teenage Ms. Tavares after all. Was Sarkozy? That is something for the French to decide, if they care.

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09 July 2009

Best Shots (78)~ Karl de Keyzer

(105) Karl de Keyser ~ Cheap and cheerful ... The Good Friday
procession at Our Lady of Guadalupe church (San Anonio,
~ 1991). (8 July 2009).


08 July 2009

"Artists hold applause for Obama"

That is the headline for this story at Politico; as is the case on most other dimensions, Obama's "change you can believe in" turns out to be a marginal adjustment on prior government performance. If you are interested in candidate Obama's position on the arts you can look back to this post.

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07 July 2009

Jose Gaytan ~ "Brooklyn in Transition"

Top: Gowanus Canal Landscape (view from Union Street
Bridge). Bottom: Canal Shoreline Study (Summer 2008).
Both Photographs © Jose Gaytan.

This story about Jose Gaytan in today's New York Times led me to a parallel post at their photography blog, which led me to the exhibition announcement at the Brooklyn Public Library. The story about a (to me, at least) little known photographer is instructive ~ how many talented photographers there are in the world! And the work, I think, is amazing.

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06 July 2009

Bill Kristol's Little Brother Ross Douthat ~ Evidence of the Inherited Inability of Conservatives to Make an Argument

I used to spend too much time here pointing out the idiocies of Bill Kristol. I have not paid much attention to his replacement, another conservative, Ross Douthat. While I was getting ready for class today I stopped to get coffee and read Douthat’s column in today’s New York Times. You can find it here. In the column Douthat laments Sarah Palin’s political demise and wishes that she had not accepted John McCain’s invitation to run for Vice-President. Here is Ross::
If Palin were exactly what her critics believe she is — the distillation of every right-wing pathology, from anti-intellectualism to apocalyptic Christianity — then she wouldn’t be a terribly interesting figure. But this caricature has always missed the point of the Alaska governor’s appeal — one that extends well outside the Republican Party’s shrinking base.

In a recent Pew poll, 44 percent of Americans regarded Palin unfavorably. But slightly more had a favorable impression of her. That number included 46 percent of independents, and 48 percent of Americans without a college education.

That last statistic is a crucial one. Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

This ideal has had a tough 10 months. It’s been tarnished by Palin herself, obviously. With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she’s botched an essential democratic role — the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.

But it’s also been tarnished by the elites themselves, in the way that the media and political establishments have treated her.
Douthat, thankfully, does not try to save Palin from the obvious fact that she has more than proven inept at politics. Indeed, his lament would have no ground if that were not the case. But he turns to the conservative’s standard bogeyman as he casts about for someone to blame. When in doubt, it must’ve been “the elites.”

This is hypocritical and tired. Why hypocritical? Douthat, of course, cannot quite bring himself to mention that he hardly comes from from a family of auto-mechanics, unemployed industrial workers, or Walmart greeters but, instead, from a family of lawyers and writers. He fails to mention that he attended a pricey private secondary school on his way to Harvard. He obviously now writes for the oh-so obviously plebeian New York Times. In other words, like his predecessor on The Times editorial pages, Bill Kristol, Douthat is simply a hypocrite when he whines about the nefarious “elites” and their patronizing views of America. There apparently is no mirror in the Douthat residence.

Why tired? Because like most conservative whining it is immune to basic facts. Lack of self-awareness aside, Douthat neglects to note - based on this own chosen poll - that a majority of Americans “without a college education” view Palin unfavorably. No doubt, he would complain, that is due to the barrage of bad press that the “elites” have directed her way. But might it not simply be the case that regular Americans know ineptitude and wackiness when they see it? To adopt that view would be to treat normal Americans as intelligent and sensible. Douthat instead wants to insist that they’ve been misled by their betters at places like The Times. Ooops! Is that your elitism showing, Ross?

And, of course, Douthat subverts his own defense of Palin too. He notes, rightly, that McCain chose Palin as a running mate at the behest of advisers, “the professionals who pressed [her] into the service of a gimmicky, dreary, idea-free campaign.” Just so. Those were the people who cynically exploited poor Sarah - an otherwise solid, family-oriented, god-fearing Governor of a little known state. But they were Republicans, Ross. Not the liberal elites whom you are railing against. The campaign was just as pathetic as you make it out to be. And Palin was just another gimmick. Which means that your syrupy narrative of American history - Jackson, Truman, and all that - is simply a well-worn, and not terribly compelling jeremiad.

But in this narrative of decline and disrepair, Douthat too looks down his nose at Sarah Palin. I wonder if he learned that at the private school? I wonder too when the people who run The Times will discern the strong negative correlation between the conservative leanings of their columnists and their ability to construct a plausible argument.

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burn. is an evolving online journal for emerging photographers curated by magnum photographer david alan harvey. You can find it here.


05 July 2009


My friend Susan pointed out this interesting report in The Wall Street Journal about the shifting composition of the blog-o-sphere (a term I find quite infelicitous) in Iran. With all the rapture about how the opposition has used blogs and other new communication media to mobilize, it is important to remember the other uses to which political actors - say a repressive regime and its minions - can put the same technology.

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04 July 2009


Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer. Photograph © thesippycups.com.

If you've read this blog much you likely will have noticed that I am a pretty big fan of Wilco; this (like keeping a blog) is among my several age-inappropriate preoccupations. Well, the band has a new album out this week. My oldest son Douglas has been taunting me for some time now since he'd managed to download a pre-release version a while back. I've bought the CD but not really had the opportunity to listen to it very much. In any case, the release has occasioned some nice press - you can find a story in The New York Times here. That is where I found the picture I've lifted above. If I hadn't liked the band before, this image of Jeff Tweedy and his son would definitely have converted me.

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Patriotism ~ An Example

Independence Day Speech at Rochester, New York
Frederick Douglass
4 July 1852

Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that the dumb might eloquently speak and the "lame man leap as an hart."

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking me to speak today? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn that it is dangerous to copy the example of nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can today take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people.

"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! We wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth."

Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorry this day, "may my right hand cleave to the roof of my mouth"! To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine. I do not hesitate to declare with all my soul that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this Fourth of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery?the great sin and shame of America! "I will not equivocate, I will not excuse"; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, shall not confess to be right and just.

But I fancy I hear someone of my audience say, "It is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more and denounce less, would you persuade more and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed." But, I submit, where all is plain, there is nothing to be argued. What point in the antislavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy?two crimes in the state of Virginia which, if committed by a black man (no matter how ignorant he be,) subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgment that the slave is a moral, intellectual, and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that the Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea and the reptiles that crawl shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man!

For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race. Is it not as astonishing that, while we are plowing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and ciphering, acting as clerks, merchants, poets, authors, editors, orators, and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hillside, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives, and children, and above all, confessing and worshiping the Christian’s God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men!

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look today, in the presence of Americans, dividing and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? Speaking of it relatively and positively, negatively and affirmatively? To do so would be to make myself ridiculous and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.

What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can may; I cannot. The time for such argument is past.

At a time like this, scorching iron, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.


03 July 2009

U.S. Faces Resentment in Afghan Region

. . . so reads the headline to this report in The New York Times. Are we supposed to be surprised? This seems like an odd, un-self-conscious echo of the delusional Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld view that the people of Baghdad were going to welcome us with open arms and jubilation.

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01 July 2009

Picturing Detroit

Photograph from Bruce Gilden's Magnum In Motion essay
"Detroit: The Troubled City". © Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos.

This month I am in SE Michigan, teaching at the ICPSR Summer Program; this is something I do every year. In order to get to Ann Arbor from Rochester you have to drive through Detroit. And pretty much every year I make the effort to get over to the city for one or another reason. In any case, checking out the Magnum blog today I came across this new blog entry discussing this new photo essay "Detroit ~ The Troubled City" by Bruce Gilden. It seems to me that a couple of things need saying.

Let's stipulate that Gilden is a terrific photographer in the technical sense. He makes powerful images. Let's stipulate too, that his intentions are admirable. He is trying to call attention to what he sees as a travesty in America. Then let's ask if he has a clue. Because that is what I look for in photography. What is the photographer depicting and what are those depictions used for. In this case, I think Gilden misses a lot of the story. We get doom and gloom but nothing else. And, without wanting to come off as naive (something I am typically not accused of being), I think he misses a lot by taking too superficial a focus.* This leads him to be simultaneously overly optimistic and overly pessimistic.

In the first place, contrary to the connection Gilden is making, the dire scenes and streetscapes he offers are not a new phenomena. They have been exacerbated by the current financial crisis. But the physical disintegration of the city has been happening for decades, largely as a result of economic disinvestment. Gilden rightly complains about the moribund city government that has presided over the disaster in Detroit. He might have added remarks about the State and Federal governments too.

But the underlying problem has been that economic agents - firms and employers - have abandoned Detroit (and many other cities like, for instance, Pittsfield Mass., where I grew up and Rochester, New York where I now work). They have taken their money and the jobs and moved away. The result has been an emaciated tax base and rampant unemployment. Those residents who could've moved out of the cities to follow the jobs often have done so. Those who could not have been left behind. In other words, the collapse of Detroit is not just a story about continuing corruption and buffoonery on the part of local politicos (look here for the most recent installment). That would make it a story of failure when, in fact, it is a story about processes integral to the operation of the American political-economy. We cannot fix what's wrong with Detroit simply with more FBI investigations.

On the other hand, by focusing on the surface - on the foreclosures and abandoned property, Gilden may be missing dynamic processes that are taking place out of his sight. Not long ago I noted here a series of essays by Rebecca Solnit about how residents of American cities are struggling against considerable odds (and also against the expectations of many more comfortably situated Americans) to bootstrap themselves out from decay and devastation. One of Solnit's essays is about Detroit (you can find it here). Solnit, of course, peddles hope and in the process seeks out actions, events and people who afford us grounds for it. I admire her for that. But I also admire her for not being naive. She isn't. Just as the voices in Gilden's photo-essay speak of resorting to criminal violence and fomenting insurrection, some of those Solnit describes are racists or despairing or both. But she also points to other creative, organized responses to urban decay and abandonment too. She has collected her essays into a book - A Paradise Built in Hell - which is due out later this summer. In a very short recent interview about the book Solnit remarks:
"Being in a situation where people die and systems are disrupted can have powerful emotional consequences, but to think that everyone who is in such a situation is damaged doesn't address the importance of people's strength and the support they find. This vision of human frailty ties into related pictures of human nature: that we fall apart in disasters, that we need institutions to regulate us because of our weakness and wickedness, and that we should be afraid of a great many things. These serve an authoritarian and divided society, and maybe what one of my sources calls “the trauma industry,” but don't serve most of us well at all."
It seems to me that, despite his intentions, Gilden risks contributing to the overly dire and pessimistic view that Solnit describes and thereby risks abetting the social-political-economic agents and institutions and organizations that will spring up to exploit fear and anxiety. I may not want to follow Solnit everywhere she goes politically. But I think she points us in what (potentially at least) is a considerably more productive direction than does Gilden.
* In fairness there is a discrepancy between what Gilden writes in the blog post and the voices he presents in the photo essay. So I am not being entirely fair.

P.S.: (5 July 09) I just happened across yet another lament for Detroit here at openDemocracy; the author, Ross Perlin, is significantly less sanguine, I think, than is Solnit. He looks at the decay of the city and the local agricultural and artistic responses it has elicited and concludes: "The artists deliver a harangue to accompany the decay, a raging against the dying of the light, but no end to the decay itself."

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