31 October 2009

The ROTC Dilemma ~ Hand Wringing in the Ivy League

Today in The New York Times there is a long article about the travails of students at elite universities who opt to join ROTC. The story focuses on the burdens that such students face as they are compelled to travel to (sometimes quite distant) locations to perform their duties because, by University policy, there is no ROTC on their home campuses.

I have had a series of students in ROTC here at Rochester - Rachel Boylan and Stacy Allen come to mind immediately* - who are as smart and committed and enthusiastic and talented as any students I have had. I respect these young men and women and (as I told Stacy this past week when she was back to campus after a tour in Afghanistan) I worry about them. And even though UofR offers ROTC, I regret that the students who enroll in it confront such a limited range of options. My concern, though, is not quite the same as the ones that the article in The Times lays out.

The basic problem is that all smart, committed, enthusiastic young men and women face a restricted range of options when it comes to what we might call civic engagement. In the first place, virtually the only way that such students can connect with something larger then themselves is to join the military. (I set aside the more banal paths of joining a fraternity/sorority or playing an intercollegiate sport.) What if such students could engage in national service that contributed to the construction of community and public life here at home? What if such students could do the same abroad in organizations (without the taint of the CIA) like the Peace Corps? Those options are unavailable to undergraduates. They are stuck (and I do not want to demean their endeavors) engaging in charity or volunteer work as an extra-curricular activity or internship. My students simply do not have the options, the choices, that would make such career paths meaningful. Training programs in college and a more or less lengthy stint of service afterwards ~ sounds like a great program to me. I bet there would be lots of takers.

In the second place, such students - smart, committed, eager, curious - face real financial hardships. Their options are restricted here too. Virtually the only way to avoid significant, burdensome loans is to join the military - ROTC or National Guard. Here the ROTC students look pretty well-off. Compare the $40K scholarships that ROTC students get at elite universities with the median income for a family of four in the United States. Compare the difficulties that ROTC students confront to those that other students who endure difficulties as they try to work their way through college or who make ends meet by, say, joining the National Guard. Compare any military pay/benefits package with patching together part-time, low wage, no benefits jobs in any other sector.

Finally, none of this should gloss over the fact that the military is - by its nature - an authoritarian, entirely in-egalitarian enterprise. (The problem with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is merely one symptom of that authoritarian character.) Neither should it gloss over the fact that many students in ROTC will go off to fight and perhaps die in wars (or ‘conflicts’ that the sitting administration cannot, in any given case, bring itself to declare a war) that at best are extremely difficult to justify. If we want college to train students to be active, creative democratic citizens, it is not at all clear that military service is the most conducive path on which to set them.

If we are concerned about choice and opportunity, let’s have options with which military service might have to compete, options that might allow students to engage the larger world and get paid to do so. I respect the students who sign up for ROTC. I would respect students who signed up for non-military national service too. I think both should get the same benefits for the same commitment.
* Both Rachel and Stacy invited me to the induction ceremonies where they received their commissions into the Marine Corps. These are held in conjunction with graduation. I attended both and was honored to do so. It was truly amazing for me to be able to glimpse the families of the ROTC Cadets (often multiple generations of service men and women). When I say that I respect these students I mean it.


30 October 2009

Juan Gelman

On Poetry
by Juan Gelman

a couple of things have to be said/
that nobody reads it much/
that those nobodies are few and far between/
that everyone's caught up in the world crisis/ and

with the business of putting food on the table/
and that's no small problem/ I remember
when my uncle juan died of hunger/ he used to say
no problem since he'd forgotten how to eat anyway/

but the problems came later/ when
there was no cash for the coffin/
and when finally the official truck came from the city
to take him away uncle juan turned into a bird/

the guys from the city looked at him with contempt/ complaining
they were always being given a hard time/ that
they were men and men was what they buried/ and not
birds like uncle juan/ especially

since unc was singing cheep-cheep all the way to the
municipal crematorium/
which seemed to them like a disrespect they didn't like one bit/
and when they slapped him to shut him up/
the cheep-cheep was heard in the cab of the truck and even
their ears rang with cheep-cheep/

that's how uncle juan was/ always singing/
and he didn't see that death was any reason to stop singing/
he even went into the oven singing cheep-cheep/ and some
chirping rose up from his ashes for a while/
and the city guys stared at their grey shoes in shame/ but

to get back to poetry/
poets are having a rough time of it these days/
nobody reads poetry much/ only a few nobodies/
the profession has lost its prestige/ its getting harder every day
for a poet/

to get a girl to fall in love with him/
to run for president/ to get credit at the grocery store/
to get some warrior to perform heroics to be sung/ or
some king to pay three pieces of gold per verse/

and no one knows if this is because we're running out of
or just poets/he two things at once and there's no use
racking you brains over the question/

the beautiful thing is knowing you can sing cheep-cheep
in the strangest of circumstances/
uncle juan after he died/ and now me
so that you'll love me/


The Deluded
by Juan Gelman

hope fails us often
grief, never.
that's why some think
that known grief is better
than unknown grief.
they believe that hope is an illusion.
they are deluded by grief

Some time ago I read a collection of John Berger's essays* and noticed, among other things, that he had quoted some remarkable verses from Argentine poet Juan Gelman. I had never heard of Gelman but have now tracked down what seems to be the sole collection of his work in English translation.** Gelman spent many years in political exile and, while it is now safe for him to return, he still does not reside in Argentina. His son, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter were disappeared by the regime. And he nevertheless manages poems of hope and beauty and humor.
* John Berger. 2001. The Shape of a Pocket. Vintage. See pages 161-64, 215.
** Juan Gelman. 1997. Unthinkable Tenderness: Selected Poems. University of California Press. See pages 119-20, 167.

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29 October 2009

Ready! Take Aim! Fire!~ The University of Chicago Shoots Itself in the Other Foot

Once again, my Alma Mater, is in the news. And, once again, the news is not good. Not long ago I posted on the self-congratulatory love fest that the department of economics held recently - celebrating their market fundamentalism in the face of any and all evidence or reason. And just over a year ago I noted in a post on Studs Turkle that the University is buying the building on South University Avenue that houses the Seminary Coop Bookstore - arguably the best academic bookstore in the country, if not the world. I am not at all confident that the University can help itself; it will in all likelihood strike a fatal blow to the coop before the story ends. Stay tuned. The link between those two posts is that the building the coop now occupies is intended to house an institute in honor of ideologue-in-chief Milton Friedman. How fitting that that enterprise (funded by rich alums) should threaten the existence of the coop!

The University of Chicago seems to be incredibly ham-fisted when it comes to recognizing the value of community resources and public spaces. This morning I came across this contribution by Jamie Kalven to The Huffington Post. It seems the University is intent on evicting a community garden - and the robust set of associations that revolve around it - so that they can use the parcel of land as a staging area for a construction project. Kalven is sensible and articulate about the University. The administration apparently is populated by people who, while maybe polite and well-intentioned, seem have no clue whatsoever. Among the problems from which Hyde Park has suffered throughout the years is an emaciated 'community' and anemic 'public space.' Here the University is going out of its way to exercise it property rights in a way that will undermine the prospects even further. Worse. The construction project for which the garden land will be taken over is - you guessed it - going to produce a building that will house the Seminary Coop Bookstore.

While I do not want to get carried away with the virtues of gardening - what I think of as adults playing in the dirt - it is clear that the University is more concerned with community in the abstract than what it looks like in reality.

How Gardeners Learn Things from Invisible Institute on Vimeo.

Shirley Burtz from Invisible Institute on Vimeo.

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Best Shots (91) ~ Ellen von Unwerth

(118) Ellen von Unwerth ~ 'She Disappeared After This ...'
(28 October 2009).


28 October 2009

Passings ~ Roy DeCarava (1919 ~2009)

Dancers, New York, 1956. Photograph © Roy Decarava.

Roy Decarava has died. He was just short of his 90th birthday. You can find notices at The New York Times here and here. I will link to obituaries as they appear. Some time ago I wrote this post on DeCarava's subtle and insightful views on race and photography.


27 October 2009

Enthusiasms (27) - Vijay Iyer

Pianist Vijay Iyer has put out a couple of recordings in as many years that are truly terrific. The records are released on independent labels - Sunnyside and ACT. While both are very good, I especially like the new trio recording - the tunes are spacious and the interaction between the musicians embodies a real egalitarianism. This is not simply drums/bass supporting a soloist! It reminds me in some respects of the interplay between the members of Air (Henry Threadgill/Steve McCall/ Fred Hopkins) ~ and that is, to my mind, very rarefied company. Finally, what is not to like about a musician who takes inspiration for his record titles from readings of Cornel West or Antonio Gramsci? In any case, here is a sample:

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26 October 2009

Apostasy in Chicago

I recently received my copy of The University of Chicago Magazine. It contains this puff piece about a self-congratulatory conference of the economists there. The article was incredibly annoying for a couple of reasons. In the first place, the author never managed to actually talk to anyone who disagrees with the market fundamentalists in Hyde Park. He quotes some critics of the Chicago School. But he mostly let the true believers run on about how great they are; the consequence is that they end up caricaturing their critics and denying that they themselves have been wrong, ever, about anything. One upshot of that - and this is truly irritating - was that they were able to rationalize their (specifically Milton Fridman, Arnold Harberger and their acolytes) complicity in the murderous Pinochet dictatorship. The defense amounts to acknowledging that just maybe rates of economic inequality were higher under Pinochet but that his "reforms" (let's not use the word coup!) nevertheless ushered in economic progress on the continent. That is a howler given that the real problem is that Pinochet murdered his opponents in very large numbers. The complicity of Friedman et. al lies in having lent intellectual legitimacy to a murderous regime. It would be refreshing to have the Chicago economists acknowledge that their much loved "free markets" too often are instituted through the barrel of a gun. It pains me to see the alumni magazine of a great university celebrating ideologues.

Having said that, there is some evidence of active brain waves in Hyde Park. I recommend this essay ~ "How I Became a Keynesian" ~ by Richard Posner in The New Republic. Posner has not, I suspect, become a convert. He has simply demonstrated that it is easy to learn from those with whom one disagrees, if only one reads them first.

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Reflections on 1989

Here are two essays - the first by Adam Michnik, the other by Timothy Garton Ash, - both of which reflect on the political economic transformations of 1989 and what has followed. Both are worth reading. (The Garton Ash essay is the first of a pair - I will link to part two when it appears.)
Update (5 December 09): There is a similar essay by Michnik here at The Guardian.

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Beloved Daughters

Vrindavan, 2005 ~ Photograph © Fazal Sheikh.

I've just finished re-reading Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things because I am thinking about assigning it for a class next term. Early on in the book, Rahel, arguably its main character finds herself married ("she drifted into marriage") to a feckless American who seems not to understand her whatsoever. The husband finds himself "offended" by the look in Rahel's eyes when they had sex.
"He put it somewhere between indifference and despair. He didn't know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast violent, circling, driving ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cozy and contained, private and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his own temerity. Inured by the confirmation of his own inconsequence, he became resilient and truly indifferent. Nothing mattered much. Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered. It was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country that she came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace. Worse Things kept happening."
And for much of the first half of the book politics - large scale disaster - provides the backdrop to the unfolding personal disaster on which Roy focuses. Indeed, politics intrudes in various, almost always destructive, ways into the lives of her cast of characters. One important way it does so is through the operation of legal and informal restrictions on the freedom of the women in the story whose options are limited severely by lack of educational opportunity, legal restrictions on inheritance, domestic violence, sexual harassment, the stigma of divorce.

Then this evening I came across a review of an exhibition entitled "Beloved Daughters" of work by Fazal Sheikh now showing at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. Sheikh focuses on the same litany of restrictions that Roy highlights and the way they impact the lives of large numbers of Indian women. The image I've lifted above is of the city of Vrindavan which is a city to which widows, having been rendered worthless by the death of their husbands, exile themselves in hopes of escaping the relentlessly cyclical operation of death and re-birth. Although many of Sheikh's portraits of women and girls are powerful, this scene conveys a remarkable desolation. It suggests precisely how the personal turmoil in women's lives is structured and distributed by forces that operate and persist on a much larger scale.

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25 October 2009

Shoot the Messanger: Illinois Officials Harassing Students

The Illinois State's Attorney in Cook County (Chicago), Anita Alvarez, is in the process of legally harassing students at Northwestern University who conducted class-based inquiries into allegedly wrongful convictions. You can read the story here in The New York Times. As is typically the case, government functionaries are more interested in persecuting those who call them to account than they are in getting things right. Given the regularity with which law enforcement agencies and the courts more or less willfully convict citizens of crimes they did not commit, what is wrong with some oversight?

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23 October 2009

Susan Meiselas & Dumeetha Luthra : In Silence

"Article 25 (1) Everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to social security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood i circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same protection." ~ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
Photograph © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photo.

In conjunction with this report by Human Rights Watch, Susan Meiselas & Dumeetha Luthra have produced this video slide show - In Silence ~ Maternal Mortality in India - addressing the epidemic of deaths ~ so many that the actual numbers remain unknown ~ among women during childbirth.

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Václav Havel Interview

This is a short interview with Václav Havel from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. I guess I wonder why those media entities - largely remnants of the cold war - still exist. Two things strike me about the interview. The first is that I find it difficult to believe that many of our recent Presidents would know who historians such as Tony Judt or Timothy Garton Ash actually are let alone what they might think or have written. Second, and even more impressive, is the volume of Lou Reed: Emotion in Action (which is a collection of Reed's photographs) on Havel's bookshelf.

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22 October 2009

Thomas Demand

Yellowcake, Embassy I ~ Photograph © Thomas Demand.

In The Nation this week is an essay by Barry Schwabsky on German photographer Thomas Demand or, more precisely, on a new exhibition of the photographer's work. Demand makes large images of staged or constructed scenes that are themselves derived from photographs. Here are some of the good bits:
“As is well-known by now, all of his photographs are taken in his studio; employing existing photographs, usually from the media but sometimes his own, as his sources, Demand uses paper, cardboard, cellophane and other flimsy, everyday materials to construct full-scale replicas of actually or formerly existing places. . . . These empty stage sets are what we see in the photographs. The reconstructions follow the general lineaments of their originals, but with most detail eliminated. In particular, every trace of language has completely vanished:. . . In general, since everything in the photographs has been newly built, nothing shows any signs of wear, any smudges or defects. Each thing has become a sort of abstraction of itself.”

"These images construct illusions only to deflate them. The image is empty, and eerily disinfected, and Demand makes sure you know it. You see the seams in every wall, the folding of the corners of the furniture. These are two-dimensional pictures of three-dimensional pictures based on other two-dimensional pictures of the real world. And how real is that, anyway? I suddenly feel like I've lost track."

"Demand's . . . work asks, among other things, . . . whether and how photographs can be about things that they are not of."
I do not know much about Demand, although I did post his contribution to the "Best Shot" series at The Guardian a couple of years ago now. The image above is the one he selected for that purpose. I recommend that you follow the links and read about it. It turns out, I think, that while Dmand's work is, as Schwabsky nicely reveals, about representation it also is about politics.


Best Shots (90) ~ Jim Goldberg

(117) Jim Goldberg ~ Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2008
(21 October 2009).

I normally don't comment on these entries, other than to say that I think The Guardian does a great service by running the series. There, I've said it again. This time, though, I think it is important to note something the photographer says - about framing.
"I took this picture last year, before Christmas, in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was finishing up a six-year project on immigrants, refugees and trafficked people. This man is sitting on a rock overlooking the camp. To his right you can see around 50 huts; if you looked in the direction he is looking, you would see the other 90,000 people living there."
This is important because what we get here, in this image, is not truth, certainly not 'the whole truth and nuthin' but the truth.' We are offered a sliver of the reality that was laid out before Goldberg. I am not criticizing him. I just get tired of hearing the refrain that photography somehow provides 'evidence.' It is, as I've suggested in recent posts, a way to communicate.


Heil Heidegger!

Martin Heidegger in 1961: Twenty-eight years earlier, the
German philosopher told his students of Nazism’s "inner
truth and greatness," declaring that Hitler alone "is the
present and future of German reality, and its law."
Photograph © Imagno/Getty Images.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education this week Carlin Romano writes:
"How many scholarly stakes in the heart will we need before Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), still regarded by some as Germany's greatest 20th-century philosopher, reaches his final resting place as a prolific, provincial Nazi hack? Overrated in his prime, bizarrely venerated by acolytes even now, the pretentious old Black Forest babbler makes one wonder whether there's a university-press equivalent of wolfsbane, guaranteed to keep philosophical frauds at a distance."
Romano becomes more derisive from there. Actually, his essay is entitled Heil Heidegger! - so he starts more derisively. His bottom line - which is that Heidegger and those people who sanitize and sidestep his explicit, enthusiastic Nazi politics deserve to be ridiculed not argued with - seems about right to me.

It will be interesting to see how the acolytes and devotees respond. Is it possible that we need to take Heidegger seriously despite his being a Nazi? That has been the response of political theorists who want us to take Carl Schmitt (a German legal and political theorist who also embraced the Nazis) seriously. I've never been entirely persuaded.
P.S.: For a somewhat less irreverent review of an earlier installment of anti-Heidegger inquiry see this essay in the NYRB. The author takes pretty much the same position as Romano:

"Some philosophers . . . (I include myself) would argue that despite the magnitude of Heidegger's intellectual achievement, major elements of his philosophy are deeply flawed by his notions of politics and history—and that this is so quite apart from the fact that he joined the Nazi party and, for whatever period of time, ardently supported Hitler. Heidegger's engagement with Nazism was a public enactment of some of his deepest, and most questionable, philosophical convictions. And those convictions did not change when, in the mid-Thirties, he became disappointed with the direction the party was taking."

That essay, published more than two decades ago, gives you some indication of why Romano might be a bit irritated by the continued willingness of acolytes to minimize the relationship between Heidegger's philosophical views and his politics.

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21 October 2009

Errol Morris, the FSA, Evidence & Truth

"If no theoretical distinction has been made between the photograph as scientific evidence and the photograph as a means of communication, this has been not so much an oversight as a proposal.
The proposal was (and is) that when something is visible, it is a fact, and that facts contain only the truth." ~ John Berger
Not long ago I started a post with this remark from John Berger. It seems apt to me generally. It seems even more apt relative to the (project seven-part) series of posts that Errol Morris has begun on his blog at The New York Times. This appears to be evolving into another of those obsessive debates over whether photography is best understood as providing "evidence" and, if so, what difference it might make if the photographer has set the scene. This, of course, is meant to be a domain-defining exercise; at issue is whether there is such a thing as "documentary" photography that stands over against other genres, especially "art" photography. I think this distinction is more or less wholly unsustainable. Worse, it obstructs sensible thinking about photography and its uses. I've suggested why here. But Morris is addressing the truly sacred among defenders of this dichotomy - the FSA photographers of the 1930s. Documentary is, in the words of Walker Evans, a "style." It is a technology for communicating various things. And that means that it is not simply referential. To think otherwise is just plain ideology.

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Passings ~ Nancy Spero (1926-2009)

Nancy Spero ~ Myth, 1990

Artist Nancy Spero has died. You can find a brief reflection on she and her work here at The Guardian. And this obituary is in The New York Times.


20 October 2009

Political Space

"Jefferson ... knew, however dimly, that the Revolution, while it had given freedom to the people, had failed to provide a space where this freedom could be exercised." ~ Hannah Arendt

I am late commenting on this - the last several weeks have been especially hectic. So, while I had heard a bit about the police mis-conduct shown here, I had not see this video. You can read the local Gannett take on the episode here and here.* Regardless of whether one agrees with the kids, there is no excuse for the behavior of the police shown here. None.

The obvious, immediate problem here is that Rochester police, like those elsewhere, feel entitled to beat people with impunity. But there is a deeper matter at issue too. Where is the public space for the exercise of freedoms? If that space is defined by club wielding, uniformed agents of the state, we are in trouble. So, we are in trouble.
* You can find a report here from the local PBS station on the subsequent public hearing on the episode.

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Political Science?

"I have to ask, why on earth we should expect the sciences
to have anything
more than a family resemblance to one
another? They all share a common
heritage, in that they
owe allegiance to a minimum of empiricism (the 'put

questions to nature'; they are conducted in a fallibilistic
spirit; and so on);
they frequently depend on very
careful observation and/or
experimentation ... ; and
they interact strongly with other disciplines
to be 'sciences.' But there is no set of 'essential' properties
that all the sciences have in common."~ Hilary Putnam

It has been a month in the news for my discipline of political science. Look here and here. Yesterday, the media attention continued with this story in The New York Times. Of course, the basic issue - what would it mean to talk sensibly about political science - remains as ill-conceived as ever. My colleagues ramble on and on about the "scientific method" and about "relevance" but they seem clueless enough to be embarrassed - that is, if only they would listen to how silly they sound.

I will say that this article from The Times is wrong about one thing The journal they mention Perspectives on Politics was not instituted in response to the emergence of 'Perestroika.' Plans for the journal were afoot prior to that 'revolt.'*
* See Jennifer Hochschild. 2005. "Inventing Perspectives on Politics." In Perestroika: The Raucous Rebellion in Political Science. (Yale UP). Full disclosure: I was, until this past June, editor of the journal.

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19 October 2009

Jane Bown - Portraits

Bertrand Russell, 1949. Photograph © Jane Bown.

I posted about Jane Bown here just about a exactly year ago. This is one of a series of her portraits that you can find in this slide show at The Guardian. This one in particular brought to mind Steve Pyke's portraits of philosophers that I mentioned here.

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17 October 2009

Annals of Fair Use ~ Jackass, the Lawsuit

Well, as it turns out, Shepard Fairey is a liar. Perhaps that is a bit strong. Let's say that what he says, sometimes at least, has a tenuous relationship to what actually is the case - even when the 'some times' are really, really important and quite public. And, let's say that, having 'dissembled,' Fairey scurries about trying to conceal the 'creative' nature of his tale. I have posted here quite a lot on the intricacies and nuttiness of 'fair use'; indeed, this is terrain, that seems to drive people quite mad. This is a case in point.

The short story is that when, some time ago, AP - have I mentioned that AP, the corporate giant' here is a not-for-profit ?- threatened to sue Fairey for copyright infringement, claiming that, in designing his famous Obama poster, the 'artist' had worked directly from an image to which they held the rights, Fairey turned around and sued them first. In the course of all this Fairey retained legal counsel - I presume pro bono - from a clinic at Stanford Law School. the real problem, as The New York Times reports today, is that his entire strategy was based on fabrications. His lawyers have filed papers withdrawing from the case on grounds that Fairey lied to them.

I still think that Fairey - without the lies - might well have won the fair use case had AP actually filed it. After all, it was not even clear that they controlled rights to the relevant image, since it was taken by a free-lance photographer. Maybe Fairey thought some bluster might keep the who mess out of court. Who knows? The lesson? Don't try this at home. I suspect, and HOPE, that the judge in this case will throw the book at Fairey for his shenanigans. He can use whatever book is ready to hand, even if it belongs to someone else. That would be fair use, don't you think?

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16 October 2009

There is an Interview with Eduardo Galeano ...

. . . here at The Monthly Review. It is brief. The best observation in it I think goes like this: "reality trumps all of the poets put together for horror, beauty, and craziness." Those who might object to reading anything from such a pinko publication as MR can also can find video interviews with Galeano in more acceptable venues here and here; these are from last spring when he was doing a book tour for Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone which I noted here when it came out in the U.S..

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About Face!

Well the U.S. Military command in Afghanistan that had only recently promulgated a ridiculous, restrictive law prohibiting press images of casualties apparently once again has reversed course. They must be getting dizzy.

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15 October 2009

Using Pictures of the "Unborn Child"

"If no theoretical distinction has been made between the photograph as scientific evidence and the photograph as a means of communication, this has been not so much an oversight as a proposal.

The proposal was (and is) that when something is visible, it is a fact, and that facts contain only the truth." ~ John Berger

Anti-abortion protesters near their van at a prayer vigil in
Owosso, Mich., in September. Photograph © Stephen McGee
The New York Times.

Toward the beginning of her Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes:
“To those who are sure that right is on one side, oppression and injustice on the other, and that the fighting must go on, what matters is precisely who is killed and by whom. To an Israeli Jew, a photograph of a child torn apart in the attack on the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem is first of all a photograph of a Jewish child killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. To a Palestinian, a photograph of a child torn apart by a tank round in Gaza is first of all a photograph of a Palestinian child killed by Israeli ordinance. To the militant, identity is everything. And all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions. During the fighting between Serbs and Croats at the beginning of the recent Balkan war, the same photographs of children killed in the shelling of a village were passed around at both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings. Alter the caption, and the children’s deaths could be used and reused.”
I was reminded of that passage when I came across this story and this slide show/blog post that The New York Times ran last week on the ways some militant anti-abortion activists use photographic images. To the activists, apparently, the images speak for themselves. The protesters treat their gory images as "facts" and as embodying "truth" - as though that is clear to anyone with eyes to see. Except, of course, that the "explanatory" captions are needed here too. And here, too, causes can be ignored, context suppressed, numbers denied. The activists are not providing evidence, they are only proposing that what they show falls into that category; they nevertheless are testifying (and in that way seeking to communicate). But just what is it that they are saying? And to whom?

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14 October 2009

U.S. Military Decides That Once Is Enough

Last month I posted on the conflict that emerged surrounding the release of a series of photographs, taken by a reporter embedded with the U.S. Marine on patrol in Afghanistan; the images chronicled what turned out to be fatal wounds sustained by an American serviceman. (Notice - I'm not using names because everything is supposed to remain private.) The embedded photographer had complied with relevant regulations. But, when she released her work, controversy ensued nonetheless.

Well, the Marine command in that part of the war zone has now changed the rules. You can read about the changes here. Unsurprisingly the new rules are considerably more restrictive; they effectively ban images of casualties. What is interesting is the rationale that the brass have concocted:
“The clarification was added to ensure that service members’ privacy and propriety are maintained in situations where media have unique and intimate access as embedded reporters,” [Master Sgt. Tom] Clementson [of Regional Command East Public Affairs] wrote by e-mail in response to questions. “While RC East does everything possible to accommodate an embedded reporters’ ability to cover the war in this region, there is also a command responsibility to account for the best interests of its service members.”
So, the military brass describe what is effectively a reversal of policy as a "clarification." They neglect to mention that this new set of restrictions is much narrower than those currently in force elsewhere in Afghanistan. They, once again, hide behind the smoke screen of "privacy" despite the fact that military personnel are public agents enacting official government policy. And, of course, the really sweet part is that, having insisted that all press access be on their terms (everyone must be "embedded" and, so, comply with military ground rules) they now worry that the "media have unique and intimate access" to military operations. Come on! You guys can do better than that.

The problem is that the military really wants it both ways. They expect us to honor the service of those off fighting "for us." But we should not have any real information about the sacrifices that that entails. News flash: You cannot sanitize war! trying to do so simply makes you look really hypocritical. ANd that, of course, diminishes support for your mission.

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13 October 2009

Self-Portraits (4)

Marti Friedlander, Paris 1972.
Photo / Marti Friedlander.

I've commented on this genre of self-portrait here before. Friedlander is a photographer from New Zealand; I came across an interview with her but have not ever seen any of her work - beyond this image that accompanied the interview.



Repressive abortion laws put women's lives at risk. In The Guardian today this story reports on a new study by the Guttmacher Institute. Here is the dismal news:
"About 70,000 women die every year and many more suffer harm as a result of unsafe abortions in countries with restrictive laws on ending a pregnancy, according to a report.

The total number of abortions across the globe has fallen, the influential Guttmacher Institute says, but that drop relates only to legal abortions and is mostly the result of changes in eastern Europe.

There were 41.6m terminations worldwide in 2003, compared with 45.5m in 1995. But in 2003, says the report, 19.7m of these were unsafe, clandestine abortions. The numbers of those have hardly changed from 1995, when there were 19.9m.

Almost all the unsafe abortions were in less developed countries with restrictive abortion laws."

The deaths here are of real, live women - not embryos, fetuses, "unborn babies"; what ends in each case is not a "potential" life, but an actual one. The most obvious lesson is that prohibitions do not cut the rate of abortion. They simply insure that abortions are unsafe to women.

Of course, the best way to prevent abortions is to prevent unplanned pregnancies. And the best way to do that is via safe, effective, accessible birth control. Ooooppps! How many pro-life types support policies to make birth control accessible?


12 October 2009

Toward Political Economy? Elinor Ostrom Wins the Nobel Prize

Elinor Ostrom. Photograph © John Sommers II/Reuters.

Well, I must say that I am pleased that Lin Ostrom has won the Nobel Prize in Economics.* This is important, for several reasons. First, Lin's work adresses crucial substantive matters and is very, very good. More on that below. But, second, this is the first time the Nobel Committee has given the award to a woman. Pretty astounding. Third, Lin is not a credentialed economist - her doctorate in in political science - and that is important too.** Why? Because, not only will it irritate economists but, more to the point, much of her work undermines the presumption that most economists take as basic, that markets are the primary instrument for coordinating our ongoing interactions and that other sorts of institutions are important more or less solely to the extent that they are functional to the operation of markets.

Lin's research is concerned with how to think about ways to use institutions to coordinate our ongoing political-economic interactions - and she shows that markets are not nearly as useful for that task as economists typically suppose. Insofar as Lin is correct about how the world works, for instance, the Chicago approach - as promulgated by Gary Becker and his acolytes - turns out to be laughably false. There simply is not, as the Chicagoans, assume, markets for everything. The option, of course, is not necessarily to turn to states and assume that they work well in all or even most instances; that is a lesson Lin has offered in a robust way. There is a plurality of institutional forms on which we might rely across different domains of interaction. That is perhaps the most important lesson of Lin's work. Insofar as she provides large amounts of reliable evidence to support it, Lin pretty dramatically decenters the place of markets in thinking about political economy.

Nevertheless, a lot of people are going on in predictably 'libertarian' ways about how Lin's work vindicates their view that the state is unnecessary to resolve problems of what she calls 'common pool resources.' So it does. But insofar as libertarians not only prize markets above all else and insofar as they have a private property fetish, Lin's work ought to be quite discomfiting to them. Why? Because she establishes that - in theory and in practice - common property regimes can not only operate well, but, in specifiable instances, they outperform private property regimes. And, of course, there is a second order role for the state that the libertarians don't mention, namely in providing a means for determining which among the plurality of possible institutional forms might be most appropriate for coordinating interactions in any given domain. We may, as I have suggested here and here before, want to experiment with a variety of institutional forms, but we will still need some agency to insure that the conditions necessary for reliable experimentation are at least approximated. Markets won't do that.***
* Actually she is sharing it with Oliver Williamson, an economist at UC Berkeley, who works on transaction cost models of economic organization. To be honest, I think his work is significantly less interesting and less important than Lin's.
** Quick, someone tell Tom Coburn. I cannot say for certain, but I think Lin has regularly received funding from the NSF.
*** For the truly nerdy, you can find my views on such things in Jack Knight and James Johnson. 2007. “The Priority of Democracy: A Pragmatist Approach to Political-Economic Institutions and the Burden of Justification,” American Political Science Review, Volume 101, Issue 01, pages 47-61. This essay is an advertisement for the book Jack & I are writing.

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11 October 2009

Passings ~ Marty Forscher (1921-2009)

Not a photographer, just the guy who fixed their problems (or, at least, some of them!) Marty Forscher has died. Coincidentally, he had retired to my home town. You can find the obituary in The New York Times here.


The Check is in the Mail, or .... More Change You Can Wait For

“I will end ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,' ...
That is my commitment to you.”

~ Barack Obama, October 2009



What is it about Architects?

Krzysztof Wodiczko ~ Photograph © Ewa Harabasz

Maya Lin~ Photograph © Enrico Ferorelli

Arundhati Roy ~ Photograph © Shanker Chakravarty.

Alfedo Jaar ~ Photograph: Production Still © Art 21.

That is my question. None of these people works as an architect in the standard sense of someone who designs buildings. They've turned their talents and energies elsewhere. But Jaar, Roy, and Lin all trained as architects. Wodiczko, I believe, did not, but draws a pay check from the M.I.T. School of Architecture. I suppose all of these folks - whose work I greatly admire - have this in common: they are all concerned with shaping public space as a way of working out common knowledge and collective memory.

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The "right-to-dry movement" & the Next Big Public Policy Debate in the U.S.

We live in the country. And we hang laundry - with the exception, of course, of what my British ex-pat sweetheart Susan refers to as our "smalls" - out to dry as often as is possible. The clothesline runs from the back porch across the head of the driveway to the garage, a pulley on each end. Before we moved here I hung laundry out too on a line with pulleys that stretched from the garage to a big oak at the side of the house.*

In any case, I am pleased to know that apparently all this makes us movement activists. How you dry clothes has become a matter of politics. I wonder what Hannah Arendt would think of public debates over the laundry!
* When she reads this my ex-wife probably will harrumph that that was her idea, but that is totally in character; it is beside the point too since I did at least half the laundry and put up the line as well. Life is too short for harrumphing though. And, much to my sons's chagrin, I'd rigged a clotheslines back and forth across the porch of the second story porch in the Rochester apartment I lived in prior to even meeting the ex; the boys were young then and surely thought clotheslines were not at all cool. Little did they know just how cutting edge their Dad was!

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10 October 2009

Not a Paul Klee

Winner 1996: Doxorubin in methanol and dimethylbenzenesulfonic
acid (80x), Polarized Light ~ © Lars BechNaarden, The Netherlands.

This hardly is my primary interest among the various uses of photography, but at Wired you can find this cool collection ~ "35 Years of the World's Best Microscopic Photography." The images are the winners, over the years, of Nikon’s annual Small World photomicrography competition. Note that you can link to the runners-up for each year too. The direct link to the Nikon page is here. The source of my interest? My son Douglas is a biology major and a budding photographer.

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Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk was born this day in 1917. This new biography by historian Robin D.G. Kelley has just appeared. I've read the first few chapters and am looking forward to working my way through the remainder at a leisurely pace. Here is a sample of Monk ~ one of my favorite tunes:


08 October 2009

Censorship and the Exploitation of Children

In The Guardian a week or so ago was this column discussing the removal recently (on fear that the museum would fall foul of obscenity laws) of a photograph from a London exhibition. The putatively offending photograph is this 1975 image by Garry Gross (who still holds the copyright) of then-10-year-old and obviously quite nude Brooke Shields. The image is entitled "Spiritual America." I thought of just letting the matter pass, as it seems clear to me that while Shields has been more or less systematically exploited by adults - including, at least, her parents, film directors and, apparently Gross - over the years, her experience is not terribly far from what other parents and photographers do to other young girls. In short, I think what's problematic here is less about sex (which is, as I noted in this post, also referring to Shields, a highly ambiguous category) than about money - the parents are venal, the photographers are like sharks at the scent of blood in the water, and the kids are exploited for adult gain. The 'gain' I would add combines monetary and psychological 'benefits' of various sorts to the adults.

Having said that, the arrest of Roman Polanski for raping (yes, that is the right word) a 13 year old in 1977 has prompted me to think about the Shields matter anew. Polanski ought to go to jail for a crime to which he has confessed. But what about the adults who exploited Brooke Shields? Surely there were pornography laws and specifically child pornography laws in the U.S. in 1975? If not, then the current exhibitions have nothing to worry about. If you are wondering about the analogy I've drawn, please recall that rape is about power and exploitation not about sex.

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Passings ~ Irving Penn (1917~2009)

Iceland Poppy, New York, 2006 ~ Photograph © Irving Penn.

Not too long ago I posted about an insightful review of what seemed like a wonderful recent exhibition in Los Angeles of work by Irving Penn. Today The New York Times reports that Penn has died. You can find the obituary here. At the time of the earlier post I discovered this image - one of a series that Penn did late in life. It seems appropriate here.
P.S.: You also can find a story on Penn, an obituary, and a slide show all at The Guardian.


07 October 2009

Excising Waste Fraud & Abuse from the Federal Budget: Dr. Tom Punks Political Science

"In 2007, NSF issued a directive to emphasize the transformative nature of NSF‟s research. This directive requires every proposal to explain how it will provide transformative concepts. Again, it is a stretch to claim that the any of the political science research being funded by NSF qualifies as transformative.

During this time of economic challenges, few taxpayers, in fact, would believe that the NSF‟s political science program is contributing to our nation‟s ability to meet future challenges in science, engineering, or innovation." - Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R - Oklahoma)
I placed Tom Coburn's picture on the right for a reason. Dr. Tom has offered an amendment to the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill which would eliminate the National Science Foundation's political science program. This has put many of my colleagues into a tizzy - with emails imploring me (among many others) to contact my Senators and so forth.

You can read the text of read Dr. Tom's amendment here. Now, it seems clear to me that Dr. Tom has no clue what "real science" is. But that is true too of both the Social Science Directorate at NSF and the vast majority of my colleagues here at Rochester and elsewhere. There is lot's of talk about science in a sort of honorific way - used mostly to dismiss research and writing by those of us deemed un-scientific. But mostly, too, what we get are diffuse gestures toward a vaguely positivist - and so laughable - sketch of the scientific enterprise. And when, as has happened to me on many occasions, one asks just what political science might amount to, what you get are patronizing looks. It surely will not look like anything "transformative" because that would involve engaging with politics and policy in a sustained way. And scientists on the positivist view surely cannot do that!

But Dr. Tom looked and saw that what is happening in political science (at least as funded by NSF) does not match his view of science insofar as it tends not to yield engineering applications. And, to him, anything that looked vaguely as if it might make contact with real world politics smelled an awful lot to him like, well, politics.

I do not support Coburn's know-nothing views. And I will contact my Senators. (One might ask why he is not out there castigating his fellow Republicans when they question evolution or climate science, but that is another quesiton.) But political scientists have asked for this. It will be interesting to see what they say beyond "it is to a science!"

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The Aftermath Project

From: Memory Denied: Turkey and the Armenian Genocide.
Photograph © Kathryn Cook.

A while ago I received an email from Sara Terry who works for The Aftermath Project. The project ~ whose slogan is War Is Only Half the Story ~ runs an annual grant competition that is, in their own words, " open to working photographers worldwide covering the aftermath of conflict." The project also publishes and exhibits the work of grantees. Kathryn Cook, whose image I've lifted above, was a 2008 recipient of Aftermath Project funding. Applications for the 2010 competition are due November 2nd - you can find details and application materials at the project web page.
P.S.: (9 October) ~ I want to clear up one possible misconception. Sara works on but not for the Aftermath Project in the sense that she established the organization and puts in lots of time and effort, but does not get paid. The project has a small budget and no employees.

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ACORN & the Media ~ Not What You Might Think

I have written here several times regarding the hallucinatory right wing fantasies about ACORN and how it amounts to a leftist threat to American civilization. Well, it turns out that the the campaign against the community organizers has been a systematic one. Peter Dreier and Chrsitopher Martin have produced a study entitled "Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN Was in the News, and What the News Got Wrong." You can find the report here. Mostly what Dreier and Martin uncover is the inability of the media (egged on by the right) to uncover much of anything worth reporting about ACORN. In other words the latest efforts by activists to entrap ACORN staffers have a clear interpretation ~ if you cannot find evidence that the organization is a problem, make some. For insight into the current phase of the get-ACORN-at-any-cost campaign check out this story in The Nation.In the meantime, the Democrats have been standing idly (to be very charitable) by while the right dominates the news on this.


06 October 2009

Compassion Indeed!

Finally, the NGOs and Humanitarian outfits come clean! The actual point of their activities, as reported in The Onion, is to 'save' distressed children in various exotic locations as a jobs program for photographers.


Local Event ~ Cuong Vu 4tet

I have mentioned here a number of times that Tom Kohn - who runs the very cool local music store The Bop Shop - regularly brings interesting shows through Rochester. This coming Friday (10/9, nine p.m., Village Gate) he is hosting trumpeter Cuong Vu and his 4 tet (trumpet, drums and two basses). You can find Tom's announcement for the show here.

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05 October 2009


Today was a good day for American heroines. First, artist Maya Lin turned fifty today. Many happy returns! Second, today was the first day of the Supreme Court term and Sonia Sotomayor took her place on the court as an 'active' member.
PS: (Added 7 October) ~ At the risk of diverting attention, since he is neither American nor a 'heroine,' I would be remiss to not add that Vaclav Havel turned 73 on the fifth as well.


04 October 2009

Repeat After me: We Avoided a Depression, Thank the Lord ... And Now the 'Recession' is Pretty Much Over ... Unless, of Course, You Work For a Living!

This graphic turned up in The New York Times today. The stock market seems to have stabilized a bit. And the banks, well, they are back gouging customers at every opportunity. So what is there to worry about?

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03 October 2009

Enthusiasms (26) ~ Marcus Strickland

Many of my favorite jazz musicians are gettng on in years - Billy Bang, Archie Shepp, Paul Motian, Randy Weston, Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton, Tomasz Stanko, Charlie Haden, Fred Anderson .... and others like Max Roach or Andrew Hill have passed away in recent years. So I generally am on the lookout for younger people who are interesting and provocative. I recently read this review of a new release by Tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland in The New York Times:
(Strick Muzik)

On “Idiosyncrasies,” the jazz saxophonist Marcus Strickland is in no hurry, and so much the better. Now 30, he’s been moving ahead for 10 years in New York as an absorbent and confident player, rooting around in different styles, sometimes obscuring what his best one might be.

Here, form helps drive style: it’s just saxophone, bass and drums. So Mr. Strickland, on tenor and soprano saxophones, with Ben Williams on bass and his brother E.J. Strickland on drums, has to be bold with his melodies and sparing with his improvising. He must be grounded because a chordal instrument won’t do the grounding for him. (He’s not on the high wire all the way through: he multitracks with clarinets on “The Child.”) He uses five of his own terse songs, as well as others by several kinds of popular musicians: Bjork, Andre 3000, Stevie Wonder, Jaco Pastorius, Oumou Sangare and José González. But he’s not giving himself up to the character of any of these songs. This record, honest and stubborn, stands its ground.

For some reason 2009 has been a big year for saxophone-trio records: this one, along with J. D. Allen’s “Shine!” and Fly’s “Sky & Country,” feel like enough for a new wave. Since Sonny Rollins more or less defined the saxophone-trio format in 1957, it has broadened in all the ways that jazz in general has broadened: rhythmically, structurally and in the oratory and rhetoric of soloing. But the basic attraction remains the same: physical challenge and harmonic austerity. And all three of these albums sound unusually self-possessed, as if they’re vying for place beside the small number of similar landmarks in the 50-year interim, which include “Dark Keys” by Branford Marsalis, “The Window” by Steve Lacy, “Triplicate” by Dave Holland, “The Hill” by David Murray and “State of the Tenor” by Joe Henderson.

Mr. Strickland can be a conventional writer, sounding at times in the past like an averaging-out of the advanced younger New York bandleaders. But these songs are different, and this album, with Mr. Strickland distributing his intensity carefully over a subtle, flexible rhythm section, is of a whole other order. Here and there it carries light echoes — of Mr. Marsalis, of Henderson or John Coltrane — but that’s not a problem. The melodies are unaffected, almost stoic; there’s a kind of nonidiomatic breeze blowing through them. You don’t necessarily hear the slow-and-subtle ballad “Rebirth” or Mr. Strickland’s even slightly slower-and-subtler version of OutKast’s “She’s Alive” and think, that sounds like a jazz song. (Even “Middle Man,” with the hardest swing of the record, doesn’t prompt that feeling.) That’s good. It’s a record you can give to friends who aren’t keeping score with jazz. That’s good too. BEN RATLIFF
Well, today I got Idiosyncrasies in the mail (via the nice indie-music purveyor cdbaby) and it really is quite a good record. And Strickland released the record on his own label (actually shared with his brother, drummer Eric Strickland) Here is a sample:

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