31 December 2009

Artur Żmijewski ~ "Democracies"

“An art object is not a final product and, though working with art has an aim, it is not exclusively the production of an object, but a specific organization of the consciousness of viewer and artist through the creative process or through the work of art.” ~ Artur Żmijewski (1995)
Artur Żmijewski is a Polish video artist whose work is just now getting exposure in Britain and the United States. I've not seen any of this works yet but hope to do so. In part, my curiosity is prompted by this typically uncomprehending review by Ken Johnson in The New York Times. Johnson's hostile reviews are a consistent embarrassment, but another of the critics from The Times - Linda Yablonsky - has included one of Żmijewski's installations among the highlights of 2009. She has this to say:
"10. Artur Zmijewski, “Democracies,” X Initiative. Twenty videos documenting European rallies, strikes, uprisings and state funerals in either edited news footage or historical reconstructions was an absorbing and impressive examination of television as a tool of political power and manipulation. Nothing new. Just excellent."

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30 December 2009

Still Wrong ~ Dick Cheney and Barack Obama

“We are at war and when President Obama pretends we aren’t, it makes us less safe. [. . .] Why doesn’t he want to admit we’re at war? It doesn’t fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn’t fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency — social transformation — the restructuring of American society.” ~ Dick Cheney
Well, predictably enough, in the wake of the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner last weekend, the banshees of the Bush administration have arisen to shriek about the "war on terror." Hence, the dyspeptic outburst from Dick Cheney above. But there is an answer to Cheney's questions - despite his complaints, Obama, et. al. do, in fact, insist that we are "at war." Like Cheney, they are making a mistake in so doing. Why? Because framing the pursuit of al-Qaida as a "war" is incredibly dim. Unfortunately, there is no difference between Obama and Bush on that. On this, I find historian Andrew Bacevich ~ who thinks we should approach al-Qaida as a trans-national criminal conspiracy ~ persuasive. You can find his views here and here and here.
P.S.: The notion that Obama is in any way aiming at the "restructuring American society" is a howler. Has Chaney not been watching as, for instance, the administration sat to one side as the insurance and pharmaceutical industries (to say nothing of various religious zealots) entrenched their interests during the process of "health care reform."

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David Levine (again)

Of David Levine, whose carcature of Wittgenstein I've lifted here, Michael Kimmelman suggests that he was "hands down, he’s the greatest modern-day caricaturist and one of the great artists of the last half-century." Levine died yesterday. You can find Kimmelman's appreciation in The New York Times here.

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29 December 2009

Passings ~ David Levine (1926-2009)

Caricaturist David Levine has died. You can find the obituary in The New York Times here. I lifted three of his portraits (Charles Peirce, William James & John Dewey) from his gallery at the NYRB.



This is a photo that the gossip rag TMZ published under the headline "The JFK Photo That Could Have Changed History" - the only problem being that the photo, showing JFK (allegedly prior to his election) lounging while a bevy of naked beauties cavorts around him is a fake.


27 December 2009

Seeing British Politics

We are on a holiday visit to Manchester. There is no date as of yet, but the Brits are gearing up for elections. Here is a sampling of posters from The Independent. First are the Tories running against Gordon Brown.

Then there is Labour mocking David Cameron and other Tory blue bloods. . .

Then the Lib-Dems trying to wedge themselves in between the Tories and Labour by running against the latter. . .
And, finally, campaigns for and against the fringes . . .

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25 December 2009

Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo with his wife, Liu Xia, in 2002.
(Agence France Press/Getty Images)

Following a travesty of a "trial" the Chinese Government has imprisoned Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison for subversion. You can read reports from The New York Times here and from The Guardian here. For more background and relevant links see this earlier post.

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23 December 2009

Why I Like Our Congressional Representative

Just when you think that it is time to wholly despair of Congress and its nuttiness, something happens to make you think 'just maybe, I am not completely out of touch.' We live in the 28th NY Congressional District and our Representative is Louise Slaughter, the first woman to be Chair of the Rules Committee. Louise has just published this sharp criticism of the Senate health care bill:
"Although the art of legislating involves compromise, I believe the Senate went off the rails when it agreed with the Obama Administration to water down the reform bill and no longer include the public option.

But that's not the only thing wrong with the Senate's version of the healthcare bill. [. . .]

Now don't get me wrong; the current House and Senate bills are a significant improvement over the status quo. Given the hard path to reform and the political realities of next year, there is a sizable group within Congress that wants to simply cut any deal that works and call it a success. Many previous efforts have failed, and the path to reform is littered with unsuccessful efforts championed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Bill Clinton.

Supporters of the weak Senate bill say 'just pass it -- any bill is better than no bill.'

I strongly disagree -- "
The punch line is that Louise thinks the Senate ought to go back to the drawing board. But she also is clear that the Obama administration bears a significant bit of responsibility for the debacle. It just goes to show that not everyone in Washington has lost their senses.


22 December 2009

What Evidence is There That Obama is a "Progressive"?

There are two offerings over at Huff Post today that are worth reading. The first and shorter is by Robert Kuttner who suggests a way forward for progressives in the Congress - play hardball. It is a message I have endorsed here repeatedly. The second and longer (but very much worth reading) is by Drew Westen and basically eviscerates the Obama administration for ... well, just about everything.

Mostly, Kuttner is concerned that if the health care legislation fails the right will be emboldened. He is probably correct about that. But Kuttner also tacitly suggests why the right wins here no matter what. Given the nature of the bills under consideration think about what happens if something passes! What we will get is not a form of social insurance but a government mandate, one that compels individuals to purchase increasingly expensive and inadequate from private companies. The right will ignore the corporate interests and paint the government mandate as inefficient and authoritarian. And beleaguered individual consumers will likely find that diagnosis persuasive. They'll have good reason to do so, because the diagnosis will be more than half accurate.

By contrast, Westen is concerned with the impact Obama's fecklessness will have on the center and the left. He starts like this:
"Somehow the president has managed to turn a base of new and progressive voters he himself energized like no one else could in 2008 into the likely stay-at-home voters of 2010, souring an entire generation of young people to the political process. It isn't hard for them to see that the winners seem to be the same no matter who the voters select (Wall Street, big oil, big Pharma, the insurance industry). In fact, the president's leadership style, combined with the Democratic Congress's penchant for making its sausage in public and producing new and usually more tasteless recipes every day, has had a very high toll far from the left: smack in the center of the political spectrum.

What's costing the president and courting danger for Democrats in 2010 isn't a question of left or right, because the president has accomplished the remarkable feat of both demoralizing the base and completely turning off voters in the center. If this were an ideological issue, that would not be the case. He would be holding either the middle or the left, not losing both.

What's costing the president are three things: a laissez faire style of leadership that appears weak and removed to everyday Americans, a failure to articulate and defend any coherent ideological position on virtually anything, and a widespread perception that he cares more about special interests like bank, credit card, oil and coal, and health and pharmaceutical companies than he does about the people they are shafting."

And he proceeds from there to note instance after instance in which these self-defeating political qualities are having devastating consequences.

The problem with both pieces is that Kuttner and Western presume that Obama is now or ever has been a progressive. I have always been suspicious of that notion. It seems to me that what Westen sees as Obama's failures actually are accurate manifestations of the man's political beliefs and propensities. He (like Clinton before him) is no progressive. Nor is he a pragmatist. Barack Obama is a centrist and an opportunist. He does care more about the corporate interests Westen identifies than "the people they are shafting." And he will do what it takes to pursue those political preferences. That is the source of the political problems we see before us. To think otherwise is delusional.


20 December 2009

Health Insurance Reform - a Disaster on Multiple Fronts

This week Bill Moyers has Matt Taibbi and Robert Kutner on the show. They are offering, essentially, a post mortem on health care reform. Kutner identifies the political problem facing the Democrats - having accommodated the insurance industry, the government is now in a position of being authoritarian and playing in to right-wing nightmares. The government will be ordering people to buy expensive and inadequate individual policies from private profit-making entities. What the average individual will see is the compulsion and inadequacy - the government forcing individuals to incur specific costs. The alternative of a single payer system would've ended up looking like Social Security - a universal benefit. In other words, this is a political as well as a policy disaster.

Kutner and Taibbi are on opposite sides on whether they'd vote for the legislation is they could. Taibbi says no, Kutner says yes.


19 December 2009

Preparing for the Sanctimonious Lectures about 'Realism'

Let's get this straight right now. We will hear it repeated in the days and weeks to come - by those shilling for the pathetic excuses for health care reform that have passed in the House & Senate - that we cannot hold out for perfection and must grasp this good legislation while we have the chance.

In the past, we are told by administration spokesmen, "The perfect became the enemy of the good." That is simple bullshit.

In the first place I am not concerned with past political mis-steps. I am concerned with what has happened in the here and now. And that is that the truly venal and opportunistic has become the enemy of the barely adequate. I am concerned with the way the Obama administration has allowed various conservative members of their legislative coalitions extort concession after concession on matters of central importance.

In the second place, we should not be talking about a "public option" as perfection. After all, that was a compromise proposal, a concession. We should not be talking about a medicare buy-in as perfection; after all, that was a concession once compromise had already been struck.

In the third place, we should not be talking about further lining the pockets of insurance companies as 'the good.' There is nothing, to the best of my knowledge, in the current bills that will contain the price gauging of private insurance companies. And we surely should not be talking about selling out protected the constitutional rights of women as anything resembling 'the good.' Let's state a fact: Stupak and Nelson and the Catholic Church have eviscerated the availability of a legally sanctioned medical procedure. When Rahm Emmanuel derided Howard dean this week by stating that, unlike Dean, Joe Lieberman has a vote, he neglected to recall that the Catholic Bishops don't have a vote and the administration has been sitting aside while they dictate national health policy.

So, be prepared for sanctimonious lectures from the "realists" in the Democratic party. But remember, such realists are craven apologists for an astoundingly inept administration and an ineffectual legislative leadership. Even with our 'change-you-can-believe-in' President and an allegedly veto-proof majority in the Congress this is the best we can get?

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Symposium: Photography & Human Rights

I have been grading term papers. And I just discovered, thanks to one of my smart students (Tamara Slater), this little symposium on "Photography and Human Rights" published in Aperture last spring. (I find that the magazine periodically publishes something interesting like this, but not often enough to make me want to subscribe.) The contributors are Ariella Azoulay, Anthony Downey, and Jonathan Torgovnik.

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18 December 2009

What I have in Common With Jenny Holzer

As Susan will attest: "I really like doing the laundry, because I succeed at it. But I loathe putting it away. It is already clean." You can find the remainder of the Q&A with Holzer here.

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". . . last in happiness — New York state."

This interesting report from AP makes some sense to me; it is a ranking of the 50 United States on what the authors deem and "objective" study of well-being. I've not seen the original study yet. So I don't know how the authors have dealt with things like adaptive preference (low expectations) or simple obliviousness. For instance, I don't find it surprising that cold, cloudy and relatively congested states like New York fare poorly. But I wonder how Louisiana came in first. After all, the place is susceptible to hurricanes, covered in swamps and the toxic waste from petro-chemical industries, and (up north, at least) thick with Bible-thumping Christians. That, however, is just a question about this particular study. On the whole, I think work on measures of well-being beyond simple income is crucially important.


17 December 2009

Some Promising Developments in the News This Evening!

Tonight, interspersed among dispiriting reports of collapsing talks and police repression in Copenhagen, political venality in the Connecticut-Washington, D.C.-Lincoln, Nebraska axis, and bad employment figures across the country, All Things Considered ran two interesting - dare I say promising? - stories.

The first story sketched the financial travails of The Actor's Gang, a not-for-profit theater company in Los Angeles. The basic theme was about the creative and aggressive response the company adopted in the face of impending fiscal disaster. Tim Robbins is among the founders of the group and he reportedly is responsible for the title of the festival they are running. It appears that this group does good work in the community and beyond. So, think about them in whatever end-of-year tax avoidance scheme you plan to implement!

The second story was on a new Christmas record made by jazz pianist Carla Bley - the basic theme was that this was a seemingly odd notion, and that surely is right! I've enthused about Bley here before; this new release sounds pretty offbeat and cool. So, deck the halls.

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Health Care Reform - R.I.P.

"If I were a senator, I would not vote for the current health-care bill. Any measure that expands private insurers' monopoly over health care and transfers millions of taxpayer dollars to private corporations is not real health-care reform. Real reform would insert competition into insurance markets, force insurers to cut unnecessary administrative expenses and spend health-care dollars caring for people. Real reform would significantly lower costs, improve the delivery of health care and give all Americans a meaningful choice of coverage. The current Senate bill accomplishes none of these." ~ Howard Dean
The Obama administration has lost the health care battle. The President made his first mistake when he abdicated leadership and handed the entire reform enterprise directly over to the Congress. That move insured that we would get the pathetic legislation that cleared the House and the even more pathetic legislation now stalled in the Senate. In an effort to avoid the calamity that Bill Clinton encountered, Obama simply refused to take a leadership role. Not only have the Republicans mocked his craven search for bi-partisanship, his putative allies among the Democratic legislators (mostly from remote backwaters - think Nebraska - or from centers of industry influence, like Connecticut) have held the process hostage in the name of this or that conservative demand.

Passing wholly inadequate legislation is not a victory. It is failure. At this point the President ought to simply announce that it is time to go back to the drawing board. And he ought to be prepared to change strategy and play hardball. That, unfortunately, is something he lacks the courage to do.
PS: And now, according the news reports, the Unions have come out against the Senate bill.
PS2: And in a related report we see political hypocrisy in the flesh - Ben Nelson. So, Senator Nelson " a former state insurance commissioner and insurance company executive" who has insisted on gutting the Senate bill of even the vaguest challenge to the insurance industry, insists that he is not susceptible to political pressures. He is taking a principled stand in opposition to the already tepid measures before the Senate. Responding to rumors that he is feeling political pressure from the White House (if only!) Nelson claims: “They are false, period . . . Nebraskans who have known me for decades, know my vote cannot be bought and I cannot be threatened.” He forgot to note that his vote cannot be bought by the White House or Party leadership because he'd long ago sold it to his buddies in the insurance industry - no threat needed.

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16 December 2009

Passings: Larry Sultan ( 1946~2009)

Sharon Wild, 2001. From the series The Valley. © Larry Sultan.

Photographer Larry Sultan has died. You can find the obituary from The New York Times here. I do not know much about Sultan beyond a vague awareness of his series The Valley which consists of color photographs taken on the sets of porn films in the San Fernando Valley.


15 December 2009

Conservatives and their "bizarro universe"

The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.
~ Karl Marx

Let's start with this Op-Ed by Paul Krugman:
Disaster & Denial
By Paul Krugman
December 13, 2009

When I first began writing for The Times, I was naïve about many things. But my biggest misconception was this: I actually believed that influential people could be moved by evidence, that they would change their views if events completely refuted their beliefs.

And to be fair, it does happen now and then. I’ve been highly critical of Alan Greenspan over the years (since long before it was fashionable), but give the former Fed chairman credit: he has admitted that he was wrong about the ability of financial markets to police themselves.

But he’s a rare case. Just how rare was demonstrated by what happened last Friday in the House of Representatives, when — with the meltdown caused by a runaway financial system still fresh in our minds, and the mass unemployment that meltdown caused still very much in evidence — every single Republican and 27 Democrats voted against a quite modest effort to rein in Wall Street excesses.

Let’s recall how we got into our current mess.

America emerged from the Great Depression with a tightly regulated banking system. The regulations worked: the nation was spared major financial crises for almost four decades after World War II. But as the memory of the Depression faded, bankers began to chafe at the restrictions they faced. And politicians, increasingly under the influence of free-market ideology, showed a growing willingness to give bankers what they wanted.

The first big wave of deregulation took place under Ronald Reagan — and quickly led to disaster, in the form of the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s. Taxpayers ended up paying more than 2 percent of G.D.P., the equivalent of around $300 billion today, to clean up the mess.

But the proponents of deregulation were undaunted, and in the decade leading up to the current crisis politicians in both parties bought into the notion that New Deal-era restrictions on bankers were nothing but pointless red tape. In a memorable 2003 incident, top bank regulators staged a photo-op in which they used garden shears and a chainsaw to cut up stacks of paper representing regulations.

And the bankers — liberated both by legislation that removed traditional restrictions and by the hands-off attitude of regulators who didn’t believe in regulation — responded by dramatically loosening lending standards. The result was a credit boom and a monstrous real estate bubble, followed by the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. Ironically, the effort to contain the crisis required government intervention on a much larger scale than would have been needed to prevent the crisis in the first place: government rescues of troubled institutions, large-scale lending by the Federal Reserve to the private sector, and so on.

Given this history, you might have expected the emergence of a national consensus in favor of restoring more-effective financial regulation, so as to avoid a repeat performance. But you would have been wrong.

Talk to conservatives about the financial crisis and you enter an alternative, bizarro universe in which government bureaucrats, not greedy bankers, caused the meltdown. It’s a universe in which government-sponsored lending agencies triggered the crisis, even though private lenders actually made the vast majority of subprime loans. It’s a universe in which regulators coerced bankers into making loans to unqualified borrowers, even though only one of the top 25 subprime lenders was subject to the regulations in question.

Oh, and conservatives simply ignore the catastrophe in commercial real estate: in their universe the only bad loans were those made to poor people and members of minority groups, because bad loans to developers of shopping malls and office towers don’t fit the narrative.

In part, the prevalence of this narrative reflects the principle enunciated by Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” As Democrats have pointed out, three days before the House vote on banking reform Republican leaders met with more than 100 financial-industry lobbyists to coordinate strategies. But it also reflects the extent to which the modern Republican Party is committed to a bankrupt ideology, one that won’t let it face up to the reality of what happened to the U.S. economy.

So it’s up to the Democrats — and more specifically, since the House has passed its bill, it’s up to “centrist” Democrats in the Senate. Are they willing to learn something from the disaster that has overtaken the U.S. economy, and get behind financial reform?

Let’s hope so. For one thing is clear: if politicians refuse to learn from the history of the recent financial crisis, they will condemn all of us to repeat it."

I've italicized the especially delicious parts. But there is something I don't understand. We might all agree that Marx was wrong about a lot of things. And we might agree even more that Marxists have been wrong about a lot too. But there is one thing about which both Marx and Marxists seem to have been pretty much correct; and that is the fact that one's ideology is in many respects determined by one's material interests. The two are not distinct, as Krugman seems to suggest. Moreover, the causal arrow runs primarily from interests to ideas. The process may not be simple. The causal relation may not be direct or unequivocal. But it hardly is simple coincidence that, as Krugman suggests, conservatives spout policy nuttiness, generally are impervious to reason and evidence, and genuflect to the rich.

The reasons why conservatives adhere to a "bankrupt ideology" is that it serves their material interests. It is called rationalization. The problem is that Krugman doesn't just misconstrue the problem; he also underestimates the extent to which the Democrats generally - and those "moderates" among their number in particular - inhabit precisely the same "bizarro universe" for pretty much the same reasons. Oh, and - as I mentioned here a few days ago - that goes for pretty much the entire Obama administration too!

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14 December 2009

Iranian Photo Battles ~ Sin in Public

Anti-government and pro-reform Iranian students holding pictures
of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, as they cover
their faces to avoid to be identified by security, during a demonstration
saying the clip on burning of picture of Ayatollah Khomeini shown
by state TV was fabricated, at the Tehran University campus in
Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Dec. 13. Photograph © AP (via CSM).

The conflict over images continues on a second front. The Guardian [1] npr [2] and The New York Times [3] all report that the regime has accused members of the opposition of desecrating pictures of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. According to the npr report several activists have been arrested under this pretext. Lest liberals get overly enthusiastic about the Iranian opposition, it seems clear that they, like the regime, revere Khomeni and condemn desecration of his photograph. (I, for one, tend to get deeply worried whenever the language of "sin" is injected into politics.) There is considerable suspicion in opposition circles that the government is fabricating the entire matter. And whether this is a strategic maneuver or not, the opposition pressed the regime to issue them a permit to protest against such "desecration."

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Iranian Photo Battles ~ Veiled Criticism

Last week both The Guardian [1] and The New York Times [2] [3] [4] reported on the Internet chador wars currently underway in Iran. The government fired the opening salvo when the state news agency Fars published photos of a student leader - Majid Tavakoli - who has been arrested and remains in custody. In the photographs Tavakoli, who is highly critical of the regime, was forced to wear Islamic chador and maghnaeh, the female headscarf.

What the authorities apparently intended as a means of humiliating a critic had a surprising effect - it generated Internet solidarity, as scores of Iranian men posted pictures of themselves on various social networking sites wearing headscarves. Here is a sample:

Critics then escalated their reply by posting photo-shopped images of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wearing the veil as well.

Not only do the opposition web sites proclaim "We are all Majid Tavakoli!" (You too Ayatolla?) but the veiled men in the photos make clear that the images are intended as a rebuke to the official practice of compelling Iranian women to wear the chador. Perhaps the regime has made a massive mis-step here.

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13 December 2009

Violent Protest in Copenhagen?

Detained demonstrators lined up on a street in Copenhagen.
Photograph © Thibault Camus/AP.

This image is from The Guardian; it accompanied this report on the mass detention of protesters at the Copenhagen climate conference. Of course, there are press reports that protesters turned violent. But such reports need to be taken with a grain of salt. In the past, what violence there has been at political protests has largely consisted in police riots. For earlier posts on that theme have a look here. Alternatively, you might track down Rebecca Solnit's recent essay on the myths of "violent" protests starting with the 1999 anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle.

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Liu Xioabo & Democracy in China

"I would like once more to point out our experience, one that our Chinese
friends should adopt in one way or another, the experience that one may
never reckon with success, one may never reckon with the situation
changing tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, or in ten years. Perhaps it
will not. If that is what you are reckoning with, you will not get very far.

However, in our experience, not reckoning with that did pay in the end,
we found that it was possible to change the situation after all, and those
who were mocked as being Don Quixotes, whose efforts were never going
to come to anything, may in the end and to general astonishment get their
way. I think that is important. In a peculiar way, there is both despair and
hope in this. On the one hand we do not know how things will end, and on
the other, we know they may in fact end well." - Václav Havel (March 2009).

Liu Xiabo © Private (via Human Rights Watch).

One year ago I posted on the appearance of Charter 08 a document demanding basic political reforms that, in the event, 10,000 individuals managed to sign despite the government's effort to suppress it. You can read the Charter and some some subsequent documents here at the NYRB. Both The New York Times and The Guardian are reporting (here and here) that the authorities have indicted and now are are poised to imprison Liu Xiabo, one of the central organizers of the petition. Although some other signatories initially were detained and subsequently have been harassed, Liu Xiabo is the only one under indictment. Charter 08 was modeled after Charter 77 which served as a focal point for coordinating dissent and opposition to Communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and throughout Eastern Europe. Among the signatories to Charter 77 was Václav Havel, whose words of encouragement for the Chinese opposition I lifted above.

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Heroines ~ Ella Baker (13 December 1903 – 13 December 1986)

Ella Baker, official of the Southern Conference
Educational Fund, 3 January 1968 ~ Photograph: AP.

Ella Baker
was born and died on this day. Baker was an amazing woman ~ a radical and a democrat. Here is how Robert Moses recollects her views, which had an immense impact on he and many students in the early 1960s:
"As executive director of SCLC, a position she took reluctantly, Miss Baker had hoped to steer the ministers who formed its membership into grassroots community organizing for civil rights. She was doubtful and doubts and dissatisfaction with the organization deepened with her involvement. Southern ministers, she felt, weren't inclined toward grassroots organizing because of the hierarchical structures of their churches. And, more broadly she felt, as she put it, that it "[handicaps] oppressed people to depend largely on a [single] leader, because unfortunately in our culture, the charismatic leader usually becomes a leader because he has found a spot in the public limelight. It usually means that the media made him and the media may undo him. . . . My basic sense of it has always been to get people to understand that in the long run they themselves are the only protection they have against violence or injustice.
. . . People have to be made to understand that they cannot look for salvation anywhere but to themselves."

Her style strained an already uncomfortable political relationship and finally made it impossible for Miss Baker to continue with SCLC. "She wasn't church," one SCLC minister said. She wasn't deferential. She wasn't a man in an organization that was patriarchal as well as hierarchical. And what I think was probably the most critical tension: her concept of leadership, that it should emerge from the community and be helped in its growth by grassroots organizers, clashed with the SCLC's idea of projecting and protecting a single charismatic national leader."

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12 December 2009

The People Speak

On Sunday December 13th at 8 pm Howard Zinn's film project The People Speak will premier on (of all places) the History Channel. The program consists primarily of various actors and actresses reading primary texts from American history. You can read notices here at The Nation and here at The New York Times. This seems like a provocative project. And I will say that reading Zinn's SNCC - The New Abolitionists as an undergraduate was a formative experience. It got me interested in politics. Perhaps The People Speak can have a similar impact.

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Graphical Nuttiness ...

Occasionally my Google alerts call my attention to the truly nutty. This morning a post on a right wing blog popped up. These two graphics accompanied a very, very long post about the Obama conspiracy against the sovereignty of the United States. The premise is that Obama must have read (or been influenced by) a 1966 article in The Nation by Richard Cloward and Francis Fox Piven. In that essay the "strategy" is to overload the federal bureaucracy with multiple time-consuming, attention-commanding tasks that would lead to breakdown and collapse of state capacity - or something like that. I've not read the essay. But the top graphic details the nefarious plotters and their connections to the president. Pretty scary, huh?

So, what is the problem? Well, coincidentally, Google alerts also generated a link to this essay by Matt Taibbi the politics writer at Rolling Stone detailing the ways that the allegedly "progressive" Obama administration has accommodated and incorporated the interests of the financial industry since virtually the day after the 2008 election. None of the people whom Taibbi discusses - various acolytes of Bob Rubin with direct ties to Wall Street banks and trading companies - appear in the flow chart above. And most of them hold government posts - in other words they are not a shadow government in waiting, they are an actual government in power. And, as Taibbi notes in the end, the right wingers are so busy looking out for socialist revolution that they do not (cannot?) grasp Obama's actual behavior. If you are going to peddle conspiracy theories, you should at least try to make them plausible! Here is the graphic accompanying the Rolling Stone essay.

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11 December 2009

British Authorities Continue to Harass Photographers (some more)

This story in The Guardian (especially the video) is pretty amazing. Arbitrary reports from private rent-a-cops are enough to get you stopped and interrogated on the streets of London - for taking pictures. Of course, the photographer apparently has no ground to respond that he suspects the rent-a-cops of infringing on his rights for no reason whatsoever. I've posted on this theme numerous times in the past. Two things are important here. First, as I've noted here before, even security experts find the linkage of terrorism and photography dubious, at best. Second, to the best of my understanding the section of the Terrorism Act to which the fine officers refer does not require the photographer to provide them with any information. (Hence making the threat of being arrested for obstruction way out of line.).
Update: There is a follow up from The Guardian here.

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10 December 2009

There is an Interview with Martha Nussbaum ...

. . . in The New York Times Magazine last weekend. You can find it here. Nussbaum is a Ph.D. in classics who teaches philosophy and law at the University of Chicago. While I often disagree with her substantive views, she is enormously smart. In particular, her work on the travails of women in developing countries is important and insightful. And, as the interview makes clear, pretty normal.


Light ~ On the South Side ~ Michael Abramson

All three photographs from Light: On the South Side
© Michael Abramson.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1980s my friends and I occasionally would venture out of Hyde Park to some of the local clubs - mostly Theresa's and the Checkerboard Lounge. There was, frankly, not much happening in Hyde Park due to the fact that the University had long connived with the City to clear the area not only of public housing but of establishments that might attract the wrong sort of clientele.* The clubs we sometimes went to - "frequented" would be an overstatement - were a dying breed as well. As I recall Theresa's closed before I left Hyde Park. But they had music, sometimes live, sometimes on the jukebox - blues, funk, R&B. And they had a welcoming clientele, people willing to overlook not only the obvious fact that we were as the saying goes 'not from around here' but that the reverse was not true where we were from.

All that prompts my special interest in the recently released Light: On the South Side which documents nightlife in some similar South Side clubs in the mid-1970s. The project, produced by the Numero group, includes a portfolio of a hundred or so photographs by Michael Abramson and two LPs (!) of tunes by the sort of small label, local musicians that you might here in the clubs. Interestingly Abramson focused primarily on the people who hung out at the clubs - the images I've lifted above are samples.

It turns out that the photo blog folks over at The New York Times have posted about the release as well. Toward the end they note: "Because the South Side pictures represent a white photographer documenting a black scene, they are not without critics." True enough, I'm sure. But it seems to me that such criticism is misplaced precisely because Abramson appears to have embraced something like the view that Roy Decarava articulated about his efforts to navigate the shoals of race and racism in some of his own images. Speaking of the well documented historical practices that used race to demean and humiliate said:"I made a choice not to get caught in the meanness; I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the possibilities." Abramson was invited in, welcomed and treated the people in his images with respect; in the process he offers insight into spaces that are now long gone.
* On this sordid history see: Arnold Hirsch. Making the Second Ghetto: Race & Housing in Chicago 1940-1960. University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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09 December 2009

Rogério Reis

Tem um cheiro de pneu queimado no ar (There's a Smell of
Burnt Tire in the Air), 2004-2006 © Rogério Reis.

This afternoon I came across this interview with Brazilian photographer Rogério Reis in the journal Public Culture. A significant portion of Reis's earlier work deals with carnival and reminds me in some ways of images made by Joel Peter Witkin. But Reis also has, more recently, done an installation consisting of a series in memory of people (including some of his friends and colleagues) who have been killed in what are called "microwaves" - murder weapons consisting of automobile tires soaked in gasoline and set ablaze. Drug dealers in the favelas of Rio de Janerio essentially use these tires to create a crematorium that burns the individual inside to death and, in the process, make it highly unlikely that authorities might identify the remains. This clearly is an effective, gruesome way to eliminate enemies and destroy evidence at the same time. (This seems like a 'perfected' version of the practice of 'necklacing' that became a relatively common way of summarily executing 'collaborators' in South African townships in the 1980s.) In the interview Reis, who himself began as a photojournalist, reflects on the pervasive violence in large Brazilian cities and, importantly, on the role of the media in perpetuating the violence - in particular he refers to the sorts of processes that will be familiar to those who've seen films like City of God or Bus 174.

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07 December 2009

Joseph Rodriguez - Re-Entry Project

Puerto Rican Flag, 1986. Photograph © Joseph Rodriguez.

Last week the BBC carried an interesting audio interview with Joseph Rodriguez about himself and his most recent work on the travails of men and women in Los Angeles as they try to re-enter society after having served time in prison. Earlier in the fall this post at The New York Times photography blog ran a short audio interview with Rodriguez as well. Both are worth hearing.


06 December 2009

Charlie Todd Is a Thoughtless, Arrogant Pr**k

This evening driving home I was listening to This American Life on npr; the show generally is interesting even though it tends to be more than a bit too precious. This evening the show included a long segment on an outfit called Improv Everywhere which is the brain child of a fellow (pictured above) called Charlie Todd.* The feature was included under the theme "Mind Games." And I have to say that Charlie Todd is a thoughtless, arrogant prick. He recognizes that his "pranks" - which the npr segment makes clear, often are directed at individuals [1] [2] - can be construed as cruel. But since Charlie sort of feels as though people need to loosen up, he basically is willing to overlook his own manipulative mean-spirited-ness. What I mean by that is that Charlie and his chums are perfectly content to have a good time (and, of course promote themselves) at the expense of others. I am not sure which is more obnoxious, the fact that Charlie puts his mind to thinking up pranks or that he seems to have no problem recruiting minions to collaborate with. Where I come from there is a frank description for people like that; I've already used it.

There are improv outfits that do things resembling what Improv Everywhere does - think Yes Men or Reverend Billy. But they aim their mockery and irony and sarcasm not at individuals, but at corporations and religious institutions and government officials or agencies. Sure, there are real people who occupy roles in such structures. But not only are they not their jobs, they are being paid to do those jobs and so are at least partly responsible for what they do. And the Yes Men and the Reverend and his congregants are making fun of the employers not the employees. The people who Charlie selects are just trying to live their lives.

The philosopher Avishai Margalit defines a 'decent society' as one that does not go out of its way to humiliate its members. If that is close to being so (and it seems to me that it is), Charlie Todd (along with his minions) is the poster child for indecency. Someone please give him a dope slap.
* The description of this segment on the This American Life web pages reads: " A group called Improv Everywhere decides that an unknown band, Ghosts of Pasha, playing their first ever tour in New York, ought to think they're a smash hit. So they study the band's music and then crowd the performance, pretending to be hard-core fans. Improv Everywhere just wants to make the band happy—to give them the best day of their lives. But the band doesn't see it that way. Nor does another subject of one of Improv Everywhere's 'missions.'" There is just enough ironic detachment there to avoid passing judgment.


The Price of Charity

Charity. It obviously is a good thing, right? Actually I think it is deeply problematic to define public problems as matters to be addressed through private action, through philanthropy or charity rather than through politics. In the U.S. the presumption at present is that virtually every social problem can be remedied via charity. Some things surely can be addressed privately and appropriately so. But the presumption that public problems are not what they are - namely public concerns - undermines the sense that politics is important and that we have shared political obligations. But as a matter of simple dollars and cents, charity is costly too. This story in The New York Times today makes that clear.


04 December 2009

British Authorities Continue Harassing Photographers

In The Independent this past we find this report on the continuing abuse by police in Great Britain of the anti-terrorism laws. The result, among other things, is a regular, ongoing series of complaints about police harassing photographers. The folks at the paper have a bit of fun, posting this photo-essay identifying some of the terribly sensitive targets that overly eager officers have sought to protect from terrorist (ooops! I meant photographic) threat.

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03 December 2009

Truth in Advertising? Truth in Photojournalism?

In The New York Times today is this story prompted by a bill before the French Parliament that would require labeling of any advertising photograph that has been retouched. It reminded me of this recent note at PDN Pulse (via the inimitable Jörg Colberg) calling attention to the following new rule promulgated by the folks World Press Photo for all images entered into their annual contest:
"The content of an image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards and may at its discretion request the original, unretouched file as recorded by the camera or an untoned scan of the negative or slide."
Is there a plausible notion of truth lurking here somewhere? Or is it a notion of honesty? Or, is it perhaps something else? Are we worried about manipulation? Are we looking as images a representation or as communication or . . .? The standards are different depending on your answer but, regardless, are dictated by the aims of the photographer and those who take up her work and use it for their own, sometimes quite different purposes. In any case, would Evans's or Lange's images have passed muster under the new rules and proposed law? They weren't 'retouched' (much) but both were posed or arranged. In short, there are all sorts of theoretical issues lurking behind photographic practice. And, to be frank, most critics and photographers and curators and industry or art-world types are clueless about them. Why stop to figure out just what is worrisome about the new rules and proposed laws when you can simply express indignation or outrage?

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02 December 2009

Best Shots (96) ~ Nick Hedges

(123) Nick Hedges ~ Jazz band playing in a Handsworth pub, 1966.
(2 December 2009).

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Just in Time for Holiday Giving: New Tom Waits

. . . and this is not the first time I've said that. Seems suspiciously like a pattern. But who can resist the temptation to share those dulcet tones with loved ones? Not me. This is a live one, with songs recorded on Waits's recent tour. And it is a lot of fun.

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01 December 2009

Sophie Jodoin

From The Ward (2008-2009 War Series) © Sophie Jodoin.

I came across a link to the website of Canadian artist Sophie Jodoin while I was passing though 3 Quarks Daily. (Thanks!) She describes the 89 drawings that make up The Ward like this: "Small meditative drawings on the silent wounded voices of war. Inspired by Goya's capriccios." Of the larger War Series she says: "Inspired in part by contemporary war imagery, graffiti, and comic-style silhouettes this latest series of tiny collages and drawings call into question the numbness with which viewers are habituated to observing the carnage of war and domestic violence."


The Woods Fracas

There is a nice column on Tiger Woods here at The Nation. I have a difficult time with celebrities who enrich themselves via vast PR machines, but who cry "privacy!" when they are unable to control the media. On the other hand I generally could not give a rats ass (technical term) about most of the celebs. The piece in The Nation doesn't exactly accuse Woods of anything directly. But he sure does seem tone deaf when it comes to ethics and politics. And, of course, that doesn't even raise the issue of golf as a dead weight loss to the environment.