29 June 2011

Fashionistas Strike Again - Sex and War

All three images from "Muscle Beach" © Alexi Lubomirski.

It has been a while since I posted on the ways fashion photographers blur the boundaries of militarism and, well, tawdry sex [e.g., here and here and here]. I recently came across this series (posted without comment) taken by Alexi Lubomirski* for the German version of Vogue. That Lubomirski's images are slightly less misogynistic than those I've noted before hardly makes them defensible - and it seems to me that they are entirely derivative.

To call these images militaristic may seem odd. You'll note, though, that the men in these images are not only (scantily) dressed in military garb, but are sporting dog tags. And while they are working out in sandy terrain, I doubt it is meant to convey a beach! So, take some G.I.s enjoying a little R&R - all glistening, bulging pecs and biceps - and drape models over them and voila! - yet another sanitized, sexualized vision of war.

You may think that that claim is a stretch. But as I have pointed out before, fashion photographers have an odd relationship to issues militarism and security. And our "embedded" photojournalists have (among other things) had their work integrated into homogenized reporting (here), been sharply criticized for actually depicting the agony of war (here) and, too often, focused on "our boys" at play - the human interest side of death and destruction (here and here and here and here).** Lubomirski's series seems to me to represent a hybrid between this last category and the misogyny of the fashion photography to which I link above.
* When you get to Lubomirski's web page click Editorial, then German Vogue, then 2011, then "Muscle Beach." The photographer too posts the images without comment.
** Make no mistake - the clear difference in genre here lies in the fact that photojournalists risk their lives for their work - see e.g., here and here and here and here and here and here.

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Welfare for the Well-Off, or What About the Undeserving Rich?

There is an ample amount of hypocrisy at large in our current budget politics. In this recent essay at The Washington Monthly, political scientist Suzanne Mettler lays out some of the worst - huge tax expenditures directed at welfare recipients in the upper reaches of the U.S. income/wealth distribution defended by Republicans who vigorously decry virtually any government relief aimed at the poor or working classes.
"The clarion call of the conservative approach to governance that has dominated American politics for much of the past thirty years has been the demand to rein in the welfare state. Although few provisions have suffered outright termination, average benefit rates for several traditional and longstanding policies—such as welfare, unemployment insurance, Pell grants, and food stamps—have deteriorated in real terms, and in some cases the scope of coverage has atrophied. As deficit hawks continually remind us, costs have grown for the “entitlement” programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid— owing to inflation-protected benefits, soaring health care costs, and the sheer numbers of Americans aging into eligibility. Generally ignored, however, have been the rapidly escalating costs of tax expenditures for social welfare purposes—the sine qua non of our submerged state.
Known in informal parlance as “tax breaks” or “tax loopholes,” these policies permit households to pay less in taxes if they are involved in some kind of activity or belong to a class that policymakers deem worthy of public support. From the time Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 until 2010, the number of such tax subsidies had increased by 86 percent, from 81 to 151. As of 2011, the federal government annually doles out more than $1 trillion in these tax expenditures.
Understandably, to many people tax breaks may seem substantively different from traditional social benefits. The latter are funded by tax revenues collected from the public and delivered through checks or services to particular citizens, whereas tax breaks function by allowing recipients themselves simply to keep more money, reducing the amount that they would otherwise owe. Traditional social programs also require the development of a bureaucracy to determine eligibility and deliver benefits, whereas the tax expenditures do not. For these reasons, many libertarians and conservatives object to the term “tax expenditures.” While conceding that tax loopholes constitute government intervention in the market, such thinkers equate closing them with raising taxes, unless the changes are offset by lower rates.
As a matter of budgeting, however, there is no difference between a tax break and a social program: both have to be paid for, either by raising tax rates or by adding to the deficit. Eugene Steuerle, a tax economist and political appointee in the Reagan administration, said of the distinction between tax expenditures and direct social spending, “One looks like smaller government; one looks like bigger government. In fact, they both do exactly the same thing.”
As the chart above (lifted from Mettler's paper) makes clear, the foregone taxes dwarf expenditures on programs for the poor. Where is the right wing outrage at this sort of redistribution to the undeserving rich?

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28 June 2011

Conservative Reactions to the Epidemic of Sex-Selection Abortions ...

Journalist Mara Hvistendahl has produced what is uniformly viewed as a disturbing book - Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls,and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (Public Affairs Press, 2011). In it she details the widespread use by prospective parents in developing countries of selective abortion as a means of determining the sex of their offspring. The pattern, unsurprisingly, is one in which large numbers of girl fetuses are aborted by parents hoping for sons.

I have not read this book. It is on my "order" list. Tyler Cowen, who is a terrifically interesting economist, gives it a thumbs up here. I want to talk about two things. The first is the way, predictably, conservative anti-abortion types have taken up Hvistendahl's findings as a cudgel. The second thing is about the necessity to think through causal processes in a clear way before spouting moralized inferences.

I came across the book in two essays [1] [2] by one of the in-house conservatives at The New York Times editorial page - Ross Douthat. But I also encountered this review at The Wall Street Journal. Both Douthat and the WSJ reviewer (Jonathan Last from The Weekly Standard) , try to use Hvistendahl to establish the incoherence or hypocrisy of people who advocate a pro-choice position. Clearly, they insist, pro-choice types have no regard for all those unborn baby girls.

Let's start charitably. Both Douthat and Last voice various more or less important qualms about Hvistendahl's argument, tone and proposals. We'll see; I'll read the book. But let's say that the reviewers are right in picking out this or that problem with the book. It nevertheless does not seem as though their primary complaint is terribly convincing. They both accuse Hvistendahl (as a proxy for virtually all advocates of abortion rights for women) of inconsistency for both decrying sex-selective abortion and remaining pro-choice. But Hvistendahl has not got quite so much of a problem as Douthat and Last think. She can clearly (and apparently does) find the consequences of sex-selection problematic precisely because of the overall violence and political instability that unbalanced societies display. And she can (and apparently does) do the same because societies marked by unbalanced sex-ratios devalue the lives of actually existing women. As I will suggest below, she might also be motivated by the ways sex-election reflects the devalued position of existing women in many (all?) societies.

That said, consider the first of the topics I mentioned above. Last seems totally unconcerned that he personifies precisely the sort of reaction that made the author apprehensive. Here is his complaint:
Ms. Hvistendahl is particularly worried that the "right wing" or the "Christian right"—as she labels those whose politics differ from her own—will use sex-selective abortion as part of a wider war on abortion itself. She believes that something must be done about the purposeful aborting of female babies or it could lead to "feminists' worst nightmare: a ban on all abortions."
And here is his immediate reply, which is to accuse Hvistendahl of parochialism and worse:
It is telling that Ms. Hvistendahl identifies a ban on abortion—and not the killing of tens of millions of unborn girls—as the "worst nightmare" of feminism. Even though 163 million girls have been denied life solely because of their gender, she can't help seeing the problem through the lens of an American political issue. Yet, while she is not willing to say that something has gone terribly wrong with the pro-abortion movement, she does recognize that two ideas are coming into conflict: "After decades of fighting for a woman's right to choose the outcome of her own pregnancy, it is difficult to turn around and point out that women are abusing that right."
Yet here he is, soon after, himself seeing the problem precisely through the same parochial lens:
Despite the author's intentions, Unnatural Selection might be one of the most consequential books ever written in the campaign against abortion. It is aimed, like a heat-seeking missile, against the entire intellectual framework of "choice." For if "choice" is the moral imperative guiding abortion, then there is no way to take a stand against "gendercide." Aborting a baby because she is a girl is no different from aborting a baby because she has Down syndrome or because the mother's "mental health" requires it. Choice is choice.
This passage not only proves Hvistendahl right about our own anti-choicers, it demonstrates a remarkable shallow grasp - "Choice is choice." - of anything resembling social or political theory. I will come back to that below.

For now lets notice that the language in all this is loaded. Last is talking about "aborting female babies." And he apparently thinks that that clinches the case. But he is clearly engaging in rhetorical slight of hand. A fetus is a fetus - not an unborn baby. But that is the purposeful confusion on which Last's entire tirade trades. The same is true of Douthat. Here he is:

"Over all, “Unnatural Selection” reads like a great historical detective story, and it’s written with the sense of moral urgency that usually accompanies the revelation of some enormous crime.

But what kind of crime? This is the question that haunts Hvistendahl’s book, and the broader debate over the vanished 160 million.

The scale of that number evokes the genocidal horrors of the 20th century. But notwithstanding the depredations of the Chinese politburo, most of the abortions were (and continue to be) uncoerced."
And, like Last, he steps right into the anti-abortion role Hvistendahl anticipates:
" . . . the fact that Hvistendahl holds no brief for the pro-life movement only makes her story’s implicitly anti-abortion emotional wallop that much more striking."
Here is his case in greater detail:
"This places many Western liberals, Hvistendahl included, in a distinctly uncomfortable position. Their own premises insist that the unborn aren’t human beings yet, and that the right to an abortion is nearly absolute. A self-proclaimed agnostic about when life begins, Hvistendahl insists that she hasn’t written “a book about death and killing.” But this leaves her struggling to define a victim for the crime that she’s uncovered.

It’s society at large, she argues, citing evidence that gender-imbalanced countries tend to be violent and unstable. It’s the women in those countries, she adds, pointing out that skewed sex ratios are associated with increased prostitution and sex trafficking.

These are important points. But the sense of outrage that pervades her story seems to have been inspired by the missing girls themselves, not the consequences of their absence.

Here the anti-abortion side has it easier. We can say outright what’s implied on every page of “Unnatural Selection,” even if the author can’t quite bring herself around.

The tragedy of the world’s 160 million missing girls isn’t that they’re “missing.” The tragedy is that they’re dead."

Notice that Douthat too is trading both on theoretical assumptions about whether choices are "uncoerced" and on an assumed answer to the question of whether a fetus is a "life", albeit "unborn." And he wants to downplay the possibility of consequentialist concerns I mentioned above. Those cannot be basis enough, surely, to fuel Hvistendahl's outrage! And since something else must be going on, it just must be that fetus is an unborn baby! To his credit Douthat, at least, acknowledges the partiality of his claims: "I'm coming at this from a pro-life perspective, and it’s entirely possible that I’m reading my own views into the text." Just so. And those views are hardly persuasive. Jonathan Last surely must be welcoming Douthat to his parochial club!

Now to the second point. Douthat and Last both insist that the choice whether to abort is more or less free and de-contextualized. That view is pretty much incoherent. The choices being made here are being made in the context of economic pressures on families. Douthat and Last point out that the practice of sex-selective abortions seems to have started among families relatively high up in the wealth-income distribution. Surprise, the impoverished barely have money to eat, let alone explore the vast range of elective surgeries! It is nevertheless important to note that the vast majority of the populations in China and India (the two countries they regularly identify) are poor and the numbers of abortions being discussed cannot all be taking place among the wealthy in those countries. Let's not confuse the origins of a practice with the processes that sustain it in a widespread way. The rich set the example that those further down the socio-economic ladder emulate.

That said, gender norms - pervasive - powerful norms that work to the ongoing extreme disadvantage of girls and women - are not restricted to the poor and ignorant. They work their magic among the wealthy and putatively cosmopolitan as well. I would suggest that it is precisely those norms - embodying as they do traditional views of women and their worth - that are the problem in all this. Douthat and Last are way too quick to finger "choice" generally and choice about abortion specifically as the most important causal factor in this tale. But, Last's bald assertion notwithstanding, "choice" is not simply choice; we make choices under more or less restrictive and distorting conditions. And in the case at hand, it seems, prospective parents are choosing in the context of, among other things, highly asymmetrical gender social norms.

Here is a passage from this post at The Economist* that makes the point nicely:
But we need to keep in mind that sex-selective abortion is an effect of social problems as much as a cause. While Mr Douthat seems to suggest more widespread access to abortion as the culprit, that is not the only cause of the gendercide—many baby girls are simply killed—and where sex-selective abortion is the cause it is only a proximate one. Sex-selective abortion is symptomatic of societies in which women are sufficiently marginalised, socially, economically, or politically, that people believe it is better for them not to be born. The consequences of the lopsided gender ratios that result are troubling and will become more serious over time. However, the tragedy here is the oppression of women, not the future disadvantages accruing to men who won't have access to a sufficient supply of potential wives. If female empowerment has led to more baby girls not being born, that can be taken as a measure of the vast disenfranchisement that still exists, and an indicator of the progress that is yet to be made.
The marginalization of women, in other words, is pervasive and reflects not just economic factors but social norms as well.

Douthat is concerned about unborn babies, Last has moved on - with barely concealed relief - to another more "important" topic, namely Legos; neither gives much of a hoot about the well-being of women, at least really existing ones. And that is the truly disturbing feature of their entire approach to this matter.

If our two conservatives were concerned with real live women and their well-being, they might see that Hvistendahl's proposed policy remedy - imposed and enforced restrictions on sex-selective abortion procedures - hardly is the only reform option. They might follow Amartya Sen (whose provocative work on wildly unbalanced sex ratios in the populations of a range of developing countries both prompted Hvistendahl in the first place and draws Douthat's flip disdain) when he suggests we might really work at empowering women. This would not entail simply taking traditional gender norms as inviolable and allowing women choices within the set of practices and relations those norms sustain, but reforming a broad range of options available to women - in terms of property ownership, meaningful access to labor markets and education, and so forth. Widening such options for women might actually subvert traditional gender norms. That, however, would require our conservatives to be concerned not only with consequences, but with the actualities of how asymmetrical gender norms not only dis-empower women in more or less systematic ways but reproduce themselves over time.
* You can find a helpful report from The Economist - hardly a feminist rag - on the broad problems at issue in all this here.

Death and Taxes or, The Evolution of Show Trials

It is interesting to witness the evolution of show trials - back in the Stalinist days, Soviet officials were compelled to admit to various counterrevolutionary deviations. And then they were exiled to rot in the frozen waste or simply executed. If we are to judge from the recent experience of Ai Weiwei the Chinese seem to have refined the process in a contemporary way: no executions, just forced detention, a "confession," enforced silence, and then . . . a visit from the Tax Collectors. Of course, there is still the persecution of Liu Xiaobo and many other critics. So, perhaps the regime has not gotten more refined after all.

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27 June 2011

Best Shots (166) ~ Samuel Fossos

(193) Samuel Fossos ~ Self-portrait as an African Chief (19 June 2011).


25 June 2011

History and Gay Marriage

"The President has long believed that gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights and legal protections as straight couples. That's why he has called for repeal of the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" and determined that his Administration would no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA in the courts. The states should determine for themselves how best to uphold the rights of their own citizens. The process in New York worked just as it should."

After hearing that the bill passed, Mary Rodriguez, in white, cheered at the Stonewall Inn in the West Village, where the gay-rights movement began more than 40 years ago. Photograph © Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times.

The opening passage I've lifted above is from a statement the White House released in response to the vote last night in Albany (the capitol of New York State) to legalize same-sex marriage. If this is Obama's position - and apparently it is - I wonder if he recalls the phrase "Jim Crow," which was the system by which States in the American South institutionalized the bigotry of the white population toward African-Americans for decades and decades. Among the problems with Obama's unwillingness to look to history for lessons that might guide us moving forward is that he ends up looking like a fool. In the current debate this means that state after state can enshrine religious bigotry in law by withholding equal protection of the laws from gay citizens. After all, New York is one of just six states (plus DC, of course) that have legalized same-sex marriage. And, according to this report in The New York Times: "Dozens more states have laws or constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage." Does Obama think "the process" worked just as it should in all those jurisdictions too? And, as The Times also reports, let's be perfectly clear too - the NY legislation was carefully drafted to insure that private and religious organizations can continue to discriminate against gay and lesbian citizens. This accommodation enshrines bigotry.

Having said all that, I am ambivalent about the entire preoccupation with marriage. Legislation allowing gay men and lesbians to marry is important insofar as it allows them certain legal rights and privileges that might otherwise be withheld from them. On the other hand it also clearly is an example of the normalization of gay liberation - homosexuals now are free to be just like heterosexuals. The aims of gay and lesbian politics turn out to be not so "queer" after all. (I myself would prefer that legal status and political-economic benefits be more clearly disentangled from one's marital status altogether.) And when I saw the photo above, taken at celebrations around the Stonewall Inn last night, I wonder at the irony of that political transformation.*
P.S.: This conclusion may seem odd or unsubstantiated. And I hardly am an expert on the topic. So, what follows is a passage from this recent interview with my colleague Douglas Crimp who is extremely articulate about such matters and from whom I have learned a tremendous amount.
"I think . . . that something of an enormous shift happened in the wake (sic) of AIDS toward a conservative gay culture where issues like fighting for equal rights to marriage and to fight in the military took precedence over what I think of as a truly queer culture, which is a culture that wants to change how we think about forms of human relations in a much more general sense. I still feel very much what I learned from early second wave feminism, which was the critique of marriage as an institution and how marriage actually served governance as a way of managing the complexity of relations that are possible among people.

One of the greatest gains of the gay liberation movement and the general liberation movements around sexuality and gender was the possibility of rethinking all kinds of questions of affective relationships so that among gay men for example, if you stop thinking about finding Mr. Right, finding a lover or finding a marriage partner, and rather think about possibly sexualizing friendship, maintaining friendly relations with people whom you have had a romantic relationship or having fuck buddies, then a whole proliferation of ways of connecting with others opens up."

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24 June 2011

Obama Waffles (AGAIN!)

If I had wanted four plus additional years of pointless war I could have voted for the John McCain/Sarah Palin traveling circus in 2008. Instead, I voted for Obama in the desperate hope (there is that word again!) that he might actually do what he claimed and get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan. So much for that idea. Now, even when a majority of respondents in polls say we should get the heck out, Obama is waffling and prevaricating. For crying out loud Barack, nearly half of all Republicans think we should get out! To say that the President's announcement the other evening is a disappointment is a gross understatement. The folks over at The Nation get it pretty much right - Obama is not even making political hay out of the situation.

Fortunately, I have been teaching each day and so managed to avoid posting on this political charade earlier in the week. That said, I won't make the same mistake in 2012.
P.S.: Having managed to execute Bin Laden after a decade, I am still not sure what further "success" anyone thinks we might have in Afghanistan - at least what "success" we might have in military terms.

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20 June 2011

Mass delusion: the rise of Libertarian Views in the U.S.

It turns out that libertarian views have been increasing in the U.S. over the past decade or so. I have a reasonably dim view of libertarians and have occasionally made that clear here before. This trend in public opinion seems to me to reflect mass delusion - people who attribute whatever success they've had solely to their own hard work and genius and stand around, entitled to government relief in the face of natural disasters, old age and such things.


No Comment (almost) - Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson Enters 21st Century

Untitled. Photograph © Vanessa Winship.

Photographer Vanessa Winship has won the 2011 Henri Cartier-Bresson Award. This is the first time the Fondation HCB has given the award to a woman. Note that this is the 2011 version of the award.

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18 June 2011

On Gustav Metzger and the Uses of Photography: Times Critic Misses the Point (Again)

"Frankly, I am mystified. How does it happen that the international art world intelligentsia has rallied around such punishingly obvious, politically banal, morally bullying and aesthetically enervating work?" - Ken Johnson

"Assuming that the critic writes a lucidly as he can, what is the proper subject? . . . What is the artist trying to do? Does he do it? Was it worth doing? . . . To put this another way, our best critics have the courage to take what seems to the the biggest risk: To forget themselves." ~ Robert Adams

To Crawl Into – Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938 (1996).
Photograph © Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images (2009).

Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, April 28 1943, (1995/2009).
Photograph © Linda Nylind/The Guardian.

Ken Johnson, the fellow who passes for a photography critic at The New York Times, is risk averse. This is the second time I have commented on his work. A couple of years ago I posted this longish response to an especially obtuse and mean-spirited review he published of a retrospective exhibition of work by Susan Meiselas. Now he has written this review of two exhibitions of work by Gustav Metzger that are on in NYC. And, once again, Johnson has placed himself, his spleen and resentments center stage.

Let's start from the ground floor. I generally am not a big fan of art world taste makers or the institutions they inhabit. So, I am not here to defend the curators and impresarios from the ire Johnson spews at them. I am more interested in Metzger, his work, and Johnson's sheer, seemingly willful inability to even attempt to take it on its own terms.

Johnson describes Metzger's work as "blunt, heavy-handed and trite" and as "unusually overbearing." Here is his reaction (an appropriate verb) to one of the pieces:
"A yellow tarp is laid out on the floor in the middle of the room. I asked the helpful young museum guard what it covered. He said that the artist wanted people to crawl under it to find out for themselves and to experience “public humiliation.” Under I went and discovered a big photograph of people on their knees, scrubbing a street in Vienna in 1938 under the direction of members of the Hitler Youth. Yellow, you may recall, was the color of the armbands that the Nazis forced Jews to wear. I am sure that I felt less humiliated and terrified than the people in the photograph did."
Johnson, of course, succeeds here in talking about himself. And that seems to be his concern more generally - he poses as the representative, however unauthorized, of all those New Yorkers whose refined historical awareness and aesthetic sensibilities will be assaulted by Metzger. Here are his concluding queries:
"Is the New Museum’s audience really as dim as this show implicitly assumes? Is it a European thing to think that any art about the Holocaust must be important?

Finally, I wonder, what purpose and whose interests are served by an exhibition that treats its viewers with such contempt?"
Johnson attributes responsibility for this assault mostly to those denizens of the art world he seems to resent so much. He pays scant attention to Metzger or his intentions or, indeed, his work. He is more intent, it seems, on venting his disdain. So let's diverge from Johnson's script slightly in hopes of seeing clear of his resentments.

Metzger is in his late 80s. His formative years revolved around the rise of Nazism and the extermination of the Jews. His parents and brother were shipped to the camps and killed. He escaped to Britain, a refugee. As he said of his early childhood in this interview with The Guardian* occasioned by an earlier exhibition of his work in London: "I recently had this clear thought, that those 12 years totally dominate my life, and will do to the last moment of my life."

Johnson addresses this experience brusquely: "The son of Polish Jews who died in the Holocaust, Mr. Metzger escaped from Nuremberg, his birthplace, to England in 1939." And he then moves on. Surely, none of this biographical detail insures that Metzger's work is "important," uniformly or as a whole. But it suggests that we might at least consider that possibility, that we might take it seriously. Johnson seems unable to do so. (Ironically, he ends up treating potential audiences with contempt, assuming they are equally incapable.)

As I read Johnson's review I could almost hear him sneering impatiently: 'Come on Gustav, get over it! You are bumming me out.'
* The two images I have lifted above are from a slide show that accompanies the interview. They depict two works that, in his review Johnson, mentions as especially objectionable.

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Talking Photography (2)

And here, in a second installment at The Guardian is a series of snippets from war photographers, each discussing a particular shot. I find commentary about the egotistical nature of such photographers uncharitable and reflecting more on the critic than on the photographer. These people place themselves in harms way to bring home to us - living safe, at a distance, typically oblivious - some sense of the violent world.

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17 June 2011

Talking Photography

I have been free riding on the "My Best Shot" series at The Guardian since it started. It is interesting to hear photographers talk about what was going on when they made a particular shot. Recently the nice folk at The Guardian published this short column that might be called 'his or her, not my, best shot.' They asked a bunch of photojournalists to pick out work that they especially like from another photographer and say why. Again, interesting.


Mistaken Identity

Op-Ed Columnist
Who Is James Johnson?
Published: June 16, 2011
I noticed this headline on this column on the Op-Ed page at The New York Times today and I wondered "Who's asking?" Then I realized that it was another person Brooks is interested in. And then I realized is that what Brooks is really interested in is obfuscation. He wants to shift primary blame for the ongoing financial catastrophe onto the government. No way the private sector could bear any responsibility. He notes in passing toward the end of his indictment of Fannie Mae, that: "The Wall Street-Industry-Regulator-Lobbyist tangle is even more deeply enmeshed." Just so. But where, then, is the outrage at the speculators on Wall Street and the ways they bought influence and regulatory 'reform?' Brooks doesn't evince any whatsoever. Yet he is simply repeating a recurrent theme in the right-wing narrative of the political-economic collapse. The primary problem, unfortunately, is not that the government aimed to help get people into sound housing. The problem is that politicians - at the behest of the financial industry and its cronies - eliminated restraint on the speculation in securities. Brooks knows better. He only need to read another of his colleagues at The Times (or other commentators) to see that the case for blaming the government or the working class is perhaps less persuasive than he lets on.

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16 June 2011

David Levi Strauss on Photographic Manipulations

David Levi Strauss has published this short essay on photographic manipulation at, of all places, TIME. In part it is a reminder that the problem is not photoshop. And in part he is speculating about why we have a need to believe photographs, to find them credible.

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15 June 2011

Enthusiasms (32) ~ Farmers By Nature

I have let this theme go for too long and will try to post periodically about music that has caught my fancy. I was in Washington DC last week and made a stop at the Melody Record Shop. Among the cds (how retro!) I found is this wonderful trio collaboration by Gerald Cleaver, William Parker & Craig Taborn. This apparently is the second release on AUM Fidelity by the trio, which calls itself Farmers by Nature. I've been playing it more or less constantly since we returned home. The title of the cd "out of this world's distortions" continues on the title cut as ... "grow aspens and other beautiful things." Just so. The phrase not only is true of the broader world, it succinctly captures the beautiful music made by this trio too.
P.S.: I will note too that the cover photograph to this release is pretty amazing.

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14 June 2011

Jeff's Birthday

Jeff was born June 14th 1992. He'd have been 19 today. Have I said that he loved to swim? We would go to the local Y and he would find something heavy, toss it into the deep end of the pool dive in, swim to the bottom and collect it, climb out of the pool and repeat - until exhaustion set in or the staff kicked us out. In this picture (not at the Y pool) Jeff probably is five or six. I miss him. Happy Birthday Jeff.
Thanks for the photo Betty.

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Best Shots (165) ~ Stephen Wright

(192) Stephen Wright ~ The Smiths (12 June 2011).


13 June 2011

The GOP Candidates Debate ~ Where is Snow White?

Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann,
Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, and Herman
Cain at the New Hampshire Republican Presidential Debate at Saint
Anselm College in Manchester.
Photograph © Cheryl Senter for
The New York Times.


12 June 2011

"Shared Sacrifice" Indeed

If this graphic doesn't speak for itself, you can find some elaboration on the comparison here. (N.B.: Even if, implausibly, each of the millionaire households has four or even five members, the number of poor women and children participating in WIC dwarfs the number of rich folks getting tax breaks.) - Thanks again MSH!

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11 June 2011

Q: Where Does the Media Turn for Information & Opinions? A: Rightward

I suppose there is no surprise here. The figures are for 2008 and are from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting [look here]. The FAIR folks are trumpeting the increase in media reliance on "progressive" organizations. But three things are important: (1) This may be a blip caused by the mistaken perception that the newly elected President was a progressive and the media seeking views or reactions "his" camp.(2) The top 25 list of sources is dominated by Centrist & Conservative outfits - indeed they nearly sweep the top 10. And (3) the left-right spectrum in American politics has hardly stood still in recent decades, the Republicans have dragged it inexorably rightward. So who knows what "centrist" means? (Thanks MSH!)

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The Crude Narrative on US Military Intervention in Libya

When President Obama announced that we were going to intervene in Libya, the standard narrative was that this was a victory for what The Guardian called "foreign policy moralists" [1] [2] in the administration. The irony of liberals seeking military intervention! But today Glenn Greenwald has this nice post suggesting that the decision to bomb the Qaddafi regime was prompted by a rather large dollop of standard-issue realism. The Libyans were messing with access to oil.

In the explanation he offered for why he OK'd the bombing, Mr. Obama indeed acknowledged multiple factors at work [3]. So now we need to sort the relative weight of the various considerations that led to the decision to intervene. Perhaps American liberals should see that they get their way only by hitching their cart to the mule-team of narrow national interest. Likewise, the folks at The Guardian need no longer be quite so perplexed about the "troubling selectivity" of intervening in Libya but not in the myriad of other places where authoritarian leaders are rampaging to protect their prerogatives. The President's decision to protect the insurgents and civilians in Eastern Libya seems to have been lubricated with crude.

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10 June 2011

Not Bad for 67

The eastern part of the Brooks Range, which rises to almost 10,000 feet.
Photograph © Sebastião Salgado, Amazonas-Contact Press Images.

It is funny how things work out. Just yesterday I checked in here at The Guardian to see if there had been any recent installments of Salgado's "Genesis Project." No luck. Salgado finances his projects, in part, by collaborating with a handful of prominent newspapers for advanced glimpses of images. The Guardian is one of those papers; apparently The New York Times is also since today they ran this interview and this slide show.


09 June 2011

Perspectives on the Corruption of American Politics

Over at the Huff Post I came across links to not one but two sharp political entries today: (1) this skewering of the sanctimonious Evan Bayh* for his post-Senate career in shameless lobbying and (2) this graphic presentation of the wildly negative consequences of the Bush-Obama** tax cuts.
* P.S.: To date Bayh has barely risen to the level of visibility - he played bit roles in posts on nepotism and political cronyism. But he is a poster child for my campaign against bi-partisanship.
** P.S.: This label is not my creation I heard it on the radio - but it is true that Obama allowed for the renewal of the tax cuts - due in part to his sincere policy preferences and in part to his political ineptitude.

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06 June 2011

Best Shot (164) ~ Philip-Lorca diCorcia

(191) Philip-Lorca diCorcia ~ Test Shot for Hustlers (5 June 2011).




I do not give a hoot about your cyber-escapades or your real life drama. But I am likely part of a small minority. And the majority includes not just normal media, but attack poochies like Andrew Breitbart.


05 June 2011

Political Street Art - Murals and More from Tunisia & Libya

Tunisia, 2011 - www.zoo-project.com. Photograph © Elissa Jobson.

At The Guardian today are two slide shows - here and here - of political street art from central theaters of the "Arab Spring."

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04 June 2011

Talking School Reform With The Mayor

I have posted here pretty regularly on a range of issues having to do with secondary and higher education in the United States. This past week I read a truly impressive book by Diane Ravitch entitled The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2010). The book is impressive for a number of reasons. Not the least of those reasons is that in it Ravitch rightly indicates what evidence exists regarding both school choice and high stakes testing does not support those trendy reforms. At best, the evidence for specific proposals within those broad rubrics is mixed; more often it is not even mixed. Simply reviewing that evidence would not in itself be remarkable but for the fact that for many years Ravitch herself advocated the choice and testing policies she is now calling into question. In a sense then she has changed her mind and she is saying that frankly and in public. How refreshing and how rare to hear an intellectual do that?

The second reason the book is impressive is that Ravitch consistently stresses the implications of particular reforms proposed for public education for democratic politics. This is clearest in her discussion of the inflated claims made for "mayoral control" schemes and in her (to my mind) withering criticism of the well-endowed foundations that are wielding so much power in debates about education. But the theme appears throughout the book in an understated manner. It is all the more powerful for that tone.

Finally, the book is impressive for the variety of positions Ravitch affirms. She speaks out for teachers and their unions and she speaks out for community schools. She speaks out for the importance of a solid curriculum in schools - even as she acknowledges that devising one is difficult. She speaks out generally for constructive interventions when they are called for and repudiates "punitive" strategies. More generally, she speaks out for the importance of public education in a democracy. So, while I do not always agree with her particular recommendations - I think, for instance, that she is a bit to sanguine about the virtues of community and I have experienced first-hand the downside of Catholic School systems - I found the reasoned, non-dogmatic way she advances her views remarkable given the vituperative, high decibel way too many discussions of education reform take place. This approach come through too in her contributions to the joint blog Ravitch keeps with another writer on matters of education whom I very much admire - Deborah Meier.

It turns out, of course, that speaking frankly about the shortcomings of policies backed by the wealthy and powerful often will make those supporters cranky. So, predictably enough, Michael Bloomberg (Mayor of NYC, backer of mayoral control and various punitive and ineffectual education reform strategies) apparently has taken exception to Ravitch's book. The folks at Salon.com report that a prominent writer at one of Bloomberg's publications has produced an intemperate attack on Ravitch. It surely rings hollow to read at the end of the piece that the opinions the author expresses are "his own." He might as well have been taking dictation from the Mayor. In that sense the reporter at Salon.com is being way to charitable in saying there is only the appearance of impropriety here.
P.S.: You can find the proximate cause of Bloomberg's pique here in Ravitch's recent Op-Ed at The New York Times.

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03 June 2011

The Rochester International Jazz Festival & the Illusion of Post-Racial Music

The tenth edition of the Rochester International Jazz Festival (RIJF) is about to open. Many see this as a time to celebrate success. I think it also affords the opportunity for some much needed, critical reflection.

When I read down the RIJF schedule I see lots of what we might call World Music, R&B, Pop, Blues, or Americana. I love Elvis Costello and K.D. Lang. However, I suspect we can, charitably, agree that they hardly are jazz performers. In many instances of course, labels may make no difference; an exception is when a genre – and here I have jazz in mind - is ripe for the endangered list. That said, let’s set aside the overly expansive - dare we say indiscriminate - conception of what counts as “jazz” at the RIJF. My primary worry lies elsewhere.

Consider history. One can exaggerate the extent to which jazz revolves around improvisation. But it undoubtedly is a music defined by creativity and inventiveness. Overwhelmingly, African Americans are responsible for the major innovations in jazz. Musically the pattern is crystal clear – think of the brilliance of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman. It is only somewhat less clear when we consider “practical’ considerations like organizational forms, from the early New Orleans funeral marches to the Basie Band to Mingus’s Jazz Workshop to the AACM. Obviously, there are lots and lots of excellent jazz musicians who are not African American. And one can easily name non-African Americans who have made substantial contributions to jazz on artistic and practical dimensions. Think, for instance, of Bill Evans and John Hammond respectively. It is nonetheless fair to say that those contributions pale in comparison (pun intended) to the defining innovations of those I listed above.

With that in mind, there are three things to notice about the line-up at RIJF. The first is that the preponderance of performers are white. The “stars” trailing down the left side of the RIJF web page this year are Elvis Costello, Natalie Cole, Chris Botti, K.D. Lang, the Fab Faux, and Bela Fleck. All but Cole are white. That pattern holds once we look beyond the headliners. And it holds too over the past decade. It is, in other words, deep and persistent.

The second thing to notice is that the average age of the few African-American jazz musicians on the program is what we might gently call “advanced.” This year Marcus Strickland is the exception that proves the rule. But what about the myriad other African American musicians in their thirties, forties, and fifties who are renewing and redefining the jazz tradition? They are too numerous to name and are conspicuous by their absence. Of course, age often brings accomplishment and it is wonderful to see Cedar Walton on the program this year. But even if we restrict ourselves to the august, the RIJF organizers seemingly have a narrow view of accomplishment. Where are the other “elders” – from, say, Muhal Richard Abrams through Archie Shepp to Randy Weston - of the music? If these august figures have appeared at RIJF in past years, I missed it.

Finally, you will notice that many of the African American performers who do make it onto the RIJF program fall most plausibly into a non-jazz genre. In recent years, as I recall, we have had Taj Mahal, Booker T, and the Neville Brothers. This year it is Lucky Peterson. Wonderful musicians all. But none is obviously a jazz musician in any meaningful sense. And surely they are not aiming to challenge or transform listeners in the way Abrams or Shepp or Weston continues to do.

As it stands the RIJF schedule does not vaguely reflect jazz history and, as a result, it risks reinforcing and compounding what I think is a massive misinterpretation of the music – that it is not a living, developing enterprise. In that sense, the RIJF patronizes it’s audience, refusing to push any musical boundaries or challenge listeners in any significant way.

When I recently listened to the RIJF producers being interviewed on our local npr station (WXXI ~ 31 May 2011) it became clear that virtually every aspect of festival planning – down to the time it takes, for example, to walk from venue to venue - is carefully considered and calculated and calibrated. This leads me to ask the obvious question: in their programming have the organizers chosen to downplay the historic and ongoing contributions African Americans to jazz? Is this a conscious decision or merely thoughtlessness?

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Photographic Effects

"Reflection on the ethical climate is not the private preserve of a few academic theorists in universities. After all, the satirist and cartoonist, as well as the artist and the novelist, comment upon and criticize the prevailing climate just as effectively as those who get know as philosophers. The impact of a campaigning novelist such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dickens, Zola or Solzhenitsyn may be much greater than that of the academic theorist. A single photograph may have done more to halt the Vietnam War than all the writings of moral philosophers of the time put together." ~ Simon Blackburn*

Phan Thi Kim Phuc, near the village of Trang Bang,
Vietnam - June 8, 1972. Photograph © Nick Ut.

Blackburn's overall claim (made in reference to Nick Ut's famous image) is hardly astonishing given that, even during the late sixties, the writings of philosophers had scant impact on matters of practical politics. I read his comments less as stressing the futility of philosophers than as a useful reminder of the influence that literature and the arts can, in particular instances, have on the politics. In a sense, Blackburn is re-cycling a claim that Richard Rorty regularly made, namely that morality and ethics presuppose some process of defining the "we" to whom we apply our ethical categories. Rorty insists that that process of categorization often trades upon the kind of ‘sad, sentimental story’ conveyed by writers of the sort Blackburn mentions just insofar as such stories revolve around ‘detailed descriptions’ of human hardship and suffering.

But that, in turn, raises the question of how photographs might have such profound impact and why they so rarely do so. Those are large, important questions. I think Blackburn (and by extension, Rorty) is correct about the possible impact of photography. But neither provides an especially compelling account of how that impact comes about or how it too commonly is thwarted.
* Simon Blackburn. 2001. Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics. Oxford UP,
page 5.

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Political Ambiguities ~ Arundhati Roy on Compassion & Non-Violence

I started to write this post last winter and then somehow let it fall by the wayside. Waste not, want not? . . .

I have posted here about (and linked to interviews with) Arundhati Roy numerous times. The folks at Guernica have yet another interview with Roy in a recent issue. The interview includes a comment I find especially interesting relative to the discourse about preaching "non-violence" and "compassion" in politics. Here is what Roy says:

"Guernica: You have written that “people believe that faced with extermination they have the right to fight back. By any means necessary.” The knee-jerk response to this has been: Look, she’s preaching violence.

Arundhati Roy: My question is, if you are an Adivasi living in a village in a dense forest in Chhattisgarh, and that village is surrounded by eight hundred Central Reserve Police Force who have started to burn down the houses and rape the women, what are people supposed to do? Are they supposed to go on a hunger strike? They can’t. They are already hungry, they are already starving. Are they supposed to boycott goods? They can’t because they don’t have the money to buy goods. And if they go on a fast or a dharna, who is looking, who is watching? So, my position is just that it would be immoral of me to preach violence to anybody unless I’m prepared to pick up arms myself. But I think it is equally immoral for me to preach nonviolence when I’m not bearing the brunt of the attack.

: According to Macaulay, the rationale for the introduction of English in India, as we all know, was to produce a body of clerks. We have departed from that purpose, of course, but still, in our use of the language we remain remarkably conservative. I wonder sometimes whether your style itself, exuberant and excessive, isn’t for these readers a transgression.

Arundhati Roy
: I wouldn’t say that it’s all Macaulay’s fault. There is something clerky and calculating about our privileged classes. They see themselves as the State or as advisors to the State, rarely as subjects. If you read columnists and editorials, most have a very clerky, “apply-through-proper-channels” approach. As though they are a shadow cabinet. Even when they are critical of the State they are what a friend once described as “reckless at slow speed.” So I don’t think my transgressions as far as they are concerned has only to do with my style. It’s about everything—style, substance, politics, speed. I think it worries them that I’m not a victim and that I don’t pretend to be one. They love victims and victimology. My writing is not a plea for aid or for compassion towards the poor. We’re not asking for more NGOs or charities or foundations in which the rich can massage their egos and salve their consciences with their surplus money. The critique is structural."
It is, in other words, easy to see the point at which moralism and politics part company - the latter requires that we recognize asymmetries of power and resources and their consequences, the former more or less requires that we remain oblivious to them.

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John Berger ~ Drawing

Here, at the BBC, you can find this short video interview with writer/artist/critic John Berger. I especially like the analogy the interviewer makes between Spinoza, as a grinder of lenses helping people to see, and Berger who, through his work, aims to do the same. And I like too Berger's characterization of drawing as "a constant correcting of errors."

Berger has a new book, out in Britain, forthcoming this fall in the U.S.; that is always something to look forward to.

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01 June 2011

Relentless Trajectory: Digital Versus Film

How much longer can photographic film hold on?

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) — As photography continues its march toward digital dominance, a shrinking number of people are still devoted to shooting on film, the analog ancestor to today's technology.

In Rochester, Gary Thompson and his wife are the only two of 11 partners and resident artists at a private gallery who haven't switched to digital.

But that time may be near. He thinks he will eventually make the switch.

At the turn of the 21st century, American shutterbugs were buying close to a billion rolls of film annually. This year, the total could be a mere 20 million rolls.

Equally startling has been the plunge in film camera sales. Americans bought 19.7 million film cameras in 2000; that number might dip below 100,000 this year.

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