30 September 2011

Stay on the Sidewalk?

Occupy Wall Street ~ New York police make sure marchers stay on the
sidewalks. Run-ins with the NYPD have given some traction to the ongoing
protest. Photograph
© Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times 28 September 2011.

"It is a group of people, gathered together, to create a public space seeking meaning in their culture." That is the assessment of the goings on with #OccupyWallStreet offered in this post at Naked Capitalism. The post, written by a former Democratic Congressional staffer, alternates between being sensible and vaguely patronizing.
"The level of knowledge among protesters on how Wall Street works is fairly high in terms of abstract conceptualizations, but they don’t actually have a lot of immediate connection to policy-making and financial practice. Furthermore, the space is fraught with the problem of consensus-based anti-leadership organizing. There are no spokespeople, and you can’t get on their media list (they don’t have one). The anti-leadership non-hierarchical consensus method is designed to avoid the way that leaders can be smeared and/or co-opted. It does not really scale, and this is a serious challenge going forward. But ultimately, the energy of just having a bunch of people in one place for a long period of time is very different, and much more interesting, than just a march. The protesters are creating a public space for the discussion of economic justice, just by showing up."
All that is true enough, I suspect; and a good thing too. But notice that the actual space is officially defined and policed - tents are illegal, marches need official sanction and, lacking that, are subject to violent reaction from the police, and the Fed Building is not just occupied territory but its denizens remain, I suspect, both largely oblivious and wholly impervious to what is happening in the park. Going forward, what is needed is not just a way of making decision-making that "scales", but actual places and practices and institutions that might help render meaning effective. This is not to disagree entirely with the claim that "perhaps success and failure isn’t the right way to think about what’s going on in downtown New York." That is a complicated matter generally [1] [2]. It is simply to say that meaning is not free-floating; if those who create it are unable to invest it in sustainable forms it will dissipate. Nothing would, in this instance, make political and economic elites and institutions happier. They will have tolerated, but not been truly threatened by, dissent.

So, please don't read me as a critic; I am just fretting. The task is daunting when you are forced to stay on the sidewalk.
P.S.: You can find an astute defense of the Wall Street actions here.
P.S.2: And you can find more fretting here and here. (Added Saturday 10/1/11)

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29 September 2011

In the Mail today ...

28 September 2011

Miki Kratsman ~ First Photographer to win Emet Prize

"From an early age I read a great deal of philosophy, but I had never connected the world of photography to that. [. . .] From a certain stage, that first world became a test case that was applied in regard to every significant aspect of life and photography. Suddenly the question of where I stood when taking a photograph did not stem from what would benefit the picture, but functioned at the moral level." ~ Miki Kratzman
Refugee Camp 2000. Photograph © Miki Kratzman.

At Ha'artez today is this longish story/interview with Israeli photographer Miki Kratzman. I do not know Kratzman's work well, but you might have encountered it from reading Ariella Azoulay's The Civil Contract of Photography since her discussion revolves, at crucial points, around his images. Kratzman, it seems, is undertaking a set of provocative, often reflexive, projects that don't just straddle the divide between politics and photography but seek to reconfigure it in thoroughgoing ways. And his work also defies conventional but actually quite fuzzy boundaries of photojournalism, documentary, and art photography.

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27 September 2011

Last Day to Contribute to Prison Photography on the Road

Pete Brook, who runs the extremely insightful and important blog Prison Photography is setting out on a longish tour of the US the purpose of which he describes like this:
'Prison Photography' on the Road is a journalism project. I will conduct over 40 audio interviews, publish them online and make them available to the prison reform and photography communities free of charge via Creative Commons licensing. My writing during the trip will also be CC licensed. I'm doing the legwork so others can enjoy the ride and use the results.
Pete has been raising money to fund the project on Kickstarter and, while he seems to have met his threshold, he surely could use a bit more funding. So, if you can swing it and you have not already done so, link through to the Kickstarter page and make a donation. His fundraising campaign ends September 29th.

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My friend Michel tried to send me this card but it was returned as undeliverable. She sent it to my office, so now I am wondering if perhaps I've been relieved of my duties and am simply the last to know. In any case, I got the virtual version via email last night demonstrating that even once the U.S. Post Office goes belly up communication might continue - rain, snow, dark of night, and so forth. Thanks m.


26 September 2011

The Need for Democratic Institutional Imagination (2)

Not long ago I wrote this critical post in response to a policy recommendation by Dani Rodrik for depoliticizing fiscal policy by handing it over to undemocratic technocrats. I will not repeat my case here, but the idea is a very bad one. But it seems to be somewhat popular as now Peter Orszag has championed the cause of "less democracy."

But the problem with technocracy is that it doesn't work so well. Who will guard the guardians when - as is the case with (ooops!) Peter Osrzag - they trade their high-level technocratic positions in government for high paying corporate gigs? Just where are the disinterested technocrats when you need one? We need more accountability, not less! We need not only institutional imagination, but democratic institutional imagination!

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Berkeley College Republicans Act Out Their Resentments in Public

So, here go the cute College Republicans again with their "affirmative action bake sales" (report here). I got caught up in the fracas surrounding a similar event here in Rochester a few years back. The poor oppressed Repubs have a problem though. They don't like it when the admissions folk use some categories (say race or ethnicity) to increase diversity. But they don't seem to mind when the admissions folk roll out the really important categories - like athletes, for instance, or kids from some exotic region of the country, or all those no-too-bright offspring of rich donors and alums, or whatever.* (Unless things have changed markedly, "legacy" admits are the single biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action in American higher education - look it up.) The latter get all sorts of consideration from the admissions folk. But - according to the young conservative crowd - they must "deserve" it. All that is lacking in that line of argument is, well, the argument.

There are few things less attractive than resentment and the young Republicans seem to have gotten an extra helping.
* For the record, institutions have all sorts of reasons for admitting applicants of all sorts. And I am not opposed to even those not-too-bright legacy admits - just so long as we recognize that they are benefiting from affirmative action (preferential treatment).

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25 September 2011

Best Shots (177) ~ Emily Andersen

(204) Emily Andersen ~ G & V at home
(25 September 2011).


21 September 2011

Travesty Defined? Or Murder as Planned ...

Bug or feature? That is my question. Is the imminent state-sponsored murder of Troy Davis a travesty of justice, or is it the way our system of justice is intended to work?

Can I say for sure that Davis is innocent? No, I cannot prove a negative. No one can. But the State surely has not met the "beyond a reasonable doubt" threshold.

Let's set aside the loathsome judicial and penal officials in Georgia. They are beneath contempt.

I have to say that the comments by the family whose loved one Mr. Davis did not murder are chilling. They run something like this: '"He" stole our future; regardless of whether we or anyone else might prove that. We don't care whether he did it or not, we want closure and peace. And that will come when someone, anyone, else dies.' There is a reason why we disallow people from being judges in their own case. In this instance tragedy has made these people smaller. The justice system is serving as enabler of that psychological withering.


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20 September 2011

‘Photography is like diamond cutting. If you miss you miss.’

Untitled [Merce (II)], 1953. Photograph © Robert Rauschenberg.

Untitled [John Cage, Black Mountain], 1952.
Photograph © Robert Rauschenberg.

Rauschenberg's view, captured in the title to this post, is one view of photography. It is not one I share. Nor is it one that is useful for those hoping to discern the uses of photography which typically rely on considerably more than the point and click he was willing to sanction. That said, it seems he was a pretty fine shot.


19 September 2011

Pete Brook on Lens

If you've not seen it, this post at Lens - a short but excellent chat with Pete Brook - is extremely interesting. I think Pete's work at Prison Photography is first rate and I also think he is just right about the inflated view people have about the potential impact of photography.

18 September 2011

Political Science in the News - Kathryn Sikkink on Former Dictators & Human Rights

A couple of weeks ago I wrote this post and have thought it might be useful to start calling attention to the work of political scientists more generally as it appears in the press. This past week Kathryn Sikkink published this Op-Ed in The New York Times. In the essay - "Making Tyrants Do Time" - Sikkink argues against those who resist holding deposed authoritarian leaders to account because they suspect that doing so "undermines democracy, exacerbates conflict and could lead to greater human rights violations." In other words they have essentially strategic reasons for not upholding political commitment to the rule of law.But Sikkink actually went out an looked and generated a result that I have to admit I find surprising:
"Historical and statistical evidence gives us reason to question criticisms of human rights trials. My research shows that transitional countries — those moving from authoritarian governments to democracy or from civil war to peace — where human rights prosecutions have taken place subsequently become less repressive than transitional countries without prosecutions, holding other factors constant.

By comparing countries like Argentina and Chile that have used human rights prosecutions with those like Brazil that have not, I found that prosecutions tended not to exacerbate human rights violations, undermine democracy or lead to violence.

Of 100 countries that underwent a transition from 1980 to 2004 (the period for which extensive data is available), 48 pursued at least one human rights prosecution, and 33 of those pursued two or more. Countries that have prosecuted former officials exhibit lower levels of torture, summary execution, forced disappearances and political imprisonment. Although civil war heightens repression, prosecutions in the context of civil war do not make the situation worse, as critics claim.

Such evidence doesn’t tell us what will happen in any individual country, but it is a better basis from which to reason than a counterfactual guess. The possibility of punishment and disgrace makes violating human rights more costly, and thus deters future leaders from doing so"
I have to say that this is a remarkable finding, since my presumption is that trials would generate just the sorts of nasty consequences that Sikkink shows do not occur. She does not over sell the point. But this is a nice basis on which to assess how best to reconcile strategic apprehensions and political commitments in particular cases.

And, of course, given the Obama administration's handling of our own war criminals - you know the torture team from the Bush administration - I find this concluding remark insightful: "Almost all leaders, when faced with calls for accountability, have wanted to turn the page and look toward the future. But demands for justice are robust, and countries that have held former leaders accountable have in most cases come away stronger." Of course we are not literally making a transition from authoritarian rule. But maybe the analogy is close enough that our own President should pay heed.

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Pandering, yes ... But to Whom, Mr. Obama?

Image © Mr. Fish.

Today, even the center-right editorial board at The New York Times took this swipe at Obama for being politically tone-deaf. (Of course the presumption is that he actually might be vaguely progressive on the economy, which I doubt.) But here is the relevant factual basis for their complaint:
"The Times and CBS News released a new poll on Friday, and once again we were impressed that Americans are a lot smarter than Republican leaders think, more willing to sacrifice for the national good than Democratic leaders give them credit for, and more eager to see the president get tough than Mr. Obama and his conflict-averse team realize."
In other words the stress on bi-partisanship - which actually means pandering to right-wing elite preferences - is a pretty poor political strategy. Not only has it led to policy disasters, but it is pretty lame in simple electoral terms. In other words, even if Obama is, as I believe, a center-right politician, he is going to lose the election by if he keeps pandering to the right. In fact, it may be too late.

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15 September 2011

Best Shots (176 ) ~ William Klein

(203) William Klein ~ Royal Wedding, Montage. (11 September 2011).


14 September 2011

Claire Harlan

Top: from South Los Angeles; Bottom: from Architecture & Cathexis.
Both images © Claire Harlan.

Every so often - actually, not as often as you might think - I receive email from a photographer, introducing themselves, saying how they read the blog and how they think I might like their work, and linking to their web page. Nearly every time, I take some time to see what the sender is up to. And usually the work is pretty good, sometimes it is impressive. I recently received such an email from Los Angeles based photographer Claire Harlan. I'd put her quite clearly in the impressive category. I especially like her Grandscapes series, but have lifted the two images here from other projects because these singular images sort of jumped out at me. In any case, I'll offer no big political interpretation and just say this is very good work.


13 September 2011

The Need for Democratic Institutional Imagination

Dani Rodrik has just published this Op-Ed in which he chastises elites in countries with developed economies for lacking "institutional imagination." I could hardly agree more with that broad charge. (Rodrik, by the way, is apparently yet another economist who seems to think - if only tacitly here - that Robert Barro's recent pro-austerity ideological manifesto is wrongheaded.) But I am not persuaded by Rodrik's proposal for an "independent" fiscal policy board to help depoliticize current fiscal dynamics. The proposal is anti-democratic (as are central banks). On this I rely on William Keech's under-appreciated but indispensable Economic Politics Cambridge UP, 1995.* As is usually the case, I read much of the "news" on macro-economic policy through the very useful prism that Bill Keech provides.

There are at least two relevant factors here. The first is that (as Keech establishes) there is no reason to think that the basic distortions in macro-economic policy emerge from the demands of an irresponsible, opportunistic, venal citizenry. The problem seems to reside instead with our venal and irresponsible political and economic elites. Maybe the evidence has changed remarkably since Keech's study appeared. I doubt it. The second factor is that we cannot presume that any such board would proceed in an apolitical, technocratic manner. It will not be any more apolitical than its membership and those who appoint the membership. Think Alan Greenspan, for instance. And ask why the Fed is so beholden to markets and preoccupied with price stability while being more or less resolutely unresponsive to matters of unemployment. (On this I recommend Alan Blinder's old Central Banking in Theory & Practice among other sources that raise that question). It will not be technocratic because, among other things, there is (and here again I am relying on Keech) there is no precise economic knowledge that can be applied in a social engineering sort of way to this problem.

What we require, in other words, is not just a more robust institutional imagination but a more robustly democratic imagination. One good place to start would be Keech's own reflections on accountability in the macro-economic policy-making process. What we need is more, and more effective, democracy not less. And the sort of board Rodrik proposes would, I am pretty confident, give us considerably less.
* You can link to a recent conference paper in which Bill updates his argument in light of the current depression here.

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12 September 2011

Excuse Me Dr. Barro, Your Ideology Is Showing (Once More)

On Saturday, The New York Times ran this Op-Ed by Harvard economist Robert Barro. It seemed to me to be predictably thin gruel in large part because Barro failed totally to differentiate between the actual sources of our current deficit. If you look at this picture, it is clear that the economic depression and the inadequate stimulus spending that Bush-Obama generated to combat it are hardly the prime culprits. End the wars and tax people - both the wildly wealthy and the merely 'middle class' - at pre-Bush levels and the picture would look a lot different. And that presupposes, of course, that we ought primarily to be pre-occupied with deficits in the first place! Given the ongoing depression we might want to calibrate any such tax reform. But those are hardly the policy alternatives Barro presses us to examine. Instead he is, explicitly, using the depression to forward a conservative agenda. As he asserts: "crises are opportune times for these important, basic reforms." In other words, rather than worrying about the underlying causal story and proposing the sorts of remedy it makes relevant, Barro is peddling his conservative ideology pure and simple. This apparently shocked Paul Krugman.* Why, though? As I've noted here before, Barro's public pronouncements often amount to little more than ideology. And as I have said before too, even an economist should be able to do better than that.
* As it turns out not all economists were shocked by Barro's tissue of undefended assertion and non-sequitur.

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11 September 2011


This image of Manhattan was taken by the Enhanced Thematic Mapper
Plus (ETM+) aboard the Landsat 7 satellite on September 12, 2001.
Image courtesy USGS Landsat 7 team, at the EROS Data Center.

I am always at something of a loss about what to post on this day. Here are some previous efforts - [1] [2] [3] [4] - any one of which I might have re-cycled since they each still capture part of my thoughts and feelings. Today The Guardian is running this slideshow of images, mostly up close and personal, from 9-11. Today I've taken a different approach and lifted this image from npr in hopes it will encourage people - actually, Americans - to try to place some distance between themselves and their identities and this horrible, frightening event. Much of the news coverage over the past few days has been on the theme that 9/11 "changed everything." I would argue that that is so only to the extent that we have allowed it to - or have allowed others to make it - do so. That is a loss and a political one. It is important to recall that day and those who died in the attacks; but it is important too not to be defined by it.


10 September 2011


Here are a couple of pics of August this past Tuesday on his first day of Kindergarten. He was pretty anxious (feeling "shy" as he puts it) but managed to navigate the big step reasonably well. And, of course, he was pretty happy when I put the camera away too!

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08 September 2011

Leibovitz-Kardashian, Incorporated?

So, is this news really so depressing? It surely is not terribly surprising? The wages of profligacy and poor judgement for Annie.

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06 September 2011

Labor Day (+1) ~ Billy Bragg

Another of the shows I heard parts of (actually, I repeatedly heard the same part) as I drove south yesterday - apparently adjacent stations broadcast Democracy Now! serially, hour after hour - was this interview with Billy Bragg. He talks about the music industry and politics and his campaign against cynicism. At times I can sign on to his campaign - a better day, hope, and all that. But at other times I hum along with Leonard Cohen in my head. Everybody Knows, right?

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05 September 2011

Labor Day Poems

Tomorrow is August's first day of kindergarten and so, today I drove the seven hours down from Seattle to visit for the big event. True to form, August's mother did her best to sow mayhem, but we seem to have weathered the distraction and frustration, he and I. That was facilitated greatly by a dip in the pool here where we are staying.

It also is Labor Day and all along the drive there were snippets on the radio about work and workers. I didn't really get to listen to any show completely since I kept driving out of range. But I did get a chance to listen to a good portion of this interview with our new Poet Laureate Phillip Levine. So here is an appropriate sample:
What Work Is*
Phillip Levine

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work
You know what work is — if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.
You'll note Lewis Hine on the cover. And you can hear Levine read the poem here. And here is yet another, about - among other things - brothers:
You Can Have It**
Philip Levine

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one. You can have it, he says.

The moonlight streams in the window
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon. He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.

Thirty years will pass before I remember
that moment when suddenly I knew each man
has one brother who dies when he sleeps
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,

and that together they are only one man
sharing a heart that always labors, hands
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?

All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a time

with always two more waiting. We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.

In 1948 in the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposes
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctors’ appointments, bonds,
wedding certificates, drivers licenses.

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then

to the coming one. Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.
And on our way to pizza tonight I chatted with August about how I talk to him when he is not around, and how I talk to Doug on the phone and how I talk to Jeff, making sure he watches out for his brothers. And August listened more or less in disbelief, for a while. But he is intrigued when I tell him his brothers care for him and watch over him. And they do.

Later in the pizza joint, between gulps of root beer, August said "I remember every thing you tell me."
* From: Phillip Levine. What Work Is (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).
** From: Phillip Levine. New Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)

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03 September 2011

Political Science in the "News"

The silence here is induced by my running around the American Political Science Association convention in Seattle. I am not "blogging the conference" because I am mostly avoiding official sessions and hanging with friends and because I find that particular blogging enterprise quite pompous when I see it. That said, in The New York Times today you can find this Op-Ed on race in America by two smart political scientists I know.

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