31 July 2012

"I became a photographer and not a person" ~ Photojournalism as Morally Troubling?

Last week The Guardian ran this series of thoughtful, albeit painful, reflections by photographers who had encountered deeply disturbing events and faced the prospect of taking pictures or intervening ... and, mostly, chosen the former. I have to say that I myself am ambivalent about these tales. We rely on photojournalists to show us that this and this and this - usually all horrific - happen. Do we want them for their compassion? Or, do we want them for their ability to stomach events that we'd otherwise be able to blithely ignore - and in which we often are, directly or indirectly, complicit?

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30 July 2012

Broad Interference

Philanthropy is a dangerous thing. Donors often hope to control their "gifts" with what turn out to be dire consequences for recipients. It is the cost of grovelling for dollars. Here  is a report from The Guardian on the ongoing conflict at the MOCA in Los Angeles, where the inimitable Eli Broad apparently has managed to make a matching gift - along with his dough he has given a large dollop of interference with the way the museum operates. Can cultural institutions (including Universities) ever manage to tell the rich guys to back off? In this case, Broad is no doubt enjoying massive tax benefits as he drives the museum into the ditch.

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It is Summer - So August is Visiting

August is visiting - after having basically been abducted by his mom who took him out of the country without telling me and, for a month repeatedly refused to provide the simplest of details regarding their whereabouts, travel schedule, or flight itinerary. She deigned to return him to the states three days after he was scheduled to start his summer here with me in Rochester. And, of course, as if to punctuate the bad acts, on arrival here she refused to turn over his passport so that we might take him to Toronto for a weekend. Some things simply show no signs of changing.

In any case, this past weekend we drove to Massachusetts to see my folks and sister. The sort of behavior I just mentioned means that August rarely gets to see my family. That doesn't seem to deter the boy, however. He positively absorbs the loving. Here he is with my father reading a book on Gnomes. It was a nice hour or so, spent waiting out the deluge that interrupted our summer of drought!

The point? I may well be scarce in these parts for the next month or so.

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26 July 2012

Showing Dawoud Bey

“A Man in a Bowler Hat” (1976).
Photograph © Dawoud Bey/Art Institute of Chicago.

Today The New York Times reviews two shows, one current, one recently past, in Chicago of work by Dawoud Bey. The work ranges from early street portraits of denizens of Harlem like the one above to posed pairings like the one below of strangers who live in the same communities.

"Kali and Geshi" (2010). Photograph © Dawoud Bey.

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Annals of Private Enterprise

Here is a story that, as Susan suggested to me, is a sharp stick in the eye to those who think privatization of "everything" is a ducky idea. As this report in The Guardian points out, the private company contacted to provide security during the Olympics (read they hire and deploy mercenaries) has basically fallen flat on its face. And - libertarians take note - who other than the state has stepped in to cover their lame entrepreneurial butts.

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25 July 2012

An Interview with Elizabeth Anderson

"The identities of disadvantaged groups vary across societies (although women are disadvantaged everywhere), but the cause is everywhere the same. Systematic group inequality is the result of advantaged groups gaining privileged access to goods critical to social advancement, and closing ranks so as to protect their relative monopoly. In other words, it is the result of the self-segregation of the advantaged. Self-segregation thus causes socioeconomic inequality.

It also undermines democracy. People privileged by segregation tend to be insular, clubby, smug, ignorant of the disadvantaged, inattentive to their interests, and full of negative stereotypes about them. When such people dominate positions of power and authority in society, the institutions they run are similarly negligent or even hostile toward the interests of the disadvantaged. Segregation thereby perpetuates inequality and undermines democracy." ~ Elizabeth Anderson

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24 July 2012

The Difference a Union Makes

This is a data graphic from a UNITE HERE campaign. You might think unions stink, but you also might reconsider that view next time you stay in a room "cleaned" by non-union workers. They may be diligent and responsible, but they have half the time. Sleep on that.

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23 July 2012

Republicans, Public Goods, and Sheer Idiocy

The Los Angeles Times has run two interesting pieces lately. The first is this essay "So, who really did invent the Internet?" - which sketches the fact that not only did it take government funding and research - not just in the U.S. but in those dratted "European Style Social Democracies" - to 'invent' the Internet, but government officials to open it to private commercial development. The punchline:
So the bottom line is that the Internet as we know it was indeed born as a government project. . . . Private enterprise had no interest in something so visionary and complex, with questionable commercial opportunities. Indeed, the private corporation that then owned monopoly control over America's communications network, AT&T, fought tooth and nail against [its predecessor] the ARPANet. Luckily for us, a far-sighted government agency prevailed.

It's true that the Internet took off after it was privatized in 1995. But to be privatized, first you have to be government-owned. It's another testament to people often demeaned as "government bureaucrats" that they saw that the moment had come to set their child free.
No one beside libertarian ideologues and Republican politicians like Romney should find this observation troubling. But they surely should have the good sense not to embarrass themselves when Obama utters truisms about the social-political-economic infrastructure on which "job creators" and "entrepreneurs" build businesses.

The second interesting essay is this one, suggesting that Romney actually understands what I just said. He apparently finds it no insult whatsoever to elite athletes when he suggested that they had oodles of help accomplishing their great, if various, feats. Why then, does Mitt consider it an insult to entrepreneurs when Obama suggests that they do not build businesses whole cloth? Can't the Republicans come up with a candidate who is less dim than this? Come on! I am not even an Obama supporter. This, though, is ridiculous.

Update: And it gets ridiculous-er and ridiculous-er by the minute - look here.

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22 July 2012

Reading Around

Two essays by John Gray - whom I typically find both smart and provocatively misguided; one on the legacy of Keynes, the other on the vacuity of Slavoj Žižek.

At The New York Times, a pre-release backgrounder on the film "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry."

And, finally, an Editorial from Nature on the Republican attempts to eliminate political science funding at the NSF.

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21 July 2012

Passings ~ Alexander Cockburn (1941-2012)

Journalist Alexander Cockburn, who wrote for The Nation among other outlets, has died of cancer. His colleague Jeffrey St. Clair announced his death here. Update: And here is John Nichols from The Nation. Update 2: An obituary here from The New York Times.

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20 July 2012

Passings ~ Joyce Miller (1928-2012)

Joyce Miller, union activist, founder of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and first female member of the AFL-CIO executive council, has died. You can find an obituary here in The Los Angeles Times.

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18 July 2012

An Interview with Vijay Iyer

"The arts are not something separate from us. I think that when we deal with . . . hierarchical notions of culture, we tend to think of the arts as something we go to, rather than something that is a part of us. And I guess my life experience with music has always been the opposite. It’s always been that we are the arts. And I say that with the utmost humility, because when I say “we” I don’t mean “we artists,” I mean we, as humanity. It’s something that has to be continuous with our daily lives, and I’m not interested in creating some kind of distance, or some sort of divide, between the arts and life as we live it every day." - Vijay Iyer
I stumbled across an interview with jazz pianist Vijay Iyer (follow link above) about whom I have posted here before. I picked out this passage mostly because it  seems to me as continuous with Dewey's notion of 'art as experience.' Iyer is from the local area. I've never had the chance to hear him perform live, but very much anticipate getting the chance to do so. And while I am here I will plug the latest in a string of astoundingly good recordings that Iyer has released in recent years.

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Milestones - Nelson Mandela

Today is Nelson Mandela's 94th birthday. The BBC report is here. And lest we too readily subscribe to the sanitized view of the man as simply an elder statesman, recall that his raised, clenched fist stands for the long (ongoing) struggle for democracy and self-determination against those who resist such basic political goals.

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17 July 2012

Re-designing Medellín

"Around the world, followers of architecture with a capital A have focused so much of their attention on formal experiments, as if aesthetics and social activism, twin Modernist concerns, were mutually exclusive. But Medellín is proof that they’re not, and shouldn’t be."
I lifted the comment above from this article in The New York Times which recounts the renaissance of Medellín, Colombia. I just tonight came across the link courtesy of Fonna Forman. There is an interesting entanglement of architectural focus on public space, cultural activism, and democratic participation at work here. No panacea promised, just a hopeful example.

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16 July 2012

Gordon Parks ~ The 'Segregation Series'

At The New York Times, the Lens blog has this set of "civil rights" images by Gordon Parks. These are images that are recently discovered and quite powerful. In this earlier post I wrote the following, partially quoting Parks:
According to the FSA web page Parks once explained to an interviewer that he could not simply depict racists "and say, 'This is a bigot,' because bigots have a way of looking just like everybody else. What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered most under it." So, unlike [Larry] Towell who is claiming that we should not depict the powerful, Parks is claiming that is is difficult, if not impossible to do so. Hence, for Parks, the need to focus on those who endure racism and its indiginties rather than on those who engage in racist actions and practices.
Just so. These images carry that recognition into practice.

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15 July 2012

Best Shots (213) ~ Peter Rand

(239) Peter Rand ~  Black Forest, 1964  (11 July 2012).


14 July 2012

Against Authenticity

"The very idea of authenticity . . . is bogus." So says philosopher Alva Noë here. I have made arguments to just this effect* and so could not agree more.
* “Liberalism and the Politics of Cultural Authenticity.” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics 1:213-36 (June 2002).

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Heroes - Woody Guthrie

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie - an American hero. Guthrie wrote many, many songs but perhaps the best known is "This Land is Your Land," the sanitized version of which is a staple among putative patriots in the U.S.; here are the un-sanitized, eminently relevant  lyrics:
This Land Is Your Land
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

© Copyright 1956 (renewed), 1958 (renewed),
1970 and 1972 by Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.
& TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc. (BMI)

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13 July 2012


Fireflies (Plate #59) © Gregroy Crewdson. 

We just pulled into the driveway here in Hamlin after a month teaching at ICPSR Summer Camp. The drive back was long and hot, but uneventful. I'll take it! Here the lake seems to be keeping things relatively cool and the fireflies are out in full force in the field and defunct orchards that surround our house. They reminded me of this wonderful series by Gregory Crewdson.

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12 July 2012

Wambach Dust Up

So, I am at the end of my summer teaching gig at the ICPSR Summer Program in Ann Arbor. Final class in the morning, then clean the apartment and head home tomorrow afternoon.

Meanwhile the 'scandal' in Rochester is that local hero soccer player Abby Wambach - the single best athlete, male or female, in any sport, to come out of the region, perhaps the state, in the two decades I've lived there - has posed naked in a series of photos for ESPN. Many folks in the local area seem to be disappointed, outraged, shocked. What, they fret, do these images say to all the little girls who idolize Wambach? They ought to listen to Wambach talk about the decision (which you can do here).

If only more people had as healthy an attitude about their body as Wambach - to say nothing of her talent and hard work! - we'd be a much happier. And if Wambach can provide a role model for all those little girls they might survive their uptight parents and grow up a little more normal.

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10 July 2012

Omar Rodríguez Saludes: "Blind Photographer"

Over at The Lens you can find this portrait of Omar Rodríguez Saludes, a Cuban photographer who was first jailed and then exiled by the Cuban government. That post contains a link to this earlier profile from  The New York Times of Rodríguez and his work. Both reports are by photographer David Gonzalez.

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Two Essays by Rebecca Solnit

Lately I've come across two essays by Rebecca Solnit, whose work I admire. The first is here at Orion and sings the praises of gardening for raising, but not fully addressing a whole set of political matters.
You can argue that vegetable seeds are the seeds of the new revolution. But the garden is an uneasy entity for our time, a way both to address the biggest questions and to duck them. “Some gardens are described as retreats, when they are really attacks,” famously said the gardener, artist, and provocateur Ian Hamilton Finlay. A garden as a retreat means a refuge, a place to withdraw from the world. A garden as an attack means an intervention in the world, a political statement, a way in which the small space of the garden can participate in the larger space that is society, politics, and ideas. Every garden negotiates its own relationship between retreat and attack and in so doing illuminates—or maybe we should say engages—the political questions of our time.
In particular, Solnit connects the preoccupation with local agriculture and gardening to the larger struggle against corporations like Monsanto who hope to patent as much of the growing process as they might.

Monsanto makes a cameo in the second essay, here at TomDispatch, which takes the form of an apology letter to the Mexican nation. In her letter Solnit is mostly concerned with the drug trade and attendant violence that beset Mexico mostly as a result of American demand. In part, that demand reflects an alienation from place that is the converse of gardening. So, in the end the two essays intersect not just at corporate headquarters but elsewhere (or nowhere?) as well.

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09 July 2012

Addressing Injustice: Argentina

I do not believe, as Martin Luther King Jr. suggests, that "the arch of the moral universe," by however circuitous a route, "bends toward justice." But events do sometimes work in ways that mitigate gross injustice. So, here and here are reports on an episode that gives one some hope - Jorge Rafael Videla the head of the murderous Argentinian junta (1976-1983), and several of his minions, have been sentenced to prison for some of their most heinous crimes. The sad part is that Videla will not live long enough to serve his entire sentence.

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08 July 2012

The Wonders of Free Enterprise

Not just any old set of economic exchanges constitutes a market. As Robert Reich reminds us in this Op-Ed finagling with the available information and manipulating prices (in this instance interest rates) undermines the conditions necessary for actual market interaction. Turns out that we have pretty good reason to suspect that the big banks are doing this with some regularity. And, such behavior, as Joseph Stiglitz reminds us in this interview underwrites "rent seeking" - just the sort of wholly unproductive activity that right wingers wail about when they think government officials engage in it. The right is resoundingly silent though, when those seeking the rents are execs at companies in the finance sector. (Or did I simply miss the outrage?)

And, just to be clear, all the bluster and bullshit flowing from the culprits at the head of these financial concerns (look here and here for the must egregious, but hardly unique examples) does not alter the above diagnosis, which is basically Economics 100. These guys are hardly geniuses; they are crooks and liars. They should not just lose their jobs for running their companies into the ditch, they should be prosecuted for any provable illegalities. (The latter possibility should be investigated by systematic government inquiry.)  And, if found guilty, they should do hard time. (By 'they' I mean not only the CEOs but their myriad minions.) A reasonably well functioning set of financial markets is a public good and the guys are working as hard as they are able to subvert such markets to their own advantage.

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Vivian Maier and the Critics

"We can’t know the full story behind this self-portrait, or behind the many thousands of images left in a storage locker in Chicago. But we can look at the range of Maier’s work and see the tantalizing evidence of artistry and ambition, and we can look at the expression of the woman reflected in the sheet mirror and see her indisputable pleasure. This is no frumpy old bird woman looking at her own pathetic destiny. This is a woman who knows what she wants, who has chosen to do her work free of judgment and commerce, and who is in charge of the scene."
Self-portrait © Vivian Maier

Some time ago I posted very briefly on the death and rediscovery of Vivian Maier; recently my UofR colleague, novelist Joanna Scott, published this smart essay at The Nation on Maier and, especially, Geoff Dyer's dismissive, patronizing interpretation of her work. Scott punctuates her essay with the passage I've lifted above.  As an aside, I think that Scott's assessment of Maier exemplifies nicely the point that David Levi Strauss made recently (link here) regarding the importance of criticism in establishing non-monetary criteria for assessing creative work.

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06 July 2012

Best Shots (212) ~ Elizabeth Herman

(238) Elizabeth Herman ~ Rounak Mohal Dilruba Begum, 
Bangladesh 2010 (4 July 2012).


Why the Proposed "Veteran Support Fund" is Deeply Misguided

 "As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the
citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their
persons, the State is not far from its fall. When it is necessary to
march out to war, they pay troops and stay at home: when it is necessary
to meet in council, they name deputies and stay at home. By reason of
idleness and money, they end by having soldiers to enslave their country
and representatives to sell it." - J-J Rousseau The Social Contract (Book III Ch 15)
As I have noted here numerous times in the past, I do not like sending mercenaries (private contractors) to do our dirty work in foreign wars. It is easy enough, however, to criticize outfits like Blackwater (or whatever it has transmogrified into). I also think that this proposal - that the wealthy whose kids don't serve in the military should contribute to a fund that will pay off parents whose kids have done  - equally offensive. Why? The two practices - those undertaken by war privateers and do-good moralizers - are essentially equivalent; in both cases we are paying others to do our dirty work. In both instances the consequences, I believe, for the health of our polity are dire.

Moreover, this new proposal is deeply confused. If we have an debt, then it must be because the military adventures that the Bush and Obama administrations have been sending troops off on are justifiable. But if they are justifiable, we should be sending our own kids. My own view is that we have been sending kids off to foreign wars for nothing. The Iraq fiasco was wholly unjustifiable. Much of the Afghan occupation is likewise. Not my wars. No debt. In fact, since my tax dollars have been going to finance the Iraq and Afghan adventures, I already have "paid" for something I never wanted or approved.

Finally, as I have noted here before, there are many people doing many things not involving violent conflict to whom I believe we owe an obligation and deep thanks. Why not aim our energies there?
P.S.: Nothing I say here entails that the U.S. Government can shirk its obligation to veterans - those men and women who have been recruited to serve in the military however ill-advised the policies underlying that recruitment might be.

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04 July 2012

Unger Interview

Not long ago I posted a link to a now well known video of Roberto Mangabeira Unger criticizing Obama and advising progressives to not support his re-election. As I noted then, I am ambivalent about that advice - in large measure because I find Unger's idea that the Democrats will ever provide a vehicle for progressive politics pretty far-fetched. I have since come across this brief interview with Unger in which he elaborates on his views. Again, while I find Unger's stress on institutional experimentation and his faith (for lack of a better word) in common people and their capacities, I doubt seriously that the Democrats as presently constituted or in any conceivable incarnation have similar commitments.

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02 July 2012

Passings ~ Martin Jenkinson (1947~2012)

British photographer Martin Jenkinson, famous for his images of workers and their political and economic struggles, has died. You can find an obituary here at The Guardian.


Measure for Measure (revisited)

The plausibility of much political economy depends on measurement and, in turn, on conceptualization - of wealth, growth, progress ... I have commented on this here before. You can find a report on yet another recent, innovative effort to address this task here at The Economist.


01 July 2012

Weekend Digest ~ Politics & Ideas

There is a sharp exchange here at The Nation on the role of unions and the failure of the Wisconsin recall effort. It starts with divergent assessments by Gordon Lafer and Doug Henwood and includes contributions from Bill Fletcher and Jane McAlevey, Adolph Reed and Mike Elk. My two cents? I tend to side with Lafer and Reed ...

In The New York Times today is this eulogy for "socialism" ... which amounts to celebrating its accomplishments at (to borrow a phrase from Roberto Unger) 'humanizing the inevitable.' Insofar as this accomplishment, in fact, obtains it seems to me quite precarious.

Also at The Times is this warning from Pam Karlan regarding the conservative nature of this week's SCOTUS decision on the Affordable Care Act ( I hate the phrase "Obamacare"); and here at Mother Jones is valuable visual background on the court and its political propensities.

Finally, from Crooked Timber, this long post by Chris Bertram, Corey Robin & Alex Gourevitch on libertarians and their blindness to blatant, widespread coercion across "private" domains, especially the workplace.