30 September 2012

Solnit Overkill

Well, here is a complaint from a disgruntled left-winger: I admire Rebecca Solnit's writings. Indeed, I lifted and posted her latest invective against "progressives" who think that it makes zero difference if Romney rather than Obama wins next month. I actually agree with much of what she says. However, what is with the left-liberal media? Solnit's essay, originally published at Tom Dispatch, has now been published as well at The Nation, Mother Jones, Salon.com . . . Are there no other writers who might use those column inches to good effect?

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Best Shots (224) ~ Jacob Sutton

(249) Jacob Sutton ~ Jonah Dancing in Prada, NY 2009 (26 September 2012).


29 September 2012

Before and After: Variation on a Familiar Theme

What follows is, of course, just me beating out a familiar theme. I came across this post, which links to a story in the Brazilian press, the latest (I suppose) in the genre "track down the subject in the documentary photo." The initial image of the little girl is a famous photograph by Sebastião Salgado. Some earlier installments in the genre:

The original portraits are (from the top) of Joceli Borges (Salgado, 1996),  Sharbat Gula (Steve McCurry, 1985), Kim Phuc (Nick Ut, 1972), and Florence Thompson and her children (Dorothea Lange, 1936). Typically these sort of "before & after" reports do two things. They demonstrate the determination and cleverness of the reporter who tracks down the subject years after the initial photograph is taken. And they provide an outlet for vaguely liberal anxieties about the "ethics" of documentary photography. Rarely do they prompt serious questioning of either (1) the political catastrophe the portrait is meant to convey - economic dislocation, destitution, war and the sorts of  forced migration they typically generate or (2) the photographic conventions that, over the course of six plus decades leads photographers and their editors to depict large scale political problems reductionist in terms of the plight not just of individuals but of individual women.*
* There are a few exceptions to this latter claim. Martha Rosler ["In, around, and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography)"] and Bob Harriman and John Lucaites [No Caption Needed] both of whom and who discuss the Lange image at great length. Likewise, Holly Edwards [In her contribution to Beautiful Suffering] traces the career of the McCurry photograph in insightful ways.

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Occupy the SEC Update

As I have noted here several times before, the folks at Occupy the SEC represent, I think, an impressive example of how expertise and systematic inquiry can enter in to - and thereby help democratize - the process by which 'a bill becomes law' and 'a law gets implemented.' They have posted this summary/reminder of all the hard work they have done intervening in the arcane legislative and bureaucratic processes behind the regulation of financial markets. In the past I have noted a parallel between the ways Occupy the SEC challenges 'expert authority' and ways ACT UP did so in the early 1980s. One important lesson that comes from the analogy, it seems to me, is that ACT UP succeeded in altering the process of research and policy in no small measure because they drew strength and support from direct action. Entering into the comment process at the SEC or the hearings of Congressional committees is not at odds with direct action in the form of protests in the streets and occupation/re-appropriation of public space.

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Pussy Riot Appeal and a Parallel

This past summer I posted several times on the unsavory spectacle of the Russian courts convicting three members of the group Pussy Riot on charges of "hooliganism" and promoting "religious hatred." According to Amnesty International (who here offer the chance to drop a polite remonstrance to Russian officials) the women's appeal is scheduled for this coming Monday.

In an odd parallel, The New York Times reports that Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the man thought responsible for the video "Innocence of Muslims" that has inflamed religious passions in recent weeks has been jailed in Los Angeles. He has been detained after a hearing in which he was "charged with eight probation violations." Although Nakoula's video (if it is his) is pathetic, the response of rioters and those who have incited them is as contemptible. And the court here is clearly relying on legal technicalities to punish Nakoula for his alleged expression of studied ignorance and bigotry.

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27 September 2012


I started keeping this blog seven years ago this week. In that time I've written nearly 3200 posts and had nearly 800,000 visitors. If you read regularly thanks for stopping by. I've made some virtual friends. You know who you are. Thanks. For a number of years writing here quite literally kept me sane if only by diverting my attention from the surrounding mayhem, some of which I created, some of which was visited upon me by others. Over the past six months or so I've thought of closing up shop. But I've not been able to do that. Recently, I decided to stick with it. And so I plan to do so. I hope you'll keep reading.

Posted as a Reminder to Myself*

The Rain on Our Parade
A Letter to My Dismal Allies
By Rebecca Solnit
Dear Allies,

Forgive me if I briefly take my eyes off the prize to brush away some flies, but the buzzing has gone on for some time. I have a grand goal, and that is to counter the Republican right with its deep desire to annihilate everything I love and to move toward far more radical goals than the Democrats ever truly support. In the course of pursuing that, however, I’ve come up against the habits of my presumed allies again and again.

Oh rancid sector of the far left, please stop your grousing! Compared to you, Eeyore sounds like a Teletubby. If I gave you a pony, you would not only be furious that not everyone has a pony, but you would pick on the pony for not being radical enough until it wept big, sad, hot pony tears. Because what we’re talking about here is not an analysis, a strategy, or a cosmology, but an attitude, and one that is poisoning us. Not just me, but you, us, and our possibilities.

Leftists Explain Things to Me

The poison often emerges around electoral politics. Look, Obama does bad things and I deplore them, though not with a lot of fuss, since they’re hardly a surprise. He sometimes also does not-bad things, and I sometimes mention them in passing, and mentioning them does not negate the reality of the bad things.

The same has been true of other politicians: the recent governor of my state, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was in some respects quite good on climate change. Yet it was impossible for me to say so to a radical without receiving an earful about all the other ways in which Schwarzenegger was terrible, as if the speaker had a news scoop, as if he or she thought I had been living under a rock, as if the presence of bad things made the existence of good ones irrelevant. As a result, it was impossible to discuss what Schwarzenegger was doing on climate change (and unnecessary for my interlocutors to know about it, no less figure out how to use it).

So here I want to lay out an insanely obvious principle that apparently needs clarification. There are bad things and they are bad. There are good things and they are good, even though the bad things are bad. The mentioning of something good does not require the automatic assertion of a bad thing. The good thing might be an interesting avenue to pursue in itself if you want to get anywhere. In that context, the bad thing has all the safety of a dead end. And yes, much in the realm of electoral politics is hideous, but since it also shapes quite a bit of the world, if you want to be political or even informed you have to pay attention to it and maybe even work with it.

Instead, I constantly encounter a response that presumes the job at hand is to figure out what’s wrong, even when dealing with an actual victory, or a constructive development. Recently, I mentioned that California’s current attorney general, Kamala Harris, is anti-death penalty and also acting in good ways to defend people against foreclosure. A snarky Berkeley professor’s immediate response began, “Excuse me, she's anti-death penalty, but let the record show that her office condoned the illegal purchase of lethal injection drugs.”

Apparently, we are not allowed to celebrate the fact that the attorney general for 12% of all Americans is pretty cool in a few key ways or figure out where that could take us. My respondent was attempting to crush my ebullience and wither the discussion, and what purpose exactly does that serve?

This kind of response often has an air of punishing or condemning those who are less radical, and it is exactly the opposite of movement- or alliance-building. Those who don’t simply exit the premises will be that much more cautious about opening their mouths. Except to bitch, the acceptable currency of the realm.

My friend Jaime Cortez, a magnificent person and writer, sent this my way: “At a dinner party recently, I expressed my pleasure that some parts of Obamacare passed, and starting 2014, the picture would be improved. I was regaled with reminders of the horrors of the drone program that Obama supports, and reminded how inadequate Obamacare was. I responded that it is not perfect, but it was an incremental improvement, and I was glad for it. But really, I felt dumb and flat-footed for being grateful.”

The Emperor Is Naked and Uninteresting 

Maybe it’s part of our country’s Puritan heritage, of demonstrating one’s own purity and superiority rather than focusing on fixing problems or being compassionate. Maybe it comes from people who grew up in the mainstream and felt like the kid who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, that there were naked lies, hypocrisies, and corruptions in the system.

Believe me, a lot of us already know most of the dimples on the imperial derriere by now, and there are other things worth discussing. Often, it’s not the emperor that’s the important news anyway, but the peasants in their revolts and even their triumphs, while this mindset I’m trying to describe remains locked on the emperor, in fury and maybe in self-affirmation.

When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail, but that’s not a good reason to continue to pound down anything in the vicinity. Consider what needs to be raised up as well.  Consider our powers, our victories, our possibilities; ask yourself just what you’re contributing, what kind of story you’re telling, and what kind you want to be telling.

Sitting around with the first occupiers of Zuccotti Park on the first anniversary of Occupy, I listened to one lovely young man talking about the rage his peers, particularly his gender, often have.  But, he added, fury is not a tactic or a strategy, though it might sometimes provide the necessary energy for getting things done.

There are so many ways to imagine this mindset -- or maybe its many mindsets with many origins -- in which so many are mired. Perhaps one version devolves from academic debate, which at its best is a constructive, collaborative building of an argument through testing and challenge, but at its worst represents the habitual tearing down of everything, and encourages a subculture of sourness that couldn’t be less productive.

Can you imagine how far the Civil Rights Movement would have gotten, had it been run entirely by complainers for whom nothing was ever good enough? To hell with integrating the Montgomery public transit system when the problem was so much larger!

Picture Gandhi’s salt marchers bitching all the way to the sea, or the Zapatistas, if Subcomandante Marcos was merely the master kvetcher of the Lacandon jungle, or an Aung San Suu Kyi who conducted herself like a caustic American pundit. Why did the Egyptian revolutionary who told me about being tortured repeatedly seem so much less bitter than many of those I run into here who have never suffered such harm?

There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t -- and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit de corps, fierce hope, and generous hearts.

We talk about prefigurative politics, the idea that you can embody your goal. This is often discussed as doing your political organizing through direct-democratic means, but not as being heroic in your spirit or generous in your gestures.

Left-Wing Vote Suppression

One manifestation of this indiscriminate biliousness is the statement that gets aired every four years: that in presidential elections we are asked to choose the lesser of two evils. Now, this is not an analysis or an insight; it is a cliché, and a very tired one, and it often comes in the same package as the insistence that there is no difference between the candidates. You can reframe it, however, by saying: we get a choice, and not choosing at all can be tantamount in its consequences to choosing the greater of two evils.

But having marriage rights or discrimination protection or access to health care is not the lesser of two evils. If I vote for a Democrat, I do so in the hopes that fewer people will suffer, not in the belief that that option will eliminate suffering or bring us to anywhere near my goals or represent my values perfectly. Yet people are willing to use this “evils” slogan to wrap up all the infinite complexity of the fate of the Earth and everything living on it and throw it away.

I don’t love electoral politics, particularly the national variety. I generally find such elections depressing and look for real hope to the people-powered movements around the globe and subtler social and imaginative shifts toward more compassion and more creativity. Still, every four years we are asked if we want to have our foot trod upon or sawed off at the ankle without anesthetic. The usual reply on the left is that there’s no difference between the two experiences and they prefer that Che Guevara give them a spa pedicure. Now, the Che pedicure is not actually one of the available options, though surely in heaven we will all have our toenails painted camo green by El Jefe.

Before that transpires, there’s something to be said for actually examining the differences.  In some cases not choosing the trod foot may bring us all closer to that unbearable amputation. Or maybe it’s that the people in question won’t be the ones to suffer, because their finances, health care, educational access, and so forth are not at stake.

An undocumented immigrant writes me, “The Democratic Party is not our friend: it is the only party we can negotiate with.” Or as a Nevada activist friend put it, “Oh my God, go be sanctimonious in California and don't vote or whatever, but those bitching radicals are basically suppressing the vote in states where it matters.”

Presidential electoral politics is as riddled with corporate money and lobbyists as a long-dead dog with maggots, and deeply mired in the manure of the status quo -- and everyone knows it. (So stop those news bulletins, please.) People who told me back in 2000 that there was no difference between Bush and Gore never got back to me afterward.

I didn’t like Gore, the ex-NAFTA-advocate and pro-WTO shill, but I knew that the differences did matter, especially to the most vulnerable among us, whether to people in Africa dying from the early impacts of climate change or to the shift since 2000 that has turned our nation from a place where more than two-thirds of women had abortion rights in their states to one where less than half of them have those rights. Liberals often concentrate on domestic policy, where education, health care, and economic justice matter more and where Democrats are sometimes decent, even lifesaving, while radicals are often obsessed with foreign policy to the exclusion of all else.

I’m with those who are horrified by Obama’s presidential drone wars, his dismal inaction on global climate treaties, and his administration’s soaring numbers of deportations of undocumented immigrants. That some of you find his actions so repugnant you may not vote for him, or that you find the whole electoral political system poisonous, I also understand.

At a demonstration in support of Bradley Manning this month, I was handed a postcard of a dead child with the caption "Tell this child the Democrats are the lesser of two evils." It behooves us not to use the dead for our own devices, but that child did die thanks to an Obama Administration policy. Others live because of the way that same administration has provided health insurance for millions of poor children or, for example, reinstated environmental regulations that save thousands of lives.

You could argue that to vote for Obama is to vote for the killing of children, or that to vote for him is to vote for the protection for other children or even killing fewer children. Virtually all U.S. presidents have called down death upon their fellow human beings. It is an immoral system.

You don’t have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness.

Bitterness poisons you and it poisons the people you feed it to, and with it you drive away a lot of people who don’t like poison. You don’t have to punish those who do choose to participate. Actually, you don’t have to punish anyone, period.

We Could Be Heroes

We are facing a radical right that has abandoned all interest in truth and fact. We face not only their specific policies, but a kind of cultural decay that comes from not valuing truth, not trying to understand the complexities and nuances of our situation, and not making empathy a force with which to act. To oppose them requires us to be different from them, and that begins with both empathy and intelligence, which are not as separate as we have often been told.

Being different means celebrating what you have in common with potential allies, not punishing them for often-minor differences. It means developing a more complex understanding of the matters under consideration than the cartoonish black and white that both left and the right tend to fall back on.

Dismissiveness is a way of disengaging from both the facts on the ground and the obligations those facts bring to bear on your life. As Michael Eric Dyson recently put it, “What is not good are ideals and rhetorics that don’t have the possibility of changing the condition that you analyze. Otherwise, you’re engaging in a form of rhetorical narcissism and ideological self-preoccupation that has no consequence on the material conditions of actually existing poor people.”

Nine years ago I began writing about hope, and I eventually began to refer to my project as “snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left.” All that complaining is a form of defeatism, a premature surrender, or an excuse for not really doing much. Despair is also a form of dismissiveness, a way of saying that you already know what will happen and nothing can be done, or that the differences don’t matter, or that nothing but the impossibly perfect is acceptable. If you’re privileged you can then go home and watch bad TV or reinforce your grumpiness with equally grumpy friends.

The desperate are often much more hopeful than that -- the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, that amazingly effective immigrant farmworkers’ rights group, is hopeful because quitting for them would mean surrendering to modern-day slavery, dire poverty, hunger, or death, not cable-TV reruns. They’re hopeful and they’re powerful, and they went up against Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Safeway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, and they won.

The great human-rights activist Harvey Milk was hopeful, even though when he was assassinated gays and lesbians had almost no rights (but had just won two major victories in which he played a role). He famously said, “You have to give people hope.”

In terms of the rights since won by gays and lesbians, where we are now would undoubtedly amaze Milk, and we got there step by step, one pragmatic and imperfect victory at a time -- with so many more yet to be won. To be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.

There are really only two questions for activists: What do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style.

That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.


As in 2004 and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably invade northern Nevada on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union. She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s anti-oil-company campaign and the ten thousand faces of Occupy now changing the world. Also, she wrote some books.

Copyright © 2012 Rebecca Solnit

* This essay is way too long for the blog format. Too bad. And I admit - with apologies - to having simply lifted it in its entirety. But it addresses a set of misguided tendencies several of which I am regularly tempted to embrace. I think it offers a frank, articulate antidote. You can find Solnit's recent analysis of Occupy and its achievements here. Am I persuaded by every single thing she writes? No. Do I find her general case more appealing and persuasive that the sort of "Everybody Knows" cynicism that Leonard Cohen so nicely deflates simply by articulating it? Yes. Why? Because, unlike the vacuous hope that Obama peddled in his last campaign, the hope Solnit urges on us is grounded in an understanding of political struggle and its vicissitudes. Just because it is difficult to capture that hope hardly means that we should relinquish it ourselves or dismiss it in others.

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26 September 2012

Melissa Shook

I happened upon this interview with photographer Melissa Shook who has just published a book of images and poems entitled My Suffolk Downs.* Shook depicts denizens of the "back side" of the race track, the people who tend the expensive horses on which bettors place their wagers. This is good work; a long term undertaking. I wish I could be as confident as Shook that having "more money around" would improve the lot of the horses or the workers.
* My Suffolk Downs: Poems and Photographs by Melissa Shook. Pressed Wafer and Kat Ran Press. 2012.

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Why We Can't Leave Discussions of Art & Politics to the Art Historians (With Apologies to my Friends and Colleagues in the Field)

Over at The Boston Review you can find this interview with Art Historian Claire Bishop on the politics of so-called "participatory" or "socially engaged" art. The interview follows on the appearance of Bishop's recent book on the subject.*

On the basic point - that art world spectacle is no substitute for actual community or effective politics - I could hardly agree with Bishop more. Sham participation is just that - a sham. But on point after point I thought ... "This is misguided or banal or both." And here, I think, Bishop is held hostage to the terms of debate in those art world circles where she lives and works. No surprise. This is what comes from leaving the discussion of art and politics to curators, art historians and such like folks.

Here is a 'for instance' (actually a few):

(1) Misguided:
"One of the main criticisms that I make in the book is that the discussion of social practice has developed around a set of ethical criteria: has the artist behaved well toward his or her participants? Does the work offer a good model for society? At the moment, good intentions are viewed as sufficient to make a fine work of art. This produces an overly earnest framework for discussing art, as well as projects that are safe, timid and predictable—organizing film screenings, going for hikes, cooking meals, and so on. This approach precludes the appreciation of other productions, especially ones that are more aggressive, disturbing, or perverse; more indirect or subversive approaches to the social are dismissed as exploitative and excluded. But these more radical projects might be telling us something more truthful and honest about social relations. This ethical perspective tends to infantilize participants, presuming they are unable to make their own judgments about a work." 
The basic judgement about good intentions and timidity seems fair enough. But why accede to the tendency to reduce ethics to the intentions of actors? We need not be Kantians, right? Why not challenge the reduction? There are several alternatives available. Bishop simply accepts the liberal individualism of her art world friends to set the terms of debate. But if we insist that ethics is Kantian we are half way (at least) to the sort of self-absorbed enterprise (say, by various Marina Abramović performances that Bishop rightly disparages) that seem to be at issue. And Bishop deflates the possibility of effective politics by insisting that at bottom all politics is grounded in ethics "(because at the end of the day ethics underpins all political beliefs)." The upshot is that effectiveness or success amounts to maintaining a clean conscience, not to effecting consequences in the world in however distant or indirect a way.

(2) Banal:
"By doing this research, I learned that it was during moments of political upheaval—1917, 1968, 1989—that artists intensely questioned the function of an artist and the function of a work of art."
Really? Really? With a PhD in Art History in hand and a tenured faculty position too, you just learned this?

(3) Banal:
"Ideally we should always read art dually, in relation to its artistic context and to its political context."
Really? Really? This changes everything.

(4) Misguided:

"At the same time, the main artistic icon of the London Olympics was a grotesque Anish Kapoor sculpture outside the main stadium, made from £19 million of monstrous, contorted steel. It looks like [Vladimir] Tatlin on crack. This is the epitome of art under the Conservative-Liberal coalition: an overinflated celebration of Lakshmi Mittal, the private individual who funded 85 percent of its construction and after whom the sculpture is named."
Let's set aside the fact that I tend to like Kapoor's work. (You can see some of the sketches and models and so forth for the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the sculpture that incurs Bishop's wrath, here at Kapoor's web page.) It simply cannot be that the funding source for a project is sufficient to condemn it. Here Bishop simply reverts to the infantilizing ethical fretting that she rightly criticized earlier. Sure, Mittal is a filthy-rich industrialist. How does that differentiate him from other patrons of the art world? As Rebecca Solnit reminds us (see sidebar): "Art patronage has always been a kind of money-laundering, a pretty public face for fortunes made in uglier ways." Sure, the sculpture Bishop criticizes here is part of the Olympic spectacle with all its nationalist fervor. (Did the U.S. beat out the Chinese in the medal count?) How is that spectacle less problematic than those that surround the various corporate sponsored museums (those monuments to wealth and national greatness) and biennales and festivals that Bishop frequents?
* Claire Bishop. 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. Verso.

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23 September 2012

Passings ~ Bettye Lane (1930-2012)

Photographer Bettye Lane has died. The New York Times ran this obituary yesterday.

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22 September 2012

The Emancipation Proclamation

Well, it hardly is a stylistic masterpiece. And the circumstances under which Lincoln issued it were determined largely by matters of political and military strategy. But the document surely is worth reading. Because despite all my throat clearing, the proclamation did in fact reverse a national disgrace. And, as Patricia Williams writes at The Guardian today, we have national disgraces of our own that call for similar resolve.

The Emancipation Proclamation
January 1, 1863
[A Transcription]

By the President of the United States of America:
A Proclamation.

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

"That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States."

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:  Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.

By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

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21 September 2012

Best Shots (223) ~ Graciela Iturbide

(248) Graciela IturbideAngel Woman, 1979 (19 September 2012).


20 September 2012

Campaign Art

NOROMNEY (2012) ~ Etching © Richard Serra.

This is among the pieces contributed by Artists for Obama as campaign fundraising treats.

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19 September 2012

Mathematical Models of Politics Meet OWS

I came across this interesting pair of posts [1] [2] this evening while searching for a picture like the one above. This is a rudimentary basis for thinking about the general instability of majority voting in multidimensional policy space. The basic insight is that, via majority vote among individuals represented by their ideal points P1, P2, P3, an agenda setter can move policy from the status quo x to any point in the shaded green 'win set' and from there to any point in the similarly constituted win set that would surround the new status quo, and so on throughout the entire policy space. You can find a fuller but brief explanation of the underlying logic in the second of the links above.

That link leads to the text of a talk given by a fellow named Felix Breuer at a teach-in last year in Berkeley under the auspices of an ad hoc group of "Mathematicians against Police Violence." (See the first link above.) I think it is fabulous that Breuer is talking about this stuff in the public square and that he infers from the model that dissent/protest (insofar as it helps establish the agenda) is more basic to democracy than is voting!

In any case, here are two clips of Breuer giving the talk:

P.S.: What is so cool about this is that faculty and alumni from the department where I teach were instrumental in the elaboration of this sort of model. And, by and large, political scientists presume - mistakenly in my view - that the models have anti-democratic implications.

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17 September 2012

"I'm Barack Obama and I Approve of this Self-Portrait of My Opponent as a Disdainful Ass"

Here is a link to The New York Times report on Mitt Romney channeling Ayn Rand. He all but calls the hopeless 47% parasites! I think Obama ought to simply run the clip and then stroll onto the screen with his "approval." Susan suspects that the video was made by one of the serving staff at the event. Maybe a union member? Wouldn't that be sweet.

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Dear Bankers . . .

Yesterday The New York Times ran this OpEd "Dear Bankers - Thanks for Ruining Our Lives." It extrapolates a project called Occupy the Boardroom which solicited letters from regular people addressed to the executives in the finance industry. A selection of the letters is being collected in a book by the folks at N+1 entitled The Trouble is the Banks: Letters to Wall Street.

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14 September 2012

Passings ~ Pedro Guerrero (1938 ~ 2012)

Photographer Pedro Guerrero has died. You can find an obituary here at The New York Times.


13 September 2012

Best Shots (222) ~ Penelope Slinger

(247) Penelope SlingerLilford Hall Montage (12 September 2012).


11 September 2012

The Ghost of Tom Joad

Rahm Emanuel ~ From the Obama Campaign to the Campaign Against Teachers Unions

Rahm Emanuel has, as Susan reminded me at dinner this evening, been in the news twice recently. Currently, of course, he is taking the point position in criticizing striking public school teachers in Chicago.* Never mind, that most of the "reforms" Rahm (in the shadow of Obama Secretary of Education Arne Duncan) wants to implement are at best ill considered [1] [2] [3] [4] [5].** Never mind that Rahm is trying hard to paint the teachers as unconcerned with the welfare of students (might it not be the case that the teachers are resisting reforms that are not good for students?).  The bottom line is that Emanuel has been spoiling for this fight since he first became mayor. So when he claims that this is a "strike of choice" undertaken by craven union members at the expense of students he is, as usual, full of it. No surprise that the Romney-Ryan ticket has fallen over itself siding with Emanuel! They are all anti-union.

What is interesting is that a week ago Rahm was in the news for another reason. He departed his post as co-chair of the Obama re-election campaign. The press has generally painted this as the Democrats playing hard ball on raising money since Rahm now will be directing a "Super PAC." But might it not have been more of an anticipation of how the s#!t will surely hit the fan as the Democratic party lines up against the teachers union? This way Obama can try to distance himself from the Emanuel assault without actually siding with the union.
* In doing so Emmanuel is in cahoots with Chicago Schools Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard who was until recently the Superintendent here in Rochester. Like Duncan, Emanuel and Obama, he is an opportunistic peddler of suspect reform proposals.
** For those convinced that teachers and their unions are the source of problems with American public schools a good place to start is this recent pair of essays [1] [2] by Diane Ravitch in the NYRB. The bottom line? There is no actual evidence for your views.

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09 September 2012

A Realist* Case for Non-Violence

I have been reading really smart, recent work by political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan on the usefulness of non-violent strategies of political resistance. You can find a summary here at Foreign Policy.**  They ask a basically instrumental question: do non-violent strategies work? And they offer what many likely will find a surprising answer - not always and everywhere, but under most conditions such strategies work much more consistently than do violent strategies. Chenoweth and Stephan parse things nicely, pointing out for instance, that non-violence is not identical to pacifism and that it demands deep strategic insight. In this way they offer an alternative to the dual temptations to moralize naive self-sacrifice or rationalize violence.
* Please note: I am not subscribing to the "realist" view of international politics which holds that actors guided by their own interests pursue only power; I understand 'realist' in a more colloquial sense to mean only that we engage in politics for instrumental purposes,  in hopes of achieving something, even if that something is as amorphous and contested as, say, freedom.
** You can find the full version of their research here:  Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. 2011. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press).

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Best Shots (221) ~ Tom Archer

(247) Tom Archer ~  Sheffield, May 2012, From: Nothing New  (5 September 2012).


08 September 2012

Tutu's Challenge

The challenge that Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town and Nobel Laureate, has raised by insisting that George Bush and Tony Blair be tried for war crimes, is a politically complex one.  You can find news reports on the fracas here and here and here.

Why is Tutu's challenge complex? On the one hand, it is not simply the invasion of Iraq for which the two 'leaders' (and their various minions) ought to answer, but the sordid conduct of the 'war on terror' more generally. In that sense I think Tutu lets Bush and Blair off too lightly. On the other hand, I have regularly insisted that engagement - political and legal - is considerably more appropriate than moralism in instances like this. And so, Tutu's refusal to attend the conference at which Blair was due to appear is analogous to calls to boycott Israel in support of justice for Palestine and Palestinians. Where better than at a conclave addressing "leadership" to raise the sorts of issues Tutu is pressing on us? And so, I think this piece in The Guardian is close to the mark.

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07 September 2012

"Can Americans Really Trust Mitt Romney to Decide Which Citizens Get Extrajudicially Assassinated in Drone Strikes?"

You should watch this short video at The Gawker. The point is simply to ask prominent Democrats at the convention a simple question: "Can Americans really trust Mitt Romney to decide which citizens get extrajudicially assassinated in drone strikes?'  Just imagine if all the media actually talked about issues like this, meaning in a straightforward, non-euphemistic way. After all, I was outraged to learn that Condi Rice, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and the other war criminals from BushCo sat in a room deciding which torture techniques should be applied to which "high value assets." Why should I not be equally outraged when Obama (and, no doubt, his minions) sit around making the same sorts of decisions? With one exception, the respondents on this video punt. In so doing they reveal the ethical, legal and political culpability of their party and its leadership.

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Observation as an Activity

 McLean, Virginia, December 1978. Photograph © Joel Sternfeld.

I recommend this nice, short, provocative piece at Forbes in which the author Jonathon Keats, taking Sternfeld's work as a vehicle, reminds us that seeing is not passive.

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03 September 2012

Labor Day - My Three Cents Worth

This stamp was issued the year after I was born. It seems appropriate to call to mind simultaneously two besieged  institutions - Unions and the Post Office - both of which have been crucially important to the social, economic and political well-being of Americans.

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02 September 2012

Paul Ryan - An Unfortunate Image

Paul Ryan, Republican Convention, August 2012.
Photograph © J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press.

This image appeared here in The New York Times and, for me had immediate, negative, however unintentional, political resonance.

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