31 October 2012

Occupy Economic Thought

 At The Financial Times today there is a short, admiring profile of the various OWS initiatives - Occupy Economics (London) and the Alternative Banking Group (NYC). Among the links is one to the 52 Shades of Greed project from which I've lifted these images and another to the blog of Cathy O'Neill, PhD (Mathematics - Harvard 1999) who has been working with the Alternative Banking Group. The images above are from the former which was written up at The New York Times here. You can download (pdf) the Occupy Economics Little Book of Ideas at the link to their webpage above.

Meanwhile, in addition to their other work,  Occupy the SEC has begin a weekly digest on finance sector matters on their blog - look here.

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30 October 2012

Passings ~ Eloy Gutiérrez-Menoyo (1934-2012)

Eloy Gutiérrez-Menoyo, a Spanish born leader of opposition to the Batista dictatorship and then to the Castro regime in Cuba has died. You can find an obituary here at The New York Times.

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29 October 2012

Solnit on Greed, Language, and Politics

 Regular readers will know that I consider Rebecca Solnit an incisive, articulate analyst of politics and the arts. So, when I came across this essay of hers at TomDispatch.com I suspected it would be worth reading. It turns out that, as I sit in the cold, wet, grey backwash of Hurricane Sandy, anticipating days of bad weather, her focus on climate change and why it has made less than a cameo appearance in the ongoing election campaign is especially well taken. Her focus on the pervasive greed - and its converse, poverty and hardship - are especially relevant given that the University where I work is in the midst of more than one labor dispute. And her broader theme - the ways our political language is increasingly infested with euphemism, bullshit and deception - is one that I myself have taken up repeatedly here over the years. In any case, here, reprinted without permission, is her essay in its entirely.


 Our Words Are Our Weapons ~
Against the Destruction of the World by Greed

By Rebecca Solnit
In ancient China, the arrival of a new dynasty was accompanied by “the rectification of names,” a ceremony in which the sloppiness and erosion of meaning that had taken place under the previous dynasty were cleared up and language and its subjects correlated again. It was like a debt jubilee, only for meaning rather than money.

This was part of what made Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign so electrifying: he seemed like a man who spoke our language and called many if not all things by their true names. Whatever caused that season of clarity, once elected, Obama promptly sank into the stale, muffled, parallel-universe language wielded by most politicians, and has remained there ever since. Meanwhile, the far right has gotten as far as it has by mislabeling just about everything in our world -- a phenomenon which went supernova in this year of “legitimate rape,” “the apology tour,” and “job creators.”  Meanwhile, their fantasy version of economics keeps getting more fantastic. (Maybe there should be a rectification of numbers, too.) 

Let’s rectify some names ourselves. We often speak as though the source of so many of our problems is complex and even mysterious. I'm not sure it is. You can blame it all on greed: the refusal to do anything about climate change, the attempts by the .01% to destroy our democracy, the constant robbing of the poor, the resultant starving children, the war against most of what is beautiful on this Earth.

Calling lies "lies" and theft "theft" and violence "violence," loudly, clearly, and consistently, until truth becomes more than a bump in the road, is a powerful aspect of political activism. Much of the work around human rights begins with accurately and aggressively reframing the status quo as an outrage, whether it’s misogyny or racism or poisoning the environment. What protects an outrage are disguises, circumlocutions, and euphemisms -- “enhanced interrogation techniques” for torture, “collateral damage” for killing civilians, “the war on terror” for the war against you and me and our Bill of Rights.

Change the language and you’ve begun to change the reality or at least to open the status quo to question. Here is Confucius on the rectification of names:
“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”
So let’s start calling manifestations of greed by their true name. By greed, I mean the attempt of those who have plenty to get more, not the attempts of the rest of us to survive or lead a decent life. Look at the Waltons of Wal-Mart fame: the four main heirs are among the dozen richest people on the planet, each holding about $24 billion. Their wealth is equivalent to that of the bottom 40% of Americans. The corporation Sam Walton founded now employs 2.2 million workers, two-thirds of them in the U.S., and the great majority are poorly paid, intimidated, often underemployed people who routinely depend on government benefits to survive. You could call that Walton Family welfare -- a taxpayers' subsidy to their system. Strikes launched against Wal-Mart this summer and fall protested working conditions of astonishing barbarity -- warehouses that reach 120 degrees, a woman eight months pregnant forced to work at a brutal pace, commonplace exposure to pollutants, and the intimidation of those who attempted to organize or unionize.

You would think that $24,000,000,000 apiece would be enough, but the Walton family sits atop a machine intent upon brutalizing tens of millions of people -- the suppliers of Wal-Mart notorious for their abysmal working conditions, as well as the employees of the stores -- only to add to piles of wealth already obscenely vast. Of course, what we call corporations are, in fact, perpetual motion machines, set up to endlessly extract wealth (and leave slagheaps of poverty behind) no matter what.

They are generally organized in such a way that the brutality that leads to wealth extraction is committed by subcontractors at a distance or described in euphemisms, so that the stockholders, board members, and senior executives never really have to know what’s being done in their names. And yet it is their job to know -- just as it is each of our jobs to know what systems feed us and exploit or defend us, and the job of writers, historians, and journalists to rectify the names for all these things.   

Groton to Moloch 

The most terrifying passage in whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s gripping book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers is not about his time in Vietnam, or his life as a fugitive after he released the Pentagon Papers. It’s about a 1969 dinnertime conversation with a co-worker in a swanky house in Pacific Palisades, California.  It took place right after Ellsberg and five of his colleagues had written a letter to the New York Times arguing for immediate withdrawal from the unwinnable, brutal war in Vietnam, and Ellsberg’s host said, “If I were willing to give up all this... if I were willing to renege on... my commitment to send my son to Groton... I would have signed the letter.”

In other words, his unnamed co-worker had weighed trying to prevent the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of people against the upper-middle-class perk of having his kid in a fancy prep school, and chosen the latter. The man who opted for Groton was, at least, someone who worked for what he had and who could imagine having painfully less. This is not true of the ultra-rich shaping the future of our planet.

They could send tens of thousands to Groton, buy more Renoirs and ranches, and still not exploit the poor or destroy the environment, but they’re as insatiable as they are ruthless. They are often celebrated in their aesthetic side effects: imposing mansions, cultural patronage, jewels, yachts.  But in many, maybe most, cases they got rich through something a lot uglier, and that ugliness is still ongoing. Rectifying the names would mean revealing the ugliness of the sources of their fortunes and the grotesque scale on which they contrive to amass them, rather than the gaudiness of the trinkets they buy with them. It would mean seeing and naming the destruction that is the corollary of most of this wealth creation.

A Storm Surge of Selfishness 

Where this matters most is climate change. Why have we done almost nothing over the past 25 years about what was then a terrifying threat and is now a present catastrophe? Because it was bad for quarterly returns and fossil-fuel portfolios. When posterity indicts our era, this will be the feeble answer for why we did so little -- that the rich and powerful with ties to the carbon-emitting industries have done everything in their power to prevent action on, or even recognition of, the problem. In this country in particular, they spent a fortune sowing doubt about the science of climate change and punishing politicians who brought the subject up. In this way have we gone through four “debates” and nearly a full election cycle with climate change unmentioned and unmentionable.

These three decades of refusing to respond have wasted crucial time. It’s as though you were prevented from putting out a fire until it was raging: now the tundra is thawing and Greenland’s ice shield is melting and nearly every natural system is disrupted, from the acidifying oceans to the erratic seasons to droughts, floods, heat waves, and wildfires, and the failure of crops. We can still respond, but the climate is changed; the damage we all spoke of, only a few years ago, as being in the future is here, now.

You can look at the chief executive officers of the oil corporations -- Chevron’s John Watson, for example, who received almost $25 million ($1.57 million in salary and the rest in “compensation”) in 2011 -- or their major shareholders. They can want for nothing. They’re so rich they could quit the game at any moment. When it comes to climate change, some of the wealthiest people in the world have weighed the fate of the Earth and every living thing on it for untold generations to come, the seasons and the harvests, this whole exquisite planet we evolved on, and they have come down on the side of more profit for themselves, the least needy people the world has ever seen.

Take those billionaire energy tycoons Charles and David Koch, who are all over American politics these days. They are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat Obama, partly because he offends their conservative sensibilities, but also because he is less likely to be a completely devoted servant of their profit margins. He might, if we shout loud enough, rectify a few names.  Under pressure, he might even listen to the public or environmental groups, while Romney poses no such problem (and under a Romney administration they will probably make more back in tax cuts than they are gambling on his election).

Two years ago, the Koch brothers spent $1 million on California’s Proposition 23, an initiative written and put on the ballot by out-of-state oil companies to overturn our 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act. It lost by a landslide, but the Koch brothers have also invested a small fortune in spreading climate-change denial and sponsoring the Tea Party (which they can count on to oppose climate change regulation as big government or interference with free enterprise). This year they’re backing a California initiative to silence unions. They want nothing to stand in the way of corporate power and the exploitation of fossil fuels. Think of it as another kind of war, and consider the early casualties.  

As the Irish Times put it in an editorial this summer:
“Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, hundreds of millions are struggling to adapt to their changing climate. In the last three years, we have seen 10 million people displaced by floods in Pakistan, 13 million face hunger in east Africa, and over 10 million in the Sahel region of Africa face starvation. Even those figures only scrape the surface. According to the Global Humanitarian Forum, headed up by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, climate change is responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and affects 300 million people annually. By 2030, the annual death toll related to climate change is expected to rise to 500,000 and the economic cost to rocket to $600 billion.”

This coming year may see a dramatic increase in hunger due to rising food prices from crop failures, including this summer’s in the U.S. Midwest after a scorching drought in which the Mississippi River nearly ran dry and crops withered.

We need to talk about climate change as a war against nature, against the poor (especially the poor of Africa), and against the rest of us. There are casualties, there are deaths, and there is destruction, and it’s all mounting. Rectify the name, call it war. While we’re at it, take back the term “pro-life” to talk about those who are trying to save the lives of all the creatures suffering from the collapse of the complex systems on which plant and animal as well as human lives depend. The other side: “pro-death.”

The complex array of effects from climate change and their global distribution, as well as their scale and the science behind them makes it harder to talk about than almost anything else on Earth, but we should talk about it all the more because of that. And yes, the rest of us should do more, but what is the great obstacle those who have already tried to do so much invariably come up against? The oil corporations, the coal companies, the energy industry, its staggering financial clout, its swarms of lobbyists, and the politicians in its clutches. Those who benefit most from the status quo, I learned in studying disasters, are always the least willing to change.

The Doublespeak on Taxes 

I’m a Californian so I faced the current version of American greed early. Proposition 13, the initiative that froze property taxes and made it nearly impossible to raise taxes in our state, went into effect in 1978, two years before California’s former governor Ronald Reagan won the presidency, in part by catering to greed. Prop 13, as it came to be known, went into effect when California was still an affluent state with the best educational system in the world, including some of the top universities around, nearly free to in-staters all the way through graduate school. Tax cuts have trashed the state and that education system, and they are now doing the same to our country. The public sphere is to society what the biosphere is to life on earth: the space we live in together, and the attacks on them have parallels.

What are taxes? They are that portion of your income that you contribute to the common good. Most of us are unhappy with how they’re allocated -- though few outside the left talk about the fact that more than half of federal discretionary expenditures go to our gargantuan military, more money than is spent on the next 14 militaries combined. Ever since Reagan, the right has complained unceasingly about fantasy expenditures -- from that president’s “welfare queens” to Mitt Romney’s attack on Big Bird and PBS (which consumes .001% of federal expenditures).

As part of its religion of greed, the right invented a series of myths about where those taxes went, how paying them was the ultimate form of oppression, and what boons tax cuts were to bring us.  They then delivered the biggest tax cuts of all to those who already had a superfluity of money and weren’t going to pump the extra they got back into the economy. What they really were saying was that they wanted to hang onto every nickel, no matter how the public sphere was devastated, and that they really served the ultra-rich, over and over again, not the suckers who voted them into office.

Despite decades of cutting to the bone, they continue to promote tax cuts as if they had yet to happen. Their constant refrain is that we are too poor to feed the poor or educate the young or heal the sick, but the poverty isn’t monetary: it’s moral and emotional. Let’s rectify some more language: even at this moment, the United States remains the richest nation the world has ever seen, and California -- with the richest agricultural regions on the planet and a colossal high-tech boom still ongoing in Silicon Valley -- is loaded, too. Whatever its problems, the U.S. is still swimming in abundance, even if that abundance is divided up ever more unequally.

Really, there’s more than enough to feed every child well, to treat every sick person, to educate everyone well without saddling them with hideous debt, to support the arts, to protect the environment -- to produce, in short, a glorious society. The obstacle is greed. We could still make the sorts of changes climate change requires of us and become a very different nation without overwhelming pain. We would then lead somewhat different lives -- richer, not poorer, for most of us (in meaning, community, power, and hope). Because this culture of greed impoverishes all of us, it is, to call it by its true name, destruction.

Occupy the Names  

One of the great accomplishments of Occupy Wall Street was this rectification of names. Those who came together under that rubric named the greed, inequality, and injustice in our system; they made the brutality of debt and the subjugation of the debtors visible; they called out Wall Street’s crimes; they labeled the wealthiest among us the “1%,” those who have made a profession out of pumping great sums of our wealth upwards (quite a different kind of tax).  It was a label that made instant sense across much of the political spectrum. It was a good beginning. But there’s so much more to do.

Naming is only part of the work, but it’s a crucial first step. A doctor initially diagnoses, then treats; an activist or citizen must begin by describing what is wrong before acting. To do that well is to call things by their true names. Merely calling out these names is a beam of light powerful enough to send the destroyers it shines upon scurrying for cover like roaches. After that, you still need to name your vision, your plan, your hope, your dream of something better.

Names matter; language matters; truth matters. In this era when the mainstream media serve obfuscation and evasion more than anything else (except distraction), alternative media, social media, demonstrations in the streets, and conversations between friends are the refuges of truth, the places where we can begin to rectify the names. So start talking.

Rebecca Solnit is the author of thirteen books, a TomDispatch regular, and from kindergarten to graduate school a product of the California public education system in its heyday. She would like the Republican Party to be called the Pro-Rape Party until further notice.

Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit

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28 October 2012

Dave Hickey Resigns

Not long ago I wrote this post prompted by an essay by David Levi Strauss who, to my mind, is the most incisive critic writing on the arts today. In his essay Levi Strauss defends the enterprise of criticism for developing and refining criteria of assessment and judgement. Without critics, he claims, we are reduced to assessing the arts on the metric of commerce and investment. I find the argument persuasive.

Today in The Guardian there comes an interview with critic Dave Hickey in which he announces that he is throwing in the towel. The filthy rich and their minions have, he says, driven him off.
Dave Hickey, a curator, professor and author known for a passionate defence of beauty in his collection of essays The Invisible Dragon and his wide-ranging cultural criticism, is walking away from a world he says is calcified, self-reverential and a hostage to rich collectors who have no respect for what they are doing.

"They're in the hedge fund business, so they drop their windfall profits into art. It's just not serious," he told the Observer. "Art editors and critics – people like me – have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It's not worth my time."
Worse, they have corrupted the youth, who - on Hickey's account - no longer seem to have a clue, or much by way of creative ambition or commitment.
At 71, Hickey has long been regarded as the enfant terrible of art criticism, respected for his intellectual range as well as his lucidity and style. He once said: "The art world is divided into those people who look at Raphael as if it's graffiti, and those who look at graffiti as if it's Raphael, and I prefer the latter."

[. . .]

Hickey says he came into art because of sex, drugs and artists like Robert Smithson, Richard Serra and Roy Lichtenstein who were "ferocious" about their work. "I don't think you get that anymore. When I asked students at Yale what they planned to do, they all say move to Brooklyn – not make the greatest art ever."
And Hickey goes on to depict the consequences - aficionados with buckets of cash but no judgement or criteria for judging, who end up playing roles in what could be a Monty Python skit.
"It used to be that if you stood in front of a painting you didn't understand, you'd have some obligation to guess. Now you don't," he says. "If you stood in front of a Bridget Riley you have to look at it and it would start to do interesting things. Now you wouldn't look at it. You ask a consultant."

[. . .]

"What can I tell you? It's nasty and it's stupid. I'm an intellectual and I don't care if I'm not invited to the party. I quit."

I am not terribly familiar with Hickey's writings (but look here). I do know that he champions beauty (as The Guardian folks point out) and that he does so partly on (small 'd') democratic grounds. On his account exclamations of "beautiful" tend to induce a clatter of contending objections, counter-claims, defenses and so forth  having no grounding beyond those that the community of discussants can themselves bring to bear. Beauty is argumentative and, as such, begs somehow not simply to be to be settled,  but settled without appeal to authority or expertise. Or rather, appeal to authority or expertise is, in such contentious discussions, always deflatable.

If that, in broad strokes, is what Hickey believes, one can imagine his despair at those who have nothing to say, whose only metric is the 'cash nexus.'* Yet it also is disappointing to think that we might lose Hickey's voice and those like his (and, again, I stress that I don't know much about his substantive assessments of this or that artist or work). The value of critics and of criticism is largely to resist the homogenization of criteria for judgement. Without them, things only get bleaker.
* A brief postscript: Only after I wrote this and posted it did it occur to me that in the post Citizens United world, it is not just art but politics that thoroughly conflates cash and speech. Here too the remedy is democratic argument.

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27 October 2012

The Romney Tax Plan - Get the Details

Susan discovered this site on which you can discover the essential feature of the Romeny/Ryan plan for tax reform. It is extremely informative - I highly recommend it.

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John Sununu & His Racist Remarks: Calculated Sincerity

John Sununu:  “Frankly, when you take a look at Colin Powell, you have to wonder whether that’s an endorsement based on issues or whether he’s got a slightly different reason for preferring President Obama.”

Piers Morgan: “What reason would that be?”

John Sununu: “Well, I think when you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being President of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him.”
Sununu's comments mostly are being depicted in the media as a gaff or some sort, unfortunate, ill-considered remarks that the Romney campaign should disavow and that Sununu himself has (kinda, sorta) retracted [1] [2]. Susan and I have been talking about why such interpretations miss what really is going on. Here is my view:

Let's face it, Sununu is a pasty, pudgy reactionary who will do nearly  anything to win. In that he is much like his employer who has been misrepresenting, lying and bullshitting for most of the campaign. For Sununu this means, in addition, articulating his own racist views in public. So, while I have little doubt that the racism Sununu spewed this week is sincere, it also is calculated. He is playing to the base of the Romney campaign - white folks, mostly white men. 'Watch out,' Sununu is warning in his unsubtle way, 'those blacks are conniving to further dis-empower you!' Then, having inserted the warning into the public agenda, he can efface his actual aim by appearing almost contrite and offering a half-hearted retraction.

In the end, Sununu need not apologize and the Romney campaign need not 'distance itself' from him because, well, their strategy will hopefully work! This was not a faux pas.
P.S.: In the 'not so fast' category I will point out that indignant readers (white folks)  should not react by insisting that while whites vote for whites, minorities vote for minorities, thereby establishing some sort of comforting moral equivalence. The premise of your self-congratulatory retort turns out to be unpersuasive. Sorry.

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26 October 2012

Once More with Feeling - Against Bi-Partisanship

It has been six months or so since the last installment in my ongoing argument against bi-partisanship. Today at The New York Times, economist Simon Johnson published this essay highlighting one of the major problems with bipartisanship - it often represents little more than a consensus among self-interested parties aimed at rationalizing crappy policies like, say, the deregulation of the finance sector which set the stage for our current depression. As he points out:
Financial deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s was pushed by both Democrats and Republicans. It reached its apogee when Alan Greenspan, a Republican, was chairman of the Federal Reserve and Robert Rubin, a Democrat, was Treasury secretary. Bill Clinton was president; Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House.
I am not sure whether Johnson would characterize the ongoing economic crisis a depression. It doesn't mater, really. I am simply following those - from Dick Posner on the right to Paul Krugman on the left - who do so. There is no need to trade in euphemisms.

Johnson's whole column is worth reading. It is really a dissection of an initiative being peddled by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Two points  are worth noting. The first is that the former president of the University of Rochester, Tom Jackson is on the board that generated the initiative the Johnson finds suspect. I teach at Rochester. And Johnson rightly points out that Jackson is an independent, accomplished scholar. He simply laments the fact that, unlike Jackson, most of the committee that drafted the initiative were on the payroll (figuratively, at least) of big finance outfits. The second is that Johnson suggests that the Center might offset some of this finance friendly tilt by appointing members of Occupy the SEC to their committee! This at first seemed to me to be a capital idea (pun intended). I have sung the praises of Occupy the SEC here several times. So, on second thought, I would hate to have them peddling bi-partisanship too!

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Best Shots (227) ~ Ewen Spencer

(252) Ewen Spencer ~ MCs at a UK garage rave, crica 1999 (24 October 2012).


25 October 2012


Wilhelm Brasse, a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz, was made to work as a photographer after camp administrators learned that he had been a professional photographer before the war. He photographed thousands of inmates for identity records as well as documenting medical experimentation on the prisoners. Brasse's work remains one of very few photographic records surviving of the camp. After the war, he was too haunted by his experiences to work as a photographer again. He died on Tuesday. Photograph: Wilhelm Brass/Auschwitz Museum/AP.

I lifted this image and caption from the 'picture of the day' series at The Guardian today. Although I see and write about many, many disturbing images, I have to say this one brought me up short.
Update: Here is an obituary of Brasse from The New York Times.

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The Powell Endorsement

So, according to this report at The New York Times, Colin Powell - shown in the screen shot above lying to the U.N. about Saddam Hussein's non-existent WMD program - has endorsed Obama for president. Last time around I was clear about what Obama ought to do in the event this happened. And I have been clear too about Powell and his putative record for being honest, independent, 'honorable' public servant, defender of democracy, and all that (See [1], [2], etc.). I stand by my advice to the Obama campaign. They should repudiate Powell's endorsement. But wait, one of the other page one stories at The Times today is about the small question of whether the administration has been "dissembling" over recent events in Benghazi. Maybe the folks in the administration can learn from Powell? Maybe they already have. After all, it is inconceivable that this sort of endorsement is non-orchestrated. Powell has been saved for the end, to punctuate Obama's victorious run for a second term. How convenient that Powell also now can distract attention from the administration's own foreign policy misstatements.

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24 October 2012

Masks & Protest

Demonstrators gather outside a branch of Starbucks before the start
of an anti-austerity protest march through central London.

Photograph © Matt Dunham/AP.
Retrieved from The Guardian (20 October 2012).

What is wrong with this picture? Well, for starters, these folks might well  be violating the law if they chose to demonstrate not in the UK but here in the 'land of the free.' Take NYC, for instance, where - as protesters outside the Russian consulate last summer discovered - it is illegal for more than three persons to wear masks simultaneously at public demonstrations. So, actually, there is nothing wrong with the picture. There is something wrong with the laws.

I have been preoccupied lately [1] [2] with restrictions on the constitutional right to assemble in public. It is astonishing to see the lengths to which authorities have constrained the space of politics. In this we are in good company - with Russia, for instance - where the laws are similarly enlightened. But if The New York Times can refer to "Russia's Chilling Anti-Protest Laws," shouldn't we be taking a good look in the mirror?
P.S.: As an aside, according to this report in The Guardian, two of the members of Pussy Riot who's arrest triggered the NYC protests in the first place have been banished to remote prison camps [1] [2] [3]. You,ll recall that the the women of Pussy Riot themselves wore masks during the initial "hooliganism" that has set off this entire chain of political and legal events.

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23 October 2012

Passings ~ Alfred Kumalo (1930 -2012)

South African photographer Alf Kumalo has died in Johannesburg. You can find a report here at The Washington Post. While Kumalo is said to have been immensely courageous and  influential in depicting the depredations of Apartheid, hardly any of his work is easily available on line.
Update: You can find an homage to Kumalo here at the blog of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Update #2: The New York Times finally published this obituary in mid-November.

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21 October 2012

Best Shot (226) ~ Mitra Tabrizian

(251) Mitra Tabrizian ~ From: Another Country,
East London, 2010 (17 October 2012).


Picturing the Truly Superfluous ~ Mario Testino

It has been quite some time since I have ranted about the squandered talent and resources involved in fashion photography. This needlessly fawning interview with Mario Testino in The Guardian yesterday tempts me to have another go at the topic. But I cannot really muster the energy. It is interesting, of course, to note the continuity between his preoccupations - royals, movie stars and models - all captured in tediously conventional ways. The common denominator - vacuous and wasteful. How is that for a desultory reaction?

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Passings ~ David S. Ware (1949-2012)

David S. Ware Performing at Saalfelden Jazz Festival 2011.
Photograph © Petra Cvelbar.

Saxophonist David S. Ware has died. You can find an obituary here at The New York Times.

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18 October 2012

Photographs of Silenced Critics

In The New York Times you can find this Op-Ed and this one on the political travails that have descended on Chinese novelist Mo Yan who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The essays warn against a too easy moralism - especially when exercised from a distance - in judging Mo Yan. And it must be said that upon winning the prize Mo Yan spoke out clearly on behalf of imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo.

On the eve of the Prize announcement last week, Reporters Without Borders released this video clip of Liu Xia, wife of Liu Xiaobo, who herself has been under house arrest for the past two years. Liu Xia is a writer and photographer. Her detention and nearly total isolation is a case of extrajudicial harassment, likely aimed, according to this report from the BBC, at inducing her husband to agree to accepting exile. As you will discover, the clip - from which the silhouette above was excised - is silent, except for the chirping crickets.

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17 October 2012

Question: Should sex outside of marriage be a capital offense? (2)

The sub-title to this article in The Guardian poses a trick question: "are they anti-cancer, or just anti-sex?" The "they" being referred to, of course, are conservatives. And the answer is obvious.

There is a vaccine against Human Papillomavirus (HPV) but, since the virus is sexually transmitted, the immediate reaction of, well, . . . reactionaries, is that making it available to teenagers will encourage promiscuity. As I noted several years ago, this simply is a declaration that pre-marital sex is a capital offense, since the virus is viewed as causing not just genital warts, but cervical cancer. Why help prevent cancer when you can instead be extra sanctimonious? And now that there is actual research establishing that reactionary fears are just that, why not be sanctimonious in the face of reliable evidence?

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16 October 2012

The Debate Fiasco

I am about to head upstairs to watch a couple of politicians pay roles in an event paid for and closely orchestrated by other elites and mis-described as a "debate." If is like going to a faux juke joint like House of Blues and pretending that you are in an actual bar. For a typically smart assessment of the spectacle have a look at Glenn Greenwald's column at The Guradian. This is not democracy. Why watch, then? Because regardless of the charade, the event will have an enormous effect on the election.

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15 October 2012

Anton Brookes on Alienation and Homelessness

Don't Look. Photograph © Anton Brookes.

On a tip from a reader (Thanks, Gus!) I hunted down Anton Brookes who, in addition to the images from what I take to be his day job, has made a series of photographs of homeless denizens of NYC. Brookes clearly is a talented photographer. I recommend that you follow the link above (as well as the links on that page) and check out his work.

That said,  many of Brookes's images, while stark and wrenching, tend to invite compassion and charity rather than a political focus on the political-economic and social factors that (1) turn so many of our fellow citizens out onto the street and (2) render them invisible, or nearly so, once they are there.

This image in particular stands out among those in Brookes's portfolio.  From a stylistic point of view, he seems to have shot the woman sitting with her dog and sign on the sidewalk in black and white - visually the grey makes her seem to recede into the wall. I don't know whether he actually altered the image or not (notice the blue paper on her cup and the green bills inside it). But I find the effect chilling.  Regardless, the image raises the broad question of just who among those Brookes depicts is alienated and/or deviant.

The phrase "You couldn't make this shit up!" is overused. But in this case it is apt.

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14 October 2012

The 1% Congress

Some time ago I read a paper* by Nicholas Carnes, a young political scientist at Duke University. He studies the economic class background of politicians, specifically members of the US Congress. Unsurprisingly, he discovered that there are a vanishing small number of representatives from working class backgrounds in the U.S. House and Senate. And, unsurprisingly, he postulates that this has skewed the policies that Congress enacts.

Now, you might think this is the sort of thing that everyone, including your grandmother and mine, knows. And a moment's reflection suggests that that likely is so. That said, I think this is smart research that shines a bright, unflattering light on the inbred shallowness of the discipline of political science. And it does underscore the class basis of American politics.

In any case, Carnes has this Op Ed in The New York Times this morning sketching his research findings. The one thing that seems lame to me is the diffuseness of his proposed remedy and the basis for it. He thinks we can turn the under-representation of working class Americans around with a bit of elbow grease. He basically says 'Hey Look, in 1945 only 2% of Congressional representatives were women and now 17% are! Let's congratulate ourselves!" But let's remember that it is now 2012. In nearly seven decades Carnes's numbers  indicate that we have made only glacial progress toward gender equality in political representation.**  And, let's remember too that the the members of the 1% who are represented in Congress have 0% reason to support (and 100% reason to oppose) anything like the decentralized electoral strategy Carnes gestures at. This is a problem that demands direct political action; it is another indication of why the progressive agenda following on OWS should be about political rights.
* Nicholas Carnes. 2012. "Does the Numerical Underrepresentation of the Working Class in Congress Matter?" Legislative Studies Quarterly XXXVII: 5–34.
Working-class citizens have been numerically underrepresented in policymaking institutions throughout most of America’s history. Little is known, however, about the political consequences of this enduring feature of our democratic system. This essay examines the relationship between legislators’ class backgrounds and their votes on economic policy in the House of Representatives during the twentieth century. Like ordinary Americans, representatives from working-class occupations exhibit more liberal economic preferences than other legislators, especially those from profit-oriented professions. These findings provide the first evidence of a link between the descriptive and substantive representation of social classes in the United States.

** As Susan points out, the increase in female Congressional representatives is overwhelmingly due to the election of African-American women. There are relatively few Republicans. And, I'd bet that the white women who do serve in Congress mimic the overall class background of the two houses.

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13 October 2012

Politics, Freedom ~ Lessons from OWS

“Hence, in spite of the great influence that the concept of an inner, nonpolitical freedom has exerted upon the tradition of thought, it seems safe to say that man would know nothing of inner freedom if he had not first experienced a condition of being free as a worldly tangible reality. We first become aware of freedom or its opposite in our intercourse with others, not in the intercourse with ourselves. Before it became an attribute of thought or a quality of the will, freedom was understood as a free man’s status, which enabled him to move, to get away from home, to go out into the world and meet other people in deed and word. This freedom clearly was preceded by liberation: in order to be free, man must have liberated himself from the necessities of life. But the status of freedom did not follow automatically upon the act of liberation. Freedom needed, in addition to mere liberation, the company of other men who were in the same state, and it needed a common public space to meet them – a politically organized world, in other words, into which each of the free men could insert himself by word and deed.”
~ Hannah Arendt "What is Freedom?"

Photograph © Victoria Schultz.

A few days ago I posted on a brief essay Todd Gitlin had written for The Chronicle of Higher Education regarding the hollowing out of the (allegedly) constitutionally protected right to assemble. It turns out that that essay simply reprinted the final pages of his recent book Occupy Nation*, a sympathetic, albeit not blindly uncritical, assessment of Occupy Wall Street. The book is a reasonably quick read and a fair treatment. It includes a bunch of terrific photos by Victoria Schultz - one of which I've lifted above.

Among the salutary aspects of Gitlin's book is the extended attention he pays to the question of where we might go from here, the we being those progressives for whom the Occupy challenge to political-economic inequality resonates deeply. And it seems to me that the image I've borrowed from Schultz points the way; from Occupy to a push for the extension and protection of political rights - by means of constitutional politics if need be. There is, after all, no affirmative right to vote in the US Constitution - a weakness underscored by Republican sponsored voter suppression laws (e.g., voter ID requirements, etc.). And, as Gitlin points out, the actual constitutional freedom to assemble in public has been more or less thoroughly whittled away. It seems to me that organizing and mobilizing to redress those problems is a pressing matter and might help reconstruct the platform from which to upend political-economic injustices.

Freedom, as Arendt argues, presupposes public space and access to it. If they did nothing else, the Occupy activists, underscored just how tenuous our putative freedoms otherwise are.
* Todd Gitlin. Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street. !tbooks/Harper Collins, 2012.

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11 October 2012

Aleppo in Ruins

Smoke billows over shelled and destroyed buildings in Aleppo, Syria, 
where the Syrian army has brought in reinforcements to try to end the 
rebels' resistance. Photograph © Maysun/EPA/The Guardian.

Aleppo Rooftops. Photograph © Issa Touma.

 The top image appeared at The Guardian this week. It reminded me of the second image, taken by Syrian photographer Issa Touma and the subject of one of the very first posts I made here a half dozen years ago and about whom I posted here last week. As I've said here repeatedly Touma is an interesting fellow who, I hope, stays out of harm's way in the Syrian war. In my early post I pointed to the television dishes spread across the rooftops as so many sources of resistance to the authoritarian regime. The ruins of the city attest to the character of the regime and suggest how violent it has become as the resistance has been mobilized.

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UR - SEIU Impasse (again)

I posted a couple of days ago on the current impasse between the University of Rochester where I teach - which, by the way, is the largest employer in a city beset of economic hardship - and employees represented by SEIU. Here is a page from Metro Justice with a link to various documents providing background on the conflict as well as a link to a petition you can sign on to. Which side are you on?
Update: (18 October 2012) Here is a report on subsequent actions, taken by the union on alumni weekend.

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Hey Jack! Zip It!

So, the thing about being a corporate tycoon is that you get used to being always right. Ask Jack Welch. As he explained in a diatribe today on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal (which has the credibility of Soviet-era Pravda) he was correct last week in tweeting about the manipulation of employment data that appears, however tepidly, to support the general policies of the Obama administration. I commented on that earlier outburst here.

Forget about the fact that Welch's tweets last week basically accused the BLS bureaucrats of manipulating data - the inference being that they did so at the behest of the administration. No mention of that today. How convenient. Instead we get Welch applying himself to the BLS statistics and their (now apparently inadvertent) bias. Of course, that would raise the issue of whether any of all of the BLS reports over the past months are similarly biased. And it overlooks the fact that the latest number simply continues a trend (albeit a noisy one) of improved jobs numbers.

And for all of this bullshit (in the technical sense) we get treated to old Jack whining about being subjected to mockery as though we live in a totalitarian state. With corporate leaders this removed from reality it is little wonder that the depression lingers on.

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09 October 2012

UofR and SEIU Standoff

For the last month there have been workers posted at the entrance to the University of Rochester with a large banner decrying unfair labor practices . . . here from The Campus Times, is why:
UR, Labor Unions Resume Contract Negotiations Today
By Leah Buletti · Published on October 08, 2012 11:24 AM

Negotiators on behalf of UR and the Service Employees International Union will meet today to discuss terms of a new labor agreement after talks stalled on Sept. 28. A federal mediator called for discussions to resume Monday.

Discussions for a new contract for 1,800 UR service workers at the UR Medical Center (URMC) and the River Campus began in August. The current contract, which expired on Sept. 22, has been extended twice while talks continue.

Union members say that most “non-economic issues” have been resolved, but issues including wages, education benefits, child care support and health insurance are still being contested. In particular, union members say they are aggrieved with a proposal to eliminate the current health benefits fund and replace it with an inferior and more costly health plan.

The news that talks would resume Monday comes as the service workers said last week that they would begin to picket URMC and various other campus locations beginning Oct. 12.

For expanded coverage and developments on this story look to our print edition, which will resume publication on Oct. 18.
I tend not to comment too much here on happenings on-campus, but the administration has recently pushed back on a set of employee benefits for non-unionized employees. The union deserves support.

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07 October 2012

Mike Yorke - Empty Chairs

Mike Yorke - Empty Chairs. Photograph © Rui Vieira/The Guardian.

The installation inspired, according to Yorke, by Van Gogh's Vincent's Chair (1888) is meant to represent each of the British troops killed in Afghanistan.

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Mary Matalin - On the Avant-Guarde of Republican Rhetoric

This morning I was making pancakes and delivering (some of)  them upstairs to where Susan was watching the Sunday talking heads shows.  At one point she had on This Week with George Stephanopolous (ABC); the panel was Mary Matalin, James Carville, Peggy Noonan, Paul Krugman and Jonathan Karl.*

The most prominent feature of the show was Mary Matalin. Not only did she engage is standard Republican anti-intellectualism, referring to Krugman repeatedly and sneeringly as "Professor Doctor Krugman." Not only did she lecture Krugman (who after all has won the Nobel Prize in economics) on economic history. Not only did she sit back and roll her eyes as Krugman replied to her antics and misstatements. She did do all of those things.  But her most egregious behavior was that she at one point directly accused Krugman of lying persistently about Republican economic policy.

Matalin's performance, in short, descended below even the extremely low lower bound of talking head behavior. But it exemplifies Republican politics  - savage your opponent regardless of whether there is anything resembling reasons or evidence for your claims. And, by no means ever - never ever - acknowledge that 'your guy' might not be perfectly correct on every single issue.

The ironic thing, of course, is that Krugman has been a consistent critic of Obama, who was the actual target of Matalin's rants. Imagine if Matalin had to interact with someone who supported Obama!
* Once the transcript is posted on line I will link to it here
P.S.: A Revised Update - Here is the offending interaction:

NOONAN: I think one of the key things about the debate is it's changed -- we will look back on it as an historic moment in this election. It upended things. This is what it upended. Barack Obama was supposed to be the sort of moderate centrist fellow, who looked at Mitt Romney, this extreme, strange fellow. By the time that debate was over, Mitt Romney seemed a completely moderate, centrist figure, who showed up as Mitt Romney the governor, not as Mitt Romney the candidate.
KRUGMAN: Except that everything he used to claim his centrism wasn't true, so this is a question, does that start to take its toll over the next few months.
NOONAN: I just think that is unjust. I mean, to say the very least --
KRUGMAN: When you say my [plan] (sic) covers pre-existing conditions when it doesn't and when your own campaign has admitted in the past that it doesn't, what do you say? That's amazing.
MATALIN: You have Mitt characterized (sic) -- and you have lied about every position and every particular of the Ryan plan on Medicare from the efficiency of Medicare administration to calling it a voucher plan, so you're hardly...
KRUGMAN: It is a voucher plan.
MATALIN: You are hardly credible on calling somebody else a liar. Here's what else...
KRUGMAN: Well, if you're going to make this not about that -- but, no, the fact of the matter, I just think that pre-existing condition thing was a defining moment. It was saying this guy believes not only he can say something that isn't true, but something that his own complain (sic) has admitted isn't true. And he can say it in front of 70 million people. That's amazing.
Conservatives will not doubt reply that I am being unfair. Note two things by comparison: (1) Carville was directly critical of Obama and (2) when he nonetheless plumped for the Democrats he did so with humor and without personal attack.

One final thing - Stephanopolous did nothing to call Matalin out for this adolescent behavior.

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06 October 2012

Issa Touma: Photo Festival in Time of War

 "It's almost an impossible situation but we wanted to go on 
because if we don't go on people will lose hope." 
~ Issa Touma.

Among the very first posts I wrote for this blog were several about a remarkable man - Syrian photographer and gallery owner Issa Touma (pictured above in an undated and unattributed photo). The issue then - half a dozen years ago - was persistent government interference with Touma's own work and with the photo festival he coordinates in his home city Aleppo. Of course, Aleppo has been in the news lately as the site of fighting between the troops of Assad regime and Free Syrian Army.  Yesterday CNN ran this report about Touma's efforts to mount the exhibition again this year despite the civil war going on around him. The festival web page is here. Even more impressive is that Touma is promoting "art camping," an attempt to bring culture and art and not just the basic necessities to people displaced by the war.

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Not just Climate Skeptics: What Passes for Thought on the Right

It is ironic that conservatives parade around preaching 'realism' about this or that political issue - until, that is, it turns out that reality shows them to be more or less wholly mistaken. This happens regularly, but yesterday provided a wonderful example.

So, it turns out that Jack Welch* and Allen West are tag-teaming in a campaign to cast doubt on the recent jobs report - the one that suggests some modest improvement in our ongoing unemployment crisis. There is, they insist, clearly a conspiracy among nerds and bureaucrats at the Bureau of Labor Statistics to cook the numbers.  But here is a rebuttal by Krugman that makes the conservatives look as foolish as, in fact, they are.

Of course, Krugman is a pinko, so clearly party to the conspiracy. OK, how about conservative commentator David Brooks on NPR last night? He is the exception that underscores my general observation.

BROOKS: Don't tweet. Too much tweeting going on. You know, people who don't know much about Washington may think that everyone around here is hyper-politicized, but if you actually go into the bowels of the federal government, there are a lot people who don't care that much about politics.
They're numbers geeks. They do their jobs. They go home. They're not that political. And I guarantee you the people in the BLS are totally committed to the numbers. If somebody tried to introduce politics in their work, there would be mass resignations and there would be a lot of calls to reporters at various institutions saying this is happening. So I guarantee you, I feel very strongly it's not happening.
* I have loathed Welch for many years. He was head of GE, where my father worked, during just after the time I grew up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Not only did the  Welch-led company contaminate the environment in all sorts of ways, they then bailed out of the town and decimated the economy. Welch was the poster child for predatory capitalists. His remarks yesterday simply confirm that he has not changed.
UPDATE (8 October 2012): If you read Paul Krugman you'll have seen this post regarding Welch's sketchy accounting practices while he was at GE.

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05 October 2012

Mitt who? On the "jobs report"

I am not so much pro-Obama - I actually am not registered as a Democrat - as I am anti-Republican. So here is how I interpret this graphic, lifted from The New York Times today.

First, and most importantly, it suggests that fewer people are jobless this month than last. Indeed, the unemployment rate is south of 8% for the first time since 2009. We can worry about whether the jobs are "good" ones or otherwise, but the trajectory is surely encouraging. That is the good news and it is important independently of the campaign.

Second, this news should distract attention from the horse-race preoccupation with who "won" the debate Wednesday evening. The common wisdom is that Romney did.  The employment figures today should pretty much render that discussion moot. Look where Republican policies left us. Then look at the record under Obama. Even if we think he could've done a better job, experience suggests there is zero reason to think that Romeny/Ryan will do so. Even if he seems less stiff and weaselly than you thought, voting for Romney on grounds of economic policy is indefensible.

Finally, the downside of this shift in attention is that it will provide less reason for the press to explore the plethora of lies and bullshit Romney offered up Wednesday night - [1] [2] [3] [4], etcetera . . . In other words Romney only appeared less weaselly the other evening. It is important not to let that message get lost in the jobs uptick.

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Best Shots (225) ~ Daido Moriyama

(250) Daido Moriyama ~ Girlfriend in Fishnets (3 October 2012).


01 October 2012

Passings ~ Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012)

Historian Eric Hobsbawm has died. I never met the man, nor did I ever hear him speak. But, while I was in graduate school I read oodles of his work. That included not just his really terrific book of essays on jazz (he moonlighted as a critic) but a book he edited entitled The Invention of Tradition in which I found the seeds of what eventually turned into my dissertation. You can find an obituary here and an appreciation here at The Guardian. There is an obituary here at The New York Times. More to follow.

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Assembly Not Association or Expression

I stumbled across this brief, incisive post by Todd Gitlin in which he surveys a set of recent revisionist legal histories that call into question the reduction of freedom of assembly to freedom on association or expression. I have noted here and here before the complex interconnections between freedom and creativity and public space. It seems to me that it is crucial to democratic politics to reassert the freedom to gather together and to act together in public. The works Gitlin mentions recount how we've lost that freedom.

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