31 July 2013

"I demand that things be called by their names." ~ Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

The folks at n+1 have published this update on the travails of Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova members of Pussy Riot currently imprisoned for "hooliganism" in Russia. Unsurprisingly, the news is not good. Unsurprisingly too, the two women are unrepentant in the face of blatant judicial nonsense.

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30 July 2013


This is Susan in the back yard last weekend tossing a ball to our border collie. Today we had a 30 week ultrasound and all seems to be progressing normally. We are really excited. We've told lots of people in person but this is more or less the 'public' announcement: Esme Lavinia Maureen Orr Johnson is expected to arrive sometime in early October.
P.S.: Clearly with the addition of daughter number one I'll have to amend the tag on this post.


29 July 2013

Detroit ~ Ruins and Responsibility

Photograph © Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre. 

Photograph © Andrew Moore.

A couple of related items popped up on my news feed recently. The first is this older piece (2011) from Guernica on disaster photography in Detroit. The author is discussing The Ruins of Detroit and Detroit Disassembled projects by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre and Andrew Moore respectively. In this passage - the relevance of which will come clearer in a moment - the author, John Patrick Leary, rightly is critical:
"But other photos tend towards overwrought melodrama . . .  Moore leans on the compositional tactic of ironic juxtaposition, an old standby of documentary city photography since at least the days of Robert Frank and Helen Levitt. In one photograph (repeated in Marchand and Meffre’s collection) of the East Grand Boulevard Methodist church, its Biblical invocation, “And you shall say that God did it,” looms above its sanctuary. The irony is obvious, heavy-handedly so, yet the photographer’s meaning is less clear. One feels obliged to raise the obvious defense of the Almighty here: If anyone or anything “did it,” General Motors and the Detroit City Council had a hell of a lot more to do with it than God did. And who said God was ever here in the first place?"
The images Leary mentions are those I've lifted above This brings me to the next of the items in my news feed. It is this pointed column by Scott Martelle at WaPo entitled "Five Myths About Detroit." Not only was it not God who flushed Detroit, it was not rampaging black rioters or the unions. It was the usual suspects - corporate and political elites. Mostly Martelle is on point. But I reject this insipid
"Yet scapegoating corporate leaders shifts responsibility from where it belongs: on us. We’ve voted for leaders who endorse policies that require corporate brass to make decisions based on their responsibility to stockholders. Blaming corporations for maximizing profits is like blaming a dog for barking. If we want businesses to behave differently, we need to change our laws and our expectations."
He is right that it is important to assert democratic control over political-economic decisions. But that is not going to happen simply in the voting booth. And, as elite response to the efforts by OWS (for example) to push a more radically democratic agenda attest, it is not going to occur without significant resistance from those elites.

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Jazz - Paying Attention to Race

"Guess my main beef is the tremendous status that is accorded to Jarrett's trio — with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, they've been together for 30 years now — by middle-aged white jazz critics. I just fail to see what makes his trio playing standards any more ''state of the art'' or dynamic than any number of African-American pianists I can think of." ~ Matthew Shipp
When I was in college I liked Keith Jarrett. Then I discovered various musicians and ensembles affiliated with the AACM (Air; Anthony Braxton; the Art Ensemble of Chicago; Fred Anderson) and others (David Murray; Arthur Blythe; Gerri Allen; World Saxophone Quartet; Cassandra Wilson; Archie Shepp; Randy Weston, and, yes, Jack DeJohnette). Jarrett fell pretty far down my list of preferred listening; I no longer found his playing as compelling. In any case, I found this review by pianist Matthew Shipp of Jarrett's latest release on point. Shipp's point, on my reading, is about the racially inflected attention cycle among critics, promoters, and audiences as much as it is about Jarrett or his work. It converges with my own comments about music (especially jazz) and race here in the past.

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Stallabrass, ed. Documentary

Yesterday I posted on a dispute between Susie Linfield and Julian Stallabrass that emerged from a review the former wrote of the latter. In the course of preparing that post I came across yet another recent book (edited) by Stallabrass. You can find publication details here. I've only just now ordered the book but this promises to be yet another offering in a very useful series.

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28 July 2013

Linfield Reads Stallabrass ... and so on.

"Reading this anthology—many of whose pieces date from 2008, and some of which were previously published—is like trolling through a flea market looking for gems. The book mounts no sustained argument, or arguments; instead, it covers—in a fairly haphazard fashion—such issues as the role of embedded photographers; the use of torture in the wars in Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq; and the ways in which technological changes are affecting the reception of photojournalism and the work of photojournalists. Still, I like flea markets ..." ~ Susie Linfield

The passage above opens Linfield's review of the collection Memory of Fire: Images of War and the War of Images* by Julian Stallabrass at the Aperture blog. Turns out that Stallabrass replies and Linfield responds. These are two of the best writers on photography around. Where they disagree is over the assessment of US imperialism. Here I side with Stallabrass. Linfield in many respects wants us to draw a curtain over the US role in Iraq prior to the military adventures and war crimes of Bush #2 and his minions.
"Everything that Julian Stallabrass says about how Iraq was strangled, weakened, and torn up by international sanctions and the U.S. invasion is correct. What he doesn’t say is that Iraq had been strangled, weakened, and torn up by previous decades of misrule by Saddam Hussein’s pathologically violent, repressive Baath regime. I am always mystified as to why “anti-imperialists” believe that the history of a country begins when the U.S.—or another power—invades it."
And she wants to call attention to the obvious flaws of the Iraqi resistance.
"The “resistance” in Iraq is rabidly intolerant, sectarian, murderous, and misogynistic; like the Taliban in Afghanistan, it represents a reactionary, totalitarian program. To romanticize, or even remotely defend, these movements is, I think, a cruel hoax. They do not represent any sort of liberation, or any sort of decent future, for their fellow citizens."
Let me be clear - Linfield is right in this second passage. I am not defending the opposition. However, nothing she says there excuses the US intervention. Moreover, it is disingenuous to suggest that Saddam Hussein simply emerged  as a vicious dictator of his own accord. We ought not to frame our arguments so narrowly that they neglect the documentary record.

This, of course, is Donald Rumsfeld, among the primary architects of Bush #2's foreign policy disasters, caught in a compromising pose. This was his earlier incarnation (1983) as Special Envoy to the Middle East under Reagan. The latter, of course, underwrote Hussein politically and financially. (Background here.)  Hussein surely was a pathological tyrant, but he was to some considerable extent our pathological tyrant. In other words, recognizing the disaster that is the current Iraqi opposition is wholly consistent with forcefully pointing out the duplicitous meddling (and much worse) of the US in Iraq for decades. Linfield surely knows that.
* The book is published in the UK by Photoworks.

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27 July 2013

Women Out of The Frame ~ Columbo, Sri Lanka (July 2013)

I, unfortunately, only today got wind of this exhibition (and accompanying workshops) - Women Out of the Frame - which ran earlier this month in Columo, Sri Lanka. There is a FB page here. But even having missed the exhibition I feel it is important to recognize such important undertakings. I've been able to track down only a few images from the exhibition on line. This one showing relatively wealthy urban women posing while women tea pickers labor, especially, is intriguing:

Untitled. Photograph © Asanka Darshana.

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The Jersey Shore - Who Cares?

 In the mid 1970s I graduated from high school in the northern reaches of Appalachia (the Berkshires of Massachusetts). I enrolled at a little liberal arts college (Hobart) in western NY. This was my first prolonged exposure to kids from New Jersey. It was quite an experience. Then and now I never got the attraction of the state or the character of its denizens at all.  Bruce Springsteen played at the college at least twice while I was there and - despite the hyperbole of my classmates - I was unimpressed. And all the chatter about the 'shore' left me completely vacant. While my estimation of Springsteen has changed considerably, my assessment of the shore remains the same. If anything the reality TV portrayal seems too kind. This series of photographs by Joe Maloney simply reinforces my aversion.

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26 July 2013

California Museum of Photography

At Forbes, Jonathan Keats (whose writings I have noted here before) reviews an exhibition including work by Richard Ross at the California Museum of Photography (Riverside). I've made no secret of my admiration for Ross's work - look here. Unfortunately, it is a long way to Riverside from western NY!

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Passings ~ Willie Louis, aka Willie Reed, (1937- 2013)

Willie Louis (Reed), an American hero, has died. Before changing his name and moving from Mississippi to Chicago as self-protection, Willie Reed, then 18 years old, testified in court against the white murders of Emmett Till. You can find an obituary here at The New York Times.

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22 July 2013

Shahidul Alam

I've posted here repeatedly on Bangladeshi photographer/impresario Shahidul Alam. Apparently the folks at Lens have decided it is time to play catch-up! They posted this notice of Alam's photographic and organizational work a couple of days ago.

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21 July 2013

Getting Critical Theory Right

"Today, the Frankfurt School is widely associated with hostility to empiricism and even to science. On university campuses, its aficionados are typically found in literature and cultural studies departments, but not in economics, law, or political science. It is true that the most prominent Frankfurt School figures, the social philosopher Theodor Adorno and the cultural critic Walter Benjamin, had little patience for the sort of hardheaded research featured in the OSS reports. But the publication of those reports should serve as a reminder of the Frankfurt School’s neglected face, as represented by the enigmatic Neumann and his OSS colleagues, for whom rigorous empirical inquiry always constituted a core component of what they called the “critical theory of society.”*
Among the blind-spots among political theorists that have driven me around the bend has been the more or less thoroughgoing hostility to social science. (Granted, social scientists typically reciprocate!) I recall being at a meeting of the Critical Theory Roundtable (CTR) years ago and listening to Seyla Benhabib go on and on about positivism this and positivism that as though all empirical social research (even quantitative or mathematical) were wedded to a single philosophical interpretation. When I made the seemingly obvious observation that the specific mathematical techniques are related only contingently to positivist interpretations, the response was uniformly hostile. What passes for "critical theory" these days takes place largely in ignorance of the best quantitative and formal research. So much the worse for the critical theorists and for their awareness of their own genealogy. I've not been back to the CTR since that meeting; critical theory was, from the beginning, meant to be social theory not philosophy. In current practice it just is a form of  the latter. The results are debilitating.
* William Scheuerman. "Review of  Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, & Otto Kirchheimer. 2013. Secret Reports on Nazi Germany: The Frankfurt School Contribution to the War Effort. Edited by Raffalle Laudani. Princeton University Press." [Foreign Affairs]

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Tag Team Political Economy - Bhagwati and Panagariya vs. Sen and Jean Drèze

Disagreements among economists are enlightening insofar as they reveal that there is considerably less consensus than meets the eye . . .  Recently The Economist ran this review of a new (actually not-yet-released in the US) book by Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze* which, in turn, elicited this critical letter from Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya who have a new book of their own.** The latter, in turn, also was reviewed here at The Economist several months ago. Sen and Jean Drèze replied with this letter insisting that Bhagwati and Panagariya had caricatured their work. While this may seem merely an academic squabble, the issues at stake are of considerable importance - the relative importance of focusing of rapid economic growth or on the political and social conditions under which growth occurs. This is important not just in India - the country on which both books focus - but in such underdeveloped areas of the US as western New York state.
* Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze. 2013. An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions. Princeton University Press.
** Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya. 2013. Why Growth Matters: How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries. Public Affairs Press.

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20 July 2013

Detroit in Ruins

William Livingstone House, Brush Park, a French Renaissance-style house designed by Albert Kahn in 1893 and demolished since this photograph was taken. Photograph © Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.
I've spent part of every summer for the past dozen and a half years in southeast Michigan and have mixed feeling about the region. On the one hand, Ann Arbor where I teach is too preening and precious for my taste - by a considerable amount. On the other hand, Detroit - which I have to traverse in each direction to get to Ann Arbor - makes me cringe. It is an amplified version of the political economic disasters in Rochester and the other urban areas across Western NY. Each of these cities is an extremely unflattering monument to both capitalism and political corruption. I've posted here about Detroit several times and about Rochester  here  more than that. In any case, The Guardian has run this series of photographs by

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19 July 2013

Democracy & the Arts in Detroit (2)

This is a follow-up on this earlier post in light of the not bankruptcy filing of the city of Detroit yesterday. The collection of the Detroit Institute of the Arts apparently is on the cutting block again. Here is a report from The New York Times. The choice should not be between paying pensioners and maintaining cultural heritage. Let the bond-holders eat cake.

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18 July 2013

Rebecca Solnit to Edward Snowden

Prometheus Among the Cannibals ~
A Letter to Edward Snowden

By Rebecca Solnit

Billions of us, from prime ministers to hackers, are watching a live espionage movie in which you are the protagonist and perhaps the sacrifice. Your way forward is clear to no one, least of all, I’m sure, you.

I fear for you; I think of you with a heavy heart. I imagine hiding you like Anne Frank. I imagine Hollywood movie magic in which a young lookalike would swap places with you and let you flee to safety -- if there is any safety in this world of extreme rendition and extrajudicial execution by the government that you and I were born under and that you, until recently, served. I fear you may pay, if not with your death, with your life -- with a life that can have no conventional outcome anytime soon, if ever. “Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped,” you told us, and they are trying to stop you instead.

I am moved by your choice of our future over yours, the world over yourself. You know what few do nowadays: that the self is not the same as self-interest. You are someone who is smart enough, idealistic enough, bold enough to know that living with yourself in a system of utter corruption would destroy that self as an ideal, as something worth being. Doing what you’ve done, on the other hand, would give you a self you could live with, even if it gave you nowhere to live or no life. Which is to say, you have become a hero.

Pity the country that requires a hero, Bertolt Brecht once remarked, but pity the heroes too. They are the other homeless, the people who don’t fit in. They are the ones who see the hardest work and do it, and pay the price we charge those who do what we can’t or won’t. If the old stories were about heroes who saved us from others, modern heroes -- Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Rachel Carson, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi -- endeavored to save us from ourselves, from our own governments and systems of power.

The rest of us so often sacrifice that self and those idealsto fit in, to be part of a cannibal system, a system that eats souls and defiles truths and serves only power. Or we negotiate quietly to maintain an
uneasy distance from it and then go about our own business. Though in my world quite a few of us strike our small blows against empire, you, young man, you were situated where you could run a dagger through the dragon’s eye, and that dragon is writhing in agony now; in that agony it has lost its magic: an arrangement whereby it remains invisible while making the rest of us ever more naked to its glaring eye.

Private Eyes and Public Rights

Privacy is a kind of power as well as a right, one that public librarians fought to protect against the Bush administration and the PATRIOT Act and that online companies violate in every way that’s profitable and expedient. Our lack of privacy, their monstrous privacy -- even their invasion of our privacy must, by law, remain classified -- is what you made visible. The agony of a monster with nowhere to stand -- you are accused of spying on the spies, of invading the privacy of their invasion of privacy -- is a truly curious thing. And it is changing the world. Europe and South America are in an uproar, and attempts to contain you and your damage are putting out fire with gasoline.

You yourself said it so well on July 12th:
“A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise, and I lived in great comfort. I also had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications. Anyone's communications at any time. That is the power to change people's fates. It is also a serious violation of the law. The 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution of my country, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous statutes and treaties forbid such systems of massive, pervasive surveillance. While the U.S. Constitution marks these programs as illegal, my government argues that secret court rulings, which the world is not permitted to see, somehow legitimize an illegal affair. These rulings simply corrupt the most basic notion of justice -- that it must be seen to be done.”
They say you, like Bradley Manning, gave secrets to their enemies. It’s clear who those enemies are: you, me, us. It was clear on September 12, 2001, that the Bush administration feared the American people more than al-Qaeda. Not much has changed on that front since, and this almost infinitely broad information harvest criminalizes all of us. This metadata -- the patterns and connections of communications rather than their content -- is particularly useful, as my friend Chris Carlsson pointed out, at mapping the clusters of communications behind popular movements, uprisings, political organizing: in other words, those moments when civil society rises to shape history, to make a better future in the open world of the streets and squares.

The goal of gathering all this metadata, Chris speculates, "is to be able to identify where the ‘hubs’ are, who the people are who sit at key points in networks, helping pass news and messages along, but especially, who the people are who spread ideas and information from one network of people to the next, who help connect small networks into larger ones, and thus facilitate the unpredictable and rapid spread of dissent when it appears.”

Metadata can map the circulatory system of civil society, toward what ends you can certainly imagine. When governments fear their people you can be sure they are not serving their people. This has always been the minefield of patriotism: loyalty to our government often means hostility to our country and vice-versa. Edward Snowden, loyalist to country, you have made this clear as day.

Those who demonize you show, as David Bromwich pointed out in a fine essay in the London Review of Books, their submission to the power you exposed. Who stood where, he writes:
“was an infallible marker of the anti-authoritarian instinct against the authoritarian. What was distressing and impossible to predict was the evidence of the way the last few years have worn deep channels of authoritarian acceptance in the mind of the liberal establishment. Every public figure who is psychologically identified with the ways of power in America has condemned Snowden as a traitor, or deplored his actions as merely those of a criminal, someone about whom the judgment ‘he must be prosecuted’ obviates any further judgment and any need for thought.”
You said, "I know the media likes to personalize political debates, and I know the government will demonize me." Who you are is fascinating, but what you’ve exposed is what matters. It is upending the world. It is damaging Washington’s relations with many Latin American and some European countries, with Russia and China as well as with its own people -- those, at least, who bother to read or listen to the news and care about what they find there. “Edward Snowden Single-Handedly Forces Tech Companies To Come Forward With Government Data Request Stats,” said a headline in Forbes. Your act is rearranging our world. How much no one yet knows.

What You Love

What’s striking about your words on video, Edward Snowden, the ones I hear as your young, pale, thoughtful face speaks with clarity and incisiveness in response to Glenn Greenwald’s questions, is that you’re not talking much about what you hate, though it’s clear that you hate the secret network you were part of. You hate it because it poisons what you love. You told us, "I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions... [but] I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon, and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant." You love our world, our country -- not its government, clearly, but its old ideals and living idealists, its possibilities, its dreamers, and its dreams (not the stale, stuffed American dream of individual affluence, but the other dreams of a better world for all of us, a world of principle).

You told us where we now live and that you refuse to live there anymore:
"I don't want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that's not something I'm willing to support, it's not something I'm willing to build, and it's not something I'm willing to live under. America is a fundamentally good country. We have good people with good values who want to do the right thing. But the structures of power that exist are working to their own ends to extend their capability at the expense of the freedom of all publics."
Which is to say you acted from love, from all the things the new surveillance state imperils: privacy, democracy, accountability, decency, honor. The rest of us, what would we do for love?

What is terrifying to the politicians at the top is that you may be our truest patriot at the moment. Which makes all of them, with their marble buildings and illustrious titles, their security details and all the pomp, the flags, the saluting soldiers, so many traitors. The government is the enemy of the people; the state is the enemy of the country. I love that country, too. I fear that state and this new information age as they spread and twine like a poison vine around everything and everyone. You held up a mirror and fools hate the mirror for it; they shoot the messenger, but the message has been delivered.

“This country is worth dying for,” you said in explanation of your great risks. You were trained as a soldier, but a soldier’s courage with a thinker’s independence of mind is a dangerous thing; a hero is a dangerous thing. That’s why the U.S. military has made the Guardian, the British newspaper that has done the key reporting on your leaks, off limits to our soldiers overseas. Whoever made that cynical censorship decision understands that those soldiers may be defending a set of interests at odds with this country and its Constitution, and they need to be kept in the dark about that. The dark from which you emerged.

When the United States forced the airplane of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s democratically elected head of state, to land in Austria, after compliant France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy denied him the right to travel through their airspace, all South America took it as an insult and a violation of Bolivia’s sovereignty and international law. The allied president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, tracked the incident in a series of tweets that demonstrated an openness, a principledness, and a strong friendship between Morales, Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa, and her. It was a little window onto a really foreign continent: one in which countries are sometimes headed by genuinely popular leaders who are genuinely transparent and governed by rule of law. It’s a reminder that things in our own blighted, corrupted, corporate-dominated country could be different.

Building a Bridge to the Nineteenth Century

How did we get here? In 1996, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore pushed the dreadful slogan “building a bridge to the twenty-first century.” It was a celebration of Silicon Valley-style technological innovation and corporate globalization, among other things. At the time, I put “building a bridge to the nineteenth century” on my letterhead. It turned out that we were doing both at once: erecting a massive electronic infrastructure that outpaces our ability to democratically manage it and shifting our economy backward to recreate the chasms of class divide that marked the nineteenth century. The two goals intertwined like serpents making love.

The new technologies made a surveillance state that much more powerful and far-reaching; the new technologies replaced many jobs with few; the new technologies created new billionaires without principles; the new technologies made us all into commodities to be sold to advertisers; the new technologies turned our every move into something that could be tracked; the new technologies kept us distracted and busy. Meanwhile, almost everyone got poorer.

What the neoliberals amassing mountains of wealth for the already super-wealthy forgot, what the tax-cutters and child-starvers never learned in school, is that desperate people do not necessary simply lie down and obey. Often enough, they rebel. There is no one as dangerous as he or she who has nothing to lose. The twentieth century’s welfare states, their pumped-up, plumped-up middle classes, their relative egalitarianism and graduated tax plans pacified the once-insurrectionary classes by meeting, at least in part, their needs and demands. The comfortable don’t revolt much. Out of sheer greed, however, the wealthiest and most powerful decided to make so many of the rest of us at least increasingly uncomfortable and often far worse.

Edward Snowden, you rebelled because you were outraged; so many others are rebelling because their lives are impossible now. These days when we revolt, the new technologies become our friends as well as our enemies. If you imagine those technologies as the fire Prometheus stole from the gods, then it works both ways, for us and for them, to create and to destroy.

Those new technologies are key to the latest rounds of global organizing, from the World Trade Organization actions of 1999, put together by email and epochal in their impact, to the Arab Spring, which used email, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, and other means, to Occupy Wall Street. The technologies are double-edged: populist networks for creating global resistance are vulnerable to surveillance; classified reams of data are breachable by information saved to thumb drives or burned onto CDs by whistleblowers and hackers. They can spy in private; we can organize in public, and maybe the two actions are true opposites.

Meanwhile there is massive upheaval in Egypt and in Brazil, and in recent years there have been popular rebellions in many parts of the Arab world, Turkey, Iceland, Greece, Spain, Britain, Chile, and the U.S. itself with Occupy. The globe is on fire with popular outrage, with fury over economic injustice and, among other things, climate change spurred by the profits a few are piling up to the detriment of the rest of us, generations to come, other species, and the planet itself. It seems that, surveillance or not, people are not about to go quietly into the nineteenth century or accept the devil’s bargains of the twenty-first either.

Prometheus and Being Burned

I think of a man even younger than you, Edward Snowden, who unlike you acted without knowing what he did: 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi, whose December 2010 self-immolation to protest his humiliation and hopelessness triggered what became the still-blooming, still-burning Arab Spring. Sometimes one person changes the world. This should make most of us hopeful and some of them fearful, because what I am also saying is that we now live in a world of us and them, a binary world. It’s not the old world of capitalism versus communism, but of the big versus the little, of oligarchy versus democracy, of hierarchies versus swarms, of corporations versus public interest and civil society.

It seems nearly worldwide now, which is why revolts all over the planet have so much in common these days, why Occupy activists last month held up signs in New York’s Liberty Plaza in solidarity with the uprising in Taksim Square in Turkey; why Arab Spring activists phoned in pizza orders to the uprising in Wisconsin in early 2011; why Occupy spread around the world, and Greek insurrectionaries learned from the successes of Argentina in the face of austerity and economic collapse. We know our fate is common and that we live it out together and change it together, only together.

There were rumblings that you had defected, or would defect, to China or Russia, but you had already defected when we became aware of your existence: you had defected from them to us, using the power you had gained deep within the bowels of their infernal machines to empower us. What will we do with what you’ve taught us? That’s up to us, but for anyone who thinks what you did was not threatening to those in power, just look at how furious, how upset, how naked our emperors now are.

And you, Prometheus, you stole their fire, and you know it. You said, "Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, [Senator Dianne] Feinstein, and [Congressman Peter] King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school."

Someday you may be regarded as a Mandela of sorts for the information age, or perhaps a John Brown, someone who refused to fit in, to bow down, to make a system work that shouldn’t work, that should explode. And perhaps we’re watching it explode. The match is sacrificed to start the fire. So maybe, Edward Snowden, you’re a sacrifice. In the process, you’ve lit a bonfire out of their secrecy and spying, a call to action.

I fear for you, but your gift gives us hope and your courage, an example. Our loyalty should be to our ideals, because they are a threat to the secret system you’ve exposed, because we have to choose between the two. Right now you embody that threat, just as you embody those ideals. For which I am grateful, for which everyone who is not embedded in that system should be grateful.



Like Edward Snowden, Rebecca Solnit has a GED, not a high-school diploma. She lives in Silicon Valley’s shadow, in a city where billionaires race $10 million yachts and austerity is closing the community college.  Her newest book is The Faraway Nearby.

Copyright 2013 Rebecca Solnit

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16 July 2013

What makes a good photograph?

That's the question. There are five answers here - from Julian Stallabrass, Sean O'Hagan, Martin Pugh, Colin Graham and Jim Bell.  All surely well placed to reply. I supposed no women were so situated? That's not the author's fault. Their essays are brief and moderately interesting. I have trouble getting two enthused about undertakings of this sort.

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15 July 2013

Israelis Endorsing the Boycott Movement

I have not been a proponent of boycotting Israel. My view - as I've made clear here repeatedly - has been that it is more effective, given the chance, to go, engage Israelis, and challenge their occupation and systematic oppression of Palestinians. This essay by Gordon Levy at Ha'aretz, a relatively mainstream news outlet, suggests how narrow the view of Israeli politics tends to be from the vantage point of the US; but his argument also raises the possibility that there may well be no one left with whom to engage. Of course, that presents problems for those who advocate policies of boycott and divestment as well. For such policies requires some uptake if they are to be noticed and effective in Israel and they risk inducing reaction that will further constrict the space for public, democratic debate there.

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14 July 2013

The Martin Verdict

Two items on the Martin verdict. I call it the Martin verdict because, although he pulled the trigger,  George Zimmerman was never really on trial. Trayvon Martin, even though he is the one who ended up dead, was.  And the legal system announced last night that his life was expendable. The first item is a link to this column by Gary Younge at The Guardian. I agree with virtually every syllable. The second is a message from the inestimable Ella Baker:

This popped up on my news feed. It rightly underscores the political situation - the same today as it ever was.

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Disingenous Defined

There is much to admire about Melissa Harris-Perry. She is bright and articulate. But she is also more or less wholly blind to the shortcomings - systematic though they are - of the Obama administration. And she evinces a seemingly willful naivete about actual politics that is pretty astonishing. All this is in full display here in her hectoring missive to Edward Snowden. Does she not understand the Obama administration's apparently irresistible urge to persecute (not prosecute) anyone who reveals the duplicity and depravity of their policies? I recommend a dose of reality, which you can find here in Daniel Ellsberg's WaPo essay last weekend.

Simply put, Harris-Perry is blaming the messenger here. She needs to focus on the problem, which involves training her smarts and insight on the bad behavior of the Obama administration. No one, especially Edward Snowden, is preventing her from doing that.
Update (later that same day): Of course, if Harris-Perry doesn't like Ellsberg's assessment of Snowden's plight, she might consider this from Amnesty International.

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Reasonable Doubt Defined

Man profiles boy. Man stalks boy. Man shoots boy dead. Man goes free (because the only actual witness has been shot dead).

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13 July 2013

Passings ~ Toshi Seeger (1922-2013)

Toshi Seeger, enabler of her husband Pete, has died. There is an obituary here at The New York Times.

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Envisioning Dissent and the Poor Before Photography

The New York City Draft Riots (1863) were a complex amalgam of racism, inequality and violence. This series of images from the popular press of the day- run here at The New York Times yesterday -  is simultaneously intriguing and depressing.

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Oday Aboushi & the ADL

Pu this in the "credit when due" category. I typically find Foxman and the ADL reactionary and counterproductive. Here they've done the surprising thing, the right thing:
"Waves of support for Aboushi started rolling in on Thursday, and on Friday, the Anti-Defamation League released a statement condemning the attacks on his character and applauding him for taking pride in his culture."

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12 July 2013

Green Growth?

Dani Rodrik here on "green growth" policies ...

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11 July 2013

She Wept, And Understandably So.

This is a photograph of the chief flight attendant on the airliner that crash in San Francisco last weekend. My understanding is that she and her fellow crew members performed heroically in the event. That said here is the caption accompanying the photo at the Lens blog today.
"Kim Yoon-ju, a flight attendant on the Asiana flight that crashed in San Francisco last week, became emotional during a news conference near Seoul." Photograph © Kim Hong-ji/Reuters.
When did it become impossible to say that a person wept or cried or shed tears? When did the press decide it is necessary to speak euphemistically about a simple, normal reaction to stress and sadness and fear? Can I say that I find the phrase became emotional incredibly irritating? I just did.

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09 July 2013

Edward Snowden Updates

"Many people compare Edward Snowden to me unfavorably for leaving the country and seeking asylum, rather than facing trial as I did. I don’t agree. The country I stayed in was a different America, a long time ago." ~ Daniel Ellsberg
Despite the tacit and distracting Rawlsian lingo (Ideal vs Non-Ideal and all that) this piece by Archon Fung at The Boston Review on Snowden, his predicament, and some consequences for democracy in the US is on point. It elaborates some of what Ellsberg says on his WaPo essay. Democracy Now! has run a two part interview with Glenn Greenwald here and here.

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Naked Athletes Used to Try to Sell 2nd Rate Sports Magazine

Although I am pretty hostile to using nude celebs to, for instance, push animal rights moralism, I am not generally censorious about nudity. That said, I have to ask what, precisely, "The Body Issue" from ESPN The Magazine this year (and, indeed, any other) is meant to accomplish. This is not Robert Mapplethorpe. Yet a lot of the discussion around this issue tends each year to revolve around the sexualizing of female athletes. What is odd is the totally airbrushed quality of the images renders them more or less totally de-sexualized and that regardless of pose or exposure. But this is not a celebration of bodies. There is neither a mole nor a blemish in sight. The airbrushing has, especially on the women, nearly eliminated any hint of muscle tone. Assessment: wholly uninteresting.

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08 July 2013

Making Abortion Visible

Holly Fritz & Zoe. Photograph © Tara Todras-Whitehall.

Today The New York Times carried this Op-Ed entitled "My Mother's Abortion" that, insightfully zeros in on  the silence and shame that have been imposed in the US on the topic of abortion and on women who opt for abortions. The author, Beth Matusoff Merfish, concludes with a plea to break silence:
What the movement for reproductive rights needs is for the faces of freedom to emerge from the captivity of shame. To my mother’s generation, I ask: Speak openly about the choices you have made. To all women: ask your mothers, grandmothers, godmothers, aunts, sisters, daughters and partners about their reproductive histories. Show that abortion has myriad faces: those of women we love, respect and cherish. You have the power to cement in the minds of your communities and families the importance of reproductive freedom. You have made decisions that are private, even anguishing, but the weight of this political moment demands that you shed light on those decisions.
This is, I think, an especially important observation/demand. One might make the analogy to coming out of the closet. Here, contra Foucault, invisibility is a trap.

All that brought to mind the photography project by Tara Todras-Whitehall consisting of portraits of women, each wearing a tee-shirt simply stating "I Had an Abortion."

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07 July 2013

Against the Revival of Communism (2)

Jodi Dean has posted this short reply to Jeff Isaac - who reviewed her book The Communist Horizon (quite critically) in Dissent. I linked to Jodi's book and Jeff's review here. I said then that I know Jodi a bit and that she is smart. That said, I find most of what Jeff wrote compelling. While democracy has disappointed even advocates like myself and Jeff, I doubt one could point to it as an unmitigated disaster. So, I have to say that I am a bit taken aback when Jodi accuses Jeff of cultivating " a melancholic attachment to failure" for supporting robust democratic politics - however problematic that project may seem. I wonder what sort of attachment to failure one might have to sustain in order to face the repeated, massive disasters of the actually existing communism of the 20th century. It was not God that failed.

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Amnesty International Graphics

I have noted here repeatedly campaigns that Amnesty International has run using provocative, creative imagery. Today on my news feed, this compendium of posters - including the ones I've lifted here - from various AI campaigns.

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PETA Follies - Again (Still?)

I don't have much use for PETA and have said why here numerous times. I don't want to rehearse all that. Let's just say that being thoroughly sexist and nauseatingly moralistic is a bad combination. And then add to that patronizing and arguably hypocritical - as detailed in this story from The New York Times.

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06 July 2013

Kratochvil Interview

This video interview with Antonin Kratochvil is from Vogue Italia (June 2013).

Fair Use - Magnum-Style

I cam across this set of excerpts from a symposium on the 'State of Photography' or some such thing offered in conjunction with the Magnum annual meetings. Much of the piece is a banal. There is no reason to think that just because someone is astute and talented behind the camera that they have much to say of interest on broader social or philosophical matters. There are important exceptions, of course. No need to get into that here. But here, in any case, are  revealing statements from a couple of the photographers:
On copyright...
Christopher Anderson: “If you want to download my pictures, please go ahead. As a photographer trying to reach an audience, [if there are lots of] bloggers who are interested in my photographs, that’s great. Do I want Time Magazine online to be using my pictures for free? No, of course not – that I want to control, as a copyright issue."

Abbas: “At this AGM we decided to sue institutions who use our pictures but we decided collectively that individual blogs or [people] downloading the images for their own use is legitimate.”
Setting aside my own selfish reasons for thinking so, these seem like sensible sorts of distinctions to make. And, largely, they are already written in to the fair use provisions of copyright law - in the US, at least.

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05 July 2013

Gezi Graphics

 I've just come across this helpful post by Yaman Kayabali detailing some of the political graphics that have emerged from the protests in Turkey in recent days.

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Defending Pie Charts?

Well, if the conclusion is that one should never, ever, under pain of ridicule use some means of communication, then, of course, the conclusion will generate exceptions. I have several times
noted here that pie charts generally are a poor way of communicating data. And since they are popular, one defensible rhetorical strategy is to advocate a total ban. In any case, here are the folks advocating a more lenient approach [1] [2] [3].  A couple of things seem important to this debate. The first is that the focus (as in Tufte) should be on the pragmatics of data graphics - what do we use them for? And what will others try to use them for? If they are mostly or generally obscurantist, then a general skepticism might well be warranted. Second, if (again, like Tufte) your aesthetic runs to the minimalist, then pie charts, which to be useful and clear tend to require considerable amounts of text, will be problematic. So, here is one example a defender presents of a 'good' pie chart:

 I appreciate the message (substance) and the presentation here. But notice that it requires a lot of words. And the grey slice at the bottom remains unlabeled it is incomplete. In that it is much like the defenses of pie charts.

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04 July 2013

Resources for Patriots

Many American conservatives pride themselves on carrying around pocket copies of the constitution. They fancy doing so makes the patriots. Instead they ought to grip firmly Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. And they ought to heed Frederick Douglass's July 4th oration - given here at Rochester in 1852 or Eugene Debs's 1918 anti-war speech at Canton, Ohio. Or they might try Martin Luther King's "A Time to Break Silence" (1967) address at Riverside Church. There are, of course, other models of patriotism. But these would be a nice start.

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02 July 2013

Guilty as Charged - Against the Revival of Communism

Enter my guilty plea. At Dissent Jeff Isaac nicely dissects the vogue among some leftists for a "revival of communism" - complete with resuscitation of party dominance and scant understanding of the realities of immense, complex economies. The vehicle for his argument is this review of a recent book by Jodi Dean entitled The Communist Horizon. I know Dean a bit and she is smart. But since, in an odd-fitting sort of way, I count myself among the “radical democrats” whom (along with other suspects) she lumps together as complicit in “the repression of the communist alternative,” I find much of what Isaac argues quite congenial. Even if communism had ever been anything more than a dead letter in the U.S., it surely is one now. Many of the reasons for that are good ones. Indeed, among the strengths of Isaac's review is the partial genealogy he offers of communists of various stripes who, even before the collapse of the Soviet empire, considered the communist ideal deeply, deeply problematic. All a  cocktail of diffuse political complaints and assertions, historical amnesia, and citations to irrelevant, impenetrable European social theorists (Badiou, Žižek, etc.) promises is an unpleasant hangover.

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01 July 2013

My Sweet Boy - August (30 June 2013)

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Passings ~ Bert Stern (1929-2013)

Photographer Bert Stern has died; you can find an obituary here at The Guardian.