30 October 2013

Digest ~ Political Economy

The Guardian has run a couple of pieces on discontent with shortcomings of standard economics and movements for 'alternative' approaches lately - see here and here. I can understand some of the frustration, but think the conclusion of rejecting standard technologies is misplaced. Exhibit #1 - The Guardian also just ran this piece by Saez and Piketty arguing for very progressive policies but relying for its analysis on very standard mathematical techniques.

According to this story in The New York Times, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has signed a new lease giving the museum the prerogative to set admissions fees. Admission currently is governed by 'recommended' fees that leave actual amounts paid by visitors up to the visitors themselves. While the institution claims it has no plans to alter the admissions policy, any move to increased fees would fall hardest on those least able to pay.

And here at Creative Time you can find this brief interview with Rebecca Solnit focusing on art and the political economy of American cities.

Finally, this pointed essay from Jacobin on the ironic amnesia that afflicted Barack Obama when he asked whether people who wanted a raise could simply shut down the company if the boss refused.

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No Surprise Here - Libertarians Tend to be Relatively Conservative Young White Guys

"The poll . . . shows libertarians identify much more with the GOP (43 percent) than with the Democratic Party (5 percent), but half identify with neither party.

The libertarian movement is largely homogeneous. It is strongly non-Hispanic white (94 percent), young (62 percent under 50 years old) and male (68 percent).

About four in 10 identify as members of the tea party movement (39 percent), while 61 percent do not. More Republicans identify with the tea party (20 percent) than with libertarians (12 percent)." (source)
In other words, they are a modestly expanding part of a shrinking portion of the voting population.  Perhaps they are too busy paying attention to themselves and their "freedom" to notice.


28 October 2013

Confederate Flags and Cluelessness Revisited at the University of Rochester.

I recently posted here on the cluelessness of white boys displaying the confederate battle flag as though it were no big deal to anyone else. The post was prompted by an ongoing incident at the University where I teach. A student displayed the confederate flag in his frat house** residence hall window and, when compelled to remove it, predictably enough bellowed about the College infringing his free speech rights. The local Gannett newspaper, The Democrat & Chronicle, ran a report on the dispute last week and that has been picked up at outlets from Inside Higher Ed, to USA Today to The Daily Mail. And, of course, there are the inimitable propagandists at Fox News. This last report prompted the UR College Republicans to proclaim their support for "freedom" on Twitter:

I do not follow the UR CR (or anyone else) on Twitter. This was sent to me by a recent alumnus. Make that an irritated recent alumnus. But a couple of questions arise in all this.

First, why is the Confederate flag especially troubling to minority (and other) students on a college campus? Well, because from the late 1950s through the late 1960s the flag was a constant symbol of white resistance to integration of both public elementary and secondary schools as well as of Colleges and Universities. Often, of course, those protests were accompanied by rioting and violence against black students. Here are images easily discoverable on the web:

These press photos depict white students - usually, you'll note, white boys - acting out at the universities of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama respectively. In short, the confederate flag is indeed a symbol of the "Southern identity" and that identity is thoroughly inflected by racism. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

Second, what does "free speech" and its infringement have to do with all this? I think the fraternity boy** student in question at UofR should be allowed to display any symbol of his identity he wishes. But I think too that he ought to be prepared for others to talk back and to talk back frankly.Why? Because this is not a matter of libertarian self-expression, but of democratic self-governance. In short, the principle of free speech is a contested one - we can justify it in various ways. And knee-jerk individualist justifications are deeply problematic. Here is a passage making that point:
"The libertarian view – that the First Amendment is a protection of free expression – makes its appeal to the individualistic ethos that so dominates our popular and political culture. … Yet this theory is unable to explain why the interests of the speakers should take priority over the interests of those individuals who are discussed in the speech, or who must listen to the speech, when the two sets of interests conflict. Nor is it able to explain why the right of free speech should extend to the many institutions and organizations … that are routinely protected under the First< Amendment, despite the fact that they do not directly represent the individual interest in free expression. Speech is valued so importantly in the Constitution, I maintain, not because it is a form of self-expression or self-actualization but rather because it is essential for collective self-determination. Democracy allows people to chose the form of life they wish to live and presupposes that this choice is made against a background of public debate that is, to use the now famous formula of Justice Brennan, “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”*
If the College is meant to be self-governing, and if it is (rightly) protective of the free speech necessary to academic freedom, what we need on campus are forums (workshops, teach-ins, etc.) to address the sorts of conflicts the University now confronts. We are working on it.
* Owen Fiss. 1996. The Irony of Free Speech. Harvard UP, page 3. 
** Correction: I have been informed that the student in question lives in a house on the fraternity quad, but that the house is not a frat house and that the student is not affiliated with any fraternity.

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Felix Gonzalez-Torres Around New Jersey

This is the announcement (pdf here) of an outdoor exhibition, coordinated by the Princeton University Art Museum, of "Untitled" works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The works are dispersed on a dozen billboards around New Jersey.

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27 October 2013

Passings ~ Lou Reed (1942-2013)

Lou Reed has died according to this report at Rolling Stone. Obviously, the image here is Václav Havel, not Reed. But note on Havel's bookshelf is Lou Reed: Emotion in Action ( a collection of Reed's photographs).

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Shock!! The Rich Get that Way by Rent-Seeking Rather than Making Exceptional Contributions to Overall Economic Well-Being

"Again, the data that there is no correlation between cuts in top tax rates and average annual real GDP-per-capita growth since the 1970s. For example, countries that made large cuts in top tax rates, such as the United Kingdom or the United States, have not grown significantly faster than countries that did not, such as Germany or Denmark. 

What that tells us is that a substantial fraction of the response of pre-tax top incomes to top tax rates may be due to increased rent-seeking at the top . . .  rather than increased productive effort."
The upshot of this, economists and is that once avoidance strategies are contained, a remarkable rise in tax rates for the rich is plausible fiscal policy. This would be good not only for addressing worries about deficits but, as Saez and Piketty suggest glancingly at the very end, for democratic politics.

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Passings ~ Arthur Danto (1924-2013)

Art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto has died. I have engaged with Danto here several times. There is an obituary here at The Art Newspaper. More to follow as they appear.

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Passings ~ Deborah Turbeville (1932-2013)

 Fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville has died. An obituary appears here at The New York Times.

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24 October 2013

Economics, Economists, Science?

Recently, The New York Times ran this Op-Ed defending the scientific status of economics on grounds that members of the profession share a "profound agreement in their scientific approach to economic questions, which is characterized by formulating and testing precise hypotheses." It comes on the heels of this earlier offering at The Times that argues to the contrary: "The fact that the discipline of economics hasn’t helped us improve our predictive abilities suggests it is still far from being a science, and may never be. Still, the misperceptions persist." And today Paul Krugman argues in this post on his blog at The Times that while economics may, in fact, closely approximate a science, not all economists act like scientists in the sense of revising their views in the face of cogent counterarguments or dis-confirming evidence.

There are at least two complicated themes in all this. The first is whether we want to reduce our assessment of whether some mode of inquiry is scientific to a one dimensional matter of empirical performance - interpreted in terms of hypothesis testing or predictive success or whatever. I think the answer to that is simple - no. The second is how social inquiry is entangled with politics in particular and with evaluative concerns more generally. Typically this entanglement is intricate, making the question of how to act like a scientist difficult to discern. But in the case of political economy where there are large material and ideological stakes, that is perhaps even more difficult to see.

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23 October 2013

"Dignity" as a Defensive Claim

"Outside of Kant, human rights in particular were unconnected to any theory of dignity until Catholics yoked them together at midcentury. Today, human dignity is a principle chiefly for those who admire judges and want them to have the power to check the state in the name of basic humanitarian values. Its currency is a sign that our morality has been redefined around the worst that can transpire in history rather than some better order that could be achieved through political contest and struggle." ~ Samuel Moyn

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21 October 2013

Clueless White Boys, the Confederate Flag, and Race

"If I can take an action that affects you, you have to think about what I will do and enter into my mind, but if nothing you do affects me, then I don't have to think about you at all. I am clueless about you because I do not have to spend any time thinking about you; it does not even occur to me that you can do anything to hurt or help me, and my cluelessness is a statement that my status in this sense superior. . . .  Another explanation for cluelessness is empathy prevention: if you start thinking about another person's goals and thoughts, you might start to care about them."*

At the University where I teach there was an unpleasant incident last week in which a resident of a fraternity displayed a confederate flag in his window. Members of the Douglass Leadership House (which happens to be on the fraternity quad) took offense and spoke out in a frank but, I think, reasonable manner. (Full disclosure: I am faculty adviser to the DLH students.) In the subsequent exchange on Facebook some students sought to defend displaying the flag as simply a symbol of southern culture, denying that - past or present - it has any racist connotations. Others dropped the pretense and engaged in truly outrageous statements expressing nostalgia for the days of slavery. And, of course, everyone invoked free speech. But, of course, the students in DLH simply spoke back.

This episode plays out in different ways in other contexts. I snapped the photo above with my iPhone while driving in our small western NY town this afternoon. Two young men were cruising in their pickup. And, of course, there was the rebel display at the White House last week (see here and here). Of course, there is no racism on display in any of that - at least as long as white boys get to define what falls into that category.

I see two possible explanations for the behavior of young white men displaying the confederate flag. Some may actually be racist. Saying so typically elicits howls of protest from those so described. Others, though, may just be clueless. It is in no way obvious that the latter possibility is any less objectionable than the former.
* Michael Suk-Young Chwe. 2013. Jane Austen, Game Theorist. Princeton University Press, page 222, 224.

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19 October 2013

The Best American Infographics 2013

"Artists have always been the real purveyors of news ..." - John Dewey

I've not actually seen this (initial, I think) installment of The Best American Infographics but I intend to track it down. A great idea. Why? Because instruments for communicating quantities are centrally important to both social science and democratic politics. (On this see Dewey, The Public & Its Problems (1927), especially the end of chapter five.) And so, becoming aware of strong practice in this domain is crucial.

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17 October 2013

A Surprize Prize

I noticed that the Roosevelt Institute had given its bi-annual Four Freedoms Awards for 2013. I am not terribly impressed by awards of this sort. They typically recognize individuals who make some kind of humanitarian contribution whether those individuals be political leaders, clergy, journalists, human rights advocates or whatever. Nothing wrong with that. But the focus tends to be on individuals. And the emphasis tends to be on humanitarianism (which I take to be an ethical stance) not politics. This year, along with a set of deserving individuals the folks at the Roosevelt Institute have surprisingly given the award to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers an organization of workers that presses campaigns for fair wages, improved working conditions, and so forth. In the process they contribute to the empowerment of workers in ways that most liberal foundations go out of their way to avoid.

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15 October 2013

Political Science & Its Gender Gap

Recently the folks at The Monkey Cage (a group blog now hosted at The Washington Post) ran this symposium on the persistent gender gap in the discipline. The symposium rolled out over a week or so and consists in a dozen or so entries addressing various dimensions of the gender gap.

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A Second Petit Digest

Political theorist Nancy Fraser here at The Guardian on how feminism is complicit in the reign of neo-liberal policies and institutions.

Economist Joseph Stiglitz here at The New York Times on choosing political economic inequality and the consequences thereof.

Both pieces, it seems to me, underscore the priority of democracy. While polities face options, they do so in ways that privilege those individuals and groups who already enjoy resource asymmetries. Hence our 'choices' hardly have been democratic in any plausible sense.

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14 October 2013

Seeing Women Who've Just Given Birth

In The Guardian today you can find this brief, smart essay on the possibility of using photography to pluralize our views of women - in this instance women who've just given birth. The essay rightly notes the vicissitudes of this task - both the narcissism of celebrities and the re-working of tired tropes. But the basic message - "When images of breastfeeding and postpartum tummies enter our popular culture, they will help to provide a path away from ignorance and embarrassment." - seems on the mark to me. And, of course, as I noted earlier today this is a timely topic in our household!

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13 October 2013

Take Back the Streets: Repression and the Criminalization of Protest Around the World

Democracy requires the capacity of publics to engage in political protest. That in turn requires some official recognition of the civil and political rights of protesters. A new report compiled by International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) - Take Back the Streets: Repression and the Criminalization of Protest Around the World - suggests just how precarious such recognition has become across the globe. The report is "a collaborative effort on the part of nine domestic civil liberties and human rights organizations: the American Civil Liberties Union, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, the Legal Resources Centre, and Liberty." You can find a copy (pdf) here.

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Annoucing: Esme Lavinia Maureen Orr Johnson (10 October 2013 ~ )

Even given my meager photographic skills you can see that our new daughter is beautiful. Esme was born about 2:00 am EST on the 10th. The labor was difficult but Susan is doing well. Esme has been a long time arriving. Susan and I are tickled. I used to label my posts about the kids "my boys"; now I'll need to come up with another label.


A Petit Digest

Political Economy: An Op-Ed here from Dani Rodrik on comparative - and inauspicious - patterns of de-industrialization in developed economies and another here by Joseph Stiglitz on the unimpressive economic 'recovery' in the US.

Art: A really nice feature here in The New York Times of William Kentridge discussing the work of an Indian artist, Nasreen Maohamdi, about whom I knew nothing until this afternoon.

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11 October 2013

Very, Very Depressing News - MOMA Acquires Occupy Wall Street Art

"Art patronage has always been a kind of money-laundering, a pretty public face for fortunes made in uglier ways." ~ Rebecca Solnit 
General Strike Match (2012). Molly Crabapple/John Leavitt/Melissa Dowell.

In a truly depressing development, The Guardian reports that the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) has acquired a collection of posters and prints from the Occupy movement. The works had been part of a collection at Occuprint.

Several things make this depressing. Most obviously, the posters not only have now been converted into private property but that this has happened in an 'of course,' 'isn't that great' sort of way.  But I think this acquisition is symptomatic of the absence of just the sort of public space and just the sort of alternative institutional frameworks that - in large measure - the occupiers hoped to establish. It underscores both the continuing importance of the themes OWS articulated and it's lack of immediate impact.

Moreover, it is especially ironic - given some initiatives among the Occupiers themselves - that MOMA is absorbing the collection. This is as staid an institution as there is in NYC. It is the epitome of the "money laundering" function that cultural institutions of play for the wealthy. Posters and prints generated out of a movement of, for and by the 99% are being squirreled away by an institution whose history is, I suspect, intimately entangled with the 1%.

Finally, there are alternatives. Those alternatives are not perfect. Nor are they entirely inspiring in political terms. But they do not - as artist Molly Crabapple disingenuously suggested to The Guardian reporter - come down to selling off the collection to Morgan Stanley or some other corporate entity for display "in their lobby." I am hardly an expert on such matters. But it took me nearly no time to think of a counterexample to that rationalization. Consider ACT UP - a more or less direct political predecessor of the Occupiers. The ACT UP - NY archives went to the New York Public Library. The NYPL is a large cultural institution. But it is public, not private. And it is, I suspect, considerably less entangled with the monied elites than is MOMA. And it surely would look waaay(!)  less impressive to all those denizens of the art world who care about such things, for Ms. Crabapple to list on her c.v. that her work is in the collection of the NYPL than to note that it is in the collection at MOMA!

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"I Love That Queasy Feeling" - Kara Walker

The Daily Constitution 1878 (2011) © Kara Walker.

Kara Walker is having her first solo show in the UK. Read the reports/commentaries here and here and here at The Guardian. From the latter of the three I lifted the title to this post and we learn about the image above:
"Two years ago, Kara Walker came across a news story in an edition of the 19th-century Atlanta newspaper the Daily Constitution. The year was 1878; the piece described, in excruciating detail, the recent lynching of a black woman. The mob had tugged down the branch of a blackjack tree, tied the woman's neck to it, and then released the branch, flinging her body high into the air.
This terrible fragment of the past has made its way into a large graphite drawing ... Like much of her work, the drawing is both beautiful and disturbing: here, in grotesque, cartoonish monochrome, is the blackjack tree, the lynched woman spilling blood, her assailants laughing as she dies. As I stand and stare, Walker tells me why she was so drawn to the story. 'It's this completely absurd, extreme, violent situation that required so much perverse ingenuity.'"

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10 October 2013

I Should Have Sought Out a Good Therapist, Instead I Grabbed My Camera - Leigh Ledare

At The Guardian you can find this brief commentary on Leigh Ledare. He photographs his mother having sex. I think the work is adolescent bullshit. Here is his rationalization for thinking we ought to take him seriously:
"The obvious question is why did he – and she – do it? When asked, Ledare can retreat into a mixture of conceptual art speak, as in "the extremely open and intimate relationship I have with my mother ... was developed through the work. (It) comments on the confusion around these sexual boundaries … through imposing herself on me as a subject, she was asking me to be complicit in her sexualisation. I saw her sexuality as a means of antagonising her father and refuting expectations he had for how she should behave as a mother, daughter, and woman of her age."
[. . .]
His decision to chronicle his troubled relationship with his mother, he says, started when he returned home one Christmas. "I arrived home not having seen her for a year and a half," he recalls. "She knew I was coming and opened the door naked." When Leigh walked in past the bedroom, "a young man, almost exactly my age, was sprawled out naked. He rolled over to see me, saying hello, before rolling back over and returning to sleep." Ledare interpreted this welcome as "her way of announcing to me what she was up to, at this period in her life – almost as though to say, 'Take it or leave it.' I had a camera and began making photos of her then. She was the catalyst."
So, in the event Ledare ought to have turned and walked away and then found a therapist. Instead he reached for his camera, then learned art-speak and psycho-babble to justify his ongoing lapse in judgement. Let's say - in case you have not guessed - that I am unimpressed. Indeed, I don't think one can even say this is a case of wasted talent.


Is Photography Un-Islamic? A Tool for Empowering Women? Both?

Yesterday, I posted on an exhibition currently up at the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) - "She Who Tells A Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World." I then came across this story at The Times of India about struggles over photography among Muslims. On the one hand we have an Islamic Seminary (Darul Uloom Deoband) pronouncing photography 'un-Islamic'; and on the other hand a women's group (Aawaaz-e-Niswaan - see their photography workshop web page here) actively training women in photography. If we take a fundamentalist view of Islam (or, frankly, nearly any other religion) the answer to the questions posed in the title to this post is obvious enough.

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Passings ~ Lawrence Goodwyn (1928-2013)

Historian Lawrence Goodwyn, who did important work on American populism as well as the American civil rights and the Polish Solidarity movements, has died. There is an obituary here at The New York Times.

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09 October 2013

Video? - The Central Limit Theorem

Some elementary statistics made fun and easy by the nice folks here at The New York Times.

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She Who Tells A Story

Untitled #2 (2008) - Photograph © Gohar Dashti.

There is a thoughtful, provocative exhibition up at the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) through mid-January - "She Who Tells A Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World." It includes work by a dozen women from the region: Jananne Al-Ani, Boushra Almutawakel, Gohar Dashti, Rana El Nemr, Lalla Essaydi, Shadi Ghadirian, Tanya Habjouqa, Rula Halawani, Nermine Hammam, Rania Matar, Shirin Neshat, and Newsha Tavakolian. There is a brief review of the exhibition here at The Economist and another, accompanied by a slide show and including links to many of the photographers' web pages, here at The New York Times.

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07 October 2013

Anger & Humor in Politics - Thinking About Paul Klee

“Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”
- Paul Klee
Destroyed Labyrinth (1939) - Paul Klee

In an essay entitled "Anger: The Diary" (1999), philosopher Elizabeth Spelman suggests a distinction between the ways that humor and anger operate in politics. Humor - making fun of the powerful - disarms them; while, by contrast, when the oppressed, exploited or downtrodden express anger toward the powerful, they themselves are empowered. (Spelman also very nicely shows how emotions like anger are thoroughly entangled with reason. To be effective, for instance, anger must find its appropriate target and that process requires reasoning of s fairly sophisticated sort.)

In any case, this preview by Phillip Hensher in The Guardian of an upcoming Tate Modern exhibition of Paul Klee's work, which connects its humor to its politics, brought Spelman to mind. Hensher notes: "A small anthology could be put together of Klee's satirical jibes at power, emperors, soldiers and dictators." And those jibes, according to Hensher, deflate the powerful. As he explains:
He is the artist I love best in the world: I love his modesty and his resourcefulness, and his willingness to combat oppression and violence with laughter. His work reflects the idea of Milan Kundera, that the machinery of power works by imposing forgetfulness; that the way the individual can fight back is through laughter. At the time, nothing could have seemed more fragile and pointless a gesture against the armies of Hitler than a painting of fish, gawping at each other, by a Dessau art professor. But nothing remains of Hitler's power, and the structures he built are mostly dust. What certainly does remain is a little, tender picture of a garden; a sheet of luminous colours; music transformed into an image.
All that may be true of Klee. But Hensher's premise is that Kundera's assessment of our options in the face of tyrants and despots is persuasive. And that, as I've intimated here in the past, is questionable not simply as a matter of philosophical analysis, but of historical experience as well.

Twittering Machine (1922) - Paul Klee

Conqueror (1930) - Paul Klee

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Enthusiasms (38) ~ Sam Baker

I learned about Sam Baker - and his devastating brush with Maoist terrorism - from this brief mention at NPR. Eventually I ordered the CD and is is simply fabulous. Spare production, literate, sparse, incisive lyrics. (OK, I have one complaint - the lyrics/credits for the recording are 'embedded on the disc,' making it impossible for tech-challenged old folks like me to find them! - But here they are from Baker's web page in pdf.) 

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Elizabeth Warren on "the anarchy gang"

"The boogey-man government is like the boogey-man under the bed. It's not real. It doesn't exist. [. . .] In our democracy, government is not some make believe thing that has an independent will of its own. In our democracy, government is just how we describe the things that we the people have already decided to do together." ~ Elizabeth Warren

From the passage above, Warren goes on to celebrate the experimental nature of democracy and to remind Republicans that the electorate already has rejected their views and and warn that they will do so again. This is, in all but one respect, a terrific speech. The problem is that the Republicans are not anarchists in any meaningful sense. They are reactionaries who hope to consolidate the oligarchy they've spent three decades working to establish. Anarchists want to devolve authority and influence; proponents of oligarchy want to usurp and centralize power, amplify inequality and dampen accountability. [Source: Mother Jones here.]

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Solnit on Politics & Climate Change

Among the things I am especially interested in are technologies (including but not only photography) for visualizing large-scale, aggregate political phenomena - famine, war, epidemic, migration, etc. Here is a new essay by Rebecca Solnit on the difficulties of visualizing, understanding and confronting yet another "big" thing.
Bigger Than That
(The Difficulty of) Looking at Climate Change
By Rebecca Solnit

Late last week, in the lobby of a particularly unglamorous downtown San Francisco building, a group of passionate but polite activists met with a bureaucrat who stepped forward to hear what they had to say about the fate of the Earth. The activists wanted to save the world.  The particular part of it that might be under their control involved getting the San Francisco Retirement board to divest its half a billion dollars in fossil fuel holdings, one piece of the international divestment movement that arose a year ago.

Sometimes the fate of the Earth boils down to getting one person with modest powers to budge. The bureaucrat had a hundred reasons why changing course was, well, too much of a change. This public official wanted to operate under ordinary-times rules and the idea that climate change has thrust us into extraordinary times (and that divesting didn’t necessarily entail financial loss or even financial risk) was apparently too much to accept.

The mass media aren’t exactly helping. Last Saturday, for instance, the New York Times gave its story on the International Panel on Climate Change’s six-years-in-the-making report on the catastrophic future that’s already here below-the-fold front-page placement, more or less equal to that given a story on the last episode of Breaking Bad. The end of the second paragraph did include this quote: “In short, it threatens our planet, our only home.” But the headline (“U.N. Climate Panel Endorses Ceiling on Global Emissions”) and the opening paragraph assured you this was dull stuff. Imagine a front page that reported your house was on fire right now, but that some television show was more exciting.

Sometimes I wish media stories were organized in proportion to their impact.  Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, there is not paper enough on this planet to properly scale up a story to the right size.  If you gave it the complete front page to suggest its import, you would then have to print the rest of the news at some sort of nanoscale and include an electron microscope for reading ease.

Hold up your hand. It’s so big it can block out the sun, though you know that the sun is so much bigger. Now look at the news: in column inches and airtime, a minor controversy or celebrity may loom bigger than the planet. The problem is that, though websites and print media may give us the news, they seldom give us the scale of the news or a real sense of the proportional importance of one thing compared to another.  And proportion, scale, is the main news we need right now -- maybe always.

As it happens, we’re not very good at looking at the biggest things. They may be bigger than we can see, or move more slowly than we have the patience to watch for or remember or piece together, or they may cause impacts that are themselves complex and dispersed and stretch into the future. Scandals are easier.  They are on a distinctly human scale, the scale of lust, greed, and violence. We like those, we understand them, we get mired in them, and mostly they mean little or nothing in the long run (or often even in the short run).

A resident in a town on the northwest coast of Japan told me that the black 70-foot-high wave of water coming at him on March 11, 2011, was so huge that, at first, he didn’t believe his eyes. It was the great Tohoku tsunami, which killed about 20,000 people. A version of such cognitive dissonance occurred in 1982, when NASA initially rejected measurements of the atmosphere above Antarctica because they indicated such a radical loss of ozone that the computer program just threw out the data.

Some things are so big you don’t see them, or you don’t want to think about them, or you almost can’t think about them. Climate change is one of those things. It’s impossible to see the whole, because it’s everything. It’s not just a seven-story-tall black wave about to engulf your town, it’s a complete system thrashing out of control, so that it threatens to become too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, too wild, too destructive, too erratic for many plants and animals that depend on reliable annual cycles. It affects the entire surface of the Earth and every living thing, from the highest peaks to the depths of the oceans, from one pole to the other, from the tropics to the tundra, likely for millennia -- and it’s not just coming like that wave, it’s already here.

It’s not only bigger than everything else, it’s bigger than everything else put together.  But it’s not a sudden event like a massacre or a flood or a fire, even though it includes floods, fires, heat waves, and wild weather.  It’s an incremental shift over decades, over centuries.  It’s the definition of the big picture itself, the far-too-big picture. Which is why we have so much news about everything else, or so it seems.

To understand climate change, you need to translate figures into impacts, to think about places you’ll never see and times after you’re gone. You need to imagine sea level rise and understand its impact, to see the cause-and-effect relations between coal-fired power plants, fossil-fuel emissions, and the fate of the Earth. You need to model data in fairly sophisticated ways. You need to think like a scientist.

Given the demands of the task and the muddle of the mainstream media, it's remarkable that so many people get it, and that they do so despite massive, heavily funded petroleum industry propaganda campaigns is maybe a victory, if not enough of one.

Four months ago, two bombers in Boston murdered three people and injured hundreds in a way spectacularly calculated to attract media attention, and the media obeyed with alacrity. Climate change probably fueled the colossal floods around Boulder, Colorado, that killed seven people in mid-September, but amid the copious coverage, it was barely mentioned in the media. Similarly, in Mexico, 115 people died in unprecedented floods in the Acapulco area (no significant mention of climate change), while floods reportedly are halving Pakistan’s economic growth (no significant mention), and 166 bodies were found in the wake of the latest Indian floods (no significant mention).

Climate change is taking hundreds of thousands of lives in Africa every year in complex ways whose causes and effects are difficult to follow. Forest fires, very likely enhanced by climate change, took the lives of 19 firefighters facing Arizona blazes amid record heat waves in July.  Again, climate change generally wasn’t the headline on that story.

(For the record, climate change is clearly helping to produce many of the bigger, more destructive, more expensive, more frequent disasters of our time, but it is impossible to point to any one of them and say definitely, this one is climate change.  It’s like trying to say which cancers in a contaminated area were caused by the contamination; you can’t, but what you can say is that the overall rise in cancer is connected.)

Not quite a year ago, a climate-change-related hurricane drowned people when superstorm Sandy hit a place that doesn’t usually experience major hurricane impact, let alone storm surges that submerge amusement parks, the New York City subway system, and the Jersey shore. In that disaster, 148 people died directly, nearly that many indirectly, losses far greater than from any terrorist incident in this country other than that great anomaly, 9/11. The weather has now become man-made violence, though no one thinks of it as terrorism, in part because there’s no smoking gun or bomb -- unless you have the eyes to see and the data to look at, in which case the smokestacks of coal plants start to look gun-like and the hands of energy company CEOs and well-paid-off legislators begin to morph into those of bombers.

Even the civil war in Syria may be a climate-change war of sorts: over the past several years, the country has been hit by its worst drought in modern times. Climate and Security analyst Francesco Femia says, “Around 75 percent of [Syrian] farmers suffered total crop failure, so they moved into the cities. Farmers in the northeast lost 80 percent of their livestock, so they had to leave and find livelihoods elsewhere. They all moved into urban areas -- urban areas that were already experiencing economic insecurity due to an influx of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. But this massive displacement mostly wasn’t reported. So it wasn’t factoring into various security analyses. People assumed Syria was relatively stable compared to Egypt.”

Column Inches, Glacial Miles

We like to think about morality and sex and the lives of people we’ve gotten to know in some fashion. We know how to do it. It’s on a distinctly human scale. It’s disturbing in a reassuring way.  We fret about it and feel secure in doing so. Now, everything’s changed, and our imaginations need to keep pace with that change. What is human scale anyway? These days, after all, we split atoms and tinker with genes and can melt an ice sheet. We were designed to think about human-scale phenomena, and now that very phrase is almost as meaningless as old terms like “glacial,” which used to mean slow-moving and slow to change.

Nowadays glaciers are melting rapidly or disappearing entirely, and some -- those in Greenland, for example -- have gushing rivers of ice water eating through their base. If the whole vast Greenland ice sheet were to melt, it could raise global sea levels by 23 feet.

We tend to think about climate change as one or two or five things: polar ice, glaciers melting, sea-level rise, heat waves, maybe droughts. Now, however, we need to start adding everything else into the mix: the migration of tropical diseases, the proliferation of insect pests, crop failures and declining crop yields leading to widespread hunger and famine, desertification and flooded zones and water failures leading to mass population shifts, resource wars, and so many other things that have to do with the widest systems of life on Earth, affecting health, the global economy, food systems, water systems, and energy systems.

It is almost impossibly scary and painful to contemplate the radical decline and potential death of the oceans that cover 70% of the Earth’s surface and the dramatic decrease of plankton, which do more than any other type of organism to sequester carbon and produce oxygen -- a giant forest in microscopic form breathing in what we produce, breathing out what we need, keeping the whole system going. If you want to read something really terrifying, take a look at the rise of the Age of Jellyfish in this review of Lisa-Ann Gershwin’s book Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean. Maybe read it even if you don’t.

Only remember that like so much about climate change we used to imagine as a grim future, that future is increasingly here and now. In this case, in the form of millions or maybe billions of tons of jellyfish proliferating globally and devouring plankton, fish eggs, small fish, and bigger creatures in the sea we love, we know, we count on, we feed on, and now even clogging the water-intake pipes of nuclear power plants. In the form of seashells dissolving in acidic waters from the Pacific Northwest to the Antarctic Ocean. In the form of billions of pine-bark beetles massacring the forests of the American West, from Arizona to Alaska, one bite at a time.

It’s huge. I think about it, and I read about it, following blogs at Weather Underground, various climate websites, the emails of environmental groups, the tweets of people at 350.org, and bits and pieces of news on the subject that straggle into the mainstream and alternative media. Then I lose sight of it. I think about everything and anything else; I get caught up in old human-scale news that fits into my frameworks so much more easily. And then I remember, and regain my sense of proportion, or disproportion.

The Great Wall, Brick by Brick

The changes required to address climate change are colossal, but they are made up of increments and steps and stages that are more than possible. Many are already underway, both as positive changes (adaptation of renewable energy, increased energy efficiency, new laws, policies, and principles) and as halts to destruction (for example, all the coal-fired plants that have not been built in recent years and the Tar Sands pipeline that, but for popular resistance, would already be sending its sludge from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico). The problem is planetary in scale, but there is room to mitigate the worst-case scenarios, and that room is full of activists at work. Much of that work consists of small-scale changes.

As Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune put it last week, “Here's the single most important thing you need to know about the IPCC report: It's not too late. We still have time to do something about climate disruption. The best estimate from the best science is that we can limit warming from human-caused carbon pollution to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit -- if we act now. Bottom line: Our house is on fire. Rather than argue about how fast it's burning, we need to start throwing buckets of water.”

There are buckets and bucket brigades. For example, the movement to get universities, cities, churches, and other entities to divest their holdings of the top 200 fossil-fuel stocks could have major consequences. If it works, it will be achieved through dedicated groups on this campus or in that city competing in a difficult sport: budging bureaucrats. It’s already succeeded in some key places, from the city of Seattle to the national United Church of Christ, and hundreds of campaigns are underway across the United States and in some other countries.

My heroes are now people who can remain engaged with climate change’s complex and daunting facts and still believe that we have some leeway to determine what happens. They insist on looking directly at the black wall of water, and they focus on what we can do about the peril we face, and then they do it. They do their best to understand scale and science, and their dedication and clarity comes from connecting their hearts to their minds.

I hear people who are either uninformed or who are justifying disengagement say that it’s too late and what we do won’t matter, but it does matter, because a rise in the global temperature of two degrees Celsius is going to be very, very different from, say, five degrees Celsius for almost everything living on Earth now and for millennia to come. And there are still many things that can be done, both to help us adapt to the radical change on the way and to limit the degree of change to which we’ll have to adapt. Because it's already risen .8 degrees and that's been a disaster -- many, many disasters.

I spent time over the last several months with the stalwarts carrying on a campaign to get San Francisco to divest from its energy stocks. In the beginning, it seemed easy enough. City Supervisor John Avalos introduced a nonbinding resolution to the Board of Supervisors, and to everyone’s surprise it passed unanimously in April on a voice vote. But the board turned out only to have the power to recommend that the San Francisco Retirement Board do the real work of divesting its vast holdings of fossil-fuel stocks. The retirement board was a tougher nut to crack.

Its main job, after all, is to ensure a safe and profitable pension fund and in that sense, energy companies have, in the past, been good investments. To continue on such a path is to be “smart about the market.” The market, in the meantime, is working hard at not imagining the financial impact of climate change.

The failure of major food sources, including fishing stocks and agricultural crops, and the resultant mass hunger and instability -- see Syria -- is going to impact the market. Retirees in the beautiful Bay Area are going feel it if the global economy crashes, the region fills with climate refugees, the spectacularly productive state agricultural system runs dry or roasts, and the oceans rise on our scenic coasts. It’s a matter of scale. Your investments are not independent of nature, even if fossil-fuel companies remain, for a time, profitable while helping destroying the world as humanity has known it.

Some reliable sources now argue that fossil-fuel stocks are not good investments, that they’re volatile for a number of reasons and due to crash. The IPCC report makes it clear that we need to leave most of the planet's fossil fuel reserves in the ground in the coming decades, that the choice is either to fry the planet or freeze the assets of the carbon companies. Activists are now doing their best to undermine the value of the big carbon-energy corporations, and governments clued in to the new IPCC report will likely join them in trying to keep the oil, gas, and coal in the ground -- the fossil fuel that is also much of the worth of these corporations on paper. If we're lucky, we'll make them crash. So divesting can be fiscally sound, and there is a very strong case that it can be done without economic impact. But the crucial thing here isn’t the financial logistics of divestment; it’s the necessity of grasping the scale of things, understanding the colossal nature of the problem and the need to address it, in part, by pressuring one small group or one institution in one place.

To grasp this involves a feat of imagination and, I think, a leap of faith: a kind of conviction about what matters, about living according to principle, about understanding what is too big to be seen with your own eyes, about correlating data on a range of scales. A lot of people I know do it. If we are to pull back from the brink of catastrophe, it will be because of their vision and their faith. You might want to thank them now, and while your words are nice, so are donations. Or you might want to join them.

That there is a widespread divestment movement right now is due to the work of a few people who put forth the plan less than a year ago at 350.org. The president has already mentioned it, and hundreds of colleges are now in the midst of or considering the process of divesting, with cities, churches, and other institutions joining the movement. It takes a peculiar kind of genius to see the monster and to see that it might begin to be pushed back by small actions -- by, in fact, actions on a distinctly human scale that could still triumph over the increasingly inhuman scale of our era.
Hold up your hand. It looks puny in relation to the sun, but the other half of the equation of scale is seeing that something as small as that hand, as your own powers, as your own efforts, can matter. The cathedral is made stone by stone, and the book is written word by word.

If there is to be an effort to respond to climate change, it will need to make epic differences in economics, in ecologies, in the largest and most powerful systems around us. Though the goals may be heroic, they will be achieved mostly through an endless accumulation of small gestures. Those gestures are in your hands, and everyone’s. Or they could be if we learned to see the true scale of things, including how big we can be together.

Copyright © Rebecca Solnit (2013) [Source: here]

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06 October 2013

Digest - Politics, Art & Politics, Political Inquiry

Charter 77 emerged as an opposition movement in communist Czechoslovakia; it recently announced that Georgian human rights activist Ales Byalyatski has been awarded the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize for 2013.

City officials in Newport, Wales have begun demolishing a mural (detail above) commemorating an uprising of Chartists in 1839. (Chartism being perhaps the first modern mass political movement - pressing 'the People's Charter' consisting of radical demands for expanded franchise and political representation.) There has been significant opposition to the demolition. Here is a report from the BBC and here is another from The Independent.

A review here at The Guardian of a London exhibition of work by German artist George Grosz, a socialist, whose work captures the despair and mayhem of post-WWI Berlin.

George Grosz ~ Down with Liebknecht (1918). 

In 1984 the British government established a special committee - COBRA (or Cabinet Office briefing room A) - that meets to address quickly political emergencies perceived or actual. The Guardian reports here on a newer, parallel COBRA, consisting of artists aiming "to engage critically and creatively with the increased use of aesthetics and performance by the UK government to promote, explain and justify its labelling of an event as 'an emergency'." The parallel entity meets whenever the official COBRA does in order to formulate a creative response to the the putative emergency.

Finally, I recommend this brief blog post at The New York Times by philosopher Alva Noë on the entanglement of facts and values in science generally. That means, by implication, in political science in particular. And, of course, that flies in the face of virtually the entire discipline which still embraces a rigid fact-value dichotomy. Ooops.

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01 October 2013

Mapping the Tyranny of the Minority

This map locates the districts represented by the "suicide caucus" holding the rest of us hostage. It accompanies this pointed post at The New Yorker.
"As the above map, detailing the geography of the suicide caucus, shows, half of these districts are concentrated in the South, and a quarter of them are in the Midwest, while there’s a smattering of thirteen in the rural West and four in rural Pennsylvania (outside the population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). Naturally, there are no members from New England, the megalopolis corridor from Washington to Boston, or along the Pacific coastline.
These eighty members represent just eighteen per cent of the House and just a third of the two hundred and thirty-three House Republicans. They were elected with fourteen and a half million of the hundred and eighteen million votes cast in House elections last November, or twelve per cent of the total. In all, they represent fifty-eight million constituents. That may sound like a lot, but it’s just eighteen per cent of the population.
[. . .] While the most salient demographic fact about America is that it is becoming more diverse, Republican districts actually became less diverse in 2012. According to figures compiled by The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, a leading expert on House demographics who provided me with most of the raw data I’ve used here, the average House Republican district became two percentage points more white in 2012.
The members of the suicide caucus live in a different America from the one that most political commentators describe when talking about how the country is transforming. The average suicide-caucus district is seventy-five per cent white, while the average House district is sixty-three per cent white. Latinos make up an average of nine per cent of suicide-district residents, while the over-all average is seventeen per cent. The districts also have slightly lower levels of education (twenty-five per cent of the population in suicide districts have college degrees, while that number is twenty-nine per cent for the average district).

The members themselves represent this lack of diversity. Seventy-six of the members who signed the Meadows letter are male. Seventy-nine of them are white.

As with Meadows, the other suicide-caucus members live in places where the national election results seem like an anomaly. Obama defeated Romney by four points nationally. But in the eighty suicide-caucus districts, Obama lost to Romney by an average of twenty-three points. The Republican members themselves did even better. In these eighty districts, the average margin of victory for the Republican candidate was thirty-four points.

In short, these eighty members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed."

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