31 December 2007

Not Even a Liar, Worse

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there
is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes
his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most
people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit
and to avoid being taken in by it." - Harry Frankfurt


I have resisted writing some version of this post for quite a while. It seems time, though, to go ahead and clarify some terminology. I regularly use the word bullshit here. I typically do so with a particular meaning of the term in mind and I have, in the past, sometimes referred readers to this interview for clarification. That seems insufficient in light of my last post which addresses a notorious peddler of bullshit.

In 1986 Harry Frankfurt who has for many years taught philosophy at Yale, wrote an essay entitled “On Bullshit" and published it in the relatively obscure journal called Raritan. He republished it a couple of years later in a collection of essays entitled The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge UP, 1988). And, even more recently, Princeton UP re-issued the essay as a very small book (pictured here). You may have seen it on display at Border’s or Barnes and Noble. I recommend it to you.*

Frankfurt is concerned with both the nature of bullshit and the consequences of bullshitting. These topics seem germane to how we assess Bill Kristol and other right-wing ideologues. So I thought it might be useful to share with you some of Frankfurt’s insights. I think we need to be concerned with the consequences of putting up with - to say nothing of praising - bullshitters like Kristol and his chums.

Frankfurt proceeds by differentiating between bullshit and several closely related classes of speech act - hot air, humbug, bluffing and, most importantly, lies. It therefore is a bit difficult to summarize his perceptive and entertaining argument. Regarding the nature of bullshit, however, he is quite succinct:

“It is just this lack of connection to a concern with the truth - this indifference to how things really are - that I regard as the essence of bullshit.”

He expands on this statement in the following way:

“What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes them to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends on upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something that he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.”

Having in this way identified this central feature of bullshit, Frankfurt turns his attention to the consequences of purveying it, that is to the consequences of bullshitting or being a bullshitter. Again, the crucial contrast is with lying.

“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter all these bets are off; he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and the liar are, except as they are pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

Frankfurt interjects here a discussion of Saint Augustine before proceeding as follows:

“For most people, the fact that a statement is false constitutes in itself a reason, however weak and easily overridden, not to make the statement. . . . For the bullshitter it is itself neither a reason in favor nor a reason against. Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth the way bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a normal person’s normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing opposite sides, so to speak, of the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores those demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

Frankfurt clearly believes that those who peddle bullshit run a serious risk. He is concerned that due to “excessive indulgence” their own ability to face reality might atrophy over time. This seems to be the case with Kristol and other neocons. I am less concerned with them - Kristol and his ilk are beyond rehabilitation - than with impact of their behavior on those who are exposed to their bullshit. It hardly seems unreasonable to extend Frankfurt's concern for the fate of bullshitters to concern, not only for those who are subjected to bullshit without knowing it, but for those who, for one or another reason, and however begrudgingly, recognize the bullshitters in their midst but tolerate their bullshit.

Shouldn’t we worry about those who, though perhaps not bullshitters themselves, nevertheless indulge purveyors of bullshit? Do the acquiescent not run a risk, even if unsolicited, that is similar to the one that besets bullshitters themselves? Shouldn't we worry that even those confident in their own ability to spot bullshitting when they see might, over time, actually diminish their own ability simply by virtue of having put up with so much bullshit? That, I am afraid, is what has happened to the folks who make hiring decision at The Times editorial pages.

Frankfurt suggests that we typically respond to bullshit in more “benign” ways than we do to lies. “We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire.” Like Frankfurt, I am not terribly concerned here with why this is so. I am more concerned with the consequences for individuals and groups over time of shrugging off bullshit, of meeting its indifference to truth with indifference toward those who purvey it. This prospect is especially troubling because, while bullshitters assume their own risk, those around them do not voluntarily incur the corresponding risk. They have it thrust upon them. The results, as is the case with much of the bullshit Krisol and other neocons peddle, can be disastrous. (Think of the costs in human and monetary and other terms of invading Iraq.)

Kristol has proven himself a inveterate bullshitter ~ indifferent as to whether what he says is true or false. The problem with the decision by The New York Times to hire Kristol is that they are providing him with a forum for spewing it wider and deeper. Insofar as the newspaper relies upon some respect for truth (and, therefore, some ability to distinguish it from falsity) it is, by providing Kristol a forum, undermining the terrain it purports to occupy. In the process the folks at The Times are endangering political discourse in the U.S. and beyond.
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* I also recommend G.A. Cohen's "Deeper into Bullshit" (with a reply by Frankfurt), in Sarah Buss & Lee Overton, eds. Contours of Agency (MIT Press, 2002).

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Bill Kristol Points The Times in the Right Direction

I have posted before on the political opportunism, unseemly inbreeding, and intellectual impoverishment among the neo-con crowd. It turns out , though, that if you simply keep shovelling the bullshit, eventually someone beside your family and a few fellow-traveling friends might start to listen. Well, it appears that The New York Times has decided to pay for bullshit, having hired Bill Kristol to write a weekly column for their Op-Ed page. (Here too.) There are at least two problems with this. They have less to do with Kristol (who is a political hack well beyond rehabilitation) and more with The Times.

First, it simply cannot be that Kristol has been hired because of his great record of insightful comment. It is hard to disagree with Katha Pollitt who, in her lament about Kristol's hiring notes:

“A pundit, even a highly ideological one like Kristol, has to be (or seem) right at least some of the time. But what's striking about Kristol is that he's has been wrong about everything! or did I miss the sound of democratic dominoes falling neatly into place all over the Middle East? And it's not as if he's a great prose stylist, either. At least David Brooks can occasionally turn a phrase. Kristol just churns out whatever the argument of the moment happens to be, adds jeers, and knocks off for lunch.”

Pollitt offers a long ~ but surely not exhaustive ~ list of examples of the erroneous and offensive pronouncements Kristol has made. In the role of right-wing ideologue he is a repeat offender. (Let's be clear - there is no one on staff of columnists at The Times who stands nearly as far to the left as Kristol does to the right. He is, simply put, an extremist.) What the hell are the criteria for getting a columnist position at The Times? If we take Bill Kristol as an example, competence surely cannot be among them.

Second, perhaps the folks who hire at The Times are impressed by Bill's resumé. Here is where the inbreeding ought to be apparent. What has Bill Kristol ever done outside of the secure network of Mom and Dad's* well-heeled and well connected chums? Answer: nothing. His incompetence never gets noticed simply because he is swaddled in the warm blanket of nepotism. What matter if you're consistently wrong or offensive? Someone will come along and
pay for another glossy venue from which Bill can spout inanities. So, hiring Bill Kristol makes it clear that The Times mustn't be looking at merit any more than competence when they cast about for columnists.

What is the point here? Consider the defensive, self-serving rationalizations of Andy Rosenthal the Ed Page Chief at The Times, who accuses critics of the decision to hire Kristol of hypocrisy grounded in a "weird fear of opposing views." Rosenthal goes on:

"The idea that The New York Times is giving voice to a guy who is a serious, respected conservative intellectual and somehow that's a bad thing, how intolerant is that?"

The notion that Bill Kristol is "a serious, respected" intellectual of any stripe simply is a howler. So, this is not about liberal intolerance and hypocrisy. After all, it is not like Kristol lacks for venues; and nobody is calling for The Weekly Standard and so forth to be closed down. It is about The Times hiring a writer who turns tricks for conservative politicians (whether they be in power or out) and who has compensated for consistent incompetence by drawing down on his reserves of good will and financial connections from conservative family and friends.

What scares me are not folks with "opposing views" but people like Bill Kristol who regularly are disastrously and dangerously wrong and who are unable or unwilling to reflect on that fact. By hiring Bill Kristol The New York Times is simply lending credibility to the crackpot right and, in the process, further diminishing its own.
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* Dad being neocon-in-chief Irving Kristol, mom being Gertrude Himmelfarb, conservative historian.

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Hope Increases by Division: A Wish for the New Year

~~~~~~~~~~


For The New Year, 1981

by Denise Levertov

I have a small grain of hope--
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.

I need more.

I break off a fragment
to send you.

Please take
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won't shrink.

Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.

Only so, by division,
will hope increase,

like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source--
clumsy and earth-covered--
of grace.
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* From: Denise Levertov. MAKING PEACE. Edited, with an Introduction by Peggy Rosenthal. New Directions, 2006. page 53. Cover Image ~"Dove" © The Estate of Pablo Picasso.

P.S.: (Added later that day.) For those disinclined to be hopeful or even those who simply need some encouragement, have a look at "The Secert Library of Hope ~ 12 Books to Stiffen Your Resolve," by Rebecca Solnit. You can find it at TomDispatch.com and at The Nation.

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30 December 2007

Interview: Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Photograph © Fabio Pozzebom/ABr

I find legal and political theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger fascinating for a number of reasons. Most especially, I think his recent writings [1] [2] [3] are provocative attempts to extend a pragmatist commitment to insititutional pluralism and experimentalism into the realm of political-economic arrangements. As I noted here last spring, Unger accepted a position as Minister for Long-Term Strategic Planning in the cabinet of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (with whom he appears in the photo above). You can find a recent interview with Unger here at the Financial Times online in which he discusses the initiatives he is seeking to promote.

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Allan Sekula

"Dead Letter Office (Shipyard Welder, Ensenada)" 1996-1997
© Allan Sekula

"Los Ricos Destruyen el Planeta"(2007) © Allan Sekula

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Addendum (31 December): A comment from Beth Wilson (posted below) sent me in search of the image she mentions. Here it is:

"Alle Menschen werden Schwester,"
Allan Sekula at Documenta 12 (2007)

You can find photos of the rest of Sekula's installations at Documenta 12 here. Thanks Beth!
~~~~~~~~~~

Further addendum (5 January 08)
: I came across this interview with Sekula from BOMB magazine (Summer 05) today so thought I'd add a link.

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United States Artists

I was searching the web this morning for links to work by Allan Sekula and came across the web page for United States Artists which is a new consortium of foundations who are distributing grants to artists (not art institutions) each year. Sekula is a 2007 Broad Fellow. Here is the "strange paradox" USA hopes to rectify:

A country that loves art, not artists

In a recent survey of attitudes toward artists in the US a vast majority of Americans, 96%, said they were greatly inspired by various kinds of art and highly value art in their lives and communities. But the data suggests a strange paradox.

While Americans value art, the end product, they do not value what artists do, the act of creation. Only 27% of respondents believe that artists contribute “a lot” to the good of society.

Further interview data from the study reflects a strong sentiment in the cultural community that society does not value art-making as legitimate work worthy of compensation. Many perceive the making of art as a frivolous or recreational pursuit.

USA hopes to help close the gap between the love of art and the ambivalence toward artists in society.

Other insights further illuminate the depth of the paradox:

• A majority of parents think that teaching the arts is as important as reading, math, science, history, and geography.

• 95% believe that the arts are important in preparing children for the future.

• In the face of a changing global economy, economists increasingly emphasize that the United States will have to rely on innovation, ingenuity, creativity, and analysis for its competitive edge—the very skills that can be enhanced by engagement with the arts.

As author Daniel Pink posits in his book A Whole New Mind—Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, we have moved beyond the Information Age and into the Conceptual Age. “In short, we’ progressed from a society of farmers to a society of knowledge workers. And now to a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers. ...We’ve moved from an economy based on people’s backs to and economy built on people’s left brains to what is emerging today: an economy and society built more and more on people’s right brains. ... aptitudes so often disdained and dismissed—artistry, empathy, taking the long view, pursuing the transcendent—will increasingly determine who soars and who stumbles. It’s a dizzying—but ultimately inspiring—change.”
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Statistics referenced above provided by Urban Institute, Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structure for U.S. Artists (2003), and Rand Research in the Arts, Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts (2004).

USA runs on the same format as the MacArthur Fellows - you cannot apply directly but instead must be nominated by one of an anonymous squadron of nominators. As far as I can tell the program has operated only two years - 2006 and 2007; but it has indeed funded a bunch of people and those whose work I know are first rate. In addition to Sekula, fellows include photographers Zöe Strauss and Uta Barth and jazz musicians Jason Moran, Bill Frisell and Don Byron.

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29 December 2007

Some Thoughts on Art & Politics

This post has a complicated genealogy. I started with this post at C0nscientious wherein Joerg linked to this post at Edward Winkleman, which, in turn, was prompted by this Op-Ed in The Art Newspaper entitled "Artists Are Apolitical, Leaning to the Left but Embracing Right-Wing Standards." The Op-Ed was written by Ed Vaisey who is Culture Minister in the Conservative "Shadow Cabinet" in the British Parliament. And unfortunately it seems to me that Vaisey is not far off point, even if - as I suspect -he hopes to spin that point in an unlikely direction.

Let's focus on the title of Vaisey's essay The first claim, that artists are "apolitical," or at least fancy themselves so, seems to be born out by the tepid response to Winkleman's post. Indeed, Ed himself trenchantly insists "that most political art sucks." We could likely drop the adjective and still agree with that assessment. Let's set that aside for a bit. My reply would be that many artists fancy themselves apolitical but that that fancy is itself contestable. Here, I simply appropriate a couple of comments from my sidebar:

"Can it still be controversial to say that an apparently
disengaged poetics may also speak a political language
- of self-enclosed complacency, passivity, opportunism,
false neutrality . . . ?" - Adrienne Rich*

"The opinion that art should have nothing to do with
politics is itself a political attitude." - George Orwell

As for why artists might seem to "lean left," the self-conception (and sometimes reality) of artists involves flaunting (sometimes even actively challenging) not just aesthetic tradition, but broader social norms and conventions. Here we need to be clear that what Vaisey refers to as "the status quo" is a much narrower construct - on his view it consists solely in the alleged hegemony of liberal/social democratic political views, especially the propensity to support "the idea of state control and central direction." By contrast, social norms and conventions are embodied in arrangements and practices that govern, say, domestic or race or sexual relations, religious precepts, and so forth. Criticism of or disregard for these latter arrangements and practices hardly provide auspicious grounds for a mutual embrace between artists and the political right. Indeed, what Vaisey considers a shared concern for "the human condition" masks vast differences in this regard precisely insofar as many artists (correctly from my perspective) view established norms and conventions as malleable and arbitrary, rather than natural or inevitable. Speaking of "the human condition" as distinct from "society," as Vaisey does, surely has the latter inflection.

When artists embrace self-conceptions that invoke non-conformity or iconoclasm they typically embrace a corollary rhetoric of "freedom" (what conservatives would likely deem licentiousness) even if the rhetoric typically is belied by their obeisance to the "market." That brings us to the final point, the one with which Ed Winkleman takes special umbrage. Do artists embrace "right-wing standards"? For reasons I've already stated, I think this claim is overstated. Vaisey also tries to engage in a bit of persuasive definition when he identifies artistic creativity with entrepreneurship. While perhaps second cousins, the two are not the same. But Vaisey does note that the affinity between art and commerce, the way that artists keep a sharp eye on the market, does indeed provide common ground with the political right.
As he claims: "If you take “right wing” to mean support for commerce, free markets, trade, indeed all things capitalistic, then of course modern art is right wing. The contemporary art trade is exactly that—a finely honed, global business. Artists have become brands, and their work is their product." Ed Winkleman finds this "a bit snarky." Perhaps. But not less true for that. Indeed, this claim converges with left-wing critics like Julian Stallabrass who argue that contemporary artists are especially egregious in this respect and that the rhetoric of freedom they deploy functions primarily to sustain advanced capitalist political-economic arrangements. It may be that artists do not therefore explicitly embrace conservative political views. But that said, is not as though markets respect social norms and conventions terribly much, so keeping ones eye on the market may complement artistic self-conceptions as unconventional. (Again, a problem for conservatives like Vaisey who want us to respect tradition.)

The nub comes for Vaisey and Winkleman when the former poses this query: "The question is whether artists have some responsibility to use their talent to participate in the political debate." The first thing is that we can discuss politics in a sense that is not just narrowly partisan. Politics can involve challenging and questioning and imagining, not just toe-ing some party line. I think that the aversion many artists have for being seen as "political" stems from forgetting that point. (Some part of the aversion stems too, I suspect, from keeping one's eye on the market and not wanting to appear 'political' for fear that that might be bad for business.)

By coincidence, The New York Times this week ran this story on two exhibitions of Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series. The sixty panels that make up the series surely constitute political art. But they just as surely are not narrowly partisan. They are inspired by the movement of African-Americans from rural South to urban North. The picture they paint is one not of "the human condition" but of political and economic factors driving mass migration from the South and of the political and economic factors that made the North far from hospitable. I would say that Lawrence's Migration Series doesn't "suck" (e.g., [1] [2])

This suggests to me that artists can enter political debates in extremely provocative and useful ways. That they can do so by fulfilling their responsibility not to politics, but to engaging with the world and their own (or others') experience of it, in ways that place enduring issues into the public sphere where they can be examined and discusssed and argued over. That may mean looking beyond the 'art world' and its narrow preoccupations more than many artists now do. But that hardly is a revolutionary notion. Neither is it an easy task. I have posted on this in various ways on several occasions (e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4]), though, so will stop for now.
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* We can simply substitute 'aesthetics' for 'poetics' in this passage.

We Know Who You Are. We Know Who Your Talking About. We Just Don't Care All That Much.

A week or so ago The New York Times ran this very cool interactive graphic which is intended to capture the number of times each candidate mentions another. The graphic is indeed cool. And that seems to have gotten some bloggers from the 'InfoVis' domain all worked up (e.g., [1] [2]). The question is - what does it really capture? Here are some top-of-the-head concerns:

First, note that some of the candidates are not included. We get only data on "major" candidates. So the information provided here about who is speaking the most is biased. But that presumes that we are uninterested in the agenda-setting funciton of some candidacies - Tom Tancredo, for instance, was hardly "major" and was mostly unmentioned, but he claims credit for getting immigration talked about in the primaries.

Second, note that the graphic focuses on the number of times a candidate mentions another candidate rather than substantive issues or topics. For that we have to go to this much less cool graphic (and even then we must assume that merely mentioning something is meaningful in one or another obvious way). So, in that sense we are getting only 'horserace' information. That may not be bad, but it is crucial to note that the cool graphic is not providing nformation about candidates and their positions. It is providing (at best) getting information about who thinks who may be politically challenging. (In other words, lack of mentions is also important in this context as a sign of political irrelevance.)

Third, given that it maps campaign interactions in primaries there is scant mention by either Repulicans or Democrats of those in the "other" party. The one primmary exception seems to be Hilary, who even the Republicans tend to mention. No surprise in any of this; it falls into the "Grandma knows that" category.

Finally, note that the person who is perhaps most mentioned (among Democrats, at least) is not included. That would be the dishonorable 'W' himself. Ooopps!

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Why Cheap Art?

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28 December 2007

Lynching Photographs

This slender volume - Dora Apel & Shawn Michelle Smith. Lynching Photographs. University of California Press, 2007. - is the second installment of a promising new series called "Defining Moments in American Photography." I have not seen the other volumes, which focus more narrowly on particular photographers (Alexander Gardner and Weegee). But Apel and Smith set an admirably high standard, even as they broaden focus onto the place of an especially gruesome "genre" of American photography - photographs of lynching, mostly of African-American men by mobs of Whites in the period from roughly 1880 through 1930. In part the authors (each of whom contributes an extended essay) take as their point of departure the kinds of images of collected in the exhibition Without Sanctuary. The volume itself focuses directly and narrowly on the subject announced in the title. That is as it should be. However, in their discussions of the uses and impact of lynching photographs in particular, the authors pose at least two crucially important, significantly broader, theoretical questions. First, how is photographic meaning grounded in and transformed by the divergent purposes for which different agents use images? I have raised this issue in several posts on lynching photographs here before [1] [2] [3]. Second, what sorts of response might or should photographs of such cruelly degrading and dehumanizing practices elicit? This is a topic that frequently evinces a rather despairing reponse from critics who note that photographs alone seem to have little political efficacy. But, as Dora Apel makes esepcially clear lynching photographs directly influenced political movements, first against lynching itself and subsequently in the more general struggle for Civil Rights. That is a refreshing and hopeful insight.

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27 December 2007

Peter Schumann: The University of Majd

This series of seven large paintings by Peter Schumann tell the tale of a young Palestinian man named Majd at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces and Judicial System. He now is serving a thirty year prison term.

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P.S.: You can find a recent admiring profile (of sorts) of Peter Shumann and Bread & Puppet Theatre from The New York Times here. And there is a terrific volume documenting and discussing Schumann's work with Bread & Puppet called Rehearsing With Gods too.

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26 December 2007

End of Year Giving

At this time of year many of us have mailboxes brimming with solicitations from worthwhile organizations of various sorts. It often is difficult to determine where to give, especially if your budget is relatively tight. So I am going to make a pitch here for an extremely worthy outfit. It is called the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women "a resource and advocacy center for battered women charged with crimes related to their battering." The NCDBW was founded and is run by Sue Osthoff an old friend of mine from our High School days. The NCDBW is small and, it's fair to say, runs on more or less of a shoestring. If you send them some money it will go directly into providing legal resources for women who badly need them. Sue has been pursuing this "good fight" for two decades. She is among the most honest, hardworking and flat out admirable people I know. I am certain that she and her colleagues will put anything you can send to excellent use. Thanks.

Holzer at MassMoCA - On the Uses of Language in Visual Art

MassMoCA (very near where I grew up and where my parents still live part of the year) is showing an exhibition of paintings and projections by Jenny Holzer. You can read a notice (the reporter apparently was not quite up to writing a critical assessment) from The New York Times here. The paintings draw on materials (like the map above used in the military planning for our Iraq invasion) that Holzer discovered rummaging through various archives. They highlight the mercilessly violent terms of the invasion. By contrast, the projections incorporate poetry by Wisława Szymborska (a personal favorite of mine [1] [2] [3] [4] ) ~ a fruitful meeting between a conceptual artist and an equally conceptual poet. So while there is irony and humor aplenty in the verses Holzer projects, neither is present in the documents she paints.

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25 December 2007

Talking To My Boys At Christmas

DOUGLAS: I spent Christmas Eve with my oldest son Doug, who pointed out with some excitement that one of the College lacrosse publications has identified him among the potential "impact players" in the incoming class at Nazareth this season. Doug has had a terribly difficult year that has left holes in his heart where his brothers should be. Despite that, he has proven himself to be a wonderful young man in everything he's done. I love him and am ridiculously proud of him and I told him so.

AUGUST: Today I had a very funny and enjoyable phone "conversation" with my youngest son August (age 22 months) who is in California with his mother. After blurting out "pappa" when he heard my voice, August's contrbution to our chat amounted to pushing the cell phone buttons, sniffing, grunting, and breathing very hard into the phone. For my part I reminded him again that "Pappa loves August." I miss my sweet little boy. While I don't have a recent picture of Douglas here is one of his baby brother, taken last month:

JEFFREY: This is the first Christmas since Jeffrey died. I find myself vascillating between smiling at many very fond memories of Jeff's Christmas antics and tears of rage that he is not here. Jeff would be 15 and a half now. This picture is from last year at this time. Jeff, I miss you more than I can say. I love you. In one way or another I've already said those things to your brothers, so here I am saying them to you.

My Jeff (June 1992-April 2007)

~~~~~~~~~~

So, that is where things stand with me and my boys: love, pride, sadness, anticipation, longing, joy, loss, happiness .... especially love.

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A Little Callousness for the Holiday Season

"This is not to deny that income inequality is rising: it is. But measures
of income inequality are misleading because an individual's income
is, at best, a rough proxy for his or her real economic wellbeing.
Because we can save, draw down savings, or run up debt, our
income may tell us little about how we're faring."


This passage is from a recent article in The Economist entitled "The New (Improved) Gilded Age" and it is interesting from a number of perspectives. The first is that the folks over at The Economist start out by conceding the basic point - over the past three decades income inequality has increased sharply in the U.S. and it continues to do so. So, it is nice to have that settled.

The second interesting point is that the authors attempt a bit of slight of hand insofar as they do not mention the truly troubling matter - increasing inequality of wealth. For many, many people in the U.S. there are little or no "savings" to draw down during hard times. Arguably the mal-distribution of wealth in the U.S. says even more about "how we're faring" than does income distribution.

Third, living off of credit is a dangerous strategy in the short term and an easy route to bankruptcy in the medium term. (Of course the recent bankruptcy "reform" worked out to the benefit of creditors who already act in many duplictous ways.) One might well find (this is speculation) that the current mortgage disaster in the U.S. has been generated in considerable part by people trying to finance inordinate consumption by speculating on the equity in their homes (a "creative" form of debt).

So, it seems to me that The Economist essay is pretty much worthless. The authors were writing in reply to Paul Krugman who has, in turn, offered this retort - "Inequality Denial." Krugman basically counters the claims, pressed in The Economist essay, that consumption inequality is not as bad as it might seem. He seems pretty persuasive to me on all counts - especially on the point that it is possible to both recognize that many (but I would hold, hardly all) of the poor are better off than their counterparts were a century ago and find current patterns of ecconomic inequality wholly deplorable.

So, here is a very practical challenge to the folks at The Economist - you can have your choice between the divergent packages of goods you attribute to the weathy and the poor in your essay. You can, in other words:

Drive your used Hyundai Elantra to shop for groceries at Wal-Mart, bringing them home to an IKEA Energisk B18 W (assuming similar accoutrements throughout the suitably matching apartment) ... of course you must do your purchasing of food and everything else on a budget set by the median income for a faimly of four ....

OR

Drive your new Jaguar XJ to shop for groceries at Whole Foods, bringing them home to a Sub-Zero PRO 48 (assuming similar accoutrements throughout the matching house), ... and you have a very loose budget constraint for food and all other goods because you are among the decile of the U.S. income distribution ...

It is your choice folks! Notice that I've been generous, since our "poor" do not approximate the median income. And their consumption is therefore even more constrained than what I sketch here. And if you really believe that "in America the relatively poor suffer no painful indignities"* explain why you choose (as you will) the 'nicer' of the packages which on your account are different only in "well nigh undetectable" ways.

If you don't like that prospect, try taking a job at WalMart. Or think about how the "relatively poor" have fared in the wake of say, Hurricane Katrina. And think about what happens to the relatively poor when, with little or no wealth, their precarious income streams are threatened or cut by man-made disasters like the Hurricane or the mortgage let-down, to say nothing of mere plant closings or layoffs. Then talk about indiginities and who suffers them.
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P.S.: Thanks to Mark Woods at Woods' Lot for posting the two essays.

* (Added a bit later) Perhaps the folks at The Economist might explain to the people descibed in this story about dental hygiene among the poor in rural Kentucky that they are suffering no real or imagined indignity. If anything this sort of situation is less excusable now than it might have been in 1907.

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Diego Rivera

Photographs of Mexican artist Diego Rivera in Mexico City's Munal.
Photograph © Adriana Zehbrauskas for
The New York Times.

This picture is from a slideshow in The New York Times notice of the large Rivera exhibition now showing in Mexico City. I've not personally seen much of Rivera's work with the exception of the fabulous murals at the Detroit Institute for the Arts (detail below) which I visit nearly every summer.

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Enthusiasms (13) ~ Levon Helm

Sometimes they work, oftentimes not. Compare Natalie Merchant's The House Carpenter's Daughter or Mavis Staples's We'll Never Turn Back both of which really do with Ry Cooder's My Name is Buddy which just as clearly doesn't. My friend Susan and I have talked several times about how sometimes records of "traditional" tunes work extremely well and often they don't. The latter sound stilted and revivalist, the former as though the musicians have the tunes in their souls.

It is no surprise that this new CD by Levon Helm works exceptionally well. Nearly half of the tunes are traditional numbers that Helm has arranged; the remainder of the record consists of original tunes by musucians on the date or covers of tunes - "new standards" - by songwriters who are among my very favorites (e.g., Steve Earle, Buddy & Julie Miller).

I can remember hearing Helm and his co-conspirators in The Band on Music From Big Pink as a thirteen year-old listening to the wonderful, long-defunct WGRG-FM in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. (In addition to playing great music, WGRG aired a critical "news and comment" segment several times daily that I suspect influenced by views about how media might actually work if it ignored "format.")

Levon Helm's voice is still as expresively soulful as it was on that first listen. And in a sign that "great minds think alike" Susan and I inadvertantly bought one another Dirt Farmer for Christmas.

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24 December 2007

Those Wacky Anarchists!

In the mid-1960s Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr., and Herbert Marcuse, published a slender volume entitled A Critique of Pure Tolerance (2nd Edition ~ Boston: Beacon Press, 1969). Each author contributed an essay and, in combination, they aimed to reveal and assess the various ways contemporary capitalist societies sometimes bluntly, sometimes subtly, but nevertheless systematically, absorb and defuse dissent and resistance. The book apparently is now out of print. It raises all sorts of questions and is in many ways problematic. I thank, once again, my undergraduate advisor Jim Fratto for prompting me to read it. All of that said, a story in today's New York Times brought the book to mind. The story - "Anarchists in the Aisles? Stores Provide a Stage" - recounts efforts by politically engaged artists to disrupt shopping on auto-pilot. These enterprises seem to me humorous and provocative; I have posted here and here on some similar, less furtive endavors. But here is the question. What does it mean when "anarchists" make it onto the front page of The Times? Do they become a human interest story? Are their activities transformed into an entertaining tale of cute pranks? Is the message they hope to convey or the thought processes they hope to prompt simply absorbed, put on display, offered for sale?

23 December 2007

Surprise ... The Rich Get Richer ....

Another nice graphic from The New York Times on the highly disparate growth in incomes in the U.S. across classes. Oh no, did I say "class"!?! Of course, one would want to ask what causal forces underly these patterns. But that is a matter for another day.

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22 December 2007

Historical Convergences

Mission Specialist Daniel Tani holds up a sign that says
"Hi Mom" as he and fellow astronaut Douglas Wheelock
prepare to board the Space Shuttle Discovery for thei
flight to the International Space Station in this image
from NASA TV October 23, 2007. (Reuters)

The sad news on the radio this morning was about American Astronaut Daniel Tani, whose mother was killed in an automobile accident this week even as he is stuck aboard the International Space Station. Rose Tani, who was 90, was Japanese-American; the news stories mentioned that like many others she had been imprisoned by the U.S. government as a child.* The irony need not be stated. In 1988 the U.S. Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed into law legislation that officially apologized for the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. According to the legislative language, Japanese-Americans were rounded up and imprisoned not because of anything they actually did but due to "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." In the current context of political duplicity this is an astoundingly candid admission.

In The New York Times today is this story about plans peddled by J. Edgar Hoover in 1950 to round up and imprison roughly 12K Americans whom he deemed security risks. His rationale? National Security in a time of war or other emergency (can you say "war hysteria"?). Hoover's plan involved suspending the right of habeas corpus. Yet, if you are tempted to dismiss this as an historical aberration, or merely the paranoid fantasies of an individual nut like Hoover, the Supreme Court - yet again - is hearing challenges to the Bush administration's persistent, wrong-headed refusal to recognize the right of habeas corpus.
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* A year ago or so I posted on the recent volume of photographs that Dorothea Lange took to document this imprisonment of innocent people. The photos had been lost in the archives for many years and so had remained largely unknown.

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21 December 2007

Dan Little

I've just discovered that philosopher Daniel Little has started keeping a blog called Understanding Society which is linked to his research web page of the same name. On top of being a first-rate philosopher (special interests in philosophy of social science and social & political theory), Dan is Chancellor at the University of Michigan - Dearborn and a research faculty at the Institute for Social Research at UM- Ann Arbor. How he has time for all this escapes me, especially because he is an incredibly nice fellow too. If you are unfamiliar with his work, I highly recommend his Varieties of Social Explanation (Westview Press 1993) which I regularly assign to our graduate students, Microfoundations, Methods, and Causation (Transaction Publishers, 1998), and The Paradox Of Wealth And Poverty: Mapping The Ethical Dilemmas Of Global Development (Westview Press, 2003). And surely check out his blog and related pages.

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Solnit Interview

Here is an unexpected treat ~ an interview with Rebecca Solnit from the Columbia Journalism Review late last summer. It provides a bunch of information on her personal background and formative influences.

Rebecca Solnit ~ Photograph © Sallie Shatz

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John Berger on Democracy and the Past

The current issue of Brick contains a typically insighful essay by John Berger - "Erasing the Past - Some Notes Around a Drawing." You can link to the essay under a different title here. The essay traverses contemporary politics in Poland* and France, the Chilean experience of neo-liberalism, and personal conversation with a friend. But Berger's focus is on how erasing the past and, in particular, the complex narratives required to recount it, is a crucial step toward subverting vital identities, whether personal or collective. (Here he is responding to Naomi Klein's analogy between the shock used to torture individuals and the shock neo-liberalism applies to societies in the process of 'economic reform.') In politics, this consists in a refusal to examine the past, to speak of it as a source of explanations (which are not necessarily exculpatory) for our current predicaments. Here is Berger:

"Such a conspiracy of silence changes profoundly the nature of an election. The first democratic principle is that the elected remain accountable to those who elected them: how they govern will later be assessed by those they govern. To put it differently: the elector's questioning of the elected has, in the long term, a role in the process of decision making. A dialectic of argument replaces blind, undemocratic obedience.

If candidates do not outline their vision of the epoch they're living in and lay out their proposed strategy for survival, if this remains unsaid and unread, the electorate cannot fulfil their dialectical role, for there has been no dialogue about the essentials. When a candidate is, or pretends to be, mapless, the electorate is reduced to being a dray-horse.

What I call a reading of history implies a shared taking into consideration of events, their causes and their consequences, a discussion about the possible margins of manoeuvre (history is seldom generous), and then the presentation and explanation of a policy. Promises made without this are all delinquent."

This seems quite right. Candidates are danagerous insofar as they treat voters merely as consumers who can choose rather than citizens who can demand and assess explanations. They subvert by their actions and presumptions the very dynamic processes of debate and challenge and questioning that are central to democratic accountability and therefore to democratic politics.
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* You might compare Berger's discussion with this essay by Adam Michnik condmening the recent, fortunately unsuccessful, Polish lustration campaign that was translated last spring in the NYRB.

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Picnic Table (4)

"Outdoor Picnic Table Laden with Snow and Leaves, Waterton
Lakes National
Park, Alberta, Canada" (Detail).
Photograph © Lawrence Worcester.

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Politics & Literal-Mindedness

Irony and satire are not unifromly appreciated. No surprise there, I suppose, even if it is a reason to despair that humor is persistently pushed out of politics. Philosopher Elizabeth Spelman has written a terrific essay called "Anger: The Diary" (an entry in a volume on the 7 deadly sins*) where she perceptively suggests that anger, appropriately directed, is intimately and subtly tied up with the quest for justice. In the process she also differentiates the effects of anger and humor in politics. The former potentially empowers the aggrieved whereas the latter threatens to deflate the powerful.

Earlier thiss month I posted on graffitti artists who had spread their work, much of it presenting ironic or satirical comment on the Israeli policies, around Bethlehem. Well, it turns out that the humor escaped not only some oh-so-p.c. commentators in the western media but also some local residents who have painted over several of the works. You can read a report on the local response in The Guardian here. It seems to me that the anger the residents express is misplaced; consequently, not only are they misdirecting their efforts (compounding injustice with censorship), but they are depriving themselves of a vauable political weapon - the ability to laugh.
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* Robert Soloman, ed. Wicked Pleasures: Meditations on the Seven Deadly Sins. Rowman & Littlefield (1999).

20 December 2007

Oooopppps! Even More Mistakes from Guantánamo

Three prisoners returned to Britain after being held at Guantánamo for four years without charge. The three, expatriots from Jordan, Algeria and Libya, were British residents prior to their detentions. Neither U.S. nor British agencies have been able to establish that any of the men pose a danger. That despite allegations that the three have been tortured while in captivity. The story is in The Times here and in The Guardian here. Yes, two of the three have been accused by Spanish authorities of belonging to terrorist organizations. The evidence for that appears weak, but who knows? But notice a really astounding thing. The British convened bail hearings, scheduled extradition hearings, and Spanish officials seemingly plan to hold an actual trial in which the accused are allowed to confront the evidence against them, have legal representation, and so forth. What an idea - public legal proceedings with protections for individual rights!

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Crow ~ As in Eating Some ....

Among the things I regularly find dismaying about Rochester is WXXI our local npr afiliate. It is, as I have said many, many times, the most boring public radio station in the country. I take it as a symptom of the city's deeply conservative culture. And nothing that I say below alters this general estimation. Consider the experience I report the exception proving the rule.

WXXI has more or less systematically done away with local programming, substituting homogenous feeds from various syndicated shows from National or American public this or that. Not long ago they rejected persistent requests that they run Democracy Now! basically because it is too critical and challenging. We wouldn't want to offer an alternative - especially in a town dominated by inane news outlets. One local show that WXXI has retained is "Mostly Jazz" hosted by Tom Hampson. If you listened only to this show as a way of learning about jazz you would think that the genre was invented and dominated by big bands led by white men, insipid white guitarists, and piano trios playing covers of pop tunes. I cannot recall ever hearing Hampson play Mingus, Monk, Ellington, Davis, let alone Coltrane or Coleman or less prominent or more contemporary black musicians (say, David Murray). I find that sort of mis-representation very difficult to swallow. After several years of irritation I began changing the station.

Then, a couple of years back. I read this profile of Hampson in The City Newspaper. It turns out that Hampson is a lawyer who, over the course of several decades, has been involved in several important local legal and political cases, as well as in trying to expand the scope of even more staid local broadcasting. More recently he has weighed in on the predictably outrageous efforts of the Republican dominated Monroe County Legislature to highjack the Public Defender's office as a source of political patronage [1] [2]. None of that makes his show on WXXI less irritating. But it does make me think he is an interesting, even admirable, fellow.

By now you will be wondering where all this is going. So I will come to the point. A week or so ago I hopped into the car. The radio was tuned to WXXI and Hampson's show was broadcasting. I didn't initially realize it was him though, because I came in in the middle of a cool number which, it turns out, was from the "Best Bets" CD (2006) by Trio East on the obscure Origin label. By the time Hampson came in after the tune it was too late. I'd had to admit that here, finally, he'd played something I really quite liked.

Of courses, things got even a bit dicier as I listed to Hampson describe Trio East. It turns out that the members of the group are all colleagues of mine. Rich Thompson, Clay Jenkins, and Jeff Campbell all are on the faculty of the UofR's Eastman School of Music. This forced me to recognize several embarassing (to me) things. Most obviously the band is local and my view of the local jazz scene is pretty dim. Second, this is a group of basically conservatory musicians and my general view is that conservatory training squeezes the jazz out of one's bones. (For example, I find Wynton Marsalis, the poster child for conservatory-trained jazz musicians, to be both boring muscially and sanctimonious in his pronouncements on the "tradition.") So, not only has Tom Hampson sold me on a new band, he has sold me on one to which nearly all of my prejudices would suggest I'd never give a second thought.

I picked up both "Best Bets" and another recent CD by Trio East "Stop-Start" [on the also obscure Sons of Sound Label (2005)]. The instrumentation - bass-trumpet-drums - allows Trio East to generate an expansive, open, angular sound. And they play a mix of original compositions and not-quite standards by the likes of John Coltrane, Mal Waldron, Ornette Coleman, John Abercrombie, Duke Ellington, and Lee Morgan. And the central place of the trumpet makes me think of my son Jeff who aspired to play this well. I look forward to getting out to hear Trio East live as soon as I am able.

And, of course, I owe the discovery to Tom Hampson. Thanks!

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19 December 2007

The MPAA, Our Delicate Sensibilities, and Censorship

This story from Variety comes by way of Jörg Colberg. It is quite simply astounding. The Motion Picture Association of America, the industry censorship agency, has told multiple documentary film-makers that they cannot use images of hooded "prisoners" in promotional materials for their films on the BushCo torture policies. The films in question are Taxi to the Dark Side and The Road to Guantanamo. In each instance the MPAA censors have claimed that the hooded figures shown in the movie posters are "not suitabale for all audiences." (Read: we need to shield our children from these adverts.)

You'll excuse me if I say that this is fucking unbelievable. The MPAA seems animated by a desire to avoid offending anyone's political sensibilities. Let's set aside the sort of violent crap many kids encounter every single day on video games and TV and in movies. The filmmakers are quite clearly correct that treating their films like horror movies instead of like documentaries is a massive, idiotic category mistake. What parents in the U.S. ought to be scared about is not that their kids might see this poster; what parents should fear is that their sons and daughters might ask them "what did you do while the President was telling soldiers to torture innocent people?"*
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* Taxi to the Dark Side has won several awards at film festivals; it details how an innocent Afgahni taxi driver was tortured and died at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.

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18 December 2007

Calling Out the Sexist Press

Over at Alternet you should have a look at this item by Melissa McEwan taking male, right-wing talking heads to task for being sexist pigs. With Matt Drudge and Chris Matthews as targets McEwan is basically shooting frogs in a barrell. But her observations are right on point. I find Hilary's politics pretty much wholly deplorable. But worrying about her looks is pathetic. The images of Fred Thompson are especially telling. Perhaps a few shots of John McCain might have worked well too. And those are only the most obvious choices.

Good News from New Jersey of all Places

The state legislature has repealed the death penalty and the governor has signed the bill into law. Common sense and decency prevail. Here is the news report.

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Our Record on Torture ~ Yes, "We" Do ....

One common response to criticisms of BushCo for engaging in torture (and other equally despicable illegal acts) as a matter of systematic policy is that this is a break with the past, an unfortunate, irregular aberration, necessitated by the GLOBAL WAR ON TERROR (or whatever new campaign slogan the politicos and their minions are using these days). In case you are tempted to buy that rationalization you should be sure to note that it is just that, a rationalization.

Here are somes sources: Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh. Administration of Torture - A Documentary Record from Washington to Abu Ghraib and Beyond. Columbia UP, 2007.; Darius Rrejali. Torture & Democracy. Princeton UP, 2007.; Alfred McCoy. A Question of Torture.: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2006. A quick read through our gruesome reliance on torture as policy should raise some questions in the minds of those who want to demonize "Muslims" and their alleged reliance on violence. Our commitments to truth and democracy and other such good things seem to be intimately intertwined with the use of torture.

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Frank Morgan (23 December 1933 – 14 December 2007)











Saxaphonist Frank Morgan has died. You can read/hear about his life and career here and here.

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17 December 2007

A Very Good Reason to Oppose HRC

My friend Susan has just pointed out another excellent reason to support someone other than Hilary for the Democratic nomination. Her astute comment was prompted by this story in The Times on Celine Dion and her fans. It turns out that Celine closed her Las Vegas show last weekend after only 717 performances. Hilary supporters, of course, picked a Dion song as her campaign anthem. And the Clinton campaign demonstrated great leadership in not vetoing the choice. So, that means if Hilary wins the nomination, we will be subjected to "You and I" repeatedly over an extended period. Even the threat of such treatment would violate the Geneva Conventions.
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Photograph © Laura Rauch for The New York Times.

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Update: Bilal Hussein

Today The New York Times ran this story on the legal predicament of Iraqi photojournalist Bilal Hussein who has been detained for twenty months without charge by the U.S. Military. I have posted on this several times before [1] [2] [3]. The story is a bit odd insofar as it focues primarily on the difficulties this sort of thing poses for foreign news agencies rather than the circumstances Hussein has had to endure or the broader issues that his case raises (e.g., rule of law, freedom of the press).

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16 December 2007

Joe Lieberman: It is REALLY Time for the Democrats to Cut Him Loose

Joe Lieberman has repeatedly proven himself to be opportunistic, shortsighted, and irritatingly sanctimonious. In the past this has been just irritating. More recently, he has adopted increasingly bellicose positions that make him actively dangerous. Tomorrow the Democrats will have an opportunity to dispense with Joe once and for all. According to this report in The Nation Lieberman plans to endorse John McCain for president. As the report points out this is contrary to what Joe said he intended when he ran against Lamont in 2006. Back then he was proclaiming his fealty to the Democrats.

If Lieberman endorses a Republican the Dems should immediately strip him of any and all committee assignments, deprive him of any political or financial support in future campaigns, and in every other possible way treat him as anathema. In fact, they should make it clear that they will do everything necessary to defeat Lieberman in 2012.

The Democrats can't get any legislation through the Senate as it is, so there is nothing to lose. Apparently that is what it takes to get the Dems to act like they have a spine.
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P.S.: (Added 17 December) Here is the story from The New York Times confirming Liberman's endorsement.

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The Architecture of "Aggressive Interrogation" (Torture)


These are architectural renderings of cells in a CIA "black site" in Afghanistan. They are based based on the testimony of a Yemeni man ~ Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah ~ arrested by the Jordanians, transfered to the CIA (tortured by both), held for 19 months, and then released having never actually charged with any crime.* Oooopppps!

Among the ironies of our times: lots of people (probably not enought to matter) have got their knickers in a knot because BushCo and their media minions outed an undercover CIA agent. But the CIA hardly is an admirable outfit. So many of us are caught criticizing the administration's treasonous behavior even though it involves subverting spooks who contribute to this sort of deplorable practice.

This past week lots of folks (again, probably not enough to matter ) rightly got their knickers in a knot about two torture video-tapes that CIA has destroyed. You will notice that the drawings indicate that each of the cells Bashmilah describes contained a camera. I doubt that the images/tapes made by these cameras are available to any oversight bodies.
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* You can find more renderings here and Bashmilah's story here.

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