28 September 2009

Mid-Life Crisis

No, I've not purchased a Harley Davidson. Worse. I confess. After years of thorough skepticism about Apple products, I've succumbed. I am so disgusted with my PC and its foibles and susceptibility to viruses that I ordered a Powerbook late last week. I am having a bit of a hard time coming to terms with this mid-life crisis in part because I really do feel much the way Charlie Brooker does ~ while I've grown to think Microsoft is a sterling example of the failings of private enterprise, my religious upbringing makes me leery of the cult-like enthusiasm of Mac users. Hopefully I'll be able to turn down the cool-aid when someone offers it around.

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Back to the Future with the Republicans ~ Liz Cheney

In The New York Times today you can find this piece on Liz Cheney, daughter of Dick - our former Vice President and arguably a war criminal. I have lamented the emergence of Liz as a staple guest on the talking heads circuit here before. The latest piece suggests that Liz "is being promoted as a rising star of the Republican Party." That may be so. And it surely would be interesting to learn who is doing the promoting (her schedule of near constant public appearances cannot be cheap). But while Liz Cheney is a rising star, she hardly is a new voice. Rather, it seems pretty clear that she really merely echoes the views that "led" the U.S. into a whole set of policy disasters. As the article makes clear: "Ms. Cheney’s resolute national security positions seem to differ not at all from those of her favorite vice president." Just so. And her mode of arguing is no stronger than her Dad's.

Here is a quote from Liz - playing the hard-liner on torture.
“Mr. President, in a ticking time-bomb scenario, with American lives at stake, are you really unwilling to subject a terrorist to enhanced interrogation to get information that would prevent an attack?”
Well, the problem is that the scenario Liz chooses is self-serving and virtually non-existent. It is a fabrication of people like her Dad who approved the torture of prisoners regardless of the circumstances. This is not an episode of "24"; it is real life. Liz labels the prisoner in her example a "terrorist" - which of course enhances her rhetorical slight of hand even more. And, of course, she relies on the Orwellian subterfuge of "enhanced interrogation" instead of the actual legal term for the "techniques" she and her Dad endorse - torture.

The piece in The Times goes on to add:
Clips of Ms. Cheney’s on-air smack-downs with liberal adversaries have become viral sensations among conservative bloggers — most recently, an interruption-fest with Sam Donaldson over the C.I.A.’s interrogation methods on ABC’s “This Week.”

When Mr. Donaldson said that everyone he knows thinks torture and waterboarding are wrong, Ms. Cheney shot back: “Waterboarding isn’t torture, and we can go down that path. The lack of seriousness here is important."
The problem, of course, is that while Liz may be resolute, she is also wrong. It is not just Donaldson's friends and acquaintances who think water boarding is torture. Liz might ask, say, Attorney General Eric Holder, who was quite clear about the matter in his confirmation hearings last January. But Holder is a member of the Obama administration and so clearly a pinko. Let's give Liz the benefit of the doubt.

Consider this exchange between Senator Carl Levin and Lieutenant General Michael Maples, then Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. This is from a transcript of sworn testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in late February 2008.
"SEN. LEVIN: All right. We won't go into that.

Let me go into -- since you don't know what indemnification means, let me ask you a different question. I'll ask General Maples about this. It has to do with the waterboarding issue, General. Director McConnell's already commented on that in a different form.

General, do you believe that waterboarding is consistent with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions?

LTG MAPLES: No, sir, I don't.

SEN. LEVIN: Do you believe it's humane?

LTG MAPLES: No, sir. I think it would go beyond that bound."
I doubt that General Maples is a liberal pinko of the sort that Ms. Cheney and her Dad so love to deride. I doubt he is among the friends to whom Donaldson was referring. But perhaps testifying under oath might not clear her hurdle of "seriousness." Who knows?

Perhaps Liz does not know what "Common Article 3" is. Of course, she might have looked it up in such obscure sources as The New York Times. Look here. Liz might mince words some more and note that the word "water boarding" does not actually appear in Common Article 3. But that would be mincing words. And so resolute a person surely would not want to do that! Common Article three explicitly prohibits torture. General Maples claims that water boarding is inconsistent with Common Article Three. Make the inference Liz.

So, it seems Liz Cheney is simply parroting the rationalizations and dissembling that were so common among the players at BushCo. Like her Dad, Liz may want to claim that she too is relying on sound legal advice to ground her assessments of what counts as torture. The problem is that there is little reason to think this is anything other than a self-serving rationalization. The lawyers upon whose advice Cheney and Cheney rely have not demonstrated minimal competence. Here I recommend David Cole's recent piece in the NYRB.

Why is The Times not calling Cheney on these things? Simply reporting on her as the spunky daughter of a famous person is irresponsible. We need serious discussions of policy and the rhetoric used to peddle it not human interest tales that focus on personalities.

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26 September 2009

Reflections on G20 Protests

Perhaps it is a coincidence, but a book that I ordered some time ago ~ Joel Sternfeld's Treading on Kings: Protesting the G8 in Genoa (Steidl, 2002) ~ arrived late this week, just in time for the G20 meetings in Pittsburgh. Sternfeld's book consists in a set of portraits of people who came to protests in Genoa in July 2001. The captions for each portrait consist in the subject's reply to Sternfeld's query: 'Why did you come?' The young Italian woman who resolutely stares back from the cover said simply: "Because it's right."

The leaders who gathered in Pittsburgh for the G20 meetings this week have now dispersed triumphally. It is not at all clear that they accomplished much of substance. And, as I noted here, a massive number of police and military personnel protected them, at great expense, from anything resembling contact with dissenters. Next year, as I understand it, the Canadians will have a chance to place on display the sort of repressive apparatus that 'leaders' seem to demand these days. Of course, officials in Pittsburgh avoided the 'excesses' of Genoa - police rampages and dead protesters. But the sight of thousands of police decked out in high-tech riot gear in anticipation of violence makes the notion that we inhabit a democracy seem farcical. The task of the police apparently was to make sure that the protesters had no chance of getting anywhere near the leaders who were meeting to discuss political economic policy. According to a predictably gleeful report in The Daily News (New York) none of the protest marches got much closer than a half mile from where the summit was actually being held.* If the people attending the protests this week resemble at all the folks who Sternfeld depicts - and I suspect that they do - I wonder of what the summit leaders (and their militarized minions) are so petrified.

As a piece of photographic work, Sternfeld's portraits allow us to think through the media sterotypes, the ones that depict all protesters as darkly clad youth out to break windows and throw trash cans or of latter-day yippies engaged in "antics" or "stunts" of various sorts. He introduces you to some of the folks who are speaking out "because it is right."

On a side note, in an interview before the G20 meetings this week, President Obama offered a piece of especially patronizing advice to the protesters - stay home.
"I was always a big believer in - when I was doing organizing before I went to law school - that focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people's lives is what really makes a difference and that having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally, is not really going to make much of a difference."
Does our good president really think that all those folks who were marching in Pittsburgh just come out every so often for a good shout? Does he think that they are not already engaged at home? Does he think they are waiting on he and his cronies to do something politically or socially progressive? Has he considered that - just possibly - working in one's community might prompt one to go out and join political protests? That perhaps the two might be related, because seeing how "global capitalism" works close to home makes "community organizers" angry at all of the ways in which unfettered free markets play havoc with people's lives? Can the president really be that dim?
__________
* P.S.: Added 27 September 09 ~ The Nation has published this report about the way 'security' officials managed to isolate any and all public display of dissent not only from the leaders gather for the summit but from residents of Pittsburgh too. This telling remark by one activist seems to capture the problem: "I'm afraid it seems that the police and the G-20 have learned everything since Seattle, and we've learned nothing . . . They have effectively made dissent impossible to be visible in this city, and they're willing to spend extraordinary amounts of money to do that." Seems to me like the proesters have some re-thinking to do.

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25 September 2009

Moments to Be Proud of in American History

Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus displays the front page of the
Manchester, N.H. Union Leader to illustrate what "northern
papers" are saying about President Eisenhower's use of
federal troops to enforce integration in Little Rock. He charged
the president with using unprecedented "police state methods."
Photograph:
Bettmann/Corbis.

Here is the face of Southern Racism, Orval Faubus, abetted by the product of Northern Racism - the incredibly right-wing Manchester Union Leader - protesting forced racial integration of Central High School in Little Rock. The nine black students attended their first day of class there on this date a half century ago. The alliance of northern and southern reactionaries spoke vehemently about their right to discriminate in 'Free' America. Not much has changed - ask the 'birthers,' 'teabaggers,' border 'militias,' and their enablers in the media (Dobbs, Beck, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and even lesser lights).

Of course, Faubus was simply the elected face of racist violence in this episode, as this portrait of the citizens of Little Rock makes clear. This is a segregationist rally at the Arkansas Sate Capital in 1957. Orval addressed the crowd. The really nice touch is the placard reading "Stop the Race Mixing March of the Anti-Christ"!

Photograph: John Bledsoe for USN&WR/Library of Congress.

So, what is there to be proud of in all this? There are, of course, the nine students who first integrated Central High and who bore the ongoing brunt of racist retaliation first hand. But there were others who spoke out too. One exceptionally eloquent reply to Orval and his ilk was this tune:

Charles Mingus ~ "Fables of Faubus" from Mingus Ah Um (Columbia Records, 1959).*

"Fables of Faubus" by Charles Mingus, published
by the Jazz Workshop, Inc.~
From the collection at The Library of Congress.

So, today is one marker in the articulate perseverance of Black Americans who have resisted the paroxysms of violent bigotry that seem rarely to abate in our country.
___________
* Not everyone was at the time (or since) as bold as Mingus. In Myself When I am Real: The Life & Music of Charles Mingus (Oxford UP, 2000) Gene Santoro reports - pages 154, 173 - Mingus's claim that the folks at Columbia Records would not allow him to record the mocking lyrics to Fables of Faubus.

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24 September 2009

Envisioning Aggregates: The Faithful

"Great numbers, however, cause particular difficulties for
our imagination. As if we observe humanity in a way that
is not permitted for humans, and allowed only to gods. ...
In other words, they can think in categories of masses.
A million people more, a million less - what difference
does it make?" ~ Czeslaw Milosz

The National Mosque in Jakarta can hold 120,000 souls for Friday
prayers. Arab traders brought Islam to the region a thousand years
ago. Now 86 percent of Indonesia’s 240 million citizens are Muslim,
mostly Sunni. Photograph © 2009 James Nachtwey/National Geographic.

Politics is about numbers - often very large numbers. Politics, in many cases, also intersects with imagination, with our ability to envision possibilities. Hence the quote from Milosz, which I've used here several times before. Among the issues that perplex me is whether - and how - photographers might depict aggregates. This image, from "Indonesia: Facing Down the Fanatics" does just that.

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Establishing "Free Markets" With Tear Gas

Police fire rubber bullets at demonstrators during a protest
against the G20 Pittsburgh Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
September 24, 2009. Photograph credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Markets are good things. But markets take many forms and they require all sorts of institutional scaffolding - political, legal, etc. - before we can have faith that they will operate in the nice ways economists promise that they will. One need only read accomplished economists like Dani Rodrik, Amartya Sen or Joseph Stiglitz to understand that elementary point. Moreover, markets do not spring up like mushrooms in a damp backyard. They need to be institutionalized. And much of the talk about free trade and its virtues manages to overlook the fact that the process of establishing markets often is quite coercive. It does not operate in an nice efficient way.

Unsurprisingly, the meeting of the leaders of the G20 in Pittsburgh has drawn protesters - people who are concerned about threats to labor rights or environmental degradation or any of several other dangers that market fundamentalists downplay in their zeal for unfettered markets. And just as unsurprisingly the local, state and national authorities have spared little expense in providing for "security" against the protesters. (According to this report in The New York Times the bill will run at least $14 million US.) Also according to The Times: "A National Guard combat battalion that recently returned from Iraq is joining the city's police force of about 900 officers in patrolling the streets. The city has also called on an additional 3,000 city, state and federal officers to help." If we low ball and assume a battalion is 1000 troops, that means that there will be roughly 5000 armed personnel patrolling the streets of Pittsburgh. And city officials have taken other steps in anticipation of protests: "The city had locked down its business district known as the Golden Triangle, in preparation for possible clashes. Riot fences lined the sidewalks. Helicopters, gunboats and Humvees darted to and fro. City officials announced they had up to 1,000 jail cells ready for law breakers, after county officials freed up additional space last week by releasing 300 people from jail who had been arrested on minor probation violations." Of course, too, they are trying to insure that protesters can exercise their free speech right only in designated areas where no one attending the summit could actually hear an opposing view point. As the image I've lifted above attests, already the military/police have begun to use riot control weapons - concussion grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, and so forth - to 'control' the unarmed protesters. Free markets indeed.

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23 September 2009

Best Shots (88) ~ Yann Arthus-Bertrand

(115) Yann Arthus-Bertrand ~ Athabasca Oil Sands,
Alberta, Canada (23 September 2009).

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21 September 2009

Not a Photography Prize ~ Lynsey Addario Wins a MacArhur Fellowship

04/11/03, Lynsey Addario at work in Kirkuk, Iraq
~ Photo © Chang W. Lee/The New York Times.

Tim Atherton keeps an insightful blog called Muse-ings. I recommend it highly. He has just posted on the work of James Nachtwey, Gilles Peress and Don McCullin, concluding with this query - "Which leads me to: where the work of this sort and calibre from Iraq and Afghanistan (and any other current spot on the globe where human beings are suffering and dying)?"

Today The New York Times has a story on the latest winners of MacArthur Fellowships - $100K per year for five years, no strings attached - given out to smart, creative folks. Nice. And among this year's recipients is photographer Lynsey Addario. You can find her web page here. I have written here a number of times about the plethora of photography prizes - given by insiders, mostly to insiders. The MacArthur folks look across 'disciplines' and worry about past accomplishment mostly as an indicator of future promise. So, maybe Addario is an answer to Tim's query?

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This Is Very Cool - Pictures from the Stratosphere on a Shoestring



I read this report in The Guardian today. It describes the adventures of Project Icarus. These kids offer a great example of what we need more of - curiosity, imagination, and (bluntly) balls.

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19 September 2009

"Seeing Beauty in Our Shadows" ~ Luc Sante

The Wall Street Journal
SEPTEMBER 18, 2009, 9:46 P.M. ET


Seeing Beauty in Our Shadows

Robert Frank's 'The Americans,' unpopular when first published, has shaped the way America looks at itself.

By Luc Sante

Robert Frank’s book of photographs "The Americans" was first published in the United States 50 years ago, in 1959. The pictures had been taken in the course of several trips by car across the country in 1955 and 1956. They show people—old and young, black and white, rich and poor—in bars, hotels, luncheonettes, parks, offices, factories; at funerals, casinos, parades, cocktail parties, rodeos; on streets and roads. They also show settings without people: gas stations, barber shops, newsstands, dime stores. There are jukeboxes, cars, buses, motorcycles, and each of the book's four sections is announced by a photograph prominently featuring an American flag. Some of the people are happy, some not; some of the settings are desolate, others opulent. The book wouldn't be mistaken for a brochure meant to sell the country's image abroad, but neither does it constitute an indictment. It is a poetic portrait by a photographer to whom all of it was new and who took nothing for granted. At the time, however, the United States didn't recognize itself.

Initially unable to find an American publisher, Frank, a Swiss émigré, first saw his book issued in 1958 in France in an edition featuring a cover drawing by Saul Steinberg and, on the pages facing the photographs, an anthology of critical texts about the U.S. by writers ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to John Dos Passos. The book received only glancing attention. The first American edition, a proper one containing no extraneous images and no text apart from skeletal captions and a brief, lyrical forward by Jack Kerouac, was issued by Grove Press, then the preeminent publisher of all things daring or avant-garde, from Victorian erotica to Samuel Beckett.

Aside from a brief notice in the New Yorker that called it "a beautiful social comment" expressed with "brutal sensitivity," the critical reception was savage. "Utterly misleading! A degradation of a nation!" thundered the photographer and editor Minor White in his magazine, Aperture. The book caused such a furor at Popular Photography that the editors assigned no fewer than seven critics to review it, almost all of whom agreed that it was "a wart-covered picture of America" by "a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption," and who was "willing to let his pictures be used to spread hatred among nations." The book sold only about 1,100 copies, and almost immediately went out of print.

Fifty years later, it is the focus of an exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans" (Sept. 22 to Dec. 27), which originated at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The original catalog is over 500 pages long—many times the size of the original book. (Full disclosure: I contributed an essay to the catalog, and next month will be participating in a discussion at the Met in conjunction with the show.) "The Americans" routinely appears near the top of every list of essential books of photography, no matter how short. It has had nine separate editions, not counting those in foreign languages. How did 50 years transform Frank's work from pariah to classic? Fifty years have added somewhat more ambiguity to the national self-image; perhaps we are more capable of seeing the depth of shadows and the beauty of doubt.

Robert Frank was born in Zurich in 1924. After apprenticing with local photographers, he sailed to New York in 1947, where he was hired by Harper's Bazaar. In the following years, he traveled extensively in South America and Europe, taking pictures. In 1953 he met Walker Evans, who encouraged him to apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship. His application was successful; the fellowship, renewed once, underwrote the trips he documented in "The Americans." Evans had abundant experience with road photography. As a contract employee of the New Deal-era Farm Security Administration he had traveled extensively through the South in the late 1930s, ostensibly documenting the crisis of American agriculture and its relief, but really looking for the sort of rough-hewn native vernacular beauty that was everywhere along the road but seldom if ever noticed, let alone acknowledged. His own first book was called "American Photographs" (1938). He clearly saw Frank as an heir to his vision.

Indeed, there are remarkable similarities between their two books. Both feature a lot of ordinary people in unguarded moments, and a lot of the sort of expressive but unassuming commercial décor that everyone took for granted before that landscape was overwhelmed by corporate logos. Both are moody, terse and passionate about leveling the distinction between high and low; both avoid simple anecdotes and tidy resolutions. The similarities extend to individual choices of subject here and there, as if Frank were deliberately answering Evans. The possible presumption of their titles leads in different directions, however. Evans was announcing an American modernism based on native, non-academic styles quite distinct from any European models. Frank was presenting the view of a foreigner experiencing the length and breadth of the country for the first time and posing certain questions, if not exactly drawing conclusions.

The extent to which Frank's status as a foreigner determined his vision is open to debate. Certainly there were native-born photographers at the time who shared his aesthetic and general outlook, although they tended to be New Yorkers and perhaps could be seen as equally foreign to the vast expanse of the country. There is a consistency to Frank's approach and choice of subject matter that links the pictures in "The Americans" to the photos he took in Bolivia and Spain and Wales and France; he does not seem to have shot much in his native Switzerland after leaving it for good. Frank's foreignness may have influenced his critics, in any case. The 1950s were a famously nervous time in America, awash in Cold War terrors and attempting to assuage them with grimly sunny boosterism. The most widely broadcast currents in art photography tended to be fastidiously uncontroversial: Ansel Adams's Western landscapes, Eliot Porter's nature photos; and Edward Steichen's great success as photo curator at the Museum of Modern Art, the thematic exhibition "The Family of Man" (1955), which was hardly a disgrace to photography (Frank, in fact, was included) but wouldn't have been out of place at a World's Fair. Frank may not have been alone as a maker of fugitive, spare, sometimes bleak photos, but the others didn't have published books.

Walker Evans did. But the culture of social critique with which that work was associated had passed most of a generation earlier and fallen into opprobrium since then, because of the looming specter of Communism. In the 1950s, Evans was an employee of Fortune magazine and going through a fallow period in his personal work. In stark contrast to the 1930s, when Evans and his collaborator James Agee could propose to Fortune a study of destitute tenant farmers in Alabama (the magazine turned it down but it was published as a book, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," in 1941), views of American society that couldn't be proudly displayed to the people of the Soviet Union didn't get much of an airing.

And the critics couldn't have missed the cover of "The Americans," on which was reproduced "Trolley—New Orleans, 1955," which shows a row of windows of a conveyance headed left: blurred white person, scowling white woman, dressed-up white boy and his vaguely distressed younger sister, and, at the rear, a black man with a look of infinite sadness. Although no contemporaneous critic mentioned it to the best of my knowledge, Frank portrayed quite a lot of black people in his book: elegant mourners in South Carolina, a turbaned mystic bearing a cross on the bank of the Mississippi, a dashing couple of motorcyclists in Indianapolis, a very dark nurse holding a very white baby whose expression matches hers. On the whole, African-Americans come across in the book as possessing somewhat more grace and style than their white counterparts. You didn't see that very often in published photography before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Furthermore, the mainstream aesthetics of the time could only see the pictures' oblique, asymmetrical approach. Their fluid edges and melting grays were received as messy, even squalid. The refusal to present sharply delineated, self-contained, centered figures was to the eyes of the time as troubling as the failure to provide clear-cut moral anecdotes and examples for emulation. The pictures were a photographic counterpart to beatnik poetry and bebop jazz and Abstract Expressionist painting and European art movies, none of which got much respect in the conventional press of the time, either. Both their form and their function were suspect in a time when uncertainty was as good as treason.

Anyway, it is difficult for us to see "The Americans" through the eyes of 1959, because its influence has been so pervasive, persistent and deep that it is impossible to think of the photography of at least the ensuing 30 or 40 years without reference to it. Our vision, collectively, has been permanently altered by it, and this is true even for people who've never seen it but have been exposed to its style and outlook at second or third remove. The book may only have sold 1,000 copies initially, but word got around nevertheless. By the time of its second edition, in 1968, its influence was already widespread. Frank's work at the very least gave courage and inspiration to like-minded younger colleagues such as Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Danny Lyon, and Bruce Davidson, while it was formative for the following generation. There isn't a documentary photographer who came of age in the 1970s and '80s who didn't absorb the book and reflect its lessons in some way, and that includes such disparate figures as Stephen Shore, Sylvia Plachy, Eugene Richards, James Nachtwey, Thomas Roma, Gilles Peress, Nan Goldin, and Mitch Epstein.

Frank essentially abandoned conventional still photography not long after the book came out. He went on to make films, as well as montages and assemblages that employ photographs that are physically altered, sometimes violently. The ultimate success of "The Americans" seems to have cut him much deeper than its transient early failure—he didn't want to replicate the book, for one thing, and yet every picture he subsequently took would lie in its shadow. Although much of his later work is significant—some of the movies, in particular, are extraordinary, such as "Pull My Daisy" (1959), "Me and My Brother" (1967), and "C'est vrai/One Hour" (1992)—Frank remains so completely identified with "The Americans" that it has threatened to overwhelm his entire life and career. He has been, as they say in entertainment, branded by it, and that's not necessarily helpful for an artist who wishes to change and grow.

The overt influence of the book on the young may be on the wane these days, in large part because of the different possibilities and demands of digital photography. Among art photographers there may be more interest in manipulation, narrative, scale and deliberate control of the image. In documentary photography, on the other hand, its influence is deep-rooted and seemingly permanent. "The Americans" might be said to have brought agnosticism to photography; it forcefully introduced doubt, as expressed by asymmetry, overlaps, tilts, radical cropping, out-of-focus foregrounds and the use of massed shadows and pulsing glare. That quality has come to be synonymous with truth-telling, even if it has been abused over the years. Until someone comes up with a transformative new way of taking pictures that can convince us it has an even stronger mimetic relationship to the way we actually see, it is likely to stand as such. Even if art photographers are for the nonce more interested in creative ways to concoct falsehoods, the legacy of "The Americans" remains evident and even necessary in journalistic photography. More than a subjective portrait of a particular country at a particular time, the book is an essential treatise of visual vocabulary.

Luc Sante, the author of "Low Life" and "Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005," teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College. His new book, "Folk Photography," will be published next month.
This short essay appeared in yesterday's edition accompanied by this slide show. Something to note - according to the credit Sante has a new book on photography due out next month.

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18 September 2009

Liquidating the CAE Defense Fund

I received the following press release from my friend Lucia Sommer; it details the decision to liquidate the legal defense fund that was established in response to the Patriot Act prosecution of Steve Kurtz. Lucia has been deeply involved with the defense team

FOUR YEAR LEGAL BATTLE ENDS WITH SUBSTANTIAL DONATIONS TO CIVIL & HUMAN RIGHTS GROUPS

CAE Defense Fund donated to Center for Constitutional Rights & New York Civil Liberties Union


Buffalo, NY—After a widely watched four-year legal battle, the CAE Defense Fund was officially dissolved last week, with its remainder of unexpended funds donated in two substantial gifts to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the New York affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).

The CAE Defense Fund was originally created as a mechanism to raise funds for legal bills incurred by Dr. Steven Kurtz and Dr. Robert Ferrell in what its members argued was a politically motivated attack by the Department of Justice—one which threatened the constitutional and fundamental rights not only of the two defendants, but also of everyone, due to legal precedents that would have been set by an unfavorable outcome.

In response, thousands of people worldwide organized demonstrations and raised money for the two men’s legal defense through fundraisers and a variety of other grassroots efforts.

The fund was also heavily supported by internationally renowned artists including Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra, Hans Haacke, Cindy Sherman, Carl Andre, Mike Kelley, Kiki Smith, Sam Durant, Mark Dion, Jeremy Deller, and many others, who donated work to an auction at Paula Cooper Gallery in April 2005. Other artists such as Chuck Close, Walid Raad, and Ed Ruscha made substantial direct cash contributions. In all, the Fund raised approximately $350,000.

Drs. Kurtz and Ferrell were indicted for mail and wire fraud in June of 2004. Under the USA PATRIOT Act, the maximum sentence for those charges was increased from five years to twenty years in jail. After an arduous four-year-long struggle, in April of 2008 the indictment against Kurtz was finally dismissed by Federal Judge Richard J. Arcara as “insufficient on its face”—meaning that even if the actions alleged in the indictment (which the judge must accept as “fact”) were true, they would not constitute a crime. Ferrell pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in October 2007 after recurring bouts of cancer and three strokes suffered during the course of the case prevented him from continuing the struggle.

When the case was dismissed instead of going to trial, approximately $108,930 remained in the fund.

“Had the case gone to a jury trial, that amount wouldn’t have been enough to cover Steve’s legal bills through the trial, let alone appeals in the event of a guilty verdict” explained Edmund Cardoni, Executive Director of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo NY, and the Fund’s fiscal administrator. “When the case was finally thrown out, we were thrilled, but we were presented with a new problem. The committee was very conscious of our ethical responsibility to make sure this money would be used in a way that honored the original intent of the many people who gave money to the fund, and the artists who donated art works to the fundraising auction.”

In keeping with that purpose—to defend our fundamental constitutional rights—the CAE Defense Fund and Trial Fund committees, in consultation with artists, curators, and others centrally involved in the fundraising efforts, voted to disburse the remaining funds by awarding 80 percent ($87,150) to the CCR, and 20 percent ($21,780) to the NYCLU.

CAE Defense Fund coordinator Lucia Sommer said, “We are extremely happy that the case is over, and that the remaining funds can be passed on to organizations that have such a distinguished record of defending not only the U.S. Constitution, but also the human rights and dignity of all people.”

Added Kurtz, “I always promised everyone who donated their time, labor and hard-earned money to our defense that this struggle would do more than demonstrate to the Justice Department that the art, science, academic and activist communities would not be intimidated by its authoritarian tactics. We knew the legal precedent set by the case was critical to preventing what happened to Bob and me from happening to others, and it’s incredibly rewarding to know that these funds can now be used to defend others who do not have the kind of support we had.”

Representatives of both organizations expressed gratitude for the donations.

“The NYCLU is very pleased to receive this generous contribution from the CAE Legal Defense Fund to continue our work in restoring, defending, and upholding our constitutional and fundamental rights, including artistic and academic freedoms,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Vincent Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, congratulated the CAE Defense Fund “and its many dedicated and principled supporters for your extraordinary victory—a victory for our country and the Constitution as much as it is for the individuals.” He further stated that, “The CCR is honored to use the tremendous support of the Fund's donors to continue the fight against repression of dissent and illegal detentions—work which, unfortunately, is still sorely needed.”

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17 September 2009

Best Shot (87) ~ Tacita Dean

(114) Tacita Dean ~ From: Czech Photos, 1991 (16 September 09).

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O.K. What is the Baucus Lesson?

"Baucus Offers Health Plan

but Lacks G.O.P. Support"

This is a headline from this report in The New York Times this morning. The lesson, Max, is that you can spend months and months cravenly trying to 'moderate' a policy proposal - to the point that is will leave all established players un-harmed and not mitigate the actual problem that, say, millions of citizens lack access to health care - and the Republicans will let you dangle in the wind. Bi-partisanship is a fool's game. It is a recipe for anemic policy. And it is, as I've argued here before, dangerous to democracy.

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16 September 2009

New Photographics

Jude Law (Photograph © Jonathan Worth/The New York Times.)

I recently received an email from Jonathan Worth, a fellow I've never met, who called my attention to a new blog he's starting called New Photographics. As you can see from the image I've lifted here, Jonathan is a talented photographer (I nearly lifted an image of his Mom from the blog but figured she crown me right after she'd crowned Jonathan - discretion is a virtue!). And his observations on the travails of working in the field seem smart to me. So, go see what he's up to!

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Measure for Measure

Well, the International Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, a panel of smart economists chaired by Joseph Stiglitz has just issued issued a report on improving the ways we might better conceptualize and provide improved quantitative indicators of economic well-being. Stiglitz wrote this short Op-Ed in The Financial Times a few days ago in which he gives a snapshot of the enterprise. You can find a link to the complete report (nearly 300 pages long) at the Commission web site here.

The important premise of he report can be summed up in this comment from Stiglitz: "What we measure affects what we do." Statistics do not just capture or represent an independently existing reality, they get incorporated via politics, policy and economic activity into - that is, they become constitutive of - our practices and institutions.
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P.S.: You can find a variation on Stiglitz's Op-Ed here at Project Syndicate.

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And While We Are At It .... Let's Think about the "Great Vacation"

Regardless of which side one comes down on in the quite public self-re-assessment economists seem to be undertaking, it is important to note how- apparently in a wholly un-ironic way - certain economists adopt a Gradgrind-like posture. Here is a passage from Krugman where he describes a strand of contemporary macro-economic work that apparently denies (1) that recessions really happen and (2) that even if something resembling a recession did occur, there is a perfectly benign (and, of course, theory saving!) way to interpret such an event.
“Yet recessions do happen. Why? In the 1970s the leading freshwater macroeconomist, the Nobel laureate Robert Lucas, argued that recessions were caused by temporary confusion: workers and companies had trouble distinguishing overall changes in the level of prices because of inflation or deflation from changes in their own particular business situation. And Lucas warned that any attempt to fight the business cycle would be counterproductive: activist policies, he argued, would just add to the confusion.

By the 1980s, however, even this severely limited acceptance of the idea that recessions are bad things had been rejected by many freshwater economists. Instead, the new leaders of the movement, especially Edward Prescott, who was then at the University of Minnesota (you can see where the freshwater moniker comes from), argued that price fluctuations and changes in demand actually had nothing to do with the business cycle. Rather, the business cycle reflects fluctuations in the rate of technological progress, which are amplified by the rational response of workers, who voluntarily work more when the environment is favorable and less when it's unfavorable. Unemployment is a deliberate decision by workers to take time off.

Put baldly like that, this theory sounds foolish - was the Great Depression really the Great Vacation? And to be honest, I think it really is silly. But the basic premise of Prescott's "real business cycle" theory was embedded in ingeniously constructed mathematical models, which were mapped onto real data using sophisticated statistical techniques, and the theory came to dominate the teaching of macroeconomics in many university departments. In 2004, reflecting the theory's influence, Prescott shared a Nobel with Finn Kydland of Carnegie Mellon University (stress added).”
Interestingly, The Times has also been running a series [1] [2] [3] [4] of Op-Ed pieces by Barbara Ehrenreich over the past couple of months. In these she reports on how the non-recession is working down there among the vacationers. Maybe we should consider them post cards?

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15 September 2009

Debating Economics

While the average person may not have noticed, there is an increasingly acrimonious public debate taking place among economists concerning the current state of economic inquiry, especially macroeconomics. You can find links to many of the interventions in this debate here. It makes for good reading (OK!, OK! I'm a nerd!). Having confessed, though, several things strike me as important about the debate:

(1) Especially in his contribution (from The New York Times Magazine a couple weeks back), Paul Krugman makes a point about economic research: it is shot through with "values." Here I do not mean political or moral values (although I think Krugman undersells the directly ideological nature of much of economics). What I mean is what we might call aesthetic values. He repeatedly notes the commitment of economists, when they construct models, to beauty and elegance and such things. This is a point that converges nicely with Hilary Putnam's claims regarding the entanglement of fact, value, and convention in social inquiry. He makes those claims in The Collapse of the Fact-Value Dichotomy.

(2) A second point is that economists seem to have a dangerous disdain for the history of their discipline. In that regard they are operating with an odd view of science. And, as Brad DeLong and Krugman both point out, many economists seem to be more or less wholly ignorant about arguments that have been made before - by economists. In my own neck of the words, I see such amnesia in the rush by modelers to work straight from textbooks instead of figuring out what had motivated various theoretical enterprises in the first place. My favorite example is the urge to sanitize 'the Arrow theorem' from the flatly political context that animated Arrow to work on it in the first place. I regularly advise graduate students to go back and read Arrow so that they will realize that the famous theorem is a rather small part of the initial book. Arrow does not treat it as a technical exercise. He is considerably more concerned with interpreting the result.

(3) Much of the current debate rides on technical arguments that are best worked out in the appropriate venues (i.e., academic conferences and journals). But the notion, floated by several participants, that somehow economists should not be arguing in public - in the press, blogs, and so forth - seems to me fundamentally misguided. In the first place it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of science - assuming that it is thoroughly disconnected from society and politics. Moreover, it neglects the political responsibility of economists who want to interject their work into the policy process or to consult with this or that player in economic markets. Once they do that, economists need to recall the inconvenient fact that we live in (something approaching) a democracy. And, having contributed to the formation of policy or some market experiement, they can surely expect to be held accountable - even where that simply amounts to being held up for public ridicule when they prove wrong. Moreover, if a prominent economist cannot explain to non-specialist readers what is at issue in some technical debate, how can he expect relevant politicians and policy makers to understand it? No economist - committed as she would be to 'science' - should expect her word to be taken on authority!

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What Is Socialism in 2009?

Well, today at The New York Times blog "Room For Debate", you can find a handful of posts that address the question "What is Socialism in 2009? The most pointed, I think, comes from political theorist Terry Ball. A little analysis, a dash of history and the whining right wingers look, well, willfully ignorant. Not only is Obama not a socialist by s standard definition, but if he were a socialist, that would hardly make him un-American. I've always like the slogan "dissent is patriotic." Turns out "socialism" is too.
Socialists as Patriots
Terence Ball

Why are some - mostly older, overwhelmingly white - Americans so afraid of "socialism" and, by extension, "socialized medicine"? One explanation is that they don't actually know what socialism is, namely the public ownership and/or control of the major means of production (mines, mills, factories, etc.) for the benefit of the public at large. Another is that many older Americans have vivid memories of the cold war and the dreaded U.S.S.R. (the second S standing for "socialist").

In hindsight it seems strange and almost miraculous that at the height of the cold war a limited form of socialized medicine - Medicare - got through the Congress over the objections of the American Medical Association and the insurance industry, and made it to President Johnson's desk. (These special interests won't make that mistake again: they now have a veritable army of lobbyists assaulting Capitol Hill and every congressman there.)

But now the cold war is over. For those in their 20s and 30s, the cold war might as well be ancient history.

To many Americans "socialism" may sound vaguely "foreign" and "un-American." Those at rallies protesting health reform now may be surprised to know that "socialism" and "socialist" have a long history in American political thought and that those terms weren't always terms of censure.

For the anti-socialism protesters, here's a quick quiz:

The author of the Pledge of Allegiance (1892), was A) a conservative, B) a liberal, C) a socialist.

The answer is C. Francis Bellamy was a socialist and a Baptist minister. (Yes, there actually were Christian socialists, then as now.)

The "Pledge to the Flag," as it was originally called, was not descriptive of then current conditions, but it was aspirational: "One nation, indivisible" invoked a nation undivided by differences of race, class and gender. And "with liberty and justice for all" it envisioned a nation in which women could vote and African Americans need not fear rope-wielding "night riders" of the KKK.

Contemporary "patriots," I hope, agree with such aspirations, despite their distinctly socialist provenance. It is historically false that the only "real" Americans are conservatives and that people of other ideological persuasions are not or cannot be "real" Americans. After all, what's more American than the "socialist" Pledge of Allegiance?

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14 September 2009

Veterans' Flame (Krzysztof Wodiczko) ~ On the Possibility of Political Art

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Veterans’ Flame, 2009.
Photograph © Michael Marcelle/Creative Time.

This post is for those who, like me, live in the hinterlands. The cool, cosmopolitan folks in the big cities will already know. Or should.

Krzysztof Wodiczko
designs projections that operate at the intersection of democracy and trauma. They aim to afford the chance for those silenced by trauma to find their voices. And in this sense they are about navigating public space, even where this involves, by incorporating silenced or marginalized voices, re-defining it. There was a terrific interview with Wodiczko (conducted by Patricia Phillips in Art Journal) a few years back that explores these themes with great insight.

Wodiczko's latest project is called Veterans' Flame. This winter (starting November 4th) his work will be on at Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston (details here). Right now (through 20 September) his projection is part of the Creative Time sponsored group show "This World and Nearer Ones" on Governor's Island in NYC (details here).

From the web page of current show in NYC we are told the following:
"In Krzysztof Wodiczko's Veterans' Flame, the image of a candle flame moves with the recorded voices of veterans sharing accounts of war and its aftermath in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wodiczko conducted the interviews in April 2009, interested in having his subjects explore, through the act of remembering and retelling, the complex psychological space between the battlefield and their homes. By appropriating public buildings and monuments as surfaces for projections in his work, Wodiczko has focused on the ways in which architecture reflects collective memory, history, and the loss of life. Here, Fort Jay's silent chambers are once again filled with the voices of soldiers, and a monument to history's conflicts becomes a place to contemplate contemporary accounts of war and longing."
There is a brief clip of Wodiczko discussing his hopes for the work available on line.



I find this pretty remarkable and thoroughly political. It ought to give pause to those who too readily identify political art with partisan art or with didactic art. Once we learn to make such distinctions, all the regular, usually sanctimonious, pronouncements about how art and politics should never intersect begin to look as hollow as they, in fact, are.

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13 September 2009

Surfaces

"Commis-Larue," Paris, 1950.
Photograph © Irving Penn.


There is a review in The Los Angeles Times of an exhibition showing this fall at the Getty Museum there. You can find a slide show here containing some of the images on display. The exhibition is of a series of portraits, taken by Irving Penn of working class men and women in Paris, London and New York during the 1950s.

The reviewer, Christopher Knight, concludes with an astute observation:
"But Penn's great skill is not in peeling away outer layers to show us the person hidden within. After all he's a fashion photographer par excellence. His workers model. Emphasizing aesthetics within ordinariness, their surfaces thrum with meaning."
I think, however, that this characteristic of Penn's photographs is not tied just to fashion photography but to the the limits and immense usefulness of the technology itself. What photography shows simply are surfaces. And that highlights a question that I think is important ~ whether there is any 'reality' to be discerned beyond the 'appearances.'

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Passings: Willy Ronis (1910-2009)

Rue Muller à Montmartre, Paris, 1934.
Photograph© Willy Ronis.

French photographer Willi Ronis has died. There is an obituary here at AFP and another from AP here.

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12 September 2009

Reprieve

So, according to this report yesterday in The New York Times, it appears that Annie Leibovitz has averted the worst - at least for now. She has not lost her home or control of the copyright to her work. Regular readers will know that I am pretty ambivalent about Leibovitz and her work. That said, this is a good outcome and I hope she can dig her way all the way out of this financial hole.

And that raises a matter that I've noted here before. The editors at The Times finally have filed this story in the Arts section. This is a tale about the political economy of the photo industry and how treacherous that terrain can be. But the Arts and artists hardly stand aloof from such pressures and it is sheer ideology to present the world as though they do.

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11 September 2009

Best Shots (86) ~ Sally Mann

(113) Sally Mann ~ From Was Ever Love (9 September 2009).

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Anniversary

"The dead must be remembered, but the living are the monument, the living who coexist in peace in ordinary times and who save one another in extraordinary times. Civil society triumphed that morning in full glory. Look at it: remember that this is who we were and can be."
It always is difficult to know what to post on this date. There is a temptation to turn maudlin, or saccharin, or bitter and vengeful. Instead I'll link to this essay by Rebecca Solnit - the passage I lifted above is her conclusion.

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10 September 2009

The Cost of War (4)

"In the current political mood, the friendliest to the military
in decades, the pictures of wretched hollow-eyed GIs that once
seemed subversive of militarism and imperialism may seem
inspirational. Their revised subject: ordinary American young
men doing their unpleasant, ennobling duty." ~ Susan Sontag


*

Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller, Fallujah,
Iraq, November 2004.


World Press Photo of the Year, 2007 ~ US soldier, Korengal
Valley, Afghanistan © Tim Hetherington.

I've assigned Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others in my undergraduate course this term and today I am re-reading it in preparation for class. Since I disagree with Sontag on so many things, it seems that it is useful to note the points at which her observations seem acute. Her comment immediately brought to mind the two images I've posted here. It also allows me to follow up on an earlier post - it is not just images of death that convey the sacrifices we are imposing on young military personnel. The Iraq war was a disaster from day one. And, largely as a result, the war in Afghanistan - whatever point it initially might have had - seems to now be in the same category.

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09 September 2009

Space Shots

This evening as I drove home I listened to the news on npr; they aired this story on a new set of newly released images that NASA has taken using the Hubble Space Telescope. This is not my usual fare, but the images are really quite spectacular.

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08 September 2009

KXZI ~ LP

There is a story in The New York Times that is really welcome after a long day. As I search the local dial and encounter mostly clear channel clones and religious broadcasting, I only wish there were a station like KXZI-LP (the LP stands for 'low power') FM 101.9 in Creston, Montana. Just when I despair about the U.S. I discover someone like Scott Johnston. Thanks!

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Check Your Political Ideology

The Center for American Progress has released a report on the State of American Ideology, 2009. The findings are interesting. Go here and take the survey and see how you compare. The average score among 'Liberal Democrats' is 247 and change out of a possible 400. Me? 348. My moderate sweetheart Susan scored 313.

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07 September 2009

In Honor of Joshua Bernard

In this photo taken Friday, Aug. 14, Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard
is tended to by fellow U.S. Marines after being hit by a rocket
propelled grenade during a firefight against the Taliban in the
village of Dahaneh in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.
Bernard was transported by helicopter to Camp Leatherneck
where he later died of his wounds.
Photograph © Julie Jacobson/Associated Press.

In The Guardian today you can find this report on the controversy swirling around this photograph. In their report from a few days ago, The New York Times - true to form - declined to run the photograph. (You can read more on the matter here.)

When men and women join the armed forces, they give up all sorts of rights and prerogatives. They agree to fight and kill and to risk their lives in the name of their country. And they go through training intended to suppress individualism and make them part of the "team." In the end, though, they are public figures. Their families too, lose control - just as the families of other public figures do (think of the aftermath of scandal inducing activities by politicians). Conversely, the public who blithely supports war (and other policies) just so long as they need not, even indirectly, face the consequences has an obligation to confront reality. And, the press, of course has rights to free expression.

I know what it is like to lose a son. And my heart goes out to the family of Joshua Bernard. However, for the reasons I've just laid out, neither his family nor members of the administration like Secretary Gates have any claim on AP and its decision to distribute the image. It does a disservice to the men and women in the U.S. armed forces to sanitize war, to hide the risks and dangers and sacrifices they endure. Indeed, by making this a controversy about the distribution of images rather than focusing on those risks and dangers and sacrifices, Gates is disrespecting Joshua Bernard. And, of course, it hardly needs pointing out that Gates has reasons of his own to invoke concern for Bernard's family as a way of rationalizing quite different interests of state. (The direct parallel to Don Rumsfeld complaining not about the torture at Abu Ghraib but about the fact that somehow images of it were taken and circulating, seems clear to me.)

This photograph depicts sacrifice and pain and loss. It says nothing about whether all that is 'worth it.' That question will persist and elicit disparate answers regardless of whether this image (and other like it) is published or not. So long as we are allowed only to see images that whitewash the war (like this one), we are disabled from forming a reflective assessment (that is from thinking) one way or another.
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P.S.: Here in Rochester, where our daily Gannett newspaper refuses to report on our war casualties, the only regular source of information is the 'alternative' weekly City Newspaper. For the week in which Joshua Bernard was killed here is the report: names, ranks, hometown and date of death. Numbers in a column. Sure that is one way to represent the "cost of war" and I applaud the City folks for persevering in publishing this week after week. But few stop to look and ponder at these numbers. At least I'll bet fewer do than will stop and think as they see Joshua Bernard dying.

P.S.: (12 September 2009) ~ I recommend this AP slide show that provides some context for the above image.

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Labor Day

Detroit Industry (detail) by Diego Rivera, 1933.

This is a detail from a massive mural at the Detroit Institute for the Arts. While Rivera affords an heroic vision of American labor, it would be a mistake to neglect the current travails of American workers. Harold Meyerson lays out some of the problems in his strong lament for labor at The Washington Post. And this story at In These Times and this one at The Nation make a set of points that overlap with Meyerson. The problems, of course, reflect the current depression; but they also reflect the fact that successive administrations in Washington - and the courts and agencies spread across the country - have failed to enforce basic aspects of labor law. In other words, the problem is political.

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Our Crminals ~ Reverend Carl Kabat

Today The New York Times is running this story about yet another American Criminal. If I were religious, I'd thank god for Carl Kabat; since I'm not, I'll simply thank the good Reverend Kabat for his perseverance.

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06 September 2009

One Important Way That I Am Not Like Glenn Beck

I am not like Glenn Beck. That that is true in all sorts of ways. But, perhaps the most important of those is that I am not certain. I know a lot of things and am confident about that knowledge. I'll come back to some of the things I know in a minute. For now, I simply want to say that there are lots of things I don't know. And I am willing to concede that among the things I am pretty confident about, some may turn out to be wrong. Glenn, by contrast, is certain. That is a pretty important difference.

You may be wondering what prompts me to make this comparison. Well, according to this report, which I found via The Huffington Post, Beck is out to get a number of Obama appointees, including Cass Sunstein who has been nominated to direct head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Republicans in the Senate have delayed Sunstein's nomination - like many of Obama's choices for senior administration posts* - via a variety of procedural gambits. Apparently, Sunstein's nomination will finally be coming before the full Senate this week. That leads me to a few things I know.

First, I met Cass Sunstein when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1980s. I know that we disagree about a lot of things. I also know that he is a smart and decent man. But enough of that. Sunstein hardly needs me as a character reference. Nor, however, does he need to defend himself in the sort of frenzied sideshow that Glenn Beck is trying to orchestrate.

Second, I know that Sunstein is right about at least one thing. We make choices under particular descriptions. This is hardly an earth-shattering revelation. Indeed, it is well established that the way a choice is described can have a considerable impact on the way people decide to act. This is important because much of the hoop-la over "behavioral economics" boils down to the simple not-so-earth-shattering recognition that we necessarily choose under some description. And Sunstein has been bitten by the behavioral economics bug. That is among the things about which we disagree. While I believe the commonplace observation is, well, commonplace, I don't follow the path toward behavioral experimentation. In any case, the commonplace is what seems to have gotten Glenn's knickers in a knot about Sunstein.

Third, I know what it is like to have to make a decision about whether or not to donate a loved one's organs for transplant. When my 14 year old son died two and a half years ago, one of the most excruciating conversations I had was with the young resident who drew the short straw and had to ask whether we would consider donating Jeff's organs. The conversation was excruciating because of the young resident's discomfort. The decision to donate Jeff's organs was a no-brainer. His heart still beats. His liver and kidneys and corneas and lungs and pancreas are still keeping a bunch of people alive who otherwise would likely be dead.

This knowledge is relevant insofar as Sunstein has written about the benefits of a 'presumed consent' regime for making decisions about organ transplants. On such a regime, individuals would explicitly have to 'opt out' of a donation scheme. In the event they died, medical personnel would presume that they would want to donate their organs. Their surviving relatives would still need to agree to having the organs harvested for transplant. But there would be less ambiguity about what the deceased person would have wanted. Jeff, of course, was just a kid. So the scheme would not probably have applied when he died. But I know what he would have wanted. His mother knew as well. That said, I think the 'opt out' scheme is sensible. It would mitigate uncertainty. Unless the deceased person had explicitly indicated they did not want to be an organ donor, they would be treated as one.

Finally, I know that it is craven and disgusting for Beck (and others on the right) to be politicizing the sort of decision I had to make about Jeff's organs. I think Sunstein's basic claim is correct - how the decisions people face at such moments are framed effects their choices. We choose under descriptions. And his prescription - namely that we ought, as a matter of policy, to insist on describing the choice about whether to donate organs of our deceased loved ones in ways that render it easier to say 'yes' is, it seems to me, not just sensible, but right. Having never faced that choice, Glenn Beck ought to simply stop talking. He ought to entertain the possibility that he is wrong. Fat chance.
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* "Out of 543 positions in the upper ranks of government, only 236, or 43 per cent, have been confirmed by the Senate, according to the White House Transition Project. A further 83 are awaiting confirmation" (source).

** To listen to Beck, one would think Sunstein were a wild-eyed lunatic on this issue. My understanding is that Austria, France and Spain operate under a presumed consent regime while Britain is currently debating whether to move to one. While the issue of consent is not the only one that bedevils the availability and distribution of organs for transplantation, it seems to me an important one (link).

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