Monday, August 03, 2015
Resin, Fiber Glass, Madera, Screen Cotton, Cuerda Arenas, Cerrejón, Coal.
Monday, July 27, 2015
Eating Icleand: A Photo Essay
by Akim Reinhardt
It was my first time visiting, and before arriving, I didn't know much about this nearly arctic island other than some vagaries about vikings and banking scandals. So I had very little in the way of preconceived notions about the cuisine, and didn't expect anything in particular.
It turns out the food was quite good. There's lots of soup, and I'm a whore for soup, so that was a good match. Also tons of seafood, which is another favorite of mine, although it doesn't quite drive me to walk the streets with a handkerchief dangling behind my shoulder. And then there's also various treats, ranging from liquor to throat lozenges, that feature harshly medicinal herbal flavors. Cheers to that, I say.
Oh, and the chocolate. Far better than I would've guessed. No nonsense. Dark, chalky and delicious.
I don't eat meat, so all that mutton was lost on me, but overall I found Iceland to be a wonderful culinary experience. However, there were also elements of the surreal, which is often the case when one ventures into a new land for the first time. And that is what I would like to share in this photo essay.
What follows are images of and brief comments about things that are neither right or wrong, but rather just make me smile and remind me that we are all very strange.
Wait. Okay, some of them are actually quite wrong and don't make me smile at all, but we can't turn away. So let the menagerie begin.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
medieval predilections (臥遊)
by Leanne Ogasawara
In Japan, I knew a gentleman who ran a 200 year old miso shop. K san was also a bon vivant par excellance! Studying Samurai-style (Enshu school) tea ceremony, he wore stylish kimono by day and organized French film festivals for our town on the weekends. He also spent a fortune on tea bowls and art, which he often would show to his friends.
Everyone in town knew him and his miso shop was a gathering place of local luminaries.
Of all the interesting things he was involved in, my favorite was his gramophone club. Once a month like-minded collectors would show up with a favorite record (or not) and sit around listening to old records while drinking sake. Need I say more? The man had endless curiosity and tremendous style. He was my kinda guy!
Speaking of which, I recently finished the most unusual book by Normon Cantor, called Inventing the Middle Ages. The book is about twenty prominent 20th century Medievalists and their impact on the study of the history of the Middle Ages. When I first heard that this book was not just a best seller but was so popular it was even available on Audible, I could hardly believe it! Really? I love anything related to the Middle Ages and so would have read the book no matter what, but I must admit that I was utterly fascinated by the popularity-- as well as the controversy surrounding this book, which after all was on such an obscure topic.
So, I picked up the book immediately.
I wasn't disappointed either.
The book is absolutely wonderful in conjuring up the genius and style of these men. Of the twenty prominent "giants" of Medieval scholarship, Cantor is perhaps best on Johan Huizinga (whose wonderful book on "play" I recently wrote about in these every pages). He is also really engaging on the topic of the inklings--JRR Tokien and CS Lewis, in particular. They all show up as such interesting characters--sharing (dare I say it) something in common with my old friend K san (not to mention with Mi Fu (of whom I wrote about in May). Something all these "characters" share could be summed up in this quote by CS Lewis (discussed at length by Cantor ), describing the way the inklings were engaged in an active resistance to the times:
“In talking to me you must beware because I am conscious of a partly pathological hostility to what is fashionable.”
That is how Mi Fu was. And so too K san, who believed that the golden age was in the past and it was there that one could find the most exemplary models for how to live. I think the inklings were like that, as described in Cantor's book:
Both men were deeply affected by a nostalgia and a love for a rapidly disappearing England graced by the middle-class, highly literate Christian culture into which they had been born. They saw a continuity of this culture stretching back into the Middle Ages, when, in their perception, it originated. For them, these vibrant, imaginative, complex Middle Ages were in many essentials still activated in the donnish world of mid-twentieth-century Oxbridge and the English countryside, if not so much in London. Lewis and Tolkien wanted not only to preserve but to revitalize through their writing and teaching this Anglo-Edwardian retromedieval culture.
Theirs was a reaction against the mechanistic, capitalistic, aggressive age inherited by Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher, he would suggest. It really was not all that unlike the last Northern Song dynasty emperor, who turning away from the barbarians at the gate, continued to focus on the ancient bronzes of a thousand years earlier, since that was where virtue was to be found, he believed. (He lost his empire accordingly). Like Mi Fu and Emperor Huizong, this kind of cultural nostalgia (and a love of unicorns) could also be seen in Catholic converts like Graham Greene and Chesterton.... and my favorite Catholic convert of all, Evelyn Waugh. Like Lewis or Tolkien, Roman Catholicism for Waugh becomes a means to escape the relentless utilitarianism of our times. As Jenny Hendrix wrote about Waugh here:
By attaching himself to something ancient, Waugh was able to remain conservative even as Modernism, as he saw it, led the rest of history astray. (Joyce “ends up a lunatic,” he once said; he abhorred Picasso, plastics, and jazz.) A man committed to the defense of a nonexistent world, he loved nothing so much as a unicorn.
My astronomer and I are getting ready to head back to Europe to look at more pictures. We became so taken by the donor portraits we saw by van Eyck and Memling in the Louvre, in Ghent and then in Bruges --and, as I wrote here, I was struck over and over again by the way time was conflated in the paintings. Like a wormhole connecting discrete and distant points in time, these late Medieval and early Renaissance pictures were stunningly transportive in terms of time and space so that, for example, Mary and the baby or the Christ were depicted side-by-side with contemporary figures. Contemporary donors appeared in the paintings accompanied by their patron saints, who thereby formed a link between these two worlds.
At that time, I wondered if this was not the ultimate selfie. I was wrong. For what I should have said was that these donor paintings must be the ultimate anti-selfie!
The tremendous transportive power of these donor portraits reminds me a lot of the Southern Song dynasty landscapes from China. Highly contemplative, both styles of art aim to spiritually elevate by juxtaposing a the realism of physical landscape or interior with that of human imagination...
Dream Journey over Xiao Xiang 瀟湘臥遊図巻 is one of my favorite paintings in the world (see below) A Song dynasty masterpiece, it is now a National Treasure of Japan. Without a doubt, it is within this landscape that I travel more than anywhere. Maybe many of you will feel the same when I say that very rarely do I meet a person who is so agreeable; who engages me so fully on the level of the heart that I am quite certain that a lifetime with that person would never be enough. That is also how I feel about this painting. And, for 10 years it has been my computer desktop wallpaper. Some of you will, I suppose, be thinking: Wow, 10 years-- that's a long time to look at the same painting. But believe it or not, I never grow tired of looking at it; as it continues to fascinate and draw me in.
Lacking a fixed perspective, the southern Song landscapes are pictures that are not only viewed but are paintings that one can "walk around in." This is the Dream Journey implied by the painting's title. It is the potentially rich empty space in the painting-- the hallmark of Southern Song landscapes-- that in effect carries the viewer far beyond the painted images into a pure and natural realm beyond the "dust of the everyday world.
Obviously, it isn't easy to brush off the dust when one is living down on the flatlands-- where the air is foul and stifling-- so one needs props. "Gayu" is the Japanese pronunciation of the characters 臥遊 "dream journey." Like the ability to imagine mountains even when you are down on the plains, for a literati scholar it was paramount to always be able to access this world of cultivated mind and spirit-- even from within the dusty and oftentimes unbearable confines of ordinary life in the city.
The donor paintings functioned like that. They served as part of the person's spiritual practice. Both pictures also function as a kind of time slip.... in the case of the Chinese landscapes connecting the viewer to the pure and spiritually uplifted world of a golden age natural world and in the case of the Renaissance pictures connecting the imperfect participants to the heavenly world of saints and gods. Both are, in effect, a kind of nostalgia. Like for that of a unicorn.
Despite is snobbery and classist politics, I have always been a big fan of Evelyn Waugh. Like the other characters in this post, they are fascinating, clinging to fantasies of the past at the expense of their actual real life realities (Mad Ludwig being my own personal favorite). What is it about them that makes for such great story-telling? And what of the similar charisma of works of the kinds of art with which they were so enthralled (not to mention of quests and relics, phonographs and the tea ceremony of the samurai)? Cantor describes his medievalists as being unable to imaginatively and intellectually withdraw and accept defeat in the face of the decline they saw in the world. They resisted the levelling power of global capitalism and resisted in the only way they knew how--through a culturally-rooted pursuit of art, beauty and truth....Emperor Huizong and Mad King Luwig; the inklings and the Catholic converts...yes, Brideshead Revisted!-- For whatever reason you can name, as characters, these lovers of unicorns remain tremendously enigmatic (as is the art they loved!)
For more: "The Best Picture in the World"
I leave you with Rilke on the Unicorn Tapestries at Cluny:
O this is the beast who does not exist.
They didn’t know that, and in any case
– with its stance, its arched neck and easy grace,
the light of its limpid gaze – they could not resist
but loved it though, indeed, it was not. Yet since
they always gave it room, the pure beast persisted.
And in that loving space, clear and unfenced,
reared its head freely and hardly needed
to exist. They fed it not with grain nor chaff
but fortified and nourished it solely with
the notion that it might yet come to pass,
so that, at length, it grew a single shaft
upon its brow and to a virgin came
and dwelled in her and in her silvered glass.
Steffani Jemison. Personal, 2014.
Part of a video series including Maniac Chase (2008-2009), and Escaped Lunatic (2010-1011). All are currently showing at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum.
Interview with Steffani here.
Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy and the Place of Religious Discourse in Civic Life
by Bill Benzon
There can be little doubt that President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney was an extraordinary performance and a powerful statement about the state of race relations in the United States of America. But it is also a bit puzzling, for that statement took the form of a sermon. As such, it was religious discourse and not secular political discourse.
That’s what I want to talk about, not to reach any specific conclusions, but to raise questions, to call for a conversation about and an examination of the role of religious discourse in civic life.
Rather than develop those questions directly, I want to place Obama’s eulogy on the table to a moment and consider a recent conversation between Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University, and John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia. That will establish the context in which I offer a few remarks about Obama’s performance. Then I want to place in evidence a statement that Robert Mann made about Laudato Si’, the recent and quite remarkable encyclical by Pope Francis.
The ‘Cult’ of Ta-Nehisi Coates
Loury and McWhorter had this conversation at Bloggingheads.tv on July 21, 2015. After opening pleasantries and some remarks about Obama, they move on to discuss the ascendancy of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a commentator on race relations in America. Starting at somewhat after nine minutes in McWhorter argues that Coates has become somewhat like the priest of a religion:
There is now what a Martian anthropologist would call a religion. Which is that one is to understand the role of racism in America’s past and present.
And Coates has reached a point, and this is not anything that I ever predicted, where he is the priest of it. Because, and this is the crucial point, James Baldwin […] his point was often that race IS America, that the race problem is the essence of America and where it needs to go. And people read that and they quoted it but it wasn’t something that ordinary white readers really felt at the time.
Whereas today, really, that is something that whites feel such that Coates is revered. He is not considered somebody where you actually assess whether what he’s saying is true, you’re only supposed to criticize him in the gentlest of terms. He’s a priest of a religion.
Loury finds these remarks interesting, but hasn’t quite thought about things in this way. So he muses:
I have remarked here […] about the rise of Al Sharpton, I think is very interesting. I think a political scientist would probably analyze this is terms of Obama’s ascendency and how the shake-out from that has kinda’ reconfigured the whole public racial discourse and conversation. I think […] that the new era that we’re in there’s kind of an anachronistic character to the racial claim-making based on civil rights and black’s subordinated and discriminated status, and that the ground has shifted so much, you know in that the Latino, the Asian, that the character of discrimination, the exclusion, is completely different than it had been 50 years ago.
And that a lot of the white response which is solicitous of these claims, is more patronizing that it is real political compromise. That is to say, it’s more of exactly what you’re putting your finger on here about religion. It’s more of signaling a moral position, more or displaying a sentiment, than it is of politics and power, you know of coalitions. […]
So, you know, I just didn’t take [Coates’ reparations article] seriously. And yet it became this thing. So reading I decided what I was dealing with, and I don’t think this is unrelated to your religion point, is a kind of cultural expressiveness, OK. Because the language is angry, OK. It takes no prisoners, OK. I mean I actually went back, pardon me, and read James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region of My Mind” piece in the original New Yorker magazine circa 1961, OK. I just went back and read it. […] Baldwin rips the friggin’ page apart with these blistering sentences! […] Ta-Nehisi Coates is no James Baldwin. […]
Though I’ve read a bit of Coates here and there, I’ve not read the reparations article, nor his current book, Between the World and Me. But in find their remarks about him, and about how (progressive white) people are taking his work, to be credible and potentially quite interesting. And I want to underline their emphasis on how people are taking his work and how they are regarding and treating Coates. Of course Loury and McWhorter do not mean that he is literally the priest of a religion much less that he intends his work to be taken as scripture. Their observations rather focus on how a large segment of his audience is according him a certain kind of deference. This audience doesn’t treat it as ordinary political or social commentary.
The religiosity thus hangs there in a liminal zone, a public space somewhere beyond Coates’ intention. It is protected speech, not in the Constitutional sense of the First Amendment, but in the informal sense of an implicit social contract that seems recently to have evolved around race relations in the United States. We now have this “conversation on race” that is mostly just that at this point, a conversation, a public expression of attitudes and beliefs, a point that both Loury and McWhorter make throughout their discussion.
What I’m thinking is that this quasi-religious discourse may be a necessary prelude to effective action. Why necessary? Well, that gets complicated beyond what I’m ready to hazard in this post. But as Loury remarks near the end (about 49 minutes in), there’s a Freudian dimension to racism that stands in the way of public discourse, though artists – such as James Baldwin, or the somewhat later and rather different Ishmael Reed, or the earlier William Faulkner – have explored it in depth and at great length. And that may well be a factor driving the quasi-religious nature of this discourse. Perhaps this quasi-religious expressive discourse allows us to become more comfortable with a certain kind of racial discourse. Once that has been achieved, then we’ll be ready to roll up our sleeves and act.
I leave that as an issue to be explored.
And that liminal zone, I suggest, is where we are to place Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. Like Coates’s writing, Obama’s eulogy is protected speech, not in the constitutional sense, though of course it is also that. It is protected in the sense that it is insulated from both political critique and political action. Coates’ insulation exists in virtue of informal understandings.
Obama’s insulation exists in virtue of the explicit construction of his act as religious ritual. From beginning to end it is a sermon, with the long middle portion devoted more to the black church and the nation than to Pinckney, as would be the case in an ordinary eulogy. Obama is giving a lay sermon, which is not uncommon in many Protestant churches. Or rather I should say, the President of the United States is giving a sermon. For Obama is not present there as a private individual; he is there as head of state.
And so he is speaking as head of state, as the President of the United States. It is the President who, in the middle of this sermon, says:
We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history. But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation's original sin.
By “our nation's original sin”, I assume Obama meant slavery, and of course the phrase “original sin” has deep Biblical resonance. But what kind of a political statement is this, if it is political at all? After all, original sin does not go away. It is a condition of mortal existence, one with which Christians must struggle, but not one they can ever eliminate. There is no way to extirpate or vanquish original sin. Only in the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ will that sin be vanquished.
Surely the President is not calling for the Apocalypse. Slavery of course has been abolished, but racial injustice remains. Of that he says “[…] this is a big, raucous place, America is. And there are good people on both sides of these debates. Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete.” Necessarily incomplete – well, yes, of course. And what of it?
He didn’t offer any suggestions, nor would this have been the time and place to do so. That is, it was not political speech, though it will have resonance in the political arena. It exists in that same quasi-religious arena where we find the quasi-cult of Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is expressive speech.
But it is also a marker placed in the historical record by Barack Hussein Obama in his capacity as President and Chief Executive of the United Stated of America. Perhaps it is neither political discourse nor religious discourse, but something else, something new aching to be born?
Meanwhile, what will he say about race relations in the next State of the Union address? That too is a ritual event. But that ritual is directly political in nature.
Laudato Si’ as a Political Document
A bit over a week before the funeral for Clementa Pinckney the Roman Catholic Church issued an important document: Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of The Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, aka Laudato Si’. It is remarkable in its scope. Writing in The Monthly for July 1, Robert Manne contrasts the Pope’s approach to the environment to Al Gore’s:
Where Al Gore and Pope Francis part company is over the relation of the climate crisis to contemporary industrial civilisation.
For Gore the fundaments of this civilisation are unquestioned. For Pope Francis the climate crisis is only the most extreme expression of a destructive tendency that has become increasingly dominant through the course of industrialisation. Judaeo-Christian thought “demythologised” nature, breaking with an earlier worldview that regarded nature as “divine”. But as the industrial age advanced, by ceasing to regard the Earth, our common home, with the proper “awe and wonder”, humans have come to behave as “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits to our immediate needs.” “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the past two hundred years.” The vision of the encyclical is not straightforwardly anti-modernist, although I have no doubt that it will be mischaracterised in this way. The advances in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications are welcomed. “Who,” Francis exclaims at one point in the encyclical, “can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?” But for him, in the end, the treatment of the Earth as a resource to be mastered and exploited; the limitless appetite for consumption that has accelerated during the past 200 years of the industrial age and has culminated in our “throwaway culture”; and the most extreme consequence of the contemporary crisis of post-industrial society, the climate emergency – are inseparable phenomena, part of a general and profound civilisational malaise. “Doomsday predictions,” the encyclical claims, “can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophe.” […]
In the contemporary world there exist not “two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but … one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” The most important connection between the twin social and environmental crises is expressed in these words. “A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.” The human family is disfigured by radical inequality. This inequality should arouse our “indignation”. It rarely does.
If we are to rethink our relation to nature in the course of dealing with the environment, then, as Manne realizes, that amounts to rethinking our understanding of the world and our position in it. And THAT, Manne, argues, is a political act.
That is to say, the political extends far beyond the civic sphere to encompass everything we can touch. It is the nature of the cosmos itself that is in political play – but then, that’s what American cultural politics, with its focus on evolution, abortion, and gender roles, has been telling us.
It’s all in play. There is nothing that isn’t political. But if politics is all, then is it anything at all?
We’re entering a strange world. At this point I’d be inclined to consult the French philosopher, Bruno Latour, who’s been arguing for thirty years that the distinction the modern world has established between Man and Nature cannot hold. More recently in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence he has argued that each mode of discourse has its own ‘felicity conditions’, its own conditions of truth. That is an insight we need if we are to make sense of these odd discourses we’ve glimpsed: the quasi-cult of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the sermon on race delivered by the President of the United States, and the papal encyclical that asks us to rethink the world from top to bottom.
These discourses do not fit into our received categories and institutions. They challenge us to remake ourselves and thereby to embark on a journey to a new world.
I have written four posts about Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney:
• Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 1: The Circle of Grace: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2015/07/obamas-eulogy-for-clementa-pinckney-1.html
• Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 2: Performing Black, Three Discussions: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2015/07/obamas-eulogy-for-clementa-pinckney-2.html
• Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 3: The Technics of Grace: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2015/07/obamas-eulogy-for-clementa-pinckney-3.html
• Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 4: To Redeem a Nation: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2015/07/obamas-eulogy-for-clementa-pinckney-4.html
On Laudato Si’ I recommend Charles Cameron’s Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si' here at 3QD. I have written extensively about Bruno Latour at New Savanna. I would also recommend my 3QD review of Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects as Morton owes a debt to Latour. On Freudian socio-cultural dynamics, see my various posts on projection and section three of Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues.
Monday, July 20, 2015
"We are at home with situations of legal ambiguity.
And we create flexibility, in situations where it is required."
Consider a few hastily conceived scenarios from the near future. An android charged with performing elder care must deal with an uncooperative patient. A driverless car carrying passengers must decide between suddenly stopping, and causing a pile-up behind it. A robot responding to a collapsed building must choose between two people to save. The question that unifies these scenarios is not just about how to make the correct decision, but more fundamentally, how to treat the entities involved. Is it possible for a machine to be treated as an ethical subject – and, by extension, that an artifical entity may possess "robot rights"?
Of course, "robot rights" is a crude phrase that shoots us straight into a brambly thicket of anthropomorphisms; let's not quite go there yet. Perhaps it's more accurate to ask if a machine – something that people have designed, manufactured and deployed into the world – can have some sort of moral or ethical standing, whether as an agent or as a recipient of some action. What's really at stake here is the contention that a machine can act sufficiently independently in the world that it can be held responsible for its actions and, conversely, if a machine has any sort of standing such that, if it were harmed in any way, this standing would serve to protect its ongoing place and function in society.
You could, of course, dismiss all this as a bunch of nonsense: that machines are made by us exclusively for our use, and anything a robot or computer or AI does or does not do is the responsibility of its human owners. You don't sue the scalpel, rather you sue the surgeon. You don't take a database to court, but the corporation that built it – and in any case you are probably not concerned with the database itself, but with the consequence of how it was used, or maintained, or what have you. As far as the technology goes, if it's behaving badly you shut it off, wipe the drive, or throw it in the garbage, and that's the end of the story.
This is not an unreasonable point of departure, and is rooted in what's known as the instrumentalist view of technology. For an instrumentalist, technology is still only an extension of ourselves and does not possess any autonomy. But how do you control for the sort of complexity for which we are now designing our machines? Our instrumentalist proclivities whisper to us that there must be an elegant way of doing so. So let's begin with a first attempt to do so: Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Some time later, Asimov added a fourth, which was intended to precede all the others, so it's really the ‘Zeroth' Law:
0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
The Laws, which made their first appearance in a 1942 story that is, fittingly enough, set in 2015, are what is known as a deontology: an ethical system expressed as an axiomatic system. Basically, deontology provides the ethical ground for all further belief and action: the Ten Commandments are a classic example. But the difficulties with deontology become apparent when one examines the assumptions inherent in each axiom. For example, the First Commandment states, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me". Clearly, Yahweh is not saying that there are no other gods, but rather that any other gods must take a back seat to him, at least as far as the Israelites are concerned. The corollary is that non-Israelites can have whatever gods they like. Nevertheless, most adherents to Judeo-Christian theology would be loathe to admit the possibilities of polytheism. It takes a lot of effort to keep all those other gods at bay, especially if you're not an Israelite – it's much easier if there is only one. But you can't make that claim without fundamentally reinterpreting that crucial first axiom.
Asimov's axioms can be similarly poked and prodded. Most obviously, we have the presumption of perfect knowledge. How would a robot (or AI or whatever) know if an action was harmful or not? A human might scheme to split actions that are by themselves harmless across several artificial entities, which are subsequently combined to produce harmful consequences. Sometimes knowledge is impossible for both humans and robots: if we look at the case of a stock-trading AI, there is uncertainty whether a stock trade is harmful to another human being or not. If the AI makes a profitable trade, does the other side lose money, and if so, does this constitute harm? How can the machine know if the entity on the other side is in fact losing money? Would it matter if that other entity were another machine and not a human? But don't machines ultimately represent humans in any case?
Better yet, consider a real life example:
A commercial toy robot called Nao was programmed to remind people to take medicine.
"On the face of it, this sounds simple," says Susan Leigh Anderson, a philosopher at the University of Connecticut in Stamford who did the work with her husband, computer scientist Michael Anderson of the University of Hartford in Connecticut. "But even in this kind of limited task, there are nontrivial ethics questions involved." For example, how should Nao proceed if a patient refuses her medication? Allowing her to skip a dose could cause harm. But insisting that she take it would impinge on her autonomy.
In this case, the Hippocratic ‘do no harm' has to be balanced against a more utilitarian ‘do some good'. Assuming it could, does the robot force the patient to take the medicine? Wouldn't that constitute potential harm (ie, the possibility that the robot hurts the patient in the act)? Would that harm be greater than not taking the medicine, just this once? What about tomorrow? If we are designing machines to interact with us in such profound and nuanced ways, those machines are already ethical subjects. Our recognition of them as such is already playing catch-up with the facts on the ground.
As implied with the stock trading example, another deontological shortcoming is in the definitions themselves: what's a robot, and what's a human? As robots become more human-like, and humans become more engineered, the line will become blurry. And in many cases, a robot will have to make a snap judgment. What's binary for "quo vadis", and what do you do with a lying human? Because humans lie for the strangest reasons.
Finally, the kind of world that Asimov's laws presupposes is one where robots run around among humans. It's a very specific sort of embodiment. In fact, it is a sort of Slavery 2.0, where robots clearly function for the benefit and in the service of humanity. The Laws are meant to facilitate a very material cohabitation, whereas the kind of broadly distributed, virtually placeless machine intelligence that we are currently developing by leveraging the Internet is much more slippery, and resembles the AI of Spike Jonze's ‘Her'. How do you tell things apart in such a dematerialized world?
The final nail in Asimov's deontological coffin is the assumption of ‘hard-wiring'. That is, Asimov claims that the Laws would be a non-negotiable part of the basic architecture of all robots. But it is wiser to prepare for the exact opposite: the idea that any machine of sufficient intelligence will be able to reprogram itself. The reasons why are pretty irrelevant – it doesn't have to be some variant of SkyNet suddenly deciding to destroy humanity. It may just sit there and not do anything. It may disappear, as the AIs did in ‘Her'. Or, as in William Gibson's Neuromancer, it may just want to become more of itself, and decide what to do with that later on. Gibson never really tells us why the two AIs – that function as the true protagonists of the novel – even wanted to do what they did.
This last thought indicates a fundamental marker in the machine ethics debate. A real difference is developing itself here, and that is the notion of inscrutability. In order for the stance of instrumentality to hold up, you need a fairly straight line of causality. I saw this guy on the beach, I pulled the trigger, and now the guy is dead. It may be perplexing, I may not be sure why I pulled the trigger at that moment, but the chain of events is clear, and there is a system in place to handle it, however problematic. On the other hand, how or why a machine comes to a conclusion or engages in a course of action may be beyond our scope to determine. I know this sounds a bit odd, since after all we built the things. But a record of a machine's internal decisionmaking would have to be a deliberate part of its architecture, and this is expensive and perhaps not commensurate with the agenda of its designers: for example, Diebold made both ATMs and voting machines. Only the former provided receipts, making it fairly easy to theoretically steal an election.
If Congress is willing to condone digitally supervised elections without paper trails, imagine how far away we are from the possibility of regulating the Wild West of machine intelligence. And in fact AIs are being designed to produce results without any regard for how they get to a particular conclusion. One such deliberately opaque AI is Rita, mentioned in a previous essay. Rita's remit is to deliver state-of-the-art video compression technology, but how it arrives at its conclusions is immaterial to the fact that it manages to get there. In the comments to that piece, a friend added that "it is a regular occurrence here at Google where we try to figure out what our machine learning systems are doing and why. We provide them input and study the outputs, but the internals are now an inscrutable black box. Hard to tell if that's a sign of the future or an intermediate point along the way."
Nevertheless, we can try to hold on to the instrumentalist posture and maintain that a machine's black box nature still does not merit the treatment accorded to an ethical subject; that it is still the results or consequences that count, and that the owners of the machine retain ultimate responsibility for it, whether or not they understand it. Well, who are the owners, then?
Of course, ethics truly manifests itself in society via the law. And the law is a generally reactive entity. In the Anglo-American case law tradition, laws, codes and statutes are passed or modified (and less often, repealed) only after bad things happen, and usually only in response to those specific bad things. More importantly for the present discussion, recent history shows that the law (or to be more precise, the people who draft, pass and enforce it) has not been nearly as eager to punish the actions of collectives and institutions as it has been to pursue individuals. Exhibit A in this regard is the number of banks found guilty of vast criminality following the 2008 financial crisis and, by corollary, the number bankers thrown in jail for same. Part of the reason for this is the way that the law already treats non-human entities. I am reminded of Mitt Romney on the Presidential campaign trail a few years ago, benignly musing that "corporations are people, my friend".
Corporate personhood is a complex topic but at its most essential it is a great way to offload risk. Sometimes this makes sense – entrepreneurs can try new ideas and go bankrupt but not lose their homes and possessions. Other times, as with the Citizens United decision, the results can be grotesque and impactful in equal measure. But we ought to look to the legal history of corporate personhood as a possible test case for how machines may become ethical subjects in the eyes of the law. Not only that, but corporations will likely be the owners of these ethical subjects – from a legal point of view, they will look to craft the legal representation of machines as much to their advantage as possible. To not be too cynical about it, I would imagine this would involve minimal liability and maximum profit. This is something I have not yet seen discussed in machine ethics circles, where the concern seems to be more about the instantiation of ethics within the machines themselves, or in highly localized human-machine interactions. Nevertheless, the transformation of the ethical machine-subject into the legislated machine-subject – put differently, the machines as subjects of a legislative gaze – will be of incredibly far-reaching consequence. It will all be in the fine print, and I daresay deliberately difficult to parse. When that day comes, I will be sure to hire an AI to help me make sense of it all.
Perceptions: New Horizons
Karen Kraven. Io, Callisto, Ganymede, Europa, Thebe.
How Viruses Feign Death to Survive and Thrive
by Jalees Rehman
Billions of cells die each day in the human body in a process called "apoptosis" or "programmed cell death". When cells encounter stress such as inflammation, toxins or pollutants, they initiate an internal repair program which gets rid of the damaged proteins and DNA molecules. But if the damage exceeds their capacity for repair then cells are forced to activate the apoptosis program. Apoptotic cells do not suddenly die and vanish, instead they execute a well-coordinated series of molecular and cellular signals which result in a gradual disintegration of the cell over a period of several hours.
What happens to the cellular debris that is generated when a cell dies via apoptosis? It consists of fragmented cellular compartments, proteins, fat molecules that are released from the cellular corpse. This "trash" could cause even more damage to neighboring cells because it exposes them to molecules that normally reside inside a cell and could trigger harmful reactions on the outside. Other cells therefore have to clean up the mess as soon as possible. Macrophages are cells which act as professional garbage collectors and patrol our tissues, on the look-out for dead cells and cellular debris. The remains of the apoptotic cell act as an "Eat me!" signal to which macrophages respond by engulfing and gobbling up the debris ("phagocytosis") before it can cause any further harm. Macrophages aren't always around to clean up the debris which is why other cells such as fibroblasts or epithelial cells can act as non-professional phagocytes and also ingest the dead cell's remains. Nobody likes to be surrounded by trash.
Clearance of apoptotic cells and their remains is thus crucial to maintain the health and function of a tissue. Conversely, if phagocytosis is inhibited or prevented, then the lingering debris can activate inflammatory signals and cause disease. Multiple autoimmune diseases, lung diseases and even neurologic diseases such as Alzheimer's disease are associated with reduced clearance. The cause and effect relationship is not always clear because these diseases can promote cell death. Are the diseases just killing so many cells that the phagocytosis capacity is overwhelmed, does the debris actually promote the diseased state, or is it a bit of both, resulting in a vicious cycle of apoptotic debris resulting in more cell death and more trash buildup? Researchers are currently investigating whether specifically tweaking phagocytosis could be used as a novel way to treat diseases with impaired clearance of debris.
During the past decade, multiple groups of researchers have come across a fascinating phenomenon by which viruses hijack the phagocytosis process in order to thrive. One of the "Eat Me!" signals for phagocytes is that debris derived from an apoptotic cell is coated by a membrane enriched with phosphatidylserines which are negatively charged molecules. Phosphatidylserines are present in all cells but they are usually tucked away on the inside of cells and are not seen by other cells. When a cell undergoes apoptosis, phosphatidylserines are flipped inside out. When particles or cell fragments present high levels of phosphatidylserines on their outer membranes then a phagocyte knows that it is encountering the remains of a formerly functioning cell that needs to be cleared by phagocytosis.
However, it turns out that not all membranes rich in phosphatidylserines are remains of apoptotic cells. Recent research studies suggest that certain viruses invade cells, replicate within the cell and when they exit their diseased host cell, they cloak themselves in membranes rich in phosphatidylserines. How the viruses precisely appropriate the phosphatidylserines of a cell that is not yet apoptotic and then adorn their viral membranes with the cell's "Eat Me!" signal is not yet fully understood and a very exciting area of research at the interface of virology, immunology and the biology of cell death.
What happens when the newly synthesized viral particles leave the infected cell? Because these viral particles are coated in phosphatidylserine, professional phagocytes such as macrophages or non-professional phagocytes such as fibroblasts or epithelial cells will assume they are encountering phosphatidylserine-rich dead cell debris and ingest it in their roles as diligent garbage collectors. This ingestion of the viral particles has at least two great benefits for the virus: First and foremost, it allows the virus entry into a new host cell which it can then convert into another virus-producing factory. Entering cells usually requires specific receptors by which viruses gain access to selected cell types. This is why many viruses can only infect certain cell types because not all cells have the receptors that allow for viral entry. However, when viruses hijack the apoptotic debris phagocytosis mechanism then the phagocytic cell is "inviting" the viral particle inside, assuming that it is just dead debris. But there is perhaps an even more insidious advantage for the virus. During clearance of apoptotic cells, certain immune pathways are suppressed by the phagocytes in order to pre-emptively dampen excessive inflammation that might be caused by the debris. It is therefore possible that by pretending to be fragments of dead cells, viruses coated with phosphatidylserines may also suppress the immune response of the infected host, thus evading detection and destruction by the immune systems.
Viruses for which this process of apoptotic mimicry has been described include the deadly Ebola virus or the Dengue virus, each using its own mechanism to create its fake mask of death. The Ebola virus buds directly from the fat-rich outer membrane of the infected host cell in the form of elongated, thread-like particles coated with the cell's phosphatidylserines. The Dengue virus, on the other hand, is synthesized and packaged inside the cell and appears to purloin the cell's phosphatidylserines during its synthesis long before it even reaches the cell's outer membrane. As of now, it appears that viruses from at least nine distinct families of viruses use the apoptotic mimicry strategy but the research on apoptotic mimicry is still fairly new and it is likely that scientists will discover many more viruses which rely on this and similar evolutionary strategies to evade the infected host's immune response and spread throughout the body.
Uncovering the phenomenon of apoptotic mimicry gives new hope in the battle against viruses for which we have few targeted treatments. In order to develop feasible therapies, it is important to precisely understand the molecular mechanisms by which the hijacking occurs. One cannot block all apoptotic clearance in the body because that would have disastrous consequences due to the buildup of legitimate apoptotic debris that needs to be cleared. However, once scientists understand how viruses concentrate phosphatidylserines or other "Eat Me!" signals in their membranes, it may be possible to specifically uncloak these renegade viruses without compromising the much needed clearance of conventional cell debris.
Elliott, M. R. and Ravichandran, K.S. "Clearance of apoptotic cells: implications in health and disease" The Journal of Cell Biology 189.7 (2010): 1059-1070.
Amara, A and Mercer, J. "Viral apoptotic mimicry." Nature Reviews Microbiology (2015).
Monday, July 13, 2015
On the Politics of Identity
By Namit Arora
The highs and lows of identity politics, and why despising it is no smarter than despising politics itself.
Our identity is a story we tell ourselves everyday. It’s a selective story about who we are, what we share with others, why we’re different. Each of us, as social beings in a time and place, evolves a personal and social identity that shapes our sense of self, loyalties, and obligations. Our identity includes aspects that are freely chosen, accidental, or thrust upon us by others.
Take an example. A woman may simultaneously identify as Indian, middle-class, feminist, doctor, Dalit, Telugu, lesbian, liberal, badminton player, music lover, traveler, humanist, and Muslim. Her self-identifications may also include being short-tempered, celibate, dark-skinned, ethical vegetarian, and diabetic. No doubt some of these will be more significant to her but all of them (and more) make her who she is. Like all of our identities, hers too is fluid, relational, and contextual. So while she never saw herself as a ‘Brown’ or ‘person of color’ in India, she had to reckon with that identity in America.
Identity politics, on the other hand, is politics that an individual—an identitarian—wages on behalf of a group that shares an aspect of one’s identity, say, gender, sexual orientation, race, caste, class, disability, ethnicity, religion, or national origin. Any group—majority/minority, strong/weak, light/dark—can pursue identity politics. It can be a dominant group led by cultural insecurities and chauvinism, or a marginalized group led by a shared experience of bigotry and injustice (the focus of this essay). German Nazism and the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. both exemplify identity politics based on the racial identity of their constituent groups. Both Hindutvadis and Dalit activists are identitarians of religion and caste, respectively. As Eric Hobsbawm also noted in his essay Identity Politics and the Left, labor unions, too, have long pursued identity politics based on social class and the identity of being an industrial worker.
Life, and identity politics, can amplify certain aspects of our identity while suppressing others. During the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Tamil Tigers elevated Tamil national identity over that of caste. Gender identity turns secondary in some contexts: Indian women often close ranks with Indian men when White Westerners lecture them on sexual violence in India. Likewise, Dalit women often close ranks with Dalit men when upper-caste women expound on gender issues among them. Especially after 9/11, many European residents with complex ethno-linguistic roots faced a world hell-bent on seeing them as, above all, ‘Muslims’.
The Value of Identity Politics
Like all politics, identity politics too is double-edged. It can be regressive or progressive, depending on its aims and methods. All groups, whether dominant or marginalized, practice identity politics, but the term is now largely associated with the marginalized (more on this sleight of hand later but this essay too, for the sake of readability, uses the unqualified term to refer to the latter).
That identity politics emphasizes one aspect of a person’s identity above all others—and explains her life in terms of that identity—is a source of both strength and weakness. Especially for those marginalized by a single aspect of identity (say, race, caste or gender), identity politics can empower both the self and her group. It can challenge deeply ingrained habits of mind and weaken structural hegemonies. Its focused advocacy can help transform popular opinion and bring about legislative reform, as with the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage in the US. It can enrich democratic debate and awaken us all to the value of diversity in public life. Identitarians have produced compelling new readings of our past and our literature and culture. They have given us new moral visions and greater self-knowledge.
For example, during the U.S. Civil Rights era, the assertion of Black identity and pride helped a historically oppressed people organize to reclaim self-respect, raise their own and the public’s consciousness, advance their rights, and combat various social barriers and exclusions. In doing so, many Black identitarians, notably MLK Jr., also civilized White Americans, emancipating them from their own prison of inhumanity—a point rarely acknowledged. Much the same is true in India with many caste identitarians, notably BR Ambedkar. What still strikes us about them is the force, the depth, and the moral clarity of their politics of identity. It was the politics of gender, raised by feminists, that brought about so many gains for women. In the former colonies of the West, the rise of nationalism—and a national identity—mobilized diverse groups behind the cause of ending colonization, though this same once-empowering politics of identity sadly later turned into a toxic majoritarianism in so many countries.
Indeed, if men or Whites or Brahmins or heterosexuals have long used whatever power and knowledge was tied to their identity in order to define, judge, and subjugate others (is this not identity politics?), can the latter fight back without politicizing those definitions, judgments, and subjugations? As long as socially constructed race remains a vector of discrimination, wouldn’t it also remain a source of social identity, around which people organize to reclaim their dignity and rights? If racism didn’t exist, would we still have our modern idea of race—or the identitarians’ preoccupation with it?
Traditional leftists complain about the rise of identity politics of the emancipatory kind, but among the things that explain this rise is the Left itself. Marxism, like the monotheistic faith of its cultural ancestors, aspires to a universalism representing everyone. But theory is one thing, reality another. In reality, the leftists, being humans, did not care about every group equally. Consider the Left in America and India. The American Left was led by White men, who didn’t seem too ruffled by racism and conveniently remained blind to their own privilege. The Indian Left was similarly blind to the dynamics of caste; was it a coincidence that its leadership was entirely upper caste? Marxist-socialists in both countries, for all their radicalism, didn’t even pursue voluntary affirmative action to include marginalized groups in their leadership ranks. Indeed, it seems the ‘universal’ Left drove various groups, whom they either marginalized or didn’t help, to organize for themselves (it was a key factor in the unraveling of the USSR). When traditional leftists chide identity politics, they reveal their poor grasp of the human material—especially of the fact that humans are not rational beings, that even card-carrying comrades can’t easily transcend many aspects of their social identity and ties of blood, kinship, and culture. Even the big stars of the Left, including Hobsbawm, failed to see this reality and maintained a stodgy opposition to identity politics in the name of an idealized, universal politics of the Left.
In other words, identity politics of the emancipatory kind is an expression of a human need for justice, a need largely unaddressed, and perhaps unaddressable, by traditional Marxist-socialists. The Left in India and the U.S. will likely remain small, unless it learns and becomes more inclusive in its leadership and concerns, realizing that class conflict isn’t the only vector of injustice, that declining wages aren’t necessarily more worrisome than rising racial discrimination or religious persecution. The origins of identity politics lie in oppressive social structures and disparities that may overlap with but aren’t subsumed under class conflict. Above all, identity politics enables a persecuted people to champion their own cause, which no one else will do. Rather than disdain particularist struggles as a burden, the Marxist-socialist Left would do well to recognize in them our collective emancipation. As citizens, we ought to embrace identity politics when it’s both progressive and pragmatic. Rejecting everything about identity politics makes no more sense than rejecting everything about politics.
Even the charge of essentialism, often invoked by lazy critics to malign identity politics, is vastly overblown and a straw man. Essentialism is the idea that there is an innate and immutable essence behind one’s primary social identity. But how many identitarians actually believe this? Why is this folly, ancillary to the dominators’ worldview, even seen as central to identity politics? Why not the entirely defensible (and more common) belief that invoking an identity forged by contingent social experience can have much explanatory power and emancipatory potential in its time and place?
Do many feminists accept gender essentialism as explanation for why fewer women than men pursue science? Do Black activists see themselves as biologically superior to Whites? Caste is entirely a social construct, Ambedkar held, yet he cited its reality to persuasively explain a host of social phenomenon, including people’s outcomes in life. Rejecting the charge of essentialism, bell hooks called us to recognize that ‘black identity has been specifically constituted in the experience of exile and struggle.’ At times we simply see what Gayatri Spivak has called ‘strategic essentialism’, where identitarians ‘act as if an identity were uniform only to achieve interim political goals, without implying any deeper authenticity.’
Moreover, unlike the identity politics of dominant groups, the emancipatory kind arguably dissipates with rising parity. As the marginalized groups emerge into the mainstream as significant equals with other groups, the appeal of identity politics to their younger generations also changes. Of course, as with all public politics, real-world identity politics is not without its problems, but I think these problems are not so much of essentialism. To recognize its excesses, we ought to at least hear some of the better criticisms of it.
The Excesses of Identity Politics
It’s much easier for social liberals like me to criticize the partisan identity politics of dominant groups (Sinhalese, Hindutvadi, KKK, Zionist) than of marginalized groups with emancipatory goals (feminist, Black, Dalit, Palestinian). This is partly because the former are widely seen as natural targets in my circle, but perhaps also due to liberal guilt, which has its positive side even as it can, at times, cloud reason, clarity, and good judgment. But no public politics, however well-meaning, ought to be beyond criticism, so why should the emancipatory kind of identity politics get a free pass? Most liberals will agree that even such identity politics can sometimes lose its marbles and begin to eat its own tail, though they may disagree on when and how often this happens.
Many critics argue that focusing on only one aspect of identity ignores too many key differences and similarities among people. ‘To see a person primarily as a "white male" or a "black female"’, one critic writes, ‘is to diminish both their humanity and their individuality.’ Identitarians, with their own narrow lens of social analysis, also oversimplify the categories of oppressor and oppressed, privileged and unprivileged, and avoid nuances and shades of grey. Ethnic identitarians forget what they have in common with their neighbors; gender identitarians ignore class and caste divisions among women; class identitarians fail to see race and caste divides among workers; caste identitarians overlook the oppressive hierarchy within Dalit Bahujans. And so even the revisionist histories written by identitarians are no less distorted than the mainstream one, since they exaggerate the impact of a single aspect of social life, whether economics, gender, caste, race, or religion.
Indeed, critics claim that despite their advocacy and concern for social justice, identitarians too remain impervious to many kinds of pain and progress around them. What they see is largely along the lines of the identity and ideology they subscribe to. There’s often hypocrisy in their reluctance to look within for discriminatory habits of mind similar to those of their rivals. Male identitarians of race and caste, for instance, have a poor record of addressing patriarchy in their midst. Indeed, their equanimity towards injustices in other domains—of class, gender, sexuality, environment, animal welfare, and more—usually fails to distinguish them from their rivals.
Furthermore, identitarians usually aspire for parity between groups, not an egalitarian society, as Adolph Reed Jr., professor of political science, has argued. They seek proportional representation for their group in existing power structures (say, via positive discrimination, or voting based on identity). This may be necessary in order to make social institutions more representative and responsive to all groups, but it often also means not agitating for a more egalitarian society for all. So in a highly unequal society where, say, 5 percent control 90 percent of the resources, having the right proportion of Blacks, Latinos, or women in the 5 percent becomes the primary goal and yardstick of fairness for many identitarians (usually those who’re new to, or aspiring to, this 5 percent). This, Reed suggests, comes at the expense of joining hands with others to reform the system itself, one that’s now producing inequality on an ever-larger scale. An obvious response to Reed—a leftist to whom ‘class’ seems to be the one transcendent category—is that these two approaches aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, though his point is still worthy of reflection since they each are often pursued in ways that impede progress for the other.
Critics also lament identitarian solidarity based solely on group membership, especially when solidarity trumps even evidence of public corruption or ethical and legal wrongdoing by that group’s privileged members. Take the case of Devyani Khobragade, a Dalit and Deputy Consul General of India in the NY consulate. Her arrest and strip-search for visa fraud and violation of US labor laws in Manhattan in early 2014 caused a major diplomatic row. Curiously, identitarians of both caste and nation rallied behind her in India—and not behind the Indian maid she had allegedly abused. Meanwhile the same caste identitarians often inflate the ‘sins’ of even sympathetic allies in the rival group. Many jumped on an ill-worded, out-of-context remark by Ashis Nandy at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2013, which I attended. In a lapse of judiciousness, they demanded his arrest under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, never pausing to think that objectionable speech is best tackled by more speech, not a ban or jail. The right to free expression is not just good for the elites. It’s at the heart of what makes a liberal democratic order. This right, with as few exceptions as possible, needs defending even by identitarians, for it’s also a precondition for their own social justice activism.
Then there is what Tim Lott recently called ‘assumption creep’, wherein identitarians assume ‘that if you believe one thing you probably believe another thing, which you are hiding’. So an upper-caste man who values yoga or Advaita may be seen as endorsing all of Hinduism, including caste. Ethical objections to the non-essential raising of animals for meat may be seen as a covert defense of Brahminism. Finding anything admirable in Gandhi is to suspect one’s commitment to social justice for Dalits. To say that caste and race prejudices have declined in recent decades may be taken to mean that all is well and no more work is needed. To praise any aspect of Narendra Modi’s regime may be seen as being soft on Hindutava. To wonder aloud if biology (the capacity and experience of childbirth, for instance) makes men and women somewhat different might signal to some that one also discounts the flexibility of gender roles.
Additionally, many identitarians tend to extrapolate an objectionable part to the whole: the fact of caste damns the entire diversity of beliefs and practices in Hinduism; Nandy’s clumsy remark in Jaipur means a rejection of his entire scholarship by people who haven’t read him; all of Heidegger is verboten due to his early intellectual flirtation with the Nazis; some even see corporations and globalization as almost entirely evil. Of course various degrees of this tendency exist not just among identitarians, but these are examples of how it can cause identity politics to go haywire.
Some identitarians also deploy strong labels too readily. Their knee-jerk reaction to a disagreeable article or book is to declare it racist, sexist, casteist, fascist, or imperialist—often without reading it and while discarding the entire progressive record of its author or publisher. This may produce smug satisfaction but it quickly gets tiresome and loses its rhetorical power. Many pursue the least charitable reading of their rivals and their condemnation is often permanent and collective (made easier by social media). Sanctimony rules as they habitually indulge in online tirades, argumentative jousting, and competitive displays of armchair radicalism. In time, the lofty goal of hating bad ideas, not their espousers, gets diluted or lost. Outsider opinions and scholarship—unless they bow to in-group codes, symbols, and orthodoxies—are dismissed on identity grounds. Relatively small intellectual differences lead to harsh labels and a severing of ties. Somewhere a critic wonders: Can this be anyone’s road to emancipation?
Such closed political orthodoxy breeds anxiety, self-censorship, and political correctness among their rivals, while fostering groupthink, bitterness, and separatism among identitarians. Cross-identity conversations trail off. It gets harder to respectfully agree to disagree, since the interlocuters one disagrees with aren’t also seen as complex individuals but largely as embodiments of narrow identities with black and white moralities. For a critique to reach identitarians in this milieu, it often has to be authored by brave insiders—brave because it can cost them the comfort and solidarity of their group. Such insiders often succeed in unsettling dogmas, building alliances across identities, and helping advance social justice for real people. One critic, Douglas Williams, writes:
‘Look, I am Black. Also, sometimes, I can be wrong. Those two things are not mutually exclusive, and yet we have gotten to a point where any critique of tactics used by oppressed communities can result in being deemed "sexist/racist/insert oppression here-ist" and cast out of the Social Justice Magic Circle. And listen, maybe that is cool with some folks. Maybe the revolution that so many of these types speak about will simply consist of everyone spontaneously coming to consciousness and there will be no need for coalitions, give-and-take, or contact with people who do not know every word or phrase that these groups use as some sort of litmus test for the unwashed.’
Critics allege that identitarians’ hostile, scorched earth dismissal of their rivals, frequently laced with sarcasm, also creates a hypersensitive public space that inhibits discussion and debate—as well as learning and mutual understanding. Vitriolic responses even to interlocutors who speak more from ignorance than malice, or who make genuine errors in judgement, are sometimes matched only by a parallel inability to accept even modest criticism of their own gods and heroes, the quickness of their claim to hurt sentiments, and an immoderate fear of appropriation of their movement by dominant elites. All this may be understandable in light of history and human nature, but is it laudable or helpful?
In response though, identitarians might argue that their rivals have long been hostile to them and caused enormous damage already. Why should they play by their oppressors’ debating rules and decorum, or stoically educate them to notice the systemic exclusions they face at every step? The time for niceties and reconciliation is past. Nothing short of hostile sarcasm and loud agitation will expose the blindness and hypocrisy of dominant elites and force open new spaces for their marginalized group. Cross-identity conversations won’t get any easier until the dominant side not only recognizes their equal humanity but also uses its inherited privileges to undo the very systems that grant such privileges. That members of the dominant group (and a few Uncle Toms)—whose dominance was built and is sustained no less through identity politics—see problems with these tactics is predictably partisan. They feel threatened, so they pick on parts of identity politics and complain as if the whole of it were worse than what it tries to combat. Identitarians no doubt see their own tactics as raising consciousness and courage among their own—a prerequisite for their personal growth and emancipation. As Martin Duberman, historian and gay rights activist, has explained,
‘Yet we hold on to a group identity, despite its insufficiencies, because for most non-mainstream people it’s the closest we have ever gotten to having a political home—and voice. Yes, identity politics reduces and simplifies. Yes, it is a kind of prison. But it is also, paradoxically, a haven. It is at once confining and empowering. And in the absence of alternative havens, group identity will for many of us continue to be the appropriate site of resistance and the main source of comfort.’
Navigating Identity Politics
Some critiques of identity politics above are more warranted than others, but no call for its dissolution is warranted. Rather, one hopes that, given the stakes, it’d become more effective. It’s worth noting here that I, too, inhabit a politics of identity that waxes and wanes based on context, such as to whom, about what, and where I’m speaking. Indeed, is it even possible for anyone to not partake in identity politics at all? Those inclined to say ‘yes’ likely practice the invisibilized or unmarked form of identity politics common among those of privilege and power. It’s the identity counterpart of that old Band-Aid commercial that promoted itself as ‘flesh-colored, almost invisible’.
Some members of dominant groups tend to quote people from marginalized groups as support for their own arguments. This in itself isn’t brave or noble, nor does it make their arguments more solid. That depends on the arguments themselves. The truth is that there is a great range of views—some more progressive and pragmatic than others—among women on women’s rights, among Muslims on political Islam, among Dalits on tackling caste, and among people of color on race in America (contrast WEB Du Bois with Booker T Washington). Every identitarian—every one of us—lives life with imperfect knowledge and subjective experience; no two are identically sensitized towards the many vectors of injustice in social life. Within every identitarian group, individuals will differ on who, and to what degree, they see as the ‘enemy’ and which alliances make sense.
How then to navigate the turbulent waters of identity politics? One way to counter its excesses is first to listen carefully and humbly and try to see the world from the vantage point of others. Seeing the lives of others more clearly requires working on our own blind spots, irrational fears, and prejudices, many of which are byproducts of group privileges, normative identities, and mental colonization. We must also reflect critically on our own boundaries of political correctness. Poseurs and self-promoters surround us in every camp, each moved by his/her inner demons and drives. Who among any group, marginalized or not, deserves to speak for the whole is always an open question, to be best settled by each of us, not automatically by claims of identity. As the Buddha advised, we ought to rely on our own reason and compassion, while remembering that our views are often provisional, and social truths are subjective and contingent. We’d also do well to realize that dismissing identity politics wholesale is part of the problem, not the solution.
More writing by Namit Arora?
"... Core’s photographs replicate as closely as possible those of 17th-century artists (Ambrosius Bosschaert, Jan Brueghel the Elder), and, striving for authenticity, she grew long-lost or out-of-fashion specimens. She then composed and correctly lit them to appear like paintings and titled them the date of the earlier works ..."
Monday, July 06, 2015
Sughra Raza. Catwalk Theater, Johannesburg, August 2014.
Monday, June 29, 2015
"the best picture in the world"
I recently found myself marooned with a large group of astronomers in a remote 11th century abbey in Tuscan countryside. Despite the picturesque beauty of the landscape not to mention the abbey's splendid library; still the days (I must admit) stretched on and on…
I guess it's true that google is making me stupid, but I discovered that it is a lot harder for me than it used to be to read for hours on end. And without any wireless nor any real means of getting myself back to civilization, I decided to hatch a means of escape. It wasn't all that hard actually, it was just a matter of reminding him (the astronomer with the driver's licence) that located not all that faraway from the abbey was what has been called "the best picture in the world."
Has anyone else read that wonderful essay by Aldous Huxley called "The Best Picture?"
It is a brilliant essay --and the title says it all. But, wait, you ask, how can there be such a thing as "the best picture" in the world? Isn't it an absolutely ludicrous suggestion to make?
Of course it is, and this is not lost on Huxley--for as you can see in the essay, he addresses this absurdity immediately:
The greatest picture in the world…. You smile. The expression is ludicrous, of course. Nothing is more futile than the occupation of those connoisseurs who spend their time compiling first and second elevens of the world's best painters,eights and fours of musicians, fifteens of poets, all-star troupes of architects and so on. Nothing is so futile because there are a great many kinds of merit and an infinite variety of human beings. Is Fra Angelico a better artist than Rubens? Such questions, you insist, are meaningless. It is all a matter of personal taste.And up to a point this is true. But there does exist, none the less, an absolute standard of artistic merit. And it is a standard which is in the last resort a moral one. Whether a work of art is good or bad depends entirely on the quality of the character which expresses itself in the work. Not that all virtuous men are good artists, nor all artists conventionally virtuous. Longfellow was a bad poet, while Beethoven's dealings with his publishers were frankly dishonourable.But one can be dishonourable towards one's publishers and yet preserve the kind of virtue that is necessary to a good artist. That virtue is the virtue of integrity, of honesty towards oneself.I like this last sentence very much. First of all, I also enjoy compiling lists… from the best essays to my favorite restaurants, I find such lists (and declarations of things that are "the best") to be somehow really interesting. And Like Huxley, not only does Piero top my list of best painters, but in a similar vein, I also perhaps delude myself into thinking that my lists are not merely subjective pronouncements but rather are based on some mind of shared standards of taste and virtue. Touching on two notions dear to my own heart, I think Huxley rightly bases his judgement on the idea that there are Platonic ideals at work in art appreciation and that exposure to art works that express closely such ideals have an uplifting and transformative effect on people. When I studied tea ceremony, for example, the notion that the appreciation and handling of beautiful objects had a morally uplifting element was fundamental-- that is, the beautiful was conflated with the good during the lessons. I therefore agree with Huxley that part of the reason that a particular work of art can be said to be morally, spiritually or intellectually uplifting is related to a kind of fidelity to integrity (to a shared ideal).
Anyway, the famous Piero della Francesca trail started just down the road from the foot of the hill where our abbey was located, in the wonderful town of Arezzo about an hour away. It was there that the young Piero was called upon in 1457 to finish decorating the apse of the Basilica of San Francesco, stepping in to complete the frescoes after the original painter commissioned to decorate the space in the basilica died.
Arriving at the church first thing in the morning as soon as things opened to tourists, we were allowed an hour and a half in the apse with the frescoes. (At busy times, tourists must content themselves with a 25 minute limit). Piero's pictures mainly remain where they were painted and this is what is often cited for why his name was lost to obscurity until comparatively modern times. For unlike Titian or Rembrandt, one has to travel to see his work. In John Pope-Hennessey's wonderful essay, called the Piero della Francesca Trail, he suggested that if Piero's work had been dispersed in the way Botticelli's had, it would be Piero who would have left the greater mark on history--being the better painter after all.
Once discovered from obscurity, however, his pictures would go on to inspire many modern painters--from Cezanne to Seurat (story of that interesting history here). Surprisingly modern, there is something indescribable about seeing his work in situ. We couldn't immediately find the church though. Resembling nothing more than a huge barn, an elderly lady sitting on a bench caught my eye and motioned for us to turn around, pointing at the church.
Walking in, we both were completely overwhelmed. I had never heard of the Legend of the True Cross before--and was surprised to learn it was a favorite of the Franciscans. A medieval story, it tells the tale of the Cross--from its beginnings as the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden (!!); the wood was then transformed (after being buried with Adam) in the building of the temple of Solomon. (Not surprisingly, it was the Queen of Sheba, who divined its future use and thereby warned Solomon that the future savior of the world would be killed using this very piece of wood). This, foretelling the end of the Jewish kingdom, Solomon hid the wood in a swamp. From Sheba to Saint Helena and the battle between Heraclius and Khosrau, the tale of the true cross is an absolutely mind-boggling story that Piero somehow turned into an intellectually stimulating tour de force that had my astonomer and I utterly speechless.
Indeed, we were totally hooked on his work by the first stop on the Piero Pilgrimage. (It was here, incidentally, where I accidentally flushed my camera down the toilet thereby proving that real journeys are seldom as easy as one hopes). Sigh~~
After recovering from the wonderful shock of the frescoes and the loss of my camera, we had pizza before heading on to the second stop to see the fresco that Huxley declared was the "best picture in the world."
Located in what was basically the spot where Piero painted it, in the old town hall in the city of Sansepolcro, this also happened to be the painter's birthplace. Waiting for the museum to re-open at 2:30, we strolled around the quiet town, stopping to sit in front of a statue of Piero, erected to honor the town's greatest son in the town park, barely making it back to the museum before a rain shower hammered down on us, a harbinger of more trouble ahead. At this point, though, we were still quite excited to finally be able to see Huxley's favorite picture.
The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca-- There is an absolutely wonderful story attached to this fresco that ocurred during WWII. Bombing the city, the British artillery officer in charge could not get the name Sansepolcro out of his mind... "Sansepolcro, Sansepolcro," he wondered, "where had he heard the name before?" It took awhile but suddenly he remembered where he had heard that name. It was an essay he had read many years earlier by Aldous Huxley in which the author declared that the best picture in the world could be found in this very place that he was now shelling!
What a surreal moment that must have been. The officer immediately ordered a halt to the bombing. He then made his way unopposed into the town. Locating the town hall, he stood before the Resurrection which had miraculously survived the building's roof caving in!
"We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty,'' Huxley wrote. "It stands there before us in entire and actual splendor, the greatest picture in the world."
What was once the town hall is now the Museo Civico. However when we were finally let in, we had to console ourselves to look at the picture in bits and pieces as it was undergoing restoration. With the entire top half obscured behind scaffolding that we could simply not move around, we could not see Christ's face at all. It was a bitter pill to swallow and swearing to ourselves that we would just have to come back and see it another time, we moved on to see Piero’s oil, Madonna della Misericordia (The Madonna of Mercy) located in the adjacent room.
The final part of our journey involved a wonderful drive through the mountains to Urbino.
While not quite as curvy, the drive reminded me something of the famed Irohazaka road in Japan. Famous as a spot for viewing the autumn foliage, the Irohazaka was also a Buddhist pilgrimage route for pilgrims heading up to Lake Chuzenji. For both Huxeley and Pope-Hennessey, the road to and from San Spulchro is definitely part of the great adventure and allure of the Piero Pilgrimage.
Huxley says this:
BORGO SAN SEPOLCRO IS NOT VERY EASY TO GET AT. There is a small lowcomedy railway across the hills from Arezzo. Or you can approach it up the Tiber valley from Perugia. Or, if you happen to be at Urbino, there is a motor 'bus which takes you to San Sepolcro, up and down through the Apennines, in something over seven hours. No joke, that journey, as I know by experience. But it is worth doing, though preferably in some other vehicle than the 'bus, for the sake of the Bocca Trabaria, that most beautiful of Apennine passes, between the Tiber valley and the upper valley of the Metauro. It was in the early spring that we crossed it. Our omnibus groaned and rattled slowly up a bleak northern slope, among bald rocks, withered grass and still unbudded trees, it crossed the col and suddenly, as though by a miracle, the ground was yellow with innumerable primroses, each flower a little emblem of the sun that had called it into being.
It's true, the Apennines are stunning and the valley pass was filled with wild flowers. It definitely makes my lists of favorite drives of my life! (and it does not take 7 hours as it did in Huxley's day--though it is a very narrow and trecherous mountain road!)
Arriving at the lovely hilltown of Urbino we saw what is perhaps Piero's most discussed and famous picture: the Flagellation of Christ. (this is another work of Piero's considered "one of the world's best ten." The controversy about this one stems from the three men at front. The conventional interpretation is that this is the flagellation of Christ by the Romans with Pilate looking like the Ottoman Sultan to the side... It is a very intriguing but mysterious picture done in oil and tempera on wood. Who are those three people and why are they so oblivious to the cruelty going on in, wonders one of the the characters (on their own Piero Pilgrimage) in John Mortimer's novel Summer Lease.
There are countless interpretations. Pope-Hennessey, for example, doesn't think it is Christ at all--but rather Saint Jerome:
As a young man St Jerome dreamt that he was flayed on divine order for reading pagan texts, and he himself later recounted this dream, in a celebrated letter to Eustochium, in terms that exactly correspond with the left-hand side of the Urbino panel.
A great ascetic, there was one thing Jerome found it hard to give up: Cicero. A great admirer of classical culture, the saint often read the Bible and Stoic philosophy back to back. That is, until he had his infamous dream where he was flogged before God and declared to be "Ciceronian rather than Christian!"
It is such a brilliant dream---plagued by his guilty pleasure of reading Cicero, the saint vows afterward to keep a better perspective when it comes to philosophy.
This would explains the classical sculpture. Pope-Hennessey goes on to claim that the three men on the right are an angel and two scholars who are discussing the merits of classical and patristic literature in relation to Saint Jerome's dream. Hmmm.....(this short video sums things up). It is a wonderful picture and I definitely prefer the Pope-Hennessey explanation (the Ottoman looking Pilate is hard to explain no matter what).
Piero the great: James Hall, in reviewing Larry Witham's new book, Piero's Light says,
Modern critics have compared his mesmerizingly aloof madonnas to Buddhas; his sentinel saints to Egyptian statues; and his consummate micromanagement of light to that of Vermeer. The American painter Philip Guston observed: "His work has a kind of innocence or freshness about it, as if he was a messenger from God, looking at the world for the first time."
It is true that his work is both evocative of ancient sacred art (especially the serenity and deep spirituality of Buddhist sculpture) at the same time as it is surprisingly modern. A great mathematician and dedicated Platonist, Piero is revered in Italy as an early Renaissance genius. Like Leonardo. It will come as no surprise to hear that Larry Witham's new book posits that it is precisely the painter's research into the "sacred geometry" of Plato that makes Piero's work so accessible to us today.The pure geometric shapes and incredible skill in portraying light and color has made him a favorite painter of many modern artists. And, indeed, there was a time when the Piero trail was something of a cult journey.
Differing from Huxley, Pope-Hennessey's favorite Piero is the Brera Madonna, which I am hoping to see in Milan next week. He describes the picture as being of an incomparable subtlety in the lighting, spacial structure and the beauty of the imagery. I have to say that for me it was the True Cross fresco cycle--in particular Constantine's Dream panel of the True Cross fresco series.
These paintings suspended within the stones of the church walls have a three dimensional quality that painting on wood or canvas simply lack and this particular panel of the Dream of Constantine has a night-time intensity I have probably never seen in a painting before. It must be decades ahead of its time--if not centuries? Almost like a hallucination, the fresco seems to jump off the wall in front of the eyes; other-worldly, dreamlike, it is hard to believe these works are so old.
Pope-Hennessey ends his essay on the Piero della Francesca trail in quoting Susan Sontag's essay "Against Interpretation, where Sontag says:
"What is important to me now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum content out of a work, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there... the aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art--and, by analogy, our own experiences-- more rather than less real to us."
The fate of our times, Max Weber bemoaned, is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world. Some say it is science and art which alone have the power to re-enchant us with the world. (Maybe that is part of the vision of this blog?) I do think it's true that science and art can "save" us in this way... For me, there was something truly wonderful about following in the footsteps of an artist--in "pilgrimage." Especially since the pilgrimage involved seeing the works mainly in situ, in the places where they were originally created. I really did feel my senses coming alive in the way Sontag suggested is so necessary for us now. But it was not just that. For being on the trail in this way allowed me to understand what Pope-Hennessey suggested at the end of his book-- that on a subconscious level the tourist who follows on the Piero route (like the Leonardo route) becomes able "of explaining the phenomenon of the trail and the pertinacity with which it is pursued." The thrill of the journey and the quest...This is a marvelous form of re-enchantment with the world, don't you think?
We didn't see the Madonna del parto or go on to Rimino, which are also part of the classical Piero Pilgrimage (someday we will go back and finish it); we did see the Urbino Madonna (Senigallia Madonna--with a Christ child very reminiscent of Buddhist sculpture) and the wonderful double portraits in the Uffizi, the splendid portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino.
Burning My Confederate Flag
by Akim Reinhardt
To be born in America in 1967 is, to some degree, to fall through the cracks.
The Baby Boom was most certainly over by then, its most senior elements old enough to vote and drink. But the Millennials, now the focus of every drooling advertising executive and marketing guru, were naught but twinkles in the eyes of their Boomer sires and dames.
Bookmarked between bigger generations, being born in the late 1960s and early 1970s meant you were conceived and suckled amid the tumult of the Civil Rights and Vietnam protests; in (cloth) diapers when the moon landing occurred; discovering kindergarten as President Richard Nixon’s Plumbers were bumbling the Watergate break-in; and learning to read when the final U.S. helicopters evacuated Saigon.
To be born in 1967 means that when the late 1960s and early 1970s were becoming iconic, you were there, but you weren't. You didn't get to partake in the Summer of Love. You're what it spit out.
Thus, when coming of age, many important things were very familiar to you, but their meanings were muddled. Cultural symbols like bell bottom jeans and rubber Richard Nixon masks were still common enough to be lodged in your consciousness, but deeper insights were lacking. By the time you were waking up in the late 1970s, they seemed to be little more than goofs, unmoored from the bloody anti-war protests that divided a nation, or the collapse of a presidency that shook Americans' faith in their government.
Sure, we understood our own moment well enough. Late Cold War and early computers. AIDS and acid rain. Crack cocaine and homelessness. But the gravitas that had conceived us was by then little more than parody and catharsis. Black Power surrendered to Blacksploitation. Protest songs gave way to disco and synth pop. Vietnam was reduced to Rambo.
And if the late 1970s began glossing over so much of what had immediately preceded it, then the 1980s buffed it into a smooth, porcelain sheen. In pop culture representations of the 1960s and early 19790s, substance had been overtaken by style. Symbols, absent their meaning, were rendered fashion accessories and punch lines. A case in point was the Confederate flag.
Maybe it was different in the South. It almost certainly was, I suppose, at least to some extent. But growing up in a Jewish-Irish section of the Bronx during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Confederate flag was little more than a rarely seen piece of kitschy exotica. It was about as common as a Don't Tread On Me Flag in the pre-Tea Party era, and seemed to carry about as much meaning, which was almost none. It came across as gaudy and irrelevant, a relic of some bygone era.
If the Stars and Bars, which looked like the redheaded stepchild of Old Glory and the Union Jack, was to be taken seriously at all, it was only as a token of the losing side in the Civil War more than a hundred years earlier. But beyond that, on the rare instances the banner caught your glance, it was merely cartoonish.
The Confederate flag was something you associated with Southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was painted on the side of a hot rod in the bubble gum TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. For a teenager in the Bronx in the 1980s, if the Confederate flag signified anything at all, it was drunk people in cutoffs.
Which is all just a long winded, and perhaps self-rationalizing explanation of why I bought one at a tourist trap in 1985.
Our senior year of high school, three friends and I piled into a small, brown Toyota Corolla and drove from the Bronx to Ft. Lauderdale for Spring Break. Only two of us knew how to drive a stick. Only one of us had a license.
Our parents were a bit tentative about the whole thing, but when we rotated a smattering of well timed lies among them to tweak the details, they all signed off.
My dad took me down to the bank, got me some traveler's checks, and instructed me to find a good hiding spot in the hotel room for my cash; I elected to stash it above a drop ceiling tile. Another dad, a thickly accented German Jewish immigrant, urged us to be safe and responsible, passing his son a string of condoms through the car window just before we hit the road.
It was a different time.
Our parents had suggested we stop in North Carolina the first night, as it was about halfway and they didn't want us driving tired. But we were young and full of steam, and we plowed on. Late that first afternoon, we crossed the North Carolina-South Carolina state line and pulled into a tourist trap whose billboards we'd been mocking for miles. It's called South of the Border.
For those unfamiliar with the I-95 jaunt down the East Coast, South of the Border is a massive, Mexican-themed rest stop that's been around since the 1950s. It's also got a lot of Southern tchotchkes, and it was there that, on a lark, I purchased a polyester Confederate flag for a couple of bucks.
I thought Daisy Duke was hot. I liked Lynyrd Skynyrd and a few other bands of that ilk. I stuffed the flag into my bag, we crowded back into the Corolla, and continued embarking on our comically misguided adventure.
As the years went by, my flag languished. To be perfectly honest, I have almost no recollection of what I did with it over the next decade. I assume I hung it on various walls and draped it over random objects. But then again, it may very well have remained stuffed in the corners of closets much of the time. It made virtually no long term impression on my life. Rather, the object remained true to its origins: another meaningless piece of crap picked up at a tourist trap while on vacation. The very first, in fact, that I could ever lay claim to, and I quickly learned the lesson: Don't bother.
By the late 1990s, I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska, earning a Ph.D. in history. I had my own place, a spacious 1 BR with beautiful wooden floors, a living room and a dining room, faux Dutch molding on the ceiling, and both a front and back porch.
The back porch was really more of a mud room off the kitchen and it led out the back door. The front porch, however, was reasonably large and screened in. Being the bearded heathen I was, I squandered this pleasant space, using it to stow random crap and to house the litter box for my two cats. Since the screened porch was perpetually ventilated, I allowed myself to change the litter far less often than I should have.
One day, while scooping the poop, I noticed the old Confederate flag, crumpled in the corner and enmeshed in cat hair. I picked it up. It stank. Perhaps the porch wasn't ventilating as well as I'd presumed. Time for this thing to go, I thought. But let's do it in style.
I phoned up my friends and told them I was having a flag burning party. Come on over. We'll drink whiskey (that's about as far as my party planning skills generally take me), and at the stroke of midnight, I'll burn my Confederate flag while playing "Sweet Home Alabama" by Skynyrd.
Now that I was a history graduate student with a better understanding of the past, it seemed like a just ending for this troublesome symbol. It seemed like an appropriate demise for a piece of tourist trap ephemera. It seemed like a good excuse to have a party.
My friends arrived. We drank some whiskey. Mostly we drank cheap beer. And as midnight approached, I placed a Skynyrd album on the turntable and dropped the needle. I went out to the front porch, stood beside the litter box, held the Stars and Bars aloft, and flicked open my zippo.
The song had barely gotten underway before it was all over. I didn't stop to consider that polyester is, after all, that most petroleum based of all our beloved synthetic fibers. Nor that cat hair, of which there was a considerable coating, is also quite flammable.
When you think of a flag burning, you probably envision some angry protestor waving the flaming banner over and over in a display of fierce and dangerous recalcitrance. This, however, turned out to be more like Wile E. Coyote getting burnt to a crisp in no time flat.
It was all a bit anti-climactic. The song still had quite a ways to go. I went back inside, lifted the tone arm prematurely, and popped a tape in the cassette deck. Time to move on, lest the party end as quickly as the flag had.
The ashes remained on the front porch, amid the clutter and litter, until I finally cleaned up the apartment on my way out in 2000.
Symbols, of course, can mean many things to many people. Such is the very nature of symbols. And when those symbolic meanings clash, negotiation is sometimes in order.
In 1995, just before moving to Nebraska, I was best man at a Hindu wedding. Learning that I was half-Jewish, the groom's side assured me they would cover up the Hindu swastika that is used in one of the rituals. Hearing of this, I sent word that I understood the Nazis had misappropriated this ancient symbol from India, and that I would not be offended in the least by its presence. They covered it anyway, out of respect for me.
Shortly thereafter, while studying American Indian history, I learned that the swastika pattern appears in numerous cultural displays across Indigenous North America. In fact, it was so common in Dene (Navajo) woolen tapestries, that during World War II, the United States made them disown it.
However, the various symbolisms of the Confederate flag are not nearly as far flung as the global reach of the swastika. It's pretty much just an America thing, and the palette of meaning is much more limited.
It was the emblem of the rebellious Confederacy during the Civil War. Afterwards, it slowly faded from view, particularly outside the South, remaining in American memory with pretty much just that one meaning. Then, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, white supremacists proudly resuscitated the Stars and Bars. It became ubiquitous in the South again, re-emerging as the symbol of modern racism.
Instead of just representing the Civil War of the 1860s, the Confederate flag was now waved to assert "states rights," a common and flimsy excuse for maintaining legalized segregation. And in this effort, the flag once again represented a failed cause. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to the end of Jim Crow segregation in the South and in those parts of the West where it was also on the books.
After the Civil Rights movement asserted itself during the 1960s, and the bloody battle over Jim Crow ended, the Confederate flag's symbolic meaning was finally able to become a bit fuzzier. It could represent the Civil War. It could represent a modern white supremacy. Or it could, more innocuously, represent a somewhat generic pride in the South's rich heritage, culture, and traditions.
And of course, as the number of symbolic meanings grew, meaning itself could melt away into the vagaries of fashion and pop culture. It was in this sense that the Confederate flag often got waved at rock concerts, or painted onto the side of a car in a TV show, or purchased at a tourist trap during a truly epic and ill-advised Spring Break fiasco.
Consequently, there is a temptation to say we must emphasize the context. Just as there was no need for that Hindu family to cover up their swastika in my presence, and just as it was wrong for the federal government to strong arm Denes into disowning the swastika, isn't it also wrong for us to now demand that the Confederate flag be erased from official display in the South Carolina state house?
It is not wrong for us to demand that, in light of a Confederate flag-loving racist slaughtering black churchgoers in South Carolina, that the state of South Carolina finally remove this longstanding emblem of racial hatred and repression from its official public display.
For starters, the Stars and Bars is not some ancient symbol cris-crossing world cultures ranging from the Indigenous Americas to India. Rather, it is a uniquely American product, barely 150 years in age.
Second, while we can talk about fuzziness and innocuousness all we want, the simple fact is, the Confederate flag had only one real meaning for about a century. It was the calling card of the Confederate States of America: a would be nation state born from the Southern elite's desperate effort to retain slavery, and the destruction of which is the only reason the United States completely abolished slavery in 1865.
Furthermore, the Confederate flag's rebirth in the 1950s and 1960s was most certainly not fuzzy or innocuous. It was part of a segregationist program. It was the logo of racism. The fuzziness and innocuousness only came later, during my own lifetime, and I'm really not that old.
So on the one hand, I don't have anything against the harmless, reasonably innocent, though perhaps mildly misguided individual who sports a Confederate bumper sticker to announce their love of fried food and bent vowels. Many people, both black and white, love the South and, for reasons that actually make a lot of sense to me, would rather live there than in the North or West. The music, the food, the weather, the sweet tea, and most of all, the people.
However, I also understand the history of this very troubled symbol. And over the years, I have also met and talked with a fair number of very serious racists for whom the Confederate flag symbolizes the goal of initiating a RaHoWa (Racial Holy War) that "cleanses" America of blacks and other non-whites.
Furthermore, I also understand that the Confederate flag was originally flown atop the South Carolina statehouse dome only as recently as 1962, and it was not placed there innocuously or in a moment of fuzziness. Rather, the South Carolina state government raised the Confederate flag as a resentful, nasty, stubborn statement in support of American apartheid. And so it never should have gone up to begin with, regardless of the playfulness it represents to some people nowadays. That it has fluttered this long above a government building is both an insult and an embarrassment.
So I'm glad that not only is the state of South Carolina finally debating removing the Confederate flag from its statehouse, but that this movement of questioning the flag and other Confederate memorials has spread into the wider culture and become part of the national debate.
I'm glad that the nation's oldest maker of Confederate flags has announced it will cease production of them.
I'm glad that retailers including Amazon, Ebay, Sears, and even Arkansas' own Wal-Mart, have announced they will no longer sell the Confederate flag.
I'm glad Warner Bros. will no longer sell Dukes of Hazzard toy cars with a Confederate flag emblem.
And I'm glad that I burned my two-bit polyester version many years ago.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
C-print, edition of 7.
Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'
Introduction by Bill Benzon
This month I've decided to turn things over to my good friend Charles Cameron, whom I've known for somewhat over a dozen years, though only online. He's a poet and a student of many things, most recently religious fundamentalism and its contemporary manifestations in terrorism. He characterizes himself as a vagabond monk and he blogs at Zenpundit and at Sembl. When he was eleven he applied to join an Anglican monestery and, while they didn't take him in, that act did bring him to the attention of the remarkable Fr. Trevor Huddleston, who became his mentor for the next decade. Thereafter Cameron explored Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu mysticism, and Native American shamanism. He's been around.
But it's his connection with Trevor Huddleston that got my attention, for Huddleston managed to broker a gift between two trumpet-player heroes of mine. At one point in his career he was in South African, where a young Hugh "Grazin in the Grass" Masekela was one of his students. On a trip to America, Fr. Huddleston met Louis Armstrong and got him to give Masekela a trumpet.
To the bridge builders...
Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'
by Charles Cameron
I propose that in his recent encyclical Laudato Si', Pope Francis is exercising his function as Supreme Pontiff, or @pontifex as he calls himself on Twitter – a pontifex being literally a bridge builder. It is my contention that in his encyclical he bridges a number of divides, between Catholic and Orthodox, sacramental and social, liberal and conservative, religious and scientific, even Christian and Muslim, traditional and of the fast advancing moment, in a manner which will impact our world in ways yet unforeseen.
It is my contention, also, that his pontificate provides the third step in a momentous journey.
The first step, as I see it, was taken by Christ himself in the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – and in his doctrine of forgiveness, not once only but a myriad of times. The second was taken by Francis of Assisi, in his Canticle of Creatures – praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, through Sister Moon and the stars, praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us.. blessed those who endure in peace.. – and in his crossing the front lines of war during the crusades to greet in peace the Sultan Malik Al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt. And in taking the name Francis, in washing and kissing on Maundy Thursday the feet of both male and female, Christian and Muslim juvenile offenders in prison, and in issuing this encyclical, I would suggest Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is taking the third step.
The line, the transmission, is of sheer humility. It begins with the Founder of the line, Christ himself, lapses, which all high inspirations must as routine replaces charisma, only to emerge brilliantly a millennium later in the saintly maverick, Francis, lapses again though still fermenting in the imagination of church and humankind, and now at last shows itself once more, in that most unexpected of places: in the heart of the bureaucracy, at the head of the hierarchy, atop the curia, simple, idealistic, practical – a pontifex building bridges.
And in all this, there is lyricism.
It is characteristic of St Francis that he is lyrical, not just in his great Canticle of Creatures but in his lifelong love of chivalry and the songs of the troubadours, in his words – like Orpheus, he could tame the beasts – and in his preaching to the birds.
Of St Francis, the Pope writes:
I do not want to write this Encyclical without turning to that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome. I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast ..
Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.
It is only appropriate, therefore, that Pope Francis titles his encyclical with the ongoing refrain of his chosen name-sake’s Canticle, Laudato Si’. The encyclical’s opening words set this lyrical theme and tone, which is indeed the theme behind Francis’ own pontificate and this encyclical in particular:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her…
Scott Beauchamp comments in his Baffler piece, It Sounds Like a Melody,
Laudato Si’ is 184 pages long. Only twenty-eight of those are about the politics of environmental change. The rest is theology.
It is. It also, as Beauchamp’s title suggests, sounds like a melody.
Beauchamp is quoting Ornette Coleman here, who said of his own playing, “it sounds like a melody, but it’s not a melody.” An encyclical is not a melody, but in Francis’ voice it sounds like one.
Catholic and Orthodox
In proposing that Laudato Si’ is a work of bridge-building, I want to suggest reading it as an ecumenical document, bridging the Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches of 1054. Francis’ encyclical is explicit as to the ecumenical impact it hopes to achieve, mentioning and quoting Francis’ “beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with whom we share the hope of full ecclesial communion."
Indeed, when presented to the world at a conference in the Vatican, the encyclical was introduced by a panel that notably included Metropolitan John of Pergamon, representing Patriarch Bartholomew.
The Ecumenical Patriarch is informally known as “the Green Patriarch”. John Chryssavgis writes of him:
No other church leader has been so recognized for his leadership and initiatives in confronting the theological, ethical and practical imperative of environmental issues in our time as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. He has long placed the environment at the head of his church's agenda, earning him numerous awards and the title ‘Green Patriarch'.
John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon himself is known, among other things, as the author of Preserving God’s Creation: three lectures on theology and ecology, published in 1989 and ‘90 in King’s College London Theological Review. In his introductory remarks at the conference announcing the encyclical, he said:
I should like to begin by expressing my deep gratitude for the honour to be invited to take part in this event of launching the new Encyclical of His Holiness Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. I am also honoured by the fact that His All-Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, has asked me to convey to you his personal joy and satisfaction for the issuing of the Encyclical. As some of you may already know, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been the first one in the Christian world to draw the attention of the world community to the seriousness of the ecological problem and the duty of the Church to voice its concern and try to contribute with all the spiritual means at its disposal towards the protection of our natural environment. Thus, back already in the year 1989, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios issued an Encyclical to the faithful Christians and to all people of good will, in which he underlined the seriousness of the ecological problem and its theological and spiritual dimensions.
But these remarks do no more than touch the surface of the devotional theology in which the Orthodox approach creation. When Metropolitan John says “The issuing of the Encyclical Laudato Si’ is, therefore, an occasion of great joy and satisfaction for the Orthodox”, the words “great joy” convey the merest hint of what is intended.
Let me share and expand here some paragraphs of my guest blog at LapidoMedia, where I am currently serving as editor, Poetry, controversy and praise in Pope Francis’ Encyclical:
It has long been the Eastern Church which has taken an understanding of the sacred gift of the earth to its deepest and most profound levels.
Indeed, Orthodox theologians from St Maximus the Confessor down to the present day have held that the transformation of the earth is central to our human purpose. St Maximus explains the meaning of the world by saying, ‘that is why the Word became flesh: to open to us, through the holy flesh of the earth transformed into a eucharist, the path to deification.’ The world will become a “eucharist” – a word that describes both the great and continuing sacrifice of the Mass, and, literally in the Greek, a thanksgiving.
As man becomes less sinful and more like the Creator in whose image he was made, the world under his care becomes the paradise that has always been its destiny. Again, the high lyrical note sounds in Metropolitan John’s 1989 homily in Zurich, A Theology of Creation:
Christ, through his Incarnation, his Resurrection, his Ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit, has brought about the potential transfiguration of the universe. ... In him fallen matter no longer imposes its limitations and determinisms; in him the world, frozen by our downfall, melts in the fire of the Spirit and rediscovers its vocation of transparency.
These words express the Orthodoz’ fiery and blazing sense of the world as not merely “the ecology” in peril, not simply “the creation” even, but as the veil and symbol through which our creator aches to speak with us, to reveal his beauty, his love, his care.
Sacrament and Society
The words, the lyricism, the aspirations are so lofty that the secular mind may not reach them, and even the religious mind falter for lack of oxygen, but they are the sacramentally sustained basis for a move outward, into the world, driven by the exigencies of our pre-catastrophic situation.
Francis aims to appeal to both sacramental and social motivations, offering the sacramental value of the human individual as the driver for the highest and fullest movement towards love, truth, justice, and peace.
In my own early adolescence, my own mentor, Fr. Trevor Huddleston CR, counseled me to anchor myself in the sacramental and move out into the world to accomplish what measure of social good I might find myself called and suited to. In his great book Naught for your Comfort – the first non-fiction book to challenge the inhumanity of Apartheid in his much lived South Africa – Fr Trevor made this causal link between the sacramental, contemplative and mystical life and the necessity for actions of social justice explicit, writing in a key paragraph:
On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.
Similarly Pope Francis, from within his richly sacramental perspective, intends and calls for us to shift the world from what he perceives as its present, dire and eventually catastrophic course to one which will by contrast be loving, creative, and sustainable.
Liberal and Conservative
In bridging sacramental and social values, the Pope’s plea is unavoidably and interestingly controversial.
Let me draw again on my observations in my LapidoMedia post:
While those in the environmental movement worldwide welcome it, conservatives who doubt the theory of global warming – or celebrate the global market economy and consumerism – see the Pope’s encyclical as a radical attack on core values.
Ross Douthat in his New York Times op-ed, Pope Francis’ Call to Action Goes Beyond the Environment, notes that the encyclical “includes, as many liberals hoped and certain conservatives feared, a call to action against climate change.” It also contains, as many liberals feared and many conservatives will take comfort in, a clear statement of the Catholic Church’s continuing position on abortion.
“Since everything is interrelated,” Francis writes, “concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” And “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”
Both climate change believers and doubters, pro-choice and pro-life factions, will find their own concerns addressed in this encyclical. Indeed, Pope Francis offers both liberals and conservatives something to applaud and something to trouble them. And this brings us to the heart of the encyclical.
Francis quotes Pope Benedict XVI, who “observed that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible’, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that ‘the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence’.”
Both the environmental and pro-life strands in Francis’ encyclical stem from his view of the unity of God’s creation, and the human role, created ‘in the image of God’, within it. Indeed, it is this unified vision which makes the encyclical both richly welcome and deeply disturbing to many on both sides of some of the great divides of our time.
This in turn begs the question, what happens when an influential world figure of undoubted moral stature crosses the lines that usually separate opposing camps? Does he lose respect on both sides? Or does he begin to build a bridge between them?
Religion and Science
The same issue arises when we view Francis’ encyclical as building a bridge between religion and science.
Once again, we can turn to the Orthodox church for an early understanding of the situation. John Chryssavgis in Theology, Ecology and the Arts: Reconciling Sacredness and Beauty, tackles the longstanding “war” between religion and science, writing:
In his book Being as Communion, Metropolitan John [Zizioulas] of Pergamon, arguably the foremost Orthodox theologian today, compares these two different approaches, and asserts that: Science and theology for a long time seemed to be in search of different sorts of truth, as if there were not one truth . . . This resulted in making truth subject to a dichotomy between the transcendent and the immanent.
One of the primary and visionary goals of the ecological initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been precisely the reconciliation of these two ways, which have long been separated and estranged. Pope Francis has the same visionary goal, expressing it in his detailed exposition of the science behind climate change. As a correspondent in the scientific journal Nature’s News blog put it, “never before has a pope drawn so resolutely from science, a sphere that has long been considered irreconcilable with essential Catholic religious beliefs.”
The encyclical’s passages include such purely scientific observations as this paragraph, chosen as much for its generality as for its detail:
A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.… It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.
And what of those who dispute this scientific consensus? He includes them in his regret and hope:
Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.
Christian and Muslim
That greater ecumenism which seeks to reconcile the world’s great faiths finds its quiet place in the encyclical too. St Francis – as Dr Hoeberichts demonstrates to my satisfaction in his Francis and Islam – had a willingness for his “little brothers” to live among the Saracens in humility and peace, at a time when this was far from the normative teaching of the church in those crusading times.
Idries Shah would take the matter further, observing that ”The atmosphere and setting of the Franciscan Order is closer to a dervish organization than anything else” and that Francis’ poetry “so strongly resembles in places that of the love poet Rumi that one is tempted to look for any report which might connect Francis with the Sufi order of the Whirling Dervishes.”
Shah then goes on to recount the tale of St Francis and Brother Masseo arriving at a fork in the road. When Masseo asked which road they should take, Francis instructed him to “turn round and round as children do, until I tell you to stop.” When at last Francis gave the command to stop, Masseo found himself facing the road to Siena. "Then to Siena we must go," Shah tells us St Francis said – “and to Siena they went.”
Perhaps most suggestively, the Pope’s encyclical in a footnote quotes a Sufi poet:
The spiritual writer Ali al-Khawas stresses from his own experience the need not to put too much distance between the creatures of the world and the interior experience of God. As he puts it: “Prejudice should not have us criticize those who seek ecstasy in music or poetry. There is a subtle mystery in each of the movements and sounds of this world. The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted...”
Again, the intense lyricism. And it is perhaps notable that Ibn 'Arabi, the Shaykh al-Akbar, quotes a closely similar saying from another North African master, Abu 'Uthman al-Maghr.
Ali al-Khawas’s words are drawn from his pupil Sha'rani’s Lata'if a-lminan wa-l-akhlaq, or al-Minan Al-kubra. Dr Alan Godlas of the University of Georgia, a noted scholar of Sufism, has kindly allowed me to quote these two sentences as part of a longer translation which he hopes to publish in full in due course:
And among that which God, may He be blessed and exalted, has granted by means of Himself to me is [the following]: my not hastening to repudiate whoever stands up [during sama'] and engages in ecstatic dance, even if he were to be among transgressors or even if he was not used to it, since God (ta'ala) [during such a dance] might unveil the veil from some hearts, such that they would yearn for their primordial homeland and then sway, like the tree that, as it were, desires to pull its roots from the earth. I heard Sidi 'Ali al-Khawwāṣ (may God – ta'ala – have mercy upon him) say, "Samāʿ (the practice of both listening to the singing of spiritual poetry and music as well as dancing) has a great effect on the inrushing of [spiritual] truths [into the consciousness of the practitioner]
The attitude is a merciful and forgiving one – and once again, the whirling dance and song are at the heart of its inspiration.
His pupil, the scholar-sufi al-Sha'rani describes al-Khawwāṣ as “an unlettered man” and “a man who is totally hidden such that almost no one knew of his sainthood and knowledge except for the practicing scholars, for he is indeed a perfect man to us without any doubt!” Such was the poet-saint that the Pope quotes in his encyclical – In a footnote, yet another bridge from this second Francis to Islam.
Traditional and Immediate
In all of this, Francis is balancing the traditional – the magisterium or timeless teachings of the church – with the immediate – the crisis at hand.
Pope John XXIII, he notes, “addressed his message Pacem in Terris to the entire ‘Catholic world’ and indeed ‘to all men and women of good will’.” John XXIII spoke at a time when the world was ‘teetering on the brink of nuclear crisis.’ Pope Francis regards the current world situation as no less dire, and addresses a yet wider audience:
Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet. … In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.’
The final bridge Francis wishes to build is one he hopes we will cross – the bridge between his own and the church’s sacramental insight, and our will to cherish and protect our home, our niche, our planet.
* * * * *
I am indebted to Bill Benzon for his generous invitation for me to post at 3QD on the topic of the Encyclical, to Jenny Taylor for her permission to quote from my LapidoMedia blog post, to Alan Godlas for his permission to quote a part of his upcoming translation of the relevant passage from al-Sha’rani, and for further help regarding al-Sharani and al-Khawwas received from Jane Clark, Julian Cook, and others at Beshara.
Monday, June 22, 2015
The Long Shadow of Nazi Indoctrination: Persistence of Anti-Semitism in Germany
by Jalees Rehman
Anti-Semitism and the holocaust are among the central themes in the modern German secondary school curriculum. During history lessons in middle school, we learned about anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews in Europe during the middle ages and early modernity. Our history curriculum in the ninth and tenth grades focused on the virulent growth of anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe, how Hitler and the Nazi party used anti-Semitism as a means to rally support and gain power, and how the Nazi apparatus implemented the systematic genocide of millions of Jews.
In grades 11 to 13, the educational focus shifts to a discussion of the broader moral and political context of anti-Semitism and Nazism. How could the Nazis enlist the active and passive help of millions of "upstanding" citizens to participate in this devastating genocide? Were all Germans who did not actively resist the Nazis morally culpable or at least morally responsible for the Nazi horrors? Did Germans born after the Second World War inherit some degree of moral responsibility for the crimes committed by the Nazis? How can German society ever redeem itself after being party to the atrocities of the Nazis? Anti-Semitism and Nazism were also important topics in our German literature and art classes because the Nazis persecuted and murdered German Jewish intellectuals and artists, and because the shame and guilt experienced by Germans after 1945 featured so prominently in German art and literature.
One purpose of extensively educating Germany school-children about this dark and shameful period of German history is the hope that if they are ever faced with the reemergence of prejudice directed against Jews or any other ethnic or religious group, they will have the courage to stand up for those who are being persecuted and make the right moral choices. As such, it is part of the broader Vergangenheitsbewältigung (wrestling with one's past) in post-war German society which takes place not only in schools but in various public venues. The good news, according to recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth, is that Germans who attended school after the Second World War have shown a steady decline in anti-Semitism. The bad news: Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a bigger challenge for Germans who attended school under the Nazis because a significant proportion of them continue to exhibit high levels of anti-Semitic attitudes more than half a century after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Voigtländer and Voth examined the results of the large General Social Survey for Germany (ALLBUS) in which several thousand Germans were asked about their values and beliefs. The survey took place in 1996 and 2006, and the researchers combined the results of both surveys with a total of 5,300 participants from 264 German towns and cities. The researchers were specifically interested in anti-Semitic attitudes and focused on three survey questions specifically related to anti-Semitism. Survey participants were asked to respond on a scale of 1 to 7 and indicate whether they thought Jews had too much influence in the world, whether Jews were responsible for their own persecution and whether Jews should have equal rights. The researchers categorized participants as "committed anti-Semites" if they revealed anti-Semitic attitudes to all three questions. The overall rate of committed anti-Semites was 4% in Germany but there was significant variation depending on the geographical region and the age of the participants.
Germans born in the 1970s and 1980s had only 2%-3% committed anti-Semites whereas the rate was nearly double for Germans born in the 1920s (6%). However, the researchers noted one exception: Germans born in the 1930s. Those citizens had the highest fraction of anti-Semites: 10%. The surveys were conducted in 1996 and 2006 when the participants born in in the 1930s were 60-75 years old. In other words, one out of ten Germans of that generation did not think that Jews deserved equal rights!
The researchers attributed this to the fact that people born in the 1930s were exposed to the full force of systematic Nazi indoctrination with anti-Semitic views which started as early as in elementary school and also took place during extracurricular activities such as the Hitler Youth programs. The Nazis came to power in 1933 and immediately began implementing a whole-scale propaganda program in all schools. A child born in 1932, for example, would have attended elementary school and middle school as well as Hitler Youth programs from age six onwards till the end of the war in 1945 and become inculcated with anti-Semitic propaganda.
The researchers also found that the large geographic variation in anti-Semitic prejudices today was in part due to the pre-Nazi history of anti-Semitism in any given town. The Nazis were not the only and not the first openly anti-Semitic political movement in Germany. There were German political parties with primarily anti-Jewish agendas which ran for election in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Voigtländer and Voth analyzed the votes that these anti-Semitic parties received more than a century ago, from 1890 to 1912. Towns and cities with the highest support for anti-Semitic parties in this pre-Nazi era are also the ones with the highest levels of anti-Semitic prejudice today. When children were exposed to anti-Semitic indoctrination in schools under the Nazis, the success of these hateful messages depended on how "fertile" the ground was. If the children were growing up in towns and cities where family members or public figures had supported anti-Jewish agenda during prior decades then there was a much greater likelihood that the children would internalize the Nazi propaganda. The researchers cite the memoir of the former Hitler Youth member Alfons Heck:
"We who were born into Nazism never had a chance unless our parents were brave enough to resist the tide and transmit their opposition to their children. There were few of those."
- Alfons Heck in "The Burden of Hitler's Legacy"
The researchers then address the puzzling low levels of anti-Semitic prejudices among Germans born in the 1920s. If the theory of the researcher were correct that anti-Semitic prejudices persist today because Nazi school indoctrination then why aren't Germans born in the 1920s more anti-Semitic? A child born in 1925 would have been exposed to Nazi propaganda throughout secondary school. Oddly enough, women born in the 1920s did show high levels of anti-Semitism when surveyed in 1996 and 2006 but men did not. Voigtländer and Voth solve this mystery by reviewing wartime fatality rates. The most zealous male Nazi supporters with strong anti-Semitic prejudices were more likely to volunteer for the Waffen-SS, the military wing of the Nazi party. Some SS divisions had an average age of 18 and these SS-divisions had some of the highest fatality rates. This means that German men born in the 1920s weren't somehow immune to Nazi propaganda. Instead, most of them perished because they bought into it and this is why we now see lower levels of anti-Semitism than expected in Germans born during that decade.
A major limitation of this study is its correlational nature and the lack of data on individual exposure to Nazism. The researchers base their conclusions on birth years and historical votes for anti-Semitic parties of towns but did not track how much individuals were exposed to anti-Semitic propaganda in their schools or their families. Such a correlational study cannot establish a cause-effect relationship between propaganda and the persistence of prejudice today. One factor not considered by the researchers, for example, is that Germans born in the 1930s are also among those who grew up as children in post-war Germany, often under conditions of extreme poverty and even starvation.
Even without being able to establish a clear cause-effect relationship, the findings of the study raise important questions about the long-term effects of racial propaganda. It appears that a decade of indoctrination may give rise to a lifetime of hatred. Our world continues to be plagued by prejudice against fellow humans based on their race or ethnicity, religion, political views, gender or sexual orientation. Children today are not subject to the systematic indoctrination implemented by the Nazis but they are probably still exposed to more subtle forms of prejudice and we do not know much about its long-term effects. We need to recognize the important role of public education in shaping the moral character of individuals and ensure that our schools help our children become critical thinkers with intact moral reasoning, citizens who can resist indoctrination and prejudice.
Voigtländer N and Voth HJ. "Nazi indoctrination and anti-Semitic beliefs in Germany" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2015), doi: 10.1073/pnas.1414822112
Artificially Flavored Intelligence
"I see your infinite form in every direction,
with countless arms, stomachs, faces, and eyes."
~ Bhagavad-Gītā 11 16
About ten days ago, someone posted on an image on Reddit, a sprawling site that is the Internet's version of a clown car that's just crashed into a junk shop. The image, appropriately uploaded to the 'Creepy' corner of the website, is kind of hard to describe, so, assuming that you are not at the moment on any strong psychotropic substances, or are not experiencing a flashback, please have a good, long look before reading on.
What the hell is that thing? Our sensemaking gear immediately kicks into overdrive. If Cthulhu had had a pet slug, this might be what it looked like. But as you look deeper into the picture, all sorts of other things begin to emerge. In the lower left-hand corner there are buildings and people, and people sitting on buildings which might themselves be on wheels. The bottom center of the picture seems to be occupied by some sort of a lurid, lime-colored fish. In the upper right-hand corner, half-formed faces peer out of chalices. The background wallpaper evokes an unholy copulation of brain coral and astrakhan fur. And still there are more faces, or at least eyes. There are indeed more eyes than an Alex Grey painting, and they hew to none of the neat symmetries that make for a safe world. In fact, the deeper you go into the picture, the less perspective seems to matter, as solid surfaces dissolve into further cascades of phantasmagoria. The same effect applies to the principal thing, which has not just an indeterminate number of eyes, ears or noses, but even heads.
The title of the thread wasn't very helpful, either: "This image was generated by a computer on its own (from a friend working on AI)". For a few days, that was all anyone knew, but it was enough to incite another minor-scale freakout about the nature and impending arrival of Our Computer Overlords. Just as we are helpless to not over-interpret the initial picture, so we are all too willing to titillate ourselves with alarmist speculations concerning its provenance. This was presented as a glimpse into the psychedelic abyss of artificial intelligence; an unspeakable, inscrutable intellect briefly showed us its cards, and it was disquieting, to put it mildly. Is that what AI thinks life looks like? Or stated even more anxiously, is that what AI thinks life should look like?
Alas, our giddy Lovecraftian fantasies weren't allowed to run amok for more than a few days, since the boffins at Google tipped their hand with a blog post describing what was going on. The image, along with many others, were the result of a few engineers playing around with neural networks, and seeing how far they could push them. In this case, a neural network is ‘trained' to recognize something when it is fed thousands of instances of that thing. So if the engineers want to train a neural network to recognize the image of a dog, they will keep feeding it images of the same, until it acquires the ability to identify dogs in pictures it hasn't seen before. For the purposes of this essay, I'll just leave it at that, but here is a good explanation of how neural networks ‘learn'.
The networks in question were trained to recognize animals, people and architecture. But things got interesting when the Google engineers took a trained neural net and fed it only one input – over and over again. Once slightly modified, the image was then re-submitted to the network. If it were possible to imagine the network having a conversation with itself, it may go something like this:
First pass: Ok, I'm pretty good at finding squirrels and dogs and fish. Does this picture have any of these things in it? Hmmm, no, although that little blob looks like it might be the eye of one of those animals. I'll make a note of that. Also that lighter bit looks like fur. Yeah. Fur.
Second pass: Hey, that blob definitely looks like an eye. I'll sharpen it up so that it's more eye-like, since that's obviously what it is. Also, that fur could look furrier.
Third pass: That eye looks like it might go with that other eye that's not that far off. That other dark bit in between might just be the nose that I'd need to make it a dog. Oh wow – it is a dog! Amazing.
The results are essentially thousands of such decisions made across dozens of layers of the network. Each layer of ‘neurons' hands over its interpretation to the next layer up the hierarchy, and a final decision of what to emphasize or de-emphasize is made by the last layer. The fact that half of a squirrel's face may be interpellated within the features of the dog's face is, in the end, irrelevant.
But I also feel very wary about having written this fantasy monologue, since framing the computational process as a narrative is something that makes sense to us, but in fact isn't necessarily true. By way of comparison, the philosopher Jacques Derrida was insanely careful about stating what he could claim in any given act of writing, and did so while he was writing. Much to the consternation of many of his readers, this act of deconstructing the text as he was writing it was nevertheless required for him to be accurate in making his claims. Similarly, while the anthropomorphic cheat is perhaps the most direct way of illustrating how AI ‘works', it is also very seductive and misleading. I offer up the above with the exhortation that there is no thinking going on. There is no goofy conversation. There is iteration, and interpretation, and ultimately but entirely tangentially, weirdness. The neural network doesn't think it's weird, however. The neural network doesn't think anything, at least not in the overly generous way in which we deploy that word.
So, echoing a deconstructionist approach, we would claim that the idea of ‘thinking' is really the problem. It is a sort of absent center, where we jam in all the unexamined assumptions that we need in order to keep the system intact. Once we really ask what we mean by ‘thinking' then the whole idea of intelligence, whether we are speaking of our own human one, let alone another's, becomes strange and unwhole. So if we then try to avoid the word – and therefore the idea behind the word – ‘thinking' as ascribed to a computer program, then how ought we think about this? Because – sorry – we really don't have a choice but to think about it.
I believe that there are more accurate metaphors to be had, ones that rely on narrower views of our subjectivity, not the AI's. For example, there is the children's game of telephone, where a phrase is whispered from one ear to the next. Given enough iterations, what emerges is a garbled, nonsensical mangling of the original, but one that is hopefully still entertaining. But if it amuses, this is precisely because it remains within the realm of language. The last person does not recite a random string of alphanumeric characters. Rather, our drive to recognize patterns, also known as apophenia, yields something that can still be spoken. It is just weird enough, which is a fine balance indeed.
What did you hear? To me, it sounds obvious that a female voice is repeating "no way" to oblivion. But other listeners have variously reported window, welcome, love me, run away, no brain, rainbow, raincoat, bueno, nombre, when oh when, mango, window pane, Broadway, Reno, melting, or Rogaine.
This illustrates the way that our expectations shape our perception…. We are expecting to hear words, and so our mind morphs the ambiguous input into something more recognisable. The power of expectation might also underlie those embarrassing situations where you mishear a mumbled comment, or even explain the spirit voices that sometimes leap out of the static on ghost hunting programmes.
Even more radical are Steve Reich's tape loop pieces, which explore the effects of when a sound gradually goes out of phase with itself. In fact, 2016 will be the 50th anniversary of "Come Out", one of the seminal explorations of this idea. While the initial phrase is easy to understand, as the gap in phase widens we struggle to maintain its legibility. Not long into the piece, the words are effectively erased, and we find ourselves swimming in waves of pure sound. Nevertheless, our mental apparatus stills seeks to make some sort of sense of it all, it's just that the patterns don't obtain for long enough in order for a specific interpretation to persist.
Of course, the list of contraptions meant to isolate and provoke our apophenic tendencies is substantial, and oftentimes touted as having therapeutic benefits. We slide into sensory deprivation tanks to gape at the universe within, and assemble mail-order DIY ‘brain machines' to ‘expand our brain's technical skills'. This is mostly bunk, but all are predicated on the idea that the brain will produce its own stimuli when external ones are absent, or if there is only a narrow band of stimulus available. In the end, what we experience here is not so much an epiphany, as apophany.
In effect, what Google's engineers have fabricated is an apophenic doomsday machine. It does one thing – search for patterns in the ways in which it knows how – and it does those things very, very well. A neural network trained to identify animals will not suddenly begin to find architectural features in a given input image. It will, if given the picture of a building façade, find all sorts of animals that, in its judgment, already lurk there. The networks are even capable of teasing out the images with which they are familiar if given a completely random picture – the graphic equivalent of static. These are perhaps the most compelling images of all. It's the equivalent of putting a neural network in an isolation tank. But is it? The slide into anthropomorphism is so effortless.
And although the Google blog post isn't clear on this, I suspect that there is also no clear point at which the network is ‘finished'. An intrinsic part of thinking is knowing when to stop, whereas iteration needs some sort of condition wrapped around the loop, otherwise it will never end. You don't tell a computer to just keep adding numbers, you tell it to add only the first 100 numbers you give it. Otherwise the damned thing won't stop. The engineers ran the iterations up until a certain point, and it doesn't really matter if that point was determined by a pre-existing test condition (eg, ‘10,000 iterations') or a snap aesthetic judgment (eg, ‘This is maximum weirdness!'). The fact is that human judgment is the wrapper around the process that creates these images. So if we consider that a fundamental feature of thinking is knowing when to stop doing so, then we find this trait lacking in this particular application of neural networks.
In addition to knowing when to stop, there is another critical aspect of thinking as we know it, and that is forgetting. In ‘Funes el memorioso', Jorge Luis Borges speculated on the crippling consequences of a memory so perfect that nothing was ever lost. Among other things, the protagonist Funes can only live a life immersed in an ocean of detail, "incapable of general, platonic ideas". In order to make patterns, we have to privilege one thing over another, and dismiss vast quantities of sensory information as irrelevant, if not outright distracting or even harmful.
Interestingly enough, this relates to a theory concerning the nature of the schizophrenic mind (in a further nod to the deconstructionist tendency, I concede that the term ‘schizophrenia' is not unproblematic, but allow me the assumption). The ‘hyperlearning hypothesis' claims that schizophrenic symptoms can arise from a surfeit of dopamine in the brain. As a key neurotransmitter, dopamine plays a crucial role in memory formation:
When the brain is rewarded unexpectedly, dopamine surges, prompting the limbic "reward system" to take note in order to remember how to replicate the positive experience. In contrast, negative encounters deplete dopamine as a signal to avoid repeating them. This is a key learning mechanism which is also involves memory-formation and motivation. Scientists believe the brain establishes a new temporary neural network to process new stimuli. Each repetition of the same experience triggers the identical neural firing sequence along an identical neural journey, with every duplication strengthening the synaptic links among the neurons involved. Neuroscientists say, "Neurons that fire together wire together." If this occurs enough times, a secure neural network is established, as if imprinted, and the brain can reliably access the information over time.
The hyperlearning hypothesis posits that schizophrenics have too much dopamine in their brains, too much of the time. Take the process described above and multiply it by orders of magnitude. The result is a world that a schizophrenic cannot make sense of, because literally everything is important, or no one thing is less important than anything else. There is literally no end to thinking, no conditional wrapper to bring anything to a conclusion.
Unsurprisingly, the artificial neural networks discussed above are modeled on precisely this process of reinforcement, except that the dopamine is replaced by an algorithmic stand-in. In 2011, Uli Grasemann and Risto Miikkulainen did the logical next step: they took a neural network called DISCERN and cranked up its virtual dopamine.
Grasemann and Miikkulainen began by teaching a series of simple stories to DISCERN. The stories were assimilated into DISCERN's memory in much the way the human brain stores information – not as distinct units, but as statistical relationships of words, sentences, scripts and stories.
In order to model hyperlearning, Grasemann and Miikkulainen ran the system through its paces again, but with one key parameter altered. They simulated an excessive release of dopamine by increasing the system's learning rate -- essentially telling it to stop forgetting so much.
After being re-trained with the elevated learning rate, DISCERN began putting itself at the center of fantastical, delusional stories that incorporated elements from other stories it had been told to recall. In one answer, for instance, DISCERN claimed responsibility for a terrorist bombing.
Even though I find this infinitely more terrifying than a neural net's ability to create a picture of a multi-headed dog-slug-squirrel, I still contend that there is no thinking going on, as we would like to imagine it. And we would very much like to imagine it: even the article cited above has as its headline ‘Scientists Afflict Computers with Schizophrenia to Better Understand the Human Brain'. It's almost as if schizophrenia is something you can pack into a syringe, virtual or otherwise, and inject it into the neural network of your choice, virtual or otherwise. (The actual peer-reviewed article is more soberly titled ‘Using computational patients to evaluate illness mechanisms in schizophrenia'.) We would be much better off understanding these neural networks as tools that provide us with a snapshot of a particular and narrow process. They are no more anthropomorphic than the shapes that clouds may suggest to us on a summer's afternoon. But we seem incapable of forgetting this. If we cannot learn to restrain our relentless pattern-seeking, consider what awaits us on the other end of the spectrum: it is not coincidental that the term ‘apophenia' was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad in a monograph on the inception of schizophrenia.
Isaac Cordal. "Politicians Discussing Global Warming" as nick-named by social media. Part of a series titled Follow the Leaders. 2011.
The Archetype Of The Suffering Artist Must Die
by Mandy de Waal
Click on over to the New York Times and you'll find a gallery of tortured artists. First up is a youthful, but ghostly looking Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud. The caption for the dark painting on the NYT site reads: "The Poet Rimbaud. Serial runaway. Absinthe and hashish benders. Shot by poet-lover Verlaine."
Born in October 1854 in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, Rimbaud started writing poetry in primary school. By the time he was 16 he'd already written Le Dormeur du Val [The Sleeper In The Valley].
"It is a green hollow where a stream gurgles," the poem begins, before telling the story of "A young soldier, open-mouthed, bare-headed, With the nape of his neck bathed in cool blue watercress," sleeping stretched out on the grass under the sky.
Written during the French-Prussian war, the denouement of this piece is tragic:
"No odour makes his nostrils quiver;
He sleeps in the sun, his hand on his breast
At peace. There are two red holes in his right side."
Rimbaud's life was no less grim. His genius flowered early, and then stalled. By the time he was 21 he'd stopped writing. Four years earlier he'd send Le Dormeur du Val to celebrated French poet, Paul Verlaine, who'd forsake his wife and child for Rimbaud. The relationship would end after a few short years after Verlaine discharged a gun at Rimbaud in a jealous, drunken rage. Rimbaud wouldn't die then, but at at the age of 37 after suffering many agonising months from bone cancer.
Also on display in the gallery of the artiste manqué is Frida Kahlo (1907 to 1954) who got polio at the age of six which withered her right leg, which was eventually amputated. It is also thought that Kahlo had spina bifida. When she was 18 the artist was in a freak bus accident. "The tram she was riding collided with a bus and the tram's handrail penetrated her vagina. In an extra and tragic irony, someone on the tram had been carrying gold paint which spilled over Frida and the other passengers," Mike Gonzalez writes in ‘Frida Kahlo: a Life' for the Socialist Review.
After the crash there was a long period of painful convalescence, and the Mexican painter would suffer from bouts of pain for the rest of her life. Then there was the emotional torment. The troubled, tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera. His jealousies over her affairs, and her fury over his relationship with her sister, Cristina.
Others featured in the NYT's hall of hardship "The Composer Beethoven. Sixteen when mom died. Went deaf at height of his gift. Chronic pain." You'll also find the Novelist Jean Genet. ["Mom a prostitute. As was he. Put up for adoption. Vagabond. Thief."].
The underlying narrative of these and countless other stories that underscore the archetype of the suffering artist which pervades and permeates the psyches of today's creators and makers. The narrative goes like this: if you want to be a Van Gogh you've got to cut off your ear. You've got to suffer for your art.
But thankfully, there are those who think that the notion of the anguished artist is bullshit, and I've got to say I agree with the wholeheartedly. Surrealist film legend David Lynch thinks that suffering doesn't turn artistic dross to gold, but says it hinders artists.
"It's good for the artist to understand conflict and stress. Those things can give you ideas. But I guarantee you, if you have enough stress, you won't be able to create. And if you have enough conflict, it will just get in the way of your creativity," writes Lynch in his book Catching the Big Fish.
"Some artists believe that anger, depression or these negative things give them an edge. They think they need to hold onto that anger and fear so they can put it in their work. And they don't like the idea of getting happy — it makes them want to puke. They think it would make them lose this supposed power of the negative," Lynch writes.
But torturing oneself for some kind of creative return doesn't make sense, now does it? Where's the logic in that? Or as Lynch writes: "It's common sense: The more the artist is suffering, the less creative he is going to be. It's less likely that he is going to enjoy doing his work and less likely that he will be able to do really good work,"
In South Africa, educator and digital luminary, Dave Duarte, is no fan of the starving artist archetype either and is actively doing to disrupt it. The CEO of learning and teaching company Treeshake.com and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum believes "the story of the struggling artist has gone on long enough."
"We don't treat the artistic and creative disciplines with the same current economic respect as we do so many other disciplines, and yet artists can be just as impactful and transformative as entrepreneurs and businesses – if not more so," says Duarte, who together with Elaine Rumboll [managing director of The Creative Leadership Consultancy] teaches artists how to reject the myth of the ‘starving artist' by becoming successful creators and makers.
"Each year we get about 30 to 40 artists from a range of different disciplines - from sculpture and fine art to Graphic design and product design and video or writing or comedy. People with a diverse range of disciplines come together to learn the basic business skills that aren't taught," Duarte says. "This problem was identified by Elaine [Dave's muse and life partner] as critically important because fundamentally, practicing artists are creative entrepreneurs - they enter the business market and have to fend for themselves."
"We're disrupting the ‘starving artist' myth by dealing with misconceptions that are deeply ingrained in the culture of arts. One of these fantasies is that being commercially oriented undermines the integrity of one's work. Myths like these are deeply held misconceptions that are perhaps even taught at art and/or design schools and become criticisms of art or artists. Culturally artists who are commercially successful can be seen as sell-outs or lacking integrity, which is nonsense," Duarte says.
Duarte – who serves on Endeavor's Venture Corps and in so doing helps the organisation achieve its goal of supporting high-impact entrepreneurs across the world – explains that it doesn't make sense for society to enable athletes or lawyers or accountants to be professional, while expecting artists to suffer and starve. "We are conscientising and changing the creative space by showing people how making money is not the opposite of doing good art," he says.
"The first thing that artists need to realise is that as an artist you are a creative entrepreneur essentially, and that what you want to do is to create financial constancy for yourself so you can focus on your work at the very least," says Duarte, adding that artists need to create platforms for their business that enable scale.
What are the first things all artists, makers and creators need to learn? "Things like cash flow are really important to understand but are not well understood business concepts in the arts community. In creative spaces we don't talk about deal flow leads; how to negotiate; how to make sales; or how to close deals. All of these conversations are really important for creating sustainable businesses," says Duarte.
Other important lessons artists need to learn speak to sales and marketing. "Sales is like hunting and marketing is like farming," says Duarte, who then explains: "Sales will give you a quick win. You get a quick win, but this requires a lot of energy because artists must go out and to get these quick wins." Being in a ‘sales oriented mode' is very different to creating art, and is almost a separate part of an artist's work.
"Sales can take you out of your process. This is fine, and this is necessary, but to be sustainable as an artist in the long run, creators and makers should be thinking about the branding and marketing perspective, which is more about being a farmer. Being a farmer is about taking a long view on things," says Duarte. Just as farmers plant and nurture and nourish, so too artists need to consider and do that which grows their brands.
Farming is about of investing in the creative brand, the artist's reach, and the artist's community which enables a pull, rather than a push type marketing strategy. "Farming as an analogy for branding means artists don't have to go out to their markets that much and disrupt their creative work and process. Farming is about creating branding that enables an artist's market to come in and meet them a lot more often," Duarte says.
Rumboll and Duarte's key teachings for artists also include the basics of branding. Sensory consistency shows creatives how to look and sound the same online as in the real world, and there are teachings in experiential consistency. "For instance if your work is provocative, hopefully you are as provocative in your marketing of the work. Emotional consistency is how you make people feel around your work and you," Duarte explains, stressing that it is important to have an underlying consistency and to communicate consistently to the marketplace, because this is what grows brands. "In other words don't consider marketing as something that is separate from the act of producing your work. It is an extension and a part of your creative product that that you need to imbue your philosophy into," he says.
The thinking behind this speaks to a concept articulated by the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, which is that of ‘a thousand true fans'. In a wildly popular blog post written in March 2008 the author of New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World Cand What Technology Wants states: "The long tail is a decidedly mixed blessing for creators. Individual artists, producers, inventors and makers are overlooked in the equation. The long tail does not raise the sales of creators much, but it does add massive competition and endless downward pressure on prices. Unless artists become a large aggregator of other artist's works, the long tail offers no path out of the quiet doldrums of minuscule sales."
The Long Tail is an expression used to articulate the market shift from mainstream products to the niche, a shift that was enabled by the democratisation of economies and markets by the internet. The best thinking on this phenomenon is captured in a book written by the current editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, Chris Anderson called The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.
Kelly says that rather than "aiming for a blockbuster hit" artists should escape the long tail by finding 1,000 "true fans". "A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living," writes Kelly. "A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce."
"They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can't wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans," Kelly writes.
In short the thinking is that to become sustainable businesses, artists should aspire to have at least one thousand true fans.
Why do we want our artists to survive and thrive? "For innovation to thrive in a country, you need artists," says Rumboll on a YouTube video that promotes Business Acumen For Artists. "You need that creativity to drive any innovation. Without artists, innovation cannot happen. Rumboll says that in a coming paradigm shift, artists will be known as creative entrepreneurs.
Rumboll declares: "The absolute starting point is the knowledge that what Andy Warhol said is true, and this is that being good at business is the most fascinating kind of art."
The archetype of the artist who must suffer for society is as flawed as it is outdated. It is time for that myth to depart. Long live artists who create, and contribute to society, and who make a sustainable, happy livelihood doing this.
* * *
Why I hate the myth of the suffering artist by Al Kennedy at The Guardian.
The Myth of the Tortured Artist at The Daily Beast.
Monday, June 15, 2015
Anne Walsh. Study for The Triumph of Light. 2010.
Monday, June 08, 2015
12 inch spikes, 9 x 84 x x84 inches.
Art in a Disenchanted World
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
In the middle of a semester of endless world travel, and a series of screechy deadlines, I gifted myself a three-day weekend to go meander at the Kochi Muziris Biennale of 2014/15. Our survival as, dare I say, members of a sensate world, depends on the idea of a full life, and into every full life, some art must fall is what I told myself as I made plans to visit. Gathering up a friend, and all my depleting stamina, I boarded a plane and then a cab to reach the wonderfully lovely town of Fort Kochi across the breadth of which were strewn the venues for this year's installations enunciating "Whorled Explorations". 94 artists from 30 countries held court for a hundred and eight days across thirty venues.
Even as I disembarked prepared to be impressed, the superbly humid Kochi weather seeped slowly into my skull, rendering inchoate my cultural ambitions. Kochi is by the sea, the month was February, and we were catching summer in all its ambitious force. Our charming inn-keeper had been pretty certain over the phone when confirming our booking that we would not need an air-conditioned room. It's a good thing he left the choice open. The air-conditioning was all that lay between us and a lifetime vow to never pursue art. Spoilt; I know.
The curatorial note for the Biennale reads thus, "Two chronologically overlapping, but perhaps directly unrelated, historical episodes in Kerala during the 14th to 17th Centuries become parallel points of departure for Whorled Explorations. Drawing from them, allusions to the historical and the cosmological recur throughout the exhibition like exaggerated extensions to gestures we make when we try to see or understand something. We either go close to it or move away from it in space, to see it clearly; we also reflect back or forth in time to understand the present. Whorled Explorations draws upon this act of deliberation, across axes of time and space to interlace the bygone with the imminent, the terrestrial with the celestial."
Having glanced at this note, and having seen more words than I could connect to objects in the world, I did what every good art walker does. I bought myself a catalogue and decided to get us some breakfast. Bright and early one Saturday morning, we found our way to the neighborhood café for thick slices of buttered toast, cheese, and coffee. Thus fortified, we found our way to the largest venue of the Biennale, Aspinwall House.
Everything after that is a magical blur. Room after room of magnificently curated exhibits awakened brain cells that I did not know existed. The note began to make sense. This year's installations were all perched at that strange, delicate, edge of ideology, history, historiography, myth, and discovery. The pieces reminded us that discovery and scientific knowledge are intimately connected to both the work of imagination, but also the work of power. Fantasy and utopia are escapes, but are also critiques. We need a scalar vision to both understand and dismiss the location of our sometimes paltry, and sometimes wonderful desires in the world.
Charles and Ray Eames' 1977 film, "The Power of One" for example, beamed us out of the world, beginning at a Chicago park and zooming out every few seconds by the power of ten, until our gaze floated at the edge of a universe, and then zoomed us right back in, vertigo and all, into the everyday scene of a family lounging outside on a summer day. I haven't been this wonderstruck since a childhood jaunt to the Science Museum. Susanta Mandal's sculptures titled, "Where have all the stories gone?" made slow soap bubbles. A gaggle of school children and I stood transfixed, mouths agape, hoping someone would come by selling cotton candy. Janine Antoni's video installation, "Touch" had the artist walking a tightrope at the edge of the beach, creating the arguably optical illusion of her walking the horizon.
Three days and the firing of many synapses later, I returned to home and hearth and wondered about the role of art in the world. Even as I am a dedicated museum-er, I am also aware of the ways in which elite, exclusive spaces define art in its adequacy and translatability. Yet, across the biennale, I saw groups of families, children, photographers, interested parties of all ages and persuasions, curious and gazing. Normative understandings of the theme of the Biennale aside, surely these objects did something for everybody? Surely, in the absence of any common, protracted engagement, the object could be enough?
What is art? Do we define it by its fetish object, its ability to be magical, its meaning making function, or its "auratic" presence comprising all of the above and then some? Is a building art? Is a painting art? Are the little squiggles made by the little kid on my neighbor's compound walls art? Democracy would entail that I answer yes to all the above, but then I lose specificity (God forbid!). So for purposes of exigency and this highly limited set of pontifications, let's assume that art is self-conscious. So, to begin with, we are assuming a certain distance; art stands apart even as it is part of the world. We need art even if we are not completely agreed on the parameters of evaluation or even on its definition.
Further, art needs support. To say this, of course, is to either deny or to admit to the consummately capitalist nature of the world we live in and therefore to say one of the following (a) Works of art must be allowed reprieve from the vagaries of supply and demand, (b) Why should art escape commodification? Markets dictate taste; in other words, shape up or ship out.
I'm afraid I fall rather squarely on the side of (a), mainly because the market and its rather droll logics neither appeal to my aesthetics nor to my humanity. As Benjamin writes, "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art", indicating therefore Max Weber's discussion on the loss of magic in a world disenchanted by the advent of capitalism and consumption. But then, if placing myself within the confines of an "art for art's sake", I am also hoping, indeed insisting that there is an art qua art outside the mechanics of the market, and this, I am not so willing to stake my paltry scholarship upon. The categories I discuss above are neither mutually exclusive nor clearly delineated. All forms of art can be bought and sold and they do bear some sort of function with the economy, especially when trucked in "for art's sake". They are within the clutches of market and patronage and can neither be considered above nor completely within. In other words, I have successfully argued myself into a corner.
Somehow, discussing the "role" of art makes it seem so, well, blase. As if, everything in this world ought to have a "role". What of the appendix then? Or colored bandages? Or koi fish? So then, does art have a point? I am going to be slightly sneaky here and borrow from a forever ongoing debate on the role of the humanities and its continued relevance in the world as we know it, a world of hard-headed utilitarianism and efficiency. Anthony T. Kronman, a professor at Yale Law School, argues that the humanities' initial and essential role in higher education should be to address the deeper questions of the meaning of life. Gayatri Spivak emphasizes that the only hope of reclaiming the arts "from the investment circuit" lies in the painstaking work of criticism and support that the humanities undertakes. Even more infamously and exclusively, Stanley Fish claimed that the humanities "cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them."
Let me quote further from Fish before returning to our original discussion,"You can't argue that a state's economy will benefit by a new reading of "Hamlet." You can't argue – well you can, but it won't fly – that a graduate who is well-versed in the history of Byzantine art will be attractive to employers (unless the employer is a museum). You can talk as Bethany does about "well rounded citizens," but that ideal belongs to an earlier period, when the ability to refer knowledgeably to Shakespeare or Gibbon or the Thirty Years War had some cash value (the sociologists call it cultural capital). Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people." He thus concludes with the equivalent to the God argument -- if you don't know God already, then there is no way you will know God. On the other side of the fence, we can always find gems such as these, "When a poet creates a vaccine or a tangible good that can be produced by a Fortune 500 company, I'll rescind my comment."
So then, what does art do for us? Is it, like the humanities, that which will nudge us ever so gently to continue examining the meaning of life? Is it but representation clad sublime? Does thinking about art render its location in the world counterintuitive?
But the Biennale was so much more to my naïve gaze. It was deeply political. And I do not mean politics in the narrow version of a card-carrying anything, but rather, in the sense of what Hannah Arendt might call the opposite of totalitarianism. In other words, politics becomes the necessary condition to find solutions, albeit messy, albeit incomplete, but solutions nevertheless to the inequities of the world.Outside the confines of the Biennale, things burst forth on the streets of Kochi. There were critiques of the Biennale, KFC, capitalism, and the Man. The student Biennale screamed with things unsaid, words unfinished, seams tattered, and hands unpaid. Heat and humidity and the city were all efflorescent with the spirit of enchantment.
Monday, June 01, 2015
The Current Spike in Baltimore Violence
by Akim Reinhardt
As has been widely reported, May was an exceptionally violent month here in Baltimore. The city has witnessed dozens shootings and 38 murders. That is the most murders in any one month since 1996.
Such a spate of violence is certainly worth reporting, and the national media has been quick to pick up on it. However, many media outlets are also drawing lazy connections to the riot and protests that took place several weeks back.
The typical analysis, whether implied or explicit, goes something like this.
There was a riot in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody. The riot amplified already troubled relations between Baltimore's African American community and its police force. The police, unhappy about the indictment of six officers in the Gray case, are staging a work slowdown. The result is tremendous violence across the city.
Examples are: here, here, here, here, and here.
This brand of analysis is not factually wrong. Some of those statements may be a bit vague, but they're wrong in and of themselves. However, when those those facts are strung together in this manner, the narrative they produce is just a bit too facile to offer a penetrating explanation for recent upswing in violence.
The problem with such an analysis is that it's:
- Too focused on the present to account and fails to account for historical forces, and;
- Too narrow in the way it corrals all the immediate factors but fails to make room for larger structural forces
All of this leads to questions bout causality. For example, to what extent could Baltimore's bloody May be part of a seasonal burst of violence that has taken place across the country?
And how, exactly, does a bad relationship between black Baltimoreans and Baltimore police directly lead to more black-on-black murders (which is mostly what has happened)? Black people don't trust cops, so now they're murdering each other more? That seems like a very peculiar correlation to make.
Finally, what constitutes a police slowdown? Baltimore police lodged about 55 arrests per day in May. That's certainly way down from the 126 per day they averaged in May, 2014, but what kind of arrests are we talking about? We need to differentiate between the quantity of arrests and quality of arrests, an issue not discussed in any of the coverage I've seen.
That's not to dismiss the effects of a police slowdown. There's clearly one in play, and as the month has wound down and the statistics have become more gruesome, police spokespeople are beginning to publicly acknowledge the slowdown, and blame it on city officials. Their justification was recently summed up by Lt. Gene Ryan, President of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, who claimed police officers "are more afraid of going to jail for doing their jobs properly than they are of getting shot on duty."
Make of that statement what you will. But regardless, the question lingers: How exactly does the police slowdown actually relate to the rising murder rate?
The big mistake many analysts are making is to imply that it's causally related. As if police not doing their job makes people want to kill each other more. But the actual connection, as one local journalist told me, might boil down to this: As the police back off, an increased level of lawlessness gives people the opportunity to deal with old grudges.
In other words, the prior heightened police presence may have been problematic in many ways, but it also served to clamp down on violence, at least to some degree. And so the diminished police presence does not activity doesn't spur more violence, but temporarily releases the pressure valve; outstanding scores are getting settled.
Ah, but then why are there so many old scores to settle?
Listing the recent events in Baltimore, and then stirring them into a causal swirl that supposedly explains May's increased murder tally, it far too simplistic.
It's just not enough to say there were bad policing policies and bad community-police relations, which led to Freddie Gray's death, which led to protests, which led to a riot, which led to more protests and public outcries, which led to the indictment of six officers, which led to a police slowdown, which has now caused a historic rise in the Baltimore murder rate.
After all, in April Baltimore endured 22 murders. There were another 23 amid the bitter cold of January. In other words, this here city is a pretty murderous place.
So what might be a more logical explanation for the May murders than to simply say everything since Freddie Gray's death is causally connected? What larger forces help us understand the base violence that afflicts this city, regardless of the protests or Gray's death or cops doing bad things or cops not doing enough things?
My instinct is to look at what usually causes murderous violence in Baltimore and many other American cities: the drug war. And indeed, my local journalist contact corroborated my instinct, alluding to this as probably being a vital factor in the May murder spree.
In other words, the police slowdown, which stems from all those other factors, has merely made possible the rise in murders. But what's actually driving the vast majority of these killings is the same thing that's driven them for decades: the drug trade.
I mean, come one now. All those old scores getting settled aren't about neighbors at a Memorial Day barbeque getting pissed off over borrowed lawn equipment that never got returned. It's violence stemming from the dug trade and drug war.
As I discussed in my previous 3QD articles about Baltimore (here and here), the poverty and violence that afflicts this city has two major components:
- The poverty of a decimated blue collar economy gutted by de-industrialization and mechanization.
- The violence resulting from the criminalization of drugs and the federally funded drug war, which has unleashed a nearly unfathomable wave of incarceration and bloodletting.
So when we note that Baltimore has seen a 19 year-high in its monthly murder rate, we also need to acknowledge that Baltimore has consistently produced one of the highest murder rates in the country for over two decades now, thanks in large part to widespread poverty, the illegal drug economy, and the drug war, which foment an endless cycle of turf battles, revenge killings, and sundry other motives for violence.
Baltimore has logged at least 200 murders per year, or very close to it, every year for nearly four decades, even as its population as sunk from nearly a million to barely 620,000. Some years the total number of murders is near or over 300, which is how 2015 is now shaping up. As a result, Baltimore usually hovers around the nation's top 5 in per capita murder rate among cities with more than 100,000 people.
And like every other year for the past several decades, most of those murders are a result of the drug trade and the drug war.
Which is why, as this map makes abundantly clear, nearly all of the shootings that take place in Baltimore are in neighborhoods saturated with drug traffic. Note on the map how shootings are almost entirely absent from the monied (middle class and up), mostly white corridor of neighborhoods that runs down the center of the city east of the Jones Falls Expressway (I-83) and west of Greenmount/York Avenue (highway 45), all the way down to the harbor and then eastward along either side of the water. There, one sees no shootings listed at all.
Instead, the shootings are clustered in well known hot spots for the drug trade in east and west Baltimore. That is also where the recent surge in shootings and murders has been.
In other words, what the May murders probably represent is a slight up tick in business as usual in the town we sometimes call Bodymore, Murderland a.k.a. Harm City a.k.a. the City that Bleeds a.k.a. Mob Town. The politicians feign righteous indignation whenever someone mentions these sobriquets, but the bloody truth is, no one from the outside gave them to us; Baltimore gave itself these nicknames, and we use them knowingly.
The drug war is likely the most important historical and structural factor explaining Baltimore's juiced murder rate for May. Yet it has gone completely unmentioned in all of the national press reporting I've encountered.
This omission is both frustrating and depressing, and I can’t help but think the media silence about drug violence reflects a society scared of facing up to the truth about itself. That we are a society riven by fear, and those fears lead us to turn away from obviously truths. And that it’s easier to be afraid than it is to think about what the real causes are and what we can do to reverse them.
It's easier for well-to-do people to be scared of poor people. For white people, and those minorities aspiring to be white, to be scared of black people. For suburbanites and country people to be scared of city people. For the educated to be scared of the dropouts. For those with cars to be scared of those who ride the bus. For people who speak and dress and listen to music like this to be scared of people who speak and dress and listen to music like that.
All of that is easier than owning up to the mess that we, as a society, have partially created, and which we, as a society, can at least partially fix. It's easier than admitting that political decisions our democratically elected leaders have made and implemented during the past several decades have contributed mightily to oppression that leads to incidents like Freddie Gray's death, to the segregation of crime and violence in cities like Baltimore, and even to the startling rate of murders that consistently mars them.
In other words, it's easy for us to lump all of these various tragedies and disruptions together, from Gray's death to the riot to the protests to the indictments to the police slowdown to the spike in murders, and claim the share a causal relationship. What's hard is for us to acknowledge are the common threads that we as a society have sewn to unify them, like so much stale popcorn on a browning Christmas tree.
But all of it, the specifics of the Gray tragedy, the consistently high murder rate, and the generally bad cop-civilian relations in affected areas, are not part of some inevitable horror. Nor are they merely feeding each other in a vacuum. Rather, they're all directly related to the drug war. It's really pretty simple.
If there weren't an absolutist prohibition on drugs like cocaine and heroin, there wouldn't be a lucrative black market for them, with life-threatening risks and outsized rewards for dealers. Forget the job creation and tax revenues that would come with legalization, or the dwindling drug profits (marijuana prices have dropped by roughly a third in the three states where its recreational use is now legal). Simply decriminalizing and responsibly regulating such drugs would greatly reduce the flood of mostly young black and brown men being sent to prison, and would also eliminate much of the violence.
If drug addicts who lose control of their lives, like alcoholics who do the same, were sent to rehab instead of prison, and if government regulation allowed for a functional drug market instead of the medieval style thug market that currently exists for the exclusive benefit of violent criminals, then all sorts of human misery up to and including the endless parade of murder, might be seriously mitigated.
If I really wanted to get moralistic, then this is the part of the essay where I would point out the hypocrisy of our comparatively lenient laws on alcohol, a drug that causes a horrifying amount of damage to our society. Or I could even talk about the laws for dangerous prescription medications, which allow companies to pimp them like sexy tic tacs.
But it's the second decade of the 21st century, and I think those hypocrisies should be readily obvious to all but the most obstinate among us. As should be the effects of the drug war.
So instead of moralizing, I'd like to train our gaze on what we so often turn away from: The firm fact that so much of America's misery is the result of American policies. That, to a large degree, we have created our own horror, and we have both the power and responsibility to ameliorate it.
In order to do that, we need to stop pretending that something like the current round of murders in Baltimore is really that unusual, or that it's even a direct result of the Freddie Gray tragedy and its aftermath. While there is likely an indirect connection to current police practices, the larger truth is a consistent one.
Baltimore has suffered under one of the nation's highest large-city murder rates for several decades. And that is the direct consequence of a toxic combination of widespread poverty and the drug war. To pretend otherwise is either to be profoundly ignorant, very scared, or worse, intellectually dishonest.
I have no idea how to fix the economy. I don't really think anyone does. But neutering much of the violence is a relatively a simple matter: End the drug war.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Lieko Shiga. Rasen kaigan (Spiral Shore), 46, 2011, from the series Rasen kaigan (Spiral Shore), 2011.
Photograph, digital print.
"The Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, and an enormous wave of water swept through towns in the Tōhoku (Northeast) region, destroying virtually everything in its path and irrevocably damaging the Fukushima nuclear power plant. This triple disaster was of such epic proportions that it became a defining moment for Japan. A number of photographers felt compelled to record not only the events’ physical effects on the land, but also to interpret the overarching significance of the tragedy through art. ..."
Part of current exhibition titled In The Wake at MFA, Boston.
Why Did America Kill Hundreds Of Thousands Of Iraqi Women And Children? Ask Jeb Bush
by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
But he got asked the wrong question.
The right question to ask Jeb Bush is this:
"How dare you run for president when you should be dying of shame instead, because your brother is a war criminal?"
We seemed to have banished simple morality from all our discussions of public policy.
We call the Iraq War our "most serious foreign policy blunder" instead of what it really was: a war crime. An evil deed conceived by evil men because Saddam Hussein cut oil deals with Russian, French and other foreign oil companies, instead of with American oil companies — a snub that our two Texas oil men in charge, Bush and Cheney, could not abide. So they committed a war crime, and lied our whole country into their war crime.
Their act of evil makes the all-too-often-invoked Nazi analogy applicable to America. Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice-Powell are the mini-Hitlers of our time, and our country, America, is the Nazi Germany of our time, because of the war crime of the Iraq War. Because of our evil, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi women and children are dead.
We are a nation steeped in evil.
We are the biggest manufacturers and sellers of arms in the world. We export evil to an evil regime like Saudi-Arabia, the country that funded 9/11 and beheads women for adultery.
We have a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, who took years to apologize for her vote to allow Bush and company to commit the evil of the Iraq War.
We had another female secretary of state, Madeline Albright, who was an apologist for evil on "60 Minutes" in December 1996. Read this exchange and weep:
Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?"
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it."
We have our American Psychological Association in cahoots with our government in practicing torture. American psychologists — instruments of evil.
We have a police force who goes around shooting a black 12-year-old in a park playing with a toy gun stone-dead, and another black man running away in the back: a police force with trigger-happy racist evil doers in its midst. According to a black ex-cop, 15% of our cops will abuse their authority at every opportunity, 15% won't, and the other 70% will go either way, depending on how much their department has been corroded by the 15% who abuse their authority. (Personally, I think it's crazy to give young men in their 20s a gun and the authority to use it, when their brains haven't fully developed yet. Cops should NOT be allowed to carry guns till they're 30.)
We put a woman of conscience in jail for 30 years because she revealed to us the evil that our military wreaked in Iraq. We've done evil unto Chelsea Manning, when all she did was expose our evil.
We have an ex-president. Bill Clinton, who did nothing about a holocaust happening in Rwanda — a man who allowed monstrous evil to happen on his watch.
We experience a gunman's mass-killing of little children in Sandy Hook, and do nothing about gun control, because our politicians fear an evil organization, the NRA.
We believe it's OK to make a profit out of people getting sick. Our entire health insurance industry is an industry of evil.
We have a political party, the Republican Party, who is the face of pure evil. Because they hate our black president and his signature achievement, Obamacare, so much, many Republican governors refuse to expand Medicaid to poor people in their states (which will cost their states nothing), and so cause the unnecessary deaths of 17.000 Americans a year. The Republicans: a party who would kill their own people out of hate for our president. A party of stunning evil.
We have a teenage Pakistani girl, Malala, telling our president to stop his drone killings, but our president won't listen, because he likes his little evil habit of drone killings too much, and doesn't care that his drones kill more innocent folks than actual evil folks.
Verily, America is the exceptional nation. We Americans behave like the scum of the earth, and we don't even know it, let alone acknowledge it.
So let's take a look at our biggest war crime since the Vietnam War (which plunged Cambodia into a holocaust):
The Iraq War.
Why did we commit this deed of utter evil? Why did we kill innocent Iraqi women and children by the hundreds of thousands?
There are seven reasons why we invaded Iraq. Four of the reasons were real, and they were hidden from the American people. The remaining three were fake ones Bush and Co. used to bamboozle us — or as the pundits say, "to mislead us into war."
1. THE REAL CHENEY REASON: OIL
As CEO of Halliburton, Cheney shared the mindset of Texas oil barons. For them, Iraq was a mouth-watering treasure ripe for pillage.
In Cheney's Halliburton days, Iraq was producing almost three million barrels a day. However, there was potential for much more. Within 20 years, its oil fields could, if fully exploited, reach Saudi levels (full-steam, that's 11 million barrels a day).
So there was Iraq, "floating on a sea of oil" — this rich, plump, juicy plum.
Iraq was socialist. The state owned the oil. And the state was ruled by a two-bit dictator. He had to go: so let's invade Iraq and secure its oil fields for our oil companies.
Not that there's anything inherently evil about invading a country for its oil, especially if the invasion can be said to be some sort of liberation. It might be bad manners, but it's a good reason. Oil is oil. We use it, so maybe it ought to be ours to start with. You can do what you want with your country, as long as we get to pump out your oil. The only problem with this good reason: It doesn't sound all that good. Too damn mercenary. A scary, fake reason was needed to cover up the real reason.
2. THE FAKE CHENEY REASON: WMD
Paul Wolfowitz famously called WMD the "bureaucratic" reason for the war. In other words, not the real reason.
The question is, did Cheney himself believe his hype?
Let's consider the known facts. Cheney was looking for a reason to sell his oil war. He was bugging the CIA to come up with evidence that Saddam had to be taken out. He was grabbing on to the slightest hint, the merest rumor — on to any scrap of information, any data, any source, no matter how compromised or dubious. "Curveball," by all accounts an alcoholic, "crazy, congenital liar," was the source for Saddam's biological weapons, but the mobile labs turned out to be trucks that made helium for weather balloons.
Why would Cheney believe any of this crap when he had his good reason already – oil — and didn't need WMD to be a good reason, as long as it was enough of a reason to sell the country?
So he started the war before the UN could finish its investigation. And to stop any truth-telling, he went so far as to commit treason by leaking the identity of a whistleblower and former ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife, who happened to be a covert CIA agent.
Cheney and Chalabi, his Iraqi source who wanted a war so he could take over Saddam's job, fed their WMD "facts" to journalist Judy Miller, who dutifully wrote them up for publication in The New York Times.
The next day, if anyone asked Cheney about WMD – say, another reporter, or Tim Russert on TV — Cheney would quote the Times as a reliable source that reported that Saddam had WMD.
Slick. They even conned poor Colin Powell into trying to sell their story to the UN.
Cheney had a whole task force devoted to selling the war to the public: the White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, which met weekly in the White House Situation Room. What a crew: Andrew Card, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, Condi Rice, Karen Hughes, and Mary Matalin – bare-faced liars who'd bullshit their own grandmothers insisting that they were virgins while fresh sperm was running down the insides of their guilty thighs.
When it was revealed that there were no WMD, Cheney and his conspiracy neatly sidestepped all responsibility and pointed at the CIA — acting like they'd been sheepishly fooled, and shaking their heads sorrowfully over the CIA's "faulty intelligence."
The New York Times duly reported this "fact," too. Having helped the warmakers to sell the war, our proud newspaper of record then helped these same instigators escape responsibility by blaming everything on the CIA.
A huge hew and cry was instigated over the CIA's "incompetence." George Tenet dutifully fell on his sword and was rewarded for his loyalty with a Medal of Freedom by the president himself.
"We were all wrong," they chorused. No, they weren't all wrong.
There were the bullshitters and the bullshitten. The bullshitters knew, and the bullshitten didn't. The whole hype was neatly flagged by the president himself when he made a funny film for reporters of him looking for WMD under the furniture at the White House and not finding a thing. Only a man who didn't believe any of it in the first place could make jokes about it.
Wink-wink, nod-nod: See me make fun of my own bullshit.
3. THE REAL BUSH REASON: VINDICATE HIS FAMILY'S NAME
Bush, also an oil man, subscribed to Cheney's oil reason – hadn't Texas oil companies given him $50 million to run for president? But he had his own reasons for wanting a war with Iraq before he even became governor of Texas.
For George W. Bush, son of George H.W. Bush, this was personal.
His dad had made war on Saddam. His dad did not like Saddam. The feeling was mutual. Saddam had tried to kill his dad. Saddam was a bad guy. A boogieman.
His dad had expected one of two things to happen after the Gulf War: that a Shiite uprising would topple Saddam, or that the Iraqi officer corps would remove Saddam for screwing up by exposing them to a war with America (the way the elite steps in and removes anyone who fails them).
But Saddam survived. The bastard was alive and well and taunting America. His survival was a personal blow to the Bush family prestige. Bush wanted to vindicate his family and "take out Saddam." The defier of America and the Bush family had to go.
4. THE FAKE BUSH REASON: 9/11
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks gave Bush a good fake reason to invade Iraq. He let it be known that Saddam was connected to 9/11, and cloaked the Iraq War in the mantle of a pre-emptive war on terror.
Former US government official and counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke revealed that Bush had asked him to find out if Saddam had anything to do with 9/11 right after it happened — even when Clarke told him there was no connection. (Actually, Saudis were behind it, but Bush allowed the Saudi royals — two-generational friends of the Bush family – to refuse the FBI access to any suspects in their country.)
Bush only had to hint at a connection between 9/11 and boogieman Saddam, and the rest of the country ran with it. A despairing American public wanted to believe it, so they did. Even after Bush himself admitted that there was no connection, more than 40% of the country still believed there was one.
5. THE REAL KARL ROVE REASON: RE-ELECTION
When Karl Rove watched Margaret Thatcher fight a teeny war in the Falklands in 1982, he noticed that her popularity soared because of it. A war can make you popular. Rove, now White House Senior Adviser, knew the best way to assure his boss's re-election was to make Bush a wartime president. The country always rallies behind a president at war.. A second term would give Rove the opportunity to push his far-right agenda through, starting with the destruction of Social Security.
6. THE REAL WOLFOWITZ REASON: U.S. EMPIRE
The other good but covert reason (like oil) was the neocon reason: to establish a US empire after we won the Cold War, when Russia couldn't check our imperial ambitions anymore. The neocons even had a cute name for our empire: the Pax Americana.
In 1992, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had a strategy report drafted for the Department of Defense, written by Paul Wolfowitz, then Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy.
In it, the US government was urged, as the world's sole remaining superpower, to move aggressively and militarily around the globe. The report called for pre-emptive attacks and ad hoc coalitions, but said that the US should be ready to act alone when "collective action cannot be orchestrated."
The central strategy was to "establish and protect a new order" that accounts "sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership," while at the same time maintaining a military dominance capable of "deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."
An imperial posture. Hubris of the highest order. The doctrine of a python fixing to hypnotize a helpless rat.
Wolfowitz outlined plans for military intervention in Iraq as an action necessary to assure "access to vital raw material, primarily Persian Gulf oil" and to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and threats from terrorism.
In 1997, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) was founded to press for this new strategy –- and for a war with Iraq. (The PNAC's members were Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Condi Rice, John Bolton, Richard Armitage, Elliot Abrams, Douglas Feith, James Woolsey, Scooter Libby and Zalmay Kahlilzad — now US Ambassador in Iraq.)
The PNAC urged:
a) a policy of "preemptive" war — i.e., whenever the US thinks a country may be amassing too much power or could provide some sort of competition in the "benevolent hegemony" region, it can be attacked, without provocation.
b) nuclear weapons would no longer be considered defensive, but could be used offensively in support of political/economic ends; so-called "mini-nukes" could be employed in these regional wars.
c) international treaties and opinion will be ignored whenever they are not seen to serve U.S. imperial goals.
d) The new policies "will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia."
In September 2000, with Cheney now VP, the Project released its grand plan for the future in a report titled "Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century."
It reads like a clear prescription for empire.
The report begins with the premise that "The United States is the world's only superpower, combining preeminent military power, global technological leadership, and the world's largest economy ... America's grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible."
The report recommends new missions for the US armed forces, including a dominant nuclear capability with a new generation of nuclear weapons, sufficient combat forces to fight and win multiple major wars, and forces for "constabulary duties" around the world with American rather than UN leadership.
Hey, we've got to rule the world, y'all. As owners of the biggest military dick, we've got to wave it over the world's heads for all to see and fellate.
The report states that "the presence of American forces in critical regions around the world is the visible expression of the extent of America's status as a superpower" and proposes "a network of 'deployment bases' or 'forward operating bases' to increase the reach of current and future forces."
(Currently the US has over 800 military bases and deployments in different countries around the world, with the most recent major increase being in the Caspian Sea/Afghanistan/Middle East areas. Call it a Pax Americana if you want, but the real name for this is empire. Or evil empire.)
As for the Persian Gulf, the report says "the United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein … Over the long term, Iran may well prove as large a threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf as Iraq has."
Making no secret of its imperial posture, the report baldly remarks that "the failure to prepare for tomorrow's challenges will ensure that the current Pax Americana comes to an early end."
To further its ambition for a US empire, the PNAC channeled millions of taxpayer dollars to a Saddam opposition group called the Iraqi National Congress, which was formed by Iraq's self-styled leader-in-waiting Ahmed Chalabi. (The Project overlooked the fact that Jordan sentenced Chalabi in absentia to 22 years in prison on 31 counts of bank fraud). Chalabi's INC had been gaining support for its cause by promising oil contracts to anyone who helped put them on top in Iraq.
The Cheney oil conspiracy couldn't have wished for a better partner. The PNAC reckoned a Chalabi-led American protectorate in Iraq was needed to:
a) acquire control of the oil heads to fund the entire enterprise.
b) fire a warning shot across the bows of every leader in the Middle East.
c) establish a military staging area for the eventual invasion and overthrow of several Middle Eastern regimes, even those who were US allies.
In the September 2002 issue of his journal, Commentary, editor and fellow neocon Norman Podhoretz writes that the regimes "that richly deserve to be overthrown and replaced, are not confined to the three singled-out members of the axis of evil. At a minimum, the axis should extend to Syria and Lebanon and Libya, as well as 'friends' of America like the Saudi royal family and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, along with the Palestinian Authority, whether headed by Arafat or one of his henchmen." This, he says, is all about "the long-overdue internal reform and modernization of Islam."
So this was the theory of empire in the Middle East.
The hard plan was to get a US company, Brown & Root, in there to build permanent American military bases.
Cheney's Halliburton and Brown & Root have worked cheek-by-jowl with governments in Algeria, Angola, Bosnia, Burma, Croatia, Haiti, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Somalia during terrible times for these countries. Many environmental and human rights groups say that Cheney, Halliburton and Brown & Root were central to these terrible times. Brown & Root was contracted by the Defense Department to build cells for detainees in Guantanamo Bay for $300 million (sounds like one more overcharge, doesn't it?). Another company with a vested interest in both a war on Iraq and massively increased defense spending is the Carlyle Group. Former President George H. W. Bush was himself employed by Carlyle as a senior advisor, as was long-time Bush family advisor James Baker III.
7. THE FAKE WOLFOWITZ REASON: FREEDOM FOR IRAQ
On May 7, 2005, Bush heralded a remarkable change in his Iraq policy in a speech in Russia of all places:
"We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability. We have learned our lesson; no one's liberty is expendable. In the long run, our security and true stability depend on the freedom of others. And so, with confidence and resolve, we will stand for freedom across the broader Middle-East."
This was a remarkable rhetorical about-face. Suddenly Bush was saying that instead of boning the Middle-East with a blood-hard military dick, he was going to zip up America's pants. Why this 180-degree turn?
Let's go back to what happened after the administration rigged a brilliant photo-op by staging the "spontaneous" pulling down of the Saddam statue and declared "mission accomplished" with Bush in a pilot outfit, his testicles deftly strapped to show a bulging package.
At first the Cheney conspiracy moved quickly to impose its neocon vision of empire on Iraq (even though, to its great surprise, our troops weren't welcomed with flowers as liberators, as Chalabi had promised). When the first viceroy, General Garner, a great friend of the Kurds, wanted to have elections, they pulled him out pronto, like an unwanted pig from their ripe little pasture. They sent in Paul Bremer instead with a list of instructions. He worked on establishing voting caucuses in various areas, with the voting taking place in a controlled manner over a number of months – a rather obvious attempt to rig elections in favor of US-paid cronies. Even after a smokescreen of tasking the UN to pick an Iraq leader, the US still foisted their own stooge on everyone, Dr. Ayad Alawi, who happened to be a former CIA-controlled Iraqi agent.
Bremer also decreed an entirely new economy. Corporate taxes were capped at 15%. Anyone could buy a business in Iraq and repatriate their profits. The stage was set for Texas to take over Iraq's oil fields. Bremer's decrees guaranteed the perfect Republican business-friendly state. The people would not necessarily be free, but the business people sure would.
In the event, these economic decrees turned out to be mere wishes on paper for empire. Because most disastrously, Bremer enacted two real-world decrees:
a) Urged on by Chalabi, he fired all the Sunni Baathists in government – the entire bureaucratic leadership who were actually running the country. In one instant, he created the insurgency, and gave them their leaders.
b) He fired the army too, and created the foot soldiers of the insurgency, as well as providing its weapons.
With these two acts of epic psychopathology, Bremer destroyed all security in Iraq. More: he nuked the entire fabric of a working Iraqi society, and ensured a rebellion (a mini-civil war between Shiites and Sunnis, with the Kurds ready to hive off into their own state). It ended up in the creation of ISIS by former fired Baathist generals, who today are set to take over Syria and Iraq.
It's got to be the most ham-handed, thoughtless act of modern history. It would have been better for Iraq if Bremer had covered its entire landmass in a six-inch coat of hillbilly diarrhea imported from Kentucky.
But then reality stepped in big-time to slap all US imperial pretensions back into the dark bunghole they'd steamed from. The leading Iraqi cleric, a doddering old codger from Iran, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, got pissed at America for trying to rig elections. He demanded a same-day general election by all Iraqi citizens. He called out his followers, the 60% Shiite majority who'd been oppressed by Saddam, and they marched in thunderous protest against America's gerrymandering.
Abruptly, power switched — from the occupiers to the occupied. The Shiite majority flexed its muscles; the imperial Cheney oil conspiracy was forced to blink.
8. UNFORESEEN: THE LAW OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
''Wars generate their own momentum and follow the law of unintended consequences," Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, once wrote.
Damn right. With al-Sistani and his Shiite majority calling foul, Chalabi was no longer an option (especially since he'd been unmasked as being an agent for Iran all along). Establishing military bases became more difficult. Most frustrating of all, divvying up Iraq's oil riches for Texas became less likely.
The administration was stumped; it couldn't go against 60% of the occupied. General elections were announced. In the election, they managed to rig a goodly chunk of votes for their stooge Alawi, but not enough to save his ass. A rigid Shiite won. Al-Sistani had single-handedly saved his nation from a US puppet government.
The real reasons for the war – oil and empire — were marching right out the door, leaving their holders bereft, and one of the fake reasons walked in and said, hey, I'm the only reason left for you to be in Iraq. So now freedom for Iraq turned out to be why we were in Iraq. This was the last thing the Cheney conspiracy had in mind.
Ironically, the fake reason of freedom killed the real reasons. Ironically, the folks who never wanted nation-building, who never prepared for it, suddenly found themselves doing it.
Needed: a new rhetoric to put an engaging face on this humongous, unforeseen f-up. Hence, Bush's speech. We're getting shat on, but we're smiling about it, all upbeat and bravado-positive, trying to ignore the Shiite crap in our teeth.
America went from the "paranoid style in American politics" during the Cold War to the post-9/11 swagger of the Bush "unilateral" style to what may now be called the "helpless giant" style. Instead of dominating the world, we're helping it to defy us.
Talk about the chuckling irony of history. We thought we were going to bone the planet, but now we're the ones being boned big-time — with Iraq as the world's most uncomfortable dick shoved right up our asses. Instead of guaranteeing our empire, the Cheney conspiracy has guaranteed its downfall. In the end, absolute power has turned out to be absolutely powerless.
For the ancient Greeks, hubris unerringly invited tragedy. But our hubris cannot even console itself with the dignity of tragedy.
We've ended up with something merely pathetic. Blame the nature of our hubris, which is not high-born, but sprouts instead from the shallow soil of our lust for oil and from the pitiful vainglory of us masturbating the biggest military phallus on earth. No nobility there. Only things grubby and mean.
Meanwhile our warrior kids, whose mothers live among us, got their faces blown off by explosive devices over there. For no noble cause at all. For the vanity of oil and empire. They died in vain, sacrificed by Bush-Cheney for absolutely nothing. Tragically, we lack the moral dimension one needs for true tragedy. We lack the heroism we demand of our troops. We're a nation of moral dwarves, starting with war criminals Bush, Cheney et al.
And now a brother of a war criminal will be running for president. And neither he, nor we, will raise an eyebrow in protest against this outcome of evil.
Cry, my beloved country. You were duped into war. You let down your sons and daughters. The stink of your grubby reasons will follow you for decades to come. Would that there was some miracle detergent to wash your hands clean. But there isn't. There is only the smell of blood crying out to you from countless graves -- thousands of our soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi women and children.