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  1. Money Where Your Mouth Is
  2. Free Views -- Ken Kewley
  3. Postmodern Fairy Tales
  4. A Rising Vote of Thanks
  5. David Frum and Richard Skinner on George W.
  6. Modern Architecture and Sexual Anxiety
  7. Free Reads -- Caitlin Flanagan on Sexless Marriages
  8. A Modest Proposal Regarding Taxes
  9. Pic of the Day

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Friday, March 7, 2003

Money Where Your Mouth Is
Michael: I don't often find myself laughing out loud at much on the NY Times' op-ed page, but I can't help but quote from one rather interesting piece by Michael Walzer, "What a Little War in Iraq Could Do." Mr. Walzer's basic premise is that the U.S. could steer a middle course between full-scale invasion or backing down in the face of Iraqi-French-Russian intransigence by using a little war strategy: extending the no-fly zone to the entirety of Iraq, guarding once-inspected Iraqi premises with U.N. troops to ensure no return to WMD production, putting in place "smart sanctions" unilaterally and retaliating against countries that violate them, and insisting that France, in particular, show that it is serious by sending troops to the Gulf. Otherwise, what [the French] are saying is that if things get very bad, they will unleash the American army. I'm not sure Mr. Walzer is being intentionally witty, but he hit the nail of French self-centeredness on the head with that stroke. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at March 7, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Free Views -- Ken Kewley
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- For all the bitching I do, and enjoy doing, about the carrying-on of the self-proclaimed art world, I nonetheless fairly often run across current artists whose work I enjoy. (My batting average may be lousy, but I do occasionally connect.) Surprise: they often aren't artists whom the critics or profs take much -- or any -- note of, which sometimes makes me wonder if my real complaint isn't so much with the art world itself as with the opinion-making class. But -- hurried, cowardly and lazy soul that I am -- I'm not going to wrestle with that question now. Back to the talent. Ken Kewley is one of my recent finds. I saw one of his shows about a year ago. Here's a decent selection of his work; here's his own website, also featuring a good selection. These are pop-up images, so be sure to click on them to see larger versions of these images. But the pictures in real life are also very small -- about three by five inches. Kewley reminds me, in a good way, of the Bloomsbury painters -- modest, yet saturated and aglow with pattern and color. He cuts so directly to what's pleasing and interesting that it's easy to ignore how good he is at dodging and avoiding self-importance and would-be momentousness. He seems to want nothing to do with the "gotta be great" game, and intead seems to want to work some early-modernist turf -- ie., to approach his art not as breakthrough or liberation but as style and exploration. Which strikes me as a daring and witty choice in itself. Modernism has so often made itself out to be -- has made art itself out to be -- a matter of anxieties, breakthroughs and innovations (and baloney to that, is my view) that it comes as a luscious suprise to see it treated as a given, an established style as open to being mined for pleasure as, say, classicism. To my mind, this is terrific. It's like accepting and working with a movie genre -- occupying your imagination and skills with finding ways of making it yield something fresh and vivid, rather with than (yawn) undermining and subverting it. Anyway, fancy blah-blah to one side: a luscious and pleasing clarity of color and idea! Witty formats! A serene and poised yet alert gestalt! Nice balance between abstraction and representation! The beauty of early modernism minus the stress and bombast! I'm probably missing a lot of what's there -- but that's great too. Words now fail me -- but I'm happy to report that I get a lot out of looking and re-looking at Kewley's paintings and collages, and that I'd love to live with a bunch of them. Any current artists you're crazy about? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 7, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Postmodern Fairy Tales
Michael: My almost-two-year-old son is fixated on “The Three Little Pigs.” He walks around growling and making blowing sounds, and then doing cute little pig grunts while wrinkling his nose. Clearly something about the danger and violence first set into motion by the Big Bad Wolf (and his house-destroying breath) and then resolved by the triumphant if deadly cunning of the last Little Pig is clicking with his emotions. He has made my wife go over the story over and over with him for the past week. Thinking to help resolve his issues with the story, my wife made a trip to the book store and picked up a handsomely illustrated volume by a D. Wiesner, entitled “The Three Pigs.” When she got home and read it to him, she was startled to find that rather than the standard version of the story, she had picked up a Postmodern fairy tale. The Pigs Exit the Story In this version, the Wolf’s breath is so fierce that the first Little Pig is blown clean out of the story—thus saving his life. Said pig scurries ahead of the wolf and convinces his brethren to exit the tale as well. They end up in a sort of meta-museum of illustrated children’s stories, which they can enter and exit at will, wandering through “Hey Diddle Diddle” and some medieval adventure story, in the course of which they recruit both the Cat (and the fiddle) and a dragon to their story-hopping crew. Finally they decide to return to their own narrative, where the dragon makes quick work of the extremely surprised wolf. Everyone, except the wolf, lives happily ever after in the cosy brick pig house. All fairly amusing, but I must report that my son was having none of this. Not only did he find this version confusing, but it quickly became apparent to him that whatever emotional juice he was looking for in the story had apparently leaked out with the punctured narrative. He shortly pushed “The Three Pigs” aside and has steadfastly ignored it since, preferring a crudely illustrated version of the original (which I have now read to him at least 100 times.) Apparently when confronting primal fears and fundamental questions, it’s better to take your medicine straight. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at March 7, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, March 5, 2003

A Rising Vote of Thanks
Michael: Lavrenti P. Beria, top spymaster for Joseph Stalin, was not a nice man. He rose through the ranks of various Soviet secret police agencies by using married women to seduce his bosses, then threatening to expose the illicit relationships. If his bosses didn’t fall for this routine, he killed them, either personally or via his underlings. Having performed many murders for Stalin as well as the ones on his own behalf, he was named head of Soviet intelligence in 1921, and became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1934, where he again busied himself with eliminating Stalin’s foes. He carried on his murderous ways through World War II, for example personally ordering the machine-gunning of ten thousand political opponents of the Soviet regime in a detention camp who were at risk of falling into the hands of the invading Nazis. Despite all this, however, it’s possible that Beria is owed a vote of thanks by citizens of the United States. That’s because he apparently murdered Stalin (hip, hip, hooray) and thereby prevented World War III. According to a story in the NY Times of March 5, Vladimir P. Naumov, a Russian historian and Johnathan Brent, a Yale University professor will publish a book, “Stalin’s Last Crime” later this month laying out the evidence suggesting that Beria did in fact bump off the leading contender for the much-contested Worst Person of the 20th Century award. Nikita Krushchev’s memoirs of 1970 recall Beria boasting of having poisoned Stalin on May Day 1953, two months after the tyrant’s death: “I did him in! I saved all of you.” While this account has been disputed for years, it was powerfully reinforced by the official medical report that was only dug out of the Soviet archives recently by Mssrs. Nauman and Brent. This report was obviously doctored, since it reported Stalin’s illness as having begun a full 24-hours after it really did, which would give the impression that doctors had been called immediately. In fact, of course, apparently Beria and several other senior Communists had waited to call doctors until it was too late for medical intervention to have any effect. And how about the claim that the death of Stalin avoided World War III? Apparently the famous “Doctor’s Plot” that Stalin publicized in January 1953—a non-existent conspiracy (cooked up by the Kremlin) of Jewish doctors, supposedly acting on the orders of the U.S. government, to poison senior Communist leaders—was only the opening round in what Stalin intended as a major political campaign. In February he ordered the construction of huge prison camps in Siberia in preparation for another round of purges, this time aimed at Soviet Jews. And apparently he intended to crank up the accusations (based on a single interrogration of a suspected Russian traitor) of an American plot to destroy Moscow with nuclear weapons and invade Siberia via the Chinese border. (What the Chinese were supposed to be doing while this was going on is an... posted by Friedrich at March 5, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

David Frum and Richard Skinner on George W.
Friedrich -- I got fascinated by this thoughtful q&a at The Atlantic's website (here) with David Frum, author of a new book about George W. Bush. I've got my reservations about George W., god knows, but he's clearly an effective leader of some sort, as well as a man who has a few convictions. On the other hand – hey, Republicans – I haven’t exactly seen the size of the government shrinking. Worth thinking about, in any case. As a precaution – what do I really know about any of this? -- I swapped a few emails with Prof. Richard Skinner, a political-scientist friend of mine who teaches at SUNY Geneseo. Here’s how our conversation went. Does the substance of the Frum interview ring true to you? Pretty much. Especially the stuff about Bush’s religiosity -- which is probably his strongest appeal to his political base, although it just confuses Europeans. I think Frum underplays how polarizing Bush is -- he really is intensely unpopular among hard-core Democrats. But, on the other hand, he is incredibly popular with Republicans. He regularly gets 95 percent approval among them. That's even higher than Reagan got. It’s as though urban-media Democrats can’t get over the idea that there are still people who attend church and have traditional religious convictions. It's not just that. There's a regional, denominational line, too. My sister (hardly a media type) once told me that she has never met a white Baptist or a white born-again Christian. We just don't have them in the Northeast. By comparison, a friend of mine grew up in a small town in Arkansas where everyone is a Baptist. At his alma mater in Oklahoma, drinking a beer marked you as a liberal, since it meant you weren’t a hardshell, teetotaling Baptist. At my alma mater upstate, not drinking a beer marked you as a lunatic. Our strongest religious group was the Newman Council, which was more of a social club than anything else; the five people who belonged to the Christian Fellowship were considered freaks. When I first heard Bush talking about God, I thought, "no one I know talks this way." Not a negative judgement, just bafflement. I’ve read pieces arguing that the main political divide in the country is no longer between Democrats and Republicans, or even lefties and righties, but between secular and religious people. Does that argument have any validity? It certainly is one of the strongest dividing lines in politics, whether in determining voting or party preference, or opinions of leading politicians. (The academic favorites of race, class and gender are still very important, too). Both religiosity (extent of religious observance) and religious denomination matter: the more religious you are, the more Republican you’re like to be (if you’re white). And evangelical Protestants are much more heavily Republican and socially conservative than other Christian groups. And, just to be clear, my comments about Bush weren't meant as a criticism. His faith is genuine and is a political plus... posted by Michael at March 5, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments

Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Modern Architecture and Sexual Anxiety
Michael: Perhaps you recognize the author of the following quote: The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects. It was of course Adolf Loos, Viennese architect and architectural theorist who uttered those words. Through his 1908 article, “Ornament and Crime,” (which is almost certainly the most influential piece of architectural writing ever) this anti-ornamental bias became embedded in Modern architecture and in the buildings we see around us every day. A book which I read recently, “The Evolution of Allure” by George L. Hersey, points out that the actual source of Loos’ concept (which was by no means merely aesthetic) was the writings of Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909.) Lombroso was one of the pieces of flotsam and jetsam tossed up by the tidal wave of Darwinian thought in the latter 19th century. His concern, which was by no means unique to him personally, was with the downside of evolution. If species could evolve and thrive, they could also devolve, degenerate and become extinct. And of course the fossil record of vast numbers of now extinct species suggested that such would almost certainly be humanity’s fate. Unless, of course, humanity followed the eugenic advice of the good Dr. Lombroso, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pavia, professor of forensic medicine, hygiene, psychiatry and criminal anthropology at the University of Turin and director of a mental asylum in Pesaro, Italy. Lombroso’s starting place was the concept put forth in the 1870s by the embryologist Haekel: that just as each embryo recapitulated its evolutionary history in utero, that each human being’s life recapitulated its genetic past. Those (like criminals) with poor breeding which either conserved or advanced their atavistic features would never reach the evolutionary stage where they could participate in civilized life. Fortunately for civilization however, Lombroso was on the case, as Mr. Hersey notes: Thanks to Lombroso’s research these antievolutionary types could easily be spotted…Lombroso’s “atavists,” as he calls them, meaning evolutionary throwbacks, reproduced in their persons the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and of the inferior animals who lie behind them in the evolutionary cladogram. And humanity’s upward climb is not just threatened by the genetic heritage of the “atavistically criminal”—it was also threatened by, well, women. As Mr. Hersey notes: La donna delinquente, first published by Lombroso and G. Ferrero in 1893, deals with sexual selection from a potential husband’s point of view. The authors’ purpose is to establish that women are biologically inferior to men, and this must be taken into account whenever sexual selection, or rejection, occur…[T]he lower in the evolutionary ladder a species is, the less dominant are its males, and vice versa; so that male dominance is, again, the sign of humanity’s more evolved state. The authors also cite Darwin and the French biologist Milne Edwards to the effect that in the higher species the “atavistic force,” that is, the conservative tendency to keep things as they are and avoid progress, is stronger in females than in males. That is... posted by Friedrich at March 4, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Free Reads -- Caitlin Flanagan on Sexless Marriages
Friedrich -- The personalities of some of some young people these days seem as freakish to me as the bodies of weightlifters and silicone babes do -- overdeveloped where pumpy media delights and career dynamism are concerned, yet completely atrophied in the inner-oomph (ie., spiritual, erotic, artistic, just-living, "character") department. What’s going to become of these kids when the pizzaz of youth passes and it comes time to start drawing on deeper resources? Reviewing in The Atlantic some new books about sex and marriage (especially the new two-career marriages), Caitlin Flanagan seems struck by the same question. When I was a teenager, in the 1970s, I was always quite happy to accept a baby-sitting job, because I knew that once I got the kids to sleep, I could read The Joy of Sex for an hour or two; I don't think I baby-sat for a single family that didn't have a copy. There was a sense that young parents of that generation-granted, I grew up in Berkeley, which may have skewed the sample considerably-were still getting it on. Similarly, the characters one encounters in Cheever and Updike, with their cocktails and cigarettes and affairs, seem at once infinitely more dissolute and more adult than most of the young parents I know. Nowadays, American parents of a certain social class seem squeaky clean, high-achieving, flush with cash, relatively exhausted, obsessed with their children, and somehow -- how to pinpoint this? -- undersexed. She’s perceptive and funny, and she’s certainly describing some of what I see going on around me. How about you? The piece is readable here. Best, Michael UPDATE: A little birdie tells me that this piece was already highlighted on Arts & Letters Daily, so I can’t pat myself on the back for having made a pioneering find. Damn.... posted by Michael at March 4, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, March 3, 2003

A Modest Proposal Regarding Taxes
Michael: As we are coming up on tax time, and I’m going to be paying a bundle this year (having stupidly sold some real estate and ostensibly—but not really—made some money on the deal) I thought I’d psych myself up for writing that check by researching the virtues of the progressive income tax on the Internet. Yes, there are websites and documents devoted to this topic (the Internet, as I have often noted, surpasseth all understanding.) One document that caught my roving eye was an essay by Richard A. Musgrave, self-described dean of public finance economists. It had been written presciently in 1989—back when the top tax rate was a lowly 28% —and not only had defended the institution of a progressive income tax but urged that the top rate be raised to 40%. Apparently some sort of black magician, Mr. Musgrave had to wait only four years to see his proposal raising taxes on high income individuals come to pass--and at almost exactly the number he suggested. (Jeeze, kind of makes you glad his fingers didn’t slip and type 50%, or maybe 80%, huh?) In any event, since I’m quite scared of irritating Mr. Musgrave—who, among his other accomplishments, is still with us despite being born in 1910 (more evidence of Satanic powers, in my book)—I want to proceed to gently suggest an amplification of his undoubtedly completely and utterly correct views. He describes the key virtue of income tax as follows: The income tax as a direct and personal tax permits tax liabilities to be adjusted to the taxpayer’s ability to pay. That ability is fairly measured by a comprehensive definition of income…The income tax as a direct tax is highly visible to the taxpayer and hence a steady reminder of the quality of public service that should be provided in return. It thus promotes an efficient public sector, unlike “invisible” product taxes such as a value added tax. Here, while duly noting the godlike genius of Mr. Musgrave, I must ask if he hasn’t skipped past a key point. Does income actually measure ability to pay?. Even if it does, it certainly doesn't measure ability to earn. Perhaps because at the very moment I was reading this I was slacking off, noodling on the Internet, rather than going out and taking that night shift job at McDonalds (which I will undoubtedly need to pay my tax bill this year), I became conscious of the possibility that people may selfishly choose to make less money than they could! I understand that economists pretty much assume that human beings are profit-maximizing entities, and I wonder if that may have led even such cosmically gifted (and evidently foresighted) individuals like Mr. Musgrave astray. I’ve recently read studies that suggest that people’s income correlates positively with the number of hours they work, which would tend to suggest that to the extent that such work is discretionary, some people who could be pulling down heavy bread may be choosing not to do... posted by Friedrich at March 3, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Pic of the Day
Michael: About 20 years ago I stumbled across the work of photographer Darius Kinsey in a beautifully printed paperback edition of his photos. He was a commercial photographer in Washington State (headquartered out of Sedro-Woolley, about 50 miles north of Seattle) in the early years of the 20th century. In addition to all types of conventional subject matter, he made apparently endless trips to the logging camps. Hauling his collection of very large glass plate cameras up into the woods, he took remarkable group portrait shots of the loggers and other workers, taking orders which were then mailed out by his long-suffering wife, who did the darkroom work back at home. According to a website (which you can visit here) Kinsey routinely carried in excess of one hundred pounds of photographic equipment, often traveling with 2 cameras, and occasionally three, which meant a lot of moving around via horse and buggy or pack mules in the woods. By 1902 he was working with a camera utilizing enormous 20” by 24” glass plates. Despite the fact that his lenses were primitive, the size of the resulting negatives allowed him to produce images that combined panoramic views with extraordinary detail. Regrettably, the reproductions of his work I’ve seen since my encounter with that paperback edition (a library book) have not done justice to the beauty and delicacy of the photos. To me, his work has always been special in that it breaks through the tendency of “fine art” photography to focus on creating beautiful photo-objects as an end in itself and manages to show an interest in the real people he was photographing in a real (work) situation. Because of his slow exposures he requires everyone to stop what they’re doing and pose, which his loggers, cooks and railroad crew members do with a mixture of stoicism, dignity and—occasionally—goofiness. (There’s no trickiness about his methodology here; it’s formal portrait photography of people who know they’re posing for a camera.) The ultra-fine detail in many of his prints allows us to take in the astonishingly varied and interesting faces on view in the midst of their work environment. In short, he somehow transcended many of the technical restrictions of photography and made it serve of an extraordinarily humanistic vision of mankind. His subjects aren’t being anatomized by their profession, or condescended to, or used as subjects a visual essay on the heroic working class—they have the dignity of being themselves. Which seems to be all they need. D. Kinsey, Loggers Posing with Big Wheels, date unknown Anyway, here is one of his pictures (and it is a thumbnail--you won't get the real impact without clicking on it); sorry that the enormous finesse and beauty of his original prints doesn’t come through, but maybe you can imagine it. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at March 3, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments