Friday, October 31, 2008


This blog is suspended until further notice.
Things are just not going very well right now, and until I figure out what's going wrong and what to do about it, I'm just not going to have much time or energy to put into this blog.

Maybe I'll post something around Election Day.

Auf Wieder Sehen.

Ci Vediamo.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The "United" States

Take a look at this.

As I've always said, one of the amazing things about the USA is that we've had only one civil war.
I remember families coming apart over the Vietnam War, just as they are coming apart now over the Iraq War and the Bush agenda... a whole country with 300 million socially maladjusted people who hate each other's guts.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"The Polka Dot Lives On"

I'm still swamped in work, gentle readers.  Though, there is light at the end of the tunnel.  The midterm grades are finally finished, though there are still loads of class preparations to be done.  It seems I've been spending most of my time pushing red pens and working calculators figuring out grade averages, working the scanner, Google, and Powerpoint to make slides for the German art course, reading necessary scholarly stuff, and spending lots and lots and lots of time on trains getting from one place to the other.  And between the flu and asthma, I've been spending a lot of time with doctors, and too much time at pharmacies.  Thank God, the flu is finally over, but I feel exhausted these days.  And boyfriend is going through a lot of stress with his job, and his porphyria is acting up with a painful rash and joint pains on top of it all.  And then, there is the mad last week of the election campaign.

If you're very busy going door to door, or canvassing by phone for one candidate or another in this final campaign week, or just very stressed out, then take a break and fire up your bong for Busby Berkely's weirdest most spectacular number, the "Polka Dot Polka" from The Gang's All Here:

"A journey to a star would not be very far, as long as I'm alone with you..."

Who needs Prozac when you've got Technicolor?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Nobody Except Fanatics and Political Junkies Cares About Politics

Are you sure?  
Take a look at this photo from the Denver Post of an Obama rally in Denver today.  The cops estimate 100,000 people were there between the State Capitol and the Civic Center.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

How Do I Become An Official Portrait Painter to the Bush Administration?

The Feds are spending $35000 per portrait for official paintings of the Bush cabinet.   They're spending over $46000 on a portrait of Rumsfeld.  I'll paint Rummy wearing imperial purple and charging up San Juan Hill for that kind of money. 

God's President

So, what is all this talk I hear about Obama's supporters making him into a messiah?
We forget that the current President was once the object of a very fervent personality cult. And for a few, he still is.

I'm sure there are a few bishops out there ready with the holy oil to make George our first king.

Friday, October 24, 2008

VOTE on November 4th!

Or MoveOn will find you:

Don't be like THAT guy. Did you notice how much of Grandmere Mimi's comment they had to bleep out? They even went to Newcastle to interview Madpriest with his goats (thankfully, they gave us subtitles).

Willy Endorses Obama

Yes, it's official, first Willy, and now the NY Times, endorse Obama. Betty, our little tuxedo cat, rock star, and anarchist was too busy in Washington carjacking garbage trucks, setting them on fire, and crashing them into the headquarters of the Heritage Foundation for any official endorsement.  

For more feline endorsements, go here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Campaign for a Purer America In Action

An elderly gay couple in Indianapolis, Milton Lindgren 70 and Eric Hendricks 73, were found murdered earlier this week.  They had long been the targets of harassment and anti-gay vandalism.

Two more martyrs.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Little Poetry

I'm sorry my dears, but I've been down with the flu, and now I'm extremely busy with midterm grading.

To pass the time, here is Mayor Knobbottle reciting one of my favorite poems by Edith Sitwell, from Facade:

"For hell is just as properly proper,
As Greenwich, or as Bath, or Joppa."

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Department of Threatened Masculinity

As if having a big ol' pickup with a gun rack wasn't compensation enough, check this out, truck nuts.

It's getting harder and harder these days to tell what is real and what is satire.

The "Beginning" of Abstract Painting

Kandinsky, The "First" Abstract Painting, watercolor, 1910

Kandinsky, Improvisation no.III, 1911

Kandinsky, Black Lines, 1913

Abstract painting officially is almost 100 years old. The Russian/ German artist Wassily Kandinsky made the official First Abstract Painting, a watercolor, in 1910. As far as I'm concerned, the argument over who made the first truly non-objective painting is ultimately a sterile exercise. There are plenty of other earlier contenders from Jungendstil designers like Henry Van De Velde to Symbolist painters like Thorn Prikker. And if you wanted to get really technical about it, you could bring in the whole legacy of Islamic pattern and Prehistoric symbols.
Kandinsky is awarded the prize because his work created a transformation and had a legacy that earlier contenders did not.

What do we mean when we say "abstract" painting? Kandinsky was quite clear about this. Abstract meant a painting with no imagery, and no ties to any kind of imitation of appearances. Blue was blue, and not about describing the sky. A line was a line, and not a contour describing the shape of something. Kandinsky believed that colors had a kind of sympathetic effect on the emotions, akin to the notes and chords of music. The big problem for Kandinsky was finding an organizing principle to replace the description of perceived reality that dominated Western art since the Renaissance. Kandinsky's solution was in music, that lines and colors were to be thought of as notes on a keyboard, and not as tools for recreating the world of appearances. A successful painting should affect the emotions as directly and as powerfully as music, he believed.

Kandinsky believed in the mission of abstract painting with a religious zeal. He was an enthusiastic follower of Theosophy. He shared the Theosophical belief in the duality of matter and spirit, that the material world was an illusion and that true reality lay in the spirit beyond the reach of the senses or the rational mind. Kandinsky looked at all the parallel developments in music, literature, and art of his day, of their departure from traditional structures and descriptions of reality. He even looked at the developments in science, especially at Einstein's discovery that matter and energy were interchangeable. Observing all of those things, Kandinsky concluded that he was living in an End Time, on the brink of a kind of Theosophical apocalypse when the veil of the material senses will be rent asunder and the spirit will break through. He fully believed that it was his mission as a painter to prepare people for this coming apocalypse by showing them a new way to think and to see. He wanted to make a "spiritual" art to anticipate a coming spiritual age.

The world did indeed end in August 1914, though not quite in the way he, or anyone else, expected.

Those who know me and know my work might be surprised to learn that I love Kandinsky's work, especially his paintings before 1914. They are full of explosive apocalyptic drama, sometimes dark and tragic, frequently joyous. Kandinsky was one of the great colorists of the 20th century who did indeed come close to making art that works directly on the emotions like music. Like all art students of a certain generation, I read Kandinsky's great essay Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and I would still recommend it to students today.

I am not, however, a Theosophist, or anything like that. I am a materialist, and a follower of the most materialistic of the major world religions, Christianity (and I follow its more materialist and humanist forms) . I believe that the world of appearances DOES matter, and that how we see and understand and act in that world matters. It matters because that's the world we live in and all share.  It is all that we have, and all that we can know, however imperfectly and partially. Besides, turning a flat surface into something that appears to be 3 dimensional is, for me, and inexhaustible magic act.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Vienna and the Crisis of the Liberal Ego

Athena Fountain in front of the Austrian Parliament Building, Theophil Hansen and
Karl Kundmann, 1896 - 1902

Gustav Klimt, Athena, 1898

Gustav Klimt, Justice, from the University Murals, 1903 - 1907, destroyed

The title of this post is adapted from one of my all time favorite essays, "Gustav Klimt and the Crisis of the Liberal Ego" by Carl Schorske in his book Fin de Siecle Vienna.

I think my students were a little disappointed in my concluding lecture on Viennese modernism today in my class on German modernism from 1892 to 1937. I think they wanted to see more Josef Hoffmann and Wiener Werstaette furniture, silver, jewelry, and other tchochkes. I love those things too, but there is another aspect to early modern Vienna that frequently gets lost in all the early modern glamor. There is a whole other side to Klimt beyond those famous gold and ornament carapaced lovers embracing.

It was in Vienna more than any other place where the basic underlying assumptions of bourgeois Enlightenment liberalism were examined and challenged. The Imperial government of Austria-Hungary was depending on its business, professional, and academic class -- the bourgeoisie -- to transform the Empire into a modern industrial state. And, at a time of awakening nationalism (Pan-German and Pan-Slavic movements, Serbian, Hungarian, Czech national movements, among others), the Empire expected this Viennese bourgeois class to create some kind of cosmopolitan culture that transcended nationalism and would somehow hold the Empire together.

The Athena Fountain outside the Parliament building in Vienna shows the ancient goddess of practical wisdom as the embodiment of liberal Enlightenment ideas; rational conscious thought applied to government, and used to chase away the shadows of ignorance, superstition, and poverty.

At about the same time that the Athena Fountain was built, Gustav Klimt painted a very different Athena who is anything but rational conscious social reform. She is a large staring terrible presence who looms out of the darkness, so large that the frame cannot contain her. Klimt deliberately uses forms derived from pre-classical archaic Greek art. He minimizes the sculpting effects of chiaroscuro and flattens the image with pattern and applied gold leaf.
This is the Athena of the new scholarship and archaeology of the period. This is the Greece of Nietzche, not of Goethe. It was Nietzche who famously challenged the Enlightenment conception of Greek civilization as heroically rational in his essay "The Birth of Tragedy" pointing out the many dark taboos, mystery rites, ecstatic rituals, and divinations in ancient Greek religious life.
For Klimt, and his generation, these discoveries were liberating. They were chafing under the stuffy repression and conformism of Vienna in the final years of the Hapsburgs. Though Austria was the last great Catholic empire in Europe, and the Emperor Franz Joseph took his role as the last Catholic Caesar very seriously, I doubt religion played that large a role in the repressive culture of that time and place. Some of the most prudish repressers were not clergy, but educated secular liberals. I tend to agree with the Marxist historians who say that social and sexual repression are the creations of the modern industrial economy. The demands of mass production and the mass market impose a large amount of rationalization and regulation on private individual life.

Klimt made an even bolder challenge in his now destroyed University murals, commissioned to decorate the ceiling of the grand staircase of the University of Vienna. One of those panels was supposed to be an allegory of Justice. The trustees expected some shining allegory of Justice clearing away the dark menace of crime and corruption with her sword. What they got was something very different. Instead of heroic Justice, Klimt shows us a weak passive man about to be devoured by an octopus. The 3 women presiding over this grisly spectacle are the Furies, ancient embodiments of vengeance. Justice is there in this picture, way high up and far removed, flanked by Law and Truth, and the heads of magistrates who seem more like indifferent spectators. The workings and proceedures of the Law are nothing more than a figleaf over raw arbitrary power and the dark passions of revenge, Klimt seems to say, a theme found in the stories of Kafka.
This is not a statement of political protest. Klimt takes no stand on the issue of Justice in the Empire or anywhere. The image is far too disturbingly sexual to work as any kind of protest, or even as a cynical satire. It appears to me that Klimt projected his own powerful castration anxieties onto a public monument.
The reaction to this painting was immediate and intensely hostile. Eighty seven professors of the University petitioned the Ministry of Culture to have the murals removed. Their leader was the philosopher Friedrich Jodl, who was anything but a reactionary troglodyte. Jodl spent his life courageously championing universal education, women's rights and suffrage, civil rights, and against the influence of the Catholic Church on education and cultural institutions. Klimt's work was a challenge to everything Jodl believed, and it could not be ignored. Klimt forced Jodl into the company of the very religous right, monarchist, and populist antiSemite movements that he so long opposed. Klimt was savaged in the press, especially in the right wing populist press.
Klimt was unprepared for, and shocked by, the ferocity of the response. He never painted anything quite like these murals again.

It was up to younger artists to pick up where Klimt left off in the University murals, to explore just how far and in what direction the life of unbounded instinct would lead.
It lead to the work of the young artist Egon Schiele.

Egon Schiele, Nude Self Portrait, drawing, 1910

Schiele was one of the great draftsmen of the 20th century. His hard brittle line is always confident and never hesitates. While there is a lot of expressionist exaggeration, especially in the head and hands, he always drew from life, from hired models, or most often from himself in a mirror. Whatever was on the mind of Narcissus? Are we sure this is love? Schiele shows himself in this drawing and many others like it with an apparently diseased and decaying body that has a disturbing sexuality about it. This is certainly autoeroticism and exhibitionism. But that only partly explains this disturbing image with no background, no setting, only white pigment to set off the hard contour lines and the darkening body.
Perhaps this is Schiele gazing into the mirror and seeing a feral doppelganger, the wild animal just beneath the thin skin of civilized respectability. 

Is this what the life of unbounded instinct looks like?

Sigmund Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams in Vienna at the same time that these artists worked. That book decisively ended the Enlightenment conception of humans as rational conscious beings, and showed us to be much more strongly tied to our instinctual natures as animals than we had previously supposed.
It was Nietzche and Freud who would put Dionysos and Apollo in conflict with one another.

Freud began his Interpretation of Dreams with this epigram from Virgil's Aeneid:

Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo 
(If I cannot bend the higher powers, I shall stir up hell).

I think the Greeks were wiser to keep those two gods as half brothers of the same father together in the pantheon.  The feral instincts presided over by Dionysos need Apollo to guide them into paths that are productive.  Likewise, Apollo won't accomplish anything without the goad of passion.  Both gods left to their own devices are prone to madness.  

We are all trying to navigate a path of sanity between the conflicting demands of our public Apollonian roles and our private Dionysiac selves.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Well, That Was Just ... Dull

I watched the last debate thing last night, and was not exactly riveted. I ended up working on my lecture notes for Friday's class in the last half of the debate.

Here's a remarkably prophetic item from the Bat Archives. It could be the debating tactics of any number of Republican candidates going back 20 years. Tip of the artist's beret to Tristero over on Digby's blog.

John McCain tried, but let's face it, he's no Burgess Meredith playing The Penguin. Fortunately, Obama is no Adam West either.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My First Ever Campaign Contribution

Guess who it went to.

The Fight Comes to my Neighborhood

The Secret Service ordered my little community college, barely a mile from Hofstra out in Hempstead, to cancel its evening classes. Since it also appears that traffic will be chaotic out there with all the security detours, the college decided to cancel classes for the day.
So here I am at home recovering from a weekend holiday with the flu; first Michael and then me. We both still feel lousy, and the cats are getting intolerably spoiled. I have some catch-up work to do today, and, oh yes, there's a debate tonight.

The latest poll news looks very good, but don't count your chickens before they hatch.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Lest We Get Too Confident

Yes, our man is on top in the polls right now, but keep this picture in mind...

I'm In Love With Rachel Maddow

David Frum has a lot of nerve complaining about the "politics of resentment." His party invented it with Nixon's famous "Southern Strategy" in 1968. Nixon won by exploiting the resentments of Southern whites over the Civil Rights movement, and despite the fact that resentful Southern whites had their own candidate in George Wallace that year. You could even argue that the GOP "politics of resentment" goes as far back as Joe McCarthy. And David Frum has certainly played a large part in creating today's toxic polarized climate.
As Digby points out, Frum has a lot of nerve complaining about Sarah Palin's competence, considering the fact that he played such a big role in building a cult around the current occupant of the White House who is clearly out of his depth; a C student cheer-leader who has coasted through life on money and connections, living proof that legacy admissions are affirmative action for rich white people.

I love Rachel's performance here. She keeps her cool and stands her ground despite Frum's repeated attempts to provoke her. I've enjoyed her show since she first appeared on Air America, and I'm glad she brought Kent Jones with her to television.  Finally, a liberal progressive who won't back down in a fight and who knows how to take it to the opponents and make them squeal.  This so refreshing after so many years of Alan Colmes being the token liberal on teevee, who's there only to make Sean Hannity look more manly and decisive.
She gets my vote for Most Beautiful Lesbian on teevee (sorry Ellen).

Monday, October 13, 2008


Paul Krugmann of the NY Times wins the Nobel Prize in Economics.
After all the guff he takes from Right wing bloviators, it's great to see him so spectacularly vindicated.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


Matthew Shepard died ten years ago Sunday, October 12th, but one dead among thousands. I've heard people say that the reaction to his death was so strong because he was young, blonde, and cute. Maybe, but 30 years ago, a young man from Staten Island who was every bit as young, blonde, and cute as Matthew Shepard ended up dead on the West Side docks with his throat cut from ear to ear and the word "faggot" carved in his chest. No one, outside a handful of activists, even noticed or made a peep of protest. If Matthew Shepard's death means anything, then it's because people finally noticed the violence and brutality that has always been in their midst.

The word “martyr” has become very inflated currency lately. Nihilistic religious fanatics, who indiscriminately kill everyone around them and themselves, use the word to justify acts of mass murder and suicide. Certain angry bishops who’ve announced for years their intention to quit their church, and find themselves fired, claim to have been “martyred.” Bullies who get called out by the bullied, tend to think of themselves as “martyrs.”

Our martyrs never sought their fate. They wanted to be anything but victims, and to lead long and happy lives like everyone else. They weren’t any more saintly than anyone else. Their ambitions in life were largely modest ones, not to rule the world, but to survive and make a happy life in it. Martyrdom was thrust upon them. Martyrdom found them in parking lots, back alleys, basements, bars, hiking trails, parks, streets, highways, hotels, hospitals, prisons, classrooms, and at home. And when it came, it was never welcome. A lot of ours have walked that Via Dolorosa all the way to the end. Fear, humiliation, suffering, and death were anything but metaphorical for them. For our martyrs those things were all too literally real.

And certainly, those legions who died of AIDS, especially in the early years where the agony of death was compounded by neglect and maltreatment, deserve a place in our company of martyrs.

LGBT folk have far too many martyrs. Violence is a reality that every LGBT person regardless of race, class, or gender has to live with daily. The constant threat of violence shapes our decisions large and small; whether or not to wear a certain piece of clothing, walk down a certain street, or to live in a certain city or state or country.

Below is a very small sample of the thousands carried off by violence:

Sakia Gunn – 2003

Rebecca Wight (no picture available) – 1988

Charlie Howard (no picture available, above is his memorial in Bangor, Maine) -- 1984

32 Victims of the Upstairs Lounge Fire, New Orleans – 1973
Here are some of the broadcast news reports.

Alan Turing – 1954

Erwin Schimitzek, a store clerk from Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland), arrested for homosexuality, and sent to Auschwitz where he died. He is one of the unknown thousands of LGBTs murdered by the Nazis – 1943

Jacques Chausson (no picture available, above is a drawing by Rene Boyvin) -- 1661

Giovanni di Giovanni (no picture available, above is A. Lorenzetti’s Injustice) -- 1365

Since the transgendered are the most visible and least assimilated group in our community, and since their very existence challenges traditional gender concepts, they are the most frequent targets of homophobic violence. Here is a website devoted exclusively to remembering the transgendered dead.

+Grant to the departed eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them.
May their souls and the souls of all the departed through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

I say it’s time to close this Book of Martyrs. Our Fellowship of the Martyrs should have no more new members.


IT is Getting Married!

Congratulations IT and BP from New York!
Legal today or legal tomorrow, may you both live happily ever after.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Monster Gets Loose

McCain may not have to do anything to lose the election. His supporters may lose it for him. He apparently lost control of the crowd, and they booed him when he suggested that it might not be a good idea to turn into a mob.

That's what happens when you so blatantly pander to people's darker passions and instincts. Frankenstein's monster just might turn on you.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Guide to the Meltdown

Probably the best explanation that I've heard of just What The Hell Is Happening out there in the economy is this episode of NPR's This American Life.  You will come away enlightened, educated, but not reassured.  

It is an hour long episode, but it is very well done, and definitely worth your time.

Oh, Let's Press Some Hot Buttons.

Here's a French Musette setting of the Internationale.  I'm sure Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly will love it!

So, how about a wry Gallic smile, comrades?

And here, Obama's Communications Director Robert Gibbs gives Sean Hannity a taste of his own medicine.  C'est la guerre, mon amis.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Four More Weeks of White People at Their Worst

With less than a month to go in the campaign, the Palin/McCain crowd are taking off the gloves and putting on their hoods and sheets.  When Sarah Palin began her attack on the "mainstream media," accusing them of sandbagging her, the crowd turned on the press crews, telling one sound man (who happened to be black) to "sit down, boy!" after calling him a choice racial epithet.

Expect more of this folks, especially if the polls continue to move in Obama's direction.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Everybody's Got Troubles These Days

Especially Waltraut Geburstag:

For more Talk-O-Phone pictures and other treasures, visit Benjamoon Von Schwulemann.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

God's Glorious Might Painted by Bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt, Sunset in Yosemite Valley, 1868

Albert Bierstadt, Storm in the Rockies, 1886

I must confess that Albert Bierstadt is one of my supreme guilty pleasures. I go to the Brooklyn Museum, not to see their superb collection of Egyptian art, but to see Bierstadt's Storm in the Rockies, a painting where he pulls out all the stops. Yes, it's all operatic balderdash in the service of an agenda of conquest and exploitation, but it's just irresistable. It's great operatic balderdash. The very first art exhibition that I went to see was a big show of Bierstadt's paintings in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth in 1972. We all got into the Ambassador station wagon and made a special trip down the DFW Turnpike just to see this show. We all loved it like we loved the movies. I still have the exhibition catalogue.
It's hard NOT to see the west through eyes conditioned by Bierstadt's paintings (or their near cousin, Ansel Adams' photographs). In our summer family excursions out west (that would always end in car trouble or illness), the happiest part was always watching a storm pass over the Rockies that would leave a dusting of brilliant fresh snow on the peaks. We actively sought out those Bierstadt moments, and we were frequently rewarded. The West really is spectacular.

What makes Bierstadt so enduringly popular is that more than any other artist, even Church, he expresses the terrible majesty of the wrathful God of American evangelical Christianity. He even does this better than the big Hollywood movie spectacles like "The Ten Commandments." All that radiant sunlight, soaring crags, and turbulent meteorology in his paintings is meant to convey the thrill and terror of God passing by Moses in all His splendor on Mt. Sinai.
Bierstadt was so popular that there is a mountain named after him in the Colorado Rockies, one of "The Fourteeners," those peaks over 14,000 feet (or 4000 meters).

Manifest Destiny Made Manifest: Albert Bierstadt

Emigrants Crossing the Plains, 1867

Donner Lake from the Summit, 1867

Before I was so rudely interrupted by teaching and by politics, I was discussing art and the Westward expansion of the USA, especially for some insight into the American Particularism that so annoys and mystifies the rest of the world.
I'm discussing a few artists whose work expressed that religious and nationalist idea of Manifest Destiny, that not only had God specially chosen the United States and its people for a messianic purpose, He had given them their own Promised Land, predestined to them from Creation. We've already seen how artists like George Caleb Bingham likened American settlers to Israel of the Bible journeying through the wilderness. We've also seen the most successful and spectacular of landscape painters, Frederick Church deliberately call Biblical associations to mind as he painted natural prodigies like Niagara Falls and sunsets in the Catskill Mountains.
But the actual landscape of the West itself remained unpainted except for a few Hudson River School painters who went west as far as the Missouri River like Frederick Kensett. The Rockies and the Sierra Nevada remained unpainted and unseen by most of the American public of the mid 19th century.
Albert Bierstadt, born in Germany and raised in New Bedford, MA as the son of a barrel maker, saw the opportunity to make huge canvases, of the sort Church made, of the Western wilderness. He made 2 trips to the Rockies and to California in the 1850s and brought back wagons full of sketches. He kept a studio in the same building on Tenth Street in New York where Church worked, and there created huge 8 by 10 foot painted spectacles like the 2 reproduced above (sometimes these pictures could be as large as 10 feet by 16 feet).
More than any other artist, Bierstadt made explicit the parallel between the western settlement and Biblical Israel crossing over the Jordan. In the painting at the top, Bierstadt painted a sunset to rival Church beckoning a wagon train forward into the west like the Biblical pillars of fire and cloud leading Israel through the desert. They disappear into the misty radiance just beyond an idyllic (and doomed) Indian village.
Paintings like this proved to be immensely popular drawing in crowds who paid a nickel admission to see them. Businesses that were getting rich plowing through and ultimately destroying the western wilderness saw huge marketing opportunities in these paintings. The painting of Donner Lake Pass was commissioned by the Central Pacific Railroad Company. A senior vice president of the company, Colis Huntington traveled with Bierstadt to the pass to select the view that was to be painted. After many sketches and much work in the Tenth Street Studio in New York, the concoction above was produced. Donner Pass was a place that the American public of the day associated with disaster. Memories were still fresh of the fate of the Donner party which was stranded there by the lake during a disastrous crossing of the Sierras, snowed in, starving, and resorting to cannibalism. Putting a railroad across the pass was a major triumph of engineering won at great cost. Sheds were built over the rails to keep the tracks from being completely buried in the prodigious winter snows of the pass. Those sheds appear on the mountainside to the right in the painting. Bierstadt also added a stand of sequoias, the largest trees in the world, over on the left side of the picture to locate it in California and to make the whole thing even more prodigious. It is all bathed in the golden light of the dawn as though to pronounce a kind of triumphant benediction on the memories of all the grief and loss associated with the pass, the martyrs to chance and nature who made California accessible to the rest of us.
I've been to Donner Pass. I rode across it by train on the very railroad that you see in this picture. Yes, the general layout of the view back toward the east is largely as Bierstadt painted it, but he's inventing an awful lot. The snowsheds are still there over the tracks (now built out of steel reinforced concrete). But, there are no sequoias anywhere near this place. In fact, toward the top of the pass, the trees are very short and stunted by the ferocious winters. Campers and recreational boaters now swarm the shores of Donner Lake where the Donner party once starved. And if Bierstadt is to be believed, then this is as God intended.

Friday, October 3, 2008

A New York Minute

"One! Two! Tree! Foah! ... "

Separated at Birth

I only saw the end of the "debate" (these things are more spectacles of endurance than arguments). It all sounded very shrill and was mostly an exchange of talking points and constituent button-pressing. However, people were glued to the whole show here in little old New York. On my way back from teaching, the little bar around the corner from us was packed with people watching it. I stopped by the neighborhood pizza joint for a slice of pepperoni and saw the kitchen help in the back watching it in Spanish. So far today, from what I can glean from the news, not too many minds were changed. The people who were predisposed to support Sarah Palin loved her performance, and the people inclined to vote for Joe Biden were satisfied with his. There seems to have been little to no movement in the polls so far.

My favorite essay on the whole Sarah Palin phenomenon so far is one written today by Digby at her blog, Hullabaloo. She describes Palin as a female clone of George W. Bush; arrogant, incurious, petulant, and dumb, a "faux populist." If McCain wins, and she becomes a kind of Cheney eminence grise, then it really will be 4 more years of the Same Old Shit.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Anti-Mom

Let's take a break from hockey moms with someone who really knew how to press some buttons.
She was black. She was from St. Louis. She sang in French. She was a sex symbol. She sometimes appeared on stage wearing only a few strategically placed bananas. She was sophisticated. She could be scandalous. She walked her pet leopard with the diamond collar down the boulevards of Paris. She was a decorated war hero. German soldiers used to pose with her for pictures while, unknown to them, the trunk of her limo was full of documents and intelligence for the French Underground. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre and inducted into the Legion of Honor. She was a great humanitarian. At her death, the French gave her a state funeral. She's one of my patron saints. She's La Baker:

A Little Advice Before Tonight's Debate

I will be (mercifully) teaching class at that hour, so I will miss it.

Don't underestimate Sarah Palin.  She may be parochial minded and incurious, but she didn't get to be governor of Alaska by being stupid.  She can be a formidable debater, frequently making direct, and successful, emotional appeals to her white working class supporters at the expense of her opponent.  Don't be surprised if she comes out the winner in tonight's debate.

Will this be enough to turn the election around for McCain?  It's hard to say.  The Republicans have run successfully on (largely perceived) resentments among white voters for over 40 years now.  We all know that the only reason that the election is close is because Obama is black. If he was blonde and blue-eyed and named Smythe, his lead would be insurmountable.  And, irony of ironies, it is this most loyal base of white working class men that have lost the most over the last 8 years of Republican rule (wages, benefits, jobs, homes).  Will those pink slips and foreclosure notices finally be enough to get people to see past their cherished grudges and preconceptions?  Will the spectacle of all those politicians claiming to be their champions against imaginary condescending East Coast and California elites, against "welfare cheats" and crime (translate, brown and black people) giving away their hard earned tax dollars to rescue the very businesses that have preyed upon them and profited off their misery finally get them to wake up and smell the coffee?

We'll find out on Election Day.  In the meantime, expect Sarah Palin to press all those sore buttons and to play the white and downwardly mobile like Heifetz on a Stradivarius.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

As the Sun Sets on the Pax Americana...

Here's a little reminder of what it once meant. Above is Eleanor Roosevelt, the first American UN ambassador with the document she was responsible for creating. It's part of the inheritance that we threw away in the name of "National Security."