Friday, July 31, 2009

"The Beautiful Ideas Which Kill," Futurism and Fascism

RA Bertelli, Mussolini, 1933

We usually associate modern art, and modernism in general, with left wing politics. It is still something of a surprise to discover a fully modern movement with strong ties to right wing politics. Futurism had right wing political sympathies from the beginning, and its creators developed ties with Italian Fascism in the years following the First World War. Mussolini, unlike almost all the other ideological dictators of the 20th century, took an active interest in modernism and, for a while, cultivated it.

The links between Futurism and Fascism are a huge embarrassment for Italians. Futurism is a source of national pride, a brief moment when once again Italy led the world in art and culture. Critics of modernism used these connections with Fascism as an excuse to pounce on modernism in general. The formalist critics who dominated discussion in the 1960s and 70s used these embarrassing ties as further evidence for their view that Futurism was nothing more than a crude provincial variation of cubism, a view not shared by other artists at the time.

Futurism, like Italian Fascism itself, was ideologically a mess. It was a hodge-podge of anarchism, the aesthetics of violence, and nationalism. Italian Fascism was likewise a stew of nationalism, anarchism, syndicalism, opportunism, machismo, and plain thuggery. The brutally pious reactionism of the Spanish Falange under Franco was much more consistent and coherent as a right wing ideology than Italian Fascism. The racism and conflation of the party movement with the state by the Nazis were far more radical. Mussolini never fully understood the meaning or importance of Hitler's racism and antisemitism. Italians have never had much of a taste for ideology or for religious fanaticism. Savonarola is famous precisely because he is so exceptional. Italian Communists in the 1950s and 60s would name their sons after Lenin and take them to church to be baptized. To my mind, this indifference to rational consistency in political and religious matters is a strength and not a weakness. Italy has outlasted both political ideologies and religious dogmas.

Surprisingly, the most enthusiastic admirers of Futurism were all from the far left. Futurism had a decisive impact on those vaguely leftish anarchists that hung out at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich and created Dada. Those card carrying Communists who made the Berlin Dada, and those true believing Communists who made the short-lived Russian avant-garde were also deeply influenced by Italian Futurism. The Soviet Union's first cultural minister Anatoly Lunacharsky enthusiastically admired Futurism and publicly praised Marinetti at a party congress. The Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci also was a fan of Futurism and of Marinetti.

The misogyny and technocratic machismo of the Futurists were shocking, even by the standards of the time, but they were not so exceptional. The far left had its own machismo. The embrace of early feminism by many far left movements was at best only superficial. Genuine progress in gender equality was only made in decadent bourgeois democracies.

I think these ties between Futurism and Fascism say less about Italy and its art, and much more about the relation between modernism and ideological politics. That the far left should so enthusiastically admire Futurism should not be all that surprising. Both far left and far right have a common enemy, liberal bourgeois democracy. Both despise it for largely the same reasons, the smallness of its vision and its ambitions, its cosmopolitanism and rootlessness. Greed and pragmatic tolerance were no substitute for imperial ambition or for fulfilling history through revolution. The ideological conflation of greed with imperial adventure would be a later American invention during the Cold War. The early modernists shared this contempt for the bourgeoisie. But, they were themselves children of the bourgeoisie, and the modernism they created was a bourgeois movement for a bourgeois audience. Modernism was created out of those bourgeois virtues of independence, skepticism, and initiative. They aimed their scorn at those bourgeois vices of greed, hypocrisy, and conformity. The Futurist artists and their followers were all sons of that despised bourgeoisie. They had a bourgeois independence and skepticism that put them at odds with their leaders who were not from bourgeois backgrounds. Marinetti was the son of a wealthy aristocratic family. Mussolini was a blacksmith's son.

Sant'Elia, Boccioni, and Marinetti in uniform, 1914.

The Futurists with their belief in the "hygiene" of war and violence greeted the outbreak of the First World War with delighted enthusiasm. In this they were hardly alone. People across the political spectrum welcomed the war. Europe, in their view, was growing too fat and lazy from 40 years of too much damn peace. The far left greeted the war as the beginning of the end of bourgeois capitalism. Theosophic mystics like Kandinsky believed that the war was the beginning of the spiritual apocalypse. Theodore Roosevelt, with many others, believed that the war was a necessary and welcome purification of Western manhood.
Between August 1914 and November 1918 the world did end, though not quite in the way that people expected. Sant'Elia and Boccioni pictured above both died in the war.

Marinetti in 1933 before a portrait of himself with his family.

Marinetti always had the ambition to turn Futurism into a populist movement, contrary to the wishes of the artists who valued their independence. He saw the rise of Mussolini as the perfect opportunity to fulfill this ambition. That nebulously aggressive aesthetic of Futurism would be wedded to that nebulously supremacist right wing movement called Fascism. For a quite a long time, it was a largely happy marriage. Il Duce loved the Futurists precisely because they were so modern, so aggressive, and so daring. He had his own origins in anarchism, and that anarchist aesthetic probably genuinely appealed to him, even as his politics became more nationalist and reactionary.

Casa del Fascismo, Como, 1924

The modernism sponsored by Mussolini could be quite bold, even by today's standards. Above is not some posh post-modern condo building, but the Fascist party headquarters in Como. The big picture of Il Duce, and the flivver parked outside give away its true age.

The most ambitious showpiece of the marriage of Fascism and modernism was the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista held in Rome in 1933, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the coup that made Mussolini absolute ruler of Italy.

In the words of the catalogue, the exhibition aimed to to express
... the atmosphere of the times, all fire and fever, tumultuous, lyrical, glittering. It could only take place in a style matching the artistic adventures of our time, in a strictly contemporary mode. The artists had from Il Duce a clear and precise order; to make something MODERN, full of daring. And they have faithfully obeyed his commands.

The exhibit was a series of thematically decorated rooms rather than a display of artifacts, anticipating a lot of now current exhibition design. Some of them could be very striking.

A gallery from the Mostra.

"Hall of the Fallen"

Perhaps the most striking design was for the "Hall of the Fallen," commemorating the movement's "martyrs." A tall black monolithic cross is surrounded by a ring covered with the repeated answer to a military roll call, "Presente, Presente, Presente, Presente..."

Enrico Prampolini, The Blackshirts, April 15, 1919, a mural in the Mostra

These designs were built when Hitler, Speer, and Troost were just beginning to create their brand of brutal hyper-inflated neo-classicism, when Stalin was just beginning to order huge buildings in that spikey neo-classical wedding cake style unique to his Soviet Union, and when the USA was still building public buildings, like the Supreme Court designed by Cass Gilbert, in a very conservative classical style.

Eventually, Mussolini would come under the spell of inflated grandiose dictator classicism himself when he built a huge New Rome called EUR. It would be after World War II that modernism would fully replace neo-classicism as the power style of preference for everyone from international corporate plutocrats to ideological dictators.

As the Fascists of the 1920s and early 30s embraced a modern aesthetic in architecture, so they embraced a similar aesthetic in graphic design in their posters.

"Only One Heart! Only One Will! Only One Decision!"

These 2 posters make brilliant use of photomontage to combine Il Duce with the Italian masses. In their directness and memorable simplicity, they are way ahead of graphic design anywhere else in the world at the time. Ironically, they were influenced by early Soviet graphic design.

Here's something that is illegal in Italy. Sing along with Il Duce.

Just so we don't give the Black Shirts the last word, let's salute modern Italy in all its generous messy splendor with Fratelli d'Italia.

Viva Italia!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

"Time and Space Died Yesterday," Futurism at 100

Russolo, Rivolta, 1911

On February 20, 1909, a new modern art movement announced its birth in a manifesto published on the front page of Le Figaro. It reads in part:

We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.
We want to glorify war - the only cure for the world - militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.

It was written by the Italian poet Filippo Marinetti, creator of the movement from a small group of artists and poets gathered around him. Between 1909 and 1914, Futurism was the most adventurous and daring modern art movement in the world, blazing new trails for so many movements to follow in the years after World War I. Unlike those German hippy kids in Dresden who founded Die Bruecke four years earlier, the Futurists were not interested in making an alternative anything to conventional society. They were out to destroy and replace conventional society, not secede from it. They saw themselves as revolutionaries, not dropouts. Futurism was the first 20th century art movement to align itself with radical politics; in this case, the radical right. Marinetti would go on to become a speechwriter for Mussolini. Mussolini took an active interest in the movement in the 1920s and 30s and gave it state patronage and encouragement.

Futurism was an Italian movement. The sense of expectation that was at the heart of modern cultural movements had to labor under the unusually heavy weight of Italy's 4000 year long history and its enormous cultural patrimony. It is small wonder that young Italian modernists felt that weight and dreamed of throwing it off. Marinetti described Italy as covered with "cemeteries" and wrote violent poems urging the museums to be flooded out. The Futurists greeted the disruptions and chaos of the new world of technology, commercialism, and industry with delighted enthusiasm. This new world of noise, speed, and sensationalism was for them the force of life.

Umberto Boccioni, The City Rises, 1910

How to express this new world of speed, noise, and sensation in the given artists' media of paint on canvas? How to make the effect of motion and transformation in an object like a painting that does not move itself? One of the earliest solutions is this magnificent and stirring painting by Boccioni. He takes the painted pixels invented by Seurat, and runs them through a particle accelerator to show a scene of almost chaotic construction, where things seem to dissolve in their own energy.

Giacomo Balla, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912

This adorably cute painting by Balla shows another solution based on strobe photography pioneered by Muybridge and Eakins. The parts in motion are shown in a kind of fan of images of their various positions in motion. Poor Balla! This is the painting that gets reproduced in all the textbooks and is his best known work. As we shall see, he was arguably the most accomplished of all the Futurist painters.

Marinetti in his car.

Marinetti was deeply disappointed in these results. They weren't radical and ambitious enough. As stirring as Boccioni's painting is, the dominant image is that of the most ancient of all engines, the horse. So, Marinetti took his artists on a trip to Paris in 1912, where he showed them the new cubist work of a young Spanish painter named Picasso. Picasso's work showed them the revolutionary breakthrough that they were looking for. The whole distinction between figure and ground, mass and volume, is completely conflated. Form, contour, and space itself are broken apart and rearranged as continuous forces on a grid.

The Levassor Monument, Paris, 1907.

The Futurists were the first great artists of the automobile. One of the first works of art to show this new invention is the monument above built to honor a pioneer of auto racing and technology. The focus of this Classical monument, as in all Classical art, is upon the people participating in the race, how its drama and excitement are expressed in human action. The cause of that excitement is the car, and in this monument, it shows the limitations of Classical form when dealing with unprecedented experiences in a new technological age. The sculptor presents us with a marble car. There is no way a stone car is going to adequately express the very modern experience of power and speed in a race car.

Giacomo Balla, Speeding Automobile, 1913

Picasso's cubist work is about very conventional subject matter, nudes, still lives, portraits, etc. Balla took that cubist break up of form and used it to convey the unprecedented experience of a speeding car. The cubist idea of the world as a continuum of forces became for Balla the perfect visual metaphor for the noise and rush of modern speed.
Balla's creation of such stirring paintings is a real triumph of imagination. We have to remember that cars in 1913 looked like the quaint flivver that Marinetti is driving in the picture above. For us, those cars are the stuff of old Mack Senett comedies, going by at top speeds of 40 mph. That he could turn those fendered bug-eyed heaps into something like "eternal omnipresent speed" is nothing short of amazing.

Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed, 1913

Those bug eyed fendered flivvers were the inspiration for this masterpiece by Balla, a magnificent metaphor in painting for accelerating mechanical speed.

The Futurists also embraced the new world of urban pleasure with its noise, crowds, and bright lights. One of the greatest of all Futurist paintings was by an American associated with the group.

Joseph Stella, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, 1914

Stella uses the new modern form language of cubism to express what no archive photograph can possibly convey, a trip to one of the now lost great amusement parks on Coney Island like Dream Land. This painting was a creation of a time when electric lights were still very much a novelty. Crowds went out to the amusement parks to see the novel sight of the night lit up by thousands of electric lights.

We think of performance art as a creation of the last 40 years. In fact, it was an invention of the Futurists almost a century ago.

Boccioni, Futurist Evening, 1910

The Futurists staged noisy cabarets in which their paintings were displayed on stage, and Marinetti would recite his onomatopoeia laden poetry.

Poem by Marinetti, 1919

Russolo and Piatti and the Futurist noise making machine.

Futurist performances were loud plotless chaotic affairs, and deliberately so. Sometimes 2 different bands would play entirely different pieces of music and were encouraged to compete over who could drown out the other. There were the noises of sirens and car-horns. Once, there was a concert of factory whistles.
Sometimes the performers would deliberately try to provoke the audience and start a riot. They would go onstage and begin insulting the audience. Sometimes, they would disrupt other shows. They were notorious for disrupting opera performances.

Antonio Sant'Elia, Futurist City, 1914

There was one architect associated with the movement, the young Antonio Sant' Elia who built very little in his short life. Ironically, the one thing he designed that was actually built was a cemetery. Sant'Elia made his fame with finished exhibition drawings like the one above of a fictional visionary City of Tomorrow, the first of many in the 20th century, and the prototype for them all. Missing are churches, palaces, monuments, and public buildings. But what exactly these functional looking buildings are supposed to be remains unclear. Like all the visions of the future to come, these imagined marriages of aesthetics and technology have a rhapsodic theatrical quality. It's no accident that Sant'Elia's greatest influence will be on the architecture of science fiction.

Tomorrow, the problematic relationship between Futurism and Italian Fascism.

The Last Tree on the Island

Toujoursdan has a sobering reflection on societies facing dangers of social disintegration and environmental disaster who decide to turn inward and bring on catastrophe. He uses the spectacular example of Rapanui (Easter Island). When people first arrived there, it was a lush, thickly forested island with abundant resources. For centuries, the inhabitants of that island created the most advanced of all Pacific civilizations, the only one to develop a written language. The island's resources began to dwindle with over-exploitation. Clan rivalries broke out. Finally, the island's rich forests were reduced to one tree. I have to wonder what was going through their heads when they decided to cut down the last tree on the island. The island remains treeless to this day. The island's civilization collapsed into chaos and anarchy with people in the end resorting to cannibalism.

As it looks to me like initiatives to address the healthcare crisis and global warming are about to wreck, and our whole political system seems paralyzed with corruption and factionalism, I wonder if we are approaching that "last tree on the island" moment.

Thucydides, an Athenian general 2500 years ago, watched his native city and the rest of Greece collapse into the Peloponnesian War. This extended passage from his reflection on the civil war that tore apart the city of Corcyra should give us pause:

As the result of these revolutions, there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion. As for ending this state of affairs, no guarantee could be given that would be trusted, no oath sworn that people would fear to break; everyone had come to the conclusion that it was hopeless to expect a permanent settlement and so, instead of being able to feel confident in others, they devoted their energies to provide against being injured themselves. As a rule those who were least remarkable for intelligence showed greater powers of survival. Such people recognized their own deficiencies and the superior intelligence of their opponents; fearing they might lose a debate or find themselves out-manouvered in intrigue by their quick-witted enemies, they boldly launched straight into action; while their opponents, over-confident in the belief that they could see what was happening in advance, and not thinking it necessary to seize by force what they could secure by policy, were the more easily destroyed because they were off their guard.
Certainly it was in Corcyra that there occurred the first examples of the breakdown of law and order. There was the revenge taken in their hour of triumph by those who had in the past been arrogantly oppressed instead of wisely governed; there were the wicked resolutions taken by those who, particularly under the pressure of misfortune, wished to escape from their usual poverty and coveted the property of their neighbors; there were the savage and pitiless actions into which men were carried not so much for the sake of gain as because they were swept away into an internecine struggle by their own ungovernable passions. Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself proudly in its true colors, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice, the enemy to anything superior to itself ; for, if had it not been for the pernicious power of envy, men would not so have exalted vengeance over innocence and profit above justice. Indeed, it is true that in these acts of revenge on others men take it upon themselves to begin repealing those general laws of humanity which are there to give hope of salvation to all who are in distress, instead of leaving those laws in existence, remembering that there may come a time when they, too, will be in danger and need their protection.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Ride the Lightining, Motherf*cker!"

People not listenin' to you? You gettin' disrespected? Things just not goin' your way?
Then taser 'em!

Digby presents Stephen Colbert doing a brilliant send-up of the latest trend in police brutality, tasers.
It's so funny, you'll spasm.

This one's for all the little men with big guns out there who get no respect.

Pack up your troubles in an old kit bag ... and zap 'em!

Third World America

So, you think it can't happen here in America?

It already has.

Take a look at this story from NPR from Wise, Virginia. The Remote Area Medical Expedition annually sets up a field hospital on the county fair grounds to provide health services to the rural uninsured.

For the past 10 years, during late weekends in July, the fairgrounds in Wise have been transformed into a mobile and makeshift field hospital providing free care for those in need. Sanitized horse stalls become draped examination rooms. A poultry barn is fixed with optometry equipment. And a vast, open-air pavilion is crammed with dozens of portable dental chairs and lamps.

A converted 18-wheeler with a mobile X-ray room makes chest X-rays possible. Technicians grind hundreds of lenses for new eyeglasses in two massive trailers. At a concession stand, dentures are molded and sculpted.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sexual License.

I saw this post on a thread at Thinking Anglicans. It reads in part:

Nobody is suggesting that homosexuals are excluded from the church. What is at issue is the sexual licence such people have within the living out of Christian faith.

If the agenda of revisionists were simply about inclusion there would be no dissent...but in honesty the fight is for sexual licence to be granted to those of a homosexual inclination. That changes the goal posts considerably.

At first, this made my blood boil. Our 6 year old relationship in which Michael and I have shared richer and poorer, sickness and health is nothing but "sexual license." And the serial divorces of certain right wing bishops are not "license" how?

But then I thought, "Where can I get a sexual license?"

Perhaps from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Bring a photo ID and 20 bucks. I wonder if there's a beginner's "Provisional" license? How do you study for the written test?

Monday, July 27, 2009


I'm going through a particularly rough end of the semester in the middle of the summer. Summer school ends this week, and all of my students are in a big fat panic. I just spent a delightful weekend reading student papers and going through piles of excuses. I'm easily distracted these days and lose my train of thought in the middle of lecture. It didn't help that one of my students brought in a particularly noisy and rambunctious small child today. I'm hot and tired and stressed out. All I have to do is make it through Thursday and it will all be over... for now.
I'm stressed over Obama and the health care bill. Who will prevail? Obama or the insurance industry yet again? The Archbishop of Canterbury helped by dropping an ever so cautiously worded turd in the gay Christian punchbowl and we're all mad at him again.
It's time to chill out.

So, here is Jesse Norman 25 years ago singing that wonderful cabaret song by Erik Satie, Tendrement. So let's join Picasso, his Russian diva wife Olga Khoklova, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and all the gang at the Ballet Russe for a night on the town in Paris, where they would have heard this song by their close friend and collaborator, Erik Satie.

Here Picasso offers us a bottle of Suze, and the paper in 1912.

It's so hard to believe that Cubism is now a century old.

Merce Cunningham 1919 - 2009

Perhaps the greatest dancer and choreographer since Balanchine and Nijinsky is dead at age 90.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Health Care Debate Condensed

We are delighted to write blank checks to pay for pointless invasions of other countries on trumped up pretexts. We are happy to keep writing blank checks to pay for our continuing presence in said countries to fix whatever it was that we broke.

We write gazillion dollar checks out from the public treasury with hardly a second thought to save the financial industry, and the global economy, from the consequences of years of foolish greed and criminality.

We thought nothing of cutting massive tax breaks again and again to the wealthiest while the wages of most other people stagnated or declined for years. Those basic government services that primarily serve the middle class (like road maintenance, college financial aid, and Medicare) went underfunded and were allowed to wither.

And now, financing the health care of as many citizens as possible (not all of them) brings out the fiscal scolds. Daddy lectures us about being "responsible" only after we bought the expensive hand bag, not after we wrapped the brand new Jaguar around a telephone pole on the way home from the dealership.

We write blank checks to unaccountable mercenaries ("government contractors") to do our imperial bidding overseas.

We cut billion dollar checks to the financial industry to fund more outrageous bonuses and perks for the over-privileged legacy-admission ivy league gangstas who created this mess.

But God forbid that the taxpayers should spend a penny for a gall bladder removal in Schenectady, or childhood immunizations in Tulsa!

The ever better informed and articulate Digby basically agrees with me that a little bit of something heading in the right direction is better than betting (and losing) the whole ranch on single payer or any other health care plan. That little bit of something we can always expand and build upon later. And it wouldn't really be that small of a something either. It would be the end of a 75 year old logjam on this issue.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Louis Bleriot's Flight Across the Channel

Aviator Louis Bleriot made history's first international flight across the English Channel from Calais to Dover July 25, 1909. It doesn't seem like much today, but it was a huge international sensation when it happened.

Louis Bleriot

Five years after the historic flight, the artist Robert Delaunay painted this Homage to Bleriot. The brilliantly colored biplanes and monoplanes with all the whirling disks of light look almost angelic.
It's a poetic (and poignant in hindsight) work about the optimism, excitement, and expectation that the first aviators inspired in so many people. That's something hard to imagine today, especially when dealing with airlines and airports.

Eighteen years later, Lindbergh would cross the Atlantic. Sixty years later, three men would walk on the moon.

Are We Becoming More "Subdued?"

Digby, who has followed police abuse stories for years, especially those involving tasers, has some very interesting and original thoughts on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. She says that so much of the brouhaha surrounding the incident is more evidence of an increasingly docile public in the face of power. She also points out that if the right-wing-nuts are correct, that we should all shoot first and ask questions later, then by that logic, Gates would have been in his rights to shoot the officer.

Here's a sample of what she said:

I said the other night that I thought Gates was lucky he didn't get tased and I really think he was. People all over this country are "subdued" by means of electricity every day, probably more blacks than whites, but it doesn't seem to be particularly limited to race. We are accepting this kind of thing as if it's just an inevitability because of the attitudes this police officer very thoughtfully lays out in his essay: we are told that we must defer to authority or risk all hell breaking loose.

And I would suggest that it is just that attitude that led to people in this country recently endorsing unilateral illegal invasions, torture of prisoners and the rest. You remember the line --- "the constitution isn't a suicide pact." To which many of us replied with the old Benjamin Franklin quote: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

The principles here are the same. Sure, we should treat the cops with respect and society shouldn't encourage people to be reflexively hostile to police. They have a tough job, and we should all be properly respectful of people who are doing a dangerous and necessary job for the community. But when a citizen doesn't behave well, if not illegally, as will happen in a free society, it is incumbent upon the police, the ones with the tasers and the handcuffs and the guns, to exercise discretion wisely and professionally. And when they don't, we shouldn't make excuses for them. It's far more corrosive to society to allow authority figures to abuse their power than the other way around.

Henry Louis Gates may have acted like a jackass in his house that day. But Sergeant Crowley arresting him for being "tumultuous" was an abuse of his discretion, a fact which is backed up by the fact that the District Attorney used his discretion to decline to prosecute. Racially motivated or not he behaved "stupidly" and the president was right to say so.

E. Lynn Harris 1955 - 2009

E. Lynn Harris, who wrote about the lives of glamorous and successful gay black men is dead.

Friday, July 24, 2009

I'm Still Glad I Voted for this Guy

Yes, I have my problems with him beginning with his reluctance to do any kind of accounting for all the criminality in the previous administration, and continuing with his reluctance to keep pledges to his LGBT constituency. I have big problems with his reliance on the financial industry to fix a disaster created by the financial industry.

But, if he brings off health care reform, then this will be the greatest accomplishment since the creation of Medicare in 1965. His proposals are a lot less than I'd like to see, but they would fundamentally alter the current system and put it on the path toward that more civilized universal arrangement that we all want. If he succeeds in getting this through the Congressional sausage factory, then the power of the insurance and medical industries that have stymied real progress in this area since the days of Harry Truman will be broken. The same forces that tried to defeat Medicare in 1965 are now lined up to bury this proposal, if not by outright opposition, then through coopting by "moderates" (Democrats on the insurance industry payroll) and through "poison pill" amendments.

I think the President is quite right. Doing nothing would be far worse than doing something about the health care crisis. It has ballooned into a serious ball and chain on the economy, and into a potentially lethal threat to the American middle class. While the opposition has resorted to hysteria mongering (and to outright racism in some cases), Obama has stayed very focused on this issue and has talked in very sober factual terms about it.

I am not surprised at all that he is having great difficulty getting this through Congress on schedule. I thought the August deadline was too optimistic from the beginning. The forces for the status quo are formidable with bottomless pockets. They work within a federal system that is all about stifling reform efforts and preserving a profitable status quo for a powerful few. If Obama succeeds with the health care bill, it will be the first big defeat for that very entrenched system in a long time.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Jon Stewart is the next Cronkite?

It's official, Jon Stewart is America's favorite, the "most trusted man in America."

It says something about the quality of broadcast news in this country that the most popular newscaster isn't really a newscaster and never claimed to be one. He is what he has always claimed to be, a comedian who satirizes broadcast news.

I love Jon Stewart. I think he's the best newscaster we've got.

Another Favorite Scene from Fellini's Roma

Engineers building the Roman subway discover an ancient Roman house filled with painted images of the ancient Romans looking back at them. Alas, the paintings do not survive contact with the modern air.

There's no translation in this clip, but it's not hard to follow.

I love this scene.

Every bit of brick in Rome is soaked in memory. In my experience, Rome is the spookiest city at night of any I have ever visited, especially down around the Forum. Even with swirling traffic, Italian soldiers standing guard, and well lit avenues, that area is indescribably melancholy and creepy after dark. Rome swarms with ghosts, whether you believe in them or not.

It has long been fashionable to describe Rome as a "palimpsest," a written tablet that is continuously erased and reused. I prefer the description of the late Sir Kenneth Clark; Rome is a compost heap of human hopes and ambitions.

Sorry I don't have much to post these days. I'm in the middle of end of semester madness in the middle of the summer; summer school you know. I should be done with it all by the end of next week.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Yes, It Really Is All About the Clothes

The famous ecclesiastical fashion show from Fellini's Roma:

A brilliant skewering of the Catholic aesthetic, and of the old Roman nobility.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Snake Bite!

Lest us Yanks get too smug about the Soviet space program, here is a compilation of rocket launches from the beginning days of the US space program. The failures are spectacular. The music to this doesn't make any sense, so I would just turn the sound down.

It concludes with a brief glimpse of Alan Shepard's 1961 flight, the first by an American in space. Yuri Gagarin beat him to it, and with several orbits. Shepard just went up, then came down in about 15 minutes. During the countdown, Shepard supposedly uttered one of my favorite of all prayers: "Dear Lord, please don't let me fuck up!"

Let's not forget that the Soviets got there first, and a lot of our rocket science depended on the work of Russian scientists going back to the 19th century.

The Soviet Moon Program

Soviet N1 rockets

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was revealed that the Soviets had manned flight to the moon very much in the works, and were originally planning to reach the moon by 1968. They had working designs for a lunar lander and even had cosmonauts in training for a moon mission (among them was the great Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space). The fatal flaw was the N1 rocket, a booster as large and powerful as the American Saturn V, but never launched successfully. One launch ended in so immense an explosion that the whole launch facility had to be rebuilt.

The Soviet Manned Moon Mission program set to Shostakovich

All of this was very secret, and known only to those involved, to a handful of the ruling Soviet elite, and to CIA spy satellites.

The Soviets attempted an unmanned mission to the Moon that was supposed to return to earth with rock and soil samples, the Luna 15 mission. But Luna crashed into the lunar surface days before the launch of Apollo 11.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

July 20, 1969, "The Eagle Has Landed."

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin

It should be noted that the LEM's navigation computer was about to land the craft in a crater filled with car-sized boulders. Armstrong took over the navigation, and steered the craft to a safe landing with only 30 seconds of fuel left. This great success was within seconds of becoming a fatal catastrophe.

Footprint on the Moon

Plaque on a leg of the Lunar Excursion Module photographed on the Moon

Aldrin on the Moon

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

---TS Eliot, "Little Gidding"

Earth viewed from the Moon, from the Apollo 11 landing site.


The Apollo 11 Astronauts met for a public reunion at the National Air Space Museum in Washington DC yesterday. The reclusive Armstrong made a rare public appearance. They urged a renewed effort to send a manned mission to Mars and to move beyond the Moon. Like all those who were so deeply invested in the program, they very much regret the virtual disappearance of the space program over the last 30 years. I suspect that their former Soviet counterparts feel much the same way. Armstrong emphasized the peaceful nature of the whole enterprise, that it laid the foundation for so much cooperation after the Cold War was over. International cooperation would be crucial to any future mission to Mars. As I said in an earlier post, the space program began in war and benefitted commerce, but ultimately was about neither of those things. It was an immense civilizing enterprise of collective exploration involving hundreds of thousands of people.

I wonder if we are capable of this kind of an enterprise anymore. We have brains, talent, and courage for the whole venture in abundance. There is no shortage of willing people with the bravery and capability to make a successful venture to Mars, or to the Moon. There is plenty of money. More money has been squandered in Iraq and in bailing out an irresponsible too large financial industry than was ever spent on space exploration.
Despite pledges by our leaders to get to the Moon and Mars, I'm betting money that the first base on the Moon will be Chinese. Ours has become too alienated and polarized a nation to make something like space exploration possible. The recently ended political domination of religious fundamentalism has seriously set back science and technology here. Foreign graduate students are no longer pouring into this country, not only because we've made it harder for them since 9/11, but because a lot of other countries now have better and more advanced programs of study with more generous and enthusiastic state support.

I visited Cape Canaveral a few years ago. For someone who grew up with the space program, it was a very melancholy experience. Looking at all those marvelous displays of past glories, I couldn't help but miss the old Soviet Union. It's not that I missed Stalin and Mutual Assured Destruction, I missed the competition. There was a real competitor out there always goading us to be better than we really were, whether it was in civil rights, culture, science, or space exploration. Looking at all the old launch pads gradually reclaimed by the swamps, it seemed to me that the Sole Surviving Super-Power emerged from the Cold War as a fat self-absorbed, paranoid, manic depressive barely able to hold itself together, let alone explore space.


*The BBC has an article on the coming next generation of Lunar Explorers.

*Toujoursdan at Cultur Choc has an article on what might have been; a cooperative effort between the US and USSR to explore the moon together.  This proposal was scuttled by the assassination of President Kennedy.

*Curiously, the coverage in the NY Times, and I suspect in much of the rest of the American press, is heavy on nostalgia and lite on any substance.  The BBC has had much better coverage of both the actual history of the lunar mission and of future plans for lunar exploration.  

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Extraterrestrial Historical Sites

NASA has published recent satellite photographs of Apollo landing sites on the Moon. You can see the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) descent stages clearly in each. In the Apollo 14 site, you can see the Astronaut's footprints.

Conclusion of the Episcopal General Convention

Durer, The Landauer Altarpiece

Jim Naughton has an outstanding opinion piece in the Guardian.

It reads in part:

Our church has not sought to increase the strain in the communion, but to redistribute it. The suffering on all sides of the debate over homosexuality must be borne by the entire church. Ideally, it would be borne by the entire communion in the form of generous pastoral discretion and respect for the discernment of individual provinces, but Williams and a majority of the primates have rejected this most Anglican of accommodations in favour of a single-issue magisterium on the issue of homosexuality.

The NY Times interviewed +Gene Robinson at the Convention Thursday.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite, 1916 - 2009

Walter Cronkite died today at age 92.

I grew up with Walter Cronkite from the time he covered John Glenn's launch and orbit in space from the back of a station wagon in 1962 through his coverage of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Space Program, to his retirement.
I met him in 1996. He came to the bookstore where I worked for a book signing and an interview with the BBC right in front of where I worked. While most big celebrity authors (like John Grisham) would come into the store with an entourage the size of the Chinese army and take over, Walter Cronkite arrived in a cab with one assistant. He was unfailingly kind to all the staff and to the people waiting for his autograph. He was much more frail that I had expected, and I could see why he decided to retire. I thought the BBC interview was rather poor quality with fairly banal questions, but he handled it with grace and professionalism. The small crowd of employees who watched applauded when he was finished.

Like a lot of people, I knew every evening at 5:30 that if Walter was alright, then the world would somehow make it through another day of history. As we all must, he has now passed into history, and that's the way it is, Friday, July 17, 2009. This is Doug Blanchard.

Good Night.

I'll miss him. As John commented over on Eschaton, he was missed already. There has been no one since he retired who has come anywhere close to measuring up to him as a broadcaster and a journalist.

One more thing:
As I posted over on Mimi's blog, what was so striking about Walter Cronkite was the complete contrast between him and most of today's teevee news people. Cronkite was this ordinary looking guy from St. Joseph, MO who took journalism very seriously. He was all business; no capped teeth, no blow-dried hair, no prima donna tantrums, no drama, no theatrics. He was our representative right there in the middle of it all trying as best as he could to describe it and make sense of it to the rest of us. He talked to us as fellow adults, not as children or as peasants. I doubt that there will be anyone like him again.

Thanks To All My Readers!

Thanks for indulging this bar-stool know-it-all for a little over a year now. I have never been to seminary and I have no degrees in political science or economics, but that's never stopped me from holding forth. I make paintings and I've read a book or 2 on art, but the curators at MoMA and The Whitney are in no hurry to consult my views on anything.

Ideological America

Photo by Margaret Bourke White, 1937

Toujoursdan linked to this article on his website about America speeding on down the road to ruin while wearing ideological blinders. It's a very interesting article that points out the atomized nature of American society, and how that benefits the oligarchy which profits off an ideology of "family values," and capitalism. This deeply conflicted ideology may be all to the benefit of a handful of rogues, but it has legions of true believers.

I wonder how America became an ideological country in the first place. American thinkers were once renowned, not for ideological purity, but for pragmatism. There was once a famous distaste for abstraction (an inheritance from English thinkers) in the American world view. Now, so many of our public thinkers sound like Hegel with Southern accents.

My friend David Kaplan once remarked how Republicans these days remind him of his old Communist acquaintances, and his old Communist friends reminded him of Early Christians. All of his old radical socialist acquaintances were on fire with something like the Holy Ghost, and determined to spread their gospel to save the world. They even cherished visions of apocalypse in which the true believers would be vindicated.
Like the Communists of old, David points out that today's Republicans value ideological fidelity and party discipline above all else. Also like those old time Communists, Republicans today have an all-encompassing ideological world view than combines market fundamentalist capitalism with a version of Calvinist Christianity in its more fundamentalist and apocalyptic forms. It is individualist in the extreme. The only real community this ideology recognizes is "the family," and even that is restricted to the immediate biological family of parents and children. The ancient Italian concept of La Famiglia (the family as a kind of nation joined by blood ties) is as alien to this ideology as a Soviet collective. Frequently there are darker appeals to race, but even that is more about individual identity than it is about any kind of tribal solidarity. It is all about the lone individual in a world of other lone individuals, alone before God, and alone before Society and the Law. Success or failure in this world is entirely in the hands of the individual.

Beyond whatever merits this ideology has, like all ideologies, it is an abstract view of the world. It is not interested in history or historical circumstances. Indeed, in the early days of the Bush II Administration, its resident ideologues contemptuously referred to "reality based" thinkers. The hell with history! We're out to "build Capitalism!"
This ideology may well have been a scoundrel's figleaf, but that is the role of most ideology. Soviet citizens once referred to their ruling Communist Party as the "red mafia." The reason why this ideology failed was not because it was improperly implemented or because of corruption. It failed for the same reason that all ideologies fail. It crashed into the wall of actual history. The disastrous failure of Paul Bremmer's tenure as Viceroy in newly conquered Iraq is a case in point. It wasn't the corrupt mercenaries and contractors responsible for that failure. It was true believing and well meaning ideologues who mistakenly thought that conquered Iraq was a blank slate upon which to write out a whole new model of society, that 5000 years of accumulated history could simply be ignored. The past, said Freud, is always there for us to trip over.

I think ideological America is a legacy of the Cold War and of the dominance of a religious faction that values doctrinal fidelity above everything. Adam Smith, that Scottish pragmatist, would have been very surprised to see himself described as the founding father of an ideology. I doubt he would recognize his ideological progeny out of the university economics departments and think tanks. They might not recognize him. Smith, unlike his purist progeny, believed a certain amount of taxation and government regulation were necessary for the good of society. Smith opposed monopolies and favored collective bargaining for workers. I seriously doubt he and Ayn Rand would have gotten along well at all. Smith was interested in relieving and avoiding shortages. He was not interested in making any kind of utopia for the many or for the few. For Smith, capitalism as an "untried ideal" would have been incomprehensible.

The Soviets had an all-encompassing ideology, so certain powerful people here decided that we needed one too. So, Adam Smith's legacy was embalmed and enshrined in the equivalent of Lenin's tomb. A Capitalist ideology began to evolve that started to ape the Communist ideology. The University of Chicago and The Heritage Foundation began producing legions of would-be capitalist Suslovs, purist ideological enforcers. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, legions of evangelical fundamentalist Christians poured in who enthusiastically played the role of Red Guards demanding fidelity to doctrine from the party leaders. Theirs was a religious outlook that valued fidelity to text and to doctrine above all else. The absolute individualism in their religious beliefs (Jesus as "personal Lord and Savior") harmonized well with the atomized world view of ideological capitalism. Their religious nationalism, their belief in a messianic America divinely chosen and favored gave an imperial momentum to this ideology.

American business has long used divide et impera tactics to defeat labor movements. The most effective method for sewing division was in appeals to racism. For over a century, whenever a mine or a mill would organize and strike, management would bring in a busload of desperate and brutalized Black scab workers. After the race riots were over, the union would be broken, and management would have a docile, if sullen, work force. Organized labor only began to have a measure of success when it started to self-segregate. Labor is only now starting to return to the old idea of class solidarity crossing racial lines. Today's management tactics are more subtle. In my experience as part of a successful effort to organize a bookstore chain, the most effective tactic was to turn individual workers, not on the union leadership, but on each other. Management would create as tense and difficult a work situation as possible to get people to turn on each other. Apparently, "working as a team" stops when the team demands a contract.

I think our ruling oligarchy has long pulled the same tactic on the rest of the country. Today, everyone is turned against everyone else, and we are all reduced to a fool's liberty; we can say and do whatever we like, but only because it doesn't matter.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

40 Years Ago Thursday July 16

The mightiest engines ever built... still breathtaking to watch after 40 years.

I wrote these lines February 1, 2003 on the occasion of the destruction of the Columbia Space Shuttle:

I have no mind for mathematics. I am not mechanically inclined. Whatever appreciation for science I have is largely aesthetic. I like traveling less and less as I get older. I'm getting more phobic (heights, sharp things, fire, etc.) and more timid with each passing year. My views and politics are probably far to the left of most mechanically inclined prosaic can-do types. And yet, I have always been an enthusiastic supporter and admirer of space exploration. That has not changed with today's catastrophe. My most vivid and happiest historical childhood memories from the 60's were not of the Counter-Culture (I was far too young and too remote from all that) and certainly were not of the Vietnam War; they were of the Space Program. I followed all those space flights with relish from John Glenn in Friendship 7 to the last Apollo flight to the moon in 1972. I even followed all of the now forgotten missions of the Gemini program. That is the only aspect of the 60's that I feel privileged to have lived through and witnessed. All of those mighty projects to put men on the moon were ultimately peaceful despite their Cold War motivations. They brought people together in a great civilizing enterprise of exploration. They were great works about something other than war or commerce (even though they began in war and benefited commerce).

Exploration was always risky since the first ancient Polynesian or Viking or Phoenician or Chinese or Greek or Arab set sail in uncharted waters. The bones of lost and luckless explorers litter the frontiers in history. Space is vast, disorienting, hostile, and implacably alien. Exploring even our small part of it is lethally dangerous. People died and will die again trying to push back that frontier; several Russian cosmonauts, the crews of Apollo 1, the Challenger, and now the Columbia. I am so grateful for people with the courage and spirit to risk their lives to take a small light up into that immense darkness. I salute all those who try to expand the realm of the possible for all of us puny little mortals; even when they die trying.

And that great triumph of exploration 40 years ago was full of risk. The success of the whole project depended on the skill and the courage of the 3 pilots, even with all the best technology that 1969 could offer. Those astronauts were not payload. The only reason that the Lunar Module didn't crash into the surface of the Moon as it ran out of fuel was Neil Armstrong's superb piloting. The astronauts were the ones ultimately responsible for the happy outcome of the whole mission.

I've often wondered why we haven't returned to the Moon, and I always come to some sour conclusions along the lines of we're all too busy making money to bother with exploration. But, despite the predictions of a certain movie that came out the year before Apollo 11, space travel in the 21st century is anything but routine and banal. Space is still a lethally dangerous, hostile, alien, and disorienting immensity. We are creatures of gravity, and of Earth's atmosphere. We are not built to survive where there is no air, no ground, and no up or down. We are still trying to figure out how to adapt our technologies and ourselves to spending the time in that environment necessary to travel beyond the confines of our own planet.

An Open Letter to the Right Reverend Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham Concerning His Recent Essay in The Times

Your Grace,

Piss Off!


F. Douglas Blanchard, Episcopalian
Brooklyn, USA

The opinion piece can be found here.

Madpriest has a more detailed and nuanced opinion here.

The best reasoned and nuanced reply to Bishop Wright, in my opinion, is from Scott Gunn.

Stephen Bates has another fine opinion piece in the Comment Is Free section of The Guardian.

I'll leave the reasoned arguing to the professionals.  I live in Billyburg in Brooklyn, a place not renowned for nuanced discussion, but more for declarative statements like the one in my open letter above.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ends and Beginnings

Hubert Robert, Demolishing the Bastille, 1790

When Parisian crowds stormed the Bastille July 14, 1789, they found only a handful of old men upset at being rudely awakened. The Marquis de Sade was released from the Bastille only days earlier.
The storming of the Bastille was not about liberating prisoners. It was about seizing weapons. The members of the newly formed National Assembly were in Paris. The city was full of rumors that royal troops were marching toward the city. The Bastille was stormed to seize weapons to defend the city and the National Assembly. In that desperate act fueled by rumor, something new began.
The Bastille suddenly acquired a meaning and an importance it never had before. It is likely that before July 14, 1789, Parisians hardly noticed the old medieval fortress on the edge of town. After it was stormed, it became an emblem of tyranny, of rulers at war with their own people. It became emblematic of an ancient feudal order that now seemed arbitrary, rooted in superstition and ignorance. The stone fortress stood for everything that stood in the way of emerging expectations in a brand new world where the human condition of toil, pain, and obedience for the many was no longer immutable. That order was ancient, but it was no longer permanent. It clearly was no longer divinely ordained. Common people could change their lot in life. They could have a say in their own destinies. The new Industrial Revolution harnessed the forces of nature to the needs of production. People now had powers that they once attributed to their gods. "Why should we fear Jupiter's thunderbolt," said Karl Marx, "when we have the lightning rod?"

We are still in the middle of those revolutions unleashed at the end of the 18th century. They remain unfinished, their promises unfulfilled.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt once said that among the greatest privileges of humanity was the capacity to start something new, to begin. All my life, I've heard Greek choruses bewailing the decline of this and that. I've always wondered, if one thing is dying, then it means another is struggling to be born. Civilizations end, not because they fail, but because the people who make them are mortal. Traditions disappear when they no longer have anything to say to new generations. We are living in such a time when new things struggle to be born. Hannah Arendt looked about at the smoking ruins of Europe and Asia at the end of the Second World War. She noted that, for the first time, the thread of historical continuity that joined the past and present together was now irrevocably broken by the catastrophes of the 20th century. However, she saw not despair, but a unique opportunity, the chance of a new start.

Le Sueur, Planting a Liberty Tree, 1790