Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Health Insurance Reform Fight Viewed From Across the Pond

The Brits apparently find the whole thing incomprehensible.
They think we've lost our minds. This BBC report significantly bears the tagline "Make Me Poorer!"

From the report:
If people vote against their own interests, it is not because they do not understand what is in their interest or have not yet had it properly explained to them.

They do it because they resent having their interests decided for them by politicians who think they know best.

There is nothing voters hate more than having things explained to them as though they were idiots.

As the saying goes, in politics, when you are explaining, you are losing. And that makes anything as complex or as messy as healthcare reform a very hard sell.

I've said all along that you can never overstate the power of resentment in American politics. Forget it folks. No matter how much you explain and appeal to reason, no matter how much and how often you point out other countries that have solved this problem, you are just going to dig yourselves into a deeper and deeper hole. This has nothing to do with reason or evidence. For the Teabagger constituency, this is tribal war just as much as in Burundi or the Balkans. In their eyes, we're the enemy tribe. They see themselves as Israel and us as the Canaanites, usurpers and parvenus in a land promised to them (and them alone) by God.

Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas?, makes this very telling point:
You vote to strike a blow against elitism and you receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our life times, workers have been stripped of power, and CEOs are rewarded in a manner that is beyond imagining.
It's like a French Revolution in reverse in which the workers come pouring down the street screaming more power to the aristocracy.
I think what it boils down to is we've been sold the idea that anyone can win the lottery. Everything from advertising to prosperity gospel gives some of us an almost religious conviction that we hold the winning ticket. Doing the socially responsible thing for our families and our neighbors would just hurt our chances of winning that Powerball Lottery. That conviction that we hold the winning ticket feeds into those older and darker passions fed by a century and a half of history (let's not forget that the South is the only region of the USA that experienced military defeat and occupation).

And meanwhile, the folks who own and run the USA, who are responsible for creating these crises and who continue to profit off of them, sit back and say, "Dance puppets!"

I'm appalled by all of this, and I don't see a way out of the impasse.
The USA is a car that's gone off the road and into a very deep ditch. The passengers are all injured and bloody. Instead of cooperating to climb out of the ditch, the injured passengers all fight each other over who's going first and who's responsible for the accident. Meanwhile, the driver responsible for the accident came out without a scratch and long ago abandoned the accident scene. The passengers are too busy in the wrecked car punching each other's lights out to notice that the driver is gone, or to try to get out. The buzzards circle above.


Michael says the Democrats should stop giving the Republicans blow jobs.

David Kaplan says that the opiate of the masses is not religion, but consumerism. Take away the First Amendment and people will only shrug. Take away their iPhones and watch revolution explode in the streets.
I would say that consumer status toys are to our society what Soma is to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Bells and Smells

High church for Sunday.

Serious bells and smells.

Ambrosian Mass at the altar of the great church of Sant' Ambrogio in Milan. The altar sits right over the resting place of Saint Ambrose.

I love the bells chiming during the Eucharistic Prayer, and of course the clouds of incense.

Facade and atrium court of the great 11th century church

interior of the church with some of the earliest and widest ribbed vaults in Europe, built in the 12th century

The interior with sunlight

The ciborium and apse of the church

The 9th century gilded silver altar frontal.

Saint Ambrose himself with 2 other martyr saints in the crypt under the altar.
If the Episcopal Church ever starts venerating corpses, I'm joining the Quakers.
Gag me with an aspergillium.

Adventures in Blogging

In the roughly year and a half that I've been blogging, I've had one regular troll (who seems to have moved on), and about 4 or 5 drivebys. Testimony to the modest scope and reach of this blog. I don't think I want 200 to 300 post comment threads full of arguing cranks. I'll leave that to the political blogs.

Now, I get a lot of spam comments; spammers using the comment threads to sell their penis enhancement drugs, Nigerian business opportunities, get rich quick schemes, etc. I'm guessing that this is a result of the increasing effectiveness of spam-blockers on e-mail providers.
Do any of you other bloggers get these?

I still get the weird inexplicable stuff. I still get the Chinese writing comments on the same posting from almost a year ago. I get another in Cyrillic (Russian I presume, though there are other languages that use Cyrillic) always on the same post from over a year ago.

The comment moderation proves to be a very effective way of keeping all that junk from cluttering the comment threads, at least for me.

Do any of you have similar problems?

Howard Zinn 1922 - 2010

Here is Bob Herbert's tribute to Howard Zinn in this morning's NY Times. Here's a sample:

I always wondered why Howard Zinn was considered a radical. (He called himself a radical.) He was an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it. What was so radical about believing that workers should get a fair shake on the job, that corporations have too much power over our lives and much too much influence with the government, that wars are so murderously destructive that alternatives to warfare should be found, that blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities should have the same rights as whites, that the interests of powerful political leaders and corporate elites are not the same as those of ordinary people who are struggling from week to week to make ends meet?

Mr. Zinn was often taken to task for peeling back the rosy veneer of much of American history to reveal sordid realities that had remained hidden for too long. When writing about Andrew Jackson in his most famous book, “A People’s History of the United States,” published in 1980, Mr. Zinn said:

“If you look through high school textbooks and elementary school textbooks in American history, you will find Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people — not Jackson the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians.”

Radical? Hardly.

More on Obama in the Lion's Den

I finally saw a replay of the thing last night. These are some random thoughts:

--A lone black guy in a room full of hostile white people; great teevee for Obama, a PR disaster for Republicans.

--Even worse for the Republicans, he looked like the only adult in the room. He talked policy while they stuck to their talking points. Even worse than that, he called them on it.

--Obama's famous cool served him very well. Despite the Fox News Network and legions of media wizards, Republicans as individuals and in groups do not come off well on teevee. They always look like sanctimonious bitter cranks. Curiously, former President Dubya's alternating boyishness and arrogance worked much better on teevee than solemn recitations of hostile rhetorical questions.

--Very interesting that Obama pointed out to them that their intransigence and hostility only hurts themselves. The right's vilification of him and their all-or-nothing approach to policy boxed them into a corner. Any effort to get some bit of policy that they might favor into legislation would only look like weakness, and that their more fanatical base would punish them for it, even if they were successful.

--I noticed that Fox was the only network to cut away from the event to voice-over and commentary. Very telling.

--The Republicans will never do this again, and whoever agreed to that whole set up yesterday is probably looking for work today.

--I can't think of any of Obama's predecessors who would have been able to bring off anything similar. Nixon? -- a man famous for a career full of public melt-downs? not likely. Carter? -- he'd sound like an irritated Sunday school teacher; which he did anyway. Reagan? -- "Well, there you go again," might work well with Carter, but not with a roomful of hostile Congressional representatives. The Gipper never was very good in debates and discussions. Clinton? -- too temperamental. Dubya? -- are you kidding? His handlers went out of their way to make sure he only got softball questions.

Good show, Mr. President.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Obama in the Lions' Den

Some liberal pundits are complaining that Obama's trip to the Republican retreat looks weak. I think he had real nads to go there. It took a lot more courage for him to go toe to toe with saber-toothed House Republicans on C-Span than it would for any Republican to face a roomful of 'fraidy-cat Congressional Democrats. So far as I know, none of his predecessors did anything like this with their opposition. Dubya certainly didn't. Clinton didn't. Obama did and he stood his ground.

According to the NYTimes, the White House asked for the question and answer session to be televised, effectively calling a Republican bluff. They were expecting the give and take to be behind closed doors with Republicans controlling the press accounts of what transpired.

I think this gesture is a message to the President's own party, to stop being a bunch of frightened sea-slugs and get a spine for a change.

It Will Never Happen Here

Go here to watch the live BBC broadcast of Tony Blair's testimony before the government commission investigating the Iraq War.

Meanwhile in this country, the right is very busy airbrushing the last 8 years into oblivion. The always compliant media takes us all on another swim in the river Lethe.

In this country spectacular incompetence, arrogance, and ignorance that costs thousands of lives and billions of dollars doesn't get investigated or called to account about anything. Instead, it gets promotions, book deals, huge lecture fees, and the Medal of Freedom.

As the inscription over the west door of medieval churches once said , Cave Dominus Videt.

Equality (coda)

Fritz Eichenberg, Christ of the Breadline, wood engraving

A reader of mine, Mark Richard Lane, sent me a reminder about Fritz Eichenberg.

I remember Eichenberg's work from my boyhood. I loved his illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe's stories.

Eichenberg was quite a fascinating character. He was born and raised in a Jewish family in Cologne. He became sympathetic to left wing and pacifist causes during the First World War. He became a prolific printmaker, his work strongly influenced by Kathe Kollwitz and Ludwig Meidner. The Nazi election victory in 1932 forced him to leave Germany. He ended up in New York where he worked for the WPA, taught at Pratt, and at The New School.

Eichenberg made a long and winding religious pilgrimage during his life. His family was secular and assimilated. In his youth, he was fascinated with Taoism. He later embraced Zen Buddhism after the death of his wife in 1937. In 1940, he became a Quaker.

It was through his activism in Quaker causes for the poor that he met Dorothy Day and became a lifelong friend of hers. He frequently contributed illustrations for The Catholic Worker, of which the one illustrated above became the most famous and celebrated.

The Passing of an Era Here in New York

JD Salinger 1919 - 2010

Louis Auchincloss 1917 - 2010

Two very different writers who described two very different New Yorks. Those two cities passed away long before they did.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Macabre Mummy Mystery

While looking for YouTube videos to post for my students, I came across this enduring mystery of Egyptology around a wicked boss cool scary looking mummy, the so called "Screaming Mummy" of Unknown Man E discovered in 1881.

Here he is as he looked shortly after he was unwrapped, photographed in 1881:

Here is a National Geographic Channel snippet on the mummy featuring (as always) Dr. Zahi Hawass:

The "Screaming Mummy" was found in 1881 among a cache of royal mummies discovered by a notorious tomb robber Abdul Rasul. Rasul confessed the location under torture, and officials from the Egyptian Museum investigated and removed the mummies. Among them were some of the greats of Imperial New Kingdom Egyptian history; Seti I, Ramses II, Amenhotep III, Thutmose III, and Ramses III. Unknown Man E's silent scream, and the circumstances of his burial led some in the 19th century to conclude that he had been buried alive. Some forensic experts say that the "scream" was probably a result of decay and dessication. Death relaxes jaw muscles causing mouths to fall open. Embalmers to this day still wire jaws shut.

He probably was someone royal to be buried with all that royalty. Priests in the 20th Dynasty gathered most of the royal mummies out of their tombs to protect them from robbers, and from mobs of looters who broke in and sacked tombs in broad daylight. The stone sarcophagus of Ramses VI was shattered to bits and his mummy torn to pieces, apparently by a mob (the video gives us a glimpse of his tomb and his shattered sarcophagus). There was some kind of breakdown in law and society that caused crowds of people to descend on the royal cemetery in the Valley of the Kings. The priests restored and re-wrapped many of the mummies and gave some of them very cheap replacement coffins. Others were placed back into their original coffins, but only after all the gold and precious ornament had been removed, probably by the priests themselves. Then they were all buried together in a tomb made for a princely family high on a cliff near the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri.

I thought this might be a nice break from cranky politics.

Do you think my students might enjoy the video? It's fun, but it's everything I complain about cable TV history docs. Zahi Hawass has evolved into such a media whore. He used to be a great archaeologist. He did all the pioneering work on the labor conditions of the builders of the Great Pyramid of Giza, excavating and investigating the workers' quarters.

Matthews on Obama's SOTU speech: "I forgot he was black tonight for an hour"

Matthews on Obama's SOTU speech: "I forgot he was black tonight for an hour"

Posted using ShareThis

How do some people get their jobs?

SOTU Thoughts

--So much of the time I was saying to myself, "I'll believe it when I see it," especially the promise to repeal DADT.

--I really like the student loan proposals. They would make life so much easier for millions of students and open up the span of their career options. Their first thought in college should be "What do I want to do with my life?" not "How am I going to pay back this huge loan I took out to pay this huge tuition bill?" Unless he fights for it, I don't see how it will survive Congress and the lobbyists.

--I was impressed that he told the Supremes to their faces that they made the wrong decision on corporate money in politics. I could be wrong, but I think that is unprecedented.

--I was impressed that he told Republicans in the Senate that if 60 votes are now required to pass anything, then they bear a measure of responsibility for governing.

--I notice the priority "jobs" now takes over healthcare reform. He says "don't give up," but I think what ever comes out the other end of the Congressional sausage factory (if anything comes out) will hardly be recognizable as reform at this point.

--I noted the tack to the right on offshore drilling and nuclear power.

--I liked the public scolding of the banks and the financial industry, but I would have liked to have seen something more substantive in terms of permanent regulatory reform.

--I agree with Mimi that he's in fantasy land when it comes to Afghanistan. I was listening to Thomas Ricks, author of Fiasco, America's Adventure in Iraq yesterday on the radio point out that our biggest problem there is not the Taliban, but Karzai and his government of bandits and druglords. He quoted an Afghan villager who said that the difference between the Taliban and Karzai's forces is that every time the government soldiers come into his village, they rape the little boys.

--In the end, Mimi said it best, "I want to live in the country that Obama talks about. How can I get there?"

--My message to the Prez and all the Democrats; You have big majorities in Congress. Use 'em or lose 'em!

--Is it just me, or is the House Chamber really ugly? The chamber was rebuilt several times. Its current form was created in the late 1950s. Neo-Classicism meets Art Yucko.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Another Right Wing Juggernaut?

Maybe not.

Oregon voters voted for a tax increase... that's right, a tax increase.

Robert Cruikshank of the blog Calitics has a first rate account of the effort to pass the increase, how they defeated a corporate lobby that outspent them big time.

A Modest Proposal

Democrats took over Washington last year with an ambitious and very promising agenda. The President actually had an economic recovery plan which he spelled out in his campaign, and it was a good plan.

As soon as they met Republican resistance, they folded. On health insurance reform, they abandoned their maximum demands (like some kind of single-payer plan or extending Medicare to cover everyone) before they even started debating and negotiating. They began with what was already a compromised position. And now, it looks like they will end up with nothing. "They did a lot of horse trading and came up with no horse," said a veteran of the Obama campaign staff today.

The economic stimulus package was not enough. It was enough to avert disaster, but it was not enough to turn the economy around by putting people back to work and putting money in their pockets. They rescued the financial industry from itself, from the consequences of its crimes and excesses, without demanding any kind of reform. They put the financial industry rescue before rescuing the rest of the country. The intention was to free up credit, which hasn't happened. As for the "magic of the free market," if the banks aren't going to start lending (and probably for good reason because no one knows anymore who's honest and who's crooked; so many once reputable firms turned out to be giant fraud schemes or gambling casinos), and the very idea of government intervention is ideological heresy, then where is the money going to come from?

The official unemployment rate is 10% and has stayed there for about a year now. The unofficial rate is about 17%. Add that to the people who are still employed but have had to take cuts in hours or salary, and the percentage of the population in real economic distress is hovering around 20%, a fifth of the population. If this situation drags on any further, this could be a potentially lethal threat to the United States as we know it now. Look at what happened to those countries that did not recover from the Great Depression of the 1930s. Most of them had to wait for the Marshall Plan to rebuild.
And yet, the whole political process appears to be paralyzed in corruption (legal and illegal; and after the last Supreme Court ruling, it may all be legal now), and in constitutional crisis (the inflation of the Senate filibuster has effectively ended majority rule in Congress and put it in permanent gridlock). I don't see any end to this in sight. I hear plenty of people outside of elected office talking candidly about all this, but I don't hear any elected officials doing so.

If the strategy of the Democratic Party is nothing but retreat, if they are hostage to corporate interests whose funds buy them the extremely expensive television time so necessary to modern campaigning, then maybe it is time to start a new party. I'm not interested in another easily marginalized third party. I want a SECOND party. I want a REPLACEMENT for the current Democratic Party. If they are not going to represent the interests of their real constituents (working families, minorities, everyone who's not part of the Fox News demographic), then they should get out of the way of someone who will.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Stop Taking the Bait!

My friend David Kaplan believes that the USA went a little funny in the head with the Vietnam War, and hasn’t been quite right since. He may have a point there. So much of our politics and public life seem to have been driven by alternating bouts of euphoria and bitterness ever since. The historian Richard Hofstader pointed out 40 years ago that there has always been a dark crazy aspect to American politics, that resentment and paranoia have always played large roles in our history.

Thus, the abiding weakness of liberals and progressives, we never recognized this reality even when it bit us over and over again. Liberal progressives are true children of the Enlightenment who believe that people are fundamentally rational, that all you have to do to change minds is present the arguments and evidence and people will come around. The Fox News Network has no such illusions. Reason and rationality, as the right knows, have precious little to do with politics. Politics has everything to do with dark tribal passions of Us versus Them. My dad couldn’t have cared less about policy arguments. All he knew was that the same people who hated Nixon hated him. Ironically, Nixon was a better Democrat than Bill Clinton or Obama. Nixon couldn't win a primary race for dog-catcher in today's far right Republican Party, a party he built.

Let’s face it folks, the religious and political right is all about spite and resentment. That’s all. The right wants victory. It wants revenge. It wants to see all the heads of its many enemies on spikes over the city gates. It wants to laugh at those bloody heads and say, “Who’s your daddy?”
That’s what the right really wants in its heart of hearts. If they fear us lefties at all, it is because they assume we want the same end for them. They can’t imagine anything else.

You can’t argue with paranoids. So, we should quit trying. We should stop trying to answer and rebut every crazy slander that comes our way. We are only letting them control the debate and set the agenda. Stop taking the bait.

They had 8 years of near absolute rule. Let’s remind ourselves and everyone else what they did with it. They crapped all over themselves, the country, and the world. The current Great Recession is a direct consequence of their policies. Invading Iraq after 9/11 made about as much sense as invading Peru after Pearl Harbor. Billions that could have been spent on improving life for all of us in this country and the world went down the sink. The only real winners were the mercenaries and government contractors who got rich off the war. The past 30 years have seen the biggest transfer of wealth in our history; from the rest of us to our owners, the same people who screwed us all and left us to dangle in the wind. The Republicans want to give them an even bigger share of the public treasury. That’s their only solution for the last 30 years. Republican policy toward the financial industry was “fire all the cops and let the Free Market Fairies do their magic.” You don’t have to be a Nobel Prize winning economist to figure out that if you fire all the cops, the robbers will run riot, and that’s just what happened over the last few years. Corporations turned into giant ponzi schemes and the financial industry turned into a giant casino. When it all came crashing down, the rest of us were left holding the bag while the crooks cashed in their chips.
And now, the right is trying to sell us all again the same snake oil that they’ve been peddling for decades; the poison that made us all so sick in the first place. Economist Duncan Black suggests that we might as well make zombie Ken Lay Treasury Secretary.

The right is all about tribal identity, about “Real America.” All of them from O’Reilly to Gingrich bang on and on about rich liberals lording it over decent hard working Americans. Who do we think we really have to persuade that this is plain false? Why should we try? We all came from that same “real America.” A lot of us came from blue collar families in red states. I know that all the young hipsters that I saw pack the polls on Election Day 2008 to vote for Obama live 4 and 5 to a tiny apartment with at least one of them unemployed. We all know people who are out of work, or we are out of work ourselves. A lot of us have debt problems, are paying outrageous interest on credit card bills, have taken salary cuts, and have seen our retirement accounts shrink drastically. Some of us have lost our homes and our savings. We all know this is true. Why do we feel the need to convince a bunch of fat white bastards on Fox otherwise? Fuck ‘em! Let’s take care of ourselves, and our country, first.


I doubt this will be news to anyone who reads this blog regularly, but the Teabaggers are only the latest incarnation of the old post World War II paranoid far right; the same folks who said Eisenhower was a communist after their presidential candidate, Senator Robert Taft, got shoved aside by the Republican party leadership in 1952. Indeed, I grew up with these folks back in the days when they all read J. Edgar Hoover's Masters of Deceit and were card-carrying members of the John Birch Society.

Hat tip to Digby.


Well, well, well! Look what the FBI caught in New Orleans yesterday trying to bug Senator Mary Landrieu's office!

Alleging a plot to wiretap Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's office in the Hale Boggs Federal Building in downtown New Orleans, the FBI arrested four people Monday, including James O'Keefe, a conservative filmmaker whose undercover videos at ACORN field offices severely damaged the advocacy group's credibility.
Also arrested were Joseph Basel, Stan Dai and Robert Flanagan, all 24. Flanagan is the son of William Flanagan, who is the acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, the office confirmed. All four were charged with entering federal property under false pretenses with the intent of committing a felony.

Hat tip to Atrios

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Equality (Part IV)

The Radiant City

Our grandparents and great grandparents first tasted the horrors of modern industrialized warfare in World War I. What did a warrior’s courage mean when he could be completely obliterated by a single bomb from a plane, mowed down by machine gun fire, or crushed under the tracks of a tank? Stubborn and arrogant generals refused to adapt their tactics to the new technologies sending thousands of men to their deaths like cattle. The causes of the war remain ambivalent and its ending was ambivalent. What is not ambivalent was the cost of it, the decimation of an entire generation of young men. Germany lost 5 million men. Britain lost about 2 million. There was not a single household in France without a war casualty. Men of all classes died together before the indiscriminate slaughter of mechanized war.

Military Cemetery at Verdun, France

Equality of a kind was finally achieved in the even rows of tombstones in the huge military cemeteries in Belgium and northern France.

And in the end, nothing was settled. Everything changed and nothing changed. The rage left behind by the war together with the rage of populations dispossessed by post war booms and busts drove the totalitarian movements that emerged in the wake of the Great War to End All Wars.

The thread of historical continuity broke in the War. Empires and dynasties that ruled for centuries perished in the War, the Russian Empire, the German Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Hapsburg dynasty. By 1919 they were all gone. Many believed that the War was the end of Western civilization, and an opportunity to begin again. The catastrophe of the War drove some people to efforts to solve the riddles of history, to try to end human conflict once and for all. Some turned to ideological movements and totalitarianism. Others became visionary utopians of one kind or another. There were artists and architects between the wars who were convinced that Utopia could be designed and built.

Universal equality is an abstraction. We’ve all of us experienced equality of one kind or another, but no one has ever experienced universal equality, the equality of all humanity. It has never happened, except in imagination. Universal equality can’t help but be abstract.

The visionaries of the design movements between the wars understood the abstract nature of the ideal of universal equality. They created a form language that was suitably abstract, and they believed universal since it involved the simplest essences of form.
These designers and artists proclaimed the centerless grid as the ultimate egalitarian form.
The greatest poet of the grid was the Dutch artist Mondrian. The driving idea behind Mondrian’s grids is not political so much as spiritual. Like a number of other early 20th century artists (most notably Kandinsky) Mondrian followed the teachings of Madame Blavatsky. He was an enthusiastic Theosophist. He believed, as Theosophy teaches, that this world of ten thousand ephemeral phenomena is ultimately false. The true world was the one of timeless idea and essences. Mondrian began as a landscape painter, and he gradually reduced the experience of looking out at the world to its barest and most universal essentials. All of our experience of the world boiled down to the line of the horizon, and the vertical line of a tree or a figure before it.

Piet Modrian, Pier and Ocean, 1915

His paintings are all confined to right angles, that basic experience of a vertical before the horizon. He confined color to the three primaries out of which all other color is made, red, yellow, and blue.

Piet Mondrian, Composition in Black and Red, 1936

He began his compositions by using the Golden Section first described by Euclid. The Golden Section is a ratio that the ancient Greeks considered most pleasing aesthetically, which they used frequently in their architecture, and which they considered divine.

Mondrian was distantly associated with a Dutch design movement that published a magazine called De Stijl (The Style). The architects and designers of De Stijl, like a lot of other design movements of the time, believed that they could influence thought by changing the visual environment. We could create a New Man by designing a new house for him to live in.

Gerrit Rietveld, The Schroder House, Utrecht, 1923 - 24

The Schroder House, interior

. Like their Constructivist colleagues in the new Soviet Union, and their colleagues at the Bauhaus in Germany, the artists and designers of De Stijl believed in the centerless grid as the ultimate egalitarian form. Everyone gets an equal unit, and no one forms the center. The grid is universal in being infinitely expandable and by being so essential (the vertical tree and the horizon line over and over again).

Theo Van Doesburg, Counter Composition, 1924

The De Stijl artists added to this an ambition to create a universal form language based on essentials, a kind of visual Esperanto. Designers like Gerrit Rietveld and Theo Van Doesburg used Mondrian’s grids and primary colors as the basis for architecture.

Charles Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier, dreamed greater things for the grid than house and furniture design. He wanted to remake whole cities on the model of the great equalizing grid. Le Corbusier imagined a future where everyone would be athletic, hold rational views, work in science and technology, and travel everywhere by car. This world would be universal and egalitarian because it would be designed by an architect who believed the in the redemptive power of aesthetic experience, Le Corbusier.

The French automobile manufacturing company Voisin commissioned Le Corbusier to come up with a hypothetical design for the center of Paris remade for the automobile.

Le Corbusier, model of the Voisin Plan, 1925

Le Corbusier, drawing of a proposed street in the Voisin proposal

To us in the 21st century, the design is shocking. Le Corbusier proposed to bulldoze the entire historic center of the city of Paris. He dismissed its centuries of accumulated history as just so much “crust.” He proposed a city arranged according to a grid of broad highways for cars with tall housing flats rising up out of the green spaces in between. This form of city laid out on a grid of streets with tall gridded housing structures Le Corbusier called “The Radiant City.” Le Corbusier never built the Voisin Plan for Paris or any version of The Radiant City.

He only built one apartment flat, one piece of mass housing, the Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles.

Le Corbusier, Unite d'Habitation, Marseilles, 1949 - 1952

It is a masterpiece of design and a failure of housing, both for the same reason, its abstraction. It is one of the most beautiful such buildings built; a splendid evocation of Le Corbusier’s vision of a sunlit world of technology, rationality, and healthy athletics. His vision of technological Utopia melded with memories of ancient Greece with its harmoniously proportioned temples and sun-tanned athletes.

rooftop recreation area of the Unite

It is not built for actual people, but for Le Corbusier’s idea of the “Modular Man” who fits ideally into this perfectly measured and apportioned world.

"Modular Man" from the Unite

The apartments are all small and plain, and all the appeals to purity of form in the world could not possibly prevent a tenant from livening the place up with embroidered throw pillows.

An apartment bedroom in the Unite

Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” would have a profound influence on the design of public housing around the world. Significantly, Le Corbusier and the famous/notorious city planner of New York Robert Moses were close friends.
The Bauhaus architect Ludwig Hilbersheimer designed an even bleaker more abstract version of the centerless grid city that he called “The Vertical City.”

Ludwig Hilbersheimer, drawing and rendering of "The Vertical City," 1924

Hilbersheimer followed the remaining Bauhaus faculty into exile to Chicago where he ended his days in the Chicago housing authority.

The Radiant City and The Vertical City were built after World War II, not as utopian new cities, but as public housing, as housing for the poor who were in no position to choose or to complain.

The Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project, St. Louis, completed 1955

The automobile and government policies emptied the professional, managerial, and even much of the working classes out of the city centers in the USA from the end of the 1940s to the 1980s (the urban migration was in the opposite direction in European cities at the same time; rich centers surrounded by poor suburbs). The people who inhabited city centers in the USA were the left-behind poor and misfits. The Radiant City became warehousing for those too poor and too different to move to the suburbs. Le Corbusier’s Utopia became a dystopia of crime and squalor inhabited by the Left Behind in America and in Europe.
The dream died when it became cheaper to destroy these housing projects than to maintain them.

Destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe houses, 1972

“The Grid of Two Hundred Million”

The egalitarian grid was not the exclusive property of socialist utopians. It could be easily adapted into the advertising researcher’s statistical grid. Everyone who could afford it would get his/her own prepackaged and carefully measured piece of the pie. The grid worked perfectly well for the less than perfectly egalitarian consumer society created after World War II in the USA (and about 20 years later in Europe).

Lakewood, California, 1950

As the Post War American suburban dream recedes into history, it now appears to be a tremendous, though deeply flawed, accomplishment. It was the world’s first achievement of mass prosperity. Accountants, shipping clerks, managers, and factory workers with their families could have a small villa with its own little fraction of property.

Levittown, PA, 1950s

Suburban tract house, 1950s

A privilege of nobility was now within the reach of millions of people. People who had spent their youths riding freight trains looking for menial work in the Great Depression could now retire with their children to their own tiny little manor with indoor plumbing, hot water, central heating, and air conditioning (whose impact on the creation of the Sunbelt economy cannot by overstated). The centerless grid of the earlier socialist utopians now became the street plans and cul-de-sacs of sprawling suburban tract housing developments.

In many ways, the suburban Utopia of the 1950s was a tract house built on sand. It was the creation of a unique and unrepeatable moment in history. The USA was the only major participant in the Second World War to emerge unscratched. Cities in Europe and Asia were flattened with millions of dead. It would be 2 decades before those cities fully rebuilt. Large sections of the population were deliberately excluded from suburbia. African Americans were legally prohibited from those neighborhoods and from the home mortgages necessary to move in until the Civil Rights Act. While traditional American rhetoric about this new prosperity as a reward for individual hard work and enterprise is largely true, that reward was secured with a lot of government policy from city planning policies that favored the car and the highway (and bypassed and isolated minority communities) to mortgage subsidies for veterans and first time home buyers. The Second World War was many things to Americans including a massive government spending program that pumped billions into the economy and put large amounts of spending money into employee pockets for the first time ever. It was the defense industry and government contracts that built and sustained the prosperity of California from Word War II through the Cold War.
The suburban Utopia of the 1950s was built upon the sands of segregation and the internal combustion engine with the assumption that petroleum was an infinite and benign resource.

That vision of mass prosperity may be passing away as a deeply divided USA today looks more and more like Europe of a century ago with its established privileged classes and rigid lines of class. Manufacturing that once provided high wages (guaranteed by a strong labor movement) is largely gone from an economy now built on services and on moving money around from one place to another. Market speculation has replaced making and selling things as a basic business model. Real wages remain stagnant and a recent Brookings Institution study found that suburbia now has the fastest expanding rate of poverty. The Post War dream of mass prosperity may disappear into oblivion and be only a memory by the midpoint of this century. Ironically, it is the various movements for “sustainable growth” and a “green economy” that are the most sincerely interested in preserving that original vision of mass prosperity. Though routinely lampooned from all sides as “tree huggers,” they want to preserve that original vision of privilege for the many by making it sustainable and adapting it to changed circumstances.

The consumer culture profoundly remade cities and the land, but it also profoundly remade our conception of ourselves. George WS Trow in his very brilliant and very strange book The Context of No Context observes that in ages past, human societies were considered from the individual outwards. Communities were considered as collections of individuals and were best understood through the lives of their greater and lesser individual members. Trow observes that now social scientists and advertisers take the opposite approach, considering huge swaths of the population that share a characteristic and gradually working their way down to the statistically inconvenient individual. Trow calls this “the grid of two hundred million.” He notes the isolation created by the contrast between the lone individual and the “grid of two hundred million.” He observes the success of television, not in creating spectacle, but in creating a sense of home and comfort for increasingly isolated individuals; to the point of replacing actual remembered experience with nostalgia for past TV shows and advertising culture.

The artist who best understood this transformation was Andy Warhol, the son of a poor Pittsburgh factory worker. He grew up a chronically ill and effeminate gay boy in heavily machismo blue collar Pittsburgh. He relieved his isolation by immersing himself in Hollywood fan magazines, in fantasies of opulence and glamour that were light years removed from the poverty and loneliness of his childhood. He left Pittsburgh eventually for New York where he had a flourishing career as commercial artist. He remained frustrated and disappointed in love and in his ambition to be taken seriously as a fine artist.
Warhol made his first pictures of Marilyn Monroe right after her death in 1962. He intended these pictures to be about adoration; we could never have too much Marilyn.

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe Diptych, 1962

They were also about Marilyn Monroe as product. We could each have our own little private share of Marilyn. Like a product designer, he knew that we all want what our neighbors have, so Warhol always used the exact same publicity photo of Marilyn in all of his artworks about her. Warhol was fascinated by the contrast between the uniqueness of hand-made products and the sameness of mass production. His silkscreen repetitions kept the flaws and differences between strikes. His colored images evoke the vivid artificial color of advertising, and his black and white images have a grainy slippage that recalls early television. He arranges these identical pictures of Marilyn Monroe in the modernist grid; the grid not of the socialist utopian, but the statistical grid of the advertising researcher, the grid of the store display.
Warhol understood that celebrities are ultimately product. They are famous because we desire them for whatever reason, not because they’ve done anything remarkable.

Andy Warhol, Coca Cola, 1962

. Warhol anticipated by 2 decades Trow’s observation that Coca Cola was the most successful of all celebrities with a series of paintings of massed Coca Cola bottles. We love Coke like we love Marilyn.

Warhol reveals the nihilism that underlies these commercial transactions in a series of silkscreen paintings of disasters, the sort of disasters that are the commonplaces of local news, car crashes, fires, crime, etc.

Andy Warhol, Green Burning Car I, 1963

He did a series of silkscreens of a grisly car crash in which the driver was thrown from the burning car and impaled like a mannequin on the telephone pole to the left. One family’s catastrophe is another marketing demographic’s consumable spectacle. Warhol prints the same image again and again so that everyone could have one. Once again, the grainy quality of the print reminds us of the alternately blurry and vivid imagery of early television. It also reminds us of that remarkable capacity of television to equalize; to trivialize the profound and to exalt the trivial.

Andy Warhol, Electric Chair, 1967

Andy Warhol, Electric Chair, 1967

Warhol said that all of his art is about death. It was about death as spectacle, and how turning it into a spectacle makes it distant and meaningless at the very moment the spectacle becomes accessible to us. Warhol’s work is about the hollowed out equality of the consumer culture. What remains so frustrating about Warhol is his passivity. He neither celebrates nor satirizes the effects of consumerism.

The socialist and capitalist planners made the same mistake. They assumed uniformity meant equality.


Equality is an elusive concept, as elusive as liberty. We define equality as we define liberty primarily by describing what it is not. These meditations are no exception. Like liberty, we have a hard time describing equality, but we know it when we see it. I see it now as in trouble everywhere in a new cosmopolitan world where it should be flourishing with a new lease on life.
This series of posts is only a superficial meditation on a vast subject that could fill a library. While I’ve touched on racial and labor equality, I left out gender equality. I regret that because feminism continues to be under-estimated as a major force shaping contemporary history around the world. I also neglected the equality of sexual minorities, perhaps because I’ve already posted a lot about it (though that account remains incomplete).
The idea of equality has fallen on hard times, as I pointed out at the beginning of these posts. It has been an unfashionable embarrassment in conversation for almost 30 years now.
It is not hard to imagine a near future where slavery makes a comeback complete with arguments to legitimize it. Future slavery may not necessarily be racial, it could be based on immigration status, debt, or any number of other factors. Indeed, that may already have come to pass in the sex trade and in child labor. It is not hard to imagine new arguments about how slaves deserve their servitude, or that we are somehow doing them a favor by forcing them to work for nothing (“tough love”).
In this Second Gilded Age, there is no shortage of people arguing that the ideal of equality should be discarded, just as the Social Darwinists so argued in the First Gilded Age. The problem is that equality is bound up with the matter of human dignity. It is bound up with the question of whether or not there is an irreducible and fundamental inherent dignity in being human. If there is not, then how are the sheep to be sorted from the goats? What is to be done with the superfluous remainder? How does the denial of basic dignity to some reflect upon the dignity of all? These are moral questions that our infuriatingly passive intellectual discourse, and our shallow solipsistic public discourse are incapable of addressing productively.

I sometimes think that Dr. Martin Luther King was transformed into marble and bronze monuments, into a name on everything from schools to bridges, in order to inoculate us from his legacy. He would be horrified to see his famous phrase about the content of character taking precedence over skin color used as rhetorical sophistry to argue that the struggle for civil rights is over and equality is achieved, that the field of opportunity is now level, and we can just forget about the unique historical experience of African Americans and its legacy. Beyond that, Dr. King would be especially horrified to see political democracy uncoupled from economic democracy. He argued consistently throughout his life that freedom means nothing when the liberated remain poor. The 1963 March on Washington was a march for “JOBS and Justice.” Walter Reuther, head of the UAW, was there at Dr. King’s invitation for a reason beyond just moral support. On the last day of his life, Dr. King was in Memphis supporting a sanitation worker's strike for better wages and working conditions. At the time of his death, he was planning a "poor peoples' march" on Washington DC for economic justice. Freedom for Dr. King meant not only freedom from the tyranny of segregation, but freedom from the tyranny of poverty.
Dr. King’s vision of equality had nothing to do with the actuarial business of who gets their fair share of the pie. It had everything to do with human dignity and mutual solidarity. His was a profoundly religious vision rooted in the radical egalitarianism of Christianity that proclaims all humanity as having not only dignity, but also sanctity, even the lowest. His vision was deeply religious, but not narrowly sectarian. His was a vision that welcomed other faiths and those with no faith, not as guests, but as full partners in the quest for freedom and dignity for all.

Those marches King led were not just a means to a legislative end. King meant these marches to be seen as an alternative model of human community. Everyone marches together as equal partners through history toward the common destiny of humanity, not toward extinction, but toward fulfillment of their promise. He intended these marches to be an image of an alternative to the hollowed out equality of consumerism, and the war of all against all necessary to sustain it.

I look at a photograph of King leading the second March from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, and what do I see? I see the old isocephalic composition used by artists from Masaccio to Courbet appearing in all the artless spontaneity of real life.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bring It On!

Andrew Mellon in 1929:

Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate … It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people …

And Christopher Hayes reports this:

According to one GOP lawmaker, some House Republicans are saying privately that they'd rather "let the markets crash" than sign on to a massive bailout.

For the sake of the altar of the free market system, do you accept a Great Depression?" the member asked.

If these guys bothered to read history, then they would be careful about what they wish for. Remember what Andrew Mellon got when he wished upon a star?

Supreme Court on Political Corruption; Open the Sluice Gates!

Thomas Nast, The Senate of the Trusts

The Supremes undid a century's worth of campaign finance reform yesterday. From now on, the United States really will be the best republic money can buy. I'm not counting on our legislators to do the right thing, or to even find the nerve to do it.

Health insurance reform is effectively dead, and the only thing I relish about it is watching the tea-baggers complain when their premiums go up or their policies get canceled when they become ill. Folks, when you get that increase or that cancellation notice in the mail, remember that this is what you voted for. Enjoy.

For the last thirty years, our politics has been the same old show every night. Reckless Republicans, with Over-Cautious Democrats chasing behind them, charging right over a cliff. I now expect this to continue for the rest of my life into the permanent right wing junta (with its punitive social policies and endless inconclusive wars) that is in all of our futures.


A commentator on the radio this morning suggests that if corporations legally are people, then maybe they should run for public office. Bank of America for Congress anyone?
Digby suggests that this is a great way to eliminate the middle man, the voters.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


The one thing rulers (including ours) fear the most is not popular rage, but rising expectations.

Through Ideological Glasses

Here's Andrew Sullivan on the Conventional Wisdom surrounding this week's Republican win in Taxachussetts:

Here's why it's hard to see anything positive coming out of this debacle. Stephen Bainbridge, an intelligent man and one of the few conservatives who also found Bush and Cheney appalling, can write this:

Obama and the Congressional Democrats (especially in the House) governed for the last year as though the median voter is a Daily Kos fan.

This must come as some surprise to most Daily Kos fans. But if one had traveled to Mars and back this past year and read this statement, what would you assume had happened? I would assume that the banks had been nationalized, the stimulus was twice as large, that single-payer healthcare had been pushed through on narrow majority votes, that card-check had passed, that an immigration amnesty had been legislated, that prosecutions of Bush and Cheney for war crimes would be underway, that withdrawal from Afghanistan would be commencing, that no troops would be left in Iraq, that Larry Tribe was on the Supreme Court, that DADT and DOMA would be repealed, and so on.

But when even a sane and honest person like Bainbridge has lapsed into believing the FNC mantra, you realize that ideology has simply altered our understanding of reality.

Hat tip to Digby.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Equality (Part III)

Labor Day badge from 1904

“The Images Ye Have Made of Me”

The Industrial Revolution was a great two-edged sword that cut very deeply in both directions. It was the greatest transformation in day to day living since the invention of agriculture. It dramatically improved daily life and created new possibilities for millions of people. The price for that change was, and remains, high. Industrialism transformed ideas of property and work that reduced once independent and skilled tradesmen to paid chattel minding mechanized assembly lines. Villagers who held resources like water and pasturelands in common for centuries now found themselves uprooted and homeless when rural commons became private property. The skilled trade became the unskilled job. The tradesman became an employee. People who once owned their homes and their shops became renters. The convenience of some depended on the misery of others.

Industrialism and mass production transformed daily life for millions of ordinary people in ways that were profound. It is hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the change. Simple things like mass-produced cotton underwear, wood furniture, ready to wear clothing, soap, canned food, inexpensive and replaceable dishes and pots and pans improved life and health for millions. Mass production put things like marble topped furniture, porcelain dishes, indoor plumbing, and silk fabric within the means of the children and grandchildren of indentured peasants.

Industrialism created a certain measure of basic dignity and decency for people who knew neither for generations, like this 19th century Scottish working class family seen here in an old photograph.

The Industrial Revolution raised the expectations of thousands upon thousands of people for their own lives, for their children, and for the world. Those great expectations went on display in London in 1851 in the great Crystal Palace exhibition. The prosperity created by industry and international commerce went on display in a building that was itself a creation of new technology; a building built entirely out of glass and cast iron. Even in retrospect, the Exhibition exudes confidence and great expectation.

The Crystal Palace exhibition building, 1851

interior of the Crystal Palace

display room in the Crystal Palace

While these improvements in life were unprecedented, they came through means that were timeless; conquest and exploitation. The new prosperity of the many depended on the poverty of many more. Beneath the public optimism of the mid 19th century lay a private anxiety, a deep terror of the poor.

There were those who advocated abandoning the ideal of equality all together. Social Darwinists applied (misapplied according to some) Darwin’s concept of “natural selection” to the social realm. Those who were best suited to survive and prosper in the new industrial world did so, while those who could not had no claim to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” frequently misattributed to Darwin. Spencer and others like him believed that some kind of natural competition for survival would do God’s work of sorting out the sheep from the goats. There were some like Cornelius Vanderbilt who believed that labor was a class of people to be sacrificed for the greater good. The problem with this point of view was that the playing field for this great game of king of the mountain never was level. No one chooses the circumstances into which they are born. And what happens when those assigned to the sacrifice refuse to go along with the ceremony? What is more, the boom and bust cycles of capitalism could transform today’s economic winners into tomorrow’s losers through no fault of their own. People who worked hard and honorably all their lives could be discarded for their failure to adapt to changed circumstance. People who thought gambling was a sin ended up losing everything through speculation. Hobbes’ nightmare vision of the state of nature as the “war of all against all” seemed to come true in the world remade through industrial capitalism.
The novelists of this time detected the deep anxiety behind the public confidence. Novelists like Dickens, Thackeray, and Edith Wharton exposed the savagery that lay just beneath the veneer of Victorian social convention.

In some ways, this terror of the poor, and of poverty, was the heir to the constant fear of rebellion by slave owners, the terror of being murdered in one’s bed by trusted hands, the terror of feeling the sting of the lash inflicted on others.

In 1848, the expectations, and the divisions created by industrialism, broke out into revolution. The worst nightmares of the privileged and newly prosperous came true. The poor (together with a large portion of the middle classes) rose up all over Europe and demanded bread and freedom. Almost all of those uprisings were brutally put down in the name of social peace and public safety. King Louis Phillipe of France fell from his throne, replaced by the short-lived Second Republic. The hopes for a "Social Democracy" came undone when the new conservative government reversed gains for the working class provoking the "June Days," three days of civil war in the streets of Paris between the National Guard and the Parisian poor. After the army was called in to put down the rebellion, 1500 lay dead in the streets, and thousands more were rounded up and sent to exile in Algeria.

After the revolutions of 1848 (the year Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto with the famous opening line “A spectre is haunting Europe…”), some artists built careers on the terror of the poor created by events like the June Days.

One of them was Gustave Courbet who rejected both the idealism of Neo-Classicism and the exoticism of Romanticism to concentrate on the world as it was then (as Courbet saw it). Courbet was a country bumpkin with a huge ego who scandalized Paris in the 1850s.
He exhibited an enormous painting almost 20 feet long, the size and format for a big Classical epic or Romantic spectacle.

Gustave Courbet, The Burial at Ornans, 1850

Instead what he shows us in this painting are his neighbors in his home town of Ornans together at a funeral. What people found so shocking about this painting was the complete absence of any kind of transcendent content concerning death. Courbet, consistent with the positivism that dominated his era, said, “Show me an angel and I will paint it.”
The deceased comes in stage left instead of in the center. The center of this centerless composition shows a group of town officials around the empty hole of the open grave. The town priest with a group of bored acolytes appears with the mayor and a group of magistrates and officials. Courbet’s sisters posed for the weeping women on the right. All the figures in the painting are portraits of people from Ornans. Death in the end is only death, and a loss for the family and friends. It is an occasion for the town. Courbet resorts to the old isocephalic composition to show equality in the face of death. “The only real equality is in the cemetery,” says a grim old German proverb.
The Burial at Ornans was only a warm-up.

The Stone Breakers was another large painting, about 5 feet by 8 feet.

Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1851

We know it only from a few old color photographs. It was destroyed in World War II (during the firebombing of Dresden). It showed a father and a son together breaking large rocks into smaller gravel for road construction. The Parisian public was horrified, not only at the subject matter, but by the very prosaic way that they are painted. The two figures are almost faceless. The composition seems clumsy in its simplicity and directness. The lighting is very untheatrical and matter-of-fact. The stooped young man lifting a basket of gravel looking aged by his toil shocked the public. As the art historian Robert Rosenblum pointed out, it is a very dry-eyed look at human suffering.
The socialist author Pierre Joseph Prudhon used the painting as the basis for a long essay titled On The Principles of Art and Its Social Purposes proclaiming this painting to be an indictment of the greed and degradation of capitalism.
Courbet’s painting is much too matter-of-fact and undramatic to be useful for political propaganda. But, the very act of putting such laborers on the walls of the state salon exhibition before the eyes of the establishment that depended on such labor was a revolutionary act.

Courbet’s art never again had that kind of daring or inventiveness. He made himself into a kind of professional gadfly and revolutionary taking part in the Paris Commune uprising of 1871.

Jean Francois Millet had no such revolutionary ambitions. He remained very cagey about his political views in public and in private. That did not save him from getting into political scandal over his work. Millet was the son of peasants raised on a farm. He knew his subject matter through first hand experience. The subjects of his work are not prosperous peasants or independent farmers, but the rural poor; and the poorest of the poor.
Those rural poor are the subjects of his most famous painting, The Gleaners.

Jean Francois Millet, The Gleaners, 1857

In the background of the painting is the busy activity of the wheat harvest. In the foreground, a group of three women go through the harvested field, gleaning it, looking for any lost or discarded ears of wheat to take home. They are scavengers. They are the rural poor scrounging for scraps to feed themselves and their families.
Millet gives them the dignity and monumentality of French public classicism in the tradition of Poussin. Their large dense rounded forms follow an a-a-b rhythm echoed in the b-b-a rhythm of the haystacks in the background.
What bothered the Parisian public was Millet’s very frank depiction of toil. Instead of happy rosy-cheeked swains and milkmaids cavorting in an imaginary Arcadia, Millet shows us the back-breaking struggle to win bread out of the ground.

Millet, The Man With a Hoe, 1862

Instead of the shepherd playing his pipes as he watches his flocks, Millet gives us the Man With A Hoe, his face haggard with exhaustion from breaking up the weeds and clods of earth all around him. Millet too candidly showed the Parisian public the toil that sustained their comfort.

Vincent Van Gogh worshipped Millet. He spent the first years of his short career trying to emulate Millet’s monumental poor laborers. He tried to add Rembrandt’s tactile paint quality to give his own peasants and laborers a grainy material presence. Van Gogh came to art as a kind of last resort. He failed as a gallery employee, as a schoolteacher, and finally as a missionary preacher. He found a true productive outlet for his manic energy and passion in art. He was not the most gifted of draftsmen, and struggled with the demands of classical form. Out of that struggle he created something new, original, and movingly sincere.
Van Gogh came out of the once large and influential Christian Left. This was the now forgotten Christianity of the Social Gospel, of the Methodist preachers urging miners to strike in the northern English coalmines, of Christian Socialism, and Catholic labor organizations. The struggle for labor, for the freedom and dignity of working people, was the struggle against the nihilism of capitalism, against its reduction of all values to values of use and exchange (celebrated by Marx), against its denial of the very idea of meaning beyond what’s written on a price tag. In the Christian view, modern laborers were not only alienated from their work, but from their souls. Van Gogh made the re-integration of the spirit divided by modern materialism his life’s mission. He proposed to accomplish this through the power of aesthetic experience, through art.
In his first masterpiece, The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh gives the miners of the Borinage region of Belgium (to whom he was first sent as a missionary) a sacramental presence and dignity.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885

These very poor people eat a very poor meal of boiled potatoes and coffee. Van Gogh gives their meal the sense of drama and mystery of the Last Supper. The clumsiness of the painting technique only enhances its sincerity and pathos.

Van Gogh did several versions of Millet’s The Sower, seeing in the large powerful striding figure a religious meaning.

Millet, The Sower, 1850

The parable of the Sower in the Gospel is a parable about the Last Judgment. Millet may or may not have intended that dimension of meaning in his painting, but Van Gogh probably did in his versions of The Sower.

Van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

A large radiant yellow sun dominates the top center of one of his versions. Just below, a long row of yellow wheat ready for harvest runs across the full length of the picture. The ground dominates the lower two thirds of the painting. Van Gogh transforms Millet’s clods of earth into swirls of vivid color; blues and yellows. The sower strides off to the right sowing yellow grain; grain which is the same yellow as the sun.
There is no explicit religious imagery in this painting. However, the placement of the sun in the center of the picture, in the center of a radiating pattern of brushstrokes that fills the top of the picture, implies something divinely omnipotent. Color had emotional and symbolic meaning for Van Gogh, and yellow was always about light and power. Van Gogh was the son of a Calvinist preacher, and knew the Bible intimately since childhood. He knew that the Parable of the Sower was about the Last Judgment, about who was “good seed” and who was “bad seed.” He knew enough about agriculture to know that a field ripe for harvest would probably not be seen together with a newly plowed field ready to be seeded. The seed in the parable is about the future yield at the harvest at the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, and perhaps that’s what Van Gogh’s picture is about.

The most powerful images of early industrial labor are the photographs taken by reformers. They were out to document, and to show the larger public, the conditions of labor. The photographs of reformers like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine remain powerful witnesses to the brutality of early capitalism.

Jacob Riis used a clumsy early flash camera to document the lives of the toiling poor of 19th century New York, determined to show the public how almost half the population of the most densely populated city in the world at that time lived.

Jacob Riis, "Five Cents a Spot," (Italian immigrant laborers in a Lower East Side Tenement photographed at 3AM.), photograph, circa 1890

Jacob Riis, Tenement Sweat Shop, Necktie Manufacturing, circa 1890

Lewis Hine’s photographs of child labor in the early 20th century United States are still shocking.

Lewis Hine, "Breaker Boys" at a Pennsylvania coal mine, 1911

Lewis Hine, young girl working in a cotton mill, 1908

These scenes are still with us. It is not hard to find tenement apartments crowded with poor immigrant laborers in New York today. All that has really changed is that they are scattered throughout the Five Boroughs instead of confined to the Lower East Side. We could find scenes of child labor as dramatic as anything photographed by Lewis Hine today in Latin America or southern Asia, if we cared enough to look. Now, as then, our comfort and convenience depends on the misery of many. If anything has really changed since the 19th century, it’s the contrast between “who may” versus “who must” became international. Conditions of brutal factory labor right out of the pages of Upton Sinclair remain even today in this country.

Jacob Riis began his book documenting the conditions of New York’s poor, How The Other Half Lives, with this poem by James Russell Lowell.

“With gates of silver and bars of gold
Ye have fenced my sheep from their father’s fold;
I have heard the dropping of their tears
In heaven these eighteen hundred years.”

“O Lord and Master, not ours the guilt,
We build but as our fathers built;
Behold thine images, how they stand,
Sovereign and sole, through all our land.”

Then Christ sought out an artisan,
A low-browed, stunted, haggard man,
And a motherless girl, whose fingers thin
Pushed from her faintly want and sin.

These set he in the midst of them,
And they drew back their garment-hem,
For fear of defilement, “Lo, here,” said he,
“The images ye have made of me!”

Jacob Riis, "Street Arabs," (homeless children, Mulberry Street, New York), circa 1890

The Power of the Earth.

Hannah Arendt begins the second chapter of her book On Revolution with this epigram from the French Revolutionary leader Louis Antoine de Saint Just:
Les Malheureux sont la puissance de la terre (“The wretched are the power of the earth”).
Arendt argues that the rage of the exploited and the wronged, the victims of the modern global economy with its vast impersonal forces, is like a force of nature that destroys nation states and the very idea of law and civil society.

The greatest artist to articulate that rage was the German artist Kathe Kollwitz. Like Van Gogh, she too came out of the Christian Left, but from an even more radical wing of it. Her father was a radical Social Democrat and her grandfather was a Lutheran pastor expelled from the church because of his socialist sympathies. Kollwitz made a series of large etchings illustrating the Peasants’ War of 1525, a violent uprising against the nobility and the church by indentured tenant farmers who were treated as slaves.

Kathe Kollwitz, Sharpening the Scythe, print, 1902 - 1908

Kathe Kollwitz, Outbreak, print, 1902 - 1908

Kathe Kollwitz, Prisoners, print, 1902 - 1908

The uprising was very violent and its suppression was even more violent. Kollwitz clearly intended this event from the distant past to reflect upon her own time.
Her prints from this series show a growing crescendo of pent up rage and frustration released in bursts of violence that are more desperate than heroic. They are as frightening as they are stirring.

The rage and frustration of millions of people made destitute in the boom and bust cycles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries drove the totalitarian movements of both right and left. Those movements destroyed nation states and the rule of law, and replaced them with systems of total domination. Modern political ideology, like earlier forms of religion, is all encompassing in its claims. It is not simply a matter of policy differences or differing forms of government, ideology is a total view of the world claiming every aspect of life. Matters of belief and identity are bound up with the ideology, which requires a total personal investment and absolute loyalty from its followers. This is true for all ideology, not just the right or the left.
Earlier tyrants couldn’t have cared less about the thoughts and feelings of those they ruled. Totalitarian tyrannies required absolute and unswerving allegiance to the movement from all of its subjects. Public opinion mattered to these movements. Propaganda went to great lengths to persuade mass opinion, and to create a sense of belonging to a historic cause. Coercion required not only the brutality and pervasiveness of the police, but the active cooperation of citizens spying on each other and watching each other’s views and actions for any sign of disloyalty to the movement. Totalitarianism was participatory tyranny that parodied the participatory society of democracy.
Who was in and who was out of the movement replaced equality. Totalitarian movements depended on ancient irrational tribal passions of us versus them despite their abstract ideologies and universal claims. The art of totalitarianism is all about agreement; mass agreement with the ruling ideology and the regime. So much totalitarian art is about spectacles of mass agreement and adoration of the regime.

May Day parade, Moscow, 1966

Hitler Youth rally, 1937

Yuri Kugach, The Glorification of Stalin, 1950

Paul Matthias Padua, The Fuhrer Speaks, 1940

Since totalitarian movements all proclaim the end of history, and the final solution to history’s ills and conflicts, totalitarian art is usually very bland and dull. Drama presumes conflict, and a world with no more to fight or argue about is a world without drama. In the end, the art created by the totalitarian movements of both left and right looks like each other. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish the art created under Hitler from that created under Stalin without identifying movement symbols.

One of these paintings was created in Hitler’s Germany and the other in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Which is which?

The totalitarian movements of the 20th century tried to remake the world, human nature, and even the human species, in the image of a series of ideological abstractions. Those who fit the scheme remained, and those who did not were cut off.

In the end, the only real equality left was the equality of the damned in the labor and death camps.

Transportation of Soviet Prisoners

Prisoner Roll Call, Buchenwald