Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Most Recent Republican Triumph ...

... means the Same Ole Shit, different year.

With the Democrats competing to see who can roll over fastest and play bitch to the Republican Big Daddies, it looks like the GOP will run the whole show again for another 2 years at least.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Ma Latest

She will stay in the hospital for another week, at least. She's in her own room again, but it's not clear what kind of mental health she has left. Some days, she seems to be aware of her surroundings and to know who people are. Other days, she seems not to recognize anyone or anything. We don't know yet if this is temporary or permanent.
Other than that, her condition seems to have stabilized.

I will be going down for a visit on Christmas.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Vietnam Veterans Against the War march, circa 1970

Alexis de Tocqueville once observed that expectation is the spark of revolution. He said, as many other historians have since repeated, that the French Revolution began when the ancient institutions of the French state and French society found themselves in the way of expectations created by the rise of modernity. The King, but not the Queen, made a too-little-too-late effort to meet those expectations, and ended up losing his head. The leaders of the Revolution found themselves destroyed by the very passions they unleashed.

The USA went through a transformative (though not exactly revolutionary) phase in its recent history from about the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s. Long dormant expectations created by the experience of the Second World War awoke and demanded to be met. As a political revolution, this period was only partially successful. Real power did not change hands, but was spread out a little more, if not quite evenly. As a social revolution it was tremendously successful, transforming people’s expectations out of life across the political and class spectrum. Hope and expectation drove the anger of the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movements, and various other movements of the 1960s. Hope and expectation gave ordinary people the courage to face down the enforcement powers of the established order, to break the law when necessary, and to face the consequences. Black Americans, women, and others had a taste of real equality in World War II, both on the battlefield and on the home front. The efforts to put them back into their “proper place” after the War could not erase the memories of those experiences. What people demanded was not the Death of the King, or the overthrow of the regime, but a real share in the existing order. Even Dr. Martin Luther King’s talk of “economic democracy” was not so much a Leninist vision of destroying and supplanting the prevailing order as it was of reforming it. He wanted to make that order more just, more equitable, and more accountable. He wanted to broaden the economic franchise in the same way he sought to broaden the political franchise, not to overthrow the whole system. That was the vision of most “revolutionaries” of the 1950s and 1960s (including Malcolm X).

I don’t see any sense of expectation now. Instead, I see a desperate hope that things do not get worse together with a real sense of dread about the future. Our best and brightest don’t really believe in the future, and they are afraid of the past. It’s small wonder that they are signing up in droves for the high salaries and easy money of the financial industry. As we live at the height of our second (or is it our third?) Gilded Age, our political parties are both on the take once again, with the distinctions between them rendered meaningless by the their eagerness to take corporate funding. Our politics and government are paralyzed by corruption. We’ve just experienced our third “wave” election in about 15 years. It will certainly not be the last, and the fourth “wave” will probably be sooner. The electorate will angrily toss back and forth between corrupt parties who are unable and unwilling to serve their interests.

I’m not sure what to do or what the answer is. I do know one thing though that there just isn’t any latent sense of expectation out there waiting to be met. Instead, I see resignation and fatalism, even in the young.

The only exceptions are crazy people who see society as a great big lottery game, or a big game of King of the Mountain, and they expect to come out winners. You can forget about having a middle class if you divide society between winners and losers. In fact, you can forget about having much of a country if half or more of it feels it has no real stake in it, and gets called “losers.” There’s always a risk that those “losers” who joined the military to find a last chance of opportunity might decide to stay in the barracks if they feel they face another “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” If they decide that their rulers are not their friends, then they may take their chances with the enemy. There are plenty of examples of regimes brought down by the rank and file of their own militaries (think of what happened to the Tsar, and then later to the Russian Provisional Government in 1917). As that wicked man Machiavelli pointed out repeatedly, the surest fortress of any state is the loyalty of its citizens. You don’t win loyalty by spitting at people.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

First Advent: Oh What Rapture!

Advent with its focus on the End Times makes me think of my distant Quaker ancestors who were flogged in Massachusetts and chased out of the Puritan Holy Land to New Jersey. If anyone had cause to feel vindictive, then they did. Being the Quakers that they were, they put aside anger and concentrated on trying to be the best Christians they could be as Quakers understood it.

I grew up in a region of the USA that was always a little too fond of apocalyptic revenge fantasies. There is always more than a little element of revenge in all apocalyptic writings (including secular ones). In the end, the righteous are always rewarded for their long-suffering fidelity, and their persecutors are always punished. I remember people who spent all their free time pouring over the apocalyptic books of the Bible, especially Revelations, Daniel, Ezekiel, and the apocalyptic passages in Matthew and John. They would study their Bibles with the aid of Strong's Exhaustive Concordance and the Fort Worth Star Telegram looking for conclusive proof that the End Times were here and that the final Battle of Armageddon was nigh.

My Quaker ancestors believed that our first task as Christians was to live out the Great Commandment to love each other as God loves us, to love our neighbors as ourselves. They thought that task was more than enough to consume all of our energies. It's not that they didn't believe in the End Times, they just thought it was none of our business. It was God's business to dispose of as He sees fit in His own good time.

I agree.

But for those of you who need that End Times frisson, here is the Doomsday Whistle:

I Love Flash Mobs

Here is Flash Mob Handel:

Hat tip to Madpriest.

Oh Crap! It's Christmas Again!

If the fondest wishes of all the fundies and right wing haters came true, and all the gays and Jews disappeared from the earth, there would be no more Christmas.
Face it, the Christmas holiday is the creation of gay men and Jews for the enjoyment of heterosexual gentiles. If you really want to declare war on Christmas, then fire all the fags, and let Christian heterosexuals write all the holiday songs and produce all the holiday shows. I guarantee, Christmas will be dead and buried after just one season.

Oh Crap! It's Christmas!

That time of year when all America has a consumer feeding frenzy to celebrate the birth of a bastard child to an unwed teenage mother in a stable out back of a hotel. Even the most ruthless Wall Street bandit who shuts down entire towns, throws whole states out of work, and eats children for breakfast, feels a little catch of sentimentality this time of year.

This is very funny. If you think it's "Merry Christmas Charlie Brown!" then listen.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

For All of My Florence Readers ...

... I put up a new post on Florence, how the suddenly great city became vulnerable to disaster, and how it lived through some very bad catastrophes in the 14th century.

It got lost in all the crisis over Mom and Canterbury.

Here's To A New Anglo-American Alliance ...

... to sink the Anglican Covenant. Here's to the Trans-Atlantic cooperation between laity, clergy, and even a few bishops, to keep the Anglican Communion from turning into a Rome (or Geneva) Lite. Thanks to those who see that the choice between justice and unity is no choice at all. Thanks to all of those who campaign with such skill and courage on behalf of all those "children at the gate who cannot pray, and will not go away."

Something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Thanks to All of My Readers

... for your kind thoughts and prayers for my mother and myself. I hope the worst is over at this point. She will stay in the hospital over the weekend for observation, and then will probably be sent to rehab for a couple of weeks of further recovery. I'm discussing plans with my brother and his wife for a possible Christmas visit.
This has really been a strain on them. Brian is down with a chest cold, and is not allowed into the hospital. So his wife, Diane, had to do all the hospital visits. I am very grateful to the both of them, and I think everyone should remember them too. They are both exhausted today, but we are all very grateful that things were not worse, and for all the love and support that we've had over the past few days.

Thanks everyone!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ma Update

My brother called and said that she is in surgery to drain fluid out of her head. I'm on notice about making a trip to Dallas soon. My brother says to wait until we have anything definite from the doctors.

He says that the surgery is supposed to last only 30 minutes, so she may be out by now.


She's out of surgery. The operation was a success. She's in recovery and will return to her room tomorrow. She will spend the weekend in the hospital, and then be released into rehab.
I hope the worst is over for now.

Perhaps Coming to a Campus Near You

British students loudly protest tuition fee hikes and spending cuts on education.

If there's one thing that might cause American youth to abandon their usual fatalistic passivity, it's the prospect of tuition hikes and education spending cuts.  We've already seen some brush fires in California, and CUNY students here in New York certainly would not take something like this lying down.

Remember folks, all this pain and austerity is about the health of the creditors, and not about the health of the European nations or their populations. 

Perhaps It's Not the Apocalypse After All

Some persons more familiar with the C of E than myself, namely English clergy, point out that the only thing the General Synod decided was to pass the Covenant thing to the dioceses for further discussion and a final vote.  As Madpriest reminds us, "This is Dunkirk, Not D-Day."  Perhaps the celebrations of the Episcopal Church haters today are premature.  There's still a good chance that the English might do to the Covenant what they did to the Bismarck, especially once the laity and the lower clergy get a good look at it, and at all the constitutional havoc this will create in Britain.

The C of E Leads the Way ...

... to a fag-free schwuelen-rein Christendom where the broads keep their yaps bolted shut, just like Big Daddy in the Sky wants.

It's not clear to me if this is a final vote, or if this is the beginning of a long approval process. I'm hearing conflicting stories, and I'm not familiar with C of E polity.

The C of E Approves the Covenant

... and apparently by huge margins in all houses, according to Episcopal Cafe.

There are times when I really hate religion. If this thing goes through, and the Episcopal Church becomes an outpost of Rome (or Geneva) Lite, then I will join the ranks of unaffiliated Christians.

"Prisons are built with stones of Law, and brothels with bricks of Religion."

Saint William Blake, pray for us.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

There Are No Two Sides to the Gay Issue

Dan Savage explains why I never waste my time watching CNN ... to CNN.

I agree.

Unlike Dan Savage, I'm old enough to remember when denying African Americans the vote was considered a respectable and legitimate political position. I can remember earnest Bible believing people carefully explaining to 10 year old me why black and brown folk were destined to be subservient to white folk, and that it was in the Bible, especially in Genesis in the story of Ham.

If someone like Tony Perkins, or even a typical Catholic Bishop or Southern Baptist preacher, said the same things about Jews or African Americans that they say about gays, there'd be a huge scandal.

Ma Update

She's out of ICU and in her own room at the hospital. The MRI is done, though we have no news yet from the neurologist. I hope to have more news tomorrow.

"The Covenant is the Solution to Nothing"

Mark Harris at Preludium comes out forcefully against the proposed Anglican Covenant. It's definitely worth reading.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Florence: Catastrophe

The drawback of success in a modern industrial and commercial age is that it comes with a price. That price is usually greater vulnerability.
So the Florentines found out in the 14th century after their once small and modest town mushroomed into one of the largest cities in Europe in less than a century.
People crowded into the city with more coming in every day from the surrounding countryside to work in the city’s textile mills, young men coming into town looking to learn a trade and advance themselves, people coming in from around Italy, Europe, and the world looking to do business in the newly rich city. The bulk of the city’s population packed into crowded tenements along dark narrow dangerous streets.

This was before the days of professional city services. Everything from fire protection to garbage clean up had to be improvised. The local militias under a public official grandly titled Capitano del Popolo (Captain of the People) provided police protection, such as it was. Powerful families could provide for their own security and for that of their parishes if they felt generous. The Commune provided the disenfranchised majority with services only if it felt that it was in their interests to do so. While police protection could be spotty and imperfect, the Commune provided public grain storage in case of shortages, always a possibility in that time. While the crime rate didn’t concern them much, Florence’s rulers feared mass unrest due to famine. A rapidly growing population strained such public services that there were, making the whole city vulnerable to serious disaster.

And disaster came.

In 1333, the Florentines believed that they saw a portent of disaster in the sky. There was a total eclipse of the sun in the city.

Orcagna, Eclipse of the Sun, from a fresco fragment in Santa Croce, 1360s

For us, these are predictable events of celestial mechanics. Not so the ordinary people of the 14th century who equated the sky with heaven. They assumed the sky and its stars to be fixed, their order unchanging. When something dramatic disrupted that accustomed order like an eclipse, people assumed that God was angry and that the event portended disaster.

In November 1333, after four days and nights of continuous rain, the swollen Arno river came down out of the Appenines in the east in roaring torrent, flooding the entire river valley.

Plaque on the Via San Remigio commemorating the 1333 Florence Flood. The hand on the lower right points to the water level of the flood. The small marble marker above indicates the water level of the 1966 flood.

The 1966 Flood; The flood waters around the Loggia del Bigallo

The 1966 Flood: The Arno torrents washing through and around the Trinita Bridge

The 1966 Flood: The flood waters around the Baptistery

Florence’s recently built city walls turned the whole city into a giant bowl of water with streets and piazzas flooded to a depth of 15 feet

…wherefore everyone was filled with great fear and all the church bells throughout the city rung continuously as an invocation to heaven that the water rise no higher. And in the houses they beat kettles and brass basins, raising loud cries to God of “misericordia, misericordia,” the while those in peril fled from roof to roof and house to house on improvised bridges. And so great was the human din and tumult that it almost drowned out the crash of thunder … And on the first sleep of night, the water washed away the city wall above the Corso de’ Tintori … In the Baptistery of St. John the water rose above the altar and reached to more than half the height of the porphyry columns before the entrance. And in the Bargello, it rose in the courtyard to a height of ten feet.
“The Ponte Carraia fell with the exception of two arches. And immediately after, the Trinita bridge except for one pier and one arch … It was now the turn of the Ponte Vecchio. When it was choked by the boughs of fallen trees brought down by the Arno, the water surged over the arches and, rushing upon the shops on the bridge, swept everything away except the two central piers. And the Rubaconte bridge [today the Ponte alle Grazie] the water rushed over the top and destroyed the parapet in several places … To look at this scene was to stare into chaos.

So wrote the famous 14th century Florentine diarist Giovanni Villani, one of many helpless witnesses to the disaster. Historians estimate that around three hundred people died in the 1333 Flood.
The Arno remains an ever-present threat. An even bigger flood in 1966 killed about thirty people and nearly washed away the city’s treasures.

The crowded tenements with their cooking fires and lamps were in even greater danger of fire. Fires almost never confined themselves to a single building, but spread rapidly, especially in windy weather.
A few years before the 1333 Flood, Villani wrote about an
… accursed fire fanned by a strong north wind … burned the houses of the Abati and of the Macci; of the Amieri and Toschi … the Lamberti and Bachini … and the whole street of Calimala. And then attacking the houses of the Cavalcanti, it traveled round the Mercato Nuovo and consumed the Church of Santa Maria as far as the Ponte Vecchio … In fact, it destroyed much of the city of Florence, consuming a total of 1,700 palaces, towers, and houses. The loss in furniture, possessions, and goods of every kind was incalculable … and what was not burned in the fire was carried off by robbers.

Flood and fire were always risks in the Arno River Valley, but now those dangers threatened thousands of people.

The uncertainties of medieval agriculture made famine a constant threat, especially in so large a city whose population out-stripped the ability of the surrounding countryside to feed it.

Distribution of emergency grain rations at Orsanmichele; note the conspicuous presence of armed guards.

Our guide to 14th century Florence, Giovanni Villani, writes about the effects of a particularly severe famine that struck all of Tuscany in 1329 which drove grain prices up as much as 500% putting it out of the reach of Florence’s large proletarian population already living on the edge of starvation. The Florentine government purchased a large shipment of Sicilian grain to feed its population, hoping to prevent unrest.
In spite of all the government did, the agitation of the people at the market of Orsanmichele [the city’s grain market and public granary, as well as a shrine containing a miracle-working image of the Virgin and Child] was so great that it was necessary to protect the officials by means of guards fitted out with ax and block to punish rioters on the spot with loss of hands or feet.
And in mitigation of the famine the Commune of Florence spent in those two years [1329 – 1331] more than sixty thousand gold Florins. Finally, it was decided not to go on selling the grain in the piazza but to requisition the bakers’ ovens for the baking of bread in order to sell it on the following morning in three or four shops in every sesto [city precinct] at four pennies for the loaf of six ounces. This arrangement successfully tamed the rage of the people since wage-earners with eight to twelve pennies a day could now buy bread on which to live …’

The disasters were not all physical calamities. Florence saw the emergence of a new kind of disaster, now all too familiar to us, but quite new at the time, economic disaster.
Such a disaster struck Florence and much of northern Italy in 1339 when King Edward III decided to default on the huge sums he borrowed from Florentine bankers, especially the Bardi, to pay for his war on France. Isolated and impoverished England could not even begin to pay the interest or the principal on those loans. The major banking houses of Florence collapsed into bankruptcy. They all got into the extremely risky and very profitable business of lending money to governments and princes. They foolishly agreed to finance princely military adventures that carried high costs and little promise of returns. The Florentine financial industry collapsed quickly pulling the whole Florentine economy down with it. The already marginal laboring classes found themselves out of work and thrown out of their homes. Small shopkeepers who depended on the modest purchases of laborers soon joined them in the ranks of the homeless poor.
The Commune itself threatened default. It too was in the middle of an expensive war with Pisa over the possession of Lucca. That war went badly for Florence, and was costing more and more public money.
The city’s voiceless poor were left to fend for themselves. Church charities, such as they were, stretched to the breaking point to meet the need. The very idea of a social safety net was centuries into the future. Disenfranchised people made their discontent known in the only way available to them, by rioting. Deadly bread riots broke out all over the city. City militias and hired mercenaries did all they could to restore order in the city.

Economic and political desperation drove the city’s business elite, and its populace, to turn to the city’s traditional benefactors, the House of Anjou in Naples for help. They sent a dubious nobleman from a dubious noble house, Walter de Brienne, “Duke” of Athens, one of those duchies created in the Fourth Crusade. The desperate business elite, frightened by the violence of the even more desperate poor, hoped the Duke of Athens would bring some kind of order, and put the war with Pisa back on the path of success, or bring it to some kind of end. The city’s huge poor population hoped the Duke would bring some kind of relief to their plight. The Commune’s governors decided to make the Duke Capitano della Guerra (Captain of War) for one year. The office was a kind of emergency dictatorship modeled on Roman law. Rioters filled the Piazza della Signoria and loudly shouted a vita! a vita! (for life! for life!). Bowing to threats from the mob to storm the Palazzo Publico, the governors gave in and appointed the Duke a dictator for life. The Duke with thin credentials predictably failed to deliver on inflated expectations. He did end the war with Pisa with a reasonable treaty, but he failed to bring much tangible relief to Florence’s desperate economic crisis. The same mob that made him turned on him with a vengeance. The Duke and his few remaining supporters found themselves besieged in the Palazzo Publico. The mob outside demanded his blood. The Duke shoved his chief of police with his 18-year-old son out the front door to negotiate with the mob. Giovanni Villani describes the horrific events that followed.
In the presence of the father and for his greater sorrow they first dismembered the son, cutting him into small bits; and this done, they did the same to the father. And one planted a piece of flesh on a lance and another on a sword, and in this manner they made the rounds of the city. And some there were so cruel and possessed of such bestial fury that they ate of the raw flesh.’

The deadliest of all threats to the newly great city was disease. Plagues of cholera, influenza, tuberculosis, and typhus visited the city’s tenements regularly in the summer months killing thousands of people. Those magnificent villas in the beautiful northern Italian countryside so celebrated in tourist guides and on cooking shows began out of grim necessity. Wealthy and powerful families built these country homes to escape the annual plagues that swept through the crowded cities in the hot summer months.

Far and away the worst catastrophe ever to strike the city of Florence was the Black Death of 1348, an outbreak of Bubonic Plague whose like was unprecedented.

Burial of the plague dead in the Flemish city of Tournai, 14th century.

Historians estimate that the Black Death carried off half the population of Florence in the summer of 1348. Whole towns and villages in the surrounding countryside were wiped out by the Plague. The crowding and filth of 14th century Florence magnified the disaster. The Plague frequently followed the great and powerful to their country estates to kill them and their staffs. The Plague killed off most of the great artists of the 14th century including both of the Lorenzetti brothers and the sculptor and architect Andrea da Pisano. Our diarist Giovanni Villani was among the victims. His last entries describe the Plague’s outbreak in Florence and end in mid sentence unfinished.
The most famous and vivid account of the Black Death in Florence is in the opening of Bocaccio’s Decameron, but there are other visible remnants still to be seen in Tuscany of the Plague’s impact.
The Sienese decided to more than double the size of their cathedral, stung by the Florentine’s recent decision to build a new cathedral that would be the biggest in Europe at the time. The Sienese intended to turn the present cathedral into transepts for a much larger cathedral.

Air view of Siena. The cathedral is in the bottom center. To the immediate right of the cathedral is the unfinished nave and facade of the aborted cathedral enlargement.

The unfinished nave and facade for the expansion of the Cathedral of Siena. The Cathedral Museum housing Duccio's Maesta occupies the brick building built in the former side aisle.

They built part of the nave and façade before work stopped abruptly because of the Black Death. The new nave and façade stand unfinished to this day. Siena remains one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Italy because it never fully recovered from the Black Death.
In the city of Pisa, there appeared on the walls of the Camposanto, the city’s medieval cemetery, a new subject in a fresco painted by an unknown artist in 1350, The Triumph of Death.

The Camposanto, Pisa

Cloister yard of the Camposanto, Pisa. The central lawn supposedly covers the mass graves of plague dead from the Black Death.

Tracery arches of the Camposanto. Pisa Cathedral appears in the background.

Cloister of the Camposanto with floor burials. The walls were once covered with frescoes. Most were destroyed in World War II. Surviving frescoes have been detached and moved to a separate gallery attached to the Camposanto.

The Triumph of Death from the Camposanto, around 1350. Scholars are still divided about who was the artist.

The Camposanto Triumph of Death photographed shortly before World War II.

The Pisa frescoes are the first versions of a subject that would spread across Europe and appear in art for the next two centuries. This is a subject that bears powerful testimony to the trauma of a disease that wiped out whole populations and claimed the healthy with the unhealthy, the young with the old, and the good with the wicked. The fresco was badly damaged by Allied bombing in World War II, and is now difficult to make out in some places. The figure of Death with a scythe makes the first appearance in art in this fresco.

Death charges the distracted young revelers, from a pre-World War II photograph of the Camposanto Triumph of Death.

The artist shows Death as an elderly mad woman with a huge scythe rushing like an oncoming train at a group of young revelers unaware of her approach.
Those fashionable young people appear elsewhere in the fresco confronting the spectacle of three corpses in open coffins in various states of decay.

The Living confront the Dead from the Camposanto Triumph of Death

The story of the Three Quick and the Three Dead makes its first appearance in art, and with it, a new morbid fascination with decay and disintegration of the flesh that is not exactly religious. Nearby is a pile of corpses from people of all classes, vomiting up their souls as they expire.

Devils snatch the souls vomited up by the dying from the Camposanto Triumph of Death.

Angels and devils battle over the souls of the recently deceased from the Camposanto Triumph of Death.

Angels and devils fight each other for the souls of the recently deceased.
This fresco expresses the terror, the anger, and the resentment that lingered long after the Black Death ceased.
In Tuscany, as in the rest of Europe, a frightened and angry religious reaction took hold. Early medieval beliefs and attitudes long dormant returned with a passion. The old idea of the spirit world as a battleground between God and the devil for people’s souls returned. Ideas of the terrible end of the world with Christ as the Final Judge with No Appeal, the terrors of damnation and hell, the terror of dying unprepared, ideas that have more in common with the 11th century than with the 13th or 14th centuries return. Near the fresco of the Triumph of Death in Pisa is another contemporary set of frescoes of the Last Judgment discarding the comparative optimism of Giotto’s vision of the subject in the Arena Chapel in Padua from 40 years before for a frightening image of Christ turning to dramatically cast the damned into hell.

The Last Judgment from the Camposanto, about 1350

The lower half of the fresco shows devils dragging away the terrified and despairing damned. Angels beat back those trying to escape. The entire adjacent wall contains one of the most violent hell scenes ever painted, inspired by Dante’s vision of a rational organized hell, but much more violent and crowded.

Hell, detail, from the Camposanto, about 1350

Satan from the Camposanto Hell.

The damned endure tortures and degradations of unspeakable cruelty presided over by a monstrous Satan with green skin covered in black boils chewing on the souls of the damned in his three mouths as Dante describes him. The optimism, humanity, and compassion articulated so eloquently by Giotto in his work now lie completely discarded and forgotten in the fright and bitterness left by catastrophe.

Pisa and Siena never really recovered. Florence did.

God Bless America

... where the money changers will be welcomed back into the Temple through the front door with trumpet and cymbal and loud hosannas.

The widow and her mite will be rejected and despised and told that it doesn't even meet the required minimum payments. The Pharisee who prays with gratitude that he is not like other men can expect a loud and enthusiastic "Amen!" to his prayer. The Prodigal Son will be utterly cast out and told to get a job and work off his debts. The halt, the blind, and the lame will be told to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and that God helps those who help themselves. Our Lord will hand over the adulterous woman to be stoned to death telling her to accept the consequences of her actions. The Samaritan will heed common sense and leave the robbery victim lying in the road (he probably deserved it for not being careful). The Five Thousand will get a bill and a sermon about how bread and fish don't grow on trees and that there's no free lunch. The Wedding Party at Cana will drink water and be told to get a better caterer next time. Far from being told to love our enemies and to pray for them, we will be told to do to them before they do to us. It will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a poor man to enter heaven. "Then, who can be saved?" the Apostles ask desperately? "Only the strong and the fittest," Our Lord replies. Lazarus will stay in his tomb. The stones will be turned into bread. The Good Shepherd leaves the sheep to fight it out among themselves and forsakes the lost for wandering off in the first place.

Finally, Our Lord will listen to the taunts of the impenitent thief and of the mob gathered at the foot of his cross. He will come down off of his cross and save himself. His power and dominion will be irresistible. Love him or hate him, we shall all be compelled to submit regardless of our own wills. The Resurrection will be swallowed up in victory. Love will be swallowed up in Power. Hope will be swallowed up in Death.

This is our religion, the American religion, "Muscular Christianity."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ma Update

It turns out that my mother had a small stroke. The doctor says that she probably had it a few days before she fell, and didn't realize it. She's suffering some memory loss, but the doctor says that's probably temporary. They are keeping her in the ICU for a few more days, and will give her an MRI. She will need physical therapy and occupational therapy during her recovery.

My mother was a physical therapist for almost 50 years. I hope she remembers that when she's a PT patient for the first time in her life.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

We May Need His Like Again

Jonathan Swift

We may well need the services of someone like the Dean of Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin once again. We may be about to relive the brutality of the Britain of Robert Walpole and early capitalism.

The Republican Short March to Victory

Mao Zedong swimming the Yangtze River in 1967

I must give the Republicans credit and congratulations on a stunning and fast political turnaround.

Just four years ago, they were swept out of Congress by a wave of revulsion at the Iraq War and at the incompetent cronyism of the Bush Administration and the Republican controlled Congress. The stupider pundits (always too many on teevee, and always over-paid) were talking about the "end" of the Republican party, just as those same geniuses talked about the "end" of the Democratic party not but two years earlier. The tiny minority of smarter pundits knew better.
Now, the Republicans have a firm grip on the House, and they may well take the Senate in 2 years.
The Party that effectively ran the whole show and set the debate agenda for the last 30 years successfully sold itself as a populist outsider party, and won big.

This is probably the most remarkable political comeback since Chairman Mao swam the Yangtze River in 1967.

In that year, Mao was thought to be done for. The Great Leap Forward was a disastrous failure followed by the worst famine in recorded history. Millions died. People were furious over the catastrophe, and the Communist Party tried hard to contain the damage.
Then after a long absence from public view, The Great Helmsman swam the Yangtze River to prove that not only was he not dead, but that the old man was stronger than ever. Mao then launched the Cultural Revolution, successfully directing ferocious public anger at his old Long March comrades in the Party hierarchy. The very man who caused disaster profited tremendously from the anger it provoked. He came back stronger than ever, deified literally by remote peasants who prayed to him for rain and good harvest, and by his fanatic Red Guards. The Communist Party he left behind at his death in 1976 was a quasi-religious cult, more ideological and fanatic than ever.

Our Republicans likewise exploited the anger and disillusionment over disasters they either caused or abetted, and rode the wave of frustration back into power after just 4 years in the political wilderness. Like Mao's Communist Party, far from moderating or tempering their right wing ideology, they've become more extreme and ideological than ever, with their base pushing them ever further rightward. They successfully moved the center of the American political spectrum into scarlet territory on the right. What was once conservative (e.g. Eisenhower and the Interstate Highway system) has now become vilified as "state socialism." The line deciding what's "mainstream" and what's "extremist left" gets pushed ever rightward.

It helps that the Republicans faced an ever feckless Democratic Party, who true to form, transformed their biggest election gains in almost 40 years into a near total route in less than 2 years. The Democratic Party since 1981 transformed itself into the party of everyone who didn't fit the Republican Party template ("Real America"), or didn't want to fit. The Dems can never decide whether to embrace their old progressive populist heritage, or become a Lite version of the Republican party, socially liberal (more or less), but "business friendly" (i.e. corporate dominated and dependent). The party leadership chose the latter, while the rank and file chose the former. Much has been made of the factional warfare in the Republican party, but the political press pays little attention to the long struggle going on over the soul of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party leadership (including the White House) openly dissed their own base. Those people who put in the time and trouble to do the necessary and difficult work of local party building (in sometimes hostile territory) repaid those compliments by staying home this year. The Republicans, for all of their factional troubles, treat their base so much better.

Two years is a long time in politics, and anything can happen. But, I'm afraid I've come around to Michael Tomasky's viewpoint. The Dems may well be in for yet another long period in the wilderness. Tomasky says it may be another ten years before Democrats can recapture anything like the majorities it had in 2006 and 2008. There is always the very real possibility of arrogant Republican over-reach, but it would be a mistake to count on it.

The Republicans appear to be resuming their Long March to permanent single party rule. Based on the current situation, I'd say they may well win that goal. The question remains what kind of single party rule? Would it be Mexico/PRI and Japan/Liberal Party type one-party-rule where a formidable party organization marginalizes a weak and divided opposition for decades? Or, would it be China/ Cuba/ North Korea/ Syria type one party rule where any opposition is eliminated and criminalized? We may well find out.

In the meantime, congratulations Republicans! You get the Counterlight's Peculiars Chinese-Revolutionary-Opera salute.

Friday, November 19, 2010

My Mother

Please remember my mother in your thoughts and prayers. She fell yesterday and injured herself fairly badly. She is now in the hospital under observation.


My brother says that she is supposed to be moved out of ICU today (Saturday).
She had a dizzy spell and fell on a hard tile floor. She had 12 stitches worth of a head wound with a small hairline skull fracture. They kept her in the ICU overnight to check for internal bleeding in her head. Apparently, there is none.
She will be hospitalized for awhile, and then in rehabilitation after that. She is lucid and conscious, my brother tells me.

She's a tough old broad. She can make a Marine drill sergeant cry. If anyone could pull through this, she could.

The Anglican Covenant

... is a proposal to rebuild the Anglican Communion as the International Anglican Church, re-founded upon the solid rock of homophobia and misogyny.

Let's face it. Those are the twin passions driving this whole crisis, and driving the proposed document intended to fix it. The proposed Covenant is a massive cave-in to those forces who have money, numbers, power, and might on their side, but not right. It is a proposed surrender to those forces driven by American money who created the waves of homophobic pogroms now sweeping through central Africa with impunity and the tacit (and not so tacit) blessing of Christian hierarchs.

I believe that the appropriate Yiddish word is shanda.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Faith or Certainty?

IT has a very good post over on Friends of Jake about the old Religion versus Atheism fight. Only her take on it is not about one versus the other, but on the absolutist and exclusivist claims made by both sides. It seems to me that both sides in this fight yearn for something that no one can have, certainty.

As far as I'm concerned, certainty is the heroin of history. It takes over and ruins lives and whole cultures. Anyone claiming to offer certainty is a snake oil salesman or a crack dealer, whether they are selling religious certainty or ideological certainty or whatever. What we get in the end are arrogance, ignorance, and fanaticism with all the crime that comes with them. The claim of certainty makes people willfully deaf to the suffering of their neighbors and kills off the very last sparks of empathy and compassion that make us human beings as opposed to robots. The desire for certainty is the origin of the worst kinds of evil.

The decision to believe and the decision to not believe will always have one big thing in common. They are both ultimately arbitrary. There are as many varieties of belief and unbelief as there are people. We must treat our neighbors with forbearance and humility.

"Since analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,

"And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender."

--WH Auden

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Another New Painting

Not only did I finish the Theseus paintings recently, I also finished this painting, The Mockingbird Song

The Mockingbird Song, oil on canvas, 22" x 28"

It was inspired by a painting by Phillip Otto Runge, The Nightingale's Lesson, which he painted in 1805 for his wife. I'm less interested in the form of that painting with its allegory and faux carved frame with cupids and nightingales, and more interested in the theme. My painting is an updated and personalized version of the idea of beauty awakening the senses to love.

For this painting, I looked to all kinds of sources. I looked at paintings by Watteau and Chinese landscape. I also looked to the Texas of my boyhood, and to that venerable Texas art form, the bluebonnet picture.

Here are some details.

Monday, November 8, 2010


The Theseus paintings are all finished and photographed. I'm posting all four of them since the series is all of a piece.

Theseus was the mythical founder of Athens who stood for responsible civilized life in people’s imaginations for centuries. He fought the forces of crime and death to make a safe place where human life is possible. Theseus wins easy victories over the monsters in most earlier art. I decided to make him work for his triumphs, and to share in the sufferings of the monsters’ victims. I want to make Theseus less certain of victory in his struggles, just like ourselves when we fight the monsters. I’m retelling his story in a series of four paintings.

Theseus' task was to fight the forces of death on behalf of his people, to make a life of freedom and dignity possible. On a certain level we are all Theseus. No, we don’t battle literal monsters. But, it is our task to struggle against the forces of death, against the madness of ideological extremism and the chaos of instinctual violence within our communities and within ourselves. Our reward, like Theseus’, is not to run a victory lap before cheering crowds, but to see a grateful community building upon our legacy. Theseus, like us, was hardly a perfect hero, just ask Ariadne (whom he abandoned on the island of Naxos after she guided him out of the Labyrinth with her thread). Despite his flaws and weaknesses, he did what was necessary mindful of mortal danger, and without the assurance of success in the end.

1. Theseus Discovers His Father's Sword

Theseus Discovers His Father's Sword, 2009, oil on canvas, 24" x 30"

Guided by his mother, Aethra, Theseus lifts a huge rock and finds the sword that belongs to his real father. He discovers in that instant that he is not who he thought he was. He realizes that he is a bastard and a foreigner. He faces a mission and a decision. He must return to Athens to claim his kingdom. He can travel there by the safe and easy sea route, or he can travel the dangerous land route full of monsters and predators.


His mother Aethra

2. Theseus and Procrustes

Theseus and Procrustes, 2009, oil on canvas, 24" x 30"

Procrustes forced his victims to lie on his bed. If they did not fit, he would brutally adjust their size with his axe. I’ve made Procrustes into something of a mad scientist, or a philosopher gone mad looking for some kind of perfect ideal ratio. Not finding it, he decides that imperfect humans must be adjusted or exterminated so that the perfect ideal can be realized. Theseus clearly does not measure up, and must do something or share the fate of Dr. Procrustes’ victims.


Dr. Procrustes

3. Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus and the Minotaur, 2010, oil on canvas, 24" x 30"

The Minotaur was a monster, part man and part bull, offspring of the union of Pasiphae, wife of King Minos of Crete, with a bull. Aphrodite arranged this grotesque union as punishment for Minos’ failure to fulfill a vow to Poseidon. As it grew, the Minotaur became ferocious and devoured human flesh. Minos kept the monster in an underground maze called the Labyrinth built by Daedalus. After defeating Athens in a battle to avenge the death of his son at their hands, Minos decreed a terrible price. Every year, the Athenians must send seven boys and seven girls to Crete to be fed to the Minotaur. Theseus volunteered to join the sacrifice in order to kill the Minotaur. Minos’ daughter, Ariadne helped him by giving him a ball of thread to help him find his way back out of the Labyrinth. Theseus killed the Minotaur with his father’s sword and led the children of Athens out of the Labyrinth to safety.


4. Theseus Founds the City of Athens

Theseus Founds the City of Athens, 2010, oil on canvas, 24" x 30"

This painting is based on the following passage from Plutarch’s Life of Theseus:
Theseus conceived a great and important design. He gathered together all the inhabitants of Attica and made them citizens of one city, whereas before they had lived dispersed, so as to be hard to assemble together for the common weal, and at times even fighting with one another.
He visited all the villages and tribes, and won their consent, the poor and lower classes gladly accepting his proposals, while he gained over the more powerful by promising that the new constitution should not include a king, but that it should be a pure commonwealth, with himself merely acting as general of its army and guardian of its laws, while in other respects it would allow perfect freedom and equality to every one. By these arguments he convinced some of them, and the rest knowing his power and courage chose rather to be persuaded than forced into compliance.


The People's Representative and Athena


The People

Thanks to my photographer of almost a dozen years, Steven Bates of Art Documentation, for his excellent work.


Antonio Cavova, Theseus

I look at this magnificent sculpture by Canova, and the first words that come into my head are "Police Brutality!" I feel sorry for that poor centaur about to get clobbered by Theseus' righteous billy club.
I wanted to make my version of Theseus to be the polar opposite of this. Those things that Theseus faces are big and mighty, and could easily destroy any human being no matter how brave and strong. His victories, and ours, are never so assured.