Saturday, February 28, 2009

Putting a Face On the Dharma, and on the Gospel; Who's Your Daddy?

For the first 6 or 7 centuries of Buddhism, there are no images of the Buddha. In a relief sculpture from the Great Stupa at Sanchi from 50 BC, his presence is indicated by the calm in the middle of rough water as he walks on water to convince a skeptical Brahmin in a boat.

The earliest images of the Buddha appear in the 2nd century AD, curiously about a century and a half before the first images of Christ appear. It is possible that the image of Christ and the image of Buddha may come from the same source.

The Kingdom of Gandhara in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan straddled the main Silk Road and was located in territory once conquered by Alexander the Great and ruled by his Hellenistic successors. Gandhara in the 2nd century was part of the much larger Kushan Empire that stretched from Central Asia into northern India. Gandhara had frequent contact with traders and travellers from the Roman Empire. Gandhara was a Buddhist kingdom, but such Roman figures as Apollo, Hercules, and Bacchus frequently appear in their very Westernizing art. Roman artists are known to have worked in Gandhara. One by the name of Titus may have worked as far east as the Buddhist caves in western China on the edge of the Gobi desert. Some of the earliest images of the Buddha appear in Gandhara, and may have been derived from traditional Classical images of the god Apollo.

The Apollo Belvedere

Gandharan Buddha from about the 3rd century

The Ganharan Buddhas are young men standing in classical contrapposto poses with the weight shifted onto one leg. The monk's robes are carved with a classical naturalism that recalls Roman togas. Where Classical form falls short is when the Buddha is shown sitting in lotus position.

Gandharan relief from the 2nd century showing the Buddha resisting temptation.

Classical form just can't deal with the lotus position, and hides it under drapery.
There was another part of the Kushan Empire where this was not a problem, and where images of the Buddha appear at the same time that seem to owe nothing to Western classical form. That was the city of Mathura where this Buddha comes from.

Buddha from Mathura, 2nd century

Indian scholars have long taken offense at the idea that the creation of the first images of the Buddha depended on Western influence. They point to the images from Mathura and suggest that the influence may have been in the other direction. The evidence either way remains inconclusive.

Apollo may or may not have been the father (or at least an uncle) of the image of the Buddha, but he was definitely the father of the traditional image of Christ.

No one knows what the historical Jesus of Nazareth looked like. There are no portraits of Him, and no descriptions of Him that are reliably authentic.
The earliest image that I know of dates from around the end of the 3rd century and was found in the catacombs under St. Peter's in the Vatican.

It's not what we would expect. It doesn't look anything like any of the images we are used to seeing. It's certainly not that young Jewish carpenter and itinerant preacher. It's Apollo in his role as god of the sun in his chariot riding across the sky. But, if it's Apollo, then what are Bacchus' grape vines doing there? Those vines would make sense in a Christian context, and this mosaic is from a Christian tomb.
The early generations of Christians weren't interested in the historical Jesus of Nazareth. They were more interested in the Christ of the Second Coming who was supposed to return in glory. So the artist who made this, who may not have been Christian, borrowed the nearest available image of a glorious god in the sky, Helios or Apollo as god of the sun riding his chariot across the sky.

There are some scholars who very daringly suggest that the first images of Christ may come from portraits of the Emperor Hadrian's deified boyfriend Antinous, whose cult was popular in the eastern empire and continued to the reign of Constantine.

When I look at the very young and beardless Christ that appears on the sarcophagus of a Constantinian official named Junius Bassus, I sometimes think they may have a point.

On the other hand, the images of Antinous are all posthumous, and were themselves made to look like the god Apollo, so Apollo may remain the father of the traditional image of Christ.

So here he is, the son of Apollo, the traditional image of Christ.

And here is his brother (or cousin), the traditional image of Buddha.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The True Dharma Once Delivered to All the Saints

The Episcopal/ Anglican blog sites seem to be in a big palaver over Buddhism, particularly over a certain new Michigan bishop's contacts with that religion. Not being an insider or much of a follower of Episcopal hierarchical politics, I can't and won't comment on that situation.
For some reason lately, the right wing feels threatened by Buddhism. I remember a few years ago seeing folks in the hater section by Rockefeller Center during the Gay Pride Parade carrying signs attacking Buddhism (at a Gay Pride parade?).

I'm not a scholar of religion, but I do find it striking how much misinformation is allowed to pass unchallenged about the Buddhist religion. I'm not a Buddhist. I'm not literate in all the Buddhist scriptures. My knowledge of Buddhist beliefs and practices is limited. But I do know that it is not an "atheist" religion as so many freely claim. I'm not sure the very Western concept of "dualism" fits Buddhism either. In fact, I'm not sure that very Western term "Buddhism" fits, describing something in Christian terms of creed and allegiance that doesn't really apply.

The word "Buddhism" is a creation of 19th century European scholars. It was coined to designate a wide variety of philosophies and religious sects that have a common origin in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (or "Enlightened One"). The same could be said about "Christianity," a term that describes a whole universe of different and conflicting beliefs and practices that have a common focus on Jesus Christ. The difference is that the term Christianity was created -- and now fought over -- by Christians themselves.
Those who Western scholars identify as Buddhists have always been conflicted over just how to describe their faith, as a religion or as a philosophy. What we call Buddhism encompasses such different people as the Dalai Lama regarded by his followers as divine, and writers like Thich Nhat Han who doesn't believe in the divine, at least in the conventional sense.  There are forms of Buddhism that are very liturgical using chanting, incense, imagery and complex symbolism.  There are other anti-liturgical spontaneous forms of Buddhism, just as there are such forms in Christianity.  
 In the East, the teachings of Buddha are usually identified as The Dharma, which translates as "The Way," "The Path," or my favorite, "The Method." What we call the Buddhist "religion" in the East is regarded as a method of salvation that was never intended to supplant other religious allegiances. It was once a commonplace in Japan for people to be married in Shinto ceremonies and given Buddhist funerals when they died (now they all want Christian weddings, not to be Christian, but to look Western; Buddhist funerals continue to be the norm, even for those married in churches). Buddhist funerals are also common in China followed by Confucian ancestor rites. People don't "belong" to religions in the East the way we do. You can decide for yourselves which is the better arrangement.

Instead of rehashing the Dharma and what it's all supposed to be about, I'd rather take a look at the wide variety of Buddhist beliefs and practices as reflected in 2500 years of Buddhist art.

Buddhism began in India, and the earliest Buddhist art is found there.  Buddhism was expelled from India during the Muslim conquest after almost a thousand years of peaceful coexistence with India's other native religions.  Now, Buddhism is making a dramatic comeback in the land of its origin.  There is a growing Buddhist population in India.

The Buddha never appears in the earliest Buddhist art.  The stupa, a modified burial mound containing a relic of the Buddha, serves as a memorial and an indication of his abiding presence.

The Great Stupa at Sanchi, India, ca. 250 BC.  enlarged about 50 BC

In this sculpture from the Stupa at Sanchi, the Buddha's presence is indicated by the disk on the throne as he attains enlightenment under the tree in the deer park.


Theravada is the older more austere form of Buddhism with its emphasis on meditation, personal discipline, and monasticism; on practice over theology.

The 12th century stupas and images at Pollonaruva in Sri Lanka reflect the conservatism of Theravada with their very limited imagery and austere forms

The Buddha Paranirvana at Pollonaruva.  The Buddha lies down peacefully to die and to enter Nirvanna, the release from the cycle of birth and death and rebirth.


Mahayana, "The Greater Vehicle," is religious Buddhism with a large and complex cosmology.  In Mahayana, the historical Buddha was but one of millions of Buddhas.  There are spiritual hierarchies with saints and bodhisatvas -- enlightened beings who delay entering Nirvanna in order to help others.  There is even an apocalypse in the form of a bodhisatva, Maitreya, who will take the whole universe with him when he enters Nirvanna.

Borobudur, Indonesia, completed about 840 AD.

Borobudur is one of the largest and most spectacular Buddhist monuments in the world.  It is a model in stone of the Mahayana universe.  A building with no interior, it was meant to be an aid to personal meditation and instruction as the visitor climbed and circled each terrace on the way up.

The most elaborate carvings on Borobudur are near the base where we begin with scenes of the earthly life; tales of orgiastic pleasure and cruel torment.  We move up the terraces through scenes from the Jataka tales, stories of the previous incarnations of the historical Buddha.

Finally, at the top of the structure, the stories cease, and we enter a realm of hollow stupas each containing a magnificent meditating Buddha of unearthly calm and self possession.  We are now beyond the lower worlds of time and desire.

China has its own splendid Buddhist imagery inspired by the rich speculative cosmology of Mahayana Buddhism.  Among the best surviving examples are the isolated caves on the edge of the Gobi desert where large communities of monks spent their time in meditation far away from the distractions of the cities.

One of the most spectacular and remote of such cave communities is Dun Huang in western China along the old Silk Road on the edge of the Gobi Desert.  There are over 500 surviving Buddhist caves with paintings still brilliant after more than 1500 years.

Cave 285, Dunhuang, 538 AD.

Caves like this one are covered with brilliantly colored paintings of the inhabitants of the Mahayana cosmos including Buddhas of creation, of medicine, of mercy, of earthquakes, of stars, apsaras (like angels), bodhisatvas, lohans (saints), etc.

Pure Land

Pure Land Buddhism is a type of Mahayana Buddhism that remains the most popular form in much of China and Japan.  It is "salvation by faith" Buddhism.  It focuses on the Amida Buddha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, who in his former life, wanted to help those who had no hope to attain Nirvana in a thousand lifetimes of practice and meditation.  

A "Descending Raigo (Haya Raigo)" or "welcoming" picture from Japan, 13th century, intended to be hung near the beds of the dying.  It shows Amida Buddha accompanied by bodhisatvas and apsaras appearing at the summons of a dying priest who sits upright in lotus position, the position in which his bones will be arranged for burial after cremation.
The believer need only to say the name of the Amida Buddha in sincerity, and he/she will enter the Western Paradise to complete his/her journey to Nirvana.

One of the finest temples of Pure Land Buddhism is the 11th century Byodoin Temple at Uji near Kyoto.  It was built out of the estate of a powerful nobleman of the Fujiwara family.  It sits in the middle of a splendid garden, and is intended to be an image of the Western Paradise.

Inside the Phoenix Hall at the center of the Byodoin Temple is this masterpiece by the great bushi or Buddhist sculptor, Jocho showing the Amida Buddha enthroned at the center of paradise.
Pure Land Buddhism has a very low reputation in the West, mostly because of its superficial resemblance to Christianity.  Like Christianity, it has a savior.  Faith in that savior is the key to salvation.  Also like Christianity, it has heaven and hell.  Unlike Christianity, there is no judge or judgement.  Placement in either heaven or hell is due to the impersonal workings of karma.  Both heaven and hell are temporary.  The goal of Pure Land Buddhism, like all Buddhism, is not paradise, but Nirvana, the release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Pure Land Buddhism comes out of a central tenet of the Buddha's teaching that is sometimes overlooked by the more demanding and esoteric forms of Buddhism, compassion.


All the historic forms of Buddhism began in India, including a movement to return Buddhism to its origins as a philosophy and a practice instead of a religion.  It got rid of all the imagery, the bells and smells rituals of Pure Land and Esoteric Buddhism, and replaced ritual with discipline and practice.  In China, this form of Buddhism was called Chan.  When it arrived in Japan, it was known as Zen.

Interior of the Ryoanji temple in Kyoto from the 1480s.

It's hardly recognizable as a religious structure.  It is a simple hall with tatami mats for meditation.

The focus of meditation is not an image of the Buddha, but this 15th century garden of sand, rocks, and moss that suggests islands in the sea receding to the horizon.

A haboku, or "splashed ink" painting by Sesshu, 16th century

The paradox of Zen is that it is a disciplined and methodical emptying of the self to prepare for a spontaneous moment of enlightenment.  That strange combination of discipline and spontaneity is at the heart of Zen ink painting, begun by Chinese masters such as Mu qi and Liang Kai, and given a further Japanese form by great painters like Sesshu.  Zen was very popular with the Samurai and other members of the Japanese warrior classes.

And there are still more forms of Buddhism that I've missed like the many forms of Tantric Buddhism that flourish in the Himalayas, and more modern forms created as Buddhism, like all faiths, meets the challenges of modern experience.

I Really Like This Guy

The new budget represents a sharp departure from the policies, not only of the past 8 years, but of the past 30 years. It tackles the issues of income inequality and middle class decline directly rather than trimming around the edges with tax policy. The thing is not perfect (health care policy is still short of universal, though headed in that direction; there is a lot to criticize in the administration's timid handling of the banking crisis; while the Iraq war may be winding down, there remains the risk that Afghanistan will replace it as the costly military quagmire du jour), but it is that fundamental break with Chicago School capitalist ideology that I've longed for ever since January 20, 1981. We'll see how much of this budget and these policy changes survive the Congressional meat grinder. So far, I'm very happy with it.

I knew there was a reason why I voted for him.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Giving Up Lent for Lent

Goya, "With or Without Reason" from The Disasters of War, ca. 1814

I sometimes think Lent is a redundant season. When are we ever really allowed to forget that we are dust and that to dust we shall return? We see death everywhere; that skull under our skin is always looking back at us in the mirror. When are we ever allowed to forget that we live in a broken world and that we each contribute our small share to its brokenness? When are we ever allowed to forget that we fall so far short of the glory that was meant for us, that in our heart of hearts we are selfish frightened sons and daughters of bitches?

I will be too busy with teaching and meetings for Ash Wednesday today. After starting a new job, with lung infections that just won't stop, and after a very stress filled weekend, I'm sleeping in for the next few Sundays, spending time with Michael, and catching up with school work that is already piling up. I'm exhausted.

Rather than going through the long catalogue of my own sins, I'd rather remember some people who have real problems in my prayers, like the legions of people who are newly unemployed here and around the world, and like Roseann,

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Carnival Versus Lent by Brueghel

I'm rooting for Carnival.

Car Ni Val!

Take a look at Carnival in Rio this week.

I don't care how wild your Mardi Gras party is today, the Brazilians will make it look like a Baptist Bake Sale (or Episcopal Shrove Tuesday pancakes in the parish hall).

Thank You All!


Michael and I have patched things up; maybe not exactly resolved, but patched up.

My chest cold is now in my nose, but I'm able to go to work and function, though not quite  happily.

Thanks to all of you for your thoughts and prayers.  They meant a lot to me over the past few days and helped me through a dark little episode.
All of my readers and blog friends are the best in cyberspace!

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I'm back under the weather.  That bronchitis I've been fighting for weeks is now back.

Michael and I are having serious relationship problems.

I don't know what posting here will be like for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Human Dignity and Masaccio

Human life is a cheap commodity these days, despite the protestations of political and religious rhetoric to the contrary. We go on and on about human rights and human dignity and the "sanctity of human life," and we continue act otherwise. Those same people who so loudly insist (and hope to legislate for us all) that a 2 celled zygote is as fully human as a 60 year old grandmother are usually the first to oppose any legislation that would make it easier to raise already born viable children; paid family leave, national health insurance, any government subsidy for the health or education of children is dismissed as just so much "socialism."
Sugar addict that I am, I think about these issues when I'm shoveling sugar into my tea. It was the European taste for sugar that first created the modern industrial slave trade. The earliest sugar plantations in the Caribbean and in Brazil used the indentured labor of young people from Britain and the Continent (debt slaves) to do the hard, hot, and dangerous work of sugar cane harvesting and sugar refining. The plantations began importing African slaves under the assumption that they could withstand the hot difficult conditions better than the Europeans, who were dying like flies under the strain. The African slaves then proceeded to work hard and die like flies for 4 centuries. It was the taste for sugar that led the USA to grab Hawaii when the Southern markets were no longer open to the North.
I know I make Ayn Rand and the Chamber of Commerce cry when I say this, but the heart of our dear old Market Capitalist society is no heart at all. That nasty old man Karl Marx praised industrial capitalism for its ability to strip us of all of our old "superstitions and prejudices," or what we would call "beliefs." Capitalism, Marx argued, reduces all value to use and exchange. Ruthless modernist that he was, Marx believed that this was the necessary process to show us the "true state" of our situation in the world and prepare us for revolution.
Even Marx's dialectical materialism is too much of a leap of faith for us now. We don't really believe in materialism any more than we truly believe in any other religious or political doctrine. We don't really believe in anything. We certainly don't agree on anything. So, the only "value" that continues to have any compelling reality for us is what's written on a price tag. Things and people only have meaning and value based on what someone is willing to pay for them. The very idea of "intrinsic value" went out the window a long time ago. So much of what we call "values" are survival skills wrapped in pious rhetoric. Our international capitalist culture is deeply nihilistic.
That so much of the world's population lives in conditions of squalor and brutality so that another part of the world can live conveniently and cheaply is the real value we place on human life. We feel an extra sting in unemployment on top of the hardship, because so much of our sense of ourselves and our worth is bound up in our salaries.

And when was it ever NOT thus? The cemeteries of the world are full of young men, the sons of tenant farmers, artisans, shopkeepers, and laborers who were sent into battle and died for nothing more than the vanity and ambition of a prince or an oligarchy. History is as much a record of crime as it is of accomplishment. The very idea that human beings, all of us, have an inherent worth was always tenuous.

An artist who did cling to and proclaimed that tenuous idea of human dignity in his work was Tomaso di Ser Giovanni, better known by a belittling nickname, Masaccio, meaning "big ugly Tom." There isn't much work in the world by Masaccio and there never was. He lived only 27 years and had a career of less than 10 years. And yet, it would be Masaccio who alone would create the Quattrocento Florentine painting tradition.
Florentine painting in the 1420s was very conservative, at least compared to Florentine sculpture and architecture of the time. It was dominated by the International Gothic style, a conspicuous consumption style that was the tail end of the Gothic tradition; the original religious energies that created that style were long spent. A wealthy banker like Pala Strozzi could impress the city with a big showy altarpiece that simultaneously announced his wealth and piety; the Renaissance version of Prosperity Gospel.

Gentile da Fabriano, The Strozzi Altarpiece,
originally for the Strozzi Chapel in Sta Maria Novella, 1423

The Strozzi Altarpiece is a masterpiece of the status quo. It has everything that a powerful banker could want; lots of gold and elaborate shrine-work, splendid pageantry, very elegant stylish and unnatural form.

At the very same time that this altarpiece was completed, Masaccio was working on a fresco cycle of the life of St. Peter for the Brancacci family in their chapel in Santa Marie del Carmine across the Arno river.

The Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, ca. 1425-1427

Masaccio was a young bomb thrower. He had no patience for concessions to taste. He wanted to destroy that whole International Gothic Style with all of its stylish artifice and replace it with forms that were truer to experience.

Masaccio, The Tribute Money, detail

Masaccio imagined Christ and the Apostles as poor, though grand men. None of the figures in his work is particularly idealized or prettified (as the International Gothic style would insist). They are the sorts of faces that we would see on a Florentine street in the 15th century. They do have a kind of monumental grandeur that comes from Masaccio's study of ancient Roman sculpture. Their grandeur gives a measure of momentousness and significance to the story. Their grandeur comes not through clothes or crowns, but through the way they carry themselves, with a sense of the gravity of the events they participate in.

Masaccio's figures are sculpted out of light and shadow. There isn't much in the way of line. Lawrence Going once remarked that if an artist wanted to make a tracing of a Masaccio figure, he wouldn't have much to work with. They are almost entirely molded out of the ambient light and shadow of the chapel itself.
Light always played a central role in Christian mysticism. Light was the first thing created by God in Genesis. Light was believed to be the closest material thing to the spirit. In a Gothic cathedral, light is the radiance of Heaven and the exhilarating glory of God. For Masaccio, light is the medium of understanding. Our field of vision is made completely out of reflected light, and so are his pictures.

Masaccio, Peter and John Heal the Sick With Their Shadows, Brancacci Chapel, Florence

Masaccio sets these scenes from the Gospels and from the Book of Acts in the streets of the Oltrarno neighborhood in 15th century Florence. Until recently, that neighorhood housed the city's poor and working class. What mattered to Masaccio and to his audience was not the literal history of these stories, but their meaning for the here and now.
Masaccio invests not only the Apostles with dignity and grandeur, but even the poor and destitute in the Florentine streets.
Our forms have an inherent dignity ans worth in Masaccio's work, and so does our capacity to see and understand the world. He shows us that dignity remains true regardless of our station in life. He does not claim that our senses are perfect; however, Masaccio does remind us that flawed though they may be, our senses and our experience of the world is all we have.

It's probably this reason, that sense of an inherent dignity and worth in being human, that keeps me coming back with such pleasure and enthusiasm to earlier art. I am always struck by the passivity of so much (though not all) contemporary art when it comes to our current situation. Masaccio was certainly not passive in his response to his own time.

Masaccio died before he could finish work on the chapel frescoes. He took the job in partnership with an older and more established artist, Masolino, who is responsible for most of the work on the north wall of the chapel. In 1427, Masolino was summoned to more lucrative work in Rome. For unknown reasons, Masaccio followed him there, and died of illness shortly after arriving. In the 1430s, the Brancacci were exiled by Cosimo de Medici, and the chapel remained unfinished. It was finally completed in the 1470s by Filippino Lippi. I've always found it striking how Masolino and Lippi modified their normally flamboyant styles to accomodate Masaccio's simplicity. The ceiling vaults of the chapel and the lunettes frescoed by Masaccio and Masolino were destroyed in a fire in 1766.

Masaccio is an artist who comes to mind when I read these lines from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain:

But what, after all, was humanism if not a love of humankind, and by token also of political activity, rebellion against all that tended to defile or degrade our conception of humanity? He had been accused of exaggerating the importance of form. But he who cherished beauty of form did so because it enhanced human dignity.

Masaccio's self portrait from the Brancacci Chapel. Brunelleschi is on the far right.

Friday, February 20, 2009

What I Look Like


Tax Cuts Cure Cancer and Fill Cavities!

Here is a remarkably on point comment from Gene Lyons of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette:

Maybe the best way to get some perspective on President Obama's $800 billion economic stimulus plan is to compare it with a couple of his predecessor's noteworthy adventures in the art of governance.

Faced with a mild recession in 2001, George W. Bush contended that "a warning light is flashing on the dashboard of our economy, and we just can't drive on and hope for the best. We need tax relief now." His answer was a $1.35 trillion tax cut targeted largely at the wealthy, i.e.. more than 50 percent larger than the Obama initiative.

Enacted with numerous Democratic votes, the Bush tax cuts were supposed to invigorate a sluggish economy. Eight years later, with the aid of a chart prepared by, the results are clear. Unemployment has grown from 4 to 7.6 percent and continues to increase frighteningly fast. The economy lost 3.6 million jobs last year, and 600,000 in January alone. The number of persons living in poverty has risen from 12.7 to 17 percent. In 2001, 17 million Americans relied on food stamps; today, 30 million do.

Contrary to GOP dogma, Bush's tax cuts also failed to pay for themselves. As Obama pointed out during his Feb. 9 news conference, the national debt doubled on his predecessor's watch. The Iraq war alone cost several times more than Obama's stimulus plan. Republicans like Sen. John McCain who voted to spend billions rebuilding Iraqi roads, schools and power plants now call it "criminal" to rebuild them here at home.

GOP politicians stood quietly by when Bush's Coalition Provisional Authority air-lifted $12 billion in cash, 363 tons of crisp, shrink-wrapped $100 bills, to Iraq. Then reportedly couldn't account for almost $9 billion of it. As in, the money vanished. Permanently. Odd how quiet the allegedly liberal media's been about it, don't you think? Imagine the uproar had a Democratic administration done that.

The point is the dashboard light is not blinking anymore. The U.S. economy's broken down at the side of the road with black smoke pouring out from under the hood. Fire extinguisher? Completely unnecessary, Republicans chant. Why, Rush Limbaugh says if we'd just cut taxes again, Americans could afford to rotate the tires. The fire will die out eventually. Anything else would be socialism!

I too find it interesting that the very same politicians who now cry "generational theft" are the  ones who did the cheerleading for invading Iraq, something that will cost far more in the end than the most wild-eyed liberal spending plan.  So much of that money (the lost 12 billion is but one part of the total) was wasted or lost to corruption.  And don't forget the huge amounts paid by the taxpayer to subsidize mercenaries and war crimes (Haliburton and Blackwell). 
(Hat tip to Toujoursdan for this)

And the same people who brought you the Iraq War are now trying to climb back into power by convincing you that it's government lending money out to poor people (time honored Republican code for the specter of taxpayer subsidized Black people that makes hard working  lilly white blood boil) that caused the current economic train wreck.  No sale.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Images of The People

"Democracy is Lovelace, and the people are Clarissa." -- John Adams

I don't really believe in that abstract entity known as The People. That may sound like an extraordinary thing for someone with left sympathies to say, but it's really not. For me, "people" usually describes any random group of individuals who may or may not agree on something, rightly or wrongly. I've never believed in the mystical entity known as "The People" that makes its first real appearance in political rhetoric and in art during the French Revolution. A lot of individuals, people, were offered up as a sacrifice, a "holocaust to Liberty" during the years of the Terror. Inconvenient contrary individuals will always cloud that glorious vision of the "monolithic unity" of The People.

Below are some samples of images of The People. Not all of them are intended to glorify The People. What is remarkable is how similar so many of them are to each other, across national and ideological lines.

Jacques Louis David, Triumph of the French People Over Monarchy, ca. 1793

Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, The Fourth Estate, 1898 - 1901

George Grosz, "The Voice of the People is the Voice of God", 1919

Georg Scholz, Industrial Farm Family, 1920

Italian Fascist Poster, "Only One Heart, Only One Will, Only One Decision" ca. 1932

Italian Fascist Poster, Mussolini, 1934

Leopold Schmutzler, Farm Girls Returning From the Fields,
featured in the Great German Art Exhibit, 1937

Grant Wood, Adoration of the Home, ca. 1930

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, 1943

Chinese Propaganda Poster, ca. 1970

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Ideology of Capitalism

Adam Smith

I wonder if that Scottish pragmatist would recognize the ideology he started. I wonder if he would be surprised to learn that he had actually created an ideology. I wonder if he might be surprised to see people using his ideas for relief of shortages and for better economic results to explain everything from history to the human soul. I wonder if he might be surprised to hear people talk about "the invisible hand" like theologians describing the Holy Spirit.

I'm becoming more and more convinced that the real creator of a "capitalist ideology" was not Adam Smith, but Lenin. The Soviets had an all-encompassing ideology, so we had to have one too.

Adam Smith might not pass today's ideological litmus tests. He opposed monopolies, supported the right of workers to organize and to bargain collectively, and he said that there were times when taxation and government regulation were good for markets and for society.

Republicans and Republicans

SNL did a recent spoof of the intransigent Congressional Republicans which I don't think is very good comedy, but it is more insightful than most recent news coverage.

On the other hand, Republican governors, who have state constituencies to answer to and budgets to balance, have been eager to cooperate with the Obama administration on the stimulus package.  Governor Crist of Florida went so far as to join Obama as he campaigned for the plan in Fort Myers, Florida.

Maybe he can get the Republican cooperation and participation he wants outside the Congress and from the state houses.

I do find it striking how the Republican party has morphed over the last 25 years into such an ideological party.  I can remember when they used to portray themselves as the necessary pragmatic constraint to grand liberal visions (anyone remember those Congressional press conferences that made Everett Dirksen of Illinois a star?).  Now, they are practically twins of far left ideologues in the ISO and the old Communist Party; ideological purity and party discipline matter above all else.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Tax Cuts Will Save America!

California is going completely verkakte, and it all rests on the shoulders of 3 state senators from the minority party who are prepared to trash the state in the name of ideological "principles."

Here's a thought, why not cut the tax rate to zero?  By Republican logic, that would mean an infinity economic growth rate!  Of course we'd have to shut down 2 wars, all of our military bases, all of our embassies,  all state schools and colleges, all border stations, the Federal and state prison systems, lease out the Pentagon and Capitol, and have Congress, the Courts, and the President work as volunteers, but look what we get.  And voila!  Libertarian Paradise!  Gated neighborhoods, social Darwinism, and militias for everybody!  And with everyone packing heat, who needs a police force?  More money back to the taxpayers!  The Crips and the Bloods, entrepreneurs every one of them!

(angry sarcasm off)

Sodomy and Control

Digby over at Hullabaloo comments on new reports and testimony coming out about the frequent use of sodomy (anal rape) and sexual humiliation as a means of controlling prisoners in Guantanamo and other detention camps run by the US government for terrorism suspects.
Organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have long complained about the high rates of sexual assault in US prisons.   These organizations allege that US prison systems use rape as a money-saving way to keep order among prison populations.  Some of the worst police brutality cases in New York, most famously Abner Louima, involved some kind of anal rape.

I wonder sometimes if something has snapped in the psyche of American males.  I hear straight boys calling each other "bitch" all the time these days.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Another Busby Berekely Bong Hit

I got nothing, so here's the trippiest of them all, in my opinion:

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day Everybody!

Fire up your bongs, here comes a Busby Berkeley wet dream; more wet chorus girls than you could shake a hose at.

The Next Great Depression

Dorothea Lange

Margaret Bourke White

I love both of these photos because of the contrast between real struggles and wrecked expectations in each.

I sometimes wonder if people realize just how bad the Depression really was. It is being invoked so readily, and so glibly, by all the political chatterers these days to describe the magnitude of the current economic crisis. The official unemployment statistics from that time show that a quarter of the population was out of work. The real number may have been around 30%. About half the population lived in poverty or near poverty. The Depression was a global nation-wrecking catastrophe. It very nearly wrecked this country. It did wreck others (especially Germany).
Both of my parents were children during that time, and fared well compared to others. But, they remembered that time vividly. My mother's father was a country doctor in central Illinois who was one of the very few who would accept payment in barter from the local farmers. Visits were paid for in vegetables and preserves. Minor treatments were paid in chickens; major surgery in beef and dairy cattle. She remembers eating well during the Depression. My father's father was a minor sales manager with Western Union in Dallas, a position that was originally intended to be punishment for union sympathies, but which turned out to be a lifesaver in the Depression. My father remembers his mother hiring all kinds of strangers who showed up on the doorstep to do yard work and odd jobs.

The current economic meltdown is plenty bad enough, the worst since 1982 (anyone remember that one? I remember people camped out by the rails in rural Missouri waiting to hop freight trains to Texas to look for work; no, that wasn't 1932, but 1982). I really wonder if we are up for anything close to the magnitude of 1930 to 1940, and if we could survive it. So far, our governing classes remain bizarrely detached from it all. The Republicans apparently see nothing in it but political opportunity for them, a chance to to return to power. For once I agree with Andrew Sullivan:
This much is now clear. Their clear and open intent is to do all they can, however they can, to sabotage the new administration (and the economy to boot). They want failure. Even now. Even after the last eight years. Even in a recession as steeply dangerous as this one. There are legitimate debates to be had; and then there is the cynicism and surrealism of total political war. We now should have even less doubt about what kind of people they are. And the mountain of partisan vitriol Obama will have to climb every day of the next four or eight years.

I'm worried that the stimulus package might not be enough. The current conventional wisdom all over the air-waves is that World War II and not government spending ended the Depression; conveniently forgetting that World War II was itself a massive government spending program complete with government economic planning to meet the needs of the war effort.   The prosperity of the 50s and 60s was partly built on government military spending.  Cold War research and development built California, and made the fortunes of a few "big gubmint" hating Texas billionaires like Ross Perot .  

It's going to be a rough 4 years.