Sunday, May 31, 2009

Celery Stalks At Midnight

I absolutely love this tune. Here's the Will Bradley 1940 original.

And here are some kids who agree with me.

Imagine what a happier world this would be if all the world's holy men (all the bishops, all the priests, all the preachers, all the rabbis, all the mullahs, in churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, tents, and on my tee vee) just clapped their hands and yelled at the tops of their lungs,

Now that would be a Pentecostal miracle.

They would all be so busy being silly that they'd forget about bringing so much division and sorrow to the world.

"Screw religion, let's dance!" said the Holy Spirit.

In the wake of the Tillman murder, I'm having a hard time working up much enthusiasm for things religious lately.  Toujoursdan linked to this rant which sums up my own feelings pretty well.

Ain't No Crime Like Religious Crime

The American Taliban sheds blood.

...and in church on Pentecost, no less.


Today is the birthday of the Church.

At the risk of sounding too Protestant, there are days when I agree with Albert Schweitzer when he said that the Church has been in decline ever since.

The Big White Republican Daddy

That's all they have left is the image of the Big White Daddy to keep us all safe.

Cheney has been out peddling his brand of snake oil, and as usual, the press swallows it without any question. More galling are the legions of Democrats who, even in power, are as spineless as jellyfish. They quavered before Cheney and gutted the funding from Obama's plan to close Gitmo.

The Big White Republican Daddy keeping us safe claim is all bullshit. They deliberately let Bin Laden and Zawahiri get away. Michael's brother-in-law was one of the Army Rangers who had Bin Laden surrounded at Tora Bora. They knew where he was, and how they would take him. They were about to start the final assault when they were suddenly redeployed to the Persian Gulf. There's more in this 2005 NYTimes article. If we end up at war in Korea any time soon, it will be due to the posturing and blundering of the former administration, who undercut all of South Korea's efforts at diplomacy with the North.

The fat old white boys who run the Republican party have nothing left to offer but "be afraid, be very afraid." I have to wonder about the party ideologues who publicly call for another terrorist attack to teach the electorate "a lesson." I put them in the same category as all those far leftists I used to know who always hoped for an economic depression to teach us all "a lesson." I would put apocalyptically obsessed fundamentalists in that same category. I question the mental and moral health of people who wish catastrophe upon their neighbors in order to vindicate their beliefs.

A resentful world cowed into submission by the American military domination is not my idea of a lasting peace. That was the kind of peace imagined by the old Warsaw Pact.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

So, Madpriest Thinks I'm Above Being Trashy...

Here's Markus Schenkenberg for a little compare contrast:

This post from January was pure trash, as I recall.

Maybe I'll do eye-candy as a regular Saturday feature.

Gentle readers, I'm open to suggestions about celebrities and athletes who you'd like to see scantily clad.  I'd be happy to accommodate my lesbian and hetero readers with female eye-candy, but this gay boy will need your help in that department. 

So, do you imagine Mark Harris or Tobias Haller even considering a feature like this on their blogs?  I don't think so.  Maybe Grandmere Mimi or Thinking Anglicans might.

Happy 100th Birthday Benny Goodman!

The King of Swing turns 100 today.

Here's a clip from 1942 showing Goodman and his band playing for all those young hipsters jitterbugging in the rain. Your grandparents weren't always old.  They were just as young and sexy as you think you are.  They could really dance, unlike you with that controlled spasm you call dancing.  Check out Grandmere Mimi sliding in the rain for a photographer.

Another movie clip with Goodman in the unlikely role of square professor playing with Lionel Hampton.

Here's a brief clip from 1937 showing Goodman and his band playing part of their signature tune "Sing Sing Sing" with solos by Harry James, Goodman, and Gene Krupa, who looks high as a kite (and probably was).

For all you hardcore fans, here's the whole "Sing Sing Sing," all 9 minutes of it.

Not bad for a poor Jewish kid from Chicago whose father worked in a lard factory.
It was Goodman more than anyone else who made American popular music and cleared the road for rock.  He was the first to put jazz before a broad white American audience.  Jazz before was associated with black folk and the urban underground.  Mainstream popular music on most radio shows in the early 1930s was schmalz; waltzes and polkas, with "hay rides" for the rural folk.  Goodman put a big heaping helping of hot spicy sex and underworld glamor into popular music that had an immediate appeal to white kids, introducing them to something that black kids had enjoyed for over 20 years.  Goodman was one of the first to desegregate pop music, integrating his band and giving black musicians top billing, most famously Lionel Hampton and Charlie Christian.  He avoided Southern segregation laws by simply not touring in the South.  He was successful enough that he could afford to ignore that whole region of the country.

He began his career at age 16, and toward the end of his life, he was touring the world with Louis Armstrong and playing music written for him by the likes of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

Happy 100 Benny, and thanks for everything!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Justice Sotomayor

Setting aside the conservative "white guys in peril" clown show that's dominating the corporate media right now, she looks to me to be a very moderate, even fairly conservative, choice for the Supreme Court. The official pundits are expressing relief that she's NOT an "activist liberal."

Frankly, I think an "activist liberal" on the Court would be a refreshing change. She/ he would balance out those 4 right wing ideologues on the Bench (who are each far more radical and ideological in their views than any certifiably "liberal" magistrate remaining in the Federal judiciary). It does not look like Sotomayor is that "liberal" Justice from her record. She has a long record of siding with business over labor and consumers in her decisions.

As far as I know, the last economic populist to serve on the Bench was William O'Douglas. Anyone remember him? Yes, that was a long time ago, wasn't it. The Court under Burger, then Rehnquist, and now Roberts, appears to be returning to its historic role of protecting money and property, of favoring the privileged over the exploited. I don't think Sotomayor's appointment will change that long-running reaction against the Warren Court (which has so far lasted a lot longer than the Warren Court did).

The Republicans and their right wing demagogues are covering themselves in something over this nomination, but it isn't glory.  Even this lilly white boy finds the spectacle of fat rich old white guys screaming "racist!" at a Latina to be absolutely galling.  I predict a relatively smooth confirmation for Judge Sotomayor, with the Republicans further alienating the fastest growing voter bloc in the country.

Cocktails for Two

This is the perfect follow up to a rant about Andrew Sullivan.

Another borrowing from the great Benjamoon Von Schwulemann.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Andrew Sullivan Does Not Speak For Me

What to do with Andrew Sullivan these days. He's a gay conservative (of the old New England school he claims), and I don't know if he's still Catholic or not. If the hierarchy hasn't booted him out yet, he may still be in that church. For the most part, Andrew Sullivan is very good on the hot button issues of the moment, especially when it comes to the religious right.
He's also a major reason why I insist upon a distinction between conservative and right wing. I take Sullivan at his word when he says he's a conservative. Indeed, he's one of the few people left who claim that label, and who really are conservative in the original sense of the word; someone who believes in institutional continuity, historical legacy, a great reluctance to alter the existing social and political order. Right wingers don't give a damn about continuity or legacy. Right wing politics is about supremacy. The religious right is all about domination, "worldly" laws and institutions be damned. The late historian Gordon A. Craig insisted that the most radical politics of the 20th century was right wing politics. The far right rejects the whole Enlightenment inheritance on which almost all modern constitutions are based. Sullivan clearly does not belong in that category.

At the same time, it is precisely Sullivan's conservatism that has me at odds with him, especially on gay issues. I think of gay male opinion as being a spectrum of views from the one end of radically distinct identity to the other end of total assimilation into conventional society, and most somewhere in between. The late Harry Hay, a founder of Mattachine and Radical Faeries, represents one end of this spectrum. He always advocated that gay men should embrace those very things that make us distinct and set us apart. He even went so far as to advocate a kind of separatism for gay men. Why, he asked, should gay men want any part in a conventional order that has always oppressed them? I put Andrew Sullivan on the other end of the spectrum. The goal of Sullivan, and other thinkers like him, is for assimilation into conventional society. Sullivan, and others like him, hope for the extinction of the very gay male subculture that Hay celebrated. As same sexuality becomes accepted by larger society, becomes "normal," the very notion of a gay identity will cease to be, conservatives argue. Gay men (and by implication lesbians) will become subsumed in a larger conventional "American" identity.

Most gay male opinion, including mine, falls somewhere between these two polar opposites. I'm probably a little closer to Hay on the spectrum than to Sullivan. I would argue that joining a church, or a PTA, or becoming a fire fighter as a gay man is not really conservative at all. It's actually quite revolutionary. By seeking to join such institutions, you are demanding that they change to accomodate you. I agree with Hay that we should embrace those very things, especially our sexuality, that set us apart. That despised and flawed subculture sustained us, and made the push-back possible through all those long years of discrimination and AIDS. That we built a subculture and an identity around sexual orientation was not a perverse whim, but a matter of survival. Conventional society had already singled us out through legal discrimination. That distinct identity was already created for us whether we wanted it or not. I don't see any need to pitch that culture now that discrimination is coming to an end. It served us well. It will serve us again. That heritage is part of all of us whether we like it or not. I don't think larger society will be at all well served by sacrificing our identity.
On the other hand, we must play the cards we are dealt and deal with conventional society as it is. Our goal should be not to disappear into it, but to make our place in that society and change it for the better for everyone.

It really sticks in my craw sometimes that Sullivan plays the designated spokesman for the gay male community in the media. He doesn't always speak for this gay man. I'm not sure that's a role he sought, but the corporate media for years have made him the "go to" guy for gay issues. That he gets that role is more proof to me that the political establishment is still hard wired for conservatives, never mind that they did so poorly in 2 national elections so far. I suspect that it will take years for the political establishment to catch up. It's only now that the "no liberals on tee vee" rule is slowly being vacated. Republicans are still disproportionately represented on the network political talk shows.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

So Let's Get Up Again

Somehow, I think this is appropriate this morning.

More Ugly Buildings

Manhattan Criminal Courthouse ("The Tombs"), New York

Pompidou Center, Paris

Nelson Rockefeller Plaza, Albany, New York

Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, Texas

La Defense, Paris

National Congress Building, Brasilia, Brazil

Sony/ AT&T Building, New York

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Harvey Milk Never Backed Down

...and neither should we.

Proposition H8 Wins (For Now)

The California Supremes vote 6 to 1 to uphold Prop H8. They decided not to void the marriages made in the interim.

That anyone's rights or marriage should be up for a vote is a travesty of justice. Minorities (those creations of majorities) by definition will always lose. Democracy degenerates from Equal Justice Under Law to mob rule.

I still say California will have full marriage rights for LGBTs before New York does. I doubt Prop H8 will survive the next election. It won only by a narrow margin last time, and with the help of right wing and Mormon $$$$$ Mammon from out of state. The gay kids have had a taste of freedom and dignity and they know what they are missing now. They're going to make life absolutely miserable for their enemies, and for their politician lackeys, until this travesty is finally consigned to the oblivion it deserves.

In the end, our enemies will say of this day, "Another such victory and I am undone."

This fight has only just begun.

*IT over at Friends of Jake has extensive quotes from the decision here. She also has extensive passages from the one dissenting opinion by Justice Moreno here.

Toujoursdan had some interesting reflections on the decision here.

Champions of "Normal" Can Be Downright Freakish

Get a load of this article in the Weekly Standard by Sam Schulmann.  Here's a sample:

This most profound aspect of marriage–protecting and controlling the sexuality of the child-bearing sex–is its only true reason for being, and it has no equivalent in same-sex marriage.

And here's something to offend heterosexuals:

Few men would ever bother to enter into a romantic heterosexual marriage–much less three, as I have done–were it not for the iron grip of necessity that falls upon us when we are unwise enough to fall in love with a woman other than our mom.
 Is it just me, or has anyone else noted the weirdly abstract quality of so much anti-gay intellectual argument?  This essay is a particularly notable example.

Hat tip to Atrios.

Check out Toujourdan's post about gay life in Saudi Arabia.  It reads like a religious right wet dream, especially the police for "The Promotion of Virtue and The Prevention of Vice."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Ugly Buildings

Swiss Re, "The Gherkin," London

The Pentagon

Great Hall of The People, Beijing

Citicorp Center, New York

Portland Public Services Building, Portland, OR

Palace of Justice, Brussels

Russian Parliament Building, the "White House," Moscow

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain

Kids These Days!


I live in a neighborhood with a lot of hipster kids. Michael and Dolores (our landlady) love to get together and complain about them. Dolores is in her 70s and entitled, but Michael seems a little young to me for curmudgeonhood. He's only 35, not much older (in my eyes anyway) than the kids he complains about. When they get together, it's all about the clothes, the hair, the bicycles, the parties, the drinking, living 5 to an apartment, etc, etc, etc. Does any of this sound familiar? This could be my dad 40 years ago complaining about all the hippies in Lee Park in Dallas.
To my eyes, the hipsters are pretty tame. I've seen a lot in my 51 years: hippies, punks, dead-heads, metal heads, head bangers, new wavers, new agers, neo-hippies, goth, grunge, glitter, glam, and gay. Today's youth rebellion in comparison seems very bland and unthreatening to me. I don't see what all the fuss is about.

It seems to me that every new generation disappoints the ones that came before it. The earliest surviving text that I'm aware of that complains about how kids are no good these days and the whole world is going to hell in handbasket is the "Old Oligarch." He was complaining about that lazy shiftless good-for-nothing new generation coming of age in the Athens of Pericles. They were nothing like the real men of his day back during the reign of the Pesistratids, men not afraid of a good day's work who had respect for authority, not like today's kids wasting all their time hanging out down by the Agora; and the insolence! these kids walk right into the Pnyx like they own the place!...

And yet, somehow, civilization is still with us 2500 years later.

Who can blame the kids for wanting to say, "Piss off!" to us old codgers. We did the same thing when we were a disappointment to our elders.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

What Will Be the Result of a More Authoritarian Christianity?

The same result as for all things authoritarian...

infantilized adults and abused children.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

What Is the Deepest Hope, the Fondest Wish of the Right Wing?


It Really Is Torture After All!

A conservative talk show host gets waterboarded.

War And Remembrance for Memorial Day Weekend

We forget just how violent and costly were Napoleon's wars. We mostly remember the glamor and the swagger. We are surprised when we learn that the Napoleonic Wars were the costliest in terms of lives before World War I. We forget that millions perished in those wars.

The Battle of Eylau in the former East Prussia was one of the bloodiest of Napoleon's battles. It came about because of Russian challenges to French claims upon German territory. The losses were catastrophic and impossible to conceal from the French public.
Napoleon commissioned Antoine-Jean Gros, the most brilliant of his propaganda artists, to make an immense painting of the aftermath of the battle. Gros, with Napoleon's encouragement, very candidly shows us the cost of the battle. This painting is filled with corpses. Not only is there the brilliantly painted pile of dead and dying soldiers in the foreground, the snowy battlefield in the background is shown littered with dead soldiers from end to end. In the background, surviving French soldiers form up to salute the emperor.
Gros shows Napoleon riding out to assess the battlefield losses with his generals. Gros very brilliantly shows Napoleon not as his usual glamorous swaggering self, but as plainly dressed, pale, red-eyed, unshaven -- clearly shaken by the magnitude of the losses. The very elaborately uniformed and dashing General Murat riding up to greet him only enhances Napoleon's own solemnity. Napoleon looks up heavenward and says accurately (if self-servingly) that such losses should make rulers less eager to go to war.

Gros' career came and went with Napoleon. He was the finest of Napoleon's artists, a brilliant propagandist. And yet, Gros was very troubled by the role he played in Napoleon's campaigns. Gros personally witnessed some of Napoleon's battles, most notably his brilliant come-from-behind victory at Arcole in the First Italian Campaign. Gros' own very ambivalent feelings come out in the brilliantly painted and grisly pile of corpses that fills the foreground of this picture. Those ambivalent feelings would be the death of Gros. After the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Gros' career went into eclipse. He refused to work for the Bourbon Restoration government. Remorse over his role in Napoleon's empire haunted him for the rest of his life. He drowned himself in the Seine in 1830.

The great Spanish artist Goya made a stinging rebuke to Gros in the print above from The Disasters of War very bitterly titled "This Is What You Were Born For!" A man confronts a pile of corpses (like the one in Gros' painting) and vomits at the sight and the smell.
Scholars argue whether or not Goya actually witnessed any of the horrific scenes from the Penninsular War that appear in this series of etchings that he apparently worked on in secret. They were not published until 1863, about 35 years after Goya's death. That this question even comes up at all is testament to Goya's brilliance as an artist. Contrived or not, they have that veristic quality of wartime journalism.

The combatants in Goya's scenes of battle are less driven by courageous self-sacrifice than by rage and desperation. Here, a group of women, some with babies in arms, defend themselves against French soldiers.

Goya's own role in the French occupation of Spain, and in the resulting Penninsular War was hardly more creditable than Gros. Goya, like Talleyrand, was a survivor in the worst possible way. He was court painter to Carlos IV, and then worked for Joseph Bonaparte when he briefly reigned as King of Spain. With great difficulty, Goya had to prove his loyalty and his Spanish patriotism when the French were driven out of Spain by a coalition of Spanish patriots and British soldiers led by the Duke of Wellington. Even though he painted Wellington's portrait, and went to work for King Ferdinand VII, the paranoid new king always regarded Goya with great suspicion.

Where Goya's real sympathies and loyalties lay is revealed in the horrific print below.

Goya shows us the naked corpse of a man who died in great agony and humiliation. We have no clue as to this man's allegiances. Was he a Spanish partisan tortured to death by the French? Or was he a hapless French soldier killed by an angry Spanish mob? We have no idea, and Goya asks us rhetorically if it really matters.

In this etching, one of a series of allegories at the end of The Disasters of War where Goya tries to make sense of the carnage, a group of wretched war refugees is confronted by a wolf who has just written this line from a poem by the Italian poet Giambattista Casti, "Miserable humanity, the blame is yours" That line is lifted from a poem that reads in part:
But so long as there are people in this world who can sacrifice thousands of victims, and spill other men's blood, just how, when, and in what quantity they please, without running any risk themselves, enslaved humanity, do not complain of their barbarity for the blame is yours.

It is likely that Goya endorses Casti's indictment of passive ordinary humanity for complicity in their own victimization.

I can't agree, and I wonder if Goya, disappointed young liberal that he was and bitter old misanthrope that he became, really believed that sentiment as well.

I am not a pacifist. In desperate situations, I believe people are entitled to defend themselves by any means necessary. But, I'm no militarist either. Clausewitz famously said that war is politics by other means. On the contrary, war is the failure of politics. It is the betrayal of the young by the old. It is the betrayal of people by their leaders. The resort to violence is always evidence of failure and weakness. For this reason, the rhetoric of war dresses it up in a masquerade of success and strength. "Military glory," said Abraham Lincoln on the floor of the House when he opposed the American invasion of Mexico, "is the rainbow in a shower of blood."

I remember listening to a radio conversation with a World War II historian whose name I can't remember.  He was talking about the morally very dubious policies of the Allies, especially their attacks on civilians, from the saturation bombings of German and Japanese cities to the Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He said that those policies were counter-productive; that they only prolonged the conflict by making targeted civilians more angry and determined to resist.  He questioned the idea that anyone covered themselves in glory by dropping everything from incendiary bombs to nuclear weapons on unarmed civilians.  He argued that such policies were driven, not by rational strategic thinking, but by rage and a desire for revenge for German and Japanese aggression and atrocities.  He concluded by saying that, despite all of this, Hitler had to be stopped.  A Nazi victory would have been the end of civilization just as surely as a nuclear holocaust.  He said that we fight our wars the same way we live our lives, not as we should, but as we can.

Perhaps war is the ultimate manifestation of our fallen state, the final consequence of the fact that we all live our lives, not as we should, but as we can.

On this Memorial Day weekend, we commemorate our war dead with great solemnity. It is right and proper that those who gave their lives in the service of all the rest of us should be remembered and revered. Whether the cause was just or not, they paid the full cost of it.

I think it proper that not only do we remember our soldier dead, but all those who bore the full cost of history from civilian dead caught up in the crossfire of our battles, to soldiers killed by "friendly fire," to soldiers killed by accidents and crime, to victims of war crimes, to the thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilian dead in the current conflicts.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Good versus The Beautiful

Eminem is back.
He has a new album out. Once again, the critics are in a tizzy, swooning with admiration, and deeply ambivalent about the content of his work.

I must confess that I am not a fan. I will freely admit that my lack of enthusiasm is more a matter of taste than of aesthetic judgment. I'm a 51 year old fart, and this is just not my cup of tea. I'm hardly in any position to be pointing fingers of moral condemnation. Some of the stuff I love listening to from the Velvet Underground to MC5 to the Sex Pistols is every bit as violently nihilistic as Eminem's music.

And yet, Eminem's stuff is really disturbing, which may be an indication of its power. It has none of the winking humor of earlier punk or underground music. Eminiem is in deadly earnest. The really disturbing aspect of his music is that he appears to articulate the anger and frustration of a whole generation of discarded young men, black and white; the ones who didn't finish high school, who will never go to college, who will always struggle to make a living, and who are ripe fodder for the military. Eminem's audience is the young men we expect to clean up our messy offices, fix our cars, and clean up the mess we made in the Middle East. Like him or not, his music is authentic, true to his own experience, his own vision formed out of that experience, and true to that of a generation of young men like himself.

His music raises in very brutal fashion the old question, is art required to be morally good in order to be deemed successful? Old Dr. Norris K. Smith, a former art history professor of mine, always insisted that we should ask the question "where does the goodness lie?" with all art. And yet, goodness is frequently not very aesthetically interesting or attractive. As often as not, goodness can be dull and painfully clumsy. Works of art and music with the best of intentions sometimes end up as earnest embarrassing train wrecks; or worse, as dull hectoring sermons. Let's face it, despite the burgeoning of "Christian rock" over the last 40 years, Satan's Commandos still make the superior product. And the reason why they make the superior product is because they are truer to the origins, the whole raison d'etre of rock; adolescent male angst and breakout.

It seems to me that comparing moral goodness and aesthetic success is a false comparison. The two things have nothing to do with each other. What makes a work of art compelling and authentic has nothing to do with whether or not it is morally good. By the same token, should we be evaluating moral acts on the basis aesthetic merit? I certainly hope not. All the same, moral questions always form part of the conversation that grows up around works of art, and that should be encouraged. We are entitled to ask if this or that piece of music or building or painting does anyone any good beyond being beautiful.

However, morally questionable and repugnant works of art do perform a service. They bear witness as all art does, presenting concepts incarnated into beings that cannot be ignored. Eminem does that service, presenting us with our own society's predatory violent nihilism in lucid compelling form. It forces us to confront what so much of our public rhetoric and rituals seek to conceal, the forces of greed, fear, and boredom that drive so much of our enterprise whether on the street corner or in the boardroom.

The same could be said of someone else's work I find even more distasteful, Quentin Tarantino's movies. That combination of geeky cinema/ pop cultural quotation and nihilism is even more morally revolting to me than Eminem's violent testosterone tantrums. The revolting part for me is the self-protective distancing Tarantino puts between himself and the crime he clearly relishes. It is precisely that self-protective distancing, that false assurance that nothing is really at stake, that really repels me about his movies, and about that whole contemporary cultural context out of which Tarantino comes. It is the direct heir to the 19th century bourgeois aesthetic that prized scenes of rape and slaughter in works of art so long as they were set in a remote mythologized past or a falsified "orient." That his movies are so successful critically and commercially says probably as much about us as it does him, and perhaps that's where his witness works.

Works of art that truly are aesthetically great and morally good are very exceptional, and are usually made by people who are themselves deeply flawed. Rembrandt comes to mind. Walking that razor's edge balancing the good with the authentic is the hardest of all acts to pull off. What makes art valuable is not sanctity, but humanity.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Towards a Post-Catholic Ireland?

A government commission investigating abuses by clergy and staff on children in Irish Catholic schools and institutions, 9 years in the making, is scathing.  It describes sexual abuse as "endemic' to schools and institutions for boys going back 60 years.   Schools and institutions for girls were also horrifically abusive.  The victims number in the thousands.

No one, however, will be prosecuted.  An order of monks most heavily implicated in the report, The Christian Brothers, successfully sued the commission to prevent it from naming perpetrators and the victims.  Public opinion is outraged. 

In my one and only brief trip to Ireland (Dublin and Galway), I was struck by how young, and secular, the place was; much more than I had expected.  I even heard some talk on the telly of disestablishing the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.  I was startled to say the least.  But, the Irish, especially the young, appear to be voting with their feet and walking away from Holy Mother Rome in droves.

I've always found it striking that an ancient institution that always demands contrition and taking responsibility from its followers has so much difficulty being contrite and taking responsibility in any way that would be convincing to anyone other than their own hierarchy.
As far as I'm concerned, these folks are in no position to be preaching anything to anyone.

I also suspect that the reason peace is breaking out in Ulster is because Protestants find the prospect of a secular Ireland a lot less threatening.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Great Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge in 1896

Among the topics for term papers that I provide for my students is a list of New York City landmarks. By far the most popular every semester is the Brooklyn Bridge. I've probably read a score of papers of widely varying quality on the Bridge for this semester alone, and I still have more to go. I'm always amazed at how little my students know about their own city, and how little they've seen of it.

I presume they like the Bridge because it's familiar to them, it's still the most spectacular span across the East River (the Williamsburg is slightly longer. but it's such an ugly duckling compared to the Brooklyn), and because its construction history is so dramatic.

Crossing between New York and Brooklyn used to be very difficult with constant ship traffic, irregular ferry service, and worst of all, ice floes in the winter, like those on the Hudson river pictured above.
John Roebling, an engineer from Germany, first got the idea for the bridge while stranded in a ferry caught in the ice. He watched frustrated people risk their lives trying to walk across the moving ice to shore.

John Roebling

Roebling persuaded the City of New York and the City of Brooklyn that a bridge over the East River was a matter of necessity with traffic increasing between the 2 rapidly growing cities. He drew up plans for a massive suspension bridge, the largest yet built, and the first to cross 2 relatively level land masses rather than over a chasm or valley. Roebling invented steel cable which he used in previous bridge construction projects with great success. Steel cable proved to be much stronger than the iron chains used in earlier suspension bridges.
While surveying the site for the future bridge, an arriving ferry boat from Manhattan crushed John Roebling's foot against the dock. He died of tetanus days later, fatally demonstrating the need for a bridge. His death brought to a halt plans to build the bridge.

Washington Roebling

His son Washington Roebling, still a young man just out of the military, took over the design and construction of the bridge.

The first things to be built were the two great towers on either side of the river. The first stage in that construction was the construction of great wood and iron caissons; huge structures as high as the river was deep that were water sealed and bottomless. They were built in the Brooklyn navy yard and towed out and sunk over their respective sites on the Brooklyn and Manhattan side. Compressed air was pumped into the chamber at the bottom to keep out the river water. Construction crews cleared out the mud and rock from the bottom by hand, digging down to bedrock. As crews dug below, the stone and concrete base of the tower was built on top. When the caissons reached bedrock, the work chambers would be filled with concrete.

Work inside the caissons was dark and dangerous. Most of the men who worked excavating the foundation were Irish laborers paid pennies per day. There was the constant risk of fire and flooding. One of the caissons did catch fire. The fire was so intense and spread out through the wooden hull that the caisson had to be flooded to extinguish it.
An even worse danger came in the form of "caisson's disease." Perfectly healthy men would suddenly start vomiting and convulsing. Some would end up partially paralyzed, others died. This was "the bends" caused by the sudden change in air pressure when emerging out of the caisson. Nitrogen bubbles would form in the blood, causing convulsions and excruciating pain. Washington Roebling himself would be permanently invalided by "caisson's disease." He frequently visited the caissons, sometimes working beside the laborers.

Emily Roebling

Washington's wife, Emily, became the de facto supervisor and chief engineer of the project after her husband became incapacitated.

When completed, the towers were the tallest buildings in the city, and the first structures to top out the spire of Trinity Church, previously the tallest structure in the city. Then came the task of building the cable web and the 135 foot high span across the river. This work was slowed by corruption and by catastrophe. Much of the cable had to be remade and rebuilt when it was found out that a corrupt manufacturer cut corners and shorted the quality of the steel in some of the cable. Worse happened when one of the cables suddenly snapped, killing 2 men and injuring several more. A total of 27 men died while building the Brooklyn Bridge.

The completed Bridge was opened on May 24, 1883, Queen Victoria's birthday. Emily Roebling was the first to cross, leading a delegation including the governor of New York, the mayors of New York and Brooklyn, and the President of the USA, Chester Arthur (who?). They crossed the bridge to congratulate the bedridden Washington Roebling at his home on his accomplishment.
A lavish fireworks display lit up the night sky, followed by electric lights illumining the bridge for the first time.
The Irish laborers were not invited. Some boycotted the festivities because of the concurrence with Queen Victoria's birthday.

On May 30, 1883, over 20 people died in a panicked stampede on the bridge when a rumor spread that the bridge was about to collapse.

As you can see, the bridge didn't collapse.
John Roebling always intended the bridge to be a great work of art as well as a prodigious work of engineering. In the design of the towers, he used the pointed Gothic lancet arch to invoke the memory of those earlier accomplishments of engineering and collective enterprise, the medieval cathedrals. A great steel web between 2 stone towers holds up the span across the East River forming one of the most stirring structures ever built in New York.

Most of the information in this post comes from several semesters worth of student papers on the Brooklyn Bridge. See? You can learn from your students.

Rodger McFarlane 1955 - 2009

One of the founders of the Gay Men's Health Crisis commits suicide after a long and painful illness.

“AIDS pointed up the inequitable status of gays.  We were forced to take care of ourselves because we learned that if you have certain diseases, certain lifestyles, you can’t expect the same services as other parts of society.” -- Rodger MacFarlane in 1983

We forget how ad hoc these AIDS organizations were in the beginning.  They were founded out of desperation, in the face of deliberate policies of malign neglect from the Reagan Administration to the CDC to the insurance companies to local hospitals.  Affluent professionals found themselves together with street kids in the same public hospitals dying in agony, neglect, and destitution in those days.  

I remember, and I will never forget or forgive.

Monday, May 18, 2009

What is at Stake in the Gay Marriage Controversy

Two women are suing hospitals in separate lawsuits because they were denied access to their dying partners.  One of them was told by a Florida social worker that she was in an antigay city in an antigay state.  That same hospital denied the dying woman's children permission to visit their mother until the very end.

Michael and I discuss this issue from time to time.  Neither of us is very close to our families and would not want them making decisions about our welfare if either of us became ill.  We both worry about access if one of us should ever be hospitalized.

Not only is this a matter for gay couples, but it's also for senior couples who decide not to marry, for other unmarried heterosexual couples, and for single people who are estranged from their families and would prefer to trust longtime friends.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Madpriest's Meltdown

I don't quite know what happened today, but whatever it was, I hope it can be mended.

Decadent America

Forget the gay boys.

If you want evidence of serious moral decline, then how about torturing prisoners of war, not to find any ticking bombs, but to help manufacture a false link between Iraq and Al Qaida in order to justify a predetermined decision to invade Iraq. 

Then there's the previous Administration planting military "experts," who were nothing of the kind, but spokesmen for military contractors, to spread Administration talking points through a compliant broadcast media.

Now, everyone in Washington wants to forgive and forget.  The Republicans want to "walk on" for obvious reasons.  The press wants to forget its complicity in all the Iraq mess (that cost thousands of Iraqi and American lives), and in the economic mess (cheerleading the looters, and bamboozling the suckers, er, public).  The Obama Administration wants to move forward on its agenda by trying to get us to look forward rather than look backward.  However, the past is always there for us to trip over, especially if it is full of skeletons rattling in closets.  There is an understandable reluctance to set a precedent of prosecuting preceding administrations.  That might not be such a problem if we still had the pre-Nixon independence of the Attorney General and the Justice Department.

And then there is all the lying and complex duplicity in the financial industry.  Executives went on a pillaging spree through the economy and left the rest of us holding the bag.  The current rate of foreclosures and evictions on private homes is now the greatest since the Great Depression.

Curiously, I've not heard one word about any of these moral lapses from the sex-fixated religious right here in the USA, and internationally.  As far as I'm concerned, these professional moral scolds have no legitimacy to be preaching to anyone about anything.

Speaking of things that are morally offensive, read Robert Draper's account of Donald Rumsfeld beginning each top secret briefing for the President with Biblical quotations deliberately invoking the idea of a religious crusade.
Don't forget to check out the slide show of the covers of those memos for the President's eyes only.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Rationalizing a Faustian Contract

Here's an old poster from World War II:

How times have changed.

Thanks Digby.

I was struck by this comment posted by Grandmere Mimi some time ago on Wounded Bird:
The fact is that many in the country believed that torture was justified. I hear folks say the same thing today. Avoiding even the mention of the repugnance, immorality, and illegality of torture, I ask them about the innocent who were rounded up willy-nilly and tortured first and released later, the response is, "Too bad for them. We had to do it to stop the terrorists." Then I say, "But they were not terrorists. They were innocent and subsequently released!" that changes nothing in their thinking. It had to be done. 
That could describe the views of a lot of my family.  My explanation for this glad embrace of Faustian reasoning is frightened white people. "Just so long as it's happening to them and not to us."  As my friend David Kaplan says, America at its worst is a plea bargain with history on behalf of the white middle class.

Bigotry Is Hilariously Funny

In this age of very brittle and anxious sensibilities, here are 2 of the most serious transgressors of public decorum.

First is that vastly underrated genius of social critique, Mel Brooks. In this scene from Blazing Saddles, as in so much of his comedy, decorum goes right out the window. The N word, the F word, the S word, the K word, the Z word, etc. are used generously throughout. And yet, just what is it that Brooks is mocking with such blistering glee? It's not the new sheriff of Rockridge. It's not even the townspeople. It's their obstinately stupid racism.
For all of its foul and brutal language and schtick, Blazing Saddles is a very heartfelt liberal movie. If you've ever watched the whole movie through (even if you had to take smelling salts to get through it), it's actually very generous in its outlook. Evil railroad barons like Heddy Lamar ("that's Hedley!") can be overcome and towns saved if people just put aside their incredibly stupid (and hilariously funny) bigotry.

Much less generous is the comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen.
In his fictional Kazakh character Borat, Cohen makes a kind of comedy of entrapment. He sets up actual people to go public with their prejudices, and holds them up for ridicule. The primary target of so much of his comedy is antisemitism, though racism, misogyny, and homophobia get their due as well. He savages the complacent bigotry of the Developed World with the same ruthless glee as he satirizes the resentful bigotry of the Developing World.

"Baby, you are so talented! And they are so dumb!"

I can't decide which I find more irritating, Political Correctness (whatever that is), or people who complain about it. There will always be, as there always have been, humorless people with brittle sensibilities. On the other hand, so many of the people who complain about PC seem to resent losing their license to behave like rude pigs at other people's expense, more than they do any real infringement on liberty (theirs specifically; the liberty of others is not a concern).
In the end, I think Hendrik Hertzberg said it best when he said, "niceness is the enemy of fairness."

The More Russia Changes, The More It Stays the Same.

A gay rights rally is broken up in Moscow, and its members are arrested. Meanwhile, a right-wing nationalist antigay march proceeds with state support and the blessing of the Orthodox Church.

I always get in trouble for this, accused of "guilt by association," but I've always asked our right wing antagonists to take a look at who's with them on their side of this issue. Right now, about 30 gay activists are getting beat up at a Moscow police station, while hundreds of Hitler-grussing skinheads are marching through the Moscow streets shoulder to shoulder with Orthodox clergy and die-hard old Communists.
Look at all the really toxic loonies on the anti- side. Fred Phelps and his gang are just one of many. We have our loonies on our side, but they are nothing compared to the sheer toxicity of extremists like Phelps, or Archbishop Akinola. I wouldn't want to be on the same side of any issue as the Neo-Nazis I saw in New York some years ago chanting "gas the fags!" Robert Mugabe regularly gay bashes in his rhetoric. He uses gays as bogey men in his attacks on the "decadent" West. The Islamists are about as friendly to gays as cats are to canaries. The mullahs have no more love for the gay-friendly liberal West than do GAFCON's apologists, or the Vatican. Keeping such company may not say anything about our antagonists, but it does say a whole lot about that side of the gay emancipation issue, in my opinion.

Friday, May 15, 2009

More Irony to Savor

Michael Savage wants our Secretary of State to get the Brits to lift their travel ban against him.
I'm sure Hillary Clinton will clear her schedule to take care of this.

Work Hard to Win the Struggle to Build Art History Survey Classes!

As I work hard to win the struggle of the 12 Great Gradings, and to build Art History Education  over the next few days, here's the conclusion of The East Is Red.

Don't miss the Tibetan singer praising Mao and the Party. Savor the irony.

Get ready to stand up and sing the Internationale in Mandarin.

Yes, Grandmere, of course I'm losing my mind.
It's the end of the semester and I'm up to my eyeballs in grading and panicking students.

Enjoy the opera.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Say It Ain't So!

Toujoursdan is closing down his blog, Culture Choc.

He never seemed to get much of a readership, which is a shame because he writes one of the smartest blogs out there in the blogosphere.  It's our loss, not his.

First Father Jake, and now this.  Looks like I'm going to have to start drinking.

The East Wants to be Free

While our own mandarin class is lining up to support torturing prisoners of war here in the USA on the pages of the Washington Post, the cause of Liberty slowly crawls forward in the face of overwhelming opposition in Asia.

Burma's generals have Aung San Suu Kyi back in prison and about to face trial again.

A secret memoir of the former premier of China, Zhao Ziyang, condemning the Tian Anmen massacre and calling for democratic reforms and government accountability was smuggled out of China. 

Meanwhile back in imperial oligarchic America, we're only just beginning to come out of a frightened retreat into conventionalism, conformity, and militarism.

Speaking of frightened retreats into militarism, the Boy Scouts have gone completely verkakte.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Another Night at the Chinese Revolutionary Opera

More from The East Is Red.

Take that, Imperialist Western Barbarians! Take that, Chiang Kai Shek!  We'll show 'em!

Hey comrades, I've got a Great Hall of the People, let's put on a show!

For all of its spectacle and lavish production, The East Is Red sometimes feels like a high school pageant.  I can almost hear the Chinese version of a high school drama coach yelling at everyone to "smile!" during rehearsal.  Back in the mid 1970s, when I was a teenager, my high school staged a couple of stage pageants for the American bicentennial.  They both had the same simplified official version of history with lots of slogans and jingoism as in The East Is Red.  What they didn't have was the production, the scale, the professionalism, and The Great Hall of the People. 
There are probably more people on stage and in the orchestra and chorus in this movie than there were students in my large high school.

I remember back in my mural painting days, we had a large contingent of Russians, many of whom were Party painters in the old Soviet Union.  The firm I worked for got a big job from some restaurant for Republicans in Washington DC.  We had to make all these sloganeering murals of pioneers and cowboys and baseball players and astronauts.  When asked if they could do this job, the Russians replied, "Sure!  We did this kind of thing all the time back in Moscow."
For me, that's the whole Cold War in a nutshell.

Old East European joke:
"Under capitalism, man exploits man.  Under communism, it's the other way around!"

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Remembering Sichuan

Wen Tung, Bamboo, 11th century

The Sichuan Earthquake struck a year ago today, killing thousands, mostly children in school.