Thursday, August 17, 2017

But Is It Art?

You may or may not know, for instance, that “The Cat in the Hat” was composed using just 222 different words, because [Theodor Geisel/aka Dr. Seuss] was under orders from his publisher to draw from a prescribed vocabulary for beginning readers.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Michelle Obama tells us to confront haters without drawing on the hate in our hearts. What, then, about fear and anger? Censor them too?

To my mind her view is noble but problematic. Going high while they go low is why Dukakis lost to HW Bush — Bush's scurrilous Willie Horton ads undid Dukakis, who, in his go high innocence lacked the rhetoric to counter them     and why John Kerry was trounced by GW Bush: Kerry was smarter, stronger, and, yes, more genuinely heroic than Bush, but accepted bad advice to pack all that in and be nice. So when GW went low Kerry went insufferably bland.

Brook Gladstone in her engaging essay "The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination On Moral Panic In Our Time",  talks about our being locked in frames of reference that seek, only to reinforce themselves, blocking any signals from the outside. Following neuroscientist David M. Eagleman, Gladstone gives this example: "In the blind and deaf world of the tick, the important signals are temperature and the odor of butyric acid. For the black ghost knifefish, it's electrical fields. For the echolocating bat, it's air-compression waves."

"The small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect is its unwelt."

Gladstone concludes by urging us to insist less exclusively on the parameters of our tick world — I do love the comparison — so as to allow for the unknowns of what, following Eagleman,  she calls the umgebung, the vast, uncharted, confusing world beyond.

But for one thing I haven't had the opportunity to mix it up with many from the adjacent tickworld. Not too many ticks of that persuasion venture into my unwelt, nor do the likes of me flock into theirs.

And how do we suppress anger and fear, a la Michelle Obama, who advises us to do so, when we feel strongly that not only are they coming for us but for our world? How then to maintain the kind philosophical calm Gladstone seems to advocate? How then to  be Socrates, who claimed he knew nothing,  when from their tickworld comes the cry that their big tick knows everything?

Gladstone sees the problem. Her opening to her book is a quote from Thomas Szasz: "The neurotic has problems, the psychotic has solutions."

She sees the problem but doesn't resolve it.

Nor am I going to pretend I can. I will say when they go low, their native habitat,  the one to which they are best suited, we have to go everywhere, go full octave, not excluding the lower registers.

If it comes down to one ant colony against another, I want mine to win.

For the sake of all ants, all ant colonies, everywhere.


Friday, July 28, 2017

Dana Schutz

Just opened at Boston's ICA: an exhibition of the work of Dana Schutz. Schutz is the painter whose powerful depiction of murdered and tortured 14-year-old  Emmet Till in his casket caused such a stir when shown at the Whitney Biennial. Some tried to shut the show down, on the grounds that for a white artist like Schutz to depict the suffering of blacks could be nothing but cultural appropriation, or some such nauseating pseudo-lefty malarkey. Never mind that Emmett Till's mother made a point of leaving her son's casket open so all — even whites! — could see and reckon with the fate of her son.

Hannah Black, author of the open letter to curators and staff at the Whitney that has made her name in some circles, is English. Her home turf is London. Should she get hit by a car in Boston, say, across the street from me, should I lend a hand? Or would that be an act of obviously insincere cultural  not to mention geographic appropriation?

You really don't need Stalin to have Stalinists. The urge to purge goes on. Then again, I'm not sure Hannah Black is any sort of lefty, not even of the sick and censorious Stalinist persuasion. These days certain expressions of the left wrap around perfectly into expressions of the right.

But away with such gloomy thoughts! Summer always brings out the best at the ICA, which I hope to visit this weekend.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Language in WW II

Back to WW II and the power of language. I want to thank Susan Brownmiller for pointing out the power of Churchill's rhetoric as a weapon for the Allies. True. It was a force that sustained England, and with England, therefore the United States.

Rhetoric is an all too understudied weapon in analyses about the war. We study code-breaking, oil, armor, tactics, strategy  and ignore pure speech.

There were Hitler's crazed, charismatic orations. E. L. Doctorow wrote that as a kid hearing Hitler on the radio made him think of glass being chewed and smashed. That very violence seemed to entrance Germans, already primed, perhaps, by Wagner's ecstatic smashings.

Churchill blundered in the conduct of the war. His deployment of the RAF to bomb and reduce German cities did nothing to diminish the German will to resist. (For one thing, the German people were too spellbound, traumatized,  and submissive to consider alternatives.) Churchill, demolishing German cities removed English air power from where it might have done the most strategic good — the North Atlantic, where it might have enabled American arms to arrive sooner, and with them, an the passivity of an earlier assault on Nazi control of the continent.

That said, Churchill's language and rhetoric were specific, under-appreciated weapons of their own sort.

FDR didn't lack for that resource. If his rhetoric was less lofty that might have been because his forces were inordinately greater, and his language, therefore, more commensurate.

Language as a Weapon in War

Friday, July 21, 2017

Trump & Treason

Trump's latest is beyond description. He is seeking to fire Special Counsel Mueller, on grounds that some of Mueller's staff may have contributed to Clinton's campaign and Obama's, which to Trump indicates prejudice. For Trump anyone who ever disagreed with or opposed him is out to get him and must be eliminated.

Usually called a purge.

It's been useful to think of Trump in relation to the belligerently anti-Communist Roy Cohen, his mentor, but maybe it's time to remember Stalin. Trump and Stalin in the same breath? Sure. Autocracy is autocracy. Since there's no inherent limit to Trump's autocratic cravings we'll see how this country's democratic traditions hold out against them.

And then there's Trump seeking advice about whether he can blanket pardon himself and family — in advance, for anything. (Point of reference: Nixon did not dare to pardon himself, leaving that to his successor.) Words fail. This is new territory cowardice and slime. Again, since Trump lacks limits, they must be applied to him.

I've argued that Trump has not yet committed a single certifiably treasonous offense. I withdraw that argument. It's insufficient. While it may still be true that he has not committed any one crime for which, let's remember, the punishment is death, he goes on committing mini-treasons which together amount to more: a multi-form, death-by-a-thousand-cuts, attack on the Constitution and democratic traditions. Trump represents a new kind of assault. Call it postmodern fascism, or whatever you like.

We don't really have the words, just as we don't yet know what the defense will be.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Though, in general, I have a low opinion of the American electorate esp. the Trump hardcore — the dumbest, angriest, most self-defeating of them all, nonetheless the driving force of change — it seems even it can rise to protest when the benefits allotted by Medicaid are being snatched away.

Hey, gummint, get your filthy hands off my Medicare!


I remember when NPR was covering Hurricane K. it tracked this one sorry guy who had lost it all in the flood but who was proud that at least he didn't take help from the gummint.

Yeah, 'cause that's the last thing you want to do, get any goddamn aid from your elected goddamn gommint.

Sure such gov't aid is conceived by whites further north than New Orleans as aid to blacks. Who wants to fund that?

But that ain't it.
ain't it at all.
Doesn't explain it.

That kind racism doesn't explain it.

Maybe gummint is resented among the white people of New Orleans and environs as conceived of as North defeating South and putting an end to secession.

Maybe all about secession. All about the Civil War. All about slavery.

Maybe this guy who'd rather drown in Katrina flood than accept gummint handout dreams dimly of himself and family back then owning some slaves. Or being allowed to.

Some slaves would be good. . .

Cool hypothesis. But that ain't it.

. . .

My dental hygienist today, an Ethiopian by birth, while expertly disimpacting my teeth, couldn't help commenting on the NPR broadcast in the background, and murmuring she believes in God and religion and everything but this is awful.

Is God against science?

God doesn't care about the environment? God never heard of climate change?

She said all this Trump stuff is so stupid.

Not about issues. Not about this or that.

Just stupid. Just plain dumb.

You can argue and win about this issue or that, sometime. But then there is the peculiarly American strain of sheer stupidity, that is multi-resistant