Thursday, April 30, 2009

Happy May Day!

Happy May Day all you working stiffs and dirty hippies of all ages! Time to wake up and sing!

Bought and Paid For

In case there is still any mystery about who really runs things in this country, take a look at the whole system of legalized corruption at work. This is the mortgage bankers' lobby at work to kill a bill that would have allowed mortgage holders to re-negotiate terms of their loans to avoid foreclosure on their homes.

Interesting that the Senator from Utah forsakes the interests of his own constituents, who are suffering from very high foreclosure rates, for the interests of the mortgage bankers.

And here is Senator Dick Durbin, sponsor of the "cramdown" legislation that would allow people to keep their homes.

Hat tip to dday over at Hullabaloo.

End of the Republican Party?

Speaking of the undead, there is a lot of speculation about the GOP turning into a regional party and facing permanent marginalization, if not outright extinction.  I heard no less than fomer Republican senator Lincoln Chafee speculate that the GOP might eventually be replaced by a new center-right party, especially if it continues to drift to the far right.

I think all of this speculation is very premature.  

As I recall, not that long ago, there was a lot of talk about the end of the Democratic party, that it would split into separate left, center left, and labor parties.  I remember not too long ago talk of the USA becoming a one party state permanently dominated by the GOP.  Now, I hear it about the Dems.  Both parties have done time in the wilderness before.  The Republicans' last time in the wilderness was shorter than most people realize.  Yes, there was the disastrous 1964 defeat, but anyone remember who won the Presidential election in the tumultuous year of 1968?  The Democratic disaster in 1980 was much more serious, and their time in the wilderness much longer.  I can remember thinking for years that if my father could stick to his GOP loyalties in the long reign of the New Deal, then I could stick this out (and I did).  And now, look where we are.  The wingnuts may hold the floor now on the right, but they won't last.  The party leaders (and most of their members, if not their "base") want to win and return to power.  They won't do it with a party made up only of resentful Southern white people and religious fanatics.  The Republicans are going through the same internal  argument the Democrats went through after 1980 (an argument that still remains unresolved, but "managed"), the argument between party identity and the expediency necessary to win.  

I'm not ready to write the Republican obituary, nor would I welcome a one party state dominated by the Democrats any more than I would welcome one party GOP rule.  A viable opposition is necessary for a healthy democracy.   The Republicans will pull things together eventually, though it may take them a long time.  That's fine with me.  I just hope they do so AFTER we get universal health care. 

The Resurrection Gone Bad

I've always found it striking that some of the most powerful and enduring horror tales are stories of bad resurrections. The dead come back to life is the center of the Christian faith, and I've always wondered if these stories were somehow peculiar to the Christian West. The East is full of ghost stories, but I don't know if there are similar tales about corpses coming back to life to prey upon the living. Most of our horror tales are indeed about cadavers getting up out of their graves to get revenge, to find a long lost love, or simply to dine on the living (everything from blood drinking vampires to brain chewing zombies).
Ever since the Black Death in 1348, there has been a horrified fascination with physical decay and disintegration in Western culture. In the eternity of death, the process of physical disintegration is but an instant. It is largely absent in earlier tomb art, Christian and pre-Christian. Earlier medieval tombs showed the deceased as though alive, lying open eyed upon their tombs in prayerful expectation of resurrection. Classical tombs showed the theme of apotheosis, the transformation of the dead into a god or welcomed into the gods' company. Sometimes Classical tombs showed some hero or god who overcame death like Orpheus or Dionysos. The Egyptians tried mightily to stop time, and to stop the whole process of disintegration for their dead.
From 1348 into the 17th century, grave monuments and memento moris are full of "the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out," aesthetic. By the time we get to the 19th century, the story of the resurrection gone bad is thoroughly established in the popular imagination. The evil resurrection story comes to full fruition in that most famous of all dark and stormy nights in May of 1816 at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva where Mary Shelley writes Frankenstein, and John Polidori writes the first popular vampire story. The evil dead have been a horror staple ever since, and shows no sign of waning.

Michel Wolgemut, The Dance of Death, woodcut, 15th century

Ligier Richier, Transi from the tomb of Rene de Chalon, 1547. One of my favorite of all transi monuments, the dead knight offers up his heart to God even as he disintegrates.

Frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Some Other Spring

Here he is, the Pavarotti of North American birds, the mockingbird, announcing our very brief Spring this year. In New York we've suddenly jumped from cold and wet with highs in the 50sF to downright hot with highs pushing 90F. Great flu weather.

And yet, the tulips in Abingdon Square were so beautiful last Sunday.  And the mockingbird's song is a life-long pleasure.  His song reminds me that in a world that seems ever more  hollowed out by greed and spoiled by drives for power, it is still a blessing to be alive, "even though we cannot bless." (Auden)

The Sky Fails to Collapse in Iowa

Same sex couples began marrying in Iowa and....

There were very few protests, all in rural areas.  There were no lines of couples from Chicago and Minneapolis waiting to get married.  Couples who did arrive at the clerks' offices were surprised at the lack of drama.

Apparently, Iowans are not a very excitable people, unlike New Yorkers.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Deep Thought

It's tough to be a government hating, tax protesting libertarian in the middle of a pandemic.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Tortured Logic

So it turns out that prisoners at Guantanamo were tortured not to prevent another attack, but because the Bush-Cheney Administration had already decided to invade Iraq, and were desperate to find a link between Al Quaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The White House ordered the torture intensified when no such evidence was forthcoming.

Here is evidence in a newly released document.

I can't decide which is more shocking, torture being used to find or manufacture a case for a predetermined war, or our passive equanimity in the face of this news.

We hanged people at Nuremberg for less than this. 

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"Sorry, I'm on my wine break!"

Bea Arthur, Rest in Peace, and thanks for everything!

The Working Stiff in Art: The Very Rich Hours

One of the most beautiful books ever was a book of hours made for the Duke of Berry around 1416 known as Les Tres Riches Heures, The Very Rich Hours. The book of hours was the first type of book made outside the monastery scriptoria by secular craftsmen for a secular market. It was a kind of personal prayer book based loosely upon the monastic breviary, an ancestor of the Book of Common Prayer. The book was an object of piety, and of conspicuous consumption. In that preindustrial made-to-order economy, the expense of the book was based on how much decoration and illustration embellished the text. No two of these books are alike, and there were once thousands of them. Hundreds still survive in rare book collections all over the world.

Jean, the Duke of Berry, was the younger brother of King Charles VI of France, and the older brother of Phillip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. He stayed out of the bloody business of dynastic politics and concentrated on his very rich and productive estates in and around Bourges. He was a rich, luxury loving bon vivant who prized expensive objets d'art, and had a huge collection of them. He employed hundreds of craftsmen and some of the finest artists in Europe to make several books of hours for him. Some of the finest ever made came from his artists. Among the artists in his employ were 3 Dutch brothers named Pol, Herman, and Jean Limbourg. Together, they made the Duke's finest and most famous books of hours. Their masterpiece is the Tres Riches Heures.

Here is the whole book open to its most famous part, the calendar.

The calendar of a book of hours was like the calendar in the Book of Common Prayer. It was the list of saints' feasts by month. It usually formed a small section in the front of the book.

The Limbourg Brothers transformed that small section into the showpiece of the whole book with illustrations of the zodiac signs and the labors of each month, similar to the carvings here on the west front of Amiens cathedral from almost 200 years earlier.

These greatest of all calendar pictures illustrate work and activities on the Duke's estates and in Paris, and are valuable historical documents as well as spectacular works of art. There's remarkably little if any religious content in any of these pictures.

Here is the page for October showing the planting of winter wheat in what is now the Left Bank of Paris. The building in the background is the Louvre as it looked in the 15th century.

Not much has changed in the life of peasants in the 200 years between this calendar page and the carvings on Amiens cathedral. Not a lot has changed in how people felt about their work. It was taken for granted like the weather. That humankind must win its bread by the sweat of its brow was the curse of Adam, and was as old as Adam. Such labor was around in the beginning of time, so people believed, and would be around and unchanged at the end of time. As the Duke's older brother was destined by God to be King of France, so also the peasants were assigned their role and their labor by God from before the world's creation.

The Limbourgs painted the labors, and the trials, of the peasants who lived and worked on the Duke's estates with remarkable candor. We see in the October page birds eating the seed almost as soon as it falls on the ground, and the peasants' efforts through scarecrows and strings with cloth pieces waving in the wind to keep the birds out of their newly planted fields.

We would be wrong to read any kind of sympathy toward the peasants on the part of the Limbourgs or the Duke. As far as the Duke was concerned, the peasants were part of the property, and but a step above the cattle. I doubt the Limbourgs felt any differently.

This is the February page showing a bitterly cold winter day with the animals huddled closely together to keep warm. Starving birds eat what little feed is spilled on the ground. Woodsmen cut firewood for sale in the nearby town. Peasants idled by the weather spend the day warming themselves by the fire in a flimsy looking house with a dirt floor.

This picture contains a nasty little joke at the peasants' expense and for the amusement of the Duke. Keep in mind that this is supposed to be a religious book.

Here is a detail of the February page showing us that the Limbourg brothers gave the Duke a voyeuristic peek up his peasant's skirts at their privates as they warmed themselves by the fire. Sympathy for oppressed (and humiliated) peasants would not begin to appear until the 18th century. The peasants in central Europe would take matters into their own hands in the 16th century in the Peasant's War. I think these illustrations in the Tres Riches Heures explain a little why that war was so bloody and ferocious.

This is the month of August with some of the stylish young nobility in 15th century Europe's richest and most fashionable court going out falconing while the peasants mow hay and bathe in a stream to escape the summer heat. Before we judge these people too harshly, let us ponder for a moment our own hierarchical society with its calcifying class structure from within our gated communities.

Deep Thoughts

*Americans are as meek and passive as Chinese peasants (at least Chinese peasants of 100 years ago; today they regularly make life hell for the Communist Party mandarins).  We defer to Our Betters; the experts, the Wise Men, the Big White Republican Daddies.  For all our cherished independence, we're happy to let others who Know Better decide for us. 
--  And they decided to invade Iraq and to use our retirement money to finance a big looting and pillaging spree through the economy, leaving us holding the bag.  Are we good patriotic citizens? Or suckers?

*We're so steeped in bloodshed that we hardly notice it anymore.  Popular commercial culture is nothing but violence and brutality.  The revenge fantasy is Hollywood's most reliably profitable product.  Our appetite for sadism in everything from horror movies to pornography is insatiable.  We shake our heads in sorrow at each week's gun rampage, and then forget about it the next day.   The spectacle of daily suicide bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan barely registers on us.  We tune out news of civil wars in Africa.  We're bored with it.
And yet, we only feel alive when we're holding a gun.

*We are pathologically obsessed with youth and childhood.  We inject botulism toxin in our faces to look young, and go under surgery so we can look like our children.  That Hollywood staple, the Coming of Age story, is for adults, not for children.
And yet, we hate kids.  We're stingy on spending money to educate anyone's children but our own.  We spend millions to medicate our kids when they start acting like children.  We pay and treat the people who educate and look after our children like menials.  We're happy to spend more money on prisons for kids.  We never have any time to spend with our kids.  We're not only afraid for them, we're afraid of them.  We've created a society where the world of adults and the world of the young are almost totally separate from each other.  And yet, we're always surprised at each new generation of alienated youth.

*While the concept of what it means to be a woman has dramatically expanded over the last 40 years, the concept of what it means to be a man has become constricted and impoverished.   Being a man was once about being the strong shoulder upon which others could depend, the gallant champion of all who depend on you.  It was a heavy burden to bear, and you stifled your true feelings because you were responsible for others.  The problem with that old role is that it depended on others being dependent to make you feel necessary.
Today, being a man is all about being an Alpha Male.  The stronger, and more aggressive the animal with the penis is, the more esteemed he is by the other animals with penises in the pack.  They are all constantly testing each other to see who will be the dominant male.  It's all a contest to see who gets to claim the females and to spread their sperm.   Now, being a man means no more than being a baboon.

*I met a Dutch woman 20 years ago in Italy who loathed Americans.  She said we were all such overgrown children.  And yet, I can't help noticing how childish people can be on the subway.

Friday, April 24, 2009


I like this video response to that nasty NOM ad, but Stephen Colbert's version is priceless.

Taser Nation

To those who claim that torture works, or that we don't torture people here in the good ol' USA,  take a look at this video of police tasering a man whose sole offense is showing the world his small endowment.  Also disturbing is that the cops don't seem the least bit bothered that this is happening in front of hundreds of witnesses and is being filmed and photographed.

Crazy and annoying? yes he is.  A dangerous criminal who needs to be tortured into submission? certainly not!  The real reason they sent painful charges of electricity into him, causing him to spasm, was not to subdue him, but to punish him for not respecting authority figures.  That's what all torture is about.  It has nothing to do with extracting any information.  It's about punishment and revenge.

Digby's Hullabaloo has been running a steady campaign against police tasering, keeping tabs on its regular abuse, and of all the deaths it causes.

Our Everything

To mark the end of Earth Week, here are some instructive photos that should put everything into perspective:

Here is Earth, the whole world, everything that we know and ever knew, right here in one picture

Here is our Earth and its moon viewed from Mars. That little blue bubble in all that darkness is all we have.

Within this thin veil of blue gas on the surface of a round rock are all of our lives. Beyond it is the hostile nullity of space. Beyond is nothing but exposure to radiation, the burning heat of the sun, and the freezing dark in which no life is possible; the airless soundless void which is bigger than we can possibly imagine.

Down With The "Wise Men!"

There's more Krugman on this matter:

For me and many others that was a radicalizing experience; I’ll never trust “sensible” opinion again. But for those who stayed “sensible” through the test, it’s a moment they’d like to see forgotten. That, I believe, is the real reason so many want to let torture and everything else go down the memory hole.

I'm proud to say that I was one of those crazy hippies who opposed this whole imperial adventure from the very beginning. I'm not so sure that the numbers of us were that few. I remember marching in at least 2 massive demonstrations in New York of almost a million people BEFORE the war started. A lot of us could see this for the fraud that it was. None of us were experts in any kind of foreign policy, yet we could all see that invading Iraq after 9/11 made about as much sense as invading Peru after Pearl Harbor. We could all see that Congress and the media were getting hustled. We could all see that Cheney and his little wizards were using the shock and outrage over 9/11 to gin up the war passions. We wanted revenge. We wanted to punch someone, anyone, in the face. And we did. Cheney managed to distract Junior from the pursuit of Osama and his little wizards, and focus his, and our, attention on a war that the New American Century crowd had been planning since 1996 (about the same time that Osama began planning 9/11).

That whole period from 2002 to 2006 we will come to regret more and more as time goes by.
The build up and the shoddy execution of that invasion and occupation radicalized a lot of us who were not radicalized before. Some of us woke up and smelled the coffee, and realized that our country got sold out from under us quite some time ago. The Wise Men of Washington do not work for us, and haven't for a long time.

Indeed, the high priests of the Conventional Wisdom want the torture memos and the documentation of the decision to go to war to vanish down the memory hole.  They don't want to face their complicity in the deaths of thousands of Iraqis and Americans.

"Outside the Law Is Tyranny"

drawing by Goya, ca 1826

I remember first seeing that quote from Montesquieu in Washington DC inscribed over an entrance to the Justice Department back in 1989. I remember reflecting on just how much "extra legal" activity had already taken place in that building up to that time.

Paul Krugman has an excellent column this morning on the urgent necessity to investigate and prosecute the crimes of the Bush administration.  Nothing less than the rule of law is at stake.

The whole business of imperial politics from Caesar to Clausewitz is such a boys' game.  It's all one big chess game, moving around the pieces on the board for the sake of advantage.  It's all one big game of "Risk" only with real people on a real planet instead of pieces on a board.  Sure, some of it is driven by ideological or religious passions, but that just makes the players all the more determined to win.  It doesn't change the game, or challenge the idea that politics is a game.

The rest of us poor saps have to live in that game whether we like it or not.

The whole business of law is to reign in the impulses and ambitions of men and women, to remind the mighty and the wicked that they must share one world with all the rest of us.   Law reminds us all that we each have a legitimate claim upon this world, and that we share it with others whose claim upon it is as real as our own.

In the United States, the people are officially sovereign.  This country is not the dominion of a monarch or a dear leader, it is our dominion.  The government is ours acting in our name.  Like a monarch, we are ultimately responsible for the policies of our government.  The reality of the United States may be closer to an oligarchy, but the official line is that we are still a democracy.  The court still rises in respect when the jury enters.  No one, so far, is obliged to rise from their seat and doff their hat when a powerful corporate maharaja enters the room.  As citizens, we are obliged to bow our heads and bend our knees to no one.

The crimes of the Bush Administration were done in our name and for our sake.  As sovereign people, we bear a measure of responsibility for those crimes, and also for their rectification.
I am astonished at the reluctance of the governing classes to investigate and prosecute these crimes.   I'm more astonished at partisans who try to justify these crimes in the name of expediency.  Whether they "worked" or not is ultimately irrelevant.  Once a bright and clear line has been crossed, where do we stop?  What's to stop some future dear leader of any political persuasion from declaring his critics to be "terrorists" and beating them into submission? 

This is more than a pragmatic matter of defending law and democracy, it is a moral matter that goes to the heart of what it means to be human.  It is the line between being human and being a monster.  This bright line was best articulated by the late scientist and philosopher Jacob Bronowski.
There are two parts to the human dilemma.  One is the belief that the end justifies the means.  That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine.  The other is the betrayal of the human spirit:  the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts -- obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day

For the occasion, here is a portfolio of Chinese painting from the Song Dynasty:

Emperor Huizong, Two Birds, ca. 1110

Guo Xi, Early Spring, 1072

Guo Xi, Early Spring, detail

Liu Cai, Fish Among Flowers, detail, ca. 1075

Liu Cai, Fish Among Flowers, detail

Ma Yuan, Scholar Contemplating the Moon, ca. 1200

Xia Gui, Twelve Landscape Views, detail, ca. 1225

Monday, April 20, 2009

Orthodox Easter in New York.

A friend of mine attended Orthodox Easter Vigil at Holy Virgin of Protection Russian Orthodox Cathedral on East Second Street in the East Village. The service began a little before midnight, and was scheduled to last all night.  As is usual with long Orthodox services, people come and go constantly.  My friend took a break during Matins and went outside for a cigarette.  He saw a large group of pious elderly Russian women gathered on the steps talking quietly while they could hear the service being chanted inside.  A gaggle of extravagantly dressed trannies walked toward them up Second Street at 1AM.  The old Russian women stopped them saying, "Can we have our pictures taken with you?"  The trannies complained that they were in a hurry to work, but relented and struck poses with the happy old women, who clicked away with their cameras.
Happy Russian babushkas posing and taking photos with drag queens on the street in front of the church while listening to the chanting of Matins inside -- only in New York.


The Columbine High School massacre happened 10 years ago today. What have we learned? Nuthin’, at least nothing we care to know.

You know it’s a white man’s world when Columbine High is described as a “normal” American high school. Urban high schools are full of low-level violence all the time, including the surrounding neighborhoods, with assaults, muggings, gang activity, drugs, and intimidation part of daily life for students and faculty for decades.

I used to have relatives in Littleton, Colorado, and even 40 years ago, it was a fairly prosperous and insulated place. Littleton, and places like it, are embodiments of that dream of a safe comfortable place to raise children, a place where the predations of a predatory modern world are shut out and kept away from children. The Columbine Massacre was a brutal frontal assault on that very middle class dream shared by those outside the middle class.

I was struck by how people revisited their high school experiences in the wake of the massacre, and realized how un-rosy they were. For a lot of us, high school was hell. The struggles of education were compounded by the stresses of adolescent tribal politics. And yet, most of us survived and went on to bigger and better things in adulthood.

I’ve always found it striking how high school is the locus of so much, largely nostalgic, popular drama. It is the setting for so many Coming Of Age stories that are Hollywood staples. So much yearning for wish fulfillment focuses on those 3 to 4 years we all spend in high school. It was such a rude shock to be reminded of the brutality of the real experience.

I don’t share a lot of the sympathy that was expressed for the 2 perpetrators. I save my sympathies for the victims and their families, and for the families of the 2 teenage murderers. They will be living with this crime for generations to come. Those were 2 boys who had everything (a lot more than I had at that age, and a lot more than most people at that age), and threw it all away in one big bloody potlatch of gratuitous violence. Yes, they were picked on and tormented, but so was I. Every kid who was growing up gay went through far more fearful experiences than those 2 did. I did, Michael did, and some of you reading this (gay and straight) probably lived through much worse. None of us entertained bloody revenge fantasies. We just wanted to get the hell out of there and skip town and begin a new life ASAP. And we all did.

Most of the kids responsible for these school shootings were white, prosperous, and straight boys. The only exception I can think of is the Virginia Tech killer who was Korean, but still falls into the rest of the profile. Curious how these kinds of murderous revenge fantasies never occur to (or at least are acted out by) girls, gay kids, kids of color, or inner city kids from much less “safe” environments.

And what were 2 teenage boys doing with military assault weapons anyway? Why should those things even be on the civilian market? Does anyone really need a semi-automatic to bring down a deer or a duck? And what does it say about your life and your neighborhood if you feel you need one of those weapons to be safe?

I distrust big sweeping generalizations based on very specific events like this one.  So many of the ones that were made in the immediate aftermath of the massacre turned out to be red herrings, such as the panic about black trenchcoat wearing Goth culture.  It turns out that neither of these kids were part of that subculture at all.  We've had alienated youth subcultures in a society whose enterprises are driven by greed fear and boredom for more than a century now.  What more new could be said about that?  Panic over threatened masculinity and cults of redemptive violence are nothing new either.  Just go back and look at so much of the literature published in the years just before World War I.  Authors ranging from DH Lawrence to Theodore Roosevelt were fixated on the idea of manhood redeemed in a baptism of blood.  I'm not sure it's anything quite so peculiar to the USA.  There have been similar crimes committed in Europe.  The only difference is the easy availability of heavy weapons here.  I'm reluctant to blame parents and parenting.  All the evidence indicates that both of these killers (and others like them) had loving families with parents deeply concerned about their sons and their welfare.
What I do see in our culture is an absence of adults in the lives of kids who are something other than authority figures.  That was true when I was that age.  All the adults were teachers, administrators, parents, and employers.  That created an antagonistic situation which drove us kids into our own little tribes, pooling our very limited wisdom to find our way.  I doubt that has changed much since I was young. 

According to this essay that appeared on the CNN website, just about everything that was reported about the massacre and about Harris and Kleibold turns out to be wrong.  It turns out that they weren't particularly bullied (I'm not surprised), and that they didn't target anyone in particular.  They only wanted maximum body count.  They apparently were lonely twisted fame seekers who dreamed of posthumous infamy in a blaze of bloody glory like Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City.  As I said, it was a big bloody potlatch of gratuitous violence.  Apparently, they got what they wanted.

Thanks Doxy for bringing this to my attention.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sunday Morning...

The perfect time for an essay from FireDogLake with more penis jokes in it than you can shake a stick at (so to speak).

Check out the attached YouTube video from the Cribs. I think they're great. I've never heard of them, but I've never heard of a lot of things. I have no idea what it has to do with the essay, but they're great anyway. They're from Wakefield in Yorkshire, in Madpriest's general vicinity.

Keeping with the Texas theme of the last post, here's the San Jacinto Monument. Yes, everything is bigger in Texas (except Dubya, who proved to be smaller than most things).

Yes, I love puerile humor, but then I just would, wouldn't I.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Republic of Texas Again?

I doubt the secession talk is in any way serious. Secession would never survive a vote either in the state legislature, or in the electorate. I believe that it's mostly a way for right wing politicians to stroke chauvinist passions and abiding feelings of resentment which Texans of a certain age treasure like inherited jewelry.
It strikes me that most of these tax protests were in states, like Texas, that receive much more in federal funds (usually military spending, highway funding, and corporate subsidies) than they pay out. Texas was a huge beneficiary of the New Deal, especially with rural electrification and water systems. Most Texans born before 192o grew up with kerosene lamps, outhouses, and hand pumped water, as well as the constant threat of cholera, typhus, and tuberculosis.

Texas was indeed an a republic for almost 10 years; from 1836 to 1846. Yes, the annexation of Texas was very unusual, bypassing the territorial phase, with the initiative coming from the US Congress and then President Tyler. But, the annexation was put to a vote in the Texas national legislature and to the electorate. The annexation proposals won in both with lopsided majorities (I'm not sure, but I think the Tejano population, which was deeply loyal to the Republic from the beginning, may have been disenfranchised at this point; if they had been able to vote, the plurality might have been a lot less lopsided).

Texas was an accidental republic. I seriously doubt that Stephen F. Austin and the Anglo settlers who followed him had any intention of creating an independent state (or remaining Mexican citizens for that matter). I think joining the USA was always in the backs of their minds, as the Mexican government rightly suspected. Ironically, the Tejano population of Texas wanted the republic most sincerely. Texas was a center of resistance to Spanish rule long before the Anglos arrived. The Spanish general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, originally sent to Texas to suppress resistance to the crown, became the ruler of Mexico in 1834, nullifying the federal constitution of 1824. Anglos and Tejanos found common cause in a movement to restore the constitution and to resist Santa Anna. As the violence escalated, they soon joined in a common cause for independence with Jose Antonio Navarro, Stephen F. Austin, and Sam Houston in the leadership of this movement. When Texas became independent, few nations recognized it, most not wishing to offend Mexico. Only France, Belgium, and the Netherlands gave it official recognition, and only France under King Louis Phillipe (who had his own imperial designs on Mexico) opened an embassy in the new capital, Austin. The USA and Britain gave Texas de facto recognition (each with their own imperial designs on the territory).

I can't think of another state, except maybe Virginia, that has a bloodier history than Texas. The Texas Revolution was less a series of battles than a series of massacres and counter-massacres. In 1840, the Comanches suffered a massacre at the hands of the Republic under President Mirabeau Lamar. The Comanches retaliated with a march to the Gulf of Mexico along the Guadalupe river, massacring settlers and destroying towns as they went. Warfare with the Comanches would not end until their final surrender and exile in 1874. Piracy plagued the Gulf. There were range wars between the competing land claims of ranchers and farmers. There was labor violence. Some of the worst racial violence of the early 20th century, usually lynching campaigns and forced evictions of African Americans, happened in Texas. The only thing that was spared Texas was major Civil War battles on its territory, though Texan losses in the war were high. Texas shared with the other Confederate states the experience of defeat and military occupation. Until the New Deal, life for most Texans consisted of poverty and isolation.

Most people, including most New Yorkers, don't know that New York City considered seceding from the Union in 1861. Mayor Fernando Wood seriously entertained the idea since New York's economy was so intertwined with the Southern economy, and there was considerable sympathy with the South in the business establishment of the city.

Straightening Out the Gays in Iraq

Iraq's anti-gay campaign claims more than 60 lives since December.  That'll show those decadent Western liberals what real manhood is all about!

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Gay Old Party

Top GOP consultant and former McCain/ Palin campaign manager Steve Schmidt endorses gay marriage.  As always with gay friendly Republicans, it begins in personal experience.  His sister is a lesbian.

I'm still betting that the gay marriage bill will fail in the NY State Senate by a narrow margin.

Once again, don't believe the "we're all for gay rights" line coming out of the New York Archdiocese.  Cardinals Spellman, Cook, and O'Connor certainly weren't.  Their City Council minions kept legislation banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment and housing in committee when it was first introduced in 1971, and kept it stalled there until 1986 when Mayor Ed Koch publicly supported the bill.

I'm So Glad I'm Not Young Anymore

Judith Warner, in an op-ed piece on bullying in today's NY Times tells why.

As she says, today's boy culture is frozen in time. While the concept of what it means to be a woman and to be feminine has dramatically expanded over the past 30 years, masculinity has remained the same, or become even more constricted for boys. It's basically what it was 50, or even 100, years ago.

The message to the most vulnerable, to the victims of today’s poisonous boy culture, is being heard loud and clear: to be something other than the narrowest, stupidest sort of guy’s guy, is to be unworthy of even being alive.

Many years ago, someone asked a female comic if she could imagine a world with no men in it. "A world without men is a world full of fat happy women and no crime," she answered. She has a point. In the world of biology, it's the male that is the superfluous gender. Sperm is always abundant, but eggs are scarce.
What I want is not fewer men, but better men. I'm all for manly men who can fix things and drive things and are willing to brave injury and death to rescue people. They can watch all the football and drink all the beer they want, as far as I'm concerned. But there has to be more to being a man than being dumb, brutal, and tough. You could say the same about tree bark ("tough as bob war!" {barbed wire} they used to say in Texas, and about as smart).

What it means to be a man has become so shrunken and impoverished, perhaps as a blowback result of feminism and changing gender roles.  The concept of manhood needs to be expanded just like the concept of womanhood was expanded.  I think it's great when boys aspire to be heroes.  I think it's pathetic when they can't tell the difference between a hero and a thug.

Being a teenaged boy (especially a gay boy) was plenty bad enough when I was young.  It's so much worse now.  The USA pathologically fixates on youth and childhood, but hates kids.  The stresses of growing up are now compounded by far greater expectations and constraints, such as the pressure of downward mobility for lots of people as wages stagnate and decline (and meaningful employment at a meaningful wage becomes a scarcity), and the increasing predation of commercialism out to exploit kids for their money, their labor, and their sex.  It's so much more tough to be young these days.

Gay Marriage in New York, A Definite Maybe.

Our broadly unpopular Governor David Patterson takes a huge political gamble today by introducing gay marriage legislation, and coming out strong for it.
Bronx Senator (and Evangelical pastor) Ruben Diaz is dead set against it and vows to force the governor out of office. The new Roman Catholic Archbishop Dolan will certainly campaign against it, and will bring back the old political role of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City politics, as a soapbox and a powerful backroom influence through the police and firefighter's unions.

Supposedly, there are a lot of gay activists who are unhappy about the timing of all this. They are trying to follow the Vermont model by carefully building support around the state, and waiting until the votes are there before introducing it into the legislature. The Governor put them all on the spot today, and they are all rallying to support his legislation.

The professional prognosticators are prediciting that the legislation will pass in the Assembly, as it did in 2007. It will fail in the Senate, but by a narrow margin. There is the possibility that some libertarian Republicans from upstate may support the legislation, which gives it an outside chance of passage. However, it's a safe bet that it probably won't happen this year.

But, it will happen. The narrow margin in the State Senate reflects a major shifting of public opinion that's happening here and around the country, and a surprisingly rapid shift. There will be gay marriage in New York, and in the near future.

Yes, this legislation is driven by the Governor's political calculations. But, whenever you feel used by politicians, then use them right back. The basic rule for politicians is "use them or lose them."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Patriotic Right

Governor Rick Perry of my home state suggests the possibility of secession:

As Sam Houston would point out, some people never learn.

Here is what then Governor Houston said in 1861 when presented with the Articles of Secession:
"To secede from the Union and set up another government would cause war. If you go to war with the United States, you will never conquer her, as she has the money and the men. If she does not whip you by guns, powder, and steel, she will starve you to death. It will take the flower of the country-the young men."

"In the name of the constitution of Texas, which has been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath. I love Texas too well to bring civil strife and bloodshed upon her."

"I declare that civil war is inevitable and is near at hand. When it comes the descendants of the heros of Lexington and Bunker Hill will be found equal in patriotism, courage and heroic endurance with the descendants of the heroes of Cowpens and Yorktown. For this reason I predict the civil war which is now at hand will be stubborn and of long duration."

The patriotism of the Left is always called into question, but only the Right can really pull off sedition.  Robert Hanssen was no liberal tree hugging hippy.

Judith Krug 1940 - 2009

Judith Krug, super librarian, fearless champion of the First Amendment and fighter for the public's right to have access to controversial material, died yesterday.   As an artist who occasionally makes things that some people find offensive and controversial, I owe her a big debt of gratitude.  But for her, everything from Huckleberry Finn to Catcher In the Rye to Mein Kampf to The Communist Manifesto would be absent from most library shelves in the USA.

Thank you Ms. Krug.

Velvet Underground

They just don't make glamorous young heroin addicts like they used to.

And there's this lovely song about the great Candy Darling:

Here are some pictures of Candy, a pioneer of the 1930s revival long before it became fashionable.

Speaking of old times, Stonewall happened 40 years ago this year (40 years! oy!). Maybe I should do a few posts. I've known some people who were there.  And, I know some people who were nearby.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Working Stiff in Art: Cathedrals, To the Glory of God and The Glory of Cities

The great Gothic cathedrals of Europe are indeed great monuments to religious faith. However, they have their secular and political side, a side that has a lot to do with people's work.

On the west front of Amiens cathedral is a series of quartrefoil reliefs showing the zodiac signs and their corresponding monthly labors.

The work of field and farm was thought to be inevitable and as natural as the earth itself. They were part of the penalty laid upon the world for the sin of Adam. In toil and sweat would humankind earn its bread. These labors were tied to the turning of the seasons, to the cycles of growth and decay, to the very processes of life itself. The necessity of this labor, and its conditions, were considered as inevitable as the weather, and taken for granted. We will have to wait for the 18th century before this is called into question. It is here on the front of a cathedral because, in the encyclopedic world view of the High Middle Ages, since God created all things, the contemplation of anything and everything inevitably leads back to God.

In cathedrals like Chartres, a whole new class makes its presence and its new power known for the first time in history; not the clergy, not the landed nobility, and certainly not the peasantry, but the bourgeoisie, the "city dwellers," those people who make their living in trades, professions, and business.

Chartres cathedral is rightly famous for its stained glass windows. Chartres, more than any other medieval cathedral, still retains most of its original glass.

Chartres is celebrated for its 3 glorious rose windows like the North Rose above. These great showpieces of brilliant craftsmanship and complex scriptural, numerical, and geometric symbolism were the gifts of royalty. The North Rose was the gift of the Queen of France, Blanche of Castile, wife of King Phillipe Auguste.

The bulk of the cathedral's windows, including the all-important apse windows above, were the gifts of the citizens of Chartres, organized by their trade into guilds. What your guild was depended on the status of your trade. All guilds were definitely not equal. For powerful businesses like bankers and cloth manufacturers, the guild was a cartel controlling prices and market demand. For other trades like carpenters, the guild served as a kind of labor union advocating for its members. For poorer trades like barrel makers, the guild served as a kind of mutual aid society. All the guilds ran the medieval city collectively in a government called a "commune," which was nothing like the collective communities of social drop-outs from 40 years ago.
The guilds had these windows made to glorify God, and to glorify themselves and their trades. For example, here is the splendid Noah window from Chartres.

When we look closely into the beautiful colors and patterns of this window, we can see the story of Noah.

Prominent at the very bottom of the window (and the first thing visible when the window is seen in its original context above eye level) is a picture of the people responsible for donating the window, the carpenters of the town of Chartres.

And here they are cutting a beam out of a log. This window is as much testimony to new political and economic clout as it is to religious faith.

The stonemasons who built Chartres Cathedral had themselves portrayed proudly at work cutting jamb statues on their window.

The old truism about humble anonymous craftsmen working on the cathedrals is just that, a truism. In fact, we know the names of a lot of the master masons of the great cathedrals and what they were responsible for, such as Robert de Montreuil, Jean d'Orbais, Villard d'Honnecourt, etc.
The cathedrals are testaments to renewed civic pride as well as piety, and towns and cities became very competitive over who could build the biggest and finest churches.

The Gothic style was created in the royal abbey of Saint Denis under the direction of its abbot, Suger, in the middle of the 12th century. It was a deliberate creation out of religious and political motivations. Suger, a brilliant man from a poor background, not only was head of the abbey, but a close friend of Kings Louis VI and Louis VII, and head of the French government. The French Royal House actively promoted this style of art, and encouraged the building of new cathedrals in the new style. Suger was part of the beginning of the long project of French history to centralize power in the monarchy at the expense of the regional nobility. This project would come to full fruition in the reign of King Louis XIV. The monarchy tried to create a new power base in an alliance with the Church, and even more importantly, with this new rising class in the reborn cities, the bourgeoisie.

This political project was full of difficulties and contradictions. In a sign of things to come, the people of the city of Laon were forced to pay ruinous taxes to rebuild the city's cathedral. The people rose up and killed their bishop. The city took over the construction and its financing. The people of Reims went on strike rather than pay the tax imposed by their bishop to pay for their cathedral's construction.

Speaking of Knocking Down the Straw Men...

Here's a wicked parody of the NOM's anti-gay marriage ad. Enjoy.

Our Liberal Media

Here's a fine article by Digby over at Hullabaloo about why the Right can get away with saying the most bat-shit crazy stuff and be taken seriously while "librul socialists" must walk on eggshells constantly.
She compares the firestorm of controversy surrounding one ad by Move-On that compared Bush to Hitler with the silence and chirping crickets surrounding Glenn Beck's hour long tirades comparing Obama to Hitler and Stalin.  She plausibly suggests that their power is a combination of bribery and careerism.

I must admit that I have a hard time being too alarmed about all this stuff.  Maybe it's because I grew up in an environment that was soaking in right wing bile.  The Dallas of 45 to 50 years ago was a very angry paranoid place where John Birch Society propaganda was the norm, and where Adlai Stevenson could get heckled and beat up by a mob.  None of this stuff is new to me; the paranoia, the apocalyptic scenarios, the conspiracy theories, the over-heated rhetoric, it's been around forever.  What's new is the national stage and that backing of powerful corporate interests.   The business oligarchy that ran Dallas 40 years ago (The Dallas Leadership Council) usually kept a lid on the crackpots and limited Klan activity in the police department -- bad for the convention business.  Today, the much bigger oligarchy that owns and runs the United States finds the crack-pots useful.  They deflect public anger over the crumbling economy and unraveling social fabric away from them and toward straw men (like gays and Latinos).  Easily intimidated journalists working for a shrinking "mainstream" journalism industry are usually willing to play along. 

One thing we do have today that we didn't have then is this conversation on this medium.  The Internet seems to have made a difference in the last election.  The Powers that Be no longer control information and public conversation like they were once able to do.  That's why I can't get too alarmed by all this stuff.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gay Marriage in New York?

Governor Patterson plans to introduce legislation to legalize gay marriage in New York State this week.

Of course, this dude will fight it tooth and nail, and has said so.  As for the new "Gay rights si!  Gay marriage no!" line coming from the Archdiocese, don't believe it for a minute.  The Archdiocese successfully fought anti-discrimination legislation in the NYC City Council for almost 20 years, making a few phone calls to keep it blocked up in committee before it could ever reach the Council or the Mayor.

I'm still predicting that California will have it (again) before we do.

The NY Times finally comes out with the story this morning.

The Grapes of Wrath

Published 70 years ago today.

"If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick." -- John Steinbeck in 1966.

And here we are.

Monday, April 13, 2009

I Miss This Show

Another Easter Miracle!

The Episcopal Church rises from the dead!  or rather, it never really died in the first place.

And here's another splendid article by Garret Keizer from the June 2008 issue of Harper's on those nasty gays and the effect they are having on the Episcopal Church.

Hat tip to Toujoursdan over at Culture choc.

An Easter Miracle

Christ rises from the tomb while Rick Warren stays in bed.

Another Reason Why I Voted For Obama

Obama wants to effectively end participation by banks and private lenders in student loans, and redirect the profits into Pell grants for the poorest students. This article in the NY Times is largely sympathetic to the lenders strongly opposed to the President's reform measures. It quotes extensively from corporate spokespersons and the many friends of the financial industry in Congress, and only once or twice from education advocates who say that such reform is long overdue. These loans are hugely profitable for these companies, and completely risk free since the federal government guarantees them. This whole system lays a huge debt burden on the backs of young people at the very beginning of their careers. I've felt for years that the whole business of 22 and 23 year olds carrying $60,000 to $100,000 debt burdens is insanity. College students are gouged enough by sky-high tuitions, monopoly text book publishers with captive markets, overpriced food and housing services, etc.

This whole system has had a stifling effect on higher education in my opinion. My old professors in grad school 25 years ago (when companies like Sallie Mae were just beginning to make their presence known) used to complain about how passive their students had become. One of them said that teaching was becoming like talking to a room full of stenographers. Students rarely challenged them on anything anymore. Things that they once used successfully in their classes to provoke students into arguments now barely registered. Those old professors of mine could pay their way through college by a combination of off-campus employment and the GI Bill. They did not have to go out into the world already carrying a huge debt load. Tuitions and expenses today are way beyond the means of students carrying jobs. To my mind, it's no accident that the spike in tuition costs and the advent of student lenders coincides with the sudden flood of students into business schools and into the financial industry that began in the 1980s. The pressures of repaying those huge loans began to be felt even before students finished high school. They certainly affected their choices of majors and careers. They still do. The old days of higher ed where students felt free to experiment and try things out, and were encouraged to do so, are long over. Now it is all very high stakes with students under a lot of pressure to make the "right" career choice. College education is now largely a series of hoops that students must jump through to gain admission into the middle class. The high tuition costs are considered the entrance fee into the professional classes. The idea of college as a place to experiment, as an opportunity to grow and get to know the world that one might never have again in life, to settle on a vocation as well as a career, all that is now largely past. Small wonder that business schools in most colleges and universities tend to be large and lavish while humanities and science programs are so shrunken and beggared, even those necessary for pre-med and pre-law.

I don't think Obama's proposed plan will rectify this situation, but it is a big step in the right direction.

PS: Here's an excellent essay by dday over at Hullabaloo about how the corporate oligarchy -- determined to squash this and all other meaningful reforms and preserve the profitable status quo -- is an equal opportunity employer.
In this respect, I see Washington as a kind of Roach Motel, where politicians of all ideological stripes walk in, but they don't walk out without a sweet corporate gig and a mindset to protect the interests of the powerful over the people. A familiar story, of course, but at this crisis point, when those same corporate interests have just about sucked the Treasury dry, we need those defenders of the public and the common good, and cannot find them.

Go read the rest.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Alive and Well

Anastasis from the Cariye Cami (Church of Christ in Chora), Istanbul, c1315 - 1320

Donatello, Resurrection from the San Lorenzo Pulpit reliefs, Florence, c1460 - 1466

Piero della Francesca, Resurrection, c1460 - 1463

Giovanni Bellini, Risen Christ, c1490

Mathias Grunewald, Resurrection from the Isenheim Altarpiece, 1515

Albrecht Altdorfer, Resurrection from the St. Florian Altarpiece, 1518

Such an amazing variety in a period of a little over 200 years! There's the majestic Anastasis from the funeral chapel of the old Chora Church, probably the finest Byzantine Anastasis to survive. There is Donatello's anguished Risen Christ, still troubled and sleepy from the tomb. We have Piero della Francesca's magnificent triumphant Christ, also still a little sleepy. The body of Bellini's Christ glows with the reflected golden light of the dawn. Grunewald's great Christ glows within a great phosphorescent nimbus that turns His white shroud fiery scarlet. And finally there is Altdorfer's strange Resurrection with its turbulent blood-red sunrise. Six different artists show us six very different understandings of the Resurrection.

A Blessed and Happy Easter to All!

Easter Noise

Friday, April 10, 2009

Holy Saturday

Mohammed Abdullah mourns for his brother Hussein, and for his 6 year old niece Zahra, killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq.

Good Friday

Burial of the unknown and unclaimed on Hart Island, New York City.

Alexander Nevsky, The Movie

I watched this movie for the first time in 30 years the other day. I loved it when I was a kid. I had forgotten how amazing the whole battle on the ice sequence really was. It also struck me 30 years later how bloodless the whole battle sequence is. I love the menacing quality of the Teutonic Knights and their soldiers in this movie, even if they are my very distant ancestors.  Prokoviev's spoof of Western liturgical music is brilliant.

Yes, it's operatic as all get out, and the militant Russian nationalism is more than can be borne, but that Prokofiev score has to be one of the best film scores of all time.

This movie was made in 1938, and was released just in time for the Brest-Litovsk Treaty; that brief honeymoon of homicidal tyrants over doomed Poland. The movie was immediately pulled from theaters. It was re-released with full propaganda fanfare in 1941 after the German invasion.

What would Marx (or Lenin for that matter) have thought of this naked appeal to "Holy Russia" and old time Russian nationalism by a regime that was supposed to be trans-national in its ideology? How remarkable that Eisenstein, a true believing Communist, could have so brilliantly managed that ideological transition!

Another thing I notice in gay old Eisenstein's movies is his pronounced taste for blonde young men with sky high cheekbones. They're everywhere in his movies from "Potemkin" to "Ivan the Terrible." Perhaps that taste played a role in his decision to cast Nicolai Cherkasov in the title roles of both "Alexander Nevsky" and "Ivan the Terrible."

Good Friday

Goya, The Third of May, 1808, 1814

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Maundy Thursday

Jan Van Eyck, The Eternal Mass of the Mystic Lamb from The Ghent Altarpiece, 1432

Jack Wrangler, 1946 - 2009

Some of us of a certain sexuality and a certain age have fond memories of Jack Wrangler.  We always will.  All flesh is but grass which is here for a moment and then vanishes and its place knows it no more.  But sometimes how lovely the grass and lovely the moment!

Thanks Jack.