Saturday, July 30, 2011

Me and Modern Art (and why we don't quite understand each other)

So I went to an art museum today, and it was great!, and inspired the bellow reflections. For anyone who loves art or especially loves or hates modern art, I would really love to have your thoughts, comments & feedback!! Seriously. 

Post-script: it occurred to me that I should really be more specific by what I mean by 'modern art', and indicate that by that I mostly mean 'abstract art.' Rather than edit the whole piece however, I'm just going to declare that here and assume you get my drift in the rest of the post. 

I like art, but I am not sure it can be said that I love it. Some works of art I absolutely love, and could stare at them for hours. Sometimes in fact I am put off by how much I gravitate towards a particular piece – there is something about a captivating work of art that is much like eating a delicious meal: I want to be completely absorbed by it, but there always seems to be some thin line between touching the painting with my eyes (or tasting the meal with my tongue) and becoming completely enveloped by it – as though I am stuck on the brink of an orgasm.

So let it not be said that I am unmoved by art. However, there is so much art that leaves me either cold or uncomfortable that I think there is much to art that I do not understand – and by understand I mean not that I lack an intellectual appreciation for any type of art, but that on an intuitive, neurological level I do not connect (or am adverse to) the piece I am looking at in front of me.

At this point I should pause to explain a bit about my aesthetic preferences. Firstly, aesthetics are rather important to me, and in that sense I suppose it could be said that I love art. The differences between a dark room and a brightly lit one, a bougsie restaurant and a bland diner with a counter-top, impress upon me so much that I will do just about anything to avoid the aesthetic I am adverse to. (Including spending more money than I should.) Lighting in particular has the capacity to instantly alter my mood. So I quite notice aesthetics, and have all sorts of opinions about interior design and the such. But perhaps the best way to get at how weird, in some ways – and I might have to confess, narrow – my aesthetic preferences are is to point to one fact that has never failed to puzzle the person I’m confessing it to: I don’t like cartoons. Actually, it is not much a matter of liking or dislikingI feel as though I am allergic to cartoons. But not all animation  – I can handle the realism used in most Disney films, and the animation style used in such films as Waking Life, which I actually rather like. I am allergic to a particular type of cartoon – those that employ strange, non-geometric shapes in rendering figures and above all, those that use bright, largely primary colors. We are talking The Simpsons or Family Guy, but also the profoundly disturbing animation of Monty Python, which is unfortunate since, I otherwise love watching Monty Python. This allergy extends to such a point that I simply do not watch these shows (in the case of Monty Python I just look away and listen), and do not even like to look at pictures or depictions of them. They are off putting and creepy, a big distortive blob in an otherwise pretty landscape. This, as I have been informed by many of my friends, makes me a total freak.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hello sir, do you have a minute to listen to my rant today?

Oh my, it's been a month. And here is another repost from an older blog - but oh well, something is better than nothing, right? Most of my time has been sucked in by my other blogging enterprise, and you know, life and work. But I will try to at least keep this blog alive, even if only in a, once-a-month kind of way. 

Anyway, I chose this piece because yesterday I actually stopped, sighed, and expressed to the young woman asking me if I had time for the ocean the general sentiment, in a very shortened form, of this post. She answered, "you'll just have to find a grassroots movement," to work for social and economic justice. Too true, too true. 
About those people always asking if you have a minute for the environment? Well no, I’d rather this not be too rant-like, to be honest. But I do have a complaint – actually, a concern, more accurately, about what I’m constantly getting stopped for during my pedestrian commutes.

No one does this more often of course than Calprig. When my sister used to live in California, I just told them she had covered our family’s commitment to the environment and move on. Today I just have to decline as politely as I can. Yesterday, I was stopped by Amnesty International to be asked whether or not I have a minute to help end violence against women. Again, smile, politely decline.

I try to be polite because I do have sympathy for these people, and I have some sympathy for their causes. Anyone who decides to spend some of their time on actively trying to improve the world is doing better than most, I’d say. Violence against women, for example, is obviously something I would like to stop. But violence against women where, and how? Amnesty International seems like a good organization, but whether or not they can curb corrupt regimes driven by power and/or religious fundamentalism through the good will/guilt of middle-class American donations seems dubious to me. I wonder why they do not attack the structuring problems more directly, more broadly, rather than pouring energy into smacking band-aids on the results.

But I have no idea what would stem international violence against women, and I’m not here to claim I do. But what I do notice about these enthusiastic young people asking for a minute of my time is that almost always, they are advocating for something I will, and I admit this has some derogatory connotations, call “soft issues.” Yes, saving the environment is an important issue. I wish them the best of luck with it, and, I recycle. But why is that political issue so much more attractive, so much more morally compelling, to young people than well let’s say, the immediacy of social injustice in their own country? Global warming is real, and there is a good chance it will eventually fuck us over; but in the meantime, wealth inequality has continued to expand since the 1980s, the Tea Party spirit is trying to take over our nation’s education via Texas, and oh yeah, homosexuals still are not considered equal human beings in the vast majority of the country. Why don’t I run into people asking me if I have a minute for that more often? I almost always would. I’m all for the environment, but I, like all people, have priorities as to where I want to place my time and money – but while those involved in the green movement currently have a huge cultural upswing of being taken seriously by the rest of the world, my issues – shall I dare call them the “old leftists” issues – remain as unpopular as they have been since the 1970s.

For example, why isn’t there some powerful non-profit organization like Calprig which interrupts pedestrians by asking, “Hi, do you have a minute for poor people today?” upon which they present their petition to raise taxes considerably on upper middle-class and rich Americans, to pay for a more redistributive society that takes social justice seriously. How about that phrasing actually, “Do you have a minute for social justice today?” Hell yes I do.

Another example is the green/organic movement around food. While I have some mild concern about the health quality of my food, I am less concerned about that than I am about the exploitative labor practices of Food, Inc. Instead of having almost one of everything labeled “organic” in the grocery store why aren’t products labeled according to how well companies pay and treat their workers, whether or not they provide them with health insurance or deport them to Mexico in the middle of the night? Seriously, this is what I would base my purchasing choices on if I was given the information I’d like to filter products with.

Of course, to ask all this is rather silly – I might as well ask, “why are Americans so afraid of redistribution,” or, “why do Americans value property rights over human rights?” But I guess my surprise comes in with the fact that the absence of top-down funding and mainstream political acceptability is really enough to stifle almost all interest in economic justice at the student or undergraduate level. I hate to have an elitist-driven viewpoint of history – after all the New Right is profoundly grassroots – but sometimes all the evidence tends to point towards it. Our young people today can’t get fired up about economic injustice or the limits of American political discourse as easily as they can about baby sea turtles. (And really – I was asked the other week if I had a minute for baby sea turtles. Who can say no to that? Baby sea turtles are stupid cute.) This is apparently because they were never taught to, or even exposed to the issue in any sustained way. And indeed, while I distinctly remember a documentary about global warming I used to enjoy and watched several times over as a child, I never remember seeing anything about ghettos or rural poverty, especially nothing directed at children.

Again, all this is obvious to state – holy hell, Americans are quite comfortable with economic injustice, believe it to be the normal order of the world and, don’t really question the assumptions of our center-right political consensus. But I reserve some right to be disappointed in our youth population all the same, especially the ones at the university – the same people who like to fantasize about the 1960s are the ones who abandon the fight to really challenge the status-quo and put up posters about fuzzy polar bears instead. (And again, nothing against polar bears, which are also stupid cute.) But since they aren’t going to learn it anywhere else, this to me emphasizes how important the university is as the absolute last hope for really holding the line against collective cultural stupidity. I have seen some progress in this regard with the recent protests about the fee hikes – but even there, students tend to focus on a few (granted, totally authentic) villains in the UC Regents and Governor’s Mansion, and advertise their plight narrowly, on a very clear but narrow issue, rather than building a cross-class, cross-issue coalition that sees the connection between California’s voters condoning the erosion of their public school system and a broader American public that does not believe that the government can or should provide equal social services to everyone.

But the university isn’t really about questioning the system anymore — quite the contrary, it is about shaping people into cogs in order to ensure its smooth functioning — and who knows if it ever was. But no worries. We will always have a minute for baby sea turtles.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The crucible of argument.

 Note: This is actually a post I wrote over two years ago, and put up elsewhere on the Internets. But I think it is worth reposting and, I've had trouble getting to this blog lately!
I have a theory about arguments. Political or intellectual arguments, that is. If any argument could be carried on to its smallest unit — if all the evidence, sub-arguments and assumptions entailed in each could be worked through by two opponents — inevitably the combatants would whittle the argument down into a very few, or even a singular, unproveable assumptions on which each has a different position. All the other details of disagreement rely on and can be traced back, ultimately, to this central philosophical difference.

I call this a theory for good reason, since it would work in an ideal world but, probably not too often in this one. People misrepresent facts, sometimes with only one conscious eye on the fact and, sometimes deliberately. They also ignore facts that they kind unconvincing or unimportant simply because they butt up against their opinion. Even a simple matter of data can run up against a whole slew of objections — whether this data set is the most accurate or that one is, whether this data set or that one is relevant to the question at hand, etc. And thus, if we can’t even decide on facts, it is harder for us to work our way down to the central disagreements that are not so factual. Additionally, some people are just plain disingenuous; they don’t really have any intellectual interest in the question, but merely get whatever kicks they need from being dogmatic warriors.

I do not mean to argue here that because truth is illusive, it does not exist and therefore, let’s all be moderate and listen to each other’s opinions with equal respect, even when some opinions are patently absurd. That would suggest I am content with what my theory implies. I’m not. Increasingly I am disturbed by how those, when confronted with convincing evidence that opposes their opinion, manage to weasel their way out of consciously admitting fault or reshaping their assessment. There is nothing anyone can say, for example, to libertarians convinced the New Deal made America worse off. There is nothing anyone can say, for another example, to someone who really believes the moon landing was faked. And there is nothing anyone can say to a religiously minded conservative that really believes that civilization is headed for the toilet once gay people can get married. These are mindsets immune to historical or factual reasoning. But, this is not to imply that all opinions are so ideological or resilient to reasoned debate.

However, it does imply that as humans, we have done a pretty bad job at teaching ourselves to truly reason. It does mean that currently, there are other things – religious sentiment, ideology, dogmatism — that while our society does not always openly place above reason, a whole slew of subtle and not-so-subtle influences in our society actually do encourage the dismissal of evidence and reason. Additionally, many people rely on such overarching mindsets as the means of supplying meaning, understanding and purpose in life — with so much at stake, they cling to them like desperate little birds about to fall out of trees. They will take any pathway out of having to question them, including falling under the spell of less-than-reasonable modes of thought.

It is unfortunate that so few are willing to concede that at heart, many of their cherished opinions are based on improvable assumptions. I too of course, have values that shape my thought that cannot possibly be validated by empirical evidence or pure reason. But I feel encouraged by the conclusions they lead me to because I see evidence of their efficaciousness and positive effect in the real world, in the realm of the actual and the factual. Regardless of whether humans are really created “equal” — obviously this is man-made idea, insofar as being empirically unproveable in the way it is meant to be read — it is certainly true that multiculturalism, pluralism and the division of church and state allow for more freedom of expression, which leads to more varied cultural products, which leads to more human creativity in general. I am with Chomsky in assuming man is happiest this way. But I fail to think of many examples where open minds, intellectual diversity and curiosity have resulted in a more miserable or less functional populace. Perhaps things are less conflicted in largely homogenous communities, but that is not because diversity is a bad thing in and of itself; it is because people have a negative response to diversity, which creates all sort of negative things. Ignorance, in other words, is the problem, not diversity. And diversity is perhaps one of the most stubborn characteristics of human nature and modern society.

If all people were aware of their starting assumptions, we could then have a fruitful discussion about how much our assumptions match real-world phenomena, or how well they work in a real-world context, to put it in a better way. But few consider their fundamental beliefs as “assumptions” — rather, they are truths, and truths do not respond to mere facts.

Furthermore, even if we were able to throw arguments into this crucible of debate, it would be difficult, in our current society, to find a medium in which to realistically do it, particularly due to the disagreement over facts. We would have to throw the two central representatives of a contested issue in a room (or force them into continuous written dialogue with one another), with access to every reference or experimental procedure and then force them to explain and defend each and every one of their points. In the age of infotainment, when even the analysis of important issues in the most prestigious newspaper makes an undergraduate paper look thoughtful, it is unlikely that anyone would be willing to pay attention long enough to absorb the lesson.

Yet so often I fantasize about being able to get to the heart of fundamental issues in this manner. It makes watching our sorry excuse for public discourse even that more painful.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Liberals: we just want to feel good!

More than any other backlash meme, I am personally familiar with the idea that all that lies behind the concerns of leftists is a desire to “feel good.” Two things are meant by this – one, leftists enjoy the delight of being idealistic; they are dreamers, people who would rather make up fairy tales to swoon them to sleep at night rather than face reality. As a consequence, they are constantly advocating policy that directly contradicts reality, with all the dysfunctions of the welfare state as a result. Two, leftists enjoy the thrill of being self-righteous, of believing they are the victim and “fighting the power” – the rebellious stance is always appealing, after all, to those who cannot take personal responsibility and have not grown up.

In this post, I am not going to launch into a defense of the various progressive causes – I am not going to exhaustively detail how opposition to racism ultimately traces back to strange fruit from Southern trees, or how opposition to Proposition 8 ultimately traces back to the Matthew Shepards of history and the millions of lives lived in isolation and depression because one would lose their job, their family, and their whole lives if they came out of the closet. I’m not going to talk about the increasing wealth disparity in America, the shrinking middle-class and the deplorable working conditions for those on the bottom of the social totem-pole. It has been done so many times, so well by so many people, and if those who want to dismiss the left as merely masturbatory indulgence have seen this evidence and still lack understanding and empathy, I’m certainly not going to change any minds here.

But I do want to look at the cognitive, or psychological, mistakes that are going on here. First, I will not for even a moment deny that many leftists who are politically active – or more likely, are dabblers who troll on YouTube – do not participate for reasons of sincere interest or concern, but out of self-righteous bitterness or delight. Surely by the late 1960s, many in the student movement did not understand what they stood for or why they stood for it and were merely along for the thrill ride. But what the backlashers fail to be honest about is that this is the case for all social movements and ideologies. Would any conservative – fiscal or social – really suggest that for every self-righteous, shallow liberal, we could not produce an obviously equally self-righteous conservative who cares more for having something or someone to loathe than building (or rebuilding) a better world? Especially in the world of the Christian Right, one does not have to dig very far to find men that even the majority of conservatives would readily admit are clearly not men of a loving God.

It is in the nature of social movements that the motives of all who are attracted to them cannot be identical or even always similar – if they were, you would end up with a cult or a monastery rather than a social movement. The very openness of democratic organization and association means that a certain amount of people who are not really “in it” for the right reasons will be absorbed by the movement and identify themselves as a part of it. This does not mean, however, that the original impetus for the movement, the original reasons that it resonated powerfully and widely enough to reach thousands and millions of people, were or become shallow or self-serving. Injustice remains injustice.  It simply means that in an open society, you cannot always control who joins your group or why.

Secondly, this is what I like to refer to as a frisbee accusation – no one can hurl it at others without it immediately applying to themselves. Because quite frankly, who adheres to an ideology or a philosophy that makes them feel bad about themselves? Calvinists aside, very few of us are capable of self-laceration – sincere, not merely pretended, self-laceration. The conservative claims the liberal only wants to “feel good” – and at this precise moment, he feels quite good himself. He feels proud that he can see the “real world” for what it is, and very often, he is a successful man who has a stake in seeing this “real world” as the legitimate ordering of society. He is not shallow, he thinks to himself; he is not indulgent. He is pragmatic, he is intelligent, he is virtuous. Now, the liberal, too, is happy to think about how his philosophy, and his hopes for this world, reflect on his personal character. He is open, he is loving, he is unafraid, he tells himself. The point is not that both the conservative and the liberal are lying to themselves – sometimes they very well might be, but very often they are simply identifying actually commendable aspects of their personalities. The point is that everyone does this – what is a political philosophy if not a reflection of the characteristics we most admire in ourselves and others, painted onto a world that we think would therefore be the most admirable of societies? And so of course, again, the mere taking of psychological pleasure in one’s political position says nothing about the truth or falsity of a given opinion, or the more objective desirability of a certain vision of the world.

Despite these commonalities between those on the left and those on the right – which is merely to say, the commonality between all human beings – there is something odd about accusing liberals, in particular, of indulging in their philosophy and political hopes merely for the sake of self-indulgence. For what is hope for change if not a dissatisfaction with what we have seen thus far? What is progressivism if not the argument that despite the justice we have achieved, there is still too much injustice? While conservatism usually (but not always) looks to an idealized past of how things used to be, and thus still has the comfort of believing its ideal had once been reality, progressives are constantly pushing forward into the unknown, the untried, the uncertain. But they do so because they feel a deep seated need for something more – they cannot bring themselves to accept as “natural” or “inevitable” the degree of suffering and injustice they currently witness.

When held sincerely, these are not views that are likely to make one “feel good,” about either the world or one's personal place in it. Indeed, for those of us who are progressive and privileged it involves a constant awareness of just how random and unearned much of our success is – for those born without such boons, it means a constant awareness of limitations they have very little power to push against. After all, if you are looking to what can be you are constantly looking at what is – and while there is much to be proud of, and much to rejoice in, the hard work of political consciousness asks us to constantly see the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, the bigotry, the ignorance, the inequality, the poverty, the fear, and the hate that still creeps over so much of this country and indeed, so much of the world. There are plenty of insincere leftists around, and they come in all shapes and sizes – but the philosophy of the dreamer, in and of itself, is not for the faint or shallow of heart.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mausoleums of history.

I am happy to report that my week of research went very well. The papers I were looking at were completely unorganized, subverting even the desire of the archivist to bring me out something more select, so I got the pleasure of shifting through 24 boxes all on my own. As it turned out, about 10 of those boxes had materials in them very useful to me (especially a core 3-4 boxes) and then the other 14 were pretty worthless and easily categorized as being so. Therefore, despite what the hard core might say, it is quite possible to get a lot done in an archive in a week.

I was once again amused by the archaic and sometimes somewhat silly “culture of archives,” let’s call it. In many ways, archives are beautiful and inspiring places to work in – they are big on the Grecian architecture, they have fine, beautiful wood tables with elegant lamps, and they are decorated with the historical portraits of notables. The silence in an archive, and the seriousness which seems to hang from the shelves containing reference works no one ever references, remind one that even in an age of iPhones, instant entertainment and the always latest, newest thing, there are still quiet places which revere the past and the quiet contemplation it requires.

On the other hand, archives can also be stifling places to work. I personally cannot stand studying in total silence and therefore must bring in headphones to pipe in some classical music while I work.  While the surroundings are beautiful, after several hours of sitting they can no longer distract me from the ache in my back, the growl in my tummy or my undeniable need to stretch. Part of me feels like I get exposed as less than a true scholar in the archives – while others in the reading room seem to sit calmly and contently during the entire day, I am often fidgeting, yawning, stretching, or even muttering quietly to myself when amused or confused by something I come across. It is like I lack scholar Zen, or something. And then there is my inability to get there right when the archive opens – I always sleep in a half-hour or an hour later than I should. This week I managed to get there right on time once in the week, although as it turned out, it never mattered because I finished early on my last day anyway. But the very aesthetic of research makes one feel obliged to flip on the internal Puritan switch.

Then there are all the rules. Let me acknowledge that some of these, even most of these, make plenty of sense. They do not want you bringing in large backpacks – makes sense. They do not want you bringing in pens – makes sense. They do not want you bringing in a jacket – wait, what? Because I am going to try to smuggle 40 year old documents from some obscure sociologist out in my jacket and sell them on eBay? Granted if I were say, reading letters written by John Adams (which I in fact have the bragging rights to), this would make more sense. But it isn’t just big, bulky jackets that one might conceivably be able to muffle the sound of crinkling paper with that they forbid, but almost anything that makes it difficult to discern your cup size. I always forget this the first day at an archive, and therefore always spend it shivering, rubbing my arms to try to keep warm. And this is with long sleeved shirts; these places are kept quite cool.  Fortunately, well-fitted sweaters are allowed.

Finally, and more seriously, the very formality of archives makes me somewhat sad. The fact that these are elegant, quiet places that require IDs and badges to get into seems to point towards how selective their clientele, how encrusted with the nobility of insignificance the boxes that make up its contents. In the heydays of Jacksonian democracy, no one thought it a great sin to bring a giant piece of cheese into the White House to stink the place up for a few weeks – but now that such uproarious participation seems quaint, we have guided tours and gilded hallways, as though we trying to honor American democracy through mystification of its past, rather than participation in its present. The archive I went to this week was particularly poignant in this regard – let it suffice to say that it started out as something approaching the true spirit of citizen participation in a republic: but today, it merely seems like a well-decorated tomb for forgotten history, the kind of place only the educated and the elite of the country return to. As beautiful as archives are, they also serve to remind me how much of our history has become precisely that - rather than a living, present reality that we all must grapple with.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Jon Stewart - A Poem.

Disclaimer: I am allowed to be silly on this blog. We are all allowed to be silly. The world needs more silliness.
Jon Stewart you are like,
The best person ever.

You take the most obvious truths,
And the most obscure ones,
And make them so funny -

And I love watching you talk to conservatives -
And they are speechless,
And it feels SO DAMN GOOD.

And Jon Stewart,
You are so adorable.
And attractive.
And funny.
And did I mention attractive?
Because nothing is more attractive than a guy that is funny.
And so sincere.
And so really a Really Good Guy
And you give all us liberals a Good Good Name
Because there are some stupid liberals out there
Who do not know why they think what they think --
But you aren't one of them.
You are fucking brilliant.

And I am so glad I spent the money,
To go to the Rally to Restore Sanity,
Because that was something I believed in,
It represented me -
And you made it possible.

And I fucking love you, Jon Stewart.
You remind me how not alone I am.

And today I voted for you at the Museum of Jewish American History
To have your own video in the hall of notables
Because you are seriously the greatest Jew ever
And maybe the best person ever.
:) :) :)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Out for research.

Just wanted to leave a note that I probably won't be posting for the next week or so, as I will be on the East Coast doing research for my dissertation. It is very important to historians that we know that we've walked in cold weather to large libraries, and sat in the same room for seven or eight hours for days on end. Without this, your work means little to nothing. It is from this experience that you derive all your arguments, as the mystical power of original documents seeps like radiation from their fibers and is absorbed by your brain like a sponge.

I kid. But in truth, the fetishism around archival research can get a bit silly at times. (As opposed to reading the exact same documents on your computer screen, that is.)