“Foyle’s War” is a British television series about World War Two as that is seen through the eyes of a police detective on the southern coast of Great Britain. It is very good at capturing the mixture of the mundane and the extraordinary that took place in those years, the mixture of ordinary violence with war inspired violence, and also provides a sense of the social class situation, British literature always particularly good at that, in this case the stifling lives of the working class and the also restricted lives of the rich, who live in unsightly and uncomfortable manor houses. The most striking feature of the series, however, is Michael Kitchen, who stars as the title character. I resist seeing him in any other role because I don’t want to see his mannerisms utilized for establishing any other character than Foyle. It would seem a betrayal even though, of course, actors always play different characters even when they display the same set of mannerisms in each role. We know John Wayne’s slouch; Jimmy Stewart’s hesitation, Cary Grant’s elegant accent, Myrna Loy’s smile. But I clearly identify Kitchen with Foyle. The character walks stiffly, keeps up a glum or sometimes amused face, raises an eyebrow when he is being quizzical, and when he is angered, he talks more rapidly and with greater exactness and certainty and also with a bit of a sneer. Actors are very good at objectifying their characters, at finding some mannerism which distinguishes the character so that the audience can get hold of the character, but isn’t that true in all of life, in so-called “real” life?Read More
Commentators quickly summed up the horse race aspects of last night’s Democratic Primary Debate. Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill, two former United States Senators, said on different networks that nothing had changed in that the three leading candidates, Biden, Sanders and Warren, were still in the lead, having provided acceptable though not outstanding performances, and that some of the outlier candidates, like Amy Klobacher and Corey Booker, had made some well put points. Only Julian Castro and Andrew Yang seemed to falter, Castro for aiming a haymaker at Biden that failed and which made Castro look cruel, and Yang for offering an Oprah like gift to some citizens, an offer that drew laughter from most of the candidates. So things are settling in, the longer Biden remains in the lead, the longer he is likely to maintain it, his occasional stumbles notwithstanding. So much for the feel and strategies of the candidates vis a vis one another.
I want to attend, instead, to what were the topics selected by the journalists to ask questions about, and what were the presumptions embodied in both the questions and answers. It is interesting to note, as some commentators have, that neither impeachment nor Warren’s wealth tax, both worthy of debate, were brought up in the course of the debate. Nor was abortion or the Supreme Court. What was brought up and how was that handled?Read More
Pundits and scholars suggest that our nation is in crisis. Abroad, we are challenged by China, Russia, North Korea. We are threatened at our borders by immigration. We have an economy that doesn’t produce satisfactory jobs for many underemployed people and where career paths are uncertain for people even of the upper classes. The country is rife with regionalism and a cultural war between the people who live on the coasts and those who live inland. Race relations are still lousy or, worse than that, retrograde, what with police shootings of unarmed black citizens and the urban underclass ever more racially segregated. There is a rampage of mass shootings. We are desperately in need of infrastructure improvements and bringing about a decline in air pollution. And, of course, we have separated into two political tribes which can not communicate with one another and an electoral system which two times in the last twenty years has given us a President who did not win the popular vote. How can this not be considered a crisis? Well, it is not, and that is made clear by applying even a wee bit of historical perspective. In fact, we are living in perhaps the most benign of times since the Era of Good Feeling that followed the War of 1812 and lasted, let us say, until the tariff crisis of 1824 that ushered in the Pre-Civil War Era which was a thirty-five year period in which any number of things were done to try to prevent a civil war.Read More
Thomas Cole’s “The Voyage of Life” is a series of four paintings he did in the 1840’s that showed the stages of human development, the first about childhood, the second about youth, the third about maturity, and the fourth about old age. These paintings set out a theory of human development when no theories of that sort would be rendered until the turn into the Twentieth Century and so the four paintings are like Cole’s four paintings on “The Course of Empire” in that they are breaking new intellectual ground and trying to find images to do justice to the insights that Cole offers up even if, I am afraid, he does not in this case do very well at illustrating his conceptions. The paintings in the series are worth consulting because they show us what a muscular intellect can do at starting out an entire field of human inquiry.Read More
A story, to put it simply, is a set of circumstances into which is introduced some complication or event that sets a chain of events going that the author unfolds in a way that suits the author’s aesthetic sense of what makes a fitting way for a story to proceed and to end. That can mean, in “The Iliad”, having a number of distinct stories intrude on the overall tale of a man returning home after a war. It can mean having a hero move on from one bad moral choice to the next, as in “Macbeth”. It can mean mixing up stories of courtship with ones of war, as in “War and Peace”. It can mean seeing a story that turns back upon itself, as happens in ballet, and also, maybe, in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”.Read More
A single painting tells a story about its subject while the body of work of a painter tells the story of that painter’s life: his moods, how he changes or develops or deteriorates over time, his persistent themes. The body of work is therefore more significant for looking into what a painter is than is any collection of biographical data compiled by some biographer about his love interests, his patrons, his friendships, or the ruminations of himself or the art critics of his time about what his paintings were really about. The same is true of literature. We know how different “Macbeth” is from “Hamlet”, each creating a different world, the first governed by fate and violent action, the second by a self uncertain how and when to take action. And yet the body of Shakespeare’s work tells us all that need be known about the consciousness of its author: how he moves from history to comedy to tragedy to romance, ever trying to contain his tendency to anger. The work is the essence of the author.
A case in point is Rembrandt Peale, son of a well known artist of his time, and even better known in his own right, who was a prolific portrait painter in the early part of the Nineteenth Century. Looking at the body of his work provides a biography of the painter and also how a painter adjusts to changing circumstances that are, for the most part, neither political nor social structural, but cultural in that they have to do with the influences that past painting has on its present practitioner. So let us abandon the view that a painter reflects his time for the view that a painter makes a mark on the painting of his time.Read More
During the late Nineteenth Century, Gottlob Frege said that every sentence was a proposition in that a truth value could be attached to it. That meant that every sentence (except those that were obviously just for emphasis, like “Ugh!”) was either objectively true or not. The blue unicorn is there behind you or he isn’t. One can quibble about whether this is only true of sentences with Western grammatical constructions, but the point is telling about English and associated languages. It is not far from that to Bertrand Russell’s theory of definite description, which said, at the turn into the Twentieth Century, that every sentence says about its object that the object exists. The blue unicorn exists even if only as a figment of your imagination. That is perhaps the high point of the philosophical view that language could be reduced to the same thing as science: a set of assertions that could be put to the test of their truth because what else was there? All statements were either true or nonsense. There is no place in that sense of language for metaphor or symbol.
The way around this is to notice that while it may be the case that, strictly speaking, sentences are true or not, that often is not what people find interesting about them. If I hear gossip, I care less about whether it is true or not than about the images it puts in my mind to contemplate. Yes, I might wonder if the rumor that JFK had an affair with Marilyn Monroe is really true, but it is the contemplation of that rumor which is intriguing, and so I remember her singing a sexy version of “Happy Birthday” to Jack at a birthday party given for him. Language, in fact, has many ways of qualifying a truth claim so that it is a sort of truth where the truth of the matter is not really central. Look at some contemporary political examples of the ways language can evade or easily satisfy the demands of truth.Read More
An epidemic is an affliction, often understood as a “disease”, which spreads geographically, killing or maiming any number of people in its wake. The Black Death of the Middle Ages reduced the population of Europe by a tenth. Smallpox decimated British troops during the American Revolution. It does not matter whether the vector of spread is regarded as a swampy miasma or microbes. The point is that something is spreading the harmful disorder. The Black Plague moved from Southern Italy through Italy and France to England, and so people looked for and continue to look for a way to stop its spread, just as when they build firebreaks to keep forest fires from jumping from one place to another. Dennis Defoe records in his “A Journal of the Plague Year” how people were not allowed to leave houses that were quarantined because an infected individual was in there. The residents could only put out their dead bodies for disposal upon the arrival of wagons designated for that purpose.Read More
George Bernard Shaw in his still very witty and relevant play of 1914, “Pygmalion”, has Eliza Doolittle’s father describe himself, very eloquently, as one of “the undeserving poor”. They also have their needs even if they don’t want to work hard and prefer a life of women and drink. That is a comeuppance to the bourgeois morality of Shaw’s audience who might find room in their hearts for the deserving poor, who are people who work hard to improve their condition, accept standard middle class moral values, but for reasons not their fault cannot make a go of it. We still feel more compassionate for those burdened by life than we do for people who accept their poverty as a way of life. We want to raise the poverty class into being a working class whether they like the idea or not.
I would suggest that the distinction between the deserving and undeserving is even more important in our own time as a distinction to be made about the rich. There are the undeserving rich who, like Jeffrey Epstein, squander their money on sex and estates, while the deserving rich spend their honorably gained fortunes on philanthropy. Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and the Koch brothers qualify for this latter category. They buy honor from their peers and the public and perhaps justification for themselves through their money, their wealth being something they might otherwise have to live down. The rich sometimes feel guilty for being so much better off than other people, however cheap they may also be, sometimes bringing their lunches to the office in a brown paper bag because what they care about, as the Protestant Ethic thesis would suggest, is the making of it rather than the spending of it. The rich also have consciences and so, again following the Weber Thesis, they want to prove themselves spiritually worthy.Read More
The old case for the impeachment of President Trump has languished for lack of evidence that he conspired with the Russians, Robert Mueller not having tied together the dots, even though there were so many of them. Why so many contacts with the Russians that Trump’s aides and associates lied about? What was to be found in his tax returns or in Deutsche Bank records? Mueller said that he didn’t go into either one because it was outside his purview, but I don’t see how that could be the case. Those records could show if there was any financial advantage for Trump in cooperating with the Russians or any disadvantage if the Russians did not see him as cooperating with them. There is also the legal question of whether there can be obstruction of justice when there is no proof of any underlying crime. And so the various House Committees try to unearth what Mueller did not. It seems a futile quest and unnecessary if the election of 2020 will unseat him even if Jerry Nadler insists that he is indeed engaged in an impeachment inquiry and more than half of Democratic House members think Trump should be impeached.Read More
A metaphor is supposed to be a word that is associated with what it represents because of some similarity between what the word refers to and what the word is taken to represent. Love is like a madness because it can come up suddenly, becomes an obsession and can’t easily be explained. So a metaphor can consider and evoke other characteristics of the object to be explained than the ones that are its essential characteristics, whatever might be those essential characteristics. That is why a metaphor is so liberating: it gives associations rather than a denotative definition that allows classifying objects always or nearly always accurately. But love is also supposed to be like a red, red rose. There are similarities here too in that a rose is beautiful and delicate, which is often said of one’s beloved, as is the fact that a lover can be thorny. So a person can go very far afield or be very creative when constructing a metaphor, and so the metaphor is more in the mind of its author than in the object represented. Anything can turn into a metaphor, which means that a metaphor is really a symbol, which means that it is arbitrarily or conventionally associated with its object. A recent Nova broadcast was eerie in its account of the inner planets because it treated Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars as if they were human in that these masses of rocks had their moments in the sun, literally, in that they had water oceans before the ever greater heat of the sun robbed them of their atmospheres and their water and made them “dead” planets, even though, of course, planets are not people. The power of metaphor is an important way of understanding the meaning of texts and also prompts consideration of how writers limit the power of metaphor in the service of creating truth rather than opinion.Read More
The title of an exhibition at Chicago’s Art Institute is both paradoxical and misleading. It is called “Manet and Modern Beauty” and uses as a picture of his, “Jeanne (Spring)”, as the cover of its catalogue, and she certainly is quite pretty. The title is paradoxical, nonetheless, because the idea that there is a kind of beauty that is modern is problematic, the association of the two words something of an oxymoron, because people pretty much look the same since the Greeks first sculpted nude men and nude women. So how can there be a modern beauty? Evolution would not make you think the bodies of people would change in twenty five hundred years, much less in less time than that. Nineteenth Century nudes are portraits of the women walking today down Fifth Avenue fully clothed. And the title is misleading because the show includes a lot of Manet’s late paintings of flowers. That is not beautiful in the same sense that women are beautiful. Flowers are, at best, pretty, while the beauty of women has a very deep resonance, their beauty a mystery composed from both lust and the formal arrangement of features. So we want to search out if there is something in Manet that explains the paradox that what women in particular have is eternal and yet situated in the modern age.Read More
CNN is to be congratulated on how well it choreographed the ceremonials that preceded the two nights of Democratic debates. The candidates were paraded out one by one, as if on a quiz program, and for the same reason: to provide viewers a chance to associate names and faces. The first four candidates shook one another’s hands, and then that was dispensed with because it would become too cumbersome to have more than that greet one another individually. The men were allowed to kiss the cheeks of their female competitors though sexual harassment officers at corporations and schools would advise against that. Then there was an old geezer color guard bringing in the American flag and every one of the candidates were very serious and respectful, hands over their hearts, as “The Star Spangled Banner” was sung. I remember, when a kid, joining the crowd at Yankee Stadium in singing the national anthem and I remember when I took my son to ballgames at the same place and he and I were the only ones who sung along with the piped in rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Political debates are a good place to remind people of how serious an occasion politics is for the American people and the American system.Read More
The general consensus about the first night of the two days of debate is that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were, as the NY Times put it, a “tag team” fielding questions about their “radical” health care and other economic proposals. I agree with that but would add that I think they did a very credible job of doing so and, to the extent that the parameters of a debate allow that, made what seemed to me convincing arguments though not conclusive ones. They explained that Medicare for All was not all that radical but just a meaningful extension of Johnson Era programs. They were convincing in arguing that people would, in sum, pay less for their insurance than they now did. They never had to address whether anybody would be left behind in the transition but did point out that unions could then go about their business of securing higher wages. It did occur to me that the argument against change, which is that it would be disruptive of present arrangements and so some people might suffer, is the one that is used whenever a new program comes along, whether it is to control toxic plant emissions, or regulate child labor, or most recently, to enact Obamacare. The transition passes, just as the noise of construction on Second Avenue has passed and new high rises are being built all the time to take advantage of the new subway.Read More
Blue Wilderness Dog Food is running an ad on television which shows a household pet dog running alongside a wolf and the voiceover says that the two are related and so both need meat and that the dog food it sells will therefore suit your own dog. The ad is likely to bring a smile or a chuckle to a viewer who is not usually inclined to think that his pet dog is like a wolf. The idea of a wolf deep down in your dog is funny. So this joke is an irony in that it shifts the meaning of a dog to being a wolf in dog clothing and all that implies about being wild and dangerous. The idea is replaced in a second or two or after having watched the commercial once or twice by the realization that the comparison is itself a joke because there is no way the dog who likes to doze on your lap and have his belly rubbed has anything to do with a wolf even if they are genetically related. That too is funny, that a dog could be compared to a wolf. The first joke is the making of a strange or absurd comparison; the second joke is that the first comparison is absurd. The first joke says dogs are like wolves while the second one says that dogs are not at all like wolves. The ad agency should be complemented for having in a ten second commercial directed at a not necessarily highly literate audience led its audience to experience this double irony. I don’t know if it sells more dog food, but it must satisfy the aesthetic sense of the ad’s creators. Now apply this same concept to aesthetic objects that are universally recognized as being worthy of critical attention.Read More
It is difficult to work up much interest in the American Revolution because the men wore powdered wigs and stockings, the guiding ideological opposition between monarchy and Republicanism is not salient today while slavery versus freedom and North versus South, issues from the Civil War, are still with us today, and because the Revolutionary War seems so episodic, Bunker Hill here and Washington crossing the Deleware there, and the surrender of two British armies, Burgoyne at Saratoga and Cornwallis at Yorktown, separated by four years. Wars should have the unities provided by the Second World War: retreat followed by advance, climaxing on D-Day, and victory after that. Well, Rick Atkinson has remedied these deficiencies and presented in “The British are Coming”, the first volume of his three volume history of the Revolutionary War, a compelling narrative of the first two years of the Revolutionary War that does justice to its various elements and though it does not present fresh interpretations, helps make that war comprehensible by making it dramatically whole.Read More
The problem with the art exhibited at this year’s Whitney Biennial is that the artists seem more concerned with exhibiting their knowledge of the technology behind their presentations than with the meaning, emotions or visual impressions left by their productions. This serves as a comment on the state of contemporary art, a movement which has run out of ideas and has always been short on visuals and emotions, much too given to cheap irony than to depthful images. The exhibition contains too many assemblages, either collages hanging on a wall, or as installations on the floor of the gallery. These always seem to me to betray a lack of imagination in that found junk is just glued together rather than arranged in a complex pattern so as to provide for aesthetic satisfaction. This is true of the work of Joe Minter and Daniel Lind-Ramer, and also of Troy Mitchie who provides the overly cute title “This Land Was Mexican Once” to his collection of junk. A title is not a substitute for art.Read More
I do not have much use for the four Congresswomen who are the bones of contention in the recent censure motion of the President that was passed by the House of Representatives largely by a party line vote. I was going to give the benefit of the doubt to AOC. She was young and articulate and might bring in some fresh ideas but her rejection of Amazon coming to New York City showed her to be an ideologue in the bad sense: slogans without content. She is just against big corporations. The governor, the mayor, the local congresswoman, and local labor leaders were all in favor of the project because it would bring fifty thousand jobs to Queens and a lot of them were for warehousemen and construction workers and so would help the working class, even though there would also be high paying jobs for techies and for executives. The tax breaks, all legal (I checked into that), wouldn't kick in until the jobs were in place, which means Amazon would pay less in taxes than it otherwise would; it would not be getting cash up front. I also didn't like Ilhan Omar. She is entitled to be against Israel but rather than attacking Jewish money she should have proposed what she sees as a legitimate solution to the Israeli-Palestinean conflict.Read More
Here is a problem in human behavior whose solution might seem obvious but which turns out to be a sociological problem of great significance. Some people admire people who do things they can’t do, like playing the violin, while other people are dismissive or jealous of people who can do things that they can’t, such as dance or do statistics. When is it one rather than the other, and is it a matter of the personality of the person involved, in which case the explanation is psychological, or something to do with their circumstances, which is the sociological explanation? Let us look at some cases before getting on to my thesis, which is that we are in the presence of the conflict between competition and equality, something that is universal and very deep in social structure and has been going on since, I presume, cave man days or before, but is certainly visible throughout recorded history. Cain was, it seems, jealous of Abel, while Agamemnon admired and made use of the cunning of Odysseus.Read More
Roland Fryer is a MacArthur Grant winning behavioral economist at Harvard University where, at the age of thirty, he was the youngest person ever awarded tenure, though he is now temporarily in eclipse because of sexual harassment charges. Fryer takes on as his major field of inquiry a major policy issue that has plagued social science ever since Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954: why is it that the achievement scores of African American students continue to lag significantly far behind the achievement scores of white students and that nothing much seems to be able to close the difference? Various theories have been offered. These include the idea that African American students are anti-intellectual, or that there are no books in their households, or that African American students need teachers of their own race to motivate them and act as role models, or that the conditions of poverty make it difficult for African American students to focus on schoolwork or that the socio-economic status of a family overdetermines the likelihood of academic success, people of lower SES always getting lower scores than the children of a higher SES. Fryer pursues this issue possibly because he was a poor Black kid who somehow made it and wants to open the gates for others. He uses some very sophisticated statistical analysis to make his cases in his studies of the matter but, I am sorry to say, is somewhat rickety in his reasoning. His studies are very valuable, however, because they open a window onto the present state of social scientific thinking on this matter.Read More