Despite the complaints that the Democratic field is too large, there being too many candidates on the stage, and the usual criticism that these debates aren’t really debates because they are not sustained interchanges where people get to answer people’s answers, the CNN debate on Tuesday was very successful in that it gave a sense of each of the candidates and gave the audience an education on a range of issues. The topics touched on could have been expanded into an entire political science course. Most of all, the debate provided a sense that what unites the Democratic Party is that it sees the purpose of government as satisfying whatever needs the populace has. There is no limitation on the ways government can help people, which is the opposite of what Republicans used to say, before Trump, which was that smaller government was better government, that government had its limits because government was the enemy of liberty rather than its enhancer-- or that was the case before Trump appeared on the scene to play Mr. Bluster from the Howdy Doody show: all talk, no delivery. But before getting to the issues, let’s talk about the horse race.Read More
The exhibition of John Singer Sargent’s late charcoal portraits of fabulously beautiful women, at the Morgan Library and Museum, is quite profound. These pictures were drawn when Sargent was sick of doing the elaborately colored portraits of society women, those dressed up in fancy gowns, the costumes distracting from the fact that Sargent is primarily interested in faces and that he has the ability to render each face as distinctive and deep. Sargent’s facility as a portraitist, whether in color or charcoal, prompts a viewer to ask the most difficult questions about the nature of portraiture, and that fact alone casts considerable credit on Sargent for having raised them, even if neither he nor anyone else is able to fully answer them.Read More
One aspect of our existential situation is that people are sometimes involved in their own histories and sometimes they are not. Sometimes we are actors in our lives and our circumstances as when we take on a new job or act as a Good Samaritan and sometimes we are bystanders, as when we experience technological unemployment or notice what is happening in a Presidential race. Sometimes we shift our focus, and so we are drafted into the Army because of Pearl Harbor and yet the story of ourselves as soldiers is so profound that the war is a story of all those G. I.’s. who make up the Greatest Generation, each one of them to be immortalized as the doers who brought World War II to its righteous conclusion. This alternative between being at the heart of a story or on the periphery of a story is such a fundamental feature of human existence that we are not aware of the importance and pervasiveness of the distinction even as It is a distinction that we cannot do without if we want to grasp what happens in life and what life itself consists of, just as we can not easily grasp what it would be to be a creature in heaven that had no physical being, just a spiritual being, and so not subject to respiration or the feel of the breeze on our cheeks. A good way to get some sense of this distinct characterization of every human being as caught up, somehow, in his or her history, is to treat it as a version of what can be more readily understood in art as the distinction between foreground and background, which is not just a convention of art but a characteristic of life recognized by art with perhaps greater accuracy than is true in literature or philosophy.Read More
A. O. Scott, the NY Times movie critic, was right on the mark when he said in his review of “Judy” that the movie really wasn’t that great but that Renee Zellwegger had done such a star turn portraying Judy Garland that she was up there for an Academy Award for Best Actress. I would put it differently. Zellwegger doesn’t look like Garland, she doesn’t sound like her, and she doesn’t have her mannerisms, but she puts together a character which makes you think of Judy Garland, which is in keeping with what Zellwegger has said in interviews, which is that her aim was not to imitate Garland but to convey the emotions that went along with her. The movie itself, however, settles for the usual bio-facts about Garland. She was groomed by Louis B. Mayer to be a star, she took diet pills and sleeping pills from an early age and thus became a life-long addict, she was a car wreck in that she gave erratic performances and often didn’t show up on time, and the movie even threw in another part of the Garland legend, which is that she became an icon for her gay followers, all of these facts following from and in the service of an Achilles like dilemma to have a dazzling life as a performer even if it meant her personal life would be very rough, a pledge she did not regret until the end of her life when she preferred to see herself as a mother than as Judy Garland, the legend.Read More
Conservatives and moderates will say that the phone call between Donald Trump and President Zelensky of Ukraine is just Donald Trump’s usual bluster and so not to be taken seriously or, if it is, that it does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense because it is, after all, just one phone call, and that even if it is an impeachable offense, it is too late in Trump’s term to pursue impeachment because the election about a year from now is available as the preferable device for getting rid of him and so not give the Republicans the excuse of saying that the Democrats are not willing to go to the ballot box to get their way. My view is that the charges are very serious, very impeachable and, most important, it is necessary to pursue these charges because we cannot wait for the next election to correct the problem Trump presents.Read More
The top national security people who work in the White House are usually meritocratic appointments, the selection made from people who had been working previously in ever more important positions in either Republican or Democratic Administrations, and so you could count on how they would conduct themselves in office because they were already known quantities. That tradition goes back a long time, John Foster Dulles was the heir apparent for Secretary of State if Thomas Dewey had beaten Harry Truman and he got the office when Dwight Eisenhower won the Presidency four years later. Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk were old Washington hands. The same is true closer to the present. Madeleine Albright was a Democratic fund raiser turned professor of international relations and Condoleza Rice was a student at the University of Denver under Albright's father and she had learned a lot about deterrence theory before she signed on to educate George W. Bush about foreign policy. Colin Powell had been a political general before working in the White House.Read More
Here we are at the start of the third round of impeachment talk, and it is a good question whether anything will come out of it when nothing came of it in its previous iterations. First there was the Mueller investigation into connections between Trump and the Russians during 2015 and 2016. Mueller got so tied up in legalities that he couldn’t conclude that the communications between the Rusians and the Trump camp amounted to a conspiracy because there was no proof of criminal intent, which is a version of what I would call the clown defense. Trump is such a clown that he doesn’t know he is entering a conspiracy only that he is acting conspiratorially and then can deny it was malevolent because he goes public with what others would try to hide. He asked Russia at a public rally to go after Hillary’s emails and a few days later Wikileaks released a lot of information. So how could Trump be conspiring right in front of us? He is a fool rather than someone like Nixon, who worked hard to cover up what he knew to be wrong conduct on his part even if it were warranted by his sense that both political parties do it.Read More
Art theory refers to the development of concepts that are applicable to a number of art works so as to explain them rather than to the examination of a particular artwork, even though the concept may be drawn from a particular work of art and then becomes generally applicable, as is the case with Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, which is drawn from “Oedipus Rex”, but has become applied ubiquitously. Art theory is therefore different from the trivial arguments about whether a Duchamp's toilet is or is not truly an art work or whether art is a matter of line and color or subject matter. These are fruitless philosophical arguments while the real work of art theory is to increase the body of concepts that can be used to analyze art.Read More
There is something profoundly different in these two things: the activity of writing history and the activity of living within history. Sorting out the differences between the two sheds light on the more abstract issue of the difference between living in the mind and living in existence, which is a question as old as philosophy, what with Socrates having maintained that the demands of the two were quite different: mind requiring unrelenting criticism, even if it earns scorn from those not engaged in the pursuits of the mind, while life itself required obedience, even to the drinking of hemlock. Let’s bring the dispute up to date.Read More
“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