Truth in Politics

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.

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The Mass Shooting Epidemic

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. 

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The Undeserving Rich

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.

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The New Case for Impeachment

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.

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The Power of Metaphor

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.

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The Second August Democratic Debate

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.

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The First Democratic August Debate

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.

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Double Irony

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.

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"The British Are Coming"

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.

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Whitney Biennial

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.

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Censure Politics

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.

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Competition and Equality

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.

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School Dynamics

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. 

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Civil War Agitprop

Agitprop is art directed at getting audiences to take one side or another in a political conflict. It is usually straightforward in its emotional and political message so that audience can at a glance get a sense of what they are supposed to think and feel. We need look no farther back than John Turnbull’s pictures of battles in the American Revolution to see this process at work even if we prefer to think of these paintings as monumental, as evoking personal emotions like bravery as well as the terror of war. But the painting “Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton” is supposed to make you think of the sacrifices that were made in the cause of liberty and so subsequent citizens should live up to their heritage, to feel patriotism towards the government that now presides. One kind of agitprop, therefore, looks back so as to encourage allegiances in the present. Another kind of agitprop looks forward to when the oppressed will be freed of their shackles. Such forward looking agitprop is found in the Soviet agitprop of the Twenties, where the recently downtrodden and those still not free unite in solidarity, their faces stern and handsome, eyes aligned to the future, so as to create the brave new world to which they are committed. To make things even more clear, Soviet agitprop includes words to spell out its messages, this technique borrowed from the poster art that had become popular in late Nineteenth Century France.

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The World You Never Made

People come into life as if into the midst of a movie, trying to catch up with what has gone before as the story continues to follow its course, except that people in their real lives, or so I claim, are so taken up with the decade or two when they entered the scene, and maybe even a little bit with the times before that, that those are the times that continue to transfix and inspire them, that being when they got their bearings and those being what their bearings continue to be, while in movies we forget that we learned the beginning only through inference and cared about when we came in not at all but just want to get on with the story now that one knows what is going on. Let’s go over present, past and future of the moment you came into your own story in more detail.

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Noisy and Quiet Paintings

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Some paintings and painters are noisy and some are quiet, as paradoxical as that sounds because paintings do not have audio boxes attached. They just sit there in their frames and the viewer provides the sound effects when that is appropriate. Poussin is a particularly noisy painter. You can hear the screams of the Sabine women as they are being abducted; you can hear the moans of suffering but also the silences surrounding dead bodies and deserted streets in “The Plague of Ashdod”  You can hear the crash of blind Orion’s feet as he lumbers down the steep path in the painting “Blind Orion”. How the painter evokes sound is a good question. Perhaps Poussin does it with Orion by having people close to him gawking up at him, or maybe it is because the grade of the path is just right for encouraging a viewer to see the giant rushing down it by crashing one foot in front of another. However the painter does it, it gets done. It is part of his art. There are also quiet painters. The Hudson River School is known for its silence, whether Thomas Cole’s “The Oxbow”, where the countryside below suffers no sound, there maybe being some birds chirping on the hill where the painter who is observing the scene has his seat, or Bierstadt’s “Yosemite Valley-The Landing”, where the distance from the camp site means that the sounds of the Indian settlement will not be heard, while a close up, as in Homer’s “Snapping the Whip” allows an audience to hear the chatter of children. Sounds are therefore created as an inference from the information of the painting and the painter is accountable for the inferences that are to be drawn. That is part of his art.

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A painting where the inferences to be drawn as those inform the meaning of the painting and are directly opposite from the meaning a viewer might expect is in John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark”, first exhibited in 1778, which is sometimes interpreted as an allegory of the rise of the American Republic, the people in the boat representing the various strands of the American community, while the boy in the water is America and the shark is Great Britain, out to destroy the Republic. Or else, as is more usually the case and was so seen when it was first shown, the picture is a tribute to religious salvation: difficulties are overcome by courage and solidarity. But listen to the silences of the painting. The people in the boat are agape with wonder or horror but are not shouting, because there are no such expressions on their faces or mouths wide open. The shark seems dead in the water and so makes no sound and the boy appears to be unconscious and so also makes no sound. So what is being conveyed is a mood where great danger is over, the figures in the picture in the aftermath of some dramatic moment, trying to absorb it, each one within their own solitude. This is the opposite of what Lessing will say is the heart of sculpture, which is the moment before something awful happens, but rather is the moment after a disaster, when its impact is being communicated to the people who observed it, this moment of a drama also caught by Poussin in his noisy way in “The Parting of the Red Sea”, where Egyptian charioteers are washed up on the beach by still noisy waves while some Hebrews are still making their way onto the beach with, presumably, their heavy breathing and clattering steps accompanying the waves breaking upon them.

So what is the significance of “Watson and the Shark” other than that it intrudes upon the timeline in its own way, portraying the moment after rather than the moment before the climactic event? It is, I think, a point that is not political, however easy it is to see the little dingy as the ship of state. It is a sense of the deeps, even here in Havana Harbor, where the event that inspired the painting took place: the shark is one of the demons of the deep, the boy one of the victims of the deep, a victim of circumstance because the shark had found him. All onus belongs to fate. So the people in the boat are looking at their own destiny, whether they are black or white, and of whatever profession. They too will be dragged down into the sea. That is their eventual doom. I therefore read the painting as not about the Enlightenment or religion  but about the nature of life and think there is no reason to think the artist has been documenting the political moment rather than what is always the moment, a modern version of a dance of death painting, the grim reaper coming for all of us.

Some great painters are noisy and that explains what they are up to. Brueghel was particularly noisy. You can hear the laughter and music and bustle in his “The Wedding Dance” just as you can hear the crunch of the snow under the feet of the hunters returning to their town in “The Hunters in the Snow” and you can hear the rustling of the sheaves and the buzz of the flies in “The Harvesters” as the farmer who is taking a post lunch snooze under a tree, even down to his snores. Brueghel provides these sound effects via the viewer’s association of these picture elements with sounds, because Brueghel is giving a realistic account of the fullness of everyday life, even if some of his figures are exaggerated, that snoozing farmer a bit oversized, but not much more so than his fellow harvesters would notice.

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Then again, there are great painters who are very silent. I count Rembrandt as one of these even though he also did some loud paintings, such as “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” where you can hear the roar of the waves against the boat. Some of his greatest works are very silent, notably “The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild”, a picture of the solemn burgers who rule Amsterdam’s commerce out of their dour black clothing and unsmiling faces. They say nothing, not caught in the midst of chitchat or great events, as are the Founding Fathers who are caught by Turnbull as they are signing the Declaration of Independence, they perhaps silent for a moment in tribute to how profound is their action. Rather, the sense in the Rembrandt is that these men are known for their decisiveness rather than for their eloquence. They are solid burgers, which is what makes their republic great.

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A modern great painter, David Hockney, is also a silent painter and has been so throughout his career. His early creation of a Los Angeles office building, “Savings and Loan Building”, is not set amidst the bustle of street traffic either human or vehicular, as is the case in the Ashcan School paintings of John Sloan and others. Only a few palm trees stand in front of the building. His late creation, “A Bigger Interior with Blue Terrace and Garden” experiments with space in that he shows the wings of a terrace without distorting space to get it all in, but the painting is true to Hockney’s silent world in that nothing rustles. The same is true of his greatest paintings. “Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool” shows a nude man getting out of a swimming pool, his bare buttocks at the center of the picture, but he is not disturbing the water, the indications of ripples in the water not suggesting the splash of wavers, no more than the dashes on the blinds behind the emergent swimmer suggest only the soundless play of the sun on the blinds. Similarly, “Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy” is without a soundtrack, no crescendo of music to accompany the very self assured quality of a couple standing amidst their still incomplete living room, the plush rug softening footsteps, Percy the cat saying nothing, and the phone, still not set on a table, not ringing. What is striking is Mr. Clark’s angular and faintly sinister face, it not needing to say anything to be worthy of notice. What the silence provides to the painting, I infer, is the artist’s characteristic combination of serenity and unworldly eeriness.

Whether or not there is a soundtrack is, I fully grant, sometimes an inference drawn from the sense of what the painting is up to rather than to be garnered from some clue in the painting, as is the case with some of the paintings I mentioned earlier, which give reason to associate sounds with them. But the question of a soundtrack is raised by the nature of painting as a form, one that is largely without words, however much that is not true of pamphlets and paintings in Luther’s time, or in Cy Twombly’s graphical comments on the environment, or in one or another poster that serves as agitprop. It is a form that is also devoid of ideas in that it does not state any directly, that being an abstracted verbal activity, even as many painters represent in their paintings the thoughts that lie behind their paintings. All art forms reach beyond themselves. The novel uses drama and a prosaic poetry. The drama uses spectacle, which is a painterly thing. Poems portray scenes as if they are being painted and music sometimes claims to be programmatic in that it is telling a story rather than being “pure” music. So there are no end of precedents for claiming that painting too drifts off into being noisy or silent, even as, within its own confines, it can be more colorful, as is the case with the Impressionists, or less so, as in the case of Rembrandt. Don’t shortchange the painter’s use of his resources.


Modern Advertising

A long time ago, Marxist social theorists thought that advertising was the new opiate of the masses, up there along with religion and drugs. In making people think they were happy in a society in which they were exploited or at least not dealt with fairly, the rich able to continue in their money grubbing ways by lulling most people into a sense that they were both in control of their lives and also satisfied with those lives. Automobiles let people think they were free because you could get into your Chevrolet and tour the American countryside, going where you wanted when you wanted, when, in fact, people were tied down to their boring and unsatisfying manufacturing and white collar jobs, prisoners of the wage/salary system. People could improve their love life if they wore the right lipstick and deodorant, and that would make up for the unpleasantness of work life, sex another opiate of the masses. Cigarettes would relax them and appliances and dishwasher detergent would make the life of the harried housewife so much easier that she had time to indulge her fantasies of romance. There was nothing that advertising couldn’t fix.

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Debate Fallout

According to MSNBC and network news, the most significant fallout of the two night Democratic debate was that Kamala Harris took on Joe Biden about bussing. Yes, commentators correctly point out, he was not as sharp as he needs to be or as he once was. Earlier in his career, he would have pinned her ears back by saying she didn’t know what she was talking about, but here he seemed to be struggling just not to give in to uhs and pauses, even to the point of saying he had run out of time to cover up the fact that he may have lost his train of thought. His voice was also weak. But on the merits of the issue, he was absolutely right. Back in the early Seventies, bussing was not a way to enforce Brown v. Board of Education but one alternative being tried out to improve the education of black children by integrating them with white children and Biden was a voice that told the simple truth: that bussing would not work as a way to integrate the schools, even if it should be used to end de jure segregation, and bussing would therefore needlessly inflame the passions of whites who were opposed to it even if whites had been perfectly willing to have blacks bussed long distances to attend schools in the previous segregated system. 

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Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire"

Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire” is so well known that there would seem to be little cause to comment on it except that it is easily misread, as when it is treated by the art historian Ross Barrett as a reaction to the Jacksonian democracy of the period, when there is nothing in the series of five paintings about the rise and fall of civilizations that is even remotely concerned with the politics of Cole’s time. The series is, however, of interest to a follower of intellectual history because, aside from its artistic accomplishments, the series marks out Cole’s conception of human history and this stands on the cusp of two very different ways of understanding human history-- as if we are not always on the cusp of something or other. In his case, on the one cliff lies a theory of history dominant in the late Eighteenth Century that had been so influenced by Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, which depicts mankind as going from some glorious level of civilization to a decrepit form of that because of some set of circumstantial events, such as a succession of bad emperors or else because of some fatal poison introduced into the society, such as Gibbon imagined the case to be with a Rome that had become Christian. On the other side of the chasm lies an evolutionary theory of society, where people went from being primitive to ever more civilized, and that mediated by the way they made their livings rather than because of political machinations. Cole works hard to find images to fill out his understanding and, in that early period in the study of pre-literate societies, those are not easy to come by.

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