When art was labor, and labor was salvation

Crises have a way of bringing out the best or the worst in people, and in societies, and in cultures. There’s rarely a middle ground, and there’s rarely any ambiguity to it. You might think of them as litmus tests for collective character.

Economic crises, as recent experience has shown, tend to rub rawest. They strike average people the hardest, and leave those people all but powerless while destroying their ability to cope with the present or to strive for the future. Being products of amorphous “market forces” they rarely create a rallying figure, an enemy to fight, a cause to muster for or against. Their effects, usually, are internalized. We’re all left to fight, or more often to founder, alone.

But it hasn’t always been like that.

The worst economic crisis in modern history began, arguably, in 1929—it spread around the world and lasted for more than a decade. Its precise causes are debatable but it is generally agreed that it started with the collapse of American markets (the Black Tuesday stock market crash in October 1929 was a symptom, not a cause), as well as the failure American banks, and was fatally exacerbated by rampant unemployment. At the midway point of what was by then being called the Great Depression, 15 million Americans—representing almost a quarter of the working class—were unemployed, and nearly half of American banks had closed their doors forever.

Politics, as ever, was handmaiden to economics; and political gutter-fighting, then as now, impeded economic policy. A major difference, beginning in 1932, was leadership. The election of Franklin Roosevelt brought fresh perspectives and new ideas. His radical solutions were by no means universally embraced, but they (and more importantly, he) were popular enough to clear the way for unprecedented experimentation: economic stimulus backed by the full force of the federal treasury.

Under the general banner of The New Deal, managed by an array of novel Alphabet Soup agencies, and exemplified by the WPA (Works Progress Administration), America rolled up its sleeves and got back to work.

Recent experience, again, has shown that controversial is the kindest possible term for the idea that federal dollars (and more importantly, federal oversight) can lead to economic recovery. And it would be controversial, or at least impossible to prove, to say that the New Deal overcame the Great Depression.

But what is beyond debate is this: it put people back to work.

If you know where to look, you can still find the legacy of the New Deal in every state, in nearly every city and town. Schools, libraries, roads, bridges—massive infrastructure projects and tiny improvements on the landscape. It was all created by collective effort, in a collective struggle to rebuild a wounded country.

As evidence of the farsightedness of these programs (you might call it progressive, which had not yet become a dirty word), they recognized that it wasn’t just the laborer who was suffering, and it wasn’t only the laborer who could contribute.

The Federal Arts Project, an extension of the WPA, began in 1935 to employ out-of-work painters, sculptors, and art teachers in public works projects and programs. The idea is almost unthinkable now, but it recognized two truths: that art is funded by surplus (and thus, it withers during lean times), and that it is culturally worthy of support.

Nearly a quarter of a million works of art—murals, posters, public sculptures—were created. Among the most iconic were the inspirational murals, often gracing the walls of new WPA-constructed post offices. The style was realist, modern, unceasingly optimistic. Created of necessity—it was essentially the mode of anti-Depression propaganda—it became a fashion unto itself, one that’s still mightily influential today.

Sadly, preservation of these works has never been a national priority. Their neglect almost gives credence to the argument that they were nothing but busy-work for the Jackson Pollocks and Mark Rothkos employed by the WPA; an embarrassing artists’ welfare program, best forgotten. The vast majority of the original artwork is simply gone.

So be it. Public art and public-art funding are, as demonstrated, controversial, and it’d be a long-shot on a good day to get all Americans, or even a respectable plurality, to grow sentimental over what can be reasonably termed ‘artistic socialism.’ Such a movement can probably never happen here again.

But I’m writing these words on an American public holiday, one that for some smells of socialism, and for others represents a grudging nod to the value of the U.S. working class. I can think of no better day than Labor Day to remember that once upon a time, art was labor.

We’ll never see public arts sponsorship on this scale again, and there’s a sad but distinct chance we won’t see its production, its original output, for very much longer. I can’t say if that’s the result of neglect or purposeful design, but either way this legacy is being erased.

*

Best we can do, I suppose, is remember it. And maybe while we’re doing so we can ponder what that program said about America then, and what its disregard says about us now.

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First Impression

Impressionism is arguably the most influential artistic movement of the last half millennium. It represented a stylistic break with the rigid Realism that preceded it, and inspired in its wake not only the techniques and subject matter embraced by visual artists, but also the writers, musicians, and philosophers who’ve shaped our modern culture. A textbook definition of Impressionist painting might speak of abbreviated brush-strokes and the unblended use of color to capture fleeting conditions of light and atmosphere—and it would be correct in doing so. But in broader, and maybe much more accurate terms, Impressionism is nothing more or less than a worldview. It’s a way of describing what the eye sees and the heart feels, denying the simultaneous tugs of jadedness and exuberance, and opting instead for the middle road of studied attention.

Given that perspective, it’s worthwhile to wonder how such a dramatic movement came into being. There are plenty of answers to that, of course, all of them tackling the question in different ways. We’d be equally factual in saying that Impressionism could only have been created in France in the 1870s, when the availability of rail transport, portable easels, and mass-produced oil paints opened the countryside to previously studio-bound Parisian artists—and that Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Degas, specifically, created Impressionism with a single, significant exhibition held in 1874—and that Monet, singularly, gave both impetus and a name to the movement with his 1872 painting, Impression, Sunrise (Impression, Soleil Levant), seen above.

On that last account, we’ve now been given fascinating pinpoint accuracy. Working from the not unreasonable assumption that Monet painted what he saw, astrophysicist Don Olsen pored over clues in Monet’s brushwork to identify a moment in time that inspired an artist, who in turn inspired an artistic revolution.

Olsen’s methodology is captivating, and is worth exploring in detail. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: He began by determining Monet’s vantage point: a third-floor balcony at the Hotel d’Amirauté au Havre. The view is easterly, confirming that the sun is on the rise, and by calculating its position (no more than three degrees above the horizon) he knew that the scene must have occurred twenty to thirty minutes after sunrise.

From there he delved into minutia: the tide, the sea level, the condition of fog, even the wind direction as indicated by plumes of smoke in the distance. Each factor, paired with historical weather reports and documented characteristics of La Havre harbor, narrowed the date. Until he had an answer.

Monet saw that sunrise, was impressed by it, at 7:35 am on November 13th, 1872.

Maybe it’s an academic exercise at best, calculating that. Maybe it’s trivial at best knowing it. But knowing also that Impressionism begat Post-Impressionism, then Cubism and Modernism, and made way for giants like Van Gogh and Picasso, Pollock and Lichtenstein, and indeed the universe of contemporary art and artists that serve us today…then maybe we can agree it’s constructive to publish a birth certificate for Impressionism, one that registers the moment of delivery. That’s what Don Olsen has provided.

Or maybe it’s irrelevant. Maybe all we need do with Impressionism is all we need do with all great art: Just experience it, and be awed….

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RIP Robin Williams (July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014)

First thing I thought, upon hearing that Robin Williams was gone, was that he’d been making me laugh for as long as I can remember.

I realized almost at once that this wasn’t quite true.I was ten or so when Mork first arrived from Ork. But it seemed true—or more accurately, it seemed like it should have been true. Because Robin Williams was so funny, so naturally and organically comical, that it feels like laughter didn’t really properly begin until Robin Williams began to clown for us.

I realized, on the heels of that, that although this was all undeniably true, it was also only part of Robin Williams’s professional story. He was decades into his career, and a huge star, before he showed us his chops as a dramatic actor. With Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, What Dreams May Come and many others, he gave us some inkling of the depth his talent. Hilarious though he was, he was also a multi-layered, accomplished performer, ultimately capable of inhabiting any role.

This inner dialogue of hero-worship took mere seconds, and it all transpired before I learned the “apparent cause” (as it’s being breathlessly called) of Robin Williams’s death. Then the narrative changed.

Similarly, it’s about to change for all of us. It’s already begun, in fact. They who deem themselves the setters of the parameters of our cultural conversation, who decide that Learning Moments abound and who see to it that we’ll damned well learn, aren’t going to want to talk much about the extraordinary life of Robin Williams. They’ll want to talk about suicide and depression.

Maybe I’m dangerously contrarian if I reject that. Maybe some lives and psyches will really be saved over the coming days as we delve into a deep national conversation about suicide prevention. Maybe I should just shut up about it now.

But…no. I’m of the opinion that no matter how noble your campaign, if you’ve ginned up your poster child then you’re perpetrating a fraud.

Suicide has been called a permanent solution to temporary problems. I think that’s true, in quite a lot of cases. But not all. I think there are some cases where a reasonable person makes an informed decision, and acts upon it. And in those cases, I think the decision, and the decision-making process, should be respected.

I draw a clear distinction between those cases and the proverbial cries for help, or suicide gestures. Conveniently—although maybe not so convenient for the people who want to have this conversation—it’s pretty easy to tell the difference. A teenager who swallows half a bottle of aspirin wants help, needs help, and should get it. An adult who for whatever reason opts to slide a shotgun barrel under his or her chin asks for no such help. They’ve definitively made a choice, and have no interest in hearing any of your counter-arguments.

I don’t know why Robin Williams was depressed, and if he killed himself I don’t know why he did that either. I don’t know what led other heroes of mine, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, to choose similar ends. I think they found themselves in a place where they could no longer live they way they loved to live, and decided in response to exert a final measure of control. And macabre as it might sound, I’m okay with that.

Robin Williams was unbelievably talented and charitable to a fault. That’s how I choose to remember him. If I should think about how or why he died, I’ll just tell myself, “He was a grown man, and apparently he had his reasons.” That’s going to be good enough for me.

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Nina Paley illuminates the Levant

Artist, activist, filmmaker (and much more) Nina Paley might just have succeeded were corps of cognoscenti and commentators have been left foundering. Their line of inquiry, topical yet perpetual, has been, “Why can’t there be peace in the Middle East?” In her masterful and stunning animated short, This Land is Mine, Nina Paley knocks that question back with a quick regional history recap. In three and half minutes Paley gives us an inkling of how blood-soaked a comparatively tiny spit of land can get, and how easily the blood-letting over that land—above it, on it, for it—becomes a habit of geography.

This Land is Mine is rumored to be part of a longer Paley opus: Seder-Masochism,  much promised and anticipated, and evidently under construction. While we wait for that gem, thanks to Nina Paley’s gracious and farsighted Creative Commons policies, we can enjoy This Land is Mine, a musical idyll on one region’s most venerable tradition…immediately followed by Nina’s own libretto, Who’s Killing Who? A Viewer’s Guide.

Who’s Killing Who? A Viewer’s Guide

Because you can’t tell the players without a pogrom!

Early Man

Early Man
This generic “cave man” represents the first human settlers in Israel/Canaan/the Levant. Whoever they were.

Canaanite

Canaanite
What did ancient Canaanites look like? I don’t know, so this is based on ancient Sumerian art.

Ancient Egyptian

Egyptian
Canaan was located between two huge empires. Egypt controlled it sometimes, and…

Assyrian

Assyrian
….Assyria controlled it other times.

Israelite

Israelite
The “Children of Israel” conquered the shit out of the region, according to bloody and violent Old Testament accounts.

Babylonian

Babylonian
Then the Baylonians destroyed their temple and took the Hebrews into exile.

Macedonian/Alexander

Macedonian/Greek
Here comes Alexander the Great, conquering everything!

Greek

Greek/Macedonian
No sooner did Alexander conquer everything, than his generals divided it up and fought with each other.

Ptolmaic

Ptolemaic
Greek descendants of Ptolemy, another of Alexander’s competing generals, ruled Egypt dressed like Egyptian god-kings. (The famous Cleopatra of western mythology and Hollywood was a Ptolemy.)

Seleucid

Seleucid
More Greek-Macedonian legacies of Alexander.

Hebrew Priest

Hebrew Priest
This guy didn’t fight, he just ran the Second Temple re-established by Hebrews in Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile.

Maccabee

Maccabee
Led by Judah “The Hammer” Maccabee, who fought the Seleucids, saved the Temple, and invented Channukah. Until…

Roman

Roman
….the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and absorbed the region into the Roman Empire…

Byzantine

Byzantine
….which split into Eastern and Western Empires. The eastern part was called the Byzantine Empire. I don’t know if “Romans” ever fought “Byzantines” (Eastern Romans) but this is a cartoon.

Caliph

Arab Caliph
Speaking of cartoon, what did an Arab Caliph look like? This was my best guess.

Crusader

Crusader
After Crusaders went a-killin’ in the name of Jesus Christ, they established Crusader states, most notably the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Egyptian Mamluk

Mamluk of Egypt
Wikipedia sez, “Over time, mamluks became a powerful military caste in various Muslim societies…In places such as Egypt from the Ayyubid dynasty to the time of Muhammad Ali of Egypt, mamluks were considered to be “true lords”, with social status above freeborn Muslims.[7]” And apparently they controlled Palestine for a while.

Ottoman Turk

Ottoman Turk
Did I mention this is a cartoon? Probably no one went to battle looking like this. But big turbans, rich clothing and jewelry seemed to be in vogue among Ottoman Turkish elites, according to paintings I found on the Internet.

Arab

Arab
A gross generalization of a generic 19-century “Arab”.

British

British
The British formed alliances with Arabs, then occupied Palestine. This cartoon is an oversimplification, and uses this British caricature as a stand-in for Europeans in general.

Palestinian

Palestinian
The British occupied this guy’s land, only to leave it to a vast influx of….

European Jew/Zionist

European Jew/Zionist
Desperate and traumatized survivors of European pogroms and death camps, Jewish Zionist settlers were ready to fight to the death for a place to call home, but…

Hezbollah

PLO/Hamas/Hezbollah
….so were the people that lived there. Various militarized resistance movements arose in response to Israel: The Palestinian Liberation OrganizationHamas, and Hezbollah.

State of Israel

State of Israel

Backed by “the West,” especially the US, they got lots of weapons and the only sanctioned nukes in the region.

Guerrilla/Freedom Fighter/Terrorist

Guerrilla/Freedom Fighter/Terrorist
Sometimes people fight in military uniforms, sometimes they don’t. Creeping up alongside are illicit nukes possibly from Iran or elsewhere in the region. Who’s Next?

Angel of Death

and finally…

The Angel of Death
The real hero of the Old Testament, and right now too.

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I culture you: Take your vacation

You’ve been working very very hard, haven’t you? Poor thing, I know exactly how you feel.

You know what you need? You need a little vacation. Go ahead — take a some time off. Relax.

How you relax is a gorgeous variegated menu, splayed before you. Beach or Basque country, staycation or one-tank-trip motervation, mountain climbing or ego tripping, or all the above, you get to choose how to burn up your precious days off.

May I humbly suggest you shoehorn some culture in there?

Your definition of ‘culture’ is as happily elastic as your ‘vacation.’ Embrace it as ye please, but grab hold of something — art, literature, cinema, fingerpainting — something that’s capable of capturing the imagination of at least two dreamers that you know of — you and the artist — and probably millions and billions of others. Who knows a thousand or hundred thousand or hundred million of them might be simultaneously enjoying their own vacation, or maybe their couple days off, and are opting to spend it, like you are, with a classic novel, a terrifying artist, and a kind of music you didn’t know existed. And who knows what else.

Doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, or what drively job you’re vacationing from, you’ve got a mind and your mind’s like all minds: hungry. Feed it culture and you know good stuff will happen.

No one’s suggesting of course that culture-embrace, however you do it, has to be reserved for two weeks in July or some long weekend in the Fall. Perish that thought, and patron the arts year round. Just know that special heart-felt immersion in the arts is possible only on days you’re not punching some other schmuck’s clock. This holds true for everyone, everywhere, always, amen.

You’re going to take some time off work anyway. (You’re going to have to. Or you’ll explode.) You’re going to spend it how you’re going to spend it.

You could spend some of that time at a gallery or museum, or a book fair or any kind of show, or anywhere the creativity of you and others lead you. That certainly wouldn’t be the worst way to spend a bit of vacation.

Knowing then that in the worst of all possible worlds you’d be spending worthwhile time, and in the best you’d feed your starving brain-maw and open up who the hell knows what kind of literal and metaphorical doors — can you afford not to give it a try?

Seriously. Take your vacation, and swim in some culture.

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Today’s sage words of advice

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What if the sun takes it all away?

It seems we really did dodge an apocalypse, of sorts, back in 2012. In one of those sleeper stories, known but to a few learned insiders (and they might as well keep such things to themselves since no one believes them anyway), an orbiting solar observatory recorded a series of the most powerful coronal mass ejections (CMEs—analogous to solar storms) ever encountered.

CMEs are more or less explosions shot outward from sunspots, which eject first X-rays and other forms of highly energetic radiation that travel at the speed of light, followed swiftly by charged particles, electrons and protons, moving nearly as fast. The sun is of course a sphere, upon which sunspots and CMEs can form pretty much anywhere. This means that the vast majority of such ejections shoot off harmlessly (from our perspective) into deep space. It’s only on those rare occasions that the CMEs line up with Earth’s orbit that we find ourselves in a pickle.

That happened memorably in 1989, when a solar storm damaged satellites, disrupted communications, and knocked out power all across Quebec, Canada. Solar weather-watchers use a complicated formula to gauge the severity of such events, determined in part by magnetometer readings at the equator. The baseline reading of the planet’s magnetic shield (when undisturbed) is zero; solar impacts knock it into negative numbers. The most routine events, the kind that produce the Northern Lights, register at about -50.

The 1989 storm registered -600. And the CME in July 2012 is estimated to have been around -1200. And yes, it was aimed directly at Earth’s orbit. It passed through an area in space that we’d occupied only about a week prior.

It’s only speculation to say what would have happened, or what would happen, if we were to be blasted by a solar storm of that magnitude. In 1859 an astronomer named Carrington witnessed an intense solar flare, that within days brought the Northern Lights as far south as Miami. The Carrington Event also actually triggered arcing, and in some cases even fires, along telegraph lines.

Our harnessing of the electron was of course in its infancy in those days, and is at this quantum level that solar-induced electromagnetic disruption is most keenly felt. We are dependent on the movement of the electron now, and a storm like the one we narrowly missed two years ago could potentially halt those movements, and devastate that dependency.

This scenario is potentially far worse than a simple power outage. To begin with, generating stations and transformers wouldn’t just be knocked offline, they’d be physically damaged. So this wouldn’t just be a matter of flipping the switch back on once the storm had passed. Repairs could take months or years.

In the meanwhile, an economy, a society, and a culture that is in no small part digitally based would simply cease to exist for an undetermined, and indeterminable, period of time. We’d be thrust back into a pre-electrical age, circa 1800, with no frame of reference or collective experience for surviving in such a world.

It almost hurts to wrap your mind around the implications.

As is my wont, I find myself personalizing such things. And amid practical considerations—would I have enough candles? could I protect my family?—I also narrow in on what might be a petty, self-involved issue. Sorry, but I can’t seem to help it.

My body of written work, such as it is, clocks in at I reckon about a half-million words (don’t know why but we writers have become obsessed in recent years in calculating lifetime word-counts). I estimate that nine-tenths of that, up to and including these words you’re reading now, exist in electronic form only, with no durable, CME-proof copies existent.

It’s a shamefully parochial thought, I know. But it’s emblematic of a problem that many of us, if not most of us, share. Financial and health records, much of the documentation of our very existence, are completely virtual—and evidently, completely vulnerable. Modern writers and digital artists personify the cultural side of this risk: our entire portfolios could disappear forever, in an instant.

Short of getting busy with my printer (and believe me, I’m considering that), I’m not sure where to take this new-found fear. I’m not even entirely sure how great the risk is—although one of the physicists who studied the 2012 near-miss extrapolated a 12% probability that we will get hit with a solar storm of this magnitude sometime in the next ten years.

I guess most of all I’ll just take it as prophecy, the kind that you tuck into a back corner of your mind and fret over occasionally, and occasionally take half-hearted measures against. Maybe I’ll buy extra candles from time to time, and take some opportunities to learn more about surviving, and maybe even thriving, in a low-tech world. Maybe I’ll take the initiative of seeing that some of the things I write, if I deem them worthy of preserving, are preserved.

Mostly I’ll just see this digital age of ours, this new era of unconscionably dependent culture, as a little less permanent than I once thought.

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World got you down? Just dance

If you’ve had any exposure to the news over the last week or so, you know things seem to have gotten very, very bad.

Tempting though it may be, escapism probably isn’t the answer. I’ve no proof of this, but I suspect each of us is equally responsible for whatever world-saving solutions might be in the offing. At the very least, each of us is responsible for staying engaged, and staying aware. If solutions are possible, I suspect that’s how we’ll find them.

But we’ve got our sanity to look after, don’t we? So just short of escapism, we might enjoy a temporary sort of disengagement; or rather, an alternative engagement in worthwhile distractions.

That’s how I found myself under the stars Friday night, thoroughly entranced by dance.

Culture junkie that I am, I have to admit that dance has never particularly been one of my delights. I suppose my own ineptitude on the floor might be partly to blame. But we’ve got a young dancer in the house, and we live in a city that values and promotes culture in its many forms, and when we learned that Ballet Hispanico would be performing in a park just a short walk from our home, the decision to attend was a pretty easy one. Even if it was ballet, I figured; even if it was boring ballet—well, it was a lovely evening, out of the house in the company of family and neighbors, and removed (if only temporarily) from the swirling global madness that has been monopolizing my attention.

Ballet Hispanico is not boring. I learned that almost immediately. And it’s not ballet, or at least not the sort of ballet I’d built up my prejudices against. How to describe it? To call it modern dance is probably accurate, but an almost too trite and predictable label. It is thoroughly modern, yet still thoroughly mindful of the ageless Latin dance roots from which it draws inspiration. Clearly I lack the experience and expertise to play dance critic, so I’ll probably have to admit that a legitimate analysis is simply beyond me. Besides, I was, as I’ve said, entranced. Analysis would have been beyond me in any case.

In any medium, I think, there should be a story. I’m a sucker for agile storytelling. And that’s where Ballet Hispanico won me over—with the story-in-motion unfolding on stage. I won’t pretend I grasped every nuance of every figurante vignette; Ballet Hispanico and I are, in more than one way, worlds apart. But their story, and their storytelling, invited me in to their world. And for that I’m grateful beyond my ability to express.

I’m grateful most of all for that distraction, albeit temporary, of which I already spoke. It’s meaningful and gratifying all the more since it came in the form of an artistic movement that until that beautiful Friday evening had always sadly eluded me. Am I a dance maven now? Probably not. But I’ve moved closer than ever to being an appreciator of dance, which leads me to share with you below a couple glimpses of dance I’m sure you’ll enjoy. That’s enough of a departure, for me and the Deconstruction, to make the world seem like a slightly less scary place.

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Children make the saddest refugees

In your heart of hearts you know that if a child runs onto your property begging for help, you need to help. If you’re not willing to help, you’d better have a compelling reason why not—if only to ever be able to look at yourself in the mirror again.

I suppose one of the only acceptable reasons not to help a child in distress is: “I can’t. I don’t have any way to help.” I don’t think America or Americans have ever been able to honestly make that claim, but I suppose two of the only times it’s been close to being true was during the Great Depression, and maybe (just maybe) the Great Recession.

Luckily the recession has been over for years, and every economic indicator has been indicating for a while now that the economy is strong and growing stronger. We’re in a better place right now, economically, to absorb immigration than we were, say, during the Mariel Boatlift, or nine-tenths of the years Ellis Island was bustling.

That sounds like I’m saying ‘open the borders,’ and in a narrow way, at least, that’s more or less accurate. If we were to do that—do I not think it possible that a further, bigger (maybe much bigger) flood of children, mothers with infants, whole families, might follow? Yes, that’s a real, undeniable risk.

It’s also true, I think, that our country, like any country, is responsible for our borders. We must have full and final say over who may cross them. I recognize that as part of the definition of nationhood.

And as a nation you absolutely can turn away children in need, if you want to. But how could you ever want to?

So short of making it our absolute policy to deport every kid who crosses over, I think the only hope of slowing this tide is somehow communicating to the people who are sending them that their understanding of U.S. immigration law is incorrect, and that a coyote-led trip north is far too dangerous and expensive to risk for the almost certain outcome of heartbreak.

The Obama administration is trying to send that message, or hopefully something very like it. I hope it works. I suggest we give them time and support, and see if it helps. If it doesn’t, we’ll have to try something else.

Meanwhile we have to deal with the tens of thousands that are already here. Once upon a time we would have greeted young travelers like them with a message about huddled masses, and yearning, and being free.

Short of telling them that, why can’t we open our hearts, spend a few billion, and greet them with a message that goes something like this:

Welcome. Some of you are going to have to go back home.

Some of you will be able to stay. For a while, longer than you’ll like, you’ll be staying in a dormitory. It’ll be clean and reasonably comfortable, but it won’t exactly represent the American lifestyle you came here for.

If the dormitory part goes well—you made it. The doors will open for you. We’ll make sure someone is looking after you, but most of how well you’ll do here is completely up to you. We hope you won’t make us regret letting you in.

Go to school. Learn everything you can, including English. When you’re old enough, and as long as it doesnt slow your education, get a job. Pay taxes. Become a contributing member of our society.

Most of all, please remember – although our welcome to you hasn’t been the most gracious, know that we still consider you a guest. Please be the best guest you can be, and we’ll let you stay as long as you like.

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RIP Tommy Ramone (Jan 29 1949 – July 11 2014)

Correct me if you must that he was born Erdélyi Tamás. Insist if you must that he and Johnny and Dee Dee and Joey weren’t really brothers.

I won’t start believing that now, because I never stopped believing that Rock & Roll High School was a true story. (I shouldn’t need to add that I Wanna Be Sedated is unquestionably a true story. Because it’s a true story about all of us.)

The true story about the Ramones is that they showed the Clash’s audience in America that they didn’t have to pretend to give a shit about the queen, and that they have plenty to be pissed off about right in their own red, white and blue backyard. The Ramones reminded the world that America had invented the bored-and-shat-upon lower-middle class, and that a select few of that downtrodden number are talented enough to rock about it, forcefully and eloquently, in three and a half minutes or less.

The other eternal truth about the Ramones is that they helped save rock and roll from itself. American rock was going down a dark road when the Ramones appeared, and although it’s probably stretching it to say they reversed that course themselves, it’s a lot less controversial to say that punk rock, every wicked bit of it, was a decisive factor in slowing that sucky saccharine slide that popular music was taking.

All of the Ramones, or at least the elder (eldest) brothers, are gone now. It’s self-evident that means the Ramones are gone now. If there’s a rock and roll heaven, then you know that their hell of a band needs to step aside, because the Ramones are about to go on.

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July 4 2014 – Celebrate…something

Today is not the anniversary of representative democracy. It’s the birthday of revolution.

To which I say—aw yeah. Revolution is something I can celebrate. It’s something I can emulate, with fire and long fuses and banshee screams.

More than a decade after the revolution they began talking about proportional representation and division of powers and…yawn. Sorry. The Constitution just isn’t anywhere as exciting as the Declaration. They brought in the second-string writers for that one. It lacks the soul and enthusiasm, and the class-war confrontationalism, that makes that inaugural document ripe for celebrating. And celebrate it we do.

We may or may not be aware that we’re celebrating a class war that that went in the guise of a revolution. We may or may not be aware that unlike the contemporary class wars we know and love, this one was landed gentry vs. landed gentry—colonial rich men against the aristocratic rich men back home.

It was about taxes. About rich people not wanting to pay taxes. That’s at the heart of a lot of class wars.

It’s apostasy, I know, to cast the revolution as anything except a Divinely Inspired and Sanctioned Fight for Liberty. And it’s apostasy to suggest that anything but perfection came of it.

So here’s my apostasy, all of which happens to be true: the American Revolution was a product of, in equal measure, the Enlightenment and parochial self-interest; engineered by men who seemed to believe in liberty but weren’t willing to extend it to second- and third-class citizenry which, in the final tally, accounted for the majority of their newly minted constituency. And it was fought largely by common folk whose lives didn’t change much once their allegiance was shifted from king to president.

Two hundred and thirty eight years later we have ample evidence that the nation they created, the form of government they finally settled on, really doesn’t work so well.

If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. And you should laugh. And you should have yourself a Happy Fourth of July. And you should enjoy a bit more revolutionary apostasy with me, thereby celebrating your right to be snarky, all over this day that someone, before sundown, is sure to tell you is Patriotically Sacred. Enjoy:

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All hail the Theremin

Whether or not you enjoy the electronic oscillating tones of the twentieth century’s weirdest contribution to musical invention, you have to admit: the rise of the horror film wouldn’t have been possible (or at least wouldn’t have been the same) without it.

And rightfully so. Name for me another instrument, if you will (if you dare), powered by gesture, voodoo, and evil thoughts alone. Inventor Leon Theremin (point of fact, that’s a westernized version—he was actually Lev Sergeyevich Termen) trained as an electrical engineer, and the “official” explanation of his 1920 creation is that it’s a proximity sensor with two antennas; one controlling frequency, the other amplitude. Hogwash. One short listen makes it clear that a Theremin performer preps for his dark arts by sitting in a windowless room contemplating the unspeakable. One long listen pries open the mouth of unredeemable madness.

Having said all that, let us now pay our puzzled props to Japan, where they somehow, consistently, find the cuteness in the most diabolic devices.

Japan, what have you done with the mighty, morose Theremin? Why, you’ve nestled it inside a Russian nesting doll (matryoshka) and called it a Matryomin. Because why not.

Contemplate that, please. That means that the gesturing and gesticulations we’ve all come to associate with Theremin-playing (and really, to date, all that’s been missing in these performances are some wizard hats), now takes place over and around ovoid, garishly painted Slavic folk art. Cthulhu weeps, people, and He weeps hard.

But you’re not going to stop there, are you, Japan? Oh no. You’re going to gather 167 Matryomin players together, and have them execute a boogie-woogie version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from his immortal 9th Symphony. Nothing is sacred, Japan. We already know this, yet you persist in reminding us.

Here it is. Don’t watch it. Of course you’ll watch it, but you were warned.

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Dark Enlightenment – the thinking man’s neo-fascism

What do you make of a movement that purports to be intellectual, neo-reactionary, anti-democratic, and — wait for it — in favor of feudal restoration? You might think them confused, with good enough reason. Then you dig deeper and find them salting their net-grown philosophy with references and ideas from Star Wars, Tolkien, and The Matrix—all the while arguing in favor of eugenics and against egalitarianism, and (because they’re twenty-first century laptop warriors) they throw in some meme cats. At that point you’re tempted to dismiss them, aren’t you?

Don’t.

This self-described Dark Enlightenment, only a few years old now but spreading fast, seems to grasp these historical facts about fascism: people will embrace a movement that transfers their self-determination to an unelected elite, so long as their attention is deflected against some undesirable “other;” so long as doctrine is formulated by inner-circle pseudo-intellectuals; and so long as that doctrine, and the marching orders that always follow, are easily communicated.

In those terms, it becomes clear that modern technology was tailor-made for the resurgent fascist.

The Dark Enlightenment is overwhelmingly made up of white anglo-saxon males (with the UK and the US disproportionately represented), they’re tech-savvy, with quite a few of them, including members of the leadership, coming from the tech industries. They credit their own individual levels of success to biological superiority, while blaming every societal failure on what they see as the lesser races, and on the democratic and progressive ideals that enable them. They trace all loss back to the Enlightenment, to the Age of Reason, to the supposedly faulty logic that all people are created equal and are equally entitled to freedom and respect. Their dark enlightenment seeks to undo those historical tides and strides.

And I say again, don’t dismiss them.

I think they’re ridiculous, shallow, and transparent. I think anyone who follows them must be a basement-bound sheep with a thirst for a movement, any movement. And I think a lot of forward-minded people were just as dismissive of Hitler and Mussolini, in their ridiculous formative days.

These neo-reactionaries seem to believe what they say, and hold faith in the righteousness of their mission. They’re persuasive, they’re well-funded, and they’re multiplying. They’re scary.

The Dark Enlightenment, as both a collective and an ideal, seems to be the opposite of enlightenment…just as the opposite of the Age of Reason has to be a dark age. Dark ages are borne on their own historical tides—they ebb and flow, and inflict themselves on humanity when it’s at its weakest. Tech-enabled fascists seek to hasten that process, and return us to our darkest days. They just might, if we let them.

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Banksy took Manhattan – the movie?

Has it really been nearly a year since enigmatic Brit street artist Banksy steamrolled NYC? New Yorkers aren’t likely to forget the experience any time soon, but just in case the rest of us have, his website is now hosting an intriguing video that brings it all back into focus.

But the question, as it always is with so much of Banksy’s work, is—why? And how much should we read into the fact that the video is labeled: “Better Out Than In – The Movie” …?

Banksy (and what is this guy’s real name, anyway?!) has already been involved in a few film projects, including a couple turns as documentary director in 2010 and 2011. Is that what we’re seeing a preview of today? Is another Banksy movie, one concentrating on his 2013 NYC assault, in the offing?

Or is this yet another Banksy pranksy?

Beats me. Click play below, and take your best guess….

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Pay no attention to the existential threat behind the curtain

There’s a phrase you hear over and over in the debates, such as they are, that American chatterers and politicos engage in on the subject of climate change:

Perpetrating a Fraud

Here’s the context: a minority of my countrymen have decided, with a moral certainty, that the science and scientists confirming that carbon pollution is heating the planet are not only wrong, but are also maliciously deceitful. I’ve never been exactly clear as to the motive of this fraud (“redistribution of wealth” is another bandied phrase—but it’s still a puzzle why a climate scientist in Europe, for example, would be incited to enrich the Third World at the First’s expense)…but the climate-change deniers insist that what we have here is nothing less than a massive conspiracy to sow fear while picking pockets.

Here then is my question: why are these fraudsters walking free? We are a nation of law and order, and the least among us wouldn’t hesitate to call the authorities if we knew some slick-talker was trying to bamboozle the old lady down the street out of her retirement savings. According to people like Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, climate science is a fraud designed to drain entire national treasuries. If he’s right then it must surely be the largest ongoing criminal conspiracy in history. Doesn’t he have a duty to intervene?

If he did, he’d be in luck. These clumsy conspirators aren’t even trying to hide their culpability. If we’re swearing out international arrest warrants, we can start with this list of hubristic international bunkos:

Christopher B. Field (USA), Vicente R. Barros (Argentina), Michael D. Mastrandrea (USA),

Katharine J. Mach (USA), Mohamed A.-K. Abdrabo (Egypt), W. Neil Adger (UK), Yury A.

Anokhin (Russian Federation), Oleg A. Anisimov (Russian Federation), Douglas J. Arent (USA),

Jonathon Barnett (Australia), Virginia R. Burkett (USA), Rongshuo Cai (China), Monalisa

Chatterjee (USA/India), Stewart J. Cohen (Canada), Wolfgang Cramer (Germany/France),

Purnamita Dasgupta (India), Debra J. Davidson (Canada), Fatima Denton (Gambia), Petra Döll

(Germany), Kirstin Dow (USA), Yasuaki Hijioka (Japan), Ove Hoegh-Guldberg (Australia),

Richard G. Jones (UK), Roger N. Jones (Australia), Roger L. Kitching (Australia), R. Sari

Kovats (UK), Patricia Romero Lankao (Mexico), Joan Nymand Larsen (Iceland), Erda Lin

(China), David B. Lobell (USA), Iñigo J. Losada (Spain), Graciela O. Magrin (Argentina), José

A. Marengo (Brazil), Anil Markandya (Spain), Bruce A. McCarl (USA), Roger F. McLean

(Australia), Linda O. Mearns (USA), Guy F. Midgley (South Africa), Nobuo Mimura (Japan),

John F. Morton (UK), Isabelle Niang (Senegal), Ian R. Noble (Australia), Leonard A. Nurse

(Barbados), Karen L. O’Brien (Norway), Taikan Oki (Japan), Lennart Olsson (Sweden), Michael

Oppenheimer (USA), Jonathan T. Overpeck (USA), Joy J. Pereira (Malaysia), Elvira S.

Poloczanska (Australia), John R. Porter (Denmark), Hans-O. Pörtner (Germany), Michael J.

Prather (USA), Roger S. Pulwarty (USA), Andy R. Reisinger (New Zealand), Aromar Revi

(India), Oliver C. Ruppel (Namibia), David E. Satterthwaite (UK), Daniela N. Schmidt (UK),

Josef Settele (Germany), Kirk R. Smith (USA), Dáithí A. Stone (Canada/South Africa/USA),

Avelino G. Suarez (Cuba), Petra Tschakert (USA), Riccardo Valentini (Italy), Alicia Villamizar

(Venezuela), Rachel Warren (UK), Thomas J. Wilbanks (USA), Poh Poh Wong (Singapore),

Alistair Woodward (New Zealand), Gary W. Yohe (USA)

Those are the authors of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s just-released Fifth Assessment Report. It’s grim reading. But as Lamar Smith and others would have it, it’s fraudulent reading. It can be dismissed as a sham, it’s signatories are liars, and those of us who believe it are dangerously naive; and also, probably, unpatriotic.

If I’m unclear on the motives of climate-change fraudsters, I don’t have any such confusion as to the motivation on the other side. Those who deny the overwhelming weight of evidence on this subject are either willfully ignorant, or blatantly greedy.

Greed? Not much needs to be said on that score. All is needed is a little research as to which billionaires and corporations are funding the climate-denial machine.

And willful ignorance? That’s become an existential threat in its own right. Let me be as clear as possible: you may have a right to your own opinion, but your opinion doesn’t compete with the scientific method. The scientific method has created the modern world. Its faults are self-correcting—which is precisely why it works. Your ignorance is both willful and alarming if you feel free to reject the scientific method if and when its findings conflict with what you wish were true, what you want to believe, or the dogma of your religion.

That last point is a huge one, so permit me to drive it home: If your faith forbids you from recognizing and resisting a threat to your species’ existence, when the impact is clearly already upon us, then you’re not a follower of a religion. You’re a member of a suicide cult.

There have always been existential threats. There probably always will be. There have been diseases and cataclysms that have toppled cultures and reduced populations so thoroughly that human repopulation was, in the aftermath, a damned close-run thing. There might one day come a threat we can’t overcome, and that will be that. As near as we can see, that’s just the way of the universe.

But maybe, just maybe, this isn’t that threat. Science has identified it, confirmed it, and if we’re very, very lucky, has shown us ways we might survive it.

I’ll try not exaggerate. The remedies for climate change are expensive and uncertain. We’ve gone past a tipping point where, it seems, our best hopes are mitigation and adaptation. It might not work, and it might not be enough.

But I can’t fathom a world where we wouldn’t at least try. The survival instinct is supposed to be one of our defining characteristics. Another is intelligence—and we should be intelligent enough to realize that any level of mitigation is at least a partial victory, and that transitioning away from fossil-fuel economies is desirable under any circumstances, and that the expenses involved here simply don’t matter. Either we’ll pay them anyway as coasts drown and crops fail, or worse: we’ll reach a stage where money is a memory.

That’s the future we’re headed toward, unless we act and act now. “Existential threat” is a term I use advisedly, and literally. It’s one of the scariest I can think of, except perhaps “climate-change denier.”

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