The Poor Man of Nippur – Babylonian language short film

I’m just giddy to present here, in its entirety, The Poor Man of Nippur—a 20-minute short film created by the University of Cambridge Department of Archaeology. It is the first feature produced in the Babylonian language, which has been extinct for more than 2,000 years. The Cambridge team has painstakingly resurrected the lost tongue, an effort spanning more than twenty years, to the ends of narrating and performing an ancient Akkadian folk tale first recorded in cuneiform as early as 2100 BCE.

Three fragmented tablets are known to exist, each telling the story of an impoverished goat herder, Gimil-Ninurta, from the Mesopotamian city of Nippur, which flourished during the Sumerian and Akkadian cultures. Gimil-Ninurta attempts to better his fortunes by making a gift of his prized nanny goat to the mayor of the city, but is cheated and insulted, and thrown from the palace. He vows revenge (“Gimil-Ninurta” translates to “Vengeance of the god Ninurta,” one of the patron deities of Nippur), and sets out to lay the mayor low—not just once, but three times (karma compounded). No spoilers here, but if you’re one to root for the little guy, you won’t be disappointed.

The film was produced in and around Cambridge’s Trinity College, with Archaeology Department students conversant in the revived Akkadian language handling the roles of Gimil-Ninurta, the mayor, palace officials, and various hangers-on. Cleverly enough, the film stutters and skips in a couple spots—an inspired way of addressing the portions of the story that are missing, owing to breaks in the tablets.

All in all, it’s a fascinating effort and an engaging tale, and well worth your twenty minutes. In a hurry? I’ve also embedded the 50-second trailer. Enjoy one or both (be sure to enable subtitles/closed captioning); either way you’re about to hear a language last heard in the time of the Caesars….

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Orson Welles and his self-indulgence from beyond the grave

Orson Welles died in October of 1985. His last film, The Other Side of the Wind, was finally released in latter 2018. The late director worked intermittently on the project from 1970 until his death. It was unfinished and stuck in legal limbo until Netflix took on the sizable task of assembling a final cut from Welles’ 100 or so hours of raw footage. The result might not be the cinematic masterpiece so long anticipated, but it is an interesting look at the mindset of a Hollywood legend as he tilted at his final windmill.

The Other Side of the Wind presents an intermingling of plots, or in some cases mere estimations of plots. Its outermost layer is the last day in the life of esteemed filmmaker Jake Hannaford, a role so blatantly autobiographical that it’ll be an enduring mystery why Welles tapped John Huston instead of playing it himself. This drama is interspersed with scenes from Hannaford’s unfinished swan song, an experimental film perhaps inevitably titled The Other Side of the Wind.

This recursive self-reference becomes a metaphor, quite possibly an unintended one, for Welles’ own struggle to produce a coherent film structure out of a collection of snippets. It’s said that throughout the long life of the project Welles’ scope and intentions were constantly changing—early on, apparently, the “star” of the film-within-the-film was to be the 1970s impressionist Rich Little, in his first dramatic role. He grew frustrated with Welles’ amorphous direction and walked off the set; as a result his presence is cut to a single, incongruous scene in which he’s inexplicably arguing why “it’s not my movie.” His character is unnamed and is never seen again.

In the end, there was no finalized screenplay, and no direction other than what existed in Orson Welles’ imagination. Assembling a completed film, then, decades after his death, could only be a hit-or-miss proposition. So it’s unsurprising that’s exactly what we got.

Or maybe that’s what would have resulted anyway. Welles was designated a genius at the dawn of his career—such a mantle could only become a burden as he grew older. His first feature film was widely acclaimed as the absolute acme of American cinema (I’ve always felt Citizen Kane was vastly overrated, but that’s neither here nor there). He spent the rest of his life slowly descending from those plateaus. And unfortunately, it shows.

The Other Side of the Wind was where Orson Welles’ genius became an affliction. It very well could be that he never really intended to finish it—maybe he just wanted to keep filming until he died. If so, he got his wish. But if so, he’d be sorely irritated with what Netflix has cobbled together.

In no way am I saying don’t watch The Other Side of the Wind. If you’re a fan of Old Hollywood, or even if you’re merely curious what this legendary filmmaker was up to in his last decades of life, by all means give it a watch.

Just don’t expect transcendent cinema. If you expect instead a little weirdness, and a whole lot of self-indulgence, you won’t be disappointed.

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A climate of despair

It’s no surprise that the latest U.S. climate assessment report dropped on Black Friday. Can you think of a better day to bury a report that presents, quite literally, an inconvenient truth?

The report is volume 2 (vol. 1 was released more than a year ago) of the fourth congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment—a quadrennial (since 1989) effort to integrate climate-related research conducted by 13 federal agencies, including NASA, the Department of Defense, the EPA, and the National Science Foundation.

The politics of climate change, throughout the lifetime of this program, have become increasingly complicated. The program’s findings, on the other hand, aren’t complicated at all. They have consistently shown that anthropogenic (human caused) climate change is real. They’ve shown that the widespread, industrialized combustion of fossil fuels has led to an increase of atmospheric carbon that, when compared to air bubbles found in ice-core samples taken from around the world, is exponentially higher than anything our planet has experienced in hundreds of thousands of years. The research shows, definitively, that this carbon traps terrestrial heat—in other words, solar radiation passes through the atmosphere as it’s always done, but when it’s reflected off, or absorbed then released by the land and seas, its wavelength is altered to a band that can’t pass through the atmosphere. At sustainable levels of carbon in our skies, planetary temperatures are regulated, with excess heat bleeding off into space. At our present carbon levels, we’ve effectively placed a blanket around the earth.

Since the first Climate Assessment Report was completed in 1990, the interagency panel has warned that increasing global temperatures will lead to drought, wildfires, more frequent and more destructive oceanic storms, coastal flooding, mass migrations of climate refugees, conflicts over disappearing land and resources, and increasing risks to every foundation of civilization itself.

Although these warnings have been taken seriously by a plurality of Americans and by most of the world, the politics as I’ve said are complicated, and climate deniers have (here at least) remained influential. So in the U.S. very little action has been taken. Presently, and Friday’s report notwithstanding, the administration’s stance toward climate change (and the mitigation thereof) is actively hostile. Political appointees and leadership at those aforementioned agencies seem to take climate denial and regulatory rollback as their prime mandates. And Trump himself, beginning with the his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Treaty, has led the way.

The report released on Friday is the most dire warning yet. Its driving conclusions: carbon levels are increasing much more quickly than previously forecast, impacts of a heating planet are already upon us, and it’s almost too late to do anything about it.

On that last point—only a concerted, unified effort by every government on earth could now cut back carbon pollution to the level mandated by the Paris accord. And even at that level the world will continue to warm, albeit at a slower pace.

Such an effort seems vanishingly unlikely. U.S. leadership in this realm has disappeared. China is embracing renewable energy but still burns more fossil fuels than any other country, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Other emerging economies express concern, but are understandably reluctant to curtail their own growth for the sake of a seemingly unengaged First World.

Even in Europe the outlook is bleak, despite the EU’s lead on renewables and climate initiatives. France itself gave us the Paris treaty, but is as we speak roiled by the so-called “yellow vest” protests, a response by drivers and low-income workers to onerous fuel taxes designed to drive down carbon consumption. One protester was just quoted as saying that the taxes were imposed by those concerned with the end of the world. “We’re just worried about getting through the end of the month,” he said. It’s a point that’s hard to contest.

More than anything, though, it’s inertia and intransigence that almost guarantee inaction. Human institutions—human nature itself—aren’t equipped to engineer the epochal pivot that’s needed to mitigate climate change. Nearly everything about the ways we live, work, travel, and grow would be impacted—in most cases, drastically. We’re hard-wired to resist that kind of change. And consider this: such change could not (arguably) happen absent American leadership, and that leadership would have to begin immediately; 2020 would be too late. This would require, at the starting block, a tacit admission by Donald Trump that he’s been wrong all along on this subject, and that Barack Obama, among others, was right. Such an admission just might be the unlikeliest scenario of all these.

So what’s left? There’s this: climate change isn’t coming. It’s here. Global average temperatures have been and will continue to rise. The forecasted droughts, storms, fires, and flooding are already upon us. Global warming and everything that comes with it is the reality we’re living.

The watchword now is adaptation. We as a species have to come to terms with a world and an environment that is frighteningly different from the one we evolved to thrive in. We need to adapt to a different climate, different landscapes and coastlines, an altered food chain, and vastly divergent modes of civilization.

There’s a glimmer of hope there—homo sapiens is a vigorously adaptive species. We’ve flourished in environments ranging from the tropics to the arctic circle and everything in between. We have reason to believe that climate adaption is a viable strategy.

It had better be. It’s becoming more and more likely it’s the only one we’ve got.

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RIP Roy Clark (April 15 1933 – Nov. 15 2018)

Guitar heroes can come from any background and can play in any style. Roy Clark was a country gentleman, best known for playing country and western, but I don’t believe he was acquainted with the concept of ‘limitation.’ He was one of the first six-string virtuosi I was ever aware of (it was the seventies; there were three TV channels; even if you didn’t like country music you were going to watch Hee Haw). The passing of years hasn’t dimmed my admiration for the man and his breathtaking talent. Mr. Roy Clark passed away at home today in Tulsa, aged 85. May he rest in peace.

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World War I – a century behind us

When I was about nine years old, I had the privilege of meeting an American veteran of World War I. I’m not sure I realized then what a privilege that was, but I think I knew it was quite unusual. This would have been the late seventies, there were plenty of Second World War veterans about, hitting their upper middle ages around then, but I believe I was aware that this elderly gentleman visiting our fourth-grade class was the only I’d met who’d lived through that first Great War. I doubt I would have foreseen this, but as it happened, he was to be the only such veteran I’d ever speak with.

And now all of them—every last first-hand witness to that epochal conflict—are gone.

Today is November 11th—the day we in the U.S. celebrate as Veterans Day. But it’s important to remember that the holiday was originally known as Armistice Day, and it commemorated the day that the Guns of August, as Barbara Tuchman called them, went silent.

A century on, with no living witnesses to the horrors of 1914-1918, it falls to us, to all of us, to remember that war, its victims and its causes and its aftermath, because there are lessons to be learned there and I fear they’re more critical now than ever.

It’s remembered as, among other things, the first modern war. It saw the first large-scale use of tanks, airplanes, and machine guns—all the more amazing when you consider it was barely a century removed from the Napoleonic Wars. And then there was the gas—seen as a solution to the stalemate of trench warfare, all sides resorted to poisonous gas. It’s been said that where WWII was won by physicists, WWI was won by chemists—except it won nothing, it just killed and blinded and maimed. It was so horrific that throughout World War II, despite all other excesses and despite all sides stockpiling chemical weapons, none deployed them on the battlefield. That would be a lesson, then, that was once learned but too soon forgot.

Perhaps most striking, in the face of all that hostile modernity, is the decidedly 19th-century fashion in which the war began. Tuchman’s book and others detail it much better than I can, but one envisions a continent-wide maze of diplomatic tripwires, set by bewhiskered old men, almost all of whom, it seems, were related in some way to each other and to Queen Victoria, no matter which side of the conflict they were on. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Serbia was almost irrelevant—if that hadn’t been the trigger, something else would have been. It was inevitable. Once one side began mobilizing, the other was obliged to. Alliances were activated, war plans initiated, and the thing took on an unstoppable trajectory of its own.

What followed was four years of hell. It often gets overshadowed by the even more horrific world war that came after, but there’s a strong argument to be made that both were, in fact, a single protracted war, with a 20-year hiatus in the middle. Regardless, both after November 11th 1918 and after 1945 the world changed. Maps were redrawn, treaties signed, empires and cultures and class structures reshuffled. After both wars solemn ‘never again’ vows were made. It’s tempting to look around, to war-torn regions like Africa and the Middle East and to see folly in those vows, but that might be hasty. Our wars since the mid-20th century have been awful, but they have been (to reluctantly use an inappropriate adjective) limited. We do seem to have learned a lesson—we do seem averse to reliving that wrenching past.

But now World War I is a century behind us. In a generation World War II will be equally distant. Will we forget?

That’s the danger, and the only solution I can see is to keep telling these stories and to keep reliving that past. They should never be far from our consciousness, but on days like today, the consequential anniversaries, we should strive to think of little else. As I said, we in the USA have chosen to transform the 11th of November into an annual recognition of our armed-forces veterans, and that’s well and good. They have earned our thanks and recognition. But November 11th 2018 is unique—it’s the hundred-year anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars. Just for today, let’s focus on that.

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My ballot speaks for me

I voted today. Could’ve done it earlier; could’ve dodged the crowds, could’ve filled out a ballot at home and mailed it in at my leisure. These are valid choices, and if they were yours I salute them and you.

But I enjoy the semi-ceremony of waiting until the appointed day, of visiting the neighborhood polling place, of casting my ballot in this strangely regimented way. I enjoy greeting and thanking the volunteers, of shuffling first through this line and then that one, then finally secluding myself in that three-quarters way, with the patriot-themed curtains that put the “secret” in secret ballot.

A republic votes, and it seems to me that the more honor and dignity it bestows on the process, the more precious that process becomes. Citizens and senators alike voted in the old Roman Republic (before a populist dictator pissed all over that), in a way that wasn’t just a civic function, it was a religious act. We can argue in due course about the virtue and place of religiosity in the public forum, but for good or ill that invasion has already taken place. Maybe a positive outcome might be to lend some spiritual fervor to the responsibilities of citizenship. Maybe then more of us might participate.

Because the sad fact is, no matter the hue and outcry, no matter the hype, we’ll be lucky if half the electorate casts a vote before polls close today. It makes a mockery of the otherwise valid issues of voter suppression, of fraud, of the merits of showing identification…of the whole sordid history of suffrage and suffering and of fighting for the right to vote. In too many respects those who marched and fought and died for this right fought for nothing, when we consider it’s voter apathy that’s winning the battle. That’s unforgivable, and it has to change.

We’re no Rome, when it comes to the mechanics of our vote. It makes no sense that it happens on a Tuesday, a workday for most of us. And it makes no sense that voter registration is a distinct process, something to tend to and to very often stress over, when our status as citizens should be registration enough. These are barriers to voting, in other words, and although they should be knocked down, they’re with us for now, for the foreseeable future. But they are by no means insurmountable barriers—ask any of we 30 or 40 or 48 percent who turned out this cycle. We chose to vote, and in so doing we resolved to work our way round any barriers that might come  between us and the ballot box.

So I’d urge that literally silent majority, the eligible non-voters, to reject their own apathy, to overcome all those barriers, and to see days like this as I do, as the high holy days of democracy.

We don’t often ask, as JFK urged us to, what we can do for our country. So maybe it’s time our country instead demands: Your minimum duty as an American is to participate on these infrequent Tuesdays, to speak your piece by way of the ballot box. So do it. Vote.

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Midterms 2018 – the closing arguments

As I write this we’re just a little over a week away from what’s shaping up to be the most momentous mid-term election in generations. And in writing this I’m knowingly contributing to what I think of as the election home-stretch paradox—that’s when the hype hits fever-pitch, the ad spending goes stratospheric, and all hands are working overtime to woo voters and change minds. It’s a paradox because by now, most minds are made up, and thanks to early and absentee voting, a sizable percentage of the lots have already been cast.

But still. Even if it sways no one and is lost in the whirlwind, I’m opting to add my voice to that cacophony.

I’ll start with the disclaimer I’ve made often in these pages: I’m a registered Independent. I’m not only unaffiliated with any political parties, I’m resolutely opposed to the very idea of political parties. I’m convinced the two-party system is the worst thing to ever happen to American democracy, and it might yet be the death of it.

But idealism is no lifeboat, and I won’t cling to mine in these waters. I could go on and on about the haplessness and venality of the Democratic party, and I have no doubt that sooner or later I’ll do just that. In the immediacy of this earth-shaking election, though, I’m urging the nation at large to vote blue.

There are two reasons for this, both of which go way beyond any ‘lesser of two evils’ calculation: Trump needs to be contained, and the GOP needs to be taken to the woodshed.

I’ll take the former point first. After landslide losses in the 2012 election the Republican National Committee underwent a self-prescribed ‘autopsy.’ They chalked up their shellacking to ideological rigidity, lack of inclusiveness, and not a small dose of racism. They vowed to do better…then reverted back to their bad old ways almost immediately. After gaining control of all branches in government in 2017, they’ve become positively power-mad. The majorities in the House and Senate are run like fiefdoms, with no regard for the norms of rule they howl about when they’re in the minority. Mitch McConnell in the Senate has abolished the filibuster for judicial appointments—a move he described in apocalyptic terms (“The Nuclear Option”) when the Democrats contemplated it back when they held the majority. Along with the House majority, he rammed through last year’s tax-cut bill, discounting all predictions that it would explode the budget deficit. Now that this inevitability has arisen (the deficit has skyrocketed), the “party of fiscal responsibility” is choosing to blame ‘entitlements,’ and once again have Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in their crosshairs. This, while they’re contemplating even further tax cuts.

Bear in mind that in the midst of all of this, the GOP has utterly abdicated its Constitutional oversight duties. While a record number of administration officials have gone under indictment, the congressional majority refuses to investigate at best, and provides cover at worst. While credible claims have been made about Trump’s tax evasion and violation of the Emoluments Clause, the House and Senate have done nothing. Amidst overwhelming evidence that Russia intervened in the 2016 election in Trump’s favor, GOP water-carriers like Devin Nunes have actively obstructed the investigation in order to shield the administration from its fallout.

Try to imagine how fiery and overwrought the GOP’s rhetoric would get if the Democrats were guilty of a tenth of that.

So yes, just like in 2012, the Republican party has been tested and have been found very much wanting. It’d be time to take away the keys on those merits alone.

Far more important, though, is the dangerous direction of that orange-tinted demagogue leading the party. Thoughtful Republicans should remind themselves, several times per day if necessary, that Donald Trump self-identified as a Democrat up until just a few years ago. Why did he switch? I’ll submit that he went for the base he thought he could most easily manipulate, that he saw as his most direct path to power.

He was right about that, wasn’t he?

Donald Trump in power has proven to be a clear and present threat to American democratic norms and indeed to our national character. He is everything in our dark collective id that most of us are embarrassed and repulsed by. He is racism and nationalism personified. And he’s getting worse.

That the divisions he’s fostered are now turning violent should be a surprise to precisely no one. That he spent less than a day denouncing that, before reverting to his “the-press-is-the-enemy-of-the-people” factory reset was utterly predictable. His lies are getting bolder and amazingly more frequent. His behavior is getting more unhinged.

This is the Trump we’re seeing at the halfway point of his first and hopefully only term. Losing control of Congress might rein him in a bit—maybe just enough for us to retain a republic we can rebuild once he’s gone.

But what if he doesn’t lose? What if we don’t turn out this election, or we don’t deliver the ballot-box rebuke the president and his party have so thoroughly earned? Trump will see that as vindication, indeed as license. The next two years, and his reelection campaign, will be a fever-dream of puffed-up, muscle-flexing Trumpism. This country will morph into something no true American should want and no thinking American would accept.

We have exactly one chance to get this right, and to stop this nightmare in its tracks. That chance expires when the polls close on November 6th. No matter how you might normally feel about the Democrats, about liberalism, or even about minimal political engagement, this is existential. Show up, hold your nose, and vote Dem. It’s that important. It’s everything.

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More buoyant the second time around: Titanic II to set sail

Some ideas just feel bad from the get-go. “Titanic II” has to top that list. Nonetheless, some fate-tempting souls say they’re going to do it. Australia’s Blue Star Line (whimsically named after the owners of the original Titanic, White Star Line) are working on a $500 million seagoing recreation of the 1912 original. It’s scheduled to set sail in 2022.

Will it carry almost exactly the same number of passengers (2,400) and crew (900)? Well of course it will. And will its maiden voyage mirror Titanic’s? Why not. Blue Star plans for the luxury doppelganger to depart Southampton, and if all goes well to do what the original could not: dock in New York.

And if that all sounds like hubristic madness, well, rest assured that this time around she’ll be carrying enough lifeboats for everyone. That’s progress, I suppose. Also, our latter-day climate makes North Atlantic sea ice a little less likely.

Icebergs? Those are so last century.

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Banksy’s latest: The hype is strong with this one

Oh, come on. This is just too much.

If you haven’t yet heard, you soon will. An event went down yesterday at Sotheby’s in London that will surely be part of art-world lore forevermore. “Girl With Balloon,” one of the most recognizable works by the enigmatic street artist Banksy, was on the block and had just sold for a cool £1.02 million ($1,340,000). Moments after the gavel came down the piece self-destructed. It fed itself through a shredder apparently hidden in the lower edge of the frame. Banksy, who might have been in attendance, and possibly remotely triggered the spectacle, posted a photo of it on Instagram with the caption “Going, going, gone….”

Sotheby’s denies collaboration and foreknowledge. A senior director for the auction firm, Alex Branczik said, “It appears we just got Banksy’ed.” The as-yet unidentified buyer hasn’t commented, and it isn’t even clear that he or she would be now obligated to complete the sale. They’d be advised to consider their options carefully, though: some appraisers are saying that the value of the newly segmented painting instantly increased by at least 50 percent.

So there’s likely to be at least one winner to come out of this conspicuous prank. Two, if you factor in the ballooning (so to speak) of the Banksy brand. The losers? Any of us credulous to take this episode at face value.

A shredder hidden in the frame? Really? And Sotheby’s never noticed? Either they’re extraordinarily bad at their pre-auction due diligence, or they’re lying through their teeth.

And as for Banksy—what the hell was gained here? Seems to me a Banksy prank used to serve a higher purpose. Banksy’s art had a message, and all the unexpected ways Banksy sneaked art into our consciousness were central to that message. Banksy pranks were non-lethal rounds fired in the street-level skirmishes of the social revolution.

Does even Banksy think that’s what happened last night? Or does Banksy recognize, as we all should, that it was just self-serving hype?

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So you think there’s no art to telling time? You think that whether it’s analog or digital, it’s purely utilitarian? Check out, then, the Schiphol Airport clock in the Netherlands, created in 2016 by artist Maarten Baas. It features a silhouetted man (with just enough visible color—blue, black, and yellow—to pay homage to fellow Dutch artist Piet Mondrian)…on a never-ending task to erase and repaint the clock hands in accordance with the inexorable march of time. And you thought you were a slave to the timeclock.

(Don’t feel to bad for that clockwork gremlin. He’s actually a twelve-hour filmstrip, playing on a loop.)



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Cosby’s great fall

Bill Cosby has spent his first 24 hours behind bars. You can’t help but wonder what that must have been like.

When did it become real for him? Was it when he heard the sentence, or shortly thereafter, when he was first shackled? If neither of those, it was surely sometime last evening or last night, when he was directed into some small, confining space, and the door was locked behind him. That might have been the first time, maybe for weeks or months or years, that he was finally alone with this thoughts. How did he cope with that?

By now he’s surely interacted with other inmates—is his celebrity or his age, or his crimes, impacting the way they treat him? By now he’s had a few jailhouse meals—did anyone suffer upon him the thousand different Jell-O jokes that occasion was begging for?

Most importantly, what are his regrets? Last night he laid down on a cot smaller and far less luxurious than anything he’s experienced in decades. He did not sleep. I wasn’t there and I haven’t heard anything you haven’t, but this I’m sure of: He did not sleep. So what went through his mind? Was he regretting his pattern of predation, the unspeakable things he’s done to women for decades? Or was he regretting just that one he was convicted for? Was he regretting only that he got caught?

There’s something pitiable, in the abstract, about an infirm old man falling so far and landing in a place that he’ll in all likelihood spend his remaining days. But knowing what we know about Bill Cosby, we know he deserves no pity. It’s just a pity his crimes went unchecked for so long. And it’s a pity that for so long, we were so wrong about what kind of man he was.

Because in a lot of ways, the evolution of Cosby marched alongside the evolution of a few very different generations. My parents saw his groundbreaking mid-’60s role in I Spy. I was raised first on the ’70s strangeness of Fat Albert, then on that camouflaged wholesomeness of the Huxtable household. For my daughter, back in the aughts, it was Little Bill. All of us saw these disparate faces of Cosby, then all of us together saw the mask ripped off, and the ugliness beneath.

In that way Bill Cosby is again, for one last time, a Man For His Times…because these are the days of scouring away the veneer and of revealing the underlying rot. We’re finding a lot of rot, we’re finding it every-damned-where we look, but we have to do this. It’s going to take a while longer yet, and some of these stains we find will be more resistant than others. But it must be done.

There’s some fashionability, if that’s the right word, to say that #MeToo must carry on in the names of and on behalf of all our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives. And while that’s not incorrect, exactly, I think it’s needlessly reductive. #MeToo isn’t a movement to benefit women. It’s a movement to benefit us. All of society suffers the malfeasance of people like Cosby. All of society is bettered when people like Cosby are put away.

At this moment—the moment I’m writing this and the moment you’re reading it—chances are very good that Bill Cosby is still ruminating over how high he soared and how low he fell. He’s probably wallowing in regret, although once again we can’t be sure how honest those regrets might be. But that doesn’t matter.

In the end it doesn’t matter if Cosby sees the light or goes to his grave feeling sorry only for himself. His fall serves a much higher purpose. Years from now or maybe tomorrow or maybe in an hour, someone will think of doing something despicable, and when they think about Bill Cosby, maybe they’ll think twice.

Multiply that by a thousand Bill Cosbys, and by the untold years ahead of incremental #MeToo progress. The result is that the society we need and deserve is coming—not at all quickly enough, but it’s coming.

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Putin on the Potomac (a painting, a prank)

New York City artist Brian Whiteley is laying claim to an epic prank executed last month at Donald Trump’s very own D.C. profit center, the Trump International Hotel. The hotel, located near the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, on the site of the Old Post Office (the site is still owned by the federal government), opened just 13 days before the 2016 election, and is the epicenter of a host of Trump-related controversies and alleged conflicts of interest.

Whiteley, who has something of a history of targeting Trump through art, says he checked into suite 435 of the hotel on the first of August, and hung his painting of Russian president Vladimir Putin on the wall. The painting shows Putin in a state of menacing repose, with the White House behind him and to his left. Whiteley says the painting, and its temporary residence at the Trump International, is a “commentary on the cult of authoritarianism” that he says the Trump regime engenders.

Per Whiteley’s account, he and an unnamed accomplice stayed one night in the suite, and after hanging the painting they went out for dinner and drinks. They met a party of Trump supporters, out on the town celebrating a birthday, and invited them back to the hotel. Whiteley and his partner say they didn’t call attention to the Putin picture, but they saw that several of their guests noticed it. One of them said, “Putin, fuck yeah.”

Whiteley says he left the painting in place after checking out, and returned a month later to find it still on display. He believes numerous hotel patrons must have stayed in the room during that interim, but none seem to have questioned its existence. Around the beginning of September he convinced lobby staff to allow him to return to the room, then unoccupied, telling them that he’d left something there during a previous stay. A doorman accompanied him, and summoned hotel security when he saw Whiteley removing the painting from the wall. Whiteley was able to prove the painting was his and that it was covering hotel-owned art (which Whiteley left undisturbed), but he says he was questioned at length and was unceremoniously ejected from the hotel.

Officials from the Trump International deny that any of this ever happened.

Read the full story at Hyperallegic.

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Labor Day ’18 – a movement on the cusp

If you’re a worker, today’s your day. Labor Day is more than just the unofficial end of summer—it’s the annual recognition of the irreplaceable role that callused hands and dripping sweat and unyielding grit have played in building our civilization. So today’s your day: enjoy your acclamation.

Tomorrow—get your ass back on the line.

Sparse celebration is about all we can expect, because that’s all the paymasters are willing to give. Like everything about the labor movement it has to be demanded in order for it to be received.

The policies of the present administration, not to mention those in conservative state legislatures all across the country, seem to have labor on its back heels. From anti-union right-to-work laws, to tax policy favoring the rich at the expense of working families, it feels as though prospects have never been darker for the foundational class of American producers.

That’s an illusion, though. Suppression from above is hardly a fresh phenomenon—what we’re seeing today is a culmination rather than a new development.

That pamphlet above dates from 1947; an eyeblink, really, after the industrial “arsenal of democracy” was mobilized to save the world. Workers were seeking a collective share of the promised peace dividend, and the Chamber of Commerce, clearly, was not having it.

So that was just an early example of the demonization of labor, but it was hardly the last. The same pols and pundits who pay lip service to the nobility of the individual worker—you’ll hear plenty of that today—sow distrust and discord when those workers collectivize and seek strength through their numbers. So it has ever been, so it will ever be.

The only answer to that, from a labor standpoint, is to stay strong and keep on keeping on. Remember that nothing, including your own dignity, has been given; you’ve had to claim it. You’ll have to continue doing that to beat back the current attacks.

This includes staying informed and getting engaged. It means not buying into the politics of divisiveness, and not voting against your own interests. It means looking beyond the present frays to a brighter future that you, and only you, will create for yourself and your family.

Labor Day reminds us that we’ve built whatever freedoms we enjoy, and that more work, unending work, is required to sustain them. And it reminds us that tomorrow when we’re back on the job, that’s Labor Day too. And so is the day after that, and the day after that.

Get informed:

5 Myths About Labor Unions

The Labor Movement: Facts & Summary

Working Families


Industrial Workers of the World

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A 15-storey tribute to Johnny Cash’s Folsom Blues

Half a century ago Johnny Cash gave two performances at Folsom Prison near Sacramento, California, and thereby shone a rare light–for that time–on prisoner rights and the need for prison reform.

Contemporary graphic artist Shepard Fairey is also a champion for prison reform. He has recently unveiled his salute, in the form of an expansive wall mural, to his spiritual forebearer, The Man in Black. Painted on the side of the Marriott Residence Inn in downtown Sacramento, it features an image of Cash in the style of a famed 1968 photo by Jim Marshall, taken at Folsom Prison. Fairey has positioned his work so that Cash’s gaze is directed toward Folsom, some 20 miles away.

Enjoy below Shepard Fairey’s description of the mural and an overview of its creation. And below that, enjoy even more Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues:

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H.P. Lovecraft’s not-so-private horror

Howard Phillips Lovecraft would have turned 128 this week. As it was, he died in 1937, aged just 46, but if he’d enjoyed such startling longevity we likely wouldn’t be discussing today what infernal bargain was keeping him alive, but rather if age, perspective, and modernity had made him any less deplorable.

H.P. Lovecraft is rightly recognized as the father of ‘cosmic horror,’ and a strong cornerstone of the entirety of the horror genre as we know it today. Giants like Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Neil Gaiman cite his influences, and his Cthulhu Cycle continues to slo-mo morph right before our eyes, from a cracking good monster story into a modern-day mythos.

But here’s the thing. H.P. Lovecraft was an out-and-out, wholly committed racist. His racism, anti-semitism, misogyny, and bigotry were, from all evidence, core facets of his character.

So the question becomes, can you separate that from his writing? It’d probably be a cop-out to say this is an individual choice (even though it almost always is). And it can’t be denied that some of his stories (none worth naming here) were blatantly and explicitly bigoted—there shouldn’t be much argument in shunning those works wholesale.

But the others? The majority of his corpus doesn’t seem to advertise his prejudices, although the cynical might presume that as long as the protagonist was WASP-y and male, all was right in Lovecraft’s world, and he could bring on whatever was eldritch and wrong with that world.

Elsewhere in this space I’ve discussed similar, dreadful failings in another American author, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, too, brought his personal prejudices into his writing—again, not all his writings, but enough to make his readers all too aware of who and what he was.

And I like Hemingway—I like him a lot. I read and re-read A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Dangerous Summer, and many others, usually several times per year. But on the other hand, I read The Sun Also Rises and To Have and Have Not each only once. The gratuitous racism in each, frankly, turned me off and I’ve never wanted to read those books again.

The way I’ve compartmentalized that—which mirrors, probably, the way I’m compartmentalizing Lovecraft—is either a defense mechanism or an apology for men who neither asked for nor earned one. But it’s where I’ve landed on this issue.

As with the work of Ernest Hemingway, I’ll probably continue to enjoy the Lovecraft stories I like, while shunning the ones I find objectionable. And I’ll advocate for historical honesty: we should remember these authors as they were, warts and all.

Along the way I’ll honor and support anyone compelled to take it further. If you want to burn Lovecraft in effigy I won’t light your torch but I won’t douse it either.

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