Journal: Friday, May 6

I don’t necessarily agree one hundred percent with this author’s conclusions, but the argument is cogent and timely today as it was more than a century ago. From the Notebooks of Mark Twain:

“A man can be a Christian or a patriot, but he can’t legally be a Christian and a patriot — except in the usual way: one of the two with the mouth, the other with the heart. The spirit of Christianity proclaims the brotherhood of the race and the meaning of that strong word has not been left to guesswork, but made tremendously definite — the Christian must forgive his brother man all crimes he can imagine and commit, and all insults he can conceive and utter — forgive these injuries how many times? — seventy times seven — another way of saying there shall be no limit to this forgiveness. That is the spirit and the law of Christianity. Well — Patriotism has its laws. And it also is a perfectly definite one, there are not vaguenesses about it. It commands that the brother over the border shall be sharply watched and brought to book every time he does us a hurt or offends us with an insult. Word it as softly as you please, the spirit of patriotism is the spirit of the dog and wolf. The moment there is a misunderstanding about a boundary line or a hamper of fish or some other squalid matter, see patriotism rise, and hear him split the universe with his war-whoop. The spirit of patriotism being in its nature jealous and selfish, is just in man’s line, it comes natural to him — he can live up to all its requirements to the letter; but the spirit of Christianity is not in its entirety possible to him.

“The prayers concealed in what I have been saying is, not that patriotism should cease and not that the talk about universal brotherhood should cease, but that the incongruous firm be dissolved and each limb of it be required to transact business by itself, for the future.”

— Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”)

Sweet Poison

If you change your mind, maybe you can spit it out later...

If you change your mind, maybe you can spit it out later…

During the first twenty years of my life, a time I mostly spent romping around the woods and fields of Sand Mountain (that’s in northeastern Alabama, for you heathens), I saw exactly two venomous snakes. One was a cottonmouth swimming in a catfish pond, who took one look at me and swam the other way; the second was a copperhead sunning himself on a rock next to that same pond. I was able to sneak up close enough to spy on the copperhead for about two seconds before he, also, detected my presence and bolted.

There are, in fact, four venomous snakes native to my home state: the water moccasin, the copperhead, the coral snake, and an assortment of rattlesnakes. (The latter two varieties managed to elude me for the entire two decades, despite my habit of placing myself very much in their way. To this day I’ve never seen a rattlesnake or a coral snake outside of an open glass tank in a church … but that’s a story for another day.) The majority of the snakes in the region are harmless to humans, or even highly beneficial, efficient predators on mice, rats, moles, and other farmyard pests.

Despite the paucity of truly dangerous reptiles in the state, my grandmother — whose attitudes about wildlife owed more to the early chapters of the Book of Genesis than to the Peterson Field Guides — viewed every legless reptile as an enemy not just to be killed on sight, but to be hacked to pieces and the pieces tossed out into the dirt road in front of the house on the flat of a shovel.

This campaign was only nominally successful: Grandmother managed to bar the serpent from the house, barn and outbuildings, but made little or no progress outside those walls. As a result, the snakes were all somewhere else, and the safest place for a field mouse or a rat was, naturally, indoors, with us.

Anyone who has spent time on a farm knows that the damage a mouse can do to a bin of grain, flour, or animal feed is completely disproportionate to the creature’s size. Happy little Mickey or Minnie, like Caligula at the feast, will eat until he or she can barely walk, then poop and pee and start again. While there is a limit to just how much a mouse can eat in twenty-four hours, the rodents can apparently produce enough urine and feces in a few days to reduce seventy-five pounds of feed to so much foul-smelling compost.

Traps, of course, only winnow out the most foolish of the invaders, leaving the smartest in total command of the field. Poison is likewise useless, since putting it in the feed bin would defeat the purpose entirely, and even if the vermin can be induced to consume the poison elsewhere, they will almost always crawl off somewhere unsuitable to die and putrefy afterwards — such as the feed bins.

The solution to this dilemma would seem obvious: let nature do what nature does and allow the rodents’ natural predator to fulfil its function. For my grandmother this was not an option. The snakes had to be killed, always, on sight, with no hesitation, and damn the consequences. This was her way, and no amount of logic or empirical evidence was going to make her do things any differently.

 *  *  *

In Alabama, among the poorest states, doctors wrote 143 prescriptions for opioids such as Oxycontin for every 100 residents in 2012 — the highest rate in the nation. Heroin use is also increasing while life expectancy is declining for white, working-class men in Alabama and other so-called “Red States”, those dominated by conservative politics. At the same time, this same voting bloc overwhelmingly supports conservatives, and actively and voiciferously opposes any programs or initiatives that might serve to improve their situation.

Such dedication to working against our own self-interest is hardly rare. We see it again and again among gay Republicans; immigrants and children of immigrants who rail against the evils of immigration; African-Americans who support racist politicians and political movements; the working poor who fight tooth and nail to deny themselves healthcare or affordable housing or a living wage. The list goes on and on.

My grandmother was not a fool. She was, however, a product of her time and her environment, and for reasons that I’ve never fully understood, in all of her ninety-odd years of life she was never able to transcend those limitations.

Likewise, all over this country we see ordinary men and women surrender their birthright to demogogues and oligarchs who openly declare that they intend to use that power to degrade and diminish them and their children, and their children’s children, for as long as that power endures.

In Alabama, in Mississippi, in Arkansas, in Texas, in Louisiana … starved for jobs, for education, for opportunity, for perspective, otherwise reasonable citizens embrace again and again the political forces that have systematically brought them to such dire conditions — and the worse things get the more enthusiastically they support their oppressors, and the more brutally they lash out at anyone who might propose to improve their lot.

What’s to be done? Better minds than mine have been grappling with this question, and as of this writing, no answers seem to be forthcoming. The man relying on welfare for his family’s survival will avidly support a politician dedicated to depriving him of that last desperate resource; that Sand Mountain farm woman’s passion to destroy snakes was greater than her need to feed her family and her livestock.

 *  *  *

My grandmother believed. She did not assess the facts, consider the consequences, or weigh the alternatives. Her questions came with the answers already attached, readymade, replete and eternal, and no matter how much harm those answers might do to her and to those she loved, she would consider no others. Had it been my grandmother that the serpent encountered there in the Garden of Eden, not only would the apple have remained untasted, but that snake would have been lucky not to end up reduced to bite-sized pieces and tossed out into the road on the flat of a manure spade. My grandmother would have remained there in that garden, safe and secure and forever limited, trapped in a wonderful prison.

When a loud, booming voice tells you that what you can see with your own eyes is a lie, and that only by allowing someone bigger and stronger than you to grind you into the dirt can you ever achieve greatness, there are those who resist, who rear up and defy the giant floating orange face. Others tell themselves “Yes! The Big Voice is so much greater than me, it must have all the right answers!” and seal their minds and hearts and wait for the greatness to descend upon them.

What the serpent offered Eve was not money, or fame, or power over her enemies; he tempted her with something even more awesome and more terrible: he offered her knowledge, and that knowledge cost her the garden and gave her the world.

It’s a difficult choice, but we all have to make it sooner or later.


Journal: Wednesday, August 19

Khaled al-Asaad

Khaled al-Asaad

Frustrated ISIS militants holding the city of Palmyra yesterday beheaded 82-year-old archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad.

When Islamic State fighters first began to move in on the city — a UNESCO World Heritage site which dates back to Roman times — Asaad, the director of antiquities for Palmyra, moved everything portable into hiding. Once the city had fallen into ISIS hands, the militants began looting the site, hoping to sell priceless artifacts to wealthy collectors in the US, Europe and Asia to help fund their activities in the region. They captured al-Asaad and tortured him for a month, before finally beheading him yesterday and leaving his mutilated body hanging from a post.

Khaled al-Asaad never revealed the hiding place of the treasures that he was holding in trust for future generations.

As an artist fascinated by history, places like Palmyra resonate for me on many levels; I can’t help but see its survival into my lifetime as a bridge reaching across two thousand years, connecting me with the Romans who built the city and created many of its treasures. People like me depend on people like al-Asaad to protect that bridge.

I’m not one of those people who believes that all victims are automatically heroes, but I think Khaled al-Asaad deserves to be called a hero.

Journal: Wednesday, July 29

burning computerLike millions of other people sitting in front of their computers yesterday, my reaction to the sad story of Cecil the lion was both visceral and vehement. The impulse to react accordingly was irresistible: it was also wrong.

The fifty-something American from Minnesota whose adventures launched such a firestorm was perfectly cast for the role of villain. He was a dentist, a job that arouses pretty negative feelings in many of us; better yet, he was obviously a wealthy dentist: How many of us can afford to walk away from our jobs for weeks at a stretch to go jaunting off around the globe (especially when we have dental bills to pay)? Most importantly, he was an avid sports hunter, not just of the local turkey and deer but of animals that most of us only dream of ever seeing in the flesh.

Then there were the photographs …

This was that guy. We all knew him in school, or at work, or around the neighborhood, and hated, envied and feared him. The Humvee that takes up three parking spaces. The rottweiler that maims your cat. The BMOC who bullies your kids. Well-fed, self-satisfied, and smug, a kind of Donald Trump of cosmetic dentistry, his shiny white smile, his testosterone playacting, his triumphant poses with the creatures he had killed, all found a nerve, then bared down on it like a dull drill during a root canal.

And we all twitched.

The reactions were, to say the least, intemperate. By the time rumors and memes had graduated to reliable news coverage, the vitriol was already knee-deep and rising. Justifiable indignation escalated to a savage, unthinking fury. We looked into those little round glasses and that “whattya gonna do about it, chump?” grin and we became judge, jury and executioner.

Fortunately, in this case the target really had committed the crime for which we were tying him to the stake: his defense so far has consisted of protesting that when he paid tens of thousands of dollars to an unscrupulous guide to help him slaughter a member of a threatened species by luring the beast from a national park, jacklighting him, wounding him, chasing him for forty hours, and then shooting, skinning and beheading him, he didn’t realize that the animal in question was one that people actually gave a shit about. The jury has not been moved to tears by his protestations.

On the other hand, I worry that what we’re doing to the odious dentist from Minnesota may not be much more defensible. He did a thing that, by any reasonable standards of human behavior, is disgusting. Should he suffer for it? Damn straight he should. Is it up to me to try him, convict him, and light the fire under his feet? No, it isn’t.

This man (and I use the term loosely) will almost certainly end up in court somewhere, whether in the US on bribery charges or in Zimbabwe for “taking” a protected animal illegally; the public scrutiny will, I hope, ensure that he doesn’t have the opportunity to quietly pay a piddling fine and slide right back into his old habits, none the worse for wear. Meanwhile, his dental practice is probably not going to bounce back any time soon, and he won’t be spending much time on Facebook, and life for his family his going to be rough for years to come. When he finally turns up, he’s going to have to face those challenges, legal and otherwise.

Cecil the lion is still dead, and hunts like the one that brought him down will still go on, all over the world, but the dentist from Minnesota is probably not showing off quite as much of those perfect teeth of as he was. In the end, however, it makes things even worse that this man, in displaying the arrogant dark side of human behavior, brought out more of the same in the rest of us. Now we are all going to have to decide what to do about that.


Nothing if not critical …

"The Art Critic", by Normal Rockwell

“The Art Critic”, by Normal Rockwell

The death of writer and television personality Robert Hughes in 2012 was an event that did not exactly shake western civilization to its roots. His television shows “The Shock of the New” (1980) and “American Visions” (1997) had brought him some fame in the rarefied air of the BBC/PBS universe, but despite a long and wide-ranging career – he penned an  overview of the early European colonization of his native Australia, he contributed to an array of newspapers and magazines, and he even hosted (for one week, before being replaced by Hugh Downs) the ABC television news magazine “20/20” – to most people outside the art world he was almost unknown at the time of his death.

With or without fame, in his views on art Robert Hughes was passionate, pompous, often obnoxious, but he was also unfailingly erudite and articulate, and he left us more aware and better-informed than he found us.

. . .

You’re probably asking yourself why I’m eulogizing somebody nobody’s heard of, who’s been dead for years – especially an art critic, not usually an artist’s favorite person. It’s pretty simple, really: I started thinking about Hughes while reading a recent online review of the work of an interesting, if minor, American artist. I won’t identify the artist or the critic, but I will say that had the essay been printed it would have been a criminal waste of ink and paper. Like a sea turtle mistaking a street light for the moon and ending up stranded in a Miami Beach parking lot, this writer had formed a bright and shiny idea of what art criticism should look like, and had then beached himself trying to drag his subject across the sand and up into the glare.

Just as history is more than a mere description of what one thinks should have happened at some time in the past (Texas Board of Education notwithstanding), art criticism is more than just one person’s opinion about what’s worth looking at. Good criticism establishes context, finds the objective value of the art as it exists within that context, and defines that value in clear and accessible terms for the rest of us. Opinion is inevitably a part of the process, but only a part: open eyes and an open mind are essential.

As website user comments have replaced professional criticism, the process of assessing the arts in our society has, indeed, become more egalitarian, but it has perhaps lost as much as it has gained. A rambling, poorly-punctuated diatribe posted to Amazon or the Times (or an art blog) is no substitute for well-informed and well-written analysis; criticism should not just be a “love it/hate it” blast of noise aimed like a cannon at a work of art, but a part of the art itself, as carefully planned and thoughtful as the work it addresses.

The standing joke about critics is that they are just failed artists taking out their frustrations on those more talented, but the best critics are also scholars, able to balance the weight of their own personal opinions with a comprehensive, critical, knowledge of the subject matter — arguably an art form in and of itself.

. . .

When education experts identified critical thinking as a necessary component of the civics curriculum a few years ago many pundits and politicians were outraged, interpreting “critical” as synonymous with “negative”. For the Bill O’Reillys and Sean Hannitys of the 24-hour news cycle, critical thinking about American life and history meant something seditious, unpatriotic, and anti-American.

The word “critic” comes down to us from the Greek kritikos, “able to judge”, which in turn derives from krinein, “to separate, to decide” – tellingly, the word “crisis” comes from the same root. The use of the word “critic” in English to describe someone who analyses and offers judgements on art dates back to about the sixteenth century.

The English language is nothing if not flexible – to the despair of anyone struggling to master its ambiguities – but as a rule, even though words may change, we generally hang on to the fundamental concepts behind them. With terms like critical, critique, critic, and so on, however, that doesn’t seem to have been the case: any positive, constructive connotations have evaporated, leaving behind nothing but a mean-spirited residue.

Why are you being so critical?”

Everybody’s a critic.”

I don’t need your criticism, thank you very much.”

It’s easy to forget sometimes that the work of creating art is not like putting in a new dishwasher, or taking out a diseased appendix – it’s often very difficult to distinguish success from failure over the short term. Everything is subjective, based on a complex interaction between the artist’s technical abilities, emotional commitment, environment, community, ideas, and luck. If the appendectomy is successful, the fever goes down, the pain goes away, and the patient goes home to give himself an ulcer worrying about how to pay the bill; if the operation fails, the patient dies. When an artist completes a work there is no such objective measure by which to distinguish success from failure. That’s where the critic comes in: he or she is a voice from outside the artist’s head who is capable of understanding what the artist was trying to do, but has sufficient emotional distance from the process to make rational and dispassionate assessments of the results.

Robert Studley Forrest Hughes

Born July 28, 1938, in Sydney Australia

Died August 6, 2012, in New York City

That is why the recent shortage of qualified critics is so worrisome to me. Left to our own devices we in the arts are like children stumbling through a shrubbery maze: we see our hands in front of our faces, and perhaps a few other wanderers appearing and disappearing around the corners, but from our place deep inside the maze it’s hard to get any useful overview of the entire layout. We need good critics to help map out the twists and turns, and to shout out a warning when we start down a dead end or begin to wander in circles.

. . .

On this 77th anniversary of the birth of Robert Hughes, I raise my glass to that cranky old blowhard from Sydney, and I hope that for as long as artists keep marching boldly and foolishly into the maze, there will be men and women like Hughes to help us find our way.

An insane pronouncement.

Copernicus_solar_systemLet’s suppose you’re doing last Sunday’s crossword puzzle.

You’re stumped on seven down: a five-letter word for “indistinct”. There are a couple of possibilities here, but the one that pops into your mind first is “fuzzy”, so you drop that in, very faintly, in pencil.

Okay, now what? Fifteen across, a six-letter word for “mystery”, is now coming up “enizma”, which is obviously wrong. A moment’s thought gives us a 99.9% certainty that we should be seeing “enigma” in that slot, but that gives us “fugzy” for seven down, our original problem clue: once again, it’s safe to assume that something’s not clicking.

What to do? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that “fuzzy” isn’t working, so out comes the thesaurus.

Let’s see: “Blurry”? That gives us “enirma”, and we’re not having any of that. “Indefinite”? Too many letters. “Soft”? Too few.

Here we go: “Vague”. Pencil it in, and … yes! It fits. We fill in a few of the blanks around it and we see that everything works.

. . .

The scientific method is like that crossword puzzle. There are some things you’re positive about, some you’re reasonably sure you’ve figured out correctly, and some you just can’t quite pin down, but the important thing is that everything interconnects, so a piece of the puzzle that’s clearly wrong will begin to stand out pretty quickly as the rest of the clues are filled in.

Individual facts, like the words in the crossword, can be tried, rejected, accepted, or replaced, but what matters in the end is the internal consistency of the entire structure, and the way the whole puzzle evolves and solidifies as more and more blanks are filled in. “Fuzzy” was perfectly acceptable until “enizma” came along; then it became clear that there was an error somewhere, because the bigger pattern wasn’t holding together.

Until Nicolaus Copernicus overturned the applecart in the sixteenth century, the generally accepted view of the solar system placed the earth at the center, with the sun, moon and planets orbiting around it. This system worked fine for centuries, but as time passed and the observed data began to fill in more and more blanks, problems appeared. To make the system fit what we could actually see happening in the sky, the orbits of all the heavenly bodies had to be incredibly complex. Mars and Jupiter needed to stop dead and then go backward from time to time; eclipses could only be explained by mysterious invisible objects casting shadows at odd angles; the moons of Jupiter and Saturn had to perform amazing spirals and loop-the-loops.

All the blanks in the crossword had words in them, but the answers weren’t making any sense.

Copernicus looked at the problem and realized that maybe “fuzzy” wasn’t the right word for seven down (figuratively speaking). He made a very simple adjustment in the prevailing system: he moved the sun into the center, and the planets into orbit around it, with their own moons orbiting them in turn. Now, suddenly, all of the orbits were ordinary ellipses, smooth and steady; eclipses were nothing more than shadows cast by one object on another; and the positions of all the bodies could be predicted centuries in advance by calculations any educated person could understand. It was no longer necessary to accept “enizma” as a word.

Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heavens as its center, would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves.”   – Nicolaus Copernicus

Even Copernicus didn’t have all the answers. With the passage of time, we’ve developed more sophisticated tools with which to observe our universe, and we’ve found questions that would have crippled the thinkers of the Renaissance. In the sixteenth century no one was equipped to measure the gravitational interactions between and among the planets; we didn’t know anything about how spacetime itself was organized, or the subtle effects of solar cycles and nearby stars on planetary orbits; the very size and shape of the universe could only be guessed at.

But still, even today, we can build on what Copernicus gave us all those years ago: we don’t have to try to come up with some elaborate excuse to allow us to use “enizma” for fifteen across. We can use logic and common sense to resolve the dilemma, and from there we can move on to new questions, and search for better answers to old ones.

In religion, no one questions the unreasonable answer or the wildly complicated explanation. We just accept that “enizma” is correct, even if it doesn’t seem to make the least bit of sense, because that’s what faith is: accepting without the need to understand.

The fundamental truth of science, on the other hand, is that there are no fundamental truths: we observe, we theorize, we experiment, and when we find a model that works, we build from there, knowing that it’s best to use a pencil, because we may still have to go back and change an early answer based on what we’ve learned since.

And that, dear reader, is why I love science. An enigma is a challenge to be met, a question for which each new answer always leads to bigger and more exciting puzzles demanding to be solved — and if we’re willing to stop at “enizma”, we’ll never have the opportunity.