Dec 29, 2006

Which is Worse: Life or Death? [LINK]

As is often the case around the holidays, I argue politics with my brother-in-law, who's a nice guy all around and yet continually reminds me why I no longer consider myself a liberal. The latest round concerned the death penalty, which I admit there may be valid reasons to oppose. Still, what touched me off was the assertion that a life sentence without the possibility of parole was somehow a more fearsome punishment than a death sentence. To accept that notion is to be led to the question: Why impose a death penalty at all, when life in prison is even more punitive?

What strikes me is that the vast majority of decent people hearing this are bound to consider both possibilities equally remote, which makes such an assertion plausible to begin with. But what if you're actually in the situation of choosing between your own life or death? Of those facing the death penalty, how many direct their lawyers to try to get their sentences commuted to life? Is it not the overwhelming majority? You would expect them to clamor for the chance to die. Wasn't Gary Gilmore's case remarkable for being such a notable exception to this rule? Among those for whom the question matters, there's a strong preference for life in prison.

It strikes me as odd to argue in one context that the death penalty is an overly severe punishment, while effectively recommending it in another as less severe.

Dec 22, 2006

O Joy! [LINK]

A description, by R.C. Baker of the Village Voice, of Peter Caine's "Second Coming" exhibit, which shows at New York's Exit Art gallery through January 27:

"Hanukah Harry" steers a bicycle while wielding a menorah sprouting dynamite sticks; his passenger, the diminutive "Muslim Mary," brandishes a torch. Others of these life-size tableaux include an alien erupting from the gut of a priest whose head has been smashed in and Klansmen at the feet of a crucified, pop-eyed scarecrow. Caine's eight window displays take the bloody rituals at the heart of religion and garnish them with cheap, soiled trinkets and buckets of dripping goo. There's something to offend everyone on your holiday list.

Dec 9, 2006

"We need a leadership that reflects our population" [LINK]

I have to admit I find the term "Asian-American" particularly grating, being only slightly less vague than "earthling," but will use it just the stay in the game:

Echoing a UMass-Boston study, the Globe's editors declare that relative to their proportion of the state population, some minorities' representation among state appointees is "shamefully low." We are supposed to feel compelled to close such gaps, increasing overall minority representation by about 50 percent, from 11 to 16 percent of the population.

At the same time, we learn that African Americans are overrepresented in top state jobs to roughly the same degree. So why do the editors characterize this as a "hopeful sign" rather than as "shamefully high"? If the point of this exercise in diversity really is to match the proportion of the population, here's another way we're not getting it right.

While it's plausible Latinos' underrepresentation may be due to their wider dispersal across the state away from the seat of government, I doubt the same is true of Asian Americans, the other group whose absence from state jobs is supposed to concern us. If, as I suspect, Asians tend to be relatively high-skilled and with greater professional options open to them, would the Globe be willing to call it a "hopeful sign" that so many of them choose not to work in state government?

UPDATE: Turns out a major premise behind the study was bogus. When looking at the high school graduates who form the eligible pool for state jobs rather than the population as a whole, minority representation evens out.

Dec 8, 2006

"Often not thinking about sex" [LINK]

Jerry Saltz of the Village Voice reviews John Currin's offerings at the Gagosian Gallery, which shows through December 22:

Purple Bra, like the better Dane, a painting of a clothed woman peering at another woman's naked crotch, and Tollbrook, an even weirder picture of a woman with her underpants around her knees as she looks down to her genitals and some still life at her feet, makes you realize that nowadays you're often not thinking about sex in front of images of sex. Currin's new canvases are devices that allow him to experiment with the physicality of his work and explore the natural fissure that exists within his art between radicality and conventionality, humor and creepiness, anger and affection, conviction and towering ambivalence.

Gezelling is similar to Purple Bra, but more complicated. A naked woman reads an untitled book in bed, her vulva on full display. Even though you enter the painting through the vagina, as it were, thoughts of titillation and sexism give way to the realization that this picture is not just about lasciviousness and voyeurism but about the woman having an inner life separate from your gaze. Complicating matters even more, Gezelling is composed so that you can look away from the genitals to the breasts, the face, and the blank book. Rotterdam, a scene of a man and a woman having sex, is the most hardcore image on hand. Here, Currin tries to do what porn and Picasso do: show all the body parts at once, including something that's often missing in paintings done by heterosexual men for other heterosexual men: an erection. Currin does this with liberal touches of Penthouse, Picabia, parody, humiliation, Norman Rockwell, the piercing male gaze, and what might be called the sidelong female glance.

As blatant as Rotterdam is, however, everything in the painting is deferred and formal. This is pornography as still life and still life as catalog. The "money shot" is the pearl dangling suggestively from the girl's lace gloves; the lace stands in for pubic hair; the pink of the undone garter belt is an outside rendition of the girl's parted labia.

Taking Animal Rights Seriously... well... sort of [LINK]

I've been thinking over a previous discussion about animal rights, trying to formulate a way to make the idea more coherent overall, but it always leads me to strange places. I believe any system of "rights" that doesn't recognize corresponding responsibilities is unworkable, for the simple reason that you can't simultaneously have a right to live and a right to murder. (And I'd consider a right to not be murdered fundamental to other rights; otherwise any right to public education or affordable health care would be kind of pointless. ;-) So here's my proposal for a test determining when it may be appropriate to take animal rights seriously: If a cat tries to prevent another cat from killing a mouse.

A valid objection: the cat may recognize its own rights, but not that of mice, much like we humans recognize our own rights but not that of cats or mice. Okay, then limit the question to higher primates and make it an intra-species problem. Like humans, apes occasionally display murderous behavior. I've heard that dominant males sometimes massacre the offspring of females they're appropriating, or even their own offspring if paternity is in doubt. After he does so, do any of the other apes express anything more than sadness or disapproval? Do they kill him, shun him, or punish him in any way that would express the idea that he had no right to do what he did? (That's not a rhetorical question, BTW.)

Another objection: What if the species doesn't display murderous behavior? I don't know, but let's assume dolphins fit the bill. Then how do we test whether members of that species deserve rights? That dolphins appear to respect each other's rights does not in itself imply consciousness of such rights. And it's important to establish consciousness, because otherwise lower species that for whatever reason happen to not kill each other would also qualify, and to secure their rights would trash the ecosystem and make everybody go extinct, likening ourselves to Gods of Terrifying Justice, don'cha know. Any workable system of animal rights would thus only allow a few higher mammals at the top of the food chain into the membership club.

Which is why I pose the scenario of the cat with moral qualms about killing mice. The test has to be more stringent than how members of species behave towards other members. I figure if species other than our own have developed a sufficient level of empathy and moral reasoning that they start to produce their own set of animal rights activists, the idea of animal rights might start to make sense.

Dec 3, 2006

Democracy is Dangerous [LINK]

I just got a similar letter published, so I don't expect this one to make it in. This concerns a Massachusetts initiative to get a ballot question in 2008 that, if passed, would establish a constitutional amendment banning any new gay marriages. For the question to appear on the ballot, it must gather support from at least 25 percent of one legislature, then again from the next sitting. The first one just adjourned without voting on either the gay marriage amendment or another one establishing health care rights, effectively shit-canning them. Governor Romney, who of course is seeking the presidency, is leading an effort to get the state Supreme Court to either force the legislature to vote on it, or to get it placed on the ballot regardless. This is the same Court, of course, that established gay marriage in the first place, and in response to which the amendment is posed. What an exciting state I live in!

While there may be good reasons to oppose the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, they are too often obscured by poor ones.

Kevin Anderton worries that a political campaign over a future ballot question will result in unseemly and perhaps dishonest political ads, much as we recently saw in the far less consequential battle over the sale of wine. While I don't doubt such an outcome, his argument would essentially prevent us from settling any contentious issue within the democratic arena, since it would likely attract misinformation and demagoguery. Similarly, to point out that "only a fraction of eligible voters turn out" for elections is to complain about democracy itself, not its application to the issue of gay marriage. If more people were to vote on the question, would that be better?

Mr. Anderton also expresses concern that "citizens aren't sworn to uphold the constitution, let alone understand it." Again, this is an argument against any popular effort to amend our constitution. For voters to be experts on the current state of the constitution is also irrelevant if the whole point of the amendment process is to alter it.

Anderton also asks rhetorically: "when was the last instance in which we broadened civil rights by a popular vote?" This is rather amusing considering that the other proposed amendment recently squelched by the legislature would recognize citizens' right to affordable health care.