Jan 28, 2007

Senator Doofus [LINK]

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) strongly criticized the Bush Administration's foreign policy, saying it made America into an "international pariah":

Kerry was asked about whether the U.S. government had failed to adequately engage Iran's government before the election of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

Kerry said the Bush administration has failed in addressing a number of foreign policy issues.

"When we walk away from global warming, Kyoto, when we are irresponsibly slow in moving toward AIDS in Africa, when we don't advance and live up to our own rhetoric and standards, we set a terrible message of duplicity and hypocrisy," Kerry said.

"So we have a crisis of confidence in the Middle East -- in the world, really. I've never seen our country as isolated, as much as a sort of international pariah for a number of reasons as it is today."

Kerry said the government needs to use diplomacy to improve national security.

"We need to do a better job of protecting our interests, because after all, that's what diplomacy is about," he said. "But you have to do it in a context of the reality, not your lens but the reality of those other cultures and histories."

Kerry criticized what he called the "unfortunate habit" of Americans to see the world "exclusively through an American lens."

There are a few problems here. As a matter of honor it has long been considered poor form to offer such criticisms from foreign soil. While this may seem like irrational symbolism, violating this guideline can cause real problems. To illustrate, note that Kerry made these remarks while sharing a podium with Mohammad Khatami, former president of Iran, a state that has become a genuine "international pariah" for its sponsorship of Islamic terrorism and development of nuclear weapons in the face of United Nations opposition. For the most recent presidential challenger to utter these words, and for him to be photographed signing an autograph for Mr. Khatami, is nothing short of a propaganda windfall for Iran. And for Senator Kerry, apparently oblivious of this fact and unable to even tell a joke without infuriating millions of Americans, to lecture us on the fine diplomatic arts, seems especially rich.

Kerry could actually learn a thing or two from Khatami about not bad-mouthing your nation when traveling overseas. When speaking at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government six months prior, for example, Khatami justified Iran's use of capital punishment for homosexuals. (Not a big applause line in Cambridge, word has it.)

Since Kerry isn't running for office any more and doesn't have to say such provocative things to motivate his Democratic base, another point is confounding: the notion that America's level of support for the Kyoto Protocols or treating AIDS in Africa affects Middle East attitudes in any measurable way. No, they don't care about these things at all, and to assume otherwise represents an "unfortunate habit" of some Americans to view the world "exclusively through an American lens."

And as has already been pointed out, Kerry is not even accurate in his criticisms: Kyoto was dead long before Bush was elected (Kerry himself voted to kill it), and Bush more than tripled African aid from Clinton Administration levels.

(Via Althouse)

Jan 25, 2007

..."like outraged goblins railing at humanity's profligate filth" [LINK]

R.C. Baker of the Village Voice reviews Charles Long's showing at New York's Tanya Bonakdar Gallery:

These umber-tinted photos of blue heron and white egret droppings scattered across the concrete conduits of the Los Angeles River are serendipitous wonders. While they occasionally catch the majestic birds in flight, it is the ghostly skeins of excrement (sometimes juxtaposed against the artist's own attenuated shadow) that deliver a revelatory shock: Shit can be gorgeous! But wait -- there's more: Long has cobbled together colossal plaster and papier-maché sculptures based on the splatter patterns. The tentacles of these dirty-white, three-dimensional apparitions are embedded with broken glass, shredded plastic, and other industrial crap; sometimes these haunting creatures (as anorexic as Giacometti's existential wraiths) are topped with bulbous nodules and loom up like outraged goblins railing at humanity's profligate filth. Overshadowing any content however, is Long's knack for anthropomorphizing nature while retaining the primordial beauty of even her basest elements.
I don't quite get why they'd rail at humanity's filth when they're the ones leaving poop all over the place, but perhaps I lack imagination.

Is monogamy a sign of progress? [LINK]

Don't ask what I'm doing responding to a month-old post on gay marriage, but Cathy Young's concluding paragraph irked me:

A part of me, actually, thinks that maybe [the collapse of the traditional ideal of marriage] would be just fine, given how many mutations the family has survived over the course of civilization. A "traditional marriage" the way it existed in many cultures -- one man with several wives and concubines -- was surely no more different from the modern two-parent family than a two-mother, one-father household, or a household composed of two companions and partners in child-rearing who do not have sex with each other and date other people. The other part of me thinks that giving up on the nuclear family as the cultural ideal would be a highly damaging social experiment with the potential to leave a lot of damaged children in its wake.

Granted, this is an on-the-one-hand/on-the-other, but the logic of the on-the-one-hand doesn't hold up. It may be "just fine" if the current ideal of heterosexual two-parent marriage were to collapse, because the current set of alternatives don't contradict it any more than older conceptions of marriage based on polygamy. I agree that's the case, but it begs the question: isn't the current ideal manifestly better than the polygamous practices it replaced? I believe the answer is yes, for reasons I won't belabor here. And neither will I dwell on why the latest set of alternatives may be marginally inferior to the ideal, though not as bad as outright polygamy. The point is that while it's useful to give the question some measure of historical context, it means very little without considering whether that history has resulted in any progress. Otherwise you're left with relativism. A provocative counter-example: 150 years ago the slave trade was considered perfectly acceptable. You can propose any number of undesirable institutions that don't stray farther from the current ideal that slavery is bad.

I'll be sorry to be reading less of Cathy in the Globe following the latest set of layoffs, but I hope it represents an opportunity for her. In particular, I hope it'll result in longer essays, since op-eds can't examine most issues in any depth.

Jan 18, 2007

The gay-sheep controversy [LINK]

In conjunction with PETA, openly gay tennis legend Martina Navratilova has issued a press release denouncing research on sheep that might, by manipulating hormone levels during prenatal development, change their future sexual orientation. (The rate of homosexuality among sheep runs usually high at eight percent, so the question is of special interest to animal breeders.)

Such research is premised on sexual identity having a strong biological basis, which would confirm what most gays and lesbians have long stressed about having no choice in their preference, and which may undermine the case for discriminatory practices such as bans on gay marriage. But such research also raises the troubling possibility that parents may one day be able to select out gay orientation in their children. As a general principle (not always medically practical), we prefer that the individual affected by the treatment should be the one who makes the decision whether to undergo it.

But that raises the question: what if this research led to treatments that allow individuals to change their own sexual orientation? (This is hypothetical to be sure, since the only treatment so far claiming to be able to do this -- "reparative therapy" -- has little to its credit and may do actual harm.) If there were a magic pill that could make you go from gay to straight, how many gays would choose it? Would there be any viable basis for preventing people from exercising that choice? We live in an interesting world, for example, in which you can act on the conviction that you were not born into the correct sex, and have that surgically corrected. Why not choose your sexual orientation as well?

1/25 update: I was delighted to see the gay-sheep story hit the New York Times, so I guess it's a respectable issue now. There was also an interesting Seattle Times piece on it from a couple of years ago, appropriately written by a science reporter. Apparently there was an earlier experiment to see if they could breed a set of disproportionately gay sheep. Needless to say, it would be amusing if the outrage only applies when breeding sheep who are less likely to be gay.

Jan 17, 2007

Can't you just throw it out? [LINK]

Instructions on the proper disposal of "Woodsy Owl" costumes, maintained by the National Symbols Program, an agency of the U.S. Forest Service:

  1. Incinerate the complete costume with the oversight of an official USDA Forest Service law enforcement officer.

    If you do not have access to an official USDA Forest Service law enforcement representative, arrangements will be made for dealing with your costume by contacting the USDA-FS Washington Office at:

    Woodsy Owl
    C/o National Symbols Program
    P.O. Box 96090
    Washington, D. C. 20090-6090

  2. The entire Woodsy Owl costume including each of the separate pieces is to be destroyed beyond recognition.

Jan 15, 2007

O Joy! (Part 2) [LINK]

R.C. Baker of the Village Voice reviews the "Post-Inaugural Exhibition" showing at New York's Daneyal Mahmood Gallery through February 3:

Pools of blood, decapitations, preserved carcasses -- curated with mordant wit, this group exhibit is perfect for curing those post-holiday blues. A photograph of a nude man wearing a bull's head, taken in a slaughterhouse, recalls Picasso's randy minotaurs while visually hooking up with a nearby mutant animal sculpted from shredded tires. Closets heaped with amputated elephants' feet and drawers of stuffed birds...

Jan 10, 2007

"The absurd can ... be terrifyingly real." [LINK]

Deborah Jowitt of the Village Voice reviews a "retrospectacle" featuring several pieces by dancer and choreographer Karl Anderson. What's often amusing about such texts is how little they have to do with "dance" as such:

With his head mostly protruding from the top of a shoulder-width, cuboid cage that's barred both vertically and horizontally, Anderson dances fitfully around, spouting data. He begins by telling us that there are 8.4 billion people alive today, but as his delivery speeds up, his facts become progressively weirder (27 percent of taxi drivers are cross dressers?) and politically charged in terms of racial discrimination and police behavior. The absurd can also be terrifyingly real. Anderson is politically engaged, but he fences with the evil forces rampant in society obliquely....
Anderson overestimates the earth's population by about 2 billion, which makes me doubt how "politically engaged" he really is, but no matter. Perhaps "strident" would be a better word.
The opening combines excerpts from Public Showing and Malemade. While actor-singer-songwriter Ron Mesa gives us a wacky, tough talk about security precautions, Theresa Duhon, atop a ladder, pours tiny plexiglass spheres into a tank beside her. From there, the balls run through tubing into a clear, plastic cube that costume designer Naoko Nagata is wearing on her head. When Nagata, breathing tube intact, is buried over her eyebrows, Duhon climbs down and releases the spheres through another tube into another tank. Make of it what you will, but just recalling the spectacle gives me -- claustrophobic and environmentally aware -- chills.

I think Anderson likes us not to be entirely certain where he stands. The lovers in the 2001 duet You and your Crack Baby need to get your shit together because we have a show veer from hostility to being very pleased with themselves and fake-charmed with each other. "We're so lovely!," Alethea Pace seems to say, swimming in air from her perch on Edgar Rodriguez's shoulder, while Alberto Denis's score ripples a pretty echo. But what about her turning Rodriguez into a settee? Or him scrubbing at her belly when she lies athwart his thighs? I think they had a baby at the end, and he ran off with it, and she went back to pulsing on the floor by herself (a bit too much of a mystery). Intercourse (2004), choreographed and performed by Anderson and Kate Weare, is a far deeper duet....

If you're doing it right, that is.

And what would such a performance be without some gratuitous nudity that elicits the "male gaze"? One piece, Words, features a solo by a woman, Linda Martini, that was originally danced by Anderson himself. The equally gratuitous comment on her weight is puzzling, but I take it to mean that the performance is less likely to inspire prurience.

This beautiful woman, now many pounds heavier than she was as a graduate from SUNY-Purchase's dance department, appears nude except for four pasted-on dollar bills. When Anderson assumed the occasional pin-up-girl pose, he may have been testing maleness. Martini doing the same moves counters a stripper image with a kind of girlish innocence....

Having Martini perform this solo does create some confusion as to Evan Gray's soundtrack, in which a voice that sounds like that of a young boy emotionally discusses his fears about heterosexual sex with a dark, electronically-slowed-down voice that might be his own rational self.... The issue of the "male gaze" surely resonates differently when a man performs the solo. But, no matter who dances Words, nakedness scarred by dollar bills seems to symbolize purity corrupted. At the end, Martini kneels in candlelight to read from a piece of paper, "love, equality, justice, virtue, harmony...." before she walks into a warm spotlight, strips off the last bill, and strides away.

...which may be taken as a happy ending.

UPDATE: Welcome, Dr. Sanity readers!

Jan 6, 2007

Move on, folks, nothing here to see [LINK]

The unintentionally humorous opening to Jerry Saltz's year-end wrap-up of the 2006 art scene for the Village Voice:

Before New York museums and galleries get back into gear, let's look in the rearview mirror at the art season of 2006. A lot of people were saying the art world was going to hell. Perhaps, but people have been saying this for the better part of a century, and nonstop since 1982....

Jan 4, 2007

"University mascots offend" [LINK]

This is one of those letters you read, and you're not sure if it's supposed to be a joke:

RE THE ARTICLE " Criticism of team's name heats up Dartmouth game" (City & Region, Dec. 29): Where is the outrage from the Irish American community regarding Notre Dame's mascot of the Fighting Irish?

The pugnacious caricature of a leprechaun is a misrepresentation of a nation that has remained neutral during all major world conflicts. The Republic of Ireland's reputation for sponsoring peacekeeping missions is diminished by Notre Dame's hostile imagery.

The Irish community should join Native Americans offended by the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux in opposing any and all such symbols.

Jan 2, 2007

"Is the adaptive re-use of human beings and their emotions possible?" [LINK]

From a review, by Leslie Camhi in the Village Voice, of Inconsolable Memories, a film installation by Canadian artist Stan Douglas that is showing at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Douglas's work builds upon Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's 1968 film Memories of Underdevelopment, which focuses on a character named Sergio, who who watches his wife and best friend leave Cuba while he stays behind to brood. Douglas's film follows Sergio's fate up until the Mariel boat life of 1980.

This installation is accompanied by a series of beautiful, large-scale color photographs Douglas has taken on recent trips to Cuba. Many focus on the "adaptive reuse" of buildings whose original purposes have been sacrificed to more pressing needs. Bank lobbies have become parking lots; movie theaters are carpentry workshops; one corner of a private home sells sandwiches and drinks; an elegant villa now houses a refrigerator-repairshop. Numerous contemporary photographers have found inspiration in Havana's picturesque ruins, where a variety of temporalities intersect: the remnants of a former colonial playground, the utopian hopes of mid-century, and the present-day austerities that threaten to reduce it all to rubble. Devoid of nostalgia, Douglas's deeply sober pictures reward the patient examination that teases out these multiple perspectives.
No doubt about it: contemporary Cuban life provides us with an arresting series of images. While economically moribund, it's like a gold-rush town for artists seeking to depict alternate contexts.

Camhi continues with an interesting observation about why human psychology itself may render utopian schemes impossible:

In relation to his film, they also pose the question: Is the adaptive re-use of human beings and their emotions possible? Freud -- and Proust, who would appear to be Douglas's muse -- would say that's what we do whenever we fall in love: We harness that old feeling and bring our memories of past affections to bear upon the person standing before us.... The revolution promised an eternal present, but people like Sergio had trouble adjusting -- they were glad to see the old order go, but unwilling (or unable) to marry the moment.
Camhi adds that the film's "status as a kind of cinematic remake" as well as its "characters trapped in time" reinforce the difficulty of living in the present.

Of course, there is nothing about an obviously decrepit socialist Cuba that doesn't also deserve a swipe at capitalism:

When was it exactly that living with perfect attention to the present moment became impossible? I'd like to blame it on certain late-capitalist phenomena: cell phones, iPods, pagers, and BlackBerries. But reel-to-reel tape recorders work just as well in Douglas's film as devices of alienation. And really, you'd need to go much further back -- to a time before the first photographs were taken, or even before the first words (those signifiers of absence) were spoken.
So just how do even these more archaic technologies prevent us from living in the present? Can't say for sure. If anything, these various "late-capitalist" artifacts appear to do the opposite, crowding out attention to long-term history by swamping your senses.

But the howler is the concluding paragraph:

Speaking of quasi-utopian pasts, it would seem truly churlish not to mention my esteemed colleague Fred W. McDarrah's wonderfully absorbing show, "Artists and Writers of the 60's and 70's," at Steven Kasher Gallery (521 West 23rd Street) through January 6. McDarrah was the primary photographer at this paper during its first 30 years. Over 100 vintage prints from his archives show assorted scene makers -- from a boyish Bob Dylan to a wizened old Marcel Duchamp -- getting down, getting arrested, getting naked, and making art. Where is the downtown of yesteryear? Will it come again?
Yep, we harness that old feeling and bring our memories of past affections to bear upon the person standing before us.