Saturday, June 24, 2017

Had Enough? Read On....

Today, this blog offers an H/T to Un amigo del suroeste de Austin (Tr.: A friend from southwest Austin.) for alerting the blogger to some Über-snark from Eags (Timothy Egan). The NY Fishwrap's Op-Ed writer was outraged by the recent reveal of the top-secret US Senate version of Trumpcare — Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 — as companion to the US House of Representatives' American Health Care Act of 2017. This pair of so-called "reforms" enraged Eags and he communicated that rage to this blogger. Therefore, this blog will never again make reference to Republicans, GOP, Red-Staters, Dumbos, or Stupids. Instead, the opponents of the party of Thomas Jefferson, FDR, HST, and Barack Obama shall be known as T-R-A-I-T-O-R-S because they trade exclusively in T-R-E-A-S-O-N. And this designation will apply to all office-holders from the Oval Office to every county constable in the land. The Traitors are attempting to destroy the United States of America. Their oaths to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States were perjurious statements. Every single Traitor lied through his teeth. And what is the penalty for Treason? Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States. (June 25, 1948, ch. 645, 62 Stat. 807; Pub. L. 103–322, title XXXIII, § 330016(2)(J), Sept. 13, 1994, 108 Stat. 2148.) It is the (fair & balanced) judgment of this blog that Traitors should "suffer death" for their Treason and this would apply to their descendants and supporters to the end of their lineage. ¡Basta Ya!

[x NY Fishwrap]
Our Fake Democracy
By Eags (Timothy Egan)

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We tell ourselves stories in order to live, as Joan Didion said. We do this as a nation, as individuals, as families — even when that construct is demonstrably false. For the United States, the biggest institutional lie of the moment is that we have a government of the people, responding to majority will.

On almost every single concern, Congress — whether it’s the misnamed People’s House, or the Senate, laughably mischaracterized as the world’s greatest deliberative body — is going against what most of the country wants. And Congress is doing this because there will be no consequences.

We have a fake democracy, growing less responsive and less representative by the day.

The biggest example of this is the monstrosity of a health care bill, which a cartel of Republicans finally allowed us to peek at on Thursday. The lobbyists have seen it; of course. But for the rest us, our first look at a radical overhaul of one-sixth of the economy, something that touches every American, comes too late to make our voices heard.

Crafted in total darkness, the bill may pass by a slim majority of people who have not read it. Inevitably, with something that deprives upward of 23 million Americans of health care, people will die because of this bill. States will be making life and death decisions as they drop the mandated benefits of Obamacare and cut vital care for the poor, the elderly, the sick and the drug-addicted through Medicaid. The sunset of Obamacare is the dawn of death panels.

It would be understandable if Republicans were doing this because it’s what most Americans want them to do. But it’s not. Only about 25 percent of Americans approved of a similar version of this bill, the one passed by the House. By a nearly 2 to 1 margin, people would prefer that the Affordable Care Act be kept in place and fixed, rather than junked for this cruel alternative.

The Senate bill is “by far, the most harmful piece of legislation I have seen in my lifetime,” said Senator Bernie Sanders. At age 75, he’s seen a lot.

Remember when Republicans used to pretend to care about crafting the people’s business in sunlight? “It’s simply wrong for legislation that will affect 100 percent of the American people to be negotiated behind closed doors.” That was Mike Pence in 2010.

Why are they doing it? Why would the people’s representatives choose to hurt their own people? The answer is further evidence of our failed democracy. About 75 million Americans depend on Medicaid. This bill will make their lives more miserable and perilous in order to give the top 2 percent of wealthiest Americans a tax cut.

And where are the 75 million now? They are nowhere. The sad fact is, the poor don’t vote. Up to 80 percent of low earners do not show up at the polls, and it’s even worse in midterm congressional elections. The Republicans can screw the poor, whose population is disproportionately large in red states, because those citizens will not fight back.

So, little surprise that Republicans are also working to make it even harder for the poor to vote. They can seek to disenfranchise one class of Americans, and get away with it from the safety of gerrymandered seats.

The symptoms of democratic collapse — from the opioid crises of people who long ago checked out of active citizenship to the stagnation of class mobility — cry for immediate action.

It takes the median worker twice as many hours a month to pay rent in a big city today than it did in the early years of the baby boomer era, as Edward Luce notes in his new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism (2017). Add towering increases in health care and college costs to that and you’ve got an unclimbable wall between low-income limbo and a chance at the middle class. The United States, once known for our American Dream, now has the lowest class mobility of any Western democracy, according to Luce.

What is Congress doing? Nothing on wages. Nothing on college tuition. And the health care bill will most surely force many people to choose between buying groceries and being able to visit a doctor.

Our fake democracy reveals itself daily. Less than a third of Americans support President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. In a truly representative government, you would see the other two-thirds, the common-sense majority, howling from the halls of Congress.

Most Americans are also against building a wall along the Mexican border. They would prefer putting taxpayers’ billions into roads, bridges, schools and airports. But the wall remains a key part of President Trump’s agenda.

Trump is president, of course, despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million people. Almost 60 percent of the public is against him now. In a parliamentary system, he’d be thrown out in a no-confidence vote. In our system, he’s primed to change life for every citizen, against the wishes of a majority of Americans. Try calling that a democracy while keeping a straight face. # # #

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

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Friday, June 23, 2017

WWCBD? What Would Carl Becker Do (Or Say)?

One of this blog's favorite historians, Andrew Bacevich, offers a bracing antidote for our current (and distressing) Zeitgeist. Professor (and army Colonel, retired) Bacevich taught this blogger a new acronym: WHAM (White Heterosexual American Male) that supercedes WASP. In the latter, this blogger has taken issue with WASP (apologies to E. Digby Baltzell — WASPish name and all) because Anglo-Saxon Protestants come in only one color: White. The W is redundant. Bacevich's acronym avoids that linguistic and ethnographic nonsense. Bacevich is correct on another matter. A major contributor to our troubled Zeitgeist is the faux-historian: BillO The Clown (O'Really or O'Reilly) who has sold more "history" books than any other son or daughter of Clio. If this is (fair & balanced) politico-cultural criticism, so be it.

[x The Nation]
Bill O’Reilly Is America’s Best-Selling Historian.. And Other Problems
By Andrew Bacevich

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Forgive me for complaining, but recent decades have not been easy ones for my peeps. I am from birth a member of the WHAM tribe, that once proud, but now embattled conglomeration of white, heterosexual American males. We have long been—there’s no denying it—a privileged group. When the blessings of American freedom get parceled out, WHAMs are accustomed to standing at the head of the line. Those not enjoying the trifecta of being white, heterosexual, and male get what’s left.

Fair? No, but from time immemorial those have been the rules. Anyway, no real American would carp. After all, the whole idea of America derives from the conviction that some people (us) deserve more than others (all those who are not us). It’s God’s will—so at least the great majority of Americans have believed since the Pilgrims set up shop just about 400 years ago.

Lately, however, the rules have been changing in ways that many WHAMs find disconcerting. True, some of my brethren—let’s call them 1 percenters—have adapted to those changes and continue to do very well indeed. Wherever corporate CEOs, hedge-fund managers, investment bankers, tech gurus, university presidents, publishers, politicians, and generals congregate to pat each other on the back, you can count on WHAMs’—reciting bromides about the importance of diversity!—being amply represented.

Yet beneath this upper crust, a different picture emerges. Further down the socioeconomic ladder, being a WHAM carries with it disadvantages. The good, steady jobs once implicitly reserved for us—lunch-pail stuff, yes, but enough to keep food in the family larder—are increasingly hard to come by. As those jobs have disappeared, so too have the ancillary benefits they conferred, self-respect not least among them. Especially galling to some WHAMs is being exiled to the back of the cultural bus. When it comes to art, music, literature, and fashion, the doings of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays, and women generate buzz. By comparison, white heterosexual males seem bland, uncool, and passé, or, worst of all, simply boring.

The Mandate of Heaven, which members of my tribe once took as theirs by right, has been cruelly withdrawn. History itself has betrayed us.

All of which is nonsense, of course, except perhaps as a reason to reflect on whether history can help explain why, today, WHAMs have worked themselves into such a funk in Donald Trump’s America. Can history provide answers? Or has history itself become part of the problem?


“For all practical purposes history is, for us and for the time being, what we know it to be.” So remarked Carl Becker in 1931 at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Professor Becker, a towering figure among historians of his day, was president of the AHA that year. His message to his colleagues amounted to a warning of sorts: Don’t think you’re so smart. The study of the past may reveal truths, he allowed, but those truths are contingent, incomplete, and valid only “for the time being.”

Put another way, historical perspectives conceived in what Becker termed “the specious present” have a sell-by date. Beyond their time, they become stale and outmoded, and so should be revised or discarded. This process of rejecting truths previously treated as authoritative is inexorable and essential. Yet it also tends to be fiercely contentious. The present may be specious, but it confers real privileges, which a particular reading of the past can sustain or undermine. Becker believed it inevitable that “our now valid versions” of history “will in due course be relegated to the category of discarded myths.” It was no less inevitable that beneficiaries of the prevailing version of truth should fight to preserve it.

Who exercises the authority to relegate? Who gets to decide when a historical truth no longer qualifies as true? Here, Becker insisted that “Mr. Everyman” plays a crucial role. For Becker, Mr. Everyman was Joe Doakes, John Q. Public, or the man in the street. He was “every normal person,” a phrase broad enough to include all manner of people. Yet nothing in Becker’s presentation suggested that he had the slightest interest in race, sexuality, or gender. His Mr. Everyman belonged to the tribe of WHAM.

In order to “live in a world of semblance more spacious and satisfying than is to be found within the narrow confines of the fleeting present moment,” Becker emphasized, Mr. Everyman needs a past larger than his own individual past. An awareness of things said and done long ago provides him with an “artificial extension of memory” and a direction.

Memories, whether directly or vicariously acquired, are “necessary to orient us in our little world of endeavor.” Yet the specious present that we inhabit is inherently unstable and constantly in flux, which means that history itself must be pliable. Crafting history necessarily becomes an exercise in “imaginative creation” in which all participate. However unconsciously, Everyman adapts the past to serve his most pressing needs, thereby functioning as “his own historian.”

Yet he does so in collaboration with others. Since time immemorial, purveyors of the past—the “ancient and honorable company of wise men of the tribe, of bards and story-tellers and minstrels, of soothsayers and priests, to whom in successive ages has been entrusted the keeping of the useful myths”—have enabled him to “hold in memory…those things only which can be related with some reasonable degree of relevance” to his own experience and aspirations. In Becker’s lifetime it had become incumbent upon members of the professoriate, successors to the bards and minstrels of yesteryear, “to enlarge and enrich the specious present common to us all to the end that ‘society’ (the tribe, the nation, or all mankind) may judge of what it is doing in the light of what it has done and what it hopes to do.”

Yet Becker took pains to emphasize that professional historians disdained Mr. Everyman at their peril:

Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices.… The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history.… It is for this reason that the history of history is a record of the ‘new history’ that in every age rises to confound and supplant the old.

Becker stressed that the process of formulating new history to supplant the old is organic rather than contrived; it comes from the bottom up, not the top down. “We, historians by profession, share in this necessary effort,” he concluded. “But we do not impose our version of the human story on Mr. Everyman; in the end it is rather Mr. Everyman who imposes his version on us.”


Becker offered his reflections on “Everyman His Own Historian” in the midst of the Great Depression. Perhaps because that economic crisis found so many Americans burdened with deprivation and uncertainty, he implicitly attributed to his Everyman a unitary perspective, as if shared distress imbued members of the public with a common outlook. That was not, in fact, the case in 1931 and is, if anything, even less so in our own day.

Still, Becker’s construct retains considerable utility. Today finds more than a few white heterosexual American males, our own equivalent of Mr. Everyman, in a state of high dudgeon. From their perspective, the specious present has not panned out as it was supposed to. As a consequence, they are pissed. In November 2016, to make clear just how pissed they were, they elected Donald Trump as president of the United States.

This was, to put it mildly, not supposed to happen. For months prior to the election, the custodians of the past in its “now valid version” had judged the prospect all but inconceivable. Yet WHAMs (with shocking support from other tribes) intervened to decide otherwise. Rarely has a single event so thoroughly confounded history’s self-assigned proctors. One can imagine the shade of Professor Becker whispering, “I warned you, didn’t I?”

Those deeply invested in drawing a straight line from the specious present into the indefinite future blame Trump himself for having knocked history off its prescribed course. Remove Trump from the scene, they appear to believe, and all will once again be well. The urgent imperative of doing just that—immediately, now, no later than this afternoon—has produced what New York Times columnist Charles Blow aptly calls a “throbbing anxiety” among those who (like Blow himself) find “the relentless onslaught of awfulness erupting from this White House” intolerable. They will not rest until Trump is gone.

This idée fixe, reinforced on a daily basis by ever-more-preposterous presidential antics, finds the nation trapped in a sort of bizarre do-loop. The media’s obsession with Trump reinforces his obsession with the media, and between them they simply crowd out all possibility of thoughtful reflection. Their fetish is his and his theirs. The result is a cycle of mutual contempt that only deepens the longer it persists.

Both sides agree on one point only: that history began anew last November 8, when (take your pick) America either took leave of its senses or chose greatness. How the United States got to November 8 qualifies, at best, as an afterthought or curiosity. It’s almost as if the years and decades that had preceded Trump’s election had all disappeared into some vast sinkhole.

Where, then, are we to turn for counsel? For my money, Charles Blow is no more reliable as a guide to the past or the future than is Donald Trump himself. Much the same could be said of most other newspaper columnists, talking heads, and online commentators (contributors to TomDispatch notably excepted, of course). As for politicians of either party, they have as a class long since forfeited any right to expect a respectful hearing.

God knows Americans today do not lack for information or opinion. On screens, over the airways, and in print, the voices competing for our attention create a relentless cacophony. Yet the correlation between insight and noise is discouragingly low.

What would Carl Becker make of our predicament? He would, I think, see it as an opportunity to “enlarge and enrich the specious present” by recasting and reinvigorating history. Yet doing so, he would insist, requires taking seriously the complaints that led our latter-day Everyman to throw himself into the arms of Donald Trump in the first place. Doing that implies a willingness to engage with ordinary Americans on a respectful basis.

Unlike President Trump, I do not pretend to speak for Everyman or for his female counterpart. Yet my sense is that many Americans have an inkling that history of late has played them for suckers. This is notably true with respect to the post–Cold War era, in which the glories of openness, diversity, and neoliberal economics, of advanced technology and unparalleled US military power all promised in combination to produce something like a new utopia in which Americans would indisputably enjoy a privileged status globally.

In almost every respect, those expectations remain painfully unfulfilled. The history that “served for the time being” and was endlessly reiterated during the presidencies of Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama no longer serves. It has yielded a mess of pottage: grotesque inequality, worrisome insecurity, moral confusion, an epidemic of self-destructive behavior, endless wars, and basic institutions that work poorly if at all. Nor is it just WHAMs who have suffered the consequences. The history with which Americans are familiar cannot explain this outcome.

Alas, little reason exists to expect Becker’s successors in the guild of professional historians to join with ordinary Americans in formulating an explanation. Few academic historians today see Everyman as a worthy interlocutor. Rather than berating him for not reading their books, they ignore him. Their preference is to address one another.

By and large, he returns the favor, endorsing the self-marginalization of the contemporary historical profession. Contrast the influence wielded by prominent historians in Becker’s day—during the first third of the 20th century, they included, along with Becker, such formidables as Henry Adams, Charles and Mary Beard, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Frederick Jackson Turner—with the role played by historians today. The issue here is not erudition, which today’s scholars possess in abundance, but impact. On that score, the disparity between then and now is immense.

In effect, professional historians have ceded the field to a new group of bards and minstrels. So the bestselling “historian” in the United States today is Bill O’Reilly, whose books routinely sell more than a million copies each. Were Donald Trump given to reading books, he would likely find O’Reilly’s both accessible and agreeable. But O’Reilly is in the entertainment business. He has neither any interest nor the genuine ability to create what Becker called “history that does work in the world.”

Still, history itself works in mysterious ways known only to God or to Providence. Only after the fact do its purposes become evident. It may yet surprise us.

Owing his election in large part to my fellow WHAMs, Donald Trump is now expected to repay that support by putting things right. Yet as events make it apparent that Trump is no more able to run a government than Bill O’Reilly is able to write history, they may well decide that he is not their friend after all. With that, their patience is likely to run short. It is hardly implausible that Trump’s assigned role in history will be once and for all to ring down the curtain on our specious present, demonstrating definitively just how bankrupt all the triumphalist hokum of the past quarter-century—the history that served “for the time being”—has become.

When that happens, when promises of American greatness restored prove empty, there will be hell to pay. Joe Doakes, John Q. Public, and the man in the street will be even more pissed. Should that moment arrive, historians would do well to listen seriously to what Everyman has to say. # # #

At an earlier juncture back in 1956, out of a population of 168 million, we got Ike and Adlai. Today, with almost double the population, we get — well, we get what we’ve got. This does not represent progress. And don’t kid yourself that things really can’t get much worse. Unless Americans rouse themselves to act, count on it, they will. ###

[Andrew J. Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. Bacevitch received a BS (history) from the United States Military Academy as well as a PhD (history) from Princeton University. He retired from Army active duty as a colonel in a career that spanned Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. Bacevich is the author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (2013), among other works. His newest book is America’s War for the Greater Middle East (2016). See all books by Andrew BAcevich here.]

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Today, This Blogger Has Georgia On His Mind

This blogger crossed paths (figuratively, not literally) with Georgia O'Keefe twice. In the early 1980s, the blogger found himself on the board of trustees of the local art center on the Collegium Excellens campus. The small, regional art museum-wannabe had larger ambitions, including a collection of art that had a connection with the local area. Ultimately, the museum acquired a painting that reflected O'Keefe's brief stay in the community before she went to New York and the big-time art scene:

and the local museum loaned the painting for a retrospective observance of Georgia O'Keefe's work at the museum named for her in Santa Fe, NM. In the next twenty-five years, this blogger had little thought of Georgia O'Keefe until he found himself on a ill-considered weeklong sojourn in the area north of Santa Fe. The road to the sojourn destination passed through Abiquiu, NM and that was where Georgia O'Keefe spent the latter years of her life:

— and, this blogger finished his sojourn in nothern New Mexico by joining a walking tour of the O'Keefe home, studio, and property. Lots of room, lots of light, and no frills. If this is a (fair & balanced) tribute to one of the greatest artists in our history, so be it.

Self-Made Woman
By Rachel Syme

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In 1972, Carol Merrill, a graduate student at the University of New Mexico in her early twenties, sent a letter to Georgia O’Keeffe at the artist’s adobe house in Abiquiú. O’Keeffe was 85 years old and an international celebrity. She had been showing her paintings for over five decades, and due to macular degeneration, had set aside her oil paints to begin a series of abstractions in watercolor. Merrill’s letter was short and to the point. “Dear Georgia O’Keeffe,” she wrote. “I want to meet you. I do not want to intrude on your privacy—your solitude. I would like to see you, be near you for just a few moments and learn if I have the strength and power to proceed in my work by witnessing your will.” Merrill, who worked at the university library, enclosed a photograph of herself sitting in front of a typewriter.

O’Keeffe received dozens of such letters each month, often accompanied by trinkets her admirers thought she would appreciate: smooth stones, snippets of poetry, snapshots of landscapes. She had no reason to reply to Merrill’s note in particular. But it just happened to land in the hands of her secretary on the right day, at the right time, and that was that. According to biographer Nancy Hopkins Reily, “The brevity and simplicity of Carol’s letter attracted Georgia’s attention and she must have recognized a nonconformist thinking.... In a rare gesture Georgia invited Carol to visit her on a Sunday but to stay for only one hour.”

Merrill did not respond to the invitation for six months. What do you do when one of your heroes responds from the void? Merrill kept the reply folded up in her backpack, like a gremlin she was trying to prevent from escaping. But it kept glowing from whatever pocket she put it in: Answer me, answer me. When Merrill finally told an artist friend about it over spaghetti, she recounted, he “scolded me strongly and admonished me to write an answer or call her immediately.” He said that O’Keeffe never did this, that she had received the rarest of opportunities, that she was blowing it.

Merrill made the one-hour appointment for an August morning. She and O’Keeffe sat in the artist’s sitting room, with its giant, raw, wooden ceiling beams and big picture window that looked out onto lilies, stones, and salt cedar trees, and discussed health food. Long before it was in vogue, O’Keeffe was juicing daily and sourcing hearty, minimalist soups from her garden, and sending a local man on a 90-minute hunt to procure farm-fresh milk every other day. Though her eyes were going, O’Keeffe was determined to keep her body strong. She lived to be 98, and was able to speak in lucid terms about her work almost until the day she died, in March 1986.

Merrill’s hour-long visit turned into a part-time job; she became O’Keeffe’s in-house librarian, organizing the artist’s rare books—a first edition of Ulysses, obscure volumes of E.E. Cummings—in a chilly yellow room off the house’s main courtyard. Her role eventually expanded to cook, secretary, and companion. She read to Georgia from her favorite books, including biographies and the Taoist text The Secret of the Golden Flower. They drank orange blossom tea together. Merrill also kept O’Keeffe’s secrets: For the sake of the art market, no one could know that the artist was going blind. They walked together, a lot. The New Mexico desert is made for extended meandering; it’s never humid, and it is easy to find a comfortable pace on the soft sand of the foothills. When she thinks of O’Keeffe, Merrill recounts in her memoir, she likes to think of her “walking in beauty beneath the ancient cliffs at Ghost Ranch.”

I found myself thinking a lot about Merrill recently, when I walked through “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” the new blockbuster exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The show, curated by modernist scholar Wanda Corn, will live in Brooklyn through July before hitting the road for a nationwide tour; the demand has been so great that the museum is issuing timed tickets for the exhibition to manage the crowds. “Living Modern” is not so much a show about O’Keeffe’s art as it is about her mythological, heroic image—the undefinable “will” that fascinated and inspired admirers like Merrill. The show is primarily about how others viewed O’Keeffe: It includes her clothes, personal artifacts like her collection of mother-of-pearl buttons, and nearly 100 photographs of her, from those taken by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, to a Polaroid shot by Andy Warhol in 1980. But the exhibit is also about O’Keeffe’s role in these images—how she styled and accessorized her own legend.

I am not of the opinion—posited by some critics in response to this show—that clothing is a distorting lens through which to view an artist’s life work, especially in the case of O’Keeffe, who extended her powers of creativity to her self-presentation. I can, however, see the logic in the argument that an exhibition like this one is essentially gendered: Of course we would want to see a woman’s clothes; of course that’s what unlocks the key to who she is. Writing in the New Republic in 1925, the critic Edmund Wilson praised O’Keeffe’s work, but also seemed intent to reduce her genius to her personal style. He wrote: “Where men’s minds may have a freer range and their works of art be thrown out further from themselves, women artists have a way of appearing to wear their most brilliant productions—however objective in form—like those other artistic expressions, their clothes.”

It’s hard to imagine, say, a show made up entirely of Marcel Duchamp’s long black neckties and overcoats doing as well as “Living Modern,” or at least that anyone would accuse him of wearing his work like an outfit. But O’Keeffe’s playful engagement with her own image is worth exploring, even if she would have rejected the impulse to define or limit herself by it. She wore pink wrap dresses and raw denim dungarees; both served a practical, daily function in her desert life. To an outside observer, it may have seemed as if she were winking at traditional femininity. But while she consistently skirted labeling herself as a feminist artist (even though she was the only living artist to have a place set for her in Judy Chicago’s "The Dinner Party"), she refused to be demoted because of her gender. In her first show in 1917, where she was the only woman on display, she rejected any attempt to separate herself from “the boys,” as she always referred to male artists. At the same time, she wasn’t unaware of her beauty or how her striking physical aesthetic affected others. She knew what she looked like, in her impeccable wool suits, her flowing head scarves, her black Stetson hat, her enormous Calder brooch twisted into the letters “O” and “K.”

The bulk of the exhibit, and one of the reasons it has been so popular, is a collection of O’Keeffe’s clothes, many of which she sewed herself. The first room displays a selection of her loose cream silk tunics, which would not look out of place in an Eileen Fisher boutique. Moving through the show, viewers get to see O’Keeffe’s black woolen cloaks, her collection of sharp, tailored designer suits from Knize and Balenciaga, her button-down work shirts and blue jeans, her pastel cotton wrap dresses from Neiman Marcus (one comes in dusty millennial pink), a display case of her petite Ferragamo ballet flats in a variety of colors (when she found an item she liked, she repurchased it in many fabrics), and, in the second-to-last gallery, a selection from the 20 or so kimonos she favored later in life, when Merrill was reading to her from Taoist texts.

O’Keeffe acquired some of her kimonos in the United States in the 1910s, later bought them in Asia, and finally purchased a large number from a store called Origins in Santa Fe in the 1970s. She liked to tie them the “Western way,” overlapping the left side over the right. In the show catalog, Corn concedes that there is a “touristic” quality to O’Keeffe’s kimono obsession, and that she participated in the appropriative wave of “Japonisme that swept across the Western world at the turn of the twentieth century, popularizing kimonos among progressive artists, female college students, and any woman who gravitated to clothes that showcased her modernity.” Still, Corn writes, O’Keeffe primarily favored the garment because she felt it was simple, streamlined, and comfortable. She liked clean lines and muted colors, precise tailoring and careful pintucks, with an aesthetic that tilted toward minimalism and function.

Many photographers—including Cecil Beaton, Ansel Adams, Mary Nichols, Laura Gilpin, and Bruce Weber—shot O’Keeffe throughout her life. If “Living Modern” has a major thesis, it’s that Georgia loved to sit for the camera. The images are all so carefully composed, so architectural, so full of her returned gaze, that it is difficult not to feel her willpower guiding every frame. Although Stieglitz took several nudes of the young artist, the way she aggressively stares down the camera in these images suggests that she was less an object of his work and more a conspirator in it.

She knew how she wanted to be seen, and she sculpted her own fame. Her paintings made her wealthy and famous. She was the highest-paid woman artist in New York City within a decade of moving there from Texas. But her self-presentation—the high priestess of the high desert in crepe dresses and dirty work boots—made her an icon. She was a wisp of a woman making paintings that were often larger than herself, pulling hyper-saturated turquoises and fuchsias out of the dull earth. She put together the hardy and the delicate and the efflorescent in a way that no one had before, and just like that, the world shifted.

Notably absent from the show are O’Keeffe’s most popular paintings—the dilated, pillowy florals that critics insisted on reading as some sort of yonic symbology, despite her stern protestations that they were wrong. She always took more of a “made you look” approach to her decision to paint flowers: In 1939, the artist, who was never a woman of many words, decided at last to clarify the purpose of her giant blooms. “I made you take time to look at what I saw,” she wrote. “And when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.”

“Living Modern” contains a scant number of paintings, glorious though they are (my favorite is Pelvis II from 1944, a close-up image of a cow bone gleaming stark white against the Taos sky, blue as a chlorinated pool). Like many modernists, O’Keeffe loved shapes most of all; the rigid and pliable edges of what can be seen. Her boxy blouses and fitted suits underpin her devotion to form as the wellspring of creativity; her body was a minimalist canvas, and she took the time to swaddle it in unexpected proportions. Her self-presentation skewed quieter, however, than the operatic flowers of her best-known artwork. Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 from 1932, for instance, has a touch of the baroque, all curling petals and almost Technicolor pigmentation. One senses that O’Keeffe kept her clothing simple so that she could infuse drama into her art. “Living Modern” encourages the viewer to make this calculation: She lived with few embellishments so that her art could be bold; she did not need accessories when she was capturing the walloping adornment of the land.

“Living Modern” feels like an extension of Merrill’s first swooning letter to the artist four decades ago. It is that yearning impulse to be in the artist’s presence, to be near “for just a few moments” to see if any of her strength might rub off by osmosis, that drives the exhibit—and, I would argue, a new generation of O’Keeffe fanaticism. (Between the touring exhibition and a hulking new cookbook of her favorite recipes, we are in the midst of a highly Instagrammed Georgia revival.) Nothing illuminates a person’s bodily presence like the body’s absence in clothing they once wore. Yes, O’Keeffe’s hands are all over her paintings, but her entire self lived in these garments; she sweated in them, walked in them through mud, cooked chicken enchiladas and green chiles with eggs. In a world where we feel less and less corporeal, living through screens and feeds, there is an urgent quality to encountering someone’s intimate, daily choices—what they wore, what they ate, what they smelled.

In 1995, Merrill published a volume of poems she wrote about O’Keeffe called O’Keeffe: Days in a Life (1995, 2014), which you can purchase at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. I’ve had a battered copy for years—I am from Albuquerque, where visiting the museum is a regular, almost religious, practice—and my favorite poem from it is number 21, from 1974, which describes what O’Keeffe eats for breakfast. It ends:

...the bread a meal in itself whole wheat and soy flour,
wheat germ, ground flax seed,
sunflower seeds, and butter,
mixed with safflower,
then savory jam maybe
ginger and green tomato
or sweet raspberry.
One day she said
what do you write about me?
Are you going to tell
what I eat for breakfast?

O’Keeffe apparently gave her blessing to Merrill’s poetry (her glowing review was, “It will do,” according to Nancy Hopkins Reily), as did Allen Ginsburg, who read the manuscript and praised it as “sacramentalizing everyday life in a world of genius.”

In New Mexico, the O’Keeffe enchantment starts young; the quotidian world becomes sacred under the overwhelming sunsets and watermelon mountains and the constant smell of burning piñon and cedar in the air. With her choice to move West, she consecrated the land with her paintbrush, and her paintings became shorthand for understanding a state for those who have never been there. And yet O’Keeffe did not want to belong to New Mexico. She wanted her image spread wide. She courted celebrity even as she claimed to eschew it; she played hard to get so that people would keep coming around trying to find her. Because if they came to find her, they also encountered her work. They saw the twists in the river just the way she did, they saw the odd bend of a weather vane, they saw stamens blown up into architectural spectacle. O’Keeffe laughed at the idea that anyone would care what she ate for breakfast, yet she also understood that the mythology surrounding an artist’s practice was useful material. It keeps people looking, long after you’re dust. # # #

[New Mexico native Rachel Syme is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Matter, and Grantland, among other publications. She writes about a variety of topics, primarily "culture, women, music, history, film, fashion, television, books, art, politics, New York, the Internet, feminism, visual culture, and whatever else.... Syme received a BA (English and art history) from Stanford University.]

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sorry Lucy Ferriss — You Were Close, But Lost The Cigar On A Technicality — The Current Occupant Of The Oval Office Isn't A "Witch" Because The Best Term For Him Is A B-Word That Rhymes With Witch When Discussing His Pedigree

Professor Lucy Ferriss used a verbal shiv with grace and skill just to the figurative left or right of the most famous red tie in out troubled time. If this is a (fair & balanced) demonstration of writing skill, so be it.

[x Lingua Franca/CHE]
Hunting Witches
By Lucy Ferriss

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When my kids were small, we used to recite a little ditty about going on a bear hunt. The hunt involved a belief that there was a bear out there, “a big one,” only we couldn’t see it; we had to get past the obstacles and find it. (And, I suppose, capture or kill it, only we never found the bear; the rhyme was entirely about the obstacles in our way.)

Bears exist; witches don’t. That is, they don’t exist in the fairy-tale or medieval sense of a person (generally female) with magical powers. There continue to be people who call themselves witches, of whom more below. But one reason we look upon the Salem witch trials with such horror is that the mass hysteria that led to the execution of 20 people in Salem, Mass., in 1692-93 was based on such profoundly mistaken ideas that those executed were innocent by definition.

But did the Puritans hunt witches? They might have been eager to label nonconformists like the non-churchgoing Sarah Osborne witches in order to assign blame or get revenge. And they attempted to entrap witches with various “tests” including witch cake, a yummy concoction of rye meal and urine by which the guilty among them might be found out. But the witches were already among them, just not named as such. In fact, just like the Good Witch Glinda in "The Wizard of Oz," for many centuries white witches were in great demand for their healing powers. Only when unexplained phenomena like the Black Death devastated the population did church authorities go looking for the malevolent forces causing them — and in that sense, they were hunting witches the way I might set a cat to hunting the mice that I’m sure are getting into the corn.

Yet according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term witch hunt, which Donald Trump used last week to refer to the investigation into whether his campaign had ties to the Russian government, was first used in 1885, in H.R. Haggard’s fabulist novel King Solomon’s Mines. Before then, witches were suspected, tried, prosecuted, and condemned, but not hunted. By 1938, witch hunt had taken on a distinctly political cast. We call the ruthless methods of the Josef Stalin and Joseph McCarthy witch hunts because we understand their victims to have been framed or unjustly persecuted. No one called the subjects of those trials “witches,” but the sins of which they were accused — Trotskyism, Communism — both existed and were considered dangerous by a good swath of the population. By shaping the plot of "The Crucible" so that the motives of the witch accusers were entirely instrumental and their effects hysterical, Arthur Miller not only drew attention to the cruel absurdity of McCarthyism but also defanged the Communists his “witches” represented.

Later in the 20th century, the “Satanic ritual abuse” panic led to witch hunts of nursery- school teachers that destroyed many careers. Here, the water is a bit muddier. That pedophilia existed as a criminal tendency in the world at large was never in question by either prosecutors or the defendants seeking exoneration. The existence of Satanic rites is more disputable. There are present-day self-identified witches and Luciferians, but it’s doubtful that any of the accused day-care teachers were involved in such practices.

Only in the latter half of the 20th century did witch hunt apply to individuals, and always in attempts either to deny that such a thing was taking place or to assert the unfairness of whatever was taking place. This use of the term seems categorically different to me. The role of guilt by association in rounding up so-called witches, Trotskyites, Communists, nursery-school pedophiles, and so on is far less salient here. Perhaps more important, the so-called victim of the witch hunt tends to deny the very existence of the witch and to rely instead on their own innocence and the perfidy of accusers:

“The Watergate witch hunt . . . was run by liberals in the media.” –Paul Johnson, Modern Times

“Nixon Sees ‘Witch-Hunt,’ Insiders Say” –Headline on Bernstein/Woodward Washington Post article, July 22, 1973

“I’m asking what is it about [the Clintons] that attracts these witch hunts or, dare I say, these vast right-wing conspiracies?” – Tavis Smiley, November 20, 2015

“There has been a witch hunt against every prominent person of color that has served alongside the president. And this is part of it.” –MSNBC’s Richard Wolffe, speaking about the Obama administration appointee Susan Rice, November 27, 2012

“This is a witch hunt.” –Jesse Singal, writing about the response to Rebecca Tuvel’s essay on “transracialism” in Hypatia, May 2, 2017

Now, witch hunt has become Donald Trump’s go-to phrase for whatever emerges from James Comey’s testimony, Robert Mueller’s investigation, or any report in the news media of suspicious actions taken by the administration or the Trump campaign. And it’s not any old witch hunt, but the greatest in US history against a politician. (It would have to be the greatest. Bigly.)

But here’s what I’m wondering. The people who hanged those unfortunate individuals in Salem thought they were witches; the people on trial thought witches existed, with powers they themselves did not possess or crave. Many in Hollywood in the 1950s thought Communists existed — many were Communists — but they just didn’t think Communism was a bogeyman. Nixon, by contrast, denied the existence of the conspiratorial president depicted in the media; Hillary Clinton denied the existence of the wrongdoing that the Benghazi investigations seemed determined to uncover.

Now we have an individual who promised great health care for everyone with no costs; who promised to bring back the coal industry with a wave of his wand; who promised to rid the world of ISIS in a matter of months. Such magic! Could it be that the president believes investigators are after him, not for conspiring with Vladimir Putin, but because he really is... a witch?

If so, all I can conjure is Mickey Mouse in "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice," who cast a spell and almost drowned when things got just a little out of hand. # # #

[Lucy Ferriss has been writer in residence at Trinity College (CT) since 2000. She is the author of literary criticism, a memoir, and seven books of fiction; her most recent work is A Sister to Honor: A Novel (2012). See all of Ferriss' books here. She received a BA, cum laude (philosophy) fom Pomona College (CA), an MA (English and creative writing) from San Francisco State University, and another MA and PhD (both in English and American literature) from Tufts University (MA).]

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

After The Smoke Has Cleared, The Question Remains: Was The Megyn Kelly-Alex Jones Interview The Equivalent Of A Studio Wrestling Bout?

This blogger has a dirty little secret, on Father's Day evening, 2017: in one of the rarest occasions, the blogger went to "NBC News with Megyn Kelly" and her opening segment — an interview with the Austin-based purveyor of fake news, Alex Jones. Will Oremus' review of the segment in Slate got it mostly right: both interviewer and interviewee got what they most wanted: media exposure. Unfortunately, Will Oremus included a clinker in his review. Only one parent of a slain Sandy Hook victim agreed to appear on the show; the other Sandy Hook parents stayed away. Sandy Hook parent Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, was killed in the shooting was asked by Kelly: if "he had anything to say to Jones for Father's Day, he [Heslin] responded, 'I think he's blessed to have his children to spend the day with, to speak to. I don't have that.' " Will Oremus identified the Heslin victim at Sandy Hook as Heslin's "daughter." Jones and his followers would seize upon Oremus' error to prove that MSM (Main Stream Media) cannot tell the truth. If this is a (fair & balanced) illustration of the slippery nature of "truth," so be it.

[x Slate]
Alex Jones Fought The Media, And They Both Won
By Will Oremus

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Megyn Kelly’s NBC interview with Alex Jones wasn’t the fiasco many had predicted. Far from a fireside heart-to-heart with America’s leading conspiracy theorist or a faux-objective “gotta hear both sides” back-and-forth, the segment was edited more like an exposé of a dangerous paranoiac who happens to have the ear of the president.

Kelly quickly homed in on Jones’ vulnerabilities, including his role in the Pizzagate conspiracy (for which he eventually apologized [faux sincerity]) and his absurdly offensive denial of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting (for which he has not). Jones’ mealy-mouthed explanations were edited to leave in the sweating and the squirming and leave out his stem-winding conspiracy rants, giving viewers the indelible impression of a man who lacks the guts either to renounce or to stand by his reckless claims.

In the lead-up to the interview, NBC and Kelly took heavy flak from liberal critics—and parents of the Sandy Hook victims—for giving Jones a mainstream platform from which to air his abhorrent views. No doubt influenced by the backlash, Kelly and company instead did everything they could to undercut and discredit Jones. (The program reportedly did a heavy edit of the segment following the first round of criticism). In most viewers’ eyes, they probably succeeded, even if the results weren’t particularly enlightening.

The producers juxtaposed clips of Jones’ past Sandy Hook denials with Kelly’s interview with a father who had lost his daughter [sic] in the shooting. Having backed Jones into a corner on his prevarications, they showed his last-ditch attempt to thread the needle between offending Kelly’s viewers and disappointing his own: “I tend to believe that children probably did die there,” Jones said, practically tugging at his collar. “But then you look at all the other evidence on the other side, and I can see how other people believe that nobody did die there.” The show then cut to a voice-over in which Kelly intoned gravely: “Of course, there is no evidence on the other side.”

That’s the sort of work the show needed to do in order to answer the criticism that it was playing into Jones’ hands by having him on. Only a hardcore Jones viewer could have come away thinking that he looked like anything but a kook.

Yet in her determination to avoid normalizing Jones, Kelly also avoided drawing anything particularly interesting out of him or the phenomenon he represents. We already knew Jones was a liar and a poseur. We learned next to nothing new about the deeper question of how and why he rose to prominence, and what that says about America and the media today. While the show traced InfoWars’ influence on Donald Trump, it didn’t plumb the mutual affinities that help to explain it. Instead, it concluded by dredging up the retired Tom Brokaw for an eloquent yet intellectually empty riff on the internet [sic], hate, and division. His pep talk to America: “This is a time of common threats requiring uncommon courage. It is a time to step up.”

Ultimately, the segment came off less as a hard-hitting work of journalism than an apologia for its own existence.

But if attention is money, this episode was ultimately a win for both sides. Kelly’s show likely boosted its national profile and ratings, and the bad press it generated will likely be offset by the generally positive reviews for the segment itself.

Jones, meanwhile, found himself at the center of a weeklong news cycle and succeeded in portraying Kelly as a two-faced mercenary by releasing audio of a pre-interview in which she promised to go easy on him. Taking the name of his InfoWars brand literally, he spent the duration of Sunday night’s segment broadcasting live to his followers as he watched along with them, serving up a derisive stream of running commentary on Kelly’s mendacity.

As poorly as he came off on her show, Jones probably needn’t worry too much about his own audience, who were already conditioned to mistrust anything they see on network TV. And now he has people like Fox News’ Sean Hannity taking his side as part of their own crusades against the mainstream media.

Neither side came out of this battle unbloodied. But each played shrewdly to their own audience, and there was no knockout blow. Jones “isn’t going away,” Kelly warned at the top of the show, by way of justifying her coverage of him. And, despite the efforts of her critics and her subject, neither is Kelly. # # #

[Will Oremus is Slate’s senior technology (media, technology, and the Internet) writer. He received a BA (philosophy) from Stanford Univerity as well as an MA (political journalism) from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. While at Columbia, Oremus was a Maggie Gray Fellow in International Reporting.]

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