Saturday, December 28, 2013

Ways & Means

oil painting by author: "White Cap" (detail)

What is the best way to arrest our skid toward extinction? How to live an ethical life? How do we advance “spiritually”? How do we create the shift necessary to avoid nuclear war, war in general, alleviate poverty, eliminate pollution and unsustainable practices? I have always been suspicious of one-sentence or one-word answers to big questions but Tolle’s take on these questions overcomes my skepticism as it embodies the beauty of simplicity and a strategy to address the full range of critical issues that plague the human family. As with all simple answers elaboration is required.

Tolle's statement can begin that elaboration, “...there are many questions but only one answer...”, presence. How do I respond to my perception that the momentum of history is leading us toward extinction? That the quest for profits, power and privilege, or mere survival, is devouring the life system? That the most successful in that quest use their considerable influence to insure that no alternative way of organizing ourselves gets a fair hearing, that their preferred mode undergoes no serious questioning? This is accomplished via their ownership of media and disproportionate impact on the political system and other institutional life.

We can use our minds to create strategies to propagate alternatives, we might do that. The traditional resistence to the oppressor, cited even in the bible, in one of its many moods, “When the spirit of the ruler moves against thee, yield not.” But what we are inspired to do out of presence is not predictable which is why Tolle doesn’t advocate specific actions like blocking logging operations, whaling ships, war materials and demonstrations. Get present, then, connected to the self-evident intelligence out of which flows evolution, you’ll know what to do. It could be those actions, it could be others, but it is known only through stillness.

On some level reality can be conceived as a frequency array. Human consciousness, or unconsciousness, can be seen as part of this array, anger vibrating at a different frequency than affection, judgment different from acceptance… and presence, the state of non-thinking awareness, is a frequency we can call joy or peace. An agitated angry self-righteous demand for peace is little different, frequency-wise, than a similar demand for war. The frequency array is shifted by mere presence and one’s contribution to that is the ultimate form of activism. Presence is the state we enter when obsessive thinking is stilled. That is attained by simply noticing the chatter, bringing it into consciousness where it dissolves, transforms into presence.

Now in presence, in the stillness of being, there eventually comes an impulse, an enthusiasm to act and that is the answer to the question, what to do.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Happy Holy Day

Reading Richard Dawkins's memoir, An Appetite for Wonder, which I'm finding a bit boring, I'm led to question, how much less interesting would an autobiography by a non-celebrity be, like the one i'm working on for example. Well, there may be some redeeming quality, say if it were very well written, or something that caught the imagination of the reader, expressing the zeitgeist or whatever... but I've always seen it as something of interest only to myself and, maybe(!), my daughter. My interest quickens whenever Dawkins deals with the evolution of his thinking that eventuated in his book, The God Delusion (reviewed on my blog and the DEW, May 2011). So I took a break from the book to go to youtube to see some of his debates.

In a documentary titled, The Enemies of Reason, Dawkins interviewed, or maybe ambushed is more accurate, certain high-profile “spiritual” teachers, astrologers, tarot readers etc; I say ambush because he seems to have stopped them in a hallway or garden enroute to somewhere else. They stand there, Dawkins peppering the victim with questions, the camera person wandering back and forth between the debaters and sparks not quite flying but evident in the tense and rapid repartee.

Of the clips I looked at most victims were struggling mightily if ineffectively to hang onto their “faith”, masking the indefensible with theological jargon. Only those who wish to be deceived are fooled by this tactic though apparently the numbers are pretty high who so wish. Usually Dawkins' questions are quite interesting while the answers he gets are nearly unbearable obfuscation, reducing usually to “faith” or “personal experience”.

Dawkins however came upon a worthy opponent when he waylaid Deepak Chopra. I did not know Deepak was an MD. I once saw a PBS documentary of one of his talks to a business group. I thought it was quite clever of him to counsel that audience to “go to the wordless space and envision your desire.” Clever because when you get to the wordless space, as I understand it, and I'm sure how Deepak understands it, you have no desire. You are only in wondrous awe of the interconnectedness of all things. Business people of course, deeply involved in an enterprise where profit is the central motivation, would expect this “wordless space” to be a sort of magical process for getting one-up on the competition. That whole world would be subverted were they to actually get there and realize that other values arise... beauty, harmony, reverence, peace.

Apparently Chopra's medical practice combines traditional medicine with “new age” notions of wholistic health. Dawkins probed this area, thinking of it as non-scientific and therefore vulnerable, actually using the word “mumbo-jumbo”. Deepak quite persuasively refuted the idea, saying we use the word “mumbo-jumbo” when we don't understand something and “science” when we do, obviously the one being respectable and the other not. So Deepak itemized a list of complaints about traditional medicine, chief among which is the “fact” that going to it for treatment is fraught with serious risk, citing statistics that, if true, would justify any reluctance you may have to go to your doctor.

As impressive as the doc was I have to say his references to treating the whole person seemed vague. What was impressive was his ability to spar on an equal footing with Dawkins and his skill at articulating the “spiritual” realm, admitting readily that 80% of “new age” stuff is superstition. They didn't actually seem that far apart, Deepak's weakness being a vagueness on some topics, Dawkins' being a defense of science bordering on the dogmatic. Chopra apparently used the word “quantum” from physics in some of his writings, metaphorically, but Dawkins thought this was an attempt to borrow the legitimacy of science for something that was clearly unscientific. Deepak addressed all charges without defensiveness, with great seriousness and eruditon (maybe only apparent, who knows, not me) and with some humor.

 If anyone in this exchange was defensive it was Dawkins. He is right to be concerned about the carnage that religion has wrought. He substantiates in his writing and videography, his claim that science can provide an experience of wonder and awe. He fails, however, to acknowledge that a parallel experience can be had via poetry, mythology or “religion”. Words point at the ineffable and despite the charletons of literal religion and the occult, and their deluded followers, metaphor is as reliable a portal to this realm as science. In fact, being impressed by such things as the immensity of space/time, macro and micro, may actually be an inferior experience to the “mystical” sensing of interconnection. Or it may be that these words are actually pointing to the same thing. As does this seasonal(?) collection of my songs, Holy Whole

Friday, November 29, 2013

Life is but a Dream?

I looked over and the strange fact that Pamela Kheto was driving seemed perfectly normal, even though my sole contact with her in the last ten years was a brief meeting in a parking lot where she tried to recruit me for some kind of power-grab at her church. When I looked to the front I saw we were on rough terrain. I felt the bottom scraping on large boulders and finally hitting something huge that threatened to completely ty us up, the edge of a cliff actually, but our momentum carried us up and over, teetering on the edge a moment then flipping over, dropping about 20 feet. I was thrown out of the convertible and I tried to keep tabs on the car, leery of it rolling over me. It took a weird bounce and came right for me but since it was a convertible, as it rolled over I was able to avoid injury by tucking into the seating compartment. But all that excitement woke me up. I lay there breathing, heart pounding, wondering, WTF? Are dreams parallel realities or just random happenings that we attempt to make sense of by tying disparate fragments together into a story as best we can?

I’ve always been influenced by whomever I’m reading, in terms of writing style. Like Chomsky for political writing. In high school when I discovered Sherlock Holmes I would write friends, usually friends I was hoping to make girl friends, in the style of that early detective story writer. Lately I’ve stumbled upon David Sedaris. Anyone familiar will probably notice him lurking in this writing. Back to my dream: Mulling this stuff over I got up and did my five minute yoga routine, coordinating movement with breathing, keeping my attention on breathing or rather the moment in time I'm standing in... except when I dart off to add something to my to-do list, then trying to remember where I left off, doing five of each movement but losing count and settling for however many, lying there at the end wondering whether to get back in bed or lay here and meditate... falling asleep, waking, random stuff going through my mind as if they were life or death issues, catching myself, letting them dissolve, being once again, transforming that energy into presence, determined to not drift off, realizing I'm thinking about that meeting thursday, some stuff to add to the agenda... waking, letting it dissolve again... focus, focus... um, that line in my latest song, it has the word little in two consecutive verses, need to change that... wait a minute! Let it dissolve, back to now.

So I put on the ear buds, hook up Nugget Q. Underfoot the dog and head down the street, making for the cemetery, a thirty minute walk to get rid of that extra five or fifteen pounds or at least maintain a holding action, and keep the old bod in minimal shape. Half a block and I notice the song I’m playing is 2/3 through and I haven’t even been aware of it. So now I attend. The next song starts and I drift off thinking about random stuff like those dreams. There’s a song again, half way through and I’ve missed the first two verses. I seem to wake up in the middle, vow to focus but mostly only hear beginnings and endings.

What I’m listening to are the songs I’ve been recording. I’m going through more or less chronologically, recording in batches of ten the songs I’ve written since 1969. A bit more than 2/3 through that archiving project. “Album” number 18 coming up. I listen for mistakes or dull passages that need to be tweaked. Sometimes I listen to other artists, like The Swimming Pool Qs but I always come back to mine own… it’s what interests me I tell myself, and if I didn’t listen to them they wouldn’t get heard… I tell myself. I’m using Mac’s bandcamp to record them, usually laying down guitar and vocals to a drum track then adding bass, lead guitar and maybe keyboards. When I load the batches to bandcamp I do a cover, using one of my paintings or drawings, and add lyrics and commentary. My pace is such that I put up an “album” a month and if twenty people check it out that month I feel like I’ve accomplished some sharing behavior, even though I can tell that many only listen to part of a cut, according to the stats available. Can’t begrudge folks, I’m the same way, I can’t sit there and listen to album after album, read all the poetry, novels, see every movie produced, read all the essays of my fellow bloggers. Ya, I do a blog too. You’re reading it.

The blog started out, and so states at the top, with a focus on being and power, power being basically looking at who rules civilization for whose benefit, the 1% we’ve heard so much about, Noam Chomsky, as I said earlier, being the guru here. The being side comes mainly out of the work of Eckhart Tolle. I mean, many folks have nudged me in this direction but no one has provided such clarity on the subject as ol’ Eckhart. The blog readership, like the songs, is miniscule. I think I got 60 readers once when I posted thoughts about Israel that pushed somebody’s buttons, bringing charges of anti-semitism, a definite possibility when dealing with that subject. The more usual readership is 15 to 40, and who knows if they make it through the whole essay? A few listserves is mostly how I promote the blog. I accompany the posts with political cartoons, drawn from my archives or done special for that post. For posts on being I more often use paintings since they generally deal with aesthetic rather than political issues – the aesthetic being the philosophy of beauty and beauty being what one experiences in deep being - if you know what I mean. Turns out the being half is far less than half.

BTW, some citizens of backward countries like, say France, think we in the U.S. don't understand hardship. I've got this tankless water heater I installed for environmental reasons and it worked great for awhile, lowered my gas bill noticeably. Just as the warranty expired it gave out. I invited the Georgian “expert” on tankless water heaters over and after 3-4 hours he threw up his hands and disappeared. It was a loss for him because I never got an invoice and he lost cell phone minutes talking to the engineers at the manufacturing plant – ya, made in USA!

So anyway, now when I’m ready to shower I turn off the in-line to the unit, turn on the shower (no water of course since the input is off), put on my robe cuz I have to walk through my screen porch to get to the unit, go there, turn on the input, light the unit (one in three times it lights itself) and head for the shower where I have a bucket to catch the water. It's usually hot by the time I get there so I put the bucket aside (to be used for toilet flushing later) and do the shower. I wet down, turn it off and lather up. When I turn on the water to rinse there's no way of knowing if the unit fires up so chances are the only hot water I have is in the pipe between shower and unit so, a quick rinse is what I get. Well, it saves water don't it, as the English say. And they, along with those Frogs, probably also say that we in the states don't suffer but i've just disproved that, didn't I.

Photo by/of Tom Ferguson

Monday, November 11, 2013

Three Books: Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar, Noam Chomsky's Imperial Ambitions and Arundhati Roy's War Talk

I join these three books because of their common unveiling of who-rules-for-whose-benefit, across cultures and time. Parenti shows an ancient example, the destruction of early Roman Democracy by oligarchic forces. Chomsky illustrates the continuation of plutocracy, or elite rule, in our time, despite and in opposition to the advances of Democracy. Roy provides confirmation that this struggle is international, in this case India.

It was news to me that democracy (a very limited form to be sure) was operant in early Rome. Nor did I know it was demolished when Caesar was killed in 44 B.C. Parenti portrays him as a reformer, limited but still siding with the common people on many issues and being assassinated for his trouble. The prime consequence of the assassination was a civil war that saw the end of democracy for hundreds of years. Democracy had long struggled to supplant monarchy, making an overt return politically unwise. The rulers after Caesar, kings in all but name, took on the title Emperor, coopting the prestige of Caesar by taking his name and ruling Rome, quite undemocratically, for hundreds of years. So today, the Italian media billionaire Bertolucci labors to undo whatever democratic gains he can, yearning I suppose for the good ol' days when his class ruled without challenge.

Rome's very limited democracy was hoarded by a ruling class which may have squabbled among its various factions but definitely excluded what they would have called the “rabble”, the common people, ordinary workers, women and slaves. The financial manipulators of the time were fond of a scheme where they would lure less advantaged “citizens” into great debt such that, by law, they could then enslave them. On the other end of this game was the freeing of slaves, also by law, but used primarily to unburden slaveholders of obligations to feed and house those whose working lives were over, due to age or infirmity. The primary concern of this ruling class was to maintain and expand their privileged lifestyles. They objected to, and assassinated, Caesar, claiming that he was ambitious of destroying democracy. Their true motives were as obvious as were those of George Bush as he claimed to be spreading democracy. There were few objections to tyranny when their class privileges were not threatened.

Dissidents in Rome faced a pretty brutal and lethal response from the self-appointed “authorities”. In the U.S. today, consequences for dissent are relatively benign, depending on how far you're willing to push it. Just standing out on the corner with a sign denouncing drone warfare, nothing's likely to happen beyond the occasional middle finger from passing rightwingers and you might be infiltrated by taxpayer-funded, Constitution-defying spies. Occupy a public space and you face pepper spray and a weekend in jail. Whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning, Snowden and Assange start to feel the effects of riling the beast that pretends to worship freedom. It's good to keep in mind that this situation where citizens are relatively free to dissent is a hard-fought legacy of activists who labored in difficult and dangerous times, advancing democracy inch by inch.

In India, the world's largest Democracy seems firmly in the same hands, or worse. Criticizing the high court can get you jail time, as it did Arundhati Roy. She'd probably still be there if not for her celebrity as a best-selling novelist. According to Roy, leading Indian politicians are, “...either members or admirers of a right-wing, ultra-nationalist Hindu guild which has openly admired Hitler and his methods.” These are the overseers of India's nuclear weapons. Arch-enemy Pakistan seems no wiser but also blusterous possessors of nukes. And into this tinder-box the U.S, sends incendiary drones as if to assert that we of the west too have learned nothing from the devastating violence of the twentieth century and its pandora's box of weapons of mass destruction.

As Eckhart Tolle has said about consciousness, “There are many questions but only one answer.” And as Einstein warned many years ago, “With the splitting of the atom everything changed, save our way of thinking. And thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Until we commit fully to non-violent resolution of conflict, with all its implications for justice and environmentally sustainable practice, we sail an accelerating, Armageddonesque trajectory.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Feisty Senator from Vermont comes South

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont spoke this morning (10/18/13) at a union hall in Atlanta, to an enthusiastic full house. The points he made in his talk and the town hall-like Q & A, though pretty wide-ranging, highlighted a couple items: extremist republican ideologues look around and realize, hell, we can't ask people to vote for us so we can gut social security, medicare-medicade, veterans benefits, ship U.S. jobs to China and cut taxes for the wealthy. The people in poll after poll show that the country is united by large majorities in favor of these programs, want them protected, and oppose tax-cuts for billionaires and corporations. Even the tea party opposes social security cuts, individual members, not the billionaire-funded “leadership”. So, how can we divide them, they say, and get them to vote against their own interests? The best they can come up with, and it has been working so far, are the issues of gay rights and abortion.

Now, Bernie says, we can agree to disagree and argue about gay rights and abortion, but when it comes to social security, medicare-medicade, we are together and we shouldn't let them divide us. And that message will resonate with voters. That of course is why you don't hear it in the corporate media. Bernie holds a press conference with the president of the AFL-CIO, a union representing 12 million workers. No coverage. Yet billionaire-funded thinktanks are consulted everyday for their manufactured opinions. One person pointed out that though people are often opposed to Obama-care they support the Affordable Care Act, (one and the same of course) a testament to the effectiveness of corporate, right-wing propaganda. Bernie's opinion is that the Right's hysteria comes out of a fear that the Act might actually work and be popular. That would send the wrong message, from their point of view, that government can actually benefit working people. In Georgia, the governor is refusing to participate in a program that would cost the state zero funds and provide health care for hundreds of thousands of people. Is denying gay rights worth trading for health care? Obviously they have to frame that one in a way that exploits people's prejudices or ignorance.

And here is the indictment of the extremist agenda: they actually believe that there should be NO minimum wage, NO social security, NO veteran's benefits, NO environmental protection, NO regulation of banks or corporations, NO free education, No healthcare, and NO taxation for the wealthy class. This ideology comes from the billionaires who spread it by funding right-wing think tanks and exploiting discontent to create The Tea Party, funding buyable candidates and opponents of non-buyable politicians. The Supreme Court's Citizen United decision has made this anti-democratic effort even more effective.

When someone has more money than they, and even their heirs, could spend in a lifetime, what drives them to want more and to push policies that impoverish everyone else? To Bernie, this is a mystery but we, the progressive community, are, to use a football metaphor, on the ten-yard line trying to prevent their greedy and ghoulish goal.

How did a socialist get elected to the senate in Vermont? They have the money and the influence that can buy elections, stack the courts, own the media and so control the discussion but we have the grass roots. Sanders said that he knocked on every door in Vermont and that's what it takes, that kind of organizing. He'd go into homes, sit down, say shut off the TV and let's talk... talk about those issues that unite us, jobs, social security, fairness. We are all mostly workers and we are being screwed. 95% of the profits that have come from increased productivity over the last ten years have gone to the 1%. 38% of the wealth in the U.S. is in the hands of the 1% while only 2% is owned by the bottom 60%. Many workers are making less in wages than they were making twenty years ago, with longer hours, less benefits, less pay, more work. We've got to stop sending people to congress who will perpetuate these inequalities. Bernie's trip south is an attempt to defy the status-quo assumption that the south is “red” and jump-start a movement to reverse the march backward towards a pre-New Deal nation, and the third-worldization of the whole world.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Nothing But the TRUF (and how it will maybe make you free)

We all have one, it seems, a sister or brother-in-law who isn't quite on the same political track. I found myself in a shouting match with mine in my Mom's kitchen, to her consternation. It was in the Reagan 80s and we were discussing U.S. Central American policy. The term “gun-boat diplomacy” came up, him admitting that maybe in the distant past it happened but today... no. As sort of a crescendo to a rising-to-maximum rude volume he triumphantly shouted, in italics, bold, with exclamation points and in my face, “Open your eyes!!!”

I backed up a few steps, turned and went into the bathroom where I took some deep breaths, calmed down, unhooked ego and returned to the fray with this: If your government were going into Nicaraguan villages, killing school teachers, postal workers and otherwise terrorizing the unarmed population, would you support that?” He said that he'd have to change sides if that were the case. I said, well it is the case and I will send you documentation. Back in Atlanta I copied a few pages from Noam Chomsky's Turning the Tide and sent them off. Bro-in-law reported that he threw the pages across the room, claiming that “Chomsky was just trying to embarrass the U.S.”

On our journey to adulthood we encounter and adopt a myriad of influential personalities and points of view that can't possibly all be correct. So a percentage of what we think we know about the world is simply mistaken. Some of it is trivial, like how far is it to the moon, or who was vice-president under Hoover. Some of it is more consequential, like uncle Bill says the government shouldn't be in the business of providing health care, or Italians (Africans, Irish, Catholics etc; take your pick) aren't quite human, or the “free market”, if unhindered will usher in Utopia. It takes an unusual person and a different education system than the current obsession with testing to take on the task of subjecting these beliefs to scrutiny, sorting out the frivolous/substantial, the erroneous/verifiable.

Scholar and scientist Noam Chomsky has taken on that work, publishing an astonishing number of under-reviewed books over the years that share his penetrating conclusions and save us a whole lotta trouble. He seems to read virtually everything, amassing data for a convincing argument, one of which goes about like this:

the most successful in our society at accumulating wealth tend to place a high priority on maintaining and expanding the profits, privilege and power they have acquired. Since they own the mainstream media and understand the third paragraph above, they will carefully hire people to run it who will exclude points of view that question or threaten the three Ps. The managers, to qualify for these well-paid positions, need to demonstrate that they firmly hold beliefs that, though mistaken, will allow them to blatantly censor perfectly reasonable views as if they were extremist nonsense. Thus the thorough lack of socialist commentators across the major television and newspaper spectrum, coast to coast.

In Chomsky's book, Imperial Ambitions, he presents an interesting example. A New York Times article relays the views of the then chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, Gregory Makiw, Harvard Professor. Here is a widely respected economist whose textbook on the subject is widely used in college curriculum, a person at the top of his profession. Professor Makiw, the article solemnly reports, believes that social security will have to be reduced because we won't have the money to pay for it. As now structured the system will be broke by 2042. Chomsky points out that instead of hysterically calling for cuts to a program that's healthy for another 30 years we could use that 30 years to come up with a solution – the obvious one, increase the cap on social security taxation, is available right now. Income above $90,000 is not presently taxed. So, one of the leading economic personalities in our nation fails to see beyond the apparently imperative but obviously mistaken belief that we cannot institute, or apparently even think of, policies that encroach on the three Ps.

It is as if attaining a highly privileged, influential and respected position in society was reserved exclusively for those holding certain beliefs, however mistaken, that just happen to benefit the 1%. Any house servant could tell you it's so (even though to aspire to such, one must see it as the best of all possible worlds – or at least claim to).

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Reading: Private Empire: Exxon-Mobile and American Power – Steve Coll

When the oil tanker Exxon Valdez went aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, releasing more than 240,000 barrels of crude into a pristine environment, there was more behind it than an alcoholic captain. Exxon had downsized 40% of its personnel in a cost-cutting spree that included safety and environmental departments. At the same time the Reagan administration had downsized the coast guard as part of its near-fanatic belief in privatization and less government. The disaster thus was worse than it might have been, both in unpreparedness and in speed of response. The heartbreaking consequences of this accident were an environmental nightmare, despoiling the Sound and its teeming variety of life for years to come. And, as Alexander Cockburn pointed out in The Nation, even if the ship had made it safely, the oil it carried would still have ended up polluting our life system.

Introducing his book with the Valdez story, Coll goes on to a brief history of Exxon. At its peak Standard Oil controlled 90% of the U.S. oil market. In 1911 the Supreme Court broke up the oil giant on anti-trust grounds. It became Esso, then Enco and later, Humble Oil before settling on Exxon in 1973. The climate at the company strayed not far from the ethic of founder John D. Rockefeller, characterized by discipline, rigor, technological research and unsentimental competition, with a strong dose of a priggish Presbyterianism. Exxon was quite nearly a cult.

Lee Raymond, chair and CEO, had a corporate jet at his disposal, body guards, a winter home in Palm City, Florida, an 8600 square foot home in Dallas, a $3.8 million dollar spread in Palm Springs, California, a $7 million dollar get away in Arizona… you get the picture. Member in good standing of the 1%. For entertainment he chased a little white ball, that he had hit with a stick, around sprawling, manicured lawns and, when he caught up to it, he hit it again (sorry Todd, I couldn't resist that). Also he shot feathered creatures from the sky, sometimes in company of Richard Cheney. I guess that’s fun. Humiliating and badgering underlings was another favorite activity but that would be business, not pleasure. It earned him the nickname, “Iron Ass” as he created a climate of terror and deference in the workplace. Mixing the two though is not forbidden as Raymond and spouse traveled together, he taking care of business then joining her for the shopping. They have quite an art collection, it is said – and a lot of wall space.

Raymond’s predecessor as well as mentor, Lawrence Rawl, together rejected the “environmentalism” of Exxon from the 50-60s, however limited that may have been. They also went on a cost-cutting spree that included eliminating 75% of their 1300 employees in the Manhattan headquarters building, selling the building for $400 million and relocating to Dallas. The cost-cutting also axed the aforementioned environmental staff. Raymond’s undisputed brilliance and prodigious memory were unquestionably in the service of the corporation's bottom line, as all good CEOs, by definition, are.

With the ending of colonialism and the fall of the Soviet Union came a nationalism that, even among corrupt leaders, precluded the oil companies from ownership of new oil fields. Competition from Russia and China had its effect also, creating a loss of major fields and fewer possibilities for gaining new ones. Oil company stock prices are affected by “booked reserves”, oil they already own or have under contract. Over one billion barrels have to be booked each year to avoid the appearance of shrinking value. Exxon used tar sands oil in their press releases and other promotional materials to inflate stock value – not illegal, since they left tar sands off the required annual Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reports. Tar sands is actually a mining rather than a drilling operation and as such is not booked reserves to the SEC. It showed though an Exxon willingness to fudge numbers to its advantage.

The situation of shrinking reserves and a sudden drop in oil prices in the 90s, created by dissension among OPEC members, led to a flurry of oil company mergers. Lee Raymond found a company who had what they lacked, booked reserves. Some of Mobil’s holdings were in unstable regions which necessitated dealing with corrupt and violent governments, maneuvering between civil war factions and the complication of human rights violations. Coll portrays Exxon, in its Nigerian and Indonesian operations as caught between a rock and a hard place. True, management was focused on profit and public statements such as,” Exxon is not the Red Cross.”, displayed a definite insensitivity but, as Coll sees it, Exxon was not explicitly complicit in human rights violations.

In Dallas Raymond had a neighbor, Dick Cheney of Haliburton. This relationship came in handy. When the Bush administration was appointed by the Supreme Court Raymond had a powerful ally he could drop in on whenever he was in Washington and needed a favor. Not that he had to coerce Cheney for the ex-Haliburton CEO fully embraced the corporate ethos, soon to fall into even more favor with Bush appointments to the court. Later Raymond, and other conservatives, were privately disenchanted with U.S. floundering in Iraq. But in the beginning they were quite pleased, ¾ of oil company campaign contributions having gone to the GOP. And Iraq offered an opportunity for enhancing those booked reserves. Raymond served on the Cabinet Task Force Cheney created to advise on energy policy. Environmentalists raged about the secrecy and exclusivity but got nowhere, business-as-usual in Cheney World. The resulting recommendations, given the makeup of the Task Force, were predictably based on energy company “needs”. It was meant to lay the ground for policy and legislation favorable to the oil sector. Cheney and Raymond kept each other informed, both meeting often with heads of state and international movers and shakers. Presumably Cheney had no problem with Raymond’s statement that his first loyalty was to Exxon, not the United States. Cheney and Raymond were also joined at the hip when it came to climate change denial.

The title of Coll’s book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, ties the two together, as does the content, no great surprise to critics of capitalism. To the international corporation the U.S. government is merely a tool to be used when needed, lobbied but otherwise ignored when not, just another employee. Cheney/Bush would find nothing offensive in this attitude. They were merely on sabbatical from the corporate world, come to straighten out the misguided sentimentalists who saw government as representative of the people.

Coll goes on to discuss Exxon holdings and adventures in Equatorial Guinea and Chad. Exxon took great risks in its quest to secure oil, and one can hardly withhold admiration for their persistence and business acumen. But the dark side, for both oil company and U.S. government, is that this quest often meant dealing with and tolerating horrific human rights violators. Some career diplomats may have had misgivings and sincerely wished to guide policy in humane directions but from the top there was little of that. Recall that Reagan, in his campaign against Carter, made the chilling promise that his foreign policy “would not be hampered by any human rights baggage.” Money seems always to trump humane concerns, and the problem is systemic. When the dictator of Equatorial Guinea opened a bank account a shoe’s throw from the White House, and began making monthly cash deposits in the millions, bank officials of course were thrilled. That the depositor regularly presided over torture sessions, used murder and intimidation routinely to maintain his rule may have made some executives squirm a bit but utlimately was not relevant. Just business, as they say in the Mafia. Besides, had the bank refused, the self-appointed President could have just gone down the street to a different bank.

On at least two occasions, Coll claims that President Bush took an interest in human rights, providing one example in Equatorial Guinea where military training was withheld. He accepts the questionable assumption that the U.S. is interested in promoting democracy. This is only accurate in the limited sense of corporate, plutocratic-style “democracy” as exists in the U.S. The “free market” comes up. always tied rhetorically to democracy, as if they were intrinsically inseparable. It is necessary, reading this book, to keep in mind that the author was a journalist at the Washington Post for 20 years. Noam Chomsky’s claim that no one rises to “responsible” levels in government nor mainstream media circles who has not internalized the values of the master is confirmed in Coll’s Exxon history. It is permissible to critique capitalist practices around the edges but non-hierarchical alternatives are off the table, you could even say, unthinkable.

That said, the book provides an interesting history of the company, some of its workers, practices and adventures, as its account of a hilarious Greenpeace raid on Exxon headquarters in Irving, Texas. Exxon's response demonstrates how any challenge to such a company must factor in the deep pockets that allow an unleashing of aggressive lawyers to defend company interests. These actions also send a message to other parties contemplating such a challenge. The intrigue involved in dealings with post-Soviet Russia, the CIA, revolution, dictatorship, government regulation, competition…and sobering facts like, the U.S. consumes 5 million barrels a day of the black magic.

This hodge-podge of fascinating material is ominously bookended between the Valdez disaster and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. ExxonMobil, and the other companies, like to paint BP as atypical, reckless and irresponsible, implying of course that they aren't. And, to a point, the criticism is valid, until we learn that in a much underreported story, a burst ExxonMobil pipeline spilled more than a million gallons in the eastern coastal waters of Nigeria. This only ten days after the Gulf spill began.

Adding to the shame of these predictable accidents, many oil companies joined together, led by ExxonMobil, spending millions to cloud the climate change debate. Despite not one of 928 peer-reviewed science journal articles deviating from the consensus on climate change, the oil companies were able to convince or at least confuse the public, via a complicit media, that there is no scientific consensus. Coll comments that many of these executives will live to regret their repugnant actions as the devastating consequences of denial arise in the not so distant future.

Coll has a section on how the fall of the Soviet Union opened many opportunities for the fabled entrepreneur. The form this took in Russia was of the wild west variety, blurring the already blurry distinction between capitalist and gangster. Economically the Soviet Union had been remarkably equalitarian but with the dissolution came a huge transfer of wealth to an elite, an oligarchy of billionaires. In keeping with Newton’s Law, for every new billionaire, there was created a corresponding number of new peasants. And since Russia had large oil and gas deposits, came soon sniffing the hounds from the west who, to get at that oil, must dispose of any scruples that might interfere with business. Under Putin, there is great reluctance to deal with the international corporations yet that is where the expertise lies. As of this writing Russia is approaching a deal to drill in their very challenging northern waters, not a comforting thought, even if rigorous safety standards were in place. Coll concludes that the economic system is largely held hostage by big oil and predicts no great shift toward alternative energy while they wield the power they do.

As was made clear by the Exxon statement, “We are not the Red Cross.”, we cannot expect an oil company, of their own volition, to pursue alternative fuels or policies less harmful to life on earth, to concern themselves with human rights or other consequences of their pursuits. But we can insist that we, citizens of a democracy, not they, will decide what the creation of a just and environmentally sustainable world requires. If this means fewer billionaires, well, we must buck up and make the sacrifice.

Friday, September 6, 2013

All Praise the Exalted 1%: The Trans-Pacific Partnership

Thanks to a leak by the group, Public Citizen, we now have access to some of the contents of the next international trade agreement, The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This deal is being reviewed and commented on by 600 some corporations with the usual representation of environmental, labor and social-justice concerns – zero. This corporate wet-dream is so secret that even the few U.S. senators who’ve had a peek are not allowed to publically discuss its provisions.

And provisions it has. The three emphasized in the Public Citizen leak are pretty scary. They limit regulation of corporations; incentivize out-sourcing of U.S. jobs; create an alternative legal system to circumvent domestic law, such as the Clean Air Act. Corporations could be exempted from federal, state and local law designed to protect health and environment, with no recourse, no appeal. Today a tiny percentage of food is inspected and even then contamination is often found. Under TPP there would be exemptions where imported food could not be inspected at all. This is the 1% run amok. Their obsession with secrecy is natural for if the public had an unbiased view of the TPP then there could be, they fear, a reaction that would threaten the position of power that corporations have cultivated and carefully hidden over many years - hidden behind a mask of patriotism and the profusion of “free market” propaganda delivered by the corporate(!) media.

The Right Wing domination of media discourse in the United States is no accident. Telling is their silence in the face of what is usually shrilly decried, the threat of loss of national sovereignty. It used to be the U.N. spearheading an international communist world government conspiracy that most worried the Right but now that there is an actual international conspiracy to do just that, they seem unconcerned. One could be forgiven for suspecting that the former fear of communism was a bit of a fraud, that the fear wasn’t loss of freedom represented by communism but of the aspect of that ideology that enshrined cooperation and sharing. It made no pretense, however, of freeing us from hierarchy except in a distant, hazy, future utopia.

The following two TPP statements could hardly be more divergent, the first by the Obama Administration and the second by the group Public Citizen:


President Obama announced in November 2009 the United States’ intention to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations to conclude an ambitious, next-generation, Asia-Pacific trade agreement that reflects U.S. economic priorities and values. Through this agreement, the Obama Administration is seeking to boost U.S. economic growth and support the creation and retention of high-quality American jobs by increasing exports in a region that includes some of the world’s most robust economies and that represents more than 40 percent of global trade. The Obama Administration, working in close partnership with Congress and with a wide range of stakeholders, is seeking to conclude a strong agreement that addresses the issues that U.S. businesses and workers are facing in the 21st century.”

Public Citizen: TPP - Corporate Power Tool of the 1%

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “free trade” agreement is a stealthy policy being pressed by corporate America, a dream of the 1 percent, that in one blow could:
offshore millions of American jobs,
free the banksters from oversight,
ban Buy America policies needed to create green jobs and rebuild our economy,
decrease access to medicine,
flood the U.S. with unsafe food and products,
and empower corporations to attack our environmental and health safeguards.
Closed-door talks are on-going between the U.S. and Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam; with other countries, including China, and Japan potentially joining later. 600 corporate advisors have access to and in-put on the text, while the public, Members of Congress, journalists, and civil society are excluded. And so far what we know about what's in there is very scary!”

So, who are we to believe? Maybe we should look at what was said promoting other trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). It was claimed, for both treaties, that U.S. jobs would be created and other benefits would be lavished on the citizenry (essentially as in the pro-TPP statement above). The AFL-CIO claims that anti-investment actions taken by states to oppose apartheid in South Africa would, under these trade agreements, be illegal. So attempts to pressure brutal dictatorships with sanctions could be disallowed by corporate courts that lie beyond and can over-rule representative government. Treaty wording which leaves production methods off-limits would make it illegal to sanction countries who engage in child-labor, even slave-labor practices. U.S. law protecting dolphins by restricting fishing practices have already been ruled against. U.S. corporations have filed suit, under these agreements, that call for overturning citizen initiatives to protect the environment. The demand is for government reimbursement to corporations for profits that these initiatives prevent. Quebec, for example has banned fracking… and is being sued, under article 11. of NAFTA, by a mining company who claims $250 million in lost profits.

It is expected that Obama will call for TPP fast-tracking, as Clinton did with NAFTA, to reduce debate and scrutiny. Under pressure from environmentalists and Labor, Clinton called for “side agreements” on labor and environment, toothless verbal décor aimed to placate constituents of these issues. That they are “side” agreements without enforcement mechanisms reveal the corporate agenda, to return us to the good ol’ days where rivers, oceans and air were handy and inexpensive dumping grounds for the by-products of profit-chasing. Implications for our health and life system, accelerated climate change, severely diminished if not disappeared democracy, toxified air, soil, water… all grave and devestating consequences, though profitable to the few, should TPP be enacted.

Let me close with a quote: Naomi Klein, addressing the founding convention of UNIFOR, a new mega union created by several Canadian unions, had this to say about climate change: It’s not an “issue” for you to add to the list of things to worry about. It is a civilizational wake up call. A powerful message – spoken in the language of fires, floods, storms and droughts -- telling us that we need an entirely new economic model, one based on justice and sustainability. It’s telling us that when you take you must also give, that there are limits past which we cannot push, that our future health lies not in digging ever deeper holes but in digging deeper inside ourselves – to understand how ALL our fates are interconnected.

Oh, and one last thing. We need to make this transition, like, yesterday. Because our emissions are going in exactly the wrong direction and there’s very little time left.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Quit CWIP, It's a Rip!

The Georgia legislature, in its great (yawn) wisdom, saw fit to grant Georgia Power the, ah… power to charge us ratepayers, in advance, for two nuclear reactors. The 16 billion dollar plus reactors are under construction at Plant Vogtle on the Savannah River just south of Augusta. CWIP (Construction Work in Progress) was passed as the Georgia Nuclear Energy Financing Act.

In testifying at the committee level, many citizens argued against the proposal brought by a legislator, known technically as a lapdog. One participant's testimony was rather brief, to wit: The apparently irresistible lobbying and campaign contributions that seduced national legislators into signing onto privatization and deregulation schemes over the past decades brought us to the economic melt-down we are now just beginning to enjoy. The push for SB31 is more of the same. I hope you’ll consider that history and two other things in your deliberations: Nuclear power is the wrong horse; This bill is an industry fantasy and a consumer rip-off. Truer words were never spoken.

One of the committee members, demonstrating the quality of that legislative wisdom, dismissed such arguments, pointing out that they were, “just anti-nuclear”. I used to think that arguments should be judged or refuted based on their merit or lack of such, not on whether those advancing the argument have opinions contrary to yours on other issues. I humbly, and gratefully, stand corrected.

Many of the arguments put forth by the opposition predicted that, as with past nuclear projects, the cost estimates would very likely not coincide with the actual costs. Another way of saying this is that the rip-off of ratepayers will be greater than originally stated. Down the road a bit now, the legislation passed in 2009, this has proven all too true, to the tune already of more than 1.6 billion U.S. dollars. That's about 4 wind generators which could operate almost immediately, not 16 years in the future, just in over-runs. The project is also fifteen months behind schedule.

When activists opposing the original Plant Vogtle offered predictions that proved similarly correct, no note was apparently taken to, in future, attend to those who in the past have been shown to be credible and be skeptical toward those who in the past have been shown to be not, to in fact lie. The original plant costs were more than ten times over cost estimates. We’re not talking petty cash here. Those estimates were in the billions. One theory was that the anti-folks weren’t listened to because they didn’t wear three-piece suits nor display $200 haircuts. A few tried that and it didn’t seem to matter so maybe it has more to do with campaign contributions and/or ideology. Could be. Maybe that’s what they mean by legislative wisdom.

The Public Service Commission (my, that sounds so uplifting, so servicing… reminds me of Reagan calling nuclear warheads peacekeepers) is made up of five commissioners who are elected statewide. Statewide campaigns are expensive to run. Gee, I wonder where folks get the money to run for such an office and I wonder if successful candidates would feel beholden to, ah… service whomever it was who funded their campaign? And would said funders continue to fund campaigns of those who didn’t provide proper service? Like, for example, if Georgia Power requested a rate increase, ever so politely – would PSC then, in effect, stand for Power Service Commission? So far it sadly has. Some citizens advocate public financing of elections so that serving the funders would mean what it says, Public Service Commission. Of course those citizens probably are anti-nuclear so we can safely dismiss that point of view.

News Flash! The PSC recently required Georgia Power to add 525 megawatts of solar energy to their energy system. This was a 3-2 vote, confusing everyone who sees PSC, with ample history to support such a view, as being in the pocket of the industry. Georgia Power, in it's twenty year plan had appallingly envisioned zero solar so this is significant. I mean, solar over nuclear is an obvious no-brainer but not for those who call the shots in Georgia, until now. It has been suggested that Georgia Power did not take a stand against this proposal because it is saving its ammo for rate increases down the road to cover the cost over-runs on those nukes and the slip in ratings the company has suffered due to their pursuit of such a dangerous and uneconomical technology. I would venture that company executives are also confident that they can always meet the megawatt requirement with paper shuffling or campaign contributions.

It's not clear why Georgia Power went to the legislature for the CWIP tax (yes, TAX!) when it has rarely had any problem having its way with the PSC. Maybe it just likes to exercise its... power. The legislative vote passed but not by much and some claim that had the vote been delayed a week it would have lost. Guaran-damned-teeing an 11% profit to a corporation, in advance!, tends to leave folks open to charges of corporate welfare. Socialize the risks, capitalize the profits... not a motto easily swallowed even by seasoned ideologues. PSC however was complicit by approving the action. Activists are now attempting to repeal CWIP on the grounds that Georgia Power either deliberately misled the legislature or is incredibly incompetent as shown by its cost over-runs and legal squabbling with contractors. Or both. And the competence of the legislature itself can be called into question for making such a one-sided deal. Even if Georgia Power never completes the plant it still gets the money. There is no provision to share any profits with ratepayers. If we're going to have Socialism let's have it for the people not for business interests. Try for more information or ways to help out with the Quit CWIP campaign.

One of the primary factors in Ga. Power getting CWIP through the General Assembly was to create a special provision for how the fee would be applied to industrial and commercial users so that their rates wouldn't significantly increase.  They were opposing it like crazy and suddenly their opposition disappeared--once the back room deal was made.  Because it was put into the law using very technical and obtuse language, the average person wouldn't have been able to figure it out.  We did our research and started yelling about it but the fast track they used for moving the bill along gave little time for understanding what had transpired.  I still believe that if we'd had just one more week we would have killed it.  But Ga. Power's 70+ lobbyists made sure that it was rushed through in a completely unprecedented fashion.

It remains to be seen how the other increases due to Vogtle get applied to industrial and commercial users via the PSC.  My bet is they will get a special deal, once again, thus silencing that powerful arm of opposition.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Art Trip: Two Days in NYC

               The Golden Age,  Joachim Wtewael, 1566-1638 - Metropolitan Museum of Art
Day 1.
Leaving the tiny but expensive apartment on east 90th, I walked west, glancing down the always impressive Park Avenue, making my way to the Guggenheim on 5th Avenue. A fairly short line and I was in, senior discount, $18. Normally one stands at that point in the atrium, the spiral walkway there to take you past whatever show is hanging. Or take the elevators to start at the top - the last exhibit I saw here was abstraction from the 50s, with stand-out, drop-dead DeKoonings.
This time James Turrell has commandeered the space, masterly and expensively sealing off the atrium with what appear to be six unblemished slightly concave sections, resembling the inside of a gigantic Japanese rice paper lantern. There is a specially constructed circular area of seating, allowing you to lean back and enjoy the subtle lighted surface overhead reaching up to the skylight. For a long time it was a light yellow. When nothing happened beyond my own perception (plenty, I know, the point of much of Turrell's work) I moved on up the ramp. Before I had gotten far the color changed dramatically to a rich blue violet. Now I realized it had to be projected light. At the top of the third level there seemed to be a scrim of some kind, filtering the upper levels but I was never sure it wasn't just on my eyeball.

Going up the spiral walkway I was soon behind the finely crafted temporary walls of the installation, sort of backstage. I asked one of the guards if I was looking at sheetrock but she didn't didn't know. I was hesitant to touch it since touching the art always gets you yelled at and it had that rice paper look of fragility. There were other Turrell works, the first a tall narrow opening bright with natural light in an otherwise unlit room. A security guard stationed nearby seemed part of the exhibit, the whole long space being subdued and otherwise empty. Along the way you could duck into an exhibit of Kandinsky which I found as engaging as the Turrell. The alcoves along the Frank Loyd Wright spiral were freshly painted a muted yellow and since there were no paintings hanging where one expects Chagalls and Frankenthallers, Raushenbergs or Johns, the space became charged with the central focus of Turrell's art, the act of seeing. I haven't heard the artist address this but the act of perception is not but a step from the state of being, the focus of much art since the Impressionists.

Many of the Turrell works in this show could be illustrations for psychology text books where perceptual set-ups trick you into seeing what is not there, or the reverse of what is there. The Lichenstein “house” outside the High Museum in Atlanta is a Pop Art version that depends on the viewer moving to get the dynamic effect. Turrell controls the light in a space, usually dimming it and projecting bright shapes into a corner, which from a certain angle take on the appearance of a floating cube. I heard Turrell speak at the High Museum once. He was showing a slide of a piece he did in the Whitney Museum and I was embarrassed to realize I had peeked into that room, thought it empty and moved on. On another occasion I saw a piece that appeared to be a rectangular opening in the wall. You were peering into a very ambiguous space, no way to tell how deep or even if it was really an opening. It was baffling how he achieved that effect. The guy has one of those minds that can assimilate science and utilize optical physics to create puzzling and complex pieces.

As you ascend the spiral walkway you come upon a sign indicating a wait-time of as much as 45 minutes. I spent twenty minutes waiting to get in a darkened room that a guard allowed about 8 people to enter at a time. On the far wall was a horizontal rectangle flanked by low lights. An inside guard wouldn't allow me to get close to it so I wasn't sure whether it was an opening or a mounted flat plane. I stood there waiting for something to happen, aware that in staring at the dark space I was automatically trying to interpret and there was some movement I'm sure attributable to my eyes. In the main space I kept thinking I was seeing a scrim of some kind across the top of the third layer, giving a soft-focus to the further layers but I really couldn't tell if this was on my eye or in the space. If in the space it was very impressively done. That is a very large space to hang something without creating folds or other imperfections that catch the light and so reveal themselves. With the room experience I felt rather let down. I wanted to mime yawning for those in line, considerably longer now, when I left for I really wouldn't recommend much waiting for that piece. But I shyly left it alone. The piece was about perception but more interesting to me were the conversations I heard around me in the line, the dynamics of strangers meeting that I half attended to as I read out of the book I carry for just such occasions. Many others of course “read” from their iPhones. Someone from Arizona talked his way into cutting the line, saying his son had gone in and hadn't come out. The couple behind me happened also to be from Arizona so the three of them explored commonalities. The line-cutter being not so skilled at listening as talking, kept interrupting the woman who had a slight stutter which facilitated his narcissism.

Being a painter myself I found the Kandinsky show appealing. Turrell is a sculptor and sculpture, according to one artist, is defined as, “what you bump into when you back up to look at a painting”. I forget what wit said that. For all of Turrell's genius with materials and scientific understanding I found myself thinking that I've seen more interesting light shows at Rock concerts on youtube, Phish for example. Gorsch, what a Philistine!

I ended my Guggenheim sojourn by finding a seat at the atrium base, experiencing the meditative state one more time and then heading for the Metropolitan Museum of Art just down the road. I made immediately for the modern wing, walked into a room and looked to see who would be first to catch my eye. Not surprisingly, Picasso. But there were plenty of others before my legs started telling me to head on back to my daughter's apartment. Paul Klee for example, more Kandinsky, Matisse, the lush and wonderful Modigliani.

I took a quick look at a current exhibit of Civil War photographs and paintings. I was surprised to learn that the famous Brady actually took very few of the photos he is known for. I was always frustrated by my family's early photos. There were usually a few people posing with great space all around, giving little sense of the people. Whomever took the photos had no sense of composition or portraiture and this is true of many of the civil war pictures. They were documenting momentous historical events but seemed to think it was enough to simple point and shoot. One notorious and macabre shutter-bug though posed bodies into tableau, sometimes using the same bodies in different scenes. I had just reviewed a Civil War book called Shiloh (see the blogpost below this one) so was expecting to see some of the horror I had read about. Aside from some close ups of Lincoln, Sherman, Grant etc; it was easy to skim the show. Well, photos do capture a moment in history but you have to work to get to that when the photography is primitive. Not so the paintings, Homer standing out here. Many of the works were contemporary with rather than scenes of the war but, so claims the curator, registered the ominous rumblings of war indirectly.

Passing through the Egyptian section I was fascinated to see Klee-like doodling on one of those bibs they put on their sarcophagi. Slowed only briefly though I made it to the (north) American Wing, wanting to see that huge Washington Crossing the Delaware. Speaking of sculpture I'm always interested in the way sculptors of busts create an intriguing illusion. By making what look like drilled holes with a little wedge for pupils, when you look at those eyes and step slowly back the eyes, at a certain distance, spring into an animated, “alive” state, that is quite impressive. I never heard this referred to in all the Art History nor studio courses I had in Art School but just stumbled upon it in the Boston Museum in 2001. This was just a month after 911 when the plane was eerily, scantily occupied and Logan Airport was still suffering the malevolent stain of those confused and/or used “operatives”.

Anyway, I spotted a room, just past the Gilbert Stuart Washington portrait, with Sargent, Eakins, Chase and Whistler, a grouping of their full length society portraits, each exquisite and individual in their style. The full length portrait was almost always twice as high as wide and noticing this led me to do a series of full length fictional portraits that were three times high as wide that carried on, intermittently, from 1986 to about 2000 (see But that's just an aside. I went on to see Delaware and in the same room, some grand George Inness paintings and a spectacular view of an Indian village on a river below towering majestic mountains. This painting by Bierstadt is full of presumably authentic detail and supremely exaggerated terrain, a sort of composite of grandeur to dazzle the eastern market of the time. And this was about the time my legs started their complaining so, past the Egyptian stuff again and I stepped outside into a pouring rain.

Day 2.

Some productive writing in the morning then, after my shoes had dried, a streets-of-New-York walk to the Met again. This time I inquire about a Valesquez I saw promoted as on loan. I was given a map of an area covering European Painting 1250-1800. On the way to the Valesquez I got stopped by my old friend, Tiepolo. His drawing remains on the painting in the form of a dancing arabesque line that has always captivated me. The face in Valesquez's portrait is fine but the figure seems hurried. Later I see some Valesquez in the permanent collection that is way better, or consistent, not just excellent in the face. I notice the area is divided between Spanish, Italian and French on the one side and English, Dutch, German on the other. I go pretty rapidly through the medieval stuff, though I do love those landscape backgrounds and the portraits, both for their historicity and painterliness. I think of Hockney's book that claims that portrait painters of this period began to use projection and lens and it is a convincing argument, the later stuff being quite realistic, photo-like, not in color but in accuracy of depiction. I float through, high on this stuff, lingering over whatever stops me... two oval works by Tiepolo, figures on clouds surrounded by a gold leaf sky; LaTour and Carravagio, Titian, a beautiful portrait of Michelangelo by one of his students, very abstract, the head and hand rendered precisely but the figure and background only suggested. There's an impressive, large painting by an Italian woman i've never heard of and whose name I misplaced. It depicts a woman fainting in the act of petitioning royalty, quite an unheard of thing in the day, not the fainting, the petitioning by a woman... just as the painting by a woman of the time was quite rare.

I slip off to find a cafe and coffee, write in the ol' journal and return for the English, Dutch, German side. Knocked out immediately by a Bruegel, one of the four-season works, then a follower of Bosch. I took a course in grad school on 17th Century Dutch Art so these are old buds here. There's a painting by Michiel Sweerts called Clothing the Naked, of a remarkably rendered man compassionately handing a homeless and clothesless person a white garment. The artist had a reputation as a kind and caring individual and he, toward the end of his life, traveled to India and served the poor. The work reminds me of a scene I witnessed on North Avenue in Atlanta. I was driving by in heavy traffic and only glimpsed it but a black man was ministering to a homeless white man who was so touched he was sobbing. The black man was holding him by the shoulders and gently comforting. It was biblical tableau I tell ya.

Next I came upon a painting I had noted in the past but still it happily delighted me. By Joachim Wtewael it is oil on copper, about the size of a piece of typing paper but filled with such painstaking detail and sensitive skill it could make you cry. It's called The Golden Age. Figures fill and cavort in about every space in an expertly lit and composed landscape, all nude, genitals carefully covered except in the case of a few children. There is nothing erotic or hedonistic about the nudity, a utopia described in seductive color. The great thing I discovered, the Met has just about every work on their website. I wanted to show my daughter this painting and I found I could call it up by searching the artist.

Other artists of note in this collection are Van Dyke, Ruebens, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Hals, Ruisdale, Vermeer and, pinnacle of civilization for me that day, Rembrandt. I've never appreciated him so much as with this visit, he just glows with incredible refinement and depth. Oh, I was looking at a Ruebens and a man at the next painting was so excited he had to drag me over to share it with him. And it was worth sharing... a “sketch” of a swirling crowded scene, a Rubens trademark, people, some mounted on masterly drawn horses, sketchy and unfinished, the central area being colored so that it faded off into the muted monochrome of the rest, It had that potent feel that is so hard to describe and it resembled a shallow relief in its dark and light treatment.

Noticing it was 4pm, I still had maybe an hour so I headed over to see the Cezannes, passing up the crowded Punk Fashion show with not much hesitation. There are marvelous Van Goghs of course, and Picassos to knock your socks off but Cezanne, another of those monumental individuals who somehow seemed to see into the heart of things and gave us a glimpse in the work they left.

Ah, a breathtaking two days. And to top off my visit I wrote a song on the bus to LaGuardia, Keep It Goin, the words tumbling into my notebook from the stop-motion reality assembling for me out the window.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

When Warriors Meet, Shiloh, 1862 by Winston Groom

The war between the states, as some prefer to call the U.S. Civil War, is what first comes to mind when I encounter George Santayana's quip, “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.” This applies to war in general, that when each new one comes along we seem to be unaware of the carnage involved and skip gaily into the glorious fray - well, we send the professionals along with the young and naïve as cannon fodder, being too busy (as Dick Cheney said about his failure to serve in Vietnam), to actually attend ourselves.

Another application of the phrase is to military strategy. Winston Groom mentions in his book on the battle of Shiloh that toward the end of the war the military leadership began to realize that Napoleonic tactics were no longer appropriate, given advances in weaponry. Soldiers of both sides were marching smartly across open fields into the jaws of death, as it were. Unfortunately the lesson came less from revulsion at the cost in lives and limbs than from the realization, at least in the south, that they were running out of warm bodies to fling into the caldron.

When World War I. Raised its ugly head, it brought us carnage on an even grander scale. The great military minds had suffered yet another bout of amnesia, utilizing once again Napoleonic strategies, marching old-fashioned soft bodies into new fangled hard contraptions such as machine guns, poison gas and artillery of unprecedented size and capacity. One wonders what went on in the military colleges. Did they study dusty tomes from the ancient past, welcoming innovation of weaponry but punishing as heretical any corresponding innovations in strategy? Santayana suggests that this is to be expected even though West Point could not have been ignorant of history. Perhaps it is selective history that is the problem.

Then there are the politicians, the statesmen (mostly men, yeah) whose history reading is selective indeed, filtered through a fine screen of rosy if deadly patriotism and/or corruption... or sociopathic dysfunction.

So, enough editorializing. Groom's book covers the battle, enlivening the chess analogy often employed in Civil War books, to tedious effect, by selecting characters of all ranks and following them through the battle, characters who left memoirs, letters, diaries and of course those who went on to become famous, failed business man Grant to General Grant to President Grant. Other notables in the battle were General Sherman of march-to-the-sea fame, Henry Stanley who later “found Doctor Livingston”, Ambrose Bierce, later a popular writer who disappeared in Mexico, and infamous calvary officer, Nathan Bedford Forest, whose name was removed from a street in Atlanta when finally black politicians came into prominence in the 1970s and resented his involvement with the Klu Klux Klan.

One anecdote illustrating Forest's reputation: after the Confederate retreat Sherman proceeded to engage in a little harassment. He came upon Forest's calvary unit who immediately attacked. Forest got out beyond his troops and suddenly was surrounded by Yankees trying to kill him. He reached down, scooped up a federal officer and using him as a shield, made his escape. The man was apparently fearless, a definite candidate to have a southern street named after him. In retrospect some offered that the war might have had a different outcome had Forest been given command.

Some ink is spent rehearsing the climate leading up to the war. There were heartless slavers and zealous abolitionists, anti-and pro-secessionists, slave and free states and territories. Gore Vidal, in his usual iconoclastic mischievousness, has suggested that many lives would have been saved and suffering averted had the North simply accepted secession, adding that slavery would have died out naturally. Grant called the Union the greatest form of government ever achieved and it was worth war, in his mind, to prevent its dissolution. He believed, or at least said, that democracy itself was at stake. I have heard more than one person invested in the “southern heritage”, claim that slaves enjoyed their position and were well treated. Others see the conflict as a clash between north and south ruling classes with the average person having little actual investment to defend. Quite a range of opinion on the subject.

Vidal was certainly correct that there was massive death and suffering. Groom depicts horrific stories, gleaned from his sources, of repeated withering assaults, obscene decapitations and carnage from the various, devilish creations of death machinery. Artillery of all kinds, sometimes balls and shot, sometimes nails and chains, thinned the ranks of attackers (thinning the ranks, now there's a euphemism)... the rifles and pistols and bayonets, swords, and, whatever was at hand in a desperate horror show of close quarters combat. The author does a little macabre math, utilizing the fact that a soldier could fire three shots per minute so that the air on the battlefield would have been abuzz with deadly flying metal, 12,000 per minute per brigade... and there were 30 brigades.

Artillery batteries poured devastating fire on troops and attempted to silence each other so that in addition to the metal just mentioned in the air there were cannon balls also aloft. A strange phenomenon was noted that sometimes balls would come bouncing across a field seemingly in slow motion and you could step out of the way and watch it go by. But there were those who would see it coming and impulsively put up their boot to stop it and that miscalculation cost them a foot.

Speaking of limbs, the primitive nature of battlefield medicine meant that the surgeon's saw was the most frequently used tool. Before antibiotics, the prospect of gangrene and death were treated with a liberally applied procedure called amputation. Outside hospital tents there were piles of limbs and hospital boats could be seen chugging downstream with legs and arms regularly being tossed overboard.

Other near unspeakable happenings were fires started by the constant barrage, trapping the screaming wounded in an inferno. On top of that, wild hogs would come foraging, not distinguishing between the dead and the merely wounded.

Not to put too fine a point on it but the soldier victims of foolish politicians were far from enjoying the glittering, honorable glories of combat but rather suffered what Sherman, who surely knew of what he spoke when he said, “War is Hell.”

So, in a nutshell, or a shell casing: a major force of Confederate troops, surprised an equal number of Union troops along the Tennessee River, at first light, June 6, 1862. In the course of a ferocious day of fighting, the Federals were pushed back into a precarious position, bounded by river and swampland. As in most military encounters, inexplicable flukes arose to now advantage one side, now the other. Acts of imbecilic stupidity and awesome bravery in turn had their stupendous effects on both sides. The Federals were certainly advantaged in equipment, having iron-sided boats from which to lob explosives, and heavier artillery but the chaos of a battlefield makes for unpredictable outcomes. The decisive advantage for the Union was probably a 25,000 soldier army which arrived late on the first of the two day battle, which provided fresh troops to fight an exhausted Confederate force.

Groom closes with a synopsis of the subsequent lives of the characters he selected, those who survived. Grant of course became President where a tendency to fall under the spell of charlatans undid him; Bierce disappeared, caught up in the 1913 Mexican revolution; Wallace became the bestselling novelist of the 19th century; Stanley found Livingston; Sherman fled politics for western military operations (another euphemism) and Nathan B. Forest survived to the ripe old age of 56, but not before rising to leadership in the KKK and dissolving it in disgust over its behavior (so claims Groom). It of course arose again when “needed”, like cancer or nuclear power, ever alert for the worst of human corruption to which it can embed and resurrect itself.