Friday, March 31, 2006

The guilt of Europe survives

Shrinkwrapped has written a series of thought-provoking posts on the survivor guilt of post-WWII Europeans, and how they might be dealing with it. Well worth reading. Three parts have been already written, and a fourth is planned.

He writes of an ex-patient of his ("Gudrun") who seemed to take on the burden of guilt for what her parents--who were not high-level Nazi functionaries but ordinary Germans--did (or didn't do) during World War II. Her extreme sense of shame about her mother's family's failure to protect and save Jewish neighbors caused Gudrun to sabotage her own life in many ways, and to decide never to have children.

In Part III of the series, Shrinkwrapped connects the present-day pacifism and passivity of many Europeans with their failure to face their own guilt about their (or their parents') behavior during World War II.

There is no question that Europeans were deeply traumatized by both World War I and World War II in a way that we Americans--who fought in both wars but did not experience destruction on our own soil, nor were we faced with the sort of "Sophie's Choice" decisions that many Europeans faced--may find it hard to fathom. Part of the European experience was their own relative guilt in the Holocaust, and this was not just true of Germans. The example of the maternal family of Shrinkwrapped's patient "Gudrun" is an excellent one: they were faced with the choice of trying to save their Jewish friends and neighbors at the risk of danger to themselves, and they chose their own safety over heroism. They were not evil people, but they were passive when they might have been active against evil. Every European who was not an active member of the resistance during the war, and their children and children's children, must on some level deal with the issue of guilt.

Some, of course, deal with it through denial or even identification with the aggressor. Some just aren't troubled by such concerns and consider the past the past. Some, such as Shrinkwrapped's patient, are tortured by guilt even though they, as individuals, bear none (Gudrun wasn't even alive during the war). We don't know enough about the human heart and mind to explain such differences; we merely note them.

Shrinkwrapped writes that the source of current European attitudes towards the Jews may also be found in their WWII experience and the need to deny feelings of guilt that, if accepted, might threaten to overwhelm them, as they did Shrinkwrapped's patient:

The European elites show a great deal of pathology in their culture. They attempt to deal with their shame by attacking what they see as the source of their shame. If the Jews would only disappear, the memory of the Holocaust could be consigned to the distant past and never thought of again.

I would phrase it somewhat differently. I don't think the desire is for the Jews to disappear, exactly. But I think the desire is to prove the Jews to be as guilty as the Europeans were, and thus to absolve the Europeans of guilt for participating in and cooperating with the Holocaust in such great numbers. And if the Jews and/or Israelis should happen to disappear as a side-effect of the present-day attitude of the Europeans, then so be it.

This can be seen in the eagerness with which explicit and frequent comparisons are made between Jews--especially Israelis--and Nazis. And, in a separate but related phenomenon, I think it's at least partly behind the comparison of Bush to Hitler. If the Israelis/Jews (and American Presidents) are as bad as the Nazis and their European collaborators, this serves a double function: first, it norms Europe's behavior during WWII ("see, there's nothing special about the guilt of Europeans, move along now"); and second, it can even be seen as justifying the Holocaust, as well ("Jews are evil, so it was okay for us to cooperate in attempting to destroy them").

Anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism not only both have a long history in Europe (the first phenomenon is an ancient one; the second has existed for centuries), but they both have a more recent function, and that it is to deflect and sooth European guilt. As the case of Shrinkwrapped's patient indicates, guilt can be an extremely unpleasant and sometimes even unbearable emotion. It's not so surprising that people will do what they can to avoid feeling its ravages.

One other thing about guilt and Europe. There is some connection between guilt and religion. No, it's not at all necessary to believe in religion to feel guilt. But guilt is an emotion specifically addressed by religion: when it is appropriate for a person to feel it, and the various ways for which it can be atoned. It's beyond the scope of this particular post to go into the manner in which different religions answer these questions; but suffice to say it's one of the major tasks of religion to try to give people a way to assess guilt, and then to expiate it.

Europe has become far less religious in recent decades, and perhaps the loss of this mechanism for dealing with guilt is another reason the emotion has to be so strongly deflected there. What remains as a tool for dealing with guilt is the somewhat secular religion of psychiatry and psychology, and Shrinkwrapped's tale of his patient's treatment reveals some of the limitations of that approach to the problem.

Would Gudrun--and other European survivors and their children--be helped by mechanisms such as the Catholic confessional, or Yom Kippur and other Jewish mechanisms for expiation (please see this fascinating discussion of the Jewish attitude toward repentance and forgiveness)? Perhaps.

In any event, Europe's unshrived and denied guilt can go on to produce monsters:

Thursday, March 30, 2006

History reasserts itself, in rhyme

Gerard Van der Leun has written a rumination on the return of history, post-9/11.

I offer a few excerpts here, although they don't really capture the full flavor of the thing (to do that, it needs to be read as a whole):

The History of Me was huge in the 90s and rolled right through the millennium. It even had a Customized President to preside over those years; the Most Me President ever...It was better when we lived in The History of Me...The meaning of this history was not deep but was to be found in the world "fun."...

Now we find ourselves back in history as it has always been and it is not fun. Not fun at all. The history of history has little to do with fun, almost nothing at all.

Should the nation choose to continue in the elections of this year to move forward, to stay the course and continue the offensive, our encounter with history will move forward at much the same pace as it has these past four years, perhaps a bit accelerated. Should the nation choose to step back, to retreat, it will simply retard the process that grips it a bit more than otherwise might be the case. Neither result wil place us back in the History of Me no matter how many yearn for it.

History, having returned, will continue to happen, not to Me, but to Us.

We will have war whether we wish it or not...

Personally, I wasn't too much a part of the 90's "Me" movement, although I remember noticing it. I was too busy raising a child and going to graduate school, and listening to the personal histories of my clients.

But during that decade I definitely relaxed my grip on the notion of being part of a larger history that was frightening; with the end of the Cold War I thought history had turned out to be a paper tiger, a pussycat compared to what we had expected during the 50s and 60s. This perception was a big relief to me (which I've written about here).

Call me naive--and you would be correct to do so--but those were the years in which pears loomed much larger than tanks, in Milan Kundera's image, and I was happy to see those pears. Who wouldn't have been? Yes, there were rumblings that not all was well--many rumblings, if I look back and see with different eyes--but somehow the haze of optimism continued to obscure where this was all heading.

I think a good analogy to those years was the era shortly before WWI, when people thought mankind was progressing almost inevitably to a better and better future. There had been a long time of relative peace, and then "poof!", it all blew up in their faces in a way they hadn't ever imagined, barbaric and bloody and seemingly endless. As the British poet Philip Larkin, quoted in Paul Fussell's wonderful book The Great War and Modern Memory, wrote: "never such innocence again."

Well, I guess one should never say "never"--since it turns out that many (although not all) of us were so innocent once again. And many still remain so, despite 9/11.

That is, almost so innocent; the innocence of those pre-WWI Europeans seems to have been even more profound, as Fussell describes it:

Out of the world of summer, 1914, marched a unique generation. It believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted even the benignity of technology. The word machine was not yet invariably coupled with the word gun.

As Henry James, spokesman for the disillusionment of the era, wrote to a friend on the day afer the British entered the war:

The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.

I've written at some length here about my own 90s version of the glorious prewar summer of 1914, in which I'd imagined that we'd somehow escaped the horrific apocalypse envisioned in the '50s--in other words, that we'd escaped history. I, much like James, had lacked a sense of what those years were "making for and meaning."

But on 9/11 I had an almost instantaneous perception that this threat was more serious than anything that had come before, at least in my lifetime, because this opponent had revealed itself to be unusually implacable, determined, and vicious; and was quite unconcerned with such mundane affairs as living. The latter represented the unique thing about this particular enemy; the Dark Ages had somehow merged with the Quantum Age, and it was not a good combination.

But one thing I never envisioned on 9/11 was the fact that, despite my sense that we could be successful in beating back these destructive forces if we ourselves had some unity of purpose and resolve, many people would be only too eager to go right back to their sweet dreamy repose (what Gerard Van der Leun calls "fun") and to think that it was Bush who was the real bogeyman--that he's the one spoiling all the fun, for his own nefarious purposes.

So history is indeed--to paraphrase another writer, James Joyce--a nightmare from which many of us try to awake. But try as we may, it reasserts itself into our lives, not with a whimper but with a bang.

This page of history quotations contains quite a few gems, such as one from the much-maligned Machiavelli:

Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.

And one of my favorites, from Mark Twain:

The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

And how about this, by Anonymous (not the same "anonymous" who posts here, I'm afraid):

We cannot escape history and neither can we escape a desire to understand it.

And I didn't realize Harry Truman was this much of a philosopher:

The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.

And then there's an observation by Cicero that seems apropos:

To be ignorant of the past is to remain a child.

I will close with a simple statement by Lincoln, from his message to Congress of Dec. 1, 1862,

We cannot escape history.

But that sure doesn't stop us from trying, does it?

Spring: moving right along

What a difference a week makes.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Rahman case and the Inquisition

Now that the case against Abdul Rahman has been dropped, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi has offered him sanctuary:

"I say that we are very glad to be able to welcome someone who has been so courageous," Premier Silvio Berlusconi said.

Berlusconi himself is no slouch in the courage department. And of course who could forget another incredibly brave Italian, Fabrizio Quattrocchi.

The Afghan clerics, however, haven't given up:

Muslim clerics condemned Rahman's release, saying it was a "betrayal of Islam," and threatened to incite violent protests.

Some 500 Muslim leaders, students and others gathered Wednesday in a mosque in southern Qalat town and criticized the government for releasing Rahman, said Abdulrahman Jan, the top cleric in Zabul province.

He said the government should either force Rahman to convert back to Islam or kill him.

"This is a terrible thing and a major shame for Afghanistan," he said.

Note the word "shame" here, and the notion that killing this man for his change of religious faith would somehow restore a sense of honor! Of course, in the eyes of most of us, it would only have increased Afghanistan's shame. But Abdulrahman Jan and others don't seem to agree.

On reading Abdulrahman's chilling words, The Spanish Inquisition was the first thing that came to my mind. But, on further reflection, I decided that the comparison was not all that apt, despite certain similarities.

The Inquisition, although it featured the same sort of violent religious absolutism with death as the Draconian punishment, was actually dedicated to the opposite goal of Islamic clerics such as Abdulrahman Jan. Inquisitors--including, of course, the famous Torquemada--were interested (or professed to be interested; their motives were probably far more complex than that) in rooting out false converts to Catholicism. They were involved in preventing people from insincerely professing to be Catholics, whereas the Moslem clerics are interested in preventing people from leaving Islam, no matter what their consciences might dictate.

It's an interesting difference of emphasis, is it not? The Moslem clerics are only looking at the outward appearance of things, whereas the Inquisitors took individual beliefs into consideration, or at least said they did. But both involve imposing the ultimate punishment for what we would consider to be no crime at all: a change of religious conscience. That's a process our post-Enlightenment minds would regard as the domain of the individual, and solely between him/her and the deity.

The present-day Moslem clerics don't seem to regard the actual viewpoint of the individual involved to be of any importance; obedience to the faith is the goal, whatever the internal belief system. Of course, in a way, that's better than the Inquisitors: at least one can get around the Moslem system by a public lie and a profession of adherence to the Moslem faith. That was exactly what the Inquisitors were interested in eliminating.

So, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Suffice to say they are both abominable ways of dealing with a matter of individual belief.

In researching the Spanish Inquisition briefly for this post, however, I came across a fact I hadn't previously known (that is, if one can believe the Wikipedia article in this respect), which is that the Pope of the time was initially against its excesses, but later bowed to political pressure from Ferdinand and gave the Spanish Inquisition his approval. And note the role of the war with Islam in the entire story of how this pressure was brought to bear:

The Pope did not want the Inquisition established in Spain at all, but Ferdinand insisted. He prevailed upon Rodrigo Borgia, then Bishop of Valencia and the Papal Vice-Chancellor as well as a cardinal, to lobby Rome on his behalf. Borgia was partially successful, as Pope Sixtus IV sanctioned the Inquisition only in the state of Castile...

Sixtus IV was Pope when the Spanish Inquisition was instituted in Seville. He worked against it, but bowed to pressure from Ferdinand, who threatened to withhold military support from his kingdom of Sicily. Sixtus issued a papal Bull establishing the order in 1478. Nevertheless, Sixtus was unhappy with the excesses of the Inquisition and took measures to suppress their abuses.

The Pope disapproved of the extreme measures being taken by Ferdinand, and categorically disallowed their spread to the kingdom of Aragon. He alleged that the Inquisition was a cynical ploy by Ferdinand and Isabella to confiscate the Jews' property...

Ferdinand had some important levers he could use to bend the Pope to his will. Venice, traditionally the defender against the Turks in the East, was greatly weakened after a protracted war which lasted from 1463 to 1479. The Turks had taken possession of Greece and the Greek islands. France, as always, was looking for signs of weakness which it could use to its advantage. And in the midst of all these threats, in August of 1480 the Sultan of Turkey had attacked Italy itself, at the port of Otranto, with several thousand janissaries who pillaged the countryside for three days, largely unopposed.

Under these conditions, Ferdinand's position in Sicily — he was king of Sicily as well as Aragon and several other kingdoms — gave him the leverage he needed. He threatened to withhold military support for the Holy See, and the Pope relented.

Sixtus then blessed the royal institution of the Spanish Inquisition. Ferdinand had won everything he sought: the Inquisition was under his sole control, but had the blessing of the Pope.

So the Inquisition received the Pope's blessing in order to counter the threat of the Moslems battering at the gates of Italy.

Another interesting point is that, although converted Jews were definitely a major target of the Spanish Inquisition, Moslem converts to Catholicism were definitely very much at risk as well:

There were many motivations for Ferdinand to create the Inquisition. Spain, historically an area with disparate religious traditions and ethnic groups, needed a common religion - Catholicism - if it was to have a sense of unity. Ferdinand was particularly concerned with false converts to Catholicism who often remained loyal to the rule of Islam during the final years of Reconquista, and the Inquisition, which had no jurisdiction over non-Catholics, was his method of identifying them.

I mention all of this as a matter of historical interest only. What I'm most definitely not saying is that, because Christianity (or any other religion, for that matter) has had its wretched and horrific (and yes, shameful) excesses, that this fact would in any way justify or excuse what's happening today with Islam.

The important thing is that today there is no longer any Inquisition in Christianity, nor does there appear to be any on the horizon. In fact, all the great world religions of today seem to have adopted religious tolerance as a whole, as well as respect for the individual religious decisions of adherents, into their worldviews--except for one.

Yes, there are Christian sects who believe nonbelievers are doomed to eternal punishment. Yes, there are members of certain religions who shun and ostracize those who leave the fold. But that's a far, far cry from calling for their deaths. No, there is only one religion today that does this, and that is Islam.

And yes, I'm sure not all adherants of Islam subscribe to the idea that apostates and converts must die. But it seems to be an extremely common position. It puzzles me that a religion that believes in itself wouldn't have more faith in its own ability to draw people to the fold--and to keep them there without the rather persuasive compulsion of the threat of death.

[NOTE: And this guy reminds me a bit of the Taliban. Bonfire of the Vanities, anyone?]

[ADDENDUM: Here are some figures on the official Moslem legal position on the crime of apostasy, including how often it is prosecuted in the Moslem world:

A broad consensus exists through much of the Islamic world that apostates from the faith deserve to be killed. This consensus could be glimpsed in Abdul Rahman's case, where the judge, Ansarullah Mawlavezada, said, "In this country we have the perfect constitution. It is Islamic law and it is illegal to be a Christian and it should be punished." Even the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, expected to take a more moderate stance, called for Abdul Rahman's punishment, claiming that he clearly violated Islamic law.

But apostasy laws stretch far beyond Afghanistan. At least 14 Islamic countries make conversion out of Islam illegal. The crime is punishable by death in at least eight of these states, either through explicit anti-apostasy laws or the broader offense of blasphemy.

Official proceedings against those who convert out of Islam are rare, at least in part because most of those who leave Islam choose to keep it secret. More often the government looks the other way while irate citizens mete out their own punishment. In July Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, estimated that dozens of apostates from Islam had been killed throughout the world in the previous year. Bolstering Marshall's estimate, the Compass Direct News Agency was able to identify 23 expatriate Christian workers who were killed in the Muslim world between 2002 and July 2005.

So, although the law is on the books in many countries, prosecution is usually left to the mob, and is not all that common even then. This, at least, is better than if these prosecutions and/or killings were an everyday event. But still, not very encouraging.

The article concludes with the assertion--and I agree--that it is necessary not only to encourage the growth of democracy in countries such as Afghanistan, but the concomitant protection of human rights. Freedom of religion is one of the most basic human rights--one we hold to be "self-evident," under the rubric of "liberty"--and it must go hand in hand with any democracy.

This idea, of course, is on a collision course with the principles of Islam. The Rahman case is important because it confronted this inherent contradiction, which must be resolved if this sort of thing is not to go on. And since it strikes to the heart of Islam, the resolution is not going to be easy, I'm afraid.]

I guess I need to be careful about that apple logo

I better not start using this site to sell any music, or the Beatles will be breathing down my neck (of course, at an earlier time in my life, that would have been the fulfillment of a dream):

Two legendary companies in the music industry faced off in court Wednesday in a trademark battle over a piece of fruit.

Apple Corps Ltd., the Beatles' record company and guardian of the band's musical heritage and business interests, is suing Apple Computer Inc., claiming the company violated a 1991 agreement by entering the music business with its iTunes online store...

The computer company's logo is a cartoonish apple with a neat bite out of the side; the record company is represented by a perfect, shiny green Granny Smith apple...

The 15-year-old agreement between the two Apples had ended a long-running trademark fight in which each agreed not to tread on the other's toes by entering into a ''field of use'' agreement.

Of course, it's a good deal more lucrative to sue Apple; their pockets are just a mite deeper than mine. But still, one can't be too careful.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The cavalry never came: Moussaoui's confession

The ongoing carnival of the Moussaoui trial has introduced still another act: the main character turning the tables on his defense team (and himself) by a spectacular in-court confession during the sentencing stage of his trial.

This gesture of Moussaoui's may guarantee that he gets the death penalty, which is probably exactly and precisely what he wants.

The Moussaoui trial has become--among other things--an exercise in the negatives involved in treating terrorists as ordinary criminals, including allowing them a bully pulpit for spewing forth propaganda--not that anyone who wasn't already a jihadi would have been convinced of much of anything by the rantings of Moussaoui. His testimony is also painful for the 9/11 families, who now are confronted with the idea that if this man had spilled the beans earlier, the attacks might have been thwarted (the basis of the death penalty charge for Moussaoui):

The sister of a pilot whose hijacked plane struck the Pentagon on Sept. 11 says watching Zacarias Moussaoui's chilling testimony on Monday provided new information for families desperate for answers, yet only worsened their emotional wounds. From a federal courthouse, Debra Burlingame watched the al-Qaida conspirator on a special video monitor set up for families of the victims of the attacks....

Burlingame shook her fists as she described testimony that the hijackers would have taken the planes into the ground if they had seen fighter planes in the air around them.

"My brother was a fighter pilot," she said.

Her voice cracked as she dwelled on a truth too painful to bear: "The cavalry never came. The cavalry never came."

So, is Moussaoui telling the truth now? He's given out so many conflicting stories it's hard to tell. But this one has some legs to it:

Gerald Leone, a former first assistant US attorney in Boston who was the lead prosecutor in the shoe-bombing case against Reid, said yesterday that it is impossible to know whether Moussaoui is telling the truth. Moussaoui may finally be coming clean, he said, or instead is now embellishing his role. But Leone said Moussaoui's story is consistent with what is known about Reid.

Investigators know that Reid and Moussaoui knew each other, went to the same London mosque and the same training camps in Afghanistan, and had at least one Al Qaeda handler in common, he said. ....

Leone said that Reid told his interrogators that he had been ''disappointed" that he didn't participate in the 9/11 attacks and that he had had a dream in which he missed a van carrying the 9/11 hijackers and thus could not join the plot....

"It's just so difficult to tell with a guy like Moussaoui where his motivations and intentions lie," Leone said. ''I don't think anyone is even clear whether he considers the death penalty to be a badge of honor or not. He's clearly said he wants to die a martyr, but not at the hands of the government. So it's a mixed bag."

Ah, the sorrow of missing out on all the glory! Failed suicidal jihadis such as Reid (and probably Moussaoui) seem to be plagued by their own version of the student anxiety dream. Bummer.

It is probable that, once a person makes up his/her mind to be a suicide mass murderer, a line is crossed. The person has accepted the necessity and reality of his/her death (I'm tired of this PC gender stuff; from here on in this essay I am just using the masculine, since the vast majority of these people are men); visualized it and gloried in it, as well as expecting that this martyrdom will lead to lasting glory. It must be a cruel cheat to be deprived of such a "consummation devoutly to be wished."

So, if a man is prepared to die, and considers himself a "dead man walking" already, it's only the manner of his death that remains at issue. Unable to effect the death of his choice--taking thousands of people with him--he goes for the next best thing, now that his task is done. He has already made the legal system look bad (not so difficult, as it turns out), cost us plenty of money (likewise, not too hard), taken full advantage of the stage he was given, and increased the grief of the 9/11 survivors. Not too bad for a man on trial for his life.

Another motive I think may be driving Moussaoui in particular: from the very start, he has shown great contempt for his own lawyers. Yesterday's courtroom scene must have been quite the show, his defense attorneys trying desperately to shut him up, and then scrambling to negate what he'd said. So another perk of his confession would be to stick it to the hated lawyers.

It stands to reason that Moussaoui despises their attempts to save him as unworthy of a jihadi, not to mention being stupid (and inexplicable) activities against the US's own interest, since Moussaoui doesn't seem to appreciate the US legal system--in fact, he's made it clear he despises it, also.

All in all, a good day for Moussaoui, by his lights.

[NOTE: A while back I wrote this post discussing the bizarre Moussaoui family and its history. It's well worth reading, I think--and I think you'll be surprised by what some of his siblings are up to.

The story of this family is a sad and terrible tale, though a fascinating one (at least to me). I do not, however, offer it as an excuse for Moussaoui, who must bear the responsibility for his own actions.]

Richard Landes reports from France, the paralyzed ostrich

Richard Landes, of the blog Augean Stables and the website Second Draft, has recently returned from a trip to France and filed this eminently readable report on which way the wind is blowing in France today (and you don't need a weatherman).

The situation Landes reports is not reassuring, to say the least. Depending on how one looks at it, the following exchange could be considered hopeful, or not:

We visit old friends from way back (the wife is a childhood friend). They are from the upper classes – educated, Catholic, intellectually lively, international in outlook, with smart kids who travel the globe studying and doing internships. In the past, the husband has taken the principled position of the ostrich in response to my warnings.

Not this time. This time he’s eager to talk, and quite open in his concerns. A description of what I have been trying to say for three years now.
“So what do you think the French will do?”
“Mais nous sommes tétanisés,” he says. [We’re paralyzed.]

What can you do when you pick your head up and see you’re between the tracks and the train is bearing down on you?

The good news: a growing awareness. The bad news: has it come too late?

And then there's this:

...I was haunted by the remark of an French friend, "The French cannot forgive America for saving them twice"...[T]he French [seem unable] to give the Americans a compliment without taking it back, without re-asserting their primacy in all that really matters. Sa gloire...Like the Arabs, the French were once the leaders of European and global culture (from the 11th to the mid-19th centuries); and like the Arabs, they have a deep sense of grievance at “history gone wrong.”

Is that what’s going on here? Is the obtuseness of the French the product of some deep resentment at America because they sit where the French should sit? Is this their secret bond with the Arabs — the brotherhood of envy?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Magritte would not be pleased, and neither is neo-neocon: the apple transformed

The apple--and most particularly that tart green variety known as the Granny Smith (and there really was a Granny Smith, by the way)--is an especially beautiful fruit. With color, shape, healthfulness, and taste, the apple has it all.

Just ask Magritte, whose work "The Son of Man" I've quoted in my own portrait.

The apple is rich in subtext as well as health value. The Garden of Eden story may represent a mistranslation of the original (was it actually an orange? or fig?), but artists had a field day with the eminently paintable apple:

But alas, the apple may be going the way of the--carrot.

Yes, the carrot. Remember back when carrots were those lengthy things that a person peeled and then ate (originally, they even came with green tops), rather than small bite-sized precut modules?

When the bagged mini-carrot first came into vogue, I assumed they represented wastefulness--that part of an ordinary and otherwise usable carrot had to be discarded to make those neat little shapes. But it turns out I was wrong; mini-carrots actually reduce waste. Baby-cut carrots (which are not baby carrots at all, but large ones trimmed into small bits) originated with California farmer Mike Yurosek's observation that a great many ugly carrots were being rejected:

It all began about 16 years ago when Mike Yurosek of Newhall, Calif, got tired of seeing 400 tons of carrots a day drop down the cull shoot at his packing plant in Bakersfield. Culls are carrots that are too twisted, knobby, bent or broken to sell. In some loads, as many as 70% of carrots were tossed. And there are only so many discarded carrots you can feed to a pig or a steer, says Yurosek, now 82 and retired. "After that, their fat turns orange," he says.

Well, I guess we just can't have ugly carrots or orange-fatted pork, can we? Thus the baby-cut carrot--which has come to represent a large portion of the carrot market and has led to a surge in carrot consumption--was born.

And now the same is being done for the apple, according to an article in the Feb. 12 New York Times Sunday Magazine.

It turns out that whole apples, despite their good rep as an especially healthful food--after all, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away"--are now considered just too difficult for most people to even contemplate eating:

"You look at the number of meals being eaten in automobiles," Steve Lutz says (research by John Nihoff, a Culinary Institute of America food historian, estimates that 19 percent of all meals or snacks in this country are eaten there), "and you'd think the apple is convenient already. But when you finish it, you have a core to deal with. You have waste. Plus, once you've started an apple, you're sort of committed to eating the whole thing."

"I don't think consumers are very comfortable leaving a half-eaten apple lying around their car or their house," Lutz adds.

In addition, people seem to have become more sensitive--actually, extraordinarily sensitive--to the disgust value of certain foods. It's hard to believe that there could be anything offensive about an apple, but apparently that core-in-the-making has become a big turnoff:

Paul Rozin is a cultural psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and, though he may not introduce himself this way at parties, an authority on disgust. "As the world gets more and more cleaned up of these things, and as you get highly sensitive to disgust, a bitten piece of food in your hand is not too nice," he posited. An eater of the whole apple must, with each bite, readdress his mouth to "the unsavoriness of the bitten edge in front of you." But eating apple slices means treating yourself to a clean, unspoiled, appealingly geometric shape every few seconds.

Enter Tony Freytag, the Mike Yurosek of the apple world. Freytag has found a way to meet the special challenge apples present to the snack-food industry--their tendency to turn to brown mush when cut into pieces:

Crunch Pak was one of the first companies that labored to bring the new apple on line. Each found early on that what can be done casually at home — slicing an apple and squeezing lemon juice on it — is maddeningly difficult to pull off in a factory. The anti-browning bath is only one movement in a grand symphony of technologies at work. For nearly two decades, teams of food scientists, engineers and can-do businessmen struggled to pin down the apple, while the apple skirted and ducked them at every turn. They zigged, the apple zagged. Clearing one hurdle only brought more into view, and even now the particulars of production must be reassessed and rejiggered daily. The apple, Freytag told me when we first met, "is a moving target."

...NatureSeal is the product of a decade of U.S.D.A. and private research. It's a flavorless white powder that, mixed with water, penetrates a few millimeters beneath the surface of a cut apple...The ascorbic acid in NatureSeal searches out and bonds to the loose phenols, blocking them off from the polyphenol oxidase enzyme and interrupting the browning reaction. The calcium salts work like cement to stiffen the fruit's softening cell walls. All of this happens inside the apple, so the solution leaves no perceptible layer or shell on the surface.

Making apples into sanitized snack food bits seems--as with carrots--to increase their desirability as food. It may be paradoxical, but cutting a food into small pieces encourages people to eat more of it, not less:

Industry insiders now talk about elevating a food's "snackability," which, in short, means engineering it with enough convenience that picking up a piece and putting it in your mouth becomes an almost perfunctory transaction. A snackable food is crumbless and fussless. It is most likely broken into bite-size pieces, encouraging us to eat more. If the food's form itself doesn't imply a portion size — the way, say, one apple or one cupcake does — there's no obvious signal to stop. This triggers what one marketer, Barb Stuckey, calls "mindless munching" — the hand's almost hypnotic back and forth between bag and mouth.

"Mindless munching" is indeed a concept with which I'm all too familiar, although I didn't know it had a name.

I'll leave the last word to Freytag:

A bowl of apples is like a piece of art...It's display. People won't touch it. But you put out a tray of cut-up apples — that's food."

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Conflict of laws: the Abdul Rahman case

[NOTE: I wrote the bulk of this post late last night, and am now happy to report that the charges against Rahman have been dropped. I've added to the post to reflect that updated information, but the issues involved are still basic controversies and tensions that exist between Islam and the West, and within Islam itself.]

The blogosphere is abuzz with the Abdul Rahman apostasy case in Afghanistan. It's an extremely dramatic example of the ways in which Islamic law is in basic conflict with cherished Western Enlightenment ideals of religious freedom and human rights.

The beef is with sharia itself, as this article points out (via Dr. Sanity)):

What the case allows the West, and the moderates, to do is to give a name to the enemy, and the name is shari'a...The question thus becomes, which way is the current trend trending? In many ways, it seems the moderate Islamic states are on the defensive against the radicals. The Rahman case, by publicizing the most odious side of shari'a, will ultimately help move the trend in the right direction. Either the man will be martyred, or the authorities will have to back down. And if they back down, it will be clear that they, and the forces of radicalism and repression, have suffered a defeat.

Today we have learned that, at least for now, the forces of repression have suffered a defeat. The line in the sand was drawn, and the sharia court blinked.

Courts--even sharia-based courts, it seems--have myriad ways of avoiding coming to certain verdicts that they wish to circumvent. In this case, the ostensible reason for the dropped case was lack of evidence. But the truth is probably that the pressure brought to bear by the West was too great, and that a guilty verdict would have damaged the fragile Karzai government.

But there's no way to know to what extent this result also reflects moderate forces within the nation and Islam itself--because such a war is going on, and has been going on for a very long time. It's very hard to gauge the actual numbers of the forces on each side, but it seems fairly clear that, since the Iranian revolution of the late 70s, the forces of repression have been in the ascendance. Whether or not this case represents a turning point in that process remains to be seen. But allowing for and encouraging such a turning point was one of the goals of the Afghan War.

The fact that this case was brought at all is an outrageous state of affairs, especially in a country liberated by the West from the yoke of the Taliban (and, somewhat off the topic, it's no surprise to me that the issue was first raised in the bitter atmosphere of a custody battle). Who doesn't recall those Christian aid workers who were facing the death penalty at the hands of the Taliban for proselytizing, and who were freed by the Afghan invasion, much to our great relief? Now, irony of ironies, the government that replaced the Taliban, installed at the cost of bloodshed, seemed about to come close to committing a similarly egregious offense against religious freedom.

Historical parallels with the Inquisition and the low points of other religions in this arena are quite beside the point; as the Baron at Gates of Vienna points out, this case happened now.

Since the entire question of change is one that interests me greatly, this case has made me think about the more general question of how laws evolve (much too big a question for me to tackle in depth at this moment, but maybe someday...). The horrific excesses of the Inquistion, as well as our traditional laws outlawing heresy (originally punishable by death) and blasphemy didn't disappear overnight, after all. Their demise was the result of a process of slow attrition reflecting cultural and philosophic changes in society as a whole. The usual course of events in such matters is a slowly decreasing number of prosecutions through a lessening of prosecutorial zeal, increasing leniency of sentences, and then the repeal of the law (that last de jure step is often eliminated, if it has already happened anyway, de facto). The disposition of the Rahman case--dismissal--is consistent with this process, speeded up no doubt by outside pressures.

It's not unheard of that gradual internal processes of change are accelerated by more forced external pressures. For example, when we took over countries through force in the past, we usually imposed certain rules on those countries from the outside (for example, in post-WWII American-occupied Japan, MacArthur and the Americans wrote the Japanese constitution to conform to our idea of what was needed). With great responsibility came a great ability to dictate things.

In recent years, however, we've shied away from imposing our will out of respect for and tolerance of the belief system of other cultures. The Rahman trial not only starkly highlighted the inevitable conflict between moderate Islamic countries (or those striving for moderation) and the parallel track of sharia law in those states, but the conflict between our new efforts at nation-building and our desire to conform to PC delicacy while doing so. Both conflicts seem inevitable, and certainly are not going to disappear with the disappearance of the charges against Abdul Rahman.

Here's an excellent summation of the contradictions inherent in the hastily-drawn-up Afghan Constitution. The Constitution explicitly endorses the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which defends religious freedom--and, in particular, the freedom to convert--while it upholds sharia law, which of course requires the death penalty for Moslem apostasy. So here we have a conflict of laws situation.

Freedom of religion is a secular, Enlightenment viewpoint, the result of massive societal change that occurred in the West over the course of centuries. If we seek to drag a country such as Afghanistan into supporting freedom of religion, there is going to be a disagreement of fairly huge proportions. Old-fashioned imperialists were upfront and--well, imperial--about this sort of conflict; they didn't shy away from imposing their points of view, and believed in the superiority thereof.

There's that old British statement about the custom of suttee in India (the burning alive of the wife when the husband dies) which I quoted here in a post about the contradictions inherent in tolerating the intolerent. Mark Steyn has quoted the same incident in a column directly about the Rahman case:

In a more culturally confident age, the British in India were faced with the practice of "suttee" - the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Gen. Sir Charles Napier was impeccably multicultural:

"You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks, and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."

The truth is that the whole concept of "tolerance" is a mockery if it extends to tolerating the intolerent. Logically speaking, one precludes the other; the two contain a paradox that renders them incompatible. And what we tolerate within our own borders and society is one thing; what we allow another society to do is another. Ordinarily we have no say in the matter, but Afghanistan is a case in which, although it's a sovereign country, we have what one might call a "special relationship" towards it.

So the outcome of this case--which was a test of how far the Afghan government is willing to go towards tolerating the intolerant within its own borders--was also a case of how far we are willing to go in tolerating the intolerent in a country in which we have, for better or for worse (and so far it is for better) engaged in regime change and nation-building. The fact that the Afghan court backed down allows us the luxury of taking our time to answer the question of how far we are willing to go, but it's a question that won't go away (and who knows what pressure we in fact brought to bear behind the scenes?).

Nations are not built--or rebuilt--in a day, and profound cultural change is ordinarily not a fast process. Fast-tracking such change has been a dilemma faced over and over in the last several hundred years, with differing consequences: from Russia and Peter the Great, to Western imperialist ventures around the globe, to our own "melting pot," to Turkey and Ataturk, to the aforementioned Allies and Japan, to the Shah and Iran, to France and the wearing of the veil among her Moslem immigrant population--and to the coalition and the Karzai government in Afghanistan. No doubt similar dilemmas will face us in Iraq.

The dismissal of the case has allowed Karzai to buy time. Personally, I would love to see the Karzai government abolish the death penalty for apostasy. But in doing so against the will of the people, it might be setting itself up for that very thing so many are wary of in Iraq: civil war. Feelings run high; Karzai is in an "awkward position" indeed.

Sometimes it doesn't pay to go too far too fast; the results can be a retrenchment. As it is, it seems likely that Rahman himself may have to go into exile for his own protection against those who would take an extra-legal sort of revenge against him.

One thing is certain: this case has spotlighted the glaring intolerance of sharia law and traditional Islamic rules about apostasy, an intolerance that is at odds with the defense of human rights to which the new government of Afghanistan aspires. This contradiction will not go away easily, and must be faced sooner or later by that government and that society, within Islam itself, and between Islam and the West.

The only question is whether it must be faced sooner and through radical change, or whether a temporary way out can be found in order for a more gradual process to occur--and whether such change is compatible with Islam. Can a change about such a fundamental part of the religion ever be assimilated into Moslem thought in the way in which similar changes have been integrated into other religions? The jury is still out on that one.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Miscellaneous Saturday thoughts

Very light blogging today. I'm busy having fun--a novel idea, I know!

So, see you tomorrow. But I just wanted to mention a couple of things, and I'll be uncharacteristically brief.

The first is that after yesterday's discussion of kitcsh, I've had one of those phenomena the Germans call an "earworm," in which a phrase goes round repetitively (and often annoyingly) in one's head. This time, the phrase people say to babies, "kitchy-kitchy-coo," was transformed into "kitschy-kitschy-coo." And it turns out I'm not the only one who's ever had the thought.

On a far more serious note, I want to recommend this post by Dr. Sanity about some of the new documents indicating connections between Saddam's regime and Al Qaeda, and the mechanisms of denial that seems to be operating in those who have staked many of their arguments on the nonexistence of any such connection.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Pictorial propaganda: Part III--Kitsch and politics

The last post of mine (number two in this series) generated so many exceptional comments that I was thinking of just reproducing a few of them and calling it a day.

Here's one by grackle:

One problem with Rockwell for the critics is that Rockwell’s works are obviously good, so obvious that the average viewer can see it. This detracts from the modern art critic’s jealously guarded power to arbitrate between artist & public. And in modern criticism popularity is despised. Thus the critics like Saltz vigilantly & vehemently defend the corner into which they’ve painted themselves.

Despite Saltz’s condescension it is evident to even the casual & unschooled observer that Rockwell’s work has nuance & layers of meaning. One of the particulars of Rockwell’s genius is that his art, although accessible, is also subtle. He’s like Mark Twain in that his art can be approached in a variety of ways.

Like they did with Twain, with Rockwell the critics confuse sentiment with sentimentality, sentiment being the honest presentation of emotion based in reality & sentimentality being that which cloys under thoughtful examination & imbues the viewer with a feeling of being cynically manipulated.

And commenter SB poses the following question:

I must ask (for the hundredth time) when and how art's highest purpose became to "challenge us and question things?"

That segues into the topic for today's post: kitsch. Kitsch is a term referring to aesthetics, but--as we shall see--it also has class and political overtones.

The definition of kitsch:

Kitsch is a German term meaning "trash" that has been used to categorize art that is considered an inferior copy of an existing style. The term is also used more loosely in referring to any art that is pretentious or in bad taste, and also commercially produced items that are considered trite or crass.

Because the word was brought into use as a response to a large amount of art in the 19th century where the aesthetic of art work was confused with a sense of exaggerated sentimentality or melodrama, kitsch is most closely associated with art that is sentimental, mawkish, or maudlin; however, it can be used to refer to any type of art which is deficient for similar reasons — whether it tries to appear sentimental, glamorous, theatrical, or creative, kitsch is said to be a gesture imitative of the superficial appearances of art. It is often said that kitsch relies on merely repeating convention and formula, lacking the sense of creativity and originality displayed in genuine art.

That's the esthetic criticism of kitsch. The class and political elements of the objection to kitsch are apparent in this seminal article on the subject, written in 1939 by Clement Greenberg and published in the Partisan Review. I tried to wade through it just now, and I have to confess I didn't have the patience to read it in its entirety. But the gist of the message seems to be "the masses ain't got no taste, and those in power use kitsch to keep them dumb and happy."

Kitsch is detested for its simplicity and its easy appeal to sentimentality, as well as its formulaic qualities. I personally don't think Rockwell falls squarely into the category of kitsch--I'm with commenter grackle on that score--but many would disagree, and that's part of their objection to his work.

The attitude bears some resemblance to the way a gourmet might regard a Big Mac--or a cultural elitist a Walmart (an attitude that was amply demonstrated in the comments section as well, here).

Greenberg's analysis of kitsch positively oozes with socialist condescension and class consciousness:

The peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city's traditional culture. Losing, nevertheless, their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.

Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas...Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times....

Sound familiar? Certain recent criticisms of Rockwell such as Saltz's, discussed at some length here, partake of a similar quality of sneering condescension, although Saltz skips the socialism and the overt class consciousness. But there's a common theme, and it is this: "we elites know better than to be suckered in by this stuff, like you common folk. Not for us your simple pleasures; we are far more complex and nuanced."

Author Milan Kundera has expounded at some length on kitsch and its relation to politics, and why its simplicity is to be abhorred. Growing up in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, my guess is that his exposure to the genre would have been mainly through the soulessness of Soviet art, and the inherent lie within it (what commenter grackle refers to as cynical manipulation).

Kundera states that kitsch is:

defined it as “the absolute denial of shit.” [Kundera's] argument was that kitsch functions by excluding from view everything that humans find difficult to come to terms with, offering instead a sanitised view of the world in which “all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.”

In its desire to paper over the complexities and contradictions of real life, kitsch, Kundera suggested, is intimately linked with totalitarianism. In a healthy democracy, diverse interest groups compete and negotiate with one another to produce a generally acceptable consensus; by contrast, “everything that infringes on kitsch,” including individualism, doubt, and irony, “must be banished for life” in order for kitsch to survive. Therefore, Kundera wrote, “Whenever a single political movement corners power we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.”

So here we have the germ of an answer to commenter SB's question above: kitschy simplicity in art is often used in the service of a totalitarian society in which doubt and questions are not allowed. In response to that, art and artists feel a need to "challenge and question"--or at least, to be part of a society that allows challenge and questions. Kundera objects to kitsch for this reason: he feels that its lack of complexity and denial of darkness is somehow allowed with the totalitarian impulse, which he rejects utterly.

A similar sort of thinking may underlie some of the objections of those such as Saltz to the paintings of Rockwell. It's not just elitism, although that is most definitely part of it. They reject the paintings on esthetic grounds, defining them as inferior art designed to appeal to the masses (kitsch). But many also see them as insidious and seductive propaganda in the cause of a jingoistic, nationalistic, power-mad America.

We have become so sophisticated as a society that it is very difficult to use art as a rallying cry for a cause, as was done so effectively during World War II. Whether it be posters such as Rockwell's, or movies and songs (see Armed Liberal's recent discussion of the film "Yankee Doodle Dandy"), even our popular culture has become imbued with a darker and more critical tone. I don't think Kundera need be concerned about any "absolute denial of shit" in today's America.

The impulse to reject facile and simplistic propaganda is not necessarily a bad one. It's a good thing to be aware of how easily opinion can be influenced, and to guard against skillful manipulation in an unjust cause, especially when the medium of that manipulation is the stirring up of hatred (which is never the function of kitsch anyway). But when all propaganda--including everything simplistic, sentimental, or feel-good--is rejected, then one of the most effective tools in rallying the public to that cause is eliminated. This can be especially hazardous when the enemy is not the least bit reluctant to use every propaganda tool that the modern world can offer, and to use them skillfully and well.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Pictorial propaganda: Part II--Norman Rockwell and Soviet art

Now, who doesn't like Norman Rockwell?

Yeah, he's corny as all get out. But breathes there the man (or woman) with soul so dead who wouldn't be touched by this picture, and a host of others by Rockwell?:

Well, there are some who indeed seem to be untouched by it and its brethren. But there may be an even greater number who actually are touched by it, at least for a moment--but then their sense of their own cultural, personal, and political sophistication kicks in and will not allow that feeling to stand, because they distrust it.

An excellent example of the sort of thing to which I'm referring is this article by Jerry Saltz, appearing in the Village Voice of November 2001 (shortly after 9/11). It is a review of a Rockwell exhibit that was mounted by Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum, entitled: "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People."

That title, of course, is no accident; as I wrote yesterday, Rockwell's paintings were indeed a sort of advertisement and even propaganda for America, geared to the American public itself.

Reviewer Saltz finds the entire concept of an art museum honoring Rockwell somewhat offensive:

When it comes to the claims being made for Norman Rockwell, my advice is just say no. A cadre of museum directors, curators, national critics, art historians, and suddenly populist art theorists want you to love him.

At one point, Saltz quotes an explicit reference to the inspiration Rockwell's work might be able to offer the American people, post-9/11--the propaganda aspect, that is:

Thomas Krens opines that Rockwell's "nostalgic images of American life" might "offer comfort and inspiration . . . during such a difficult moment in U.S. history."

But Saltz says such comfort should be resisted. His reasons are not just artistically elitist (that Rockwell is an inferior illustrator, not a true artist), although that reason is certainly part of his objection. An additional reason he cites is a political one; and, in fact, the two objections seem to be fused in his mind [emphasis mine in the following quotes]:

At its best, this show proves that Rockwell is what he's always been: a top-notch illustrator who can grab your heart and wring it...At worst, it shows the Guggenheim further trashing the reputation won for it by generations of artists, and only underlines Rockwell's reputation as merely the maker of what he himself called "feel-good" "story-pictures." ...

For the art world to fall for this simple vision now—
especially now--is, as Flash Art American editor Massimiliano Giorni put it, "like confessing in public that deep down inside we are, after all, right-wing." He adds, "We all like stability and the cheesy beauty of a little day in the greatest country in the world—our beloved America. But it's simply reactionary. It scares me."...

Loving Rockwell is shunning complexity...Much is made of Rockwell's popularity, "virtue," and ability to create a world. But Rockwell's world is cardboard compared to someone like Brueghel's...As for populism, an exhibition devoted to The Simpsons would be less sentimental, more visual, and have twice the virtue of this affair. And an empty room with piped-in music by Hank Williams and Sonny Boy Williamson—both Rockwell's contemporaries—would take you deeper and tell you more about America than this show.

Rockwell's America is not Saltz's America. It's an America that Saltz (along with Giorni, whom he quotes approvingly) seems to find dangerous, right-wing, reactionary, and all-too simplistic.

What's going on here? For one thing, we see in Saltz a familiar dislike for a vision that's not "nuanced" enough; a distancing from populist tastes and an assertion of cultural superiority through complexity. What might this "complexity" be that Saltz and those who agree with him so crave?

It's partly emotional: Rockwell's world is not dark enough. It deals mostly with the light (although I'd have Saltz study that "Freedom from Fear" painting again if he thinks Rockwell always ignores the dark). But the emotional merges with the political; it seems that Saltz also understands and perceives the propagandist undertones of Rockwell's art, and this quality is a good part of what offends him and others, since it simplifies America and makes it seem too "good."

Saltz seems to actually be afraid of Rockwell's ability to speak to certain values that are quintessentially American, and to unequivocally affirm them in a way that is not complex. Why might this be?

My impression is that, in addition to wishing for constant nuance, Saltz and others have lost the ability to make a clear distinction between propaganda that inflames hatred (such as, to use just one example, this) and the work of those such as Rockwell, propaganda that embraces human values and explicitly rejects that hatred--as long as such art is in praise of America. Both "dark" propaganda and "light" are lumped together and detested as though they are one and the same, in the same way that patriotism and love of nation is often considered a suspicious emotion, guilty until proven innocent.

In a similar manner, there is a kneejerk distrust of art that is seen as sentimental, and not just for esthetic or elitist reasons, but for political ones. And there is some validity to that, I think: there is a history of totalitarian governments using such art to manipulate their populaces.

Here, for example, is a lengthy article on Soviet art, comparing it to the works of--none other than Rockwell himself!:

It does not take an experienced connoisseur to notice the uncanny similarity between the widely popular art of Norman Rockwell and certain artworks of Socialist realism. Similarly, some of the official art created in the Soviet Union during Rockwell's most successful years could easily pass as emblematic of the Saturday Evening Post covers depicting that era.

This can be a confusing realization given that these images originated from the two very polarized ideological standpoints of that time. Is this a mere coincidence of style, or are these two forms of expression somehow more deeply bound?

I see what the author is getting at, although I think the similarity is strictly superficial. Take a look at this Soviet-era genre painting, entitled "Low Marks Again":

This painting--which is far more charming than most Soviet-era pictures, which tended to feature Lenin and a flag, as I recall--does bear a superficial resemblance to Rockwell's work: the genre family scene, the dog trying to comfort the boy but failing, the mother's concern, the flatness of the drawing style. Yes indeed, it's all quite a bit Rockwellian.

But not really. To me, it looks as though the heart has somehow been cut out of the picture, a painting which ends up being not even of greeting card quality. In short, it seems dead. It gives off the flavor of textbook illustration more than anything else.

It's as though the artist were painting under some sort of compulsion, with an assignment and rules to follow--which, of course, he or she probably was. The totalitarian nature of the government has somehow oozed out in the art and could not be disguised. Despite all efforts at cuteness and light, the picture is heavy.

Rockwell was painting for the commercial market, but he was artistically free and made his own choices. In fact, the famous "Four Freedoms" paintings were his own concept, and they glow with life and love. All of these facts are somehow present and reflected in the paintings themselves. As propaganda, they were doubly effective for that--because the artist, and most of the viewers, believed them to be essentially true. Despite superficial similarities to Soviet genre art, Rockwell's paintings manage to express the vast differences between American and Soviet society, between an artist who is free and one whose work is dictated, between an artist who believes in the truth of his work and one who doubts.

Well, I'm not finished yet. Tune in tomorrow for Part III (the finale), about kitsch and its relation to pictorial propaganda....

Word verification for comments temporarily turned off

I've temprorarily turned off the word verification feature for the comments because it's malfunctioning. It's not allowing a number of people to post a comment, including myself!

The whole word verification thing was only enabled in the first place to discourage spambots, and it's been very effective at that. As soon as Blogger fixes the problem, I plan to turn it on again. Till then, enjoy posting without the bother of that added step, and ignore all spambots--who will undoubtedly pay a visit.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Pictorial propaganda (Part I--Norman Rockwell and the Four Freedoms)

Those of you who read here regularly have probably noticed I've been mulling over the uses of propaganda lately, especially here, and again (at least to a certain degree) here .

At some point it occurred to me that nearly the entire work of artist/illustrator Norman Rockwell (some consider him the former, but others say he was "only" the latter) can, in a sense, be considered to have been propaganda for America.

Case in point, the "Four Freedoms" illustrations Rockwell did for the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, which I've duplicated here (freedom from fear, freedom to worship, freedom from want, freedom of speech).

The story of the paintings is interesting in and of itself: Rockwell tried to interest the government in the project, but no dice, and so they ended up appearing at his old venue the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell is said to have labored for six months over the project's execution, losing fifteen pounds in the process. But when he was done the response was overwhelming--and, in the end, the government realized the extraordinary value of the paintings to the war effort, organizing a sixteen-city tour and an accompanying bond drive that netted $130 million dollars, no chump change in those days.

The photos were accompanied in the magazine by an essay on each freedom, written by such luminaries as Booth Tarkington, Will Durant, Carlos Bulosan (not quite as luminous as the others), and Stephen Vincent Benet. Hard to imagine today--but then, all of it is hard to imagine today.

President Roosevelt's reaction to the project, which had been inspired by a 1941 speech of his, was the following:

I think you have done a superb job in bringing home to the plain, everyday citizen the plain, everyday truths behind the Four Freedoms...

Roosevelt was explicitly acknowledging the paintings' ability to reach "the masses" (although he didn't use that term) in a way that augmented speeches and other "mere words." The paintings tap into another part of the brain--much as aromas can--a more "feeling" part, which is one of the reasons that this sort of thing is so distrusted today; we've learned the power of images to manipulate, and that manipulation is certainly not always for the good. Witness Al Jazeera, for example.

There may be indeed a fine line between inspiration and cold-blooded manipulation. The difference between the two may be our opinion of the uses to which they are put: if we agree with those uses, it's inspiration; if we disagree, it's manipulation (I plan to go into this at somewhat greater length in a later part of this series).

I would maintain that Rockwell's paintings provided necessary and desirable inspiration to a populace who already knew what they were fighting for during WWII. Yes indeed, the pictures simplify--America is not, and never was, as simple and good as the world Rockwell portrays. But he was tapping into ideals that were--and still are--a huge part of America, and are realized in this country more fully than they are in most of the world, flawed human nature being what it is. During WWII virtually the entire country understood this, and the illustrations simply put these thoughts into an easily perceived--and very moving--form.

Note my personal favorite, the couple putting their children to sleep: "Freedom From Fear." I'm a sucker for parent-child stuff anyway, and this one struck me with unusual force. The painting is so powerful, and the choice of subject so seemingly inevitable, that it takes a moment of reflection to realize that part of Rockwell's genius was his selection of this particular scene to illustrate freedom from fear--which, after all, is an abstraction.

Anyone who thinks Rockwell is never complex should study the expression on the father's face. The children are asleep, blissfully innocent and unaware (and that's the point, isn't it?). The mother is engaged in the tender act of tucking them in, and her face reflects her gentle and loving concern. But the father stands back--although not very far--as an observer. From his ever-so-slight distance, he comments on the scene, allowing his face and posture to express, along with his love, a contemplative and pensive awareness of threatening danger. This is underscored by the headline of the newspaper he holds almost casually in his left hand, which you may be able to read in the blown-up version of the picture, here. The fragment visible is:


During WWII, American citizens were well aware of the dangers to which European civilians, including children, were exposed on a daily basis, and this generic headline brought that home (almost literally) only too well. It is a powerful appeal to one of the strongest of human emotions, the desire to protect one's children.

Rockwell's paintings weren't really for export; as far as I can see from reading about the history of the Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell's primary venue, the propaganda was for the domestic market. The Post itself was unashamed of what it saw as its mission, a charge that may seem laudable, merely quaint, or truly pernicious today, depending on the perspective of the beholder:

Inside the covers of the Post was fiction targeted at the masses. The fiction of the Saturday Evening Post was not highbrow like The New Yorker or even literary like Harper's and the Atlantic. It was popular, intended to strike a chord with the most possible people, not the most educated....When founded in the 19th Century the Post proclaimed itself neutral in politics, under Lorimer it would take on the editor's pro-business, Republican personality...At first a lot of the covers would contain an illustration which corresponded in some way to one of the stories or features inside. Lorimer would quickly abandon this strategy and instead select covers which evoked those same masses with whom he was trying to connect the contents to. He let the covers stand out as a representation of the magazine as a whole. Each issue of the Saturday Evening Post was intended from cover to cover and contents included to represent the same America that its readers were living in.

Rockwell was the magazine's main and very prolific cover artist, drawing his first for the Post in 1916 and his last in 1963, when the magazine abandoned illustrated covers in favor of photos--a move that did little to postpone its demise in 1969.

For those who are interested, here is the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum, featuring photos of virtually all of his covers, only some of which are overtly political. But I maintain that, in a way, they are all propaganda. That is probably one of the reasons so many look down on Rockwell and dislike him, and on pictorial propaganda in general (at least, if in the service of a pro-US agenda).

But more about that in Part II, tomorrow....

First day of spring! [belated]

[I tried to post this yesterday, but I couldn't get Blogger to upload the photo for some unknown reason.]

Right outside my house, quite a bit ahead of schedule (you may need to look closely): a crocus starting to bloom.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

What I'd be thinking right now if I were a terrorist/Islamicist

It's the three-year anniversary of the Iraq war, and I've read a host of discussions as to how Iraq is doing at this point. Yesterday I linked to Wretchard's excellent post on the subject (or at least tried to link to it; I hope I've been more successful this time). Alexandra has compiled a nice roundup of blog commentary on the subject, and today Dean has posted links to commentary from the Iraqi blogosphere.

Let's just take a moment and let that last one sink in: the Iraqi blogosphere. Three years ago, such a thing did not exist; or, rather, the Iraqi blogosphere was limited to a single pseudonymous blogger known as Salam Pax, posting clandestinely and at great risk.

Alexandra writes:

The Bush administration says Iraq is not in a civil war, but that terrorists are desperate to foster one, desperate to foment a civil war which would conveniently propel them into the spotlight.

There is no question that one of the important lessons of this war for the enemy (a lesson already learned in Vietnam, but driven home now in modern form) is that the "spotlight"--i.e. worldwide and domestic US press coverage--is worth its weight in gold.

At this point in time, winning the propaganda war is the way to go for militarily weaker entities, be they states or stateless terrorists, if they ever hope to win against the US and its interests. It is actually the only way to do so at present; even the acquiring of nuclear weapons by our enemies would not really change that picture, since it's highly unlikely that any of those entities would ever achieve parity with the US on that score. Such weapons would merely up the ante and cause more carnage; they wouldn't change the general equation.

The "spotlight" is another word for propaganda, which I've written about here. I'm not an expert on the history of propaganda (although some of my commenters seem to be); maybe some day I'll take a look at this text. But it's my impression that, prior to the 20th Century, propaganda was more local in scope due to limitations in communication. It's only with WWII, and certainly since the advent of television and satellite communications, that propaganda has become not just an adjunct to some wars, but the main weapon of those wars.

All the world is now a vast propaganda stage, and we men and women (and children) merely players (blogs, of course, are part of this).

When I was researching and writing my "change" posts, especially this one, I came across the following quote (taken from this must-read article about the fall of Vietnam) offered by the American officer in charge of negotiating the withdrawal of US troops from the area:

"You know you never beat us on the battlefield," I said to Colonel Tu, my NVA counterpart.

"That may be so," he said, "but it is also irrelevant."

Colonel Tu was a smart man, was he not? As I wrote in that same post close to a year ago:

Lessons learned from Vietnam: all that is necessary to win a war against the US is to turn domestic public opinion against it, even if you are militarily outclassed, even if you are defeated in every battle. It's a lesson that was not lost on our current opponents. In a sense, our recent task in Iraq has been to reverse that perception..."

It is as true today as it was then. And how do we stack up in that respect? It's a mixed bag. Yes, we are still in Iraq, despite the complexity of the situation, and the fact that (whatever we might call it: civil war, crime, feud, insurgency, or terrorism) killing is still going on. But there's also a perception that the only real reason we are there is because George Bush is a stubborn man, and because he happened to have been re-elected by a slim margin. The message of so much of the cacophony of the media is that the American people have to a certain extent accepted their framing of the war as an utter failure, and a chaotic civil war situation, and they want out, the sooner the better.

This perception has its own consequences; I'm afraid that it cannot help but fuel the violence there, even if this is not the intent of its proponents. This is not to say that criticism of the war is verboten. But it is to say that it must be careful, measured, logical, and not motivated by partisanship or irrational hatred.

A great deal of the rhetoric against the war focuses on the toll it's taken on our military.

That's an interesting message. On the one hand, we all mourn every military life lost; the human toll is devastating and dreadful (see this).

But the harsh and terrible truth is that, if we are not prepared to incur military losses, we may as well not have a military and not fight at all. We have now advanced so far in the laudable goal of minimizing casualties that the numbers posted on the previously linked antiwar website for the three years of this war--2317 US deaths, 1860 in combat--are considered unconscionable.

"Ah, warmonger!" I can hear some of you cry at what I am about to say next. But pointing out that this is a relatively low death toll, as three-year wars go, is not the same as saying that any of these deaths should not be mourned. They are mourned, and should be mourned, deeply.

But if the message of that mourning is that that is an unacceptably high number, the message is that if an enemy mounts a war of attrition against us, the numbers don't even have to be very high to defeat us. A slow, steady trickle will do.

Many who are against the war would answer that it is not the sheer numbers that are the issue here, it's that those deaths are wasted because the war was not necessary, but rather was the whim of a single demented and/or deluded man: George Bush. That's where all those old arguments about the causes of the war take us. If a person believes, truly believes (for whatever reason) this theory of the war's genesis, then of course a single death in that cause would be one death way too many, and Bush would be no better than a murderer.

I'm not going to debate that one again here (although it probably won't stop anyone in the comments section from doing so). I do have a question, though, for the less rabid antiwar critics among you: does a war have to be "successful" in its goals, ex post facto, in order to be justified? Because if the answer is "yes," there's a Catch-22 built into every war of the future, and that is the following: while the war is going on, there's no way to know its end result. Success? Failure? And that leaves almost any war (except the rare case of some sort of unequivocally "just war," some large-scale invasion of this country by a foreign power, highly unlikely to ever occur) subject to a drumbeat of defeatism and second-guessing while that war is going on, because the outcome is always unknown and the course of every war is to have its ups and downs, short-term.

If every fluctuation along the way is met with cries that the deaths are in vain and we should withdraw, the propaganda value to the enemy is always going to be immense. If a message of weakness is delivered while the war is underway, the enemy will be heartened by the news, whether or not that is the intent of those mounting the criticism.

Messages of weakness of resolve during an ongoing conflict can backfire by prolonging that conflict and increasing the death toll. It's a paradox for those who have valid criticisms of a war, and who are motivated not by partisanship but by realistic appraisals (and I certainly do believe such people exist among the war critics).

The answer, as I said before, is not to silence all criticism of a war. That would be a very bad direction to take. But my impression is that it used to be that war critics themselves were more likely to weigh such factors before speaking out during a war effort; I would appeal to modern-day critics of this war to be more mindful of the consequences of their current speech, as well.

There are many valid criticisms of the war that can be made, especially in details of its execution (see this, by the way, for some excellent recent criticism of the conduct of the war, from an Iraq war proponent). But focusing on the death toll itself sends a very different message to the enemy, and that is this: all you really have to do to win is to increase that number, slowly but surely.

And that, unfortunately, is relatively easy to do. It turns out that death tolls rarely decrease.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Peace in our time--and other times: on the futility of antiwar covenants

After I made my flip comment in today's Petrov post about undeserving Nobel Peace Prize winners, I decided to actually look up the list of recipients over the years. And they haven't been as uniformly bad as I thought. Take a look.

However, the 1929 recipient, Frank Billings Kellogg, caught my eye.

Back in my school days, I remember hearing about the Kellogg-Briand Pact renouncing war. Kellogg, of course, was one of its co-authors.

The Pact had always seemed ironic to me; it was so clearly unrealistic, even without the benefit of hindsight. But nevertheless it expressed a sentiment for which countless people over the ages--and I number myself among them--have longed.

My mother had actually spoken of the Pact, as well; she mentioned a powerful memory of hers from when it had been newly signed. She was a fourteen-year old in high school then, and her teacher had turned to the class (later to be known as "The Greatest Generation," the one that survived and endured the coming Depression and WWII) that they should be thankful, because they were the luckiest children ever on the face of the earth: they would never know war. My mother reported feeling an overwhelming and glorious sense of relief and gratitude.

So it just goes to show: never trust one's teacher.

But what was going on with that pact, anyway? How could people have been so naive?

Both Kellogg (a fascinating man who rose from poverty and obscurity to become a trustbuster and Secretary of State) and the Frenchman who was involved, Aristide Briand, started out as lawyers. Perhaps that fact explains some of their predilection for international legal documents.

It turns out, though, that neither man was exactly a starry-eyed believer in the Pact itself. Here's a nice summary of what appears to have actually been going on:

French foreign minister Aristide Briand first suggested a treaty between the United States and France renouncing war as a method of settling disputes between the two countries. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg was furious because Briand proposed the treaty in a speech made directly to the American people, rather than going through diplomatic channels. If he accepted Briand's offer, he feared it would drag the United States into alliance with France in the event of another European war—which was what Briand had in mind. But if Kellogg declined, groups favoring such a treaty would attack him in Congress and in the press. Support for the treaty came from opposite ends of the political spectrum. For example, Nicholas Murray Butler, the internationalist president of Columbia University, believed a treaty would move America closer to the League of Nations, whereas isolationist senator William E. Borah, a pacifist, simply hoped that the treaty would end war.

Kellogg turned the tables on Briand by picking up an idea of Senator Borah's for a multilateral treaty. Both Kellogg and Briand knew that such a treaty lacked force, but Briand, already a Nobel Peace Prize winner, could hardly ignore public demand for an antiwar treaty...

Great celebrations accompanied the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, but diplomats did not take the pledge seriously. In the United States, for example, the next order of business on the Senate floor after ratification was a bill appropriating $274 million to build warships.

So, what else is new?

But I'm interested in the Pact not only because it has a familial emotional resonance, but because I think it's an exaggerated example of just what is wrong with using international law in the service of ending war. International law no doubt has many uses, but one of them is not, I'm afraid, that old dream.

The problem is neatly summed up here, in a short article about the Kellogg-Briand pact:

Although 62 nations ultimately ratified the pact, its effectiveness was vitiated by its failure to provide measures of enforcement.

Ah yes: its failure to provide measures of enforcement. And whatever could those measures be? Why force, of course.

Any covenant that would work could only be successful because the signatories had no interest in going to war in the first place, in which case the piece of paper would only be a formality (that was known even way back in the Kellogg-Briand days, as the agreement explicitly reserved the right to self-defense). But still, the dream dies hard.

A candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize: Stanislav Petrov

How about awarding this guy (found via Dean Esmay) a Nobel Peace Prize, a bit belatedly? Unlike some of the recipients, he would have actually deserved it.

I hope the planned documentary Dean mentions makes a bundle and makes Petrov famous, so he can retire in style. And if it doesn't, perhaps the blogosphere could take up a collection.

I've often wondered about the makeup of people who take on jobs that require enormous responsibility for the lives of others. Presidents, generals, and air traffic controllers, for example. Such positions require the ability to remain extremely cool under fire and stress, and to preserve one's split-second and long-term decision-making capabilities without short-circuiting. A bit like the biathlon, which features punishing aerobic exercise followed by the need to compose oneself into stillness long enough to aim and shoot effectively. Not for everyone--and of course, those in positions of responsibility for the lives of numerous others are dealing with far greater stakes, staggeringly so.

For readers who refuse to follow links, a little background on the 1983 incident involving Petrov:

Just past midnight, at 00:40 hrs, the [Soviet nuclear monitoring] bunker's computers indicated that an American missile was heading toward the Soviet Union. Lt. Col. Petrov [who was in charge] reasoned that a computer error had occurred, since the United States was not likely to launch just one missile if it were attacking the Soviet Union — it would launch many simultaneously. Also, the satellite system's reliability had in the past been questioned, so he dismissed the warning as a false alarm, concluding that no missile had actually been launched by the United States.

If that had been the end of it, it would not have been quite as dramatic. But there was more:

A short time later the computers indicated that a second missile had been launched, followed by a third, a fourth and a fifth. Petrov still felt that the computer system was wrong, but there was no other source of information with which to confirm his suspicions...

Petrov's dilemma was this: if he was disregarding a real attack, then the Soviet Union would be devastated by nuclear weapons without any warning or chance to retaliate, and he would have failed at his duty. On the other hand, if he were to report a non-existent attack, his superiors might launch an equally catastrophic assault against their enemies. In either case, millions of innocents would die.

Understanding that if he were wrong, nuclear missiles would soon be raining down on the Soviet Union, Petrov decided to trust his intuition and declare the system's indications a false alarm.

Petrov had to override the information he was getting through instruments, and apparently decided to simply trust his gut. Astounding.

Perhaps Petrov knew how poor the system really was, and that was what was behind his ability to cast off the information he was receiving from it. At any rate, he was vindicated--although not rewarded till recently, and his career was effectively finished as a result of his disobeying orders.

And what of the warning system? The mistake apparently was caused by the following glitch:

...a subsequent investigation determined that the early warning satellite system had mistakenly interpreted sunlight reflections off clouds as the presence of enemy missiles.

Technology can only go so far, and the human element is key, as Petrov's story amply demonstrates. It is not reassuring to hear how narrowly a spectacular and unprecedented tragedy was averted. But sometimes the right person is in the right place at the right time, and Petrov certainly fits that description.


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