Obama imagery


One recent post showed a photo of President Obama tying a bow tie; another discussed the intense fascination with his physical person that seems to have gripped so many people.   That led some of us to compare our favorite pictures of Mr O. 

The original

The iconic image of Mr O so far is probably Shepard Fairey‘s “Hope” poster.  In October, Fairey himself contacted boingboing.net with a link to a collection of spoofs of his poster.  A few I can’t resist copying appear after the jump. (more…)

Relatively Obscure Emotional States

According to this article in Slate, brain scientists have recently begun to study an emotion they call “elevation.”  High-falutin’ rhetoric, like that associated with Barack Obama, can inspire it.  The closing paragraphs point out that when seen in other people, elevation can look ridiculous or disgusting.  Of course, the same is true of other emotions as well.  But we need all of them, if not always in the ways we get them.  So perhaps we need elevation too.

The Nation, 8 December 2008

The Fall Books Issue“- it seems a bit late this year… but worth the wait.

Torie Osborn wonders how California could have passed anti-same sex marriage Proposition 8.  Her view is that No on 8 forces neglected Los Angeles County, despite decades of experience showing that antigay measures win or lose based on the margins in that county.  She also has some harsh words for the Obama campaign for allowing voters to believe (mistakenly!) that Mr O backed Proposition 8. 

Christine Smallwood reviews a new edition of George R. Stewart’s 1945 book Names on the Land.  A collection of anecdotes about how various places in the USA got their names, this highly regarded work inspires Smallwood’s unreserved praise.  She goes on at some length about Stewart’s other works, including environmental fiction like Earth Abides, “the first American postapocalyptic thriller,” and Ordeal by Hunger, a novelization of the Donner Party.  She tells us that Names on the Land was Stewart’s own favorite of his books.  It raises no less a question than “what is America?,” Smallwood says.  And answers that question: “Not the leader of the Free World and not the scourge of the world, but a history of settlement.”  This answer would hardly have been extraordinary in 1945.  The book does sound interesting.   The cover of the first edition illustrates Smallwood’s review, and is reproduced below.



You have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House

This has been embedded in about a million websites over the last several days, it might as well be here too.  It’s kind of stupid for the first minute, then extremely funny for about 30 seconds, then goes back and forth between annoyingly stupid and screamingly hilarious for the remaining two minutes. 

2008 Presidential Election Results

The usual news report about the results of a presidential election will include a map that looks like this:


A familiar image, but one which does not tell us who won the election.  Change the size of the states in proportion to their population, and you produce a less familiar, but more useful image:


Maps like this are called cartogramsThis guy can help you make your own cartograms, if you are so inclined.

The American Conservative, 3 November 2008

The cover of this issue features caricatures of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, advertising 18 short pieces by various contributors explaining how they reacted to the presence of that pair as candidates for US president.  Of those 18, 4 expressed support for Obama, 3 for McCain, 2 for Constitution Party nominee Chuck Baldwin, 2 for Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr, 1 each for non-candidates Ward Connerly and Ron Paul, and the remaining 5 backed no one

John Schwenkler reports from the Middlebury Institute’s Third North American Secessionist Conference in Manchester, New Hampshire.  Headed by old-time New Left leader Kirkpatrick Sale, the Middlebury Institute gives equal footing to far left groups like the Second Vermont Republic and far right groups like the League of the South, much to the dismay of bien-pensant liberals.  Sale and company argue that “the so-called American Revolution… was a war of secession, not a revolt” and that separatism has a long history in American history, a history reaching far beyond the late unpleasantness between the states.  Schwenkler quotes Emory University philosopher Donald Livingston, a scholar of the Scottish Enlightenment who has apparently turned in recent years to Aristotle’s Politics and its emphasis on the proper scale of human communities.  Aristotle might have argued that the United States is simply too big to do any good.  Aristotle followed Plato in his belief that there was an appropriate size for a human society, that too small a group would be doomed to perpetual poverty while too large a group would lack any real bond of community.  This focus on the need for human communities to be built on a human scale has been one of the recurring themes in political theory ever since.  Because Livingston has spoken harsh words against Abraham Lincoln and the centralization of power in Washington that followed the Civil War, he has occasionally been smeared as a racist. 

Austin Bramwell argues that conservatives would be better off if there were no conservative political movement.  One may be tempted to add that in this they are like everyone else.  Bramwell’s claim is that what conservative intellectuals have to offer is something of value to independent minded individuals, but useless as a battle cry for partisans.  As examples of the kind of conservative intellectuals he has in mind, Bramwell offers Joseph Schumpeter, Jane Jacobs, Tom Wolfe, Jacques Barzun, Noam Chomsky, E. O Wilson, and Steven Pinker.  Bramwell classifies Schumpeter as conservative for precisely the reason so many on the right are uncomfortable with him today, his support for a “semi-feudal, mixed constitution” that would act to temper capitalism.  Jacobs self-identification as a leftist does not trouble Bramwell; her focus on the need for society to be constituted on a human scale and her opposition to centralized planning put her in his camp.  Chomsky, Wilson, and Pinker make the list because of the defenses each has offered for the idea that human behavior has biological bases that social planning cannot overwrite.  Indeed, Bramwell turns Chomsky’s ceaseless denunciations of US foreign policy into a conservative credential by pointing out that “Chomsky describes his politics as an attack on social engineering as he perceives it.” 

Howard Anglin reviews Marilynn Robinson’s novel Home, declaring that “Without artists like Robinson, without books like Home and the institutions they celebrate, our civilization cannot last long… If Marilynn Robinson is a liberal, then America needs more liberals.”  Considering that the review opens by quoting Robinson’s 2004 statement that “I am myself a liberal,” this last sentence would seem rather odd in a magazine called The American Conservative.  The rest of the quote (from her 2004 essay “The Tyranny of Petty Coercion” ) shows that she is about as conservative as Noam Chomsky and Kirkpatrick Sale:

I am myself a liberal.  By that I mean I believe that society exists to nurture and liberate the human spirit, and that large-mindedness and openhandedness are the means by which these things are to be accomplished.  I am not ideological.


President-Elect Obama

It’s appropriate that Election Day should come so shortly after Halloween.  As the ghosts and ghouls vanish into their occult places when day breaks, so the bogeymen and superstars of the campaign season pass out of view once the election is over.  It’s back to Alaska with Sarah Palin, back to work for “Joe the Plumber,” back to the political science textbooks with the Bradley Effect, back to a museum of the 60s with the Weather Underground.  Four years from now another set of entertainments will rise from some unknown quarter and haunt us for a season. 

The candidates themselves do not go anywhere; they cease to exist.  The winning candidate is replaced by the office holder, the losing candidates are replaced by somewhat older, somewhat sadder versions of the people they were before they ran.  That’s why there’s a richer vein of literature about losing contenders for power than about winners.  Try to dramatize the winner and the best you can do is hint at what Shakespearean actors call “the man inside the king.”  The king is a symbol, he is power, he is majesty, he is order, and he is empty.  Art and literature can focus on the king only when the symbol fails and the human being emerges.  I think the Horace illustrates that process in his Ode 1.37.  As long as she is a contender for power, Cleopatra is at best a monster.  Defeated, she is one of us. 

Here’s Cedric Whitman’s translation of that poem.  Robert Frost defined poetry as “that which is lost in translation”; I’m afraid Whitman does not manage to defeat that definition.  But it does show the major gestures in Horace’s original, and unlike some other versions it is possible to read Whitman’s aloud.  I’ve appended Edward Wickham’s edition (from his Oxford Classical Text) of the original below. 

Drink, comrades, drum the ground, now it is time

for freedom’s dance; and call on all the gods

to come, lay out their gorgeous couches,

and let them recline at the feast of Mars.

It had been crime till now to pour good wine

from the crypts of our forefathers, while ruin poised

over the Capitol, and fevered madness

was winding cerecloth round our realm-

Dreams of the queen of half-men, girt by her crew

of sickly shame, and drunk with delirious hopes

grown fat and reckless on easy fortune!

But all that glare of frenzy waned

When scarce one vessel of her fleet sailed home

unscorched by flame; her mind, long tranced and dazed

on heady Egypt’s wine, now waking

to terror’s truth, found Caesar’s oars

hard pressing on her flight from Italy,

swift hawk on downy dove, hunter on hare

in snowy fields of Thrace, and ready

to fling her into chains, a beast

of ominous wonder.  But she had loftier thoughts,

to find out death; blades could not make her cheek

blanch like a girl’s, or drive her flying

with huddled sails to lurking shores. 

Her courage soared; with placid face she scanned

her fallen palace, and valorously reached

her hands to rasping snakes, sucking

their venom’s blackness through her limbs.

Once death was fixed, the fiercer grew her mind:

Indeed, she scorned his cruel galleys, and men

who would have had her walk uncrowned,

no spiritless woman, in triumph’s pride. 


Funny Times, November 2008

Many columns and cartoons this month ridiculing Wall Street and its enablers in Washington for the financial meltdown and the bailout that followed.  The “Minister of the Treasury of the Republic of America” joke email is included.

“Curmudgeon” gives a series of quotes about gluttony, fatness, and dieting.  The best is a line from P. G. Wodehouse: “She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when.'”

Keith Knight asks how the corporate media would treat Sarah Palin if she were black anda Democrat.  Here’s his scenario:

Chronicles, November 2008

Scott Richert expresses consternation that many who identify themselves as conservative Catholics support the vice presidential candidacy of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.  Aren’t Catholics supposed to embrace what Pope John Paul II called “the theology of the body,” and with it the idea that women should not be in public life?  “I will offer a prayer on Election Day that Mrs. Palin’s presence on the ticket does not signal the final triumph of feminism over the traditional Christian understanding of the proper relationship between the sexes.” 

Thomas Fleming reviews Peter Green’s The Hellenistic Age, endorsing it overall but showing a bit of irritation that Green uses the word “racism” to describe bigoted attitudes the ancients exhibited.  Fleming claims that “racism as an ideology is a 19th century development that can only be applied by analogy to the ancient world.  To describe [theancient Greeks’] natural prejudices as ‘racism’ would be like describing infant exposure as ‘pro-choice’ or homosexuality as an expression of ‘gay rights.'”  Fleming has a point here, but I think he overstates it.  Certainly a word like “racism” carries powerful associations, bringing in not only the theoretical structures to which Fleming refers but also centuries of history and whole worlds of trauma that are quite distant from anything the ancients would have known.  Nonetheless, their attitudes can hardly be dismissed as “natural prejudices.”  While the ancients may not been shaped by the ideas of Gobineau or Francis Galton, they were indeed swaddled in myths promoting the superiority of their own groups and were taught to see natural slaves when they looked at people who did not resemble themselves.  

Most of the poems Chronicles runs are pretty bad, and I can’t really make much of a literary-critical case for this one.  But I’m such a pushover for dogs I’ll include it anyway.

Four Firsts and a Last, by Timothy Murphy

Her first retrieve shell: a shotgun shell

Fired and ejected with no warning.

How she adored that smell,

Charcoal, sulfur, and niter in the morning.

Her first bird was a crippled morning dove.

She somersaulted down a ditch

Head over heels in love,

Buttoned her bird and bounded up to the pitch.

Her first drake dropped beyond a refuge sign.

Wriggling under the lowest wire,

She swam a perfect line

As though posting proof of her desire.

Her first loss was her superhuman ear.

Hand signalled on an unmarked run,

She could no longer hear

Whistling wingtips; even, at last, the gun.

At fourteen she was walking into walls,

Fouling the carpet, losing teeth.

Farewell to mallard calls

And decoy spreads, wild roosters on the heath.

To St Francis of Fargo fell the chore,

The barbital a gentle thrust

To launch her from our shore.

The last look in her fearless eye was trust.

Counterpunch, 1-15 Oct 2008

Alex Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair review some stories connected with soon-to-be-over presidential campaign.  They report that “a friend of ours in Landrum, South Carolina” has been making some inquiries.  Pretending to be a McCain/ Palin campaign worker, this friend attracted snarls of disgust in towns that voted almost unanimously for Bush/ Cheney in 2004.  In the countryside, the friend found that the GOP strategy  of trying to tie Mr O to terrorists and other scary types has had the effect of keeping elderly rural Republicans from putting up yard signs for McCain/ Palin.  Apparently they’re afraid Mr O will send the Weather Underground to bomb them. 

David Bonner reminisces about George DeMerle (aka George Demmerle, aka Prince Crazy, Son of Yippie,) a John Bircher who became a professional FBI informant in the 60s underground.  DeMerle earned his pay from the FBI by exposing his associates Jane Alpert, Sam Melville, Dave Hughey, and Patricia Swinton as they were in the act of planting bombs under US Army trucks at the 69th Regimental Armory in Manhattan.  DeMerle seems to have enjoyed playing the role of a far-out hippie and revolutionary radical, and even after he was exposed and rendered useless as an FBI asset he continued to live as Prince Crazy.  

As a fan of the Flashman novels, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Counterpunch website today has an article by Cockburn comparing Crazy John McCain to Sir Harry.