The Nation magazine’s first issues of 2010

1 February: The first issue to go to press after the earthquake in Haiti includes some recommendations for those who would like to find a good relief organization to give money.  The first organization I looked up when I heard about the quake was one I’d first read of in the pages of The Nation, MADRE.  In her year-end lists of groups that deserve financial support and elsewhere, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt has made mention of this organization, which supports groups around the world.  Most of MADRE’s partner groups are initiatives in poor countries, started and led by citizens of those countries, that prioritize the needs of women and girls.  MADRE’s Haitian partner is Partners in Health, which runs a network of clinics called Zanmi Lasante; they’re on the list.  The magazine’s website includes several more pleas for Haiti; see here and here

In the same issue, Robin Einhorn attacks Gordon Wood’s recent book about the early federal period of the United States, arguing that Wood shows a “remarkably naive sense of politics” that allows him to keep the South at the margins of his story and free white male Northerners at the center of it.  Even as he puts the focus on a rapidly industrializing region, Einhorn argues, Wood shows an uncritical admiration on for the agrarian politics of Thomas Jefferson and his party.  Einhorn grants that Wood’s chapter on the politics of slavery is excellent, but says that confining the topic to a single chapter, quarantined from the rest of the book, is profoundly misleading.  In the end, Einhorn declares that Wood has succeeded in thinking like Thomas Jefferson, but that this is no unmixed virtue:

If Jefferson had known nearly as much about his society as Wood does, Empire of Liberty is the book he would have written. It is no coincidence that the title is Jefferson’s, a phrase encapsulating his brand of velvet-gloved imperialism. Wood seems to know that there was an iron fist lurking inside, but he identifies with an audience that treasures the national fantasy of egalitarian triumph that Jefferson represents. Like Jefferson, Wood nods to the evil of slavery and the violence of westward expansion. Unlike Jefferson, he realizes that there was something undesirable about the way men treated women. But Wood’s focus remains squarely on the subculture of white men–especially in the North–who energetically pursued their liberty and happiness in the “republicanized” world of postrevolutionary America. 

25 January: Alexander Cockburn is disappointed with R. Crumb’s version of the Book of Genesis.  In Cockburn’s view, Crumb does not thoroughly deflate monotheism, but produces a more or less reverent text.  “If a conclusive disresepcting of Genesis was required, wouldn’t you think R. Crumb was the man for the job?… But the overall effect is more solemn than satirical.”  Cockburn is also disappointed that Crumb depicts the characters of the book as recognizably Jewish (in fact stereotypically Jewish, “hairy” and “with big noses,”) missing an opportunity to make the point that “There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion” (a line Cockburn quotes from Israeli journalist Tom Segev) and that Zionism is therefore an illegitimate enterprise.  Indeed at one point Cockburn claims to have “wondered whether Crumb, a Catholic long ago, had converted to Zionism.” 

I agree with Cockburn about a lot of things, but when he turns to Judaism and the Jews I sometimes suspect him of being a bit cracked.  Not that I want to wave the flag for Zionism, but it doesn’t seem especially reasonable to expect a graphic novel, even when that graphic novel is R. Crumb’s adaptation of Genesis, to achieve everything he demanded of it.   

11 January: A piece about the Polaroid camera and the pictures it took includes this:

Polaroid’s “now” having been driven into the past, it has become ripe for nostalgia. Found Magazine, launched in 2001, was well ahead of the Polaroid nostalgia wave and spun off a whole book of Found Polaroids in 2006, when the end of the road was already in sight. But for its author, Jason Bitner, the medium had always been “instant nostalgia–framed and faded, a picture that already looked decades old.”

The same issue includes an essay about Thelonious Monk that ends with this anecdote:

Monk liked to wear a formidable ring bearing his name when he played, an encumbrance that no pianist in his right mind would want to burden a hand with. While he was flashing his ring for the world to see, from his own perspective he saw something else. “KNOW” said the ring, more or less, to the audience. “MONK” was the reply when he saw it himself.

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The Nation, 4 January 2010

Several reports on the Copenhagen summit on climate change draw Alexander Cockburn out with a column trumpeting his dissent from the view that by dumping such great volumes of greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere humans are doing enormous harm to the environment.  Cockburn never convinces me when he mounts this hobby-horse of his, but I must confess to taking pleasure in the self-righteous sputtering that fills the letters to the editor in the subsequent issues.  For every well-reasoned counterargument from someone with a grasp of the science and a solid case to make against Cockburn’s claims, the magazine must receive hundreds of letters from people who are not at all equipped to analyze climate data but who are entirely prepared to denounce a heretic and cast him out.  I’m fairly sure that Cockburn is wrong and his detractors are right about climate.  At the same time, I’m quite certain that he is doing a public service by luring would-be enforcers of orthodoxy into the open.  He’s even doing a favor to them; if the self-appointed Grand Inquisitors have the sense to read their letters and realize that they have made fools of themselves,  they might shed their crusading demeanor and adopt a more wholesome attitude.

On The Nation‘s website, there’s a piece about the president of Italy’s parliament, Gianfranco Fini.  The piece notes the rather amazing fact that this man whose political career began in the neofascist Italian Social Movement has became “the country’s most responsible right-wing politician.”  Several months ago, The Independent praised Fini’s willingness to stand up to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in defense of values like accountable government, a secular state, and openness to immigration, values that liberals and socialists are supposed to care about but that the leaders of Italy’s center-left parties seldom lend their full-throated support.  The Independent called Fini “the best leader the Italian Left never had.”  This really is an extraordinary transformation; as recently as 1994, Fini described Benito Mussolini as “the greatest statesman of the twentieth century.”  How anyone could possibly apply that label to il Duce is beyond me.  Before Mussolini came to power he was in some ways an intriguing figure, I grant you.  He led an highly colorful life, full of adventure and rich in ideas.  As a national leader, however, Mussolini was a disaster by any standard of evaluation.  The evil he did (for example, sending 3,000 Italian Jews to die in Hitler’s camps) infinitely outweighed any good with which he could be credited, yet in the end it was his sheer incompetence that triumphed even over his murderous villainy.  This is a digression, I suppose; Gianfranco Fini seems to be highly competent, and no more likely to commit murder than the average Western European politician. 

Katha Pollitt’s annual list of worthy charities includes, as usual, MADRE, a fund that backs various groups of women in poor countries who have organized themselves to combat their own problems on their own terms.  For example:

In Iraq, it supports Yanar Mohammed’s network of secret shelters for women fleeing domestic violence and honor murder. In Kenya, it works on water purification projects that free women from the task of transporting water over long distances. In Bolivia, it helps indigenous women prepare to run for political office. Right now, 100 percent of your gift goes directly to projects.

Barry Schwabsky’s review of some recent retrospectives on abstract painting includes a snippet that may provoke a response.  After telling us that he experiences art one work at a time and looks with a skeptical eye on all art history that describes movements and schools, Schwabsky says:

Abstraction arguably should have even less to do with movements than any other art: a movement of abstractionists would be a contradiction in terms, like a church of atheists. Abstractionists, like atheists, are united only in what they reject. Abstraction is not a specific way of doing art–on what basis can Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana and Daniel Buren be considered part of a single movement? Rather, it is a considered effort not to do what Western artists have made it their job to do for hundreds of years: namely, to construct credible depictions of people, places and things. What if anything else goes?

Perhaps that’s why, as Bob Nickas points out in his new book Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting (Phaidon Press; $75), “so many contemporary artists who paint nonrepresentational pictures reject the notion that their work is in fact abstract.” They realize that the name itself, as handy and unavoidable as it undoubtedly may be, conveys a false sense of unity. Other commonalities, even those that would rightly strike us as quite superficial, can be more important.

Tiger Woods crops up.  Ever since news started hitting the papers of Woods’ very active extramarital sex life, I’ve been thinking of William Blake.  “Tiger, tiger, burning bright,/ in the forests of the night…”  Or is it “Tiger, Tiger, burning sensation/ experienced during urination…”  Anyway, the item here is all about how Tiger Woods has spent his career promoting sleazy schemes by global bad actors such as Chevron and the Philippine government, all the while pretending that he had nothing to do with politics.