Archive for the ‘Arts & Culture’ Category

It began as a regular enough cab ride.

I needed to get from point A to point B and no one was available to drive me. Well perhaps a slight irregularity in the music selection I’d chosen for my overall commute, the Magnificat. Personally, I’m not particularly religious, but I have a strong attraction to sacred music – evidenced here and there about this blog. I don’t really have “getting pumped for the start of the day” music, I’ve got “overdeveloped sense of entitlement” music that can serve a similar purpose.

Were I head of state, I’d have the opening of the Magnificat played when I entered a room. Sort of like Hail to the chief, but even grander. Who needs an armed forces band when one can get an orchestra, horn flourishes, and a chorus. Maybe I’m an emperor without an empire, or a prince without a principality, but I can still play the Magnificat while walking around the streets of New York City. As I said, overdeveloped sense of entitlement – or taking the Calvin and Hobbes life with a soundtrack comic strip a bit far.

So anyway, I’d decided to repeat a particularly well crafted piece, its entirety,:

Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus misericordiae suae.

He has taken under his protection Israel his boy, and remembered his mercy.

The soprano-alto combination is just generally brilliant, and just because I can, I’ll throw in the general moving-ness of Et misericordia also from the Magnificat and So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen from the St. Matthew Passion. (Given what follows, Bach as a bookend is utterly necessary.)

I happened to be taking this cab ride with two other people, strangers who were also going to be dropped off. Myself and another gentleman sat in the back seat, and one passenger sat in the front seat next to the driver.

Upon entering the cab, the passenger in the front seat began to complain. Loudly. I didn’t see what had happened, and the way his complaints were going, I guessed he had sat in something unpleasant. Was it just a wet spot left by an ill placed umbrella? My commute had begun with a pretty uproarious thunderstorm, so that was a possibility. Was it some unpleasant liquid that would leave a stain? Fourth of July weekend, maybe some passenger had partied a little too hard earlier in the evening. But I didn’t smell anything untoward.

The cause of complaint became apparent, sitting in the cab just outside the dispatch office. While entering, part of an article of clothing snagged on something on the cab door and had ripped. There’s a hole in my $200, name-brand designer article of clothing. Cursing and fussing directed at the dispatcher, whose window overlooks where cabs pick passengers up. Then cursing and fussing directed at the cab driver. I’m not sure who he wanted $200 from, but there the definite implication of being owed $200 for a mishap that was, to his mind, clearly the fault of the cab company, dispatcher, and cab driver. What if a child had been with him? What if the cause of the torn shirt caused bleeding? plato-the-republicThere were not questions posed as in a Socratic dialogue, “Yes, that is very true, but may I ask another question? What do you consider to be…”.

The situation calmed down somewhat, but not entirely and certainly not a good start to the journey. During the course of the cab ride, Angry Passenger’s near-fury at the tearing of the shirt did not subside. Angry Passenger proceeded to make cell phone calls where he shared his displeasure in vivid terms. I would beat up the cab driver, but jail. And also, the “If I had my gun I would…”.

I was going to write veiled threats of violence, but it is hard to describe a profanity laced expression of anger in that way, via cell phone conversations with third parties, as veiled. This was not a pleasant cab journey for me and I wasn’t even the target. And unfortunately passenger to my left was getting dropped off first. So me, not so veiled threat of violence guy, and cab driver for part of the journey. Not exactly how one wants to conclude a commute. We did happen to pick up two additional passengers, a pair of friends, on the way to veiled threat of violence guy’s destination. I got bumped to fourth in line to be dropped off, but was happy to have company.

Threats-guy was dropped off and insisted on not paying, and the cab driver let it go. I thought a wise decision. I still don’t know if the whole show of anger was just a method of getting out of paying for the ($4 without tip) cab journey, or if this was genuinely the threats-guy’s way of proceeding in the world: get angry, express threats, including the threat of beating up people who displease and/or threatening to use firearms.

And maybe I’m taking what was really customer dissatisfaction mixed with hyperbole too seriously, but I’ve underestimated the prospect of two strangers engaged in a dispute breaking out into outright violence right before my very eyes before. With oddly similar thoughts during the buildup to actual violence in that instance: Is this really happening? That person didn’t really just threaten violence did he? Maybe I misheard him – or maybe I misunderstood something innocuous for a threat of violence? Or mistook that statement for this situation headed in a direction it clearly wouldn’t go in? And then sure enough, I was distressingly near a fight on an LIRR train. What’s more, $200 shirts weren’t involved in that instance. (I’ve had stretches of time in bubbles where I’d forgotten that people used certain, fairly untowards methods of expression full stop.)

I want to tie this tale up with a bow. And maybe it is something as simple as, angry guy was a jerk and direct, customer-facing jobs can be incredibly difficult in ways that office-all-day people don’t appreciate enough. But I’ll use as a bookend something, perhaps, more hopeful. From a genius of music to one of the written word, the story of Maya Angelou’s encounter with a famous recording artist (hat tip to the friend who shared another program featuring Maya Angelou where I first heard this story; this quote via Business Insider).

“I didn’t know who he was. He was into a big row with another young man so I said to him, ‘May I speak to you?’ and he was cursing, whoo. And I said, ‘When was the last time anyone told you how important you are?’ Did you know people stood on auction blocks and were bought and sold so that you could stay alive today?’

And finally he heard me and stopped talking and started to weep. I put my arms around him and walked him back into the arena and he quieted. I went back to my trailer and Janet Jackson came running in and said, ‘Dr. Angelou, I don’t believe you actually spoke to Tupac Shakur!’ And I said, ‘Darling, I don’t know him from 6-pack.’ I had never heard of him.”


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Two sites I came across recently.

The first is Internationally Wrongful Memes (via OpinioJuris), basically international law humor. It reminds me of the clippings on professors’ offices, oftentimes New Yorker cartoons. When links to International Court of Justice cases are involved, it is fairly dry humor.

Game of Thrones is about to come back and we’re on it thanks to this marvellous guest post! "The capacity of a government to represent the State in its international relations does not depend in any degree upon the legitimacy of its origin, so that the USURPER who in fact holds power with the consent express or tacit of the nation acts validly in the name of the State." Dreyfus case, 1901. (Thanks LC!)


“The capacity of a government to represent the State in its international relations does not depend in any degree upon the legitimacy of its origin, so that the USURPER who in fact holds power with the consent express or tacit of the nation acts validly in the name of the State.”

Dreyfus case, 1901. (Thanks LC!)


The second, Tl;dr WIkipedia is the sometimes off color one (via, P.a.p. Blog).


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Loser?  (Double torqued ellipse from Richard Serra's the Matter of Time)

(Double torqued ellipse from Richard Serra’s the Matter of Time)

The key reason to engage with art of any form is to determine who is best.

Are Rimbaud and Baudelaire better than Byron and Longfellow? Clearly not. Rimbaud and Baudelaire had the great disadvantage of writing in French. Clearly not God’s language. The language of poetry is English.

And are Byron and Longfellow better than Shakespeare. Clearly not. Shakespeare is the ur-text of English poetry and everything that comes before or after him can only hope to be second best.

The primary reason for reading Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Byron, Longfellow, and Shakespeare? Not to engage with the ideas they present. Not to marvel at the voices, wordplay, or what Stephen Fry refers to as the sound-sex of it. No, the primary reason for reading these authors, the highest calling of artistic criticism, remains list creation. Listicles of art works, art forms, and individual artists.

Observe: Michelangelo’s Pietà is better than Richard Serra’s the Matter of Time, architecture is better than sculpture, and, as we saw earlier, English being better than French helps us come to conclude Shakespeare is better than Rimbaud.

Who is number one? That’s the question that should preoccupy us when engaging with a work of art. “Il pleure dans mon coeur” Sorry Verlaine. Not number one. “I wandered lonely as a cloud” Sorry Wordworth. Not number one. Imagine a giant tournament bracket pitting each artist against every other artist. How else to determine a poet laureate but a knock down, drag out fight?

The individual contests most probably resemble epic rap battle of history episodes. The task of the art critic: keeping score. A fantastically large ledger of who surpasses whom.

And thus this artistic analysis of poetry can be carried over to music. Thus through a series of deductions which need not detain us here, classical music is found to be the best form of music. The Great American Songbook, unimportant. Jazz, similarly unimportant. And poplar music? Well, turning to the Shakespeare I call popular music,

A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar,
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I
will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest
the least syllable of thy addition.

Popular music holds the title of lowest of the low. On the whole failing to innovate, failing to criticize, failing to engage with the society in which it exists. Armed with the authoritative tournament bracket, the music critic can discard among others, the efforts of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Jim Morrison. Popular music holds onto the label art only by the tips of its fingernails.

And thus we have the primary task of artistic criticism. Creating enumerated lists of who is best, second best, third best, and so on. Old Masters in. Abstract expressionists out – after all my three-year old could do that. An ordered taxonomy of the arts from which to instruct the ignorant. To answer definitively, whose art precisely is the best art? And further, far from art criticism as a tool to explore the variegated world of human expression, far from art criticism as jumping off point to craft one’s own journey through the multifarious multifaceted genius of humankind, it is better to think of art criticism as a weapon. As a cudgel. Art criticism as a blunt instrument to insult, to chastise, and to lay low all those unexposed to the dogma, the perpetual Truth about art.

[The foregoing prompted, in part, by a discussion over at Ordinary Times. In case it is somehow unclear, I think it’s perfectly ok to do listicle making for fun. But if you wander into Charles Murray territory (e.g. Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950), then this contest of superlatives is tailor made for you.]

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Watching this Kids React video reminds me of Beloit’s Mindset List. The title is an overclaim on the list’s part, but it does get at something. Here’s the Class of 2017 Mindset List.

Somehow, it seems appropriate that Getting On is also the title of the US and UK dramedy.

Kids React to Rotary Phones

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Annenberg Hall (Steve Rosenthal)

Annenberg Hall (Steve Rosenthal)

Please Stop Giving Giant Donations to Rich Universities Matthew Yglesias urges. Following up with Seriously, Don’t Give Money to Fancy Colleges. Richard K. Vedder puts a version of the case in similarly blunt terms, Cut Off Harvard to Save America.

Yglesias’ disapproving reply to Kenneth Griffin’s $150 million donation to Harvard, “Harvard is already really rich.” Furthermore, “highly selective universities are terrible targets of charitable donations.” Essentially because, “…highly selective institutions remain what they always have been—mechanisms for the perpetuation of inequality and hierarchy.” Yglesias writes, “…the basic social role of the elite, highly selective institution hasn’t changed—they are both elite and selective, not democratic or egalitarian.”

Vedder makes a similar case, pointing out that “The eight Ivy League schools have less than 1 percent of U.S. college students but almost 17 percent of all endowment money.” These universities aren’t serving as engines to promote social mobility, “In the highly endowed schools, a median of 16 percent of students received Pells, compared with 59 percent at the lowest-endowed institutions.” Vedder asks, “Why do we provide favorable tax treatment that primarily benefits these wealthy schools?”

What are Yglesias and Vedder missing?

Well first, an alum can see oneself in a long line of beneficiaries of past giving. Those past givers helped make your education possible. Therefore, it is reasonable to voluntarily take on a responsibility to give to future generations of alums. This isn’t some abstract story for me. A Class of X grant paid tens of thousands of dollars towards my college tuition. That was serious money, mostly from people I have never met and will never meet. Supposing I had spectacular Kenneth Griffin wealth, I can see giving money to my already well off alma mater and it not being “ridiculous”, “misguided”, or a “terrible idea” as Yglesias claims.

Also, money for Harvard pushes the would-be Harvards to try to do and be better. For instance, Harvard College’s grants not loans program had a significant impact beyond Harvard. Within five years time peer institutions were instituting the same policy. Need blind admissions, simultaneously admitting students irrespective of aid needs and meeting full aid needs, are another policy that has reached beyond the Ivy League to more than 40 colleges (US News). In order to remain competitive, similar caliber schools have to adjust. In the financial aid sphere, this has redounded to the benefit of students.

Socioeconomic Distribution at Colleges by Selectivity

Yglesias points out that fancy colleges mainly serve an elite population; citing a chart from Brookings “a student at one of America’s most-selective universities is fourteen times more likely to be from a high-income family than from a low-income family”. The problem that Yglesias and Vedder cite is well worth paying attention to: insufficient socio-economic diversity at selective institutions is rightly troubling. But also consider that this phenomenon is at the tail end of a process with approximately 18 years of inputs by other social forces and institutions. Furthermore, since Griffin’s gift targets financial aid, it is directed at precisely those underrepresented students (a point Yglesias acknowledges with the backhanded compliment, “At any rate, in the scheme of misguided donations to Harvard this one seems not-so-awful. It’s mostly for financial aid, which is nice.”).

Also keep in mind that the things these fancy colleges are setting out to do are different from what community colleges set out to do. And that is a good thing. Diversity in the higher education sector allows for meeting a multiplicity of needs from remediation and career-change training to cutting edge research. A community college usually doesn’t have the global ambitions of the Harvards of the world. A campus on every continent is the kind of ambition Ivy presidents opine about. The aim of being a global university, occasionally becoming a “multiversity”, dots the speeches of high-powered university presidents. Or the aim to be at the forefront of pathbreaking research on not only Topic X, but also on related Topics Y and Z. For instance, the $200 million gift to the mind, brain, and behavior initiative at Columbia. If you want to be at the cutting edge of understanding, and hopefully curing, neurological disorders that is going to take big bucks.

And why not, as Vedder suggests, cut off Harvard? Why the capital gains tax break to the institution as well as the tax break for the individual donor?

For all its faults, higher education is something the US does extremely well. Taking onboard the various caveats about ranking methodologies, world rankings of US higher education institutions have the US performing quite well – with the Harvards of the US leading the way. Wealthy, fancy, name-brand private universities dominate the top slots of The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-2014, the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, and the QS World University Rankings. Part of the reason these universities can lead is the significant public and private support they receive.

Exhibit B is the the university-government-corporate partnerships of places like Research Triangle Park and Silicon Valley. Others are currently trying to emulate these innovation, venture capital, catalytic research-enterprise zones; Dmitry Medvedev’s Skolkovo Innovation Center is one notable example. Cutting off the Harvards of the world is removing one of the legs from this three-legged stool.

Overall, there are multiple important values worthy of support in higher education and beyond. Both support for already world-beating institutions as well as support for institutions that manifestly serve a broader segment of society are worthwhile. Support for elite institutions should not be withdrawn in favor of the non-elite institutions, both deserve public and private donor support. Rather than make a case against giving somewhere, make a case for giving to somewhere as well. A point that extends well beyond higher education giving. Want to give money to the Met Opera? Wundebar! The Poetry Foundation gets $200 million bequeath? Great! This should be a both/and conversation, not an either/or conversation. A culture of major giving by the mega-wealthy is worth celebrating. Whatever the institution they give to, including Harvard.

(Full disclosure, I went to a university with a significant endowment, I have also worked at a university with a significant endowment. Neither was Harvard.)

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C. Montgomery Burns’ note on the sensitivity of the well-off came to mind when reading Tom Perkins’ brief letter to the Wall Street Journal, entitled Progressive Kristallnacht Coming?. Perkins “perceive[s] a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent”. Essentially he sees parallels between the current state of the US discussion on inequality to the anti-semitism of Nazi Germany.

It is hard to capture succinctly the many ways the view Perkins presents is profoundly wrongheaded. He references the Occupy movement as part of this “tide of hatred”. Now, I was not deeply engaged in Occupy. I visited Zuccotti Park and I attended an Occupy sponsored teach-in at Union Square Park, on both occasions with a friend more sympathetic to Occupy than me. The beginnings of pogroms these were not. Where was the violence? Where was the threat of violence (other than that of the state against the protesters)? Where even, were the calls to forcefully seize the means of production in favor of the revolutionary proletariat?

In Zuccotti Park there was a lending library. There was recycling, with handy signs making the significant distinction between compost and non-compost items. At no time during my visit did I feel physically endangered by the then-denizens of the park. Essentially, a really sophisticated sit-in was underway. A peaceful protest that, by way of its location, called attention to many of capitalism in America’s central disjunctures: the unfulfilled promise of work hard and play by the rules yielding social mobility, the relative inattention to the well-being of the common man and underclass versus the well-being of the elite, and perhaps foremost, the mobilization of hundreds of billions in government resources in short order to shore up threatened financial institutions while the unemployed and downtrodden receive(d) scant attention.

With respect to the teach-in, two professors from liberal arts colleges in New York State discussed unions. We sat in a circle on the south side of Union Square Park; our circle gained or lost members or onlookers as the course of the discussion went along. Starting at maybe five to eight people, and maybe at its highest point reaching 30 . Yes, it was a progressive vision of the history of the union movement in America.

My previous questions obtain for the teach-in as well: Where was the violence, or threat thereof? Where was the call to arms, assault, battery, theft, rioting, arson? From the tenor of the discussion we could have been talking about Romantic poets or the architectural history of New York. Nary a voice raised in anger. If you’ve had a college seminar meet outside on a spring day, then you had the essence of this teach-in’s atmosphere.

Now, I don’t present my experiences with Occupy as definitive. But if Perkins has evidence of “a tide of hatred” in part represented by Occupy he needs to provide it.

As for the meaning of Nazi Germany’s targeting of Jews, it is a topic that won’t adequately be served by the attention I can give it here. The drawing upon centuries of exclusion and Othering. The erection of boundaries between a supposedly pure German identity as set against a supposedly Other, suspect, Jewish identity. Being in the society, but not of the society. The dehumanization and of course the violence.

The orgy of violence.

Preceded by violence and followed by violence. To invoke Kristallnacht is to invoke a web of terror, totalitarianism, and authoritarianism rarely equaled in human history.

I don’t know what kind of bubble being a billionaire provides for someone – the kind of insulation from the day-to-day insecurities of the average citizen. And what’s more, to have all kinds of society’s institutions falling over themselves to stroke your ego. But Tom Perkins, you urgently need to use some of that $8 billion to buy yourself a clue. Some clue as to what it means to live in a democratic society where people may peacefully protest and put their public institutions under scrutiny for compliance with key principles of social justice and human rights.

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The Atlantic assembles a neat collection of New Year’s photos from around the world. My favorite, the all-time best World’s Fair investment.

"A reveler writes "2014" with sparklers ahead of New Year's Eve, in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, on December 30, 2013. (Reuters/Benoit Tessier)"

“A reveler writes “2014” with sparklers ahead of New Year’s Eve, in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, on December 30, 2013. (Reuters/Benoit Tessier)”

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