Sunday, September 30, 2012

Slandering Obama -- The UN Speech

Obama Jihadi?

Look, I have my disagreements with President Obama on particular policies, and I'm all in favor of ridiculing Islamists and their totalitarian aim of suppressing free speech to shield Islam and its prophet from even a hint of criticism, but this political cartoon by Glenn McCoy entirely distorts the President's rather vigorous defense of free speech, which I blogged about two days ago. That defense forms the larger context to the words 'quoted' above, "The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam!" As for the actual quote (without exclamation mark!) in its more specific context, here's what President Obama really said:
The future must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt -- it must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted, "Muslims, Christians, we are one." The future must not belong to those who bully women -- it must be shaped by girls who go to school, and those who stand for a world where our daughters can live their dreams just like our sons.

The future must not belong to those corrupt few who steal a country's resources -- it must be won by the students and entrepreneurs, the workers and business owners who seek a broader prosperity for all people. Those are the women and men that America stands with; theirs is the vision we will support.

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.
Unlike the shrill caricature in McCoy's partisan cartoon, President Obama gave no jihadi call to arms against free expression, but instead recalled Muslims to the inconsistency of their outrage, and in the larger context, the President's call is for free speech, on both principled and prudential grounds, as can be seen from my previous post on this or in the President's original speech.

Despite my differences from President Obama on a number of issues, I have only disdain for the sort of partisan distortion contrived in this political cartoon.

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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Advance Review: James Baldwin Cohen on "Bottomless Bottle of Beer"

Bottomless Bottle Cover
Terrance Lindall

The avant-garde artist Terrance Lindall sent me an experimental cover for some version or other of my story "The Bottomless Bottle of Beer," but whether for a comics version in some magazine or the novella version in book form, I'm not sure, and perhaps Terrance isn't yet either, for he's merely at the experimental stage so far. The quotes along the bottom are borrowed from Dostoevsky, and one appears at the heading of each section of my story, so there are eight in all.

Terrance also sent along a review by someone named 'James Baldwin Cohen':
The Bottomless Bottle of Beer, a New Novel by Horace Jeffery Hodges

The Bottomless Bottle of Beer is a short novel that already has the lucky readers of the reviewer's copy, calling it a "classic of English literature in our time."

Terrance Lindall, an editorial advisor for International Authors, received one of the first drafts. He glanced at it groaning about reading another new unpublished work and it remained on his desk for a couple of months. Finally, after wrapping up some work on his Paradise Lost project, he picked it up. He was delightedly astounded by the richness and philosophical depth of the work, while indeed it still had a bounce and wonderful sense of humor. He could not put it down and asked Jeffery if he could illustrate it. In a short period of time he put out thirty conceptual black and white drawings giving us a visual idea of the wonderful full color graphic novel to come. The work engages phraseology of John Milton, references Hegel and Heidegger, John Locke and more, all while telling a ripping tale.

What is the tale? It is the first person story of how a naïf, an amateur in the appreciation of a good beer, seemingly like Mr. Hodges himself, is seduced by Mr. Em (the Devil himself) into selling his soul ("his blood") for a bottle of beer that never runs dry. It is a seductive brew with a "hint of goat." Our Naïf runs astray in the midst of a variety of unusual and humorously devilish characters including a gorgeous female vampire named Hella who takes great interest in him.

I will not tell you the rest of the story, you will have to read this remarkably entertaining short novel for yourself. It appears in Emanations, Second Sight, a compendium edited by Carter Kaplan, that contains a number of brilliant works by new authors.

Terrance Lindall, the famed illustrator of Milton's Paradise Lost, is working on the full color copiously illustrated version that will come out in several formats, including an eight pager for magazines, plus a one hundred page graphic novel.

I admire the project no end!

James Baldwin Cohen
As I told Terrance, "Wow! I'll have to re-read my story for those allusions to Hegel, Heidegger, and Locke! I must be smarter than I am . . ." Whatever the truth of that, I wish I knew who 'James Baldwin Cohen' is. A Google search didn't turn up much that I could access, but -- if I take seriously an entry on Google+ that I can't entirely open -- the 'name'appears to be a pseudonym, a literary double, a nom de plume, a pen name:
James Baldwin Cohen is not my real name. I was born in the Ruhr Valley in 1926 to a patrician steel company family. I have traveled the world. I worked for the United States government in behavioral modification in the 1960's. I am one of the few private individuals to have access to a Cray supercomputer for my research.
A rather mysterious individual, this 'Cohen,' and also rather old if he was really born in 1926, but since he's hiding his true name, he might also be hiding other details (even such as 'his' gender?). Be that as it may, he seems to do freelance reviews not only of literature, but also of art, as can be seen here.

At any rate, I'll keep readers posted on developments . . .

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Friday, September 28, 2012

President Obama at the UN: Free Speech

President Obama
Google Images

I'm behind the curve on this, but I finally had an opportunity to read Obama's UN speech, and I'll just excerpt from the White House transcript what he said on free speech. But first this:
[Violence] is what we saw play out in the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. Now, I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.
I think this choice of words generally appropriate. Obama speaks not for the US government, but for himself in rejecting the video's message, and I think that's consistent with the American separation of religion and state. With that point out of the way, let's see what he says about free expression:
I know there are some who ask why we don't just ban such a video. And the answer is enshrined in our laws: Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech . . . . [I]n the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs . . . . Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views . . . may be threatened . . . . [and] because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities . . . . [T]he strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech . . . . I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech . . . . But in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how do we respond? . . . [W]e must agree: There is no speech that justifies mindless violence . . . . In this modern world with modern technologies, for us to respond in that way to hateful speech empowers any individual who engages in such speech to create chaos around the world. We empower the worst of us if that's how we respond.
I can,for the most part, agree with these words. The President defends a fairly vigorous version of free speech after the administration's somewhat faltering initial response a couple of weeks ago, somewhat as the assistant attorney general first faltered on, but later affirmed free expression last summer. Oddly, this is often the case with principles set down in the Constitution. People tend to forget them, falter in response to some difficult situation, but when reminded that Constitutional principles are at stake, they usually rally in support.

One expects the US government to rally with more alacrity on such a fundamental principle as free speech . . . but better late than never.

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Terrance Lindall - More Art for "The Bottomless Bottle of Beer"

Lilith Awaits
Terrance Lindall

Avant-garde surrealist artist and illustrator Terrance Lindall sent a further installment in the sequence of images depicting scenes from my story "The Bottomless Bottle of Beer."

The scene above, however, won't appear in the short story version to be published this October (2012) in Carter Kaplan's anthology Emanations II, which is using just four of the many images Lindall has already sketched, the remainder to be used in the book version of my story, except (again) for this particular one, which I think Lindall intends to use in an eight-page comics version that he would like to publish in some magazine like Heavy Metal, the very magazine in which I first became acquainted with Lindall's artwork many years ago. But publishing there is not yet certain.

In the scene above, by the way, I like how Hella (aka Lilith) has a quizzical expression on her face, as if asking herself, "Is this naif worth my time?"

I wonder the same, albeit asking if he's worth my readers' time . . . though I certainly hope so. Some people are supportive of Kaplan's project (and by implication my story), as we see from a recent "Interview with author Ruud Antonius" in Books and Writing:
About two years ago I was asked by Carter Kaplan, a professor of the English language in the USA to join the board of editorial advisors of International Authors which is a consortium of writers, artists, architects and critics. They publish works of outstanding merit dedicated to the advancement of an international culture in literature primarily in English. I accepted and was thrilled with the stories in 'Emanations' an anthology edited by Carter. Shortly after that I started writing Son upon Tine, not with the intention of ever having it published. When Carter came over to stay with me in the UK to attend a meeting of International Authors in London we got talking over the piece I was writing and he urged me to finish it. That and meeting up with a bunch of authors on a terrace at St. Pancras station did the trick.
Antonius is also an artist, as you can see here. I haven't seen his story yet, but it'll appear in the same issue of the anthology as mine. I'll keep all of you posted on this anthology as the publication date approaches . . .

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Some Good News from the Islamic World . . .

Memri Logo

Not all news from the Islamic world is best depicted in images of radicals rioting; some is of critics critiquing. The Memri news site notes in "Harsh Self-Criticism In Arab World Over Violent Reactions To Anti-Islamic Film" (Memri, September 24, 2012, Special Dispatch No. 4971) that some Muslims are criticizing the violence stirred up by Muslim reactions to the recent trailer for that stupefying film, The Innocence of Muslims:
In an article that was posted on several Libyan websites, columnist Walid 'Abd Al-Raziq 'Amir apologized to the Prophet Muhammad for the Libyans' attack on the embassy . . . .

Hassan Haidar, a columnist for the London daily Al-Hayat, wrote: "No one can even entertain the notion that this movie should be defended or that its creators should be praised. In fact, it must be unequivocally condemned and rejected . . . . However, the protests [in the Arab {and larger Muslim} world] were wildly different from what a protest should look like . . . .

The Qatari daily Al-Raya harshly condemned the attack on the American consulate in Libya and the murder of the American diplomats, [arguing that] . . . . "Muslims offended by [the movie] insulting their religion and prophet . . . should restrain themselves and deal with the matter in nonviolent ways and in an intelligent and calculated manner . . . ."

Dr. 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barr, known as the Mufti of the M[uslim] B[rotherhood] who is also a member of the Office of the MB General Guide, claimed in an article on the MB's official website that it is a duty to defend the Prophet Muhammad by continuing civilized activity, without harming facilities or people . . . .

Arab intellectual Dr. Khaled Al-Hroub, a professor at Cambridge University who routinely publishes articles in the Arab media, warned against ". . . . the culture of religious zealotry that was imposed on people for over 50 years, and which brought forth what we witness [today]. . . ."

Al-Hayat columnist Hassan Haidar also warned about . . . . "the extremists, exploiting the Arab spring revolutions, . . . trying to impose themselves, . . . . prepared to take up arms and [act] violently, . . . while threatening not only 'infidel foreigners,' but also moderate Muslim citizens and Christian minorities . . . . It is the responsibility of the new regimes . . . to stop those trying to spread acts of extremism and intimidation before they get worse; and to prove that they belong to the tolerant middle way of Islam" . . . .

'Imad Al-Din Hussein, a columnist for the independent Egyptian daily Al-Shurouq, . . . . [argued] . . . . "We are a nation that contributes nothing to human civilization in the current era . . . . When we become civilized and obey true Islam, then everyone will respect us" . . . .

'Ali Al-Sharimi, a columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Watan, [said]: ". . . . Imagine a large tank carrying various advanced weapon systems, driven by the prophet 'Issa bin Maryam [i.e., Jesus], carrying . . . the cross . . . and towing a wagon laden with treasures [he has robbed] . . . . [The image] would likely evoke cold and mocking responses [from Christians] . . . . So why do our societies [respond with] exaggerated commotion [to images of Muhammad]? . . . . How can we convince the Western citizen that this religion [Islam] is respectable, when all he sees is extremism and terrorism . . . . [and suicide bombings] justified on some of our satellite TV channels, and from the pulpits of our mosques . . . ?"
These are all commendable words, perhaps not representative of merely a tiny minority of moderates, and I hope sincere, though I do wonder in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson. Anyway, I post so many critiques of Islamism that I might give the impression of seeing no complexity in the Islamic world, but I am not blinded by my anger at Islamist extremists, so I at times post articles like this one today to remind readers that not all Muslims are extremists. I had Muslim friends in Germany when they and I were recipients of Friedrich Naumann doctoral fellowships, I spoke out for the protection of Bosnian Muslims when the city of Sarajevo was being shelled and civilians there being shot by enemy snipers, and I saw my son born in a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem, where the Muslim Arabs were very kind to us, lest anyone imagine that I'm anti-Muslim. I'm aware of complexity.

My critiques are mainly directed at Islamists . . .

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

And on a heavier note . . .

Gräbchen, Arkansas
Ozark Mountains

Cousin Bill has finally moved back to the Arkansas Ozarks, returning to his hillbilly roots, but he's meeting with resistance from some of the local fauna, as he and his wife recently experienced:
Monday past we made a run to the . . . Motor Vehicle annex for Arkansas plates and Drivers Licenses. The plates were no problem. Not so the DL.

9/11 and Homeland Security measures subsequent require anyone establishing residence in another state be armed with all sorts of documents to obtain a drivers license.
Armed? Maybe required, but it'll just raise the hackles of the aforementioned local fauna.
We'd compiled everything thought necessary and marched into the office with our bulging packet of records documenting birth, citizenship, marriage, etc.
Armed and marching in? That'll only make things worse!
And there met our first unfriendly Arkansas resident . . . a rather overbearing, overweight, and slightly bearded lady (obviously on a Monday morning downer, possibly needing more caffeine and another frosted donut or two). She began examination of our paperwork, and scrutinized each piece of paper with the eye of an eagle. She suddenly smiles, looks at us, smirks and announces "Aha! This isn't a marriage certificate. It's a marriage license." And refused to consider further handling of Cheryl's request for a DL (name change). The smile disappears as she glares my way and says "Yours, I have to process."

She began pecking information into the computer, looking up on occasion to ask "Want your middle name on the DL?, Wanta be an organ donor?, Wear glasses?, Ya sure the height and weight is correct on this Kansas license?" At last, all information entered, she sits back, folds her chubby arms across her chest and waits . . . and again smirks when the system announces rejection. Seems Kansas's $42M computer upgrade crashed again, refusing to transfer information to the Arkansas Department of Motor Vehicles. The lady, almost joyfully, says "You'll have to come back later, and don't forget that marriage certificate if the Mrs. wants a DL, provided the computers will exchange information." Without another word she tosses documents our way, looks toward other waiting customers and yells "Next." Obviously the "lady" was discarded in Benton County by a traveling circus years ago.
Cousin Bill will undoubtedly have been chastened by this close encounter with a varmint in the Ozark wilderness.
As we headed home we chuckled about the "marriage license" situation, then pondered the legal ramifications if we weren't really married. We mailed Kansas yet another $15 check with request for the "Certificate." If nothing's on record there, guess we'll continue to live in sin (Cheryl the bigger sinner without the her DL), or do a quickie marriage in nearby Oklahoma.
I erred. Cousin Bill has little serious intention of being chaste. And he even appears to be taking this encounter with the local wildlife less than seriously, even if the bearded bureaucratress is actually a rare critter, only a handful having escaped the circus to indigenize themselves. But they're hardly the only fauna around:
Discovery of wild things continues. This week I've noticed . . . [a local species of] praying mantis . . . [and] one on the front door measured nearly nine inches . . .
Alarmed at that news, I wrote back and warned him:
That one was newly hatched. Watch out for the big ones . . .
Seemingly skeptical, he replied:
If I see any bigger, you'll be reading about Arkansas dinosaurs!
I reckon. But we'll also be reading about the mysterious disappearance of a Kansas couple, newly relocated to the Ozarks but now relocated the devil knows where!

I've tried to warn them . . .

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Monday, September 24, 2012

But on a lighter note . . .

Lollipop House
Moon Hoon

Liza Foreman, writing "In South Korea, Houses With a Sense of Whimsy" for the NYT (September 20, 2012), tells of whimsical architecture by Seoul's Moon Hoon:
Kim Dae Sung, a 36-year-old computer programmer, his wife, Lee Ji Sun, 34, and their 4-year-old daughter, Kim Soo Min, look like a conventional family of three: a father who leaves for the office early each morning, a stay-at-home mother and a young daughter with cute pigtails.

But this family lives in an unconventional home, made all the more unusual by its striking contrast to the ranks of monotonous high rises that fill the Korean capital and spill out to the suburbs, including their town of Yong In.
Simply by living in a house rather than a high-rise apartment, the family is already unconventional, but there's more defiance of convention here, as you can see from the photograph above.
The Lollipop House is a wood-frame structure covered in a swirl of red-and-white steel plates, designed to resemble the candy -- though local children call it the Snail for its rounded silhouette. But regardless of the name, the seven-level house glows at night, yellow light pouring through its large glass windows.
There ought to be a photograph of that! Incidentally, my wife looked at the photo above and questioned the statement that it's a "seven-level" house. I share my wife's skepticism, and I wonder if the reporter jotted down "2-level" a bit unclearly and later read it as "7-level." I suppose I could try to contact Ms. Foreman . . . [Update: It really is seven levels! Go here and scroll a bit.]
The two-bedroom, two-bathroom home, designed by the Korean architect Moon Hoon, is unusual in other ways, too.

It was completed in February after just three months’ construction and cost a total of 170 million won, or $152,000.

And, perhaps most important, the Lollipop is part of a trend inspired by a 2011 book whose title in English is "Two Men's Journal of Building Their Homes," a story by Lee Hyun Wook and Goo Bon Joon about wooden construction that has intrigued homeowners here.

"Before, individual houses were for rich guys. It would cost you $100,000 for the architect alone plus $1 million for the house," said Mr. Moon, 44, who has a master's degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Then came the book, which explained how to build in wood, which is much cheaper."

His 11-year-old firm, moon_bal_sso, is based in Seoul and most of his projects, including several homes and a school, are in the capital region.

"Apartments used to be an investment, which is why people tolerated living in a concrete box, but now they aren't going up anymore," he said. Seoul's real estate market has never recovered from the 2008 global downturn, and prices fell 2.14 percent in the first six months of the year from a year earlier, according to Doctor Apt., an online real estate site in Korea.
That global downturn merely burst a housing bubble that would have popped anyway, but I'm surprised that people didn't recognize the bubble and kept buying up apartments as investments.
Still, Mr. Moon's designs are not for the faint of heart. One of his recent homes, a quirky holiday house perched on the edge of a hill in Jeongseon, in the northernmost part of the country, features large gold horns on the roof.

"My professors would hate me for putting horns on a building," he said. "The client wanted something representative of a bullfight. Before and after the horns, it is a totally different building."
It certainly is, but you'll need to go to the article to see that one. I showed the photo to my wife, who told me she already knew about it. Here are more images, from Google Images.

I now think I'd enjoy living in a snail house, or even a horned house. Like a snail house, I'm slow, and like a horned house, I'm . . . well, never mind.

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Roger Cohen on Islam for the 21st-Century

Muslim and Mosque
'The State of Things'
Jewel Samad
Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
New York Times

The violent and threatening Muslim reaction to this stupid film The Innocence of Muslims is forcing the hand of several prominent columnists, both liberals and conservatives, and writing in "A 21st-Century Islam" (NYT, September 21, 2012), Roger Cohen's turn has now come:
The Muslim world cannot have it both ways. It cannot place Islam at the center of political life -- and in extreme cases political violence -- while at the same time declaring that the religion is off-limits to contestation and ridicule.
An excellent point. Politics proceeds by debate, so if Islamists and other pious Muslims want to engage in the political process, they'll have to grow tougher skin elsewhere than the middle of their forehead! Or as Cohen puts it:
Politics is a rough-and-tumble game. If the emergent Islamic parties of nations in transition -- like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia -- are to honor the terms of democratic governance they will have to concede that they have no monopoly on truth, that the prescriptions of Islam are malleable and debatable, and that significant currents in their societies have different convictions and even faiths.
They have no choice, for the Islamist alternative is unworkable:
The world has tried Islamic republics. It found them oxymoronic. As Iran illustrates, they don't work: Republican institutions, shaped by the wishes of men and women, fall victim to the Islamic superstructure, supposedly shaped by God.
That Islamic superstructure, of course, is the fundamental, ultimate aim of Islamists, and the West must deal prudently, in full awareness of this goal, with such Islamists:
But the West will not do so by compromising its own values. The porn-grade American movie that started the unrest was pitiful. The murderous violence that followed from Cairo to Benghazi was criminal. Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper, then had a strong editorial case for mocking the religious fundamentalism that produced the killing; it chose to do so through caricatures of Muhammad.

Gérard Biard, the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo, put the case well: "We're a newspaper that respects French law. Now, if there's a law that is different in Kabul or Riyadh, we're not going to bother ourselves with respecting it." Alluding to all the violence, Biard asked: "Are we supposed to not do that news?"

He is right. There are too many hypocrisies in Islam -- deploring attacks on it while often casting scorn on Judaism and Christianity, claiming the mantle of peace while inspiring violence -- for it to expect to be spared the cartoonist's arrows.
As I was telling my wife last evening, the film is so stupefyingly stupid, I couldn't even endure watching the trailer on YouTube -- I had to exit that virtual cinema after only a minute and a half! Nonetheless, violent Muslim reaction to the clip has had the beneficial result of goading many, from the political spectrum's rebel-red left to its true-blue right, into affirming explicit support for freedom of expression, probably because the film is so monumentally stupid, no Westerner would possibly imagine that anyone could be legitimately offended.

No true Westerner, anyway . . .

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Our Globalized, Systemic Conflict

Nathan Gardels, writing "In violence over anti-Muslim video, a new world disorder" for the Christian Science Monitor (September 14, 2012), says some things that fill in what I alluded to in a recent comment, as we see in the following quotes from his article:
Welcome to our new world, where no one is in control -- neither the West of its social media nor Arab rulers of their liberated subjects. This is a combustible mix that goes beyond the recent anti-Muslim video to the overall message of Western-shaped globalization.
Gardels reminds us that the scholar Akbar S. Ahmed, already in the decade before 9/11, foresaw the stakes in the increasing conflict between the West and Islam and realized this conflict's existential character:
Years before Osama bin Laden conceived of the assault on the Twin Towers in New York, Akbar Ahmed, a Pakistani scholar and former ambassador to Great Britain, grasped the mentality of siege gripping the Islamic world. After an extended trip through the remote villages of the Afghan-Pakistan border where the Taliban got its start, he reported that pious Muslims sense "there is no escape now, no retreat, no hiding place, from the demon" of the Western media, which he called "storm troopers" of the West. They feel, he wrote, "the more traditional a religious culture in our age of the media, the greater the pressure on it to yield" to the faithlessness and secularism of global civilization emanating from the West.

Mr. Akbar imagined that "it must have been something like this in 1258 when the Mongols were gathering outside Baghdad to shatter forever the greatest Arab empire in history. But, this time, the decision will be final. If Islam is conquered, there will be no coming back."
That may go quite a ways toward explaining the rigidity of the battle lines that have been drawn. Gardels himself -- perhaps channeling Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" theory -- considers the conflicts cultural and acted out on a global stage:
The conflicts of the future are thus going to be as much about the abundant cultural flows of the global information economy as about the scarcity of resources or the breach of territory. This is because contending values have been crowded into a common public square created by freer trade, the spread of technology, and the planetary reach of the media.

Only in such a world could a provocative Danish cartoon or a truly lame YouTube video on Muhammad inflame the pious and mobilize the militant across the vast and distant stretches of the Islamic world.
This is precisely what was on my mind in my recent comment noted above in my opening line. Gardels expects these cultural conflicts to be unavoidable because fundamental:
No military retaliation, or further violent attacks on diplomatic outposts, can erase the reality that what is sacred for America (freedom of expression, including sacrilege) and what is sacred for the Muslim world (their faith) are clashing values now contending on the same virtual terrain.
Not just America, of course, but the West more generally, which in its most secular heart believes sacrilege sacred -- an irony perhaps worthy of being reflected upon. Still, Gardels hopes for the best . . . sort of:
Managing some semblance of stability in this new, out-of-control world is going to take some deft statesmanship. The West is not about to give up its defense of freedom of expression -- whether Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" or the "Innocence of Muslims" YouTube video. Muslims, militant or mainstream, are not about to give up the defense of their faith and its messenger.
That's the best he can hope for, "deft statesmanship," and it isn't much hope, for he sees our reality clearly:
Along with the advent of democracy in the Arab world, this is a new reality we will all have to live with. Let's not pretend that this conflict isn't real.
I've been living almost entirely without that pretense since 9/11, and I had a strong inkling of it ten years before that attack when I was living in Germany and saw up close the increasing piety of Muslims studying and living in Europe.

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Friday, September 21, 2012

Muslim Mirror of Insults . . .

Thomas L. Friedman

After posting yesterday's blog entry, I discovered Thomas Friedman's very similar NYT column, "Look in Your Mirror" (September 18, 2012):
On Monday, David D. Kirkpatrick, the Cairo bureau chief for The Times, quoted one of the Egyptian demonstrators outside the American Embassy, Khaled Ali, as justifying last week's violent protests by declaring: "We never insult any prophet -- not Moses, not Jesus -- so why can't we demand that Muhammad be respected?"
Friedman noted much the same hypocrisy as I had, and he called Mr. Ali and his ilk on it:
Mr. Ali and the young Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, Yemenis, Pakistanis, Afghans and Sudanese who have been taking to the streets might want to look in the mirror -- or just turn on their own televisions. They might want to look at the chauvinistic bile that is pumped out by some of their own media -- on satellite television stations and Web sites or sold in sidewalk bookstores outside of mosques -- insulting Shiites, Jews, Christians, Sufis and anyone else who is not a Sunni, or fundamentalist, Muslim.
One correction to this. Shiites can be equally as radical and are just as prone to insulting non-Shiites as Sunnis are to insulting non-Sunnis. That quibble aside, I want to quote Friedman's examples:
Hasan Rahimpur Azghadi of the Iranian Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution: Christianity is "a reeking corpse, on which you have to constantly pour eau de cologne and perfume, and wash it in order to keep it clean." - July 20, 2007.

Sheik Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi: It is permissible to spill the blood of the Iraqi Christians -- and a duty to wage jihad against them. - April 14, 2011.

Abd al-Aziz Fawzan al-Fawzan, a Saudi professor of Islamic law, calls for "positive hatred" of Christians. Al-Majd TV (Saudi Arabia). - Dec. 16, 2005.

The Egyptian Cleric Muhammad Hussein Yaaqub: "Muslim Brotherhood Presidential Candidate Mohamed Morsi told me that the Shiites are more dangerous to Islam than the Jews." - June 13, 2012.

The Egyptian Cleric Mazen al-Sirsawi: "If Allah had not created the Shiites as human beings, they would have been donkeys." - Aug. 7, 2011.

The Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan video series: "The Shiite is a Nasl [Race/Offspring] of Jews." - March 21, 2012.

Article on the Muslim Brotherhood's Web site praises jihad against America and the Jews: "The Descendants of Apes and Pigs." - Sept. 7, 2012.

The Pakistani cleric Muhammad Raza Saqib Mustafai: "When the Jews are wiped out, the world would be purified and the sun of peace would rise on the entire world." - Aug. 1, 2012.

Dr. Ismail Ali Muhammad, a senior Al-Azhar scholar: The Jews, "a source of evil and harm in all human societies." - Feb. 14, 2012.

A shrine venerating a Sufi Muslim saint in Libya has been partly destroyed, the latest in a series of attacks blamed on ultraconservative Salafi Islamists. - Aug. 26, 2012.
To quibble again . . . these aren't precisely directed against prophets. But they will suffice to demonstrate that insults from the Muslim world are hardly rare, thereby providing a context within which to set the insults that I noted yesterday. That Muslim world is a world replete with malicious insults and insulted honor.

In Friedman's curt words to Muslims, "[L]et's cut the nonsense that this is just our problem and the only issue is how we clean up our act."

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Free Expression: Rage, Respect, Reading, and Rights

Muslim Rage?
Daily Beast

That image above comes from the cover of this week's Newsweek, or so the internet informs me, for my hard copy has a cover image of a Myanmar Punk, replete with colorful Mohawk haircut! But inside the magazine that arrived by Korea's postal service is the same article by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, though I have yet to read it because I'm preoccupied with thinking.

I'm thinking about hypocrisy.

My mind turned to cases of this deceptive gesture toward virtue as I was reading the words of one Muslim protester outside the American Embassy in Cairo, who said:
We never insult any prophet -- not Moses, not Jesus -- so why can't we demand that Muhammad be respected? (David D. Kirkpatrick, "Cultural Clash Fuels Muslims Angry at Online Video," NYT, September 16, 2012)
Never? Really never?

But in a collection of Hadith by Sahih Bukhari (Volume 4, Book 55, Number 657), Abu Huraira reports Muhammad foretelling that when Isa (Jesus) returns, "he will break the cross," which means that Isa (Jesus) will personally destroy Christianity. From a Christian perspective, that's certainly an insult to Jesus, for it has him destroying what Christians hold as their faith's most crucial symbol for depicting the manner in which Jesus became the sacrifice for sins.

And what about this kind of behavior?

A Muslim imam called Abu Islam took part in a protest in Cairo and destroyed a Bible, as reported by Mary Abdelmassih in "Muslim Cleric Tears Bible At Protest Outside the US Embassy in Cairo" (Assyrian International News Agency, September 14, 2012)?
He starts tearing the bible and throwing the leaves towards the mob, amid chants of Allahu Akbar and . . . saying: "To all the cross worshippers around the world we will not keep quiet . Today, we tore it." [Also,] a man in blue beside him burns the bible raising it for everyone to see.
This desecration of Christian scripture would surely constitute an insult to various prophets, or such would be the view of Christians -- derogatorily called "cross worshippers" by the imam -- and note that this same imam added these words, "Next time I will urinate on it [i.e., the Bible]," thereby compounding the insult.

So much for Islam's reputed respect toward what Muslims call a "prophetic" religion. Now what about Islam's treatment of a non-Christian religion, say, the Taliban's destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas?

Was that respectful? Or is respect due only to Islam's sacred symbols?

The list of insults and destructive violence could extend to accounts of Muslim attacks against various religions, with the list going on and on . . .

Of course, these insults and attacks are solely the actions of a tiny minority of Islamists who claim to represent Islamic orthodoxy and cite authoritative texts as proof but are rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who regularly oppose the Islamists in peaceful counterprotests aimed at demonstrating that Islam actually is a religion of peace, as everyone says.

Be that as it may, my view, as readers already know, is that speech -- even insulting speech, whether uttered by Muslim or non-Muslim -- must be protected speech, so I agree with the author of The Satanic Verses, the controversial Salman Rushdie, who lives under a fatwa of death and whose position on free expression is reported by Michiko Kakutani in "Rushdie Relives Difficult Years Spent in Hiding" (NYT, September 17, 2012):
Gradually, . . . he came to see that "the violence and menace of the response" to his novel "was a terrorist act that had to be confronted," and that he "wanted the world's leaders to defend his right to be a troublemaker."

It was about more than his book. It was about "the era of fear and self-censorship that the fatwa [against Satanic Verses] had brought into being." It was about standing up for literature, which "encouraged understanding, sympathy and identification with people not like oneself," at a time when "the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war."

He was fighting, he realized, for "freedom of speech, freedom of the imagination, freedom from fear, and the beautiful, ancient art" of storytelling, "of which he was privileged to be a practitioner."
Like Rushdie under a death threat but regaining his nerve, we simply must raise and protect our free, unintimidated voices.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Enough almost already! (Almost.)

André Aciman

As a university freshman many years ago, I was cautioned by my English professor Morse Hamilton against overuse of the word "almost," but I'm now told by Professor André Aciman, writing in "An Adverb That Defies Certainty" (NYT, September 15, 2012), that "almost" is almost always right . . . though he acknowledges that others would disagree:
"Almost" is not the favorite word of all authors. One can imagine -- though no one's counting -- that Hemingway was not a friend of "almost." Nor was Teddy Roosevelt. Nor, I'd wager, would the frugal, unimaginative Messieurs Strunk and White have been well disposed to it had they been asked about its eloquence.
Actually (another word I've been cautioned against), I exaggerated. Aciman doesn't claim that "almost" is usually right. He simply praises its correctness -- when it is correct, as it often is -- and with rare literary eloquence explores its meaning:
We know what "almost" means. Dictionaries, however vaguely they define the word, agree on this, that "almost" means something between "short of" and "sort of." We also know that "almost" is mostly used as an adverb, and adverbs can define a verb, adjective or another adverb. But "almost" is also a stringer, a filler. Two extra syllables, like blush after makeup, just that requisite fuzziness, like ambiguity in an instance of total candor. A halt in midspeech, an extra tap on the piano's pedal, a suggestion of doubt and degree, of resonance and approximation, where straight, flat surfaces are the norm. "By using 'almost,'" says the writer, "I'm saying there is 'less than'; but what I mean to suggest is that there is possibly 'more than.'"
That's entirely right -- no almost about it! I need to direct my Korean students to this explanation of how to use the word, for they almost invariably use it to mean "all." That doesn't happen with native speakers, of course, who know better. Not that they are so much better about using it with style, for in defense of my freshman composition professor, who was an excellent writer, "almost" is too often poorly used. Strunk and White would have had their reasons:
But then there are writers who with an "almost," or a "presque" in French, can suddenly illuminate a reader's universe. "She asked herself why she had done something so perilous, and she concluded that she had embarked on it almost without thinking."
Try that latter sentence without "almost" and hear how much is lost. Almost everything.

And this line wouldn't work at all . . . if not for "almost."


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

An Assistant Attorney General Who Can't Clearly Affirm Free Speech? [But See Update]

Thomas Perez
Assistant Attorney General

See Update At Botttom!

Thomas Perez, the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, seems unwilling to clearly affirm the First Amendment to the US Constitution in a video from a Constitution Subcommittee hearing back in July, for he wouldn't give a direct answer to a clear question posed by Congressman Trent Franks:
Will you tell us here today simply that this Administration's Department of Justice will never entertain or advance a proposal that criminalizes speech against any religion?
When Perez hesitated, Franks pointed out:
That's not a hard question.
Perez responded by declaring:
Well, actually, it is a hard question.
No, Mr. Perez, it's not a hard question, unless you're unclear about the concept of free speech or have some infringing agenda, such as treating criticism of Islam as racist hate speech and thereby agreeing with views such as those alleged to have been expressed by Professor Sahar F. Aziz, member of the Muslim advocacy group the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, who apparently argues:
[The State Department's] civil rights lawyers are top of the line -- I say this with utter honesty -- I know they can come up with a way [to redefine criticism as discrimination . . . . The word] Muslim . . . has become racialized . . . . I don't accept this formalistic cop-out that this is all about religion.
If this is truly what Aziz stated (and those brackets and ellipses do raise doubts), then I infer -- based on this quote and the rest of the what I've read about that meeting -- that she perhaps wishes to restrict criticism of Islam by redefining such criticism as discriminatory hate speech against a race. I note that she has published an article titled "Sticks and Stones, Words That Hurt: Entrenched Stereotypes Eight Years After 9/11" in the New York City Law Review (Fall 2010), a student-run publication of CUNY School of Law, and though I've not yet located a copy online to review, the wording of this title sounds consistent with restrictive views on free expression. Should this actually be the case, I would really like to know Perez's view on this issue, specifically upon Aziz's reported remarks, for he attended the summit on October 19, 2011 at George Washington University where Aziz purportedly stated this view, or so says Neil Munro in "Progressives, Islamists huddle at Justice Department" (The Daily Caller, October 21, 2011). I haven't found the transcript to this meeting, just an official pdf report by the Justice Department, so I can't confirm Mr. Munro's news report, and I am concerned that the title has the meeting at the State Department, whereas the article has it at George Washington University, a discrepancy that leaves me not entirely certain of this source (and Munro is known to be a staunch Republican partisan). Does anyone have a link to the transcript with Aziz's full words?

Anyway, whatever the case with Aziz's views on free expression, I'm very familiar with the tendency of some people to play the race card when race is far from the issue, and readers may recall my report on this some days ago, for I quoted an interlocutor who tried to make some of my remarks into racist ones:
You are being disingenuous with this example [female genital mutilation (FGM)]. You know full well that the most strident opposition against multiculturalism is not about criticizing the multiculturalists' alleged complicity to FGM. No, it is about immigration and the desire to exclude darker-skinned people from entering the country . . . . [L]et us not pretend as if THAT [opposition to FGM] is the problem that the opponents of multiculturalism are concerned about. If you are allowed to criticize multiculturalism because some crazies appropriate its good name, I can just as easily put you in the same category as the dyed-in-the-wool racists who clamor for higher walls along the border.
See how quickly one can be branded a racist for raising critical questions about such politically sensitive issues as multiculturalism or Islam? The aim of such re-branding is to shut down free speech, either by attempting to shame the supposed racist into silence or by outlawing the supposed racist statements as discriminatory.

My advice: Recognize this rhetorical trick, remain unintimidated, and defend free speech.

UPDATE: Michael Totten has an update in which Perez clarifies his position later in the same session:
Representative Jerry Nadler: I assume the department would make a commitment that you’re not going to offer a proposal to criminalize protected speech, to criminalize criticism of religion or of anybody else, other than in the context of a direct threat.

Perez: Right. We will do this work, as we always have, in a way that is consistent with the Constitution.

Nadler: Which means you cannot criminalize, uh…

Perez: Hate speech.

Nadler: Hate speech.

Perez: Correct.
I'm now wondering why Franks posted his interaction with Perez as if it were Perez's last word on the subject. Perhaps Franks was unaware, but there might be more to this than mere sloppiness . . .

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Monday, September 17, 2012

Professor Walter A. McDougall's Burkean Conservatism

Professor Walter A. McDougall
Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations
University of Pennsylvania
Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute

I've not blogged on my old history professor Walter McDougall in a long while, partly because he's been so publicly quiet, so silent working on his next book that he only recently broke his silence to present a paper titled "Nightmares of an I.R. Professor" in which he relates the following anecdote:
[E]arly in 2012 a young specialist on the Middle East posted a blog about NATO air strikes in defense of the popular revolt in Libya against Muammar Qaddafi. The White House, eager to reassure Americans that the operation was not the prelude to another costly war and nation-building project in the Muslim world, called the President's posture "leading from behind." The blogger wondered whether this modest, multilateral, and limited-liability intervention might signal a full-fledged Obama Doctrine that repealed the proud, unilateral, and rhetorically limitless (George W.) Bush Doctrine. He then recalled a "fabulous book" titled Promised Land, Crusader State, which seemed newly relevant in the wake of the Iraqi and Afghan wars, and wondered "what would Walter McDougall think?"

That query was disconcerting since the "would" made it sound like McDougall was already dead.
That young blogger might not have known, but I knew McDougall wasn't dead, else I'd already have heard about his demise. I did wonder, however, what he thinks about the recent events in Libya, given that he's a Burkean conservative skeptical about intervening in the political affairs of foreign countries, which didn't make him popular with Neoconservatives even before 9/11:
My own new status as a pariah became painfully obvious in Spring 1999 when I addressed The Philadelphia Society on the subject "The Crusader State in the 21st Century." Joking that they asked me to speak about something I hoped would not exist in an era that had not yet begun, I used the occasion to draw spooky parallels between contemporary American interventionists and Medieval popes! Both could make geopolitical arguments on their behalf: the Crusades, after all, were a long-delayed counteroffensive against Arab jihads. But both promoted forms of "assertive multilateralism" on behalf of "regime change" in hopes of solidifying and sanctifying their home fronts while forcibly exporting their civilization. But pious intentions did not prevent the crusading knights from wreaking death, destruction, and havoc at ruinous cost, including collateral massacres of non-combatant Muslims, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Worse still, the Crusades became a self-perpetuating, transnational, political-economic system justified by "the revolutionary idea that Christendom had an intrinsic right to extend its sovereignty over all who did not recognize the rule of the Roman Church." With high irony I suggested the audience substitute America for Church and Democracy for Christianity to imagine how our modern crusaders could spawn perpetual war for perpetual peace -- like Oceania in George Orwell's 1984 -- and exhaust their own countries in the process. Much of the audience gave my talk a standing ovation, but an angry minority did not. Some were devout Catholics who took offense that I would liken Urban II to the sleazy Clinton! The rest appeared to be earnest young Straussians in whose neoconservative Weltanschauung my Burkean conservatism was heresy.
From these words, one might expect that McDougall will have opposed even leading from behind, and perhaps he did oppose it, though I do not know this for a fact. Also, since he says nothing of the recent events in Libya, including the murder of Ambassador Stevens, then I suspect that his recent talk took place before all of these unsettling developments. Perhaps he would say what he said after his reference to the "butcher's bill" the US has had to pay for its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq:
By now you can guess "what McDougall would think."

McDougall is thinking, "I told you so!"
I imagine that's more or less what he's also thinking about Libya, even if we have been "leading from behind."

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Secretary of State Clinton on Religion and Peace

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had some words to say about religious violence, particularly focused upon the recent murder of Ambassador Stevens in Libya at the hands of Islamist extremists supposedly incited by a crude trailer for an anti-Islam film that ridicules Muhammad:
Religious freedom and religious tolerance are essential to the stability of any nation, any people. Hatred and violence in the name of religion only poison the well. All people of faith and good will know that the actions of a small and savage group in [the Libyan city of] Benghazi do not honor religion or God in any way. Nor do they speak for the more than one billion Muslims around the world, many of whom have shown an outpouring of support during this time.

Unfortunately, however, over the last 24 hours, we have also seen violence spread elsewhere. Some seek to justify this behavior as a response to inflammatory, despicable material posted on the internet. As I said earlier today, the United States rejects both the content and the message of that video. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. At our meeting earlier today, my colleague, the foreign minister of Morocco, said that all prophets should be respected because they are all symbols of our humanity, for all humanity.

But both of us were crystal clear in this paramount message: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind. And we look to leaders around the world to stand up and speak out against violence, and to take steps to protect diplomatic missions from attack.

Think about it. When Christians are subject to insults to their faith, and that certainly happens, we expect them not to resort to violence. When Hindus or Buddhists are subjected to insults to their faiths, and that also certainly happens, we expect them not to resort to violence. The same goes for all faiths, including Islam.

When all of us who are people of faith -- and I am one -- feel the pain of insults, of misunderstanding, of denigration to what we cherish, we must expect ourselves and others not to resort to violence. That is a universal standard and expectation, and it is everyone's obligation to meet that, so that we make no differences, we expect no less of ourselves than we expect of others. You cannot respond to offensive speech with violence without begetting more violence.
I like most of this, though I don't think that the US government should take an official position for or against the content of the free speech of individuals who express their opinion on religious issues. The State Department has to be diplomatic, of course, but rather than say, "the United States rejects both the content and the message of that video," Clinton could have said, "the United States does not support the content or the message of that video." Similarly, instead of saying, "The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others," Clinton could have said, "The United States does not support any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others." This might seem a minor point, but in withholding support, the US government would not be taking the side of a religion, and I believe this is more consistent with the separation of church and state. Besides, some religious beliefs ought to be denigrated and criticized, and the US government ought not to oppose such anti-religious statements. A diplomatically worded sentence can always be constructed to soothe feelings without the US government taking an official position favoring some religion or other.

The most crucial point raised is Clinton's remark that the "small and savage group . . . [that murdered the ambassador does not] speak for the more than one billion Muslims around the world." Undoubtedly, this is correct, for we have seen some Libyan Muslims protest against the murder of Ambassador Stevens, but two questions remain: 1) how many Muslims does the "small and savage" Islamist group speak for, and 2) to what extent does the "small and savage" Islamist group speak for Islam?

In this respect, Clinton's comparison of Islam to other religions is apt. When the sacred symbols of these other religions are ridiculed, these religions don't seem to react with such widespread violence. After the recent violent demonstrations by Muslims around the world, the satirical folk who work for The Onion published a crude cartoon depicting NOT MUHAMMAD, but Moses, Jesus, the Buddha, and and a Hindu deity engaged in a sexual orgy, and none of the religions that hold these figures central to their faith incited believers to violence.

Is Islam different, more prone to violence?

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Souren Melikian on PC Kitsch . . .

(Late 19th Century Kitsch)
Antonio Frilli
Photo from Southby's

Souren Melikian, in "The Impoverished Connoisseurs" (NYT, September 12, 2012), offers an intriguing observation:
In the museum world, the academic approach now prevails over visual appreciation. This in turn has helped spread the political correctness that would have us believe that all art deserves equal consideration. It has revolutionized the scale of values and sent soaring sky-high the prices of works once dismissed as derivative or kitsch. In the Sotheby's July sale, a marble group of "The Three Graces Crowning Venus" carved by Antonio Frilli in the late 19th century brought £109,250, less than hoped for, but a stupendous price for an interpretation of a model conceived decades earlier by Antonio Canova.
Melikian argues that collectors had more taste and judgment back in the fifties and early sixties, before big money and an absence of standards came to dominate the art scene, and he concludes on a pessimistic note:
With the transformation of art buying into a money-churning mill, and its consequences, an essential part of the Western living culture has been lost.
I haven't included all the details of Melikian's critique, but it's rather persuasive, though he says too little about the role of academic critics. While there are exceptions, many academics refuse to judge, possibly for fear of being attacked as "judgmental"! We therefore get kitsch promoted as art. Rather than offer judgment, academic critics speak of 'influence' because they can always trace that and defend it by comparing two visible artworks, whereas aesthetic values are invisible.

This is the postmodern Western world of political correctness, a type of relativism that pervades everything, insists on 'multicultural' tolerance, and refuses to render judgment.

Incidentally, I see only two Graces crowning Venus . . .

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Friday, September 14, 2012

Richard Artschwager: Organ of Cause and Effect III

Organ of Cause and Effect III (1986)
Richard Artschwager

I keep wanting to call this work "Origin of Cause and Effect," though not intentionally, merely some sort of Freudian slip on my part, I assume. Still, there's humor, playfulness, in Artschwager's art, so perhaps he intended some pun or other, and the word "organ" certainly lends itself to punning in ways mentionable and unmentionable.

This piece is in the Whitney Museum. I found it while trying to see what would be shown in the upcoming Artschwager Exhibition. Those images aren't generally available yet, but this piece is in the permanent collection.

Curious as to what critics have said about this artwork, I found Vivien Raynor's NYT article, "ART; 31 Artists Take a Decade's Measure" (January 21, 1990), a report on "The 80's in Review" exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art:
There is no missing the show's piece de resistance. Richard Artschwager's sculpture "Organ of Cause and Effect III" is an organ in all respects save the ability to produce sound and, hanging opposite the entrance, it hits the visitor first thing. The 11-foot-high piece is made of formica and wood, and it consists of five cream-colored pipes, each of which has a brown vent at the bottom. The artist may be taking liberties by placing a shelf, also cream, that supports three brown house-like objects, below the pipes, and setting the keyboard below that. Splendid in its hideousness and well-made to boot, the work seems to say that cleanliness is next to emptiness rather than godliness.

Mr. Artschwager's work implies an acceptance of life as it is . . .
That's mostly rather descriptive -- though unlike Raynor, I think the cream-colored shelf with the three brown objects is the keyboard, the lower portion more likely the foot pedals -- but the passage does offer a couple of interpretive remarks at the end, namely, that "cleanliness is next to emptiness rather than godliness . . . [in] an acceptance of life as it is." Perhaps Raynor takes the organ's silence (of which she does not speak) as indicative of a godless universe, but I'm not persuaded that this implies accepting life as it is. Artschwager's art evinces a playful irony -- or perhaps an ironic playfulness? -- that warps Platonic concepts and in doing so recreates the world according to other forms. That would also seem to bring a creator 'god' back into the world, or a quasi-Platonic demiurge, at least. Artschwager is having fun, but irony can be a moral stance redirecting one's gaze to what ought to be by distancing one critically from what is. The silence of this organ, anyway, makes a deep impression, for it's emphatically remarked upon by Michael Kilian, writing "Formica Seldom Is So Profound" two years earlier for the Chicago Tribune (February 25, 1988):
Stand before the Formica and acrylic on wood two-dimensional pyramid of pipes of his 1986 "Organ of Cause and Effect III." Hear the silence. See the silence.
There's an austere silence about much of Artschwager's sculptures, but the silence is more notable coming from this organ. Is it really silent, though? It plays strains of cause and effect, I infer, or so the title implies.

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Artschwager's Door)


Yesterday, I wrote on my encounter with Richard Artschwager's art, and I described a door with a brace. After posting my blog entry, I wondered what had become of that odd door, so I typed "Artschwager" into Google's search engine, and before I even had time to click "Enter," the above image appeared, almost as though it had been waiting for me to knock! Even more uncanny, the photo was taken at the very exhibition that I visited, there in the Berkeley Art Museum, way back in 1984! Here's what the Constance Lewallen wrote about this door in the museum's Matrix 71 brochure for the Artschwager exhibition (March 15, 1984 - May 15, 1984):
Richard Artschwager once said, "I am making objects for non-use . . . by killing off the use part, non-use aspects are allowed living space, breathing space." Door), the new wall sculpture by Artschwager that is the focus of the current MATRIX exhibition, consists of what appears to be a full-scale wood door and frame placed against the gallery wall and an adjacent brace-shaped wood relief sculpture that is nearly the same height. Although all of Artschwager's objects either reproduce architectural elements (doors, windows) or resemble furniture (tables, chairs), they are always altered in form and context. Although outfitted with an elegant blown-glass knob, the door is decidedly non-functional -- it can never be opened. In addition, the door is oddly proportioned (too wide for its height), and the exaggeratedly large painted-on wood grain pattern looks blatantly artificial. Artschwager calls this process of alteration "warping." By covering a wood surface with an imitation of wood (in paint or, in other works, with a veneer of wood-grain patterned Formica), he is, as he put it in a recent conversation, "painting what is already there in the place where it is." Artschwager in this way investigates the distinction between a real door and the falsification of a door, or between "real-life" and the art object.
The words "warping" and "falsification" link with what the artist's daughter, Eva, told me about her father's highly intellectualized experimental approach to conceptual art, and I'm inferring that he warps and falsifies his artworks "to see how far an object can be distorted, yet retain its identity," as Eva expressed it.

But I wonder about the spelling, for the text above writes "Door)," while the photo has "Dorr)." Perhaps the latter is more appropriate, for it warps the spelling toward the limits of conceptuability.

Yet . . . why not "Dorr}"? Or at least "Door}"?

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Berkeley Memories of Artschwager . . .

Richard Artschwager (2009)

Actually, Richard Artschwager isn't the one I principally mean, but rather his daughter, Eva, a friend of mine while I was pursuing my doctorate at Berkeley. She was an undergrad in history of science, which I was initially studying as a grad student, and that brought us together as friends.

I hadn't known her so long when, over a coffee, I happened to ask, "Eva, what does your father do?"

"He's a painter," she replied.

I thought for a moment, then asked, "A house painter?"

She gave me a searching look, and I realized I had made a slight misstep. "A real painter, you mean?"

She nodded.

I thought another moment, then asked, "Is he good?"

"They don't know," she admitted, but that very manner of admission clued me in that he must be important.

"What sort of style?" I inquired.

"He's into conceptual art these days."

"What's that?"

"It's sort of Platonic," she explained. "He also does sculptures, and he might sculpt a pyramid but stretch it to the very limits of its Platonic form. He wants to see how far an object can be distorted, yet retain its identity."

"Oh," I said, not knowing what else to say, and we talked of other things. Some time later, Eva moved away, off to the East Coast for her own graduate studies, and one day, I noticed that Richard Artschwager was giving a talk at an exhibition of his art in the University Museum, so I went. He was about 25 years younger than in the picture above and looked remarkably like Eva, though taller. The talk he gave was centered on a work that stood before us: a door, framed on one side by a single brace -- I mean a 'grammatical' or 'mathematical' brace. It has stuck in my mind because during the question-and-answer period, someone asked if he had noticed that the brace could look like a moustache if placed horizontally, so he rearranged his artwork there before us, hanging the 'moustache' to the doorknob, thereby changing the concept of his work entirely. I think he managed to go beyond the limits of its Platonic form . . .

I thought of all this the other day because I read a reference to Richard Artschwager in Newsweek, specifically, in an article by Blake Gopnik, "Warhol, Picasso? Yawn" (September 3, 2012), that praised the Whitney Museum for exhibiting not just the famous, big-name artists:
The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York is one of the few major players that rarely puts big names on its schedule: its main fall show is about the underrated pop artist Richard Artschwager.
That sent me to the Whitney website, where I found these words:
Richard Artschwager's first solo exhibition was in 1965 at the age of forty-two at Leo Castelli Gallery. Since then his work has been shown throughout the world, and his enigmatic and diverse oeuvre has been influential, yet not thoroughly understood. This exhibition is a comprehensive review of Artschwager's remarkable creative exploration of the mediums of sculpture, painting, and drawing and the first retrospective exhibition of Artschwager's work since one organized at the Whitney in 1988.
I see that they now know he's good -- and that's good to know now -- though I wonder what became of Eva and what she's doing. I promised to keep in touch, but I had some rather chaotic years after 1984, so I lost contact . . .

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sara Low: Perished in First Plane to Strike WTC on 9/11

Alyson Low Mourns Sister in 2010

This year is 2012, and for six years now, since 2006, I've annually set aside September 11th to commemorate Sara Low, a flight attendant from Batesville, Arkansas who died on the first airliner to crash into the World Trade Center. I do this each year because my brother Tim knew her and her family when he worked for several years in a Batesville hospital where Sara's father had an administrative position. I never knew Sara myself, so I always rely upon the words of others who did know her, and this time, I found some words from 2010 by a woman who calls herself "Mrs. Nix" on her blog and who was two years younger than Sara when they both attended school in Batesville:
I read the timelines and remember the events of that morning on purpose every September 11th. After I do that, I try to remember everything I ever knew about Sara Low. She was two years older than me. My stepbrother had a crush on her his freshman year of high school. She was beautiful. She was so, SO kind. She had striking eyes that were sharp and almond shaped. She smiled a lot. I'm pretty sure she was in the band because I remember her in the marching band uniform. I think she played the flute. I'm not sure . . . it was a long time ago. She ran track (so did my brother) and she was a cheerleader and she was an honor student. That's all I can remember because we were children the last time I saw her . . . but I feel like the least I can do for her is remember her.

The reports online say that she was not originally scheduled to work on flight 11. After the hijacking began, she tried to call her parents, but she dialed the phone number they had when she was growing up instead of the current number. She didn't reach them that morning, but she gave one of the other flight attendants her calling card. The card was used to place five calls out with warnings before it was over. The report said Sara's father speculates that maybe because of the stress and fear . . . her childhood phone number was the only one she could remember. Every time I think about that, it makes my stomach knot. She was too good -- in every way too good -- to suffer that kind of fear. I hope she wasn't scared for a long time, and I hope someone was holding her hand.
Every September 11th, those of us connected by some memory of Sara Low are bonded by brief memorials to her. Strangers searching the web for memories of Sara sometimes find my memorial and compose a message. My brother Tim usually stops here to remember the girl he knew. I expect to hear from "Toddler," who drops by every year on this date to think of Sara, and I in turn visit him, though we never knew each other personally and have only this connection. I've promised to buy him a beer or two if he ever happens to be in Seoul, and I'd like to do that for him since he grew up in Batesville and knew Sara, but I don't know if that'll ever happen.

And I offer thanks to "Mrs. Nix" for her words, which I've borrowed without asking, and hope that she'll be understanding if she happens upon my blog entry for this 9/11 anniversary.

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Monday, September 10, 2012

Message from a childhood friend . . .

County Courthouse
Salem, Arkansas
Google Images

A couple of days ago, I received an email from a childhood friend, a next-door-neighbor girl who made mudpies for me 50 years ago and now organizes class reunions. With our fortieth high school reunion coming up in 2015, she probably wanted to keep in touch and remind me of my Ozark home:
How are things going in your world? It has been a hot, hot dry summer here. Everyone is ready for a change.

Life just seems to get busier. We started AWANAS up again about 3 weeks ago. We had about 170 little kids and 50+ youth. I am on the cooking committee and have been trying to have enough food for 200 kids. Some Wednesdays I am not sure that we will be done in time. It is a mad rush. There are a lot of different people living in Salem than we grew up. Many people I do not know and I live here. You would probably be lost for sure.

I don't know if you keep up with US national news. We are knee deep in politics, no make that neck deep. According to TV, both men are evil or great depending on which ad you catch. Even local and state elections have so much negative campaigning that you don't want to vote for anyone.

How is life there? I always had the idea that Korea was a tropical nation. But Dad was stationed there during the Korean war. He said the first night he got there it was freezing cold and they slept in tents. So much for tropical. How are the kids and the wife? Does the school year work there like it does here?

I am curious. How many languages do you know now? Do you have TV like we have TV? What is the biggest difference in living in another country? I have been to several of the European countries. But visiting there and living there I know would be different. It is just hard for me to see the little boy that I grew up with in a "foreign" country. I would never have guessed. But maybe deep down you always knew.

Well, I guess that's enough questions for one day. Hope to talk to you soon.
I was happy to receive her email and know that I've not been forgotten, which is thoughtful, given that I failed to recognize her on two different visits home over the past few years -- my declining eyesight, perhaps, or more likely my declining brain. Maybe my failure to recognize her the second time explains why I've not been forgotten. My friend has remained in our hometown of Salem, Arkansas, working in the local bank and becoming far more successful than I have been or ever will be. She always was more practical than I am. Fortunately, my hometown friends imagine that I'm eminently successful because I'm living and working overseas, so I nod my head when they speak of my career, and I intone, "Yes, I'm imminently successful." So far, nobody's caught on. Anyway, here was my reply:
Thank you for a thoughtful email.

The weather here is changeable, not so hot as in the Ozarks, and we recently had two hurricanes, sort of. By the time they reached our area, they were merely tropical storms. Don't let that mislead you back into thinking Korea is tropical. Your father is right -- the place gets cold in winter. I didn't realize he was in the Korean War. From living here and learning how terrible that conflict was, I have a lot of respect for the men who fought here.

I've also learned -- as I grow older and less self-centered -- that women are generally better at organizing things than men are, so I'm not surprised that you can arrange to feed 200 kids every Wednesday!

I'm sure I would be lost in Salem since I can't even recognize people I already know. Some mornings, I barely recognize the guy in the mirror. I'm thinking about taping my name there to jolt my memory. I should also add, "This is the problem." Meaning myself, of course.

I have been keeping up with the election, and I agree with both sides -- when they describe the other side. I agree with the Democrats when they tell me that Mitt Romney doesn't understand people too poor to afford a dog rack atop their car. And the Republicans are right when they say Barack Hussein Obama lacks the experience to be president. Oh, wait, that was four years ago. Scratch that. But they still claim he has a strange name . . . it sounds 'Muslim', and Islam is a religion nearly as foreign as Mormonism! So . . . there's a lot to think about . . .

I like Korea. I even like Seoul, where we live -- it's the first real city I've lived in. The subways and buses are very convenient, also cheap. My wife handles the practical things of life. I bring in the paycheck, or most of it. She also works, as a freelance translator. That means editing work for me. The kids go to Korean schools and are bilingual, but better in Korean. The school year starts in March, which I haven't gotten used to yet.

On languages, I really know only English. My German is fair, but I'm bad at the grammar. I've not learned Korean -- too hard. I've studied Greek, Hebrew, and Coptic for research, but I'm not good.

We do have TV. In fact, Korea exports a lot of television sets -- you've doubtless heard of Samsung. They're sort of like Apple . . . except that Apple doesn't make TVs.

The biggest difference is the language. That's a real barrier in a foreign country. Culture is next. Here in Korea, Confucianism is strong and influences everyone to think in terms of relative status, so there's a constant need to figure out who's more important than whom in the social hierarchy. Even kids try to impose their will on each other depending on who's the elder.

When I was a little boy, I didn't think about foreign countries, but as a teenager, I knew that I wanted to see the world. So, I guess I knew, deep down, at some point. I've now seen enough of the world to know that there's a lot of the world I'd prefer not to see.

What countries have you visited? What does your husband do? What are your children doing?

I'd better get back to work . . .
I've not yet heard a reply, but my friend is clearly a very busy lady -- probably already preparing hot dogs for 200 kids!

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