Thursday, September 20, 2018

Treating Concussions in Children

The CDC has just issued draft guidelines for treating concussions in children. Their first conclusion is that we should call them "mild traumatic brain injuries", mTBI, because too many people blow off a "concussion" as no big deal and they want people to take them seriously.

On the other hand they do not want people to take them too seriously. One of their recommendations is that most children should not receive CT scans, because that is so scary that the psychological danger is greater than the chance that something of medical importance will be learned. They dismiss MRIs altogether as not useful, and say the radiation damage from x-rays is also worse than any potential gain. Instead physicians should work from the usual template for assessing neurological trauma, examining pupil contraction, asking questions, observing neuromotor problems, and only if that examination suggests severe damage should more tests be ordered.

They also recommend against leaving children for too long in a darkened room. While the basic treatment for mild head injuries is "rest," and they advise a gradual return to a full schedule of activity, too much rest, especially in isolation, makes children anxious and depressed.

I don't really know anything about this type of medicine, but I am very glad to see the experts taking seriously the potential harm of treating children like something terrible has happened to them.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Jason Stanley on Fascist Rhetoric

Sean Illing of Vox interviewed Yale philosopher Jason Stanley about his new book on Fascism:
Sean Illing
Your specialty is propaganda and rhetoric, and in the book you describe fascism as a collection of tropes and narratives. So what, exactly, is the story fascists are spinning?

Jason Stanley
In the past, fascist politics would focus on the dominant cultural group. The goal is to make them feel like victims, to make them feel like they’ve lost something and that the thing they’ve lost has been taken from them by a specific enemy, usually some minority out-group or some opposing nation.

This is why fascism flourishes in moments of great anxiety, because you can connect that anxiety with fake loss. The story is typically that a once-great society has been destroyed by liberalism or feminism or cultural Marxism or whatever, and you make the dominant group feel angry and resentful about the loss of their status and power. Almost every manifestation of fascism mirrors this general narrative. . . .

Sean Illing
There’s a great line from the philosopher Hannah Arendt, I think in her book about totalitarianism, where she says that fascists are never content to merely lie; they must transform their lie into a new reality, and they must persuade people to believe in the unreality they’ve created. And if you get people to do that, you can convince them to do anything.

Jason Stanley
I think that’s right. Part of what fascist politics does is get people to disassociate from reality. You get them to sign on to this fantasy version of reality, usually a nationalist narrative about the decline of the country and the need for a strong leader to return it to greatness, and from then on their anchor isn’t the world around them — it’s the leader.

Sean Illing
This is partly why I think of fascism as a kind of anti-politics. I remember reading a quote from Joseph Goebbels, who was the chief propagandist for the Nazis, and he said that what he was doing was more like art than politics. By which he meant their task was to create an alternative mythical reality for Germans that was more exciting and purposeful than the humdrum reality of liberal democratic politics, and that’s why mass media was so essential the rise of Nazism.

Jason Stanley
That’s so interesting. The thing is, people willingly adopt the mythical past. Fascists are always telling a story about a glorious past that’s been lost, and they tap into this nostalgia. So when you fight back against fascism, you’ve got one hand tied behind your back, because the truth is messy and complex and the mythical story is always clear and compelling and entertaining. It’s hard to undercut that with facts.
I think this is interesting but I would say that it misses something big about Fascism: the fascists' love of strong emotion and distrust of cool reason. Fascists especially seem to love dark emotions like hate, anger, and cruelty. Much of Fascism is shot through with sado-masochistic sexuality. Fascists have also tended to love "action" and dismiss reflection; the thing is to act, preferably with speed and violence. So to me it is not just that Fascists focus on enemies of "the people", it's the deliberately cruel, sneering way that they do it; it's not just that they are creating an alternative reality, it's that the alternative reality they create is one that celebrates kicking people in the face.

Russians and Koreans Cooperating to Bring Back Mammoths

In Siberia, they are charged up about mammoths. At Pleistocene Park, a team led by Russian geophysicist Sergei Zimov is experimenting with bringing back the environment where the mammoths lived, the grasslands of the "mammoth steppe." Right now they are working with reindeer and musk ox but they would love to have actual mammoths.

At least three teams of geneticists are working on bringing those mammoths back, in South Korea, Japan, and at Harvard. Now the Russians have announced their own paleogenetics institute:
The 400 million rouble paleo-genetic scientific centre will aim to study extinct animals from living cells - and to restore such creatures as the woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, cave lion and breeds of long-gone horses.

The proposal will be presented by the Northern-Eastern Federal University (NEFU) in Yakutsk, which is already deeply involved in collaborative cloning work with scientists in South Korea.

Acting rector Evgenia Mikhailova plans a ‘world-class paleo-genetic scientific centre’ and support has been promised by the regional government of Sakha repubic, also known as Yakutia, say reports.
The Russians say they are actively cooperating with the Koreans I just mentioned, and expect a Korean investment in their institute.

Vladimir Putin is a big promoter of these efforts. When he visits the labs he talks them up as examples of Russian high tech and his efforts to bring in Asian investment. But I bet he is secretly thrilled about having mammoths and cave bears in Russia again.

Cloning mammoths has turned out to be a harder problem than many people thought; I blogged back in 2011 about a Japanese effort that promised a cloned mammoth within five years. But our skill at molecular genetics keeps leapfrogging forward, and as I regularly tell my children I expect we will have living mammoths within their lifetimes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Carina Nebula

From the European Southern Observatory.

An Interesting Republican Poll Leaked to the Press

Joshua Green of Businessweek has obtained in internal Republican poll that questions voters about the upcoming Congressional race. It finds that Trump's core supporters remain highly committed to him. However, they are not especially motivated to vote because more than half don't believe the Democrats can win:
According to the RNC study, completed on Sept. 2 by the polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, most voters believe Democrats will win back the House—just not Republican voters. Fully half of self-identified Republicans don’t believe Democrats are likely to win back the House. And within that group, 57 percent of people who describe themselves as strong Trump supporters don’t believe Democrats have a chance (37 percent believe they do).
And why do they think that? Because Trump tells them so. At every rally he insists that the country loves Republicans and they will probably increase their majority, not lose it:
The internal RNC study finds that complacency among GOP voters is tied directly to their trust in the president—and their distrust of traditional polling. “While a significant part of that lack of intensity is undoubtedly due to these voters’ sentiments toward the President, it may also be partly because they don’t believe there is anything at stake in this election,” the authors write. “Put simply, they don’t believe that Democrats will win the House. (Why should they believe the same prognosticators who told them that Hillary was going to be elected President?)”
With Trump's strongest supporters not especially motivated to show up,
GOP fortunes will hinge on the party’s ability to activate “soft” supporters: “Those voters who ‘somewhat approve’ of Trump and those who support the President’s policies but not his leadership style are the ones posing a challenge to the party.” Motivating these voters could be tricky. One hurdle is Trump’s chaotic style, which shows no sign of changing. Another is that the issues soft Republicans care about most are ones involving government spending and are typically associated with Democrats. The survey found that increasing funding for veterans’ mental health services, strengthening and preserving Medicare and Social Security, and reforming the student loan system all scored higher than Trump’s favored subjects of tax cuts, border security, and preserving the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

“Special attention should be paid to the messaging regarding Social Security and Medicare,” the study notes. “[T]he challenge for GOP candidates is that most voters believe that the GOP wants to cut back on these programs in order to provide tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy.”
Gee, I wonder what would have given them that idea?

This sort of polling explains why even Ted Cruz has stopped talking about tax cuts. The people who favor them are already in the Republican column, and the rest of us are dubious.

Muscle-Bound Inequality

As one suspected:
Animal models of conflict behavior predict that an organism's behavior in a conflict situation is influenced by physical characteristics related to abilities to impose costs on adversaries. Stronger and larger organisms should be more motivated to seek larger shares of resources and higher places in hierarchies. Previous studies of human males have suggested that measures of upper‐body strength are associated with measures of support for inequality including Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), a measure of individual differences in support for group‐based hierarchies. However, other studies have failed to replicate this association. In this article, we reexamine the link between upper‐body strength and support for inequality using 12 different samples from multiple countries in which relevant measures were available. These samples include student and locally representative samples with direct measures of physical strength and nationally representative samples with self‐reported measures related to muscularity. While the predicted correlation does not replicate for every single available measure of support for inequality, the overall data pattern strongly suggests that for males, but not females, upper‐body strength correlates positively with support for inequality.
So far as I can tell, the effect is real but not very big.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Today's Place to Daydream about: Carcassonne

Today my imagination takes me to Carcassonne, most striking and famous of medieval cities. True, it has become one of those places where the 2 million tourists a year vastly outnumber the 50,000 inhabitants, so visit in the winter if you can; some who brave the summer crowds say the experience "has all the charm of a medieval siege." Still, this glorious vision haunts the dreams of medievalists. Some things are so wonderful that even the modern hordes cannot ruin them, and this is one.

The town is ancient, occupied since the Neolithic and receiving its first stone walls around 500 BC. It was a significant place in Roman times, and one can't dig inside the walls without turning up Roman artifacts or foundations. It the chaos of the late 200s AD, when barbarians rampaged through the empire, a massive new wall was built. That wall approximates the course of the current inner wall, which incorporates a large amount of Roman masonry.

The town has an amazingly rich history. In the fifth century it was taken by the Visigoths and incorporated into their kingdom. In 508 it was besieged by Clovis, the great Frankish king, but he failed to take it. Muslims fresh from overrunning Spain did take it in 728, and then Pepin the Short (Charlemagne's father) took it back for Christendom in 752.

In the 12th century the town was one of the centers of the rising culture of southern France, and the viscounts were great patrons of the troubadours. They also protected the Cathars, the anti-clerical heretics who caused so much trouble and ended up so important in the history of southern France. After the Pope declared an anti-Cathar crusade in 1208, Carcassonne was attacked by a northern French army led by Simon de Montfort. In August, 1209 the town surrendered after a siege of just two weeks. All those suspected of having supported the Cathars had to leave (above, in a 13th-century illustration).

For a few years de Montfort held the town himself, but it was eventually transferred to the crown of France. Under St. Louis the French embarked on a great building campaign in the town, repairing the old walls, replacing several towers, adding the second, exterior wall and constructing new gates (above). But all was not well under royal rule in Carcassonne. In 1234 a semi-permanent office of the Inquisition set up shop to enforce orthodoxy, irritating many residents by grilling them about events they thought were safely in the past and jailing a few. Plus the town's economic position had eroded.

In 1240 a revolt broke out, led by the old viscount's son. But St. Louis' men put in down easily. As punishment they expelled all the town's residents (except churchmen) and seized their property. The former residents were allowed to settle in a new, "lower town" outside the walls. This went on to become the new business center of Carcassone, as it still is. (Above, view of the ville basse from the walled town.) The upper town was resettled by outsiders, many from northern France.


Partly in penance, one suspects, the French kings helped support a great program of church building in Carcassonne, the results of which include the Cathédrale Saint Michael (above)


and the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus.

Famous 14th-century Tree of Life window in the basilica.

In 1315 the town was granted a special tax to raise money for a new bridge across the Aude River, which was completed by 1320. The bridge has been extensively repaired but still connects the two halves of the old city. In 1355 the town was attacked by the Black Prince, who failed to take the citadel by a sudden assault and settled for burning the lower town. (Those of you raised on the English tradition that makes the Black Prince a heroic figure might contemplate how he got his nickname.)


The town had another period of economic success in the 15th to 17th centuries, based largely on trading wine and blue dye made from woad. Many of the houses in both the upper and lower towns date to that period.

The Canal du Midi was built between 1666 and 1681, allowing boats to journey from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic through France. It passes by Carcassonne, and these days one can book an excursion of a day or longer to explore the south of France by boat.

The town's defenses were maintained until the 18th century. At some point they were officially declared surplus, and they began to decay; the space between the two walls filled up with houses. After Napoleon's defeat people began actively quarrying the walls for stone and much damage was done. In 1849 the government decreed that the walls should be demolished. But this caused such an outcry that the decree was rescinded, and instead efforts began to restore the city. At this point the man who was to have a bigger impact on the city than anyone since St. Louis enters the story: architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Viollet-le-Duc was one of those nineteenth-century characters whose specialty was taking actual medieval buildings and "restoring" them to look like medieval buildings were supposed to look. He was responsible for adding the lovely pointed slate roofs to Carcassonne's towers, which never had them before. He also added lots of arrow slits and other "medieval" touches.

You have to admit, though, that the result is gorgeous. And when the French government got Carcassonne listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site they specified that part of its historic importance came from the involvement of Viollet-le-Duc in its restoration. Was this, maybe, a preemptive strike against any purists who might want to remove the slate roofs that people like so much? At any rate I find it fascinating that Viollet-le-Duc, who always said that his only goal was the preservation of history, has now become history worth preserving.

In 1907 Carcassone was witness to another important historical event, the "Revolt of the Wine Growers." This was an early example of the French peasant habit of staging dramatic demonstrations against government agricultural or economic policy, which still continues, and it led to the formation of one of the main agricultural leagues. These agitations did induce the government to create policies to help small farmers, which led eventually to the vast system of French and EU subsidies and regulations we have today.

So today I turn my thoughts to Carcassonne, the astonishing survival which so wonderfully evokes the Middle Ages of our imaginations.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Resentment and Right-Wing Populism

Anne Applebaum, an American journalist married to a Polish politician, has a long but very interesting essay in the Atlantic explaining the rise of right-wing populists to power in her adopted country. The supporters of the Law and Justice Party, she writes, have become so estranged from its opponents that friendship or even conversation across party lines has become impossible. Families have broken up; one neighbor told Applebaum, “I’ve lost my mother. She lives in another world.” What, she wonders, has happened to so strongly divide Poles against each other?

Applebaum thinks the new Poland is becoming a one-party state like many others in recent history:
Unlike Marxism, the Leninist one-party state is not a philosophy. It is a mechanism for holding power. It works because it clearly defines who gets to be the elite—the political elite, the cultural elite, the financial elite. In monarchies such as prerevolutionary France and Russia, the right to rule was granted to the aristocracy, which defined itself by rigid codes of breeding and etiquette. In modern Western democracies, the right to rule is granted, at least in theory, by different forms of competition: campaigning and voting, meritocratic tests that determine access to higher education and the civil service, free markets. Old-fashioned social hierarchies are usually part of the mix, but in modern Britain, America, Germany, France, and until recently Poland, we have assumed that competition is the most just and efficient way to distribute power. The best-run businesses should make the most money. The most appealing and competent politicians should rule. The contests between them should take place on an even playing field, to ensure a fair outcome.

Lenin’s one-party state was based on different values. It overthrew the aristocratic order. But it did not put a competitive model in place. The Bolshevik one-party state was not merely undemocratic; it was also anticompetitive and antimeritocratic. Places in universities, civil-service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable. Instead, they went to the most loyal. People advanced because they were willing to conform to the rules of party membership. Though those rules were different at different times, they were consistent in certain ways. They usually excluded the former ruling elite and their children, as well as suspicious ethnic groups. They favored the children of the working class. Above all, they favored people who loudly professed belief in the creed, who attended party meetings, who participated in public displays of enthusiasm. Unlike an ordinary oligarchy, the one-party state allows for upward mobility: True believers can advance. As Hannah Arendt wrote back in the 1940s, the worst kind of one-party state “invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”
But really, why should those who win out in a pseudo-meritocratic system have any right to riches and power? Surely even the most convinced meritocrat will admit that certain horrible personality traits contribute to that sort of success: ruthless ambition, vaunting pride, a willingness to lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead, and so on. What about the rest of us? What about good people who play by the rules; shouldn't we get our chance to rule?
Notably, one of the Law and Justice government’s first acts, in early 2016, was to change the civil-service law, making it easier to fire professionals and hire party hacks. The Polish foreign service also wants to drop its requirement that diplomats know two foreign languages, a bar that was too high for favored candidates to meet. The government fired heads of Polish state companies. Previously, the people in these roles had had at least some government or business experience. Now these jobs are largely filled by Law and Justice Party members, as well as their friends and relatives. Typical is Janina Goss, an old friend of Kaczyński’s from whom the former prime minister once borrowed a large sum of money, apparently to pay for a medical treatment for his mother. Goss, an avid maker of jams and preserves, is now on the board of directors of Polska Grupa Energetyczna, the largest power company in Poland, an employer of 40,000 people.

You can call this sort of thing by many names: nepotism, state capture. But if you so choose, you can also describe it in positive terms: It represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy and competition, principles that, by definition, never benefited the less successful. A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn’t your primary interest, then what’s wrong with it?

If you believe, as my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who deserve to rule—because they loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, because they are loyal to the party leader, or because they are, echoing the words of Kaczyński himself, a “better sort of Pole”—then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?
Damon Linker calls this "the revolt of the losers." The response of many people to their own failure to reach the top in our neo-liberal system is not to work harder, but to believe that the system is rigged against them by nefarious forces. They become so attached to this belief because the only alternative is to think of themselves as losers, and all human experience shows that people will do almost anything rather than accept that.

But it's not like our allegedly meritocratic system doesn't offer plenty to be outraged about. Consider a single case, that of Les Moonves, who was just fired from CBS for sexual harassment but may still walk away with a severance package worth $120 million. Who isn't outraged?

The trap of meritocratic capitalism was recognized a long time ago, but – weirdly to me – its defenders still refuse to see the problem. Most people do not think it is ok that some people get rich while others go hungry. Many people do not think it is ok that slimy bastards get rich while good, hard-working people struggle. The Republican obsession with leveling the playing field so that anyone ambitious enough can get ahead – the “right to rise” – misses the point. The point is the rising, not the secondary question of who gets to do it.

Over the course of the 20th century two different populist solutions have been tried, right and left. The left-wing solution is to declare a revolution, seize the property of the rich and distribute it among the revolutionaries, and if the economy is destroyed in the process, if the result is Camus’ “slave camps in the name of freedom,” then so be it. At least the greedy bastards got what was coming to them. The right-wing solution is to make a fetish of loyalty – to nation, to party, to leader – declare those insufficiently loyal to be enemies of the state, seize their wealth, etc. Neither has worked very well, except as catharsis.

But if you don't want that to happen, then you have to work hard, all the time, to make a free society work for all its members. You have to limit the wealth and power of the successful – ideally they would do this voluntarily, as in the 1950s, but if they refuse, then tax the hell out of them. You have to prove, if necessary by show trials of celebrities for minor infractions (Martha Stewart), that nobody is above the law. You have to give poor people things they value (Medicare expansion, drug treatment for everyone who wants it). Above all, you have to treat the mass of the citizens as worthy human beings.

The current crisis has been created, I believe, by the selfishness of the western elite: by greed, by cultural snobbery, by a refusal to defend our civilization by working to make the world better for everyone, not just themselves.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

English Posy Ring, c 1500

‘VNG.TEMPS.VIANDRA’
'Un temps viendra’ or 'a time will come’

'MON DESIR ME VAILLE’
'My longing keeps me awake’

In the Victoria and Albert

Victor Hugo, Fantastic Castle


More of Hugo's wonderful drawings here. Next time I am in Paris I plan to visit the Maison Victor Hugo to see them.

Asian Immigrants Outpacing Latinos

Brookings:
While Latin Americans, especially Mexicans, played a large role in U.S. immigration gains for the decades leading up to 2010, this is not the case now. Past Latin American domination of foreign-born growth has made an imprint on the total foreign-born population, where 51 percent claim Latin American origins (including 26 percent from Mexico), compared with only 31 percent from Asia. However, among net foreign-born gains that the nation experienced over 2010-2016, fully 58 percent come from Asia, compared with 28 percent from Latin America.

Moreover, while Mexico is still the largest origin nation of the nation’s foreign-born population at 11.5 million, this population sustained a loss of over 135,000 between 2010 and 2016. China, India, and the Philippines, together comprising 53 percent of the Asian origin foreign-born population, gained a net of 1.3 million immigrants over the 2010-2016 period, which accounted for 63 percent of all Asian immigrant growth.

The other noteworthy shift in foreign born demographics is the higher education attainment associated with recent immigrant gains. Again, a comparison between the total foreign-born and 2010-2016 migrant gains is instructive. Among all 2016 foreign-born adults, ages 25 and older, three in ten hold college degrees and 51 percent have no more than a high school diploma. This nearly reverses for 2010-2016 net migrant gains, for which 52 percent hold college degrees and only 29 percent have not proceeded beyond high school (Comparable numbers for the 2016 U.S. native-born population are 32 percent and 37 percent, respectively).
So instead of fighting about the impact of poor immigrants from Mexico – note that the number of Mexican-born people in the US has declined since 2010 – we are now going to fight about the impact of educated immigrants from Asia. You can already see this happening in the admissions brouhaha at Harvard. I mean, who wants to compete against a million children of ambitious Asian immigrants?

One model of how the US will develop over the next twenty years would be that continued inflows of ambitious people from Asia, west Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere will swell the internationalist elite and lead to ever greater success for big American firms in the global economy. Meanwhile native-born white and black Americans may see their share of leadership slots shrink while housing costs in thriving cities rise out of their reach. Their political representatives may shout even louder for better treatment. Look for things like setting aside university slots for working class people or military veterans to be big flash points.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Petras Kalpokas, "The Enchanted City"

1913

Ross Douthat Ponders the Political Future

In both Europe and the US we are seeing a political rebellion against the boring center and a rise of populists on both the left and the right. Many people are saying that this means the center is dead and the future will either be socialist or hard-line nationalist. The thing is, says Ross Douthat, it is not clear that either the right or the left can generate a majority:
The common thread in all of these Western stories is that if you put together all the voters who have given up on the old centrist parties (in Europe) or the old party establishments (in America), you would have the kind of majority upon which political realignments can be made. But because the people rejecting the establishments don’t begin to agree on why or what they want instead, because some of them are voting for Greens or Communists and others for reformed Fascists (or some for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein and others for Trump), the establishment forces can find a way to hang on to power.
Thus in America Trump won the election but old-style Republicans still dominate in Congress and even, if certain op-eds are to be believed, within the White House as well. Among Democrats, Barack Obama is still far and away the most popular leader.
The center is hated, but whether overtly or covertly it finds some ways to hold.
So maybe we will have a long-term shift to either the right or the left, as seems to have happened in eastern Europe with the rise of nationalist parties. But maybe we are just in for more stasis. One version of that status quo might look like this:
There are plenty of historical precedents for a situation in which a system stalemates or stagnates for generations, where revolts and reform programs founder again and again, where a disliked or despised elite holds on to power for a long time against divided and chaotic forms of populism.

In a recent essay for American Affairs, Michael Lind describes a version of this scenario for our era — a possible Western future in which the presently besieged establishment, “with its near-monopoly of wealth, political power, expertise and media influence, completely and successfully represses the numerically greater but politically weaker working-class majority. If that is the case, the future North America and Europe may look a lot like Brazil and Mexico, with nepotistic oligarchies clustered in a few fashionable metropolitan areas but surrounded by a derelict, depopulated, and despised ‘hinterland.’”
I know some of my friends are thinking in that direction: if the people can't be trusted not to vote for buffoonish ideologues, then they need to be marginalized so the elite can get on with running things in a sensible way.

I don't think, though, that such a scenario could unfold in America, at least not any more so than it did over the first half of my life. The American elite is very strongly divided against itself, and the temptation to go demagogue and rally the masses against the other side is too powerful to resist.

I also expect stagnation in American politics rather than some radical shift to the right or the left, but I don't see anything so dramatic as Lind imagines. Just more of the same.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Etruscan Earrings, 525-500 BC


In the Getty.

Barack Obama is Done Holding Back

Obama at the University of Illinois last Friday:
Of course, there’s always been another darker aspect to America’s story. Progress doesn’t just move in a straight line. There’s a reason why progress hasn’t been easy and why throughout our history every two steps forward seems to sometimes produce one step back. Each time we painstakingly pull ourselves closer to our founding ideals, that all of us are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, the ideals that say every child should have opportunity and every man and woman in this country who’s willing to work hard should be able to find a job and support a family and pursue their small peace of the American dream, ideals that say we have a collective responsibility to care for the sick and the and we have a responsibility to conserve the amazing bounty, the natural resources of this country and of this planet for future generations — each time we’ve gotten closer to those ideals, somebody somewhere has pushed back.

The status quo pushes back. Sometimes the backlash comes from people who are genuinely, if wrongly, fearful of change. More often it’s manufactured by the powerful and the privileged who want to keep us divided and keep us angry and keep us cynical because it helps them maintain the status quo and keep their power and keep their privilege. And you happen to be coming of age during one of those moments.

It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause. He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years, a fear and anger that’s rooted in our past but it’s also born out of the enormous upheavals that have taken place in your brief lifetimes. . . .

And even though your generation is the most diverse in history with a greater acceptance and celebration of our differences than ever before, those are the kinds of conditions that are ripe for exploitation by politicians who have no compunction and no shame about tapping into America’s dark history of racial and ethnic and religious division. Appealing to tribe, appealing to fear, pitting one group against another, telling people that order and security will be restored if it weren’t for those who don’t look like us or don’t sound like us or don’t pray like we do, that’s an old playbook. It’s as old as time.

And in a healthy democracy, it doesn’t work. Our antibodies kick in, and people of goodwill from across the political spectrum call out the bigots and the fear mongers and work to compromise and get things done and promote the better angels of our nature.

But when there’s a vacuum in our democracy, when we don’t vote, when we take our basic rights and freedoms for granted, when we turn away and stop paying attention and stop engaging and stop believing and look for the newest diversion, the electronic versions of bread and circuses, then other voices fill the void.

A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment takes hold and demagogues promise simple fixes to complex problems. No promise to fight for the little guy, even as they cater to the wealthiest and most powerful. No promise to clean up corruption and then plunder away. They start undermining norms that ensure accountability and try to change the rules to entrench their power further. They appeal to racial nationalism that’s barely veiled, if veiled at all. Sound familiar? . . .

With Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, without any checks or balances whatsoever, they’ve provided another $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to people like me who I promise don’t need it and don’t even pretend to pay for them. It’s supposed to be the party supposedly of fiscal conservatism. Suddenly deficits do not matter. Even though just two years ago when the deficit was lower, they said I couldn’t afford to help working families or seniors on medicare because the deficit was in existential crisis. What changed? . . .

We have been through much darker times than these. And somehow each generation of Americans carried us through to the other side. Not by sitting around and waiting for something to happen, not by leaving it to others to do something, but by leading that movement for change themselves. And if you do that, if you get involved and you get engaged and you knock on some doors and you talk with your friends and you argue with your family members and you change some minds and you vote, something powerful happens. Change happens. Hope happens. Not perfection, not every bit of cruelty and sadness and poverty and disease suddenly stricken from the Earth. There will still be problems, but with each new candidate that surprises you with a victory that you supported, a spark of hope happens.

With each new law that helps a kid read or helps a homeless family find shelter or helps a veteran get the support he or she has earned, each time that happens hope happens. With each new step we take in the direction of fairness and justice and equality and opportunity, hope spreads. And that can be the legacy of your generation.

You can be the generation that at a critical moment stood up and reminded us just how precious this experiment in democracy really is, just how powerful it can be when we fight for it, when we believe in it. I believe in you. I believe you will help lead us in the right direction, and I will be right there with you every step of the way.

NBC's Live "Jesus Christ Superstar"

I see NBC won a bunch of Emmys for their live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar with John Legend, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Sara Bareilles, directed by David Leveaux. Deservedly so, I would say; I loved it, and it is now my favorite version. You can watch it all on Youtube.


Legend is great, doing Jesus as a sort of hippy pop star, but Dixon is simply amazing as Judas. Opening song here.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

More from the Dark Side

I wrote a few years ago about Kim Kierkegaardashian, whose tweets are mashups of quotations from Kim Kardashian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Things like:
How many carbs are in an all-consuming melancholy?
Or this recent gem:
Every time I'm on social media, I feel death encroaching upon me.

Villa Borghese

The Villa Borghese in Rome is an art museum in a 17th-century palace, and it is surrounded by 200 acres (80 hectares) of gardens that are now a public park.

The villa was built for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who was the nephew of Pope Paul V and Bernini's main patron. That's him above, as Bernini rendered him.

The architect of the villa was Flaminio Ponzio, but he is said to have worked from sketches by Borghese himself. At the time this was a vineyard at the edge Rome, and Borghese used it as a summer retreat and to house such of his art collection as would not fit into his apartments at the Vatican.


Quite a palace, no? Those Baroque Romans were a bit over the top some times. But what an art collection.


There must be a dozen Berninis, including some very famous ones.


Plus Borghese was one of the big early collectors of Caravaggio, and owned some wonderful works. Directly above is David with the Head of Goliath, with the severed head as a self-portrait. Maybe Scipione Borghese was a lousy priest and a horrible person – I have no idea – but there is absolutely no faulting his artistic taste.

Later Borghese's continued collecting, so the museum has some great 18th-century works including multiple Canova's. They also once had several famous works from ancient Rome that had been dug up on their properties, but Napoleon stole the best ones and they are now in the Louvre.

Outside is the wonderful park and gardens. Directly adjacent to the villa is the remaining formal garden in the style of the 17th century, sometimes called The Garden of Bitter Oranges. John Evelyn visited the estate in 1644 and described it as "an Elysium of delight" with "Fountains of sundry inventions, Groves and small Rivulets of Water."


But other than that small portion around the villa gardens were remade in the early 1800s into the English Romantic style, with lakes and follies and winding paths.


And lots and lots of sculpture.

Which brings me to this image. Over the years some of the oldest and most valuable marbles in the garden were moved to the museum and replaced with copies, and then in the 1990s all the rest were replaced. The originals were just put in storage, until some clever person at the museum figured out this unusual way of displaying the lot of them, a sort of half storage room half exhibit.

Nineteenth-century monument to Goethe, who loved this spot.


More views of the park. The Borghese's had long let the public wander the gardens for most of the year, so it was something of a public park even before 1902 when they sold this estate to the Italian government.

Some of the pines celebrated musically by Respighi.

Today this is a very touristy sort of place, where you can eat Italian ices while touring by bicycle or Segway. But thousands of Romans come here, too. This is one of the models of the great public park, copied all around the world. And deservedly so.