Sunday, September 30, 2018

Statuette of Herakles

Statuette of Herakles, Roman, ca. 2nd century A.D. Chalcedony, height 8.6 cm (3.4 inches), with an 18th-century gold mount.

From Phoenix Ancient Art

The Mysteries of Right-Wing Populism

I've been trying to sort out what our current wave of right-wing populism is all about. We have been discussing here the idea that it is anti-meritocratic, a "revolt of the losers" that feeds on the resentments of ordinary people against the successful, or especially against the entitled attitudes of the successful. The problems with this notion start with the populist in the White House, whose whole career has been an exercise in flaunting both his success and his entitlement. I've been reading some lately about Brett Kavanaugh, and he comes across as even more a scion of privilege who has coasted from one great job to another without actually accomplishing very much; really he sounds like one of the most obnoxious Georgetown Prep-Yale-Yale Law sort of entitled jerks one could meet. Kavanaugh is not really a populist, but populists are perfectly willing to support him, which says to me that their real concerns are elsewhere.

Commenter Szopen says that the problem with Anne Applebaum's take on Polish politics is that supporters of the right wing Law and Justice Party are not really less wealthy or successful than its opponents. Reading around, I have not been able to find anything that contradicts this. It is possible to show statistically that support for right-wing populism correlates with economic trouble in both the U.S. and western Europe, but that is different from saying that the cause its root is the anger of losers toward the successful. Trump has plenty of rich fans.

So if populism is not about resentment of the elite in any simple sense, what is it about?

Let's consider that it might just be a non-elite version of conservatism. A right-wing populist is focused on preserving, not high culture or grand tradition, but the patterns of ordinary life in his or her own social class; "the world I grew up in," as John Boehner and others have put it. I think this is an important component, and it explains why right-wing populists usually end up allied with other sorts of conservatives: they are nostalgic for a time they think was better than now.

A sense of being under attack by powerful enemies seems to be another key component. Our reader David gave the example of Modi in India, whose program is all about how Hindus have been attacked by outsiders for centuries: Muslims, the British empire, the Americans, international bankers, historians who question his version of history, geneticists who dispute his claim that the Hindu people have lived in India for 40,000 years. The rhetoric of Trump and his supporters is full of this: "the enemy has stolen from America for decades and it stops now."

It may be that the reason economic troubles promote populism is that populism is fundamentally about grievance, and economic troubles give people good reason to be aggrieved.

But who is this unnamed enemy?

I don't have any problem with the assertion that somebody has been stealing from ordinary Americans, but to me the obvious culprit is the titans of capitalism; if, over the past 40 years, you had held the top 1% of our society to the same income gains as the rest of us, and distributed the money evenly, we would each have an extra $2,000 a year. One of the mechanisms through which upward income redistribution has been managed is, I think, globalism: by moving jobs around the world in search of ever cheaper labor

So why does the rage of right-wing populists end up directed, not against capitalists, but against minorities and university professors?

I have to think that the rage against professors goes back to the sixties. Above is a famous photo of the "Hard Hat Riot" that took place in New York on May 8, 1970, when about 200 construction workers from the World Trade Center Site attacked anti-war demonstrators. They were joined, as the picture shows, by some suit-wearing men from Wall Street. Many people think our culture war politics were born then, when workers and bosses came together to fight hippies.

In the 60s there really were prominent voices calling for a social revolution; it is easy to find professors of that era who said our society must be "destroyed." Tom Hayden told students at Kent State that they must be ready to "kill your parents."

So to me the culture wars of the 60s make a certain amount of sense; under attack by Maoists, Yippies, Weathermen, and Black Panthers, defenders of the culture naturally allied together across class lines to defend American society.

But now? Now, right-wing people in America regularly spout the same sort of extreme rhetoric that their parents and grandparents used in 1968, but about things that to me seem about as dangerous as kittens.  Maoism was a real and definite threat to American society, or at least it would have been if it had had any real support, and its advocates were not afraid to set off bombs and shoot policemen on its behalf. But gay rights and Black Lives Matter? How do they compare? The notion that today's American left has mounted some kind of attack on our society is nonsensical; compared to Trump-supporting construction workers the average American liberal is a lot more devoted to marriage, family, and the Constitution.

Reading lately about the 1960s, I have been struck by the force of Marx's comment that events occur twice, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. The 60s, Nixon, Vietnam, Kent State, and Watergate was an American tragedy; Trump, Pepe the Frog, Emailgate, and the Pussy Tape is the farce.

Seriously, to what extent is our current culture war just an echo of fifty years ago, when global communism was a powerful force, thousands of American were dying in Vietnam, and radicals of a dozen stripes were setting off hundreds of bombs a year? Did our culture in some sense get used to the idea of dangerous radicals, so that now that we don't have them we have to imagine them? Did right-wing Americans find a powerful new identity for themselves as the enemies of hippies, and refuse to let it go?

And to what extent is is just the rage of all social animals against that constraints imposed by our need for each other, directed against immigrants and liberals because that works as well as anything else?

Kingfisher Hair Ornaments from Qing Dynasty China

The noble women of Qing Dynasty China (1644-1911) loved the blue color of kingfisher feathers.

Much jewelry was made for them incorporating either actual kingfisher feathers or enamel that tried to duplicate the color.

Kingfisher blue was especially used in the hair ornaments that women wore on special occasions; here is a portrait of a nineteenth-century woman wearing one, now in the Freer Sackler. The Freer-Sackler also has several of these ornaments. Notice how the kingfisher blue stands out from the otherwise muted colors.

These two are in the Walters, which says that they probably belonged to the Empress Dowager Cixi, China's last imperial ruler.


Saturday, September 29, 2018

More Maya Lidar

Lidar map of a recently discovered Maya site in Guatemala.

Detail showing the Acropolis. This recent survey of the Maya Lowlands identified 61,000 structures thought to be from Maya civilization in the first millennium.

And just for fun a 3-D image of Tikal, made from Lidar data.

Friday, September 28, 2018

The Modern Nightmare

Headline in a Japanese magazine:
4,000 Lonely Deaths a Week
And a case study:
To many residents in Mrs. Ito’s complex, the deaths were the natural and frightening conclusion of Japan’s journey since the 1960s. A single-minded focus on economic growth, followed by painful economic stagnation over the past generation, had frayed families and communities, leaving them trapped in a demographic crucible of increasing age and declining births. The extreme isolation of elderly Japanese is so common that an entire industry has emerged around it, specializing in cleaning out apartments where decomposing remains are found.

“The way we die is a mirror of the way we live,” said Takumi Nakazawa, 83, the chairman of the resident council at Mrs. Ito’s housing complex for the past 32 years.

Summer was the most dangerous season for these lonely deaths, and Mrs. Ito wasn’t taking any chances. Birthday or not, she knew that no one would call, drop a note or stop by to check on her. Born in the last year of the reign of Emperor Taisho, she never expected to live this long. One by one, family and friends had vanished or grown feeble. Ghosts, of the living and dead, now dwelled all around her in the scores of uniform buildings she and her husband had rushed to in 1960, when all of Japan seemed young.

“Now every room is mine, and I can do as I please,” Mrs. Ito said. “But it’s no good.”

She had been lonely every day for the past quarter of a century, she said, ever since her daughter and husband had died of cancer, three months apart. Mrs. Ito still had a stepdaughter, but they had grown apart over the decades, exchanging New Year’s cards or occasional greetings on holidays.

So Mrs. Ito asked a neighbor in the opposite building for a favor. Could she, once a day, look across the greenery separating their apartments and gaze up at Mrs. Ito’s window?

Every evening around 6 p.m., before retiring for the night, Mrs. Ito closed the paper screen in the window. Then in the morning, after her alarm woke her at 5:40 a.m., she slid the screen back open.

“If it’s closed,” Mrs. Ito told her neighbor, “it means I’ve died.”

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Orlando Patterson on the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill Confrontation

Back in 1991, Orlando Patterson wrote an interesting essay for the Times about the televised confrontation between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. Access may be limited to subscribers, but anyway here are some excerpts:
We must face certain stark sociological realities: in our increasingly female, work-centered world, most of our relationships, including intimate ones, are initiated in the workplace; gender relations, especially new ones, are complex and invariably ambiguous; in our heterogeneous society, the perception of what constitutes proper and effective male-female relations varies across gender, class, ethnicity and region; and in keeping with our egalitarian ideals, we take pride in the fact that the WASP boss may legitimately desire or want to marry his or her Puerto Rican aide or chauffeur.

One revealing feature of these hearings is the startling realization that Judge Clarence Thomas might well have said what Prof. Anita Hill alleges and yet be the extraordinarily sensitive man his persuasive female defenders claimed. American feminists have no way of explaining this. They have correctly demanded a rigorously enforced protocol of gender relations in the workplace. But they have also demanded that same intimate bonding that men of power traditionally share, the exclusion from which has kept them below the glass ceiling. There is a serious lacuna in the discourse, for we have failed to ask one fundamental question: how is nonerotic intimacy between men and women possible?

Clarence Thomas emerged in the hearings as one of those rare men who, with one or two exceptions, has achieved both: in general, he rigorously enforced the formal rules of gender relations, and he had an admirable set of intimate, nonerotic relations with his female associates.

And yet, tragically, there is his alleged failing with Professor Hill. How is this possible? While middle-class neo-Puritans ponder this question, the mass of the white working class and nearly all African Americans except their intellectually exhausted leaders have already come up with the answer. He may well have said what he is alleged to have said, but he did so as a man not unreasonably attracted to an aloof woman who is esthetically and socially very similar to himself, who had made no secret of her own deep admiration for him.

With his mainstream cultural guard down, Judge Thomas on several misjudged occasions may have done something completely out of the cultural frame of his white, upper-middle-class work world, but immediately recognizable to Professor Hill and most women of Southern working-class backgrounds, white or black, especially the latter.

Now to most American feminists, and to politicians manipulating the nation's lingering Puritan ideals, an obscenity is always an obscenity, an absolute offense against God and the moral order; to everyone else, including all professional social linguists and qualitative sociologists, an obscene expression, whether in Chaucerian Britain or the American South, has to be understood in context. I am convinced that Professor Hill perfectly understood the psycho-cultural context in which Judge Thomas allegedly regaled her with his Rabelaisian humor (possibly as a way of affirming their common origins), which is precisely why she never filed a complaint against him.
To summarize, Thomas was usually very correct with female colleagues, but with Hill he was sometimes much cruder, because he wanted to bond as two black people from the South operating in a white world, and because he was hot for her. Unrequited desire is always ugly. But like Patterson I do not think that banning all non-professional behavior from the workplace is any kind of workable solution.

Besides the questions about men and women at work, which my readers know I have long pondered, Patterson also considered Thomas and Hill through a lens of racial change. He was fascinated that American politics for a brief while fixated on two successful, professional black people, and that people's reactions to them were much more about gender than about race:
One great good to come out of the hearings was the revelation to the average white American that, superstar athletes, news anchors and politicians aside, not all African Americans are underclass cocaine junkies and criminals, which is an understandable delusion in any white person whose only knowledge of African Americans comes from the press and television.

Above all, they saw in Judge Thomas and Professor Hill two very complex, highly intelligent persons who knew how to get and use power in the mainstream society, and were role models for black and white people alike.

However, perhaps the most remarkable feature of the hearings is the response of the public. Here again, liberal expectations were at odds with realities. It was thought that racism would be reinforced by these hearings -- which is one simple-minded reason given for criticizing them -- but in fact what has emerged is not only the indifference of the white public to the racial aspect of the proceedings but the degree to which white men and women have identified their own interests and deepest anxieties with the two African American antagonists. Indeed, the only aspect of these hearings likely to have increased racism was the journalists' shrill and self-fulfilling insistence that the nation is exploding with racism. This is one of those cases where the messengers deserved to be shot.


Head of a ewe (c. 3300–2900 BC), Sumerian. Kimbell Art Museum

How Your Mispent Youth Matters

It seems that I was at Yale with Brett Kavanaugh. We never met, so far as I can recall, presumably because I never went to drunken parties and he never played Dungeons & Dragons. From what I have read in the news, he seems to have been the worst sort of entitled prep school brat, a sort of person I met far too many of in those days and uniformly despised.

Does it matter? I think it does, but not in the sense that drunken rowdiness at 17 or 21 disqualifies anyone from higher office.

Consider, as comparison, Kweisi Mfume. Mfume, born in 1948, grew up poor in Baltimore and had repeated scrapes with the law. He has never admitted to any serious crimes, but there have long been rumors in Baltimore that he was a full-on gang-banger who committed a series of assaults and robberies. At the age of 23, according to his autobiography, he decided he wanted more from life. He got his GED, enrolled in community college, ended up graduating magna cum laude from an all-black state college. He also got involved in politics, serving as the president of the black student union in community college and so on. He was a Baltimore councilman, President of the NAACP, five-term Congressman.

I would not say that anything Mfume did before he turned his life around should have disqualified him from any of this later achievements.

On the other hand, voters would have been foolish not to take note. The kind of man Mfume is, and the kind of political leader he has been, have very much followed from his rough youth. He has never been "tough on crime;" he has never been accused of being "pro-police." He is from what we now call the Black Lives Matter wing of the Democratic Party, intensely suspicious of the Establishment in all its forms. Those who voted for Mfume should have known all this and absorbed it.

Which brings me back to Brett Kavanaugh. I care not a fig what he did in high school; I am, as I just said, willing to forgive almost any youthful crime in a person whose life has really turned around. I  believe in forgiveness and redemption. I believe that we need to reward people who have changed. I once wrote on this blog about Chuck Colson, a former Nixon hatchet man who found God in a deep sense and remade himself into the champion of prison ministries; many liberals never forgave him or offered him anything but scorn, but I think what he did with the second half of his life is worth our appreciation.

If I thought Brett Kavanaugh were going to be a great Supreme Court Justice I might support him. But I would never say that these stories of his youth do not matter, because to me they seem to reveal very much about his character, and I see no evidence that his character has changed. Out of law school he clerked for Judge Alex Kozinski, who was already notorious for sexual escapades, but recently has denied under oath ever knowing about Kozinkski's behavior, which is a bald-faced lie if I ever heard one. His first major job was working for Ken Starr's anti-Clinton inquisition, a perfect slot for a win-at-all-costs bad boy. He then went to work for the Bush campaign and was one of the "operatives" (their word) sent to Florida to litigate and otherwise fight out the recount. His reward for completing that assignment was a slot on Bush's White House staff, where he worked on judicial appointments and approvals. In 2003 Bush appointed him to the DC Appeals Court, but his nomination was held up for three years by Democratic Senators who said he was just a partisan hack. On the bench he has been one of the most conservative judges in America, especially in matters involving corporations; he has filed half a dozen dissents against decisions holding corporations responsible for their actions, from pollution to human rights abuses in foreign countries. He is also a notable fan of presidential power, ruling again and again against any limits on the President.

Kavanaugh remains, so far as I can tell, an entitled brat with nothing but scorn for the weak and unsuccessful. To me, his life seems a perfect whole from aggressive drunken sexuality to aggressive defense of Presidential power. As a judge he will pour scorn on all efforts to help the poor and disenfranchised, because he feels for them only contempt.

That, to me, is how his past matters.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Sotheby's July Sale of British Art

Some highlights from Sotheby's London sale of "Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art", held on July 12. Above is the star, Siren by John William Waterhouse, 1901, which sold for 3.8 million pounds.

Details. Incidentally this work is not Victorian, Waterhouse was not a Pre-Raphaelite, and I would not call it Impressionist, either, but nobody knows what to call this sort of painting in this period, so Sotheby's didn't even try.

Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys, The Red Cap, 1900.

Simeon Solomon, Habet! in the Colosseum, A.D. XC. Solomon came from a wealthy London Jewish family but fell into scandal after he was arrested in 1873 for "attempting to commit an act of indecency," that is, approaching a male prostitute who turned out to be a police informer.

Drawing by John Everett Millais, Yeomen of the Guard, 1883. I never saw myself as a great artist or anything but I am intensely jealous of people who can sketch a scene like that. That I would love to be able to do.

Edward Burne-Jones, Study for the Valiant Knight, a tapestry, c 1889. Detail.

And to conclude with something completely different a twentieth-century work by Edward Seago, Marsh Landscape. The date is unknown because the artist held onto this one and it was sold by his estate after his death in 1973.

Drug Crisis?

Data to think about:
Alcohol is responsible for over one in 20 of all deaths worldwide, according to the most recent edition of a World Health Organization (WHO) report that comes out every four years. . . .

According to the WHO data, approximately 7.2 percent of premature deaths worldwide are linked to alcohol, and as well as 5.3 of all deaths in general.
"Are linked to" might be doing a lot of work here, but it is good to remember that alcohol is by far the most deadly drug.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Hellenistic Gold Stand

4th century BC, probably southern Italy. From Phoenix Ancient Arts.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc as an Artist

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) was an architect who specialized in "restorations" of medieval buildings. On this blog we have already seen some of his architectural work at Carcassonne and Pierrefonds. But that is just a smidgen of his work. His most important project was probably restoring Notre Dame de Paris. The old gargoyles had practically dissolved under the assaults of Paris' coal-laden air, so Viollet-le-Duc designed new ones.

Yes, these famous brooding monsters are not medieval but spring from the neo-Gothic imagination of Viollet-le-Duc. And if nobody knows that, well, that is the way he wanted it; he saw himself as a restorer, not a creator, someone who made medieval buildings look the way they looked in their prime.

In the course of researching my post Carcassonne I saw a few of Viollet-le-Duc's drawings, and I was intrigued. Most of them look like this rendering of Albi Cathedral, not especially artistic because they are perfectly precise.

Or they focus in on small details, like this.

But some of Viollet-le-Duc's more formal compositions are quite impressive. Pierrefonds.

Mont St. Michel

Door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Nervy.

 And some of his architectural renderings have their own sort of beauty.

Viollet-le-Duc did numerous renderings of details from stained glass, like this head of St. Remi from Rheims.

In 1855 Viollet-le-Duc published a book he had written and illustrated, Annals of a Fortress, which told the history of a fortified place in southern France from ancient Celtic times to the Renaissance. If I remember correctly, it was besieged five times.

When I read them I thought David Macaulay's City and Castle were strikingly original, but now I know that Viollet-le-Duc did the same thing more than a century before Macaulay. Although of course as a man of the nineteenth century Viollet-le-Duc wrote a much, much longer text.

I don't know that Viollet-le-Duc was a great artist, but his drawings have give me much pleasure, and I plan to seek out more.