Welcome to the Ministry of Information.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

it sure looks like one to me

Apple, the company that makes personal computers and mp3 players, has sold a lot of units over the years to vaguely lefty types who fall for its hipper-than-thou ad campaigns and faux-underdog brand identity. Their current campaign relies on a pair of recurring characters: a slim young male who shops at the Gap versus an overweight dullard who, the ad implies, is not sharp enough to dress better and to realize that the computer is best appreciated as a wardrobe accessory. The respective tagline for each character is 'I'm a Mac' and 'I'm a pc'. It's fine for Apple to want to seem cool, but why is an Apple-manufactured computer not a pc?

I'm not a partisan: I own an Ipod and a Dell pc that runs Windows XP. From my teenage years to my twenties I owned a series of three Apples, and now I'm on my second Windows-based machine. I only switched because my job at the time involved using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator for Windows and I needed to be able to work at home, not to mention the free software. (Which may make me the only person in the world to switch to Windows in order to use Adobe products.) Video editting aside, I don't see any significant difference between the two platforms. Unless I start making digital movies in my bedroom, I'm sure I'll be quite alright using Windows, no matter how unhip I'm supposed to think it is.

But the question remains, why is an Apple personal computer not a personal computer? PC is not a brand name. There is nothing about the abbreviation that implies Windows. Is it because Apple computers are so incomparably cool that they defy category? Do they transcend the computer and become a personal badge of moral virtue? That seems to be Apple's implication and way too many people fall for it, people who should know better.

I personally know people who have bonded their identities to the Apple brand. Reader, let's consider the false consciousness of the Apple zealots, and if you happen to be one of them, so much the better. According to them, Bill Gates is some kind of Satan and Microsoft is an evil multinational corporation that impedes competition. But what of Apple?

As far as competition goes, surely the online Itunes store is a thorn in the side of every listener of digital music. The songs will only play on Apple-branded mp3 players and they cannot be shared like regular mp3's. If your hard drive crashes a few times and you buy a new computer, not only will you not be able to share your Itunes downloads with anyone but you will lose the ability to play your own songs that you paid for. [Update: A reader has pointed out that the previous statement is wrong. Thanks.] Worker-wise, both companies have provided same-sex partner benefits since the 1990's and they're both known for treating their employees well.

Then there's Bill Gates. Like Steve Jobs of Apple, he is a self-made billionaire, yet Jobs is never the subject of ridicule and contempt. The only difference I see is that Steve Jobs wears blue jeans and solid, long-sleeve black tops to the Macworld Expos, and Gates is as unhip a dresser as they come. He is, to people for whom this is a meaningful category, a nerd.

Personally, I don't use the word 'nerd' because I have always found brains and obsessive-compulsive attention spans sexy. But if the word could safely apply to anyone, that person would be Bill Gates. Is that why the Apple hipsters hate Gates so much? Because he's not cool like them?

I'm beginning to think Apple is less a corporation and more of a cult. Does anyone remember Apple's opaque 'Think different [sic]' campaign featuring photographs of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Lennon & Ono? (See Wikipedia's entry for 'Think different' for a hopefully accurate list of the people used in the campaign.) The textual pitch began this way:
'Here's to the crazy ones.
The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.'

So if I use an Apple computer, can I be a misfit, too, just like Gandhi and MLK?

Why are liberals the biggest suckers in the world? I'm securely on the left, but sometimes it's not easy keeping company with these folks. (Yeah yeah, I'd rather hang with a bunch of crunchy pseudo-lefty types than with the homophobic mob on the other side.) Here is the problem in its quintessence: the mistaking of style for political and moral commitment. This is why Apple's advertising drives me nuts. It contributes to the notion of politics as a lifestyle choice.

If I may say, this is how we got into our current mess in the first place. One day people are buying the Apple brand of computer because it's cooler and more politically correct than the dreaded pc, and the next day they're voting for Ralph Nader because they're too cool for Al Gore and the Democrats. Yes, Reader, we have seen the uncool, overweight, wooden guy before. And every time you laugh at the fat guy and identify with the supposedly cool guy, you're casting another vote for your own political self-delusion and making it easier for the George Bushes of the world to creep back into power. And yes, there will definitely be more to say about the confusion of style and politics in the future.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

apples and eggs

Last month I wondered aloud whether George W. Bush knew the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. (See entry of December 17, 2006.) We may now have an answer. He made explicit distinctions between them in his State of the Union address on January 23:
'In the mind of the terrorist, this war began well before September the 11th, and will not end until their radical vision is fulfilled. And these past five years have given us a much clearer view of the nature of this enemy. Al Qaeda and its followers are Sunni extremists, possessed by hatred and commanded by a harsh and narrow ideology.'

Moments later, he added:
'These men are not given to idle words, and they are just one camp in the Islamist radical movement. In recent times, it has also become clear that we face an escalating danger from Shia extremists who are just as hostile to America, and are also determined to dominate the Middle East. Many are known to take direction from the regime in Iran, which is funding and arming terrorists like Hezbollah -- a group second only to al Qaeda in the American lives it has taken.'

So far, so good? I'm not so sure about that. Keep reading:
'The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat. Whatever slogans they chant, when they slaughter the innocent they have the same wicked purposes. They want to kill Americans, kill democracy in the Middle East, and gain the weapons to kill on an even more horrific scale. '

(All quotations are taken from the transcript at www.whitehouse.gov.)

Matching al-Qa'ida wth Sunni Islam and Hizballah with Shia is correct, and better than Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), the new head of the House Intelligence Committee, did when recently asked. But do they belong to a 'same totalitarian threat'? Does Bush know whom he is fighting?

In war, it generally helps to know some basic facts like, say, who the enemy is. It is not just the chief executive who should know these things but every citizen whose nation's military forces wage the war. I never forgot the international survey of geographical knowledge that National Geographic did in the late 1980's. Among many scandalous results, the one that stayed with me was that only 32 percent of Americans in 1988 could find Vietnam on a map. (New York Times, November 9, 1989, section A, page 20, via Lexis-Nexis.) Didn't Americans want to know where their sons had been sent? (Some people didn't even know where they themselves were. 14 percent of Americans could not find their own country on a map.)

It is one thing to wage a war, for good or ill, that kills millions of people. But not knowing the first thing about them, like where in the world they are? That's not just callous toward the people of the invaded country; it's dangerous for the people of the invading country as well. Knowledge makes citizens harder to mislead than ignorance.

Let me say loud and clear: al-Qa'ida and Hizballah are both violent organizations motivated by religion, but they are utterly incompatible with each other, and only one is at war with the United States. Here are the basic differences.

1. Duh
The Salafist form of Islam that underpins al-Qa'ida's beliefs and practices identifies Shiites as heretics to be killed. This is an unalterable element of their doctrine. (I could stop right there, I suppose.)

2. Ambitions and targets
Hizballah does not wage attacks against anyone outside Israel and Lebanon. It is a Lebanese Shiite movement with foreign backers in Iran and Syria. Its aims do not extend beyond Israel and Lebanon. They have never been known to recruit Shiites from abroad. Certainly, they have no desire to revive the caliphate: the old caliphates were Sunni. (In October 2006, Hizballah was charged in Argentina with the monstrous and unforgiveable 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina in Buenos Aires. If they were the culprits, this was the last action of theirs that I can recall outside their usual theatre of operations.) And when was the last time they attacked American forces? The 1980's?

Al-Qa'ida, on the other hand, continues to target the United States but has never attacked Israel. (Sometimes I feel like the only person to notice this.) They certainly abuse the name of Israel in their global propaganda, but Israel has never been their target: Shiites and other Muslim 'apostates' are their real enemy. The U.S. is culpable, by al-Qa'ida logic, for supporting apostate regimes.

3. Politics versus anti-politics
Besides their militant activities, Hizballah is also a political party in Lebanon. Their candidates stand for election and they hold seats in the Lebanese Parliament. That's not to say that they don't ultimately want to replace parliamentary government with theocracy. Their 1985 manifesto claimed they did, and despite subsequent disavowals, their leaders perhaps still do. But they participate in elections, which is a significant fact compared to al-Qa'ida. And, not that this excuses their other actions or their homophobia, women hold significant positions in the party and run for office.

Al-Qa'ida could never stand in an election. They oppose elections, parliaments, presidents, constitutions, and laws written by men. Women? No.

These don't sound like the same totalitarian movement to me.

None of what I have said should be construed as a defense of Hizballah. I oppose all parties and movements that want to demolish the separation of church/masjid and state, and that includes the most radical fringes of the Republican party here in the States.

My point is that the people calling the shots—and the people who let them, i.e. us—need to appreciate that not every enemy is the same. North Korea, Iran, and Baathist Iraq were not an axis of evil simply because they were not an axis. Iran and Iraq were longtime enemies who fought an eight-year war in the 1980's. And North Korea? What, were they behind September 11, too?

All of us who participate in public discourse on these matters need to appreciate these differences and interpret them for ourselves. The more widely we disseminate knowledge, the better chance we stand of avoiding future disasters.

Mixing apples and oranges is actually not so bad. They at least have the advantage of both being fruits. What Bush and Cheney have done is more akin to mixing apples and eggs. Picture it for yourselves: a crate of apples and eggs shipped together from the farm and opened up at the market. Eww. That, dear Reader, is the intellectual operation George W. Bush has performed.

Friday, January 26, 2007

ain't no love in the heart of the city

Last night I attended the first of what will surely be a long series of meetings this year on zoning changes in my part of Brooklyn. I should probably point out for the benefit of my readers outside the city that New York is divided into 59 community board districts, each with a board of fifty appointed members who serve the city in an advisory capacity with regard to land use and other local matters. Although the boards' decisions are only advisory, their participation in many official actions is required by city statutes, and city agencies usually follow their advice. I am lucky enough to serve on Community Board 6 in Brooklyn, where I sit on the land use & landmarks committee and the economic & waterfront development committee.

The CB6 land use committee held last night's meeting with officials from the Department of City Planning and other agencies. The purpose: to begin a public discussion that will hopefully lead to a planning framework to govern eventual zoning changes in the district. CB6 covers the neighbourhoods of Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook, Boerum Hill, Park Slope, and, the subject of the meeting, Gowanus. Total population: 104,000.

As the newspapers daily report, New York is enjoying—although it's surely more complicated than mere enjoyment—an extended real estate boom that is transforming wide swaths of the city. Gowanus, the area surrounding the ferociously polluted Gowanus Canal, is zoned for industrial uses, but bit by bit more and more properties there have gone residential in recent years.

In a typical gentrification scenario, hipsters move in, longtime renters get pushed out, and real estate barons make out like bandits. In Gowanus things are a bit more complicated because the expansion of housing can only come at the cost of losing businesses. Everyone agrees that the city needs more housing, Brooklyn needs more affordable housing (a term we will surely revisit soon), and the city needs to hold on to the blue-collar jobs that one finds in Gowanus.

Something has to give. But the choices are not between good and bad; the choices are between competing goods. That is the discussion that the community had last night. It is often said of compromises that the best ones leave no one happy. But that's what city living is all about: ambiguous tradeoffs. Location versus space. Grittiness versus safety. Housing versus industry. Newcomers versus oldtimers.

I'm privileged to have a front-row seat and a say in Brooklyn's future. As the year progresses, I look forward to offering my readers more reports from the frontlines. It would be lovely if my overseas readers, especially those in London where the office of mayor is still a new institution, could offer their thoughts on the compromises of city living. Let's get inside the city—my city, your city, all cities—and see what we can learn that can help us make the city even better.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

word on the street: Children of Men

Word on the street: spoiler-free brief comments on new films and exhibitions.

People are making quite a fuss about Alfonso Cuarón's new film Children of Men, but they ought to be complaining about its squandered potential rather than gushing about its supposed greatness. It is, in short, an action film pretending to be Something Important.

The 1970's were the heyday of the genre of the recognizably near-future dystopia: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Soylent Green (1973) at one end of the decade, and, less impressively, Escape from New York (1981) at the other. Back in the day, New York typically featured as ground zero for the downfall of western civilization. If the genre is making a comeback, London, improbably, will be the new New York. So far we've had 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead (a bit of a stretch, but the zombies are caused by GM food), and now Children of Men. Why does the new confidence in British cinema translate into a bleak future for London?

I wish Children of Men had a better screenplay. It begins with the disheartening prospect of a world where women can no longer reproduce. The UK is apparently the last country still in one piece, or at least that's what the ubiquitous government propaganda claims. The cost of its security: wholesale oppression and deportation of immigrants.

Its direction, cinematography, and script make Children of Men the art film of the action genre, literally: not only does the film rely on some very long takes (one shot reportedly lasts nine minutes) and a tightly controlled palette of colours, but Picasso's Guernica and other artistic treasures of Europe appear in the film, 'saved' by the British. Unfortunately, that's all there is to it. Despite some moving early scenes showing all that we stand to lose in a biologically and legally catastrophic future, the film abandons all of its ideas for a final hour of fugitives on the run. Will they make it out alive or not? becomes the film's central question. Had the writers written more than half of a screenplay, this might have been a great movie. With all the narrative and moral potential it squandered, it is only a great frustration.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

the fifty millionth smoking gun, or, the necessity of outrage

The lawlessness of the executive branch under George W. Bush is not news, nor is it new to this blog. To catalogue their many offenses and accumulate the various evidences quickly becomes redundant. Yet it is necessary to do so. No one among us should take Bush's lawless revolution for granted. In times like these when government becomes lawless, if we lose the capacity for outrage, the success of the tyrants will become that much more likely and will arrive that much sooner.

And so I offer you, dear Reader, the fifty millionth smoking gun, further proof that ours is a government not of laws but of men. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 18, 2007 and had the following exchange with Senator Arlen Specter:

GONZALES: The fact that the Constitution -- again, there is no expressed grant of habeas in the Constitution. There's a prohibition against taking it away. But it's never been the case. I'm not aware of a Supreme...

SPECTER: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. The Constitution says you can't take it away except in case of rebellion or invasion. Doesn't that mean you have the right of habeas corpus unless there's an invasion or rebellion?

GONZALES: I meant by that comment, the Constitution doesn't say every individual in the United States or every citizen is hereby granted or assured the right to habeas. Doesn't say that. It simply says the right of habeas corpus shall not be suspended except...

SPECTER: You may be treading on your interdiction and violating common sense, Mr. Attorney General.

[All ellipses appear in the original transcript available through Lexis-Nexis.]

There is no need for conspiracy theories in the Bush era. All that they do they do openly and brazenly. Here we have the chief law enforcement officer of the United States claiming that U.S. citizens do not have a constitutional right to habeas corpus! (Yes, use the exclamation point when saying that.)

Gonzales later added:
GONZALES: I was just simply making an observation that there isn't an expressed grant. My understanding is that in the debate during the framing of the Constitution there was discussion as to whether or not there should be an expressed grant, and a decision was made not to do so. But what you see in the language is a compromise. I think the fact that in 1789, the Judiciary Act, that they passed statutory habeas for the first time, may reflect -- maybe -- I don't want to say a concern, but why pass a statutory right so soon after the Constitution? Perhaps, because it wasn't express grant of habeas.

Establishing an initial maybe-perhaps rhetorical beachhead is the very same strategy that Samuel Alito mapped out in the 1980's at the Justice Department for turning the previously symbolic curio of the presidential signing statement into an executive power grab. (See my blog entry for December 14, 2006 for Alito's memorandum.) Today they call habeas corpus a maybe-perhaps compromise; tomorrow they will be locking us up for sneering at them.

On a final note of outrage, for now, there would be no better way to end this entry than to quote this lovely exchange between Gonzales and Senator Patrick Leahy, the committee chairman. It speaks for itself:

LEAHY: We find that Halliburton gives water with E. coli. in it to our troops. I mean, I should -- the press was able to find that out. We find that enormous number of weapons we've sent over there have been sold on the black market. There should be some ability to trace some of this.

GONZALES: Well, sure there is. But I mean, can you make a case? I mean, that's the thing. We do operate under a system of laws...

Stay angry, people! At times like these, anger is how you know you still have a conscience and a will to fight. Don't let the tyrants win.

Tune in again soon for the fifty million and first smoking gun.

Friday, January 19, 2007

getting paid

Yes, that is an advertisement up above. I decided today to enroll in blog advertising. My role as advertiser will be entirely passive: the robots at Google will select the ads based on the content of my blog. So far, so good. The first ad is for hurricane relief.

Are there still people out there averse to making money or any old lefties getting ready to deploy the trope of selling out against me? I hope not. Adulthood is one long struggle to get paid for the things one wants to do, or, in this case, what one was already doing.

One day I'll have to write a blog entry on my identification as a left capitalist. For now it should be enough to pose the rhetorical question, Who should make money more than you and I? You know Bush and Cheney are getting paid. Comrades, so should we!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

heart breaker, heart breaker, I want to tear your world apart

Part two of two on Velázquez. See entry of January 17, 2006 for part one.

Royal children have their own set of rules in Velázquez's work. No matter what may be happening around them, they remain preternaturally calm and unmoved, as in the painting Infante Baltasar Carlos on Horseback (1634-1635). His horse is not just galloping but leaping right out of the frame, yet the infante is completely unperturbed and does not deign to take notice of the commotions of the mundane world. Perhaps the pose was meant to imply that he would one day ride the horse of state with the same dignity and regal bearing.

And then there's the Infanta Margarita in a Blue Dress (1659), a frightening painting that appears to break the rules and that genuinely broke my heart. It's a painting that shows the court painter working in a spirit of subtle critique. According to the catalogue, Margarita (the infanta from Las Meninas) was promised in marriage to her uncle, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, when she was a young child, perhaps as early as three or four. In order to keep Leopold updated on his far-off child-fiancée's development, Velázquez would paint her every few years and send the painting on to Vienna. Here she is at the age of eight—his final portrait of her.

I don't think the online reproduction captures them, but this portrait is marked by the most mournful baggy eyes I can recall seeing in a painting. Her too ruddy cheeks are given the lie by her sad, hangdog eyes. She is undoubtedly all dolled up for the occasion, but she wears the look of a frightened girl facing sexual peril but—someone please save this child—resigned to it. I can't help but think that Velázquez took a personal risk here and that the look on Margarita's face was meant as a critique of the trafficking in girls' bodies, or at least this girl's body, that constituted courtship among the Habsburgs. I don't know what else to make of a painting whose every feature but one follows the rules of royal kiddie porn, but that one feature—her painfully sad eyes—forecasts danger ahead.

But what if I'm wrong? What if seeing that critique is mere wish-fulfillment on my part? The catalogue says nothing of the sort. It does say that she died in childbirth at the age of twenty-two and that only one of her four children survived infancy, none of which I knew when seeing the painting, yet none of which proves anything.

That risk—of possibly being wrong—is a necessary part of the act of interpretation. My reading proceeded from the evidence of the painting: I based it first and foremost on what I saw and combined that with whatever other experience and knowledge I possess. I could do more research and see what turns up, or I could take the other next step: offer my reading to the public and invite conversation and critical exchange. Art and intellectualism offer many rewards, but at this moment of doubt and wonder, I keenly appreciate the joys of community and conversation that art makes possible. So, Reader, if you have anything to share about the Infanta Margarita, do feel encouraged to join in.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

beauty wins

I never had much interest in Spanish painting per se before the Met's Manet & Velázquez exhibit back in 2003 (Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting). Since then Spanish painters have stolen more and more of my attention and affection with each passing year. My recent trip to Europe was driven solely by one desire: to see the National Gallery's big Velázquez exhibit in London and then broaden the experience by travelling to Spain.

I can't say I had ever planned an entire trans-Atlantic trip around simply seeing a painting exhibit before, but I don't find the trip remarkable in that regard. Perhaps the absence of doing it before now is the interesting thing. Am I simply more mature now? Better paid? More refined, whatever that means? I rather think it's because I can now allow beauty to move me much more than I could before. One wonders why it takes this long to be so moved by the beauty of this world.

There was beauty in abundance in Velázquez's work (1599-1660). A couple of times, it was frightening—a word I will justify in a few moments—and, at least once, it totally circumvented my own moral convictions. But beauty has a funny way of doing that, doesn't it?

The capsule summary on Velázquez is that he brought new realism and psychology to portraiture, but I'm going to focus on sexual themes in his work. Here I saw some unusual things going on, in me and in the paintings, that are hopefully worth sharing.

Despite the sublime eroticism of the Rokeby Venus (The Toilet of Venus), Velázquez also did a thoroughly sex-negative narrative painting, The Temptation of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

According to the catalogue, the story was well-known. Aquinas's family objected to his taking orders and sent a woman to seduce him away from the sacerdotal life. Young Thomas responded to her appearance by pulling a burning log from the fireplace and drawing a cross on the wall with it. But how Velázquez depicts this scenario has to be seen to be believed.

Aquinas looks beleaguered from a duel with the devil. The angels tend to him, one on bended, solicitous knee to support his weakened frame, and the other preparing to gird him in a belt of chastity to protect him from the evils of a vicious world, a world Aquinas is clearly too delicate for. The woman, leaving in the background, has a rather worldly WTF look about her. Her depiction lacks any sense of rebuke—she is not to blame—but the paint on her victim's face says it all.

I want to dislike this painting for its moral content, its uncritical embrace of the idea of sex as sin and temptation and its depiction of chastity as holy and glowing, but the painting wins me over, even in the features that most effectively do its ideological dirty work. No, especially, in those features. There is a divinely alabaster glow to Aquinas's face that, angels aside, conveys the entirety of the painting's interpretation of his nature. Velázquez achieved a subtle radiance, in just a part of the face, that somehow demonstrates that the chaste enjoy a state of grace. It is a grace that this debauched world would trample at every turn, but the angels are there to support the pious as they face the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

I know that, content-wise, this painting represents the exact opposite of everything I believe about sexuality and this world, and yet I cannot resist loving this painting solely for its æsthetic beauty. So much for reason and morals and convictions. Experiences like this one—feeling the seduction of beauty in a painting that opposes seduction—were what I travelled thousands of miles to see.

But that's not all there is to say about sexuality and Velázquez. I still haven't explained what was frightening about it. Reader, tune in next time for the conclusion.

Friday, January 12, 2007

happy anniversary, tyranny

Today, January 11, was the fifth anniversary of the first detainees' arrival at Guantánamo. It's worth reminding ourselves why we find the prison there intolerable. In one word: lawlessness.

Many of the detainees have no connection to terrorism at all. Even the Bush administration admits that at least two detainees, Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu al-Hakim, are there by mistake, but the government refuses to let them go. The BBC reported on their case on April 17, 2006. How many others might be there by mistake?

But let's simplify the problem as much as possible. After all, some people—not I—would argue that locking up the most dangerous offenders is worth punishing a handful of innocent people by mistake. Let's ignore all the reports of torture and bizarre treatment at Guantánamo, like this one. For the sake of argument, let's even pretend, despite the evidence to the contrary, that every single one of the detainees committed violent terrorist acts and deserves to be incarcerated for life. I'm all for punishing the people who want to bring down our institutions and who oppose the very idea of law. But the people doing the most damage to the rule of law are Bush and Cheney, not anyone at Guantánamo.

Unlike the presidents, I believe in the rule of law. I believe that American institutions of law and justice are indeed adequate for punishing terrorists and law-breakers of every stripe. I guess I'm just patriotic that way. Holding people—anyone—without so much as charging them with a crime in a court of law implies that the people doing the holding just don't believe in the power of law. And clearly they don't. I guess they're just not patriotic enough to have faith in our institutions.

Comparisons are often helpful. What do other nations faced with violent terrorist threats do with the suspected terrorists who enter their custody? Do they hold people for five years without so much as even a kangaroo court hearing?

The Senate Judiciary Committee has considered this question, and the answer is instructive. Stephen J. Schulhofer is a law professor at NYU and a founder of the Liberty and National Security Project at the Brennan Center for Justice. Here is what he told the committee on June 15, 2005:
'To put in some perspective the claimed need for extended detention, it is essential to consider the experience of other Western nations. In the face of unremitting terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland, Britain sought to lengthen the period of incommunicado detention beyond its usual norm of 48 hours. The European Court of Human Rights held that because of the emergency conditions, detention prior to judicial review could be permitted for a maximum of five days, and then only subject to the proviso that there be an unconditional right of access to a solicitor after the first 48 hours. Turkey, confronting persistent attacks by separatists who had caused instability and thousands of deaths in its Kurdish region, sought to detain suspected terrorists for exceptional periods without access to judicial review. The European Court held that despite grave emergency conditions, detention incommunicado for up to fourteen days was incompatible with the rule of law. In connection with the second intifada and the Israeli military's extensive combat operations on the West Bank in 2002, the Israel Supreme Court held that incommunicado detention of suspected enemy combatants for up to eighteen days was unacceptably long; the IDF has since limited its periods of detention prior to the first court hearing to a maximum of eight days.'

Let's make sure we understand the implications of these facts. Israel, a country that routinely experiences violent attacks and suicide bombings, does not hold people longer than eight days before legal norms of habeas corpus and the rest kick in, but the U.S. is holding a mix of terrorists and shepherds for five years without charge? Are we that weak?

It's depressing to have an executive branch that doesn't believe our courts work properly. But there's something even more depressing about the attitudes of Bush and Cheney: they don't even pretend. I would feel slightly better if they would charge every detainee at Guantánamo with bogus crimes in a kangaroo court than I do counting the days that people are held without charge. Why would that be better? Because Bush and Cheney's refusal to do even that much shows that not only do they not believe in the substance of law, but they're so brazen and shameless about their lawlessness that they are not even going to pretend to uphold the ritual forms of law.

So, to mark the fifth anniversary of rampant lawlessness, I invite my readers to join me in making a contribution to the ACLU. Go to the ACLU's website and click Donate Now. The best way to fight the lawless is to renew our commitment to the rule of law. You know what they say: freedom is not free. Neither is law.

Monday, January 8, 2007

day eleven: it's nice to go trav'ling

After six days in Madrid, Toledo, and Segovia, I flew back to London today for the final night of my trip. Spain was work. I enjoyed it, but I need a vacation from my vacation. I can't wait to get home and get back to relaxing. Culture is hard work, man.

For my final night I had dinner with two British friends who live on the same road, went to the same high school a year apart, have known me for several years, listen to much of the same music, and had never met before tonight. Small world. Or is it?

I saw an enormous amount of art in the UK and Spain, perhaps too much. I have lots of material to write about and lots to think about. And I will do that. But what really made this trip special was the company of my good friends in London. Whether it was blasting through the UK karaoke catalogue with the LDN Posse or watching Six Feet Under dvd's at home with Dan and Ruth, I am lucky to have friends to share good times with.

The maddest props ever to British Soul Brother Number One Dan Fugallo for hosting me and sharing an excellent adventure in London. He and Ruth have six episodes left to watch in the final season of Six Feet Under. I am sure my entire readership envies them for getting to watch it for the first time.

Tomorrow, January 9, I will be home again and loving it. How spoiled I am to get to plunder the cultural riches of the world and then have New York to come home to. Don't think I don't know how lucky I am.

So, nothing profound tonight. If you would, please join me in thinking of that classic song It's Nice to Go Trav'ling, written by Sammy Cahn & James Van Heusen and made famous by Frank Sinatra on his 1958 album Come Fly with Me:
'It's oh so nice to go trav'ling,
But it's so much nicer, yes it's so much nicer, to come home.'

I couldn't agree more.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

day eight: the bad guys win

I spent yesterday, day eight, in Toledo. Although it has nothing to do with the city, I kept thinking of the great Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach song 'Toledo'. Its chorus has one of the most complicated figures in pop music:
'But do people living in Toledo
Know that their name hasn't travelled very well?
And does anybody in Ohio
Dream of that Spanish citadel?'
I don't know what people in Ohio dream about. I hope they're dreaming about clean elections. But I had to smile when I stumbled into Calle de Toledo de Ohio. Improbably, the answer to the reverse question is yes.

Reader, I was in that Spanish citadel, and I felt the sadness of history a number of times while there. The most acute moment occurred at the Sinagoga del Tránsito, a structure built as a synagogue in 1366 and now part of a Sephardic Museum. I'm sure most readers know enough Spanish history to recall that Muslims ruled all or part of Iberia from 711 to 1492, after which time Spanish Muslims and Jews were forced to leave or convert to Catholicism. I was not aware until yesterday that Jews had lived in Spain since Roman times and had suffered under the Visigoths, even before the Muslims arrived from North Africa. Spanish Jews apparently welcomed the Muslims, under whose rule learning and intellectualism flourished in a milieu of general religious tolerance. At least it was immeasurably more tolerant than what came before or after.

As Spanish Catholic armies defeated the Muslim emirates bit by bit over the centuries—a campaign that the Spanish still refer to as the Reconquista—their fanaticism only increased. At Toledo's Catedral, every seat in the long first row of the choir depicts, carved in wood, the 'reconquest' of a different Granadan town by the Catholics: triumphalist self-congratulation for their bloody success enshrined in the cathedral for centuries to come. With the expulsion of Jews and Muslims in 1492, a systematic fifteenth-century ethnic cleansing, the Sinagoga del Tránsito was converted into a church, and the armies of los Reyes Catolicos turned their insane fury toward the New World.

So there I was in a big empty room that was once a synagogue, then a church, and now a museum. All I could do was contemplate the ugliness that had transpired there. It's every cosmopolitan's worst nightmare: that the most fanatical and unreasonable people in a multicultural country could form an army and drive out or kill everyone they deem troublemakers—basically, the humanist intellectuals and minority religious groups. In short, the bad guys won and built a new culture based on their overcoming the supposed evildoers. Sometimes the bad guys win and that's all there is to it.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

day seven: museum fatigue, finally

The train to Toledo was sold out this morning so I made my way to the Reina Sofia museum. The museum's primary commitment is to twentieth-century modern Spanish artists plus the hits by international artists that bolster the narratives and arguments that the curators want to construct. The galleries are all numbered and the chronological movement forward relentless.

The pre-WW2 half of the collection bored me to death, and I usually have a perversely high tolerance for museums. I don't think I can look at art between 1900 and 1945 anymore. Perhaps I favored it too strongly in my youth, but I feel like I've seen it all already. Throw in an army of second-tier modernists from Spain, and the experience becomes maddening.

The postwar half held genuine surprise for me. I had not known that postwar Spanish art under Franco, or at least some elite portion of it, kept in step with the larger international movements. There was Spanish abstract expressionism in the 1950's and 60's, and conceptualism in the early 70's. There was even a work that looked suspiciously like Bruce Nauman's Human/Need/Desire at the MoMA.

The best Spanish AbEx—or at least what looked like it—on display was Anton Saura's La gran muchedumbre (1963). This is not it but the closest, very, to it that I could find online. From afar, it looks like a late Pollock except for the fact that, on closer inspection, it reveals a sea of cramped faces. I couldn´t help but think this was a painting done in reaction to living under fascist dictatorship, but I don't know enough about Saura to say that. Even so, my surprise was due to my incorrect assumption that Franco had successfully stifled the arts until La Movida of the late 1970's and 80's. Apparently not.

Finally, a word about Guernica. I can't say I was disappointed since I had never thought much of it in reproduction. Alas, it is just as dull in person. For me, its only interest lies in its visual quotation of Goya's Third of May 1808, a far more moving and distressing depiction of war. People speak of Guernica and other works as if they really believe that art has the power to stop war or some such business. People seem to forget that Picasso´s side lost that war and Spain was plunged into forty years of fascist rule.

Art is useless in the face of war. Looking at art does not make us better people or offer transcendent visions of the divine and the sublime or whatever. At its best, it is something to be looked at and loved precisely because of its uselessness. This is a point that I will surely need to return to soon, particularly since it stands in tension with other things I believe and have said about art. Reader, stay tuned for more.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

day six: everything from restrooms to cinema

Today I saw everything in the Prado, and I do mean everything. It took about nine hours, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. I would like to make some remarks about several of the paintings, but I cannot find a search tool at the Prado's website. I would prefer to include links to the paintings. In the meanwhile, here are some random observations about travelling.

In most European public bathrooms that I have seen, the dividers between toilet stalls reach all the way to the floor and usually to the ceiling. This is never the case in the States. Why the difference? I can think of three possibilities. One, in the States, looking at people's shoes while they excrete is part of the lure of the restroom. Two, materials are too expensive and they build partial dividers to save money. Three, the lack of privacy makes same-sex encounters dramatically less likely. Hmm.

I have typically travelled alone in my life, even to cities and countries where I knew no one, but this time I feel especially lonely. Hopefully that will change soon.

Over the next two days I plan to visit Toledo and Madrid's Cine Doré. That is the cinema where Benigno sees the silent film in Hable con ella (Talk to Her). They are screening a Fritz Lang film that I need to see: Human Desire (1954). Lang is one of my favorite directors and ranks fourth in my seen-most-films-by list, behind Bergman, Kurosawa, and Scorsese. Besides Ozu, Lang is one of the few to make great silents and great talkies. His films, both in Germany and in Hollywood, cultivate an expressionistic style of shadows and visual menace. I try to see at least one film in every country I visit. You might be surprised how much filmgoing varies from place to place.

As for Velázquez and the Prado, I am going to try writing out my blog entries on a pad at my hotel and then typing them at the internet spot. I don't see how else I can write moderately serious things while on the road.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

day five: not much to report

My stay in Madrid is off to a dull start. I somehow missed the news reports of the ETA bombing at the airport over the weekend. Instead I stumbled upon the crime scene on my arrival and read the news coverage afterward. That was weird.

There is not much else to report yet. I am staying in Malasaña and imagining that I am walking in Pedro Almodóvar's footsteps, but so far I have not met anyone or seen much. I expect some intensive museum visits, day trips to Toledo and Segovia, and a more active nightlife than I have found so far. Advice? Holla.

day three: law and disorder, part one

I think I underestimated how difficult it would be to keep blogging while travelling. I arrived in Madrid about three hours ago and I'm now wondering why I am sitting in a basement typing this when I should be outside seeing the city. Perhaps I will write breezier entries while I´m here. I must say, I am itching to write about the National Gallery's Velázquez exhibit, but dragging the huge catalogue around Madrid with me hardly seems like the best way to enjoy my stay. Reader, you will have to settle for some quick reflections on Tom Stoppard for now in lieu of Velázquez.

On New Year's Eve, Dan and I saw a matinee performance of Tom Stoppard's play Rock 'n' Roll. The play covers a lot of ground: Czech dissidents and English communists from 1968 to 1990, and the Dionysian power of rock and roll and the threat that it and, by extension, the arts pose to the zealots of order. It is not just a play of ideas but a work with as much to say to the heart as to the head.

The best scenes, in a play that is strong from start to finish, depict a Czech rocker and a Czech dissident, neither one understanding what motivates the other. Over time, we see the two communities come together for the common purpose of making Czechoslovakia safe for rock and roll and the rule of law. At the start, the rockers were completely apolitical, if not anti-political. And the dissidents thought the rockers were just a bunch of irresponsible narcissists. But the enjoyment of disorder depends on the protections of law, as the play demonstrates.

Dan and I spent much of the evening discussing it, and he said something important: that we commonly speak of law and order yet the two are often at odds, and many people want order without law. I agree. The two should be joined not by the conjunction 'and' but by the disjunction 'or'. What every fascist/communist/authoritarian has in common is a contempt for parliamentary democracy and a lust for a strong executive to impose order on society. And they generally don't like long hair on men, rowdy music, or fabulousness in general.

The zeal for order is driven by fear. I don't mean the cynical manipulation of other people's fear, but the systematic attempt to dispel fear and uncertainty from our lives. I'm a strong believer in taking demagogues and fear-mongers at their word. People like Dick Cheney and Generalissimo Franco spread fear because they feel fear. I have no doubt that they honestly and truly believe that law stands in the way of making the world a safer place. But it is precisely law itself that makes the world safe for all of us.

An artist or an intellectually curious person in general is usually someone who tolerates fear, uncertainty, and ambiguity, and may even welcome them. He or she is someone who actively seeks the thrill of a loud, distorted guitar, or likes not knowing what to make of some funky new painting, or is prepared, without hesitation, to lay it all on the line at the karaoke bar.

Without the safeguards in place that keep the rule of law above the prejudices of the powerful, nothing we do would be safe: not theatre, not dancing, not blogging, not kite-flying. The zealots of order abuse the apparatus of the state to expel disorder wherever they find it. The misfits of the world are only safe so long as law protects us from the rest. In short, we need law to save us from order. Order, when elevated above law, would kill us all. Disorder will set us free.