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22 January 2010


Matins: Rebecca Solnit addresses media complicity in the property-rights racket of post-disaster "looting." (Guernica; via The Rumpus)

Soon after almost every disaster the crimes begin: ruthless, selfish, indifferent to human suffering, and generating far more suffering. The perpetrators go unpunished and live to commit further crimes against humanity. They care less for human life than for property. They act without regard for consequences.

I’m talking, of course, about those members of the mass media whose misrepresentation of what goes on in disaster often abets and justifies a second wave of disaster. I’m talking about the treatment of sufferers as criminals, both on the ground and in the news, and the endorsement of a shift of resources from rescue to property patrol. They still have blood on their hands from Hurricane Katrina, and they are staining themselves anew in Haiti.

Within days of the Haitian earthquake, for example, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of photographs with captions that kept deploying the word “looting.” One was of a man lying face down on the ground with this caption: “A Haitian police officer ties up a suspected looter who was carrying a bag of evaporated milk.” The man’s sweaty face looks up at the camera, beseeching, anguished.

Lauds: London art critic Jonathan James asks: "Should critics point out how exhibitions could have been done differently?"

In other words, it seems to be expected that if an exhibition does more or less what it says on the tin, and gets a reasonable attendance, it deserves a soft ride from the critics. By this criterion, the job of a reviewer is not to think about larger, long-term issues of the policy of galleries, or the overall picture of art they present, but always to remain focused on a particular exhibition without any wider consideration of its purpose.

We think that Mr Jones is exactly wrong about a critic's principal duty: motivating the public to see and hear things. There's a place for considering the purposes of exhibitions and such, but it is not in the daily critic's commentary. Mr Jones confuses stock and flow. (Guardian)

Prime: Megan McArdle assesses yesterday's White House banking proposals. In passing, she notes the witlessness of Big Banking's business-as-usual behavior in 2009. (The Atlantic)

One thing is clear, though:  the banks screwed up.  As I've been saying for months now, it was a simply gigantic mistake to seek huge profits and big bonus pools. Yes, I know that they were competing for talent with foreign banks.  Well, they kept the talent, and now it looks like they may well lose the profitable lines of business that they needed the talent for.  Last time I looked, Goldman's proprietary investments made up something like 90% of its profits.  Do they give up their profits, or their implied government guarantee?  Either move is going to hurt, which is why, despite reporting record profits today, Goldman's stock is down 4% at this writing.

Ms McArdle's expecatation that the legislation will hurt New York will probably be what ensures passage.

Tierce: Terry Teachout still seems surprised by the popularity of Pops, his life of Louis Armstrong. It has kept him exhilaratingly yet worryingly busy. (About Last Night)

In 1971 Bill Buckley wrote a book called Cruising Speed in which he described a week in his own horrendously crowded life. At the end he pauses for a moment to consider a letter he had just received from "Herbert," a historian who urged him to turn from his incessant public pursuits and spend more time in intellectual contemplation. "What will be your thoughts," Herbert wrote, "if when you come to your deathbed you look back and realize that all your life amounted to no more than one big highly successful game of power and self-glorification?"

The letter brought Bill up short, and caused him to ask of himself the hard questions that can be found in the penultimate paragraph of Cruising Speed:

Herbert is hauntingly right--c'est que la vérité qui blesse--what are my reserves? How will I satisfy them, who listen to me today, tomorrow? Hell, how will I satisfy myself tomorrow, satisfying myself so imperfectly, which is not to say insufficiently, today; at cruising speed?

I have been no less haunted by that passage ever since I first read it years ago. It never occurred to me to ask Bill about it--I didn't know him well enough--but I wondered when he died in 2008 whether he was still asking himself the same questions. I'm asking them of myself now, and so far I don't have any answers, good or bad.

Sext: Liz Colville treats us to a parody preview of Elizabeth Gilbert's as-of-yet untitled next book. (The Awl)

It started with a notion that I had nothing to write about. I'd heard married writers tell me this, that once they got hitched they returned to their desks and found that matrimony was like the sound of crickets rubbing their legs together in the trees outside my house here in Argentina. Not that clichéd idea of crickets-as-vapidity—tumbleweed blowing in the wind—but crickets as deafening monotone, crushing imagination with their every knee-knock. But what was actually causing the sound? Was it the writers rubbing their legs together, obsessing over each other, their marriage, as if it were a career or a child? Or was it something more complex—the writer rubbing up against the fear that her best years were behind her, that marriage was closing the lid on the Pandora's box that could be her life, and seemed, from this vantage point, to have been her life up until the exchange of vows (Pandora’s box transformed into a coffin)? Or was it the writer rubbing up against the sound of Jonathan Franzen ridiculing his under-published ex-wife at a dinner table full of publishing giants? Or was it just the sound that the Internet made when it traveled to the writer's head, distracting her for hours and hours, yet so beloved to her that she would rather blame her spouse on her downfall than it?

Nones: Here's a headline: "Accord Reached to Let Honduran President Depart." Only problem: Guess Who hasn't signed on. Elisabeth Malkin reports. (NYT)

The accord, which was signed Wednesday by the incoming Honduran president, Porfirio Lobo, and President Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic, would guarantee Mr. Zelaya full rights, which would allow him to travel and speak publicly.

Mr. Zelaya, who was overthrown in a coup last June, called the proposal “a good gesture” and said that he would study it, the Honduran media reported.

Not to worry. BBC News:

In Honduras, Mr Zelaya confirmed that the agreement had been reached, the AFP reports.

But wait! Just what is Mr Zelaya confirming? And will his departure for the Dominican Republic really be the end of this story?

Vespers: Martin Schneider considers the possibility that the number of "game-changing" non-fiction books has been dwindling.

We were talking about safety standards or some such topic, and someone mentioned Ralph Nader's 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, which did so much to bring the subject of automotive safety into the public discourse. Then someone made a trenchant point: In the postwar era there were quite a few non-fiction books that had a profound impact on society, of which category Unsafe at Any Speed serves as an excellent paradigm. What are those books for our era?

We had a fairly difficult time thinking of more than about two.

This basic situation, the feeling that there used to be many books profoundly influencing society and the apparent reality that there are no longer very many such books, can lead further discussion in a few different directions.

Don't miss the list of important books from the period 1955-1975 — a lot of them still look important to us, especially that game-changiest of paradigm shifting books, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). It was a thrilling read five or six years later, when it figured in the Editor's assigned reading at college. (Emdashes)

Compline: "Thorstein Veblen" celebrates the first anniversary of Economists For Firing Larry Summers by renewing the appeal implicit in his Web log's title.

In any case, the site was founded because, even before the inauguration, I was worried sick when I learned that Larry Summers would play a substantial role in the administration. I felt that the Democrats, with Obama, had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make change, and I was concerned that Larry Summers would lead Obama, and the Democrats, into a ditch.

Unfortunately, I was right.

My recommendation for Obama is to fire and replace his entire economic staff. They had their chance to sink or swim. They told him the economy would get better, and that a small stimulus was all that was needed to fix the economy. They were wrong. They sunk.

Dear Mr President!

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