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Here are more political musings for this highly political fortnight. Let’s start with a basic assumption. Donald Trump is not worthy of anyone’s vote until he releases his tax returns. That is the basic price of entry into politics. Until he shows otherwise, we can just assume his scammy casinos and fraudulent colleges are bankrupt and all of his money comes from the Russian government. We do not even need to get to the parts about him being an ignoramus, a bully, a fraudster, and a, um, fascist who would upend decades of international peace, progress, and prosperity for his own naked self-aggrandizement.
So, it looks as though we are supporting the Democrats this year no matter what their circus…er, caucus looks like…but what does their circus look like? After blogging last week about the Republican convention in Cleveland, it is necessary to say something about the Democratic convention this week in Philadelphia. So far the Democratic convention has certainly been glitzy–with all sorts of high-profile show-biz folk. After a colorful opening day during which diehard Bernie Sanders supporters disrupted the proceedings, things have settled down and the grand Kabuki of party reconciliation is proceeding apace. I was also pleased to see the current president return to his finest form with a moving speech about Americans coming together around values like decency, hard work, and responsibility. Where has this kind of soaring speech been during his presidency?
At heart, I am a believer in our world of capitalism, free markets, and open trade (although I don’t especially love the way the market panders to comfort over meaning). I don’t think people are as different as the Trumps (or even the Jesse Jacksons) make them out to be. I am a social liberal. The theocrats need to keep their imaginary gods (and their very real inquisitors) out of people’s private lives.
I also believe in classical liberal economics (although I use that phrase in a sort of 19th century way which will hopefully not confuse people). I read The Wealth of Nations, and I was convinced by Adam Smith’s arguments. However, the part of that book which nobody talks about is the part about monopolies (which Smith saw as anathema to his system). Large corporations merge into immense corporations, which then become nearly impossible for upstarts to dislodge. Such corporations can and do play havoc in the market. They alter regulations to throttle competitors. They fix prices so that everyone pays more. Our version of capitalism may not actually be capitalism, but is instead its hijacked successor.
The rentiers who gain greatly from operating these monopolies (or cartels or duopolies) need to keep them from being disrupted by the only force large enough to do so: the Federal government. The Republicans…the real Republicans who have seemingly vanished overnight played a cynical game where they accumulated electoral gains by telling people not to believe in government or politicians and then collecting campaign money and post-career favors from the too-big-to fail titans. The business interests have an easier time writing their own ticket, and minimizing the uncertainties which stem from rapid technological innovation and globalization.
However that is a cynical way of looking at politics, and we can’t afford to be cynical. Also, when I talk to thoughtful conservatives they say what I just said, except they strongly aver that it is the Democrats who have been taken over by moneyed interests. I don’t disagree, but the sheer extent to which Republicans have acted to paralyze and undermine government makes me think of them as the true malefactors. Is there a way to make things better?
During his stump speech on Tuesday night, Bill Clinton said, “Change is hard and can be boring” I have not found this to be true. Change for the better is hard. It is exceedingly easy to make things worse. I keep looking on Facebook and seeing my old scoutmaster from red America lambasting the Democrats and praising Trump, and it fills me with sadness. What does he imagine in going to happen? We will start a trade war (or a war war) with China, and suddenly it will be 1963? Erecting trade barriers (or literal barriers) will make the cost of goods and services leap through the roof and we will be in a recession that makes the one from 2008 look like a jolly day trip. Even then protectionism and isolationism will not fill up factories with high paid workers—those days are gone forever. If we betray our longstanding allies suddenly the world will be unimaginably dangerous…and we will have no friends. Our power and prestige could evaporate overnight: such things are made of networks and handshakes and treaties and beliefs. For that matter so is money (which is just promises in a database somewhere).
So we have to love the Democrats. Thoughtful people may disagree about some of their positions, but we have no choice but to back them this year. Frankly I have never had much love for the Republicans’ world of religious authoritarianism, intrusive rules about substances and bodies, censors, and unfettered cash worship anyway. The things the Republicans represent which I do love are the belief in a robust military and the desire to throw money at technological progress (which is an entirely necessary requirement for having a worthwhile military in our world of super computers, nano-materials, and space technology). Blue sky research is also the way to have a vibrant economy tomorrow, and maybe to stay ahead of humankind’s terrifying negative impact on the world ecosystems. This year, the Republicans are not interested in improving the military or pushing science forward (they even stopped Newt Gingrich from going on about his moonbase) so screw ‘em.
Hillary was not born as some cold spoiled oligarch—she worked hard to become one. She has substantial brains and a steely work ethic. She needs to stand up for the networked world. This is going to mean working with the corporate hegemons—the same monopolies I was bemoaning two paragraphs ago. It is going to mean some unpalatable compromises with unsavory corporations, countries, and coalitions. Yet we know Hilary has a knack for this sort of ugly work. She also has kind of a flinty look—like she could be another Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel…our own formidable iron lady!
Tonight she is going to look us in the eye and tell us she loves us all and wants to hug us and that she will work tirelessly to make us richer and more free. Then she will turn around, go into a smoky backroom somewhere, and make very different promises to the great masters (neither they, nor anyone else, can trust Trump–so they are going to have to deal with her). This saddens me, I wish we could hear about these actual plans for grown-ups rather than whatever airy waffle Hilary serves up in tonight’s speech. But this year has made it all too obvious that people must be talked to as though they are childish idiots.
I guess I am with her. We can keep muddling forward together to greatness. Hilary for President!
(at least she looks happy to have my support–and that is a very cool twill!)
It has been a while since Ferrebeekeeper has written about politics. This is partly because everything everywhere this year has been about politics, and I wanted a break from the relentless annoying noise (at least in my own little patch of the internet). Also, in general it seems like the vastly increased media/internet attention has not led to better outcomes: instead the “anything for clicks” mentality has made a volatile situation worse. Also I did not want to fan the flames by writing about Donald Trump. Like the screaming kid grabbing people’s hair and kicking desks in 5th grade, he draws his strength from demanding all of our attention. If we could just ignore him, he would lose his dark power to enthrall.
But, now that Donald Trump is officially the candidate of the Republican Party, my strategy of pointedly ignoring him has failed. It is time to actually pay attention to a clickbait election so shrill and mean-spirited that it makes one long for the days of Andrew Jackson, Polk, Goldwater, or even Nixon….
Except of course we don’t really long for such things. Those days are gone and good riddance. Saying otherwise is hyperbole; and hyperbole is our enemy right now. The Republican Convention makes it sound like we are all going to die. “Enemies are at the gate! Our cities are coming apart because of violence and dissembling immigrants! Economic depression and stagnation will doom us all to servitude and starvation!” This is a dishonest and dangerous strategy. It will fail in unexpected and dangerous ways.
I grew up at the end of the Cold War, and I was an anxious child. I read things and knew about the state of world affairs back then. It seemed pretty improbable that we would survive an era when twitchy old men with endless arrays of poorly computerized nuclear weapons stared unblinking across the world at each other. Looking back at those times with nostalgia is madness! The fact that we didn’t all perish in nuclear hellfire sometime between the fifties and the nineties is a miracle. This world is all gravy—an improbable bonus round (and, let’s face it, the fact that we have this impossibly ephemeral bubble of consciousness between two infinities of oblivion is already pretty miraculous).
Yet Cold War shadows linger: the conflict was a decades-long existential crisis which caused us to come together and work in tandem. It demanded good leadership and lockstep order at home, and the gravity of the fight allowed us certain freedoms abroad. Now that the long grim conflict is over, we have great opportunities: opportunities of being closer to other nations and helping people. We can undo some of the great power meddling which was necessary to win that conflict (while making goods and services cheaper for everyone). We can learn astonishing new things. All of humankind can move forward to a brighter world where everyone has opportunities. However to get to such a place will require creative thinking, nimble pursuit of rapidly-changing opportunities, and the ability to adapt quickly to surprising circumstances.
The Republicans make it sound like they want to go back to the past. But, for goodness’ sake, we don’t want to go back to a time when everyone could die because of a rogue bear! And if they want to go back to the time just after the Cold War, when America was the only great power, well it wasn’t a Trump who was in the White House then. In fact we know exactly what Trump was up to during that time because New Yorkers lived through it.
I have lived in Brooklyn a long time, and New Yorkers know Trump. He has refined his act here. There have been times when Trump’s hair-pulling hissy fits and histrionics (and spouse abuse and mistresses and bankruptcies) have sucked up all the oxygen in the local tabloids. It has given us a measure of immunity to his damnable act…and a valuable insight about his nature. Like liars who talk about truth all of the time, or broke people who talk about money with every breath, Trump talks incessantly about winning. It is not because he is a winner.
So here is what is going to happen in this election: This is the biggest act of Trump’s mendacious life and he is going to lose spectacularly to a woman. He will drag his ticket down with him, but not so much that we can escape the deadlock which is hurting our nation by preventing us from researching and creating.
You definitely need to vote, and you need to pay attention, but also remember that, in the bigger picture, things are ok. Don’t be afraid! What people say about the end of America isn’t true. Race relations are improving. People are being drawn out of poverty. The pie is getting bigger here and abroad (although the pie hogs are getting stronger and more shameless too). Heck, even if Trump gets elected through some nightmare circumstance, America has survived presidents who were ninnies, racists, incompetents, or even in a coma.
Or all of the above
We need to put on our grown-up clothes and calm our anxieties and deal with a world of great change and great opportunity. Now excuse me while I go back to ignoring politics and send out some applications and proposals.
Ferrebeekeeper has a longstanding obsession with Gothic concepts and forms. We have explored the long strange historical roots of the Goths (which stretched back to the time of the Roman Empire and the northern corners of Europe), and looked at Gothic aesthetics ranging from clocks, to beds, to gates, to houses, to alphabets, to cathedrals. Today’s Gothic-themed post straddles the divide between literature and architecture. We already saw such a two discipline dynamic at work with the beginning of the Gothic revival, an aesthetic movement which grew up out of a popular novel The Castle of Otranto.
The term “Steamboat Gothic” is sort of a reverse case. In 1952, Frances Parkinson Keyes published “Steamboat Gothic” a long-winded romantic novel about the lives and loves of a riverboat gambler and his progeny as they pursue their fortunes over generations beside the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. After the novel came out the great 19th century wedding cake mansions of columns and porches which stood along these rivers came to be known as “steamboat gothic.” This beautiful filigree style was thought to resemble the many tiered decks of great southern steamboats from the belle epoque of river travel.
Many different Victorian design trends come together in “steamboat gothic”–the Italianate, Gothic revival, and Carpenter’s Gothic mix together with style trends like Greek revival and “nautical.” The mixture simultaneously evokes the beauties of classical antiquity, the ante-bellum south, and 19th century middle America.
Look at these beautiful porches and porticoes. I wish I were on the veranda of one of these beauties sipping lemonade and looking out over the river (although really I would probably be being bitten by mosquitoes as I desperately painted yet another layer of snow white paint on a big empty house).
The other day I rashly promised a post about Juno—or I will call her “Hera” since the Greeks invented her (?) and their name is more euphonic. Immediately though it became obvious that writing about the queen of the gods is not as simple as it seems. Hera plays the villain in many myths—particularly those of Heracles (indeed, her name is his name: Heracles means “Hera’s man”). She is a great and terrible antagonist–even more so than giant sentient animals, or super dragons, or the dark monstrous deities of the underworld. But why is that? How can a regal woman be so much worse than the gods of charnel darkness and stygian torture?
Hera is the eldest daughter of Rhea and Cronus. She was devoured by her father at infancy, but escaped (via mustard emetic) and joined her brothers and sisters fighting against the titans for world domination. Once the battle was won, she initially rebuffed the romantic overtures of her youngest and strongest brother, Zeus. The king of the gods then took the form of a bedraggled cuckoo and cunningly played upon her sympathy for small injured creatures in order to win her heart and her hand. After their marriage, however, Hera played the cuckoo in their relationship as Zeus dallied with goddesses, nymphs, and comely mortals of all sorts. Classical mythology is pervaded by a sense that Zeus, king of the gods and lord of creation who fears nothing (except for being replaced by a strong son) is extremely afraid of Hera. She is often portrayed as jealously lashing out at Zeus’ paramours and their offspring…or otherwise punishing those who act against her will or fail to pay her sufficient respect.
Hera’s animals are the lion, the cow, and the peacock (she put the hundred eyes of her dead servant Argus on the bird’s tail to give it even greater beauty). Her emblems are the throne, the chariot, the scepter, and the crown. She is sometimes portrayed wearing a strange cylindrical crown of archaic pre-Greek shape (which may indicate that she was a goddess of power borrowed from a pre-Greek society).
Hera tends to be portrayed as a rich powerful woman of a higher class who barely deigns to notice her inferiors. She is the goddess of women, marriage, wealth, success, and (above all) power. Her children are Ares, Hephaestus, Eileithyia (the goddess of childbirth), cruel Eris, and beautiful Hebe, the goddess of youth who married Hercules after his apotheosis.
Have you read “The Three Musketeers”? After spending the entire book struggling against the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu, the hero prevails and join forces with…Cardinal Richelieu. Power is like that, and so is Hera. She can’t effectively be fought against. The world is hers. She can only be appeased or beguiled… or served outright.
The way upwards is not through deeds of merit, or valorous acts, or fighting monsters—it is through political wiles, networking, and figuring out how to please extremely rich powerful people who are impossible to please and implacably oppose regarding you as any sort of equal.
Some of my favorite colors are orange-pinks. These lovely hues have a glowing warmth which evokes summer (and human skin). They seem particularly bright in the magic hour of summer sunset as golden light gilds the world.
However orange pink colors are somewhat lacking when it comes to beautiful names. My pencil box is filled with evocatively named green pencils, but the orange ones tend to be named “orange”. One of my favorite colors in my paintbox goes by the unlovely name “Italian brown-pink.”
However, I just found out about the color “bittersweet” a beautiful mid-to-bright orange-pink. The name has a long pedigree—going back to the nineteenth century (a shocking number of familiar colors have names from the late twentieth century). Bittersweet suggests an ending which is satisfying…barely, and I though the name of the color was some sort of thoughtful moral reflection about the nineteenth century overall, however it turns out that the color is named for the bittersweet vine, a flowering vine which strangles trees and which causes vomiting if eaten. Hmm…why is the beauty of the world always so muddled up with ambiguous and alarming things? The effect is positively…bittersweet
The 2016 Olympics are fast approaching and they have the potential to be all too interesting. The Brazilian government has been mired in a serious executive political crisis. The Brazilian economy is melting down. There is a crimewave in Rio AND the beautiful tropical city is at the epicenter of the Zika crisis. Pundits are predicting disaster, but I am still hopeful that Brazil can pull it off. My cautious optimism stems partly from love of international sports; partly from the desire to see tropical dance spectaculars featuring samba dancers & bizarre floats; and partly from morbid curiosity.
But before we get to the 2016 Summer Olympics there is business to discuss concerning the 2018 Winter Olympics. Ferrebeekeeper tries to stay abreast of mascots because there is larger symbolic meaning in these cartoonish corporate figureheads. Behold “Soohorang,” the white tiger mascot of the 2018 Winter Olympics to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Real tigers are magnificent, stately, adorable, and terrifying–so they make good mascots. The last Korean Olympics, the Seoul Summer Olympics of 1988 had an orange and black Amur tiger mascot “Hodori” (below) who was pretty endearing. Unfortunately Soohorang is a bit too digitally rendered to look like anything other than the output of a committee and a graphics design team.
According to the June 2nd press statement at Olympics.org,“In mythology, the white tiger was viewed as a guardian that helped protect the country and its people. The mascot’s colour also evokes its connection to the snow and ice of winter sports.” I guess white tigers are special in Korean and Indian mythology, but in Chinese mythology the white tiger is a monster which symbolically represents the west and death.
Now that a mascot has been chosen, we can start looking forward to the 2018 winter Olympics in the north of South Korea (somehow the Olympic committee found the one place that is the focus of even more socio-political tension than the Black Sea). In the mean time the Summer Olympics is fast approaching. Why not sit back and pour yourself a Cachaça, read about the Brazilian mascot “Vinicius” (pictured at the top of this article, playing on and around a cable car in an unsafe manner) and start preparing for the games.
Cockerel Cycle and French Cruller (Wayne Ferrebee, 2014, oil on panel)
It’s National Doughnut Day! To celebrate, here are two paintings from my Microcosmic Doughnut Series. Topologists and astrophysicists posit that our universe has a toroid shape—so I have combined my disparate background in history, toymaking, natural history, and Flemish-style painting to craft doughnut-shaped microcosms. Within these intricate cosmological confections, people and animals from throughout time converge in a never-ending circle—in the manner of the water cycle, the Krebs diagram, or an ouroboros. Thus the individual elements in these paintings not only have metaphorical significance, they are also part of a dynamic larger picture. Each landscape of dynamically intertwined symbols represents the cycles within individual life, history, or biology. Each little doughnut painting is its own self-contained world; yet, taken in aggregate, the individual stories of predators and prey, metabolism, historicism, world trade, or biorhythms of organisms signify even larger cycles of creation and destruction not readily discernible from the fixed perspective of an individual life. For example, the one above is about a classical French bon-vivant…or maybe it is about frogs or about cocks or chicken eggs. There is also a fertility aspect to it (not to mention a French cruller in the middle).
Furnace Doughnut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, oil on panel)
This second painting is less easily explained. A variety of brightly colored synthetic organisms fly up out of a baker’s furnace. Above the mysterious swarm, a humanoid figure in an asbestos suit and a blue-hot dragon spray fire on a salamander which basks in the radiant pure energy. Blue-black gothic stoves dance around beneath the centerpiece of the composition: a glowing lava doughnut congealing out of the primal kitchen…or is it just a delicious glazed doughnut with chocolate icing and an orange squiggle? The whole scene makes me hungry for cheap baked pastries…and for raw creation. Now I’m off to paint some more. Let me know what you think (and enjoy Doughnut Day with your loved ones).
In a long-ago post, Ferrebeekeeper wrote about the Ordovician–the age of mollusks–when big predatory cephalopods and gastropods overtopped nascent vertebrates as the apex predators of the world oceans. Cephalopods are fiercely intelligent, incredibly fast, and astonishing at camouflage. They can be infinitesimally small or remarkably large. They can even be transparent. However they don’t last well—they are squishy and even if they aren’t eaten they have very short lives. One of the most vivid memories of my adolescence was watching cuttlefish hover and change colors and feed with bullet-fast grabber arms at the National Zoo. The memory comes with a dark post-script. I returned a few months later with friends, only to find that the cuttlefish had entered a bizarre unnatural senescence and were literally falling apart at the seams. They do not die of old age in the ocean; something always eats them.
But this is no longer the lovely Holocene with its oceans full of fish and skies full of birds. We have entered the Anthropocene—an age of hot acid oceans filled with Japanese trawlers bent on catching every last fish in the sea by means of nets the size of Rhode Island. Suddenly it is not so beneficial to be a big bony ancient fish with hard scales and sharp teeth. The teleosts and the cartilaginous fish are being physically pulled out of the ocean by humans. It takes them too long to reproduce and rebuild their numbers (even as national governments subsidize fishermen to build more and larger fishing boats). The age of fish—which has lasted from the Devonian (420 million years ago) until now—is ending. So a new scramble to exploit the great open niches in the seas is beginning.
Unexpected life forms are flourishing. The sea floors are filling up with lobsters, which have not been so prevalent in a long time. Giant jellyfish are appearing in never-before-seen numbers. However it is beginning to seem like the greatest beneficiaries may be the cephalopods. Mollusks with shells are having their own troubles–as the carbonic acid oceans eat at their calcium shells, but the octopus, squid, and cuttlefish have no such problems. Not only are they well suited for tropical waters, they rcan also reproduce so fast that they can keep ahead of human’s bottomless appetite. A single squid egg cluster can have millions of eggs inside.
Cephalopods tend to be generalists—they eat all sorts of things including booming micro-invertebrates and jellyfish. They are clever enough and malleable enough to slip out of all sorts of hazards. Their swift lives are a boon. Because they reproduce so quickly and prolifically, they evolve quickly too—a necessity in our 24 hour world (as all sorts of out-of-work journalists, lamp lighters, factory workers, and saddlemakers could tell you). I wonder if in a few million years the waters will glow with great shoals of exotic tentacle beasts we have scarcely imagined. Will there be fast marlin-type squids with rapiers on their mantles and huge whale-shark type octopuses skimming the phytoplankton with their own giant nets? Will the skies darken with flying squids and the sea floor change colors as tens of thousands of cuttlefish take the roles of reef fish and reef alike?
It is possible. The world is changing faster than we would like to admit—becoming something brand new—becoming something very old.
A lot of conceptual art strikes me as being perhaps a bit [cough] lazy. The concept is forced to stand in for the elegance and beauty of masterful craft. But here is a sculpture where the concept and the craft are both amazing: the work doubles as a lovely artwork and as a story of truly ecumenical breadth. The synthesis is sublime. This is “Hollow” a 2016 sculpture by the Berlin-based Glaswegian artist Katie Paterson.
“Hollow” is a folly grotto in the historic Royal Fort Gardens of Bristol. It looks a bit like a wooden megalith from the outside, but inside it becomes a magical proliferation of thousands of rectangular solids made of wood which give the simultaneous effect of a comfortable wooden grotto and an otherworldly scene from religion or abstract mathematics. The rectangular shapes are all wood and all clearly belong together. Yet the pieces are all different colors, densities and textures because they represents all trees…ever.
Paterson traveled the world gathering more than 10,000 samples of every known species—from trees young and old; from taxa alive and those long extinct. There are petrified remnants of the first forests which sprang up 390 million years old, and bits of the horsetails which preceded those. There are slivers of genera long gone, which now exist only as rare museum specimens. There are pieces of historically significant trees like “Methusela” the oldest known Bristlecone pine…and from clonal colony giants like Pando. There are also hunks of historically meaningful trees like a surviving gingko from Hiroshima, the Fortingall Yew, and suchlike. There are human stories aplenty, but they are dwarfed and transcended by the majesty of arboreal diversity and development through the ages.
The piece is indeed hollow and it is illuminated only by the Earth’s sun, as is entirely proper for a piece about trees (which live even more in tandem with our star, than other life forms—though each living thing depends on it). We humans come from an arboreal order, and the worship of trees is nearly universal (sacred trees sprout up up even in hardnosed monotheistic faiths like Islam and Christianity) yet trees are so much older than us…or even than mammals. The full story of trees exists in deep time which is difficult to comprehend in a meaningful way. “Hollow” is a microcosmic sculpture which endeavors to present a sliver of this complexity. The work succeeds in enshrining both the abstruse sacred quality of trees and the real nature of their diversity and long history here on Earth.