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I have been wanting to write about a troubling news story from the summer, but every time I start, I get frustrated by the shortsighted selfishness which has overtaken our culture. Sometimes it seems like the very fate of our society and our planet is writ in this regional fishing controversy. Naturally it is a story about flounder—more specifically, the summer fluke, (Paralichthys dentatus). These fish are beloved by commercial and recreational fishermen who catch millions of pounds of the flatfish between Maine and the Carolinas.

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Unfortunately, the ever-growing hordes of fishermen have grown too numerous and rapacious for the poor flounder to replenish themselves. The summer fluke fishery on the East Coast of the United States has been collapsing this summer (2017). The Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office “has determined that fluke are being overfished, with an estimated population that is 42 percent below the level regulators consider to be sustainable.” To keep the flounder alive for future generations of anglers, the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office imposed new restrictions on how many fish can be caught and killed.
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Here is where the story takes a peculiar turn. Wilbur Louis Ross Junior “The King of Bankruptcy” is a billionaire banker and vulture capitalist. When Donald Trump’s casinos went bankrupt due to mismanagement, overspending, and bad deals, Ross stepped in to restructure the casinos, bail out Trump, and dump the bad debt onto others. This has had a lot of consequences, but one of them is that Ross is now the United States Secretary of Commerce.

When New Jersey’s charter captains, commercial fishermen, and sundry interested parties who make a living off flounder, heard about this year’s reduced catch limits, they wrote up a counter-proposal (which involved catching a lot more fish than recommended)—and they presented this plan directly to the Secretary of Commerce (who is originally from New Jersey and has some of his palatial mansions and nine figure art collection there).

Naturally Wilbur Louis Ross Junior could not care less about the fate of a species of fish. He happily overrode the catch limitations on summer fluke. After all it makes fishermen happy and who cares about the opinion of NOAA scientists? Indeed, the NOAA is a division of the Commerce Department and it turns out that its real purpose is not to understand the ocean and the atmosphere but to make people like Ross much richer. He is probably out there somewhere right now tenting his fingers and saying “exxxxcelllent!”
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[Here he is marveling at how the subjects of the Saudi king do not dare to protest because they are beautifully afraid]

If only New Jersey and its reckless and uncaring anglers flout the rules and fish their stocks to extinction, summer fluke on the East Coast can probably still rebound, however Ross’ cavalier disregard for the ordinary procedure of fisheries limits and his inability to care about (or understand) the scientists’ rationale for fishing limits raises the all-too-real possibility that other state and national fisheries will no longer be bound by evidence-based rules.

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I suspect many people will regard the summer fluke as an immaterial victim of the corruption which is a more and more the principal feature of American business and politics, yet the flatfish is a keystone species which is located between the small prey and the large predators (I sort of look at them as the middle class of the ocean). Wilbur Louis Ross Junior was born in the thirties. What does he care if one of the dominant species of teleosts in our part of the Atlantic is overfished to the point of vanishing? Yet one would think that the watermen who live in tandem with these flounder and have made their lives off the lives of the fish might care somewhat whether the species lives or dies. I guess that is wrong though. There is a reason Wilbur Ross, The Bankruptcy King” is rich beyond reckoning. He knows how far people will go (way too far) and he knows how to exploit that for himself. I wonder what other decisions will come from the Commerce Department.

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I wanted to quickly write about a great piece of art from the 19th century (or really two great pieces). When Honoré de Balzac died, the city fathers (or the Second Empire…or someone) commissioned a great bronze statue of the (in)famous realist. Balzac was renowned for his larger-than-life personality and for his exuberant personal life. The commissioners of the sculpture found an equally over-the-top realist sculptor to make the statue, Auguste Rodin. Rodin tracked down every daguerreotype and drawing of Balzac. He interviewed Balzac’s mistresses and intimates and went to Balzac’s tailor for exact measurements. He took casts from Balzac’s death mask and did everything but exhume his corpse (presuming he didn’t do that in secret). Then Rodin made a brash sculpture of the great novelist standing nude, with his legs apart and his arms crossed, brooding upon the human comedy.
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The patrons who commissioned the sculpture were predictably aghast (although I like to think Balzac would have been amused–and flatterd by his muscular torso). They demanded that Rodin redo the whole thing–this time properly clothed. Rodin went into a huge huff and he threw a great cowled cloak over the statue (which only showed a tiny portion of Balzac’s brooding countenance). That was that: it was thereafter impossible to get him to work further upon the project. Nobody was satisfied…but the publicity from the controversy made all parties more famous and rebounds down to this day.
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Astonishingly, and somewhat improbably, we are having a great national debate in the United States over nineteenth (and early twentieth) century sculptures (I will write more about that shortly). Eventually, inevitably, the turgid bronzes of rebels, slavers, and secessionists will be taken down or moved (like “The Triumph of Civic Virtue”). However right now they are in limbo. The most controversial of all, the statue of Lee in Charlottesville has had a great tarp cast over it (which improves it no end, to my mind). Seeing gawkers pointing at the plastic cocoon upon a plinth brought a smile to my face and reminded me of Balzac’s statue and all of the trouble that public art causes.

Flounder Show

Hey everyone, my amazing new roommate works at an art gallery in the city’s hottest art district, the Lower East Side. The famous gallerist who runs the place has embarked on an artistic quest…to Tanzania, but she has generously allowed me to use the space for an evening. I hope you will accept my invitation (above) to a show of my flounder artworks which explore the big-fish-eats-little-fish dialectic of history against a backdrop of larger biological themes.

Because of time constraints, the opening IS the show–we are like a beautiful exotic mushroom which pops-up for a single glorious night–but during that one night there will be glowing multi-media delights to satisfy all aesthetic longings! Since you read this blog, I know you have the most refined and intelligent tastes: I hope you can join me then and there.

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We are coming up on the Fourth of July, our national holiday here in America when we all get together to celebrate being American. Mostly we celebrate by blowing things up, eating fattening food, and getting drunk—but whatever…we are after all American and those activities suit our national character. Yet lately there are real troubles in the USA: everyone is always fighting with everyone else over everything. The rich and the poor apparently regard each other as separate species (most unwisely in my humble opinion, since those states, seemingly so infinitely distant are not nearly so far apart as one might suppose). Ethnic and racial groups are sorting apart and clustering together even as like-minded individuals enter into their own echo chambers on the web. Drivers hate pedestrians. Dog owners and cat owners tsk at each other (although both sorts of animals are lovely pets). And beyond everything else there is the yawning chasm down the middle—the chasm between blue and red. This widening political gulf between left and right is paralyzing our nation and leaving us all poorer—both financially and in terms of experience, friendship, and opportunities. I have been disquieted by America’s growing animosity and fractiousness and I really hope you share my unhappiness. This is bad.

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What is going to happen when the latest economic bubble breaks and all of these divisions are thrown into sharp contrast as the money all sluices off to wherever it goes? I am a West Virginian who grew up In southern Ohio, Mainline Philadelphia, and Virginia. I went to college in South Chicago. I have seen red and blue America and they aren’t even that different! I feel like this tribal nastiness is being manufactured just so a bunch of narcissistic freaks can cling to power.
We are going to talk more about how to deal with this in later posts. If our country was united we could solve all of these logistical, moral, and fiscal problems which bedevil us in short order and resume building a future of beauty, meaning, and wonder. We will get there, but to celebrate the Fourth, let’s flee into a starkly different political climate: the past.
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For the 4th of July I decided to peak back through the history of my congressional district, which today is arguably the most diverse in the United States (consisting of unimaginably rich burgher-paradise of Park Slope, the inner city ‘hoods of Brownsville, the vast orthodox Jewish enclaves of Midwood, and the Russian and Central Asian immigrant districts of Sheepshead Bay).
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The history of the 9th Congressional District of New York was hilarious and remarkable. This congressional district has changed shape, color, and composition again and again like a cuttlefish at a rave. It has been redistricted and torn apart and pasted into so many different coalitions and coteries.
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Although it has mostly been a Democratic stronghold (with some congressmen and women who became famous (or infamous)—like Chuck Schumer, Geraldine Ferraro, and Anthony Weiner), there have been a fair number of Republicans representing the 9th District too. However, if you go back far enough there were other affiliations as well: Federalists, Whigs, and more than one candidate who were simply Anti-Jacksonian or “Opposition”. All the first representatives had Dutch names!
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The famous journalist Joseph Pulitzer was a congressman of the ninth district so was Thomas Bradley, a Tammany-era lawyer who died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 31. There were remarkable beards and moustaches aplenty: there were weirdoes and heroes and forgettable placeholders. The only constant was change.
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We Americans aren’t just different in different regions: we change a lot not over time. If you are unhappy now, keep your chin up and keep lobbying to keep the democracy fair, civil, educated, and unbiased. Affairs will work out in the end so long as we remain democratic and bound by fair rules. History keep changing faster than you might think and mostly for the better. That trend will resume and we can start being the UNITED States of America again. We can build bridges instead of walls and canyons (which suits Brooklyn better anyway). Happy Fourth of July!
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My family has an old saying. It is on the darker side of adages, however over the years I have found it to be disconcertingly true. “You become what you hate.” It is a dark truth which operates within the parameters of classical tragedy. Like an oracle’s haunting words, a monster’s riddle, or an evil god’s curse, it is a difficult (or maybe impossible) to escape from this paradoxical trap.
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I was thinking about this troubling concept because of “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” which has been in today’s news because some sponsors dropped out when “Shakespeare In the Park” performed the play with the Roman depot and senators dressed in the garb of contemporary American politicians. Of course, the play is not about how you should go out and kill tyrants (unlike some state seals, Virginia) instead it shows that when the Republic’s defenders abandoned their rules and morals in order to defend their system from a strongman, they ultimately wound up destroying what they were trying to protect. I am unsurprised that people jumped in to condemn something based on its appearance without thinking about what it really meant. People are fools and don’t read! Except…I haven’t read Julius Caesar myself.
Hate has twisted me into an obscurantist…see how fast the curse takes hold!

Anyway. For 8 years we all watched the tea party and the American right work themselves into a froth of hatred over how President Obama was destroying democracy and diminishing America’s standing in the world. They claimed he spent all of his time golfing and was an agent of foreign powers. They said he undemocratically jammed his health plan down our throats without even really knowing what it would accomplish. They said he was a liar, and a fool and a tyrant. Now those same people control the executive and legislative branches of government and just look at what they are doing with their power!

Lately it has become progressively harder to talk about our elected leaders without frothing at the mouth. What is going to happen the next swing of the pendulum? My mild-mannered friends are transmogrifying into harpies sharpening their poisoned talons. If this keeps up, we are not going to get Joe Biden, or Bernie Sanders…we will end up with Pol Pot.
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But I jumped to the national level too fast in this essay. This is a family saying and it is meant to be applied liberally to the user. I remember when I first moved to New York, my father and alluded to morphing into what you hate, so I cleverly said “Well, I will hate the rich.”

He stopped in his tracks and very seriously said “You don’t hate wealthy you hate the twisted avarice which blinds the greedy to everything but wealth. You hate the conceit and arrogance with which the powerful are inclined to treat the world. If you continue in such a vein you will not be rich…but you will become grasping and mean and angry.” Way to ruin the joke, Dad. Except…
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Years later I was in a business. It gradually became evident that my business partner was an alcoholic who was twisted by greed and rage. (Don’t judge. It was so exciting at the beginning and I got to design beautiful toys…and for a while we sold millions of dollars worth of them…until I asked where all the money was going). After our feud ripped the company apart, I denounced this untrustworthy, drunk, venial lout every day over a dozen beers and a lot of uncivil talk until I noticed myself in a swirling mirror: red-faced, bibulous, and angry about that stupid company and the wealth that should have been mine! mine! mine!

So what is the solution? I suppose the Dali Lama, Yoda, or Saint Veronica would advise us not to hate, but, if you have been watching the news and you have a limbic system, you will recognize that this solution works best for rich monks, alien puppets, and long-dead saints. Instead we must keep thinking! It is easy to become what you hate which is why the Middle East is filled with blood feuds, walled ghettos, military police, and mass graves. Be aware of it. Stay mindful of how you are being manipulated, not just by politicians and the media, but by your own heart and mind. We don’t all need to follow the fringes off into their world of despicable vitriol. Put away your puglias and your sharpened tongues. The mind is sharper than such base implements. We need to think about how to reform the system within the parameters left us by our great founders. We need to take the best, brightest, uncorrupted ideas from both sides and build them into an edifice for everyone. Above all, we need to be honest. Not just about how this era is changing those despicable people on the other side* into hateful strangers but how it is doing the same to us.
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It is hard to imagine a color most beautiful than the color green. It is the color of fertility, of mystery, of life itself (which, unless you are an undersea tubeworm, depends on photosynthesis). Green is also the color of Islam. Today is June 8th and I have a short post about a long and complicated subject. June 8th of the year 632 (common era) was the day that the Prophet Muhammad died in Medina in his wife Aisha’s house. Other principle figures of major world religion died in the distant past, or ascended bodily into heaven, or underwent other mysterious supernatural transformations. Muhammad’s end was not like that. He died at a real date and in a real place and he was buried where he expired—in Aisha’s house next to a mosque. Islam subsequently became a mighty force in the world, and the al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina grew into an enormous edifice swallowing up the original house and grave. Muhammad’s final resting place, however is only marked by a somewhat austere green dome (which was built by the Ottoman Turks, many centuries after the time of the Prophet).
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Somewhat shamefully, my feelings about Islam fluctuate greatly based on extraneous circumstances, however I have always liked the green dome enormously on aesthetic grounds (indeed it has become a symbol of Medina and of Islam itself). It is a lovely shape and captivating color. The dome’s touching mixture of subdued grandeur and human scale has protected it from those who have wished to replace it with a grander edifice, and from those who wish to replace it with austere nothingness. The Wahhabi version of Islam, which is ascendant in Saudi Arabia right now, inclines towards the latter view, and some Wahhabi religious scholars have called for the razing of the green dome (an act which would infuriate other Islamic sects). The kings of Saudi Arabia love gaudy finery but they detest antiquities (which speak of a more cosmopolitan and permissive Arabia which existed before their absolutism and their oil-soaked personal opulence). Throughout Saudi Arabia, elegant old buildings have vanished to be replaced with monstrous modern travesties. I wonder if the double-edged sword of Wahhabi asceticism/Saudi decadence will claim the green mosque in the same way it has hollowed out the revelations of Muhammad.
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I have been deeply dissatisfied by contemporary events…so much so that I am going to look away from our time and gaze back through classical antiquity to the Peloponnesian War…but bear with me. Some say there are lessons in history which pertain to current world. The definitive story of the Peloponnesian War is told by Thucydides, an Athenian general who took part in the proceedings and had the grace to explain why he wrote his history (and what he thought his biases were). Thucydides’ great work is arguably the first real work of history but it is also the first great work of political science. The way that leaders manipulated people and events and news turned out to have strange consequences that the protagonists did not foresee (but, in hindsight, clearly should have).
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The war is the story of a fading power being supplanted by a rival. The fading power, Athens, had unrivaled naval supremacy, but the upstart power, Sparta, had an enormous ever-victorious army. Athens had a league of close allies, the Delian league who supported them and were a great source of their strength (a fact not always appreciated by the proud Athenians). Many American theorists of the Cold War found these principal characters disturbingly familiar—a broad-minded yet imperialistic democracy versus an autocracy where all aspects of life were controlled by the state. Even the style of the nations seemed familiar—a nation based on wealth and trade and webs of friendship (and superior naval technology and prowess) versus a thuggish nation which ham-fistedly squashed its rivals into submission and dominated the battlefield through numbers and pure aggression.

Enough backstory. Let’s get to the central point. At the moral heart of the book is the story of the Siege of Melos.
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Melos (which should be familiar to sculpture fans as the discovery place of the Venus de Milo) was a small yet prosperous island originally colonized by Dorian people, who shared cultural heritage with the Spartans. Despite this cultural background, the Melians remained neutral in the war, until one day the Athenians showed up demanding punitive monetary tribute and other concessions. The Melians argued that they were neutral and Athens was in the wrong. Surely the Spartans (or perhaps the gods) would come to the rescue of Melos if the Athenians abused their military supremacy for a very slight monetary/strategic gain. The Athenians, who had lost some of their famed thoughtfulness through the exigencies of war and political struggle responded by laying siege to Melos. When starvation forced the little city state to surrender, the Athenians executed all of the adult men and took the Melian women and children as slaves. Afterwards, the island was repopulated entirely by Athenian colonists.
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This…lapse…shocked the people of Athens (Euripides’ agonizing “Trojan Women” which came out shortly afterwards is a story of the writer’s own time clothed in a story about a bygone age). The brazen, terrible behavior also shocked the allies of Athens. Perhaps that was actually the point: to remind recalcitrant allies that the Athenians were strong enough to be brutal and act for naked self-interest.
But, despite the ostentatious show of naked power, the conquest of Melos did not help Athens very much. In a world where Athens and Sparta seemed increasingly alike, the old alliances broke apart. Also, Athens was not as good at autocracy or thuggery as the Spartans (who, by the way, DID show up to avenge Melos and kill off the Athenian colonists). Back in Attica, things got worse and worse. The story of the first great democracy became an increasingly dark tale of venal & selfish leaders—demagogues—who were replaced willy-nilly by the fickle mob. Factions fought each other more vehemently than they fought the Spartans.

When China…uh, I mean Sparta! finally won the war it behaved with much greater leniency and restraint than the Athenians showed the Melians. The Spartans installed a crooked counsel of oligarchs (who had maybe been pushing Spartan interests there at the end). The Greek golden age was over.
Political scientists tend to think the Melian story illustrates the principal of “might makes right” (I left out the famous back-and-forth dialogue, which you should definitely read about on your own). Yet perhaps there are larger lessons to the larger story.
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Thoughtful citizens might extrapolate that a nation is only as powerful as its allies and its leaders of the moment…and friendship and admiration can be easily squandered for very little gain. Throughout secondary school I was always taught that democracy is clearly superior in every way to every other system. Thucydides’ history reminds us that there are dark perils inherent within the very nature of group rule. Our classically minded founders knew this story and thought about it a great deal. It is unclear whether today’s legislators (or citizens) have given as much heed to the lessons of how Athens abandoned its principles and treated its friends like underlings and split into antagonistic factions and was swiftly broken to bits like a vase bumped off a plinth.
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I was looking forward to writing about that crown that was stolen in Germany…but I guess we will have to wait until tomorrow to talk about stolen crowns. Today the President of the United States, the famous New York real estate conman Donald Trump, fired the Director of the FBI for investigating the extent to which the Trump electoral team colluded with the Russian effort to undermine or taint the American election. This was, of course, not the reason given for Comey’s summary dismissal, but it is exceedingly difficult to draw any other conclusion. Director Comey was a divisive and flawed figure in his own right. Some eminent neutral observers blame his strange behavior last year for Hilary Clinton’s shocking electoral loss. However, now that he has gone off to join Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, and everyone else who has investigated Trump, it is looking like he was the best FBI Director we are likely to get. Who knows what cartoonishly malevolent or benighted figure the administration will dig up to replace him?
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The whole episode paints a disturbing picture–but the dark image which is emerging is hardly unexpected to anyone who has any familiarity with Donald Trump.
Trump reminds me of a naked drunkard dancing on banana peels at the top of a tall slippery marble staircase with a huge ornate cake at the bottom. It seems like there is only one way this scenario could possibly end, and yet his comeuppance keeps on being deferred by the increasingly irrational and cowardly behavior of everyone else. Trump is an old man who lives on steak and hamburger and does not exercise, it is possible he will manage to escape falling into the cake (or, to be less allegorical: he might avoid impeachment and prison because of a massive coronary). Yet, as we all breathlessly await his tragicomic downfall, he is doing terrible damage to institutions the nation really needs, and he is undermining our faith in each other and ourselves.

A few years ago, I was talking once with my uncle about a colleague of his, a Chinese scientist who naturalized to America to work as a physicist. This colleague had a son who had excelled in school and otherwise had a life of great promise, however, when my uncle asked what career he had chosen, the Chinese-American physicist was reluctant to talk about it. My uncle thought that the promising son had fallen into drugs or crime and was happily astonished when the physicist confessed that his son had become a successful FBI agent. But to a Chinese person, being part of the national secret police was not a thing to talk about or be proud of. If we are not careful we could find ourselves in a similar situation here.
Most people do not think of the FBI as the internal police (although that is clearly what they are). The Bureau has its own checkered history (I bet Donald Trump would not have dared to fire J. Edgar Hoover) yet their bravery, zeal, and hard work are rightly famous. If a movie has an FBI agent, he is usually the hero. We don’t call dismissively call the FBI the secret police because if, goodness forbid, there were a crisis we would be happy to see them. They have a worldwide reputation as a bastion of upright cops. They are the good guys.
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And now, like affordable health care, or national parks, or basic scientific research, this too is under threat because of the corrosive awfulness of our executive branch. Are the FBI to become a bunch of goons who exist for the president’s narcissism and self-aggrandizement and to protect his crooked international business deals? Think of how awful it is to even suggest that!
Republicans are exulting over the unprecedented power they have garnered (in an election where they solidly lost the popular vote). They are passing immensely unpopular legislation and privatising big hunks of the government to their cronies. They are gleefully making it easy for the president to get away with anything he likes. It is difficult to see how they think it could possibly end for them. Do they imagine Trump will reign forever? Do they not see or care how bad he is for them and the things they claim to care about?
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The danger to democracies is that the institutions start to seem corrupt and nobody believes in them causing a feedback spiral. When I try to talk to hard-working and idealistic Millenials about politics they all seem SO cynical (and I am a world-weary Generation X person). Clearly, they have bought into the false equivalency of seeing all politicians as the same. It does not shock them to suggest that the FBI could be easily subalterned. They do not have illusions that the system is anything other than a rigged game of business cartels and their pet politicians. I find that sad. If they had just gone out and voted, none of this would be a problem. Their cynicism has deepened the problems they are cynical about.

There are good people at the FBI and among the Republicans (although it is hard to imagine that congressmen have a principled reason for letting little kids die so that giant crooked insurance companies can become more rich, I am sure they truly think it is for the best). But these good people need to step up and speak out. We need to keep concentrating on the fact that we are all on the same side. Not red versus blue, but Americans together against corruption, malfeasance, and iniquity. We need to celebrate bravery when it appears. I thought Sally Yates was superb this week. She was the attorney general just a few short months ago… We need to keep asking questions until we get real answers and not stupid malarkey.
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This post is a reminder that we need to keep believing in our institutions and trying to support them (even if it seems increasingly possible that the President of the United States could be a traitor and a criminal who is surrounding himself with white supremacists and weak minded yes-men).

Jeremiad over: have a good night!

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I have a weird confession. I don’t usually get too upset by paying my taxes. I can’t explore space by myself…nor can I invent the internet, fight Ebola, or operate a nuclear aircraft carrier. The government does amazing things which benefit everyone! [plus I barely make any money anyway]

Yet some group of marketers with deep pockets has been trying to convince everyone that the government is incompetent and you should give all of your money to reclusive billionaire twins and evil cartels instead.

And their efforts are working! This year I was pretty unhappy to turn over my meager earnings to be used on golf outings, summer palaces, estranged trophy wives, and brownshirts. I was peeved with Intuit as well, even though I have used them for many years. Not only did Intuit lobby the government to keep the tax code exhaustively complicated, but Turbotax kept demanding that I buy a more expensive software package and the numbers changed wildly for no coherent reason. I only have one W2. What the heck? No more Turbotax from now on. I finally gave up and used the el cheapo knockoff that the IRS referred me to. I have recorded this spring experience for posterity in this little sparkling picture of floundering beneath the cherry blossoms of our nation’s capital. I call it “Turbot Tax” and I think the symbolism is self explanatory.

But whatever…at least I have fileted my taxes…er I mean filed. Now that we have got that chore done, we can get to spring flowers in earnest!

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I promised a beautiful painting of Jesus for Easter and here is one of my favorite altarpieces from the Met.  This wonderful painting is “The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor.”  It was largely painted by Joos Van Cleve (with some assistance from an unknown collaborator) and was finished around 1520.  The painting is very lovely to look at! Joos Van Cleve endowed each of the saints with radiant fashionable beauty and energy.  From left to right, we see John the Baptist with his lamb and coarse robe; Saint Catherine with her sinister wheel (yet looking splendid in silk brocade and perfect makeup); Mary is leftmost on the main panel in royal blue; Saint Paul holds the cross and touches the head of the donor (whose money made all of this possible); and Saint John wears vermilion garb and has a book in a pouch as he gesticulates about theology. On the right panel are two Italian saints, Anthony of Padua and Nicholas of Tolentino.  Probably this altarpiece was an Italian commission or maybe the Flemish donor had business or family connections in Italy.

But van Cleve’s delightful saints are only half of the picture. In the background, the unknown collaborator has painted a magnificently picturesqe landscape of cold blue and lush green.  Fabulous medieval towns come to life amidst prosperous farmlands.  Rivers snake past forboding fortresses and great ports.  The distant mountains become more fantastical and more blue till they almost seem like surreal abstraction in the distance.  You should blow up the picture and let your spirit wander through this landscape (I think WordPress has discontinued that feature in a bid to frustrate users, however you can go the Met’s website and zoom into the painting and step directly back into 16th century northern Europe).

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Somewhat lost in this pageant of visual wonders is, you know, Jesus.   The painting’s lines don’t even really point to him. He suffers on his cross in emaciated, gray-faced anguish, forgotten by the richly robed saints and the wealthy burghers of the low country. Only the Virgin seems particularly anxious. Yet, though Van Cleve has de-emphasized the savior within the composition, he has painted Christ with rare grace and feeling.  The viewer can get lost in the landscape (or looking at Catherine’s lovely face) but then, as we are craning our neck to see around the cross, the presence of a nailed foot reminds us this is a scene of horror and divinity.  I have spent a long time looking at this painting and I found the the juxtaposition of wealth, industry, fashion, and riches, with the overlooked figure of Jesus naked and suffering to be quite striking. It is a reminder to re-examine the story of Jesus again against the context of more familiar surroundings. I am certainly no Christian (not anymore) but it seems like there might even be a lesson here for America’s ever-so-pious evangelicals.  With all of the excitement of wealth and political power and 24 hour Fox news and mean supreme court justices and billionaire golfers and super models and what not, I wonder if there is anyone they are maybe forgetting…

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