The Face of Power

Western home in junk-strewn landscape.
Election 2016 delivered a shock to conventional wisdom, to liberals and conservatives, to the political establishment, and to people like me who write or talk about politics professionally.  Even though I correctly predicted a Trump victory, still when it came to pass, I was shocked.  Now, when I wake up in the morning, I sometimes feel a sense of foreboding.  At other times, though, I feel guardedly optimistic—about the body politic, if not about Trump.

Because conventional wisdom, the professional politicians, and the party establishment, all needed to be shocked.  For at least five years, I have been writing about the stale condition of the parties and their ideologies.  I have been writing about how the parties need to reorganize themselves around new ideas, about how the nation needs to get organized around a new constellation of goals appropriate for our times.  Nothing less than the victory of a Donald Trump was required to shake the political parties and all their personnel out of a state of perpetual complacency.  Both GOP and Democratic leaders must wake up: they are under much greater pressure now to use what power they have responsibly and constructively.  If they do not deliver better government for the electorate, their parties are going down.  I firmly expect that the next two to four years will be a time of constructive ideological ferment in the United States–and that politics will attract a new generation of leaders committed to reform and a renewed focus on commonly shared ideals, like a generally enjoyed prosperity and peace.

Like most intellectuals, I enjoy a life of privilege.  I live in a city.  My circumstances set me off from the rest of the population who are not part of ‘the creative economy,’ a term used to describe the formation of elites who make things and make things happen–who enjoy a sense of influence and autonomy.  This election has rudely reminded all of us to broaden our vision and consider what is really happening in our country: how a system that used to work for most Americans, providing sound education, civic consciousness, and secure livelihoods for breadwinners–has been gradually slipping away.  Great swathes of the nation are cut off from the expansive prospects that cosmopolitan Americans find so exciting.  The election has forcefully re-directed our gaze–back to the ordinary places where democratic power dwells.

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Day 53: ‘Economic Patriotism’

Day 53 (aerial of riverside town), © 2016 Susan Barsy
I’m interested in the phrase ‘economic patriotism,’ which Zephyr Teachout of New York has made central to her congressional campaign.  Ideologically, its appearance is significant as a harbinger of the ‘thought revolution‘ destined to shake up both political parties.  As a phrase linking domestic and green production with political empowerment and civic responsibility, ‘economic patriotism’ is smart and historically resonant.  Without pointing fingers, it suggests that economic actors could be encouraged to behave in ways that will promote the good of the country, thus harkening back to a traditional concept of ‘political economy.’

Anti-globalism and a demand for policies that protect citizens’ prosperity have defined the 2016 election cycle.  The popularity of these ideas, which both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have variously articulated, signals Americans’ weariness with the pro-corporate globalism central to the political establishment (and much of the intellectual establishment, too).  Popular anxieties about immigration, out-sourcing, and unfair trade deals all spring from uncertainty as to what will prevent many forms of work from disappearing.  Experts tell Americans that globalism is good, but it’s hard to deny that it undermines national and personal autonomy.  Which lessens American power and independence, right?

Despite eliciting the scorn of experts who point to statistics suggesting otherwise, such ideas, mocked as parochial or alarmingly nationalistic, formerly propelled the US economy to might.  The ideal economy is one that promotes an egalitarian prosperity: this notion has been central to American political development, accounting for such diverse initiatives as protectionism, abolitionism, and the massive sale of public land into private hands, which gave millions of Americans a foothold in the nineteenth century.  A desire to ensure that Americans have the autonomy and cultivation needed to be active and informed citizens of the republic has accounted for many features of the US economy.  It bears considering what ‘economic patriotism’ should look like now.

Power Lines: Hillary’s Nomination

Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky wedding, NYC
Interesting to find this picture circulating on Twitter soon after Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination.  Of the millions of extant photographs of Hillary—whether taken from throughout her public career or in the company of her husband former president Bill Clinton—, the choice of this particular image to punctuate news of her unprecedented political achievement was almost shocking.

It pictures Hillary with her late mother Dorothy and daughter Chelsea, taken on the day Chelsea married.  Standing to one side of her aged mother, Hillary is the embodiment of conventional femininity and maternal pride.  She is simply a mother and a daughter, occupying a place in the generations celebrating a classic rite of passage.  Sartorially, the lady politician famous for her pantsuits has disappeared: if anything, her fancy dress wears her.

How far we have come, the picture telegraphs, particularly in light of Mrs Rodham’s story.  She managed to surmount a hard loveless childhood to raise and inspire a daughter who has bent tradition to become the symbol of something new in American history.  Mrs Clinton’s own ambitions, coupled with those of her husband, long ago catapulted them to the heights of political celebrity, a journey synonymous with radical social mobility.  The Clintons have grown dramatically more wealthy.  And who knows what the future holds for Chelsea?

Though a quintessential American success story, the Clintons are no longer representative of most Americans.  In that regard, Chelsea’s fancy wedding in Duchess County, New York, encapsulates everything that a segment of the American public dislikes about the Clintons.  The private and public lines of Hillary’s destiny are awkwardly entwined, as controversies over her email server make clear.

If this were a photograph of Kennedy men, taken back on the day of Jack’s wedding, say, how different our reactions would likely be.  Ah, yes, we would say: here is Jack getting married, perpetuating the Kennedy dynasty.  We might not pause to criticize the expense of his suit or the nature of his political ambitions.

Bill’s absence from the picture: yes, he may be absent.  Should Hillary become president, increasingly she will be writing her own story, and, as this photograph’s appearance on the internet suggests, the visual culture of the presidency, and women’s sense of their place in the nation, will also change.  The story line is being written even now, of the power lines that have gotten American women to where they are.

Image:
Photograph by Barbara Kinney

Related
Judith Shulevitz, How to Fix Feminism (NYT)

A Cracking Veneer

heavily tweeked aerial shot of downtown and industrial Chicago
I’ve been away.  To Puerto Rico, ironically, which like Illinois is bankrupt, but which is free of the pretensions of grandeur that make living in Chicago, Illinois such a political and spiritual nightmare.

While I’ve been away,

A woman fleeing a gang of 10 youths in Streeterville ran out onto the Drive, where she was killed by a car.

Sixty-nine people were shot over the holiday weekend, 6 fatally.

The City of Chicago paid $2 million to settle a lawsuit that whistle-blowing cops had brought, heading off a trial that would have centered on the police department’s code of silence.  Mayor Emanuel, who was to have been called to testify, figured this was a good use of citizens’ money.  What use is justice here anymore, anyway?

In the state capital, the legislature once again ended its spring session without passing a budget.  The legislature has now failed of its duty for two years.  According to the website Truth in Accounting, Illinois’s debt burden is $187 billion.  Others place it at $148 billion.  Illinois lawmakers are too cowardly to face the pain entailed in getting the state’s finances back in balance again.  It’s difficult to divine why they are in office.

Chicago is a microcosm of all that troubles the nation now.  The racial divisions, out-of-control violence, and public corruption are corrosive.  Public order is fragile and in jeopardy.  Over all this is a posturing ‘leadership’ that cares mainly for reputation and the superiority of being part of a political elite.

Image © Susan Barsy

The Democrats: Anger in a Different Key

low-angle black and white photograph of a startled-looking Hillary Clinton
For years, the Democratic Party has pursued a comfortably centrist agenda while relying on identity politics to sustain its popularity.  It has pursued social good without much regard for economy or efficiency, and, primarily for that reason, has alienated many business interests and ordinary, thrifty, business-like people.  In Illinois, the good that individual Democratic officeholders seek to do hardly makes up for the many instances of criminal corruption and abuse of trust that stain the reputation of the party.

Though Democrats purport to fight the scourge of poverty and ignorance, that goal has lost its urgency, the how of it suffocated under layers of bombast and bureaucracy.  Even health-care reform, which has given millions of Americans better access to medicine and stands as this era’s chief domestic initiative, has driven up premiums and supplied fresh evidence of federal ineptitude.

Whatever Hillary Clinton’s merits (and they are many), she personifies the compromised condition of the Democratic Party.  Like her party, she wants to be all things to all people.  That very characteristic disables her from accommodating and channeling the ire festering in the hearts of the Democratic electorate, the ire that is powering the “Feel the Bern” movement.

However worthy her intentions, Clinton cannot step out of her skin.  She can’t disavow her wealth and celebrity, can’t ditch her myriad A-list connections, can’t dis-entrench herself from the inner workings of her party.  She can’t re-imagine Democratic ideology for fear of upsetting the apple cart that’s carrying her along.  And she can’t set herself at odds with the past without diminishing the legacy of her husband, Bill.   Being so closely identified with the ex-president is proving a big liability.  All these factors prevent Hillary Clinton from being the change agent Democratic voters want and need.

Bernie Sanders represents this constituency, which amounts to approximately 43 percent of all Democrats voting in this primary season.  Sanders doesn’t want to please anyone, and he (like Trump) isn’t very concerned about the tenability of his program.  Sanders’ goal is to redefine the purposes of the Democratic Party.  Sanders’ voters will be lost unless someone else comes along who can do this well.

It’s a shame, because the Democratic Party is ripe for radical reform.  It could transform itself into a proponent of internal economic growth, with a focus on the intensive cultivation of the nation’s human and physical capital.  It could be a party of peace, a party of green.  Once upon a time, the Democratic Party stood for reform, retrenchment, and economy.  Could the right leader make the Democratic Party great again?

Image:  “First Lady Hillary Clinton, Speaker of the House Tom Foley,
and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt speak at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol,”
1993 photograph by Laura Patterson, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
For more information click here.

 

Two Gilded Age Gentlemen

Two dressed-up men smile into the camera on a spring day. One holds a Kodak camera.
Two men in high silk hats breathe the style of the times.  The year is 1889.  They are old enough to remember the century’s watershed event, the Civil War, which is long in the past, it being more than two decades since Appomattox.  These gentlemen, and millions of others, have moved on.  They are Gilded Age creatures, inhabitants of a rapidly modernizing society enjoying ever-increasing wealth.  Their era was empty of historical grandeur: in that respect, the 1880s, with their intense but under-examined social problems (including widening economic inequality), were somewhat similar to today.

Formally attired, but looking like they are often so, the two men smile into the camera of Uriah Hunt Painter.  Painter and the man on the left may be engaged in a mutual photo-shoot, for each has a Kodak camera, a new invention that became the era’s most fashionable ‘toy.’  This picture captures how people had begun to use it—not too differently from how people use their cell phones now.

The sun is shining on this Easter Monday, as all Washington gathers for the first-ever Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn.  The watch-chain of one man snakes along the surface of his taut belly, a symbol of the symbiosis between efficiency and attaining plenty.  He and his friend both sport the flamboyant facial hair that was a hallmark of the Gilded Age—the vast mustaches and expansive mutton-chops that would prevail even it Teddy Roosevelt’s time, the mutton chops first popularized by General Burnside, and eventually leading to the coinage of the enduring term, ‘sideburns.’

Image from this source.

Girl with a Kodak on a Winter’s Day

A girl holding a Kodak camera and standing in a snowy Washington DC smiles for an unknown photographer.

George Eastman (1854-1932) had been on a tear.  He had dreamed up a series of innovations that, when realized, transformed photography and its role in society, so much so that we may credit him with inventing this photograph and the two-Kodak family who arranged themselves around a slushy curb to take it in Washington DC.  Thanks to Eastman, private life gained a new means of preserving its own history, an advance that marked the birth of modernity, in a visual sense at least.

Before the ‘Kodak revolution,’ a family’s ability to record its own existence, its own specific reality, was limited indeed.  It helped if one were literate or could draw or paint, for art was the only direct means of capturing the look of one’s child’s face or the cut and color of the clothes one’s beloved wore.  Photographers were professionals who wrangled obdurate equipment and understood the complex alchemy of developing the imagery.  Either such a one, or a professional artist, could capture the look of a freak snowstorm as it was melting.  Without photography of an accessible kind, one’s only hope of chronicling the weather or family life was to write a lot of letters or keep a careful diary.

Eastman’s genius was mechanical and conceptual, too.  He invented a new camera and new film processes, while also envisioning a whole new social role for photography, which he realized by assuming all the burden of developing the photographs that Kodak customers made.  “You press the button—we do the rest.”  With that notion, Eastman transformed the relationship between the would-be photographer and the medium.  He gave the world the snapshot, empowering amateurs to practice photography.

Eastman’s Kodak camera hit the streets in 1888.  It was lightweight, small, and easy to work.  Instead of sensitive or messy plates, his affordable camera was the first to employ roll film (another of his inventions).  Once the pictures were taken, customers sent the film back to the company for developing.  The very earliest Kodak prints were round, like the one above.

The new technology brought an immediacy to photography that, before, it seldom achieved.  It eliminated the middleman, allowing a relationship-driven photography.   The girl in this picture epitomizes the change, as she stands stock still, grinning, hugging a new Kodak camera close to her body.  The wind lifts her coat hem.  Her style and the swing of her mother’s skirt are just as they were in that earlier century.  In the street, her father, Uriah Hunt Painter, presses a button, capturing his willowy wife and daughter as they half-stop and smile, a two-Kodak family on a winter’s day.

Image from this source.

A glimpse of the young newspaperman Horace Greeley

Horace-Greeley with the staff of his New York Tribune, prior to 1860 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Most surviving likeness of the New-York Tribune editor Horace Greeley (1811-1872) are either caricatures or photographs taken in his later years.  In political cartoons, he is often depicted wearing tiny spectacles, a top hat, and a voluminous overcoat with bulging pockets (one of his sartorial trademarks).  In the post-Civil War photographs, Greeley is plump and sports a fringe of white beard, a little like Santa Claus but with beady eyes. Continue reading

The Neapolitan Crèche

The Neopolitan Creche at the Art Institute
There is something particularly wonderful about gazing on the Nativity as presented in the Art Institute’s Neapolitan Crèche.  Housed in a small, darkened gallery on the museum’s second floor, the crèche is displayed in a way that heightens its inherent magic and mystery.  The effect owes something to the dramatic glass case that contains the nativity scene and the splendid cornice above it: their beaming draws viewers near to inspect the fantastic spectacle framed within their proscenium.  Before this gigantic dollhouse of a crèche, adults stand and stare as if they were kids.

Detail showing the variety of mortal and heavenly beings the creche displays.
The urge to represent Jesus’s birth in a ‘living way,’ whether through tableaux vivants, Christmas pageants, or three-dimensional crèches has spanned more than a millennium.  While two-dimensional depictions of the nativity date from within several centuries of Jesus’s death, the history of the crèche is associated with the work of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Legend has it that, around 1223, he originated the custom of re-enacting the story of Jesus’s birth using human actors along with live oxen and ass.  This tradition of pageantry grew and became intertwined with the custom of creating of lasting sculptural representations of the Holy Family’s arrival in Bethlehem and the unlikely birth of Jesus in a stable, an event whose significance was apprehended, according to Gospel, only by angels, shepherds, and three wise men.

By the 18th century, when most of the Art Institute’s crèche was made, the artists of Naples had pushed the art form of crèche-making to unprecedented heights.  Patrons commissioned the artists to make crèches for palaces and cathedrals, encouraging the growth of a genre that became ever more elaborate and expansive.  The Art Institute’s crèche includes some 250 figures—an amazing array of mortal and heavenly beings, all shaped, painted, and outfitted in lifelike detail.

Detail, Neapolitan creche (early 18th century)Significantly, the crèche integrates the transformative moment of Jesus’s birth with the ongoing drama of human society.  Naples was cosmopolitan, and the crèche includes people of many sorts and nationalities.  As a host of angels and cherubs flutters down out of a hand-painted sky, and as Mary and Joseph beam on their newborn son, the surrounding human family parties on.  The crèche’s conflation of past and present, its melding of spiritual joy with the worldly, is very much in keeping with the transcendent possibilities told of in Christmas’s original, earthy story.

The crèche is a relatively new acquisition of the Art Institute.
It can be seen in Gallery 209 through January 8, 2017.
Click here for more information.