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Trump and the Courts: the Polish Precedent

Fri, 2018-11-30 15:31

The Trump has been busy with so many things he didn’t notice that his right wing friend in Poland just took a left turn.  Until that happened, they were like two peas in a pod.

Jaroslaw Kaczyński is to Poland, what Trump is to the United States. According to a report in The Guardian, he is considered the leader and driving force behind the Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland, and in that capacity, has hand picked leaders of the country, and made decisions that affect its future. Among other things, he gave impetus to legislation that took control of the Constitutional Tribunal that is responsible for determining the constitutionality of legislation, and took over the agency responsible for selecting new judges.

In April 2018, at the urging of the PiS and Mr. Kaczyńsk, a law was passed that lowered the retirement age for judges to 65, and provided that all judges who reached that age by July 3, 2018, would have to retire.  The PiS said that change was needed to rid the court of communist judges and improve its efficiency.

The Trump was understandably envious of Mr. Kaczynski’s ability to control the courts in Poland.  The only thing the Trump could do with respect to the courts and judges he didn’t like in the United States, was to rail against them and he did that with great enthusiasm.

He referred to a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals with which he disagreed as a “ridiculous ruling.”  A White House statement about another case in which a Trump policy was struck down said that the ruling was an example of “egregious overreach by a single, unelected district judge.”  When his approach to immigration was struck down by a judge of Mexican descent, he attributed his loss to the judge’s ancestry. Before he was elected, he said that Justice Ginsburg’s mind “was shot,” called her an “incompetent judge,” and said she should resign.

On November 20, 2018, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a proposed administration rule that said only people who entered the United States through an official port of entry could apply for asylum.  A furious Trump called the decision “a disgrace” and described the judge who wrote the decision as an “Obama judge and I’ll tell you what, it’s not going to happen like this any more.”

The description of a judge as an “Obama judge” was too much for John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.  In a statement released by the Court’s public information office, the Chief Justice said that the U.S. “doesn’t have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges, or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”

The Chief Justice’s response was not well received by the Trump.  It so angered him that after he’d had a pleasant afternoon of golf at Mar a Lago, playing with Jack Nicklaus, he took time out of his busy schedule to fire off a tweet contradicting the Chief Justice.  He said that the country does have “Obama judges” and those judges have a much different point of view “than the people charged with the safety of our country.”  The Trump went on to say that “It’s a disgrace what happens in the 9th Circuit.”

Throughout all these fits of tweeting the Trump almost certainly was envious of Mr. Kaczyński’s ability to get rid of judges who did not please the ruling party, and almost certainly wished that he could follow in Poland’s footsteps.  Had he realized what happened in Poland, he would no longer have envied the Poles.

The European Commission is the executive arm of the European Union.  It referred Poland’s action requiring judges to retire at age 65, to the European Court of Justice.  In mid-October that court ordered Poland to suspend the application of the new law.  On November 21, 2018, while the Trump was flying to Mar a Lago to play golf and say hi to the troops around the world, Poland reversed its law on removing judges.  It reinstated all the judges it had forced out under the early retirement rules.  The Law and Justice Party said the judges were being reinstated because the European Court of Justice, the EU’s top court ordered Poland to suspend the application of the mandatory retirement rules.  The PiS said it was reinstating the judges because it respected the rulings of the European Court of Justice.

Categories: News for progressives

Creative Education and the Flowering of Goodness

Fri, 2018-11-30 15:20

Education is potentially the most powerful means of bringing about a major shift in consciousness, within the individual and by extension society; a movement away from narrow ideas of self that feed selfishness, division and material greed, to an inclusive view of life rooted in the recognition that humanity is one. We are forever brothers and sisters of one humanity, and from the realization of this essential fact flows all that is good: sharing, social justice, collective responsibility, freedom and peace. These are transitional times and the early signs of such a transformation can be seen animating many people around the world, particularly the young, who are commonly in the vanguard of change.

Such a shift is essential if the various interconnected crises facing humanity are to be overcome and a true sense of self is to be established. A sense of being that is not limited or defined by the constraints of psychological-sociological conditioning in its various forms. Dismantling such conditioning and creating space in which an unmediated relationship, or atonement with one’s self can take place should sit at the heart of all areas of education.

It is from this unconditioned center of being that the blueprints of the age will be unearthed; ideas that are crucial in designing and building structures and institutions rooted in social justice and unity.

Education and conformity

Society, whether large or small, is not an abstraction: it is a collective reflection of the consciousness of the individuals living within it. For there to be fundamental social change, we, individually, must become consciously aware of the way our lives are habitually lived; choice-less awareness of one’s psychological, emotional and physiological patterns, awareness of how we think, speak and act, what our motives are, whether we are honest and sincere, or manipulative and hypocritical.

Education, particularly creative education, has a fundamental role to play in cultivating environments in which such awareness can naturally take place. In fact, this should be a central aim of all educational work: it could be said that true education is the understanding of oneself, the discovery of who and what we are and the creative expression of That.

The greatest single obstacle to the establishment of an undistorted relationship with oneself is fear. It is a debilitating poison that sits at the core of a plethora of inhibiting, suffocating conditions. Hard to unearth, entwined with desire and attachment, fear is inevitable where comparison, collective discontent and perpetual longing is agitated. The pervasive socio-economic system is dependent for its survival upon all of these, and encourages behavior consistent with its requirements.

Within education systems rooted in the Mechanics of the Market conformity and competition are widespread, creative self-expression becomes very difficult, individuality is curtailed and the pressure to ‘achieve’ is immense. Such an approach does not liberate intelligence and encourage creative living; on the contrary, it inhibits and frustrates a person, as J. Krishnamurti described in Education and the Significance of Life, “instead of awakening the integrated intelligence of the individual, education is encouraging him to conform to a pattern and so is hindering his comprehension of himself as a total process.” This methodology of competition and conformity is frustrating teachers, sucking creativity out of school and university, and fuelling increasing levels of mental illness amongst young people, leading in some cases to self-harm and suicide.

There are wonderful teachers working in schools and colleges throughout the world who reject this reductive approach, but all too often they are handicapped by ill-thought out education policies designed by politicians who are more concerned with training compliant workers than educating young people to be free. As the then UK Secretary of State for Education, Nick Gibb, put it in 2015, education is “about the practical business of ensuring that young people receive the preparation they need to secure a good job and a fulfilling career.” Such ideologically driven politicians view schools and colleges as little more than feeding grounds for employment and camps of social conditioning; the world is regarded as a battleground in which nations and regions are in perpetual economic competition with one another; men and women are cast as combatants battling to succeed in a global market place. The result of this crude approach to education is the creation of what Krishnamurti described as “a type of human being whose chief interest is to find security, to become somebody important, or to have a good time with as little thought as possible.”

It is an outdated, ideologically driven view of education that is failing young people and needs to be consigned to the past. Education policy should be taken out of the hands of politicians; they do not understand education and repeatedly fail to listen to those who do, i.e. teachers, head teachers and the students themselves.

The clutter in the garden

The fundamental purpose of education is a great deal more significant and subtle than the aims championed by politicians; it underlies all other goals, is concerned with being rather than becoming something, and might be described as facilitating the understanding of oneself and the fulfilment of innate potential, or as Krishnamurti put it, the “flowering of goodness”. He maintained that the purpose of education “is not to produce mere scholars, technicians and job hunters, but integrated men and women who are free of fear; for only between such human beings can there be enduring peace.”

In order to achieve these aims the factors that trigger psychological fear need to be identified and removed: competition, reward and punishment, conformity and all forms of social/psychological conditioning are the principle impediments. These constitute what we might call ‘the clutter in the garden’; they feed fear, deny or distort relationship with oneself, hinder creativity and stunt intelligence. Clear the garden and that which is ever present will naturally radiate, impress, and express, itself. In this regard education is in effect a work of negation; the seed of intelligence and creativity already exists, when the obstacles are removed and an environment of enquiry and trust is created a spontaneous flowering can take place. Herein lies the source also of true individuality and hope.

Non-judgmental spaces are essential to such a movement; an educational atmosphere that is free from the pressure to achieve in any way or conform to any specific image; a neutral environment that encourages individuality and promotes creative independent thinking. This requires the inculcation of creativity in all areas of learning; the arts – visual and performing – are crucial in this work.

Whilst teachers and parents are often well aware of the intrinsic value of arts education in its various forms, it is commonly undervalued by governments, and when financial cuts are made the arts are habitually the first to be targeted. This is a mistake: far from being regarded as a luxury item, an add-on, art education should be seen as the inspiring thread that runs through a student’s schooling/college life; it is, or ought to be, an area in which young people are allowed to express themselves freely without constraint, are encouraged to collaborate with others, to work on group projects and collective creative enterprises.

Arts education has a range of positive impacts; it can stimulate creative thinking, reveal and undo conditioning, build self-belief/confidence, and illuminate the ways of the self. Creativity is not limited to the arts of course, but the arts have a crucial role to play in stimulating creative thinking, which can then be applied to all areas of education, and indeed life in the broadest sense. The creative process is a liberating journey, revealing and breaking down barriers; it frees the mind allowing intelligence to function – a free mind, we could say, is a mind that is not constrained by any particular ideology or desire for reward of any kind. Such a mind is needed if we are to meet the intense challenges of the time, for, as professor emeritus Sir Ken Robinson states, “the challenges we currently face are without precedent…and we’re going to need every ounce of ingenuity, imagination, and creativity to confront these problems.”

The cause of many of our problems, and the interconnected obstacles to change are systematic and ideological; many people around the world recognise this and are demanding a different approach. Resistance to change is great, but life moves ever towards harmony and the divisive status quo cannot be maintained indefinitely, it must give way to the new; to new ideals rooted in perennial principles of goodness leading to the creation of structures and institutions that will facilitate the creation of a just and peaceful world. From the font of creativity that sits within the heart of each and every one of us the ideas of the time will reveal themselves and the answers to the myriad issues facing humanity will emerge.

Categories: News for progressives

The Time Is Up. The Time Is Now.

Fri, 2018-11-30 15:04

[Editor’s note: The Man from the North is a fictional character from Rivera Sun’s first series of novels. She has him offering essays beyond her novels.]

The time is up. The time is now. Gather the people to do the work: the healing, transformative, deepening work of building community, solutions, understanding, skills, knowledge, and hope. You must be the one to make a change, to step out of the rutted tracks of the looming train wreck that is our culture. You must have the courage to walk into the wilderness of what you don’t know and embrace the solutions that will save our lives.

All quests and hero’s journeys begin with this: the yearning for change; the hope of saving graces; the long shot of wished-for miracles. In each of us, our willingness to make a change begins with equal measures of fear, courage, and purpose rolled into an electric jolt to the soul . . . a spark that launches you toward danger and potential.

Our world will be saved by billions of ordinary heroes and sheroes who decide to do hundreds of humble and extraordinary actions. Hour by hour, minute by minute, we change our world by withdrawing our support, cooperation, and participation from old destructive systems. By making these shifts, we starve the monster we have become. We share with neighbors to dismantle consumer-capitalism. We gather to tell stories and unplug the corporate media. We build solar panels and shut off the switches of fossil fuels. One small action multiplied by millions of people adds up quickly to massive change. One small action done strategically by a small group of people can catalyze a hundred million more.

Change requires that we live differently. All of us must make changes: from the most committed activist who knows she must reconnect to her heart; to the average citizen who suspects he could be doing more; to the terrified investors in fossil fuels who must choose between their industry and their planet; and everyone in between. Real change is never handed to us on a silver platter, nor served by powerful people. When suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton wanted to vote, she strode into the polling place and cast her ballot. When Rosa Parks wanted to desegregate the Montgomery buses, she sat down and refused to give up her seat. When tribes among the Anishinaabe wanted to use their promised treaty rights, they walked on to the land to hunt, fish, and gather traditional foods and medicines.

All of them faced violence, danger, arrest, and even death threats. All of them organized, mobilized, struggled, and ultimately prevailed. None of them sat on the couch waiting for the right people to be put into the right offices to do the right thing. Deep, meaningful change is not handed to us. We wrest it out of the unknown and bring it into existence in our lives.

As Thomas Paine wrote, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Our actions, day in and day out, shape this ever-evolving world. We are the potter’s hands forming the wet clay vessels of our existence. We are the weavers at the loom, casting the threads of our lives through the wool of the world. We are the stone cutter with chisel and hammer, chipping away at the hard realities that block our forward progress. With such power to shape our world comes the responsibility to wield our lives with intention and skill.

If you want change, live differently. But remember, you alone are not enough. One of our changes is that we must work together. We must reach out from our isolated lives. We must join hands with millions and take collective steps toward the future. You cannot go on a hero’s journey alone. Not this time. You must ask others – many others, millions of others – to change their lives, too. Ask your family, friends, and colleagues. Use outreach and organizing tools to ask your neighbors, faith communities, and co-workers. Put nonviolent action to work to compel our society to adopt a change for justice. Mobilize to demand that institutions and industries shift their massive resources into systems that are just, fair, sustainably, and non-harming. In this way, our ordinary actions – multiplied by millions – add up to extraordinary change.

Do not wait another minute to change your life. The time is up. The time is now.

Categories: News for progressives

Up Ahead: the Event Horizon and the Abyss We Call ‘Self’

Fri, 2018-11-30 14:59

I cried when Gus Grissom died, along with two crewmates, in a smoky blaze aboard Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967.  The three astronauts were testing equipment in the capsule prior to the next day’s scheduled launch, when fire broke out and they were unable open the hatch to escape.  I was ten at the time, a Catholic boy living in a Jewish neighborhood in Boston, and just weeks before had received in the mail an autographed photo of Grissom from NASA (a teacher had made our class request one, after his speech on the space program). The accident appeared to be a fatal blow to the Kennedy quest (borrowed from a Nazi’s dream) to land an American on the moon (before the Russians did) by the end of the decade.

But the Show went on, and, thanks to Wernher von Braun, America launched Apollo 8 and safely landed a spacecraft on the moon on July 16, 1969.  I was “away” at summer camp, and sat around in a semicircle with other campers, in the middle of the night, watching the landing take place on the rec hall black-and-white TV.  Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong planted a stiff flag and bounced around on the sandy surface together; cups of strawberry “bug juice” were passed around, while La Salette Brother Chick strummed us along to a sleepy version of Kumbaya.  It was a glorious moment, topped up over the next few years by the human journey and scientific romanticism depicted in Star Trek episodes. William Shatner’s sappy smirk and Spock’s logical positivism helped keep me starry-eyed through a sometimes dark and gravity-filled childhood.

Later, in one of the great episodes of the dreamy, Vangelis-driven TV series, Cosmos, Carl Sagan explained the symbiotic relationship between outer space and inner Man: We are “star stuff,” he said, literally composed of the same chemistry of the stars; when we look out at the firmament, we look in on ourselves, cosmos to cosmos, as it were. From microscope to telescope, from eyeball to eyeball, adjusting the focus, we are constantly searching for the meaning of our existence. Such “magical realism” buoyed me for years, right up to the day John Lennon died, when the world seemed an even colder place, now lit by the dim light of mourners mourning dead dreams.

The late Stephen Hawking’s new book, Brief Answers to Big Questions, re-energizes the value of knowing, after a long hiatus in the void of postmodernism; his book brings the affirmative gift of fresh light; the swashbuckling smirk is mostly gone, the romance of discovery replaced with the growing desperation of a planet in peril needing new answers.  The topics Hawking explores include: God and the origin of the universe, space colonization, time travel, black holes, artificial intelligence, and extraterrestrials.  The book, largely a compilation of notes Hawking had for a book he was working on, is presented in a question-answer format for each subject. Most compelling to me, because most relevant to our current paradigm shift, were Hawking’s answers to the God question, the nature of black holes, and the implications of Artificial Intelligence to the future of biological humans.

God,” John Lennon once sang, “is a concept by which we measure our pain.”  It turns out, Hawking’s view is not dissimilar to Lennon’s, conceptually.  Hawking rejects a world and universe explained by an omni- God.  “Religion was an early attempt to answer the questions we all ask: why are we here, where did we come from? Long ago, the answer was almost always the same: gods made everything. The world was a scary place, so even people as tough as the Vikings believed in supernatural beings to make sense of natural phenomena like lightning, storms or eclipses. Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science.”

Hawking’s explanation mostly addresses the human intellectual engagement with the world, but he stays away from the moral grounding of religion altogether. As the enlightened Voltaire tells us, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” The triadic dialectical God Abraham has handed down to the world in the form of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, theoretically supply such moral “comfort,” although you wouldn’t know it from the state of the Middle East today.

Hawking’s rejection is closer to Nietzsche’s God Is Dead, beyond-good-and-evil embrace of the Overman, a future Man that will look back on current humans the way we now look back on our ape-like pasts.  The paraplegic ubermensch writes, “…[K]nowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature. My prediction is that we will know the mind of God by the end of this century.” And, he recalls: “For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God.”  Who’s in the wheelchair now, Big Guy? Hawking seems to ask.

And it’s just as well that Hawking disposes of God before he leads the reader into the mind-blowing cosmological territory of black holes, quantum theory, and the potential multi-histories of the universe. Nietzsche (again) admonished, “When you look into the Abyss, the Abyss also looks into you.” If you look too deeply into the black hole for enlightenment, you may find yourself drained of light. Right now, black holes seem to us kind of like giant highway potholes future space explorers should avoid.

But imagine, as Hawking does, the Big Bang coming as the result of a Black Hole implosion. He writes, “As we travel back in time towards the moment of the Big Bang, the universe gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it finally comes to a point where the whole universe is a space so small that it is in effect a single infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense black hole.” Now imagine black holes banging, overflowing, like popping corns, into universes, each possessing multiple possible histories, each filled with endless popping corn stars. Some cinema we’re in. That’s the Out There, the firmament away from our troubles, placid and serene, a guide to Wise Men, it seemed, until the “cripple” Hawking came along with his trapeze tricks, and showed us a teeming cosmos, alive as Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

He doesn’t paint a picture of the In Here that is any easier to grasp.  Artificial Intelligence (AI) is just as much a problem of In Here as it is Out There.  The problem with AI isn’t, as many people believe, about how to bring machines up to snuff so that they can be as intelligent as humans; it’s a given that they will be and almost are.  The question is: what happens when gain “consciousness” and begin to outsmart us to the degree that we can no longer understand their language, such as when quantum computing come along (soon) and processors can calculate thousands of times faster than today, not just in digital sequences of either on or off (1 or zero), but on and off — at the same time.

Hawking writes, “There is no physical law precluding particles from being organised in ways that perform even more advanced computations than the arrangements of particles in human brains.”  He continues, “…we cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI,” such as is the case with NZT, the mind-enhancing drug of the fictional TV series, Limitless, where the main protagonist, an ordinary person, achieves extraordinary feats while “high.” Could humans become so dependent on this “high” that they virtually merge with their PCs or, more likely, smartphones?  (Conceptually, we may be be already there.)

Further, along the lines of such worry, what happens when we not only begin to over-rely on such machinery, but, with the dreamy urge to shed our “mortal coil,”  we converge with them, leaving behind our biology? There’s the rub. He writes, “Quantum computers will change everything, even human biology.” Imagine a quantum scanner that review human genes and suggest ways of making them more efficient, say, for space travel and intergalactic colonization.  Would this be the rise of Lamarckianism, a final imposition of the human will over Nature, or, ironically, a kind of planned obsolescence of the species, the final step in human evolution before our extinction?

Will we need bodies?  Stephen Hawking himself may be almost the prototype of such a situation.  Take away the biological package that houses his vital organs, he was essentially a disembodied brain merged with a voice synthesizer.  One can imagine all manner of ways to move forward from this:  a replacement body built from a 3D printer; a cloned body; a removal of the need for a body, per se, by synthetic methods of delivering “blood”; or, even the creation of full-body avatar, a kind of hologram that takes your place in public full of such avatars. Hawking writes, “Creating realistic digital surrogates of ourselves is an ambitious dream, but the latest technology suggests that it may not be as far-fetched an idea as it sounds.” It may be here already.

Hawking is ever-aware of the paradigm shift we face in our choices up ahead. He knows there are very real risks that we will misuse AI and other emerging technologies to further ensure our collective demise.  Our track record leans that way. “[T]he Earth is becoming too small for us. Our physical resources are being drained at an alarming rate. We have presented our planet with the disastrous gift of climate change. Rising temperatures, reduction of the polar ice caps, deforestation, overpopulation, disease, war, famine, lack of water and decimation of animal species; these are all solvable but so far have not been solved.” He adds, ominously, “It is time to explore other solar systems. Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth. If we stay, we risk being annihilated.” Nevertheless, the book is imbued with Hawking’s survivalist optimism married to the natural curiosity of scientific endeavor.  Mostly.

Even the Pentagon seems to be aware that we need to start looking for answers beyond the confines of the Earth. Recently, for the first time, and after years of denial, the military admitted that they are actively looking for UFOs — even going so far as to include photographic evidence in their release to the New York Times.  Hawking would have been impressed by this new interest in aliens, although very cautious about what we’d be getting in to.  One recalls the Twilight Zone episode involving a “cook book”. With climate change heating us up, we could be going from the fires into the frying pan.

Brief Answers to Big Questions is a great read — serving to reiterate our current understanding of the concept of cosmos and the inner world that houses it.  The trip Out is the trip In.  The short, easy-to-read book has some astonishing revelations — especially about Hawking’s specialty: black holes.  While short on viable answers to some of the many problems facing humans during our current paradigm shift, Hawking chooses the optimism of Can-Do technology over the pessimism of falling skies and melting ice.  I procured both the ebook and the audiobook, and found the latter more entertaining, containing the voice of both a surrogate reading Hawking’s notes, as well as snippets of Hawking himself providing tiny intro answers at the beginning of each question. It’s like man and machine together.

Categories: News for progressives

Versions of Van Gogh

Fri, 2018-11-30 14:35

Still from “At Eternity’s Gate.”

Last week, after watching a press screening of Julian Schnabel’s biopic of Vincent Van Gogh titled “At Eternity’s Gate”, I was so struck by its divergence from the memories I had of Vincent Minnelli’s 1956 identically themed “Lust for Life” that it struck me as worth writing about the two in tandem. While I have grave reservations about Schnabel’s politics and aesthetics, I can recommend his film that is playing in theaters everywhere that are marketed to middle-brow tastes, the kind of audience that listens to NPR and votes Democratic. These are the sorts of screeners I get from publicists throughout November to coincide with NYFCO’s awards meeting in early December, the “good”, Oscar-worthy films that Harvey Weinstein used to produce until he got exposed as a serial rapist.

Willem Dafoe is superb as Vincent Van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate” even though at 63 he can hardly evoke the almost post-adolescent angst of the artist who died at the age of 37. Like Willem Dafoe, Kirk Douglas not only bears a striking resemblance to Van Gogh in “Lust for Life” but was only 3 years older than the artist at the time of his death. Since “Lust for Life”, as the title implies, emphasizes turbulence, Douglas was just the sort of actor who could bring that vision of Van Gogh to life. In Minnelli’s adaptation of the Irving Stone novel, Van Gogh’s life was a succession of crises that finally became too much to bear.

Stone’s work faced the same obstacles as Van Gogh’s paintings that never sold in his lifetime. It was rejected by 17 publishers until its debut in 1934. Stone was not particularly known for his politics but did take the trouble to write a novel in 1947 based on the marriage of Eugene V. Debs and his wife Kate who had no use for socialism. The title was “Adversary in the House”, an allusion to her.

However, there must have been just enough politics in “Lust for Life” for screenwriter Norman Corwin to feature in his script. The first fifteen minutes or so of the film depicts Van Gogh as a lay priest in a coal-mining village in the region of Borinage who immerses himself into the daily life of super-exploited workers. As a hobby, he makes drawings of the miners and their families as a kind of homage to the people in need of what Marx called an opiate.

In a letter to his brother Theo in April 1879, Van Gogh demonstrates his interest in the suffering of Borinage’s mining families even though it prioritizes making art rather than overcoming poverty through political action. After all, he was a devout Christian and likely could not see past the fatalism that was at the heart of this religion. He writes:

It’s a sombre place, and at first sight everything around it has something dismal and deathly about it. The workers there are usually people, emaciated and pale owing to fever, who look exhausted and haggard, weather-beaten and prematurely old, the women generally sallow and withered. All around the mine are poor miners’ dwellings with a couple of dead trees, completely black from the smoke, and thorn-hedges, dung-heaps and rubbish dumps, mountains of unusable coal &c. Maris would make a beautiful painting of it.

Later I’ll try and make a sketch of it to give you an idea of it.

As the son of a minister, Van Gogh saw his calling as a saver of souls rather than an artist. When he is visited by two members of the evangelist sect he belonged to, they are appalled by the rags he is dressed in and the straw mat he slept on. When asked by the dignified and well-tailored visitors what happened to his bed, he answers that he gave it to a miner who needed it more than him.

A work from this period titled “Miners’ Wives Carrying Sacks of Coal” will give you an idea of his inspiration at the time:

Norman Corwin, a somewhat obscure figure today, was alongside Orson Welles one of the major figures of the Golden Age of Radio. Among his works was a 1942 collaboration with Edward R. Murrow titled An American in England that focused on ordinary people and how the war affected them. Corwin left radio 10 years later out of disgust with McCarthyism. Although he was smeared as a CP’er, he insisted that he was never a party member.

Vincent Minnelli, who was married to Judy Garland and rumored to be gay, embodied an aesthetic that was widespread in the 1940s and early 50s but, unlike film noir, never had a name attached to it (as far as I know). Perhaps the closest to him as a filmmaker was Douglas Sirk whose films shared the same plush look and obsessive love relationships, often with homoerotic overtones. Minnelli was considered a “pure stylist” who in Andrew Sarris’s eyes believed more in beauty than in art. Despite being considered a typical Hollywood director, he was highly valued in Cahiers du Cinéma.

This early period in Van Gogh’s development was apparently of no interest to Schnabel. Since his film is only 10 minutes shorter than Minnelli’s, clearly the omission of Borinage was an editorial one.

Unlike the melodramatically tumultuous “Lust for Life”, “At Eternity’s Gate” is much calmer and even meditative. Structured as a series of debates between Van Gogh and important figures in his life over the role of the artist and whether his particular style of painting was of merit, Dafoe’s voice remains soft and calm almost as if he were a participant in a panel discussion at an academic conference. Ironically, this succeeds on its own terms just as Kirk Douglas’s portrait of the artist at the end of his tether works. Perhaps, this is because these are just two aspects of the artist’s personality that would be difficult to convey simultaneously.

Schnabel’s Van Gogh is the prototype of the artist ahead of his time. Considered crude and unschooled by his contemporaries, his ability to convey the transcendence of the natural world was clearly what Schnabel wanted to communicate. At one point, he is being lectured by his friend Paul Gauguin about how he piles paint strokes on top of each other to such an extent that it almost seems his real goal is to be a sculptor. This was, of course, analogous to the style Schnabel made his own. He made a splash in the art world for his “plate paintings” in which the canvas includes not only dinner plates but antlers, velvet and ceramics. Such is the state of contemporary art that these “novelties” are embraced rather than rejected as was the case in Van Gogh’s time.

A sample plate painting, “The Student of Prague”, 1983.

Perhaps the most striking contrast between the two films is the treatment of the stormy relationship between Van Gogh and Gauguin. Played by Oscar Isaac, Schnabel’s Gauguin—like Van Gogh—never raises his voice. Mostly, he speaks down to him as if he were the chairman of an art department dissertation committee giving advice to a PhD student. Van Gogh stands his ground, making points about the immanence of god in a landscape that would have been lost on a libertine like Gauguin.

Anthony Quinn’s Paul Gauguin was not that much different from the characters he played in a host of films, a swaggering, aggressive and hostile personality that was just as capable of intimidating his female assistant in “La Strada” it was of reducing Van Gogh to tears. No matter how cruel he was to the psychologically fragile artist, Van Gogh’s neediness paid a dividend. Hours before Van Gogh cuts off an ear as an offering to Gauguin, he asks him why he continues to be his housemate if he hates him so much. Gauguin replies that it is only his brother’s allowance maintaining both artists that keeps him there.

Both films are utterly gorgeous, using the same technique to pay homage to the artwork. You see a scene just as it existed in real life, like a wheat field or a man shooting pool, and then you see the art work that this inspired.

Finally, in terms of the films’ aesthetics, Schnabel uses a score by Tatiana Lisovskaya that employs a chamber ensemble which lends an intimacy in sync with the film’s understated quality. Minnelli used Miklos Rozsa, whose lush orchestration is also perfectly matched to the goals the director had in mind.

To summarize, both films are very much worth seeing. “At Eternity’s Gate” is currently playing at six different theaters in New York and in major cities everywhere while “Lust for Life” is available on Youtube for free or at a minimal cost on all VOD platforms for those who prefer to use smart TV’s.

After concluding that Van Gogh’s life among the coal miners might have indicated a possible link to the broader movement against capitalism in the 19thcentury, I Googled “Van Gogh” and “capitalism” and was pleased to see that there was a chapter on him in my friend Tony McKenna’s “Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective” that I reviewed in 2016.

Although Van Gogh’s time with the miners reflected his religious impulses rather than a desire to help them organize a resistance to their conditions, there was an element that was present there that remained with him throughout his life. Van Gogh hated bourgeois values whether it was manifested by the well-dressed Protestant ministers who castigated him for sleeping on a straw mat or the tastes of the wealthy seeking innocuous and pretty salon type paintings that did not challenge their sense of complacency. It was his hatred of middle-class values in art that drew him to Gauguin who shared such views and that also convinced him of the need for an artists commune in Arles. McKenna comments on that ambition:

In 1888 Vincent moved south to Arles, where he was inspired by the quality and consistency of the natural light. The most famous in the series of sunflower paintings comes from this period. Van Gogh paints  big, empty, blue skies; golden, rolling fields; and trees whose leaves turn upwards in flits of copper flame. Again, nothing here is particularly realistic, and yet these pictures seem to capture the essence of a heat-soaked Mediterranean summer. And again, they clearly convey the mood of the artist which seems primed, almost buoyant. The lightness of his mood is more than a result of the luminescence of the location. It is also a product of the fact that Van Gogh now cherishes the hope of creating an artistic commune. The notion of an artistic commune is important because it grows out of Van Gogh’s experiences of labour as fractured and distorted by class relations and oppression. In the art gallery, he experienced the indignity of art subserviated to the commodity cycle, and he was expelled from the priesthood because his sympathies lay so unequivocally with the oppressed. Van Gogh had experienced the pre-existing social structures and organisations of the working world as relentlessly alienating objectivities. The desire to create a commune is, as well, indicative of the need to transcend a capitalist imperative, to create an enclave in society whereby people might mutually support one another, bound only by their shared loved of art. Such a free association would no longer be subject to the prerogatives of capital. The notion of the commune was the genuine but naive attempt by the artist to grapple with the fundamental political problem of our age. And it was to be Vincent’s final utopia.

For those who would like to read Tony McKenna’s chapter on Van Gogh, contact me at

Categories: News for progressives

Sound Grammar: The 25 Best Albums of 2018

Fri, 2018-11-30 14:18

1. Both Directions at Once: the Lost Album by John Coltrane (Verve)

2. Rifles and Rosary Beads by Mary Gautier (In the Black)

3. Whatever It Takes by James Hunter Six (Daptone)

4. Piano and a Microphone, 1983 by Prince (Warner Bros.)

5. The Window by Cecile McLoren Salvant (Mack Ave.)

6. Good Thing by Leon Bridges (Columbia)

7. Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe (Bad Boy)

8. Modern Lore by Julian Lage (Mack Ave.)

9. Encore by Anderson East (Elektra)

10. The Final Tour: Bootleg, Vol. 6 by Miles Davis and John Coltrane (Sony)

11. Silent Voices by Brooklyn Youth Chorus (New Amsterdam)

12. Emanon by Wayne Shorter (Blue Note)

13. Your Queen is a Reptile by Sons of Kemet (Impulse!)

14. Songs of the Plains by Colter Wall (Young Mary Records)

15. Heaven and Earth by Kamasi Washington (Young Turks)

16. America’s Child by Shemekia Copeland (Alligator)

17. Lala Belu by Hailu Mergia (Awesome Tapes From Africa)

18. Things Have Changed by Bettye LaVette (Verve)

19. Remain in Light by Angelique Kidjo (Kravenworks)

20. Tell Me How You Really Feel by Courtney Barnett (Mom + Pop)

21. All in My Mind by Dr. Lonnie Smith (Blue Note)

22. There’s a Riot Goin’ On by Yo La Tengo (Matador)

23. Jazz in Detroit/Strat Concert Gallery/ 46 Seldon by Charles Mingus (BBE)

24. NowThen by Rich Krueger (RockinK Music)

25. David Vest by David Vest (Cordova Bay Records)

Categories: News for progressives

Bach on Fire

Fri, 2018-11-30 14:10

After the fires came the rains. In between, a NASA probe landed on Mars eager to drill deeply into the soil to see if the red planet can indeed support life—even while human life does its best to pull the plug on itself back on Earth. The specious techno-priest Elon Musk and other “visionaries” fan hopes for off-world escape, while smoldering California abides by Nature’s laws. More rain is coming, the fury of flames replaced by the threat of mudslides. GeoGeeks in Silicon Valley frantically seek start-up money to develop Four Self-Riding Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

It wasn’t just the planets that were aligning this week, but visions of the future: released amidst this startling news from across the Golden State and the solar system, the National Climate Assessment painted a Doomsday tableau, one done much more succinctly and powerfully (the NCA “highlights” alone are 140 pages long) by Hans Memling half a millennium ago (see the right panel of his Last Judgement).

Cleaving faithfully to his satanic script, earthly ruler Donald Trump said simply of the report: “I don’t believe it.”

The eschatological overtones of all this are clear. False prophets abound. Legion our those of little faith, who pay lip service to the new religion of science, then hop in their Tesla—an automotive update of the far more environmentally friendly Papal Indulgence. Rampant greed, gluttony, and pride (and the other four Deadly Sins to boot) have us hurtle towards damnation.

Before Thanksgiving I drove up from the Bay Area to Seattle on I-5 through the vast urban sprawl of California’s Central Valley and the even vaster sprawl of nut-tree monoculture, the “orchards” glowering in the smoke from the Camp Fire. Ascending into the mountains I crossed through the scars of September’s Delta Fire where it had swept across the Interstate. Only a trace of water remained at the bottom of the Lake Shasta reservoir. All snow was gone from the once-white-majesty of Mt. Shasta, a brown heap.

To get through the smoke and dismay, I listened to Bach—to what I now think of as his “fire” cantata, Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! (BWV 71). The opening chorus would rouse even Donald Trump from his Diet Coke stupor.

The trumpet that will be heard on the Last Day sounds the alarm. The orchestra follows in full gallop. But then in this instrumental introduction there are long stretches of harmonic stasis above bass drones, as if humanity is fearfully waiting, poised for doom.  The trumpet busts out of this suspended state, and the strings again answer the call, now joined by the frenzied voices that rise up in ecstatic acclamation:

Watch! pray! pray! watch!
Be prepared
Until the Lord of Glory
Brings this world to an end.

Swirling sequences seem to accelerate time, but Bach then dampens the pace, clinging to queasy harmonies that attempt, futilely, to escape the inevitable. The cadence cannot be avoided and the race to the finish starts up again.

The chorus is one of Bach’s earlier ones, composed after he had begun to dedicate himself to the composition of church cantatas around the age of thirty. He didn’t need much practice to be the master of musical terror. Never were apocalyptic voices more stirring.

The orchestra quakes menacingly to usher in the ensuing recitative. A shrill tenor voice foretells of “the day from which no can hide.” This fire-and-brimstoning gives way to ambrosial music promising heavenly joy for the saved and ends with a call not to despair, the trumpet of the Last Day echoing ominously just after these comforting words.

The cantata’s first aria follows:

When will the day come when we shall escape
The Egypt of this world?
Ah! Let us soon flee from Sodom,
Before the fire overtakes us!
Watch, souls, wake up from your complacency,
And believe that it is the end of time

In contrast to the richly scored opening two movements, the aria is accompanied sparsely by a plaintive solo cello line that continually moves forward then pauses, unsure and unsettled.  The so-called continuo—the wallpaper of the baroque bands of Bach’s day—ghosts this solo, the organist improvising chords with the right hand and doubling with the left the line played by the bassoon, its sonority imparting an edgy, urgent quality. The shrill alto voice then enters, that much higher than the bass of the preceding recitative—and that much closer to heaven, or at least to the Judgement Day. The vocal line skitters through rapid figures on “flee” and “flame”—text painting worthy of Memling. Bach spends a long time—seemingly too long—on the last two lines of text (the “B” section that is then followed by a reprise of the opening “A” in this so called da capo—i.e., “back to the head”—form). The prophetic voice shouts into the flames, hoping someone will hear.

The aria played over the speakers as I motored north past Chico, trailing carbon as I went.  But did I hear its message?

In this substantial cantata of eleven movements there are abundant cautions against being taken in by the “snares and traps” of earthly life and the weakness of the flesh. There are calls for faith in the face of mockers and doubters.

The cantata is in two parts divided on either side of the sermon; the second begins not with a renewed servings of gloom, but with a sprightly court dance, oboe and first violin gamboling happily above a jaunty bass line.

We have now left the misery and mayhem of the world and are, the long instrumental introduction tells us, in a princely palace, or, better, in the stately gardens onto which the ball room gives. (Needless to say, the heavenly hotel boasts five stars.)

The saved are greeted on the terrace by the tenor chamberlain, supremely elegant and assuredly upbeat:

Lift up your head
And be comforted, o righteous ones
So that your soul may bloom!
You shall become green in Eden
Serving God eternally.

After flight from cataclysmic fire we have returned to ecotopic Eden. If only one could believe in it awaits. In the smoke of the Central Valley the poise and assuredness of this music is more devastating than Bach’s raging sonic images of apocalypse.

Categories: News for progressives



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