Saturday, August 29, 2015

Socialism is hard to define

A friend recently praised Bernie Sanders for making the term "socialism" respectable. 

But what has he really accomplished in this realm? There is no universally accepted definition of socialism. At its core should be the idea of social control of banks and basic industries - what the British Labour Party used to embrace as Clause Four. But that is no longer the rule in the UK, though the concept may be revived. 

Once upon a time, Stalinism was accepted as socialism in pure form. And, partly as a result of conservative propaganda, adoption of a single-payer system of medical care is stigmatized as "socialism," when it is not. They do not have socialism in any serious sense in Scandinavia, merely mitigated capitalism. 

Socialism then is an essentially contested concept, a chameleon that in common usage means many different things.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Changing demography

New York City, where I have lived most of my life, seems to be a multicultural city that works. The borough of Queens boasts more than 200 nationalities. The excellent staff of my building is made up of Dominicans, African Americans, a Filipino, and a Russian.
Sometimes I wish that people in Europe, who are not doing so well with the challenge of integration, could learn from our example. (Well, there are plenty of people in the US who could learn too.)
Yet what is the outlook twenty or so years down the road, when we are told that we will become a minority-majority country? I am not so much concerned about the people themselves - we have proved that they can do all right - but about politicians who find it hard to resist herding individuals into ethnic blocs. While I have no respect whatever for Republicans these days, the Democrats seem to be looking forward to an era in which we will in fact be divided into ethnic blocs, our disputes brokered by politicians. Maybe this will not happen - but the possibility needs to be reckoned with.
This leads to another question: at what point have we in Western societies decided to change our demographic configuration through immigration?  
Without endorsing Trump's nativist extremism, it seems that there is a real problem here.  Of course big business wants lots of immigration, legal or illegal, in order to provide docile workers.  With typical shortsightedness these moguls care nothing about the longterm consequences.  The problem is less serious in the US, where we have long deal with these issues, than in Western Europe.  The Europeans must also deal with the fact that many of the new immigrants are Muslim, with a large continent included therein that is hostile to Western pluralism and freedom of expression.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Islamic art in museums

This morning NPR broadcast an interview with the curator of the recently reopened and enlarged Islamic art galleries in the south wing of the Metropolitan Museum here in NYC. She acknowledged the omission of Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country, which is documented only elsewhere in the Museum (chiefly with works of Buddhist and Hindu provenance). 

A more serious omission is the obscuring of the fact that some of the art actually displayed is not of Muslim origin but is at best "Islamicate," being made by Christian and Jewish craftspeople. As everyone knows, or should know, the Jews have been expelled from the Arab Islamic countries, with the Christians now following them in the current program of ethnic cleansing. 

While figural arts were not forbidden by Islam (except in mosques and other sacred spaces) artists were assigned a low status. Hence the task fell largely to people of other heritages - just as wine, for example continued to be made and sold by Christians. Moreover, it is not always realized that there was a vibrant Jewish art tradition that flourished in figural mosaics and frescoes executed in synagogues right up to the time of the Islamic conquest.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Le Corbusier's alleged fascism

We generally assume that modern art and architecture, as they became consolidated in the 20th century, are part of the enlightenment project for human advancement. If these figures have any political leanings, they will be on the left. Alas, there is no consistent pattern. 

As the recent blockbuster show of Futurism at the Guggenheim Museum showed, this movement allied itself with Mussolini's fascism, a connection that lasted until the end of the regime. Moreover, the architect Terragni, one of the outstanding modernists, is best known for his construction of the Casa del Fascio in Como. 

This background should be considered in relation to three new French books, alleging Le Corbusier's fascism. I have been looking at these books, and they all seem to be rush jobs, and hard to read. Still, the evidence seems largely circumstantial, based in part on personal links with eccentric figures such as Dr. Pierre Winter.

 Moreover, if Le Corbusier were such a right-winger, he would not have done some of his most impressive work of the thirties in the USSR. In truth he seems to have been an opportunist, willing to work for anyone who would hire him, with patrons as varied as the Catholic Church, the Indian state under Nehru, and the United Nations.

The French tend to treat Le Corbusier as the one and only leader in modern architecture. In fact he belonged to a larger group of figures, identified with the International Style and mainly originating in Germany. These figures do not have clean hands either. During WWI Gropius fell for the notion that the Jews had betrayed the Reich - though he later corrected himself. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, arguably an even greater architect than Corbu, lingered in Germany for several years after Hitler's takeover, in the hope that he would get the commission for the Reichsbank building. In short, context is needed.

Paris (AFP) - Revelations that one of the world's most famous modern architects, Le Corbusier, was a "fascist" with links to France's WWII collaborationist...

Saturday, July 11, 2015

"Politically Correct"

Sometimes we hear that the concept of “political correctness” (or PC) is a mere chimera invented by conservatives to vilify the left. This claim is not factual, because the origins of the concept are clearly on the left.

In the early-to-mid 20th century, deployment of the expression "politically correct" was part and parcel of the dogmatic application of Stalinist doctrine. What it actually consisted of was the subject of an extended three-cornered debate among formal Communists (members of the Communist Party, CP), Trotskyists, and Socialists. As it was generally employed, however, the phrase served as shorthand for the Communist party line, which stipulated "correct" positions on many issues. Of course the party line was always changing so that yesterday's political correctness became incorrect. A good example is the CP line on the Nazi regime. Up to August 23, 1939, the Nazis were fascist beasts; after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreemen they became de facto allies of the Soviet Union, with the two countries in accord as to the decadence of the Western democracies. Two years later, in June 1941, the line changed again when Hitler invaded the USSR.

According to Herbert Kohl, writing about debates in New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s: "The term “politically correct” was used disparagingly, to refer to someone whose loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion, and led to bad politics. It was used by Socialists against Communists, and was meant to separate out Socialists who believed in egalitarian moral ideas from dogmatic Communists who would advocate and defend party positions regardless of their moral substance."

In the 1970s, the New Left purloined the term political correctness from the old left. For example, in "The Black Woman: An Anthology" (1970), Toni Cade Bambara maintained that "a man cannot be politically correct and a [male] chauvinist, too." Sometimes the expression was used ironically or in a jocular fashion, but everyone who adopted it took the underlying idea seriously. There were correct thoughts and incorrect ones. I remember this miasma personally when the neo-Marxist wave briefly swamped gay liberation in the early seventies. Those were trying times, Yet the history is not assisted by the claim that PC is merely an opportunistic conservative device. It was the left that invented and promoted this misleading concept.

Whatever ones view about the particular issues, two things are wrong with the concept of political correctness. 1) It posits certainty about issues that are generally contestable, locating the source of this certainty in some particular political party or tendency. 2) In practice it is strangely variable. Here is an example from my own experience. In the 1970s trans people, especially drag queens, were anathema in mainstream gay-liberation circles. We were told in no uncertain terms that these individuals were simply mocking women. They were enacting a spectacle of misogyny, and that was all there was to it. That was the view that was politically correct in those days. 

Now in the 21st century, though, matters have come full circle, and trans people are in the forefront of a new and more flexible definition of gender. That is the new political correctness on this issue. I take no view about the merits of these opinions: I am simply exhibiting the instability of the “correct” view.

Friday, June 05, 2015

The real Pamela Geller?

Watching TV a few mornings ago, I saw Chris Cuomo interview the individual known as "Pamela Geller," recently in the news as the organizer of the Draw Muhammad event in Texas. 

My research has shown that she is a double agent, originally named Fatima al-Gallah. Like the Soviet agents who once infiltrated our society, al-Gallah has spent many years achieving a near-perfect simulation of an American Jewish woman. Her mission is to bring ridicule on legitimate criticism of Islam by caricaturing the critics, exaggerating everything. In this task she has been succeeding brilliantly.

Sunday, May 24, 2015


A friend, who has just read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, remarks that the book is of central importance to modern consciousness.  He does not say why.  Here is my response.

While Lolita is generally acknowledged (correctly) as having high literary value, its success was greatly boosted by the place and timing of its publication. Unable to find a US publisher, Nabokov agreed to give it to Maurice Girodias' Olympia Press in Paris, a firm then renowned for its dirty books. Anglophone travelers (I was one) would flock to Brentano's in Paris to stock up on these racy titles.

Lolita was originally published in 1955, heralding the collapse of literary censorship in the US and the UK. Thus the book's success reflected a confluence of intrinsic value and external circumstances. For those who lived through this era, Lolita was indeed central - as it is to anyone who seeks to understand those remarkable years.

The Stanley Kubrick film is also good, though it fudges by advancing Lolita's age from 12 to 16.  Nabokov had taken up this theme of girl love several times before in his writing, yet, to my knowledge, he had no personal interest in behavior of this kind.  I suppose curiosity goes beyond what we actually do.  I have a mild interest in BDSM, but no ability to practice it.