Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The strange case of Paul Krugman.  Like many other educated people in Gotham City, I usually start the morning by perusing the New York Times (I still take the print edition).  More often than not, I disagree with the editorial position of the Times, and with many of the columnists.  I still monitor them because they are a fairly reliable guide to what the punditocracy is thinking.  With Paul Krugman, however, I usually only read the first sentence: from that I can readily predict what the rest of the column will say.  Mr. Krugman wears the hat of an economist, and he generally pounds away at two themes: spend, spend, spend because deficits don’t matter; and government is always good, the bigger the better.  More can be said, and has been, but that is the gist. Since I am a social liberal and a fiscal conservative, I find Krugman’s crusade unpersuasive.

In fact, Krugman is a polarizing figure.  For his followers, he is an infallible oracle, always to be admired in all of his stands.  Some of my Internet friends keep sending me his columns because they share this view.  To me, a Krugman skeptic, the whole thing approaches the status of a cult.  The rest of us, a majority of the thinking public I believe, are simply unimpressed by Krugman’s dogmas.  Some of us simply ignore him; others are moved to expressions of ire.  At all events, admiration for this pundit is by no means universal.  In fact it is essentially limited to the fairly narrow circle of those who are already converted.

There is a larger context.  Surveys have shown that those who identify as liberals amount to about twenty percent of the population.  Over the last thirty years, this liberal contingent has been slowly shrinking.  This situation gives me no joy at all, because I don’t want to live in a society in which the only choices are conservative and ultraconservative.

As far as I can see, no one has yet figured out how to stem this erosion of liberal strength.  Please don’t tell me that Obama is the answer, because he has deserted many core liberal principles.  If he gets four more years, he will doubtless continue his progress towards the center and the right, as seen in his attacks on civil liberties, the continued militarization of foreign policy, and repeated caving in the face of Republican intransigence.

Whatever is needed, Krugman is not the solution.  With his preening arrogance and cocksure sense that he has all the answers, when he plainly does not, he is a net liability to the liberal cause.  Those folks need to do better.  And I indeed I know they can.  But waving Krugman’s flawed columns enthusiastically is not the way to go.

(May 15):  See now:

Monday, April 23, 2012

Monotheism: An Addendum.  About Jesus of Nazareth much has been written from all sorts of viewpoints.  Since so little is known about his life, it is easy to represent it, with little evidence, as being this way or that.

All the same, I found this quotation from W. A. Auden to be stunning in its obtuseness.

"Jesus convinced me that he was right because what he taught has become consistently more and more the necessary and natural attitude for man as society has developed the way it has, i.e. he forecast our historical evolution correctly. If we reject the Gospels, then we must reject modern life ... Neither the heathen philosophers nor Buddha nor Confucius nor Mahomet showed this historical insight."

Does he really know much about the "heathen philosophers" (Plato and Aristotle, I suppose) or "Mahomet"?  And when did he have a private audience with Jesus, who convinced him?  The mind boggles.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Last words

There are several amusing books that compile the last words (or purported last words) of famous people. Some hold that as the end nears, one ought to think of such words in advance (I haven't). Some that stick in the mind are Gertrude Stein’s “What is the answer? What is the question?" and Ulysses Grant’s “I think I am becoming a verb.” When Somerset Maugham was asked about dying, he is reputed to have said: “I can’t really recommend it.” Some ascriptions are just urban legends. Apparently, Goethe did not say on his deathbed: “More light!” but (speaking to his servant accusingly): “Did you put sugar in the wine again?”

About Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan reports as follows. “As he lay dying, he asked for a pen and paper and tried to write on it. After a while, he finished, held it up, looked at it and saw that it was an illegible assemblage of scribbled, meaningless hieroglyphics. "What's the use?" he said to Steve Wasserman. Then he dozed a little, and then roused himself and uttered a couple of words that were close to inaudible. Steve asked him to repeat them. There were two: "Capitalism." "Downfall." In his end was his beginning."

 I suppose Sully means that Hitchens was reverting to his youthful Troskyism. But was he?

Monday, April 16, 2012


I am currently revising my Memoirs with the aim of producing a publishable manuscript. A lot remains to be done.

As I ponder the different stages of my life I have repeatedly bumped up against the issue of “circumscribed autonomy.” That is to say, we have, if we chose to exercise it, the opportunity for real agency. We have openings to shape our lives - including our character and identity - but only within limits that are defined by our circumstances.

Let me step back a bit. Both pairs of my grandparents followed the same calling as their kin from time immemorial: they worked the land. When they were young, they knew pretty well what the shape of their lives was going to be.

With my generation it was different. There wasn’t much money in our family, but I knew that if I got off my duffer I could “make something of myself,” as the saying goes. I aimed not at worldly success, but at accomplishment on my own terms, what in German is termed Bildung (roughly: self-education in cultural terms). Now I can look back on my life with the assurance that I have been modestly successful in this endeavor.

Of course I am scarcely the first to confront this problem. It is a major theme of the social sciences, flawed as they are. There are two contrasting approaches. At one extreme lies the pole of social determinism, the idea that almost everything we do is conditioned by a complex of factors that lie outside our control, including our genes, our upbringing, and the social matrix in which we find ourselves. At the other pole is the concept of absolute autonomy. The reality lies somewhere in between.

The reigning climate of individualism may cause us to overstate the possibilities for agency. But they are there, if only we will “seize time by the forelock,” as the ancient Greeks put it.

In summary, there are two opposing models: either we are robots, responding to our programming - and nothing more - or angels, living in a utopian state of complete freedom.

Btw, many of my shorter musings are now found on Facebook. That medium has its drawbacks, to be sure. But it is convenient.


Saturday, April 07, 2012

Popular vs. elite art forms

Thomas Kinkade, reputedly the most popular artist in the country, has died at 54 in Los Gatos near San Francisco. I had never heard of him. Kinkade held that he had something in common with Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell: he wanted to make people happy.

According to an obituary, the self-described "Painter of Light" produced sentimental scenes of country gardens and pastoral landscapes in dewy morning light that were beloved by many but generally ignored by the art establishment.

Kinkade claimed to be the nation's most collected living artist, and his paintings and spin-off products were said to fetch some $100 million a year in sales, and to be housed in ten million homes in the United States.

His light-infused renderings feature prominently in buildings, malls, and on spin-off products. The compositions generally depict tranquil scenes with lush landscaping and streams running nearby. Many of them incorporate images from Bible passages.

Meanwhile in Southern California the earth-artist Michael Heizer's big rock has arrived for installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Enthusiasm for Heizer is clearly an elite preference--even though the journey of the rock from Riverside to the Museum attracted considerable interest.

It seems that, as far as the visual arts go, we are still in the realm of polarization postulated by Clement Greenberg in his contrast of seventy years ago: kitsch vs. serious art.

A comparison with music is revealing. At first sight there seems to be a similar gap between rarefied works, often played only once, and the hugely popular rock concerts. Yet in addition to generating popular interest, the rock concerts also attract serious, not to say learned commentary from critics.

Similarly, popular films like The Matrix, Avatar, and The Big Lebowski are subject to minute analyses on the part of intellectuals.

Yet artwork of the Kinkade type benefits from no such highbrow attention.

Why should this gap be greater in the visual arts than in others? One factor is that the art world has not seen a breakthrough figure like the film critic Pauline Kael. Yet that factor does not dissolve the paradox, perhaps an appropriate topic for a later piece.

UPDATE (April 16). Here is some data condensed from a news story today.

The cause of painter Thomas Kinkade's April 6 death may not be known for months, but according to an emergency call placed that evening, he had been "drinking all night."

The San Jose Mercury News reported last week that Kinkade's girlfriend, Amy Pinto, called for help after the painter, 54, had stopped breathing.

"Apparently he's been drinking all night and not moving," a fire-department dispatcher says in a recording.

Patrick Kinkaid, confirmed that his brother had battled alcoholism for years, sobering up and then relapsing before his death.

Alcoholism was only one of the issues the artist struggled with, both personally and in business. Kinkade was accused of behaving inappropriately with women and even urinating on a Winnie the Pooh figure at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, CA. [That does tend to humanize him. -- WRD]

In a 2006 letter to his gallery owners, he denied some charges but chalked up the rest to drinking and overeating caused by stress, adding that "With God's help and the support of my family and friends, I have returned balance to my life."

Then in 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI was investigating Kinkade for defrauding investors; in 2010, his company's manufacturing arm filed for bankruptcy protection.

For years, Kinkade has fought legal battles with former business colleagues, some of whom accused him of betraying his Christian beliefs as he drove the company into financial ruin.

In 2010, Kinkade's mug shot went viral after he was arrested for drunk driving. He later pleaded no contest.