Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Art Piece, Draft Two, Part Two

Art Piece, Draft Two, Part Two

A passenger on one of the first trains in England breathlessly wrote to her mother about what it was like for a human being to move at 35 mph. The English countryside became a blur, moving by too fast for the human eye to focus. Humans had not just conquered nature, they were in a real sense outside of it. They were observers but speed had negated their ability to even see, the one sense that the Western Way was based on.

Near the end of the post-Renaissance/pre-Impressionist art period, and two-thirds the way through the Industrial Revolution itself, technological science gave Western man the camera. Among other things the camera allowed human beings to stop time.

Not since the days when scientists like Leonardo were working on their discoveries in human optics, perspective, and anatomy had a scientific advance had such an effect on Western art. However, the effect was not the result of science and art working synergistically as in the past; like all other areas of human activity, art was changed by science as an external force and that force itself was driven by a methodology that had never been challenged. After the invention of the camera, what was art's brief? It must have seemed to an aspiring artist as if there was nothing left to be done.

Around the time of the invention of the camera, western writers like Dickens ("David Copperfield," 1849-50) and Thoreau ("Walden," 1854) began to challenge the results of the Industrial Revolution. More implicitly than explicitly, science, which created the Industrial Revolution, was questioned also. Description and meaning, previously united and considered inviolate were coming to be seen as distinct.

In 1844 Friedrich Nietzsche was born. He grew up in the industrializing west, the results of which Dickens and Thoreau were challenging, in a time when constants like motion, space, time and mass were being perceived and experienced as less constant by the day.

Nietzsche was fifteen years old in 1859 when Darwin published his "Origin of Species." Like Copernicus and Galileo before him, Darwin was a further challenge to the spiritual heritage of the West. Natural selection not supernatural intention was the explanation. Once again western science had provided an emotionally and spiritually shattering outcome-neutral accounting for.

In the early 1870's art began to reflect the changes that had been occurring in society as a result of science. The Impressionists painted in a "blurry" style, just as the railroads first passengers saw the landscape as it went by. The results of their work and their methodology was a break with the Western Way.

The Impressionists were also experiencing the fall of standards in motion, space, time and mass and were searching for new essences to replace them. They painted light, they turned away from traditional subject matter and painted peasants. They turned from the West entirely and painted peoples and places and in styles of "primitive" societies such as Tahiti.

With standards--truths--falling all around them, the Impressionists looked for and found many truths. They painted themselves, but not as portrait objects. They painted themselves into their art as personal, expressive, emotional beings into and onto the canvass. Brush strokes were no longer to be hidden. They were to be seen and experienced as part of the finished art work.

The Impressionists broke with the Western Way but they did not break with all of humankind's way of painting. Rather, however unconsciously, they were painting with the mindset that Chinese artists had been painting with at least seven centuries before.

Su Shi, an eleventh century poet/painter/statesman, wrote "One can enter a state absolute concentration in which an object is grasped through total identification and then arrive at a fusion of the subject and object--the artist, or viewer and the work of art."

This was a new Western essence however, a new truth and it was personal and emotional, methodologically neutral and outcome-driven. Method and object, description and meaning were being separated in painting too.

The Impressionist painter was not a scientist whose instrument was a brush; he was an autonomous, atomized human being who was fusing his personal spiritual consonance and his art. The scientific dichotomy of observer and observed was broken. The scientific method was broken as an artistic method.

In 1873, as the Impressionists were abandoning the scientific method, challenging its truth and revealing other truths which were emotional, Nietzsche wrote philosophically of the non-objectivity of truth.

Nietzsche challenged the results of science as Dickens and Thoreau had done, he broke with the scientific method as the Impressionists had done but he also challenged--attacked--the ethical and moral foundations of the West. In doing so Nietzsche proposed a reformulation, a reconceptualization of what a human being was.

He argued that the whole of Western civilization had taken a wrong turn at Socrates when it should have taken Homer's road. He wrote as passionately as Van Gogh painted and argued that human essence was in a drunken, half-mad, emotional "Dionysian" state, not the rational, logical "Apollonian" way that the West had adopted instead.

Nietzsche wrote that "[The Dionysian artist] is now at once subject and object, at once poet, actor, and spectator, that '[The Dionysian artist] is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art."

Nietzsche was not only arguing for recasting Western man in Homer's mode rather than the Apollonian way. He was, consciously or not, casting the Western artist precisely in terms of the Chinese and precisely in the terms of the post-Impressionists.

If the essence of humanity was its spirituality, not its intellect, if man could not be reduced to Rene Descartes "brain in a vat," then the rational, scientific outcome-neutral method of science, philosophy and art was "untrue" because that conceptualization of man was untrue.

At a time when nothing looked certain, when everything looked relative not even good and evil could go unquestioned. In 1886 Nietzsche wrote "Beyond Good and Evil." At this same time Paul Cezanne was searching for new truths in mere shapes.

Nietzsche died in 1900, at precisely the historical endpoint of the Industrial Revolution. He, the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists worked and lived in a world that was described by high science according to the model of Isaac Newton. The Newtonian model was both description of the physical world and methodology. Even the truths of Newtonian physics and high science's model were to be challenged, and shortly.

In 1905 Albert Einstein published his paper on special relativity, in 1912 his paper on general relativity.

-Benjamin Harris

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

The Aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

799-0. That is the number of dead as a result of the two hurricanes as reported in CNN this weekend (apparently the 25 dead in the bus fire didn't count somehow).

Katrina was a bit stronger than Rita and New Orleans was infinitely more vulnerable than Houston, and Galveston, although almost as vulnerable as New Orleans, had only 57,000 people to evacuate.

And Texas had the lesson of Rita to learn from. And former International Arabian Horse Chief of Stewards Mike Brown had resigned post-Katrina and pre-Rita and the Bush administration reacted better.

No two things are the same but even with those differences there's one that in my view explains more about that 799-0 difference.

"Texas is ready," said it's governor, and it was. Louisiana wasn't.

Louisiana's governor said there were thousands of dead. New Orleans' mayor claimed 10,000 and embarrassingly cried in a profane radio interview. Criminals shot at rescue helicopters and ambulances and raped women in New Orleans shelters. That didn't happen in Texas.

Even with it's greater vulnerability, New Orleans with 300,000-400,000 people, had about 1/10th of the population that Houston had to evacuate and aside from the mother-of-all-traffic jams it did it.

Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco showed an astonishing lack of competence. Bill White and Rick Perry acted as competent political leaders should.

Bush has taken political heat for his government's handling of Katrina. We'll see if Nagin and Blanco do but I have not heard a hue and cry.

799-0 sounds like it could be the electoral outcome in a typical Republican-Democratic presidential election but it's not. It's the number of people who died in a catastrophe that was anticipated in one state, governed by Democrats, and the number of people who died in a catastrophe that was anticipated in another state, governed by Republicans.

Instead of paying a political price, my guess is that Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco will be speakers at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

-Benjamin Harris

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Art Piece, Draft Two, Part One

Art Piece, Draft Two, Part One

Until about the mid-fifteenth century in the West the presently distinct disciplines of philosophy, art and science were united.(1) They had the same goal, a complete "accounting for" of the physical world as perceived by humans with their eyes(2)and philosophers too, from Socrates to Descartes to the early Wittgenstein had the same goal and used the same methodology as did scientists and artists. That methodology was viewed as rational, empirical, incremental and cumulative.

This Western Way was driven by just one of the human senses, sight, not sound or taste, etc. It was also the physical world as physically--not emotionally or spiritually--experienced by just this one of the five physical senses that was the goal, that was to be accounted for completely and precisely by the three disciplines. In art this "accounting for" was often termed "describing;" in science "explaining;" in philosophy "proving."

The methodology of the West was not just rational and intellectual, or non-emotional and spiritual but in fact explicitly anti-emotional/spiritual. Even thus circumscribed the West considered achievement of this accounting for to be the "Truth." There was no other.

Thus conceived and pursued, Truth could be approached closer and closer in a linear manner. "Progress" could be made. Derivatively, and with more far-reaching consequences , the Western Way was method driven and outcome neutral. Whatever outcome resulted from the method was the Truth, or a closer and closer approximation of it. Thus the methodological became the metaphysical. Descriptive "truth" was the same as meaning.

Because of the above, the West's dominant art form was painting. In Thomas Kuhn's view painting was the cumulative discipline of the Renaissance and before.(3) Western painting's goal was to describe or "mirror" the (sight limited) physical world. Music, experienced with a different sense, and emotional, was comparatively devalued.

By contrast, in China, the most continuously great of the world's civilizations, a painting's greatness was evaluated according to its achievement of six goals in descending order of importance. Ch'I-yun or "spirit consonance," was first. Verisimilitude was last. Music was a more important art form in China than in the West because of its emotional content.

Plato put poetry at the bottom of his list of worthwhile endeavors. The Shih Ching, "The Book of Documents," an early Chinese text on art, lauded poetry precisely for its mimicking of music's ability to put sentiments to song.

As the West's way proceeded it changed humankind's physical, intellectual and spiritual relationship with what it was seeking to completely account for. In cyclical manner the observer was affecting the observed which was affecting the observer.

Nature in the West was demystified, described, understood and conquered. The Way removed humans from nature. This was viewed as "liberating" humankind.

By force of logic and empirical proof western methodology forced western spiritual institutions to accommodate, or acquiesce, to it.

By force of understanding, nature was made to give up more of its bounty.

By conquest large parts of nature were destroyed and replaced by human creations for habitation and other desiderata.

At least in historical perspective to some, perhaps most, contemporary art historians, a complete accounting for, the truth, was obtained in painting by the mid-fifteenth century. Portraits were painted with uncanny verisimilitude, physical objects were captured in exacting detail, more detail in fact than the human eye could see.

Ernst Gombrich for example wrote that for an aspiring art student in the Renaissance it must have felt as if there was nothing left to do. Other scholars in different fields arrived at similar conclusions. Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that after van der Weyden art became nothing more than a game of technical refinement.

According to Richard Rorty philosophy broke with science in the late 18th century when Kant succeeded in transforming philosophy from a hand maiden of science to a discipline that was held out to be the "foundation" of all others. In language similar to that of Gombrich, Rorty describes philosophy student's dilemma in the shadow of the collossus science, "...it is hard to imagine what philosophy could have been in the age of modern science. Metaphysics--considered as the description of how the heavens and the earth are put together--had been displaced by physics."(4)

In the view of Thomas Kuhn, art "diverged" from science in the mid-fifteenth century when it "completely renounced" verisimilitude and turned to learn from "primitive" cultures instead. The days when a Leonardo could move seamlessly between art and science and philosophy were, in the West, in Kuhn's view, over.

It was not the same in China where the aim of art was "spirit consonance." The sciences in China, though advanced, did not explode in descriptive power and practical effect on Chinese life in the way that they did in the West and the spiritual Way was different also. By even commonplace understanding a Zen approach to the world is a non-linear, no-incremental Way.

Importantly, in the West method drove outcome. Even today the scientific community prides itself on its detachment, this outcome neutrality. Do the experiment rigorously, follow the evidence and the result will be the truth. The method was considered validated, thus so were its results. The Zen way by contrast was explicitly to take a non-methodological Way.

The West the Standard Model is that the great flowering in art and culture occurred in the Renaissance, the literal rebirth, when the West turned back to its Greek and Socratic methodology. But if this Standard Model is correct then the apex of--the final truth in--painting was achieved in he early Renaissance and the rest of even that great time was only an extension or "refinement."

If this Standard Model of Western art history is true then there is a dissonant ring of inertia and comparative non-creativity to the rest of the Renaissance and to the next 300 years until at least the Impressionists.

During that same time however it would not have appeared to a Western prospective scientist that there was nothing left to do. During those years western science physically changed the western landmass, western man's relationship to nature and his spiritual relationship with whatever was left.

The Western artist had achieved complete descriptive power at and slightly beyond the human ocular level by the early Renaissance. The Western scientist now pursued the truth to the sub and super ocular levels. There was indeed more there than met the eye. During this period western philosophy worked in tandem with science and according to the scientific method and its most influential figure was Rene Descartes.

In the Standard Model's view, post-Renaissance/pre-Impressionist art is creatively stale, aesthetically mediocre, almost embarrassingly so, and, as in the views of even those outside the field like Levi-Strauss and Kuhn, disconnected. Disconnected from science certainly, but also from society, for it was during this interregnum that the Industrial Revolution took place.

Art, and the scientific methodology that so effected it, had supposedly achieved a perfect description, the truth, by the early 1500s but that art did not describe the truth, the reality, what the human eye saw and the rest of the human being experienced, beginning in 1700.

As "high" science first challenged and then forced Western spiritual institutions to adapt to it, technological science, going beyond high science's descriptive truth, now changed the truth. It changed the physical world and Western man's relationship to it. The observer had changed the observed.

For the first time in all of humankind's existence, man's relationship to time itself changed. That relationship was no longer cyclical and measured by the changes of the earth's rotation and available sunlight or by the seasons of the year. Western man in the Industrial Revolution began to--was forced to--experience time in much smaller increments and now as measured by clocks.

The Industrial Revolution also changed Western humankind's relationship with motion. Previously, the human speed limit was set by the pace of his walk, his run, then the pace of nature's animals that he learned to domesticate. With the invention of locomotive power, initially exclusively rail power, man was able to shatter the old speed limit.

Rebecca Solnit has marvelously described man's difficulty in adjusting to the new speed. An English M.P. standing on railroad tracks had his leg cut off by a train whose speed he miscalculated because he had no referent for it.

(1) See e.g. Gombrich, The Story of Art, p. 361. Danto, The End of Art, and Belting, Vision and Presence argue that art as currently understood did not begin in the West until around 1400.
(2)The world as perceived by, e.g. eagles, or dolphins or even other human societies like the Chinese was not considered.
(3) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p.161"
(4) Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p.132.
(4) River of Shadows.

-Benjamin Harris

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Today is Sept. 11

Today is Sept. 11

I'm not near over this yet.

-Benjamin Harris

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Barbara Bush,Class, Race and the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Barbara Bush, Class, Race and the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Barbara Bush is in her dotage but it is a Republican dotage. Age, like booze, clouds judgment but sometimes the elderly, like the drunk, speak more of what is truly in their hearts unclouded by judgment. She does not get a pass on her comments about the "scary" thought that the Katrina refugees, overwhelmingly African-American, might want to stay permanently in Texas, nor that, because they were "underprivileged" to start with, being housed in a sports arena hundreds of miles from home probably isn't so bad for them.

I am so weary of race and discussion about race. For a long time I had truly thought that the best way to "deal with" the race relations in America was just to shut up about them. In the '60's Atlanta had a slogan for itself, "The City That's Too Busy to Hate." That was the approach I decided was best. Let's all get busy and stop all this talk. And I do think we talk too much about EVERYTHING.

But then, in examining my own reaction to the criminal activity in New Orleans after Katrina passed ("Medium, Message, Race and the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," Sept.3)I realized that I at least had to think more about my own attitudes toward race. And that was depressing and wearying. I thought I had gotten past that. Hell, I never thought I was in that, i.e. in having a "race problem." And of course we seldom do. All of us think that we're fair-minded people. Few if any of us can admit to ourselves, much less to others, that we may not be as color-blind as we hold ourselves out to be.

I think racism, such a harsh word, maybe "racially jaundiced thinking" is more accurate, at least more palatable, is spread fairly evenly across the political spectrum. The Republicans are more harsh--more likely, for example, to use the Willy Horton ad to further their presidential ambitions--than the Democrats, but the Democrats, in the choices they make and don't make about where to live, who their real friends are, what schools they send their children too, how they protesteth too much by trumpeting their black friends, supporting black candidates and policies like affirmative action and liberally throwing around the racist label at others with whom they disagree, the Democrats too think race consciously. We all do. Not just Republicans but Democrats. And not just white people but black people too. There is black racism too.

What surprised me more about Mrs. Bush's comments was the "class-ism." The refugees were underprivileged so this isn't so bad, maybe even a step up! I don't think a Democrat would ever say, or think, that. Democrats truly believe, as I do, that to a significant extent a society's greatness can be measured by how it treats it's least fortunate. There is more caring, heartfelt caring, there than in the Republican world view.

Kevin Phillips, no Democrat, has been the most persistent popular writer on this subject. His views are a little too conspiratorial for me, a little too fearful of Bush-like elitism being a threat to democracy in general but there's bad news on the class front also. Those distribution of wealth statistics, that the top 1% have 20-30-whatever percent of wealth in American and the bottom 20-30-whatever percent have 1% of the wealth, those really do bother me. I cannot justify them with a "rising tide lifts all boats" insouciance or a meritocratic "they get what they deserve" thought. And then to say that the refugees are better off for being underprivileged in the first place, that they feel the displacement less than the overprivileged would because the place they were displaced from sucked worse...well.

I feel so naive, so stupid. Unfortunately those are not unknown feelings to me either. I thought we were better than all this. I thought I was better than this.

We still have a lot to talk about.

-Benjamin Harris

Friday, September 09, 2005

Annabel Lee's August 25 article "Why I'm Divorced And why you're next," is a delightful piece. I found it on Arts and Letters Daily. The original is here, I hope I do this right:


Monday, September 05, 2005

Part Two

Part Two

The Industrial Revolution was treated socially, politically and scientifically as unstoppable and as the most glorious manifestation of the West's ability to progress. The linearity of time and history that was willed us by the Greeks, the scientific method of inquiry of Socrates and Descartes, the inexorability of history and the inherent goodness of the technological advances were considered by these decision-makers to be self-evident, but just at this time writers like Thoreau and Dickens were revealing what was being lost and questioning the human and natural cost of what was being gained.

Friedrich Nietzsche was born five years after the invention of the camera, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, of all these changes in man's relationship to time and nature, of all the questions that were being raised by Dickens ("David Copperfield," 1849-50), by Thoreau ("Walden," 1854) and others.

In 1873, at just the time when the Impressionists were painting in ways that challenged the "truth" of traditional western painting, Nietzsche wrote of the metaphysical nonobjectivity of truth.

Nietzsche not only broke with the method of western philosophical inquiry he also broke with its ethical and moral foundations in "Beyond Good and Evil" (1886) and "On the Genealogy of Morals" (1887). At this same time Cezanne and the post-Impressionists furthered their artistic break with their own traditions.

During the time of the Industrial Revolution political and social revolutions occurred between England and America and in France, more evidence of the break with the past.

America had its Civil War from 1860-65 and out of that and the more general context of the West came the American variety of questioning fundamental truths. The philosophy of Pragmatism was begun by John Dewey, William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the latter a thrice wounded veteran of the war. Not even slavery was beyond the Pragmatists scope of questioning fundamental evil. Holmes came to have deep reservations about his own strident pre-war anti-abolitionist sentiments. The greatest contemporary advocate of pragmatism, Richard Rorty, has had to defend himself against the charge that he too, with his philosophy, implicitly makes slavery a non-moral, strictly pragmatic, issue.

Humankind's dealings with the physical world changed in practical ways with the Industrial Revolution, they changed in aesthetic ways with the Impressionists, literature challenged the results of all these changes, in Europe Nietzsche now challenged the very moral and ethical bases that produced them and in America the Pragmatists did the same in their own way.

Nietzsche died in 1900 and Einstein published his papers on the theory of special relativity in 1905 and general relatively in 1912. The theoretical scientific view of the physical world now changed too, utterly and in the same fundamental ways as the changes in the other areas.

The challenge that relativity posed to western philosophy was that time was neither linear nor progressive nor inexorable. It might be possible to stop or even reverse time. It could certainly be slowed down. A young person who left on a spaceship for a year's journey at near the speed of light would come back to earth aged only that year but with his contemporaries elderly or dead. Were we destined to go back to the cyclical conception of time that we had experienced for all of humankind's history up till the Industrial Revolution? At least we could not view it--or experience it-- in the linear, Cartesian way that characterized it during the preceding two centuries.

Long before Einstein it had been proved that the earth was not the center of the universe, nor even of our galaxy. Late twentieth century discoveries in astronomy demonstrated that we as a species on this one planet were in the "suburbs" of a very ordinary galaxy, of which there were millions and that the age of this thing we have always called the universe made our religious notions of our beginnings folk tales.

The Death of God philosophy of Nietzsche and the "moral relativism" of Pragmatism were good fits for the fin de siecle West. They became better fits with World War I-- the Great War, the war which was to end all wars--with the Russian Revolution and finally, apololyptically with Hitler and World War II.

Art in the first half of the twentieth century seemed to go off in a hundred different directions: cubism, surrealism, dadaism, social realism, ism after ism. There were no standards in art any more, there was no agreement even on what art was. In 1917 Marcel Duchamp displayed a urinal and called it art. Everything was questioned.

The truism was that art and science had broken with one another 500 years ago and were now on different planets entirely. The truism was that everything, from our conceptions of art, to those of time, space, matter, even good and evil had now gone into existential crisis.

The center of Western art moved from Paris in destroyed Europe to New York after World War II.

-Benjamin Harris

Part One

Part One

In the West from ancient times until about the mid-fifteenth century (1) art, philosophyand science were essentially the same thing with the same goal, pursuing a complete depiction and understanding of the physical world as humans perceive it with their eyes.

In their studies of the physical world, art, philosophy and science shared knowledge, in optics (2) in anatomy, etc.

After that time art and science diverged. At the most macro level, art did not change its emphasis from ocular verisimilitude until much later. The turning point could be taken to be with the Impressionists, with Cezanne and the other Post-Impressionists, or still later.

Science however can be viewed at this macro level as still pursuing verisimilitude, not at the ocular level but at the sub and super-ocular levels. Science, in this view, still is in search of a complete paradigm, a Grand Unified Theory, to explain the physical universe.

With string theory and loop theory science is now at a point where it may not be possible to come up with a theory of everything, most fundamentally because the universe itself may be a misnomer. Respected theoretical physicists for some time have considered whether there are not many, or at least many possible, "universes," some with physics different from ours and unknown to us.

In loop theory, the "everything" that scientists are pursuing a theory of may be as many as a ten dimensional phantasmagoria that our three dimensional universe is only a section of.

Not only were scientists and artists at one time working together, often in the same person as in, among others, Leonardo's case, but they also were necessarily philosophers and often serious ones.

The Western philosophical canon began with the Greeks. Nietzsche believed that the West made a wrong turn away from Homer and chose Socrates instead.

The progressive--or cumulative, or incremental--view of Western scientific history owes itself to those Greeks and to the philosophy of Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century.

Philosophy broke from science in the late 18th c with Immanuel Kant's claim that philosophy was the foundation of all other disciplines (Rorty, Mirror. p.132)

The exploration, change, and conquest of nature began with unprecedented speed with the technological science of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. For the first time humankind's experience of time changed. It was no longer cyclical and measured by the changes of the earth's rotation and available sunlight or by the seasons of the year. Humankind in the Industrial Revolution began to experience and be governed by time as measured by clocks.(3)

The Industrial Revolution was officially over when Einstein published his papers on special relativity in 1905 and on general relativity in 1912. They represented the end of that era from the perspective of the theoretical science of the physical world and the beginning of the current era.

Einstein's work was revolutioniary becaue it revealed the limitations of Newtonian physics at the quantum and cosmological levels of physical reality and explained light, gravity and mass in conceptually new ways.

Einstein's theory of relativity changed humankind's experience with time at the theoretical and intellectual level as profoundly as technological science changed people's practical everyday experiences with time. Under relativity, time slows down as a necessary consequence of motion as it approaches the speed of light.

The Industrial Revolution changed our perception of mass, also as a consequence of speed. In train travel at speeds of 35 mph the landscape, mass, became blurred to our sight, made to appear less substantial.(4) Similarly Einstein changed humankind's intellectual understanding of mass by demonstrating that multiplied by the speed of light squared it was the equal of energy.

Technological science gave humankind the still camera in 1839. By the 1870s artists began their own revolution by painting in their blurred, impressionistic style.

(1) See e.g. Gombrich, "The Story of Art," p.361; Levi-Strauss, "The Savage Mind," p. 28, Kuhn, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," p.161
(2) See e.g. Hockney, "Secret Knowledge."
(3) See e.g. Solnit, "River of Shadows."
(4) Solnit.

-Benjamin Harris

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Preventing Another Katrina

Preventing Another Katrina

FACT: Hurricanes in the southeast in summer are as predictable as frost in Vermont in October. They cause billions of dollars of damage and human fatalities each year. We must do something to protect our people, property and economy.

OPINION: As posted here August 30, we should try any of the scientific possibilities that have been floated over the years to stop or degrade hurricanes.
The president should create an emergency group of governors and scientists to develop a consensus of what to do.

FACT: Some cities, e.g. New Orleans and Miami are extremely vulnerable to catastrophic hurricane damage. As bad as Hurricane Andrew was it did not strike the population and economic heart of Miami, which still awaits The Big One. As bad as Katrina was it was not a Category 5 in New Orleans nor did it make a direct hit on the city. New Orleans still awaits the Big One.

OPINION: House Speaker Dennis Hastert said that New Orleans should not be rebuilt. Keith Olberman just about jumped out of his seat when he reported that. It sounded callous but obviously Hastert was not speaking about abandoning the people, he was voicing the reality that you could hardly plan a city to be more vulnerable than New Orleans is, situated in a basin below sea level between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, the latter held back from indundating the city in the best of times only by levees.

News reports are that New Orleans has been abandoned to "the dead and dying." If its structures and infrastructure are significantly destroyed, build a NEW Orleans on safer ground.

In Miami there is a boom in bayfront highrise residential construction that hasn't been seen in at least a generation. It should never have been allowed to go forward and it should be stopped in its tracks. Miami Beach, the cultural and economic signature of Greater Miami, is, like New Orleans, positioned between two bodies of water, the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay. New construction on Miami Beach should be stopped and no new residents should be permitted to move into the city.

Mandatory evactuations should mean what they say. In Miami mandatory means you should leave. When a Category 4 or 5 hurricane is reasonably within striking distance the local police should begin forced evacuations and the National Guard and military if necessary should be brought in immediately to forcibly take people out. And take them out to pre-selected, ready-for-them shelters, not whatever's-available, unready places like the Superdome.

-Benjamin Harris

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Medium, Message, Race and the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Medium, Message, Race and the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

I have no television, no computer, and I don't listen to the radio. I get the news from my cell phone links to CNN and ABC.

The print medium is a burlesque, revealing and concealing and leaving to the imagination what is concealed. It can be just as emotional, evocative and provocative than the electronic media with their direct imagery and intonation changes but their effects are different. The medium affects the message.

I read first in surprise at the difficulties in the post-storm relief efforts. That gave way to bewilderment at how things could have apparently gone so wrong. Then, typically of me and I believe a critical mass of other Americans, in anger at those who were responsible.

Then came the reports of criminals shooting at helicopters trying to land at the hospitals and most painfully for me the stories of women who were raped when they tried to go to the restrooms in the Superdome and the convention center.

I pictured the criminals as all black and I was furious at yet another example, as if we needed any more, of the social, moral and functional bankruptcy of the black community in America.

The decision-makers I blamed were the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana in that order. The federal government and President Bush I had together at a distant third.

I imagined the mayor and governor to be Democrats and I was furious at them and at the Democratic party, believing their inaction to be symptomatic of the party's timidity in crises. The next day I goaded my yellow-dog friends with an email asking if the mayor and governor were in fact Democrats, honestly not knowing if they were. Their abashed reply fueled my anger and growing cynicism.

Two nights ago I was over at my babies mamma's house and for the first time saw the television images.

It had been so long since I had looked at TV that the location of the different channels on the dial had changed. CNN used to be channel 13, MSNBC used to be 11, Fox used to be 64. They weren't in their usual places so I had to channel flit until I found a news station. As it happened the first I found was Fox.

Bill O'Reilly was hosting the segment and I saw the images of the looters, all African-American with O'Reilly's voice-overs of condemnation and disgust, both proper in my view, both of the criminals and of the day-late and dollar-short relief effort.

I then lit on MSNBC. Keith Olberman was cracklingly angry, again appropriately from where I sat, at the apparent failure of the relief effort. Olberman was particularly angry at Rush Limbaugh's assertion that those who stayed in New Orleans could have gotten out but chose not to. Olberman termed Limbaugh "clueless," which I thought appropriate.

To answer these charges from the clueless Limbaugh, Olberman brought on the Rev. Al Sharpton. Click.

Yesterday at lunch when I told my girlfriend about my chronology of television news gathering and clicking away the moment Sharpton appeared she asked if I was not dismissing the message for the messenger. I said that I had but that it was MSNBC's choice to have Sharpton, a liar, charlatan and pedagogue to make the anti-Limbaugh case and that their choice had debased the message.

I went back to Fox and noticed that the same loop of footage was being rerun Groundhog Day-like. A policeman pushing a young Hispanic man out of a looted store, a teenage black boy turning over a garbage can at the feet of another policeman. O'Reilly was now saying that he had predicted this violence and that in his view those who had refused to evacuate had done so deliberately because they saw this "opportunity" to loot, shoot and rape coming. That did not sound convincing to me. So many messengers, so little time in which to dismiss them all. Click.

I found CNN. Their footage was about the same, the interior shots of the Superdome, the dead woman in the wheelchair, the girl who went into diabetic shock. But there wasn't the endless loopty-loop of Fox's lawless minorities against white police officers.

Then I began to see on all the networks--it was there from the beginning I had just not seen--that virtually all of the refugees were black, so many were old, sick, infirm, very young and very poor, that (1) It did not appear to me that they could have gotten out without being forcibly evacuated, i.e. it did not appear to me that they had made a choice to stay. (2) They appeared to me to be good law-abiding citizens in hopeless situations (3) The property being looted was overwhelmingly foodstores and the like.

I had read stories of looters brazenly displaying for the cameras stolen clothing and I have no reason to doubt those stories but I did not see it, nor did I see the corollary that I expected, young black men and women pushing shopping carts with stolen TVs in them.

(4) Most ashamedly for me I now imagined what I knew to be true from my work as a prosecutor, that the victims of the young black male lawlessness were, as they almost always are, black also, young, old, poor, female, all vulnerable. It was not, or was not just, doctors and policemen, presumably mostly white, who were the victims. It was, I bet, overwhelmingly black people who were raped and otherwise personally assaulted.

And now that my thinking, or maybe more accurately my reactions, had so "evolved" I had to ask myself some questions. First,why did I first concentrate on the race of the perpetrators?

Second,why did I not at first think what the likely race of the victims was?

Third,was I more angry than I "should have been" at the black criminals when I hadn't considered the race of the victims?

Fourth,what difference "should it" make that the victims were of whatever race?

Fifth, was I more sanguine when I realized, as a white man, that the victims of black violence were likely to be black?

I'm thinking as I'm writing (the better way being to think and then write) and I'm feeling defensive right now but there's some value in expression under these circumstances too.

My answer to the first question is because I just knew it to be true. The criminals were going to be black. A few years ago a well-publicized study showed that something like 40% of all black men between the ages of, say, 18-35 were either in jail, serving prison sentences, or on probation or some other form of community control. I still comfortable with my reaction.

The answer to the second question is not as easy for me. I know from twenty-three years of prosecuting that almost all victims of black crime are black, but that was not what first came to my mind when I read the reports. The reports left me with the impression of white victims: store owners, police officers and doctors but I can't blame the media for that impression. I know too well the truth.

It is painful to me to have to admit that the answer to the third and fifth questions is yes. My anger abated when I realized that the victims were likely to be black also. I will say in my defense that my anger did not leave an emotional vacuum of indifference. It was replaced by sadness that the loopty-loop of black male violence on vulnerable black people was replaying itself Groundhog Day-like again.

The answer to the fourth question "should be" no. It wasn't but as I reflect on my thinking I honestly think that I was concentrating on the status of what I was being told the victims were, doctors, police officers and business owners. Yes, those people are and were in my mind overwhelmingly more likely to be white. But status differences, and the reaction to them is appropriate in my view and in the view of the law and common sense.

For as long as we have had the modern incarnation of the death penalty the status of the victim has been a lawful, in my view appropriate, consideration in whether to seek the ultimate penalty.

It is an "aggravator" under Florida law that the victim was performing his duties as a police officer because a murder of a person of that status strikes at society as a whole in the way that a murder of a non-governmental official does not. For example if Hillary Clinton had killed Bill Clinton upon discovery of his affair with Monica Lewinsky that would not have been a death penalty aggravator under Florida law. If Rush Limbaugh had killed him because he was the president that would have been an aggravator. Similarly if the victim is a child or an elderly person, that status of being particularly vulnerable is a death penalty aggravator.

So I cannot fault myself for being particularly outraged that ambulance drivers, helicopter rescue pilots and doctors were the targets of the snipers.

The rape reports affected me as I think rape does most people, men and women, white and black. It is such a personal violation, etc. etc. But it also plays on cultural stereotypes. I am not as offended by homosexual prison rape as I am by male on female street rape for more than one reason but one of them is the status of sex with a female. Culturally it is still something that men must seek as a reward, that women give only to those who are worthy and that men should never take forcibly. I don't know if that if a "valid" reason for outrage or not.

I don't remember if I had a particular image of the rape victims in my mind when I first read the reports. I believe the first reports I heard were of roving bands of rapists accosting women on the street, rather than as I understand it more to be the case now, that the rapes happened in the shelters.

I do find it more reprehensible that gangs of young men would go marauding through the streets looking for women to rape. That is heightened premeditation and social pathology rather than the more "opportunistic" rapes that would occur when tens of thousands of desperate people are thrown together in a shelter.

It is not clear to me upon reflection that I presumed the race of the rape victims to be white but I cannot say that I did not presume that. Giving myself no benefit of the doubt, that is that at some level of consciousness or subconsciousness I did picture a blonde white girl who was caught "in the wrong part of town" and was gangraped by a group of young black men, then that is a "wrong" reaction.

Her status, which is solely her race, and the rapists status, which is solely their race, should be irrelevant. But as I write this, even not being sure that race did play a part in my reaction, as I write of a blonde white girl getting raped by a group of black steeet criminals I am more emotionally effected than I would be if the victim were black and I feel very, very bad about that. I am ashamed and I want to change that in my feelings.

-Benjamin Harris