30 October 2010

Chris Hedges : Collapse of the Liberal Class

Image from Voices in Dialogue.

A choreographed charade:
The world liberal opportunists made
The collapse of liberal institutions means those outside the circles of power are trapped, with no recourse, and this is why many Americans are turning in desperation toward idiotic right-wing populists who at least understand the power of hatred as a mobilizing force.
By Chris Hedges / October 30, 2010

For those unfamiliar with his writing, Chris Hedges is an unusual journalist and war correspondent. His impressive list of reporting credentials together with a Harvard divinity degree suggest that he might be one to speak with both unusual perception and moral authority. Hedges is indeed an unusually perceptive reporter, and now an independent writer doing a regular column for Truthdig.

His recent essay below is centered on the important claim that liberal politics in the USA has now become exhausted as a force for change, unable to deliver sufficient economic goods to satisfy the traditionally complacent U.S. middle class:
The legitimate rage being expressed by disenfranchised workers toward the college-educated liberal elite, who abetted or did nothing to halt the corporate assault on the poor and the working class of the last 30 years, is not misplaced. The liberal class is guilty... The death of the liberal class, however, is catastrophic for our democracy. It means there is no longer any check to a corporate apparatus designed to further enrich the power elite...
The implications of this thesis are both disturbing and important. If what Hedges says is even approximately true, it is worthwhile paying close attention to his analysis. This analysis is expanded on in his new book
The Death of the Liberal Class. An earlier essay here lays out some of his same thinking, arguing that the USA is repeating a historical pattern of dysfunctional politics, one that is likely to favor some angry indigenous variety of American fascism.

If these were normal times, we might dismiss Hedges as a strident alarmist, but the unanticipated strength of the Tea Party movement shows that these are not normal times. Voices like Hedges that warn us of a previously unlikely political future now deserve to be taken much more seriously.

-- Roger Baker / The Rag Blog

The lunatic fringe of the Republican Party, which looks set to make sweeping gains in the midterm elections, is the direct result of a collapse of liberalism. It is the product of bankrupt liberal institutions, including the press, the church, universities, labor unions, the arts, and the Democratic Party. The legitimate rage being expressed by disenfranchised workers toward the college-educated liberal elite, who abetted or did nothing to halt the corporate assault on the poor and the working class of the last 30 years, is not misplaced. The liberal class is guilty.

The liberal class, which continues to speak in the prim and obsolete language of policies and issues, refused to act. It failed to defend traditional liberal values during the long night of corporate assault in exchange for its position of privilege and comfort in the corporate state. The virulent right-wing backlash we now experience is an expression of the liberal class’ flagrant betrayal of the citizenry.

The liberal class, which once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible, functioned traditionally as a safety valve. During the Great Depression, with the collapse of capitalism, it made possible the New Deal. During the turmoil of the 1960s, it provided legitimate channels within the system to express the discontent of African-Americans and the anti-war movement.

But the liberal class, in our age of neo-feudalism, is now powerless. It offers nothing but empty rhetoric. It refuses to concede that power has been wrested so efficiently from the hands of citizens by corporations that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty are irrelevant. It does not act to mitigate the suffering of tens of millions of Americans who now make up a growing and desperate permanent underclass.

And the disparity between the rhetoric of liberal values and the rapacious system of inverted totalitarianism the liberal class serves makes liberal elites, including Barack Obama, a legitimate source of public ridicule. The liberal class, whether in universities, the press or the Democratic Party, insists on clinging to its privileges and comforts even if this forces it to serve as an apologist for the expanding cruelty and exploitation carried out by the corporate state.

Populations will endure repression from tyrants as long as these rulers continue to effectively manage and wield power. But human history has amply demonstrated that once those in positions of power become redundant and impotent, yet retain the trappings and privileges of power, they are swiftly and brutally discarded.

Tocqueville observed that the French, on the eve of their revolution, hated the aristocrats about to lose their power far more than they had ever hated them before. The increased hatred directed at the aristocratic class occurred because as the aristocracy lost real power there was no decline in their fortunes.

As long as the liberal class had even limited influence, whether through the press or the legislative process, liberals were tolerated and even respected. But once the liberal class lost all influence it became a class of parasites. The liberal class, like the déclassé French aristocracy, has no real function within the power elite.

And the rising right-wing populists, correctly, ask why liberals should be tolerated when their rhetoric bears no relation to reality and their presence has no influence on power.

The death of the liberal class, however, is catastrophic for our democracy. It means there is no longer any check to a corporate apparatus designed to further enrich the power elite. It means we cannot halt the plundering of the nation by Wall Street speculators and corporations.

An ineffectual liberal class, in short, means there is no hope, however remote, of a correction or a reversal through the political system and electoral politics. The liberals’ disintegration ensures that the frustration and anger among the working and the middle class will find expression in a rejection of traditional liberal institutions and the civilities of a liberal democracy.

The very forces that co-opted the liberal class and are responsible for the impoverishment of the state will, ironically, reap benefits from the collapse. These corporate manipulators are busy channeling rage away from the corporate and military forces hollowing out the nation from the inside and are turning that anger toward the weak remnants of liberalism. It does not help our cause that liberals indeed turned their backs on the working and middle class.

The corporate state has failed to grasp the vital role the liberal class traditionally plays in sustaining a stable power system. The corporate state, by emasculating the liberal class, has opted for a closed system of polarization, gridlock, and political theater in the name of governance. It has ensured a further destruction of state institutions so that government becomes even more ineffectual and despised.

The collapse of the constitutional state, presaged by the death of the liberal class, has created a power vacuum that a new class of speculators, war profiteers, gangsters and killers, historically led by charismatic demagogues, will enthusiastically fill. It opens the door to overtly authoritarian and fascist movements.

These movements rise to prominence by ridiculing and taunting the liberal class for its weakness, hypocrisy, and uselessness. The promises of these proto-fascist movements are fantastic and unrealistic, but their critiques of the liberal class are grounded in truth.

The liberal class, despite becoming an object of public scorn, still prefers the choreographed charade. Liberals decry, for example, the refusal of the Democratic Party to restore habeas corpus or halt the looting of the U.S. Treasury on behalf of Wall Street speculators, but continue to support a president who cravenly serves the interests of the corporate state.

As long as the charade of democratic participation is played, the liberal class does not have to act. It can maintain its privileged status. It can continue to live in a fictional world where democratic reform and responsible government exist. It can pretend it has a voice and influence in the corridors of power. But the uselessness of the liberal class is not lost on the tens of millions of Americans who suffer the awful indignities of the corporate state.

The death of the liberal class cuts citizens off from the mechanisms of power. Liberal institutions such as the church, the press, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts, and labor unions once set the parameters for limited self-criticism and small, incremental reforms, and offered hope for piecemeal justice and change.

The liberal class could decry the excesses of the state, work to mitigate them, and champion basic human rights. It posited itself as the conscience of the nation. It permitted the nation, through its appeal to public virtues and the public good, to define itself as being composed of a virtuous and even noble people.

The liberal class was permitted a place within a capitalist democracy because it also vigorously discredited radicals within American society who openly defied the excesses of corporate capitalism and who denounced a political system run by and on behalf of corporations. The real enemy of the liberal class has never been Glenn Beck, but Noam Chomsky.

The purging and silencing of independent and radical thinkers as well as iconoclasts have robbed the liberal class of vitality. The liberal class has cut itself off from the roots of creative and bold thought, from those forces and thinkers who could have prevented the liberal class from merging completely with the power elite. Liberals exude a tepid idealism utterly divorced from daily life.

And this is why every television clip of Barack Obama is so palpably pathetic.

Unions, organizations formerly steeped in the doctrine of class warfare and filled with those who sought broad social and political rights for the working class, have been transformed into domesticated junior partners of the capitalist class. Cars rolling out of the Ford and GM plants in Michigan were said to have been made by Ford-UAW. And where unions still exist, they have been reduced to simple bartering tools, if that.

The social demands of unions early in the 20th century that gave the working class weekends off, the right to strike, the eight-hour workday, and Social Security have been abandoned. Universities, especially in political science and economics departments, parrot the discredited ideology of unregulated capitalism and globalization. They have no new ideas.

Artistic expression, along with most religious worship, is largely self-absorbed narcissism meant to entertain without offense. The Democratic Party and the press have become courtiers to the power elite and corporate servants.

Once the liberal class can no longer moderate the savage and greedy inclinations of the capitalist class, once, for example, labor unions are reduced to the role of bartering away wage increases and benefits, once public education is gutted and the press no longer gives a voice to the poor and the working class, liberals become as despised as the power elite they serve.

The collapse of liberal institutions means those outside the circles of power are trapped, with no recourse, and this is why many Americans are turning in desperation toward idiotic right-wing populists who at least understand the power of hatred as a mobilizing force.

The liberal class no longer holds within its ranks those who have the moral autonomy or physical courage to defy the power elite. The rebels, from Chomsky to Sheldon Wolin to Ralph Nader, have been marginalized, shut out of the national debate, and expelled from liberal institutions.

The liberal class lacks members with the vision and fortitude to challenge dominant free market ideologies. It offers no ideological alternatives. It remains bound to a Democratic Party that has betrayed every basic liberal principle including universal healthcare, an end to our permanent war economy, a robust system of public education, a vigorous defense of civil liberties, job creation, the right to unionize, and welfare for the poor.

“The left once dismissed the market as exploitative,” Russell Jacoby writes. “It now honors the market as rational and humane. The left once disdained mass culture as exploitative; now it celebrates it as rebellious. The left once honored independent intellectuals as courageous; now it sneers at them as elitist. The left once rejected pluralism as superficial; now it worships it as profound. We are witnessing not simply a defeat of the left, but its conversion and perhaps inversion.”

Capitalism, and especially corporate capitalism, was once viewed as a system to be fought. But capitalism is no longer challenged in public discourse. Capitalist bosses, men such as Warren Buffett, George Soros, and Donald Trump, are treated bizarrely as sages and celebrities, as if greed and manipulation had become the highest moral good.

As Wall Street steals billions of taxpayer dollars, as it perpetrates massive fraud to throw people out of their homes, as the ecosystem that sustains the planet is polluted and destroyed, we do not know what to do or say. We have been robbed of a vocabulary to describe reality. We decry the excesses of capitalism without demanding a dismantling of the corporate state. Our pathetic response is to be herded to political rallies by skillful publicists to shout inanities like “Yes we can!”

The liberal class is finished. Neither it nor its representatives will provide the leadership or resistance to halt our slide toward despotism. The liberal class prefers comfort and privilege to confrontation. It will not halt the corporate assault or thwart the ascendancy of the corporate state. It will remain intolerant within its ranks of those who do.

The liberal class now honors an unwritten quid pro quo, one set in place by Bill Clinton, to cravenly serve corporate interests in exchange for money, access, and admittance into the halls of power. The press, the universities, the labor movement, the arts, the church, and the Democratic Party, fearful of irrelevance and desperate to retain their positions within the corporate state, will accelerate their purges of those who speak the unspeakable, those who name what cannot be named.

It is the gutless and bankrupt liberal class, even more than the bizarre collection of moral and intellectual trolls now running for office, who are our most perfidious opponents.

[Chris Hedges is an American journalist, author, and war correspondent. A Senior Fellow at The Nation Institute, Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. He was part of The New York Times team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for the paper's coverage of global terrorism, and received the 2002 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. He is the the best-selling author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. Chris Hedges’ book The Death of the Liberal Class was released last week. He writes a weekly column for Truthdig.]

Source / Truthdig

The Rag Blog

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29 October 2010

Marc Estrin : Unhallowed

"See No Evil." Painting by Morwenna Morrison.


By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / October 30, 2010

Halloween is my least favorite holiday, the one that has strayed furthest from its original intentions, and has been most overwhelmed by candy-capitalism. The worst part about it, from my point of view, is that it now involves treats with no tricks. I am on full general strike against it.

It's not so much that I want to see infantile maliciousness attack the community but that I am a great fan of the word “or." “Trick or treat”? -- the homeowner has a choice, and should he choose the former, the onus is then on the tricker to come up with punishments that fit the crime. What tricker is prepared for that these days? Our corporate criminal element cultivates both treat and trick. Should not our children practice running the world?

It's not only the loss of imagination that I mourn, but even worse, a loss of the sense of Evil as a power to be meditated upon and respected. I left a career -- or rather was invited out -- as a minister because my congregations were unenthusiastic about exploring the evil around us. A personal critique of my denomination can be summed up in one sentence: they want Easter without Good Friday, transfiguration without death. "The world out there is bad enough -- we don't need to go through it here on Sundays."

In short, they had no theology of evil. Which these days, we need more than ever.

The great seasonal gift of this past week has been the Wikileaks release of 400,000 internal documents related to our military behavior in Iraq. It was both trick and treat, an apotheosis of Halloween behavior. And of course, in a culture which refuses to acknowledge its own evil, our government's initial response has been to shoot the messenger, with the mainstream media predictably complicit.

While media worldwide -- mainstream and otherwise -- focused on the contents of the communications -- prisoners abused, raped and murdered; the civilian death toll covered up; the shooting of men trying to surrender (“you can't surrender to a helicopter”); the abuses of our private security firms; the hundreds of civilians killed at checkpoints -- the U.S. media focused almost entirely on whether Julian Assange had the right to release such documents, whether he is a sexual offender or not, and what punishment for him is appropriate.

This refocusing is perhaps predictable in our celebrity culture: everything comes down to the actions of particular, lime-lighted people, and the underlying currents are ignored. Julian Assange and Wikileaks are not the abscesses that need to be opened in order to heal. Their targets are. We should thank them for reviving the true spirit of Halloween.

[Marc Estrin is a writer and activist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]

The Rag Blog

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28 October 2010

David P. Hamilton : 'Citizens United' and the Corruption of American Politics

Political cartoon by Adam Zyglis / The Buffalo News / Daryl Cagle.

The 'Citizens United' decision
and the
terminal corruption of
American electoral politics

By David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog / October 28, 2010

This article by The Rag Blog's David P. Hamilton is an extremely timely and relevant assessment of the state of politics in this country following the Supreme Court's game-changing decision opening the floodgates to even greater corporate dominance of the electoral system -- and after the many failures of the Obama administration in bringing about meaningful progressive change. We hope it will stimulate discussion in the progressive community.

However, to the extent that David is suggesting the left should boycott the electoral system, we strongly disagree -- especially at this point in history -- and that should not be taken to be The Rag Blog's editorial position. We believe that -- lacking a coherent strategy on the left that offers a clear and well-articulated alternative course of action to participation in electoral politics -- it would be a self-defeating choice.

We believe, in fact, that everything possible must be done to stop the mushrooming anti-intellectual neo-nativist far right surge, and strongly urge all of our readers to vote this Tuesday, November 2.

But our participation in electoral politics should be done with our eyes open and without unrealistic expectations. And we must always remember that voting is not enough. That our primary responsibility as progressives is to organize and educate outside the political system if we are ever to bring about meaningful basic social change.

-- Thorne Dreyer / The Rag Blog

The primary political story of this year’s midterm election flows from the Supreme Court’s recent “Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission” decision. This 5-4 decision held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited under the First Amendment.

The already apparent result has been that millions of corporate dollars are flowing into the campaigns nationwide attacking Democrats. Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics predicts "$3.7 billion will be spent on this midterm election," up 30% from the last midterm election. Spending on political ads has increased 75% compared to the 2008 presidential election year.

This flood of ungoverned cash is only just beginning. Increasingly, these contributions are being made anonymously with impunity. Karl Rove now controls a campaign fund 10 times larger than that of the Republican National Committee, 95% of it from three militantly right-wing billionaires. The Chamber of Commerce, with 300,000 members, has raised a huge political fund and spent $28 million, largely from just 45 members, $7 million from "Swiftboat" Bob Perry of Houston.

Money coming from outside the country is also involved, but that fact is marginal to the larger issue. Amounts being spent by these political action committees to defeat Democrats are unprecedented. More than ever, elections are a commodity for sale and the price is being driven up so that only the very rich can afford them.

The consensus prediction of the outcome of the upcoming midterm elections is the widespread defeat of Democrats, losing control of the House and possibly the Senate too. This result will be determined primarily by the sad state of the economy and the failure of Obama’s leadership.

However, as a result of Citizens United the process has fundamentally changed. The playing field has never been level, but the advantages now enjoyed by the capitalist class in the electoral system have reached a qualitatively new high. The primary advantage of the right has been unleashed. Under the new rules governing political campaign financing, the capital class hegemony over the upper strata of U.S. government has been institutionalized.

Leftists have always argued that there is a U.S. capitalist ruling class with its power based in its control of the major corporations and that capitalist class money corrupts elections. Because of the lack of public funding and the high costs associated with running for office, big private sector money has long been necessary to be a serious player.

However, in the past there were legal limitations on corporate contributions that allowed non-corporate elements to compete, albeit at a financial disadvantage, usually losing to the better financed candidates. The restrictions that remain are quickly becoming irrelevant and no new ones can be reasonably expected from a government increasingly beholden to corporate capitalist interests.

NPR recently reported that one Republican-supporting political action fund, among many, was spending over $100,000 for negative advertising at just one small market newspaper in one closely contested congressional race. That’s the new norm. Millions in these funds are currently being spent to defeat progressives like Alan Grayson of Florida. The possibility of public funding of elections coming from politicians in the service of big capitalist interests is slight indeed.

The capitalist ruling class has globalized. They are no longer the U.S. ruling class so much as the largest national sector of an increasingly integrated international ruling class. Capital knows no borders. You can buy any publicly held stock in the world in dozens of stock markets worldwide 24/7. The heretofore essential countervailing sector, labor, has no chance to exert close to an equivalent influence while operating in a national context.

What has changed is the depth and reach of capitalist ruling class control. Like their wealth, their power has grown exponentially; they have increased their range of operation and become internationally integrated in recent years. In the U.S., their control has now become enshrined in the basic law of the land.

In this stagnant democracy where, outside of presidential elections, large majorities don’t participate, the Republicans have correctly adopted the Rovian strategy emphasizing base mobilization rather than appealing to the largely mythical center. Thus, their motivating ideology has become more radically rightist. Disguising their racism as concern for immigration, crime, busing, private education, etc, is their specialty.

As a silver lining to this dark cloud, it is logical to assume that more people will see the validity of the assertion that democracy in America has been corrupted by corporate money. The socialist left should grow in the context of imperial decline and political polarization. Never has serious reform looked more improbable and never have the culprits looked so conspicuous.

If elections have become a fraud perpetrated upon the public, is participation in them unprincipled in that it lends credence to this fraud? Should we encourage people to vote for liberal Democrats or Greens or anyone when we know the game is rigged? Must we accept competition on an unlevel playing field on our opponent’s home turf with them providing the referees?

Or should we instead be encouraging the refusal to participate in corrupt elections? Is authentic democracy impossible under the current system? Should a primary goal of the left in the future be to delegitimize this corrupt electoral system? Is that impossible if you participate?

This hypothesis concerning the reach and power of capitalist class control has been substantiated by Obama. Given a unique opportunity to lead toward real change, he has instead proven himself to be just another politician who protects the interests of the capitalist class first and foremost.

During the 2008 presidential campaign while standing in front of an Austin audience, he repeatedly called himself a “progressive." That was pure pandering. Instead, his administration has expanded American militarism with more money and more U.S. troops fighting in more countries than ever; has produced a health care “reform” that in no fundamental way reforms health care, that mandates you buy a faulty product in the private sector, and that was written largely by health industry lobbyists; and has passed financial “reform” written by lobbyists for the financial sector and their past executives now working within the Obama administration after first forking over hundreds of billions of your tax dollars to “stimulate” them instead of us.

Obama's administration has failed to curb corporate compensation; has failed to close Guantanamo and has expanded CIA assassination programs that include the targeting of American citizens (later defending the practice in court as a “state secret”); has raided the homes and offices of antiwar leaders and confiscated their records; has failed to help millions faced with foreclosure after promising to do so and has announced it will appeal any court ban on future foreclosures while continuing to bail out investment banks who leveraged up the housing bubble.

The administration has shown itself unwilling to pressure Israel to make peace with the Palestinians; has done next to nothing to end the Drug War; has allowed environmental disaster in the Gulf through incompetence and a failure of regulatory oversight and then quickly lifted the ban on deep water drilling, etc, ad nauseum.

Now the Obama Justice Department has successfully appealed the federal judge’s ruling that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is unconstitutional. Before a national audience this ex-professor of constitutional law achieved his nadir of veracity by arguing that protecting gays from continued oppression by the military was best accomplished by a legislative branch that had only recently refused to do so and where his majority is about to shrink if not disappear.

This was soon followed by news that Obama’s “Justice” Department will defend Bush’s attorney general, John Ashcroft, against legitimate charges that after 9/11 he ordered Muslim Americans to be held without charges, denied them access to lawyers, and had them carried off to secret prisons and tortured.

Obama’s record is only progressive in comparison to reactionary Republicans and its lack of progressivism is the principal reason for the “enthusiasm gap." Next week, the Republicans will get no more votes nationwide than they got when they were soundly defeated in 2008. However, the Democrats will receive many fewer than 2008. Most of those who have abandoned Barack Obama are to his left. Meanwhile, most Democrats continue to pursue the outmoded strategy of appealing to moderates.

Of course, merely not voting is an insufficient response. Denouncing the process would be not only truthful but very likely a productive strategic innovation for the left in the future -- to picket polling places, to urge people to deface ballots, to publicly destroy registration cards like Vietnam-era draft cards and to proselytize around the analysis that the electoral system and the politicians it produces are inherently corrupt.

Fundamental reforms that reverse Citizens United, ban corporate money from political campaigns altogether, and establish publicly-funded elections are reasonable and popular but unachievable goals in the present political context and, hence, revolutionary. This irreconcilable conflict of fundamental interests will promote political instability that will increase as this corruption becomes more glaring, entrenched and widespread.

[David P. Hamilton has been a political activist in Austin since the late 1960s when he worked with SDS and wrote for The Rag, Austin's underground newspaper.]

The Rag Blog

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Bruce Melton : Climate Science's New Paradigm

It's the cars! Traffic in Houston. Image from City-Data.com.

It’s cars, not coal:
The new paradigm of climate science

By Bruce Melton / The Rag Blog / October 28, 2010

The science has changed again. This time, things are really upside down. How are we supposed to know which target to shoot?

We live, we learn. Science goes on, especially climate science. There is an extreme need for more knowledge about our climate. This has been obvious to the climate scientists for years. The titles in the scholarly journals show just how rapidly climate knowledge is being discovered.

The amount of effort being put into the challenge is possibly greater than any learning event that has ever happened, including things like the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Project. The credibility of the science grows constantly as is shown by a recent paper evaluating over 1300 climate scientists.

The evaluation found that 97 to 98 percent of climate scientists studied, that supported man-made global warming science, were published more than twice as often in the scholarly journals than were the two to three percent of climate scientists who did not support man made climate change science (1).

In 2009, somewhere close to ten thousand times more climate discoveries were made than were made in 1990 (2). Too many of these discoveries showed that earth’s climate was changing faster and with greater impacts than our climate scientists had previously realized.

Lord Nicholas Stern, World Bank Chief Economist (2000-2003) and Head of the Government Economic Service for the United Kingdom during the Blair Administration, wrote (in 2006) what is undeniably the most complete description of the global economic impacts of climate change. This incredible 700-page evaluation was ferociously shouted down by the non-climate science community.

In 2008, just two years later, Lord Stern published an update to his 2006 report. He said that the severity of his previous findings was vindicated by the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment. He also said "We underestimated the risks... we underestimated the damage associated with temperature increases... and we underestimated the probabilities of temperature increases."

In June 2008, Stern said that because climate change is happening faster than predicted, the cost to reduce carbon below dangerous levels would be even higher. Instead of the one percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) per year assumed in 2006, it is now about 2% of GDP.” (3)

In just a couple of years, because of new discoveries in climate science, the cost of mitigation has doubled. Are we doing the right things? Can we afford to be doing something that is not as efficient as possible? Do we have time yet to make mistakes? The answers may not be as obvious as we think.

A paper in the February 23, 2010 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, written by a team of seven scientists led by NASA’s Dr. Nadine Unger, has taken a new view of global warming pollutants that greatly alters our current world of climate change science.

There is really nothing new in this paper though. What has happened is that these scientists have gained a better understanding of the big picture of the climate impacts of air pollution.

The approach of the team was to define the net change to our climate from any given economic activity, considering both the warming and the cooling caused by air pollutants emitted from that specific sector. You see, some pollutants, like the smoke and gases from a volcanic eruption, or coal fired power plants, or tropical forest biomass burning, can cool our atmosphere as well as cause it to warm.

We know a lot about greenhouse gases today. This knowledge has been accumulating for more than a century. But greenhouse gases make up only a portion of the pollutants emitted by any given economic sector. Many of the rest of the pollutants (air pollutants) are what are called aerosols.

What is an aerosol? Aerosols are defined as very tiny particles that can basically float (electro-static attraction) in the air. They are very similar to the stuff that comes out of a spray can.

Paint is an aerosol, as is the sticky liquid that makes hairspray work. Deodorant, air freshener, insecticides, anything that can be sprayed out of a tiny nozzle at high pressure can be made into an aerosol. Dust and smoke are common natural aerosols.

Aerosol particles are so small that they do not easily fall to the ground from the force of gravity. Smoke is an aerosol, as is salt spray from the ocean, and much of what we know as smog.

Aerosols can be both ‘light” and “dark." Dark aerosols are like greenhouse gases. They absorb sunlight and turn it into heat. Smoke is composed of both light and dark aerosols. Light aerosols however, reflect sunlight harmlessly back into space like ice and snow, resulting in a cooling effect.

Black carbon and sulfate aerosols are the two biggies that come from everything that burns including coal and the wood fires used for cooking in developing nations. Black carbon is a warming aerosol. Sulfates are cooling aerosols. There are many other aerosols that occur naturally and that are generated from mankind’s economic activities and they include nitrogen oxides and volatile organic carbons, as well as organic molecules from algae in the oceans and from trees and other plants on land.

Dr. Unger’s team’s paper takes all of these warming and cooling effects, adds them up for individual economic sectors, and then ranks them from bad to worse. It also does something else novel. Because different atmospheric pollutants remain in our skies for different lengths of time, the researchers looked at things in the short term (2020) and long term (2100).

Fundamental tenets

I’ll get to this in a minute, but there are a couple of other basic fundamental tenets of climate science that have changed that need a little discussion first.

As we learn, our knowledge changes. We have been learning oodles about the different greenhouse gases in our skies, man-made and natural, for over a century. We also have a lot of knowledge about the way other things in our atmosphere, such as aerosols, dust, and smoke warm or cool our planet.

One of the big new climate science discoveries is that the life of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has changed. Our previous understanding of how long CO2 lasted once emitted was about 100 to 200 years. This is an understanding that has developed over generations as we have learned how the different things react with CO2, how they are absorbed by the oceans or respired by vegetation on land, or how they are trapped in the soil or ocean sediments.

Now we are finding that all of these things change as our planet itself changes with the warming. On a warmer planet, our oceans absorb less carbon dioxide (4).

Our forests have changed too. They now absorb less carbon dioxide because they are becoming less healthy as their environments warm beyond their evolutionary niches. NASA and numerous other researchers have shown that the carbon dioxide fertilization effect has already worn off as our forests succumb to stress from the warming. This has been documented across most of the world’s forests north of the tropics (5).

As our planet becomes warmer, these changes will become larger. Other things that the scientists have seen happening already will start to play an even larger role in the way our climate changes. Drier soils from ongoing drought cannot hold as much carbon dioxide from decayed organic material. Extensive peat lands across the world are also drying and have already changed into large sources of greenhouse gases (6). Melting permafrost releases greenhouse gases, under sea frozen methane is venting, ocean primary productivity is falling, and the list goes on.

When the big picture is completely digested, or as completely digested as our knowledge base can get it today, the 21st century understanding of the life of CO2 in our sky, based on research from Dr. David Archer at the University of Chicago is as follows: CO2 lasts for 300 years except for 25% that last forever (7). This is very different from our previous understanding of the life of CO2 being 100 to 200 years.

Our knowledge about methane has changed too. When the big picture is recognized, methane has far more impact on our atmosphere than we once thought. Methane reacts differently with different things in the atmosphere at different times. These different reactions tell us the strength of the warming that then occurs. For example, methane decomposes after a dozen or so years, but the decomposition byproducts are CO2 and ozone, both greenhouse gases.

Other substances that are a part of the methane cycle are much more far reaching and include water vapor, volatile organic compounds, sulfur compounds, carbon monoxide, etc.

In the past however, our view was much more basic. We simply compared the warming caused by methane directly to the warming caused by carbon dioxide.

Today, we know that the warming from methane, like the lifetime of carbon dioxide, has changed relative to our knowledge of the 20th century. The IPCC Fourth Assessment report listed methane as having a global warming potential (GWP) of 25. That is, methane is a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

This is basic 20th century knowledge. Even though the IPCC report was published in 2007, most of the knowledge in the report dated two to five years (or more) prior to 2007. Science takes a lot of time to happen.

So our new knowledge then, about the GWP for methane, as published by Dr. Drew Shindell at Columbia University, considering all of the known reactions and interactions of methane with other atmospheric factors, is that methane is now 34 times more powerful than CO2. This is more than a third more powerful that we understood just a few years ago (8).

So it has become obvious to the climate scientists, well at least the atmospheric chemists, that what is really happening in our skies is much different from what we thought.

Now, back to aerosols. We have learned a lot about aerosols in the 21st century. Aerosols generally cool our atmosphere instead of warming it like greenhouse gases and it turns out that aerosols play a big role in what is going on in our sky.

So our team of scientists following Dr, Unger considers how different economic sectors impact our climate based on the net impact from both warming and cooling pollutants created by those economic sectors.

These clever scientists have taken all of this information and put it in this nice little confusing piece of climate science art titled Impacts of Different Economic Sectors on Climate. The colored bars show the impacts from warming and cooling of different gases and aerosols. Cooling is on the left, warming on the right.

Focus on the top image labeled 2020 where the economic sectors are considered in the short term. “On-road” (which is transportation) ranks highest with a score of 199 watts of warming. This is in great conflict with what we know as the worst offender of greenhouse gas emitters. “Power," better known as dirty coal, has a warming of 79 watts.

(Watts of warming is in watts per square meter relative to pre-industrial times. This is the same comparison that the IPCC makes.)

Transportation the bigger culprit

So transportation warms the planet two and a half times more than coal, in time frames that matter to us humans.

How can this be? The greenhouse gas emissions of dirty coal are certainly the worst of the bunch. This is a well-established fact and is validated by the number one ranking position of “Power” in the long term graphic labeled 2100.

However, in the short term it is the cooling impacts of aerosols that make On-road (transportation) the worst offender.

The reason for this new counter intuitive development is that in the past, in considering the climate impacts from a particular economic sector, we have only considered the impacts of warming from greenhouse gases. The cooling that we realized from the aerosols just was not added into the equation.

Could this be a “Duh!” moment for scientists? Well, er, yes and no. Of course there are many researchers out there that have been studying this issue, but the general state of the science does not consider both warming and cooling when looking at individual economic sectors.

We have only recently learned enough about aerosols to really sink our teeth into them when it comes to actually comprehending the big picture, so the climate scientists get a break this time. We are always learning.

Dr. Unger and her team have concluded that our society needs to change its priorities for climate change mitigation. We need to pay more attention to transportation, and maybe not so much to coal.

What, you say?! It’s not that we should stop our efforts at mitigating for the greenhouse gases emitted by coal, certainly not. But because of the issues with climate change in the short term, policies need to change. Unger’s paper states:
The combined direct and indirect effects of aerosols exert a net cooling that may have masked about 50% of the global warming by greenhouse gases (9,10)
Current, as well as historic, air pollution control strategies have focused on aerosols because they are bad for human health. This is why we in the western world no longer have such tremendous problems with smog -- we have learned to control our aerosol emissions to an extent.

But developing nations are struggling with traditional air pollution control strategies. This is but one of the big reasons why aerosols are hiding a tremendous amount of warming and that our policies towards the climate crisis need to change.

Tipping points

We also understand that tipping points are game changers in our climate challenge. This concept of climate tipping points is the keystone of this new knowledge: Why does the short-term matter more than the long term? If we pass a tipping point, our challenge to keep our climate within the evolutionary limits where our civilization has evolved will suddenly become much more complicated. Climate scientists use the term irreversible for a reason.

These tipping points or thresholds can be compared to the process of accidentally tipping a canoe. Everything is fine until the tipping point is crossed, then something radically different happens, especially if one does not know how to swim.

Tipping points are everywhere: water freezing to ice, rain beginning to fall, flu epidemics, the increase in popularity of the Hula-Hoop phenomena, traffic jams, mercury poisoning, species extinction, fainting, a stampede, a dam failure, the fall of the Berlin Wall, hurricane formation, fruit rotting, fish kills, a thermostat, the collapse of the Saharan grasslands, microphone feedback...

The Arctic sea ice threshold has almost certainly already been crossed. The health of our world’s coral reefs has likely crossed a tipping point. Caribou populations, permafrost, and forest health of the Rocky Mountains are all on the candidate list as likely to have already crossed thresholds.

In the last 100,000 years, we have experienced approximately 23 tipping points as our climate flip-flopped through abrupt climate changes. These changes general happened in tens of years or maybe a hundred years or a little more, but sometimes they occurred in less than a decade and possibly even as little as a couple of years.

The temperature, at least in Greenland, changed 10 to 20 degrees during these events and five to seven degrees across the planet. These abrupt climate changes basically mark the difference between the depths of the ice ages and temperatures nearly as warm as they are today.

And just for the record, the snowball earth and the Venus syndrome are both the results of climate tipping points. We have experienced snowball earth several times on this planet.

Most climate tipping points are reversible however. This is the good news. The bad news is that time frames involve thousands, tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of years.

The Venus Syndrome however, where our atmosphere and our oceans evaporate into space because of runaway warming, is an irreversible tipping point, to say the least.

A quote from another of Unger’s papers, this one from June 2010 in Environmental Science and Technology, titled Short-lived non-CO2 pollutants and climate policy, puts tipping points into an uncommonly used frame of reference for an academic publication:
Concerns about anthropogenic forcing of the climate system beyond an irreversible tipping point coupled to the important role that the non-CO2 effects play in global climate change, urgently call for the development of new metrics that would appropriately quantify the non-CO2 effects relative to CO2.
So, most scientists understand that we are close to climate thresholds if we have not already initiated them (Arctic sea ice). The “urgent” viewpoint of Dr. Unger is certainly not an uncommon sentiment among climate scientists.

We know that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have tipping points, that methane clathrates have melt thresholds, that our oceans have a threshold for CO2 absorption called the saturation point, that marine organisms have a point where ocean acidity increases can kill because of carbon dioxide absorption.

We know that rainforests have thresholds beyond which they collapse, and that temperate forests, as I speak even, have passed a threshold where a native pine beetle pandemic has killed 70 million acres in the North American Rockies and the climate scientists and forest professionals see no reason why this epidemic will not continue across the North American continent.

So, once again, why are we concerned with the short term? Reason number two: because the long term is about slow things happening.

It is not only likely, but very likely that in the next 90 to 100 years we are going to learn how to deal with atmospheric carbon dioxide in a relatively efficient way. This will make it “easy” to get that extra carbon dioxide out of our atmosphere. This is a “slow thing” relative to a climate tipping point.

But if we cross a threshold (thresholds) in the meantime, the task will become immeasurably harder because we will have lost functionality in one or more earth systems. The earth scientists call these systems “ecosystem services."

For example: Ocean primary productivity is really important to our planet. Ocean primary productivity consists of all of those single and multi-celled ocean organisms that have tiny calcium carbonate shells that sequester carbon dioxide and that create oxygen as a byproduct just like trees.

If we cross an ocean acidity threshold where we vastly deplete the primary productivity of our oceans (which has decreased 40% in the last 50 years across eight out of 10 oceans (11) we will not only lose the ability of this planet to sequester somewhere around half of the CO2 in our skies, but we will also lose the ability to create half the oxygen that is created on this planet.

This example of “ecosystem services” that our planet provides is one we can no longer take for granted. Our innocent pollution of our atmosphere with greenhouse gases has put life here in jeopardy unless we take responsibility for our actions. Understanding the new knowledge about climate change impacts of different economic sectors and using this knowledge to the greatest extent feasible is paramount.

So now we have this new knowledge. The extra smoke and sulfates, those bright aerosols, and the different reactions that they have in our skies, and even the ways that clouds respond to these aerosols, make the net short-term warming from coal about two and a half times less than the emissions from transportation. Gas and diesel are simply much cleaner than coal, so they are responsible for more warming. They produce less smoke and sulfates which, in total, cools our planet less.

The smoke and aerosols from burning dirty coal counter-balance the warming from the carbon dioxide in what could be the greatest policy blunder of the climate change challenge. What we have previously understood as the “most important climate change economic sector” -- power generation from dirty coal -- in time frames that matter, is actually nowhere near as important as transportation.

What then, is the meaning of this new knowledge? It means we have to change the way we think about mitigating for climate change. We have to reprioritize our strategies to maximize our efforts in the short run.

This is not a “personal” reprioritization; this policy paradigm is fundamental at the highest level. It is international in scope. It impacts everything that we know about mitigating for climate change.

We can’t stop trying to reduce greenhouse gases; they still accumulate over time and compound the warming. But the long-term is not our priority concern. We have tipping points that must be considered. Dirty coal is not the most important climate change challenge any longer.

We have to focus on the most efficient means of limiting global warming to minimize the risks from tipping points. Just to be clear, we cannot simply ignore carbon dioxide from coal. But the game is now more complicated. The highest priority strategies need to involve the global economic sectors responsible for the most warming in the short term. This new prioritization needs to be addressed with the greatest amount of resources.

Even more important may be the risks posed by reducing aerosol pollutants through the reduction of energy produced from coal. What are the ramifications? How much of the hidden warming will be revealed? What will be the effects on tipping points? And how will the developing nations of the world change the big picture as they address the health impacts of smoke and other aerosols?

We do not know all of the answers yet; we are still learning. We do know that some serious work must be done on the direction of the policies that we are pursuing in this great atmospheric chemistry experiment that we call climate change.

And always remember, we have found ourselves in this situation innocently; there is no need for blame or guilt, unless we fail to act responsibly on the knowledge that we have learned, and the knowledge that we continue to learn.

[When Bruce Melton, P.E., isn't practicing civil engineering, he's studying climate change and writing about it. Melton was one of eight Austinites named in the "Heroes of Climate Change" article published in The Good Life magazine in July 2007. To read more of his work on climate change, visit his website, Melton Engineering Services Austin.]


(1) Anderegg, et. al., Expert Credibility in climate change, PNAS April 2010.

(2) A Google Scholar search for “climate change” in the title for the year 2009 returned 70,100 hits. The same search for 1990 returned 7,900 hits. Google Scholar is similar to Google except the data base is not the World Wide Web, but all of the scholarly journals where scientific publications are published. There is some bias in this query methodology. A good number of new journals have been created to accommodate the crush of science coming from our climate scientists. This creates some opportunity for the same discoveries being published in multiple journals. But this opportunity existed in 1990 as well, so the real impact is unknown without an in-dept evaluation. It is just as likely, without that in-depth evaluation, that today there are fewer scientists publishing their discoveries in multiple journals. There is also a possible bias in the query term. There are certainly more papers about climate science being written than have the words “climate change” in their title. Again, without an in-depth evaluation, it is unknown how this search definition impacts the results. The real issue however, is the rate that the number of hits have increased in the last 20 years. Looking at the numbers from each year, the yearly discoveries are increasing rapidly, meaning that we are still ascending the learning curve. This means that we still do not know more than we do know. If we had already passed the midpoint of the learning curve (learning curves assume a bell shape), the yearly number of hits for new scientific discoveries that include the words “climate change” in their titles, would be decreasing.

See this article in the magazine Science for a discussion relevant reference (1) Anderegg 2010, and relevant to scholarly searches using the Google Scholar Database.

(3) Stern, The Economics of Climate Change, American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings, 2008.

(4) Ocean acidification – another undesired side effect of fossil fuel-burning, European Science Foundation

(5) NASA Earth Observatory: Forest on the Threshold
a. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Study/BorealThreshold/boreal_threshold.html
b. Goetz, et. al., Satellite-observed photosynthetic trends across boreal North America associated with climate and fire disturbance. PNAS, 2005.
c. Angert, et. al., Drier summers cancel out the CO2 uptake enhancement induced by warmer springs. PNAS, 2005.

(6) Van der Werf, et.a l., CO2 emissions from forest loss, Nature Geoscience, November 2009.

(7) Archer, Fate of fossil fuel CO2 in geologic time, Journal of Geophysical Research, volume 110, 2005.

(8) Shindell, et. al. October 30, 2009, Improved Attribution of Climate Change Forcing to Emissions, Science.

(9) Koch D, et al. (2009) Distinguishing aerosol impacts on climate over the past century. J Climate.

(10) Ramanathan V, Feng Y (2009) Air pollution, greenhouse gases and climate change: Global and regional perspectives. Atmos Environ.

(11) Unger, Short-lived non-CO2 pollutants and climate policy, Environmental Science and Technology, June 2010.
a. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/es1012214\

(12) Unger, et. al., Attribution of climate forcing to economic sectors, PNAS, December 2009.
a. http://www.pnas.org/content/107/8/3382.full.pdf

(13) Boyce et. al., Global Phytoplankton decline over the past century, Nature, July 2010.

The Rag Blog

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Bill Fletcher : 'Enthusiasm Gap' and the Threat from the Far Right

Enthusiasm and voting:
The Far Right, and the immediate challenge

This is not the boy who cried wolf... There is an energized, right-wing army waiting to turn back the clock.
By Bill Fletcher Jr. / The Rag Blog / October 28, 2010

There has been a lot of discussion about the apparent enthusiasm gap between Democratic voters and Republican voters. While it is beyond question that the Obama administration has accomplished significant reforms in its first two years, the manner in which these have been accomplished, combined with the fact that they were generally not deep enough, has led many liberal and progressive voters to despair.

So, what should we think as we quickly approach November 2nd? First, there were too many magical expectations of both the Obama administration and most Democrats in Congress. Many of us forgot that while they represented a break with the corrupt Bush era, they were not coming into D.C. with a red flag, a pink flag or a purple flag. They came to stabilize the system in a period of crisis.

President Obama chose to surround himself with advisers who either did not want to appear to believe or in fact did not believe that dramatic structural reforms were necessary in order to address the depth of the economic and environmental crises we face. They also believed, for reasons that mystify me, that they could work out a compromise with so-called moderate Republicans.

The deeper problem, and one pointed out by many people, is that the Obama administration did not encourage the continued mobilization of its base to blunt the predictable assaults from the political right. As a result, many people sat home waiting to be called upon to mobilize. Instead, we received emails or phone calls asking us to make financial contributions, or perhaps to send a note regarding an issue, but we were not called upon to hit the streets.

Unfortunately, the main problem rests neither with the Obama administration nor the Democrats in Congress. It rests with the failure of the social forces that elected them to keep the pressure on. Too many of us expected results without continuous demand.

Ok, so now that we have gotten this out of our system, we have to face the immediate challenge. I am not going to list the positive things that have been produced by the Obama administration. I am also not going to list the bad calls or stands with which I disagree. I am focusing on those on the right attempting to move in, and frankly they are an unsettling bunch.

You see, my enthusiasm for voting rests on the fact that I am not interested in people who worship ignorance, intolerance, war, and the strengthening of a plutocracy increasing their grip on power and pulling this country any further to the right than it currently is. In other words, the challenge for progressives is two-fold: one, to beat back the irrationalist right; and, two, to move against the right-wing of the Democratic Party and to push for real change.

Liberals and progressives get called out every election cycle to defend the Democratic Party against the barbarians at the gates. We often do that and then turn away in disgust. Rarely do we either take on the right-wing in the Democratic Party or build up social forces that are energized about keeping elected leaders accountable. We keep talking the talk, but we do not follow through with the walk. When we get angry we talk about creating a third party, but we don't move a strategy to put the heat under the Democratic Party.

Well, we are now facing a moment of truth. This is not the boy who cried wolf. In addition to the Democratic Congress as a whole being under assault from the Republicans, there are some liberal and progressive Democratic elected officials who are under siege, and about whom we should be concerned. There is an energized, right-wing army waiting to turn back the clock. So progressives should be enthused right now; enthused to defend our friends, but also to defeat our enemies.

But we should also be motivated to put into practice a different set of politics. We have got to get off the defensive and promote a different sort of vision, an inspiring, progressive vision. That may mean that we part company with some elected leaders who call themselves Democrats, but the time has come when we cannot afford to simply push the button because we see a donkey. Frankly, I am tired of being kicked in the ass.

[Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice. He can be reached at papaq54@hotmail.com. This article was also published at Progressive America Rising.]

Thanks to Carl Davidson / The Rag Blog

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27 October 2010

BOOKS / Doug Ireland : Iconic Artist Grant Wood Was Man of Many Closets

A man of many closets:
New biography of Grant Wood
opens all the doors

By Doug Ireland / The Rag Blog / October 27, 2010

[Grant Wood: A Life by R. Tripp Evans (Knopf, 2010); Hardcover, 401 pp, $37.50.]

Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is the most recognizable American painting.

Of all the paintings in the world, only the Mona Lisa has been more parodied. As Tripp Evans notes in his groundbreaking new biography of the artist, when it was first exhibited in Chicago in 1930, it made an instant global celebrity out of Wood: “Never in the history of American art had a single work captured such immediate and international recognition; by the end of 1930, the painting had been reproduced in newspapers around the globe... Never before, either, had a painting generated such widespread curiosity about its artist.”

“American Gothic” was considered by most critics of that day as something of a national self-portrait, and it made Wood the icon of a new native American, regionalist art. The New Yorker wrote at the time, “As a symbol Wood stands for the corn-fed Middle West against the anemic East, starving aesthetically upon warmed-over entrees dished up by Spanish chefs in Paris kitchens. He stands for an independent American art against the colonialism and cosmopolitanism of New York.”

Wood, who was born in the small town of Anamosa, Iowa, in 1898 and spent nearly all his life painting in the Hawkeye State, depicting its countryside and inhabitants, was said to stand for the flinty, manly virtues of heartland America. The New York Times proclaimed that Wood, who styled himself a “farmer-painter,” had earned his “toga virilis” for, as Evans summarizes it, “ending Americans’ perilous fascination with impressionism.”

Wood himself encouraged this anti-intellectual, quintessentially American, and rigorously heterosexual version of his persona and the origins of his art. He famously declared in a newspaper interview, “All the really good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow,” adding, “You don’t get panicky about some ‘-ism’ or other while you have Bossy by the business end. Your thoughts are realistic and direct.”

The public image Wood constructed of himself even extended to the way he dressed. As one prominent critic eulogized him on his death in 1942, “In past years artists adopted smocks for their own... the working attire of French peasants. Grant Wood wore the work clothes of his own country when he painted, overalls such as a farmer or mechanic would choose.”

But all of this was an elaborate charade. As Evans, an openly gay art history professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, reveals in this meticulously researched biography, Wood had made a careful study of impressionism during four extended trips to Europe and had been a student for two years at the prestigious Académie Julian in Paris, where he steeped himself in the impressionist and post-impressionist masters.

Although he spent his earliest years on the family farm, he spent most of his boyhood time hidden away in a dark basement, his refuge where he could draw and paint, sequestered from the disapproval of his distant and authoritarian father, who considered such artistic proclivities “sissified.”

His father died when he was quite young, and he then moved to the bustling metropolis of Cedar Rapids with his mother and sister, with whom he lived there for most of the rest of his life until, as part of his camouflage, he contracted a loveless, unconsummated, unhappy, and brief marriage.

Far from being inspired by milking cows -- an activity he only engaged in occasionally in his young boyhood -- Wood told his wife that he felt “disgusted and dirty” by the act. She would recount, “He told me how embarrassed he was at the time because he was sure that no matter how much he bathed, he must carry with him the smell of the manure which permeated his clothes from working around livestock.”

And as a young man Wood wouldn’t have been caught dead in overalls -- he was, in fact, something of a dandy, as photographs in this copiously illustrated volume from Wood’s “bohemian,” European period clearly show. His earliest vocations activities were not in farming but as a jewelry designer, interior decorator, and in theatrical production. One friend described the shy Wood’s voice as sounding “like the fragrance of violets made audible.”

Grant Wood’s classic "American Gothic" (1930) and his painting of a nude male. Photos courtesy Knopf / Gay City News.

Wood’s previous biographers have turned a blind eye to the demonstrable fact that he was a deeply closeted homosexual. Evans documents the always-chubby Wood’s infatuations (many of them apparently unrequited and sublimated into parental role-playing) with an unending series of slim, dark-haired young men who were his students, protégés, and secretaries. As the bartender in a famous Cedar Rapids watering hole Wood favored put it, “Wood was only gay when he was drunk.”

Evans has even unearthed numerous oblique but unmistakable references to Wood’s sexual orientation in the Iowa newspapers of the 1920s. As he writes, “Given the later insistence upon Wood’s sturdy masculinity and embodiment of Midwestern morality, it is surprising to note the frequency and candor of these early references to his homosexuality.”

To take just one example, Wood’s friend MacKinlay Kantor (who won later fame as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and screenwriter) wrote in his gossip column for the Des Moines Tribune-Capital, emphasizing Wood’s bachelorhood: “Pink of face and plump of figure, he was most nearly in character one night when he appeared at a costume party dressed as an angel -- wings, pink flannel nightie, pink toes, and even a halo, supported by a stick thrusting up his back.”

Not only did Kantor link Wood’s costume to common stereotypes of the “fairy,” but after comparing Wood to Snow White, who lay imprisoned in a glass coffin awaiting her prince’s kiss, Kantor wrote: “The front door of his apartment is made of glass, but it’s a coffin lid. OOOOOOoooooh!” Kantor then exhorted the “boys” among his readers to “look [Wood] over.” The meaning of all this is quite evident, unless one doesn’t want to see.

The fact that things like this had appeared in print drove Wood even further into his closet in the late 1920s, leading him to adopt the overalls and “farmer-painter” pose to bolster its locked door. It was also at this time that he turned away from his early painting style, indisputably marked by his study of impressionists, to the gothic realism that, as Evans demonstrates, bore the imprint of the Dutch and German masters he had absorbed while studying in Germany.

Evans is brilliant in documenting how gender assignments were made to various artistic styles, and how impressionism was considered a “feminine” art form. Moreover, the new school of regionalist, “authentic” American art of “U.S. scene” painting, of which Wood became a symbol in the 1930s after the stunning success of “American Gothic” -- and which was launched as a media fetish with a 1934 Time magazine cover story written on orders of its conservative nationalist publisher Henry Luce -- was impregnated with an explicitly xenophobic, anti-modernist, and extremely homophobic ideology.

Thus, Wood’s famous comrade-in-arms in this movement, the painter Thomas Hart Benton, wrote a 1935 essay entitled “Farewell to New York,” which Evans rightly describes as a “homophobic diatribe.” In it, Benton roared that the city had "lost its masculinity” since the start of the Depression, because it had been polluted by
the concentrated flow of aesthetic-minded homosexuals into the various fields of artistic practice... far be it from me to raise any hands in moral horror over the ways and tastes of individuals. If young gentlemen, or old ones either, wish to wear women’s underwear and cultivate extraordinary manners it is all right with me. But it is not all right with the art which they affect and cultivate. It is not all right when, by ingratiation or subtle connivance, precious fairies get into positions of power and judge, buy, and exhibit American pictures on a base of nervous whim and under the sway of those overdelicate refinements of taste characteristic of their kind.
To cover himself, Wood endorsed Benton’s queer-bashing declaration.

The movement’s most ardent advocate among art critics -- one might even call him its ideologue -- Thomas Craven, in his 1934 book Modern Art: The Men, the Movement, the Meaning, had earlier blown the same trumpet. “The artist is losing his masculinity,” Craven growled.
The tendency of the Parisian system is to disestablish sexual characteristics, to merge the two sexes in an androgynous third, containing all that is offensive in both. Once [male artists] contract la vérole Montparnasse -- the pox of the Quarter -- they become jaded and perverse... They found magazines in which their insecurity is attested by the continual insulting of America, hymns to homosexuality and miscegenation... It is this sort of life that captures American youth and emasculates American art.
Not only was homosexuality illegal and known homosexuals jailed or condemned to horrific “treatments” by psychiatric ghouls in mental hospitals, but the very art movement that had made Wood a central figure was unrelenting in its condemnation of same-sex orientation. Wood’s exposure would have threatened not only his reputation but his income as well.

It was in this context that in 1935 he contracted a marriage with a former actress, Sarah Moxon, to the great surprise of his friends and family. But he soon alienated Sara by falling in love with her handsome, 20-something son from a previous marriage, installing this rather louche and exploitative if decorative young chap in their home, and lavishing money and attention on him, even considering adopting him at one point.

At the same time, Wood also kept a secretary, Paul Rinard, another in the series of slightly-built, dark-haired young men with whom the painter surrounded himself, and with whom he was also in love -- albeit unrequited. All these boys under one roof eventually were too much for Sara, and the brief marriage ended in acrimony.

There were several points in Wood's life at which exposure of his homosexuality seemed imminent. In the late 1920s, he was blackmailed by a young man over their relations. And though he piled layers of protective cover on his public image, Wood was stifling in his closet, and from time to time this was reflected in his painting.

In 1937, he produced for sale by mail a lithograph, “Sultry Night,” that showed a handsome, full frontal nude man beside an outdoor bathtub pouring a bucket of water in a slow cascade over his head. Declaring the work to be an example of pornography, the censors at the U.S. Postal Service barred its publisher from distributing it or featuring the image in its catalogues (although not banning the many female nudes the publisher carried).

Wood was forced to publicly defend the “innocence” of the work as a recalled scene from his boyhood, something Evans demonstrates was more than unlikely.

Evans’ book is much more than a biography -- it is also a lesson in looking and seeing. Evans is blessed with a felicitous gift of description that makes his dissections and deconstructions of Wood’s art not only enlightening but also enjoyable. And as an openly gay man, Evans is not blind to the multitude of clues in Wood’s paintings that signal the artist’s queer sensibility and even homoerotic sentiments that most previous critics have ignored.

Even those not steeped in the arcana of art criticism will find Evans’ descriptions of what the paintings mean an engrossing read, all the more so because these works are included among the book’s many illustrations. Readers may judge for themselves whether or not his interpretations are on track -- as I think they are.

Wood’s reputation fell with the rise of abstract art in the post-World War II period, but a revival of interest in him began in 1983 with an exhibition that, as Evans notes, “coincided nicely with the dawn of the Reagan era. In Wood’s sunny, presumably uncomplicated imagery, conservative art critics could have found no more perfect illustration of President Reagan’s relentless optimism and call to ‘traditional American values.’”

But in Grant Wood: A Life, Evans reveals the dark ironies in Wood’s portrayals of heartland America and its culture that he traces back to Wood’s love of H. L. Mencken, whose contempt for that backwater culture and its “booboisie” he shared. It is evident in Wood’s work for those who wish to see it, and Evans is a reliable guide.

In the book’s epilogue, Evans pays tribute to Paul Rinard, Wood’s last secretary, who entered politics after serving in the navy in World War II. Rinard became a powerful backroom policy broker, first with Iowa’s liberal governor Harold Hughes in the 1960s, then joining the staff of Senator John Culver, who at Rinard’s funeral in 2000 called him “the intellectual godfather of Iowa’s progressive agenda for half a century.”

From the 1970s on, Rinard was “a defender of gay and lesbian civil rights -- a courageous stance that struck even Culver’s younger staffers as radical... It would be difficult to explain Rinard’s commitment to this issue,” writes Evans, “especially during a period when its advocates were so scarce, without taking into account his profound loyalty to Wood. The artist might have led a far happier life, Rinard believed, had he been able to live in a more authentic way -- safeguarded from the fear of losing his job, his reputation, or both, for being exposed as a homosexual.”

Gay activist friends of mine from Iowa who knew and greatly appreciated Rinard tell me that Evans paean to him is not misplaced.

Tripp Evans’ book is not only sure to change the way the art world looks at Grant Wood and his work, it is also a valuable contribution to this country’s cultural history, and one that shows the insidious homophobia that has often shaped that history. This is a splendid, beautifully written book.

[Doug Ireland is a longtime radical political journalist and media critic and an openly gay man. His work has appeared in many U.S. and French publications, including the New York Post (back in its liberal days), the Village Voice, New York magazine, The Nation, Bakchich, the Parisian daily Liberation, the LA Weekly, and Gay City News, the largest lesbian and gay weekly in New York City, where this article also appears.]

The Rag Blog

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Jim Turpin : Military Suicides, PTSD at All-Time High

Under the Hood Café near Ft. Hood in Killeen Texas is a place where active duty GIs and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan can discuss the debilitating effects of war. Photo from Under the Hood / Flickr.

Texas' Fort Hood sets the pace:
PTSD and suicides in the military
are at an all-time high

By Jim Turpin / The Rag Blog / October 27, 2010

KILLEEN, Texas -- Even with the spin from the current administration that the “war is over” in Iraq, it is well known that 50,000 combat-ready troops remain in the country. Add to that a recent deployment of 2,000 troops from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Fort Hood in Texas. At present almost 100,000 troops remain in Afghanistan.

With the total number of U.S. military personnel cycling through both Afghanistan and Iraq at almost 1.8 million, and with the RAND corporation estimating that 18% have PTSD (which is deemed low by some experts), this would put the returning numbers with PTSD at 324,000.

A recent article in The New York Times confirms what the organizers of the Killeen-based GI coffeehouse Under the Hood Café have been battling at Fort Hood for the last year and a half: suicides are at the highest point since 2008, with 14 confirmed suicides since the beginning of 2010. In one recent weekend, there were three suicides and one murder-suicide at Fort Hood.

With the population at Fort Hood ranging from 46,000 to 50,000 soldiers at any given time, the rate of suicide is four times the national average, based on Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates of 11.5 suicides per 100,000 people.

The repeated deployment of military personnel who suffer from both physical and psychological wounds has led to these all-time high suicide rates. A recent article in the American Journal of Public Health studied 2,500 New Jersey National Guardsmen and determined “deployed soldiers were more than three times as likely as soldiers with no previous deployments to screen positive for post traumatic stress disorder.”

Despite these staggering statistics, the Fort Hood command continues to find ways to deny soldiers their right to receive necessary mental health services. Several soldiers have come forward recently with reports of harassment, undue punishment, and interference when seeking these necessary services.

A number of examples include:
  • The imprisonment of SPC. Eric Jasinski in March 2010. Jasinski, who was suffering from PTSD, refused redeployment to Iraq based on this condition. It was feared that Jasinski's confinement could interfere with his ability to receive his prescribed medications. Eric's attorney James Branum stated, "He was seeing a psychiatrist for his condition and prescribed Zoloft for depression and Trazadone to get to sleep, and they handed him his gun and told him to go back to Iraq."

  • The deployment of 50 soldiers from Ft. Hood with physical (knee, back, and shoulder issues due to bomb blasts) and psychological (PTSD/TBI) issues in June 2010 to the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, California. Combat training for those soldiers with verified PTSD and other anxiety disorders runs counterintuitive to generally accepted psychiatric practices.

  • Recent reports from soldiers at Ft. Hood suffering from PTSD and substance abuse who are being given extra work loads or are being kept from dealing with additional personal crises at home. Issues they are confronted with include being given medication only (instead of counseling) or being ignored by the chain of command when they request assistance.
Veteran deaths also surge after discharge from the military and are often the result of vehicle accidents, motorcycle crashes, drug overdoses, or other causes. An article this month in The New York Times discusses the huge number of veteran deaths attributed to destructive, risky, and lethal behaviors:

“The data show that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were two and a half times as likely to commit suicide as Californians of the same age with no military service. They were twice as likely to die in a vehicle accident and five and a half times as likely to die in a motorcycle accident. These numbers are truly alarming and should wake up the whole country,” said United States Representative Bob Filner, Democrat of San Diego, who is the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“They show a failure of our policy.”

The Under the Hood Café and Outreach Center, the GI coffeehouse located near Ft. Hood, Texas, the largest military base in the U.S., offers GIs a free speech zone. It provides a non-military environment that allows active duty GIs and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to discuss the debilitating effects of war. Under the Hood offers free referrals for medical and psychological services and legal assistance for those soldiers who are resisting redeployment to war zones.

To benefit its ongoing efforts in support of GIs, veterans, and military families,
Under the Hood is having a “Hoodstock Flashback” concert (see graphic below) on Sunday, November 14, from 6-11 p.m. at Jovita’s in Austin. Admission is $10 at the door and includes such artists as Barbara K, Karen Abrahams, Will T. Massey, and Richard Bowden.

[Jim Turpin is a native Austinite and member of CodePink Austin. He also volunteers for the GI coffeehouse Under the Hood Café at Ft. Hood in Killeen, Texas.]

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