paleo Ideofact

Thursday, June 26, 2003
I took a day off from work, because one long project is done and one more remains for the summer. I had a couple of squirt gun battles with the four year old in the backyard, dropped him off for his last day of art camp in between and wandered over to a little cafe nearby for an iced coffee. Among the three volumes I stuffed into my bag to bring along was the Qutb book I've blogged on and gave up on a while back -- I prefer to finish things (yes, really!) and I'll write my thoughts on the rest of the last few pages of it before moving off of Blogger (yes, that's still in the works, although I haven't had the time to keep it moving; I'll try to pick up the pace).

Sayyid Qutb's Social Justice in Islam feels like an artefact from a distant era -- the first phase of the war on terror. (I believe we are in the third phase; I'll get back to that in a moment.) Qutb has been called the brains of bin Laden, and the description is probably apt; Qutb was to bin Laden what, say, Marx was to Lenin. I didn't know what I was going to write when I started writing about him, but the theme eventually became the distance between Qutb's rather bizarre reading of Islam -- by which I mean the religion proper as well as its cultural history -- and Islam (same definition) itself. It seemed to be something of an open question as to whether the challenge bin Laden posed happened to have Islamic roots, or was instead inevitable given the nature of Islam itself. I argued the former. It seems to me this is not so much an open question anymore -- when the focus shifted to the secular Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein, it became far more popular to quote Baghdad Bob than the Qur'an. The argument became one of tyranny. It now seems to me that we're in a third phase, with Iran beginning to take center stage. The blogosphere has been erupting with posts tracking and hoping that Muslims, the Iranian people, will overthrow their theocrats and autocrats, and enjoy the blessings of liberty. This suggests two things to me: that we have reached a point at which we believe that, just as Christianity proved to be compatible with secular democracy, we have now begun to believe that Islam can become so, and that Shi'ite Iran is the cutting edge of this phenomenon. And secondly, a growing hope that our secular values -- liberty and justice for all, all men created equal, and so on -- are universal. I worry that there is too much wishful thinking. The mullahs could be toppled and something worse could ensue -- the percentage fo revolutions that have ended well is not particularly high.

In any case, writing about Qutb seems a bit passe, but I'll finish the series soon.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003
Cinderella Bloggerfeller's June 23 post (his archives are still fried -- try republishing them, Mr. B!) on cliches is quite enjoyable. It put me in mind of something I heard the other night -- a politician declaring that he wants America to be a place where every child can realize his dreams for the future.

Well. Obviously, he never had children. Don't get me wrong -- my delightful four year old is the principle source of joy and delight in my life, but I shudder to think what the consequences would be if he realized his current dreams. Among his career choices at present are pirate captain, knight in shining armor, Dr. Frankenstein, Incredible Hulk and member of Mystery, Inc. (this last one would have at least some utility, although where he'd find a dog like Scooby Doo is problematic). Then there are conversations like this one:
--Daddy, what's 9-1-1 for?

--That's the number we call when we need a policeman, or a fireman, or an ambulance.

--And how do you call soldiers?

--Why would you need to call soldiers?

--Because I want to be king, so I need soldiers.
Four years old, and he's already internalized Mao's dictum that political power begins with the barrel of a gun. Since that little conversation, I've done my best to instill democratic values in the boy, with frequent references to the measure of Washington's greatness being not that he achieved power, but that on three occasions he lawfully turned the reins of power over to someone else. The other day when we were in downtown Washington, I pointed out the Capitol to him, and explained to him the power of the citizen, the power of the vote, and how I got to help choose who would be President, who would serve in Congress, which he thought was "a pretty good idea." I told him that one day, he too could make those decisions. He replied, "But I want to be king."

Which is fine. After all, he's still just four years old. There's plenty of time for him to learn of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams and of course Ben Franklin.

But there's hardly enough time to get over our youthful fantasies. I asked a friend at work, a devoted Baltimore Orioles fan, when it was he abandoned his youthful dream of taking over for Brooks Robinson at third. "Let's see, today's Tuesday..."

I think, in order, I dreamed of being a cowboy, an astronaut, a baseball player (I would have been Steve Carlton, despite the fact that I'm right-handed), a British spy on the order of James Bond, a journalist who killed vampires, werewolves and what not like Kolchak the Night Stalker, a musician, a Fitzgeraldesque novelist... I don't think I ever dreamed of paying a mortgage, the utility bills, the credit cards, the car payment, and still having enough money to put away a few bucks for the kid's college education and the wife's and my retirement. I sincerely doubt that my childhood dream was to be a suburban middle class dad, but that's where I've ended up. I can't say I'm disappointed, or that I'd rather live in an America where every child could grow up to be a pirate, or a Fitzgerald.

I was going to write something about pirates, but ran out of gas. It's a rough work week, and only one day (but 17 hours) old. Tomorrow should be better...

Monday, June 23, 2003
Still stuck...
On blogger lofi. There's all sorts of links on the blogroll to update and add, but I'm not going to do any more housekeeping until I've moved.

Sunday, June 22, 2003
More naivete
David at Cronaca responded to the comment I left on his post on 17th Century Dutch art:
I should probably have made some remark on the article's pronounced slant, which may have as much to do with Dutch policy on government support for the arts (such as buying paintings from "artists" if private buyers don't want them) as with obsolete (but deeply entrenched) Romantic notions of artistic merit, in which being misunderstood, unpopular, idiosyncratic, and poor are de rigueur.

I am quite certain the writer-interviewer was responsible, rather than Marten Bok. Dutch art historians tend to be a clear-eyed bunch -- and as I noted in the original post, the commercial nature of Netherlandish painting is old, old news for specialists.
It's funny, when I started writing the post immediately below, I almost made the opposite assumption -- that tone of the article was a reflection on Bok's work. My first draft of the post included that assumption; I'm glad I modified it.

In part because I drew her attention to it, my favorite art historian in the blogosphere, Alexandra of Out of Lascaux, wrote
...when art became so easy to acquire that poor people could own it, the qualifications had to change. Now, only art by true artistes, that is art that is way too expensive for the average person to afford, can be considered art. Everything else is trash. What a bourgoeis way of looking at things!
I think her last line spoils her point -- I'm not sure that's a bourgeouis way of looking at the world. The Dutch would have found it strange.

Cinderalla Bloggerfeller, meanwhile, in his June 21 post (blogger's archives appear to be fried again), gives a fuller rendition of one of the Herbert passages I quoted (always worth the price of admission) and brings Ezra Pound into it. I really wish I had gone to college with C.B. -- we might have enjoyed comparing notes. I tried to read Pound with an open mind, and quite enjoyed his volume on the No theater of Japan, but most of the Cantos are unreadable, and I think I read the same volume of economic writings he refers to. One thing stuck in my head from them -- Pound goes on at length about how a British factory that produces airplanes will sell each plane for more than the sum of the wages that the workers who produced the airplanes will earn. Pound makes no reference to materials, or to shipping costs, or to rent, or any of the other myriad costs of production; instead he argues at length that the same is true in any sphere of economic activity, and clearly if the workers who produce an airplane can't, collectively, afford the plane they've just built, then the whole system is irrational, and no one who works can afford any of the products he "produces." I can remember reading and re-reading the passage, and assuming that there was something I wasn't understanding -- some phrase or paragraph I kept missing, but this was the sum total of Pound's argument. In any case, read Cinderalla Bloggerfeller's post.

Speaking, though, of artists who aligned themselves with unsavory movements, I wonder what he thinks of Gottfried Benn, who, unlike Thomas Mann, refused to leave Nazi Germany, and even -- to a limited point -- collaborated with the regime (in the hopes of landing an important job, an ambition that was not fulfilled).