Monday, March 30, 2020

Malick’s Thin Red Line

I thought I'd bump this to the top of the queue. It's a review of a war picture, one where the scenes of war are intercut with scenes of animal and plant life. For those animals, the carnage of war is just an odd form of bad weather. It affects them; they have to deal with it; but it's not about them. What's the COVID-19 pandemic to nonhuman life on earth?
I’d never seen a Terrence Malick film when I went to see Tree of Life, so I had little idea what to expect. I’ve just watched The Thin Red Line (on a crappy Netflix DVD that skipped). The style was instantly recognizable. Well, not an instant. But only minutes.

It wasn’t the croc’s slow and elegiac slipping into the water (c. 30 seconds):

thin red 1 croc

But this, the light streaming through the trees from above:

thin red 2  light streams

And the voice-over, meditating: “What’s this war, in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea?” Then the light voices (children’s choir?) on the sound track.

thin red 3 vine around tree

That’s him! I was thinking. That’s the guy.

The kids, intent:

thin red 4 kids

thin red 5 mo kids

The up-ward-looking underwater shots:

thin red 6 under water

Yep, it’s him. We’re only three minutes into the film and Malick’s established his style, firmly. At least it’s the style I infer to be his from having seen only two films, this and Tree of Life.

Now, I’m beginning to understand Tree of Life. Better. Just one other film by the same man tells me so much more about that first one I saw. Because it gives me a sense of what’s central to his vision, and what’s incidental.

But I’m not going to try to work out all of that, not now in this little post. All I’m after is the first tentative registration of an understanding.

You see, The Thin Red Line is a war picture, about a really bloody WWII battle at Guadalcanal. That’s an extraordinary opening for such a picture. Yeah, the croc, he’s ugly. But not rendered as such, not the violence. Just the cool slipping into the water, silently, with grace even.

Where’s the blood? I was wondering. The gunfire, the bombs, the screams of dying men?

It came, it came. But always next to elegy. Always.

What’s that about? Well, maybe that the world ISN’T ABOUT US. We’re in it, yes, and we’re consumed by our role in it, can hardly see anything but our role.

Yet, it isn’t about us, the earth, the galaxy, the cosmos. Compared to these two Malick films every other film I’ve seen looks like it’s about US. Except for Fantasia. Isn’t that a kick, that Terrence Malick should indirectly point up the genius of that Disney cartoon?

Our stories happen IN the world and ON the earth. And Malick tells those stories. They have more screen time than the OTHER story. But the other story is always, strongly, there.

The universe.

Not about us.


Free at last!

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Public perception of the Trump administration's handling of the evolving coronavirus crisis

Shibley Telhami, Stella M. Rouse, How Are American Views of the Coronavirus Crisis Evolving as It Intensifies?, Lawfare, March 25, 2020. The authors polled nationally representative of 2,395 Amreican adults from March 12 to March 20.
A plurality of respondents said they are unsatisfied with the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus (47 percent) while 42 percent said they are satisfied, and 10 percent said they are neither satisfied nor unsatisfied. As expected, there is a huge partisan divide, with 81 percent of Democrats saying they are unsatisfied, and 79 percent of Republicans saying they are satisfied. A slight majority of independents (51 percent) say they are dissatisfied, and 29 percent satisfied, with the Trump administration’s handling.
However, there was a small shift in attitudes over that period. The authors conclude:
These trends show that, as the crisis persists, more Americans are worried, but also slightly more Americans are satisfied with the administration’s handling of the crisis, transcending the partisan divide. At the same time, the lack of trust in President Trump has remained high, even increased. How does one explain the increase in American satisfaction—even if most Americans remain unsatisfied?

There are likely two principal reasons. First, the administration did move to announce some dramatic actions during this period—on March 13, Trump declared a national emergency; on March 14, the administration said that it would ban travel from the United Kingdom and Ireland; on March 16, the White House issued guidelines to Americans urging them to avoid bars and restaurants, to limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people, and to work from home and engage in homeschooling; and on March 18, the administration closed the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential traffic.

Second, as the crisis intensified, and Americans measurably became more worried—the president even called himself a “wartime president”—one might expect some rallying around the flag, even in a polarized time. In fact, the surprise here is not that there is some effect but that the effect seems relatively small in comparison to other crises: President George W. Bush, who had a contentious election in 2000, had an approval rating as low as 51 percent divided along partisan lines before the 9/11 attack; immediately after, his approval rating spiked to 90 percent.

Still, the full scale of the coronavirus crisis remains unknown, and, after announcing dramatic steps during the nine-day period of our poll, the president recently signaled he may soon change course. There is nothing we see in the poll to suggest that Americans will come together behind Trump’s handling of the crisis.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The President does not have the power to override state and local policies on social distancing

Trump can say what he wants, and that will affect those who believe in him and that "will translate into mounting political pressure on GOP officeholders at the state and local levels who might otherwise support these measures." And, as a practical matter, there's a limit to compel compliance to social-distancing measures. But the president does not have the legal authority to "order state and local officials to change their policies." Thus:
Our constitutional order has a federal structure, meaning that (a) federal powers are supreme, yes, but limited in scope and (b) the state governments are independent entities, not mere subordinate layers under and within the federal government (that is, the federal-state relationship is not similar to the way that counties and cities are subordinate layers under the state governments).

What follows from this? The federal government cannot commandeer the machinery of the state governments (or, by extension, of local governments). That is, the federal government cannot coerce the states into taking actions to suit federal policy preference. See, e.g., New York v. United States and Printz v. United States. And so, the federal government cannot compel state and local officials to promulgate different rules on social distancing and the like.
There's more at the link.

Cube Smart

Monday, March 16, 2020

Treasure trove of interviews with jazz musicians [Monk Rowe]

Check out the Fillius Jazz Archive at Hamilton College, which has 25 years of live interviews with jazz musicians conducted by Monk Rowe. Many of the interviews have been transcribed and the transcriptions are downloadable.

This clip has excerpts from ten of these interviews: Jon Kendricks, Kenny Davern, Nat Adderly, Annie Ross, Nicki Parrott, Eiji Kitamura, Charlie Gabriel, Eddie Locke, Denis DiBlasio, and Frank Foster (my teacher years ago).

Here's the full Frank Foster interview:

Mindset theory (?)

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Death, Terror Management, and Nationalism [#pandemic]

In Beethoven’s Anvil I cited Kierkegard, Ernst Becker and Franz Borkeneau in asserting (p. 90): “Our intelligence allows us to know that we will die, and the rituals though which we mark death are among the most important and intense we perform. I suggest that without such rituals, death threatens to become a psychological trap for the living. Periodic participation in ritual musicking reduces one’s sense of isolation and attaches one to the group, as Freeman has suggested, making one’s individual fate a matter of less concern.“

There is a body of theory more or less devoted to arguing that culture is primarily a device for dealing with our fear of death, Terror Management Theory. Here’s the opening of the Wikipedia entry:
In social psychology, terror management theory (TMT) proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to human beings. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning.
At roughly the same time I came across an article with a very long title: Philip T. Hoffman, Why was it that Europeans conquered the rest of the world? The politics and economics of Europe’s comparative advantage in violence (PDF). The article argues that while it is not clear, in general, just when “Western Europe first forged ahead of other parts of the world,” it is clear that in one area, the ability to wage war, Europe had “an undeniable comparative advantage well before 1800...” While the whole argument is interesting, I’m interested in one sentence, from page 11: “In an era before nationalism motivated troops, armies had to be centralized, for if soldiers (many of whom were mercenaries) were scattered across a country, desertions would soar.”

There it is, our old friend death. Nationalism made a difference in how states could motivate their troops. Nationalism is one of those cultural inventions that distances us from death.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Last fall's camping trip

And when the end comes...(of the world)

Agnes Callard, The End is Coming, The Point, March 11, 2020.
How long have we got? At a recent public talk, the economist Tyler Cowen spitballed the number of remaining years at 700. But who knows? The important thing is that the answer is not: infinity years. Forever is a very long time, and humanity is not going to make it.

A crisis of meaning looms, one that will only deepen as we feel ourselves approaching the end. The Schefflerian edifice is doomed to collapse. Just as the thought that other people might be about to stockpile food leads to food shortages, so too the prospect of a depressed, disaffected and de-energized distant future deprives that future of its capacity to give meaning to the less distant future, and so on, in an kind of reverse-snowball effect, until we arrive at a depressed, disaffected and de-energized present.

The last generation is the linchpin of the whole system. But how can their lives have meaning, if the mere thought of the abyss sends a person collapsing into panic and depression? The answer is that the last generation is going to have to be composed of people better and braver than we are now—and it is our job to help them end up that way. We must take the first steps toward learning to make the unthinkable thinkable, so that they can take the last ones.

On 9/11, some of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 did something very heroic: they rose up against the terrorists holding them hostage, with the result that their plane crashed into a field rather than the Capitol building. Viewed from a certain angle, you might wonder why this was so impressive: if you know you are going to die either way, why not do some good while you are at it? But this would be a mistake. It takes incredible energy, passion and conviction to rush at your captors, and mustering all that up in the face of the certainty of death is an astonishing feat. Courage means that things can still matter to you—a lot—even when you know you are going to die. Courage means seeing the value of your life as being about more than survival—living ethically, not merely biologically.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Oprah and Trump, two sides of the same coin?

Natasha Zaretsky, The Odd Couple: Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, and Contemporary Charisma, The Hedgehog Review, Spring 2020:
How, then, do we explain the respective charismas of Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump? I propose that their charismatic powers make sense only in light of the dramatic shift in authority relations that has been underway since the 1970s. During the last five decades, traditional racial, gender, and sexual hierarchies have toppled as women, people of color, and sexual minorities have gained greater visibility in public life. At the same time, economic and social inequality has sharpened while the distribution of wealth has become precariously asymmetrical, workers’ rights have been obliterated, and public goods like health care, education, and housing have been degraded. We thus find ourselves moving simultaneously forward and backward in time: forward into a public sphere that is more gender egalitarian, more multiracial, and more sexually capacious; and backward into a winner-take-all economy and culture that is often described as a new Gilded Age. This backward-forward motion is the product of a comprehensive shift in authority relations. Some, such as those within the traditional family, have loosened, while others, such as those that revolve around property, have tightened. This is what we might call the neoliberal paradox, and it is a defining feature of our time.

On the surface, it appears that Winfrey and Trump reflect the two sides of this paradox, with Winfrey capturing the dissolution of traditional gender and racial hierarchies and Trump symbolizing the boss’s ever-tightening grip. But Winfrey and Trump are not oppositional figures. Rather, each signals the simultaneously occurring breakdown of patriarchal authority and consolidation of market forces throughout the society. Consequently, Winfrey and Trump work with rather than against each other by accelerating a historical transition underway in the late capitalist family and workplace.

Winfrey and Trump harnessed the energies unleashed by the gender revolution of the late twentieth century to consolidate their charismatic authority. Over the course of their careers, they have used the medium of television to translate these energies into lessons for their followers about how to navigate life in workplaces that are at once more meritocratic and more predatory. Ultimately, as contemporary charismatic leaders par excellence, Winfrey and Trump fulfill a crucial need among their devotees: They guide them as they live through the dissolution of patriarchy and the intensification of market fundamentalism and economic inequality.
At the end of the article:
If we take seriously Weber’s insights about charismatic authority, the two charismas of Winfrey and Trump track both the breakdown of patriarchal authority and the consolidation of market domination in contemporary life. This tale of two charismas reveals that twenty-first-century capitalism legitimates itself in the midst of so much predation by manipulating and exploiting the antiauthoritarian energies unleashed by the gender revolution, harnessing those energies rather than suppressing them. Even as Winfrey and Trump appeared estranged from the social movements that took off in the 1960s, both drew on those movements without realizing that that was what they were doing. And both relied on the intimate, pervasive medium of television to reroute the energies of those movements in ways that have ended up strengthening the winner-take-all ethos of market fundamentalism in our social and cultural imaginary.

It may be tempting to see Winfrey as the embodiment of everything good about our age and Trump as the embodiment of everything bad. But in the end, both endorse the same belief: that there are only winners and losers. Winfrey’s cruelty is shrouded in therapeutic language, while Trump is bald-faced about the brute forces that pervade society. The world according to Trump is one of tough operators and cutthroat financial killers, “the kind of people who leave blood all over the boardroom table.”26 While most American workers today do not move in Trump’s circles, they do inhabit workplaces where, no matter how hard they work, their fates are determined by forces beyond their control, and they experience life as largely a series of accidents, contingencies, lucky breaks, and sudden reversals of fortune.

Winfrey rejects this grim take on the winner-take-all society. While she rose to fame by tearing back the curtain on the ugly side of heterosexual relations, she has gone on to cultivate a self-help philosophy that insists that people create their own realities. Winfrey hates the concept of luck and considers herself in touch with the divine. “Luck is a matter of preparation,” she has said. “I am highly attuned to my divine self.” The callousness of this perspective came into sharp relief when she once suggested to Elie Wiesel that his survival at Auschwitz constituted a direct miracle from God. “If a miracle of God to spare me, why?” he countered. “There were people much better than me…. No, it was an accident.”

In Winfrey’s world there are no accidents; everything happens for a reason. In Trump’s world, might makes right and coercion rules. Trump’s worldview resonates with the lived experiences of workers, while also trafficking in the seductive fantasy that a baby can become the boss. Winfrey also offers a fantasy figure: a guardian angel with whose help working people imagine they might escape. But neither a dealmaker nor a fairy godmother offers us a way out of our new Gilded Age.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Music education in the USA in the 1920s and 30s [#LingLing40hours]

Friday, March 6, 2020

Wes Montgomery, RIP

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

How groups of animals make decisions

Elizabeth Preston, Sneezing Dogs, Dancing Bees: How Animals Vote, NYTimes, March 2, 2020:
Any animal living in a group needs to make decisions as a group, too. Even when they don’t agree with their companions, animals rely on one another for protection or help finding food. So they have to find ways to reach consensus about what the group should do next, or where it should live. While they may not conduct continent-spanning electoral contests like this coming Super Tuesday, species ranging from primates all the way to insects have methods for finding agreement that are surprisingly democratic.
Preston discusses meerkats, honeybees, African wild dogs, rock ants, and baboons:
Primates, our closest relatives, have provided lots of material for researchers studying how groups make decisions. Scientists have seen gibbons following female leaders, mountain gorillas grunting when they’re ready to move and capuchins trilling to each other.

Sometimes the process is more subtle. A group may move across the landscape as a unit without any obvious signals from individuals about where they’d like to go next. To figure out how wild olive baboons manage this, the authors of a 2015 paper put GPS collars on 25 members of one troop in Kenya. They monitored the monkeys’ every step for two weeks. Then they studied the movements of each individual baboon in numerous combinations to see who was pulling the group in new directions.

The data showed that any baboon might start moving away from the others as if to draw them on a new course — male or female, dominant or subordinate. When multiple baboons moved in the same direction, others were even more likely to come along. When there was disagreement, with trailblazing baboons moving in totally different directions, others would eventually follow the majority. But if two would-be leaders were tugging in directions less than 90 degrees apart, followers would compromise on a middle path. No matter what, the whole group ended up together.

Ariana Strandburg-Peshkin, an animal-behavior researcher at the University of Konstanz in Germany who led the baboon study, points out that unlike in humans, no one authority tallies up baboon votes and announces the result. The outcome emerges naturally. But the same kind of subtle consensus-building can be part of our voting process, too.

“For instance, we might influence one another’s decisions on who to vote for in the lead-up to an election, before any ballots are cast,” she said.

Newborns 'wired' for face and scene recognition