I feel as though I'm watching one of those controlled, slow-motion car crashes. Only instead of a dummy, inside there are 87 GOP House freshmen who have no idea -- no idea at all -- what's about to happen to them.~ PETER ROBINSONI have been trying to avoid overexposure to the sausage factory known as The Greatest Deliberative Body In The Universe, aka the U.S. Congress, and the story of the moment, which is the sorry job House Speaker John Boehner is doing. Until now.
Boehner may be the worst House speaker since Tom Foley in the early 1990s and in an astonishingly short two months has made former Speaker Nancy Pelosi seem like a fricking genius, if not exactly on par with the great speakers of the mid-20th century -- Sam Reyburn, John McCormick and Tip O'Neill. (Sorry Carl Albert, you don't make the cut).
Boehner, he of the perpetual tan and on-cue tears, signed himself up for what he surely knew would be an impossible job: Leading his own party, which has a comfy 49 vote edge over the Democrats but has fractured every which way and chockablock with freshmen who owe him nothing, while trying to keep over-the-top campaign promises amidst a budgetary crisis that is all but unsolvable without making cuts in the programs that restive anti-big government voters nevertheless demands be spared.
Being a Republican these days is thinking you can have it both ways and never having to make tough decisions (as well as never having to say you're sorry), which puts Boehner in a difficult position: In order to get a budget compromise through the House that will pass the sniff test in the Senate, he almost certainly has to piss off members of his own party and appease Democrats, thereby undermining his already shaky credibility.
The alternatives are not pretty: Shut down government or hand over his gavel to Michele Bachmann, who inexplicably was snubbed for any and all leadership positions despite her sound thinking and fiscal acumen.
House Speaker Newt "Patriotic Stiffy" Gingrich and his fellow Republicans found to their chagrin that the government shutdown they engineered in late 1995 during a not dissimilar fiscal crisis did not play well in Peoria, where people were discomfited when their Social Security, veteran disability and other checks stopped coming, nor up Pennsylvania Avenue at the White House, where Gingrich got played like a cheap violin by Bill Clinton.
Boehner probably should be less concerned about Barack Obama, but he must wonder what Bachmann's heel marks would look like on his forehead.
This is because Boehner, in what most parliamentarians would call wise but Republicans would call despicable, has broken the First Republican Commandment -- Thou Shalt Not Negotiate With the Opposition -- and is in behind-the-scenes talks with moderate House Democrats to trim $30 billion from the sails of the ship of state. (While I'm iffy at math, that falls $70 billion short of what Boehner promised on the rubber chicken circuit and 31 billion short of what is being demanded by those feckless freshman Republicans.)
Boehner probably will keep his speakership, but don't be surprised if he takes to wearing big hats to cover up those heel marks.
Thursday, March 31, 2011
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
WHERE DID EVERYONE GO?It was supposed to be a three-day love feast to savor the Tea Party's mid-term election victories. But the Save America Convention at the Marriott-Waterside in Tampa earlier this month attracted only about 300 people, or about 12 Tea Partiers for each of the 25 speakers, who spoke glowingly of even greater future triumphs and laid out a few doomsday scenarios for good measure.
Meanwhile, a Tea Party Patriots meeting last week at a public library in Monroe County in northeastern Pennsylvania, a Tea Party hotbed, attracted barely enough people for two baseball teams.
Isolated incidents? Nah.
I not so boldly predicated in a day-after mid-term election analysis that the Tea Party may be a one- or two-election cycle wonder before being relegated to the political dust bin, and what has transpired in the last several months strengthens that conviction.
* Party members' overarching sense of grievance and self pity does not translate into being able to formulate policy, let alone govern.
* Its leaders act like the party now owns the Republican franchise, bad-mouthing not only Democrats but also fellow Republicans who have refused to do their bidding.
* Politics built on ignorance and practiced without compromise isn't politics, it's something between anarchy and mob rule.
* As with any upstart political movement, the spontaneous nature of the party is ebbing and its values are becoming co-opted.
* Its candidates wreak havoc on non-Tea Party candidates such as those down-ticket from Sharon Angle in Nevada, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Joe Miller in Alaska.
The Tea Party emerges at a seminal time in the history of the once great Republican Party, which while long having a pro-business slant welcomed a diversity of views. Because, by golly, not all conservatives thought alike.
But in an era of purity tests and loyalty oaths, the party has evolved a pretzel logic whereby only social conservatives with the mandatory chops on abortion, homosexuality, assault weapons and immigrants can get nominated, but once nominated have to downplay their social extremism for fear of scaring away the independents they need to get elected. (When was the last time that a leading Republican made abortion the centerpiece of their platform)
While the Tea Party is not necessarily a bad fit in this regard, establishment Republicans (we know that you're out there somewhere) understand that while the Tea Party won it some congressional seats and a statehouse or two in 2010, it will only hasten the party's slouch toward national irrelevance in the long run.
Look no further than Michele Bachmann to understand why.
The wingnut from Minnesota is likely to be the Tea Party's standard bearer through the early 2012 primaries, stealing attention from serious candidates with her attention-grabbing obfuscations and conspiracy theories.
When Bachmann brands Democrats as being anti-American, Obama an Islamofascist socialist and that the Serve America Act will lead to reeducation camps many of us roll our eyes, but it is talk like this that makes her so popular with the loony toon brigade in the sort of all-important Iowa primary if unpalatable to voters at large.
BLOGGER AND BLOG NAMESAKEBig blogs record 5000,000 visitors in the course of a few hours, while it has taken Kiko's House some six and a half years to reach that milestone.
We're certainly not in it for the money (no ads accepted evah) or the glory (cough, cough), but rather to scratch our writerly itch, accept faint praise and an occasional tongue lash ing fromreaders in some 155 countries, as well as Milwaukee.
While I occasionally get depressed over the state of world affairs, that world is seldom boring and it's a bottomless well of stuff to blog about.
So we'll continue scratching for the foreseeable future.-- Love and Peace, SHAUN MULLEN
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
There will be times . . . when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are.~ BARACK OBAMAI have not taken to the fainting couch over President Obama's "failure" to give a prime time address on the NATO campaign over Libya, nor do I care a fig that he spent several days in South and Latin America and not hankie wringing in the White House Situation Room. For one thing, Obama did give a radio address about Libya and has answered questions almost daily, so it's not like we don't know where he stands. Al that so noted, a grand gesture probably was overdue.
Where Obama stands is his usual cool and calculating, if occasionally inconsistent, self when it comes to foreign policy. He has said that the era of the U.S. going it alone a la George Bush has passed, and it has. That the U.S. would lead the early stages of Operation Odyssey Dawn, which has come off like clockwork, before turning over major responsibility to other NATO and now thankfully Arab League air forces (if still too few), who have given the overmatched rebels some breathing space and sent Libyan forces packing to Tripoli where they will make a last stand.
So more out of curiosity than anything, I missed my usual Two and a Half Men and Sanford and Son reruns last night and tuned into a 28-minute address many pundits claim the president should have made a week ago.
How did he do?
First and foremost, he had to placate an American people who are war weary, for while there is support for the Libya mission, Gallup reports that it is the lowest of any U.S. military intervention of the past 20 years. Here he succeeded in refusing to sugarcoat the task, stating that the mistakes of Iraq would not be repeated and a policy of unilateralism avoided.
Second, he had to reassure a public preoccupied with domestic economic concerns that intervention in Libya serves U.S. interests and that U.S. ground troops would not be deployed to a third Muslim country. Here he more or less succeeded by casting Libya not necessarily as a vital interest beyond the humanitarian emergency but the region as a vital interest.
Third, he had to commit to an end game without tying the Pentagon's hands, a task made more difficult because of the nebulousness of the U.N. resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and the chances of the mission becoming a protracted civil war being pretty good. Here he fell short because of uncertainties over what will happen in the days -- or weeks or months -- ahead.
Fourth, he had convince someone who also was not watching sitcoms -- Muammar el-Qaddafi -- that it is game over. Here there was no succeeding because the Libyan strongman is barking mad.
Finally, he had to deliver a convincing message to the rest of the Muslim world. Here he succeeded while not specifically referring to the pro-democracy unrest sweeping the Middle East but alluding to it in the context of the Libya mission being a product of that unrest and assuring protesters that the U.S. would stand by them.Photograph by Jim Young/Reuters
"There are probably only about 10 guys in America who are cheerfully unconcerned about the influence of multimillionaires on elections. One of them isCharles Koch. David Koch is another, as is Karl Rove, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and the guy with the top hat on the board of on the board of the Monopoly game are two more. Luckily for them, the other five guys currently sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. And judging from this morning's argument in McComish v. Bennett, there is no principle those five justices will fight harder to preserve than the right of the impossibly wealthy to purchase as much speech as they want and need to win a political campaign."Read the rest here.
Monday, March 28, 2011
The American Dream is dead.
The country that I have bled red, white and blue for is abandoning its youth, its elderly and its poor. It is imprisoning millions of its citizens for the most trivial of offenses.
It is suffocating its middle class, turning its back on newcomers and giving corporations and fat-cat financiers obscene tax breaks.
It is ignorant of its own history, core values and virtues, and many of us, if shown a copy of the Bill of Rights, would believe it to be a subversive document.
It has an unbreakable addiction to foreign oil, values clean air and water only when they don't get in the way of profit making, and cares little that its infrastructure is crumbling one bridge at a time.
Thinking big has been replaced by thinking small, discourse by dumbing down and bickering, and bipartisanship by ideological extremism.
It has turned against people whose skin color is different and who worship non-Christian deities.
It cares little that our world standing has been undercut by reckless foreign adventures, government officials who are habitual liars, and the use of torture.
It has used the 9/11 attacks not to reaffirm our core values but to undermine them.
It has a Congress that is borderline dysfunctional, a president who promised hope and change but has pretty much delivered more of the same, and a Supreme Court that is a helpmate to the powerful and wealthy.
The American Dream has become a cliched concept, endlessly reworked by Hollywood and Madison Avenue. But it nevertheless was one of if not the greatest gift of our democracy, and all the more so because so many other peoples striving to be free and prosper have embraced it.
It is convenient to invent an imaginary past when every home had a white picket fence in the front, a vegetable garden in the back and a shiny sedan at the curb, but there was an American Dream and it survived two world wars, a nearly decade-long depression and the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Sadly -- and for me bitterly -- the American Dream is not merely on vacation because of a return to difficult economic times. It is dead. And while it is fashionable to blame feckless politicians and greed mongers for its demise, we all share responsibility as we take ever less responsible for our country, as well as ourselves.Photograph by Roger Blake
By Five For Fighting
I know I should be happy in your land
It's not all that wild to me
Not that I want to be any other where
I know its hell out there
Here in the borders of America Town
All of the dollies are spinning round and round
Hail to the chief
Lets just drag them all down
There's got to be a hero somewhere
Used to get annoyed at the fire and the flag
Now it just seems old to me
(Everyone is old to me)
And I know we'd kick your ass
But first I'll take a nap tonight
And know someone's looking out for me
Here in the borders of America Town
All of the dollies are spinning round and round
Hail to the chief
Lets just drag them all down
There's got to be a hero somewhere
I tried it
I've seen it
I bought it all
Not that I'm upset
I can still make my bet on the basketball game
And I got my spare change
I'm even O.K. with the hoodlums on the hill
They're in my will
Like her and you
Whom and who
In America Town
We all spin around
In America Town
I'm really not down:
We all spin around
In America Town
Sunday, March 27, 2011
How many times have you heard someone put down the abstract expressionist art of a Mark Rothko with the comment, "“A child could paint that."
That inspired Ellen Winner, a psychology professor at Boston College, and Angelina Hawley-Dolan, one of her graduate students, to determine whether a child -- let alone an animal with a paintbrush -- could indeed so so.
As Ed Yong explains at Not Exactly Rocket Science, the women sought to test the assertion that abstract expressionist art is devoid of talent.
Hawley-Dolan and Winner asked 32 art students and 40 psychology students to compare pairs of paintings. One piece of each pair was the work of a recognized artist, including Rothko, while the others were the works of preschool children, elephants, chimps, gorillas and monkeys. The paintings were matched according to color, line quality, brushstroke and medium; the students had to say which they preferred and which was better.
"Both groups of students preferred the professional pieces to the amateur ones, and judged them to be superior. Even the psychology students, who had no background in art education, felt the same way, although as you might expect, their preference for the professional works was slightly weaker."
Throughout the experiments, the students typically picked the professional pieces between 60 and 70 percent of the time, not exactly overwhelming majorities, but statistically significant.
Hawley-Dolan and Winner concluded that on average, a child could not "paint that," even if first glances might suggest otherwise. Nor are the qualities of the abstract art only visible to people steeped in the art world because even untrained people responded to the paintings in some way.
The researchers also found that it didn't matter if the students were tricked into thinking that the paintings came from the wrong "artist." They labelled the pairs of paintings on some of the tests ("artist," "child," "monkey" or "elephant") and mislabelled them on others. Even with these tags, the students still preferred professional paintings, while the labels only swayed the decisions of the psychology students, who were more likely to judge the professional paintings more positively if they were correctly labelled.When asked why they made their choices, both groups of students speculated about what the artist was trying to achieve, or what was going through their mind at the time. They saw more of such intentions in the professional pieces than in the more random shapes of the children and animals.
As Hawley-Dolan and Winner write:
"People untrained in visual art see more than they realize when looking at abstract expressionist paintings. People may say that a child could have made a work by a recognized abstract expressionist, but when forced to choose between a work by a child and one by a master such as Rothko, they are drawn to the Rothko even when the work is falsely attributed to a child or nonhuman. People see the mind behind the art."
Saturday, March 26, 2011
Well, you can't say that we don't save the best for Saturday: America's favorite reprobate has dropped her last name and now wants to be known simply as Lindsay.
Same with mom Dina and sis Ali, all in an attempt to separate themselves from Michael Lohhan, aka America's Worst Father. Their surname will now be Sullivan, which was/is Dina's maiden name.
Ms. Loha . . . er, Lindsay has done such a terrific job of diminishing her brand through repeated arrests, jailings and rehabs that it's difficult to say whether she can make the single name work like Oprah and Beyonce.
Besides which, who cares?Photograph via Getty Images
Friday, March 25, 2011
I have a sense of deja vu all over again in reading that Maine Governor Paul LePage, a Tea Party Republican, has ordered the removal of a 36-foot mural from the state's Department of Labor because he believes it to not be sufficiently pro-business. This is because people in high places repeatedly did the same thing with public-works project murals during the Great Depression because they honored the poor working stiff, had allegedly Commie themes or were done by furriners.
There is some irony in LePage's actions. He is a Franco-American in a state where Franco-Americans have long been honored for their contributions to the state's economy and his wife once was a union shop steward.
That the mural will be moved to Maine's state museum is beside the point. To assert, as LePage does, that the artwork is "one-sided decor" not in keeping with the department's pro-business goals is deeply offensive. As is renaming the labor department's conference rooms, one of which is named for Cesar Chavez, the labor and civil rights leader.
Maine artist Judy Taylor, who was given a state grant to paint the mural, says that "There was never any intention to be pro-labor or anti-labor. It was a pure depiction of the facts."
"How can you say history is one sided?," she asks.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
EGYPTIAN AIR FORCE FIGHTER JETSTo paraphrase the great military blogger Tom Ricks, the only people not freaking over Libya are those who didn't like the idea of a no-fly zone in the first place. That noted, the U.S.-led NATO air forces have accomplished what they set out to do in a mere three days. Radar and anti-aircraft missile sites are in ruins and Moammar el-Qaddafi's air force is effectively grounded. So it's time for lesser air forces to take over. Like those from the Arab League.
Hello, Arab League. Anyone home?
The support of the Arab League was crucial in giving legitimacy to Operation Odyssey Dawn, but despite talking the talk, league member countries for the most part are reluctant to walk the walk, and league President Amr Moussa has criticized the air strikes as beyond the scope of the United Nations resolution, which it is not.
Moussa later did some walking back of his own, saying he only meant to voice concern over the protection of civilians, but the impression grows that the nations that have the largest stake in Libya, which is to say stabilizing a region that has reverberated with pro-democracy protests and now a civil war, are basically gutless.
That may be a bit harsh. After all, most of these nations are new at coalition building, ambivalent at best about the outbreak of pro-democracy movements, are run by autocrats and have miniscule air forces with little real-world experience. In other words, they have plenty of excuses for not wanting to take the responsibility.
So far only the Qataris have contributed to the NATO task force despite early promises of support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Prince Saud of Saudi Arabia added insult to injury in stating after a meeting with British PM David Cameron on the no-fly zone that he strongly supported "the steps being taken by the international community to enforce it." Yeah, that and and five riyals will get you a cup of coffee at the Starbucks on Prince Abdullah Street in Riyadh.
Among the Arab League member countries struck deaf and dumb since the task force took to the skies are Algeria, Libya's eastern neighbor, and Jordan and Syria. Egypt, which abuts Libya's western border, would appear to be the perfect place to base Arab League aircraft, but no such offer has been forthcoming from the interim Cairo government.
The non-involvement of most league nations comes at a crucial juncture. The coalition shows signs of fracturing over who is in charge and what happens next.
The answer to that is obvious: While Arab League nations for the most part have 19th century societies and 18th century tribal rulers, it is time that they figuratively leave the sandbox, begin acting like grown-ups, take over the mission and determine, with ample Western materiel, intelligence and other resources, what should happen next.
Hello, Arab League. Anyone home?
Elizabeth Taylor Hilton . . . Wilding . . . Todd . . . Fisher . . . Burton . . . Burton . . . Warner . . . Fortensky (1932-2011)
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
If all you have is a hammer -- which in this case is the world's biggest military -- then every problem ultimately resembles a nail.~ WILL BUNCHI mentioned in passing yesterday that I had reluctantly come around to supporting the no-fly zone over Libya because, as belated as the action may be, it is in the service of a larger cause -- the democratic transformation of the Arab world, warts and all as well as risks and all -- as well as putting an end to a humanitarian crisis.
This is not to say that the U.S. and NATO should get its back up every time an autocrat pushes back against regime change. Egypt, where the transition to democracy appears to be on course, is a lesson in that regard. But Libya is a different kettle of fish and Moammar el-Qaddafi's wholesale slaughter of his own people begged a response.
Cynics will point out the there are humanitarian crises in the Sudan and Somalia and no one is advocating no-fly zones over them, let alone any kind of military intervention. True enough, but those nations may as well be on the dark side of the Moon. (Pun intended.) Then there was the formulaic tut-tutting over crackdowns in Bahrain and Yemen, but the former is a U.S. ally and the latter . . . a what?
"Mission creep," which despite vows from President Obama on down that the U.S. will cede the lead role no-fly zone role in days and not let it drag on for weeks, should be the taxpayers' biggest concern about Libya, and not just because the Pentagon will have to ask for a supplementary appropriation if the U.S.'s involvement drags on.
While Qaddafi's Air Force has been effectively crippled, he doesn't need it to continue his offensive against poorly armed and ill disciplined pro-democracy rebels, and the temptation to broaden Operation Odyssey Dawn into a ground operation would be mission creep at its creepiest. How, for example, are aerial NATO forces going to coordinate coordinate tactics with rebel groups without having a ground presence?
Despite assertions that the goal is not to remove the strongman ( the U.N. resolution calls for no such thing), there will be pressure to finish the job, which is to say regime change, to avoid a protracted civil war.
This pressure already is coming from the usual suspects: The neocon brain trust that for all intents and purposes forced George Bush to invade Iraq on false pretensions, is collectively amnesic about the fiasco it helped create, and is now beating the loudest war drum over Libya. Meanwhile, the first cracks are beginning to appear in the coalition after only three days over what should happen next.
Public opinion polls show that support for the U.S.'s involvement is strong, but it typically is early in military campaigns. But people aren't being asked a much larger question: Is military might the U.S.'s only solution to international crises? And there is no anti-war movement to speak of to raise the issue.
As my friend Will Bunch notes in an essay from which I pulled the quote atop this post, Afghanistan at first resembled a nail. That's how the oil-rich Persian Gulf looked to George Bush and Dick Cheney, and inevitably that's how Libya has come to look.
I join Will in praying for the safety of our pilots and a transition to democracy in yet another Arab nation. But the U.S. needs a bigger tool kit because just owning a hammer isn't enough to fix everything.
QADDAFI AND BERLUSCONI MAKE NICENapoleon famously observed that no Italian state had ever finished a war on the same side as that on which it had started, except when it had changed twice, and no European nation has had a closer if sometimes ambivalent relationship with Libya than NATO partner Italy.
Libya became an Italian colony in 1910 and remained so until 1947 when the Italian empire, such as it was, was dissolved. But economic and political ties between Tripoli and Rome have continued if not always flourished through the 63 (count 'em) Italian governments since World War II, and it can be argued that Moammar "Madman" el-Qaddafi is merely repeating what fascist dictator Benito Mussolini's henchmen did in crushing the Libyan resistance in the late 1930s.
Recent relations between the two nations have verged on the warm and fuzzy with Qaddafi and Italian Premier Silvio "Bunga Bunga" Berlusconi inking a friendship treaty in 2008.
The treaty's ostensible purpose was to help normalize the West's relations with Libya, while its real purpose was to grease the skids for big commercial contracts between Libya and Italian firms, including armaments deals ranging from helicopters and patrol boats to torpedoes and small arms.
Libya, meanwhile, provides one quarter of Italy's petroleum needs and Libyan investors have made many an Italian firm fat and happy. But now all those arms are aimed at Libyan rebels and Italy is facing a tidal wave of accident tourists -- all Libyans -- that threaten to interrupt the flow of the real tourists that are vital to the country's sagging economy.
The feckless Italians, as history has proven time and again, of course have no one to blame but themselves.Photograph by Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
My review yesterday of a biography of Dorothea Lange, the legendary documentary photographer whose images captured the agonies of the Great Depression and the efforts of the Roosevelt administration to give a measure of relief, as well as jobs, to the millions of unemployed, begs a question or three: Why has Congress seemingly given up on the unemployed? Why are there no jobs programs of consequence? Why are Americans concerned about joblessness but congressfolk are obsessing over the budget deficit?
The short answer is that Congress doesn't care about the unemployed even though vestiges of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression linger.
As Paul Krugman notes, aside from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a few other stalwarts, the silence over jobs creation is deafening, while President Obama regrettably has embraced the metaphor that if Americans are belt tightening then so should government. Republicans not only agree, but it was their idea first, and while bipartisanship can be swell, it certainly is not in this instance.* * * * *Is anyone surprised that two months after the Republican-dominated House was gavelled into session it has accomplished nothing of consequence except team up with Democrats to push back an effort from the party's own hind quarters to shut down government? Of course not. If anything, the situation in the Senate is even more dismal.
And is anyone really surprised that the GOP's mid-term election mantra that it would cut $100 billion from the federal budget and repeal health-care reform is going nowhere fast?
Newly minted House Speaker John Boehner, no fool he, knew that the $100 billion promise would be impossible to come close to keeping given the fine print attached to the Pledge for America. That fine print included Social Security, Medicare and defense and homeland security spending being off limits. In other words, the bulk of the budget.* * * * *Even if the House were to repeal health-care reform, it stands a snowball's chance in hell of being repeated in the Senate.
But . . . but but there is little doubt that reform will be killed by the Supreme Court in a year or three since anything bad for the corporatocracy and good for ordinary Americans pretty much automatically gets strangled these days by the right-leaning high court majority.* * * * *While I have reluctantly come around to the view that a no-fly zone over Libya was necessary, there was some pretty serious flip-flopping by the commander in chief before he finally got on board.
First of all, when Barack Obama was a senator, he asserted that the president did not have the constitutional power to unilaterally authorize a military attack on a nation that did not pose a threat to the U.S.
Then there is the fact that his defense secretary, national security advisor and anti-terrorism boss were outflanked. By three women in fact: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Samantha Power, a senior aide at the National Security Council, and Susan Rice, the U.S.'s ambassador to the U.N.
That so noted, I wouldn't care if three Irish wolfhounds helped change Obama's mind. And that the reason I came around was in the service of the democratic transformation of the Arab world, warts and all as well as risks and all.
Monday, March 21, 2011
I recently and belatedly bought my first digital single lens reflex camera, belatedly because although I have been an accomplished photographer for 40 years, I was reluctant to move beyond the analog Nikon SLRs that I have toted around on my world travels and have served me so well. But digital technology has become so phenomenal and MacBook laptops such terrific photo workbenches that my obdurance had become ridiculous.
This transition to digital got me to thinking about photography in general and my relationship to it in particular, dredging up the philosophical arguments about whether photography is art and whether documentary photography, let alone photojournalism, can be a part of a creative pantheon that includes prose, poetry and painting.
Long answer short, who cares?
In any event, I have long believed that photography is 90 percent discipline and 10 percent luck, and I do not come by that equation lightly. All of my better photographs were a result of being disciplined, but also being lucky. None of the great photojournalists with whom I worked as a newspaper editor -- among them two Pulitzer Prize winner, one Robert F. Kennedy Prize winner and the first woman to be hired as a staff photographer by National Geographic -- would disagree.
To hammer home the point further, of the perhaps 20,000 photographs I have taken (a wild guess, I guess), I can honestly say that fewer than 100 are really good and of that small number only a half dozen or so are great.Meanwhile, I don't recall when the notion of the great documentary photographer Dorothea Lange that a camera is nothing more than a tool slipped into my consciousness. Fairly early on, I think. And while my first SLR was a Nikon F purchased at Nikon's factory in Yokohama, Japan in 1970, I quickly realized that while having a quality camera and lenses mattered, it was how my brain processed what I saw through the viewfinder that ultimately would determine the quality of a photograph.
* * * * *Lange's odyssey from darkroom assistant to one of the greatest documentary photographers and one of the first women to attain that stature is told in Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond The Limits (2009) by Linda Gordon.
It is a book that satisfies and surprises.
It satisfies because Gordon, an historian by calling, understands photography well enough and Lange well enough that Lange's odyssey can be told from a technical and visual point of view in addition to the usual comings and goings, romances and marriages.
It surprises because I had assumed, as do probably most people, that Lange was a feminist long before that term came into popular usage. She was most decidedly not, and you will have to read A Life Beyond The Limits to understand why.Lange is best known for her images of Americans on the move during the Great Depression, and her most famous sequence is a migrant woman refugee from the Dust Bowl sitting by the side of a California road in a lean-to tent, her children hanging from her haggard frame as she looks out into the distance.
Gordon notes that photographs like these in general and interest in Lange in particular wax and wane with the economic seasons, falling out of style when times are good and becoming popular again when times are tough, which they currently are.
Top photograph by Cherelle Farmer
The woman is Florence Thompson, a refugee from the Oklahoma Dust Down, mother of 11 children and, along with her husband, a pea picker near the small town of Nipomo in the coastal foothills near Santa Barbara, California.
Lange, who was photographing migrant workers for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal Agency, passed by the fields and the Thompsons' lean-to in February 1936, but as befits a photographer of her talent, stopped 20 miles on and turned around.
As Lange biographer Linda Gordon writes:
"The chance nature of this photograph . . . resulted from the kind of luck that comes only with years of practice. The atypical was conditioned by the habitual. Lange's fleeting glance caught something important because her eye was so trained. Then a second part of her photographic discipline took over: a sense of responsibility -- to document conditions and seize visual opportunity. She turned around and drove back -- like a 'homing pigeon,' she recalled."She found Florence Thompson alone with her daughters; her husband and sons were off getting the family car repaired. The pea crop had been ruined by a freeze and the look of hunger already was in the camp.
Lange was a masterful photographer of children, but atypically but instinctively asked the girls clinging to their mother to turn their faces away from the camera, forcing the viewer to focus exclusively on Florence Thompson's beauty and anxiety.
When Lange developed the negatives, she knew that she had something special and sold the photographs to the San Francisco News, which published two of them on March 10, 1936.
The photographs became a sensation. Some $200,000 poured in for the destitute Nipomo farmworkers, but a number of them already had died.
"When I ask my university students if they knew who Dorothea Lange was, almost lal said no. But when I asked them to tell me their visual images of the Depression, many described this photograph. Within that association, its meaning varies: it can connote victimization, the irrepressible resilience of Americans, or the selflessness of mothers."