Gallery of art and thoughts

The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Monday, February 28, 2005

I'd like to thank the Academy...

A few thoughts on the Oscars:

1. Chris Rock didn't do a bad job. He wasn't particularly great, either, but he did have his moments -- the best one being when he interviewed people at a nearby Magic Johnson theater and asked them whether they'd seen any of the Oscar nominees (most hadn't) and what their favorite movie of 2004 was ("White Chicks," "The Chronicles of Riddick"). It was nice to see someone make the point on an Oscar telecast that, yes, sometimes Hollywood is out of touch with mainstream America -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing!

2. Chances are, the conservative crowd will be griping about Rock's quips about Bush, but I got a kick out of it. And it was nice to see something of a balance in the humor (there was at least one Kerry joke), as well as a round of applause for our servicemen and women abroad.

3. Robin Williams, in one short introductory segment, showed why he is still the funniest comedian around.

Postscript on the Summers saga: Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post, makes an excellent point when she says that the scrutiny of Larry Summers is out of focus. Applebaum notes that of the three reasons posited by Summers for women's underrepresentation in the sciences -- the 80-hour workweek demanded by a science career, the infamous intrinsic-differences proposal, and the equally infamous discrimination-but-not-enough-discrimination-as-has-been-claimed proposal -- we are focusing too much attention on claims two and three and not enough attention on the first claim: If a woman wants to raise children and have a family, how difficult will it be for her to also advance in her career?

This is not the first time that this question has surfaced. The Katharine Hepburn film "Woman of the Year" raised the issue in 1942: Can Hepburn's Tess balance her journalism work with her marriage to Spencer Tracy's Sam? Fifty years later, Hillary Clinton stirred conservative outrage when she said she did not stay home and bake cookies, but instead pursued her legal career as a mother.

Ironically, in 1990, these issues also arose and were answered -- quite well, I think -- by Barbara Bush at the Wellesley College commencement. Bush suggested that women can both excel in the workplace and at raising a family, but that parents should never forget the importance of successful families. She said that "whatever the era, whatever the times, one thing will never change: Fathers and mothers, if you have children -- they must come first."

Want to bring social class into the debate? Chances are, women from relatively affluent backgrounds will be more able to afford child care than women from less affluent backgrounds. And if those women from less affluent backgrounds take time off from their careers to take care of their children, they will lose potential Social Security income as a result (although if you listen to what the conservative crowd says, in 20 years or so, everyone is going to lose those benefits). If we're going to have this debate, we might as well make the most of it.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

More thoughts

I wish for a safe recovery for Pope John Paul II, who has undergone a tracheotomy to help him breathe more easily, the BBC reports. However, I am distressed by some of the comments that the pope has made in his newest book, "Memory and Identity." According to CNN, the pontiff wonders whether proponents of gay marriage are part of "a new ideology of evil" and compares abortion to the Holocaust.

I don't think there's anything "evil" about two people of the same gender wanting to marry each other. Love and commitment are laudable values, in people and in societies. In his book, the pope criticizes Communist dictatorships, whose evils stemmed from the fact that they denied basic freedoms from their citizens -- religion, yes, but the list is longer: freedom to dissent, freedom to assemble, a fair and impartial trial by a jury of one's peers. The pope essentially criticizes the Communist governments for denying rights to their people -- and then supports the movement to continue withholding the right of marriage to same-sex couples.

On the comparison between abortion and the Holocaust: The Holocaust, as I have mentioned in the case of Ward Churchill (see below), holds significant emotional meaning for many people across the globe. So, of course, does abortion. But it is irresponsible to link these two very charged issues. It seems that the pope has abandoned his previous policy of treating the Holocaust with respect.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Summers' time, and the living ain't easy

Larry Summers has seen better winters. After delivering some ill-received remarks at a conference in Washington, DC, the Harvard president is facing uproar among the university's faculty, students and alumni. On Tuesday, the faculty will meet to discuss a symbolic vote of no confidence in Summers.

The former Treasury secretary under President Clinton has experienced a tempestuous tenure since he took over for Neil Rudenstine in 2001. A much-publicized flap with Afro-American studies professor Cornel West led to West's departure for Princeton that fall. A year later, Summers, speaking at morning prayers at University Church, said that critics of Israel are "anti-Semitic in effect if not in intent." He has also voiced his support for the Harvard ROTC program, which has been banned from the university since 1969.

And now, this contretemps. Responding to his critics' demands, Summers has issued a transcript of his remarks, as The Crimson reports. You can read those remarks here. It's time to ask the question: How severe are Summers' remarks?

Let's take a look at them. Summers was speaking at a conference of the National Bureau of Economic Research to deal with "the issue of women's representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions," he said. Summers called women in science an example of "a group that is significantly underrepresented in an important activity and whose underrepresentation contributes to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being in that group."

Summers listed three hypotheses as to why the problem of women's underrepresentation in science exists. The most important, he said, was the demanding schedule required for a career in the sciences. "And it is a fact about our society that that is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women," Summers said. "That's not a judgment about how it should be, not a judgment about what they should expect. But it seems to me that it is very hard to look at the data and escape the conclusion that that expectation is meeting with the choices that people make and is contributing substantially to the outcomes that we observe."

The second most important hypothesis, according to Summers, was a mixture of genetic makeup and cultural conditioning. "It does appear that on many, many different human attributes -- height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability -- there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means -- which can be debated -- there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population," he said. "And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined." It seems he proposed that gender differences may be innate: he used his twin two-year-old daughters as evidence; given trucks to play with, they began calling them "daddy truck" and "baby truck."

Lastly, Summers considered the role of discrimination. While Summers said that "it is something that happens, and it is something that absolutely, vigorously needs to be combated," he added two points: first, he said, "there's a real question as to how plausible it is to believe that there is anything like half as many people who are qualified to be scientists at top ten schools and who are now not at top ten schools," and second, "if there was really a pervasive pattern of discrimination that was leaving an extraordinary number of high-quality potential candidates behind, one suspects that in the highly competitive academic marketplace, there would be more examples of institutions that succeeded substantially by working to fill the gap."

Summers couched these proposals in careful language, but they have nevertheless angered many. Is the anger justified? Answering this question requires a consideration of the roles of both academic discourse, and of a university president.

First, academic discourse. Like it or not, academic discourse is supposed to be impartial: as Harvard professor Steven Pinker pointed out in the New Republic, "the ideal of scholarship" is "that any idea is worth thinking about, if only to determine whether it is wrong." However, as human beings, we cannot detach ourselves from thinking passionately about a particular issue. Often, this issue may relate to one's background; for instance, race and ethnicity. In the 1960s, African-American students requested black studies departments on campuses. Today, Muslim and Jewish students debate (sometimes heatedly) the Israel-Palestine dilemma. Gender, we have seen, is also a polarizing issue: the "Coalition for an Anti-Sexist Harvard" is calling for, among other things, a Women's Center and more tenured female faculty members.

Were Summers' remarks offensive? Others have said worse, namely former Boston University president John Silber. (Incidentally, this Boston Magazine article, in addition to citing some of Silber's views, also notes that more women than men are attending college.) That does not excuse Summers, but it is my view that, given his cautious approach in contrast to Silber's stridency, he meant to provoke, not offend.

Certainly, Summers has done both, and the final fallout may be harsh for him, professionally and personally. Professors have more latitude as far as being controversial; Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield has criticized, among other groups, anti-apartheid protestors and the politically-correct crowd, and he's stuck around. Summers, though, is the head of a university, entrusted with the task of attracting and educating quality candidates, men and women. His comments may turn off prospective students. (Then again, they may not; can anything dim Harvard's reputation?) In that respect, he spoke unwisely.

A concluding thought: I'm not a woman, so I can't pretend to speak from a female perspective. If I was, perhaps my opinion on this issue would be considerably more heated. (What would Virginia Woolf have thought?) I would like to think I could still step back and evaluate Summers' statements on their merits, and then conclude that he spoke inappropriately but not maliciously.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Eight is (Not) Enough

Israel Cartoon 8
Originally uploaded by SoxIn18.
This one took three days to complete. Drawing scenes of nature is a challenge. From determining how much of a background to include to figuring out how to depict shadowing, this edition posed many tests. I would be interested to hear any feedback.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

On Ward Churchill

From undergrad days to the present day, I've always been interested in going to hear lectures on campuses. In college, I heard, among others, Nelson Mandela, Jerry Ford, Christine Todd Whitman and Jack Kemp. I never went to a lecture by any "divisive" (in Harvard's case, that meant "right-wing") speaker, but plenty of students did, including some who came to protest. These ranged from demonstrators at speeches by Rudy Giuliani (before he became a national hero after 9/11) and Pat Buchanan to huge protests at an address by Jiang Zemin (I was one of the free-Tibet crowd; I couldn't get into the actual speech).

In recent years, it seems, ideology has become more of an issue in speeches across college campuses. (Or maybe it was always thus.) Harvard faced its own drama in 2002, when it invited the Oxford poet Tom Paulin to speak at the university. Paulin had been criticized for an interview given in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram earlier that year in which he said that Israel had no right to exist, and that Brooklyn-born Israeli settlers "should be shot dead." Protests from Harvard students led to Paulin's invitation being withdrawn -- and then re-issued. However, he declined to visit the university.

These days, the center of protest is another academic, Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who was invited to speak at Hamilton College in New York. More than three years after Churchill called the businessmen and women inside the World Trade Center "little Eichmanns" -- on the day after 9/11 -- these words have finally come to the general public's notice. Churchill has been dis-invited, and now faces a scrutiny into his job; it seems he has been somewhat less than truthful in describing his American Indian background -- which may not exist at all.

What seems equally disgusting about Churchill's philosophy is a book he wrote entitled "A Little Matter of Genocide," in which he claims that the Holocaust has been overexaggerated in history books as a means of disguising Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. This column seems to sum up Churchill's beliefs fairly well.

As someone whose great-grandparents (and other relatives) were killed during the Holocaust, I take this news quite personally, and I'm sure the 9-11 victims' relatives also took Churchill's comments about their loved ones personally. When the speech becomes personal, it can be hard to look at it in a detached way -- which, I guess, is what makes people human and stirs them to rise against it.

So, was it right for Hamilton to invite Churchill in the first place? Colleges are, after all, supposed to be places where students are exposed to a variety of opinions, which would help them develop their own. Yet are there some ideas that are simply so repugnant that they should not exist in a civilized setting? If people like Churchill say disgusting things about 9/11 and the Holocaust, thus disrespecting many in his potential audience, should the university allow these people a voice?

I think that the university should be a place for debate, but the debate should be civil. "College" and "collegial" do have a link. People like Churchill are just trying to win attention by their outrageous statements, just as bigots on the extreme right would do. Dialogue that slurs others has no place at a university, or anywhere else.

Postscript: In addition to the claims described above by Churchill, he also has accused the US government of creating massive deaths in Iraq as a result of the sanctions against Saddam Hussein's government. Is he right? Some would say yes, others no.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

So much to talk about...

Lebanon has been riveted by the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. The US has recalled its ambassador to Syria, as Hariri had been known as a critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian troops have maintained a presence in Lebanon since 1976, and there are presently 14,000 soldiers from Assad's regime in the country. Despite considerations that Syria is behind this somehow, the Beeb is also speculating whether Israel was the culprit, "despite a lack of obvious motive." I have long admired the BBC's comprehensive foreign coverage, but it seems irresponsible to toss out an allegation like this.
How will the killing affect the situation in the Middle East? Does it portend a return to the chaos of civil war days in Lebanon (from 1975 until the early 1990s)? Will the Syrians move out, and will American troops move in? We shall have to see what, if any, measures Assad takes.

This violent episode stands in contrast to the peace agreement announced between Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon at Sharm el-Sheikh two days ago. On the surface, this deal looks good: an end, finally, to the Al Aqsa Intifada, which erupted in 2000. But how long can Abbas persuade Hamas and Islamic Jihad to abandon violence? And what brought about this sudden Israeli-Palestinian amity?

A final consideration, this one about a different issue. I condensed my post about Arthur Miller, and now it appears as a commentary in today's Lynn (Mass.) Daily Item. Also today, Terry Teachout shared markedly different views of the playwright in the Wall Street Journal. Among his gripes: that Miller's death evoked mainly platitudes (I sheepishly confess to this), that his great works comprised a puny portion of his oeuvre, and that those "great works" are not actually that great.

Teachout is right, but also unfair. Certainly, Miller was no Shakespeare. Few people are. However, "Death of a Salesman" does rank among the better plays that have emerged in American literature in the past century. Yes, it has its treacly moments, but its characters are convincing, and the decisions they make are deeply moving. If Teachout wants to judge an author by the quantity of his quality, he would eliminate, among others, Herman Melville (how many people can name a book he wrote besides "Moby Dick"?) and Ralph Ellison ("Invisible Man" is his sole but substantial claim to greatness). If anyone out there wants to recommend others for this list, please email me.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Lucky seventh

Israel Cartoon 7
Originally uploaded by SoxIn18.
After a busy weekend (the 'rents and I saw the Aztec exhibit at the Guggenheim on Saturday), I've completed my seventh Israel cartoon. Eretz Yisrael presents numerous challenges in drawing its many environs. For instance, in this episode, I've never drawn so many bricks in my life!

Friday, February 11, 2005

Arthur Miller's legacy

Arthur Miller is dead at 89, and to quote Linda Loman in "Death of a Salesman," attention must be paid. The great playwright addressed our nation's capitalist conscience and found it wanting, and for that we owe him a debt.

I was introduced to Miller's work in my upperclass years at Malden Catholic High School in Malden, Mass., a city as blue-collar as any of Miller's characters. In my junior year, we read "The Crucible" in English class; in my senior year, we read "Death of a Salesman." That summer, I had the opportunity to see Hal Holbrook star as Willy Loman in a production at Boston University's Huntington Theater. Yet I do not feel that Miller's work left much of an imprint on me at that point. My politics were still relatively unformed, consisting mainly of automatic approval of whatever Democratic ideas were prevalent.

Then, during my junior year at Harvard College, Miller visited the Yard to deliver three lectures, one of which I attended. I don't remember which lecture hall he chose as his venue, but I do recall his message -- of resistance to totalitarianism and dictatorship -- and of a brief moment after the lecture, when I approached this giant in both reputation and physical stature and gave him my program to sign. I remembered seeing his photo in my English textbook in junior year, and the moment has lingered in my memory. His work somehow seemed more relevant, more resonant, but once more, I had not grasped its full significance.

Today, as an adult, I feel that I do understand Miller's work better, particularly "Death of a Salesman," which may have been the finest critique of capitalism of its time. After World War II, as Levittowns were expanding and ties to family and community were decreasing, Miller spoke presciently to a nation glutted with monetary gains; he was a new St. Paul preaching to the Corinthians.

To some, the character of Willy Loman is a modern-day Faust, who exchanges his soul for a capitalist worldview, thinking that if he works hard, he will reap rewards. Instead, he discovers that in his old age, all of his means of support collapse -- his sons, Biff and Happy, and his own source of income, from which he is humiliatingly fired (or laid off, as Howard the Younger might put it). It sounds simple, yet this play is deeply complex. Like Willy, Charley's son Bernard also puts in his time -- and does find success, enjoying a happy marriage and the chance to argue a case before the Supreme Court. And while putting one's nose to the grindstone may carry its risks, so does gadding about: "Biff, a man is not a bird, to come and go with the springtime," Linda warns her eldest son.

The play addresses the deeper issue of how we define status and success in American society. What are the criteria -- income? prestige? romance? personal happiness? other people's perceptions of ourselves? our own expectations/dreams? It's heartrending to see Willy's sons fail their father, to see Linda try, futilely, to hold the family together, and to see Willy's final, fatal attempt to do just that. It is a chilling commentary on our country that remains, and will remain, powerful.

"The Crucible" is also strong and sincere. Miller was, criticizing the McCarthy "witch hunts" of the 1950s by likening them to the excesses of the original witch hunts in Salem, Mass. It is a play full of false accusations and fear, where, to borrow Yeats' phrase, the worst elements in Salem, personified by the zealous Judge Hathorne, "are full of passionate intensity."

The Venona files from the former Soviet Union show that Sen. Joseph McCarthy's scrutiny of Communism in this country was justified -- that people like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, along with Alger Hiss, had some ties to the USSR. However, did that require the means by which McCarthyites sought to terrorize suspected Communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee?

Today, we see that Americans are still grappling with the issues that Miller explored in his plays. There are those in this country who feel that the Bush administration is harassing any who might be suspected terrorist sympathizers -- from the detainees in Guantanamo Bay to the conviction of attorney Lynne Stewart for collaborating with a terrorist. The stakes are just as high -- Communists were accused of giving the Soviets information about the bomb, while 9-11 has made us all too aware of the horrors that terrorism can inflict. But can we abandon democratic procedure to keep our democracy safe? To paraphrase Queen Elizabeth in "Richard III," should we forget ourself to be ourself? Sometimes we must -- Lincoln, after all, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War -- and yet we lose part of our national identity in doing so.

Of course, Willy Loman remains as important as ever. In this age of corporate downsizing and outsourcing, it seems that things have gotten even worse since the day that Willy got his pink slip. There is, however, an encouraging sign. More and more artists from all sorts of media -- music, film, letters -- have taken up their tools against Big Business. From the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen -- "I got laid off/Down at the lumber yard/Our love went bad/Times got hard..." -- to the documentaries of Michael Moore, such as "Roger and Me" and "Bowling for Columbine" -- to books like Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed," increasing numbers of people are taking notice of the excesses of capitalism. This scrutiny might not extend to the polls -- Ohio, for instance, which lost 230,000 jobs between 2000 and 2004, nevertheless went for Dubya last fall -- but the artists, our nation's collective conscience, have shown that they will be vigilant. By doing so, they honor and uphold Miller's legacy, and provide a fitting coda to his contributions.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

More on Tom Wolfe

Today's New York Times has an amusing story about President Bush and his reading list, which includes Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons" (which I previously wrote about below). Apparently the president has taken to reading Wolfe's new novel, and Times reporter Elizabeth Bumiller speculates as to why he might like it. Is it because it may remind Dubya of his days when he was a fraternity president, like Vance in "Charlotte"? Or may it enable him to better comprehend the world of his recently graduated twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna? I think that part of the reason is because it's a good read -- and it doesn't hurt that Wolfe is one of the nation's leading conservative literary voices.

Our president has been bastinadoed (in some cases, rightly so) for being a bit too hoi polloi for the highbrows. He is a former owner of a major-league baseball team. He is a jock/frat-boy type. One of his other favorite books that wasn't mentioned in the Times article was Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar. But then again, Natan Sharansky's The Case For Democracy wasn't mentioned either. Democrats should realize that the problem with dealing with Dubya is that he isn't dense; he's devious.

Monday, February 07, 2005

The joy of six

Israel Cartoon 6
Originally uploaded by SoxIn18.
The sixth installment of the Israel cartoon series required drawing some nature scenes. It was challenging to tackle an ibex, a waterfall, and the Dead Sea, especially with both the pen and the brush pen. When I visited the Rembrandt exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, two years ago, I remember that the great Dutch master would bring in soil, plants and water to his studio so he could draw scenes of nature from these tiny objects. Perhaps that would be good for me, too.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Once more unto the breach

Israel Cartoon 5
Originally uploaded by SoxIn18.
After a lengthy delay, here is No. 5 in the Israel cartoon series. I plan to add a few more this weekend.

I went to another Israel-related event this week: a micro-conference sponsored by AIPAC at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline on Tuesday night. Miri Eisin was the keynote speaker (she talked about the events of the past year or so in Israel), and we had the opportunity to attend smaller sessions on Israeli/Middle East issues. I chose to hear one on the disengagement plan, and one on the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. The conference as a whole was very informative.