Friday, June 6, 2014

Art and Sexism

Every man is like the company he is wont to keep.
— Euripides, Phoenix

Because of his appearances with Ted Nugent during the Texas spring primaries in the race for governor, people will, for good reason, assume that this is nothing more than another example of Greg Abbott’s never ending association with people who are red neck sexists and complete and utter boors. Of course it might have been that they thought the Abbott supporter was a connoisseur of great art. They were wrong. She is not.

Ted Nugent is a faded Rock Star of the more unsavory variety. He is an unabashed fan of any device that can dispense bullets and, as Mr. Abbott has repeatedly pointed out when on the campaign trail with Mr. Nugent, a devoted fan of the Second Amendment. There was also a time many years ago when Mr. Nugent was a devoted fan of under-age girls. As he explained in an interview: “I was addicted to girls. It was hopeless. It was beautiful.” That was, of course, 30 years ago, and he has outgrown that particular addiction and was never prosecuted for it. His views on contemporary matters, however, remain on the lunatic fringe which keeps him in the limelight when he accepts the embraces of candidates seeking public office in place of embraces from under age-girls.

During the 2012 presidential election Mr. Nugent was an enthusiastic supporter of Mitt Romney. While supporting Mr. Romney, Mr. Nugent said: “If Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year . . . .” He went on to refer to the Obama administration as “this vile, evil America hated administration.” His views have not changed.

In a January 2014interview with he reflected on the fact that Mr. Romney was not elected president: “I have obviously failed to galvanize and prod, if not shame enough Americans to be ever vigilant not to let a Chicago communist-raised, communist-educated, communist nurtured subhuman mongrel like the Acorn community organizer gangster Barack Hussein Obama to weasel his way into the top office of authority in the United States of America.” Some candidates might try to put distance between themselves and the mouths from which that sort of language comes. Mr. Abbott is not one of them. When Mr. Abbott was confronted by reporters about his association with Mr. Nugent, Mr. Abbott said: “I don’t know what he may have said or done in his background. What I do know is Ted Nugent stands for the Constitution. He stands against the federal government over-reaching.” That is a terrific explanation for why it was helpful to have Mr. Nugent by his side at campaign rallies during the primary season.

Mr. Nugent’s talk may cause some people to attribute the latest Abbott flap to a kind of sexism and extremism to which associating with Ted Nugent gives rise. Others might conclude that it was nothing more than an artistic endeavor. What I refer to is what happened in California when Wendy Davis, Greg Abbott’s Democratic opponent in the race for governor of Texas, went on a fund raising trip to Los Angeles.

Upon her arrival Ms. Davis was confronted with posters that “superimpose her face on a Barbie Doll’s body that has a plastic baby coming out of its stomach. The San Antonio Express-News said that Texas resident, Kathryn Stuard, is the Abbott supporter who commissioned the poster. Ms. Stuard was quoted as saying of the poster that “It hits people with the truth. The artist is very edgy.” That language suggests that Ms. Stuard is a great supporter of the arts who knows “edgy” when she sees it. That is not the only thing that would lead an observer to that conclusion.

A few days after news of the California poster came out, it was reported in the New York Times that Aby Rosen, a New York real estate mogul and art collector has placed a 33-foot painted bronze sculpture on his lawn in Old Westbury, New York. It is a statue called “The Naked Virgin Mary.” It was created by the well-known sculptor, Damien Hirst. It portrays a very pregnant walking woman whose skin has been stripped way from the right side of her body exposing her unborn fetus.

Those are the amazing similarities between the poster funded by Ms. Stuard and the “Naked Virgin Mary” statue that might cause some to conclude that Ms. Stuard is a devoted and knowledgeable supporter of the arts who was simply trying to carry Mr. Hirst’s creation one step further by creating a poster. There are differences, however. One of them involves putting Ms. Davis’s face on the poster instead of the anonymous face that appears on the statue. The other is adding the words “Abortion Barby Wendy Davis” across the bottom of the poster. Those touches put an end to any notion that Ms. Stuard knows anything about art. Her poster makes no artistic statement. Its only statement is that nothing is beneath the dignity of the Abbott campaign as it seeks to help Greg Abbott become the next governor of Texas.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Life and Death in a Civilized Place

Executions, far from being useful examples to the survivors, have, I am persuaded, a quite contrary effect. . . .
—Mary Wollstonecraft, Letter 19 (1796)

It makes you proud to be an American. I mean a lesser country wouldn’t give any of these things a second thought. During the week of May 18, 2014 we learned of two different decisions, each of which proves that we keep on trying to be the world leader in showing respect for human life, in both the preserving and the taking. The first decision pertained to Guantanamo.

On May 23, 2014 a federal court entered an order permitting the folks at Guantanamo to continue force-feeding Abu Wa’el Dhiab so that he won’t die. Mr. Dhiab, a Syrian national, was captured in Pakistan 12 years ago and has been at Guantanamo ever since. He has not been charged with any crime and was cleared for transfer five years ago. At first he was not released because the government worried about how he’d be treated in Syria and later because of the civil war taking place there. Mr. Dhiab does not want to be at Guantanamo. He would rather be dead. Accordingly he has engaged in a hunger strike. The United States does not want Mr. Dhiab to die. The procedure used by the government to keep Mr. Dhiab alive is not done in a hospital and is very painful. Mr. Dhiab has gone to court to ask the court to permit him to die or, alternatively, require the government to force-feed him humanely at the hospital at Guantanamo Bay. The judge who considered Mr. Dhiab’s request for a restraining order observed that Mr. Dhiab was willing to be force-fed if it were done in the hospital and “he could be spared the agony of having the feeding tubes inserted and removed for each feeding, and if he could be spared the pain and discomfort of the restraint chair.” Were that done, the judge observed, the litigation over whether he could be force fed or permitted to die could be litigated in a “civilized and legally appropriate manner. The Department of Defense refuses to make these compromises.” She went on to state that: “Thanks to the intransigence of the Department of Defense, Mr. Dhiab may well suffer unnecessary pain from certain enteral feeding practice and forcible cell extractions. However, the Court simply cannot let Mr. Dhiab die.” And thus we have an example of the compassion that is ingrained in our culture.

From Guantanamo where we show our compassion by keeping people who want to die alive, we go to Tennessee where the state government is looking for compassionate ways to help people who want to live, die. In a number of recent executions in the United States, the person being executed has been manifestly uncomfortable during the procedure and his discomfort has then caused discomfort for the society that imposes the punishment. For some time Tennessee executioners used a combination of drugs to execute the condemned that could not be used when euthanizing animals because of the Tennessee “Nonlivestock Animal Humane Death Act.” That Act banned the drug being used to assist in human executions from being used on nonlivestock animals because of the pain suffered by the animal during the procedure.

Tennessee has now concluded that it does not want to get caught up in the dilemma facing many state executioners when the drugs that humanely dispatch the unwanted are unavailable. Accordingly, on May 22, 2014, the governor signed a bill bringing back the electric chair or “old sparkey” as it was fondly called. Under the new law, if the desired drugs for a lethal injection are unavailable, the convict is to be seated in an electric chair from which he is dispatched to the hereafter.

There is a reason the electric chair has not been a prominent part of the execution scene for many years. It is because of botched executions. During two Florida executions in the 1990s, flames shot out of the masks of the persons being executed greatly upsetting onlookers. As a result, the electric chair has not been used in Florida since 1999. Its bad reputation notwithstanding, it will enjoy an encore appearance in Tennessee.

During the debate in the Tennessee legislature prior that body’s approval of the chair’s return, one legislator said he not only supported use of the electric chair but would support hanging and the firing squad as alternate methods of execution. Dennis Powers, the sponsor of the bill reintroducing the electric chair explained why its reintroduction into the Tennessee death chamber, notwithstanding its checkered background, did not give him legal or ethical concerns. He explained that: “It’s not our job to judge. That’s God’s job to judge. Our job is to arrange the meeting.”

And there you have it. In Guantanamo, authorities try to postpone the meeting of Mr. Dhiab and whatever deity may be awaiting his arrival. In Tennessee authorities take steps to hasten the meeting. Go figure.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Higher Education South Carolina Style

D’ye think th’colledges has much to do with th’ progress iv th’wurruld?” asked Mr. Hennessy.
“D’ ye think,,” said Mr. Dooley, “’tis th’ mill that makes th’ wather run?”
—Finley Peter Dunne, Mr. Dooley’s Opinions

The woolly mammoth has company. It went extinct some time back. Higher education in South Carolina is hot on its tail. The woolly mammoth, it will be recalled, made news this year when a young girl suggested that the South Carolina legislature should name it the state fossil. The effort was thwarted by some of the woolly mammoths’s direct descendants who are serving in that body. They were intent on including language in the designating statute that stated that its creation took place over the 6-day period when lots of other things were being created a few thousand years back. Because of the inability of legislators to agree on whether or not that language was really needed to create a state fossil irrespective of how it came to be, the bill was put off to be considered another day. The woolly mammoth hardly noticed.

Higher education has now joined the woolly mammoth in attracting the attention of the state legislature. That body has reduced its funding and quietly anointed itself the appointing authority for the president of the College of Charleston. It has appointed a direct descendant of the woolly mammoth, Glenn McConnell. First things first.

The College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate each made what some South Carolina legislators considered bad decisions when selecting books for incoming freshmen to read. One of the books that was assigned to incoming freshmen at The College of Charleston was Fun Home. In an extensive review this book was described in the New York Times Book Review as the “most ingeniously compact, hyper-verbose example of autobiography to have been produced “ and a “pioneering work pushing two genres . . . in multiple new directions. . . .” Its fault, as far as South Carolina legislators were concerned, is that its author is a lesbian and her sexuality plays a large part in the book. The legislators were not concerned with its literary virtues.

The University of South Carolina-Upstate also selected a book for incoming freshmen. It was Out Loud, a collection of stories that have been broadcast by an AM radio station in the Deep South about the lives of gay and lesbian Southerners.

Republican Rep. Garry Smith was an outspoken critic of asking students to read the books. He said the schools should have assigned books that examined all aspects of homosexuality, not just the perspective of members of that community. In speaking with NPR Mr. Smith said that assigning those books and attributing their assignment to “academic freedom” was the equivalent of running into a movie theater and shouting “fire” when there is no fire.” Of course in South Carolina, as in the rest of the world, there are gays and it is unclear why learning about their lives is like shouting fire when there is no fire.

In order to let the schools know what it thinks of those books, the House cut $52,000 from the College of Charleston’s budget and $17,000 from the University of South Carolina-Upstate’s budget. The Senate left the funds intact but decreed that the funds were to be spent for teaching the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.

The legislators did not limit their interest in higher education to curricula. They also helped the College of Charleston select its next president. Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell will assume that post on July 1. Prior to his appointment the Board of Trustees of the College had hired a search committee to find a new president for the College. At a meeting of the board on February 28, 2014, the board voted on the list of candidates that had been presented to it by the search committee. The chair announced that the five candidates receiving the most votes “will be invited to become a presidential finalist” and will “be asked to participate in interviews on campus with various campus constituencies.” Mr. McConnell was not among the five. He didn’t need to be. On March 22, 2014, the board announced that Mr. McConnell would be the institution’s next president. Mr. McConnell is not an educator. He is a politician who spent more than 30 years in the state Senate before becoming Lt. Governor. He is a Civil War buff and as a member of the legislature was a strong supporter of keeping the confederate flag flying over the state capitol. He participated in many events celebrating the confederacy and has been frequently photographed dressed as a confederate general. Probably one of the nicest photos shows him in his confederate garb with two African Americans (my words not his) dressed as slaves, standing next to him. They are all smiling broadly indicating what a great time they’re all having at what was clearly a gala event.

Rumor has it that legislators pressured the trustees to hire Mr. McConnell. These are probably the same legislators who refused to give the woolly mammoth the recognition it so richly deserves unless its supporters acknowledged that it had been created on the sixth day of creation as described in the Book of Genesis. They are probably the same legislators who believe asking freshmen to read literature pertaining to our gay population is like crying fire in a non-burning theater. The woolly mammoth whose descendants in the legislature did what they did is probably embarrassed. For good reason.