Dec 30, 2010

No doubt you read about the study at University College London suggesting that conservative brains are structured differently than the brains of other people.

According to the initial news report, people with conservative tendencies have a larger amygdala and a smaller anterior cingulate than other people. The amygdala -- typically thought of as the "primitive brain" -- is responsible for reflexive impulses, like fear. The anterior cingulate is thought to be responsible for courage and optimism.

According to the report, since only adults were included in the survey, researchers were unable to determine if cerebral physiology drives politics or if political beliefs change the brain.

A previous University of California study suggests the former is possible, isolating a so-called "liberal gene" -- the neurotransmitter DRD4 -- responsible for an increased receptiveness to novel ideas.

Meanwhile, conservatives point to both studies as proof of their biological superiority. In the conservative blogosphere and twitterverse, DRD4 was cited as the underlying cause of the "mental illness" known as liberalism; and some conservative tweeters have even tried to claim that the enlarged amygdala just means that conservatives "have bigger brains." Of course, the first claim begs the question, and the second ignores the shrunken anterior cingulate.

I think it makes perfect sense. Hate radio is thick with fear and paranoia. It's all about fight or flight. I can see a time when politicians wouldn't be allowed to take office until their brains had been measured to insure their politics were aligned with their brains. That way you eliminate frauds.

I could see having to wear baseball caps, and skull caps for that matter, with your brain ID on the bill. I could see whole a new possibility for restaurants, immigration and postal offices, hospitals, psychiatrists, and zoos. And what about a new olympics? Or new Harvards, one for each kind of brain.

Dec 29, 2010

We went to the de Young Museum today to see, "Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond." The show was jammed, and with overcoated people. The whole place was black and blue with overcoats.

As for the paintings, they were among those familiar canvasses that arrive every year or two with great fanfare. The images are always stunning, and comforting in their way. I have no argument, although I'm becoming more drawn to the abstract, literally and figuratively. I'm less drawn to depictions of life than interpretations.

"What an idiot you are," an educated critic would say, "You don't know anything. What are you talking about? Many of these paintings, even the lesser ones, are filled with abstractions. You just can't see them...."

What I was going to say, before I so rudely interrupted myself, was that I have less interest in Impressionism, had less interest until I rounded a corner at this exhibit and there was Vilhelm Hammershøi's 1905 painting, Rest.

This is the small painting of a young woman sitting in a chair, facing the wall. We see only her back.

Here is part of a description of the painting from the Musee D'Orsay

A descendent of Vermeer or a forerunner of Hopper? Hammershøi, a Danish painter who made his reputation in the 1880s, is without doubt neither. The minimalist intimisme of his interiors and the disturbing atmosphere that emanates from his apparently rigorous approach are sufficient proof of that.

Hammershøi most probably invented the back portrait, as opposed to the existing full-face or side portraits. This seated woman—we cannot tell whether she is a maid or a member of the bourgeoisie, or even guess what she is doing—is intriguing because of her displyed indifference to the spectator. The silent figure has been brushed in a refined range of greys and browns, showing the artist's deep sensitivity to indoor atmospheres.

The composition is a series of right angles: the lines of the chair, the skirting board and the sideboard divide this eulogy of absence into squares with a sort of Protestant rigour. But it would be an error to jump to the conclusion that the painting is an allegory of solitude or human tragedy. Because the real subject is perhaps the nape of the neck, the most indecent part of the body to oriental minds. Just as the few unruly wisps of hair, the opening of the blouse which gives a glimpse of white skin, in counterpoint to the flower-shaped bowl laid on the sideboard, are radical antidotes to the temptation of a purely puritanical interpretation.

I would never have thought of this as an allegory of solitude or human tragedy and I don't agree with this idea of her 'displayed indifference'. I have the sense that the woman has been asked to sit just this way, and that she's well aware of her sensuality. She could as well have just come from the arms of her lover.

She may be at rest, but from what? If she is exhausted, it is not a sign of weakness.

Perhaps she's angry, or just petulant. The way her right arm hangs on the chair suggests to me a woman unsettled. There's an emotion in that arm and the way her blouse catches on the chair.

I find her irresistably sexy and very powerful — on her own, regardless of her status in society. Above all there is the desire to see her, to confront her or reassure her, or else kiss the back of her neck....

Dec 17, 2010

Jennifer Jones is dead, at 90. She was an actress among other personas and was nominated for five academy awards. Her second husband was David O'Selznik who produced several films in which she starred. Most unnotably, Duel In The Sun.

Here's an anecdote from that time.  My father was O'Selznik's publicity man, and toward the end of O'Selznik's run, when the job was to promote films that were not successful.

Often, my father would have dinner with O'Selznik, in his home.  This was when Jennifer Jones was the new bride, and David was still smitten, having left his wife who had done so much to help him.  And as the martinis were being served, Jennifer would come down the spiral staircase asking David if this dress was right for the evening.  It was inevitably not.  And so another presentation, and another.  And another. Until finally something was right and then dinner and Jennifer Jones in the candle light, and for that moment, the most beautiful and dangerous woman who ever lived.

Dec 12, 2010

Frank Capra’s 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, is forever timely but especially just now. Whenever you see it the film works as a cultural astrolabe, measuring the distance between the broad moral convictions we held in common 70 years ago, even if we didn’t act on them, and the narrow moral understandings and fine-print ethics that divide us now.

Still, a few things haven’t changed. Bernie Sanders’ (D.Vt) filibuster last week may have lacked Jimmy Stewart’s heart-wrenching theatrics, but there was the same feeling of tilting at windmills, and the Kafkaesque sensation that fairness itself was on trial, and found wanting.

What's changed is the moral fantasy itself — then it was that a senator might suddenly come clean and admit publicly that he or she had been wrong, the way Mr. Paine burst on to the Senate floor to say he’d failed his country and himself, and it was high time to denounce ‘the machine’ and vindicate Mr. Smith.

Now the fantasy is commonground and bipartisanship. And if you did some terrible thing, you cheated on your wife or courted house pages, then you concede. As little ground as you can, but you concede and make an elliptical statement of apology, equalizing the matter, making it clear that "yes, America, I did something wrong but this is the result of the times we live in and my opponents are no better."

Remember that Mr. Smith is neither Republican or Democrat or Independent. He is simply our better side, our good, old-fashioned free self forever in the thrall of a big idea, and the thrill of riding into town on a motorcycle, in the middle of a parade. That was the original ending of the film: Mr. Smith returning to town on a motorcycle with his legislative aid and fiancé, and then while riding down Main Street in a motorcade to celebrate his victory over the dastardly machine, he spots Mr. Paine, stops the procession to draw him out and takes him along to see his mother. Redemption, completed.

Seventy years ago that ending seemed dispensable for the audiences solicited to help cut the film, which was incredibly long. But that was Capra’s intent: to finish with a true reconciliation.

Capra’s fantasy also offers an interesting commentary on ‘the machine'. In Capra’s time, the machine was a bunch of cog heads from the unions, the accessor’s office, the police, the local newspaper chain, the state senate, and maybe a few US senators, all in the chain gang of a greedy developer-magnate intent on building a dam.

These days the magnate is the journalist-barron, surrounded by people formerly known as journalists, and who really just want a job. Yet as rich and powerful as Murdock is, with his bright yellow eye on China’s vast markets, he’s just a middle man. The real power is further in the shadows, the likes of the Koch Brothers and a handful of other wealthy people who play the working class for fools using the likes of Mark Levin et al. The preeminent sentimentalist and political fabulist who insists he is open to opposing view points until the caller says something stupid or argumentative and the Levin has no choice but to open the electronic trap door.

Seventy years ago there were also hate radio characters, the likes of Father Coughlin. They did their schticks, often at outdoor rallies, but the audience was limited and in the Depression that kind of talk had little traction. Unlike periods of inflation, recession and economic depression tends to bring people together.

You could argue that's true even now when you look at polls that show the president remains popular and that what people hunger for is not Republican policies but effective policies.

But what's really different now, from Fr. Coughlin's era, is the unrelenting flow of propaganda and the unrelenting indifference and ignorance of an electorate that seems unwilling to seek other points of view.

Which is why, as insufficient and unjust and undemocratic as it seems, it’s time to reconsider the Fairness Doctrine. I never thought I would get to this point. And I say that not sanctimoniously, but as someone who feels defeated at the prospect.