Celebrate Carl Sagan Day in Chicago!

I’ve been involved since July with the two best atheists I know, Kate Donovan and Chana Messinger, in helping to organize Carl Sagan Day Chicago for the second year running. To all of our relative disbelief, it’s happening this Thursday!

We have an absolutely amazing program. Our speakers are:

Dr. Peter Vandervoort, Professor Emeritus, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and a former colleague of Carl Sagan.

Dr. Angela Olinto, Chair of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department at the University of Chicago.

Dr. Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, Associate Professor of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Studies Department at DePaul University.

Matt Lowry, the Skeptical Teacher, will be our emcee for the night.

… and apple pie, from scratch, will be served! We also have tickets to the Adler Planetarium, one of our cosponsors, to raffle off!

So, if you are able, come out to DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus on Thursday, and have an amazing experience!

They Aren’t Scary, They’re Just Like Us!

In short, pretty goddamn awful.

Continuing off of my piece on Camille Paglia’s ridiculous conception of how the art world works, a story from The Guardian:

A glowing green disc hovers high in the sky at night, casting an eerie glow over a forest of minarets, cranes and concrete frames that seem to stretch endlessly into the dusty distance, like a vast field of dominoes. The disc is the largest clockface in the world – and not only does it adorn the tallest clocktower in the world, it also sits atop a building boasting the biggest floor area in the world. Visible 30km away, this is the Abraj al-Bait, which rises like Big Ben on steroids to tower 600m over the holy mosque of Mecca in the spiritual heart of the Islamic world.

This thrusting pastiche palace houses an array of luxury hotels and apartments, perched above a five-storey slab of shopping malls. Completed last year at a cost of $15bn (£9bn), it stands where an Ottoman fortress once stood. A stone citadel built in 1781 to repel bandits, the Ajyad fortress’s demolition sparked an international outcry in 2002, but this was quickly rebuffed by the Saudi Islamic affairs minister. “No one has the right to interfere in what comes under the state’s authority,” he said. “This development is in the interest of all Muslims all over the world.” The fortress wasn’t just swept away – the hill it sat on went, too.

In short, the Saudi Arabian government, enlisting the Dar al Handash architectural firm, is tearing apart the ancient city of Mecca in the name of profit and capitalism.

My first thought; what must all those fearmongers who think Muslims are really scary must be thinking? Does Mitt Romney read this story, look in the mirror, and say, “Damn, they are just like us after all!”?

Well, the similarities are striking. History is being wiped away so that the government can charge obscene prices to stay in Mecca to overwhelmingly poor populations who come to the city for their hajj. In the process, they have been evicting residents of the old city, moving them to shantytowns, and not compensating them. The merchants who sold in the markets there now cannot afford rents. All of this is happening with the number of annual pilgrims expected to reach 17 million by 2025.

So, exploitation, shady dealings, and a lack of ethics, all in the name of turning a great city into a theme park. Sounds mighty familiar, as a New Yorker.

The Long Slow Death of American Progressivism

The death last week of George McGovern, the Congressman, Senator, Presidential candidate, and legendary American progressive, was a day that saddened me deeply. Not only because a great man had gone, but that he had gone with so little fanfare; outside of the better broadsheets and news websites, his passing was a footnote; not as the man who worked with every fiber of his being to end the Vietnam War, or the man who took presidential nominations out of the hands of party insiders, but as a failed Presidential candidate, and would-be target of Richard Nixon’s Watergate conspiracy.

The 24-hour news outlets have zero interest in replaying the story of McGovern as he actually was, because it is perceived that there is no audience for a man of McGovern’s supposed radicality. And that is because since Vietnam, the American Left has been dying a long, slow death, ever sliding further and further into disrepute, mediocrity, and irrelevance. With a very few exceptions, there are no progressives left in Congress; Bernie Sanders being the best known. Protests are now such a rarity that every left-leaning group possible attends, in a mixture of wanting to get their voices out, or just wanting to hang out; the dedicated activists of decades past have, in many ways, been supplanted by white kids with dreadlocks who are trying to be edgy, not actually seeking change. In all of its happenings, the Left appears disorganized and absurd; the Right has completely succeeded in making liberal activism an object of ridicule, not something that laypeople even pause for a moment to take seriously.

The problem seems intractable, particularly since there is no McGovern left in Congress, or with the support needed to be one. As mentioned, there are a few progressives, like Sanders, or Sherrod Brown, and there are a few running for office like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin, but they aren’t able to do anything to create change because the rest of their party has run to the center right and into the arms of corporate donors, abandoning the people the Democratic Party used to serve; the working class, the laborers, the urban poor, i.e. Americans who aren’t in Mitt Romney’s Rolodex.

For example, this is a quote of McGovern’s from the debates in Congress over a bill to end the Vietnam War:

Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land—young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.

Can you imagine any sitting Congressperson or Senator saying anything half as blunt? Moreover, if they did, do you think that corporate-backed media would cover it? It’s unlikely, to say the least; at best, the pundits on CNN would probably wonder if the person saying it had been on the bourbon beforehand. Dissent is not seen as a positive anymore; it’s seen as a sign of madness.

This otherizing of any form of protest against American policy, especially foreign policy, is seen particularly when it is related to our current President. Four years ago, Barack Obama swept into office with a huge mandate, a friendly House and Senate, and proceeded to make a complete hash of it. The vast majority of progressive legislation that he proposed during his campaign failed to pass, but where he has succeeded is in making the “War on Terror” even more scary than it was under George Bush. As Glenn Greenwald has been reporting for years now, Obama is doing his damnedest to make his drone war permanent, a legacy to last him past the end of his probable second term, categorized as the incredibly creepy-sounding “disposition matrix,” or, more colloquially, the administration’s kill list:

The “disposition matrix” has been developed and will be overseen by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). One of its purposes is “to augment” the “separate but overlapping kill lists” maintained by the CIA and the Pentagon: to serve, in other words, as the centralized clearinghouse for determining who will be executed without due process based upon how one fits into the executive branch’s “matrix”. As Miller describes it, it is “a single, continually evolving database” which includes “biographies, locations, known associates and affiliated organizations” as well as “strategies for taking targets down, including extradition requests, capture operations and drone patrols”. This analytical system that determines people’s “disposition” will undoubtedly be kept completely secret; Marcy Wheeler sardonically said that she was “looking forward to the government’s arguments explaining why it won’t release the disposition matrix to ACLU under FOIA”.

This was all motivated by Obama’s refusal to arrest or detain terrorist suspects, and his resulting commitment simply to killing them at will (his will). Miller quotes “a former US counterterrorism official involved in developing the matrix” as explaining the impetus behind the program this way: “We had a disposition problem.”

Not only has the supposed savior of the Democratic Party started killing people outright, without any due process, he has made it legal to not just spy on Americans deemed to have no links to terrorism, but to hold their information in databases for years, something the comically warmongering President Bush balked at. His drone campaign targets 16-year old boys, justified by adviser Robert Gibbs, who said it was okay to kill the boy because his father was a schmuck. Seriously. These are the people in charge of our government. Their policies, however, are only making our situation worse.

I understand why many, if not all, of you reading this will go on and vote for Barack Obama. Many people that I respect, like PZ Myers and JT Eberhard are resignedly voting for him, and encouraging others to do so, because Mitt Romney would be a catastrophe for this country. I get it. I do. He is better than Mitt Romney only by the skin of his teeth, only because he’s remained moderately left on most domestic policy issues. That’s it. Such is the state of our electoral system.

When you vote for him, I want you to remember that Barack Obama is a hair’s breath away from a catastrophe for the United States already. That is the plain and simple truth. Four more years of him is going to continue these authoritarian policies, just as much as they would under Romney.

In short, we need George McGovern now more than ever. We need, in the words of Duncan Campbell, who wrote in a touching tale of the man’s humanity to The Guardian, some bravery, decency, and compassion to return to the office of the Presidency.

A Capitalist Walks Into an Art Gallery, and Knows Nothing At All

Fresh off my last post on one of my academic majors, an article in the Wall Street Journal by famed critic Camille Paglia has sent me into a fresh case of umbrage regarding art history. Basically, this article is like a shooting gallery tailor-made for me.

Paglia, renowned for her being the biggest feminist poser in the business, writes that visual art has failed in the face of the iPhone generation, and that the fine arts’ resurrection will come through capitalism. She makes her case, first, with the example of architecture:

…work of bold originality and stunning beauty continues to be done in architecture, a frankly commercial field. Outstanding examples are Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing and Zaha Hadid’s London Aquatic Center for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

She is right, in part. Architecture as an industry is absolutely booming right now, and there is some staggeringly beautiful work being done right now. For instance, Jeanne Gang’s Aqua apartment building opened in Chicago recently, and it is a truly amazing skyscraper, unlike anything else on the city’s skyline. It was designed floor-by-floor, with unique plans for each story, based on environmental conditions at each specific altitude, and a general dedication to sustainability in its whole conception. It’s a revolutionary approach to architecture, and should be celebrated.

However, Aqua is still not exactly a building for everyone. Nor, really, are any of the starchitect’s projects that she mentions. To live in Aqua, you’re going to be paying anywhere from $299,000 to $3,000,000. It’s not doing a whole lot of good for anyone outside Paglia’s cherished capitalist upperclass, and that is the fundamental problem of architecture. As best laid out by scholar Margaret Crawford in her article “Can Architects Be Socially Responsible?”, it is, as the system currently functions, it is impossible for architects to be truly social justice minded, for in order to build on any sort of scale, huge amounts of money are required. So, yes, Paglia is right that there’s lots of cool architecture, thanks to capitalism, but, as we will see below, her admittance of this is the first of so many convoluted contradictions in this piece, in her name-dropping of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan; a white, rich, privileged man who wrote extensively on social architecture theory who only built buildings for the rich and powerful.

She goes on to talk more in-depth about the visual arts:

Today’s blasé liberal secularism also departs from the respectful exploration of world religions that characterized the 1960s. Artists can now win attention by imitating once-risky shock gestures of sexual exhibitionism or sacrilege. This trend began over two decades ago with Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” a photograph of a plastic crucifix in a jar of the artist’s urine, and was typified more recently by Cosimo Cavallaro’s “My Sweet Lord,” a life-size nude statue of the crucified Christ sculpted from chocolate, intended for a street-level gallery window in Manhattan during Holy Week. However, museums and galleries would never tolerate equally satirical treatment of Judaism or Islam.

It’s high time for the art world to admit that the avant-garde is dead. It was killed by my hero, Andy Warhol, who incorporated into his art all the gaudy commercial imagery of capitalism (like Campbell’s soup cans) that most artists had stubbornly scorned.

The vulnerability of students and faculty alike to factitious theory about the arts is in large part due to the bourgeois drift of the last half century. Our woefully shrunken industrial base means that today’s college-bound young people rarely have direct contact any longer with the manual trades, which share skills, methods and materials with artistic workmanship.

Essentially, her main point is that the decline of industrial America, and the supposed lack of artists rising from working class backgrounds is killing the visual arts, that young people have to be “rescued” from their “sanitized, middle-class backgrounds. Apparently, these sanitized backgrounds lead to icky art like Serrano’s. I’ve re-read this piece several times now, and no, I still don’t understand the connection.

Furthermore, her point of “college-bound young people,” presumably future artists, have no relation to manual labor is not only ridiculous, but betrays her capitalistic removal from reality. The fact that college-bound young people don’t have to do manual work in factories and such is directly related to their acceptance into colleges; that being that these are children whose parents can afford to send them to universities. Kids of working class parentage most often cannot afford university, so go into the sectors where college degrees are not required, sectors wherein capitalistic exploitation of labor and outsourcing has minimized the industries to an absolutely enormous degree. Her solution is the problem.

As a case in point, she claims that there have been no truly big art names to emerge since the 70s, with Minimalism and Pop Art. This, quite frankly, is not true; Damien Hirst came up with the Young British Artists in the late 80s-early 90s, and proceeded to take the entire art world by storm. His pieces sell for tens of millions of dollars, the absolute epitome of Ms. Paglia’s capitalist dream and, for the most part, are terrible. Banksy, too, is another example of this, but in a very different way; he never designed his graffiti work for consumer consumption, but instead his work as been coopted onto t-shirts and internet sites everywhere, and as such is now the artist every middle-class person likes to namecheck in order to prove they know something about contemporary art. Hirst and Banksy are only the two most famous examples; to say that the art world hasn’t had any “big names” is ridiculous and completely false.

But beyond them, there are many, many brilliant contemporary artists working in visual mediums today. Take a look sometime at Davis/Langlois, or Nick Cave, or Carrie Mae Weems, or Juan Angel Chavez. These are just the artists I know of most closely, from my work at the DePaul Art Museum. One of the many, many problems of the current art world, particularly in Chicago, is that the artists working now aren’t celebrated. They can, and should be, and deserve investigation.

In conclusion, it seems that for a critic of Ms. Paglia’s stature, she apparently hasn’t read any art history. At least, not outside of the mainstream canonical omnibuses. This is the only conclusion to be reached from reading this article of hers, for the only way such a bogus conclusion could be reached is through lack of proper investigation. So, just like a capitalist, then.

A Plea to Fellow Philosophy Majors

Oh, dear readers, you should never believe me when I put a timeline on my next piece. Writer’s block is a cruel, cruel mistress who I am always fighting against.

Anyways, this post is about school.

As most of you know, I am a philosophy major, which I am studying at DePaul University in Chicago, in addition to majoring in history of art and architecture. However, much as I enjoy studying here, in this environment, and the fact that I have instructors here who have well and truly changed my life and how I think for the better, I really, truly, honestly worry for my fellow students. Not in art history, but in philosophy.

Allow me to explain.

The most common thing I hear from people when I tell them that I am a philosophy major is that my major is irrelevant, that no one studies that old shit anymore, that it has no meaning for a modern world. Now, anyone with an ounce of sense knows this is ridiculous; despite that fact, the sad thing is that I can  understand really well where the people who say such things are coming from, and it’s because I know other philosophy majors, or at least have interacted with them.

Invariably, when I get to talking with another philosophy major, or overhear a conversation involving one, the wannabe philosopher will drop a reference to whoever their biggest philosophical beau is. They’ll say something like, “well, have you read Heidegger on that?” knowing damn well said non-major has never read, much less heard about, Being and Time. And this is what they want. Because inevitably, this philosophy major, who is almost always a white male, gets to word-vomit about ontology or teleology and reveal to the other conversant how good at reading they are, how bloody intelligent they are.

What this results in is not more people who know more about or are interested in doing philosophy. What this results in is more people who want to avoid it at all costs, because they see it as a bastion of privilege and arrogance and not a place where outsiders would be welcome, especially those interested only in casual readings of philosophers.

This is not how philosophy is supposed to be done. The field should not be a playground for only a privileged few who can pay university tuition or make it to the tenure track get to hold forth on what matters. This, coupled with the rise of corporatized universities and the decline of educational standards, means that the teaching of philosophy hasn’t moved forwards in any meaningful way in decades. Rather than try to expand student’s understandings on a truly global scale, departments insist on rehashing the Heideggers, Kants, Hegels, Ayers, Derridas, et al, all white academics of privilege, instead of teaching lesser-known but just as important thinkers who are women or people of color; at my university, a professor got fired for not being Western enough in her pedagogy.

Philosophy needs to be for everyone, accessible to everyone, in order to hold any sway in the world. This is not a call to decrease rigor; indeed, far from it. What I want is for philosophy to become culturally relevant in a way so that it can affect people’s lives for the better on a massive scale. The first step is to drop the pretension, take our theory, and make it applicable for the greater good.