Archive for June 22, 2013

Nocera on Obama

June 22, 2013 Leave a comment
President Obama delivering speech on national security, May 23, 2013

President Obama delivering speech on national security, May 23, 2013

[Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP]

I keep my quoting of NYT columnists to a minimum. Their work is easy to find. Their views are widely distributed. I don’t need to provide a clipping service that serves up their content. Not to mention that some of them should have retired long ago. They are an embarrassment with their pronouncements from on high on cultural trends and the future. (Yes, David and Tom, I’m talking about you.)

I have also been keeping my criticisms of the Obama administration to a minimum. Words fail on a day when officials confirm that the

State Department has asked Hong Kong to extradite Edward J. Snowden to face espionage and theft charges in the United States.

Espionage? Geez.

The NYT article goes on to note that “Mr. Snowden is the seventh person to be accused by the Obama administration of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 by leaking secrets to the news media, compared with three such cases under all previous presidents.” So much for Obama’s commitment to transparency and openness.

Anyway, I will now depart from my minimization efforts, turning the remainder of the post over to NYT columnist Joe Nocera. In his Saturday column four weeks ago, just after Obama reiterated his vow to close Guantánamo, Nocera wrote:

Late Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours before President Obama made his big national security speech — in which he said, for the umpteenth time, that the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, should be closed — a group of American lawyers representing Guantánamo detainees filed an emergency motion with the Federal District Court in the District of Columbia. The motion asked the court to order the removal of “unjustified burdens” that the military command at Guantánamo has placed on the detainees, making it nearly impossible for them to meet with their lawyers.


The detainees are all in solitary confinement. They are shackled when they are taken to the shower. They cannot speak to their families unless they submit to that same repugnant body search. In other words, an already inhumane situation has become even worse on the watch of the president who claims to want to shut down the prison.

In his speech on Thursday, Obama hit all the right notes. He talked about how holding detainees for an indefinite period without charging them with any crime has made the prison “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” He noted that it has hurt us with our allies. He even mentioned how absurdly expensive the prison is — nearly $1 million per prisoner per year. “Is this who we are?” he asked.

“History,” he concluded, “will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism.” He’s right about that. But he will hardly be immune from that judgment.


It is my belief, shared by many lawyers who have followed the legal battles over Guantánamo, that the president could have shut down the prison if he had really been determined to do so. One reason innocent detainees can’t get out is that the courts have essentially ruled that a president has an absolute right to imprison anyone he wants during a time of war — with no second-guessing from either of the other two branches of government. By the same legal logic, a president can also free any prisoner in a time of war. Had the president taken that stance, there would undoubtedly have been a court fight. But so what? Aren’t some things worth fighting for?

Whenever he talks about Guantánamo, the president gives the impression that that’s what he believes. The shame — his shame — is that, for all his soaring rhetoric, he has yet to show that he is willing to act on that belief.

And a week ago, after Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s PRISM project, Nocera wrote in another Saturday column:

I don’t know whether Prism and the other programs truly stop terrorists. I have my doubts. What I do know is that if you are going to lecture the world about right and wrong — and if you’re trying to stop bad behavior — perhaps you shouldn’t be engaging in a version of that behavior yourself.

Instead, this has become one of the trademarks of the Obama administration: decry human rights abuses abroad, but hold men in prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who have never been accused of a crime. Say all the right things about freedom of the press — even as you’re subpoenaing reporters’ phone records. And express outrage over Chinese hacking while carrying on a sophisticated spying operation of your own citizens. It may seem to us a false equivalence, but the existence of Prism will make it far more difficult to force the Chinese to get serious about stopping their own hacking.

Maybe America’s new motto should be: Do As We Say, Not As We Do.

I have nothing to add.

Categories: Law, Politics

The Blackhouse

June 22, 2013 Leave a comment


I’m about 120 pages into The Blackhouse, the first book in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy. I’ve intended to read it since Marilyn Stasio’s short review in her regular Sunday NYT crime novel roundup last November. She opens with:

Peter May is a writer I’d follow to the ends of the earth — which is where he takes us in THE BLACKHOUSE, the first novel in a projected trilogy featuring Detective Sergeant Finlay (Fin) Macleod of the Edinburgh police force. The setting is the windswept terrain of the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost of the Outer Hebrides, “a brooding landscape that in a moment of sunlight could be unexpectedly transformed.” Not a pretty place to be romanticized, given its foul weather, stagnant economy, rampant alcoholism and high suicide rate, but a “godforsaken bloody place” that deserves respect and even awe.

This is the same Isle of Lewis famed for its wondrous twelfth-century chessmen, who now reside at the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland.


[From the British Museum website]

I can’t resist a tangent on them. The British Museum website informs us that

they were found in the vicinity of Uig on the Isle of Lewis in mysterious circumstances. Various stories have evolved to explain why they were concealed there, and how they were discovered. All that is certain is that they were found some time before 11 April 1831, when they were exhibited in Edinburgh at the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland. The precise findspot seems to have been a sand dune where they may have been placed in a small, drystone chamber.

Who owned the chess pieces? Why were they hidden? While there are no firm answers to these questions, it is possible that they belonged to a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland. This seems likely since there are constituent pieces – though with some elements missing – for four distinct sets. Their general condition is excellent and they do not seem to have been used much, if at all.

By the end of the eleventh century, chess was a very popular game among the aristocracy throughout Europe. The Lewis chess pieces form the largest single surviving group of objects from the period that were made purely for recreational purposes. The question of precisely where they were made is a difficult one to resolve.

When Sir Frederic Madden first published the finds in 1832, he considered them to be Icelandic in origin. This argument has been repeated recently by Icelandic commentators on the subject. Other authorities have thought them to be Irish, Scottish or English. Each of these attributions is possible.

What is known with certainty is that the chessmen are vigorously northern in their character and are strongly influenced by Norse culture. This is most evident in the figures of the warders or rooks which take the form of Berserkers, fierce mythical warriors drawn directly from the Sagas. The historic political, economic and cultural links between the Outer Hebrides and Norway and its dominance of the Norse world might suggest that Norway is the most likely place to have produced these high status, luxury commodities.

I’ve never been to Lewis, but Peter May has me believing that I have, thanks to his superb descriptions of the landscape and skyscape. A quick look at the map of the UK will show you, as May repeatedly reminds us, that the weather comes straight in from the Atlantic, with no land in the way to soften the blow. The average high temperature in summer is 60 degrees, and the wind blows and blows. A review in the Scotsman two years ago notes that “award-winning Glasgow-born author Peter May is no stranger to the Isle of Lewis, and it shows in every thrilling chapter of this bleak, wild, atmospheric novel.”

Fin, our protagonist, grew up on Lewis, but went to school in Glasgow and became a cop in Edinburgh. Details of his life are emerging slowly, as he is asked to return to Lewis to help in the investigation of a murder. The first and third chapters are told in third person, at the present time. In contrast, the second and fourth chapters are told by Fin in first person, treating his first day of school as a young child and an incident in his teenage years. These portraits of island life are marvelously rendered gems, lifting the book well above whatever expectations one may have of crime novels. This is suggested as well in the conclusion to the review two years ago in The Independent.

A beautifully written, haunting and powerful examination of the darkness of men’s souls and how hard it can be to bury the past, The Blackhouse is also an outstanding page-turning murder mystery originally published in French.

Yes, it seems that May couldn’t get the book published in the UK, so turned to publishers in France, where he lives, succeeding in having it appear in French translation in 2009. It came out in the original English in the UK only in February 2011, and here in the US last fall. By now, volumes two and three of the trilogy—The Lewis Man and The Chessmen—have appeared in the UK.

Having had The Blackhouse on my reading list for so long, and on my Kindle since Joel bought it for me in December, I was pleased to finally get involved in it. But now that I’m enjoying it so much, I realize that on completing it, I won’t get to shorten my reading list. Instead, I will have to add its two successors. But that’s for another day. For now, I couldn’t be happier with the book I have.

Categories: Books

Alden Mason Retrospective

June 22, 2013 Leave a comment
Home Free Jamboree, Alden Mason, 1991

Home Free Jamboree, Alden Mason, 1991

Two days ago, we went down to the Wright Exhibition Space* to see their latest show, Alden Mason: In Memoriam 1919-2013. It consists of 35 of Mason’s paintings ranging from 1970 to 2008. On walking in, you pick up a foldout six-page card stock pamphlet containing photos of paintings, photos of Mason himself, and fifteen notes written by painters, art dealers, art critics, and the exhibition curators. The same texts are on the walls, in lieu of details about the individual paintings themselves.

*I have explained in previous posts on the Wright Exhibition Space—for instance, this one—that it “is a small gallery that mounts shows from time to time drawn largely, or entirely, from the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, the largest collection of contemporary art in the Pacific Northwest. I highly recommend going, whatever the show, because the art is superb, the mix of art is interesting, you often have the space to yourself or nearly to yourself, there’s an informative little printed guide, and there’s often a docent to introduce you to the show and chat with. The gallery is open Thursdays and Saturday, with free admission.”

Perhaps I should have made it a point to read the curator’s note, written by Phen Huang of the Foster/White Gallery and Greg Kucera, the eponym of his own gallery. I’m reading it only now. But Sylvia, the docent, urged us to save the texts for when we got home, enjoying the paintings while there, and we followed her advice. Plus, she gave us her own helpful overview about Mason and the different phases of his career. As for the curator’s note, we learn that

late in his life, Alden Mason hoped for a retrospective museum show to define the phases of his career. His seventy years of painting revealed a range of media from watercolor to oil paint, then to acrylic paints, and finally back to ink and watercolor. He wanted major works from each series to represent his artistic oeuvre. Moving through these unique styles proved Mason’s ability to innovate and resonate with all audiences over an extended period of time.

In curating this exhibition, we aimed at fulfilling his request.

Sunshine Strip, 1979

Sunshine Strip, 1979

Mason grew up about sixty miles north of Seattle. As critic Sheila Farr explains,

the fields of the Skagit Valley were Alden Mason’s playground and the wild cratures and farm animals his friends. Born July 14, 1919 in Everett, Washington [about 20 miles north of Seattle], Mason grew up on a Fir Island farm near the banks of the Skagit River. Alden was just five years old when his father, a house painter, died of lead poisoning after years of working with lead paints.

A slight, precocious child, prone to illness, Alden attended the Skagit City School, a two-room country schoolhouse, where he skipped second grade and forever felt he was struggling to catch up with others. But in the natural world, he was at ease: he built birdhouses, went fly-fishing, collected butterflies, experimented with taxidermy and never forgot the thrill of having a tiny swallow land on his finger for a few moments and gaze into his eyes. His first drawing instruction came from a mail order cartoon class and he recalled his love of those images, “with figures jumping, hopping and smooching. They were having more fun than I was. They lived in a brighter world.”

Golden Burpee, 1973

Golden Burpee, 1973

Mason spent decades on the faculty at the University of Washington, retiring just as I arrived. Chuck Close, surely his most famous student, writes:

Alden Mason was my teacher, my mentor and my friend. He has probably had more impact on my work and my career than any other person. I wouldn’t be who I am today—or as successful—if it weren’t for Alden.

I consider him the greatest painter to come out of the Pacific Northwest—for me even greater than Mark Tobey or Morris Graves. I studied with him from 1960-1962. He was encouraging, inspiring and often tough on me—probably when I needed it. … Luckily, we talked a week before he died and I was able to tell him about the impact he had on me, my life and my work, and that I loved him like a father.

Black Tulip, 1997

Black Tulip, 1997

Several people address Mason’s interest in birds, and his wide-ranging travels—the Mexican coast, the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea, and so on—to see them. Gerald Nordland talks about Mason’s technique:

Images of the exotic birds and characters he encountered entered into his art making. The paint body of these works is fiercely manipulated with a very personal sense of touch; colors are worked directly into one another. … The ground establishes an active but thoroughly consistent environment for the figures, fish animals, birds, and hybrid forms which Mason conjures up with the eloquence of a shaman.

Ambassador to Birdland, 1987

Ambassador to Birdland, 1987

The exhibition closes a week from today. I highly recommend going, if you’re in the Seattle area.

Categories: Art