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Ma Yansong

[ 140 ] December 12, 2012 |

This is an interesting, if somewhat older, discussion of the Chinese architect Ma Yansong and his so-called “organic architecture.” The piece focuses on his so-called “Marilyn Monroe” building in Mississagua, Ontario.

Reading about this drove home a few points about architecture to this somewhat educated person (though by no means any kind of expert) on the subject.

First, buildings like this are a nice counterweight to the boring box apartment tower that dominates in the early 21st century. This is as true in China as in soulless North American developments.

Second, I am skeptical of grand architectural theory, even when articulated by someone as seemingly innocuous as Ma. I neglected to comment on Oscar Niemeyer’s passing last week, but his design of Brasilia is contemptible as a place for human beings. Nothing reeks of the worst of high modernism as the complete disinterest by architects in the needs of people in their buildings. The too-common phenomenon of people-free architectural models in the pre-building process is a sign of how pervasive this is within architecture. Probably the most architecturally important building with which I have an intimate familiarity is the Rem Koolhaas designed Seattle Public Library. It’s pretty cool in many ways. It does a lot of things well. It also shows some shocking disregard for how people use space, ranging from an odd lack of bathrooms to the fact that following the stacks to the end puts you in the middle of nowhere, so much so that staff have taped signs to walls leading you to the exit from that point. So grand architectural ideas make me, well, worried.

Seattle Public Library

Third, even the best of this kind of architectural thought shows major problems within the planning of human settlements. Ma I think rightfully centers ideas of nature in his buildings. But you know what would be better than buildings that simulate nature? Nature. Take this:

The human relationship to nature is one of Ma’s fixations; lately, he has been particularly interested in traditional Chinese gardens, which harness nature to spiritual ends. “You can imagine one person sitting in a pavilion looking out to the pond and listening to music,” he says. “Real nature and artificial nature all mix together to create this scene. Those trees, rocks and pavilions are what you see, but what you feel is what’s special.”

These days, of course, traditional gardens are overrun by tourists, so Ma wants to incorporate that feeling of spiritual connection to nature into modern buildings. He has already done this in Fake Hills, a vast seaside residential complex in Beihai, Guangxi. Originally, the developer wanted a box-standard collection of towers, but Ma realized this would prevent many apartments from having a sea view, so he transformed the entire project into an long, thin mountain range, whose peaks and valleys create space for large garden terraces and whose shape allows each apartment to face the ocean.

Fake Hills indeed. Traditional gardens would probably be less overrun if China mandated the construction of gardens and parks within its cities.

I know it’s not within the mandate of capitalism and the profit motive (and for the love of god please no one promote the fiction that China is not capitalist) to create living spaces that promote the traditional spaces between houses that provide much needed tiny green spaces. But Fake Hills is nothing more than fake hills. It’s cool and harmless. But actual trees and such would be a lot cooler. To be fair, it does look the one photo of the model in the article at least includes trees on top of the building, which is something.

This isn’t to take anything away from Ma’s buildings, which seem important, popular, and refreshing. But it is a worthy entry point into discussing some of the issues with high-end architecture.

How E.P. Thompson Influenced Country Music Photography

[ 5 ] December 11, 2012 |

This is a fascinating interview with Henry Horenstein, photographer of country music.

I have a Johnny Cash picture, but it’s no good. Same thing with Merle Haggard. But at the time that I was shooting I wasn’t looking for the stars. Dolly Parton hadn’t yet gone out on her own yet when I shot her. I was looking mostly for the world of country music—the people.

My hero was E. P. Thompson. He was a terrific historian and a very good writer. I even went to study with him one semester in England. His kind of bottom-up philosophy of history was what I was following, and I was doing so very consciously. When I started taking these pictures, I was pretty sure about what I knew when it came to history but not very secure about what I knew about photography. So I looked at people like Brassaï and Weegie or Diane Arbus and August Sander, and they seemed to fit what E. P. Thompson was talking about, and that’s exactly what I set out to do.

More of This Please

[ 21 ] December 11, 2012 |

I know there’s very little reason to have much hope for the mainstream media, but when villagers begin calling out Republicans to their faces on policy, it makes me a little more optimistic.

This Day in Labor History: December 11, 1886

[ 9 ] December 11, 2012 |

On December 11, 1886, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance was established in Lovelady in Houston County, Texas. This organization may have accomplished little in concrete gains, but it represented the brave attempt of black farmers to avoid tenancy, sharecropping, and other forms of white controlled labor. It also as played an important role in the broader farmer movement to protect themselves from the rapacity of Gilded Age capitalism.

The Farmers Alliance itself, an organization formed to speak to the very real concerns of increasing poverty and economic marginalization of southern farmers within the burgeoning industrial capitalist world, could not be a truly integrated organization. The reality of segregation and racism were too much for that. The Farmers Alliance is an interesting organization in its own right, a strategy created by southern economic radicals that would bridge away from the Democratic Party and toward a “third party of the industrial millions” through cooperative strategies.

As the white radicals knew, black farmers were as interested in these ideas as they were. Beginning in December 1886, black organizations began forming under the name the Colored Farmers Alliance to argue for black rights within the larger Alliance movement. Interestingly, while 16 of the people at the Lovelady gathering, including the nominal president, were African-American, the 17th attendee was ex-Confederate officer R.M. Humphrey. It was on Humphrey’s farm where the meeting took place and Humphrey would serve as the national spokesman for the organization despite his race.

Humphrey was an interesting guy. He seems to have started the Colored Farmers Alliance as a way to propel him into Congress. In a majority black district where voter suppression hadn’t taken place yet, he used the organization in its first two years as his own political machine. But when he lost his bid in 1888, rather than give up, he actually committed himself to building it as a legitimate group to fight for black labor rights. Organizers moved across the South, organizing African-Americans for higher crop prices, lower railroad rates, and other policies that would help the sharecroppers and small land owners who found themselves increasingly squeezed by capitalism.

While all small southern farmers had problems in the late 19th century, black farmers had it worse. Both races had much in common: the crop lien, the inability to finance your own crop without going into debt, the desire to control your own labor and livelihood. Both had similar goals–a flexible currency, higher commodity prices, railroad regulation, etc. But black labor was also caught in the racial realities of their day. The sheer existence of independent black labor was an affront to the southern society of the Gilded Age. Only 20 years after the end of the Civil War, much of the white supremacist violence used against African-Americans was about tying labor in place–powerless, cheap, and controllable. What African-Americans understood, as the historian Lawrence Goodwyn tells it, was that neither the capitalists nor the white Populists had any real capacity to question their own position in the racial caste system. African-Americans knew that an economic answer to the problems of independent farm labor was not enough for they also were stuck in a lower caste.

Southern black farmers

The response of elite whites to the Colored Farmers Alliance was one of disdain. Race baiting proved an effective method to undermine the burgeoning and always uncomfortable alliance between whites and blacks. The Montgomery Advertiser wrote that “the white people don’t want any more Negro influence in their affairs than they already have, and they won’t have it.”

Given the hostility of powerful whites, Colored Farmers Alliance organizers worked quietly, without the fanfare and open political organizing of the white Alliances. Essentially, the Colored Alliance worked not unlike the beginnings of a labor union or the civil rights movement in the 1950s. They found local leaders and tried to cultivate that leadership into something more. Because they worked so secretively, even a historian of Goodwyn’s preeminence admits that he can’t find much about their day to day actions. We know that the organization did engage in public political activities a the Ocala Convention of 1890 and the founding of the People’s Party in 1892, but other than that, it’s hard to know. Still, by 1890, the organization at least claimed to have 1.2 million members. Part of this was absorbing other populist-related black organizations such as the black versions of the Agricultural Wheel, providing more evidence to the very real efforts of black farmers to stand up for their economic and political rights. In 1891, it attempted to institute a strike to raise the price of cotton, but the CFA simply did not have the power to pull such an event off and it failed.

Colored Farmers Alliance members

While some Alliance leaders talked a good game of racial cooperation in the 1880s and early 1890s, the tolerance of any southern white for black participation in the political process and economic discourse was limited. Tom Watson may have started his career touting racial cooperation, but he quickly moved to the worst kind of race-baiting white supremacist. The two Alliance organizations split over the issue of an introduced bill in Congress to provide federal supervision of southern elections. The Colored Alliance supported the protection of black voting rights wholeheartedly while the white Alliance turned toward white supremacy and the rejection of policies they associated with Reconstruction. Moreover, Goodwyn argues that white supremacy made the real sustenance of the Colored Alliances impossible to maintain because without public acts in the political process, no meaningful movement culture could develop. And public political acts often meant death for the African-American of the late 19th century.

In the end, the significance of the Colored Farmers Alliance from a labor perspective is that it served as an organization that tried to hold on to the fading independence of a black farm labor. For sharecroppers, which made up a significant percentage of the membership of both Alliances, the organization was the one possibility of fighting for policies that would help their lives. Being independent of white labor domination was at the core of rejecting slavery and its near-imitations that eventually reclaimed much of southern black labor.

This is the 47th post in this series. The rest are archived here.

Clinton and the Drug War

[ 40 ] December 10, 2012 |

I don’t want to make a big deal out of something that really probably isn’t, but I do think there is some significance to Bill Clinton declaring the drug war a failure. It matters precisely because of the possibility of Hillary Clinton running for president in 2016. Clinton is basically on the campaign trail now in the sense that anything he says could be construed as the position of possible candidate Clinton. Does this potentially mean the move toward decriminalization is beginning to gain traction in the political class? If Democrats at the top levels begin openly questioning drug policy, that is both extremely significant and a sign that the youth agenda is beginning to trickle up.

Again, it may not mean this much. But it isn’t nothing.

The Road It Gives and the Road It Takes Away

[ 16 ] December 10, 2012 |

The life of a musician is one of high-risk, if for no other reason that they are on the road all the time. Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera is the latest to die far too young.

Wanker of the Day

[ 165 ] December 10, 2012 |

Nic Kristof.

Evidently Kristof is only interested in poverty if he can personally fly in and rescue women from sex slavery. Otherwise, he’s happy to channel the arguments of Gilded Age social Darwinists.

Here is an illustration of Kristof’s views, from 1877

“Helping the Poor–Gratuitous Distribution of Coal by the City–Cherry Street,” New York City, 1877

Can’t you just feel the dependency developing?

….Follow-up question. Are Kristof’s sex slaves still worth rescuing if the brothel has air-conditioning? Or do they then become the unworthy poor?

The Most Necessary Cover Song In History

[ 42 ] December 8, 2012 |

Doc Severinsen does King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King.” From 1970.

Shorter Eric Cantor: “The Rights of White Men to Sexually Assault Women of Color Shall Not Be Abridged!”

[ 189 ] December 7, 2012 |

Leave it to a congressman from the ex-Confederacy, where the white rape of black women has a long and sordid history, to hold up the Violence Against Women Act in order to protect white men from prosecution by tribal courts if they rape a Native American woman.

Yes that’s right. Eric Cantor is the holding up VAWA for that reason. Republicans have been fighting it tooth and nail because the new act would expand protections to immigrants, the LGBT community, and Native Americans. They are caving on the first two. But about Native Americans, Cantor refuses to budge. Here’s the low-down.

Leahy explained the provision, probably the least understood of the three additions in the Senate bill: It gives tribal courts limited jurisdiction to oversee domestic violence offenses committed against Native American women by non-Native American men on tribal lands. Currently, federal and state law enforcement have jurisdiction over domestic violence on tribal lands, but in many cases, they are hours away and lack the resources to respond to those cases. Tribal courts, meanwhile, are on site and familiar with tribal laws, but lack the jurisdiction to address domestic violence on tribal lands when it is carried out by a non-Native American individual.

That means non-Native American men who abuse Native American women on tribal lands are essentially “immune from the law, and they know it,” Leahy said.

The standoff over including VAWA protections for Native American women comes at a time of appallingly high levels of violence on tribal lands. One in three Native American women have been raped or experienced attempted rape, the New York Times reported in March, and the rate of sexual assault on Native American women is more than twice the national average. President Barack Obama has called violence on tribal lands “an affront to our shared humanity.”

Of the Native American women who are raped, 86 percent of them are raped by non-Native men, according to an Amnesty International report. That statistic is precisely what the Senate’s tribal provision targets.

For all intents and purposes, Eric Cantor is coming out as the defender of (mostly) whites raping non-white women. I’d say this is especially reprehensible. But it’s Cantor so it’s par for the course.

Again, the coming Republican coalition is just around the corner……

Let It Go

[ 141 ] December 7, 2012 |

The Obama Administration needs to let Colorado and Washington have their legal marijuana. Just let it go. The Obama Administration has pretty much let the DEA do what it wants around marijuana, largely I think because Obama just doesn’t care and doesn’t want to waste a single minute thinking about this issue. I understand that. But busting legal marijuana is not that dissimilar from the Defense of Marriage Act, at least in terms of the federal government trying to get in the way of historical processes as the social libertarianism of people under the age of 40 comes of age. Even on the level of morality, it’s hard to argue that putting people in prison for small-scale drug offenses is less immoral than denying marriage equality.

Obama just needs to walk away. Treat it like gay marriage and let the states decide what they want. At the very least, it’s an interesting experiment. If it is a disaster, the states can get rid of it. But the same people who support gay marriage support marijuana legalization. The reconstituted McGovern coalition that has pushed Obama to victory wants this. He could crack down now and it probably won’t cause a huge political backlash, even among his supporters. But like DOMA, 15 years down the road, it’s going to make Obama look pretty stupid as legalization becomes an overwhelming movement.

Western Lynchings

[ 97 ] December 6, 2012 |

This is a fascinating piece on Ken Gonzales-Day, the artist and author who explores the history of lynching in the American West. We usually think of lynching as something that had to black people in the South. But it was far more pervasive, especially in the American West, where non-whites of all varieties were lynched throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Gonzales-Day has an exhibit of images where he has digitally erased the hanging bodies from old lynching photos, forcing our gaze to the people proudly posing next to their victims.

There’s also this:

As if to underscore this idea, Mr. Gonzales-Day has also produced a self-guided walking tour of lynching sites in downtown Los Angeles that allows participants “to revisit places and events made infamous” in the context of their present-day lives. The tour is an extension of the artist’s own six-year pilgrimage to nearly every county in California, culminating in another series, “Searching for California’s Hang Trees,” that features large-scale color photographs and billboards of lynching sites, particularly the trees that possibly served as hanging posts.

A self-guided walking tour of lynching sites? Wow. That actually sounds amazing and important. Forcing us to recognize the dark histories on the landscapes we take for granted has tremendous value in making us confront our national racist past and how whites benefit from that historical racism and white privilege today.

In Case Your Day Has Gone Too Well

[ 26 ] December 6, 2012 |

Thought it was worth darkening your day by pointing you to this handy online calendar of mine disasters in American history. See how many miners were killed on the birthdays of you and your loved ones!

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