CRF Blog

Joe Sacco unfolds the art of war

by Bill Hayes

In Joe Sacco unfolds the art of war, the Los Angeles Times reviews The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme by Joe Sacco.

To highlight this intention, “The Great War” breaks out of the comics format altogether, offering one extended image, a 24-foot black and white drawing, accordion-folded and bound into a hardcover slipcase that can be read, left to right, like a tapestry or a scroll. Among its inspirations was Matteo Pericoli’s “Manhattan Unfurled,” a continuous representation of the New York City skyline, published in 2001.

Sacco, however, “didn’t want to draw a static picture,” so he began to look for other models, eventually turning to the Bayeux Tapestry, a medieval work that records the Norman Conquest; he describes it in an author’s note as “my touchstone” for its ability to evoke narrative in a single frame. [more]

The Supreme Court Again Fractures Over Race

by Bill Hayes

In The Supreme Court Again Fractures Over Race for Justia, law professor Michael C. Dorf looks at the divisions on the court over issues related to race.

When the Supreme Court held de jure racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Chief Justice Warren’s opinion spoke for a unanimous Court. Four years later, in the face of defiance by segregationists in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Court was again unanimous. Indeed, the Little Rock case, Cooper v. Aaron, resulted in the only opinion ever signed by all nine Justices. Given the divisiveness of race in American history, throughout the civil rights era the Justices thought it important that the Court speak with one voice.

As yesterday’s ruling in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action illustrates, so far as the Court is concerned, that era is long over. [more]

The Data Brokers: Selling your personal information

by Bill Hayes

In The Data Brokers: Selling your personal information, CBS’s 60 Minutes reports on companies that are selling personal information mined from the Internet and cellphones.

Do the Rich Call the Shots?

by Bill Hayes

The New York Times’ Room for Debate lets various knowledgeable contributors discuss news events and other timely issues. One recent debate covered: Do the Rich Call the Shots?

A recent study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page examining 30 years of opinion surveys and policy decisions by the federal government found that, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose.” The average voter has little influence on government, the study found, but the well-to-do hold tremendous sway.

Has the United States become more of an oligarchy than a democracy? [more]

E.E. Cummings: A Life

by David De La Torre

In Unravelling a life, The Economist reviews E.E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever.

MOST people were puzzled by E.E. Cummings. Having written poetry from the age of eight, he was lauded after his death as one of America’s great modernist writers. Yet his poems were unlike any others seen before. Often short and occasionally scurrilous, they used lower-case letters and lacked punctuation. “may i feel said he/(i’ll squeal said she” is how one famous poem begins. Many seemed more like nursery rhymes or nonsense verse than serious work. “What is wrong with a man who writes like this?” asked one exasperated critic.

Susan Cheever’s fine new biography of Cummings sheds some light. [more]

China Wakes Up to Its Environmental Catastrophe

by Bill Hayes

In China Wakes Up to Its Environmental Catastrophe, Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the Chinese government is responding to complaints from its citizens about environmental degradation.

China’s new leaders, including President Xi Jinping, haven’t embraced environmental protection by choice. They’ve been compelled by a new political reality: an informed Chinese public. Throughout 2011 and 2012, American Embassy officials in Beijing measured and tweeted the true levels of hazardous pollutants in the capital. (Twitter (TWTR) is banned in China, but information boomerangs to Sina Weibo, the country’s dominant microblogging platform, and spreads there just as fast.) Soon, the Chinese were demanding that their own government provide similar data. Beijing complied in 2012, and popular pressure to address the scourge of air pollution grew, even as Li sought to tamp down expectations of a quick solution. “There has been a long-term buildup to the problem,” he said in January 2013, “and the resolution will require a long-term process.”

Over the course of the new leadership’s first year in office, however, playing for time has become unfeasible. A July 2013 study found that air pollution in China’s north reduces life expectancy by an average of five and a half years. Water pollution has been linked to increased rates of cancer in almost 500 villages along China’s highly polluted rivers. An analysis by research firm Beijing Zhonglin Assets Appraisal estimates that Beijing’s traffic congestion costs the city about $10 billion a year in lost economic activity and $7 billion in environmental damage. [more]

Losing the News

by Bill Hayes

Harold Evans reviews Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy by Alex S. Jones.

From the New York Times Book Review:

The most valuable element in journalism is often enough not an episode that occurred today, yesterday or, horrors, the day before. It’s the creation of a new awareness provided by either months of investigation or relentlessly regular coverage. As it happens, The Times itself provided vivid testimony to Jones’s thesis just as I was reading his book. On July 12, an important front-page article wasn’t about anything that took place during the so-called news cycle; it was a convincingly detailed (and readable) revelation of how young men in Minneapolis had been recruited for jihad in Somalia. One thinks of the disasters when this kind of embryonic news doesn’t get enough attention: the insufficiently monitored housing bubble, leading to the financial meltdown; the neglect in New Orleans, leading to the devastation after Katrina; or the formation of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, leading to 9/11.

This is the scope of the news Jones fears we are in danger of losing, and the news he says the Internet generation has already abandoned. It’s the flow of significant reported information, “the iron core of information that is at the center of a functioning democracy.” He asks us to imagine it as forming a large iron cannonball, representing the total mass of serious reporting from all news organizations. It’s a pity that this is such an unappealing metaphor, suggestive not of organic continuity, liveliness and relevance but of heaviness and death, because Jones is a bringer of light in the encircling gloom. He sees the printed newspaper continuing as a life force, “the beating heart of a community”; “a warm and comfortable medium …able to command a sustainable audience, just as books have done”; and altogether the product of a much–underappreciated “evolved technology” that is a “portable, recyclable” organizer of news values, easy to read and scan, and “a phenomenal bargain.” [more]

From American Playhouse to 12 Years a Slave

by Bill Hayes

In From American Playhouse to 12 Years a Slave for Humanities, Chad L. Williams takes a look back at the 1984 television version of Solomon Northup’s book.

In the midst of the near universal acclaim showered upon 12 Years a Slave, Gordon Parks’s original film has curiously received little attention. This is unfortunate. As the capstone film in Parks’s extraordinary career as a director, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey deserves recognition for offering a bold, nuanced, and historically grounded portrayal of slavery within the constraints of a television production. In this light, it is possible to have even greater appreciation for 12 Years a Slave, not only as a groundbreaking work of art, but as part of a continued retelling of Northup’s story — and the larger history of slavery — that began with Parks’s 1984 film.

The seed for a television version of Twelve Years a Slave was planted in 1976 through conversations between producer Shep Morgan and University of North Carolina-Wilmington historian Robert Brent Toplin. Toplin suggested that Morgan make use of a recently awarded NEH planning grant to produce a series of dramatic films on American slavery based on true historical figures and events.

The timing seemed right for Morgan and Toplin to forge ahead with their audacious plan. The success of the television miniseries Roots (1977) demonstrated a public interest in slavery. Equally important, by the late 1970s, assumptions about slavery had changed dramatically. A new generation of historians revealed the ways slaves forged communities, challenged their masters, and preserved their humanity. Many of these scholars participated on an advisory board that offered input into what Morgan and his team of producers envisioned as a three-film series on American slavery. [more]

Sterling Cooper Draper Olson

by Bill Hayes

In Sterling Cooper Draper Olson, New York magazine’s cover story profiles Elizabeth Moss, one of the stars of Mad Men.

When the show returns for the first half of its seventh and final season on April 13, it will be as much Peggy’s story as Don’s. Don is caught up in his past, his power and pull dissipating in a radically diversifying world — a man adrift in a future full of Peggy Olsons. As Peggy has spiffed up and risen, again and again, to the occasion, so has Moss, who has been nominated for an Emmy for playing Peggy four times, and on the strength of her skill turned a show about a suave, tortured anti-hero into one just as much about an earnest, driven heroine, a broadening of focus not incidental to Mad Men’s well-deserved reputation as one of the best dramas on television. When season five ended with Peggy going to another advertising agency, the panic among fans was such that Weiner, who guards secrets as zealously as the NSA — and more effectively — issued a spoiler of his own, promising Peggy would be back.

As we, the audience, are preparing for a post–Mad Men age, so is Moss, and she’s much further along than we are, having already embarked on a series of Peggy-less-projects. Last year, she starred in Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s idiosyncratic mini-series in which she played a troubled New Zealand cop. The two small films she made during the Mad Men hiatus — The One I Love, a mumblecore thriller with Mark Duplass, and Listen Up Philip, in which she plays a Brooklyn photographer in the midst of a breakup with a difficult author played by Jason Schwartzman — both made it to Sundance; the former was purchased by the Weinstein’s Radius-TWC.

For the time being, Moss, who goes by Lizzie, is still most closely associated with Peggy, so much so that strangers often tell her how much the character inspired them to change jobs. TV has many ambitious women, but Peggy stands out among them for navigating a working world — with glass ceilings, boys’ clubs, and take-me-seriously work clothes — that feels, despite its period detail, remarkably contemporary. [more]

Surely, Actually the Scolds Have Lost Their Minds

by Bill Hayes

In Surely, Actually the Scolds Have Lost Their Minds for the New Republic, John McWhorter argues that the meaning of “literally” has changed.

Say what you will about Joe Biden’s peculiarly white teeth and his gaffe-ish tendencies, but it’s time to leave him — and the rest of the Anglophone world — alone for the “misuse” of the word literally. Sure, he uses it too much: ten times in his convention speech last year, such that people who made a drinking game out of it must have had their regrets the next morning. And the literally-laden “Saturday Night Live” parodies have been great. But in real life, there are simply no logical grounds for the idea that Biden is using the word incorrectly. [more]

Chinese civil society

by David De La Torre

In Beneath the glacier, The Economist reports that NGOs are on the rise in China.

China has over 500,000 NGOs already registered with the state. The number comes with a big caveat. Many NGOs are quasi-official or mere shell entities attempting to get government money. Of those genuine groups that do seek to improve the common lot, nearly all carry out politically uncontentious activities. But perhaps 1.5m more are not registered, and some of these … pursue activism in areas which officials have often found worrying.

These unregistered NGOs are growing in number and influence. They are a notable example of social forces bubbling up from below in a stubbornly top-down state. The organisations could be a way for the Communist Party to co-opt the energy and resources of civil society. They could also be a means by which that energy challenges the party’s power. And so their status has big implications. Guo Hong of the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences in Chengdu calls the liberalisation of NGO registration laws “the partial realisation of freedom of association”. Just as economic liberalisation in the early 1980s had a profound material effect, so these latest moves could have a profound social one.

The new rules apply only to some types of NGOs, notably those providing services to groups such as the poor, the elderly and the disabled. Those engaged in any kind of political advocacy continue to be suspect. Human-rights organisations remain banned, as do most groups promoting religious, ethnic or labour rights. [more]

Mahogany’s Last Stand

by Bill Hayes

In Mahogany’s Last Stand, National Geographic reports that “illegal logging has all but wiped out Peru’s mahogany. Loggers are turning their chain saws on lesser known species critical to the health of the rain forest.”

Mahogany is the crown jewel of the Amazon, soaring in magnificent buttressed columns high into the forest canopy. Its rich, red grain and durability make it one of the most coveted building materials on Earth, favored by master craftsmen, a symbol of wealth and power. A single tree can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the international market by the time its finished wood reaches showroom floors in the United States or Europe.

After 2001, the year Brazil declared a moratorium on logging big-leaf mahogany, Peru emerged as one of the world’s largest suppliers. The rush for “red gold,” as mahogany is sometimes called, has left many of Peru’s watersheds — such as the Alto Tamaya, homeland of a group of Ashéninka Indians — stripped of their most valuable trees. The last stands of mahogany, as well as Spanish cedar, are now nearly all restricted to Indian lands, national parks, and territorial reserves set aside to protect isolated tribes.

As a result, loggers are now taking aim at other canopy giants few of us have ever heard of — copaiba, ishpingo, shihuahuaco, capirona — which are finding their way into our homes as bedroom sets, cabinets, flooring, and patio decks. These lesser known varieties have even fewer protections than the more charismatic, pricier ones, like mahogany, but they’re often more crucial to forest ecosystems. As loggers move down the list from one species to the next, they’re cutting more trees to make up for diminishing returns, threatening critical habitats in the process. Primates, birds, and amphibians that make their homes in the upper stories of the forest are at increasing risk. Indigenous communities are in turmoil, divided between those favoring conservation and those looking for fast cash. And some of the world’s most isolated tribes are in flight from the whine of chain saws and the terrifying crash of centuries-old leviathans hitting the ground.

Illicit practices are believed to account for three-fourths of the annual Peruvian timber harvest. [more]

Charlie Rose on Blindness

by Bill Hayes

Charlie Rose discusses blindness with a panel of experts: Eric Kandel of Columbia University; Sanford Greenberg, Chairman of the Board of Governors of Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute; Jean Bennett; Steven Schwartz of UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute; and Eberhart Zrenner and Carla Shatz of Stanford University.

You Can’t Go Home Again

by Bill Hayes

In You Can’t Go Home Again for Foreign Policy magazine, journalist Min Zin describes his return to his homeland of Burma.

THE PHYSICAL LANDSCAPE of Rangoon — my old neighborhood, even my high school — had been transformed to such an extent that I hardly recognized it. My family’s old house turned out to be badly in need of repairs. When I was growing up in the 1980s, it was one of a few concrete two-story buildings in a neighborhood of low, traditional wood houses. In exile, I often recalled lying on the balcony, enjoying the sun and breeze. Today, seven-story apartment buildings cast long shadows over our house, and the population on my small street has increased by a factor of 10. The city feels crowded in a way it didn’t before. People visibly suffer from poverty and disease. There are beggars and the homeless, refugees from the ethnic areas to the east and from up north. Over the past two decades, Burma has seen an intense polarization: There are the rich and the poor, but few in between. There are the soldiers and the pro-democracy activists, but no one in the middle.

Yet it’s now a place where I can feel free. I can’t explain how odd this was. Back in the early 1990s, I couldn’t make a turn at an intersection without reflexively looking behind to see whether someone from military intelligence was trailing me. It was a habit that stuck with me even after I arrived in Thailand. As I walked through the streets of Rangoon gathering supplies for a homecoming party, I felt the same reflex and, in some way, almost a funny nostalgia for those days. [more]

A House in the Sky

by Bill Hayes

In A House in the Sky: A Memoir, Amanda Lindhout tells of her captivity and rescue in Somalia.

From the New York Times Book Review:

Grounded in chaos, her childhood becomes a disturbing template for the life that followed. On Aug. 23, 2008, along with a freelance photojournalist named Nigel Brennan, Lindhout, then 27, was kidnapped in Somalia. She spent 460 days in hellish captivity. Her tale, exquisitely told with her co-author, Sara Corbett, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, is much more than a gonzo adventure tale gone awry — it’s a young woman’s harrowing coming-of-age story and an extraordinary narrative of forgiveness and spiritual triumph. [more]