My reaction to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague surprised me. I was expecting to admire this famous work by a great master, the favourite painting of the Dutch. It is indeed technically marvellous. Vermeer was one of the greatest technicians of oil painting ever. My problem with the picture is as a portrait. It’s formally a tronje, a painting of an unidentified and representative human figure. But it’s plainly not a stylised ideal but a portrait of a real girl. She has no name, perhaps (as in the film) a servant paid a few ducats to sit. I find it unflattering, and not by any lack of skill. Newspapers rightly get criticised for printing photos of politicians with their mouths open: everybody looks stupid when caught like this. Vermeer went to enormous trouble, over multiple sittings, to make his subject look dimwitted. She was exophthalmic anyway, and he faithfully reproduced or exaggerated this. The combined effect is disrespectful and exploitative. And to what purpose? Possibly to make a trite contrast with the perfection of the enormous pearl earring lent her for the occasion. Pshaw.
My second portrait is an extreme contrast: Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt for almost 20 years, in Berlin. Again, the extraordinary technical skill of the bust (about two-thirds life size) is indisputable. The effect is remarkable. She is not just beautiful but glamorous: beauty weaponized. (The origins of the word lie in Scottish witchcraft.) For what purpose? The classic glamour photos of Hollywood studio stars were designed to transform their exploited and vulnerable subjects into unattainable objects of sexual desire, in order to sell film tickets. Nefertiti didn’t need that; she was a Pharaoh’s queen already.
The Hollywood stars were metaphorical sex goddesses. Nefertiti was the real thing.
First, the sex part. There is no reason to doubt her depicted beauty. Her husband Amenhotep was portrayed as ugly, with distended belly and elongated limbs, possibly as a result of a congenital condition. So the burden of regal show, and quite likely of day-to-day rule, fell disproportionately on the queen. She rose to the challenge; she even had herself sculpted naked, a radical step in any culture that you can only get away with if you have a great body and total self-confidence.
Second, the goddess. Pharaohs and their consorts were semi-divine personages anyway, on speaking terms with the gods. But Amenhotep IV – Akhenaten – was determined on a religious revolution. He swept away the pantheon, and replaced it by a proto-monotheistic cult of Aten, represented only as the solar disc. The worship of Aten was carried out in courtyard temples open to the sky, not dark labyrinths. The Pharaoh and queen became the unique intermediaries between the people and Aten, and the priests were out of a job. They did not appreciate this, and after Akhenaten’s death staged a successful counter-revolution. His son Tutankhamun (by another wife) was buried surrounded by images of the old pantheon. The Aten cult was forgotten, the new capital at Amarna abandoned. While it lasted Queen Nefertiti was a sacred priest-empress, as near to a goddess as monotheism allows.
Did the cult die? Sigmund Freud for one thought not. He suggested that the Aten religion influenced Jewish monotheism. Archaeologists pooh-pooh this. The Egyptian captivity is generally considered unhistorical; all the evidence points to a Canaanite origin for Judaism. But in that case, where did the story of the Exodus come from? Canaan was often a frontier province of the Egyptian empire. Metropolitan political and cultural upheavals would have filtered there during Akhenaten’s quite long reign (ca. 1350 BCE) . A contribution to early Jewish developments is certainly possible – it’s more believable than the bloodthirsty fantasies of the unread Book of Joshua. Once you ask “Why not one?” the question is hard to put away.
Maybe Nefertiti is still our Queen.
Whatever hold Putin has over Trump, the Donald is sorely mistaken that, by doing Putin’s bidding, it will not come out. As soon as Putin has wrung everything he can out of Trump, there’s little doubt in my mind that Putin will release it, if only to poke his finger in the eye of the United States.
Just for the record, I need to add to the list of words needed to discuss Trump, especially in view of Helsinki:
Needed: not namecalling, not hyperbolic; evidenced attributes. Without language like this, you cannot get Trump right, and we can’t defend ourselves against him.
Today, with all of the attention on Trump’s abject behavior in Helsinki, it was easy to overlook the charges filed against Maria Butina.
I have previously commented here and here about the possible financial arrangement between the NRA and Russia. Today, with the criminal complaint and the affidavit in support thereof filed against Butina, it appears that more details will, in due course, come to light. And, the affidavit makes it clear that effort to influence the NRA was merely a way station on the path to co-opt the Republican Party.
Paragraph 7 of the supporting affidavit states that:
U.S. Person 1 is a United States citizen and an American political operative. BUTINA established contact with U.S. Person 1 in Moscow in or around 2013. U.S. Person 1 worked with BUTINA to jointly arrange introductions to U.S. persons having influence in American politics, including an organization promoting gun rights (hereinafter “GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION”), for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.
In paragraph 18 of the affidavit, we find that Betina emailed U.S. Person 1 with the subject line “the Second Pozner,” Pozner likely referring to “Vladimir Pozner, a propagandist who served in the disinformation department of the Soviet KGB and who often appeared on Western television to explain the views of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.” That paragraph relates that:
The [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION] [is] the largest sponsor of the elections to the US congress, as well as a sponsor of The CPAC conference and other events.
Paragraph 31 of the affidavit relates an email that U.S. Person 1 sent to an acquaintance in which U.S. Person 1 stated that:
Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns, I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key POLITICAL PARTY 1 leaders through, of all conduits, the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION].
In paragraph 33 of the affidavit, in an e-mail to her Russian superior, Betina stated:
We are currently ‘underground’ both here and there. Now, private clubs and quite [sic] influence on people making decisions is the trend. No publicity.
Most chillingly is this Twitter exchange between Betina and her Russian superior reported in paragraph 32 of the affidavit:
BUTINA: Oh well. I am just starting in this field. I still have to learn and learn from you! These are not just words! Harsh and impetuous moves will ruin everything early.
RUSSIAN OFFICIAL: This is hard to teach. Patience and cold blood +faith in yourself. And everything will definitely turn out.
Of course, influencing the GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION was not Russia’s ultimate goal. Rather, it was merely a conduit to obtain a “VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key POLITICAL PARTY 1 leaders.” And, the affidavit describes “Political Party 1” as being “a major U.S. political party . . . that . . . is ‘traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy, particularly with regards to Russia'” and, in which, the GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION has “a [c]entral place and influence.” (Paragraph 18 of the affidavit.)
Let’s be clear, Russia has, financially, co-opted the NRA with an intent to co-opt the GOP. It remains to be seen the extent to which it succeeded.
There was a time when even Jews made a distinction between “cultivated” Westjuden or Jeckes and the less cultivated Ostjuden. From this German Wikipedia entry (which I translated into English using Google, my efforts in high school in German being scarcely better than my failure in Latin):
The complementary term Ostjuden and Westjuden (also: Polacken and Jeckes) was first coined in 1900 by the Jewish journalist Nathan Birnbaum, who thus characterized two social profiles within European Jewry that were shaped by the different living conditions in East and West.
* * * * *
The distinction between Western and Eastern Jews traditionally refers less to the different geographical origins than to the socio-cultural, religious and linguistic differences between Ashkenazim in Western and Eastern Europe, and above all to the more advanced western assimilation, urbanization and abandonment of (Western) Yiddish Language or its adaptation to the German standard language, to the ghettoization and way of life of the Shtetl, the adherence to the Halacha and the preservation of developed in contact with Slavic languages (East) Yiddish language, which were considered typical of Eastern European Jewry.
In the course of the strong westward migration of Eastern European Jews since the 1880s and the associated social conflicts and problems, the described differences were seen as “East-European” backwardness from a “Western Jewish” point of view, while advocates of Eastern European Judaism are characterized by their cultural independence from the appropriateness and self-sacrifice Western European Jews emphasized. The stereotypes in this inner-Jewish conflict with regard to the Eastern Jews were then further developed in the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Weimar Republic in Germany and the First Republic in Austria as well as under National Socialism and reinterpreted as the idea that in the “Ostjuden” that “inferiority “Manifest in a particularly obvious and unveiled form that marks the” Jewish race “as such in its entirety.
“Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame,” Trump said. “I think it changed the fabric of Europe and, unless you act very quickly, it’s never going to be what it was and I don’t mean that in a positive way.
“So I think allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad,” he continued. “I think you are losing your culture. Look around. You go through certain areas that didn’t exist ten or 15 years ago.”
Rather than call out Trump’s bigotry for what it is, Prime Minister Theresa May today pulled her punches on any criticism of Trump’s remarks. When asked whether she agreed that “immigration has damaged the cultural fabric of Europe?” she blandly replied:
The U.K. has a proud history of welcoming people who flee persecution or want to contribute to our economy and society. Over the years, immigration has been good for the U.K. What is important is we have control of our borders and a set of rules to determine who comes into our country.
We know that Republicans in this country won’t challenge Trump on his bigotry. One would think (hope?) that Europeans who have seen this sort of thing at closer range would step up to the plate. Perhaps that’s too much to ask. After all, it was a Jew who first drew a distinction between himself, cultured and sophisticated, and those “lesser” Jews who resisted assimilation.
To cheer you up from a news diet of Trump, a chart from IEEFA of new generating plants in India:
Coal fell off a cliff two years ago. The coal additions in 2017-18 (India uses an April-to-April fiscal year inherited from the Raj) were only 4.2 GW. Coal Plant Tracker still reports 39 GW of coal under construction (with 97 GW suspended and a staggering 476 GW cancelled since 2010), but it’s very likely that much of this is walking dead. IEEFA predicts the real pipeline is 10-20 GW, after which no more will (I infer) ever be needed.
You don’t often see turning points advertised in neon like this. India has had since 2003 a modern split electricity market as in the UK and Texas, with a monopoly national grid, monopoly state distribution companies, and competitive generation. So you got a coal bubble, and a coal crash – far more dramatic than in dirigiste China or quasi-socialist USA. It’s pretty certain that the owners of the few plants coming online are not happy bunnies, and their shiny new assets are born lossmakers. India has large surplus capacity (the power cuts come from the rickety grid), so the average coal capacity factor is below 60% and heading down. New solar can beat existing coal on price by 20%, so it’s only going to get worse.
Indian banks have up to $38 bn of bad loans to power companies (Merrill Lynch). Modi’s government is business-friendly to the point of cronyism, so some sort of bailout will be arranged. It is even more voting-farmer-friendly, so the bailout will not be perfect. Gautam Adani will remain a rich man, but not as rich as he is today.
I have been reflecting on two traditional habits of our media that have become not only dysfunctional but actively destructive. First, reporting on Trump as though he is a basically serious person. The press is, slowly, getting better about nailing Trump for lying, and using the word. Old habits die hard, and the habit of treating the discourse of a US president as being considerable, and assuming conventional links among utterance, belief, and intention is one of those. But it’s not working, because those links are broken in Trump’s case.
When someone says something, in any serious context, we take the utterance as some sort of forecast of behavior. “Drive me around in my car and I’ll pay you $X” is a commitment, maybe enforceable in court; “I love you” uttered by anyone not a complete cad isn’t as firm an assurance of future behavior, but normal people take it as at least not meaning “I don’t care about you” or “Actually I love someone else”, and normal people say it, or don’t, knowing that. People can change their minds, but the general rule applies, especially for public figures and leaders: what you say is and is seen to be predictive of your future behavior. A colleague of mine said what it means to a Jew to be Bar Mitzvah is that you are now responsible to what you say.
Accordingly, presidential discourse has always been reportable as spoken: data that is predictive (not perfectly) of consequential actions. However flacks and commentators spin it, we have taken presidents’ words as considerable. It’s time to stop what has become a mechanistic charade: we have a president whose speech, whether about values, beliefs, or promised action, only predicts his behavior accidentally. He reneges on flat commitments like promises to give to veterans’ causes, to invest in infrastructure, and ‘deals’ like the one last fall about immigration. He is relentlessly, doggedly ignorant about absolutely everything, so his statements of fact are not even hopes and wishes, but short-run chum for his most hateful base, whatever he thinks a rally audience wants to hear. When Trump’s rallies, tweets, and press events are broadcast the way a normal president’s events used to be, and when his environmental policies are presented as though the fact assertions they rest on are on this side of the line between knowledge and witchcraft, they are flatly misrepresented. “Trump said X today” is simply not the same kind of report as it would be regarding the utterance of a responsible adult; tradition is a poor guide now. “Trump said X” means “the last person (or rally crowd) who flattered Trump in his presence, or his latest instructions from Putin, told him to say X” and little more.