Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Yes you read it right.  My line of work is branding and I have always told clients a name should reflect who and what they are.  If it doesn't, a change is in order: NARA, National Assault Rifle Association.  Doesn't that sound right to you?  Much has been said in recent days about Wayne Lapierre's breathtaking rant, mislabeled a "press conference".  I invite you listen if you have the will.  Sometimes it is useful to hear people like this, if only to assess the magnitude of the problem they present.  As you know, the bottom line of the NARA's message was arm up, precisely what I said we shouldn't do in my last post.

What both interested and disturbed me most about the rant was its tone and perhaps more accurately its arrogance.  Lapierre spoke for 4 Million NARA members and one would think he was talking for the nation.  As the political analyst/broadcaster Laurence O'Donnell noted in a commentary (well worth listening) the nation's news outlets all interrupted their programming to broadcast the event live.  He noted that would never happen for the speech by A. Barry Rand, CEO of the AARP with a membership of 40 Million.  The coverage alone speaks volumes about the NARA's power in this country.  Lapierre spoke as if he were on an equal footing with the President or at least some governor or senator.  Who elected this guy and why is everyone falling line for someone who may not even fully represent his own membership?

Beyond calling for an arming up, Lapierre spent most of his time blaming everyone else for what happened in Newtown.  It is the media's fault with their inaccurate reporting, Hollywood's fault with its violent films, it is all those "vicious, violent video games" — all of them fueled by corporate greed.  In a not so subtle critique of calls for better tracking of gun owners, the NARA leader also blamed "our nation's refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill."  Running throughout his remarks was a portrayal of the NARA as victim typified by "the press and political class here in Washington so consumed by fear and hatred of the [NARA] and America's gun owners".  Thank you for that.  Now we understand the real problem.

For sure, the violence that we're exposed to as "entertainment" is worth considering. It is on the Biden agenda.  But so too must we consider that, thanks to the arms industry and NARA, assault weapons have replaced simple riffles and pistols as the weapons of choice in these dramas and videos.  Indeed as the NY Times just reported, gun manufacturers use video games as marketing tools.  Forget the dues of 4 Million members, these are the same manufacturers from whom NARA gets much of its funding.  What about that Mr. Lapierre?

When it comes to the Newtown tragedy, the NARA leader was hardly alone in the blame game.  Some of the others playing that card were far more bizarre.  Each spoke in his own voice but all seemed to agree that Newtown happened because God and prayer has been taken out of the schools.  Onetime presidential candidate Mike Huckabee started the ball rolling.  On Fox News he pontificated, "We've systematically removed God from our schools.  Should we be so surprised that schools have become a place for carnage because we've made it a place where we don't want to talk about eternity, life, responsibility, accountability?"  James Dobson was more specific when he declared that, "...millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist, or he’s irrelevant to me, and we have killed fifty-four million babies and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition.  Believe me, that is going to have consequences too."  Wow.  And not to be left out the political Energizer Bunny Newt Gingrich added his own wisdom.  "When you have an anti-religious, secular bureaucracy and secular judiciary, seeking to drive God out of public life, something fills the vacuum".  Ah, godlessness is the problem. Right.

Some people think that we may finally have reached some kind of tipping point on gun control.  The NARA wants us to know that it has no intention of letting us go over the edge toward rationality.  Time will tell, but Lapierre in both content and tone seemed out of touch with the widespread reaction to the Newtown tragedy.  Reactions to his rant, including by Rupert Murdoch's NY Post, have generally been negative.  Nonetheless, initial polls indicate that Newtown did not have much impact on how the public feels about gun control.  While more respondents (49%) think control is more important the right to own (42%), there is still no majority for new legislation.  That may change in the weeks ahead, especially if the Vice President can make a compelling case.

Fringe politics and fringe religiosity still play far too great a role in American life.  That a man like Lapierre can be taken so seriously, and more importantly carry such weight, speaks to the condition of our democracy as we prepare for another turn in the calendar year.  The continued dysfunction of our Congress where fringe politics has taken hold, or perhaps more accurately taken rationality hostage, is leading us on a dangerous course.  Legislators who want to engage with their opposite number in a constructive way find themselves victims of blackmail, the threat of a primary challenge weighing heavily on their actions.  Yes it's hard to listen to the NARA rants, but we should be energized by them.  Energized indeed, to rise up a say, we've had enough.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Our first task.

An untold number of children around the world die violently almost every year, many them the "collateral damage" of war.  Collateral damage is something abstract, a statistic so remote from us that we don't give it more than as passing thought.  Of course these deaths, these supposed unintended consequences, are of individuals.  Each is painfully real and immediate for both the victim and for those left behind.  The fact that we don't take proper account of them may evidence some degree of callousness, but more likely it is that we are just emotionally ill equipped to do so.

What happened at the Sandy Hook School is something else entirely.  Perhaps these children will ultimately morph into a statistic as well — the worst such slaying of its kind — but today they are only too real.   We think, as did our tearful president, of our own children or children we know and project from there in the most personal way.  In the days ahead there will be funerals and stories that draw us into their lives and the anguish of their families, families just like our own.  It's not surprising that the president and Michelle Obama planned to hug their own girls, or that he suggested we do the same.  Forget no drama Obama, our president is like all of us, a human being who instinctively needs to reach out and touch his family in times like this if only to confirm that they are okay.  None of us wants to think the unthinkable, but in a world of the unexpected, we can't help ourselves.   We need reassurance.

The facts in the Sandy Hook tragedy are still unfolding.  With two of the central players dead, some may never be fully known.  As with any such event (think ben Ghazi), the first days saw their share of misreporting, but the most consequential facts are known.  Twenty-six of our fellow human beings lost their lives in that school, most of them first graders.  According to the medical examiner, their lives were brought to end with horrendous brutality.  One doesn't have to be a pathologist, CSI or psychiatrist to know that this has the markings of a very personal act of extraordinary rage.  Adam Lanza apparently shot his mother Nancy, the first victim, in the face.  What and why are yet to be determined.

Marcus Yam for the NY Times
These killings pose, among others, one of the most fundamental and troubling questions faced by human beings and specifically by religion.  Theodicy concerns the "why" of suffering, but in its most troubling form it asks why really bad things happen to really good people.  The death of innocent children puts that question into its sharpest relief.  Nowhere do we find clergy (I can tell you from personal experience) more tongue tied or inept than when confronted with extreme questions like this.  It seems that any articulated response comes off at best as hopelessly convoluted and more often as a hollow cliché.  The widely repeated notion expressed at last night's interfaith memorial that the dead are now in God's hands may offer comfort to some, but in a profound way it too is an evasion.  The empty chairs at family tables will be remain a palpable void, a wound not easily healed.  When it comes to theodicy, we simply don't know, don't have a credible answer.

Of course bad things happen to good people in different ways.  Thousands of children died in the Tsunami that overwhelmed parts of Asia at Christmastime in 2004 and good people died just weeks ago in the monster storm that caused havoc in the New York area.  Acts of nature that leave death and destruction in their path are hard to fathom, especially when they touch someone we know directly or indirectly. In those instances the classic responses to theodicy may suffice, principally because we see no identifiable villain, which makes the questioning, even if sincere, more pro forma.  Being in the path of the storm has an aspect of accident to it.  We understand the inexplicable nature of accidents and, painful as it may be, can somehow accept them as something out of our or anybody's control.

Kevin Lamarque Reuters
That is not the case with the murders in Newtown.  Here we not only have victims but an identifiable perpetrator.  The weapon is not wind, sea, or some fault under the earth's surface but humanly invented and manufactured guns.  These are weapons to which we as a society have given virtually unfettered license that, according to the current interpretation of our Constitution, is seen as an inalienable right.

According to the NY Times Nancy Lanza, Adam's mother, "loved guns".  It is far too early to attribute any blame for this awful act to her, but there is something very disconcerting about hearing someone talk of guns as the object of love.  We love our children, our parents, our chosen life-partners but guns?  It was Nancy who purchased the guns used in this massacre, one of which ended her life.  Some love, some end. 

Other Americans love their guns.  They claim that guns don't kill, people do.  I don't buy it.  Perhaps the Constitution gives us the right to bear arms, but I seriously doubt the Founders had anything close to assault weapons in mind when they included that provision.  Even judicial originalists can't argue they did with a straight face.  Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett thinks the teachers (or at least someone at a school) should be armed, that this might have averted Sandy Hook.  Nonsense.  This isn't a time to arm up but to disarm.  At the very least, we should find ways to better control what is clearly a gun culture gone amock.  Too many people have too many weapons and too many of them are using those guns to kill. 

"This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged".   That's what President Obama told us in his very moving speech in Newtown's high school auditorium last night.  He then posed the question that is on many of our minds today: "Can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?"  It demanded and was given an immediate answer.
I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change. Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.
... We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.
Perhaps we, religious our not, have no good answer for theodicy, but we have no such excuse when it comes to gun violence.  Time is long overdue to turn swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  We may not have the ability to answer why bad things happen to good people, but we do have the power to do that.  It's time that we stop just wringing our hands; time we turn instead to exercising that power.

Monday, December 10, 2012

High (priced) art.

Tired of the Cliff?  So am I, so here’s something different.

The movers and shakers of the art world — museum notables, gallery magnates and deep-pocketed collectors — gathered in recent days for the annual Art Basel Miami.  There are similar events in Basel, Switzerland (where it all began in 1973) and in Hong Kong.  This is the tenth Miami extravaganza drawing the usual crowds and much attention, not all of it positive.  Full disclosure, I’ve never attended. 

As reported in the NY Times, Art Basel Miami is stimulating considerable conversation this year brought on by a number of art critics who have voiced dismay at the role big money is playing in today’s art world.  Not surprisingly, leading the pushback against such critiques are the Rubells — especially Mera and her son Jason — unquestionably Miami’s first family of art.  They own one of the largest and most important private contemporary art collections in the world.  Much of it travels to shows around the country, but the core collection is on view in a repurposed Miami storage facility that they have turned into a museum open to the public.

The contention of the critics is that money drives the art world when assumably it should be the art.  It’s a compelling argument and one that certainly resonates at a time when money is playing such a pivotal role in much of our society.  We just experienced the most expensive presidential election in history and are in the midst of a battle royal over taxing the rich.  More important, the huge, might I say unconscionable, disparity between the super rich and almost everyone else is in the spot light, not only here but also in many countries around the world.

Munch "The Scream"
According to the Times these critics are, “arguing that the staggering sums of money being spent on works are distorting judgments about art and undermining its long-term cultural significance.”  It’s a powerful argument but hardly new, something I’ll return to shortly.  Despite the ups and downs of our economy, major (and some would argue not so major) works of art continue to fetch astounding amounts of money at auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s.  This has been a banner year capped off by the sale in May of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” for a record $120 Million.  It is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art.

These lofty numbers effectively price the average and even economically above average art lover out of the market, or perhaps more accurately a specific end of that market.  Even museums can’t compete these days and not merely because they can’t buy art at these levels.  One of the current valuation’s unintended consequences is that institutions often can’t even afford the insurance required to borrow important works for shows.

Returning now to the fact that all this it is not new.  Decades ago, I worked for a consulting company headed by the then son-in-law of John Hay (Jock) Whitney, scion of a fabled American family.  One weekend my wife and I were invited to spend the afternoon at Greentree, the Whitney’s Long Island estate.  To be sure the imposing mansion was memorable, but what left the greatest impression were the works of art hung on its walls.  These were the likes of Cezanne, Manet, Degas, Monet and Picasso.   “Know that work” (I said to myself) but only because it was pictured in some art book or had been temporarily on display at the Met or MoMA.  Jock Whitney was among the world’s richest men of his time and, like others of such wealth and background, he bought art.  It was the kind of art that was out-of-reach — an understatement — for almost all of us.

But that was nothing new because the intersection of wealth and art is age old.  Art Basel Miami is a place to see and to be seen, a playground for the rich and famous, something that may turn critics and many art lovers off.  But rich people, often royalty or popes, have been buying the works of great artists from the very start.  In many eras they dominated the buying market.  Michelangelo and Rembrandt depended on rich patrons, as did Picasso and Matisse in more recent times.  Even so, some art has always been affordable — even works that today fetch those millions but could be bought for a song.

It’s important to remember that wealthy collectors including today’s Rubells of Miami and yesterday’s Cone sisters of Baltimore (see my recent guest posts on the Artbouillon blog) have amassed great collections that they ultimately share with the public.  The Rubells have their gallery and the Cones left most of their astounding assemblage to the Baltimore Museum.  Most museums, old and new, have built their collections around art that was either donated or bequeathed to them by the rich.

Roy Lichtenstein "Crying Girl" (silkscreen)
Moreover, while the great paintings may be out of reach to the average art lover, she or he is not precluded from becoming a collector.  The most notable example of course is Herb and Dorothy Vogel, a couple of very modest means — a postal worker and a librarian — who amassed one of the great American art collections of the twentieth century.  I have been able to surround myself with affordable originals by artists I love in collecting mostly their works-on-paper.  And wonderful drawings, paintings, collages and sculptures by new and less known artists still sold at reasonable prices are widely accessible.  Perhaps we don’t all have Herb Vogel’s eye, but we know what we like, and hopefully love.  Yes there is an exclusive side to Basel Miami but many art lovers of average means make the trek there each year as they did last week.

The vast majority of artists struggle financially, often forced to have “day jobs” in order to make ends meet.   Of course the same can be said for actors and musicians but also of people in almost any other field.  When Gertrude Stein and the Cone Sisters started buying from Picasso he had barely enough resources to support a very modest lifestyle.  Their patronage of him and Matisse made it possible for two of the greatest twentieth century artists to carry on with their work.  You might say their wealth was put to good use. 

In the past the gap between most artists and their patrons was, to put it mildly, wide. Rembrandt had some prosperous years but died in debt. Van Gogh’s emotionally troubled life was probably compounded by his ongoing financial struggle.  Artists whose paintings now command millions saw none of the riches that their works would bring.  But one consequence of bidding up of art prices today is that a probably larger number of living artists than was the case in earlier times have benefited directly, have amassed wealth of their own.  Picasso certainly became wealthy, and the same can be said, among others, for artists like the Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg each of whom left large estates.  So maybe that’s a difference, something positive out of today’s expensive art world.  Yes, it would be wonderful if we all could afford great works of art, but it’s satisfying to know that some artists are benefiting directly from the run up.

It’s easy to bash the rich and bemoan the cocktail parties and dancing that went on in Miami.  Some of the disdain may even be merited.  At the same time, a good number of today’s (and yesterday’s) wealthy collectors see themselves as temporary custodians of the art they’re purchasing for sums too great for most of us to even contemplate.  Some, like the Rubells and Eli Broad or before them Norton Simon or Ray Nasher have established their own museums; others have just turned their treasures over to an existing public museum near you and me.  People of wealth buy big houses, cars, yachts, jet planes and the like to pamper themselves.  Many also buy art much of which will end up accessible to us and enriching our cultural lives.  That has long been the case and, considering the result, it’s really not such a bad thing.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bravo B'nai Jeshurun

Desperation can lead to bold and hoped for game-changing moves.  The Palestinians are, and have good reason to be, desperate.  And make no mistake; were the roles reversed, Israelis would most certainly have done exactly what President Mahmoud Abbas did in seeking an upgrade in United Nations status.  Instead the Netanyahu government, sadly joined by the United States, voted “no” contending that the Palestinian Authority’s gaining nonmember observer designation stands in the way of the peace process.  Well, if that’s the argument, then isn’t it fair to ask, what peace process would that be?  Endangering the peace process was precisely the argument put forward in 2011 when Abbas originally hoped for a UN vote.  Putting it off then clearly had zero impact because the peace process has seen no revival in the intervening period. 

One can put forward all the whys and wherefores, many of them totally valid, but the bottom line is that Palestinians remain subjects of a multi-decade occupation.   Yes, ample fault for the ongoing impasse can found on all sides, but that doesn’t change the uneven reality.  On one side stands a fully sovereign and relatively prosperous state, on the other a subject subject nation in effective limbo.  If that doesn’t lead to a sense of desperation, it’s hard to imagine what more would be needed.  The only mystery is why West Bank Palestinians haven’t demonstrated more and why, in contrast with their Gaza counterparts, they have remained largely non-violent in recent years.  So far nothing that can be called an Arab Spring has come to the West Bank.  But, as suggested in an earlier post, that can’t last forever.

For it’s part, Israel retaliated almost immediately.  Dissing not only Abbas but also (and perhaps more significantly) President Obama, Bibi dipped into his settlement tool kit by announcing a provocative step forward toward profoundly changing the facts on the ground.  The proposed 3000 new housing units in the E1 area near Jerusalem would essentially undermine, if not preclude, the two-state solution that he professes to support.  If you had any doubt, Israel is firmly in the hand of right-wingers who speak for and in the voice of its radical settler community.

We hear a lot of lockstep bluster from the Sheldon Adelson and AIPAC crowd who have used their checkbooks and implied or expressed threats to exert political influence.  Democrats and Republicans alike seem equally afraid to cross them.  But these are hardly the only voices or views of the American Jews for whom they claim to speak.  Just read Leonard Fein’s excellent piece in the Forward on the content rather than myth of the UN resolution.  His voice has been consistently both highly supportive and constructively critical of Israel.  But perhaps far more significant comes the news that the rabbis and lay leaders of New York’s 187 year old Congregation B’nai Jeshurun issued a statement in support of the United Nations vote.  That individuals like Fein speak out is not uncommon, that such a high profile institution takes a stand and in such a public way is unusual.  It’s about time.

I applaud B’nai Jeshurun’s leaders for speaking with the courage of their conviction and join them in seeing the UN votes as “ a great moment for us as citizens of the world.  Indeed, it's "an opportunity to celebrate the process that allows a nation to come forward and ask for recognition".  The statement was emailed to their congregation and signed by, among others, the three rabbis and board president.  It got mixed reactions from members of the congregation and most assuredly was not welcomed by many in the organized Jewish Community.  That said, and despite no figures to back it up, my guess is that a very large number of American Jews — especially the young — stand with B’nai Jeshurun.

Israel’s ultra-conservative politics today are out of sync with those of most American Jews.  An overwhelming majority of them vote Democratic and probably consider themselves politically liberal.   Netanyahu made it clear that he supported Mitt Romney in November and is generally more confortable with Republicans, especially those who share his rightist views.  Leaving aside how inappropriate it is for any foreign leader to insert himself into our election process, that Bibi blatantly and regularly disses my President is nothing short of despicable.

The United States went out on a limb in support of Israel’s untenable position on the Palestinian Authority's request.  As Secretary Clinton described it, we were "covering Israel’s back".  Bibi’s “thank you” was essentially a slap in the face.  He knows that we oppose this settlement expansion.  Much as he did during Vice President Biden’s visit to Jerusalem a few years ago, the Prime Minister figuratively stuck his middle finger in our eye.  That’s right not just the President’s eye but the eye of all American citizens including Jews.  

Israel has been able to count on the support of the United States and most especially of American Jews.  There are good reasons for that support, both moral and geopolitical.  Israel is a strategic ally, a democracy that has risen out of the Holocaust’s ashes.  But the current leaders of Israel are making a big, and potentially costly, error if they take that support for granted or if they assume it will always be there.  Even great friends and family have a breaking point.  America’s national interest in the face of a changing Middle East is for a settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute sooner rather than later.  I believe Israel has the same national interest, whether its present political leaders see it that way or not.  The clock is ticking and insofar as American Jews are concerned, Bibi should see B’nai Jeshurun’s action as a crack in the wall and, more important, know that they are hardly alone.    The clock is ticking.