Monthly Archives: March 2020

A New Symbol for Progressive Democracy

Social Democracy is not Socialism, but a mixed economic approach that balances the strengths of capitalism with a deep commitment to social justice.

I’ve been flying the flag of the Weimar Republic’s Iron Front a lot lately. If you don’t know who they were, here’s a brief intro:

iron frontThe Iron Front was a German paramilitary organization in the Weimar Republic that consisted of social democrats, trade unionists, and liberals. Its main goal was to defend liberal democracy against totalitarian ideologies on the right and left, and it chiefly opposed the Nazi Party with their Sturmabteilung wing and the Communist Party of Germany with their Antifaschistische Aktion wing.

Formally independent, it was intimately associated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The Three Arrows, originally conceived for the Iron Front, became a well known social democrat symbol representing resistance against Nazism, Communism and reactionary conservatism during the parliamentary elections in 1932, and was adopted by the SPD itself.

Many Americans who don’t know the symbol’s history nonetheless have seen it – the three arrows are widely used by the Antifa movement.

Antifa

Also, the symbol is used by the Portland Timbers supporters, who enthusiastically back Antifa.

timbers army antifa

I’ve been thinking about the symbol a lot lately, specifically its modern use and context. As noted above, the three arrows signify opposition to Communism, Nazism, and reactionary conservatism (often in the form of monarchists). These days only one of those three is a salient concern – the racist, authoritarian right that’s all-too-often connected to the Republican Party in the US and various resurgent neo-Fascist factions around the world.

Three_Arrows_election_poster_of_the_Social_Democratic_Party_of_Germany,_1932_-_Gegen_Papen,_Hitler,_ThälmannGerman citizens in the early ’30s knew what the SDP stood for, but here in 2020 that knowledge and context is missing. Worse, establishment and right-wing entities seize on every chance to paint Antifa as anti-American, anti-freedom, anarchist radicals whose only goal is to destroy America.

That’s propaganda, not fact, of course, but it might help if we all stood beneath a banner than was explicitly for something, too.

So what is this Social Democracy the Iron Front supported?

Social democracy is a political, social and economic philosophy that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and a capitalist-oriented mixed economy. The protocols and norms used to accomplish this involve a commitment to representative and participatory democracy, measures for income redistribution, regulation of the economy in the general interest and social welfare provisions. Due to longstanding governance by social democratic parties during the post-war consensus and their influence on socioeconomic policy in the Nordic countries, social democracy has become associated with the Nordic model and Keynesianism within political circles in the late 20th century. It has also been seen by some political commentators as a synonym for modern socialism and as overlapping with democratic socialism.

While having socialism as a long-term goal, social democracy aims to create the conditions for capitalism to lead to greater democratic, egalitarian and solidaristic outcomes. It is characterized by a commitment to policies aimed at curbing inequality, eliminating oppression of underprivileged groups and eradicating poverty as well as support for universally accessible public services like care for the elderly, child care, education, health care and workers’ compensation. It often has strong connections with the labour movement and trade unions, being supportive of collective bargaining rights for workers and measures to extend decision-making beyond politics into the economic sphere in the form of co-determination for employees and stakeholders.

To be clear, not Socialism, but a mixed economic approach that balances the strengths of capitalism with a deep commitment to social justice. (We can debate “having socialism as a long-term goal” when the long term arrives – the SD road from here to there I suspect will change what our ideas of both Socialism and Capitalism are in ways that render the whole conversation moot.)

I feel like Social Democracy does a pretty good job describing my beliefs (although I’d welcome a truly forward-looking iteration that accounted for the economic dislocations of automation and AI and embedded the certain necessity of guaranteed universal income), and coupled with a disgust for the hate-fueled neo-feudalism many of us face I suspect it encapsulates the sentiments of, at minimum, a solid plurality of America’s voting-age citizens.

So I’ve revised the Iron Front logo into something that more distinctly reflects who and where we are today.

Iron-Front-2020

  • The design retains the downward arrow for anti-Fascism
  • The other arrow represents Social Democracy
  • The SD arrow points both up and to the right – onward and upward
  • The colors remain black and white to reinforce the idea that we’re in a state of distress

I’ll see what I can do about getting t-shirts. Meanwhile, you’ll notice that row of icons in my new banner on the home page. They signify the things the Pit is concerned with: Arts and Literature, Photography, Politics, Sports and Life/Leisure. This emblem occupies the Politics spot.

Let me know what you think. And also if you have ideas what to call it…

From Norris to winterSmith: A Long Quest for Identity

Norris-vs-winterSmith

One of the first things my parents did when I was born was saddle me with the wrong name: Norris Gilmer Smith, Jr.

I hated that name. The Smith part was good, but the rest… I never liked Norris because it sounded … I don’t even know how to articulate this. It made me different without making me special.

Then there was the Jr. part. Daddy wanted a little him. Because that’s the sort of self-involved person he was. Of course, I never came anywhere near being a little version of him. Never wanted to be, and once I reached a certain age I started going out of my way to make sure he (and everybody else) understood it.

And Gilmer – I’m going to assume this one is self-explanatory.

When I moved to Iowa for grad school in 1987 I ditched the Norris and started going by Random. No, the derivation isn’t “random,” as in “proceeding, made, or occurring without definite aim, reason, or pattern.” On the contrary. It was an amalgamation of Brand, from Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand,” and CS Lewis’s Elwin Ransom. Ethan Brand was the man who abandoned his life and went to search the world for the unpardonable sin. He found it: “The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its own mighty claims!” Ransom, of course, was the salvation figure in Perelandra.

Denial of kinship of fellow human, salvation figure. Brand + Ransom = Random. Yeah, it was on the pretentious side, and sadly it was confusing as hell for folks. It sounded dumb. I’ve always lived in a world of symbols and back then was a bit full of myself. Thanks to those of you who put up with me during this phase.

Awkward first steps notwithstanding, the point is I was shedding an identity that wasn’t me and embarking on a quest for my real self. It wasn’t all in my head, either. People who grow up with you, people in your hometown, they have an idea about who you are. They aren’t interested in your discomfort with who you’re supposed to be. Their image of who you are is reality and the rest is silliness. Get back in your box and stay there. And that box has the name your parents gave you on it.

While in Iowa I changed my name legally to Samuel Random Norris Smith. Samuel was my grandfather, and he and my grandmother took me in when I was three. My parents split and it was wisely decided that I should be raised by adults. So Sam was the closest thing to a father I really had.

I kept the Norris so I could cash any checks made out to the old name. Literally.

And in 1994 I asked people to call me Sam.

Along the way I’ve made use of any number of personas, handles, and noms des plume. I was Road Angel online and fancied myself sort of a moral icon along the Information Superhighway. Or something. I was Dr. A Thaddeus “Tad” ver Bose, a writer and professor who was, well, a tad verbose. I was Roger Daylights (if I ever do an action/adventure film, that’s who I’ll be). My noir anti-hero character is Hawthorn Curve, Private Dick.

I blogged as Dr. Slammy for a long time, and while Slammy was me, he was the unforgiving, caustic, suffer-no-fools side of me. Slammy was a smart and relentless political thinker, but he he wasn’t especially fun to be around. Over time his toxicity began to take a toll on me.

Dr. Sidicious “Sid” Bonesparkle is an emissary of Hell turned American culture wag. He’s the voice in my head who takes over when things that are a little extra heretical need saying.

These days I use Doc in most of my social media profiles. I spent six years getting the damned PhD – I might as well get some use out of it.

And on and on.

Now we arrive at the present day. I said above I was okay with “Smith.” It’s as common as mashed potatoes, and try checking into a hotel with the name Sam Smith sometime. But a smith is also a creator, and for my entire adult life I’ve been a writer. A wordsmith. Now I’m a photographer and digital artist, which I suppose makes me an imagesmith. So Smith is right.

The “winter”part is a slightly longer story, but perhaps the one that brings it all home. I was born at 4:27am on Feb 2 – Imbolc, the midpoint between Solstice and Equinox. Midwinter. While many people, if not most, seem to hate winter, I never have. I don’t mind the cold. I love snow. Its bite reminds me I’m alive.

Nor am I bothered by the darkness. Bleakness, overcast, nighttime – in some ways this is my natural element. My art has always sought out the beauty in the darkness, whether in words or pictures.

Then, a few years ago, I discovered Terry Pratchett’s novel Wintersmith. In it the young witch, Tiffany Aching, gets caught up in the seasonal rites and accidentally awakens an elemental spirit. He becomes enraptured by her, obsessed. He sets out to become human and make her his own.

But the Wintersmith has no understanding of what it means to be human. He observes and imitates people, but his efforts to woo Tiffany are instead alienating, terrifying. And his attempts to connect with her ultimately threaten the natural order of the seasons and of life itself.

He wants to be human. To love. To be loved. But he doesn’t know how.

A good friend and mentor once said artists don’t get to live life life, they only observe it. I wish he’d been wrong, but in Pratchett’s misguided spirit I feel more kinship and empathy than I enjoy thinking about.

I was always a smith and was born a child of winter, but finally I’ve come to terms with winterSmith. Perhaps it isn’t the self I hoped to find, but at least there’s peace in the knowing.

I’ve long thought that the name we’re given at birth should simply be our childhood name, and that when we reached a certain age we should choose our own name. I’ve imagined this would happen when we reached legal adulthood at 18, but reflecting on my own journey maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe it should happen when we turn 50…

Joe Can’t Win! Really? Let’s Review….

The Biden Can’t Beat Trump meme is powerful these days, and it’s an opinion held by some people I have a lot of respect for.

But.

Look, I hate Biden for all the reasons every sensible progressive does. But it’s like we’ve all forgotten what actually happened in 2016. Trump didn’t romp because he hate this irresistible tidal wave of hate behind him. There was no landslide.

Clinton beat him in the popular vote by 3M and if her dumb ass hadn’t inexplicably decided that Michigan and Wiscy were in the bag she’d likely have won. Trump barely beat the worst idea the Dems have had in years on the Electoral College technicality.

All of which is to say, he didn’t win the election, she lost it.

Biden is a clown, yes. He’s either drunk or showing signs of senility. He’s Wall Street’s best little buddy. He has a clear record of siding with the GOP against Social Security, Medicare, and the well-being of the people generally.

Biden-Cuomo

But he has fewer perceived negatives among “moderate” voters than Hillary did and Obama will go all-in on him. At this stage I imagine he’s looking hard at Cuomo, whose COVID performance has even my progressive friends who ought to know better saying nice things about him. Right now Cuomo on the ticket might be a winner with the lefter wing of the party.

The recent bounce in Trump’s COVID approval is delusional and it won’t withstand what’s coming. So from where I sit it’s going to take a miracle for Trump to win. Doesn’t mean he won’t declare the Reich and try a coup, but …

If I’m right the ensuing four years will be wonderful compared to the last four, because that bar is so low even Uncle Joe can clear it. We just have to do what we can then to keep the DNC from further consolidating power.

We can have that talk later, but in the meantime I don’t share the Joe Can’t Win thinking at all.

Epitaph

I can’t decide what to have them put on my tombstone. Advice?

1:

He was a simple country boy.

2:

The world ends not with a bang
Not even a whimper
But with ellipses…

3:

He was a blind man playing tag with ninjas in the dark

Teach Me Baroque Art History

I have seven letters after my name, but I often feel as though I’m in desperate need of education.

I can’t look at the news without thinking how much I’d benefit from a good history degree, for instance. More and more when I listen to music I wish I understood the mathematics of tone. And speaking of math, I envy the geniuses who understand our existence in terms of formulas I can’t begin to unravel and I’d give anything to better grasp the code of the universe.

Every moment, it seems, life reminds me how little I know. I study what I can, but no life is long enough to learn everything I wish I understood.

Photography torments me most of all. I know a few things and have learned an immense amount from some of my talented friends, but mostly I’m self-taught. And I’ve always suspected I’d benefit from your basic intro-level course. Photography 101. Composition. Light and shadow. A professional set of eyes looking over my shoulder and pointing out the nuances I’ve missed. That sort of thing.

So I have this little list in my head of courses I want to take someday. And today I added another: History of Baroque Art. Maybe something like this from UDub.

The why is … Okay, occasionally I find something I like, so I investigate. My recent kick has been music of the Baroque, which was inspired by Pachelbel and Vivaldi and my general lack of interest in all the music I normally listen to. One thing led to another and of course I found myself reading about Baroque art.

I’ve seen and admired many of these painters before, but I never had the context of the movement in my head as an organizing principle. But as I explore, things begin making a bit of sense and, most importantly, I feel a kinship.

The work that distinguishes the Baroque period is stylistically complex, even contradictory. In general, however, the desire to evoke emotional states by appealing to the senses, often in dramatic ways, underlies its manifestations. Some of the qualities most frequently associated with the Baroque are grandeur, sensuous richness, drama, vitality, movement, tension, emotional exuberance, and a tendency to blur distinctions between the various arts.

No, this isn’t me exactly, but the drama, the intense shadows and deep colors that typify the masters of the era, it all reminds me of me when I’m interrogating an image.

And the paintings themselves – I don’t have words.

The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600), by Caravaggio

The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600), by Caravaggio

The Garden of Love, by Peter Paul Rubens

The Garden of Love, by Peter Paul Rubens

The Nightwatch, by Rembrandt

The Nightwatch, by Rembrandt

What would I find hidden in my photography if I had space and time to study these artists in detail? My bucket list doesn’t look like most, I suspect.

Here’s my latest. All I can say is that as I composed it and developed it the Baroque masters were on my mind…

Wedding-Song

Quantum Enlightenment and the Watched Pot

Sogi-vs-IkkyuSōgi bows before Ikkyū.

“Master Dōken rebuked me this morning,” he says.

“What did you do this time?” replies Ikkyū.

“Nothing. I merely asked why the bird sings in its gilded cage.”

Ikkyū sighs. “What was the Master doing?”

Sōgi reflects for a moment. “At the time he seemed rather agitated at a pot of water.”

“What did he say to you?”

“He cursed the stove. Then he cursed my gilded bird. I explained that the cage was gilded, not the bird, but that upset him further. Then he asked did I not know a watched pot never boils?

“Master Ikkyū, I am unfamiliar with this wisdom. What is its meaning?”

Ikkyū laughs. “Young Sōgi, that is not wisdom. It is mere frustration with the perceived perversity of the material universe.”

“But … Master Dōken is the embodiment of enlightenment.”

“Master Dōken isn’t enlightened until after he’s had his coffee. Before then he’s just a grumpy old man.”

_____

Later, Sōgi again approaches Ikkyū. “Master, I have been thinking on your lesson this morning.”

“It wasn’t a lesson. I just explained why Master Dōken was upset.”

“Indeed. So, the other day Master Haisen was reflecting on the quantum nature of enlightenment.”

“Here we go…” Ikkyū mutters under his breath.

“He holds that all we perceive is merely the expression of one potentiality. There are infinite possibilities, he says. Infinite universes. ‘Infinity awaits our notice,’ he says. Nothing becomes real until it is observed.”

“Yes,” says Ikkyū. “That sounds like something Master Haisen would say. In this continuum, anyway. Who knows what he might say if a raindrop fell on the fly instead of the honeybee.”

“I believe his insight must mean Master Dōken is wrong,” says Sōgi.

“Wrong? How so?”

“If Master Haisen is correct, it means a pot never boils until it is watched.”