The Lesser Known Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van GoghHaving fought with a major networking problem all weekend long, I’m kind of tired. So you must forgive me for taking the easy way out and noting that Vincent van Gogh was born on this day in 1853. I put it that way, because van Gogh is probably the most overrated painter in history. I don’t say that because he wasn’t a great painter; he was very much a great painter. Nor do I say it just because his paintings commonly sell for around $100 million dollars a piece. I say it because of which paintings sell. It is generally his weaker paintings.

Of course, it is a matter of opinion. I like van Gogh most when his painting is more like Gauguin. The less impressionistic his work is, the better. When he was doing his usual style—the one that people seem to like so much—he was incredibly repetitive. I especially don’t like his explicit lines in most of that work. But things like Bedroom in Arles are transcendent. And I’m especially impressed with The Zouave (half-figure) (although the full-figure is arguably even better):

The Zouave (half-figure) - Vincent van Gogh

I am especially interested in van Gogh’s relationship with his brother Theo. I think it is wonderful that the two were so close and that Theo was so dedicated to Vincent’s art. But then, I have a tendency to romanticize van Gogh. I saw a documentary that proposed what is probably an unlikely theory: that some boys accidentally shot van Gogh, and he didn’t say anything in order to cover for them. So: no suicide, just an honorable man doing his best for some youths. Even if it’s just a story, I prefer to believe it.

Here is Jonathan Richman doing his very sweet homage to the artist:

Happy birthday Vincent van Gogh!

Bill Maher Gives Good Advice to Dems

Bill MaherBill Maher is kind of a jerk. He’s also pretentious and he thinks he’s way smarter than he actually is. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t right. Or insightful. And on Friday’s episode of Real Time, he had some great advice for the Democratic Party. I know its great advice because I’ve been offering it to the Democrats myself for a while. It all comes down to my long held believe that the Democrats should stop trying to win the “swing voters.” For one thing, I’m not even sure such voters exist. And if they do, they don’t jump from Democrat to Republican based upon policy. If anything is going to win their votes, it is going to be clarity of vision.

It is hard for Republicans because their policies are really unpopular. They need to twist themselves into knots to convince even their own base to vote against their own interests just to get “those people.” The Democrats are in a much easier position. Their policies are really popular. The only reason they seem to have trouble getting votes is that Democrats don’t want to own the policies they supposedly support. You know: the policies that the people like. So we have this screwed up world where Republicans proudly say that rape victims should be forced to give birth to rapists’ children, even though it is a very unpopular position. And we have Democrats who are circumspect about their support for Social Security and Medicare.

In the following “New Rules” segment, Maher points out this issue with far more humor and flair than I would ever be capable of. But I was especially impressed with what he said about Obama always talking about how great Reagan was—never mentioning Carter. That’s always made me angry. Reagan isn’t such an icon just because conservatives love him. Part of his appeal is that the last two Democratic presidents have gone out of their way to say how much they think he was great. Except he wasn’t. He just got credit for the Paul Volcker economic recovery. And in pretty much every way, Reagan sucked.

So I hope that the Democratic Party takes Bill Maher’s words to heart. It is really depressing to be a Democrat and it has been for a long time. It isn’t about winning elections. I could deal with losing elections, if we did it on our own liberal terms. But as it is, even when we win, we lose. You can bet if the Republicans take over Washington in 2016, there will be major changes. If the Democrats take over, it will be more of the same: a tad of financial reform here, a bit of healthcare reform there. I don’t blame the Democratic base from staying home in off year elections. What surprises me is that they show up in presidential elections.

Right Wing Propaganda Spawns Loons

Robert James Talbot JrLast week, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported, FBI Smashes Alleged Radical-Right Terror Plot in Texas. It told the story of Robert James Talbot Jr, who seems to be a right wing nutjob. He was soliciting people via Facebook to recruit men “to restore America Pre-Constitutionally and look forward to stopping the Regime with action by bloodshed.” His rhetoric is all like that. For example, he wrote, “[W]e will send that white house worthless piece of dirt and his Muslim brotherhood a message they will never forget.” Charming stuff.

What’s bothersome, but hardly surprising, is that there is nothing very different from what he wrote than what one hears on right wing hate radio. He is talking about armed rebellion. But otherwise, it is filled with the same nonsense about the Muslim Brotherhood and how the current government—”Regime”—is invalid. And most of all, there is just a loony amount of anger.

It all reminds me of the end of Pulp Fiction, where Jules tells Pumpkin, “The truth is you’re the weak.” I see Talbot as the weak—a lost soul who doesn’t know what to think or to do. And he’s been marinating in a toxic stew of conspiracy theories and anger. What, in the end, are Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage ranting about? If things really are as terrible as they say, is Talbot so wrong to think that revolution is the answer?

None of this is to apologize for Talbot. There is little doubt that he is a very bad guy. I can well imagine him torturing small animals as a child. But one doesn’t become a revolutionary in a vacuum. How long as a society are we going to allow the conservative rage machine to continue on? I’m not talking about laws here. I’m talking about making such rhetoric socially unacceptable.

Andrew Breitbart - RIPTwo years ago, after Andrew Breitbart died, I wrote, Death as Public Good. In it, I criticized those liberals who said, “Sure, he published vile things and made society a worse place. But in person, he calmed down and was a nice guy.” That’s the problem. Look at Bill O’Reilly. He pays no social price for the venom he spews publicly. He’s still invited onto The Daily Show and accepted as a normal member of society. And when someone like Talbot goes on tilt, no one blames O’Reilly or the social system that created him.

Conservatives are fond of ranting about radicalization of Muslims. But every day on television, radio, and the internet, there are very loud voices radicalizing conservatives. And it is generally not mentioned. It is off limits because those doing the radicalizing are not clerics or politicians; they are celebrities making millions of dollars. O’Reilly claims he is just “playing a character.” And that’s why we all have to pretend that he’s a good man, whereas Talbot is supposedly just a bad apple. While it may be true that Talbot was born bad, the billion dollar right wing outrage machine made him worse.


There is another, and quite different, aspect of the story that bothers me. Talbot only managed to recruit three guys—all of them undercover agents. In this case, I’m glad they got him and that now he’s in a jail cell where he can’t hurt anyone. He could easily have become another nut with a gun murdering people at a shopping mall. But this is hardly a terror plot that was foiled. For example, the acts of terrorism Talbot was plotting depended upon the agents providing the tools—in this case C-4 explosives. This is what we see in almost all such cases. It would appear that potential terrorists are also quite incompetent.

Why No Media Interest in Obamacare

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman is surprised about, The ACA Surge Blackout. In it, he noted that the media were all over the website problems as they should have been. But they seem especially disinterested in covering the fact that the website was fixed and enrollment is way up. It is quite possible that the program will meet its initial (pre-website) projections for signups. So there ought to be celebration about this and instead there are only yawns.

I know why the media don’t care about the story. It’s the same reason that we generally have bad coverage of political issues: false equivalence. Since reporters don’t want to be accused of bias, they report every issue as though the Democrats and the Republicans are equal and opposite ends of the debate. The problem is especially bad on economic issues, where the Democrats aren’t anywhere close to being liberal. But even accepting the two ideological poles, it is rarely the case that they are both equally valid.

In the case of Obamacare, the two poles are reasonable because we are talking about a specific government policy. On one side, the Democrats point out that there has been a surge in enrollment and it is close to the original projections. On the other hand, we have Republicans literally screaming that these numbers are all lies. There are many ways they do this like claiming that just because someone signed up, doesn’t mean they are actually going to pay for the insurance. And then there is the largely contradictory claim that the signups have only been for the Medicaid expansion and so they don’t count. And on and on.

Reporters see this and figure, as they always do, “Who can know the truth?” After all, on one hand, you have government statistics that have been quite accurate over the last 200 years. On the other side, you have partisans who hate Obamacare and throw everything at it hoping that something will stick. These people have been shown again and again and again to be spouting nonsense. How could a reporter ever figure out what the truth is?!

I suspect when the official numbers come out, they will get a decent amount of coverage. But it will be filled with caveats about how Republicans say the program is doing poorly. Unfortunately, we will have to deal with this until they give up their disinformation campaign. Of course, after that happens (and it will take years), those involved in the campaign will not pay a price in reduced credibility. The media will still listen to the garbage they spew and pretend that it is just one completely valid side of the debate.