Why Do People Smile in Modern Photographs?

Berthold Laufer Photo of Chinese Man - 1904The wrong question of the day is: Why People Never Smiled in Old Photographs. I wish I could report that we know what the answer is. Phil Edwards certainly provides us with a few ideas. The one that everyone that I know just assumes is right is slow film speed: everyone had to remain perfectly still for a long time. But this has never made much sense to me. I don’t find it any easier to hold a frown than a smile. And you would think that some people in the sea of glum would smile. But we don’t see much of that.

A couple of other ideas seem silly to me. One is, “Early photographs were seen as a passage to immortality.” This goes along with one of these creepy pictures of a corpse — made famous in the film The Others. The question then just turns to why all these people thought eternity was so glum. And a picture of a dead guy is obviously not going to be smiling. Another idea is, “Victorian and Edwardian culture looked down on smiling.” It turns out there are actually a fair number of photos — especially from the Edwardian period where everyone is smiling. And I think that is part of the answer.

Edwards gets closest to the issue with this idea, “Early photography was heavily influenced by painting — which meant no smiling.” This, of course, brings up its own question: why didn’t people smile in paintings? I think the answer to both questions is that sitting for a painting or an early photograph was an exhausting experience. It wasn’t a question of how long they had to wait for the exposure; it was a matter of how long they had to wait for the photographer to get everything set up. So even people who started off smiling didn’t end up that way. It’s similar to the end of a really long, boring business meeting: no one is smiling.

Arthur SchopenhauerThe other issue is that because taking a photo was such a big deal, people tended to be somber about it. And so it did become something of a style. And I doubt there was anything really special in the fact that most people weren’t smiling. People don’t generally smile; they just have what would be termed neutral faces. The people in these old pictures aren’t frowning. They just have normal expressions.

There is one man who everyone thinks of as dour, Arthur Schopenhauer. Yet in half of the photographs of them, he is smiling. Well, maybe it is more correct to say that he is smirking. And to me, that is exactly who he was: a man who was lightly amused at the absurdity of existence. So maybe who we really are is found in those 19th century photos.

Edwards presents the photo at the top of this article as a curious anomaly. It is of a Chinese man in 1904, taken by the anthropologist Berthold Laufer. And Edwards thinks both men’s status as outsiders might have something to do with the playfulness of the image. But I have a more straightforward view of it: maybe they were just both having a good time. Maybe they were both drunk. Regardless, I think the image is a good indication of what was happening before and after the photo. And I think that’s true of the other photos where no one is smiling.

What I find more strange is that everyone feels the need to smile in photographs we take today. I find most family pictures these days incredibly fake — like everyone is pretending to be happy. I think they are just us trying to lie to the world because by now we understand the power of photographs to shape perspectives. There are lots of pictures of Ernest Hemingway smiling, yet he wasn’t a happy man. That seems stranger to me than the fact that people in pictures from 150 years ago look the way people normally look when they aren’t getting their pictures taken.

John Boehner as Loyal Corporate Shill

Alex PareeneWe can apparently credit Pope Francis for at least one good deed on his American tour: he has ended the suffering of an unhappy man. The miserable speakership of John Boehner is over.

It was not a distinguished tenure. His meager accomplishments came in spite of himself and to the great consternation of his Republican colleagues. He pinballed from one pathetic humiliation, usually at the hands of his own caucus, to the next. The only reason Boehner remained speaker for as long as he did — to his eternal regret, it is clear — is because his bitterest opponents were too stupid to figure out how to oust him, and his likeliest replacements never wanted the job…

So Boehner kept his job, and Congress staggered haplessly into the next crisis.

Because he was dealing with a Congressional caucus increasingly made up of ideologues and idiots, and because he was occasionally forced to betray conservatives in order to stave off catastrophes, moderate pundits occasionally speak, with some fondness, about John Boehner as a man who tried his best to keep his unruly conservative colleagues from doing too much damage.

There is no particular reason to feel any sympathy for the man.

John Boehner was and is an unprincipled ward-heeler who simply couldn’t weather the transition of the Republican Party from a corporatist party with a sizable conservative base to a purely conservative party. Boehner came to power when the priorities of the House Republican caucus were driven by what was effectively straight-up bribery, and his power came from his close ties to industry lobbies. This is the guy, as we all ought to be regularly reminded, who passed out checks from tobacco companies on the floor of the House…

Each one of his major legislative compromises as speaker — and even from before he was speaker, like when then-Minority Leader Boehner tearfully begged his Republican colleagues to vote for the 2008 bank bailout — represented Boehner defying the conservative base to act in the interests of the Republican donor class…

It’s long past time for Boehner to get the hell out of Washington and settle into the plush industry “consulting” gig that surely awaits him.

—Alex Pareene
Don’t Cry For John Boehner

David Brooks Ignores John Calhoun in His Conservative History

David BrooksDavid Brooks wrote an astounding column last Friday, The American Idea and Today’s GOP. He’s either incredibly ignorant or deeply deceptive. His argument is that Donald Trump and others are destroying the conservative tradition in America because it has always been forward looking. He noted that in this way it is different from conservatism in other places where it is all about holding on to the history of the place. But if that’s what American conservatives are, then what have the American liberals been doing? Have the last 250 years been a battle about how we are going to rush to the future?

There’s no way of saying, because Brooks never mentioned Democrats in that context — or liberals at all. Apparently, America is the conservative movement. That’s how he can write something like this, “From Lincoln to Reagan to Bush, the market has been embraced for being dynamic and progressive.” Yes, there’s a real continuum there from the man who headed an abolitionist party to the man who gave his first speech as the Republican nominee for president about “states’ rights” at the site of where three civil rights workers were lynched. And really, is that what the Republican Party is? Lincoln — a 120 years — Reagan — 20 yeas — Bush?!

John CalhounBut the big question is who exactly were the people who thought they could just take the land of native peoples because they had the power too? The ones who later committed genocide against them? And who were the ones who practiced and defended slavery? I’m not talking parties here, because obviously, over time, things get mixed up. But what movement was John Calhoun part of? Was he a liberal? A conservative? Or just someone we have to throw aside as an outlier? That last option seems to be Brooks’ choice, because he certainly doesn’t engage with it.

If we assume that modern conservatives are not the descendants of Calhoun, who are? Who are the people who fight against every change? Who are the people who think that things are just fine the way they are? Who are the people who think that it is God’s will that the poor are poor and the weak are weak? Because these are the things that Calhoun stood for — the things that he believed. Today, it would be hard to find someone who would make the same arguments for slavery. But the same arguments are being made to preserve less outrageous injustices. And unless I’m just really dense, the answer is very obviously found in the majority of the Republican Party.

I get so tired of hearing people like Brooks complaining that the conservative movement has gone off track. There are two strains of American thought that currently find themselves wedded in the Republican Party. One is the Alexander Hamilton strain of business and profits before people. Brooks mentioned him, because that’s the part that isn’t embarrassing — the part that history hasn’t completely repudiated. But the other strain is very much John Calhoun. And Brooks knows that. What’s more, he knows that without the fearful bigots, there’s no way the Republican Party would ever win an election anywhere. And if he doesn’t know that, he has no right to be printed in WorldNetDaily, much less The New York Times.

The “Clinton Malfeasance” Conspiracy Theory

Ron FournierMany years ago, I was talking to a liberal friend of mine. I noted that the last two years of Bush’s presidency weren’t that bad. He seemed to have taken control from Cheney. He didn’t have control of Congress. He wasn’t good, but he was about as good as you could expect from a Republican president. And most of all: he was far better than he was the first six years. My friend did not like this at all. She started ranting about how evil Bush was and how he would run for a third term if he thought he could get away with it. And on and on.

This is a problem with all of us. I certainly fall into it myself. I assume the worst possible motives to conservatives. But I try not to. I try to remember that they really do think if we just cut taxes and regulations, then there will be jobs aplenty and it will be 1963 with June there to welcome the Beaver home from school and have dinner on the table when Hugh got home from work. Although I have to admit, the evidence against the kind of economic policy that Republicans favor is hard to justify. But I figure it is mostly tribal, not not that they just want to screw everyone but the rich.

But this attitude — that a politician you don’t like has evil intent — is nowhere as big as it is for the Clintons — Hillary especially at the moment. And this isn’t just on the right. There are lots of liberals who have a hatred that can only be described as pathological. And it’s strange. I understand that Rush Limbaugh thinks that the Clintons dress up in black robs and ritually torture infants to death in their secret underground lair; and then Hillary bathes in the blood to stay young. But he’s a demagogue.

The complaint from the liberal and “moderate” side seems to be that the Clintons are fake. But I actually think this is totally wrong. When Bill Clinton was first elected president, I was a libertarian. But I was amazed that people had such a problem with him. It seemed to me that the complaints about him being “slick” were just the complaints of losers that the winner was really good at what he does. If sprinters were as petty as these people, they would complain that Usain Bolt was “slick.”

That’s certainly what seems to be going on with Ron Fournier — the man who always finds the truth exactly halfway between the two parties and almost always finds them equally to blame for everything.

Let’s face it: all politicians are fake to one degree or another. That’s what you get when you make politics into a “beauty” pageant. But in the case of the Clintons, there seems to be some very twisted logic. Bill Clinton was attacked explicitly because he seemed authentic, “I feel your pain.” But to the professional pundit, the more authentic someone seems, the less authentic they must be. That’s certainly what seems to be going on with Ron Fournier — the man who always finds the truth exactly halfway between the two parties and almost always finds them equally to blame for everything. Except when it comes to anyone named Clinton. He claims that, “The email scandal is a distraction from the important work of the Democratic Party.” As though it isn’t exactly him and like minded individuals who continue to push this fake scandal.

Kevin Drum wrote an excellent retort, If You Accuse Hillary Clinton of Lying, You Should Be Careful With the Truth Yourself. It turns out that everything that Fournier is complaining about is either wrong or misleading. The details don’t actually matter (but click over if you are interested). As Drum said, “It’s been months now, and there’s simply no evidence of anything other than unwise email practices and an unfortunate but instinctive defensiveness from Clinton over trivial matters.”

But Fournier and others know there must be something there. There must be, because it is Hillary Clinton. My take away from the Starr Report in 1998 was that the Clintons had to be the most honest politicians in the history of the world. And here’s the thing: that’s what a reasonably rational and objective person concludes. But people like Ron Fournier are basically conspiracy theorists: they’ve decided that there is “something” there and they will never believe anything else because there is no way to prove a negative. Fournier could be obsessed with finding that teapot that might be orbiting the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars. But instead, he’s obsessed with the malfeasance that he “knows” Hillary Clinton must be involved in.

See also: Centrist Solutions Lead to Right Wing Extremism.

Morning Music: Teengenerate

Live At Shelter - TeengenerateToday we have a real treat: Teengenerate. They were a short-lived band out of Tokyo know for having a sense of humor. Of course, I think that’s one of the things that distinguishes punk from heavy metal. As a genre, heavy metal takes itself very seriously. Or maybe what I’m really talking about are the fans. Certainly Blue Öyster Cult always knew they were hilarious and that’s one of the main reasons I like them.

Anyway, on this video we get two songs that one commenter was nice enough to list: “Sex Cow” and “Gonna Feel Alright.” (I checked, and he was right.) They are off the album, Live At Shelter. What I especially like is the song that the guitarist is playing while he’s waiting for the rest of the band. Yes, this was a fun group.

Anniversary Post: Chevrolet Camaro

1967 CamaroOn this day in 1966, the first (1967 model year) Chevrolet Camaro went on the market. As longtime readers know, I really don’t care for cars. But I actually know something about the Camaro. I can tell if a Camaro is a 1967 model or something else. That is because the 1967 Camaro is the only one that has a vent window. And to know this little bit of car trivia fills me with pride.

When I was a little boy, my parents owned what I think was a 1968 Camaro. It was painted gold. And I remember seeing a Camaro around that time that was painted yellow with a purple racing stripe. As part of my filial duties, I sometimes go with my father to old car shows. And I’m amazed at how often people put racing stripes on “muscle” cars. (The Camaro is supposedly a “pony” car.) It seems so silly to me. Do these people think they are race car drivers?

My father is very much a General Motors kind of guy. He’s very into Buicks. This is kind of odd to me, because whenever I see an American car that I think is compelling at one of these shows, it is almost always a Ford. And as an example of this, I think the Mustang is a much more interesting car than a Camaro. Of course, if I had to have a car, I would like one of those old (tiny) Mini Coopers. As it was, my sister used to have a really old Subaru Justy, and I loved that car. You can make those little cars dance. Literally:


James FogleIt would be the 79th birthday of James Fogle today. He wrote the novel Drugstore Cowboy. And he wrote a number of other novels, but they’ve never been published. The thing about him is that he actually lived the life that he wrote about in his one published novel. So he spent a lot of time in prison and ended up dying in prison. It’s a shame, because Fogle clearly had a lot to offer to the world. But we do have that one novel and we have the excellent film that was made from it — which I consider by far the best drug movie ever made.