Monday, July 30, 2012

Meetings with Not-So-Famous Men.

Some years ago I attended a party that was graced by a man who said that he was Secretary General of the AAAA organization.  A little inquiry revealed that the full name of the group was the American Association for the Advancement of Assholism.  I brought forth the names of a number of humanitarians and respected citizens.  He averred that they were, all of them, members in good standing of Four A.

Quite a few years earlier, not long after I first came to NYC in 1956, I met a Chinese-American named Wang.  He told me that he headed the New York branch of the White Citizens Council, a far-right group that opposed desegregation.  When I asked how a person of Asian heritage could serve in such an office, he replied that he was only holding down the job until some Caucasian would come forward to take his place.  As far as I know, none did.

As regards the A-word it has always struck me that by comparison with, say, "cocksucker" and "motherfucker," it was ratjher amorphous in terms of reference, and consequently of little use as an insult.  Just about everything has a book nowadays, and so too with this word:

Friday, July 27, 2012

Dyneslines news.

I have started yet another blog, artishistoria.  You may access it by clicking on my adjacent Profile.   This site is the vehicle for the revised version of my "History of Art History," written some twenty years ago, but not published.  I am in the course of making extensive textual revisions, which are ongoing.

I am also accessible at Facebook, which I now use for the smaller contributions that used to appear at this blog. Feel free to "friend" me there.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

“Casablanca” and Casablanca. 

A recent wrangle on Facebook taught me a useful lesson.  Criticize icons of popular culture if you wish, but at your peril.  The particular focus of the debate was the famous film “Casablanca”  of 1942. I have seen it several times, and it is certainly a good yarn with a lot of (synthetic) local color reflecting common views about North Africa at the time.

I have also been to Casablanca, the city (in 1974), and of course it looks nothing like the film, which was shot on a Hollywood lot.  That was generally true of movies with foreign themes in those days; location filming emerged only after the war as travelers demanded greater authenticity,  In addition, the film relies on a series of cliches developed in earlier movies about North Africa, including  “Morocco” (1930) with Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich, and “Pépé le Moko” (French, 1937; remade in Hollywood as “Algiers” in 1938).

There was also, of course, a significant contemporary reality.  Like Lisbon, Casablanca served as a kind of waiting room for European refugees seeking to go to America.

There was also a vivid military and political context.  Directly or indirectly, the Axis powers controlled North Africa,  Allied strategy reckoned on the imperative that in preparation for the invasion of southern Europe this situation must be reversed.  Accordingly, on November 8, 1942 allied forces landed in five major ports in Algeria and Morocco, including Casablanca.  The film “Casablanca” was rushed into release in order to capitalize on these current events.

There are other issues involved.  After the third or fourth viewing of “Casablanca,” I asked myself a simple question: What were the French doing in Morocco?  The short answer is this.  After a preliminary struggle with Germany, France occupied the country in 1912, imposing a protectorate.  They proceeded to build cities on the French model, the biggest being Casablanca.  While the sultan retained nominal sovereignty, the administration of the country was monopolized by the occupying power--personified in the movie by Louis Renault, the corrupt chief of police.  In 1942 Vichy loyalists were running French Morocco.  Still, the Free French forces headed by General Charles de Gaulle had their sympathizers among the colons, one of whom essays a stirring rendition of the Marseillaise in Rick’s Cafe.

As embodied by the heroic figure of Victor Laszlo, the overt political message of the movie is that one must struggle against dark forces in order to secure freedom.  Indeed.  But freedom for whom?  Laszlo’s local effort was to form a cell of the underground, evidently for the benefit of Europeans only.

What about freedom for the Arabs?  To be sure, few people thought about that issue in those days.  Most people accepted colonialism as a matter of course.  But not everyone did so.  Franklin Roosevelt, for example, saw that after the war the colonial regimes of Britain, France, and the Netherlands must yield to a new reality.  And so it was. After a brief struggle, the Dutch had to give up Indonesia.  The British chose to wind down their empire in an orderly way, beginning by withdrawal from India. But the French remained obdurate, harvesting tragic results in Vietnam and Algeria.

Of course it would be idle to expect the film to include some speech to the effect that “the glories of the French colonial empire must be restored!  The Arabs must know their place.”  But the deep structure of the film is affirmation of the status quo, and that meant European colonial domination. France for the French; and Morocco for the French too.

Entranced by the love story and with little knowledge of the historical background, many admirers of “Casablanca” become upset, even enraged when the imperialist subtext is exposed to view.  Reflection will show, though, that it is intrinsic to the film.

Thus we find the paradox of freedom for Europeans but not for the “natives.”  Yet this paradox was not a new thing, for it was already evident in the French Revolution, which at first proclaimed liberty for all, but then turned out to be a vehicle for French domination of other peoples.  Hence the problematic role of the Marseillaise in the film.

UPDATE (July 20).  A friend notes the prominence of Communists in European resistance movements during WWII.  He asks: could Victor Laszlo have been a Communist?

Chronology militates against this affiliation.  Victor Laszlo was already involved with Ilse when she declined, out of idealism, to join Rick on the last train out of Paris.  During this period the French Communist Party encouraged French workers to fraternize with German soldiers, following Stalin's orders. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had gone into effect on August 23, 1939, inaugurating 20 months of de facto Soviet-Nazi alliance. German tanks reached the Atlantic using fuel supplied by the Soviets.  Had Laszlo been a Communist during that period he would have been required to desist from resistance activities.

Laszlo is not a Czech name, but a Hungarian one. The priggish Victor would likely have belonged to the Hungarian minority in southern Slovakia, which participated in the dismemberment of the Czech republic. In other words, he would have been an Axis agent! Of Austrian origin, Paul Henreid must have detected this discrepancy and should have protested, but perhaps he was just glad to have a job performing in a Hollywood movie.

Also, why did Rick leave Paris in June of 1940?  As the holder of an American passport, he could have safely remained there for another year and a half.

Well, these speculations amount to the task of breaking a butterfly on the wheel.

I still believe, though, that the ideology of "Casablanca" is insidious and inconsistent.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

I dissent from the chorus of approval that has greeted Anderson Cooper’s announcement about his sexual orientation.  In the present context, this statement is tardy and self-serving.  I find in it no acknowledgement of the pioneering role of such figures as Harry Hay, Dorr Legg, Phyllis Lyon, Dell Martin, Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny and other brave souls who endured obloquy and in many cases outright poverty, so that privileged closet cases like Anderson Cooper could enjoy cosseted and very well-paid lives. Earlier his statement might have meant something, but not now.

In his email to Andrew Sullivan, Cooper offered several explanations, which I find inadequate.

"Since I started as a reporter in war zones 20 years ago, I've often found myself in some very dangerous places. For my safety and the safety of those I work with, I try to blend in as much as possible, and prefer to stick to my job of telling other people’s stories, and not my own. I have found that sometimes the less an interview subject knows about me, the better I can safely and effectively do my job as a journalist."

This may have been true at one time, but Cooper doesn't do much traveling to dangerous places noways.  Further:

"I did not address my sexual orientation in the memoir I wrote several years ago because it was a book focused on war, disasters, loss and survival. I didn't set out to write about other aspects of my life."

I call bullshit.

For a similar response, more diplomatically expressed, see:
The 300th anniversary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau was marked a few days ago.  As with the French Revolution he inspired (at least in part), opinion remains divided.  In 1952 the Israeli scholar Jacob Talmon showed that the Swiss thinker's idea of the general will was the basis for totalitarian populism, something that in Marxist and other guises has blighted the 20th century.

For a more positive view, see

Monday, July 02, 2012

Creationism boasts some weird adjuncts.

The Omphalos hypothesis takes its name from the title of an 1857 book, Omphalos by Philip Henry Gosse.  Gosse argued that in order for the world to be "functional," God must have created the Earth with mountains and canyons, trees with growth rings, Adam and Eve with hair, fingernails, and navels (omphalos is the Greek word for "navel"), and that therefore no evidence that we can see of the presumed age of the earth and universe can be taken as reliable. The idea has seen some revival in the 20th century by some creationists, who have extended the argument to light that appears to originate in far-off stars and galaxies (though other creationists reject this explanation).

Yet consistent with their core beliefs, many creationists hold that Adam and Eve had no navels, and that the trees in the Garden of Eden had no growth rings.

In 1921 Bertrand Russell suggested, somewhat facetiously, that the universe might have been created five minutes ago.  A variation of this notion is “Last Thursdayism,” which posits that our world came into being then.  Some variants suggest that the previous universe was destroyed that day, but then recreated exactly as it was (not unlike saving a computer’s contents on a secondary hard drive so that they can be fully recovered if the main drive crashes). This hypothesis offers the seeming advantage of rescuing predictions that the universe was going to end on a certain day.  It did end, we are told, but then was restored exactly as it was.

Last Thursdayisn has been dogged by the heresies of Last Wednesdayism and Last Fridayism. Needless to say, none of these hypothesises is capable of any empirical testing.  Failing Karl Popper’s refutability criterion, they are fun anyway.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

I have been rethinking the contribution of my late friend  and mentor Arthur Cyrus Warner--as follows:

Arthur Cyrus Warner (February 14, 1918 - July 22, 2007).  Arthur Cyrus Warner was a prominent figure in the American gay-liberation movement, focusing his considerable energies on legal reform to protect the civil liberties of homosexuals. [John Lauritsen, “Arthur Cyrus Warner,”in Vern L. Bullough, ed., Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context, New York: Harrington Park Press, 2002, pp. 282-90.]   His work was crowned by successful efforts to overturn anti-sodomy and other laws used to persecute gay people in several US states. 

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Warner for almost the last half century of his life lived in the house built by his parents in Princeton. His mother was born in Paynesville, Minnesota, and his father belonged to a family engaged n the wholesale grocery business in Newark.  Both parents were of Russian-Jewish origin.

After receiving his AB degree from Princeton in 1938, Warner entered Harvard Law School.  His studies there were interrupted by World War II, and he served a stint in the United States Navy, attaining the rank of Second Lieutenant.  After being given an undesirable discharge stemming from homosexual conduct, he returned to Harvard Law school, where he earned his LLB degree in 1946.  Although he succeeded, after a long legal battle, in having the Navy discharge changed to the status of honorable, the damage was done, and he was never able to practice law as he had hoped.  He then entered Harvard Graduate School to study English history, receiving his AM degree in 1950 and his PhD in 1960. While he briefly taught history at the University of Texas, El Paso, he lived most of his life as an independent scholar, maintaining many contacts from his base in Princeton.

Arthur Warner’s engagement with issues of homosexual civil rights began early, when in the late 1940s he started to attend meetings of a New York City group known simply as The League.  From 1954 on he was active in the Mattachine Society of New York, serving as chairman of the legal department.  Initially he chose to mask his identity under the name of Austin Wade.  For a time Arthur Warner was associated with Frank Kameny of Washington, D.C.; later they had a falling out over strategy. Yet each continued to work in his own way in the service of the cause of gay rights.

In 1971 Warner founded the National Committee for Sexual Civil Liberties (later renamed the American Association for Personal Privacy), a high-level think tank comprising lawyers, historians, theologians, and other professionals.  From the beginning, Warner's focus, and that of the group he founded, was legal reform--especially the repeal of the sodomy statutes, which he rightly regarded as the linchpin of all discrimination against homosexuals.  He was encouraged by the recommendations for decriminalization of homosexual conduct embodied in the Wolfenden Report in England (1957), and the Model Penal Code (MPC), a statutory text approved by the American Law Institute (ALI) in 1962.  Among those closely associated with Warner in this work were Thomas F. Coleman, an attorney; Paul Hardman; and Wayne R. Dynes of the Gay Academic Union.

Working largely behind the scenes, Warner and his associates achieved success in several individual states, preparing the way for the eventual victory in the U. S. Supreme Court in the Lawrence case of 2002.

Warner's papers document his involvement in legal reform and other issues pertaining to homosexual civil rights. The majority of the papers consist of legislative and court documents about cases affecting gay civil liberties, and related memoranda, correspondence, and writings. The papers, mainly covering the period from 1946 to 2000, are preserved in the Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University Libraries ( 
His will directed that his funds be used to establish the Sentience Foundation, headquartered in Freehold, New Jersey (


John Lauritsen, writing of Warner in Before Stonewall, described Warner's upbringing:

“His mother came from a background which, although educated, reflected the Victorian ethos in matters of sex. A a child, Warner was not told myths about where babies came from, and he was allowed to see biology books showing the birth of animals, and so on, up to the point of fornication. However, when he was put to bed, his hands always had to be on top of the blanket, even on the coldest nights. Because the windows were always open for health reasons, his shoulders also would be cold.

“Nevertheless, as with virtually all boys, he discovered the pleasures of masturbation, and at the age of seven or eight he did this several times a day, although without ejaculation. On one such occasion he was apprehended by his governess, who felt dutifully obliged to tell his parents. Early the next morning the case was presented to his parents, who had just returned from a trip. His mother, "who wore the pants," took charge. She was in a frenzy and told him that if he ever did this again he would be taken to the state prison at Rahway, "where the bad boys go." He was also told that if he continued to do this, he would certainly become crazy. He was shaken by these warnings and for a year remained "good and pure."

“When nine, again found masturbating, he was driven the twelve miles to Rahway State Prison, ordered out of the car, and for about twenty minutes stood outside the car, screaming for forgiveness, finally given "one more chance."

“Warner's first sexual experience - mutual masturbation with a black man in an abandoned school yard - occurred when he was seventeen during his sophomore year at Princeton, and he ran away, terrified. In 42nd Street movies in 1938, he caught gonorrhea from a person he had met and gone home with - it was in the pre-penicillin days, and Warner suffered for eight weeks from sulfanilamide that was injected into the urethra.”