Friday, May 29, 2015

What's Missing from "Modernism"?

Last weekend we went to the Nelson. We stayed in the old building because it feels like every time we go there we go to the new building. Joey wanted to look at the Egyptian art, so we did.

Eventually we went to the exhibit, “WWI and the Rise of Modernism.” The exhibit is split into (roughly) thirds: before the war (featuring the rise of Cubism, art-photographers such as Stieglitz, and Italian Futurism), during the way (focusing on artists who served and/or died in the war), and after the war, when, according to the exhibit, modernism split into surrealism/Dadaism and Bauhaus, which focused on design and architecture.

Here's the first paragraph of what the pamphlet of the exhibit says about “after the war”:

Europe was a different place after the war. The German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires had collapsed. New countries were born, and national boundaries were redrawn. More than 15 million war deaths left whole countries grieving and impoverished. Germany faced punishing war reparations. In 1921, Adolf Hitler, a decorated veteran of World War I, assumed leadership of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, and in
1933 he became the chancellor of Germany. The stage was set for World War II.

El LissitzkyBeat the Whites With the Red Wedge, 1919, lithograph
What's missing here, and in fact what was missing in the whole exhibit, was mention that this was a period of great political, social and yes, artistic revolution in Europe, particularly in Russia and Germany. Even granting that we're not up to Weimar yet, the Russian Revolution took place in 1917, the German Revolution in 1919, and the entire period through the early 1920s was a time of great artistic experimentation. 

There particularly is no mention of expressly political art, of which there was a lot during this time. The only piece that references revolution is a drawing of a revolutionary shooting a rifle with the body of a capitalist draped over his foxhole. There was a lot of really interesting political print in the period, for example, which the exhibit didn't reference at all, but which is as much “modernism” as Dada is.

Of course, expressly political art is frowned upon in America, where abstraction is considered art and political art isn't. Not only are a whole era's political developments unmentioned, but the art that accompanied it is purged from art history. And Americans remain ignorant of history, and stunted in their politics.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

My Favorite Mishna

In honor of my cousin Deb Tannenbaum I'm going to post my most recent (and last) newsletter column. We own a graphic she made that includes this text. 

Between Pesah and Shavuot it is customary to we learn Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). This is a collection of rabbinic aphorisms from the early rabbinic period, redacted in about 220 CE. Unlike other sections of Mishna, of which is is part, Avot does not contain halakhic (Jewish legal) material; instead, it focuses on ethical and spiritual teachings that the rabbis wished to include in this basis of post-biblical Jewish life.

There is a lot of great stuff in Pirke Avot, from Hillel's famous teaching: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (1:14) to Tarfon's guidance, so important to remember in social justice work: “You are not obliged to finish the task, but neither are you free to neglect it (2:21).

But the perek (verse) I want to focus on today is Chapter 4, mishna 1. Leaving out the proof texts for each sentence for the sake of space, it goes like this:

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? The one who learns from every person. Who is mighty? The one who conquers his passions. Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with her portion. Who is honored? The one who honors others.

Let's take these one by one. First, “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.” Rashi says that this wise person “diligently seeks the company of Torah scholars” and is not self-conscious of what she does or doesn't know. Bartenura comments that because he doesn't hesitate to learn from those who are less accomplished than he, it proves that his thirst for knowledge is genuine and not the result of vanity or self-importance. Of course, sometimes the lesson might be in the negative – you might learn from someone how not to behave.

Second, “Who is mighty? The one who conquers his passions.” The literal translation for “passions” is “inclinations,” so we might be tempted to associate this with a general warning against following the so-called “evil inclination,” (yetzer ha-rah), the inclination to do evil. However, the prooftext has a specific yetzer in mind: “The one who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and the one who rules his spirit than one who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32) So controlling one's anger is an act of heroism! Certainly it feels like that sometimes. We can also remember that the reason that Moses was not allowed entry into the Land of Israel was because of his anger, and we can see how spiritually damaging anger really is.

The third sentence of our mishna says, “Who is wealth? The one who is satisfied with her portion. The commentary of Me'am Lo'ez says that “a person who has a good heart, and rejoices with the lot that God has given her, want[s] nothing more than than he has... lives happily her whole life, and is able to serve God properly.” We live in a society based upon envy and competition, where someone is always making more money than we do, or living in a better house, driving a better car, etc. But the wisdom of this text is that as long as we are wise enough to realize that we have enough, we can be happy.

And finally, “Who is honored? The one who honors others.” The prooftext begins with a quote by God from 1 Samuel: “...for them that honor Me I will honor” (2:30). If God Godself can honor us - by making us in God's image, by providing us the means to be happy and to do good work in the world – than surely we can honor each other, as we are all created b'tzelem Elohim - in the image of God.

Do you see why I love this text so much? What is the way to a good life? Having the humility to learn from everyone (even if the lessons aren't always positive ones), controlling one's anger, being satisfied with what one has, and meeting people as if they were (as they are) created in the Divine Image.

Good self-help advice for us all, courtesy of the ancient rabbis.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Some thoughts on the end of Kansas' RPS

Today is the day that SB 91 gets debated on the Kansas House floor. This is the bill that came out of the “deal” between the wind industry and the Kochfrastructure (Americans for Prosperity, Koch Industries and the state Chamber of Commerce). It turns Kansas' 20% mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) into a goal, in exchange for the withdrawal (for now) of a proposed 4.33% excise tax on commercially generated renewable energy. For our response, see this statement.

On the one hand, this feels like a huge loss. Kansas IPL, along with our partners in the advocacy community, in industry, and in the legislature, have worked for three years to maintain the RPS, because it's an important and successful policy and because we didn't want Kansas to be the thin edge of a national movement to repeal RPSs in other states.

On the other hand, it had long started to feel, to me at least, that this thing was taking a lot more effort than it was really worth. As this article from Grist points out, Kansas is already at 21.7% of generation from wind, with a further 1,273 megawatts under contract. On this front at least, the wind industry is correct: the repeal of the RPS is not going to mean that wind energy is going away in Kansas. For commercial reasons – it is the cheapest new-source energy on the market, and new coal is cost- and regulation-prohibitive – it will continue to grow, even without a mandatory RPS.

And even the question of manditoriness (manditorytude?) is unclear. The other issue we've been working on this year is the Clean Power Plan. Under this, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) is to develop and submit a state implementation plan (SIP – there's a lot of acronyms in this work) to the EPA; once accepted by EPA, it becomes legally binding. So we think that once the 20% renewable goal is included in the SIP, it will be legally binding – ie, mandatory. So suck on that, Koch Brothers.

The more I think about it, the more I think that CEP's later pressrelease hit it right on the head – the Kochfrastructure spent hundreds of millions of dollars to repeal the RPS, and by the time they did, it had already been surpassed. It's kind of a joke. Although RPSs have been repealed in a couple of other states, the Kochs' fevered dream of rolling back the renewable energy revolution has failed.

One thing I'll say there because I probably won't say it anywhere else: the wind industry people that we've been working with for three years decided, in their wisdom, not to try to convince us (advocates) of the wisdom of the deal, or even to inform us that there was a deal. We never received so much as a phone call, and we were directly lied to when we asked about it. We, being idealists, were hurt by this behavior. This is one of those places that politics is a bitch, and I was involved in politics long before I became a rabbi. You know what? That's their karma.

Kansas IPL has a lot of things to work on. There's an upcoming Westar rate case that will attempt to destroy rooftop solar through high fixed charges. Pope Francis is issuing an encyclical on climate change this summer, and we will be organizing our Catholic supporters to develop and deliver an effective, supportive response. What's going to move the needle on our state's response to the ongoing challenge of climate disruption is grassroots organizing in faith communities. That's our mission, and that's what we'll do, with or without an RPS.

Keep the faith.