My daughter now has a tricycle, a helmet, and summer clothes that will still fit her in September. She also has a promise that we will plant some flowers in front of the house, something I’ve never actually tried to do (I did plant some bulbs about ten years ago, but only some of them came up). And being between landscapers, I’ve pruned one of a small number of flowering shrubs (a PJM rhododendron, which grows well in this climate, setting its buds before winter and blooming just after the forsythias do, but which isn’t in the standard plant books). I have all the tools now, from the little snippers through the lopper and the saw, and I’ve almost become comfortable enough with the pruning to no longer fear I’m going to kill the thing, but not quite. So finding the flowers will be next.
Copley as a British Painter
This article about John Singleton Copley in the Boston Globe is interesting, because it argues that Copley—who has numerous sites around Boston named for him, as a Revolutionary-era hero, and whose paintings, along with those of Gilbert Stuart, form the backbone of the Boston MFA’s eighteenth-century American collection (which is well worth seeing)—didn’t see himself as “American” at all. He sided with the British Tories, the Loyalists; hated and feared the revolutionary movement; and moved to England to escape the war, spending the rest of his life painting portraits of members English aristocracy and royalty.
His American paintings, though, have an explicitly (little-r) republican, even a Puritan, air to them. The backgrounds are simple, usually dark brown. The men depicted wear plain clothes, the costumes of their everyday working life, and hold the implements of their work (often pens and books). The women’s dress is also relatively plain, compared with European subjects (especially the English princesses who sat for the painters late works), and behind them Copley painted the branches of flowering trees.
It would be easy to conclude that the artist admired such simplicity. He could have painted his subjects in the traditional style, in a more ornate fashion that might appeal to the art collectors of Europe. Benjamin Rush—himself a solid advocate of independence and self-governance, along with the education of women—did, in fact, paint in that style, as when he depicted his wife and child using the form of a Madonna by Raphael. The simplicity, even drabness, of Copley’s American portraits looks like a statement, but it may have only been a matter of the sitters’ own preferences.
Freedom of Speech and the Study of Other Cultures
A professor of political science at Yale, Andrew March, has an op-ed about the Tarek Mehanna case in today’s New York Times. Mehanna was sentenced earlier this month for materially supporting a terrorist group, mostly on the basis of his online activities publishing translations of Al Qaeda propaganda and defending Al Qaeda online. There’s no question, as this article about Mehanna’s behavior at his sentencing hearing shows, that he did intend to give Al Qaeda material support and that he did intend to support their self-declared “war” against the United States.
What concerns March is that there seems to be little difference between what he does professionally and what in Mehanna’s case is considered a crime. Both engaged in discussion to further the knowledge of a group that the US government has declared a terrorist organization. There is the matter of intention: March’s for pure knowledge, Mehanna’s for proselytization—and presumably the latter was more intent on insistently promoting sympathetic understanding among his correspondents than March insists on. However, it remains the case that the case involves an unprecedented criminalization of speech. In fact, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, in another case, himself held that material support did not encompass speech, unless there were explicit coordination from the group supported, which did not exist in Mehanna’s case. March seems to worry that studying certain topics might become too dangerous for anyone without a kind of license to do so, in the form of a university post or similar professional position.
Even worse, however, in March’s opinion, is that the prosecutors used even Mehanna’s penchant for hiking as an example of his engaging in terrorist activities. He had translated an Arabic text describing physical fitness as an alternate means of participating in jihad. March argues that the intention behind the text is to deflect would be terrorists into peaceful community-building. Yet the list of activities gave prosecutors an opening to describe Mehanna as spending nearly all his time on “jihad,” even when he was apparently innocently working out or talking about working out. Imagining that this could happen to you—that somebody could twist all your actions around in order to cast an evil light on them, simply on the basis of an unrelated statement—would be infuriating for anyone. But in the context of the court case, it doesn’t strike me as so worrying. Prosecutors most likely engage in overstatement all the time. Their job is to persuade a jury to vote to convict—not to find ultimate truth or be fair to everybody who might someday exercise. Nobody’s criminalizing hiking.
Is Katie Roiphe Searching for a Female Midlife Judd Apatow?
There’s a new sexy novel for housewives out, by a woman in England, that is the new hot topic of conversation among feminist journalists and bloggers (or was, before Girls went on the air). One of these, inevitably, was the ubiquitous Katie Roiphe—as Ginia Bellafante points out in the Sunday New York Times. There’s always something to criticize in Roiphe’s “what’s the matter with women today?” pieces, and what Bellafante points out in this one is that Roiphe—once again—“suggests that career women . . . long to be sexually dominated” and to break out of the feminism-driven self-controlled, competent lives they’ve come to lead.
What I thought was interesting, and what Bellafante doesn’t ask, is, “why sex?” She interprets Roiphe as wrongly believing that career women still (as they did in the 1990s) fear associating themselves with the label “feminism,” and she interprets sex fantasies like these as stemming from a feeling that “sexual abjection [is] the penalty the culture exacts on the average-looking woman for the offense of her averageness.” But the novelist herself thinks the book is popular because most women actually don’t look for ultra-masculine, dominating behavior from a potential husband or boyfriend; they want someone who will help do the dishes, who will pull his own weight around the house. She is English, of course, and they do things differently over there, but she does have a point. As much as twelve year olds love Twilight, most twenty- and thirty-somethings are not in mourning for those fantasies, nor even for the fact that they’ve given them up.
So why does Roiphe keep returning to the subject, as Ginia Bellafante complains? She seems to want to insert sex into every situation. To me, this seems strange. True, there is a cultural obsession with sexlessness and with the idea that for certain groups of people, in order to be fully adult, sexlessness is something they have to get over. So we have bromances and we have movies by Judd Apatow—for teenage boys who apparently wouldn’t know marriage existed unless a movie showed them the world beyond the Playstation, and therefore would necessarily remain eternal children on their parents’ couch, with no interests beyond the Fritos bag and no interest in getting a job. But why would we expect to see a parallel narrative for women? Much less for middle-aged women near the peak of their professional careers?