Monday, August 16, 2010

Social Security

I am amazed and appalled that conservatives continue to get mileage out of the idea that we need to change the way Social Security is funded, either by partially privatizing it or by extending the retirement age and minimizing benefits. Social Security is one of the triumphs of the modern, industrial state. As Paul Krugman points out today in the New York Times, it funds itself quite efficiently and is in no danger, either immediately or in the foreseeable future, of running out of money.

So why the hysteria? Krugman says it's all about ideology, that conservatives simply can't countenance the idea that this government program works so well and will consequently have to continue to be funded at a fairly high rate in perpetuity. Somehow, I can't believe this is the whole story. There is a missing piece, something else that the right can't stand that isn't being talked about.

Let me suggest that what they are really afraid of is the thing that probably should, in fact, be done to ensure Social Security's long-term stability, but which they have been very successful at keeping out of the conversation altogether. It is simply this. Tax everyone at a 6.2% rate, regardless of income. Right now, Social Security taxes only come out of the first $106,800 of income. After that, for those making more than $106,800, there is no tax at all. Which means, of course, that this is one of the most regressive of taxes in which those most able to pay actually give a surprisingly small percentage of their income. Someone, for instance, bringing in $500,000 a year, is paying a net percentage of just a little over 1%. Even someone making, say, $200,000, is paying only about 3% of income. This is ridiculous, in any case, but especially when so much hot air is being expended about the Social Security crisis when it would be so easy to make this change, with little or no discomfort for those making more than $106,800.

So why isn't this discussed or seriously considered? I can think of only one reason. Greed. The rich control the conversation about taxes and about funding government programs. They have kept the rest of us poor schmoes in the dark. We should be outraged about this. There should be marches in the street. But because of the hegemony that the privileged hold over the poor and middle classes, hardly a word is breathed about this. It is a reminder to me that the rich had better watch out. A revolution is coming and unless more is done to support the needs of the less well off, there will eventually be a backlash like nothing this country has ever seen.

In the meantime, think of the good that can be done to ensure that Social Security is paid out to all those who both need it and deserve it. That's virtually everyone. A simple and relatively painless change in the way this program is funded would absolutely ensure its long-term solvency. We just have to muster the will to make it happen.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

James Fowler Endargo

He ended his own life at age 52 while suffering from crippling despair. But in the years between his all-American upbringing in Appleton, Wisconsin in the post-World War II era and his descent into a deep and incurable depression in the early-1990s, James Fowler Endargo lived fully and creatively, producing one of the most influential bodies of poetical work in the 20th century.

Poets rarely achieve great fame, but Endargo's particular circumstances - his complete mastery of the short lyrical form, his movie-star looks, his four marriages to beautiful and powerful women, and his knack for self-promotion - resulted in talk show appearances and wide advertising exposure that turned him into a household name and launched him as one of the most recognizable faces of the 1960s. Endargo was a great writer, but even more so he was a winning personality whom the general public found irresistible. His simple, often stark poems appealed to a surprisingly broad swath of the reading public and his face, plastered on buses and billboards everywhere, promoting everything from cigarettes to trench coats, never lost its allure. For many people in the 1960s, he was THE face of poetry and his brief, even abrupt lines spoke for a generation. His hyphenated phrases, declaring war the inseparable companion of peace, hate the necessary concomitant of love, deceit the partner of truth, echoed and reinforced the growing cynicism and hopelessness of his time. No one seemed to understand more clearly than Endargo that the great reforming spirit of the mid-1960s could not be sustained and that it must lead to an angry and selfish backlash. In this sense, he foretold the disorienting tragedies of My Lai, Watergate, and the Iran hostage crisis, and even as he captured the growing despair of this era in his own poetry fell victim to it as well, never fully recovering from a devastating drug habit and a disabling depression that shattered him when he was still only in his early 40s. But even as his creative imagination went dry, his dark, craggy, handsome face continued to bring him wealth, and his poetry readings, often treated like rock concerts, offered him the attention he always craved. Only when things had turned for the worst and he was no longer able to appear in public did his fans finally lose interest in their comely troubadour.

Following a kind of idyllic upbringing in Appleton, Wisconsin from 1939 to 1957, Endargo attended nearby Lawrence University for two years. He studied literature with legendary professor Yando Cling during this period, who in that short time introduced him to most of the important poetry produced in America, beginning with Whitman and Dickinson and continuing to Lowell and Bishop. Even then, Endargo began experimenting with the short lyric poem that became his trademark, writing a few of the poems that would be collected in his first volume of poetry called "A Blue Landmark," published in 1960. In 1959, Endargo moved to New York City and began to write reviews for Commonweal and Dissent. Declaring himself a socialist and then an anarchist, he participated in a series of civil rights demonstrations and appeared on television for the first time as a spokesperson for the beat-inspired group Americans for Holistic Liberation (AHL). His glib, charming manner and physical attractiveness drew interest and support and for many years to come he could be seen on public media promoting a wide range of causes. These early appearances led to an encounter with the fashion model Brook Tamarkin, soon thereafter his first marriage, and not long after that a bitter and very public break-up.

In 1965, when he was 26 years old, Endargo published his second volume of poetry to much acclaim, landing him on the cover of Time. This book entitled "Birding" was a strange and exotic mixture of nature poetry, presumably influenced by his Midwest experiences as a youth and the urban verse that made him famous. "Homing Pigeon" became the best known poem from this collection, with the final lines "rootless, homeless, free" perhaps the most famous he ever wrote, and still often emblazoned on T-shirts and greeting cards.

Endargo's next and most famous collection of poetry published in 1971 was "The Darkness Within." This, too, was showered with critical praise and led to his receiving his only Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Endargo's work, which was both accessible and topical, directly criticized US involvement in Vietnam, while at the same time attacking many of the youth protest movements of the time as a manifestation of spoiled privilege. Now at the peak of his fame, his marriage to the Hollywood starlet Sheila Blaine, widely covered in the popular press, quickly dissolved into another bitterly contested divorce, leading to a terrible bout with depression from which Endargo never fully recovered. (To be Continued)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Why I like Modern Art

The new Matisse exhibit at MoMA, the one called "Radical Invention, 1913-1917," has me thinking once again about why I find modern and contemporary art so satisfying and invigorating. In a way, all art is energizing, as the act of viewing artistic work demands that we focus our attention on the elements that make art so arresting. Those elements include line, color, and shape, but also such things as the arabesque design, which along with line, Matisse believed gave a special vitality to art. These are the things that catch our eye, that wake us up in a sense and that bring to vivid consciousness our craving for aesthetic satisfaction.

But Matisse, more than most artists, brings these feelings to a new height of excitement and creative delight. For me, anyway, this is in part because he was such a master of the line. Karen and I are the proud owners of a Matisse line drawing of a female face that seems incredibly simple, and yet because of Matisse's mastery conveys a sense of humanity that is striking. Hardly a masterpiece, this modest drawing is nevertheless a reminder that Matisse could accomplish a great deal with just a few strong lines. My absolutely favorite example of this ability is the painting that Matisse finished in 1905 that was a portrait of his wife but is often called "The Green Line" because it is marked by a strange green line that cuts across the middle of her face. This line, which seems bizarre and yet works as part of this portrait, divides his subject's face into two sections, one dark, one light; one calm and the other just a bit ominous.

This same painting also demonstrates Matisse's remarkable and famous use of color. At the time he finished this painting, he was regarded as the leader of the Fauve movement, which was marked by a brilliant and unnatural use of color. In the Green line, the very use of the color green to separate the two parts of his wife's face is startling, but I also think the background colors - the purples, the reds, the sea greens - are both beautiful and an outstanding example of how background color can be used to present a subject more arrestingly. This is only a small example, however, as Matisse's amazing color sense can be experienced repeatedly in so many of his greatest works.

The painting, though, that is part of this special exhibit currently at MoMA and that haunts me relentlessly is "The Piano Lesson," completed in 1916. Others have commented on it extensively and I can't begin to add to what they have said, but this picture of Matisse's son Pierre sitting unhappily at the piano, under the apparent tutelage of a stern teacher and with the late afternoon sun fading rapidly, offers a study in light, mood, color, and line that stops me in my tracks every time I see it. The most shocking thing about it is the way in which Matisse has arranged the room in which Pierre sits at the piano and the manner in which the sun casts shadows, especially on Pierre's face, so that his right eye and much of the right side of his face seems to disappear. That shadowy triangle that effaces Pierre's eye and cheek matches neatly the window opening that receives the lowering sun and the outside greenery and which emphasizes and introduces a series of angled lines echoed by the piano, the metronome and the window's thrown-open shutter. Despite Matisse's great mastery of color, this work is dominated by gray, which establishes the depressing mood of the painting (consider Emily Dickinson's lines "There's a certain Slant of Light,/Winter Afternoons/That oppresses like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes -) and that causes the green of the window and the pink of the piano to stand out that much more. While never a cubist, Matisse brilliantly combines his love of line and color with a cubist sensibility that shakes us out of our complacency and makes us want to look and look again with wonder and surprise.

I think exhibits like the one on Matisse at MoMA give us an opportunity to look in penetrating and absorbing ways. Really, they offer us practice at putting our own lives on hold for just a little while and to devote ourselves without thoughts of anything else to the mystery and the magic of the most masterful of human-made creations.