Biography of Sarah Palin


Lot’s of people want to know about Sarah Palin, John McCain’s VP choice. Her biographer, Kaylene Johnson, must be pleased with the timing of her book, released in April.

Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska’s Political Establishment on Its Ear

159 pages/retails for $19.95

Books by Kalene Johnson

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Do No Harm—John McCain’s Choice of Sarah Palin


In the world of politics, complexities are often encapsulated in squat phrases and nimble sentences. And when it comes to selecting a Vice Presidential running mate, the mantra has long been primum non nocere—”first, do no harm.” The principle is borrowed from the world of medicine and medical ethics. It’s been applied in situations where medical intervention poses considerable risk to a patient with an unknown or comparatively small margin for benefit. I guess it makes sense, especially during Presidential election campaigns, to liken major political decisions to life-and-death challenges in medical decision making.

When picking a running mate, what does it mean to Do No Harm? Earlier this month, William Kristol spelled out four criteria for choosing a vice president, and evaluated McCain’s options in terms of those criteria. (See “How to pick a vice president.”) Here were McCain’s basic options:

  1. Go with someone safe and predictable.
  2. Pick someone whose strengths will accentuate the opposing candidate’s weaknesses.
  3. Co-opt the public desire for change.
  4. Pledge to serve for a single term and stress the need for radical change in Washington politics.

If do no harm was uppermost in McCain’s mind, then criteria (1) and (2) should have been the determining factors. Judging by the shock registered in the media yesterday when McCain announced his choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the first criterion was pretty low on his list of guidelines. Since the shock was proportionate to the perceived inexperience (measured in age and time served in elected office) of McCain’s choice, the second criterion doesn’t seem to have influenced McCain. So Do No Harm, by Kristol’s reckoning, wasn’t McCain’s chief concern.

Let’s consider two questions.

Was McCain right to ignore the Do No Harm principle in selecting Palin to be his running mate?

Had McCain been far behind Obama in polling, especially in the most contested states, the political value of the Do No Harm principle would have been more salient. The gap in support between Barack Obama and John McCain was negligible at the time of McCain’s selection of Palin.

A politician has to be practical—or pragmatic, if you will. But much of the pragmatism exhibited by our politicians is befogged with cynicism. It is permeated with jaded negativity, which leads to posturing and snarky rhetoric. And this translates into a malaise of cynicism among the electorate. Exasperated, would-be voters lose interest and stay home on election day. Many of those who make their way to the polls buy into this jadedness and cast their vote for the angry candidate, or the candidate who represents the angry party. It’s a bad omen for a democracy when its elected officials rise to power on a wave of angry sentiment.

It would be most refreshing to see America’s leading candidates demonstrate real-world understanding without the baggage of cynical pragmatism. The Do No Harm principle is naturally attractive to the cynical. It is a sign of McCain’s governing optimism that he did not let the political appeal of such a principle determine his choice of running mate.

Politics is full of ironies. One of the great ironies of the current election season is that the Democrat party, led by Senator Obama, has mounted a campaign rooted in anger, warning a cowering sector of the electorate to forego “four more years of George Bush,” while suggesting, at the same time, that McCain is the one with a jaded view of the world, as indicated by his approach to Iraq and Iran. George Bush has been demonized by pundits on the far left of the Democrat party as “the worst President ever” and “a moron.” These pundits have tutored Obama to exploit this caricature and emphasize that John McCain has voted in sync with President Bush 90% of the time. So electing John McCain would be like relecting Bush, and that means perpetuating the worst thing that ever happened to America. (Never mind that Obama has voted 97% of the time in league with his own party, which happens to be at the helm of a Do Nothing Congress.)

McCain was right to ignore the beckoning spirit of cynical pragmatism in his choice of a running mate. Maybe it’s a symptom of the audacity of his hope for this nation.

What is the risk potential of McCain’s choice of Palin?

Let’s assume that Sarah Palin’s only liability is the electorate’s perception of her readiness for the job relative to her age and experience.

When it comes to experience and getting elected to executive office, Sarah Palin’s record is more impressive than Barack Obama’s, Joe Biden’s, and even John McCain’s. Most noteworthy is the comparison with Joe Biden, who began running for President twenty years ago and has never been nominated by his party. This year he turned in a lackluster performance with around 7% of the vote in the Democrat primary. If it was executive experience that Obama wanted to complement his perceived gross inexperience, why didn’t he pick Hillary Clinton? Could it be that he didn’t want to be overshadowed by experience?

When it comes to real political change and reformation, Sarah Palin’s record, again, dwarfs anything Obama has accomplished. As suggested by David Brooks in yesterday’s editorial for The New York Times, Obama loves the future because “that’s where all his accomplishments are.” If Obama’s message is A Message of Change, then why select a career politician, an old boy from inside the beltway—Joseph Biden?

Together, McCain and Palin look bouyant and centered. In a single day since McCain’s announcement that Palin is his running mate, $4 million dollars have been contributed to the Republican campaign. And the Republican National Convention hasn’t even begun yet. Meanwhile, Obama stuttered in his customary way through an impromptu response to McCain’s announcement and looked, I thought, like a deer caught in the headlights. I’m talking about the guy at the top of the Democrat ticket who gave his acceptance speech before 85,000 people just the day before Sarah Palin was announced.

And that leads to a third question: Is there a new rock star in town?

***

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Who Is Sarah Palin?


The next Vice President of the United States.

America turns its attention to the natural resources of Alaska.

***

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Performing on a Guitar—The Milke Way


Amanda Milke imagines musical instruments in the bright colors of acrylic. Maybe I should say she re-imagines instruments in acrylic.

An artist living in Alberta, Canada, Milke specializes in painting with acrylic. Her subjects include musical instruments. That is, she paints musical instruments. Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? But when Amanda paints a musical instrument, the instrument is her canvas. The result isn’t just an object with paint on it, but a painting, albeit in an unconventional form.

For example, her painting “Guitar” is a guitar. But it’s also a painting. It’s a three-dimensional work of art whose dimensions are determined by an actual guitar. The guitar itself has been reconfigured. It is a painting. As a painting, it is perhaps no longer a guitar. At the very least, it is more than a guitar.

The “Guitar” may well have been a work of art in its pristine condition, when it was also, functionally, a musical instrument. But it was not a painting. It was a thing of beauty intended to produce more beauty. It began life as a visually beautiful artifact designed as a tool for making beauty with sound. The guitar, it can be said, was meant to be a canvas, but only in a metaphorical sense. The first artist in the history of this single artifact—a guitar maker in Paracho, Mexico, perhaps—never imagined his instrument as a painting. But a maker of guitars knows not what art will be performed by his work of art—or on his work.

Milke has performed a work of art on the guitar. But it isn’t music that she performs, at least not literally. Her performance is a transformance of the guitar. Maybe the music performed on a guitar can also be regarded as a transformance of the guitar. If the guitar was used to compose original great music, that makes the guitar special in a way it wasn’t before. If the guitar was played to soothe anxious hearts, its function is compounded and the guitar has “changed.” If the guitar came to be owned and used by Elvis Presley or Roy Rogers or Andre Segovia, it isn’t the guitar is used to be. These are all ways to regard the transformation of the original guitar.

Milke’s transformation is more radical. It is a representation of a guitar in a way that past musical performances on the guitar were not. The medium of representation is acrylic paint. (I’m not suggesting that a guitar could not be used to play a melody that sounds like a guitar.) Milke’s representation differs from other paintings of guitars. Her representation is enhanced by the infrastructure of the canvas. The object as canvas becomes a painting of a guitar, and not just painting on a guitar. This particular canvas, though, is guitar-ish. And that informs the effect of the painting.

Milke’s painting may be more than the representation of a guitar. It may be a representation of this guitar. There’s a trivial sense in which it has to be. But there’s a non-trivial sense in which the painting may or may not be a representation of this guitar. The guitar-as-canvas has an individual history as a guitar. Milke creates a painting of a guitar on a guitar, a particular guitar. And this particularity may be embedded in the representation of the guitar by the painting Milke calls “Guitar.” This painting may evoke feelings (through memories, for example) about the guitar as it was. It may say something about this particular guitar—how it was played, what sort of person played this guitar, the spirit of the music played, the audience for whom it was played.

If the guitar was her own, the painting may mean something different to Milke than if the guitar belonged to someone she knows and cares about. Her past experiences with the guitar as guitar may inform her present representation of it in the painting “Guitar.” This representation may further particularize the representation, narrowing it down from a range of possible representations, each of which might have meaning for her. The importance of this representation, whatever it is, may override whatever value the other representations would have had for Milke. Comparing this representation with alternative possibilities might enable a firmer grasp of the envisioned representation by the painting.

Consider “Guitar” as a public artifact, viewed by others with no experience of that particular guitar. It is meaningful to ask, “What is represented for them by this painting?” The answer lies in the experiences that are evoked. Who can say what they are or will be? It would no doubt difficult enough for one viewer to express in words the effect this painting has on him. Even the artist may not be able to express this meaning for herself in words. For her, the expression of meaning may be contained in the painting, so that the painting expresses the unutterable, evokes memories too grand for words, reconstructs experiences of the guitar and its music that cannot be repeated in their original fashion, or (and?) produces altogether new and pleasing experiences.

Milke’s imagining of the guitar—the original musical instrument—as a canvas has itself become a part of the guitar’s history. The potential for this imagining was there from the beginning. But it was an unnatural potential. Every guitar has this potential, but this potential is not always actualized. Why was such unnatural potential realized in the case of this particular guitar? Whatever the answer, it sets this guitar apart from all others.

So this particular guitar has a three-phased history. There was the guitar as musical instrument, the guitar behind the “Guitar.” There was (and still is?) the guitar as canvas, the locus of re-creation. And there is now the “Guitar,” a painting.

***

It may not seem so, but what I’ve said about Milke’s “Guitar” reflects a personal response to the painting. The abstractions I’ve expressed are the fruit of my engagement with this work of art. But they are barely “existential.” They say little about my own experiential contact with the object. They do not answer the question, “What resonance does this painting have for me?”

I could leave it at that. But that wouldn’t be very daring.

It has to be said that my experience of the painting is limited. It is mediated by a digital foto of the painting. The foto is of the painting hanging on a wall. It is part of a room. Being present in that room and beholding the painting would no doubt inform my experience of “Guitar.” So my actual experience is conditioned by imagining what that might be like.

Milke is a working artist. She depends on the patronage of others who commission paintings that bear the stamp of her imagination and creativity. So the abstraction from context by this foto may be unavoidable if not deliberate. It indicates what can be done to or for an old musical instrument “The Milke Way.” And it invites, if it pleases, viewers to consider enlisting Milke’s artistic talent to perform something on one or more of their own instruments.

Considered in this perspective, I wonder what instrument I would be willing to surrender to such aesthetic playfulness. Mind you, I have a trumpet and a guitar. Full disclosure requires that I confess to having both a banjo and a harmonica, as well. The harmonica, though a good one, I could relinquish. But I cannot imagine it as a canvas. And it doesn’t have enough meaning for me to memorialize it as a work of art. I would be more inclined to mount it in a shadow box for display on a wall in my study, like a pair of 19th-century pistols.

I still entertain dreams of playing the banjo well enough to please my ear, if not the ears of others. So painting it is out of the question.

I do feel some nostalgia for my trumpet and for my guitar (which, as it happens, was crafted in Michoacan, Mexico). These, I suppose, are conditions conducive to the Milke method of memorialization. But it is also in precisely this regard that I balk. The probability that I will “play the trumpet” is incredibly low. No one in my immediate family has the slightest inclination to learn it. It has sat in its original case, unopened for who-knows-how-long under a section of my desk at home. The chrome latches and hinges on the case have rusted and the lid sports a ghastly sticker that meant nothing to me when I applied it when I was in fifth grade. I don’t even know what “Flying-O” refers to. But I had a casual friend who had a vast collection of stickers and he was willing to part with this one. Maybe I thought it would solidify an unlikely bond if I accepted his gift and displayed it with suitable prominence. I can’t remember.

Have I wandered far from describing my personal encounter with Milke’s “Guitar”? No. These are thoughts dredged up by my contemplation of the painting. The painting caused me to wonder, “Would I do that to one of my own instruments, languishing in a dark corner, but somehow deserving permanent possession and renewed appreciation? The trumpet would seem a good candidate, if acrylic would adhere.

I think I could be talked into a painting of my trumpet. But I would have to be talked into it. I like the idea of displaying it. But I wouldn’t like doing so with it in its present condition. It’s just a trumpet, after all, and everybody’s seen a trumpet. Maybe I just can’t imagine a painting that would evoke the few precious memories I have of playing it.

You see, I’m still talking about Milke’s painting “Guitar.” This is where her painting has led me.

What about my own guitar? Nothin’ doin’. I can’t believe now that I once was able to pluck out a handful of classical numbers. The presence of my guitar is the only remaining stimulus to my memory of those days.
There it is. It’s my guitar. I must have had one for a reason. Oh, yes. I took lessons. I even did a couple of recitals. Hmm. That feels like someone else’s life. Why not paint it and hang it on the wall? No way. My younger daughter plays electric guitar. Who knows? Maybe she’ll mellow and take an interest . . . .

Under what conditions, then, would I yield an instrument of my own to the aesthetic mutations we’ve been talking about?

It would have to be one I’ve owned for some time. It would have to be one I’ve played. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be meaningful. Maybe the instrument would have to carry more meaning than any of the instruments I have. Maybe I would feel silly memorializing a thing I abandoned for lack of discipline. Maybe I don’t want to memorialize my musical lassitude.

Then again, maybe I should. Maybe it would be therapeutic to have before me a brash reminder that my values were skewed. Maybe it would goad me toward greater discipline in new undertakings. After all, the banjo still beckons.

Maybe.

***

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is Amanda Milke’s “Guitar” really a painting?
  2. Is “Guitar” still a guitar?
  3. Is it useful to think of the guitar painted in “Guitar” as a canvas? Can you think of another object that might be a suitable but unlikely canvas for painting? What makes a object of this kind suitable as a canvas?
  4. Which instruments are good candidates for this sort of aesthetic transformation? What are the artistic possibilities? Is there another medium besides acrylic that might be effective?
  5. Imagine yourself as the guitar maker. How would you feel if you knew that a guitar you made had been painted in this way?
  6. What kind of meaning would the painting “Guitar” have for you if was a gift to you by a casual friend? How does this compare with other kinds of art you admire or would be willing to display?
  7. If you were to display “Guitar” in your own digs, where would it hang? What would guests say about it?
  8. Do you think it’s possible for a guitar to play a melody that suggests “guitar-ness”? What would instrumental music played on a guitar about a guitar sound like? Compare this with the potentialities for saying something about a guitar by painting it.
  9. Do you have a musical instrument that you don’t play that you’d still like to keep? If so, how strong is your feeling about the instrument? Why do you wish to hold on to it? Would painting it “the Milke way” be an appealing possibility?
  10. If you were to paint an old guitar of your own, what would you want it to look like? What feelings would you wish to evoke? Would you be more likely to commission someone else, like Amanda Milke, or paint it yourself?
  11. If you have an old instrument with a rich history and nostalgic significance, imagine painting it in a way that would represent that richness. What instrument would it be and what would the painting look like?
  12. If you’ve seen the movie The Red Violin, imagine painting it so that the painting reflected the “personal history” of the violin. What do you visualize? Imagine owning a violin and compare the treatment of the “Red Violin” by its various owners throughout its history with the brief history and solitary ownership of your violin. Now suppose you were to paint them both and hang them side-by-side. How would you paint each one and how might you paint them in order to capture meaningful similarities and differences between the two violins?

Getting the Most Out of Your Kindle—Tip #1


“Bibliophile” isn’t a strong enough label for my affection for books. “Bibliophiliac” is probably more accurate. One symptom is my habit of cruising bookstores. But as much as I like the brick and mortar shops, they have two limitations: price and selection. Three out of four times they don’t have a book I’m there to find, and the one out of four times they do I usually have to pay full price. So I resort to browsing, which is dangerous. The temptation to buy, even if it’s something I wasn’t looking for, can be overpowering. You know the drill.

But I have a Kindle, and I (almost) never leave home without it. And my Kindle is very handy when I’m in browse mode.

Suppose my arms are laden with books that beckon. I go to the most inconspicuous bench or chair in the store, turn on my Kindle, and flip the switch for Whispernet. Within a few seconds I have a wireless connection to the Kindle store. I type in the title for one of the books I’ve gathered and let my Kindle search for it. If the title isn’t yet available on Kindle, I set the book aside and repeat the process for the next one, working my way through the stack.

It really gets interesting when I find that a Kindle version of the book is available. I have a choice. I can order it and have it on my Kindle within moments, usually at a deep discount, OR I can download a selection from the book . . . for FREE. Since I can always buy the book later, and I may decide I want a physical copy rather than the Kindle edition, I download the free selection and move on to the next book.

Later, when my pulse has slowed, I read the selections I’ve downloaded. I now have a good idea whether I want to spend my money, and whether I want the Kindle version or a physical copy of any item. Bottom line? I make better decisions about the books I buy, I spend less, and I enjoy greater mental health. All because my companionable Kindle has kept me from compulsive spending and buyer’s remorse. And eventually, my Kindle pays for itself! How great is that?

***

The Get Rich Slowly blog has posted “Six Steps to Curbing Compulsive Spending.” They’re good ideas. Let me add one more, specially suited to the bibliophiliac:

7. Don’t shop bookstores without your Kindle.

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Show Your Appreciation to Those Who Blog Books


Some of the best blogs are “Book Blogs,” and My Friend Amy is hosting Book Blogger Appreciation Week for September 15-19.

I blog books and enjoy finding consistently classy book blogs. So I’ll be making my own nominations in a few of the twenty-four categories Amy has set up.

Meanwhile, here are some award categories Amy might consider adding:

  • Best Philosophy Book Blog
  • Best Science Fiction Blog
  • Best Biography Blog
  • Best Science Writing Blog
  • Best Writing about Writing Blog

Be Still and Know that I Am an Artist


Margaret Atwood tells a joke:

The Devil comes to the writer and says, “I will make you the best writer of your generation. Never mind generation—of this century. No—this millennium! Not only the best, but the most famous, and also the richest; in addition to that, you will be very influential and your glory will endure for ever. All you have to do is sell me your grandmother, your mother, your wife, your kids, your dog and your soul.”

“Sure,” says the writer, “Absolutely—give me the pen, where do I sign?” Then he hesitates. “Just a minute,” he says. “What’s the catch?”

Atwood uses this fictional exchange to explore “the problem of moral and social responsibility in relation to the content of a work of art.” The passage appears in chapter four of her 2002 book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. I’m still in chapter three, but I skipped ahead.

Negotiating with the Dead is a literary essay on the writer as artist. At least, that’s true of the half I’ve read so far. Chapter 3, titled “The Great God Pen,” traces the Art Wars generally, and the world of poetry and fiction as a theatre of war in particular. And she examines an interesting argument—strictly syllogistic, mind you—that “we should devote ourselves to beauty-worship.” An unexpected but crucial premise in this argument is Jesus’ declaration, “The truth shall make you free.”

The interesting story here is that art has displaced religion in a secular society. Atwood isn’t all that explicit about this. But what she says is suggestive. Her chapter begins with clichéd questions about literary worth and money. Since writers are warned against unrealistic expectations of monetary gain, they must come to grips with deeper incentives. One possibility commends “the social usefulness of art.” But writers beguiled by this idyllic motive are victims of censorship, often inflicted by themselves. “Thus, the heroes of Art became those who were willing, as they say, to push the envelope.”

In due course, this pushed artists in the direction of a “pure aesthetic” that pitted art against moral purpose. The upshot, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is that beauty, rather like God, “is its own excuse for being.”

Oscar Wilde drew out religious parallels with art that imitate the language of Christianity, says Atwood. In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde wrote, “No artist has ethical sympathies.” He added, “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.”

The artist is a high priest of the imagination. But this does not require scruples. When it comes to Art, some get it and some don’t. Art for art’s sake is non-utilitarian. It disdains mammon and turns a blind eye to social responsibility. For a writer of this persuasion, there is no accountability. The only ultimate is the instinct of the artist.

Atwood explores this theme without committing herself to its creed. But she does seem to think that there are only two other motives for writing. They are writing for monetary gain and writing to fulfill a social responsibility of one sort or another.

***

Atwood is probably best known for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), depicting an apocalyptic future with the world’s women in subjection to a theocracy run by fanatical devotees of the Bible. The film adaptation appeared in 1990, starring Faye Dunnaway, Natasha Richardson, and Robert Duvall.

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