Friday, June 19, 2015

Last weekend for VMFA's "The Art of the Flower"

Detail from Still Life, by Dutch painter Jan Van Os.
This weekend is the last weekend for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' popular "Van Gogh, Manet, and Matisse: The Art of the Flower" exhibit, which ends Sunday June 21, 2015. The exhibit focuses on French still life paintings of flowers from the 1700s through the middle of the 1900s.

Here's a pro tip that isn't on the rest of the tour: the starting point for the tradition of French still lifes covered by this exhibit originated in the Netherlands, and the VMFA has two fine Dutch still life paintings in their Baroque Room, one by Jan Davidsz De Heem and one by Jan Van Os (see detail above). Before you visit the Art of the Flower exhibit, visit the Jordan and Thomas A. Saunders III Baroque Galleries and check these paintings out.

If you haven't already caught this exhibit, this is the last weekend, so make a point of visitiing the VMFA this weekend.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

On Meeting a Neo-Confederate in Richmond Today

The Confederate Memorial Chapel in Richmond, Virginia.
One of my favorite things to do in the afternoon when I have the day off is to visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. The VMFA was built on the site of Camp Lee, a retirement home for Confederate veterans, and one of Camp Lee's original buildings remains on the grounds of the VMFA: the Confederate Memorial Chapel. As I left the VMFA today I paused to snap a picture of the Chapel. I often photograph landmarks in Richmond.
As I stepped onto the sidewalk outside the Chapel, I was approached by a middle-aged white woman with two young teen-aged children with her. I am accustomed to being asked for directions, so I stopped and removed my earbuds to answer what I thought would be a question about the museum or local historic sites. The conversation took a much darker turn than I had anticipated.
"What were you taking a picture of?" she asked me.

"The Confederate Memorial Chapel," I answered.

"Let me ask you a question," she continued, "what do you think about displaying the Confederate flag?"

"Well," I said, "that is a tricky question, because it involves the First Amendment. I wish people wouldn't display it because to me it is a symbol of treason, racism, and slavery, but the First Amendment protects someone's right to display it if they want to."

She looked unimpressed.

"Do you think the war was really caused by slavery, or was it really about taxation?" She asked. I am, as it happens, a historian of the American Civil War and I specialize in questions of what caused the war.

"Yes," I said, "the war was caused by slavery. We have the actual documents in which the founders of the Confederacy discussed their reasons for seceding. If you read the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, specifically Series IV, Volume I . . ."

"I'm not a historian," she announced, "I am a philosopher."

"Um, well, okay." I wasn't sure what she meant by that, but I continued, "If you'd like to read an excellent book that talks about the reasons for secession, I'd suggest Charles B. Dew's 'Apostles of Disunion.' Dew looks at the reasons for secession given by the Confederacy's secession commissioners, a group of ambassadors sent by the first seven states to secede to the eight slaves states remaining in the Union. These commissioners made it clear that the purpose of secession was to preserve slavery."

"Well," she asked, "how was the South supposed to have any kind of economy without slavery?"

At this point I was somewhat taken aback. I mean given what happened last night in Charleston, South Carolina, and the reasons the killer gave for his attack, I simply could not believe the conversation I was having with this woman at 3:00 pm on the afternoon of June 18, 2015, less than 24 hours after the deadly attack on innocent people in a church in Charleston.

I sputtered, "well, how does the South have an economy today without slavery?" I asked.

"We have many labor-saving inventions now," was her answer.

I began to choke a little at this, and then she announced that I had disrespected her and ended our conversation.

I am a historian, and like most historians I am aware of dates and the passage of time. As the woman and her children walked away from me it occurred to me  that it had not yet been one full day since a racist had murdered nine people in Charleston, South Carolina for no other reason than the color of their skin. It also occurred to me that tomorrow, June 19, 2015, is the 150th anniversary of the first Juneteenth--June 19, 1865--the day that chattel slavery in the United States came to an end. I pondered these two dates and the fact that there are still people who can deny that slavery was the underlying cause of the Civil War; that there are people who assert that slavery was a good thing; and that there are people who advocate for displaying the Confederate flag in public.

I considered these things, and I was very depressed to see how little progress our nation has made in the last 150 years.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Required reading: "Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991"

Anyone surprised by the failure of Iraqi Army units to stand and fight to defend the city of Ramadi would do well to read Kenneth M. Pollack's Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness 1948-1991. Pollack, a former military analyst at the CIA and Director for Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council, examines the militaries of six different Arab countries and looks at how culture and politics impacted attempts to build effective military organizations. In the latter half of the 20th century, the Arab world proved unable, for a number of reasons, to field fully effective militaries.

Although Pollack's study concludes with the 1991 Persian Gulf War, his conclusions regarding Iraq's military are still interesting. Iraq's military was always hampered by the divide between Shia and Sunni. Under Saddam Hussein, Sunnis were favored with better weapons and superior training. Shia units were less well-equipped and their training was deliberately limited. Many of the limitations of the Saddam Hussein-era Iraqi military have carried over into the current Iraqi regime. The decision by George W. Bush to engage in de-Ba'athification ensured that the better trained Sunni officers were forced out of the Iraqi Army and replaced with Shia officers that may have owed their positions more to political connections than merit. The consequences are reflected in the very poor performance of the current Shia-dominated Iraqi Army.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Annabel Lee #TBT

A little #TBT (throwback Thursday) action with some photos from my time aboard the M/V Annabel Lee.

The Annabel Lee's 1988 crew.

Also from 1988.

The Annabel Lee at Westover Plantation, around 1991 or 1992.

The Annabel Lee at Westover Plantation, around 1991 or 1992.

First mate of the Annabel Lee at Westover Plantation, around 1991 or 1992.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Random Philosophy Major requests release from VCU

(Richmond, VA--May 2, 2015) Virginia Commonwealth University's Monroe Park Campus was rocked this morning by the sudden announcement that sophomore Philosophy Major Richard "Dick" Kampersutt would not be returning to VCU for his junior year. Kampersutt's request for a release came after a reported difference with the Philosophy Department's new head over whether analysis of Wittgenstein delved into substantive debate or whether it was merely a minor dispute over semantics and blah, blah, blah.

In response, the head of VCU's Philosophy Department, whose name escapes me at the moment, said some things about the need for respect in academic debates and some other stuff. Did you hear that Terry Larrier is transferring? Yeah, super bummed about that, but what can you do?

Anyway, when reached for comment about the, uh, philosophy thing we were talking about, VCU's President Dr. Michael Rao reportedly said: "We have a Philosophy Department?" Which on reflection seems kind of harsh.

Does anyone know where Larrier is transferring, or is this just some kind of exploring his options thing?

Anyway, that philosophy guy is looking for someone to sublet his apartment.