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New Film Documents Horrors of Coal Mining

blood on the moutain posterBy Peter Galuszka

Several years in the making, “Blood on the Mountain” has finally premiered in New York City. The documentary examines the cycle of exploitation of people and environment by West Virginia’s coal industry highlighting Massey Energy, a coal firm that was based in Richmond.

The final cut of the film was released publicly May 26 at Anthology Film Archives as part of the “Workers Unite! Film Festival” funded in part by the Fund for Creative Communities, the Manhattan Community Arts Fund and the New York State Council of the Arts.

Directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman, the film shows that how for more than a century, coal companies and politicians kept coal workers laboring in unsafe conditions that killed thousands while ravaging the state’s mountain environment.

As Bruce Stanley, a lawyer from Mingo County, W.Va. who is interviewed in the film and has fought Donald L. Blankenship, the notorious former head of Massey Energy, says, there isn’t a “War on Coal,” it is a “war waged by coal on West Virginia.”

When hundreds of striking workers protested onerous and deadly working conditions in the early 1920s, they were met with machine guns and combat aircraft in a war that West Virginia officials kept out of history books. They didn’t teach it when I was in grade school there in the 1960s. I learned about the war in the 1990s.

The cycle of coal mine deaths,environmental disaster and regional poverty continues to this day. In 2010, safety cutbacks at a Massey Energy mine led to the deaths of 29 miners in the worst such disaster in 40 years. Mountains in Central Appalachia, including southwest Virginia, continue to be ravaged by extreme strip mining.

As Jeff Biggers said in a review of the movie in the Huffington Post:

“Thanks to its historical perspective, Blood on the Mountains keeps hope alive in the coalfields — and in the more defining mountains, the mountain state vs. the “extraction state” — and reminds viewers of the inspiring continuum of the extraordinary Blair Mountain miners’ uprising in 1921, the victory of Miners for Democracy leader Arnold Miller as the UMWA president in the 1970s, and today’s fearless campaigns against mountaintop-removal mining.”

The movie (here is the trailer) is a personal mission for me. In 2013, after my book “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” was published by St. Martin’s Press, Mari-Lynn Evans called me and said she liked the book and wanted me to work with her on the movie project. She is from a small town in West Virginia a little south of where I spent several years as a child and thought some of my observations in the book rang true.

I drove out to Beckley, W.Va. for several hours of on-camera interviews. Over the next two years, I watched early versions, gave my criticisms and ideas and acted as a kind of consultant. Mari-Lynn’s production company is in Akron and I visited other production facilities in New York near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Interesting work if you can get it. My only forays into film making before had been with my high school film club where he videographed a coffin being lowered into a grave (in West Virginia no less). I was greatly impressed when I saw the movie at its New York premiere.

Mari-Lynn and Jordan have been filming in the region for years. They collaborated on “The Appalachians,” an award-winning three-part documentary that was aired on PBS a few years ago and on “Coal Country” which dealt with mountaintop removal strip mining.

They and writer Phyllis Geller spent months detailing how coal companies bought up land on the cheap from unwitting residents, hired miners and other workers while intimidating them and abusing them, divided communities and plundered some very beautiful mountains.

Upper Big Branch is just a continuation of the mine disasters that have killed thousands. The worst was Monongah in 1907 with a death toll of at least 362; Eccles in 1914 with 183 dead; and Farmington in 1968 with 78 dead (just a county over from where I used to live).

By 2008 while Blankenship was CEO of Massey, some 52 miners were killed. Then came Upper Big Branch with 29 dead in 2010.

At least 700 were killed by silicosis in the 1930s after Union Carbine dug a tunnel at Hawks Nest. Many were buried in unmarked graves.

While state regulation has been lame, scores West Virginia politicians have been found guilty of taking bribes, including ex-Gov. Arch Moore.

The movie is strong stuff. I’ll let you know where it will be available. A new and expanded paperback version of my book is available from West Virginia University Press.

Blankenship is scheduled to go on trial on federal charges related to Upper Big Branch on July 13.

One More Time Now… Devolve Transportation Funding to the States

Graphic credit: Wall Street Journal

Graphic credit: Wall Street Journal

by James A. Bacon

Congress is floundering over what to do about the Highway Trust Fund, which collects the federal gasoline tax and plows it back to the states to finance a smorgasbord of transportation projects. The original justification for the gas tax was to build the Interstate Highway System, but the program has morphed over the years into a  piggy bank for all manner of Interstate, highway, transit and miscellaneous projects that must be supplemented with General Fund appropriations. Congress persons are loathe to relinquish the perk of doling out money to constituents, but fiscal pressures make it impractical to continue the General Fund subsidies, while raising the gas tax is a political killer. What’s a Congress person to do? What he or she does best — dither.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Amtrak’s deadly derailment last week, we hear the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth that America isn’t investing enough in infrastructure.

The idea that the United States is significantly under-investing in infrastructure is nonsense — the kind of special pleading you hear from big construction and engineering firms who grow fat on infrastructure spending. Among the G-7 countries (Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada and the U.S.), the total capital stock of the U.S. (transportation and other infrastructure) is the third highest, equivalent to 52% of the Gross Domestic Product, as seen in the graphic above, published today in the Wall Street Journal. While Japan is off-the-charts higher, that country arguably has way over-invested in transportation, creating a system that it cannot afford to maintain over the long run.

infastructure_quality

Graphic credit: Wall Street Journal

Likewise, the quality of infrastructure (the general state of repair) is also in the middle of the pack, as seen at left.

The problem isn’t the level of spending, it’s the mis-allocation of spending. As WSJ columnist Greg IP writes (sounding a long-time theme here at Bacon’s Rebellion), the economic Return on Investment of federally funded projects varies widely; indeed  the feds have no mechanism for ascertaining ROI. “It’s nobody’s job in Washington to figure out which roads or bridges we should invest in,” Ip quotes Aaron Klein with the Bipartisan Policy Center as saying.

pavement_life_cycle2It’s time for Congress to get out of the business of building new transportation infrastructure. Having constructed the Interstate Highway System, Uncle Sam should commit to maintaining it and devolve responsibility for other projects to the states. That means adjusting the gas tax to whatever level it takes to maintain that system at an optimal level, and no higher. By optimum, I mean at a reasonably high state of quality and repair and with sufficient spending to undertake deep repairs at the most economically advantageous point on the life-cycle curve. Presumably, that level would require a much lower federal gas tax than the one in place now. A reduction in the federal gas tax would free the states to increase their own gas taxes by a like amount, more, or less, depending upon their circumstances.

A bedrock principle for maintaining an optimum level of infrastructure investment is to put each component — roads, highways, mass transit, ports, airports, railroads — on a user-pays basis. When users pay for the transportation amenities they want, they are more careful about what they ask for. Any other system results in a political free-for-all in which every interest group seeks to get its favored projects funded at the expense of everyone else, in which case ideology and politics prevail over economic rationality.

The Parental Backlash Against SOL Tests

SOL LogoBy Peter Galuszka

Although their numbers are small, more Virginia parents are refusing to have their children take the state’s Standards of Learning tests, saying that test preparation takes away from true education.

In the 2013 -14 school year, 681 SOL tests were coded as parent refusals out of the nearly three million given, with Northern Virginia, Prince William County in particular, having the highest number.

Some parents are annoyed that teachers in public schools spend so much time teaching how to take the SOLs, which are used to measure a child’s educational standing and also rate how well school districts are performing.

“Students can spend up to one-third of their time of the school year preparing for the tests and that is wrong,” says Gabriel Reich, an associate professor of teaching and learning at Virginia Commonwealth University. Last year, he refused to allow his fifth-grade daughter to take the tests.

It isn’t really clear if parents and their children have the legal right to take the tests or not. If parents refuse, the child gets a “zero.” That might go against the school’s overall rating.

How it affects the student isn’t clear. Continual refusals could keep children out of special programs, such as ones for gifted students. But students from private schools, where SOLs are not usually taken, regularly transfer to public schools with little problem.

In different parts of the state, parents have formed grass roots groups to educate and support parents who have concerns that the mania for standardized testing is hurting true education.

Throughout the state, ad hoc groups are forming where parents can meet and plan refusals. In Richmond, RVA Opt Out meets every third Monday evening of the month and has tripled its attendance in the past several years.

Confronting standardized testing is in part a reaction of politicians who insist that standardized testing is a primary – if not the only – way to make sure that students are being educated properly. Such tests have been around for years but got a strong boost in former President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program of 2002.

Standardized testing has also been used as a weapon against teachers’ unions. Some politicians have suggested that data from SOLs and other tests be collated and configured to give individual teachers ratings that could be made public – something teachers associations bitterly oppose.

What’s more, SOL and other similar data have been used for purposes that have little to do with education. Realtors often collect schools’ performance data to push home sales in certain neighborhoods to give for sale prospects snob appeal.

Critics say that multiple-choice testing doesn’t always reflect a student’s ability to think or show what he or she really understands. It also doesn’t reflect creativity to draw, paint or perform or write music.

The anti-testing movement is growing nationally. In one case in New York state, about 1.1 million children in grades three through eight typically take reading and math tests. Last year, about 67,000 children skipped the tests.

The push-back is growing.

Blankenship’s Incriminating Tapes

don-blankenship By Peter Galuszka

It may sound like something out of the Nixon White House, but embattled coal baron Donald L. Blankenship regularly taped conversations in his office, giving federal prosecutors powerful new ammunition as he approaches criminal trial in July.

According to Bloomberg News, the former head of Massey Energy taped up to 1,900 conversations that often go to the heart of the case against him. Blankenship was indicted last Nov. 13 on several felony charges that he violated safety standards and securities laws in the run up to the April 5, 2010 blast at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners.

The revelation of the tapes came about in a circuitous way. The tapes were given to federal prosecutors in 2011 by officials of Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Richmond-based Massey Energy in 2011 for $7.1 billion.

After reaching a non-prosecution deal with federal prosecutors, Alpha hired a powerful New York law firm to investigate Massey for any possible violations.

Alpha, based in Bristol, was required as part of a non-prosecution order it signed to surrender all evidence, including the tapes.

Earlier this year, Alpha declined to continue paying Blankenship’s legal bills since he was under criminal indictment. Blankenship, claiming Alpha was required to indemnify, him, sued Alpha in a Delaware court. The existence of the tapes was revealed in that venue.

According to court documents filed in Delaware, Blankenship seemed to know that his disregard and hardball management practices could hurt him.

The tapes show Blankenship’s disdain for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which regulates mines but also reveal Blankenship knew Massey’s practices were risky.

According to testimony, a tape has Blankenship stating, “Sometimes, I’m torn up with what I see about the craziness we do. Maybe if it weren’t for MSHA, we’d blow ourselves up. I don’t know.”

“I know MSHA is bad, but I tell you what, we do some dumb things. I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have them,” Blankenship said on tape in the Delaware case.

So far, little has been revealed about what evidence the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston, W.Va. has against Blankenship. Irene Berger, a U.S. District Judge in Beckley, W.Va., issued a massive gag order forbidding lawyers and even family members of the 29 mine victims from discussing the case, now scheduled for July 13 in Beckely.

The gag rules were order modified after the Charleston Gazette and the Wall Street Journal among other news outlets challenged them before the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

In some cases, apparently, the tapes cut both ways. In Delaware, Blankenship’s lawyers played a tape from 2009 which has Blankenship urging executives to tighten up on safety. “I don’t want to go to 100 funerals,” he is quoted as saying. He allegedly told Baxter Phillips Jr., then Massey’s president, that if there were a fatal disaster, “You may be the one who goes to jail.”

According to Bloomberg, Alpha initiated the internal probe after reaching a non-prosecution deal with federal prosecutors. It hired Cleary Gottleib Steen & Hamilton of New York to handle it.

Since Alpha refused to continue paying Blankenship’s legal bills, Blankenship reportedly has paid his lawyers $1 million himself.

The writer is the author of “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” 2012, St. Martin’s Press. Paperback , West Virginia University Press, 2014.

McDonnells May Have Shot at Appeal

mcd convictedBy Peter Galuszka

Robert F. McDonnell, the only Virginia governor ever to be found guilty of corruption, may actually have a good shot at having his convictions reversed on appeal, according to some legal experts.

I have the story in this week’s Style Weekly.

The issue, which has been tossed around many times, involves how broadly or narrowly “honest services fraud” can be interpreted. The key points are whether or not McDonnell and his co-convict and wife Maureen did deny the public the “intangible right” of honest services by taking something of value in exchange for an action.

A further complication is that if they did, in fact, take an action in exchange for something, was it an “official” action? It tends to worry lawyers from such law schools as Harvard, the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary.

Among some of their worries are that if McDonnell took money from star prosecution witness Jonnie R. Williams but took no specific action for the vitamin salesman, how is that different from a president granting a donor an ambassadorship.

Another concern that “honest services” statutes can be so “vaguely worded” that they could allow prosecutors to carve out a new crime that the defendants might not know they are committing.

I covered most of the six-week-long trial for Bloomberg News last summer and there is no question in my mind that the McDonnells’ behavior was shameful. U.S. District Judge James Spencer tended to go with a broad interpretation of the law.

We’ll see when arguments for McDonnell’s appeal start May 12 at the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. I’ll keep my own legal opinions to myself for the moment.

How to Reform Virginia’s Conservation Tax Credit

This map, taken from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation website, shows the fragmented distribution of conservation easements on Virginia's upper peninsula.

This map, taken from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation website, shows the fragmented distribution of conservation easements on Virginia’s upper peninsula.

by James A. Bacon

The state of Virginia spends $100 million a year in the form of tax expenditures to place conservation easements on land parcels around the state. Could the state get more for its investment? Amy Murphy, an environmental studies major at the University of Richmond, thinks so. In a paper presented to the  Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission Tuesday, she recommended three changes t0 make the law more effective, including a restructuring of the tax credit to favor easements that offered greater environmental benefits.

Murphy’s paper on conservation easement reform was one of 11 prepared under the tutelage of biology professor Peter D. Smallwood and journalism professor Stephen D. Nash that were packaged for consideration by the climate change commission. Each paper focused on a practical, small-bore proposal for helping Virginia ecosystems adapt to warming temperatures. While climate change was the unifying theme, it struck me that many of the proposals make sense whether you believe in catastrophic global warming or not.

Murphy’s paper, in particular, addressed concerns that I have long harbored about Virginia’s conservation easement program. On the plus side, the program provides a way to protect Virginia lands from development that is far cheaper than purchasing the land outright. Landowners receive a tax credit worth 40% of the fair market of the value of the land, with deductions up to $100,000 for the year of donation and 10 subsequent years. In effect, taxpayers pay 40 cents on the dollar to protect land from development beyond its current use, typically agriculture or forestry. Not a bad deal.

The problem is that not all land is equally worth conserving. Some lands harbor endangered species and biological diversity; others don’t. Some easements abut other easements, creating larger bodies of protected habitat; others are tiny islands, creating fragments of little ecological value. The state caps the easement credits at $100 million per year but has no system for prioritizing one easement over another.

Murphy proposes creating a statewide plan, to be administered by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, to rank and prioritize land based on conservation value. Factors to be considered would include biodiversity, land resilience, land cover, proximity to existing lands and threat of development. Parcels would be scored. Parcels with high scores (of greater conservation value) would receive higher tax credits, while lower-scoring parcels would receive lower credits.

“Ideally, implementing these changes will result in obtaining easements on more land of high ecological importance without altering the total amount of tax credits given annually,” she writes.

A second tweak to the program would address problems created by freezing an easement in judicial stone. Static easements that prescribe specific responsibilities and expectations of future land owners can become outdated over the decades, limiting adaptation to changes in scientific knowledge and climate conditions. Murphy recommends that Virginia require the inclusion of “adaptive management plans” in easement terms. “These plans should require that the landowner manages the land in a manner consistent with preserving the conservation purpose of the easement rather than require specific management techniques.”

Finally, Murphy recommends setting up a system for monitoring easements to ensure that the terms are being adhered to. In Maine, which requires monitoring, 90% of the easements were in compliance — which implies that 10% were not. There is a cost to monitoring, she acknowledges, but the burden “may have a positive influence as [it] may force landowners to limit their holdings so they can provide proper stewardship to them. This may cause a selective pressure away from low value easements.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia’s conservation easement program is a valuable tool for protecting the natural environment. It’s also a great tax break for landowners, some of whom may be motivated to participate for less-than-altruistic motives. Murphy’s recommendations would ensure that this significant state investment yields maximum benefits.

The Tangible Economic Value of Biodiversity

healy_hamilton

Healy Hamilton

by James A. Bacon

From the oceans to the rain forests, from the wetlands to the Virginia Piedmont, wildlife habitats around the world are under tremendous pressure from human activity. One reason that environmentalists get alarmed about global warming is that a rapidly changing environment adds one more source of stress to many species. In a pre-human environment, species would respond to a warming climate in Virginia by migrating north. But human activity — cities, farming, subdivisions, roads, railroads and power lines — fragments wildlife habitat and creates barriers to migration.

Human pressure is causing one of the greatest mass extinctions of species the planet has ever seen. But not everyone gets weepy at the prospect of demise of the Littlewing Purleymussel or Rock Gnome Lichen, endangered species here in Virginia. Some people say, “So what? What’s it to me?”

There is tremendous unrecognized value to biodiversity, Healy Hamilton, chief scientist with NatureServe, argued in a session yesterday at the University of Richmond that preceded the meeting of the Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission. Just to mention those species that are directly useful to humans, she said 30,00 plant species have edible parts; 7,000 are used as foods. Forty percent of all medicinal drugs come from plants, animals or micro-organisms. Timber, firewood, fibers, rubber and biofuels, all derived from plants, are multibillion-dollar industries.

And that’s just for starters. Increasingly, scientists are turning to nature for solutions to engineering problems, a phenomenon called biomimicry. Nature and evolution have worked over billions of years to accomplish such tasks as enhancing flow without causing friction, or creating light, flexible materials. The greater the number of species in existence, the greater the number of potential solutions.

While there is value to preserving individual species, there also is value to preserving ecosystems. Hamilton referred to “ecosystem services,” or tangible economic benefits that ecosystems provide humans. Pollinators like bats and bees contribute roughly $30 billion a year in services nationally to agriculture and landscaping. Coastal wetlands provide billions of dollars annually in storm-surge protection. Nature provides billions of more of value in recreation and tourism. The inspiration upon arts and philosophy cannot be expressed in dollars.

Hamilton described biological diversity as “a magic carpet ride of life we don’t even know we’re on.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Of all environmental issues, the loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity is one that bothers me most. When species go extinct, they are gone forever (unless someone figures out how to reconstruct a wooly mammoth from DNA, but re-creating one mammoth isn’t enough to resurrect the species). The greater the biodiversity of an ecosystem, the greater its stability. The loss of species makes the system more prone to debilitating perturbations, which, even if you care nothing about gray bats or dustytail darters, can impact those species (pine trees, corn, azaleas, whatever) that humans do care about.

The loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity is real, it’s here, and it’s now. To me, it’s a lot more real than catastrophic climate change, an outgrowth of computer model forecasts that failed to see the current 17-year temperature plateau. (Yeah, yeah, I know I’m a heretic. Burn me at the stake!)

What I’m groping for here is the idea that biodiversity may be a patch of common ground where wild-eye climate alarmists and sober-minded skeptics (ha! ha! I’m just trying to goad LarryG and PeterG) can actually agree on something. While the two camps will likely disagree over the desirability of re-engineering the state’s energy economy, perhaps we can come together in promoting environmental resilience by buffering the impact of human activity on threatened species.

In the near future, I will explore some ideas generated by some bright University of Richmond students on practical ways Virginia can protect biodiversity from human threats of all kinds, whether climate change or humanity’s heavy footprint the landscape.

Non-Coal Jobs Thriving in Energy Sector

Coal MinersBy Peter Galuszka

Is there a real “War on Coal” or is it part of a natural transition to more non-polluting and less destructive forms of energy? One way to find out is to track job creation.

A new study at Duke University shows that since 2008, more than 49,000 jobs in the coal industry have been lost. But, about 196,000 jobs – or four times as many – have been created in other energy sectors such as natural gas, solar and wind.

The study suggests that all the gnashing of teeth that President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are out to ruin the energy sector by killing off coal may be off base.

This has been the cry of Virginia’s utilities, and its few coal firms, along with some members of the business establishment that the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan to encourage cuts in carbon dioxide by 2030 are unworkable and too threatening to employment in the coal industry since some coal-fired power plants are likely to be shut down. (Of course, some of them have been in operation for 60 years, but never mind).

Overlooked is that as coal jobs die, more energy jobs have been created in natural gas thanks to hydraulic fracking and in renewables like solar and wind which are getting increasingly cheaper.

“Our study shows it has not been a one-for-one replacement,” says Lincoln Pratson, a Duke professor of earth and ocean sciences who is one of the report’s authors.

Hardest hit are the coalfields of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Small wonder. The coal is of excellent quality but easy-to-reach seams have been mined out and abundant shale gas has undercut its price power. Coal has also taken hits in Utah, the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, and Colorado. The biggest job increases are in the Northeast, Southwest, Midwest and West.

Where does Virginia fit in with renewables? Hardly anywhere just yet. Its neighboring states are much farther along. One reason is they have mandatory renewable portfolio standards to force shifts to wind and solar. Even coal-heavy West Virginia had mandatory standards although the legislature just dumped them.

Virginia is just gearing up with solar. As for wind, Dominion has plans for two turbines off Virginia Beach.

Remarkably, this vision of non-coal energy jobs growing four times the amount of coal jobs cut is left out of the debate as Dominion gets the General Assembly to freeze electricity rates and forego State Corporation Commission audits for several years on the theory that it doesn’t know what the EPA will do about carbon dioxide reduction.

And, to show you how bizarre the coal people are, and appeals court in the District of Columbia is ready to shoot down a coal-led attack on the EPA’s carbon rules. Among the plaintiffs is Robert Murray, the iconoclastic CEO of Murray Energy which has been picking up West Virginia coal properties from long-time operator Consol, which obviously is happy to unload them

During the 2012 presidential race, Murray ordered his workers to attend a rally for Mitt Romney under threat of firing. He insists that Obama is trying to put him out of business.

One problem the appeals judges have with his lawsuit is that the rules are only proposed rules. They are not official. EPA is asking for comment by this summer show it can make adjustments. So why is Murray suing?

It would be as if I were to sue Jim Bacon for an idea he might be envisioning. I know it’s a tempting idea, but it would be silly.

The Duke report was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Energy Policy.

Scandal at the Royal Academy of Arts!!!!

Baconby James A. Bacon

So, the Bacon family visited the Royal Academy of Arts today to pay respects to a statue of Sir Francis Bacon, the brilliant philosopher who first articulated the scientific method and laid the foundation for all human progress ever since. With the possible exception of a certain charismatic, 1st-century Jewish holy man who wound up hanging on a cross, no one in the broad sweep of history has done more to propel mankind from the depths of superstition to enlightment than Bacon. Without Bacon, the vast majority of us would be mired in filth, poverty and depravity.

So, you imagine the tremulous excitement the Bacon family from Richmond, Virginia, felt upon approaching the Royal Academy of Arts, one of only two known locations in London to have statues commemorating the life of this great benefactor of mankind. Our enthusiasm was only slightly diminished when we entered the front court of the academy to encounter a statue dedicated to a certain Joshua Reynolds, whoever he was. When we inquired as to the whereabouts of the Bacon statue, the ignorant buffoons who greeted visitors had no knowledge of where it might be located. It was only when the lady at the information desk checked the Internet that we found that the statue of Bacon resided on the back side of the academy. We had to walk around the block to see it.

bacon3

Sir Francis Bacon

Breathless with anticipation, we pressed through the throng of pedestrians on Piccadilly to reach the rear of the building on some street no one has ever heard of. And there it was, the statue of Bacon along with renderings of five other great philosophers and scientists. We approached to pay our respects and give our obeisance. And to our horror, we perceived the head of the greatest philosopher since Aristotle to be covered in bird droppings. Yes! Bird droppings!!

Royal Academy of Arts, j’accuse! How long have you allowed this desecration to persist under your uncaring eye!

Now, I know that not everyone fully recognizes the monumental contributions that Bacon has made to mankind. But how about Adam Smith and John Locke, the progenitors of the American republic and the free-market system? How about Gottfried Leibnitz, one of the greatest mathematicians to live, second only to Isaac Newton, Georges Cuvier, the naturalist, and Carl Linnaeus, developer of the first taxonomy of species? All of them — all save Linnaeus — were covered in filth!

John Locke

John Locke

Here, look upon John Locke, arguably the most influential philosopher of the enlightenment, second only to Francis Bacon, who elaborated the social contract theory of governance, laying the groundwork for the American Revolution and, in case you’re a British reader, the primacy of Parliament over royalty. And there he stands with bird droppings running down his face like Indian war paint!

smith

Adam Smith

As if that were not blasphemous enough, the statue of Adam Smith stands in an equal state of defilement! The third greatest philosopher of all time, who not only made the economic case for free markets and limited government but the  moral case is likewise bedecked with bird poo. I dare say that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would not be treated with such disdain. (Speaking of Engels, has anyone ever noted how absurdly large his beard is? Click  on “more” to see what I’m talking about.)

To be fair, Leibnitz and Cuvier have been treated to the same cavalier disregard! They are worthy of high regard, but it’s not as if they were Englishmen. Leibnitz was German and Cuvier a Frenchman.

linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus

Then there is the indecipherable matter of Linnaeus. Look at his statue — as pristine as a baby’s behind. Not a speck of bird poo to be seen. I suppose we’re supposed to be impressed by the fact that he was the father of taxonomy. It’s not like he was Darwin — he got a whole lot of stuff wrong. (Just read this: “The Poverty of Linnaean Hierarchy: A Study of Biological Taxonomy.”) And it’s not as if he was even English — he was Swedish, educated in the Netherlands. Yet somehow, the Royal Academy of Arts sees fit to clean his statue of bird poo while leaving the others peppered by guano?

The Royal Academy of Arts needs to do some serious soul searching, oh, yes it does. Right-thinking people cannot allow this desecration to persist! Continue reading

In Praise of Whimsical Statuary

whimsical_art
Yes, it’s true, London has more statuary per square mile devoted to dead kings, lords, generals and admirals than any other city on the planet. (One cathedral, Westminster Abbey, has more statuary than entire states in America.) It’s all very serious and patriotic, and of considerable interest to foreign visitors. Perhaps the most best known monument is that of Lord Nelson, victor of the battle of Trafalgar. Needless to say, monument space in a premier locale like Trafalgar Square is very precious — you can’t turn it over to just any old run-of-the-mill military hero like the dudes who led the Burma campaign or won the battle of Omdurman.

How is it, then, that a skeletal horse stands upon one of four plinths at such a revered location? Moreover, how is that the skeletal horse is bedecked with an electronic ribbon with a digital ticker tape-like display of the London Stock Exchange? Apparently, the work by Ekow Eshun, a German artist, is a commentary on the relationship between money, power and history. I’m not certain exactly is what is implied, but I’m sure it’s not meant to be flattering to those in power. Thus, has public art evolved from celebrating national institutions to questioning them.

DunamisI suppose one reaction to such art would be to declare it symptomatic of our civilization’s self-loathing — a sign of decay. There’s probably some sense to that view. But I have a second reaction. I find the statue amusing. It makes a nice change of pace from dead heroes. Google “whimsical statues in London” and you’ll find an extraordinary variety of creative works, such as the one at right of a jester holding up an elephant by its trunk. It’s all part of “cool Britannia,” part of what makes London such a fun, exciting, world-class city.

Virginia could use a few such public works itself. Of course, public art requires public spaces to display it. And Virginia suffers from a paucity of quality public spaces. Try putting this kind of art in a shopping center or subdivision. There aren’t many suitable locations. But if we want to build the kind of communities that inspire creativity and innovation, we need to open ourselves to the display of creative work even if, from time to time, it challenges the nexus of money and power. We want to see more wealth-creating entrepreneurs, and challenging the nexus of money and power is exactly what entrepreneurs do.

— JAB