culture

6 reasons why “content” has been devalued

From Jonathan Handel’s “Is Content Worthless?” (The Huffington Post: 11 April 2008):

Everyone focuses on piracy, but there are actually six related reasons for the devaluation of content. The first is supply and demand. Demand — the number of consumers and their available leisure time – is relatively constant, but supply — online content — has grown enormously in the last decade. Some of this is professional content set free from boundaries of time and space, now available worldwide, anytime, and usually at no cost (whether legally or not). Even more is user generated content (UGC) — websites, blogs, YouTube videos — created by non-professionals who don’t care whether they get paid, and who themselves pay little or nothing to create and distribute it.

The second is the loss of physical form. It just seems natural to value a physical thing more highly than something intangible. Physical objects have been with us since the beginning of time; distributable intangible content has not. Perhaps for that reason, we tend to focus on per-unit costs (zero for an intangible such as a movie download), while forgetting about fixed costs (such as the cost of making the movie in the first place). Also, and critically, if you steal something tangible, you deny it to the owner; a purloined DVD is no longer available to the merchant, for instance. But if you misappropriate an intangible, it’s still there for others to use. …

The third reason is that acquiring content is increasingly frictionless. It’s often easier, particularly for young people, to access content on the Internet than through traditional means. …

Fourth is that most new media business models are ad-supported rather than pay per view or subscription. If there’s no cost to the user, why should consumers see the content as valuable, and if some content is free, why not all of it? …

Fifth is market forces in the technology industry. Computers, web services, and consumer electronic devices are more valuable when more content is available. In turn, these products make content more usable by providing new distribution channels. Traditional media companies are slow to adopt these new technologies, for fear of cannibalizing revenue from existing channels and offending powerful distribution partners. In contrast, non-professionals, long denied access to distribution, rush to use the new technologies, as do pirates of professional content. As a result, technological innovation reduces the market share of paid professional content.

Finally, there’s culture. A generation of users has grown up indifferent or hostile to copyright, particularly in music, movies and software.

More on Fordlandia

From Mary A. Dempsey’s “Fordlandia” (Michigan History: July/August 1994):

Screens were just one of the Yankee customs transported to Fordlandia and Belterra. Detroit physician L. S. Fallis, Sr., the first doctor sent from Henry Ford Hospital to run the Fordlandia medical center, attempted to eradicate malaria and hookworm among Brazilian seringueiros (rubber gatherers) by distributing quinine and shoes. The quinine was accepted but shoes were an unwelcome novelty. It is an exceptional photo that shows the shirtless seringueiros, machetes in hand, shod only with floppy rubber-soled sandals; their children went shoeless. The jungle dwellers also found Fordlandia’s two-family homes hopelessly hot and ugly and the idea of bathrooms repulsive. Even today, plumbing is a rarity in the jungle.

At the same time, Ford’s 6:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. work schedule was unpopular with plantation employees accustomed to slashing trees several hours before dawn, then resuming the work at sunset for piecemeal pay. But the promise of free housing and food, top-notch health care for the workers and their families, and a salary of thirty-seven cents a day—double the regular wage—kept the seringueiros on the job. …

Generally, the company-imposed routine met hit-and-miss compliance. Children wore uniforms to school and workers responded favorably to suggestions they grow their own vegetables. But most ignored Ford’s no liquor rule and, on paydays, boats filled with potent cachaca—the local sugar-can brew—pulled up at the dock. Poetry readings, weekend dances and English sing-alongs were among the disputed cultural activities. …

Former Kalamazoo sheriff Curtis Pringle, a manager at Belterra, boosted labor relations when he eased off the Dearborn-style routine and deferred to local customs, especially when it came to meals and entertainment. Under Pringle, Belterra buildings did not contain the glass that made the powerhouse at Fordlandia unbearably hot, and weekend square dancing was optional. Alexander said Henry Ford balked at building a Catholic church at Fordlandia—even though Catholicism was the predominant Christian religion in Brazil. The Catholic chapel was erected right away at Belterra. …

Alexander said of the long-closed but impeccably maintained facility that once boasted separate wards for men and women, thirty nurses, a dentist, three physicians and a pharmacist, who also administered anesthesia during surgery.

Henry Ford’s debacle in the jungle

From Alan Bellows’s “The Ruins of Fordlândia” (Damn Interesting: 3 August 2006):

On Villares’ advice, [Henry] Ford purchased a 25,000 square kilometer tract of land along the Amazon river, and immediately began to develop the area. …

Scores of Ford employees were relocated to the site, and over the first few months an American-as-apple-pie community sprung up from what was once a jungle wilderness. It included a power plant, a modern hospital, a library, a golf course, a hotel, and rows of white clapboard houses with wicker patio furniture. As the town’s population grew, all manner of businesses followed, including tailors, shops, bakeries, butcher shops, restaurants, and shoemakers. It grew into a thriving community with Model T Fords frequenting the neatly paved streets. …

But Ford’s effort to transplant America– what he called “the healthy lifestyle”– was not limited to American buildings, but also included mandatory “American” lifestyle and values. The plantation’s cafeterias were self-serve, which was not the local custom, and they provided only American fare such as hamburgers. Workers had to live in American-style houses, and they were each assigned a number which they had to wear on a badge– the cost of which was deducted from their first paycheck. Brazilian laborers were also required to attend squeaky-clean American festivities on weekends, such as poetry readings, square-dancing, and English-language sing-alongs.

One of the more jarring cultural differences was Henry Ford’s mini-prohibition. Alcohol was strictly forbidden inside Fordlândia, even within the workers’ homes, on pain of immediate termination. This led some industrious locals to establish businesses-of-ill-repute beyond the outskirts of town, allowing workers to exchange their generous pay for the comforts of rum and women. …

Workers’ discontent grew as the unproductive months passed. Brazilian workers – accustomed to working before sunrise and after sunset to avoid the heat of the day – were forced to work proper “American” nine-to-five shifts under the hot Amazon sun, using Ford’s assembly-line philosophies. And malaria became a serious problem due to the hilly terrain’s tendency to pool water, providing the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.

In December of 1930, after about a year of working in a harsh environment with a strict and disagreeable “healthy lifestyle”, the laborers’ agitation reached a critical mass in the workers’ cafeteria. Having suffered one too many episodes of indigestion and degradation, a Brazilian man stood and shouted that he would no longer tolerate the conditions. A chorus of voices joined his, and the cacophony was soon joined by an orchestra of banging cups and shattering dishes. Members of Fordlândia’s American management fled swiftly to their homes or into the woods, some of them chased by machete-wielding workers. A group of managers scrambled to the docks and boarded the boats there, which they moved to the center of the river and out of reach of the escalating riots.

By the time the Brazilian military arrived three days later, the rioters had spent most of their anger. Windows were broken and trucks were overturned, but Fordlândia survived. …

In 1933, after three years with no appreciable quantity of rubber to show for the investment, Henry Ford finally hired a botanist to assess the situation. The botanist tried to coax some fertile rubber trees from the pitiful soil, but he was ultimately forced to conclude that the land was simply unequal to the task. The damp, hilly terrain was terrible for the trees, but excellent for the blight. Unfortunately no one had paid attention to the fact that the land’s previous owner was a man named Villares– the same man Henry Ford had hired to choose the plantation’s site. Henry Ford had been sold a lame portion of land, and Fordlândia was an unadulterated failure. …

Be that as it may, Ford’s perseverance might have eventually paid off if it were not for the fact that scientists developed economical synthetic rubber just as Belterra was establishing itself. In 1945, Ford retired from the rubbering trade, having lost over $20 million in Brazil without ever having set foot there.

Dead five years before he was discovered

From Reuters’s “Body found in bed 5 years after death” (4 October 2006):

Austrian authorities have discovered the body of a man who apparently died at home in bed five years ago, a Vienna newspaper reported on Wednesday.

The corpse of Franz Riedl, thought to have been in his late 80s when he died, went undetected for so long because his rent had been paid by automatic order from the bank account into which he received his pension, the daily Kurier said.

Neighbors said there was no strange smell coming from Riedl’s apartment and authorities who found the body after a court order was given to enter said his body appeared to have “mummified” and was well preserved.

“He had been frail and a woman had helped him,” the husband of the apartment block’s caretaker told Kurier, adding that mail had always piled up outside the pensioner’s flat. “We thought he had moved in with her or gone to an old people’s home.”

Police said they were not certain as to exactly when the man had died, but that they had found only schilling notes in the apartment — the currency used by Austria before the introduction of the euro on January 1, 2002.

What can we learn from Scooby-Doo?

From Chris Suellentrop’s “Scooby-Doo: Hey, dog! How do you do the voodoo that you do so well?” (Slate: 26 March 2004):

The Washington Post‘s Hank Stuever concisely elucidated the “Scooby worldview” when the first live-action movie came out: “Kids should meddle, dogs are sweet, life is groovy, and if something scares you, you should confront it.”

More on Slab City

From Evelyn Nieves’s “Slab City Journal; For Thousands, a Town of Concrete Slabs Is a Winter Retreat” (The New York Times: 18 February 2001):

Every winter, when the Winnebagos and pickups shake the desert off Beal Road like a small earthquake, Ben Morofsky gets wistful for the 120-degree days of summer, and the peace of living with just a few hearty slabbers like himself. …

The 640 or so state-owned acres of tumbleweed and barren sand deep in the desert of Southern California, by the Arizona and Mexico borders, is not really a city, or town, or much of anything else. Year-round, it houses fewer than a hundred people, parked on concrete slabs in the sand, in campers or buses or the shells of whatever vehicle they could scrounge. But come the pale sun of winter, it becomes a bona fide attraction for a couple of thousand people fleeing the snow of the Midwest, Northwest and Canada.

The migrants, or snowbirds, come to Slab City in all manner of vehicle. They bring trailers that look like ranch houses on wheels, pickup trucks with tents and tarps on them, and every kind of camper in between. (There is even a snowbird reverend, who brings in his own nondenominational Christian church.) They start arriving in late October, reach critical mass by Thanksgiving and will drive away around April, returning Slab City to its other, loner self.

Winter can make for a sometimes uneasy mix. Snowbirds are retirees mostly, who stay about five months, merry as scouts on a camping trip. The slabbers, of all ages, eke out an existence from small retirement or other government checks, or just plain grit and charity. …

But Mr. Morofsky, 38, a self-taught mechanic who lives in a bus on a slab he shares with his girlfriend, three dogs, half a dozen chubby puppies and three friends with three more dogs and three more puppies, sees the bright side of sharing the desert half the year. He earns his bread fixing engines, generators, or just about anything the snowbirds need fixed.

“Snowbirds and slabbers are a different class of people. But we can all get along,” said Mr. Morofsky, playing catch with six dogs in the Coachella Branch of the All-American Canal that runs through Slab City like a vein. …

Everyone in Slab City, snowbird and slabber alike, is a squatter. They stay here for nothing (and get nothing in return, they like to say). They can pick up their mail at the post office in Niland, the down-and-out farm town four miles away. The Imperial County Sheriff’s Department, and the Niland Fire Department, keep watch to protect them. The dozen or so children in Slab City get picked up by the school bus. That is it as far as services. …

Yet chances are, if you ask someone who lives in Slab City full time what it is like, you will hear that it is like a lot of places, only hotter.

Not true. Slab City is a community of sorts for people who have not found community elsewhere, or else have not wanted it. The slab part of its name comes from its origins as a military base half a century ago. When the Army pulled up stakes, it left concrete slabs used as foundations for portable buildings. People began using the slabs to set up camps.

The most famous resident of Slab City is Leonard Knight, who has been building a mountain to God out of homemade clay for 16 years. His Salvation Mountain, painted in the colors of Froot Loops from donated paint, is three stories high, says “God Is Love” for at least two stories, and can be seen for miles around. It also marks the official entrance to Slab City. Mr. Knight, who is 69, is used to getting photographed for art books and magazines, but remains down to earth. “I try to spread God’s love everywhere,” he said.

Other longtime slabbers include Linda Barnett, who has lived here 12 years. She lives in a camper with a camouflage net as a canopy and a large antenna on the roof. The official Slab City hostess, she makes nightly announcements on a CB radio for all residents. “The announcements are about services provided, food programs, things for barter and trade,” she said wearily from a picnic bench. “The announcements can take 45 minutes.”

Then there is Mel Martin, known as Pops. An elderly eccentric millionaire, or so it is rumored, he lives in a truck in a compound with Mr. Morofsky, in protest, he said, of bourgeois society.

“What I want to know of the outside world,” he said, “is, are people ever going to rise from their complacency? We need a little protest in this country.”

The end of days in Slab City

From Charlie LeDuff’s “Parked in a Desert, Waiting Out the Winter of Life” (The New York Times: 17 December 2004):

Directions to purgatory are as follows: from Los Angeles drive east past Palm Springs into the bowels of the Mojave Desert. Turn south at the stench of the Salton Sea. Proceed down Highway 111 to the town of Niland, a broken-down place of limited possibilities.

Turn left on Main Street and head down the road to the railroad tracks where the law sometimes waits, as though the tracks were an international boundary.

“Where you going?” asked the deputy, Frank Lopez, on a recent night, even though the road leads to just one place. The Slabs.

Bored stiff, the deputy spun a ghost story about drugged-out crazies, a cult in a blue bus, a child molester, a man who sleeps with rattlesnakes, a mobster on the lam, and old people, flocks of old people who have traded in their picket fences for a mobile home and a life on the drift. …

Five miles down is the sign, “Welcome to Slab City,” marking the entrance of this former World War II military base. The only suggestion of life this night was the flickering of campfires. …

Pastor Hyatt, at 69, has inherited the burden of living. His wife, Audrey, died this year after suffering a stroke here in the desert wasteland. The memory of her scent is everywhere.

“Ah, he’s lonely, and it’s tough to see it,” said Rusty, 73, who sat at the pastor’s fire, warming himself. Rusty looked and smelled like a bum — the price paid, he said, for freedom. “Nobody particularly wants to die out here in the desert, but the living’s free.”

Slab City is not so sinister as it is a strange, forlorn quarter of America. It is a town that is not really a town, a former training grounds with nothing left but the concrete slabs where the barracks stood. Gen. George S. Patton trained troops here. Pilots of the Enola Gay practiced their atomic mission, dropping dummy bombs into the sea.

The land belongs to the state, but the state, like the law, does not bother, and so the Slabs have become a place to park free. More than 3,000 elderly people settle in for the winter, in a pattern that dates back at least 20 years. They are mostly single, divorced or widowed — a whole generation on the road, independent, alone. In this place, to be 55 years old is to be young.

There are no amenities; no potable water, no electricity, no sewerage. Groceries can be picked up in town at the grubby market whose managers do not seem to mind that hundreds of people fill their jugs from the water tap. Mail is routed to a post office box — Niland, CA 92257. Gasoline is bought in distant towns like Brawley; prescriptions and liquor are bought in Mexico. Sewage is held in storage tanks or holes in the ground.

The north side of Main Street is Poverty Flats. The south side, the suburbs, where the relatively well-to-do motorhomies have their dinner dances and clubhouse trailers.

Cole Robertson lives in the Flats with his wife, Mabel. Mr. Robertson, 72, is a retired construction worker from East Texas who cuts an intimidating figure, sitting shirtless, with one rheumy eye, a watermelon physique and a cotton fields vocabulary. An argument with a neighbor last year ended with one of the Robertsons’ trailers in flames. That is how law is dispensed in the Flats, vigilante style. One man was dragged to death a few years ago, another shot in the kneecap last year. Occasionally, the deputies do come around, usually in the day to exercise a warrant or to remove children who have not been seen in school for months. But normally, justice comes at the end of a matchstick in the Flats.

“There ain’t no rules,” Mr. Robertson said. He told of his neighbors, an aging man who lives with his voices in the rundown bus, a geriatric transvestite, a no-good who strapped his kid to a tree and left him in the sun.

A few years ago, a man tried making scrap metal from an unexploded aluminum shell he found at the bombing range in the nearby Chocolate Mountains. He succeeded but at the cost of his own life. His legs had to be picked from a tree.

It was in this anarchy, eight years ago, that Pastor Hyatt stumbled upon his life’s purpose. He discovered the Slabs quite by accident. He and Audrey had packed up their whole life, sold the house in Lebanon, Ore., left their jobs at the titanium plant where he was a shift foreman, said goodbye to their children and to their obligations and struck out on the road.

He was not always a good man, he admits that. He had a temper and hard fists. But he came across a band of rolling revivalists that first year on the road, and followed them to Minnesota. He was ordained by the World Wide Ministries without ever studying at seminary and seems a little embarrassed by this.

Stuck near Niland, the pastor inquired about a place to camp in an R.V. for the evening. A stranger told him about the Slabs, five miles down the road.

Upon seeing the privation and sadness and isolation, the preacher and his wife believed that the Creator had given them a second life. They built the Slab City Christian Center out of modular housing and began to preach and feed October through April, when the weather is clement and the Slabs come to life.

When people were found dead in their trailers, the pastor and his wife were there with a Psalm. They gave children rides to the hospital. The Hyatts paid for the work from their life savings. But Audrey was felled by a stroke in February and passed in May.

When she died, the pastor’s self-assurance faltered and he found that he had become one of the lost, emotionally stranded with one foot in hell and the other on an ice cube. …

Rusty, the doubter who cleans his shirt once a week in a bucket. Rusty, who tells about a prepubescent military career. Rusty, whose smell and language come from the stables. Rusty, who came in on a bus and says he ran a militia out of this camp for 12 years in case the Mexicans invaded from the south or the F.B.I. from the east.

“Everybody can’t fit in to the middle-class life,” said Rusty, who wore a military shirt and cap, military boots and long fingernails as thick as seashells. Suffice it to say, Rusty does not want people to know him and does not disclose his last name.

The evening was cold and dark, the air thick with the smells of burning salt oak as Slab City went to sleep. A Frank Sinatra record played somewhere across the salt flats. The thunder of bombs clapped on the far side of the Chocolate Mountains. Rusty smoked by himself in his broken-down camper with the flat wheels and camouflage netting. A lamp burned in the pastor’s trailer.

Rusty talked about a daughter who did not want anything to do with him; a wife he reckoned was working a truck stop somewhere between California and Texas. But Rusty is human. He dreams of a rich woman from the south side of the Slabs. They wear makeup, those girls over there in the R.V.’s. They use toilets instead of buckets. They have class. It’s never going to happen, he says. “I’d love to have company, but I can’t dance anymore,” he said. “I got old legs, but I’m a good conversationalist. But those women over there, they’re stuck up. Middle-class stuck up.”

The senior citizens on the south side of town travel in a sort of lonely-hearts club tailgate. They are alone, having suffered a late-life divorce or the death of a longtime partner. Their vehicles are big, expensive Coachmen and Fleetwoods and Ramblers and the like. They work as a sort of neighborhood watch, and the denizens of the Flats do not cross the imaginary line.

The majority of the society is women. They come to the Slabs because it is free and close to Mexico, where liquor and prescription medicine can be bought cheap. They are educated, savvy about life and competent mechanics.

Donna Lee Cole is a member of Loners on Wheels, a rolling singles club with chapters across the United States. Mrs. Cole says there are at least 10,000 people who belong to this subsociety of aged hobos, people who drive around in search of nothing except tomorrow. They tend to be women, she said, because women live longer than men. …

“We women aren’t looking for a man,” she explained. “The divorcees walked away from a bad situation and don’t want another one. The widows draw Blue Cross and their husband’s Social Security and would lose it if they married a new man. So you don’t bother. You’re just looking for some company.”

Besides, Mrs. Cole says, look at the quality of men, no offense. “They’re bald and paunchy and toothless. I’m old, but I’m not dead.” …

The lonely-hearts clubs have happy hour and social mixers, dances twice a week and trips to town for steak dinners. Still, the Elvis generation goes to bed early and goes to bed alone.

“I was married 46 years,” says Tina Faye at the afternoon mixer at the L.O.W. slab. At 80, Mrs. Faye strikes an exotic figure, lean, rouged, coiffed, with a voice as thick as apricot nectar.

“My man told me to go on if I was to outlive him. So I took to the road. But I feel him sitting there right next to me. I can’t let him go.”

The mood is a bit sad until Ruth Halford, a 74-year-old-widow with a silver permanent, pipes up. “I’m not sad about anything. I don’t owe nobody nothing. I scratch my plans in the dirt. I’m not looking for anybody. The only person I’m in love with is me. Right, girls?”

This is maddening to the eligible bachelor, like a dog chasing a pork chop on a string. A waste of a perfectly beautiful woman.

“Those girls, they get to being independent and they don’t need men,” said John Clairmont, 77, a retired truck driver. “You can never get them to come home with you.” …

The pastor talked about random things from his life with his wife. The snowstorms and eggs in a rooming house. The smell of her hair. Ceramic snowmen she collected. Her face lighted by the dashboard lights. Recipes the children do not ask for. Grandchildren who, chances are, will not remember her name. Death in the desert in some nameless place without longitude or shade.

“That’s the tragedy of old age,” the pastor said as his eyes welled once again. “I’m alone. I’m derelict without her.”

Rusty stared at his feet.

A prison completely run by the inmates

From Mica Rosenberg’s “Guatemala forces end 10-year prisoner rule at jail” (The Washington Post: 25 September 2006):

Guatemalan security forces took over a jail run for over 10 years by inmates who built their own town on prison grounds complete with restaurants, churches and hard-drug laboratories.

Seven prisoners died when 3,000 police and soldiers firing automatic weapons stormed the Pavon prison just after dawn on Monday.

Corrupt guards would only patrol the prison’s perimeter and run the administration section while an “order committee” of hardened inmates controlled the rest. They smuggled in food, drink and luxury goods.

“The people who live here live better than all of us on the outside. They’ve even got pubs,” said soldier Tomas Hernandez, 25.

Pet dogs, including a whining puppy, roamed the deserted prison grounds after the raid. One inmate kept a spider monkey captive, national prison officials said.

But with army helicopters clattering overhead, police backed up by armored cars transferred Pavon’s 1,600 inhabitants to another prison, ending their lives of ease.

The inmates who died were killed in a shootout at the two-story wooden chalet of a convicted Colombian drug trafficker knows as “El Loco,” or “The Madman.”

Blood was splattered on the house’s walls and floor. The Colombian had a widescreen television and high-speed Internet.

Pavon was one of the worst prisons in Guatemala’s penitentiary system, where common criminals, rival “mara” street gangs and drug traffickers often battle for control.

Police had not been into Pavon, on the edge of the town of Fraijanes, since 1996.

It was originally built for 800 inmates as a farm prison where prisoners could grow their own food. But the prison population grew over time and inmates began to construct their own homes on the grounds.

Guards let prisoners bring in whatever they wanted and inmates set up laboratories to produce cocaine, crack and liquor inside Pavon. …

Inmates extorted and kidnapped victims on the outside by giving orders via cell phone. …

They also killed Luis Alfonso Zepeda, a convicted murderer who headed the “order committee.”

Zepeda earned around $25,000 a month from extortion, renting out prison grounds to other inmates and drug trafficking, police said.

His son Samuel lived illegally inside the prison to help run the crime empire, even though he was never sent there by a court. …

Inmates ran at least two churches, one Catholic and the other Evangelical, and restaurants serving typical fare like stews and tortillas.

Stores controlled by the prisoners sold soft drinks and potato chips brought in from the outside.

Neil Postman: the medium is the metaphor for the way we think

From Tom Stites’s “Guest Posting: Is Media Performance Democracy’s Critical Issue?” (Center for Citizen Media: Blog: 3 July 2006):

In late 1980s the late Neil Postman wrote an enduringly important book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it he says that Marshall McLuhan only came close to getting it right in his famous adage, that the medium is the message. Postman corrects McLuhan by saying that the medium is the metaphor – a metaphor for the way we think. Written narrative that people can read, Postman goes on, is a metaphor for thinking logically. And he says that image media bypass reason and go straight to the emotions. The image media are a metaphor for not thinking logically. Images disable thinking, so unless people read and use their reason democracy is disabled as well.

The real purposes of the American school

From John Taylor Gatto’s “Against School” (Harper’s Magazine: September 2003):

Mass schooling of a compulsory nature really got its teeth into the United States between 1905 and 1915, though it was conceived of much earlier and pushed for throughout most of the nineteenth century. The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:

1) To make good people.
2) To make good citizens.
3) To make each person his or her personal best.

These goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or another as a decent definition of public education’s mission, however short schools actually fall in achieving them. But we are dead wrong. Compounding our error is the fact that the national literature holds numerous and surprisingly consistent statements of compulsory schooling’s true purpose. We have, for example, the great H. L. Mencken, who wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not

to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. . . . Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim.. . is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States . . . and that is its aim everywhere else.

[Alexander Inglis, author of the 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education,], for whom a lecture in education at Harvard is named, makes it perfectly clear that compulsory schooling on this continent was intended to be just what it had been for Prussia in the 1820s: a fifth column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give the peasants and the proletarians a voice at the bargaining table. Modern, industrialized, compulsory schooling was to make a sort of surgical incision into the prospective unity of these underclasses. Divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant rankings on tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever reintegrate into a dangerous whole.

Inglis breaks down the purpose – the actual purpose – of modem schooling into six basic functions, any one of which is enough to curl the hair of those innocent enough to believe the three traditional goals listed earlier:

1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can’t test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.

2) The integrating function. This might well be called “the conformity function,” because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.

3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student’s proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in “your permanent record.” Yes, you do have one.

4) The differentiating function. Once their social role has been “diagnosed,” children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits – and not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.

5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as applied to what he called “the favored races.” In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit – with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments – clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That’s what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.

6) The propaedeutic function. The societal system implied by these rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end, a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this continuing project, how to watch over and control a population deliberately dumbed down and declawed in order that government might proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient labor. …

Class may frame the proposition, as when Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, said the following to the New York City School Teachers Association in 1909: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” …

Now, you needn’t have studied marketing to know that there are two groups of people who can always be convinced to consume more than they need to: addicts and children. School has done a pretty good job of turning our children into addicts, but it has done a spectacular job of turning our children into children. Again, this is no accident. Theorists from Plato to Rousseau to our own Dr. Inglis knew that if children could be cloistered with other children, stripped of responsibility and independence, encouraged to develop only the trivializing emotions of greed, envy, jealousy, and fear, they would grow older but never truly grow up. …

Now for the good news. Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they’ll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology – all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.

First, though, we must wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants. Don’t let your own have their childhoods extended, not even for a day. If David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as a preteen, if Thomas Edison could publish a broadsheet at the age of twelve, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today), there’s no telling what your own kids could do. After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.

Media & culture’s emptiness encourages cynicism

From John Twelve Hawks’s “ How We Live Now” (2005):

Instead of resisting the Vast Machine, many of us have given into cynicism and distraction. Our contemporary culture has become a brilliantly colored surface without a deeper spiritual meaning. We care more about celebrities than our own neighbors. Are Nick and Jessica getting divorced? Is that famous actor secretly gay? Staged media events allow us to think that everything is false. Our sense of powerlessness — the belief that an ordinary person does not matter — has twisted our lips into a sneer.

Cultural differences between Unix and Windows

From Joel Spolsky’s “Biculturalism” (Joel on Software: 14 December 2003):

What are the cultural differences between Unix and Windows programmers? There are many details and subtleties, but for the most part it comes down to one thing: Unix culture values code which is useful to other programmers, while Windows culture values code which is useful to non-programmers.

This is, of course, a major simplification, but really, that’s the big difference: are we programming for programmers or end users? Everything else is commentary. …

Let’s look at a small example. The Unix programming culture holds in high esteem programs which can be called from the command line, which take arguments that control every aspect of their behavior, and the output of which can be captured as regularly-formatted, machine readable plain text. Such programs are valued because they can easily be incorporated into other programs or larger software systems by programmers. To take one miniscule example, there is a core value in the Unix culture, which Raymond calls “Silence is Golden,” that a program that has done exactly what you told it to do successfully should provide no output whatsoever. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just typed a 300 character command line to create a file system, or built and installed a complicated piece of software, or sent a manned rocket to the moon. If it succeeds, the accepted thing to do is simply output nothing. The user will infer from the next command prompt that everything must be OK.

This is an important value in Unix culture because you’re programming for other programmers. As Raymond puts it, “Programs that babble don’t tend to play well with other programs.” By contrast, in the Windows culture, you’re programming for Aunt Marge, and Aunt Marge might be justified in observing that a program that produces no output because it succeeded cannot be distinguished from a program that produced no output because it failed badly or a program that produced no output because it misinterpreted your request.

Similarly, the Unix culture appreciates programs that stay textual. They don’t like GUIs much, except as lipstick painted cleanly on top of textual programs, and they don’t like binary file formats. This is because a textual interface is easier to program against than, say, a GUI interface, which is almost impossible to program against unless some other provisions are made, like a built-in scripting language. Here again, we see that the Unix culture values creating code that is useful to other programmers, something which is rarely a goal in Windows programming.

Which is not to say that all Unix programs are designed solely for programmers. Far from it. But the culture values things that are useful to programmers, and this explains a thing or two about a thing or two. …

The Unix cultural value of visible source code makes it an easier environment to develop for. Any Windows developer will tell you about the time they spent four days tracking down a bug because, say, they thought that the memory size returned by LocalSize would be the same as the memory size they originally requested with LocalAlloc, or some similar bug they could have fixed in ten minutes if they could see the source code of the library. …

When Unix was created and when it formed its cultural values, there were no end users. Computers were expensive, CPU time was expensive, and learning about computers meant learning how to program. It’s no wonder that the culture which emerged valued things which are useful to other programmers. By contrast, Windows was created with one goal only: to sell as many copies as conceivable at a profit. …

For example, Unix has a value of separating policy from mechanism which, historically, came from the designers of X. This directly led to a schism in user interfaces; nobody has ever quite been able to agree on all the details of how the desktop UI should work, and they think this is OK, because their culture values this diversity, but for Aunt Marge it is very much not OK to have to use a different UI to cut and paste in one program than she uses in another.

India’s transgendered folks

From Henry Chu’s “Bullied by the Eunuchs” (Los Angeles Times: 7 June 2006):

I was being hit up for a handout by one of this country’s many hijras.

They are eunuchs or otherwise transgendered people by birth, accident or choice. Something between male and female, they are shunned by Indian society as unclean. Many make a rough living through prostitution or by crashing weddings, birthday parties and other festive occasions, threatening to disrupt the celebrations with vulgar behavior and to bring bad luck unless they are paid off. …

India has somewhere between half a million and a million eunuchs. The estimates are very approximate, because the hijras live in a secretive, shadowy world they’ve created for themselves away from the abuse and persecution of general society.

They gather in public in large numbers only at their annual conventions, which always attract media attention for the skillful dancing, the raucous atmosphere and the sight of gaudy clothing draped around burly shoulders and dainty jewels hanging off overly thick wrists.

In antiquity, India’s eunuchs dressed as men, and a few were granted royal jobs — for example, as guardians of harems. But today’s hijras make themselves up as women. In the West, they would probably be identified as something between a cross-dresser and a transsexual; in India, they often describe themselves as a third sex, and refer to themselves as “she.” …

Only a handful of outsiders have managed to pierce the veil of secrecy surrounding the hijra community. The writer William Dalrymple, in his book “City of Djinns,” describes an often well-ordered sisterhood divided geographically into local “parishes” whose members, overseen by den mothers, diligently work their beat. …

The short one continued to appeal to me directly, gazing at me meaningfully and sprinkling her Hindi with unmistakable English phrases like “a thousand rupees” (about $22). At one point she knelt down and touched my feet in a sign of obeisance or importunity. Then, growing frustrated by my stinginess, she drew up the hem of her sari, perhaps to warn me that she was ready to flash her mutilated parts, a common tactic among eunuchs to hurry horrified partygoers into forking over cash to get their uninvited guests to leave.

How the hijras come by their condition varies. Some are born hermaphrodites, considered by many Indians to be a terrible curse. Others feel as though they are feminine souls trapped in masculine bodies and undergo voluntary castration — the luckier, better-off ones through chemicals or by trained surgeons, the poorer ones in dangerous back-alley operations involving little more than booze and a dirty knife. There are also hushed stories of boys being kidnapped and mutilated against their will.

Ways different cultures view technology

From Spare me the details (The Economist: 28 October 2004):

Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist who works for Intel, the world’s biggest semiconductor-maker, has been travelling around Asia for three years to observe how Asians use, or choose not to use, technology. She was especially struck by the differences in how westerners and Asians view their homes. Americans tended to say things like “my home is my castle” and furnish it as a self-contained playground, says Ms Bell. Asians were more likely to tell her that “my home is a place of harmony”, “grace”, “simplicity” or “humility”. These Asians recoiled from gadgets that made noises or looked showy or intrusive.

Even within western cultures, Ms Bell, who is Australian, has found startling differences in the way people view technology. When she recently opened her laptop in a café in Sydney to check her e-mail on the local wireless network, using a fast-spreading technology called Wi-Fi, she immediately got a mocking “Oi, what do you think you are, famous?” from the next table. “For Americans, adopting technology is an expression of American-ness, part of the story of modernity and progress,” says Ms Bell. For many other people, it may be just a hassle, or downright pretentious.

A profile of phishers & their jobs

From Lee Gomes’s Phisher Tales: How Webs of Scammers Pull Off Internet Fraud (The Wall Street Journal: 20 June 2005):

The typical phisher, he discovered, isn’t a movie-style villain but a Romanian teenager, albeit one who belongs to a social and economic infrastructure that is both remarkably sophisticated and utterly ragtag.

If, in the early days, phishing scams were one-person operations, they have since become so complicated that, just as with medicine or law, the labor has become specialized.

Phishers with different skills will trade with each other in IRC chat rooms, says Mr. Abad. Some might have access to computers around the world that have been hijacked, and can thus be used in connection with a phishing attack. Others might design realistic “scam pages,” which are the actual emails that phishers send. …

But even if a phisher has a “full,” the real work has yet to begin. The goal of most phishers is to use the information they glean to withdraw money from your bank account. Western Union is one way. Another is making a fake ATM card using a blank credit card and a special magnetic stripe reader/writer, which is easy to purchase online.

A phisher, though, may not have the wherewithal to do either of those. He might, for instance, be stuck in a small town where the Internet is his only connection to the outside world. In that case, he’ll go into an IRC chat room and look for a “casher,” someone who can do the dirty work of actually walking up to an ATM. Cashers, says Mr. Abad, usually take a cut of the proceeds and then wire the rest back to the phisher.

Certain chat rooms are thus full of cashers looking for work. “I cash out,” advertised “CCPower” last week on an IRC channel that had 80 other people logged onto it. “Msg me for deal. 65% your share.”

The average nonphisher might wonder what would prevent a casher from simply taking the money and running. It turns out, says Mr. Abad, that phishers have a reputation-monitoring system much like eBay’s. If you rip someone off, your rating goes down. Not only that, phishers post nasty notices about you on IRC. “Sox and Bagzy are rippers,” warned a message posted last week.

Phishers, not surprisingly, are savvy about their targets. For instance, it wasn’t just a coincidence that Washington Mutual was a phisher favorite. Mr. Abad says it was widely known in the phishing underground that a flaw in the communications between the bank’s ATM machines and its mainframe computers made it especially easy to manufacture fake Washington Mutual ATM cards. The bank fixed the problem a few months ago, Mr. Abad says, and the incidence of Washington Mutual-related phishing quickly plummeted. …

Mr. Abad himself is just 23 years old, but he has spent much of the past 10 years hanging out in IRC chat rooms, encountering all manner of hackers and other colorful characters. One thing that’s different about phishers, he says, is how little they like to gab.

“Real hackers will engage in conversation,” he says. “With phishers, it’s a job.”

Japan’s 99.8% criminal conviction rate

From Hiroshi Matsubara’s “Trial By Prosecutor” (Legal Affairs: March/April 2003):

In 1990, a retired high-court judge gave an influential speech that indicted the criminal justice system [of Japan], citing the nation’s 99.8 percent conviction rate as evidence that prosecutors, not courts, decide the fate of criminals. Criminal trials, he declared, are merely “formal ceremonies” en route to conviction. …

Prosecutors are vested with tremendous authority, and courts routinely defer to prosecutorial judgment. The prosecutor, in collaboration with law enforcement, is expected not only to enforce the laws but to decide how to use them to serve the public good. He is given far broader powers of investigation than his American counterpart, including the ability to search, seize, and interrogate without the interference of defense counsel. Justice in Japan is often equated to cooperating with the prosecutor. One of the earliest changes made by legislators to the American legal framework was the addition of a “societal duty” to submit to questioning upon arrest.

Because of their importance in the Japanese system, prosecutors have an overwhelming need to be right. A single loss can end their career. Prosecutors nearly always go to trial with a confession in hand, meaning that criminal courts are rarely asked to decide guilt or innocence. At trial, the counsel for the defendant usually spends his time trying to demonstrate the client’s contrition, his chances of being rehabilitated, and the low risk he poses to society – factors that affect the sentence, not the verdict.

Even in contested cases, the outcome for defendants is bleak. In American federal courts, about one-fifth of all criminal defendants plead innocent – and of those, one-third are subsequently convicted (state numbers indicate a similar trend). Meanwhile, in Japan, despite the fact that only 7 percent of defendants choose to contest their prosecution, the conviction rate in such instances is still about 99 percent. …

But in the aftermath of this unlikely victory, the system turned on Mainali. A higher court stayed his acquittal and ordered him detained while the finding at trial was reconsidered. In the United States, where defendants are protected against double jeopardy, Mainali’s acquittal would have ensured that he went free. Japan has no such standard: The opportunity to appeal a criminal acquittal is just one more weapon in the prosecutorial arsenal. Critics have pointed out that the stigma of losing a case puts prosecutors under great pressure to appeal each and every acquittal. In the notorious Kabutoyama case, prosecutors spent 21 years unsuccessfully appealing not-guilty verdicts handed down against a teacher charged with killing one of her students. …

Japanese prison terms, for both violent and nonviolent offenses, are shorter than those for comparable crimes in the United States. Murder, for instance, can carry a sentence of as little as three years. What is indisputable, however, is that in failing to emphasize procedural justice – a system based on rights and vigorous advocacy – Japan entrusts the integrity of its system to the good judgment of its prosecutors.

Colonialism at its most obvious

From Adam Goodheart’s “The Last Island of the Savages” (The American Scholar, Autumn 2000, 69(4):13-44):

Then [in the 1860s], suddenly, the hostilities [by the Andaman Islanders] ceased almost entirely. There was one cataclysmic battle – fifteen hundred naked warriors came charging out of the jungle, straight up against the guns of a British warship, with predictably ghastly results – and after that, only a few desultory clashes. Quite unaccountably, the natives started wandering out into the settlement and behaving like friends: odd, bright-eyed little people whose merry air suggested that they had forgotten there had ever been bloodshed. The Andamanese would ask for gifts (coconuts, bananas, and, before long, tobacco and liquor) and make amiable sport with the British soldiers, plucking at the brigadesmen’s red coats and pulling on their whiskers. They even began coming voluntarily to live in the “Andamanese Home,” an institution for their welfare that the British established on Ross Island.

But in some ways, their presence was now even more nettlesome than it had been before. The Andamanese had certain noteworthy talents, but few that could profitably be applied to the needs of a colonial settlement. They were excellent bow-men, amazingly proficient swimmers (some could even shoot arrows accurately while treading water), uncanny mimics, and skilled jungle trackers, able to communicate across miles of forest by banging out signals on the buttress roots of certain trees. So the British put them to use hunting down escaped convicts – a reasonable occupation, though hardly enough to occupy them full-time. A few of the natives were employed as nannies, since it was quickly noticed that they were remarkably affectionate with children, the Europeans’ as much as their own. Others were kept as objects of amusement in Port Blair households, to be dressed up and coddled – at least until their masters’ tours of duty ended, when they were left to fend for themselves. “The Government of [British] India,” one official noted approvingly, “[has] adopted a policy towards the aborigines of the Andaman Islands which has made them, above all races of savages, the most carefully tended and petted.” Here are some names given to Andamanese in the nineteenth century by the British, which I came across in various old documents: Topsy, Snowball, Jumbo, Kiddy Boy, Ruth, Naomi, Joseph, Crusoe, Friday, Tarbaby, King John, Moriarty, Toeless, Punch, Jacko, Jingo, Sambo, and Queen Victoria.

Lost tribe hoaxes

From Adam Goodheart’s “The Last Island of the Savages” (The American Scholar, Autumn 2000, 69(4):13-44):

Even so, every few years there is a report of one “lost tribe” or another – usually in the Amazon rain forest or the highlands of New Guinea – staggering naked from the jungle into the dazzling glare of modernity. Such stories are almost invariably followed by a retraction: the tribesmen turn out to have T-shirts and cigarettes stashed back in their huts, and the original report turns out to have been a mistake or a fraud. (The most famous such incident was the so-called Tasaday hoax of 1971, involving a supposed Stone Age tribe in the Philippines; the tribesmen were Filipino farmers whom local politicians had coerced into posing as naked cave-men for the camera crews from CBS and National Geographic.)

The Mann Act as problematic law

From Roderick M. Hills, Jr.’s “The Federalist Capers” (Legal Affairs: May/June 2005):

BY CONTRAST WITH THE COURT’S RECORD IN ECONOMIC MATTERS, the pre-New-Deal court was oddly reluctant to impose any limits on federally sponsored cultural conservatism. The Mann Act, which prohibited any person from aiding in the interstate transportation of a “woman or girl” for “prostitution, or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose,” provides a useful illustration of the limits that judicially enforced federalism will go to.

Congress enacted the Mann Act in 1910 by comfortable majorities, in the wake of a national furor over allegations that young women were being kidnapped by syndicates of brothels and forced to work as prostitutes. In retrospect, historians explain the panic over “white slavery” as largely attributable to anxieties over immigration (the syndicates were said to be run by foreigners, especially foreign Jews) and urbanization, which led to a rise in the numbers of unaccompanied single women visible in public places.

Although the act was inspired by fears of coerced prostitution, it was soon enforced by the federal government as part of a crusade against nonmarital sex in general. As David Langum has shown in Crossing Over the Line, a large majority of the FBI’s Mann Act investigations during the 1920s was for noncommercial offenses, typically prosecutions of unmarried but romantically involved couples who crossed state lines. Even the purpose of protecting women from coercion was soon dropped. The Department of Justice took the view that the female “victim” should generally be prosecuted as a co-conspirator if she consented to “immoral” travel. Charges were frequently foregone if the “victim” married the perpetrator, suggesting that the statute was really a federal effort to protect males’ control over their wives and daughters. Though the federal government abandoned the effort to enforce the Mann Act in the 1930s against noncommercial sex, J. Edgar Hoover later used it in raids on brothels to collect information about public persons, like Charlie Chaplin, whom he regarded as subversive.

In short, the Mann Act was everything that you would expect from centralized enforcement of sexual morality – oppressive, gratuitous, and subject to all the abuses of prosecutorial discretion. The regulation of interstate transportation was a thin pretext for federal intervention, given that the act’s authors surely were not concerned that the states were somehow incompetent to regulate sexual morality within their boundaries.

In light of all of these concerns, you might expect that the Supreme Court would have found the Mann Act to be an easy case for invalidation under principles of federalism. But the court unanimously upheld the act in 1913 in Hoke v. United States, and then also upheld its application to noncommercial consensual sexual liaisons four years later in Caminetti v. United States.

Bird in Flight, Brancusi, & US Customs law

From Stéphanie Giry’s “An Odd Bird” (Legal Affairs: September/October 2002):

After a weeklong journey from France, crates of sculptures by Constantin Brancusi arrived in New York harbor on the steamship Paris, escorted by the artist Marcel Duchamp. It was October 1926 and the sculptures were to be exhibited in the city at the avant-garde Brummer Gallery. United States Customs officials opened the crates and uncovered 20 mysterious disks, eggs, and flame-like forms of carved wood, polished metal, or smooth marble. One work in particular left them dumbfounded: a thin, 4 1/4-foot-tall piece of shiny yellow bronze with a gently tapering bulge called Bird in Space. It didn’t look like a bird to the officials, so they refused to exempt it from customs duties as a work of art. They imposed the standard tariff for manufactured objects of metal: 40 percent of the sale price, or $240 (about $2,400 in today’s dollars). …

Under pressure, the customs office agreed to reconsider its decision. In the meantime, it released Bird in Space and other sculptures, on bond and under the classification “Kitchen Utensils and Hospital Supplies,” so they could be exhibited at the Brummer Gallery and then at the Arts Club in Chicago.

Both shows were successes, but in February 1927 the federal customs appraiser F.J.H. Kracke confirmed his office’s initial finding that any sculptures Brancusi sold in the United States, like Steichen’s Bird, would be subject to duty. In an interview with the New York Evening Post, Kracke explained his ruling: “Several men, high in the art world were asked to express their opinions for the Government…. One of them told us, ‘If that’s art, hereafter I’m a bricklayer.’ Another said, ‘Dots and dashes are as artistic as Brancusi’s work.’ In general, it was their opinion that Brancusi left too much to the imagination.”

The next month, Steichen filed Brancusi v. United States to appeal customs’ decision. Abstract Art was now on trial. …

Six influential figures testified for Brancusi: Steichen, who was an established photographer; the sculptor Jacob Epstein; Forbes Watson, the editor of the review The Arts; Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair; William Henry Fox, the director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art; and the art critic Henry McBride. The witnesses for the government, the sculptors Robert Aitken and Thomas Jones, now long forgotten, enjoyed great academic reputations at the time. Judge Young was new to the Customs Court. The 75-year-old Waite had been serving on it and its earlier incarnation, the Board of General Appraisers, for 25 years.

Also present in the courtroom as Exhibit 1 was the Bird, which sat on a table, shimmering and soaring toward the ceiling while the lawyers debated whether it was an “original sculpture” or a metal “article or ware not specially provided for” under the 1922 Tariff Act. For the Bird to enter the country duty-free under the act, Steichen’s lawyers had to prove that Brancusi was a professional sculptor; that the Bird was a work of art; that it was original; and that it had no practical purpose.

By 1927 and after four one-man shows in New York, there was little question that the 51-year-old Brancusi was recognized as a professional sculptor – controversial perhaps, but definitely well-known. There was also little question that the Bird had no utility, even though the customs office had released it under the classification “Kitchen Utensil.”

But because Brancusi had shown four other bird sculptures like Steichen’s at the Brummer show, it wasn’t clear whether Steichen’s was the only one of its kind. And it was far from clear whether the Bird could be called art, because it looked like nothing anyone had ever seen before.

During the hearing, Judges Young and Waite placed great emphasis on the Bird’s title. The Tariff Act didn’t require that sculptures be realistic, but under a 1916 Customs Court decision called United States v. Olivotti sculptures qualified as art works only if they were “chisel[ed]” or “carve[d]” “imitations of natural objects,” chiefly the human form representing such objects “in their true proportions.” …

When he was 26, according to legend, Brancusi set out on foot on the 1,200-mile journey to Paris; however he got there, in 1904 he enrolled at the prestigious école des Beaux Arts. The decade that followed was marked for him by poverty, hard work, and eventually a place in the avant-garde community among Duchamp, Ezra Pound, Amedeo Modigliani, and Erik Satie, who would become his friends and transforming influences. At an exhibit in Paris in 1906, Auguste Rodin, then the towering figure in sculpture, spotted one of Brancusi’s pieces and invited him to work in his studio. Brancusi declined because he believed “nothing grows well in the shadow of a big tree.” …

But to Thomas Jones, a professor at Columbia who testified for the customs office, the Bird was “too abstract and a misuse of the form of sculpture.” Robert Aitken, the government’s other witness, said that art should “arouse an unusual emotional reaction” and “[stir] the esthetics, the sense of beauty.” …

Every work [by Brancusi] was unique and made of a different material, with different proportions and a different harmony. Brancusi had carved variations of the Bird out of white, yellow, and black marble and bronze of varying composition, each time coaxing the stone or the metal to reveal something new about the form. As Brancusi explained, all of those pieces were part of the same search: “All my life I’ve been looking for one thing, the essence of flight.” …

The court’s sensibility favored Brancusi. In its decision of November 1928, drafted by Judge Waite, the court held:

The object now under consideration … is beautiful and symmetrical in outline, and while some difficulty might be encountered in associating it with a bird, it is nevertheless pleasing to look at and highly ornamental, and as we hold under the evidence that it is the original production of a professional sculptor and is in fact a piece of sculpture and a work of art according to the authorities above referred to, we sustain the protest and find that it is entitled to free entry.

Judge Waite’s decision was seen as a victory not only for Brancusi but also for avant-garde art, because it dismissed the Olivotti requirement and recognized the importance of a new school that “portray[ed] abstract ideas rather than … imitate natural objects.” …

But the decision’s focus on the decorative qualities of the Bird made the ruling just as perishable as the standard in the 12-year-old one it replaced. And its reliance on the judges’ personal taste made its application perhaps more arbitrary and restrictive. Many of the works that made the renown of Duchamp, the chaperon of the Bird on its trip to New York and one of its staunchest defenders, would not have passed the test, for example. Duchamp’s “ready-made” sculptures of a bottle rack (Bottle Dryer, 1914) and a urinal (Fountain, 1917), objects he borrowed from daily life and, with more than a hint of irony, labeled works of art, would not have satisfied Judge Waite’s taste for the “beautiful,” “symmetrical,” and “ornamental.”

The Brancusi decision may have done away with the requirement that sculptures must be figurative to be art, but it took years for customs law to shed other unreasonable limitations on the free import of artwork. In 1931, tapestries were deemed dutiable because they were made of wool – the material determined the artistic merit. In 1971, the customs court found that six carved door panels destined for a church were dutiable because, as part of the doors, they were utilitarian objects. It wasn’t for 61 years, until the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of 1989, that customs law allowed free entry to works that are both artistic and functional.