In Boston, seeing Dutch masters, Four Big Ideas, and some problems in Afghanistan

Tiller5Bug 1
I was in Boston this week for the annual meeting of the Association of Corporate Counsel, where I was a presenter in a session on open source software licensing, and a student at various other continuing legal education sessions. Boston was having its first cold snap of the season, and I had neglected to bring a coat. Brrr!

I managed a quick visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, which I’d only visited once before a long time ago. It’s a really good museum! I was keen to see an exhibit called Class Distinctions, Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. I mainly wanted to see the two Vermeer works, A Lady Writing and the Astronomer. The Lady, who sits at her desk in a yellow fur-trimmed jacket, was ravishing. There were several excellent Rembrandts.

The exhibit was organized in sections according to the social classes depicted, starting with the nobility, through the merchants, and on down to the poorest. When they were made, the paintings served some of the same purposes as paintings today (e.g. status symbols for the high born), and sent elaborate social signals through the clothing, settings, and objects. My art history education was more oriented toward the formal properties of the works (color, line, texture, composition). This was instead approaching art more as anthropology, which seemed worthwhile.

One evening I met up with a couple of old friends from student days for a dinner at Puritan & Company on Cambridge Street. Through the years of career building and child raising, we’d almost lost touch. It was really gratifying to find that we could quickly reconnect. There was, naturally, news: jobs, travels, civic activities, kids, kids’ girl and boyfriends, parents, funny stories. The food (a southern, organic vibe) was good, too.

On the flight back, I was happy to see that I’d finally made it up the airline classification food chain at Delta to Zone 1 for boarding – that is, the first group (after families with children, business, first class, elite, diamond, service members, and others specially designated or needing special consideration). Well, it’s still good. I really like not having to worry whether there’s a place in the overhead bin for my carry on bag.

With some time for travel reading, I finished The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, and I recommend it. The four ideas are the thought systems of Adam Smith (classical capitalism), Karl Marx (communism), Charles Darwin (evolution), and Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton (American democracy). Montgomery and Chirot do a good job giving lively short bios and summarizing the thought systems. They also give helpful context, including predecessors and successors. The second half of the book discusses the counter-enlightenment, including fascism, Christian fundamentalism, and Islamic fundamentalism. There’s a lot here to chew on.

Speaking of chewing, a few days ago, the President announced that instead of wrapping up the long war in Afghanistan, as previously promised, he’s sending more troops there. I was really sorry to hear this, as I’d say our Afghan adventure has been mainly a disaster, but my view seems to be in the minority. For anyone who cares to think more about this, I recommend a piece by Jeff Vaux in the Huffington Post, which is a bit of a rant, but not uncalled for.

Here are some excerpts: “After 14 years of fighting -at a cost of over 2200 American lives, 20,000 seriously wounded, countless mentally damaged and a trillion dollars – it is obvious that we cannot accomplish our stated objectives. The Taliban cannot be destroyed and the Afghan people will not support a US-imposed government. …

“Today the Taliban controls or is contesting more territory than at any time since the war began. Outside Kabul and a few other areas where mountains of our money buy molehills of temporary allegiance, the government’s army and police are hated for their oppression and human right abuses. Its courts are crooked and criminally unresponsive, while Taliban justice — although harsh — is swift, works without bribes and legal fees, and is honestly administered. Warlords, paid for and armed by the CIA and the Pentagon, indulge in brutal behavior toward their people, including a delight in raping children, which the US army orders its soldiers to ignore.”

Is this being unfair? Are we forgetting some benefits that could possibly justify all this wreckage and pain? Are we Americans (or anyone else) somehow safer, or have we just provided more inspiration and anger to those inclined to hate us?