Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Parlez Vous Pushtu? Foreign Languages and Counter-terrorism

In my current reading I’ve been reminded of the importance of foreign languages in fighting the War on Terror. After September 11th, it suddenly became a very useful skill to be able to talk any of the languages spoken in the Third World, particularly in Central Asia and the Middle East. Before then, most young people would learn languages as means of conducting future business, or to better meet the needs of immigrants, particularly of Latino origin. For others learning a language would be instrumental towards making their travel easier, while some hoped that a new tongue would be their ticket from everyday reality to another world they had dreamed about all their lives.

Now that unfolding events have led American military forces to station themselves in places that speak languages Americans know the least, there are new reasons to learn a foreign language: national security. Counter-terrorism requires greater human to human contact in order to obtain valuable intelligence which is only made possible by speaking the language from the people that can provide such information. The author of the current book I’m reading laments repeatedly about the inability of army specialists to talk competently with the native population. He cites it as the Achilles heel to the admirable effectiveness of our most elite warriors on the front. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute adds more fuel to the fire by revealing the absolute failure of universities in the U.S. in producing useful linguistic talent for the armed forces:

As the need for those with Middle East language and regional skills reaches a historic high, universities--and particularly the Title VI-supported international studies centers--are failing spectacularly to meet that need.

  1. The FBI has such a serious shortfall in the number of available Arabic translators that it has 120,000 hours of pre-September 11 “chatter” still undeciphered.[2]

  2. The dearth of Americans trained in relevant regional languages is so acute that law-enforcement and intelligence communities have been forced to “outsource” the work to foreign nationals, some of which are of uncertain reliability. One FBI whistleblower raised an alarm about the translation of critical wiretaps of organizations with suspected ties to Islamist terrorists: foreign nationals, relied on for these translations, were failing to translate accurately and expeditiously.[3]
In an effort to remedy this dangerous lack of American expertise, Congress allocated additional funding of $20 million to the Title VI centers after September 11, 2001--a 26 percent increase. The legislators wrote this substantial check in good faith, with the understanding that these centers would promote language study, particularly in regard to “Islamic and/or Muslim culture, politics, religion and economy.”[4]
The increased spending, however, has not increased the output of the academic pipeline as intended. Dr. Martin Kramer, a recognized authority on regional studies centers, cited this representative example: “[Berkeley] has been continuously subsidized under Title VI for the last forty years. So you have to shake your head at reports that Berkeley has actually been cutting its introductory Arabic offerings for four years running, regularly leaving more than a hundred undergrads stuck on a waiting list.”[5]
The problems of international studies centers and American academia run deeper than funding allocations. The most serious of such problems arise, instead, from the radical politicization of universities that has been precipitated by academics and characterized by the routine abuse of their roles as educators and the quiet but consistent suppression of professorial dissent.

Rubin then cites examples where politics diverts promising recruits away from a career in defense in order to muck up their brains with anti-American orientalist doctrine. It’s a shame, because many lives are needless lost and many terrorists are still on the loose because this deficiency. Reading about the daily lives of soldiers who mingle regularly with the locals to catch the bad guys and save the lives of his comrades almost make me want to enlist, it’s that exciting. But do I have it in me to learn Pushtu (Afghan language)?

I speak four languages fluently (English, French, German and Spanish) and have studied several semesters’ worth of Chinese and once breezed through an Italian language tape before losing interest. I regret to this day to have once made a rather snobbish remark that my college professor enthusiastically repeated to a auditorium full of students and their parents, that went: “In today’s world where globalization shrinks the distance between cultures, being mono-lingual is akin to being illiterate.” I was very active as an undergraduate in promoting multi-cultural activities in the form of presenting foreign films, helping out foreign students, and small parties commemorating feast-days around the world. I led a Model Arab League team for a couple of years that represented countries like Somalia, Qatar, and the U.A.E. My background screams “We are the World”. Through all that multi-culti activity, I was careful not to reveal my disagreements with particular cultures in order to avoid the wrath of the campus moral relativists. My experience allowed me to observe how students’ attempt to absorb foreign culture. In addition to Rubin’ points on why foreign language and area studies departments fail to provide useful translators, I argue that the desire to assimilate lead many students to mindlessly adopt the bad ideas of the culture they are studying.

I’m part of a minority of foreign language speakers who can make the distinction between learning the language and evaluating ideas commonly held by those speaking that language. Although I was a tad more idealistic back in college than I am now, I observed many classmates who uncritically absorbed all the decadent ideas associated with a language’s supposed prestige. For instance, most college students who majored in French were obviously enamored with the picturesque yet cool and chic image commonly associated with France (the French at times are extremely masterful in public relations beyond their borders). They were especially smitten with the New Wave film directors, the image of the “flanneur” like their existentialist philosopher heroes, and the groovy tunes of Serge Gainsbourg. Eventually they adopted their platitudes hook, line and sinker and attempted to live the life once they got to France in their travel. Most of them came back disappointed, discovering that the place that inspired most of their fantasies is beset with the mundane problems that affect any modern society: crime, economic inequality, Americanization of the native culture, and fact that only small minority actually likes their avant-garde heroes.

Likewise, I can imagine that most of those who choose to study Arabic do so with in interest and an actual admiration for the cultures that speak it. Especially for languages spoken in places that are extremely poor and chaotic, the student must embrace a rationale that excuses such limitations. Therefore they turn to those Arab cultures’ intellectual elites for an explanation, most of them of Marxist or Islamist persuasion. Their worldview restores a respect and dignity to an impoverished people, and softens American students’ apprehension about wanting to study a culture that’s difficult to actually respect. But more simply, adopting prevailing attitudes, however wrongheaded, engenders total cultural assimilation. If one doesn’t, it’s quite difficult to motivate oneself to learn the language of a culture that you disagree fundamentally with.

The best reason to learn a foreign language is that it helps one to better understand the world. Language is fundamental in constructing a reality and expressing one’s perception of it. Acquiring a new language is therefore acquiring a new reality. The languages I’ve learned allow me to compare these realities, revealing new overriding truths and eliminating parochial beliefs. Soldiers who interact regularly in the local language of fellow Iraqis, Afghanis or Bosnians receive a high degree of understanding of the reality that surrounds them, and comprehend what makes the civilians tick at a far more profound level than academics who devote their studies to the abstract interpretation of the output of cultural elites.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Happy Middle

I found this image via the Drudge report. The reuters caption reads as follows:

People walk past as a homeless person takes cover from the cold on a Paris sidewalk November 28, 2005, as six homeless have died in France since the arrival of winter temperatures. French authorities have raised their weather alert in 31 departments and asked for increased vigilance to the homeless in Paris.

If it's not a major heatwaves that kills the elderly in France, it's now an extreme coldspell that kills the homeless in France. The message is clear: If you are on the fringe of helplessness don't expect your government to save you from the whims of nature. We hear constantly of the great French social model, but I must admit my ignorance on how this system is supposed to protect its most vulnerable. I get the feeling that this system favours the vast middle, who go about their lives taking care of few things on their own while letting the state make the most important decisions for them. As for those who are unable, either by age or by mental incapacity, to take charge of their own lot, they're rather seen as an inconvenience for the happy middle. The photograph clearly illustrates the nature of the French happy middle, going about their day to day lives in their gently pleasant ho-hum way, willfully ignoring the few that are not part of their content state of being.

This picture is not unique to France, nor is the idea of society's weakest being more vulnerable to neglect and death all that new. Such a scene can be found all over the world, and almost makes one wonder whether it is a natural state of affairs within human society. But for a country that loves to boast to everyone who will listen about its culture of humanity and of equality, such scenes of homelessness belie the rhetoric. The "SDF" (Sans Domicile Fixe) in France are numerous througout the entire country, and never have I been subject to as many pleas for help as I have in Paris. In every subway trip, regional train, and every subway stop there were people who bluntly asked for change, often preceding it with some tear-jerking story. I preferred those who could sing French standards, but overall, I was confused about why the French virtue of social solidarity did not prevent these people from having to beg. The frequent generous donations from the other passengers on the train might be explained by their unspoken agreement that their soci0-economic security depends on the utter exclusion of a minority. The happy middle has consented to a system that benefits the large majority at the cost of excluding the weakest, a very zero-sum kind of mentality. Therein lies the power of socialist guilt, similar to its American strain of liberal guilt.

Once you stop believing in zero-sum, that all people in a society have something to contribute, and that it can infinitely enrich us all, then the guilt disappears. My success no longer depends on the exclusion of a few, but on the choices I have made. The most vulnerable will still remain, but we are now free to choose to help them instead of relying on government. We are in control of helping others, and to rely on government to assume control denies us the choice to help. When we relinquish our power by choice, we go back to feeling a kind of guilt similar to liberal guilt.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

La verite est douloureuse...

I discovered this delightful little blog while browsing Technorati to see who has been linking to our site. The author of "The Truth Hurts" describes herself as a writer, and she has written some awfully nice things about yours truly. She has admirably researched my hometown's architecture and urban plan. Also, check out her interesting take on Bertrand Goldberg's Chicago towers (here and here), which are odd yet majestic at the same time. If some of you readers are interested on my background and where the name of this blog actually came from, I recommend that you check it out...

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Celebrate Industry, It Helps the Poor

At high levels of many Christian churches is a real and harsh bias against capitalism, a distrust of free markets and an abhorrence for globalization. Perhaps the bias is meant with good intentions, but it has arisen in part because of a missing conversation partner concerning economies and helping the poor, generally a pro-free market partner. The general assumption seems to be these three principles: history tells us capitalism is dangerous and exploitative, and should be heavily regulated. “Living wages”, an increased minimum wage, redistributed wealth, or other price controls are seen to be the best ways to lift up the poor. And the greatest exploiter of all is the nebulous “globalization”, which apparently has its crosshairs on the world’s most vulnerable. I would like to counter by taking a glance at two oft-criticized capitalists of the early 20th century to explore whether they may have raised the standard of living for all by their industrious production.

It is widely assumed that John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were “robber barons” intent on building lives of unnecessary wealth at the expense of the poor. I would argue their efficiency and vision of how industry (what now seems to be the Church’s greatest foe) can act in its own interest actually improved the lives of most Americans, including her poorest consumers. Consider these facts:

1. After Carnegie revolutionized the steel industry, the price of steel rails was about a tenth of the cost in 1898 of what it was in 1875, passing those immense savings on to every railroad user in the nation.
2. Rockefeller reduced the price of kerosene from one dollar a gallon to ten cents a gallon, passing those immense savings on to every kerosene user in the nation.
3. All of the companies Rockefeller acquired were done so voluntarily, mostly by companies who asked to be acquired by Rockefeller.
4. Both producers made unusually efficient use of resources, even waste: Rockefeller produced 300 products from the waste alone. Carnegie made three times more steel with about one fourth the employees as the next biggest steel producer in the world.
5. By the time of their death, Carnegie and Rockefeller gave away over $1 billion dollars to private charities, institutions, libraries and cultural foundations.
6. Carnegie wrote an essay entitled “The Gospel of Wealth,” which encourages the rich to act as trustees of their wealth and use it for the betterment of society.

So the Church sees all of this and still continues in the tradition of hating capitalism. Should they? Was the work of Rockefeller and Carnegie done explicitly in the name of Christ? No, and in no way should it be compared to Christian charity. And this is not to say business is perfect. Of course I do not endorse any company practices its business immorally. But before the Church proposes ideas that only demand business reform, we should consider the net benefits of the market.

Steven Malanga for City Journal, asks whether minimum and living wages have proven beneficial for cities. His answer is a qualified no, mainly because the artificially high wages make many low-skilled workers unemployable. As a result of such price controls, jobs are driven from cities with high minimum wages to cities without them. Nationally, the loss of jobs would be devastating, hitting the poor where it would hurt the most by creating a lack of jobs. He writes, “A recent Congressional Budget Office report, for example, estimates that upping the minimum wage to $6.65 an hour would eradicate between 200,000 and 600,000 jobs.” The same is true of the living wage, which would place an even greater burden on the private sector. “The living wage poses a big threat to their economic health, because the costs and restrictions it imposes on the private sector will destroy jobs—especially low-wage jobs—and send businesses fleeing to other locales.”

Globalization, for example, seems to be an assumed danger to the world, but I would argue it will likely benefit the world in the long run. There will be difficult transitions, just as there was when Rockefeller and Carnegie changed the way the steel and petroleum businesses operated. But these transitions are a necessary stage of growth and improvement.

Rob Sligh, Chairman and CEO of Sligh Furniture Company recently remarked on the net benefits of free trade on the global economy. He wrote, “The pain of economic adjustments aside, candor insists that we acknowledge the benefits of an increasingly free world. For example, world poverty has fallen more in the past 50 years than in the previous 500. In the past 40 years, average income in the world almost doubled. The poorest fifth increased the most, more than double. The richest fifth also increased but at a lesser rate, 75 percent. World hunger is declining. Undernourished people in developing countries declined precipitously from almost 40 percent in 1970 to less than 20 percent today.”

This is good news. (Not the gospel, but good news for sure.) The Church would do well not to ignore this sort of news when considering the full implications of globalization and the free market on the world’s poor.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Some Things are Better When They're Gone: Thoughts on Creative Destruction

I recently purchased all three books of fellow blogger James Lileks that depict the silly and ugly aspects of daily life from a generation ago. They describe the awful cuisine of Post-War America, the hideous home interiors during the 1970s and finally the embarrassingly misguided approach to child-rearing during the 1950s. Besides making me laugh so hard, I realized that many of the products and the companies that made them no longer existed. Lileks infers that such bad products and bad ideas, whether in parenting or interior design deserved a swift end, and that to imagine that these were things were once considered great makes it all funny for contemporary readers.

Still, a closer look at the advertisement of these products makes you realize that their demise affected a lot of people, especially since such elixirs, baby gear, furniture and vats of lard were all made domestically somewhere in Middle America: Rochester, New York; Union, New Jersey; Shreveport, Louisiana; Carlyle, Illinois; Fall River, Massachussetts; Des Moines, Iowa. Once their product proved to be ineffective or unsafe, it’s not difficult to imagine that thousands upon thousands of jobs were lost. These books depict an era in which the American economy was growing quickly, producing a major percentage of all the world’s goods, and experiencing a dramatic rise in the standard of living. It was also a time when manufacturing in foreign countries barely existed, and overseas outsourcing was inconceivable. What an American consumed in daily life was almost always American made, and there was little concern for foreign competition. From that angle, life must have been good for the factory worker in the vibrant consumer-hungry industrial economy that was post-war America.

Lileks’ books, in spite of their humor, teach a profound lesson: Many businesses and the ideas that inspired them were doomed to failure, even in the best of times. What makes us laugh is our acceptance that it was a good thing that these bad ideas and their concurrent products disappeared and that our current choices are thankfully much better. In more fundamental terms, most people believe that good ideas should continue, while bad ones should be laid to rest. Usually the market filters out the real stinkers, with fashion serving as the exception to that rule. If there is any fondness for the seventies, it was with that period’s clashingly absurd fashions. This fondness is based on the same assumption that it was a good thing society was able to transcend such bad taste and return to sensibility and sophistication. Whether such virtues describe our current culture is another subject.

The notion that it’s a good thing that bad things were abandoned in favor of better ones underlies Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of ‘creative destruction’. This is the idea is that a free market economy will always have companies who once dominated a product sector challenged and destroyed by smaller more innovative upstart enterprises. Obsolescence is a feature, not a bug, as it allows for better and more productive methods to create brand new industries while older industries either whither or restructure themselves. Creative destruction explains technological progress, but also the organizational progress of enterprises from the assembly line, to the bureaucratic, and now to the leaner and more flexible companies of today. The name implies the need for loss before gains emerge, and tends to simplify the constant job layoffs and frequent brushes with penury inherent in such a dynamic system. Creative destruction is especially brutal to those who depend on a static world where nothing ever changes, and the future is assured. The multifarious and resourceful thrive in uncertain times, and are often part of the changes that bring the old order down.

I got to thinking about creative destruction with regard to recent events at GM and its Delphi component, in which both are close to bankruptcy thanks to their inability to make a profit from all the obligations they owe to the labor unions. Apparently Detroit’s automotive companies are less about making money and growing than about maintaining a massive private social welfare system. And then I read this article that mentions the success of foreign motor companies that manufacture in the U.S. and I realize that Detroit’s problem isn’t necessarily that they can’t compete in terms of quality and value; it’s that their companies are structured in such an old-fashioned and inefficient way that current market realities will run them to the ground if they don’t substantially reform. In short, GM and Ford need to ‘get with the program’ if they want to survive, and there is no shame in adopting lessons from their foreign rivals. You can believe, as many self-entitled labor union members do, that globalization is inherently unfair, that foreign competitors are cheats, and that it’s more important for America to sustain an ailing business forever. The view is that it’s better to preserve a livelihood for hundreds of thousands of workers than for efficiency and products to actually improve at all. Will Franklin expands on the consequences of this static thinking brilliantly and why we both choose progress over unsustainable job conservation any day.

I own a GM car that has been extremely reliable and offers plenty of wonderful amenities for the price. I hope to continue owning American made cars in the future. But if the companies that make these cars do so only to sustain their workers’ appetite for priviledges rather than to make the best possible products, then I will surely opt for something better, even if it comes from abroad. I have no obligation to maintain such a baroque labor arrangement, and it is my responsibility help rid of the bad so that the good can emerge. Creative destruction may be the cause of a countless number of lost livelihoods, but it is also the cause of an ever-expanding number of people who can participate in the economy in unimaginable ways. If we can all agree that bad ideas in Lileks’ books are better left behind, couldn’t we reason that Detroit is better off shedding what is slowly killing it?

Hat tip: 2 Blowhards, Instapundit

Monday, November 21, 2005

Seminaries are Packed With Socialists, but Would Jesus Be One?

Popular among leftist Christians is the notion that if Jesus were among us today, he would be a socialist. All of that talk about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and giving shelter to the homeless brings to mind a notion of social utopia, and this leads to the conclusion that money must be taken from the rich and given to the poor, enforceable through government. Such socialistic sympathies have created a wellspring of concern for “social justice,” government programs to help the poor, and a politicization of Jesus’ teaching. The National Council of Churches, for example, refuted Bill Clinton when he suggested that the church should help make the welfare-to-work transition, saying it was not their job.

This is not uncommon in the Mainline Protestant churches, and the result seems to be that seminaries are packed with socialist-minded Christians, advocating that government should use socialist policies to care for the poor. All in the name of Jesus, of course. This thinking has many flaws, one being that this lends itself towards assuming we can build God’s kingdom on earth, and ultimately, idolizing our own good works.

Acts 2:44-45 is often cited as biblical proof that early Christians were, in fact, the first socialists, holding all of their property in common and giving all of their possessions to the poor. I won’t refute that this is an accurate account, but I will offer two thoughts as to why this should not be extrapolated to suggest that Christians should fight for a socialist government today.

First, to hold all things common successfully in a small group of people is possible, though I would imagine even that is hard. If all members took the do not steal and do not covet commandments seriously, it could work. But we have these two commandments because our history does not suggest that this is a morality we are willing to accept. To hold all things in common across the span of millions of people of different ethnicities, geographies and situations is simply doomed to fail. Moreover, this would inevitably put sinful people in charge of a great many things, since left to their own devices, people simply choose not to hold things in common. This historically has led to dictatorships, corruption and genocide.

Second, that the early church held all things in common speaks volumes of their goodness, but I’m not even convinced that this was as successful as Luke (the author of Acts) would have us believe. A lot of Acts tells the story the stories of Peter and Paul, establishing churches and acting as the Church’s first theologians. But, if everything was as perfect as Acts likes to present, why did Paul have so many problems in his congregations?

We hear again and again of squabbles, disagreements and jealousy among the believers. Most of the 6th chapter of I Corinthians tells Christians not to sue one another. In the 5th chapter a man is sleeping with his stepmother. In II Corinthians chapter 11, Paul is trying to convince that church in conflict to stay with his teachings, and to avoid the teachings of the “super-apostles.” In Philippians 4, Paul pleads with Euodia and Syntyche to get along with each other. There are more examples of disagreement, and certainly plenty of examples of harmony and generosity.

So even though there are times where scripture portrays a communistic Christian community as ideal, there are other teachings and texts that contradict this utopian version of society as a whole. What the Christian community does within itself is one thing; what the world does is often quite another. Therefore, any notion of Christianity mandating socialism must be rejected.

There is a difference in personal choices that help us lead generous lives and the coercion that is inevitable with socialism. In fact, it should be clearly stated that government coercion is the primary mark of socialism, and it is hard to imagine Jesus supporting such coercion. This is not to say Jesus was a capitalist per se, but some of the hallmarks of a free society are biblical. The right to life and private property are implied in the 5th and 7th commandments, and I would argue the 8th commandment forbidding us to tell lies against our neighbor implies the need for fair rule of law. Without these foundations, a free society will never work. And because an integral part of a free society is a free economy, socialism could be argued as the antithesis of Christian teaching.

This past Sunday was Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the church year. Christians were reminded of who the true king is, and that obedience to this king means love for neighbor. But if Christ is our true king, why do we involve political language when we speak of loving our neighbor? For Christians who justify their socialist tendencies in the name of Christ, I recognize and applaud their generous heart. But let us not be so naïve as to believe that advocating socialism is our calling. No, it’s a lot messier than that.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Wool over his Eyes: A Frenchman's View of the Riots

A French relative of mine always seems to offer the standard loyal French point of view on current events. He had much wisdom to share about Hurricane Katrina, and now he offers his insights about the recent French riots, which torched thousands of cars and billions of dollars in property damage. He writes:

Chers cousins
Plutôt que des commentaires à chaud, j'ai attendu que les évènements qui ont fait le tour de la planète se soient quelque peu calmés.Que n'a-t-on pas dit et écrit dans les médias étrangers, particulièrement anglais et américains. J'écoute presque quotidiennement la revue de presse anglo-saxonne, c'est hallucinant. On y parlait de guerre civile, que les journalistes étaient plus en sécurité en Irak (je rappelle les + de 2000 soldats tués et combien de civils) que dans les banlieues françaises; j'en passe et des meilleures.Un journaliste anglais a cru mettre un point d'honneur a dénigré notre pays sur toutes ses coutures alors qu'il y vit toute l'année (comme plusieurs milliers de ses compatriotes) sans aucun problème.Bref du n'importe quoi ! Il y a eu sans doute une volonté de discréditer la France sur le plan international. Nous n'avons poutant pas de leçon a recevoir. Serais-je en sécurité si je vais ....... disons dans le Bronk à 22 h ? Vous nous parlez des arabes mais vous qu'avez-vous fait des indiens. Et ce n'est pas la nomination d'un C. Powell ou C. Rice effacera les problèmes avec la population noire ou hispanique et comme le dit Thierry attendez encore quelques années pour voir si ce n'est pas eux qui bruleront vos voitures. Et vous noterez je l'espère que ces émeutes de voyous et de racailles ont fait........ZERO morts.Sans anticiper, je ne crois pas qu'il en eût été de même dans un pays ou l'arme est reine.Quant aux anglais, ils ont oublié les années 80 et 90. C'est quand même bien des anglais d'origine pakistanaise les auteurs des derniers attentats en Angleterre. Personne ne peut se réjouir de ce qui s'est passé chez nous, ce genre d'évènement peut déteindre rapidement. La Belgique proche et Berlin peuvent en témoigner.
Bisous d'un franco-européen

My translation:

Dear Cousins

Before giving you commentary during the heat of events, I waited until the coverage of the rioting that had made it around the world had calmed a bit. There was much that wasn’t said or written in the foreign media, particularly by the American and British outlets. I listen daily a review of the Anglo-saxon press, and it’s hallucinatory. They would speak of a civil war, that the journalists were safer in Iraq (I remind you that more than 2,000 soldiers have died and an untold number of civil deaths) than in the French suburbs. I’m ignoring even better examples. One English journalist who thought it was honorable denigrated our country in all of its seams even though he lived the whole year in France (like many of his countrymen) without any problems. He was just spouting nonsense. There has been doubtless the desire to discredit France on the international stage. And yet, we are in no need of lectures, since would I be safe if I went to…say, the Bronx at 10 P.M.? You talk about our Arabs but what have you done to the Indians? And this nomination of a Colin Powell or a Condi Rice will erase the problems with the blacks or Hispanics? And like my cousin said, wait a few more years to see if it won’t be them that will burn your cars? And you will notice, I hope that these riots by young punks have killed ZERO people. Without anticipating it, I don’t believe there was ever another like yours where weapons rule to such a degree. As for the British, they must have forgotten the 80s and 90s. Wasn’t it Englishmen of Pakistani origin that committed the last bombings in England? No one is rejoicing at what happened in our country, as this kind of thing can ignite and get out of control very quickly. Our neighbor Belgium and Berlin can attest to this.

Much love from a Franco-European

His commentary displays a common use of comparing apples with oranges, indicting the U.S. for its flawed past, its current social problems and assuring all that life in France is as safe as it has always been. The Brits are hypocrites and they’re no better off with their own minority groups. I think its fair to provide some background on this writer: he lives in small rural town in one of most trouble-free parts of France, works for the state, has never traveled to the U.S., an absorbs uncritically French media outlets.
I feel obligated to my readers to take apart his statements one by one.

To begin:

I listen daily a review of the Anglo-Saxon press, and it’s hallucinatory. They would speak of a civil war, that the journalists were safer in Iraq (I remind you that more than 2,000 soldiers have died and an untold number of civil deaths) than in the French suburbs. I’m ignoring even better examples.

I’ll defer to the writer on his criticism against the perception that the riots in France are like a civil war. I think the American media is a bit guilty of hyping the events to make it look like the French state is in utter collapse and a new competing faction of Islamists are posing as a credible alternative in controlling the country. That’s a long way from now, as demographic trends in France forecast the political future more than two week’s worth of rioting. That being said, civil wars take on various forms, from the overt to the covert, and it is clearly evident that there is shaping up to two irreconcilable sides in France: the haves and the have-nots. Those that believe in the secular French social model with all of the benefits guaranteed, lucky enough to be employed and those who desire its destruction as it has offered little by way of social acceptance, employment, and self-esteem. There is also an element of coordination among the rioters, as the riots hit in three hundred communities across the country all at once. A struggle for territory is also a characteristic of a civil war, in that the rioters would rather have total control of the use of force in the area and be free from the coercive powers of the French state by way of police. And like a civil war, I see neither side willing to accept and embrace the other’s goals. The majority of Frenchmen on one side is intent on maintaining secularity, the French language and heritage, and its exceptional social welfare system. The rioters destroyed the symbols of their enemy’s creed, namely the free child-care centers, public buses and trains, and finally the modern mobility offered by cars. The rioters will not let go of their power over fearful residents of these French suburbs, nor the control over their women by forcing them the veil while violently abusing them, undeterred. And they won’t accept the traditional French ideals, since they rejected it long ago when it was evident that they didn’t belong.

Why the writer compares Iraq to the French riots, I have no idea, other than to claim that France is safer than the main stage in the battle against Islamic terrorism. What happens in Iraq is irrelevant to the problems France has in dealing with their immigration problem. How does throwing out the worst of despots, rebuilding from scratch the government and infrastructure of a country the size of California and fighting an unimpeded flow of jihadists relate with the French riots? I’ve never been to Baghdad of late, so I won’t comment on the level of security compared to the French “cité”. I will say that being among these French North African youths is scarier than anything I ever experienced in the U.S. Still, there’s nothing to be proud about the number of cars destroyed being four times the number of those who gave their lives in the line of duty in Iraq.

One English journalist who thought it was honorable denigrated our country in all of its seams even though he lived the whole year in France (like many of his countrymen) without any problems. He was just spouting nonsense.

I’m suspecting the writer is talking about the British commentator Theodore Dalrymple who now lives in France. Somehow, a British writer has no right to criticize a country that has treated him well. If only that rule were applied on all sides, than we would all get along, right? Or maybe we can only criticize a country when we don’t live there. That makes for enlightened opinion, alright. It’s true that there are many Brits who make a new home in France, particularly in the picturesque countryside in a charming villa. They know better than to situate themselves in a French suburban ghetto. But that’s precisely the problem, in that the French have been able to contain all the criminal elements, the excluded class of immigrants and the losers of the French social system within a strict geographical boundary of the cités. Still, these mostly isolated social ills at times escape into the heart of “la Douce France”, and give the more perceptive expatriate residents in France the chills. Just ask France’s most famous American resident, Johnny Depp!

There has been doubtless the desire to discredit France on the international stage. And yet, we are in no need of lectures, since would I be safe if I went to…say, the Bronx at 10 P.M.?

The writer here implies that it’s unfair to be critical of France’s position on world affairs. It’s true that those who work in the French media are embarrassed by the coverage of the riots, since they immediately anticipate the foreign presses tying it to international affairs. There has even been an admission of self-censorship by the French press official in reporting the gravity of the crisis. And if the writer thinks that foreign journalist should have no right to lecture the French on the flaws in their social system that led to the riots, then it’s quite audacious for him to start lecturing the U.S. on its own problems. But I can bet you that one feels much safer in the Bronx than in the Middle of Clichy-Sous-Bois. Violent crime in the U.S. is on a downward trend and has been for the last fifteen years. The reverse has been taking place in France, which now has more violent crimes per capita than the U.S. If 100 burned vehicles a night in a country the size of Texas is considered ‘normal’, then I’m probably better off in the gentrifying Bronx where such incidents never take place.

You talk about our Arabs but what have you done to the Indians? And this nomination of a Colin Powell or a Condi Rice will erase the problems with the blacks or Hispanics? And like my cousin said, wait a few more years to see if it won’t be them that will burn your cars? And you will notice, I hope that these riots by young punks have killed ZERO people. Without anticipating it, I don’t believe there was ever another like yours where weapons rule to such a degree.

What does annihilation of the American Indian population have to do with how the French treat Arabs? Maybe he’s talking about the miserable conditions at Indian reservations. He has a point there—the political and social set-up of these places is quite similar to the way minority groups in France live. But living in a reservation, I’ve been explained, is purely voluntary. North African immigrants are placed in the cités and kept there. As for other disadvantaged minority groups in the U.S., I don’t think any Americans pretend that the problem of inequality has been solved. But I don’t think rioting in the U.S. will ever come to thousands of cars being torched simultaneously. For one thing, riots in America are local affairs, taking place in one city at a time, usually in response to local events. It never mobilizes blacks and Hispanics in other cities to riot in solidarity. Another fact to consider is that blacks have rioted already in the U.S., most notably in Los Angeles and in other major cities, and torching cars is not their destructive act of choice.

The biggest element missing in this prediction of riots is the prevalence of upward mobility in the U.S. as opposed to the static socio-economic environment in France. An open and inclusive market economy is one of the most effective ways in preempting civil riots. Hispanics arrive with nary a possession and climb the socio-economic ladder; especially if they are legal immigrants (illegals are limited in their mobility due to the fact that they must remain invisible to the authorities). Black Americans are wealthier than the average Europeans in per-capita GDP. Violent rage in black communities is mostly expressed by internecine gang murders. The political and police organizations of cities are far more integrated than in France, which helps in preempting and “us” versus “them” mentality.

Next, I’d like to correct the writer by mentioning that 1 person did die from the riots. Still, the violence did not lead mindless slaughter, which is evidence that the violence was more tactical than about personal vengeance. If you destroy property, the sentences won’t be harsh and most of the lawbreakers will go back on the street continuing what they were doing—reclaiming control of their turf in the cité. Hence the argument that the riots were a form of civil war becomes more credible.

And finally, the writer buys into the fallacy that the ubiquity of guns will lead to more lethal violence. It has never occurred to him that the mere possibility of law-abiding citizens possessing guns successfully deters crime. I’m sure the suburban residents in France who were trying to form militias to defend themselves wished for more accessible legal gun ownership.

As for the British, they must have forgotten the 80s and 90s. Wasn’t it Englishmen of Pakistani origin that committed the last bombings in England?

As for the French they must have forgotten the 90s. I do recall several terrorist incidents in the Paris subways committed by Algerians. And wasn’t it an Algerian-born Frenchman. Zacharias Moussaoui who was the designated 20th hijacker of the 9/11 attacks? I could have sworn that some of the world’s most lethal terrorists were brought up in France. Britain’s multi-cultural policy has failed in preventing its own immigrants from causing its countrymen harm. Nevertheless, Britain can claim an unemployment rate half that of France, and has provided a welcoming environment for immigrants to thrive in. France’s economy feels more like a holding cell for immigrants once they arrive, denying immigrants to participate economically in a meaningful way, to ascend positions of influence. This trap has helped spawn riots in more than 300 communities nation-wide, which presents a far more serious threat to the integrity of French state than any pin-point terrorist attack. The government has displayed a level of indecision towards the riots which may instigate future terrorist attacks, since jihadists are attracted to weak states that can’t properly enforce security.

In my opinion, my relative is one who will not be swayed by any evidence which counters his convictions. He believes France has nothing to learn from other countries, and that it’s far worse elsewhere than it is in his home country that’s under a 3-month long state of emergency. He believes that the French secular model is still viable in spite of the continuing popularity of the Front National, which feeds on the unavoidable rift between North African immigrants and the rest of France. What is quite telling is how he signs off at the end of the letter, describing himself as a Franco-European. I guess Europe still matters to him deeply despite of his countrymen’s firm rejection of the E.U. constitution. If one is willing to believe in the promise of Europe regardless of all indications of its imminent collapse, then it’s quite understandable why he readily ignores the grave reality that faces his country.

Many thanks to No Pasaran! for its abundant research leads.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Will China Rule the World?

One of the authors we political science majors would read was John Mearsheimer. His articles on the structure of international relations served as teaching tools in explaining the realist point of view. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post on Brent Scowcroft, I agreed completely with the realist school, and thus saw alternate perspectives that promoted international institutions and non-governmental organizations as naïve. I still see things this way, but now I’ve come to see that culture influences a country’s foreign policy as much as the preservation stability by force. When I came across this article by one of my early influences, I was struck by how mechanically abstract realism appears to those who believe that cause and effect are a bit more ambiguous and complicated.

With his realist lens, Mearsheimer predicts the coming Chinese crisis:

The question at hand is simple and profound: will China rise peacefully? My answer is no.If China continues its impressive economic growth over the next few decades, the US and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war. Most of China's neighbours, to include India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Russia and Vietnam, will join with the US to contain China's power.
To arrive at such a conclusion Mearsheimer restates the basic workings of the international realist system. It is a world governed by the balance of power, in which each country calculates the advantages between assuming more power and influence within a geographic area and maintaining a practical equilibrium of competing foreign powers.

My theory of international politics says that the mightiest states attempt to establish hegemony in their own region while making sure that no rival great power dominates another region. The ultimate goal of every great power is to maximise its share of world power and eventually dominate the system.

The international system has several defining characteristics. The main actors are states that operate in anarchy which simply means that there is no higher authority above them. All great powers have some offensive military capability, which means that they can hurt each other. Finally, no state can know the future intentions of other states with certainty. The best way to survive in such a system is to be as powerful as possible, relative to potential rivals. The mightier a state is, the less likely it is that another state will attack it.

The great powers do not merely strive to be the strongest great power, although that is a welcome outcome. Their ultimate aim is to be the hegemon, the only great power in the system. But it is almost impossible for any state to achieve global hegemony in the modern world, because it is too hard to project and sustain power around the globe. Even the US is a regional but not a global hegemon. The best that a state can hope for is to dominate its own back yard.

States that gain regional hegemony have a further aim: to prevent other geographical areas from being dominated by other great powers. Regional hegemons, in other words, do not want peer competitors. Instead, they want to keep other regions divided among several great powers so that these states will compete with each other.

There is much above that I won’t refute. But just as Newtonian physics is elegantly simple in describing most of all natural phenomena, there are always a few outliers that require a new theory such Einstein’s. With realism, I have some doubt in accepting that great powers want to eventually dominate the system. I believe that people are too tied to the land they identify with to have any concern in wanting their culture to dominate the distribution of power in far away places. Isolationism is a default position for most people, since their daily life takes place within a limited geographical area. The maintaining of empires is difficult work, with many being perfectly happy if they would not intervene abroad if it wasn’t necessary.

What characterizes the current American hegemony is not because it actively sought to become one, but rather that it fell into its own lap. From its deep isolationism in the 1930s, World War 2 brought forth the collapse of European power and a vacuum that the Soviets promptly took advantage of. The U.S. meant to only stave the losses of countries to the Soviet sphere of influence. Becoming a competing superpower was not its goal, but a reluctant byproduct of the war. The Americans nevertheless took the responsibility, not because of the power, but because its belief in the promotion of democracy and freedom through guaranteed individual rights was a better alternative to all people than what the Soviets were offering.

Gauging, for me, the imminent Chinese threat depends significantly in understanding the culture of Chinese policymakers. The isolationism in the oldest of nations is well known, and the rejection of its people to adopt a Western mindset over tradition continues to this day. It is not an internationalist outlook, as attention is focused within the country and the curiosity of foreign cultures is mostly demonstrated by the potential to copy. Rarely is it the kind of culture that values analysis and tries to explain what makes people tick.

Through its massive military buildup, China has ensured its continuity as an important nation state. It is a populous country, which pressures the state to obtain the resources necessary to accommodate growth. But it is not desirous of world domination, nor of much regional domination. It is surrounded by trading partners that benefit it too much. I’m also convinced that certain aspects in Chinese culture prevent it from managing any form of complex international system, much less the obligations of a hegemon. It is a miracle that China has remained in one piece given the number of contrasting regions within it. It is from the resulting internal conflicts that will prevent the “Middle Kingdom” from maximizing its share of power on the world stage.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

One Among Many: Defending Jews in the New Age of Anti-Semitism

In a new age of rampant anti-Semitism, it is important that we try to get again and again at what is fueling this hatred of Jews that refuses to die. There are plenty of Jewish apologists on the Web who do excellent work at documenting anti-Semitic terrorist activities…I won’t even attempt that. Instead, I’ll offer a brief framework for why I think Jews have always been objects of hatred.

Christians should remember that Jews did something no one was willing to do for hundreds of years BC: be monotheists in a polytheistic world. In a world where the Roman emperor was worshiped like a god, where pagans were offering blood sacrifices to their many gods, when superstition often trumped the religious language of the day, Jews defended their belief in one god at great cost. Their god (YHWH) was (and still is!) a jealous god, one who did not want to be shared with any other gods, and the tradition of Abraham, Moses, Noah, the Exile, the prophets, and on and on, all spoke to the sovereignty of this one god, which they knew would bring ridicule and persecution. Of course, the first commandment of the Law (which all other commandments repeat in varying ways) is to have no other gods, to love this one god above all other things. We have forgotten how controversial this claim of monotheism must have been for a polytheistic world, much less, that these Jews were the chosen people of such a god.

So these monotheists went on to develop “funny” customs and rituals that set them apart from everyone else. Their God demanded them, but also their situation demanded them. Because they were a people of slavery and exile, people without a home who needed a way to reiterate their monotheistic identity, they bonded together through certain rituals, eating certain foods, obeying the Sabbath, etc. When people are in exile, they need reminders of what it is to be in community with one another, so Jews developed very “religious” customs that came to annoy the secular world.

For this, they have often been outsiders, and have been resented. But this is only the beginning. Because no one else thought money lending at interest was respectable, Jews volunteered for this, already being kept on the margins of society. Over time, they became very good at it and amassed wealth. Certainly they weren’t the only people who lent out money, but my understanding is that it wasn’t an uncommon occupation for them to hold. Princes and politicians throughout the centuries befriended these Jews, borrowing money from them in return for protection. For this, Jews became real objects of scorn; not only were they different in custom, but they were rich, and were “in” with the politicians,

All of this culminates in a rise in anti-Semitism in the “Dark Ages,” and more and more public disdain for Jews. Many point to my own hero, Martin Luther, as one of the worst anti-Semites of the time. His essay, “On the Jews and Their Lies” has recently received notoriety for its visceral attacks on Jews. (Too many forget his earlier efforts, however, to convert the Jews with his essay, “That Jesus was Born a Jew,” a rare show of concern for Jews at the time.) Given Luther’s worldview that the world would be ending soon and the final judgment would come with it, he thought it in the best interest of Jews not only to convert to Christianity but to refrain from converting Christians to Judaism. It’s impossible to single him out as the only anti-Semite out there; most people at the time were antagonistic towards Jews; he was, however, especially skilled at verbalizing it, which he did with great frequency against anyone who opposed him, especially Turks and Papists.

What happens next is centuries of persecution for Jews, the European Holocaust, American creation of Israel through power to protect Jews from another such holocaust, and Islamo-fascism as one result of such a display of power. And now we’re back to square one, seemingly everyone hating Jews.

But if we can get back to what has always made Jews outsiders, we can gain significant wisdom. Jews have historically been outsiders for all the right reasons: they stood up for their belief in one God, and God’s unique relationship for his people. It was out of this ethos and theology that a savior could come, and it was only through martyrdom and sheer will that this ethos and theology could be preserved.

I argue we have now come full circle: we live again in a polytheistic world. Except our gods are not small idols, and often have no proper name; they are anything that keeps us from God, and there is no shortage of such distractions. So we recall those people who have stood firm in the faith in the past, those who insisted on one God in the face of many others. We recall the way they were hated then, and are hated now. Perhaps Christians can see more clearly the need to defend Jews in such a context.

Why bother stating the obvious? Many Christians (especially members of the National Council of Churches) see Israel as more of a terrorist state than Palestine, Iran or Syria. Jews have few sympathizers at high levels in many Mainline Protestant churches, and MPs withhold sympathy at the risk of forgetting the strength it has taken for these Jews to be monotheists in a polytheistic world. As a Christian, I am suggesting resurgence in Jewish support is vital to remembering our own bold monotheism, Trinitarian though it may be.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Understanding the Ideas Behind the "Cités"

In my last post, I discussed the culpability of Le Corbusier for the grim architecture of French housing projects, or cites. If it was not entirely his fault, then who? Although I don’t completely exonerate Le Corbusier, I feel that he was in reality one among many of his time who believed that dense housing blocks were preferable to the traditional European urban pattern. It is clear that the Swiss architect believed the medieval maze of streets, the relatively small proportion of greenery within the city limits, and the intractability of old cities in accommodating the automobile called for their annihilation.

Such thinking went hand in hand with his Nietzchean philosophy and the need for total destruction to create a new and better world, a not unusual worldview among the intellectual elite after the First World War. The Italian Futurists, a short lived art and architecture movement, stated unrepentantly that the current world needed to be destroyed to bring about a new age which would worship the machine and speed. The German Bauhaus movement called for the creation of a new world that would restore the harmony of the medieval world between art, architecture and the prevailing social spirit. Founded right after the Great War in Weimar, the first manifesto alluded to the disconnect between old European cultural traditions and the world of machines, with all their efficiency and purity of function. The machine in the early twentieth century already part of daily life for more than a half a century in Western Europe and the U.S., but it still held a spiritual aura for artists and aesthetic theoreticians. This obsession with the machine logically translated into principles for controlling society with machine-like predictability, the argument being that if production can be controlled with such precision and minimal human effort, there’s no reason that people could not be part of similar functioning organization. This kind of thinking wedded itself seamlessly with Marxist doctrine in is use of the word ‘scientific’ to proclaim the theory’s absolute certainty.

What is important to remember here is how emerging architects at the time applied the aesthetic principles of the machine without literally producing buildings that looked like machines. Obviously, designers like Le Corbusier and his contemporary Mies Van der Rohe actively incorporated machine-like motifs and new materials uniquely available by machine. But what they were really after was an architecture that united form and function, traits inherent to the machine but utterly absent in much of architecture up to that point in the 1920’s. At the time, architects were expected to provide simply a facade treatment of an essentially masonry box.

The main question for the Modernists like Le Corbusier, the Futurists, the German Bauhaus, the Dutch Destijl, and the Russian Constructivists was: How can architecture and design exemplify the new spirit of the times in a world where industry and the machine run our lives? It was the consensus within these circles that Beaux Arts classicism and newer styles like Art Nouveau and Art Deco simply prolonged the fractured reality in the world of design, in which designers were continuing to borrow forms and motifs from the past with little relevance to the pervasive influence of modern industry.

The reason that I provided this background to the Modernist movement is to more clearly present the premise on which the new styles are based. The Modernists were not renegades who subverted the Beaux Arts establishment overnight, successfully overturning thousands of years of architectural precedent. They were continuing an idea that germinated during the Renaissance, which declared that history was linear and that cultural progress was part of this forward movement. What is known in the world at the present is more than what the ancients knew, therefore no solutions from the past can address problems of the present. This concept might seem simplistic, but it was a major influence in much of the cultural output of the last five hundred years. It describes the continuous process of breaking down tradition, inventing new genres, throwing old rules of composition and style in the fields of literature, music, art and architecture.

Today most people do not like Modernist buildings, mostly because of their disagreement that a new solution is any better than tried and true older ones. Since the late sixties there has been a return to historicism, where style as a matter of façade application, and once-banished ornament make a triumphant return. This Postmodern movement continues to influence building today, and the public has voted with their wallets that historicism is far preferred over the modernists. In addition, other complementary movements came along during this period, such as historic preservation and New Urbanism (the restoration of traditional town-planning before Modernism). Although government has much say over what gets preserved and how a neighborhood should be zoned, these post-modern movements are essentially democratic, a reflection of what the majority would prefer in their built environment.

In contrast, Modernism is for the most part inherently authoritarian. Whether it pertains to the design of one’s house, a company’s headquarters or an entire city, the choices are made a by one or a few like-minded people with little attention given to the opinions of others that will be affected. When people lack the right to vote with their wallets, the decision on what to build is transferred from individuals to a centralized authority. Such is the case with the underclass, whose economic poverty deprives them of having a say about what they want to live in. The attractiveness of Modernist style public housing was its efficiency, its intrinsic equality (‘fairness’) in the apportionment of residential units, its speed of construction, and most importantly the way in which the style granted considerable power to planners in the bureaucracy.

This might be the reason why Modernist planning and urban design theory are so frequently employed in socialist welfare states across Europe. Modernism conveys to governing elites an image of social and cultural progress. It solves housing needs quickly in places where land is scarce and ensures the minimum material needs of its residence. Dense public housing blocks continue to be a major source of work for European architects, and though styles have changed since the Second World War, the social pathologies associated with these developments persist. It is clear that high-density social housing will continue in Europe, and the level of criminality will remain high regardless of the ingenuity of the architectural envelope. Although the cité developments may strike some as inhumane in scale, it is the environment of hundreds of millions of people around the world. More than three-quarters of Singapore’s population live in dense public housing blocs of the modernist type, and they are among the cleanest and safest places to live.

If there's ever anyone that should be blamed for the small scale and inhumane efficiency of public housing high-rises, I would cast a vote for the Bauhaus school during the mid to late 1920s. The school had changed from being a place that focused on the handicrafts and new materials to one that concerned itself with public housing. They developed the principle of Existenz Minimum, in which they ascertained what the minimum requirements would be for a dignified dwellling unit. I use "dignified" because it was a common view at the time that older dwellings of the traditional kind were old and substandard, causing poor health and depriving the occupant of much-needed day-light. It was of no coincidence that the directer of the school at the time, Hannes Meyer, was an avowed communist.

Aside from Frank Lloyd Wright's proposal that all should have the chance for a single-family home and some acreage, European architects assumed that scarcity and rapid population demanded innovations in dense housing. Since the thirties massive dense housing experiments have yielded a variety of forms and ingenious (and dumb) ways of fitting as many units as possible within a limited space. Le Corbusier's housing type was unique and rarely used. It was too generous and often times not thought through in detail like his German rivals. The Swiss master was a big-picture guy, a dilletante engineer and detailer, who often forgot that his city of 3 million needed basic things like parking (on his passport he identified his profession not as that of an architect but as man of letters). His only fault may have been that the renderings that illustrate his books may have made cities composed of dense housing towers in greenery seduced an entire generation into trying to realize it.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Like a good neighbor, Mary Mapes' defender is there...

Although the Memogate story has transpired over a year ago, we find that the CBS news producer responsible for that segment denies that the documents Dan Rather offered as evidence was fake. Mary Mapes in her new book tells her side of the story, and throughout reminds everyone that the documents were never proven fakes, only that she wasn’t able to pass an impossible threshold of certainty. From reviewing other bloggers’ analyses of her statements, the testimony of one of the authenticator’s in the story, and finally her prevaricating stance during Bill O’Reilly’s interview, I can conclude that Mary Mapes has set a low standard in verifying evidence. Ms. Mapes’ attacks of her critics display a willful ignorance of the workings of the blogosphere and an irrationally elitist attitude regarding the collection of credible information.

So far little has been mentioned about other journalist openly supporting her point of view. Therefore it was with great disappointment to find Jim Schutze of the Dallas Observer taking her side in his weekly column. Granted, the Observer is an alternative weekly with the traditional leftist tilt, but Schutze’s a respectable journalist who often writes well-warranted scathing criticism of Dallas city government and the city’s endemic police corruption. He has illuminated the murky world of Dallas politics which helped explain the ambivalent nature of locals like Harriet Meiers. Even the former National Review writer Rod Dreher endorsed his writing.

In contrast to the high quality of his investigative reporting, Schutze’s line of defense for Mapes is embarrassingly weak: Mary Mapes is friendly neighbor of his, he sympathizes with all the pain and anguish his neighbor has experienced from the fallout of Memogate and her well-written book addresses every critical point successfully. In addition, the fact remains the Memo’s were never proven fakes and bloggers are a bunch of rank amateurs compared to Mapes’ self-selected experts. And she’s really a sweet neighbor in a wonderfully eclectic neighborhood, as opposed to those right-wing bloggers. Apparently he can’t trust his lying eyes when it comes to actual visual proof that the documents were fakes. Here’s an excerpt:

I'm an anti-Bush guy, and I know Mary Mapes a little. She's a neighbor. But I hope you'll stick with me even if you're at the other end of the spectrum. Listen, some of my favorite neighbors are pro-Bush, and they're surprisingly decent people.
One of many intriguing points in Mapes' book--a thing I shouldn't have had to be reminded of--is that the documents she and Dan Rather based their story on were never exposed as fakes. In her book due out this week from St. Martin's Press, Mapes insists that the documents are authentic.
The people who made the most adamant accusations at the time were anonymous amateurs on the Internet, not known experts. Somehow all of a sudden everybody and his blog was an expert on 40-year-old typewriters and proportional spacing.
In the book Mapes presents expert opinion and evidence that the accusation--all the stuff about typewriters, superscripts, proportional spacing and typefaces--was just wrong. She says the people who presented those arguments didn't know what they were talking about.
After dealing with the typeface issues, Mapes presents contextual evidence to show that the documents make an uncannily smooth factual mesh with other documents of known provenance. Not the sort of thing one would expect from fakes.
Another telling point to recall is that not even the high tribunal and commission set up by CBS to explore the issue was able to corroborate the accusations of fakery. For all the money CBS spent on its commission, not to mention various private detectives--and for the amount of public bloodletting the network justified on the basis of the commission's findings--you have to think they would have found a way to call those documents fake if they could have.
That was the core accusation against Mapes, Dan Rather's producer for that story: that she bought off on fake documents and fooled her superiors. If CBS could have proved the documents were fake, then all the blame would have been on Mapes and much less of it on CBS.

One of the most clichéd ways in qualifying your radical point of view is by insisting that you have friends with opposite opinions. Schutze’s statement that some of his best friends are conservative Republicans remind me of mildly insulting refrain, “some of my best friends are black.” What amazes me (maybe I’m being too idealistic) is how Schutze can be so gullible in buying Mapes’ account hook, line and sinker. But then, he inadvertently admits he suffers from Bush Derangement Syndrome when begins by admitting his Bush-hatred. But further on in the article, Schutze makes the most distorted comparison:

I'm reading a great book: Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, by John M. Barrie. In the section I'm on now, he's telling the story of the terrible division of America in the early 1920s between progressive urban forces and the Ku Klux Klan movement that engulfed much of rural and small-town America.
Decent Southerners like the powerful Percy family in the Mississippi Delta stood up to the Klan. One of their most effective strategies was to ridicule the Klan's penchant for secrecy, for hiding behind masks. Eventually the better impulses of Americans allowed them to see the masks and robes for what they were--emblems of cowardice.
I promise I am not asking you to change your opinion of George W. Bush. I don't even care if you still think the Guard documents are fake. None of that is the point for me.
My point is that the anonymous haters and extremists on the Internet are the Ku Klux Klan of today. They are the vile enemies of fundamental decency.

I sincerely hope Schutze is not making the blanket accusation that bloggers are the new Ku Klux Kan movement. And I also sincerely hope that he thinks those who believed the documents were fakes condemn the despicable behavior of anonymous people threatening Ms. Mapes personally. If Mapes’ claims of such threats are true, then it is an unfortunate, but sadly, knowing her flawed regard of the truth in Memogate, it’s just possible that she’s fudging this to paint herself as the wronged victim. Such a stance is good enough for a multi-million dollar book advance; I wonder whether it’s worth a probable lifetime of self-delusion.

Update: Welcome, LGF readers! Feel free to look through all previous posts written by Relievedebtor and I. We hope the variety of subjects will be of interest to you all. Thanks for dropping by!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Fake but Accurate Alfred C. Kinsey: Sexual Liberation and the Rise in Pedophilia

Watching a PBS documentary the other night on sex researcher Alfred Kinsey validated the stomach knots I experienced when I watched “Kinsey”, the Hollywood love-fest with a scientific madman. When I was young and liberal in college, a class on homosexuality as well as Psychology 101 exposed me to Kinsey’s findings on sexuality, all of which led students to conclude most, if not all sex was “normal”. The liberal college mantra is “Kinsey liberated our innate sexuality.” They miss that Kinsey was and is much more dangerous than that. He plunged those who agreed with him back into Eden, where temptation to sin was just one of many normal choices.

“Kinsey”, part of the American Experience documentary series, did something the movie “Kinsey” did not do: discredit the methods Kinsey used in conducting his research. He over-sampled rich white kids, sexually active fraternity boys and sorority girls, prostitutes and a host of other subgroups, all of which led to skewed findings. However, the show did go on to use the “fake but accurate” standard Dan Rather has made so famous, glorifying the by-products of Kinsey’s research, however much in error, as a net benefit to culture.

My criticism here is nothing new; Kinsey has been subject to plenty of Christian outrage since his research was “outed.” Most of these Christians were represented as backwards, unthinking moralist prudes who had failed to jump onto the sex bandwagon and were worse off for it. In fact, Christians who recently wanted to boycott the film “Kinsey” found themselves having to do so rather quietly for fear of the “any publicity is good publicity” effect. But the movie could not hide all of the problems with Kinsey’s research, and the fact that he and several of his associates were sexually promiscuous with each other was perhaps the most blatant problem. One could speculate for days the way the personal sex lives of the researchers skewed the research. Maybe they were tempted to justify their own sexual perversions, or sought out more and more lewd interviewees for private pleasure.

One of the more outspoken critics of Kinsey and his research is Judith Reisman, whose book "Kinsey, Sex and Fraud” has no doubt been labeled backwards, unthinking and morally prude by sex addicts everywhere. According to a Washington Post article by Alan Cooperman, Reisman labels Kinsey “‘massive criminal’ who cooked his statistical data and based many of his purported findings on interviews with convicted sex offenders.”

She confirms my unease with the film when she says that it “effectively treats Kinsey as a tragic hero, a scientist -- a wacko scientist, perhaps, but a scientist. Kinsey was never a scientist. He was a change agent -- the most significant agent of change in American cultural life in the 20th century. The consequences of this sexual adventurism include AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, child sexual abuse, incest and pornography."

These are broad accusations, and no doubt in a world where the sound byte is king, she had to make her point quickly. But it is hard to argue against the fact that Kinsey was a major player in the sexual revolution, and the end result of his fraudulent findings has been a mass-normalization of all forms of sex and sexuality. And what are the consequences of this? To my mind, it is safe to say the language is already in place to normalize pedophilia as one more sexual choice among many.

Kinsey’s evil coup was achieved by taking all moral consideration out of sex. Unlike other natural functions of the world whose study requires no moral consideration (like the sleeping habits of wasps or dung beetles, for example), humans do not have this luxury with sex. Sex is how we produce children, families, communities, and societies. Therefore, moral sex is the backbone of a moral society, and immoral sex births an immoral society. Two of the 10 Commandments are directly related to sex and adultery as an amoral enterprise, and to ignore this basic understanding of sex suggests darker force at work here than scientific objectivity. Kinsey interviewed at least one admitted pedophile, yet did not feel the moral obligation to protect future children from this criminal. How can we have any respect at all for a man who refused to protect the innocent in the name of science? Did he see no higher ideal for life beyond his petty research, no need to protect children? Yet, we are to believe he did great good in liberating us sexually?

Over the course of time, his research must be shown to be faulty and amoral. Until deviant sex is shown to be deviant and abnormal, and until we can freely use such language, pedophiles will have plenty of tools at their disposal to defend themselves. We are already witnessing a high interest in child pornography with a rise of it online, magazines like “Barely Legal” pushing the boundary of age-appropriate desires, and drivel like “Vagina Monologues” proudly enacting a scene where an older woman seduces a 14-year-old girl with the help of vodka. Oh, it may take a while for pedophilia to be legal, if it ever is. But cultural “sensitivity” to the issue (as opposed to absolute abhorrence) seems to be the path we are on, and we have Kinsey’s normalization language to thank for it. And all in the name of liberation, of course.

The moral person knows this to be a false liberation. Kinsey himself died a miserable man, driven to the point of self-mutilation to find some sort of satisfaction, sexual or otherwise. Is this liberation? Sounds like enslavement. Who would call an alcohol, drug or gambling addiction liberating? Yet sex is normal (right Alfred?), so there’s reason to consider it an addiction. (This is the exact language Bob Crane uses in “Auto Focus” to justify his own sexual pursuits, a much more honest film about the dangers of sexual deviance.) Yet, the mantra continues to be that being in touch with all of our true sexual desires is liberating. I might believe this lie to be true if Kinsey himself could have proved it to be so. But after 25 years and millions of dollars of research, 18,000 interviews and personal experimentation with sexual deviance, he died a man possessed of no joy, not the hero and martyr either “Kinsey” would like us to believe.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Guilty? Le Corbusier in proper context

The current rioting in France has led many commentators to evaluate the living conditions of the rioters themselves. It is particularly convenient when describing where most of the criminal acts are taking place to call these places suburbs, since in France this word is often synonymous with public housing complex designed in the modern style. Several writers have pointed to the repressive environments in which the young muslim vandals live as an important influence on their violent behavior and sadistic worldview. Whether it’s the wise Theodore Dalrymple, Ed Driscoll, or other writers, they often link these public housing complexes to the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, considered to be one of the most influential champions of the Modernist movement that came to dominate architecture during the twentieth century. Not only was Le Corbusier among the first to fully synthesize large ribbon windows, white planar walls, suspended floors, roof gardens, cubic volumes, and roof gardens into a new “International Style”, he also was also a passionate urban designer and theorist who most clearly illustrated and articulated modernist principles in planning.

Ralph Goergens at Chicagoboyz has written thoughtful posts about the relationship between the architecture of the French public housing districts (cités) and the criminality of the population they house. Ralph provides the reader an introduction to Le Corbusier in order to explain the origins of the obviously dysfunctional planning and design of these suburban ghettos, since his original concept for the ideal modern city provided the most visceral inspiration for younger architects to follow and practice..

From my study of the architectural history of the last century, I find that non-architects make the mistake of attributing far too much blame on Le Corbusier for the presumably ugly output that the Modernist architectural movement produced around the world. It’s naturally convenient to scapegoat one man, as it makes the narrative of describing what went wrong in the evolution of architecture that much easier to comprehend. Singularly blaming Le Corbusier also allows opponents of modernist architecture to paint themselves in a more favorable light.

Le Corbusier, (real name Charles Edouard Jeanneret), is indeed a conspicuous target. He was without a doubt one of the most charismatic figures of the modern movement, publishing bold manifestoes on architecture, industrial design, and urbanism that were widely circulated early in his career beginning in 1924 and throughout his life. His book Vers Une Architecture (Towards a New Architecture) has been read by almost every architecture student ever since its appearance and inspired a radical departure from the orthodox Beaux Arts style of architecture in favor of unornamented planar facades, large expanses of glass, flat roofs and modern building methods. He advocated the abandonment of traditional styles, notably Greco-Roman and Gothic elements, by arguing that the long history of architecture demanded new forms appropriate to the age, which, in the 1920s was a dynamically industrial one. He compared great monuments like the Acropolis to a contemporary motor car, and urged the reader to look to industry for formal inspiration. With its terse Nietzchean phrases, ironic yet thought-provoking photographs, and samples of his own built and un-built works, Vers une Architecture was less a detailed technical manual than a spiritual call to arms against the historicist status quo of the time.

He continued the ideological onslaught with books about urban planning, as well as urban design projects that proposed demolishing much of central Paris and replace it with equally spaced Cartesian towers. His scheme for a city of 3 million provided one of the most vivid illustrations of the future in urban development, with its highways, skyscrapers, vast tracts of greenery and an overwhelming sense of scale. His illustrations for that project would inspire numerous modern landscapes around the world, and look eerily similar to many of the French suburban cites. His ideas about the design of cities would evolve over time, respecting landscapes more and more as well as inserting more expressive aesthetic gestures. But Le Corbusier, who fancied himself as a Nietzchean superman, thought big, in which big problems resulting from the destruction of the First World War needed big solutions. His rules for the architecture of singular buildings were but a piece of a larger unified vision of an entirely new urban environment which would have to be built from the ground up. He constructed for the 1925 Decorative Arts Fair in Paris a single residential unit that actually would have been part of a larger housing complex comprising of many similar units.

Predictably Le Corbusier’s proposals for mass housing and urban design were rejected outright due to their infeasibility and their radical departure from traditional styles. He would not be able to realize his ideas on public housing until relatively late in his career, and he would not live to see the completion of his only city plan. Beyond a promising string of white villas he realized in and around Paris during the 1920s, Le Corbusier struggled financially for most of his life, experiencing years of unpaid work, and pleading desperately for fascist leaders to sponsor his urban plans. Counter to what most present-day critics of Le Corbusier would like to believe, the architect did not profit in any tangible way from his ideas nor was he able to directly subject people to the potentially inhumane conditions his schemes presented. Although he won the adulation of his peers in architecture and among the cultural avant-garde, his built work is relatively scarce compared to other heroic architects of his day. Aside from consistently following formal rules that he had set for himself, a closer look at his buildings reveals an artistic and spiritual dimension that openly contradicts his rigid doctrine. His idiosyncrasies are evident throughout, informed by his Calvinist lifestyle and his alternate vocation as a painter (he was closely associated with the Cubist art movement).

Even upon closer inspection his one mass housing prototype in Marseilles demonstrate Le Corbusier’s affinity for relatively generous double-height loft spaces (a common feature in today’s condo boom) private yet generous balconies (what he would call suspended gardens, now popular in high rise condos in Florida) a whimsical roof-scape with pool (again fashionable in ritzy condo developments) and a shopping concourse on an intermediate floor that would exclusively serve the residents of the building. The exterior façade allows each unit to be a bit different from the next while providing shade for all, and a dignified composition that contrasts itself from the monotony surrounding housing units. It’s no surprise that the apartments in the building have been converted into pricey condominiums. In conclusion, Le Corbusier’s effort to address the shortage of housing in France by means of a modular and reproducible system unintentionally resulted in creating a prototype for high-end housing popular today!

Does Le Corbusier share responsibility for the look and feel of the blighted French suburb? To some extent yes, since he furnished a vision that subsequent generations of architects absorbed that faintly inspires the design of these ugly social housing districts. It’s doubtful that he understood the needs of the lower working class, and likely saw his schemes inhabited by a people with bourgeois predispositions. Le Corbusier lived in a very different time with different social mores and priorities. There was no way he could have predicted the crisis of immigration that would inflict France decades after his death in 1965. What he knew was the crisis in public health caused by poor living conditions in dense slums of cities around France and responded by providing an architecture that invited light, air, and greenery. Le Corbusier may have been guilty of a failure to imagine the adverse psychological affects his urban plans and housing schemes, but it is the French social welfare system that is responsible for the reckless planning and execution of housing the underclass.

Maradona: The Perfect Big, Fat, Latin American Idiot

Reading about last week’s protests at the Summit of the Americas in Argentina, I was reminded of the classic book Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot by Carlos Montaner, Alvaro Vargas LLosa and Plinio Mendoza. If you want to understand the Byzantine world of politics south of the border, this is by far the most accessible and entertaining book on the subject. I was glad to find that Tom Bevan at Realclearpolitics thought likewise, and highlights Montaner’s article on the origins of the protests at Mar del Plata.

I would have thought nothing of such protests, as I take for granted that these kind of activities always take place as surely as the sun rises every morning. But then I spotted an article in my local newspaper about Argentinean soccer superstar Diego Maradona interviewing Fidel Castro for his television talk show. Like Bevan the first thought that came to my mind was: What a f#%&ing HIPPOCRITE! The man became a worldwide sports idol in the mid-eighties, receiving piles of cash from corporate endorsements while playing for elite European soccer club for millions. There was a dark side to the man, from getting away with his illegal “hand of God” stunt at the World Cup tournament of 1986 to failing numerous drug tests and getting booted out of subsequent World Cup tournaments thereafter. He responded to each of these episodes by playing to the victim, which he demonstrated repeatedly by claiming he was fouled EVERY time he fell to the ground. Therefore it wasn’t much of surprise to find that he was of leftist persuasion, since I find such people always blaming someone else for problems of their own making. I’m no big fan of soccer, and I wish the U.S. team could win the World Cup for the simple reason that it would deflate the undeserved importance many countries around the world put into their soccer teams.

And yet Maradona serves as a perfect microcosm of the problems that affect Latin America’s political culture. The dominance of leftism has less to do with the abstract philosophical merits of Marxism in general than does the ability for clever and malevolent demagogues to use it for their advantage. As usual, Latin American leaders exclude themselves from the deteriorating effects of their own policies on the people they claim to “fight for”, as much as Maradona hates free-markets while he is one of its biggest beneficiaries in that part of the world. It seems that a personal experience with poverty does nothing to prevent leaders from manipulating the plight of the poor for their own personal gain.

As American democracy is founded on the bedrock of virtue, Latin American democracy falters on the quicksand of real malevolence.

The Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot takes the view the much of intellectual elite gets suckered by an extremely misguided set of beliefs. These beliefs have become the orthodoxy to such an extent that espousing pro-market ideas is quickly reinterpreted to mean all that could go worse than it already is. Still the authors pull no punches when it comes to describing the atrocities committed in the name of socialist solidarity or liberation theology. Robert D. Kaplan vividly details how evil has substituted the Marxist ideology of Colombian militias in his latest book, and it leaves wondering whether Latin American political institutions need a moral revival over anything else. Without such a change, I worry that this region will be consigned to a stasis defined by poverty, corruption, and death.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Sunbathing by the Euphrates

Saddam Hussein left behind lavish palaces and expansive pleasure gardens built at such a massive scale that they were symbolic to the rotten an inhumanity of his regime. To build such things is of course a dictator's prerogative, and such ostentatious building campaigns are far from unique in the history totalitarian leadership. The bad part wasn't the buildings themselves as it was the means by which he built his palaces: hording all the wealth of his country for himself and his amusements. This act further debased the value of his people in his eyes and consequently lowered the level of political legitimacy in order to maintain power.

So it was with pleasure that I found this article about future hotel development in Baghdad. As I've mentioned in previous posts, real-estate prices and speculation is evidence of the upward trend in the quality of life among Iraqis. Amazingly, it seems that Iraq is the only country in the Middle East where the future is contemplated on and to which people have set their sights. The most interesting nugget in the article reveals:

Another plan is to turn Saddam Hussein's former palaces at his home town of Tikrit into a themed tourist destination. The complex, which contains 18 palaces and 118 other buildings, is surrounded by rolling gardens overlooking the Tigris.
Mohammed Abbas, a regional official, said: "Ordinary Iraqis were never allowed into these palaces. It will be an opportunity for them to see how their money was spent. International visitors will also be able to see the kind of lifestyle Saddam enjoyed."

I really couldn't think of a better use for his palaces. Just as the French have preserved the palace of Versailles and the Soviets their Romanov Palaces in St. Petersburg, it's only fitting to maintain Saddam's legacy of architectural megalomania. I look forward to learning all about Saddam while going down the water slide on my eventual trip to Baghdad someday...