Saturday, October 29, 2005

I Too Was Once a 'Realist'

Before focusing my career in architecture, I dabbled in political science. It was my major in college for the simple reason that it was the only subject that seemed to combine my interest in current events as well as history. During my years in college in the mid-Nineties, my courses in international relations presented two major worldviews: that of the liberal internationalist and the other of the realist. The realist sees a world governed by force, with competing powers doing anything they can to earn an advantage or preserve an acceptable stability, regardless of moral integrity. The realist view is best defined by Charles Krauthammer's latest editorial on Brent Scowcroft:

Realism is the billiard ball theory of foreign policy. You care not a whit about who is running a foreign country. Whether it is Mother Teresa or the Assad family gangsters in Syria, you care only about their external actions, not how they treat their own people.
Realists prize stability above all, and there is nothing more stable than a ruthlessly efficient dictatorship.

In comparing my views at the time with the two schools of thought, I tended to the latter. Liberal internationalists valued non-governmental organizations, multi-national diplomatic forums like the U.N., and they believed in the efficiency in papering pver disputes by way of treaties and resolutions. Naturally, the need for war would be transcended by more opportunities to talk by forging economic and humanitarian alliances addressing issues such as poverty and environmental destruction.

Even in my naive youth, I was sufficiently cynical to opt for the realist perspective . Though the liberal internationalists appealed to my more idealistic side, I had travelled too much (and read too much Robert D. Kaplan) to know that it wasn't going to work. The following years after college seemed to prove my suspicions with the ongoing instances of impotence the U.N. displayed towards Iraq, Rwanda, Bosnia and so forth. Kyoto became worthless when Clinton quietly shelved it, and the unresolved restlessness in the former Soviet Republics was witness to a lot of realist issues.

I've evolved since then towards the Charles Krauthammer school of foreign relations, which is a mixture of realism and the promotion of democracy abroad, sort of what neoconservatives are accused of pushing. But his depiction of Mr. Scowcroft, George H.W. Bush's National Security Advisor, reminded me how significantly my worldview had changed since college, and it almost makes me embarrassed to have ever been so cynical about human nature. I've become far too convinced that humanity desires certain basic freedoms to buy into the moral bancruptcy of Scowcroft and many in foreign policy establishment. The current Bush doctrine has an idealistic element I can get behind with little regret. It requires the sacrifice for an idea, but at least U.S. foreign policy is much more enobled than before, in spite of it depraved critics around the world.

UPDATE: Chapomatic has a good essay about realism and idealism, well worth a read.
Pejman Yousefzadeh has some similar insights and makes Condi Rice all the more admirable.

Note: Check out Mudville Gazette's trackback party for more interesting blog reads. Also, check out this, this, and this.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Let's Make a Bet!

I've never much enjoyed gambling. I'm happy enough to play games even though winning is something that evades me more than earning riches in the discipline of architecture. When I do win it feels great, but knowing my typical chances prevents me from ever losing my shirt for a game. This kind of self-appraisal seems to be growing rarer however, if Johnathan V. Last's essay on gambling is correct. Originally seen as a vice as bad as alcoholism, it seems that gambling in its expanding variety of forms has become part of the cultural mainstream, and has become among the biggest ways that Americans spend their discretionary income. Mr. Last writes:

Over the past 50 years, gambling has gone from sin to vice to guilty pleasure and has come, finally, to be simply another point of interest on the entertainment map. Today America has 445 commercial casinos and 411 Indian casinos acting as beacons to the lucky. In 1993, 11.6 million Americans visited commercial casinos; in 2004, 54.1 million--26 percent of all gaming-aged adults--hit the tables and slots. In 1993, commercial casinos had $11.2 billion in gross gambling revenue; by 2004 that number had risen to $27 billion. But even this staggering figure--last year Hollywood grossed only $10.2 billion at the box office and $25.95 billion from home video--is just one piece of the gaming pie. Throw in the Indian casinos, state lotteries and horse tracks and you get a gross total of $72.87 billion--before you count Internet gaming.

What people do with their money is their own business, but sometimes I wish that human nature were consistently rational enough to refuse to bet under most cirumstances. Still, it seems that our belief in luck and chance are seared into our DNA, and the argument is always made that we should just accept what nature has given us. But isn't the obligation for human beings is to overcome these flaws for higher spiritual wisdom by making the right moral choices?

It seems that when I visited the gambling floor in Atlantic City or on a cruise ship, I get the sense that those playing are somehow engaging in self-debasement. I find no environment more depressing than a casino.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

If you've got something to say...

Please click on the comments link on all the posts for futher fascinating discussions on various topics. I try to respond to comments and I enjoy the debates that often take place. The length of some of my comments almost constitute extra posts on my behalf. I am always grateful for anyone sharing their insights. If you have nothing to say about previous posts, I invite you to share your impressions about the adjacent painting. Who did it? When may have it been done? What style could it be?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Las Vegas by the Persian Gulf

In what appears to be almost purely a promotional piece by Fox News, the city of Dubai has been crowned by the writer as the world’s ‘hippest’ city. It goes on to list the number of celebrities who frequently visit or own property in this city-emirate state on the shore of the Persian Gulf. Apparently, the chief sheikh of Dubai invested his riches into infrastructure improvements and most importantly in real estate ventures that have paid off well, with his city becoming quickly the preferred destination of the international business jet-set. He realized that the United Arab Emirate’s oil reserves were far too limited to ensure continuing wealth and so opted to diversify the economy.

The building developers in Dubai are nothing if not highly ambitious. They are intent on building the tallest, largest, and most whimsical structures around. The Burj Dubai tower will be finished in 2009 and will be far much taller than the current title-holder, Taipei 101. Their shopping malls are huge, and they contain several major water-parks. Nowadays the hot real estate trend is creation of man-made islands in the shape of common objects like palm trees or the world map. Although I have never traveled there, I’ve worked in firms that are quite grateful to Dubai’s building boom. It has allowed major architecture firms to conceive of projects free from budgetary or even regulatory constraints. Dubai is similar to Las Vegas in many ways: Both were sleepy desert settlements for most of their history and grew quickly from speculative development. Both offer an urban environment markedly liberating for outsiders, with relaxed cultural norms and an architecture that celebrates fantasy. I submit that Dubai aims to be more than Las Vegas in terms of the scale of its construction and its willingness to forgo any consideration by local inhabitants in the city’s expansion.

What concerns me about all this development has to do with the last point, the interest of the local population. The social structure of Dubai is very stratified, with a low-class mostly south Asian population doing all the menial labor, and the extremely rich professional and business class, often from great industrial powers that enjoy all of the new buildings and their amenities. Dubai has often been compared to Singapore, but it is evident that the wealth isn’t distributed at a level that promotes social stability as well as mobility. Dubai appears to offer little in the way of education, lacking any kind of university with respectable stature. So far I get the impression that Dubai continues to serve as a getaway for the rich and internationally mobile while being catered to be a massive underclass. I welcome readers who have been to Dubai to share your insights in the comments below.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

I Get the Last Laugh...

Steve Brown of the Dallas Morning News has noticed something I knew about since the day its very design was selected: That the new American Airlines arena in Dallas would look to retrograde for future development downtown.

Many years ago when I was young and foolish, I painted diagonal stripes on my living room wall.
At the time I thought it was brilliant. Of course, it wasn't.
Stripes are just fine for zebras and race cars, but they don't do a lot for living rooms, let me tell you. Eventually I figured this out.
Sadly, it will take more than a bucket of white paint to fix American Airlines Center.

Dallas city officials and the owners of the Mavericks and Stars teams thought that building an arena in the the Richardsonian Romanesque style of the 19th century would complement better the historic red-bricked West End district nearby, and assumed that new development around the arena would simply continue the style. Only one problem, though: the Arena is across a MAJOR HIGHWAY OVERPASS from the West End district, almost totally cut off visually and spatially by the dark and skuzzy belly of the bridge. Now development is finally underway in the arena, and already the tone has been set that all new buildings will be sleek and modern. This new urban fabric will indeed have some cool structures and spaces, what a shame that all of it will be juxtaposed with a monstrously sized arena that looks more like an old fashioned train terminal. And to think that when the historicist design was chosen over schemes produced by I.M. Pei, Helmut Jahn, Kohn Pedersen Fox, and Ricardo Legoretta. Tells you a lot about the cultural sophistication of the Dallas elite…

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Harriet Miers, Accommodationist

What I love about blogging is that I have complete freedom in editorial control. Often I write about topics of little relevance to the major news items of the day. On certain topics that seem to get much attention in the blogosphere, I remain indifferent for the simple fact that it isn't very important to me. I suspect some readers never the less are interested to know my position on such major topics. The whole issue of Harriet Meiers is one of them.

Although I'm very engaged in political events, I'm simply uninterested in judicial issues and legal controversies. I admire those who can process and articulately debate court decisions and constitutional law in general. Somehow it all seems to abstract for me and it marshalls tremendous intellectual resources which I am too unwilling to invest any of my own in. As a conservative, I generally favor the 'constructionist' view of constitutional law since it agrees best with my libertarian political views and cartesian rationalist worldview (I am open to readers' comments regarding the truth of the latter statement). Still, I feel I can't contribute much of an original take on common legal topics of the day as well as other more talented bloggers scan.

That being said, I will offer my opinion of legal import: I oppose the Harriet Miers nomination. Upon first hearing the news of her nomination, I took a wait and see approach before declaring my position. I knew that in being a personal friend of Bush, many would be upset especially to conservatives who believe strongly in meritocratic principles. I read my usual conservative pundits online and tried to divine consensus, and at first it seemed evenly split. Still, I was open to the benefits of nominating an outsider and someone with more 'real world' skills for an overly abstract and at times esoteric supreme court. As facts have come out about her background, her actual positions on major issues, and of others' accounts of their time spent with her, I became more convinced that the president nominated a real dud. In spite of her success as a corporate lawyer, her intellectual prowess is evidently well below the integrity of the country's highest judicial body.

What really solidified my opposition to Miers was what she was doing in my backyard, namely, the Dallas city council. I have such contempt for that governing body and what they have allowed to happen to my hometown under their watch that anyone associated in maintaining the status quo, as she was doing as council member. I acquired a great insight into Dallas politics recently while reading a post by Rod Dreher, an editorial writer for the local rag, the Dallas Morning News. He referred to Jim Schutze's book The Accommodation, which describes an informal but enduring agreement between the wealthy conservative elites of the Dallas with black civil rights leaders which promised greater political representation for the latter in exchange for a relaxation of racial tensions.

At first it seemed obviously defensible, lately many Dallasites and former residents (who fled to the suburbs) have come to regret this deal. It has made the city ungovernable, the mayor extremely week, the city council a national joke, and law enforcement ineffective an unusually high crime rate. Harriet Meiers was part of this conservative Dallas elite and did not have the forsight to understand the consequences of the deal. She made it very clear that harmony must be maintained, even at the expense that certain black political leaders would take advantage of their new powers in city government to the detriment of their own constituents. Dallas politics is quite depressing, if nothing for the lack of inspiring individuals who would challenge business-as-usual in the council. It's why the current mayor, the feisty Laura Miller, has been endearing to me, as she tries unsuccessfully to overturn the corrupt orthodoxy Dallas leaders and exposes her opponents for the pathetic representatives they are.

If Meiers couldn't see the slow-moving trainwreck that is the Dallas city council, then it's pretty clear she wouldn't be able to understand the consequences of major judicial decisions required by the supreme court.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Tragic Dilution of Songwriting

I consider myself pretty open to listening and figuring out all genres of popular music. I’ve been known to read up on the life stories of one-hit wonders, as well as biographies of the great rock legends. I used to collect music consistently and each acquisition was an opportunity to somehow ‘advance’ my knowledge more than it was about simple enjoyment. One genre of music I have always kept in touch with, though far from being a dedicate fan of has been soul music, or more precisely, pop music made by American blacks. My youngest brother has really taken a liking to old Motown of sixties as well as the rich seventies catalogue consisting of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Commodores, and Barry White. Taking the school bus in the 1980’s exposed me to the soul music of that time, with a few classic ballads and some catchy funk tunes. Hip hop had just arrived and beyond its initially funny rap lyrics, it was evident that musically it was minimal based on samples other people’s music.

By the time the 90’s approached, it was clear that hip-hop overtook soul, and became the dominant mainstream pop genre. For those who had tons of old music from a variety of decades and even classical pieces crammed in their heads, it was quickly evident that most hip-hop tracks were busy borrowing old melodies, rhythm tracks, and vocal samples. In fact, pop music historians credit the establishment of hip-hop music to the German group Kraftwerk, in which disk jokeys like Afrika Bambaata sampled the Teutonic beats of “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers” with improvised rap lyrics to create the first non-disco or funk-based hip-hop single, “Planet Rock”. Many young listeners were ignorant of the original material, so it sounds fresh and inspired. Older types like me can only shake their heads in disappointment, witnessing the butchering of the original material from its original context.

Upon checking up on the latest gossip via Roger Friedman, I came across his report challenging Beyonce Knowles’ claim of authorship to her songs. What becomes apparent is that lately the notion of authorship has become quite vague in the genre of hip hop as well as in r&b. Aside from the obviously self-penned lyrics of rap, pop songs are often written by songwriters, and music is arranged by producers, who seem to rely less and less on studio musicians and more on old samples and pre-recorded beats. What Beyonce seems guilty of doing is claiming complete credit for her hit singles while all she technically may have done was to add a couple of lines or words in the nearly finished song. Why did she need to do this? Royalties are paid to those who are credited in writing the song, and if she had merely performed them she would have cut herself off from these lucrative payments. Friedman discusses at length the issue of Beyonce’s best known hit, “Crazy in Love” in which the song relies on a horn riff originally composed by Eugene Record, a member of the the late 60’s and early 70’s group the Chi-Lites. It seemed that Beyonce was intent in withholding credit to Mr. Record so that she could get a larger share of the royalty pie. The reason I wanted to blog about this is that I’ve endeared myself to the small but gem-like Chi-Lites oeuvre, in which their hits and other less known songs expose a playfulness and musicality that seems to be utterly lacking in much of popular music today.

Personally, I think Beyonce has great singing voice, but her songs feature too heavily sampled rhythm tracks designed to lead the vocals rather complement them. What Friedman’s article more interestingly revealed was the disregard held by certain hip-hop starts towards their sources, without which their success would be impossible. And sadly, many of the old artists who are sampled do not know that they can benefit in royalties if they could be aggressive enough about authorship. It seems that part of the way to succeed in the music business today is to understand very well the legal implications of song authorship. It is evident that songwriters are under assault more and more now that a genre of popular music comprised almost completely of other people's work is dominant. I lament a bit for the actual victims of this kind of theft, but also feel sorry for the mass of young listeners who have lost an appreciation for original songcraft in favor of borrowed hooks.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Of Construction Cranes and Body Counts- Reality in Iraq

When in search for some credible information about what's happening in Iraq, the last place I go to are the networks. Newspapers aren't much better for the simple fact that articles have authors who can present facts in such a way as to promote the journalist's point of view. What I go for are raw data figures from which I can draw my own conclusions. Arthur Chrenkoff's blog was a treasure trove of this kind of data, inundating the reader with unglamorous information but more accurately depicting the reality inside Iraq. This morning in a Wall Street journal opinion piece, Michael Rubin lists actual facts on the ground that would astonish most consumers of network and mainstream media news:

Objective indicators show that Iraqis have confidence that did not exist prior to liberation.
According to an Aug. 16, 2002, commentary in the Guardian--a British newspaper that often opposes U.S. foreign policy--one in six Iraqis had fled their country under Saddam. Millions left because of war, dictatorship and sanctions. Today, several hundred thousand have returned; only the Christians still leave. If Iraq were as chaotic as the media implies, it would export refugees, not resettle them.
Other indicators suggest Iraqis have confidence in their future. The Iraqi dinar, freely traded in international currency markets, is stable.
When people fear for their future, they invest in gold; jewelry and coins can be sewn into clothes and smuggled out of the country. When people feel confident about the future, they buy real estate. Property prices have skyrocketed across Iraq. Decrepit houses in Sadr City, a Shiite slum on the outskirts of Baghdad, can easily cost $45,000. Houses in upper-middle-class districts of Mansour and Karrada can cost more than 20 times that. Restaurant owners spend $50,000 on top-of-the-line generators to keep open despite the frequent blackouts. In September 2005, there were 40 buildings nine stories or higher under construction in the Kurdish city of Sulaymani. Five years ago, there were none. Iraqis would not spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on real estate if they weren't confident that the law would protect their investment.

Iraqis now see the fruit of foreign investment. A year ago in Baghdad, Iraqis drank water and soft drinks imported from neighboring countries. Now they drink water bottled in plants scattered across Iraq. When I visited a Baghdad computer shop last spring, my hosts handed me a can of Pepsi. An Arabic banner across the can announced, "The only soft drink manufactured in Iraq." In August, a Coca-Cola executive in Istanbul told me their Baghdad operation is not far behind. Turkish investors in partnership with local Iraqis have built modern hotels in Basra.

Being part of the building trades myself, I understand that prospering places build new structures at a higher rate than unprospering locations. Even if some of these new buildings are purely speculative and could be based on shaky financial considerations, the simple act of speculating signifies that developers and willing investors share a hope for the future. One can tell much about a place by looking at the built environment. What business is going up, how much of the new construction is for government, how extensive new infrastructure is being put up, and of course, property values. As all libertarians believe, unregulated prices don't lie.

I often find much of the reporting coming out of Iraq as simply keeping score, with publishing deaths and bombings a way of suggesting the daily reality to be even worse than it is. Naturally journalists provide little in the way of context, which results in increasingly abstract reports that are incomprehensible to people like me who have never seen a battlefield. What I do see a lot, though are construction crains, bulldozers, slick consumer goods, and buzzing television sets. And I do know that there are certain places one doesn't go for lack of safety. Although much violence does occur in a few pockets of Iraq, for most Iraqis much of those events are out of sight and therefore out of mind. Most are just trying to make a living, and muddling through. This is the part of the reality in Iraq that interests me most, and would better prepare me to understand the place when I do visit sometime in the future.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Maybe W is another Francisco d'Anconia, Braver and More Brilliant than I Imagined

While the bandwagon of conservatives calling into question President Bush’s selection of Harriet Miers continues to grow, the strength of conservative ideology grows along with it. How ironic then that the utter weakness of Republicans is displayed to an embarrassing degree. Conservatives are flexing their intellectual muscles, finely tuned through think tanks and institutions over the last 3 decades and doing what no liberal ever would: publicly call into question their elected leader for improperly using the power granted him by the people. The result is that they are proving they will put their ideology into action, an ideology which says that principle trumps personality and immediacy, the very antithesis of what Bush has done in selecting Miers, even if she does vote conservatively.

The principles of limited government and anti-cronyism are hallmarks of conservative distrust of government, and Bush has ignored both in his 5 years. (No, Enron and Halliburton are not examples of cronyism, but selecting a friend who would otherwise not be qualified for the court is. How I wish it weren't the case, but it is!) Conservatives understand that no one is immune from these principles, not even the beloved president. Bush has pushed his patient supporters to the absolute limit with Miers, picking someone clearly unqualified for the very thing conservatives have strategized for 30 years to win: the swing vote on the Supreme Court.

The beautiful in-fighting (remember that government quagmire and gridlock is the dream of conservatives and the intent of checks and balances) will emasculate the Republican party, but will strengthen the conservative movement. This makes me wonder if President Bush doesn’t have much bigger plans than we can see. Is he shrewd enough to sense that by proving the weakness of Republicans, he can start another round of hard-core conservative research and persuasion that will lead to real reversion to constitutionally originality in the next 30-40 years? I have no doubt of Bush’s brilliance, or his incredible strength of character when it comes to pushing long-term ideas, something most politicians are too weak or lazy to even consider.

So I’m starting to wonder if he senses that, in essence, Republicans shot their wad in 1994. He’s smart enough to see the long-term trend of conservatism in America (as he has brilliantly done with the War on Terror.) Does he now see that what began in 1994 with the House takeover is done? That the revolution failed miserably because the public’s liberal leanings hadn’t tilted far enough right yet? Can he tell that it’s almost-but-not-quite-yet time for a real revolution?

I’d like to think so. Republicans may continue to win at the ballot box, but there may also be serious backlash. Conservatives may have to wait until 2016 or maybe even later for the public to elect conservatives, not politicians. This next American revolution will not happen with guns perhaps, but by electing libertarian-minded conservatives bent on rolling back government for good.

Maybe Bush is committing Republican hara-kiri for the good of Republicans (or libertarians) in the long run. Maybe, like Francisco d’Anoncia in Atlas Shrugged, he has decided the forces on the left should be allowed to self-destruct, that he will better them at their own game of liberalism and hide in a cave until true conservatives start a real revolution that will lead to a Jeffersonian version of life. Perhaps he understands now that in 1994, Republicans came out of the cave too early. By nominating his buddy to the Supreme Court, maybe he’s telling us in code he’s given up, just as d’Anoncia said in code when he destroyed his own copper mines.

Or maybe I’m living in the same deluded state as Ayn Rand.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Most Admirable Journalist

In the New York Times a few days ago, the traveling journalist Robert D. Kaplan wrote an op-ed recommending that the U.S. reshape its military strategy to plan for natural disasters abroad. He argues that the U.S. can win the hearts and minds of people adversely affected by earthquakes, flooding and typhoons, by leading in relief effortsl, similar to what took place during the Christmas Day Tsunami of last year. The American military has a tremendous logistical advantage over any other relief agency as well as the discipline to carry through operations inspite of a hostile environment. Especially now that the military is professionalized, with more troops engaged in highly specialized tasks, the effectiveness of an American military response to any natural disaster is tremendous. Looking closely at the actions of the armed forces in response to Hurricane Katrina, one can't help but be amazed at the swiftness of action, the heroic feats of the coast guard, and the integrity of its commanding officers such as General Honore. Even under more civilian type tasks performed in Iraq and Afghanistan the past few years, the armed forces have demonstrated remarkable patience, persistance and flexibility that is sure to pay dividends in the U.S. relation with the people in those countries.

Kaplan writes on his impressions of soldiers in much greater depth than I ever could in his latest book, Imperial Grunts. He travels with the special ops forces in various countries, particularly poor ones in the third world who hope to develop closer ties to the U.S. This volume is just the latest in a series of books in which the writer for the Atlantic Monthly magazine, journeys through the most overlooked corners of existence throughout the globe and explains with tremendous historical detail and keen observation the surrounding environment. I read most of his books, such as Balkan Ghosts, Ends of the Earth, Eastward to Tartary, The Arabists, An Empire Wilderness, and Soldiers of God. He has also written two more theoretical books on politics, Warrior Politics and The Coming Anarchy, in which he posits many insights about international relations which were very prescient in predicting future events. His prose is vivid while his analysis is accurate and his conclusions are original. Kaplan often sees the hidden social and historical patterns of a place and makes predictions therefrom. Many of his contemporaries would consider him a political realist, in that power is determined by national self-interest, and foreign policy should be governed on purely pragmatic grounds rather than on moral principles. To the casual reader, many of his insights seem too grim to bear. For those who make no illusions about the perverse behavior natural to humans, he speaks to you directly. If the journalist's job is to report as well as to analyze with as much information as necessary, Robert Kaplan has been among the very best in his field. It has achieved for him a high respect from foreign policy makers as well as both presidents Clinton and Bush.

I once recall quickly browsing through an edition of Newsweek or some other similar weekly a few years ago. Inserted in a larger story about globalization dual opinion column between Kaplan and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Friedman's take was typical of the author, which is big on the marvels of technology, and the social transformations in third world countries brought on by globalism. In short, the same tone of enthusiasm and fascination typical of his opinion columns and last several books, and nothing so different from typical boosterist literature found in business magazines. I used to regularly read his writings, but increasingly found his arguments to be lacking in sophistication. Kaplan's take on globalism was radically different from Friedman's and was peppered with cautionary points and unexpected conclusions about the future. He warned of threats of terrorism (this was before 9/11,) failed states, and native reactions to globalist forces, conceding that modern technologies were more widely diffused, but that it would empower the enemies of globalism like never before. To summarize, Kaplan's half was far more critical yet far more convincingly argued than the foreign policy 'expert' from the New York Times. I look to reading his newest book, and I recommend all of his books to anyone interested in international politics and the nature of military conflicts.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

What's It Called? Monorail!-Thoughts on Public Transit

I was in San Francisco on vacation a few weeks ago, and using its much-vaunted transportation system got me to thinking about what I like and dislike about public transit. Although I currently live in a car-only suburb near car-obsessed Dallas, I manage to take public transportation for my daily commute, namely light rail. Before then, I lived in Chicago taking the “El” everyday, and before that I rode the city bus in Denver, and while a grad student in Austin, I depended on a univ ersity-sponsored shuttle bus. I’ve spent a good chunk of my time in public transportation. So far it has rarely been much of a pleasure using them. As beautiful the Golden Gate city was, its scenery failed to de-emphasize the drawbacks in taking public transit, whether by bus or cable car. Especially when toting my new-born son with all of his necessary gear (diaper bag, stroller, etc.) getting around the city was a chore, and I subsequently yearned for the simplicity of my car. Granted, automobile traffic in San Francisco seemed to be in grid-lock most of the time, but somehow I found the public transit option less than fulfilling.

After all these years, I’m still uncomfortable riding in a shared space like a bus or train car. I’m not quite like Sartre and think “l’enfer, c’est les autres” ("hell is other people") but I’m sure most could do without the unpleasant body odor, the loud talking or buzzing headphones, the standing and hanging on to bar restraints, and last but not least, waiting in searing heat or bitter cold. Your freedom of movement around the city is limited to where the bus/train stops, and where and how one does their errands depends on the location of these stops. I’m reduced to buying as many bags as my hands could hold for periods up to a half-hour. Then I think about what I could have accomplished with my car, with its spacious trunk in the back, and the ability to park on any street and frequent businesses far from the bus/train stop. I’m reminded of how driving through a city forms a mental picture of the urban structure, the relationship of buildings, landmarks and major traffic arteries in the landscape.

When I first moved to Chicago, I brought my car, knowing that parking was going to be difficult. I ended up rarely using it since I lived close to a major train route, but in the instances which I did drive I realized how my car allowed me to discover parts of the city I would have never known about otherwise, experiences views of the city unavailable to train or bus passengers. My car-less friends who needed a ride were usually grateful for being driven directly in front of their homes as opposed to walking several blocks from the station late at night in the freezing cold. They were also struck by the discoveries of nearby neighborhoods and how the city would unfold itself in a car ride. Being solely dependent on public transit for a while, I realized a sense of disconnect with the city’s surrounding areas to where suburban communities did not really exist, and the world beyond the last stop was indefinite and ultimately foreign. My world had become linear, a thread of stops with nodes for all my necessities, going back and forth along a single contorted axis. Cities are not linear but radial, or at least a grid that blankets the landscape in countless directions. Walking can only immerse you with distinct fragments of a city, but the personal automobile compresses time and space to such a degree so as to make the city as a perceivable entity.

The advantages of personal car driving listed above does not argue for the elimination of public transit, but instead they explain why cars the dominant transportation of choice, and why most people will never want to be forced out their cars. Beyond the belief that people prefer to be isolated from strangers and seek the security of some form of private confine, the appeal of controlling one’s personal environment and navigating at whim ensures that the automobile will be here to stay well into the future. Artificial intelligence my replace the driver and hydrogen may replace gas, and even the wheels may disappear, but a personal people-mover will continue to conform the human nature’s natural predilection for unlimited freedom of movement.

That being said, I do think that public transit has its place in cities. One cannot plan for sizeable areas of urban density without provisions for mass transit, as access to such spaces is impractical with cars. Stacked garages can be made to look attractive, but the amount of space necessary and the tremendous expense in building them in zones of high property values favor the insertion of transit stops with regular service to and from them. The numerous street intersections of downtown areas slow the movement of vehicles to the point where walking would be just as fast, the distances for a pedestrian being small enough that makes starting up the car, driving, and searching for parking again seem absurd. Commuter lines complement well overtasked highways and abundant bus routes accommodate those who can’t drive for various reasons (too old, too young, too poor, too disabled, etc.).

There are nevertheless limits to the efficiency of a transit system. Such limits are tied closely to the density of the area the transit line serves. Placing a lightrail station in the middle of widely-spaced shopping cener or in the middle of a neighborhood zoned with single-family housing is not an efficient nor effective move towards improving the functioning of a transit line. Creating a route that stops exclusively at intersections with little pedestrian traffic to speak of leads to near-empty buses or trains, a waste in fuel and needless traffic. High-density development requires an effective way of moving large amounts of people quickly. Low-density development is intended to promote spatial privacy, lower populations, and and very modest amounts of foot traffic, while promoting private transportation in the form of cars. Where numerous cars overwhelm tight spaces with insufficient parking, mobile high-density 'containers' will move the masses, further reinforcing the idea that dense spaces are not about privacy as they are about a shared public experience. Cities consist of a range of different densities, from sleepy residential neighborhoods to busy shopping districts. Each of these environments involve a tradeoff between privacy and the public, or between calm and noise. Modes of transport should harmonize with these environments rather than inhibit them. Few people truly enjoy walking on tight sidewalks while cars are log-jammed on the street spewing out exhaust just a few feet away. Likewise a transit line would not look good dropping off people in the middle of a vast parking lot or highway, where passengers are expected to trek a quarter mile to a safe and shaded place.

It is with these ideas in mind that I read a piece by James Thayer in the Weekly Standard regarding the failure of the monorail initiative in Seattle recently. To summarize, voters in that city had approved in a referendum to develop the first in a series of monorail lines that would cross the city at an estimated price tag of 1.6 billion. After the vote, it was discovered that this price was the result of a financial sleight of hand by the project's boosters in city government and pro-monorail interest groups. Buyer's remorse set in when it was realized that the initial attractive designs for the monorail would not hold after structural issues were worked out, requiring fat column supports that would blight existing streetscapes. Add to that ensuing beautification costs and agency expenses and the price tag inflated to 2.1 billion. The project was going to be financed by stiff car taxes, penalizing car owners in the city and giving more reasons for city residents to move to the suburbs in which to register their cars. Most of the project's boosters and some on the monorail's own governmental commission body have reversed their positions against the project.

It is a given that the budgets of major transportation projects will be larger than first estimated and will account for copious amounts of mismanagement and waste. What was for me the most revealing fact about monorail was its inefficient route that neglected basic rules of serving urban density. Thayer writes:

It mattered little to Seattleites that the proposed 14-mile Green Line essentially went nowhere. At the south end was West Seattle, as sleepy a place as exists in the city. At the north end was Ballard, another quiet neighborhood. The line didn't go near the area's hot spots: the airport, the Microsoft campus, the University of Washington,
the Boeing plants, the bustling Eastside. Nor did it closely parallel the perpetually clogged north-south freeway, Interstate 5.

Which means, then, that ridership will remain low and the line will continue to lose money for the city indefinitely. Except for a few historically dense cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston and San Francisco, among others, most public transportation systems run on deficits. Part of this can be explained by bureaucratic incompetence, but much of it can be blamed on lower than expected ridership. If certain routes are designed like the proposted monorail in Seattle, there's no question as to why too few people use public transit. It is often argued by light-rail or monorail boosters that the placement of station will raise the location's property value and will act as a catalyst for denser urban development around it. The taxes raised from areas around the station will more than offset the losses from the operation of the line. It's a good pitch, and my hometown of Dallas has seen a real-estate successes that arose from the insertion of a light rail station. Still those places already had a reasonably high density prior to development, while other stops along the line are still surrounded by vacant lots. Development might come in enventually in those areas, but I'm usually weary of proposals based on pure speculation, especially when it involves my tax money.

In conclusion, it is obvious to most that public transportation is not the cure-all to most of the contemporary city's problems with regard to traffic or even the environment (running an empty bus throughout most of day is not my idea of conserving resources). A transit line will more likely fail to fulfill its boosters' promises and will probably end up operating in the red indefinitely. Cars are the preferred mode of transportation over every alternative, and urban design will have to accomodate to this fact rather than ignore it. Nevertheless, public transportation has an important place, but rather than being viewed as a necessity, I appreciate it as an amenity. Much like a hotel without a pool, or a restaurant without banquet rooms, it's nice to have and it's a potential for greater things but it does not prevent the business from functioning well.

For an enjoyable discussion on light rail and monorail by a Seattle resident, click on the image above.

UPDATE 7/14/2010: Five years on and two additional kids later, I've given up on taking the light-rail to work downtown. By driving, even on a busy interstate highway, I cut my commute by 15 minutes each way. With the increase in familial duties and mounting demands from work and community projects, the ability to be flexible to get wherever, whenever, becomes paramount. Commuting on the train simply eats up too much time.

Over the years I've become a bit more disenchanted with public transit, and I've learned to completely disregard the boosters of transit-oriented development. With the recent real-estate bubble having given many TOD projects a chance to get built around the DFW region , I've noticed the consistency to which they tend to underperform or fail spectacularly.

Granted, it is necessary for a city of a certain size to facilitate transportation for those who aren't able to drive for whatever reason. I just wish there was a way of doing this without fostering a corrupt and fiscally reckless transit agency that comes attached. As I write this, Dallas continues to forge ahead in expanding new light-rail lines. I wish the whole endeavor well, but don't be surprised when the transit agency begs for more money and cuts bus services.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Unintended Consequence of Katrina - Casinos Land in Mississippi

As post-Katrina reality begins to take shape for the Gulf Coast, I noticed one blurb on the evening news that is exemplary of how little changes made in emergent times might prove to be larger in the long run. In order (I’m sure) to “help the economy” or “get the area back on its feet,” Mississippi passed a resolution that would land their riverboat casinos. It was phrased this way in an article in the Arizona Daily Star: “The rebuilding process got a boost Monday when the state Senate sent Gov. Haley Barbour a bill that would allow the coastal casinos to move short distance onshore, giving them greater stability in future storms.” So, for stability reasons, politicians and the people who elected them were okay with unstable boats so as to be in denial about the fact that they had normalized a vice for money, and the pursuit of pleasure.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of riverboat casinos, here a few of their more silly features. Even though these boats have no real possibility of going anywhere, most cities (my home city of Shreveport, LA being no exception) ask that if gambling is to become a legalized vice that at least the casinos have to be mobile. Usually, a great deal of work has to be done to the rivers where these boats live. Currents have to be reduced to manageable amounts and water levels have to be capped. In other words, pretty much anything that would put a boat in danger of actually behaving like a boat has to change. I’m not going to debate environmental ramifications of such change to rivers, though I wouldn’t deny that they may exist. The boat itself is clearly tied down in a cul-de-sac that keeps the boat at bay and the water from the river actually influencing its movement. If you’re on the boat, you’ll quickly realize there is no need for Dramamine; sea sickness is not a possibility. So it’s not as though these riverboats are out floating on just any section of the river; the river is clearly manipulated to allow for the boat to be there, and certainly to stay for a while.

The obvious question is why don’t cities just allow landed casinos? After all, it makes a mockery of law to allow for such a silly loophole. Anyone with eyes can see how the casinos and the city government simply work together to deny the obvious point: that cities support gambling, and they don’t want it leaving their city anytime soon, even though making the casinos be riverboats may hint that they’re temporary shots to the arm of the economy.

So given the fact that these boats-that-aren’t-really-boats act as land-based casinos, why does it matter that Mississippi has officially allowed their riverboat casinos to land? Call me a fuddy-duddy, but to my mind, this could set a precedent to make gambling a more and more legitimate business in the long run. And it’s not just the gambling, but all that often comes with it, mainly strip clubs and the normalization of pornography. Whereas gambling was once reserved for the Wild West back rooms, it is now salty, but legitimate behavior that goes with having a good time. Whereas strip clubs were once confined to windowless buildings on the outskirts of town, now they are downtown front and center, in bed with politicians who see it as merely a part of redevelopment. In other words, these things which used to be considered vices, have now been normalized to the point where anyone can frequent casinos (and their most common spin-off, strip clubs) as though it were entertainment on par with reading a book or going to the theatre.

And herein lies the beauty of the so-called “riverboats.” Politicians too weak and cowardly to admit what they were getting into bed with, have been able to pretend bravery when they said that they would allow casinos, but only if they were on boats that could easily leave the city should the city change its mind. But the gaudy hotels, city-funded convention centers and downtown renewal projects that inevitably follow make it impossible for these concrete boats to simply float away. In fact, Katrina is about the only thing that had the power to rid of these ridiculous contraptions.

But the unintended consequence of Katrina’s grace is a harder push by politicians to make gambling more permanent and normal. Gone is the small apology politicians used to have to make about gambling. It’s been accepted, even welcome for politicians to make their cities miniature Las Vegas'. As our country becomes more affluent and pleasure-driven, it appears the market for casinos and such legal vices will only increase, and now we don’t even need to live in the myth that they’re temporary.

All of this hides the most practical sin of casinos: the original reason for their being built proves again and again to be a lie. Whereas untouchably noble plans that benefit children and their education are drawn up in the beginning, money is almost uniformly transferred from education budgets to the general fund, so these brave politicians can spend their extra revenue as they see fit. And all of this hides the great myth of our time concerning education, which is that higher education budgets results in better-educated children.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Art Without Elites

I came across this recent article by James Pinkerton at TechCentralStation that describes the forces that influence the direction of public art and the changes brought about by the new media. Pinkerton explains the demise of the International Freedom Center planned to be built on Ground Zero as the result of objections raised by opinion makers on the internet, radio, and cable news outlets. Apparently the anti-American disposition of content intended for the Freedom Center was part of on ongoing pattern of taxpayer-funded art projects administered by a kind of artsy elite, or as he calls it, the “Arts Intellectual Complex” (“AIC”):

Working together, the elites of the media and the culture have mostly controlled "Big Art" -- the complex of museums, monuments, and galleries that help to shape the way we think about society, history, even politics.

Pinkerton then relates the awarding of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981 with the AIC, illustrating how they were able to win the public relations battle to advance a design that expressed sorrow and defeatism. The AIC was clever to cloak their anti-war positions with aesthetic gobbledy-gook as well as mischaracterizing their opponents as cultural philistines. Twenty-five years later, with the rise of a hydra-headed mass media, the veil of aesthetic gobbledy-gook would finally be removed to reveal the naked anti-American opinions of most members of the AIC, and the International Freedom Center was removed from ground zero by New York’s governor following a condemnation by New York Senator Hillary Clinton.

Though Pinkerton makes a convincing argument that the impregnable power of the AIC has been seriously undermined, his final paragraphs pose good questions regarding stewardship of culture:

So the media have been democratized, and the cultural elite has been eclipsed. From a right-leaning point of view, is there anything not to like about this turn of events?

Only this: Having taken power from the left, having dethroned Dan Rather and his ilk, the libertarian-right must now prove that it can use power effectively -- in politics and also in culture.

As George W. Bush is discovering, it's not so easy to run the show, to find that the buck -- and the bills, and all the blame -- is stopping at his desk. And the same holds true for Ground Zero. Pataki & Co. have put a stop to the all-too-familiar tax-funded values-bashing of the past few decades. But now it's the conservatives' turn to see what they can do, as an alternative.

If the leftist worldview has now become unacceptable in validating public art, what worldview shall replace it? Should there be a conservative art elite, much less no elite at all, as it is contrary to conservative disdain for elitism? If an elite does not steer the aesthetic currents in a culture, would the alternative of unguided artist lead to a greater output of beauty?

These are questions I’ve always been confronted with since I became involved in the field of architecture. In school I was involved enough with art majors to observe up close what they were making, and also the classes in theory and history that were informing their work. It was very clear that that the professors imparted a narrative that was part of the current intellectual orthodoxy of the time. Names of particular scholars were dropped, movements were explained by what seemed a logical string of events, and contemporary art and design was presented as the most obvious and therefore evolved stage of development. For young impressionable college students, this made the world of art more accessible, and it reinforced in us a romantic notion how we would continue the noble work of our predecessors, the elites.

It would take many years and greater technical confidence in our artistic vocation to question the intellectual orthodoxy. However, by that point we realized there was no alternative narrative to reference to, no alternative group of elites that mobilized powerful resources to promote aesthetic ideas I agreed with. We were left to construct our own framework of ideas, our own understanding of historical movements and influences, and our own pantheon of great intellectual luminaries in aesthetics and design. The cooptation by cultural elites of government institutions to promote their agendas is alien to individualistic and independent artists and designers. Especially when looking back at the correlation between the political developments of the twentieth century and the open political engagements of many artists, one wonders what the world would be like when that correlation disappears at the start of the twenty-first century.

One thing that seems clear to me at the beginning of this century is the abandonment of collectivism. Though totalitarian movements persist in the world in the form of islamic fundamentalists, ecological extremists and nationalist minority militias, their stature is far too fragmented to effect any substantial influence to the majority of people in the world. Most people have embraced to some degree technologies that enhance individualism, from the internet to cell phones, to the ability to temporarily set up businesses from anywhere at anytime. The traditional structure of communities, which was essentially a network of people confined within a geographic area (neighborhood, town, city, etc.), is quickly being substituted by virtual communities, where your best friends are likely to live thousands of miles away and you rarely see your next-door neighbor. New groups of like minded people do form, but each member is limited in how much they associate their individual identity with the group. In many ways, there is tremendous freedom in virtual communities, because as soon as you decide that you have had enough of a group, you can simply not reply to emails or deny access. For almost all of human history, individuals submitted to the group, and leaving the group was impossible. It was just as impossible to join a new community since many were bound by tribal and blood ties.

Socially, the information revolution has ushered a 'brave new world.' But will this be the case artistically? Pinkerton identifies the 'Arts Industrial Complex' as a kind of community that has taken upon itself to act as the vanguard for artistic development nationally (and internationally at times.) Tribal ties are alive and well in the AIC, beginning with their alumni identities, which art school they attended under which professor. Many in the AIC feel closer to those who share their philosophical tastes and an understanding of post-structuralist theory than their downtrodden neighbors in the streets of Manhattan or Boston. Traditional communities fostered professional apprenticeship, and the AIC was careful to champion the work of particular artists and designers through the awarding prizes. Geography often was key in sustaining the AIC, who favored the consolidation of 'hip' areas to a handful of major cities like San Francisco, Boston, and most notably, New York. Traditional communities by their very nature are weary of outsiders, and to express pride of your midwestern or southeastern cultural roots would only bring disdain.

But just as the academy in our universities have been steadily losing their prestige and relevance in the last few decades, the AIC was likewise succumbing to a similar fate. Each controversial and deeply unpopular selection of artistic prize-winners further alienated the elite from mainstream culture. The International Freedom Center fiasco was a continuation of this pattern, but this time the very integrity of the AIC as a meaningful community was threatened by the faceless forces of the internet and outside individuals. Will the latter bring in a new artistic order with new elites, or will it change the purpose of art itself? Will art become a vehicle for the dissemination of ideas of elites or will it simply try to ambiguously evoke beauty? Maybe these questions aren't so new as I'd like to believe.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Absolute Power

If democratic power means the ability to make other people do what one wants by means of constituent pressure, then absolute power in a democracy indicates the ability to execute one's agenda regardless of what your supporters may say. Absolute power is to make other people or states do what one wants by threat of force. Why is it absolute? Why is it not just one of many kinds of power like 'soft' power, which refers to the power of the media and entertainment in shaping cultural values, or people power, where some believe that major political and social problems can be solved by massing into populous movements, marching and rallying peacefully. Why is the threat of force absolute over economic power, which can bend entire countries into submission to another state because of their need for trade. Or the power of the 'haves' over the 'have-nots'?

What establishes absolute power over others is that it is willing to take the life of an opponent if necessary, thereby eliminating once and for all the barrier to you attaining one's goals. It's enough to make one's opponents promptly give in to demands, since for most people, survival is more important than sacrificing your life in violent resistance. Other kinds of powers mentioned above do not have this effect.

Cultural power may be able to build sympathy for your cause from your opponent, but it works so slowly and often leads to backlash (eg. Western Europe still will not join the U.S. in any endeavour just because they have been broadly Americanized during the last fifty years; Another instance is how American cultural exports have incited radical Muslim groups to react and oppress their subjects.) Economic power works in resolving conflicts between countries that depend on trade and money to finance their military forces, but as soon as those criteria are gone, there's no limit to what governments can do. The long lists of military dictatorships (Saddam, Mobutu, Mugabe) and rapidly impoverishing totalitarian states (USSR, Cambodia, Maoist China) testify to the inability of economic national interest to prevent violent war.

People power in the form of social movements are quite fragile and are only allowed to have any kind of effect in the most ideal, pluralistic, and civilized circumstances. Ghandi did not win India's independence, Britain gave it to him under a long planned time table. Martin Luther King did not free blacks single-handedly, the U. S. government and a series of court rulings before and during his time enforced these changes. King was fortunate to be in a place where he was quite free to express himself, assemble, and take advantage of free media infrastructure to persuade the majority. Had he been in South Africa, he would have been jailed for decades like Mr. Mandela. No social change of the kind we enjoy exist within totalitarian regimes, the only kind possible being the massive purges of entire political and ethnic groups so as to purify the population with only obedient subjects.

Absolute power requires power of arms. Every state responsible for its own defense knows this. Yet there are states who have forgotten this fact for the simple reason that they no longer provide for their own defense. Another country willingly does it for them. Western Europe has given this responsibility to the Americans after the conclusion of World War 2. In exchange for abandoning defense they pursued an expansion of the welfare state. Although this tradeoff has ensured a relatively high standard of living, it has emasculated their absolute power in arbitrating world conflicts. The European Union can negotiate trade agreements with other parts of the world, but it cannot threaten violent consequences to any enemy that intends to destroy them first. That is the job of the American ally, who benefits by greater control of its own self defense as well as enjoying a beneficial trade and cultural relationship with Europe. In spite of this seemingly successful symbiosis, this arrangement has produced resentment and discord on both sides. It has also distorted the worldview of Europeans. Having long abandoned any sense of military duty and diplomacy by way coercion, Europe's statesmen and diplomats believe that all conflicts are solvable by treaties, dialogue or verbal promises. Placed next to a power that disregards all these means as irrelevant to its main goal, Europe's standing in absolute power is far too insufficient to meet the biggest threats.

Europe's elites might not understand absolute power but all 'rogue' states sure do. It explains Iran's rapid development of nuclear weapons, Pakistan and India's nuclear programs, as well North Korea's Kim Jong Il flouting previous agreements with the Clinton administration to build his own arsenal. It's the one thing that will keep the regimes in control despite economic disaster and civil unrest. They understand Machiavelli's axiom: "It is better to be feared than loved". Could Saddam have been overthrown without American intervention? The burden of proof lies on those who argue this point. Since being decimated militarily and economically after the first Gulf War, Saddam was ripe for a coup. It did happen to a limited extent, when George H. W. Bush encouraged the Shias to rise up against Saddam. There was no tactical support from the Americans, and the rebellion was crushed with thousands imprisoned and executed. Saddam exercised overwhelmingly effective violence during that event to prevent later uprisings and secure his rule. In addition, he made everybody believe, including his own generals, the threats to use his giant stockpile of WMD's that evidently didn't exist so as suppress any resistance. Saddam had played the hand of absolute power so well that he could have stayed on in power to the end of his life, and likely having his sons succeed him without trouble.

Often the relationship between a state that is governed by absolute power and another that follows softer forms of power will subvert moral equality. Negotiations are decided by who will use force more willingly, while appeasement is the only policy for those who cannot take this tactic. However appeasement is not simply the desire to make reasonable concessions to ensure a peaceful outcome, but to agree to submit your country's moral integrity. European powers like Germany and France are a classic example, especially in how the latter promised Saddam protection from any UN resolution authorizing war in exchange for exclusive and massive Iraqi oil contracts. Since an appeaser’s destiny is directly tied to an aggressor’s threat of force, it is a policy of weakness. It is also usually immoral since peace takes precedence over everything else. Peace in itself is not necessarily a good if it consists of harming one group of people while leaving the appeaser alone. “Stability” is often the objective in international relations since it often means the absence of war. But it often means controlled tensions between states and nations, maintained by ruthless authority or some sort of mutually assured destruction.

9/11 was a breach against this stability. The tensions have boiled over, and since that day the world had to reconstitute a new form of stability. From the American point of view, particular that of the Bush administration, this was an opportunity to realign the Middle East from its old order of autocrats and fundamentalist insurgencies to one where democratic capitalism is transcendent. From a realist’s perspective much of this is wishful thinking. A realist believes in making deals with you enemies under threat of force regardless of idealistic intentions. America’s foreign policy was throughout much of its history realist: You give me parts of Mexico or I’ll whack your behind even more; You cede me control of Cuba and the Philippines, or I’ll destroy you (Spain) even more. During the Cold War, it was agreed that America would dominate Western Europe, and the Soviets could have the East and any transgression in either direction would result in nuclear annihilation. These policies had nothing to do about America doing right thing. It was purely in our national interest whether economic or defensive.

However, a simple realist approach was no longer reasonable after 9/11. Decades of Cold War policy in which America tolerated brutal nationalist regimes around the Third World for the sake of repelling Communism had come home to roost. At the time, it was sensible to champion the lesser of two evils. Remember, in realism it’s about you getting the best deal with the hand you are dealt. It has nothing to do about how charitable and sympathetic your style of play is. Playing nice in card games will be rewarded by loss. There was a famous saying back then, probably said by either President Nixon or LBJ: “He may be a sonofabitch but he’s OUR sonofabitch.” Well two of the sons of bitches were Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. OBL helped us out in ousting the Soviets from Afghanistan as part of the Mujahedin. Saddam launched a long war against our worse enemy at the time Iran. It was only a matter of time that they would refocus their targets on new enemies. They targeted America, not because we helped them before, but because we stood in the way of their own ambitions or ruling the Middle East. Bearing in mind the huge disparity in military power, OBL and Saddam could be perceived as nuts. Only a set of convictions that went beyond the quid-pro-quo of realism could explain this turn. It certainly wasn’t an attitude that could be negotiated with at the peace table, nor could a brewing conflict be resolved by threatening communiqu├ęs. It was an attitude that was definitely beyond any sort of rational conflict resolution. Therefore the only prescription was to uproot this radical mindset as completely as possible: a military strategy that would bring about a major cultural revolution.

George W. Bush understood this, and risked his entire presidency on such a bold move. Attacking Iraq was not popular, the occupation since the military victory has been derided on all sides of the political spectrum and many of his suspicions about what we would find there once we arrived did not materialize. It was a big gamble that will take a long time to determine its success. But the president’s boldness catapulted America’s prestige in the world in terms of absolute power. The balance of power in the world is shifting as a result in span of time far shorter than decades of treaties, broken promises and compromises. Many in Europe have gotten so comfortable to the previous Cold War state of things that don’t want it all to change. I am confident the President didn’t want to either, but outside events have a funny way of waking you up from your daydream. In any case, Bush’s first term will be compared to Truman’s first term in reshaping America’s response to the world.

For a failed oil businessman and frat boy who can’t utter a complete sentence without mispronouncing, that’s quite an achievement.

How the Desire for a Constitutional Originalist has Surfaced a Much Larger Debate

As arch-conservatives stew about the president’s latest nomination for the Supreme Court, they have raised legitimate concerns as to whether or not Harriet Miers is conservative enough, i.e. a “constitutional originalist”. The fear is that as the liberal agenda fails at the voting polls, it can still be enacted through “activist judges,” who view their appointments as green lights to view the Constitution as a living, breathing document, capable of being rewritten, reinterpreted and re-contextualized. Apparently, all it needs is a “New and Improved!” sticker on it. Hence the need for those who see the Constitution as a document not in need of change or contextual analysis.

I won’t lament the processes and ethics that over decades and centuries have allowed us to get to a point where we seek to test the fragility of the ideas that have led to our very success. The lifespan of the Constitution amid this suicidal tendency points to its overwhelming strength in preserving something as fragile as concepts. And of course, this is all the Constitution is: ideas and concepts for a constitutional republic. No guarantees; just ideas that have worked remarkably well.

This is a parallel debate that has been bubbling at the surface in Christendom primarily since the Enlightenment. The same processes and ethics that have led many to question the contemporary relevance of the Constitution have led many to question the contemporary relevance of another old document that has stood the test of time: the Bible.

According to Martin Marty, a top tier Church historian and professor of religious history at the University of Chicago, Christianity is in the midst of Controversy, with sex and the authority of scripture being the primary issues dividing most churches. He says that, “there is indeed a clash within some features of the West. The fights are all about ‘sex’ and ‘authority’ in every denomination, from Mennonite to Roman Catholicism.” In other words, no church in Christianity is immune to these debates, which ranks this controversy as a Controversy that will take decades if not centuries to mend, if ever.

One could even look at the debate over sexuality and see that it stems from a scriptural authority problem. Culture is dictating which elements of scripture are valid or not; the overwhelming preponderance of heterosexuality as the biblical norm should make the great debate over sexuality a non-issue. Yet it doesn’t, because the authority and reinterpretation of scripture have made it a hot-button issue even when it should not make the docket. This is not to say that the Church should not be tolerant and loving towards all people including homosexuals; it is to say there is no scriptural basis for having the debate when it comes to ordination or marriage. Yet the debate rages on because of the way “ancient documents” are treated more as suspect than wise.

In response, here come the scriptural “originalists,” who, like the Constitutional originalists, seek to view scripture less from a contextual and more from an orthodox vantage point. There are, no doubt, various degrees one could do this. One could be a literalist who views the Bible as the historical and scientific norm, or one could view it as the ethical and moral norm, if not the historical norm. Whatever the variance, there is a gulf that separates those who seek to see the Bible as any kind of norm, and those who seek essentially to revise it, those who seek to place context, “diversity,” and even personal experience above traditional norms the Church has granted scripture for well over 1,500 years.

I suppose my point is merely to point out that the particular nomination of Ms. Miers highlights a much, much larger debate that is taking place not only in America, but in many ways has already taken place in Europe and will take place as “undeveloped” nations develop. We are at the crossroads of the essential question of Postmodernism: “What is authoritative?” The desire for a constitutional originalist (which to my mind is the only possible, conceivable, or legal choice for a Supreme Court justice) is the way this debate is surfacing in our daily language. It is one more way our culture has to choose what is authoritative for itself: old, fragile ideas which take wars, debates, and discomfort to defend, or new solutions, yet to be tested.