Tuesday, May 30, 2006

“Social Justice” is a Misnomer: Consider “Social Mercy” Instead

Those who dedicate their lives to certain social and political causes often refer to their genre of work as “social justice.” Especially for those who work on behalf of the homeless, immigrants, refugees, and the general down-and-out, social justice has become a catch phrase for various initiatives that often involves calls for redistribution of wealth, broad government programs, and a minimum if not living wage. “Social justice”, as a stream of political thought, seems to have picked up steam in the past decade or so (especially during the Bush administration) as many on the left feared “draconian” cuts to the budget were on the way. It turned out to be quite the contrary. But who’s counting?

When the most recent massive federal budget was passed by a Republican congress, mainline church denominations called the budget “immoral” because of its “cuts” to certain social programs. (I also agree the budget was immoral, but because the lack of substantive cuts allow dehumanizing dependency on the welfare state to persist.) The language goes something as follows: “By passing this immoral budget, Congress has made it clear that social justice is not a priority.” Or, “President Bush, who once touted ‘compassionate conservatism,’ has proved himself to be opposed to serious social justice fiscal policy.” Or some such sentiment. I won’t go into all of the reasons I think these sorts of statements are wrong, but I will start by saying that the word “justice” is poorly understood. And for the record, government clearly has a role in providing for the welfare of those who cannot provide for themselves. The question is not if, but how much.

“Social justice” in many circles means “equal outcome”. When I hear activists speak of “justice”, the ideas espoused are communistic to the core, and the speakers are interested more in guaranteeing equal distribution of wealth more than equal opportunity to earn. The etymology of “justice” never suggests, however, that equal outcome is a guarantee. To be “just” is not necessarily to be compassionate, kind, or to turn the other cheek. Being just is, by definition, an objective venture that may appear to be cold-hearted. Fairness by the rule of law is the only criteria. A judge in any courtroom is not in the compassion or forgiveness business. He (or she) is in the judgment business, which may mean he rules against a very nice man who unintentionally committed a crime as much as he rules in favor of a cold-blooded killer whose home was illegally searched. That’s justice: cold, unfeeling, legalistic.

But if justice comes to mean equal outcome, then we are in for a long haul when the shadow side of overusing this word comes to fruition: justice demands a monopoly because it acts in an objective manner. So when we attach “justice” to a cause, rightly or wrongly, we are tacitly recognizing that this call must get accomplished in the name of all that is right in the world. If “justice” calls for a welfare state, who are we to deny it? If “justice” calls for the top 5% of wage earners to foot the bill for the other 95%, who are we to say no?

Justice has a powerful voice that drowns out reason, logic, and desire. Actions must be taken, vows must be broken, change must occur in the name of justice. Justice works on a different level than our emotions, so it has the ability to call us to something higher. So when justice speaks, it carries a seemingly objective weight behind it that implies that if society doesn’t listen, it is committing a grave sin. That’s why pseudo-communists use the word: they are hanging onto an old understanding of the word that was appropriate at other times in history, but now is being perverted to tell us how unfair society is by not creating equal outcome.

So when I hear this phrase, “social justice,” I toddle between irritation at the communistic values that underpin the phrase and laughter because of the complete lack of etymological sensitivity to what “justice” actually is. At a theological level, for example, I have no doubt that God is a just god. But Christians believe that God is more than merely just; God is also merciful. Mercy is a very different concept from justice. Mercy is full of compassion; it is grace incarnate. It is looking at your neighbor as one who may not deserve help, but should receive it anyway. If we looked at our neighbor from a perspective of justice, we could find many reasons not to help them. Justice might even demand that we don’t. But hopefully, we look on others with mercy, not justice.

Mercy also only has as much power as the person doing it. Because it is voluntary, its power is limited to the person showing mercy. Mercy is hard to rally, politicize or generate votes. It’s doing the right thing for its own sake. So I advocate the phrase “social mercy” over “social justice,” because if nothing else, it is not so pompous as to assume that communism is the only way to achieve a loving society. If justice ruled our hearts more than mercy, none of us would come out alive.

A final thought on what this social mercy looks like. The father of “compassionate conservatism,” Marvin Olasky, has written extensively on this, especially in “The Tragedy of American Compassion.” In sum, mercy towards others is best achieved at a local level. It involves truly helping people by works of kindness, not merely federal money. And mercy involves an honest acknowledgement of the power of sin, instead of a steady paycheck that may enable bad behavior. I only ask that when we speak about justice, we be careful what we ask for. Justice may only be kind to us a long time from now.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Media, Waste and What Works

Real Clear Politics links to Lou Dolinar’s account of the rescue efforts during and after the passing of Hurricane Katrina. Along with Congress’s report evaluating the emergency response at all federal levels, I can’t help but be convinced that such a vast natural disaster shows why larger government doesn’t improve anything. FEMA collapsed under the pressure, fraud was rampant in awarding reconstruction contracts and issuing debit cards, and the Army Corps of Engineers took no responsibility in the faulty construction of the canal walls. Dolinar extensively highlights the impressive achievements of the government services that did indeed worked: the coalition of armed forces. In the whole wretched ordeal that was Katrina, the most visible glimpses of hope that I caught while watching the news coverage was the skillful and tireless efforts of coast-guard helicopters. I found interesting yet unsurprising that the media, which was eager to celebrate the efforts of police officers and fire-fighters after 9-11, seemed to give short shrift to the amazing rescues of the coast-guard. Somehow, even with tremendous competence at the local level surrounding, television cameras were more eager to broadcast scenes of chaotic disorder and misery.

The media’s myopia seems to have completely missed on the national guard’s efforts in coordinating rescue and evacuation efforts right in front of their noses at the Superdome. Dolinar’s article provides necessary details on these mostly non-reported efforts, whose success at maintaining a semblance of order helps explain how the rumors around what happened around the superdome were completely false. Beginning with the Indian Ocean tsunami a year and a half ago and then with the Pakistani earthquakes, it was clear that the armed forces could demonstrate not only that they can generally be a forced for good, but also a force that works. It is the only organization I have seen whose efficiency in managing through crises is unparalleled. After all, if you were one of the millions of unfortunate people afflicted by a civil war or an unmitigated natural disaster, which would you rather hope to have: the U.N. blue helmets or American officers?

The last institution I would ever rely on as a last resort is a bloated governmental bureaucracy. They have shown time and again how incapable they are in the face of emergencies or other tenuous situations. Whether it’s in the rebuilding of Iraqi infrastructure or the setting up of medical relief in far-flung places, organizations like USAID or the United Nations respond with near-scandalous lethargy and obscene financial profligacy. I find it difficult to recall when the contrary has ever taken place with such institutions. Even with large non-profits like the American Red Cross, I carry a sense of regret that I don’t have the option of donating directly to military efforts that are fare more potent in relieving crises. Sure I pay my taxes, but sometimes I think our armed forces have a lot more to show for their achievements in humanitarian relief than their share in government revenue. Considering the various things I pay for and support, I expect lots of waste by government that will fritter away the actual effectiveness of my monetary contribution.

But somehow I’m convinced that most taxpayers would gladly want more of their money frittered away by bureaucratic wastefulness and incompetence. After all, the general legislative response to intelligence failures such as 9-11 was to add a brand-new bureaucratic department under the guise of Homeland Security, coupled with several additional tiers of various directors of intelligence (which apparently contributed to an irresolvable inter-departmental turf battle that ousted CIA chief Porter Goss), and the massive nationalization of airport security that has failed to substantially improve passenger safety.

I’m afraid that if there was a mildly believable proposal to expand the powers of a government bureaucracy established to confront natural disasters, most voters would not hesitate to support it. All the while when there are clear examples of state-based institutions accomplishing far more with a more efficient use of resources. There’s no reason government bureaucracies could not adopt the mentality and tactics of the armed forces that enable better overall functioning. I for one would not bat an eye if our armed forces developed additional capacities that could eliminate the need for many of the government-run social and humanitarian agencies. Just cut one’s losses and ride the winning horse.

The media should not only report what fails, but also what succeeds. It maintains its critical stance to inform us why something has gone wrong. But the media should also inform us why something goes wright, so that its viewers will make more prudent decisions on how to government should spend their money. Otherwise our current disconnect between the problem and solution remains, deluding many of us to throw money at a problem with little consideration on actual effectiveness.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The “Da Vinci” Boon: Whatever Doesn’t Kill the Church Will Only Make it Stronger

For someone who fits the mold of the exact person to get irate about “The Da Vinci Code,” I find myself remarkably bored by the whole thing. As a person who loves order, who respects traditional Christian authorities, and who tends to lean on the truth as revealed throughout the ages, I am the perfect person to call for boycotts to this film. Yet, not only do I find myself unworried about it, I find the whole enterprise to be quite harmless.

That being said, I won’t support the movie, and I have encouraged others not to see it. I am a capitalist after all, and I try to put my money where my mouth is. I did read the book, so I am familiar with the arguments of the story, silly as they may be. But even if everyone I told not to see the film did, I wouldn’t feel betrayed, or even worried for several reasons. For one, from what I can tell from reviews, the book does not adapt well to the screen. The huge lumps in logic are great for reading on a rainy day; the suspension of disbelief is just easier in our imagination compared to a realization of it on film. It seems that all of a sudden, many critics realized how silly the storyline was after all once seeing it in "real life". Hence the reports of heckling. Given audience critiques are not much better, it seems many viewers agree.

Second, no amount of speculation, revision, or derision will kill the Church. I admit that “Da Vinci” and its fruits can have a harmful affect on the believer by producing seeds of doubt and mistrust in the Church. (The Church often does a good enough job of this on its own!) I recognize that when something is this culturally popular, it is easy to get swept away in its nonsense instead of wrapped up in historic wisdom. It can be a lot more comfortable for a short while, too. But “Da Vinci” is just another in a long line of heresies that traditionally have invigorated the Church and forced it to define itself over and against the culture time and time again. I might go so far as to say Dan Brown has done a certain amount of good for the Church, because this debate will help the Church define what it is.

Underlying all this is this point: the number of people who worship on Sunday morning, or even the number of people who would identify themselves as Christian is irrelevant when talking about the Church. The true Church is made up of those who believe, be it 100 people or 100 million people. (There always has been and always will be disputes about what exactly to believe, and here I’ll rely on the Apostles or Nicene Creeds.) The history of Christianity is full of moments when the wheat is separated from the chaff, and “Da Vinci” is just another moment in a long line of them that allows the Church to define itself even more loudly, and believers to stand out from the derision found in secular culture. If “Da Vinci” has a negative impact on the numbers of the faithful, it will be unfortunate, but the Church will go on.

This book and film are just another example of secular forces pushing historic Christianity to the margins, considering it antiquated and a harmful venture in mass deceit. Maybe it’s the Lutheran in me, but I see this as a net positive. Like recessions are good for economies from time to time, the Church needs to be reminded that we are not always welcome. The great mistake of the medieval Church was that it felt society should revolve around it, and made no distinctions between itself and the world. Thus, it became corrupt and has only itself to blame for Luther and all of his unintended consequences. The Church being pushed to the margins is nothing to fear from the Church’s viewpoint, because the Church will survive. It’s the world that will bear the costs.

Finally, Dan Brown is not the kryptonite, and the Church is not Superman. Rather, a better analogy might be Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man: the Church is perfectly symmetrical, bearing the promise of life in a dead world; it has a clear center in Christ; and the Church is the intersection of the material world with the spiritual, as Da Vinci’s square and circle represent.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Houston, We Don't Have a Problem

After New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, very few people could name America’s fourth most populated city. Houston is indeed a very large city, though it fails to possess any cultural cache like other major cities. It certainly doesn’t contain a stunning architectural heritage like New York or Chicago, nor does it generate an unmistakable cultural identity like Los Angeles. Houston thrives on unglamorous industries like energy, medicine and its port. It is relatively spread out, like most major cities in the South and West, with leafy suburban neighborhoods appearing not far from the downtown area itself. In addition, the roadways are extensive, at times appearing redundant with ramps to highway, toll ways and everything in between. Houston has a road budget equal to the larger states in the U.S. It is definitely not nearly as pedestrian friendly as many Northeastern cities.

What makes Houston unique is the fact there is next to no zoning. This lends an urban landscape of seemingly random towers intermingled with small apartment blocks, sprawling mansions, and working class cottages in one big jumble. It is possible to have the shadow of a thirty-story tower over your private back yard. It also contributes to an initial sense of confusion to newcomers, not knowing which cluster of towers is downtown, since its Medical district and swank up-town at the outskirts of the city feature impressive high-rises of their own. And yet, as soon as you can identify where downtown is, navigating oneself in the Houston is quite easy since tall landmarks that dot the city’s vast expanse are visible from any street several miles away. For example, if you spot a twin set of towers that resemble big syringes, then that marks the Medical City (which is undoubtedly the most impressive self-contained medical complex in the world). If you see Philip Johnson’s lone sixty-story crystalline tower with a revolving spotlight (at night), then you have located the Galleria district, with its extensive shopping mall surrounded by offices and hotels, along with high end condominiums for the city’s young urban professionals. Houston’s central business district is punctuated by Philip Johnson’s post-modern design experiments, sheathed in elegant curtain wall glass. (actually, Houston was truly the great architect’s little playground, as his designs large and small are everywhere…)

My home city of Dallas is similar to its bigger brother in many respects, possessing similar looking districts, complete with a Galleria and Medical City. And yet, Dallas is far more carefully zoned, with uses quite clearly defined that results in a more identifiable urban pattern. Uptown is close to an unmistakably unique downtown skyline, surrounded by an interrupted sea of suburban style neighborhoods, broken up by carefully located commercial strip shopping centers. There are no random towers punctuating the landscape, as they are mostly relegated along the major exrpressways and are limited in height. Any visible cluster of towers seen from far away indicates the central business districts of surrounding municipalities. And yet I’ve been told that Houstonians pay attention to any major developments going on in its slightly smaller rival in North Texas. If Dallas gets an award-winning concert hall, then Houston has to match it; if nearby Fort Worth has Louis Kahn’s Kimbel Museum, then Houston catches up with Renzo Piano’s Menil Museum, only for Dallas to hire the same architect for its new Sculpture museum. Not long after Dallas established a major light-rail system for itself did Houston introduce its own line, with more futuristic-looking trains.

And yet, I find Houston a far more interesting and lively city. The very fact that it lacks the kind zoning that gives Dallas its visual consistency in turn creates a more dynamic and diverse environment. Driving along Houston’s streets presents itself with unexpected surprises, where within a mile one can pass by luxurious storefronts, a quiet leafy neighborhood, alterna-grunge restaurants, a stark office high-rise, a university campus, and an ethnic grocery store. The Menil museum finds itself not in an arts precinct notorious for their deadness throughout the day, but in the middle of a neighborhood of middle-class cottage houses. NIMBYism is sort of a foreign concept in Houston, in that choosing to live in the city requires that anything can happen near your back yard. If you don’t like it this way, there are numerous outlying suburbs. And even then, some suburbs have a particular character of their own, showcasing huge immigrant populations from around the world. The Houston area, like its three larger rivals, is a major destination for immigrants. It succeeds in assimilating immigrants quite well, and provides a comparably flexible environment in which to start up a business. Housing is affordable, taxes are minimal and the job-market is plentiful for any newcomer to get started. Houston seems a bit more entrepreneurial than my hometown by simply noticing that chain stores seem to compete with a large number of family-operated outfits, selling goods from many old low-rent buildings.

What this urban messiness gives is a particular identity with which Houstonians should proudly associate. It is very tolerant place, where homeowners are for the most part free to build whatever house they would like on their plot without having to worry about what the neighbors think. The restaurants feature an impressive culinary variety, and cater to all classes and lifestyles. Certain parts of Houston remind me of the laid-back streets of Austin, with its bohemian establishments and its heterogeneous assortment of buildings along the street. Yet Houston, by its large size and international significance, is far more ethnically mixed than Austin could ever be (which for all of its liberal pretense is probably the most segregated city in the state). Houston is particularly capable of absorbing strangers, as the events following Hurricane Katrina attest. Nearly a quarter of a million evacuees sought refuge in Houston, and citizens pulled together the resources to accommodate them. It proved that the city could be mobilized as a whole despite its sprawling nature.

Houston will never be regarded as a picturesque destination for tourists. It is not beautiful in any traditional sense, even as it contains very attractive and scenic corners here and there. Its very existence is the antithesis to good urban planning. When I reviewed the architectural journals coming from the city’s architecture schools several years ago, a frequent point of departure in the articles was that Houston was a problem that desperately needed to be solved. There was no efficient public transportation, no significant historic districts nor a coherent unified system of parks and indeed no visual harmony. What these journals seemed to ignore was the reality that is Houston: an agglomeration of urban villages governed by an amiable laissez-faire ethos and an ever-changing ethno-cultural makeup. And it all somehow works. It shows no hesitation to remake its landscape, whether by expanding roadways or inserting towers regardless of what views have been eliminated. Its narrower network of artery roads (with only four lanes compared to the typically six lanes in Dallas), do not abet the smooth flow of traffic, but it provides a more comfortable and intimate scale of for its streetscapes. Architectural styles are less conformist, too, and therefore it is easier to find true gems along any street, none of which impose a uniformity of style common in the most picturesque of cities. It is this very disorderly quality that makes this city quite stimulating for me. I wouldn’t mind living there, but the humidity is pretty thick in the air there.

A longtime immigrant resident of Houston admitted to me that her home is truly a city without a memory. Its people thus live for the sake of building a future.

Monday, May 15, 2006

What Many Rightly Think of the Church: It’s Self-Help in the Language of God

Dovetailing corbrusier’s post below about our culture of self-esteem, I can’t help but chime in on the embarrassment I feel when I hear what popular preachers are saying. The culture of self-esteem has so engrained our language that many in the church have adopted it as the gospel itself, disguising the power of faith in the “power of positive thinking.” It embarrasses me because these preachers do not see the way they are spreading a false gospel, and furthering the myth that we can achieve salvation or joy on our own. In short, they spread completely secular ideas couched in enough “religious” language to “legitimize” it. It’s sickening.

Being a Protestant, I can’t help but sympathize when Catholics lump all Protestants into the camp of the televangelists like Joel Osteen, Bishop TD Jakes or Harvest Church’s Rod Parsley. Many Catholics I know just assume that if you’re not Catholic, you attend a mega-church, consider the sacraments optional, and preach a self-esteem mantra instead of Paul’s message of “Christ crucified.” Paul wasn’t well-received by the Corinthians when he spoke this particular gospel, and undoubtedly if the preachers of today spoke as much about what we could do for Jesus instead of what he can do for us, they would be just as poorly received.

And I’m not saying Catholics get it right all the time either (who am I to say who gets it right?). Catholics invented the polka mass after all. But the Roman Church has a better, and more unified understanding of the role of the church in the world. Do we hear Pope Benedict XVI speak of self-esteem? No, he’s too busy speaking about the role of the church in destroying the “dictatorship of relativism.” Do we hear the Roman Church preach on relationships and self-image problems? I haven’t, but I generally hear them preach on the appointed texts.

What’s really interesting to me is not just that so many pastors have adopted the self-esteem gospel, but how much pastors and secular self-esteem icons are starting to resemble one another. The pictures above make it clear that Oprah and Joel Osteen’s messages are essentially the same. But pastors are not only becoming self-esteem boosters, Oprah is apparently heading up a religion these days. Consider these quotes from a recent USA Today article on the religion of Oprah:

"Oprah Winfrey has risen to a new level of guru. She's no longer just a successful talk-show host worth $1.4 billion. Over the past year, Winfrey, 52, has emerged as a spiritual leader for the new millennium, a moral voice of authority for the nation."

“Love her or loathe her…Winfrey reaches more people in a TV day than most preachers can hope to reach in a lifetime of sermons.”

“In a November poll conducted at Beliefnet.com, a site that looks at how religions and spirituality intersect with popular culture, 33% of 6,600 respondents said Winfrey has had "a more profound impact" on their spiritual lives than their clergypersons.”

What we get from this confusion of roles in culture is a tragic dilution of the truth, a distortion of the gospel, and a weakening of the Word of God that, by the way, holds far more power than helping us feel good about ourselves. I have already written that I think self-help leads to self-hate because it leads us down a narcissistic road that is ultimately futile. But the USA Today article along with corbrusier’s piece gets to the core of the limitations of the self-help movement: it has turned us into 30-year-old children who look for God, the government, or society -at-large to be our sugar daddy.

A final irritation: Osteen (and his cronies) and Oprah have the luxury of preaching their gospel of self-esteem without doing any work in the trenches. They can seem to hold all the answers for self-fulfillment, but when their answers reach their inevitable dead end, who is there to clean up their mess? If those who are broken because of their futility (a condition we all must admit eventually) even know where to turn, an entirely different theology will have to be presented, one based on the real human condition of sin, and one that does not make easy promises. I wonder if after years of the self-esteem gospel, they will want to hear it?

Looking back on Billy Graham’s sermons, we should be careful to never lump today’s self-help pastors with him. He preached very biblical sermons, made explicit reference to Jesus Christ, distinguished law and gospel, and was never afraid to speak of our brokenness and weakness as a fallen humanity. He had a different luxury from today’s self-esteem preachers: he did not have to maintain a congregation, and the bulk of his sermons are aimed at getting non-believers to believe, not to maintain a life of faith. But Osteen, and even Oprah, are not the descendents of famous preachers like Billy Graham. They are thieves in the night, wolves in sheep’s clothing, inventors of an entirely new, and utterly false gospel.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Some Misanthropic Thoughts

The current media unrest brought about by the rising cost of gasoline painfully reminds me how many Americans are willing to whine about anything they don’t like. We pretend that Americans in general are rugged individualists, who eschew government intervention in favor of private initiative and gumption. Somehow, it seems that the more prosperous we become the more frequent we whine over the smallest things. It’s already widely agreed that as a society grows wealthier, the experience of depression and other kinds of mental illness become more frequent.

Along with this development, I sense that our prosperity leads us to lose perspective on what is truly important. I’m not necessarily referring to the common critique against the corrupting effect mass consumption and materialism has on the individual soul. Rather I find that richer we all get, the less intellectually responsible we become. Somehow we forego the exercise of really thinking through what we believe and why we believe, and how it connects to how the world works. We become lazy in evaluating cause and effect, how a decision made earlier will affect the outcome later. Thus we have no trouble in articulating what we’re for, but few of us are capable of explaining what should precisely happen when we implement our desires. This disconnect infers the Law of Unintended Consequences, where certain unforeseen results discredit a policy’s intentions. Why do these things happen?

Because taking responsibility for your positions is a lot of work and fraught with the fear of being proven wrong, one the most terrible things to happen to a person raised in a culture of self-esteem. As our concerns turn from matters of self-preservation and survival, which were very real to all generations born before Baby Boomers, we younger generations have had the luxury (or dread) to focus on our own emotions and psychological needs. The cult of self-esteem is an inevitable result of this introspective shift, one that has had the side affect of valuing knowledge as it pertains emotional needs.

The survivalist mentality of prior generations required a sense of perspective of the world around, as one needed to cooperate with others to get the things one needed to survive on, from food and shelter, to the emotional support of the community. Most people then were too busy worrying about their next meal to instead wallow in isolation meditating on what one’s purpose of life should be and who one was as a special individual. Transcending self-preservation has unfortunately not freed many of us to seek knowledge about the outside world leisurely. Rather, we become more obsessed about our inner world while we cut ourselves off from understanding how we fit with the world at large.

This isn’t to argue that most people in the distant past were more informed about the world beyond than we are today but I get the sense that to be ‘worldly’ was an aspiration to all who could. Nowadays the desire to know about how the outside world works is seen as un-necessary if it doesn’t relate to one’s job. To educate oneself about irrelevant subjects is seen as being a geek or unnecessarily wonkish, and much suspicion is made of dilettantes. But somehow, there is no limit to how much one should contemplate about feelings, relationships, and determining what makes one happy.

If there is any knowledge about things beyond one’s private life, it’s often
celebrity gossip, which conveniently serves a mirror to the concerns and interpersonal squabbles that consume most people. Celebrities’ flaws and personal tribulations are frequently identified and compared to by people everywhere, as if one’s sense of worth is determined how much better off they are compared to someone who is much more famous. Call me strange but I find few people that I can identify with in terms of personality and behavior. Somehow I prefer to understand the ways I fit into a broader system of relationships, whether by politics, economics, or history. Probing my connection to the various mechanisms that govern the outside world I live in is a lifelong endeavor. Meditating introspectively arrives quickly to a dead end and bores me as a result. Like Relievedebtor, I’m not terribly interested in what Self-Help authors have to say and Oprah and Dr. Phil seem to rehash simple truism about finding happiness in life it feels like a waste of time.

I know there will be few takers to my suggestion, but I wonder how many people will achieve greater personal contentment by embarking exploring history, economics, philosophy, the cosmos, or even general sciences for laymen like basics geology, astronomy, or ecology. My suggestion relates to the common advice of taking up a hobby to relieve boredom. But it entails a bit more than creating or collecting something of delight. It demands one to develop confidence in dealing with outside forces that will affect his or her life and to distinguish what information is important and which reaction is appropriate or not.

When I see how our politicians in both major parties stoke emotional reactions towards the high price of gasoline, I realize it’s only natural since their constituencies seem to respond in the same way. Whining, which is now considered a healthy way of letting go of one’s bottled up frustrations, has now become a trigger response to anything that doesn’t go our way, whether it’s gas prices, the state of the Iraq war, or on own economic well-being.

Whining is a self-centered activity, in which the whiner casts him or herself as the victim or makes victims out of others to assuage one’s own guilt on an issue. This self-centeredness often blocks one’s attempts in understanding issues abstractly, apart from one’s own personal experience with the issue at hand. For example, instead of finding out how gas prices (or prices of any commodity) are determined, many Americans have the propensity to first complain that gas is unjustly priced, and quickly assume that prices are arbitrarily created in order to make you a victim.

I notice that beliefs in conspiracies has a lot to do with an emotional perspective on a problem, where it isn’t about random cause and effect as it is about arraying a system to precisely cause hurt and pain to others. Somehow the oil companies go out of their way make life as difficult as possible to its customers for the simple fact that oilmen are nasty good ol’ boys. I’m struck by how little is said about the huge number of individuals, each with their own values, hopes and fears, who work for these oil companies for their livelihood, and who simply want to do the best job they can regardless of what market prices are for gasoline. These people don’t work monolithically for a common corporate purpose to simply screw as many customers as possible.

Whining also implies a person’s sense of entitlement. Victims naturally require some form of restitution. Thus if one complains that high gas prices are unfair, it follows that he or she is entitled to better prices by virtue that he is less able to consume as much gas as he used to. I suspect such feeling of being ‘owed’ something is tied to high self-esteem, that you matter to such a high degree that open dynamic phenomena like economic cycles, prices, and even the weather should somehow make a special effort fit your needs. Thus one is so self-absorbed in trying to soothingly explain how a problem affects them personally that they fail to actually identify the problem by itself, and neglect to figure out rational solutions over useless emotional band-aids. The current rhetoric on all sides regarding gas prices is embarrassingly vacuous, each political pitch designed to exacerbate emotional tensions in the public, with little mention of the way gasoline is made where the price comes from.

But what can I expect when knowledge in basic macro and micro-economics and civics is woefully missing among the majority of Americans? The ignorance supposedly ‘educated’ young people of the way the broader world works is staggering. They can’t find Afghanistan on a map nor can they explain the concept of supply and demand, but they sure can tell you all about how great they feel, what they own, and numerous ways to spice up one’s sex life.

The most dangerous thing about whining is that it is infantile. Children, having no ability to solve problems, only know that complaining or crying will somehow change the situation for the better. When adults whine, they too are incapable of solving a problem realistically, but yet know that by doing something, even if it isn’t evident that such a thing will work, is better than doing nothing at all. Children have the excuse of not having yet the cognition to understanding why something is wrong, but adults do not. Children put all of their trust in an authority figure (their parent) to sort out the problem for them. Should infantile adults do likewise with their political leaders in the face of serious problems? After all, dictatorships often consist of a political authority treating their subjects as children, complete with privileges that can be arbitrarily taken away and the main decisions of your life being made by the care-taker government with little personal involvement. Dictatorships thrive more on people’s emotions than on their intellectual sophistication. I fear that the emphasis on emotional well-being in our culture bodes ill to our ability to make prudent decisions in the future on the job of governing.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

We Can’t Handle the Truth

When Jack Nicholson yelled “You can’t handle the truth!” to a feckless attorney played by Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men,” he was essentially playing a straw man who represented everything wrong with the US military: it was run by a good ol’ boy posse intent on undermining the law, and it played by its own rules, which included torture and murder. Nicholson’s Col. Nathan Jessep was a man not in tune with modern notions of justice, and the consequence was a burst of his own truth that reflected what he had noticed for some time, but could never say. But what if Jessep, though no role model for morality, instinctively saw a weakness in the affluent American mentality, a weakness that could not handle, and would not accept the truth?

When I hear the way politicians pander to voters, I hear them coddling the soft underbelly of America that must live lives in avoidance of the truth. What are the truths politicians/the media can no longer talk about without fear of reprisal from a spoiled electorate/consumers? Here are the biggest:

1. War is messy. Victor Davis Hanson has already said what needs to be said on this. He points out that we expect a perfect War on Terror, a war without casualties, without bad decisions, without repercussions. This desire for a “clean” war flies in the face of both logic and history. Because we can’t handle the truth that war is messy, we are compromised in how we fight it, more as police action than war. If we can’t handle that war is messy, we will make it longer than necessary.

2. That our lifestyles may have to change as the world advances. The good news is that the world is advancing, that fewer people live in hunger and poverty, and the standard of living is generally on the rise throughout the world. The bad news is that there will be some temporary costs to the United States, mainly in the way of energy prices, but also in trade deficits to communist China. It is clearly possible that our standard of living can rise simultaneously as the world’s standard of living rises, but it may rise at a slower rate. That we can’t handle this truth is most easily seen in politician’s lame attempts to pander to our fears that gas prices are up for good. No amount of pandering will change supply and demand rules of economics, and it’s time we face that our lifestyles will likely change as the world advances.

3. That we are a sovereign nation, whose responsibilities lie to our citizens first and foremost. Because politicians spend all of their waking hours figuring out ways to secure votes, it is hard for them to admit that their first obligation is to citizens who already vote, not people who work here illegally who may vote in the future. So the admission that we are a sovereign nation that owns the right to tell people who is allowed in and who must leave immediately never seems to interest politicians. Yet, they are elected! The truth is that America has the right to defend itself from terrorists, from people working here illegally, even from a Martian invasion. Can Congress handle that?

4. That public charity doesn’t work doesn’t work as well as intended. It should be obvious that after billions (if not trillions) of dollars spent on public charity, the poverty rate is virtually unchanged since the mid-1970s. Worse, it has made dependence on public charity a way of life for too many. Yet, we seem incapable of handling that truth and changing the system. This Jessep guy is sounding more dead-on all the time.

5. That public education doesn’t work as well as intended. If it did, the rest of these truths would be easy to handle. We would know military history, so we wouldn’t expect our current war to be perfect. We would know basic economics and would understand why gas prices are high. We would understand fundamentally what a “right” is, and would be familiar enough with the constitution to know that we can defend our borders. And our ethics teaching would be good enough to teach us how dehumanizing public charity has become in America. But instead of reforming public education, we subsidize it even more. We can’t handle the truth about public education either.

Fortunately, the blogosphere is like mental barbells. Given the conservative backlash over President Bush’s and the “conservative” Congress’s political calculations, the conservative movement is showing itself more capable of handling the truth, much more so than its elected representatives. Maybe it’s time we consider that Colonel Jessep was right: we can’t handle the truth. But in time, with a little more education, we’ll be able to handle it, and even thrive living by it.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Will We Ever Be a Colorblind Society?

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Well, it was a nice dream while it lasted. Back here in Awake Land, I wish I could just love people for who they are, and the color of their skin wasn’t thrust upon me when I wasn’t worried about it to begin with. A confluence of events have made me realize that the issue of race is still volatile in America for all the wrong reasons, and perpetuated by those who are hurt most by it remaining volatile.

First, there was an anchorwoman for Channel 2 in Chicago who accused a reputable contracting company for doing “shoddy” work, simply because she was black. There is no proof that the contractors are racist; it is an accusation that was made because it can be. It’s not the first time this reporter has made such accusations, and given her high-profile persona, it strikes me as highly irresponsible if no proof can be offered. The real damage of these sorts of accusations are twofold: it forces us to look at people only by the color of their skin, and because these character assaults require no proof, the reputation of the contractor is instantly stained through no fault of his own.

Second is the continued immigration rallies, which I understand aren’t supposed to be about race as such, but the issue bubbles just beneath the situation. Unlike the crystal clear race issues of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, the immigration debate isn’t about race. But for those who don’t support the marcher’s political aims, it has been hard to distinguish their political goals from their ethnicity. And to those who oppose the political objectives of the marchers, the ethnicity of the marchers is of no consequence; but it seems that we can no longer ignore it.

The hoisting of Mexican flags is a right I grant to them all, but it focuses the attention to be on cultural and ethnic divisions as much if not more than political goals of the marchers. So honest debate about serious immigration issues is tarnished from the beginning, because the compulsion by the marchers to force outsiders to see them for their ethnicity as much as their policy needs has made a colorblind debate all but impossible. It has forced those who oppose illegal immigration to sound as though they are opposed to Mexicans or South Americans (or any ethnicity marching for that matter) more than policy changes. This is simply not the case, and it could set the stage for future unrest.

And then there is, of course, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, whose “chocolate city” quip single-handedly made an entire speech (and an entire agenda) about solely the color of someone’s skin, not the content of their character. Far be it from him to encourage all qualified people to return to the port city to rebuild it! No, this was about race and nothing more. And what was the result? White backlash that is both unfortunate and preventable. Backlash in the form of bumper stickers, racial defensiveness, and resentment. Backlash that was encouraged by forcing people who are willing to ignore racial differences and get on with life.

And this purposefully race-filled rhetoric is still going on despite a middle class with more and more minorities participating in the growing economy. I guess my question is, what can I do to encourage people to stop forcing me to view them in a way I do not want to? I do not want to only view people by the color of their skin, so what can I do to end the rhetoric about race in America?

For now, I’m disappointed. I wish we could all, white, black, and brown could take Dr. King's advice.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Jane Jacobs and The Difficulty of City Planning

A major figure in the history of urban planning passed away last week, one who single-handedly challenged and brought down the orthodoxy of her day. Jane Jacobs, who rose to fame with her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, unflinchingly pointed to the mistaken assumptions that led designers to create dreadful crime-ridden super-blocks under the rubric “urban renewal”. In our current obsession to preserve as much historic urban fabric as possible, even to re-create it from scratch in some places, it is difficult to understand that throughout most of the twentieth, improving a city meant to demolish the old and replace with newer, supposedly more enlightened, public projects. Le Corbusier was among the biggest champions of such a view, and is frequently cited as the guiding influence for numerous faceless modernist urban blocks throughout the world. Nowadays, to improve the city is to restore the elements that once made urban life enjoyable, emphasizing sidewalks, mixed-uses and preserving the character of old neighborhoods.

Such a changed consensus on planning is largely due to Jacobs’ firm stance, who as an outsider to architectural planning circles and no academic herself. She steadfastly took apart principles that guided the practice of urban design since the late nineteenth century while proposing more workable solutions without even needing to graphically illustrate them. This was contrary to the traditional evolution of architecture, which consisted usually a graphic proposal followed by a graphic response. This explains why pattern books and monographs were crucial in the popularization of new styles of architecture. Part of the reason Le Corbusier’s ideas for the “Radiant City” were so popular was due to his clean and dream-like renderings. Jacobs did not respond by proposing a new architectural order, but by teaching us to think about urban problems as they actually to happen, not as the result of some abstract excuse like ‘poverty’ or ‘discrimination’.

And that is actually one of the most striking things about Jacobs’ book: she refutes the planners--a group that communicates strictly in forms and patterns--by using her knowledge sociology and daily human interactions without ever discussing in terms of architectural form or styles. She reveals a common flaw among all designers of habitable environment: that often they are driven by notions of how things ‘should’ work rather than finding how things actually work. A designer will claim that by putting a park here, a shopping strip there, and so much housing nearby, that an area will be filled with joyous crowds and that the neighborhood will rejuvenate by virtue of thoughtful design. After all, a drawn plan is essentially graphic depiction of how an organization of spaces ‘should’ work. The problem with this approach to solving urban problems is that it simplifies the way humans interact with their environment and with each other.

There are countless reasons why people do the things they do, many on a purely irrational basis. Dallas’s West End features charming historic architecture, manicured pedestrian zones, excellent public transit access, and a historic museum that draws many tourists. And still on any given day, you will find many times more people inside a gargantuan blue and yellow box surrounded by a sea of parking next to an unfinished highway. Why would they rather be in the latter situation? Because people have developed an inexplicable, and thus irrational, loyalty to the IKEA brand. A designer can only at best guess where people are likely to congregate, but much of the success of a development relies on understanding the reality beyond the drawings. The nature of particular businesses, the habits of certain social classes, and the informal systems of ensuring security and social trust will be more critical to the success of creating lively public spaces than the design. Still, Jacobs understand that design matters in facilitating the social mechanisms needed for success. Rather than being prescriptive, she favors restrictions on certain architectural tendencies that destroy fundamental human relationships.

Other writers have labeled Jane Jacobs as a libertarian, and I can see why that is so. If one reads libertarian publications, particularly like Reason Magazine, you will find that much of their writing focuses on issues at a very intimate yet practical level. Jacobs, who based all of her research on her own personal observations and conversations with others (she rarely cites any outside sources), is able to present a mundane yet revealing perspective on the various ways people behave and relate. Libertarians often propose original solutions to problems by discarding idealistic values in favor purely pragmatic ones. Their beliefs on general philosophy and political theory are simple and consistent, which allows them complete freedom to consider alternatives that may upset most people’s moral instincts. Whether it is the complete legalization of drugs to the dismantling of the welfare state, libertarians are not afraid to question and propose our most cherished assumptions about how to improve our lives. Jacobs ascribes no intrinsic value to open space and parks, since they are dependent on surrounding social factors. And she definitely ascribes little value building as a way to solve social problems, similar to the closely held libertarian belief that it is futile to throw more money at a problem if its diagnosis is flawed.

Jacobs’ main contribution to urban studies is the realization that cities are more about the people that populate the city than it is about its physical forms and structures. They are a dynamic confluence of culture, commerce, leisure and individuals making countless decisions that affect how urban spaces are inhabited. It’s a messier state of affairs than what an elegant master-plan describes, and often the outcomes of what happens to an area has more to do with factors outside the realm of design, such as poor law-enforcement, the macro-economic context or punitive taxation. With all these considerations, it’s no wonder that the practice of urban design could be considered too confined by abstraction. One studio I took at school entailed the master-planning of an existing European city. The recommended strategy at the time was to map prevailing existing patterns found in the surrounding urban fabric, to overlap these patterns on top of each other in order to ascertain evident graphical densities that would influence new urban forms. This process was fun and fascinating, but it was all so abstract that it instilled a feeling of uneasiness in me when thinking about how the actual inhabitants would perceive my ambitious construct. To defend my scheme, I came up with all sorts of rationalizations of why I zoned particular functions in certain areas and why it was a good idea to put a park that space but not in that one. In the end it was a lot of wishful thinking, but the renderings were seductive enough to receive favorable reviews.

Still planning is a noble pursuit, since a certain amount of visual consistency and order gives a city a useful legibility that makes its inhabitants comfortable. And despite the relative dearth of information an urban master-plan provides compared to the reams of construction documents for single buildings, urban design is considerable intellectual undertaking. It isn’t enough to follow rules of thumb in design, which are often abstract tools. It also requires a deeper understanding what people are really like.

Lack of Geographical Knowledge and Low Support for War No Coincidence

I am neither a political scientist nor a geographer, so I am perfectly qualified to link the following recent news: publicly educated children can’t find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map, and support for the war in Iraq is waning. Hmmm, see the connection? Even a layman like myself can see by only reading the highlights of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comments that surrounding Iran with democracies is a good thing. Could anyone possibly doubt that Iran having nuclear weapons is the biggest possible danger the world faces, given its President’s recent comments, its lack of moral constraints, and its sponsorship of international terrorism?

Since the best reasons for the War on Terror have always been to de-stablize the region (yes, this is a good thing when madmen have control over millions), promote democracy in a theocratic world, and discourage Iranian fanaticism, the war is not without solid logical foundations, though war is never a qualitatively good thing by any measure. These foundations bear themselves out clearly when one knows the simple geography of the region: Iraq on the west of Iran, Afghanistan on the east.

If it is true that Iran has been a ticking time bomb for every administration since Carter’s, every president has likely been waiting for the opportunity and the justification to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, if for no other reason, to surround Iran. Forget “blood for oil,” WMDs, or even the truly good reasons to invade both struggling countries. Geography is enough justification as far as I’m concerned, given that Iran is the gravest threat out there, and 9/11 provided all the justification we needed to establish bases around Iran.

So why is support for the War on Terror waning? Well, it seems most American children, and I would imagine even more of their parents (since they haven’t even been to school in 2 decades) don’t understand that Iran is surrounded by Iraq and Afghanistan! If they don’t even know where these countries are, how they understand the very basic strategic advantage of having Iran surrounded?

In the clearest English I can muster, suppose you’re a psychic police captain, and you know at 4:00 today a bank will be robbed by a madman with a gun, who will kill every teller and customer without hesitation. Would you rather have the place surrounded by 3:00, or wait until the alarm sounds from the bank after everyone is already dead to respond? Of course, you (being the savvy police captain that you are) want to have the place surrounded clearly and loudly, so that the madman will never rob the bank to begin with, or if he does, he will be quickly overwhelmed. Iran is the bank robber, America is the police captain, and it doesn’t take a psychic to know that Ahmadinejad is spoiling to kill as many Israelites and Israelite sympathizers he can find. If we had moderate geography skills, this would be as plain to us as killing Jews is to Iran’s president, and support for the War on Terror would undoubtedly be higher.