Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Growing Into Anonymity

As the resident non-architect to blog on a site about architecture, I thought I owed it to myself to read The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s description of the ideal man, uncompromising architect Howard Roark. While I am not yet finished, I can say I’ve had a different reaction to this book than Atlas Shrugged, mainly in that I see more clearly the deficiencies of Ayn Rand’s philosophy and writing. The book has also caused me to reflect on what it is to grow older and grow into a profession, all the while contrasting what I have become with what I hoped to become in my younger years. As I age, I understand better that while the world was once my oyster, I am now becoming just one of many. Instead of growing into fame, power, or notoriety, I, and most of my generation, are growing into anonymity. I wonder, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

One of the facts that contrasts this growth into anonymity is the celebrity culture that seems to have no bounds. The notion of 15-minutes of fame seems to be a reality with blogs, YouTube, reality television, all of which tempt us to think we may be the next great contributor to our profession, pop culture, or society at large. In fact, what has happened with the proliferation of media is that anyone’s odds of standing out for longer than a few minutes in anyone else’s conscious have dropped considerably. While there are more opportunities to escape anonymity than ever, actually escaping it requires besting scores more competition. So it seems we’re stuck, anonymous and wondering when our time will come. And to some, this anonymity can be a crushing weight of perceived meaninglessness, and leave them wondering what their purpose was. The disillusionment of anonymity is one of the reasons for the wild success of The Purpose Driven Life.

As it turns out, the Christian take on all this is that anonymity is not necessarily such a bad thing. In fact, it’s practically a virtue. Over and over Jesus instructs his followers that becoming the least is our path to exaltation, and denying ourselves is preferred to worshiping ourselves. (Ayn Rand obviously has a different take, advocating man worship in no uncertain terms.) Other secularists would claim that this is the way religion controls people, by convincing them to become nothing so that someone else may control them. While this is undoubtedly true for many cults and dangerous sects of all religions, I don’t think this is at the heart of Christianity. From the Christian viewpoint, growing into anonymity simply puts us where we need to be: as creations of God worshiping our creator.

This is not an easy thing to accept in a culture that rewards those who stand out, even for Christians. Unlike the Soviet Union of Rand’s youth, America is home to constant temptation to shirk anonymity, to “make a name for yourself,” to become something special. Even in niche fields where the opportunities for fame are miniscule, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that within everyone, there is a desire to stand out, even if only by having the widest read blog in your field. But these wonderful motivators in youth can be difficult to lose in adulthood. How does one deal with the fact that he/she will not be “the great man,” or that he will not achieve fame?

It is here I would have to come back to faith. While the meek certainly inherit the earth, Christianity absolutely does not (as socialism does) lump all humans together as cogs in a wheel. In fact, Jesus’ healing ministry to those in the most need (Mark 5 about the demoniac is one of my favorite stories) suggests that God cares very deeply about humanity on a personal and individual basis, assuming you believe that Jesus was divine. God’s words to Jeremiah are often used in the pro-life debate, but I use them here to suggest the way we may remember we are more than one of many; we are one full person in the eyes of God, and it is from this place we may find our full identity: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”

My understanding of the mid-life crisis is that middle age allows man to reflect on his place in the world, wanting to know if he has made a mark. Ayn Rand can project her ideal man easily enough in a work of fiction; for the rest of us, we have to be content knowing that yes, our anonymity is a difficult thing to accept. But if we accept that our anonymity on earth is actually not a reflection of the way God knows us, perhaps it is a little easier to take. This is not a panacea; it is a reality of the spiritual life.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Truth About 15-Minute Meals: They Stink

I realize this may seem to be a bit of a departure from A&M’s usual fare, pardon the pun. We usually prefer to dabble in architecture (obviously), politics, religion and culture at large. Food, however, is something we all have in common, and the “Food Movement” in the culture, be it the “quick meal” phenom, or the rise in restaurants everywhere, that bears brief comment on. From the popularity of food television programming to the plethora of quick meal advice and recipes, there is no shortage of help for the good and bad in, or new to, the kitchen. But something has been lost in this movement to appeal to busy soccer moms and domestic dads: what makes good food good.

Cookbooks are, of course, nothing new. Even my grandparents, cookers of consistently excellent food for years, owned several and referenced them often. Any great cook steals from great cookbooks of years gone by. The trend now, however, is towards quick meals, be they 15- or 30-minute meals. (Someone recently gave me an old Julia Childs cookbook, and some of the recipes are 5 pages long. That book probably wouldn’t even get published today – too long, too complicated, and not user-friendly enough.) Besides the fact that these minute amounts are not entirely accurate when you consider everything that goes into cooking a meal besides cook time, can really good food be cooked in such a short amount of time by the lay chef? What most of the meals seem to do is take your basic meat, starch, vegetable combination, add a few spices, and call it a meal.

Certainly, most of the time, that’s a fine meal. But what makes good food good is time. Gone are the days where busy Americans have hours to watch a stew, or spend time with 10 or more ingredients. What used to be prized, slow-cooked food that allowed ingredients to marry, is gone in favor of what can be grilled, blanched or microwaved in 10-minutes or less and still be edible. And, there are is also the reality of duel-income families, so there is admittedly less household time to cook. When time in the house got short, an emphasis on good food was one of the first casualties. Hence, the rise in two industries: the restaurant business, and the “quick meal” section of the cookbook aisle.

Perhaps I’m nostalgic, but to me, we really lose something when we don’t bother spending time with meals. First, we lose the appreciation of different flavors converging, as they might in a stew, gumbo (I am from Louisiana, after all), or even comfort food like chili or enchiladas. Only when food is allowed to take time do the natural wonders seep out. Second, there is a lot of conversation lost. It seems that if meals have to be made quickly, then they have to be eaten quickly as well. Thus, the common family time, the meal, is limited. Food that takes time allows for conversation, most of it probably frivolous, but important nonetheless. Children hovering around a pot waiting for the soup to finish, or (heaven forbid) helping to wash fresh lettuce is a unique way families can relate to one another. And with food we are willing to take our time with, we get the benefit of using real ingredients. For example, if you look at the two main ingredients in a store-bought Italian salad dressing, you will see that they are not olive oil and vinegar, as you might have guessed. They are water and corn syrup. Is that what we really want to eat?

This is not, by the way, a critique of “fast food,” the McDonald’s of the world, or even quick meals. Because of the pace of life, we all need 15-minute meals from time to time. But I am an apologist for good food, no matter the cost or the time. We lose something when we refuse to spend time with food. Aesthetically, we lose a reminder of natural beauty when our senses aren’t involved with food. Culturally, we lose the communal aspect of both cooking and eating together. I guess you could say I’m not someone who eats to live. I live to eat. Yum.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Traffic Jams: A Sign of a Prosperous and Free Society?

Thinking about corbrusier’s recent post, I have been considering again, and trying not to take it for granted, what it means to live in a free society. I certainly agree that America’s prestige and affluence have made it all that much harder for us to understand what it is to live under anything from our historically ideal conditions. Indeed, one could very well make the case that we are so unable to imagine what our lives could be like if we shared such a tyrannical government, that we have become completely spoiled. So spoiled, in fact, that as a nation, we may end up rotting from the inside out well before an outside force overtakes us. (Or perhaps the two will work together.) But whatever America’s moral flaws may be, I’ll save that for another post. I am more interested in trying to respect (literally, to see again) what a society that values life and the rule of law looks like, in opposition to a totalitarian society that we find hard to imagine.

So naturally, as I was listening to Chicago’s traffic reports yesterday morning, it struck me that traffic jams may be a wonderful barometer of a nation’s health. For example, this morning, the outbound Kennedy was jam-packed because a traffic accident, and its ensuing police investigation, blocked traffic to all but one lane. No doubt, all the rubber-necking slowed it down even more. I instantly had the same reaction commuters have to such news: because of one bad driver, thousands of others will needlessly be stuck in rush hour traffic for a very long time. Ah, the injustice of it all! But further reflection got me to thinking that maybe this was, in fact, a perfect representation of justice, of respect for human life, of putting rule of law that protects all people equally into action.

What does it say about a society that is willing to displace thousands of commuters for the health, either physical or legal, of one? From that point of view, traffic jams, though clearly inconvenient, say a lot. And most of it is good. Not only is it often crucial for medical personnel to get to a scene quickly for the physical well-being of the people involved, but for the legal rights of those involved in the accident, it is critical that an accurate police report be written. While it is true many frivolous lawsuits come from auto accidents, the legal claims any person can make following an accident are only secured if a verifiable entity (such as the police) accurately document the event, and then an impartial court presides over the case. In other words, it is more important that the potential health and legal rights of one person are preserved than the morning commute for hundreds of others.

While we not only take this for granted, but in fact complain a great deal about them, traffic jams are often (but not always) emblematic of what a free and moral society looks like. Can we say this for every nation? Surely not. It is hard to imagine that in every nation citizens have the confidence that their legal rights will be protected if they are of a low social standing, for example. And not every government protects the value of life to a point where it is willing to cause such congestion on the highways. Unlike so many nations where it is seemingly impossible for people of different ethnic, religious or racial backgrounds to protect one another, any person who needs health care, either on the highway or in the Emergence Room, gets it in America. The reason the story of the Good Samaritan is so popular is because Jesus knew how rare it was for a Samaritan to offer aid to an Israelite, and vice versa. The Samaritan, in effect, would have caused a traffic jam if he were first in line, not third. (The rabbi and the Levite’s morning commute would have been greatly hampered!)

Of course, there are many reasons for traffic jams, most of them good from a certain point of view: more people are driving, meaning more people can afford cars. Roads are being repaired or improved, in and of itself a pretty good thing, even if in Chicago large amounts of graft usually are involved in such construction. Or, there has been an accident, and the police are diligently investigating the scene to protect the health and legal rights of all involved. Come to think of it, there may not be a better representation of the greatness of America. Instead of bemoaning traffic jams, perhaps we should build statues celebrating them, or immortalize them in art showing an ambulance crew helping the victim of an accident while thousands of morning drives are delayed.

A free society is not always convenient. More importantly, it protects the rights of one person over the conveniences of hundreds of others. This is the sacrifice not-yet-free nations will have to learn to make, and somehow, live with.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Failure of Imagination: Underestimating the Influence of Saddam's Totalitarianism

The recent deaths of Saddam Hussein, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Augusto Pinochet, the poisoned Russian spy along with the current debate on the extent of American intervention in Iraq have brought certain truths. The first being that political totalitarianism is awful on every account. This realization may seem obvious to anyone, but in monitoring current media chatter and listening to the reactions of everyday people to newsworthy events elsewhere in the world, it is apparent that there has been little effort to articulate in any detail the affect totalitarianism has on a people and how it leads to such widespread antisocial pathologies in countries that succumbed to totalitarian rule.

In our comfortably prosperous and civil environs that is middle-class life in America, such extremely depraved acts as assassination by radioactive intoxication, state-enforced execution with a taunting chorus recorded for posterity by camera phone and the tactics of militant forces that thrive in radically undermining any separation between armed forces and civilians appear incomprehensible to most of us. From our perspective of a society that takes for granted the prevailing rule of law and basks in limitless freedom to express oneself and make as much money as we endeavour, there is little difference between one dictator responsible for killing a few thousand of his countrymen for the sake of permanent political stability, rule of law and prosperity for his country and another totalitarian ruler who exterminated several hundred thousands of his own subjects for the sake of sowing permanent tribal division, economic degradation and political anarchy. Jeanne Kirkpatrick pointed to this difference, and urged that American foreign policy acknowledge it. But due to the extraordinary circumstance of growing up in a country where one hasn't experienced any degree of authoritarian rule for more than 230 years, many Americans are naive to the fact that most of the populations of the world are subject regimes that are far more invasive and deterministic in one's individual life than we can imagine.

If one looks at areas of the world where devastation by civil war, terrorism, or subjugation my Mafia clans or medieval tribalism, one can explain much of it through failed totalitarian experiments. In Russia, totalitarianism for seven decades begot a stunted and increasingly one party "democracy" that quashes opposition by whatever creative means, and in which the mafia is a major factor in daily life. In Cambodia, the Kmehr Rouge has achieved a sort national lobotomy that has prevented the country from being self-governing and deficient of and educated class to follow Vietnam's path to economic self-sufficiency. In numerous African countries, short-lived attempts at establishing socialist utopias have often lead to a radicalization of tribal animosities, to the extent that genocide and hacking off people's limbs are par for the course. In Afghanistan, the Islamic totalitarianism of the Taliban only succeeded in incarcerating women completely, as well to remind Afghans why it's more pragmatic for them to bow to those threaten with unrestrained violence over a democratic yet defenseless government of Karzai. In the aftermath of Castro's eventual passing, I don't expect Cubans to suddenly transform itself into a capitalistic democracy any time soon.

The largest totalitarian experiment in the Soviet Union has much to teach us about the system's adverse social effects. Although Russia under the Czar denied any modicum of personal liberty to its vast peasant class at the hands of the aristocrats, Stalin made sure freedom was only practiced by him alone. He made sure that everyone agreed to the Soviet state's omnipotence and ruthlessly ridding those who did not. What many people outside the USSR and other similar totalitarian systems is the extant to which it effects permanent changes that damage the psyche of subjected citizens that take several generations to eliminate. Paranoia becomes a tool of self preservation, as the social trust we take for granted in the U.S. is obliterated by a constant policy of purging suspected political enemies. People learn to be two-faced, carefully expressing one thing in public and voicing something contrary privately, which results individuals being skeptical about an other's true intentions. Such uncertainty erases all sense of trust, and essential ingredient in the building of any enterprise comprising of strangers that must cooperate. Nepotism becomes the rule in who gets to do what where, and competition between families rules out the neutral arbiters. Financing a business becomes a family affair, and for those families who do not have the means to pay for anything are beholden to underground mafias, who serve as surrogates to states who only serve the elites that control them. Where public trust is gone, one is evaluated no longer as individual with an independent conscience but rather one is identified as a member of a clan devoid of any real individuality. These observations are far from new, and have been better explained by Francis Fukuyama's book on the value trust from one society to the next.

What political totalitarianism does, then, is to eliminate individuality in all forms, particularly in one's thoughts. Once the totalitarian regime expires, it is not a given that such individual self-consciousness automatically returns. When an overarching identity defined by membership in a state is repealed, what replaces it are the layers of identity tied to simpler social structures: ethnicity, kin and family. To repeal those layers of identity to the individual is impossible in a social environment where one does not treat other individuals and humans with dignity, independent thought and sincerity. A free-society run by trustingly civil individuals is a huge leap in the history of social evolution. Totalitarianism does not derive from people deciding withdraw their individuality to become part of a larger political identity. Instead totalitarianism draws off pre-existing loyalties to ethnicity and kin to forge a far-ranging loyalty to the state. One one hears the common argument of how can a people maintain a free society when they have never know freedom, it's another way of stating that individuals in that that society haven't learned to trust each other. Contrary to the Marxist proposition that the final end of social evolution is the formation of a classless society based on economic equality (which to in my opinion is really about condensing several classes into one, which then becomes a 'state') I believe that totalitarian-enforced socialism is nothing more than a continuation of long tradition of abolishing individualism in favor of groups, from the family, to clan, to political party. Thus, when totalitarianism fades, the family, the clan and a the political party once again take precedence. In this context individualism never came to being in the first place.

From this perspective, much of what is happening in our world becomes comprehensible. In Iraq, Saddam for many decades was able to completely destroy any faint democratic notion remaining among his people, he used his ethnicity and his Tikriti-based kin to submit all other ethnic groups and clans to his and his party's rule. Individual identity was secondary to what ethnicity and clan one belonged to, and whether someone was a Baathist or not, or simply whether he did not like someone not as dignified individuals, but what threat they posed to him personally or how they could enhance his power. For this to happen, hundreds of thousands of people who did not belong to his group were slaughtered for none other than who they were. Kurds, Shia, Marsh Arabs, or even his kin who consorted with people outside his family were all people who betrayed Saddam's narrowly defined totalitarian identity. With Saddam gone, to where did the power devolve? To the next level of social structures: the clans, the religious leaders and religiously affiliated political parties. Demographic isolation is currently taking place in Iraq, with each of the three major ethnic groups claiming their own territory, with multi-ethnic cities changing into singular bastions of one ethnicity or becoming the home of a powerful clan. Such movements of people have made American objectives for a stable federal democracy in Iraq a tall order. Although such a goal is admirable and any country with an existing political culture amenable to democracy would jump at the chance America has given Iraq, the totalitarianism instituted by Saddam and his Baath party has diminished the ability for the Iraqi people to understand and embrace the golden opportunity before them. The post-Saddam era for many Iraqis seems to have presented an opportunity to rather exact revenge on the former ruling group.

When I read about the current difficulties facing American-led coalition forces in Iraq and the horrors afflicting Iraqi civilians from terrorism, I tend to see these events from a different perspective than what drives the contemporary debate on Iraq. In my mind it is easier to indict American military strategy, Iraqi political fractiousness, or the intelligence of George W. Bush than to confront the totalitarian reality that was Iraq under Saddam. This reality is not only beyond our comprehension, it is beyond our imagination. Totalitarianism brings out the worst in human nature and uses it as an instrument to wield control. More gruesome and more lethal forms of torture were developed under totalitarian regimes, systematic executions and show trials were means for the authority to communicate power and induce fear in the population. Islamic fascism takes the totalitarian ethic further by injecting fanatical religious conviction into the mix, thus inflicting cruelty and mercilessness not only to members within a political polity, but outside it as well. In addition to executing on the spot any villager who does not demonstrate loyalty to the controlling Islamic fascist, they will capture torture and summarily execute foreign soldiers and humanitarian workers with little regard to international law or any modicum of human dignity. Whenever one of those beheading videos are broadcasted, or reports of terrorist militants using schools and mosques to stockpile weapons and coordinate plots are written about, or blatant footage showing terrorists using civilians as human shields, I can’t help but think about the many years of totalitarian brutality in its many various forms that have led to such a sordid outcome.

But what I also cannot comprehend is the reaction of so many people to such blatant evil. Such resignation, such complaisance, such futility in trying to explain it away as a just reaction to what the Americans did beforehand. That is not how one should respond to this subhuman depravity. One should instead support efforts to eliminate it outright by force of arms. Any other alternative such as talking it out or making concessions will not stop totalitarian violence. Such misguided efforts through accommodation helps explain why many totalitarian regimes last for long periods of time long after the political subjects have tired of it.

One of the conclusions reached in investigating the 9/11 attacks was that there was a failure of imagination in preventing such an unconventional terrorist plot. Much of what made 9/11 such a traumatic event to the American psyche was its surreal quality, a sense that these attacks could not have taken place in reality, but rather somewhere in our imaginations, as if in a dream. I fear that much of the world has failed to imagine what the Iraqi people have been subjected to under Saddam which not only has affected American efforts to stabilize Iraq but also how most of us have no reasonable answer to a powerful evil staring right at us. If we cannot take a firm stand against totalitarianism and its evils in front of our faces, whether on the battlefield or on our television screens, how can we expect to protect our own freedom from it?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Nanotechnology and Bread: How Technology May Change Religion

Listening to a podcast the other day spurred me to ask what the future holds for religion in a quickly-changing world. Futurist Raymond Kurzweil, who has a history of accurate predictions regarding artificial intelligence, sees robots becoming as intelligent as humans by the year 2029. Kurzweil, an incredibly prolific inventor and writer, holds that because technological change is exponential rather than linear, the world will see drastic technological breakthroughs in the coming decades that will increase lifespan, spawn robots capable of feeling, and have nanotechnology swimming in our bloodstream. All of this will eventually lead to a singularity, or the time at which humans cannot keep up with the advancements in technology. Imagine the replicants in Blade Runner, and you get a pretty good idea.

Which naturally made me wonder what the role of religion will be in such a new world. The vision in Blade Runner or Minority Report seems to be largely if not completely secular. People of faith, such as the "mystics" Ayn Rand portends in Atlas Shrugs, seem to be apocalyptic lunatics, caricatures who have only ever read the book of Revelation. But I don't think that will be the case in full. With every change comes reactions, and certainly the popularity of the dreadful Left Behind series is proof that changes in the world (even mere millennia) spark absurd reactions of fear. But ultimately, the apocalyptic fear monger is the exterior vision of the way technology may drive people to real faith. Technology, like a good photograph, is always full of promise and potential, but rarely cashes in. Technology, for many, brings with it a great amount of hope that our lives will be improved, diseases cured. Some dream of a techno-utopia.

But technology will be just as flawed as any other human effort. With every benefit comes a trade-off. You get to live longer? Great, but don't expect to be able to retire before you're 80 to pay for it. No more cancer? A plague is probably just around the corner; they always are, and they're always ahead of our medicine. More information at your fingertips? It's at everyone else's too, so the world just got infinitely more competitive. When technology fails, we will either continue to grasp for new hopes, or will revert to that which is real hope. That is not to say technology is a bad thing, or that I fear it. It's coming whether I like it or not. But its possibilities are limited, not infinite, and it definitely won't allow us to live forever.

What has the impact of technology already been on religion? I can't help but think that there is some link between the rise in fundamentalism over the last 20 years with the rise of technology. For example, the Internet has both allowed jihadists to propagate their message, but it may have also struck a great sense of fear among them. It was one thing when the West was relegated to nations thousands of miles away. But the Internet has erased borders and boundaries. The Internet has allowed the West to "infest" every corner of the world with its ideologies, commerce, and (gasp!) religion. It has gotten harder and harder to remain isolated, so it makes perfect sense that some who wish to remain so are fighting back.

We should remind ourselves that while America creates and devours knowledge at unprecedented rates, there is a real fear of information among many about what changes may come. We should have known that the information revolution would spark just that: a revolution. Surely we should have been able to guess that not everyone is in favor of knowledge. Some groups want to stay in the dark, and they desperately want others to stay there with them, at any cost.

So will it only get worse? Certainly the current wars will have to play themselves out. If democracy is possible in the Middle East, eventually the people there will adapt to technology, though it will take a very long time. I am optimistic that they will. But at a slower and steadier rate, I can't help but think that massive changes in the world around us will always draw people to faith. I'm not crazy about that evangelism strategy, mind you. But when I parallel the imagery of robots curing disease in our body, with say communion bread and wine, the older medicine seems like it may be a bit more appealing.

There is an aesthetic reason for this as well. It seems like the world of technological advancement is a sterile one, one where human interaction is limited. The blogosphere is even heralded by some as a replacement community to local communities. I don't see it. Technology enhances are life, it doesn't change the needs of people. We will always crave real relationships, real truth, and religion offers this in ways technology can't. I'll certainly be interested to see the way technology, not just the Internet and vaccines, but serious new technologies change the role of religion in society.