Monday, May 28, 2007

Throwing Sego to the Trash Bin: rejecting French socialism for Monsieur Sarko

As a French national, I was allowed the opportunity to cast my vote for President de la Republique. French expatriates and others like myself reported to the Dallas International School, an elegant Gary Cunningham-designed private campus founded by French corporate executives to educate their children (Alcatel telecom and Accor hotels have a big presence here), to cast our ballots. It was quite unlike voting in an American election, where one fills in a scan-tron sheet full of numerous items with a pencil. Rather, voting for the French president consisted of taking two slips of paper, each with one of the candidates' name on it, then going behind a standing booth. The act of voting was completed by throwing away the slip of paper of the candidate you did not want into the waste-paper basket below the booth, and inserting the slip of your chosen candidate into an envelope. Finally I walked over to a table with transparent box containing all of the completed ballots, dropped the envelope through the slit sealed by a special trap door (to probably prevent vote-tampering).

Although it felt awkward to me at first, I now believe that the act of throwing away one of the choices was an appropriately symbolic way of my desire to see France get rid of the old way of doing things in order to begin anew. For anybody who've read my previous postings, I naturally voted for the candidate who promised a much-needed change in direction, Nicolas Sarkozy. I've followed his rise through the French political ranks, and I was impressed by his verbal response to the recent riots in France. Watching him in his debate with his socialist rival Segolene Royal, I was comforted by his cool demeanor, his command of the facts and his embrace of pro-growth economic policies. Beyond this, I appreciate the fact that he did not come from the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) the elite school that has traditionally groomed the French political elite for the last few generations. It produced a constant stream of technocrats and unaccountable leaders unable to re-think the problems plaguing France.

I've waited for a little time to pass before making any judgement on whether Sarkozy was for real. With the appointment of an untraditional foreign minister and his plan to revamp France's mediocre university system, it seems that some form of change is on the way. My wish for my birth country isn't that it becomes more American, but rather that becomes strong and confident. France has all the prerequesites to becoming economically and culturally dynamic, magnanimous and cooperative in its foreign policy. It can also distinguish itself as a Western European country that can remake itself for a new era and challenges, feigning traditional answers to lagging problems and instead trying out new ideas from the ground up. France could show the way in dealing practically about Europe's alienated Muslim population, standing up for the primacy of its culture over the relativist currents that infect mentality of many on the continent.

Most importantly, from the perspective of this Franco-American, I hope for a France that grows out of its debilitating anti-Americanism. More than simply wishing for a greater diplomatic rapprochement between France and the U.S., I'm hoping that daily conversations and news articles among the French will not be consumed by an anti-American point of view. It's allright to maintain an identity of independence from the U.S. with defining it as anything opposite of American identity. Anti-americanism is an ideology in that it takes very narrow assumptions about what Americans are and builds from them a coherent set of ideas that permits a narrow kind of thinking. Like any ideology, it limits one's ability to generate new ways of solving problems, since narrow assumptions are inadequate to think realistically about the causes of problems. Regardless how much we'd like to believe that Americans only want to spread the rapacious forces of market capitalism, secure single-mindedly all of the world's natural resources for itself and infect the globe with decadent pop culture, these kind of assumptions fail spectacularly in understanding our motives and fails even worse in predicting what Americans will do in the future.

Although anti-Americanism can be politically useful in the short term, overall it has always been unhelpful to those who succumb to it. It has never mad anybody wealthier, more productive, more independent nor has it led to any greater level cultivation. Complementing the adversarial foreign policy of the French against American interests during the last few decades has been a denial by many French citizens of real problems that would have been better addressed were they not to reflexively label anything untraditional as American. The common French journalistic practice of calling certain policies "Anglo-Saxon" deliberately narrows the ways the French define themselves, declaring that if it's been done in England or the U.S., it can never be done in France. To not be "Anglo-Saxon" makes "dirigiste" the default "French" policy for everything. Thus, Anti-Americanism and its anti-Anglo-Saxon variant only strengthens the bureaucratic and political elite of France, leaving all other classes of French people no better off. I can't emphasize enough how many times I would listen to my French relatives whine about the same problems that afflict their people, and each and every time would not even give ideas coming from American experience the time of day. The cultural identity of the French has become firmly entrenched in the socio-political tradition of the country, to the point that to be French is to also be a socialist. Somehow it is lost to many that in other times the French could monarchists, democratic totalitarians (French Revolution), Colonial Imperialists, and so on. Why isn't it just as French to be freedom-worshipping individualistic entrepreneurs?

That is my hope from a leader like Monsieur Sarkozy. I'm less interested that he is described as pro-American by some media outlets than that he's transcended the flippant critiques of Americans that have been a pastime of previous French presidents. He has the courage to tell the French people what they are not used to hearing from their leaders. And he is wise enough to realize than the balm of anti-americanism in France is an impediment to reclaiming and redefining what the French can be. If Sarkozy does disagree with the U.S. on certain policies, it is hoped that the merits of his arguments rely on more than opposition for opposition's sake. In terms of international alliances I'm hoping that he'll associate with a better set than Islamist dicatorships, shady African genocidal regimes, and other Third World countries too feeble to break free from France's current neo-colonialist policies. If he makes such changes France will have a firmer standing in opining on affairs affecting the world at large.

Contrary to what many Frenchmen may believe about people like me, we do not wish for France to become another American drone or "poodle". We wish only that it act reasonably on all issues from a position of confidence, not craven fecklessness. A sensible, robust, prosperous and confident France will make the job of maintaining international order that much easier on all nations, especially on the U.S. Maybe I'm expecting too much from Sarko, but the act of throwing away the ballot for Segolene Royal at the booth reminded me that eliminating the accumulation of socialist stasis on my birth country was an available choice for me this time.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lessons from Mexico: Cities and Social Trust

Not too long ago I made a short trip to the most populated city I have ever visited. Judging from its relatively small airport and its lack of a concentrated cluster of tall towers, it was not evident that I was among the twenty million or so inhabitants living in Mexico City. It was unquestionnably much more dense than my home base of Dallas, with almost every block being no lower than 3 stories in height. The highways, themselves relatively small considering the amount of traffic that rides on them, rarely elevated over the city. They felt more like high-speed urban boulevards, with short ramps, narrow lanes, ground level views of the surrounding buildings.

At first impression, Mexico City feels more like a low-rise European city than anything else, except for a smattering of corporate towers dotting the broad valley landscape. Monumental avenues criss-cross the city, intersecting at roundabouts featuring statues and ornamental fountains. The city's 19th century planners evidently applied Baron Haussman's techniques to lend the city international respectability and cultural prestige (similar to other great Latin American capitals such as Buenos Aires). Such a planning tendency is logical considering the city's Spanish colonial influence, in which city's were founded by a main plaza with a church on one side, a government palace on another, and a grid of streets for residential and small commerce. The city has grown exponentially since its founding days, and despite planning moves to visually unify such a sprawling and fast-changing city, Mexico City is at best a chaotic patchwork different neighborhoods, social classes, and varying qualities of construction.

I say this from the narrow point of view of staying and doing business in the city's wealthier western districts. With its leafy paseos in between busy automobile right of ways, its four to five story buildings framing each avenue as well as its breezy semi-private courtyards tucked away from the street, memories of European cities were triggered in my mind. Upon closer observation , I was reminded why this part of Mexico City was quite unlike the European cities it aspires to, as it gives off the impression that much of it is a disorganized jumble. Since I myself am a fan of the unexpected beauty of such urban jumbles, I was trying to figure out why such a highly regarded area of the city left me unsettled in my appreciation.

My Frenchness affects me at a subliminal level, in particular in the way I perceive order and beauty. I often have to temper my oh-so-French tendencies to create austere monumental volumes and spaces with a more English kind of spontaneity and randomness. Such competing mental influences indeed color my impression of places I visit, which is why I actually think that Mexico City is an intriguing city in spite of its obvious socio-economic flaws. Rome holds a special place in my heart for similar reasons, with a similar randomness tempered by a refined Italian sense of materiality and detail that is not nearly as evident in even the fanciest parts of the Mexican capital. Why is this so? The answer comes from the idea that architecture is a pretty accurate manifestation of the culture that builds it. Inhabitants in this largest of cities aspire clearly in their buildings to express their modernity and their cultural sophistication but are limited by the fractiousness of social class, the lack of enforcement of regulations and an insecure public realm.

The last point was probably the most striking during my visit. I wasn't allowed to trust any taxi company, nor was I able to evade the surveillance of ubiquitous security guards (no more than 50 feet apart). Almost every storefront, particularly of upscale brands, had armed guards standing by to look for shoplifters. In suburban districts where pretty much all the inhabitants are wealthy, subdivisions are gated, with armed guards standing outside to prevent any unwanted infiltrators. To go to a business meeting, I had to submit my I.D. and be checked off a list of expected visitors by a lady behind a bullet-proof window booth outside the office building before being allowed in. On scenic residential streets, rampart walls and opaque gates line the sidewalk. It is impossible to look out to the street at ground level, something we suburban Americans take for granted across our green front lawns. I am aware that historically dense cities contain residential blocks where there are few opening along the outside wall, while views are all oriented to private courtyards. But even in the most admired European cities, the visibility of the street at ground level from inside a residence is taken for granted. One certainly doesn't have the feeling that they're being watched or tracked-down.

Although I love unpredictability and individuality, there has to be some level of regulation. Public sidewalks should not be encroached, commercial graphics and other signage should not appear just anywhere on the outside of a building, and a structure should never be left unfinished even when it is fully occupied. Public safety does indeed have its place, and I was disturbed how the design of exiting systems (dead-end corridors) were routinely ignored, guardrails and handrails non-existent, and ramps on new buildings were treated as an afterthought. I am not trying to be picky, but I find that certain minimal safety precautions are necessary in an area prone to massive earthquakes. Crossing a typical street has been made difficult by the 1 foot-high curbs, which were designed to prevent cars from climbing over to the pedestrian right of way. One has to pretty much hop on and off on curbs because they're so high, which makes it difficult to stroll casually.

Where there is so no public safety there follows little public life. I was amazed how in a city as dense as Mexico City, there were relatively few pedestrians. It seemed that most people would take cabs directly to their destination and back with little interest in strolling beyond. Here, everything is point-to-point. At night the restaurants and clubs were full of people, but outside these pockets activity, there was no one walking on the street. I wouldn't blame them, either, since I would never would want to take my family for a walk along the sidewalks. They're narrow, poorly maintained and uneven by all the private car ramps every few feet. I won't claim that this isn't problem in the U.S., since in many places, it is (my own neighborhood has no sidewalks). But for a city that models itself after the extremely pedestrian-friendly cities of Europe, one should expect more street life from one of the world's most populous metropolitan centers.

These kind shortcomings testify to a broader pattern of a lack of social trust in developing nations. One of the essential ingredients to national prosperity is a high level of social trust, allowing an environment where strangers can interact freely with one another, collaborate on joint ventures, provide capital to entrepreneur's ideas and so on. It is not enough for an elaborate set of laws to be drafted to force strangers to trust each other, it is imperative that respect for another's property and dignity as a human being be deeply ingrained in a society's cultural psychology. Such unwritten but consciously internalized safeguards make it possible for drivers not even to contemplate driving over medians or sidewalks, for street-level windows to be unprotected, for people to wander around the city or a store without uniformed personnel minding your business. What's most important is that social trust makes possible for cities to be more live-able, for life to be a bit easier as we don't have to worry about our own security. Until that level of social stability is achieved, the rich will wall themselves off from the poor, the poor will remain in their ghettos, and the influence of "bourgeois" values of respect, decency, scholarship and ambition to those who need it most will be stifled. This class isolation retards progress on all fronts, not least in the development of mobile and economically dynamic cities .

In the western suburban areas of Mexico City have so many wonderful things going for them but at their core are impediments that prevent them from truly being enjoyable places to live. The new Mexican upper middle class is growing fast, and have been filling up the western slopes of the metropolitan area with brand new apartment towers, exclusive subdivisions, and flashy shopping centers. The views from the hillsides are spectacular, the slopes as steep as those in San Francisco and the colorful warm colors of the cubic facades of houses embellishing the area's natural beauty. The area's suburban-ness precludes any real pedestrian street life, but even there, the street curbs are high, guards are every where, and shopping malls must accommodate chauffeurs (in Mexico City, chauffeurs are much less status symbols than a means to avoid using taxis which cannot be trusted, especially for individuals with high social standing). All the ingredients are there to make the western outskirts of Mexico City a destination to outsiders to visit, but the architectural manifestations of a low public trust make just another area where the new wealthy keep to themselves. Communities here are not defined by an abstract sense of civic consciousness as they are by the consistency of social class.

The lesson for me is that there's so much potential to create enjoyable public spaces in our own country. The social trust in America is very high, and the ease at which we can wander anywhere should not be taken for granted. I very much prefer the architectural taste of the Mexican elite over their American counterparts, as they agressively embrace contemporary design trends and feel no pressure to revive past styles superficially. But all the freedom to design as freely as one would like has little affect over changing the insecurity of daily life of less developed countries. You can design another Paris, but without more fundamental improvements in social trust, the inhabitants would prefer to live in a more mundane city like Dallas.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Being a 2-Year-Old Again: Thoughts on the Dictatorship of Relativism

I have not had the joy of raising children yet, but I understand there is typically some trouble during the child’s second year. As during the teenage years, the child will begin to assert their independence from his parents, and engage a troublesome process that forces the child to struggle with how much he is his own person, and how much he is part of a larger group. Some have called into question this period of the “Terrible Twos,” saying the period varies from child to child in terms of severity and length. But whatever one wants to call these stages of rebellion, they usually have something in common: the child insists on doing things their own way, and placing their worldview over and above others in the group. This can be a wonderfully painful process by which we grow and mature, provided we do not stay in such a phase for very long.

Those who remember these rebellious phases, then, may understand the way in which it is a dictatorship – you really can’t win either way. If you tow the party line, you lose your individuality. But rebelling against authority isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either. It’s isolating, self-centered, and a generally unhappy experience, even if it is necessary on occasion. These periods of growth are often times of great confusion, because there is no universal truth for the truth-seeking 2-year-old or teenager. By definition, they are going through periods where their growth depends on their distrust of given truth, so they become perfect models for the study of relativism. 2-year-olds don’t know why they’re rebelling, and can’t give any good reasons to oppose their parents. But they do, and they seem miserable while doing it. They are living in the dictatorship of relativism.

Of course it was Pope Benedict XVI who so brilliantly and concisely defined the true damage of relativism; it replaces one dictatorship for another. (For more on his early legacy, I strongly encourage this podcast). The failure of centralized truth claims in Soviet Communism and National Socialism called for a radical de-centralization of truth claims, which both lead to a certain type of prison. If what is True is only true for one person, then that person will soon find themselves in solitary confinement. Perhaps a healthier alternative is to grow into maturity where we are unafraid to latch onto some truth claims, but not all. Isn’t this what the 2-year-old must eventually learn how to do?

Ironically, in a faith where Jesus claims to be the way, the truth, and the life, theological relativism is all the rage on the campus’ of America’s mainline seminaries. Theological relativism/liberalism is the theology of a 2-year-old. And that’s why it stinks. While there are tomes of theological works that have stood the test of time waiting to be devoured by seminarians, the majority of my theological education has revolved around Queer, African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Womanist, Feminist, and Korean theologies. In an effort to pay special attention to the individual theological truths for each person, we’ve neglected to hold to what is True for all people. And now that we’ve gone down this road, how do we possibly turn around without appearing unsympathetic, or even cruel. How can we now say, “You know, I really think each person theologizing for themselves alone is bad.” It’s sort of like saying to you spouse, “I used to love you, but now I’ve changed my mind.”

What I’m trying to get at is that for us to be truly free, we must place our stakes somewhere. Eventually children understand this, from the ages of 4-12, and probably after college. Somewhere along the way, we learn that it’s better to hold fast to our family, and learn how to disagree, rather than cut ourselves off for the sake of our rebellion. To equate all truth as equal is to state there is no truth at all. And to live in a land where there is no truth is to live under the dictatorship of relativism. Bravo to the pope for giving us this phrase; if this is not a prophetic call to change, I don’t know what is.