Saturday, December 31, 2005

Was 2005 a Truly Terrible Year?

Last weekend an 80 year-old relative of mine was agreeing with her Boomer-aged daughter that 2005 was “a terrible year”. Their personal lives weren’t adversely affected in any way, as they were able to reap the fruits of their own prosperity. Both had bought brand new cars, traveled to far away places in comfort, and enjoyed enviable healthiness. No one related to their families were serving in the military nor had lost their life to war, or natural catastrophe. No one they knew had lost a job, and a few of their teenage grandkids and nephews were easily finding work at fast-food place or in an office. The biggest loss in their lives during the past year was the ousting of their favorite anchorman, Aaron Brown, from their favorite cable television channel, CNN. I was hearing repeatedly gripes like: “How dare they rid such a brilliant and fascinating journalist like Aaron Brown in order to promote that vacuous pretty boy Anderson Cooper!”

But oh, was 2005 a terrible year! Granted, as in every year, there were a slew of natural catastrophes beyond our control (won’t signing an international treaty based on speculative science have prevented the past year’s record number of hurricanes? Sorry, the world is far more complex than signatories of Kyoto would like to admit.) There was indeed endless death taking place in the Middle East, which is pretty much the status quo for that region ever since the end of European colonialism. The U.S. lost over 2100 brave servicemen in Iraq and several hundred more in Afghanistan (in the span of 4 years, I might add), an above average military death rate for the year compared to the 1990s or possibly the 1980s, but far fewer than the 1970s, 60s (with Vietnam), 1950s (Korean War) and the 1940s (World War 2). But measured by the actual effectiveness per life lost in engendering a real positive change in a war zone’s political aftermath our recent ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan compare favorably to any before it. Over 50 million people liberated from true tyranny (and no my fellow Marxists, global capitalism is not tyranny!) Over 5 peaceful and minimally corrupt elections have taken place in what were once the most oppressive and terrifying countries on the planet. A chain reaction of countries threw out their autocratic regimes in favor representative democracy (Ukraine, Lebanon, Egypt etc.) Yes 2005 was a terrible year!

Christmas presents were plentiful within my family this year, but the past year has was a rough one economically. I could tell my pessimistic relatives that my employer can’t build new cubicles fast enough to accommodate new employees or that new projects keep popping as far the eye can see. But nothing, not event the fact that over 3 million jobs have been created since mid 2003, or that GDP growth has maintained a high rate for a couple of years that many economists would constitute a boom could persuade these relatives of mine that the economy is gloomy. Don’t you know that gas prices are high (somehow they’ve forgotten about the oil shocks that they actually lived through) or that manufacturing jobs are going to China? Never mind that every industrial index shows that American manufacturing is as productive as ever and that there are signs around the country that factory labor is in short supply, and that productivity is such that factories can produce more with far fewer people. Somehow, if it isn’t a union job that makes some tangible product, it isn’t a job at all. They don’t realize that the only reason manufacturers could promise such generous benefits and perks to their workers was that they weren’t threatened by outside competition. I suspect that many Americans yearn for the days when the rest of the world was dirt poor unable to export or manufacture anything of value while we were living high on the hog producing widgets that wasted vast quantities of natural resources and at the end were of questionable quality. The two elderly types mentioned above are proud owners of Toyotas, and one of them had GM cars most of her life.

Katrina was inarguably a terrible event, and one of them did volunteer at the local shelter to assuage the evacuees. Many lost their lives, and the biggest city affected, New Orleans, will likely never regain its stature because of the storm. It’s not unique that a large American city can be wiped out overnight (witness San Francisco or Chicago), but what was sad about the plight of New Orleans was the relatively little affect it had on the rest of the nation. In terms of the cost to the economy, its logistical infrastructure, and the actual political fallout such disasters usually have, Katrina sadly failed to change the nation in a meaningful way. The national economy continued to expand faster since the hurricane, the port near New Orleans was quickly restored and most shipping routes were transferred to other welcoming port cities, and the political infighting and corruption so dear to Louisiana still continues. The rest of America moved on and within a month after the worst hurricane destruction ever, the reconstruction of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans was relegated to backburner of the nation's pressrooms. The president’s poll numbers briefly dipped during the crisis but now his rating is close to where it was a year ago. Hundreds of thousands of people were devastated, but the majority of the most destitute evacuees have found that they are better off elsewhere than in the city they had fled. The very fact that New Orleans has only regained 80,000 people 4 months since the hurricane implies that the city’s “raison d’etre” was weak to begin with.

Yes 2005, if only for Katrina, was a terrible year. But since it is well agreed that the complete inundation of New Orleans was a ticking time bomb as much as the earthquake referred to as the “big one” will imminently rock California, then good and bad years will only be determined by acts of God. Thus no other positive news or visible progress in the grand scheme of things could ever make it a good year. Not even the unprecedented amounts donated to charity and relief this year by Americans will ever redeem this year.

But truly, when my relatives claimed that the past year was a bad one, it was really a matter of their own limited perspective. Being as old as they were and having lived through dramatic events, I was annoyed that such a relatively good year for most Americans and a joyous one for the millions of newly liberated abroad was considered worse than previous years of casualty-heavy wars, stagnant if not depressed economies with high unemployment, political assassinations and yes, natural disasters. Such selective amnesia is truly breathtaking. But then these two read Jimmy Carter’s latest book malaise, Jeremy Rifkin’s latest silly predictions while believing everything reported on CNN. I get the feeling that people’s memories are short and not judicious in absorbing information. You’d have to declare 2005 a bad year!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Complexity and Conservatism

Oftentimes I find that the world is too complex. The more you learn about how the world works, the more you realize how little you know. I’m naturally suspicious of easy answers, but I’m also left discomforted that there are no easy answers to a problem. It’s like saying that some particular issue is indeed a problem but it’s futile to find an elegant solution anyway. It’s a response that exhibits humility but it also gives others desirous of solutions the impression that I’m timid. Still, the truth remains, systems are complex, unpredictability is the rule to things we don’t fully understand, and to ignore these axioms will cause catastrophic results.

I find that is often the case in studying the city. It’s undoubtedly a very dynamic system, comprised of countless individuals making decisions independent of what is desired by the city’s governing authority. The topic of the ideal city has been constantly revisited throughout civilized history, and often the reality of the built result turns out to far different from the intentions of the designer. The most ambitious urban planners in my view suffer from the arrogance of viewing systems simplistically. All can agree that Le Corbusier’s vision of the city grossly abstracts what really goes on in cities in spite of his efforts to present his arguments in a ‘scientific’ way. Still the his self-image as the Nietzchean Superman prevented him from absorbing the wisdom that we can’t fully understand complexity.

One person who does understand the need for humility in comprehending complex systems is author Michael Crichton:

We live in a world of complex systems. The environment is a complex system. The government is a complex system. Financial markets are complex systems. The human mind is a complex system---most minds, at least.

By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the system interact among themselves, such that any modification we make to the system will produce results that we cannot predict in advance.

Furthermore, a complex system demonstrates sensitivity to initial conditions. You can get one result on one day, but the identical interaction the next day may yield a different result. We cannot know with certainty how the system will respond.

Third, when we interact with a complex system, we may provoke downstream consequences that emerge weeks or even years later. We must always be watchful for delayed and untoward consequences.

The science that underlies our understanding of complex systems is now thirty years old. A third of a century should be plenty of time for this knowledge and to filter down to everyday consciousness, but except for slogans—like the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane halfway around the world—not much has penetrated ordinary human thinking.

On the other hand, complexity theory has raced through the financial world. It has been briskly incorporated into medicine. But organizations that care about the environment do not seem to notice that their ministrations are deleterious in many cases. Lawmakers do not seem to notice when their laws have unexpected consequences, or make things worse. Governors and mayors and managers may manage their complex systems well or badly, but if they manage well, it is usually because they have an instinctive understanding of how to deal with complex systems. Most managers fail.

Why? Our human predisposition treat all systems as linear when they are not. A linear system is a rocket flying to Mars. Or a cannonball fired from a canon. Its behavior is quite easily described mathematically. A complex system is water gurgling over rocks, or air flowing over a bird’s wing. Here the mathematics are complicated, and in fact no understanding of these systems was possible until the widespread availability of computers.

Crichton is referring to the environmental movement and much of the science they rely on to promote their agenda. I’m sympathetic to the author’s views about the environment, not because I’m against its preservation than I’m convinced that there are so many unknowns that implementing any kind of policy is bound to make the conditions more severe to humans. To declare uncontestable certainty about the future of the global climate, especially for the next 100 years is foolish. To transform social and economic policies to address a future that is simply an unknown is an irresponsible leap of faith.

I believe that conservative thought, which eschews utopianisms and any grand romantic schemes, is essentially about how to best manage surrounding circumstances. Improvements are often incremental and are measured not by how well at achieves absolute values like equality, peace or even harmony. Rather success is often defined by how the current reality is a bit better for people than before. Although conservatives dislike the notion that they are the traditionalists and reactionaries the name implies, the ability to conserve is actually healthy. It is an acknowledgement that old ways of doing things sometimes work better than new ways, and that its wiser to hold on to good things we know than to embrace things we will never fully know. In a complex and dynamic system, the conservative will only want to control aspects small enough that we can understand and manipulate while leaving the rest of the system alone. If a particular policy has worked in the past and is appropriate enough in the present, a conservative will conserve the policy that has proven itself to work.

Creating grand top-down schemes is not what a conservative can provide. Rather they offer to control certain levers that predictably yield particularly limited results. In the development of cities this might mean a change in zoning criteria or a change in tax rates or incentives. It certainly doesn’t involve rethinking the nature of the city from scratch, and it doesn’t pretend that city can become a harmonious place with the proper design. Maybe that’s why many designers are sympathetic to state involvement on grand scale. Statists aren’t happy with existence of few problems mixed in with the mostly decent reality. The existence of even one problem requires a radically new solution. Conservatives are happy when the problems are mostly under control rather than eliminated. Imperfection, like inequality is tolerated as long as most people can benefit. This mindset doesn’t prescribe beautiful new plans, doesn’t inspire the soul with bold works of art, nor does it provide much impetus to remake reality down to the very last detail. But it doesn’t condemn all that people hold dear and it doesn’t lecture them that they are deluded in accepting the reality than they are part of. But for someone who is part of a creative vocation, conservatism doesn’t motivate one to think that the work will have much of an effect beyond its significance as a creation.

Note: Please do read Crichton’s lecture here. I’m interested in seeing if any readers believe that creative professions can be inspired by conservatism.

Hattip: The Corner

Monday, December 26, 2005

The True Heroes of 2005

As the year 2005 ends, the news networks go on their ritual of recapping the year’s biggest stories.  Time Magazine named Bono, Bill and Melinda Gates as people of the year in order to emphasize the value of philanthropy and charities in a year marked by a number of costly natural disasters. The cable news networks are now commemorating the Indian Ocean tsunami that took place a year ago, reporting on what has happened since and what progress in reconstruction has been made.   One snippet I happened to catch on CNN featured an interview with a representative from UNESCO that discussed the metrics of the amount of aid that has been distributed so far.  Throughout the entire hour of reporting on this anniversary of this somber event, the tone was one mostly of disappointment and cynicism about the slow pace of reconstruction. Not one mention was made about the U.S. military’s involvement in Banda Aceh, the hardest-hit area near the epicenter of the tsunami.

The shear scale and speed of the entire operation was impressive and more efficient compared to other efforts by non-governmental organizations that came to assist.  None of the latter groups could match the U.S. military in matters of coordination, quantities of resources, and integrity in providing service. Although originally created as force trained to fight, the skills that go into that role are well suited in controlling crowds and seeing to it that aid gets to the right people. Such traits were well served in the past year in places of desperate poverty like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and of course Indonesia.  The U.S. has earned plenty of goodwill from these interventions; perhaps more than any other kind of relief organization could muster. In reviewing the actual performance of civilian aid organizations, whether private or state-run such as the Peace Corps or Americorps, I find their ability to change a situation for the better limited to such a degree so as to have little to no effect. Beyond providing base essentials on the scale of one community at a time, civilian aid organizations are simply unable to restructure the political context or inculcate values forcefully within the cultures they serve that are fundamental in ensuring long-lasting improvement.

The American army, in contrast, is the ultimate in aid organizations, the premier restorer of order and hope to the most chaotic places.  Or so says this National Guard officer who is helping victims from Hurricane Katrina:

…Last year, while a field director for President Bush in Ohio, I made a life-changing decision to join the Army National Guard and entered Basic Training in January.  Although it was the toughest thing I've ever done, I can't tell you how proud I am to be able to say I am a soldier.Here's the thing: like many new soldiers I met, I didn't join the Army to take lives . . . but to help save lives.  Although you won't hear it from the MSM, It's my opinion that the United States Military is the greatest humanitarian organization in the world . . . even greater than groups like Greenpeace and the Peace Corps that reap most of the press attention.I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to volunteer to be mobilized to Mississippi and New Orleans with Ohio's 73rd Troop Command in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and I can't tell you what a wonderful feeling it was to be able to help those wonderful people while wearing my country's uniform.So thank you, again, for so eloquently stating what I've come to learn in the past year: that the U.S. military does much, much more than just kill people and break things... 

I’m learning that much of the time, it’s those who sacrifice their own lives that save the lives of others in the most profound ways. Giving one’s time to help others is admirable, but offering your life to others who are bound to lose theirs is unassailably heroic.

Hattip: RealClearPolitics

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The View from North Louisiana

Last week I visited relatives Shreveport, the first time I had been in Louisiana since Katrina ravaged the state. Since it lies at the northwestern corner of the state, the city did not suffer any physical damage from the storm. It did accommodate many evacuees who fled from South Louisiana, who continue to reside in a city that is quite different from where they were coming from. Shreveport is Louisiana’s third largest city, with a population of a little over 200,000 trailing only the capital city of Baton Rouge and New Orleans (at its height, of course). Culturally, Shreveport shares more with its neighbors of Arkansas and East Texas than it does with the Cajun/Creole-influenced parts in South Louisiana. It retains many traditional qualities of small cities throughout the South, particularly its conservative yet modest sense of aesthetic elegance and its deep Protestantism. Still I enjoy my visits there due to the refreshingly calm pace of life, its shady trees and rolling topography, as well as its stately yet tasteful homes.

As soon as we arrived in Shreveport I was told to park my car behind the house rather than in front. It was said that there were “visitors” from Katrina, which was apparently code for roving groups delinquent youths residing in the areas throughout the city allotted to FEMA trailers. Crimes consisting of vandalism and car theft have been on the rise in the city since the refugees arrived, striking nearby neighborhoods that were among the safest in the city.

I therefore had to ask how the hurricane and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans affected Shreveport. My relatives all acknowledged that Louisiana as a state is languishing, unable to promptly restore services, plan for rebuilding, and put politics aside. As anyone who followed closely the events surrounding Katrina, the Crescent City was dealt a huge blow by uprooting the state’s primary commercial and cultural center, leaving much smaller cities to take up the slack. From my relatives’ point of view, New Orleans was destined to be the next Galveston: Once the largest and most elegant port city in the Western Gulf of Mexico, the hurricane of 1900 would reduce to a small and quaint city highly dependant on tourism and robbed of productive and high paying industries. Baton Rouge thus becomes the new Houston, hosting many who fled New Orleans have opened shop to the city 70 miles up the Mississippi river on drier land. The capital city’s population has doubled overnight, the real-estate market has boomed, and its infrastructure overwhelmed. Baton Rouge’s geographic advantages are quite comparable to New Orleans, but the currently modest urban scale makes me wonder whether it will make the required investments in enlarging its infrastructure to accommodate such sudden growth. Having lived six years in Baton Rouge, it will be interesting to see how such a comfortably suburban and decent little city will cope with the changes brought to it, whether the city’s friendly and low key character will remain.

Browsing the editorial page of the local Shreveport newspaper, it was obvious that the state’s storied culture of corruption continued unabated. Rebuilding was slow all over thanks to much political infighting within the state and much hesitancy on how to best appropriate federal funds. The editors credited Mississippi for its speedier recovery and lamented the ineffectual leadership of their governor and elected representatives. In truth such demoralized tones are nothing new in Louisiana, the sense of embarrassment and inability an intrinsic part of political writing in the bayou state.

The general view from Shreveport is that the recovery will take years and that the demographic balance of the state of Louisiana has undergone a major shift. The provincial cities will be gaining many new residences, the large metropolises in surrounding states have become home to countless displaced companies and members of the underclass. Most of them will never come back to New Orleans, which will inevitably shrink. But what I truly wish will never come back to Louisiana is its corrupted political culture, with its colorful yet fraudulent characters. New Orleans, an eclectic yet eccentric city that earned Louisiana the reputation as the United States’ only “banana republic” was the cauldron this tradition. I hope the milder and more reasonable city governments of Shreveport and Baton Rouge will function as a corrective to the Byzantine mess that was New Orleans.

I’ve written posts on Katrina and New Orleans soon after the events here, here, and here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Why “Happy Holidays” May Be Good For Christianity

In one respect, I give the world my full endorsement as it becomes more secular. Want to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”? Fine. No prayer in public schools? Fine. Following the ten commandments only optional? Fine. It may help in the long run to establish Christianity for what it should be: a faith that constantly seeks to cut across culture, not define it.

Of course, the ideal situation would be for society to be truly Christian, so much so that no government power or cultural coercion would ever be needed to encourage faith. This society would accept Jesus’ teachings of love towards God and neighbor as well as his model of sacrifice and service. Most Christians want all people to take their faith seriously, and ultimately to be assured of their salvation. And, of course, a free society does not work without a moral foundation. Ronald Reagan correctly said this morality is found in religion, so religion must be part and parcel of a free society if it is to succeed.

But like the tech bubble bursting in the late 90s, it’s time for the pseudo-Christian bubble that surrounds America to burst as well. Statistics about 85-95% of America being Christian are meaningless, because they only tell me what percentage of Americans consider themselves cultural Christians. But how many of them would call themselves disciples of Christ is another prospect altogether.

So the assault of “Merry Christmas” and prayer in public school will begin to weed out who is Christian in name only, and reinforce the principles of Christianity for those so dedicated. Who knows, maybe I’ll be one of the ones weeded out. But the Christians that remain will get fed up with public schools to the point where they will go to or start new religious schools. Or when they say “Merry Christmas”, they will know that the center of the holiday is the baby Jesus, not worldly distractions. Indeed, the secularization of Christmas would be the best thing that ever happened to it! At last, the babe would be free from trite remembrances of his birth!

Christianity in any sphere, but especially the public sphere is false unless it is explicit. If it is only hinted at or assumed, it will not be authentic. It cannot be, because Christianity must speak truth to power, as Nathan did to David, and as Jesus did on so many occasions. When it becomes an assumption, its ability to speak the explicitly Christian gospel becomes limited. And while the gospel remains as strong as ever, the perception of it becomes weak and corruptible.

Getting upset about secular language like “Happy Holidays” or a lack of prayer in public schools is like getting upset about a cough when you have the flu. We live in a post-Christian culture and these symptoms are but small examples of how the culture has, to some extent, rejected God and faith. This is worth being upset about, not the little battles that come up along the way. While those who have rejected God deserve the love and attention of Christians for the sake of their salvation, the secularization of Christmas may help point out the difference between cultural Christianity and following the command of Jesus when he says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” In essence, it may serve to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Christians know that the subtle persecution of secularism or the overt persecution tyrannical governments offer will never destroy the gospel. So to culture, they should say, “Bring on your intolerance and contempt for the faith. Whatever doesn’t kill us, will only make us stronger.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Rotting of America's Great Cities

For all the beautiful color renderings, the flawless logic of a design’s concept and its details, an architectural design often fails to solve a site’s most urgent problems. If the site’s context consists of crime, environmental contamination or just plain hideous neighboring structures, there’s only so much that a beautiful and functional building can do. Expand these odds to the scale of an entire city, and good design can appear futile in addressing overwhelming problems that plague failing metropolitan centers. Humility would seem to be helpful in tempering the illusions that some designers have in solving a complex problem that transcends buildings. But too much humility can kill the passion required to be create innovative solutions with real practical potential. Often times the solution lies beyond architecture, beyond forming spaces, and in more mundane disciplines like economics and public policy.

There are many wonderful books that discuss the form of the city, its patterns and its man-made landscapes. What have captivated my interest have been writings that describe cities by intersecting their form, political organization and their economic evolution. Joel Kotkin (whom I’ve posted about here ) studies the city with very different criteria. He is less concerned with whether a city is beautiful or even charming than whether it works: does the city maintain population and attract newcomers? Is its infrastructure and educational system favorable to those who depend on them to succeed to a better stage in life? Are there jobs to be had? Is there a perennial sacred core that will always attract residents? The best cities are the ones that maintain the best balance between health, education, cultural diversion, and economic development.

Kotkin therefore attacks the imbalance between values that affect most of America’s largest cities of today. He examines in particular the seemingly incurable problem of the underclass that resides in inner-city areas, and lays much of the responsibility on bad policies enacted by city governments, names ‘urban liberalism’. Far from correcting historic racial injustices, these policies have produced greater inequality by fostering a large and permanent underclass exclusively dependant on government services for welfare, schooling, transportation and safety. By relying completely on state largesse, they forgo the act of choosing, an essential exercise towards improving one’s lot in life.
Kotkin’s exhaustive essay for The American Enterprise magazine describes the unique nature of what constitutes the underclass in America and dispels the influence of race in this current social divide typical of our cities. He points to pre-Katrina New Orleans as an example of all that is wrong and points to other less picturesque but more bustling cities elsewhere in the Sunbelt on what’s going right.

Kotkin begins:

Last September’s tragedy in New Orleans revealed, in the starkest manner, the soft underbelly of America’s cities. After all the 1990s rhetoric insisting that “Cities are back!” we got a glimpse behind the facades of a major urban center and tourist mecca which revealed many utterly dependent and disorganized residents, looking more like Third Worlders than denizens of a modern metropolis. In the process, the urban liberalism that has dominated city administration for the last generation was unmasked...

...To be sure, New Orleans is a unique case. Built below sea level, it has one of the most heavily African-American populations in the nation. It has long been among America’s poorest and most crime-ridden cities. Its economy has been in a not-so-genteel decline for generations. And New Orleans has a long history of inept and corrupt governance.

Despite having a huge port, the industrial, commercial, and professional base in New Orleans is far smaller than normal for a city of its size. The main local business is now tourism, which pays low wages—historically almost 50 percent below the national average. Before Katrina ever whirled, roughly one in four New Orleanians was poor, and 100,000 locals lived in “high poverty zones” where more than 40 percent of residents were poor.

Having lived there myself during the Eighties, this comes as no surprise. Unsafe streets were only a few blocks away from the fabulous St. Charles Avenue, and going to a public school was unthinkable for anyone who had any minimal value in education.

Kotkin does not shy away from identifying who makes up the underclass in the U.S. He also makes the distinction between those who may be poor now but are working to prosper in the future and those who don’t:

In many important ways, the problems of America’s urban underclass are radically different from those of their European counterparts. In this country, the deepest and most intractable problems are not in cities with heavy immigrant populations (as in Europe) but rather in places like New Orleans that are dominated by native-born African Americans. Most of the cities with the highest concentrations of poverty in America—New Orleans, Louisville, Atlanta, Cleveland, Philadelphia—are predominantly black cities.

These are also cities that most immigrants skip over. Only 5 percent of New Orleans residents were born outside the country—compared to 28 percent in Houston, 40 percent in Los Angeles, and 36 percent in New York City. This decade, immigrants to the U.S. are headed to cities like Phoenix, Houston, and Orlando that have burgeoning economies. Immigrants who do settle in heavily black metro areas generally move outside city limits, to places like Northern Virginia, Baltimore County, or Kenner (outside of New Orleans).

More important, immigrant poverty—in places from Fresno, California to Miami—tends to be different in kind from that of our native born. Latino immigrants, who make up the vast majority of America’s poor newcomers, have tended to have above average rates of labor participation. They are working poor, and many supplement their low official incomes with money earned “off the books.” Our immigrants also tend to start businesses at a rapid rate—the percentage of Latino self employment is twice the rate of native-born African Americans, and the ranks of Latino-owned businesses are growing faster than white-owned businesses. Many arrivals from Third World regions like the Middle East, south and east Asia, and the former Soviet bloc start businesses at high rates once in the U.S., in some cases passing those of native-born whites.

Beyond the ethnically diverse historical heritage of New Orleanians themselves, the city was long gone the center of confluence for people abroad to gather. Actually I got the impression that the Crescent City was an unusually parochial one, in which the natives made it clear that opportunities to integrate and succeed was restricted to those born there, and especially if their family line went back many generations. New Orleans does not only borrow architectural influences from Europe but also old social influences as well, where static class stratification was the norm. Ironically Mayor Ray Nagin is fretting that his city is no longer a ‘black’ city, and explains that the influx of Mexican immigrants that is cleaning the city is bad for New Orleans. He seems to forget that his city was once controlled by the Spanish, who should be credited for the beloved architecture of the ‘French’ Quarter. New Orleans’ population has changed in composition many times over the centuries, and it’s precisely the fervent intermingling of diverse cultures that produced its famed music and cuisine. The urban liberal policies instituted since the 1960s and have turned a once diverse city into an impoverished mono-cultural one.

I particularly agree with Kotkin’s contention that what defines a mobile underclass from a static one is a difference in attitude:

The critical factor separating most U.S. immigrants from our underclass is this: Attitude matters. Most newcomers to America see this not as a land of oppressors (the sore exceptions tend to gravitate toward journalism, politics, or academia, so we sometimes get a skewed impression), but rather as a place of opportunity and fundamental fairness. This often contrasts mightily with conditions in the immigrants’ home countries. In many of those places, connections and ethnic privilege are essential to getting anything done.

Incidentally the last sentence is close to describing much of how New Orleans works. It’s no surprise that my parents left that city after a year living there. But what most grabbed me in this passage is Kotkin’s espousal of a profoundly conservative principle: that your success is not determined by factors beyond your control but what you as an individual can put your mind to. I find myself befriending immigrants much easier than native born people because they share a sense of optimism about life that I find appealing. I don’t care much for whiners, or those who blame all of their problems on others. I gravitate to people who are ‘going places’ not because of why I can profit from them, but rather because they encourage me pursue my own ambitions. As a conservative, the problem of poverty is less about money than about a poverty of the spirit. Generations of parents telling their young that life is unfair and that it’s pointless to even try have incurred huge costs to millions who stay in the inner city. This mentality that justifies failure is cultural problem, not a political one. Once the values that derive from this mentality are normalized within a culture, economic paralysis ensues and a gulf grows between those who are on the move on those who stay where they are or regress. The resulting inequality between the two groups becomes then a political matter, as politics is essentially when factions compete for privileges through government (or the entity that has a monopoly on force). Politics meshes well with the mentality of failure, as government can right perceived wrongs regardless of who is actually responsible and seeks to affect a group since it inherently cannot favor a particular individual. Kotkin suggests that the problem of the black underclass really began when political redress replaced economic self-sufficiency as the road to increased status in American life:

…Their new port created an industrial base that employed many working-class people, eventually including African Americans who migrated from the rural Mississippi delta after slave plantations and then sharecropping in that region faded. The development of this port complex, and the related energy industry, provided opportunities that raised poor Louisianians of both races from poverty.

But during the 1960s, the push for economic growth that created an upwardly mobile working class was replaced—in New Orleans as well as most other cities —by a new paradigm that emphasized politics. Political agitations promoted various forms of racial redress, and the rights of people to receive government welfare payments. By the late 1970s, African Americans in many American cities had gained more titular power than they’d ever dreamed of, including the mayoralty of New Orleans...

...The new political gains of black Americans were widely regarded as a major step toward an improved social status. This coincided with the rise of a new form of urban boosterism—which showcased downtown renewal districts and insisted that the dramatic decline of city quality of life during the 1960s and 1970s had been reversed in the 1980s and 1990s. Urban elites, including in New Orleans, burbled about the vigor of their cities. Right through last year’s Gallup poll, leaders and residents of the Crescent City had (along with San Francisco) one of the highest levels of municipal self-esteem in the country. That now appears sadly delusional.

The truth is that, rather than improving conditions for average residents of their cities, many urban politicians and interest groups have promoted policies that actually exacerbated a metastasizing underclass. Urban liberals tend to blame a shrivelling of Great Society programs for problems in cities. Observers such as former Houston mayor Bob Lanier have suggested, however, that the Great Society impulse itself is what most damaged many cities—by stressing welfare payments and income redistribution, ethnic grievance, and lax policies on issues like crime and homelessness, instead of the creation of a stronger economy.

The last sentence regarding the Great Society could be applied to all cities. It seems that local governments of big cities spend an enormous amount of time trying to solve degenerate social pathologies but somehow have little to show for their effort. These aren’t problems that can be solved by better design. They are solved by better policies. And the sad part is that the policies currently pursued by many city councils and mayors virtually ignore solving fundamental economic and cultural problems in favor of developing speculative design projects that hope to spur a little bit of investment or a few creative types that can enliven a small district that benefits a small coterie. Kotkin is deeply critical of Richard Florida's promotion of the 'creative class' because it diverts city leaders from addressing the core problems that hamper the prosperity of the underclass in their city. He notes that many of the 'coolest' cities are struggling to keep their residents from leaving, suffer from higher rates of unemployment, and seem to be only enjoyed by a rich and ephemeral elite that contributes little to the welfare of the majority of that city's inhabitants. Other strategies included the construction of building or a complex of buildings that would supposedly act as a catalyst for new business, which more often thatn failed to materialize:

...Local leaders had become convinced that becoming a “port of cool” was the ticket to success. Never mind the grubby fiscal and regulatory basics of encouraging business activity. Instead, city and state leaders adopted Richard Florida’s trendy “creative class” theory, and held a conference just a month before Katrina promoting the idea that a cultural strategy of fostering edgy arts and boutique entertainment districts was a promising way to bring in high-end industry. Over the previous decade, city leaders had already transformed the once-bustling warehouse district into a tourist zone. Before the hurricane hit, state and city officials were looking to expand the now-infamous convention center at a price tag of some $450 million...

It never occured to these city leaders that their local schools are not educating kids, their cops are not making residents feels safe, and their most valueable citizens are leaving in droves for the suburbs. What's left is unconcealable detritus:

...The result of these unfortunate political decisions was to leave many urban cores with nothing but some often largely vacant office towers, Potemkin tourist districts, lousy public schools, ineffective police departments, and blocks of decrepit neighborhoods where residents are more dependent on government checks or jobs, or criminal activity, than on paid employment. The results of this decoupling of cities from the global economy has been all too evident. Wealthy elites who own or patronize restaurants, high-end hotels, loft developments, and cultural institutions have done fine. Younger, single, and gay residents of cities have enjoyed themselves. But for working- and middle-class families with children, cities have become hostile environments.

As much as some designers would like think they can directly address these problems, the actual everyday situation must improve before a beautiful building can have a complementary impact. Most of the time the social reality of an area can be nice regardless of the way the built environment in which they live has been designed. Whether the poor live in dense high rise blocks or single-family bungalows, as long as they are poor and live together they will likely stay that way. Wealthy families can lived in the most lifeless tract home suburbs or in dense high rises with with no street frontage and they would still remain wealthy and enjoy all the benefits that wealth brings in terms of safety, good schools and neatness. Cities that many Americans wouldn't consider at all to be the country's most beautiful are often the most healthy, offering a vibrant economic enviroment and attracting swarms of immigrants and middle class families. Places like Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix and Tampa, who all are among the least pedestrian friendly and least thoughfully designed cities anywhere are absorbing newcomers while New Urbanist inspirations like San Francisco, New Orleans and Philadelphia have been losing people steadily for decades. There are far too many fundamentals that trump the importance of a good urban plan or nice building proportions. Urban design is like window dressing to far graver issues affecting the city. First and foremost the city has to work.

I have posted other posts regarding New Orleans here and here.

Hattip: Real Clear Politics

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Carnival of the Architects and Urbanists: Call for Submissions

I've found that there are quite a few blogging architects and urban designers who have a great deal of knowledge to share. Since there is no blog carnival yet that features insights on architecture and urbanism, I figured we might as well get one started.

Submit your blog article to this edition of “Carnival of the Architects and Urbanists”! Use our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page. The first edition of the carnival will premier on Jan 1, 2006. I eagerly await your submissions!

Katrina's Bank Slate and the Rise of New Urbanism

Ambitious urban planners always dream of realizing their vision on a tabula rasa (blank slate). The notion that an ideal town plan can result in an almost utopian society within has persisted since cities were created thousands of years ago. The modern period, which began during the Renaissance and has lasted to our day, has given rise to particular urban planners their political patrons that wished to eliminate entire parts of the city and replace them with large streets, uniform blocks of dense dwellings and large parks and green spaces. Monumental axes would bind the city toward a visual unity, and accentuate the power of the political entity that brought it about.

A key concept in understanding the sway that the blank slate had on urban designers is the idea of cleanliness. Lewis Mumford’s comprehensive “The City in History” makes it clear that cities were filthy, disease-ridden places since they emerged in the marshes of Mesopotamia. Human waste and rotting corpses were ubiquitous even in ancient Greek cities, which may have contributed to Hippocrates’ prescriptions for healthier living by proper city planning. Rome was hardly much better, as it was vulnerable to numerous plagues, and the presence of sewage on it narrow streets encourage the use of stepping stones to cross the street. The European middle ages did not exhibit any improvements, except for the realization that fanning out a population into the countryside was probably the best way to avoid plagues that thrived in dense environments. Baroque city plans emphasized the ‘cleaning out’ of the city by opening up major traffic arteries in response to the medieval maze narrow streets and dank alleys. Baron Haussman, in addition to enabling greater state control on behalf of his boss the Emperor Napoleon III, sought to sanitize Paris, which earlier in the 19th century was devastated by epidemics. The Modernist movement, whose urban ideas were led by Le Corbusier and his International Congress on Modern Architecture (CIAM) preached hygiene, the healthy affects of lots of natural light and greenery. It seemed obvious at the time that residential areas should be far removed from the dirty and polluting factories, the workplace of a large portion of people during the industrial age, and thus the case for separate zoning was made. The destruction the First World War had brought a new kind of blank slate from which idealistic urban planners could benefit. The opportunities for reconstruction was also an opportunity to set society right again with the proper plan.

In the twenty-first century, the blank slate has returned by way of destructive hurricanes. Days after the flooding of New Orleans and the flattening of cities in Mississippi, many pundits were contemplating on what the future held for the renewal of the cities affected. Most predicted a major permanent depopulation of New Orleans, and others wondered whether rebuilding was worth the trouble given their extreme geographic vulnerabilities. Four months have passed, the trough of federal relief funds has opened, and the decision to rebuild has been made by most municipal leaders, regardless of whether their scattered inhabitants are coming back. By judging the latest professional journals, architects and urban planners see a once-in-a lifetime chance to start over from a blank slate. But what has happened up to now? Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times reports on the recent events regarding reconstruction:

HALEY BARBOUR, governor of Mississippi, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and longtime friend of W., has been joking to colleagues that until very recently he knew only two French words: bonbon and bourbon. Now, he tells them, he's learned a third: charrette, a term architects and planners use to describe a brainstorming session in the early stages of a project.If that seems a rather obscure word for a governor with little professed interest in architecture to be using, it's also a telling indication of how the post-Katrina reconstruction process is shaping up.
Charrette is a favored bit of jargon among architects connected to the Congress for the New Urbanism. And the Congress for the New Urbanism, or CNU, has become, with surprising speed, the go-to planning group for politicians along the Gulf Coast.In Barbour's state, New Urbanists dominated a weeklong charrette held in October at the Isle of Capri casino in Biloxi. Led by Miami architect and CNU mainstay Andrés Duany, the so-called Mississippi Renewal Forum architects and planners from around the country who are loyal to the group's cause.Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco has also begun relying on New Urbanists for rebuilding advice. This week the newly formed Louisiana Recovery Authority tapped Duany to lead a statewide charrette and chose Berkeley-based architect and planner Peter Calthorpe, a CNU founder, to develop a long-term regional plan for areas devastated by hurricane flooding.

Far from envisioning a brand-new architectural landscape that follows historical precedent is similar cases, it appears that state and city leaders have embraced retrograde styles and planning principles. Much of what one could call ‘New Urbanist’ is actually a deliberate restoration of historic architectural styles as well borrowing of 19th century garden suburb planning. Thus it is hardly new in the historical sense, yet its proponents skillfully use the term ‘new’ to persuade people that it is an improvement over Modernist urban planning that previously prevailed. A consensus is emerging that the terms “smart growth” (another clever term to denote improvement) is different from New Urbanism in that it emphasizes rules on easements, set-backs and multi-use transit oriented development without promoting any kind of style. I often find ‘smart growth’ mentioned when it involves the renovation of an existing or historic district in a city, while New Urbanist projects take place in the suburbs or farther out into the exurbs. One of the main criticisms against New Urbanism is that it is too modest, providing schemes that work well within the context of a small village in the middle of nowhere but proposing little in the way of remaking denser downtown environments. Andres Duany, of the Florida firm Duany, Plater-Zyberk is one of the founders of the New Urbanist movement that began in the 80’s featuring its fist flagship work in the new town of Seaside, Florida. One look at images of this place makes it very clear that there were strict design guidelines, and the borrowed architectural vernacular of a southern coastal town aims to establish a historic heritage in a place where there was none. This is similar to what the New Urbanists propose for the wrecked communities along the Gulf Coast.

Hawthorne uses this instance of the collaboration between Gulf Coast municipalities and the New Urbanist to frame the heated debate that has been occurring in the architectural and urban design profession in the last few years. One side, composed of the architectural cultural elite, based often in universities and cosmopolitan international cities that support avant-garde design, believes that the devastated areas could serve as the blank slate for an innovative and untraditional approach that could serve as a model for future urban developments. The other is the proponents of New Urbanism who see an opportunity to set right what was for the most part an area blighted by Modernist principles of single-use zoning and auto-friendliness. Hawthorne describes these two sides futher:

Architects in academic and avant-garde circles, most of whom remain loyal to Modernist principles, have charged for years that beneath the New Urbanists' love of picket fences, porch swings and gabled roofs lies an approach to new construction that perverts the Modernist legacy and is too friendly to developers.Indeed, Moss says he was a bit surprised by the uproar his comments about the Mississippi charrette provoked simply because this critique of New Urbanism has become so familiar.As Kroloff told NPR in September, the New Urbanists "believe that within the traditions of 19th century city planning in the United States are most if not all of the answers to 21st century planning." In New Orleans, he added, the result could be an effort "to re-create your grandmother's hometown, for no other reason than that Americans are just besotted by historicism. They love historicism. If we let New Orleans do that, we're going to have a silly, Disney-fied, cartoon version" of the city.All you have to do to understand the level of their concern is to look at the results in the handful of residential developments that have been produced in accordance with the New Urbanist philosophy. If you ask Leland Speed, a real estate developer who heads the Mississippi Development Authority and invited CNU leaders to the Biloxi forum, what New Urbanist developments he sees as models for reconstruction in Mississippi and New Orleans, he will give you two names: New Town at St. Charles, a suburban development outside St. Louis, and Baldwin Park, Fla.Both suffer from an overly precious, faux-historical design. (The first image you see on the New Town at St. Charles website is a picture of three cherubic white kids fishing together on the end of a dock.) The overall effect is Eisenhower-era America as glossily reimagined by Ralph Lauren.

Judging from the reams of email and magazines I get from the Urban Land Institute, the leading professional society for real estate developers, the New Urbanists have conquered the hearts and minds of those who initiate building projects. The complaint that New Urbanist schemes are emblematic of the “disneyfication” of society may be a valid point philosophically, but developers don’t think in this way. They think in terms of potential profits and maximized square footage for the costs. Coincidentally, the nostalgic style, the return to historic dwelling densities of town homes, the narrow lots and alley ways and the communal park in lieu of a private backyard are very effective in maximizing the developer’s investment. Although New Urbanism does require the cooperation of local governments, it is a commercial success in that it addresses the actual desires many Americans want in a community.

Modernism and its contemporary descendants that the architectural elite abide to can never claim such success, as it has been often a matter of inflicting schemes to an immobile population (i.e.: housing projects, ‘urban renewal’). The utilitarian obsession of solving problems for the greatest number has led Modernist planning to completely disregard the whims and aspirations of a majority of Americans. A common post-modern critique still rings true for many people that the Modernist elite seem to ignore at their own peril: Building is less about what the architecture should be from the point of view of the designer than what the client and the surrounding cultural context expect and aspire it to be. Many Modernists make the mistake of seeing the user as perfectly measurable unit, gauging how many square feet the user ought to have, the kind of amenities they ought to like and the nature of the common spaces that they should feel comfortable with. What is often left out in the equation is what the user imagines a home to be or look like, what their actual preferred tastes are. An interesting research project would be to systematically interview the people who live in Modernist-inspired social housing neighborhoods on how they feel about their environment. I would bet that few like the appearance of where they live and often yearn for a more traditional dwelling. The gap between what the enlightened architect suggests and what many everyday people actually want is large and often irreconcilable, and it typically leads the former to accuse the latter of cultural philistinism. I’m guilty of this myself and am often accused snobbish elitism.

But when I look at the communities of the Gulf coast, and as I recall my own experience when I lived there, what strikes me is how that area is so steeped in tradition. New Orleans has a rich and eclectic history and Biloxi has always had a charmingly quaint image. Since few outsiders move in to these Gulf Coast cities, the inhabitants there define themselves strongly to their heritage, the land, and their supposedly glorious past. Plantation style architecture is much beloved there, as well as the Cajun vernacular and pretty much anything else that has to do with old French influence. The region is home to a relatively static culture, with no interest in seriously remaking themselves or moving a bit forward. In my opinion, South Louisianans and Mississippians are among the least embracing of modernity itself. Contrary to what many outsiders think, New Orleans is one of the least culturally fecund cities in the country, as it survives mainly from rehashing its storied cultural achievements from eighty years ago. The irony is that this aversion to constant change and improvement has contributed to a relatively picturesque urban landscape in which the average suburban middle class home is often far more attractive than the mediocre stylistic experiments in most suburban neighborhoods around the country.

In the case of Katrina’s aftermath, the issue is less about New Urbanism’s commercial viability than it is about gaining the support of major political players. When it comes to urban masterplans, the people’s opinions counts for relatively little, and it’s usually a matter of convincing those that will push the project through. Hawthorne observes the Congress on New Urbanism (CNU) have become quite savvy, end-running more progressive architects in realizing their agenda:

THE debate about the New Urbanists' influence in Katrina reconstruction efforts and the way it has begun to ricochet from the Gulf Coast to Washington, D.C., to Southern California in the end has broad ramifications for contemporary architecture.It comes at a time when cutting-edge designers such as Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid enjoy an unprecedented level of celebrity and public recognition yet have failed to find influence in government — particularly American government or suburban America or with big developers.The New Urbanists, meanwhile, have been more skilled at making themselves welcome on Main Street and in the corridors of power — even as their stock among fellow architects, particularly young and urban ones, has plummeted.No architectural interest group attracts as much criticism as the CNU. But the group's leaders are increasingly able to brush off those gripes, because they have made the calculated decision that the people whose minds are worth changing include everyone but architectural elites.

I get the sense that many city leaders have had their fill with ‘urban renewal’ during the Fifties and Sixties, with its inhumane public housing projects, its impersonal scale and its brutal facades. Certainly, the more modest and sentimental schemes of New Urbanism is seen by them as welcome relief. But the current crop of leading contemporary architects has little to propose in the way of a detailed urban program like their CIAM predecessors. They haven’t clearly codified their urban theory, and most of their projects are limited to the extent of one building or a few urban blocks. Most architecture firms that offer urban design services have mostly internalized New Urbanist and ‘smart growth’ concepts. The above mentioned “starchitects” Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas do have an acute awareness of the workings of the city, and often their architecture crystallizes prevailing pedestrian traffic patterns and historic axial relationships and the surrounding context. But because their architectural responses to each site is unique, they could never propose any kind of accessible manual on how to design for cities that mayors and governors could understand. Anyway, these starchitects have plenty on their plate as it is, and deep down I don’t think they would be all that interested in restoring communities along the Gulf Coast.

The reason I say this is that Katrina has brought about a profound political shift in the ravaged areas. New Orleans was key for any statewide Democrat to win office. With the exodus of potential Democrat voters likely permanent, the remainders who live in the suburbs and in small coastal towns in Mississippi are very conservative. I know very few political conservatives who are sympathetic to modern architecture. Hawthorne implies the political dimension of the Modernist/New Urbanist conflict at the conclusion of his article, noting:

Whatever you make of the CNU agenda or of the developments that have been produced under its banner, you can't help but be impressed by the organizational strength it has displayed in rushing into the planning breach along the Gulf Coast. More than anything, the effort brings to mind the way Republican operatives bested Democratic ones in certain crucial swing states during the 2004 presidential election.The Biloxi charrette, in other words, may go down as the architectural elite's Ohio: the place it watched rather helplessly as its ideological opponents outclassed it not through nimble thinking or grand theory or inspiring plans but simply by being more disciplined and better organized. And there is no need, in this version, for a recount.

Other than revealing a personal political bias, Hawthorne makes a political issue out of cultural philistinism. If you don’t agree with someone’s aesthetic and theoretical point of view, then paint that person in an opposing political light. This is contrary to my own impressions of professional debates on urbanism, where the political overtones vary from slightly left to communistic. The libertarian view, while valuable and often right about many things, is mostly disregarded since it doesn’t provide a means for urban planners or city leaders to exercise control. The philosophy of letting things develop on their own does not appeal to people who seek to claim credit or having solved a problem. Maybe Hawthorne is suggesting that the elite faction should resurrect CIAM and promote a sort of governing body on urbanism. Somehow I doubt such an organization would succeed in the U.S., since the cultural wavelengths of most American leaders is closer to the New Urbanists than it is to the Modernists.

For a very well written essay from the point of view of the architectural avant garde regarding the Katrina reconstruction, read amarc's account at Progressive Reactionary.

For a superb intellectual clarification on why movements like New Urbanism can be so appealing, Michael at 2 Blowhards is worthwhile reading.

Hattip to Tidewater Musings for mentioning Hawthorne's article.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Blogjams! Hallelujah!

Finally, something the blogosphere can provide that no other medium can: Quick, civil, articulate debates between bright minds. Television talking head shows often reveal little about either position on an issue due to time limits, and the visual medium rewards aspects (attractiveness, fashion sense) unrelated to the merit of a person's argument. Often the debate loses its civility, with both people talking past each other and shouting in the end. Likewise pro-and con editorials in newspapers fail to engage the authors directly, making it difficult for the reader to actually compare viewpoints since often they talk about different topics related to the issue. In addition a newspaper column is of a length that accomodates poorly readers' short attention span. I'm guilty of giving up on an editorial if it doesn't maintain my interest within the first paragraph.

There have been countless discussions on whether blogs can generate any kind of business model. The establishment of Pajamas Media is testing the waters, but it's obvious to everyone including the founders that some aspects of their operation don't work well. The Blogjam, in contrast, works extremely well in that it provides an incentive for people to tune in and witness a sophisticated debate taking place before their eyes (with constant refreshing of the browser). Unlike a televized debate on C-Span where you need cable and the time to actually follow a pre-taped debate, the live blogjam is accessible to a far greater audience, and you can take your attention away at anytime and still be able to capture the entire debate, as it is essentially a transcript in the making. I firmly believe that humans think about things differently when the write about them than talk. There is more deliberation in the mind, a more careful choosing of words to express an opinion, better self-control when live-blogging. Television broadcasts every verbal and physical gaff for all the world to see and unfortunately tarnishes the delivery of the ideas. What would a presidential debate look like if it were live-blogged?

Check out a debate about the economy, or about the Iraq War, or even about what the problems of Pajamas Media are. The intelligence, humour and civility are refreshing!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

What is Preaching? The Catholic vs. Charismatic Debate Continues

I am hoping that anyone who regularly gives sermons or anyone who somewhat regularly listens to them may find this essay of interest. The question is a continuation of the assertion that a previous post made: because of political and cultural influences, Mainline Protestant (MP) churches will veer towards being either more catholic or more charismatic in nature.

One way it is easiest to see which way a MP church may be headed is the preaching. Certainly in America, the sermon has come to be seen as the highlight of the worship service, the main event, the big ticket. No doubt good preaching has always been appreciated, but American preaching has taken the sermon to a whole new level, a level even preachers in liturgical churches (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian) feel obligated to reach. Our love of charisma, our early Protestant emphasis of repentance and salvation (“hellfire and brimstone”), and our modern need for applicable spiritual advice have thrust the sermon to the top of importance for assemblies. The result? Two very different styles of preaching have emerged, one forging ahead with this style all its own, the other buried in the liturgy, happy mostly to comment on the assigned readings for the day (lectionary texts).

Before going any further, the question of whether or not there is a right or a wrong way to preach should be answered. For me, the answer is yes. We cannot merely say that there is good or bad preaching. We must also be able to say that there is right or wrong preaching. Within the context of right preaching, certainly there is good and bad; I consider all wrong preaching to be bad. There may be both right and wrong preaching in the same sermon. But this is not a matter of taste; I have not been so relativized. My point is that a fundamental misunderstanding of what preaching is can skew (sometimes severely) the spiritual lives of the listeners. It’s nothing the Holy Spirit can’t overcome, but it is a shame it happens at all.

For those who already know my bias, you may be assuming that I feel all “catholic” preaching is right and all charismatic preaching is wrong. Some catholic preaching is wrong, while some charismatic preaching is dead-on. It varies from preacher to preacher, depending on their fundamental understanding of what preaching is. So what is preaching?

Liturgical churches understand the sermon to be one part of the liturgy or ordo, and at that, really only one part of one part of the liturgy. Liturgical preachers understand that their sermons take place in a specific context, a context not easily duplicated or repeated outside of the assembly’s worship. The context is, of course, the gathered assembly, but moreso the liturgy itself. Surrounding the sermon are the greeting, hymns, prayers, confession and forgiveness, offering, the sharing of peace, Eucharist (and other sacraments), the sending, and most importantly, the lectionary texts. These texts (one from the Old Testament, one Psalm, one usually from a Pauline epistle, and finally the Gospel) have been appointed for centuries and all fall in place in the even larger context of the Church Year (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, etc.).

So this liturgical preaching is humbled by all of the things that surround it. No wonder the sermons are so short! This in some ways may limit the preacher as to what he/she can discuss; the appointed text won’t always deal directly with the exact goings-on in the world. But more importantly, it keeps the focus on what the sermon should be about: God’s redemptive work in the world. This is the sweeping story of scripture, and preaching in that context is more about what God does for us than what we can do for God. This is liturgical preaching in a nutshell; contextual elaboration on appointed readings in a framework that limits the singular importance of the preaching itself.

Is this also true for charismatic preaching? From what I have seen, this is sometimes true. But other times, the things that surround the sermon place ourselves at the center of the action and not God. For example, contemporary Christian music so regularly places the first person singular pronoun as the subject of the song, that God comes in response to our own piety or works, not vice versa. The understanding of the sacraments has been diminished to the point where God’s redemptive work cannot be seen through them. Baptism by our choice, for example, puts the burden on us to choose Christ instead of being chosen first and responding. Eucharist is often merely a memorial meal, something we do as a pleasant reminder of the forgiveness of sins.

The architecture itself makes this style of preaching hint of worldliness. Elevated stages at the front, auditorium seating, and a lack of windows so artificial light can be manipulated all put the focus on the work of the people in front, not on the work of God. The apparel of the preacher can be reminiscent of worldly power. Whereas traditional clerics are understood to be servant’s clothing, business suits suggest just that: business. And without a context of a high sacramental theology and several extended readings of scripture, the pastor tends to choose texts arbitrarily, and sermons can be about just about anything. Hence, sermons about “living with integrity” or being “victorious” when we follow God.

It doesn’t mean that every sermon given this way will be wrong. In fact, sometimes too much ritual/liturgy/religion impedes a healthy relationship with God. Just read Amos’ criticism of Israel’s religious practices! But over time, this lack of liturgical discipline can malform the preacher and his/her listeners so that we may end up with an extreme of either “hellfire and brimstone” (Jerry Falwell) or “the power of positive thinking” (Joel Osteen).

Sunday, December 04, 2005

HOA's: The Solution to Eminent Domain?

Every couple of weeks I quickly go through the ritual of flipping through the pages of the latest edition of my free trial copy of Forbes Magazine. The columns at the front are what interest me most, as Mr. Forbes, Rich Karlgaard, Paul Johnson, Lee Kwan Yew and Caspar Weinberger and others offer some worthwhile insight. In the latest issue I came across an op-ed piece by Robert H. Nelson of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a pro-market think tank. In response to the Supreme Court’s decision on Kelo earlier this year, Nelson proposes a way to counter the threat of strengthened eminent domain powers of municipal governments. Realizing that many inner city areas are desperate for investment and new commercial anchors necessary for revitalization, eminent domain is often the only means to achieve these goals. Yet it often leaves those about to be forcibly uprooted in an unfairly week negotiating position. Nelson writes:

But older cities face serious land-use problems. How can a dense urban area like New London or Hartford revitalize itself if developers have to build one lot at a time? Should residents of failing cities insist that shopping centers be built only in the far suburbs, displacing farms and increasing suburban sprawl? Must all large housing developments be relegated to the exurbs?

That definitely seems to be the pattern. Housing is often more affordable in the suburbs, property taxes lower and land cheaper. The massive migration to the periphery triggers the development of retail centers, especially big-box stores and smaller and more lucrative chains. The clean slate of undeveloped land is a boon to big-box retailers that prefer vast un-built acreage, a close highway and comparatively low land values with a potential to quickly rise. Decaying inner cities have none of those attributes. Still, when a big-box retailer does make its way into a central part of the city, inhabitants from all over the city flock to it in droves, overwhelming its parking lots. This intense commercial activity in turn acts as a catalyst for further commercial development in the surrounding area, making it more attractive for outsiders to move into the city. Tax revenues rise. This was part of the logic used by the city of New London in the argument for eminent domain. Nelson agrees that this kind of development is a good thing, but the uncoordinated nature of individual property rights acts as a barrier to opportunity. The solution lies in the ability for residents to control collectively their neighborhood, similar to homeowner associations (HOA) common to many newer master-planned neighborhoods:

Community associations are spreading rapidly in America's suburbs. From 1980 to 2000 half of new U.S. housing was built within a community association. It's time that the benefits of associations become available in older cities as well. A new state law would work like this: If a group of urban owners wished to consolidate their properties, they would petition the city. A transfer agreement for streets, parks and other public services would get worked out. Then if a supermajority of 70% or 80% voted to approve, a new private community association, including all the property owners, would be established.

It also sounds a lot like one of those condominium associations, where if the majority votes to do repairs on the property, the minority has to suck it up and pay, whether or not they can afford it. What might seem like a good idea for some in a neighborhood might not be for others, and there is no way that minority rights can be assured in such a situation. I’ve read quite a few anecdotal accounts of the tyrannical nature of HOA’s which makes me relieved that I’ve never been involved in one. Still, it’s precisely the case that I’m freer to choose where I live than those who can’t afford to that maybe some form of HOA is a good move towards enticing commercial anchors. After all, forming this kind of community association is voluntary, and if a developer does want to buy out many occupied lots, he can make an offer that would be far more generous to residents who are not all that interested through an association than by eminent domain. Nelson explains:

There would be no cram-down eminent domain; the property owners themselves, through a supermajority vote within their association, would approve any sale. And they'd get a price set not by judicial decree but by private negotiation. Proceeds would be divided according to the association's rules. If the owners preferred to stay in the neighborhood, rather than sell out, their new association would then function much like a residential version of a business improvement district. They could collect assessments, for instance, to sweep the sidewalk.

I am still not totally sold on the idea. It’s no doubt a very original idea and a welcome contribution to the debate on where authority should lie in city planning. I’m more interested in what you readers think of this idea and what potential problems and unexpected benefits the privatization of inner cities brings. Read Nelson’s piece and try to answer the question: is his proposal the best solution to the problem of eminent domain?

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Thirty Years’ War and the Real War Today: Muslim vs. Muslim

As democracy blooms in the Middle East, there is reason for rejoicing. Representative government and unleashed economies are two of the three necessary tools for a free society, and we should give thanks that more Iraqis and Afghanis are freer now than they were 5 years ago. We can hope that more Egyptians, Iranians, Saudi Arabians and Syrians will become free over the course of the next several years or decades. Democracy is spreading slowly by our account, fast by History’s, but it alone is not the final solution. Freedom does not flourish in a vacuum of representative government and free economies alone; virtue (what I will define as morality achieved through religious understanding) has final authority.

Therefore, if democracy is to last in the Middle East, the violent fundamentalist form of Islam that rules many Middle Eastern countries simply has to go. And the west can’t expel such an ideology on its own; it will need help from the inside. The Middle East will need an Islamic Reformation to make this so-called “clash of civilizations” (Christian vs. Muslim) a Muslim vs. Muslim debate, and the War on Terror will likely prove to be little more than a catalyst for such a Reformation, not the end result.

The great criticism of the Bush Doctrine is simple: “it won’t work.” Islam and democracy are as incompatible as oil and water. Not so, says Bush; All people have a yearning to be free, Muslim or not. And he is right. This is how we were created, in freedom. But does the modern (or archaic) state of Islam allow for this freedom? The answer seems to be no for several states, including but not limited to Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Mullahs and Imams seem content to spew hatred, slow to criticize suicide bombers, and happy to endorse the murder of infidels, God fearers or not. These states have a combination of religious and political power that the world has seen in the past, and the past tells us this combination leads to corruption, sometimes murder.

There was a time when Christendom had a similar combination of religious and political power. The medieval Christian church was the only game in town for most of Europe and the lines between religion and state were blurred. Princes and bishops had identical powers if not titles, and popes had free reign to tax and build in addition to holding moral sway over believers. Are there parallels with the power structure in the Muslim world? Whereas Islam has no mirror to the pope or the same hierarchy, it does have theocracies, state-sponsored clerics and legislators who consult with the Qur’an before making law.

So what did the medieval Catholic Church get as a result of such a combination of power and corruption? A stubborn monk, who was willing to die to speak the truth. And when this truth was spoken plainly, morally and without regard for self, it spread, aided by modern media. The Church still did not capitulate but the wellspring of grassroots support Martin Luther had for the truth caused a series of cataclystic political changes that forever altered the trajectory of the West. Separation of church and state, capitalism, and representative democracy owe their impetus to the Reformation, which preceded the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

But lest we gloss over the effects of the Reformation to be a mere posting of the 95 Theses and a few separatists starting a new church, the truth is far bloodier. The peasant revolts of 1524-25 cited their inspiration as the teachings of Luther, even though he washed his hands of the revolts. The revolts, spurred by the close relationship of political and religious power and their subsequent abuse, cost an estimated 100,000 lives. An internal battle between the powerful Catholics and the upstart Protestants had begun, and the results would be messy. Over time, Princes would convert to Protestantism as would all their citizens. This meant the pope was losing massive amounts of land and money. The result was the Thirty Years’ War.

It was the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) that is maybe the great tragedy of the Reformation, and if Islamic reform gains support from enough “liberal” Muslims, could we see similar bloodshed? The war was an outgrowth of the political ramifications of the Reformation, and was an internal Christian conflict between the Catholic Hapsburgs and German Protestants protecting their land. The result was, without exaggeration, one of the grisliest and most devastating wars the world has ever seen. Luther D. Reed, one of the great Lutheran historians of the 20th century wrote the following:

One-third of all the cultivated land in northern Germany was reduced to barrenness. Germany’s total population of 16,000,000 was reduced by armed conflict, murder, famine, disease, and emigration to less than 6,000,000. The war had lasted longer than the average expectancy of life in those times. Even when peace was signed the agony was not over. A whole generation of youth familiar only with violence and brutality, had grown to maturity without either secular or religious education. The population sank into ignorance and superstition from which even some of the highest among them were not free.

A more local example: during the war, a German pastor named Martin Rinkhart (1586 - 1649) buried 4,480 victims of the war alone, including his wife. Amazingly, he wrote the hymn “Now Thank We all Our God” during this time period.

What does this have to do with the current state of Islam? Simply that if democracy is to work (and I believe Middle Easterners do want it), a Muslim Luther will have to emerge to shake up the religious foundations of these states. Without such reform, virtue will be a forgotten component of these newly free societies. Perhaps Islamic leaders will go peacefully once their citizens get a taste of democracy. Perhaps the hate-mongers of Islam will be shown to be such a small minority that they will be voted out peacefully, one radical at a time. Democracy and free economies on their own simply cannot bear the weight of a religion that condones the murder of infidels. Rule of law would be made a mockery, and freedom would be short-lived.

The cost may be high for such a reformation, but it is due. The breaking of the bonds that politics and religion have with each other is crucial for a free society to prevail. And if the Thirty Years’ War teaches us anything, it will not be a victory quickly or easily won.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Suggested Reading

Since the success of any blog depends on good word of mouth, I feel I should show gratitude to the blogs that have helped draw in regular readers to Architecture and Morality. Among the posts that are well worth reading are:

  • 2 Blowhards features a stimulating interview between Max Goss of Right Reason with Roger Scruton on the Meaning of Conservatism. The interview probes deeply into conservatism’s philosophic principles which often are at odds with the policies of so-called “conservative parties”.
  • Ed Driscoll reviewed two concurrent exhibits in New York on the master architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe that took place four years ago. The Museum of Modern Art presented the Mies’ work during his formative years in Germany. His work after moving to America after Word War II was on display at the Whitney. How I wished to have seen this all at the time! Ed provides an excellent summary on the creative inspiration and his importance to the practice of architecture of the twentieth century. He also meditates on Le Corbusier and his influence on the ugly suburban housing projects of Western Europe.

  • Philip Klein commemorates what he believes is the best Cold War film of all time. I won’t divulge the name of this movie only to recall how fun and exciting it was when it first came out and how twenty years later I watch and kind of cringe at how silly it looks today. Yet the movie reveals much of what was going on in people’s minds at the time, and we should be reminded that what appears most important now will likely seem ridiculous when reexamined in the future. What I admire about movies in the eighties is that they weren’t afraid to depict a realistic enemy, something the politically correct Hollywood of today is too cowardly to do.
  • How close were the Nazis to realizing the nuclear bomb? Erik Svane at No Pasaran discusses a recurring pattern about how what we know of our enemies often underestimates their actual ability to inflict terrible harm. Often the cost of not intervening immediately is an even deadlier but necessary intervention later on. Hesitancy can breed defeat.
  • One of the best ways to learn about what makes certain buildings so moving to passerby is by sketching them. Gonewild at Architecture Sketches posts some of his sketches along with those of other famous architects. They track how designers think and how some initial concepts persist remarkably towards the completed building.
  • For a nice gateway to blogs that focus on Chicago and Illinois politics as well as on Unitarianism, you should check out Bill Baar’s West Side. Johnathan Gewirtz at Chicagoboyz also features an example of the odd nature of Chicago politics.