Saturday, February 25, 2006

Why Self-Help Turns Into Self-Hate

[Full disclosure: my fiancée was one of the winners of Oprah’s Pontiac G6 giveaway cars. She’ll probably be mad at me for writing this.]

Knowing that “Oprah” makes me angry, I try never to watch it. But occasionally, female influence forces the issue if I am to share couch time. I happened to catch an interview with Tracey Gold, former star of “Growing Pains” who has since battled with anorexia and been a frequent guest of Oprah’s. I was reminded what drives me nuts about the show: with self-righteous humility and a vague sense of the spiritual, the billion-dollar hostess offers little that gets one to look beyond themselves. When I read of a future show guest being a woman who had sex with almost 90 people and turned to Oprah for help, I began to believe a friend when he quipped that Oprah was a cult. Does this woman really think Oprah has the answers? Is there no other place she could have turned first, especially a place that is not on national TV? And where will Oprah point this woman to seek help?

All of this navel-gazing is unhelpful, and worse, unhealthy. While presuming to be the shining star of mental health, the self-help movement is an impossibly hopeless venture. It promises a never-ending quest for fulfillment, which must, to people on that never-ending journey, seem like a dead end after a while. If you go to any bookstore, you will notice a gigantic “self-help” section, which always makes me ask the question, “If the self-help movement was so successful, why would it need all of these silly books?” Doesn’t it seem obvious that if self-help worked, we would need relatively few expressions of it? Instead, we keep reinventing the self-help wheel, thinking if we can nail this aspect or that aspect of it down, we’ll finally figure ourselves out.

But we won’t. Even the masters of meditation, Zen Buddhists, would agree with that. There does not exist within us a magical key to turn for personal fulfillment, even as yoga, health food and eastern philosophy crazes come and go. There does exist a vast supply of cheats, walls and nooks that shield us from pain for a certain period of time. But looking for this magical key within us over the course of time will be limited, and all of the self-help in the world will come crashing down. And then, we will hate ourselves all the more. Why? Because we will always fall short of the ”potential” self-help wants us to see in ourselves. Always. It is our nature. It is the condition of original sin, which, whether you believe it or not, seems to have manifested itself enough over the course of history to prove it exists.

Of course, Oprah can never admit this. While she cedes a vague spirituality that is quasi-Christian, quasi-Buddhist, mostly-New Age, if she ever actually owned the precepts of Christianity, her show would cease to have a platform. The same is true for Dr. Phil and even courtroom television programming. (How I long for the days of Judge Wapner…) The advice to people could no longer be, “Look inside yourself and find what makes you happy,” but instead might be service, humility and blessedness, a form of happiness superior to that of self-help. But then, there’s no audience in that, and besides, that’s what churches are for. As someone who works in the church, I find Oprah’s philosophy of self-help to be futile in the end. Oh, occasionally, self-help can be a helpful tool in helping people to see their faults and repent, etc. But if it leads to a path of arrogance that includes the motto, “I can solve my own problems,” it is a dangerous way to view life.

Finally, I am not critical of Oprah for being wealthy. She has made her money the old-fashioned way in a free society, and I know she has been philanthropic with her wealth. I am critical because it is time we recognize the limitations of the pseudo-philosophy of self-help. It is a contradiction in terms and will lead innumerable people down a path no one is capable of staying on for a sustained amount of time, and when they get off of it, they will be too exhausted to examine other options. When they realize their limitations as fallen people, their failed self-help will lead to self-hate. The only bookstore section to help with that dilemma is “Religion,” and I’m afraid the religion of self will have already taken over by then.

Friday, February 24, 2006

What's Wrong with the Military?

Note: Architecture + Morality would like to welcome its readers to a new contributor to the blog, Civilserviceman. A native of north Louisiana and a recent graduate in civil engineering from the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, Civilserviceman spent several years in the U.S. navy as an enlistee. His perspectives from a person who served his country in the high seas will add even more depth to the topics discussed in this blog. Enjoy!-- Corbusier

Years ago it was not uncommon for a judge to give a convicted offender a choice, the Army or prison. Most of the time the convicted offender would take Army life over prison life if the Army would accept him. This is not the case toady. Today if a 19 year old comes in with an ounce of weed he is given a fine and some community service for his offence. Our liberalized society has made the military a bad thing. You have to volunteer to serve your country because your country shouldn’t be able to make you do anything you don’t want. I believe that in some parts of the country, being San Francisco and some corners of the northeast, you would be more respected being in prison than if you served in the military. We can force people into prison but can’t put them in the military. That just doesn’t make too much sense. So why don’t we go back to the ways of the past?

Today the media reports problems within the military in recruiting and retention. I don’t think there is a problem with recruiting members of society to do the jobs in the military that require more intelligence, but the military requires ditch diggers too. I believe that most of the people that are ambitious enough to join the military have a good head on their shoulders and want to do something with their lives. They aren’t druggies and trouble makers in society so they are qualified to do better jobs than the ones that are given to them. I submit that if we were to put some of these convicted offenders to work washing aircraft, painting ships, and doing general maintenance work around bases, the persons who volunteer for the military could be used to their full potential. This is one benefit to putting the petty offenders who are making no contribution to society in the military.

Another thing we must understand is that not all of the people doing bad things in society are bad people. Okay, a lot of them are and couldn’t be trusted to work in Wal-Mart, but some of these people have a lot of potential if they find something that interests them. Taking a 19 year old kid that has done some petty things and putting him in the military would expose this person to things which he has never been exposed. For example, if a kid is sent into the Navy and gets stationed on a ship as a deck hand, that person will be painting, standing lookout watch, hauling lines, and doing other things that need to be done but don’t take a lot of brain power. But, as this person lives on the ship he might find that he is intrigued in the gun systems or propulsion systems. Once being in the Navy myself I know that the opportunity is there to go as far as you want if that is the lifestyle that you choose.

Another benefit to these people is stability. We all know that a kid that is committing crimes at a young age usually comes from a home where there was a lack of discipline and stability. The neighborhood provide no future for these kids and many times the ones that try to better themselves are looked down on and harassed by their constituents. What a tragedy. The military would provide structure and stability for some of these people that have never seen it and remove them from a society that will only push them in a downward spiral. Who knows, maybe if we give a kid a job, he makes a little money, and has something he is proud of there will be a change in that person’s life.

In conclusion, I believe that putting people in the military who have no direction in life, drop out of high-school and don’t work, and generally become a burden on society is a good thing. In essence you would turn a burden on society into a person who serves his society. I understand that not all of these people being put into the military will be successful in the military and maybe only 25% will be, but that’s a lot better than having to keep these people in prisons and pay all their court costs for years to come. If only 25% get their lives turned around that’s 25% less people that will be living off social programs and in a perpetuated state of nothingness. That sounds good to me. Our tax dollars could be better spent by supporting our national defense than by building more prisons and hiring more guards. Maybe some day our country will rid itself of some of it’s liberalistic views and get back to the ideals that made this country great.

The Ports and Education in the UAE

As we all know the United States Ports being sold to the United Arab Emirates are a hot bone of contention in government today. I have been listening to Rush and Sean Hannity for the past couple of days and done some reading online as well. My position is that I trust the President, but there is one question that I have that has not been reported by the press. Is the government in the UAE teaching anti-western views in their public schools? We know that the government of Saudi Arabia supports an anti-western view to be taught in their public schools. For this reason and for this reason alone I would not let the Saudi government attain access to anything that could remotely affect our ports. So does the government of the UAE feel the same?

I have been to UEA, Dubai to be exact. I will say that it is a beautiful country as far as countries go in the desert. They are far ahead of their neighbors Oman and Yemen. The architecture is second to none and the people of that country enjoy a prospering free market economy. The UAE is probably the most like the U.S. of all the countries in the Middle East. There has been debate because some of the September 11 hijackers used the banking systems in the UAE to fund their activities in the build up to September 11, but should we not talk to the Swiss? We know that banking is their biggest commodity and that they give banking support to some of the worst people in the world. So what about them? Also people are talking about the UAE not being trust worthy because some of the 9/11 hijackers traveled to the U.S. via UAE. Well what about the place they stopped in between the U.S. and the UAE? I’m sure it wasn’t a non-stop flight.

The security of the ports will not be lessened by doing business with the UAE. Security will still be controlled by the Coast Guard and the work in the ports will still be done by United States workers. If anything, I believe there will be a higher amount of security as a by-product of the added attention. Although the UAE is a country that embraces a violent religion such as Islam, I believe that the government of the UAE puts this aside in the interest of money. Also, it is not like terrorists to be so public in their affairs. I believe that most of our country is acting in prejudice because the UAE is a Middle Eastern Nation. It is understandable though. The scars from 9/11 run deep, not to mention all the terrorist attacks before and after.

The bottom line is that I don’t believe that the government of UAE is willing to sacrifice what they have in the interest of terrorist agendas. Why spend the money? But, this is the position of the current government in place. If these people are still supporting the teachings of anti-western views then what will happen thirty years down the road? Children are very vulnerable in their younger years and very impressionable. If we look at the Palestinians we see the result of teaching a people anti-western views from the earliest years of their lives. Although I don’t believe that any future government of the UAE would risk or even be successful in an attack on the United States, doing business with a country that condones this kind of teaching is morally wrong. These teachings by a foreign government to their children undermines the efforts of the United States in the War on Terror and promotes the idea that the American government is more interested in establishing business relations than acknowledging the principles that the people of the United States stand behind. National Security and Moral Principles come first.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Choosing the Oppressor over the Liberator

Why is it that whenever a country is saved from a brutal enemy by another country, a sense of resentment arises towards its rescuer? The young French have pretty much forgotten the United States' efforts in liberating the country from its Nazi occupers. Young Germans are unaware that their country is free and democratic because of American efforts in containing the Soviet threat. And now this poll reveals a pervasive feeling of antagonism against Americans among young South Koreans:

Nearly half of South Korean youths who will be old enough to vote in the country's next elections say Seoul should side with North Korea if the United States attacks the communist nation, according to a poll released Wednesday.

Maybe I am jumping the gun and ignoring the possibility that young Koreans simply share more in common with other Koreans on the other side of the demilitarized zone. In a traditional ethnocentric national polity like Korea, it's likely that the unity of the Korean 'race' trumps all other considerations and alliances. As the poll later reveals, most Koreans wish reunification with the North. But I wonder if these youths are being a bit naive on their desire for both Koreas to become one. Having lived in Germany three years after reunification, I was able to observe how the euphoria of national togetherness was replaced by an endless litanny of resentment from both sides. From the West Germans' loathing of having to pay extra taxes for reconstruction in the East to the Easterner's disenchantment with Westerner's snobbery and indifference to their plight, reunification has exacted a heavy toll on everyone. Korea's reunification would pose an even greater challenge than that in Germany, as the disparity in the standard of living between North and South is greater, and South Korea has even fewer resources to sponsor reconstruction. In addition, the collective psychological damage done to the North Koreans will inflict insurmountable hardships on South Koreans who are, in my opinion, very much in the dark about what goes on north of the border.

The poll reveals a lot about what these youths don't know. They seem to be unaware of the excessive famine, brainwashing, expansive political gulags, and illicit weapons development taking place in their northern neighbor. The youths also are completely unaware of who their true international partners are:

The youths named China as South Korea's most important partner for maintaining friendly relations, at 39.5 percent, followed by the United States and North Korea at 18.4 and 18 percent, respectively.

China is North Korea's only real ally, and is also the primary reason that Kim Jong Il is still in power. Not only does China provide North Korea with just enough materials and resources to prop up one the most oppressive regimes in the world and thus ensuring the fragile military tension between North and South. But China had sacrificed hundreds of thousands of its own citizens during the Korean War to repell American-led efforts to unify the country under a democratic government. What angered most about the poll results was the implied ingratitude towards the one nation that guaranteed South Korea the opportunity to prosperous and free. This one nation isn't China, which has tirelessly in the last half century ensured that half the Korean peninsula remains imprisoned under a totalitarian dictatorship. It's the United States, which has deployed over 35,000 soldiers to contain North Korean aggression, that has guaranteed young Koreans to highlight their hair, enjoy their own kind of hip-hop music and take part in their obsession of short-track speedskating. Without the American presence at the border, the young Koreans would have missed out on having hosted the Olympics and the World Cup. The selection of China as their best friend reminds me of polls showing Germans trusting Putin's Russia more than the United States. Somehow they feel more secure allying with a regime that has progressively shut down the press and excluded opposition parties than with one that lets individuals around the world enjoy the fruits (and risks) of freedom.

I have listened quite a lot to the viewpoints of these young Koreans, particularly during my time as a graduate student. They hold a suspiscion that Americans are only in Korea to exert power and influence and could care little about the actual well being of South Koreans. They are confident that they could handle the job of containing the North Koreans by themselves, and anyway the policy of rapprochement with Kim Jong Il will inevitably lead to a joyous reunification. It makes me wonder what these young (and often brilliant) students are told by their teachers and political leaders. There must be a concerted effort among the South Korean political leadership to conceal that true nature of their neighbors in the North. It is obvious that the North Korean political refugees aren't given much of a forum when they make it past the border.

Is it just a natural reaction for the people of a country unable to defend itself at a crucial moment in their history to convince themselves that they were indeed quite capable, but that a foreign power prevented them from proving themselves? It's quite entertaining to listen to Europeans brag about their 'superb' military forces and advanced tactical skills, making it seem that they could have man-handled the Soviets all by themselves. Or that because young conscripted South Korean soldiers repeatedly practice their movements in the event of North Korean aggression, that somehow they could overrun the border and disregard nuclear retaliation.

The desire to believe that one's nation is completely self-sufficient is a strong influence on a person's views about America. If you come from a country that has displayed military impotence and economic disarray, the shame of having a benevolent foreign power revive your country must provoke sense of shame. This in turn incites feelings of resentment, as in "how dare you show how weak I am in confronting my enemies!". I'm sure quite a few Iraqis feel this way, especially when the Americans got rid of a regime in three weeks that the people themselves were unable to depose for several generations. But the Koreans have much to be proud of, and have sorted themselves in an enviable position internationally. From where I stand, any contrarian point of view spouted by a young Korean will be moot. The South Korea of muscular industrial conglomerates, top-flight schools and competitive athletes owes the United States an unending due.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

For “catholic” Christians, Old is the New New

If history repeats itself, it’s interesting to be re-living an era for the first time. Liturgical scholarship has paved the way for where the Church will head: into the Past, and with great reverence. This scholarship has pointed to the historical continuation of and new appreciation for very old Christian habits: a meal, a bath, readings from an old book, praying and healing. And now, not just in worship but in lifestyle, some Christians may find themselves reliving the early years of their Christian forefathers and fore mothers.

The reason is very simple. Something else that is old is gaining strength, even if in new ways: persecution. I am not an alarmist, and I don’t want to sound melodramatic. I’m not into shock value, and I rarely engage in conspiracy theories. This new persecution is in many ways not active at all but passive. It finds its voice in many conduits. Here are a few:

1. A media that holds a double standard towards Muslims and Christians. Muslim violence towards Christians (and certainly Jews) is often overlooked, downplayed or ignored. This places Christianity in a defensive position, having to justify its history and doctrines, while Islam is never asked to do the same. Any Christian violence is examined, and a claim of absolute truth is sneered at with flippancy.
2. The assumption of Christianity as culture, not a religious life that asks some obedience, if not total obedience. This is a mild persecution that makes the Christian life one choice of many, a consumerist decision more than a radical faith claim.
3. The effort by some Christians to turn the faith into a business, leaving an orthodox faith to look obsolete, naïve and outdated. These Christians would never want to see this as persecution, but to my mind, it forces orthodox Christians into a place that looks like a medieval dungeon to a world used to mass media and celebrity.

This may not be persecution as much as apathy. Either way, it is slowly causing Christians to look to Church History with more frequency and earnestness. This shows up in many ways, from highly successful Christianity 101 programs (like “Alpha”) at churches to History Channel documentaries on the early apostles to the success of Roman Catholic radio programming like Relevant Radio. (The topics here are not selling WWJD bracelets or promoting the latest Christian rock concert. They are Eucharist, baptism, confession, and certainly political issues like abortion and birth control.) I believe “catholic” Christians are seeing themselves the way they used to be seen in many respects, as household meetings in a community that is doing something obviously different from the community, because the faith is no longer assumed.

This is happening in Protestant communities as they shift from a “membership” model to a “discipleship” model. Christians are starting to see themselves as disciples of the person of Jesus more than members of a local church. This is their response to living in a Post-Christian culture where the faith is no longer the assumption, even if over 80% claim to be Christian. This sort of “ownership” of the faith often finds its common denominator in simple things, old things, things pre-Constantine Christianity considered their defining rituals and lifestyle.

Now, why am I limiting this discussion to “catholic” Christians? The Relievedebtor bias strikes again! From my experience, too many charismatic or evangelical Christians have resisted this subtle persecution in a different way: they have attempted to blend into the culture as seamlessly as possible. (Disclaimer: this is not true for them all, I know it’s painting with a broad brush, etc. etc. etc.) In ways I’ve discussed previously, charismatics have made evangelism a business model. In music, attire, mass media and even coffee shops in church lobbies, charismatics have not reverted to the old things of Christianity, but tried to bring a post-Christian culture into their “new” way of being faithful. My bias is that this is ultimately misleading about what the faith truly is, and will create a cultural Christianity that makes Christians indistinguishable from anybody else. It is often great for behavior modification, but I don’t know that it cultivates a life of faith as well as a creedal and sacramental piety.

In many ways charismatics are indignant about this persecution and offer harsh rebuttals to the world before adopting many of its sales techniques. For that, it deserves some credit. But to my mind, catholic Christians have no interest in turning Christianity into a fad. They have an interest more in bringing the world to a counter-cultural revolution, fueled by water, bread and wine. I don’t mean to sound pietistic or simple; I’m referencing a simple return to orthodoxy more than anything else.

One final thought: if the “clash of civilization” comes to a head and the threat of Islam to the west is taken more seriously, I can see more Christians reverting more quickly back to the “old” things of Christianity. A theology of prosperity will have much less appeal when Iran’s nuclear weapons are headed towards LA or NY.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Why I Like the Winter Olympics

Alright, I’m kind of fed up by all the joking criticism the Winter Olympic Games are getting. From the complaint that everything is pre-taped to questioning of the relevance of particular events like curling, to many people it seems that the games are for the most part a waste of time. Somehow we're better off ignoring sports highlighted once every four years so that we can focus on more exciting team sports like college basketball’s “March Madness” and the beginning of the baseball season. To which I respond with a big ‘ughh!’ Shouldn’t one just let go and simply soak up the unusual and yet fascinating sports once every four years?

It’s true many of the sports featured in the Winter Olympics could never command a permanently large audience like the more traditional team sports. Making a living as a skier, snowboarder or figure skater is extremely difficult, and the only real incentive for competing is for the love of the sport. But just because the sports are neither commercially nor professionally viable does not mean the Olympics can’t offer the more exhilarating action and beauty than anything else out there. The picturesque snow-covered venues for the outdoor events, the dizzying jumps and spins made possible by skates, the gleaming icy surfaces on which permit the body to travel faster than is humanly possible, —all of it is a treat for viewers like me who marvel at the ideals of faster, higher, and ever more graceful. I’ll take any coverage of sports that combine technology, art and precision where I can find it.

Part of the commercial success of team sports over individual competitive sports is the simplicity of the former. To play soccer, all one needs is a ball and ten other teammates. Football requires a ball and the primordial ability to throw, catch, run and tackle. Baseball is about hitting a ball with a big stick and catching the ball with the enhancement of a glove. By contrast, figure skating not only requires you to know how to skate, but to move the body in ways that are only confined by one’s imagination and the force of gravity. Skiing not only requires one to know how to ski (from my own experience, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally) but also the knowledge of how to negotiate icy terrain and calculate the shortest distance. Luge looks easy to many, but if it were, how come so few in the world are willing travel up to eighty miles an hour on ice? Some question the validity of snow-boarding as Olympic worthy, to which I reply: of course it is! Every time I go skiing, at least a quarter of the people on the mountain are snow-boarders, and it isn’t restricted to youngsters. Few even attempt the somersaults featured in the half-pipe events as that skill demands gymnastic talent beyond the mere skill of knowing how to snowboard.

The Winter Olympics provide an aesthetic richness to sport I find mostly lacking in popular team sports. Sure there’s beauty in the perfect throw or goal, but I’m more captivated by elegant forms, whether by the apparatus used by the athlete (the skis, the bobsled, the aerodynamic outfits) or by the bodies in motion. Maybe that’s why the ice hockey competition is my least preferred event, as it’s a bunch of guys in bulky padding and masks clumsily chasing a puck and whacking it to the goal however they can. Heck, even in curling there is a precision and patience that is far more appealing. My perspective is somewhat influenced by my few years in competitive gymnastics. I never reached a high level of accomplishment in the sport, but I did develop a deep appreciation for the discipline’s emphasis on the purity of form, pace, and choreography. I can’t think of any other sport that combines strength, flexibility, rhythm, balance and art as powerfully as gymnastics. The winter sports incorporate many of these similar qualities, and for me they are as much a celebration of the potential of the human body as they are about who wins the medals. I sincerely hope that many of the critics of the Winter Games would pause and just take in the speed and grace unique to the events.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Are We Too Cool for the Olympics?

When I heard the news that the ratings for the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics were only half of what they were a mere four years ago, I was not surprised. These Olympics have crept upon us with seemingly no fanfare, little publicity and even less joy or excitement about them. I heard no one speak about the Olympics until they had already begun, and whereas “America Idol,” “Friends,” or “Oscar” parties are commonplace, I have heard of no such parties for viewing the Olympics. Not that my experience is a great barometer, but the lax approach to the games seems widespread. So I have to ask, are we too cool for the Olympics? Why have they ceased to have much meaning for us anymore?

Ceremonies of that nature have never appealed to me, so I didn’t watch four years ago or this year. The importance of ritual for all meaningful acts was reinforced, though, so I appreciate Christian rituals all the more. I do enjoy the games, however, and I have watched some of the competition even though I don’t have cable and Peacock barely comes in on my television. But where I live, I have noticed the older generations paying more attention to these Olympics than anyone else. It seems that a few things have changed since the Olympics last mattered: culture became skeptical about patriotism, professional sports events like the Super Bowl have supplanted less common sports seen in the Olympics, and the splendor of it all has been reduced by personal luxuries like leisure and travel.

Patriotism is seen as an old-fashioned value for the naïve at heart. Loyalty to country is less important than loyalty to self, and sacrifice is no longer a pressing demand from the American government (with the exception of high taxes). There are no drafts, there are no moon walks, there is no great moment our nation needs to gather around because even the greatest of our achievements (spreading democracy in the Middle East) can be done with but a portion of the population at minimized loss. But because doubt about the greatness of America has crept into the subconscious of her citizens through lunatic professors and a media that seems to have disdain for the US, there seems to be less joy about our sons and daughters competing against the world’s best. But what a tragic day when we have the luxury of caring less about our great land! While we may be in a malaise about our precious athletes, make no mistake in thinking that every other nation does not want to beat us, because they are hungry for a victory over the good ol’ USA.

Perhaps it isn’t all our fault, though. The three major sports leagues in America (NFL, MLB, NBA) have done such a wonderful job of marketing their sports that we are more proud when our Cubs, Mavericks or Saints win than when the US wins. And for those of us who actually like the NBA, we notice that some of the greatest players in the league come from Bosnia, Germany or Brazil, and this alone diminishes the unique appeal of the Olympics. Like everything else, professional sports has become globalized to the point where the novelty of seeing people from other countries is nothing new. Consequentially, the Olympics has lost some of its mystique, glamour and charm. But more than that, there just isn’t enough money to be made on the Olympics anymore. Endorsement deals for athletes that get face-time every 4 years isn’t sensible to shoe and credit card companies. Nike will take a McNabb who quarterbacks 17 days a year or a LeBron who dunks 82 nights a year over a downhill slalom skier who is seen 1/100th of the time any day of the week.

Finally, as the world grows richer, travel and leisure are a staple of yearly life for many of us. Traveling to once exotic destinations as Athens, Salt Lack City or Turin is a charge on the credit card, a call to a travel agent and maybe an adjustment on our timeshare. The Olympics can no longer be situated in any place that is thought of as too “far away,” or a distant corner of the world worth learning about and appreciating. It’s all within our grasp; the world has grown much smaller, and the sentiment associated with the Olympics has suffered.

I just finished watching the documentary “From the Earth to the Moon,” and I was struck at how little people cared about Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. Of course Apollo 11 was Neil Armstrong’s giant leap and 13 was a disaster unlike anything anyone had seen. But all the other trips to the moon were largely ignored, even though the most interesting finds were made and the feat no less impressive. These Olympics are also impressive, and these athletes worthy of our attention, if not just for their physical prowess, but also because they in fact represent America. Lest we forget, this is a special place countless millions in the world give anything to live in. We should cheer on our ambassadors, and laud them for their achievements.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Imploding Democrats Hurt Conservatives Most

There has been much talk about the implosion of the Democratic Party and its lack of sane leadership in recent years, and it seems to be coming to fruition. As Democrats continue to try to sell socialism to conservative buyers, they have been reduced to a loud minority with little real power. Only power enough to annoy, and annoy they have.

But their implosion may hurt conservatives the most. Because conservatism is strongest in a climate of political gridlock and the free debate of ideas, Republican conservatism is hurt by not having a legitimate debate partner and having the luxury to pass most legislation they want. Which would be great if tax cuts and Social Security reform were the only priorities for Republicans. But “big government conservatism” seems to be a mainstay, with prescription drug and education spending out of control. This appeasement to the “middle” is the very triangulation conservatives resented Clinton for pulling off with just enough votes to get him elected in two three-way races.

So here is the opportunity for Democrats: give conservative voters a legitimate choice at the ballot box. Become libertarians in spirit, keeping your social liberalism, but offering a serious challenge to Republicans when it comes to government spending. Reclaim your namesake by advocating democracy at the local level, try arguing for limited government, and make socially liberal arguments not on moral grounds, but on grounds concerning the size of government. Make “Pro-choice” about freedom from government more than granting the judiciary the power to make life and death decisions.

Another winner of an issue might be immigration. To win over conservatives who don’t believe in “big government conservatism,” set the standard on strict immigration standards by simply enforcing the laws already on the books. I think conservatives would actually welcome this and given that 99% of the fastest growing counties voted “R” in 2004, it appears demographics are pointing towards a conservative majority in America for a long time. Couple this with the Wall Street Journal’s ironic “Roe Effect” and it’s easy to see the possibility for a serious reformation in the works.

I don’t doubt that I’m dreaming, mainly because it seems that it is no longer possible to be a party of ideas without immediately finding a way to fund them. So “big government conservatism” has been born and true conservatives should feel at least a little duped. And while Democrats have themselves to blame for their powerlessness in DC, conservative voters rightly should cringe when any one party controls all major branches of the federal government. We had a balanced budget in the Clinton years because stubborn Republicans refused to pass Clinton’s socialized programs (and a phony economy). Now we’ve lost that gridlock, and the debate has turned personal, spiteful, and even boring.

Good foreign policy is still monopolized by Republicans, which seems to lock in wins for another several elections. I can’t even imagine as many in France and Denmark are chanting anti-Bush slogans with the Islamic violence they are experiencing. And if border crossing terrorists begin suicide bombings in US, patience will quickly disappear among moderates unsure of what the reaction should be to radical Islam.

But on the domestic front, should conservatives be saying “Hillary in ’08?”

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

J'en peux plus: What will it be, moderate Muslims?

Before events regarding the Danish cartoons that have incited violent reactions by Muslims in the Middle East wind down (or expand?), I felt I should briefly share my own feelings about it. Many other writers frame the debate better than I can and there isn’t much to excuse the acts of either the cartoonists or the protesters/arsonists. I don’t at all enjoy childish provocations that belittle anyone’s religious belief, even as I come to expect it more and more, especially if one is a Christian like me. Every story and character in the Bible has been employed by creative types to make all sorts of points irrelevant to their religious origin. Sometimes it is fine and I applaud the new take on an old story, but other times its just plain crass. My reaction is that of pity for the person who is so intent to trash religious figures. I never wish ill on such people but hope that they will discover somewhere along the way a greater respect for religious belief.

Still a society that abides to the principle of freedom of expression will have to tolerate all ideas regardless of their unpopularity. Insults and other verbal offenses are to be dealt with civility, as is common to any civilized place. To respond with violence is therefore un-civilized and resembles the kind of conflicts that generate intergenerational blood-feuds. I had learned that Islam was quintessentially an urban religion, one that enabled the organization of a wide multitude of peoples under a set of coherent rules for daily conduct. I don’t see where arson and dressing up children as future martyrs advances this enlightened civilizing order that is Islam.

In determining who the winners and losers in the Danish cartoon fiasco, right now things don’t look good for Muslims who want no part in the violence and would rather more sensibly protest or debate peacefully about it. I’m awaiting evidence that shows moderate Muslims are committed to extinguishing their fundamentalist detractors’ political and media influence. But with every public eruption, incessant terrorist activity within Muslim areas, with numerous incidents of torture supposedly sanctioned by sharia, I lose my patience and am forced to reassess the actual intentions of moderate Muslims. I know there are many of you out there, currently enjoying life and indulging in the same pleasures all other dhimmis do. What are you going to do when the most radical elements of your religion have taken over its major megaphones and have taken over most regimes in the Middle East, subjecting everyone to strict social and legal codes?

National Review’s Jim Geraghty, who currently lives in Turkey, sums up my general feelings best when he writes:

I know, from my experiences, that there are significant numbers of Muslims who have no beef with the West, who want to live the American dream, who can practice their faith and coexist with other religions. I’ve documented their efforts to take back their faith from the bin Ladens of the world. But apparently they are too quiet.
I wonder how many Muslims understand how the actions of the embassy-torching maniacs define their faith to so many. I wonder how many don’t know, how many don’t care, and how many do know and care but are too scared of the consequences to stand against the violence committed in their name. I’m trying to articulate my positive experiences with Muslims over here to my readers, but it’s not as powerful and penetrating an image as screaming lunatics burning down embassies and threatening to behead anyone who they believe has insulted them. And frankly, I’m not all that wowed with the reaction of moderate Muslims. I’m not sure how much further I want to stick my neck out defending a faith community that won’t loudly and firmly police or rebuke its own members. It’s depressing, but maybe we've got to go through this... delaying a clash might be just postponing the inevitable...

It’s not enough for some Western-based moderate cleric or even a chic young attractive Muslim woman to appear on a television talk show to say that what the terrorists are doing is against Islam. Within a secure country where everyone’s dignity and individual rights are respected (E.U., U.S.), that kind of message is almost mandatory but changes little the threat posed by radical Islam on Muslims. Saying this same message in the many parts of Middle East appears to require a lot more courage, and it’s telling that we don’t hear near enough from people who bring a sound understanding of Islam to hostile places. Where are the emerging political parties in the Middle East that preach a tolerant Islam, democratic government and intellectual freedom? Politics is a vacuum and competing powers are quick to cover as much of the vacuum as possible. It does not necessarily reward the parties that have the good sensible ideas. It rewards the party that organizes itself the best. This is the time for the moderates to take charge and organize, because it will be close to impossible to have a chance under the dominion of the Islamists.

Update: I just found this in which Canadian columnist David Warren crystalizes what I was getting around to say never did:

"Every time we refuse a radical Muslim demand, by sticking to our sound Western principles, we strengthen reasonable Muslims against the fanatics. Every time we relent, we strengthen the fanatics."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Leisure and the End of Housekeeping

I’ve realized lately that I’ve been so accustomed to going to work every day that the mere act of taking a lengthy vacation seems to be a hazy memory of the past. Week in, week out, I show up at the office with any thought to my deserved leisure time out of mind. Once I’m on vacation the experience of having nothing important (business-wise) to accomplish catches me bit off guard. And yet, given the choice, I would always desire more vacation time over a pay raise.

So it was with a bit of skepticism that I read Tim Worstall’s piece at TCS Daily about the rise of leisure time among American workers. Using an interesting set of criteria in the form of unpaid work, the latest research indicates that as Americans have maintained the same rate of hours worked, the hours devoted to leisure have risen steadily in the past decades. What accounts for a large proportion of this rise in leisure time has been the reduction of unpaid hours of work performed typically by women. What some may call “chores” like housecleaning, cooking, laundry and raising children was calculated as unpaid work. Many women have recently been more than happy to let others do these things for a fee so that they could pursue real paid work rather than opting to stay at home and do unpaid work. Because one can now hire maids, landscapers, dry-cleaners, and daycare, that leaves them more time to enjoy themselves when not at the workplace.

This ‘outsourcing’ of traditional household duties has therefore nurtured abundant low-skilled jobs. Immigrants benefit from such jobs which permit them to assimilate into the economic mainstream quickly. Though these jobs pay relatively little, it’s better than there being no job available, which only exacerbates feelings of exclusion and resentfulness. Worstall’s article makes this point about unemployment in Europe:

"The smaller number of service jobs per adult in Germany than in the US shows up in both the least skilled service sectors and in high-tech and high skilled service sectors. The conventional explanation of the US-EU employment gap focuses on the relative dearth of low skilled service sector jobs in the EU because of the consequences on joblessness and social exclusion."
That is, if everyone stays home canning there are no simple jobs in the factories for people to do. So they rot on the scrap heap of unemployment, burning cars for entertainment's sake. This European social model doesn't seem to have all that much going for it so far really, does it?

There’s more on the comparison between the U.S. and Germany regarding the difference hours worked and leisure. The overall gist of Worstall’s article is that Europeans end up being stuck doing a lot of house chores on their free time, while Americans increasingly leave it to others and actually have fun on their days off. It’s an interesting conclusion, and it certainly explains a little bit the difference between the two sides on what one expects to do during their time off.

My experience has always been that Europeans tend to enjoy the simple things during their time off, often happily frequenting the town’s parks, cafes and other amenities. Americans seem impatient to leave town be whisked away to some place that’s as far from their mundane reality as possible. Vacations tend to be short, often no longer than a week at a time, which is why the more a vacation trip can be packaged, the better. In Europe, particularly in France, vacations are long enough for the family to rent a seaside villa and hang around for a month with no effort in scheduling activities from day to day. Working Americans, I’ve noticed, prefer coordinated activities provided by the resort/cruise/theme park, giving the visitor the impression that one can get the most complete exposure to a place in the shortest amount of time. Bear in mind that I’m generalizing quite broadly, as I’m aware that there are Europeans and Americans who like to spend their free time in ways that are not all that different. Many Americans like to spend their vacations quite leisurely while numerous European tourists flood the Mediterranean in tightly packaged resorts.

Whether you’ll ever convince an American worker that he or she has the same amount of leisure time as a European, most of my colleagues would love to have even more time off if possible. Of course all that time would be useless if one’s wages were to be diminished in exchange. The one thing I do agree with in the article is the importance of how non-paid work affects the quality of the time spent outside the workplace. When I lived in Germany as an exchange student, I recalled the endless hours spent just maintaining the house, whether by cleaning, taking care of the numerous potted plants and making sure there was enough coal or chopped wood for the furnace (this was in the former communist German Democratic Republic).

There was rarely a family excursion to enjoy, and I found I had to organize my own leisurely trips around Europe. The family I lived with was relatively well-off for their community, and they were so because they were aggressive small business entrepreneurs. In spite of the depressed economic state of the surrounding towns, they understood that tremendous initial efforts were required in order ensure long-term success of the business. Their dedication to working and depriving themselves of any valuable time off was more in keeping with American ways of doing things than German.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Kanye West- Image over Music

When pictures featuring the rapper Kanye West as the crucified Christ were circulated in the media a week ago, I was immediately reminded that much of what passes for pop music today is really about public image than about talent. Granted, West has displayed a talent in creating rhythmic loops that can be infectious on the radio and dance floor, even as his music is really mostly a tapestry of samples and pre-recorded beats stored on a computer. But what the “Passion of Kanye West” photo for Rolling Stone magazine reveals is how aggressively the artist is trying to project a public persona. With his controversial (or inane) statements, and his seemingly childish arrogance, West is really trying to promote the person more than the music. Music therefore becomes a means toward celebrity, or rather towards becoming a public icon.

The opinion columnist Jonah Goldberg describes this well when writing about Kanye West. He points out how the image of the rebellious individual has been used repeatedly to generate sales of records, and that audiences are willing to fall for image over music again and again:

But I do think I understand marketing and public relations, and I am astounded by the naïveté of young people — black and white — who actually buy the canned rebelliousness not just of rap music but of most pop music.
West is simply the latest example of decades of hucksterism. Under the headline "The Passion of Kanye West," the rap star graces the cover of Rolling Stone posing as a bloodied Jesus with a crown of thorns. I particularly enjoy the publicity around the piece. Clearly borrowing from the same press release, publications across the country proclaim that the "outspoken rapper defends his brash attitude inside the magazine."
Ah, yes. It's about time. After all, it's so rare to find a rapper with a brash attitude. Normally they're shy, retiring types overflowing with modesty and humility. I was particularly enamored with the "aw, shucks" Andy Griffith personalities of Niggaz Wit Attitude and the late Tupac Shakur.

Rebellion and arrogance sell, especially to the youths who identify with such behavior. It is likewise evidence that teenagers are incapable of actually judging what’s actually good, and so aesthetic decisions on art, music, and even fashion are determined by attitude and mood. Whether it’s the gangsta rapper, the goth rocker, or the techno DJ, their musical output emphasizes an attitude against the world and particular obsessions common to the cult of fans who buy their music. And yet the fans do grow up and their attitudes on life change, while the music they once listened to hasn’t. What was once an overpowering image of rebellion and sexuality to the teenager now seems whiny, sleezy and shallow to the mature adult saddled with responsibilities. Pop music, which is anything that is popular to a mass audience, often relies on an image to represent it, preferably one that relates to the primary target market -- the youth. Without an attractive icon, the music becomes unmarketable, no matter how appealing. The Milli Vanilli scandal was a case in point: a German producer with his session musicians and vocalists had created pop r&b tracks that he was confident would be popular, but he was in desperate need of an image that could headline the music. He saw nothing wrong with taking a couple of black models with no singing talent to promote the songs and the rest was history.

The show American Idol is very illustrative of the importance of image. The show’s founder and most critical judge Simon Cowell is the embodiment of the contemporary music industry’s fixation with style over substance. Whether its Teletubbies or handsome tenors playing shlocky operatic pop, Mr. Cowell is a pro in turning unlikely acts into hits in spite of the embarrassing quality of the music. He repeatedly makes the distinction between vocal talent and sellable image and makes it clear that the latter is more important than the former. There’s no arguing that this works in selling many records, especially in the initial releases. The drawback is that often the icon’s music success is short, which it is rare to find artists who can maintain hits past a second album. The icon’s relevance evaporates as tastes among the public change. To maintain relevance, the icon either has to remake their image to fit the new times or one engages newsworthy behavior.

My suspicions are that Kanye West will follow the latter, as it’s clear to me that he has no intention in pursuing a music career longer than he can afford to do something else. His image as the ‘preppy rapper’ was well timed as the need to react against the thug image of prior rappers was long overdue. But West’s music is for the most part insubstantial. He’s eager to promote his brand identity and unsurprisingly is already starting his clothing line. “Me, Inc.” has now evolved into “Me, registered trade mark”. Kanye will likely pursue Hollywood, the ultimate place where individuals are valued by who they are over what they can actually do.
What’s interesting about pop stars or starlets is that their career paths end up in two opposite directions: Either they are consumed by celebrity, the image they have cultivated and embark into a self-destructive life of alcohol, drugs and crime; or they become the savviest of businessmen, parlaying their brand image beyond recording and usually becoming executives in the very music industry that exploited them in the first place. The instance when David Bowie issued “Bowie Bonds” comes to mind, or when Michael Jackson bought the Beatles’ song catalogue.

One of the most enlightening case studies regarding the value of image over music is the career of David Bowie. Long known to be a chameleon, his music was often erratic in quality, and his most profitable part of his career was regarded by fans as his artistic low point (1980’s). Before then, Bowie struggled to create the right persona, from mod gentlemen, to hippie folk singer to proto-metal rocker. He finally scored when he created his character as a bi-sexual alien glam-rocker, but soon transformed himself into a white soul singer before it was too late. Bowie’s early struggles and massive debts had taught him lots about the music industry, and as soon as he attained solvency, took steps to secure his wealth with very little pressure to generate lots of record sales. Still, Bowie is quite different from West in that he cultivated a changing layered persona that is markedly original, with music of such admirable complexity that he earned a loyal fan base. West’s fan base is more ephemeral, as demonstrated by the fact that he could only fill half the auditorium during his last concert in Dallas.

I get the feeling that Kanye is clever enough to secure his wealth. He probably knows that he has probably only five album’s worth of material in him before opting for other opportunities. Still I have doubts as to whether he can maintain his brand identity for that long as he tries hard to put off many potential fans with his silly comments. He doesn’t seem to be cultivating fan loyalty at all which is crucial to ensuring a long career as a recording artist. Today’s predominance of hip hop kind of reminds me of the disco era, in which some catchy songs were produced and are still enjoyed but listeners could care less about the music’s artistic merits. And whatever happened to the disco divas of the past?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Great Escape: Nostalgia, Ski Resorts and Psychological Gratification

During my recent ski trip to Colorado, certain observations led me to reflect about contemporary trends in building. Dropping by in Vail, I noticed that some massive construction projects were underway. As we were making our way to the gondola, the main building in the village that I had used frequently before getting on my skis had disappeared. In its place was now a gigantic hole with underground parking under construction. The pictures along the surrounding construction fence featured renderings of the future multi-use development and an accompanying list of added functions and amenities that did not exist before in the prior complex designed in the 1970’s Brutalist style ubiquitous in American ski areas (the modern ski tourism industry arose after World War II, with Vail itself being established only since the 1960’s.) Looking closer at the renderings it was obvious that the planners and developers at Vail sought to remake the drab Brutalist village into a nearly authentic Austrian village, down to the smallest detail. The new Lionshead village would match the architecture, proportions and overall feel of the ski area’s central core, Vail Village, which dutifully imitates the spaces of a small medieval European town.

The fact that the new development at Lionshead abandoned the modernist style for a historicist one was of no significance. Though the Brutalist structures stressed functionalism and ruggedness against extreme alpine weather, they were ugly and served poorly the role of scenic backdrop. What seems to have defined stylistically new development in ski villages in the U.S. is a modern vernacular often referred to as ‘mountain’ architecture, which uses lots of heavy timber framing, multiple little gables and traditional horizontal windows throughout the façade and glazed wood balconies similar to Swiss chalets. Small, windy pedestrian streets complement this vernacular, and open public plazas are framed by the vernacular facades in such a way so as to recall a European village without actually being literally European.

It was in the deliberate abandonment of this modern ‘mountain’ vernacular that I realized that the new development revealed a trend that many designers engrossed in theory should take the time to examine. The culture and psychological reality that are Las Vegas and Disneyworld has become pervasive to the extent that the developers at a ski resort have no interest in evolving a contemporary vernacular but instead recreate a past reality to the minutest detail that never existed in the Rockies. Granted, Vail has always been a little bit different from other ski resorts in its focused effort in establishing itself as a European-style ski oasis in the middle of an area that until relatively recently was dominated by mining and frontier settlements. Yet the architecture of old Vail Village is more suggestive than literal in evoking central European vernaculars. Judging from the renderings, the new Lionshead village (or Arrabelle as it is called) goes beyond literal copying, achieving an almost exaggerated celebration of the central European vernacular.

It used to be that resorts fulfilled functional needs of tourists: it provided a place to enjoy oneself physically, whether by swimming at the pool, relaxing in the spa, or by sunbathing lazily. So long as those physical needs were met, the International style of architecture was appropriate, as its emphasis on mass dwellings, flexibility in generating new building types and ease of construction responded to the rapid growth of post-war tourisms. Now, the tourists have brought an additional need: psychological gratification. The need to escape from the everyday world, a service often provided by novels, plays, and films is now being sought from built environments. It seems that the trend in American resorts is toward fulfilling the visitors’ longing for a world beyond their daily realities, as from time and place as possible. Wishing to return to a time and place that is familiar without having actually having to experience what life was really like for people of that time is a powerful force influencing the design of places today. Modernism was never about escaping reality. Rather it was about coming to terms with it in the driest and most objective way to such a degree that it appears oppressive to many. Few everyday people dream of escaping to some Modernist utopia for rest and recreation. Such environments are often seen as austere, even surreal.

Though the use of historicism in resort areas is of no surprise given the expectations of the tourist, I find that similar forces are at work in the design of urban spaces intended for everyday use. Locales with little to no history now want to instantly erect town centers evocative of a time and place that never was part of the municipality to begin with. The diligent imitation of Victorian era town squares and American Main Streets offer the chance to mentally escape from the fact that one lives in modern times and has adapted to a completely different set of notions about time and space.

Architecture has become as much about experience than the meanings of the built form itself. The five senses have always crucially influence the way humans experience a building, but such stimuli, I find, are heavily altered by memory and self-delusion. We see what we want to see, feel what we want to feel, etc. When the contrary happens, in which we see what we don’t want to see, the experience is jarring and a violation of our senses, something the Modernist avant garde often seemed to forget. When one goes for a ski vacation, one wants to pretend he or she is in an Austrian alpine village and anything less is but a revelation that skiing is simply a physical activity, not an all-encompassing cultural experience. When one goes to the New Urbanist town center to shop, one pretends the area will be animated in ways similar to town centers one hundred years ago, ignoring the reality that there are far fewer number and types people that actually live and work in this area than once was the case in the past.

This yearning to escape mundane reality by building fantasy implies, in my opinion, a loathing of the present and insecurity about the future. The present is unsatisfying and the future is alienating, and inventing new forms and stretching untested possibilities seem to be not worth the effort (and maybe not as marketable). Psychological need and nostalgia shields us from the difficult spiritual exercise of the creating art and ascertaining the distinctive aesthetic expression of our contemporary society. Somehow, seeking refuge in the reconstruction of the past seems cowardly in the face of present and future architectural problems.