Friday, April 28, 2006

Brad Pitt and Ayn Rand Make Strange Bedfellows

A recent article from Variety suggests that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt might team up to finally get “Atlas Shrugged” on film. I wonder if Ayn Rand would shrug or roll over in her grave at these casting choices. It strikes me that “Atlas Shrugged” may have become too popular for its own good, loved by people who probably have never read it (Mark Twain’s description of a great book) and name-dropped to imply a certain enlightened sophistication and post-modern sensibility. When definitive moochers and non-producers like Jolie and Pitt can claim to be Randian objectivists, I wonder if her points are fading and her ideas becoming less clear over time.

I know, I know, in a capitalistic system, heartthrobs like Jolie and Pitt are merely getting paid what the market will bear for their services. Maybe they’re not Captains of Industry and maybe they don’t have the next great invention that will change the way we use the world’s natural resources. But they’re good-looking, very talented and if the market says they’re worth $20 million/picture, then they’re worth it. It doesn’t make them any less of a producer than the Carnegies and Fords of the world.

Except, of course, it does. Jolie was born into the business (her father is Jon Voigt) and we all know if not for his boyish good looks, Pitt would have never made it as far as he did. He is talented, and I don’t doubt very intelligent. (At least he’s playing John Galt, who I never really liked. Please, Mr. Director, get Russell Crowe for Hank Reardon.) But these aren’t the sort of people that come to mind when I think of the word, “producer.” To me, they are the essence of the word “moocher.” They don’t create anything, they don’t offer the world great solutions to modern problems. If either one of them was a true libertarian, I might sympathize. But while I can’t speak for Jolie’s politics, I remember Pitt giving speeches on behalf of John Kerry (D-Mass) at the University of Missouri in 2004. Yeah, like college students need pep talks to be more liberal.

Regardless, that they are so interested in objectivism and “Atlas Shrugged” just strikes me as superficial. Why can’t celebrities just do what they’re best at? Act in average movies, be eye candy, and let us fantasize from time to time how great it must be to be them. That’s it. That’s all we need from them. You don’t have to pretend to be some intellectual or to be well read. You don’t have to look down from above as though you single-handedly have the answers to all the world’s problems. I applaud you for your adoptions and efforts to help those less fortunate, but name-dropping Ayn Rand when you petition for John Kerry is like name-dropping Pope Benedict XVI at a Dan Brown book signing.

My own feelings on Ayn Rand are mixed. I love that she was able to portray so clearly the distinction between producers and moochers, and define what makes capitalism a moral economic system. I love her epic backdrops, her enormous settings that make “Atlas Shrugged” explode off the page, and give it a feeling of immense importance. I love that she has the ability to pinpoint very subtle behaviors and sayings that moochers have and use, that she is able to write a novel that makes a philosophical argument convincingly and unashamedly.

Of course, from my religious point of view, I find it lacking, a critique Rand couldn’t have cared less about. Her idea of the superman is grossly immoral and a breaking of the first and only commandment, to love God above all things, including ourselves. I find it irritating that she lumps all religious leaders into the category of mystics, and doesn’t recognize the contributions religion has made to free societies, only their detriments (which I agree are numerous). Her take on capitalism, though dead-on in the world of economics, is not sufficient to build a philosophy around. Any philosophy that points back to the human person is the equivalent of a dog chasing after its own tail.

But even though I have my issues with Rand, “Atlas Shrugged” (and I realize I’m name-dropping!) was a formative book for my understandings of capitalism, and hence conservatism. In its own way, it helped me to appreciate the Fall, to define greed, and to immediately recognize the language of hateful, bitter and resentful people. And like everyone who reads the book, I feel like I have a little stake in its future. So Brad and Angelina, please, stick to your silly “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” picture shows and leave the real art to real artists.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Not-so-Conservative Conservatives

If and when Republicans lose in the November elections, it won’t be because the nation has in any way turned liberal, but because it has become too conservative for the blowhards in Washington. Americans in all those red counties (parishes in my home state of Louisiana) are tired of compromises with socialists on issues like immigration, government spending, making the tax cuts permanent, and education. Not every American minds these compromises, of course, but clearly enough to get W re-elected by 4 million votes. When we see his poll numbers go down, it doesn’t seem that it’s because the nation is becoming more liberal, but that he has acted too liberal for a conservative nation. His poll numbers are down because conservatives don’t think he’s conservative enough, not because there are all of a sudden more leftists in America.

I can hear the ribbing I will get from the liberals that envelope me at my institution of higher learning. From what I can determine, at least 90% of faculty, staff and students at my school are not only liberal, but examples of classic, 60s-style civil rights liberal. Which is their right, of course. It’s just that I find this sort of nostalgia about the past harmful, and constantly in need of new victims instead of making way for truly progressive ideas. So these liberals will love to use Republican losses (or sagging poll numbers if Republicans win again) as proof that the nation has finally turned against Bush, against conservatives and have embraced Democratic party and their liberal ways. But it seems the Dems are a party that is in such tatters, one would have to be truly delusional to believe such a change took place in the populace.

My own thinking leads me to believe that America is not any more socialist now than ever, but more conservative than ever. This future optimism by lefties is a gross misreading of American culture, past, present and future. While I have been snickered at for having the audacity to tout the “rugged individual” image as part of what defines American culture, I very much believe it still to be the case. But instead of lumberjacks and gold miners coming to mind, the new “rugged individual” owns his own business, works from home, and pays other people to do his work for him.

His individuality comes more in his ideas and entrepreneurial spirit than his rugged five o’clock shadow. Those who work for big corporations and even government bureaucracies rarely think of themselves as being cogs in the wheel, as the National Socialist Worker’s Party (Nazis) or the Marxists once wanted people to believe. (It is fascinating for me to hear of the rebellion taking place at my fiancée’s new corporate office, where everything from staplers to desk chairs are ordered to be congruous, and the effort to keep every cube identical is kept alive, one memo at a time.)

Americans know America when they see it. They accept that it is a melting pot, whereby various cultures were melted and formed into one, as much as a number of cultures can become one. But they know they didn’t lose their individuality, even as they became cultural Americans. And that sense of the individual, which I often lament as someone who works in the Church, feeds many of our political views, particularly on immigration, but also on taxation and education. So Bush, keep being a cowboy. And Congress, please do what you were elected to do: be conservative and protect the Constitution. If you lose in ‘06, it should be viewed as suicide, not homicide. Homicide happened to the Dems in 1994, when the nation became aware of its conservative culture, and then proceeded to vote on it.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Mon Oncle: An Architecture Film

When it comes to movies that feature architecture as a major theme, the pickings are rather slim. Among only a handful of films that deal with architectural design in any meaningful depth, the best known and most accessible film was the film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Even that movie is more about projecting a comprehensive philosophic viewpoint and milking the melodramatic values of the romance between the protagonist and his client than it is about a real debate about the design of buildings.

Instead, students in architecture are led by their teachers to discover films that make heavy use of sets, color and lighting but generally contain an esoterically boring script. Bladerunner, Brazil and almost any film by Peter Greenaway (The Cook, Thief, Wife and His Lover; Belly of an Architect), David Lynch (Blue Velvet) or Wim Wenders emphasize the setting to such a degree that it becomes a character in the film itself. Yet the effect these films have on the designer’s mind is instilling an appreciation of technique by realizing that crafting an environment a particular way can impact the viewer’s perception of reality.

Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle (My Uncle) continues the same pattern, but it distinguishes itself by presenting to the viewer the fundamental debate that confronted architecture of the time. If there is one film that crystallizes the conflict that dominated twentieth century discourse regarding modernization, Mon Oncle introduces this more lucidly than any other. The story is itself rather thin as its entertainment value lies more in a series of visual gags similar to the comedies of Charlie Chaplin in which the main character Monsieur Hulot never speaks (played by Tati, a former mime). Hulot is the uncle of his sister’s young son, whose father is an executive at the local plastic tubing factory. The family lives in a ridiculously modern home, with its absurdly minimalist garden, its fully automated fountain and a state-of-the-art kitchen. Much of the film consists of sequences that demonstrate how the family goes about it its daily routine by submitting to the demands of the house’s harsh design. Corbusier’s “Machine for Living In” becomes reality in the movie, in which the house forces its occupants to suppress the way people would normally live. The people become the props.

Monsieur Hulot lives in another part of town that is representative of the typical small French town, with its animated market square, its charming rustic facades and lively cast of characters that inhabit it. His apartment is on top of tall building composed of a mish-mash of different vernacular styles, accessed by a labyrinth of stairwells. The contrast between Monsieur Hulot’s old-fashioned neighborhood and his sister’s and brother in law’s clinically modern surroundings is deliberate. There is a recurring scene that marks Hulot’s transition from the old to the new part of town, which consists of him walking trough toppled portion of a ramshackle brick wall that frames a view of monotonous modernist housing towers in the distance. This short scene serves as powerful reminder of the ongoing destruction of the old urban fabric in favor of the brand new and alien presence of modern structures. Considering the time the movie was made, it was likely Tati’s way of critiquing the unstoppable trend of ‘urban renewal’ common in his day. Monsieur Hulot serves as Tati’s hapless warrior against modernity, accidentally bungling and ruining some aspect modern convenience, whether it’s at his brother in law’s plastics factory or at the automated appliances of his sister’s home.

Since the Mon Oncle is mostly a series of choreographed comedic sketches, Tati’s argument against the ravages of modernism does not rest on tragedy but rather on light-hearted silliness. Yet this absurdity had very serious message which makes the film’s conclusion ironically tragic, even if it doesn’t come off that way. The charming melodic theme that recurs constantly throughout the film give an inconsequential air about the events within the film, but there is a sense of melancholy in the tune that triggers as sense of loss. It’s a nostalgic theme, a response we have when realized that we have lost something only when there is none of it left. Tati uses nostalgia in describing the old town to a level exaggeration equal to the way the he caricatures ultra-modern life. The depiction of the bustling market square is almost too perfect, and is as much divorced from the actual reality of such a place as his depiction of the machine house governing every aspect of the life of the family. My own observation is that nostalgia for the past can be just as deceptive in solving current problems as an un-tempered confidence in modern solutions. Still, Tati makes a compelling case for the preservation of the traditional life, and his attitude towards modernity is a sentiment shared by most people today. It should be mentioned that this film preceded by several years the first major campaigns against ‘urban renewal’ and provides basis on which much of post-modern architecture theory would based.

There’s plenty in this film for architecture students to study beyond its philosophical point. There was evidently much attention to the details of the sets used, stylistic cues in the architecture, and even the use of techni-color to emphasize the contrast between the ‘natural’ colors old world the artificial tones of the new. Mr. Hulot’s building is a weird post-modernist dream, while his sister’s house reminds students the contradiction of designing a house where inside and outside are one and using an electric gate to imprison visitors within.

In all Tati is to be recommended in bringing to the fore the affect architecture has on people while still instilling humor to make it accessible to the public at large. Although the film is nearly fifty years old, the contentions on modernity and our architectural environment are extremely relevant for situations in our own day.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Gift of Heresy: What Western Culture Lost in the Reformation

There were so many lasting effects of the Reformation on Western Civilization, it is no wonder more has been written about Martin Luther than any man except Jesus. Economic, cultural, philosophical and, of course, ecclesial changes swept Europe and were eventually shipped to America. The “Protestant work ethic,” anti-Catholic sentiment and distrust of authority were offshoots of Luther’s originally ideological disagreement over justification with the Roman Catholic Church, and these fiercely independent characteristics are part of what define America. No doubt the Catholic Church was ripe for Reformation; it had been corrupt for centuries, practicing simony, the selling of indulgences, and confusing church and state as freely as any theocracy might.

But at least a little, if not a lot, was lost in the Reformation. Non-Catholic Christians, like myself, lost the ability to claim there was one true church in the literal sense; even though we confess in one “holy catholic and apostolic church.” I assume this means one spiritual church, not one physical one. I have no problem confessing this, but it’s a shame we can’t literally be one, and only one church. We also lost common understandings of the sacraments, and how to achieve salvation. But maybe worst of all, Protestants effectively lost the gift of heresy, the ability to rightly accuse a heretic of false or perverted teachings. Losing an understanding of heresy may have had a further-reaching impact on western civilization than any other consequence of the Reformation.

Let’s quickly define heresy. Here’s a definition I found that sounds about right: “Doctrine which is erroneous in such a way that Christians must divide themselves as a church from all who teach or accept it; those adhering to heresy are assumed to be lost, although Christians are unable to make definitive judgments on this matter. The opposite of orthodoxy.” Far from the stereotypes of the Church calling anyone and everyone heretics as during the Spanish Inquisition, the Church successfully defended right thinking of the faith for many centuries, usually democratically and nonviolently. These half-truths (as all heresy is in some part truth) were debated, voted down and decided they could not be tolerated for the GOOD of the faithful. After all, salvation was on the line.

But after the Reformation, what institution would Lutherans turn to for a definition of orthodoxy? Worse, just as an example, who do the literally tens of thousands of Pentecostal denominations turn to do today to define what is heresy and what is not? At least Lutherans didn’t fall far from the tree. But today’s Protestants are a whole different fruit, whose doctrinal gears are so stripped they can scarcely determine the difference between historic heresy and historic doctrine.

More practically, and, in a sense, more importantly, western culture lost over time the ability to call any moral behavior heretical, not just bad religious thinking. Of course, we wouldn’t use the word “heretical;” we would call it “immoral,” or “wrong,” or even just plain old “bad.” But we would call it something, and it might even be bad enough that we would willingly separate ourselves from it, by ostracization or even shunning. The Amish understand this, as did the ancient Greeks and many African tribes continue to practice shunning as a way of discipline. I’m not saying we need to adopt those discipline techniques per se, but we shouldn’t dismiss all discipline so quickly either. Guilt plays an integral part in our moral development, and as we have lost the ability to call immoral behavior “heretical,” guilt been put on a back burner so far away, it is hardly in reach of the pilot light anymore.

What else would make teenage girls go on “The Today Show” (with that hardest-of-hitting journalist Katie Couric) and brag (at worst) or feel no remorse (at best) for smoking marijuana, performing oral sex and binge drinking at the ages of 14 and 15? To these girls, their behavior wasn’t wrong. They were behaviors everyone does at some point, just good learning experiences. Or what about the regularity of soft porn or hard porn images in cultural life? No heresy here! Just a moral preference, no more right or wrong than any other!

Is this the result of losing the ability to call heresy what it is? Perhaps my thesis is too far-reaching. Perhaps there is no connection between the historical breaking away from the Catholic Church and western culture’s descent into excused immorality. But something happened. Something has allowed our present culture to feel no remorse for wrong behavior, and something has prevented our present culture for calling wrong behavior wrong. We mocked those who called heretics “heretics” for so long that we have prevented ourselves from using such accurate labels. Goodbye truth, hello disorder, until we reclaim the authority to speak the truth in love for the GOOD of ourselves. Persecuting heresy, whether ecclesial or cultural, is a blessed enterprise if done out of love.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Academia and Faith: Are They Compatible?

During a recent pre-marital counseling session, my pastor used Genesis 2 and 3 to speak about what marriage was, how it was established, and what made marriages healthy or unhealthy. The discussion took me back about two years to a class at my seminary that focused on Genesis, where we discussed the nature of the serpent, whether the Fall was a reality, and who was really being honest in that garden of lore. At the time, my professor posited the idea that the serpent was the truth-teller in the Garden and God was the liar, and this has led me to wonder if academia and faith are at all compatible.

Before creating Eve, God instructed Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (2:17). According to my professor, when the serpent told Eve that she would not die if she ate from this tree, it was, in fact, telling the truth. This was attested to by the fact that neither Adam nor Eve died immediately after eating this fruit. So it was God who had told the lie, God who had tricked Adam, God who was seemingly using these puppets he created as a kind of social experiment, and little else. The real truth lay, according to my professor, with the serpent. Looking over my notes from the class, my exact comments were, “The snake was right; they did not die, but they did get knowledge of good and evil”.

Looking back, I’m ashamed I took all this in at face value. But if this bit of scripture is taken literally and believed to be inerrant, I can see how this conclusion was reached. Adam and Eve did not die immediately. But is this what Christians believe about the events in the Garden of Eden, that God was the liar and the serpent the beacon of truth? No, we do not, and the Church has never held this to be the case. In fact, this act of disobedience by Adam and Eve did bring death into the world. Adam and Eve didn’t die immediately, but they would no longer escape death altogether. According to Richard Marius, a not-so-sympathetic biographer of Luther, Luther saw Adam as created immortal, “but God imposed death on Adam for sin, and death is carried on in the original sin that exists in procreation and the concupiscence that inevitably goes with sexual intercourse” (Martin Luther, 65). Lutheran theology and Catholic theology before it understood the serpent to be the deceiver, when he said the fruit would not introduce death when, of course, it did.

So why teach that the serpent was doing Adam and Eve some sort of favor by letting them in on the truth? Was this just an attempt to challenge students so that they may come to their own theological conclusions about the Fall? I wonder if pressures in the academic world force us to constantly seek new interpretations when, in fact, no new interpretations are needed? Must we search for new clues into what scripture is trying to say at the cost of saying something contrary to the nature of God? And what is more contrary to our understanding of God’s grace than the thought that God lies to us, tries to deceive us, and the real advocate for honesty in the Garden of Eden was the serpent? Does no one else see this as getting it all backwards?

Sometimes I wonder about the historical-critical and/or academic approach used in the vast majority of seminaries. I am not opposed to rigorous, serious and academic study of scripture; I understand there must be a balance between piety and technique. But I am opposed to teaching that plants seeds of distrust. Doubt is more understandable, even organic to our faith. Distrust strikes me as more dangerous. It is time to bring attention to the fact that if we are not careful in our interpretation of scripture, we may end up committing a grave sin: calling God a liar.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Luckiest Generation: Why the French Can't Quit Socialism

As I observe the recent French riots and their success in defeating a new employment law, I can’t help but think what I would have done had my family decided to stay in France rather than leave for the U.S. I immigrated to America from France when I was several years into elementary school, too young to realize that the move was final and that my future lay in my new country. There was always the option of finding my way back to France, and I still maintain privileges of French citizenship. As a young family man with a career in Texas, it’s clear that I have made no attempts to re-establish myself in the “hexagone” (the shape of the French mainland). This has been the case with my other numerous siblings, even with one of them obtaining a masters degree from an elite French University (ESSEC) only to find himself working the U.K. and now in Putin’s Russia.

The barrier of entry to the world of decently paying work in France is extremely high. It’s almost impossible for any trained professional from outside the country to make a living, but it’s getting just as difficult for native French citizens. I have numerous French cousins close to my age who have yet to secure any kind of stable employment, floating from one low-paid (or un-paid) internship to the next, or going back to school to obtain another little degree in the hope of finding something. My parents and siblings constantly offer to help my French cousins by sponsoring them to live and work in the U.S. There are dozens of French multinationals with headquarter offices in Dallas/Fort Worth, and enrolling at the local university isn’t at all that difficult. You would think that my French cousins would jump at the opportunity to reinvent themselves in a place that allows individuals to achieve their full potential while benefiting from the support of their Francophone relatives. So far, there have been no takers, and family gossip from France continues to entail stories of temporary internships, new job-training programs, or unemployment. And if it’s not from my relatives, from time to time my father will receive formal letters of consideration from alumni from his elite alma mater (HEC) on behalf of their children still seeking employment or even an internship wherever they can.

Actually, such letters of consideration point to a primary way in gaining access to secure employment in France. It seems that parents have an important responsibility in creating and maintaining as many connections as possible, whether through their profession or their active involvement in civic associations. Some of my cousins have done quite well, either by completing studies in the most competitive schools or by having their parents vouch for them. Without that advantage, strangers are met with skepticism by prospective employers. Still most have average degrees from average French Universities, with parents working at state-run enterprises that are already saturated with liabilities that make them averse to hiring.

This is similar to the situation found in many rust-belt areas here in the U.S. Although the decline of manufacturing doesn’t get near the amount of government assistance as it does in France, they prospered during a time where labor was in high demand, markets were less competitive, and benefits to employees seemed to expand as far the eyes could see. This golden era of lifetime and intergenerational employment in one company that sustained large middle class communities took place in the three decades following the Second World War, similar to what was going on in France during the “Trente Glorieuses”, the roughly thirty-year span of rapid economic growth the defeat of the Nazis. The bottom fell out in the U.S. during the 1970’s only to be dealt with with uninspired political leadership that hoped that price controls and mounting regulations would be adequate panaceas. The 1980’s was the equivalent in France, and the voters had put their faith in socialist president Francois Mitterand who in turn did everything to make it even harder on the French by aggressively nationalizing many of his country’s biggest companies.

What sets the general economic course of the two countries apart is the emergence in America of a political force that is protective of capitalistic development over all else. This policy was embodied by Reagan, and in Britain by Thatcher, and prosperity and growth trumped over any concerns of deep structural changes in the economy that disrupted the happy employment stability of our manufacturing sector. France is to have never had the opportunity (nor the interest) of choosing a Reagan equivalent, settling instead with the uninspired careerist Jacques Chiraq. The high level of ‘structural un-employment’ has stayed pretty constant in France for the last generation, and there is currently no serious or creative discussion on how increase employment. The pro-market voice in political affairs, a given in our country, is considered a fringe opinion more unusual to hear than the shallow theories of Jean-Marie Le Pen. When debating joblessness, the discussion seems to be about how to tweak the existing system, either by forcing early retirement, expanding the state payroll or deporting foreigners to make room for those who won’t work such jobs.

Why is radical economic liberalization of an obviously sclerotic system not considered worthwhile in re-invigorating France? Beyond the common observation that welfare states tend to grow over time and citizens desire more assistance from the state for an ever-growing number of reasons, there is an almost deeper psychological explanation: the post-war economic boom in the West was less the status quo in the natural evolution of economies than it was a fortunate anomaly. High birthrates, large un-tapped markets with few countries able to supply them, and dormant populous countries undergoing their socialist experiments (e.g. India and China) permitted large swaths of relatively unskilled workers to acquire generous livelihoods. Compared to all the other workers who obtained advance degrees and working very hard for half the wage an average assembly line worker at an automobile plant, the latter has hit the jackpot. For those who are not driven to improve, acquire more responsibility and become more versatile in their jobs, the terms that some manufacturing workers enjoy is as good as it gets.

While this ideal state of affairs only affects a dwindling minority of American workers, such a deal exists for almost all French workers. Job tenure, generous unemployment benefits and the disincentive to perform well is as good as it can get, and has unsurprisingly become a fundamental human right. What the French fail to understand is that these so-called rights are mostly based on the most fortunate and unusual economic occurrences after the War which makes it therefore inherently unsustainable. For the French socio-economic system to continue to thrive would require high birthrates, less international competition, a dynamic job-market and continued military support from an outside power (the U.S.). Only the last factor has actually held, while the first three have not come to pass. But that obviously doesn’t stop the French youth from believing that one day soon they too will enjoy the benefits of their system. They await the next jackpot where all the stars align in their favor.

I find that a high dependence on a generous social welfare system is a lot like a gambling addiction. You could lose everything and still be convinced that the jackpot follows after the next pull of the lever. France has lost its international prestige, its competitiveness and many of its people have lost hope, not to mention its ability to work. But the recent demonstrations are evidence that the French youth are still willing to pull the lever for the chance to win it all.

My question then becomes: When you’ve finally set yourself up for lifetime employment, are you excited about the future, about all the things that could be but never will because of the permanence of your position? What can you look forward to?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Franceland: My Dreams and Reality

Just a day ago, Jonah Goldberg summarized what I think of the land of my birth these days:

“…Write the place off. Put a wall around the nice bits and call it Franceland. The tourists will love the quaint historical re-enactments.”

Unlike other French émigrés who consciously made the decision to leave their home country in search of better opportunities, I came to the U.S. as a child not knowing much about what I was leaving behind. From my point of view at the time, France seemed like a swell place, with beautiful streetscapes and rural landscapes (we lived in Provence), aromatic outdoor markets with its amazing produce. Compared to what I would later encounter in the public schools in the U.S, elementary school in France was a pretty serious place, and I feared constant belittling from my teachers. The principle of self-esteem was non-existent in the French educational system, and teachers did not hesitate to humiliate you in front of everybody by discussing your results on a test or the failure to organize your notebook neatly. As a kid I loved France but I was not terribly confident of myself.

Moving to the U.S., I was quick to compare and judge my new environment quite negatively. Mid-sized southern cities seemed to have a whole host of problems, with their distant spaces and tacky streetscapes, steril supermarkets and schools that seemed to be more about having a fun time rather than evading the teacher’s scorn as I had been accustomed to until then (this was a good thing, as it was a big boost to my self-confidance) . And even at a young age, it wasn’t unusual to be aware of France’s rich cultural heritage. This consciousness colored my first impressions of America, perceiving it as culturally vapid, anti-intellectual, and overall kind of ‘fake’. In other words my attitudes as a child was not much different from many grown-ups who have some sort of beef against America, and who tend to idealize a more glorious reality in the land flowing with wine, cheese, and ‘joie de vivre’.

As an adult, I have settled in the U.S. without giving much thought to going back to France. After witnessing millions of young French people taking to the streets to maintain stasis over much needed change, I have no regrets of not having made a life there. Still, I would like to acquire a nice piece property there, perhaps some rural manor in which to spend some of my retirement. I’ve learned over time that France is still a wonderful place as long as you are not engaged in the reality of making a living there. Upward mobility is extremely limited, and the current social system actually ends up favoring the privileged classes over those at the bottom. If you are a person of privilege, in which you have parents in important positions in a major bureaucracy or industrial concern, chances are that you will do reasonably well in France. Without this advantage, your best bet is to compete against all others in highly selective national exams that determine who gets to go the country’s elite graduate institutions. There are no second acts in French professional life, and in many ways you have only one shot to succeed. Screw up that chance and you find yourself either unemployed or floating from one unpaid internship to the next for several years before hitting the jackpot by securing a tenured job for life.

Apparently that latter prize is worth everything to most of the French. Freedom from risk, uncertainty, and opportunity is the French person’s most treasured value. The stigma against unemployment is not that negative compared to the way Americans see it, so it has become socially acceptable to mill around at the expense of taxpayers for quite a long time before finding something secure.

My most treasured value as a Franco-American is freedom from stasis, from predictability and determinism. These values will hopefully allow me to enjoy France from a position of extreme privilege, where I can afford anything I need without having to worry about how to pay for anything. Provincial France is emptying out quite rapidly as the young move to Paris to find work, so there’s lots of idyllic historic properties waiting to be restored. I hope to enjoy ‘Franceland’ in the future but I wonder if it will become an even more unrecognizable place in thirty years from what I remember as a child.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Walls, Welfare and Illegal Immigration

The subsequent debate over how to “solve” illegal immigration has brought the idea of a border wall to the forefront. This is seen by some as not only a good idea but an absolutely necessary one, an idea whose proponents have given up caring how politically correct or compassionate they (don’t) sound when proposing it. “Good fences make good neighbors” is an adage political conservatives have adopted for this current debate, and history seems to be on their side.

The Roman Empire learned the hard way to build walls. After being sacked in 390 BC by the Celts, Rome built an enormous wall, 24 feet high by 10ft thick. Rome wasn’t sacked again for almost a millennium, in 476. Now, I know some love to compare American “imperialism” with the Roman Empire, and I’m no apologist for Rome. Certainly, many of their campaigns were aggressive acts of empire building. But not all of them; the empire was attacked regularly by the barbarian Gauls, Hannibal, and the Parthians. As Rome won these battles, it acquired more and more territory, but part of what led to its downfall was a confusion of its borders. Only half of 1% of its citizens were in the army, and this made their borders unenforceable. The empire collapsed when its walls were no longer effective, either because invaders had learned ways through the city walls, or because the empire’s invisible borders had become too porous.

Ironically, while the Empire ruled, a great amount of peace was achieved. Before the empire, most of the world knew bloodshed and tribal division. But under Roman rule, “Pax Romana” was a reality for millions. To be sure, there were costs to empirical rule, but many of the subjects found that they lived in peace, with a common language, leader and rule of law. Today, we would not consider this to be an acceptable way of life; every ethnicity and culture has a built-in desire for self-governance since democracy has proven to be a success in so many parts of the world. But at the time, the walls that defined Rome and the empire were crucial for its society to survive. Only when those walls were torn down did Europe decay into the Dark Ages.

For Israel and Palestine, a wall seems to have worked remarkably well. Of course, many groups condemn the wall, comparing it to the Berlin Wall and see it as a sign of anti-humanitarianism. But like the Roman walls, this wall keeps people out more than it keeps them in, so it is a wonderfully humanitarian wall for the people of Israel. (For reasons unfathomable to me, many Christians lament the wall, apparently forgetting the horrors of the Holocaust and the need for a Jewish state. Most Mainline Protestant official bodies regard Israel and America as evil centerpieces of aggression, not North Korea, Iran, China, the Taliban’s Afghanistan or Saddam’s Iraq.) So walls indeed seem to make for more peaceable neighbors, and must be the first priority in America’s dealings with illegal immigration. It is more humane than having no physical wall, but enforcing legal ones later.

But part of the reason there has never been incentive to build a wall is that Americans seem not to mind giving some jobs away. It’s not that Americans won’t do the jobs that illegal immigrants do; it’s that they don’t have to. The problem of immigration is in large part a by-product of America’s wealth and the catatonic nature of the welfare state. When we pay people not to work, why should they? When a nation becomes too wealthy (defined as wealthy enough to pay people not to work), an economic vacuum is created. And who will fill it but those hungry to work in this wealthy country?

So it seems that part of what is needed for a nation to be sovereign (not necessarily politically but economically) is relative poverty. I wonder if a nation needs to be poor enough so that it appreciates work and does jobs some may consider undesirable? Economists recognize this when they speak of the desired rate of unemployment, which coincidentally is as statistically as low as it can possibly be. 4.7% unemployment is considered statistically full employment, so even with 4.7% of America unemployed, the economy has no room to employ them. The question is, will we lose enough wealth in time, and become so desperate that we will truly lament the loss of jobs to illegal immigrants?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Illegal Immigration is a Term Limits Issue

While the American public makes it clear that it is not in favor of illegal activity (including immigration), politicians in Washington do not seem concerned to make serious changes to current policy, or enforce existing law. Yes, there is a bill that may or not make it out of the Senate alive, but many of the problems will stay the same. There will be no incentive for those coming here to work in defense of America’s culture and language, it is unclear as to weather taxes and Social Security will become deducted from their pay, and the question of outright amnesty is still a possibility in the future. None of the proposed changes, though, send the clear signal that America is a sovereign nation that can make decisions in its own interests. I gather this is not said for fear of upsetting those who work here illegally, and the voters sympathetic to their cause.

What causes this fear? Why would a politician, who is supposed to represent American citizens, be afraid to speak on an issue ideologically, and why is it so hard to defend the right of America to name and claim what it is to be American? Like a host of other issues, politicians in Washington have become indebted to “special interests,” voting blocs and “swing voters.” It seems even at the congressional level, there is enough of a swing vote in the Hispanic communities to cause many incumbent Republicans to ignore what their constituents want. They naively believe they can count on the faithful conservative vote, and hope for enough of the swing vote to win reelection. In other words, reelection drives politicians, not values, ideology or even morals unless they play a part in election campaigns.

So, it seems to me that term limits is worth lobbying for, since lobbies seem to be so powerful. We have long lost the ideal situation where moral men and women saw public service as a distraction from their life’s work and a sacrifice they made for their country, a sacrifice of only a term or two. Now, “public service” is a grossly misleading term, as bureaucratic comforts and the acquisition of power are not sacrifices, but benefits of being a government lackey. If conservatives value small government, the best way to ensure it is through term limits; those who know they will not be in power for long lose incentive to build a substantial power base, and the will of the people can be more powerfully represented without fear of reprisal.

I understand the opposition to term limits. There are sound arguments that it limits voter freedom; if we live in a free country, we should be able to vote for whomever we like, whether they’ve never held political office or have been in the Senate for 6 decades. Term limits may also remove an effective politician before they can get any work done. But term limits does not curtail freedom in any broad sense. They don’t limit the right to vote, just the right to vote someone into an office that has more times than not been compromised by special interests. And which politician got “more done” (rarely a good thing) in their second term, having greased the wheels during their first? The second term of President Bush seems to have accomplished little, with the exception of the continuation of the war in Iraq.

And why is it that term limits are good for governors, presidents, mayors, city council members, and school board members, but not the politicians who make the highest laws in the land? Of course, I understand that no politician in Washington has any reason to decide term limits are a good thing as it is something along the lines of career suicide. But when we speak on illegal immigration and why it is so hard to enforce these laws, the answers are almost always political. Politicians are afraid to do anything that might challenge their ability to be reelected. It’s not that there aren’t good reasons to enforce or strengthen the laws or that constituents aren’t demanding change. It’s simply that members of Congress, because they have no limits to their time in power, have few reasons to make an ideological stance in immigration at the expense of a few precious votes.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Where Capitalism Ends and Greed Begins

In our society, prices of goods and services are rising, which is a surprise to no one. This is part of the capitalistic society that we all enjoy and support everyday. As long as the wages continue to rise along with the prices of goods and services we should all be content, right? This is the way capitalism generally works and how the free market system has worked for many years. But, what happens when some of the services are “needs” rather than “wants” and the community that controls these services decides that they as a profession are entitled to greater market share and are more than willing to exploit those that must purchase these needs? This seems to be the case in the United States medical system.

There is no doubt that the United States has the best and most qualified doctors in the world, even if you can’t always afford it. It has come to be by way through the free market system. So getting rid of the free market system and going over to a socialized system would be a disaster for our health care. Unfortunately, costs in our current system are out of control. Out-patient surgery routinely costs $10,000 and more. Some of these costs are pregnancy tests for all women, even if they have gone through menopause and $500.00 charges for light bulbs in the operating rooms. Imagine if you had to stay the night there!

There are a few factors that contribute to the exorbitant costs of health care. One is that everyone who shows up in an emergency room must be taken care of regardless if they can pay for it or not. If they cannot, the bill is then passed on to the consumer that is paying $300.00 a month for insurance, thus the insurance company pays about three times what it should for each patient it insures. The insurance company would rather pay it off than fight it in court and wind up paying a legal team more money to save a couple of bucks. Another is the greed that we see today in the medical community. I am afraid that doctors today go into medicine for the money rather than to help those who need it. Doctors always complain about the high costs of malpractice insurance (which is also out of control) but it isn’t so high that it keeps them from living in million-dollar homes. So, for medical and hospital personnel to say that they have to charge so much to cover their insurance costs and their costs of prior schooling is simply not the whole story.

If they were really interested in what was best for you they would bring home $100,000.00 instead of a cool half million and pass the savings on to the consumer. Would the insurance companies lower their premiums though? Probably not; they’re a bunch of greedy people too! Think of it like this: If a star athlete was really interested in what was good for the team, would that athlete hop all over the place for more money all the time and leave his team high and dry? No, but what happens in the medical community is much worse. Sports are something people want to see, while medical care is something a person must have. To me it is the same as if the water companies collectively pushed the water cost up to $5.00 per gallon. It would break us, but what could we do? We can’t live without water. So we’re stuck being robbed by the medical community and those who battle with the medical community for the money we pump into it.

What’s ironic about the situation is that the medical community’s greed will eventually force prices so high that there will be no choice for the American people but to have a socialized health care system. Nobody will be able to afford health care or simply won’t buy it because of the prices. They’ll take their chances and if something does happen that is catastrophic, there is always the free emergency room to fall back on. This is exactly what the liberal establishment in America wants. Lawyers are part of the problem as well. They’re interested in the 33% they get and making sure that a victim of an accident is then victimized by them. That’s real nice.

So what can be done about it? Well, that’s when morals come into play. Let’s assume socialized medicine is not the solution. People in the United States, mainly professional and white collar America, have to be willing to do for their fellow man and deal with having a Honda Accord rather than a Porsche. The problem is a self-prescribed fix, not a legal or government controlled action. The reward internally to the soul has to be greater than the financial reward. When a person gets into a service industry where that person is providing a need to a client, that person should have the character that dictates their unrelenting want to help those that need it most. That person should have a character that is pleased with providing an affordable service at an affordable price, maybe not making lots of money, but providing lots of change in people’s life. Greed in the medical, legal, and insurance communities is holding America hostage to one of our most basic needs. A health care system that cares for the patients more than it cares about the house they live and the car they drive home.