What Would Brian Boitano Do?

I don’t write about the winter Olympics because I don’t give a crap about any of the events, except the sublimely named Super G.

Still, I had to follow this link from Drudge about some knucklehead U.S. figure skater who wore a throwback USSR warmup jacket during a practice session today. He claims to be a major Russophile, and what better way to celebrate it than to have the good ol’ CCCP across your chest?

Of course, if he’d been wearing a throwback German jersey (c. 1936), it’d be a much different story.

Cola War on Terror

Last week’s reading in the Official VM Book Club Of One was The Other Hollywood; this week it’s The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel’s book on the value of aesthetic value, as it were. I just finished the third chapter, “Surface and Substance,” which ends with this passage:

When terrorists slammed two passenger jets into the World Trade Center on September 11, 200, Michael Bierut had his own moment of Nazis-to-Pepsi self-doubt. He was in London and returned home to Manhattan a few days after the attack. “As a designer,” he wrote me, “I am still reeling from the images of 9/11.” The act had been horrifying, but the images it created could not have been better designed: “The timing of the collisions, the angle of the second plane, the colors of the explosions, the slow-motion collapsing of the towers: could the terrorists ever dream how nightmarishly vivid this would be to the vast viewing audience?”

Amid the trauma of mid-September, this terrible juxtaposition — striking images in the service of death — recalled all the attacks ever made on surface for its own sake, and on the designers who create surface appeal. If an event so awful could look so vivid, even beautiful in a purely formal sense, how could we trust aesthetic pleasure? How could designers like Bierut justify their work, except when surface serves some grander substance? The attack, wrote Bierut, “makes me put meaningless content into beautiful packages. I will not approach my work the same way from now on.”

He knew better. The destruction of the World Trade Center was not a carefully composed movie scene, designed to around pity and terror within the same frame of fiction. It was the all-too-real muder of thousands. It was entirely substance. The attack was not packaging, not surface, not performance art. It had both meaning and political purpose. The striking images produced led viewers not to praise but to condemn the attackers who created them. Only those who embraced the murderers’ cause rejoiced in those images. Aesthetics did not prove a superweapon, justifying slaughter. To the contrary, the media images that followed were attempts to capture the events — and the horror and grief — of the day. Those images were valuable because they could say more than words. But the images were not the act itself.

In the horror of the moment, Bierut had forgotten the meaning and value of his work, falling into the puritanical mind-set that denies the value of aesthetic pleasure and seeks always to link it with evil. To wrap meaningless, as opposed to vicious, content in beautiful packaging does no harm. To the contrary, such creativity enriches the world and affirms the worth of the individuals whose pleasure it serves. Colas are not genocide.

Bierut soon had second thoughts. “One of the signatures of any repressive regime,” he wrote the following day, “is their need to control not just meaningful differences — the voices of dissent, for instance — but ostensibly ‘meaningless’ ones as well, like dress. It will take some time for people to realize that creating the difference between Coke and Pepsi is not just an empty pastime but one of many signs of life in a free society.” The Afghan women who risked the Taliban’s prisons to paint their faces and style their hair in underground beauty shops, and who celebrated the liberation of Kabul by coloring their nails with once-forbidden polish, would agree. Surface may take on meaning, but it has a value all its own.

Piss? Christ!

Matt Welch, a contributing editor at libertarian magazine Reason, is now assistant editorial page editor at the LATimes. The paper required him to give a urine sample to help keep the LATimes a “drug-free workplace”. Those of you who know anytihng about libertarianism know how funny this is.

Yet it’s been company policy for at least 18 years that every new hire excrete on command while a rubber-gloved nurse waits outside with her ear plastered to the door. Those who test positive for illegal drugs don’t get their promised job, on grounds that someone who can’t stay off the stuff long enough to pass a one-time, advance-notice screening might have a problem. (And yes, it has happened in the newsroom a handful of times.) This despite the fact that we generally don’t operate machinery heavier than a coffee pot, aren’t likely to sell our secrets to blackmailing Russkies and are supposed to be at least theoretically representative of typical Americans.

Because guess what? The typical American — and just about every journalist I’ve ever asked — has already tried marijuana at least once before the age of 25, according to the government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health. What’s more, despite 35 years and billions of dollars’ worth of taxpayer-financed propaganda to the contrary, most of those who’ve inhaled didn’t collapse through the “gateway” into desperate heroin addiction or “Traffic”-style sex slavery. George W. Bush turned out all right (at least on paper), as did Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Walton, Michael Bloomberg and millions more.

Welch’s plight reminds me of a great comic strip by Evan Dorkin, called (something like) “Ayn Rand in Hollywood.”

It’s a 3-panel strip. In panel 1, Rand is typing away at her desk. A production manager runs in and says, “The director says we need to cut 2 pages from the last scene.”

Panel 2 is wordless, with Rand staring into the distance.

In panel 3, she says, “Sure thing!”

Year Zero?

A week or so ago, I mentioned a whole lot of reading that I’m doing as part of my attempt to understand what can be done to help New Orleans recover from the devastation of last August’s hurricane.

The fact that I’m starting with Virginia Postrel and Jane Jacobs probably indicates that I don’t think that federal micromanagement is the way to go. One of Ms. Postrel’s early points in The Future and Its Enemies is that there is no “scratch” from which to start, in a dynamic society. Even annihilating swathes of the city doesn’t mean it’s Year Zero in NO,LA; there are tons of people who have claims on their homes, who don’t want to move away for good, and don’t want to live in federally subsidized housing projects.

All of which is to say, I’m not in agreement with Representative Baker (R-LA), who proposes an $80 billion federal program to “to pay off lenders, restore public works, buy huge ruined chunks of the city, clean them up and then sell them back to developers,” according to the Times. Or, more expansively:

Under his plan, the Louisiana Recovery Corporation would step in to prevent defaults, similar in general nature to the Resolution Trust Corporation set up by Congress in 1989 to bail out the savings and loan industry. It would offer to buy out homeowners, at no less than 60 percent of their equity before Hurricane Katrina. Lenders would be offered up to 60 percent of what they are owed.

To finance these expenditures, the government would sell bonds and pay them off in part with the proceeds from the sale of land to developers.

Property owners would not have to sell, but those who did would have an option to buy property back from the corporation. The federal corporation would have nothing to do with the redevelopment of the land; those plans would be drawn up by local authorities and developers.

So, from what I gather, the plan will involve massive federal involvement and funding, coercive land sales (why not just employ eminent domain, while you’re at it?), and a close alliance with “local authorities and developers” who are among the crookedest in America.

One of the best things about the article — besides the line “the bill has become increasingly important to Louisiana because the state lost out to the greater political power of Mississippi last month” — is that virtually every positive quote about the program seems to be delivered secondhand by . . . Rep. Baker!

Give it a read.

And mourn the likely departure of a NYC institution, while you’re at it.

My City of Ruins

Theodore Dalrymple has a very thoughtful essay about Dresden in the new City Journal.

Nowhere in the world (except, perhaps, in Israel or Russia) does history weigh as heavily, as palpably, upon ordinary people as in Germany. Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, the disaster of Nazism is still unmistakably and inescapably inscribed upon almost every town and cityscape, in whichever direction you look. The urban environment of Germany, whose towns and cities were once among the most beautiful in the world, second only to Italy’s, is now a wasteland of functional yet discordant modern architecture, soulless and incapable of inspiring anything but a vague existential unease, with a sense of impermanence and unreality that mere prosperity can do nothing to dispel. Well-stocked shops do not supply meaning or purpose. Beauty, at least in its man-made form, has left the land for good; and such remnants of past glories as remain serve only as a constant, nagging reminder of what has been lost, destroyed, utterly and irretrievably smashed up.Nor are the comforts of victimhood available to the Germans as they survey the devastation of their homeland. Walking with the widow of a banker through the one small square in Frankfurt that has been restored to its medieval splendor, I remarked how beautiful a city Frankfurt must once have been, and how terrible it was that such beauty should have been lost forever.

“We started it,” she said. “We got what we deserved.”

But who was this ‘we’ of whom she spoke?

Who, indeed? Dalrymple explores that notion of culpability, that almost Greek tragic sense of a cursed house, nation-wide Atreides, shame that pre-emptively annihilates the possibility of pride.

Perhaps I’ll give Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction a read this week.

Oil for Money

Great piece in the NYTimes today about the scandal of the UN’s Iraqi oil-for-food program. Claudia Rosett at the Wall Street Journal has been way out in front on this story, so it’s good to see it get front-page treatment from the Times.

Because, y’know, it shows that a lot of people had a vested and venal interest in not seeing any sorta change in Iraq. Which is to say, they were making boatloads of money by supporting the regime of a brutal dictator (or a “racketeering crime family,” as Hitchens has put it).

Note: One of the writers of the Times story is getting subpoenaed in the probe of the CIA leak.

Sudan Update

I haven’t written much about the genocide in Sudan lately, except for a brief rant during my Budapest dispatches. Partly that’s because there’s been so much (belated) coverage by the world media. Also, it’s because Passion of the Present has been doing such a great job of coverage. I sorta figure my interested readers will click the Sudan Crisis link on the top of the Blogroll (left side of the page). If you are interested in learning more about what’s going on there, and what you can do to help save the lives of these people, check out that site first.

The news isn’t particularly heartening. The African Union has committed 2,000 troops to monitor the ceasefire and provide security for refugees, but Sudan is balking at their entry. There was a mass protest of the UN’s authority in the capital, Khartoum. Given the toothlessness of the UN resolution (“Think about stopping or we’ll start having cluster-fuck conversations about sanctions”), I guess this is more a way of protesting the possibility of U.S./UK military intervention.

Stanley Crouch wrote pretty disingenuously about the genocide in the Daily News this week. I don’t mean to say that his desire to see an end to the genocide in Darfur isn’t as strong as mine. But when he called for the U.S. to get involved, he wrote

The Bush administration is also punking out. It is going along with the cowardice and immorality of the world at large because those advising it fail to understand that this is the time to take chances. Had President Bush gone into Sudan with the Army’s new OTW (Operations Other Than War) unit last month, the world would have been caught off guard – and the Democratic convention would have been overshadowed.

There would, of course, be those screaming about infringing on Sudan’s sovereignty. They would make it a matter of pride and unity for Muslims to stand behind that racist regime. That would be to the good, because it might push Muslims into reconsidering the shortcomings of Islamic tradition.

I think his disingenuousness is revealed in the part about “overshadowing the DNC.” He seems to be glossing over the fact that we live in a country so polarized that major media sources snigger about the out-of-date nature of terror warnings and imply that they’re politically motivated, months after complaining that the government didn’t pay attention to years-old info that would’ve “connected the dots” about 9/11. So to imply that the President is simply “punking out” on Sudan is pretty bullshit.

American politics has made this situation far more complicated than it should be. I’m pretty convinced that a mission into Sudan (even one limited to providing humanitarian aid) would be contorted by the left-wing of our media into another example of Bush’s American Empire or somesuch. American deaths in Sudan would somehow be tied into that country’s oil reserves, and at least one Halliburton subsidiary would get involved in construction or logistics of military facilities, bringing the rage of Michael Moore down on the Administration.

(I’m only hoping, in the event that Bush loses the election in November, that he doesn’t follow his dad’s example and commit troops to Sudan after being voted out of office. Sure, Clinton allowed ‘scope creep’ to set in with the Somalia mission, but it was pretty bullshit of Bush Sr. to send armed forces to a third world African country on a vaguely defined humanitarian mission less than a month before Clinton was to be sworn in.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been calling for a military force to invade Sudan since I first learned the details of what’s going on. Sudan’s a failed state, it harbored the biggest name in international terrorism, and it’s supporting a program to kill off a million of its own inhabitants. Sure, we need to force immediate aid and security into the Darfur region, as well as the refugee camps in Chad (and our new non-enemy Libya might be able to help provide a base to do that), but I don’t know where that leaves us in the long term.

I suppose Stanley’s right in that we need to build a situation where the Muslim world can stop supporting this regime as a sign of protest against “American hegemony,” which my leftist friends tell me is the biggest threat to world security.

(As opposed to, say, the government of a totalitarian state of more than a billion people trying to suppress information about a wildly virulent, fatal respiratory disorder. I am, of course, just venting over here. Don’t mind me.)

I’m gonna get me some coffee, and maybe I can clean up this rant a little so it actually makes some sense.

Phase 0

Neat article in today’s NYTimes about changes in preclinical drug testing. That subject matter may not interest you too much, but it’s part of my day job, and I have a vested interest in seeing the pharma/biopharma industry come up with better methods of drug discovery & development.

The best part of the article is that it doesn’t politicize, mention Medicare reform or Canadian reimportation, or imply that the drug companies are venal corporations out to suck the life from the American populace. It just talks about the new developments, some of their ethical questions, and the necessity of improving the R&D return-on-investment.

This is a pleasant change from the last days of Howell Raines, when the paper actually ran an opinion piece by a man who complained that Iressa added several months to the life of his wife, who suffered from brain tumors. No, really.

(Speaking of my day job, if you follow through that link, you’ll see my magazine’s annual Top Companies report, in which my associate editor and I profiled the top 20 pharma companies and top 10 biopharmas. Y’know: if that sorta thing interests you.)