The varieties of diversity, or something

Timothy Garton Ash on the stultification of Europe:

In the great age of Renaissance Florence, diversity was indeed the dynamo of Europe’s extraordinary creativity. There’s a marvellous book called The European Miracle, by the economic historian EL Jones, that explores why Europe rather than China – scientifically and technologically more advanced than Europe in the 14th century – produced the scientific, agrarian and industrial revolutions that led the world into modernity. In brief, his answer is: Europe’s diversity.

But this was the diversity of a restless, often violent competition between cities, regions, states and empires. Florence and Siena, England and France, Christian Europe and the Ottoman empire – they did not resolve their differences by coalition agreements and endless negotiations in airless committee rooms on the Rue de la Loi in Brussels. To reverse Churchill’s post-1945 adage: they made war-war not jaw-jaw.

Many readers will remember the speech that Orson Welles put into the mouth of the gangster Harry Lime, in the film of Graham Greene’s The Third Man: “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed – they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Has Europe today entered its age of the cuckoo clock?

Sorry to have been so light on the posts, dear reader. I’ve been pretty busy with the magazine. Have a good holiday weekend.

Effluent Society

George Will takes down the legacy of John Kenneth Galbraith as an excuse for condescension, while making time to bash John McCain:

Advertising, Galbraith argued, was a leading cause of America’s “private affluence and public squalor.” By that he meant Americans’ consumerism, which produced their deplorable reluctance to surrender more of their income to taxation, trusting government to spend it wisely.

If advertising were as potent as Galbraith thought, the advent of television — a large dose of advertising, delivered to every living room — should have caused a sharp increase in consumption relative to savings. No such increase coincided with the arrival of television, but Galbraith, reluctant to allow empiricism to slow the flow of theory, was never a martyr to Moynihan’s axiom that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.


Because they can’t

John Kenneth Galbraith died this weekend. The NYTimes has a long obit, including the entertaining caveat:

He strived to change the very texture of the national conversation about power and its nature in the modern world by explaining how the planning of giant corporations superseded market mechanisms. His sweeping ideas, which might have gained even greater traction had he developed disciples willing and able to prove them with mathematical models, came to strike some as almost quaint in today’s harsh, interconnected world where corporations devour one another.

Make with the read-read.

Breathe with me

I’ve long contended that conspiracy theories are a substitute-religion for the disillusioned; it gives them the opportunity to believe in a Greater Power, even if it’s just a power for evil. I think this ties into that Orwell passage I quoted a few weeks ago.

Brendan O’Neill at Spiked has a great piece on the mainstreaming of paranoia:

The rise of the conspiracy theory points to an important shift in journalism and public debate. There has been a move from debating the substance of someone’s beliefs or behaviour to focusing myopically on the motivations behind them; from challenging individuals over their words or actions to trying to uncover some deep, dark ulterior motive. This has had a deadening effect on public debate. It replaces a critical engagement with political developments with a destructive neverending search for the secret agenda. And it means that no one is ever truly held to account for what they say or do. After all, if Blair is merely the puppet of dark neocons forces when it comes to Iraq, then how can we hold him up to public ridicule for what has happened there?

This is not investigative journalism; it is gossip.

Read more, if you dare.

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.