Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"Design for Despots"

Foreign Policy takes readers on a world tour of new wonders of the world -- rising in the least free countries in the world. They are remarkable structures built with a seemingly limitless budget. Ironically none of the lead designers is local.

Powerful governments are rarely constrained by the environmental or social considerations that would make similar projects impossible in the West. It's interesting to consider whether political correctness eventually reduces the creativity and risk-taking spirit of the societies which they colonize.

Bruce Bawer, in a City Journal article entitled "An Anatomy of Surrender", argues that Europe is slowly surrendering to Islam: "call it a cultural surrender. The House of War is slowly—or not so slowly, in Europe’s case—being absorbed into the House of Submission." The timidity which underlies this Submission -- giving up without so much as a whimper -- isn't confined to politics and religion. It's part of a wider malaise.

Many of today's "opinion leaders" positively risk-averse. They no longer look up to the skies and have become like the degenerate mandarins who pass the hours in courtly life, content in their stagnation. In Europe's heyday Tennyson wrote, "Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay." Today the situation is reversed. China is likely to land a man on the moon before Europe.

How did this happen? The real goal of the Welfare State isn't "welfare" at all, but reducing variability to its minimum. In practice it's objective is to provide everyone with the same, mediocre and predictable service. Standards proliferate. There is a rule for everything. No surprises are allowed. War, which is the ultimate example of unpredictability, becomes incomprehensible to the Welfare State. It cannot wage it. The definition of what constitutes strategic surprise in military affairs eventually approaches zero. Every conflict must have an exit plan, a budgeted number of casualties.

Like a curator in some infernal museum, the bureaucrats of politically correct society have become obsessed with keeping things the same and preventing disarrangement. Old buildings are preserved. New born babies are aborted. No mischief allowed. Like old biddies we ensure a certain mix of types for every occasion. Tokenism becomes an end in itself. But it is a decorative end, bereft of meaning. Like a museum politically correct society appears in working order, but it is all a sham. The figures are wax from which the will and the spirit have gone out.

Eventually a society that is obsessed with predictability begins to fear freedom itself. The exercise of the individuality becomes an actual social threat. A point is reached when people aren't even allowed the right to self-defense. The risk of an unforeseen outcome is too great.

Since the perfect inertness is death, the Welfare Man may feel a logical attraction to decease in itself. But the process takes decades and the body yet lingers even after the will to live dies. And if the West only attempts monumental feats any more at the behest of despots, it is simply because tyrants can infuse the last flicker of human passion in a bosom grown numb and cold.

They know time comes, not only you and I,
But the whole world shall whiten, here or there;
When those long caravans that cross the plain
With dauntless feet and sound of silver bells
Put forth no more for glory or for gain,
Take no more solace from the palm-girt wells.
When the great markets by the sea shut fast
All that calm Sunday that goes on and on:
When even lovers find their peace at last,
And Earth is but a star, that once had shone.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.


Blogger RWE said...

I think the best explanation for this sort of activity is that it is a version of the Cargo Cult mentality. The simple minded rulers of those countries decide that what makes a great nation is impressive buildings, wide streets, lavish décor. You see the same thing in North Korea.

I think it is less an attempt to disguise their own inadequacies than an attempt to attain greatness by taking on the trappings of the truly great. You often see this in the cars and clothes of the “poor.”

This is the architectural equivalent of $150 sneakers on a ghetto kid.

4/30/2008 08:50:00 AM  
Blogger Nomenklatura said...

Political correctness tends to drive young people, particularly young men, out onto whatever 'frontier' they can find where they will not be subject to nitpicky supervision by their elders.

A few years ago for example for many that came to mean the web, a modern electronic 'frontier country'.

This is a process which has been going on in the US since the time of the first colonists, when their kids as young adults headed West.

My own kids, in Junior High, roll their eyes at all the 'enviro-speak' they get from their teachers, though they regurgitate it on paper when they are (frequently) required to do so. They are certain that stepping out of line to say what they think would hit their grades.

They can see that their teachers, while nice guys and hard working, are also losers obsessed with more government as the solution to everything. To smart kids government means the same thing it always has - supervision by older people. It's not attractive.

4/30/2008 09:09:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Norris said...

I don't think there is an lack of risk-taking spirit here, but a flourishing of the entreprenurial one. The architects are simply going to where there is money to be spent on these expensive projects.

If Ozymandius is determined to hire Western architectural firms to mock his greatness in stone, or steel, or glass, or whatever material happens to be the most immortal today, I think it would be presumptuous to debate him.

4/30/2008 09:32:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

Of course, the ultimate expression of this attitude is the new religion of Global Warming where even the weather is not permitted to change.

4/30/2008 09:33:00 AM  
Blogger Yashmak said...

I think RWE nailed it. There is at least a passing resemblance between the folks building these architectural 'wonders' who pay no heed to the struggles of their nations' poorer classes, and the low-income family who spend as little as possible on their children so they can afford 24" chrome spinner wheels for their leased Cadillac Escalade.

4/30/2008 09:46:00 AM  
Blogger Jrod said...

Here's one they left of the list: Mandalay Int'l Airport

AKA: the "White Elephant"
While not as grand as some of the other buildings in the article, it deserves honorable mention based on the scope of the project relative to its current utility.

4/30/2008 09:57:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Norris said...

Ozymandius aside, the West is still building things: our monuments are more horizontal than vertical these days,that's all. I think it is much too early to write our epitaph.

What is the architectural equivalent of the Internet? Or the carbon nanotube? Or putting vehicles on Mars? Or tinkering with DNA?

Even in risk averse welfare besotted Europe, you have a superconducting supercollider about to come online which a few scientists fear could produce a micro-black hole that could devour the world.

This is what we do for fun, with our extra disposible billions.

We explore atoms, we explore space. That hardly sounds like a timorous enterprise to me...

4/30/2008 10:11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

rwe: You see the same thing in North Korea.

The 105 story Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, abandoned in 1992, has been called the worst building in the history of the world. The government airbrushes it out of official photos of the city. The people refuse to talk about it. Ayn Rand would have written a novel about it had she lived another decade.

4/30/2008 11:43:00 AM  
Blogger k. pablo said...

Richard Fernandez, thy name is Bleak!

4/30/2008 11:48:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

Except that if an Ozymandius inscribed these modern edifices it would have to say “Look upon these works I hired some people from another country and different culture to build for me and despair! Boy, I despair, every time I think of these lazy incompetent nuts I rule. They could not put up a freakin’ fence if it came with all the instructions and parts pre-labeled. The best they can manage is to knock down some buildings someone else built using airplanes that someone else also built. Well, enjoy it while you can; they’ll be peeing in the elevators in a month and trying to make long distance calls using the potted plants in the lobby shortly thereafter. I don’t know why I freakin’ even try sometimes!”

And I don’t think the correct image is one of doddering old Europe being overtaken by ascendant Islam. I think it is one of doddering old Europe being overtaken by doddering old Islam. It’s not Star Wars Episode Three. It’s Grumpy Old Men.

4/30/2008 12:03:00 PM  
Blogger Buckley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4/30/2008 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger Buckley said...

What a beautiful-if not horrifying-poem. Did you write it?

It sounds like something Edgar Guest would have written.

4/30/2008 01:02:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

Note to RWE:
Feel free to take shots at Ozymandius, but don't forget America is using a lot of Mexican laborers to build the fence!

Interesting note on the effect of petrodollars from NRO:
Oil Wars

The world is far more peaceful today than it was 15 years ago. There were 17 major civil wars — with "major" meaning the kind that kill more than a thousand people a year — going on at the end of the Cold War; by 2006, there were just five. During that period, the number of smaller conflicts also fell, from 33 to 27.

Despite this trend, there has been no drop in the number of wars in countries that produce oil. The main reason is that oil wealth often wreaks havoc on a country's economy and politics, makes it easier for insurgents to fund their rebellions, and aggravates ethnic grievances. Today, with violence falling in general, oil-producing states make up a growing fraction of the world's conflict-ridden countries. They now host about a third of the world's civil wars, both large and small, up from one-fifth in 1992. According to some, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq shows that oil breeds conflict between countries, but the more widespread problem is that it breeds conflict within them.

4/30/2008 01:37:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've heard from various sources the phrase "The right to swing your fists ends at the tip of my nose."

European government (and American public school officials) seems to prefer the phrasing "Your right to swing your arms begins once you've submitted forms and studies showing that it can't possibly hit anyone's nose by accident and that the activity is useful."

I think the greatest contribution the eventual colonization of space and other worlds will make is physical space between people. Enough physical space that you don't have to ask permission to innovate and build wonderful things - just head over to the next asteroid and do whatever the heck you want.

4/30/2008 02:14:00 PM  
Blogger Cedarford said...

I'd add Petronas Towers, Shanghai skyline, to new architecture putting the West to shame.
I would love to see Dubai let alone join in the massive wealth being created there, but can't afford to, unless I am posted on business, because the American dollar is turning into toilet paper.
I disagree that these edifices are rising out of insecurity and weakness. It is confidence. They are rising and making massive new steel and concrete statements that they are rising, while the debate in Sweden is about how to disturb nature the least with disposing of your corpse when you die. Which typifies the mindset the West is in these days.

4/30/2008 02:44:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

In America, we have one monument commemorating Flight 93 in Pennsylvania shaped like an Islamic cresent and placed so that it faces Mecca.

Another memorial in Arizona has been erected to remember those killed on 9/11. It also contains engravings critical of America such as "You Don't Win Battles of Terrorism With More Battles", "Foreign-Born Americans Afraid", and "Erroneous US Air Strike Kills 46 Civilians".

I must say I prefer the tyrants and dictators soaring towers, which seem more of a testiment to the human spirit than America's hand-wringing angst in building.

4/30/2008 03:07:00 PM  
Blogger Whiskey said...

The Welfare State will last exactly as long as their is money to fund it.

What happens as the money runs out?

Riot, and revolution. We are already seeing part of that. Muslims in Europe through violence have already carved out mini-empires. Which others will emulate. Weakness once started tends to run it's course. Until a Napoleon or Cromwell comes along.

I'm sure Europe will get that. With a strong man taking the most citizens under his wing to simply take things. Europe today cannot conceive of violence and war. But when the money runs out, as it already has started to run out, and you have masses of unemployed men, well that generally causes a change in regime. Germany already has masses of young men, unemployable, in the East, hanging around on the dole. What happens when Germany runs out of money to pay for that? When all their jobs too are exported to cheap labor in China?

Revolution. A strong man. Upending the old order, and turmoil. Grabbing other people's stuff.

4/30/2008 03:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brock: I think the greatest contribution the eventual colonization of space and other worlds will make is physical space between people.

Because it will match the spiritual space that exists between people today, created by a love that has grown cold.

4/30/2008 05:34:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew X said...

I just posted this over at Tigerhawk about of very different posting, more proof to me that the theory in question applies across the board. Every single day I see another totally different manner in which it applies.


I'm trying to spread around what I have coined the 'seat-warmer theory' to see if it takes.

My theory, developed in a split-second as my brother proudly showed off the seat warmers in his new car, is simply this:

Our capitalist market culture, AND our social political culture, are jointly driven relentlessly and unceasingly to one end: the removal of ANY form of discomfort in our lives WHATSOEVER, and wherever it may be found. Be it physical discomfort, emotional, cultural... whatever. And most significantly, both market and culture consist of millions of people that are driven act to remove that "discomfort", even when it is not even themselves who are discomforted. They do it for "others" (so they think). Their wonderful fulfilled lives are about removing that "discomfort" from everyone else... not themselves.

The end result - An entire society of people categorically unable to deal with the fact that life is imperfect, difficult, problematic, and, dare I say, many times uncomfortable. Lost, maybe forever, are such things as stoicism, determination to overcome, and realism of outlook.

So when confronted with such things as the victory of an opposing party, the reaction is not, "well, time to buckle down, re-assess, and fight the next round", but rather the screams of a discomoforted child. "You CHEATED!.... I'm ENTITLED!.... SOMEONE has to be at fault!.... It's not FAIR!..... etc etc.

On these people's backs lie the survival of Western Civilization.

Sleep well tonight.

5/01/2008 08:09:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Will poetry survive in the brave new world?


5/01/2008 01:30:00 PM  

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