Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 8, 2007

A Cave Among Goldfish Bowls

By sheer coincidence, Boston’s Blue Cross-Blue Shield Building (1960) was profiled recently on the same day in two quite different publications. In the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, the thirteen-story office tower was described as a landmark of modern architecture, a decisive renunciation of the glass curtain-walled architecture of the 1950’s. The article, by Timothy Rowan of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, rested on a mountain of patient archival research. Too patient, alas: just as Rowan’s article appeared, the New York Times revealed that the building is slated to be torn down to make room for an 80-story skyscraper.

The BC-BS Building (as it is known locally) was designed by Paul Rudolph, an early opponent of America’s postwar architectural modernism. Rudolph scorned the spread of the all-glass curtain wall, which might be lovely in a single example—permitting a rich play of reflections—but which becomes maddening when it takes over an entire street, a spectacle of mirrors reflecting other mirrors. The problem of modern architecture, he quipped, was “too many goldfish bowls, too few caves.”

Read More

By sheer coincidence, Boston’s Blue Cross-Blue Shield Building (1960) was profiled recently on the same day in two quite different publications. In the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, the thirteen-story office tower was described as a landmark of modern architecture, a decisive renunciation of the glass curtain-walled architecture of the 1950’s. The article, by Timothy Rowan of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, rested on a mountain of patient archival research. Too patient, alas: just as Rowan’s article appeared, the New York Times revealed that the building is slated to be torn down to make room for an 80-story skyscraper.

The BC-BS Building (as it is known locally) was designed by Paul Rudolph, an early opponent of America’s postwar architectural modernism. Rudolph scorned the spread of the all-glass curtain wall, which might be lovely in a single example—permitting a rich play of reflections—but which becomes maddening when it takes over an entire street, a spectacle of mirrors reflecting other mirrors. The problem of modern architecture, he quipped, was “too many goldfish bowls, too few caves.”

His BC-BS Building provided just such a cave. Instead of a glass sheath, Rudolph encased his building in a brawny exoskeleton of concrete piers. Besides carrying the building, they housed much of its ductwork and internal mechanics, opening the interior for flexible office space. His vigorous play of corrugated structure, expressed in weighty concrete, is characteristic of the New Brutalism, the architectural movement associated with his name. It was never a terribly popular movement, even among architects (it has long been alleged that his Art and Architecture Building at Yale was set ablaze in 1969 by the architecture students who used it). Preservationists are now fighting to save the BC-BS Building, but the prospects are dim for this ungainly monument.

There is a final irony. The BC-BS Building was an important forerunner of the ostentatiously “high-tech” architecture of the 1970’s, especially that writhing essay in color-coded conduits and pipes, the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The Centre was designed by Renzo Piano, who, in high Oedipal fashion, will now replace the BC-BS building with his own skyscraper. Shakespeare did not publish his folios on pulped copies of Holinshead’s Chronicles; Leonardo did not paint his Last Supper over a fresco of Giotto’s. Is architecture the only art form where the flattery of imitation can be accompanied by actual annihilation of the original?

Read Less

Israel and the German Bishops

“In the morning at Yad Vashem, photos of the inhuman Warsaw Ghetto; in the afternoon, we go to the ghetto in Ramallah. It’s enough to make you blow your top.” This outburst in Bethlehem by Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt was only one of several provocative comments made during a much-heralded pilgrimage to Israel and the Palestinian terroritories by all 27 German Catholic bishops last week.

The Bishop of Augsburg, Walter Mixa, accused the Israelis of “racism,” while the most senior member of the delegation, the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, Joachim Meisner, compared Israel’s security fence to the Berlin Wall and predicted that it, too, would be torn down. “This is something that is done to animals, not people,” Cardinal Meisner declared.

While in Israel, the bishops were given VIP treatment by Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres and other senior officials. At the Yad Vashem memorial, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the chairman of the Bishops’ Conference, gave a respectful speech. But the tone changed dramatically after the bishops left Israel and entered Palestinian-controlled territory.

Read More

“In the morning at Yad Vashem, photos of the inhuman Warsaw Ghetto; in the afternoon, we go to the ghetto in Ramallah. It’s enough to make you blow your top.” This outburst in Bethlehem by Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt was only one of several provocative comments made during a much-heralded pilgrimage to Israel and the Palestinian terroritories by all 27 German Catholic bishops last week.

The Bishop of Augsburg, Walter Mixa, accused the Israelis of “racism,” while the most senior member of the delegation, the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, Joachim Meisner, compared Israel’s security fence to the Berlin Wall and predicted that it, too, would be torn down. “This is something that is done to animals, not people,” Cardinal Meisner declared.

While in Israel, the bishops were given VIP treatment by Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres and other senior officials. At the Yad Vashem memorial, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the chairman of the Bishops’ Conference, gave a respectful speech. But the tone changed dramatically after the bishops left Israel and entered Palestinian-controlled territory.

Despite sharp reactions from Shimon Stein, the Israeli ambassador to Germany, and from German Jewish leaders (described by the Iranian news agency as “German Zionist lobbyists”), the bishops seem unrepentant. They issued a statement vehemently denying that they had “demonized” Israel, adding that the “emotional consternation” of their visit to Bethlehem had evoked some “very personal remarks” that had already been “self-critically corrected.” In fact, however, Bishop Hanke merely said that “comparisons between the Holocaust and the present situation in Palestine are unacceptable and were not intended.” Neither he nor Cardinal Meisner and Bishop Mixa offered any apology.

I do not know what to make of this lamentable tale. Do the German bishops really need to be reminded of the collaboration with the Nazis of many of their predecessors during the Third Reich? Do they need to be reminded of what the Germans actually did in the Warsaw Ghetto? Does an East German like Cardinal Meisner need to be reminded of the difference between the Berlin Wall, built to stop people fleeing from Communist tyranny, and Israel’s fence, built to protect its people from Palestinian terrorists? Do the German bishops still know so little of the tragic struggle for survival of the Jewish people that they need to be reminded of their own unique responsibility, as Germans and as Christians, to counter the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe?

I hope that Pope Benedict XVI will summon the offending bishops to Rome and discipline them. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he encouraged John Paul II to make unprecedented gestures toward the Jewish people and the state of Israel. As the first German pope for a thousand years, he declared his intention to continue to lead the Church down the path of reconciliation. As a man who knows the Third Reich from personal experience—he was a member of the Hitler Youth and served in an anti-aircraft unit during the last months of the war—Pope Benedict has a special duty to distance the Catholic Church from comparisons between Israel and the Nazis. Such comparisons, though commonplace in the Islamic world, are not a Muslim monopoly.

This incident has a particular resonance for me, as a philo-Semitic Catholic, a friend both of Israel and of Germany. Quite simply, I feel ashamed of these bishops. Nobody wants the Germans to be perpetually beating their breasts to atone for the crimes of the Nazis. Like anybody else, they are entitled to criticize the Israeli government. After all, Israelis themselves criticize their own government all the time. But I am angry that German bishops, of all people, should come out with extremist propaganda that delegitimizes Israel, a state that is threatened with a second Holocaust at the hands of a nuclear-armed Iran.

These campaigns of vilification against Israel have done terrible harm. A new BBC poll conducted in 27 countries finds that Israel has the most negative image of all, ahead of Iran, the United States, and North Korea. This grotesque attitude to the beleaguered Jewish state is fuelled by comments like those of the German bishops, and reinforced by their failure to apologize.

In medieval times, Christians knew how to do penance for their sins. The German Emperor Henry IV went to Canossa, in Tuscany, to beg Pope Gregory VII to lift a sentence of excommunication. The monarch stood in the snow outside the castle for three days, wearing only a hairshirt, before the pope forgave him.

To repair the damage they have done to German-Israeli and Catholic-Jewish relations, these three German bishops must make their own journey to Canossa. They don’t have to wear hairshirts, but they do need to show that they have grasped the magnitude of their folly. They owe that much to the younger generation of Germans—some of whom last week destroyed a medieval Jewish cemetery in Bavaria.

Read Less

The Vaccine Minefield

A vaccine for Human Papillomavirus (HPV), approved last year, has now sparked controversy in at least a half dozen states. HPV is by far the most common sexually transmitted virus in the U.S. (a recent study suggests as many as 25 percent of women under the age of 60 are infected). Symptoms are usually not serious but two rare strains of the virus can actually cause cervical cancer—the second most common form of cancer among American women.

That’s why the introduction of an HPV vaccine made waves last year. Approved by the FDA in June, it is the first vaccine that can avert a form of cancer. Public health officials hailed it, and even President Bush talked it up earlier this year.

Read More

A vaccine for Human Papillomavirus (HPV), approved last year, has now sparked controversy in at least a half dozen states. HPV is by far the most common sexually transmitted virus in the U.S. (a recent study suggests as many as 25 percent of women under the age of 60 are infected). Symptoms are usually not serious but two rare strains of the virus can actually cause cervical cancer—the second most common form of cancer among American women.

That’s why the introduction of an HPV vaccine made waves last year. Approved by the FDA in June, it is the first vaccine that can avert a form of cancer. Public health officials hailed it, and even President Bush talked it up earlier this year.

But the vaccine’s manufacturer, Merck, quickly overreached in its effort to market it, pressuring state officials to mandate vaccination of sixth-grade girls. In February, Texas governor Rick Perry issued an executive order requiring vaccination, but when it was revealed that Perry’s former chief of staff is now a lobbyist for Merck, the company’s role in pushing for mandatory adoption became an issue across the country. In late February, Merck announced an end to its lobbying campaign.

The HPV vaccine stands to be a major boon to women’s health, but it is not an obvious candidate for mandatory use. Mandatory vaccination of children is generally used to prevent diseases that can spread easily in school—like chicken pox and mumps—and HPV does not quite qualify. Indeed, many parents are uneasy vaccinating their 11-year-old daughters against a sexually transmitted disease. Merck marched far too aggressively into that minefield, and by overplaying its hand has not only undermined its own vaccine, but may also have unwittingly contributed to a growing campaign to build doubts in parents’ minds about vaccines in general—a campaign with serious health implications.

That broader campaign has been building slowly for years, advanced especially by a few groups of parents of autistic children, who are persuaded (without concrete evidence) that chemicals in childhood vaccinations (especially small doses of mercury) cause autism. By planting baseless fears in the minds of parents, they have caused a real decline in the number of children being vaccinated, which could contribute to the resurgence of some diseases thought to be things of the past, like mumps. Public-health officials have come to realize over the past decade that vaccines are extremely sensitive territory. Apparently no one bothered to tell Merck.

Read Less

Rudy and Realignment

Anyone who doubts that the Reagan coalition no longer exists ought to look at the latest diatribe by the syndicated columnist Paul Craig Roberts, which ran prominently in my local paper. Roberts, some will recall, was one of the most prominent supply-siders in the late 1970′s and early 1980′s. His credentials as a “Reagan conservative” are impeccable: editor at the Wall Street Journal, assistant secretary in Reagan’s Treasury Department, fellow at the Hoover Institution, congressional staffer who helped write the landmark Kemp-Roth tax-cut bill. But for the last few years, Roberts has been unleashing a series of rants against the Iraq war, the Bush administration, and neoconservatives, all delivered with a heavy dose of conspiracy theory involving Israel, AIPAC, and Norman Podhoretz.

Roberts is certainly entitled to air his fevered views. But the extremism of his ideas—shared, alas, by a number of libertarians—shows the futility of hoping that the old alliance of tax-cutters, social conservatives, and foreign-policy hawks that formed the Reagan coalition will reunite behind a 2008 candidate.

Read More

Anyone who doubts that the Reagan coalition no longer exists ought to look at the latest diatribe by the syndicated columnist Paul Craig Roberts, which ran prominently in my local paper. Roberts, some will recall, was one of the most prominent supply-siders in the late 1970′s and early 1980′s. His credentials as a “Reagan conservative” are impeccable: editor at the Wall Street Journal, assistant secretary in Reagan’s Treasury Department, fellow at the Hoover Institution, congressional staffer who helped write the landmark Kemp-Roth tax-cut bill. But for the last few years, Roberts has been unleashing a series of rants against the Iraq war, the Bush administration, and neoconservatives, all delivered with a heavy dose of conspiracy theory involving Israel, AIPAC, and Norman Podhoretz.

Roberts is certainly entitled to air his fevered views. But the extremism of his ideas—shared, alas, by a number of libertarians—shows the futility of hoping that the old alliance of tax-cutters, social conservatives, and foreign-policy hawks that formed the Reagan coalition will reunite behind a 2008 candidate.

Yet this conservative crack-up might also be an opportunity for the next Republican presidential nominee. Reagan’s greatest strength in the late 1970′s was to free the party from a narrow coalition of business interests, Nixonian cultural conservatives, and country-club types. Realignment meant not just redrawing the political map, but remaking the base of the party, attracting a confederation of conservatives who had never really identified with the Republican party.

Because he does not fit neatly into any Republican box, Giuliani seems uniquely suited to take on the task of realignment—and break the red/blue split that forces the GOP to place all its bets on 100,000 votes in Ohio. Yet so far, he has not delivered a personal vision of what the Republican party ought to embrace. His speeches have been full of anecdotes but lack the ideas that ought to guide Republicans and the conservative movement over the next ten years. I think voters are looking for just such an agenda, including those Democrats who can’t stomach the thought of pulling the lever for Hillary.

Read Less

Heroes of the First Amendment

What happens when good or not-so-good reporters do bad things? In most cases, probably nothing. Usually, no one ever finds out. Two recent episodes illuminate a very different scenario.

The first has come to light through an Editor’s Note in the New York Times. It turns out that a Times reporter, Kurt Eichenwald, wrote a $2,000 check to a young man, Justin Berry, who was the main subject of his 2005 article about sexual exploitation on the Internet.

Eichenwald, who is no longer with the Times, had not disclosed this payment to his editors. It emerged into view only in the course of criminal proceedings involving one of Berry’s sexual contacts. “Times policy forbids paying the subjects of articles for information or interviews. A member of Mr. Berry’s family helped repay the $2,000,” says the note.

Read More

What happens when good or not-so-good reporters do bad things? In most cases, probably nothing. Usually, no one ever finds out. Two recent episodes illuminate a very different scenario.

The first has come to light through an Editor’s Note in the New York Times. It turns out that a Times reporter, Kurt Eichenwald, wrote a $2,000 check to a young man, Justin Berry, who was the main subject of his 2005 article about sexual exploitation on the Internet.

Eichenwald, who is no longer with the Times, had not disclosed this payment to his editors. It emerged into view only in the course of criminal proceedings involving one of Berry’s sexual contacts. “Times policy forbids paying the subjects of articles for information or interviews. A member of Mr. Berry’s family helped repay the $2,000,” says the note.

Okay, case closed, and we can thank the Times for its candid disclosure–unless, that is, there is more here than meets the eye. Like why did that money change hands in the first place? According to the editorial note, “Eichenwald said he was trying to maintain contact out of concern for a young man in danger, and did not consider himself to be acting as a journalist when he sent the check.”

But the same day the Times editorial note appeared, Eichenwald offered a different answer to the Associated Press: he “explained he had sent the teen a check as part of a ploy to learn his true name and address.”

All of this smells fishy. The two conflicting explanations for the payment do not fit together so readily, do not fit with the story that Eichenwald wrote–which omits mention of the payment entirely–and do not fit with common sense. Even if Eichenwald was acting as a concerned citizen, as he says, and not as a journalist, would he really part with $2,000 of his own money with no expectations of getting a story and no strings attached? Count me skeptical.

There are other question marks as well. Justin Berry, Eichenwald had reported, was a cocaine addict; did the infusion of cash do him good or serious harm? And what induced one of his relatives to help pay the $2,000 back–a lot of money, after all? Was it to help the reporters and editors at the New York Times abide by their ethics rules? It doesn’t make sense. There are other odd connections between Eichenwald and Berry as well, as we learn from Jack Shafer’s sleuthing in Slate.

But even if we go along with the Times editorial note and pretend not to notice the various fish scents still hanging in the air, how should we assess reportorial conduct in the second of the two cases I mentioned?

Reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle were fed confidential grand-jury testimony about steroids produced by the BALCO “food supplement” firm being consumed by professional athletes. The source of the illegal grand-jury leak, it has now come to light, was a BALCO lawyer by the name of Troy Ellerman, who then turned around and used the resulting Chronicle story to ask the court for a mistrial, claiming that the leak made it impossible for his client to get a fair trial.

Here’s where the Chronicle reporters stepped over a line. They didn’t give Ellerman cash for the leaked information but offered him payment in kind: silent participation in his fraud on the court. Indeed, even after Ellerman demanded a mistrial based upon his own leak to the press, one of the Chronicle reporters dropped in on him to gather even more secret grand-jury information.

Ellerman has pleaded guilty to four felony counts of obstruction of justice. The Chronicle reporters do not face charges. But how was the public, and the cause of justice, served by their part in this charade?

Who is watching the watchdogs? How do we know how many other journalists are out there proudly holding up the banner of the First Amendment while doing shady things? How, in particular, do we know what kind of inducements highly competitive journalists are giving to sources in order to receive what might be a Pulitzer-prize-winning leak?

The answer is: we don’t.

Read Less