Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 22, 2007

The Oil-for-Bananas Summit

Yesterday, in the southern Cuban city of Cienfuegos, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez opened the Petrocaribe Summit. The day-long gathering attracted about a dozen Latin American and Caribbean heads of state, including Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. Raul Castro, who is effectively running Cuba for his ailing brother, was there as well. American allies also showed up.

And it’s not hard to see why the meeting was well attended. Chavez, who sits on top of the world’s largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, was offering energy on easy terms. At present, Venezuela ships almost 100,000 barrels of subsidized oil a day to Cuba. Cuba pays for the oil by stationing thousands of its doctors in Venezuela, where they provide free care for the poor. Chavez, at the summit, wanted to extend the barter arrangement to other nations by accepting local products such as bananas and sugar.

The barter option—“a new mechanism” in the words of Chavez’s Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez—is already available to members of Petrocaribe, the Venezuela-funded energy alliance founded in 2005, but it does not appear to be widely used. That doesn’t mean Chavez’s “brothers” in the region have not been taking advantage of his largesse. In about a year, they have accumulated debts of almost $1.2 billion to Venezuela. Chavez thinks the debt will grow to $4.6 billion by 2010. At present, Petrocaribe members can defer payment of 40 percent of their oil bill and take as long as 25 years to pay Caracas with 1 percent interest when the price of crude exceeds $40 a barrel. Is it any wonder that even Honduras, a traditional friend to Washington, became the alliance’s seventeenth member yesterday? Guatemala may also want in.

“We have begun to create a new geopolitics of oil that is not at the service of the interests of imperialism and big capitalists,” the Venezuelan leader said yesterday. Unfortunately for him, subsidized arrangements do not last, and that is all Chavez is offering to his neighbors. The American vision of trade binding the region together is sustainable, but it is failing for a multitude of reasons. One of them is Boss Hugo, who blasted Washington. “Free trade doesn’t exist,” he said as he asked his fellow leaders to resist the failed “dictatorship of world capitalism.” Chavez may sound like a buffoon, but whether we like it or not, he is challenging the notions that underpin the West. It is time for President Bush—and the candidates seeking to replace him—to focus on the region that borders our own.

Yesterday, in the southern Cuban city of Cienfuegos, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez opened the Petrocaribe Summit. The day-long gathering attracted about a dozen Latin American and Caribbean heads of state, including Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. Raul Castro, who is effectively running Cuba for his ailing brother, was there as well. American allies also showed up.

And it’s not hard to see why the meeting was well attended. Chavez, who sits on top of the world’s largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, was offering energy on easy terms. At present, Venezuela ships almost 100,000 barrels of subsidized oil a day to Cuba. Cuba pays for the oil by stationing thousands of its doctors in Venezuela, where they provide free care for the poor. Chavez, at the summit, wanted to extend the barter arrangement to other nations by accepting local products such as bananas and sugar.

The barter option—“a new mechanism” in the words of Chavez’s Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez—is already available to members of Petrocaribe, the Venezuela-funded energy alliance founded in 2005, but it does not appear to be widely used. That doesn’t mean Chavez’s “brothers” in the region have not been taking advantage of his largesse. In about a year, they have accumulated debts of almost $1.2 billion to Venezuela. Chavez thinks the debt will grow to $4.6 billion by 2010. At present, Petrocaribe members can defer payment of 40 percent of their oil bill and take as long as 25 years to pay Caracas with 1 percent interest when the price of crude exceeds $40 a barrel. Is it any wonder that even Honduras, a traditional friend to Washington, became the alliance’s seventeenth member yesterday? Guatemala may also want in.

“We have begun to create a new geopolitics of oil that is not at the service of the interests of imperialism and big capitalists,” the Venezuelan leader said yesterday. Unfortunately for him, subsidized arrangements do not last, and that is all Chavez is offering to his neighbors. The American vision of trade binding the region together is sustainable, but it is failing for a multitude of reasons. One of them is Boss Hugo, who blasted Washington. “Free trade doesn’t exist,” he said as he asked his fellow leaders to resist the failed “dictatorship of world capitalism.” Chavez may sound like a buffoon, but whether we like it or not, he is challenging the notions that underpin the West. It is time for President Bush—and the candidates seeking to replace him—to focus on the region that borders our own.

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Democracy in Pakistan

For years Pervez Musharraf’s supporters, especially in Washington, have been arguing that it is necessary to support Pakistan’s strongman so as to avoid a takeover by Islamic fundamentalists. These realpolitikers scoffed at the need to hold free elections, which, they feared, would bring in followers of Osama bin Laden.

Now, at long last, semi-free parliamentary elections are in the offing, and the religious parties are expected to have a poor showing. The Washington Post reports: “Just 4 percent of Pakistanis said in a recent survey that they intended to support the religious parties in the Jan. 8 elections.”

The religious extremists have been hurt by their poor record in governing North-West Frontier Province, which they took over in 2002. “While they ran in 2002 on a vow of clean government and improved citizen services,” reporter Griff Witte writes, “leaders of religious parties have fallen prey to the same allegations of corruption and lackluster governance that shadow the nation’s secular parties.” Now the Islamist politicos are finding that, just as in French and German elections, anti-American rhetoric cannot make up for a poor record in handling domestic concerns.

In retrospect it looks as if 2002, when the religious parties captured 12 percent of the vote, might be their highwater mark—and that was only possible because Musharraf hobbled the ability of mainstream opposition parties to compete. The parties are still not entirely free to do so, even though the state of emergency has been lifted and Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have returned home. Musharraf continues to cling to the presidency after belatedly giving up his post as army chief. But Pakistan seems slowly to be heading toward a reestablishment of democracy. The new polls indicate that this is a development the West should welcome, not fear.

For years Pervez Musharraf’s supporters, especially in Washington, have been arguing that it is necessary to support Pakistan’s strongman so as to avoid a takeover by Islamic fundamentalists. These realpolitikers scoffed at the need to hold free elections, which, they feared, would bring in followers of Osama bin Laden.

Now, at long last, semi-free parliamentary elections are in the offing, and the religious parties are expected to have a poor showing. The Washington Post reports: “Just 4 percent of Pakistanis said in a recent survey that they intended to support the religious parties in the Jan. 8 elections.”

The religious extremists have been hurt by their poor record in governing North-West Frontier Province, which they took over in 2002. “While they ran in 2002 on a vow of clean government and improved citizen services,” reporter Griff Witte writes, “leaders of religious parties have fallen prey to the same allegations of corruption and lackluster governance that shadow the nation’s secular parties.” Now the Islamist politicos are finding that, just as in French and German elections, anti-American rhetoric cannot make up for a poor record in handling domestic concerns.

In retrospect it looks as if 2002, when the religious parties captured 12 percent of the vote, might be their highwater mark—and that was only possible because Musharraf hobbled the ability of mainstream opposition parties to compete. The parties are still not entirely free to do so, even though the state of emergency has been lifted and Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have returned home. Musharraf continues to cling to the presidency after belatedly giving up his post as army chief. But Pakistan seems slowly to be heading toward a reestablishment of democracy. The new polls indicate that this is a development the West should welcome, not fear.

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What a Disgrace

I thought that the follies of academia had lost their power to outrage me. I was wrong. Reading this New York Times account, about how some scholars have come under fire from their colleagues for working with the U.S. military, enraged me.

There is nothing particularly new in the article, but it did wrap-up three current campus controversies:

At Harvard, some faculty and activists have been troubled that the university’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy helped revise the counterinsurgency field manual, even though the center’s aim was to reduce civilian casualties. Members of the American Psychological Association have had fervid exchanges over what role — if any — its members should have in military interrogations. And anthropologists have passionately argued over a Pentagon program that uses these social scientists in war zones.

The article did not touch upon the continuing refusal of most Ivy League schools to allow ROTC on campus, but this is another sign of the nauseating anti-military, indeed anti-American, bias that still seems to prevail at our elite universities. In this regard, Naval Institute Proceedings prints an instructive letter from Owen West, a Harvard graduate and Marine Corps reservist who has served two tours in Iraq.

In the letter, West recounts the discrimination and animus endured by him and his fellow classmates in the early 1990′s when they had to go to MIT to take their ROTC instruction. “On graduation day, neither outgoing president Derek Bok nor incoming president [Neil] Rudenstine attended our commissioning ceremony. In twenty years, Bok refused to attend even one commissioning,” he notes. Larry Summers broke with tradition by attending the commissioning ceremonies when he was president, but it was this kind of gesture that helped lead to a faculty revolt that toppled Summers. His successors, West notes, are back to their pernicious old ways: “This year, interim president Bok and incoming president Drew Faust did not attend the commissioning ceremony.”

Reading accounts like this, I have to take a deep breath before commenting, otherwise all that will come out will be a string of expletives. What a disgrace that anyone employed in an American university should think it a disgrace to work with and honor the men and women who risk their necks to protect us. It reminds me of Orwell’s disgust in 1943 with those “advocating non-resistance from behind the guns of the American fleet.” Some things, alas, never change.

I thought that the follies of academia had lost their power to outrage me. I was wrong. Reading this New York Times account, about how some scholars have come under fire from their colleagues for working with the U.S. military, enraged me.

There is nothing particularly new in the article, but it did wrap-up three current campus controversies:

At Harvard, some faculty and activists have been troubled that the university’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy helped revise the counterinsurgency field manual, even though the center’s aim was to reduce civilian casualties. Members of the American Psychological Association have had fervid exchanges over what role — if any — its members should have in military interrogations. And anthropologists have passionately argued over a Pentagon program that uses these social scientists in war zones.

The article did not touch upon the continuing refusal of most Ivy League schools to allow ROTC on campus, but this is another sign of the nauseating anti-military, indeed anti-American, bias that still seems to prevail at our elite universities. In this regard, Naval Institute Proceedings prints an instructive letter from Owen West, a Harvard graduate and Marine Corps reservist who has served two tours in Iraq.

In the letter, West recounts the discrimination and animus endured by him and his fellow classmates in the early 1990′s when they had to go to MIT to take their ROTC instruction. “On graduation day, neither outgoing president Derek Bok nor incoming president [Neil] Rudenstine attended our commissioning ceremony. In twenty years, Bok refused to attend even one commissioning,” he notes. Larry Summers broke with tradition by attending the commissioning ceremonies when he was president, but it was this kind of gesture that helped lead to a faculty revolt that toppled Summers. His successors, West notes, are back to their pernicious old ways: “This year, interim president Bok and incoming president Drew Faust did not attend the commissioning ceremony.”

Reading accounts like this, I have to take a deep breath before commenting, otherwise all that will come out will be a string of expletives. What a disgrace that anyone employed in an American university should think it a disgrace to work with and honor the men and women who risk their necks to protect us. It reminds me of Orwell’s disgust in 1943 with those “advocating non-resistance from behind the guns of the American fleet.” Some things, alas, never change.

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Architectural Kudzu

It was only a matter of time before someone picked up the cudgels on behalf of the “starchitects”—that new but already tired term for our celebrity architects—but it is surprising that it would be the New York Times’s architecture critic. Last Sunday, Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote with great urgency in praise of starchitects, touting them not only for the audacity of their imagination but for their ability to work with gargantuan real estate developers. Why the Times would cheer the rise of the international starchitect, which is an aspect of globalization, is not entirely obvious. It may be a sufficient explanation that the phenomenon has been criticized by certain critics on the right, such as John Silber and me.

For Ouroussoff, the starchitect is not a shallow and ambitious showman but a seasoned master—someone who is likely to have paid his dues, often in academia, toiling for decades in obscurity to refine and distill his visionary ideas:

Today these architects, many of them in their 60s and 70s, are finally getting to test those visions in everyday life, often on a grand scale. What followed has been one of the most exhilarating periods in recent architectural history. For every superficial expression of a culture obsessed with novelty, you can point to a work of blazing originality.

Ouroussoff dismisses the notion that the starchitect is a new phenomenon. After all, was not Bernini “a tireless self-promoter,” and should not our own “greatest architectural talents also be celebrated for their accomplishments?”

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It was only a matter of time before someone picked up the cudgels on behalf of the “starchitects”—that new but already tired term for our celebrity architects—but it is surprising that it would be the New York Times’s architecture critic. Last Sunday, Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote with great urgency in praise of starchitects, touting them not only for the audacity of their imagination but for their ability to work with gargantuan real estate developers. Why the Times would cheer the rise of the international starchitect, which is an aspect of globalization, is not entirely obvious. It may be a sufficient explanation that the phenomenon has been criticized by certain critics on the right, such as John Silber and me.

For Ouroussoff, the starchitect is not a shallow and ambitious showman but a seasoned master—someone who is likely to have paid his dues, often in academia, toiling for decades in obscurity to refine and distill his visionary ideas:

Today these architects, many of them in their 60s and 70s, are finally getting to test those visions in everyday life, often on a grand scale. What followed has been one of the most exhilarating periods in recent architectural history. For every superficial expression of a culture obsessed with novelty, you can point to a work of blazing originality.

Ouroussoff dismisses the notion that the starchitect is a new phenomenon. After all, was not Bernini “a tireless self-promoter,” and should not our own “greatest architectural talents also be celebrated for their accomplishments?”

The problem of starchitects, however, is not the shallowness of celebrity, as Ouroussoff’s schematic model suggests, but the danger of monoculture. We rightly lament the loss of ecological diversity in nature, as local ecosystems, overwhelmed by invasive species from outside, lose their fragile equilibrium. One thinks of Japanese kudzu, inundating the American southeast and driving out native species, or the way that American cactus has come to dominate the Mediterranean basin. But one can lose cultural diversity just as one loses ecological diversity, and already we see the warning signs of the emergence of an international architectural monoculture.

The city I know best, Philadelphia, once had a thriving and unusually vibrant local culture, and the very fact of its parochial oddness perversely made it intensely interesting to outsiders (giving the world such extraordinary figures as Frank Furness, Robert Venturi, and Louis Kahn). And until quite recently, its tallest and most important buildings were by Philadelphia architects. But now every item on the skyline is the work of one of the handful of prestigious national firms. They are not bad—Robert A. M. Stern’s forthcoming Comcast Tower looks as if it might be amusing—so much as generic; they might stand as easily in Houston or Seattle (and perhaps they do). I suspect this will prove to be the case in other cities as well.

In fact, Ouroussoff’s own roster of our “greatest architectural talents, ” Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, and Jean Nouvel—an American, a Dutch, and a French architect—inadvertently makes the same point. None is rooted in a specific city or even country, with distinctive local traditions and practices, instilling in each the strong sense of physical place that is the power of much of our greatest architecture. This is perhaps the first generation of architects since the late middle ages to practice with no sense of linguistic or national borders.

In the end, one can concede to Ouroussoff that some of our starchitects have produced works of “blazing originality,” even while wishing he were able to take a step backwards and see the phenomenon in its most spacious sense, as the rise of a lush but rather barren monoculture, the architectural equivalent of kudzu.

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