Friday, February 28, 2003

When We Build It, They Will Come

This post is not as timely as a blog should be, but I'm posting it anyway. So it's Libeskind for Lower Manhattan. I think that's the wiser choice from the two finalists, and an inspiring vision, although I was rooting for Norman Foster and crew. I thought it crucial that the design chosen incorporate a twin towers element, and that those twin towers be as architecturally audacious in our day as the WTC towers were in theirs. This would be a deliberate "fuck you" to the Islamofascists, a testament not only to our greater economic strength, but to our superior conception of the human heart, mind, and soul -- the very source of that greater economic strength. I thought the Foster towers did that beautifully. I'm content with the Libeskind design, though, because although it does not do the obvious homage with twinned towers, it is still breathtaking in its audacity. The THINK plan, the second finalist, failed that test. While it had a twin towers element, they were mostly empty, functionless latticework, and openly derivative of the Eiffel Tower, a photo of which THINK actually included in their slide show. The Eiffel Tower was the WTC of its day, but boldness, not imitation, is what's called for here. I also disliked THINK's decision to place the 9/11 memorial at the apex of their Eiffel knock-offs. Foster's memorial, by contrast, planned voids, on the footprints of the WTC, that I thought much more appropriate. See today's New York Times for a commentary about descending to memorials, rather than ascending. I think this article sums up the point nicely. Libeskind, like Foster, sees the memorial in the same way.

A good friend and I had a dialogue about the choices back when the current group of plans was unveiled last fall. We both agreed that they represented an improvement on the sterile, uninspired choices from the first attempt earlier in 2002, but he felt that we had an opportunity, in the wake of the horror of 9/11, to reclaim the historic character of the neighborhood that the WTC itself had destroyed. Like me, my friend can have no real memory of that character -- we were 9 when the WTC opened in 1971; I lived in Boston, he in sunny California. And although I agree that we are generally too quick to shed old buildings in this country (Steve Martin exclaiming to Victoria Tennant that "some of these buildings are over twenty years old in L.A. Story is one of the funniest lines in film), you can't go home again. The WTC had a transformational effect on Lower Manhattan. It is no more possible to restore the old character of the neighborhood than it is to make Hester, Rivington, and Delancey once again the center of the American-Jewish experience. My friend also pointed out that it took 12 years for the WTC to reach full occupancy after it was built, and that we don't need that much office in lower Manhattan. I respond to that argument in part with the title to this post, and also with the observation that the core buildings of New College, Oxford are more than 600 years old.

The friend in question is one of the few loyal readers of my ramblings, and I suspect he has yet more to say on the subject. So I shall post his reply here without delay. permalink

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Don’t know much about history . . .

I think we need a corollary to the old Santayana aphorism about remembering the past, because the parade of commentators twisting history in the service of Saddam Hussein is astounding. Molly Ivins’s insipid, name-dropping love letter to the French (see the post immediately below) is hardly alone. So today, I’ll hit two more. First up is Russell Martin’s diatribe from NPR a couple weeks back. (It was delivered in sonorous, soothing NPR-tone, but it was a diatribe nonetheless) I heard it on my way into the office and almost drove off the road. Martin is a historian and author of the book “Picasso's War: The Destruction of Guernica and the Masterpiece That Changed the World”. A tapestry of the painting in question which hangs in the UN is often a backdrop for dignitaries giving press conferences there. In a stupid and indefensible move reminiscent of General Ashcroft’s ridiculous prudery at the DOJ, the tapestry was covered during a press conference the day that Colin Powell made his presentation to the Security Council. Martin comments:

.Three years prior to his invasion of Poland, Adolf Hitler sent planes, tanks and troops into Spain in support of General Francisco Franco, who was attempting to overthrow that country's popularly elected government. On April 26th, 1937, in the late afternoon of a busy market day, in the town of Guernica, Hitler's Luftwaffe began relentless bombing, and three and a half hours later, the village lay in utter ruins, its population decimated. Hitler's act of terror and unspeakable cruelty outraged the world, and painter Pablo Picasso responded with artistic fury, creating a massive canvas that would become his testament in opposition to the horrors of war.

And a marvelous testament it is. But is it not fair to ask, had the world responded with force in aid of the Republican cause, would Spain have been spared forty years of Franco’s tyranny? Perhaps Prime Minister Aznar has asked that very question, and this is what motivates his staunch support of America now.

The UN's decision not to allow “Guernica's” images to be used as a backdrop for discussions about whether Iraq should be attacked preemptively are ironic, given the Pentagon's stated intention to intensively bombard Baghdad, a city of five million people, as the war commences. US defense planners call this type of attack `shock and awe,' a tactic meant to overwhelm the Iraqis with so much initial force that their will to defend themselves will be shattered, the strategy that Nazi Germany's military leaders called blitzkrieg, and tested for the first time in Guernica.

There you have it: an outright comparison of the United States to Nazi Germany. I’m not a military historian, and I can’t say whether American military plans for the bombardment of Baghdad bear any actual resemblance to the Nazis' destruction of Guernica. I rather doubt it, but let me take the comparison at face value. I think it is incumbent on one who would make such an accusation to show not just that the tactics are similar, but also that the world’s casus belli against Iraq is as nefarious as the Nazis’ in Guernica (which, as far as I know, was simply a training exercise for the campaign to subjugate the continent of Europe). Unless one proceeds from Jimmy Carter’s assertion that war “is always an evil, never a good,” it is simply grotesque to compare the two. I reject Carter’s formulation, because a war, like the coming war, which promises to prevent even worse horrors to come, is a net good. Martin apparently disagrees. He continues

It may be that as they finalize plans for a preemptive war against Iraq, Mr. Bush and his strategists have carefully considered the lessons of Guernica and the different course history might have taken if Hitler had been stopped as he aggressively entered Spain. Yet if the Bush administration does see a correlation, it misses a vital point. A bold strike against Hitler would have been made in response to his slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians and not on the possibility that he might do so. It remains difficult to imagine that any nation in the world would have sanctioned a military strike against Hitler that year had his troops, tanks and planes remained inside Germany's own borders, had the town of Guernica continued to stand. Yes, the Nazis were amassing sophisticated new weaponry at an alarming pace, precisely the charge that Saddam Hussein stands accused of today. But the decision to go to war before one's enemies do is the thinking of despots, not statesmen.

Shall we call this the Martin One Free Atrocity Rule? He’s honestly saying that the French were right not to have stopped Hitler when he occupied the Rhineland (which might well have resulted in the General staff deposing him). Of course, Saddam has already gotten more than just one free atrocity. Just ask the Kuwaitis, the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs (not to mention the Iranians, but then they gave as good as they got). The question for Martin and his simplistic AWIB (All War Is Bad) cohorts is how many more people must die at this man’s hands before you say genug shayn (that’s Yiddish for “enough already”).

Then there’s yesterday’s New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof. Kristof thinks that Saddam Hussein is no more menacing than Nasser in ’56, and that Ike’s handling of the Suez Crisis should be our model today. Anyone who disagrees with him is a “shrieking hawk.” For brevity’s sake, I’ll take at face value Kristof’s assertion that Nasser really wasn’t that much of a menace, pausing only to note that Israelis might disagree.

But Kristof asserts that “Eisenhower . . . faced a crisis in Egypt similar to today's.” I think not. Today’s situation differs from 1956 in at least two crucial respects. First, in 1956, there were two superpowers, who contained most international conflicts between their client states. Today, the bi-polar world is gone, and regional conflicts that were suppressed in the good old days of MAD are not as easily checked. Saddam Hussein has no external constraint on his ambitions except the United States and its allies. Second, although Nasser apparently tried to go nuclear it was a goal well beyond his reach. Nuclear proliferation in 1956 (or even 1967) wasn’t what it is today. Saddam Hussein, by contrast, continues an effort to obtain nuclear weapons (see especially pp. 24-27) that would already have borne fruit had not Israel had the foresight and the will to bomb the Osirak reactor in 1981. So whatever the West’s perceptions of Nasser in ’56 (and not being an expert in public perceptions in 1956, I’ll again give Kristof the benefit of the doubt), Saddam Hussein is, in fact, a greater threat to regional stability and world peace than Nasser could have hoped to be in his wildest fantasies.

Kristof’s errors are not, however, confined to this facile analogy. He tells us

hawks have a consistent track record of shrieking obsessively and seeing one minor country after another as global threats — in an eye-bulging, alarmist way that in retrospect looks hysterical. In the 1950's and 1960's, the hawks magnified the threat from Vietnam and Cuba. In the 1980's they obsessed about Nicaragua (only a one-week bus ride from Texas!). None of these threats were imagined, but they were exaggerated.

It seems to me that all the shrieking these days is coming from the AWIBs, who are in such hysteria over this war, and have so lost their perspective, that they routinely, with complete sincerity compare George Bush to Adolf Hitler. Personally, I’m no great fan of war. Opposition to the Vietnam War (and the Nixon administration) was my political mother’s milk. My mom wore a war is not healthy for children and other living things pendant, and in a box somewhere in my parents' home is the neon blue peace sign and other paraphernalia from my childhood bedroom wall that establish my anti-war bona fides. In college during the 80’s, I hated Reagan, and while I’ve come to appreciate a couple of things about the man, I still pretty much do. I still think Abbie Hoffman was a great American, and revisionist history notwithstanding, I still revere Jack, Bobby and Ted. So I’m hardly a “hawk.” But this ain’t Vietnam. Kristof’s lumping together of current “hawks” with historical hawks is, I suppose, a necessary corollary to AWIB philosophy. But it’s counterfactual, like a lot of the AWIB propaganda that’s being printed in our newspapers and aired on NPR these days.