China’s New Buildings–How Harmless?

Now that the buildings in Beijing are finished, and the Olympics are here, it’s been a time to ask questions. Should these architects have agreed to work in China? Doesn’t that mean they are endorsing the system. Oughtn’t they to have said no in solidarity and protest? They are legitimate and necessary questions, which if we are to be true to our own values, we have to ask ourselves. Of course, they are questions with an underside, ought foreign architects refuse to build in the United States if they oppose the war in Iraq? But let’s not unduly complicate the issue. Let’s stick to China’s new buildings for the Olympics.
They are impressive edifices, architectural milestones. Just as Frank’ Gehry’s Bilbao’s museum ushered in a 21st century architecture, these anchor it, expand it, issue a call to celebrate what can now be achieved. With his spare lines and clear concepts, Mies van der Rohe gave us a keynote for the 20th century and now Rem Koolhaas, Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog sound one for the 21st.
To take a building from idea to completion is even at best a very long process fraught with obstacles, setbacks, conflicts, challenges. China in its eagerness to excel streamlined the process and made it possible for the firms involved to work with a bit less hassles. The centralization of the government, for example, made certain permits and the like much easier to obtain. And then there’s the sheer opportunity. How many governments have the resources to undertake such projects? Very few besides places like Dubai. In the private sector, the opportunities may be somewhat more plentiful but doubtful they would be on the scale they’ve been in China.
To some what these buildings are doing for architecture would be enough to eliminate the question of ethics. Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic of the New York Times keeps an open mind. The National Stadium, nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest”, for example, was created with open spaces and open interactions in mind, allowing people to meet and mingle, and he reminds us that whether the government will allow these uses after the Olympics, or trivialize them in some way is still in question.
But there’s to me a still better gauge: harmlessness. Are these buildings more helpful than harmful? Will they contribute to the fabric of a new society or reinforce the limitations of the old one? Be it China, architecture, the world…do they help more than hey harm?

It’s Not Democarcy, It’s Political Participation

Sometimes it takes a mirror image to see our own condition more clearly. Having just read about the European Union’s states experiment with various forms of direct democracy, I began to reflect about our own.
The EU members have several ways of accepting, or rejecting, changes to their constitution. Last June Ireland’s referendum on the subject failed, and it was said that the no votes could mean the end of the Union. Since, various European leaders have been looking for ways to redo or rethink the Ireland experience. Meanwhile, the whole idea of referenda and what they mean is also being talked about. One reason is because it is not uniform. There are four models.

  • States where voters can call for a referendum and its results are binding for the government: Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Italy and Denmark
  • States where the referenda have to be introduced by the Parliament or the government: Sweden, France, Austria, Hungary, Netherlands, Spain
  • States where referenda are rare: Germany, Great Britain, Poland, Czech Republic, Belgium, Finland, Estonia and Greece
  • States where the constitution in practice contains few or no provision for referenda: Portugal, Romania and Bulgaria.

One’s first reaction may be, no wonder the EU is having such a hard time, but there’s a more fundamental issue, how each state chooses to practice democracy. In the U.S we are so used to using the word democracy, we tend to slide over what it means. We believe democracy is best, superior to any other form of government and then make a jump to therefore equate our way with what is best. We forget what it is that gives democracy its edge, it is political participation. There are, indeed, many ways and many degrees of participation in the political process, all valid if one applies the criterion of consent of the governed, a criterion which has a long philosophical, legal and spiritual pedigree. We erroneously assume that democracy automatically means direct democracy and that our system of election is best, forgetting all the while that ours is not as direct as we often think, but a representative democracy, whereby we elect individuals to participate in democracy 0n our behalf. The voters in the first category above, for example, believe in something much more direct than our system, their vote is directly binding on the government. Any way is valid, it seems, as long as two factors are met, one that there is a level of political participation and second that this level be agreed upon–if not chosen.
Perhaps the next time a President or some surrogate talks about spreading democracy, we can remind ourselves of the underlying questions that raises and be better equipped to either agree or disagree.

Celebrity Cancer: News?

The news this week end was sure to include that Christina Applegate was being treated for breast cancer. She’s an Emmy nominated actress who played one of Jennifer Aniston’s character sisters on “Friends”, and given today’s culture, that’s news. Maybe it’s the remnant of my J School training, but I must ask why?
First what makes her, or the list of actresses that have so far been afflicted, more important than anyone else? I’ve had breast cancer, so have many of my friends, Sylvia, Harriett, Bonnie, Deborah… and if I am to include family members, the list could grow long. In fact there isn’t a cancer type a family member hasn’t had, including brain and spinal cancers. My list is far from unique. It’s the norm. Don’t we all have a list of friends and family members who have had cancer? So why single Ms Applegate this week end and whatever actress will next be diagnosed next week or next month? Why does being a celebrity, however small the accompanying fame may be, make one more important than those we care about? It’s not that I ignore what celebrity means, if Elizabeth Taylor, who has been a star my entire life, were to be diagnosed, I’d feel a twinge, but it wouldn’t be like what I felt when my cousin Yolande had a recurrence of breast cancer and then it spread to the lungs and she was given what turned out to be the wrong medication and died within days.
The emotional aspects aside, we are legal equals. But more important we are spiritual equals. What distinguishes us as spiritual beings may revolve around how much love we have but I feel quite confident asserting it would not include being a celebrity. Which all brings me back to my original question, why are we treating a celebrity’s announcement of cancer as news? So many interesting stories go uncovered, so many issues crucial to our understanding the world around us need to be talked about. Why do we settle for the health details of every one in the public eye, and treat them as news?

Boycotting The Babies’ Pictures

The news is that People magazine in conjunction with the British Hello! will pay $14 million (yes fourteen millions) for the right to print the first pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s new twins. Previously the source said, the highest sum had been paid for Jennifer Lopez’s twins, $6 million. The magazines are willing to pay such phenomenal sums on the basis that the interest and extra news stands sales the pictures generate will at the very least cover the cost. And of course the pro argument continues. Pitt and Jolie are donating the millions to a foundation they created to help children. Presumably that redeems the excess, the money will therefore serve a good purpose and all should be all right. As I recall $25,000 in Africa can build a nice school. Fourteen million ought to build a long string of them.
But it’s more complex than that. It’s first that it makes us accomplices to this exorbitant sum, because without us, the consumer, to look, scrutinize, peek, comment, coo or criticize, the pictures are worthless. And second is what it says about us, about us as a society and about us as individuals. Many, I would surmise, will feel as I do and yet will go right ahead and look at the pictures, feeling that once the sale is made, there’s nothing we can do. I would venture to say, yes there is, boycott the picture, do not look at them or read the magazine. If we do not bite, then they’ll think twice about paying such sums for pictures of innocent babies whose sole claim on fame is that their parents are movie stars. What’s even more disquieting is what it says about us as a society. More than the majority of us believe the country is on the wrong track. Surely how we use money is related to what’s ailing us, and I don’t think I even need statistics to say that of those who feel that way, more than the majority will agree that the value we place on money is part of the problem. To me that’s another good reason to boycott the picture, to make a point we want better and we deserve better than a society where the price of a baby picture is more than the lifetime earnings of our less fortunate millions.