Michael J. Totten

Friday, May 30, 2003

The Hindsight Effect

My first Tech Central Station article was published today. It's about Saddam Hussein's missing weapons of mass destruction, and it's called The Hindsight Effect.

Criticism and Responsibility

On the Winds of Change site, a reader named Jonathan responded to Joe Katzman with this comment:

Maybe I'm missing something, but if you're an American, it should be your responsibility to expose US crimes and conflicts of interest, not Russia's. Unlike the latter, you can, at least in theory, do something about the former.

I read this and agreed with it, but I felt vaguely uneasy about it.

Then Joe ripped it to pieces.

This excuse is ages-old, for "excuse" is exactly what it is. It's an open declaration that one will only see evil in America, a twisted philosophy whose logical end point is James Hudnall's line that "No one seems to get outraged by mass murder unless Americans or Israelis are involved." This is, I submit, despicable.

Transpose one identity, and rewind to 1940, and presumably it would remain equally true:

...if you're an American, it should be your responsibility to expose US crimes and conflicts of interest, not Nazi Germany's. Unlike the latter, you can, at least in theory, do something about the former.

Which was, of course, an argument put forth at the time from the isolationist right.

Joe is exactly right, and this is why I felt uneasy about agreeing with Jonathan's comment in the first place.

Let me rewrite it so that I don't feel uneasy about it.

If you're an American it should be your responsibility to expose US crimes and conflicts of interest because you can, at least in theory, do something about it.

And let me add this:

If you take it upon yourself to expose US crimes and conflicts of interest, you are obligated to be reasonable. Believing every crackpot rumor and conspiracy theory, especially those circulated by the enemy during war time, is not reasonable. It is, as Joe says, despicable.

Good Democrats

Armed Liberal continues to ponder his question, Why are you a Democrat?

My first reaction to this was that I don't particularly care to think about it right now. I could write an essay explaining it, but I don't feel like it because bigger things are afoot. There is a whole range of issues that put me on the side of the Democrats; taxes, gay rights, abortion, environmentalism. But those subjects seem trivial under the circumstances. We live in interesting times.

It is an interesting question, though. There is another question buried inside: Why not be a Republican?

He comes up with an answer, and his answer is excellent. It transcends the boring stuff and goes right to the heart of what democracy is about.

Ann Coulter's Extremism

Steve Smith calls Ann Coulter a Nazi. And he backs up his statement with extensive linkage.

I think Steve goes too far. There are actual Nazis in the world, and Ann Coulter differs from them in ways that should be obvious. (I am sure she does not support the Holocaust, for example, which is more than can be said of certain Arab dictators.)

However. He links to some awfully damning quotes from her own mouth and pen. If you don't feel like clicking through them all, read this compilation.


"God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.'"--- Hannity & Colmes, 6/20/01

"I think there should be a literacy test and a poll tax for people to vote."--- Hannity & Colmes, 8/17/99

"If you don't hate Clinton and the people who labored to keep him in office, you don't love your country."--- George, 7/99

"My libertarian friends are probably getting a little upset now but I think that's because they never appreciate the benefits of local fascism."--- MSNBC 2/8/97

The benefits of local fascism, eh? Well, Ann, I must say that you can't be too upset that people like Steve Smith think you're a Nazi. He goes too far, but not by a lot.

Imagine what conservatives would say if Hillary Clinton, even in jest, told Sean Hannity that he never appreciates the benefits of local Communism.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

New Logo Button

Roger L. Simon asked if I had a clickable logo button that he could include on his site. (Thanks, Roger.) Since I didn't have one and my graphics skills are as sophisticated as those of an eight-year old, I knew it was time to call on Charles Johnson.

So Charles made a clickable logo button for me that you can put on your Web site as a link to mine.

To use this logo button, please make a copy on your own server by right-clicking (control-clicking on Mac) and saving the image to disk, then uploading it to your own server. Please don't "hot-link" to the image on my server and drain my bandwidth.

Here is the HTML code to display the image with a link to michaeltotten.blogspot.com:

<a href="http://michaeltotten.blogspot.com/" title="The web site of writer Michael J. Totten" target="_blank"><img
src="http://your-domain.com/totten-button.gif" border="0" width="144" height="40" alt="Michael J. Totten button" /></a>

Rude Leftists

Several times on this site I have said that liberals are not leftists, and that the two are often confused as one and the same. Every time I say this I get emails asking me to explain myself, and one of these days (I promise) I'll write a long essay answering that question in detail. (For years I had one foot in the leftist camp and one foot in the liberal camp, so I have a pretty good idea how the two operate and are different from each other. These days I have one foot in the liberal camp and one foot in the centrist camp, and I think I see pretty clearly the differences here, too.)

In the meantime, enjoy this essay called Left Luggage by conservative writer Jonathan V. Last who discovers, for the first time ever, that liberals have to put up with the same rude obnoxiousness from leftists that conservatives know so well.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

It's Good To Be Bad

Sometimes I feel guilty because I am not a "Good Democrat." Then I read an essay like this one by Christopher Hitchens called Thinking Like an Apparatchik, and I say to myself: Thank God he's not talking about me. Thank Heaven I am not like the people he describes.

How is it that domestic politics in this country is at once so rancid and so banal, so embittered and yet so uninspiring? Why should it be that two parties with few if any essential differences are ready to speak of each other as if a cultural or even a civil war were only a few speeches away? Obviously, much of this fatuous rhetoric arises from the need to disagree more and more about less and less, to maintain the mills of fundraising in a churning condition, and to keep the dwindling groups of genuine loyalists and activists in a state of excited pseudo-commitment. But much of the dankness and dinginess is owed to the influence exerted by professional political operators, those who have a careerist interest in "the process" as it is—which is to say partisan in theory and bipartisan in practice.

Those in the unelected election business who become celebrities are sometimes quite willing to work for either party. Dick Morris, to take a notorious example, toiled energetically for Jesse Helms before being hired by the Clintons. David Gergen's mysterious usefulness to a succession of Republican and Democratic Presidents will almost stand comparison with the mystical utility of the Reverend Billy Graham to Eisenhower and Nixon, Carter and Clinton. The self-satirizing summa of all this is the bizarre marriage of Mary Matalin and James Carville, who actually contrived to run opposing presidential campaigns in 1992 while still, at the end of the day, proving that the two parties were essentially in bed together.

I encourage all of you who insist on being Democrats or Republicans, especially you professional party people, to do your best to be bad at it. First be human. Don't be a Paid Idiot like Carville and Matalin, and especially don't be an Unpaid Idiot.

Get Over It

Adam at the Karmic Inquisition wonders why anyone should care about the New York Times scandals. In a nutshell: Boo hoo, big deal, get over it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

The Rise and Fall of Modernism

Here is the story of the rise and fall of Modernism in Portland, Oregon, in photos and text.

The First Wave: Pre-modern Victorian

Most of Portland's core was built before the invention of the automobile, and the parts of the city that remain from that era look more like Europe than they look like anywhere else.

Neighborhoods were built to a human scale, and were always easily walkable. Storefronts open onto the sidewalk, welcoming and even beckoning passers-by inside.

The streets of Old Portland are a joy to explore, even for someone like me who has known Portland all his life.

This photo was taken on NW 23rd Street, which is illuminated each night by Christmas lights in the trees. The soft warm glow is not unlike the gaslamps that lit these streets long ago, and to stroll down 23rd in the evening is to walk back 100 years in time.

Everyone who visits my city and sees this part of town understands why I live here instead of in Los Angeles.

The upshot of pre-auto urban design and archetecture styles should otherwise be able to speak for itself.

The Second Wave: Modern

After the defeat of Nazis and the expansion of the Soviet Union into Eastern Europe, "Europe" becamse a swear-word in Portland. We Americans are so much better than those warmongering European fascists. Let's tear down everything that reminds us of them!

So the southern half of downtown Portland was demolished (all those beautiful buildings!) and replaced with this instead.

Fortunately, from an architectural point of view, Portland's industrial economy spiralled into depression, and we ran out of money. The northern half of the city was spared the modernist "renewal." Most of the old "European" buildings remain. It is this older half of downtown, the half without a skyline, where all the great bookstores, cafes, restaurants, and apartments are found. The modern half is dead after dark. You wouldn't know the older half existed from looking at the city from a distance. If Portland's economy never tanked, that lovely section of town probably would have been bulldozed.

The legacy of modernism in Portland is mixed.

Let's take a look.

The early modernists were brutal. They were flush with money from the booming 1950s economy. And they just got back from shellacking Hirohito and Hitler. They were in no mood to build anything pretty. Form follows function, they said, so they poured concrete and built nothing but functional towers.

This building is an exception. Contrary to popular belief, if was not built by humans at all. It was shot to earth from Saturn's moon Titan. It landed here at the south end of Portland, and the locals figured they might as well make a bank out of it.

Three times on my way to work in the morning I've seen chimps whacking it with femurs.

Here is the Standard Insurance Building. I screwed up the photograph when a drop of sun hit the lens, and I didn't notice until I got home. But what do I care? This building is as awful as buildings can get, and I am not going back to retake the shot. The 75-year old security guard watched in amazement while I took this picture. Why would any person take a picture of this slab? To show people how awful it is, that's why! But, I didn't tell him that. Let the old man think I'm a dumb tourist from the sticks if it helps him pass his time.

This scene has all the charm of the back end of the tail pipe on a Borg cube. Not once has any human being enjoyed the walk past this thing. This stretch of street is completely wasted. No windows, no shops, just an ugly looming monstrous thing that must be endured. The "Exit Only" sign is perfect. Get me out of here!

Here is Portland's Stalinist Quarter. There are Lord Knows how many of these things on the southern tip of downtown. Beautiful Victorian neighborhoods were demolished to make way for the Soviet-style blocks.

This is the ugliest building I have ever seen. It is sandwiched between two nice brick buildings, as out of place as a stinking bum at a wedding party. Someone went to school to learn how to design this thing. Think about that for a minute. Somewhere in the world are architecture professors who ignored every single last scrap of knowledge about building design, and they actually taught students that it is appropriate to inflict this sort of thing on a neighborhood. Fortunately, for all our sake, those people are now in nursing homes where they can't do any more damage.

At least the early modernists got one thing right. The Western half of Oregon is a lush and rainy place, so they broke up their rude architecture regime with block after block after block of genuinely pleasant greenspace so we won't all hang ourselves or flee en masse to the woods or back to Old Portland.

The late wave modernists had a few things going for them that the early modernists didn't. They weren't suffering from the Victory Disease, and they had to grow up enduring a skyline of concrete slabs. So they opted for slabs of colored metal and glass instead. Not only is this cheaper, but it produces buildings that aren't icepicks stabbing the eyes. Sometimes a tower of colored glass produces an interesting contrast with the older buildings next to it.

The building in the background is known locally as the Big Pink Tower of Power. No one feels any affection for this thing, but I've never heard anyone complain about it either. It doesn't insult the buildings it rises above, and it basically functions as an ornament. It dutifully reminds us that we live in a large modern city in North America, and it does us the favor of providing a restaurant at the top where we can take our out-of-town guests. Nicer buildings are everywhere in Portland, but sheesh, so are worse buildings.

Here is downtown Portland's transition zone, where the medium-rise buildings of yore begin to give way to the modern towers beyond. The purple sucker at the end looks like a giant roll-on deodorant stick up close, but it least it blends in reasonably well with the older buildings down the street.

New Urbanist James Howard Kunstler says:

Here's some good news: the 20th century is over!
We don't have to be Modern anymore!

Thank God.

The Third Wave: Post-Industrial

A new consensus developed in Portland a few decades ago after our progressive governor Tom McCall had the courage to kvetch in public about the "unspeakable ugliness" being built and strewn all over the place. The urban design code was scrapped. We started over, promising to sin no more.

An Urban Growth Boundary was established to separate city from countryside. Urban sprawl screeched to a halt, and it hasn't moved since. Not for thirty years has Portland expanded outward even an inch. Instead of sprawling outward, developers had to fill in the unused or underused land inside the city. (Want to encourage slum-renovation without having to pay for it? There's your answer. Three decades after the establishment of the Urban Growth Boundary, Portland has revitalized 100 percent of its slums for the straightforward reason that inner-city land cannot be neglected any longer in favor of sprawl.)

All building have to be built to the sidewalk (just like in the Victorian era!), which effectively bans strip malls and "Big Boxes" (like Walmart) which surround themselves with parking lagoons. Buildings must have windows at street level so that pedestrians are no longer subjected to sinister blank walls along sidewalks. Buildings must be mixed-use, with retail shops on the ground floor and apartments above. This way, people can go downstairs to get their groceries or their lattes instead of getting in their car and driving three miles to a parking lot.

The streetcar, which was unceremoniously abolished after the invention of automobile, was rebuilt and now services downtown and the inner-city neighborhoods.

The warehouse and industrial district which was made derelict with the collapse of Portland's heavy industry was revitalized with money from the high tech industry. And suddenly we have new post-industrial urban neighborhoods that don't look Victorian but feel Victorian, and are pleasant, livable, and walkable again.

Look at these buildings. They are brand-new, built yesterday. You can see they are new by looking at them, but their size and choice of building materials give them the feel of the nicer old Victorian buildings.

The idiot modernists demolished the lovely Portland Hotel to make room for a parking lot. (!) The New Urbanists were horrified, so they kicked out the cars and transformed the dead space into Pioneer Square, also known as Portland's Living Room.

Some of the old warehouses were knocked down and replaced with new buildings with an old vibe. Others, like this one, were refurbished and turned into loft apartments. The industrial look was preserved to give the new neighborhood a connection with the past.

No one would ever be so foolish as to think the River Place neighborhood with its promenade was built circa 1890. But it hardly matters because it's still a charming place, and it's charming for most the same reasons as the old neighborhoods. It's built to a human scale, people live upstairs from a lively street scene, and, most importantly, there are no cars.

This neighborhood recently wasn't even a neighborhood. It was completely abandoned. Broken glass, trash, and dirty needles littered the streets. No respectable person ever walked here; only dope dealers and hookers. Now it is one of the more pleasant neighborhoods in Portland, made possible by the ban on sprawl and the trashing of idiotic construction codes. New buildings are made to look like old buildings, and new neighborhoods are designed as they were long ago, before we forgot what we always knew.

Portland is coming full circle. The wisdom and charm of the past is being slowly rediscovered. Shelly and I were lucky enough to snap up a Victorian house for ourselves before they become unaffordable, and we're lucky enough to live in an old neighborhood. But the new neighborhoods are looking more and more like the old. And something tells me the era of concrete slab construction will not come 'round again.

Copyright 2003 Michael J. Totten