The Long View 2005-03-01: The Gates, Hydro Power, Kantian Pacification

John's idea that public art installations are just a way to attract attention, and do not really instantiate any other artistic ideal seems to be accurate in many cases.

Christopher Hitchen's article about the vanishing of the term "the Arab street" in 2005 seems to have been premature:

The Gates, Hydro Power, Kantian Pacification

For those of you who don't know, The Gates installation in Manhattan's Central Park consisted of saffron sheets suspended from doorways of metal poles. The doorways were set up over an amazingly large fraction of the walkways in the Park. The whole thing cost $21-million: private money, thank you. Last Saturday was the penultimate day before this work by Christo and Jean-Claude would begin to be dismantled, so I made the hike: up Park Avenue from 33rd Street to 90th, then south through the Park back to the Path Station at 33rd. (I like to walk).

What struck me was how the design seemed to defeat the concept. One imagines a long series of gates as a spectacle of perspective. In The Gates, however, the saffron sheets were so low that the only perspective was tunnel-like, even in those rare places where the walkways ran straight. Moreover, the saffron sheets were a medium that cried out for a message. It was hard to shake the impression that the whole thing was a sort of draft, and the text and images would be added later.

The astounding thing was the crowds. Central Park is a big place, but the Gates clogged its walkways with people snapping pictures, pushing baby-carriages, and chattering like parrots into their cell phones. (The phone calls consisted of remarks like, "I am now moving forward...") I was no better: I had a $10 camera, though I was unencumbered by baby or cellphone. If any of the pictures turn out worth viewing, I will post them.

It took me a while to figure out what all this was for. Finally it hit me: The Gates existed to draw the crowds. The installation had no meaning; it was a behavior engine. In other words, it was like one of those practical jokes for which the punchline is, "Made you look."

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Speaking of dubious installations, there is some evidence that the environmentalists of the world are about to focus on a new target:

The green image of hydro power as a benign alternative to fossil fuels is false, says Eric Duchemin, a consultant for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). "Everyone thinks hydro is very clean, but this is not the case," he says...This is because large amounts of carbon tied up in trees and other plants are released when the reservoir is initially flooded and the plants rot. Then after this first pulse of decay, plant matter settling on the reservoir's bottom decomposes without oxygen, resulting in a build-up of dissolved methane...This is released into the atmosphere when water passes through the dam's turbines. Seasonal changes in water depth mean there is a continuous supply of decaying material. In the dry season plants colonise the banks of the reservoir only to be engulfed when the water level rises.

Something about this stinks, and I'm not sure it's the methane from the reservoirs. There seems to be a principle among environmental activists: any hypothetical source of power is superior to any source currently in use, until the hypothetical source becomes practical. Then it becomes as bad as any existing source, or slightly worse.

* * *

Has the war in Iraq punctured the myth of American hegemony just at the time that the European Union is emerging into superpower status, or is the EU a post-historical Old Folks' Home that is becoming a northern addition to the Maghreb? During President Bush's recent trip to Europe, there was a concerted campaign in all media to promote the former position, of which this piece by Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post is a fair sample. (The link is to The Bergen Record:

With the United States pinned down in Iraq, where the continued deployment of nearly 150,000 troops has severely strained the U.S. military, European leaders no longer expect further military expeditions in Bush's second term. And so they have been gracious - but assertive, reflecting how far the United States has fallen from "hyperpower" status. Indeed, analysts said, European leaders are increasingly united against the United States on key issues and feel emboldened to go their own way on such issues as Iran and China.

For the contrary position, we need only consult the indefatigable Mark Steyn:

Lester Pearson, the late Canadian prime minister, used to say that diplomacy is the art of letting the other fellow have your way. All week long President Bush offered a hilariously parodic reductio of Pearson's bon mot...[T]he notion that the [EU is] a superpower in the making is preposterous. Most administration officials subscribe to one of two views: a) Europe is a smugly irritating but irrelevant backwater; or b) Europe is a smugly irritating but irrelevant backwater where the whole powder keg's about to go up.

Most Europeans who write to me agree with "b," but then these people are writing to me, so they are not a random sample.

There is a point in the Steyn piece that requires qualification. He says that the EU constitution is about 500 times as long as the US federal constitution (it's actually about 50 times) and that it covers trivial infrastructure matters. He asserts:

Most of the so-called constitution isn't in the least bit constitutional.

Certainly it's not like the US federal constitution, but it is like the constitution of most of the states, which deal with everything from the care of swamps to designating who gets the income from specific toll roads. The consequence of that, of course, is that state constitutions are not taken very seriously: people treat them like just another kind of legislation. That is, surely, what will happen in the EU.

* * *

And while we are on the subject of the evolution of transnational institutions, the UN does not seem to be preparing for a post-American world. As Warren Hoge of the New York Times put it:

Edward Luck, a professor of international affairs at Columbia [said] "In the early '90s the UN got too ambitious on the operational scale," he said, "it was no longer limited by vetoers and naysayers, so the sky seemed the limit. In the late '90s and the beginning of this century, it got overly zealous in building norms, setting international law and trying to regulate state behavior. Now they have to step back in an attempt to do both."...He also faulted the United Nations for developing a sense of moral superiority over the pursuit of national ambitions. "It was as if national interests are by definition base and narrow and mean-spirited," he said.

Again, the United Nations is a very useful organization, but the project to make it the font of global legitimacy has failed.

* * *

Meanwhile, the fall of the pro-Syrian government in Lebanon yesterday is yet more evidence that the larger strategy, of which the Iraq War is a part, is succeeding. As Christopher Hitchens observed in a column entitled The Arab Street: A vanquished cliché:

The return of politics to Iraq has had many blissful secondary consequences, one of them apparently minor but nonetheless, I think, important. When was the last time you heard some glib pundit employing the phrase "The Arab Street"? I haven't actually done a Nexis search on this, but my strong impression is that the term has been, without any formal interment, laid to rest. And not a minute too soon, either.

There are domestic time constraints on foreign policy success. The president's proposals for tinkering with Social Security have been ill-received by the public. The Republican media machine has made things worse by attacking the main centers of opposition, notably the American Association of Retired People. In this matter, the Internet works against the Administration, rather than for it. After next year's congressional elections, the Administration will be limited to reacting to events.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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