Transparency in legislatures fails in US, Vietnam by mattsteinglass

Igor Volsky notes that the failure of the health-care reform summit to produce a substantive compromise shows why you don’t want C-SPAN cameras in the room when politicians are trying to do a deal. Transparency, he writes, “is overrated.” (Matthew Yglesias concurs.) This insight is also, interestingly, illustrated in the design of Vietnam’s new National Assembly building, currently under construction opposite the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

Vietnam National Assembly design, courtesy Flickr E8 club

Vietnam National Assembly design, courtesy Flickr E8 club

The building is designed by the German firm GMP. When I spoke to the firm’s Hanoi office last year, they explained that the central hall, with its glass ground-level lookthrough towards the skylit circular central chamber where the deputies meet in session, had been influenced by Norman Foster’s renovation of the Reichstag in Berlin.

Reichstag dome, photo Björn Laczay

Reichstag dome, photo Björn Laczay

The Foster design was commissioned in 1992 in the aftermath of the reunification of Germany, and the concept was to exemplify the transparency of democratic governance in contrast to Communist opacity. From the dome, spectators can look down into the Bundestag’s chamber and watch the delegates debating. But the GMP architects told me that when they presented similar ideas in Vietnam, they found that while government liked the idea of transparency visually, National Assembly delegates didn’t actually want to have people be able to see from the street while they were in session. So the skylit central core of the new building descends to a closed inner cylinder housing a main assembly hall whose interior isn’t actually visible through the street-level glass facade. Rather a nice metaphor for false transparency.

The funny thing, though, is that the old Soviet-era building they tore down to build the new one was actually extremely informal and physically transparent. Once you got clearance to enter the area, as press or whatever, you entered the main building and stood in side hallways that had only  a low waist-level concrete wall and pillars separating you from the main assembly hall where the deputies sat. You were basically in the same space as them, though they’d sometimes draw heavy velvet curtains while proceedings were underway. In a clunky informal concrete Soviet-style way, it was very “transparent”; I remember my news assistant once spotted former Communist Party General Secretary Le Kha Phieu walking out of the chamber and just walked up and chatted with him. I have a feeling nothing of this sort will be likely in the new building, which will have lots of glass but where access for the public and press will likely be better segregated from the deputies and government officials themselves. Similarly, you need all kinds of clearances to attend briefings at US government institutions, whereas in Vietnam pretty much anyone could walk in off the street and attend one of the Foreign Ministry’s useless press conferences.

Formal “transparency”, in other words, often leads to substantive opacity, while informal “closed” systems can often be relatively open and easygoing if you can figure out a way to get in that front door, which often isn’t as hard as you’d think.


A class of stupid thing not to say, courtesy of Brit Hume by mattsteinglass
February 26, 2010, 7:31 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

We all say stupid things. All the time. Got to be expected. And if your job is to go on TV, you’ll probably find yourself saying some of those stupid things on TV. By watching the errors of others who haplessly say stupid things on TV, we can make ourselves aware of more classes of things that are stupid to say, and, with luck, we may ourselves avoid saying that class of stupid thing in the future. In this fashion, watching television can be educational.

Brit Hume has made me aware that one class of stupid thing you can say is to brag that your religion makes you spiritually better-equipped to handle the emotional consequences of infidelity. (Hat tip Ta-Nehisi Coates.)

Gush Etzion by mattsteinglass
February 26, 2010, 7:02 am
Filed under: Israel

I was going to write something about this, but one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers beat me to it.

As far as Etzion and southern settlements go: I encourage you to take a look at a map of settlement activity from Ir Amim.  Ir Amim is a wonderful organization, and a great way for Jews and non-Jews alike to understand Jerusalem (where I lived while I was in Israel.)  I think you will find that settlements are too complex to lump entirely into the “bad column”.  Some settlements are innocuous.  Some are heinously awful.  Ir Amim has done a great job of determining which is which, and I encourage you to make use of them when you talk about settlement activity.  I think it will provide you with more nuance when you approach this debate.

Israeli settlements on the West Bank are illegal, but when you make judgments about the character of a particular move by Netanyahu, the particular nature of the settlement you’re talking about comes into play. The Etzion Bloc were kibbutzes that were overwhelmed in the War of Independence by Jordanian troops after a long last-ditch battle to protect the southern approach to Jerusalem, and many of their civilian inhabitants were massacred. That story is the stuff of Israeli patriotic legend; re-establishing them has a different feeling about it than tossing down entirely new religious hilltop settlements on stolen land.

On the other hand, you have to keep in mind that Palestinians don’t get to start up settlements at the villages they lost.

Literary theory actually enriches your reading experience by mattsteinglass
February 25, 2010, 9:17 pm
Filed under: Literature

Adam Kirsch has a really nice review of a new book by Elif Batuman, “The Possessed”, about her experiences in Russian literature grad school and studying abroad in Uzbekistan. The narrative aspects of the book sound like they pull off the difficult task of drawing life from the classic absurdist tropes of Eastern European literature without descending into patronizing  “in Soviet Russia, television watch you!” kitsch (a pitfall I think “Everything Is Illuminated” tumbled into, head over heels). But the most arresting part of Kirsch’s review touches on Batuman’s willingness to admit to something that’s practically taboo in mainstream American letters these days: a frank enthusiasm for Derrida.

What’s really unusual, and challenging, is Batuman’s praise of the most abstract kinds of literary theory.

It is conventional to talk about theorists—especially the dreaded French theorists—as if they were foes of the common reader, draining the reading experience of simple joy. But Batuman shows that, in her own life, the opposite has been true. When she first read Anna Karenina as a teenager, one of the things that struck her—as, after reading her, it must strike us—is the way Tolstoy readily recycles the names of characters: “Anna’s lover and her husband had the same first name (Alexei). Anna’s maid and daughter were both called Anna, and Anna’s son and half brother were both Sergei.” Batuman writes that this kind of casual repetition seemed “remarkable, surprising, and true to life.” Once she gets to graduate school, she finds that the work of Jacques Derrida helps her to understand why: “As Derrida once wrote, the singularity of the proper name is inextricable from its generality: it always has to be possible for one thing to be named after any other named thing. … The basic tension of the name is that it simultaneously does and does not designate the unique individual.”

This is a really strong turn for both Batuman and Kirsch to make. We’ve had a good 20 years now of an attitude towards academia and criticism in mainstream culture that basically amounts to rank anti-intellectualism. I think I first noticed how sick I was getting of that attitude a couple of months ago while reading a blog post by Scott Eric Kaufmann on “Mad Men” and realizing that he was getting some stuff out of the character of Don Draper that was extraordinarily deep. It was about three layers of reference more interesting than anything you’d read in the pages of Slate, and I suddenly remembered it had been about six years since I’d read criticism that benefited from that kind of competence in critical theory.

I don’t have that sort of competence; I opted not to go to grad school in Russian literature, and I’m happy I did. But Elif Batuman isn’t ridiculous to evaluate her emotional responses to the handsomest boy in her program through the filter of “Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire”; living your life as though intellectual interpretation counts is a way of taking life passionately and seriously. I don’t know what Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is, but I wish I did.

Stack affair pushing the frontiers of irony by mattsteinglass
February 24, 2010, 3:32 pm
Filed under: Conservatism

Joe Stack’s daughter is something of a nut case herself, this Good Morning America sequence reveals, but specifically it’s hard to get your head around the facts that she 1. endorses her father’s tax-fueled anger against “the government”, which causes people she knows to “suffer” and in some cases die; 2. experienced such suffering herself in that Medicaid would not cover her post-natal complications; and as a result 3. moved to Norway, where, though her taxes are higher, she feels she’s getting “more bang for her buck” because of the excellent government services.

Also, the IRS agent Stack managed to kill was an African-American who served two tours of duty in Vietnam. The guy really managed to pack a lot of American political pathology into one tight little package.

Matt Bai contra the blogosphere by mattsteinglass
February 23, 2010, 2:15 am
Filed under: Conservatism, Media

Matt Bai often writes things I find perspicacious, but occasionally writes things I find infuriating. Today, via Kevin Drum, I see that he has advanced the following argument against the intellectual value of the blogosphere served up a slow floater, right over the center of the plate:

Perhaps the pace and shallowness of our political culture — the echo chamber of pundits and bloggers in which the shelf life of some new slogan can be measured in weeks or even days — makes it all but impossible to sustain a serious public argument over a period of years. Something like Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay on the “end of history,” which influenced a generation of conservative foreign policy, probably wouldn’t resonate today beyond the next news cycle or partisan branding session.

How much better off would we all have been, had Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay on the “end of history” not influenced a generation of conservative foreign policy? Let us recall that the centerpiece of Fukuyama’s argument was that G.F. Hegel had correctly solved the entire riddle of human political philosophy and that there remained no interesting questions left in the aftermath of the victory of Western liberal democracy.

Beyond the dubiousness of this thesis, we have the question of which “conservative” foreign policy it supposedly influenced. Arguably, it played a role in the “new world order” rhetoric the Bush Senior administration used to marshall its coalition for the Gulf War and to establish (rather effectively, it might be added) the principle that state-on-state warfare was largely a thing of the past. But the Bush administration then did a quick pivot to “no dog in this fight” realism in notably oil-free Bosnia, which, whatever the merits, didn’t really comport with the Fukuyama worldview.

One could argue that it was Clintonian liberalism, or at least its internationalist Wilsonian wing, that was more strongly influenced by the end-of-history mood, in which the remaining tasks of global governance were basically clean-up problems for a mainly liberal-democratic, all-capitalist “international community” trying to make sure everyone pragmatically chose Lexuses over olive trees—or if not, that their olive trees were protected by appropriate environmental and trademark regulations and perhaps EU subsidies. Certainly, the Newt Gingrich right, with its militias, black helicopters, raptures and bathtub-government-drowning schemes didn’t seem to have much to do with Fukuyama.

If there is one segment of the conservative foreign policy establishment that really was influenced by the “end of history” idea, it was the Doug Feith/David Frum/Michael Gerson types. They were actually capable of writing things like “our ideals and our interests are now one.” But in their reading, as implemented under Bush Junior, the received wisdom of Fukuyama’s “end of history” became little more than a license for America to do whatever it wanted: history had ended and we were it, so shut up. That other peoples might have different historical arcs in mind, and that shouting these narratives down or dropping a couple of JDAMs on their GPS coordinates was unlikely to be a successful strategy — what do you, want the terrorists to win? If Iraq and Abu Ghraib were an “end of history”, it was an “end” that looked like Vietnam on continuous loop. Hits the end, rewinds, plays again. Shows every hour on the hour.

Anyway. The point is, if Fukuyama’s “The End of History” is the kind of essay we’re doomed to go without in the bloggy blogosphere stretching bloggily to the blog-rizon, I for one welcome our bloggish bloggolords.

The Beavis-ization of the contemporary right by mattsteinglass
February 22, 2010, 12:13 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, Netherlands

So I’m reading through Geert Wilders’s contribution to the February 18 Dutch cabinet debate over the Afghanistan mission that eventually led to the fall of the Dutch cabinet, and here’s what he has to say:

Nederland heeft zelden zo’n zooitje ongeregeld bij elkaar gezien. CDA en PvdA vechten elkaar publiekelijk de tent uit en wantrouwen elkaar tot op het bot. De gezichten van minister Bos en minister Verhagen op tv spreken boekdelen. Ze kunnen elkaars bloed wel drinken. Hun gezichten tonen afschuw en achterdocht. Heel Nederland ziet het. Heel Nederland ruikt het. En weer heeft de premier geen enkele regie, hij ziet nu ook al zijn vierde kabinet uit elkaar spatten. Hij is totaal machteloos. Balkenende staat er bij en kijkt ernaar.

Quick, crappy/inaccurate translation: “Seldom has the Netherlands seen such a disorganized mess. The Christian Democrats and Labor are throwing each other out of the tent in public, and mistrust each other to the bone. The faces of Minister Bos and Minister Verhagen on TV speak volumes. They could drink each others’ blood. All Holland can see it. All Holland can smell it. And again the PM has no leadership whatsoever, he can see his fourth cabinet coming apart. He’s completely powerless. Balkenende just stands there watching.”

What’s striking here is that this little passage has absolutely no policy content. (Trust me, the rest of his speech was pretty much the same.) This is entirely a description of politics as reality TV show; rather than thinking of himself as a political figure with a role to play in government, Wilders casts himself as the grumpy viewer looking on in and critiquing. He’s playing Beavis and Butthead to the actual business of governance. He has, in fact, nothing sensible of his own to say; he sticks to snide commentary on the spectacle of politics, and tries to avoid any coherent policy statements that might tie him to a position long enough for someone to point out how idiotic and unworkable it is. When he finally lays out his position on Afghanistan, it’s this: “For the PVV it’s simple: Out of Uruzgan, out of Afghanistan. Of course the Taliban must be fought, but no more, to the extent we were doing so, by the Netherlands. Our country has done more than enough. We’ve had it.”

This is it? Somebody has to fight the Taliban, but not us? Is this an adult speaking?

I think there’s something broadly familiar in this stance that resonates with the way similar political figures in other countries cast themselves. (Think of Sarah Palin yammering about Washington elites, then tossing out three-word platitudes. Drill, baby, drill!) Somehow these politicians are able to fashion themselves as avatars of the grumpy ignoramuses watching the spectacle of politics at home on their TV sets, cussing and cracking stupid jokes at the screen; they incarnate a stupid knowingness about politics, just as Beavis and Butthead incarnated a stupid knowingness about music.

At one level you could applaud this all as a masterful gesture of detournement on the part of a population too long treated as idiots by a manipulative political system. You want to treat us as idiots? We’ll give you idiots! The problem, however, is that they are, in fact, giving us idiots, and while this made for arguably amusing early-90s TV, it’s kind of screwing up the world.

My final supporting plank for this argument relies on a visual point that has been made by others, but not, I believe, anywhere near often enough: