Sunday, January 23, 2005

Modernism Part 8: The Price of Hubris

...for those of you hanging in there, reading this essay in installments. (Please note below the blank that needed filling in!)



Of course, all that hubris and overweening can-do pride led to trouble, as it had to. Political rebellion in the Old South. Social disorientation and a generation gap. Pent-up frustration in the ghetto, suddenly released by hope, flash-boiled into race riots. Modernist architecture proved devastatingly wrongheaded as high-rise “projects” for the poor exacerbated every social ill, instead of helping to ease them. Few superhighways were built to allow for growth or flexibility. Many best-laid schemes spawned unintended consequences.

Likewise, a well-meaning but ill-designed welfare system systematically destroyed families, undermined work and dissolved personal responsibility -- proving that Barry Goldwater could be right-on when it came to detailed criticism, even if he was dead wrong about the dire need to do something vigorous about poverty.

Alas, by that point modernist meddlers were too far gone down the road of arrogant sureness -- so full of their own certainty of what was right that they were incapable of even tweaking or adjusting their plans under intelligent criticism. Le Corbusier in Brasilia and ___ in New York City showed how far architectural pomposity and insolence had gone. When taken to its ultimate extreme, by arrogant geniuses like Frank Lloyd Wright, architectural modernism lost every trace of egalitarian pragmatism and became yet another excuse for bullying by a new class or "wizards". Human occupants were no longer even consulted over their needs, but simply told what those needs were.

(For more on flaws of technological arrogance, see Edward Tenner’s Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. Also Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn.)

Then, of course, came the ultimate hubris, brought to us under the aegis of that quintessential modernist, Robert MacNamara. Believing we could do anything and everything... or, as JFK put it - “pay any price, bear any burden”... America embarked upon an insane land war in Asia -- exactly what old Ike warned us never to do. (Never let JFK off the hook for this. He expressed modernism in its fullness and pride, all the good and all the bad.) Vietnam reamed much of the spirit out of American society, deeply wounded its economy, and gravely injured belief in our ability as a nation.

(Ask yourself what some enemy would think, looking at America and wondering how to harm us. Is the answer to topple a couple of high rise buildings? Or would you look acorss 50 years for the one mistake that nearly tore apart this nation? How about an unpopular-quagmire, ill-run land war in Asia?)

There are eerie parallels between the MacNamara-JFK brain trust -- on the one hand -- and today’s leading neoconservatives. In both groups we see the same arrogance, elitism, pride, foreign adventurism, and utter, unquestioning belief in the proficient mastery of a core group. Like Alcibiades, during the era when Periclean Athens went off the deep end, their pride is limitless, while their willingness to endure criticism resembles a cranky four-year old.

And yet, despite these common traits, the sixties modernists were completely different than today’s imperious neocons, who exude all of the same hubris while offering none of the modernists’ vision. All of the conceit, accompanied by none of the kindness. The same level of overweening ambition, but all of it funneled into benefiting a narrow kleptocracy, instead of a vast nation and world whose pain and shackled hopes should always inspire eagerness for change.

...on to part 9


Tony Fisk said...

I have occasionally wondered how Clinton (or Gore) would have handled Sep 11. I've never thought about JFK, though!

As you suggest, regardless of origins, all belief systems ultimately merge into the arrogant 'one way' mindset if periodic reality checks aren't made. It seems that the need for those checks is greatest when the system in question is at its most successful (or is that just the point at which things go off the rails, and downhill?)

Thus, George W and JFK entered the same swamp of military adventurism, but from different directions.

Maybe those political axes you were talking about should be mapped onto a sphere?

Talking of towering egotism and its side effects highlights the irony that 'toppling a couple of high rise buildings' led to 'an unpopular-quagmire, ill-run land war' in the Middle East.

Like dominoes, and just as predictable, if you know the lay of things. And it appears feasible, from what you and others have said elsewhere, that Bin Laden did know (although did it really take a genius to predict the reaction?). Afghanistan *might* have been his choice of site for an elephant trap, but Iraq is proving a very nice substitute.

Anonymous said...

Le Corbusier was not actually involved in the design of Brasilia, although it is based on his ideas about architecture. The actual desginers were:

Urban planner: Lucio Costa
Architect for public buildings: Oscar Niemeyer
Landscape Designer: Roberto Burle Marx

Anonymous said...

My belated welcome to the blogosphere, Mr. Brin! I have made a couple of attempts but each has gone sour...perhaps one day.

I thought I enjoyed your fiction, but this is a truly fascinating piece of writing. I admit to some bias on that count (I happen to hold a belief system that has been straddling the fence between modernism and romanticism for roughly 200 years).

Oh, and it's good to know I'm in good company as a conservative who turned on Bush. Thanks for the interesting information in previous entries.


Anonymous said...

To fill in that blank, did you mean Robert Moses, the infamous public works planner?