Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Warmer Winds of Change

I’m not too concerned about where people stand on climate change. We’re at a point where people agree that’s it’s happening, but for some there is debate on the role humans play.


Then let’s define the debate this way:

One side says we have to cut our burning of fossil fuels to stem climate change. This side includes the chief executives of 10 major corporations (citation from FOX News), a UN panel of 2,500 scientists (citation from Reuters), and the more than 160 nations that have ratified or at least accepted the Kyoto Protocol (see list).

The other side says the jury is still out on the role humans play in climate change. The science of climate analysis is anything but precise, and there have been countless shifts in the climate over Earth’s long history. There are scientists out there with evidence that shows how these and other ideas disprove the claims of environmentalists worried about climate change (look at this scientific looking website).

To some, the latter camp is populated by crackpots and schemers. To others, the former camp is composed of alarmists and conspirators. No matter where you situate yourself, the topic is hot. It is on the public’s mind, and I was wondering about the role it would play in the speeches last night.

Despite nearly overwhelming public concern on the issue, President Bush didn’t make much of climate change in his State of the Union Address, apparently siding himself with the latter camp. Indeed he is a hero to those who claim the concerns over climate change are exaggerated, as he is one of the only leaders from a developed nation to reject the Kyoto Protocol. (I will accept that this decision may be influenced more by the President’s belief in corporate freedom than his denial of the overwhelming scientific evidence. And now don’t take this to mean I’m happy with those who signed on to Kyoto. Europe can’t figure out how to meet the standards, making the whole protocol next-to-meaningless.)

Nevertheless, something in the speech did touch on the issue. The President would like America to become less dependent on foreign oil. While one of the methods he suggested in the address was an increase in domestic production, the President did acknowledge that the US needs to find ways to consume less. Sure, there's ethanol and renewable sources, but even W knows we have do go on a diet. He didn't tell us how to cut down, however. I'm not sure he wants to go into those kinds of details.

He did get me thinking, however.

It is transportation, specifically air and auto transit, that accounts for the vast majority of the world's consumption of oil. Europe can’t figure out how to deal with the issue, and America’s size combined with our love affair with the automobile makes us just as hopeless. But if we had to cut transit consumption, how could we do it?

My answer is trains.

Here’s my thinking. I hate traveling by plane, and I don’t care for driving. I love trains. Can’t say why, but I think trains are great. The rise of short-haul airlines has ruined the train industry here in Europe. It also has led to a spike in airline emissions. Commuter rails in Central and Eastern Europe are dying off because people can afford cars now. The result has been a hike in ticket prices. My thinking is countries need to do the opposite.

Developed nations need to invest in suburban and commuter rail lines. They need to make rail more comfortable and competitive. Trains should be made significantly cheaper than air travel. The cost of gas, tolls, and time should be comparable to the cost of a monthly train pass. There should be internet access and a gym-car on commuter lines. The cafes shouldn’t price gouge. And yes, I think this should all be made possible with tax dollars.

My question for readers is this: am I letting my love of trains cloud my judgment, or does this sound like part of a solution?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Art Here and There

Not too long ago, I saw a play here in Budapest. The show was in Hungarian. It was an adaptation of the Danish film, The Celebration. Going in, I was unsure if I would be able to enjoy the show, considering my very limited Hungarian. I was pleasantly surprised though. Aside from a few monologues that I needed Dora to explain, overall the play came together for me. The show was stunningly powerful, but that’s not what I want to address here.

It was a Tuesday night in a city of just two over million people (about the size of Houston). The show was a challenging piece about an upper-class family confronting the father’s history of sexually and mentally abusing his children. The theater was packed. There were chairs set up in the aisle for overflow, and all of those chairs held audience members. Not everybody loved the show. The shocking conclusion was a bit too much for Andras, but he and I still managed to have a nice talk about the effect the scene had on the show as a whole.

A few days later Dora, Andras, Agnes, and I visited the National Museum for a retrospective on Hungarian painters. The exhibit was impressive, but once again, what struck me was the amount of visitors. We waited in line for tickets, and once inside, every room was full of museum goers. Meanwhile, across town there was a Van Gogh exhibit that had shoulder-to-shoulder crowds no matter the time of day you visited.

The Opera is always full – or close to it. The city has a new national theater with an auditorium, an orchestra hall and a studio space. What I’m getting at here is Budapest’s fine arts are thriving in a way that surprises me. I’m not surprised that the people here are art lovers; I’m surprised at how much fine art such a small nation can support.

It is particularly impressive when you consider how new the concepts of philanthropy and patronage are in post-Soviet Hungary. Seventeen years after the regime change, and people are still weary about “giving to the community.” The retrospective at the National Museum was filled with paintings on loan from the collection of a man named Kovács Gábor. The Hungarians at the exhibit kept commenting about that, like it was odd that a man would lend his paintings to a museum just like that.

So, how do the Hungarians do it? Well, I think the answer is a lot of government funding, which may be at risk. The economy is not exactly tip-top right now, and painful budget cuts are already being made. The interesting thing so far has been the way cuts have been implemented. Aside from healthcare, no one area has been targeted. Most cuts have been across the board. This raises howls from everybody, because everybody losses a little, and they’d rather lose nothing at all. However, what I’m used to as an American is targeted cuts – schools losing their music programs, museums losing funding, and grants being reduced.

I can’t be sure, but I think it says something about the difference in the way Hungarians and Americans see the fine arts. The Hungarian middle class can, and does attend theater events, largely because the state keeps tickets affordable. Young families are able to take their kids to the Opera. The Hungarians seem to understand fine art as something that belongs to all Hungarians. Whereas Americans deem fine art as something the wealthy allow the middle class to enjoy. I’m not saying the US system doesn’t work. There are many generous people who fund the arts in the States, but the system does have its drawbacks. Especially when you consider labor-intensive art forms – like ballet, musicals, theater, cinema, and so on – these productions have to become businesses even when they do enjoy patronage. Broadway’s new method of scaling the house is a sign of this.

The result of business-minded art not only prices out some of the middle class, it also discourages producers from taking on projects that push the threshold of their respective arts forms. I can’t help but wonder how Stephen Sondheim’s work would fair on today’s Broadway of “Mary Poppins” and “Legally Blonde.” And it’s already been made clear that edgy dramas like “The Celebration” don’t stand much of a chance. That show ran for just two-weeks on Broadway before they had to strike the set. If the outrageous rent on the theaters were subsidized, and the savings were passed on to the public I think we’d see American writers and composers producing more ambitious and interesting work.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Losing my head

“The decapitation appeared inadvertent…”

Why are those words strung together in my morning news?

That’s it. I’m done being reasonable about this thing. I’m through with weighing the historical context, considering regional stability, giving credence to claims that the UN sanctions were failing, and hoping for a blossoming democracy. I tried. I did. I know smart people who supported this thing. I can name intelligent individuals who argued convincingly in the name of this war. And while I always made my opposition clear, I did my damnedest to listen to those people. I weighed what they had to say, and for a time I even allowed some of my views to sway closer to the center. “Yes, sure, I will concede that a strong ally in the region would be in US interests.” “When you put it that way, I can see how a small force could be considered a tactical advantage.”

But I was never convinced, and now…

“The decapitation appeared inadvertent…”? Say what you will about the death penalty (a barbaric remnant of a time when governance meant vengeance was in the public interest), but most people would be hard pressed to defend an accidental beheading during an execution.

Oops, I dinged your car door.

Sorry, I spilled some wine on the rug.

Those actions can be described as accidental, but when a living person’s head is pulled from their body, inadvertent or not, primitive and thoughtless forces were at play. There are plenty of beheadings in history. The Bible chronicles some of the best, but none of them are followed by, “Oh, my bad.”

So we ousted a brutal dictator, and these are the people we put in his place. Great goddamned job, Georgie. Brav-fucking-o. Yeah, that’s right; I’m giving up my civil, restrained, non-vulgar voice on this issue. Screw that. I will no longer abide the war-supporters' insistence on levelheaded discourse (levelheaded, ha, didn’t even mean for that to slip out). We’ve blown the goat on this one, ladies and gentlemen. It’s officially fuck-all, and those who disagree can suck my fucking cock.