Thursday, August 28, 2008

Obama, Kennedy and the New Frontier

Sen. Barack Obama has made history by becoming the first African-American nominated by a major party to become president of the U.S.

Despite his many skills, he needs to chart a course forward that goes beyond soaring rhetoric and would do well to echo the words of John F. Kennedy in his 1960 acceptance speech in the LA Coliseum.

Kennedy evoked the image of a "New Frontier" during the height of the cold war. Like Obama, the relatively inexperienced, handsome and charismatic senator needed to promise more than hope. He had to deliver a message that he would be tough, wise and fair in dealing with the complexities of being the executive of a superpower.

Kennedy deftly alluded to the emigrant experience and pushed the boundaries of the American Dream:

For I stand here tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind us, the pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build our new West. They were not the captives of their own doubts, nor the prisoners of their own price tags. They were determined to make the new world strong and free -- an example to the world, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from within and without.

Some would say that those struggles are all over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier. But I trust that no one in this assemblage would agree with that sentiment; for the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won; and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier -- the frontier of the 1960's, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.

As with Obama's candidacy, we should not be "the captive of our own doubts." Americans need conviction in Obama's ability to lead in difficult times.

Foreshadowing his call for action in his inaugural, Kennedy asks Americans to join him to forge this new frontier.

But I believe that the times require imagination and courage and perseverance. I'm asking each of you to be pioneers towards that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age--to the stout in spirit, regardless of Party, to all who respond to the scriptural call: "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be [thou] dismayed. For courage , not complacency, is our need today; leadership, not salesmanship.

Kennedy challenges his audience to take up his cause in creating the New Frontier. Obama must do the same as he presses for national health care, an economic revival and ending wars in two different countries.

Have we the nerve and the will? Can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction, but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tides, the far side of space, and the inside of men's minds?

That is the question of the New Frontier.

That is the choice our nation must make -- a choice that lies not merely between two men or two parties, but between the public interest and private comfort, between national greatness and national decline, between the fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of "normalcy," between dedication of mediocrity.

All mankind waits upon our decision. A whole world looks to see what we shall do. And we cannot fail that trust. And we cannot fail to try.

Public interest and private comfort! What a powerful phrase that describes America today. The Age of Froth -- cheap money, home-appreciation bonanzas, Wall Street dreams and a Las Vegas economy -- is over. The Bush years will be remembered as a time when the ultra-wealthy and well-connected got the lion's share of America's bounty and the middle class fell behind. McCain would continue this agenda, as Joe Biden reminded us last night. Public interest is the mantra of the progressives: Help as many people who truly need it.

Kennedy closes with a biblical passage, presaging the turbulent decade before him: The civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, the 1968 Chicago convention riots, the Viet Nam war, the assasination of himself, his brother and Dr. King.

Recall with me the words of Isaiah that, "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary."

As we face the coming great challenge, we too, shall wait upon the Lord, and ask that He renew our strength.

Then shall we be equal to the test.

Then we shall not be weary.

Then we shall prevail.

What is Obama's New Frontier? He needs to translate the "Audacity of Hope" (his second book and highly recommended) into the veracity of leadership.

Words can convey images, promises and aspirations. They must also lead to conviction.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Why and How Chicago Can Land the Olympics

I going to put my bias right on the table South Side style. I think Chicago should get the 2016 Olympics, but they don't deserve it -- yet. The city's proposal isn't green enough.

Chicago is vying for the games with Rio de Janiero, Madrid and Toyko. At this point, I think Rio has the best chance. It will represent a vibrant, growing continent and when was the last time anyone hosted the Olympics in South America? While Toyko has great transportation, it may fall short since Beijing got it this year and it may be too soon to head back to Asia for the IOC.

Then what's my argument for the Second City (actually now the Third City, since Los Angeles passed it up in population)?

Thinking like Mayor Richard Daley, the games would bring major economic development to the South Side of the city. A rail-industrial-public housing corridor that roughly follows State Street south could be revitalized with middle-class housing, more parks and viable neighborhoods. This strip, only blocks from the lake and its abundant park space, would provide more housing for thousands -- all within minutes of the Loop and served by reliable public transit.

As sports columnist George Vecsey put it in The New York Times, ``the fuzzy word infrastructure can be used to justify tax-supported projects.''

But Chicago won't succeed in its bid until it addresses a number of flaws in its proposal:

-- It will need to pump millions into transportation infrastructure to get people from venue to venue. I'm assuming that venues will be spread out over a huge area, probably ranging from the United Center and UIC on the West Side to the temporary stadium near Hyde Park and other facilities at Northwestern, Northeastern Illinois University and Loyola to the north. While the red line can connect a lot of those venues, there's no good way of getting to the McCormick Place/Solider Field area from downtown. A light-rail system would be perfect.

-- It's not forward-thinking enough. The temporary stadium in Washington Park should be replaced with a permanent venue that will seat at least 80,000. Suppose Chicago wanted to host the World Cup or promote the world's most popular sport? It can and should, but can't do it with the relatively dinky Solider Field. Chicago has always thought big, but for this Olympics proposal, it hasn't thought big enough. Look at what the Chinese did for the opening ceremony. Chicago can top that, although they need to put some more world-class facilities on paper.

-- Utilize more of the architectural community. My gosh, the skyscraper was invented in Chicago and is one of the best places on earth to see more than 100 years of high-rise masterpieces, not including the gem Millennium Park. Be bold. Chicago architects are busy designing the fastest-growing cities in the world, why not the Olympics? I haven't seen any truly stunning designs yet and there's no lack of talent working the drawing boards of Chicago architectural firms.

-- The proposal isn't green enough. Why can't every building produce its own power? This can be the first "carbon-neutral" Olympics powered by pollution-free fuel-cell buses. Again, we have the technical know-how to do this. From Argonne National Lab to the Chicago Center for Green Technology, we already have the intellectual infrastructure.

-- There's not enough connectivity. The great thing about Chicago is that city planners chose a plan and largely stuck to it. The Burnham Plan of 1909 created open lakefront and grand boulevards. Montgomery Ward sued to keep the lakefront free of commercial interests. The IC railyards were built over to hide them and created one of the most splendid urban spaces on the planet. What unifying element will connect all of the far-flung venues to downtown?

In creating the first Green Olympics, Chicago will position itself well for the 21st Century. It will provide more middle/lower-class housing. Transportation will be improved. Jobs will be created. It will gain a first-class, large outdoor venue (Solider Field is pathetic). It will create buildings that are environmentally sustainable.

You can do this, Mayor Daley!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Why the Dark Knight Haunts Us

Why is the latest installment of the Batman movies "The Dark Knight" on its way to becoming one of the most popular films of all time? Why are people (like myself) going back to see it?

Last night, upon a second viewing in a packed 10:20pm IMAX theatre showing, I gained some insights into why Christopher Nolan's gem is far more than a summer blockbuster about a conflicted superhero.

It's clearly not the special effects, which are good and even more dramatic in IMAX. The late Heath Ledger, while delivering an Oscar-level performance that makes you totally forget about Jack Nicholson, is worth the price of admission, but he's not the only reason to spend two and a half hours looking into the heart of darkness.

Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhall, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and the indelible Morgan Freeman are all first rate, but again, they are not the main draw. Even being awed by an array of Chicago skyscrapers (and the world's largest post office dressed up as a bank), aren't enough to get me into a second viewing.

The Dark Knight is a timeless story that stares us in the face and dares us to look at our collective soul.

It's not enough that Nolan taunts us with post-9/11 images of a blown-up building, the work of the Joker. Or that Batman is transformed from a caped crusader beloved by a feeble, corrupt police force into an anti-hero chased like a common criminal by dogs. There's so much more in this film that's informed by Shakespeare, Norse mythology, modern politics and hero worship.

Let's start with the Joker, which coalesced into one of the most enigmatic and terrifying characters on film under the Nolan-Ledger partnership. He's no simple psychopath. The Joker wants to create disorder just to see what happens. As the "dog chasing the car who doesn't know what he would do if he caught it," he's the self-proclaimed "agent of chaos."

My intelligent, loving and insightful spouse Kathleen, who accompanied me to the late-night IMAX showing, claims that the Joker represents Americans and materialism run amuck.

"There are no limits to greed. Look at our lust for oil and the wars we've started," she said. "Look at the mortgages and the banks who made them and all that credit-card debt. There is nothing stopping the free-market system. There are no rules."

"Yes, dear," I retorted, "maybe the Joker represents some element of our dark nature, but he's not about greed. He gets all of that money and he burns it. He doesn't want it. He wants to spread disorder."

"Then he's more of a Loki (the norse God of troublemaking)," she added.

I think he's much more than that. He's a terrorist. An anarchist. He spreads disorder and fear just to see what people will do. Carefully examine his bombing targets: A hospital, a bank, a factory. He wants to blow up institutions and turn people against each other.

There's no better scene in the movie to illustrate his terrorist agenda than the ferry scene.

Two ferries are sent out from the city: One containing dangerous convicts and the other innocent civilians. Each boat is given a detonator and told to blow up the other ferry before they are destroyed. It's a classic prisoner's dilemma. In most cases, one of the parties will take an action in interest of self-preservation. In this case, however, there's a satisfying irony in that one side decides to take no action and the other chooses to sacrifice itself. The end result is that both sides are saved, thwarting the Joker's prediction based on his observation of human nature. It's the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Because two powerful forces have the ability to obliterate each other, the only humane course is to do nothing. A perfect metaphor for our nuclear age.

Yet the Joker succeeds in winning a few hands. He does manage to sow chaos and convince the populace that their institutions can no longer protect them. He has achieved one of his goals. In this regard, he's Osama bin Laden mixed in with a little Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Mugabe and Himmler. He knows the power of fear and he plays it like a symphony.

Even more corrosive is the Joker's power to exploit the duality of human nature. After killing crusading prosecutor Harvey Dent's girlfriend and grotesquely disfiguring him (think Dr. Sardonicus or Dr. Phibes), he turns Dent into a vicious vigilante who goes on a murdering spree. Now the Joker is Iago to Dent's Othello. Human emotion is turned against itself to produce murder.

Out of chaos and loss comes vengeance. Is it an artistic coincidence that Dent's dark transformation comes right after the subtle 9/11 images? I think not. Then the crusader roams around the city murdering everyone who had wronged him and a few who haven't. His rage and lust for revenge are out of control. He's now Macbeth. Nothing stands in his way and the blood he has spilled fails to chasten him. Isn't he a raging post-9/11 America, looking everywhere for enemies, leaving a trail of death and devastation and punishing the innocent in the process?

Unlike most superhero films, the arch-enemy is left dangling. He's still out there, Nolan tells us. Although it will be monumentally difficult to do a sequel with an actor that matches or exceeds the intensity of Ledger, Nolan's message may be that Jokers still lurk in the world. They are hiding in caves, running governments or managing banks, but they are always among us, relentlessly exploiting every weak facet of human nature.

But what of Batman, who ends up being hounded like a wounded animal (mostly by choice)? After all, he's saved a few people, caught the Joker, and surprisingly has kept his integrity intact by not directly killing a soul. Batman even agrees to shut down his version of the Patriot Act: a device that lets him spy on an entire city.

Batman is no less than Ulysses. Despite his wits, strength and endurance, he is cursed by the gods. He can't return home for the time being. More trials await him. While mythical in perception, he will be a creature of the night, waiting in the shadows. Of all of the characters in this film, he is the least like us, yet the one most sorely needed.

We need to believe in a Batman, just the way we needed to believe that Harvey Dent was a hero, even in besmirched martyrdom. We want our leaders to be like Batman and swoop down from tall buildings to vanquish evil. Every fiber of our being wants to believe that such a person can exist. We put them on pedestals and hold conventions in efforts to sanctify them.

Perhaps there are no more heroes left in America to salvage our constitution, American Dream and place in the world as protector of freedom and democracy. It has always been a burden that was nearly too much to bear. Maybe we are weary of being the white knight and now stuck in a dark night phase, so immersed in decadence, cynicism and indifference that we don't even bother looking for heroes and making sacrifices to find them.

That is why The Dark Knight is the most relevant work of art at the moment, reflecting both the abyss and our gaze skyward. When we saw the spotlight with the bat image in the sky, we knew there was hope. A masked superhero would emerge from the shadows to answer the call and round up the villains. At the end of the film, the bat light is smashed. Did our innocence and faith in what we could once again stand for go out with that light?

I suspect not. Invested in the power of myth is the endless creativity and endurance of the human spirit.

The most telling scene in the Dark Knight isn't in the final sequence; it involves the ferry dilemma. Two parties with undeniable interests in self-preservation make the right choice -- and it's a huge sacrifice. They have no idea how it's going to turn out.

Are we coming out of a collective dark night of the soul?

Only the quality of our sacrifice and our way of addressing our spiritual recovery will chart the way forward. The rosy fingers of new dawn await our mutual response.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Hybrid Cars Aren't Enough

I was walking my dog Stosh this morning and came across two neighbors, each going in separate directions. The conversation immediately drifted to hybrid cars and how soon Americans would adopt them, particularly the plug-in variety:

Bob: The oil companies are panicking. Have you seen all of their advertising? They realize that plug-in hybrids are just around the corner and they are trying to tell people they won't work. (He already owns a Honda Civic Hybrid)

Ed: Just like they did with the electric car (referring to the film "Who killed the electric car.")

Me: I think they are advertising because they are swimming in money. I think Exxon-Mobil is making about $2 billion in profit per quarter (I haven't checked lately).

Bob: And do you know why T. Boone Pickens is pushing windpower?

Me: He stands to make a lot of money because he owns a lot of land where there's a lot of wind?

Bob: That's right and he knows the oil industry's days are numbered.

Me: It's doesn't matter what he thinks or how much Americans move into hybrids. For every hybrid bought here, the Chinese and Indians are making hundreds of small conventional cars. Just look at Tata Motors in India. They are going to be the GM of cheap cars. They're going to sell them for $2,000 to $4,000.

Ed: I think I heard about them.

Bob: I still think that plug-ins are going to take over the market.

Me: We'll need to fix the grid. It can't handle all those cars. They'll need to update it and make it smarter. I'd like to see solar panels on garage roofs. That way you won't need the grid. Store the power by day in batteries and recharge at night.

Bob: I think they should have recharging stations all over that just exchange the batteries.

Me: I don't think that would work.

Bob: We need to do something.

Let's get beyond the big idea of hybrids and think holistically. Here are some ideas:

1) Rewriting the major transportation funding bills to finance public transportation, bike trails, sidewalks and light rail. High-speed rail using interstate median right-of-ways still makes sense for trips under 500 miles. Today most of that money goes to building more and more roads.

2) Restructuring energy policy to fund the national energy labs to create an array of alternative energy solutions and technologies, including cheap, light, quickly-recharged batteries that can hold power a long time. We need a DARPA for energy that has some goals.

3) Creating more incentives for employers to let employees work from home and telecommute. I was having lunch with my friend from the Sierra Club the other day and he was proud of the fact he biked to work. My commute: 50 feet. Except for the carbon dioxide I exhale, it's pretty carbon neutral.

4) Creating more incentives for local economies. Why does it make sense to buy produce at the supermarket that's shipped thousands of miles when you can purchase the same thing from local farmers? Even in the winter, can't we provide more tax breaks for greenhouses? A woman in our neighborhood did that one winter and we had fresh lettuce delivered to our door that was grown a block away -- in January. It tasted like caviar. Better yet, let's make gardening a national priority in the suburbs. I started some swiss chard, tomatoes, beans, potatoes, strawberries, raspberries, melon and cucumbers this year, roughly tripling what I normally grow in the same space.

Backyard food is better food. I irrigate with rainwater and use natural methods of pest control. We had our first crop of apricots this year. The chard was outstanding!

As for driving a hybrid, I have a 1995 Geo Prizm that gets great mileage because I fill it up once a month. I drive as little as possible and try to bike and walk as much as possible. The best mileage car is the one you don't drive!