Pocketbooks, Cars and the Mystique of the Handmade

Machines can make many things better, and for less.

Louis Vuitton has been caught pulling the wool—a very fine and delicately woven wool, no doubt—over the eyes of consumers. Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority this week demanded that the luxury company cease and desist with ads that imply their products are made by hand.

The glossy magazine advertisements featured a Vermeer-worthy model at a workbench, addressing a leather handle: “A needle, linen thread, beeswax, and infinite patience protect each over-stitch from humidity and the passage of time,” read the ad copy.

The bureaucrats paid to protect the public from flimflammery declared this to be a fraud. “[C]onsumers would interpret the image of a woman using a needle and thread to stitch the handle of a bag,” the agency ruled, “to mean that Louis Vuitton bags were hand stitched.” In truth, some of the work is done with the efficacious and none-too-tony assistance of sewing machines. For shame!

OK. We do need him.

Should we care? One is inclined to recommend the Advertising Standards Authority as a fine place for the U.K.’s new coalition government to find some savings.

Why the preference for the handmade, anyway? Yes, there are still goods where skilled craftsmanship makes all the difference: No machine can match the judgment of an experienced luthier, who has to adapt to the acoustic quirks of each piece of wood he carves for a violin. But does it matter whether a product is crafted by hand or stamped out by machine, if the consumer can’t tell the difference?

The aura of the handmade has been around ever since machines displaced tools as the main means of manufacture. Nineteenth-century moralists lamented the loss of honest craftsmanship and built a movement embracing goods that were objectively less well made than their factory-made counterparts.

Thorstein Veblen derided this as “exaltation of the defective,” which he disdained as just another manifestation of the leisure class’s taste for waste. He sneered at the “propaganda of crudity and wasted effort,” that led such advocates of the artisanal as John Ruskin to champion products of “painstaking crudeness and elaborate ineptitude” over the “visibly more perfect goods” made cheaper by machines. He hated the smug vanity of people flaunting Ruskin’s rough-hewn books.

There is a robust Ruskinite movement afoot again today, celebrating the rustic and exalting in, if not the defective, the artless (where art is understood as artifice). It is in foodstuffs where the modern taste for the artisanal flourishes most fully. Many are the farmers markets now offering bruised peaches and splotchy tomatoes as a rebuke to the plastic gloss of supermarket produce.

Who knows how much of this is really grown by Mr. Green Jeans, and how much is just the battered leftovers from the warehouse, repurposed for the farm stand. But there is no doubt that perfection is now about as fashionable in foods as it is in Persian carpets.

Louis Vuitton, like many modern makers of luxury goods, is in a tricky position. Their clients expect the glossy perfection that machines make possible. But they don’t want the taint of mass-market cheapitude that comes with highly productive technology.

A role must be found for craftsman, because these days nothing is more rare and exotic. For all the micro-tolerances of the machine work that go into making a Ferrari, the company has technicians assemble its engines by hand. Perhaps that’ the most efficient and effective way to do it; or perhaps it’s an inefficiency that lends its own aristocratic gloss.

Bugatti brags that it employs actual humans to caress its Veyron coachwork for hours per car—an extravagance, and purposefully so. Or take champagne: A few houses still hire men to do the riddling by hand, turning the bottles in racks to work the sediment down onto the cork for removal. Machines can now do it in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost, but of course without the elegant wastefulness of a million turns of the wrist.

Once upon a time the craftsman’s touch could be displayed through personalization—the adding of monograms and various options for customization. Machine-made goods came off the assembly line with a perfect sameness that was a liability: making the ability to choose and specify details a great luxury. But in the last 20 or 30 years, computer-controlled production has democratized customization. When you can order a computer-cut shirt from Land’s End for $50, customization loses its upper-crustiness.

What is Louis Vuitton to do? The company could always try to show that there is some by-hand work involved in its handiwork by embracing the ethic of the splotchy tomato. Myth has it that weavers once inserted errors in their work to signal that, unlike the unlucky Arachne, they wouldn’t try to achieve godlike perfection. Imperfection today is a different signal. It’s a declaration that the weaver isn’t a machine, which is why newbie carpet collectors are told to look for uneven stitching.

If imperfection becomes a desirable luxury- good quality, savvy factory manufacturers will simply start programming their computers to insert certain random and human-seeming flubs into the products. Advertising police will never stop luxury goods from delivering more mystique than reality. That may make such pricey purchases a conspicuous waste of one’s money—but wasn’t that always the point?

Eric Felten, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704717004575268980205920578.html

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A GOP Oil Trap

Panicked Republicans risk future energy development.

With oil now lapping the Louisiana shore, a political oil panic is beginning to wash over the GOP. Somewhere, Rahm Emanuel is wondering if the Gulf spill is another crisis he won’t have to let go to waste.

Start with Sarah Palin, who spent most of 2008 rapping Democrats for not being more supportive of domestic energy production, only to turn around and suggest President Obama was in bed with Big Oil. The argument seems to be that anyone who accepts oil contributions must be in favor of oil spills.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski rushed to back Interior Secretary’s Ken Salazar’s comment about putting his “boot on the neck” of BP, lecturing anyone not “angry” about the accident as lacking in “emotion.” Louisiana Sen. David Vitter jumped into a debate over the liability cap. Democrats proposed an arbitrary $10 billion; Mr. Vitter countered with an arbitrary four quarters of company profit. This allowed Democrats to accuse the GOP of flacking for Big Oil.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions publicly berated an industry witness at a hearing for not knowing his “business.” Over in the House, California Rep. Darrell Issa has taken the bold step of blaming federal employees, singling out the Minerals Management Service (MMS).

Yes, the politics of this are tricky for the GOP. The caucus is acutely aware that “drill, baby, drill” sits badly in black water. Gulf state politicians such as Mr. Vitter, up for election, are under intense pressure to be seen to be doing something, preferably to BP. Yet grandstanding is rarely smart politics.

Republicans have invested too many years supporting responsible energy development to now sound believable bashing the industry. And as the Vitter episode shows, there is little gained in engaging Democrats in legislative one-upmanship. In a competition over who is more irrationally “tough” on Big Oil, Republicans will not win.

As for conservatives who think there is black gold in politicizing this (Mrs. Palin), think again. Right now the story line is President Obama versus the Oil Spill, and that hurts him. Those hurling accusations threaten to turn it into President Obama versus the GOP, a fight the White House would prefer. Beltway politicking during a crisis just annoys the public.

What some Republicans are really risking is future energy development, and their role managing it. Oil slick or no, our energy needs remain the same. Americans get that, which is why even amid 24/7 slick coverage a CNN poll found a majority still supports offshore drilling. That number will rise with gas prices.

The left is already using this to impose the restrictions it has long desired. President Obama yesterday said he’d continue a deep water moratorium and announced a suspension in new Arctic drilling. That’s surely just a start. And Republicans currently saying the industry doesn’t know its business will be hard pressed to complain.

As for making a convenient target of the MMS, they might consider it is one of the few agencies worth its pay, a body that works with the industry to produce safe, affordable energy, rather than against it. It also has a great track record. The political pile-on instead resulted in the firing yesterday of the MMS head and guarantees a MMS larded down with new regulations. Next time gas hits $4 a gallon, Republicans (who may be in charge) will wish they had this ally.

The real worry is that Republicans are making themselves vulnerable to Mr. Obama’s last big agenda item: cap and tax. The president has never made secret his desire to replace cheap and sure fossil fuels with expensive and unreliable energy sources. Up to now the GOP has offered good opposition.

Yet not wanting any crisis to go to waste, Mr. Obama has been out beating the industry and arguing the spill backs his call for climate legislation. This is a repeat of financial regulation, an attempt to force Republicans to either go along or get slammed for siding with Wall Street (in this case Big Oil). The more Republicans join the drill bash, the more opportunity Mr. Obama has to peel off votes.

If the GOP is looking for a political role model, they might try Sen. Mary Landrieu. The Louisiana Democrat has been a beacon of calm and sense. She’s stayed focused on the immediate, avoided early accusations, and tried to keep the accident in perspective. At a recent Senate Environment hearing she summed it up neatly.

“I know that this committee has its eyes on the environment. We in Louisiana . . . not only have our eyes on it, we have our heart invested in it and we are making a living on that delta. But we need the oil that comes from offshore to keep this economy moving. We must examine what went wrong, weigh the risk and rewards, fix what is broken and move on . . . If we could do without this oil, we would. But we simply cannot—not today, not in the near future.”

How principled. How refreshing.

Kimberley A. Strassel, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704269204575270842009220082.html

He Was Supposed to Be Competent

The spill is a disaster for the president and his political philosophy.

I don’t see how the president’s position and popularity can survive the oil spill. This is his third political disaster in his first 18 months in office. And they were all, as they say, unforced errors, meaning they were shaped by the president’s political judgment and instincts.

There was the tearing and unnecessary war over his health-care proposal and its cost. There was his day-to-day indifference to the views and hopes of the majority of voters regarding illegal immigration. And now the past almost 40 days of dodging and dithering in the face of an environmental calamity. I don’t see how you politically survive this.

The president, in my view, continues to govern in a way that suggests he is chronically detached from the central and immediate concerns of his countrymen. This is a terrible thing to see in a political figure, and a startling thing in one who won so handily and shrewdly in 2008. But he has not, almost from the day he was inaugurated, been in sync with the center. The heart of the country is thinking each day about A, B and C, and he is thinking about X, Y and Z. They’re in one reality, he’s in another.

President Obama promised on Thursday to hold BP accountable in the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill and said his administration would do everything necessary to protect and restore the coast.

The American people have spent at least two years worrying that high government spending would, in the end, undo the republic. They saw the dollars gushing night and day, and worried that while everything looked the same on the surface, our position was eroding. They have worried about a border that is in some places functionally and of course illegally open, that it too is gushing night and day with problems that states, cities and towns there cannot solve.

And now we have a videotape metaphor for all the public’s fears: that clip we see every day, on every news show, of the well gushing black oil into the Gulf of Mexico and toward our shore. You actually don’t get deadlier as a metaphor for the moment than that, the monster that lives deep beneath the sea.

In his news conference Thursday, President Obama made his position no better. He attempted to act out passionate engagement through the use of heightened language—”catastrophe,” etc.—but repeatedly took refuge in factual minutiae. His staff probably thought this demonstrated his command of even the most obscure facts. Instead it made him seem like someone who won’t see the big picture. The unspoken mantra in his head must have been, “I will not be defensive, I will not give them a resentful soundbite.” But his strategic problem was that he’d already lost the battle. If the well was plugged tomorrow, the damage will already have been done.

The original sin in my view is that as soon as the oil rig accident happened the president tried to maintain distance between the gusher and his presidency. He wanted people to associate the disaster with BP and not him. When your most creative thoughts in the middle of a disaster revolve around protecting your position, you are summoning trouble. When you try to dodge ownership of a problem, when you try to hide from responsibility, life will give you ownership and responsibility the hard way. In any case, the strategy was always a little mad. Americans would never think an international petroleum company based in London would worry as much about American shores and wildlife as, say, Americans would. They were never going to blame only BP, or trust it.

I wonder if the president knows what a disaster this is not only for him but for his political assumptions. His philosophy is that it is appropriate for the federal government to occupy a more burly, significant and powerful place in America—confronting its problems of need, injustice, inequality. But in a way, and inevitably, this is always boiled down to a promise: “Trust us here in Washington, we will prove worthy of your trust.” Then the oil spill came and government could not do the job, could not meet need, in fact seemed faraway and incapable: “We pay so much for the government and it can’t cap an undersea oil well!”

This is what happened with Katrina, and Katrina did at least two big things politically. The first was draw together everything people didn’t like about the Bush administration, everything it didn’t like about two wars and high spending and illegal immigration, and brought those strands into a heavy knot that just sat there, soggily, and came to symbolize Bushism. The second was illustrate that even though the federal government in our time has continually taken on new missions and responsibilities, the more it took on, the less it seemed capable of performing even its most essential jobs. Conservatives got this point—they know it without being told—but liberals and progressives did not. They thought Katrina was the result only of George W. Bush’s incompetence and conservatives’ failure to “believe in government.” But Mr. Obama was supposed to be competent.

Remarkable too is the way both BP and the government, 40 days in, continue to act shocked, shocked that an accident like this could have happened. If you’re drilling for oil in the deep sea, of course something terrible can happen, so you have a plan on what to do when it does.

How could there not have been a plan? How could it all be so ad hoc, so inadequate, so embarrassing? We’re plugging it now with tires, mud and golf balls?

What continues to fascinate me is Mr. Obama’s standing with Democrats. They don’t love him. Half the party voted for Hillary Clinton, and her people have never fully reconciled themselves to him. But he is what they have. They are invested in him. In time—after the 2010 elections go badly—they are going to start to peel off. The political operative James Carville, the most vocal and influential of the president’s Gulf critics, signaled to Democrats this week that they can start to peel off. He did it through the passion of his denunciations.

The disaster in the Gulf may well spell the political end of the president and his administration, and that is no cause for joy. It’s not good to have a president in this position—weakened, polarizing and lacking broad public support—less than halfway through his term. That it is his fault is no comfort. It is not good for the stability of the world, or its safety, that the leader of “the indispensble nation” be so weakened. I never until the past 10 years understood the almost moral imperative that an American president maintain a high standing in the eyes of his countrymen.

Mr. Obama himself, when running for president, made much of Bush administration distraction and detachment during Katrina. Now the Republican Party will, understandably, go to town on Mr. Obama’s having gone only once to the gulf, and the fund-raiser in San Francisco that seemed to take precedence, and the EPA chief who went to a New York fund-raiser in the middle of the disaster.

But Republicans should beware, and even mute their mischief. We’re in the middle of an actual disaster. When they win back the presidency, they’ll probably get the big California earthquake. And they’ll probably blow it. Because, ironically enough, of a hard core of truth within their own philosophy: when you ask a government far away in Washington to handle everything, it will handle nothing well.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704269204575270950789108846.html

This Is Not a Weed

Plants that spontaneously grow in the city are marvels of adaptation. What can we learn from them?

What makes a plant worth our admiration? Peter Del Tredici, a senior research scientist at the Arnold Arboretum, walks up a short grassy hill near the South Street Gate and points to what he considers to be the Arboretum’s most amazing tree: the dwarf beech, a tree seemingly born from a German expressionist landscape, its knobby branches folded into a series of right angles that create a canopy resembling barbed wire. It’s one of many impressive trees in the Arboretum’s 265 acres in Jamaica Plain, which are carefully managed by a team of professional horticulturists.

But on this sunny spring afternoon, Del Tredici is interested in a far less spectacular destination: an area just outside the gate across South Street known as Stony Brook Marsh, where untamed vegetation grows atop an abandoned trash heap. On one side, a brackish pond is filled with invasive phragmitis reeds. On the other, a hillside of rubble has been colonized by a haphazard forest of thin trees. Along the path, stalks of Japanese knotweed poke insistently from the ground. It’s filled with species that are often called “invasive,” “noxious,” and “weed,” the kinds of plants that conservationists rail against and homeowners consider unsightly.

But the very characteristics that most people deride are ones that Del Tredici admires. He calls this area an “emergent forest,” an ecosystem formed spontaneously without the help of human hands. Those thin trees, for instance, are ailanthus trees, featured in the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” — planted originally for ornamental purposes, but now flourishing on their own because of their ability to grow by cloning themselves at the roots. “I don’t think anybody has planted an ailanthus tree in 100 years, yet it is the most common tree in most northeastern cities by a long shot,” Del Tredici says. The phragmitis reeds, which also fill the Back Bay Fens, are able to thrive in highly degraded wetlands like this one, where they help clean polluted water.

What some people see as a collection of undesirable plants, Del Tredici views as a valuable ecosystem that’s unique to the hostile habitat of the city. He’s the author of a new field guide, “Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast,” that focuses exclusively on species like these, the hardy and self-sufficient plant life that grows spontaneously in cities. Though the book is primarily a catalog of plants, Del Tredici also sees it as part of a deeper argument: that there’s a lot more value in these plants than we give them credit for.

“I consider ‘weed’ to be a politically incorrect term,” he says. “There is no biological definition of the term weed. It’s really a value judgment.”

If we saw this motley collection of plants differently, Del Tredici suggests, we’d realize they’re a kind of marvel: living things in the harsh and stressful urban landscape that don’t just survive there, but thrive. With no effort on our part, they fill the city with greenery, providing cleaner air and water, shade, and food and habitat for wildlife. They do it without expensive fertilizers and irrigation. It’s time, he suggests, that we learned to embrace them — to stop thinking of them only as weeds to uproot, and start considering what they have to offer.

When most of us think about the urban landscape, we tend to fall into one of two worldviews. One is what you might call the traditional gardener’s approach, cultivating attractive ornamental plants while eliminating weeds — think of Boston’s Public Garden, or a carefully landscaped front yard. More recently, a new idea has gained ground: to reflect the natural landscape by planting native vegetation, while eliminating alien species.

Del Tredici is offering an entirely different philosophy. Nothing is native to the city, he argues. The modern city is a new kind of habitat — one that provides pockets of livable spaces in surroundings that can be harsh, inhospitable, and polluted. The city habitat is so specialized, our divisions of “native” and “invasive” plants doesn’t really apply here. Instead, the plants that grow and thrive here could be considered the natural denizens of a new kind of habitat — what he calls “cosmopolitan” species. Like the human residents of Boston, many have immigrated from other parts of the world to coexist in a single community. “You can in many cases get as much functionality out of a cosmopolitan group of plants as you can out of a native group of plants,” he says.

In his quest to better understand urban plants, Del Tredici explored corners of the city that held habitats less obvious than open spaces like Stony Brook Marsh. As we exit onto Washington Street, we find a less hospitable environment — a spit of dirt at the entrance of the stone gate, where some greenery has managed to grow.

“Look at that spectacular dandelion,” he says, bending down and plucking a plump saucer-shaped flower from the ground.

The loose soil at the gate is home to a modest garden of what most people would call weeds: dandelions, chicory, mugwort, butter and eggs — all scrappy plants that grow stubbornly in pockets of land that no one is responsible for. At some point, he says, “someone will weed-whack all of this.”

Because most of us see these bits of greenery as aberrations, we don’t appreciate these small spaces for what they are: micro-environments that manage to support an entire specialized ecosystem. A few feet away, he points to tiny maple seedlings pushing out of the dirt surrounding a concrete light post. Further down, he finds a Virginia creeper growing along a chain-link fence — which happens to be a wonderful habitat for plants, he points out, because it gives them a protected place to grow.

Fences, pavement cracks, railroad tracks, highway medians — these are specialized habitats that humans create, and they offer niches where certain plants thrive. Many of these plants are “pre-adapted” to the urban environment. Species that grow in sidewalk cracks, for instance, originally grew in the cracks of cliffs and other marginal areas. Other urban plants are accustomed to rough conditions, and can survive being stepped on or attacked repeatedly by maintenance crews. Butter and eggs, also called yellow toadflax, originally grew in open grasslands, sand dunes, and gravelly soils; in the city, it readily sprouts up in cracked asphalt, vacant lots, rubble piles, and roadsides. Some plants are native to areas with challenging chemical conditions, and they can tolerate the pollution in city soils and waterways, and the salt that leaches off roads. Their toughness means that we can still maintain greenery in places we’ve made inhospitable to most plant life.

Like any other plants, these species are consuming carbon dioxide, producing oxygen, creating shade, and serving as food and habitat for wildlife. Even mugwort, which he calls “the quintessential urban weed,” absorbs heavy metals from the ground, prevents erosion on slopes, and helps populate barren, nutrient-depleted soils. And they do it all without help. By contrast, “the Arboretum looks the way it does because we have 15 people who come in every day” to maintain it, Del Tredici says.

After spending more than three decades at the Arboretum focusing on the kinds of plants that people use to beautify landscapes, Del Tredici began turning his attention to this so-called spontaneous vegetation, prompted by the interest of his students at the Harvard Design School, where he is a lecturer. “Even though it’s a very common and very important part of the city, nobody pays much attention to it,” he says. His students calculated that spontaneous vegetation covers about 10 percent of the land in Somerville.

With all the interest in sustainability these days, he argues, nothing is more sustainable than landscapes that grow on their own. For that reason, spontaneous vegetation could be an attractive alternative for landscape design: It conserves water and other resources, and it’s affordable for cities with diminishing maintenance budgets.

In his book and lectures, Del Tredici proposes an approach to urban wild spaces that is less about planting and more about editing, in which plants are allowed to grow naturally and then only maintained minimally to weed out truly undesirable species, like vines that choke out other plants.

Although it’s hard to imagine such an approach being implemented in high-profile spots like the Public Garden, it could be a way to boost the city’s plant cover in spaces that are open but unmanaged — for instance, vacant lots that are not currently in use. Del Tredici also proposes creating what he calls “spontaneous roofs,” in which soil on a roof is allowed to self-colonize with plants — a low-maintenance alternative to planted green roofs that only requires occasional weeding.

His ideas aren’t an easy sell with the professional landscapers who look after parkland in and around the city. Bree Harvey, a spokesperson at Mount Auburn Cemetery, says, “We have to keep the place looking the way all the people who have purchased grave space here expect it to look.” Dennis Collins, the cemetery’s horticultural curator, says that there are also historical and cultural regions for preserving the space, which is designated as a National Historic Landmark, from encroaching weeds. “We’re not a natural area; it’s 170-plus years of managed landscape,” he says.

Jeremy Dick, a horticulturist for Boston Natural Areas Network, known as BNAN, says that while Del Tredici’s ideas makes sense and offer potential benefits for urban spaces, implementing them would require major shifts in attitude. “Land stewards and conservationists in the future will need to overcome their bias toward these plants to appreciate them,” says Dick. Many of the urban plants Del Tredici talks about are alien to the area, and these people have been trained to view all invasive species in a negative light.

Dick says that BNAN, which owns or helps to manage several community gardens, urban wilds, and greenways in the Boston area, often receives complaints from residents if an area becomes too weedy or unkempt. When people see spontaneous plants springing up, they see a mismanaged area and start to worry that it invites trash-dumping, or crime.

Del Tredici is aware that he faces an uphill battle. We can’t escape the fact that neatly trimmed rose bushes signal wealth and safety, while dandelions poking out of asphalt cracks are signs of poverty and neglect. Even if weeds are a symptom of urban blight, not the cause, it would take quite a campaign to disconnect the two in people’s minds. Del Tredici himself admits that features like spontaneous roofs have a slim chance of being widely accepted in the United States. However, there are small signs of change. At Mount Auburn Cemetery, Collins says that landscapers have begun to phase out pesticide use on the grass in recent years, resulting in lawns that are marbled with dandelions and clover. “People are getting used to a different concept of turf; they’re not expecting the perfect golf course in quality,” he says.

As Del Tredici and I walk back through Stony Brook Marsh, we stop to look at the smooth, undulating trunks of the ailanthus trees — which although not as dramatic as the dwarf beech, are striking in their clonal similarity. I ask him if he looks at plants like this and sees beauty. “I’m open-minded about beauty,” he answers. It may take a while before the rest us catch up.

Courtney Humphries is a freelance science writer and the author of ”Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan…And the World.”  

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/05/23/this_is_not_a_weed/

Saved by the crown

What monarchs offer modern democracy

The tumultuous past two months in world politics have brought a surprise with them: Suddenly, monarchy seems relevant again.

In Belgium, where the fragile government constantly is on the verge of collapse, King Albert II has been essential in trying to prevent its dissolution, mediating between leading politicians and pushing them back to the bargaining table. After Britain’s recent election, as politicians from the Labor, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat parties struggled to negotiate a ruling coalition, Queen Elizabeth’s presence reminded Britons that the country retained institutions that would prevent it from really melting down.

And most notably, in Thailand, the chaos that has ruled the streets of Bangkok stems partly from fear over the country’s future after the eventual death of increasingly frail 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has helped resolve past political crises by forcing the leaders of the army and the demonstrators to meet and reconcile. Without him, notes James Ockey of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, “Thailand may not be able to resolve future crises without major conflict.”

The idea of a monarch may seem like an anachronism in a 21st-century democracy, a relic of an earlier era in which a small elite intermarried and ruled much of the world, while most average people had no say. And to be sure, in states where kings and sultans still actually rule, like Brunei, Jordan, and Morocco, monarchs can be every bit as oppressive and opaque as any other dictatorship. Morocco’s King Mohamed VI, for example, presides over “repressive legislation to punish and imprison peaceful opponents,” according to Human Rights Watch. In Brunei, Jefri, the brother of the ruling sultan, allegedly embezzled billions in state funds, which he spent on some 2,000 cars and a lasciviously named royal yacht, among other items.

But in Europe and parts of Asia, many politicians, political scientists, and citizens have lately developed greater respect for the positive role a constitutional monarch can play in democracy. As in Belgium, monarchs can be arbiters of last resort when elected politicians cannot resolve deep divisions. They can offer their nations a unifying figure to prevent political crises from spiraling into something worse. And in an era of partisanship and diminished individual rights, monarchs can serve as a means of stability in a democracy that might otherwise tear itself apart. A.W. Purdue, author of the book “Long to Reign?”, argues that a king or queen “enables change to take place within a frame of continuity.”

Some political scientists have even argued for reviving defunct monarchies in the interest of democracy, especially in developing nations where monarchs could serve as figures of national unity to prevent ethnic and tribal bloodletting. Cambodia did so in the early 1990s following its civil wars, and the king helped inspire average Cambodians and heal wounds after the Khmer Rouge era. After the toppling of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan welcomed back former king Zahir Shah to launch the Loya Jirga and serve as a figure of unity as political parties bargained to build Afghan democracy. In Iraq, Sharif Ali bin Hussein, a descendant of the last monarch, has begun publicly arguing that a constitutional monarchy could help reduce the vicious ethnic and sectarian divides roiling the country. In Laos, where people can see the Thai monarchy on Thai television broadcasts, the exiled royal family has become a rallying point for some opponents of the authoritarian government. Southeast Asia academic Michael Vatikiotis argues, in an essay pushing for a return of the crown in neighboring Burma, that monarchy provided a unifying factor in that diverse society — a unifier ripped away during British colonial rule and never effectively replaced.

“The forlorn hope of progressive political change in Burma using all modern means,” he writes, “suggests that reaching back in time and resurrecting the long-dismantled monarchy could provide a prescription.”

Although the House of Windsor dominates global media coverage of monarchy, in reality 12 European countries still have monarchs, as do Cambodia, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Bhutan, and other nations. Despite occasional republican movements that attempt to end the monarchy, polls show strong support for the crown in nearly every nation that has one. In the Netherlands, 70 percent of respondents in one poll wanted to retain the monarchy; in Spain, 65 percent of respondents supported it; in Japan, the number was 82 percent. In many of these countries, poll respondents have more respect for the monarchy than any other public institution.

Many modernizing countries have found that a monarch provides a source of authority and national identity that stands apart from political squabbles. He or she can serve simply as a figurehead, or more substantively as a kind of independent power center that can check the worst impulses of elected politicians, in the way that a Supreme Court or House of Lords might.

Although a ceremonial president can fill this role, as in Israel or Germany, the monarch has a unique claim on the public imagination. Neil Blain, an expert on modern monarchies at the University of Stirling in Britain, says the monarch’s symbols, like the scepter and crown, can’t be replicated by a ceremonial president. The queen, he says, “attests, however mythically, to the country’s political stability and enduring historical foundations.”

“The English do not wish to see the queen on a bicycle,” he says, “because from where people stand here she looks just right in a Rolls-Royce Phantom or better still, a horse-drawn carriage.”

In developing nations, modern monarchs can do more than provide links to the past — they can help usher in democracy. In Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck pushed his once-isolated country toward its first truly democratic elections. In Spain, King Juan Carlos midwifed a new Spanish democracy after dictator Francisco Franco’s death. In Cambodia, King Norodom Sihanouk returned to the country after the wars of the 1970s and 1980s and helped oversee a transition to democracy in the 1990s that brought the country a vibrant, if sometimes rough and bloody, democracy.

Some of these monarchs also helped bring economic and cultural modernization. The royals of Bhutan have prodded their citizens to embrace the Internet, satellite television, international trade, and other modern changes. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, though not a constitutional monarch, has been credited with pushing for social and economic reforms that have diluted the power of the conservative religious establishment and pushed the kingdom to invest in science and technology education.

European monarchy experts also now see a growing role for kings and queens at a time when countries are becoming more diverse. As democracies take in more and more immigrants, and countries give up some of their national identities to superstructures like the European Union, these changes can make national unity more difficult, and a monarch can serve to welcome newcomers and help them feel like citizens.

Sweden’s king, Carl XVI Gustaf, for example, has used the monarchy to integrate immigrants. In one famous speech, he said that “new Swedish citizens…have come here from countries all over the world…under these circumstances it is precisely the strength of the monarchy that the king can be an impartial and uniting symbol.” The Netherlands’ queen, Beatrix, has used royal speeches to call for tolerance at a time when right-wing anti-Islamic politicians have made headway among the Dutch public.

Scholars of monarchy also suggest that, in an era of tightening internal security and control, when elected politicians are amassing previously unheard-of powers and courts are loath to challenge them, a monarch can safeguard public freedom. Eamonn Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute, a think tank in London, recently argued in the Financial Times that Queen Elizabeth has stood aside too often while the prime minister has become too powerful, but that she remains a figure, under the British constitution, who could check the executive’s power. “The only solution is to make our current constitution work,” Butler wrote. “It certainly means having a monarch who is prepared to intervene on behalf of the people.” In fact, Britain’s unelected House of Lords — often criticized as a relic of a vanished feudal aristocracy — has played a similar function, trying to limit the British government’s surveillance efforts and other new powers.

Similarly, in Cambodia former King Sihanouk (who has since stepped aside because of health reasons and now holds the title of King Father), frequently clashed with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is elected but has amassed near-dictatorial powers in his office. Sihanouk frequently criticized Hun Sen’s strongman tactics, and invoked the royal institution as the protector of average people abused by the prime minister.

Monarchs, however, must walk a very fine line. Because today’s constitutional monarchs’ power is so nebulous, to use it effectively they must be extremely careful in wielding it.

In Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej frequently has used public speeches to criticize what he sees as politicians who are too venal or power-hungry — which sometimes has veered into a political alignment with Bangkok-oriented elite parties and against parties aligned with rural people, who came to Bangkok and eventually led the demonstrations that resulted in violence. “The palace is thus very much in politics, although the general myth is that the king is above politics,” says Irene Stengs, an expert on the Thai monarchy at the Meertens Institute in the Netherlands.

In fact, the king sanctioned the 2006 coup, after it happened, that deposed populist former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. With these actions, Bhumibol — who is protected from public criticism by strict lese majeste laws — has chipped away some of the respect he earned over decades. Among the “red shirts” battling the government, one has begun to hear anti-monarchical sentiments, though they are careful not to disdain the current monarch. In contrast to many previous rallies in Bangkok, the red shirts did not hold up noticeable photos of the king this time — interpreted as a sign of distrust of the palace.

Nepal’s royal family recently learned of the devastating consequences when a king overtly takes sides. After a Maoist insurgency rooted in the rural regions challenged Nepal’s parliamentary government in the late 1990s and early 2000s, then-King Gyanendra in 2005 took control of the government himself and attempted to dominate the security forces and to wipe out the Maoist movement. The suppression failed, even parliament turned against the crown, and the Maoists eventually took power in Kathmandu as part of a power-sharing agreement. In 2008, with Gyanendra’s reputation in tatters, Nepal created a republic and abolished the monarch, and Gyanendra moved out of his palace like a delinquent tenant.

For now, most of the other constitutional monarchies seem to have absorbed the lessons of places like Nepal. In Spain, Juan Carlos, though given an extremely conservative education and hailing from a conservative background, has worked with politicians from across the ideological spectrum. In Britain, even as the Labor, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat parties haggled with one another about forming a new government, Queen Elizabeth did not appear in public to bless any of their leaders — although she personally, according to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, disdained the Labor policies of Tony Blair. And according to British tradition, when the new Parliament convenes for the first time and the government formally announces its agenda for the year, the person who reads the speech — as she always does, no matter who is setting the policies — will be the Queen.

Joshua Kurlantzick is Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/05/23/saved_by_the_crown/

Uncommon knowledge

Beware of chivalry

People generally think of discrimination as a manifestation of negative attitudes about another social group. Yet, in the case of gender discrimination, it can also be motivated by ostensibly benevolent attitudes, with the aim of protecting women. Though perhaps not as offensive as hostile sexism, new research finds that benevolent sexism can damage a woman’s career, too. In surveys, women managers reported having fewer challenging experiences and less negative feedback in their jobs, something that may hinder their opportunities for development and advancement. In experiments, men who held paternalistic attitudes towards women were less likely to recommend challenging experiences for women subordinates.

King, E. et al., “Benevolent Sexism at Work: Gender Differences in the Distribution of Challenging Developmental Experiences,” Journal of Management (forthcoming).

Educated smokers quit sooner

A new analysis of smoking suggests that educational background is a critical component of people’s health, affecting how quickly new ideas are acted on. On Jan. 11, 1964, the surgeon general issued the first widely publicized report about smoking’s negative health effects. By analyzing data collected from pregnant women between 1959 and 1966, two researchers found that educated women cut back their smoking almost immediately on the release of the surgeon general’s report, while less educated women actually increased their smoking. This divergence of smoking rates — and the associated rate of newborn health problems — between people of different educational backgrounds continued all the way up until the mid-1980s, when the rates began converging. The effect of education was amplified by the level of education of one’s community, such that educated people surrounded by other educated people were especially likely to quit.

Aizer, A. & Stroud, L., “Education, Knowledge and the Evolution of Disparities in Health,” National Bureau of Economic Research (March 2010).

What video games do to judgment

Though not yet up to the standards of the Matrix movies, video games are becoming increasingly realistic. This has prompted many studies of whether video games induce violent behavior, but an even broader question is whether experience with video games can skew judgment. In a new experiment, researchers asked people to play True Crime, a game where the player is a police officer who must catch as many criminals as possible, by any means necessary. After two hours of play, participants were asked to judge real-life cases where either a civilian or a police officer had committed a particular crime. Compared to people who hadn’t played the video game, those who had were significantly more lenient on the police officers.

Lee, K. et al., “Will the Experience of Playing a Violent Role in a Video Game Influence People’s Judgments of Violent Crimes?” Computers in Human Behavior (forthcoming).

E-mail makes lying easier

If you’ve ever caught yourself writing something on the Web or in an e-mail that you would never have written in a letter, you’re not alone. A recent study confirmed that people are more willing to bend the truth in e-mail. In one experiment, anonymous business students were asked to divvy up an imaginary pot of money between themselves and another person. Students who were required to submit their decision by e-mail were more likely to misrepresent the size of the pot than students who were required to submit their decision using pen and paper. Likewise, in an experiment involving real money and without anonymity, business managers misrepresented the size of a pot of money in an e-mail communication more than they did in a paper communication.

Naquin, C. et al., “The Finer Points of Lying Online: E-Mail versus Pen and Paper,” Journal of Applied Psychology (March 2010).

The war really did come home

What is the true cost of war? The psychological trauma that many Vietnam combat veterans experienced led some of them to violence in civilian life. An economist analyzed survey and personnel data on Vietnam veterans and found that combat exposure increased their propensity for subsequent violent acts. The economist also estimated the social cost of this post-combat violence to be around $65 billion in 2007 dollars.

Rohlfs, C., “Does Combat Exposure Make You a More Violent or Criminal Person? Evidence from the Vietnam Draft,” Journal of Human Resources (March 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/05/23/beware_of_chivalry/

Getting ‘untracked’

The surprisingly deep history of a bit of jock-talk

IN THE FIRST playoff game against the Celtics last Sunday, the Orlando Magic “finally got untracked” only in the last quarter, the Globe’s Frank Dell’Apa wrote.

That untracked is standard usage in sports reporting, but it still puzzles readers who look at it closely. Tom Fitzpatrick of Groton recently e-mailed to suggest that it might be a corruption of the more sensible get on track: “After all, a train can’t go anywhere unless it’s on the track, and if it were to get ‘untracked’ it would crash.”

An excellent theory, and the one I embraced a decade ago, when a reader first pointed out the get untracked usage. It obviously wasn’t related to “untracked wilderness,” but to the later mechanical senses of track. But when wheels or radar systems track properly, it’s a good thing. Why would an athlete want to get untracked?

Several readers offered rationales for the usage: The image reminded one of breaking free of a deeply rutted dirt road. Others suggested untracked implied “jumping the tracks” to surprise opponents. Or was a slump like being on a runaway train that has to be derailed? Globe sportswriter John Powers dismissed those guesses: “Just jockspeak,” he said.

Like Fitzpatrick, I leaned toward the simplest explanation: Untracked was probably what linguists playfully call an eggcorn — an unwitting modification of on track that changed that plodding expression into one that suggested breaking free.

But 10 years later, the status of untracked has changed. It’s no longer a stealth usage; several standard dictionaries (though not the Oxford English Dictionary) now include it. The New Oxford American gives it as the phrase — get untracked — and defines it as “get into one’s stride or find good form.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dates it to 1939. And a wealth of online sources have accumulated since those early attempts to trace untracked to its roots. Who knew what might lie deep in the archives?

Asked to search for get untracked — the usual phrasing nowadays, and a term that avoids calling up thousands of citations for untracked deserts, moorlands, and snows — Google News whisked me back to September 1927. There was Jack Dempsey himself, in a widely syndicated first-person essay, musing on his upcoming rematch with Gene Tunney. “I either get away to a whirl-wind start…or I can’t get untracked for a long while,” the ex-heavyweight champ explained.

In a 1933 AP report, lightweight Tony Canzoneri complained of the same problem: “I felt strong all the way, but toward the last I couldn’t seem to get untracked.” And in 1939, welterweight Davey Day confessed, “I don’t get untracked till around the sixth or seventh round.”

In the following decades, get untracked crossed over to football and track, then to golf and baseball and tennis. By the 1970s it could be found in the odd music review, describing performers who got (or failed to get) untracked, though it remained predominantly a sports expression.

But wait, there’s more. Boxing may have launched the career of the phrase get untracked, but that wasn’t the earliest version of the sportswriters’ untrack. Further digging unearthed examples of the verb as early as the 1890s, in regular use at — where else? — the racetrack. “Before Carr had untracked his mind Dungarven had beaten him,” reported the Chicago Tribune. “The latter [horse] did not seem able to untrack himself in the heavy going,” said The New York Times.

This untracked might well have been confusing to some 19th-century readers, since the word was also used in the horse world to mean “never raced.” Untracked also shows up now and then with the meaning “fell to pieces,” the opposite of its standard sports sense. In 1990, for instance, a New York Times racing item reported that “the sloppy track apparently untracked the favorites.”

But the positive untracked seems to have prospered modestly, not making a splash, for more than a century before we began to notice its oddity. Then came a mild attack of the Recency Illusion — the notion, named by linguist Arnold Zwicky, that a usage new to you must be new to the language.

After 120 years, though, I think we can agree that the usage is standard. And the fact that it may have come from the racetrack may be some consolation to readers baffled by the modern usage. But we still don’t know what image (if any) the coiners had in mind. A number of early examples come in race-day reports that involve muddy tracks; could untracking refer to a horse’s hitting its stride despite the heavy going?

Or maybe untracked is meant to contrast the racetrack with railroad tracks. For a train or streetcar, getting untracked is a disaster. But in a horse race — where “tracking” another horse means following it — the only way to win is to “untrack” and overtake the leaders.

But I wouldn’t put big money on either of these theories. After all, nobody ever said idioms had to make sense.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/05/23/getting_untracked/