By Jefferson Flanders

As the late, great newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon used to say, nobody asked me, but…

THE DESIGN FOR BOSTON’S NEW INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART HIGHLIGHTS THE WEAKNESS of much of current modern architecture. There’s something very derivative and familiar about the structure. Yes, the Diller Scofidio & Renfro design for the Institute (see here) makes graceful use of glass and steel, but what about it is distinctive? What about it says….Boston? And not Shanghai or Mumbai or Stockholm?

That is not to argue for a reflection of Boston’s colonial past through neo-Georgian or even post-modern brick buildings, which carry their own design dangers. Alex Beam of the Boston Globe has called Machado and Silvetti Associates’ ungainly brick-clad building for Harvard graduate student housing in Allston “the Ugliest Building Ever Built,” and reminiscent of “the old Supreme Soviet building in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.” He’s right: the building is Stalinist ugly, like Boston’s City Hall. Genzyme’s nearby Allston Landing biotech production facility, on the other hand, is a positive example of employing red brick in a post-modernist way.

But could not a structure built at the edge of Boston Harbor more reflect its historic maritime heritage and less of the Internationalist School steel-and-glass tradition? Want examples of what can be done to integrate modern structures into the tradition of a place? Look no further than the soaring beauty of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, a Christian Menn designed structure whose inverted Y-shaped towers mirror the Bunker Hill monument across the river, and whose cables call to mind a ship at sail. Another model, in a different place: Polshek Partnership’s Seaman’s Church Institute in New York, with its warm embrace of 18th century mercantilism and modern nautical themes.

THE DEBATE OVER LITERARY PLAGIARISM HAS BECOME TIRED, according to Sam Leith of The Telegraph, (“All discussions of the issue of plagiarism are, by now, themselves plagiaristic”). British novelist Ian McEwan has been criticized for some for his borrowing from the wartime diaries of Lucilla Andrews for his best-selling 2002 novel, “Atonement.” While agreeing that plagiarism is “a cardinal intellectual sin,” Leith isn’t buying the attack on McEwan:

“…the Ian McEwan “plagiarism row” seems just rubbish to me. This wasn’t even close to plagiarism. This was using (in the odd place semi-verbatim) a historical source, acknowledged by the author, as the partial basis for an independent creative work.”

That may be so, but it’s hard not to believe that McEwan’s fame and prior literary success gives him a “Get Out of Plagiarism Jail Free” card.

WHO ABDICATED AND MADE THE IRAQ STUDY GROUP KING? The American Enterprise Institute’s Reuel Marc Gerecht essentially asks that question in the Weekly Standard, pointing out that the Baker-Hamilton group—and the 9/11 Commission—represents the “undemocratic phenomenon of private citizens assuming the responsibilities and prerogatives of elected officials.” Gerecht doesn’t care for the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), nor its hyping by the media, but that’s beside the point.

He’s right: no voter elected the members of the ISG, and to suggest that somehow its 79 recommendations are anything more than suggestions (which, arguably, President Bush should weigh against all the other advice he is getting) is troubling. While presidential and congressionally-appointed commissions are great for CYA purposes (the Base Closing and Social Security Commissions come to mind), they further erode accountability for those we elect to make decisions.

JOHN MELLENCAMP’s NEW SINGLE “OUR COUNTRY” has been the Chevrolet truck commercial theme song. The commercial obscures the Woody Guthrie lyrics (see the Mellencamp video version here). Here are some of the lyrics:

And poverty could be just another ugly thing
and bigotry would be seen only as obscene
and the ones who run this land help the poor and common man
this is our country

From the East Coast to the West Coast
down the Dixie Highway back home
this is our country

I guess Mellencamp figures there’s no better platform for his blue-collar brand of populist patriotism than ads shown during NFL football games. It’s a shame that his more telling lyrics get lost along the way.

IS JASON RILEY OF THE WALL STREET JOURNAL RIGHT IN ASSERTING THAT LIBERALS HAVE “RACE ISSUES,” based on their gut reaction to his unborn interracial child? Riley, who is black, reports that the common comment his wife receives in liberal social circles (upon disclosing her pregnancy) is: “interracial children are beautiful.” Riley writes:

“It is the left’s obsession with skin pigmentation–invoking it everywhere and always, regardless of its relevance–that keeps race front and center not only in our public policy debates but even in everyday life. In his latest book, “White Guilt,” Shelby Steele tackles this phenomenon with his usual peerless eloquence. He describes the endless frustration of dealing with whites “who have built a large part of their moral identity and, possibly, their politics around how they respond to your color.”

Riley may be overly sensitive; speaking from personal experience I think the comments are meant to be supportive, even if they (unfortunately) tend to focus on the mixed race of the child rather than the simple joy of a newborn on the way.

WORDS TO PONDER: THE PHILOSOPHER AYN RAND once asked: “So you think that money is the root of all evil. Have you ever asked what is the root of all money?”

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

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