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The Art of Ignoring Success

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Great art may be in the eye of the beholder, but it isn’t necessarily in our museums.

Look no further than the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), in Toronto. Yes, this lovely museum boasts many beautiful works of art, including paintings, carvings and an extensive collection of model ships.

But it also includes works of “art” such as a pile of rocks interspersed with Cheetos. “Do not eat the art,” a sign nearby warns. Perhaps Canadian ants can read, or perhaps the exhibit is sponsored by a chemical company as proof of the effectiveness of its product. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to imagine that spilling food on the floor passes for art.

Of course, a couple of nearby exhibits, while perhaps having more artistic value than the snack-rocks, also highlight the danger of following the conventional wisdom, artistic or otherwise.

Near the Cheetos, a row of televisions show an ever-changing picture of Canadian wilderness. This supposedly serves as a warning to visitors: If humans don’t stop destroying the environment, a sign warns, the museum may be the only place to see native flora and fauna.


If anything, humans have become better stewards of our fragile blue planet. The United Nations reports that the amount of North America covered by forests expanded nearly 10 million acres between 1990 and 2000. Canada itself still retains some 90 percent of its original forest cover.

The simple fact is that North Americans have managed to develop a standard of living our ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of, while also protecting our environment. This may be the great untold story of the 21st century: Too many of us ignore amazing progress while focusing on phantom or unproveable “problems,” such as global warming.

And speaking of global warming, during his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama held forth on the dangers of supposed climate change. But the Greens have gotten exactly what they’ve long wished for: Less use of fossil fuels. Funny how we don’t hear much cheering from the left about that now.

As the United States has slipped into recession, the use of gasoline has tumbled. That’s why pump prices, over $4 per gallon this summer, are now under $2 and heading down. Things are so bad, the government may soon have to bail out all those oil speculators who bet oil would cost $150 per barrel at Christmas, since the real price is likely to be half that. Or will it turn out that speculators are evil only when prices are going up, not when they’re plunging?

Speaking of amazing progress, the AGO also contains a special exhibit showing art featuring the horrors of the atomic bomb. Now, granted, these are terrible weapons, but they actually represent a great leap forward for mankind because we’ve possessed them for 60 years and decided not to use them.

Yes, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific. But they both came within the context of the worst war ever fought. As events in World War II go, neither bombing was worse than the firebombings of Dresden or Tokyo.

Since the end of that conflict, we’ve kept the worst weapons ever invented on the shelf. Few would have believed that at the time. Military leaders anticipated using nuclear weapons as a matter of course. General Douglas MacArthur, for example, intended to use them against North Korea.

The idea that a country would develop a powerful weapon and then not deploy it seemed strange at the time -- but we’ve come to think of it as routine today. Even after the 9/11 attacks, for instance, no credible analyst advised using nuclear weapons against our enemies in Afghanistan.

Of course, things can work the other way, too. Sometimes something that the experts pass off as a failure can actually lead to successes. This may yet be the fate of the Canada’s Conservative government.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s leadership is being challenged by a coalition of two liberal parties and the party of Quebec separatists -- that’s the party that serves in the government of a country it officially claims to want to leave.

Harper will probably succeed if he sticks to his principles. For example, his political opposition was united by the Conservative’s plan to end government subsidies to political parties. But it’s difficult to believe many Canadians support such payments. Why not just have an election on that one issue, and see how many Liberal MPs are returned to office?

Harper’s finance minister also wants to slash spending and balance the budget before the country attempts to deal with the global recession. There’s an idea: Getting the government’s books in order before you start tossing money at problems. Conservatives in the U.S. would love to import that policy.

The conventional wisdom says a government should throw money at a recession. Policymakers in Washington are certainly doing that. It will be interesting to see if Canada takes a different -- and more successful -- path.

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