"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Get Zarqawi On The Double (56 points)

Is our game of pique-Abu with the murderous al-Zarqawi finally at an end? Drudge says yes, Limbaugh says, the Pentagon says maybe. No one will confirm whether we have succeeded in collaring the fleeing dog.

This specimen of faux humanity is absolutely useless as long as Scrabble continues to reject proper nouns. One would have preferred to see an FBI chain-saw sharpshooter mistake him for a subversive tree, but if he had to be taken alive, let's lock this guy up for life like a leper.

Perhaps making him a U.S. lazar will help some of those muddled asses yearning to breathe free to make better choices. (If that joke was too convoluted for you, don't feel bad; all my friends are shaking their heads right along with you.)

America's Giving Again

Brandon Crocker has a good article on American aid to tsunami victims, at the American Spectator site. Although it is important to remember that America does indeed give a very large amount of money to needy people around the world, both in nominal and GDP percentage terms, Crocker notes,

"all this talk about who gives the most to poor countries misses the point. As is also true for U.S. domestic policy, the point should be the effectiveness, rather than the amount, of the spending. Much that the U.S. contributes, particularly in response to natural disasters, comes in the form of transport and logistical support courtesy of the U.S. military, direct food aid, and private contributions to organizations on the ground providing services directly to the particular community. This type of aid, ironically not counted in the OECD's calculations, is typically the most effective. Often the least effective is the type that Jan Egeland and the OECD trumpet -- direct government-to-government aid. Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Yasser Arafat's widow, Suha, grew rich on the latter form of aid, but most Haitians and Palestinians still live in squalor."

Crocker takes a look at the statistics and shows how they are deliberately manipulated by anti-Americans of various nations to make America look bad. As Crocker's evidence suggests, these arguments are never about reality but instead about creating a particular impression of the United States, for political purposes. Read it here.

Sinecure Undoes Insecure

Methinks that my esteemed colleague Mr. Zycher has scored a cranial strike upon the nail. And if I may expand and expound a tad...

A species of governmental insanity, hitherto undiagnosed, produces the following perverse result: all symbolic appointees are free from doing actual work. In other words, if you are a balding, paunchy middle-aged white Republican who has been chosen based on actual talent, you are expected to work yourself to a fine frazzle. However, if you are there as the token autistic Pacific Islander, all you need to do is be available for photo ops. Other than that, your main utilitarian function is to keep the swollen Washington press corps busy accompanying you on a government jet while you fly on whatever it is that they call "junkets". ("Ted, we are here with Secretary Eileen Tufarleft Sowatuvitt on a junket through the tourist-ravaged terrain of Bermuda, and we expect a press conference at any moment. Teams of deputy undersecretaries are putting the umbrellas into the daiquiris as we speak.")

Hence Mineta and Tenet whose main purpose was to show that "we Republicans are bipartisan enough to retain several key Clinton appointees" were shielded from any actual obligation, much less scrutiny.

Who Is The President, Anyway?

It must be a slow news day, in that a number of bloggers are bemoaning old news, to wit, that our airport/air travel security system is a repository of idiocies driven by the asinine dogmas of political correctitude. I refer specifically to Michelle Malkin and to Jimmie at The Sundries Shack, who are criticizing Mickey Kaus for criticizing Norman Mineta a year late for imposing million dollar-plus fines upon the airlines for having singled out a handful of Middle Eastern/Muslim types for extra scrutiny. This is, again, old news, as is the wholly-warranted abuse now being heaped upon Thomas Quinn, the head of the Federal Air Marshals Service, who decided that air marshals should dress "professionally," thus sticking out on airplanes like sore thumbs. Quinn, by the way, is so dumb that he is lying about whether he issued a written directive on the dress code, apparently not realizing---where has this guy been for the last thirty years?--- that said directive would leak out immediately. Which, of course, it did.

Well, I have never read Jimmie (my loss), but, as usual, Ms. Malkin is asking the wrong question. Precisely why are we criticizing such fools as Mineta, Quinn, and other similar types who spend their lives providing evidence in support of the Peter Principle? Who appointed them? At whose pleasure do they serve? Whose policies, presumably, are they implementing? (Hint: John Kerry lost the election.) This reminds me of that amusing episode around 1990, when the Agriculture and (I believe) Interior Departments sued each other. That's right: The federal government sued itself. Why? Because the White House---that Great Statesman of The Inbox, George H.W. Bush---simply did not want to make a decision. It is ridiculous to blame the bureaucrats, however low their IQs, for the stupidity of government. This is George W. Bush's administration. He is responsible for it, certainly he is responsible for things so visible, and it is he who should bear the opprobrium. Non?

The Reason Of Voice

If you live anywhere within the sound of Phil Hendrie's voice, you need to make it your business to hear his show. Here in Miami we are lucky enough to hear him live from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. (he is based out of LA, where his show airs from 7 to 10 p.m.).

If you are not familiar with the show, here is what you need to know in order to listen and "get it". Phil interviews a wide range of interesting characters who usually have very unusual opinions, often offensive ones. There are men, women, young, old, white and black - but they are all Phil doing an amazing array of voices.

The callers do not know this, so they phone in to challenge the guests, who then up the ante and make ever more outrageous claims, while Phil acts exasperated as if he is trying to defuse the situation. Hilarious.

Monday, January 03, 2005

There Ought To Be A Statute

Yahoo News (where do they reut around for this stuff?) reports that authorities in Italy have (can I say "unveiled" in this family pub?) announced a plan to build a "wall of air" around Michelangelo's David to protect it from such predatory elements as motes.

I may have some useful information for them. My middle name is David and I have been using the wall-of-hot-air-in-self-defense system for many years; still, both Michael and Angelo would beset me in the schoolyard back in Brooklyn.

I had thought that David was carved from stone, but perhaps it is metal, in which case we have an aether-ore proposition. Anyway, good to see those motes are finally learning their place.

Kinsley Report Undercounts Homo Sapience

Mr. Reynolds indites and indicts Kinsley and Lauricella for hindsight, which in stock market terms is 20-20.8 vision. I am less charitable and fault them for hindspeech.

K. & L. complain that amateurs are averaging 6.4 return while pros are delivering 6.8. Well, guess what, a) that is statistically insignificant, b) so the amateurs can hire pros, c) d) and e-z) the freakin' government return is zero. They are just lending the money to themselves on the premise that your grandchildren will stake them with tax money to pay themselves back. In other words, your profligate Uncle Sam spent your retirement money and your kids have to support you after all. What a crock! You would think that Kinsley and Lauricella would be thrilled to have their money hit the Wall Street - they need not bear down so hard; let me assure them that when they sit down to talk investing, the bulls hit!

Version Berth

Well, by all accounts, I seem to have crossed the Rubicon and entered the august chambers of the Reform Club - but only after I exacted a key concession: that I not be obligated to reform. This is my maiden voyage and I'll try to sail round the globe avoiding the barnacles of plagiarism.

My first tentative steps into the future make me ask myself: Am I the child poster for the March of Times?

Only Journalists Know How to Invest?

Wall Street Journal news director Tom Lauricella wrote a couple of pieces last month suggesting young people must never be allowed any alternative to Social Security because investors in other retirement savings plans have proven far too foolish and stupid to be trusted with their own money. Alan Sloan in Newsweek and David Rosenbaum and Daniel Altman in The New York Times, among others, have made similarly arrogant paternalistic arguments. But we expect better from a top guy at The Journal.

As I noted before (http://www.cato.org/dailys/12-29-04.html) Mr. Lauricella opined on December 1 that people with 401k plans “have made obvious mistakes in investing,” such as not investing the legal maximum (which is often easier said than done) or taking more risks (which is a matter of taste). His only real evidence of mistaken investing was a study claiming amateur investors earned “only” 6.4 percent a year over the 10 years ending in 2002 (a period ending with 32 ghastly months), while the pros earned 6.8 percent. That proved nothing, however, because the figures were not adjusted for risk. The pros may simply have held more small cap stocks and fewer bonds, for example. I invest in exotic little companies all over the world, including short sales and options, often on margin. I’ve done a lot better than 6.4 percent, so far, but that doesn’t prove more-cautious investors made “obvious mistakes.”

On December 22, Mr. Lauricella followed up with another piece arguing that even federal employees can’t handle their own retirement plans (thus defying beltway beliefs that government officials are inherently smarter and also selflessly engaged in “public service”). For one thing, he complained, the choice of only five investment options “doesn’t protect participants from losses in the stock or bond markets.” No plan that offers stocks and bonds can protect participants from losses. But he’s right that allowing federal employees only one stock market choice -- the S&P500 stock index – was a classic example of why limiting investment choices forces small investors to take avoidable risks. The S&P500 index is weighted by capitalization, any fund that matched the index became increasingly overinvested in high-tech stocks while their prices were soaring.

Viewed over the past 15 years, the S&P500 index returned 10.9 percent a year, but several managed funds did much better (the Legg Mason Value Trust rose 14.6 percent a year and Fidelity Contrafund was close). But Lauricella focused only on “mistakes” made during the bear market of 2000-2002.

After noting that the S&P500 fund “lost an average of 14.4 percent annually for three years,” Lauricella had the audacious hindsight to complain that between June and October 2002, some 8 percent of the assets in the S&P500 stock index fund were moved into bond funds with “returns ranging from 5 percent to 10 percent in 2001 and 2002.” Why did Mr. Lauricella find it so foolish for federal pension investors to have made a modest shift out of stocks (that were falling by 14 percent) into bonds (that were rising by 10 percent) by the end of 2002? Only because we now know (as we could not in late 2002) that stocks finally bounced back a year later--during the second half of 2003. But that does not make it unwise to have shifted some funds from stocks to bonds in late 2002. In fact, the S&P500 stock index did not even get back to its December 2002 level until May 2003. Federal employees may well have shifted back into stocks by then, after Iraq War anxieties dissipated.

When journalists such as Tom Lauricella or Mike Kinsley lecture us that foolish investors would be better-off leaving their money in the hands of wise politicians, you have to wonder how brilliant these writers’ own investment strategies have been. I have not added a dime to my largest retirement account since 1990 (much to the dismay of those who fret about the “savings rate”), yet that fund is now worth six times what it was then. Even the expert manager of that retirement account, however, made timing mistakes similar to those Mr. Lauricella criticizes when small investors made them. Perhaps he should exhibit more respect for the mistakes of others and more humility about his own.

Duncan Currie on Obama

Too many people watched Barack Obama's DNC speech and concluded he was some sort of centrist bridge figure. Gimme a friggin' break. It doesn't take much looking to discover that Obama is a conventional left-winger who once balked at being identified as a New Democrat. In his comments on politicians to watch in 2005, Duncan Currie had this to say about Mr. Obama:

BARACK OBAMA. Has any politician ever entered Congress to such ubiquitous fanfare as Barack Obama? Probably not. Will he measure up to the hype? We'll soon find out. No question Obama gave a wonderful speech at the Democratic convention. It's hard to imagine another liberal Democrat, let alone Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, delivering it. But make no mistake: Obama is indeed a liberal. Consider his record as an Illinois state senator. Obama has supported strict anti-gun measures, promoted universal health care, defended racial preferences, opposed tough-on-crime legislation designed to thwart gang violence, and voted "present" on an Illinois partial-birth abortion ban. He also spoke out against President Bush's tax cuts and the Iraq war. (At an October 2002 antiwar rally, Obama called the anti-Saddam buildup a cynical ploy cooked up by Karl Rove to "distract us" from domestic problems.) Obama's lofty, unconventional rhetoric made him a star at the convention. But he'll need more than words to distinguish himself in the U.S. Senate.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Trailing Edge Film Review: New Year's Double Feature

In this special edition of Trailing Edge Film Review: The Punisher and Hero.

Both of these films had something to do with the theme of revenge. Beyond that, they have nothing in common. Hero is a beautifully shot ballet of violence and careful dialogue. The Punisher is a turd.

It is difficult for me to emphasize how disappointed I was by The Punisher. The set-up was fantastic. An outstanding FBI agent closes his last sting operation, but is hunted down in a blitzkrieg that claims his entire family. Improbably, he survives and we wait for an exquisite revenge because this a Marvel production, Punisher is a great Marvel character, and this film should not suck (see the late 80's version of The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren, which did suck). Regrettably, though the ball is teed up nicely ready to be driven down the middle of a very wide fairway, we end up with an incompetently managed adventure. If it were worthwhile, I'd spend more time on the problems with this film, but it isn't. A short list would include the fact that John Travolta's villain isn't nearly as tough as he should be, the police never show up even when apocalypses occur in the middle of downtown areas, and the Punisher picks up a ridiculous little family of misfits during his few days of revenge seeking. A particularly stupid scene features the Punisher's neighbors tricking him into coming to dinner and asking him to participate in a thankfulness exercise. WHO WROTE THIS CRAP?!!! To see this story done in a much more entertaining manner, please see Deathwish. Good old Charles Bronson got it done when it was turn to take out the trash.

Hero is really interesting. Political philosophy, revenge, and exquisitely choreographed swordplay are on review in the manner of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Jet Li is superb in the title role. The plot is not as involved as Crouching Tiger, but it admirably fills the space between major acts of combat. What really stands out beyond the gorgeously enacted fight scenes is the use of nature and color. Fighters perform their deadly dances in desert, lake, palace, and rain-soaked courtyard settings. Vibrant greens, blues, reds, and oranges fill the screen at various points. I may not have hated The Punisher as much if I hadn't watched Hero immediately afterward.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

A Democrat's Alternative to Privatization

On Fox News this morning, Democratic Strategist Bob Beckel proposed that anyone with an annual income higher than about $50,000 or $75,000 at retirement age should get nothing at all from Social Security – zero, zilch, nada.

Beckel has long been an influential voice within the Democratic Party. He managed the 1984 Presidential campaign of Walter Mondale after working in the Carter White House. His version of “means testing” takes this idea further than most have yet dared to articulate, yet it is not conceptually different from President Clinton’s 1993 surtax on Social Security benefits for retired couples with other income exceeding $44,000. The same theme was also apparent in Senator Kerry’s comment about "making sure that high-income beneficiaries don't get more out than they pay in." (see http://www.cato.org/dailys/10-03-04.html). The misnamed Brookings Institution book Saving Social Security by Peter Diamond and Peter Orszag is just a sneaky variation on the Beckel theme, since it relies on new and increased taxes on higher earners for about 83 percent of the alleged fix, while also “reducing benefits for higher earners.”

It is easy to imagine some future Democratic Congress further reducing Social Security benefits for those with above-average incomes and also raising taxes on the same people to pay for their shrinking benefits. After all, as Beckel rightly noted, the founders of Social Security never really promised anything to anyone. The unfunded future promise of allowing Social Security and Medicare grow to a size larger than the entire federal government are just illusory projections based on a hoax. Something nasty is apt to happen before the well runs dry, and any solution that eschews personal accounts is unlikely to be gentle with young people who work too hard or save too much.

The Beckel Plan reflects a common leftist belief that some people just happen to end up with higher retirement incomes than others, as a matter of random luck, so the government can rob such people with impunity. In reality, incomes in old age depend on the economic virtues of industriousness and prudence – working hard for many years (often well past age 67) and saving for retirement. To reduce or eliminate Social Security benefits for those who set aside a half-decent retirement income or continued to work past the customary retirement age would amount to a confiscatory tax on hard work and thrift.

All means-tested “solutions” to Social Security’s looming financial crisis are offered as an alternative to allowing young people to put some of their Social Security “contributions” into their own personal savings account. In reality, the fact that such ideas are taken seriously should serve as a warning to young people to lobby hard for Retirement Choice – that is, their right to opt out of this rip-off before the politicians finish converting it into nothing more than a massive income redistribution scheme.

Mr.Beckel’s proposed “fix” for Social Security’s unpayable bills, like the Diamond-Orszag plan and others, proves the political risk of expecting any positive return from Social Security far exceeds any conceivable market risk from owning stocks and bonds.

America's Giving

The New York Times, the United Nations, and the rest of the American Left have it all wrong in their reaction to the nascent relief efforts for victims of the Asian tsunami. As John Podhoretz points out in his current column for the New York Post,, "The political and ideological exploitation of perhaps the worst natural disaster in all our lifetimes is almost beyond belief — were it not for the fact that nothing these days is beyond belief. Even as tears spring into the most hard-hearted person's eyes at both the unimaginable scope of the tragedy and at the wrenching individual stories of loss, opinion leaders just can't help themselves. They are using this cataclysm as little more than cheap debate fodder about the nature and character of the United States, its president and its citizens."

Podhoretz agrees that the U.S. foreign aid policy is a fit matter for debate, but he correctly points out that this is not the time for such an argument, as the disaster is not about the United States but about its multitude of victims. Absolutely. Moreover, the Left, led by the NYT, the UN, and certain vile European heads of state, are attempting to shift the issue from disaster relief to development aid, which is a different matter entirely.

Podhoretz does not mention, but should have, that the United States has always led the world in private giving, by far, and I am sure that this situation will be no different. To pretend that the United States will not do enough for disaster victims because the president is a Republican and conservative is perfectly absurd.

In my view, the U.S. (and European) Left's treatment of this issue has been disgraceful: the most cynical and brazenly opportunistic political behavior I have seen in a very long time. It is they who have brought shame on us in this matter.

Friday, December 31, 2004

Mike Kinsley's Social Security Gaffe

L.A. Times editor Michael Kinsley recently wrote, with characteristic humility, that, “Social Security privatization is . . . mathematically certain to fail. Discussion is pointless. . . . It can't possibly work, even in theory.”

He made this same argument in a little-noticed July 27, 2001 article in Slate, where he said it was an analysis “for which I claim enthusiasm, not originality.” Now he claims originality, calling it “Kinsley’s Proof”:

"My argument . . . defines success as bringing in more money than the current system does. More money is necessary either to reduce the gap between projected benefits and revenue or to make retirees better off. . . . More money can come from only two places: increased economic growth and other people. Increased growth can come only from higher private investment or smarter private investment."

Privatization cannot result in higher private investment, in his view, because government borrowing to finance the transition would leave combined public and private savings unchanged (not reduced, incidentally, as others claim). “Privatization would deflect some money from the Social Security trust fund into private investment,” says Kinsley, “but the government would have to borrow an equal amount to replace it.” With total national savings unchanged, he imagines private investment must be unchanged too.

After adding some dubious comments about private investment being no more efficient or profitable than government bonds, Mr. Kinsley asked, “Where am I wrong here?” Several bloggers offered perceptive answers to that question, but he does not really want to listen. “When you're sure of something to a mathematical certainty,” he wrote, “it becomes supremely irritating that other people continue to debate the issue as if there were some doubt.”

Curiously, none of Mr. Kinsley’s critics noticed the fundamental flaw of his analysis – namely, that it totally ignores incentives to work or to accumulate potentially valuable skills (human capital). My own recent column, by contrast, cites Nobel Laureate Ed Prescott and concludes, “better work incentives are the biggest single benefit of privatization” http://www.townhall.com/columnists/alanreynolds/ar20041223.shtml

To assert as Mr. Kinsley does that “increased growth can come only from higher private investment or smarter private investment” is to advance a uniquely peculiar theory of economic growth. Specifically, Mr. Kinsley’s conclusion depends on a closed economy, static model with only one factor of production (private capital).

This is a closed economy static model because investment in new private capital can supposedly be financed only from current domestic flows of saving, never from the global stocks of assets. If that made any sense, then the U.S. could never have a deficit on current account, because it could never have a net inflow of foreign investment.

Kinsley's is a one-factor model because the behavior of workers, managers and entrepreneurs is alleged to make literally no difference whatsoever to the output or growth of any national economy.

If Michael Kinsley’s one-factor theory of economic growth made any sense, then the U.S. could replace every worker, manager and entrepreneur with a random selection of people from Somalia yet the U.S. economy would nonetheless remain equally productive.

The main point of making it easier for young people to build real nest eggs, rather than relying on the unlikely generosity of future taxpayers, has to do with microeconomic incentives not macroeconomic accounting categories such as "savings rates."

Privatization reduces the risk that the marginal tax on future workers may otherwise become so onerous that hours of work per year and years of work per liftime drop to the lazy levels of France, thus flattening economic growth and tax receipts in the process.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

When Liberalism Was Liberal

Today on Tech Central Station there appears an article by Yours Truly on the great old movie Going My Way. You can read the whole piece there. Here are some tantalizing excerpts:

TV stations tend to show the great 1944 film Going My Way, directed by Leo McCarey and starring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, more often around Christmas, even though only a couple of scenes are set during Advent.

The film, however, always repays watching. In particular, it illustrates the superiority of moral suasion over coercion in the creation of civil order -- a lesson always worth remembering. Although Going My Way won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the film's reputation rapidly declined beginning in the 1960s, and critical consensus has long dismissed it as trite, sentimental, and unsophisticated. This is an entirely erroneous and indeed dimwitted interpretation of the film, and one that cries out for redress.

The story is familiar: easygoing, likeable Father O'Malley (Bing Crosby) is assigned by the local Catholic bishop to help bring St. Dominic's Church, a faltering urban congregation led by Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), back to its feet and in particular to overcome its financial problems. Crosby's O'Malley represents the liberal side of the church -- as it was then manifested, it is important to remember -- and Fitzgibbon the conservative aspect.

The key element here is that Crosby's liberalism is entirely limited to means, not ends; he is merely trying to find ways to enable the church to treat the ills of a rapidly changing society, not to change its doctrines of belief. In the end, of course, O'Malley's approach proves surprisingly successful, and he is sent on to the next challenge. What is in the middle is a very intelligent, sophisticated, decent, and engaging film -- exactly what we should expect from McCarey, who is now greatly underrated.

The most interesting aspect of the film is the centrality of the motif of generational conflict, and specifically of reconciliation between parents and children. As such, authority is a central concern. Fathers O'Malley and Fitzgibbons initially suffer a good deal of conflict, until O'Malley is placed explicitly in a position of authority when Fitzgibbons consults the bishop and is told that O'Malley is now in fact his superior.

O'Malley had not told him this, preferring to spare him any emotional hurt, though it of course made O'Malley's work much more difficult. Their personal conflicts play out as a clear father-son type of relationship, and they end only when the father figure realizes that the time has come for him to hand over the reins of the "family" -- St. Dominic's church, of course -- to his "son". McCarey and the actors beautifully display the mixture of pride and melancholy in the handover of authority: Fitzgibbons is initially humiliated by it, but ultimately is proud of the fine man the Church has raised up to replace him.

Similarly, the local landlord, who owns a long-overdue mortgage on the church, is in conflict with his son, who values family and service to others far more highly than the obsessive accumulation of material assets which motivates his father. Eventually, the father comes to see things the son's way, realizing that, yes, love is indeed the most important and satisfying thing of all.

The young, however, are not always in the right in the film. Also central to the story is the presence of a young woman who has left her family in search of a career in music, for which she is clearly not suited. . . . The young woman comes perilously close to disaster, but O'Malley's subtle and gentle guidance averts the impending catastrophe. The key element here is Father O'Malley's realization--never stated but implicit in his actions--that what she is really searching for is unconditional love and respect. He goes about ensuring that she finds it, and successfully puts her in the right situation.

What is politically interesting [about the film] is that O'Malley's goals are quite conventional, traditional, bourgeois ones, but the means he is willing to use are all what we would characterize as liberal. They are based on an effort to understand exactly what a person is trying to accomplish, and then seeking to figure out an alternative way for them to achieve it.

Father O'Malley's efforts to get people to change always involve persuasion, not coercion. It is this that religious institutions do best, and in this respect their treatment of moral issues is far superior to the coercive methods of governments.

O'Malley's activities illustrate an important aspect of the word liberal -- a generosity of spirit that takes the form of wanting what is best for others, regardless of the consequences for oneself. They also reflect the important liberal concept that only acts done with an individual's consent can ultimately be fulfilling and to that person's credit -- O'Malley shows an intuitive and automatic dislike for coercion. His liberalism is an entirely laudable one, and he is quite an impressive and inspiring character.

There are many other interesting themes and motifs in the film, but the father-child one is what really holds it all together. This thematic unity is quite impressive, and it is directed toward entirely laudable ends. Filmmakers today could learn much about their craft by studying this remarkably intelligent, sophisticated, mature, and original film.

Going My Way is one of those rare movies that is actually more substantial than it seems.

John Wilson Does His Thing . . .

Christianity Today has come out with their annual Top Ten Books list. Read it here. I'm sorry to say I didn't read any of these books this year.

For pleasure reading, I've just discovered the hard-boiled work of Lee Child and his drifter hero Jack Reacher. Good stuff. Lots of action. What's even better is listening to Reacher figure out his plan of attack. He's a physical genius who somehow ends up playing David to an always fearsome Goliath.

New Year's Bama Style!

I thought this item in my hometown newspaper in Decatur, Alabama would prove entertaining to cultural observers:

Ring in the New Year with Elvis

Celebrate New Year's Eve with Elvis.

Impersonator Dennis Ballentine brings his Tribute to Elvis show to David's Catfish Cabin in Hartselle at 6:30 p.m. Cost is $10 (meal not included). Party favors will be furnished. . .

Ballentine's music will soon be featured on ladyluckmusic.com, a worldwide Internet radio service that features only Elvis tribute artists.

"This is quite an honor," said Ballentine, a Falkville resident. "Many artists hope to be on the show, but less than 250 worldwide are picked for their ability to perform Elvis' songs."


I agree that Napoleon Dynamite is a fun film and rather thoughtful. It has an interesting point of view, moreover, which becomes evident in the resolution. As Hunter notes, everybody in Napoleon's fictional Idaho hometown is approximately two decades behind the times, and Napoleon is held back by the community's dreary conservatism, a symptom of the people's low expectations of what they think they can hope to get out of life. Napoleon's uncle is a fine example of this acceptance of shabbiness: even though the man is willing to work, he has no direction and less imagination.

Napoleon's exasperation at just about everything around him is a symptom of his frustration at being held back by a social order that does not allow itself to benefit from creative, eccentric persons such as himself. The exaggerated languor of most of the characters, epitomized in Napoleon's brother, who does not even show the occasional bursts of energy Napoleon can sum up, is an inevitable outcome of this culture.

It is only when an Eastern, urban, ethnic element is introduced into the society, through the Internet girlfriend of Napoleon's older brother, that Napoleon and his brother can thrive. And it creates a couple of scenes that are both very funny and rather inspiring: Napoleon's dance routine and his entrance to his brother's wedding.

One could see the film as having a racial-culture angle, given that the person who introduces change to the society is African-American, but I don't think that that is at all the relevant point. The film does a wonderful job of showing how conservatism works to create social order but ultimately can suppress the creative urges that are the lifeblood of any society and any economy. For a society to function well and create a truly rich environment, there must always be a balance between conservative forces and those for reform. The title of this film aptly evokes that idea. See it.

Trailing Edge Film Review: Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite is an unusual film. Although there are a few ongoing series of events that keep the film moving, it's really a nostalgia/mood/oddball humor piece. Napoleon and most of the people around him seem to be living in 1982-84. Their clothing, hairstyles, and communication are all characteristic of that period. On the other hand, the director clearly indicates at several points that the action is occurring in 2004-2005. Napoleon and the people around him are living in Idaho, which is the only possible reconciliation. Maybe we can buy the idea that Idaho is literally about 20-25 years behind the times. A better interpretation is probably that early 80's nostalgia makes it fun to fill a 2004 plot with characters dressed in 80's regalia. The result works. Although events move slowly, the viewer is rarely bored. It's a lot like moving through a really interesting museum. You're in no hurry to leave.

The best part of Napoleon Dynamite is the title character. Everything about him is hilarious. When he comes on screen, you are simply waiting to laugh. Jon Heder plays Napoleon and inhabits the character with great success. If the movie had nothing more than Mr. Heder expressing the thoughts of Mr. Dynamite, it would still be worth watching. In fact, that's just about what you get, except that there are at least two other characters in Napoleon's own family who are almost as interesting. Uncle Rico and brother Kip are nearly as much fun as Napoleon and could probably serve as building blocks for their own films. Heder will be offered more geek roles after this one and should refuse. His masterpiece is in the can. It's time for him to move on to something else.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Left2Right, Schmeft2Right!

Commenter David Velleman kindly pointed us to the Left2Right response to Russ Douthot's Weekly Standard critique mentioned earlier on this site.

Well, it's a good try, anyway, but as more than one respondent to that response on Left2Right noted, the author does not mention the Appiah comment quoted in Douthot's article, which is the statement I found most interesting and which I quoted in my earlier posting here today. To have any credibility, the Left2Right response should have explicitly repudiated Appiah's charming comment. Yet it did not, from which I think we can draw some fairly definite conclusions. Some may see no smugness there, but I do.

Nonetheless, let's get to a more basic objection to Left2Right, which is its mission: to make the present-day Left more politically palatable. That is a fool's errand. The Left cannot become more politically palatable without dropping its basic premises, for those assumptions and attitudes are what make comments such as Appiah's both possible and all too representative of the Left's attitudes toward the vast majority of their neighbors. The only real and viable liberalism to be found at present in the United States (and indeed the West as a whole) is on the Right, not the Left. If the Left2Right philosophes wish to become true liberals by renouncing their prejudices and joining us on the Right, they are certainly welcome to do so.

To an Athlete Living Young

Phil Arvia presents a wonderfully eloquent and convincing tribute to bicyclist Lance Armstrong in the Daily Southtown today. Armstrong, who recovered from cancer to continue his athletic career with success exceeding even his stunning previous accomplishments, was recently named Athlete of the Year by AP, for the third consecutive time. (Michael Jordan is the only other person to have received that honor three times in a row.) In addition to his athletic accomplishments, Armstrong has done much for cancer awareness through his Lance Armstrong Foundation and especially his LIVESTRONG project. Read Arvia's article here.

The Left's View of the Right: A Flattering One Indeed

In the current issue of the Weekly Standard, Russ Douthat mines the following from the Left2Right blog, in which K. Anthony Appiah presents his view of the American Right:

"Some of those right-wing evangelicals apparently care whether or not we have a good opinion of them. (If they didn't, the resentment they display toward the 'liberal media' would make no sense.) Whereas I know no one among the liberal media elite or among liberal academics who cares very much that many right-wing evangelicals have contempt for us. We care how they vote--for instrumental reasons; we may even care that they are mistaken, for their sakes; but we don't feel diminished by their contempt. . . . (The situation is analogous to the one that obtains with respect to social respect in class-and status-based hierarchies: a peasant can spit when milord walks by, but it won't damage his lordship's self-esteem. But when milord brings his handkerchief to his nose as the peasant approaches, the peasant is stung.)"

As a liberal of the Right and a person who was given no economic advantages in life, and one who has had to give fair labor for everything he has obtained, I am quite comfortable with this analogy. Yes, it is fair to say that I, at least, was not born to the American nobility. Yet somehow I am not ashamed, for it is a matter over which I had no control.

And I will say a bit more, to wit: We peasants will be very happy to see our betters brought to their knees by a few simple reforms, as the eighteenth-century English Whigs shattered long-entrenched obstacles to common sense and social mobility supported by the elites of the time. It is in fact rather enjoyable to see our present "betters" drop the hanky for a moment and show the incessant sneer behind it. Know this: it does not diminish a person to be sneered at; it diminishes the one who sneers.

Many thanks to Mr. Appiah for thus inadvertently making our arguments for us, and kudos to Russ for wading through the muck to find it.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Level Ground

I think that Ben has a point in arguing that Occam's Razor is always handy. But the important thing is that we apply it at all steps of the logical process. As Ben notes, once you get past the origin of matter itself, you can fiddle around a bit and find a way that life could have sprung into being. And then, because life is indeed evident as a fact, one surmises that this is how life must have come about.

But this is simply an unacceptable leap of logic. You cannot leap from could to must. That is a leap of faith, and fatal to logic. My argument, as noted in earlier posts and my American Spectator article on Antony Flew, is that the very first premise, which Ben has astutely brought up, is in fact the esential one, and I will now make the further point that anything that depends on that premise is suspect. To wit: until you can show us how to make matter appear out of nothing, you have nothing on which to base Darwinism. You may very well say that you simply have to have that hypothesis, given that the cosmos is here and life is here and so it must all have happened somehow, but that is not an argument for anything at all. It establishes nothing. Hence, for a truly reasonable person the argument over Darwinism must be based on whether the fossil record and other evidence show that evolution by natural selection is the simplest explanation that fits the facts. Unfortunately, it is not, because it does not fit the facts. We have never seen a single instance of interspecies evolution, only intraspecies evolution, which nobody denies. Evolution by natural selection is certainly possible and perhaps even plausible, but the facts to support it have yet to be adduced. Hence, one should feel free to dismiss it and still consider oneself perfectly reasonable and scientific.

But then, it is fair to complain, we seem to be left with no defensible scientific explanation of the origin of life, the origin of species, or the origin of matter and energy. That is correct. My point is that no explanation of these things is fundamentally scientific. Let me state it again: no explanation yet offered of the origin of matter and energy, or of the origin of life, is fundamentally scientific. In this utterly essential regard, theists and atheists are on level ground. We should apply Occam's Razor to all claims, and to all the premises behind those claims.

Whatever can be proven from the facts of the world, we should accept as true. Whatever cannot, should be a matter for free and open debate. Those who would close off such debate should be seen as nothing more than superstitious bullies.

An Amateur Thought On Darwinism

Far be it for me---hardly an expert on evolutionary theory and such, but a casual reader of Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, Matt Ridley, Richard Dawkins, Paul Rubin, and others---to offer grand insights into the Darwin/intelligent design debate or similar issues. At the same time, it strikes me that Jay Homnick is missing something in his brief post: An acknowledgment that Occam's Razor is particularly applicable in this debate. The simplest theory consistent with the facts is appropriate to adopt as the null hypothesis. Early in "The Selfish Gene," Dawkins offers a simple model of how mere chemicals in an early Earth ocean might have evolved into life as we know it today; I have seen no refutation of that model, and it leaves no need for a Creator.

But that is the basic problem with Darwinism as it has come to be celebrated as the conventional wisdom, its adherents sneering at those who dissent as yahoos. It does not explain the origin of matter, and I have not found a Darwinist willing to confront that conundrum. But that may reflect only my own ignorance in this area.

An Interesting Proposal

Jay Homnick of Jewish World Review and American Spectator has long been interested in the question of Darwin's theory and WHAT IT ALL MEANS. He has some provocative thoughts that I told him I'd like to share here on the weblog. Before posting, I'd like to add that not all bloggers at the site will necessarily agree. I know Mr. Karnick and I are both interested in the Intelligent Design arguments, but I can't speak for Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Zycher at all on that score. So with that disclaimer, here's Homnick:

May I begin by thanking my gracious hosts - my friend Hunter Baker and his friends.

It struck me as important that I take a moment to issue this appeal. I believe very strongly that the key to bringing down the Darwinist orthodoxy is simply this: divide and conquer. It is urgent to hammer again and again the distinction between the two theories of Darwin, what I call Darwin One and Darwin Two.

Darwin One: the process of creation followed evolutionary steps.
Darwin Two: these could have occurred without intelligent design.

Most of the intellectual territory conquered by Darwin, in my estimation, is the result of the evidence for evolution being assumed to be evidence against design, just because the Darwin weltanschauung was taken to be one indivisible package.

Once the debate is framed properly, then not only will evidence for Darwin One stop being evidence for Darwin Two, clever polemicists will be able to adduce the evidence for Darwin One as evidence AGAINST Darwin Two, because the more intelligent the evolution process the less coherent is the position eschewing design.

I believe that this war can be won from the bottom up, starting in such homely locales as the blogs. If all like-minded bloggers will conspire to use the phrases Darwin One and Darwin Two as the shibboleth of the pro-design crowd, they will find their way into the scientific lexicon and eventually the legal lexicon. Close your eyes and replay the Scopes trial except that every time Darrow brings a proof from a fossil, you say "Oh, that's Darwin One. We're debating Darwin Two." Also try to imagine the fierce clawing by editors in science journals trying to keep those phrases off their reservation.

Now I am deliberately not engaging the question of whether believers in the Bible should accept Darwin One based on current evidence. That is an entirely different discussion; it is a religious discussion that needs to be conducted in-house. But in terms of Darwinism negating religion per se, we have no need to publicly bandy about nuances in biblical terminology. It is enough for us to clarify the point that even if the full sequential staging of evolution that is the current incarnation of Darwin One is stipulated, we have not succeeded into making the system STUPID or RANDOM but rather quite SMART and exceedingly WELL-DESIGNED. In which case we win.

Thereafter, we can return to Biblical exegesis and hermeneutics as a private pastime.

Once again, I thank you for your gracious invitation to address your esteemed convocation. Happy holidays.

Jay D. Homnick

Monday, December 27, 2004

The ID Question

What we really need to know about the confrontation between Intelligent Design theory and its dominant counterpart, the neo-Darwinian synthesis, is whether they somehow fit into the framework laid out by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He showed that dominant theories are often pushed aside by upstarts, but rarely give way in a rational fashion. Careers, funding, and pride are at stake. The struggle will be ugly and we can't necessarily expect the dominant group to play fair.

Sorry for my light posting . . .

The junior member of the blog (that's me) has taken ill. Turns out I was patient zero in the household and spread a bug around to everyone else. Fortunately, Mr. Karnick appears to be handling the hosting duties with great flair.

Intelligent Design Debate

Blogger Joe Carter has an interesting discussion of Intelligent Design (ID) theory going on at the Evangelical Outpost. Carter presents an excellent summary of the common objections to ID theory and provides very good responses to the criticisms. In addition, and quite usefully, he invites opponents of ID to post their own objections, and they are doing so with great brio. ID supporters, including Carter himself, are responding in kind. It is a very interesting debate indeed, and one with political implications as school districts consider whether to include ID in the curriculum. Read it here.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Commenter Luke on Christmas

I thought this bit from commenter Luke was perceptive:

It is not just the faith of a lot of the American people that makes Christmas an important national holiday: it is that Christianity was the faith that enabled our cultural ancestors -- at a terrible price -- to build and bequeath to us the civilization we live in, like none other ever seen. This History -- these Facts -- are what justify the celebration, quite apart from the present state of the faith. We have an obligation to remember, just as we have an obligation to remember Lincoln, and the Civil War, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. As a culture and a civilization, they are all parts of who we are and where we came from. If nothing else we owe it to our children to celebrate and remember these things, lest they take it all for granted -- the and let it slip away.

Friday, December 24, 2004

A Moment for Tlaloc . . .

A commenter who goes by Tlaloc has expressed some consternation over our pro-Christmas, pro-Christianity in the public square thoughts. My answer is the same as always. Our culture is made of stuff like religious faith, history, art, music, tradition, etc. America is not an officially Christian nation, but it is a nation where a large number of Christian people live. This deeply held faith will express itself in the public square and should unless we hold to some artificial segregation of ideas and customs. Steven D. Smith writes well on this issue in Getting Over Equality. He wonders why we should have to draw exactly the same lines between religion and the public square in Massachusetts as we do in Alabama. It's a line of inquiry worth following. Think outside the box, dear lefties!

More Red-State Holiday Love

Last night, I had a culinary experience that will almost surely become an essay in the near future. We drove to a seafood buffet in the middle of nowhere Mississippi. A woman dressed in a red dress and sandals and wearing very big hair belted out country songs of heartbreak like "Crazy" and "Mama, He's Crazy" while we consumed piles of fried shrimp, crab legs, and catfish. I noted lots of prayer before meals shared with big families. Absolutely wonderful. I was among my people!

Neuhaus and My House

When Baylor President Robert Sloan took office in 1995, Richard John Neuhaus spoke at his inauguration. When I asked Sloan why, he said he wanted to make a statement about religion and public life. He couldn't have made a better choice as readers of The Naked Public Square or First Things know.

For his part, Neuhaus has endlessly flacked for Sloan and Baylor, but the mass of evangelical Christians have yet to take up the banner. Baylor is moving forward rapidly, but it won't become the evangelical Notre Dame until that faith community makes it a major institutional focus. Sloan has survived this year despite major attacks from the left-wing of the Baylor constituency. Here's hoping he makes it another.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2004

A Conservative for Liberalism

Joseph Bottum writes, in the current edition of The Weekly Standard, of liberalism in the sense I have been advocating the word should be used:

"The Naked Public Square was one of the seminal books for the modern conservative movement. But it was also a deeply liberal book--at least as liberalism used to be understood. Expounding a tradition of liberal political thought about religion that runs from George Washington's 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, through Tocqueville's observations of the young republic, and down to Reinhold Niebuhr's political theology, Neuhaus understood how the attempt to strip the public square derives, at last, from a disdain for the richness of life--a distaste for the democracy of difference, the clash and mingle of real human beings."

Read the full article here.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

I haven't seen it, yet, but now I'm not sure I will. Two film critics I read on a regular basis, Baylor's own Thomas Hibbs for NRO and Jonathan Last for Weekly Standard, have both expressed disappointment with the movie. This news qualifies as troubling for a fellow who really loved The Royal Tenenbaums, director Wes Anderson's previous effort. Perhaps our resident critic Mr. Karnick will venture out to render a definitive opinion on The Life Aquatic. If I give in to the impulse, I'll be sure to comment as well.

In other film news, members of the family attended Meet the Fokkers yesterday and uniformly disliked it. This is a crowd that really liked Meet the Parents, so I wouldn't be surprised to see this one significantly underperform the first installment. They felt the sequel relied too much on sexual innuendo and lacked the sweetness of Parents.

Finally, Herr Karnick wondered whether we could guess his favorite of the films mentioned in the list he linked in his last post. I'm going with Robin Hood.

God of the Soap Operas

Our friend Jim Edwards sent us the following, in reference to my recent National Review Online essay on the changing attitude toward religion that is visible in recent fiction TV series:

"Not a big soap opera watcher, I did happen to catch a bit of one yesterday. It was on the TV next to the bike I was on at the health club. Not sure which show, but the scene that caught my attention had a guy with a little boy on his lap next to a fireplace. The Daddy was reading to the little sleepyhead a book about the first Christmas. The book title was prominent and said something like 'The Story of the Birth of Christ.' I noticed especially the name 'Christ.' Also, the guy was telling about the shepherds, the angels appearing, the bright light, and the announcement not to fear because they brought good news. At that point, the kid acted like he drifted off to sleep, so the Daddy stopped with the story. But I was struck by the fact it was Christmas, not Santa.

"Maybe the entertainment industry is getting it that it not only shouldn't insult the faith of the vast majority of it potential audience, but might work in a few favorable faith elements!"

Thanks for the good news, Jim.

Films for the Family

The critic Spencer Warren, a fine judge of motion picture excellence (and baseness), recommends four "Films for the Family" in an excellent little essay for The Claremont Institute's home page. These are four films that truly repay repeated viewings, and each is thoroughly intelligent, dramatic, and moving, In addition, and quite importantly, each is a great deal of fun to watch. One of them is probably my favorite film—see if you can guess which it is!—and all are well worth obtaining on DVD for your permanent collection. Spencer also tells us exactly what is so great about these films. Read it here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Ah, Life in the Sticks . . .

I come from a family that is, generationally speaking, not too far off the farm. Nevertheless, I'm a pure product of the suburb, as is my wife, who has lots of jungle missionaries in her recent family tree. A friend who chooses the "simple" life emailed me this interesting tale of his activities in the wee hours of last night:

Nisha and I were out in the yard at 1 a.m. this morning, Nisha up in the 2nd story level of a tree shaking the branches furiously to knock the roosting chickens off their perch. After they fell to the ground, I chased them around until I caught them, then whisked them away to the closed chicken coop where they could safely spend the night. The reason for this early morning insanity? An owl showed up last night and started picking them off one by one -- chicken screams sound very much like a young child being carrying away by a dragon. The neighbors woke up and were watching the fun -- we all started laughing as we tracked down the last rooster and caught him -- you would have thought we were stuffing cotton down his beak with all the hysterics he went through.

Ah, a night in the country.

This may be the cure for the terrible existential boredom of modern man!

Another Stem Cell Tale

Wesley J. Smith has written a good article for the Weekly Standard recounting the preferential media treatment accorded to embryonic stem cells as opposed to adult stem cells. The former are touted as impressive miracle cures, even though they have done little to nothing of value so far, and adult stems cells are pointedly ignored even though they have already achieved some miraculous results. Smith's article adds a couple of American examples to the Korean one I wrote about a couple of weeks ago for the American Spectator. Smith does not give an explanation of exactly why embryonic stem cells are so stupendously overrated by the press, which I think is a crucial element of the discussion. For my thesis on the matter, see my American Spectator piece here.

The Not So Pro-Lifer

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada is the new minority leader in the U.S. Senate. He has a long reputation as a pro-lifer, which is surprising since Democratic presidential hopefuls make a pilgrimage to Planned Parenthood every four years to pledge obeisance to Roe v. Wade. Why would a party that has staked its entire existence on laissez-faire in all matters sexual and reproductive accept a minority leader who is ostensibly pro-life? Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard tells us they haven't. Reid is a bogus pro-lifer with an ambiguous record on the life issue. Check it out here.

By the way, if you've got Lexis-Nexis you can read my law review article on why Roe must go in the Regent University Law Review. Just search "Hunter Baker" in the author blank on a guided search.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Good News with Your Newspaper

Editor and Publisher reports that a Colorado Springs newspaper, The Gazette,, distributed more than 90,000 copies of the New Testament with home-delivered copies of the paper, in an effort funded by the Colorado Springs-based International Bible Society. The organization had earlier sent nearly a half-million copies of the Gospel of Luke with the Houston Chronicle and nearly another 100,000 with a Jackson, Mississippi, newspaper. They plan to do more of this.

The Gazette's vice president of sales and marketing reported that the paper had "received about two dozen calls and e-mails, with about half pleased to get the Bibles and half not so pleased," according to the E&P story. The report also noted that a local non-Christian religious organization was perturbed by the "gift" and had offered to collect the books from any offended subscribers and distribute them to local Christian-run homeless shelters—even though the books were written by people raised in their own faith, I should like to add.

That is a quite interesting reaction from a group of people given to trumpeting their personal open-mindedness and rationality and the liberalism of their ideas. The liberal point of view, however, revels in the free exchange of ideas and information. These people are the opposite of liberal. They are radical secularists.

May I just say that in my opinion, those who went to the trouble to take offense at this free gift are a lot of extraordinarily pathetic losers? Would that offend anybody? Read about it here.

Double Whammy

Friend and site founder S.T. Karnick has two pieces out today in National Review Online and American Spectator Online. Since we probably have a lot of new visitors today, it's a good opportunity to briefly introduce our personnel.

S.T. Karnick is the former co-founder and editor of American Outlook, a quarterly published by the Hudson Institute for several years. He's now senior editor for the Heartland Institute and has written for every substantial conservative publication of the last two decades with maybe one exception, First Things. Are you listening Richard John Neuhaus?

Hunter Baker (that's me) is a Ph.D. student in Religion, Law, and Politics at Baylor University. He works for the prominent pro-life philosopher Francis Beckwith and also consults part-time with the university's administration. His writing portfolio includes newspapers of every size (including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution), American Spectator, American Outlook, and NRO. He is also the author of a couple of academic publications. Prior to Ph.D work, he was Director of Public Policy for Georgia Family Council and did stints in law school with the Rutherford Institute and Prison Fellowship.

Ben Zycher is president of Benjamin Zycher Economics Associates and is Senior Fellow in Economics for the Pacific Research Institute. He is an expert on public finance, regulation, insurance, environmental and energy economics, and the economics of defense. If memory serves, he had a job in the Reagan administration!

Alan Reynolds previously served as director of economic research at the Hudson Institute and as vice president and chief economist at both Polyconomics and at the First National Bank of Chicago. In 1996, Reynolds served as research director with the National Commission on Tax Reform and Economic Growth (the "Kemp Commission"). One of the original "supply side" economists, Reynolds worked with Alan Greenspan and Larry Kudlow on David Stockman's Office of Management and Budget transition team in 1981. More recently, he has testified on tax policy before the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees. Reynolds did his undergraduate work in economics at UCLA and graduate studies at Cal State Sacramento. His economic research has been published by such organizations as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Joint Economic Committee, and the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and St. Louis. A former columnist with Forbes and Reason, Reynolds has been a frequent contributor to such publications as the Wall Street Journal, the American Spectator, National Review, the Harvard Business Review, International Economy, Challenge, the Washington Times and the New York Post.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Michael Fumento Is Making Sense!

Fumento is one of those reporters who combines journalism with the amazing additional skill of knowing what the heck you are talking about. He applies this skill to health journalism and does a nice job of shedding further light on the stem cell controversy. Check out this passage from his latest NRO piece where he discusses ASC's (adult stem cells) and ESC's (embryonic stem cells):

There's no scientific research so promising that it can't be hyped further. Still, the ASCs — which the Democrats won't acknowledge, and which the New York Times recently claimed have proved futile in treating human illness — have actually been helping people in the U.S. since 1968. On one website you'll find a list, far from comprehensive, of almost 80 therapies currently using ASCs. This is treatment — not practice or theory. Incredibly, there are also about 300 clinical trials involving ASCs.

By contrast, the number of treatments using ESCs is zero. The number of clinical trials involving ESCs? Also zero.

The usual response to this is — as we saw with Kerry at the debate — none at all. There is quite literally a nationwide effort to cover up the value, or even the existence, of ASCs. But if there is a response, it's usually that ASC research has had a huge head start, and that ESCs only need time (and, more important, massive federal funding) to catch up.

Newt Gingrich

As reader Greg reminded me in a comment on the last post, Newt Gingrich is an Amazon book-reviewing madman. He's one of the top reviewers in Amazon history. A lot of it is thrillers, but there are also some very serious books in the mix. The reminder about Newt's book reviewing activity is a bit depressing because one suspects we are the poorer for Newt's exit from Congress. Newt is clearly no angel, but he is a brilliant policy wonk and a really creative person. It could make a lot of sense to get him in a Presidential cabinet post. I'd like to hear his thoughts on the War on Terror.

Christmas in Mississippi So Far . . .

I'm visiting my in-laws and have brought their daughter and golden grandchild with me. They live in Hattiesburg, which is a university town. School is out and every retail outlet is incredibly crowded. Looks to me like the retail sector is in full, full swing. I once heard an armchair economist say he could tell you how well the economy was doing by counting trucks on I-35. I suspect we could do something similar with mall traffic and parking.

In the meantime, my search for Thomas the Tank Engine related accessories like blankets, t-shirts, and pajamas has been a complete failure after a lengthy search. Doesn't anyone out there want to get even richer? I've got a two year old with needs!!!

I Admire The Purity, But . . .

What about conspiracy charges and bank information reporting requirements? It seems to me that if we take a pure "harm" approach to the law we will find ourselves unable to successfully police serious problems like organized crime. We often complain as citizens that the police are unable to protect us until after something terrible has already occurred. Laws aimed at deterrence and prevention by criminalizing conduct that precedes the actual harm causing activity are one way to meet that problem. We have to be very careful, but I think the balance is worth striking. We didn't start out criminalizing actions that don't cause immediate harm, but our experience has led us to do so in response to live threats.

Yes, I'm a very poor libertarian. More of a law and order type with small government leanings.

Harm and the Law

Hunter writes, regarding laws against driving after having drunk two glasses of beer, laws which he supports and which I oppose: "Harm is not the only basis for enacting a law and punishing violators. Deterrence and retribution are also bases for invoking the power of the state."

I respectfully disagree. There is no basis whatever for deterrence of or retribution for anything that does not harm anyone. Laws against merely drinking and driving do not pass the harm test when, as is true in most U.S. states today, no actual offense that could even potentially cause harm in itself is required for prosecution.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Law and Its Reasons

Harm is not the only basis for enacting a law and punishing violators. Deterrence and retribution are also bases for invoking the power of the state. The DUI laws are clearly based on a deterrence philosophy which has given every appearance of working.

Who knew that Alan's posts on wine would lead us inevitably down the path to drunk driving laws?!!!

Speaking of Alan, I was interested to hear he appeared on Larry Kudlow's show recently. We're running a very humble blog here. Most bloggers bend over backwards to let you know where they've appeared and where they're going. I've got the opposite problem with the old school policy wonks on this site!

Friday, December 17, 2004

DUI Laws—A Quibble or a Principle

I see no valid reason to have DUI laws at all, given that there can be no offense if there is no harm, and the harm is not a person's blood alcohol count. The harm is in whatever they may have done wrong while driving, regardless of what one might wish to attribute as the cause. It doesn't matter what caused the harmful behavior; if an act hurts other people and should have been averted, it is criminal regardless of one's blood alcohol count, or one's feelings toward a racial group or sexual behavior, for that matter. DUI laws make as little sense as hate crimes laws and are foolish and oppressive.

MSNBC Picks Up the Adult Stem Cell Story

The good Mr. Karnick blogged on this earlier, but since MSNBC is reporting the story, I thought I'd mention it again. Adult stem cells are helping people recover in amazing ways. We've seen none of that with embryonic stem cells. My wife told me she learned nothing remotely approaching ethics in courses by the name in medical school. Our apparent cluelessness about why its wrong to exploit embryos indicates that ethics may be another one of those areas where we publish more and more pretending to know less and less about what we once knew almost as a matter of course.

Here's the link to the story. Fascinating stuff.

Good Multiculturalism, Bad Multiculturalism

Christmas is here and yet again we have the usual wrangling over whether to publicly celebrate Christmas, celebrate all the potential holidays (including the very lame Kwanzaa), or celebrate a generic winter festival. I have a movie in my head where a British captain of some sort goes on an adventure with a Jew, a Hindu, and a Muslim. Maybe he's allied with all of them against some monstrous foe or perhaps fate simply causes their paths to cross. In the movie in my mind, I see each of the characters being who they are without a lot of apologies about it. That's good multiculturalism. Bad multiculturalism is when we think we are doing our friend a favor by ignoring our own traditions or patronizing them about theirs because we aren't threatened by it. The vital public square is the one where we learn to be who we are and strive to convince others in a vigorous, fair-minded, positive and honest manner. The patronizing forbearance we give a concocted celebration like Kwanzaa has got to go. Ditto the sanitization of the celebration of one of the most consequential events the world has ever known.

The Problem with Discretion

We may have arrived at the key point of the argument. I can think of at least one good reason why it is good to specify a particular blood alcohol level. First, we achieve a strong degree of deterrence. I haven't checked the studies, but I suspect the actual incidence of a person having several drinks and getting behind the wheel is significantly lower than it once was simply because the penalties are so great. Deterrence of that sort is important because we can't exactly trust drunks to know whether or not they are good drivers under the influence when decision time arrives.

Back to the question of God-given rights. When I ponder what rights my creator may have imbued me with at conception, the right to drive a car on government roads after a few drinks does not score very highly on the list. I agree that the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure is a good candidate, but when we get to that one we are simply quibbling over the details of how a DUI law should be implemented rather than arguing the greater issue of whether such a law should exist at all.

Who Rules the Roads

The reason that alcohol is treated this way is not the spectacular and unique nature of alcohol as a cause of accidents. Most accidents are in fact caused by inattention due to the driver doing something else while driving or lack of sleep. The reason that alcohol is treated in this way is that people can easily imagine it being uniquely dangerous when it is not. It is clear that alcohol can impair one's driving ability, but it is just as clear that a low IQ can have the same effect.

I think Sean's article answers all of your objections, so I won't go over them in any detail here.

The key is, as Sean argues, we can respond appropriately to criminally irresponsible driving without making any particular level of blood alcohol illegal. This is the way the law is supposed to work.

To Debate or Inebriate . . .

I didn't go so far as to say that building the roads gives the government plenary power over those who drive upon them, but I do believe the government is free to set reasonable conditions for their use. For instance, drivers must be somehow qualified as through a course or an exam leading to licensure. The expectation that one would operate a large and deadly machine while not impaired seems likewise reasonable. My rationale supports government making driving under the influence illegal and punishable. I would not go so far as to say government should have a blank check to search and seize, as with a road block sobriety test. I think that is too much. But is it acceptable to have highway officers on the alert for poor driving that may indicate inebriation? I would think the answer to that question is yes.

What Overcomes a Right?

Hunter's point that those who build the roads have the right to set the rules for their use has some resonance, but I cannot agree that building roads gives the government open-ended regulatory power over everything that happens on them. In particular, I should simply point out again that regardless of who paid for the roads, U.S. citizens have a right to be free of unjustified searches and seizures by their government, wherever they happen to be. A citizen has a right to enter a government building, for example, and if he is not making a disturbance and is not in a place restricted to authorized personnel, the government has no right to detain or otherwise search him, regardless of how much wine he had with his dinner. Just so for the roads.

Hunter argues that the government's confiscation of property and subsequent building and maintenance of roads overcomes this right, but it appears to me that the only one who can overcome a right is he who gave it. And if that Particular Source has spoken on the matter of drinking and driving, I have not yet heard it.

Libertarian Roads

Before I'm accused of lacking imagination in this debate over drunk driving, please understand that I would agree to a different view of things in a true small government or libertarian society. If the roads were privately financed, I would be very happy to see the owners of roads decide whether to make driving free from the influence of alcohol or drugs a matter of terms and conditions. Then, we could choose whether to take the road populated by those who agree not to drink and drive or the road (less traveled, perhaps) populated by those who would prefer not to accept such a limitation on their driving.

Hey, hey wait up a minute.

I won't take Mr. Karnick on when film is the issue, but public policy is a different matter. The drinking and driving laws, it seems to me, are a very good idea and make a lot of sense once you accept the parameters of government in our society. Who finances the roads upon which we drive? Answer: federal, state, and local governments. May they attach conditions, particularly those that bear directly upon safety concerns, to the use of those roads? I would have to say yes. Drunk driving can result in the imposition of massive negative externalities upon other people and the state. The ultimate negative externality would be, of course, death. Other possibilities include damage of others' property, damage of state property, creation of massive traffic jams, lost time, lost wages, diversion of public emergency vehicles and personnel from other potentially pressing situations, etc. In my view, the implementation of strong public disincentives against drunk driving seem eminently reasonable. Cato Institute types, bring rain upon my head!

Drinking and Driving

Sean Gabb, of the Libertarian Alliance, based in Great Britain, has written an excellent piece on "Why Drinking and Driving Should Not Be a Crime," published a while ago on his Free Life Commentary site. Sean has sent it to me because he notes that he is at present "the only person in the country willing to go on air and oppose the general hysteria over drinking and driving." His argument is a powerful one, based on the idea that the law should not use prior restraint but instead impose appropriate punishment for harmful actions—and driving a vehicle after drinking alcohol cannot reasonably be called harmful unless someone is actually harmed by it. Thus and in tandem, Gabb calls for far stronger penalties for those whose drinking or other bad driving choices result in negligent homicides and similar disasters.

Gabb points out that the law is despotic in its effect, as it gives the government free reign to stop people and question them about whether they have done something wrong, which no liberal regime would do, and certainly not as a habit. To me, this is a critical point.

Finally, Gabb notes that the law "has a double agenda, one open, the other hidden; and pursuit of the latter compromises pursuit of the former. Years of propaganda about the horrors of drinking and driving have tended to obscure the fact that alcohol is not the only cause of driving impairment. Rather as I have, most people have come to attach notions of extreme immorality to drinking before driving. Few such notions are attached to driving while tired or stressed, or after drinking lots of tea or coffee, or while in desperate need of a pee. Yet these are often at least as dangerous as driving slightly above the legal alcohol limit. And they are ignored.

". . . [M]uch of the propaganda against drinking and driving has nothing to do with reducing injuries to life and property, and everything to do with making it harder to enjoy a drink in good company. Macaulay once said of the 17th century puritans that they hated bearbaiting not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. His epigram applies equally well to the modern puritans, who bray about the horrors of driving after half a pint of lager while refusing even to consider the effects of half a gallon of black coffee."

Excellent article; read it here.

Conservative in the Welfare Machine

Bernard Chapin is an acquaintance from the world of online journalism and a pretty apt social critic. He occasionally writes about his work experience as a school psychologist in Chicago. His latest offering is raw and has an instinctual sense of truth about it. Read about it here.

Here's an excerpt to whet your appetite:

"Within a few months, I had turned from a person who completely accepted the value of the welfare state into a serious skeptic about the entire operation. Before August of 1998, I thought that the government dole kept a large amount of our population from starving and that abuses of the system were glaring exceptions. What I discovered was that abuses were intrinsic to govocharity’s service delivery. I found that those who received entitlements often felt entitled to receive just about everything else as well. I became so numbed to the belief systems of our parents that many statements, which I would have found shocking in the past, no longer surprised me."

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Good Word on Baylor and Robert Sloan

Sloan deserves plaudits for prodding Baylor down bold path
By William Murchison

For The Dallas Morning News' Texan of the Year, who else but – my boss? ---I insist on plainly advertising that relationship. That's for the sake both of intellectual honesty and of any reputation I enjoy for deadlier accuracy with a brickbat than a bouquet. I offer here a sizable bouquet – but let's not get carried away about it.

At my age, I can think of no self-serving requests to beg of my boss, Dr. Robert B. Sloan Jr., save one: his promise to persevere as president of Baylor University, where with grace and valor he worketh mighty works.

What a guy! Let me tell you how I know.

A few years ago, that notable Baptist institution on the Brazos invited me to become Distinguished Professor of Journalism. Me – a Texas U. and Stanford man. Worse, perhaps, a high-church Episcopalian whose idea of a good hymn-sing is Byrd overlaid with Bach.

Why the invitation? It was explained to me that Baylor, under Dr. Sloan, had just undertaken an ambitious 10-year program. The goal: Move Baylor into the top tier of American universities, strengthening, rather than diluting, the school's historic Christian commitment. Yes, and to this purpose I might have something to contribute.

Here was something to shock even an Episcopalian awake. Churches or religious folk founded some of the great American universities: Princeton, Harvard, Yale, et cetera. In time these schools shed their Christian identities like molted feathers. They made themselves over as secular universities, dedicated to secular truth, howsoever defined. That which the West long had acknowledged and reveled in – the intimacy of the connection between religious and worldly knowledge – got rudely shoved aside.

As Baylor's president since 1995, Dr. Sloan, a rangy West Texas Baptist who took his theological doctorate in Switzerland, presided over an extraordinary reassessment of Baylor's mission, one involving the whole Baylor community.

Yes, it was a wonderful university with wonderful traditions, the community agreed; but there were fresh wonders worth performing. The community could generally raise academic standards; recruit top students; emphasize civilization's classic texts; dramatically improve the physical plant (the new science building looks larger than some Texas counties); and with it all, "achieve a robust integration of Christian faith and the intellectual life." All this, and a lot more, by 2012.

The effort Dr. Sloan leads – well, nothing like it goes on anywhere else. If you take Christianity – or just the religious view of life – at all seriously, you have to be pulling for this amazing endeavor. A couple of months ago, most of the country's orthodox big-league Christian scholars, in a letter to Baylor regents, rejoiced at the university's opportunity "to become the only major university in America, clearly centered in the Protestant tradition, to embrace the full range of academic pursuits."

True, it is inscribed on tablets of stone that any reformer or project of reform will soon enough offend a number of the intended beneficiaries. Without even trying. It is so with Dr. Sloan and the 2012 project. At the thought of either, certain Baylor Bears go: Grrrrrrrr.

A goodly number, blaming their president for incurring debt, hiring too many explicit Christians or both, would like his head served up on a platter and say so – often, I'm sorry to report, in tones unlikely to be described as dulcet or even Christian.

---William Murchison is a contributing columnist to Viewpoints. His e-mail address is wmurchison@dallasnews.com.

Junior Partner Takedown!

For those of you who don't know, I refer to S.T. Karnick in our private correspondence as "the greatest living film critic in the English language." I mean it when I write it. As you might expect, I, a rather pedestrian critic of movies, am crushed by the slightest exertion of Mr. Karnick's corrective hand. Nevertheless, I shall insist on offering you my own humble efforts in this arena until Mr. Karnick decides to provide us with more review material of his own! He has enough knowledge to provide Trailing Edge Film Reviews to cover the next two centuries.

Another View of *National Treasure*

I liked National Treasure. I particularly enjoyed the film's use of the theme that Knowledge Is Power, which is unusual for action films and a highly welcome change. That was also a strong aspect of the recent TNT movie The Librarian. American action films tend to be about the use of force, rather than strategy, whereas in reality even the projection of force requires a wise use of strategy. Moreover, in a culture that often seems to laud willful ignorance, National Treasure honors knowledge and intellectual achievement. If only for that alone, I consider it well worth seeing.

Why We Should Care About Foxhunting

My article in today's Tech Central Station deals with a subject with which few of us have any direct experience: foxhunting. It is an important matter, however, for Americans and other nations as well as the English, because the assumptions behind Great Britain's recently passed ban on foxhunting are common elsewhere in the world, and are quite toxic. The ban, like so many other laws of our time, reflects the Left's tendency to combine egalitarianism with hedonism. Together, these two notions create a good deal of trouble in the world. Read about it here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Trailing Edge Film Review: National Treasure

This film was not particularly well-received by critics, but it has done extremely well at the box office. Given that I wanted to see a movie and decided not to see the only other viable option, Blade: Trinity, I went with the popular taste. The decision, was a mistake. Not a huge one. I only lost five bucks (student discount) and a couple of hours. Besides, I was mildly entertained. However, I often found myself thinking of concrete situations in my personal life when I should have been transported to Bruckheimer's Nicholas Cage theme park. (By the way, I have decided John Voight has almost certainly had a nose job somewhere down the line. It doesn't fit his face. Too small.)

First, the film is like an advertisement for the Freemasons. Much was made of the fact that the Lutheran financial group Thrivent financed the film about their church's founder. I have to wonder if some Masons got together and paid for a whoppo product placement here. They are the far-seeing good guys instead of shadowy figures who finance strange temples in your home town.

(minor spoilers here)
Second, the premise is beyond unbelievable. While the Founders were busy securing basic liberties, they were also engaged in a monumental scheme to hide an enormous treasure from the world, ostensibly until it would be ready to receive it. I might have liked it better if we'd had a corny ending like, "The treasure was liberty, son. The treasure was liberty." Instead, there's a giant museum treasure that was inexplicably splitting time with the American Revolution as key projects to be pursued by visionary Renaissance men.

Finally, I read many comparisons of this film to the Indiana Jones films. Not an apt comparison other than the fact that treasure is frequently involved. Stakes are quite a bit lower here. Everybody is pretty much out to find a big treasure. In the Indy flicks, the treasures are sought to accomplish some much larger purpose, like to rule the world via some supernatural means. The bigger disconnect between this film and the Spielberg giganto-hits is ACTION. National Treasure is definitely lacking in really interesting, pulse-pounding action.

My advice. Skip it.

A Christmas Mystery

The UPN hourlong weekly drama show Veronica Mars, produced by Rob Thomas, is a good deal more than just another TV show featuring attractive young performers pretending to be teenagers of various levels of family wealth (though it is certainly that, too). The program has an interesting and fairly innovative mystery angle, with the show's title character solving crimes, usually falling far short of murder, both with and without her private-detective father. Her father, the PI, is a balding middle-aged man who, like Paul Drake in Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels, looks much more like an accountant than a detective.

Last night's episode, "An Echolls Family Christmas," presented two separate mysteries, one done in puzzle form and the other in private-eye style, plus references to an ongoing subplot regarding the murder of Veronica's best friend, some amusing satire of Hollywood, a pointed and fair look at class and race issues, and a Christmas background.

Mysteries and Advent are two things I greatly enjoy, though on different levels, of course, and this episode integrated them quite well. Veronica makes the point, early in the episode, that Christmas is supposed to be about the birth of Christ, and the show is wisely content to leave it at that. Point taken, and thank you very much for mentioning it.

Veronica's solution to the mystery is almost completely fair-played and was quite satisfying. (In mystery fiction, fair play means that the reader or viewer is given all the clues necessary to solve the puzzle, though in most cases one would have to be a genius to achieve it, especially if, as in last night's case, you are not expecting the producers to make it a fairplay puzzle and hence don't keep a sharp eye out for the clues).

The program is well worth a look, and I hope that it will last out the season so that we will be able to see the main plot elements resolved.

An Interview with a Visionary

I'm about to go interview Dr. Robert Sloan, President of Baylor University. He's busy transforming the institution and I'm writing a book chapter on his leadership. Here's a nice excerpt from an interview he did with World Magazine:

RELATED: Interview with Baylor president Robert Sloan WORLD interviewed university president Robert Sloan about the troubles at Baylor and his vision for a distinctly Christian university by The Editors

WORLD: What do you say to people who insist that the two goals of Baylor 2012—being a top-tier university and being a distinctly Christian university—are contradictory?

RS: I think they've bought into a false view of reality. There are many who think that Christianity has no intellectual content, that it is purely a matter of emotion or isolated spirituality. My initial response is to encourage people to look at great minds like Augustine, Martin Luther, John Milton, or a host of others. They made powerful contributions to the Western intellectual legacy by any standard. Some of the world's great thinkers have been both Christian and scientific in their approach to investigating the world: Pascal, Isaac Newton, Jonathan Edwards, John Polkinghorne.

WORLD: What progress have you made so far in being a distinctly Christian university?

RS: We've always been a Christian university, but the difference is that we are explicitly seeking to accomplish the integration of faith and scholarship. . . . I think that's why we've been able to attract some of the distinguished faculty who have come to Baylor. They want an undivided life. They can have it here.

WORLD: Why are you encountering so much opposition?

RS: At some point, the academy overreacted to Christian dominance in the universities and completely reversed course to view the faith as irrelevant to higher education and research. Thus, we have an artificial separation of faith and reason. There are plenty of Christians who accept that split and have been trained to do so. To them, when we talk about ideas like integrating faith and learning, we seem to be speaking an alien tongue.

WORLD: Is this purely a worldview conflict or are there other issues?

RS: No, there are definitely other issues. [One] issue has to do with Baylor's historic Baptist identity. When factions fought over the future of the Southern Baptist Convention some years ago, that fight left tremendous sensitivity to the issue of who qualifies as a faithful Christian and who is honoring Scripture, with many on our campus feeling that their faith has been impugned.

WORLD: Given the faculty resistance to your vision of Christian scholarship, can a student coming to Baylor today find the integration of faith and learning that you are envisioning?

RS: Absolutely. . . . While it's perhaps true that we don't have the sort of unanimity of a college that requires faculty to sign faith statements, we still offer something very distinctive. Baylor students get the experience of coming to a major conference university where they can also find a Christian faculty. —•

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Another Left-Wing Dilemma: Scientific Selectivity

Reader Greg McConnell got right into the spirit of our little game. Check this out:

How about the fact that the same people who get so giddy about the earth being 4,500,000,000 years old and spread the "gospel" of evolution and science as being the key to understanding are the same people who warn about environmental doomsdays based on datapoints collected over the past decade relative to the past hundred years?

In other words, these people think they can"understand" the earth's weather patterns based on collecting data points for 0.00000022% of the earth's existence. Wouldn't that be like me turning to page 500 of a random, unknown novel, glancing at a single period, and then looking you straight in the face as I"explain" what's going to happen on page 501? I mean, heck, upon further review you might reply to me, "You dummy, that wasn't even a period. It's an ellipsis."Heheh... just a thought.

Keep the examples of left-wing doublethink coming. We might get an NRO or American Spectator column out of these. I promise to give credit to all who help. Just send email to me here.

Golden Globes Stiff "The Passion"

Mel Gibson's masterwork The Passion received no nominations for the Golden Globes. I'm retaliating by posting S.T. Karnick's review of the film in full from National Review Online:

Violence to Scripture?Viewing The Passion.

“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried."

Those words from the Apostles' Creed are what Mel Gibson's new film, The Passion of the Christ, is all about. Especially the suffering. As such, it is an appalling and difficult film for many Christians to endure, and it must make unbelievers and those of other faiths very uncomfortable indeed. For the violence portrayed in this film is done toward a man whom Christians cannot but see as utterly innocent of any crime whatever, and whom unbelievers must just as surely view as innocent of any crime worth punishing. For what is the problem with a man claiming to be God if there is no God anyway, or if we are all gods, or if God is merely a distant presence who started the world up and subsequently left it to go its own way? No one deserves the kind of punishment meted out to this puzzling but quite obviously benevolent soul.

That, of course, is exactly the point Gibson is making. Moreover, and equally importantly, he makes it perfectly clear exactly who is responsible for this suffering. We are. All of us. Every human being who ever lived, Gibson's film maintains, is responsible for this suffering. Jesus Christ (portrayed impressively by Jim Caviezel) tells his disciples at the beginning of the film, in the Garden of Gethsemane, that they cannot go where he is about to go. He alone, we know, will step forward to pay the price for sin. He alone will suffer for the world's rejection of their Creator and of the Savior he sent. He alone qualifies, for he alone is without sin.

This is, however, by no means an ethereal story, in the hands of the passionate director of Braveheart and guiding force behind The Patriot. In dramatizing the last day of the earthly life of Jesus as a man, Gibson typically includes another major character in each important sequence, to establish a point of view for the audience. Often this is Mary, Jesus' mother, and Maia Morgenstern's depiction of her is duly sensitive, sophisticated, and compelling. The audience easily shares her sympathy for her son and her horror at what is done to him. Another character often included is Satan, evocatively portrayed by Rosalinda Celentano. The androgynous, seedy, rotting Adversary continues to tempt and taunt Jesus throughout the film.
These two females provide an evident, and perhaps too obvious, contrast of responses to the reality of the Christ. In doing so, they bring the matter back to the viewer, to the choice of how each of us will respond to the life and temporary death of Jesus. This makes the film much more than a simple theater of cruelty.

It is, in fact, the central point of the film. Audience members interviewed about this film have noted that the brutality toward Jesus rather stunned them, and most critics have felt compelled to stress their discomfort with the amount of violence in the film. Roger Ebert exemplified this opinion well in his Chicago Sun-Times review of the picture, characterizing The Passion of the Christ as the most violent film he had ever seen.

With all due respect to a daily critic's occasional need to resort to hyperbole, that is simply a ridiculous statement. I have seen plenty of films more violent than this one, and I'm certain that Ebert has also.

What I have not seen, however, is a motion picture in which the violence is shown so intimately and is so sympathetic toward the victim of the brutality.

Nor, of course, have I ever seen a film in which cruelty of this severity is inflicted on an individual who claims to be the only truly innocent person who ever walked the earth, and indeed one who openly stated that he was sent from God to teach us what our Creator expected of us not only in our actions but in the inmost recesses of our hearts, and who set out to practice exactly what he preached (which was clearly impossible for a mere human being, which, of course, he himself argued that he was not, being both man and God), and whose life and statements all indicate that he was exactly who and what he said he was. Nor have I seen a portrait of such incredible violence done to one who claimed, quite plausibly given the assumptions behind the character so depicted, that the suffering he would undergo was a direct result of the viewer's own obstinacy and selfishness.

No, that is something I have not seen before; and that, I think, is what so profoundly disturbs both audiences and critics about The Passion of the Christ. We are implicated in the violence. We are not just viewers of this brutality; we are the very cause of it. Gibson makes this point cinematically by having the bloody, scourged, innocent Son of God often tumble toward the camera, lurching toward the viewer, bringing his agony directly to us.

Yes, the film is violent, terribly so. Pilate has Jesus caned, followed by an appalling scourging (which the script is careful to establish went far beyond the bounds of what the procurator intended). The scourging ends only when a Roman officer scolds the soldiers for their excessive brutality. The soldiers then take Jesus indoors and fashion a crown of thorns for him, which they crush down on his head forcefully, a moment of utterly astonishing cruelty and sadism which vividly and powerfully recreates the event the Gospels recount. The soldiers then continue whipping him while he sits in the dungeon, enjoying themselves immensely.

As Jesus subsequently stands with Pilate before the people, his body is covered with ghastly welts and open wounds inflicted by the vicious beatings. Blood drips from all over him. His condition is truly horrifying to see, and upon seeing him so mistreated, we cannot but feel some small portion of his misery. And Gibson refuses to cut away from him while others debate his fate, forcing us to confront the facts before us.

Nonetheless, rather less of the film is taken up with the violence and brutality toward the Christ than many critics are suggesting. During the atrocious flogging by the Roman guards, for example, the director cuts away from Jesus to Mary, and he follows her through the courtyard and concentrates on her reactions and experiences while we hear the lashes striking home in the background. He certainly leaves the scene of the beating not a moment too soon for most audience members, but he could, after all, have stayed to show the entire thing. Yet he did not. Moreover, during the scenes of torment he cuts away several times to flashbacks that connect aspects of Christ's suffering to moments of his life that once again draw the viewer to consider his own unrighteousness and consequent complicity in the suffering.

The same effect is created by the many shots in which Jesus is seen from the point of view of the mob. The viewer is part of that crowd, as responsible as they are. This aspect of the visualization, by the way, should be a more than sufficient response to those who have claimed that the film blames a particular group of people for the death of the Christ. It clearly establishes, in both dialogue and visuals, that we are all responsible for Christ's suffering and death.

The treatment of Simon the Cyrene also contributes to this effect. Simon goes from initially being concerned about his own reputation, as we would be and indeed almost always are, imploring the crowd to remember that he is innocent of any crime and is being forced to carry the cross. Soon, however, he becomes the only reasonably effective protector of Jesus, demanding that the guards stop whipping their prisoner or Simon will refuse to carry the cross any farther. They assent, to get the journey over with as quickly as possible. We would like to think that we would do the same.

All of these elements interrupt the viewer's witnessing of the violence toward Jesus, and all contribute to the film's effect of placing the responsibility for this suffering squarely on each member of the audience.

In addition, Jesus asks God the Father more than once to forgive his tormentors. If he can endure this unimaginable suffering and still not call down fire from Heaven, can we not at least be strong enough to watch it in a movie? The notion that we are too weak even to see a recreation of what Jesus managed actually to endure, and which he underwent without enmity toward his tormentors, is in fact utterly grotesque and fundamentally insulting in the lack of fortitude it assumes of us.

Hence, one could perhaps be forgiven for wondering about certain critics' likely motives in so "warning" potential audiences without sufficiently stressing the reason for this violence. Certainly they cannot wish to spare people the very experience of complicity in Christ's suffering that Gibson takes such pains to establish, can they? For that is the likely effect of their warnings — that some people will avoid the film as too intense. The Passion of the Christ is forceful indeed, and that power makes the film undeniably difficult to endure, but such intensity in films is precisely what these very same critics are usually most likely to praise.

The only potentially useful argument remaining against the aesthetic of this film, then, is that the violence simply does not fit the story. I should argue quite the contrary. The violence in The Passion of the Christ is entirely effective and perfectly appropriate. I shall never read or hear the Biblical passages regarding the scourging of Jesus without recalling these images which vividly show how truly horrendous it must have been.

As Gibson's dramatization makes clear, Pilate felt forced to make the scourging as dreadful as possible, because he wanted to spare the man's life while still satisfying the blood lust of the enormous, unruly mob of locals within his very gates who were baying for this enigmatic prophet's hide. This is a highly plausible interpretation of the scripture text. That the Roman soldiers who inflict the punishment go far beyond Pilate's orders in an orgy of sadistic joy is a consequence of the madness that has been set loose in the City of Peace, and it, too, is a reasonable inference from the scriptural account.

Certainly the treatment of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ is almost unbearably brutal to watch, as it surely was in reality, but Gibson does not allow the depiction of it ever to decay to the level of mere spectacle. The joy that the Christ's tormentors take in inflicting pain on him is not something any reasonable human being can share, and is in fact a further indictment of the viewer: if we are responsible for his torment, we are guilty of all of it, for none of it was just. Not one bit.

There are, moreover, positive moments in the film. An important one is the portrayal of Jesus astounding willingness to forgive his enemies even on the point of death and after suffering stupendous agony he did not deserve in the slightest. In addition, some of the visuals are startling in their beauty, inspired by medieval paintings redolent of great piety and faith. The overhead shot of Jesus as he expires on the cross is achingly beautiful, surely as close as mere cinema can come to being appropriate to the moment.

There are other hauntingly lovely images. After Jesus dies, a single tear from Heaven, falling to earth, creates the upheaval that rends the temple veil in two. It is a beautiful and moving moment. Gibson then cuts to the temple, which the quake has rendered a jumble. Caiaphas looks horrified, and Gibson refrains from stating whether this is because of the damage to the temple, a fear that he will suffer injury in the earthquake, or a dawning awareness that he has led in the perpetration of a truly incomparable evil. One suspects that all three are true, which makes evident the complexity (and fairness) of Gibson's representation of Caiaphas.

Finally, Gibson shows Jesus in the tomb, sitting beside the slab on which his burial cloths rest, as the resurrected Lord then rises and walks out of sight. Here the director briefly depicts the events mentioned in the Apostles' Creed shortly after those that compose the bulk of the film: "On the third day, he rose again from the dead." The scene is inspiring and something of a relief, but it is quite brief.

Some critics and audience members have wondered why Gibson chose to give so little attention to this part of the story, but I think the answer should be perfectly obvious to anyone who wishes to see it. Certainly there is much more to say about the life of Christ than Gibson's film manages to express. And we are perfectly free to watch other movies that capture these matters with appropriate reverence and artistry. I should strongly recommend that we all do so, and I rather suspect that Mel Gibson would agree. And frankly, I have found many of these films to be much more enjoyable than the one currently under discussion.

But that kind of thing is not what Mel Gibson set out to create. His film is utterly single-minded and resolute.

It is dreadful. It is difficult to watch. We do not want to see it. We should not want to see it. We cannot want to see it. And that, again, is exactly Gibson's point. There is a reason that we do not want to see this. We do not want to accept our complicity in this horror. We do not want to accept responsibility for it. We just want to be left alone.

This film is meant to be like the spikes that are so vividly and horrifyingly driven into the Christ's hands and feet as he is fastened to the cross. As Gibson portrays the scene, blood spurts up horrifyingly from Jesus palms, just as it surely must have done two millennia ago. The Passion of the Christ is as pointed as those spikes. It does one thing. It implicates the viewer in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ nearly 2,000 years ago, and it does so with undeniable power.