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.

Politicize Your Spending!

A rather funny article from today's Chicago Tribune notes that many angry Leftists (sorry: redundancy!) are looking to put their money where their politics are by patronizing retailers and services that support Left-wing causes, institutions, and politicians.

Organizations such as Choose the Blue and Buy Blue provide all the information you need in order to spend your blue-county cash on only the most lefward businesses—or to boycott them, for that matter. What a perfect combination of Baby Boomer obsessions: politics and consumerism!

As with wine, I'll buy red, thank you very much.

Party Wine

I mentioned UCLA law professor Steve Bainbridge earlier, but neglected to mention that he opines on wine -- a topic far more interesting than law (http://www.professorbainbridgeonwine.com/). If you visit his blog, tell Steve he owes us a visit too.

I recently regretted missing a Christmas Party, until I recalled that they usually put out big bottles of mediocre wine. They don’t even save money that way. I’m an aspiring wine snob too, but also a cheapskate. Fortunately, there are some good white wines available in the handy and cheaper 1.5 liter size.

People prefer white to red by about 3-to-1 in my experience, so the two-in-one 1.5 liter size makes sense for whites. Figure one of these big jugs serves four unless you’ve invited Bainbridge (who is too classy to drink this swill) or me (likely to guzzle more than my share).

The best 1.5 liter white is R.H. Phillips Sauvignon Blanc at about $13. Second best is Clos du Bois chardonnay -- about $16 at Costco or Total Wine. The best value is Alice White, a chard from Australia at $10 (and the house white at Morton’s steak house).

Reds are trickier. There are decent big bottles of shiraz from Australia, merlot/cab blends from Concha y Toro, and even generic Beaujolais. Aside from Beaujolais and Pinot Noir, however, we don’t keep reds in the fridge. As a result, opened bottles of red go bad in a few days -- even if you pump the air out with a $25 electric gadget from Hammacher Schlemer (sold out for Christmas). So I usually buy reds only in a regular size. Here too, there is at least one big bargain.

A regular-sized bottle of Delicato shiraz sells for five or six bucks and gets an amazing 90-point rating from Wine Spectator. It’s a very good drop, almost a “wow” wine. If you are lucky enough to live near Trader Joe, their Purple Moon shiraz is the same thing for $3.99, though I wonder if the family keeps the best stuff for their label. Their family name is Indelicato, actually, but that would sound too much like an “indelicate” wine.

If you’re not immediately impressed with any of these, keep drinking. The wine at the bottom of a bottle always tastes better than the wine at the top.

Tax Exemption vs. Tax Deduction

A Dec.14 Wall Street Journal editorial “Free Speech vs. Tax Code” is understandably worried that some 60 nonprofits are under investigation for political advocacy, with the implicit threat of losing their tax-exempt status. “We’re not convinced that prohibitions are needed,” says the editorial, “or that a tax exemption for a charity constitutes a subsidy.” Having started down the road of regulating political debate after the Nixon era, under the guise of “campaign reform,” the anti-democratic impulses are indeed becoming rather frightening. But I want to make a different point.

What is truly important to genuinely charitable organization is not tax exemption per se, but the ability to receive tax deductible contributions. This is a relatively unique instance in which a deductible expense for the person writing the check is not treated as taxable income for the organization receiving the check. This is a violation of tax symmetry – normally a sound principal of good taxation.

No genuinely charitable organization has any profits to tax, so tax exemption does not matter a bit. All income is devoted to the charitable purpose, either immediately or through an endowment. A nonprofit has no profits.

Problems arise, however, where an organization is engaged in a mix of charitable and commercial activities. The AARP sells financial services in competition with taxable firms, the YMCA sells health club services in competition with taxable firms, and not-for-profit hospitals and colleges compete with taxable hospitals and colleges.

If the Journal editorial had said, “We’re not convinced that a tax deduction for charity constitutes a subsidy” -- rather than a “tax exemption” – then they would be on firmer ground. If Smith gives away half his income to Jones, then Smith no longer has that income to tax. Jones has it. What is a deductible cost to Smith should normally be taxable income to Jones, even if Jones is really a charity (in which case it won’t matter).

To exempt earnings from the sale of services from taxation simply because an organization is “doing well by doing good” is an open invitation to tax avoidance. To allow the government to censor political critics by changing their tax status is an open invitation to political abuse. Those are two big issues, but it is best to keep the distinction clear.

Many self-styled tax reformers are curiously eager to limit or end any deduction for charitable contributions. Yet they rarely tackle less-defensible business tax exemptions for many large service providers simply because the capital of those tax-exempt enterprises was financed by gifts and debt rather than equity.

Monday, December 13, 2004

S.T. Branching Out . . .

This website's founding member, one S.T. Karnick, has written for just about every conservative magazine there ever was. Lately, he's begun to spread out into the Christian market in a big way. Here's his second piece for Books and Culture in just the last couple of months. He reviews the latest Tom Wolfe blockbuster act of socio-journalistic novel writing. Yes, it's I Am Charlotte Simmons.

More Liberal Dilemmas

1. Should the porcine prince of propaganda be required to pay a fat tax on junk food?

2. What if a gay gene is discovered and abortions are performed when parents find out their child will be gay? Should those abortions be outlawed?

3. If the majority of Americans qualify for some sort of affirmative action benefits as females or minorities, do white males become a discriminated-against minority?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Karnickian Riff

The multicultural relativism argument took a giant hit in the late nineties when the practice of female genital mutilation/circumcision began to be publicized. I remember innocently observing to a super liberal law professor that arguments for relativism began to look like pretty pale beer against such suffering. He clinched up a bit and ended the conversation rather quickly. This highlights left-wing dilemmas that someone should be documenting somewhere. I can think of a few.

1. Should you side with the non-western, third world practitioners of female circumcision or the feminists who condemn them?

2. Would you have supported the expansive reading of the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution adopted by FDR if the president had instead been a Ronald Reagan type itching to reform the economy through free-market measures?

3. Would you back the radically pro-choice president or the victims of his sexually harassing behavior?

There are more, I am sure. If you have ideas, email me here.


Can YOU Condemn THIS?

A fascinating, heartbreaking story from the Chicago Tribune, available here, details the prevalence of child marriages in so-called developing countries such as Ethiopia. Girls as young as seven years of age are promised to much-older men as brides.

Beyond the simple tragic nature of the situation, to those of us in the civilized nations of the West, two things are particularly interesting about this.

One: the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has not only condoned the custom but encouraged it. This is another vivid example of how Christian churches corrupt themselves by attempting to accommodate customs and traditions that are utterly antithetical to Christian principles. This is simply a disgrace, and no excuses are acceptable.

Two: this practice is another thumb in the eye of multiculturalist relativism, the popular but now declining philosophy of the West for the past half-century. The father of a seven-year-old Ethiopian girl about to be married to a much older man is quoted as saying, "I know some people say this is uncivilized. But they don't live here. So how can they judge?"

A more perfect summation of the Western argument for multiculturalism and ethical relativism could hardly be imagined.

The Inevitable Distortions of the Press

G. K. Chesterton noted that the press inevitably present a distorted picture of things because commercial considerations, and simple human curiosity, cause them to write about murders and corruption rather than happy homes and honesty. The latter are not news, after all, because they are so ordinary. But the fact that they are both ordinary and not news means that the news inherently creates a deceptive picture of society.

This has become something of a truism since Chesterton first said it, but it is always important to bear this fact in mind when evaluating the news of the day. For example, the recent talk about sports scandals, such as the NBA players-fans fight in Detroit and the baseball steroid revelations, should not be allowed to distort our evaluation of the moral condition of today's professional athletes. Here, too, though there are many, many problems, there is much good. Consider, for example, this article from the Chicago suburban newspaper the Daily Southtown.