Saturday, January 22, 2005

Danny Boy, Forget The Pipes And Hang Around

In honor of Daniel, our preacher friend who always contributes delightful and insightful comments to enhance our work, I offer the following reminiscence.

Back in 1992 and 1993, I was asked twice to spend the weekend in Manhattan to be part of a lecture program. The friend who invited me lived in cramped quarters, so he arranged for me to stay at the capacious home of a Jewish philanthropist named A. C. Nussbaum who, if I am not mistaken, has since sold that apartment and moved to Israel.

Interestingly enough, both times I was there, a year apart, he had the same house guest staying the next room over. This was a young man named Daniel, whom I had met about a decade earlier. Daniel is a friend of my first cousin, who introduced me to him circa 1982. Since then, I had often run into him and exchanged pleasantries.

In fact, one night in 1991 or so, I had encountered him in a restaurant in Brooklyn, at which time he told me that he had recently been divorced. I offered him some briefly mumbled sympathies. Being a divorcee myself, people expect me to empathize and draw comparisons to my own experience, but I am fairly adept at avoiding that unless cornered.

Back to 1992 and 1993, when I remeet Daniel at Nussbaum's. He more or less joined me in my schedule, walking me to various neighborhood places of interest and then attending my lectures. Additionally, we spent quite a bit of time conversing back at the Nussbaums' apartment.

What emerged was that he was still very much enamored of his ex-wife and simultaneously despairing over ever finding someone else. I spoke to him a great deal in an effort to encourage him and help to rebuild his confidence.

Some years passed and I was living in Cincinnati. One night in 1995 or so the phone rings and it's Daniel.

"You have no idea how hard I had to work to track down your phone number. But I felt that I had to call you to tell you the good news that I'm engaged to be married to a wonderful woman. I'm very happy and I wanted you to know that I feel that it is only because of what you told me that I had the strength to keep looking and keep hoping."

"Really? What did I tell you that you found so meaningful?"

He reminded me that I had shared with him the words of the Midrash, which says that there are three characters in Scriptures who saw their world built, then destroyed, and then rebuilt again. These are Noah, Job and Daniel. Noah lived in the antediluvian world, experienced the devastation of the Flood, and then rebuilt the world along with his children. Job succeeded in building up wealth and a family only to lose it all, yet he later managed to recreate both, even exceeding his prior attainments. Daniel lived as a young boy in the last days of the First Temple, saw it destroyed and was exiled in Babylon; as an older man, he was able to see the Second Temple standing.

"Since your name is Daniel," I told my friend, "perhaps this will be your fate."

Now he is happily married with at least one child by his current wife.


Afflatus Or Succubus?

Lately I have been pondering a great deal upon the nature and quality of inspiration, particularly poetic.

The Talmud's distinction between psalms that begin "A song for David" and those that begin "For David, a song" is fascinating. When the inspiration comes first, the song precedes the name. When the person has to begin writing before the inspiration is quite there, then the name comes first.

It would be interesting to hear from other writers about the times the spirit moves them to write as opposed to the times they are obligated to start writing without being yet in the mood.

Christianity Today Article on Baylor Is Up

I had about 40 minutes to write this piece for Christianity Today on Friday. Check it out.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Chatty Lawrence

I think Lawrence Henry of American Spectator Online is a magnificent conversational author. Although I've emailed him several times, I hold out hope of meeting him for a meal and perhaps a cigar at some point in the future (even though I hate cigars). Here's his latest on napping.

Baylor President Sloan Resigns

Robert Sloan has resigned the presidency of Baylor University. Christianity Today called and asked me to do an online piece about it.

The good news is that Sloan will become Chancellor and will continue to push the university's revolutionary vision. The not so small world of Christian academicians will be watching and waiting to see who will become the next President. Those opposed to the vision pretended that Dr. Sloan was the problem. We'll see how their strategy evolves now that he has abandoned the thankless task of being a lightning rod.


Some Shameless Self-Promotion

Here is a link (registration required) to my latest op-ed, from today's Los Angeles Times. It deals with the federal pricing scheme for pharmaceuticals for many federally-funded health programs, that of the Department of Veterans Affairs in particular. What many call a "negotiation" is actually a price control regime. That it is The Children who will suffer from the future reduced availability of drugs---caused by current price controls and attendant reductions in R&D---has not stopped the Lefties from advocating such "negotiation." Comments welcome.

http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-zycher21jan21,1,5744479.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinions

Speaking of El Rushbo . . .

I wrote a couple of interesting (yes, I do say so myself) columns about the Maharishi for American Spectator Online during the controversy that followed the talker's comments about Donovan McNabb. The short version is that he was wrong about McNabb, but the witch hunt atmosphere that followed was overblown and a symptom of a society that has lost its sense of real sin. You can read the first one here and the second one here. Here's an excerpt from the first piece:

I have a theory about why Rush’s brief remarks have unleashed so much antagonism. Many will believe it’s just about liberals trying to bring a big conservative down. That’s part of the story, but there’s something larger underneath. Every society must have taboos. We need to know the difference between sins and virtues so we can order our lives and live in community. In short, knowing what is right and wrong is the key to social order.

America has witnessed a radical re-ordering of our conception of what is good and bad. Socially useful taboos like unmarried cohabitation, having children out of wedlock, adultery, consumption of pornography, and divorce have all been transformed into acceptable activities through a powerful shove from the cultural elite and correspondingly widespread practice. G.K. Chesterton once famously complained about the rich preaching their vices to the poor and introducing them to ruin. He was right. The old sins aren’t sins any more and we’ve paid a certain price for that. Just ask any child of a single mother who hosts a series of transient males in the home.

But sins don’t disappear and leave a vacuum. We have a moral sense and we will exercise it on something. The ever-considerate cultural elite did not leave us empty-handed. Commandments they destroyed have been replaced by others more favorable to people of fashion. The sin that now stands center stage is the improperly crafted negative remark about anything having to do with race, gender, sexual orientation, or non-dominant religions.

When some unlucky soul crosses that line, it’s over. I’ll never forget the display of mass hatred and judgment I witnessed at a game between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves when John Rocker ran onto the field. The anger and disapproval that cascaded from the stands was a palpable force that lasted the entire time Rocker was on the field. Not surprisingly, the young reliever (beyond redemption, apparently) performed poorly and left the game fairly quickly. I was embarrassed to be there.

While the effect of this dynamic on individuals is devastating, the implications for public policy are worse. We now seem incapable of rational discourse. Instead, debate has been replaced by a series of hostile encounters and gotcha moments. We don’t talk to each other so much as we circle warily and look for a moment of weakness so we can gain leverage.

The cost is too high. We should refuse to pay it and look for another, more useful way to employ our moral judgment. The founders envisioned the clash of factions and a marketplace of ideas where truth would eventually emerge. Let’s have that instead of the despicable elementary school game that seems to be the rule of the day.

Judgment To Rush

Speaking of talk show hosts, I always laugh when people tell me that they don't listen to Rush Limbaugh because he is arrogant. Rush and I have mutual friends, and no one feels that he is the least bit arrogant as a person. These people are unable to distinguish performance schtick from reality. Rather pathetic.

A cute thing happened to Rush today - twice. He created a Spoonerism. Trying to say faith-based, he twice said face-bathed. He caught himself and for the rest of that discussion he enunciated 'faith-based' very gingerly.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

A City Of Two Tales

Well, I sensed this morning that today would be a banner day for me, a personal 'day of inauguration' if you will. Sure enough, I succeeded in finishing a short story, fairly long at 11,000 words, that is #6 in a book that is projected to include 12 stories.

Remember, folks, I'm counting on you to get behind me if I get it sold and make my way around this great country on a book tour. The weather is still gorgeous in Miami, so I guess that we should push ahead today and start Story #7....

The Conversation Killer . . .

Ross Douthat once said the most shocking thing you can say to an atheist/agnostic is not that you believe in God, but rather, that you believe in demons. On his weblog, he uses the thought to introduce three books on the subject.

M.Scott Peck wrote two of them. He broached the idea in People of the Lie, his study of evil. The second is his final book A Glimpse of the Devil. I was so fascinated by People I had to pick up longtime Vatican insider Malachi Martin's book Hostage of the Devil, which absolutely makes the worst bedtime reading imaginable. Martin's accounts of real-life exorcisms are anything but Hollywood.

Peck's early account was far less graphic, but still chilling. He apparently decided to study exorcisms scientifically from his perch as a psychiatrist. The new book is the result. If anyone has read it, I'd be interested in feedback. I'm going to give in to the impulse to buy it soon.

Bush's Way

Michael Tackett provides a very good analysis of George Bush's governance style in today's Chicago Tribune. Despite the president's support for some traditionally Democrat items such as Medicare prescription drug coverage, Tackett argues that Bush is anything but a compromiser. He quotes University of Chicago political science professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell:

"This is a president that came into the White House, and many on the progressive left thought, `He is coming in by the narrowest of margins. Even if we don't like this guy, we have nothing to fear.' . . . But that is not how he governed at all. He always had a sense of destiny. This is a president who personally and theologically thinks he has a mission."

Tackett notes that Bush tends to decide what he wants and then rely on strong support from Republicans in Congress to get it. The writer expects Bush to suffer from the types of problems most second-term presidents have, however, as competitors in the president's own party break with him in an effort to prove their independence and stake positions for their own presidential hopes.

This phenomenon may be exacerbated, I would add, by the fact that Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, does not serve as an anointed successor. However, Tackett notes that although Bush's will surely will be tested during the next four years, the weakness of the Democrats' opposition will tempt him to "swing for the fences," as Tackett quotes former Clinton chief of staff Mack McLarty as saying.

The article makes a good case for the notion that Bush is rather more complex than we tend to think.

Buckley, I've Got a Job For You

Bill Buckley's National Review did a great service for the conservative movement by reading out anti-Semites, over-zealous John Birchers (who thought Eisenhower was red -- a Commie for you teeny boppers who think red is right-wing), and Ayn Rand (for whom the dollar sign was a holy symbol). It's time for someone to do the same with Michael Savage.

He's on my drive time radio and his brand of conservative talk just leaves me feeling dirty. He plays on racial fears and punches the immigration button with way too much enthusiasm. He's also not exactly polite when it comes to discussing the questions of sexual orientation. This is the guy who told a critical gay caller that he "should get AIDS and die."

If we are going to have any chance of preserving the best of our culture, we'll do it by engaging in what Robert George calls "the strongest possible lines of argument." That would rule out constant resort to demagoguery. Let's be done with this character.

Amber Bird Has Spoken

It's not possible to conceive more beautiful weather. It is 70 degrees and sunny in a perfectly clear sky this fine Miami morn.

Everything looks so beautiful... the flowers... the palm trees letting us all nestle in their gentle shade... everything looks so... amber!

What a day this will be. A day of life and love and smiles and joy and creativity, a day to relish, a day to remember.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

All The Noose That's Fit To Print

No greater testimony to the cultural power of The Reform Club may be adduced than today's Miami Herald. One day after the great Hunter Baker raised the specter of a Jeb presidency in these precincts, the Herald, in a paroxysm of dread, felt compelled to post the following as its front-page lead headline: BUSH FLORIDA BUDGET UP 4 BILLION FOR 2005.

And this subhead (believe it or not!): New Plan Cuts Taxes For Wealthy, Services For Needy; Raises Tuition.

Hunter said "presidential timber" and these boys said, "Cut him down." Yep, they're hoping to hear us say: "Timbeeeeeeeerrrrrrrr.....!" Sometimes a great notion, Mr. Baker.

The New Worst Cartoon Ever

If you'd like to get really angry, then follow this link. If it appeared in your local paper, shame on you if you haven't already sent the letter to the editor.

Hint: It's about Condi Rice.

Glazed and Confused . . .

I knew something was wrong when I walked into a Krispy Kreme several months back and they were handing out free, hot doughnuts. What kind of strategy is that? I'm in the building. Nobody browses at Krispy Kreme. After they provided samples to me and my guests, we weren't that interested any more. The edge was off. The jones was slaked. If you're gonna do free samples, get out the toothpicks and the carefully cubed cross-sections. Handing out whole doughnuts is bad for business when the impulse buy is critical.

Nuts For Dough

Krispy Kreme has announced the firing of its chief executive, Scott Livengood, for expanding the company too quickly and financial irregularities. I guess he ain't livin' so good now.

Apparently, he miscalculated national demand by surveying Hunter Baker's consumption and then extrapolating from that to the rest of the country. Takes a lot of glaze to get that Cary Grant look going.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The GOP and Social Conservatives

The Bullmoose and our loyal "gadfly" as Mr. Homnick recently called him, Tlaloc, wonders to what extent Reform Clubbers think the GOP simply uses social conservatives or "the religious right" without actually being interested in their issues. Mr. Homnick has expressed agreement with the idea.

I'm on the other end of the spectrum. Not only do I think the GOP is interested in enacting a socially conservative agenda, I think the GOP is now dominated by social conservatives and those who are fellow travelers. Part of the reason W. is so strongly supported by conservative Christians is their visceral sense that he *is* one of them. He talks the talk comfortably (which is rare for him) and appears to walk the walk. He can provide real evidence of redemption in his personal life and has clearly shown that he is a man with strong core convictions.

Those who have difficulty with social conservatives in the party usually disagree more as a matter of aesthetics than on substance. Conservatives have always felt freedom requires a corresponding emphasis on virtue, so it's a good fit. Stridency is more often the problem than powerful policy disagreement. The better "religious right" types get at articulating their message, the stronger the ideological fit between the GOP and their concerns will become. We're already miles ahead of the old Falwell/Robertson days, when perhaps religious concerns really were a sort of window dressing, except with regard to abortion where Reagan might reasonably be said to have been adamantine as a President with a very clear position.

Recognizing Jeb's Potential

Despite having a terrible political name, Jeb Bush (the Jeb, not the Bush) is probably the best hope for the GOP in 2008. Dick Morris thinks Condi is the only one who could beat Hillary, but I'm with Matt Towery who thinks Jeb has all the tools. Check out his column on the superb job Jeb has done as Florida's governor.

For the record, I'd be freakishly pleased to see Condi run, too. I just don't buy the idea that Americans wouldn't elect three Bushes to the Presidency. People like stability and they like brand names. Bush has become a pretty good brand name in politics. It ain't Reagan, but it's pretty good.

Ralph Reed for Lt. Gov. in Georgia?

Haley Barbour currently resides in the Mississippi Governor’s mansion, so I don’t see why Reed’s political operative status should be much of a barrier. The state party was pretty much moribund until he took over as chairman and had great success in 2002. The Washington Times suggests Reed is getting ready to move into elected office. We’ll see.

I once met Ralph Reed after missing him in my job interview at his firm (Yes, I was eventually offered a research/writing job, but I was already better employed). He was at the Capitol observing Democrat redistricting in action (which didn't work out the way they hoped). My recollection is that he was extremely handsome, much better than he appears on television. He was also quite personable. Like a good politico, he remembered a mutual friend we share and gave me the time of day.

If he has the right temperament, I think this could be a good move. He’s well-practiced at handling the press and is a bonafide intellectual. Remember that he’s got an Emory Ph.D. hanging on the wall. The Pat Robertson adventure short-circuited an academic career before it started.

Roy Moore, Next Governor of Alabama?

The Mobile Register has a story reporting that former Alabama Chief Justice is easily the choice of state Republicans and has a high approval rating statewide.

Although I'm in favor of allowing the posting of the Ten Commandments in public spaces, I'm not encouraged by this news. On the one hand, Moore is a determined man faithful to his convictions. On the other, I suspect he may be a bit of a loose cannon.

Time will tell, but I think the state's business elite will turn on Moore like they did Fob James and a moderate Democrat will be elected. We'd certainly get an interesting race out of it, with grist for the dissertation mill galore!

Divided by Jerks

P.J. O'Rourke (for my money easily the best political humorist around) has a biting alternative inaugural address he would like to see Bush deliver. After reading it, I wish he'd deliver it, too. His thesis is that America is divided because there are jerks living here. He arranges the speech around the Ten Commandments. Here's a smidge:

We are all sinners. But jerks revel in their sins. You can tell by their reaction to the Ten Commandments. Post those Ten Commandments in a courthouse or a statehouse, in a public school or a public park, and the jerks go crazy. Why is that? Christians believe in the Ten Commandments. So do Muslims. Jews, too, obviously. Show the Ten Commandments to Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, or to people with just good will and common sense and nobody says, "Whoa! That's all wrong!"

And another . . .

"Thou shalt not kill." Why, in the opinion of jerks, is it wrong to kill a baby but all right to kill a baby that's so little he hasn't been born yet? And why do the same jerks who favor abortion oppose the death penalty? We can imagine people so full of loving kindness that they can accept neither the abortionist nor the executioner. We can even imagine people so cold-hearted that they embrace them both. But it takes a real jerk to argue in favor of killing perfect innocents and letting Terry Nichols live.

Confound It, Archie, Bring Me Some Beer, I'm Thinking!

The hardest thing about reading news from Israel is the sheer uncertainty. When Israelis are killed by terrorists, you know that's bad news. But beyond that you can never tell.

Palestinian election - good news or bad news? Abbas winning - good news or bad news? Sharon cutting off ties - good news or bad news? Abbas calling for an end to terrorism - good news or bad news? A sign of a new moderation? Or a new con game?

It's easy to say that only God knows. But somehow He expects us to navigate this - how?

Believe it or not, when the Talmud lists the problems in the pre-Messianic period and says that "we have no one to lean on but our Father in Heaven" there is one commentary that explains that this is part of the problem, the fact that we think we cannot contribute to ameliorating our destiny.

In other words, a person of utmost good will trying to derive a plan for living day-to-day based on that quotation cannot even be certain if it's telling him that there's nothing he can do or that he MUST bestir himself to do something.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Curing Race Schism

We celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Day today, and well we might, considering that we no longer judge people by the choler of their kin, as in the Hatfield-McCoy days, but by their contentious characters, like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

But more seriously, I think that we can learn a lot not only from the fact that we have defeated racism everywhere except inside the Democratic Party, but by the WAY in which we accomplished that objective. As long as the culture said that racists were bad, they were able to hang on, because we have a lot of tolerance for badness under the rubric of roguish and cool, but once we said they were stupid, they either shut up or disappeared.

Just Back From Houston . . .

I want to take back at least some of the horrible things I've always had to say about Houston. I lived there for four years in an apartment near the Astrodome. In other words, NOT PRESTIGE REAL ESTATE. We had a veteran's hospital nearby and a seriously nasty, worn-down hotel with extremely non-glamourous prostitutes soliciting out front. I was in law school. The wife was doing an OB-GYN residency. Our annual income was about 1/3 the total our debt, which was growing. She was working 80-100 hours every week.

Having just visited H-town to see some old friends, I feel I have been unfair. Houston is a nicer city than I gave it credit for being. It's no Vancouver, mind you, but it's okay. This I believe.

Another Thoroughly Conventional Right-Wing Comment . . .

It's conventional, but relevant and important. Michael Crichton made an impact on the sexual harassment debate with Disclosure and may do the same with his current novel State of Fear. In both books, he makes news with his concluding comments following the story. In the latest volume, he takes on the global warming hystericists. The Hearland Institute (where our own S.T. Karnick plies his editorial craft) has a nice summary of Crichton's remarks. Here's a sample:

"The current near-hysterical preoccupation with safety is at best a waste of resources and a crimp on the human spirit, and at worst an invitation to totalitarianism."

"[T]he thinking of environmental activists ... seems oddly fixed in the concepts and rhetoric of the 1970s."

"We need a new environmental movement, with new goals and new organizations."

My own suspicion is that the environmental movement has been damaged by an infusion of post-Soviet Marxists looking for a way to hamper the expansion of capitalism. Conservation is a thoroughly laudable goal, but it must not pursued in such a way as to destroy national economies. We've had enough of the centrally planned and controlled economic models of the past. There are many ways environmentalists can succeed using the incentives of the free-market to achieve their goals. It is that sort of new movement to which Crichton likely refers.


Sunday, January 16, 2005

A Thought? A feeling? An Impulse? Something.

Lately I have found myself pondering the Jewish theological model that parallels love with kindness and fear with justice. I find it very fascinating when you look at actual life experience through this prism, extraordinarily edifying.

Briefly, this is the sketch.

We say that the initial act by God in creating the universe is an expansive act, hence the universe expands (a feature of Jewish theology at least a millennium ahead of the astronomers' discovery of same). Then there is a second act, that limits the expansion at a certain point.

Each individual person represents a microcosm of the universe. The impulse by which he expands his private universe is called "love" in emotions (heart) and "compassion" in consciousness (soul). The capacity to draw lines that will not be crossed is called "fear" in emotions and "justice" (sometimes "strength" is substituted) in consciousness.

Think about your relationships with love as a force reaching out and fear as a force holding back. I find it to be an amazing model to predict human behavior and experience.

A Word Of Caution

Apropos of nothing at all, I wanted to issue a call to my colleagues and readers to avoid letting their children skip grades in school. I know there are a lot of very bright people here, and presumably their children will be likewise.

Some of you may know my history, that I graduated high school at age 14.

Later, at age 20, I was in the room when a child prodigy who had been pushed and pushed by his parents went insane. He was 16.

He is still alive, a gibbering hulk fueled by psychotropic medications.

My children have all stayed with their age-appropriate grade level. They have the pleasures that I never had, being best in class, always having high grades, valedictorian etc. I'm grateful to have been able to give them that.