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

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Mark Anderson, Poor Richard, Hugh Hewitt, and Me

Mark Anderson from Poor Richard's Almanac posted the following comment on my Hugh Hewitt post:

Dear Hunter,

No more or less godless than the founding fathers. That is the point of my last post. I'm as baffled as you are about why Hugh made me blog of the month. Any light you can shed on this would be appreciated. He invited me to appear on his radio show in January. It was clearly because he thought I might make a good lefty academic to expose to his right Republican audience. My best guess is that blog of the month was supposed to be bait to get me to go on his show for fun times with the lefty on the Republican grill.

Mark, this is excellent info and sheds a lot of light on the situation. I think you've probably got Hugh figured out.

On the other hand you won't get far with me on the godless founders stuff you mention here and in your blog. I didn't take the time to check, but I had the feeling you were trotting out the case made in Kramnick and Moore's book "The Godless Constitution." That book is seriously lacking from a scholarly standpoint. What's going on there is the same sort of tedious axe-grinding done by David Barton and the crew at Wallbuilders for the opposite position. The two sides could trade quote after quote from this person or the other that would seem to make their case definitively.

The reality, which is too rarely discussed, is that "the founders" were a mixed-bag spiritually speaking. Some were quite orthodox in their Christianity, some tended toward atheism like Jefferson, some were liberal Christians, some were deists, and plenty remain unidentified. Those who were not particularly orthodox nevertheless realized the importance of the Christian faith as an important force for maintaining the virtue necessary to a free land.

If you'd like to read a couple of books that are extremely well-researched and balanced in this area, I recommend you try Derek Davis' "Religion and the Continental Congress" or Patricia Bonomi's "Under the Cope of Heaven." Both are published by Oxford University Press.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Culture Watch: Law and Order: Trial by Jury

In understanding the state of the culture, little things can often be quite revealing. Last night's premiere episode of Law and Order: Trial by Jury, the latest offering from the highly successful stable of NBC crime dramas produced by Dick Wolf, may be one such, as it included a rather unusual plot element.

The story centers on the murder of an aspiring actress by an egocentric Broadway producer, and it plays out as a pretty standard courtroom drama. The defendant is depicted as utterly odious in his callousness and disregard for others. He openly admits to the defense attorney that he has killed the actress, his mistress, who was pregnant at the time. He shows not the slightest trace of remorse for the killing. He is clearly an egomaniac and a monster.

The interesting angle: he murdered the woman because she refused to have an abortion.

Thirty-Four Years Later... G. C. Infante, RIP

The passing Feb. 21 of Cuban expatriate author Guillermo Cabrera Infante in London was little noted on these shores, as most of his writing was done in Spanish.

However, those who, like myself, are insane fans of the cult classic movie Vanishing Point from 1971 (I was 13 at the time), remember Infante as the author of that screenplay in English. This was an act of great genius, because the movie was set on the American highway system, traversing from state to state, and Infante had never visited these shores at the time of that writing.

I hope at some point to write what this movie meant to my life. But for now, I would like to appeal to our readers. If you have seen that movie and it had meaning to you, please share with us what you took away from the experience. There is tremendous debate about its message, and I would appreciate as broad a base of input as possible.

Poor Richard Took Hugh Hewitt for a Ride!

I've emailed Hugh to tell him, but he hasn't paid attention. Each month, Hugh props up some promising young blogger as his "Blog of the Month."

In January, he chose Poor Richard's Almanac. I have a feeling "Poor Richard" suckered Hugh because the blog now reads like a raging godless lib sheet.

Send Hugh (hugh@hughhewitt.com) some mail telling him he's been tricked.

UPDATE: Looks like I was wrong to say that Hugh was tricked by "Poor Richard." Richard himself, now identified as Mark Anderson, has expressed his own puzzlement at Hugh's promotion of his website. If you'll read Anderson's comment to this post, you'll see that he thinks Hugh may be feting him to get him on air for debate. As to Mark's characterization of the founder's, I've posted above.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

NYTimes: Bush Stumbling at Home, Public Says

The New York Times reports the results of a new poll finding that the American public sees President Bush and his administration as being out of step with their thinking on Social Security reform:

"Notwithstanding Mr. Bush's argument that citizens should be given more control over their retirement savings, almost four out of five respondents said it was the government's responsibility to assure a decent standard of living for the elderly."

Big-government types and nanny state fans will surely enjoy reading that passage. (That is, if they can overlook the incorrect usage of the word assure; the right word in that situation is ensure, or barely possibly insure, but definitely not assure unless the sentence is recast to say "assure the elderly that they will have a decent standard of living." Sheesh.)

The better news for the president is that the public believes that the situation in Iraq is going "very or somewhat well."

Still, the public does not see the president as doing nearly as good a job at home. According to the Times story, "63 percent of respondents say the president has different priorities on domestic issues than most Americans."

The budget deficit appears to be a matter of great concern to the public. According to the Times story, 60 percent of respondents said that they did not like the way Bush was responding to the federal budget deficit. This was true even of 48 percent of conservatives. You may count me among those unimpressed with Bush's handling of the deficit, but for reasons the Times would probably not find amusing—an intense dislike of the vast increase of domestic spending during the administration of Bush the Younger.

Bush's approval rating among the public remains at 49 percent, the paper reported, exactly where it was a month ago.

Byrd Gets the Anti-Defamation League's Goat

Did you like that Homnickian headline? On with the story. Ultra-senior Democrat Senator from West Virginia Robert Byrd made big headlines when he compared Republican tactics on judicial nominations to those employed by Adolf Hitler in Germany.

We'll see whether similarly large headlines are made by the Anti-Defamation League's harsh criticism of Byrd for having absolutely no sense of proportion. Here's the ADL statement:

It is hideous, outrageous and offensive for Senator Byrd to suggest that the Republican Party's tactics could in any way resemble those of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

The Senator shows a profound lack of understanding as to who Hitler was and what he and his regime represented.

Senator Byrd must repudiate his remarks immediately and apologize to the American people for showing such disrespect for this country's democratic process.

No Return, No Deposit

Across the fruited plain, a circus of yellow-and-blue blazonry proclaims this monument of momentous manumission: THE END OF LATE FEES. Not all Americans are devotees of Blockbuster; some surreptitiously snag their videos from competing outlets. But the national imagination, the cultural iconography (and perhaps a touch of iconolatry), has been in the thrall of Blockbuster for some years. Birthed by the obstreperous Huizenga and adopted by the ubiquitous Redstone, this chain has enchained - some say enchanted - the popular conception of video entertainment for two decades. If they sign the death certificate on the late fee, you can be sure that the Hollywood Video lateness mulct can’t be milked much longer. Look closely at the long placid stream of the Public Library overdue fee and even there you will see a seiche, hear a susurrus; times they are a’ changin’.

No longer the midnight ride under a pall of reverence, the midday screech of anguished tires. Gone is the daredevil dash with one eye on the dashed road and the other on the dashboard clock; gone, too, the dashing of hope of 12:01. Never again the tortured conscience of watching the rewind machine languidly do its thing at 11:51, and the awful temptation to stop at the halfway mark to race out the door. Forgotten is the role of the clerk as cleric, looking sagely at the second handle with solonic solemnity, holding in his underpaid hands the key to your mortal fate. Now you can stride up to the counter at 12:09 of the next day, flash your smuggest smirk, plop down your movie and swagger on out: they can’t lay a hand on ya. No more Midnight Cowboy. It’s High Noon and you’re Gary Cooper, baby.

Whoa, what’s this? Trust your conscience to show up at the most inopportune times. Can’t leave well enough alone. It turns out, thinking on it a tad, that you liked it better the old way. Who’d ‘a thunk it?

The fact is that consequences, when delivered with some immediacy, are a component of civilization that comfort even as they collect (or connect). When you pay that traffic ticket, you buy absolution. All the cumulative guilt of endangering the citizenry with your recklessness has been whitewashed with a faint splash of green. Take your licks, pay the piper, do your time, then you’re clean. You have paid your debt to society and your scars are your receipt. You’ve been purged and cleansed and mitigated and expiated. The books are closed up tight.

You know the joke about the new guy who shows up at the pool in the Miami development, and a lady asks him why she hasn’t seen him before. He says, “I just got out of prison after twenty years.”
“Really, what did you do?”
“I killed my wife with an axe.”
“Oh, so you’re single.”

That’s you, a new man with a fresh start. Sure, you kept The Longest Day a day long; you held Another Twenty-four Hours… well, another twenty-four hours. But you got off your high horse and ponied up for Seabiscuit, and you can get right back on track with your head held high.

Perhaps that is what King David meant in Psalm XXIII when he said, “Your rod and your staff they comfort me”. And maybe that was what the nuns had in mind when they used a ruler to rap your knuckles. They were trying to teach you that a measured punishment is a desert to clean your palate – and your slate.

The tough ones are the unpunished kind. The cases that you tuck away in the ‘Open’ file. An inner voice says that you did wrong and the bill has not been paid. You walk through life with a sense of unfinished business, of inadequacy, of being less than all you can be. If you fear a Hell or a karma there may be a sense of looming fate that haunts your every step forward; even if not, there is the irresolution of unresolvedness. Even those billionaires who marry some zero in Las Vegas and later have to give her seven zeroes to unburden themselves look relieved, almost happy, when it’s finally over. At least they have – I know you hate this word – closure.

The video store still sets a due date. But it has no teeth. No enforcement mechanism other than annoying reminder calls. No aftereffects if you abuse your privilege. You can sit in your Lazy Boy and toy with your drink on the lazy Susan while the clock tolls midnight. No one will be the wiser nor your wallet the lighter. Ah, but you… you will be a lesser person.

So if Lola wants to loll around and take advantage, that’s her business. But I know what you will be doing. You will make doubly sure now to honor that return date, and that’s why you’re my hero. Only, please: no more busting down the block at eighty miles per hour.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Growth of Christianity in France

Christianity Today has a fascinating story up about the recent growth of Christianity, particularly the evangelical and pentecostal kinds, in France. The story entertainingly relates tales of new receptiveness to street evangelism, significant increases in sales of the Bible, and the founding of new churches.

But the most entertaining part of the article is an upside down account of a father being disappointed in his daughter:

Religious conversions still befuddle the French. David Brown, the head of the French equivalent of InterVarsity, University Bible Groups, told me about one girl's experience. Her father is a militant left-wing activist; he and his wife are separated. When he found out that his daughter joined Brown's church and left with the youth group for a weekend in Normandy, he became enraged and came to see Brown. These were his words: "Here I thought that she was just going off for a weekend with a new boyfriend! But then I find out it was to read the Bible!"

"To go off with a new boyfriend is no problem," Brown says, "but to read the Bible is unacceptable." The father was also concerned that his daughter had become too religious. "I'll prove it to you," he told Brown. "She's got a Bible by her bedside!"

Brown says, "A lot of French people think like him."

Oh, those crazy, mixed up young people!!!

Greenspan's Gloom

Alan Greenspan renewed his portrayal of Jiminy Cricket to President Bush's Pinocchio today, warning Congress that the current federal budget deficits are unsustainable, calling for "major deficit-reducing actions." I recall President Reagan running large budget deficits in the 1980s, and all that happened was that the economy grew like gangbusters and the Soviet Union fell.

Greenspan correctly brings up one matter in which the current time is quite unlike the 1980s: rather than being in their peak years of productivity and earning, Baby Boomers are now nearing retirement. That is certainly a concern. A positive trend that he does not refer to is that the fairly large Millennial Generation will soon be entering the workforce, but Greenspan is certainly right to note that the numbers for Social Security and Medicare in the next few years look very bad—rapidly increasing numbers of retirees, and a slow or stagnant growth in workers to support them. It's not an impossible problem, Greenspan notes, as productivity increases can do a lot, but any drag on the economy is a bad idea. And high federal spending is certainly a drag on the economy.

Greenspan's warning that the budget deficit will bring on "stagnation" may be a bit overwrought, but he is right to point out that federal spending has increased at a positively appalling pace during the Bush administration, even if one factors out the War on Terror. Domestic nonsecurity spending has increased rapidly, as exemplified by the Medicare prescription drug benefit (entitlement) the president successfully pushed through Congress.

In his presentation to Congress, Greenspan called for a new congressional spending restriction structure like the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, and he suggested that he would prefer the deficit-reduction action to concentrate on reducing spending, but that is about as likely as, well, me ever seeing a nickel from Social Security.

Obviously, the response to Greenspan's comments will quickly become a debate over how many of Bush's tax cuts to let lapse rather than extending them, with the deficit given as the urgent reason for the change. The real drag on the economy, however, is the high percentage of GDP that is being spent on nonproductive government programs instead of on productive, private-sector investments. That will remain true until a Congress adopts a really strong and binding spending-restriction (not deficit-reduction) structure.

Which means that we can delete all but the first four words of the previous sentence and it will still be correct.

University Faculty for Life

I've been asked to encourage readers to visit University Faculty for Life, particularly academic readers. The website has an eye-opening color scheme, but the content looks strong. If you're a member of the academy with a pro-life perspective, consider swelling the ranks.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Narnia Movie

The International Herald-Tribune has an interesting story up about the first Narnia film opening on Dec. 9. The story is full of speculation about how Disney and Walden Media will walk the tightrope of presenting Christian allegory to a popular audience that is "extremely sensitive." I think it's a non-issue. Present Narnia as Lewis presented it. Christians will absolutely get it. Those who aren't Christians will generally enjoy it without lingering on the real meaning of the story. Others will be moved and will want to linger. But the whole purpose of allegory is to get the audience's attention to hear a story about something they might ordinarily dismiss. The form of the story is the answer to the concern. Let Lewis be Lewis.

Horror in Lebanon—Can It End Soon?

The theory of both supporters and opponents of the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq was that any success there would be followed shortly by a U.S.-led move against Iran or Syria.

It appears that the conventional wisdom has turned out to be correct. As the Times of London reports today, the United States and its allies, including in this case France, is increasing pressure on Syria to get out of Lebanon:

"America and France today issued a joint demand for Syria to pull its troops and spies out of Lebanon.

"The initiative by Condoleeza Rice, the US Secretary of State, and Michel Barnier, the French Foreign Minister, came the day after the entire Lebanese cabinet resigned in the face of mass public protests against Syrian influence in Lebanese affairs.

". . . They spoke at a London conference on Middle East peace attended by 30 countries, but to which Syria had not been invited - in itself evidence of Syria's increasing isolation on the world stage. The statement warns Syria to pull out its troops and intelligence services, to allow Lebanon to regain its sovereignty, and to allow the country to hold free and fair elections. . . .

"Ms Rice accused Syria of being out of step with the transformation occuring in the Middle East, where democratic elections have been held in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian territories, and have been promised in Egypt and Lebanon.

"She also charged Damascus with supporting violence in Iraq, aiding the militant Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process, and obstructing events in Lebanon, and issued a stern warning.

"The peaceful demonstrations by tens of thousands of people on the streets of Beirut and other cities against Syria's 30 year stranglehold on their country have been dubbed 'the Cedar Revolution' - a reference to Lebanon's national symbol and a nod towards the similar peaceful protests that achieved democratic change in the Ukraine last year, called 'the Orange Revolution.'"

The mass protests began after the car-bomb assassination of Lebanan's former prime minister two weeks ago, and pressure from the West has been increasing. Unlike the alleged Iraqi WMDs which were never found, the assassination in Lebanon provides a definite casus belli, though it is really but a small symbol of the greater depredations visited on that once-beautiful country and its people in the past quarter-century at the hands of its ruthlessly cruel occupiers.

Coming on the heels of a likely diminishment in American involvement in Iraq, the U.S. response to the Lebanese problem may seem to the Bush administration's opponents to be part of an insidious plan of neocons for a further increase of the U.S. presence in the oil-rich region by pretending to try to bring democracy and free markets to places that cannot support it. One suspects that any real moves against Syria will encounter widespread opposition within the United States. The enthusiasm of France for action, however, will probably give pause to the American Left, which followed the EU line in the runup to the war in Iraq.

I certainly hope that we can avoid war or anything like it in this case. However, what has been done to Lebanon is an international scandal and should never have been allowed to continue for so long. People such as ourselves, who claim complete fealty to the idea of political self-determination, not to mention morality and conscience, must support such efforts when they arise and are in our national interest.

The situation in Lebanon fits that description perfectly. As such, it has called out for attention for a quarter-century, and it is right for the West to increase pressure on Syria to set Lebanon free, and accomplish what even President Reagan failed to do: to give Lebanon back to the Lebanese.

The task for Bush, Rice, and the rest of the administration will be to do this through measures far short of open combat. It seems likely that it can be done, but ultimately the threat of force must be present. It is a certainly a risk, but one that the United States should consider well worth taking.

Using Newt . . .

Am I alone in thinking Newt Gingrich is underutilized in current day majority GOP Washington? Newt Gingrich may have been done in by the superior politician (Bill Clinton) and his own amorous adventures, but the guy is a policy wonk of the highest order. It seems to me that he has a lot to offer to a project like revitalizing Social Security.

First, he has the patience and the intellectual curiosity to lead an out of the box investigation into the possibilities. Second, he has the contacts and the reputation to help push the agenda once it is decided upon. Newt needs to make a comeback that extends beyond the Fox Network. A GOP with all the chess pieces could use a policy visionary to complete the political expertise of Mr. Rove.

Monday, February 28, 2005

The Twilight of Atheism

Alister McGrath is a Ph.D. in Biophysics from Oxford who turned around and became a top historian of the Reformation. He is also a former atheist. His latest book, The Twilight of Atheism, takes atheism on from a very respectful vantage point and deals very effectively with its claims. I read the book and enjoyed it thoroughly. I've moved on to his Dawkin's God, Genes, and Memes.

Happily, he's excerpted Twilight for Christianity Today's web site. Here's a bit:

Atheism was once new, exciting, and liberating, and for those reasons held to be devoid of the vices of the faiths it displaced. With time, it turned out to have just as many frauds, psychopaths, and careerists as religion does. Many have now concluded that these personality types are endemic to all human groups, rather than being the peculiar preserve of religious folks. With Stalin and Madalyn Murray O'Hair, atheism seems to have ended up mimicking the vices of the Spanish Inquisition and the worst televangelists, respectively.

One of the most important criticisms that Sigmund Freud directed against religion was that it encourages unhealthy and dysfunctional outlooks on life. Having dismissed religion as an illusion, Freud went on to argue that it is a negative factor in personal development. At times, Freud's influence has been such that the elimination of a person's religious beliefs has been seen as a precondition for mental health.

Freud is now a fallen idol, the fall having been all the heavier for its postponement. There is now growing awareness of the importance of spirituality in health care, both as a positive factor in relation to well-being and as an issue to which patients have a right. The "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine" conference sponsored by Harvard Medical School in 1998 brought reports that 86 percent of Americans as a whole, 99 percent of family physicians, and 94 percent of hmo professionals believe that prayer, meditation, and other spiritual and religious practices exercise a major positive role within the healing process.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

A Tribute To Jody Bottum, New Editor Of First Things

The very fine writer and editor who signs his work J. Bottum is on his way to New York to take over as Editor of the vibrant journal of culture and religion, First Things. He comes off a remarkable seven-year tenure as Books & Arts Editor at The Weekly Standard.

Being a culture editor at a magazine such as the Standard is, in my view, a greater challenge than managing one of the political segments of the publication. Since the 1980s there are plenty of capable political writers on the right side of the spectrum, as many if not more than on the left. But to define a cultural role that appreciates religion, is pro-life and pro-family, but is open to all the nuances of human artistry in literature, art and architecture, is a monumental task - one that is critical for the conservative movement to sustain. Mr. Bottum has not only held his own in a world dominated by lefties, he has conquered significant swaths of cultural territory. His particular sensitivity to poetry has softened the edges of this hard-driving magazine positioned at the pulse of power.

I have been fortunate to be the beneficiary of his kindness and respect. He allowed me to show some range, accepting book reviews from me on the subjects of Biblical figures, baseball personalities, a daring Holocaust escape and a deep-sea salvage adventure. At one time we had an idea for a book that we could do together, but that has not (yet) materialized.

As a free-lance writer, I am usually careful to confine my telephone calls to editors to a ninety-second maximum. Jody is more generous with his time than I am prepared to impose, but it is not only the quantity of his time that I appreciate, it is the quality. Virtually every conversation that we have had has included some incredibly pithy insight of his, one that leaves me pondering for days afterward.

My situation is paradoxical, because I consider myself a novelist first and an essayist second, yet I have no published fiction to stand alongside my sixty non-fiction clippings. Jody identified this quality in my writing from the beginning and he has consistently encouraged me to complete my first novel and assured me that it is saleable.

He is the perfect choice for his new position. He is a maestro of literature and culture, processing every bit of them through the prism of his steadfast Catholicism and passionately pro-life sensibility. I predict - I wish - I bless - great success for him in this role.

Thank you for everything, Jody. I am proud to call you my friend.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Karnick's Law of Culture

I was recently reminded of a formulation about culture in free societies, which I have used in the past but have perhaps not commited to print. To wit, what I call Karnick's Law of Culture:

Bad art drives out the good.

The idea is analogous, of course, to Gresham's Law, which states that in a free economy, bad currency drives out the good.

I think that Karnick's Law helps explain why contemporary American culture has so often seemed to appeal to the worst impulses of human beings and to downplay or even deny the very existence of our higher and better impulses. It is easier for artists (of any level of talent, from the very lowest to the highest) to create a deep and widespread reaction in audiences by appealing to sensations, which are nearly universally understood, than to the intellect, which fewer people can access at its highest levels. This is true regardless of the personal morality and intentions of the artist; it is an obsevation about human psychology, not morality.

Obviously, the best and healthiest art will appeal to both the sensations and the intellect, and will be accessible to a wide range of people. Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Bach, Dickens, T. S. Eliot, and David Lean, to provide just a few examples, demonstrate this achievement beautifully. On the other hand, a preponderance of sensation over intellect, or of intellect over sensation, will create a work of degrading baseness in the first case and of unnourishing aridity in the second instance.

In the economy, government intervention overcomes the perils of Gresham's Law. This is done through coercion, although such government intervention is a measure which most people would agree is salutary.

In society, the church and government seem to be the natural repositories of response to the problems identified by Karnick's Law. There is, however, much less agreement on this, and in particular on who should decide these matters even if we can agree that something should be done collectively, than is the case with our protection of the value of our currency

The question that naturally arises to the liberal mind is this: Is there a way in which society can overcome the perils defined in Karnick's Law by means of voluntary cooperation rather than coercion?

Friday, February 25, 2005

A Baseball Memory -- The Atlanta Braves

Jay, I understand your emotions. When the Braves first began to break out of utter haplessness, I had been watching for years as a child who cheered every time the team broke out of last place. I'll never forget Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS when the Braves were down 2-1 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The unknown pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera drove in David Justice and the slow-footed Sid Bream with a laser to left field. Bream slid into home and was safe by inches.

I was living in an apartment complex full of University of Georgia students in Athens. Some kind of collective mania took over. Within two seconds of the umpire calling Bream safe, the entire complex emptied into the parking lot as hundreds of us jumped and shouted with crazy joy. We were possessed by totally unself-conscious pure happiness. And that is what sports can do.

There was only one small bittersweet touch to the whole thing. Great names of the Atlanta franchise like Dale Murphy and Bob Horner weren't there for the big victory. Their careers had ended with a whimper a few years before.

Boston - Or Phoenix?

Spring training for baseball is about to begin, and for the first time in 86 years the defending World champions are the Boston Red Sox. Here is what I wrote the night of their Series victory last year:

Is it all right to cry? Is it permitted to shed a tear of joy and relief for the Boston Red Sox emerging triumphant after eighty-six years of torment? Is it acceptable for a kid who grew up in New York and has lived in Chicago and Cincinnati and now Miami?
Or have I not paid my dues? Is it necessary to brandish some stigmata? Do I need to show ten years of Prozac prescriptions? Bags under my eyes deep enough to carry all the pain in the world? Razor scars on my wrists from a certain 1986 accident that we won’t discuss?
Does there have to be a seat in O’Malley’s Bar that I have worn down to the springs? A groove on the bar counter where I have laid my head after a thousand bitter losses? A crack on the side of the pinball machine where I kicked it eighteen years ago? A dartboard with the picture of Bill Buckner that has been shredded by a million angry punctures?
Can’t I just be a guy who wants to feel that the little guy has a chance, however slender, in a world rigged in favor of Mister Big? Can’t I be a guy who wants to see hope trump advantage? To see the dream outdistance privilege? Can’t I pray for a world where no one ever has to give up until the first spadeful of earth falls on the casket?
Is there no room in your celebration for a kid who came home from school one day at age ten and saw ambulances in front of his house? For a boy whose Dad had to tell him that his Mom had died suddenly and we were on our own? A lad who spent his teenage years living mostly with his Grandma and roaming the streets of the big city?
Got no place for a kid who dreamed of becoming a famous writer? Who sat long nights typing awful mystery stories and sending them to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to be rejected? Who snuck into movie theaters after the ushers had vacated the hallways and was convinced that he could write one of those someday?
What about a young man who became something of a ghost writer? Who feared the glare of the public eye and plied his craft in lengthening shadows? Who watched his diffident words fly under the banner of names with more courage than talent? And who now has emerged, even as you have, to a touchingly warm welcome?
Is there an opening for a son who has been too often prodigal? For a brother who can’t control his remoteness? A friend who is too aloof? A lover who has been too cold? An arguer who has been too hot? A father who has been by turns too strict and too lenient and too neutral?
Isn’t your joy a universal place that the lonely and needy may enter? Isn’t your victory a shot in humanity’s arm? Haven’t you been carving out paths to achievement and ecstasy for the disenfranchised? Aren’t you picking up all the lonely and battered hearts and restoring them to health? Aren’t those hefty doses of confidence that you are distributing with an open hand?
Didn’t you go to the very brink in the ninth inning of Game Four against the Yankees? Didn’t you meet the bogeyman face to face and stare him down? Didn’t you claw and scratch and scrabble your way back, first to contention and then to championship? Haven’t you done what no baseball team had ever done before, eclipsing a three game to zero deficit in a best-of-seven series?
Have you not thrown off the suffocating embrace of a hostile Fate? Aren’t you providing a model for people and teams who are a heartbeat from total humiliation? Showing that patience and fortitude and hard work can eventually undo all the real and imagined curses? That under a cobweb or two there might be a fresh burst of energy? That past can stop being prologue and just become flashback?
Did we not come to love you for being spunky and indomitable? Did we not bleed every time we saw Curt Schilling’s “Red Sox” red with blood? Did we not grin every time David Ortiz launched a missile over the wall? Didn’t you hear my grunt when the umpire called a ball to us and my groan when he called a strike?
Can’t I order a portion of what it is you got? Are you too embarrassed to let me hold your hand for a minute? Do you have a seat for me on the team bus? Can you give me a hand up so I can share the view from the mountaintop? Can I wish you well for next year?
Can I shudder with your remembered pain? Can I tingle with your newfound ecstasy? Can I promise to keep climbing the ladder? Is it all right to laugh? Is it all right to cry?

Crimes Against the UK Citizenry

In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States engaged in a vast experiment in which political jurisdictions from top to bottom reduced both the certainty and severity of punishment for nearly all crimes, especially for violent crimes and those involving what used to be called public vices. The experiment, as the statistics show vividly, was a disaster, and two decades after its effective end we are still reeling from its effects. Crime has decreased, but it is still far above the levels it was at in the early years of the past century.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, however, and the people of Great Britain are now experiencing those awful effects. Britain has almost completely disarmed the noncriminals among its citizen population, and it has greatly reduced criminals' likelihood of capture, prosecution, and punishment, as a Times of London report of today notes in the case of one particularly brutal type of crime:

"According to government figures published yesterday, only one in eighteen rapes reported to police ends with the suspect being punished, although government ministers have pledged to increase the number of convictions."

The vast increase in burgularies and home invasions in Great Britain has been well documented in recent years, and now, obviously in response to this low rate of capture, conviction, and punishment in sexual assault cases, a new blight has arisen. This results in the familiar downward spiral of crime, in which victims cease bothering to report crimes because they see little use in confronting their attackers, who will almost surely go free anyway. The Times reports:

"[the Home Office]
estimated that the actual number of rapes in England and Wales is more than four times higher than the 11,700 reported to the police in 2002."

Thus a new strategy of rape has evolved:

According to a study by the Home Office, groups of predatory men are now targeting drunken women to rape and sexually assault. Jo Lovett, one of the authors, said: "There are people who are undoubtedly targeting women who are drunk.'”

These men are taking advantage of the fact that cases in which there is any doubt whatever that the woman has refused consent are dropped very early in the legal process. In Great Britain today, a man who rapes a drunken woman is highly likely to go entirely unpunished even if the woman files charges.

The Blair government has expressed concern over the problem and has promised to increase the conviction rate. We certainly hope that they will succeed, although we are saddened that it required such an outbreak of horror to spur them to act.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Wead Update

The Wead book isn't selling. It commits two sins. First, there is no surprising story here. What you thought about George W. is what you continue to think about him. Second, he publicly betrayed a friend's confidence. Go to Amazon.com and observe the list of non-reviews reviling Wead. Sales rank for the book: 1,094. For a relatively new release with NYT front page coverage, that's very, very poor.

Unseemly Behavior of Wead

The New York Times reports that the evangelical speaker and author Doug Wead has promised to give up all royalties for his recently published book, The Raising of a President: The Mothers and Fathers of Our Nation's Leaders, because the book contains quotes from conversations the author secretly recorded with George W. Bush, without the latter's knowledge, in the two years before his election in 2000.

I don't think that this is enough. Wead should never have used the quotes in his book, and his editors should have made sure that the author had permission to use them. If he deceived his publisher in that regard, he should be tried for fraud. As soon as the deception was revealed, the publisher should have withdrawn the book from publication. As it stands, the ultimate outcome wil simply be more publicity for a book which is partly the result of an utterly unethical journalistic practice. This stinks.

Reset Chris Rock

Drudge and Sean Hannity have been hammering the decision to have Chris Rock host the Oscars. Particular attention has been paid to a joke Rock did where he spoke of going to pro-choice rallies to meet sexually active women. I'm not a big Chris Rock fan and absolutely hated his movie Head of State, but it looks like he's been quoted out of context here.

Slate fixes the problem. Here 'tis:

What really bugs Drudge isn't the F-words, which thanks to a several-second broadcast delay you're no more likely to hear at the Oscars than a Mike Leigh acceptance speech. It's Rock's politics. In particular, Drudge objects to a stand-up bit in which Rock announces that "it's beautiful that abortion is legal" and says that he likes to pick up women at abortion rallies. "'Cause you know they're"—well, here Rock uses one of those words Drudge doesn't think very classy. Because he knows they're sexually active.

That's some tasteless "S," no doubt about it. Drudge's selective quoting, however, doesn't do justice to the joke. Putting the bit in context doesn't make it safe for the hallowed red carpet (whose purity is defended by the chaste, bare-breasted goddess Jennifer Lopez), but it does affect the meaning. Far from an encomium to fetus killing, Rock's abortion bit is an attack on women for the frivolous manner in which they decide whether or not to keep a child. "When a woman gets pregnant, it's a choice between the woman"—here Rock pauses, a mischievous grin barely restrained—"and her girlfriends." From there: "One girlfriend goes, 'Child, you should have that baby—that man got some good hair…' And the other girlfriend says, 'Child, why we even talking about this—ain't we supposed to go to Cancun next week? Get rid of that baby!' " And that, Rock says, "is how life is decided in America."

The assumption is that women who get abortions are frivolous and irresponsible rather than poor and desperate, as a liberal might have it. Not much there to offend a conservative's sensibilities. Though Drudge claims the academy "went to the gutter" by picking Rock, where it actually went was to the right. Rock may speak the irreverent language of blue comedy, but more often than not, his ideas are red-state red.

White House press pass "scandal"

Ann Coulter has produced a very good column on the controversy over the White House awarding daily press passes to a writer for the conservative Talon News organization, which appears to be affiliated with the Republican National Committee.

Coulter points out that Maureen Dowd "openly lied" about the situation in her New York Times column on the subject, and Coulter finds the criticism from the left to be very odd, in that it appears that the only real things they have been able to criticize the reporter for are his homosexuality and his use of a pen name, both of which they have no problem whatever with when true of people on their side of the political divide.

Once again, as occurs on both left and right, we see that writers today will use any possible argument against their political enemies, no matter how irrational, hypocritical, or ridiculous it may be. Coulter is by no means immune to this habit, but she is correct in her appraisal of the media frenzy over the Talon News reporter.

The Baylor Story So Far

Christianity Today has performed a great service by creating a special web page devoted to articles about the struggle for control of Baylor's future. If you want to get up to speed fast on the most interesting story in American higher education, this is the place. You might even find a couple of articles from yours truly.

Just follow this link: The Battle for Baylor.

Pregnancy and Homicide

ABC News reports on the significant co-incidence of pregnancy and homicide. A pregnant woman is more likely to be murdered than die in a car accident or of any other cause than medical complications from childbirth. Why? Predictably, men (like Scott Peterson) seem to seek freedom from obligation. However, some women present a threat as well. Here's a story from the article:

Unlike men, women who attack pregnant women usually do not know their victims well, if at all. They are usually obsessed with pregnancy and crave the attention — and what they perceive as power — associated with carrying a child.

Relatives said Lisa Montgomery, of Melvern, Kan., faked pregnancy five times. During the last false pregnancy, she allegedly zeroed in on Bobbi Jo Stinnett, a Missouri woman who was eight months pregnant, strangled her and cut Stinnett's baby from her womb. The child was found alive with Montgomery, who allegedly told relatives she had just given birth. Montgomery now faces a capital murder charge.

"With women who actually want to steal a woman's baby, they are usually psychopaths. They claim to be pregnant when they are not," Brown said. "She usually loves the attention and power that is associated with pregnancy and motherhood. … They like to use the child to get attention for themselves. But they like to try to manipulate others with the issues that motherhood and pregnancy bring."

Kentucky authorities said Katie Smith told family and friends she was pregnant. She wore maternity outfits and had a completely furnished nursery with baby clothes, diapers and formula.

But there was no pregnancy. To get a baby, police said, Smith, 22, lured neighbor Sarah Brady — who was nine months pregnant — to her apartment by telling her a package intended for Brady had been delivered to Smith's home by mistake. When Brady, 26, showed up, Smith tried to stab her, but the pregnant woman managed to turn the knife on her attacker, police said. Smith was killed. Investigators said Brady acted in self-defense, and she was not charged.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


How many times have you wanted to take down a heaping plate of bacon, but couldn't stand the thought of splattering grease and unpleasant clean-up?

Now, thanks to Baconwhores, you can make an appointment to have a beautiful Baconwhore come and cook up a beautiful plate of fried porkfat in the comfort of your own home. They are extensively trained in the art of cooking bacon and get it right every time. Atkins-dieters, heaven awaits ye. (HT to Ross Douthat at The American Scene)

Movies and Money

Have you ever wondered how a film studio could afford to pay one star $20-30 million, spend a couple hundred million on the movie, drop another several tens of millions on distribution/advertising, and still somehow make money at the end of the day?

Weekly Standard's Jonathan V. Last has the answer.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Barry Bonds Most Unsavory

I've written about before, but I'm back after Barry Bonds' lame defenses during his last press conference in which he was asked about steroid use.

Exhibit A:

Bonds, dressed casually in a black shirt and jeans, was asked whether he thinks using steroids is cheating.

"I don't know what cheating is," he said. "I don't believe steroids can help your eye-hand coordination, technically hit a baseball. I just don't believe it. That's my opinion."

B.S. buddy. You aren't being challenged for your high batting average. The question is how you've hit so many home runs. Steroid-fueled muscle might not make a .400 hitter, but it could surely add 10-20 homers a year. Muscle mass matters when it comes to hitting for power.

Exhibit B:

Bonds believes he's being scrutinized more since he's closing in on Ruth's record.

"Because Babe Ruth is one of the greatest baseball players ever, and Babe Ruth ain't black, either," he said. "I'm black. Blacks, we go through a little more. ... I'm not a racist though, but I live in the real world. I'm fine with that."

If it's possible, Bonds is even more disingenuous here. Nobody is giving much thought to Bonds passing the number two home run hitter of all time, they're thinking about Bonds being number one when he has likely been engaged in serious cheating. We don't know how many the Babe or Hank Aaron or Willie Mays could have hit with high test coursing through their veins. Racism has become the last resort of the scoundrel in this situation.

Comrade Homnick: Please....

Methinks that my beloved colleague Jay Homnick---make that The Great Homnick---has demonstrated himself too clever by half in his interpretation of the Dems' genius in terms of the elevation of the ineffable Howard Dean to the lofty position of Chairman of the DNC. Make that Chairperson or Chair or Chairwoman or something, whatever. From the viewpoint of the MoveOn.org leftists and their ilk---if only their message were made clear, they would be embraced by the common folk as a distant relative suddenly victorious in the lottery---the choice of Dean enhances their power in the Party like nothing else. After all, the Party Chairman exists to raise money, and only two big pots are available. Pot 1: The Clintons and their various buddies. Pot 2: The George Soros/internet/Michael Moore/dingbat crowd. In terms of this intra-Party competition, no one is better than Dean from the MoveOn.org viewpoint. And that is why all the talk about how Dean---purportedly a moderate when actually in office in Vermont---will prove a relative centrist as DNC Chairman is hogwash. In order to operate as a centrist, Dean must raise money from the centrists, and that requires cooperation and beta-female submission to Bill and Hillary. How can I put this gently? Dean will switch parties, genders, and underwear with random strangers before he will do that. And so Dean will not and cannot operate as a centrist DNC Chairman. He will raise money from the Left, he will mark territory like a Leftist, and his mating call will remain as it was in Iowa. Comrade Homnick's argument that Dean has been maneuvered into the Chairmanship/Chairship/ Chairpersonship/Chairwomanship as a means of getting him out of the way and making him more palatable even to churchgoing Dems is an argument---please, please forgive me, Jay---unworthy of the Homnick brand name. Dean is Chairman because he will serve the intraparty interests of the Democratic Left. And we'll have fun fun fun 'til Mommy Hillary takes the car keys away.

The DNC Dean Decision Explained

Mr. Homnick has taken it upon himself to help the readers of Jewish World Review understand Dr. Dean's new post and why the Democrats would engage in an apparently self-destructive maneuver. Here's a taste:

Here is what the Democrats accomplish by having Dean in that position. 1) His Presidential prospects are finis. 2) He is de-clawed as an infighter among the class of Presidential hopefuls. 3) His fundraising skills must now be diverted away from his aggrandizement and toward the party. 4) Even this mordant secularism that is said to be so abrading to churchgoers will have to be tempered to accord with his role as titular leader of all Democrat politicians.

Hunter And Pecking

We are not accustomed to thinking of our work in these terms, but it is not far from the truth to say that this publication scooped the entire media with our response to the passing of Hunter Thompson, and that we set precisely the right tone. Please note that our post was up at 12:13 Saturday night, minutes after the radio announcement.

We did not downplay his excesses, nor did we suggest that his prime legacy inhered in his specific views, but we acknowledged that his contribution to style and to broadening the parameters of how public events and personalities are examined was real. He was entertaining and a sort of genius while never escaping the weight of his own eccentricity.

Now take the dismissive piece at the Weekly Standard website, saying that he was a hollow loudmouth who left no legacy, the bemused piece at National Review Online, saying that he was a kind of lovable eccentric perched on the fringe of the culture, and the Opinion Journal piece written by the great Tom Wolfe himself (which Hunter links to below), saying that Hunter Thompson was the greatest comic writer of our time, the Mark Twain of the Twentieth Century.
Rampant schizophrenia in the conservative media or what?

A pat on the back: we had it rightest and we had it first.

Warren Buffett v. Alan Reynolds

Jack Kemp has a new piece up at Townhall knocking Warren Buffett for gloomy predictions about the U.S. dollar. What makes it particularly notable is the extensive quoting of Reform Club blogger Alan Reynolds.

To be fair, Mr. Reynolds has some less prestigious affiliations with the Cato Institute and the Wall Street Journal. Here's mud in yer eye, Alan.

Living New Journalist on Dead New Journalist

Accounts of Hunter S. Thompson's demise sometimes mention that he was a practitioner of The New Journalism, a style in which the author involves himself in the story and may even appear as a character. Tom Wolfe was part of that camp as well, but with a different style than Thompson. When Wolfe appeared in his own work it was very unobtrusive, whereas Thompson regularly gave himself a key role.

When I heard Thompson had killed himself, I instantly wondered what Tom Wolfe thought about it. Opinion Journal obliges. Here's a bit:

We were walking along West 46th Street toward a restaurant, The Brazilian Coffee House, when we passed Goldberg Marine Supply. Hunter stopped, ducked into the store and emerged holding a tiny brown paper bag. A sixth sense, probably activated by the alarming eyes and the six-inch rise and fall of his Adam's apple, told me not to ask what was inside. In the restaurant he kept it on top of the table as we ate. Finally, the fool in me became so curious, he had to go and ask, "What's in the bag, Hunter?"

"I've got something in there that would clear out this restaurant in 20 seconds," said Hunter. He began opening the bag. His eyes had rheostated up to 300 watts. "No, never mind," I said. "I believe you! Show me later!" From the bag he produced what looked like a small travel-size can of shaving foam, uncapped the top and pressed down on it. There ensued the most violently brain-piercing sound I had ever heard. It didn't clear out The Brazilian Coffee House. It froze it. The place became so quiet, you could hear an old-fashioned timer clock ticking in the kitchen. Chunks of churasco gaucho remained impaled on forks in mid-air. A bartender mixing a sidecar became a statue holding a shaker with both hands just below his chin. Hunter was slipping the little can back into the paper bag. It was a marine distress signaling device, audible for 20 miles over water.

Thompson was determined to live out his life in huge gestures. He reminds me of Hemingway in that sense. Once the body deteriorated and the novelty of hitting all the extreme notes wore off, he just tripped a trigger and ended the game. I've always suspected Wolfe's relative sanguinity and personal peace have something to do with closet Christianity.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Some Shameless Self-Promotion

Herewith, my oral testimony on the importation of price-controlled drugs before the Senate Health Committee last week. Email me if you want the full testimony and/or the executive summary. Comments welcome. Senator Teddy, disappointingly, did not attend, as there was at the same time a Foreign Relations Committee hearing featuring Condi and Rummy. I guess Teddy preferred to grill them than me. Go figure.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of this committee; I will summarize four central points covered in my written testimony.

First: Pharmaceuticals subject to price controls overseas are not “cheap.” I urge this committee to reject efforts to impose price controls on U.S. medicines, whether directly or indirectly. Any such policies incontrovertibly would mortgage the future in favor of the present by reducing the market R&D incentives yielding more and improved medicines alleviating future human suffering.

Second: Foreign price controls enable overseas consumers to obtain a free ride on the prices that American consumers pay for R&D. U.S. trade and other policies that raise foreign prices toward competitive levels unambiguously would benefit U.S. consumers, regardless of the assumption one makes about the competitiveness of the U.S. pharmaceutical sector.

Third: The recent “free market” argument favoring the importation of price-controlled medicines from overseas is fundamentally flawed because compulsory licensing processes combined with ambiguities in the “failure to work the patent” framework mean that negotiations would be highly vulnerable to implicit or explicit threats of patent theft. At a more general level, free markets domestically even in principle cannot be reconciled with the enforcement of price controls overseas.

Fourth: Federal price negotiations over the long term would harm consumers. The federal government is not like a very large pharmacy chain; it is instead so big that it has monopoly pricing power as a buyer that large private sector buyers engaged in competitive negotiations do not have. At a more subtle level, private sector buyers must compete for customers, and so must balance the conflicting objectives of low prices and broad formulary availabilities. The federal government, on the other hand, does not have “customers” as such, so that short term budget pressures inexorably will tend to crowd out consumer choice over time. That is the deeper implication of the “evidence-based medicine” approaches now being considered and adopted by some states. The noninterference provisions of the 2003 Medicare Act truly were farsighted, and I urge this committee to continue that approach.

In conclusion: We want our medicines to be affordable, and we want them also to be available over the long term. That is why price controls must be rejected.

Thank you very much.

Sandra Dee R.I.P.

I was sad to hear Sandra Dee died. We were classmates at University High School in L.A., although she just showed up occasionally before the ceremony because she was tutored. We later chatted briefly in Westwood Village, where I worked at Sears after graduating from the Auto Mechanics Institute (not my only degree). I mostly recall thinking she wore too much makeup.

At that time, her real name (second father) was Douvan. Her mother was rumored to be a pushy stage mom even then.

I reprinted below some relevant thoughts on the death of another class mate, Jan Berry, which appeared in National Review online April 6, 2004. I meant to send it to her, since she’s in the UniHi alumni book, and later to congratulate her about the new movie about Bobby Darin.

Despite fame and fortune, and perhaps partly because of it, both Sandra Dee and Jan Berry had extremely difficult and tragically short lives. Such examples prove envy to be foolish as well a unkind.


“Jan & Dean: UniHi in 1959”

Alan Reynolds

Jan Berry, of the surf duo Jan and Dean, recently died at terribly young age. Jan was Class of '58 at University High School (UniHi) in West L.A.; I was Class of '59.

Nancy Sinatra was in Jan's class at UniHi. Tommy Rettig, the star of Lassie (who insisted on being called Tom), was in mine. Sandra Dee, who filmed Gidget in 1959, and went to our Summer '59 prom but graduated Class of '60. James Brolin (Bruderlin) was earlier, probably '57. Singer-songwriter Randy Newman was Class of '61. Beau Bridges was my classmate at Webster Junior High, but he went to Venice High.

To thwart gangs, UniHi encouraged more supervised groups affiliated with the YMCA (HI-Y) and YWCA (TRI-Y). These clubs varied in status, like fraternities and sororities, and Jan and Dean were in a top group, the Barons. I belonged to a totally unsupervised lowbrow group, the Ladds, which was supposedly a car club except few of us had cars. Paul Sessums was often the designated chauffer in his cool '49 Merc. In 1985, Sessums created a legendary blues club in Austin Texas, the Black Cat Lounge, before dying tragically in an auto accident a few years back.

Half the Ladds — the more muscular half — were from Hamilton High. A few Barons, not Jan or Dean, used to tease and intimidate UniHi Ladds. We were supposed to fight it out one weekend, but somebody had the good sense to bring a football. The game turned out to be unexpectedly close, which generated mutual respect and ended the tension. I nonetheless thought of Jan as physically intimidating at parties, a big football player with a persuasive scowl. It was good to be bad in those days, and some were more convincing actors than others.

Biographies of Jan and Dean note that they first used the Barons as the name of their singing group, but there were really three dozen Barons and they didn't all sing. It was Jan and Arnie Ginsberg at first, then Jan and Dean Torrence.

The late Fifties and early Sixties was a time of rapid transformation in the definition of cool — in music, cars, clothes and hairstyles. Those with a sense of fashion like Jan and Dean, were switching to khakis with a buckle in the back while my friends were still wearing low-riding Levis and rolled-up shirt sleeves. We listened to black R&B on Hunter Hancock's show (the Ladds' party favorite was "High Blood Pressure" by Huey Piano Smith). Jan and Dean's favorites were what we'd have dismissed as white bread, such as "Book of Love," "Little Star" and "Hushabye." Greased hair combed into a jellyroll (early Jan Berry) or waterfall (Dean), was on the way out. Shorter blonde hair, like Dean's later flattop, was on the way in. I was still swing dancing in 1958 with my "American Bandstand" dance partner Romelia Guevara. By 1961 swing was dead in L.A., replaced by the twist and the surfer stomp.

Paul's Merc was dropped in back, by torching the springs. That was still common practice on what was called (with inadequate cultural sensitivity) a "taco barge." That vintage Merc, which resembles an upside-down bathtub, was a favorite with the Falcons de Sotel, a Chicano group, but a '49-54 Chevy was a close rival. Some needed casters on the rear bumper to get up a driveway without scraping the twin tailpipes.

Rich kids' cars, by contrast, soon became inclined rather than reclined. Rather than being lowered in the back, they were raised in back — "raked" — with fat rear tires. Spoiled teens had '55-58 Chevys pin-striped by von Dutch. As a poor imitation, I helped my fellow-Ladd Don Brown rake his '50 Ford by moving the rear axle to below the rear leaf springs. It looked hot, but the wildly bent U-joints did not last long.

Coming of age in L.A. in the late Fifties was pretty cool. But today's cars, movies, and fashions are really much better. Restaurants are better too, with the exception of the Apple Pan on Pico, which is still as good as it ever was. Pop music is probably better too, but not nearly as magical. There was something uniquely special about hearing Chuck Berry for the first time at Venice beach, Little Richard opening the movie The Girl Can't Help It, and catching the debut of Heartbreak Hotel at a roller-skating rink. Some of us stuck in that groove too long. I was still singing "Slippin' and Slidin" with a garage band from Santa Monica College in the early Sixties, which was downright retro.

But music suddenly caught a new big wave when Dick Dale (who is still an astonishing guitarist) released "Let's Go Trippin'" in 1961- the same year, the Beach Boys came out with their first hit, "Surfin" and Jan and Dean with their second, "Heart and Soul."

Surf music came into its own at the same time twist clubs and coffeehouses sprung up. The Forty Thieves coffeehouse in Venice had silk hung from the ceiling and flat mats like a harem, with occasional poets and Mose Allison's "Seventh Son" on the jukebox. It was a fabulous time to be young in L.A. And a lot of the credit for all that fun goes to Jan Berry. The unique sound of Jan and Dean created continues to put smiles on the faces of everyone who hears it.

As Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers put it, "if there's a rock’n’roll heaven, I'll bet they have a hell of a band." Jan Berry and Bobby Hatfield just made it even greater.

New York Times and About.com?

For reasons that I may never understand, the New York Times has acquired About.com for $410 million. About.com? You have got to be kidding me. I've visited the About.com network on a few occasions but have never been overwhelmed by the content or design. How often have you been talking to someone and heard them reference About.com? "Yeah, I was just doing some research for my trip and spent a lot of time at About.com reading about mountain biking."

If I were an NYT shareholder, I'd be furrowing my brow right about now. Of course, I am a Krispy Kreme shareholder and the brow's been furrowed for a few months now.

The Maggot Maher

Blogger Mike D'Virgilio has provided an excellent brief study of the odious TV personality Bill Maher on Mike's fine blog, MDV Outlook.

In my view, Maher is one of the most annoyingly ignorant blowhards currently operating on the American talk-show circuit, and that is saying a lot. To me, he is in fact too repulsive to contemplate, and thus I am glad that I can refer readers to Mike's article, which provides a solid summary of Maher's "thoughts" on the role of religion in American today. Mike shows exactly how intelligent and open-minded the talking maggot Maher really is. It is well worth reading.

Two Of An Unkind

The race between news outlets for information about breaking stories is hardly a new phenomenon. I heartily recommend that everyone seek out Ben Hecht's autobiography, A Child Of The Century, to get a bird's-eye view of the journalistic culture of the early 20th Century (in case you thought The Front Page was fiction).

But in the age of Google one would expect that the baseline of accuracy for basic facts about a public figure's life would be universal.

Not so. I read two articles today about the passing of John Raitt, the great Broadway performer. The one in the Washington Post says that Rodgers wrote the soliloquy in Carousel specifically to suit Raitt's talents. The one by Reuters says that Hammerstein wrote the soliloquy in Carousel specifically to suit Raitt's talents. Okey-doke.

The Post piece says that in addition to singer Bonnie Raitt, John had a son and a daughter. Reuters says that he had two sons. I am inclined to credit Reuters with the greater accuracy, since they added that their names are Steven and David.

Guys, take five more minutes before going to press and get it right. We're counting on you to inform us about war and medicine and celebrity wardrobes; our lives are in your hands.

Jacoby on Gerrymandering

Jeff Jacoby had a very nice insight in his Boston Globe column of yesterday:

"The deepest and unhealthiest divide in American politics is not the one that separates Republicans from Democrats or conservatives from liberals. It is the gulf between Insiders and Outsiders -- between the incumbents who treat public office as private property and the increasingly neutered electorate in whose name they claim to act."

Jacoby points out that much of what Congress does, takes the form of an "incumbent protection racket"—which I would add is only to be expected, as long as those in Congress wield such a huge amount of power over the citizenry and indeed the condition of the entire world. When neither conscience nor the other branches of government can sufficiently restrain Congress, the great power of that body will create a huge amount of inertia.

Jacoby strongly criticizes the nearly univesal practice of gerrymandering, and rightly, as an important means by which legislators protect their positions. He correctly praises California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for launching "a full-scale attack on redistricting abuse in his state, demanding that the power to draw election maps be taken from the legislature and turned over to a committee of retired judges." As Jacoby notes, what is particularly interesting—and courageous—about Schwarzenegger's plan is "there is nothing partisan about it. It doesn't empower Rs at the expense of Ds, or Ds at the expense of Rs. It empowers voters at the expense of politicians." As a result, Jacoby says, sixteen of the current twenty Caifornia Republican congresspersons oppose the governor's plan.

Jacoby reports that similar reforms are underway in several other states, which is a good trend indeed. He writes,

"An end to gerrymandering would be an extraordinary shot in the arm for American democracy, once again making legislative races exciting and responsive. This is the very best kind of government reform—the kind that can unite conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. No, honest redistricting won't turn real-life politics into a ninth grade civics class. But it will make it a lot more interesting and democratic than the farce we're stuck with now."

That is true, and it is why those currently holding legislative power will fight to the death to retain the current system or at least water down the proposed reforms. After all, state legislators hope to become members of Congress themselves, down the road. Any progress toward reform in this matter could have some real consequences.

Hunter S. Thompson, RIP

We should hardly be surprised that Hunter S. Thompson has up and left us. Perhaps more amazing is that he lasted here for 67 years.

After hearing someone who shared a lecture bill with Hunter at a college somewhere describe how HST and his fourth wife were shooting up and downing shots in the rest room before his address, I would hardly have anticipated this level of longevity.

Still, Hunter was a man who opened a creative door, one that P.J. O'Rourke and many other fine writers refined in ways that have much enhanced our sense of events transpiring in faraway reaches of our planet. What was called 'gonzo' in his manic day has by now become part of our social fabric, not necessarily a bad part.

(Have a peek at Hunter's last column for ESPN.com, dated Feb. 15.)

As I have mentioned here before, I was once in the room when a genius went insane. Sometimes genius is too heavy a burden to carry.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Joining The Peace Corpses

Kudos to Associated Press reporter Maggie Michaels (and her Editor) for getting a valuable perspective-achieving bit of contrasting information into the second paragraph of her story about the suicide bombs that killed 55 Iraqis on the Shiites' holiest day.

She made the point that this was a "significantly smaller" amount of terrorist success than last year on this day when they killed 181.

As grim as it sounds, the fact is that sometimes the true story is not 55 dead, as tragic as that is, but '126 less dead than last year' as we measure progress toward civil society in Iraq.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Conservatives on the March

I am posting this from a computer donated for public use, by townhall.com, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the American Conservative Union. It is a bit odd, of course, for me to be here, given that I have been so consistent in stating that I am not a conservative. However, this is not as strange as it may seem. For the political meaning of the word conservative, as I have frequently noted, has evolved into something synonomous with the Right. This conference confirms that notion.

It is interesting, for example, that one of the people who just spoke to the assembled masses about Social Security reform was a member of the Log Cabin Republicans. The speaker did not receive a huge ovation for his politely veiled reference to allowing any old kind of "domestic partner" to receive death benefits from Social Security under a new system allowing personal retirement accounts. But that is exactly the point. Although his position on many issues is hardly describable as conservative, his views on Social Security are certainly of the Right.

This brings up what is to me one of the most important questions of the day, for the Right. Can born-again Christians join with Log Cabin Republicans to support changes in Social Security and then go out separately to very different places afterward, and still see each other as true allies? This is a question that should be central to the discussion on the Right, as we seek to consolidate recent successes and create a movement that can truly compose a long-term majority of the American people.

There has been a certain amount of triumphalism among the speakers at the conference, and that is surely understandable given the political success of the Right in recent elections. Seeing the great variety of organizations and speakers at this conference--from Midwestern Eagle Forum traditionalists and the National Rifle Association to Log Cabin Republicans and groups for the legalization of marijuana--clearly this is a movement that includes a large variety of very different people. It suggests the possibility for a true, long-term political majority being established by the Right.

The question is whether these disparate groups can agree on a set of central principles that is sufficiently broad and yet also exclusive enough to sustain a definable mission to which all can assent. When the time for self-congratulation has finally passed, that is the conversation I would like to see on the Right.

Negroponte and Capability

Jay, I'm probably going to end up on the opposite side of Savage here, too. My read on John Negroponte is that he is one of those men who has the ability to get things done. There are a lot of smart, talented people in the world, but the number of them who can really act and achieve goals without excuses is radically lower.

I'm guessing that President Bush got burned on Bernard Kerik and then thought, "The celebrity strategy for this post hasn't worked, I'm going to name a superbly competent person who doesn't care much about image or headlines. Thus, we get Negroponte.

The Director As Auteur? Or Hauteur?

This publication has registered its displeasure with the output of radio personality Dr. Michael Savage, but this time he has gotten it right: what possible advantage to our intelligence gathering and analysis or our overall safety can be achieved by appointing Mr. Negroponte, a veteran diplomat, to the umbrella role of Intelligence Director?

This is a classic example of the desperate need to "do something" metastasizing into doing something foolish and counterproductive. Is it rude of me to recall my immediate opposition to the idea?

What Happened to the Unions?

Yes, you all know it, I love the Lawrence Henry take on America. He's knocked around, been a lot of places, and despite making his way down a bumpy road, he's still here writing, thinking, and doing a little stock-investing. If you don't read his column every week at American Spectator, you're really missing out on the fun history of regular life in the U.S.

Check out his take on the big changes that killed the labor unions. Here's a smidge:

Labor unions just plain missed it. Even if they hadn't missed it, what were they supposed to do? What -- or whom -- were you supposed to organize? A bunch of geeks in a warehouse mainlining Coca-Cola? Which were the real businesses and which were the pipe dreams? If Wall Street couldn't tell yet, and it couldn't, not really, how were unions supposed to figure it out? By the time some sort of manufacturing lines came into existence, those lines were already changing so fast, it was hard to tell the difference between labor and management. Now, of course, the mass jobs, the low-skill jobs, have migrated overseas, and they're just plain gone. Who wants guaranteed overtime? Everybody's got guaranteed overtime. It comes with the territory. Now you want stock options. Now you want career advances. Now you want to strike out and do it for yourself. Pension? Tell me another one. I've got a 401(k) and deferred comp. Job security? There's no such thing. Career types change jobs seven times in a lifetime nowadays.

A Thought Ontic

After recommending to Hunter that he include in his doctoral reading list The Lonely Man Of Faith by Joseph B. Soloveitzik (1903-1993), I picked up my own copy and scanned it a bit for insight and inspiration.

This I felt urged to share: "Western man... attends lectures on religion and appreciates the ceremonial, yet he is searching not for a faith in all its singularity and otherness, but for religious culture. He seeks not the greatness found in sacrificial action but the convenience one discovers in a comfortable, serene state of mind. He is desirous of an aesthetic experience rather than a covenantal one, of a social ethos rather than a divine imperative. In a word, he wants to find in faith that which he cannot find in his laboratory, or in the privacy of his luxurious home. His efforts are noble, yet he is not ready for a genuine faith experience which requires the giving of one's self unreservedly to God, who demands unconditional commitment, sacrificial action, and retreat. Western man... insists on being successful. Alas, he wants to be successful even in his adventure with God. If he gives of himself to God, he expects reciprocity. In a primitive manner, he wants to trade 'favors' and exchange goods. The gesture of faith for him is a give-and-take affair and reflects the philosophy of Job which led to catastrophe - a philosophy which sees faith as a quid pro quo arrangement and expects compensation for each sacrifice one offers..."

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Kofi Should Be Canned

If by some unaccountable fluke you have not yet discovered my article in today's Jewish World Review, here it is, linkin' without costin' ya a penny. My message is: get Kofi.

The Ralph Reed Rumor Was Right On.

Ralph Reed is launching his own political career by running for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. Friends pretty deep in the Georgia political world have known this was coming. My guess is that Dr. Ralph is going to get what he wants. If Haley Barbour can do it in Mississippi, Ralph can do it in Georgia.

He'll likely have primary opposition, but it's hard to imagine anyone else in the party could match his name recognition and "powerful-strong" resume'. There are folks in the Georgia GOP who really hate Reed, but I suspect that's true of most political figures in any party. Part of the problem is that he immediately became the biggest GOP fish when he came back to the state. I'll make the prediction now. Ralph takes the Lt. Gov's office with 53% of the vote.

You can check out his own statement of ambition and aspiration here.

A Musing Grace

The Miami-Dade School Board will hold a vote today to determine if the soda machines should be removed from all the local public schools to help prevent obesity in children.

We have all witnessed this galloping cultural phenomenon of the virtue of health being whittled into a cudgel with which to bludgeon the populace into a grim conformity.

Have we been correct in deeming it merely an amusing spectacle of the finicky badgering the carefree?

Or is this something more insidious, more perfidious, part of an ongoing cultural experiment of postmodern man trying to reconstruct some network of boundaries to replace those that were unwittingly dismantled in the adventure of deconstructing the social fabric? A fabric that was knit by the quest for godliness.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Blegging About Books . . .

Good people of ReformClub land, I am about to enter the post-coursework segment of my doctoral program in Religion, Politics, and Society at Baylor. At this point, we put together a list of 100 or so relevant books (Reformation, Church-State jurisprudence, sociology of religion, political liberalism, American religious history, the Puritans, etc) and study them for a year prior to taking comprehensive exams. I'm working on the list now and would love to benefit from recommendations of books from anyone who cares to Email me.

I have a particular interest in deists, by the way, if anyone knows something about them, all the better.

Mr. Karnick, I'm still waiting for yours!

Rafik Hariri's Traffic Horror

Earlier this week I indicated that it might be valuable to write a full-length article on the history of Syrian domination in Lebanon. They took a long time serving the entree at the wedding I attended tonight, so I snuck home (fifteen minutes away), wrote the article, and got back to my table ahead of the prime rib (well-done and delicious).

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Culture Watch—The Simpsons

In next Sunday's episode of The Simpsons, the town of Springfield legalizes same-sex marriage, and one of the central characters of the series will take advantage of the opportunity. Who that character will turn out to be has been a matter of intense debate in some circles, and it will be even more interesting to see what kind of attitude the story takes toward the issue. It is interesting, for example, why the town decides to legalize the marriages: to increase money from tourism. Simpsons executive producer Al Jean was quoted in the Baltimore Sun as saying, "We don't take a position as much as explore everybody's positions." We'll find out next Sunday on Fox.

Shall It Be The Truth?

Those who share our interest in the portrayal of religious characters in fiction will want to read Wendy Shalit's spirited response in today's Jewish World Review to those who attacked her New York Times Book Review survey of books about observant Jews.

If you have not read the original article, never fear, today's article offers you that link in its opening line. Please accept my strong recommendation; this is well worth your while.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Retirement of Jerry Falwell . . .

I should say, "the much anticipated retirement of Jerry Falwell." The man is not an effective spokesman for Christian conservatives. I think that much of what drove me to enter the world of Christian public policy and now Christian higher education was the feeling that Falwell and guys like him were failing us all. He can't quit soon enough for me.

Today, I happened onto the Sean Hannity show on the radio. Jerry Falwell and Christian lefty Jim Wallis were going at it. Actually, I should say that Wallis was explaining his left-wing politics while affirming pro-life and pro-traditional marriage views. Falwell was all over him, simply refusing to have a conversation. He insisted that Wallis explain where he goes to church, what time they meet, the address of the church, you get the drift. It was just embarrassing. I'm even more disappointed that Hannity would choose Falwell as the counterpoint. Can't blame that on the liberal media.

Falwell has been effectively taken down in Tucker Carlson's book Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News. Carlson says cable news hosts desperately need guests who will drop anything, including a child's birthday party to show up for even a few seconds of air time. He places Falwell in that camp and was disappointed to visit Falwell for an interview and find that instead of an interesting discussion about the growth of the religious right as a factor in American politics, he got a recitation of all the people in television Falwell knows.

You want an evangelical for television and radio? Get Hugh Hewitt. Get Mark Noll. Get George Marsden. Jerry Falwell has had more than enough.

Trouble Is Real

Since Israel -and my one-time residence there- has emerged as a theme today, I would like to address two events that relate to that region.

First, the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, and billionaire-at-large, Rafik Hariri, by a massive bomb that bespeaks a patron with deep pockets, large staging areas, and effective penetration. The prime suspect is, of course, Syria, a nominally separate country that is actually the suzerain of Lebanon. Hariri resigned his post last autumn because of a dispute with his Syrian bosses. This would seem to be the fallout from the fall falling-out.

Please permit me to recall to your memory the fact that the act which broke the back of independent Lebanese sovereignty was the bomb which killed Bashir Gemayel during the victory party the night he was elected (with Israel's backing) Prime Minister in 1982. This led to the Sabra-and-Shatila massacre and a state of civil war which was only stopped, or at least contained, when Amin Gemayel, milquetoast brother of the charismatic Bashir, agreed to serve as Syria's stooge and occupy his brother's position with no real power.

Second, the report in the Jerusalem Post, not widely circulated here, that Abbas has agreed to unfreeze the bank accounts of Hamas in return for some undisclosed agreement of cooperation with his government. That is probably a development that bears close scrutiny.

Withdrawals From West Bank

The news from Israel, being distributed widely across the wire services, is that terrible death threats by West Bank and Gaza settlers against government ministers have compelled Ariel Sharon to issue a crackdown order. Having resided in Israel myself for a few years (while Sharon was Defense Minister), permit me to decipher this report.

First of all, please note that one government minister received one nasty letter calling him an Arab-lover and one had the tires on his car slashed. How absurd is it to issue a national police order based on one anonymous letter?

The answer is that this is the Israeli equivalent of the Gulf-of-Tonkin method. It has been used frequently in the Israeli government playbook.

This is a simple trick designed to open the door for the government to harass a few settlers so as to soften them up for the eventual evacuation order. Sharon is a general who likes to play offense and do a small preemptive strike to avoid larger confrontations later. Perhaps I'll expand on this in an article later this week.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Getting Religion

In The American Scene, Ross Douthat has written a very insightful response to a "searing indictment of contemporary Christian mores," as he characterizes it, recently published in Books and Culture.

The Books and Culture article, by theology professor Ronald J. Sider, which appears in the January/February issue of the magazine and is available online, is called "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" and points out the great difference between what contemporary American evangelical Christians profess to believe and how they behave. Sider cites the now-familiar statistics about tithing, divorce, premarital sex, racism, etc. which show that American evangelical Christians are on the whole only slightly less sinful, according to evangelical doctrines, than other Americans. Sider observes that those churchgoers with the strongest Christian beliefs tend to live less sinful lives. Hence, the answer, Sider says, is to strengthen the faith of individual believers. Sider exhorts his fellow Christians to develop a "longing for holiness" and pray for a revival within the church that will strengthen individuals' beliefs.

It is an interesting article and one well worth reading, but Douthat's analysis of the piece goes to the heart of the matter: the Calvinist origins of American evangelicalism—

"In Protestantism [Douthat writes], and particularly among those churches with a Calvinist stamp, this reality of perptual fallen-ness has often clashed with the emphasis on a single 'born-again' moment, and with the expectation that once a Christian gains true faith, works will inevitably follow. The presence of sinfulness in a Christian community thus becomes an indictment of the community's faithfulness -- and this, in turn leads to what you might call the 'cycle of Protestantism,' in which purity-seeking believers are constantly founding new sects and religious colonies, which expand and thrive but also drift away from their original moral austerity, leading in turn to splinter movements and the founding of a newer, smaller, more austere communities (as New Haven was founded, for instance, as a refuge from the increasing worldliness of Puritan Boston).

"Or alternatively, the inevitable slide into moral laxity leads to a cycle of revivals, in which the community recommits itself to religious rigor for a time, only to drift away again eventually, setting the stage for another revival -- and so on, ad infinitum. And through it all, as the sects and splinter movements multiply, there remains an unspoken belief among the Calvinistically-inclined -- a belief, I might add, that permeates Sider's article -- that a more perfect community, a true and permanent 'City on the Hill,' is just another revival away.

"The Catholic Church, by contrast, takes a rather more tragic view of Christian imperfectability (a necessity, a Protestant might say snidely, given the Church's long history of Grand Inquisitors and Borgia Popes). Catholicism has its saints, of course, but they are exceptions to the rule -- the community of believers is understood to be a community of sinners, not a society of the perfected. The signs and signifiers of the divine reside not in the all-to[o]-human Catholics who show up (or don't) at Mass on Sundays, but in the mystical materials of the Church itself -- in doctrine, in scripture, and above all in the sacraments. There is an expectation that everyone will pray and strive for the sainthood that Sider urges on American Evangelicals, but it's joined to an awareness that most people aren't going to make it. (Hence Purgatory, incidentally . . .)

"The difficulty with the Catholic approach, though I think it's the right one, is that a recognition of the pervasiveness and permanence of sin can easily be elided into a winking, 'it's-not-so-bad' acceptance of sin. And we all know where that got us."

Douthat is entirely correct in his observation that cause of the disjunction between American Christians' beliefs and actions is to be found in evangelicalism's Calvinist origins, and that the weakness of Sider's case is his inability to get past that, which means that all he can do is call for more of the same, another revival within the church. The cycle must continue, if we follow Sider's reasoning.

The moral problem of Calvinism is a theological problem, however, and it is this. All Christians agree that human beings are inherently sinful, and all agree that God is the source of all good things, and of all good works by human beings. Hence, sanctification—the process of cleansing a person and making them holy—follows salvation, not the other way around. (That is to say, a person is not made acceptable to God—holy, clean, sinless—and then saved by God. God saves a person and then begins the process of cleansing and purifying that will be perfected upon each individual's death and entrance into Heaven.)

However, what I call the "magic moment" thesis of evangelical Christianity, in which a person participates in his own salvation in a sense, by "choosing" to "accept God into his life through faith in Christ" puts a huge amount of responsibility on the individual Christian. A Christian, according to Calvinism, must knowingly accept God. That sounds fine and sensible at first hearing, but if it is true, then inevitably a person is an active participant in his own salvation. If salvation requires both God's will and an individual's assent—even if we accept the premise, as Calvinists do, that assent will come only if God wishes it—the individual's act is still an essential part of the process.

The situation with good works is the same. Calvinists, correctly believing that church membership is not a sufficient proof of one's salvation, conclude that, as the apostle James noted, an individual's works are the evidence of one's relationship with God. Well and good. Unfortunately, the onus is then on each individual Christian to show the world that they are right with God. And here is the problem: given that the individual's assent to God's will is a central element in salvation, then it would seem that at least to some degree an individual's struggles with sin are not entirely in God's hands. After all, one must consent to being made holy. And if one is not entirely holy, who is at fault? Surely not God, who is all-powerful and perfectly good. The one who is at fault is the individual whose inherent depravity has caused him to resist God's efforts to sanctify him.

That is indeed the truth about sin, as all Christians would agree. The problem, of course, is that there is no way out of this trap once one enters it. The individual is responsible for his or her own sins, and although God has already forgiven them (as a consequence of the magic moment), no amount of human effort can fully dislodge the sinful impulses from an individual and stop their evil consequences.

Catholicism, as Douthat notes, has an answer. I should say that God's Word provides us with the answer, which Catholics and other pre-Calvin Christian denominations (such as Lutheranism) have not forgotten. It is this: the effectiveness of the Sacraments. Douthat notes that Catholics see God as working "in the mystical materials of the Church itself -- in doctrine, in scripture, and above all in the sacraments," but it is important to note that evangelicals accept the first two completely but have a distinctly different understanding of the sacraments. To them, the sacrament of baptism is an individual's response to salvation, which happens during the moment in which he accepts Christ into his heart.

Communion, similarly, for Calvinist-influenced Christians is a Christian's response to God: it is not a way for God to put something directly into the individual (specifically, the True Presence of the Lord in His body and blood), but rather a way for an individual to show God his personal devotion and witness to others that God is real and cares for each person, an act which God will reward by strengthening that person's faith.

For Christians with pre-Calvinist assumptions, however, the sacraments are real. (We do differ on the number of the sacraments, but all agree on at least two: baptism and communion.) For pre-Calvinist Christians, as I shall call this group for short, God actually works His power in us through the sacraments.

In baptism, the Holy Spirit of God is placed in the individual, and he or she is stamped as a child of God. The individual is taken into the Church universal, the body of Christ, and is thereafter perfectly free to stay or leave. But the actual entry does not require any action on the part of the believer. No act of assent is necessary. Hence, in pre-Calvinist thinking, the Christian has truly had no part whatsoever in his or her salvation. No one can take any credit for being saved, nor for any good works they do, nor even for remaining in the Church.

Of course, as Ross noted, this can give people a tendency toward latitudinarianism, given that all is so easily forgiven.

However, that need not be so, because of the other major sacrament: communion.

In communion, the presence of Christ is in the bread and wine (consubstantiation), or the elements are turned into the real body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation), and when a sincerely penitent believer partakes of them, that strength of God is placed in them anew. Here, too, God is doing all the work. Yes, the believers must confess their sins (privately to a priest or publicly in the liturgy), but God is truly doing the work of renewal.

I recall that Flannery O'Connor once said of evangelicals' idea about communion, "Well, if it's just symbolic, then I don't want no part of it!"

I can understand why, and in her charmingly tart way O'Connor set forth a crucial reason for the perennial laments about the Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience among evangelicals themselves. Evangelical theology places a huge amount of responsibility on the individual Christian, who is, after all, no more than a highly fallible human being who has been redeemed by God and remains always a work in progress. Pre-Calvinist Christians can proceed to the altar for refreshment and renewal, and need bring nothing to the table but their sincere repentance.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, after that "magic moment" in which they ask Christ to come into their life, are perpetually under the gun. Once saved, good works are supposed to follow inevitably, and every failure is a failure of the individual, certainly not of God.

All Christians agree that any sin is a consequence of human depravity, not a shortcoming of God's power or mercy. For evangelicals, however, there is no supernatural recourse, as there is for pre-Calvinist Christians. One can only continue try to try harder. And as both Ronald Sider and Ross Duthout note, at some point such self-sanctification becomes too great a burden to bear.

Given that evangelicals do indeed believe in the supernatural, I would suggest that there is a viable alternative to their agonizing "cycle of Protestantism." That is to recognize that there is true power in the sacraments. It will require a rethinking of very important doctrines, and it will surely subject both the individual and the Church to new hazards borne of human sin; but it will also, in the wonderfully paradoxical way that God often works, remove a great and unhappy impediment to Christians' achievement of "the peace that passes all understanding."

I'd consider that a trade well worth making.