Saturday, February 12, 2005

Watch Your Mouth, Buddy!

The Blogosphere takes down another public figure for speaking intemperately. The Trent Lott treatment catches up with CNN's Eason Jordan right after taking down Dan Rather. Jordan just quit his top job with the left of center news network.

Friday, February 11, 2005

North Korean Nukes

It is exceedingly tempting to dismiss the various bellicose statements of North Korea's Kim government as just so much meaningless bluster, given the regularity of such emissions from Pyongyang.

I think, however, that what happened yesterday is very important, and specifically because the twofold announcement by Pyongyang seems to be based on a rational calculation of North Korea's current situation and highly plausible, from their perspective, fears of imminent U.S. action there.

As I have noted in an article on National Review Online today, North Korea's abrupt announcement yesterday that it has manufactured nuclear weapons and that it would not return to the U.S.-sponsored six-nation talks intended to prevent the isolated nation from developing such weapons is quite puzzling—at least initially.

Making one of the two announcements would have made great sense. But not both.

It would seem, after all, that the current negotiations need have no more effect than previous ones, if the North Koreans simply used them as a PR device and holding action while forging ahead with weapons development on the sly, as they have quite evidently done in the past. And if the North Koreans were to enter negotiations after announcing that they had developed working nuclear weapons, that would surely strengthen their hand. The talks would then become a conversation about what to do about the weapons, not whether to allow them to be developed.

Their action of yesterday fails to accomplish either of those things, and it isolates North Korea further from other nations. In particular, it is sure to infuriate the United States and Japan, two of the three major powers in the region. After hearing the statement by the North Korean Foreign Ministry, the governor of Tokyo scoffed and openly dared Pyongyang to fire a missile at Japan.

It seems unlikely, however, that it is a mere coincidence that North Korea should make this announcement and pull out of talks just a few days after the democratic elections in Iraq. (Feel free to put quotation marks around the word democratic if you wish.) In fact, it seems quite plausible that the Kim regime saw the recent comments by Secretary of State Rice as a warning that the United States was going to come after North Korea, and sooner than anyone might think.

The statement by the North Korean Foreign Ministry said Pyongyang has "manufactured nukes for self-defense to cope with the Bush administration's undisguised policy to isolate and stifle" the nation. Thursday's New York Times reported that Pyongyang's statement "zeroed in in on Dr. Rice's testimony last month in her Senate confirmation hearings, where she lumped North Korea with five other dictatorships, calling them 'outposts of tyranny.'"

It seems plausible, then, that Pyongyang came to the conclusion that the United States and a coalition of other nations was about to do something that would ultimately lead to the fall of the Kim regime and a reunification of Korea on terms determined entirely by South Korea and its powerful allies. Yesterday's statement, then, was Pyongyang's way of forestalling such action by raising the stakes radically, in suggesting that any U.S. move to impose its will on North Korea would lead to the use, however inefficient and elementary, of nuclear weapons by Pyongyang.

It is not difficult to imagine what possible steps by a U.S.-led coalition North Korea was worried about—starting with economic sanctions and going on from there. In confirmation of this premise, note that today's New York Tmes article on the subject reported, "North Korea has warned the world that it considers economic sanctions a declaration of war."

And where did Pyongyang think China fit into this scenario? Evidently they envisioned Beijing protesting mightily but ultimately sitting on the sidelines, reluctant to endanger its enormous and lucrative foreign trade with the West by siding with North Korea.

If this is indeed something like the thought process that led to Thursday's announcement, the implications for the U.S.-led response are murky indeed. America can ill afford to let this pass without some form of action. However, anything substantive, including measures as apparently mild as a call for economic sanctions, will only assure Pyongyang that their interpretation of recent U.S. statements has been exactly correct.

Hence, the United States must simultaneously assure Pyongyang that we have no intention whatever of bringing down their government and that if North Korea does not suspend development of nuclear weapons we will indeed bring down their government. Squaring that circle now becomes the first great test for President Bush's second term and Condi Rice's tenure as Secretary of State. If there is an answer short of eventual war, it is by no means clear at this point what it could be.

Utter Journalistic Incompetence . . .

As a scholar-in-training, I've noticed that one must do a tremendous amount of research and just plain "breathing the air" of a subject to really get it right. The process has made me terribly suspicious of anything journalists write unless they've focused closely on a specific subject throughout their careers. Powerline confirmed my judgment yesterday:

Very few people realize how often mainstream media sources say things that just aren't true. Sometimes the reason is malice, more often it's ignorance or prejudice. A fascinating example of a libel directed against the Catholic church--undoubtedly the world's most frequently defamed institution--was brought to our attention by reader Matthew Kowalski. On New Year's Day, the Washington Post published an article by Jose Antonio Vargas titled "Seeking the Hand of God in the Waters". The article reported on various efforts to find theological meaning in the South Asian tsunami. The Post article included these paragraphs:

Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago, has written his 55th book, "When Faiths Collide," which he says should land in bookstores this week.
"It's only natural to repose yourself in the will of God," he says. "If you're a believer, then you must believe that God, somehow, is a presence in all of this. But God didn't tell anybody that you go through life without disasters."


Still, talk of religion's role in the disaster irks Marty. Following the devastation in Lisbon in 1755, priests roamed the streets, hanging those they believed had incurred God's wrath. That event "shook the modern world," he notes, changing people's idea of a benevolent, all-caring God.

The ludicrous assertion that priests had "roamed the streets" hanging people after the Lisbon earthquake was made by Vargas, and apparently passed by one or more editors at the Post without raising any questions. The claim was then picked up and repeated by a number of other news sources.

It struck at least one person odd, however: a woman named Theresa Carpinelli. In the Catholic Exchange, she tells the fascinating story of her effort to get to the bottom of this smear against her church. A casual reader of the paragraphs quoted above might attribute the "hanging" reference to Professor Marty. In fact, however, he was astonished to learn that the claim was being attributed to him. It appears that it may have originated in an unsourced, wholly imaginary Wikipedia entry. For reasons not yet explained, Vargas slipped it into his article in the midst of Professor Marty's comments. Ms. Carpinelli has corresponded with Vargas and the hoax has been exposed, but as far as I can determine, the Post has not run a correction.

The moral of the story is that news sources that are considered reliable by many people, like the Washington Post, in fact make a great many errors--some innocent, others not. If an assertion sounds outlandish, like the claim that roving bands of 18th century Catholic priests went about hanging people, realize that it may very well be a fabrication. (Or, to take another example, the claim that a Secretary of the Interior expressed the view that environmental preservation is unnecessary in view of the imminent end of the world.) And bear in mind that false statements seem to be made more frequently about some people--Catholics, say, or Republicans--than about others.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

An Exemplary Life

In the books section of the current issue of National Review is a look at Right Turns, the recently published autobiography of Michael Medved. Medved is a very accomplished and genteel individual whose evolving attitudes toward morality and society reflect important trends of recent decades. The review, written by the present author, is available only in the print and web-.pdf versions of the magazine, not online. Here are some excerpts which may whet your interest:

"If you want to understand how thoroughly the American elite moved from the right to the left in the 20th century, consider this: The most talked-about conversions are those that went the other way. Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, the neoconservatives, and the like are remembered not because their stories are so representative of the times, but because they are so unusual. . . .

"Like Ronald Reagan, who always said that he didn't leave the Democratic party but rather that the party left him, Medved didn't leave liberalism—liberalism left him.

"Medved makes that clear in his new memoir, Right Turns, while continuing to embrace the conservative label. During the early 1970s, Medved notes, he associated the term liberal with 'positive values like compassion, generosity, enlightenment, and integrity.' The American Left, however, though still called liberal, had moved away from those notions, and they were coming to be more commonly associated with the Right. As a result, leftism became exceedingly perverse and dangerous. . . .

"What makes Middle Americans so much more appealing to him than the liberal elite is their concern for individual moral choices—as opposed to mere words, which are notoriously easy to bestow. He says 'one of the most depressing, dysfunctional aspects of contemporary culture' is 'the focus on faraway problems over which we have no control rather than achievable aims in our immediate surroundings.'

". . . Medved notes that prosaic activities—such as his embarrassing daily habit of picking up trash off his neighborhood streets—are a very simple way we can all make the world better. 'Despite the alarming pronouncements of big-government demagogues who want us to feel powerless and paralyzed without their grandiose new programs,' he says, 'we can make the private choices that determine destiny.'

". . . Medved, an Orthodox Jew, writes that 'on every significant challenge-whether it's crime or poverty or family breakdown or drug addiction or educational inadequacy-serious Christianity represents part of the solution, not part of the problem.'"

Michael Medved is truly a good and generous man whose affection for bourgeois life, America, and decent, normal people is highly appealing. His life is an interesting and, as his book makes clear, instructive one.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

About Those 10-Year Medicare Drug Cost Projections

The headlines are screaming. The politicos are concerned, deeply concerned. Brows are being furrowed, furrows are being browed, green eyeshades are all the rage, and the political class finds itself shocked, shocked that projections---looking out ten years!---of program costs have increased.

And all of this is because of the evil drug companies: We are talking about the budget projections for the new Medicare drug benefit, after all, and the drug companies have raised some of their prices. This particular charge is deeply amusing, in that it is being made largely by politicians who would sooner lose an arm than cut taxes.

In any event, it turns out that the charge---most prominently in today's Washington Post---is not true. Yes, the ten-year projection made in 2003 was about $511 billion. Yes, the ten-year projection now is $723 billion. But those are two different ten-year periods---the former 2004-2013, the latter 2006-2015---a fact seemingly lost on the crack journalists from the Post, a group simultaneously ignorant, stupid, lazy, dishonest, biased, and arrogant. For the same ten-year period 2004-2013, the earlier projection was $511 billion, and the latter is $518 billion, a difference of about 1.4 percent. The difference in the two ten-year periods is crucial, because the earlier period includes two years before the program takes effect, and because the latter ten-year period includes more Medicare beneficiaries.

None of this says anything about whether the projections in the end will prove even remotely similar to the reality that emerges over time. But that is a different question. For now it is clear that the Post "reporters" are interested in engendering a political campaign in favor of involving the federal behemoth in the negotiation of drug prices. Since 1993, the feds have done that for childhood vaccines, and since 1993 there has been an endemic shortage of such vaccines and a monotonic decline in the number of producers. Any thoughts on why that might be?

Cost-Plus

Today's New York Times reports, "The Bush administration offered a new estimate of the cost of the Medicare drug benefit on Tuesday, saying it would cost $720 billion in the next 10 years."

The article quotes Judd Gregg (R-NH), the new chair of the Senate Budget Committee, as saying he wants to "put the brakes on the growth of entitlements" and take a close look at the new Medicare law.

"Since it was sold as a $400 billion program, that's what we should keep it at," Mr. Gregg said.

Well, good luck with that.

The pattern for these entitlements has been well established, and it's clear how this one is destined to play out.

Let's go back four years and move forward from there. Espying potential political gain, the two parties compete to buy the votes of a particular political constituency by simultaneously lauding the wonderful benefits of a new spending program while underestimating the costs. Then, when the true costs are coming to be known, the conservative party says, "Whoops! Better get those costs in line. Have to cut benefits and raise payroll taxes for this." And the leftward party says, "Whoa, there, fellas! Peoples is counting on this money! If you cut them off, they'll die!" The conservative party then loses nerve, and raises the ante, but not enough to please anybody. They lose votes. The leftward party gets credit for saving the lives of real, needy people from the evil, green-eyeshade-wearing, big-business-favoring, kickback-taking accounting geeks of the conservative party.

And in the next go-round and ever after, the discussion is never to be whether or why, but only how much?

I'm sure the prescription drug benefit helped President Bush win a few key states in the recent election. It's surely worth it to him. But is it worth it to us?

Dean's Abortion Profile

George Neumayr has a worthwhile piece up at American Spectator on Howard Dean's ties with Planned Parenthood. Much has been made of Dem agonizing about how they can reconnect with voters motivated by their faith. I got news for you, naming Dr. Dean the party chair won't help.

Here's a nice excerpt:

At the very moment Democrats are claiming to distance themselves from abortion, they run back towards it by making Howard Dean -- a former doctor for Planned Parenthood -- their public face. Though the press almost never mentions it, Dean did an OB/GYN rotation for Planned Parenthood in the 1970s and later served as an executive board member of Planned Parenthood New England, meaning that he directly oversaw the largest abortion provider in the region. Were the Democrats sincerely moving to the middle on abortion, selecting a former overseer of abortion would have been the last thing to do.

Now they have managed to lash themselves to abortion even tighter by turning a Planned Parenthood alumnus and mascot -- Dean received the organization's Margaret Sanger award -- into the party's chief spokesman. Yes, like Hillary Clinton, Dean will try and call a few audibles on his old colleagues and friends at Planned Parenthood. But that won't work. In politics, past is prologue and perception.

What the Democratic party doesn't understand is that a tight relationship with Planned Parenthood nowadays is not good resume' material. In an era when the womb has become more or less transparent, anybody with a conscience has become pretty uneasy with the idea of abortion.

Churchill Downs, No Backtrack

This Ward Churchill genius at the University of Colorado gave a speech last night in which he declared that he stands behind his earlier article that likens the 9/11 victims to little Eichmanns.

I guess it takes one to think he knows one.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Salty Christians

This piece will be to some extent a bit of inside politics for Christians, but I believe it may be of interest to all readers concerned about the nexus of politics and religion.

The conservative columnist and radio host Doug Giles had an interesting article on Christianity and culture on TownHall a couple of days ago. Giles takes Jesus's statement that his followers are "the salt of the earth," and expounds on what this means in regard to Christians' relationship to the broader, secular society. Unfortunately, his position reflects a common misconception among Christians that has done a significant amount of damage to both the church and the culture.

Giles points out that the prophets written about in the Bible were "salty dogs" who were "raw and fiery" and "were not genteel placaters of the people." He says that Jesus's fiery statements make "the Dennis Miller Show look lame" by comparison. He chides contemporary Christians for not displaying this same sort of intensity, and strongly criticizes American Christians for the various ills that beset the nation today. Giles says,

"I do not blame Playboy, Las Vegas, the gay agenda, Air America, or whomever for our societal tooth decay. I blame the 'righteous' ones who will not shamelessly proclaim truth in such a way that it is persuasive, provocative and preserving. Yes, churches that do not seriously stand for truth commit institutional suicide and effectively marginalize themselves, rather than being the salt-shaking organisms God has called them to be."

I surmise that Giles is not referring to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson here, but to the nation's mainline Protestant denominations and perhaps to many leaders in the Catholic Church. in America.

Giles certainly has a point, and his argument should be taken seriously, though I wonder whether one can truly be "persuasive" to the overall public while being extremely "provocative" and salty. Too much salt ruins a dish. After all, Jesus said that the world would hate those who followed him, and his judgment has proven quite accurate. (By the world, he meant unbelievers.)

Giles superbly represents the Puritan-derived position of today's American evangelicals regarding how Christians should live in the world. In doing so, however, he also indicates the limitations of that view. It is a position that would be much more accurate and effective if fortified with greater attention to some important thoughts from pre-Calvinist Christianity. Specifically, a respect for the power of Original Sin.

I absolutely agree with Giles's point about how the Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets, spoke, and I entirely disagree with his statement about the cause of the problems of the world.

Jesus was, if anything, even harsher in his language than Giles suggests. Jesus called clean-living church leaders a "brood of vipers," referred to one of his own apostles as "Satan," and told people that their father was the devil. However, it is important to note that Jesus did not use these words to condemn moral failings. He reserved these words for religious hypocrites who would prevent people from direct contact with God or who would impede the coming of Christ's kingdom.

When dealing with moral failings, Jesus typically did not call people names, though he was always firm about telling people to stop their sinning. Thus Christ made his priorities clear: first one is redeemed by God, and then one's behavior is sanctified; never the other way around. He told his followers to love God, and then to love their neighbors. The latter follows from and is made possible by the former.

Giles's point that Jesus was by no means the meek and mild sufferer some people have portrayed him as, is quite good and valid.

However, I disagree strongly with Giles's notion that the weakness of the Church is the reason for sin being so strong in the world. Sin is strong in the world because it is central in every human being's heart. Jesus cane to liberate people from that enslavement, and he sent the Holy Spirit to work in people's hearts to fight for us against our own sinful desires. That is the only way that people can be freed from sin. And insofar as the Church fails to proclaim the Gospel, it does fail in its duty to the world.

But, all told, the Church has not failed to proclaim the Gospel. Some sects and denominations have done a wretched job of it, certainly, at various times. They have indeed watered down Christ's message into social, moral codes that Jesus would have condemned as a secondary matter that actually impedes God's direct work of saving souls. As Paul said, the reason for the law is to point us toward the need for a Savior.

In the main, however, the Church does proclaim the Gospel very well. People have little doubt about what the Church stands for, who Jesus claimed to be, and what he came here to do. That message has certainly got out there.

Yes, the Church is far from perfect, riven with human jealousies, rivalries, arrogance, ignorance, and inanity, but in the main it has not failed to proclaim the Gospel while doing all those unnecessary and indeed counterproductive things. The world knows what Jesus said, why he said it, and what he meant by it. The Church has not failed in sending that message.

Yet people continue to resist, because they do not agree that the claims of Christ and His Church are true. This resistance is a direct product of the sin in people's hearts, which veils the truth from their eyes. It is not attributable solely or even in great part to a failure to preach the Gospel. The reason sin remains so prevalent in the world is simply that the human heart is utterly inclined toward rebellion, according to Christian theology.

Hence, Giles is entirely incorrect when he says that Jesus, the prophets, and the Apostles were always "challenging people whose attitudes and actions were corrosive to the culture." They were most assuredly not doing that. What they were doing was challenging people whose attitudes and actions were standing in the way of their own and their neighbors' salvation, redemption, and sanctification. That was the central concern for the prophets and apostles, and it was and is always Jesus's concern; and everything else follows from that.

As the twentieth century theologian Richard Niebuhr noted, in his excellent book Christ and Culture (1951), Jesus is not in, outside, above, or beyond culture–he transforms human cultures. He does so through the transformation of individual souls, which liberates them from our natural slavery to sin and blindness.

The Church's duty, then, is exactly that of any individual: love God, love your neighbor. We all fail in that duty, utterly and tragically, every moment of every day. But that failure is not the reason there is so much sin in the world. There is so much sin in the world because sin is central to the human heart, and so many human hearts remain unredeemed.

Christians are not the cause of that. All we can do is love God, love our neighbors, and pray for the redemption of the world and Christ's swift return. The culture will be transformed as individual souls are redeemed.

Like the Social Gospel preachers whom he so rightly criticizes, Giles places too much emphasis on transforming society and too little on transforming individuals. I am sure that he recognizes the essential importance of the latter concern, but the failure to translate that insight into a practical perspective that puts political matters in their proper, distinctly secondary position among concerns for the church harms both church and society.

(Empty) News (Empty) Briefs

The Democrats don't like the 2.57 trillion dollar budget... neither do we... who is it exactly that does like it?

And a Welsh rugby fan cut off his testicles to celebrate his team's victory... what would he have done if they lost?

Monday, February 07, 2005

A Fish Not Inter The Net

Out at sea... got scant moments at 55 cents a minute...

Had our first Barnes-storming session today, everything was made Kristol-clear, although the sea was pitching harder than Randy Johnson...

Wish you were here, guys... and congrats to Doc Zycher for his little debate with Stelzer in the last edition of Weekly Standard (the one with Disraeli on the cover)... my nickname for Disraeli is Dean Dizzy....

gotta run... or float...

Welcome Back, Mr. Karnick . . .

Might we take a moment to celebrate the return of one S.T. Karnick? I'm getting the sense you readers like his work, especially since traffic has an odd way of moving based on his presence or absence.

He has assured me he will return to regular posting, so you Karnickians stay tuned. Ditto for you Reynoldsites, Zycherons, Homnick-heads, and Bakercentrics (no matter how few, though incredibly bright, you may be).

Austen in Bollywood and Human Incompleteness

Gurinder Chadha, director of the excellent comedy film Bend It Like Beckham, has finished a new picture which will be released to U.S. movie theaters on February 25. It is called Bride and Prejudice, and as the title suggests, it is based on Jane Austen's delightful and much-filmed 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice.

Chada's version of the story will include some cross-cultural conflicts based in the central romance of a young Indian woman named Lalita and an American Darcy.

I'm greatly looking forward to seeing what Chadha will do with the story, and I found one quote from her in the Reuters article fascinating:

"'What's incredible about this is that even though Jane Austen was writing 200-odd years ago, she was writing at a time when women were not considered whole unless they were married,' the Kenyan-born, British-raised Chadha said in an interview before the film's U.S. debut.

"'That is still very relevant to many places around the world, and particularly small town India,' she said."

What I find interesting about Chada's comment is that she sees this attitude as so odd and antiquated. Perhaps a reason she sees it so strange is that she limits it to the female perspective. For I should say that neither a man nor a woman is complete without being married.

That is a very controversial thing to claim in these times, I understand, but it seems to me that history and art make it clear that it has been true for the overwhelming majority of people throughout human history.

To be incomplete, after all, simply means to be imperfect. Is Chada suggesting that all women are perfect before marriage? One would hardly think so, if only based on the evidence in Bend It Like Beckham.

It is quite silly, actually, to try to hide from the notion that one is incomplete. Surely, there is no unique shame in acknowledging one's imperfection. Quite the contrary, in fact.

There is a great glory in acknowleding one's incompleteness. Admitting our imperfections is the thing that makes it possible for us to become better, especially through the acceptance of the continuous love of another person. (The refusal to admit one's imperfections is, in fact, what makes so many people unlovable. They refuse to be loved because they cannot bear to be seen as incomplete, as imperfect.) In addition, another person's incompleteness makes it possible for us to do them the great good of improving their lot in life by loving them in return.

It is this, after all, that the young lovers in Austen's novels seek, and which, to be honest, nearly all human beings desire. To view that beautiful, fine impulse as an unnecessary cultural flaw seems to me an utterly tragic and horrible choice.


Geo-Green Garbage

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman offered “The Geo-Green Alternative” on January 30:

“I am a geo-green. The geo-greens believe that, going forward, if we put all our focus on reducing the price of oil — by conservation, by developing renewable and alternative energies and by expanding nuclear power — we will force more reform than by any other strategy. You give me $18-a-barrel oil and I will give you political and economic reform from Algeria to Iran. . . . Shrink their oil revenue and they will have to open up their economies and their schools and liberate their women so that their people can compete. It’s that simple. By refusing to rein in US energy consumption, the Bush team is . . . depriving itself of the most effective lever for promoting internally driven reform in the Middle East.”

“Geo-Green” relies on economic illiteracy. If oil fell to $18, there would obviously be much less incentive to conserve oil or to develop expensive alternative energy sources, including nuclear. It is sheer fantasy to imagine the Bush team could somehow “rein in US energy consumption” enough to make a dent in the global oil price. Even if oil prices did fall by a buck or two as a result of some sort of mandatory US austerity scheme, the benefit would go to China and other countries who would gladly buy any cheaper oil we unloaded on the world market.

Mr. Friedman’s geo-whiz political forecast fares no better than his economics. The price of West Texas Intermediate crude was below $18 most of the time from February 1986 to June 1999 -- falling as low as $11.28 at the end of 1998 and remaining below $20 at the end of 2001. So, why did we not see “political and economic reform from Algeria to Iran”? It’s that simple.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Not A Standard Week

Heading out this afternoon from Ft. Lauderdale on the Westerdam with the Weekly Standard cruise until the morning of Feb. 13. Not sure if I'll get a chance to post....

Molester With One-Tract Mind

This case in Springdale, Arkansas, has really fascinating elements, legally and otherwise.

A man bought a house in a new subdivision and shortly thereafter the police publicized that he is a registered sex offender. Now nobody wants to buy houses there and the people who have bought in want out.

Is that his problem, ethically? Assuming that he no longer engages in the behavior and has paid his debt to society, does he have to be bound by their fears? That's Question #1.

The developers of the subdivision approached him and asked him to sell the house back. He said he would be glad to, if they pay him a quarter-million over his purchase price. They are indignant over this rank extortion.

Is he wrong to ask a premium for having to accept a scarlet-letter rejection from an entire community of people when he believes that he has worked his way past this particular temptation? Question #2.

The developers have now taken the further step of suing him for buying the house and suing the real-estate broker who brought him in as a purchaser without informing the developers of his background.

Do they have a case legally? Does a person not on parole have a legally quantifiable obligation to inform people around him that they might not want him as a neighbor? Question #3.