Friday, December 16, 2005

Listen Up

The Reform Club's own Herb London was a guest (along with Gary Bauer) on Bill Bennett's radio show this morning.

The topic was UN reform, and Herb's circulating a letter urging Congress to withhold UN funding until substantial reforms are made. Those who wish to remain on the cutting edge will access this historic audio here. Scroll down to select the interview.

(All major conservative luminaries are being asked to sign on to the letter. I haven't been asked yet, but I'm sure it's just an oversight.)

The Happiness of Married People

Health Day News reports that a large study by Cornell University found that married people are happier than others. I hope that this comes as no surprise to most people, but just in case, here's an excerpt from the HDN story for your enjoyment and edification:

Women and men in committed relationships are happier than other people, claims a Cornell University study. Researchers analyzed information collected from 691 people and found that the stronger the commitment, the greater the sense of happiness and well-being.

Married people had the highest sense of well-being, whether they were happily married or not. Next on the scale of happiness and well-being were people who were living together, followed by people in steady relationships and those in casual relationships.

The findings were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

"Some commitment appears to be good, but more commitment appears to be even better," study author Claire Kamp Dush, a postdoctoral fellow with the Evolving Family Theme Project of the Institute for Social Sciences at Cornell, said in a prepared statement.

The finding that even people in unhappy marriages had a high sense of well-being and happiness may be due to the benefits they derive from the stability, commitment and social status of marriage, Kamp Dush said.

"Even when controlling for relationship happiness, being married is associated with higher self-esteem, greater life satisfaction, greater happiness and less distress, whereas people who are not in stable romantic relationships tend to report lower self-esteem, less life satisfaction, less happiness and more distress," she said.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Zebras

Oh, that's so unfair. But who are these "Democrats?" They call themselves donkeys, but I think they're zebras.

Are they represented by Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT)?

Here is an ironic finding I brought back from Iraq. While U.S. public opinion polls show serious declines in support for the war and increasing pessimism about how it will end, polls conducted by Iraqis [show]... a resounding 82% are confident their lives in Iraq will be better a year from now than they are today. What a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will and, in the famous phrase, to seize defeat from the jaws of the coming victory.

Nah, that ain't it. How about Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean?

The idea that we're going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong.

No, that can't be it, either. Chairman Dean says that remark was taken out of context. (Although it's tough to tell how.)

There's a story floating around (you NYTimesSelect subscribers can access it here) that French now-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin noted during a conference that if Bush and Blair succeed,

"France would appear ridiculous."

There is a long silence. Another diplomat says, "The Americans and British are our allies."

Villepin ends the meeting...

Yeah, that's about it. Today's Democrats are like the French. They have no allies, only interests, and their greatest fear is appearing ridiculous. (Or being eaten.)

Like the zebras.

Strangely enough, those on the lefter side of the Democratic Party who want an immediate withdrawal of our troops from Iraq ala the glory days of Vietnam War protests at least have a principled position. They want to erase the Etch-A-Sketch. A do-over. But there are only three of them or so in the US government, and besides, there are no do-overs in life.

The rest want their political cake and eat it too: they want Bush and Blair to succeed in Iraq, while being seen in their own countries to have failed.

We shall give the last quote to Tony Blair himself, who like George W. Bush is loudly reviled in his own nation, although he, like Bush, recently won re-election anyway:

President Bush’s inauguration speech last week, marks a consistent evolution of US policy. He spoke of America’s mission to bring freedom in place of tyranny to the world. Leave aside for a moment the odd insistence by some commentators that such a plea is evidence of the “neo-conservative” grip on Washington – I thought progressives were all in favour of freedom rather than tyranny. The underlying features of the speech seem to me to be these. America accepts that terrorism cannot be defeated by military might alone. The more people live under democracy, with human liberty intact, the less inclined they or their states will be to indulge terrorism or to engage in it. This may be open to debate – though personally I agree with it – but it emphatically puts defeating the causes of terrorism alongside defeating the terrorists.

I think neither America's Democrats nor the French basically disagree with Tony Blair. They're just embarrassed they didn't think of it first, or if they did, that they lacked the fortitude to bear the slings and arrows that go with trying to make it a reality.

Their only remaining hope of retaining their self-respect is to claim that their kibitzing, their questioning, their "speaking truth to power," will make the critical difference between success and failure in Iraq. So be it:

Without your help, the Iraqi people could not have made it even this far. They thank you, as does the entire free world, which counts on you guys not to destroy America, but to chasten it, keep it honest. They call referees "zebras" for their neutral black-and-white shirts.

Referees are an essential part of the game, although they are not in it. Ridiculous? Nah, even when they're wrong. They also serve who stand on the sidelines and move the yard markers as one team or the other marches to a touchdown.

Which team scores is of no concern to them. In their eyes, each team deserves to lose, and neither team particularly deserves to win, Bush's or bin Laden's. But we treasure them, and will make sure the zebras (and the French), who cannot or will not defend their own lives, are not eaten.

Evidence for Success of Embryonic Stem Cells Was Faked, Scientist Admits

I'll never understand the attraction of embryonic stem cells (other than as a way of making some good come from abortions and human cloning), for they have no practical use and show little to no real promise of ever having any, whereas adult stem cells (ASCs, including umbilical cord cells) are successfully doing so much good and have been doing so for several years. (Ever heard of the wonders of bone marrow transplants? That's a common use of ASCs.) The benefits of ESCs are perpetually on the horizon and never actually achieved, whereas ASCs are doing much good and show clear promise of doing much, much more if only sufficient resources were directed to the effort.

Accordingly, it should come as no surprise when the Times of London reports that one of the most prominent alleged successes of ESCs was in fact fabricated, and the scientist has admitted it:

The scientist who led the world in pioneering human cloning faked much of the data for his landmark research into embryonic stem (ES) cells, one of his close collaborators said today.

Woo Suk Hwang has admitted to fabricating key parts of a study that purported to show the creation of the first human master cells tailor-made to match individual patients, according to Sung il Roh, a senior colleague at his laboratory in Seoul, South Korea.

Dr Roh said that nine of the 11 colonies of stem cells featured in the study, which was published to worldwide acclaim in May in the prestigious journal Science, had not been authentic. The validity of the other two is still uncertain.

He said Dr Hwang had admitted to flaws in the study when Dr Roh visited him today in hospital, where the scientist is being treated for exhaustion. Both researchers had then agreed to ask Science formally to retract their paper. "Professor Hwang admitted to fabrication," Dr Roh told the MBC, a Korean television station. "Hwang said there were no cloned embryonic stem cells at all and he did not know that."

What is at fault here is the excessive enthusiasm for ESCs, which is far beyond the bounds of what they have accomplished or can realistically be expected to achieve, especially in comparison with ASCs. When the press start praising the authentic, documented achievements of ASCs with one-tenth the enthusiasm with which they greet the meager work that has been done with ESCs, the temptation to cheat in favor of finding false hopeful results for the latter will decrease accordingly.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

When Criticism Becomes Treasonous

There was a time not so long ago when Democrats crossed the aisle to support Republican positions in war and vice versa. These were not always instances of gentility and partisanship wasn’t ignored; this occasional gesture was a recognition of national welfare that transcended politics.

What one observes with the Democratic party at the moment is an astonishingly anti-American posture that I have not encountered in my lifetime. The impression has been created that critics of the Bush administration are more interested in capturing the presidency than in winning the war in Iraq. In fact, if success in the war is attributed to President Bush, they would prefer defeat.

Obviously this isn’t the position of every Democrat, as Senator Liberman’s stance demonstrates, but it is the Kennedy, Pelosi, Rockefeller, Kerrey and Reid stance. Moreover, two former Democratic presidents, Carter and Clinton, have engaged in what was once taboo for those who sat in the executive office: they have attacked the present administration abroad, in countries already hostile to American interests. Such behavior was always regarded as a “no-no.” You might disagree or even criticize a sitting president at home, but to do so outside the confines of the nation and in countries inimitable to U.S. interests was simply off-limits.

It seems that the Democratic party has imbibed the Michael Moore approach to politics which includes equal parts caricature and traitorous commentary. Moore has noted on several occasions that the Iraqi insurgents are the equivalent of the Minutemen and that we must suffer the bloodletting of our young for the misguided policies of our president.

Of course Moore is not alone. Frank Rich at the NY Times, among others, has engaged in a refrain that the president lied in order to promote the war effort. Despite the evidence that has been marshaled demonstrating a bipartisan concern about weapons of mass destruction prior to Bush’s election, the president’s detractors cannot let go of this theme.

It is instructive that the word “lie” is employed. Even if you embraced the Frank Rich stance (which I do not), you might say the president was “mistaken,” or “misguided” or “misread the signals.” But, of course, these words are equivocal offering the president an alibi, a concession the critics are not willing to consider.

The Democratic party position at the moment is search and destroy. Whether this is “get even” time for the Clinton impeachment or the venting of hostility over the 2000 election is anyone’s guess. What it does suggest is a parlous political state in which any move that harms the Republican leadership is deemed acceptable.

Bush, by contrast, acts as if Marcus of Queensbury rules apply to this street fight. He has been remarkably subdued in the face of continual vitriol heaped upon him. From my perch, I would prefer greater boldness on his part, a condition I did observe with his recent Annapolis speech.

Lest I am criticized for challenging criticism, let it be noted that I believe presidents should be criticized when it is appropriate to do so. What I’m getting at is criticism that verges on treason. When polls say that defeat serves us right, they either want to embarrass the administration without regard to the risks involved or they actually think a defeat for the administration is justifiable. That kind of criticism is beyond the pale.

This backbiting may be amusing for news aficionados, but the stakes are high and go well beyond amusement. The Fifth Column in the U.S. is growing, led by some officials who do not fully appreciate the consequences of their actions. Lives are at stake, regional stability is in the mix and civilization itself is in the balance.

This is not hyperbole. Al Qaeda is watching and listening. Every anti-American position is music to their ears. For them, it defines a nation that has lost its will and fortitude. The disloyal Americans only embolden the enemies. We’ve been down this path before, albeit historical lessons have to be relearned. Unfortunately lives will be lost that could be saved and this nation will suffer before the critics learn their lesson.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Why Capital Punishment Is Necessary

Herewith, a link to an essay of mine from a few years ago on why an effective system of capital punishment is necessary for a rational system of criminal justice, with additional discussion of such ancillary issues as the perverse incentives of prosecutors. Comments welcome.

Is There One Key to Tookie?

When they eliminated the gas chamber in California death penalties, they deprived me cruelly and unusually of the chance to publish this bit of Nashian doggerel:

After the appellate
in water, a pellet
It sank, went in
at San Quentin.

All that's left for me now is to inject a thought, or two.

Here's a nosh:

If it is true that he was a profound penitent, that his lectures and his children's books have been effective in curbing violence, then this is certainly laudable. If we preach a gospel that precludes murder from redemption because the victim's life cannot be retrieved, then we remove from the one-time murderer any motivation to restrain himself from killing his next annoyer. Instead, we hearken to one of the first stories in the Bible, where Cain, although banished as a penance, was given the opportunity to repair the rest of his life and achieve a measure of redemption. His children built cities (Genesis 4:17), invented the system of mobile cattle herding (4:20), instrumental music (4:21) and metalworking (4:22). Indeed, according to the Jewish tradition, Noah's wife was Naamah, a descendant of Cain, which makes him our maternal grandpa.

A Good Word for Lawyers

We in the United States are plagued by the antics of our nation's lawyers, as they and their clients try to game the system for monetary advantage, but it is important to remember the importance of lawyers in protecting the rule of law.

One thing that makes modernity great is the rule of law. Without it, an economy cannot function well, and people are easily oppressed in a multitude of ways. Without rule of law, a society descends into the rule of force. With it, humans can plan on living in a fairly stable society that accommodates rapid change in technology, economic growth, and beneficial social change. Of course, bad government policies and bad laws suppress these good things and create terrible problems, but without rule of law, a society cannot function at all healthily.

Hence it is fascinating to see China's government trying to suppress a growing group of lawyers in that nation who are trying to force the government to enforce the laws fairly and make government agents serve the law instead of other agendas, as recounted in a story in today's New York Times. In China today, one can watch the classic struggle of a society trying to establish the rule of law, with the sitting government as the necessary target of change, as the Times story notes:

Ordinary citizens in fact have embraced the law as eagerly as they have welcomed another Western-inspired import, capitalism. The number of civil cases heard last year hit 4.3 million, up 30 percent in five years, and lawyers have encouraged the notion that the courts can hold anyone, even party bosses, responsible for their actions.

Chinese leaders do not discourage such ideas, entirely. They need the law to check corruption and to persuade the outside world that China is not governed by the whims of party leaders.

But the officials draw the line at any fundamental challenge to their monopoly on power.

Judges take orders from party-controlled trial committees. Lawyers operate more autonomously but often face criminal prosecution if they stir up public disorder or disclose details about legal matters that the party deems secret.

As a result, the government fights back, so that the individuals currently in charge can hold on to their power. The government's main weapon? The law itself:

One November morning, the Beijing Judicial Bureau convened a hearing on its decree that one of China's best-known law firms must shut down for a year because it failed to file a change of address form when it moved offices.

The same morning, Gao Zhisheng, the firm's founder and star litigator, was 1,800 miles away in Xinjiang, in the remote west. He skipped what he called the "absurd and corrupt" hearing so he could rally members of an underground Christian church to sue China's secret police.

The government sees Christians as a particular threat, as the current case indicates. What Gao and his fellow attorneys are counseling, however, is that the failure to fight this oppression will be worse than any likely consequences of fighting it. Their clients are listening, and the people are responding courageously:

"I can't guarantee that you will win the lawsuit - in fact you will almost certainly lose," Mr. Gao told one church member who had been detained in a raid. "But I warn you that if you are too timid to confront their barbaric behavior, you will be completely defeated."

Lawyers such as Gao remind one of the heroic attorneys of past American fiction (and fact), most notably Perry Mason (in particular the feisty Mason of the books as opposed to the domesticated one of the TV series):

Bold, brusque and often roused to fiery indignation, Mr. Gao, 41, is one of a handful of self-proclaimed legal "rights defenders."

He travels the country filing lawsuits over corruption, land seizures, police abuses and religious freedom. His opponent is usually the same: the ruling Communist Party.

The rule of law is at the heart of the fight:

He has become the most prominent in a string of outspoken lawyers facing persecution. One was jailed this summer while helping clients appeal the confiscation of their oil wells. A second was driven into exile last spring after he zealously defended a third lawyer, who was convicted of leaking state secrets.

Together, they have effectively put the rule of law itself on trial, with lawyers often acting as both plaintiffs and defendants."

People across this country are awakening to their rights and seizing on the promise of the law," Mr. Gao says. "But you cannot be a rights lawyer in this country without becoming a rights case yourself."

In watching this struggle, we can learn much about the pressing need to protect the rule of law in our own society:

"Most officials in China are basically mafia bosses who use extreme barbaric methods to terrorize the people and keep them from using the law to protect their rights," Mr. Gao wrote on one essay that circulated widely on the Web this fall.

Of course, we should stop short of characterizing our own federal, state, and local government officials as mafia bosses, given that the use of "extreme barbaric methods to terrorize the people" is absent in American except in the worst fantasies of radicals of both the left and right. Nonetheless, our officials can do much better than they have in respecting the rule of law, and it is up to us to remember that and keep up the fight against the miscreants among them, through the political and legal processes.

Monday, December 12, 2005

About Child Commodity Futures

Earlier I posted an essay authored by Guillermo Sostchin (a prominent Cuban-Jewish attorney in Miami) but written by me as what I like to call a contract-writer. The book comprises a range of life lessons that he derives from Biblical narratives using some traditional commentaries as background for his incisive analyses.

Reading the fabulous post by Herb London about people seeing children as commodities, I recalled having seen something recently on the subject. Rummaging around, I found that in fact I had written for Mr. Sostchin a piece some months ago on that very subject. Here it is for your scrutiny and edification.

And he (Elkanah) had two wives, the name of one was Hannah and the name of the second was Peninah, but Peninah had children and Hannah had no children…
And the other wife (Peninah) would anger her again and again to hurt her, because God had closed her womb. She would do this every year when they went to the house of God, then she would anger her, and she (Hannah) would cry and not eat.
And her husband, Elkanah, would say, “Why are you crying and why don’t you eat? Why should your heart feel bad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?” And Hannah stood up (one year) after eating in Shiloh… And she was bitter of spirit, and she prayed to God and cried and cried.
Then she made a promise and said, “God… if… you give your maidservant a child among men, I will give him to God all the days of his life…” (Samuel 1:2, 6-11)

This story is read in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. It behooves us to ponder for a moment the message of this saga and how it relates to the observance of the New Year holiday. To do this, we must first examine the events themselves and plumb their underlying meaning.
The first thing that cries out for understanding is the fact that Hannah’s prayers were never answered before this day. After all, she was crying and fasting for many years, as described in the text. Why was none of that effective before this one special time?
Secondly, we wonder at the conduct of Peninah, her self-appointed tormentor. The Talmud (Bava Batra 16a) explains that she had good intentions; she was trying to motivate Hannah to pray. Yet we see Hannah crying and fasting and presumably praying, but Peninah will not back down, year after year.
Furthermore, Peninah’s manner of teasing also requires an explanation. Rashi cites the tradition that Peninah used to say to Hannah, “So, have you bought a jacket for your elder child or a vest for your younger child?” What was the purpose of using this particular approach?
Another peculiarity worth noting is the method that Elkanah uses in trying to soothe his stricken wife. He offers his love for her and his giving to her as a substitute for having ten children.
Aren’t these things apples and oranges? Having a child is one kind of desire and need and having a husband is another desire and need; one does not take the place of the other.

We would suggest that there was a flaw in Hannah’s original request for children, and it was this shortcoming that prevented her prayers from being answered.
Even her tears and her fasting went unheeded because God was waiting for her to reorient her thoughts and feelings in a way that would make her a person of true greatness. And ironically it was Peninah who had correctly diagnosed the problem from the outset.
Hannah’s initial desire for a child was a desire to “receive” a child. Indeed most ordinary people think of a child as a gift that they receive for themselves, for self-validation, almost like a possession.
This may be acceptable for average people, but a person of potential greatness like Hannah was called upon to live according to a higher truth. Her job was to be selfless, to ask not to be able to take but to be able to give. She had to learn to ask for a child strictly for the purpose of giving to a child and for giving to God by bringing up a human soul.

As long as she cried and fasted to receive a child, her prayers were not answered. Peninah, in an effort to communicate the solution to this quandary, kept asking “Have you bought a gift for your child?” The prayer has to be centered around the commitment to give of yourself, not the self-centered urge for fulfillment in parenthood.
The best proof for this is found in the cooing words of Elkanah. “Am I not as good to you as ten sons?” This argument works only on a woman who wants a child “to be good to her”.
In the search for self-validation, a particularly solicitous husband can replace what a child gives a mother. It is only in the search for a venue of giving to the helpless that the husband cannot step into the role reserved to the child. Once Hannah realized her mistake, she returned with a new prayer.

This time she came in as a giver, not a taker, promising to consecrate the child to the service of God in the Tabernacle at Shiloh. Once she made this the substance of her prayer, God was willing to answer it immediately.
This is a lesson to us on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, when we request a year of life and a good livelihood. We must remember to seek those gifts not for self-validation or self-aggrandizement but to have the opportunity to make a contribution, to make a difference in God’s world, to make the world a better place.

Narnia from Another Non-Reviewer: Narnia v. LOTR

I caught the late show of Narnia last night. Paid full price. Worth it without question.

The unfortunate thing for Narnia is that it will inevitably be compared to Lord of the Rings. It can't quite stand up to that comparison. The main difference is that the Narnia stories are really intended for children, whereas the LOTR tales are written without an age group in mind. Thus, Narnia doesn't carry the same terrible feeling of impending doom or massive relief at the escape from doom.

One of the primary factors that makes Narnia so much less threatening is that we see so much of the villain, the evil queen. In LOTR, the ultimate villain is always beyond our grasp. So ancient, dark, and terrible, one can only strive in near blindness to prevail on faith. Here, the Queen is bad, but quite manageable by comparison. Like I say, Narnia is a children's story. They can't handle as much. In a way, Narnia is like The Passion of the Christ if you tried to make it endurable for kids. The result is entertaining, beautiful, reverent, and something that adults can enjoy, but is not FOR adults.

My distinction between what is for adults and children would possibly not hold up so well in an age where adults were not as world weary and jaded as we are. I suspect an audience from an earlier time would have all the violence and threat they would need to be pushed to the max by this film. That may be part of why C.S. Lewis wrote for children. They are still impressionable and in a good way.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Recalling An Unmet Friend

Truman Capote, a man very dear to my heart, a damaged but beautiful soul who left behind a legacy of beauty, of gentle harps with frayed strings, of fearing and loving life all at once, of echoing chasms in the heart, of twinkling lights and frosty nights, is portrayed beautifully by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the new film - but savaged by the script as monstrously selfish beyond redemption.

Perhaps the spirit of the season will move us to remember him in brighter hues.

(Incidentally, the TV movie made from the above-linked story, with Katherine Hepburn and Henry Winkler, was a true marvel and I cried like a baby throughout.)