Friday, December 30, 2005

Rights of Individuals Versus Rights of Communities

It is certainly true that hard cases make bad law, but they definitely provide a good way of figuring out principles. A particularly thorny case is outlined in an article on conflicts between African tribal customs and national legal systems, in today's New York Times.

The specific topic at hand is the decision of governments to overrule customs even when the individuals involved—the victims, as we would rightly call them—do not protest:

To many Zulus, . . . virginity tests are a revered custom, one that discourages early sex and, after falling into disuse, has been revived to fight the spread of H.I.V. But to many advocates of women's and children's rights, the practice is unscientific, discriminatory and - to girls who are publicly and perhaps falsely accused of having lost their virginity - emotionally searing. This month, their arguments persuaded South Africa's Parliament to ban some virginity testing, with violations punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The ban is an example of how sub-Saharan Africa is slowly, but inexorably, enshrining into law basic protections that have long been denied women. But it also hints at the frailty of the movement toward women's rights in the region. Not only is the new law a watered-down version of what was proposed, but few here believe it will curb a tradition so deeply embedded in Zulu and to a lesser extent Xhosa culture.

"We will uphold our traditions and customs," said Patekile Holomisa, president of the Congress of Traditional Leaders, a political party in South Africa. "There are laws that passed that do not necessarily have any impact on the lives of people. I imagine this will be one of those."

The article goes on to discuss female genital mutilation, which I think we can all say should be stopped, regardless of the reasons people may give for the practice. However, it is interesting to consider just how and when government should override the will of a community. As Reform Clubber Edmund Burke pointed out, a society is made up of its countless "little platoons," and government should be loath to harm them. Yet civilization requires certain standards, and when communities engage in practices that do not achieve those standards, redress is called for.

However, if a society stops believing in standards or in the very concept of civilization itself, the basis for standing up to those who would flout those standards becomes highly unreliable. What, then, is to stop the West from continuing to move toward the kind of tribalism that societies such as South Africa are trying to grow out of? Claims of universal positions, such as individual rights, are plausible only when all parties agree that there are universal truths.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Chronic of Narnia

I hate to replace brilliant, nonsense-destroying posts with simple entertainment, but this hilarious video from Saturday Night Live deserves your undivided attention.

Ha-ha-larious, booooOOOOOY.

The Road to Hell

.....contrary to popular myth, is apparently not paved at all.

I find this utterly hilarous on several levels.

In 2002, I was warned off of moving to Maryland because, among other things, I'd be subjecting myself to corrupt and incompetent local government when I could just as easily move to orderly, well-run Northern Virginia. The Maryland House of Delegates may be full of blowhard Democrats who would rather argue about slot machines for two years than pass a budget, but they do manage to throw a few truckloads of chip-n-seal on pretty much any flat surface that connects two inhabited points in the state.

Second, the visual image of a real estate agent fording Bull Run in his Jaguar is just priceless. If only Major McDowell had thought of that in 1861, the Civil War might have lasted mere weeks.

Third, we Washingtonians have just now begun what promises to be an interminable and ill-informed public argument about reducing traffic congestion through privately owned demand-sensitive toll lanes, popularly known as "Lexus Lanes" for the assumption that only the rich will be able to afford the tolls. I say the Loudon experience demonstrates we don't need Lexus lanes at all. We can throw some sand and gravel in the median strip on the Beltway and I-66 and let all these off-road warriors pretend they're blazing trails in the wilderness.

I am a little disappointed that you can negotiate Braddock Road in an Audi, though. I thought maybe me and my '96 Jeep Cherokee would have a clear road.

Backing Up the Family Breakdown and Poverty Connection

Interesting Quotes from Sociologists

"Sharply rising rates of divorce, unwed mothers, and runaway fathers do not represent ‘alternative life styles’. They are rather patterns of adult behavior with profoundly negative consequences for children."

--Elaine Kamarck and William Galston, Putting Children First: A Progressive Family Policy for the 1990’s, a publication of the Democratic Leadership Council

"I know of few other bodies of data in which the weight of the evidence is so decisively on one side of the issue: on the whole, for children, two-parent families are preferable . . .If our prevailing views on family structure hinged solely on scholarly evidence, the current debate would never have arisen in the first place."

-- David Popenoe, former Dean of Social Sciences, Rutgers University

"Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents’ race or educational background (italics added), regardless of whether the parents are married when the child is born, and regardless of whether the resident parent remarries."

--Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan and the University of Wisconsin’s Gary Sandefur

"We know what the cause of poverty is in this country and, like it or not, it's divorce and non-wedlock childbearing. We know that for every three divorces, one family ends up below the poverty line. The average woman with dependent children who ends up in poverty stays poor for eight months. The federal government pays for part of that, but states pay the balance. Divorce, by itself, is a major economic issue."

--Sociology professor Steve Nock of the University of Virginia in a New York Times story

Relevant statistics and academic study conclusions (citations available):

• The poverty rate for children living with cohabiting parents is five times that of children with married parents. The poverty rate for children living with single mothers is seven times that of children with married parents.

• The average married father annually contributes about thirty thousand dollars to the welfare of his children. The annual contribution of a non-custodial father averages about three thousand dollars yearly.

• In 1998, 12% of black children with married parents lived in poverty, BUT 55% of black children with single moms lived in poverty.

• Only 6% of births to women above the poverty line are out of wedlock. To contrast, 44% of births to white women under the poverty line are out of wedlock.

• Children who grow up with only one of their biological parents are three times more likely to have a child out of wedlock, 2.5 times more likely to become teenage mothers, and 1.4 times more likely to be out of school and unemployed.

• Daughters of single parents are 164% more likely to have a premarital birth and 92% more likely to have a divorce than daughters of married parents.

• According to a 1994 report in American Economic Review, those who leave welfare because of marriage are the least likely to return.

• "Among married-couple households, the bracket with the largest number of households is $75,000 and over. Among ‘other family groups,’ the bracket with the largest number of households is that under $10,000."

• Children of two-parent lower income black homes perform better in college than children from single-parent affluent black homes.

• Children who grow up with one parent are twice as likely to drop out of high school than kids with both parents at home.

• Children whose parents are divorced are more likely to exhibit conduct problems, psychological maladjustment, and lower academic achievement.

• Children in two-parent families receive the highest grades in school of any family structure.

• Seventy-two percent of America’s adolescent murderers, 70% of long-term prison inmates, and 60% of rapists come from fatherless homes.

• Boys raised outside of an intact nuclear family are more than twice as likely as other boys to end up in prison, even controlling for a range of social and economic factors.

• Married women are much less likely to be victims of violent crime than unmarried or divorced women. Only 14.4 married women per 1000 are victimized versus 60.6 never-married women per 1000 and 53.6 divorced or separated women per 1000.

• A cohabiting boyfriend is thirty-three times more likely to abuse a child than a married father who lives with the mother.

• A biological father who cohabits with the mother, but is not married to her, is twenty times more likely to abuse his own child than fathers who are married to the mothers of the child.

• Cohabiting women are more likely to suffer severe violence from their partners than are married women.

• Children without resident fathers are more vulnerable to predators, both sexual and physical, outside the family.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Chicago Tribune Says Bush Didn't Mislead on Iraq

I'm pasting in the verbatim analysis from the Chicago Tribune inquest on whether Bush misled the American people about Iraq:


Biological and chemical weapons


The Bush administration said Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Officials trumpeted reports from U.S. and foreign spy agencies, including an October 2002 CIA assessment: "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions."


Many, although not all, of the Bush administration's assertions about weapons of mass destruction have proven flat-out wrong. What illicit weaponry searchers uncovered didn't begin to square with the magnitude of the toxic armory U.S. officials had described before the war.


There was no need for the administration to rely on risky intelligence to chronicle many of Iraq's other sins. In putting so much emphasis on illicit weaponry, the White House advanced its most provocative, least verifiable case for war when others would have sufficed.

Iraq rebuffs the world


In a speech that left many diplomats visibly squirming in their chairs, President Bush detailed tandem patterns of failure: Saddam Hussein had refused to obey UN Security Council orders that he disclose his weapons programs--and the UN had refused to enforce its demands of Hussein.


Reasonable minds disagree on whether Iraq's flouting of UN resolutions justified the war. But there can be no credible assertion that either Iraq or the UN met its responsibility to the world. If anything, the administration gravely understated the chicanery, both in Baghdad and at the UN.


Hussein had shunted enough lucre to enough profiteers to keep the UN from challenging him. In a dozen years the organization mass-produced 17 resolutions on Iraq, all of them toothless. That in turn enabled Hussein to continue his brutal reign and cost untold thousands of Iraqis their lives.

The quest for nukes


Intelligence agencies warned the Clinton and Bush administrations that Hussein was reconstituting his once-impressive program to create nuclear weapons. In part that intel reflected embarrassment over U.S. failure before the Persian Gulf war to grasp how close Iraq was to building nukes.


Four intel studies from 1997-2000 concurred that "If Iraq acquired a significant quantity of fissile material through foreign assistance, it could have a crude nuclear weapon within a year." Claims that Iraq sought uranium and special tubes for processing nuclear material appear discredited.


If the White House manipulated or exaggerated the nuclear intelligence before the war in order to paint a more menacing portrait of Hussein, it's difficult to imagine why. For five years, the official and oft-delivered alarms from the U.S. intelligence community had been menacing enough.

Hussein's rope-a-dope


The longer Hussein refuses to obey UN directives to disclose his weapons programs, the greater the risk that he will acquire, or share with terrorists, the weaponry he has used in the past or the even deadlier capabilities his scientists have tried to develop. Thus we need to wage a pre-emptive war.


Hussein didn't have illicit weapons stockpiles to wield or hand to terrorists. Subsequent investigations have concluded he had the means and intent to rekindle those programs as soon as he escaped UN sanctions.


Had Hussein not been deposed, would he have reconstituted deadly weaponry or shared it with terror groups? Of the White House's nine arguments for war, the implications of this warning about Iraq's intentions are treacherous to imagine--yet also the least possible to declare true or false.

Waging war on terror


Iraq was Afghanistan's likely successor as a haven for terror groups. "Saddam Hussein is harboring terrorists and the instruments of terror ... " the president said. "And he cannot be trusted. The risk is simply too great that he will use them, or provide them to a terror network."


The White House echoed four years of intel that said Hussein contemplated the use of terror against the U.S. or its allies. But he evidently had not done so on a broad scale. The assertion that Hussein was "harboring terrorists and the instruments of terror" overstated what we know today.


The drumbeat of White House warnings before the war made Iraq's terror activities sound more ambitious than subsequent evidence has proven. Based on what we know today, the argument that Hussein was able to foment global terror against this country and its interests was exaggerated.

Reform in the Middle East


Supplanting Hussein's reign with self-rule would transform governance in a region dominated by dictators, zealots and kings. The administration wanted to convert populations of subjects into citizens. Mideast democracy would channel energy away from resentments that breed terrorism.


U.S. pressure has stirred reforms in Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and imperiled Syria's regime. "I was cynical about Iraq," said Druze Muslim patriarch Walid Jumblatt. "But when I saw the Iraqi people voting . . . it was the start of a new Arab world... The Berlin Wall has fallen."


The notion that invading Iraq would provoke political tremors in a region long ruled by despots is the Bush administration's most successful prewar prediction to date. A more muscular U.S. diplomacy has advanced democracy and assisted freedom movements in the sclerotic Middle East.

Iraq and Al Qaeda


President Bush: "... Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy--the United States of America. We know that Iraq and Al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade.... Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bombmaking and poisons and deadly gases."


Two government investigative reports indicate that Al Qaeda and Iraq had long-running if sporadic contacts. Several of the prewar intel conclusions likely are true. But the high-ranking Al Qaeda detainee who said Iraq trained Al Qaeda in bombmaking, poisons and gases later recanted.


No compelling evidence ties Iraq to Sept. 11, 2001, as the White House implied. Nor is there proof linking Al Qaeda in a significant way to the final years of Hussein's regime. By stripping its rhetoric of the ambiguity present in the intel data, the White House exaggerated this argument for war.

The Butcher of Baghdad


Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell: "For more than 20 years, by word and by deed, Saddam Hussein has pursued his ambition to dominate Iraq and the broader Middle East using the only means he knows--intimidation, coercion and annihilation of all those who might stand in his way."


Human Rights Watch estimates that Hussein exterminated 300,000 people. Chemical weapons killed Iraqi Kurds and Iranians; Iraqi Shiites also were slaughtered. Tortures included amputation, rape, piercing hands with drills, burning some victims alive and lowering others into acid baths.


In detailing how Hussein tormented his people--and thus mocked the UN Security Council order that he stop--the White House assessments were accurate. Few if any war opponents have challenged this argument, or suggested that an unmolested Hussein would have eased his repression.

Iraqis liberated


President Bush and his surrogates broached a peculiar notion: that the Arab world was ready to embrace representative government. History said otherwise--and it wasn't as if the Arab street was clamoring for Iraq to show the way.


The most succinct evaluation comes from Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.): "Every time the 27 million Iraqis have been given the chance since Saddam Hussein was overthrown, they have voted for self-government and hope over the violence and hatred the 10,000 terrorists offer them."


The White House was correct in predicting that long subjugated Iraqis would embrace democracy. And while Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites have major differences to reconcile, a year's worth of predictions that Sunni disaffection could doom self-rule have, so far, proven wrong.

Evangelical Christians' Love-Hate Relationship with the Arts

On the Internetmonk blog, Michael Spencer brings up a subject I find very interesting, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians' love-hate relationship with the arts. As a Christian but not of the American evangelical variety, I have never had any problem enjoying and relating to the arts both popular and elite, as regular readers of my writings here and elsewhere are well aware. Fundamentalists and evangelicals, however, seem to have significant difficulty engaging with the arts, perhaps as a legacy of their Puritan beginnings. Spencer writes:

The fundamentalist war on the imagination is old. It is not that fundamentalism offers nothing to the imagination. It does, but there is in fundamentalism a deep-seated and deeply wrong belief that the second commandment was a “closure” order on the imagination. There is a deep suspicion that anything imaginative violates a divine order and seduces us in the wrong direction. This is as true of the Christian imagination as of the secular imagination. There is often as much fear of Catholic art as there is of occultic art. The paltry artistic production of recent conservative Christianity bears witness to this imaginative desert. Little is planted, and little grows, and we lose most of our children not to the world’s propositions, but to the world’s illusions.

Spencer finds that this is changing (and not a moment too soon, I say):

[In recent years,] evangelical Christians have finally discovered that the world of the imagination may have something to offer them, and this discovery is increasingly being made, not in the world of literature, but in the more common medium of the movies.

While many of us have long known that fiction such as “The Chronicles of Narnia” repudiated the fundamentalist attitude toward the imaginative, it was the discovery of Christian appeals to the imagination in movies such as “The Matrix” and “The Lord of the Rings” that began to break the ice in the evangelical world. While media such as Focus on the Family and Baptist Press penned warnings about the dangers of Harry Potter, they gave surprisingly positive coverage to the evangelistic and homiletical uses of “The Matrix” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

This is a profoundly welcome development, in my view. Spencer calls on his fellow evangelicals to embrace this new understanding of their place in the world and feel free to develop a greater appreciation for the arts:

The emerging church suggests that rejection of the visual and the imaginative was a mistake from which we ought to vigorously repent. I agree, and even at the risk of a bit of silliness such repentance is worthwhile to at least make an effort to recapture the lost imaginations of millions. The interpretations of the second commandment I grew up hearing were nothing more than excuses for the impoverishment of the imagination. Evangelicals have produced enough bad art to keep someone in purgatory busy for thousands of years just watching, reading and listening to it. We’re beginning to repent of being the people who considered the local theater a subdivision of hell and whose response was Billy Graham movies.

Let’s do more than begin. Let’s become a people known for our love of the imagination and its possibilities of enjoyment, creation and worship.

The Great Christian Tradition- especially in its early centuries- was always visual without being idolatrous. It engaged culture through mind and imagination. The risks of idolatry were never absent, but the rewards of a holy, and living, imagination are too rich to avoid. In eras of illiteracy and spiritual warfare, the church sought to appeal to and capture the imagination of those who heard the Gospel. Whether liturgy, cathedrals, musical compositions or great works of visual art- all were arrayed for the purpose of taking the loyalties of the imagination captive for Christ the Lord.

Evangelicals have dabbled. They have denounced. They have demeaned. They have experimented. Are they ready to admit that we can preach through our engagement with story, image and aesthetic, and not only through propositions? Art and imagination, great writing and creative expresssion: they all preach the Gospel and engage human beings with the truth of God. If evangelicals are opening their minds to more than outlines and answers, will they seek out those God has gifted in the realm of the imaginative and release them to create, praise and evangelize?

In his Two Kingdoms theology, Martin Luther provides a fine place for evangelicals to begin to develop a theological approach that can repair the cultural damage that appears to be such a powerful legacy of Puritanism. I hope that major evangelical and fundamentalist thinkers will consider the wisdom to be found there and will encourage their brethren to act accordingly.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

When Will It Stop? T.V. Writers and Dumb Statistics

My wife is a big fan of House, M.D., which I agree is an enjoyable program. If memory serves, our own S.T. Karnick gave it a nice review over at NRO.

I was watching this evening when the physician team was treating an African-American death row inmate played by L.L. Cool J. The docs, of course, had to talk about social justice, the death penalty, racism, etc.. Fine with me. One of the docs said he's against it in principle, but is unbothered when the switch gets pulled. Another, a female doc, said she was against it because it is racially motivated. Her statistical claim was that black murderers are ten times more likely than white killers to get the death penalty.

This is where my eyebrows tilted up. Not quite, lassie. As I recall the cases in law school where the question of racism in death penalty sentencing was considered, the race of the killer turned out to be statistically insignificant. Guess what was signifant? The race of the victim! Killers who murder blacks are less likely to get the death penalty than killers who murder whites. Very interesting. So, if there is racism, it is in the fact that killers of African-American victims should theoretically be less deterred than killers of whites.

Television would be more interesting if writers would take the time to do a little research.

For my part, I kind of agreed with what the African-American doctor character said when confronted with the (as I just established, fallacious) racism charge in death penalty sentencing. If that's true, "we just need to kill more white folks." Of course, the show isn't over and he may be dramatically converted by the end of the episode.

The "Road to" Movies and the Great Bob Hope

A commenter mentioned the "Road" movies of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, in response to my post on Meet Me in St. Louis, and I am glad that he or she brought the subject up.

The Road movies are indeed great fun, and most of them are must-see cinema. The first one, Road to Singapore, is not as funny and likeable as the others, but Hope and Crosby and the gang learned a lot from that one and went on to make a terrific series of simply flat-out-funny movies. Their goal was simply to make people laugh, and they have succeeded admirably at that over the years. My favorite of the series is Road to Utopia, which is set in Alaska and includes a delightful intermittent narration by Robert Benchley and probably the best jokes-per-minute ratio in the series. Road to Morocco is another highlight of the series, with great gags such as a talking camel, and terrific interplay between Bob and Bing. Zanzibar, Rio, and Bali are all quite funny too. The last one, Road to Hongkong, is amusing and likable but not as inspired as the others.

More Hope:

On Christmas Day, my family and I enjoyed our annual viewing of The Lemon Drop Kid, while visiting a friend who is also a great fan of Bob Hope and this wonderful Christmas film. I have seen the film well over a dozen times, and upon each viewing I discover something I hadn't noticed before. This one was no exception. The film, loosely based on a Damon Runyan story, concerns a scheme by racetrack tout Sidney Milburn, the Lemon Drop kid of the title (played by Bob Hope) to institute a confidence scheme that will accumulate $10,000 so that he won't be killed on Christmas by the gangster to whom he owes that sum. The movie is full of some of the wittiest comments and funniest sight gags Hope ever laid onto celluloid, which is saying a lot. But in addition to that, The Lemon Drop Kid has a highly serious meaning behind it, as the events of the film explore concepts of sin, repentance, and redemption. The film is so funny and delightful that most viewers will absorb these meanings without realizing it, which makes it that much more enjoyable and effective.

For more on Bob Hope and his achievements, you will find articles by the present author here, here, and here.

A Film Well Worth Watching—and Rewatching

G. Tracy Meehan III has provided a very nice appreciation of the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis, directed by Vincente Minnelli, over at National Review Online. The film features a fine performance by Judy Garland and demonstrates how a good movie can deal with interesting issues in a sophisticated way without becoming the slightest bit didactic. The situation—a turn-of-the-last-century family facing the various little crises that arise in life, along with one major one—might not seem to be the stuff of great drama, but the observant screenplay by Irving Brecher and Fred Finklehoffe and sensitive realization by Vincente Minnelli enable the viewer to understand and feel the full importance of the issues the family members face and the fact that these seemingly little things are what life is really all about.

Set aside a couple of hours for it, and you will be refreshed and inspired. It's that good.

Spouting Off

Incidentally, I would like to go on record as supporting Greenpeace in their activist campaign to stop Japan from whaling.

There is an international convention forbidding the hunting of whales. As far as I know, this has not caused any sort of upheaval in undersea ecology. I have not seen anyone make the argument that the whale herd really needs culling and it's some left-wing delusion preventing that from occurring. It seems that there is a legitimate international consensus that it's in the interest of the healthy conservation of the planet to avoid killing whales to the extent possible.

Japan has flouted this for years, ostensibly for some scientific purpose. But observers of the Japanese social scene consistently report that whale meat turns up on the menu at trendy dinners.

Godspeed for Greenpeace. They're doing what we should be doing, enforcing the international standards of responsible use of nature.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Fessay Is Back!

My apologies for slacking off on fessay production due to my workload. I just wrote #6 and posted it at the special Fessay blog.

For those who are new to the site, a fessay is a fictional essay. Have a gander.

Hanukah For Spectators

Tonight is the first candle of Hanukah (usually written by Jews as Chanukah, with the "ch" pronounced gutturally like the "g' in Argentina), so I should provide a link to my pensees for the day, published over at The American Spectator.

And for here, a glint:

This is not viewed as a completed victory. In fact, even the military battle against the Greeks continued for many years after the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple. Eventually, every one of the major Maccabee leaders was killed in battle. Still, once they turned the corner, they were confident of ultimate triumph. The legendary Maharal (an acronym for Rabbi Judah Loew) of Prague (1512-1609) explains that Hanukah occurs in conjunction with the winter solstice, when light is least in the world...and then begins to gradually, inevitably increase.

And don't forget: for some light-hearted looks at the news, you can always pop into our little blog of two-liners.