Saturday, February 25, 2006

Another Brick in the Wall


From Why Mommy is a Democrat by Jeremy Zilber. (HT: InstaP.) Cool. I think I could turn a few bucks off this.






From Why Daddy Left Us and Now He Wants to Kill Us (in progress)

Friday, February 24, 2006

Chilling Out Andrew Sullivan's Newest Smoking Gun

I feel for Andrew Sullivan. Really do. As an unapologetically---on both counts---gay Iraq War hawk, he found himself in bed or at least in a shotgun marriage with President Bush, whose religious-right allies are opposed to the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name doing any bedding or wedding.

What a pickle.

It seems he's been edging back to the fold of late, toward any weltanschauung that doesn't include supporting FOFs (Friends of Falwell). The life of a heretic is a lonely one, and doubly worse when you're thought to be a quisling.

So, ultramegaleftyliberal Matthew Yglasias makes great hay of Mr. Sullivan's confession of a loss of faith in the foundations of the Bush/Iraq enterprise. Turns out another ultramegaleftyliberal got a Freedom of Information Act release of notorious Department of Defense underling Steven Carbone's notes from meetings with Donald Rumsfeld.



Mr. Sullivan writes:

"Go massive ... Sweep it all up. Things related and not." (My italics). My confidence that there was no deliberate misleading of the American people after 9/11 just slipped a notch.


I dunno if Mr. Sullivan actually looked at the document he posted, or just skimmed the FOIA blogger's account of it, but the keen eye reveals the smoking gun, "sweep it all up...relevant and not" is appended with an arrow saying "need to do to get anything useful."

The non-Bush Derangement Syndrome interpretation of that would be, "Dear Lower Level Guy and His Even Lower Staff: We know more than you do, and are in a better position to evaluate the intelligence and connect the dots. Get it all. Love, Rummy."

The section of the documents that reads "judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. at same time" should come as no surprise to anyone who knew that the Bushies were determined to enforce Congress' 1998 resolution for regime change and reverse years of President Clinton's sometimes malign neglect of Saddam Hussein's violation of his peace treaty that included the withdrawal of WMD inspectors, attacking Baghdad with cruise missile or two, and most importantly, starving out the Iraqi people through "bloodless" sanctions.

No doubt, Dubya and the Bushies fixed the Saddam problem for good. No doubt.



In the aftermath, the Iraqi populace has already turned against al-Qaeda's indiscriminate murder. And we have cleared the road to self-determination. If the Shias and Sunnis want to descend into fratricide yet again, like the Iran-Iraq war, we cannot and should not stop them. Goodbye. But I believe they will step back from civil war. As their latest provocation in blowing up a mosque/shrine proves, it is the al-Qaedaers who are humanity's enemy, crusader and Muslim alike.

There is hope for us all yet, Mr. Sullivan, and your instincts were right in the first place: Saddam was a boil on humanity's butt that needed to be lanced. And we've done our moral duty in protecting the weak from the strong in the vacuum that inevitably ensues when the temporary stability of a butchering dictator evaporates. Nihil desperandum, sir. My admiration for your courage in a difficult spot endures.

Businessman/poet Tom Van Dyke writes from an undisclosed location beneath Southern California.

The Case for Dissolving FEMA

In response to my post titled "Federalizing Everything," a commenter asked, "You are saying you don't mind federal involvement [in disaster management] but you don't want them to be the ones coordinating it?"

That is not quite correct, so I'll explain further. First, I believe that the federal government should take the lead role in protecting the nation against attacks by foreign forces and any homegrown forces that venture across state borders. That is a given. It is when we get into the area of natural disasters that the problems arise.

I definitely don't want the federal government implementing responses to natural disasters. There is absolutely no need for it. Coordination is the farthest I should like them to go, and even that much involvement is in fact unnecessary. There is nothing on earth stopping states from cooperating in relief efforts and in preparing for disasters before they happen. Numerous states sent help to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina, and countless private relief efforts contributed as well. States can work out agreements with each other to handle cross-border environmental problems and disaster-relief scenarios. Certainly there will be disagreements at times among states regarding which should take responsibilty for what (meaning whose taxpayers will pay how much for it), but federal "coordination" only moves the argument further up the line and results in greater stasis and failure of coordination and implementation.

In fact, the very existence of a federal agency devoted to disaster management (FEMA), and the existence (and meddling) of other agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers, has helped take the pressure off of state and local governments to make the investments necessary to ensure that they can handle natural disasters. Any failures will ultimately be blamed on the federal government, which is exactly what happened after Katrina.

That is an excellent example of the concept economists call moral hazard.

If the state of Louisiana and city of New Orleans, in particular, have elected governments so inept and negligent that they failed to prepare for a catastrophe that everyone has known for countless years would eventually arrive, that is a matter for the voters of Louisiana and New Orleans to deal with. It is not a matter that requires a huge stratum of federal mandates to be laid on people in Seattle, Iowa City, and Charlotte.

The state of Louisiana could have prepared for this. The city of New Orleans could have been ready to deal with the problem. But they weren't. So now, because of the stupidity and cupidity of two state and local goverments, we will all have to climb under an even greater yoke of federal-government management of our lives. That is not sound policy; it is idiocy.

States would undoubtedly prepare for potential problems more effectively without federal "guidance," and especially without a huge new federal bureaucracy and a crushing new layer of laws, regulations, commissions, and greatly increased taxes to finance it all.

All of this is entirely unnecessary, including any federal role in planning and coordination. The creation of a large federal bureaucracy to coordinate and implement disaster management is an unnecessary and counterproductive boondoggle.

The best course at this time would be to dissolve FEMA and other such agencies and send the authority and responsibility back to the states, where it belongs.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Dubai: Don't Sell

In case you thought that Laura Ingraham's on-line poll showing 90 percent opposition to the port sale was skewed by the well-known predilections of her listenership, I thought I should pass along that the MSNBC poll, not encumbered with rightward leanings, is at 88 percent against and holding.

Federalizing Everything

It's just a coincidence, I'm sure, but every major event that happens in the United States seems to be read as showing that we need more intervention from the federal government.

The Katrina disaster is an excellent case in point. As soon as it happened and people in the region had to put up with the consequences of having chosen to live in an area long known to be vulnerable to just such a catastrophe, the complaints rang through the press regarding the alleged slowness of the federal government in responding. Relatively little attention was paid to the disgracefully slow and inept response by the governments of New Orleans and Louisiana, and likewise to the fact that the federal government stepped in as soon as was legally permitted.

No, the federal government was responsible for everything, including the weather and the choice of people to live in places sure to be inundated at some point or other. And of course the blustering, handwring, and investigations followed. The White House report on the federal response to Katrina, released today, predictably calls for more federal control over such matters. As the New York Times reports:

The federal government, the report said, failed to sufficiently appreciate that there are certain types of disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, where local and state governments will be so overwhelmed that they will largely be unable to help themselves.

Perhaps, but in this case the state and local governments were not competent and overwhelmed; they were overwhelmed because they were grotesquely inept, disorganized, and unprepared. The way for that to be handled is for the voters to replace their inept leaders with competent ones. If they refuse to do that, that's their choice, and they should have to accept the consequences.

The federal report proceeds from this faulty premise to the expected conclusion. The Times continues:

The Department of Defense, as was proposed by President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, would play a more active role in major disasters, the report suggests, perhaps leading the federal response to help accelerate search and rescue, evacuation and the delivery of supplies.

The report does not detail exactly when such a takeover might be appropriate, or how it would happen, suggesting only that the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense study the matter and come up with a plan. But it does offer examples of the types of incidents that would merit such a step, including perhaps a nuclear attack or "multiple simultaneous terrorist attacks causing a breakdown in civil society."

The latter certainly merit a central role for the federal government, as they would come under that government's responsibility for protecting us from foreign threats. When it comes to natural disasters, however, it is decidedly unclear when the federal government would have to be the main responder and when states and local governments should. What makes a disaster "federal"?—we should have to ask. But we will not do that, you can be sure, because the answer is that what really makes a disaster federal is the reaction of the media.

What will most certainly happen, then, is that the federal government will become the default option for management of the response to any significant disasters, natural or otherwise, occurring within the U.S. borders. That, of course, will require a huge, permanent bureaucracy to be established at the Department of Homeland Security, a bureaucracy that will inevitably become much bigger and vastly more expensive over time, as is the norm for federal departments and programs.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Miscellany

A few cursory thoughts for lunchtime:

1. With respect to the port bruhaha, all of us should be ashamed of such as the ineffable Michelle Malkin and the hysterical Frank Gaffney, both supremely expert at shouting first and thinking only much later if ever. Will the newly purchased P&O be managing "security"? Well, no. Will it manage the entire port infrastructures, as opposed to certain terminals? Well, no. Is the UAE a terrorist-supporting sovereign? Well, no. Would this new management have weakened incentives to cooperate with the Coast Guard and Customs Service in terms of port and container security, respectively? Well, no. Is there any reason to predict diminished inspection regimes at any of the affected ports? Well, no. Is there a good reason to allow Hillary and Schumer and the rest look like toughies on terrorism? Well, no. And therein lies the main reson that the bureaucrats should have nixed this anyway: It cannot be defended in a sound-bite world. So let us be honest about that. And please tell Malkin and Gaffney and the others to shut up.

2. So: I guess now it is the left also that believes in the permanent (nonliving) constitution. I refer to the argument now common amongst our usual opponents that the 4th amendment proscribes the electronic surveillance of conversations in the U.S. regardless of what the law says or does not say and regardless of the new environment created by international terrorism. El Presidente W, as usual, also is trying to have it both ways, arguing that the authorization of force passed after 9/11 includes such powers, and that obtaining such authority explicitly is both unnecessary and futile because Congress would not pass it. Or something. Will George ever learn? Make the case, W, and force Congress to vote up or down on the record.

3. So the Harvard Arts and Letters faculty, each member of which is in line for a Nobel prize, now has forced Larry Summers to resign as president. (Disclosure: Larry and I served together on the senior staff of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Reagan Administration.) Blame the Harvard lefties all you want for their closemindedness and bigotry, but the fact remains that this outcome is largely Larry's fault for capitulating in the face of the absurd reaction from a few over the sex/mathematics musings. A firm stand then, combined with a figurative finger in the faces of the unwashed, would have worked wonders.

For the Really Highbrow Darwin Doubters

Get to know David Berlinski. His collection of essays for Commentary magazine is available here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Mess of Portage

Hey, I'm kinda proud of this article. It took me much longer than usual, because I thought it should incorporate a number of elements. The challenge was to try to keep all the moving parts in balance; I hope that I finally succeeded.

The Dubai port deal looks awful and smells worse. Time for Bush to get the FYI that the UAE deal is DOA. By threatening a veto today, he set himself up for a serious hurting in the offing. The public won't tar him for feathering his bed but they will tar-and-feather him for being obdurate at the wrong time.

Here's a peek:

Apparently I'm dead.

There can be no other explanation; I have always maintained that I would never live long enough to agree with Charles Schumer about anything. Still, it is ironic that my first posthumous column has to be in support of his position. He is in favor of chucking the recently announced dubious Dubai-U.S. deal to have that Arab emirate operate our major ports in New York and Miami. To be more precise, a quote-company-unquote quote-based-unquote in Dubai.

Cartoons & Civilization

With all the attention the world has devoted to the Danish newspaper, Jylands-Posten’s, cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed, there are – it seems to me – several conditions surrounding this matter that deserve further elaboration.

First, and perhaps most noteworthy, is the self censorship many Western observers have imposed on themselves when the riots began. This form of preemptive subservience satisfies Islamists intent on global domination. As many observers have pointed out, freedom of the press has in many instances retreated before selective moral indignation.

The reasons for this response are manifold: fear, sympathy, anti-Western animus, and sensitivity to Muslim beliefs. What the sympathizers ignore is that without religious mandate they have supinely accepted dhimmitude, the subservience Muslims demand of nonbelievers.

While the appropriate stance should be the affirmation of Western principle, namely freedom of speech, many cower, fearful of offending marauding religious adherents. Instead of meeting speech that may be offensive with counter speech, Islamists threaten – and in extreme instances engage in murder, e.g. the killing of Theo van Gogh after he made a film depicting the mistreatment of Muslim women.

Yet even the threats are rationalized. Pat Buchanan noted that these cartoons deserve to be censured and implied that there is justification for the riots. His response is reminiscent of John Le Carre, who after learning of a fatwa on Salman Rushdie for the publication of Satanic Verses, said, “there is no law in life or nature that says great religion may be insulted with impunity.” Yet Le Carre has not been heard when Muslims routinely call Jews monkeys and pigs. Apparently what is good for Muslims is not good for those Muslims deplore.

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Canadian Justice Louise Arbour responded to a complaint from the Organization of The Islamic Conference by arguing, “I find alarming any behaviors that disregard the belief of others.” She proceeded to launch an investigation into “racism” and “disrespect for belief” and asked for an official explanation from the Danish government. It is instructive that the U.N. Human Rights Commission has been conspicuously silent on the vicious portrayal of Jews in the schoolbooks distributed in the Palestinian territory and in many Muslim nations.

While the examples cited here do not necessarily constitute a morally flaccid West, they do suggest moral hypocrisy on the part of many on the left who for decades claimed to be seeking liberation from artificially imposed social barriers. Christianity was seen as superstition; taboos as mere synthetic constraints against sexual expression.

Now, however, the left has embraced a position of high dudgeon over the criticism of Islam. Not only is freedom sacrificed on the crescent of Islam, but the left has been willing to repudiate its own position in order to be a bedfellow of Islamists.

Feminists, who have fought for women’s rights in the United States, have been silent over the abusive treatment of Muslim women. I would have thought acolytes of Betty Friedan would be demonstrating in front of every capital of every Muslim nation. Yet the moral fervor they directed against middle class American men has been converted into moral osteoporosis, alas moral hypocrisy, when it comes to Islam.

Apparently any anti-western sentiment is worthy of support if it is consistent with a reflexive anti-western view of the left. The enemy of my enemy is my friend has become a refrain. Curiously the libertarians of the left have been willing to embrace fascism of the most reactionary variety.

This red-green nexus is not a Christmas decoration. It is a threat that could undermine basic freedom in the West. The episode over the cartoons is a test. Islamists has fomented riots in an effort to see how the West will respond.

There will be other tests and with each one Islam will demand further observance of dhimmitude. The question that remains is whether the West will stand up to this challenge with fortitude and coverage. As I see it there isn’t any backing down, lest our civilization is put at risk.

Herbert London is President of the Hudson Institute and Professor Emeritus at NYU. He is also author of the book Decade of Denial (Lexington Books).

NY Times Discovers Kelo Reaction

An important and insufficiently remarked trend of our time is how many political issues are receiving support that cuts across party lines. School choice is among the most prominent of these, as inner-city minorities realize that it is the quickest way for their children to flee their failing public schools and get a decent education. Common-sense environmentalism is another such case, as increasing numbers of people recognize that technological and economic progress are the most reliable keys to environmental improvement.

Perhaps the most prominent such issue at the moment is the question of state governments' attitudes toward individual property rights. All too frequently, the states' use of eminent domain authority pushes ordinary people out of the way to make way for moneymaking projects of wealthy and politically powerful organizations. Corporations, for example, not only get big tax breaks to build headquarters in a particular locality, they also get prime land that the state has condemned so as to remove its current owners and residents. Typically, the land is declared to be blighted, to satisfy state requirements of state law, but the "blight" is often only in the eye of the beholder.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision last June in Kelo vs. New London, Connecticut, which upheld a state's right to take land from some people and give it to others if the state government thought the latter would be able to pay more in taxes, brought this issue to a head. As has been reported regularly during the past year in the Heartland Institute's newspapers (which this author serves as senior editor), a coalition of people from both Left and Right—true liberals from both sides of of the political divide—has come together to limit individual states' power to take private property and give it to other people strictly for economic development purposes.

The New York Times reported on this phenomenon today (finally!):

"It's open season on eminent domain," said Larry Morandi, a land-use specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Bills are being pushed by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and they're passing by huge margins."

Seldom has a Supreme Court decision sparked such an immediate legislative reaction, and one that scrambles the usual partisan lines. Condemnation of the ruling came from black lawmakers representing distressed urban districts, from suburbanites and from Western property-rights absolutists who rarely see eye to eye on anything. Lawmakers from Maine to California have introduced dozens of bills in reaction to the ruling, most of them saying that government should never seize private homes or businesses solely to benefit a private developer.

This is a great example of true liberalism: people defending their neighbors from the depredations of government and business (which all too often go hand in hand).

Danny Pearl's Favorite

Those Reform Club patrons who know me only as mouthy and stridently opinionated middle-aged female economist and political observer will perhaps be amused to learn that I am also an amateur musician of the unbounded enthusiasm but dubious ability school. At the age of 44, after a lifetime of playing normal instruments -- piano and various woodwinds -- I began harping in Irish/folk/early music styles.

I belong to an informal group that occasionally performs in public. St. Patrick's Day is to Irish bands as April 15 is to the IRS, and we have a local gig lined up the previous weekend. You don't just play music in these venues, you have a line of patter including jokes, stories, and information about the music you're performing. So I was surfing for tidbits, looking for some background on an old Irish reel usually called "Red Haired Boy" although it's got other names and multiple sets of lyrics like "Little Beggarman" and "Auld Rigadoo." What I found, mostly on a well-known traditional tune swapping site called The Session, was more than I anticipated.

I found the tune easily enough. But it had another name cross-indexed there, one I'd never heard before. Danny Pearl's Favorite. What the heck can that be? I thought to myself.

I knew who Daniel Pearl was, of course. There can't be many who don't remember the Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped and savagely beheaded by Islamofascist terrorists in January 2002. His gruesome death was videotaped and shown to the world. His pregnant wife Marianne supplied the tragic poignancy of the personal angle for the millions who knew his name, and his fate, but little else. His colleagues at WSJ knew and told more, but eulogies are brief and not long remembered by those who didn't know the dead personally. But there are other rivers in the collective memory, and I had stumbled upon one.

On February 25, 2002, less than a month after Daniel Pearl's murder was confirmed by Pakistani authorities, the following message was posted to a discussion group on The Session:

Take a minute out to remember Danny Pearl, a bluegrass fiddler whose favorite tune was "Red-Haired Boy", and was kidnapped and murdered while on the job for The Wall Street Journal. Better yet, how about playing the tune at your next session to remember him by.

More suggestions follow: play it slow the first time through, play it as an air. Tell the story to your fellow musicians, to the audience. And then: let's call it Danny Pearl's Favorite. There are thousands of trad songs called [X's] Favorite. These tunes are so old, and have been passed around in the aural tradition for so long, that no one remembers the original names, if they had names at all.

And then, more than a year later, this post appears:

When journalist Daniel Pearl was savagely killed by terrorists who had taken him hostage in Pakistan, the papers and other news organizations discovered that Danny Pearl was also a fiddler -- bluegrass and oldtime, mainly, but he loved playing all kinds of music. His favorite tune was said to have been The Red-Haired Boy. Quite a few players got the idea all at the same time: what if we started spreading another name for the tune?Danny Pearl's Favorite. Many tunes, of course, have more than one name, and many of those tune names are ****'s Favorite.

So I suggested it to The Session, and many players wrote to say that they'd start spreading the usage of the new tune name to honor Danny Pearl. And then I more or less forgot about it, because you really don't hear Red-Haired Boy at Irish sessions, at least around here, very often.

But I was at an unfamiliar session recently, one where they played some old time as well, and someone started playing Red Haired Boy. "Oh, yes, Red-Haired Boy," I said, picking up my bow.

"Danny Pearl's Favorite," corrected the young fiddler across from me, picking up the tune.

I had to do some blinking for a bit to get the tune out.

We're going to tell the story at our St. Patrick's Day gig. But someone else will have to do it. I had to do some blinking for a bit just to write this post.

Monday, February 20, 2006

And Now, a Word from Mr. Beale...

Paddy Chayefsky's Network just seems more and more prescient every day, don't you think?

"All right, listen to me! Listen carefully! This is your goddam life I'm talking about today! In this country, when one company takes over another company, they simply buy up a controlling share of the stock..."



"But first they have to file notice with the government. That's how C.C. and A. -- the Communications Corporation of America -- bought up the company that owns this network. And now somebody's buying up C.C. and A! Some company named Western World Funding Corporation is buying up C.C. and A! They filed their notice this morning! Well, just who the hell is Western World Funding Corporation? It's a consortium of banks and insurance companies who are not buying C.C. and A. for themselves but as agents for somebody else!

Well, who's this somebody else? They won't tell you! They won't tell you, they won't tell the Senate, they won't tell the SEC, the FCC, the Justice Department, they won't tell anybody! They say it's none of our business! The hell it ain't!

Well, I'll tell you who they're buying C.C. and A. for. They're buying it for the Saudi-Arabian Investment Corporation! They're buying it for the Arabs!

We know the Arabs control more than sixteen billion dollars in this country! They own a chunk of Fifth Avenue, twenty downtown pieces of Boston, a part of the port of New Orleans, an industrial park in Salt Lake City. They own big hunks of the Atlanta Hilton, the Arizona Land and Cattle Company, the Security National Bank in California, the Bank of the Commonwealth in Detroit! They control ARAMCO, so that puts them into Exxon, Texaco and Mobil oil! They're all over -- New Jersey, Louisville, St.Louis, Missouri! And that's only what we know about!

There's a hell of a lot more we don't know about because all those Arab petro-dollars are washed through Switzerland and Canada and the biggest banks in this country!

For example, what we don't know about is this C.C.A. deal and all the other C.C.A. deals!

Right now, the Arabs have screwed us out of enough American dollars to come back and, with our own money, buy General Motors, IBM, ITT, AT&T, Dupont, U.S. Steel, and twenty other top American companies. Hell, they already own half of England.

Now, listen to me, goddammit! The Arabs are simply buying us! They're buying all our land, our whole economy, the press, the factories, financial institutions, the government! They're going to own us! A handful of agas, shahs and emirs who despise this country and everything it stands for -- democracy, freedom, the right for me to get up on television and tell you about it -- a couple of dozen medieval fanatics are going to own where you work, where you live, what you read, what you see, your cars, your bowling alleys, your mortgages, your schools, your churches, your libraries, your kids, your whole life!

And there's not a single law on the books to stop them! There's only one thing that can stop them -- you! So I want you to get up now. I want you to get out of your chairs and go to the phone. Right now. I want you to go to your phone or get in your car and drive into the Western Union office in town. I want everybody listening to me to get up right now and send a telegram to the White House --

By midnight tonight I want a million telegrams in the White House! I want them wading knee-deep in telegrams at the White House! Get up! Right now! And send President Ford a telegram saying: I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more! I don't want the banks selling my country to the Arabs! I want this C.C. and A. deal stopped now!

I want this C.C. and A. deal stopped now! I want this C.C. and A. deal stopped now!"


Well, Western Union doesn't deliver telegrams anymore, the Arab stake in America is a helluva lot more than $16 billion, and Gerald Ford isn't president, but not much else has changed from 1976. Eerie, and pure genius.


Now, the national security dimension of an Arab country running our ports is enough to raise the hackles of common sense in anyone, apparently even in Democrats, so this must be really important.

But the United Arab Emirates, who just bought the stock of a port-running company, has never been proven to have done any harm to the United States, has it? In fact, they handed over one of the USS Cole terrorists. I mean, we're not engaging in racial profiling here, are we? (Just checking. I would not want our friends on the left to employ common sense if it makes them morally uncomfortable.)


There's a little-known law from 1920 called the Jones Act, a portion of which, to ensure the nation's economic security, dictates that any cargo (petroleum products included) shipping port-to-port must be done by American built, owned, flagged and (75%) crewed vessels.

There has been a move of late to repeal the Jones Act, as its protectionism had the effect of a hidden tax, although such efforts have stalled. The Jones Act was designed so that no outside forces could interfere with the flow of commercial shipping in the United States.

Instead of repeal, it appears national security demands an expansion of the act to include our ports themselves. I want the C.C. and A. deal stopped now, too.

Cheney of Command

Some cynical types have expressed anger that I have enthusiastically lauded Vice President Cheney in my column today for being a stand-up guy and owning up to being responsible for shooting Mr. Whittington. They impute all sorts of motives, ulterior and Machiavellian, to his words.

To me, the first obligation of the commentator is to take a person at his word unless I see evasive game-playing in the phrasing of the statement itself, such as we have often encountered in American politics, from Nixon's "I am not a crook" to Reagan's "Mistakes were made" to Clinton's "It depends what the meaning of is is" to Gore's "No controlling legal authority".

Also, no matter how much political or other advantage accrues to the confessor, people of weak character are startlingly prideful in their refusal to acknowledge guilt. We need only look to Martha Stewart, who spent five months in jail rather than admit that she cut some corners in her stock trading.

As the Crowe Flies

A number of critics on the right, such as Michael Medved and John Podhoretz, have singled out Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe as the late James J. Braddock, as one of the great films of 2005. Not that the film has any political aspect; right and left have become an issue only inasmuch as leftists have such heavy commitments to agenda films like Brokeback Mountain that they have no passion left for good solid cinema.

That said, Cinderella Man was needlessly harmed by its decision to demonize Max Baer as a vicious killer, which he patently was not. If you do see the film on DVD, be sure to watch the footage from the actual Baer-Braddock fight in the Bonus Features. There you will see that Baer was a total gentleman who spontaneously grabbed Braddock's head and gave him a kiss at the end of the last round, despite his almost certainly knowing that he had lost his title.

It would be interesting to hear back from our readers on one bizarre point of advertising. If you pick up that DVD and look at the picture on its cover, does it appear to be a natural depiction of two fully dressed people embracing? Please let us know your impressions.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Present Perfect

If I have a complaint against some of the religious thinkers of our time, it is in the area of their underappreciation of physical modernity.

Because they are so occupied with the battle against the fallacy that modernity brings new insight into the human condition, merely by virtue of coming to the table a day later, they allow themselves to drift into various forms of proto-Luddite disdain for new inventions and technologies. This is especially sad because it was the Biblical prophets who predicted consistently that the end of history would feature a radically different landscape in the physical Creation.

There are a number of branches to this critique, some of which have already been previewed in various venues.

Today I will venture out into a territory which I believe to be entirely uncharted. This involves revisiting Biblical questions from a modern perspective, not to try to take shallow swipes at the tradition but to see how it expands to absorb the new light added by new generations of life in history.

A brief example will suffice. There are many miracles that are known through the tradition but are not recorded in the explicit Biblical text. For example, every Jewish schoolchild knows that Nimrod offered Abraham a choice between relinquishing his belief in God (this was long before he had received prophecy; his belief was founded strictly on the argument from design) and going into a furnace. Abraham chose the furnace and he emerged unscathed.

They also know that Eliezer miraculously traveled from Beersheba in Israel to the Mesopotamian side of Syria in one day with a huge caravan of camels. Similarly, the spies sent to Israel from the desert were able to traverse all of Israel on foot in a single day.

Another such underreported marvel is the fact that Jochebed, the mother of Moses, was said to be 130 years old when he was born.

The question puzzled over by all the medieval commentaries is why the Bible deemphasizes such miracles and leaves them to the oral tradition, while stressing the splitting of the sea and the manna. Nachmanides (1194-1270) notably establishes a theological principle that the Bible wishes to negate the idea that miracles are themselves proof of anything. Only a miracle predicted by prophecy is valid as a true indicator of divine will. (Incidentally, a fact that always shocks "outsiders" is the rule that in any theological argument between Maimonides and Nachmanides, the view of Nachmanides is considered authoritative.)

It occurs to me that living in our time enables us to offer a different answer, one that was simply not accessible at earlier points in history.

Namely, that each of those miracles are things that can be approximated by using the technologies that nature has disgorged in this revelatory phase of history that we call home.

Today, we can send a man into a furnace wearing an asbestos suit and he can come out on the other side. Although that would not be quite the same thing, it remains a fact that a man can walk through a furnace. It's also a fact that a man can easily traverse those distances in the times allotted, albeit with the assistance of a motor vehicle or an aircraft. And any woman healthy enough to be alive and walking around can be implanted with a child today.

On the other hand, no conceivable technology will ever split a sea or feed a nation of millions from the sky.

Just a thought. But my larger point is that if you accept the Scripture as a prophetic document, it is absurd not to recognize that it would be crafted in such a way as to conform with every possible permutation within the natural order.