"Go not for every grief to the physician, nor for every quarrel to the lawyer, nor for every thirst to the pot." —George Herbert (1593-1633)

Friday, March 24, 2006

Two Cities Blog, Brokeback, and Christian Reactions

Matt Tapie is the very definition of the man contending earnestly for the faith. He writes about the city of God and the city of man on a new blog that has already been noticed by Hugh Hewitt and The Evangelical Outpost.

I bring him up today because he has a particularly good post about how Christians should react to Brokeback Mountain. Is it boycott time?!!! Not according to Matt. He has a different view of things:

First of all, we must not confront culture using its rules of engagement. In our culture, much of politics has become a debased game of power plays. There is no longer agreement about the possibility of a "good" society, so there exists only grabs for power. The question has ceased to be about how to make society "good" and has now become "Who has the power to define society?" Because of this, we are tempted to appeal to polls and what the "American people" think to advance our positions. Christian cultural engagement is frequently associated with activism, boycotts, protests, and mass emails. Our engagement must rise above these "majority rules" methods. If our primary means of engaging culture consists of boycotting Target because they use the term "holiday tree," or boycotting a movie because it does not line up with the Christian worldview, I believe we are in grave danger. We are in danger of being seduced by power politics and distracted from the mission of God in the world. Our obligation to live as the salt and light of the earth has been reduced to a lobbying effort, and Christ is not a lobbyist--he is the Son of God and Savior of the world.

I think I'm going to end up disagreeing with Matt on this one, at least as far as my own choice goes. Last time I saw a movie for reasons of cultural engagement was The Last Temptation of Christ. I'll never get that two hours of my life back. I'm going to bow out for aesthetic reasons rather than any sort of political protest. I like my cowboys minimally interested in women, but only because they're too busy driving a herd under desperate conditions or because some cold-blooded murderers are on the loose. Pencil me in for another viewing of Tombstone.

Matt's got the right idea, though.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

You Know a Trend Is Dead . . .

. . . When Conservatives Jump on Board.

C. Aubrey Smith
Just when the Right finally found its inner metrosexual in the American Spectator's publishing of Mark Gavreau Judge's paeans to Saks, swing dancing, Polo, and imported after-shave lotion, the New York Times reports that the wascally wabbits behind today's fashions are growing their beards out, donning plaid shirts, buying log cabins with their Log Cabin Republican life partners, and, for all we know, designing fashionable blue denim trousers that are already frayed at the heels at time of purchase (as mine inevitably are after a couple of weeks, I don't know why).

It's true. Actors are sporting bushy beards, and even male runway fashion models are wearing long, unruly, shocks of facial hair. These furry beasts are trundling down Broaday, Michigan Avenue, Rodeo Drive, and our other most fashionable thoroughfares, no doubt shopping for high-fashion gumboots, tool belts, and bad toupees, loading up on chips and bock beer in a crash effort to develop beer guts, and loosening their wide, black leather belts so that the backs of their green work pants slide down and expose their butt cracks as do all good blue-collar gentlemen.

How close we may be to the return of the bushy, waxed-up eybrow look (which worked so well for the great character actor C. Aubrey Smith), I shudder to think.

You Need Schoolin' . . .

An interesting oped in today's New York Times, written by a Kenyon College admissions officer, notes how the large number of young women applying for college in the United States has harmed their prospects for admission:

Today, two-thirds of colleges and universities report that they get more female than male applicants, and more than 56 percent of undergraduates nationwide are women. Demographers predict that by 2009, only 42 percent of all baccalaureate degrees awarded in the United States will be given to men.

We have told today's young women that the world is their oyster; the problem is, so many of them believed us that the standards for admission to today's most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men. How's that for an unintended consequence of the women's liberation movement?

Of course, these women will all get in some school somewhere, and will simply suffer the same tragedy we all endure: not getting precisely what we want when we want it. It's another illustration of the great truth of social life which classical liberalism is based on: Every solution creates new problems.

That truth, along with the fact that technological changes will always create economic and social changes that society must accommodate, is why conservatism by itself is never a viable social organizing principle. Conservatism is a vital component of true liberalism (because true liberalism accepts the premise that social order is one of the two main aims of politics, the other being liberty, the relationship of which is encapsulated in the term ordered liberty, the search for which is the sine qua non of true liberalism), and is an antidote to radicalism, but by itself all conservatism can do is suppress the many good things that technological change can bring.

"Left Behind" for Lefties? (V for Vendetta)

When I was in high school, it was muy uncool to like comic books. I still remember hanging out at Albertson's grocery store before or after a shift reading comics on the rack. One of the "cool" guys with the fab preppie name of Jonathan John walked by with his girlfriend and sarcastically inquired about the fortunes of Archie and Jughead. I didn't bother to say I was busy reading Crisis on Infinite Earths. Besides, I kinda like Archie and Jughead, too.

Given my background, one might not be surprised to know that I've read the original comic version of V for Vendetta, which is now a film in theatres. I didn't like the comic that much, largely because it imagines a post-nuclear scenario in which a group of men who are basically skinheads in suits and with better haircuts have taken control of the government of England. The message is typical left-wing fantasy: Conservatives are waiting to really unveil their true colors and start liquidating anyone of African descent, artists, gays, and fashion designers. Oh, and they'll also have a concentration camp because it fits their brutal aesthetic.

I haven't seen the film, though I probably will at some point, but hearing from a friend and reading the review by Peter Suderman at NRO indicates it may be worse than I thought. Same ugly message about conservatives, but instead of a post-nuclear scenario the conservatives have taken over post-extensive terror war operations. Thus, the conservative dystopia is updated to take in George W. Bush. How enchanting.

After some thought, I've concluded this genre is Left Behind for secularist lefties, except Lennon-like there's no heaven after the "good" guys win. But I'll tell you what, there'll be free porn for EVERYBODY! Except, that is, for the Intoleranti who shall be lying in a pool of their own unenlightened blood!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Devastating Military Death Figures and the Media

I've been had. You've been had. We've all been had.

I'm about to share some numbers that will make you wonder why the MSM has been playing up military casualties in Iraq. These are official figures:

George W. Bush . . . . . 5187 (2001-2004)
Bill Clinton . . . . . . . . . 4302 (1993-1996)
George H.W. Bush . . . . 6223 (1989-1992)
Ronald Reagan . . . . . . 9163 (1981-1984)

Thanks to Redstate for pointing this out.

Given the extent of our involvement in two nations where we instituted regime change, it looks like W's team hasn't bungled things as badly as is widely believed.

Immigration and the Honest Inquirer

I'm not one of those people who gets worked up about illegal immigration. The giant flare-up over illegals constantly scampering over the border struck me as a possible entitlement and law enforcement problem, but I don't usually regard the situation with much alarm. Part of the problem may be competitive selectivity. I have other priorities and none of them are worth sacrificing to any project that might bear the remotest whiff of racism which scuttles almost anyone tagged with it permanently.

Maggie Gallagher has me rethinking the issue. Her latest column does a nice job of explaining why regular folks are increasingly upset over immigration. Here's a bit:

What should we do about illegal immigration? How it looks depends in part on where you stand. Me? I'm an ivy-educated "symbolic analyst" living in a slightly less affluent ZIP code of one of the most affluent U.S. counties. For me, personally, illegal Mexican immigration means that when a foot of snow falls, two nice guys show up and offer to shovel the driveway for $25.

But for my friend "Mary," the whole issue looks different. She cleans houses and baby-sits for a living. Her son paints houses. In both cases, they are competing directly with a new flood of immigrants who don't mind living doubled or quadrupled up (changing the character of neighborhoods) and for whom $10 bucks an hour is a premium wage.

I don't think the fact that she and her family notice (and object) makes them racists. Economic studies suggest that overall, immigration is a net wash, or a slight plus, for the American economy. But the pluses and minuses are not evenly distributed over the whole population: Lesser-skilled Americans who compete for jobs that don't require Ivy League credentials take the hit, while people like me enjoy a lot of the benefits. A 2003 Hamilton College poll found that only 12 percent of Americans worry that immigrants might take their job. I suspect these are the folks for whom the fear is quite realistic.

Meanwhile, a nationally representative Quinnipiac poll released March 4 concludes that 88 percent of all Americans see illegal immigration as a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem. By 62 percent to 32 percent, voters oppose making it easier for undocumented immigrants to become citizens. More than four in 10 Americans would prefer not to give U.S. citizenship to children born in this country to illegals (a right guaranteed in the Constitution).
"This poll reflects local concerns about immigrants gathering on street corners, waiting for jobs, or packed into illegal housing and the like," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Red state, blue state and purple state voters agree: Illegal immigration is a serious problem."


The part about "Mary" and her son hits me with particular force. I think it may be the case that many folks, like readers of this blog, media members, and me, have not cared much about immigration because it doesn't affect our lives that much. If anything, it ensures we have cheap labor. For other people, it matters a lot and has a day to day impact. That fact alone may call for others of us to engage in reappraisal.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Alister McGrath v. Daniel Dennett

Alister McGrath takes Daniel Dennett (he of the "religion can be explained by evolution" program) down a bit here

(HT to Stuart Buck)

My favorite line: "This book, in my view, makes a critique of religion dependent on a hypothetical, unobserved entity, which can be dispensed with in order to make sense of what we observe. Isn’t that actually a core atheist critique of God – an unobserved hypothesis which can be
dispensed with easily?"

The Ill's of Progressive Education: Bernard Chapin

Bernard Chapin is a friend of the blog and one of the most outrageously politically incorrect people you'll ever meet. In fact, it is possible the phrase was invented to describe Bernard, who makes me blush on occasion.

Bernard is devastating when he combines his countercultural conservatism with a subject he knows particularly well. As a school psychologist, Bernard knows the wily world of professional educational philosophy and practice. What he knows, he doesn't like. His recent book Escape from Gangsta Island explains why.

For an excellent preview of the book's contents, check out Bernard's interview with Front Page Magazine.

Here's a little taste:

Dexter, a dean at Eastlands and my former friend, was battered in the middle of the hallway by a student with a criminal record as long as the Mississippi River. I made a split second decision to leave the family I was escorting through the hall so I could end the beating. The impact of my intervention didn’t turn out as I planned. The kid dragged me down a wing of our building until help arrived. After the danger subsided, our principal showed up. In 11 years, no sicker scene have I ever witnessed than when she began to rub the boy’s stomach while whispering, “That’s alright baby. That’s alright.” It wasn’t alright. Dexter wasn’t alright either. He had bruised ribs, a concussion, and saw double for several months thereafter. The center’s complete lack of leadership was evident when our assistant principal yelled at me for allowing the family to observe the thrashing. I had no witty comeback. What could I say?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Who Is Running the Store?

Back from Berlin, where I couldn't quite get Bob Kagan and some others to tell me precisely how they define vital U.S. national interests. But never mind. While gone, I read somewhere that El Presidente W wants to release the Iraqi documents about which Steve Hayes has written so much, while John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence, is resisting. And so someone, anyone, please remind me: Who is the President? This recalls the episode back in the H.W. Bush Administration, when the federal government sued itself; specifically, the Departments of Agriculture and Interior sued each other over some issue. And precisely why didn't the White House simply order whatever resolution was deemed appropriate? Well, H.W. just didn't want to have to take responsibility for that decision. Maybe the apple fell right by the tree.

The Old College Try

For forty years, George Mason has been the Rodney Dangerfield of the Virginia public university system. Never mind that their economics department boasts the same number of Nobelists as Princeton, Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, Cambridge, and Columbia. Never mind that GMU Law, despite its relative youth, has been a firmly established first tier school for five years. Locals still mock them as "The Best Community College in Northern Virginia." Their reputation as a nest of foaming right-wingers -- which in academic terms means filing an amicus curiae brief in support of DoD in Rumsfeld v. FAIR, the side that ultimately won 8-0 at the Supreme Court -- hasn't helped.

But yesterday they got a shot at strange new respect, courtesy of the NCAA Division I basketball tournament. The Patriots (I told you they were Neanderthal reactionaries) upset reigning national champion North Carolina to gain a spot in the Sweet Sixteen. Perhaps now, at least, people outside Washington DC will not hear the words "George Mason" and think, "Master of subtle understated evil Xander Berkeley."

Palestinian Expansionism

Did a small thing over at The American Spectator today about all the pudgy prisoners whom Israel "kidnapped" from the Palestinian prison in Jericho. Just to show how valid my point is, later articles are all using funny-angled pictures that don't give you the sense of a bunch of fat guys that the initial photograph did.

Here's a fragment:

And to be very honest, no one has a real solution short of importing a million old schoolmarms to civilize the heathens. Neither Sharon nor Olmert nor Netanyahu nor Peretz nor Peres knows how to turn these guys into mensches. Sharon used to think he could beat it out of them and Peres used to think that the chance to make a buck would turn them all into be-bopping yuppies. All of those illusions have long since sunk deep into the human quicksand that is "the Palestinian people."

The only sliver of hope is that they will somehow take control of their own destiny and conclude that violence, to use a phrase from twelve-step programs, "avails them naught." That they had ought do aught more productive. It's just that they don't want to hear it from us. No amount of lecturing or posturing by Israelis or Americans will penetrate their hauteur. Olmert (extending Sharon's policy) is gambling that if he parks them behind a wall and lets them do their own thing, they just might defy all odds and get a grip. It's an awfully slender reed to build a future upon.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Shooting Star

Hat tip to my son, Charles, for noticing that the chiron under the Bradley-Pittsburgh game in the NCAA was:

BRAD
PITT

Now when will River play Phoenix?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Speaker for the Dead

My maternal grandfather Andrew Joseph Boike died last week. I offered the eulogy. With the funeral 3-4 days after his death I felt sure I'd be able to give the speech without difficulty. I was wrong. As I watched the respect with which his body was treated and listened to the funeral mass I found myself overwhelmed with the conviction that no gift of words I could give this man would be adequate.

No matter how well I did my job, the end product would fall far short. The realization was crushing. I felt as though God was teaching me a lesson. The gap between my best and the requirements of divine justice is so great that only His grace can bridge it.

For those who would like to read about a life and see what a grandson does with an opportunity to give a eulogy, I reproduce the text of the speech below:

My son is three years old. His name is Andrew and he was named for my grandfather Andrew Boike, who we all call Pop. I hoped that having a first grandchild named for him would reverse his condition and bring Pop back to his old self. It didn’t work, but I did see Pop smile when I brought that little boy around and he was even able to hold him in his lap a few times.

Watching my son grow and the awe with which he perceives his grandparents, I’m reminded of the days when I was young and how like most boys at Walter Jackson, I liked to join in the game of talking up our dads. You know, my dad is stronger than your dad. If we reached a tie on dads, I could start bragging about Pop. And when I did that, no one could match me. That’s what I want to do today. I want to spend just a minute or two bragging on my Pop.

His appearance by itself made him notable. He was short, strong, and had a face that looked like it was cut from a rock. His hair was the color of steel. He had a working man’s hands. Even as he lay dying I looked down at his hands and thought they looked like they had really been to work.

There were stories floating around that gave him mythic status in my young mind. During his high school football years he was commanded to demonstrate a tackle on his assistant coach. He didn’t want to do it, but having been ordered he executed the maneuver so well the man was left with a limp for years. He survived a motorcycle accident and getting hit in the chest with a chainsaw. On top of that he spent all his free time around flowers even though he was highly allergic to bee stings. To a grandson, he seemed like the toughest man alive.

His rugged looks were lightened by a bright and ready smile. He loved to laugh and joke around, particularly with daughters-in-law and grandchildren. If Pop and Uncle Jimmy were together, you knew the parents would be laughing until they had tears in their eyes.

He also loved the polka and learned to play the accordion in his youth. I don’t know how many times Christina and I rode in his car (that 1974 beige/yellow Caprice Classic) with the windows cracked to let cigarette smoke out while Myron Floren’s accordion belted out the beer barrel polka on an eight track wedged into the dashboard. For a grandchild, being with Pop was our own first taste of Oktoberfest. He was like a rock star to us. Okay, maybe a polka star.

He developed a brilliant avocation in flowers with specialties in chrysanthemums and azaleas. After winning several competitions around the country, Pop became a contest judge at the national level. You may remember a novel from many years ago titled Magnificent Obsession. Pop knew something about that. I can remember him quickly maneuvering the car to the side of the road to gather a specimen of some native azalea growing on a hillside. He included his family in his work. Grammy was his indispensable partner in preparing for shows and for years it was a treat to go to his house and see the plants and flowers he’d hybridized and named for different members of the family. I was very proud to see my name on one of those little white tags one day so many springs ago.

The man I’ve described was an interesting person, an exciting person in many ways, but he was also faithful in the small details of everyday life that loom so large when all is said and done.

He spent most of his career with the postal service. My mother remembers what a big deal Christmas was every year and how Pop would come home day after day loaded with Christmas presents from appreciative homeowners on his route. A dozen years after he retired I had a job delivering prescriptions for Brunton Drug. A lot of strangers became instant friends when I mentioned Pop’s name. To tell you the truth, being Pop’s grandson probably helped me get the job in the first place.

Pop was also a faithful provider, father, and husband. He helped build the house his family lived in and put in place a moral and spiritual foundation, too. His five children Brenda, Jim, Becky, Dean, and Joan all married and are all still with their spouses. Many of his grandchildren have married and they are all still with their spouses, too. In a society where some dispose of family ties as easily as an old car, the value of commitment has not been lost on us. It’s one thing to be told, but nothing beats the power of a good example.

There was another area in which Pop was less concerned with telling than showing. Someone mentioned to me the other day that although Pop wasn’t the type to say he loved me, I should know that he did. The words caused me to think. It was true that he was like a lot of other men of his generation in that he may not have been one to tell you he loved you. But I never doubted it. He showed me over and over again. It was always clear to me that this amazing man was my friend and he loved me and approved of me and was proud of me. He watched my ballgames, expressed interest in my schoolwork, and gave me funny nicknames. He treated my father like a blood relative rather than like an in-law and immediately accepted my wife into the family.

I know he loved his other grandkids just as much. I have specific memories of him speaking proudly of the accomplishments and attributes of all the other grandkids. He was really in love with Christina, Kevin, Mandy, Nathan, Josh, Heather, Matthew, John Paul, David, Cassady, and Shaina. His family became his treasure and in the years before his failing health really took hold he was simply great at being a grandfather. Effortlessly great. At least it looked that way to me.

Grammy and Pop’s 50th wedding anniversary was one of our really memorable family events. I look at the pictures and see Pop happy and fully engaged. The pictures of him holding Grammy’s hand like a newlywed are worth keeping forever. I married not long after that celebration and it is a great comfort to me that my wife Ruth got to know Pop before his weakness and withdrawal became more pronounced. She liked him immensely. It was a very easy thing to convince her to give our first child the name Andrew.

It’s a little tragic that my children Andrew and Grace, Mandy’s son Jacob, Kevin’s unborn child, and the many other great grandchildren yet to come won’t get to experience Pop the way he was for so many years, but he won’t be forgotten. I was bragging on Pop when I was seven and will probably be doing it when I’m sixty-seven. He made a big impression on me. And the wonderful, enduring fact of his life is that I’m not the only one.

Given by Hunter Baker on March 16, 2006

Friday, March 17, 2006

Working on a Trial Basis

Did a little something today over at Jewish World Review about the lawyer who bungled the Moussaoui case.

Here's a teeny foretaste:

That's what it must have felt like for Carla Martin to wake up yesterday morning. Suddenly her picture is on the front page of the New York Times, looking frazzled and a tad disheveled. The Times explains to all and sundry that this "obscure" functionary at the Transportation Security Administration has shredded the Justice Department's case against Zacarias Mousaoui by coaching government witnesses — slipping them advance e-mails of what to expect.

If it's not bad enough to get blamed for doing what "everybody does" and gets away with, she must endure the indignity of being labeled obscure. If I picked up a paper that read "Obscure columnist Jay Homnick has been named the central figure in a blockbuster investigation concerning white slavery, killing for hire, heroin smuggling and unpaid parking tickets", my response would be predictable: "Obscure? Whaddaya mean obscure?" Now, it's true that it is common practice and that the other guys never seem to get caught. But it's still wrong and unfair and, for the Bush administration, supremely obtuse.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Iran Amok

A whole lot of very nice folks, most of a scholarly bent, had their Purim celebration ruined this year by Jeffrey Goldberg’s gratuitous assertion on the New York Times Op-ed page that the holiday was commemorating something that never happened. All of them, apparently, have my phone number.

Goldberg’s trump card in support of flushing the royal tale down the drain is the fact that the ancient Persian kingdom was very tolerant of other religions and cultures, not likely to indulge a spasm of rabid anti-Semitism. His retroactive certainty was in no wise shaken by the observation that Iran was a very philo-Semitic country until 1979 when the Shah was deposed.

In fact the book of Esther is most remarkable for its scrupulous recording of the multicultural tableau of Persian society. It is very clear from the outset that the Jews enjoy full freedom and live as equals. Esther and her adoptive father, Mordecai, are not outwardly identifiable as Jews. Mordecai does not tell that he is a Jew until the king’s courtiers pester him for days to explain why he defies Haman. Esther does not reveal her national identity until the critical moment when she can use it to foil Haman’s plan.

The Talmudic tradition adds the information that the Jews participated fully in King Ahasuerus’ national feast; he even provided kosher food “to do in accordance with the will of each person”. Clearly there is an effort in this recitation of events to hew closely to actual detail. This is hardly the stuff of bogeyman myths. Remember, too, that this is the same Biblical record that reported the generosity of Cyrus in allowing the Jews to rebuild the Temple – a piece of history that Goldberg chooses to believe.

The book of Esther notes that this Persian decree against the Jews was an aberration, incited by Haman, a descendant of King Agag of Amalek, who had been defeated and killed by King Saul five hundred years earlier. Haman wended his way into Ahasuerus’ good graces, among other ways by political fundraising, and got the king to sign on to his family’s vendetta against the Jews. Once Esther helped restore her husband to his senses, things went back to normal: the king ran a benevolent regime with his Jewish wife, and Mordecai was given a prestigious position, supplanting Haman’s influence.

One last point is critical in appreciating the painstaking honesty of the Jewish tradition in this matter. The Talmud (Megilla 7a) admits that the Rabbis were not inspired on their own to declare a holiday, or even to write up the story in Scripture. It was Queen Esther herself who approached them and made the argument that this was a watershed moment that should not be allowed to fade in the historical memory. They examined the case she presented and conceded that she was righter than their initial assessment.

It is not clear to me why Jews are intimidated away from their patrimony by the flimsiest evidence. If anything, we should ascribe much more credibility to the Jewish version of their experiences, because Scriptural texts consistently reveal the unflattering side of Jewish conduct while crediting all the positive players on the other side. By contrast, the other nations of antiquity never publicized their shortcomings, which would explain why Persia would not stress this one-year blip of hostility in an otherwise tolerant reign. (Still, the book of Esther concludes with the statement that all the facts were available in Persian and Medean royal annals.)

When we see today’s Iran sliding down the slippery slope into anti-Semitic vitriol, and threatening to back that up with weaponry, this is not a case of life imitating art but rather an instance of history repeating itself.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Top Brass

At my son's high school, they put on the traditional Purim play, where the students get creative and they poke fun at everything under the sun.

I thought this one skit was hilarious. Donald Rumsfeld comes in to President Bush and says: "Mr. President, three Brazilian soldiers were killed today in Iraq."

The President begins weeping and wailing, while Rumsfeld looks somewhat befuddled by the strength of Bush's reaction.

"Tell me, Don," the President says, when he collects himself. "How much is a brazillion?"

Monday, March 13, 2006

Sunset, Moonshine

One of my roles at The American Spectator is to deliver the magazine's message in honor of the Jewish holidays. Monday night after sundown, Purim begins with the reading of the book of Esther and then continues for 24 raucous hours of drinking, costumes and parties. Also a mind-boggling amount of philanthropy occurs, particularly in New York City, where some wealthy Jews sit all day receiving poor people and giving each one some cash.

In fact, one Jew who used to give out huge sums of money on Purim and later went bankrupt, sat down at his accustomed spot the next Purim and, depressed that he could not help the people who were lining up outside, took his own life.

Here is a link to my Purim message at the Spectator. And here, if you're an indolent type, is one paragraph to chew on.

THERE WAS NEVER a prohibition against drinking in Judaism, just a word of encouragement in the Talmud (Pesahim 113b): "God loves a person who does not get angry and does not get drunk." This was enough to keep Jews sober as a class even when they lived in societies that were more bibulous than Biblical. Yet Purim was one day a year where the book of Esther declared "a day of drinking and joy"; the Talmud (Megilla 7b) asserts that one should become drunk enough that he cannot distinguish between his friends and his enemies. Although the task of defending ourselves engages us all year round, this day reminds us that ultimately God has our back.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

No Harm, No Foul

Massmurdering bastard Slobodan Milosevic croaks during his trial for crimes against humanity.

Lucky for us Saddam's not dead. Screw his trial. We still have the chance to undo our Vietnam-like mistake and put him back in power. No doubt he could round up his old Ba'athist crew for a reunion like some rediscovered oldies band. Everybody needs a gig, and besides, I bet those dudes can still rock.

Status quo ante. Between the copious contents of Saddam's mass graves and Bill Clinton (and thereby the United States) starving out tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis during the sanctions, the Iraqi people still come out ahead on this war and democracy thing even if we pull the plug now.

So, never mind. It was worth a shot. Peace, we're out, good night and good luck.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Póg Mo Thóin

It is pronounced POAG muh HONE, anglicized as Pogue Mahone, and in Irish Gaelic it means "kiss my ass." Shane MacGowan has been inviting the world to do so for 25 years now, and on Thursday night Washington DC obliged. I was there, I saw it, and I was glad to join in.

Shane MacGowan is the founder and animating spirit of The Pogues, the groundbreaking 80s group that invented the category "Celtic Punk" now inhabited by more derivative acts like Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, and The Tossers. MacGowan shortened the band's name in 1984 to end a daytime airplay ban by the Beeb -- who had not been amused to learn they'd been the laughingstock of their Irish speaking audience every time they announced a Pogue Mahone tune. This might be the last time MacGowan refrained from telling someone to kiss his rear.

MacGowan is one of the best songwriters to come out of the British Isles in the past thirty years. It was his pure genius that married the angry energy of the Sex Pistols with the lyricism of Yeats and the comic irony of Flann O'Brien. But that's not all MacGowan has in common with these legends of Irish art: he is also a prodigious drunk. Not one of these apologetic, woeful, Twelve Step alcoholics, mind you, with their remorse and excuses of self-medication. He's an unrepentant drunk, who acknowledges that his erratic behavior forced his fellow band members to abandon him for a decade, and who therefore dials back the inebriation just enough to stay on stage for two hours, but not enough to fool anyone into thinking he's sober.

I went into this show with a good bit of foreboding. We'd paid fifty bucks apiece for the tickets, after all, and there was no guarantee there'd still be a lead singer standing by the time the doors opened at 10 pm. Their entrance onto the stage did little to allay my trepidation: MacGowan was already visibly unsteady, and carried a partially consumed quart of whiskey in a left hand death grip. They opened, appropriately enough, with Streams of Whiskey, a song haunted by the ghost of Brendan Behan, another legendary Irish drunk. (Behan looms large in the Pogues oeuvre: they recorded his Auld Triangle early on, and he also appears in Thousands are Sailing.)

Halfway through the second song, If I Should Fall From Grace, I formulated this pointyheaded theory that a live performance by Shane MacGowan in 2006 only made sense as an iconic representation pointing backwards to his earlier recordings. The words were a complete muddle. No one seeing him for the first time could understand how good he had been, and why everyone in this club adored him.

But then I noticed something very strange: as he sang, his head seemed to clear. This seemed physically impossible, since we had watched him consume at least a half-pint of whiskey in the space of fewer than two songs. But it was undeniably happening: he moved more surely about the stage, sang more strongly, and by the time he began Broad Majestic Shannon, I was sure I'd see, and enjoy, a full show. And I did ever.

MacGowan's voice is not what it was twenty years ago, and never will be again. Like his body, it is weighted with the burden of heavy experience. Somehow, this just makes the songs even more his own property. In comparison, the idiotic japery of Mick Jagger is embarrassing and pathetic.

The critics all agree that If I Should Fall From the Grace of God is the Pogues's best album, but I have always preferred Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, where the Irishness of their instrumentation comes through most clearly, with the addition of uillean pipes and fiddle. The enduring appeal of Celtic Punk is, for me, the Celtic rather than the punk. (Although I admit that Grace of God contains one of the finest songs of the 20th century, Turkish Song of the Damned. Even there, though, the supposed "world beat" influence is true to their Irish roots. It has the anglo-oriental exoticism of Burton or Doughty or Coleridge. In fact, I am informed you can sing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to the tune of Turkish Song of the Damned, which would have impressed the hell out of my high school English teacher.)

When The Pogues were enjoying their greatest commercial success, I preferred their Stiff Records colleagues: Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury. I haven't listened to any of them in ages, but I have five Pogues CDs on my iPod. There are rumors that several of the Pogues are writing fresh songs, and a new album may be forthcoming. Here's to success with the rest of the too-short American tour, which included only eight dates in four cities.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Sam's Hole In One-And-A-Half

My esteemed colleague Sam Karnick comes oh-so close to the central point about assessments and property tax liabilities in his recent post, although it must be said at the outset that the arguments that he does muster are utterly correct. But in terms of standard public finance principles, the real argument is that government has specific functions to achieve, and is supposed to conduct them "efficiently," that is, at minimum cost. (Please stop giggling.) Accordingly: Rising assessments should be accompanied by falling property tax rates, so that only the needed revenues are raised. Sam hints at this with his "because they can" point---which is clearly correct, in that governments exercise their monopoly powers as well as anyone---but the larger point is that government is not entitled to some share of rising wealth, or more crudely, to have its thumb in every pie. As for the economic burden (or "incidence") of property taxes, that is a story for another day; suffice it for now to say that the homeowners sending the checks to the government do not necessarily bear the (full) incidence of the tax. Off to Berlin Saturday to talk about the Chinese economy. Bratwurst and beer, and oh happy me.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Welcome Development: Property Tax Revolts

The Christian Science Monitor reports today that homeowners around the nation are increasingly angry about property tax increases. It is true that property taxes in many areas have been rising much more quickly than either the overall inflation rate or increasing values of homes, and not just for the wealthy but for everyone. These windfalls, moreover, are not being collected because the communities desperately need additional swimming pools in the local schools. (You should see the astonishing luxuries in most schools in decent neighborhoods.) No, the local governments are collecting these high taxes simply because they can: people living in highly preferred communities are at the mercy of their local taxing bodies, and the latter are increasingly taking advantage of local residents.

Citizens around the nation are utterly fed up with this legalized extortion and have begun to take action, the Monitor reports:

This year, legislative proposals, citizen initiatives, and lawsuits are on the agenda in at least 20 states. These new efforts reflect both residents' distrust of how their property tax dollars are being spent and concerns that rising assessments are driving working-class people out of popular towns and cities. . . .

"The intensity of outrage has not been this high since Prop. 13's heyday," says Pete Sepp, spokesman for the director of the National Taxpayers Union in Alexandria, Va. . . .

Revolt is in full swing in Incline Village, Nev., on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

There, Maryanne Ingemanson's tax bill is now $80,000 a year for a 5,000-square-foot house. She and a group of residents raised $400,000 to fund a lawsuit claiming recent assessments are unfair. Last week, 17 residents won a battle against the tax assessor when an elected county board threw out the new assessments.

Of course, many believe homeowners should be glad that their homes are worth more, says Ms. Ingemanson. But many people - especially the working class and those on fixed incomes - can't always afford the new taxes and have to leave. "This runaway taxes situation is driving people from their homes," she adds.

South Carolina last week passed a law that caps the increase in property assessments at 3 percent per year.

Many Georgia lawmakers are backing a measure to put a similar cap in the state constitution. The bill's sponsor, first-term state Rep. Edward Lindsey (R) from Atlanta, argues that it's unfair to hit homeowners with a big tax boost years before they sell their home and profit from its increased value.

"Not even the IRS is so bold as to tax people on unrealized gain," says Mr. Lindsey. "These are essentially backdoor tax increases that give government no incentive to be efficient or responsive."

I deliberately retained the mention of Lake Tahoe here, because I think it's important in that it is a relatively hard case with which to sympathize. It's easy to suggest that people living in very expensive homes in beautiful places such as Tahoe should be taxed higher than others, but I think that even the most wretchedly coldhearted socialist must see that charging a person $80,000 a year just so that they can keep their home is an outrageous act of greed and malevolence.

The value of these homes is indeed very great on paper, but the people living in these places are not actually benefitting from any increased value from their homes if they do not sell them (except for their ability to take out home equity loans, which is not a special advantage)—at which point they are no longer subject to paying the property tax! And of course, the burden is even harder on people of lesser incomes, as the Monitor story points out. This property tax revolution is a welcome development indeed, and I wish its purveyors godspeed.

Dana Morosini Reeve, RIP

I wrote a few elegiac words in honor of the life of Dana Reeve. They were published over at Jewish World Review.

A brief excerpt:

Dana Reeve lived the celebrity life, where people can only appear outdoors in full performance mode, prettified and primped and preening, what Irwin Shaw called "polished fruit". Then she was thrust from the limelight into the harsh spotlight, where there is no down time, no dressing room, no backstage. Every minute of every day you have to be on, and if you're not for real the folks will spot it in a flash. She showed us solidity beyond compare, throughout her husband's infirmity and her own illness.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Sis Fire

Pity the poor fans standing on line, shivering in the snow, waiting for the midnight release of the latest Jay Homnick column. Suddenly, bleary-eyed, they see a group of elite types being guided through the crowd by a passel of bodyguards.

They look at each other in a resentful flash of recognition: it's those Reform Club guys who always get the early glimpse.

Here's a peek:

A poll, than which no greater intellectual authority in our culture is conceivable, has declared that it is high time for a woman to accede to the Presidency. The mensuration of temporal height is not a discipline I have mastered, but I have scored a high mark or twain in political science. And in that field the time had grown to its full height almost four decades ago.

In 1966 Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India and served for fourteen of the next seventeen years; Golda Meir became her counterpart in Israel in 1969, Thatcher in England in '79. When Geraldine Ferraro ran for Vice-President alongside Walter Mondale in 1984, it was a familiar refrain among Republican types that "if Margaret Thatcher would be heading our ticket we'd vote for her in a heartbeat". Although it was kind of lame and pathetic that they felt the need to buttonhole everyone with that information, lest the chauvinist stereotype prove too adhesive, it had the homely virtue of being true.

Larry Summers and Harvard

Mike Rappaport over at The Right Coast
is entirely right about the Larry Summers thing. Once he decided to engage on the big issues (and did he really think the folks around Harvard wouldn't get upset with even a question about women's "innate" abilities?), he had to win. Or, failing that, he had to go down trying. Instead, he just wimped out. Maybe men are just not as able to stand up and fight - or maybe he just didn't want to hit a girl (even if just metaphorically)...

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Religious Right as "American Taliban": Calumny or Just Slander?

Our Burkean-in-training, Connie Deady, asks the right questions, ones that are being asked everywhere right now:

Was it Aquinas or Augustine that differentiated between the secular and the divine and said that the two should be separate and we should leave the divine to God and the state to be secular? (I always get those two mixed up in my mind.)

Most everybody does, Ms. Deady, except for those of us who have no mind for such things at all. Actually, it originated with Jesus, with the "render unto Caesar" bit.

I see the argument often these days that Christian thought is founded on superstition ("revelation") alone and that modern secularism is the heir to all human reason, from Aristotle 'til now. But that's simply not accurate.

You'll find the philosophical father of our constitution John Locke's moral and political vocabulary closer to St. Thomas Aquinas' natural law than to modernist philosophy: like Aquinas, Locke does not use the Bible directly to advance his political arguments. And you will find Christianity philosophically and historically in easier accomodation with the Enlightenment and the Founding principles, and frankly, vice-versa. It is in post-Enlightenment thought, "modern" philosophy (as opposed to what we like to call around here "classical liberalism"), the realm of Marx, Rawls, and Freud, where the true radicalism, the modern Jacobins, are to be found.

Theories of natural law do not depend on the Bible, which is why I'm fond of pointing out that the Dalai Lama is also a natural law theorist, his philosophy not dependent on any holy book, but on reason alone. His Holiness is a useful control in our thought experiment: like the Dalai Lama, Christian thought does not reject ordinary moral reasoning. The Bible is nowhere near comprehensive enough to get by without it.
It seems to me that one outcome of your position is what we are getting in Iraq and the Mideast, which is complete intermingling of State and Islam. Doesn't that give you pause to worry about letting the divine control the secular laws?

OK, this what makes me start to bristle these days, and I'll tell you why. It's a facile but unfounded equivalency, that "all religions are (somehow) the same," and you're by no means alone in making it. There were 500 Islam-inspired bombings in a single day recently in Bangladesh, a Muslim country that virtually nobody gives a geo-econo-political damn about. There is a phenomenon here that has nothing to do with us.

This is where today's routine equivalencies of Christian and Islamic fundamentalisms fall short: in their founding documents themselves.

The specifics of Islam, that it is not seen (and does not offer itself) merely as a religion (muzdhab), but as a self-contained Tao, a comprehensive way of life (din) both moral and legal, make liberalization ("Enlightenment") far more difficult, especially in accomodation with pluralistic Western secularism, which seeks to pop Islam into its conceptual pigeonhole as mere religion. I wish it were that easy, but the Western mind from neo-con to modernist loses the flavor, nay, the essence, in translation.

Each tradition has its specifics and self-conception, which cannot be ignored and thrown into one amorphous soup. We must understand them as they understand themselves, or else we're left trying to make squares out of circles, wasting our time and cyberink.

In the American debate, Christian moral thought does not claim any special dispensation from the rigors of reason; it holds itself simply equal to any secular system of philosophy.

But not inferior. It does not accept dhimmitude and second-class status. Everything's on the table, and let the most reasonable moral system be the law of the land, as decided by the consciences of the American people, not a minority of legal theorists who use the constitution as a weapon against we the people.

This was the moral choice that confronted the "religious right," Christian fundamentalists, in the wake of Roe v. Wade, a constitutionally brutal decision. They found themselves thrust, as part of a democracy that the Bible never contemplated, into sharing the role of Caesar and with all the burdens and duties of conscience: to accept those burdens and duties, or in embracing the new legal theory of moral neutrality as the only truly constitutional principle of law, shirk them.

To my mind, they followed the only moral course (with some regrettable and condemnable extremist exceptions)---using moral suasion in the form of protest, and organizing politically to change the composition of the Supreme Court, which was the real author of the inalienable "right" to abortion, not the constitution or the people, and certainly not to their minds, any endowing Creator.

I think they did OK. They respected our social contract in both letter and spirit.


We shall, with your permission, hold for another day the prudence or morality in our present moral dilemma, between accommodating the order that Muslim tyrannies provide their people versus the decimating chaos that accompanies the establishment of political self-determination, and the question of the compatability of democracy with Islam. I first wanted to deal with throwing everyone who believes in anything beyond the material world into the same indifferent soup. I have some charitable things to say about Islam, but charity begins at home.

In Defense of Principle on Campus

Back from Geneva, a third-world backwater where a decent corned beef (sorry, corned boeuf) sandwich is not to be found. Anyway, I see that the Court ruled 8-zip against the campus lefties in
Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, so that a threat to revoke federal funding is not coercion or a threat to free speech, or blah, blah, blah, as the lefties continue to oppose ROTC and miltary recruiting efforts on campus because of don't ask-don't tell policies toward homosexuals. So: Will the campuses deny themselves such federal dollars so as to stand for their principles? Just asking.
Off to Berlin Saturday to talk about China. Corned beef will not be hard to find.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Antidisestablishmentarianism

Oh, it's one of those usual press things, where they highlight a non-story to make stupid Christians look even stupider, but it certainly does seem that

Missouri legislators in Jefferson City considered a bill that would name Christianity the state's official "majority" religion.

House Concurrent Resolution 13 has is pending in the state legislature.

...if we're to believe KMOV's (sic) illiterate and spotty account.

Now, legislatures "consider" all kinds of bills, like proposing to recognize the fact that the earth is flat, illegal Martian aliens killed Nicole Simpson, or that Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player of all time. They usually vote no. (Mays was the 2nd greatest, sorry. Babe Ruth could pitch.)

I like the bill, in its way. The anti-theists can only push so far, and this is the pushback. No Roe v. Wade, no Pat Robertson, and that's a fact. They say you can't impose morality, but you can't impose moral neutrality either. Human beings aren't wired that way.

But let me say I think it's a bad idea for a state to simply declare an "official religion." I think they should put it up for bids, like being the official beer of the NFL. The Mormons would take a pass, but the Scientologists would take a stab at it and the Baha'is could certainly use the exposure. Then again, the UAE would probably just swoop in and buy it for Wahhabism.

The Official Religious Terrorist Cult of Missouri. Now that has a ring to it. Christian Identity skinhead losers* would be really pissed, though. Outsourced again.

*I was going to provide a link to "storm front," for some cheap laughs, but it looks like they've been closed down by their free-website provider. Cleaning up spills on Aisle 4 just doesn't provide much of a revenue base. Not a great act of courage on my part, but come and get me, you bastards. I'm a Republican and that means I've got guns, and enough dough to afford bigger ones than you.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Eye on Islamicism

Today we add a link to the Infidel Bloggers Alliance to our blogroll.

Our occasional commenter "Pastorius" is the blogfather of the IBA, an international group of a dozen or so bloggers reporting on jihad around the world, supplying both first-hand accounts and legitimate news items from the overseas media that don't seem to make the American mainstream press.

Most all the bloggers remain anonymous, admittedly out of fear for their own safety and that of their families. That may sound overly cautious, but just today they report that Abdullah Aziz, "Author of the World Renowned Comic Book, 'Mohammed's Believe It or Else!'" has been driven underground by death threats. And of course, there's Theo van Gogh, among others.

I'd been looking for an old quote from our friend and frequent commenter James Elliott, who observed that a difference between the left and right in this country was that the latter perceived militant Islam as a grave and existential threat, where the former saw a managable crisis. I thought that was pretty accurate, but I also notice recent events in Europe may have even those on the left, Mr. Elliott included, becoming more willing to cast a more critical eye on the extent of the problem.

I have no doubt that the IBA will prove to be a valuable window to the world on this issue. They get a little, um, passionate at times, but the vast majority of their sources are solid and easily confirmed elsewhere. We all, myself included, would like to think that bin Laden is just a splashier version of David Koresh, but there may be more to it than that, and we all need to know.

My own thanks and good wishes to Pastorius and the members of the IBA for doing the investigation and inquiry that needs to be done.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The War on Terror and the Cold War

I remember thinking soon after Sept. 11th that the War on Terror (as it was quickly labeled) would probably end up a lot like the Cold War: it would be a long, "twilight" struggle where some portion of the political Left (and Right, for that matter) would tire and seek to have us leave the field of battle before we could win. The thing that I thought would be truly distinctive is that, unlike in the Cold War, the Islamists did not and likely would not possess the capability to (a) destroy us or (b) come to rule us. The "Cartoon Wars" and riots in France have made me rethink this a bit - and not in a good way.

Though it may be hard for some people to remember this, the Soviet Union had a real opportunity in the aftermath of WWII to essentially rule all of Europe. Communist parties were quite strong, especially in Italy and France, and if the US had not been willing to spend money (and do whatever else it did) to make sure those parties did not get a hold of power, things could have gone very poorly for us. It's pretty easy to imagine a those parties (who took their orders from Moscow) ordering American troops out of the continent and doing what their brethren in the east did after 1948.

After a while, of course, the threat of direct Soviet rule lessened (they had enough trouble hanging on to their own satellite countries), but still Moscow tried to intimidate the West into bending its direction, at least to the point where they would be "neutral" (a la, say, Finland). The blockade of Berlin, use of communist unions to stage strategic strikes, funding of terrorist groups (Baadher Meinhof Gang, IRA) and "peace" movements, and so on were all designed to apply subtle (and not so subtle) pressure on western Europe in an effort to divide them from the US and bend them (ever so slightly) to the Soviet will. (There were, of course, genuinely home-grown movements that wanted the same thing).

It strikes me that this is precisely the same sort of thing that is going on now in regards to Europe and the Islamists. They can't rule outright - there aren't enough of them - but they can intimidate European governments and societies enough such that the US has to consider much of Europe simply unreliable when it comes to policy toward the Middle East. I have no doubt that the Europeans definitely do not want Iran to get a nuke (they are, after all, much closer than we are), but if push comes to shove, can the Europeans be depended upon to help with action (i.e. reducing every Iranian military facility to rubble)? If a few enterprising Imams can intimidate most European governments into helpless sputtering on the basis of some unremarkable cartoons, what do you think they'll do when it becomes clear that we're getting ready to take Iran out?

I'm still convinced that the Islamists don't pose the same degree of strategic threat that the Soviets did - they just don't have 2,000 ICBMs. But they can intimidate our allies (and us) enough to make it easier for them to win control of the Islamic countries in the Middle East. And that's a cause for worry.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Strayed From the Heart

Often the great rabbis become so inundated by pilgrims seeking advice and prayers that they must designate a receiving secretary to serve as a buffer and a filter. This creates a potential for abuse, as that control over access can be parlayed into various advantages. Once, the rabbi of Belzyce, Poland, was told by some congregants that his secretary was selling appointments to the highest bidder and pocketing these ill-gotten gains. But the rabbi refused to fire him.

“This much I know,” he explained. “I chose the most honest man in the city. If the job corrupted him, why should I replace him with some other poor fellow and ruin his morals as well?”

No Abramoff apologist I. More than a year ago I administered – in the pages of The American Spectator – a proper scourging. Yet the fact remains that he was not a bad guy who descended upon Washington to game the system and pad his wallet. He came with a heart brimful with good intentions that eventually paved the road to brimstone. As a leader of the national College Republicans while at Brandeis, he was imbued with the Reaganite spirit. He entered D.C. to help steward “The Contraction With America”, the effort to put Boss Tweed on a diet, to shrink bloated government. How did all that good will come undone?

And, as a corollary, is it unavoidable? Is the corruption so pervasive as to be insuperable? Inevitable, ineluctable, ineludible and inexorable? Is it impossible to be a lobbyist without dirtying your hands?

The answer must be no. And yes. No, it is not necessary to be crooked. Yes, it is possible to lobby honestly and be effective. Why, then, are many good people tempted into going by the book – without giving it a second glance?

There are motives of expediency, to be sure. It is easier to catch a Congressman’s attention if you’re dropping campaign dollars into his hat. And what better way to get someone’s ear than getting some air with him on a long lazy “fact-finding” trip to Maui?

Still, that is not a sufficient lure to make a man lose his religion. My theory is that the most powerful force that moves a person off the perch of virtue is a pernicious cocktail of social pressure by the bad guys and cynicism by the good folks.

Here’s how it works. Say you come to Washington as a lobbyist for a company or a cause that is dear to your heart, and naturally you have a big expense account to facilitate your work. Or say you come to Hollywood to produce a movie about some matter of injustice that is searing into your soul, and you bring a big bankroll to make it happen. You determine that you are not going to succumb to the temptation of turning your money into illicit favors of any sort.

When you arrive, you find that the predators who predated you there, the abusers whom you are committed to abjure, seem like very swell guys. They greet you with open arms, eager to show you the ropes… or rope you into the show. The message becomes very clear very soon: play by our rules and you’re welcome. Try to go it on your own, buddy, and you’re on your own, buddy.

It is in the nature of people who are in the wrong to seduce you into their midst even if you offer them no direct advantage. The presence of virtue causes them discomfort. The film Serpico was based on a true story, but many other films like Midnight Run and Vanishing Point have described the same scenario; the honest cop who won’t take a piece of the graft money and is shunned by his brethren in blue.

This forced choice between group acceptance and righteous isolation is a powerful trap for a man. King David begins his Psalms with this message, perhaps to offer solace in poetry to the person faced with that fork in the road: “Fortunate is the man who did not go with the counsel of the wicked, did not stand on the path of the sinners nor sat in the sessions of the mockers.”

But an awful contributing factor is when the solid people are cynical. Bonnie Raitt’s song, Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About, brilliantly highlighted this phenomenon. She describes how a rumor of an affair that wasn’t happening actually caused the affair to happen. Once all the coworkers believed that these two people were getting together, it seemed pointless to stay apart. In like fashion, if everyone winks at you when you say you’re a lobbyist, assuming nefarious monkeyshines, or elbows you in the ribs when you say you’re a producer, anticipating licentious adventures, they unwittingly erode your defenses against impropriety.

Ironically, by not thinking the worst of humanity we can sometimes help to bring out the best.

Charlie Rose, but I Sank

Thinking perhaps to expand my horizons by introducing myself to pulse-quickening liberal themes and personalities, I tuned into Charlie Rose. He was leaning forward in his chair, breathless with excitement, "So then you were just a student at Stamford... and what happened next?"

I'm figuring wow this guy must be some really famous major entrepreneur with a Bill Gates-like epiphany story wherein his drab collegiate days at Stamford were transformed into a life throbbing with high drama as...

...the camera pans to the guest, sitting ever so smugly, with the pleased smile of a cat who has licked clean the cream wrapped around Hercule Poirot 'moustaches' and the SNL Church-lady's pursed lips. The caption reads "Azim Premji, President of WIPRO".

My mind is now racing at 90 mph: "What kind of political commentator am I, who has never heard of Azim Premji and so unlettered that WIPRO strikes me as gibberish?"

Suddenly I'm flashing back 35 years, I'm 12 years old listening to the Jean Shepherd Show on WOR 710-AM in New York City. I'm remembering how he would salute all the self-important ponces who live on the fringe of the political world, crying "Look at me".

So I'm taking out the kazoo and the Jew's-harp; here goes the Shepherd treatment:

"Bzhzh, bzhzh, I salute you, Azim Premji. Bvvvv, bvvvv, we salute you, WIPRO. Bzhzh, bzhzh, bvvvv, bvvvv, bring us world peace, bzhbzh bzhzh."

Universal, State-Provided Pre-K—Pah!

The discussion of my post on how California's high tax rates and regulatory mania are chasing the best and brightest out of the state has evolved into a fascinatingly fatuous debate over whether it makes sense for the government to pay for preschool for all children. Matt Huisman's astute criticism of the "logic" (and it really does need quotation marks in this case) behind this proposal reminds me of a phrase I've written before and think worth reviving here:

The American K-12 education system is so bad that every effort to fix it only manages to make it worse.

As Matt's comment makes clear, the movement for universal, state-provided pre-K is another evidence of the truth of this principle.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The BMW Report: The Permanent Campaign vs. The Loyal Opposition

"The Permanent Campaign" is thought of as a Dick Morris notion, and he certainly believed in it, that the president always be out among the people, selling his agenda. Dick Morris likes polls. He even polled on when the president should take a vacation.

So, it's no surprise that it was (unappreciated genius) Democrat pollster Pat Caddell who came up with the idea, and sent it to Jimmy Carter just before his inauguration in 1977:

"The old cliche about mistaking style for substance usually works the reverse in politics. Too many good people have been defeated because they tried to substitute substance for style; they forgot to give the public the kind of visible signals that it needs to understand what is happening...Essentially, it is my thesis governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign."

There's a certain virtue to the permanent campaign, keeping Americans on the same page and from each other's throats, not entirely different from FDR's unifying fireside chats. Although it didn't help the dour Carter, whose temperament was as ill-fitted to the role as his dopey sweaters during the energy crisis, the permanent campaign was tailor-made for Bill Clinton's personality: it was said that if there was one person in a roomful of supporters who didn't dig Clinton's act, Clinton would spend the entire evening getting him or her to come around. The permanent campaign probably saved Clinton from the Hounds of Impeachment.

Indeed, the permanent campaigner Bill Clinton had won the presidency largely because a reasonably good fellow and president, George HW Bush, after a creditable stewardship in the job, rather saw campaigning even during an actual election campaign as demeaning to his record.

Enter George Dubya Bush, whose worthy political skills lay somewhere between style and substance. It can scarcely be denied that, for good or ill, he brings more substance to the job than either of his predecessors, and enough attention to campaigning to get elected twice (which his father failed to do), although not enough permanent campaigning to keep us from each other's throats, as Clinton in fact did:

Although there was quite a bit of anti-Clinton vociferousness from the GOP side, the polls did not support his removal from office over his technically grave but ultimately harmless violations of the law. And so, the "loyal opposition," the GOP-controlled Senate and specifically John McCain and Bob Dole, put the fix in and kept the impeachment trial down to a bare minimum and a dull roar. They let Mr. Clinton skate, and that was a good thing.

Subsequently, McCain and Dole got Clinton's back on his Kosovo adventure and whipped their party into line once we had troops committed. That's how a loyal opposition functions.

Fast forward. Not that I'm a fan across the board of John Zogby, but it seems reasonable that his latest poll reflects the truth about our current state of the union:

The survey also contained troubling news for Democrats. While high-profile Democrats in Washington, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, spar with GOP adversaries, 58% of self-described Democrats said they think their leaders should “accept their lower position in Congress and work together with Republicans to craft the best legislation possible.”


With only 6% saying Democrats should fight the GOP congress tooth and nail. (And that's just Democrats who were polled.)


So, at one of the more dangerous crossroads of our history, a president who mostly doesn't give a hang about convincing the American people of the rightness of our course as a nation, and an opposition that mostly doesn't give a hang about working for the betterment of the country if it will cost them partisan advantage.

We no longer have the permanent campaign, nor a loyal opposition. The 90s were the good old days in their way, and now they're gone, leaving the American public to BMW: Bitch, Moan, Whine. That's the way it is on this, the first of March, 2006.

Taxing Californians Out

The great state of California has long been known as a land of opportunity—but also as the corner of the country to which all the sleaziness, greed, and stupidity of the nation eventually slide. Politically, it has been exactly that for about the past two decades.

As the Opinion Journal notes in an editorial in today's edition, California pols have done their level best to destroy the state's economy by abusing everyone who actually succeeds in fulfilling the economic promise laid down by the state in years past, in an endless stream of harassment done in the name of fairness, equality, economic justice, and other fine things. As the Journal editorial notes, the consequences of California's high and ever-increasing taxes and strangling regulatory apparatus are resulting in a turnaround of immigration patterns:

The latest Census Bureau data indicate that, in 2005, 239,416 more native-born Americans left the state than moved in. California is also on pace to lose domestic population (not counting immigrants) this year. The outmigration is such that the cost to rent a U-Haul trailer to move from Los Angeles to Boise, Idaho, is $2,090--or some eight times more than the cost of moving in the opposite direction.

What's gone wrong? A big part of the story is a tax and regulatory culture that treats the most productive businesses and workers as if they were ATMs. The cost to businesses of complying with California's rules, regulations and paperwork is more than twice as high as in other Western states.

But the worst growth killer may well be California's tax system. The business tax rate of 8.8% is the highest in the West, and its steeply "progressive" personal income tax has an effective top marginal rate of 10.3%, or second highest in the nation. CalTax, the state's taxpayer advocacy group, reports that the richest 10% of earners pay almost 75% of the entire income-tax revenue in the state, and most of these are small-business owners, i.e., the people who create jobs.

Of course, some will argue that this reversal of immigration is a good thing, as it will reduce overpopulation, etc., and reduce pressure on the state's resources. But Hongkong and Amsterdam are much more crowded than any part of California, and have almost no natural resources, yet they do just fine. No, regardless of any small good that may come of it, this demonstrates a huge and preventable failure on the part of the leadership of the state of California—and a stern warning to others.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Seek Rat, Smell Rat

Although the proximate stimulus for this article was the Dubai port situation, I speak about the general role of secrets in contemporary governance and the larger issue of how tolerant we should be of Presidential taciturnity.

As in:

In World War II, it is only a small exaggeration to say that the fate of the world hung on secret activities. Would our secret atom bomb program be completed before the German equivalent? And could it be kept secret from the Soviets? Would our cryptographers succeed in breaking the secret codes that the enemy used to issue military instructions over their radios? Later, when we did break the code, everything depended on keeping the enemy unsuspecting. We managed to fool them and they did not switch codes, gaining us an untold advantage.

With secrecy at such a premium, we learned to be satisfied knowing less. In return, public servants were more conscientious about earning our trust. For the most part, whenever we discover today the filed-away secrets of yesterday, we find that our leaders of then acted upon them wisely. Those days are long gone. Nixon's perfidy and Carter's incompetence, Reagan's occasional distractedness and Clinton's pathological duplicity, have all taught us to regard their caveats as emptier than their predecessors. Nine times out of ten, daylight is better. And the secrets tend not to be so darned big anyway.

Iran's Nuclear Weapon and What To Do About It

Recently Ahmadinejad, Iran’s outspoken leader, said, “Life is shaped by art and the highest form of art is martyrdom.” This is the statement of a man possessed. If taken along with his Holocaust denial claims and threats to wipe Israel off the map, this is a person who at the very least cannot be trusted.

It is therefore critical that he is denied the nuclear weapons he craves. His uranium enrichment program is well on the way to conclusion and in months, perhaps a year, Iran will be in possession of the knowledge necessary to produce a nuclear weapon.

The central question that must be considered is whether he can be stopped and whether the West has the will to do it.

President George W. Bush has made it abundantly clear that he will not tolerate a nuclear bomb in Iran. Yet even a determined president has limitations. Can the Air Force destroy the Iran facilities? Will there be retaliation? How will the Muslim world react to such an action? And will there be collateral damage that unites Iran and makes it an even more formidable threat than is the case at the moment?

As I see it the “cascading effect” needed to produce high grade uranium is probably in one major site even though ancillary activities may be dispersed. Therefore sortees carefully directed using bunker buster bombs could probably do the job against a reinforced underground facility.

While the Iranians have missiles that can reach Tel Aviv, they probably don’t have nuclear weapons yet. Therefore, they might deploy missiles tipped with chemical and biological weapons. While the prospect of such deployment is horrible to imagine, these weapons are unreliable. On the conventional front Iran is simply no match for Israeli forces much less U.S. military operations.

Although it is impossible to determine how the Muslim world will respond to such an attack, it is noteworthy that the much vaunted Arab street did not rise in unity against the liberation of Iraq and one might reasonably expect that will be the case in an attack on Iran.

Collateral damage is always a possibility even in the age of smart bombs. But the targets are limited and the precision bombs are increasingly more refined and accurate. Therefore it is probable that casualties will be limited. In fact, rather than unify Iran, such destruction of the nuclear facility might be the occasion for dissident groups to rise up against the ruling mullahs.

Recently there has been a lot of chatter about funding for public diplomacy that might encourage regime change. On this score, I remain skeptical. There have been many opportunities for rebellion against the repressive regime, but thusfar the secret police have been able to control the outbursts.

While regime change would be a desirable outcome, and a measure worth trying, we are running out of time. The clock is ticking on the prospective acquisition of a nuclear weapon. I would make the same claim about the European initiative to halt the Iranian program. Thusfar, the negotiations have merely served as a cover for the continued development of the program. Of course this diplomatic exercise is a necessary prerequisite for consensus on military action.

Security Council resolutions that lead to an embargo might be effective if the embargo on oil holds and if this isn’t interpreted by Iranian leaders as an act of war. Of course, getting unanimity in the Security Council is a long shot with the Russians poised to veto an embargo and China, sitting on the sidelines, bemused by the prospect of the U.S. groveling for support.

Any way you cut it, military force seems like the most likely stratagem for success. Will Bush do it? As I see it, he cannot afford not to do it. His legacy cannot be a nuclear armed Iran prepared to destabilize all of the Middle East and possibly Europe.

This is yet another test of American will. While the Democrats, in large part, will criticize the decision, there is little doubt the American people will support the president especially if he runs out the string on other options and points out that force is the only realistic alternative.

Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001). London maintains a website, www.herblondon.org.

Faith and Learning

Sorry to be silent for so long, but I've been traveling a great deal. I just thought I'd note for those interested that if you're a student and thinking about grad school and interested in studying religion's intersection with just about anything, you should look seriously at Notre Dame. The history department just hired Mark Noll away from Wheaton and now the sociology department has hired Christian Smith away from UNC. So you have probably the best historian of American evangelicals (and probably the best historian of American Catholics in John McGreevy) and the best young sociologist of religion, some outstanding political scientists, great law faculty, and very good philosophers to work with. Just a thought...

Monday, February 27, 2006

Dog Days

The Disney live-action sled dog adventure 8 Below was the top grossing film the weekend it opened, and it is still sitting number two, having made over $45 million in two weeks. Meanwhile, John Grogan's tale of his yellow lab with a brain of cast iron but a heart of gold is #1 on Amazon, heads the NYT hardcover nonfiction list, has sold nearly a million copies, and the film rights have just been bought by Fox 2000.

I saw 8 Below last night with my husband and eleven-year-old daughter. If anyone is reluctant to see the movie because they are disgusted with the descent of Disney into previously uncharted regions of stupidity and bad taste, consider giving this one a try anyway. 8 Below is not great cinema, but it is something just as rare: a movie one can enjoy, without embarassment and without boredom, in the presence of one's children. The action, characterization, and plot are straightforward but believable; the cinematography is gorgeous, and the animals are memorable and engaging.

Maya, Star of 8 Below
Surprisingly, the eight dogs are not overly anthropomorphized cartoons. With one exception, none of the dogs does anything I have not seen echoed in my own Siberian. I don't believe female huskies have the ability to coordinate six males, via short barks and apparent telepathy, to execute a cunning plan to capture seabirds -- with the subtlety of Navy Seals taking an enemy outpost on a moonless night -- but other than that every action is pack behavior familiar to anyone who's ever owned a working dog.

[Spoilers below]

The story is simple, and simply told: as the result of natural forces beyond anyone’s control, Jerry Shepherd, a guide employed by the National Science Foundation Antarctic Research Station, is forced to leave behind his team of eight sled dogs when the station is evacuated. It is impossible to travel to the continent until the following Southern hemisphere summer, and he returns to the States unable to shake off his sense of responsibility for abandoning his dogs. Everyone tells him it is not his fault, he should “let himself off the hook” and forgive himself, but he can’t. Juxtaposed against Jerry's efforts to first forget and then rejoin his pack, are scenes of the dogs' struggles to survive on their own, from the aforementioned seabirds escapade to raiding the Russian station's pantry. Eventually Jerry's stubborn devotion to his dogs snares three others, who were on the station when the disaster happened, into assisting him in gaining the continent to either rescue the team or face the reality of their deaths.

(An aside: to a former NSF staffer, the idea of using an unreconciled surplus in a research grant account as deus ex machina is pretty, well....imaginative.)

Kisa and Anne, stars of Two SidewaysI have not read Marley and Me, but I predict that before long this book will have sold 25 million copies. After all, there are 50 million dog-owning households in the US, and at least half of them will be curious about the intriguing, if improbable, notion that the World’s Worst Dog is not the one sitting on the professionally-clean-only sofa in the next room gutting a hand embroidered silk throw pillow or tearing the cap off a bottle of truffle oil.

Jeeves at Blenheim
In my house The World’s Worst Dog is named Jeeves, he’s a saluki, he crossed my threshold in September 1996, and whatever Marley might have done in his thirteen years, Jeeves has done him one better. The dog has eaten through plaster walls, air conditioners, feather beds, and seat belts. He has stolen and devoured enough meat, bread, chocolate, honey, and peanut butter to eradicate starvation in a smallish African country. He barks at my daughter’s little girlfriends just because it frightens them, and pees on the floor whenever he feels like it. He has awakened me every night for nine years so I can move over and let him get under the covers.

And if he were abandoned and lost somewhere, I would move heaven and earth to get him back, for the same reason that motivates the fictional Jerry Shepherd to cadge a helicopter, ice breaker, Italian Snow Cat and the services of three other science professionals to go after eight dogs that are probably dead anyway. And it's not sentimentality, misplaced anthropomorphism, or the overrefined sensitivity of wealthy, coddled people who have the luxury of treating their pets as if they were children. It is because Jeeves and I, like Jerry and his sled team, have forged a bond based on the pursuit of a common objective. The very qualities that make Jeeves annoying -- his barking, his suspicious reserve with strangers, his hyperactive scanning of the horizon for any perceived threat, from a squirrel to a serial killer -- make him a trusted aide for a woman who spends hours alone each day in an isolated house.

This is not a strict utilitarianism. It is, rather, more like the ties that used to bind families together, in the days when households were centers of independent economic activity, instead of places to sit in separate rooms wired to separate pieces of electronic gear to blow off the stresses of living parallel but separate lives in the global economy. How much of the alienation wives feel from their husbands and vice versa, how many arguments over work schedules, money, child rearing responsibilites, are caused by an economy that pits spouses at odds against each other, instead of harnessing them together like a sled team? I don't know, but I haven't had an argument with either one of my dogs in ages.

Much Ado About Con-Cons

Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning-News has developed a sideline as the promoter of "crunchy conservatism." This mainly involves the old Southern agrarianism except that we get rid of some of the unpleasant social hierarchism that was packaged in that old deal.

The bottom line on crunchy-con is that it is a trendy sensibility with a Catholic edge. Not Kroger -- Whole Foods. Not Milton Friedman -- G.K. Chesterton. Bye-bye Hummer -- Hello Toyota Hybrid. You get the idea. It's the whole earth mother thing if it had developed a stronger conservative element.

Though I may write with an edge of skepticism, I think crunchy con is a good thing. Not everybody is cut out for the bland navy sport coat-red tie world of the eighties GOP brought to maturity by Reagan. This group expands the tent and provides a firmer link to Christian thought in politics.

National Review has gone a little crazy with blogs. I can remember when I was excited to read the online version every day because of the great articles. The prepared content has suffered neglect as the blogs have become more and more prominent on the magazine's website. Unsurprisingly, Crunchy Conservatism (which originated with Dreher at NRO) now joins the legions as a featured blog at NRO. For a post from that blog that captures the ambiguous spirit of the enterprise (crunchy con, not blogging), I recommend this one from Ross Douthat.

In any case, it will be interesting to observe whether Dreher has really put his finger on a going concern. We've always known Christian conservatives didn't boil down to a composite of the viewers of the 700 Club. Crunchy cons may help fill out the picture.

Trying to Fuss

A new Dreyfus affair seems possible, this time featuring Richard Dreyfuss as the prosecutor. He publicly orated and opined that President Bush should be impeached.

Now have a look at Dreyfus the defendant and Dreyfuss the plaintiff.

Separated at birth?

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Times Were Verse

Just ran across this quatrain that I scribbled in 1997 to recite at the funeral of a relative who was an Air Force navigator, flying in bombing raids over Germany in WWII. It was an amazing feeling to read this to a hundred or so mourners before a flag-draped coffin.

Off to defend brothers with love
I flew missions in German air
Looked up, saw Heaven just above
But beneath me, Hell was there.