"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)

Monday, July 10, 2006

Psych 101

The premiere episode of the new USA Network mystery-comedy series Psych, which ran last Friday night, was . . . pretty good. It wasn't nearly as good as the premiere of Monk a few years back—though that is a very high standard to reach. Psych was fairly amusing, and in fact LOL funny at times. The characters, however, are not very interesting, and the mystery was very weak, especially for a premiere episode. The puzzle centered on a kidmapping, but there wasn't much mystery to it, and the solution was a real cliche of the form—entirely predictable. Not a good way to begin a mystery series.

Other than James Roday's lead character, Shawn, the characters are all obvious refugees from other mystery programs: the skeptical/worried sidekick, the tediously suspicious cops, the gruff police captain (female in this case, but predictably hard-edged), the snotty suspects, etc. Shawn's relationship with his ex-cop father (played well by Corbin Bernsen, though the actor is given very little to work with) is fairly interesting, but it is left largely undeveloped. Many things about the script seem rather undeveloped, alas.

The writers did take great pains to establish exactly how the protagonist came to have such great powers of observation. That, however, may actually be something of a mistake. Usually, we don't really care why the detective is so insightful; it is enough that he or she is a genius and that we get to go along for the ride. With Monk, of course, a good deal of the fun is in watching him flounder through life while blasting through puzzling mysteries, and we appreciate the ironic truth that the very thing that makes him a great detective makes him a very unhappy person. This gives the program an inherent tension and drama, to go along with the comedy it creates. Psych attempts to recreate this aspect of Monk, but there is a big difference: whereas one feels great sympathy for Monk because of his mental problems, Shawn's continual optimism and snarkiness in Psych tend to defeat any sympathy we may wish to feel for him due to his strained relationship with his father. We know that Shawn must crave a better relationship with his father, which could make for some good drama, and comedy as well, but Roday is rather too successful at hiding it under his character's Mr. Fun persona. Shawn's blithe surface appears too often to be what he is really about—and such superficiality in a character defeats audience identification and sympathy.

When Psych finally gets into the mystery story, the program becomes more interesting, but it spends too much time trying to emulate Monk's quirkiness. That's a pity because the concept—a detective who is so insightful that he has to pretend to be a psychic in order to keep police from thinking he has actually committed the crimes he is trying to solve—is perfectly brilliant and doesn't need any additional quirkiness. The program's creators should trust the concept and cut the nonsense.

Making things even more difficult for Psych is its seemingly advantageous position following Monk. The latter program's season premiere was as excellent as we might have expected it to be. The concept—an actor playing Adrian Monk in a movie follows the obsessive detective as he attempts to solve a mystery—is the kind of thing that can be disastrously cute, and the producers managed to avoid that and present a solid mystery with the show's usual level of engaging comedy and serious moments that we have come to expect from this impressively intelligent and consistent show.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Closer and the Next Stage for TV Cop Shows

In the comments area of my Monk/Psych post below, a reader mentioned the TNT series The Closer, an unacknowledged Americanization of the long-running British police procedural TV program Prime Suspect. In The Closer, now in its second season, Kyra Sedgwick plays a police detective and homicide team supervisor who solves crimes while stumbling charmingly through a rather bumpy personal life. It's a good show, made appealing by Sedgwick's excellent performance. She's quite likeable as the protagonist, and her various problems are handled by both herself and the program's writers with a fairly light touch. The most recent episode, which premiered last Monday night, was particularly satisfying. Unlike most episodes of the program, it had a solid puzzle with several suspects, and the viewer had enough info to solve the crime by the time Brenda was ready to reveal the killer. Most of the appeal of The Closer lies in the non-mystery elements, but having a good mystery made this episode really sing.

There's no reason a police procedural or hardboiled story can't have a good puzzle, as the works of Cornell Woolrich and Fredric Brown make very clear in the hardboiled realm and which the Midsomer Murders and Dalziel and Pascoe series in both books and TV make abundantly clear. (Both of the latter are produced in Great Britain.) I, too, like to see TV moving away from what I called in my NR roundup of the last TV season shows about Saving the World, One Creepy-Looking Corpse at a Time. It has become a very tired genre, and the cop show will begin to fade away soon if the networks don't bring new life to it with an approach more sanguine and less sanguinary.

Monk Returns, Psych Begins

The USA Network mystery-comedy series Monk returns this evening, at 9 p.m. EDT, an hour earlier than in previous years. In my view, Monk is one of the best programs on television: it's funny, always has strong plots and interesting characters, and upholds values I consider quite laudable. When Monk deals with traditional Judeo-Christian religion, it does so respectfully, another thing I like about it, and it does so subtly, without being the slightest bit preachy, which makes the treament palatable for those who don't share that faith. I own the pilot movie and first three seasons on DVD, and I do watch them during those long, sad months when the show is on hiatus. (There are only about a dozen new episodes per year, running for about six consecutive weeks at the beginning of the year and then in July and August.)

Following Monk tonight (at 10 EDT) is the premiere of a new mystery-comedy series, Psych. This one looks like it could be a real winner. James Roday (an actor who has appeared mostly in independent films and theater productions) plays Shawn Spencer, a brilliantly insightful young man from a long family line of detective police officers. Tragically, he's not a police officer himself, because he is too much of a free spirit to be able to hold a job. (Exactly the opposite of Adrian Monk, you see....) In order to save himself from prison, however, thanks to some clever plotting by the scriptwriters, Shawn is forced to pretend that he is a psychic, and that he gets his information about crimes from the Other World instead of from its real source, his "extraordinary powers of observation and deduction," as the show's website puts it. Think: Sherlock Holmes with a crazy sense of fun. In light of his success as a "psychic," Shawn opens his own detective agency with partner and comedy straight man Gus. As the program's website puts it, "He's putting his skills to good use." True to TV's formula for success, Psych sounds both similar enough and different enough from Monk to be a good concept, and the individuals involved in making the show have very good track records at this sort of thing, especially creator/writer/executive producer Steve Franks.

USA's previous attempt to follow Monk with an eccentric detective—a remake of the English series Touching Evil—failed, and in my view it happened mainly because the program's tone was inconsistent and largely too different from that of Monk. Like its BBC predecessor, Touching Evil dealt with extremely grim subject matter, but the producers tried to spice it up a bit by making the lead character a bit kooky and increasing the prominence of a bizarre subsidiary character whom they made more zany than in the British original. Although Jeffrey Donovan did an excellent job of portraying the lead character, Detective Dave Creegan, and Pruitt Taylor Vince was fascinating as Cyril, the attempt to make an extremely grim show more pleasant didn't work. It's as if they had tried to make Adrian Monk the central character in Criminal Minds. Better to try something else.

Psych looks like a better fit both in its central concept and as a companion program for Monk. If the values Psych upholds are as good as the show's description suggests, and if the stories are as strong as those of Monk—which is of course very difficult to achieve on a regular basis—this program could be very good indeed. I have . . . a feeling it will.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

College Admissions

Tufts has decided to bring in some additional tools to help it decide which students it ought to admit, using interesting essay questions to get a sense of applicants' "creativity." Unlike some other admissions reforms, Tufts isn't avoiding using SATs and GPAs, but trying to augment those. From the report here, there doesn't seem to be much to dislike. I've long thought that the real barrier to universities doing admissions better is simply one of resources: there aren't enough admissions officers or people involved in admissions to treat each application individually. Tufts, according to the article, has about 25,000 applicants - it's hard to see how you can give those anything more than just a cursory glance and surely it's one of the reasons why standardized tests are so popular.

TVD's Newswalk™: Food For Thought

One in an occasional series of shallow strolls through deep waters:

Norks Murder Whales


Well, Head Nork Kim Jung-Il shot off a big missile and hit the ocean. And what lives in the ocean? Cuddly whales, that's what, even though whales are too big to cuddle with.

Since pro-cuddlycreature activists have sued the US Navy into stopping using sonar in military exercises, it's only a matter of time before they train their righteous indignation and (rare, safe and legal) guns on the Norks.

Y'know, I love "Norks." It's vaguely insulting but not racist. Rhymes with "dorks." Norks. Norks. I love it.

I've been pretty mellow about the Norks, those proud members of the Axis of Evilers, a designation they took as a compliment. They're China's fault in the first place, and they're Japan's worry along with the Sorks'. Let the "international community" straighten 'em out.

(Nah, "Sorks" doesn't work. They're alternately supportive and annoying, but I'm proud of what they've done with the freedom that 54,246 young Americans bought with their lives. These things do not come cheaply. I wish they did.

South Koreans, then. Someday soon I hope, without further bloodshed like with Germany, it'll be simply "Koreans." Y'all owe us one, guys.)

I've mostly been worried about the Norks proliferating their evil goods, WMDs, to other likeevilminded folks. But if this launch is any indication of the quality of Kim Jung-Il's workmanship, what could be better than this enemy of mankind and cetaceans alike ripping off fragheads to buy porno and cognac? Almost worth keeping him in power, almost.

Yearly Kos Astonishes


I was astonished, anyway. Caught the video on C-SPAN of the now-annual confab of all that is good and righteous on the internet, The Daily Kos, the mega-lefty mega-blog that has used its powers of persuasion to defeat a number of heretical Democrats (Joe Lieberman may be next), although so far no Republicans.

They have not yet solved the equation that "unity" movements tend toward cannibalism. When you've got the blood fever, why try to kill and eat someone who might fight back when so many compliant and tasty morsels are so close at hand?

Ann Coulter became an infotainment superstar by supplying an unfilled demand for rhetorical violence on the right: your favorite blog, The Reform Club, for instance, is the model of decorum. But The Daily Kos has to give it away because the vitriol supply on the left far exceeds demand. (They do pick up a few bucks as a clearing house for freebies: Plato's Retreat for Liberals.)

Kosdom claims its average age is 45, and the C-SPAN video confirms it: these folks are genuine Leftover Left, women with long gray hag hair and men looking like they need a good scrub. I mean there was a guy with a magic-markered sign on his T-shirt, something about Plame and Fitzgerald. Cute and maybe even fetching before age 30, not so cute for grownups. Man, I used to be so jealous of the left. They were soooooooo cool.

It's not that the right wing aren't dorks, because we are, present company excepted. But the left's berets and Sartre and cigarettes and Che Guevera and other assorted nonsenses were da bomb in the olden days. You could always use radical chic to get some. The proletariat, exploited masses, the human condition, death to imperialism. Wham, bam, thank you, Karl Marx. But now, all these witchy women and stinky bohemians can get is each other. It ain't pretty, people.


And what's the ridiculous without the sublime?

Activists Announce "Troops Home Fast"


That would be Iraq. A hunger strike, sort of, although I understand you can take turns. Skip a lunch, save a life. Ringleader Mother "I'd Rather Live Under Hugo Chavez than Bush" Sheehan is too easy pickin's, although she should try living under Chavez' pal Castro in Cuba, where every single day's a revolutionary fast. But she's being joined by Dick Gregory, who's obsessed with not eating food and weighs about 68 pounds. I mean, what? It's like Howard Stern, Masturbating For Peace.


Norks, Dorks & Cindys on today's menu. Pass. Think I'll join the fast. Or does anyone know where we can get a good whale sandwich?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Tribute to a Good Man in Africa

When I arrived at Baylor University to begin my doctoral work, one of the first people I met was a dark-skinned Nigerian man named Abraham Mbachirin. Abraham practically lived in our research center.

Our program proved to be quite challenging for him because many of the core courses deal with American law and religion, something he hadn't understood at the outset. And there was another problem: he couldn't type. That was a significant problem when students crank out thousands upon thousands of typed words each semester.

He was low on money, had English as a second language, and missed his wife and several children back home. Yet, he fought and struggled. His love of knowledge and yes, of the Lord, gave him the strength to press onward.

Though the enterprise looked precarious at times Abraham never faltered. I'm proud to report that Abraham Mbachirin successfully defended his dissertation today. He returns to Nigeria to build that nation's institutions of higher education and to continue his role in the Presbyterian church.

Africa needs good men. Godspeed to Abraham Mbachirin. I pray he comes back to us someday as an official of the Nigerian government, more stable and successful than ever. I don't think Nigeria has ever had a Kuyper, but Dr. Mbachirin might just fill the bill.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Slender Read

I have known since I was about ten years old that the highest end of man, the activity in which pleasure and nature and reason and worship of the Creator all combine in one perfect blossom of celebration and wonder at the sheer goodness of life is: to sit in a wicker chair on the porch, in the wavering humidity of a summer day, and read, and read, and read, knowing you can sit there as long as you please because there is nothing you need to do and nowhere you have to go and nothing better than finishing this book and starting on another.

The only thing that has changed since 1968 is my preferred refreshment. Back then it was black cherry Kool-Aid, now I tend more toward white sangria or Harp Lager. Oh, maybe the books have bigger words in them, and most of the authors weren't even born in 1968. But for endless porch summers I still choose the same kind of book I chose then: one that engages your brain more than your heart. Tear-jerkers are for the chair pulled up to the fireplace in the gloomy dusk of a December afternoon. Summer belongs to British timetable mysteries, playful fantasy, and marveling at clever wordplay.

I daresay anyone who's weathered public school, even the safer sorts you find in the rural townships of the Midwest, will understand how I found out so young that you couldn't really read until school was out. The kind of reading you do in school seems designed to cure you of longing for books. I was even disciplined once for taking a library book home. They had unaccountably allowed me to check out a story that was too interesting to stop reading when the school bus arrived. Unthinkable.

So here's what I've been reading on the porch.

Jonathan Lethem

I discovered Jonathan Lethem about six months ago, when my husband returned from a business trip with an airport bookshop copy of Motherless Brooklyn in his suitcase. Motherless Brookyln is itself a summer porch book, a murder mystery told in first person by a Tourettic orphan whose verbal and mental tics expand the English language like a helium balloon. In the pre-Thanksgiving gloom it might have made a less lasting impression on me had I not read it a couple of weeks before making my first visit to Brooklyn. In the company of my friend and life-long Brooklynite Brenda, I succumbed to the borough as one would to some only slightly painful, yet exotic, disease, and Lethem's place in my brain was cemented.

Now I know that the New York Times and the MacArthur Foundation discovered Lethem years ago, and I am very late to the Certified Genius bandwagon. I did not realize until Men and Cartoons that Lethem had, before becoming the poet of dysfunctional Brooklyn, written multiple volumes of weirdo West Coast cross-genre experimentalist fiction, most of which would probably sail right over my head. Never mind. The Fortress of Solitude is a perfect summer book: an evocation of three decades in which a white kid grows up in, leaves, and returns to the neighborhood that eventually becomes gentrified Boerum Hill but continues to haunt him as the rough and dangerous Gowanus of his boyhood. Its residual weirdness, including an unlikely superhero subplot, stands as a barrier to too-close personal engagement with the main characters, which qualifies it as a porch book. This is more than compensated for by Lethem's uncanny and unique use of language, memory hooks, and visual imagery.

Jasper Fforde

What is it about the simultaneous appearance of fictional ideas? I can't tell you how many times I've picked up books from different authors, apparently unknown to each other, that introduce the same bizarre plot device. In the space of a week my sister sent me the first Fforde novel in the Thursday Next series, The Eyre Affair, and my youngest daughter acquired a copy of Cornelia Funke's Inkheart. Both novels, one written in English for adults and the other in German for children, describe a world where people can enter and leave books. I don't know if the problem is the writer or the translation into English, but Funke's leaden characters and inability to move a plot, despite an interesting hook, make Jasper Fforde look like Leo bleedin' Tolstoy. Considered without comparison to second-rate kid lit, Thursday Next is certainly no Anna Karenina, but she inhabits a world full of imaginative and amusing details, from a cloned pet dodo to riotous gangs of John Milton fanciers. So far the best of the series is the third, The Well of Lost Plots. But it won't make a lick of sense if you haven't read the first two, and they're like popsicles anyway, quickly consumed and leaving you hungry for more.

Paul Johnson

Most of Johnson's historical work I would not consider classic porch fare; it requires too much sustained attention. But I make an exception for Art: A New History. Mainly because it has many (although not enough) pretty pictures. But also because Johnson's art criticism is refreshingly straightforward, free of the usual incomprehensible pomo BS, and informed with enough knowledge of the historical and political context in which this art was created to make it real, if unconventional, art history.

Happy reading, all. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of paperbacks.

Monday, July 03, 2006

A New Mexico?

It could happen. According to the Reuters report, Felipe Calderon, the right of center candidate in Sunday's elections for president of Mexico, appears to have won. Mexico had long been in the grip of a left-wing party, the PRI, which used dubious methods to retain power and kept market reforms at bay. Vicente Fox was a great improvement but not one to make fundamental changes. The rise to power of Calderon, of the National Action Party, would make possible reforms that were beyond contemplation when the PRI and its successors remained in power. Reuters writes:

Mexico's conservative presidential candidate Felipe Calderon declared victory on Monday in a bitterly contested election result as official returns showed him ahead of his left-wing rival.

Calderon said his lead was now "irreversible" because he had an advantage of more than 400,000 votes over Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist former mayor of Mexico City, with almost 95 percent of votes counted.

There are still a lof of ifs in the scenario. If Calderon's opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrado of the Democratic Revolution Party, doesn't encourage his supporters to riot in the streets and hold the government by force (as is the current worry, according to the Reuters story and other reports), Calderon can take office. Then, if Calderon can mobilize legislative action on economic reforms, if the government can enforce the rule of law in local areas—something current President Vicente Fox had a good deal of trouble doing—and if Calderon's party can stick to their guns, then there is truly a chance finally for a long-needed liberalization of the Mexican economy and society.

Liberalizing reform in Mexico is a development all should welcome, excepting only those who wish to exploit people through the powers of a corrupt and oppressive government. NAFTA may well have laid the groundwork for this tidal change, but real reform cannot come until Mexicans decide to take that frightful step from being wards of the state toward being independent actors who can make their own way in the world. This election could be the first step toward Mexico becoming a truly prosperous nation of self-reliant people.

I believe that it will happen, though in fits and starts and against furious opposition.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Watt's Up?

In our battle against the nether regions of Islam, some light at the end of the tunnel.

Years ago, when comic books showed us a light bulb appearing at an idea's point of origin, we scoffed. Now we know it to be true.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Continuing the Top Ten Game: Superhero Movies

You know how you hit somebody else's computer and they never bothered to make a homepage other than MSN.com? Well, that happened to me today and I found this fascinating list of the ten best and five worst superhero flicks.

Having seen what MSN came up with, I've got my own list to post.

10. Darkman -- One of the darkest and quirkiest superhero flicks ever. The main character has major problems with anger and anxiety. Even when he's kicking butt he's quite, shall we say, edgy. Occupies a unique spot in the genre.

9. The Shadow -- This isn't in anyone's list of favorites, but it scored with me. Alec Baldwin captures the old Radio Age Lamont Cranston quite well. I particularly enjoyed the way his face and personality changed when he inhabited the Shadow character. Very much a piece of pulp, but a satisfying one.

8. Batman Returns -- Keaton, Devito, and Michelle Pfeiffer. This film does a wonderful job of exploring the psyche of people who develop these wild meta-personalities with which to encounter a violent world. What keeps the film down is that Batman's ability to solve some problems is more magical than gritty.

7. Batman Begins -- Christian Bale was a brilliant choice to play a young Bruce Wayne. Still an American Psycho, but this time with a moral compass. Sending Bruce to the Orient to learn the ancient arts just as Lamont Cranston (the Shadow) did worked. The action almost didn't even need to return to Gotham to satisfy.

6. Batman -- The original Keaton vehicle was the most pleasant of surprises. After years of pure crapola from the superhero industry (save a couple of Superman movies a decade or so previous), Batman arrived to save the day. Things haven't been the same since. Jack Nicholson steals the show, but that's expected from The Joker.

5. Superman -- There was a reason people cared so much about what happened to Christopher Reeve. This film was it. During an era when superhero entertainment meant bad animation, or worse yet, terrible, terrible live-action, Reeve's Superman was a bolt from the blue. Beautifully filmed. I'll never forget the young Superman bounding across the plains or Reeve's success in portraying a hunky, yet truly nerdish Clark Kent. Margot Kidder was tops as Lois Lane, too. Not glamorous, but spunky and you can see why Superman is torn in his affections between Lois and the world.

4. Superman II -- Based on limits of technology, this one probably ranks as the greatest of all time because it worked without today's special effects. Combat, combat, combat tied in beautifully with a drama and a romantic backstory.

3. Spiderman II -- Successfully continued the Peter Parker hard luck story with amazing battle scenes with our hero and Doctor Octopus. Extremely enjoyable and guess what (Spoiler), Peter gets the girl. In fact, the girl next door.

2. Spiderman -- The origin story magnificently rendered. Superhero movies had already improved with the resurgence of Batman, but this was another level.

1. I know one of the three top spots will belong to the newest Spiderman movie, so here's a big vote of confidence.

Biggest Disappointments

5. Daredevil -- I didn't hate it the way so many reviewers did, but it failed to capture the feeling of the comic. I'm not sure it was a great idea to combine the origin story and famed Electra tragedy in one go-round either.

4. The Hulk -- This movie was going somewhere for the first hour, but it all fell to pieces. Try again.

3. All the X-Men films -- Really not bad, but far, far short of the original comics. I've gone to each with high expectations and have each time thought it was worth the money, but not amazing. The last one really screwed up by combining favorite bits and pieces from lots of different stories in one film. Hodge-podge can be fun, but it's no substitute for a little literary discipline.

2. Fantastic Four -- Not bad as entertainment, but again falling short of places where the comic has been. Reed Richards was definitely too young and Sue Storm was too much sex appeal and not enough maturity.

1. Superman III and IV plus whatever the heck the Clooney Batman was. 'Nuff said.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Top Ten New Names for the Holy Trinity

Well, those Presbyterians are at it again, and I think it's about time.

Seems Christianity's Big One/Three needs a retitling. Too, I dunno, biblical, I guess.


Well, a couple of their new really good ones are omitted here for lack of risibility, but here are my favorites from what they came up with:


• Sun, Light and Burning Ray

• Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb

• Rainbow of Promise, Ark of Salvation and Dove of Peace

• Overflowing Font, Living Water, Flowing River

• Fire That Consumes, Sword That Divides, and Storm That Melts Mountains


Eh. Mankind has already tried the Sun God thing, and too much of Him gives you skin cancer. "Our Rainbow Who Art (Am, Is) Wherever" makes me want to fetch my Divine Coloring Book. With the recent floods in the northeast, overflow is counterintuitive: Dear Overflow, leave us alone, willya? And here in California, a Storm That Melts Mountains caused a landslide that almost took out my patio deck.

I don't think the Presbs go nearly far enough. Everybody sees God in his, her or its own way, so what we need here is some market research and narrowcasting to our core focus groups and potential customers.

--Solar, Wind, and Clean-Burning Hydrogen Power (Enviro-God)
--Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Holy Flamingo (Kung-Fu God)
--Owner, Driver, Pit Crew (NASCAR God)
--Apatosaurus, T. Rex and Archaeopteryx (Jurassic God)
--Pop, Snap & Crackle (Breakfast God)
--Tinker to Evers to Chance (Teamwork God)
--Townshend, Daltry, Entwistle (The Writer, The Song and The One Who Plays Bass God)
--Life, Liberty & The Pursuit of Happiness (Separation of Church and God God)
--Mother Sheehan, Brother Murtha, and BTW, What's in My Womb is None of Your Damn Business Anyway (Kos God)

Well, it's quite a fruitful vein. One Presbyter said you might as well call 'em Huey, Dewey and Louie, but I think he isn't quite down with the Spirit of the thing. The Deity Formerly Known as The Triune God has got to get into the 21st century.

I bet y'all have a topper, but in the meantime, for now I'll think of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost as:

Rock, Paper, Scissors
. A Good God. A Great Game.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Superman: Will to Power or Will to Love?

Jordan Ballor is less than thrilled with the evangelical bandwagon to baptize Superman as yet another in a long line of literary and pop-cultural Christ figures. Maybe it is a bit uncritical and perhaps a bit overdone. But I have to take issue with Ballor when he suggests that Superman is more reminiscent of Nietzsche's Ubermensch than he is of the Son of Man.

Having read my share of Superman comics through the years and having taken in many, many pop manifestations of the character, one thing is clear: Superman is not Nietzschean. Although he has all the power in the world, he has a prevailing morality that trumps his own power. A perfect example of the anti-Nietzschean aspect of the comic Superman is that he has virtually always refused to kill, even when a villain richly deserves it. He is also the type of fellow, who though often indestructible, has always been ready to sacrifice himself for his friends (and everybody else).

There are a couple of examples that go against the grain. For instance, in the lamentable Superman IV, our hero drops any pretense of respect for democracy and imposes his will on the globe when it comes to nuclear weapons. He simply throws them all into outer space. No word on whether he then intended to police every border where the Soviets might have had tanks ready to roll! I would argue this Superman is a version (a lefty-liberal Greenpeacey type) of the will-to-power superman, but he is an exception that virtually all fans would excise from the legend. Another example occurred in a graphic novel tracing out alternative worlds with a Superman. In one of the alternate planes, he sets himself up as a king. Pretty logical, eh? But again, this was the authors' funnin' around and not setting up a new idea of the hero.

The C.S Lewis-Anscombe Debate Revised

It's been referenced here at the Reform Club and is often mentioned here and there in the literature. C.S. Lewis was well known as an unbeatable debater until he ran up against Elizabeth Anscombe. The history of the event is that Anscombe won the debate and that C.S. Lewis abandoned apologetics (reasoned defense of Christianity) for other things like children's literature. Victor Reppert, who has written his own book about Lewis, disagrees vigorously with the idea that Lewis abandoned apologetics after the Anscombe debate. Read about it here.

In addition, I think the general thought is that Anscombe beating Lewis in debate represented some triumph of the non-Christian over the Christian. She was actually a serious Catholic who was later in life arrested for pro-life activities in England similar to what Operation Rescue did in the United States. More about her and a confirmation of Victor Reppert's report on Lewis's continued interest in apologetics here at First Things.

Paid College Athletics

So here's a story at Inside Higher Ed on track athletes who are turning professional and eschewing a college career. I'm not so interested in the fact that track athletes are doing what others (especially baseball, hockey, and basketball players) have been doing for years, but it does pose an interesting question. (And that question is not about students taking the money and leaving college early - most everyone, I would assume, would skip their last couple of years in college for a seven-figure salary). The NCAA prohibits student-athletes from receiving goods that they wouldn't otherwise receive except that they are athletes. So the local car dealer can't spot you a new Corolla because you're the third-string punter. But to be equitable, shouldn't we extend that to all students? Shouldn't the computer science major be barred from making money on the side working for some start-up? Or the journalism major be prohibited from taking that part-time job with a newspaper? There's a difference, of course. The "regular" students are, in some sense, merely getting a head start on their careers (and probably learning more about their profession than they do in the classroom) while whatever sorts of benefits might come the punter's way are probably just a way of enticing him to join the team. But I've never quite understood the case for barring benefits to student-athletes: why shouldn't they be able to trade on their skills as they see fit? (As a side note, it would as well help ease the corruption that currently infects big-time college athletics. While direct payments are probably relatively rare, I'd bet that there are lots of places in the country where students live in housing at, er, "reduced" rates, drive much nicer cars than they should be able to afford, have relatives with very lucrative jobs, etc. And what's more, the strict rules against providing anything to athletes means that when an athlete actually does need help - say, to get home for Thanksgiving - if you play by the rules, there's little you can do). Let the punter get his Corolla, I say.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Western Europe At The Barricades

At a recent conference in Switzerland student representatives asked, how could the Muslim population gain traction so quickly in Western Europe? It is a simple and direct question that could easily be addressed with reference to the disparity between Christian and Muslim birthrates and immigration patterns.

But numbers do not tell the whole story, nor do these numbers reveal very much about European attitudes. There are philosophic underpinngs that reveal more than any statistical analysis can provide.

The first of these is multi-culturalism, an attitude which suggests each culture should be treated on its own terms without regard to universal considerations. For example, female deformation in the form of cliterdectomy is not wrong; it is simply the manifestation of a different culture.

The second, and arguably the view that represents the most significant shift in European attitudes, is secular humanism, a turning away from the spiritual to the temporal. European churches are now ostensibly museums, not places of worship. The moral teachings of Christianity have been largely interred replaced by relativism or “new age” phenomenology, such as pantheistic environmentalism.

The third shift in attitude might be characterized as extreme liberalism. In this case the virtues of liberalism such as tolerance have been perverted into an unwillingness to discriminate. Right and wrong are seen as archaic concepts belonging to the ash heap of history. What counts is openness, a strange form of egalitarianism in which all opinions have equal value if rendered earnestly.

The fourth attitudinal consideration is transnationalism. A project to reduce or eliminate the national heritage of European states through continental harmonization has had the unintended effect of making citizens rudderless, of losing an identity and deracinating patriotism. Do the bureaucrats in Brussels represent the will of the European people? And can a continental parliament rely on consent of the governed or even care about those governed? Answers beg the questions.

Last is the loss of confidence. The retreat of apostolic teaching has resulted in an absence of authority. Catholicism is in retreat, not only as a religion but as a voice of moral conviction.

On the other side of the west European ledger is Islam, a fanatical faith with an obsessive desire for control and conversion. Using the freedoms conferred by western European states, Muslims employ strong conviction and physical intimidation to promote their faith. Their mosques are not merely centers for religious observance, but political centers for subversion. Any attempt to interfere with these activities is deemed an affront, a violation of liberal precepts.

As a consequence, the governments seem powerless, unable to interfere. Scholars are intimidated if they don’t share interfaith egalitarianism and religious figures dare not criticize, fearful of being charged with bigotry.

The march to dominance therefore appears inexorable unless the western European societies can regain their traditions and recapture the convictions that led to Christianity’s dominance in the first place. You cannot defeat an implacable adversary with verbal pabulum.

Western Europe needs to assert its traditions and liberties, but, more importantly, it should insist that its basic ideas are imbibed by all citizens. Isolated cultural pockets removed from the prevailing positions of the host societies will not do. Liberalism should ensure freedom, but not the freedom to destroy.

Moreover, western European governments should demand reciprocity with Muslim states. The freedom Muslims enjoy in Europe should not be a freedom denied to minority communities in Muslim states, which is presently the case throughout the Islamic world.

European Muslims sense that Europe is in a defensive mode as the present dominant attitudes suggest. Hence there is the leap for a final solution, caliphates throughout the continent. It is widely believed that the vacuum of a soulless Europe will be filled by an Islam of determined will and fanaticism.

There cannot be any doubt at this point what is at stake. The issue is one of civilizational survival. The antidote to the march of Islam is reChrististianizing Europe through a Great Awakening. Is there a contemporary Wilberforce eager to lead this struggle? Is history on the side of fanaticism? Can the war of ideas be engaged by series exemplars of Christian doctrine? And has attitudinal drift emasculated Western Europe from the brave and defiant heart that is needed?

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.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Who Built Their Houses?

I see that a number of Democratic activists here in the Golden State, at least rhetorically are reluctant to support Treasurer Phil Angelides in the Governor's race against Arnold because Angelides used to be a "developer," an epithet that apparently for those people ranks right up there with "child molester," "capitalist," "conservative," and "Republican." Anyway, did those people build their own houses? Or did they buy houses previously built by... developers? Or do they live in caves, and I refer here not to the intellectual kind? Just asking.

Federalism, Will of People Win in Supreme Court's Death Penalty Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a Kansas law mandating that juries impose the death penalty in cases where there is an equal weight of factors aggravating the severity of the crime and those tending to explain a defendant's actions. In order words, the law held that juries should impose the death penalty if mitigating factors do not explicitly outweigh aggravating ones. Tie goes to the victims, you might say. (Or to the executioner, if you think convicted murderers are more important than victims and their families.)

While not stating it directly, the New York Times story revealed that the Court's decision had a strong federalist component:

[T]he five conservatives, including Alito, overturned a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that found the law violated the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. . . .

The ruling affirms the court's long-held position that states should determine how juries weigh factors presented by the prosecution and defense in capital cases. . . .

According to the Times story, Justice Scalia wrote a separate opinion explicitly suggesting deference to state legislation on death penalty matters:

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a separate opinion on Monday to defend the death penalty and the court's ruling in the Kansas case. [The claim that Scalia's opinion defended the death penalty as such is incorrect: his opinion was centered on allowing the people to decide these matters through their legislative representatives and governors. Note the next paragraph from the Times story.]

"The American people have determined that the good to be derived from capital punishment—in deterrence, and perhaps most of all in the meting out of condign justice for horrible crimes—outweighs the risk of error. It is no proper part of the business of this court, or of its justices, to second-guess that judgment, much less to impugn it before the world . . . ,'' Scalia wrote.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the decision ''signals that a majority of the court is not inclined to invent new procedural restrictions on the death penalty.''

That appears to be the correct interpretation of the ruling.

Why We Incarcerate

A frequent commenter wrote, in our thread regarding crime and leniency in Great Britain:

Based on these trends, 2% of the adult population in this country is likely to continuously break the law. Punishment seems to work dandy, yessirree!

The commenter's sarcasm is absurdly misplaced. Holding those people in prison definitely prevents them from committing crimes against the public during the period of their incarceration. In this way, incarceration most certainly works to reduce crime.

It is true that a punishment should fit the crime, but that means not only that it should not be too severe but also that it should not be too mild. The appropriate severity of punishment for any particular crime is a valid matter for debate. What is not debatable, however, is that incarceration reduces crime. It does so, at the very least by taking the criminal out of circulation.

It is only when one shifts one's concern exclusively to the welfare of the criminals over that of their real and potential victims that one can see inarceration as risible.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Brits Worried Over Lenience on Crime

In an excellent and highly informative article in Tech Central Station, former British Crown Prosecution Service executive Peter C. Glover points out that a steady stream of high-profile cases in which serious offenders have received minimal sentences has created a rising sense of fear of violent crime among the English public. As happened in abundance in the 1970s in the United States as crime rates rose, this public concern in Britain is reflected in a film currently in production:

The minimum five-year sentence for convicted pedophile Craig Sweeney has deepened the public's crisis of confidence in the British criminal justice system -- and stirred the government into pledging a 'sentencing review'. But while the mother of Sweeney's three-year-old victim spoke of wanting to "throttle the judge" who sentenced Sweeney, it is actually the liberalized system itself which may need "throttling". That's the point soon to be made by an explosive new film currently in production entitled Outlaw.

Nick Love's film, starring Sean Bean and Bob Hoskins, is designed to show the devastating consequences of a British justice system soft on criminals. The film focuses on five vigilantes who, "betrayed by their government and let down by the police", take matters into their own hands, meting out summary justice with baseball bats, knives and fists. What Charles Bronson's Death Wish character brought to cheering audiences in the 1970s, Love's Outlaw appears destined to repeat for contemporary audiences.

Outlaw is more than just another film for Love, who is himself a reformed teenage criminal and heroin user who claims to have been saved by the "short sharp shock" Tory policy of the 1980s. "I'm the living proof, if you like, that taking a hardline approach to young criminals works," says Love.

Love began writing the screenplay two years ago. At the time he suspected the British public were already beginning to lose patience with the government's liberalizing of criminal policies. He could not have realized how soon that patience might run out.

Love is an example of an individual reforming from a life of crime, but his redemption came through paying a hard price for his crime, he notes, not by immersion in therapeutic treatments by a system more concerned about offenders than for victims and the community. As Glover puts it,

Love's film is set to further highlight how a society soft on criminals suffers when it makes the basic mistake of deeming pragmatic liberalizing policies - revealing a greater concern for the offender than for the victim and for the individual than for the community - a higher priority than justice.

Love's film, Glover's article, and the situation in Britain all point out that true justice has real, positive, practical consequences. As Glover notes,

Nick Love's Outlaw is not, as some will undoubtedly claim, a prescription for vigilantism on the streets. Rather, it is a stark warning of the perhaps inevitable consequences when a state fails to perform its central function: the protection of society and its law-abiding citizenry.

As Love's movie lead puts it, "If you want to spend the rest of your life being raped and bullied . . . and letting the pedophiles wander the playgrounds while you smile mutely and pay your taxes, then walk out the door." I suspect there won't be too many "walking out" on Outlaw however, unless it is because of its explicit content.

Two decades ago I wrote a long article for Chronicles magazine in which I pointed out that vigilante narratives have a long tradition and that they tend to arise when crime rates are rising and government authorities do not appear to be doing enough about stemming the increase. As such, I pointed out, they are a useful barometer of public attitudes. I also pointed out that they are not calls for vigilante violence but warnings about how the public can see itself as forced to step in when their government fails to do its elemtary duty of keeping the public peace.

Vigilante films, although still occasionally made these days—the recent remake of Walking Tall, for example, or some of the comic-book films such as The Punisher and the Spider-Man series—are not nearly so popular as they were in the 1970s. That's a good sign for the United States. Outlaw is indicative of the current uneasiness regarding crime in Great Britian. Whether it will spur a lasting trend in the UK cinema is up to the government and will depend entirely on its resolve in ensuring that criminals pay for their crimes.

Glover's article includes much more detail on and examples of some of the decisions that have disturbed the British public, and I strongly recommend that you read the full article, especially before commenting on the issue if you are so inclined.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Supreme Court: Not All Properties Are Wetlands

A wide variety of interpretations has already arisen regarding the Supreme Court's decision yesterday on federally enforced wetlands preservation. Two things seem clear, however: that the federal government may regulate human development of wetlands (which was not in doubt), and that the definition of what is a wetland cannot be stretched beyond reasonable bounds. This makes sense. Here is the libertarian Cato Institute's description of and opinion on the decision:

Supreme Court Rebuffs Senseless EPA Regulation
Supreme Court Sides with Cato Brief

WASHINGTON -- Today, the U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed an expansive reading of federal power by environmental regulators. In Rapanos v. United States, regulators claimed federal wetlands laws allow them to micromanage development of Michigan property through which a trickle of water drained, even though the land was high, dry, and land-locked. The landowner, John Rapanos, fought back, arguing that the federal Clean Water Act doesn't give regulators control over any land from which water might occasionally flow. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court agreed.

According to Tim Lynch and Mark Moller, authors of Cato's friend-of-the-court brief in support of Mr. Rapanos, the Court reached the right decision: "If the government can regulate any land from which water occasionally drains, no matter how speculative the effect of this drainage on navigable water, wetlands law gives it almost limitless jurisdiction over private property, except perhaps in the heart of the Mojave desert. In essence, the federal government's reading of the Clean Water Act would turn the EPA into a vast national zoning board.

"The English language says otherwise. The Clean Water Act gives the federal government the power to protect navigable water and regulate some land 'adjacent' to navigable water -- not control every rivulet of water that trickles through your lawn. What's remarkable about this case is not the outcome -- but the government's ability to argue its reading of federal law with a straight face."


Picture for Future Use


Just getting a headshot up where it can be viewed:


Interesting Immigration Proposal

Tech Central Station contributing writer Nathan Smith offers an interesting proposal regarding immigration, in today's issue of TCS Daily. Smith's idea is that instead of putting a number on the amount of people allowed to immigrate into the United States, or allowing all comers to live here as long as they like without having to meet any criteria for their presence here, we should tax immigration.

His proposal has merit in that, as he says, it applies economic incentives to let the market find an answer to how many immigrants should be here at any given time. He also leaves open the question of exactly what the right numbers for the taxes should be, though he gives suggestions to start the discussion rolling.

Smith's proposal does not directly address assimilation, though it is possible that his proposed tax program could be used to create incentives for immigrants to assimilate and could be used to indemnify the nation's current residents for any losses of cultural values.

Naturally, the tax numbers and associated policies, including enforcement measures, would become a matter for gross political manipulition, but at least the discussion would be out in the open and legislators and presidential administrations could be held accountable for their positions. That would be a great improvement over the current situation.

Of course, if the U.S. Senate and House can reconcile their two very different bills, it's possible that this train has already sailed. But if that doesn't happen, this would be something to consider.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Science and the Problem of Political Values (EXTENDED)

Sometimes we act like the scientific method was only invented a few hundred years ago. Don't you know that even an absolute savage seeing a thin tree spanning a narrow river would use something like the scientific method in deciding whether to cross at that point? He'd probably figure in his mind whether the the tree would bear his weight. He'd test it near the bank. He might get as far out as he could without totally committing and then come back. If he were really ambitious he might even roll a heavy log out onto the tree to see if it would hold. Then, he would take his data and decide whether he should cross. That's scientific thinking and it's been going on probably for as long as there have been human beings.

We like the scientific method. I'm a devout person, but I prefer knowledge vetted via the scientific method to any other kind. I think everyone does. If I hear about someone claiming to have been healed of cancer, I ask whether they've had it confirmed by a doctor and some tests. Anybody who tells you they don't like knowing things scientifically is probably lying. The scientific process is a good thing.

However, the scientific method is really limited in terms of what it can tell us about life and how to live it. No matter how much we learn about the natural world and how it works, the simple fact is that science has zilch to say about most of what we talk about in politics. For example, there is a lot of passion on this website about the policy the United States takes toward dealing with poor people. What does science have to say about that? Is mercy a scientific matter? Is compassion? The truth is that virtually all of us want to see the poor better off, but if we try to discuss why that should be, science just won't much enter the picture.

Science helps us figure out how to do things we want to do, but it is very little aid in figuring out what the wants are. Does science say whether we should have an anti-poverty policy? No. Does science say whether we should be aggressive or pacifist in our foreign policy? No. Does science say whether we should rebuild Iraq? No. Does science say whether we should have an affirmative action policy or that we should have ended slavery? No. Science is blind to most of politics and not surprisingly, to much of life.

Values help us figure out what our wants are. Things like freedom, loyalty, brotherhood, mercy, love, bravery, honesty, commitment, etc. Now, there are different ways to decide what your values are, but none of them are dead-on scientifically rational. I'm sorry, but it's true. This is why we get jarring statements like the one from Richard Dawkins the atheist who tells us he is a passionate Darwinist (and atheist) who is just as passionately anti-Darwinist in his politics. He is telling you that scientific knowledge about the world won't resolve the issue of your politics and for once, he is right.

What will resolve the issue of your politics? The answer is that you have to think about things like what is the nature of human beings, what is good for human beings, what does good even look like, whether something like evil exists and if so what qualifies as evil, what should you care about, what should government care about, etc. In figuring out your politics you figure out yourself. For most people, that process includes thinking about what God thinks and looking for clues to answer that question in religion. It should be clear, however, that those who do not look to religion to help answer these questions are no more rational or scientific than their religious co-seekers. Both persons or groups of persons, religious and irreligious, are filling their cups of value with something and they are not doing so on the basis of scientific analysis.

I think that is the substance behind Ann Coulters's claim that left-liberals are religious. They are engaged in the experience of determining their values and they do so in a way that is no more logical or reasonable than those who are religious. This is the ineffable territory of the soul -- defined as who you are.

Further Thoughts

This inability of science to provide any warrant for our longing for things like justice, good order, compassion, fairness, truth, etc. leads us to where we are and have been for some time. Despite the moniker "political science" we have no science of determining political (or personal, for that matter) ends. Thus, we accept the non-mathematical precision presented us by politics (as did Aristotle) and try to reason from experience and observation about ourselves and society. Natural law tries to deduce our morality in this way.

Religion enters the picture either as a mystical dropping out, a dismissal of the earthly world as an illusion, or (more relevantly) as a massive claim upon history. This last is what we encounter with the Jewish and Christian faiths in particular. Both say "This really happened (the giving of the law or the resurrection of Jesus)" and "Because this thing happened we can draw the following conclusions from it." The Christian faith in particular offers us this way out of the conundrum of little-explained or mysterious values.

The first kind of religion, that which drops out, is in fact irrational and proudly so. The latter kind, that based on a witness of real history, can only be seen as an attempt at rigorous rationality, perhaps even of the scientific kind. Thus, the Christian claims to have a better idea of what values one should advocate than others who grasp at the issue with no better guide than practical reason well beyond the parameters of the scientific method.

Acton's Jordan Ballor Responds on Christianity, the State, and Gay Marriage

Got this from Jordan Ballor last week:

There are at least two ways I see that are helpful for getting at the question of the church's attitude toward the recognition of gay marriage by the government. I'll outline the short way, and give some hints at the long way, which I believe both end up arriving at the same conclusion.

Before this, however, I want to take a moment to define some terms. For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the term gay marriage to refer to the legal and public recognition of the union of two same-sex partners. My use of this term should not be construed as an acknowledgment of this social relation as a species of the genus marriage. I explicitly do not believe that so-called gay marriage is really marriage at all.

First, the short way. If we take Aquinas' rule of thumb as a starting point, that not all immoral things are to be illegal (quoted here), the determining factor becomes whether the criminalization of an immoral behavior would result in more or less evil, i.e. whether by doing so the state would be stirring up more evil or restraining it.

From a Christian perspective, that gay marriage is immoral is beyond doubt and that it violates at least the commandment regarding adultery is undisputed. Note that the scope of the seventh commandment is sexual purity, and that as has been the traditional Protestant and Roman Catholic practice is to interpret these commandments with both positive and negative aspects.

As part of the second table, Calvin, Luther, and others would agree that the enforcement of the adultery commandment at least theoretically falls under the purview of the state. The traditional differences which you relate that are often observed about the relationships between the first and second table are thus of no real relevance for this discussion, since first table commandments are not at issue. Gay marriage is not simply a "religious" issue as the first table is often construed, but a moral/civic one relating to the second table. With this in mind, we must at least consider the possibility whether or not homosexual activity, and certainly the kind of homosexual relations characteristic of gay marriage, ought to be criminalized.

Let's assume for the sake of this argument, as so much of American society already has, that this sort of legal prohibition does not meet Aquinas' prudential criterion: it creates more evil (in the form of an intrusive government, among other things) than it restrains. This, I believe, is a possible and tenable argument against the criminalization of homosexual activity.

This recognition does not leave us with only one option, that is, for the government to recognize gay marriage. This merely leaves us without any laws whatsoever from the government on this point, and thus leaves the government's approval or disapproval of this activity as moral or immoral ambiguous at best.

But for the government to actively recognize and therefore promote gay marriage would be to explicitly sanction this activity as morally praiseworthy, just, and helpful for society. We have already established that homosexual activity is immoral, and therefore the government has no valid role in promoting or establishing such activity as normative. There is thus a difference between saying something is legally permissible and that it is morally permissible or even praiseworthy.

In this way, the Christian view of the government's role regarding gay marriage can take two forms. First, the Christian might say that the government should prohibit and enforce this portion of the second table in pursuit of restraining evil. Second, the Christian might make a prudential judgment and say that the government would create more evil by making and enforcing such laws, and should therefore make no positive law on this point. There is no third option for the Christian view of the state, that is, that it should actively promote, recognize, and protect an immoral set of social relations.

I understand the current attempts of Christians to argue in favor of some sort of marriage amendment to prevent the third (non)option, in favor of the second, which leaves homosexual relations legal but does not allow for them to be codified and sanctioned by the state.

The long way of going about this argument would be to outline the roles and relationships between the various institutions, spheres, or mandates, specifically regarding marriage/family, government, and church. I understand these in a similar way to what Bonhoeffer says regarding the four divine mandates (marriage, work, government, church), which I believe is consistent with a line of social thought including at least one possible form of Kuyper's view of sphere sovereignty (not specifically Dooyeweerdian conceptions, for example) and going back through various Reformers including Wolfgang Musculus, who wrote of three laws in the Garden of Eden, relating to procreation, dominion, and work/provision of food.

On this account, marriage and family exist apart from and distinct from government and the church, and so both of these latter institutions merely recognize, affirm, and ratify the prior relationship rather than creating it de novo. I believe gay marriage would be a legal creation, not the recognition of an actual prior social relation that is continuous with the created and preserved order of heterosexual marriage. I don't have time more than to hint at this latter method, but again, the result would be that the state certainly has no obligation, or even permission, to recognize, promote, and/or establish, a set of social relations that violate the moral order, especially as articulated in the second table commandments.

A few other issues:

1. Can you explicate further this distinction between an instrumental vs. sacred function of the state to which you refer? Do you get this terminology from Luther? For Luther, the state is sacred, insofar as it is God's rule with his left hand.

2. The recognition of the state as an order arising from the Fall rather than something embedded in creation is of ambiguous relevance. Calvin would certainly agree that the coercive nature of government arises as a result of sin, even though he might argue that government without this characteristic is at least hypothetically manifest in the primal state. But Calvin is not representative of the entire Reformed tradition. A more modern example, like Brunner, who at least in some ways is taken to represent a Reformed position, argues explicitly that the state is an order of preservation arising after the Fall, distinguishing it from an order of creation.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Ann the Impaler

It's common for people on both left and right to repudiate Ann Coulter for her rhetoric and largely ignore what she says. The latest example, of course, is her critique, which seems perfectly reasonable to me, of certain unhappy ladies whose husbands were killed in the 9/11 attacks and who have decided to use their personal loss as a credential authorizing them to criticize the Bush administration's prosecution of the War on Terror. Their predictably hysterical reaction to Ms. Coulter's criticism strikes me as ludicrously immature and logically requiring instant dismissal: if you are going to use a personal tragedy as an opportunity to step on the national stage and give your opinions about political matters, you should expect criticism of both your policy proposals and your qualifications to broadcast them. You should thus be prepared to answer such criticisms or quietly step aside. Instead, these ladies act as if questioning their qualifications were unethical. Pah! Anybody who listens to them is a horse's backside, I say.

Personally, I like both Ms. Coulter's rhetoric and her ideas. Yes, she's often too much of a cheerleader for President Bush and the Republicans, but given the only plausible alternative—the Democrats, who continuously strain to prove themselves crazier than bedbugs—I can understand her willingness to accept some of the Republicans' flaws. They're like bad-tasting medicine, but at least they're not toxic and/or psychedelic like their madcap opponents.

Hence it's interesting to see David Klinghoffer, who is a very religious man and a writer of high moral sensitivity, saying nice things about the ferocious Ms. Coulter. Mr. Klinghoffer wisely goes to the heart of the matter, identifying Ms. Coulter's thesis:

Godless is actually about the calcification of liberalism into a form of religion, half-jokingly identified by Coulter with Druidism. What’s religious about secular liberalism? The theologian Paul Tillich defined “religion” as a person’s “ultimate concern.” Whatever matters most to you, whatever tells you what else should matter and why, that is your religion.

Values are by definition religious, whether you believe they come from a God (like Jews or Christians do) or not (like Buddhists). Having turned from God, secularism automatically turns to another religion, by whatever name you call it.

The Secular Church even merits to be capitalized, since it forms a fairly unified ideology. As Coulter puts it, “Everything liberals believe is in elegant opposition to basic Biblical precepts.

Now, that really nails it. If one wants to predict the modern liberal's position on any issue, one could not do better than to think, what would an orthodox Christian think of this?, and take the opposite position.

That is modern left liberalism exactly.

Klinghoffer quotes some of Coulter's examples, to prove the point to any souls benighted enough to doubt it, and for the full argument one should refer to Coulter's book. It's all there in perfectly gory detail.

Klinghoffer concludes that Coulter's great value is that she pours on modern left-liberals the very same level of contempt that they pour on the right:

She exaggerates, but who cares? What is most valuable about Coulter is the trademarked contempt that she breathes forth. It’s why her books sell better than pretty much any other conservative’s do.

Obviously, dispassionate analysis should be expected most of the time, from most of us. But let’s say a word in favor of rollicking disgust poured out upon liberal pieties. There is the constant danger of inhaling too deeply from the fumes of the respect you insist on giving to those you disagree with. The result can be a subtle assimilating of some of their values.

The rhetoric of the left, with its incessant cries of Nazi and fascist and its passion for sanctions against "insensitive" talk, wants to use whatever means it can to limit the amount that its tenets can even be questioned. As noted, Coulter sees this as an open declaration of war on the body of ideas that made the West and that indeed created the modern liberal political-economic order.

Instead of turning the other cheek, Coulter recognizes that she is in a war, and, as Martin Luther suggested, she has no qualms about being a superior warrior.

I'll take that any day over the bowtied TV phonies who gladly sell their civilization down the river just to gain a spot on the panel of Meet the Press and invitations to dinner parties infested by other smug blowhards. Write on, Ann.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Academic Virtue

I'm in the process of putting my classes together for next semester, and for one of my classes (an Introduction to Contemporary Political Thought), we'll spend a week on conservatives. I was going through some of Harvey Mansfield's essays collected in The Spirit of Liberalism (looking for a good article or chapter that's representative of Straussian political thought) and I came across this gem of a quote:

No one is more ridiculous than an angry professor. He stamps his foot and bites his tongue as he tries to articulate his wrathful words, and when they are said, they may somehow suit either his office or his anger but never both. In love, a professor cuts a more acceptable figure, as the legion of former students, now faculty wives, must testify...


Heh.

Peretz and Summers

Marty Peretz takes out the big lumber in support of Larry Summers. He heaps scorn on Nannerl Keohane (she of oh so recently the Presidency at Duke) and basically accuses his enemies of moral cowardice, intelllectual mediocrity, and worse. I'm thinking he won't get quite as many invitations to those soirees in Martha's Vineyard this year...

Striking Against Illegal Immigration

On a Republican Party website, a Deputy County Attorney with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, Rachel Alexander, documents an interesting program by her county sheriff's office to use laws currently on the books to fight illegal immigration. Alexander writes,

The top two criminal law enforcement officials in Arizona have teamed up to arrest and prosecute illegal immigrants crossing the border into Arizona using a new state human smuggling law, and the courts agree. Arizona is the first state in the nation to pass a law against human smuggling.

Toughest prosecutor Andrew ThomasToughest Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Following the legal advice of Maricopa County’s tough on crime prosecutor Andrew Thomas, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio began arresting illegal immigrants under the new law and referring them for prosecution. Since the enforcement began, 272 illegal immigrants have been arrested and charged. Twenty-three illegal immigrants and one coyote have pled guilty, and will serve jail-time before being deported. With a felony on their record, they will have a slim chance at ever entering the U.S. legally or obtaining U.S. citizenship.

Under Arizona’s statutes, the crime of conspiracy automatically applies to felonies unless specifically exempted by statute. After thorough legally researching the issue, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas provided a legal opinion to Sheriff Arpaio confirming that illegal immigrants caught using the services of a coyote to sneak across the border could be arrested along with the coyotes for conspiracy to commit human smuggling.

The County Superior Court has upheld the program, Alexander notes:

Judge Thomas O’Toole of Maricopa County Superior Court issued an opinion on June 9, 2006, dismissing defense arguments that federal law preempted the state law, and noting that the states are only preempted from making law where specifically prohibited in federal law. O’Toole cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision De Canas v. Bica (1976), which held that California law penalizing employers for hiring illegal immigrants was not preempted by the exclusive federal law to regulate immigration. The Supreme Court opinion stated, “[This court] has never held that every state enactment which in any way deals with aliens is a regulation of immigration and thus per se preempted by this constitutional power, whether latent or exercised.”

The federal government has not made any law or regulation preempting the states from passing laws regulating human smuggling. Although preemption is an excuse frequently referred to by politicians, it is a red herring used to avoid debate on the merits of enforcing laws against illegal immigration.

Judge O’Toole was equally dismissive of arguments that conspiracy doesn’t apply to the crime of human smuggling. The defense argued that the legislature didn’t intend to apply conspiracy law to the new statute. O’Toole said this wasn’t true, and that the legislative history and plain language of the statute clearly supported application of the conspiracy law.

Defense attorneys and allied groups intend to appeal the decision. I think the county's policy is a very good one, and I hope that it will contine to pass muster as it moves through the courts.

Inspiring Europe (?)

The St. Gallen Symposium in St. Gallen Switzerland brings together university students, global business leaders and scholars in an effort to limn Europe’s future. This year’s program was entitled “Inspiring Europe.” The title has intentional double entendre: Does Europe need inspiration or is Europe a source of inspiration?

Europe today is rich, somewhat complacent, peaceful and, considering its history, remarkably stable. In an historical sense, Europe is an uncontested success.

Yet the Europe that emerged from World War II as a bulwark against communism and as a model of economic recovery is now in a different stage of development.

European spokesmen at this conference readily admitted that the continental economy is lagging and the unfunded liability for prospective retirees is an enormous potential drag on the economy.

Moreover, affluence has bred complacency. It is widely believed that Europeans deserve six week vacations each year and retirement at 55. My suggestion that these conditions are not sustainable was greeted with derision.

There was much discussion about reinventing the continental economy. A spokesman for Bayer, for example, mentioned his belief in “a core business strategy,” but it was difficult to determine whether this was an idiosyncratic example or a systemic recommendation.

The Japanese president of E-Mobile introduced the constrants of reality by noting “99 percent of the electronic products in Switzerland were produced in China.” When asked if there is an alternative, he merely shrugged his shoulders.

Those who assumed the recent Japanese economic recovery has lessons for Europe were also disappointed. Japanese spokesmen noted that social security and employee benefits are not as generous as those in Europe and, as a consequence, do not serve as anti-competitive factors. Moreover, the Japanese put a greater stock in research and development and the resultant innovation than their European counterparts.

Perhaps the most serious oversight at the conference was a seeming unwillingness to consider the rise of radical Islam in European capitals and its chilling effect on economic competitiveness. When I made reference to the totalistic impulses of the jihadists and the rising secularism among Christians, my comment was greeted with blank stares. There appears to be a common belief that this cultural tension will sort itself out with Muslims ultimately integrating into European societies.

This “what me worry?” attitude is, to some degree, understandable. Looking over the horizon to a time when European prosperity cannot be taken for granted is difficult, if not impossible. Even the demographic nightmare of declining populations all over western Europe did not evoke alarm.

When a spokesman from the International Monetary Fund pointed out that Europeans work fewer hours per annum than North Americans and Asians, this was viewed as an indication of superior European work habits rather than uncompetitive productivity rates.

Considering relative satisfaction with the cradle to grave welfare arrangements and a belief in the natural order of social reconciliation, it is hard to understand what Europeans mean by reinvention. As I see it, European societies need inspiration, a catalyst for social reform. But, after all, they are democracies that depend for change on the will of their people.

Surely there are many Europeans who appreciate the anti-competitive impulse of lassitude. Yet they don’t know how to change. Tightly contested elections throughout the continent make it difficult to conceive of consensus for modification in the welfare system. The overhang of social expenditures makes it extremely hard for industries to reduce the price of products or for capital to be raised for innovation.

Is this scenario a dead-end? Is Europe necessarily on the road to marginality?

While the St. Gallen conference didn’t offer immediate answers, history does possess surprises. The resiliency Europe displayed after the war may reemerge. A generation of college educated students is eager to plot a new course for the future and European broadband developments indicate that there are some bright flourishes in a generally gray background.

What we know about Europe today is surely a guide to the next act in continental history, but it isn’t an inevitable guide. Realism dictates skepticism; hope suggests possibility. An inspired Europe needs some of both as a compass for the path ahead.

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.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Your Tax Dollars at Work

AP reports that the GAO has found that a huge amount of the federal tax money spent for victims of last year's hurricanes was misspent, or as we normal people say, stolen:

Houston divorce lawyer Mark Lipkin says he can't recall anyone paying for his services with a FEMA debit card, but congressional investigators say one of his clients did just that.

The $1,000 payment was just one example cited in an audit that concluded that up to $1.4 billion -- perhaps as much as 16 percent of the billions of dollars in assistance expended after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita -- was spent for bogus reasons.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also was hoodwinked to pay for season football tickets, a tropical vacation and a sex change operation, the audit found. Prison inmates, a supposed victim who used a New Orleans cemetery for a home address and a person who spent 70 days at a Hawaiian hotel all were able to get taxpayer help, according to evidence that gives a new black eye to the nation's disaster relief agency.

Some of the thievery was amazingly frivolous and appalling, according to the audit, the
AP story reported:

* An all-inclusive, one-week Caribbean vacation in the Punta Cana resort in the Dominican Republic.

* Five season tickets to New Orleans Saints professional football games.

* Adult erotica products in Houston and "Girls Gone Wild" videos in Santa Monica, Calif.

* Dom Perignon champagne and other alcoholic beverages in San Antonio.

If you are at all surprised at this, I can direct you to some oceanfront land in Alabama you can have for a bargain price.

They ARE Soldiers

In an excellent article in the June 19 issue of the Weekly Standard, Mike Fumento has documented the extraordinary courage, wisdom, decoency, and fortitude of our troops in Iraq. Fumento's article, also available on his website, is particularly valuable in documenting that our current-day soldiers are just as fine as those who fought in World War II, as the latter have been honored by a string of books, movies, television programs, and the like during recent years. Whereas our WWII troops were mostly draftees responding impressively to a situation they did not choose to be in, our current day troops are all volunteers, whose extraordinary courage and self-sacrifice should be h0nored by all, regardless of one's opinion on the merits of the war.

Fumento went to " [t]errorist-infested Ramadi in the wild west of Iraq[,] . . . for U.S. troops the meanest place in the country, 'the graveyard of the Americans' as graffiti around town boast," to live among these soldiers and tell their story. This brings out a tale rather more revealing than most reports from Iraq. As Fumento notes (entirely without rancor),

The Iraq war is covered mostly by reporters who hole up in Baghdad hotels and send out Iraqi stringers to collect what the reporters deem news, as an article in the April 6, 2006, New York Review of Books described in great detail. The reporters convert these accounts into prose and put them on the wire. Except for that all-powerful "Baghdad" dateline, they might just as well be writing from Podunk.

The piece is not a slam against the press, however, but instead an up-close view of the on-ground realities:

[H]ere in this hellhole, I found men who would have made their famous World War II forerunners proud. They are no longer paratroopers but are brave, bold, and elite in every sense of the word. The actions of these men in fighting an enemy less skilled than the Germans yet far more vicious and fanatical tell a story that has remained largely ignored.

Fumento, at some serious risk of his own life and limb, has gone right to the source to report on this story that has indeed been insufficiently reported on. Read it here.

Admissions Revolution?

I'm not unsympathetic to the kinds of worries expressed here about the ways in which colleges and universities conduct their admissions (though my worries are more directed to the ways in which financial considerations play a role). But four things strike me about the article. First, the fact that a few highly selective and already very wealthy liberal arts schools are thinking about changing how they do admissions doesn't seem all that important to me. Because students are more willing to travel across the country and have access to better information about schools, these sorts of colleges, whose incoming classes probably number no more than a thousand (and likely a good bit less), don't have to worry about filling their slots with qualified students. Big state universities don't have that kind of luxury. Second, nowhere does the article mention what I would take to be a big motivator in dropping things like the SAT: finding ways to increase "diversity." That is, these schools are trying to get more black students on campus and they can't do it without watering down entrance requirements or changing them significantly - hence, the drive to get rid of the SAT. Third, I worry significantly about the push to get rid of merit-based scholarships. Maybe because that's how I was able to afford to go to school, I'm a bit sensitive on the point, but if you get rid of or seriously limit merit-based scholarships, what you are doing is pushing middle-class kids out of elite colleges. If your family makes, say, $70,000 a year, you aren't going to get much financial aid (and what you get will be mostly loans). And families that make that kind of money can't afford $30-$40,000 a year schools. Finally, I should say that I think this article is more hope than reality. There is a certain segment of the population that firmly believes that if their child does not attend an elite college or university, they will be severely limited in what they can do with their lives. I've seen parents stress over preschools (even preparing 3-yr old CVs "Participation in Play Circles; Date of Potty Training; Number of Vocabulary Words" - I'm not kidding at all) because which preschool the child gets into determines which elementary school which...determines whether one has a happy and flourishing life. That's not going away.