"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, July 17, 2006

Bill Clinton's Moral Authority

Now it's a politico's job to be political, but when you start invoking morality in service of your politics, our secular polity stands athwart it, yelling, "Stop!"

So, OK. Our own Dr. Ben Zycher of the Cato Institute notes below that Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean invoked former US president Bill Clinton's "moral authority" on the current state of world affairs.

You could look it up. Or, wait, let's save you the trouble:

“If you think what's going on in the Middle East today would be going on if the Democrats were in control, it wouldn't, because we would have worked day after day after day to make sure we didn't get where we are today. We would have had the moral authority that Bill Clinton had when he brought together the Northern Irish and the IRA, when he brought together the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

Bill Clinton, whose amateurish Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (stupidly, and falsely) confessed to all the world to killing a half-million innocent Iraqi women and children in the interest of "containment"?

Lesley Stahl: We have heard that half a million children have died [in Iraq]. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And you know, is the price worth it?"

Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price---we think the price is worth it.

Now, to be fair, the actual figure, according to Reason Magazine's Matt Welch, was probably only in the tens of thousands, or, in other words, somewhat less than the number of innocents lost as "collateral damage" in Mr. Bush's War, which at least has provided a puncher's chance of self-determination and the end of systematized exterminations among the Iraqi people.

Otherwise, if you want to believe that only the creative, brilliant and angelic Bill Clinton created peace in Northern Ireland instead of its people dictating peace because it was sick of war, all I can point to is the Israel-Palestinian question, where Clinton, somewhat to his credit, at the close of his second term got the then-current left-wing government of Israel to offer the closest thing to total Israeli acquiescence to Palestinian demands that was ever likely to be offered.

The Palestinians made no counteroffer. Unlike the people of Northern Ireland, they were, and are not, interested in peace. If they had wanted peace, there would be peace, Bill Clinton or no, just as there would have been peace in Northern Ireland, with or without Bill Clinton.

It would be easy to dis Bill Clinton's moral authority over the sad Monica Lewinsky affair: I thought, and think, that the GOP should not have turned such a failing of the flesh into a political matter.

However, Mr. Clinton's geopolitical record aside from his intervention in Kosovo (and in that apparently admirable military intervention, he might have killed more people than he saved) is checkered at best. If his butcher's bill in Iraq for his sanctions is as bad as it seems, he is morally negligent at least, and at worst, well, the gentle reader has already filled in the blanks.

The DRUDGE REPORT quotes Mr. Clinton as saying in 2002, after his presidency was already receding into the fond memory of at least some Americans:

“The Israelis know that if the Iraqi or the Iranian army came across the Jordan River, I would personally grab a rifle, get in a ditch, and fight and die...”


Well, Saddam Hussein paid rewards to Palestinian suicide bombers who purposely killed Israeli women and children, with no military target in mind and not even the excuse of collateral damage. We chickenhawks never expected you to actually crawl into a ditch to defend Israel against Saddam's Iraq, Mr. Clinton, but we might expect you at least today to endorse the erasing somebody who encouraged and enabled the butchering of Israel's people.

Which you haven't. According to you, the timing of the Iraq invasion wasn't right. It was a "mistake." But I do not know when the timing is right to stand up against the murder of innocents. Now, might be the answer.

Sorry, Mr. Dean, and sorry for your PR for your party. Bill Clinton is indeed the best of your ilk in the past generation of world affairs you have to point to, but his actions unfortunately were at best morally neutral, which is pretty much as high as you guys aim, and you confuse with moral authority.

To preserve civilization, to beat back entropy and chaos, if not genuine evil, neutrality will not be sufficient. You actually think that diplomacy could have placated the implacable murderers of the Party of God?

Mr. Dean, give me a ring. I've got a reality-based community I wanna sell you.


An apology for my extended absence is in order, due, and hereby tendered. Sadly it cannot be accompanied by an assurance of regular participation in the very immediate future. September 6th looks to be the target date for my return to Planet Earth.

This is the result of my allowing myself to be lured once again into retail politics. I have accepted the position of Campaign Manager for Jay Beskin, a candidate for County Commissioner in Miami-Dade County, District 4. There are thirteen commissioners and a mayor whose executive power is exceedingly thin. These folks control the disbursement of an annual budget of 7 billion dollars, larger than 11 States of the Union.

The race is non-partisan, both being Democrats. It also turns out to be non-ethnic in this instance, both being Jews. The issues are multifarious and quite interesting, though largely local in hue.

A story that everyone can understand is the one I have dubbed (playing off the Bridge to Nowhere story in Alaska) the Train to Nowhere. The county decided to run a train in Miami Airport to speed folks from one terminal to another. They promptly shelled out the cash for the train to a company in Japan, but - oops! - the track won't be ready for years.

"Come to find out," as we say down here, trains cannot just sit in warehouses. They rust and become unusable unless taken for periodic rides.

So it is that Miami-Dade County pays $54,000 a month to a company in Japan to take the train on rides around and around the track. They signed a two-year contract, since no one projects completion of the track before that time.

Choo choo! Ka-ching ka-ching!

The election, as you may have divined, will be September 5th. Wish me luck. Unseating an incumbent is no mean task.

Not A Joke

I see that the ineffable Howard Dean now is criticizing the Administration's Middle East peackeeping efforts---for all the wrong reasons, naturally---and is arguing that the Democrats would have far greater success, in part by utilizing the moral authority of... Bill Clinton. I am not making this up. More comic relief from Dr. Dean, worth his weight in gold.

A New Magazine by Christians Skeptical About the Culture

Salvo Magazine is the latest effort by the publishers of Touchstone. Salvo has an intellectual edge, like Touchstone, but is not devotional or necessarily religious at all. It is, however, a wickedly funny indictment of culture with some insightful articles along the way.

I’m telling everyone I can about the magazine because it has exceeded all my expectations. I wrote an article for it and promptly forgot about the project thinking it would be just another throwaway magazine, but Salvo is gorgeously rendered and makes the articles pop right out of the page.

You have to buy the mag or subscribe for four quarterly issues to see it, but I can assure you that the fake ads are worth the price of admission alone. Bobby Maddex has really accomplished something as editor of this magazine and I encourage everyone who wants to see more of these efforts to support it by subscribing for the first year.

President Newt

I listened to Newt Gingrich on a radio news program (not a conservative talk show, but plain news) discussing the current situation involving Israel and Syria last night. What struck me about him was that he speaks from a clear conservative viewpoint without sounding apologetic at all and comes off smart as a whip. This is a guy who is comfortable speaking without notes because he absolutely knows his stuff. He is a scholar and a hard-nosed politico, which is a combination one does not easily find, particularly in the GOP ranks. Perhaps most importantly, he has and has always had vision.

Conclusion: I think we have to seriously consider supporting this guy for the White House in 2008. He is probably the best of the best. Of course, supporting Newt would be uncomfortable for conservatives because he has clearly had sexual indiscretions and we don’t like those. I think if he can successfully deal with that issue via candor and repentance, then we may have something with Mr. Gingrich.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Open Letter from an Aspiring Democratic Party Voter

Dear Sirs and Madams In Charge:

You might have noticed that there's been a recent flare-up of violence on and from the borders of the state of Israel. I've noted many of you voicing some concern. Good on ya, mates.

Now, it's become a matter of faith among you that Bush Lies. I would not presume to interfere with anyone's faith. However, there's a whole non-governmental world of information out there for the serious consumer of democracy.

Looking for it is every citizen's duty, not to mention every congressmember's. If you don't, then shut up, and for godsakes, don't vote.

And if the Democratic Party can actually separate itself from the world left, which is entirely hostile to Israel and unwilling to face up to Islamism, then I could actually vote Democrat sometime soon.

But the left, and the (D) party itself, has been MIA in world affairs since Lyndon Johnson concocted that whole Vietnam thing. They have freed not a single soul from murder and tyranny, with the exception of Bill Clinton going into Kosovo (which was a cool thing, and done without the approval of that friend-of-tyrants the UN, I might add). Meanwhile, since Vietnam, it's been the (formerly isolationist) American right, aided by the alternately conservative and center-left UK and several other cool countries, that has been instrumental in freeing tens if not hundreds of millions.

My Dear (D)'s:

Are you leftists or are you members of the Democratic Party of Woodrow Wilson, Frankin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Jack Kennedy? Because I honestly don't know anymore.

The left sat out the last quarter of the 20th century in the fight against tyranny and was always pretty useless except for helping to install collectivist tyrannies over autocratic ones. But before that, the Democratic Party of these here United States was freedom's fiercest warrior. I think what Peter Beinart's been trying to say is that the Democratic Party could lead the entire world against tyranny and murder, as it proudly did once, because the world left would lose its ideological and partisan excuses for its own impotence.

But first you gotta get real. 9-11 was in 2001. None of this is about Bush or even Iraq. It's not even about Israel. The Sudanese genocide is Islamicist-based. The largest non-Western democracy in the world is India, and they suffer deeply at its hands as well, as y'all might have noticed the other day. And the Norks are a threat to world peace only as far as they help these guys.

Ignore what the Bushies say. Read up on your own. Pick up a Qur'an. Find out who Sayyid Qutb was. Find the backstory on the siege of Vienna. Join the real reality-based community. I'm starting to think Beinart's right, and it's why I object to the prevailing argument that all the left has the power to do is whine about Gitmo and the privacy rights of phone calls. Not that we don't need moral watchdogs, but what I'm hoping is that the claims are true that the Democratic Party (and liberalism) are not synonymous with "the left," which is by its own account capable only of protest, not action.

Until you advocate some action, any action, to liberate human beings from murder and tyranny, I must continue to vote for the other side. But it could be Beinart's right and that y'all are the only ones who can do what needs to be done, if only with well-chosen, sincere, and passionate words. The world, mankind, and civilization need you right now, today. There are millions of lives at stake here, and you can be the difference. You are called now not to "goodness," but greatness.

If you accept that call, I will vote for you. Promise.


I was in a hospital waiting room yesterday listening (unavoidably so because of volume) to a few women discussing the difficulty of having borne children prior to marriage to men who promised they'd marry them and then disappeared. All in all, highly confirmatory of my own views on the subject, particularly since these ladies talked about how they wished they could take it all back and do it differently, withholding sex until a family had been legally formed.

Despite my ideological agreement with what they were saying, I was a little disturbed by the exceedingly frank tone of their conversation. The talk got fairly graphic at a few points, which doesn't bother me too much, but I kept wondering how some of the older folks felt about it. There was a time when you simply wouldn't have talked that way around strangers and I think it might be better to regress to that point.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


I see that the Soviets, oops, Russians and others are condemning the "disproportionate" nature of the Israeli response to the Hamas/Hizballah/Lebanese/Syrian/Iranian acts of war.

That raises the obvious question: Disproportionate to precisely what? If it is disproportion to the narrow acts themselves, taken out of the larger context, well, maybe and maybe not. But is the Israeli response disproportionate to the need for long-term deterrence of Arab terror? I think not; indeed, it is too mild by far, so far.

Does the World Really Need Superman Returns?

Having cleared the decks of a few things, I finally got around to seeing Superman Returns. It's reasonably entertaining and worth seeing. What I found most interesting about it was how much Christ imagery and other references to Christ there were in the film. Certainly, the presence of Christ references in the Superman saga is nothing new, although that was an aspect of the story that was not emphasized in Superman: The Movie, Superman II, and the two dreadful sequels that everyone would prefer to forget. In Superman Returns, the Christ imagery returns as well and is greatly emphasized.

I won't bore you with countless examples, as anyone watching the film with any attention at all will ascertain many such, but I will observe that the central question of the film, "Does the world really need Superman?" is presented as a newspaper story, in a way quite deliberately reminiscent of the famous Time magazine "God Is Dead" cover story of the 1960s. Lois Lane, the jaded author of the Pulitzer-winning story titled "Does the world really need Superman?", talks to the hero about that very question, giving the answer she gave in the story, and interestingly phrasing it as, "The world doesn't need a savior."

In answer, Superman slowly ascends with her into the heavens and looks down on the world below, listening to the arguments, worries, and anguished cries of the multitudes of people below. (This moment gains further power from its resemblance to the scene in Bruce Almighty when Bruce hears millions of people's prayers simultaneously.) Superman looks at Lois and says, "You wrote that the world doesn't need a saviour, but every day I hear people crying for one."

Of course, the film is no allegory, and Superman is no precise Christ figure. He apparently has had an affair with Lois in the past and fathered a son with her, and he requires help from humans in order to avert his own death in the film. However, such differences are what make the Superman mythos more interesting and rich in its implications.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Shameless Self-Promotion

June 30 was the 100th anniversary of the Food and Drug Administration, and in celebration the Manhattan Institute put together several essays looking forward to another century of Beltway food and drug meddling. The five authors are, with one glaring exception, exceptional. Click here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Teaching vs. Scholarship

Stuart Buck points out that the traditional view of teaching v. scholarship (that good scholars make for good teachers) is likely not true (or likely not often true) but that teaching might make for better scholarship:

No matter how intensely you study a particular subject, if time goes by without regular review, it's easy for the details to slip from your memory. But teaching a course inherently requires regular review -- not just of your own scholarship on a given subject, but of everything else that is relevant to that subject. If you're going to stand in front of a group of people and explain a particular legal subject, you have to know the ins and outs of all the important cases/statutes/commentary. It's not enough to know this stuff "on paper" -- you have to know it stone cold, so that you can answer practically any question that students might throw your way.

What's more, you have to know the subject well enough to explain it to beginners. I think that this requires more in-depth knowledge than merely being able to converse with other "experts." When you're talking to beginners, you have to understand the topic well enough to boil it down to the basics. You can't get away with casually genuflecting in the direction of some abstraction on the assumption that everyone else will know what you're talking about.

I think there's something to this. At least for political theory (my field), the best scholars are those who can work their way through a problem and bring to bear a wide range of analytical tools and concepts. There's a place, of course, for the detailed study of what Locke thought about parental relationships, but if you're trying to think about how we ought to understand (and capture in law) such relationships, you're better off if you can draw from a wider range of thinkers and histories. Scholars who teach widely seem to me more likely to do that.

That said, it's still worth noting that when research universities have great teachers it's because they want to be great teachers, not because there's any particular incentive in that direction. For most, teaching is something they "get through" in order to do their "work" (i.e. research and writing). Most try to find ways to minimize the amount of work they have to do for the classes (Ever had a course where the students were doing presentations the last four weeks?) and the better scholars get rewarded by having to teach fewer classes. Until the incentives change, teaching will always be a sidelight, not the main event, at research schools.

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

Meh. The Sun God thing, 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 far enough. 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 and Crackle (Breakfast God)
--Tinker to Evers to Chance (Teamwork God)
--Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle (The Writer, The Song and The One Who Played Bass God)
--Life, Liberty and 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)

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
. Not only a Good God, but 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.