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.

Decorum

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

Proportionality

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.