Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.—Churchill

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

72 Hours Left to Vote in Writing Competition

As a person with hundreds of friends and thousands of readers, I am startled by the fact I only have 49 votes recorded so far for my entry in Simon and Schuster's First Chapters book competition. And the deadline for voting on my submission is Feb. 2 at 6 p.m. Eastern time.

The competition, billed as the American Idol of publishing, is structured as follows. Chapter 1 of your book is put up for 14 days. Readers vote by rating it 1 to 10, 10 being highest.

The top twenty rated pieces will go to Round 2 beginning April 1. You will put up Chapter 2 for 14 days.

The top five go to Round 3 and put up Chapter 3. One of the five wins and gets a book contract from Simon & Schuster.

My novel is entitled The Life and Times of Pfc. Ernest Taylor. Chapter 1 has been up for 11 days already, so we are down to the last 72 hours. I invite all my friends and readers to read and vote. Here is how:

1) Go to
2) Sign in or register now to get a user name.
3) Using the user name, go back to the Home page.
4) Where it says Search Articles at top of page, type Ernest Taylor, then Enter.
5) Click on The Life and Times of Pfc. Ernest Taylor and read Chapter One (not long).
6) Vote by rating it 1 to 10, 10 being the highest. (You rate by clicking the star next to the appropriate number.) Leave a comment if you are so inclined.

Thank you for participating. Obviously I am not asking anyone to color their views, but it is common sense that friends and readers of mine should be engaged in the process. Thanks again.

Left-Wing Talk Radio Is as Popular as Ever!

As AP reports, a wealthy leftist sugar daddy has come to the rescue of beleaguered, bankrupt radio network Air America:

Air America Radio, a liberal talk radio network, said Monday that it had reached a tentative agreement to be sold to the founder of a New York area real estate company. The network also said that Al Franken, its longtime headline personality, would depart next month.

The agreement with Stephen Green, the founder and chairman of SL Green Realty Corp., appears to rescue the struggling network, which has been seeking a buyer since last fall when it filed for bankruptcy reorganization after reaching an impasse with one of its creditors.

Any sale would have to be approved by the bankruptcy court. The company has signed what is called a letter of intent to sell itself to Green and expects to agree on financial terms soon, Air America spokeswoman Jaime Horn said.

I love that description of Air America as "a liberal talk radio network," as if it were one of many such.

Stephen Green is a brother of Mark Green, a particularly obnoxious leftist political commentator and landslide failure in a run for mayor of New York City several years ago.

The rumor is that Franken is leaving to make a run for a U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota.

The network has been in disarray from the beginning, both on the air and behind the scenes. Although the founders had what appears to have been a reasonable, achievable goal, the venture never took off and failed to develop a following. Many reasons have been suggested as to why this was so—and this analyst has contributed in the past here and elsewhere—but it appears to me that the main reason for the network's failure was that nobody wanted it.

I rather doubt that the change of ownership will alter that market reality. The only way for Air America to survive will be to change. Real change at the net, however, hardly seems likely.

From Karnick on Culture.

The Pursuit of Happyness—Review

It's not often that Hollywood depicts stockbrokers positively. That's only one of several nice surprises in The Pursuit of Happyness, a light drama based on a true story and starring Will Smith in a modern-day Horatio Alger tale.

Alger's popular stories were all about the value of hard work. The Pursuit of Happyness includes plenty of hard work on the part of the protagonist, but we live in an investment society today, so in this film the emphasis is on the value of the investments—of time, talent, and money—the various characters make.

The way he does so is through applying the film's central theme: investment. Smith plays Chris Gardner, a floundering medical-device salesman in early 1980s San Francisco. Gardner, heading fast toward middle age, with grey in his hair, wants to make it in life—he is pursuing happiness rigorously—but has flopped at his work and failed in his marriage. He's a decidedly poor provider, and the friction caused by the family's economically dire situation results in his wife leaving him and moving across the country.

Left alone with his five-year-old son, Gardner takes an internship at a big brokerage firm in hopes of getting that one big break.

The problem is that the internship doesn't pay a salary, and he has virtually no money at all. All he has is several hard-to-sell bone-density scanners, in which he invested all of his savings—unwisely, it turns out, as the machines aren't very good and are consequently difficult to sell.

It is clear, however, that he is an enormously intelligent individual; he simply hasn't invested his talents well. After his wife leaves, his situation becomes even worse, as her steady income as a nurse is no longer there to tide the family over the economic rough spots.

And rough spots there are indeed, as President Reagan and his team struggle to fix the economy after the depredations of Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Chris works diligently at the brokerage firm, having to do in six hours what the others have nine to do: he cannot work full days because he has to pick up his son after school and get in line at the homeless center lest he not get a room. As it happens, he and his son even have to sleep in a public restroom one night.

But Chris redoubles his efforts to sell the machines, and somehow he is now able to do so. Here too the theme is investment, as the machines Chris sells are investments in medical practices. Hence, as he spends his weekdays learning about the meaning of investment, we surmise that he is now better able to speak to the sales prospects about how the machine will pay off for them.

The film doesn't dwell on how Chris got to be in the poor situation he was in at the beginning of the story, but clearly he didn't use his gifts as well as he might have. Instead of continuing to work steadily and save a little each week, he went for the big time with the medical devices, but obviously hadn't invested enough time in research before deciding to plunge all of his family's savings into it. Otherwise, he would have known, as is revealed early in the film, that the devices are really unnecessary.

His wife has invested much in her marriage to him, but she decides to cut her losses and leave. The rest of the film will tell us whether her investment would have paid off, anc consequently whether she should have remained with him (beyond, of course, our opinions regarding divorce in general).

At the brokerage firm, only one of the twenty interns will get a job after the six-month trial, so this too might seem a bad investment. But Chris is so smart and so much more mature, motivated, and diligent than the others that one suspects he might just have a chance. Hence it's not so much a gamble as an investment—one that might not pay off, but certainly one well worth making.

His work at the brokerage firm, of course, is all about investments as well. And it's interesting how Chris makes his sales pitch: he talks exclusively about the individual being able to make the most of their resources and retire well, etc.

But most important of all to Chris is his son, Christopher, played by Smith's real-life son Jaden Smith. Despite several instances in which circumstances are conspiring to take the boy away—especially when Chris's wife leaves him—Chris won't let the boy go. He invests everything he can in him, playing little learning-games with him as they walk the streets or ride subway trains. This is an investment too, and it is an investment entirely of love.

Of course, investments don't always pay off, but as Chris learns, no one can guarantee happiness; having a chance at the pursuit of happiness is enough. And in Chris's case, it is.


From Karnick on Culture.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Is Rudy a Conservative?

In a very interesting City Journal article, Steven Malanga argues that "Yes, Rudy Guiliani Is a Conservative/And an electable one at that."

Malanga makes a strong case for Rudy as a Reagan-style conservative. He recounts well Giuliani's record as mayor of New York City, in which, as Malanga establishes firmly, Rudy supported free markets and individual responsibility, as exemplified vividly in his tax cuts , welfare reform success, "zero tolerance" crimefighting, and firm rejection of racial politics.

As Malanga notes, Giuliani did this in what was one of the most leftist cities in the United States until he became mayor.

There's no question in my mind that Giuliani was a superb mayor and is a solid man of the right in most of his public stances. What many conservatives question, of course, is his record on social issues (such as support for legality of abortions, homosexual marriage, and gun control) and his occasionally unsteady personal life (such as his divorce from his somewhat eccentric wife).

None of this, Malanga argues, should preclude conservatives from supporting Giuliani for President:

[I]n a GOP presidential field in which cultural and religious conservatives may find something to object to in every candidate who could really get nominated (and, more important, elected), Giuliani may be the most conservative candidate on a wide range of issues. Far from being a liberal, he ran New York with a conservative’s priorities: government exists above all to keep people safe in their homes and in the streets, he said, not to redistribute income, run a welfare state, or perform social engineering. The private economy, not government, creates opportunity, he argued; government should just deliver basic services well and then get out of the private sector’s way. He denied that cities and their citizens were victims of vast forces outside their control, and he urged New Yorkers to take personal responsibility for their lives. “Over the last century, millions of people from all over the world have come to New York City,” Giuliani once observed. “They didn’t come here to be taken care of and to be dependent on city government. They came here for the freedom to take care of themselves.” It was that spirit of opportunity and can-do-ism that Giuliani tried to re-instill in New York and that he himself exemplified not only in the hours and weeks after 9/11 but in his heroic and successful effort to bring a dying city back to life.

Malanga's argument against conservative rejection of Giuliani is twofold. Point one is that the social issues are not as important as the economic and national defense policies which are Giuliani's great strength. Point two is that Giuliani is conservative in the really important ways:

As part of Giuliani’s quintessentially conservative belief that dysfunctional behavior, not our economic system, lay at the heart of intergenerational poverty, he also spoke out against illegitimacy and the rise of fatherless families. A child born out of wedlock, he observed in one speech, was three times more likely to wind up on welfare than a child from a two-parent family. “Seventy percent of long-term prisoners and 75 percent of adolescents charged with murder grew up without fathers,” Giuliani told the city. He insisted that the city and the nation had to reestablish the “responsibility that accompanies bringing a child into the world,” and to that end he required deadbeat fathers either to find a private-sector job or to work in the city’s workfare program as a way of contributing to their child’s upbringing. But he added that changing society’s attitude toward marriage was more important than anything government could do: “[I]f you wanted a social program that would really save these kids, . . . I guess the social program would be called fatherhood.”

As a consequence of his rejection of the time-honored New York liberal belief in congenital black victimhood, Giuliani set out to change the city’s conversation about race. He objected to affirmative action, ending Gotham’s set-aside program for minority contractors, and he rejected the idea of lowering standards for minorities. Accordingly, he ended open enrollment at the City University of New York, a 1970s policy aimed at increasing the minority population at the nation’s third-largest public college system but one that also led to a steep decline in standards and in graduation rates.

This is a strong and important argument, and it will be good for the right to argue this one out.

Later in the article, Malanga makes the case that Giuliani is an important enough figure to merit presidential consideration:

The national, and even world, press marveled at the spectacular success of Giuliani’s policies. The combination of a safer city and a better budget environment ignited an economic boom unlike any other on record. Construction permits increased by more than 50 percent, to 70,000 a year under Giuliani, compared with just 46,000 in Dinkins’s last year. Meanwhile, as crime plunged, New Yorkers took to the newly safe streets to go out at night to shows and restaurants, and the number of tourists soared from 24 million in the early 1990s to 38 million in 2000, the year before the 9/11 attacks. Under Giuliani, the city gained some 430,000 new jobs to reach its all-time employment peak of 3.72 million jobs in 2000, while the unemployment rate plummeted from 10.3 to 5.1 percent. Personal income earned by New Yorkers, meanwhile, soared by $100 million, or 50 percent, while the percentage of their income that they paid in taxes declined from 8.8 to 7.3 percent. During Giuliani’s second term, for virtually the only time since World War II, the city’s economy consistently grew faster than the nation’s.

Today, Americans see Giuliani as presidential material because of his leadership in the wake of the terrorist attacks, but to those of us who watched him first manage America’s biggest city when it was crime-ridden, financially shaky, and plagued by doubts about its future as employers and educated and prosperous residents fled in droves, Giuliani’s leadership on 9/11 came as no surprise. What Americans saw after the attacks is a combination of attributes that Giuliani governed with all along: the tough-mindedness that had gotten him through earlier civic crises, a no-nonsense and efficient management style, and a clarity and directness of speech that made plain what he thought needed to be done and how he would do it.

Like great wartime leaders, Giuliani displayed unflinching courage on 9/11. A minute after the first plane struck, he rushed downtown, arriving at the World Trade Center just after the second plane hit the South Tower, when it became obvious to everyone that New York was under attack. Fearing that more strikes were on the way—and without access to City Hall, the police department, or the city’s command center because of damage from the attacks—Giuliani hurried to reestablish city government, narrowly escaping death himself as the towers came down next to a temporary command post he had set up in lower Manhattan. “There is no playbook for a mayor on how to organize city government when you are standing on a street covered by dust from the city’s worst calamity,” one of his deputy mayors, Anthony Coles, later observed.

This is all true, and I think that Malanga is right to conclude that Rudy Giuliani merits serious consideration as a presidential candidate.

In addition to that, I think that the discussion of Giuliani's qualifications for national leadership could be very salutary for the right. Those who define themselves as conservatives find it hard to support someone with Guiliiani's record on social issues.

As a liberal of the right, I too disagree with Guiliani's positions supporting abortion, gay marriage, and the like. However, I think that Guiliani would have to move a little to the right on these issues in order to secure the Republican nomination, and that as president he would not be any less supportive of the Right's social agenda than Ronald Reagan was as president.

Guiliani reminds me rather strongly of Reagan, in fact. Although Reagan talked the talk on social issues, he didn't really walk the walk, unless I wasn't looking when Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Casey voted to turn back Roe v. Wade in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision. Similarly, Reagan had been divorced and had a rather less than perfectly salubrious family life. But on the big things Reagan was the best president of the past century.

If Rudy Guiliani could be half that good, that would make hiim a superior president indeed. His candidacy merits serious consideration.

From Karnick on Culture.

Friday, January 26, 2007

I Like(d) Bill Richardson

Of all the Democrats in the mix for 2008, I've been best with Bill Richardson. Currently governor of New Mexico, a former congressman, ambassador to the UN, and executive branch experience, too, as Secretary of Energy.

The depth and breadth of his resume, his curriculum vitae, is without equal in the Class of '08 from either party, hands down.

Latino, too, which would be A-OK for this fractured USA. I'd never vote for crappy cake for the sake of diversity, but all things being equal, I could be influenced by the icing or even the cherry on top.

But Richardson let me down bigtime in this interview (and kudos to the Los Angeles Times for asking the unaskable question):

LAT: The can't-be-any-worse argument was also very popular in 1975 in Vietnam, and Cambodians found out that it could actually get quite a good deal worse. Is that something that worries you? What do you build into that process?

Richardson: Yeah. It worries me, but how worse can it get?

Anyone who thinks things can't get any worse has no imagination. Gov./Amb./Sec./Rep. Richardson must know that's so, but has given himself over to the cynicism, despair and hopelessness of our age and its chattering class.

We shall need more from our next president.

A Little Perspective on Death

Rush had an interesting experiment on his show today related to the number of deaths in Iraq last year. He pointed out that a response to the question of how many American military deaths there were last year would indicate whether someone has been brainwashed by the MSM. I guessed around 500. The actual number was around 800. If someone came up with a larger number or a much larger number, you can bet they get all or much of their information about the war from the MSM.

He also points out something that I’m sure will turn liberals apoplectic. Why are we making such a huge deal of 3000 deaths in a war, when 40,000 people a year die in motor vehicles, or 7000 a year die from botched prescriptions. You get the idea. I can imagine liberals hearing that throwing their radios against a wall to smash it, and by extension, Rush, into a thousand little pieces.

As I was listening I came up with my own little thought experiment. Literally every day in the MSM we hear, see or read of American military deaths or bombs and destruction in Iraq. We are beaten over the head with it day after day after day after day. Imagine if every car or truck or motorcycle accident were national news every day, with pictures, video, audio, interviews, you name it. Broken down by day that would be approximately 110 accidents a day. Carnage and human suffering on that scale is really hard to fathom. If we were beat over the head with this day after day after day after day, how long before that price we pay for our freedom to travel would no longer be tolerated.

Being in the military in Iraq is relatively safe compared to any other war in history. In the almost four years 3,000 precious lives have been lost in Iraq at least 160,000 also precious lives have been lost on American highways. I agree with Rush that a little bit of perspective is in order.

Lit'ry matters

* U.S. southern novelist Walker Percy was a medical doctor.

* Longfellow is the most put to music of English-language poets.

(Items from Times [of London] Literary Supplement, hereafter TLS)

* The idiosyncrasy of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry may be explained by the “constraint” of Jesuit life.  Toeing the line in all else, he broke out in his verse.  (You could say he sprang out with his rhythm.)  Indeed, the tension he experienced — conflict between vocation and creativity — may have been productive.  (Simon Humphries, “A Eunuch for God,” TLS 12/22&29/06)

* In Honor: a History (Encounter), James Bowman (no relation) displays “a propensity to be judgemental and didactic.”  (Ditto Harvey C. Mansfield in Manliness [Yale].)  Thus reviewer George Feaver, retired poly sci prof at U. of British Columbia and this year at UT-Austin, who was left with “nagging suspicions” about Bowman’s judgment of U.S. military decisions, having read to the end of his “dense, discursive account of the alleged ‘decline and fall’ of Western honour.”

In this and other matters, Bowman offers a “gloomy reading” of history, “overly selective” in Feaver’s view, as in its ignoring the civil rights revolution of the ‘60s and “real-life heroes” such as Martin Luther King and the New York firefighters on 9/11.  Feaver closes with commendation of both books, “despite their shortcomings [for reminding us] of the importance of remembering the past, and standing up for beliefs central to the achievement of our civilization.” (“Limp Responses,” TLS 12/22&29/06)

* Reviewing Patrick Wyse Jackson’s The Chronologer’s Quest: The Search for the Age of the Earth (Cambridge), John North says J. has “useful things to say,” albeit with “a weakness for discursive irrelevance.” 

Whether J. displayed this weakness or not, I do not know, nor do I know if other reviewers’ comments are well-aimed, but I do find that phrase helpful.  May writing teachers and editors everywhere hold discursive irrelevance to be a weakness not a strength. (TLS 1/12/07)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

What's the Worst That Could Happen Anyway?

For the record, this famous photo isn't of the US embassy in Saigon, but of an apartment house where CIA types lived. They took as many of their Vietnamese allies with them as they could, but that wasn't many. What happened to the rest, we can only guess, but an informed guess isn't pretty.

Now, it's getting to be our perception that there are no good guys left among the Iraqis, so when we leave and our putative co-workers for peace and freedom are slaughtered, we shouldn't feel too bad about it.

Besides, the United States has a history of this sort of thing:

---In 1956, encouraged by John Foster Dulles, not to mention President Eisenhower and Radio Free Europe, the people of Hungary revolt against their Soviet masters. The CCCP's tanks roll in, 4000 die, and the US does nothing.

---In 1961, John F. Kennedy and the CIA send a band of Cuban exiles onto the beach of the Bay of Pigs to reverse Fidel Castro's revolution. Kennedy gets cold feet, the exiles are left on the beach, and they either die on the spot, get shipped off to Castro's prisons or are simply executed.

---American troops had actually been withdrawn from Vietnam by 1973. "Vietnamization," the people defending themselves, was actually a success for 2 years at least. It was the US Congress' (to this day inexplicable, except that we got bored and tired) cutoff of funds to South Vietnam that led to the events in the above photo in 1975. Then boat people, re-education camps, death.

---In 1979, Jimmy Carter not only withdrew support from the Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Carter threw him over the cliff, to the shock and awe of the West, including even France. The Shah was not only a US ally, he helped out in defeating Hitler back in the day. You could look it up.

Not only did Carter withdraw US military and political support, and forbid the Shah's forces from confronting his Khomeneist enemies, but the leftists who went along in the name of freedom got slaughtered by the new Islamicist regime, and you could look that one up, too.

---In 1991, the Bush41 administration gave nods, winks, and open encouragement to an uprising against the same Saddam Hussein whom the First Gulf War had left in place. The people rose up, the US did nothing, and slaughter ensued.

---We might also add that Ronald Reagan put US troops into Lebanon in 1983, 241 US troops got killed in a bombing, and the US withdrew 4 months later. Hezbollah, whether responsible or not, takes fortification to this day that they defeated the United States, and particularly Reagan, who is otherwise reputed to have never lost a tussle. And Bill Clinton sent a skeleton crew of US Army Rangers into Somalia in 1993, they were killed, and we promptly quit the country. Osama bin Laden crowed about our defeat and withdrawal often as a sign of our weakness, and the movie Black Hawk Down became one of Saddam's favorite flicks.

But never mind that last bit. The US quits all the time and leaves allies and other good people out to dry, so why not bail this time, too? It's in our character. I'm bored and tired with Iraq, who isn't, and what's one more betrayed ally among friends, or to our enemies?

Bin Laden is a student of history, and so is the entire Muslim world. They sussed out the paper tiger long ago, and that's what makes Islamism go. Their faith tells them that Islam must someday become the way of the world, but that could be in a 1000 or 10,000 years, sort of like Christianity's prophesized Second Coming Of Jesus. But the fecklessness of the west tells the Muslim world that that day, the end of times, might be right frigging now.

But, hey, the United States survived all those other regretful embraces of realpolitik, so one more won't make any difference, right? We still have our toasters and our TVs and our steel-belted radials, after all, so why should we say anything? Surely we can survive one more betrayal in the name of realism.

Iraq is boring, let's face it. To those Iraqis who actually believed we were liberating you and would get your back as you risked your lives for peace, freedom and human decency, sorry, you're on your own. You screwed up---you trusted us. You should have known who and what we are. Bin Laden understands us, far better than we do ourselves.

Bush’s State of the Union

I must confess that I had no desire to watch the president’s State of the Union address this evening. I am sick of hearing the carping and slamming of this man who has done noble work on the state of our union. Is he perfect? Has he done everything right? Of course not, but he is a man of conviction who has gotten an awful lot right, despite what his critics have claimed since he took office. One would think in light of the pressure and constant drip of negative that he would be bedraggled or show some of the wear and tear of the office. He has not.

I was impressed by his conviction that the war on terror, and in Iraq, is something we cannot simply turn away from and wish away. As he stated:

This war is more than a clash of arms -- it is a decisive ideological struggle, and the security of our nation is in the balance.

I am reminded of other statesmen in history who spoke truth about great ideological struggles and faced ridicule, including Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan. The pacifists and isolationists were wrong then and they are wrong now. Thank God there are leaders of conviction who understand that leadership is not about following polls, but about standing on conviction. President Bush is one of those, and I believe history will prove him out.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Free Lunch Party

Well, the beginning of the new Democrat congress, waggishly dubbed the 100 Hours of Terror and Irrelevance, is over. They started late because nobody can be expected to legislate on the Monday of the college football title game, and ended 14 days later, which adds up to 100 hours more or less. Most of us probably didn't even know the clock ran out, so I'm happy to be the bearer of good news. The accomplishments were considerable, and totally in character:

---Other people's money was given away, in this case a hike in the minimum wage. As Shaw noted, a government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul. The Democrats gave Paul a raise. Peter was unavailable for comment, but there's not as many of him, so who cares?

---National security was ensured by declaring war (finally!) on the real enemy, those evil cargo containers. We can now bring the troops home and disband the military.

---Oil companies lost tax breaks that are available to most other US industries because, well, just because. Because oil is stinky and so are the cigars of rich, overpaid oil company executives.

With the money saved, we'll do more research on alternative energy sources. Seems you can put sunlight in one end of a black box and out the other comes cheap, unstinky and beautiful electricity. Is that cool or what?

---The taxpayers will also fund more scrambled eggs, in this case human ones, and in this case fertilized ones, in the form of more and better stem cell research. So far, embryonic stem cell therapy has proven invaluable in growing brain tumors, although, admittedly, not much else. But more money should result in even more and better brain tumors, so this one sounds like a winner, too.

---College students will get lower rates on student loans from the government, cut in half from the present 7% or so. The government will also jawbone lower prices from Big Pharma for Medicare-covered drugs. Students and old folks get a better deal, and absolutely nobody has to pay for either of these decreases, which is the really great part. You pass a law, things get better.

Republicans make things so complicated sometimes.

Bush Dodges Hurricane

Compliments of the Chicago Bears' 39-14 triumph on Sunday, the New Orleans Saints won't be going to the Super Bowl after all. The president and the nation will be spared two weeks of 24/7 reports on how the administration screwed up on Katrina, and instead SuperHype™ will be the usual stuff on how somebody got raised by their grandmother or that the 4th-string wide receiver was working as a chicken castrator until a month ago.

The president hasn't had a lot of luck lately, but this was his biggest win of the season. Win or lose, Da Bears should get an invite to the White House.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

"The Curse of the Golden Flower" and Two Ideas of Tragedy

Director Zhang Yimou and Chow Yun-Fat on the set of Sony Pictures Classics' Curse of the Golden Flower - 2006The Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang Yimou's latest film to be released in America, is a brilliant motion picture that interestingly exemplifies important differences between East and West.

Following on the heels of two superb, epic dramas released in the United States in 2004—Hero (Ying xiong) and House of Flying Daggers—the Chinese director manages to top those films. The Curse of the Golden Flower is even more visually gorgeous than its recent predecessors, which is saying a lot. Zhang has been making brilliant, critically acclaimed films since his 1987 debut with Red Sorghum.

In Curse, the visual themes are even more cohesive than in the beautifully photographed Hero and Flying Daggers. Red and gold dominate, and the symbolism is carried through thematically, with red characteristically representing blood and life, and gold suggesting both riches and the power and beauty of nature, in its evocation of the sun. Black intrudes as the specter of death. Though these visual cues are truisms nearly to the point of being cliched, Zhang's intelligent use of them, and the astounding beauty of the compositions, enable the visuals to add meaning to the narrative without being annoyingly assertive about it.

As in Zhang's other recent dramas, the interiors of buildings are puzzling mazes, in which the viewer often becomes as lost in the architecture as the characters are in the complex plot.

The plot is indeed complex but told with great clarity and coherence. Gong Li plays Empress Phoenix, who is being slowly poisoned by her husband, the Emperor Ping, played by Chow Yun-Fat. Phoenix is aware of the poisoning but cannot openly disobey the emperor and must continue to take her deadly daily dose of fungus-laced medicine. However, she is plotting to take the kingdom away by conspiring with her elder son, the emperor's second son. (He has a son by a previous wife who is identified later in the film.) On the night of the Chrysanthemum Festival, an army of ten thousand will storm the palace under the command of Prince Jay.

Of course, things don't work out as planned, and the plot twists are truly Shakespearean in character, with the tawdriness of the characters' schemes making a great contrast with the grandeur of the settings and the importance of the events to the empire's future.

And there's the rub. In the end—without giving away any plot secrets—much happens, but nothing changes. And that is so very Eastern, with the cyclical sense of history common in the East. Ultimately, nothing changes. Yin and yang go out of balance, and in the end, they are back in balance. But that is all. Things don't get appreciably better for anybody, and the great irony of The Curse of the Golden Flower is that after all the effort to change who will sit on the throne, none of it changes anything—and, more importantly, it's clear that things wouldn't be noticeably different in the realm if Prince Jay had the throne. The individuals' loves, hatreds, and ambitions put things out of balance, and once the conflicts are resolved, balance is restored. But that's all.

American critics seem to sense this but not understand it at all. For example, Boston Globe critic Wesley Morris claims, "once it's all over, 'Golden Flower,' like 'Hero' and 'Flying Daggers,' leaves a flat taste." Other critics have had the same complaint.

But it's only a flat taste if you're expecting a Chinese director to make Western-style dramas. Which is, of course, a silly thing to ask.

Things are very different in Western drama of the past two millenia. One could surely argue that Greek tragedies exhibit a cyclical sense of history, driven as they are by the idea of fate. In the Christian era, however, Western tragedies have often been driven by a sense of progress. In Shakespeare, for example, there is frequently a great sense of a malign presence being driven out of society. By the end of Hamlet, for example, the stage is littered with the corpses of schemers, miscreants, the indecisive, and the weak, yet the playwright conveys a powerful sense of optimism about the future for the Danish kingdom. At the end of Macbeth, both tyrant and his evil muse are gone. The same is often true of the history plays.

In contemporary times, consider former Hong Kong and now American director John Woo, whose films tend to reflect a belief in the possibility (indeed the necessity) of personal and social transformation. (One of his Hong King films is even named A Better Tomorrow in English translation.) Woo, though born and raised in Hong Kong, was educated in a conservative Lutheran missionary school. His ideas are thus quite Western.

The Curse of the Golden Flower comes from a very different tradition. As in Hamlet, the stage is littered with corpses at the end, but the vision for the future is altogether different. Understanding that difference makes the film a richer and more rewarding experience.

From Karnick on Culture.

Friday, January 19, 2007

American Muslims' Protests of Fox TV Show "24" Are Misdirected

American Muslim groups have protested to Fox Television for the use of Muslims as terrorists on the Fox TV program 24, CNN reports:

Two years ago, Muslim groups protested when the plot of the hit Fox drama '24' cast Islamic terrorists as the villains who launched a stolen nuclear missile in an attack on America.

Now, after a one-year respite during which Russian separatists played the bad guys on the critically acclaimed series, Muslims are back in the evil spotlight. Unlike last time, when agent Jack Bauer saved the day, the terrorists this time have already succeeded in detonating a nuclear bomb in a Los Angeles suburb.

As we noted earlier this week on this site, the attribution of the fictional terrorists as Muslims actually makes a good deal of sense. After all, if you are going to have the premise that terrorists are operating on American soil, then Muslims would indeed seem to be the most likely ones to do so at this point in time. That much should be obvious.

If anything, the program has gone too far in the opposite direction over the years, pretending that threats other than Islam are predominant. As Fox pointed out in a written statement reprinted in the CNN story:

Over the past several seasons, the villains have included shadowy Anglo businessmen, Baltic Europeans, Germans, Russians, Islamic fundamentalists, and even the (Anglo-American) president of the United States. The show has made a concerted effort to show ethnic, religious and political groups as multidimensional, and political issues are debated from multiple viewpoints.

The Fox statement also pointed out that the show's audience is not grotesquely stupid:

24 is a heightened drama about anti-terrorism. After five seasons, the audience clearly understands this, and realizes that any individual, family, or group (ethnic or otherwise) that engages in violence is not meant to be typical.

What is most annoying about the protests, however, is the blatant lying being perpetrated by some of the complainers, as in this quote from the CNN story:

Engy Abdelkader, a member of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee from Howell, New Jersey, launched a campaign Wednesday to encourage Muslims offended by the program to complain to Fox.

"I found the portrayal of American Muslims to be pretty horrendous," she said. "It was denigrating from beginning to end. This is one of the most popular programs on television today. It's pretty distressing."

That is bunk. The program is taking great care to ensure that viewers do not see all Muslims as jihadists, as I noted in my comment here on Monday, and as the CNN report also observed:

Concerns about Muslims' civil rights, detention of terror suspects in Guantanamo-like holding centers, and stereotyping are given vastly expanded treatment on '24' this year. In one exchange, the show depicts the president's national security adviser challenging the White House chief of staff over the detention of Muslims without criminal charges.

"Right now the American Muslim community is our greatest asset," the security adviser says. "They have provided law enforcement with hundreds of tips, and not a single member of that community has been implicated in these attacks."

"So far," the chief of staff responds.

Those American Muslims who fear being tarred with the same brush as the jihadists should simply take care to ensure that the U.S. Muslim community stresses its full loyalty to the United States and the rejection of jihad here and everywhere else. Whether that changes their relationships with Muslims elsewhere in the world is for them to work out for themselves. Fictional TV shows can't change that reality.

From Karnick on Culture.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Hillary R. Clinton, who by party machinery, war chest, owed favors, and mebbe some secret dirt on anyone who matters, is the Democrat presidential nominee for 2008 before a primary vote is ever cast. Slam dunk.

If she decides not to run, it would be understandable, because she herself is dirtier than her husband ever was, and the GOP has many gigabytes of evidence to prove it and would delight in breaking it out. But even if she does run, she's already screwed her candidacy bigtime, overreacting to a blip on her radar named Barack Obama:

MATT LAUER: But do you think he's qualified? I mean, he's a fellow Democrat. Would you be comfortable with him in the White House?

FUTURE PRESIDENT CLINTON: I'm going to let all of those decisions be sorted out by voters.

Huh? Obama is even more certain to be the 2008 Democrat vice-presidential nominee than Hillary's a slam dunk for the top spot. And she disses him like that? He's the greatest guy in the history of the world, and will follow two Clinton terms and be our next-next president in 2016. (Like Al Gore, sort of.) He's an asset, not a rival.

If for some reason, Sen. (pro tem) Obama doesn't get the VP nod from his party, its near-monolithic black vote may well just stay home. A black person on the ticket, as Everett Dirksen might have said, is an idea whose time has come, and Barack Obama's time has come, albeit a bit too suddenly. (That's not his fault---most presidential timber has already been felled and even provided the axe, like Newt Gingrich, for instance.)

She's not even nominated yet, and she's already made the first big mistake of her presidency. Foreign policy is hard enough, but first you have to master your own party, and certainly not eat your own. (But more on John McCain later...)

Is Man Good? Redux

Once again, I defer to Adam Smith's wonderfully wise and sadly overlooked other book, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments (1759):

"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.... The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it."

"What is it that prompts the generous, on all occasions, and the mean, upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? Is it not the soft power of humanity, is it not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love?"

Smith, Reagan, and I are softies, I admit...

A Fascinating New Sport . . .

Polly Esther (L) gets slugged by Betty Clock'er during an elimination match in the Pillow Fight League (PFL) at a late night event in Toronto, January 12, 2007. Betty Clock'er, who defeated Polly Esther, will challenge the current champion Champain for the title in the league's first live event in the United States in New York City on January 19. (J.P. Moczulski/Reuters)Another item in our Everything Happens in the Omniculture series: professional pillow fights. Reuters reports:

Welcome to the Pillow Fight League, which has been drawing growing crowds in Toronto since it formed early last year, and is now set to export its campy fun to New York City.

The league is the brainchild of 38-year-old Stacey Case, a T-shirt printer and musician who came up with the idea that people would pay to see young women in costumes beat the tar out of each other with pillows -- and that women would volunteer to whap each other in front of a crowd. . . .

However, they're quick to point out it's not really just about young women in revealing costumes tussling in front of a largely male audience. Well, maybe it is a bit.

Rather like professional wrestling but with scantily clad women as the fighters, the bouts are presented as if they were real contests, and the performers adopt amusing stage personae:

But it's the fighters that make the show, and they come in all shapes and sizes, with names like Sarah Bellum, the smart one, and Boozy Suzie, who enters the ring with a beer that referee Patterson confiscates with a stern wave of his finger.

Lynn Somnia staggers to the ring in a hospital gown with electrodes dangling, apparently released from her sleep-deprivation chamber.

Top contenders include Betty Clock'er -- by day a financial editor and by night a cushion-swinging housewife who brings a plate of cookies to ringside -- and Polly Esther, billed as the waitress from hell ("And somebody's gonna get served!," The Mouth bellows as she struts toward the ring).

While the personas are all good fun, the action in the ring is real, and as Case is quick to point out, unscripted.

The rules are simple: women only, no lewd behavior, and moves such as leg drops or submission holds are allowed as long as a pillow is used. After that, it's up to the combatants. . . .

This past weekend, Polly didn't disappoint, torquing her long arms to deliver punishing pillow blows to Betty Clock'er in a fight to decide who will travel to New York this week to face PFL title holder Champain, an event Case is hoping will give an adrenaline shot to the league's profile.

Of course, the real money, and the promoters' real goal, is in TV:

The bigger picture involves a TV deal. Case says he has already turned down bids that didn't offer the mix of attention to the action and characters that he says makes the league more of a draw to the arts community than the mud-wrestling crowd.

It won't be long, I'm sure.

From Karnick on Culture.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Copy Writing: Concise, Precise, Incisive

The great copy writer, Lyle Wexler, formerly head of advertising at Bank of America, has created a fabulous blog offering valuable insights into copy writing. And if you can write copy, you can write non-fiction for sure - and have a leg up on fiction as well.

If you are honing your writing skills, whether for a directly related field or as a tool of communication, you can learn from this man. The Electric Idea Circus: have a gander.

Obama, Clinton and Identity Politics

Now that he’s throwing his hat in the ring, as will Hillary, it’s time to address the inane question of “Is America Ready for a black or woman president.” Well, if that black man and woman are Obama and Hillary, then absolutely not! The question shows just how race and gender obsessed American liberalism remains. Give me a solid conservative and I don’t care about their race, religion or gender, I’ll vote for them. I am sure practically every conservative would say the same.

It is a sad commentary on the state of modern American liberalism that the true racists are to be found there. That may be the wrong term, in that I don’t mean they hate white people, but that they are incapable of seeing anything outside of the construct of race. Sam’s piece below on black coaches in the NFL is testament to that. The ideals of the Civil Rights movement have been completely shattered, distorted and disfigured. If Dr. King is the apogee of that movement, then his dream has turned into a nightmare.

This manifests itself in strange ways. Look at the first black, female Secretary of State. Because she is defined by black liberals as a conservative, and even worse she works for the Bush administration, she isn’t authentically black. Skin color will only take you so far. If you don’t toe the line ideologically, then you are a traitor and you may as well be white, green, purple or yellow. “Real” blacks are simply liberals. Imagine how the media would have obsessed for months and have consistently thrown around the word “historic” if the first black female Secretary of State had been a liberal working for a Democrat administration.

This gets us to the heart of the unspoken question behind the question. What our liberal, unbiased friends in the media are really asking is whether a hopelessly racist and misogynistic America will vote for a black man or a woman. If that black man or woman is conservative, then the question becomes moot. Only if a liberal black man or woman is elected to the White House will America be considered by the Fourth Estate to have finally come out from under its benighted rock to see the light.

Fathers and TV Fiction

In recent days National Review Online has published a couple of very good articles on the value of fathers, using cultural products as their examples and evidence. First, Kathryn Lopez wrote about Rocky Balboa, noting that the title character presents a strong image of fatherhood in his dealings with his son and with the fatherless son of a woman he meets in a tavern and eventually hires to help out in his restaurant. I would add that Rocky also acts as a surrogate father to several other characters in the film, such as his buddy played by Burt Young, and the ex-boxer he defeated in an earlier film

Lopez quotes an excellent and memorable speech from the film, in a scene where Rocky talks to his self-pitying son:

Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done. Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hit, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you are because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you. You’re better than that!

Lopez then gives some real-life facts about fatherhood:

That’s notable because, as Dr. Meg Meeker writes in her recent book Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, pop culture isn’t exactly overflowing with messages encouraging men to be manly and to take pride in knowing they have something their families need. In what is a bit of a motivational seminar, Meeker writes to dads: “You were made a man for a reason, and your daughter is looking to you for guidance that she cannot get from her mother.”

Meeker, focusing on girls, goes on to contend that girls with a dad in their lives have higher self-esteem, are less likely to get pregnant as a teen (are less likely to lose their virginity before they turn 16), and find themselves with fewer learning and behavioral problems. And the list goes on. The National Fatherhood Initiative has its own long scary-stat list. Kids without dads are more likely to be poor, to wind up in jail. Absent fathers can affect weight, dropout rates, smoking, and drug and alcohol abuse.

Looking at Sweden, where big government (Hillary’s village) steps in to take over where a dad isn’t providing, a 2006 Institute for American Values study finds that “boys reared in single-parent homes were more than 50 percent more likely to die from a range of cause — such as suicide, accidents, or addiction — than were boys reared in two-parent homes.” How’s that for a dire dadless picture?

I have long thought that a strong and loving father is a critical element in ensuring that a girl does not grow up to be promiscuous and easily abused emotionally and physically by romantic partners—which are characteristics very much to the detriment of any individual of either sex but especially to women (as one should hardly have to point out)—and the statistics certainly confirm this.

Hence it's good when the Omniculture offers up positive figures such as Rocky Balboa. Of course, everything happens in the Omniculture, so there are plenty of alternative examples, of bad fathers, but even these can provide valid lessons if seen correctly, as Rebecca Cusey points out in today's issue of NRO. Citing prominently featured laudable fathers in Friday Night Lights, Ugly Betty, and Everybody Hates Chris, Cusey identifies what is good about these fathers:

These three dads have one thing in common: They’re there and they care. In the real world, study after study confirms what humanity has always known: Dads matter. Kids who grow up in homes with dads who are there and who care are less likely to do drugs, drop out of school, become sexually active, and engage in criminal behavior. TV has come a long way since Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, or The Cosby Show, but TV still reflects society’s view of dads. Fathers on TV can be broken into three basic categories: The good, the bad, and the bumbling.

These men are a strong contrast to the many bad dads on TV. Cusey writes:

But some TV fathers are just plain bad. This often comes, as in real life, when parents put their own desires above the welfare of their children. Bimbo after bimbo parades through Two and a Half Men. Uncle Charlie (Charlie Sheen) instructs young Jake to manipulate, ogle women, and swear despite the bleating protestations of dad Alan (Jon Cryer). In The New Adventures of Old Christine both parents are more interested in bedding new people than in their son. Scrubs, often a thought-provoking show, has reached a post-modern low with a story line in which star Dr. Dorian (Zach Braf) impregnates casual date Kim. In a series of scenes that is intended to be lighthearted, but is more sickening, they whimsically try to decide: parenthood or abortion? Usually intended to be shockingly funny, these dads’ indifference to their children comes off as just mean. In The War at Home, parents wage a losing battle against kids’ behavior, refusing to set any standards higher than emerging from adolescence without a police record. Melodramatic dramas, such as Desperate Housewives and The OC portray parents as selfish and poorly behaved as their children. Sometimes more so. These are the postmodern dads, who figure kids will be kids, teens will party and sleep around, and character is not worth molding. They reflect real-life parents whose biggest fear is to be seen as judgmental or hypocritical.

Given the prevalence of bad fathers in real life, the variety of rotten ones found on TV is realistic and a source of good moral lessons for all of us. As Cusey notes, however, "Happily, good fathers aren’t as hard to find on TV as one might think."

Conservative critics tend to look at the surfaces of things and complain that the media send bad messages to the society as a whole. As Cusey's article exemplifies, and as I've pointed out on frequent occasions, surface events are not what is really important in cultural products. What really counts is what the events mean. These articles show a good trend in right-of-center media criticism: a desire actually to understand things before pontificating on them.

From Karnick on Culture.

Black Coaches and Equal Opportunity

NFL Chicago Bears coach Lovie SmithAs if the pressure on National Football League coaches weren't enough, especially during the playoffs, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith and Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy are forced to labor under the additional condition that everything they do will be characterized as having been accomplished—or failed, as the case may be—by a black American.

This Sunday, the two coaches will be leading teams in the NFL conference championship games, with the possibility that both will coach in the Super Bowl this year. And of course reporters have characterized this as a significant event, which of course it is, insofar as football is significant.

But there is a thorn in the acknowledgment of the men's accomplishment. Smith noted in a TV interview that he is forced to bear an additional responsibility because he is black.

It's unfortunate that a black American cannot just be a coach, or an entrepreneur, or a housewife but must be seen as a black coach, entrepreneur, or housewife. Americans tend to see each black or woman as a representative of a group rather than an individual.

As Smith put it yesterday,

I hope for a day when it is unnoticed, but that day isn’t here. This is the first time. You have to acknowledge that. We do. I do. I realize the responsibility that comes with that.

But as much as anything, I realize my responsibility of just being the head coach of the Chicago Bears, and it’s been a long time since we’ve been in this position. I’m just excited for our football team to be able to take another step.

Smith and Dungy have both handled these expectations admirably over the years, but they shouldn't have to. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick are coaches, not white coaches, and that's the way it should be for Smith and Dungy. They are people, not symbols.

We should hope that the day arrives soon when black Americans don't have to bear an additional responsibility to other blacks or to society as a whole (having to exemplify our national ideal of equal opportunity) because of an accident of skin color, but instead are judged solely by their own accomplishments. To add to people's burdens by making them symbols only makes their lives that much more difficult.

Most important of all, judging people as individuals gives each person the greatest incentive to use their time and talents—and that is the surest way to open the road to success for everyone.

From Karnick on Culture.

Harder to Find Good Help

The appointed Miss New Jersey USA, Ashley Harder, has disappointed herself. She is resigning (not re-signing) her post (is it a post?) due to pregnancy. This does not accord with the image, or perhaps the form, expected of such a dignitary.

Personally, I was bemused by the whole thing. I would have thought the most natural gift for a newly expectant mother would be a new jersey.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Is Man Good?

So says Ronald Reagan's epitaph, which you can view for yourself a few posts below this one.

Now, not just Christianity, but classical philosophy as well sees man as fallen. And as we look at the world around us, it's difficult to disagree with that. He used to be really great, not so much lately.

My buddy Aquinas would soften Reagan's formulation (as I did myself): that man is by nature (God-given nature?) capable, if not oriented, toward responding to good.

That should work theologically, as God, not man himself, is the source of all good, and if it is not true in reality, we're in for it, folks.

If Reagan didn't believe that people (in his case the captive nations of the Soviet empire) would embrace the freedom he helped precipitate, he would have gone about things differently, I think.

Bush, too. We're in the throes of deciding whether the Iraqi people really want peace, brotherhood, and all that blahblah. I still think they do, but we should not overestimate their courage (and, it appears lately, our own) or underestimate the chilling effect of a few very bad men.

Monday, January 15, 2007

New Season of "24" Begins with a Bang

Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in "24" season premiereThe Fox TV series has progressed from a cult hit to an award-winning cultural bellwether, so it's an interesting thing to see what each season's central story line consists of. Last night was the first half of Fox's four-hour, two-night season premiere (an excellent way to get viewers deep into the season's story line very quickly).

The story starts off with a bang, with Jack Bauer, just released from a Chinese prison (having been traded by the Chinese for undisclosed U.S. assets), where he had undergone unspeakable tortures but not spoken a single word for two years (of course!), only to find out that he is being traded to a U.S. sympathizer in an Islamic terrorist organization (who hates Jack because the agent killed the terrorist's terrorist brother) so that the Muslim will turn over his brother to the United States, which is urgent because the brother is about to launch a series of bombings in the Uinted States.

The U.S. government and Jack both know that he will be killed by the Muslim, but Jack is willing to accept his destiny because in doing so he will be dying for something, as opposed to dying for nothing, as would have been the case had he died in the Chinese prison.

That is a beautiful and morally charged moment. It's truly great drama. Well done.

I hardly need tell you that Jack spectualarly and violently escapes from his Muslim captors, and then the double-crosses, shocking revelations, and violence rush forth in quick succession. The first two hours are the best start for a 24 season since season 2. Last year's episode struck me as rather disjointed in too many ways, and last night's installments showed a much tighter and stronger plot.

An interesting note: in the opening sequences of episode 1, various characters make several statements to the effect that mearl all American Muslims are loyal to the United States and don't support terrorism at all, here or elsewhere. Then, the villains turn out to be Muslims, and one of them is one of the people whom we are set up to think is an innocent Musliim American being unfairly targeted for abuse.

Very interesting indeed.

From Karnick on Culture.

Happy Martin Luther King Day

The local news here in Los Angeles had some footage of a "traditional" drum circle accompanying the Debbie Allen company doing an African-style dance in honor of MLK.

That's as silly as trotting out bodhrans and a riverdance to commemorate John F. Kennedy.

Dr. King, by the strength of his beliefs and character, led our country through a very dangerous time in our history, the days of rage of the 1960s. The whites threw him in jail, and the still-radical Malcolm X's people threw eggs at him, yet he bore the slings and arrows from every side and brought us all through it.

Let's get one thing straight---Martin Luther King, Jr. was an American, and an American hero, pure and simple, and that's why we honor him today. His work is surely not done, but his truth is marching on.

Political Football Report

It's actually a phrase from long ago---there was a controversy in Philadelphia around 1970 about naming the newly-built sports facility. The Democrats favored Harry Truman, the GOP wanted Dwight Eisenhower. They compromised and went for America's military veterans (we called it The Vet), but I always preferred the waggish Political Football Stadium.

Anyway, this past weekend, the former Baltimore Colts beat the current Baltimore Ravens (formerly the Cleveland Browns); the former Boston Patriots beat the former Los Angeles Chargers; the Chicago Bears, formerly the Chicago Staleys, beat the Starbucks Seahawks, and never mind about the New Orleans Saints beating my Eagles.

I mean, never mind about that, OK?

So now there are 4 teams left and the winners of next week's round go to the Super Bowl. Then, 2 weeks of SuperHype, the infamously banal and universally dreaded media coverage of America's biggest game because they have nothing better to do.

Now, if the Saints beat the Bears, we're in for a deluge of New Orleans "indomitable spirit" blather and how Dubya screwed up post-Katrina, even though New Orleans' indomitable spirit was conspicuously absent before, during and after Katrina and Bush.

And if the Colts beat the Patriots, we'll get a double whammy because Colt quarterback Peyton Manning's dad Archie struggled in pain and shame as the Saints' QB for so many years and tears back in the day.

What's funny is that if Clinton or Gore had been president, I'm sure they'd have nailed the Katrina disaster because it's their kind of thing, although Saddam and his lovely sons Uday and Attila would still be alive, thriving and reconstituting their nuclear program about now. And I'd be rooting for New Orleans, hands down. I always felt sorry for the Saints, and I loved Archie Manning.

Funny. My sentimental favorites and my picks are the Colts and the Saints, but I've never wished to be so wrong. If I'm not, the media will be playing some seriously gleeful political football. Patriots will find it unbearable.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Semen is Serious Business

Wait! Before you start throwing tomatoes, I am not trying to be prurient here. Semen is serious business when you’re talking about bulls and cows, horses, and who knows what other four, or probably even two legged, cash crops. Growing up in southern California as a good city boy I always thought that milk came from the grocery store. But then I moved to central Pennsylvania for too many years and discovered milk actually came from animals. Disgusting!

And then a few years ago I read Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full” and I’ll never be the same. Wolfe, he of the obsession with the most minute of details, and the ability to describe reality until it hurts, let me in on how the next generation of thoroughbreds are created. Not for those with a weak constitution. As everyone would agree, these are things we just don’t, and probably would rather not, think about. But there are a lot of people, and thank God for them, whose daily lives are lived in such worlds. I’ve always thought about the guys who pick up my trash, thank God for people who will take money to do such things. Ain’t capitalism grand!

So when I came across an article in the Denver Post titled, “The hot life of a Romeo bull: Semen sales are serious business,” I just had to click. As the writer sets it up, claaaasic:

They promise the bulls a quiet, tranquil, caring atmosphere where every need is met and there is no pressure to perform.

But really, all they are after is their sperm.

The business of extracting semen from prized bulls and then implanting it into a cow is so cut-and-dried that a mere suggestion that companies are taking the romance out of cattle production is met with a dismissive smirk.

"We are just providing something customers don't have," said Brian House, spokesman for Select Sires, an Ohio-based company that freezes and stores bull semen to inseminate dairy cows.

Hey, bub, what do you do for a living? Ever sit next to some guy in an airplane and ask what he does for a living? You’ve got to wonder what euphemisms these folks come up with in such circumstances. Not much else to say on this story, but the last sentence in the article is priceless:

Semen from bulls at Genex have spawned offspring all over the world. But the company is sending most of its sperm to South America, where beef production is high but the diversity of the cattle is minimal, Robertson said.

"Their industry is growing," he said, "and we hope to have a hand in that."

Friday, January 12, 2007

Fired For Mentioning Jesus!

Damn, what's the world coming to?

Our blog, (formerly The Reform Club), mostly leaves the reblogging to others, like Glenn Reynolds' essentially bookmarkable Instapundit.

But it's always nice to put in a plug for your pals, and I'm happy to do it today for Jonathan Rowe's excellent blog, which is oriented toward examining Christianity and the general role of religion in the Founding. His research is thorough and honest, and he was also linked the other day by the notorious and notoriously popular crooksandliars, whose name betrays its leftist bent. (Ooops, sorry, somehow I can't find a link to that one. What were the odds?) That this right-leaning blogger also links to him speaks very highly of Jon, I think.

In short, via the also-notorious World Net Daily, a Navy chaplain was fired for bringing up Jesus Christ in a White House benediction, even though he was ordered not to. (They were looking for something a bit more generic.) Law prof Rowe persuasively---to my mind---argues why the firing was justified and even necessary, and I add a few words of support for his conclusion in his comments section.

I often defend religious expression in the public square on general principles, specifically Christian religious expression, even when I find it obnoxious (also often). But this one's a slam dunk. As a practical matter, the issue of Jesus' divinity gives many people heartburn, and for whomever it doesn't, assertions of Muhammad's status as God's authoritative and final prophet by a different chaplain certainly would.

The Founders were wise in keeping G-d as generic as possible in order to gather us to Him, as a nation under Him, without setting us apart.

Flash: New Sin Invented!

"It's a sin not to do [embryonic stem cell] research," declared Rep. Al Green (D-Texas)...

A Google search shows zero hits in the mainstream press for this recent quote.

Now, I don't know where this leaves us on secular neutrality or the free exercise of religion, but if a congressman had argued that embryonic stem cell research itself is a sin, the creation of human life in order to us to cannibalize it, I think it would have gathered far more notice, not to mention derision and ridicule. The notion of sin is so, I dunno, quaint. Nice to see it making a comeback, though, even if inverted. One step at a time.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Benny and the Feds

Or maybe it should be Benny and the Meds.

In any case, longtime TRC/Newswalk member Benjamin Zycher has a piece up at National Review today explaining why the feds shouldn't negotiate prices on meds.

Money quote:

Federal price negotiations will cause sharp price reductions, but this will yield less research and development investment in new and improved medicines over time. Recent economic analysis published by the Manhattan Institute yields projections that the effect would be a reduction of about ten new drugs per year on average, causing a loss of about five million life-years each year, valued conservatively at $500 billion annually, a sum far in excess of total U.S. spending on pharmaceuticals.

It is no mere cliché that life and liberty are always at risk while Congress is in session, and Congress in haste makes the most waste of all. The proposal for drug-price negotiations is an example of a sweeping government measure that ostensibly aims to improve public health and well-being, but will actually result in the redistribution of huge amounts of wealth from the private sector to various constituencies, without the stigma of a “tax increase.” And all that in the first hundred hours.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The "Surge"---Iraq's Last Chance

Yeah, I cried when I visited Reagan's Tomb. With my dad, about this time last year. I cried right now pulling up this image of it, to tell you the truth.

I've thought for some time now that neo-conservatism (to which I've subscribed) will be buried in Iraq, not in an unmarked grave, but with flashing neon signs. Bush and the Vulcans completely missed that Iraq would throw its first chance in generations for peace, freedom and dignity into the mud. Into its own blood.

Conservatism prides itself on figuring the depravities of human nature into its human equation, and Bush, et al. (including me), seem to have got caught dreaming that there is a universal human nature that is pulled towards the right and the good. But Ronald Reagan's decidedly unconservative epitaph still haunts me. The "surge" is probably the last attempt to secure a successful outcome for the Iraqi people, and if we are genuinely interested in doing the right thing and pursuing a just peace, we must try this.

I, like most Americans and I think our troops as well, am skeptical that it'll work, and admit to a despair in the Iraqi people themselves, or to be more circumspect, the Iraqi culture. Very soon, the only reasonable alternative will indeed be to step back, "redeploy" if you're fond of euphemisms, and let them butcher each other to their little hearts' content.

I can take being wrong, and certainly George W. Bush. But please, God, not Ronald Reagan. Let this work.

After Decades, Gangs Still Kill

Gang violence in America’s big cities has been an issue for decades, and no matter what law enforcement seems to do the killing continues. In today’s LA Times a story covers how the city is changing tactics because they simply are not making progress. Sound familiar?

Los Angeles' top law enforcement officials have agreed on a new attack on gang violence, one that focuses more enforcement on smaller neighborhood gangs and uses a new legal tool tried last year on skid row.

The effort comes as L.A. officials are trying to quell a 14% increase in gang-related crime during the last year, marked by several high-profile incidents of race-motivated violence.

LAPD Chief William J. Bratton met this week with Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and representatives of City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo to begin formulating the plan.

Think about this in relation to Iraq. The American people, impatient as we are, expect total victory in a few years over vicious terrorists who make gangbangers look like boy scouts. And check out this statistic:

Police have identified 720 street gangs in Los Angeles, with 39,315 members. But officials said a small number of them are causing a disproportionate amount of crime in the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

Almost 40,000 gangsters just in LA alone! And after 30 or 40 years of trying to wipe them out. That is amazing. But if we are having such a tough time snuffing out the insurgency in Iraq we must understand that this is the nature of what is called asymmetric warfare. It is a cultural thing as much as it is a law enforcement or military thing. And Iraq’s culture is a whole lot more screwed up than that of south central LA or the Bronx or the south side of Chicago.

The president tonight will lay out his plan for a change in his Iraq strategy. Democrats and liberals are already bitching and moaning that, well, there are little green men on the moon so it won’t work. It doesn’t matter what the president does, they will revert to their natural selves, i.e. they are inveterate political opportunists devoid of principle, and complain. City government and law enforcement officials in LA are fortunate they don’t have to put up with lying unprincipled louts as they seek to make their city a better place.

Blegging Michael Simpson

Michael, you know a lot more about Christian Democracy than I do. How about putting up a post about it? I'd be particularly interested in whether you think a Christian Democrat party might emerge in the U.S. and what such a party might look like. To me, it looks like the potential third party that would have the best shot possible at becoming one of the two big guys or at maybe holding place as a third party.

Wouldn't such a party have a strong chance of holding together a coalition with people like Jim Wallis and James Dobson in the same structure? Wouldn't it have a better shot at bringing in African-American Christians and maybe Hispanics, as well? It seems to me to have the capacity to do a lot better than Ross Perot ever did.

Valentine to the Memory of Jim Baen

I was happy to see this piece by Hal Colebatch on his association with James Baen, founder of Baen Books, who died in 2006.

My friend Lars Walker is a Baen author with three books published by that house.

His memories seem to be in accord with Mr. Colebatch's, who writes about a man who performed a cultural service as an ex-hippie combatting the suicide of the West through the publication of sci-fi that elevated honor, duty, chivalry, patriotism, and military valor.

Colebatch also includes anecdotes about the personal affection Baen had for authors and illustrators. He was the kind of man who would guarantee future work (wow) to help talent get a mortgage and would give advances larger than those requested!

I once worked for a pharmacist who owned a little neighborhood apothecary. After my half year driving his truck around town and manning the cash register, he gave me a $500 check as a going away bonus. He knew I needed the money for getting set-up at graduate school. When he gave it to me, he said, "This isn't a loan or a gift, it's an obligation. When you see an opportunity to help someone who works for you or with you, then it will be your turn." Jim Baen sounds a lot like my old pharmacist friend and I imagine he's left a lot of obligations out there in the world that his friends will gladly fulfill.

The New Atheists

Interesting article from Gary Wolf in an unlikely source (Wired Magazine?) about ‘The New Atheists’, a group of non-believers seeking to inspire (evangelize just doesn’t seem appropriate) atheists everywhere to ‘come out of the closet’. The idea here being that: 1) there must be a great mass of people out there who call themselves agnostics when they are really atheists; 2) these people need to be mobilized in order to put down the destructive force of religion. Wolf, who identifies himself as part of their target market, takes the reader along for the ride on his own personal journey to discover whether he should respond to their call.

Wolf’s conversion adventure is centered around his interviews with three of the movement’s leading members - evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, neuroscientist Sam Harris, and philosopher Daniel Dennett. Each man world-renowned in his field; each with his own special point of emphasis in the reason and need for an un-revival. Yet, despite his favorable disposition towards their non-theistic foundations (along with an understanding of Christian apologetics so pathetic that it could only have come from its opponents), the call does not resonate with Wolf.

Wolf concludes:

When prophets [i.e. the New Atheists] provoke real trouble, bring confusion to society by sowing reverberant doubts, spark an active, opposing consensus everywhere – that is the sign they've hit a nerve. But what happens when they don't hit a nerve? There are plenty of would-be prophets in the world, vainly peddling their provocative claims. Most of them just end up lecturing to undergraduates, or leading little Christian sects, or getting into Wikipedia edit wars, or boring their friends. An unsuccessful prophet is not a martyr, but a sort of clown.

“Where does this leave us, we who have been called upon to join this uncompromising war against faith? What shall we do, we potential enlistees? Myself, I've decided to refuse the call. The irony of the New Atheism – this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism – is too much for me.”

But why does he arrive at this conclusion? Despite the gaping holes he pokes in the arguments of Dawkins, Harris and Dennett (one wonders if there might there be more:), it's not as if Wolf is about to lose his faith in the non-existence of God (…if we continue to have respectful conversations even about things we find ridiculous…).

But perhaps I should stay quiet, maybe even relieved or grateful for his conclusion. Perhaps he is serious about his agnosticism, and is genuinely open to the possibility that God exists.

Or perhaps he has discovered that it is just easier to shut down the investigation there and remain in a position that is extremist in its own right - one that requires no defense and nothing of you. He can have it; sounds a little too much for me.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Realism and Bible Films

Still image from The Nativity Story filmSurface realism is a perfectly nice thing for a movie to have, but it's a mistake to elevate it beyond its real importance — and that is true for audiences, critics, and filmmakers alike.

In the case of films based on Biblical events, the temptation in recent years has been to deride movies of the past as unsophisticated and kitschy, and to elevate current-day religious films as superior. This is a mistake, as there are many excellent films with Biblical themes that viewers obsessed with surface realism would miss, as I noted in my National Review Online review of the excellent 2004 film The Gospel of John.

In the case of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the passion for realism manifests itself in a shocking luridness that happens to serve the film very well. (For a full analysis of Gibson's film, see my National Review Online article on it.)

In The Nativity Story, now in theaters, a similar sense of the violence, corruption, and dirtiness of the Israel of that time prevails, but here too, the filmmakers make sure that it serves the story.

The film depicts the Israel into which Jesus Christ is born as a rather dirty, poor place under Roman occupation. The focus of the film is nonetheless strongly on the widespread belief that the Messiah is about to arrive. Following the Biblical account accurately, Mary's cousin Elizabeth conceives a child late in life, which God sends as a sign of the One to come. The child, of course, will grow up to be John the Baptist.

Still shot from The Nativity Story filmUpon realizing that his fiancee, Mary, is with child, Joseph is understandably appalled by what he can only assume is an act of unfaithfulness on the part of his betrothed, and the actors do a fine job of playing these scenes. By introducing the specter of the Jewish punishment for adultery at the time—stoning to death—the film gives a strong motivation for Joseph's decision to accept the child as his own; it will save the lives of both Mary and the as yet unborn child. Afterwards, as in the Biblical accounts, Joseph is visited by an angel who confirms Mary's story. This entire story line is presented very well indeed.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the distant East, three wise men interpret the stars and some old texts and conclude that a savior for the entire world will soon be born. Guided by a unique star formation, they set off to greet this individual. Debating amusingly among themselves, the magi provide a welcome lightening of tone in their scenes.

Of course wicked Herod, King of Israel, fears the coming Messiah and plots to avert his arrival (and Herod's presumed downfall as the new king comes) by killing everyone who fits the varying interpretations of the descriptions of the Messiah in the Tanakh, what Christians call the Old Testament. This leads, of course, to some violent movie action, suspense, hairsbreadth escapes, and the like.

It's all, however, in great accord with the Biblical accounts and illustrates the story quite well. (The biggest factual quibble I noticed is that the magi seem to arrive on the night of Jesus's birth, whereas the Gospel of Matthew makes it clear that they must have come at least a few days later, and even that's a pretty minor complaint.)

I wouldn't throw away De Mille's King of Kings, William Wyler's Ben-Hur, or any of my other old favorites, but The Nativity Story is a fine addition to one's collection of films based on the Bible.

The Nativity Story is in theaters now.


From Karnick on Culture.

Christian Democrat Party USA?

There never has been a need in the United States for a Christian political party because avowedly anti-Christian forces have been historically rare. Instead, we've had a continual alliance between moderate Enlightenment thinkers and Christians who have had similar agendas.

I sometimes wonder whether it is this coalition that is under more strain than the one between conservatives and libertarians that everyone talks about.

I also sometimes wonder whether the United States will ever see the emergence of a Christian Democrat party of the kind we see so frequently in Europe, though the U.S. version would surely be a tad more laissez-faire simply because of the American heritage. Such a party in the U.S. would be pro-life, pro-traditional family (through promotion rather than making alternatives illegal, probably), pro-modest welfare state tied to moral requirements, and soft on immigration. It would come down more or less in the center of American politics economically with a rightward tilt socially. I suspect it would also be typically pro-Israel given the sympathies of the great majority of American Christians.

There are a few fellows working on the Christian Democrat United States version on the web. For an interesting thought experiment as much as anything else, check 'em out at

(This fella off to the right is Abraham Kuyper, former university professor, newspaperman, prime minister of the Netherlands, and probably not a bad mascot for Christian Democracy.)

Monday, January 08, 2007

NC Bar Charges Nifong with Ethics Violations

The North Carolina Bar has filed charges against Durham District Attorney Thomas Nifong. The Center for Individual Freedom's Freedom Line reports:

On December 28, 2006, the North Carolina State Bar filed ethics charges against Durham, North Carolina District Attorney Michael B. Nifong for public statements made related to the so-called Duke University rape case.

As noted earlier on this site and on Karnick on Culture (see articles here, here, and here), the case was a blatant instance of false prosecution from the beginning. The Freedom Line article nicely summarizes Nifong's motives in pressing the entirely groundless case forward:

As most everyone now knows, Nifong was a career prosecutor until he got appointed District Attorney to fill out an uncompleted term. He liked the top job. He decided to run for election to keep it. At the time, he had some competition. He needed a political edge.

Nifong got that edge when, in March 2006, a stripper hired to perform at a party for the Duke lacrosse team claimed she had been gang raped there.

Talk about a prosecutor's political dream. The stripper was black, poor, a single mother working her way through college. The lacrosse players were mostly rich, mostly white, going to that school of privilege and prestige. In the . . . South! (Harper Lee, call your agent.)

Nifong went public, talking, talking, talking. The media, scandal-starved after months of not discovering the dastardly deed or doers thereof to little Natalee in Aruba, took the story global. The Duke University administration, after years of carefully cultivating its reputation to match its ivy-covered facades, looked ever so presumptuously at the prosecutor's edge and decided to jump over it with him. (Now, Duke is clumsily trying to jump back.)

Exactly. There may well be additional charges in the bar association's action, the Freedom Line article notes:

The ethics charges filed against Nifong thus far cover only violations resulting from his public statements. Based on subsequent developments, including collusion with a DNA lab to obfuscate exculpatory evidence, amended complaints and other actions should soon follow. . . .

For those who pay attention to such arcane proceedings, several aspects of the North Carolina State Bar complaint against Mr. Nifong are noteworthy.

First, the State Bar said that it opened a case against Nifong only weeks after the original rape charges were made. Second, the State Bar seems to have initiated the ethics action itself. Third, the complaint is about as public as any could get, while most such actions by state bars are secret.

All three of those initiatives – speed, responsibility, transparency -- are to be commended, because all are so rare.

Your intrepid correspondent, as you will remember, called for Nifong's impeachment and removal from office last May, and for the prosecution of the unnamed accuser and the firing of Duke University President Richard Brodhead at the same time. I branded this "the North Carolina false prosecution scandal" from the start.

It is good to see that the state's bar has finally gone on record as agreeing with that assessment. Now it is up to other state authorities to follow suit. Let justice be done.

From Karnick on Culture.