Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht

Monday, February 28, 2005

The Twilight of Atheism

Alister McGrath is a Ph.D. in Biophysics from Oxford who turned around and became a top historian of the Reformation. He is also a former atheist. His latest book, The Twilight of Atheism, takes atheism on from a very respectful vantage point and deals very effectively with its claims. I read the book and enjoyed it thoroughly. I've moved on to his Dawkin's God, Genes, and Memes.

Happily, he's excerpted Twilight for Christianity Today's web site. Here's a bit:

Atheism was once new, exciting, and liberating, and for those reasons held to be devoid of the vices of the faiths it displaced. With time, it turned out to have just as many frauds, psychopaths, and careerists as religion does. Many have now concluded that these personality types are endemic to all human groups, rather than being the peculiar preserve of religious folks. With Stalin and Madalyn Murray O'Hair, atheism seems to have ended up mimicking the vices of the Spanish Inquisition and the worst televangelists, respectively.

One of the most important criticisms that Sigmund Freud directed against religion was that it encourages unhealthy and dysfunctional outlooks on life. Having dismissed religion as an illusion, Freud went on to argue that it is a negative factor in personal development. At times, Freud's influence has been such that the elimination of a person's religious beliefs has been seen as a precondition for mental health.

Freud is now a fallen idol, the fall having been all the heavier for its postponement. There is now growing awareness of the importance of spirituality in health care, both as a positive factor in relation to well-being and as an issue to which patients have a right. The "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine" conference sponsored by Harvard Medical School in 1998 brought reports that 86 percent of Americans as a whole, 99 percent of family physicians, and 94 percent of hmo professionals believe that prayer, meditation, and other spiritual and religious practices exercise a major positive role within the healing process.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

A Tribute To Jody Bottum, New Editor Of First Things

The very fine writer and editor who signs his work J. Bottum is on his way to New York to take over as Editor of the vibrant journal of culture and religion, First Things. He comes off a remarkable seven-year tenure as Books & Arts Editor at The Weekly Standard.

Being a culture editor at a magazine such as the Standard is, in my view, a greater challenge than managing one of the political segments of the publication. Since the 1980s there are plenty of capable political writers on the right side of the spectrum, as many if not more than on the left. But to define a cultural role that appreciates religion, is pro-life and pro-family, but is open to all the nuances of human artistry in literature, art and architecture, is a monumental task - one that is critical for the conservative movement to sustain. Mr. Bottum has not only held his own in a world dominated by lefties, he has conquered significant swaths of cultural territory. His particular sensitivity to poetry has softened the edges of this hard-driving magazine positioned at the pulse of power.

I have been fortunate to be the beneficiary of his kindness and respect. He allowed me to show some range, accepting book reviews from me on the subjects of Biblical figures, baseball personalities, a daring Holocaust escape and a deep-sea salvage adventure. At one time we had an idea for a book that we could do together, but that has not (yet) materialized.

As a free-lance writer, I am usually careful to confine my telephone calls to editors to a ninety-second maximum. Jody is more generous with his time than I am prepared to impose, but it is not only the quantity of his time that I appreciate, it is the quality. Virtually every conversation that we have had has included some incredibly pithy insight of his, one that leaves me pondering for days afterward.

My situation is paradoxical, because I consider myself a novelist first and an essayist second, yet I have no published fiction to stand alongside my sixty non-fiction clippings. Jody identified this quality in my writing from the beginning and he has consistently encouraged me to complete my first novel and assured me that it is saleable.

He is the perfect choice for his new position. He is a maestro of literature and culture, processing every bit of them through the prism of his steadfast Catholicism and passionately pro-life sensibility. I predict - I wish - I bless - great success for him in this role.

Thank you for everything, Jody. I am proud to call you my friend.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Karnick's Law of Culture

I was recently reminded of a formulation about culture in free societies, which I have used in the past but have perhaps not commited to print. To wit, what I call Karnick's Law of Culture:

Bad art drives out the good.

The idea is analogous, of course, to Gresham's Law, which states that in a free economy, bad currency drives out the good.

I think that Karnick's Law helps explain why contemporary American culture has so often seemed to appeal to the worst impulses of human beings and to downplay or even deny the very existence of our higher and better impulses. It is easier for artists (of any level of talent, from the very lowest to the highest) to create a deep and widespread reaction in audiences by appealing to sensations, which are nearly universally understood, than to the intellect, which fewer people can access at its highest levels. This is true regardless of the personal morality and intentions of the artist; it is an obsevation about human psychology, not morality.

Obviously, the best and healthiest art will appeal to both the sensations and the intellect, and will be accessible to a wide range of people. Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Bach, Dickens, T. S. Eliot, and David Lean, to provide just a few examples, demonstrate this achievement beautifully. On the other hand, a preponderance of sensation over intellect, or of intellect over sensation, will create a work of degrading baseness in the first case and of unnourishing aridity in the second instance.

In the economy, government intervention overcomes the perils of Gresham's Law. This is done through coercion, although such government intervention is a measure which most people would agree is salutary.

In society, the church and government seem to be the natural repositories of response to the problems identified by Karnick's Law. There is, however, much less agreement on this, and in particular on who should decide these matters even if we can agree that something should be done collectively, than is the case with our protection of the value of our currency

The question that naturally arises to the liberal mind is this: Is there a way in which society can overcome the perils defined in Karnick's Law by means of voluntary cooperation rather than coercion?

Friday, February 25, 2005

A Baseball Memory -- The Atlanta Braves

Jay, I understand your emotions. When the Braves first began to break out of utter haplessness, I had been watching for years as a child who cheered every time the team broke out of last place. I'll never forget Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS when the Braves were down 2-1 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The unknown pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera drove in David Justice and the slow-footed Sid Bream with a laser to left field. Bream slid into home and was safe by inches.

I was living in an apartment complex full of University of Georgia students in Athens. Some kind of collective mania took over. Within two seconds of the umpire calling Bream safe, the entire complex emptied into the parking lot as hundreds of us jumped and shouted with crazy joy. We were possessed by totally unself-conscious pure happiness. And that is what sports can do.

There was only one small bittersweet touch to the whole thing. Great names of the Atlanta franchise like Dale Murphy and Bob Horner weren't there for the big victory. Their careers had ended with a whimper a few years before.

Boston - Or Phoenix?

Spring training for baseball is about to begin, and for the first time in 86 years the defending World champions are the Boston Red Sox. Here is what I wrote the night of their Series victory last year:

Is it all right to cry? Is it permitted to shed a tear of joy and relief for the Boston Red Sox emerging triumphant after eighty-six years of torment? Is it acceptable for a kid who grew up in New York and has lived in Chicago and Cincinnati and now Miami?
Or have I not paid my dues? Is it necessary to brandish some stigmata? Do I need to show ten years of Prozac prescriptions? Bags under my eyes deep enough to carry all the pain in the world? Razor scars on my wrists from a certain 1986 accident that we won’t discuss?
Does there have to be a seat in O’Malley’s Bar that I have worn down to the springs? A groove on the bar counter where I have laid my head after a thousand bitter losses? A crack on the side of the pinball machine where I kicked it eighteen years ago? A dartboard with the picture of Bill Buckner that has been shredded by a million angry punctures?
Can’t I just be a guy who wants to feel that the little guy has a chance, however slender, in a world rigged in favor of Mister Big? Can’t I be a guy who wants to see hope trump advantage? To see the dream outdistance privilege? Can’t I pray for a world where no one ever has to give up until the first spadeful of earth falls on the casket?
Is there no room in your celebration for a kid who came home from school one day at age ten and saw ambulances in front of his house? For a boy whose Dad had to tell him that his Mom had died suddenly and we were on our own? A lad who spent his teenage years living mostly with his Grandma and roaming the streets of the big city?
Got no place for a kid who dreamed of becoming a famous writer? Who sat long nights typing awful mystery stories and sending them to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to be rejected? Who snuck into movie theaters after the ushers had vacated the hallways and was convinced that he could write one of those someday?
What about a young man who became something of a ghost writer? Who feared the glare of the public eye and plied his craft in lengthening shadows? Who watched his diffident words fly under the banner of names with more courage than talent? And who now has emerged, even as you have, to a touchingly warm welcome?
Is there an opening for a son who has been too often prodigal? For a brother who can’t control his remoteness? A friend who is too aloof? A lover who has been too cold? An arguer who has been too hot? A father who has been by turns too strict and too lenient and too neutral?
Isn’t your joy a universal place that the lonely and needy may enter? Isn’t your victory a shot in humanity’s arm? Haven’t you been carving out paths to achievement and ecstasy for the disenfranchised? Aren’t you picking up all the lonely and battered hearts and restoring them to health? Aren’t those hefty doses of confidence that you are distributing with an open hand?
Didn’t you go to the very brink in the ninth inning of Game Four against the Yankees? Didn’t you meet the bogeyman face to face and stare him down? Didn’t you claw and scratch and scrabble your way back, first to contention and then to championship? Haven’t you done what no baseball team had ever done before, eclipsing a three game to zero deficit in a best-of-seven series?
Have you not thrown off the suffocating embrace of a hostile Fate? Aren’t you providing a model for people and teams who are a heartbeat from total humiliation? Showing that patience and fortitude and hard work can eventually undo all the real and imagined curses? That under a cobweb or two there might be a fresh burst of energy? That past can stop being prologue and just become flashback?
Did we not come to love you for being spunky and indomitable? Did we not bleed every time we saw Curt Schilling’s “Red Sox” red with blood? Did we not grin every time David Ortiz launched a missile over the wall? Didn’t you hear my grunt when the umpire called a ball to us and my groan when he called a strike?
Can’t I order a portion of what it is you got? Are you too embarrassed to let me hold your hand for a minute? Do you have a seat for me on the team bus? Can you give me a hand up so I can share the view from the mountaintop? Can I wish you well for next year?
Can I shudder with your remembered pain? Can I tingle with your newfound ecstasy? Can I promise to keep climbing the ladder? Is it all right to laugh? Is it all right to cry?

Crimes Against the UK Citizenry

In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States engaged in a vast experiment in which political jurisdictions from top to bottom reduced both the certainty and severity of punishment for nearly all crimes, especially for violent crimes and those involving what used to be called public vices. The experiment, as the statistics show vividly, was a disaster, and two decades after its effective end we are still reeling from its effects. Crime has decreased, but it is still far above the levels it was at in the early years of the past century.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, however, and the people of Great Britain are now experiencing those awful effects. Britain has almost completely disarmed the noncriminals among its citizen population, and it has greatly reduced criminals' likelihood of capture, prosecution, and punishment, as a Times of London report of today notes in the case of one particularly brutal type of crime:

"According to government figures published yesterday, only one in eighteen rapes reported to police ends with the suspect being punished, although government ministers have pledged to increase the number of convictions."

The vast increase in burgularies and home invasions in Great Britain has been well documented in recent years, and now, obviously in response to this low rate of capture, conviction, and punishment in sexual assault cases, a new blight has arisen. This results in the familiar downward spiral of crime, in which victims cease bothering to report crimes because they see little use in confronting their attackers, who will almost surely go free anyway. The Times reports:

"[the Home Office]
estimated that the actual number of rapes in England and Wales is more than four times higher than the 11,700 reported to the police in 2002."

Thus a new strategy of rape has evolved:

According to a study by the Home Office, groups of predatory men are now targeting drunken women to rape and sexually assault. Jo Lovett, one of the authors, said: "There are people who are undoubtedly targeting women who are drunk.'”

These men are taking advantage of the fact that cases in which there is any doubt whatever that the woman has refused consent are dropped very early in the legal process. In Great Britain today, a man who rapes a drunken woman is highly likely to go entirely unpunished even if the woman files charges.

The Blair government has expressed concern over the problem and has promised to increase the conviction rate. We certainly hope that they will succeed, although we are saddened that it required such an outbreak of horror to spur them to act.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Wead Update

The Wead book isn't selling. It commits two sins. First, there is no surprising story here. What you thought about George W. is what you continue to think about him. Second, he publicly betrayed a friend's confidence. Go to and observe the list of non-reviews reviling Wead. Sales rank for the book: 1,094. For a relatively new release with NYT front page coverage, that's very, very poor.

Unseemly Behavior of Wead

The New York Times reports that the evangelical speaker and author Doug Wead has promised to give up all royalties for his recently published book, The Raising of a President: The Mothers and Fathers of Our Nation's Leaders, because the book contains quotes from conversations the author secretly recorded with George W. Bush, without the latter's knowledge, in the two years before his election in 2000.

I don't think that this is enough. Wead should never have used the quotes in his book, and his editors should have made sure that the author had permission to use them. If he deceived his publisher in that regard, he should be tried for fraud. As soon as the deception was revealed, the publisher should have withdrawn the book from publication. As it stands, the ultimate outcome wil simply be more publicity for a book which is partly the result of an utterly unethical journalistic practice. This stinks.

Reset Chris Rock

Drudge and Sean Hannity have been hammering the decision to have Chris Rock host the Oscars. Particular attention has been paid to a joke Rock did where he spoke of going to pro-choice rallies to meet sexually active women. I'm not a big Chris Rock fan and absolutely hated his movie Head of State, but it looks like he's been quoted out of context here.

Slate fixes the problem. Here 'tis:

What really bugs Drudge isn't the F-words, which thanks to a several-second broadcast delay you're no more likely to hear at the Oscars than a Mike Leigh acceptance speech. It's Rock's politics. In particular, Drudge objects to a stand-up bit in which Rock announces that "it's beautiful that abortion is legal" and says that he likes to pick up women at abortion rallies. "'Cause you know they're"—well, here Rock uses one of those words Drudge doesn't think very classy. Because he knows they're sexually active.

That's some tasteless "S," no doubt about it. Drudge's selective quoting, however, doesn't do justice to the joke. Putting the bit in context doesn't make it safe for the hallowed red carpet (whose purity is defended by the chaste, bare-breasted goddess Jennifer Lopez), but it does affect the meaning. Far from an encomium to fetus killing, Rock's abortion bit is an attack on women for the frivolous manner in which they decide whether or not to keep a child. "When a woman gets pregnant, it's a choice between the woman"—here Rock pauses, a mischievous grin barely restrained—"and her girlfriends." From there: "One girlfriend goes, 'Child, you should have that baby—that man got some good hair…' And the other girlfriend says, 'Child, why we even talking about this—ain't we supposed to go to Cancun next week? Get rid of that baby!' " And that, Rock says, "is how life is decided in America."

The assumption is that women who get abortions are frivolous and irresponsible rather than poor and desperate, as a liberal might have it. Not much there to offend a conservative's sensibilities. Though Drudge claims the academy "went to the gutter" by picking Rock, where it actually went was to the right. Rock may speak the irreverent language of blue comedy, but more often than not, his ideas are red-state red.

White House press pass "scandal"

Ann Coulter has produced a very good column on the controversy over the White House awarding daily press passes to a writer for the conservative Talon News organization, which appears to be affiliated with the Republican National Committee.

Coulter points out that Maureen Dowd "openly lied" about the situation in her New York Times column on the subject, and Coulter finds the criticism from the left to be very odd, in that it appears that the only real things they have been able to criticize the reporter for are his homosexuality and his use of a pen name, both of which they have no problem whatever with when true of people on their side of the political divide.

Once again, as occurs on both left and right, we see that writers today will use any possible argument against their political enemies, no matter how irrational, hypocritical, or ridiculous it may be. Coulter is by no means immune to this habit, but she is correct in her appraisal of the media frenzy over the Talon News reporter.

The Baylor Story So Far

Christianity Today has performed a great service by creating a special web page devoted to articles about the struggle for control of Baylor's future. If you want to get up to speed fast on the most interesting story in American higher education, this is the place. You might even find a couple of articles from yours truly.

Just follow this link: The Battle for Baylor.

Pregnancy and Homicide

ABC News reports on the significant co-incidence of pregnancy and homicide. A pregnant woman is more likely to be murdered than die in a car accident or of any other cause than medical complications from childbirth. Why? Predictably, men (like Scott Peterson) seem to seek freedom from obligation. However, some women present a threat as well. Here's a story from the article:

Unlike men, women who attack pregnant women usually do not know their victims well, if at all. They are usually obsessed with pregnancy and crave the attention — and what they perceive as power — associated with carrying a child.

Relatives said Lisa Montgomery, of Melvern, Kan., faked pregnancy five times. During the last false pregnancy, she allegedly zeroed in on Bobbi Jo Stinnett, a Missouri woman who was eight months pregnant, strangled her and cut Stinnett's baby from her womb. The child was found alive with Montgomery, who allegedly told relatives she had just given birth. Montgomery now faces a capital murder charge.

"With women who actually want to steal a woman's baby, they are usually psychopaths. They claim to be pregnant when they are not," Brown said. "She usually loves the attention and power that is associated with pregnancy and motherhood. … They like to use the child to get attention for themselves. But they like to try to manipulate others with the issues that motherhood and pregnancy bring."

Kentucky authorities said Katie Smith told family and friends she was pregnant. She wore maternity outfits and had a completely furnished nursery with baby clothes, diapers and formula.

But there was no pregnancy. To get a baby, police said, Smith, 22, lured neighbor Sarah Brady — who was nine months pregnant — to her apartment by telling her a package intended for Brady had been delivered to Smith's home by mistake. When Brady, 26, showed up, Smith tried to stab her, but the pregnant woman managed to turn the knife on her attacker, police said. Smith was killed. Investigators said Brady acted in self-defense, and she was not charged.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


How many times have you wanted to take down a heaping plate of bacon, but couldn't stand the thought of splattering grease and unpleasant clean-up?

Now, thanks to Baconwhores, you can make an appointment to have a beautiful Baconwhore come and cook up a beautiful plate of fried porkfat in the comfort of your own home. They are extensively trained in the art of cooking bacon and get it right every time. Atkins-dieters, heaven awaits ye. (HT to Ross Douthat at The American Scene)

Movies and Money

Have you ever wondered how a film studio could afford to pay one star $20-30 million, spend a couple hundred million on the movie, drop another several tens of millions on distribution/advertising, and still somehow make money at the end of the day?

Weekly Standard's Jonathan V. Last has the answer.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Barry Bonds Most Unsavory

I've written about before, but I'm back after Barry Bonds' lame defenses during his last press conference in which he was asked about steroid use.

Exhibit A:

Bonds, dressed casually in a black shirt and jeans, was asked whether he thinks using steroids is cheating.

"I don't know what cheating is," he said. "I don't believe steroids can help your eye-hand coordination, technically hit a baseball. I just don't believe it. That's my opinion."

B.S. buddy. You aren't being challenged for your high batting average. The question is how you've hit so many home runs. Steroid-fueled muscle might not make a .400 hitter, but it could surely add 10-20 homers a year. Muscle mass matters when it comes to hitting for power.

Exhibit B:

Bonds believes he's being scrutinized more since he's closing in on Ruth's record.

"Because Babe Ruth is one of the greatest baseball players ever, and Babe Ruth ain't black, either," he said. "I'm black. Blacks, we go through a little more. ... I'm not a racist though, but I live in the real world. I'm fine with that."

If it's possible, Bonds is even more disingenuous here. Nobody is giving much thought to Bonds passing the number two home run hitter of all time, they're thinking about Bonds being number one when he has likely been engaged in serious cheating. We don't know how many the Babe or Hank Aaron or Willie Mays could have hit with high test coursing through their veins. Racism has become the last resort of the scoundrel in this situation.

Comrade Homnick: Please....

Methinks that my beloved colleague Jay Homnick---make that The Great Homnick---has demonstrated himself too clever by half in his interpretation of the Dems' genius in terms of the elevation of the ineffable Howard Dean to the lofty position of Chairman of the DNC. Make that Chairperson or Chair or Chairwoman or something, whatever. From the viewpoint of the leftists and their ilk---if only their message were made clear, they would be embraced by the common folk as a distant relative suddenly victorious in the lottery---the choice of Dean enhances their power in the Party like nothing else. After all, the Party Chairman exists to raise money, and only two big pots are available. Pot 1: The Clintons and their various buddies. Pot 2: The George Soros/internet/Michael Moore/dingbat crowd. In terms of this intra-Party competition, no one is better than Dean from the viewpoint. And that is why all the talk about how Dean---purportedly a moderate when actually in office in Vermont---will prove a relative centrist as DNC Chairman is hogwash. In order to operate as a centrist, Dean must raise money from the centrists, and that requires cooperation and beta-female submission to Bill and Hillary. How can I put this gently? Dean will switch parties, genders, and underwear with random strangers before he will do that. And so Dean will not and cannot operate as a centrist DNC Chairman. He will raise money from the Left, he will mark territory like a Leftist, and his mating call will remain as it was in Iowa. Comrade Homnick's argument that Dean has been maneuvered into the Chairmanship/Chairship/ Chairpersonship/Chairwomanship as a means of getting him out of the way and making him more palatable even to churchgoing Dems is an argument---please, please forgive me, Jay---unworthy of the Homnick brand name. Dean is Chairman because he will serve the intraparty interests of the Democratic Left. And we'll have fun fun fun 'til Mommy Hillary takes the car keys away.

The DNC Dean Decision Explained

Mr. Homnick has taken it upon himself to help the readers of Jewish World Review understand Dr. Dean's new post and why the Democrats would engage in an apparently self-destructive maneuver. Here's a taste:

Here is what the Democrats accomplish by having Dean in that position. 1) His Presidential prospects are finis. 2) He is de-clawed as an infighter among the class of Presidential hopefuls. 3) His fundraising skills must now be diverted away from his aggrandizement and toward the party. 4) Even this mordant secularism that is said to be so abrading to churchgoers will have to be tempered to accord with his role as titular leader of all Democrat politicians.

Hunter And Pecking

We are not accustomed to thinking of our work in these terms, but it is not far from the truth to say that this publication scooped the entire media with our response to the passing of Hunter Thompson, and that we set precisely the right tone. Please note that our post was up at 12:13 Saturday night, minutes after the radio announcement.

We did not downplay his excesses, nor did we suggest that his prime legacy inhered in his specific views, but we acknowledged that his contribution to style and to broadening the parameters of how public events and personalities are examined was real. He was entertaining and a sort of genius while never escaping the weight of his own eccentricity.

Now take the dismissive piece at the Weekly Standard website, saying that he was a hollow loudmouth who left no legacy, the bemused piece at National Review Online, saying that he was a kind of lovable eccentric perched on the fringe of the culture, and the Opinion Journal piece written by the great Tom Wolfe himself (which Hunter links to below), saying that Hunter Thompson was the greatest comic writer of our time, the Mark Twain of the Twentieth Century.
Rampant schizophrenia in the conservative media or what?

A pat on the back: we had it rightest and we had it first.

Warren Buffett v. Alan Reynolds

Jack Kemp has a new piece up at Townhall knocking Warren Buffett for gloomy predictions about the U.S. dollar. What makes it particularly notable is the extensive quoting of Reform Club blogger Alan Reynolds.

To be fair, Mr. Reynolds has some less prestigious affiliations with the Cato Institute and the Wall Street Journal. Here's mud in yer eye, Alan.

Living New Journalist on Dead New Journalist

Accounts of Hunter S. Thompson's demise sometimes mention that he was a practitioner of The New Journalism, a style in which the author involves himself in the story and may even appear as a character. Tom Wolfe was part of that camp as well, but with a different style than Thompson. When Wolfe appeared in his own work it was very unobtrusive, whereas Thompson regularly gave himself a key role.

When I heard Thompson had killed himself, I instantly wondered what Tom Wolfe thought about it. Opinion Journal obliges. Here's a bit:

We were walking along West 46th Street toward a restaurant, The Brazilian Coffee House, when we passed Goldberg Marine Supply. Hunter stopped, ducked into the store and emerged holding a tiny brown paper bag. A sixth sense, probably activated by the alarming eyes and the six-inch rise and fall of his Adam's apple, told me not to ask what was inside. In the restaurant he kept it on top of the table as we ate. Finally, the fool in me became so curious, he had to go and ask, "What's in the bag, Hunter?"

"I've got something in there that would clear out this restaurant in 20 seconds," said Hunter. He began opening the bag. His eyes had rheostated up to 300 watts. "No, never mind," I said. "I believe you! Show me later!" From the bag he produced what looked like a small travel-size can of shaving foam, uncapped the top and pressed down on it. There ensued the most violently brain-piercing sound I had ever heard. It didn't clear out The Brazilian Coffee House. It froze it. The place became so quiet, you could hear an old-fashioned timer clock ticking in the kitchen. Chunks of churasco gaucho remained impaled on forks in mid-air. A bartender mixing a sidecar became a statue holding a shaker with both hands just below his chin. Hunter was slipping the little can back into the paper bag. It was a marine distress signaling device, audible for 20 miles over water.

Thompson was determined to live out his life in huge gestures. He reminds me of Hemingway in that sense. Once the body deteriorated and the novelty of hitting all the extreme notes wore off, he just tripped a trigger and ended the game. I've always suspected Wolfe's relative sanguinity and personal peace have something to do with closet Christianity.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Some Shameless Self-Promotion

Herewith, my oral testimony on the importation of price-controlled drugs before the Senate Health Committee last week. Email me if you want the full testimony and/or the executive summary. Comments welcome. Senator Teddy, disappointingly, did not attend, as there was at the same time a Foreign Relations Committee hearing featuring Condi and Rummy. I guess Teddy preferred to grill them than me. Go figure.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of this committee; I will summarize four central points covered in my written testimony.

First: Pharmaceuticals subject to price controls overseas are not “cheap.” I urge this committee to reject efforts to impose price controls on U.S. medicines, whether directly or indirectly. Any such policies incontrovertibly would mortgage the future in favor of the present by reducing the market R&D incentives yielding more and improved medicines alleviating future human suffering.

Second: Foreign price controls enable overseas consumers to obtain a free ride on the prices that American consumers pay for R&D. U.S. trade and other policies that raise foreign prices toward competitive levels unambiguously would benefit U.S. consumers, regardless of the assumption one makes about the competitiveness of the U.S. pharmaceutical sector.

Third: The recent “free market” argument favoring the importation of price-controlled medicines from overseas is fundamentally flawed because compulsory licensing processes combined with ambiguities in the “failure to work the patent” framework mean that negotiations would be highly vulnerable to implicit or explicit threats of patent theft. At a more general level, free markets domestically even in principle cannot be reconciled with the enforcement of price controls overseas.

Fourth: Federal price negotiations over the long term would harm consumers. The federal government is not like a very large pharmacy chain; it is instead so big that it has monopoly pricing power as a buyer that large private sector buyers engaged in competitive negotiations do not have. At a more subtle level, private sector buyers must compete for customers, and so must balance the conflicting objectives of low prices and broad formulary availabilities. The federal government, on the other hand, does not have “customers” as such, so that short term budget pressures inexorably will tend to crowd out consumer choice over time. That is the deeper implication of the “evidence-based medicine” approaches now being considered and adopted by some states. The noninterference provisions of the 2003 Medicare Act truly were farsighted, and I urge this committee to continue that approach.

In conclusion: We want our medicines to be affordable, and we want them also to be available over the long term. That is why price controls must be rejected.

Thank you very much.

Sandra Dee R.I.P.

I was sad to hear Sandra Dee died. We were classmates at University High School in L.A., although she just showed up occasionally before the ceremony because she was tutored. We later chatted briefly in Westwood Village, where I worked at Sears after graduating from the Auto Mechanics Institute (not my only degree). I mostly recall thinking she wore too much makeup.

At that time, her real name (second father) was Douvan. Her mother was rumored to be a pushy stage mom even then.

I reprinted below some relevant thoughts on the death of another class mate, Jan Berry, which appeared in National Review online April 6, 2004. I meant to send it to her, since she’s in the UniHi alumni book, and later to congratulate her about the new movie about Bobby Darin.

Despite fame and fortune, and perhaps partly because of it, both Sandra Dee and Jan Berry had extremely difficult and tragically short lives. Such examples prove envy to be foolish as well a unkind.


“Jan & Dean: UniHi in 1959”

Alan Reynolds

Jan Berry, of the surf duo Jan and Dean, recently died at terribly young age. Jan was Class of '58 at University High School (UniHi) in West L.A.; I was Class of '59.

Nancy Sinatra was in Jan's class at UniHi. Tommy Rettig, the star of Lassie (who insisted on being called Tom), was in mine. Sandra Dee, who filmed Gidget in 1959, and went to our Summer '59 prom but graduated Class of '60. James Brolin (Bruderlin) was earlier, probably '57. Singer-songwriter Randy Newman was Class of '61. Beau Bridges was my classmate at Webster Junior High, but he went to Venice High.

To thwart gangs, UniHi encouraged more supervised groups affiliated with the YMCA (HI-Y) and YWCA (TRI-Y). These clubs varied in status, like fraternities and sororities, and Jan and Dean were in a top group, the Barons. I belonged to a totally unsupervised lowbrow group, the Ladds, which was supposedly a car club except few of us had cars. Paul Sessums was often the designated chauffer in his cool '49 Merc. In 1985, Sessums created a legendary blues club in Austin Texas, the Black Cat Lounge, before dying tragically in an auto accident a few years back.

Half the Ladds — the more muscular half — were from Hamilton High. A few Barons, not Jan or Dean, used to tease and intimidate UniHi Ladds. We were supposed to fight it out one weekend, but somebody had the good sense to bring a football. The game turned out to be unexpectedly close, which generated mutual respect and ended the tension. I nonetheless thought of Jan as physically intimidating at parties, a big football player with a persuasive scowl. It was good to be bad in those days, and some were more convincing actors than others.

Biographies of Jan and Dean note that they first used the Barons as the name of their singing group, but there were really three dozen Barons and they didn't all sing. It was Jan and Arnie Ginsberg at first, then Jan and Dean Torrence.

The late Fifties and early Sixties was a time of rapid transformation in the definition of cool — in music, cars, clothes and hairstyles. Those with a sense of fashion like Jan and Dean, were switching to khakis with a buckle in the back while my friends were still wearing low-riding Levis and rolled-up shirt sleeves. We listened to black R&B on Hunter Hancock's show (the Ladds' party favorite was "High Blood Pressure" by Huey Piano Smith). Jan and Dean's favorites were what we'd have dismissed as white bread, such as "Book of Love," "Little Star" and "Hushabye." Greased hair combed into a jellyroll (early Jan Berry) or waterfall (Dean), was on the way out. Shorter blonde hair, like Dean's later flattop, was on the way in. I was still swing dancing in 1958 with my "American Bandstand" dance partner Romelia Guevara. By 1961 swing was dead in L.A., replaced by the twist and the surfer stomp.

Paul's Merc was dropped in back, by torching the springs. That was still common practice on what was called (with inadequate cultural sensitivity) a "taco barge." That vintage Merc, which resembles an upside-down bathtub, was a favorite with the Falcons de Sotel, a Chicano group, but a '49-54 Chevy was a close rival. Some needed casters on the rear bumper to get up a driveway without scraping the twin tailpipes.

Rich kids' cars, by contrast, soon became inclined rather than reclined. Rather than being lowered in the back, they were raised in back — "raked" — with fat rear tires. Spoiled teens had '55-58 Chevys pin-striped by von Dutch. As a poor imitation, I helped my fellow-Ladd Don Brown rake his '50 Ford by moving the rear axle to below the rear leaf springs. It looked hot, but the wildly bent U-joints did not last long.

Coming of age in L.A. in the late Fifties was pretty cool. But today's cars, movies, and fashions are really much better. Restaurants are better too, with the exception of the Apple Pan on Pico, which is still as good as it ever was. Pop music is probably better too, but not nearly as magical. There was something uniquely special about hearing Chuck Berry for the first time at Venice beach, Little Richard opening the movie The Girl Can't Help It, and catching the debut of Heartbreak Hotel at a roller-skating rink. Some of us stuck in that groove too long. I was still singing "Slippin' and Slidin" with a garage band from Santa Monica College in the early Sixties, which was downright retro.

But music suddenly caught a new big wave when Dick Dale (who is still an astonishing guitarist) released "Let's Go Trippin'" in 1961- the same year, the Beach Boys came out with their first hit, "Surfin" and Jan and Dean with their second, "Heart and Soul."

Surf music came into its own at the same time twist clubs and coffeehouses sprung up. The Forty Thieves coffeehouse in Venice had silk hung from the ceiling and flat mats like a harem, with occasional poets and Mose Allison's "Seventh Son" on the jukebox. It was a fabulous time to be young in L.A. And a lot of the credit for all that fun goes to Jan Berry. The unique sound of Jan and Dean created continues to put smiles on the faces of everyone who hears it.

As Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers put it, "if there's a rock’n’roll heaven, I'll bet they have a hell of a band." Jan Berry and Bobby Hatfield just made it even greater.

New York Times and

For reasons that I may never understand, the New York Times has acquired for $410 million. You have got to be kidding me. I've visited the network on a few occasions but have never been overwhelmed by the content or design. How often have you been talking to someone and heard them reference "Yeah, I was just doing some research for my trip and spent a lot of time at reading about mountain biking."

If I were an NYT shareholder, I'd be furrowing my brow right about now. Of course, I am a Krispy Kreme shareholder and the brow's been furrowed for a few months now.

The Maggot Maher

Blogger Mike D'Virgilio has provided an excellent brief study of the odious TV personality Bill Maher on Mike's fine blog, MDV Outlook.

In my view, Maher is one of the most annoyingly ignorant blowhards currently operating on the American talk-show circuit, and that is saying a lot. To me, he is in fact too repulsive to contemplate, and thus I am glad that I can refer readers to Mike's article, which provides a solid summary of Maher's "thoughts" on the role of religion in American today. Mike shows exactly how intelligent and open-minded the talking maggot Maher really is. It is well worth reading.

Two Of An Unkind

The race between news outlets for information about breaking stories is hardly a new phenomenon. I heartily recommend that everyone seek out Ben Hecht's autobiography, A Child Of The Century, to get a bird's-eye view of the journalistic culture of the early 20th Century (in case you thought The Front Page was fiction).

But in the age of Google one would expect that the baseline of accuracy for basic facts about a public figure's life would be universal.

Not so. I read two articles today about the passing of John Raitt, the great Broadway performer. The one in the Washington Post says that Rodgers wrote the soliloquy in Carousel specifically to suit Raitt's talents. The one by Reuters says that Hammerstein wrote the soliloquy in Carousel specifically to suit Raitt's talents. Okey-doke.

The Post piece says that in addition to singer Bonnie Raitt, John had a son and a daughter. Reuters says that he had two sons. I am inclined to credit Reuters with the greater accuracy, since they added that their names are Steven and David.

Guys, take five more minutes before going to press and get it right. We're counting on you to inform us about war and medicine and celebrity wardrobes; our lives are in your hands.

Jacoby on Gerrymandering

Jeff Jacoby had a very nice insight in his Boston Globe column of yesterday:

"The deepest and unhealthiest divide in American politics is not the one that separates Republicans from Democrats or conservatives from liberals. It is the gulf between Insiders and Outsiders -- between the incumbents who treat public office as private property and the increasingly neutered electorate in whose name they claim to act."

Jacoby points out that much of what Congress does, takes the form of an "incumbent protection racket"—which I would add is only to be expected, as long as those in Congress wield such a huge amount of power over the citizenry and indeed the condition of the entire world. When neither conscience nor the other branches of government can sufficiently restrain Congress, the great power of that body will create a huge amount of inertia.

Jacoby strongly criticizes the nearly univesal practice of gerrymandering, and rightly, as an important means by which legislators protect their positions. He correctly praises California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for launching "a full-scale attack on redistricting abuse in his state, demanding that the power to draw election maps be taken from the legislature and turned over to a committee of retired judges." As Jacoby notes, what is particularly interesting—and courageous—about Schwarzenegger's plan is "there is nothing partisan about it. It doesn't empower Rs at the expense of Ds, or Ds at the expense of Rs. It empowers voters at the expense of politicians." As a result, Jacoby says, sixteen of the current twenty Caifornia Republican congresspersons oppose the governor's plan.

Jacoby reports that similar reforms are underway in several other states, which is a good trend indeed. He writes,

"An end to gerrymandering would be an extraordinary shot in the arm for American democracy, once again making legislative races exciting and responsive. This is the very best kind of government reform—the kind that can unite conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. No, honest redistricting won't turn real-life politics into a ninth grade civics class. But it will make it a lot more interesting and democratic than the farce we're stuck with now."

That is true, and it is why those currently holding legislative power will fight to the death to retain the current system or at least water down the proposed reforms. After all, state legislators hope to become members of Congress themselves, down the road. Any progress toward reform in this matter could have some real consequences.

Hunter S. Thompson, RIP

We should hardly be surprised that Hunter S. Thompson has up and left us. Perhaps more amazing is that he lasted here for 67 years.

After hearing someone who shared a lecture bill with Hunter at a college somewhere describe how HST and his fourth wife were shooting up and downing shots in the rest room before his address, I would hardly have anticipated this level of longevity.

Still, Hunter was a man who opened a creative door, one that P.J. O'Rourke and many other fine writers refined in ways that have much enhanced our sense of events transpiring in faraway reaches of our planet. What was called 'gonzo' in his manic day has by now become part of our social fabric, not necessarily a bad part.

(Have a peek at Hunter's last column for, dated Feb. 15.)

As I have mentioned here before, I was once in the room when a genius went insane. Sometimes genius is too heavy a burden to carry.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Joining The Peace Corpses

Kudos to Associated Press reporter Maggie Michaels (and her Editor) for getting a valuable perspective-achieving bit of contrasting information into the second paragraph of her story about the suicide bombs that killed 55 Iraqis on the Shiites' holiest day.

She made the point that this was a "significantly smaller" amount of terrorist success than last year on this day when they killed 181.

As grim as it sounds, the fact is that sometimes the true story is not 55 dead, as tragic as that is, but '126 less dead than last year' as we measure progress toward civil society in Iraq.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Conservatives on the March

I am posting this from a computer donated for public use, by, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the American Conservative Union. It is a bit odd, of course, for me to be here, given that I have been so consistent in stating that I am not a conservative. However, this is not as strange as it may seem. For the political meaning of the word conservative, as I have frequently noted, has evolved into something synonomous with the Right. This conference confirms that notion.

It is interesting, for example, that one of the people who just spoke to the assembled masses about Social Security reform was a member of the Log Cabin Republicans. The speaker did not receive a huge ovation for his politely veiled reference to allowing any old kind of "domestic partner" to receive death benefits from Social Security under a new system allowing personal retirement accounts. But that is exactly the point. Although his position on many issues is hardly describable as conservative, his views on Social Security are certainly of the Right.

This brings up what is to me one of the most important questions of the day, for the Right. Can born-again Christians join with Log Cabin Republicans to support changes in Social Security and then go out separately to very different places afterward, and still see each other as true allies? This is a question that should be central to the discussion on the Right, as we seek to consolidate recent successes and create a movement that can truly compose a long-term majority of the American people.

There has been a certain amount of triumphalism among the speakers at the conference, and that is surely understandable given the political success of the Right in recent elections. Seeing the great variety of organizations and speakers at this conference--from Midwestern Eagle Forum traditionalists and the National Rifle Association to Log Cabin Republicans and groups for the legalization of marijuana--clearly this is a movement that includes a large variety of very different people. It suggests the possibility for a true, long-term political majority being established by the Right.

The question is whether these disparate groups can agree on a set of central principles that is sufficiently broad and yet also exclusive enough to sustain a definable mission to which all can assent. When the time for self-congratulation has finally passed, that is the conversation I would like to see on the Right.

Negroponte and Capability

Jay, I'm probably going to end up on the opposite side of Savage here, too. My read on John Negroponte is that he is one of those men who has the ability to get things done. There are a lot of smart, talented people in the world, but the number of them who can really act and achieve goals without excuses is radically lower.

I'm guessing that President Bush got burned on Bernard Kerik and then thought, "The celebrity strategy for this post hasn't worked, I'm going to name a superbly competent person who doesn't care much about image or headlines. Thus, we get Negroponte.

The Director As Auteur? Or Hauteur?

This publication has registered its displeasure with the output of radio personality Dr. Michael Savage, but this time he has gotten it right: what possible advantage to our intelligence gathering and analysis or our overall safety can be achieved by appointing Mr. Negroponte, a veteran diplomat, to the umbrella role of Intelligence Director?

This is a classic example of the desperate need to "do something" metastasizing into doing something foolish and counterproductive. Is it rude of me to recall my immediate opposition to the idea?

What Happened to the Unions?

Yes, you all know it, I love the Lawrence Henry take on America. He's knocked around, been a lot of places, and despite making his way down a bumpy road, he's still here writing, thinking, and doing a little stock-investing. If you don't read his column every week at American Spectator, you're really missing out on the fun history of regular life in the U.S.

Check out his take on the big changes that killed the labor unions. Here's a smidge:

Labor unions just plain missed it. Even if they hadn't missed it, what were they supposed to do? What -- or whom -- were you supposed to organize? A bunch of geeks in a warehouse mainlining Coca-Cola? Which were the real businesses and which were the pipe dreams? If Wall Street couldn't tell yet, and it couldn't, not really, how were unions supposed to figure it out? By the time some sort of manufacturing lines came into existence, those lines were already changing so fast, it was hard to tell the difference between labor and management. Now, of course, the mass jobs, the low-skill jobs, have migrated overseas, and they're just plain gone. Who wants guaranteed overtime? Everybody's got guaranteed overtime. It comes with the territory. Now you want stock options. Now you want career advances. Now you want to strike out and do it for yourself. Pension? Tell me another one. I've got a 401(k) and deferred comp. Job security? There's no such thing. Career types change jobs seven times in a lifetime nowadays.

A Thought Ontic

After recommending to Hunter that he include in his doctoral reading list The Lonely Man Of Faith by Joseph B. Soloveitzik (1903-1993), I picked up my own copy and scanned it a bit for insight and inspiration.

This I felt urged to share: "Western man... attends lectures on religion and appreciates the ceremonial, yet he is searching not for a faith in all its singularity and otherness, but for religious culture. He seeks not the greatness found in sacrificial action but the convenience one discovers in a comfortable, serene state of mind. He is desirous of an aesthetic experience rather than a covenantal one, of a social ethos rather than a divine imperative. In a word, he wants to find in faith that which he cannot find in his laboratory, or in the privacy of his luxurious home. His efforts are noble, yet he is not ready for a genuine faith experience which requires the giving of one's self unreservedly to God, who demands unconditional commitment, sacrificial action, and retreat. Western man... insists on being successful. Alas, he wants to be successful even in his adventure with God. If he gives of himself to God, he expects reciprocity. In a primitive manner, he wants to trade 'favors' and exchange goods. The gesture of faith for him is a give-and-take affair and reflects the philosophy of Job which led to catastrophe - a philosophy which sees faith as a quid pro quo arrangement and expects compensation for each sacrifice one offers..."

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Kofi Should Be Canned

If by some unaccountable fluke you have not yet discovered my article in today's Jewish World Review, here it is, linkin' without costin' ya a penny. My message is: get Kofi.

The Ralph Reed Rumor Was Right On.

Ralph Reed is launching his own political career by running for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. Friends pretty deep in the Georgia political world have known this was coming. My guess is that Dr. Ralph is going to get what he wants. If Haley Barbour can do it in Mississippi, Ralph can do it in Georgia.

He'll likely have primary opposition, but it's hard to imagine anyone else in the party could match his name recognition and "powerful-strong" resume'. There are folks in the Georgia GOP who really hate Reed, but I suspect that's true of most political figures in any party. Part of the problem is that he immediately became the biggest GOP fish when he came back to the state. I'll make the prediction now. Ralph takes the Lt. Gov's office with 53% of the vote.

You can check out his own statement of ambition and aspiration here.

A Musing Grace

The Miami-Dade School Board will hold a vote today to determine if the soda machines should be removed from all the local public schools to help prevent obesity in children.

We have all witnessed this galloping cultural phenomenon of the virtue of health being whittled into a cudgel with which to bludgeon the populace into a grim conformity.

Have we been correct in deeming it merely an amusing spectacle of the finicky badgering the carefree?

Or is this something more insidious, more perfidious, part of an ongoing cultural experiment of postmodern man trying to reconstruct some network of boundaries to replace those that were unwittingly dismantled in the adventure of deconstructing the social fabric? A fabric that was knit by the quest for godliness.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Blegging About Books . . .

Good people of ReformClub land, I am about to enter the post-coursework segment of my doctoral program in Religion, Politics, and Society at Baylor. At this point, we put together a list of 100 or so relevant books (Reformation, Church-State jurisprudence, sociology of religion, political liberalism, American religious history, the Puritans, etc) and study them for a year prior to taking comprehensive exams. I'm working on the list now and would love to benefit from recommendations of books from anyone who cares to Email me.

I have a particular interest in deists, by the way, if anyone knows something about them, all the better.

Mr. Karnick, I'm still waiting for yours!

Rafik Hariri's Traffic Horror

Earlier this week I indicated that it might be valuable to write a full-length article on the history of Syrian domination in Lebanon. They took a long time serving the entree at the wedding I attended tonight, so I snuck home (fifteen minutes away), wrote the article, and got back to my table ahead of the prime rib (well-done and delicious).

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Culture Watch—The Simpsons

In next Sunday's episode of The Simpsons, the town of Springfield legalizes same-sex marriage, and one of the central characters of the series will take advantage of the opportunity. Who that character will turn out to be has been a matter of intense debate in some circles, and it will be even more interesting to see what kind of attitude the story takes toward the issue. It is interesting, for example, why the town decides to legalize the marriages: to increase money from tourism. Simpsons executive producer Al Jean was quoted in the Baltimore Sun as saying, "We don't take a position as much as explore everybody's positions." We'll find out next Sunday on Fox.

Shall It Be The Truth?

Those who share our interest in the portrayal of religious characters in fiction will want to read Wendy Shalit's spirited response in today's Jewish World Review to those who attacked her New York Times Book Review survey of books about observant Jews.

If you have not read the original article, never fear, today's article offers you that link in its opening line. Please accept my strong recommendation; this is well worth your while.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Retirement of Jerry Falwell . . .

I should say, "the much anticipated retirement of Jerry Falwell." The man is not an effective spokesman for Christian conservatives. I think that much of what drove me to enter the world of Christian public policy and now Christian higher education was the feeling that Falwell and guys like him were failing us all. He can't quit soon enough for me.

Today, I happened onto the Sean Hannity show on the radio. Jerry Falwell and Christian lefty Jim Wallis were going at it. Actually, I should say that Wallis was explaining his left-wing politics while affirming pro-life and pro-traditional marriage views. Falwell was all over him, simply refusing to have a conversation. He insisted that Wallis explain where he goes to church, what time they meet, the address of the church, you get the drift. It was just embarrassing. I'm even more disappointed that Hannity would choose Falwell as the counterpoint. Can't blame that on the liberal media.

Falwell has been effectively taken down in Tucker Carlson's book Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News. Carlson says cable news hosts desperately need guests who will drop anything, including a child's birthday party to show up for even a few seconds of air time. He places Falwell in that camp and was disappointed to visit Falwell for an interview and find that instead of an interesting discussion about the growth of the religious right as a factor in American politics, he got a recitation of all the people in television Falwell knows.

You want an evangelical for television and radio? Get Hugh Hewitt. Get Mark Noll. Get George Marsden. Jerry Falwell has had more than enough.

Trouble Is Real

Since Israel -and my one-time residence there- has emerged as a theme today, I would like to address two events that relate to that region.

First, the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, and billionaire-at-large, Rafik Hariri, by a massive bomb that bespeaks a patron with deep pockets, large staging areas, and effective penetration. The prime suspect is, of course, Syria, a nominally separate country that is actually the suzerain of Lebanon. Hariri resigned his post last autumn because of a dispute with his Syrian bosses. This would seem to be the fallout from the fall falling-out.

Please permit me to recall to your memory the fact that the act which broke the back of independent Lebanese sovereignty was the bomb which killed Bashir Gemayel during the victory party the night he was elected (with Israel's backing) Prime Minister in 1982. This led to the Sabra-and-Shatila massacre and a state of civil war which was only stopped, or at least contained, when Amin Gemayel, milquetoast brother of the charismatic Bashir, agreed to serve as Syria's stooge and occupy his brother's position with no real power.

Second, the report in the Jerusalem Post, not widely circulated here, that Abbas has agreed to unfreeze the bank accounts of Hamas in return for some undisclosed agreement of cooperation with his government. That is probably a development that bears close scrutiny.

Withdrawals From West Bank

The news from Israel, being distributed widely across the wire services, is that terrible death threats by West Bank and Gaza settlers against government ministers have compelled Ariel Sharon to issue a crackdown order. Having resided in Israel myself for a few years (while Sharon was Defense Minister), permit me to decipher this report.

First of all, please note that one government minister received one nasty letter calling him an Arab-lover and one had the tires on his car slashed. How absurd is it to issue a national police order based on one anonymous letter?

The answer is that this is the Israeli equivalent of the Gulf-of-Tonkin method. It has been used frequently in the Israeli government playbook.

This is a simple trick designed to open the door for the government to harass a few settlers so as to soften them up for the eventual evacuation order. Sharon is a general who likes to play offense and do a small preemptive strike to avoid larger confrontations later. Perhaps I'll expand on this in an article later this week.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Getting Religion

In The American Scene, Ross Douthat has written a very insightful response to a "searing indictment of contemporary Christian mores," as he characterizes it, recently published in Books and Culture.

The Books and Culture article, by theology professor Ronald J. Sider, which appears in the January/February issue of the magazine and is available online, is called "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" and points out the great difference between what contemporary American evangelical Christians profess to believe and how they behave. Sider cites the now-familiar statistics about tithing, divorce, premarital sex, racism, etc. which show that American evangelical Christians are on the whole only slightly less sinful, according to evangelical doctrines, than other Americans. Sider observes that those churchgoers with the strongest Christian beliefs tend to live less sinful lives. Hence, the answer, Sider says, is to strengthen the faith of individual believers. Sider exhorts his fellow Christians to develop a "longing for holiness" and pray for a revival within the church that will strengthen individuals' beliefs.

It is an interesting article and one well worth reading, but Douthat's analysis of the piece goes to the heart of the matter: the Calvinist origins of American evangelicalism—

"In Protestantism [Douthat writes], and particularly among those churches with a Calvinist stamp, this reality of perptual fallen-ness has often clashed with the emphasis on a single 'born-again' moment, and with the expectation that once a Christian gains true faith, works will inevitably follow. The presence of sinfulness in a Christian community thus becomes an indictment of the community's faithfulness -- and this, in turn leads to what you might call the 'cycle of Protestantism,' in which purity-seeking believers are constantly founding new sects and religious colonies, which expand and thrive but also drift away from their original moral austerity, leading in turn to splinter movements and the founding of a newer, smaller, more austere communities (as New Haven was founded, for instance, as a refuge from the increasing worldliness of Puritan Boston).

"Or alternatively, the inevitable slide into moral laxity leads to a cycle of revivals, in which the community recommits itself to religious rigor for a time, only to drift away again eventually, setting the stage for another revival -- and so on, ad infinitum. And through it all, as the sects and splinter movements multiply, there remains an unspoken belief among the Calvinistically-inclined -- a belief, I might add, that permeates Sider's article -- that a more perfect community, a true and permanent 'City on the Hill,' is just another revival away.

"The Catholic Church, by contrast, takes a rather more tragic view of Christian imperfectability (a necessity, a Protestant might say snidely, given the Church's long history of Grand Inquisitors and Borgia Popes). Catholicism has its saints, of course, but they are exceptions to the rule -- the community of believers is understood to be a community of sinners, not a society of the perfected. The signs and signifiers of the divine reside not in the all-to[o]-human Catholics who show up (or don't) at Mass on Sundays, but in the mystical materials of the Church itself -- in doctrine, in scripture, and above all in the sacraments. There is an expectation that everyone will pray and strive for the sainthood that Sider urges on American Evangelicals, but it's joined to an awareness that most people aren't going to make it. (Hence Purgatory, incidentally . . .)

"The difficulty with the Catholic approach, though I think it's the right one, is that a recognition of the pervasiveness and permanence of sin can easily be elided into a winking, 'it's-not-so-bad' acceptance of sin. And we all know where that got us."

Douthat is entirely correct in his observation that cause of the disjunction between American Christians' beliefs and actions is to be found in evangelicalism's Calvinist origins, and that the weakness of Sider's case is his inability to get past that, which means that all he can do is call for more of the same, another revival within the church. The cycle must continue, if we follow Sider's reasoning.

The moral problem of Calvinism is a theological problem, however, and it is this. All Christians agree that human beings are inherently sinful, and all agree that God is the source of all good things, and of all good works by human beings. Hence, sanctification—the process of cleansing a person and making them holy—follows salvation, not the other way around. (That is to say, a person is not made acceptable to God—holy, clean, sinless—and then saved by God. God saves a person and then begins the process of cleansing and purifying that will be perfected upon each individual's death and entrance into Heaven.)

However, what I call the "magic moment" thesis of evangelical Christianity, in which a person participates in his own salvation in a sense, by "choosing" to "accept God into his life through faith in Christ" puts a huge amount of responsibility on the individual Christian. A Christian, according to Calvinism, must knowingly accept God. That sounds fine and sensible at first hearing, but if it is true, then inevitably a person is an active participant in his own salvation. If salvation requires both God's will and an individual's assent—even if we accept the premise, as Calvinists do, that assent will come only if God wishes it—the individual's act is still an essential part of the process.

The situation with good works is the same. Calvinists, correctly believing that church membership is not a sufficient proof of one's salvation, conclude that, as the apostle James noted, an individual's works are the evidence of one's relationship with God. Well and good. Unfortunately, the onus is then on each individual Christian to show the world that they are right with God. And here is the problem: given that the individual's assent to God's will is a central element in salvation, then it would seem that at least to some degree an individual's struggles with sin are not entirely in God's hands. After all, one must consent to being made holy. And if one is not entirely holy, who is at fault? Surely not God, who is all-powerful and perfectly good. The one who is at fault is the individual whose inherent depravity has caused him to resist God's efforts to sanctify him.

That is indeed the truth about sin, as all Christians would agree. The problem, of course, is that there is no way out of this trap once one enters it. The individual is responsible for his or her own sins, and although God has already forgiven them (as a consequence of the magic moment), no amount of human effort can fully dislodge the sinful impulses from an individual and stop their evil consequences.

Catholicism, as Douthat notes, has an answer. I should say that God's Word provides us with the answer, which Catholics and other pre-Calvin Christian denominations (such as Lutheranism) have not forgotten. It is this: the effectiveness of the Sacraments. Douthat notes that Catholics see God as working "in the mystical materials of the Church itself -- in doctrine, in scripture, and above all in the sacraments," but it is important to note that evangelicals accept the first two completely but have a distinctly different understanding of the sacraments. To them, the sacrament of baptism is an individual's response to salvation, which happens during the moment in which he accepts Christ into his heart.

Communion, similarly, for Calvinist-influenced Christians is a Christian's response to God: it is not a way for God to put something directly into the individual (specifically, the True Presence of the Lord in His body and blood), but rather a way for an individual to show God his personal devotion and witness to others that God is real and cares for each person, an act which God will reward by strengthening that person's faith.

For Christians with pre-Calvinist assumptions, however, the sacraments are real. (We do differ on the number of the sacraments, but all agree on at least two: baptism and communion.) For pre-Calvinist Christians, as I shall call this group for short, God actually works His power in us through the sacraments.

In baptism, the Holy Spirit of God is placed in the individual, and he or she is stamped as a child of God. The individual is taken into the Church universal, the body of Christ, and is thereafter perfectly free to stay or leave. But the actual entry does not require any action on the part of the believer. No act of assent is necessary. Hence, in pre-Calvinist thinking, the Christian has truly had no part whatsoever in his or her salvation. No one can take any credit for being saved, nor for any good works they do, nor even for remaining in the Church.

Of course, as Ross noted, this can give people a tendency toward latitudinarianism, given that all is so easily forgiven.

However, that need not be so, because of the other major sacrament: communion.

In communion, the presence of Christ is in the bread and wine (consubstantiation), or the elements are turned into the real body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation), and when a sincerely penitent believer partakes of them, that strength of God is placed in them anew. Here, too, God is doing all the work. Yes, the believers must confess their sins (privately to a priest or publicly in the liturgy), but God is truly doing the work of renewal.

I recall that Flannery O'Connor once said of evangelicals' idea about communion, "Well, if it's just symbolic, then I don't want no part of it!"

I can understand why, and in her charmingly tart way O'Connor set forth a crucial reason for the perennial laments about the Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience among evangelicals themselves. Evangelical theology places a huge amount of responsibility on the individual Christian, who is, after all, no more than a highly fallible human being who has been redeemed by God and remains always a work in progress. Pre-Calvinist Christians can proceed to the altar for refreshment and renewal, and need bring nothing to the table but their sincere repentance.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, after that "magic moment" in which they ask Christ to come into their life, are perpetually under the gun. Once saved, good works are supposed to follow inevitably, and every failure is a failure of the individual, certainly not of God.

All Christians agree that any sin is a consequence of human depravity, not a shortcoming of God's power or mercy. For evangelicals, however, there is no supernatural recourse, as there is for pre-Calvinist Christians. One can only continue try to try harder. And as both Ronald Sider and Ross Duthout note, at some point such self-sanctification becomes too great a burden to bear.

Given that evangelicals do indeed believe in the supernatural, I would suggest that there is a viable alternative to their agonizing "cycle of Protestantism." That is to recognize that there is true power in the sacraments. It will require a rethinking of very important doctrines, and it will surely subject both the individual and the Church to new hazards borne of human sin; but it will also, in the wonderfully paradoxical way that God often works, remove a great and unhappy impediment to Christians' achievement of "the peace that passes all understanding."

I'd consider that a trade well worth making.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Watch Your Mouth, Buddy!

The Blogosphere takes down another public figure for speaking intemperately. The Trent Lott treatment catches up with CNN's Eason Jordan right after taking down Dan Rather. Jordan just quit his top job with the left of center news network.

Friday, February 11, 2005

North Korean Nukes

It is exceedingly tempting to dismiss the various bellicose statements of North Korea's Kim government as just so much meaningless bluster, given the regularity of such emissions from Pyongyang.

I think, however, that what happened yesterday is very important, and specifically because the twofold announcement by Pyongyang seems to be based on a rational calculation of North Korea's current situation and highly plausible, from their perspective, fears of imminent U.S. action there.

As I have noted in an article on National Review Online today, North Korea's abrupt announcement yesterday that it has manufactured nuclear weapons and that it would not return to the U.S.-sponsored six-nation talks intended to prevent the isolated nation from developing such weapons is quite puzzling—at least initially.

Making one of the two announcements would have made great sense. But not both.

It would seem, after all, that the current negotiations need have no more effect than previous ones, if the North Koreans simply used them as a PR device and holding action while forging ahead with weapons development on the sly, as they have quite evidently done in the past. And if the North Koreans were to enter negotiations after announcing that they had developed working nuclear weapons, that would surely strengthen their hand. The talks would then become a conversation about what to do about the weapons, not whether to allow them to be developed.

Their action of yesterday fails to accomplish either of those things, and it isolates North Korea further from other nations. In particular, it is sure to infuriate the United States and Japan, two of the three major powers in the region. After hearing the statement by the North Korean Foreign Ministry, the governor of Tokyo scoffed and openly dared Pyongyang to fire a missile at Japan.

It seems unlikely, however, that it is a mere coincidence that North Korea should make this announcement and pull out of talks just a few days after the democratic elections in Iraq. (Feel free to put quotation marks around the word democratic if you wish.) In fact, it seems quite plausible that the Kim regime saw the recent comments by Secretary of State Rice as a warning that the United States was going to come after North Korea, and sooner than anyone might think.

The statement by the North Korean Foreign Ministry said Pyongyang has "manufactured nukes for self-defense to cope with the Bush administration's undisguised policy to isolate and stifle" the nation. Thursday's New York Times reported that Pyongyang's statement "zeroed in in on Dr. Rice's testimony last month in her Senate confirmation hearings, where she lumped North Korea with five other dictatorships, calling them 'outposts of tyranny.'"

It seems plausible, then, that Pyongyang came to the conclusion that the United States and a coalition of other nations was about to do something that would ultimately lead to the fall of the Kim regime and a reunification of Korea on terms determined entirely by South Korea and its powerful allies. Yesterday's statement, then, was Pyongyang's way of forestalling such action by raising the stakes radically, in suggesting that any U.S. move to impose its will on North Korea would lead to the use, however inefficient and elementary, of nuclear weapons by Pyongyang.

It is not difficult to imagine what possible steps by a U.S.-led coalition North Korea was worried about—starting with economic sanctions and going on from there. In confirmation of this premise, note that today's New York Tmes article on the subject reported, "North Korea has warned the world that it considers economic sanctions a declaration of war."

And where did Pyongyang think China fit into this scenario? Evidently they envisioned Beijing protesting mightily but ultimately sitting on the sidelines, reluctant to endanger its enormous and lucrative foreign trade with the West by siding with North Korea.

If this is indeed something like the thought process that led to Thursday's announcement, the implications for the U.S.-led response are murky indeed. America can ill afford to let this pass without some form of action. However, anything substantive, including measures as apparently mild as a call for economic sanctions, will only assure Pyongyang that their interpretation of recent U.S. statements has been exactly correct.

Hence, the United States must simultaneously assure Pyongyang that we have no intention whatever of bringing down their government and that if North Korea does not suspend development of nuclear weapons we will indeed bring down their government. Squaring that circle now becomes the first great test for President Bush's second term and Condi Rice's tenure as Secretary of State. If there is an answer short of eventual war, it is by no means clear at this point what it could be.

Utter Journalistic Incompetence . . .

As a scholar-in-training, I've noticed that one must do a tremendous amount of research and just plain "breathing the air" of a subject to really get it right. The process has made me terribly suspicious of anything journalists write unless they've focused closely on a specific subject throughout their careers. Powerline confirmed my judgment yesterday:

Very few people realize how often mainstream media sources say things that just aren't true. Sometimes the reason is malice, more often it's ignorance or prejudice. A fascinating example of a libel directed against the Catholic church--undoubtedly the world's most frequently defamed institution--was brought to our attention by reader Matthew Kowalski. On New Year's Day, the Washington Post published an article by Jose Antonio Vargas titled "Seeking the Hand of God in the Waters". The article reported on various efforts to find theological meaning in the South Asian tsunami. The Post article included these paragraphs:

Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago, has written his 55th book, "When Faiths Collide," which he says should land in bookstores this week.
"It's only natural to repose yourself in the will of God," he says. "If you're a believer, then you must believe that God, somehow, is a presence in all of this. But God didn't tell anybody that you go through life without disasters."

Still, talk of religion's role in the disaster irks Marty. Following the devastation in Lisbon in 1755, priests roamed the streets, hanging those they believed had incurred God's wrath. That event "shook the modern world," he notes, changing people's idea of a benevolent, all-caring God.

The ludicrous assertion that priests had "roamed the streets" hanging people after the Lisbon earthquake was made by Vargas, and apparently passed by one or more editors at the Post without raising any questions. The claim was then picked up and repeated by a number of other news sources.

It struck at least one person odd, however: a woman named Theresa Carpinelli. In the Catholic Exchange, she tells the fascinating story of her effort to get to the bottom of this smear against her church. A casual reader of the paragraphs quoted above might attribute the "hanging" reference to Professor Marty. In fact, however, he was astonished to learn that the claim was being attributed to him. It appears that it may have originated in an unsourced, wholly imaginary Wikipedia entry. For reasons not yet explained, Vargas slipped it into his article in the midst of Professor Marty's comments. Ms. Carpinelli has corresponded with Vargas and the hoax has been exposed, but as far as I can determine, the Post has not run a correction.

The moral of the story is that news sources that are considered reliable by many people, like the Washington Post, in fact make a great many errors--some innocent, others not. If an assertion sounds outlandish, like the claim that roving bands of 18th century Catholic priests went about hanging people, realize that it may very well be a fabrication. (Or, to take another example, the claim that a Secretary of the Interior expressed the view that environmental preservation is unnecessary in view of the imminent end of the world.) And bear in mind that false statements seem to be made more frequently about some people--Catholics, say, or Republicans--than about others.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

An Exemplary Life

In the books section of the current issue of National Review is a look at Right Turns, the recently published autobiography of Michael Medved. Medved is a very accomplished and genteel individual whose evolving attitudes toward morality and society reflect important trends of recent decades. The review, written by the present author, is available only in the print and web-.pdf versions of the magazine, not online. Here are some excerpts which may whet your interest:

"If you want to understand how thoroughly the American elite moved from the right to the left in the 20th century, consider this: The most talked-about conversions are those that went the other way. Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, the neoconservatives, and the like are remembered not because their stories are so representative of the times, but because they are so unusual. . . .

"Like Ronald Reagan, who always said that he didn't leave the Democratic party but rather that the party left him, Medved didn't leave liberalism—liberalism left him.

"Medved makes that clear in his new memoir, Right Turns, while continuing to embrace the conservative label. During the early 1970s, Medved notes, he associated the term liberal with 'positive values like compassion, generosity, enlightenment, and integrity.' The American Left, however, though still called liberal, had moved away from those notions, and they were coming to be more commonly associated with the Right. As a result, leftism became exceedingly perverse and dangerous. . . .

"What makes Middle Americans so much more appealing to him than the liberal elite is their concern for individual moral choices—as opposed to mere words, which are notoriously easy to bestow. He says 'one of the most depressing, dysfunctional aspects of contemporary culture' is 'the focus on faraway problems over which we have no control rather than achievable aims in our immediate surroundings.'

". . . Medved notes that prosaic activities—such as his embarrassing daily habit of picking up trash off his neighborhood streets—are a very simple way we can all make the world better. 'Despite the alarming pronouncements of big-government demagogues who want us to feel powerless and paralyzed without their grandiose new programs,' he says, 'we can make the private choices that determine destiny.'

". . . Medved, an Orthodox Jew, writes that 'on every significant challenge-whether it's crime or poverty or family breakdown or drug addiction or educational inadequacy-serious Christianity represents part of the solution, not part of the problem.'"

Michael Medved is truly a good and generous man whose affection for bourgeois life, America, and decent, normal people is highly appealing. His life is an interesting and, as his book makes clear, instructive one.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

About Those 10-Year Medicare Drug Cost Projections

The headlines are screaming. The politicos are concerned, deeply concerned. Brows are being furrowed, furrows are being browed, green eyeshades are all the rage, and the political class finds itself shocked, shocked that projections---looking out ten years!---of program costs have increased.

And all of this is because of the evil drug companies: We are talking about the budget projections for the new Medicare drug benefit, after all, and the drug companies have raised some of their prices. This particular charge is deeply amusing, in that it is being made largely by politicians who would sooner lose an arm than cut taxes.

In any event, it turns out that the charge---most prominently in today's Washington Post---is not true. Yes, the ten-year projection made in 2003 was about $511 billion. Yes, the ten-year projection now is $723 billion. But those are two different ten-year periods---the former 2004-2013, the latter 2006-2015---a fact seemingly lost on the crack journalists from the Post, a group simultaneously ignorant, stupid, lazy, dishonest, biased, and arrogant. For the same ten-year period 2004-2013, the earlier projection was $511 billion, and the latter is $518 billion, a difference of about 1.4 percent. The difference in the two ten-year periods is crucial, because the earlier period includes two years before the program takes effect, and because the latter ten-year period includes more Medicare beneficiaries.

None of this says anything about whether the projections in the end will prove even remotely similar to the reality that emerges over time. But that is a different question. For now it is clear that the Post "reporters" are interested in engendering a political campaign in favor of involving the federal behemoth in the negotiation of drug prices. Since 1993, the feds have done that for childhood vaccines, and since 1993 there has been an endemic shortage of such vaccines and a monotonic decline in the number of producers. Any thoughts on why that might be?


Today's New York Times reports, "The Bush administration offered a new estimate of the cost of the Medicare drug benefit on Tuesday, saying it would cost $720 billion in the next 10 years."

The article quotes Judd Gregg (R-NH), the new chair of the Senate Budget Committee, as saying he wants to "put the brakes on the growth of entitlements" and take a close look at the new Medicare law.

"Since it was sold as a $400 billion program, that's what we should keep it at," Mr. Gregg said.

Well, good luck with that.

The pattern for these entitlements has been well established, and it's clear how this one is destined to play out.

Let's go back four years and move forward from there. Espying potential political gain, the two parties compete to buy the votes of a particular political constituency by simultaneously lauding the wonderful benefits of a new spending program while underestimating the costs. Then, when the true costs are coming to be known, the conservative party says, "Whoops! Better get those costs in line. Have to cut benefits and raise payroll taxes for this." And the leftward party says, "Whoa, there, fellas! Peoples is counting on this money! If you cut them off, they'll die!" The conservative party then loses nerve, and raises the ante, but not enough to please anybody. They lose votes. The leftward party gets credit for saving the lives of real, needy people from the evil, green-eyeshade-wearing, big-business-favoring, kickback-taking accounting geeks of the conservative party.

And in the next go-round and ever after, the discussion is never to be whether or why, but only how much?

I'm sure the prescription drug benefit helped President Bush win a few key states in the recent election. It's surely worth it to him. But is it worth it to us?

Dean's Abortion Profile

George Neumayr has a worthwhile piece up at American Spectator on Howard Dean's ties with Planned Parenthood. Much has been made of Dem agonizing about how they can reconnect with voters motivated by their faith. I got news for you, naming Dr. Dean the party chair won't help.

Here's a nice excerpt:

At the very moment Democrats are claiming to distance themselves from abortion, they run back towards it by making Howard Dean -- a former doctor for Planned Parenthood -- their public face. Though the press almost never mentions it, Dean did an OB/GYN rotation for Planned Parenthood in the 1970s and later served as an executive board member of Planned Parenthood New England, meaning that he directly oversaw the largest abortion provider in the region. Were the Democrats sincerely moving to the middle on abortion, selecting a former overseer of abortion would have been the last thing to do.

Now they have managed to lash themselves to abortion even tighter by turning a Planned Parenthood alumnus and mascot -- Dean received the organization's Margaret Sanger award -- into the party's chief spokesman. Yes, like Hillary Clinton, Dean will try and call a few audibles on his old colleagues and friends at Planned Parenthood. But that won't work. In politics, past is prologue and perception.

What the Democratic party doesn't understand is that a tight relationship with Planned Parenthood nowadays is not good resume' material. In an era when the womb has become more or less transparent, anybody with a conscience has become pretty uneasy with the idea of abortion.

Churchill Downs, No Backtrack

This Ward Churchill genius at the University of Colorado gave a speech last night in which he declared that he stands behind his earlier article that likens the 9/11 victims to little Eichmanns.

I guess it takes one to think he knows one.