Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Less Likely to Have a Civil War or Be on the Losing Side of a World War Than is China

Capitalism and Cow Worship
by Sala Kannan

[I recently spoke to] Perumal, our old cook from India.

As youngsters growing up in India, my mother always warned, "Perumal won't be here forever, you girls have to learn to cook." She worried that hiring help around the house was getting increasingly difficult. No one wanted those jobs anymore. What would we do if Perumal left? [...]

Perumal worked for my family in India for 26 years, [and now works for a restaurant in Malaysia at a much higher salary, to put his daughter through college. Said he], "maybe I'll come back to India someday and start a restaurant. It's not like before, you know. Everyone wants to eat out these days. I'll start a nice vegetarian restaurant." [...]

Perumal is right about it not being like before. The Indian middle class has grown so affluent that they can easily afford to eat out more often compared to a decade ago. In fact, according to a McKinsey report, the Indian food industry grew faster than the information technology industry over the last 10 years.

The fast food industry in India is even bigger business. India's fast-food industry is growing by 40% a year and is expected to generate over a billion dollars in sales this year.

Perumal is also on the money with his "nice vegetarian restaurant" idea.
My [former] cook, who has never set foot in a school, who knows nothing about marketing, has got it right.

Let me explain. Consumerism is big business in India. There will be 628 million middle-class Indians by 2015. And already, their net income has doubled over the last 10 years. Obviously, every multinational company now wants to sell in India. Some companies have failed and others succeeded.
The ones that failed did so because they were not sensitive to the cultural factors that affect consumer behavior in India.

Kellogg's introduced corn flakes in India in 1995. But the product failed miserably. It achieved less than 20% of its initial sales target. How could Kellogg's have gone wrong? Corn flakes are cheap, more and more Indian women are working and don't cook breakfast anymore, and people want a nutritious yet quick meal, right? Kellogg's seems like the perfect answer. [...]
Why, then, did Kellogg's suffer years of losses in India? [...]

Indians consume differently. Just like how what people buy in any country is defined by local culture. [...]
And in this case, Indians like HOT milk in their cereal. Kellogg's cereal is made for cold milk and didn't hold up to hot milk. It became soggy. Nobody wanted to eat it. For years, Kellogg's struggled in India. It was only after revamping its product and making a cereal suitable for hot milk that Kellogg's became profitable in India.

So here are some cultural quirks multinationals should keep in mind when marketing in India:

1. Indians like hot cereal.
2. Most Indians worship cows; part of the country is vegetarian.
3. Indians don't kiss (at least not in the movies).

It was point No. 2 that my cook Perumal drove home. You see, not only are many of us vegetarian, we are a cow-worshipping, non-beef-eating lot. About 20% of India's population is completely vegetarian, and about 82% does not eat beef.

Yet McDonald's revenue in India has grown a whopping 50% annually since 1997. How does McDonald's, the world's largest BEEF-based food chain, thrive and flourish in cow-revering, vegetarian India?

Enter the Maharaja Mac. A 100% ground lamb burger served with lettuce, tomatoes, special sauce, cheese, onion and pickles on a sesame bun. Other items include the Chicken Maharaja Mac, the McVeggie and the McAloo Tikki (with potatoes). The vegetarian items are advertised with a "100% pure veg" stamp on them.

Seventy-five percent of the McDonald's menu in India is Indianized. In 2001, McDonald's also introduced the Veg Surprise burger, a veggie burger with Indian spices. Not surprisingly, sales volume shot up 40%.

As for the flagship Maharaja Mac and the McVeggie, not only are they profitable, they are also politically correct burgers. Indian political activists are always eager to protest again so-called "cultural imperialism." And foreign-based fast food chains are easy targets.

Take KFC, for example. After an ambitious start in the late 1990s, KFC scaled back its expansion plans after major protests. KFC was accused of using illegally high amounts of MSG and frying its chicken in pork fat (India's 150 million Muslims don't eat pork). Activist groups protested outside the restaurant in Bangalore. [...]
KFC now has just one restaurant in India.

McDonald's has 58 restaurants in India[...] As Managing Director of McDonalds India, Vikram Bakshi says "When you go into any country, very clearly, you have to understand the culture; you have to understand how you intend to be relevant to the consumer in that country. I don't think any brand, no matter how big it is, can take the market lightly. And I think the biggest mistake is when you think you have a big brand and that everyone is overwhelmed by it."

I only know a bit about India, and not all of what I've learned is positive.
However, they are democratically organized, and there is at least a segment of Indian society that's forward looking, modern, and technologically-oriented. As Ms Kannan writes, Indians are rapidly becoming wealthy enough to have a consumer society, and Indian demand for gold jewelry was so great last year that it pushed the global price of gold above $ 500 an ounce.

If they can avoid having a nuclear war with Pakistan or China, a robust, creative, wealthy, technologically-advanced, friendly nation of a billion people will be a major driver for the benefit of humanity in general, and the U.S. in particular.

Think Japan times five.

The same might be true of China, if somehow China can peacefully transition to a modern nation - India's big advantage over China is that they're already a (mostly) modern nation, just a currently poor one, like the Czech Republic or Hungary.

China is more technologically advanced than is India, with the Chinese having better ICBMs, the ability to design and build their own computers and aircraft, and even a crewed space programme, the third-best on Earth. (Although their uncrewed space programme is rubbish).
However, their future potential is clearly much more stunted than India's.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Crunchy Con Job

Rod Dreher, a writer and editor at the Dallas Morning News and National Review Online contributor, invented the term "Crunchy Conservative" to describe a movement among conservatives to promote ecological and communitarian values over globalization and economic growth. His book on the subject, "Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party)" is being promoted by Dreher and his "tribe" of crunchies at a book-club blog on NRO. Here is the obligatory manifesto of the Crunchy Con movement:

A Crunchy Con Manifesto

1. We are conservatives who stand outside the conservative mainstream; therefore, we can see things that matter more clearly.

2. Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.

3. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4. Culture is more important than politics and economics. [Double yep! The health of a society is almost entirely the result of culture, if we define culture as "thought." Healthy thoughts equals healthy culture.

5. A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship—especially of the natural world—is not fundamentally conservative.

6. Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.

7. Beauty is more important than efficiency.

8. The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our senses to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.

9. We share Russell Kirk’s conviction that “the institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

The tenth item was not released on the blog, you have to buy the book to read it.

Without having read the book it is hard to get a good understanding of the particular things that Dreher would have done in service of these platitudes, though a read of the discussion thread on the blog gives some idea. Here are some of my thoughts on the manifesto.

Item 4, "culture is more important than politics or economics" is a rather slippery one to grasp. The problem I have with this statement is that these three aspects of society are so closely intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate them and deal with them as independent entitites. We have the luxury, by virtue of our historically unprecedented prosperity, to be able to make tradeoffs with our incomes to pursue more fulfilling cultural pursuits. But we shouldn't take that prosperity for granted, or disparage the hard work and ambition of our ancestors whse economic strivings provided this material bounty that we enjoy. If we were reduced to grinding poverty overnight through some global catastrophe, economics would most certainly become our most pressing concern. Likewise if our political situation deteriorated to the point that the very stability of our society were at stake, then politics would be our primary concern. It is only through the superior accomplishments of our political and economic system in the US that we have bot the stability and the prosperity to worry about cultural matters, at least that aspect of culture that has nothing to do with economics or politics.

In item 6 he states "Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract". I really don't see that we have to make a choice between these things. The local, like your shadow, will always be there, wherever you are. Wherever one chooses to live, one will always have to come to terms with his locality. There will always be products and services that can only be provided locally. Whether the technician who installs your phone line works for a locally owned small business or a global multinational conglomerate, the interaction you have with him will be as authentic as otherwise.

I sense here a nostalgia for a time long gone that will never return. Dreher and company seem only capable of finding fault with modern, mobile society, and imagine that the settled provincial life will cure all those ills without introducing any of their own. They apply no imagination to the task of seeing what is good about mobility.

There is a negative flip-side to this preference for localness and aversion to moving away from home. When local identity becomes overly deterministic in setting values, it does so at the expense of a connectness to the greater whole. Provincial loyalty breeds an aversion of the foreigner. Wars are usually not started by the cosmopolitans, but by the nativists.

For whatever sins that are pinned on globalization, we have to admit that it has brought many peoples of the world closer together. I work daily with people from India, Russia and China, among other places. I have to believe that these daily human contacts between the peoples of the world serve the greater good of us all.

Item 7 states "Beauty is more important than efficiency". Again, I think that there is a false dichotomy at work here. To the extent that we have the luxury to indulge in inefficiency for beauty's sake we have to thank three hundred years of relentless innovation and improvement in all areas of economic life. I am no enemy of beauty, but I believe that there is a danger in moralizing aesthetics. Beauty is a pleasure of life that is bestowed upon us in measured doses, but it is not the end all of life, and it is not something to be worshipped. Goodness and beauty are not one in the same. Some of histories worst cruelties were committed in the pursuit of beauty. The Nazi movement in Germany was inspired in a large part by aesthetics, both racial and cultural. Of course I am not comparing Crunchy Cons to the Nazis. But I've noted among some of the commenters on the blog a tendency to use this aesthethic sense of the good life as a club with which to bang on the unregenerate slobs that don't share the vision. This quote from Caleb Stegall makes my point:

I grew up despising hippie culture. I found, and still find, virtually all of the Boomer cultural affectations to be utterly false and preening; I find the nihilism of their intellectual and popular leaders to be entirely banal and unromantic; their radical egalitarianism was, I thought, an emasculation of all the good things in life. Rather than donning Birks and tie-dye t-shirts, I dreamed about sword-canes and black capes. My image of a conservative hero came from men like Theodore Roosevelt, Andre Malraux, T.E. Lawrence, and Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Men of action and adventure yet also of refined taste and intellect. Men who wore black, fought for the old world, were on intimate terms with both life and death, and who never went anywhere without their driver or their butler. The image is about as far as one can get from John Lennon.

I came to understand, later, that while the romantic age of Malraux and Saint-Exupery was gone (if it had ever truly existed), there was a certain quiet romanticism still to be had in living a life closely rooted to the ground, learning to love the limits of one’s existence; to suffer one’s place and one’s people in service of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. This is the true basis for finding love, friendship, and a meaningful — or decent, as Bruce put it — life: master one’s passions, deny oneself, and love others.

It was this quiet romance that I found, on reflection, in the small-town folks and traditional religious community I grew up with and in which formed a spiritual order — both personal and social — nourished on a veneration of children, work, craft, a sense of honor in commitments, and a common responsibility. Then I found the same thing in the writing and lives of people like Russell Kirk and Wendell Berry.

It was not until later, when I moved into the wider world of business, high-stakes law, and Evangelicalism, that I discovered that all conservatives were not like this. That instead, there existed a kind of upwardly mobile coldblooded rationalizing self-serving conservative mind that struck me, still strikes me, as sterile and not quite human.

I find it hard to admire the moral compass of a man who can let his aesthetic values lead him to question the humanity of his fellows. This is what I meant by the dangers of moralizing aesthetics. Can he point to anything immoral that these one-time business acquaintances have engaged in, other than career ambitions? It is an extreme judgment of personal qualities that society as a whole finds admirable. If this is the face of crunchy conservatism, then it will be seen as no more than a scolding kind of snobbery and holier-than-thou elitism. While these self-appointed saviors of the American soul imagine themselves on a quest for deeper values, it appears that they are, in reality, fishing in some rather shallow water.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

How free is free?

Isn’t it extraordinary how our news seems to arrange itself into themes?

British ‘historian’ (actually racist crackpot) David Irving was imprisoned in Austria yesterday for Holocaust-denial. In his (unsuccessful) defence, he claimed both to have changed his views, and that it was a matter of free speech.

Here's the report from the Times:

DAVID IRVING, the far-right British historian, sat stunned and open-mouthed yesterday when an Austrian court found him guilty of denying the Holocaust and sentenced him to three years in jail.

“I’m very shocked and I’m going to appeal,” Irving, 67, said as he was bundled out of the Vienna courtroom by armed anti-riot police.

From the public gallery a British supporter shouted “Stay strong, David”, before he too was led away.

But in Britain there was dismay at a verdict that could turn Irving into a right-wing martyr.

Irving had pleaded guilty to denying the Holocaust in two speeches in Austria in 1989. He was arrested when he re-entered the country, where it is a crime to deny the Holocaust, last November, and had been in custody since.

During his seven-hour trial yesterday Irving sought to convince the jury that he had changed his mind and now acknowledged the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis.

“I made a mistake when I said there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz,” he told the court.

But the judge and jury were unswayed. One hundred and fifty-eight people have been convicted of Holocaust denial in Austria between 1999 and 2004, but only a handful other than Irving have been imprisoned.

Lord Janner of Braunstone, chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, was pleased by the conviction.

He said: “It sends a clear message to the world that we must not tolerate the denial of the mass murderers of the Holocaust. The Nazis tried to wipe out an entire people . . . We must learn the lessons of the past to build a decent society for the future.”

The verdict came amid a furious debate in Europe over freedom of expression, with many defending the media’s right to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The Arabic television station al-Jazeera broadcast the verdict to its Islamic audience.

Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, was recently acquitted of making speeches inciting racial hatred. Abu Hamza, the radical Islamic cleric, was sentenced last week to seven years in prison for inciting racial hatred and soliciting murder.

In Britain there was alarm at the sentence. “Anyone who denies the Holocaust is off their rocker,” Gerald Howarth, Tory MP for Aldershot, said. “But to send a man to prison for three years for something that he said sixteen years ago and has since changed his view — what are we coming to?”

Anthony Beevor, the military historian, said: “However nauseating, these people should be confronted in debate rather than chucked into jail and turned into martyrs.”

The verdict will end for good the career of a man banned from a dozen countries from Canada to South Africa for belittling the murder of the Jews and glorifying Hitler.

In 2000 Irving was forced into bankruptcy when he unsuccessfully sued Deborah Lipstadt, an American academic who had called him a Holocaust denier. He was ordered to pay £3 million in legal costs and had to sell his Mayfair home.

She said yesterday: “He should have been met by the sound of one hand clapping. The one thing he deserves, he really deserves, is obscurity.”

On the one hand it does seem excessive to jail a man for views expressed 16 years ago (although he has made similar statements in public as recently as 2001).

On the other hand, three years in the nick couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Oiling the squeaky wheel

Dr Helen, aka the InstaWife, draws a very prescient connection between welfare and Muslim misbehavior in Denmark:

You would think that governments as well as people in general would understand that appeasing and rewarding negative behavior doesn't work. It's basic psychology 101--but one that not even most psychology professors understand or put to use. And apparently, this concept is foreign to many of the politically correct persuasion outside the classroom as well--for them, their feeling of moral "superiority" trumps human nature and causes liberals to turn a blind eye to justice and acts of violence.

In Bruce Bawer's new book, While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within,the side effects of the appeasement of Muslims by the Danish government are clear--as their government pumps more and more welfare money into the pockets of disgruntled Muslims, the rate of violence against "infidels" there increases.

Bawer points out that in Denmark, Muslims make up only 5% of the population but receive 40% of welfare outlays. Many of these immigrants are told by their leaders that Muslim law gives them the right to "cheat and lie in the countries that harbor them." They are told to view the benefits they receive as jizya--the tributes that "the infidel natives of Muslim-occupied countries are obliged to pay to Muslims in order to preserve their lives." And the welfare offices in Denmark can be the setting for violence--termed "culture clashes" by Danish journalists. "Some clients lay waste to social security offices and hit social workers--not out of frustration but because they've learned that bullying gets them what they want. The Danish government is not repressive; welfare workers tend to be sympathetic and eager to help. Many immigrants perceive this as weakness, and exploit it, 'tyrannizing' the social workers." The Danish solution? More PC behavior--get translators to translate not only between languages but between cultures. Yeah, that will work.

Illusions die hard. Hopefully not as hard as freedoms.

The Digerati Chronicles - part 1

My recent post on Andrew Keen and his dire warnings about the Web 2.0 movement's radical agenda have prompted me to delve a little more deeply into this subculture to get a better understanding of its values and personalities, starting with Mr Keen himself. In a recent post on his blog The Great Seduction, he compares himself to Nick Carroway, the narrator of F Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby:


I just got a hilarious note from Chris Coulter in reaction to the Weekly Standard piece that is definitely worth (re)broadcasting:

Wow, great piece...
Odd, in that the San Fran anti-utopians, which are mainly centered around Andrew Orlowski and 'The Castle' hive zone -- I guess I just must have missed you, if in that circle. And another one of those Ex-Patty Redcoats to boot; West Coast Brit Invasion, everywhere I turn it's all these eternal Lobsterbacks. ;)
Irony abounds, eh?
Which might be where I think you are coming from, cashed-out enough,to jab, but yet not hard enough to get disinvited from the parties. Sorta Nick Carrisms, as he plays nice to get Speaker Circuit gigs and sucks up to Dave Winer and other Ego-Fed Utopians. Or Nick Dentonisms,snarky enough to be ribbing, but cotton-candy enough to be toast of town. And then Mercury News and offshot Gillmorisms,going cheerleading. With Levy, Mossberg, Markoff writing one-off Mediabistroistic high-sugar suck-up feature-pieces, being invited to all the swanky billionaire parties. And JCD saying blogging is a waste of time, and then doing one and proving it.
No one is covering the Valley as it SHOULD be covered, as one big cesspool of FRAUD and VAPORWARE. No one.Well rant over. Hi. ;)

Brilliant. I couldn't have described myself better. I've only got one thing to add. I'm not sorta Nick Carrism -- although I am a big fan of Nick Carr's work. Instead, I'm sorta Nick Carrowayism. It was Nick Carroway, of course, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel Great Gatsby, simple innocent Nick, thenarrative voice of the book, who covered the Twenties and West Egg as it SHOULD be covered.

And Silicon Valley is just another West Egg eighty years on. And I'm that simple innocent Nick Carroway here to whip up an omelette out of all the fraud and the vaporware.

And this from a man who would accuse his fellow bloggers of narcissism! Leaving aside Keen's inflated sense of self-importance for the moment, is there any truth to what he says about the culture of "fraud and vaporware" in Silicon Valley? In my last post I deconstructed Keen's warning about the deleterious effects of Web technology on the using public. In this and following posts I'd like to explore the personalities of this movement, and see if any of Keen's words ring true.

In his Weekly Standard article "Web 2.0" Keen fingers the major figures of the movement:

Just as Marx seduced a generation of European idealists with his fantasy of self-realization in a communist utopia, so the Web 2.0 cult of creative self-realization has seduced everyone in Silicon Valley. The movement bridges counter-cultural radicals of the '60s such as Steve Jobs with the contemporary geek culture of Google's Larry Page. Between the book-ends of Jobs and Page lies the rest of Silicon Valley including radical communitarians like Craig Newmark (of Craigslist.com), intellectual property communists such as Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig, economic cornucopians like Wired magazine editor Chris "Long Tail" Anderson, and new media moguls Tim O'Reilly and John Batelle.

I'll start with Craig Newmark, the creator of Craigslist.com. Craigslist started out as a shared e-mail list that Newmark started in 1994 to network with fellow computer nerds in the San Francisco Bay area. It has grown into a business earning over $20 million a year, and runs online communities for around 200 cities around the globe. I'll leave it to the reader as to whether this qualifies as radical communitarianism, more likely it is just a successful example of one of the kinds of applications that the internet excels at. But what is Newmark's social agenda, if any, for Craigslist?

This interview with Newmark from August 2004 gives some clues:

Q: Your site is one of the few that remains true to some of the earliest ideals of the Internet. It's fairly altruistic and basically non-commercial in nature. How have you been able to keep Craigslist a fairly organic community and why?

A: First, I don't feel like we are altruistic or anything like that. Basically, it's a matter of giving people a break. Just the same, we had to become a serious business. That became clear in early 1999. We were trying to do it with volunteers, and things were falling apart. Falling apart is bad. At that point, I started making a real company out of it, figuring that we would be charging for job postings and that would help us out.

That said, there is nothing pious or anti-commercial about us. The decision to make it a business was based on values I've been somewhat facetiously calling nerd values. The disease of my people -- the nerds -- is that we are very literal, which is a real pain in the butt, frankly. But again, nerd values are simple. It's good to make a good living. It's good to do well for your staff.

I feel that one of the best things a person can do for another is to create a job. So you do OK commercially, and then you try to make a difference of some sort. We're still looking for new and other ways of doing that.

Obviously Newmark carries no water for Marx in the way he envisions his business. Community values and commercial values can coexist. It seems that Newmark discovered the profit motive almost by accident, as a practical necessity to make his community website work and grow rather than as a primary goal. And maybe this is what rubs Keen the wrong way. Most urban lefties like Newmark are comfortably affluent by virtue of being smart, talented and well educated. Nerds like Newmark can make a good living in the American information economy without trying very hard by just indulging their passion for technology and networking with like minded nerds. It is easy to overlook the necessity of the profit motive for such people. Yet Newmark understands it as a necessity for acheiving his social goals, if not for his own consumption. It's good to make a good living. These aren't the words of a Marxist.

But further into the interview Newmark expresses the sort of vague, mushy 60's platitudes that suggests the web 2.0 movement is still running on the fumes of hippie nostalgia:

Q: Your site has enjoyed immense popularity compared with very commercial efforts to create the same sort of online community. What does that tell you about the service you are providing, and what it is that people are looking for?

A: I guess if one is building a community kind of site, whatever that means, people are really good at telling whether you're doing so through an honest intent of connecting with the community, of trying to connect with other people, or whether you're just trying to make a lot of money right away. The real core here is that we've kind of lost our sense of neighborhood or community. In our culture, I think we crave that. That's why a lot of sitcoms have been popular like "Seinfeld," "Northern Exposure" or "MASH" That's a big deal. Beyond that, a lot of the people who try that don't have persistence. I'm not very patient, but I'm pretty darned persistent.
Q: Google is a company whose founders express a similar kind of idealism about the medium that you do. They've made a very different choice from you, and they are about to become a public company. Do you think that they can succeed, or do you think the pressures of being a public company are such that it can't be done?


Q: What is the ownership or structure? In other words, who owns the company?

A: First, we don't think of ourselves as being owned. We're like a commons in the sense that we're providing a public service. Now business realities dictate that we have to be a company because that's the only way that you get a lot of legal protection. So we are incorporated. So there are shareholders, and of course shareholders are independent, but we just don't think about that much because we don't think of ourselves as a company in that sense.


Q: Google is a company whose founders express a similar kind of idealism about the medium that you do. They've made a very different choice from you, and they are about to become a public company. Do you think that they can succeed, or do you think the pressures of being a public company are such that it can't be done?

A: When it comes to Google, with them maintaining their moral compass, they seem to be putting a lot of energy into it. They've done a lot of thinking about ensuring that the venture capitalists really can't control things. That's a good lesson for everyone. So they've made a choice, and it's a choice consistent with their values, and I like their values. So, again, I like the choices that the folks at EBay have made. Different choices there, but they still provide a really valuable service to people. I like their moral compass as well.

Nowhere does Newmark mention any specifics about his moral compass or what he admires about the moral compass of Google. It seems that much of the moralizing is about striking a pose, or making a statement. Newmark seems to be saying that it's okay to make money as long as your real intent isn't to make money. And so we get Google and their corporate slogan "don't be evil", which is about as vague as it gets. It is a morality of aesthetics more than anything else. It is a morality of tastes and social differentiation, much as in the way that heirs of old money differentiate themselves from the crass, grasping new money crowd.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

1,2,3,4, I declare a limerick war

If cartoons are now on the Geneva Convention's list of banned weapons for waging civilizational war, what is left in freedom's arsenal? Inspired by Brit's paean to the unexpected rhyme, I've concocted an appropriately sensitive yet forceful critique of the radical Islamist threat to our cherished freedoms in verse. Please note that this limerick requires deliberate mispronounciation to achieve the rhyming effect.

An earnest young prophet named Mohammed
A religion of peace once proclaimed
Yet his followers in zeal
His intentions unreveal
Resulting in a world enflamed

Professor Dilbert

In eight panels this morning, Dilbert dishes out more lessons on economics and geopolitics than you are likely to get in 100 op-eds.

I couldn't find the link, so you will just have to imagine the artwork associated with this discussion between Dilbert and Dogbert:

Dilbert: I'm thinking about buying a more fuel efficient car.

Dogbert: Why?

Dilbert: It's my patriotic duty to reduce this countr's dependence on foreign sources of oil.

Dogbert: Why?

Dilbert: Because then the countries that hate us will have less money to fund terrorists.

Dogbert: Actually, developing countries would buy the oil you saved, thus adequately funding those same terrorists.

Dilbert: At leaste I wouldn't be funding them myself.

Dogbert: Oil is a fungible commodity, the capitalist system virtually guarantees that you will end up buying the lowest cost oil from sources unknown to you.

Dilbert: Well, maybe. But I want to my car to make a statement.

Dogbert: And that statement would be "Hey, everyone, I don't understand what fungible means."

Who would have thought that much wisdom could be tied up in a comic strip.

Friday, February 17, 2006

A web of lies?

Is there a fine line between technology boosterism and radical utopianism? Are the revolutionary technologies of today leading us down the dystopian path of other revolutionary movements of the recent past, like Communism? One person who answers "yes" to that question is Andrew Keen, the proprietor of "The Great Seduction", a website devoted to exposing the dangers of utopian technophilia, and the author of this article exposing the radical beliefs of the Web 2.0 movement.

SO WHAT, exactly, is the Web 2.0 movement? As an ideology, it is based upon a series of ethical assumptions about media, culture, and technology. It worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone--even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us--can and should use digital media to express and realize themselves. Web 2.0 "empowers" our creativity, it "democratizes" media, it "levels the playing field" between experts and amateurs. The enemy of Web 2.0 is "elitist" traditional media.

Empowered by Web 2.0 technology, we can all become citizen journalists, citizen videographers, citizen musicians. Empowered by this technology, we will be able to write in the morning, direct movies in the afternoon, and make music in the evening.

Sounds familiar? It's eerily similar to Marx's seductive promise about individual self-realization in his German Ideology:

Whereas in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.

Just as Marx seduced a generation of European idealists with his fantasy of self-realization in a communist utopia, so the Web 2.0 cult of creative self-realization has seduced everyone in Silicon Valley. The movement bridges counter-cultural radicals of the '60s such as Steve Jobs with the contemporary geek culture of Google's Larry Page. Between the book-ends of Jobs and Page lies the rest of Silicon Valley including radical communitarians like Craig Newmark (of Craigslist.com), intellectual property communists such as Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig, economic cornucopians like Wired magazine editor Chris "Long Tail" Anderson, and new media moguls Tim O'Reilly and John Batelle.

The ideology of the Web 2.0 movement was perfectly summarized at the Technology Education and Design (TED) show in Monterey, last year, when Kevin Kelly, Silicon Valley's über-idealist and author of the Web 1.0 Internet utopia Ten Rules for The New Economy, said:

Imagine Mozart before the technology of the piano. Imagine Van Gogh before the technology of affordable oil paints. Imagine Hitchcock before the technology of film. We have a moral obligation to develop technology.

But where Kelly sees a moral obligation to develop technology, we should actually have--if we really care about Mozart, Van Gogh and Hitchcock--a moral obligation to question the development of technology.

The consequences of Web 2.0 are inherently dangerous for the vitality of culture and the arts. Its empowering promises play upon that legacy of the '60s--the creeping narcissism that Christopher Lasch described so presciently, with its obsessive focus on the realization of the self.

Another word for narcissism is "personalization." Web 2.0 technology personalizes culture so that it reflects ourselves rather than the world around us. Blogs personalize media content so that all we read are our own thoughts. Online stores personalize our preferences, thus feeding back to us our own taste. Google personalizes searches so that all we see are advertisements for products and services we already use.

Instead of Mozart, Van Gogh, or Hitchcock, all we get with the Web 2.0 revolution is more of ourselves.

While it is very easy to draw parallels between the utopian beilefs of Marxists and the radical technophiles that Keen quotes, it is important to make the distinction between a political ideology that sought to impose its utopian vision through political revolutions, and the utopian beliefs of free market entrepreneurs that seek to enable their vision through the introduction of new technologies in the marketplace. While the new technologies may give people the fantasy that they can create music to equal Mozart, or films to equal Hitchcock, the very same technologies will expose their works to a public that will quite cruelly put them in their rightful place of worth.

I don't buy the narcissism rap, at least as it applies to the people who are taking advantage of the new web technologies. Of the bloggers that I know, (including myself), none of them imagine themselves to be Edward R Murrow or even Glenn Reynolds, for that matter. I'd estimate that 95% of bloggers are in it as a hobby, and don't imagine that they'll earn any greater benefit than to converse with other like-minded people on topics that interest them.

The technologies will make it easier for those people with the talents to be the next Mozart or Hitchcock or Murrow to cut their teeth inexpensively, and to be noticed by the people who can promote them to the position of recognition that they deserve. That is a good thing.

The biggest risk that the techno-utopians risk is that their visions flop in the marketplace, and they lose money and hopefully their delusions. Technology cannot turn dross into gold, it can only make it easier to produce both.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Historical perspectives on blasphemy

Some Western commentators have painted the publication of the Danish cartoons considered blasphemous by Muslims as a sign of modern irreverence, licentiousness and decadence. Here is one example of this viewpoint, from Charlie at AnotherThink:

Is Nothing Sacred?

Piss Christ, SerranoPost-modernism enjoys mocking the sacred. The "artist" Andres Serrano won acclaim for sinking a crucifix in a urine-filled jar. Chris Ofili got applause for covering the Virgin Mary with elephant dung. The Da Vinci Code imagines Jesus hitched to Mary Magdalene. The Book of Daniel depicts Jesus as a New Age therapist. Rolling Stone encourages Kanye West's messiah complex by putting him on their cover, bleeding from a crown of thorns.

God doesn't get much respect these days.

Mocking the sacred used to be out of bounds, but the lines have been moved. Faith and faith's symbols are fair game for ridicule because the cult of free speech trumps traditional religion. Taboos still exist, but blasphemy is not one of them.

Is this really true? Is the purpuseful denigration of the sacred symbols and beliefs of other people's religions really a modern phenomenon? I did a Google search on "anti-Papist" and found some early examples of blasphemous cartoons (Warning: the following images are offensive and denigrate Catholics and Jewish people):

The Papal hierarchy as mash in the Devil's vineyard.

Demonic anti-Papist caricature.

The Pope as Satan.

Papist crowning the Devil's pig.

Jewish scholars, wearing pointed hats, are suckled by their wetnurse, the Devil's pig.

The Papist Devil, "Ego sum Papa" (I am the Pope).

For a more recent example of anti-Catholic caricature, one can look to the illustrations from Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court".

And from the prestigious Harper's Weekly.

So, contrary to Charlie's complaint, I'd have to say that the Danish cartoons partake of a long history of Western irreverence for the sacred.

With (deity of choice) as my wing man..

You may not have envisioned the United States Air Force as the organization of choice if your goal was self-expression. The military life has always stressed the subjugation of personal displays of individuality in order to inculcate a sense of camraderie and brotherhood among young men from various geographical, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Unit cohesion, discipline, and combat effectiveness depends on this sense of brotherhood, this shared identity as Marines, or soldiers, or airmen, or seamen.

Last year a controversy at the United States Air Force Academy involving several incidents of allegedly preferential treatment to particular religious views, specifically Evangelical Christian, by officer instructors led the Air Force to adopt a statement of policy governing the the way that Air Force personnel could express their personal religious viewpoints during the conduct of their duties. Many conservative Evangelicals, in Congress, the media and the clergy pushed the Air Force to weaken the guidelines that they adopted in the wake of the controversy. They succeeded this week in that task.

The revised guidelines are considerably shorter than the original, filling one page instead of four. They place more emphasis on the Constitution's free exercise clause, which is mentioned four times, than on its prohibition on any government establishment of religion, which is mentioned twice.

The guidelines still warn superior officers to be "sensitive to the potential" that personal expressions of faith may appear to be official statements. But they say that, "subject to these sensitivities, superiors enjoy the same free exercise rights as all other airmen." They now add that there are no restrictions in situations "where it is reasonably clear that the discussions are personal, not official, and they can be reasonably free of the potential for, or appearance of, coercion."

Baldwin acknowledged in a telephone interview yesterday that the changes reflect the criticism from evangelicals.

"I think that my evangelical friends were concerned that we did limit, and somehow restrict, the chaplains' service, for example, because the guidance said chaplains should be 'as sensitive to those who do not welcome offerings of faith as they are generous in sharing their faith with those who do,' " Baldwin said.

The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of New Life Church, a congregation near the Air Force Academy, said the revised document restores the proper balance between the free exercise and establishment clauses.

"When I read it, I thought, if I were nonreligious, I would feel protected; if I were a minority religion, I would feel respected; and as a member of the majority religion, I feel the need to be respectful," Haggard said.

Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), a principal author of the congressional letter, said he considers the revised guidelines an improvement but is not wholly satisfied.

He noted that the revisions include a sentence saying: "We will respect the rights of chaplains to adhere to the tenets of their religious faiths and they will not be required to participate in religious activities, including public prayer, inconsistent with their faiths."

But he said the guidelines still call for "nondenominational, inclusive prayer or a moment of silence" at military ceremonies. "There is some progress, but it does not go as far as it needs to go in making sure that Christian chaplains can pray in the name of Jesus and other chaplains can pray according to their faiths," Jones said.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based group whose investigation of the Air Force Academy helped spark the controversy last year, said the revisions "focus heavily on protecting the rights of chaplains, while ignoring the rights of nonbelievers and minority faiths."

Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein, an Albuquerque lawyer who is suing the Air Force over its policy on religion, questioned the sentence allowing commanders to share their faith when it is "reasonably clear" that they are speaking personally, not officially.

"Reasonably clear from whose perspective, the superior's or the subordinate's?" asked Weinstein, a 1977 Air Force Academy graduate. "When a senior member of your chain of command wants to speak to you 'reasonably' about religion, saying 'Get out of my face, sir!' is not an option."

It will be interesting to watch how Evangelicals take advantage of this change in the regulations. I am a big supporter of the freedom of religious expression, but it has always been obvious to members of the military that military life poses restrictions on contstitutional rights, in the form of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, that are not placed on civilians. Freedom of speech does not entitle a soldier to argue with his superior officer. The need to maintain unit discipline and morale often trump the manner in which service personnel can exercise their rights.

If the new guidelines end up allowing religious majorities to inject their views into the daily operations of their units in a way that establishes a defacto division of the unit into "us" and "them", then they will have succeeded in destroying the very cohesion, camraderie and discipline that has made the Air Force in particular, and the United States military in general, the most effective fighting force in the world, and they would have failed in their pledge to serve and protect the United States Constitution, the Flag, and the American people. That is all I have to say.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Darwin and Natural Law

The great thing about the Internet is that you never know what you will find, or where. While browsing through Hugh Hewitt's blogroll, specifically his section entitled "God Blogs" I made it to SmartChristian whereby I stumbled upon a link to a blog called Darwinian Conservatism by Larry Arnhart. The theme of Larry's blog, of no surprise to the Duckians but sure to send a certain PaleoTheoCon aquaintaince of ours into fits of apoplexy, is that Darinian theory supports conservative thought, including morality:

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin

On February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born in Hardin County, Kentucky; and Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England.

The coincidence of their being born on the same day might lead us to think about other points of similarity in their lives.

William Herndon was Lincoln's friend and law partner, and he wrote one of the best biographies of Lincoln. He says that he gave Lincoln a copy of Robert Chambers' book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which was first published in 1844. Chambers set forth a theory of evolution that Darwin later acknowledged as a forerunner of his theory. Chambers' book created a great controversy, because many people saw it as denying the role of God as Creator of the universe. According to Herndon, Lincoln was persuaded to adopt this new theory of evolution, because it confirmed his belief that everything in the universe must occur by natural causes. So it seems that Lincoln and Darwin were in agreement in their scientific naturalism and evolutionary views.

Because of their reliance on scientific explanation, both Lincoln and Darwin were accused by some people of promoting atheism by denying the doctrine of Creation. According to Herndon, Lincoln as a young man wrote a book against Christianity arguing that the Bible was not divinely inspired and that Jesus was not the son of God. He was warned by his friends that it was dangerous to make such arguments in public.

In 1846, Lincoln was running for election to Congress, and he had to answer the charge that he was an "infidel." In his written response, he acknowledged that he had never been a member of any Christian church. But he insisted that he had never openly promoted disrespect for Christianity. He conceded that he had defended--in private with a few friends--the "doctrine of necessity" that the human mind is determined by causal necessity beyond its control. But he thought some Christian denominations defended the same doctrine. Moreover, he wrote: "I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live."

Lincoln often spoke as if God as Creator must be the First Cause of the universe, and he also commonly invoked the Bible as a source of moral teaching. And yet he also appealed to a natural "moral sense" inherent in human nature, which suggested a natural morality that did not depend on biblical doctrine.

One manifest expression of the "moral sense," according to Lincoln, was the moral feeling against slavery. To reinforce this moral feeling that slavery was unjust, Lincoln would quote the scriptural doctrine of human beings as created in God's image and the scriptural teaching of the golden rule. He did this despite the fact that the pro-slavery Christians in the American South quoted the specific passages on slavery in the Bible as supporting slavery.

On all of these points, Darwin took similar positions. Although he began life as an orthodox Christian, he eventually reached a point of being a skeptic or agnostic. He was particularly disturbed by the unmerited suffering of human beings--such as his child Annie, who died when she was 10 years old--as casting doubt on the existence of an all-good God. And yet he acknowledged that the First Cause of the universe was a mystery pointing to the existence of God. In his published writings, he regularly acknowledged that evolution might depend ultimately on the laws that the Creator had impressed on matter.

Darwin also agreed with Lincoln in seeing morality as rooted in a natural "moral sense." Although this natural morality could stand on its own, it could also be reinforced by biblical morality. Like Lincoln, Darwin saw the Bible's teaching of the golden rule as confirming the ultimate principle of natural morality.

Darwin was also a fervent critic of slavery as contrary to the natural moral sense. Against the scientific racists who argued that the human races were actually separate species, Darwin laid out the evidence for the universal traits shared by all human races as members of the same species.

On all of these points, Lincoln and Darwin support what I have defended in Darwinian Conservatism. We can explain the natural order of the universe as a product of natural evolutionary causes. But if we ask about the First Causes of Nature itself, we face a mystery that points to God as Creator. There is a natural moral sense that allows us to make moral judgments independently of any religious beliefs. And yet Biblical religion can reinforce natural morality by appeal to God as the moral lawgiver. Moreover, religion generally can have beneficial social effects because it helps people to cooperate more effectively by promoting social trust among the believers.

On all of these points, conservatives should see Darwinian science as confirming their principles of ordered liberty as rooted in traditional morality and religious belief. Many religious conservatives object to what they assume is the atheistic teaching of Darwinism, and that's why many of them support "scientific creationism" or "intelligent design theory" as alternatives to Darwinian science. But this ignores the possible compatibility of evolution and religion. In fact, as I argue in my book, there are many theistic evolutionists. And there is no clear evidence that Darwinism has converted people to atheism.

What a remarkably reasonable and intelligent essay! The next time someone invokes the term "bearded God-killer" I'll have to ask "do you mean Darwin or Lincoln?".

So much for "Darwinism".

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A cartoon too far part 2 - the faultlines of the West

I don't think that a story has provoked such a visceral difference of opinion among conservatives since the Terry Schiavio affair, and I find that very surprising. You would think that the near total unity among conservatives on the WOT would have carried over into this incident of Islamic overreaction and violence in protest of cartoons published under the aegis of freedom of speech. Yet there is a very real faultline cutting across the landscape of commentary by conservatives, and it seems to be getting quite nasty.

The two sides seem to fall into the following categories - those who will unequivocally defend the cartoonists on freedom of speech grounds, seeing the conflict as a battle of wills with a predatory ideology of oppresion, and those who, while affirming the freedom of speech on principle, feel sympathy for the offended sensibilities of the Muslims and are outraged that their principle is being used to excuse blasphemy. By my rough estimate the former is the majority of opinion, but I am surprised by some of the people who I find on the opposite side than the one I would have expected. For the purpose of this discussion I will call the first group the "free speechers" and the second the "anti-blasphemers".

One person I pegged to be an anti-blasphemer, incorrecty, is Father John Neuhaus, the proprieter of FirstThings. Here is what he had to say:

A free press is by no means an unmixed blessing, but it is an essential part of the democratic way of life that we cherish and, as a nation, intend to advance elsewhere. It could turn out to be the case that most of the Islamic world, under the control of those who hold political and religious power, ends up by rejecting the democratic way, which would be very sad. But there should not be the slightest hesitation on our part in making clear that we will not compromise our freedoms by submitting to their rules. Unfortunately, we are witnessing a great deal of timorous hesitation at present.

Of course, it would be much easier to resist Muslim demands if Europe in particular had a positive identity to which it could appeal. In response to those offended by the exercise of freedom, Europe could then say, “Ah yes, we understand your point of view, and you may very well be right about the requirements of Islam. But, you see, we are Christian, not Muslim, countries, and, meaning no offense, your rules don’t apply here.”

It has been a very long time since Europe could speak with such confidence. And, if we are not alert to the nature of the challenge posed, America could be similarly unnerved.

Contrast that with this quote from Joe Carter, a blogger at EvangelicalOutpost and a former Marine, from the Hugh Hewitt show on Tuesday:

I don't think the cartoonists radicalized the Muslims. I think our support of them in our showing that we're siding with them rather than the offended is what's radicalized them. Like the French paper said, they showed their religious dogma has no place in secular society. And the German paper said that they had the right to blaspheme in the West. So it's kind of showing that we're supporting them rather than the offended. And I think that's what's going to radicalize them.

I've mentioned that the Free Speech side seems to be in the majority of the blogosphere and media commentariat. Here are some of the best and most vigorous proponents of the position from the last two days:

Kathleen Parker: The past several days of mayhem throughout the Muslim world — all thanks to a handful of mild cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed — have provided a clarifying moment for those still uncertain about what the West faces from radical disciples of the Islamic faith.

What's clear is that East and West are not just cultures apart, but centuries, and that certain elements of the Muslim world would like to drag us back into the Dark Ages.

What is also clear is that the West's own leaders, both in Europe and the USA, as well as many of our own journalists, have been weak-spined when it comes to defending the principles of free expression that the artists in Denmark were exploring.

Instead of stepping up to passionately defend freedoms won through centuries of bloody sacrifice, most have bowed to ayatollahs of sensitivity, rebuking the higher calling of enlightenment and sending the cartoonists into hiding under threat of death.

Tony Blankley: Similarly, the reaction to the Danish cartoons is merely the latest predictable, intolerant response of radical Islam to any opposition to their view of man and God. (In fact, I did predict a Muslim insurrection against blasphemous European art in the first chapter of my recent book, "The West's Last Chance: Will We Win the Clash of Civilizations?").
Those who argue for republication of the Danish cartoons are not "instigating" a clash of civilization. Nor are they pouring gasoline on a fire. Rather, they are defending against the already declared and engaged radical Islamist clash against the Christian, Secular, Jewish, Hindu, Chinese world by expressing solidarity with the firemen.

In this case, the firemen, perhaps surprisingly to some, is the European press. French socialist newspapers, The BBC, and other major secular European media stand shoulder to shoulder with a right-wing Danish newspaper against what they correctly see is an unyielding demand by radical Islam that Europe begin to start living under Sharia law.

The American media is proud of its alleged tradition of speaking truth to power and reporting without fear or favor. Every year journalists give awards to one another under those banners. But in truth, it doesn't take much courage to criticize a president, corporation, Catholic priest or labor union boss in America. A president is powerless to adversely effect a reporter or news organization that criticizes him.

Claudia Rostt: What’s noteworthy about the latest violence is not that it is unusual — but how very ordinary in so many ways it has become. Yes, of course, the grimly whimsical surprise is that this time the lightning rod has turned out to be not the famous London underground, or the grand train stations of Madrid, or the twin towers of New York, but a set of cartoons out of Copenhagen. The Danish drawings did not trigger some previously nonexistent fury. They have simply become the latest litmus test of how very much the worst thugs of the Islamic world believe they are entitled to get away with, whatever the pretext.
As for the cartoons, what ought to jump out here is that it is not, in fact, common for the Western press to caricature Mohammed, or even to run pointed cartoons about Islam. One has to wonder if the organizers of the gunmen, arsonists and death-threat-deliverers (and it takes a fair amount of organization to get hold of Danish flags in Gaza, or burn an embassy in the police-state of Syria) had to scour the ample outpourings of the Western press looking for something, anything, over which to take offense, and — faced with reams of material trying to understand their pain — had to fall back as a last resort on the cartoons of Denmark. To what extent is the Western press already afraid to risk offending those who even before the recent protests had racked up a record of death threats and murder?

If statehood, citizenship, and civilization itself are to mean anything, we are all in the end accountable for our own actions. When people riot and brutalize and burn, there are individuals in the crowds who are responsible. And in the places where this is happening, if the governments will not call these individuals to account, we need to hold those governments themselves responsible. Cartoons alone, to quote another line from Hamlet, are in a class with nothing more than “words, words, words,” and those are grounds on which newspapers, nations, and religions may have their disagreements and their dialogues. But when violence enters the picture, that is a matter for governments to settle, and in the free world the job of government and politicians is not to opine upon cartoons, but to lay down the law that no one may with impunity threaten our liberty and lives.

Hugh Hewitt's take on the cartoons, besides being as he sees it highly insulting to a whole religion, seems to be that the GWOT should be left up to the professionals in the Defense department, the intelligence services and professional writers. Here is a quote from his dialogue with Tony Blankley on his show today:
It's really a question of who, what talents are brought to bear. If it's Mark Steyn, or if it's you and The West's Last Chance: Will We Win The Clash Of Civilizations?, I have a lot more sense of comfort that the stakes are at least understood. Publishing a bunch of cartoons, which are easily transformed into propaganda, that's where I ask people to sit back and wonder are you really up to this game that you want to wade into the middle of? And I think that's an appropriate caution to give to people. And I also disagree with you on this, and I want to get to this now, about republication. Since they are such a hot point, what is the point of republishing them, when in fact, it might prove the tipping point for critical masses in Turkey and Morocco, and other of our Islamic allies around the world?

Hugh is missing one major, whoppingly obvious point, which is that the GWOT is not merely a military and progaganda war to be waged by professionals. It is a cultural war pitting two civilizations and their respective wills to defend their values. He looks at provocative cartoons and only sees it as an embarrasing gaffe to be used against us by the Muslims. I see it as an act of defiance in the face of intimidation which can rally the will of a culture. Sometimes the best way to get your point across is through a crude gesture. Contrary to Hewitt's assertion that we are dealing with a sophisticated psy-ops strategy by Al Quaeda, what we are dealing with is basically the cultural equivalent of the schoolyard bully. The sophisticated, articulate logic of a Mark Steyn is not going to make them back down. The bully is looking for signs that you fear him. You don't face him down with reasoned debate, you don't calm his anger by soothing words of sympathy - you spit in his eye and dare him to do something about it. We will not win this war by being loved. We will only win it by being feared.

The last example of the anti-blaspheny position comes from Robert Duncan:
The Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten's published a series of cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed back in September 2005 – some of the cartoons were obviously meant to offend with the turban of the Prophet being in the shape of a bomb.

I as a Catholic can identify with the sense of frustration that many Muslims must feel as a result of the publication of the cartoons. And the intent behind their publication.

How many times have I too felt concern and outrage against several news and entertainment outlets, or supposed art exhibitions, for their gross depiction of the Catholic faith.

The callousness, and repeated weak attempts to justify those actions by arguing for Freedom of the Press, or similar, frankly makes me sick.

And while I would never have thought of fulfilling my frustrations for calls for War and Death, I do believe that Christians need to take a lesson from Muslims with regard to righteous indignation. While I think there are some problems with the Islam faith, if anything these riots show that many Muslims do live their religion fully, having a faith that permeates their entire being and reasoning.

I admire them for that.

I'd be willing to chip in some airfare to send Mr Duncan to Pakistan to experience the fullness of Islamic devotion. Laura Ingraham does a segment on her show called the "But Monkey", where she plays soundclips of liberal politicians or celebrity mouthpieces voicing some support for a moderate position, quickly qualified by a "but" phrase. It goes something like this: "I'm all for free enterprise, but (sonds of the but monkey squealing) blah blah blah (anti-business blather)". I think we need to start calling out the But Monkey on such equivical statements of support for free speech as demonstrated by Mr. Duncan. When the war starts getting hot, I don't want this guy in my platoon.

What to make of this divide? Is it a serious rift in the wall, or just a normal, healthy difference of opinion?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A cartoon too far

The Danish cartoon war against Islam has sparked a surprising show of spine among Euro surrender monkeys even as it provokes an unaccustomed case of weak knees among the normally hawkish American conservative blogotariat. Hugh Hewitt asks about the cartoons "Did their publication help or hinder the GWOT?".

I would have to say yes. Anything that can splash cold water in the face of a demoralized Europe and arrest the slow descent into cultural surrender on that continent can only help the struggle. Contrary to Hewitt's calculus, the GWOT will not be won only by US servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan. The GWOT is being fought on the ground in Denmark as well. If we win Iraq only to see Europe become the new base of operations for Al Quaeda, then we've only displaced the threat to a new location. A newly vitalized and confident Europe willing to put it on the line to defend it's rights as a free society is the last thing that the Islamist terror masters want or need.

Hugh Hewitt had a panel discussion on his radio show tonight to discuss the publication of the cartoons and their aftermath. He was joined by Dennis Prager, Michael Medved and blogger Joe Carter. Hewitt and Carter were highly critical of the cartoons and said that they would have the effect of radicalizing all those moderate Muslims who would be on our side if we only could avoid provoking them further. Medved and Prager would have none of it. Prager almost came unglued at one point over the thought that the cartoonists were to blame for inciting the violence. He made the excellent point that Islamic violence needs no provocation, and pointed to the many people in the world, including the Miss World contestant from Nigeria who are living in hiding for incurring the wrath of radicalized Islamic terrorists through no fault of their own.

The New Criterion published this excellent article by David Pryce Jones which provides a timely backstory on how Europe arrived at the situation it now faces with an unassimilated Muslim population. How Europeans handle this situation will make or break its future for centuries to come. I believe that it is a true turning point in Western civilization. The Danish Cartoon war of 2006 may prove to surpass the famous shot heard round the world of a century ago.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Oroborous was kind enough to send this my way recently:

By Brian S. Wesbury and Bill Mulvihill

We are not sure which economic “old wives tale” is the most damaging. But right up at the top of any list is the idea that the US has a negative savings rate.

Yes, it is true, that the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) says that US consumers spent more than their after-tax income in 7 out of the last 8 months and through November 2005, and had a savings of negative $39 billion.

To get these figures, the BEA adds up sources of income - wages, salaries, interest, dividends, rent, proprietor’s profits, social security, and unemployment insurance benefits. It then subtracts taxes to arrive at disposable income. The BEA then subtracts total consumption to calculate savings.

There are many reasons to discount these statistics. For example, when a car, home appliance, or computer is purchased, the entire expenditure is immediately subtracted from income, even if it is paid for over time. Spending on education also counts as consumption. But, these expenditures are investments and on a set of corporate books would be treated much differently.

While 401k’s, IRAs, and other savings plans are accounted for, capital gains on these assets or on a home do not count as income. However, taxes paid on capital gains subtract from disposable income, a downward bias.

As our population ages, a growing number of retirees spend out of savings, which also biases the statistics downwardly. In addition, the government has a difficult time separating business spending from personal spending because so many small (and large) businesses buy office supplies and construction materials at retail outlets (such as Office Depot, Staples, Home Depot and Lowes). To the extent that government counts business spending as consumption, savings will be undercounted.

To top it all off, personal income, wages and salaries can be significantly understated because income statistics are gathered from data collected by the Establishment Survey, which undercounts employment. In March 2005, for example, wages and salaries were revised upwardly by 1.8%, or $92.7 billion. If the same type of revision occurs this year, the negative savings rate will be revised away. This, by the way, is highly likely.

The best measure of household savings is calculated by the Federal Reserve in its quarterly Flow of Funds Accounts. This data shows that US households had $62.5 trillion in assets at the end of September, $11.4 trillion in liabilities and a net worth of $51.1 trillion. This is a record level and $5 trillion more than a year earlier. Of the increase, $3.3 trillion was in financial assets, suggesting that US households are one of the best savers in the world. Contrary to popular belief, the US does not have a negative savings rate.

Right off the bat, I wondered just how wide of the actual mark the Headline Savings Rate (HSR) might be. So, following time-honored journalistic tradition, I decided to generalize from personal experience. Why not? Either everyone is like I am, or they are wrong.

Besides, it avoids all that annoying research stuff, which often gets in the way of extrapolating from a single data point.

In a few brief paras, Messrs Wesbury and Mulvihill manage to raise few interesting questions, intentionally or otherwise:

Just how far off might this statistic be?

According to the BEA, after dividing what was left over after consumption by my disposable income, my HSR is just shy of 13%. However, one of the biggest components of consumption over the last year was rent. Well, in my case, mortgage, which the BEA treats just like rent -- a transparently silly notion. Depending upon how far along a homeowner is in paying off the mortgage, a greater or lesser portion of that mortgage payment is money in another form, real estate, going into the owners pocket. The HSR is completely unable to explain the existence of the single greatest store of wealth for many people: their own homes. Someone who has paid off their mortgage is in possession of a substantial asset that, according to the HSR, simply came out of nowhere. Given the rate of homeownership in this country, roughly 65%, that is a significant downward bias in the savings rate.

In my particular case, six years into a 30-year mortgage, including the contribution to principle moves my savings rate to 16%.

Aside from the transparently silly, there is the hopelessly contradictory (as in "Islam" and "tolerant"). The IRS is happy to tax investment income, but the HSR is treats that income as if it doesnt exist. I have no idea what proportion of Americans have 401k plans, stocks, or mutual funds. But giving in to the above mentioned time-honored journalistic tradition, I'll say it is 100%.

In my particular case, including reinvested income, after the attendant double taxation, my savings rate jumps to 26%.

And what about those taxes? How much do you want to bet the HSR includes only those things that show up on a W-2? That is easy to collect information, but leaves out two significant taxes that significantly detract from disposable income: sales and property taxes (see above: homeownership, rate of).

In my particular case, subtracting those taxes from disposable income moves my savings rate to 27%.

Then there is the matter of what the spending is for. Due to the ravages of time, this year my house needed a new driveway and deck. Both had deteriorated significantly, and would have detracted from the resale value of my house. Never mind leaving me vulnerable to personal injury lawsuits. If I was allowed to expense that over 5 years (IIRC, typical for businesses), then my savings rate goes to 31%

So, in the instance of one real world example, the consistent with Econ 101 savings rate is nearly three times the HSR. And while my specific numbers may be on the high end of the range -- thank goodness, for the economy would tank, otherwise -- the reasons for the significant difference are not unique. Quite the contrary, they are characteristic of an economy with widespread home ownership, as well as mutual fund/401k/IRA holdings.

Given its apparent manifest shortcomings, why does the MSM keep citing this number (see also, Male v. Female pay studies)?

Many reasons, of which lazy and stupid, while probably on the list, are not particularly near the top.

1. The MSM has operated as an oligopoly. The relative absence of competition has allowed certain "objective" measures of the economy to become entrenched as accepted wisdom. The CPI is yet another example.

2. Any given example of the MSM is going to have a relatively limited staff; hence, there is unlikely to be significant specialist knowledge at any news organization. For two examples, I doubt, say, CBS, has technical/engineering expertise anywhere near what AOG (frequently seen at BrosJudd) can bring to a problem. Similarly, on legal issues, David Cohen will put to shame anything from the MSM. Steve den Beste referred to this effortless accumulation of expertise as the "Hive Mind" (no link, but I think I have the essay if anyone is interested).

3. Reporters are often so unsurprised at numbers confirming accepted wisdom that they don't ask the obvious question: is this number consistent with its consequences? On the face of it, a household savings rate ostensibly slightly less than zero is competely unable to explain a 10% increase in household net worth over the same period. One of those numbers has to be barking mad, but uncritical acceptance of the alarmist number stands four-square in the way of asking even obvious questions.

Given its apparent manifest shortcomings, why does the BEA keep citing this number?

Dunno, although lazy and stupid would probably stand out in the lineup of usual suspects. At the very least, the systematic downward bias in the HSR should get someone's attention. You would think.

What does this have to do with Darwinism?

No one questions that the US economy is obviously capable of unplanned self-organized complexity. Equally, no one would deny that measuring even a simple element of it is fiendishly difficult. My personal example is one thing, but aggregating it over an entire economy something else altogether (ignoring for the moment entrenched silliness).

So why should self-organized complexity be prohibited to such a densely interconnected and dynamic a system as Natural History?