Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Religion, Speech and Evolution - a triangle of irony

Tom Wolfe sees irony in the way that speech, religion and evolution trump each other as in some cosmic game of rock, paper and scissors:

Ladies and Gentlemen, this evening it is my modest intention to tell you in the short time we have together . . . everything you will ever need to know about the human beast.

I take that term, the human beast, from my idol, Emile Zola, who published a novel entitled The Human Beast in 1888, just 29 years after Darwin's The Origin of Species broke the stunning news that Homo sapiens--or Homo loquax, as I call him--was not created by God in his own image but was precisely that, a beast, not different in any essential way from snakes with fangs or orangutangs . . . or kangaroos. . . or the fang-proof mongoose. Darwin's doctrine, Evolution, leapt from the pages of a scientific monograph into every level of society in Europe and America with sensational suddenness. It created a sheerly dividing line between the God-fearing bourgeoisie who were appalled, and those people of sweetness and light whose business it was to look down at the bourgeosie from a great height. Today, of course, we call these superior people intellectuals, but intellectual didn't exist as a noun until Clemenceau applied it to Zola and Anatole France in 1896 during the Dreyfus Case. Zola's intellect was as sweetly enlightened as they made them. He was in with the in-crowd. Evenings he spent where the in-crowd went, namely, the Café Guerbois, along with Manet, Cezanne, Whistler, Nadar, and le tout Paris boheme. He took his cues from the in-crowd's views, namely, Academic art was bad, Impressionism was good, and Homo sapiens had descended from the monkeys in the trees. Human beasts? I'll give you human beasts! Zola's aforementioned novel of that name, La Bete Humaine in French, is a story of four murderers, a woman and three men, who work down at track level on the Paris-Le Havre railroad line, each closing in on a different victim, each with a different motive, including the case of a handsome young passenger train engineer with a compulsion . . . to make love to women and then kill them. With that, Zola crowned himself as the first scientific novelist, a "naturalist," to use his term, studying the human fauna.

I love my man Zola. He's my idol. But the whole business exudes irony so rich, you can taste it. It tastes like marzipan. Here we have Darwin and his doctrine that in 1859 rocks Western man's very conception of himself . . . We have the most popular writer in the world in 1888, Zola, who can't wait to bring the doctrine alive on the page . . . We have the next five generations of educated people who have believed and believe to this day that, at bottom, evolution's primal animal urges rule our lives . . . to the point where the fourth greatest pop music hit of 2001, "You and Me, Baby" by the Bloodhound Gang, proclaims, "You and me, baby, we ain't nothing but mammals. / So let's do it like they do on the Dis-cov-ery Channel"--it's rich! rich! rich beyond belief!

O. I love you, Emile, but by the time you and Darwin got hold of it, evolution had been irrelevant for 11,000 years. Why couldn't you two see it? Evolution came to an end when the human beast developed speech! As soon as he became not Homo sapiens, "man reasoning," but Homo loquax, "man talking"! Speech gave the human beast far more than an ingenious tool. Speech was a veritable nuclear weapon! It gave the human beast the powers of reason, complex memory, and long-term planning, eventually in the form of print and engineering plans. Speech gave him the power to enlarge his food supply at will through an artifice called farming. Speech ended not only the evolution of man, by making it no longer necessary, but also the evolution of animals! Our animal friends--we're very sentimental about predators these days, aren't we--the lions, the tigers, the wolves, the rhinoceroses, the great apes, kangaroos, leopards, cheetahs, grizzly bears, polar bears, cougars--they're "endangered," meaning hanging on for dear life. Today the so-called animal kingdom exists only at the human beast's sufferance. The beast has dealt crippling blows even to the unseen empire of the microbes. Stunted adults from Third World countries with abysmal sanitation come to the United States and their offspring grow six or more inches taller, thanks to the wonders of hygiene. Cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys would be extinct by now had not the human beasts hit upon the idea of animal husbandry. So far the human beast enjoys the luxury of crying sentimental tears over the deer because she's so pretty. But the day the human beast discovers deer in his cellar, fawns in his bedroom closet, bucks tangling horns in the attic at night above his very bedroom . . . those filthy oversized vermin, the deer, will be added to that big long list above. We're sentimental about the dolphins, because they're so smart. What about the tuna? It's okay to kill tunas by the ton because they're dimwits? It would take an evolutionary mystic (and there are such) to believe these animals will ever evolve their way out of the hole they're in thanks to man's power of speech.

No evolutionist has come up with even an interesting guess as to when speech began, but it was at least 11,000 years ago, which is to say, 9000 B.C. It seems to be the consensus . . . in the notoriously capricious field of evolutionary chronology . . . that 9000 B.C. was about when the human beast began farming, and the beast couldn't have farmed without speech, without being able to say to his son, "Son, this here's seeds. You best be putting 'em in the ground in rows ov'ere like I tell you if you wanna git any ears a corn this summer."

Do forgive me, Emile, but here is the tastiest of all ironies. One of Homo loquax's first creations after he learned to talk was religion. Since The Origin of Species in 1859 the doctrine of Evolution has done more than anything else to put an end to religious faith among educated people in Europe and America; for God is dead. But it was religion, more than any other weapon in Homo loquax's nuclear arsenal, that killed evolution itself 11,000 years ago. To say that evolution explains the nature of modern man is like saying that the Bessemer process of adding carbons to pig iron to make steel explains the nature of the modern skyscraper.

Now shall we begin? Shall we take a look at the actual nature of the human beast--an artificial selection, 100% man-made?

Read the whole thing. Whether you agree with Wolfe or not, and I'm not sure that I do, his thesis is certainly an original take on evolution and language.

Nazism (or Applied Christianity)

Oliver Kamm writes an excellent article in The Times, which is reproduced on his blog here.

I recommend you read the whole thing, but here are the key excerpts:

“IT IS PARTICULARLY difficult for a Pope that comes from Germany to come here,” said Pope Benedict XVI at Auschwitz at the weekend. The difficulty lies in his being Pope more than being German — even a German of his generation. Benedict’s praying for forgiveness in his native language has been widely remarked on, but it was an apt gesture.

… the Roman Catholic Church, which was not at all an agent of genocide and whose adherents included many heroic benefactors and rescuers of Jews, continues to be the subject of vigorous historical debate concerning its role in those dark times. The paradox needs explaining, and resolving.

The Pope’s prayer at Auschwitz asked where God had been during the Holocaust. For some of us, the question is an ineradicable obstacle to religious faith, but it is still nothing like as tough a question for Christians as where God had been in the preceding two millennia. Why did God, with omniscient knowledge of the suffering to come, not move his followers to abjure the imagery of anti-Semitism? Catholic sins in that ignoble history are not only ones of omission.

The Second Vatican Council, opened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, historically renounced the notion of a collective guilt on the part of the Jews for the death of Jesus, and denounced “all outbreaks of hatred, persecutions and manifestations of anti-Semitism which have been directed against the Jews at any time by anyone”. But there is an irreducible element in the New Testament that holds the Jews culpable for the rejection of Christ.

How could it be otherwise? God selected the Jews to prepare for His Coming. Jesus announced that he was “not sent but unto the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. He drew a band of disciples, all of them Jews and one of them the man whom Catholics regard as their first Pope. Yet the Jews, merely by remaining Jews, rejected him. When the lethal accusation of deicide is removed from Christian orthodoxy, this brute historical fact remains. Even 20th-century Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain, in his book A Christian Looks at the Jewish Question, could not rid themselves of the assumption that the Jews are somehow historically aberrant.

At Auschwitz, of all places, Benedict might have referred to the biblical and Catholic roots of European anti-Semitism. He preferred to concentrate on the heroism of Catholic witnesses against Nazism. The picture he gave was thereby highly misleading.

The Pope prayed in the cell where a Polish Franciscan, Maximillian Kolbe, was starved and incarcerated before being murdered by the Nazis. Kolbe was canonised by Pope John Paul II. Yet Kolbe’s writings evince a firm belief in the veracity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the existence of a Masonic-Jewish conspiracy. John Paul’s canonisation of Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who became a nun and died at Auschwitz, caused still more trouble. The Church’s celebration of martyrs against Nazi barbarism is unerringly partial. It decries the blasphemous claims of authority, while sparing few words for the integrity of Jewish history.

Pope Benedict pointed at Auschwitz to literally the worst crime of our age, which was committed by those who certainly considered themselves emancipated from superstition, and the agents of supposedly scientific notions of race.

But no amount of theological reflection will render future generations immune from the atavistic forces that aimed at the destruction of every last Jew in Europe, and to which the Church certainly made a historical contribution. I have no interest at all in the fortunes of Judaism, but a great concern in the resilience of historically persecuted peoples. Only by removing the accumulated detritus of malign ideologies can that happen.

Organised religion, even in the form of so learned a man as Pope Benedict, is one of the obstacles. Revealed truth cannot be discarded, precisely because it does not come from human reason: it can only be accepted or rationalised. Yet revelation turns out to be a highly unreliable guide. There was no revelation to the Catholic faithful till Vatican II that the Jews were not Christ-killers. There has never yet been a divine revelation, to my knowledge, that freedom of speech, tolerance and religious liberty are values to be prized and defended. If there ever is, it will paradoxically be because the way liberal civilisation operates has superseded the traditional religious imagination. It is time it did.

Some people seem to believe that by positing a direct line to the Holocaust that magically starts just a few decades earlier in The Origin of Species, and by endlessly repeating the phrase “Judeo-Christian tradition”, they can rewrite two thousand years of history.

It is self-delusion of the most absurd kind.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Trolling the God Blogs

When all other inspirations for blog topics fail, a tour of the God blogs is sure to provide some pithy observation or two worthy of Duckian deconstruction. And today does not disappoint. From the New Attitude conference, via Adrian Warnock's blog, I found this gem:

Who killed Jesus?

The Father. The Father killed the Son. Feel God's love for you revealed in this verse. He crushed his son. For you. He crushed Him. He bruised him. He punished him. He disfigured him. He crushed him. With all of the righteous wrath that we deserved. That's what the Father did.

So great was his love for sinners like you and me.

If any single quote could encapsulate why I am not a Christian, this one, by C J Mahaney, has to be it. The sheer, hideous inanity of a god that demands a blood sacrifice from an innocent in repayment for the sins of the guilty is beautifully captured here. It is a theology that captures the worst aspects of an archaic moral worldview, one that promulgates the barbaric idea of blood guilt and blood sacrifice. Modern Christians gasp in horror at those cultures that carried on the cultural values of this mindset, such as the Aztecs and their human sacrifices, or the honor killings practiced by many Islamic cultures today. Yet their central theological mystery, the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Christ, is premised on the very same archaic view of honor and morality as these throwback cultures represent. I don't get it. How does a modern Christian, brought up in an ethos if personal responsibility and individual dignity spout sentiments like the above without a hint of moral vertigo?

Some days I wax paranoid about the impending Christian theocracy, as does Andrew Sullivan. But then I read a Christian blog like Evangelical Outpost and realize that the chances of all the competing Christian sects ever pulling together a consensus government are between nil and next to nil. In this instance, Joe Carter is debating with his readers whether Andrew Sullivan is a Christian:

I believe my friend Tim Challies has inadvertently created just such an arbitrary and unnecessary division between believers. Following the reasoning he outlines in a recent post, for example, he would have no legitimate warrant for considering me to be a “Christian.”

In his post, Tim uses my remark about Andrew Sullivan being a “brother in Christ” as the catalyst for working out what he believes on the issue of whether we have an “obligation to assume” that someone is a Christian. Tim is a sharp thinker and while I don’t always agree with him, I’m invariably impressed by his attempts to think critically about matters of theology. Unlike my posts, which meander and stumble from premise to conclusion, Tim’s essays tend to be systematic and move directly to the point.

This precision, though, can make it easy to overlook the deeper, hidden implications of his arguments. For example, I was initially bothered by the fact that his conclusion left us with no obligation to assume that any Catholic is a Christian. Only later did I realize that his conclusion left us with no obligation to assume that any Southern Baptist is a Christian either.

The central premise is found in his claim that:

…in order to assume that a profession of faith is genuine, the person must attach himself to a "true" church. How we define a true and false church has been the source of much dialogue and disagreement in the centuries since the Reformation, but I am inclined to agree with the three marks proposed during the Reformation and which are summarized in the Belgic Confession, Article 29, which says "The marks by with the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preaching therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church."

Tim concludes that “When a person has made a profession of faith and is a member in good standing of a true church, as defined by these three marks: the preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of church discipline, I believe that we are under an obligation to assume that this person's faith is genuine.”

While I consider the Belgic Confession to be a magnificent creed and a beautiful exposition of doctrine, I also believe it to be significantly flawed. In order to understand the requirement for “pure administration of the sacraments” we have to look at Article 34: The Sacrament of Baptism:

For this reason we believe that anyone who aspires to reach eternal life ought to be baptized only once without ever repeating it-- for we cannot be born twice. Yet this baptism is profitable not only when the water is on us and when we receive it but throughout our entire lives.

For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children.

A “true church” is, according to this confession, one that adheres to infant baptism as a “pure administration of the sacrament” of baptism. That means me, John Piper, Al Mohler, and the 16 million members of the SBC are apparently spending our Sundays at a “false church.” (The same could be said for Tim himself since he is a “Reformed believer attending a Baptist church.”)

It's been 2000 years, and Christians still can't agree on who is a Christian. Such theological axle wrapping by men who share a common culture, language and faith is not a good sign for the prospects of national, let alone international ecumenical unity. This is a faith, after all, that slaughtered thousands of its own over doctrinal disputes. As Skipper rightly pointed out on another occasion, Christian sectarianism is the greatest guarantor of religious freedom that we could hope for.

And lastly this discussion of what Christianity has to learn from Islam by John Mark Roberts on the One True God Blog:

It is easy enough to see the weaknesses of contemporary Islam, but in the battle for hearts and minds globally we need to ask a harder question. What are the strengths of Islam? Islam is to be commended for holding the line against the naturalism that so infects much of the modern West. Some religious liberals act as if religion is the frosting on the cake. The cake is made by secularists who allow World Council of Churches Christians to decorate and elaborate on a structure that is fundamentally hostile to religion. Islam has not been foolish enough to fall for that!

And how would Mr Roberts "hold the line" against the infection of naturalism? Treat the teaching of science as a heresy? Much of what we celebrate as the success of the West over the past 500 years can be attributed to the development of a healthy naturalist outlook on the world and its phenomena. Our technological society would not be possible without it. Islamic society, with its technological backwardness, its religious obscurantism and its superstition, is a direct result of its "holding the line" on naturalism, yet Roberts imagines that we could have somehow acheived our success with our eyes planted firmly in the Bible and nowhere else.

Second, Islam has not given into more radical forms of feminism. The West, and Christianity in general, is to be commended for advancing the truth that women and men are equal in substance before the eyes of God and should be equal in the eyes of the law when the relevant fact is being human. However, some Western folk have gone further and attempted to reduce the differences in function between men and women. To pretend that men and women are the same in terms of calling is not sensible and flies in the face of centuries of experience. Men and women do not experience the world the same way and the reasonable man standard (as the law is beginning to recognize) is not the same as the reasonable woman standard. Western society in a post-Christian era seems good at producing lawyers and doctors but bad at making mothers and fathers. However, there exist millions of moms and dads in traditional Christian communities that are defying this trend. Fessio is right to point to homeschool moms as the hope of the future. He will be interested to know that I have been calling home schools the new monasticism since the early nineties!

Crediting Islam for not giving in to the excesses of feminism is like crediting Jack the Ripper for not repressing his anger. The Islamic model of gender relations is so far beyond the pale of civilized behavior, so much worse than even the worst excesses of modern feminism, that to see any positive light in regard to it is sheer lunacy and moral blindness.

Moslem are free to preach in London not because of secularism, but because Christianity developed there. The good ideas of the Middle Ages, became the better polity of the Victorian era. The bad ideas of the Victorians, including their smug colonialism, were slowly giving way to better ideas at the dawn of the twentieth century if secularism had not short circuited their development. The long struggle against Darwin, Marx, and Freud distracted us from being able to make further progress. However, even in that fight we stayed true, for the most part, to the theological lessons learned. Christians did not kill Darwin, but let him live in great comfort. We may not have liked Freud’s views, but did not declare a jihad against psychology. Instead, we (for the most part) listened, learned and argued. We had created a culture that made it possible for Darwin to attack the views of ninety percent of the English world and we stuck to the liberty even when we did not like the result.

The struggle against Darwin prevented further Christian progress? Boy, I'm a master of excuses, but even I would count that as a stretch. What is he talking about? Roberts wants to simultaneously see the modern West as the highest expression of Christian truth, while denigrating those secular influences that played a major part in enabling the advances that he applauds, and pointing to the barbarities of the past as represented by Islamic culture, which is the direct antithesis of everything the modern West is, as a source for moderating influences on supposed secular excesses. I've not read a more confusing worldview by a supposed proponent of Western values in some time.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The intellectuals and the masses

As we dangle on the tenterest of hooks in anticipation of the concluding episode of our resident Bandit’s run-in with the Smokeys, I invite you to pass some time by perusing a piece in The Guardian by Mark Lawson.

Four years ago, I faced an ethical dilemma. My duties as a crime and thriller reviewer for the Guardian had brought in a book by a little-known American writer. It was a matter of fine judgment whether the content (conspiracy theory) or the prose (making a crisp packet read like a sonnet in comparison) was more preposterous. I worried, though, about being too brutal to a new talent.

Unfortunately, even the traditional perjury for book reviewers trying to reduce the wound - this will make a great film - could not be applied to a work that seemed about as cameraunready as was possible. In the end, my review condemned the novel as tosh, balancing the barbs with some thoughts about why post-9/11 American readers might be drawn to fantasies in which events were shown to be meant. Even so, was the piece perhaps too nasty? A newspaper big-foot stamping on an emerging literary career? You will by now easily have broken the code of which book this was and quite how well the writer survived the savage judgment. And, by proving just as immune to hostile reviews on the screen as on the page, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code raises the question of whether printed and broadcast opinion matters at all. Has our culture now created a sort of genetically modified turkey - the critic-proof product?

…If you happen to own a company which trucks DVDs to the shops, you would be ill-advised to sell it before M:I3 and The Da Vinci Code come out. Only the most selfbelieving critic could deny the evidence from these events that - in cinema, as in most areas of culture - there is a significant gap between public and pundit opinion.

Movies that appear in hundreds of reviewers' top 10s - such as Michael Hanneke's Hidden and Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale - are unlikely ever to appear in box-office charts. This is because critics are giving marks for originality, acting, photography and scripting, while mass audiences are more drawn to familiarity of genre, stars they would like to have sex with or plots that are more likely to make their dates have sex with them. Reviewers are doing their day's work, cinema-goers are escaping from theirs: this leads to an inevitable difference of response.

[…]My suspicion is that even Dan Brown, wondering how to spend the next million as he sits in his New Hampshire mansion, would hand over the content of one of his accounts for a book-section front-page story acclaiming him as the new Edgar Allan Poe.

Occasional books, movies and shows may be critic-proof, but the egos and psyches of the people who make them very rarely are.

Getting lost in his thoughts about 'critic-proof' works, Lawson overlooks an important point. Upmarket broadsheet newspaper critics - which are really the only critics he's talking about in this article - and their regular readers are lovers of cinema, literature, music and theatre.

The Da Vinci Code movie is aimed at people who are interested in escapist movies, not in ‘cinema’, just as Dan Brown writes books for people who don’t like literature. And just as most West End musicals are shows for people who don’t like theatre, and Barbara Streisand sings for people who don’t like music, and Budweiser is a drink for people who don’t like beer.

The point of media critics is not to decide whether a movie sinks or swims, but to tell their readership whether it’s worth spending any hard-earned going to see it. In essence, Guardian readers want to know if it’s the sort of thing Guardian readers will like. That’s why the reviews are all quite different in The Sun, in Cosmo and in those increasingly dubious 'men's magazines'.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Peter's World -- The Bust

Spoiler alert. The last in, first out nature of blogs directly conflicts with a multi-part beginning to end story. So if you haven’t already, and prefer not to spoil the suspense, such as it is, read Peter’s World first.


As it turns out, considering all the stress and distractions, counting backwards by threes isn’t as easy as it seems, particularly given the natural tendency to focus as much on where you are going as where you are. My wife nearly had a panic attack, because she suddenly couldn’t remember where I was supposed to stop, and nearly fainted with the effort of trying to telepathically communicate the correct number to me, since she was convinced I had forgotten it just as much as she had.

Having, I thought, correctly completed that task, it seemed the perp walk was going at least adequately.

Until he said, “Now do the Macarena.”

Oh no. Not the Macarena. Anything but the Macarena. Heck, I can’t do that sober!

Actually, he didn’t request that particular bit of perp peformance art. But given the hoop jumping thus far, I wouldn’t have been the least surprised.

“Okay sir, since you passed the sobriety test, I’ll allow you to drive home.”

Overwhelming relief and certain expectation are not ordinarily juxtaposed. After all, I had been the perfect designated driver, having had only one drink the entire evening, and that a couple hours before leaving for home. In Skipper family speak, I “had the brain,” there apparently being only one between the two of us, which gave her license to become legless-but-smiling, hence the car’s Eau d’ Distillery.

So, with a BAC probably below the threshold of clinical detectability, I wasn’t, absent a sudden attack of St Vitus’s dance, going to bust the perp walk. What did surprise me, though, was the nearly endless series of tasks. One would think that a complete absence of intoxication would be pretty clear right from the get go.

“I’m also going to let you off easy. Instead of ticketing you for running the red, I am going to issue a citation for disobeying a traffic control device.”

Wow. Lucky me.

The remaining twenty minutes of the ride home were filled with worried what-ifs on my wife’s part — she had drunk sufficiently to render her incapable of noticing that my rum and cokes were all latter absent former — and rather more clear headed analysis on my part.

I was convinced the officer, whose manner and appearance were impeccable, had not decided to spice up his shift by jerking me around. The perp walk was the only reasonable response to the car smelling like what Guinness ad would smell like, if only we had smell-o-vision. What was far more puzzling, however, was his insistence I had entered the intersection two seconds after the light had changed. Having a clear view of both the signal and the intersection’s limit line, I knew that the line was under my heels when the light changed.

Close, no doubt. Legal, certainly. But nowhere near two seconds. How was it his perception and mine were so far at odds?

As I pondered that conundrum, my wife read the ticket: “$125 fine, 3 points. Or appear at the courthouse.”

“Which is where?”

“Where” turned out to be smack dab on my way home from work, as was the intersection. Even though I could easily afford both the fine and, with only one violation in the previous 30 years, the points, I promptly decided I was going to fight the ticket. Vindicating myself was the least of my reasons. More importantly, I welcomed the opportunity to venture somewhere I had never been, to walk through the looking glass and enter Peter’s World.

Next: Peter’s World — Time and Money.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Peter's World

I’m going to make a generalization about the denizens of blogs such as TDD. The interest in the sorts of topics that appear here bespeaks of minds analytical, disciplined and educated, although possibly possessed of an underlying, benign, personality disorder.

Just the kind of minds very unlikely to get any closer to our justice system in practice than the one-eyed brain sucker and the Law & Order franchise.

There are exceptions, of course -- those who practice law as a profession. Peter Burnet is our resident expert practitioner, routinely inhabiting an environment likely nearly, or completely, alien to the rest of us.

Unfortunately, despite my (self-diagnosed) educated, analytical, disciplined mind, I recently paid a visit to Peter’s World, and decided to tell the tale.

My wife and I had spent the afternoon and evening at friend’s house, before shifting to a local nightclub. At roughly midnight, with nearly an hour’s drive in front of us, we headed for home.

Most of the way there, I turned right at a T-intersection, waited at the red another couple hundred yards down the road, then continued on the last leg of our journey. About a mile later, my rear view mirror suddenly filled with the flashing lights of a police cruiser. And just like every other motorist since the dawn of automotive time, my eyes went straight for the speedometer.

Forty-four. Speed limit 45. What the …?

Since it was a busy highway, three lanes each direction, I waited until a side street, turned, and pulled over. I carefully did all the make-the-police-officer-comfortable things: shut off the motor, turned on all the interior lights, opened my wallet and placed it on the dashboard, opened the window, and grasped the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions.

My mystification as to my being the focus of the local constabulary’s attention was short lived: “The reason I pulled you over is because I observed entering the intersection two seconds after the light turned red.”

Well, when I turned right, the light wasn’t green, but as my car crossed the line marking the intersection’s boundary, it was still yellow, if only just. “Two seconds” was so far from what I observed that my surprise caused me to momentarily lose track of diplomacy.

“No, I didn’t”

“Yes you did, sir. Have you been drinking?”

Two things were suddenly apparent. First, further argument on this point would serve only as a classic case of a self-inflicted wound. And, second, under the circumstances I would have greatly preferred the car’s interior not be redolent with alcohol fumes.

Before I could offer anything in the way of an answer, he asked me to follow his flashlight with my eyes. Which, so far as I could determine, I was able to do without a hitch, twitch, or wander.

“Sir, I’d like you to step out of the car and perform a field sobriety test. Failure to do so counts as an admission you are driving under the influence.”

All in all, I’d say that counts as a persuasive argument.

So in front of someone’s house, with the cruiser’s lights flashing, bathed in its harsh spotlight, and with his partner standing a careful distance away, I got to do the perp walk and associated pavement gymnastics.

“Hold your arms straight out... Close your eyes, touch your nose with each index finger in turn... Stand on one foot, and look up with your eyes closed... Switch feet... Walk toe to heel for twenty steps, then pivot, walk the same way back to where you started, and pivot again... Starting at 97, count backward by threes until you get to 76 …”

Next: Peter’s World -- The Bust.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Dang. There goes another irony meter.

Pretend you are studying for the IAAT (Irony Appreciation Achievement Test). Which word or phrase best describes the following true story:

a) Fratricide
b) Cannibalism
c) The ongoing struggle against management, the greedy exploiters of the working man.
d) Yours in solidarity union bro ... Hey, wait a minute, who are you calling a greedy exploiter?

The following is an ALPA Public Statement of a Strike by Administrative Employees dated May 12, 2006:

The Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) has been informed by the leaders of the Union of ALPA Professional and Administrative Employees, Unit 2, that their members are on strike effective 12 noon May 12, 2006.

Since March of this year, ALPA and Unit 2 (which represents the union's clerical and administrative employees) have been negotiating with a goal of reaching a consensual agreement on the terms of their collective bargaining agreement. Earlier this week, ALPA and Unit 2 completed a tentative agreement that contained merit salary increases, delayed health care cost increases, and improved several other areas of the contract. Unit 2 members have rejected that TA.

Management believes that the TA sufficiently balances the economic realities of the airline profession we serve and the needs of the fine employees who work so hard for our members. The hard reality remains that our pilot members have suffered grievously these past five years. Salary cuts, furloughs, pension losses and escalating health-care costs make it impossible for ALPA to grant the salary increases and health care caps Unit 2 seeks.

The highlighted sentence, in as much as it echoes the same argument airlines make, and unions are so quick to belittle, comprehensively detonated my titanium irony meter.

I guess I'll have to save -- oh heck, I'm an American, I'll just whip out the plastique -- for an irony meter made out of 24 karat unobtanium.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Son of MAD

Newsmax is running a poll asking "Should we bomb Iran". I voted no. The problem with this line of thinking, in line with the Bush Doctrine which stresses the need for pre-emptive actions to ward of potential threats, is not so much from a military as from a political standpoint. As the failure to find WMDs in Iraq has shown, preemption has the negative consequence of leaving the US without the "smoking gun" of proof, both for the benefit of skeptics within the US and for those friendly or neutral countries whose support we would prefer to have on our side in the GWOT. Indeed, the negative political fallout from the Iraq war for the administration may be acting as a "posion pill" on future plans for preemptive action in Iran or North Korea. There is even some thought that it has tied the administration's hand from taking more aggressive action to counter the genocide taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan. Overwhelming military might does not negate the need for political support, both at home and abroad.

So how do we leverage our military might with rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea? Here is the summary paragraph from the AEI's publication on the Bush Doctrine linked to above:

The preservation of today's Pax Americana rests upon both actual military strength and the perception of strength. The variety of victories scored by U.S. forces since the end of the cold war is testament to both the futility of directly challenging the United States and the desire of its enemies to keep poking and prodding to find a weakness in the American global order. Convincing would-be great powers, rogue states, and terrorists to accept the liberal democratic order--and the challenge to autocratic forms of rule that come with it--requires not only an overwhelming response when the peace is broken, but a willingness to step in when the danger is imminent. The message of the Bush Doctrine--"Don't even think about it!"--rests in part on a logic of preemption that underlies the logic of primacy.

But "dont even think about it" worked very well during the Cold War as a deterrent strategy under the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. The problem applying MAD to the era of non-state entities like Al Quaeda and their state sponsors like Iran is that the traceability of weapon to source is very difficult to prove. But here is where we can leverage our immense arsenal to our advantage.

I think that the US should stay engaged with the UN and the IAEA to continue to press non-nuclear states to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But on the side, strictly as a US initiative, we tell nations that will not cooperate the following: non-cooperating states go on the "list". When you are on the "list", all potential nuclear development sites in your country are targeted by US ballistic nuclear missiles. If we do not have good intelligence on where your sites are, we will overcompensate by increasing the number of potential sites we target. These are not tactical nukes, mind you, but strategic.

Now, in the event that the US or any nation that it has diplomatic relations with is hit by a nuclear explosion, and the source of that weapon is not immediately identified, ie. it was a suitcase nuke and not delivered by missile from an identified country, then every nation that is currently on the "list" will be hit with overwhelming nuclear retaliation.

The beauty of this strategy is that we put the rogue state in the drivers seat, and not the US. The ball is in their court, so to speak. The one advantage that we have vis a vis Iran is an overwhelmingly pro US populace. Let's ratchet up the pressure on the Imams, both hidden and visible, by making their populace vividly aware of the grave danger that their insane leaders have put them in. Lets start funding insurrection movements in Iran. Let the people have a reason to take their fates into their own hands.

The other beauty of the plan is that Iran now knows that it can be destroyed even if North Korea supplied the bomb to the terrorists, and vice versa. Suddenly these regimes will feel a lot less in control of their own fates. I'd call that a mighty big bargaining chip on our side.

Onward Christian soldiers

Those wacky evangelicals are at it again. Not satisfied with their victory in opening up the Air Force to greater expression of indivudual religious sentiments on the job, they want to guarantee every armed forces chaplain the right to push his own faith in opposition to the spiritual needs of the diverse flock he supposedly serves. Last week the US House of Representatives passed a defense appropriations bill with language that would allow just this:

The House passed a $513 billion defense authorization bill yesterday that includes language intended to allow chaplains to pray in the name of Jesus at public military ceremonies, undercutting new Air Force and Navy guidelines on religion.

The bill, which passed by a vote of 396 to 31, also contains significant adjustments to the Pentagon's original request, mainly by shifting hundreds of millions of dollars toward military personnel -- in the form of troop increases, protective gear and health-care benefits -- and away from new weapons systems. The measure includes $50 billion for next year's cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We're not a rubber stamp," House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Ike Skelton (Mo.) told reporters.

Before the bill reached the House floor, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee added the provision on military chaplains. It says each chaplain "shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain's own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible."

Air Force and Navy rules issued in recent months allow chaplains to pray as they wish in voluntary worship services. But the rules call for nonsectarian prayers, or a moment of silence, at public meetings or ceremonies, especially when attendance is mandatory for service members of all faiths.

Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition and other evangelical Christian groups have lobbied vigorously against the Air Force and Navy rules, urging President Bush to issue an executive order guaranteeing the right of chaplains to pray in the name of Jesus under any circumstances. Because the White House has not acted, sympathetic members of Congress stepped in.

"We felt there needed to be a clarification" of the rules "because there is political correctness creeping into the chaplains corps," said Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.). "I don't understand anyone being opposed to a chaplain having the freedom to pray to God in the way his conscience calls him to pray."

Among the provision's opponents is the chief of Navy chaplains, Rear Adm. Louis V. Iasiello, a Roman Catholic priest.

"The language ignores and negates the primary duties of the chaplain to support the religious needs of the entire crew" and "will, in the end, marginalize chaplains and degrade their use and effectiveness," Iasiello wrote in a letter to a committee member.

The National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, a private association of religious groups that provide more than 70 percent of U.S. chaplains, also objected to the language. "Chaplains represent their faith communities and we endorse them to represent that faith community with integrity and loyalty to that tradition, not to the dictates of their individual conscience," the association's executive committee wrote.

I could see this coming back in February, I just didn't expect the evangelicals to move this quickly. That they can't find enough commonality even with their fellow religious servicemen to put the broader good of their unit's morale and cohesion above their personal sectarian preferences shows me that these evangelical ministers, politicians and chaplains do not have the national interest at heart, but only their own narrow identification as a separate people. Their stance is both unpatriotic and un-American. I hope that the Republican representatives that inserted this language in committee lose their seats in the Fall. The stench to vote Republican is becoming overwhelming, I can't squeeze my nostrils tight enough to keep it out!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Trojan Horse of "Group Rights"

Cristopher Hitchens tells the tragic tale of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali immigrant to the Netherlands, and her continued harassment by Muslims, and the cowardly and shameful way that "liberal" and "tolerant" Dutch society overlooks her oppression under the rubric of "group rights" (the article is excerpted in its entirety):

Three years ago, at a conference in Sweden, I was introduced to a Dutch member of parliament named Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Originally born in Somalia, she had been a refugee in several African countries and eventually a refugee from her own family, which had decided to "give" her in marriage to a distant male relative she had never met. Thinking to escape from such confines by moving to the Netherlands, she was appalled to find that radical Islam had followed her there—or in fact preceded her there—and was proselytizing among Turkish and Moroccan and Indonesian immigrants. In ancient towns like Rotterdam and Amsterdam, where once the refugees from Catholic France and inquisitional Spain had sought refuge, and where Baruch Spinoza had been excommunicated and anathematized for his opposition to Jewish fundamentalism, there were districts where Muslim women were subjected to genital mutilation and where the Dutch police were afraid to set foot.

Entering politics to try to alert the European left to this danger, she was first elected as a deputy for the Labor Party, but after 9/11 she changed her allegiance to the Liberals. This, she explained, was because many Labor spokesmen preferred to think of immigrants as possessing "group rights." They had become so infatuated by their own "multi-culti" style that they had ignored the rights of individuals—especially women and girls—who were imprisoned within their own ghetto. (That, by the way, was precisely Spinoza's problem as well. The Dutch rabbis cursed him and condemned him in their own sectarian "court," of which the Christian authorities approved because it took care of dangerous secularism among Jews.)

At the Swedish event, Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke calmly and rationally about the problem. I never know whether or not it's right to mention, with female public figures, the fact of arresting and hypnotizing beauty, but I notice that I seem to have done so. Shall I just say that she was a charismatic figure in Dutch politics, mainly because of the calm and reason to which I just alluded? She was the ideal choice of collaborator for the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh (a distant descendant of the anguished painter) on Submission, a film about the ignored problem of enslaved and oppressed women in Holland. Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote the screenplay and provided the movie's voice-over.

You probably remember what happened next: Van Gogh was bicycling to work one morning in 2004 in the capital city of one of Europe's most peaceful and civilized countries when he was shot down in the street and then mutilated in a ritual fashion by an Islamist fanatic. The murderer (who had expected to become a martyr but who was only wounded in the leg by the gentle Dutch cops) left a long "martyr's letter" pinned to van Gogh's corpse by an equally long knife. In it, he warned Ayaan Hirsi Ali that she was the next target, and he gave a long and detailed account of all the offenses that would condemn her to an eternity in hell. (I noticed, reading this appalling screed when it was first published, that he obsessively referred to her as "Mrs. Hirshi Ali," as if trying to make her sound like a Jew. Other references to Jews in the text were even less tasteful.)

She has had to live under police protection ever since, and when I saw her again last week in Washington, I had to notice that there were several lofty and burly Dutchmen acting in an unaffected but determined way somewhere off to the side. I would urge you all to go out and buy her new book, The Caged Virgin, which is subtitled An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam. The three themes of the story are: first, her own gradual emancipation from tribalism and superstition; second, her work as a parliamentarian to call attention to the crimes being committed every day by Islamist thugs in mainland Europe; and third, the dismal silence, or worse, from many feminists and multiculturalists about this state of affairs.

Before being elected to parliament, she worked as a translator and social worker among immigrant women who are treated as sexual chattel—or as the object of "honor killings"—by their menfolk, and she has case histories that will freeze your blood. These, however, are in some ways less depressing than the excuses made by qualified liberals for their continuation. At all costs, it seems, others must be allowed "their culture" and—what is more—must be allowed the freedom not to be offended by the smallest criticism of it. If they do feel offended, their very first resort is to violence and intimidation, sometimes with the support of the embassies of foreign states. (How interesting it is that the two European states most recently attacked in this way—Holland and Denmark—should be the ones that have made the greatest effort to be welcoming to immigrants.) Considering that this book is written by a woman who was circumcised against her will at a young age and then very nearly handed over as a bargain with a stranger, it is written with quite astonishing humor and restraint.

But here is the grave and sad news. After being forced into hiding by fascist killers, Ayaan Hirsi Ali found that the Dutch government and people were slightly embarrassed to have such a prominent "Third World" spokeswoman in their midst. She was first kept as a virtual prisoner, which made it almost impossible for her to do her job as an elected representative. When she complained in the press, she was eventually found an apartment in a protected building. Then the other residents of the block filed suit and complained that her presence exposed them to risk. In spite of testimony from the Dutch police, who assured the court that the building was now one of the safest in all Holland, a court has upheld the demand from her neighbors and fellow citizens that she be evicted from her home. In these circumstances, she is considering resigning from parliament and perhaps leaving her adopted country altogether. This is not the only example that I know of a supposedly liberal society collaborating in its own destruction, but I hope at least that it will shame us all into making The Caged Virgin a best seller.

Can anyone reasonably deny that "group rights" is no more than a Trojan Horse in which civilized countries can be invaded by the barbarities of the uncivilized world? Such is the moral bankruptcy of the contemporary left, that it can find no basis for defending even the most basic demands of decency and humanity. The point of my earlier post on the clash between the Massachusetts anti-discrimination law and the Catholic Church's adoption program wasn't to draw a moral likeness between the Church and the barbaric culture of the militant Muslim communities in Europe, but to point out the danger of allowing any manifestation of "group rights", or religious based exemptions to secular law to take hold, no matter how well-meaning the request for exemption may be. As a wise man once said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand".

Is Jesus a Green?

Conservative evangelicals are split on Global Warming, says Mark Tooley:

ON THE RELIGIOUS LEFT, the great hope these days is that the Religious Right is melting down over Global Warming. Liberal evangelical activist Jim Wallis rejoiced about the crack-up in a recent column, claiming that "the Religious Right is losing control" thanks to environmentalist evangelicals. Wallis, head of "Sojourners" and author of God's Politics: Why the American Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Just Does Not Get It, is predicting a "sea change" among evangelicals since the Religious Right has "now lost control of the environmental issue."

The reason for Wallis's optimism is the newly-created Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), endorsed by 86 religious leaders, which declared early this year that "human-induced climate change is real" and which urged legislation limiting carbon dioxide emissions. Those endorsing the ECI were mostly academics from evangelical colleges, with the notable exception of mega-church pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren. The New York Times and other media outlets lavished much attention on ECI's stance.

Absent from the ECI endorsement was the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and its long-time Washington representative, Richard Cizik. An enthusiast for environmental causes, Cizik is prominently included in Vanity Fair's May 2006 "Green Issue," which features the cover-line, "A Graver Threat than Terrorism: Global Warming." Inside is a full-page shot of Cizik, clad in clerical black and walking barefoot across the water, back-dropped by an apocalyptic and no doubt very hot landscape.

Vanity Fair reports that Cizik often cites Revelation 11:18's ostensible warning that God will "destroy those
who destroy the earth." "Amen to that," Vanity Fair concludes.
So Jim Wallis is excited. "The Evangelical Climate Initiative is of enormous importance and could be a tipping point in the climate change debate, according to one secular environmental leader I talked to," he writes. Concern about the environment, he hopes, will lead to an evangelical embrace other issues of the Left.

All of which hopes are somewhat dampened by the National Association of Evangelicals' decision not to join the ECI. According to Wallis, Cizik and NAE president Ted Haggard, a Colorado mega-church pastor, attended environmental seminars and have experienced an "epiphany" on climate change. They were fully onboard with the issue.

That is, Wallis laments, until the "Religious Right reared its head." Twenty-two of the "Right's prominent leaders" publicly asked the NAE not to adopt a position on climate change. "Global Warming is not a consensus issue," warned conservatives, including Focus on the Family's James Dobson, Prison Fellowship's Charles Colson, and the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land. (This statement was also signed by the then-interim president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, for which I work.)

"We are evangelicals and we care about God's creation," read the Dobson-Colson-Land letter. "However, we believe there should be room for Bible-believing evangelicals to disagree about the cause, severity, and solutions to the global warming issue." The letter urged NAE to foster "unity" in the Christian community.
No doubt the NAE was responding to Dobson, Colson, et al. But their response also reflected the truth that evangelicals do not have a clear scriptural or historical teaching on Global Warming--as they do on an issue such as same-sex marriage.

You mean God didn't give Man a complete and comprehensive blueprint for handling every situation that Life may throw at him? What is a Biblical literalist to do? Use his own powers of reason? Get thee behind me, Satan!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Religious freedom vs cultural values

Maggie Gallagher reports on the growing conflict between religious beliefs and societal values as it plays out in the battle between Catholic Charities of Boston and the State of Massachusetts:

CATHOLIC CHARITIES OF BOSTON made the announcement on March 10: It was getting out of the adoption business. "We have encountered a dilemma we cannot resolve. . . . The issue is adoption to same-sex couples."

It was shocking news. Catholic Charities of Boston, one of the nation's oldest adoption agencies, had long specialized in finding good homes for hard to place kids. "Catholic Charities was always at the top of the list," Paula Wisnewski, director of adoption for the Home for Little Wanderers, told the Boston Globe. "It's a shame because it is certainly going to mean that fewer children from foster care are going to find permanent homes." Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said simply, "This is a tragedy for kids."

How did this tragedy happen?

It's a complicated story. Massachusetts law prohibited "orientation discrimination" over a decade ago. Then in November 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered gay marriage. The majority ruled that only animus against gay people could explain why anyone would want to treat opposite-sex and same-sex couples differently. That same year, partly in response to growing pressure for gay marriage and adoption both here and in Europe, a Vatican statement made clear that placing children with same-sex couples violates Catholic teaching.

Then in October 2005, the Boston Globe broke the news: Boston Catholic Charities had placed a small number of children with same-sex couples. Sean Cardinal O'Malley, who has authority over Catholic Charities of Boston, responded by stating that the agency would no longer do so.

Seven members of the Boston Catholic Charities board (about one-sixth of the membership) resigned in protest. Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which lobbies for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equal rights, issued a thundering denunciation of the Catholic hierarchy: "These bishops are putting an ugly political agenda before the needs of very vulnerable children. Every one of the nation's leading children's welfare groups agrees that a parent's sexual orientation is irrelevant to his or her ability to raise a child. What these bishops are doing is shameful, wrong, and has nothing to do whatsoever with faith."

But getting square with the church didn't end Catholic Charities' woes. To operate in Massachusetts, an adoption agency must be licensed by the state. And to get a license, an agency must pledge to obey state laws barring discrimination--including the decade-old ban on orientation discrimination. With the legalization of gay marriage in the state, discrimination against same-sex couples would be outlawed, too.

Cardinal O'Malley asked Governor Mitt Romney for a religious exemption from the ban on orientation discrimination. Governor Romney reluctantly responded that he lacked legal authority to grant one unilaterally, by executive order. So the governor and archbishop turned to the state legislature, requesting a conscience exemption that would allow Catholic Charities to continue to help kids in a manner consistent with Catholic teaching.

To date, not a single other Massachusetts political leader appears willing to consider even the narrowest religious exemption. Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, the Republican candidate for governor in this fall's election, refused to budge: "I believe that any institution that wants to provide services that are regulated by the state has to abide by the laws of the state," Healey told the Boston Globe on March 2, "and our antidiscrimination laws are some of our most important."

I am struck by the similarity of the Catholic Diocese of Boston's request for a religious exemption from a state law and the demand by many Muslim communities in Western countries for the freedom to practice Sharia law within their own communities. Conservatives and most liberals in the US rightly see that such special concessions to Muslims are a threat to the rule of law and would enable the growth of , for all practical purposes, separate sovereign nations within our own. Yet I am doubtful that most conservatives see the same danger in the request by the Boston Diocese for separate status within the laws of Massachusetts.

Whether you feel that the anti-discrimination laws of Massachusetts are just or unjust, I hope that all of us can agree that we cannot allow dissenter status based on religious convictions. Such an application of the First Amendment's freedom of expression clause would undoubtedly undermine the very democratic principles upon which our country was founded. A law is either an unconstitutional infringement on First Amendment rights, or it isn't. If it isn't, then it must be enforced uniformly, without exemption for religious beliefs.

Gallagher's article probes beyond the Boston adoption controversy to what conflicts lie ahead in the struggle over Gay rights:

So who is right? Is the fate of Catholic Charities of Boston an aberration or a sign of things to come?

I PUT THE QUESTION to Anthony Picarello, president and general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket Fund is widely recognized as one of the best religious liberty law firms and the only one that defends the religious liberty of all faith groups, "from Anglicans to Zoroastrians," as its founder Kevin J. Hasson likes to say (referring to actual clients the Becket Fund has defended).

Just how serious are the coming conflicts over religious liberty stemming from gay marriage?

"The impact will be severe and pervasive," Picarello says flatly. "This is going to affect every aspect of church-state relations." Recent years, he predicts, will be looked back on as a time of relative peace between church and state, one where people had the luxury of litigating cases about things like the Ten Commandments in courthouses. In times of relative peace, says Picarello, people don't even notice that "the church is surrounded on all sides by the state; that church and state butt up against each other. The boundaries are usually peaceful, so it's easy sometimes to forget they are there. But because marriage affects just about every area of the law, gay marriage is going to create a point of conflict at every point around the perimeter."

There are optimistic and pessimistic ways to predict the outcome of this upcoming struggle, but in either scenario I don't see the Church (broadly speaking) side of the struggle gaining any territory. The plurality of cultural values in the US will not shrink, but grow in the coming decades, and the central role that church and faith-based organizations have held in society, from marriage, adoption, and youth groups such as the Boy Scouts will come under pressure to either serve that plurality more broadly or watch their roles diminish.

When America was more religiously homogenous, religious freedom was seen more as a group freedom, that is, the right of a religious majority to establish laws and societal norms that reflected their common religious values. Thus the issue of paryer in public schools was seen as the right of the religious majority to establish the norm that everyone will be required to pray in the manner of the majority, whether they were a part of that majority or not. Though the rights of religious minorities were, by law, protected, in practice those rights were trumped by the collective rights of the majority.

The evolution of Church/State jurisprudence toward greater consideration for minority rights has been seen by majorities as a greater diminuition of religious freedom. This evolution has also mirrored the increasing religious and cultural pluralization of American society. American society has been able to achieve its amazing cohesion in the face of this pluralization precisely because of this trend toward increasing individual freedoms at the expense of group freedoms. To those who belong to those once majority groups, though, this greater cohesion seems more like a coming apart at the seams. It is a historical tradeoff, which it seems that only American society has been able to pull off. The alternative is cultural Balkanization, which has been the historical norm for most nations and empires. Will the upcoming struggles over Gay rights lead to a Balkanization of American society or will we maintain a common American identity?

Read Gallagher's article in full, it is a very thoughtful and well researched analysis of legal and cultural battles to come.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Sorry is the easiest word

From the Guardian:

There's a big debate in Bristol tonight about whether or not the city should formally apologise for its prominent and financially rewarding role in the slave trade. Liverpool, the other main British slave port, has already done just this, and there is a growing penchant for groups that see themselves as victims of past injustices to demand an apology from their former oppressors. It's easy to make fun of the trend, but I'd like to treat the issue unjocularly.

The Queen is said to have apologised to the Maori of New Zealand, to the Indians over the massacre at Amritsar in 1919, and even to the Acadians of Canada (for their deportation in the 18th century), but on closer inspection these were apologies by implication, symbolic rather than direct. I cannot trace her having uttered or written the word "apology". Careful study of Tony Blair's supposed apology over Ireland's potato famine in the mid-19th century reveals a lesser admission: "Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy." That's far from the present government saying sorry. A few years ago, Blair almost ruined an international conference with his refusal to commit the British government to apologising for slavery.

Pope John Paul II apologised unreservedly to Aborigines for past injustices by the Roman Catholic Church , but a similar apology has not been forthcoming from the Australian government, whose predecessors were directly responsible for the maltreatment of the country's indigenous people. Prime Minister John Howard has frequently expressed regret at the behaviour of past administrations, and its appalling consequences, but has firmly resisted calls for an apology, which would, he argues, suggest that his government is somehow to blame.

That's the real issue. Can you apologise for something you didn't do?

As a Bristolian I would like to apologise unreservedly for the slave trade, as a Briton for the movie Love Actually, as a white westerner for McDonalds, as a Catholic for the numerous worthless apologies by the Pope, as a Darwinist for Orrin Judd, and as a human being for the extinction of the dodo.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Digerati Chronicles 2 - Goooood Google

Andrew Keen, whose uncovering of the evil conspiracy known as the Web 2.0 movement was covered here in February, takes on Google and its much publicized corporate motto of "Do no Evil":
IS GOOGLE GOOD OR EVIL? In Silicon Valley, Google's moral code is a contentious issue. To its local boosters, Google can do no ill; but to critics on both the left and the right, Google epitomizes all the worst hubris, hypocrisy, and greed of the era.

"Take their work in Africa," one idealistic entrepreneur, a Google booster, told me, at a recent technology summit. "Bank rolling the $100 laptop for African kids proves their commitment to human rights and universal justice."

"Google's China policy is much more revealing," counters a Google critic, an equally idealistic software engineer. "Google sold out to the communists. They couldn't care less about the rights of ordinary Chinese citizens."

Might Google be so unconventional as to exist outside traditional moral categories, to be simultaneously good and evil? On the Internet, anything is possible.

But artificial intelligence only goes so far. No Internet algorithm, even one authored by Google founders Sergei Brin and Larry Page, can explain the company's moral code. To answer this question, we must go offline, to Charles Taylor's 1991 study of unconventionality, The Ethics of Authenticity.

Taylor traces the modern idea of individual authenticity back to Rousseau's romantic theory of
the self. Taylor says that this conception of the individual transforms truth into a subjective notion that is peculiar to each individual soul. Thus, an established moral code or social convention means nothing to each individual. Only the self, in all its authentic glory, can encode its own morality. As Taylor writes:

Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover.

Consequently, each unconventional soul becomes, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, "enclosed in their own hearts." Originality replaces a common ethical code as the source of individual morality. The result is the countercultural ethic of "doing your own thing" in which everyone is free to pursue their own conscience.

This ethic of authenticity is the key to understanding Google and, as a bonus, gives us a sneak preview of the next big thing in the global economy: authentic capitalism.

Keen's critique would be more useful if he wasn't trying so hard to shoehorn it into his own ideological cubbyhole. His charge that Brin and Page are taking directions from some philosophical creed known as "Authentic Capitalism" is not based on any apparent facts. A Google search (what else?) of "Authentic Capitalism" turns up only three pages of references, and the top three hits are to citations of his article. There is no philosophical school called "Authentic Capitalism", and it is apparent that Keen is trying to coin a buzzword.

But what of Keen's critique? Is there any validity to the notion that Page and Brin are throwing established morality to the winds based on their own subjective whims? Keen is guilty of the same error that many conservative, especially religious conservative critics make when passing judgment on those people who have different moral opinions from themselves. Keen's authenticity charge is no different than the charge of moral relativism leveled at secularists or non-conservatives. In fact there are in actuality very few true relativists. Moral judgments are necessarily highly subjective. Everyone perceives right and wrong through the subjective lens of their own conscience, experience, reason and worldview. Page and Brin are guilty of nothing more than what we all are guilty of - forming moral opinions.

The mere fact that Page and Brin use the language of conventional morality, including the words "good" and "evil", is evidence that they are not attempting to flout societal morality. Also, the fact that they feel it is important to explain the reasons for their decisions is a good indicator that they aren't acting in some sort of detached, "authentic" manner where they have no need to explain themselves to others.

Given that, the content of the moral opinions is certainly open to criticism. Keen contrasts their positions on two of Google's projects: their entry into the China search engine market, and their laptop giveaway in Africa:

Google's authentic capitalism means that any moral argument is valid, provided that the Google guys believe it. Clive Johnson, in his New York Times magazine piece, puts it succinctly, describing Google's China policy as being defined by the company's "halcyon concept of itself":

The carrot was Google's halcyon concept of itself, the belief that merely by improving access to information in an authoritarian country, it would be doing good. Certainly, the company's officials figured, it could do better than the local Chinese firms, which acquiesce to the censorship regime with a shrug. Sure, Google would have to censor the most politically sensitive Web sites--religious groups, democracy groups, memorials of the Tiananmen Square massacre--along with pornography. But that was only a tiny percentage of what Chinese users search for on Google. Google could still improve Chinese citizens' ability to learn about AIDS, environmental problems, avian flu, world markets.

Johnson goes on to quote Brin on why Google decided to collude with the authorities in Beijing.

Revenue, Brin told me, wasn't a big part of the equation. He said he thought it would be years before Google would make much if any profit in China. In fact, he argued, going into China "wasn't as much a business decision as a decision about getting people information. And we decided in the end that we should make this compromise."

One could argue with Brin's logic, but not with his belief in the virtue of his own argument. The unconventional Brin has so much faith in his own moral judgment that he felt completely confident he could make the right ethical decision on China.

That pretty much sums up moral reasoning: something is good if you believe it is good. So what is Keen's beef? How is his moral reasoning different? Does he ever consider something good that he doesn't believe is good?

Now I find Brin's faith in Information Uber Alles a tad bit naive. Does he really think that his search engine will give the Chinese people that much more information on AIDS and environmental problems than the homegrown search portals will? I'd say that Brin is being disingenuous if not downright dishonest in saying that the entry into China was not a revenue based decision. Google is bound to make a lot of money there. I'd say that Brin is guilty of moral posturing here.

I think where Keen drops the ball most seriously is in the lack of skepticism he directs at Google's Africa campaign, which I find worthy of as much scrutiny, at least, as their China decision.

On January 6 of this year, three weeks before launched, I attended Google co-founder Larry Page's keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Unsurprisingly, Page didn't speak about his China strategy. Instead he romanticized the bright side of Google's moral equation--their Africa policy:

Now let me switch gears to talk about a very serious issue. About 15 percent of the people in the world are on the Internet right now--15 per cent. We still have a huge way to go to get everyone online. . . . If you look at a picture of earth from space at night, you'll see that anywhere there's electric light, there's Internet, and anywhere there's Internet people are using Google. It all corresponds perfectly. But it's very sad that, for example, there are almost no queries coming from anywhere in Africa. I think that's an important thing to work on.

But in spite of this "sad" reality, Page had been "working on" a solution for the poverty of queries emanating out of the electronically dark African continent:

To try to help this, something we've been supporting is the MIT $100 Laptop Project. . . . It's a very cool project and they have very ambitious goals for it. They want to actually get 100 million of these out in the hands of children worldwide. It's also a very cool device, with a half a gigahertz processor, 128 megs of RAM and 500 megs of flash. And they're also doing a lot of cool things to get the price down. But I think it's really important to get devices like that out there in the world to give people greater access.

Getting a laptop into the hands of every African child isn't just a dream. In February of this year, a few weeks after Page's CES speech, Google announced the appointment of Silicon Valley visionary Larry Brilliant as executive director of company's $1 billion philanthropic arm. In a February 23 interview with Wired magazine, Brilliant articulated the value of providing underprivileged African children with laptop computers and wi-fi Internet access:

I envision a kid [in Africa] getting online and finding that there is an outbreak of cholera down the street.

Here is where, if Google were to challenge conventional morality, they should. Giveaways to Africa, that blighted continent of people who seemingly cannot deal with the challenges of life as independent moral agents responsible for their own fates as human beings, are seen nowadays as the sine qua non of humanitarian compassion. Live Aid made African famine relief a popular, if controversial, cause for the global Rock & Roll set. Bono took up the cause, and now demands debt relief for corrupt African governments. Even popular evangelists are not immune to dreaming up questionable schemes for saving Africans from themselves.

I certainly don't want to disparage the impulse to offer a helping hand to the unfortunate, but Africa's problems are not amenable to giveaways. In fact, they are generally worsened by these giveaways. The first problem is that the giveaways fuel the thriving corruption trade. Whether it is the vainglorious demagogue and dictator of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, who has enriched himself while simultaneously benkrupting and destroying his nation, or the warlords of Somalia who enriched themselves on the relief supplies sent to prevent widespread famine, the abuse and misuse of international aid and compassion by corrupt local officials and warlords has defined the post-colonial period in Africa.

The promise of relief can only foster a cargo cult mentality. The same social disasters that befell inner city communities as a result of widespread welfare programs in the US have been visited upon Africa tenfold. Sustained normalcy and prosperity in Africa will only come when African societies adopt the cultural reforms necessary to support entrepreneurship, democracy and capitalism. These things cannot be given to them, but their development can be thwarted by ill-conceived but well meaning relief programs.

Again, Page and Brin's reasoning for the laptop giveaway are naive in the extreme. For someone who is too poor to buy a laptop, a gift laptop will most likely be traded or sold for food or money, if it isn't stolen first. Until a community is stable and prosperous enough to allow for normal market activity, the information that can be gained from surfing the internet will be of little use to anyone in the community. And why is Brin so keen to leave adults out of the loop? I think that, to the extent that a community could be strengthened by access to information, it would derive more benefit by giving adults the access before the children. This is obviously one of those "think of the children" impulses.

But say that these laptops are given out in a community that is stable and prosperous enough to support an internet service provider. Such a community would probably contain a burgeoning entrepreneur community, small local dealers selling low cost computers. The giveaway will hurt their business, short circuiting a necessary business class in its infancy.

The best thing that Google could do to help Africa would be to enter the market as a for-profit enterprise selling goods and services tailored to the needs of the consumers there. They could partner with the nascent entrepreneurs there, and maybe provide them with drastically discounted, or free laptops to give to customers as an incentive to sign up for an internet account. They'd maybe be criticized as profiteers by the conventional press, but they would truly be helping the Africans out more than they would under the existing scheme.

The problem with the giveaway mentality is this: where noone is paying for a good, noone is making money. Cargo cults are disastrous for the formation of thriving economies. Why work when you can wait for the cargo gods to provide for you? Unfortunately, this is a case where it would be gooooood for Google to actually be as unconventional as they claim to be.

Errata: OK, so I didn't get my facts totally straight. The laptops are not a giveaway, but will be sold to governments to be used for schools. The program is called "One Laptop per Child", or OLPC. Here is the FAQ from their website.

Upon reading the FAQ, especially the following paragraph, another concern entirely comes to mind:

How will this initiative be structured?
The $100 laptop is being developed by One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a Delaware-based, non-profit organization created by faculty members from the MIT Media Lab to design, manufacture, and distribute laptops that are sufficiently inexpensive to provide every child in the world access to knowledge and modern forms of education. OLPC is based on constructionist theories of learning pioneered by Seymour Papert and later Alan Kay, as well as the principles expressed in Nicholas Negroponte's book Being Digital. The founding corporate members are Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Brightstar, Google, News Corporation, Nortel, and Red Hat.

So is it a good idea to use the world's poor children as the test subjects for a new educational fad? A better idea would be to provide the low cost technology unbundled from the educational content. Let each local government make decisions on the best educational philosophy independently of their hardware purchases. I smell an ideological Trojan Horse in the guise of a feel-good "Think of the Children" cause. Does Constructionism have any merit as an educational philosophy?

This essay by Papert gives some reasons for pause, beyond the mere, MEGO-like impenetrablility of its prose:
They are not the only ones who are so predisposed. In Chapter 9 of this volume, Sherry Turkel and I analyze the epistemological underpinnings of a number of contemporary cultural movements. We show how trends as different as feminist thought and the ethnography of science join with trends in the computer culture to favor forms of knowledge based on working with concrete materials rather than abstract propositions, and this too predisposes them to prefer learning in a constructionist rather than in an instructionist mode. In Chapter 2, I make a similar connection with political trends.

This sounds a lot like PC nonsense to me, with shades of Ebonics thrown in for good measure. Instruction is the new bogey? Here is the Wikipedia take:

Constructionism (in the context of learning) is the idea that people learn effectively through making things. Constructionism is connected with experiential learning and builds on some of the ideas of Jean Piaget.

As Seymour Papert and Idit Harel say at the start of Situating Constructionism, "It is easy enough to formulate simple catchy versions of the idea of constructionism; for example, thinking of it as 'learning-by-making'. One purpose of this introductory chapter is to orient the reader toward using the diversity in the volume to elaborate—to construct—a sense of constructionism much richer and more multifaceted, and very much deeper in its implications, than could be conveyed by any such formula."

Papert has been a huge proponent of bringing IT to classrooms, as in his early uses of the Logo language to teach mathematics to children. Constructionist learning involves students drawing their own conclusions through creative experimentation and the making of social objects. The constructionist teacher takes on a mediational role rather than adopting an instructionist position. Front of class teaching "at" students is replaced by assisting them to understand- and help one another to understand- problems in a hands on way.

While constructionism has, due to its impetus, been primarily used in science and mathematics teaching to date, it is arguable that it developed in a differerent form in the field of media studies in which students often engage with media theory and practice simultaneously, in a complementary praxis. More recently it has gained a foot hold in Applied linguistics, in the field of second language acquisition (or SLA). One such application has been the use of the popular game SimCity as a means of teaching english using constructionist techniques (Gromik:2004).

Yep, it's PC nonsense allright.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Mmmm…that’s good satire

(Warning: some of the following may not be strictly true)

Alighting the 0715 Great Western Express from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington last week, I found myself seated next to a strangely familiar figure. Closer examination confirmed my suspicions: he was none other than that intellectual giant of the modern age, Phillip E Johnson.

Naturally he was deep in thought (no doubt discovering a dozen brilliant ways in which science was wrong before tucking into his breakfast), so I was reluctant to disturb him, but as he got up to leave the train (Swindon – probably taking advantage of the excellent shopping opportunities at the new retail outlet there), a loose leaf of folded paper slipped from his bulging briefcase.

It was too late to call him back (he was already charging heedless towards the discount Marks and Spencer), so with beating heart and trembling hands, I unfolded the sheet and beheld the following:

Press release: Teach the Coal Controversy, demands Discovery Institute

Fresh from its success in vanquishing the monopoly of the pseudo-science that is Darwinism, the Discovery Institute (always vigorous in applying its methods fairly and disinterestedly) is taking on the self-proclaimed experts in the vital arena of fossil fuels.

For far too long, the baseless and unscientific theory that coal is formed from plant remains over millions of years has reigned supreme and unchallenged. We are even teaching it to our children as if it were FACT!

Take this excerpt from that mouthpiece of the clandestine scientific elite, Wikipedia:

Coal was formed in swamp ecosystems which persisted in lowland sedimentary basins similar, for instance, to the peat swamps of Borneo today. These swamp environments were formed during slow subsidence of passive continental margins, and most seem to have formed adjacent to estuarine and marine sediments suggesting that they may have been in tidal delta environments.

When plants die in these peat swamp environments, their biomass is deposited in anaerobic aquatic environments where low oxygen levels prevent their complete decay by bacteria and oxidation.


The greatest coal-forming time in geologic history was during the Carboniferous era (280 to 345 million years ago). Further large deposits of coal are found in the Permian, with lesser but still significant Triassic and Jurassic deposits, and minor Cretaceous and younger deposits of lignite. In the modern European lowlands of Holland and Germany considerable thicknesses of peat have accumulated, testifying to the ubiquity of the coal-forming process.

And this is supposed to be science?

Where are the experiments? Where are the observations? Where are the measurements, the mathematical equations, the test tubes and the white lab coats?

Has anybody ever actually SEEN coal forming from plants, all by itself, over millions of years?

Yet this UNTESTED theory is considered to be sufficient, self-contained and unworthy of any further examination.

At the Discovery Institute, we are SCEPTICAL!

What the SCIENTISTS WON’T TELL YOU is that for masses of undecayed organic matter to be preserved and to form coal, the environment would have to remain steady for vast periods of time, and the waters feeding these peat swamps must remain almost free of sediment.

But the chances of these fortunate conditions all COINCIDING to give us coal now, AT EXACTLY THE SAME TIME THAT WE INVENT COALMINING AND POWER STATIONS, are surely INFINITESIMALLY SMALL.

All of which points to the interference of an Outside Agent.

Our new theory, which is that coal is formed by a combination of natural processes and intelligent intervention, we have dubbed the Geological and Organics Development, Direction and Intervention by Divine Intelligence Theory (or GODDIDIT for short).

Now, the Discovery Institute, unlike the scientific elite, is far too humble to claim that GODDIDIT is the absolute proven truth. Nonetheless, it is the result of painstaking scientific research, and not just something we made up the other day round my house over a few glasses of sherry after midnight mass.

All that we ask is that the orthodox scientific explanation of coal formation be treated with at least some degree of withering contempt, and that we TEACH THE COAL CONTROVERSY!


Monday, May 01, 2006

The Church, right or wrong

I came across this article from the May 2003 First Things, which provides an excellent example of the kind of thinking that drove ex-Catholics, like me, to become ex-Catholics. Avery Cardinal Dulles (why does their first name come before their title? We don't say "George President Bush", or "Norman General Schwartzkopf"?) writes about the see-saw positions that the Church has taken over the last century regarding the number of people that we can assume are going to Hell:

Sometimes the complaint is heard that no one preaches about hell any longer. The subject of hell, if not attractive, is at least fascinating, as any reader of Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise Lost can testify. Equally fascinating, and decidedly more pressing, is the question of how many of us may be expected to go there when we die.

As we know from the Gospels, Jesus spoke many times about hell. Throughout his preaching, he holds forth two and only two final possibilities for human existence: the one being everlasting happiness in the presence of God, the other everlasting torment in the absence of God. He describes the fate of the damned under a great variety of metaphors: everlasting fire, outer darkness, tormenting thirst, a gnawing worm, and weeping and gnashing of teeth.

He goes on with a detailed exposition of the evolution of the Church's position on damnation through the ages, pointing out that the majority position wasn't very sanguine for the chances of the average person:

The relative numbers of the elect and the damned are not treated in any Church documents, but have been a subject of discussion among theologians. Among the Greek Fathers, Irenaeus, Basil, and Cyril of Jerusalem are typical in interpreting passages such as Matthew 22:14 as meaning that the majority will be consigned to hell. St. John Chrysostom, an outstanding doctor of the Eastern tradition, was particularly pessimistic: “Among thousands of people there are not a hundred who will arrive at their salvation, and I am not even certain of that number, so much perversity is there among the young and so much negligence among the old.”

Augustine may be taken as representative of the Western Fathers. In his controversy with the Donatist Cresconius, Augustine draws upon Matthew and the Book of Revelation to prove that the number of the elect is large, but he grants that their number is exceeded by that of the lost. In Book 21 of his City of God he rebuts first the idea that all human beings are saved, then that all the baptized are saved, then that all baptized Catholics are saved, and finally that all baptized Catholics who persevere in the faith are saved. He seems to limit salvation to baptized believers who refrain from serious sin or who, after sinning, repent and are reconciled with God.

Nothing surprising here for anyone who was raised in the church pre Vatican II. But here is the kicker, where Dulles sets up the argument for a more optimistic view of salvation that is, amazingly, totally consistent with past Church teaching:

Several studies published by Catholics early in the twentieth century concluded that there was a virtual consensus among the Fathers of the Church and the Catholic theologians of later ages to the effect that the majority of humankind go to eternal punishment in hell. Even if this consensus be granted, however, it is not binding, because the theologians did not claim that their opinion was revealed, or that to take the opposite view was heretical. Nor is the opinion that most people attain salvation contradicted by authoritative Church teaching.

Did you catch that? That is what we call, in legal parlance, a loophole. If Augustine or Aquinas or the various Popes that have spoken on salvation throughout the centuries weren't promulgating authoritative Church teaching, then why were they saying anything? Isn't that their job as authorities, to be authoritative? Would that we could all use this loophole in our jobs. "Yes, I did incorrectly state that this lawsuit was a slam-dunk, but I wasn't making an authoritative legal statement". "Yes, I did say, incorrectly, that your genitals had to be amputated, but I wasn't making an authoritative medical statement".

The Church has authority so that what it says can be taken as authoritative teaching. That's what authority means. When you are an official of the Church, whatever you say is authoritative because you are an authority. If it isn't authoritative, then you aren't authoritative. There is no value in authority except to make authoritative decisions.

The most sophisticated theological argument against the conviction that some human beings in fact go to hell has been proposed by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” He rejects the ideas that hell will be emptied at the end of time and that the damned souls and demons will be reconciled with God. He also avoids asserting as a fact that everyone will be saved. But he does say that we have a right and even a duty to hope for the salvation of all, because it is not impossible that even the worst sinners may be moved by God’s grace to repent before they die. He concedes, however, that the opposite is also possible. Since we are able to resist the grace of God, none of us is safe. We must therefore leave the question speculatively open, thinking primarily of the danger in which we ourselves stand.

At one point in his book Balthasar incorporates a long quotation from Edith Stein, now Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who defends a position very like Balthasar’s. Since God’s all-merciful love, she says, descends upon everyone, it is probable that this love produces transforming effects in their lives. To the extent that people open themselves to that love, they enter into the realm of redemption. On this ground Stein finds it possible to hope that God’s omnipotent love finds ways of, so to speak, outwitting human resistance. Balthasar says that he agrees with Stein.

This position of Balthasar seems to me to be orthodox. It does not contradict any ecumenical councils or definitions of the faith. It can be reconciled with everything in Scripture, at least if the statements of Jesus on hell are taken as minatory rather than predictive.

So what we're being told is that the truth could lie somewhere between almost everyone goes to hell, and almost noone goes to hell. As far as authoritative Church teaching can say, at least.

So why do so many people listen to these guys?

The spin continues:

The conviction of earlier theologians that relatively few are saved rests, I suspect, partly on the assumption that faith in Christ, baptism, and adherence to the Church are necessary conditions for salvation. The first two of these conditions are clearly set forth in the New Testament, and the third has been taught by many saints, councils, popes, and theologians. But these conditions can be interpreted more broadly than one might suspect. In recent centuries it has become common to speak of implicit faith, baptism “by desire,” and membership in the “soul” of the Church, or membership in voto (“by desire”). Vatican II declares that all people, even those who have never heard of Christ, receive enough grace to make their salvation possible.

This kind of spin, this parsing of meaning, would put Bill Clinton to shame.

"You shall construct the Truth, and the Truth shall set you free."