Saturday, June 30, 2007

This is how religions get started

How can we modern skeptics account for the wonders and miracles documented in the Bible if we weren't there to not witness them? It's simple. We can just witness the propensity for modern day people to ascribe the miraculous workings of God to ordinary events which have adequate material explanations, and just extrapolate that propensity backwards to our scientifically illiterate ancestors. A case in point is the recent "miraculous" survival of Formula 1 race car driver Robert Kubica from a crash at this month's Canadian Grand Prix. Why miraculous? Because Kubica, a Polish native, has driven for many years with the name of Pope John Paul II on his helmet:
Poland's local PAP news agency reported that Kubica's survival after slamming into a wall during this month's Canadian Grand Prix could serve as evidence of a miracle in the Catholic Church's beatification process of John Paul.

The report was based on a Church source.
The documentation needed to make the late Pope a saint is prepared by the dioceses of Krakow and Rome and reviewed by the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The evidence already gathered includes testimony from some 130 people as well as scrutiny of John Paul's life, spoken words and writing.

Shouldn't they be nominating the guy who designed the helmet? And what of all the other race car drivers who have survived crashes? Shouldn't we consider the sponsor logos on their cars to be magical religious talismans?

Is anyone working on the beatification of Jack Daniels?

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Daily Duck motto

To keep up with the trendier segments of the blogosphere, I have commissioned some of the most innovative creative talent in the marketing industry to choose a motto and emblem for the Daily Duck that brings out the essence of what it means to be a Duckian. Extra Duck dollars to whoever can translate it.

A poverty of riches

What is it about resource wealth that impoverishes and corrupts nations? Less than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has reverted to the crony dictatorship of Vladimir Putin. Federico Varese explores the social and political decay that has spread in the wake of the opening of Russia's energy markets:
Russia is one of the few countries in the world where life expectancy is declining; young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-eight have the highest mortality rate in Europe. In the 1980s, citizens of the Soviet Union had the same life expectancy as citizens of the United States. Today, the Russian male lives on average to an age of fifty-nine, sixteen years less than his U.S. counterpart. About ten million Russians are sterile as a result of bad health or abortions that went wrong. According to the Academy of Medical Sciences, 45 percent of newborns have a disease or a congenital birth defect.
Indeed, the majority of the ideologues from the Yeltsin era, such as the consultant Anders Åslund, considered the fall in the birth rate to be a contingent phenomenon due to the adjustments that followed the transition to a market economy and democracy. The graph for the birth rate does in fact show a fall in 1991 and a further fall in 1998, the year of the financial crisis. Yet the economy has grown uninterruptedly and at a staggering rate over the last seven years, while the population continues to die. What could be the cause?

The Russian conundrum consists, first, of a growing economy with a gross domestic product that has increased by 50 percent since 1998, a solid and reliable financial system, companies listed on the London and New York stock exchanges, thirty-three billionaires on the Forbes List in 2006, and a responsible monetary and fiscal policy that has produced a fiscal surplus since 2000. Then there are the dramatic social indicators: the suicide rate has increased by about 50 percent since the nineties; alcohol and drug consumption have soared; the AIDS epidemic is the worst in Europe; there are 120,000 new cases of tuberculosis every year; and access to hospitals under the corrupt and inadequate health system depends on bribing doctors and nurses. The political indicators are no less dismaying. The system is increasingly authoritarian: all the television channels are under direct or indirect government control; the nonaligned daily and weekly newspapers can be counted on the fingers of one hand and, in any case, have an extremely limited circulation; the president has abolished the elections for regional governors; a few politicians close to Putin have recently suggested the abolition of mayoral elections as well; and pro-government parties, which win with majorities of 70 percent, control sixty-three of the eighty-eight regional parliaments. Trade union activity is almost nonexistent because, as the American journalist David Satter has made clear, trade unionists are intimidated, beaten up, and even eliminated. The climate of fear extends to the ethnic minorities that live in the country: the most recent victims have been the Georgians, who are guilty of having been born in a country that does not accept Russian political interference. During his recent anti-Georgian campaign, President Putin added a new expression to his vocabulary: korennoi narod (“the rooted population”), obviously a reference to the Russians. He insists that the interests of this latter group must be protected against ill-defined dangers. In the meantime, the police arrest and beat up the local “blacks” (non-Russians from the South).

THE GRAPH THAT provides the best explanation of the Russian conundrum consists of three lines: the world oil price, the degree of democracy in Russia (political and civil rights) as measured by Freedom House, and the rate of corruption as measured by Transparency International. Once this graph has been drawn, the reader immediately sees illuminating correlations: every time the oil price goes up, the level of democracy in Russia goes down and the level of corruption goes up. For decades, political scientists have studied the so-called “wealth paradox” (most recently, Michael Ross, Steve Fish, and Peter Rutland); namely, the fact that countries that are rich in natural resources do not appear to be able to prosper economically over the long term. The classic example is that of Spanish colonization in the New World, which brought fabulous riches to the crown treasury but in the end produced economic decline. In the Spanish case, the American gold only produced powerful inflationary pressures.

The connection seems real enough at first glance, but it ignores the fact that those nations exemplifying the trend have never enjoyed democratic success prior to the realization of their oil wealth. The Middle East were backwards tribal fiefdoms, and Russia has had a long tradition of autocratic and dictatorial governments going back to the days of the Czars. It ignores the social and economic success of democracies like the US and Canada that have always enjoyed natural resource wealth. The more you try to explain the fate of nations through material factors, the more you realize that culture trumps all other considerations.

Update: Oil megalomaniac Hugh Chavez furthers the argument that oil riches and responsible government do not mix. This is a laugher, though:
But he also boasted of Venezuela's Russian Sukhoi jets: "When they appeared in the sky over Caracas during a parade on independence day two years ago, then we broke the fetters of dependence on the US."

Russia is all too happy to sell obsolete military hardware to this fool with money. One of our F-22 Raptors could plink his Sukhois out of the sky and be back in the US in time for lunch, and they wouldn't know what hit them.

If we ignore the problem, it might go away

So you may conclude about the US illegal immigrant problem from reading Robert Dunn's article on TCS Daily:
As the debate over illegal immigration from Mexico rages in Washington and across the country, and as the administration's reform bill hangs by a thread, few Americans are aware that this problem will automatically decline and eventually become a vague memory.

There has been a stunning decline in the fertility rate in Mexico, which means that, in a few years there will not be many teenagers in Mexico looking for work in the United States or anywhere else. If this trend in the fertility rate continues, Mexico will resemble Japan and Italy - rapidly aging populations with too few young workers to support the economy.

According to the World Bank's 2007 Annual Development Indicators, in 1990 Mexico had a fertility rate of 3.3 children per female, but by 2005, that number had fallen by 36 percent to 2.1, which is the Zero Population Growth rate. That is an enormous decline in the number of Mexican infants per female. The large number of women currently in their reproductive years means that there are still quite a few babies, but as this group ages, the number of infants will decline sharply. If this trend toward fewer children per female continues, there being no apparent reason for it to cease, the number of young people in the Mexican population will decline significantly just when the number of elderly is rising. As labor markets in Mexico tighten and wage rates rise, far fewer Mexican youngsters will be interested in coming to the United States. Since our baby boomers will be retiring at the same time, we could face a severe labor shortage.

There have been significant declines in fertility rates across Latin America, but Mexico's has been unusually sharp. In El Salvador, another country from which immigrants come, a 3.7 rate in 1990 became 2.5 by 2005. Guatemala is now at 4.3, but that is far lower than it was in 1990. Jamaica, another source of illegal U. S. immigrants, has fallen from 2.9 to 2.4 over the same period. Chile and Costa Rica, at 2.0, are actually slightly below a replacement rate. Trinidad and Tobago, at 1.6, is well below ZPG. For all of Latin American and the Caribbean, a rate of 3.2 in 1990 fell to 2.4 in 2005, a decline of 25 percent. This means less pressure on the United States from illegal immigrants from the entire area, not just from Mexico. A powerful demographic transition is well underway, and soon many of these countries may be worried about there being too few babies rather than too many. We may miss this labor, and wonder how we will replace it.

What is going on in Latin America? Better education and improved job opportunities for women mean that it has become quite expensive for them to leave the labor force to have more children. The improved availability of birth control technology and liberalization of abortion rules in some countries mean that it is easier for women to avoid that outcome.

Fertility rates are declining across the globe, but the change is particular striking to our south. The world fertility rate fell from 3.1 to 2.6 over the 1990-2005 period. The population bomb is becoming a fire cracker.

I can't imagine who will be more disappointed by this development, the Democrat party or the Catholic Church. One thing is for certain - the cost of landscaping services will balloon over the next two decades.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What's wrong with this headline?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Goodbye Brit, and thanks!

I'm sad to announce that our good friend Andrew Nixon, aka Brit, will be leaving the Daily Duck as a contributor. I also want to apologize for any ill will I've engendered with Brit, as well as Peter and Ali due to any overly strident or poorly phrased comments in my posts as of late. Blogging presents us with temptations to act self-righteously, and I resolve to try to act more maturely in the face of those temptations in the future. I started this blog not to hear my own echo but to converse with others and to learn. There's a time for spirited debate and a time for listening and learning, and I'm afraid I gave short shrift to the latter recently. Mea culpa.

Reality parodies itself

There's a real story behind the parody skit I linked to in "I have seen the light!" and it's about the runaway nonfiction bestseller "The Secret" by Australian television and film producer Rhonda Byrne:
Her central claim is that the "law of attraction" governs our universe.

"The law of attraction says that like attracts like, and when you think and feel what you want to attract on the inside, the law will use people, circumstances and events to magnetize what you want to you, and magnetize you to it," Byrne said in an e-mail in response to several questions posed by The Associated Press.

She said she was struggling personally and professionally several years ago when she was given a nearly 100-year-old book called "The Science of Getting Rich," by Wallace D. Wattles. In it, readers are guaranteed to become wealthy if they learn and follow "certain laws which govern the process of acquiring riches."

Inspired to do further research, Byrne said, she resolved to create a film to spread the word about what she felt she had learned about the "law of attraction."
As with many publishing hits, the "Oprah Effect" played a role. Winfrey devoted two shows in February to "The Secret," and Larry King and Ellen DeGeneres also featured it on their shows. It was spoofed on "Saturday Night Live" when a man portraying a refugee in the Darfur region of Sudan was blamed for having negative thoughts.

However, the fear that "The Secret" will lead to a blame-the-victim mentality is a serious claim of critics.

For example, the book dismisses conditions such as a genetic predisposition to being overweight or a slow thyroid as "disguises for thinking 'fat thoughts.'" And during times in which massive number of lives were lost, the book says, the "frequency of their thoughts matched the frequency of the event."

Psychotherapist and lifestyle coach Stacy Kaiser said that after reading "The Secret," several patients have worried that it was their fault they were abused, or laid off from their jobs. Others seem to expect everything in their lives to change overnight, she said.

It's a total fraud, of course. Smart people know that it takes at least two nights for the magnetism to work.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Thin Veneer of Civilization

As was pointed out in the comments to my post "Going wobbly on Modernity and the West" I don't exude a lot of confidence for the continuation of the civilization we like to call the West, or Modernity. I'm neither an outright pessimist nor an unabashed optimist regarding its future prospects. Call me a realist. Today Bryan Appleyard profiles another person who shares that view, the writer John Gray:
What Berlin repeatedly described was a central problem of liberalism. The liberal state’s job is to hold different world-views in balance, but it cannot resolve conflicts between them. It cannot, for example, say to Muslims “You are wrong” and to Christians “You are right”, because it then ceases to be liberal. At its most effective, it holds back the instinct of humanity to form itself into competing tribes. But the liberal state is perpetually threatened by – and will, over time, surely be overthrown by – an unusually aggressive tribe. True liberalism is, therefore, necessarily a tragic view, sceptical of all notions of progress. Gray calls it “agonistic liberalism”. He believes in the liberal state, and believes it is worth defending, but does not do so with empty optimism or with any belief that it should attempt to impose its ways on others.

Gray transforms Berlin’s basic insight into a refutation of all notions of progress or perfection and of the special destiny of humanity. Man, he asserts, is a tribal carnivore possessed of reason. His reason may give him science, a progressive, cumulative enterprise, but it cannot give him the wisdom to transcend his nature. Science, like everything else in the human world, will be used for evil as often as good. Conflict is eternal and all utopian thinking is fantasy. The best we can hope to do is protect, for a time, our cherished ways of life.
The collapse of communism in 1989, and the publication of an academic paper and subsequent worldwide bestseller, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, signalled the start of Gray’s next campaign against utopianism. This involved a more radical assessment of the prevailing mythologies of the West. Fukuyama’s argument that liberal democracy was the final political state, the end point of history, reeked of precisely the belief that history was a story with an ending that Gray so loathed in his colleagues.

“That phrase ‘the end of history’ was like a red rag to a bull. It was an apocalyptic notion, and it was to me a sign that when the Soviet Union collapsed, we would not have a move towards prudence and realism, we’d have a politics of faith. I was adamantly opposed to that – it was what I had been opposed to in communism.”

Well stated. We can't put our way of life on autopilot. From our disputes on "Wobbly" I'm not sure that we even agree on what our civilizational values are. I have an idea of what the West means, but not everyone shares all aspects of my definition. That is just another reason to keep a realistic frame of mind.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

This one's for Oro (and me)


Thoughts on Gattaca

I was thinking about the movie Gattaca recently:
* What the film did get right is the inevitability of friction between large populations of enhanced people, and naturals - at least, for as long as there are naturals. The X-Men comic book universe also made that point again and again over the years, but usually with a negative connotation, by putting the concept into the mouth of archvillain Magneto. Well guess what, Nazi concentration-camp survivor Magneto called that one correctly, and the noble and lovable X-teams are playing King Canute.

* They're also right that most parents will be very happy to enhance their offspring. Parents want mutant children - smart, attractive, athletic, tall...


* The producers and writer/director of Gattaca were woefully and wilfully ignorant about all aspects of space travel.

* Naturals aren't going to be nearly as discriminated against, nor as poverty-stricken, as the movie predicts. For instance, when enhanced people start entering the workforce, all of the people making the hiring decisions will be naturals, as will be all of the leaders of the organizations that enhanced people want to join.

Of course enhanced people will have an edge, but naturals aren't going to be barred from competing.

* Further, Congress isn't going to let companies get away with doing genetic screenings while pretending to be conducting "drug tests", and even if they did, there would be state legislatures that would ban the practice, and enforce the ban.

* Also, the film depicted dining out as still being a common and enjoyable activity. But will being a server, busboy, or line cook really satisfy the uberpersons of tomorrow ?

The film implies that most naturals live on skid row, or are homeless, but there'll be plenty of money to be made by catering to the service needs of the future's Golden Ones.

* Besides, there will still be disparities of talent, ability, and potential within the enhanced community, so why would any but the most training-intensive jobs be reserved for the enhanced? Performance-drug use in baseball, American football, cycling, and many Olympic sports is rampant today, but that just raises the bar for athletes who don't want to destroy their future for present glory, it doesn't exclude them.

* I've seen Uma Thurman in several roles, and she's most attractive as a sleek Ice Queen, which is her role here. This is one of the few female-lead parts that Jennifer Lopez couldn't have done better.

* Although the story is ultimately uplifting, in a John Henry or Rudy kind of way, it's also slow moving and at least thirty minutes too long.

This one's for Brit

Thursday, June 21, 2007

This gap is getting mighty cramped

So might God say, after a new book by Michael Behe, titled The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, deskills the Intelligent Designer's role in evolution even more:
But IDers, like all creationists, are never down for the count, because they see themselves as fighting for the Lord. So Behe is back now, with a new book and a brand-new theory that puts the Intelligent Designer back into biology. What has Behe now found to resurrect his campaign for ID? It's rather pathetic, really. Basically, he now admits that almost the entire edifice of evolutionary theory is true: evolution, natural selection, common ancestry. His one novel claim is that the genetic variation that fuels natural selection -- mutation -- is produced not by random changes in DNA, as evolutionists maintain, but by an Intelligent Designer. That is, he sees God as the Great Mutator.


For a start, let us be clear about what Behe now accepts about evolutionary theory. He has no problem with a 4.5-billion-year-old Earth, nor with evolutionary change over time, nor apparently with its ample documentation through the fossil record -- the geographical distribution of organisms, the existence of vestigial traits testifying to ancient ancestry, and the finding of fossil "missing links" that show common ancestry among major groups of organisms. Behe admits that most evolution is caused by natural selection, and that all species share common ancestors. He even accepts the one fact that most other IDers would rather die than admit: that humans shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees and other apes.

Our Mutator, who art in Heaven...

Relative vs. Absolute

While perusing the January 22d, 2007 issue of U.S. News & World Report, I came across a five-page article about the "heavy price" that the State of Vermont has paid in war dead in Iraq. The article's hook was that, as of Jan. '07, the per-capita number of Vermont deaths was far higher than that of any other state, at around 3 deaths per 100,000 residents, very nearly double the median for the ten-highest states.

But what was the total number of Vermonter deaths ?
Twenty - about what you'd get in a bad bus crash, but spread out over more than three and a half years.

Further, as of the time of publication, no Vermonter had died in Iraq for nearly six months.


Unrelated, but also in the same issue of the magazine, pollster John Zogby reports that, among Democratic Presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton appeals most to Americans who would like to see a Reaganesque or FDR-ian person elected in '08 - and that about a quarter of Americans would like to see a new Reagan, and another quarter a new FDR, combining for a slim majority.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Going wobbly on Modernity and the West

There is a divide within our own little blogging community that mirrors a larger divide in that meta-entity that we like to call the "West" over our responses to the provocations of those who would represent Islam to the West. Peter Burnet sums up one side of the argument like this:
Congratulations Skipper/Harry, you have successfully used all that formidable brainpower to completely dehumanize the "other". It's a great 20th century tradition that keeps life from becoming too subtle or boring. No need to trouble ourselves with difficult strategic and intercultural issues anymore, or to judge and question ourselves. Tyrannical regimes and the people they tyrannize are now one and the same and equally guilty. And they are bad Muslims to boot, so let's just roll!

Harry's response:
Not dehumanize, humanize.

If what you call bad Muslims and I call good Muslims stopped patronizing the aggressive imams, stopped bowing at the Saudi-financed mosques, stopped giving a nod and a wink to the Muslims peddlng the Secret Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, things would settle down quickly enough.
Besides, as Skipper says so often, is is not ought. Whether the infidels ought to lash out and heap up hecatombs of Muslims once (some) Muslims have succeeded in their drive to inflict insufferable pain on the infidels or not is irrelevant. They will.

To Harry's point, I don't think it dehumanizes the Islamic societies in Africa and Asia to point out that a large portion of them have sided with their culture in an existential battle against the Great Satan of the West. They have made a very human choice in the clash of civilizations. I'd say that recognizing their opposition as such, and recognizing their declared status with respect to us as our enemy is to accord them the dignity of recognizing their choice as creatures of free will. To somehow deny them this existential act of self definition, of moral commitment is in itself a form of dehumanization.

This question is further developed in a long and rambling essay by Michael Vlahos in the American Conservative titled "The Fall of Modernity: Has the American narrative authored its own undoing?":
We are losing our wars in the Muslim world because our vision of history is at odds with reality. This is a well-established condition of successful societies, a condition that inevitably grows more worrisome with time and continuing success. In fact, what empires have most in common is how their sacred narratives come to rule their strategic behavior—and rule it badly. In America’s case, our war narrative works against us to promote our deepest fear: the end of modernity.
Does it matter whether we pursue grand drama for wholly narcissistic reasons, as long as we win? What if we don’t? Failure might lead to the collapse of friendly tyrannies like Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia or even to economic crisis and an expansion of the war. Longstanding alliances could come apart. But even then our military power, our vast economy, and the strength of the American people would still be intact. Strategic recovery should still be possible. The old narrative might be in tatters, but that might turn out to be a good thing because we could then build a more modest national story.

Such recovery is foreclosed, however, in a script of civilization and its enemies. Not only did American leaders go for the existential War of History instead of dealing with reality, they chose the worst possible dramatic vehicle for restaging the national passion play. For what we are experiencing is no war of civilizations. It is not even a war.
First, the American war narrative rejects modernity’s future constituents: its message is that we are foreclosing on them. We do this knowing that American modernity cannot long survive repossessing its promise of a universal vision for humankind.

Second, American modernity loses authority because our war promotes alternative and resistant communities. Demonizing them elevates them, and their new stature creates competing alternatives to modernity.

Third, the American war narrative shows modernity helpless in its own defense. Military failure becomes a literal stripping of our world authority, actually pushing the global future away from us.

Here Vlahos makes the same mistake I believe that Peter does, that we've declared the whole swath of the Islamic "resistance community" irredeemable and have set ourselves the task of destroying them. I think, rather, that we're in a struggle to redeem them by destroying the forces that keep them mired in the anti-modern past.

Vlahos is doubly wrong to say that we lose authority by exercising authority. It's the other way around. The real authority of the American/Western project is the irresistible lure of modernity. The mullahs aren't reacting against unveiled women cavorting in the streets of New York City, but to unveiled women in the streets of Teheran and Islamabad and Cairo. To take no side in their war against modernity does not enhance our authority, but betrays it.

Thirdly, Vlahos is out to lunch in suggesting that we are failing militarily, and that that is undermining the whole modernity project. Which side hides in caves?
“The Promise of American Life” flung out to the world was to be a future of universal human redemption and transcendence. Americans might argue bitterly over how to achieve this, but before the war there was no argument over the desirability of the goal.

Now two-thirds of humanity is moving away from us and from our vision of one world. While sleek Tom Friedman rhapsodizes new Silicon Valleys like Bangalore, in Planet of Slums Mike Davis writes, “Half of Bangalore’s population lacks piped water, much less cappuccino, and there are more ragpickers and street children (90,000) than software geeks (about 60,000). In an archipelago of 10 slums, researchers found only 19 latrines for 102,000 residents.”3

Universal integration is no longer the human prospect but a black split between “us” and a “surplus humanity.” Globalization has become the privilege of those lucky few billions in the formal labor market. But what about the other half on their way to becoming the other two-thirds? What happens to our universal redemptive narrative in a world where modernity ends forever at 40 percent of humanity?

This is outright rubbish. If it were so then we wouldn't be fighting the war in Iraq as we are, cultivating allies among the local population and trying to separate them from the lure of tribal warlords and Al-Quaeda recruiters. Which side is building schools and which side is mining them with explosives? If we were truly at war with the surplus 40%, then our task would be a lot easier. We could fight our battles from the strategic war rooms of the Pentagon and wouldn't be putting Guardsmen at risk in Baghdad.
This story has remarkable implications for alternative communities. Our Islamofascist branding makes every movement of Muslim resistance an attack on us. Yet most resistance instead speaks to local yearnings. By seeing an enemy of civilization in every Muslim non-state actor, we unthinkingly widen the struggle. Alternative communities are indelible in the “evil” world landscape painted by the global war on terrorism—the ongoing metamorphosis of the global other into the Mordor of our imagination.

Then there are meta-communities of piety. Modernity’s greatest failure is spiritual—neon-lit in Europe, where old piety has crashed and burned. But among the global other scorched by modernity’s “creative destruction,” it is not that people have abandoned piety but that it has abandoned them. In globalization’s mixing bowl, the meditative power of old ethos has been lost. Yet American modernity offers nothing to take its place: just ask an Afghani or an Iraqi.

If piety means stoning a 14 year old girl to death, then it's not something that this world should suffer to exist. But I think that Vlahos once again has things backward. American modernity offers a very attractive alternative to this piety. People are rejecting the old piety for modernity, and that is the crux of the struggle. Vlahos has accomplished quite a dubious distinction in coining a euphemism for terrorists more despicable than "freedom fighter": "community of resistance".
A great nation continues to marshal its collective power, but it will face a changed world. There will still be grand nations like China, India, and others. The United States survives, in material terms greater than ever. But its war narrative has helped to birth a changed world and to cast off its claim to the universal. There will also be a weltering of new human combinations and re-combinations.

The subsiding of modernity may be liberating. Freed from the world center, we might find a safer place to survey an evolving humanity. No longer the object of all attack, we might productively rethink our national purpose. Old modernity’s institutions and practices will be folded into, and thus partly lost within, a new world-cultural mix. This may not be our preferred outcome. But losing our claim to the universal opens the way to new realities. We might take comfort that American modernity will be a part of them.

We might take comfort too in being history’s greatest midwife to change, if also to our own undoing.

I can't imagine a more cowardly stance than Vlahos' expectant wish to let modernity fade away for lack of will to fight for it, nor a more delusional one. Does he seriously think that the abdication of American will in foreign affairs will make the world safer? Does he think it will benefit those pious "resistance communities" to have the yolk of America's restricting power suddenly lifted? He may be right that it will benefit the pious. We'll see the outbreak of many a pious religious war among the left-out 40%, which will no doubt spread to many of the 60%.

Can an attitude that is so recklessly dismissive of one of the greatest accomplishments of civilization, modernity, be called conservative? How is it that we have gotten so wobbly about our values in the face of nihilistic obscurantism?

Update: Here is a link to a very illuminating podcast interview of Dr. David Kilcullen, the Senior Counterinsurgency Adviser to Gen. Petraeus by Austin Bay. Kilcullen makes reference to Vlahos' idea of competing civilizational narratives and demonstrates with examples how it is used by Al Quaeda to infiltrate communities in Iraq and how the coalition forces counterinsurgency effort is using competing narratives as a way to negate Al Quaeda's influence with those communities. The picture that Kilcullen paints of Al Quaeda's operations in Iraq should put paid to Vlahos' depiction of insurgent activity there as some kind rustic, hoary, authentic movement to piety in reaction to the empty cultural baggage of modernity.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

"The Secret"!! (okay, a secret!! (fine, a little-known but non-secretive technique)

The Effects of Mental Imagery on Athletic Performance

By Annie Plessinger

[All emphasis added]
Mental imagery [is] also called visualization and mental rehearsal. [...] Whenever we imagine ourselves performing an action in the absence of physical practice, we are said to be using imagery. [...]

Many sports such as golf, tennis and skating, not only require physical skills, but a strong mental game as well. Most coaches preach the line that sports are 90% mental and only 10% physical. Especially in sports where hundredths of a second or tenths of an inch separate the champions from the mediocre athletes, an extra edge can be extremely crucial. Hence, numerous athletes are turning towards mental imagery to take their game to the next level. Different uses of imagery in sport include: mental practice of specific performance skills, improving confidence and positive thinking, problem solving, controlling arousal and anxiety, performance review and analysis, preparation for performance, and maintaining mental freshness during injury. [...]

In 1992, Anne Isaac conducted a study which examined the influence of mental practice on sports skills. While most of the previous studies on this topic showed positive effects of mental rehearsal, they were not performed in actual field context using subjects who learned actual sport skills rather than just novel motor tasks. Isaac eliminated this problem in her experiment. She also tested the hypothesis of whether people who have better images and control over their images result in better performances. Isaac tested 78 subjects and classified them as novice or experienced trampolinists. Then she further divided the two groups into an experimental and control group. She also classified the subjects as either high or low imagers based on initial skill level. Both groups were trained in three skills over a six week period. In order to prevent confounds, the imagery group was unknown to the experimenter until afterwards. The experimental group physically practiced the skill for 2-1/2 minutes, which was then followed by 5 minutes of mental practice. Lastly, an additional 2-1/2 minutes of physical practice followed the mental practice. Meanwhile, the control group physically worked on the skill for 2-1/2 minutes, which was then followed by 5 minutes of a session trying a mental task of an abstract nature, such as math problems, puzzles, and deleting vowels. Then, 2-1/2 more minutes were spent physically working on the skill again. The outcome of the experiment was as followed: there existed a significant difference in the improvement of the high and low imagers. In both novice and experimental groups where the initial skill ability was similar, the high imagery groups showed significantly more improvement than the low imagery group. Furthermore, there was a significant difference between the experimenter and control groups. Not surprisingly, the experimental group had significantly more improvement than the control group. This study posits that despite the level of skill (beginner or experienced) visual imagery proves effective. (Isaac, 192-198).

In a recent experiment conducted by Roure et al., they found six specific autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses that correlated with mental rehearsal, thereby improving sports performance. The subjects were placed into an imagery group and a control group. The task measured in each group was based on their ability to pass an opponent's serve to a given teammate, in the sport of volleyball. The experimenters measured the variations of the ANS during the motor skill and during the mental rehearsing sessions. The ANS parameters tested included: skin potential and resistance, skin temperature and heat clearance, instantaneous heart rate, and respiratory frequency. The results of the test revealed a strong correlation between the response in the actual physical tasks (both pre- and post-test volleyball) and during the mental imagery sessions. There existed a difference in the skills between the imagery and the control group, the former being the better. In addition, no clear difference was present between the pre- and post- tests in the control group. This study showed that mental imagery induces a specific pattern of autonomic response. These include: decreased amplitude, shorter duration and negative skin potentials when compared to the control group. As a consequence of the ANS, the imagery group was associated with better performance. In light of this experiment, Roure suggested that mental imagery may help in the construction of schema which can be reproduced, without thinking, in actual practice (Roure, 99-108).

Not only does mental imagery seem to enhance athletic performance, but it has been shown to enhance intrinsic motivation as well. A study in 1995 tested who would spend more time practicing a golf putting task and who would result in having higher self efficacy. Thirty nine beginner golfers were grouped into an imagery or control group. For 3 sessions, both groups were taught how to hit golf balls. The imagery group practiced in an imagery training session designed for this specific golf skill. As a result, the imagery group spent significantly more time practicing the golf putting task than the control group. In addition, the subjects in the imagery group had more realistic self-expectation, set higher goals to achieve, and adhered more to their training programs outside the experimental setting (Martin, 54-69). [...]

The reason visual imagery works lies in the fact that when you imagine yourself perform to perfection and doing precisely what you want, you are in turn physiologically creating neural patterns in your brain, just as if you had physical performed the action. These patterns are similar to small tracks engraved in the brain cells which can ultimately enable an athlete to perform physical feats by simply mentally practicing the move. Hence, mental imagery is intended to train our minds and create the neural patterns in our brain to teach our muscles to do exactly what we want them to do (Porter, 17). [...]

Suinn's visual motor behavior rehearsal (VMBR) model [posits] that imagery should be a holistic process that includes a compete reintegration of experience. This includes visual, auditory, tactile, emotional, and kinesthetic cues. He has demonstrated that physiological responses can result from athlete's usage of mental imagery. Suinn's method is one of the few which has solid evidence to support its effectiveness.

A more recent model, which also places importance on psychophysiology, goes even further by including a specific meaning for an image. This model is know as Ahsen's Triple Code Model of imagery (ISM). According to Ahsen there are three fundamental parts to an image. The first part is that the image itself must be a centrally arousing sensation so it is more like the real world. It has all the attributions of a sensation, the only difference is that it is internal. This image provides the imager with so much realism that it can enable him or her to interact with the image as if it were the real world. Secondly, there exists a somatic response. Therefore, the very act of imaging results in psychophysiological changes in the body. Finally, the third part of the image is the actual meaning of the image. Every image has a significant meaning and that specific meaning can imply something different to each individual. Since every person has a unique background and upbringing, the actual internal image can be quite different for each individual, even though the set of imagery instructions are the same (Murphy, 153-172). [...]

Although it is not as beneficial as physical practice, visual imagery fairs better than no practice at all. Hence, a program with physical practice combined with mental training seems to be the best method. Virtually all of the studies show that mental training improves motor skills. More recently a lot of studies go even further and prove that visual imagery can improve various skills related to sports in actual field contexts. Visual imagery seems to be beneficial to anyone who wants to improve at their sport. Whether you are a recreational athlete or a professional does not matter. The benefits of mental imagery have proved successful at any level...


Feltz, D. L., & Landers, D. M. (1983). The Effects of Mental Practice on Motor Skill
Learning and Performance: A Meta-analysis. Journal of Sport Psychology, 5,

Isaac, A. R. (1992). Mental Practice- Does it Work in the Field? The Sport Psychologist,
6, 192-198.

Martin, K.A., Hall, C. R. (1995). Using Mental Imagery to Enhance Intrinsic
Motivation Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 17(1), 54-69.

Murphy, S. (1990). Models of Imagery in Sport Psychology: A Review. Journal of
Mental Imagery, 14 (3&4), 153-172.

Orlick, T., Zitzelsberger, L., LI-Wei, Z., & Qi-wei, M. (1992). The Effect of
Mental-Imagery Training on Performance Enhancement With 7-10-Year-Old
Children. The Sports Psychologist, 6, 230-241.

Pavio, A. (1985). Cognitive and Motivational Functions of Imagery in Human
Performance. Journal of Applied Sports Science, 10, 22-28.

Porter, K., Foster, J. Visual Athletics. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Publishers, 1990.

Roure, R., et al. (1998). Autonomic Nervous System Responses Correlate with Mental
Rehearsal in Volleyball Training. Journal of Applied Physiology, 78(2), 99-108.

Suinn, R. Psychological Techniques for Individual Performance. New York, New York:
Macmillan, 1990. p 492-506.


Works a treat on any desired set of skills or behaviors, not just sports.

I have seen the light!

My new religion.

Sunday with the Times

One vestigial sign of my religious upbringing has been my discomfort at not having some ritualized activity for Sunday mornings, other than sleeping in until 11:00. The sense of liberation brought by sleeping in has long since worn off, and probably due to my advancing age I am finding it harder and harder to stay in bed past 8:00 anyways. Reading the Sunday edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune worked for awhile, until I came to the realization that the Star-Trib is a pretty crappy newspaper.

So until lately, and especially after my separation, I've contented myself with wolfing down scrambled eggs in front of the computer monitor as I catch up on the Saturday night blogging activity. But in-house rituals aren't very satisfying, so I've taken to a new ritual of reading the Sunday New York Times at the neighborhood coffee shop attached to the grocery store. Secular Nirvana at last!

The Times is widely regarded as the nation's preeminent newspaper by the politerati of both the Right and the Left. It's leftward slant is taken for granted by conservative pundits, but my own experience has demonstrated it to be far more balanced than those pundits make it out to be. And I've also found that the reporting , as opposed to the editorial page, is far more objective and informational than the wags of the "New Media" are ready to admit.

As an example from today's edition, this article from the Business section asks the question "What does Africa need most: technology or aid":

Opening the conference on June 4, Mr. Anderson described his purposes as frankly promotional. Too often, he said, the only images of Africa that Westerners see are of drought, famine, disease and civil war. By contrast, TED Global 2007 would present an Africa that was newly entrepreneurial, increasingly wealthy and tech savvy, and largely politically stable.

“It’s a story,” Mr. Anderson said, “that is unfolding across the continent, and it’s a story that’s not well known outside of Africa.”


At TED Global 2007, I witnessed one small skirmish in a larger ideological conflict between those who believe that Africa needs more and better international aid, and those who think entrepreneurialism and technology will lift the continent out of poverty and thus reduce its miseries.

Predictably, TED’s attendees and speakers were spellbound by technology and entrepreneurialism and, at the same time, distrustful of international aid.

“What man has ever become rich by holding out a begging bowl?” asked Andrew Mwenda, an Ugandan journalist and social worker, now a research fellow at Stanford in California.

Mr. Mwenda argued that $500 billion in international aid over 50 years had achieved nothing in Africa and that the persistence of African poverty could be explained, in part, by aid. Charity, he said, had “distorted the incentive structure” and had persuaded the brightest Africans to work for corrupt governments. He called upon African entrepreneurs to build African businesses and the American investors in TED’s audience to finance them.

Echoing Mr. Mwenda, Russell Southwood, the publisher of Balancing Act, a newsletter about technology in Africa, implored African entrepreneurs and Western business leaders to “invest in shortages.” Africa, he said, could “leapfrog” the industrial technologies that Westerners use and build truly 21st-century technology systems and networks.

Would any self respecting socialist editor allow such a quote from an African through the filter?

Speaking of the editorial page, right below a Frank Rich diatribe comparing the Bush administration to the Sopranos, Michael Goldfarb is given space to mourn the death of Antioch College at the hands of the radical Left:
THIS is an obituary for a great American institution whose death was announced this week. After 155 years, Antioch College is closing.

Established in 1852 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, by the kind of free-thinking Christian group found only in the United States, Antioch College was egalitarian in the best tradition of American liberalism. The college’s motto, not in Latin or Greek but plain English, was coined by Horace Mann, its first president: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

Yet it was in the high tide of liberal activism that the college lost its way. I know this firsthand, because I entered Antioch in the fall of 1968, just when the tide was nearing its peak. So much of the history of 1968 reflects an America in crisis, but if you were young and idealistic it was a time of unparalleled excitement. The 2,000 students at Antioch, living in a picture-pretty American village, provided a laboratory for various social experiments of the time.

With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the college increased African-American enrollment to 25 percent in 1968, from virtually nil in previous years. The new students were recruited from the inner city. At around the same time, Antioch created coeducational residence halls, with no adult supervision. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll became the rule, as you might imagine, and there was enormous peer pressure to be involved in all of them. No member of the faculty or administration, and certainly none of the students, could guess what these sudden changes would mean. They were simply embraced in the spirit of the time.

I moved into this sociological petri dish from a well-to-do suburb. Within my first week I twice had guns drawn on me, once in fun and once in a state of drunken for real by a couple of ex-cons whom one of my classmates, in the interest of breaking down class barriers, had invited to live with her.


Each semester, the college seemed to create a new program. “We need to take education to the people” became a mantra, and so satellite campuses began to sprout around the country. Something called Antioch University was created, and every faculty member whose marriage was going bad or who simply couldn’t hack living in a village of 3,000 people and longed for the city came up with a proposal to start a new campus.

“It was liberalism gone mad,” a former professor, Hannah Goldberg, once told me, and she was right. The college seemed to forget the pragmatism that had been a key to its ethos, and tried blindly to extend its mission beyond education to social reform. But there were too many new programs and too little cash reserve to deal with the inevitable growing pains.

For the increasingly vocal radical members of the community, change wasn’t going far enough or fast enough. They wanted revolution, but out there in the middle of the cornfields the only “bourgeois” thing to fight was Antioch College itself. The let’s-try-anything, free-thinking society of 1968 evolved into a catastrophic blend of legitimate paranoia (Nixon did keep enemies lists, and the F.B.I. did infiltrate campuses) and postadolescent melodrama. In 1973, a strike trashed the campus and effectively destroyed Antioch’s spirit of community. The next year, student enrollment was down by half.


Antioch College became a rump where the most illiberal trends in education became entrenched. Since it is always easier to impose a conformist ethos on a small group than a large one, as the student body dwindled, free expression and freedom of thought were crushed under the weight of ultra-liberal orthodoxy. By the 1990s the breadth of challenging ideas a student might encounter at Antioch had narrowed, and the college became a place not for education, but for indoctrination. Everyone was on the same page, a little to the left of The Nation in worldview.

Much of this conformist thinking focused on gender politics, and it culminated in the notorious sexual offense prevention policy. Enacted in 1993, the policy dictated that a person needed express permission for each stage in seduction. (“May I touch your breast?” “May I remove your bra?” And so on.) In two decades students went from being practitioners of free love to prisoners of gender. Antioch became like one of those Essene communities in the Judean desert in the first century after Christ that, convinced of their own purity, died out while waiting for a golden age that never came.

Who let that guy in?

Another excellent report is this from Craig S Smith on the divided loyalties between the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that provides some historical background on the different paths the two communities took after the UN mandate that created Israel in 1948:
They have always had distinct traits, culturally and geographically — the West Bank supporting a landlocked urban and agricultural society, Gaza facing the sea.

Those differences increased after the creation of Israel in 1948, when Gaza fell under the administration of Egypt and the West Bank was annexed by Jordan.

Egypt treated Gaza as a Palestinian enclave and encouraged a strong sense of Palestinian identity. Many Gazans who studied in Egypt during those years were influenced, in turn, by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose goal is to establish Islamic theocracies across the Arab world.

Back in Gaza, some of those men founded Hamas in 1987.

Jordan, on the other hand, suppressed Palestinian nationalism in favor of Jordanian identity and Palestinians in the West Bank were more influenced by the secular societies of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, where many went to study. Others traveled even further abroad, bringing back a liberal view of the world.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

I'll drink to that!

Michael Medved gets down to the really serious matter in his latest post on, namely, beer:
In that context, you might ask why a “traditional values” social and religious conservative would be trying to commend a new brew of beer. But actually, what could be more traditional than the juice of the hop or the grape? About two years ago, they discovered a sealed jar in Egypt which contained the world’s oldest beer --- lovingly prepared by some Nile-river brewmaster nearly 5,000 years ago. Far more primitive peoples than the ancient Egyptians also prepared beer of various kinds – for the fun, the fellowship, the exhilaration, the array of tastes.

Brings a tear to your eye, dunnit? He also gives some historical background on one of the most divisive upheavals of the 1960s:
When I attended Yale in the late ‘60’s, the entire student body was bitterly divided between alcohol people and marijuana people. In this context George W. Bush (one year ahead of me) was definitely an alcohol person and Howard Dean (and, later, Hillary Rodham in law school) was definitely a marijuana person. One of the reasons that I cast my lot with the drunks rather than the stoners was that alcohol had such an honorable tradition, whereas pot seemed synthetic, trendy, shallow, with no historical grounding. Shakespeare writes about booze very lovingly, of course (try “Merry Wives of Windsor,” or “Henry IV, Part I”) and nearly all the great American writers were, to a greater or lesser extent (usually greater) drinking men. I went through a stage in my life when I idolized William Faulkner, who fueled his eloquence with Bourbon and branch water, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who happily drank anything he could find (and needed only two drinks to get himself roaringly, embarrassingly soused), and Sinclair Lewis (my fellow Yalie) who didn’t let his alcoholism slow his witty, biting, vivid literary production.. Dylan Thomas composed some of my favorite poems in a state of perpetual inebriation (he was Welsh, after all). Some of these

Raising a glass of beer, or a shot of Scotch, in other words allowed you to make common cause with some of the greatest artists and thinkers in all human history. Smoking a joint, on the other hand, aligned you with a bunch of fruity, dandified, hippy-dippy losers, who seldom produced anything of lasting value (Sergeant Pepper excepted).

The man's a patriot! Because of men like him, who heeded the call of their country and manned the barricades of beer against the onslaughts of the commie weed, we can sit here at the comfort of our computer desks and enjoy the traditions of our ancestors. Mr Medved, I lift my glass in honor of your sacrifice! Drink well, my friend!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

About Right, I Think

"You can’t be serious about getting out of Iraq if you’re not serious about getting off oil" ~ THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

Monday, June 11, 2007

From the "be careful what you wish for" file

Back in April I asked whether the newfound religiosity of Democrat candidates on the stump was not so much a bullish sign for religion in politics but more of a topping action, known in stock trading circles as a "bear capitulation". For you non-traders, it's a term to indicate when the last bearish holdouts in a bull market throw in their lot with the other bulls. Otherwise known as the "biggest idiot" theory of finance.

Whether the fat lady has sung on this market in public religiosity isn't known at this time, but it sure is spoiling the fun of many a commentator on the Religious Right. Exhibit A is this lament from Cal Thomas:
The top three Democratic presidential candidates participated in a forum Monday on the connection between their religious faith and political positions. The unusual gathering, broadcast live by CNN, was co-hosted by Sojourners, a Christian social justice network.

Rev. Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, and an organizer of the forum, has been telling Democrats not to cede religion to Republicans. He has spoken at several Democratic Party retreats, teaching Democrats how to speak about faith.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama mentioned faith in a generic way, baptizing their liberal politics and suggesting that God favors their positions more than those of the Republicans'. Republicans behave similarly, but they've been at it longer and perform better on the religious stage than Democrats.
The forum was interesting as political theater, but the leading Democratic presidential contenders gave no indication that if their faith ever conflicted with their political point of view they would choose what their faith taught them over what focus groups tell them. And that's what makes this exercise - as noble as Jim Wallis and others might see it - rather futile.
Most of this God-talk by politicians is irrelevant. We're not electing a theologian, but a president. There are many moral and godly people in my church who I would trust with my wife, but with possibly one exception, not the country. Competence, not ideology or religiosity, should be primary in this election.

It sure sounds like someone trying to re-balance his political portfolio if you ask me. And what's with the question of whether their political views are in conflict with their faith? People bring their political and moral views to the table when they interpret the holy writ of their religion. Does he imagine that Democrats believe they are really going against the grain of the Bible with their political values, but Republicans objectively know that their political views are in perfect lockstep? As the wise man said: "Puhllleeeaaaassseee!" The religious mind is a rationalizing mind. As are all minds, for that matter.

Here's another demonstration of righteous angst from the Right:

Once she wrested control of the Senate’s Environmental and Public Works Committee from conservative stalwart Sen. Jim Inhofe (R.-Okla.), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.) was expected to aggressively pursue legislation to combat global warming. What wasn’t expected was that she would do it with blessings from the Church.

Last Thursday, Boxer held a hearing that highlighted the growing role of religion in liberal political campaigns--particularly in the name of “environmental justice.” There, a coalition of 35 religious denominations called for an 80 percent reduction in global warming emissions by the year 2050, and bill S.309, sponsored by Boxer and avowed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I.-Vt.), calls for the same.

“Evangelical Christians, Catholics, African Methodist Episcopals, Jews, mainline Protestant Christians, and many other people of faith see the need for action on global warming as a moral, ethical and scriptural mandate,” Boxer said.

She explained, “People of faith contacted us recognizing that science says global warming’s effects will fall most heavily on poor people. All we have to do is look at what happened during [Hurricane] Katrina, even in one of the world’s wealthiest countries.”

There was even discussion of a religious program that sells carbon offsets. The Evangelical Climate Initiative, a nonprofit 501(c)(3), offers tax-deductible carbon offsets for $99 per year through a program called “Cooling Creation.” Their website states that 93 percent of the carbon offset “donations” submitted “goes directly to offsets, climate change education and outreach.”

Historian David Burton, summoned to the panel by Sen. Inhofe and named one of the “Twenty-five Most Influential Evangelicals in America” by Time Magazine, commented on these various campaigns: “The next time we see Jesus, He will be driving neither a Hummer nor a Hybrid.”

Burton suggested that Boxer was exaggerating the religious community’s support for liberal environmentalism. “The Scriptures teach conservation, not preservation,” he said. “Man was the steward of nature and environment, and while man definitely is to tend and guard it, it is to serve him, not vice versa. From the beginning, God warned about elevating nature and the environment over man and his Creator.”

You can just see the beads of sweat on Ms. Carpenter's brow as she tries to spin this story in a way to make the Religious Left out to be a few cards short of the real deal.

Their bluff has been called. I can just hear the panicky voices on the Focus on the Family weekly conference call with the White House: "Who thought they'd actually find Jesus? This just won't do! Do you guys have any other bright ideas?"

Another sign that secular futures are dirt cheap - "Why the Gods are not winning"
A myth is gaining ground. The myth seems plausible enough. The proposition is that after God died in the secular 20th century, He is back in a big way as people around the world again find faith. In 2006 Foreign Policy ran two articles that made similar, yet distinctive claims. In the spring Phillip Longman's "The Return of the Patriarchy" contended that secular folk are reproducing themselves, or failing to reproduce themselves, out of existence as the believers swiftly reproduce via a "process similar to survival of the fittest." In the summer FP followed up with "Why God is Winning" by Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft, who pronounced that the Big Three— Christianity, Islam and Hinduism—are back on the global march as secularism fades into irrelevance. In the fall Foreign Affairs joined the chorus when Walter Russell Mead's God's Country? gave the impression that conservative theism continues to rise in a United States jolted back to the spiritual by 9/11. In American Fascists Chris Hedges warns that hard-core Dominionists are accumulating the power to convert the nation into a fundamentalist theocracy.

Shah and Toft cite the World Christian Encyclopedia as supporting a planetary revival because its shows that "at the beginning of the 21st century, a greater portion of the world's population adhered to [Christianity, Islam and Hinduism] in 2000 than a century earlier." They point to a table in the WCE that shows that the largest Christian and largest nonChristian faiths, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam and Hinduism, rose from half to nearly two thirds of the world in the 1900s. But that it is a peculiar choice of sects. If every Mohammedan and Hindu sect large and small is tallied, shouldn't every Orthodox, Coptic and so on be too? Another look at the WCE table shows that all Christians, Muslims and Hindus combined edging up a much more modest 60 to 66% (but see below correction) since the reign of Queen Victoria.
What scheme of thought did soar in the 20th century? Although Shah and Toft cite the WCE when it appears to aid their thesis, they seem to have missed key passages near the beginning of the work. The evangelical authors of the WCE lament that no Christian "in 1900 expected the massive defections from Christianity that subsequently took place in Western Europe due to secularism…. and in the Americas due to materialism…. The number of nonreligionists…. throughout the 20th century has skyrocketed from 3.2 million in 1900, to 697 million in 1970, and on to 918 million in AD 2000…. Equally startling has been the meteoritic growth of secularism…. Two immense quasi-religious systems have emerged at the expense of the world's religions: agnosticism…. and atheism…. From a miniscule presence in 1900, a mere 0.2% of the globe, these systems…. are today expanding at the extraordinary rate of 8.5 million new converts each year, and are likely to reach one billion adherents soon. A large percentage of their members are the children, grandchildren or the great-great-grandchildren of persons who in their lifetimes were practicing Christians"

Dirt cheap, I tell ya!


Immigration Policy Confronts Reality
By Steve Chapman
June 03, 2007

[All emphasis added]
[I]llegal immigration is one of those phenomena that show the ineffectuality of laws in impeding humans from pursuing their interests. [...] Mexicans and Guatemalans and other illegal immigrants come here out of an elemental and healthy desire to improve their lot. Once they arrive, they get willing cooperation from Americans who find these foreigners can also enhance our welfare.

Both illegals and natives gain something from this movement of people. To suppose that policies emanating from Washington can overcome these drives is like assuming that laws against sodomy can neutralize
libidos. [...]

Mexicans making $15 a day have a huge incentive to go where they can make $15 an hour. Like water rolling downhill, they are naturally drawn to places where they will be better off.

Of course, we often alter or stop the flow of rivers by damming them. But damming people is harder, since they, unlike H2O, have the means and the motive to outwit such efforts. Thus the paradox discovered by Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey: As we have increased our efforts to seal the Mexican border, migrants have been diverted to remote areas that are harder to patrol, so much so that the rate of apprehension has actually fallen.

Even if the border could miraculously be made airtight against trespassers, it would do nothing to stop foreigners from coming on tourist or student visas and then staying on after they are supposed to leave. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, as many as 45 percent of the foreigners here illegally arrived with the blessing of the law. Build a 2,000-mile fence, and more will come that way.

Hardliners think the way to get rid of illegal immigrants is to get rid of the jobs they fill. In the Senate bill endorsed by President Bush, advocates of tougher enforcement got a new system for employers to verify that their workers are entitled to be here. Anyone newly hired (and, in time, anyone with a job) would have to pass a check of federal databases.

It's a fine idea in theory, but note that it requires government authorization for every employment decision in a large, dynamic economy, an approach that is just slightly at odds with the free market. It also presumes a level of efficiency that conservatives do not usually expect of government.

In practice, as a small-scale pilot program begun in 1997, the verification system has proven fallible. Randel Johnson, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, recently testified before Congress that the databases "are not always up-to-date, there is a high error rate in determining work authorization, and the program is incapable of capturing identity fraud." The Society for Human Resource Management estimates the new system will increase the administrative burden on employers tenfold.

Those who endorse a vigorous immigration crackdown are upholding a sound conservative idea -- namely, the rule of law. But for law to effectively rule, it has to accommodate reality. Believing that immigration enforcement can wall us off from people who are prepared to endure huge sacrifices to come here is more in the realm of dreams...

Via Let's Fly Under the Bridge blog.

Remember the introduction of the I9 Employment Eligibility Verification forms, and how that was supposed to stop illegals from getting jobs ?

What happened was that illegals just presented false, stolen, or rented SS numbers and IDs.

Further, as Mark Steyn writes, (hattip: Thought Mesh blog):

[T]he truth is that America's immigration bureaucracy cannot cope with its existing caseload, and thus will certainly be unable to cope with millions of additional teeming hordes tossed into its waiting room.

Currently, the time in which an immigration adjudicator is expected to approve or reject an application is six minutes. That's not enough time to read the basic form, never mind any supporting documentation. Under political pressure to "bring the 12 million undocumented Americans out of the shadows," the immigration bureaucracy will rubber-stamp gazillions of applications for open-ended probationary legal status within 24 hours and with no more supporting documentation than a utility bill or an affidavit from a friend. There's never been a better time for Mullah Omar to apply for U.S. residency.

Remember the 1986 amnesty? Mahmoud abu Halima applied for it and went on to bomb the World Trade Center seven years later. His colleague, Mohammad Salameh, was rejected but carried on living here anyway. John Lee Malvo was detained and released by U.S. immigration in breach of its own procedures and re-emerged as the Washington sniper. The young Muslim men who availed themselves of the U.S. government's "visa express" system for Saudi Arabia filled in joke applications – "Address in the United States: HOTEL, AMERICA" – that octogenarian snowbirds from Toronto who've been wintering at their Florida condos since 1953 wouldn't try to get away with. The late Mohammed Atta received his flight-school student visa on March 11, 2002, six months to the day after famously flying his first and last commercial airliner.

All the above passed through the legal immigration system. Whether they were detained, rejected, approved or posthumously approved, in the end it made no difference. Because U.S. immigration had no real idea who these men were.

But, don't worry, they'll be able to handle another "12 million undocumented Americans" tossed in for express processing...

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The case for the nonexistence of Jesus

In critiquing Christopher Hitchens performance in the Great God Debate, I gave him low marks for placing doubt on the existence of the historical Jesus. But prompted by a comment on Mark D Roberts' blog, I read an article by Earl Doherty entitled "The Jesus Puzzle" which presents a compelling case, based on an analysis of the books of the New Testament as well as Christian apologists of the second century, that the insertion of the historic figure of Jesus into the Gospel account of Mark was a later invention for a Christian tradition that had its origins in a marriage of Greek Platonic philosophy and Hellenized Judaism. Here is the crux of Doherty's thesis:

Part One, "A Conspiracy of Silence," takes a detailed look at the pervasive silence on the Gospel Jesus of Nazareth which we find in almost a hundred years of earliest Christian correspondence. Not once does Paul or any other first century epistle writer identify their divine Christ Jesus with the recent historical man known from the Gospels. Nor do they attribute the ethical teachings they put forward to such a man. Virtually every other detail in the picture of the Gospel Jesus is similarly missing. If Jesus was a "social reformer" whose teachings began the Christian movement, as today's liberal scholars now style him, how can such a Jesus be utterly lacking in all the New Testament epistles, while only a cosmic Christ is to be found?

This missing dimension in the early Christian record cannot be shrugged off, as New Testament scholarship has had a habit of doing. Timeworn "explanations" such as that the early church "had no interest" in the earthly life of Jesus, or that Paul's theology did not require it, are simply inadequate, if not in many respects fallacious. Scholars love to malign the so-called "argument from silence," but when the void is this pervasive and profound, the rationale for it had better be of sterling quality, and such a thing not even the most recent scholarship has provided. In this first article, I point out elements to that silence in the epistles which have been little if at all remarked on before.

Part Two, "Who Was Christ Jesus?", is the core of the series, for it attempts to set out the concept of the spiritual Christ who was the object of faith for Paul and much of the early Christian movement. This faith grew out of the prominent religious and philosophical ideas of the age, both Jewish and Greek, about an intermediary force between God and the world, a spiritual "Son"; it operated within views of the universe which have long since been abandoned. I also compare Paul's Christ with the savior deities of the current Graeco-Roman mystery cults, and although it is no longer fashionable to maintain that much of what is distinctively Christian was directly derived from the mysteries, both these religious expressions share elements of the same thought-world and are in part branches of the same tree. Seeing Christianity in this light goes a long way toward understanding some of Paul's thought. At the same time, Paul's words about Christ are examined to show that apostles like himself are offering a faith based on revelation from God, mostly through the interpretation of scripture, in an age of divine inspiration which had nothing to do with the recent career of an historical man. The second article finishes with a brief look at another conclusion: that Christianity, as shown by its great diversity in the early period, did not arise at a single time and place or out of a single missionary movement, but expressed itself in different forms in many sects and locations. I offer a definition of the terms "Jesus" and "Christ" as they were used during this initial period.

Part Three, "The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth," begins with a search for the Gospels. These documents, which scholars now admit are expressions of faith, not history, were written in stages and probably not as early as traditionally supposed. Ultimately they are all dependent for their picture of Jesus' life on a single source, the earliest version of Mark. Nor does any sign of them emerge in the wider Christian world until well into the second century. Next, I take a close look at the document known as "Q" in which the core of the historical Jesus as teacher, miracle-worker and apocalyptic prophet— something quite separate from the cultic Christ of Paul—was first created. I show how signs within that document and its evolution indicate that no historical figure lay at its roots. Those who now claim that the Christian movement began out of the teachings of a Jesus as represented in the Synoptic Gospels, are forced to base such a figure almost exclusively on that lost Q document, and what can be gleaned about its original nature and developmental stages. Claims of corroboration in the rediscovered Gospel of Thomas rest also on uncertain foundations. The article concludes with a survey of how Mark put the first Gospel together out of separate elements, its scriptural ingredients and sectarian features.

Very interesting and illuminating reading.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Great God Debate 2: the Aftermath

Hugh Hewitt has posted a transcript of the three hour debate here. Audio podcasts are here, here and here.

Overall I had to say that Hitchens had the better of the debate, mainly because Roberts was not up to the task, and basically played "rope a dope". I wasn't totally thrilled with Hitchens performance, but he made many sound arguments that Roberts just did not have the rhetorical skills to counter. Hitch was good handling the following objections to atheism:
* Where does morality come from
* How can someone live a meaningful life without a belief in a transcendent
* How do you answer to the terrible legacy of 20th century secularism

He wasn't on his best game when arguing against the historical veracity of scriptures. He embarassingly oversold a case that he couldn't defend. He first made the statement that there is no rational reason to even believe that Jesus ever existed. Roberts quickly pointed out that outside of the Gospels there were other historical accounts attesting to his existence and crucifixion, specifically Josephus. Hitchens backtracked and admitted that he did believe that Jesus probably existed.

He also made the oversold claim that the four gospel accounts contradict each other on practically every point, and when pressed to name some of these points he fumbled for an answer, and made the excuse that the hotel from where he was calling unfortunately was one of the few that didn't carry Gideon's Bibles.

All in all it was a worthwhile debate, and well worth a listen or read.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

What's so political about food?

As the Daily Duck's contribution to Great Questions week here at the PostJudd Alliance, I follow up yesterday's question "what's so political about nudity" with today's puzzler, motivated by my strange experience tangling with English organic food hoodlums on Two other articles of note on the same topic is this diatribe on the patriarchal oppressions of food Stalinists on (via and this article at on culinary correctness:
Years ago, I interviewed Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, for a National Review article about his group’s highly publicized reports decrying the delicious dangers lurking in popular restaurant dishes. “I like my vegetables and rice as much as somebody likes their steak and French fries,” he told me. “No, you don’t,” I thought. The cadaverous Jacobson, who looks like he is conducting a life extension experiment involving extreme calorie restriction, routinely reduces the dining experience to numbers indicating nutritional assets and liabilities, treating pleasure as, at best, an afterthought.

To some extent, Barry Glassner, author of The Gospel of Food (Harper-Collins), errs in the opposite direction. Glassner, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, is no fatty, but his frequent references to memorable gustatory treats —including “sautéed Moulard duck foie gras with pickled white nectarines, onions, and arugula” at the French Laundry, “tasting menus” prepared by star chefs Daniel Boulard and Thomas Keller, and a “deeply chocolate fondant with a vanilla and toasted almond ice cream” served at an organic food fair—started to get on my nerves after a while. Still, his acute attack on culinary correctness demonstrates that his heart is in the right place: smack dab in the middle of his taste buds.
Still, Glassner resists turning every meal choice into a moral statement or political act, and he is quick to question all forms of food snobbery, including his own. His openness to innovation and diversity is especially clear in his illuminating discussion of what makes restaurant food “authentic” and whether it should matter. (Short answers: It’s not clear and no.) Glassner sees value in the fresh, locally grown diet championed by the food writer Michael Pollan, and he sees value in frozen TV dinners. He waxes lyrical about meals prepared by world-class chefs but also cherishes favorite dishes in cheap, obscure ethnic eateries (although he questions the contrarian food adventurer’s equation of obscurity with quality). He even recognizes the remarkable value of fast food: “Where else, for a few bucks, can a person of modest means get the complete, tripartite American meal (meat, potatoes, and vegetable), in a clean setting, with toys and diversions for the kids thrown in at no extra charge?”

In short, Glassner appreciates food in all its amazing variety and is not willing to deny what his palate tells him for the sake of fashion or ideology. As a guide to what’s worth eating, I’d take him over Michael Jacobson any day.

A wise middle ground. But why is there a political battleground around food anyway? What makes French food terrorosts blow up McDonalds restaurants, and social justice activists boycott coffee that isn't organically grown and fair trade certified? Why does anyone care what anyone else eats?

Your theories and food controversy anecdotes are welcome.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Great God Debate, part deux

Set your radio dials for the Hugh Hewitt show on Tuesday, June 5th from 4:00 to 7:00 PM EST, as Hugh moderates a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Rev Mark D. Roberts. You can tune into his show over the internet here.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Building the Perfect Self Licking Ice Cream Cone

Fighting their way to the bottom: Indian shephards demand quota benefits of the lowest caste.

Oroborous and David believe preferential affirmative action quotes for officially aggrieved groups are a good thing.

Reality says otherwise.

NEW DELHI: A fight for the right to be downwardly mobile exploded this week in north India, as a powerful community of Indian shepherds asserted that the best way to rise up in modern society was to take a step down in the regimented class hierarchy.


This was not the usual show of anger at the ever-prevalent discrimination faced by members of lower-caste groups. Instead, it stemmed from controversy over a demand from the Gujjar community of farmers and shepherds to have their low caste status officially downgraded, relegating them to the bottom classification in the caste ladder.

If Gujjars were to be shunted into the Scheduled Caste category, a classification that includes [Untouchables], they would qualify for greater privileges under India's affirmative action program, which was designed to lift up those groups that for centuries were viewed as "pollutants," ostracized by mainstream society and prevented from accumulating wealth.

Since affirmative action amounts to a spoils system, fighting over the feed bag should come as no surprise.

Worse, though, is the inevitable knock-on effect: establishing quotas serves to perpetuate the divisions the quotas are intended to ameliorate.

India has more than 6,000 castes and subcastes, 3,743 of which are designated "backward" on the grounds of social and educational deprivation. Scheduled castes represent around 25 percent of the total population. Designed originally to abolish caste divisions by helping the Dalits and tribal communities to escape destitution, the quota system was expanded in the early 1990s to assist the Other Backward Classes, those who were less well placed in the ancient hierarchy.

Opponents of the expanded quota system argue that instead of eliminating caste consciousness, it has further entrenched it, making society more aware of divisions and more resentful of rival castes.

Wow. Sure didn't see that coming.


That which doesn't kill you makes you enhanced

Chile's black widow spider may yield spermicide

SANTIAGO, June 1 (Reuters) - Scientists have discovered a potentially marketable contraceptive in the venom of Chile's black widow spider, whose bite is fatal to many but can also cause prolonged ... erections in men.


[Investigators] discovered the property after looking into Chilean folklore that describes a virile man, one known to have spectacular sexual energy or many sexual partners, as being "spider-bitten."


The spider's bite can kill children and the elderly, but among strong young farmers it leads to erections that can last for days and involve involuntary ejaculations.

At the end of the ordeal, the man is left sexually energized and feels physically stronger, the saying goes.

Now that its cover is blown, the Chilean Black Widow Spider will be joining the endangered species list in 5, 4, 3 , 2 ...

If they don't read their own newspaper, why should I?

In today's 翻譯此頁, aka The China Post (also, undoubtedly known 90 miles away as The Not The China Post), page 13:

US wanes, catalysts gain in stock run

The US economy is slowing by all accounts ... and consumers continue to wrestle with soaring gas prices and a slumping housing market.

On to page 14:

US employers double new jobs

America's economic health may be improving. Employers nearly doubled the number of jobs they added to payrolls in May ...


Many economists believe the economy in the current quarter is growing at a pace of [2.3 to 3] percent. Either way, it would mark a considerable pickup from the anemic [first quarter] growth.

It is a monologue of the deaf.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Why I am not Spiritual

Or poetic for that matter. Bryan Appleyard recommends this book review by Marilynne Robinson of "American Religious Poems, ed. by Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba". Appleyard quotes this particlar passage as exquisite:
'To associate religion with unwavering faith in any creed or practice does no justice at all to its complexity as lived experience. Creeds themselves exist to stabilize the intense speculations that religion, which is always about the ultimate nature of things, will inspire.'

If you agree with that statement, then you are probably an acolyte of the Mystery school of religion, that group of believers that sees the infinite not as some dark unknown realm that needs to be mapped and explained in a way to assuage the fear of the unknown and to describe a path to salvation, but as a blank canvas on which to let loose the spiritual imagination. Andrew Sullivan is a good exemplar of this school, as he writes on his blog in response to Sam Harris:
But why is it so hard to embrace mystery? It is so tightly woven into our human experience. The search for answers to even the most basic questions about ourselves can take us to unplumbed depths of the unknown: Who am I? Not my name, not what I do, but who am I? What do I want? Why do I love this person? What is the meaning of this experience? Try to really answer these questions, really answer them, and you inevitably run up against the unknown. And the unknown only grows and multiplies when we ask the even bigger questions that reach beyond ourselves: Where did I come from? Why am I here?

Maybe this is the fundamental disconnect between believers and non-believers - that the latter insist on answers, and if the answer appeals in any way to mystery, then the answer must be wrong. But practical human experience shows us that mystery is all around us, and that answers to even the simplest questions often cannot be found or must bow, at least somewhat, to mystery - not as a cop-out or a catch-all explanation, but as a humble acceptance of the limitations of human understanding and the possibility that the answers are more than we can know.

That's all nice and good, but both Sullivan and Robinson get it wrong when they say that doctrine and certainty aren't the hallmarks of religion. I'd say that the bigger half of all religious believers aren't looking to revel in mysteries as much as they are looking for a simple explanation stated with certainty to dispel all mysteries. Call it the Certainty school.

Of course religion is infused with both schools. Robinson is right to point out that the Certainty school does not account for all of the complexity of lived experience that we describe as religious. Another word to describe the Mystery school is Mystic. All of the great religions have had Mystical traditions that lived within or as offshoots to the Dogmatic tradition. Catholicism has its Scholastics and Mystics. Protestants have the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements. Judaism has the Kabbalist movement, and Islam has the Sufi sect. The only way that I can think to explain it is that it is a left brain/right brain phenomenon, the logical and rational left brain types dominating in the area of dogma and theology, whereas the intuitive and holistic right brain types dominating the inspirational and visionary aspects of faith.

Now it seems obvious that most atheists are of the left brain persuasion, and the religion that they reject is more often the dogmatic, theological version of faith. While they may share a love of logic and precision with their left-brained adversaries in the theological ranks, their dispute is over the process and methods used to arrive at theological truths. For the left-brained atheist, religions biggest sin is that it is wrong.

Now I've never quite figured out whether I am a left brain or a right brain person. I've always assumed left, but my Myers Briggs type is INFP. Now there is no mapping of Myers Briggs types to left brain/right brain types that I know of, but it seems that the Feeling vs Thinking is more a function of the right brain. Whatever. But there is an atheist critique of the Mystery/Mystic religious tradition, which is the main thrust of this post, using Robinson's essay as an exemplar of that tradition.

Robinson makes the link between the poetic and the religious mind:
There is every reason to turn to poetry in order to acquire a sense of the nature of religion. The two seem always to have been intimately linked. This deep and ancient affinity cannot be accidental. One does not "understand" what Aeschylus or Isaiah wrote, because poetry is not, in the ordinary sense, "understood." If it is great, it is lived with over time by individuals and civilizations, interpreted again and again in its impact on language and thought and the arts, and on all those souls who are sensitive to its pleasures and sufficiencies. In just the same way, religion is not to be "understood."

Again, Robinson is ignoring the attitude of the vast majority of religious believers for whom understanding is the primary goal of religion. But to continue, she then delves into the central appeal to both religion and poetry:
Likewise, to the exasperation of those rationalists who wish they would just say what they mean, religions interpret themselves in religious terms. If the Gospel of Luke doesn't make sense to you, Augustine and Luther won't either. Those who look into this anthology are likelier than others to have some experience of poetry and to recognize the inadequacies of interpretation and paraphrase. But religion, not only in America, has been seriously distracted by the supposed need to translate itself into terms a rationalist would find meaningful. So liberals have set out upon a long, earnest project more or less equivalent to rewriting Shakespeare into words of one syllable—if such a thing can be imagined as an effort fired by moral passion and carried out by people who would themselves confess to a deep affection for Shakespeare.

This is one of the things I found so exasperating about Catholicism, this tendency toward the self-referential use of language which allows no strict analysis and comprehension. To me much of Catholic inspirational writing sounds familiar to Postmodern writing, with its usage of special vocabulary that seemingly can be used randomly to assemble statements that all have the quality of sounding profound whilst yielding little of meaningful content. Like poetry, it is often impenetrable. I guess it suffices to put the religious and/or poetic mind into a state of heightened feeling. But drugs can do the same thing.
Impenetrability, however, is not the biggest sin of mystical/poetic religion. The biggest sin is the exaltation of the inner dialogue, to the point of solipsism and auto-deification. Robinson quotes from the Puritan Renaissance Humanist Jean Calvin:
"the human body shows itself to be a composition so ingenious that its Artificer is rightly judged a wonder-worker....Certain philosophers, accordingly, long ago not ineptly called man a microcosm because he is a rare example of God's power, goodness, and wisdom, and contains within himself enough miracles to occupy our minds, if only we are not irked at paying attention to them....For each one undoubtedly feels within the heavenly grace that quickens him. Indeed, if there is no need to go outside ourselves to comprehend God, what pardon will the indolence of that man deserve who is loath to descend within himself to find God?...such agile motions of the soul, such excellent faculties, such rare gifts, especially bear upon the face of them a divinity that does not allow itself readily to be hidden....Manifold indeed is the nimbleness of the soul with which it surveys heaven and earth, joins past to future, retains in memory something heard long before, nay, pictures to itself whatever it pleases. Manifold also is the skill with which it devises things incredible, and which is the mother of so many marvelous devices. These are unfailing signs of divinity in man."

It is not indolence which prevents me from delving into my own mind to find God, it is prudence. The last thing I want to do is convince myself that I am God, for many practical reasons having to do with reconciling my godhood with my atrocious golf swing or my countless other limitations, both trivial and not so trivial. But beyond that I'd rather think that God, if he exists, and the universe if He doesn't, is a more wondrous thing than what can be dredged out of the oozing muck of my own psyche.
This ecstatic delight in the human mind and person is a constant in his metaphysics, a Christian anthropology clearly akin to the celebrations of the human one finds in Emerson and Whitman, clearly anticipating Dickinson in its assurance of the revelatory character of deeply inward experience. In an early sermon, Emerson speaks of a culmination of life:

when this planet we now inhabit shall have been swept from its system, and its system is no longer reckoned in the astronomy of the Universe; when the fires that now roll in these heavens above us, have combined in new constellations, or obey new laws; or when, by that dread will which peopled eternal space with their burning hosts, they shall disappear; when God shall be all; when you shall be nourishing the powers of an angel's intellect, and exploring the height and depth and length and breadth of the wisdom of the knowledge of God.

The thrill of imagining consciousness freed of limitation may have been the impetus that moved Emerson to reject the church, but it is nevertheless an impetus he could have taken from that same religious tradition.

I've highlighted two other thoughts where I take issue with the mystic tradition. First is the danger of treating inward experiences as revelations. If they do reveal, they reveal the self, not the universe. But the religious mystic has no problem treating his inner voices as the voice of God, and imposing those revelations on others. Religious tyranny owes as much to the deified revelations of interior monologues of mystical prophets as it does to the relentlessly dogmatizing logic of theologians. Does anyone else see the danger of thinking that voices in your head are God's? If not danger, then potential madness?

The other criticism I have is toward this notion of freeing consciousness of all limitations. This is a very appealing notion, especially to our American psyche that values freedom above all else, but what does it really mean to free your consciousness of limitations? We gain knowledge through a slow process of accumulating limitations on our thought processes. When we learn something, we close our mind on that thing. It is this, and not that. Our mind's openness on that subject is eliminated. Gaining knowledge and wisdom is a process whereby open minds are closed. We all rail reflexively against closed minds, but what is this attitude except a desire to regain the wonder and excitement of past youth? It's a desire to once again be ignorant and unwise, and be freed from the burdens of knowledge and wisdom.

Robinson cites Whitman as one of the exemplars of this poetic religion of unbounded exuberance. I've read some Whitman, and it is this very quality that irritates me so much about him. Whitman was one of the greatest solipsists of all time. His poetry celebrated the breaking of all boundaries, all except that of himself. The poems, it seems, were always about him. It was "I am the farmer in the field" and " I am the mother nursing her child", I am the this, I am the that, I am the world, I am the children, I am music and I write the songs, yada yada yada. The I never disappeared when the boundaries were broken. Everything was absorbed into him. I wonder how many times the phrase "I am" appeared in his works. And isn't that the phrase that God used to describe himself? Reading Whitman is like listening to your senile grandparents tell you every great and wonderful thing they did in their lives, real and imagined, a la Abe Simpson.

As far as I'm concerned, I like boundaries. My life is bounded and limited, and that's how I like it. I used to bemoan my limitations, but now I enjoy them. They're comfortable, like an old shoe, and they keep me from doing stupid things like running for office or climbing a mountain or running a marathon. I like them for what they keep out, like the farmer in the field or the mother nursing her child, or any of the other seething multitudes yearning to breathe free off of my psychic dime. I'll watch y'all from the cozy confines of my mental cottage. And stay off the grass!