31 October, 2006

Fearmongering Democrats: Kerry's Categorical Insult

It's a common assertion from the left these days that Republicans engage in "fearmongering" as a primary political tactic. So what, may I ask, is this from John Kerry?

Y'know, education--if you make the most of it and you study hard and you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, uh, you, you [sic] can do well. If you don't you get stuck in Iraq.
...which as every Chablis-sipping arrogant Beacon Hill mandarin knows, is worse than anything imaginable. And this is not fearmongering of the lowest kind? This is the man who was running to be Commander in Chief of what... losers and misfits?

I'm holding my anger in check on this one but just barely. Anyone in uniform has every right to be beyond incensed. Every American has a right--and a responsibility--to examine this man's world view closely and demand an explanation and an apology.

Whatever one thinks of the war, this is an insult to those who volunteered to defend us--who volunteered to risk their lives on our behalf. Camille Paglia (a Democrat) characterized Kerry as having a "droning hauteur". I'd add: a droning, condescending and morally bankrupt hauteur. It's frightening to remember how close this man came to the Oval Office.

Dennis Prager is pointing out that John Kerry's website (totally overloaded at the moment) is saying his quote has been distorted and taken out of context... but he has not seen fit to reprint or specifically refute any part of the quote itself (which I've taken pains to reproduce as precisely as possible from the video).

Decide for yourself but do so based on the primary source.

UPDATE: On re-reading the Kerry quote it occurs to me that, to the extent he thought about it at all, he may have intended it as an insult to the President. (Not that that makes it any better!) Never mind that Bush and Kerry had virtually the same GPA at Yale.

'Green' Development, 'Affordable' Development... Socialist Development

A big H/T to reader M.A. for this fine piece by Thomas Sowell. (Sowell, already well into his 70s, is one of those individuals so scintillatingly intelligent, insightful and articulate that one hopes he might enjoy a life as long and productive as that of the late Peter Drucker.) Sowell writes:

Although socialism has long claimed to be for the poor, it has probably done more damage, on net balance, to the poor than to the rich... The rich have learned to adapt socialist policies to their own benefit. For example, the city of Riviera Beach, Florida, is planning to demolish a working class neighborhood under its power of eminent domain, in order to prepare the way for a marina for yachts, luxury condominiums and an upscale shopping district.

...the rich get rid of lower-income folks without having to pay them the value of their homes and businesses that will be demolished. As in so many other cases, eminent domain is socialism for the rich.

A very different form of socialism for the rich protects their communities from even the dangers of a free market... For example, the "open space" laws that have spread across the country to protect upscale communities represent one of the biggest collectivizations of land since the days of Josef Stalin.

Upscale residents say that they have a right to protect "our community." But not even the rich own the whole community. They own what they paid for -- their own individual property. But they get the government to collectivize the often vastly larger surrounding property, in order to keep the unwashed masses from settling near them and spoiling their views.

Moreover, they wrap themselves in the mantle of idealism while doing this and denounce the "selfishness" of those who would stoop to building homes or apartments to house others, just to make money. "Developer" is a cuss word to those who wax indignant in their righteous zeal to keep other people out.
The piece got my attention because of conversations I've had this past week with two friends involved in what can be broadly characterized as the feel-good development business: 'green' development, 'affordable' development, 'socially responsible' development and development geared to the needs of emotionally abused, French-speaking, aboriginal, transgendered short people with receding hairlines. OK, I exaggerate... slightly.

The 'affordable' developer (AD) confided to me last week that because of the way government subsidies work (at least around here) he has few incentives (and after a certain point in fact, negative incentives) to be efficient in his use of land. The message he gets from his benefactors in state government is: make it affordable (whatever we decide that means), but not so affordable that you don't have to rely on us for a handout. Innovation is quashed. The incentive to be efficient is quashed. Like all market distortions created by the welfare state, my friend's design sensibilities and need to employ cleverness are frozen to whatever were the prevailing norms at the time the affordable housing laws were written.

My 'green' developer friend is even more transparent in proving Sowell's theory of socialism to insulate rich people and make them feel better. This person (whom we'll call 'GD') writes:
The intersection between green and affordable housing is rather tenuous, as these guys never really have enough money to do anything... I've learned I need to stay away from the AH guys, since their mission appears the same, but really isn't. AH is generally pretty cheap construction - the opposite of the high quality stuff I'm doing.
"High quality" here should be understood to mean using environmental regulations and subsidies theoretically directed towards environmentally-conscious development (whatever that means) in such a way as to avoid having to look at one's neighbors.
I don't want to pay the premium to be surrounded by woods, but if the state forces other people to subsidize my being surrounded by woods then why not?
There's nothing wrong with the inclination to not want to look at one's neighbors. What's wrong is using the cover of moral virtue and state money to do so--competing on an unequal plane with developers who simply realize that those attributes command a higher price (but not an infinitely higher price) in the market. We need the state to encourage us to value trees outside our windows more than we're inclined to value them of our own accord and out of our own pocket... why?

30 October, 2006

Round-up of Interesting Articles

OK, not the most compelling blog post title I've ever come up with but I couldn't think of any over-arching theme to link these three together. In no particular order:

Fat people cause global warming. Either that or the former is derogatory and invasive of personal freedom and the later is a myth and so any link between the two is both impolite and ridiculous.

[An article] in the current issue of The Engineering Economist, calculates how much extra gasoline is used to transport Americans now that they have grown fatter. The answer, they said, is a billion gallons a year.
One thing the two (fat people and global warming) do have in common is that liberal mandarins want to regulate and raise taxes to force both to be as they and they alone would want them to be. (I.e., peoples' physiques and the global climate). The other is that those same liberal mandarins think that both issues are issues and ought to be controlled (and controllable) through public policy... if only the right people were in charge to make it so.

Bush bad. Republicans reprehensible. Evangelicals evil. Or so it would seem in the ignorant, ranting, borderline paranoid calculus of Gary Wills, writing a tired, whining piece in the New York Review of Books that has nothing to do with either (New York or books.) Wills spoils his few valid points (e.g., the dangers of mixing politics, religion and public money without any accountability) by mixing said points with a sewage-laced flood of unsupported assertions bolstered by over-the-top strawman caricatures of his political opponents. Wills doesn't waste any time, getting his first (assertion/strawman caricature) out in his first two sentences:
The right wing in America likes to think that the United States government was, at its inception, highly religious, specifically highly Christian, and even more specifically highly biblical. That was not true of that government or any later government—until 2000, when the fiction of the past became the reality of the present.
Well count me as the right wing then (like that's a surprise?) And proudly so. The only reason to read the piece is to understand that there's a faction in this country that laps up stuff like because they truly fear and despise not only religion in politics and government--a point on which rational people can disagree and debate and compromise--but the involvement of religious people in politics and government... or in pretty much anything for that matter. Wills seems to take as self-evident that the following paragraph offers a frightening indictment of the Bush administration and its behavior. For his target audience, it probably is:
The White House was alive with piety. Evangelical leaders were in and out on a regular basis. There were Bible study groups in the White House, as in John Ashcroft's Justice Department. Over half of the White House staff attended the meetings. One of the first things David Frum heard when he went to work there as a speech writer was: "Missed you at the Bible study." According to Esther Kaplan:

Aside from Rove and Cheney, Bush's inner circle are all deeply religious. [Condoleezza] Rice is a minister's daughter, chief of staff Andrew Card is a minister's husband, Karen Hughes is a church elder, and head speechwriter Michael Gerson is a born-again evangelical, a movement insider.

Other parts of the administration were also pious, with religious services during the lunch hour at the General Services Administration.
Booga booga!! And the president himself is... a Methodist! Related but tangential note... young guest preacher at church this week started his sermon as follows:
"I'm going to come out of the closet right here... [pregnant pause]... I'm a Christian Fundamentalist. I believe that Jesus taught us to love God and love each other and that those are the fundamentals and everything else is secondary."
It neatly turned the tables, taking the negativity out of a term ("fundamentalist") perverted by the secularists into a kind of epithet on par with what "Islamist" should be but isn't.

Finally, Camille Paglia is interviewed in Salon. She's got a unique knack for independent, colorful thought. That fact is remarkable only because we've become accustomed to such a narrow range of views from the left--in the last six years especially. There's plenty to disagree with in the piece, but Paglia is nearly always worth reading if only to recall that there used to be a left that could bring intellectual honesty and some degree of maturity to any debate.
The way the Democratic leadership was in clear collusion with the major media to push this [Mark Foley] story in the month before the midterm election seems to me to have been a big fat gift to Ann Coulter and the other conservative commentators who say the mainstream media are simply the lapdogs of the Democrats. Every time I turned on the news it was "Foley, Foley, Foley!" -- and in suspiciously similar language and repetitive talking points... I felt the Democrats were shooting themselves in the foot.

Every feminist who wants to smash the glass ceiling should realize she has a stake in Condi Rice's success... The idea that the Democratic senators were somehow misled by the intelligence given to them by the administration is such rank nonsense!

The feckless behavior of the Bush administration has been a lurid illustration of Noam Chomsky's books -- which I've always considered half lunatic. Chomsky's hatred of the United States is pathological -- stemming from some bilious problem with father figures that is too fetid to explore. But Chomsky's toxic view of American imperialism and interventionism is like the playbook of the rigid foreign policy of the Bush administration. So, thanks very much, George Bush, you've managed to rocket Noam Chomsky to the top of the bestseller list!
Like I said... plenty to disagree with. But at least with Paglia one isn't arguing with a mindless clone spitting talking points first minted at some anti-war rally back in the '60s.

28 October, 2006

The Secularization of Everything

Since getting a new iPod two weeks ago, I've started to enjoy podcasts of my favorite radio shows while walking the dog. Tops among them is Dennis Prager. Yesterday, I listened to a show he'd done on Wednesday on the separation of church and state. Highly informative and recommended. Short version:

  • Surveys show that more people believe the phrase "separation of church and state" is in the Constitution than believe the actual language that relates to it ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof")

  • The first mention of the phrase is in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802.

  • The next significant mention is in the opinion by Justice Hugo Black in a 1947 Supreme Court case (Everson vs. Board of Education) decided against those seeking a higher barrier. Black added the modifiers "high and impregnable" to the church/state wall metaphor.
So it was that with my mind primed thusly that I flipped on the television a few moments ago to note my absolute favorite flick of all time being recorded from TNT on Tivo: The Matrix (original). It was one of my favorites before returning to Christianity five years ago. It became my all-time favorite when I started to delve into the rich, nuanced and decidedly deliberate parallels with scripture. (There are many departures too, but that would be a novel, not a blog post.)

I joined the film in progress, just before Neo is woken up by his computer and called to the door by a knock. One line that follows (after 'Choi' and friends greet Neo at the door) is absolutely critical to understanding the film as a Messiah movie. I don't want to make too much of a change hardly noticeable to those watching it purely as a sci-fi action flick, but the effect is akin to replacing the Bible with Walden--still pleasant, but utterly devoid of its intended meaning. The original dialogue (emphasis added) is as follows:
Choi : Hallelujah. You're my saviour, man. My own personal Jesus Christ.
Neo :You get caught using that...
Choi : Yeah, I know. This never happened, you don't exist.
The TNT version, by contrast, is as follows:
Choi : Hallelujah. You're my saviour, man. [virtually seamless cut]
Neo :You get caught using that...
Choi : Yeah, I know. This never happened, you don't exist.
In television-land, not only does Neo the character not exist; Jesus himself doesn't either.

One seemingly benign explanation--offered by others who've noticed the omission (apparently not new)--is that TNT crudely decided that "Jesus Christ" is a curse in all contexts and under all circumstances. That's a remarkable, scary and not-so-benign idea when you think about it. (Imagine for example, the word 'allah' or 'God' being deemed verboten on the public airwaves in all contexts and you get the idea of the odd imbalance here.) In the case of TNT, it's clearly not the case... yet, but the ham-handed editing of The Matrix, plus the UN-idolizing founder makes me vigilant.

So what does this have to do with separation of church and state?

Only this: that the original, very simple and elegant 16-word constitutional idea that individuals, municipalities and states needed to be protected from the federal government imposing a single religion on them has morphed into the far more expansive and virulent idea that expressions of religion ought to be scrubbed (if not for political reasons than for hard-headed business ones) from virtually anything offered to the public. Whatever the motivation, that's sad commentary on media views of the maturity and tolerance of those on the receiving end.

27 October, 2006

What Osama Wants

Occasionally--very occasionally--the Grey Lady (NYT) allows common sense and clarity to grace its pages. We'll let go the fact that it had to come from someone with anti-war credentials. It's the forward-looking ideas that matter and op-ed writer Peter Bergen delivers:

A total withdrawal from Iraq would play into the hands of the jihadist terrorists. As Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, made clear shortly after 9/11 in his book “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner,” Al Qaeda’s most important short-term strategic goal is to seize control of a state, or part of a state, somewhere in the Muslim world. “Confronting the enemies of Islam and launching jihad against them require a Muslim authority, established on a Muslim land,” he wrote. “Without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.” Such a jihadist state would be the ideal launching pad for future attacks on the West...

Another problem with a total American withdrawal is that it would fit all too neatly into Osama bin Laden’s master narrative about American foreign policy. His theme is that America is a paper tiger that cannot tolerate body bags coming home; to back it up, he cites President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 withdrawal of United States troops from Lebanon and President Bill Clinton’s decision nearly a decade later to pull troops from Somalia. A unilateral pullout from Iraq would only confirm this analysis of American weakness among his jihadist allies.
H/T: Dennis Prager

I can absolutely empathize (but not sympathize) with the view that Iraq is a bigger mess than some may have bargained for. Unfortunately, war is like that. And the war we find ourselves in--of which Iraq is and always has been just a part--is not one of our own making. Iraq was never entirely separable from the larger war declared on us in 1979... and 1984... and 1993... and 2001 and...

Resonable people can disagree about whether it (Iraq) might have been postponable. But I challenge anyone to spell out how it could have been avoided altogether without worse side effects--given what was known at the time (given that nobody except a few biblical prophets has a reliable crystal ball)--in the long trek to eradicate the evil we witnessed on 9-11, 3-11 and 7-7 (to name just the more spectacular and visible terrorist victories against the West).

Bergen's point is essential to slaying what reader Jeffrey Henning calls "Cheeseburger-eating surrender monkeys" (an America-directed play on Groundskeeper Willie's line about France in the Simpsons). I.e., those Americans with a diminished sense of history, responsibility, patience and reason who think that cutting and running will have no long term repurcussions we can't handle. (How do they know that?)

I'm not sure any of those folks actually eat red meat, but we'll let that go... :)

26 October, 2006

Media Bias - Remedial Course

Since the Groseclose/UCLA study roughly a year ago, I have seen no more elegant portrayal of the reality of pervasive media bias than the dual graphs at left (grabbed from SayAnything, who grabbed them from WILLisms, who grabbed them from an article ("One Economy, Two Spins") at the Business and Media Institute).

Any questions?

The Unknowableness of Global Climate

Months ago I began a post (still in draft form) on how secular belief systems, e.g., faith in global climate change, are virtually indistinguishable in character from religious ones. The more I mull the subject, the more I conclude that the reason the post is still a draft is not that its premise is untrue but that, properly treated, it would easily balloon into a multi-volume treatise.

So in the meantime, I note this piece in today's Christian Science Monitor delving into the many complex and still poorly understood variables behind one small aspect of global climate: the summertime interaction between dust blowing off the Sahara and hurricane formation in the Eastern Atlantic.

A new study in Geophysical Research Letters suggests that large amounts of hot, dry, dust-laden air coming off West Africa may have squelched Atlantic hurricanes.
The article continues with a fascinating description of how that process is thought to occur--a description that left me nodding my head. Yeah... that makes sense. But then mid-article, in the kind of sharp turn from certainty back to fundamental questions that's characteristic of honest science (and less so of religious dogma), we find this:
But lots of dust does not always mean fewer hurricanes. In 2005, the year of Katrina and Rita and the most active hurricane season on record, more Saharan dust arrived in the Caribbean than at any time during the previous 30 years...
Which is followed by another set of explanations that left me nodding my head again. Yeah... that makes sense too. Which is just the way science is--particularly when it's attempting to reduce to a computer model a monstrously large and unbounded set of global phenomena made up of millions of unknowable butterfly effect components.
E.g., Farmer Kalil in Morocco gets into a spat with his wife over some trivial matter. Because of the stress of the argument, he has a stroke in March and can't plant his crop. His fields lie fallow and less dust gets stirred up early in the season. More gets stirred up later however, when the plants aren't there to keep the July winds from stirring it up. Two years later, Farmer Achmed next door buys him out for a pittance. In his burgeoning prosperity he has enough to install a more modern irrigation system that reduces dust. Because of the reduced dust, poor farmer Sanchez in southern Mexico gets his home demolished in a mudslide resulting from a Cat 5 hurricane that brewed just a little more powerfully over the Azores that it would have if Farmer Kalil hadn't blown a blood vessel in his brain two years prior... or not... because the hurricane is actually less powerful. Nobody knows.
As we learned--slowly and painfully in the 1970s--macroeconomics is not and can never be a science. Alan Greenspan is the exception that proves the rule: the magician-guru whose holistic, almost artistic intuitive sense of the global economy is so nuanced and comprehensive that it's impossible to write it down, much less transfer in its entirety into another human brain. It is simply Mr. Greenspan's passing genius. It is not science and should not be confused with it.

It is articles like this one on hurricanes that make it plain that global climate phenomena, while worthy of study (and plenty of it), are nowhere near the state of boundedness--or even basic factual understanding--that would credibly enable the kind of firm prognostications and expensive, sweeping policy recommendations the liberal establishment throws at them.

Dogmatic faith in a dire and certain outcome regardless of the proximate and contradictory evidence is not science. It is religion.

When a comparatively 'small' phenomenon such as hurricane formation in one ocean in one particular year brings out such contradictory plausible explanations from honest scientists (e.g., as we find in the CSMonitor article), it simply does not follow that the far larger phenomenon of which it is a part (i.e., global climate change over centuries) is understood to any significant degree. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

25 October, 2006

Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner in Darfur?

With apologies to the late, great Warren Zevon, I note an interesting op-ed by Max Boot ("A Mercenary Force for Darfur") in today's W$J.

...privateers... can actually perform valuable work that we won't send our own troops to do. Case in point: Darfur. A force of 7,000 lightly armed African Union peacekeepers has been helpless to stop the genocide being carried out in this region of the Sudan. Odds are that a contingent of U.N. blue helmets, if and when they finally arrive, won't do much better. Why not turn to the private sector?

...the record of privateers compares favorably with that of U.N. peacekeeping forces, which have been distinguished more by their propensity for committing sex crimes [link added] than by any success in keeping the peace. To deal with potential abuses, private fighters could be hired under a contract that would hold them liable for war crimes in the International Criminal Court or some other jurisdiction. That would make them more accountable than U.N. forces, which operate with almost complete impunity.

Sending mercenaries to Africa isn't politically correct. But it would be a lot more useful than sending more aid money that will be wasted or passing ineffectual resolutions that will be ignored.
The idea violates basic principles laid forth by the late and brilliant but nevertheless obscure Jane Jacobs in her book "Systems of Survival" about not mixing so-called 'guardian' functions (e.g., soldiering) with 'commercial' frameworks (e.g., private, freelance work). Bringing greater accountability to the UN itself would be a much better way of approaching things. That said, I share Boot's frustration and applaud him for throwing a paradigm-shattering idea into the mix. Achieving UN accountability may take several lifetimes--if it's not a complete oxymoron. In the meantime, people are dying while the First Avenue suits continue to hob-nob over nothing.

Crystal Meth Dealers With Nukes

And here I was thinking that all we had to worry about were some Islamofascist nut-jobs and a cognac-besotted Stalinist throwback... Drug Bust Leads To [Secret] Los Alamos Docs.

24 October, 2006

Ahmadinejad at His Word

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at a rally last Friday in Iran said:

"You imposed a group of terrorists [Israel]... on the region. It is in your own interest to distance yourself from these criminals... This is an ultimatum. Don't complain tomorrow... We have advised the Europeans that the Americans are far away, but you are the neighbours of the nations in this region... We inform you that the nations are like an ocean that is welling up, and if a storm begins, the dimensions will not stay limited to Palestine, and you may get hurt... Nations will take revenge." [emphasis added]
I've pieced the quote together from three sources: an editorial in today's W$J, a story posted on the BBC website last Friday and an editorial in yesterday's Jerusalem Post. Only in the J-Post (plus 88 other sources, according to Google News) do editors bother to note the final declarative sentence: "Nations will take revenge." Roughly double that number report the ultimatum part. Only five sources (including the BBC) report the gangster-esque "you may get hurt"--a line so transparently threatening it almost invites caricature. (Nice set of cathedrals you have here... and subways... and office towers... and discos... now wouldn't it be a shame if something happened to them?)

Why is that? Why do none report the whole sordid, threatening quote in full? The J-Post proposes an answer and that is that it's impossible to escape the conclusion--when one listens in full to Ahmadinejad's resolute, clear and highly consistent message, in this speech and others, and sets it all in the context of the West's lack of meaningful action--that we are witnessing a repeat of the late 1930's:
"Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor. They chose dishonor. They will have war." (Winston Churchill to Neville Chamberlain at the House of Commons, after the 1938 Munich agreement)

The question is not whether Iran must be confronted, but who will do it, when, and what cost... Adolf Hitler escalated his provocations against Jews and Western democracies simultaneously and incrementally; Iran is testing the waters as well. Each ignored blow delivered to the West's honor will be duly noted and lead to the next.

It is painfully obvious that if Western nations took Ahmadinejad's advice and abandoned Israel, Iran would only become more belligerent, just like Hitler did when Europeans abandoned Czechoslovakia. Neither Hitler nor Ahmadinejad cared or care about their initial target, but rather about what the limp Western reaction says about their prospects for further expanding their power through even bolder acts of aggression.
Most in the West are too wedded to the notion drummed into their heads in the 1990s that we are beyond history and have managed to slip the surly bonds of evil that have gripped humanity since the beginning of time. They just don't want to believe that it's 1938 because if it were (and I truly believe that it is), then what comes next we know, is truly and utterly horrific--and only more so given the weapons at nearly everyone's disposal.

It's a uniquely liberal trap, this inability to hear a man like Ahmadinejad and take him at his word. That trap is rooted in the idea that humanity (and human nature specifically) is "progressing". It is the notion that we are on some inexorable moving walkway forward to goodness and peace without having to ever deal with tyrants and psychopaths and terrorists (much less the ever-present potential for evil within ourselves) ever again because our grandfathers did that and it's all now consigned to history.

To acknowledge that there are such people in the world, that they are not the ones we can simply vote out of office, and that they must be dealt with in ways they will understand and respond to is difficult. Even more difficult is to acknowledge that to not do so--to kick the can down the street a few more years--will inevitably bring even nastier consequences we'd rather not think about. It all shatters the liberal myth of "progressiveness". To acknowledge the outward insecurity of this reality shatters one's inward sense of it and that, more than anything else, is so painful as to drive many to total denial.
Related note: The BBC eagerly, almost giddily points readers to Ahmadinejad's 'own' blog:
BBC recommends: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blog. The President of Iran's blog is thin on content but worthy as a rare instance of Presidential blogging.
Recommends? Worthy? Not exactly the words I would have chosen. Would the BBC be so ready to recommend (much less credit as his own) a blog by say, President Bush or Tony Blair with a picture of one or the other working diligently at his desk as Mr. Ahmadinejad is portrayed? Or would they immediately dismiss them as propaganda written by underlings?

23 October, 2006

Richard Dawkins: Poster Child for Ignorant Academics

Second book review in a week. This one is also educational and fun, with Richard Dawkins as the perennial whipping boy. He makes for an easy target:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be...

Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief.
Others have also taken Dawkins to task.

22 October, 2006

Muddled Principles; Confused Roles; Double Standards

Seeing the AP headline "Sudan Orders U.N. Envoy to Leave Country" this morning, I wondered what witches brew of unrighteousness I might find in news of a violent, corrupt and repressive Muslim government expelling the representative of a violence-enabling, corrupt and back-handedly repressive organization like the UN.

The representative, Jan Pronk is being thrown out (as 'persona non grata' on three days' notice) for comments he made on his professional-looking year-old weblog. That such a quasi-diplomat would even have a weblog is more than a bit remarkable. Last I checked, John Bolton, Chris Hill and Condi Rice (for example) weren't blogging, nor was Kofi Annan--though if they change their minds, I'll blogroll at least two of them.

Turns out Pronk (rhymes with 'wonk' and not without reason) is a career academic. The AP prefers to note his status as a former cabinet minister in the Netherlands. His offense? Writing about Sudanese government losses sustained in fights with rebels.

On the surface, that invites comparisons to CNN's broadcast of an Islamist propaganda snuff tape, as well as the UN's actions during Israel's August incursion into Lebanon in which information about Israeli moves found their way onto UN websites for Hezbollah and all to see. Notably, the converse did not occur in either case. I.e., the UN did not let the IDF know about Hezbollah positions, nor did Al Jazeera broadcast tapes slipped to it by Western agents of Iranian-financed Shiite insurgents getting blown away by U.S. snipers.

Though it offends my free speech sensibilities (as well as my sense of morality in Darfur), one can sympathize with Sudanese government claims that liberties were taken by someone (Pronk) whose role is not to report but to promote trust and make peace. Pronk can write what he wants, but it beggars common sense that having done so, he would expect to keep his job much less his position of trust and right to stay in the country. So what rights to personal expression do diplomats and quasi-diplomats have?

This seems to be less a matter of rights and more one of role conflict. The tie-in with the two other stories is that someone in a neutral role decided to take sides. Pronk's seems far milder than CNN's or the UN's in Lebanon, but it's an overstepping of the role just the same. It's not unlike how justices have been ruling from the bench in the U.S. out of a grandiose sense that they and they alone have discerned the path to truth and justice and that neutrality and deference to precedent and rule of law can therefore be set aside.

It's a tempting notion, reinforced by Hollywood: the lone righteous man (or woman) fighting singlehandedly against the forces of evil and injustice. That makes for great entertainment but lousy public policy and law. One can lament the loss of a peacemaker in a region torn by conflict at the same time that one can see how his taking on not just a journalistic but a highly visible editorial role would render him utterly useless.

But what exactly has been lost? What kind of 'peace' was Pronk making on behalf of the UN and the rest of us? He tells us on his weblog (entry number 'nr 36 of October 21). In writing about the Easter Sudan Peace Agreement, he notes the principles that it enshrines:

...recognition and respect of multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-racial diversity; citizenship as the basis for civil and political rights; protection of human rights and freedoms; political pluralism; free elections; a federal system of government; poverty eradication and an equitable distribution of wealth; free and compulsory primary education for every citizen; free primary health care to all citizens; affirmative action to the benefit of the victims of underdevelopment and deprivation; the right of every citizen to acquire or own property, without expropriation, except by law for the public interest and with fair compensation. This is a selection of the main principles. They are impeccable and show a high ambition.
In a sentence that should be nominated for "understatement of the year" he adds: "Whether these principles can be ensured in practice remains to be seen." I'll save him some time. They can't. What he proposes is the worst perversion of positive and negative freedoms I've seen since my post on Steven Pinker's book review last week. (Synopsis: a positive freedom is a right to get or take something... from someone else or from the government; a negative freedom is the right not to have something imposed upon or taken from you).

I was almost with Pronk up to the federal stuff, even though the multi-this and multi-that stuff is a sure slow boat to balkanization and further conflict. And then: "poverty eradication and an equitable distribution of wealth"... As decided by whom? At what level of equity? Isn't this simply Communism in disguise?

"Free primary health care to all citizens" is nice but I'm not sure if the Sudanese are ready to be Sweden just yet. Again: provided by whom? At what cost? And what exactly is primary? Nice ideas. Devilishly impractical to implement in even the most sophisticated Western democracy and virtually useless (though nice sounding) in a third world hellhole.

I give them some credit for specifying "citizens". It's a step we haven't been willing to take here in the U.S. "Affirmative action to the benefit of the victims of underdevelopment and deprivation" is a time bomb also. Again, who decides who benefits and how much? And when/how do the brakes get put on such a program? "The right of every citizen to acquire or own property, without expropriation, except by law for the public interest and with fair compensation." Sounds nice except for the "public interest" part. We'd like to believe that that's all about highways and railroads and telephone right-of-ways but more likely it's a loophole to be exploited by some future government.

So as I noted at the outset: I can empathize with the Sudanese government for tossing out Pronk... and I can empathize with Pronk for writing the truth. But in the end what we have is a corrupt, violent and repressive government likely to stay that way in part because they're being told to implement the worst kind of multi-cultural socialist feel-good dreck guaranteed to perpetuate a state of balkanization, ethnic strife, violence and poverty. The cure, in other words, may be just as bad as the disease.

20 October, 2006

Iraq as Vietnam? Not If We Can Help It

Great new blog with clean look, style and substance: Think Tankers. Sample:

Tet was not the end. South Vietnam didn’t fall until well after we left... The Iraq-Vietnam comparison will ultimately be determined by whether we cut and run again, [and] whether the job is done when we do...
Sounding a similar though decidedly more pessimistic note (and also bringing up Tet) is Eliot Cohen in an op-ed ('Plan B') in today's WSJ ($subscriber$) I wish I could excerpt in full.
It will be important in future years to settle whether the Iraq war was the right idea badly executed, an enterprise doomed to disappoint, or simply folly. There will be individuals to be held accountable (not all of whom have been in the crosshairs of journalists and partisans), and institutions whose shortcomings require not only soul-searching but reform. That's for later. The question now is, what should we do?

The current course -- Plan A -- involves an open-ended commitment of some 130,000 or 140,000 soldiers, with temporary surges during periods of crisis. Its theory of victory seems to be that American support, nagging and cajoling can eventually bring the Iraqi security forces to maturity and gradually hand over responsibility to a democratically constituted, unitary Iraqi government...

All of the options for Plan B are either wretched to contemplate or based on fantasy; the most plausible (the sixth option, a coup which we quietly endorse) would involve a substantial repast of crow that this administration will be deeply unwilling to eat. But it is not only the administration that can, and should, feel uncomfortable about the choices that lie ahead.

An honest debate about Iraq policy will require of all who participate in it to acknowledge some unpleasant facts. We must all admit, for example, that the enemy (or rather, enemies, of us and of one another) exercises a vote. We have not yet had a Tet offensive, but the experience of Hezbollah in the Lebanon war may well encourage the Shiite militias, particularly those influenced by Iran, to try something like it. Iran's influence is great, and will become greater. There will be considerable bloodshed ahead, but our choices, though they may not make it better, could make it a lot worse.

American prestige has taken a hard knock; it will probably take a harder knock, and in ways that will not be restored without a considerable and successful use of American military power down the road. The tides of Sunni salafism and Iran's distinct combination of messianism and power politics have not crested, and will not crest without much greater violence in which we too will be engaged. Whether it be the Islamization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the subversion of conservative regimes by salafist movements, or the continuing radicalization of European Muslims, the Long War, as the administration calls it, will be even longer, and more difficult, than anyone might have thought.

It is folly to think we can win in Iraq the way some of us thought possible in 2003. It would be even greater folly to think that by getting out, learning our lessons, and licking our wounds we can save ourselves from considerable danger, expense, effort and loss in what remains a protracted and global conflict with mortal enemies.
In other words, we'd to well to recall (and reconstitute) the unitary resolve that existed after 9-11 and the consensus that it was worth using the entirety of our capabilities against an enemy allowed to mestastasize for too long. That consensus--strange as it may seem to contemplate today--included the recognition that even if tens of thousands died trying, we must go forth. What Cohen appears to be saying is that we need to apply our collective might towards fighting the larger enemy, which by definition includes Iraq as a battlefield, and not towards each other with fantasies of either wholesale withdrawal or business as usual. Sounds rational to me. War is tough. Like it or not, we were drawn into one in 1979 (and again in 2001) that will not be over soon. We can't say we weren't warned with both the words and the spirit of truth:
Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated... This war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion... Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen... This is not, however, just America's fight. And what is at stake is not just America's freedom. This is the world's fight. This is civilization's fight. This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom... We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail... our resolve must not pass. Each of us will remember what happened that day, and to whom it happened. We'll remember the moment the news came -- where we were and what we were doing. Some will remember an image of a fire, or a story of rescue. Some will carry memories of a face and a voice gone forever... The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them... Fellow citizens, we'll meet violence with patient justice -- assured of the rightness of our cause, and confident of the victories to come. In all that lies before us, may God grant us wisdom, and may He watch over the United States of America.
UPDATE: Jonah Goldberg has flipped (sort of), saying now that going into Iraq was a 'mistake'. His reason for concluding that?
...the Iraq war was a mistake by the most obvious criteria: If we had known then what we know now, we would never have gone to war with Iraq in 2003.
I wouldn't call that a 'mistake'. I'd call it an inability to be prescient--an impossibly high hurdle on any policy for any organization and especially so in the uncertain, constantly shifting and chaotic realm of geopolitics. Goldberg is setting up the paralyzing strawman of "if only we'd had perfect knowledge" which, if used in a forward gear (i.e., about future events) has the result of paralyzing all action and avoiding all risk. In other words, it imposes on past decisions information and insight that could only be gained by taking them. Don't take those decisions and the information and insight fails to come to light. It is a paradox and therefore a poor choice of words on Goldberg's part. I like his prescription however:
...we should ask the Iraqis to vote on whether U.S. troops should stay. Polling suggests that they want us to go. But polling absent consequences is a form of protest. With accountability, minds may change and appreciation for the U.S. presence might grow. If Iraqis voted "stay," we'd have a mandate to do what's necessary to win, and our ideals would be reaffirmed. If they voted "go," our values would also be reaffirmed, and we could leave with honor. And pretty much everyone would have to accept democracy as the only legitimate expression of national will.
H/T: Anchoress.

Harry Potter Call Your Office

This is truly cool.

"We have built an artificial mirage that can hide something from would-be observers in any direction," said cloak designer David Schurig, a research associate in Duke University's electrical and computer engineering department. [emphasis added]

NoKo - A Brief Dog's Eye View

Yesterday President Bush noted that there would be "grave consequences" if North Korea did anything menacing such as aiding terrorists (not like it hasn't already when one considers Iran, but it wouldn't be politic to mention it) and that "the leader of North Korea [needs to] understand that he'll be held to account."

Talk like that, to my ears, translates simply as: make one more move and you're toast, dude.

Anyone who's watched Syriana and/or taken time to understand the capabilities of U.S. drone aircraft and precision-guided missiles doesn't need much imagination to envision a very narrow surgical strike on Mr. Kim himself (or his entire motorcade if necessary--as Claudia Rossett notes, "one of the few dependable heat sources in the country"). Let the Chinese and South Koreans clean up the resulting mess. It's not like they haven't had fifty years to plan for it. I'm not all that concerned if China nets a few more coal mines, denuded mud-farms and starving peasants out of the deal.

In all this, I'm reminded of the kind of occasional confrontation that occurs when my recently neutered (male) dog runs across an un-neutered (male) dog on one of our walks. There is a staring contest. There is growling and prancing. One of them makes clear that he would overwhelm the other in a fight. And then one of them rolls over on his back and wags his tail--just as Kim Jong-il did yesterday with the Chinese, from whom he has far more to fear than from us in the greater scheme of things.

19 October, 2006

Inside North Korea

Fascinating, fact-filled feature on North Korea in Der Spiegel: "Absurdistan With the Bomb".

One of the last experts to have seen Yongbyon in operation described to SPIEGEL what the situation was like at the end of 2002: "It's a massive site, with lots of very competent scientists -- on the one hand. But then there was a strange contradiction: We asked to see two buildings which we had not been allowed to inspect. After a great deal of hesitation the doors were opened. The scientists were using one hall to secretly distill vodka. In the other they were producing cooking spoons out of aluminum. At the time, these things weren't available in North Korea. On the black market the goods could be sold, and provided an extra source of income for the scientists." North Korea must be the only nuclear power in the world which is so poor that its top scientists are forced to spend their free time making kitchen utensils.

Simplistic Progressives

I don't ordinarily spend much time reading book reviews, but Harvard Psych Professor Steven Pinker ("The Blank Slate") has written a sharp-tongued, far-reaching doozy well worth reading in his a take-down of George Lakoff's new book, "Whose Freedom...". It's a rare and funny view into how a few intellectually honest Democrats (e.g., Pinker) try to tell their ranting far-left wacko cohorts to please, please shut up lest conservatives be proved right. I was chuckling all the way through. It's also full of succinctly brilliant characterizations of issues in modern political philosophy, neuroscience (Pinker's main field) and linguistics (Noam Chomsky's primary domain when he's not hob-nobbing with Hamas.) I.e., even if you don't care about the book, you'll learn something reading Pinker's review. Some sound bytes:

Lakoff's cartoonish depiction of progressives as saintly sophisticates and conservatives as evil morons fails on both intellectual and tactical grounds... Lakoff tells progressives not to engage conservatives on their own terms, not to present facts or appeal to the truth and not to pay attention to polls. Instead they should try to pound new frames and metaphors into voters' brains. Don't worry that this is just spin or propaganda, he writes: it is part of the "higher rationality" that cognitive science is substituting for the old-fashioned kind based on universal disembodied reason. But Lakoff's advice doesn't pass the giggle test. One can imagine the howls of ridicule if a politician took Lakoff's Orwellian advice to rebrand taxes as "membership fees."

...In defending his voters-are-idiots theory, Lakoff has written that people do not realize that they are really better off with higher taxes, because any savings from a federal tax cut would be offset by increases in local taxes and private services. But if that is a fact, it would have to be demonstrated to a bureaucracy-jaded populace the old-fashioned way, as an argument backed with numbers. And that is the kind of wonkish analysis that Lakoff dismisses.

...[the] put-up job is typical of Lakoff's book. While he ostensibly offers a scholarly analysis of political thought, Lakoff cannot stop himself from drawing horns on the conservative portrait and a halo on the progressive one. Nowhere is this more egregious than in his claim that conservatives think in terms of direct rather than systemic causation. Lakoff seems unaware that conservatives have been making exactly this accusation against progressives for centuries.

..."You give me a progressive issue," Lakoff boasts, "and I'll tell you how it comes down to a matter of freedom" -- oblivious to the fact that he has just gutted the concept of freedom of all content. Actually, the damage is worse than that, because many of Lakoff's "freedoms" are demands that society conform to his personal vision of the good (right down to the ingredients of food), and thus are barely distinguishable from totalitarianism. How would he implement "pay in proportion to contributions to society through work"? Will a commissar decide that an opera singer deserves higher pay than a country singer, or that a seller of pork rinds should earn less than a seller of tiramisu? And his freedom not to be harmed by "hurtful language" is merely another name for the unlimited censorship of political speech. No doubt slaveholders found the speech of abolitionists to be "hurtful."

Probably not since The Greening of America has there been a manifesto with as much faith that the country's problems can be solved by the purity of the moral vision of the 1960s. Whose Freedom? shows no trace of the empirical lessons of the past three decades, such as the economic and humanitarian disaster of massively planned economies, or the impending failure of social insurance programs that ignore demographic arithmetic. Lakoff is contemptuous of the idea that social policy requires thinking in terms of trade-offs. [emphasis added]
It's a piece that winds up slowly. Pinker is at his eviscerating, laser-minded best in the final paragraphs. It's almost enough to restore my faith in academia... until the penultimate paragraph in which Pinker feels obligated to insert a few lines that will avoid getting him shunned by his colleagues:
There is no shortage of things to criticize in the current administration. Corrupt, mendacious, incompetent, autocratic, reckless, hostile to science, and pathologically shortsighted, the Bush government has disenchanted even many conservatives.
Well yes, but typically for not being conservative enough.

18 October, 2006

Death by Cop, Part II

In August I noted, with reference to Iran, that:

The goal of the Iranian mullahs... is to be attacked - but not decisively... Draw your enemy to make the first move in order to reap a much larger gain in sympathy, patriotic fervor and erosion of that enemy's resolve... If they manage to build [nukes] without being opposed, so much the better, but the physical fact of obtaining them is not as essential as the political bounce they get from trying and being martyred en masse for it.
Is this not also the strategy of Kim Jong-il as he announces plans for three more nuke tests? Goad and if necessary force the U.S. into doing something that the UN, the liberal establishment and the MSM will roundly condemn.
You say you're going to make three pokey little sub-kiloton nuke tests in caves sometime this week, Mr. Kim? Well, we're happy for you. That's very nice. How smart and bold you are. Welcome to the club. But while we have the mike, we'd like to announce that we're conducting just one: 100 megatons, half a mile above your motorcade... in about five minutes.
[Dark fantasy mode off.]

The outlook of Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Kim is narcissistic, megalomaniacal and suicidal all at the same time. Those are qualities that don't naturally apply to nations or groups. (Psych doc bloggers: please correct me if I'm wrong here!) Yet individuals with those qualities can and have taken great nations of otherwise ordinary human beings down with them. It's a psychosis sadly similar to sick stories like this (warning: graphic). That one only claimed two victims. Mr. Kim and Mr. Ahmadinejad could easily claim two billion by the time all is said and done.

Sloppy Surveys... With Massive Implications

One of the many consistent threads in my multi-faceted career has been survey research. I even teach a course on it from time to time (in a corporate setting). In doing that work, I've been surprised (even frightened) at how little appreciation there is out there in the general population for the most basic tenets of the discipline. I'm not talking about graduate level statistical concepts but fundamental, foundational ideas that anyone doing any kind of survey ought to know. E.g., sources of bias and how to recognize it, parameters of uncertainty, the desirability of grounding in known data, methodology design, etc.

With that public knowledge vacuum, unfortunately, comes great vulnerability to survey research in the headlines that may be deliberately biased, incredibly sloppy or both. The imprimatur of an otherwise renown institution doesn't necessarily lend the credibility that it should.

And so it is at least mildly reassuring to see a highly qualified someone taking Johns Hopkins very specifically to task for its baseless reporting of 655,000 Iraqi war dead.

...there have been far too many deaths in Iraq by anyone's measure; some of them have been friends of mine. But the Johns Hopkins tally is wildly at odds with any numbers I have seen in that country. Survey results frequently have a margin of error of plus or minus 3% or 5%--not 1200%...

[Study author] Dr. Roberts defended his 47 cluster points, saying that this was standard. I'm not sure whose standards these are.

Appendix A of the Johns Hopkins survey, for example, cites several other studies of mortality in war zones, and uses the citations to validate the group's use of cluster sampling. One study is by the International Rescue Committee in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which used 750 cluster points. Harvard's School of Public Health, in a 1992 survey of Iraq, used 271 cluster points. Another study in Kosovo cites the use of 50 cluster points, but this was for a population of just 1.6 million, compared to Iraq's 27 million.

When I pointed out these numbers to Dr. Roberts, he said that the appendices were written by a student and should be ignored. Which led me to wonder what other sections of the survey should be ignored.

With so few cluster points, it is highly unlikely the Johns Hopkins survey is representative of the population in Iraq. However, there is a definitive method of establishing if it is. Recording the gender, age, education and other demographic characteristics of the respondents allows a researcher to compare his survey results to a known demographic instrument, such as a census.

Dr. Roberts said that his team's surveyors did not ask demographic questions... This would be the first survey I have looked at in my 15 years of looking that did not ask demographic questions of its respondents.
If you read nothing else today, read this. It's implications for the election, for U.S. foreign policy, for our international credibility and for our long-term strategy in the region and the world are absolutely massive.

UPDATE (Thursday): The WSJ ($subscriber$ only) today notes that common-sensical questions were never asked about the figures echoing around the MSM:
The 655,000 figure is... larger than the number of Germans killed by allied bombing during all of World War II and larger than the number of Americans who died during our own Civil War... we find it hard to believe killing on the scale of Antietam or Gettysburg has been going on without anybody having noticed until the statistical wizards from Johns Hopkins showed up.

Iraq Body Count--a nonpartisan outfit that keeps track of Iraqi mortality figures--has also issued a devastating critique of the Lancet/Johns Hopkins survey. It points out that the study implies that a thousand Iraqis died violently every day in the first half of 2006, with fewer than a tenth of them being noticed by "public surveillance mechanisms" and the press, as well as "incompetence and/or fraud on a truly massive scale by Iraqi officials in hospitals and ministries."

...the agenda of the majority of those trumpeting the Lancet findings... [is] to discredit the war as a moral enterprise by suggesting there's no difference between Saddam Hussein's now well documented mass murders and the violence taking place today.
Pick an agenda, select soundbytes to support it, engineer the 'facts' to support the soundbytes and trumpet the engineered 'facts' so loudly as to stifle rational debate or criticism. Isn't that what those same critics of the administration accuse it of doing? Hypocrisy knows no bounds.

UPDATE (Friday): Claudia Rossett has spotted yet another flaw in the Lancet/Johns Hopkins report. It doesn't provide a basis for comparison, e.g., mortality in Iraq before U.S. occupation. This from a renown medical journal...

Whither the Mid-Term Elections?

This post will be a rare dive into electoral politics (as distinct from political philosophy). For the record, I am not affiliated with, and don't make contributions to either party. That may change at some point in the future. If I had to do so, I'd most definitely side with Republicans, but there's plenty I'd change about them if I could--little or none of it in a more liberal direction. Affiliation seems rather pointless in Massachusetts (and particularly my zip code--home to Barney Frank), where being a Republican is somewhat like choosing to wear a hair shirt with a sign on the back that says "kick me".

I draw your attention to a new Tradesports console at left (original here), added to the one for airstrike on Iran by the end of March which, not surprisingly, is trending down. (Frankly, I'm not sure why it hasn't tanked completely.)

The new graph shows real-money bets on whether Republicans will retain control of the House in November. (A similar market focused on the Senate is running somewhat more strongly for retention as this one is running against it: 68% likely vs. 37% likely as of this writing.)

Prediction markets are something I've studied over the past several years for professional reasons. They provide a fascinating and often prescient source of insight that's both faster and (usually) more accurate than polls. Data I'd collected in the four days prior to the 2004 election, for example, perfectly predicted every single state's vote on election morning, with a very high correlation (R-squared = 0.77) for the magnitude of the spread in each one. If only CNN would take my call and pay me what they pay Msrs. Harris and Gallup. Sigh...

That said, prediction markets tend--just like any market--to jump around based on the news. Particularly notable is that immediately after Labor Day, perceived Republican prospects for House control climbed sharply--from 40% to nearly 60%--before getting slammed by the Mark Foley double-standard set-up, err, I mean scandal. That makes the timing of the news even more suspect in my view. I.e., why would Dems bother breaking it when they were ahead?

In that context of wild swings of 20+ points, and with the bulk of public attention and campaign spending still to come, it's much easier to understand and credit what the MSM is portraying as hallucinatory optimism on the part of Karl Rove (cue obligatory Darth Vader music.)

Why is it that nobody in the MSM portrays Howard Dean or pollsters in a similar light when they boldly predict Dem victory based on far less of a track record, virtually no strategy and no cash reserve to back it up?

I'm not betting either way--a habit I apply to everything. But if I were, I wouldn't bet against a proven political strategist (Rove), nor would I lay down money betting for a party that can't raise enough money to avoid going into hock to try to regain power.

16 October, 2006

It's All About Oil

I've lost track of the number of times I've heard repeated the easy canard that U.S. involvement in Iraq can be attributed to some darkly nefarious Texas corporate imperialist money-grubbing cabal and its demonic lust for oil and money at all costs and above all else. Watching the last half of Syriana yesterday afternoon didn't help matters any. The directors made that "argument" as clear in pretty pictures as the MSM does in words, which is to say, very effectively if one enjoys being led by the nose into a counter-factual fantasy world.

No amount of cool reasoning about America's larger interests and unique responsibilities in the world, about the principles of democracy, freedom, religious tolerance and women's rights, about the speaker's own personal energy consumption habits, about the horrors of Saddam or the bipartisan consensus that he was intent on re-building WMD capability or about the actual motives and financial interests of France, Russia and others in Iraq or the lack thereof on the part of President Bush and others in government can break through such a front.

In my very blue corner of the country, one seldom even gets the opportunity to begin the process of cool reasoning before being stopped by the social convention that says it's impolite to ruin a dinner party or other friendly occasion by implicitly calling the rest of one's fellow guests liars and fools. That I am being implicitly called a liar and fool with the "oil" argument is no excuse for giving it back and making a scene.

And so it is with those eyes that I note this short editorial in today's WSJ ($ubcriber$ only) and ask those fond of the "oil-drives-global-politics" line to tell me why--if oil is compelling in the case of Mr. Bush and Iraq--that the same logic should not be applied elsewhere.

To understand why so many Americans dislike the U.N., consider that Venezuela, of all countries, stands a chance today of being elected by a vote of the General Assembly to one of the 10 non-permanent seats on the 15-member Security Council.

This is the same country whose megalomaniac ruler, Hugo Chávez, ranted against the U.S. last month to the laughter and applause of the assembled General Assembly grandees at Turtle Bay. His international initiatives this year have included warmer ties with North Korea and Iran, buying weapons from Russia and sowing revolution throughout Latin America.

Venezuela's competition for the Latin American two-year seat that opens next year is Guatemala, a democracy that has never had a seat on the Security Council and is active in peacekeeping in Haiti and Africa. Guatemala signaled its intention to seek this seat in 2002, only to watch as Mr. Chávez jumped in the race in 2005 to get a larger megaphone for his radical views. The Caracas strongman has since played his oil card around the world to buy support, and he has the backing of the world's club of dictators. [emphasis added]
The ballot is secret. The WSJ concludes:
If Mr. Chávez wins, we'll know that most U.N. members prefer anti-American posturing to a credible Security Council.
And even if he doesn't win the seat, his getting this close makes me feel dirty for having this corrupt institution still hosted on our shores. Were Eleanor Roosevelt alive to see the kind of a monster the institution helped shape has since become, I suspect she'd prefer the grave.

13 October, 2006

Friday Roundup

Not to eclipse my timeless post of earlier this morning, here's what I've been thinking about:

A study released by Dutch scientists on Wednesday demonstrates that many mammals (that would include us) are wiped out every couple of million years by intense global cooling resulting from 'wobbles' in the earth's orbit around the sun.

"Changes in seasonality associated with the astronomical variations - harsh winters, dry summers - are really a matter of life and death to mammals," said Jan van Dam from Utrecht University in the Netherlands as reported by New Scientist. Reuters notes that: "...the planet's climate system has changed so much in the past 3 million years that it is difficult to predict what will happen in the future." [emphasis added]

I discovered the story in a short blurb buried on page nine of the Providence Journal. Now I'm not a professional journalist or anything, but I was under the impression that stories that a) ran completely counter to conventional wisdom and b) raised serious questions about the extinction of the entire human race might warrant more prominent coverage. Silly me.

In a related vein, two feet of snow in Buffalo in October has nothing to do with global warming according to the MSM (other than as evidence of squirrelly climate change), whereas record heat last August just a few hundred miles downstate does. Seems to me that several trillion dollars would buy a lot of air conditioners and a lot of snow shovels--just to hedge our bets.


Adam Gadahn (the Al Qaeda video star who now goes by some bizarre adopted name I won't even attempt to spell) has been indicted for treason. There's not much to say here beyond the "about time" position taken by the New York Sun in this informative piece:

Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States. —18 U.S.C. 2381
The move is a long overdue warning for any frivolous American youths who are tempted to join the war against their country. Treason is not child's play. It's a deadly serious matter for the country, the traitor's fellow citizens, and, now, for the traitor himself.

The definition of treason has changed over the centuries, but it has always been intended to include that species of crime that destabilizes not just a family or a neighborhood or even a city but the entire country.
Citizenship is not the same as mere residency. It carries serious responsibilities. Should anyone not care to uphold those responsibilities (especially in light of the copious rewards that go with them), s/he has plenty of other choices. New Zealand may be hard to get into, but last I checked, Saudi is eager for 'guests' to do their scut work. Just don't plan to practice your non-muslim religion there, or if female, go out jogging, or drive a car, or drink, or say what's on your mind. 'nuf on that.


A fourth Catholic diocese (in Davenport, Iowa) has filed for bankruptcy in relation to liability for priest sex abuse case settlements. As a non-Catholic (I just hang out with them a lot), I won't go much further than noting: 1) what a sad mess, in every possible dimension, 2) the idea that Vatican II had more to do with causing than solving the problem seems the more credible broad theory from this vantage point, and 3) God always has bigger plans for bringing healing, cleansing and strength from amidst apparent tragedy and chaos. Always.

One other little factoid that's surprised virtually everyone I've told it to is that the MSM image of a faith in disarray is not supported by the facts. Catholicism is the only major religious category in the United States other than LDS (Mormonism) to have grown faster than the rate of population growth according to the latest U.S. Census data (comparing 1990 to 2000).

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the other major Christian categories: Evangelical Protestant and Mainline Protestant each shrank in absolute numbers of adherents over the period(!) Judaism grew very slightly. Orthodox Christianity's numbers are too small for any meaningful conclusions. Interestingly, Islam was not systematically covered in U.S. Census data in 1990 and thus there are no growth figures available for comparison. What is clear is that whatever Islam's growth in the U.S., it is off of a much much smaller base (~1.5 million compared to Catholicism's ~62 million and Protestantism's combined ~66 million).

Signs Given, Not Asked For

In a funny early scene in the film Bruce Almighty (2003), the main character (Bruce, played by Jim Carrey) is driving at night, challenging God to make His presence known:

Bruce: Okay, prayer beads, 'God, please give me a sign.'
[Truck filled with 'Danger' signs passes him, just before he drives off the end of a pier. Bruce wakes up in the hospital, holding the beads]
Bruce: Okay, now you're just showing off.
The humor 'works' simply as slapstick however its real potentency lies in its familiarity. Whether we credit the source or not, most of us have had such moments of profound syncrhonicity: more timely than the best Hollywood choreography, more intimate than the carefully chosen words of a loving spouse, parent or friend. And while those of us raised in Western traditions are often less comfortable with the idea than is the typical Buddhist or Confucian, such moments can be just as light-hearted and humorous as Jim Carrey's encounter.

My most recent encounter went light on the humor and heavy on timeliness and intimacy. I'll set the scene...

Two weeks ago, through an incredibly serendipitous set of circumstances, I'd been invited to make a sales call for my consulting practice to a highly qualified, well-placed individual at a major university about an hour's drive from my house. The lead had come completely out of the blue. I'd done nothing whatsoever to cultivate it (or anything in the higher education sector, for that matter) other than to pray for more work in my chosen field.

The other thing that was remarkable about it was that, coming into a difficult season of remembrance, the lead was with my late brother's alma mater--a school he'd dearly loved and with which he'd stayed active as an alumn. (In a conventional, earthly sense, the sales lead had no connection to my brother whatsoever.)

So yesterday--the anniversary of my brother's last glimmer of consciousness before he passed on the 14th--I found myself driving into the city where this university is located, my thoughts dominated by memories of his happy times there as a student, juxtaposed with more difficult ones of our deathbed vigil for him this time last year. It was my first time back to the campus since my brother had been there in the late '80s.

About a mile from the main campus, I stopped at a red light--one of the only red lights I'd hit all morning. Looking up, I noticed a prominent church sign--the only one I was to see on the trip. It read (caps in original):
Need I say more?

12 October, 2006

Melanie Phillips: 21st-Century Orwell?

My cousin--an occasional Kmaru reader--asked the other day how I find the time to read so many books. Answer: I don't. I read slowly. I have very little time. I just try to read quality... to read selectively... to not waste time if I can avoid it. And with world events at what seem like increasingly critical junctures these days, I'm drawn to books that can help me to understand them. Thus the sidebar up and to the left. All are excellent. All are context-setting and highly informative--worth at least a quick scan on a borrow from the library.

One that's truly outstanding and absolutely worth owning is Melanie Phillips' "Londonistan". The title is poorly chosen. (The problems she writes about extend beyond Islamic terror, and the implications of allowing them to fester further are at least as relevant for the U.S., Europe, Israel and other Western democracies.) That's about the only thing I'd object to.

Ms. Phillips is a brilliantly insightful iconoclastic British journalist who--I was delighted to discover last night as I finished the book--has an active blog that I plan to add to my daily routine. Some recent samples:

...global terror is not driven – as so many in our security and political establishment persistently claim – by discrete ‘grievances’ arising from conflicts around the world. It is driven by religious fanaticism, which very often is the cause of those conflicts and which uses them in turn as a strategic opportunity to pursue the deeper aim.

The refusal by the Muslim Council of Britain to attend the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration ceremony shocked ministers rigid and opened their eyes to the MCB’s extremism... [as did] the debacle over the farcical committees set up after 7/7 to advise the Prime Minister on how to tackle Islamic extremism — which the Home Office promptly stuffed with Islamic extremists — help[ing] them realise the blindingly obvious fact that Muslim so-called representative institutions were virtually all radicalised.

This is a seismic reversal, in a Church that for decades has been on its inter-faith knees before multiculturalism and abandoned the defence of Britain’s Christian identity. Can it be that Christianity is at last starting to defend western civilisation? Britain will only be saved from disaster if Christianity reasserts itself and defends what it was so instrumental in creating... The British government itself, which is supposed to be fighting to defend the west, has not even seen fit to include the founding religion of the country on an official commission to promote community cohesion and integration. Astounding.
Her work invites comparisons to Orwell if only for the prescience of 'Londonistan'. Natan Sharansky calls it "...a last-minute warning for Britain and for much of the free world."
In the 1930s, Britain was the leading appeaser of the world’s most intransigent foe, refusing to see the gathering signs of danger until it was almost too late. Today, the same tendency to appeasement and self-delusion is evident again—only now, the threat is within. Britain refuses to recognize the clear and present danger of Islamism inside its own borders, which steadily corrodes its social values and moral compass. Once again, only the good sense of the British can save their country—and the same may be true in many other democracies. This book is powerful and frightening, but also courageous. In dictatorships, you need courage to fight evil; in the free world, you need courage to see the evil. [emphasis added]
While Phillips uses Britain in general and London in particular as the jumping off place for her discussion of Islamist (as distinct from merely Islamic) encroachment--a point she makes carefully but unwaveringly--her conclusions about how this could affect the U.S. are profound.

She makes the compelling case that Britain is the canary in the proverbial coal mine and that it's much closer to expiring on the floor of the cage than most of us could possibly imagine. More disturbing than any nefarious terror plot, in her view, is the overly deferential retreat of British society and government. Phillips builds the case that they've lost their ability to make moral distinctions, to understand their history, heritage, culture and religion, to appreciate why Britain has enjoyed such longevity as a nation, why it is special, and therefore why any of it is worth defending. (The very concept of 'defense' in fact, has become anathema to a society bathed in notions of cultural relativism and moral equivalence.) Despite many 'Britishisms' (phrases, public figures, headline events and political anecdotes), I found little of what she says about Britain to be truly foreign in a U.S. context.

Phillips has done her research, with extensive interviews footnoted throughout. She's done a great job also in documenting developments I'd been completely clueless about, including the Church of England's nearly complete dilution into the surrounding secular humanist culture (far more than has been the case with all but the most liberal denominations in the U.S.) and its resulting inability to do anything but capitulate in the face Islamist demands.

Phillips has a real gift--even by blog standards--of taking seemingly innocuous statements by public figures and doing what one friend calls an "intellectual power drill press" through to the flawed reasoning and danger-filled assumptions underneath. As a regular reader of blogs on the subject I would have imagined her documentation of rising anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing would have been old news. It is not. Instead, her examples, historical perspective and conclusions about the future are sobering, informative and deeply frightening.

11 October, 2006

When Down is Up and Up is Down

Putting on my Atlas Shrugged hat for a moment, it seems that Mr. Kim Jong-il perversely regards not doing something (i.e., trading with it) as an act of war... as if it had a natural right to the attention of the outside world and continued interaction with it without qualification.

North Korea, in its first formal statement since Monday's claimed atomic bomb test, hailed the blast as a success and said attempts by the outside world to penalize North Korea with sanctions would be considered an act of war.

Further pressure will be countered with physical retaliation, the North's Foreign Ministry warned in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

"If the U.S. keeps pestering us and increases pressure, we will regard it as a declaration of war and will take a series of physical corresponding measures," the statement, said without specifying what those measures could be.
In a related vein, the Wall Street Journal's editors write this morning (free at OJ) that:
As best as we can tell, the critique of the Bush Administration boils down to three points. First, as former Sen. Sam Nunn told the New York Times, "we started at the wrong end of the 'axis of evil,'"... Next, say the critics, the Bush Administration has wrongly tried to engage North Korea diplomatically through the "six party" framework, when only the bilateral talks demanded by Kim Jong-Il will do... Finally, the President is said to have actually provoked North Korea into building a bomb by naming it to the axis of evil.

But since when does the Democratic Party... advocate U.S. unilateralism when unending multilateral approaches are available? And how does Mr. Nunn's suggestion that President Bush should have dealt with North Korea first among the axis of evil square with the idea that it was terribly bad form to describe such an "axis" in the first place?

In fact, the more closely one examines these claims the more disingenuous they become...

As for the idea that direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang might open the way toward a settlement, this flatly ignores North Korea's cheating on the last such settlement, the so-called "Yongbyong Agreed Framework" of 1994. American diplomats have never lacked for opportunities to talk to the North Koreans, formally or privately. What they lack are interlocutors who can be trusted to honor their commitments or cajoled into abandoning their weapons.
And whilst the DPRK has dominated the headlines, let us not forget that the Islamists haven't slowed even a fraction in their drive to wipe Israel off the map, co-opt Europe and bring the heretical Great Satan to its allah-confessing knees. Yep, it's all Bush's fault. If he just hadn't provoked them by calling them names, they'd all be wonderful, enlightened partners in world government and world peace by now.

I am nearly done reading Melanie Phillips' truly excellent and highly recommended book, 'Londonistan' in which she chronicles a late-stage social phenomenon of moral inversion not unique to that city or to the Islamist threat.

In essence, she points out, the Marxist impulse that began infecting Western Civilization nearly a century ago has made moral judgments of good and evil not only foreign to the average voter, public official or policy maker but has in a real and frightening sense turned them on their head. When an ostensibly successful and influential individual like Ted Turner can't decide whose side he's on, we have reached a point analogous to the climate of the 1930's in which a man of similar if not greater stature--Charles Lindbergh--thought it virtuous to side with the Nazis.