Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Booklist

My reading this year was broadened by my participation in a book club that consists of a group of eight men whose ages range from late twenties to early sixties. Such a group is bound to represent a diversity of reading interests and tastes, and so I found myself reading works I probably never would have picked up on my own (and some I probably wouldn't pick up again).

At any rate, here's a list of books that I managed to complete in 2009. I list them without giving an evaluation because I don't like to give a blanket recommendation of books. Even more than movies, a book requires a considerable investment in time and effort, and more than with films, I think, the reader usually has to have an interest in the topic to find a book worthwhile. This is especially so if the book is non-fiction, as are many of the entries on this list.

So here without comment is my reading list for 2009:

  • In Hovering Flight - Joyce Hinnefeld
  • Faith and Culture Devotional - Kullberg and Arrington, eds.
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns - Kaled Hosseini
  • Quantum Enigma - Rosenbloom and Kuttner
  • The Showdown - Ted Dekker
  • Celebrate Liberty - Dan Burton
  • Ten Big Lies about America - Michael Medved
  • Divine Hiddenness - Howard-Snyder and Moser, eds.
  • 1984 (reread) - George Orwell
  • Reasonable Faith - Wm. Lane Craig
  • Questioning Evangelism - Randy Newman
  • Rules for Radicals - Saul Alinsky
  • Unchristian - Kinnaman and Lyons
  • Signature in the Cell - Stephen Meyer
  • Galileo Goes to Jail - Ronald Numbers, ed
  • God, Reason, and Theistic Proofs - Stephen Davis
  • Faust (Pt. I) - Goethe
  • Seeking God in Science - Brad Monton
  • Indefensible - David Feige
  • Creation Regained - Al Wolters
  • Atheist Delusions - David B. Hart
  • Agents Under Fire (reread) - Angus Menuge
  • End of Secularism - Hunter Baker
  • The Hole in Our Gospel - Richard Stearns
  • C.S. Lewis' Dangerous Idea (reread) - Victor Reppert
  • Dead Aid - Dambisa Moyo
  • How We Decide - Jonah Lerner
  • Letter Concerning Toleration - John Locke
  • Bondage of the Will - Martin Luther

If you watched a movie or read a book that you found particularly good this past year write and tell us about it.


Second-Hand Hate

It's sometimes hard to avoid thinking that liberals are masters of Freudian projection. They peer into their own minds and project whatever unseemliness they find there onto their political opponents. That's essentially the message of a pair of essays, one by Noemie Emery and the other by Robin of Berkeley.

Emery's is the better of the two, but Robin's is interesting because it's based on her personal experience as a leftist atheist turned conservative believer. Emery's essay includes example after example of how liberals in the media simply assume that any opposition to Obama is ipso facto rooted in a profound racism. She writes:

For years now, those on the left have conflated resistance to any item of their agenda--high taxes, extravagant spending, laxity on crime, what have you--with motives of a dark nature: racism, nativism, fear of "the other," and various species of "hate." Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, a reaction to overregulation, stagflation, and the foreign policy failures and weakness of one James Earl Carter, was described as the bigots' revenge for the civil rights era. The midterm elections of 1994, a reaction against Hillarycare and the Clintons' malfeasance, were seen as a Confederate renaissance. After Bill Clinton was impeached for lies under oath (and terminal tackiness), his allies floated the theory that some of the votes against him came from Southern conservatives, because he was friendly to blacks. (As the "first black president"--vide Toni Morrison--Clinton was fond of this sort of rhetorical legerdemain until 2008, when his wife ran against a real black for president, and these tactics were turned against him.)

But it was the appearance in 2009 of the real first black president that lifted this theme to a whole new level: The left, which invented first "hate speech" (opinions they didn't like) and then "hate crimes" (crimes judged less on the criminal's actions than on what he was presumed to be thinking), has now gone on to its epiphany, which is "hate" defined not by your words or deeds but by what other people have decided you really think. "Hate" is no longer what you do or say, but what a liberal says that you think and projects on to you. You are punished for what someone else claims you were thinking. It hardly makes sense, but it does serve a political purpose. You could call it Secondhand Hate.

Case number one was New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who was listening to Barack Obama's September 9 health care speech before Congress, when Congressman Joe Wilson burst out "You lie!" at the president. Everyone, starting with the congressman himself, agreed this was a breach of manners. But Dowd heard something more--a voice shouting, "You lie, boy!" This voice, of course, was in Dowd's head, not Wilson's, but she managed to convince a number of people that it had popped from his brain into hers. -MSNBC's Chris Matthews was one of those who seemed to believe this had happened: "She sort of heard the word, almost sub-audibly, that word we don't like."

Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic also believed this, and added his own voice, which was very long-winded: "This voice tells me [Obama's opponents are] motivated by tremendous anxiety about the direction of history, and how it seems to be moving away from them--white, traditional, bounded--and toward something else--global, multicolored, unbounded, experimental. This is the Silent Majority, the neo-Bircherite majority, the reactionary id that resents affirmative action, ethnic integration, and gays."

At Salon, Joan Walsh said, "Wilson's shriek [it was more like a mutter] served as an exclamation point on an undeniable trend: Obama steadily lost support among white voters during this long, hot summer of hate."

There are many more examples of this sort of liberal mind reading at the link.

Robin talks about her personal search for God after she had left the Left and her desire to find a synagogue/church where she could worship on Christmas:

I have been looking for God my whole life. I first recognized Him in the black foster parents I worked with who manifested Christ-consciousness.

I then found him four years ago, when my parents died three weeks apart and I was carried by a force stronger than myself. And more recently, as I've gone from left to right, I have discovered him in the many conservatives guiding me, such as AT (American Thinker) readers.

Given my spiritual longing, I decided it was time to explore places of worship. Being a secular Jew, my first step should have been a temple. However, the synagogues around here are practically recruitment stations for Obama (aside from the Orthodox ones, but I don't speak a word of Hebrew). So I decided to experience church on Christmas Eve.

Checking out churches online, I found almost none that offered political neutrality. Most heralded their progressive credentials, welcoming the transgendered, but not conservatives.

I was pleased to find an Episcopal church whose website focused on religion, not ObamaCare. I left a message for the priest that I was looking for a church that didn't press a political agenda because I wasn't a liberal.

I received an icy reply from the priest, the Reverend Lucy, who said with barely-contained disgust, "I don't think you should check us out."

Her response left me shaken and angry. I understand that leftists despise conservatives. I have seen that creepy look of pure hatred when I na�vely told a leftist friend about my political conversion.

But an Episcopal priest rejecting me during the holiest time of year? Isn't anything or anyone sacred?

In shunning me, the Reverend Lucy exposed not only her own hypocrisy, but the duplicity of the left itself. She unveiled the left's dirty little secret -- that their doctrines are as bogus as global warming.

I used to believe it all. But when I removed one piece -- that the left protects women -- the whole house of cards came tumbling down.

Some may think the rest of Robin's piece a bit overstated, and perhaps it is, but she touches on a fascinating irony. Churches which preach tolerance of all God's children are often very intolerant of conservative (either political or theological) opinion. Among "progressives" who make a fetish of tolerance it often turns out that it's only for those who already agree with them.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Films (2009)

I didn't have much time in 2009 to watch movies, but I did get to squeeze in a few. Some of them were excellent, some were good, some were okay, and some were awful. Here's a list with an asterisk denoting my opinion of them. No asterisk means I don't recommend it:

Minority Report**, Dark Knight*** (again), War Dance**, Wall-E***, Traitor**, Secondhand Lions*, Lions for Lambs*, Arranged***, The Counterfeiters***, American Carol, Doubt***, Tell No One**, Quantum of Solace*, Slumdog Millionaire***, Sense and Sensibility***, Unbreakable*, Signs*, Taken***, Gran Torino***, Ray***, John Q. Public**, Equilibrium**, Namesake**, Boondock Saints, State of Play**


Giving Jobs Away

Pat Buchanan wonders why, if we're really serious about improving job prospects for the unemployed, we allow immigrants to continue flowing into the country at a rate of 125,000 a month:

In the last year, 1.5 million new immigrants have come to take up residence and been issued work permits. Probably twice as many jobs have been taken by these folks as the 650,000 the Obamaites claim were saved or created by their $787 billion stimulus package. How do Democrats justify this?

How can they justify bringing in another 1.5 million immigrants in 2010 and another 1.5 million in 2011, when 25 million Americans that they're supposed to represent are unemployed or underemployed?

As for illegal aliens, it is estimated that 8 million still hold jobs in the United States. Endlessly we are told that these hardworking folks are just doing jobs that Americans refuse to do.

But Middle American News has taken a look at the Census Bureau data. In almost all the occupations to which unskilled and semi-skilled illegal aliens gravitate, native-born Americans hold most of the jobs.

U.S. citizens account for well over half of all housekeepers, maids, taxi drivers and chauffeurs in the U.S., almost two-thirds of all the butchers, meat processors and ground maintenance and construction workers, and three-fourths of all porters, bellhops and janitors.

We are told that many if not most of these are "dead-end jobs" Americans do not want or will not take. Yet, how can that be true when American citizens are already doing most of these jobs?

USA Today found that, invariably, when U.S. authorities raid a plant site where hundreds of illegals are working, and send them packing, hundreds of Americans show up and apply for the jobs. Is this not as it should be, if we are looking out for our own people first? And isn't that what a family does, or should do?

Why, then, is the Obama administration cutting back on jobsite raids and inspections? Why is the administration talking of moving in 2010 to legalize the status of the 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the United States?

Two weeks ago, The Washington Post, focusing on unemployment among young African-American males, wrote, "Joblessness for 16- to 24-year-old black men has reached Great Depression proportions - 34.5 percent in October, more than three times the rate for the general U.S. population."

More than one-third of all young black males are unemployed.

Nor is it only working-class Americans who are being shouldered aside by the annual flood tide of immigrants.

As Jerry Woodruff, editor of Middle American News, writes: "Immigrants are taking good, high-paying jobs from highly skilled Americans. The Census Bureau found that 34 percent of all software engineers ... are immigrants. Yet, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers reports that 48,000 U.S. software engineers are unemployed."

Buchanan's metaphor of a family taking care of its own is apt. By continuing to allow immigration, especially illegal immigration, into this country during a time of high joblessness we are like a parent who takes food and medicine from his own child to give it to others. That is arguably compassionate if one's own children have enough, but it's perverse in an economy in which so many of one's own children are facing destitution.

Buchanan suggests renewed legal pressure on those who employ illegal aliens and an immediate moratorium on all immigration until unemployment drops to under 6%. Until the Obama administration takes steps like these, Buchanan avers, they can not persuasively argue that they're really concerned about Americans out of work.

It's a good column.


Best Science Videos of 2009

New Scientist has a reprise of the best science videos of 2009. They include video of robotic insects and penguins, plasma ejections from the sun and a simulation of what it would be like to fall into a black hole. Pretty cool:


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cause and Effect

Rasmussen shows that President Obama's approval numbers are almost as bad today as they were good eleven months ago:

Perhaps the following chart at least partially accounts for the disparity:

We were told that the stimulus was necessary to keep joblessness at around 8%, but as the red line shows joblessness is much higher than it was projected to be had there been no stimulus at all. In other words, part of the President's problem is that his policies are exactly the opposite of what are needed to create lasting jobs.

By confronting businesses with looming tax hikes, environmental regulations, and higher employee insurance costs, the President has guaranteed that employers will choose not to risk taking on workers that they'll not be able to afford.

What can the policy makers and shapers in the White House possibly be thinking?


Intoxicating Rhetoric

All I can say is that it's a good thing for Senator Baucus that they don't administer breathalyzer tests to U.S. senators before they speak on the Senate floor, but perhaps they should:

Let's see. Senator Baucus is criticizing Republicans for not defying their leadership and voting for a bill that the American people don't want, even though no Democrats defied their leadership by voting against the bill that Americans don't want. Apparently, a strict party line vote is bad when Republicans do it and good when Democrats do it.

Maybe you have to be inebriated to think this way. Maybe inebriation explains why the Democrats are so insistent upon foisting this bill on the American people in the first place.

Thanks to Hot Air for the video.


The Obsolete Man

A student recommended this old half hour Twilight Zone episode as having a certain relevance to events we see unfolding today. It's pretty good.

To those who think it a bit far-fetched to suggest that we are threatened with the sort of Orwellian world depicted in this episode in which religion and books have been abolished needs, well, to read Orwell. Or a history of the twentieth century.

The totalitarian temptation is evidently fixed in the human genome, and there will always be men who seek to exert power and control over others, to strip away their freedom, and to rob them of that which is most precious to them. Such men, when they acquire the power, cannot forbear that others have the freedom to think in ways contrary to how they themselves think. They cannot tolerate any opposition to their vision of how society should be ordered. For such men those who defy their dreams must be crushed, and contrary ideas must be eliminated. Total uniformity must be imposed. This is and has been the goal of the left for 150 years, and, as the Chancellor says in the episode, the error of men like Stalin, Hitler, and Mao wasn't that they went too far but that they didn't go far enough. They failed to purge their societies of all of the undesirables and to rid themselves of the "obsolete men."

Thanks to Ashley for the link.


Monday, December 28, 2009

What Harm Could it Do?

Megan McCardle writes at Asymmetrical Information under the pseudonym "Jane Galt." She's a libertarian and has posted a marvelous meditation on how the Law of Unintended Consequences has haunted liberal "reforms" of the last fifty years and is likely to haunt others in the years ahead. Her main point is that attempts by liberals (and libertarians) to tinker with traditional marriage by expanding it to include same-sex couples could well have deeply regrettable consequences. It's happened before.

She writes:

Unlike most libertarians, I don't have an opinion on gay marriage, and I'm not going to have an opinion no matter how much you bait me. However, I had an interesting discussion last night with another libertarian about it, which devolved into an argument about a certain kind of liberal/libertarian argument about gay marriage that I find really unconvincing.

Social conservatives of a more moderate stripe are essentially saying that marriage is an ancient institution, which has been carefully selected for throughout human history. It is a bedrock of our society; if it is destroyed, we will all be much worse off. (See what happened to the inner cities between 1960 and 1990 if you do not believe this.) For some reason, marriage always and everywhere, in every culture we know about, is between a man and a woman; this seems to be an important feature of the institution. We should not go mucking around and changing this extremely important institution, because if we make a bad change, the institution will fall apart.

A very common response to this is essentially to mock this as ridiculous. "Why on earth would it make any difference to me whether gay people are getting married? Why would that change my behavior as a heterosexual?"

To which social conservatives reply that institutions have a number of complex ways in which they fulfill their roles, and one of the very important ways in which the institution of marriage perpetuates itself is by creating a romantic vision of oneself in marriage that is intrinsically tied into expressing one's masculinity or femininity in relation to a person of the opposite sex; stepping into an explicitly gendered role. This may not be true of every single marriage, and indeed undoubtedly it is untrue in some cases. But it is true of the culture-wide institution. By changing the explicitly gendered nature of marriage we might be accidentally cutting away something that turns out to be a crucial underpinning.

To which, again, the other side replies "That's ridiculous! I would never change my willingness to get married based on whether or not gay people were getting married!"

Now, economists hear this sort of argument all the time. "That's ridiculous! I would never start working fewer hours because my taxes went up!" This ignores the fact that you may not be the marginal case. The marginal case may be some consultant who just can't justify sacrificing valuable leisure for a new project when he's only making 60 cents on the dollar. The result will nonetheless be the same: less economic activity. Similarly, you--highly educated, firmly socialised, upper middle class you--may not be the marginal marriage candidate; it may be some high school dropout in Tuscaloosa. That doesn't mean that the institution of marriage won't be weakened in America just the same.

I am bothered by this specific argument, which I have heard over and over from the people I know who favor gay marriage laws. I mean, literally over and over; when they get into arguments, they just repeat it, again and again. "I will get married even if marriage is expanded to include gay people; I cannot imagine anyone up and deciding not to get married because gay people are getting married; therefore, the whole idea is ridiculous and bigoted."

They may well be right. Nonetheless, libertarians should know better. The limits of your imagination are not the limits of reality. Every government programme that libertarians have argued against has been defended at its inception with exactly this argument.

Let me take three major legal innovations, one of them general, two specific to marriage.

What follows should daunt the enthusiasm of the most reckless liberal bent on reforming something or another in our polity, but you'll need to read it for yourself.

Society is like a delicate explosive and reformers are often like those who tinker with them in their basements without knowing exactly what they're doing. Sometimes they succeed only in blowing up themselves and everything around them.


Costs and Benefits

One of the selling points for the current health care legislation is that it'll reduce the deficit by $132 billion dollars over ten years while insuring 30 million more Americans. How might such blessings be achieved?

Randall Hoven at American Thinker does the math. It turns out that the Democrat plan assumes cuts of about $483 billion dollars from medicare, medicaid, and SCHIP. In other words, the Democrats are going to take benefits away from the poor, the young and the elderly in order to pay for their extravagance.

Moreover, the plan will raise costs for businesses which will put more people, mostly marginal employees, out of work which will in turn hurt the poor even more.

Here's Hoven:

You get "deficit reduction" by cutting Medicare and raising taxes by more than $1 trillion: Medicare and other program cuts of $483 billion, and an extra $521 billion in new taxes and fees.

The cuts include cuts across Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children's Health Insurance Program: $186 billion from permanent reductions in payment rates for fee-for-service, $118 billion for payment rate reductions based on bids submitted, and $43 billion from reducing payments to hospitals that serve low-income patients. In all, it's a $483-billion cut from Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP.

Hoven then goes on to explain briefly the unfunded mandates contained in the bill:

... the legislation would require individuals to obtain acceptable health insurance coverage...

The legislation also would penalize medium-sized and large employers that did not offer health insurance...

The legislation would impose a number of mandates, including requirements on issuers of health insurance, standards governing health information, and nutrition labeling requirements.

The bill still contains a provision that's essentially a pathway to a "public option:"

[This legislation would replace] a 'public plan' that would be run by the Department of Health and Human Services with 'multi-state' plans that would be offered under contract with the Office of Personnel Management ...

And even contains a path to the dreaded "death panels:"

The legislation also would establish an Independent Payment Advisory Board, which would be required, under certain circumstances, to recommend changes to the Medicare program to limit the rate of growth in that program's spending. Those recommendations would go into effect automatically unless blocked by subsequent legislative action.

I hope you are comforted. When that "advisory" board says no expensive cancer drug for you -- cheap pain pills only -- you can still hope that "subsequent legislative action" is taken to reverse that decision. That is to say that the only thing that prevents the "advisory board" from being a "death panel" is the hope that Congress will override it.

Here's a question we might all ask ourselves: If a Republican had made a proposal that would cut medicare and profoundly impact the poor and children would we favor it or oppose it? If we would oppose cutting benefits to these groups had those cuts been suggested by Republicans then should we not oppose them just as vigorously if they been proposed by Democrats?


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Silver Linings and Pedophilia

Mary Eberstadt has an article in First Things titled "How Pedophilia Lost its Cool" in which she assesses the increasing intolerance in our society, even among the liberal elites, for the sexual exploitation of children. You might be shocked to read this thinking that sex with children has always been a taboo, but not so, at least not so among those who fancy themselves enlightened on such matters. Eberstadt offers four examples:

Plainly, the boundaries of public discussion, at least about the subject of sex with youngsters, are more restrictive today than they were in the 1990s. Back then, the toxic moral fallout of the 1960s and 1970s was fresher and lay more visibly in the public square. Fourteen years ago, for example, The New Republic published a short piece called "Chickenhawk" (pedophile slang for a young boy) that discussed a short film about the North American Man-Boy Love Association. The piece expressed sympathy for the pederasts and would-be pederasts depicted and echoed them in asking whether the boys weren't sometimes the predators in man-boy sex. The piece is so damning of itself-so perfectly representative of a time when wondering aloud about "man-boy sex" exacted no penalty from the readers of a major magazine-that one could quote almost any sentence for the desired effect: "It might even be that a budding young stud had the upper hand over the aging, overweight loner," for example.

When it came time this fall to speak about [Roman]Polanski, however, bloggers for the same magazine seemed to compete over who could most thunderously denounce the confessed child rapist and his apologists. Most important, many were not just attacking the idea of sex with girl minors but with all minors, period.

Similarly, seventeen years ago another sophisticated magazine, Vanity Fair, published a whitewashing of a Phillips Exeter Academy teacher who had been caught surreptitiously filming boys in the showers and splicing those images into pornographic movies. The essay not only painted this former teacher as a victim of his accusers but also cast negatively one accuser who had come forward. Along the way, the article conflated pedophilia with homosexuality, blaming the teacher's victimization on a school atmosphere that allegedly left him stuck "in the closet."

The notion that such an apologia could appear in Vanity Fair or any similar venue in 2009 is simply grotesque. To the contrary, this fall that magazine's blog also ran over with commentators weighing in vehemently against Polanski.

Example three: In 1998 the prestigious Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association, printed a subsequently notorious study called "A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples." In it, three researchers took issue with "the common belief that child sexual abuse causes intense harm, regardless of gender." The authors further criticized the use of conventional terms such as victim and perpetrator and recommended that "a willing encounter with positive reactions" be labeled "simply adult-child sex." For good measure, they also compared consensual adult-child sex to "masturbation, homosexuality, fellatio, cunnilingus, and sexual promiscuity"-behaviors the APA once considered pathological but does no more. The clear implication was that "adult-child" sex would someday become as normalized in therapeutic circles as had these predecessors.

Can anyone imagine a similar study being published in a similarly prestigious venue today? A Google search of the APA's website suggests that the last time the word pedophilia was even used there was in 1999-tellingly, in a letter written to Tom DeLay, attempting to distance the institution from the article: "It is the position of the Association," the letter said, "that �sexual activity between children and adults should never be considered or labeled as harmless or acceptable."

Or consider one last and especially surreal example. Back in 1989, The Nation published a short piece called "On Truth and Fiction" by a novelist who said he had lately penned an "entertainment about a San Francisco private eye who wandered into the business of transporting Haitian boys to boy-lovers all over the world." Apparently in the interest of promoting that book, the novelist wanted to report to The Nation's readers that he'd lately verified its "factual basis," thanks in part to a "charming and cultivated American priest [in Haiti] who educated boys for export." During a visit to the island, the author also enjoyed a "tour of the house of Monsieur G., who was in the business of cultivating, training, and exporting comely lads." At a party at G.'s house, one of the other guests, a Frenchman, explains why he is visiting Haiti-because "his insomnia required two black boys every evening, two different ones each night." (He had tried Calcutta, the Frenchman explained, but the boys were "pas suffisament fonces" - not dark enough.)

In sum, "On Truth and Fiction"... was a horror. But it is also a perfect instantiation of the kind of pedophilia chic that only a few years ago raised no eyebrows whatsoever in certain enlightened places.

Once again, that kind of nod to pederasty would be far less likely to make the pages of any magazine sold in public today. In fact, if such a piece were to appear, it would excite plenty of comment-including calls for international investigation and prosecution of some of the characters in the tale. As if to clinch the point, the same Nation magazine that published such nonchalant reportage about pedophile sex tourism twenty years ago also happened this fall to publish one of the more blistering pieces on the Polanski matter-a column by feminist Katha Pollitt that was catapulted into heavy circulation on the Internet. Hollywood's apologism for the director, she concluded, "shows the liberal cultural elite at its preening, fatuous worst. . . . No wonder Middle America hates them."

So, in the nineties pederasty and other forms of pedophilia were not seen as morally repulsive, mostly because no sexual behavior was seen as morally repulsive. But, in a fine example of how moral relativism works, that consensus has shifted, except in Hollywood, of course, and now many of the former defenders of exotic exploitative sex are appalled by it.

The question Eberstadt then assays to answer for us is what caused the change?

So what happened to turn yesterday's "intergenerational sex" into today's bipartisan demands to hang Roman Polanski and related offenders high? Mainly, it appears, what happened was something unexpected and momentous: the Catholic priest scandals of the early years of this decade, which for two �reasons have profoundly changed the ground rules of what can-and can't-be said in public about the seduction and rape of the young.

First, the scandals made clear that one point was no longer in dispute: The sexual abuse of the young leaves real and lasting scars. In the years before the scandals, as the foregoing examples and many others show, a number of writers contested exactly that. Today, however-thanks to a great many victims testifying otherwise in the course of the priest scandals-it's hard to imagine them daring to do the same.

All those grown men breaking down on camera as they looked back on their childhood, describing in heartrending testimony what it meant to be robbed of their innocence: It will take a long time to wipe such powerful images from the public mind again. At least for now, no one would dare declare that the victims had gotten what was coming to them, or that they had somehow asked for it, or that seduction by an adult wasn't as bad as all that-three notions that were most definitely making the rounds before the scandals broke. Moreover, that the vast majority of victims were male-81 percent, according to the definitive study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice-proved a particularly potent antidote to the poison about boys that had been circulating earlier.

Talk about your silver linings. The scandal of Catholic priests exploiting boys for sex forced the elites to confront a hard choice. Wanting to seize the opportunity to excoriate Catholicism they found the revelations of priestly perversion a wonderful pretext, but it wasn't possible to condemn Catholic priests without condemning the behavior they indulged in. Nor was it possible to condemn the behavior when priests did it but not when others did it:

Yet this hate-fest on the Catholic Church in the name of the priest-boy scandals, rollicking though it was for some, came with blowback: It prospectively cast all those enlightened people into a new role as defenders of the young and innocent. In other words, it logically created a whole new class of anti-pederasts. And since the Church's harshest critics are, generally speaking, the same sort of enlightened folks from whom pedophilia chic had floated up, there lurked in all of this a contradiction. After all, one could either point to the grave moral wrong of what the offending priests had done- or one could minimize the suffering of the victims, as apologists for pedophilia had been doing before the scandals broke. But one could not plausibly do both any more, at least not in public. And so, in a way that could not have been predicted, but that is obviously all to the good, the priest scandals made it impossible to take that kinder, gentler look at the question of sex with youngsters that some salonistes of a few years back had been venturing.

Presumably, had it not been Catholic priests who were involved in pederasty such behavior would still have its defenders, but since the elites want to be able to condemn Catholic priests and, by extension, Catholicism, their tolerance for adult/child sex had to be sacrificed. We can be thankful for the result if not for the reason for it.


Kseniya Simonova

You might have already seen this but if not you can't help being amazed at this girl's artistry. She was the winner of the 2009 Ukraine's Got Talent show. Her performance depicts the ravages of WWII on her country:


Jihadi Rehab

An air raid in Yemen Thursday morning is believed to have taken out thirty al Qaeda, including some pretty big fish. Among the latter were the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasser al-Wahayshi, his No. 2, Saeed al-Shehri, and Anwar al-Awlaki (although there's some doubt about this last one).

Awlaki is the man whom Hasan Nidal, the Fort Hood shooter, had emailed asking for guidance on whether it was permissible under Islamic law to kill American soldiers.

Awlaki said the query was a year before the Fort Hood shooting, making him "astonished. Where was American intelligence that claimed once that it can read any car plate number anywhere in the world?"

Well, perhaps Thursday morning he received his answer.

Saeed al-Shehri was a prisoner at Gitmo who was released by the Bush administration in 2007 and underwent jihadi rehab in Saudi Arabia, a kind of 12 step program designed to detoxify jihadis. After graduating from the program he promptly popped up in Yemen where he was planning the murders of more Americans. So much for the Saudis' rehabilitation program.

It's not very comforting to know that President Obama plans to release a hundred more detainees as soon as he can find a place to send them. On the other hand, maybe it's a bit like releasing caged game birds. As soon as they fly free into the open air they get blown to smithereens by the shotguns of the waiting sportsmen.

I suspect that a lot of detainees, reflecting on the fate of their brother al-Shehri, might decide that they're perfectly happy to remain in the comfy confines of perhaps the most commodious prison facility in the world rather than risk having their body parts strewn across the desert by a hellfire missile.

In any event, innocent people are a little bit safer today than they were a few days ago if these psychopaths really have been eliminated. It's perhaps the most effective method of jihadi rehab on offer.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Which Came First

Some readers have noted similarities between the story of Michael in Why Christians Celebrate Christmas (see post below) and the movie Taken. Lest anyone think that our story was borrowed from the movie we should point out that our tale first appeared on Viewpoint on December 24th, 2006 - two years before Taken was released - under the title True Fiction.

No doubt the film's screenwriters read Viewpoint, saw the story, and liked it so much that they wrote it into a movie. Well, it's possible, isn't it?


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Why Christians Celebrate Christmas

In this season of shopping and feasting it's easy to lose sight of why Christians celebrate Christmas. The following allegory, which we've run on Viewpoint several times in the past, is a modest attempt to put the season into perspective. Apologies in advance to those who may be a little squeamish:

Michael, a member of a top-secret anti-terrorism task force, was the father of a teenage daughter named Jennifer, and his duties had caused him to be away from home much of the time Jen was growing up. He was serving his country in a very important, very dangerous capacity that required his absence and a great deal of personal sacrifice. As a result, his daughter grew into her late teens pretty much without him. Indeed, his wife Judith had decided to leave him a couple of years previous and took the girl with her.

Finally, after several years abroad, Mike was able to return home. He longed to hold his princess in his arms and to spend every possible moment with her to try to make up for lost time, but when he knocked on the door of his ex-wife's house the girl who greeted him was almost unrecognizable. Jen had grown up physically and along the way she had rejected everything Michael valued. Her appearance shocked him and her words cut him like a razor. She told him coldly and bluntly that she really didn't want to see him, that he wasn't a father as far as she was concerned, that he hadn't been a part of her life before and he wouldn't be in the future.

Michael, a man who had faced numerous hazards and threats in the course of his work and had been secretly cited for great heroism by the government, was staggered by her words. The loathing in her voice and in her eyes crushed his heart. He started to speak, but the door was slammed in his face. Heartbroken and devastated he wandered the streets of the city wondering how, or if, he could ever regain the love his little girl once had for him.

Weeks went by during which he tried to contact both his ex-wife and his daughter, but they refused to return his calls. Then one night his cell phone rang. It was Judith, and from her voice Mike could tell something was very wrong. Jennifer had apparently run off with some unsavory characters several days before and hadn't been heard from since. Judy had called the police, but she felt Mike should know, too. She told him that she thought the guys Jen had gone out with that night were heavily into drugs and she was worried sick about her.

She had good reason to be. Jen thought when she left the house that she was just going for a joy ride, but that's not what her "friends" had in mind. Once they had Jen back at their apartment they tied her to a bed, abused her, filmed the whole thing, and when she resisted they beat her until she submitted. She overheard them debating whether they should sell her to a man they knew sold girls into slavery in South America or whether they should just kill her now and dump her body in the bay. For three days her life was a living hell. She cried herself to sleep late every night after being forced into the most degrading conduct imaginable.

Finally her abductors sold her to a street gang in exchange for drugs. Bound and gagged, she was raped repeatedly and beaten savagely. For the first time in her life she prayed that God would help her, and for the first time in many years she missed her father. But as the days wore on she began to think she'd rather be dead than be forced to endure what she was being put through.

Mike knew some of the officers in the police force and was able to get a couple of leads from them as to who the guys she originally left with might be. He set out, not knowing Jennifer's peril, but determined to find her no matter what the cost. His search led him to another city and took days - days in which he scarcely ate or slept. Each hour that passed Jennifer's condition grew worse and her danger more severe. She was by now in a cocaine-induced haze in which she almost didn't know or care what was happening to her.

Somehow, Michael, weary and weak from his lack of sleep and food, managed to find the seedy, run down tenement building where Jennifer was imprisoned. Breaking through a flimsy door he saw his daughter laying on a filthy bed surrounded by three startled kidnappers. Enraged by the scene before his eyes he launched himself at them with a terrible, vengeful fury. Two of the thugs went down quickly, but the third escaped. With tears flowing down his cheeks, Mike unfastened the bonds that held Jen's wrists to the bed posts. She was weak but alert enough to cooperate as Michael helped her to her feet and led her to the doorway.

As she passed into the hall with Michael behind her the third abductor appeared in her way with a gun. Michael quickly stepped in front and yelled to Jennifer to run back into the apartment and out the fire escape. The assailant tried to shoot her as she stumbled toward the escape, but Michael shielded her from the bullet, taking the round in his side. The thug fired twice more into Michael's body, but Mike was able to seize the gun and turn it on the shooter.

Finally, it was all over, finished.

Slumped against the wall, Mike lay bleeding and bruised, the life draining out of him. Jennifer saw from the fire escape landing what had happened and ran back to Michael. Cradling him in her arms she wept and told him over and over that she loved him and that she was so sorry for what she had said to him and for what she had done.

With the last bit of life left in him he gazed up at her, pursed his lips in a kiss, smiled and died. Jennifer wept hysterically. How could she ever forgive herself for how she had treated him? How could she ever overcome the guilt and the loss she felt? How could she ever repay the tremendous love and sacrifice of her father?

Years passed. Jennifer eventually had a family of her own. She raised her children to revere the memory of her father even though they had never known him. She resolved to live her own life in such a way that Michael, if he knew, would be enormously proud of her. Everything she did, she did out of gratitude to him for what he had done for her, and every year on his birthday she went to the cemetery alone and sat for a couple of hours at his graveside, talking to him and sharing her love and her life with him. Her father had given everything for her despite the cruel way she had treated him. He had given his life to save hers, and his love for her, his sacrifice, had changed her life forever.

And that's why Christians celebrate Christmas.

May all our readers have a wonderful and meaningful Christmas this year.

Bill and Dick Cleary

Naturalism = Nihilism

Like Marc Hauser, whose essay we critiqued earlier this week (see here for links), Alex Rosenberg is a naturalist. That is to say he's a philosopher who believes that the natural universe, matter and energy, is all that is. There's nothing else.

Rosenberg believes that everything that exists can, in principle, be explained in terms of the laws of physics, and he's written an essay in which he faces squarely the consequences of the naturalistic worldview. Rosenberg admits that they're not pretty. Indeed, he argues - correctly, I think - that naturalism leads him to deny the existence of meaning in life, morality, consciousness, the self, and free will.

Unlike Hauser's, Rosenberg's conclusions are logically consistent with his starting point. Naturalism does lead to the denial of much of what makes us human. It leads, in fact, to nihilism, the view that nothing has meaning, nothing has value, nothing matters. That we recoil from these consequences, that we have deep-seated yearnings for meaning, morality, significance, etc., should suggest that naturalism itself is not true. Why, after all, would nature shape us in such a way that our deepest longings are unfulfillable and incompatible with the way reality is?

The unpleasant consequences of naturalism (which may be considered a synonym for atheism) should lead us to wonder whether nature really is all there is. They should lead us to wonder whether our deepest yearnings really are capable of being fulfilled, and if so what must reality be like in order to be able to satisfy them?

Read the essay as well as the comments which follow, and then reflect on the astonishing fact that atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens argue vociferously that it's Christianity which is harmful to human flourishing and that their nihilistic naturalism is what we should all eagerly embrace. It certainly is one of the peculiarities of modern intellectual life that a belief system that exalts humanity, offers meaning and purpose, a ground for morality, an explanation for beauty, and a hope for eternal life is considered harmful while a worldview that leads to nihilism and hopelessness is thought to be liberating.

If nothing matters why is it so crucially important to these men that we embrace such a depressing view of life? Why take away people's hope, even if it's a false hope, if in the end it makes no difference what one has believed? Perhaps the answer is no more complicated than that misery loves company.



Millions of people rely on aspirin to keep their blood thin to prevent heart attacks and strokes, but aspirin often causes stomach problems. It turns out that a natural blood thinner has been found in the gel that surrounds tomato seeds. In Britain a product called Fruitflow is made from an extract of this gel and has none of the side effects of aspirin.

Check it out here.

Here's the crux of the article:

10 studies -- two of which were published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition -- reported that three grams of Fruitflow were effective just three hours after consumption, making platelets smoother while leaving the rest of the blood able to clot normally in the case of injury. Regular tomato juice is subjected to multiple processing methods that degrade the gel ingredient, rendering it far less effective than its concentrated form. Plain tomatoes are also less effective because the body must slowly digest all parts of the fruit.

The article doesn't say how long it will be before this product is available in the U.S.


Silent Monks

To help you get into the spirit of Christmas, sort of, a group of "silent monks" perform one of the greatest pieces of music ever written - Handel's Hallelujah chorus. Enjoy.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Cosmos

The American Museum of Natural History takes us on a quick tour of the known universe. Fasten your seat belts:

Thanks to Bill Dembski at Uncommon Descent for posting the video.


Change Nobody Believes in

Maybe it's not too much of a stretch to estimate that there are about 280 Americans who favor ObamaCare. They're all Democrats and they're all in Congress. No one who'll have to pay for it seems to want it, but that's not stopping the Democrats from ramming it down our throats and forcing us to accept their plan to nationalize about 16% of our total economy. The Wall Street Journal is particularly incensed, as would be anyone who has followed the sordid details of how Harry Reid has bribed and bought enough Senators to win passage of a bill that will cripple the economic prospects of our grandchildren and greatgrandchildren and destroy the best health care system in the world.

But don't take my word for that. Read the bill of particulars that the WSJ brings against the Democrats' plan. Here's the lede:

The Senate Majority Leader (Senator Harry Reid) has decided that the last few days before Christmas are the opportune moment for a narrow majority of Democrats to stuff ObamaCare through the Senate to meet an arbitrary White House deadline. Barring some extraordinary reversal, it now seems as if they have the 60 votes they need to jump off this cliff, with one-seventh of the economy in tow.

Mr. Obama promised a new era of transparent good government, yet on Saturday morning Mr. Reid threw out the 2,100-page bill that the world's greatest deliberative body spent just 17 days debating and replaced it with a new "manager's amendment" that was stapled together in covert partisan negotiations. Democrats are barely even bothering to pretend to care what's in it, not that any Senator had the chance to digest it in the 38 hours before the first cloture vote at 1 a.m. this morning.

After procedural motions that allow for no amendments, the final vote could come at 9 p.m. on December 24.

The rushed, secretive way that a bill this destructive and unpopular is being forced on the country shows that "reform" has devolved into the raw exercise of political power for the single purpose of permanently expanding the American entitlement state. An increasing roll of leaders in health care and business are looking on aghast at a bill that is so large and convoluted that no one can truly understand it, as Finance Chairman Max Baucus admitted on the floor last week. The only goal is to ram it into law while the political window is still open, and clean up the mess later.

A detailed criticism of the bill follows and is worth reading. Perhaps the most stunning part is this:

Health costs. From the outset, the White House's core claim was that reform would reduce health costs for individuals and businesses, and they're sticking to that story. "Anyone who says otherwise simply hasn't read the bills," Mr. Obama said over the weekend. This is so utterly disingenuous that we doubt the President really believes it.

The best and most rigorous cost analysis was recently released by the insurer WellPoint, which mined its actuarial data in various regional markets to model the Senate bill. WellPoint found that a healthy 25-year-old in Milwaukee buying coverage on the individual market will see his costs rise by 178%. A small business based in Richmond with eight employees in average health will see a 23% increase. Insurance costs for a 40-year-old family with two kids living in Indianapolis will pay 106% more. And on and on.

These increases are solely the result of ObamaCare.

Will you be able to afford having your insurance premiums double? Then there's this:

For no other reason than ideological animus, doctor-owned hospitals will face harsh new limits on their growth and who they're allowed to treat. Physician Hospitals of America says that ObamaCare will "destroy over 200 of America's best and safest hospitals."

If the editors at the WSJ are correct President Obama and his left-wing allies in Congress are taking us canoeing over Niagara Falls. I guess the lesson to be learned by all those young voters who were so swept up in the hopeychangey rhetoric, the charisma, and the thrill of electing our first black president, is that fine speeches and skin pigment are extremely poor reasons for electing a man to our nation's highest office. What matters is what he has already accomplished in his public life and what he plans to do if elected, and in Mr. Obama's case all that was perfectly clear in the summer of 2008. Unfortunately, too much of the electorate was too love-struck to take notice.

Perhaps when the full import of the 2008 election starts to sink in people will finally shake off their infatuation with Mr. Obama's "cool," and, like the girl on the morning after, wonder what in the world they could possibly have been thinking. Either that or they'll somehow blame George Bush and Dick Cheney for the debacle.

By the way, I live in a state with two Democratic senators and as far as I know they got nothing for their votes on this bill. What's up with that? For that reason alone they should both be booted out of office next time they're up for reelection. What good is a senator who's too dumb to put his vote up for sale like many of his colleagues?


Monday, December 21, 2009

Hentoff on Obama

Nat Hentoff, no conservative Republican he (he wrote a weekly column for the Village Voice for fifty years), has some pretty strong words concerning our President in an interview he did with the Rutherford Institute. When Nat Hentoff says about Mr. Obama what he says in this interview the liberals and moderates who elected him better sit up and pay attention:

Rutherford Institute: When Barack Obama was a U.S. Senator in 2005, he introduced a bill to limit the Patriot Act. Now that he is president, he has endorsed the Patriot Act as is. What do you think happened with Obama?

Nat Hentoff: I try to avoid hyperbole, but I think Obama is possibly the most dangerous and destructive president we have ever had. An example is ObamaCare, which is now embattled in the Senate. If that goes through the way Obama wants, we will have something very much like the British system. If the American people have their health care paid for by the government, depending on their age and their condition, they will be subject to a health commission just like in England which will decide if their lives are worth living much longer.

In terms of the Patriot Act, and all the other things he has pledged he would do, such as transparency in government, Obama has reneged on his promises. He pledged to end torture, but he has continued the CIA renditions where you kidnap people and send them to another country to be interrogated. Why is Obama doing that if he doesn't want torture anymore? Throughout Obama's career, he promised to limit the state secrets doctrine which the Bush-Cheney administration had abused enormously. The Bush administration would go into court on any kind of a case that they thought might embarrass them and would argue that it was a state secret and the case should not be continued. Obama is doing the same thing, even though he promised not to.

So in answer to your question, I am beginning to think that this guy is a phony. Obama seems to have no firm principles that I can discern that he will adhere to. His only principle is his own aggrandizement. This is a very dangerous mindset for a president to have.

RI: Do you consider Obama to be worse than George W. Bush?

NH: Oh, much worse. Bush essentially came in with very little qualifications for presidency, not only in terms of his background but he lacked a certain amount of curiosity, and he depended entirely too much on people like Rumsfeld, Cheney and others. Bush was led astray and we were led astray. However, I never thought that Bush himself was, in any sense, "evil." I am hesitant to say this about Obama. Obama is a bad man in terms of the Constitution. The irony is that Obama was a law professor at the University of Chicago. He would, most of all, know that what he is doing weakens the Constitution.

In fact, we have never had more invasions of privacy than we have now. The Fourth Amendment is on life support and the chief agent of that is the National Security Agency. The NSA has the capacity to keep track of everything we do on the phone and on the internet. Obama has done nothing about that. In fact, he has perpetuated it. He has absolutely no judicial supervision of all of this. So all in all, Obama is a disaster.

RI: Obama is not reversing the Bush policies as he promised. But even in light of this, many on the Left are very, very quiet about Obama. Why is that?

NH: I am an atheist, although I very much admire and have been influenced by many traditionally religious people. I say this because the Left has taken what passes for their principles as an absolute religion. They don't think anymore. They just react. When they have somebody like Obama whom they put into office, they believed in the religious sense and, of course, that is a large part of the reason for their silence on these issues. They are very hesitant to criticize Obama, but that is beginning to change. Even on the cable network MSNBC, some of the strongest proponents of Obama are now beginning to question, if I may use their words, their "deity."

There is much more to this interview that I wish I could include in the post. Read the whole thing at the link.

For the thoughts of another remorseful Obama voter see Michael Goodwin's column at The New York Post.


Keep Your Opinions to Yourself

We often hear complaints about those officious Christians who are always going about trying to impose their values, especially sexual values, on the rest of society. Religion and religious reasons are excluded from public discourse, we are told, by the requirements of both good taste and the First Amendment, and people who insist on offering religious objections to certain matters are offending social and Constitutional propriety.

Of course, the complainers are usually pretty selective in their criticism. When Christians speak out against war, or in favor of human and civil rights, or on behalf of the poor, the complainers suddenly go silent. As long as the issue is one the secularists themselves favor, why, then Christians are speaking prophetically and have every right to be heard. When, however, Christians speak out against something the secularist supports, like abortion on demand or gay marriage, then the meddlesome Christians are sternly instructed to keep their opinions out of the public square.

A recent example of the secularists' selective outrage might be illustrated by a controversy brewing in, of all places, Uganda. The Ugandan church largely supports passage of a bill that would make homosexual conduct punishable by either life in prison or death, and American Christians are roundly condemning it. This disagreement is causing a lot of tension between Ugandan and American Christians, but the Americans are arguing on theological grounds that such a law violates the biblical demands for both justice and compassion.

Given this insertion of religious arguments into a debate occuring in a foreign country we might ask our secularist friends why they're not demanding that Christians just keep their religious opinions to themselves and stay out of Ugandan affairs. I doubt, though, that very many secularists will raise such objections because they're just as appalled by the bill as are the American Christians who are risking a rift with their Ugandan brethren over it. Nevertheless, if these same Christians were to speak out against gay marriage they'd be quickly and loudly condemned for "intolerance," gay-bashing, and breaching the wall of separation between church and state. They'd have their tax-exempt status threatened and told to keep their bibles out of politics.

For the secularist religion is just fine if employed in a cause which they themselves wish to advance, but they find it abhorrent and out of place in a pluralist society when employed in causes they oppose. In other words, religious arguments have no place in our political debates except when they do.

It's amusing to listen to these people.


Is AARP Bought and Paid for?

Michelle Malkin notes that AARP offers the only health coverage that under "ObamaCare" would be exempt from having to accept clients with medical pre-conditions. Their Medigap program rakes in $400 million a year and will not be required to incur the expense of insuring those whose medical conditions make it a near certainty that the insurer will have to pay out huge sums for treatment. What did AARP do to get this favored status?

The intrepid Jason Mattera chases down an AARP officer to get an answer to that question and others. He wonders whether the exemption has anything to do with AARP's support of the health care reform bill currently before Congress. Needless to say, he doesn't get much satisfaction:


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Evolutionary Ethics (Part III)

This post concludes our discussion of Marc Hauser's essay Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality in which he attempts to argue that morality can be, and should be, based upon our biological nature. You can read Parts I and II here and here.

Mr. Hauser's essay continues by presenting us with examples of moral dilemmas from which he draws the wrong conclusion:

... if five people in a hospital each require an organ to survive, is it permissible for a doctor to take the organs of a healthy person who happens to walk by the hospital? Or if a lethal gas has leaked into the vent of a factory and is headed towards a room with seven people, is it permissible to push someone into the vent, preventing the gas from reaching the seven but killing the one? These are true moral dilemmas - challenging problems that push on our intuitions as lay jurists, forcing us to wrestle with the opposing forces of consequences (saving the lives of many) and rules (killing is wrong).

Based on the responses of thousands of participants to more than 100 dilemmas, we find no difference between men and women, young and old, theistic believers and non-believers, liberals and conservatives. When it comes to judging unfamiliar moral scenarios, your cultural background is virtually irrelevant.

Well, maybe, but it shouldn't be. I would be among the last to say that moral choices are never excruciatingly difficult, but, in the cases that Hauser cites, not so much. The Christian is guided by one overarching principle: Always do the act which maximizes compassion and justice. In the scenarios that Hauser constructs it would be manifestly unjust to take organs from an unwilling passerby and equally unjust to push someone into the vent to save others, even if the others were children, even if they were your own children (surely an individual should jump into the vent himself rather than push another into it).

Hauser assumes, apparently, that everyone thinks in utilitarian terms which require of us that we produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. A utilitarian could superficially justify sacrificing the happiness of one innocent person in order to maximize the happiness of many, but a Christian cannot.

What guides your judgments is the universal and unconscious voice of our species, a biological code, a universal moral grammar....If this code is universal and impartial, then why are there are so many moral atrocities in the world? The answer comes from thinking about our emotions, the feelings we recruit to fuel in-group favouritism, out-group hatred and, ultimately, dehumanisation.

Actually the answer is because atheism offers us no reason why we should not submit to our emotions, nor does it offer us any reason why we should care about anyone but ourselves, but that aside, on what biological or evolutionary grounds does Mr. Hauser condemn in-group favoritism or out-group hatred? These behaviors are as natural to our species as breathing. They've been encoded in our DNA by millenia of evolution. Why, in an atheistic view of things, are they wrong? What is the standard Mr. Hauser is smuggling in here in order to judge them as wrong?

It can't be that he finds warrant for disdaining them in our biological nature because these behaviors are fundamentally ingrained in that nature. It can't be that evolution gives him reason to condemn them because on his view evolution is responsible for their existence.

Mr. Hauser wants to say that out-group hatred is wrong but he can't tell us why. He wants to say, in effect, that there is a natural law written on our hearts that forbids such behavior, but no natural "law" rooted in our evolutionary development can be morally obligatory (see part II). Favoritism or hatred can only be wrong if the source of the natural law is a transcendent moral authority, and that's something Hauser's atheism does not allow.

Consider the psychopath, Hollywood's favourite moral monster. Clinical studies reveal that they feel no remorse, shame, guilt or empathy, and lack the tools for self-control. Because they lacked these capacities, several experts have argued that they lack the wherewithal to understand what is right or wrong and, consequently, to do the wrong thing. New studies show, however, that this conclusion is at least partially wrong. Psychopaths know full well what is right and wrong but don't care. Their moral knowledge is intact but their moral emotions are damaged. They are perfectly normal jurists but perfectly abnormal moral actors. For the psychopath, other humans are no different from rocks or artefacts. They are disposable.

In fact, if naturalism is true we should all be moral psychopaths. Remorse, guilt, shame, etc. are simply illusions that deceive us into thinking we've done something terribly wrong when in fact we haven't. Now that we're enlightened and realize, as atheist Michael Ruse puts it, that "morality is just an illusion fobbed off upon us by our genes in order to get us to cooperate," we should shed these emotions like a growing child sheds his fear of the dark and face the fact that we have nothing to feel guilty about because there's no such thing as guilt.

Guilt can only exist in a world in which our behavior stands condemned by a competent moral judge. In the world of the naturalist there are no moral judges, only, in Richard Dawkins' words, "blind, pitiless indifference."



A while ago we made brief mention of the increasing popularity of microfinance as a great way to help poor entrepreneurs get enough capital to start or maintain their businesses. In the post we touted an organization called Kiva which is involved in this sort of work. I've since come across an article about Kiva in Christianity Today that some of you might like to check out. It's a wonderful way to do something truly meaningful this Christmas season.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Fat Lips, Fat Heads

In a post we did a week or so ago I mentioned the injustice of court martialing three navy SEALs who were accused of punching a terrorist and then trying to cover it up. In my opinion the people who ought to be court martialed are the Navy poobahs who are charging these men. Surely fatheadedness among the brass is a court-martial-worthy offense, and if it's not it should be.

Clifford May has a piece on this at National Review Online that's worth reading if you want to see how wimpish the higher echelons of our military have become. May writes:

Surely, these SEALs - like all American citizens - deserve the presumption of innocence. It's also worth recalling that the al-Qaeda manual recommends that all detainees complain of torture and abuse.

But what if it turns out that one of the SEALs did give the guy a shot? What if Abed was uncooperative, or spit at them, or bragged about how he slaughtered the Americans (one of whom was a retired SEAL) and how they begged for their lives and squealed like pigs as they died? I can imagine how a normal guy - even one as disciplined as a SEAL - might lose his temper for a moment.

In that case, I wouldn't expect a senior officer to turn a blind eye. I'd expect him to take the SEALs aside and say, "Let me be clear: You guys cut the John Wayne stuff or you're going to be peeling potatoes on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf for the next six months. Understood?" The reply would be: "Yes, sir! Understood, sir!" And that would be the end of that.

But a court martial? Maybe there's more to it than we know. But how much more could there be? Abed is alive. He has two eyes, two ears, ten fingers, and ten toes. This much is clear: If a single alleged knuckle sandwich is all it takes to remove three special operators from the battlefield, Abed won this battle.

A terrorist in American custody should be aware that he is in the presence of principled professionals. But he should not believe that he is untouchable or that he is entitled to the rights enjoyed by an American citizen under the U.S. Constitution - a document he'd gladly trample underfoot.

He should know that the troops who detain him are not like him: They won't chop off his head on video tape while chanting praise for a divinity pleased by the carnage. But he also should know that if he asks for a fat lip, he might just get a fat lip.

Read the whole article. The more I read about political correctness in the military the more convinced I am that our troops are made of far sterner stuff than are those who command them.


An Exact Science

Since the filched emails from East Anglia were released a month ago we've come to learn a lot about the scientific method, at least as it is practiced by some leading global warming enthusiasts. Consider this graph, for example, which shows temperature data at Darwin, Australia for the twentieth century:

The red line is alarming indeed. It shows temperatures in a runaway ascent, but there's a catch. Although the red line is what's usually cited when the global warming folk want to put a good scare into school children, it actually represents what is called "adjusted" data. In other words, the field measurements are deemed in need of adjusting to account for all sorts of factors like the implementation of new equipment or moving the recording apparatus to a different location, etc. So the climatologists throw into the data mix an eye of newt and a wing of bat and out comes adjusted temperatures that'll frighten the bejabbers out of you.

On the graph the black line represents the adjustment factor. The raw data, the measurements that were actually recorded by the instruments at Darwin, are in blue, and notice that these temperatures have been essentially flat throughout the twentieth century.

It's not until the global warming alchemists have applied their ministrations to the raw data that we get something that Al Gore can sell books about. In the meantime, it looks like the raw data show no real change occurring at all, at least not in Darwin.

Go to the link for a more thorough analysis.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Evolutionary Ethics (Part II)

This post continues our discussion of Marc Hauser's essay Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality in which he attempts to argue that morality can be, and should be, based upon our biological nature. You can read Part I here.

Hauser writes:

None of my comments so far are meant to be divisive with respect to the meaning and sense of community that many derive from religion. Where I intend to be divisive is with respect to the argument that religion, and moral education more generally, represent the only - or perhaps even the ultimate - source of moral reasoning. If anything, moral education is often motivated by self-interest, to do what's best for those within a moral community, preaching singularity, not plurality. Blame nurture, not nature, for our moral atrocities against humanity. And blame educated partiality more generally, as this allows us to lump into one category all those who fail to acknowledge our shared humanity and fail to use secular reasoning to practice compassion.

But why should we care about our "shared humanity?" Why should we practice compassion? Hauser never tells us. He just assumes that this is the right thing to do, but we need to ask him what fact of evolution or our biology is he basing this assumption upon? Indeed, what fact of our biology tells us that we should not act in our self-interest? To such questions Hauser gives no answer.

He adds this:

If religion is not the source of our moral insights - and moral education has the demonstrated potential to teach partiality and, therefore, morally destructive behaviour - then what other sources of inspiration are on offer?

One answer to this question is emerging from an unsuspected corner of academia: the mind sciences. Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life.

This code, a universal moral grammar, provides us with an unconscious suite of principles for judging what is morally right and wrong. It is an impartial, rational and unemotional capacity. It doesn't dictate who we should help or who we are licensed to harm. Rather, it provides an abstract set of rules for how to intuitively understand when helping another is obligatory and when harming another is forbidden. And it does so dispassionately and impartially.

This is fascinating. It sounds exactly like what natural law philosophers and theologians have been saying for centuries. Indeed St. Paul writing to the church at Rome in the first century observed that everyone has a moral law "written on their hearts" (See Romans 2: 15).

But the question is not whether we have such a moral code or moral sense but rather where it comes from. This makes all the difference as to whether it is in any way incumbent upon us. If the code is inscribed on our hearts by God then it is presumably morally obligatory, but if it's the product of evolution then we're no more obligated to observe it than we are obligated to cover our mouth when yawning. If this law that Mr. Hauser thinks he has discovered is the product of blind chance and purposelessness which somehow conspired to fit us for life in the stone age then why should we live our lives by it today? It's merely an evolutionary vestige, like a man's beard, and can be ignored or removed with just as little moral consequence.

To argue that because we have a moral sense we are therefore bound to live by it is to commit the fallacy of deriving an "ought" from an "is" (sometimes called the naturalistic fallacy). It simply does not follow that because something is a certain way it therefore ought to be that way. Just because in some situations we feel compassion for others does not mean that if we didn't feel compassion we'd be in some sense morally wrong.

Moreover, evolution-based ethics are highly selective in what they deem right and wrong. On what basis, for instance, do we determine which of our evolved behaviors are morally good and which are not? Men are just as likely, perhaps more likely, to be selfish, cruel and violent as they are to be generous, kind, and peaceful. Both tendencies, according to Hauser's view, are part of our biological makeup and must result from our evolutionary development as a species. On what basis, then, does he prefer one behavior over the other? On what basis does he decide that we're required to do one and required to avoid the other? Why, exactly, should I care about the poor or care about the world my great-grandchildren will inherit? Why shouldn't I just live for myself and let the poor or future generations worry about their own survival? What answer based upon our biological make-up can Hauser possibly give to these questions?

The fact is that naturalistic, evolutionary ethics provide us no basis, other than one's individual feelings, for judging one behavior to be morally better than another and certainly no reason for thinking that we're in any way obligated to do one thing rather than its opposite. As a guide to moral behavior it is utterly useless.

More tomorrow.


Debunking the Shroud

I don't know what to make of the Shroud of Turin, the famous burial cloth that bears the scientifically inexplicable imprint of a man whose wounds appear consonant with those which Jesus is described as suffering during his execution.

The Shroud is believed by many to be the actual burial cloth of Christ and the imprint is believed to have been preternaturally impressed into the fabric. Perhaps. I'm not in a position to say. What I can say, however, is that arguments like the one below which purport to debunk the Shroud as spurious are risibly dumb.

According to an article in Science Daily another burial shroud has been unearthed in Jerusalem dating to the first century. The shroud is apparently that of a man who was a leper and who died of tuberculosis, all of which is pretty interesting, but then the article quotes the researchers as claiming that the leper's shroud proves that the Turin Shroud could not be that of Jesus:

This is also the first time fragments of a burial shroud have been found from the time of Jesus in Jerusalem. The shroud is very different to that of the Turin Shroud, hitherto assumed to be the one that was used to wrap the body of Jesus. Unlike the complex weave of the Turin Shroud, this is made up of a simple two-way weave, as the textiles historian Dr. Orit Shamir was able to show.

Based on the assumption that this is representative of a typical burial shroud widely used at the time of Jesus, the researchers conclude that the Turin Shroud did not originate from Jesus-era Jerusalem.

In other words, we can assume that the leper's shroud had a weave typical of the period and since the Turin Shroud had a more sophisticated weave it must have dated from a more recent era or a different place.

If the researchers are being accurately represented in the article theirs is a remarkably shallow argument. What reason is there for making the assumption that the weave of the leper's shroud is typical? How many such linens have we discovered that we can make such a determination? And even if it were typical of the common folk to use such shrouds do we know that the more expensive weave was not preferred by the well-to-do? Why could it not be that Jesus was buried in a fabric typically imported for purchase and use by the wealthy from outside Jerusalem? Why could it not be that the rich man who donated the grave for Jesus' burial also donated the shroud? It was also typical of that time that the garments people wore were stitched together from numerous strips of cloth and thus had many seams, but Jesus' garment was seamless and thus considered unusual enough by his executioners for them to gamble for it. Should we assume that this story is false because it suggests that Jesus wore a garment not typical of that worn in the region at the time?

Sometimes in their eagerness to discredit Christian belief skeptics resort to the most desperate reasoning and wind up saying the silliest things. The Shroud of Turin may not be what its devotees believe it to be, but it'll take a lot more than the reasons offered in this article to convince them of that.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Evolutionary Ethics (Part I)

The idea that our moral sense is a product of human evolution has been around ever since Darwin, but in all those years it has never managed to convince most philosophers that it's plausible. Marc Hauser at Edge takes another stab at it in an article titled Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality. There's much to think about (and to criticize) in his essay so I'd like to offer an analysis over the next several days. This post will be part I of the series.

Hauser writes:

For many, living a moral life is synonymous with living a religious life. Just as educated students of mathematics, chemistry and politics know that 1=1, water=H2O, and Barack Obama=US president, so, too, do religiously educated people know that religion=morality.

As simple and pleasing as this relationship may seem, it has at least three possible interpretations.

First, if religion represents the source of moral understanding, then those lacking a religious education are morally lost, adrift in a sea of sinful temptation. Those with a religious education not only chart a steady course, guided by the cliched moral compass but they know why some actions are morally virtuous and others are morally abhorrent.

Actually, it's not so much a lack of religious education which casts one adrift, it's the lack of any objective ground for moral judgment and moral obligation. If morality is not rooted in the goodness of a transcendent moral authority then it's entirely rooted in human subjectivity and what's moral is simply a matter of whatever feels right to me. Any ethics that seeks to ground itself in something other than God ultimately founders on the shoals of subjectivity, and, as we'll see Hauser's attempt is no exception.

Second, perhaps everyone has a standard engine for working out what is morally right or wrong but those with a religious background have extra accessories that refine our actions, fueling altruism and fending off harms to others.

Well, at least those who understand Christianity do. The "extra accessories" that the Christian has at her disposal are the twin motivators of love for, and gratitude to, God. The reason why there are relatively few charities run by atheists is that motives rooted in evolution will almost always drive people toward egoism rather than altruism. Love and gratitude, especially when directed toward something or someone beyond ourselves, are the most powerful incentives anyone has for caring about others, and the atheist has denied himself access to these resources.

Third, while religion certainly does provide moral inspiration, not all of its recommendations are morally laudatory. Though we can all applaud those religions that teach compassion, forgiveness and genuine altruism, we can also express disgust and moral outrage at those religions that promote ethnic cleansing, often by praising those willing to commit suicide for the good of the religious "team".

The obvious question Hauser raises for himself here is what standard is he using to judge compassion, forgiveness, and altruism as laudatory and ethnic cleansing as outrageous? Where does he get the idea that the former are good and the latter is bad? What is he basing this evaluation upon? The answer has to be either evolution or his own feelings, but if so how can either of these tell us that something is good or bad?

Indeed, an ethic based on evolution should see ethnic cleansing as a natural expression of the survival of the fittest gene pool. It should view suicide bombers as altruists sacrificing their own lives to promote the survival of the genes of the larger group of which he is a part.

In other words, Hauser wants to ground morality in the evolution of humanity, but as soon as he starts making moral judgments he finds himself forced to import values that have their source elsewhere. This is a problem that many naturalists face. They simply cannot consistently reconcile their naturalism with their moral sense. They see where the train of naturalist morality is taking them, and they don't like it so they make an irrational leap onto the back of Christian morality, and hope no one will notice as they piggyback upon the very assumptions they wish to discredit.

More tomorrow.



Jason sends along a cartoon that's both depressing and funny:

There's more than a bit of truth to this. President Obama insists he wants to create jobs, but nothing he's done so far has worked. The reason joblessness is still over 10% is that businesses won't hire when they fear their taxes, i.e. their costs, are going to go up in a few months. Yet the current Congress and administration seems unconcerned about this common sense impediment to job creation as they push legislation that will elevate taxes to levels that will be a disincentive for many businesses to increase their workforce.

If the President wishes to stimulate job creation, rather than throw money at programs that pay people to rake leaves, he should drop health care reform (at least in its current form) and cap and trade. If employers are confident that there won't be huge levies waiting for them down the road they'll be much more likely to hire workers today.

Unfortunately, the Democrats' solution to our economic woes has been to sink the nation further into debt, throw more money at pointless jobs, provide health care for those who don't have it, tax industry for using energy, and then raise taxes on everyone to try to pay for it all. The irony is that raising taxes simply means more people will be out of work and unable to afford health care so that more people will be dependent upon government to pay for their care, which means that taxes on everyone else will have to be raised even higher.

It doesn't make much sense.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Safe Schools Czar

Jim Hoft has been documenting the career of Kevin Jennings, President Obama's Safe Schools czar, and has the latest here. In 2000 Mr. Jennings apparently organized and led a conference for teenagers in which almost every imaginable sexual deviancy was promoted to the teens. Among these were ... well, you'll have to read it for yourself if you have the stomach for it.

That the administration would deem this man suitable to put in charge of children shows an appalling lack of judgment. The man is an embarrassment to the President, and the longer he's allowed to hang around the more unavoidable will be the conclusion that the President actually wants him around.

Read the article (or this one) and see if this is the sort of man you want supervising your children's safety.


More Complex Than Expected

Telic Thoughts directs us to an article which reports on a study that assesses how complex the simplest functional cell would have to be. What the researchers found is that the simplest biologically viable cell is still very complex indeed:

What are the bare essentials of life, the indispensable ingredients required to produce a cell that can survive on its own? Can we describe the molecular anatomy of a cell, and understand how an entire organism functions as a system?

...three papers published back-to-back today in Science, provide the first comprehensive picture of a minimal cell, based on an extensive quantitative study of the biology of the bacterium that causes atypical pneumonia, Mycoplasma pneumoniae. The study uncovers fascinating novelties relevant to bacterial biology and shows that even the simplest of cells is more complex than expected.

The rest of the article explains the complexity. The significance of this is that before the mechanisms of evolution could take over and generate, at least theoretically, all of the diversity of living things we see today, blind, purposeless chance still had to produce a structure which was highly integrated and organized and which possessed enormous information content (see video below).

Perhaps a non-biologist, uninitiated in the mysteries of the discipline, might be forgiven for thinking this is all a bit far-fetched. It seems rather like constructing a computer, together with its operating system, by shaking together a random assortment of its parts. It's not as if we see such prodigies happening every day, after all.

The irony is that those who believe that the feat of producing an information-rich, highly organized and functional systems like the one in the video requires the agency of an intentional mind - and who point to the fact that every time we see similar structures manufactured there's always a mind behind it - are nevertheless called superstitious. But those who claim that random chance and physical law can somehow create such a marvel, and have probably done so countless times across the cosmos - even though no one has ever actually observed chance or physical law producing information and no one knows how it could possibly have been accomplished - are said to be enlightened. It's pretty funny.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Heading for Default

This article that Bill passes along will fill you with hope for change. Here's the nut of it:

It's one of those numbers that's so unbelievable you have to actually think about it for a while... Within the next 12 months, the U.S. Treasury will have to refinance $2 trillion in short-term debt. And that's not counting any additional deficit spending, which is estimated to be around $1.5 trillion.

Put the two numbers together. Then ask yourself, how in the world can the Treasury borrow $3.5 trillion in only one year? That's an amount equal to nearly 30% of our entire GDP. And we're the world's biggest economy. Where will the money come from?

How did we end up with so much short-term debt? Like most entities that have far too much debt - whether subprime borrowers, GM, Fannie, or GE - the U.S. Treasury has tried to minimize its interest burden by borrowing for short durations and then "rolling over" the loans when they come due. As they say on Wall Street, "a rolling debt collects no moss."

What they mean is, as long as you can extend the debt, you have no problem. Unfortunately, that leads folks to take on ever greater amounts of debt... at ever shorter durations... at ever lower interest rates. Sooner or later, the creditors wake up and ask themselves: What are the chances I will ever actually be repaid? And that's when the trouble starts. Interest rates go up dramatically. Funding costs soar. The party is over. Bankruptcy is next.

When governments go bankrupt, it's called a "default." Currency speculators figured out how to accurately predict when a country would default. Two well-known economists - Alan Greenspan and Pablo Guidotti - published the secret formula in a 1999 academic paper. The formula is called the Greenspan-Guidotti rule.

The rule states: To avoid a default, countries should maintain hard currency reserves equal to at least 100% of their short-term foreign debt maturities. The world's largest money-management firm, PIMCO, explains the rule this way: "The minimum benchmark of reserves equal to at least 100% of short-term external debt is known as the Greenspan-Guidotti rule. Greenspan-Guidotti is perhaps the single concept of reserve adequacy that has the most adherents and empirical support."

The principle behind the rule is simple. If you can't pay off all of your foreign debts in the next 12 months, you're a terrible credit risk. Speculators are going to target your bonds and your currency, making it impossible to refinance your debts. A default is assured.

So how does America rank on the Greenspan-Guidotti scale? It's a guaranteed default.

Read the rest at the link, but make sure you're not near any open windows or sharp objects.