Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Memory Lane

To listen to MSNBC and the people who write for the New York Times you would think that nasty, threatening rhetoric was actually invented by tea party conservatives. Never mind that it has proven very difficult to document most of the worst allegations made against tea-party protestors, let's give the Paul Krugmans and Keith Olbermanns of the world the benefit of the doubt and concede that there have indeed been some mean things said about our President and our congresspersons.

After all, some individuals have certainly expressed doubt about Mr. Obama's birthplace and thus the legitimacy of his holding the office of President; people are calling him awful names like socialist; many are so angry with his policies that they're threatening to launch a political "Armageddon" in November and "target" Democrats for defeat; people are portraying the President as the Joker, and they're doing and saying other unimaginable things as well.

All of this, we're given to believe, is a novel development in our politics, a quantum leap in vitriol and hate. Well, hardly. The tea partier rhetoric, such as it is, is the mere cooing of doves compared to what the Democrat rank and file treated us to during the Bush era. For those with short memories we offer this video as a sampling of what Democrat activists were saying in 2004. As you watch ask yourself if the media wouldn't be going off like a Roman candle if every time one of these people said "Bush," or "Left," or whatever, they had actually used the corresponding noun "Obama" or "Right," etc:

When Democrats use hateful rhetoric, well, that's to be expected. It scarcely makes the news, but if conservatives use it then the liberal media Chicken Littles scurry about covering the ears and screaming that they've never heard such terrible things ever in our whole modern history. These people are beyond parody.

HT: Hot Air


For Tanya

Some time ago we did a post based on a remark made by a woman named Tanya on another blog. I thought that as we approach Good Friday it might be worth running the post again, slightly edited.

Tanya's comment was provoked by an atheist at the other blog who had issued a mild rebuke to his fellow non-believers for their attempts to use the occasion of Christmas to deride Christian belief. In so doing, he exemplified the sort of attitude toward those with whom he disagrees one might wish all people, atheists and Christians alike, would adopt. Unfortunately, Tanya spoiled the mellow, can't-we-all-just-get-along mood by displaying a petulant asperity toward, and an unfortunate ignorance of, the orthodox Christian understanding of the atonement.

She wrote:

I've lived my life in a more holy way than most Christians I know. If it turns out I'm wrong, and some pissy little whiner god wants to send me away just because I didn't worship him, even though I lived a clean, decent life, he can bite me. I wouldn't want to live in that kind of "heaven" anyway. So sorry.

Tanya evidently thinks that "heaven" is, or should be, all about living a "clean, decent life." Perhaps the following tale will illustrate the sophomoric callowness of her misconception:

Once upon a time there was a handsome prince who was deeply in love with a young woman. We'll call her Tanya. The prince wanted Tanya to come and live with him in the wonderful city his father, the king, had built, but Tanya wasn't interested in either the prince or the city. The city was beautiful and wondrous, to be sure, but the inhabitants weren't particularly fun to be around, and she wanted to stay out in the countryside where the wild things grow. Even though the prince wooed Tanya with every gift he could think of, it was to no avail. She wasn't smitten at all by the "pissy little whiner" prince. She obeyed the laws of the kingdom and paid her taxes and was convinced that that was good enough.

Out beyond the countryside, however, dwelt dreadful, awful orc-like creatures who hated the king and wanted nothing more than to be rid of him and his heirs. One day they learned of the prince's love for Tanya and set upon a plan. They snuck into her village, kidnapped Tanya and sent a note to the king telling him that they would be willing to exchange her for the prince, but if their offer was refused they would torture Tanya until she was dead.

The king, distraught beyond words, told the prince of the horrible news. Despite all the rejections the prince had experienced from Tanya, he still loved her deeply, and his heart broke at the thought of her peril. With tears he resolved to his father that he would do the exchange. The father wept bitterly because the prince was his only son, but he knew that his love for Tanya would not allow him to let her suffer the torment to which the ugly people would surely subject her. The prince asked only that the father try his best to persuade Tanya to live safely in the beautiful city once she was ransomed.

And so the day came for the exchange, and the prince rode bravely and proudly bestride his steed out of the beautiful city to meet the ugly creatures. As he crossed an expansive meadow toward the camp of his mortal enemy he stopped to make sure they released Tanya. He waited until she was out of the camp, fleeing toward the safety of the king's city, oblivious in her near-panic that it was the prince himself she ran past as she hurried to the safety of the city walls. He could easily turn back now that Tanya was safe, but he had given his word that he would do the exchange, and the ugly people knew he would never go back on his word.

The prince continued stoically and resolutely into their midst, giving himself for Tanya as he had promised. Surrounding his steed they set upon him, stripped him of his princely raiment, and tortured him for three days in the most excruciating manner. Not once did any sound louder than a moan pass his lips. His courage and determination to endure whatever agonies to which they subjected him were strengthened by the assurance that he was doing it for Tanya and that because of his sacrifice she was safe. Finally, wearying of their sport, they cut off his head and threw his body onto a garbage heap.

Meanwhile, the grief-stricken king, his heart melting like ice within his breast, called Tanya into his court. He told her nothing of what his son had done, his pride in the prince not permitting him to use his son's heroic sacrifice as a bribe. Even so, he pleaded with Tanya, as he had promised the prince he would, to remain with him within the walls of the wondrous and beautiful city where she'd be safe forevermore. Tanya considered the offer, but she decided that she liked life on the outside far too much, even if it was risky, and she didn't really want to be in too close proximity to the prince, and, by the way, she asked the king, where is that pissy little whiner son of yours anyway?

Have a meaningful Good Friday. You, too, Tanya.


Collapse Scenario

A Washington Times article by David Dickson confronts us with some very troubling fiscal facts. According to last Thursday's Congressional Budget Office report President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget will generate nearly $10 trillion in cumulative budget deficits over the next 10 years - $1.2 trillion more than the administration projected - and raise the federal debt to 90 percent of the nation's economic output by 2020.

The federal public debt was $6.3 trillion when Mr. Obama entered office. It currently totals $8.2 trillion, and it's headed toward $20.3 trillion in 2020, according to the CBO's deficit estimates. This translates to a debt of $170,000 per household in ten years. How in the world does our political leadership think we're going to pay for that? If they were deliberately trying to drive this country over the cliff, as some think is the case, what would they do differently?

Hot Air's Ed Morrissey, in commenting on Dickson's column, offers some historical perspective:

The worst deficit under a Republican Congress was $400 billion in FY2004. It's also worth noting that the last budget produced by a Republican Congress spent $2.77 trillion (FY2007), and had a deficit of less than half of that peak. While Republican Congresses added almost $800 billion in annual spending to the budget in six years - an indefensible expansion - that pales in comparison to the $1.1 trillion added by Democratic Congresses in just three years. Under those conditions, the massive budget deficits shown in the CBO's graph are simply unavoidable, and the best of the next ten years is double the worst of the Republican Congress from 2001-7.

Don't expect that debt to come cheap, either. We're already seeing signs that our interest rates will have to go up in order to sell more paper, which will cause the deficit projections here to actually fall short of reality. We could be looking at a collapse scenario where we can't borrow enough to keep up with our interest payments by the time this decade concludes.

This CBO graph, from Hot Air, pretty much sums up the fiscal predicament the Obama administration has placed us in:

Pretty soon those of us who can remember will be waxing nostalgic for the good old days of the Carter presidency.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Hutaree Jihadis

The news outlets are telling us that authorities have arrested nine members of a midwestern group that was planning on murdering policemen.

We can all be glad that these reprehensible people are securely behind bars, but I have a bit of a quibble with the characterization of these criminals. Their organization is frequently referred to as a "right-wing Christian militia." Perhaps this is how they imagine themselves, but for the sake of accuracy it should be noted that it's not clear that they are "right-wing," they are certainly not "Christian," and the proper designation of the group is not "militia," but "terrorist organization."

I hesitate to call them "right-wing," although they may be, because their political views have not yet been brought to light. What we do know of them, however, makes them sound more like fascists. Fascism is an ideology of the left, not the right, and fascists have always been prone toward the trappings of militarism and a lust for violence. Moreover, violence directed toward police has always been characteristic in this country of extremist groups on the left. The "Hutaree" seem, in fact, to be a white version of the fascist, leftist black panthers or black Muslims of the 1960s.

Whatever their political linkages may be, though, they are not Christians religiously. Just because they recite a couple of Bible verses and believe a few dogmas that may be faintly Christian does not make them Christian any more than the Muslim belief in God and an afterlife makes them Christian. Jesus said that not everyone who speaks in his name is a disciple of his but rather it's he who does the will of his Father. Murdering innocent people is not the will of the Father of Jesus Christ. These people may call themselves Christian but, if so, they are CINOs (Christian In Name Only). They are no more Christian than Stalin was a humanitarian. They're even less Christian, as difficult as it is to imagine, than is the Westboro Baptist crowd.

Nor should their organization be called a "militia." To do so is to smear the name of an honorable tradition in American history. These people are not militia men, they're terrorists. Their machinations are indistinguishable from those of any al Qaeda cell and, indeed, they serve much the same purpose. But for the fact that they're United States citizens they should not be tried as criminals in civilian court but rather sent to Guantanamo to be tried by a military tribunal as enemy combatants.

I sympathize with those who are alarmed by our current government, and I agree with Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the founding fathers that a long chain of abuses may at some point prove unendurable, but we are right now very far from that point. We still have the right to vote, we still have the right to speak out against encroachments upon our freedom, we still have the right to undo through peaceful means whatever damage is done to our country through misguided political policies. To decide that there is no other recourse at this juncture than killing, to plan to murder the men and women who are working to protect us every day, as well as their families, is absolutely despicable.

Send them to Guantanamo and let them cohabit with the jihadis there. They have much in common.


A Serious Man

Imagine a movie made by Woody Allen whose script was written by Franz Kafka based on Albert Camus' Myth of Sisyphus and you have the Coen brothers' latest film, a dark comedy titled A Serious Man. The protaganist of the story is a Kafkaesque character (think of Joseph K. in The Trial) living in a world that seems completely inscrutable.

Aside from being a physics professor, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a very ordinary man, but his life is falling apart by the hour. His wife is in love with Gopnik's colleague and wants a divorce, his kids are incessant whiners, his socially inept brother has moved in and won't move out, a student tries to bribe and then sue him for a higher grade, and, as with Job whose enquiries among his friends for an explanation for his miseries were ultimately futile, no one Larry goes to for help has any answers. The more deeply we enter Gopnik's life the more surreal it all becomes. One can't help think that Larry's 1967 midwestern neighborhood is a concoction of the mind of Lewis Carroll, author of the logically bizarre world in Through the Looking Glass.

Larry Gopnik tries valiantly to make sense of it all, he strives to find the meaning in the trials he faces, but he never succeeds. The insanity of his life is invincible. None of the situations which plague him ever gets resolved. His life is absurd, and this seems to be what the Coen brothers' wanted to say in this film. This is the existential burden borne by modern man. His life seems meaningless, nothing is certain (the film makes a point of exploiting the weirdness of the principles of quantum physics), nothing makes sense, nothing is ever resolved. Even the structure of the film bears the stamp of this absurdity. The prologue of the film has nothing at all to do with the main story.

Even so, the movie is very well done and, for the philosophically-minded, very much worth watching (caution: it's R-rated for language, which is as irksome as it is jejunne, and one scene of sexuality). Some scenes are genuinely funny, there are multiple layers of symbolism to contemplate in the film, and those who ponder the point and purpose of human existence will find Larry Gopnik's life an excellent stimulus for reflection.


Obamacare's Shackles

There's a scene in the movie Amistad in which the captain of an illegal slave ship orders the crew to push the slaves, all chained together, overboard. The camera filming the slaves falling into the ocean looks up from about thirty feet below the surface, giving the viewer a horrifying underwater perspective of the slaves being drowned by the weight of their shackles.

That searing scene is a metaphor, perhaps, for what's already happening to our economy because of Obamacare. Captain Obama has given the order, first-mate Pelosi has carried it out and already the chains of government control are pulling American corporations underwater.

Here's the Wall Street Journal:

The Democratic political calculation with ObamaCare is the proverbial boiling frog: Gradually introduce a health-care entitlement by hiding the true costs, hook the middle class on new subsidies until they become unrepealable, but try to delay the adverse consequences and major new tax hikes so voters don't make the connection between their policy and the economic wreckage. But their bill was such a shoddy, jerry-rigged piece of work that the damage is coming sooner than even some critics expected.

What is that damage? As part of the bill Democrats decided to eliminate tax breaks given to companies that offer prescription drug benefits to their retirees instead of dumping them into Medicare. As a result AT&T announced yesterday that its profits will be reduced by $1 billion this year due solely to the health bill. Other corporations reporting massive losses include Deere & Co., $150 million; Caterpillar, $100 million; AK Steel, $31 million; 3M, $90 million; and Valero Energy, up to $20 million. Verizon has also warned its employees about its new higher health-care costs, and there will be many more in the coming days and weeks, according to the WSJ article.

Nancy Pelosi told us that we'd have to pass the bill to see what's in it, but that once we did the American people would love it. Maybe, but it's hard to love a bill that puts you out of work or keeps you from getting a job, and any policy which imposes huge costs on employers will have just that result.

When employers are losing money their employees suffer. Either they get laid off or they lose benefits. In either case Obamacare looks more and more like a heavy chain around the ankles of the nation's businesses. Given this burden, it's hard to see how there could be much improvement in the job market anytime soon.

My heart goes out to all the students graduating from college this spring who'll be trying to find a job to pay off their student loans. I wish them well, and I hope that next time they vote they'll attend more carefully to what the candidate will actually do once in office rather than, as so many students were in 2008, being seduced by the color of his skin and the eloquence of his words.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Birthright Citizenship

Those who are opposed to illegal immigration are often rebuked with what some apparently fancy to be a cogent argument. It goes something like this:

This nation was founded by immigrants. We're all descended from immigrants. Why should we deny others the opportunities that our ancestors had?

There are a number of difficulties with this line of reasoning, but to take just one, when our ancestors arrived the people already here were under no financial obligation to provide them with food, housing, education, and medical care. There was no welfare state. Our ancestors had to make their way by dint of their own industry.

In 1868 Congress ratified the 14th amendment which has since been interpreted to mandate that anyone born in the U.S. is ipso facto an American citizen. Given that Americans have obligated themselves to pay for many of their citizens' needs from cradle to grave, this "birthright citizenship" is an enormous incentive for people to emigrate here illegally, just so their children can enjoy the benefits provided by the beleaguered American taxpayer.

George Will, a Washington Post syndicated columnist, believes that we can no longer afford such magnanimity. He notes that:

[M]ore than two-thirds of all births in Los Angeles public hospitals, and more than half of all births in that city, and nearly 10 percent of all births in the nation in recent years, have been to mothers who are here illegally.

All of these children are now citizens entitled to their fair share of "Obama's stash" i.e. our tax dollars. They and their parents are placing an enormous strain on California's fiscal health. Indeed, the costs of illegal immigration are a major reason California teeters on the precipice of bankruptcy.

Will says it's time to end birthright citizenship to people who are here illegally, and that doing so would cool much of the antipathy toward immigration reform. I think he's right. Read his argument at the link. Meanwhile, those who are interested might want to check out our own proposal for immigration reform. If so, go here and scroll down to Addressing Illegal Immigration.


Intellectual Malpractice at the NYT

A reader named Brian passes along a link to a column at the New York Times by Charles Blow which illustrates one of the more troublesome aspects of our contemporary political discourse. Blow writes:

The far-right extremists have gone into conniptions. The bullying, threats, and acts of violence following the passage of health care reform have been shocking, but they're only the most recent manifestations of an increasing sense of desperation.

I say this is troubling because Blow, like others, just throws out the charge that the "far-right extremists" have been issuing threats and engaging in acts of violence, but he nowhere documents any of the alleged misconduct. He just expects us to accept his word that it's happening. The charge is made, the media report it, and it becomes common knowledge without anyone ever verifying that it actually happened.

Like those who've accused the right of fomenting hate and of telling lies about health care, I'd like to know what form, exactly do these lies and this hate take, and who, exactly, is doing it? Paul Ryan? Tom Coburn? Facts would be nice, but Blow's not interested in facts. The "narrative" of conservative hate has purchase with his readers, I suppose, so it becomes their truth regardless of the objective facts of the matter.

Meanwhile, the police have indeed arrested a Philadelphia man for threatening to kill a Congressman and his family, but unfortunately for Blow's narrative the threat was directed at an opponent of Obama's health care reform, Republican Eric Cantor, by an apparent Obama supporter.

It's as easy as it is irresponsible to simply assert that there's hatred, violence, and mendacity among the tea-partiers and other conservatives, but unless the charge is backed up by evidence it's little more than a slanderous cheap shot.

Blow goes on in his column to display an alarming lack of political perspicacity as he sheds crocodile tears for the tea-party folks:

Even the optics must be irritating. A woman (Nancy Pelosi) pushed the health care bill through the House. The bill's most visible and vocal proponents included a gay man (Barney Frank) and a Jew (Anthony Weiner). And the black man in the White House signed the bill into law. It's enough to make a good old boy go crazy. Hence their anger and frustration, which is playing out in ways large and small.

This borders on being simple-minded. Conservatives are not frustrated because the perpetrators of incipient socialism are female, Jewish and black. Is Blow completely daft? Who, if they had their way, would the tea-party folk have selected for their president among the four candidates on the major party tickets in 2008? Sarah Palin. Who is one of the tea-party heroes among the GOP caucus? Eric Cantor, a Jew. Who is one of the most admired men in America among conservatives? Clarence Thomas, a black Supreme Court Justice.

Though people like Blow, who see everything through the lens of race, gender, and ethnicity, may find this hard to believe, these superficialities are not what stoke conservative anger. What pushes their buttons is ideology. Conservatives oppose Obama not because he's black but because his progressive ideology has brought nothing but economic malaise everywhere it's been implemented. Blow, however, can't seem to get his mind around that simple fact, choosing instead to live by a syllogism that goes like this:

Obama is black. Conservatives oppose Obama. Therefore, conservatives oppose Obama because he's black.

This is a pretty pathetic credo, of course, but the Charles Blows of the world evidently consider it irrefutable.

Brian sums up the piece this way:

Mr. Blow's article appears to be a taunting of those who care for the future with the facts of the past - though worthless in terms of insight it does serve as a boldfaced statement of what the Left thinks the Right stands for.

The fact is that conservatives long ago got past race and gender. It's time that the progressives caught up.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Ant and the Grasshopper

The debate over the President's plans to "transform" America have reminded some of the old fable of the ant and the grasshopper. You'll recall that the story goes like this:

The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The grasshopper thinks the ant is a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away. Come winter, the ant is warm and well fed. The grasshopper has no food or shelter, so he dies out in the cold.

The moral, of course, is that we should all work hard and be responsible for ourselves.

The Democrats have revised this venerable tale, however, so that it now reads something like this:

The ant works hard in the withering heat and rain all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The ant worked hard in school as well, earned an education, waited until he was married before having children, and remained faithful to his ant-wife. The grasshopper thinks the ant is a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away. The grasshopper couldn't care less about school, sleeps with whichever other grasshopper will have him, and lives life in a haze of drugs, alcohol, cheese curls and television shows.

Come winter, the shivering grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while he's cold, hungry and without health insurance. The major networks all show up to provide pictures of the shivering grasshopper next to a video of the ant snug in his comfortable home with a refrigerator filled with food. America is stunned by the sharp contrast. How can this be, that in a country of such wealth, this poor grasshopper is allowed to suffer so?

Acorn and SEIU stage demonstrations in front of the ant's house where the news stations film them singing, "We shall overcome." Rev. Al Sharpton leads the group in a prayer for the grasshopper's sake and condemns the ant for his lack of compassion.

President Obama also publicly chastises the ant and blames President Bush and Israel for the grasshopper's plight. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid exclaim in an interview with Keith Olbermann that the ant has gotten rich off the back of the grasshopper, and all three call for a tax hike on the ant to make him pay his fair share and "spread the wealth around."

No longer able to pay his employees or his mortgage because of the tax burdens that have been imposed on him, the ant has to sell both his business and his home which the government buys and gives to the grasshopper because a job and a home are human rights.

The story ends as we see the grasshopper and his friends, sleeping till noon, and then finishing up the last bits of the ant's food while the business fails and the house crumbles around them because the grasshopper doesn't maintain it.

The ant has dropped out of sight, never to be seen again. The grasshopper is eventually found dead in a drug related incident, and the house, now abandoned, is taken over by a gang of spiders who terrorize the ramshackle, once prosperous and peaceful neighborhood.

The moral of the story, of course, is that we get what we vote for.

President Obama is determined to make the ants, which comprise about 25% of the population and which pays about 87% of the nation's income taxes, pull the wagon full of grasshoppers which make up about 50% of our nation and pay almost no income tax. On top of that the top 25% will now have to pay the health insurance costs for 30 million people (50 million if they pass amnesty for illegal aliens). Ants are strong. They can carry loads a hundred times their own weight, but they can't carry all those grasshoppers.


Going Global

My brother Bill, who maintains our site on his server, sends along some info about Viewpoint's reach. We are apparently ranked number 7,851,667 in the world for traffic (I don't know how many blogs there are around the world. Probably about 7,900,000.). We've also received visitors from over 100 countries since January 1st. Here's the breakdown of countries from which we've had at least ten hits in the last three months:

  • 19699 United States
  • 632 Russian Federation
  • 525 France
  • 466 United Kingdom
  • 407 Canada
  • 354 China
  • 245 Sweden
  • 152 Australia
  • 126 India
  • 124 Netherlands
  • 121 Philippines
  • 118 Germany
  • 111 Ukraine
  • 67 Italy
  • 56 Poland
  • 53 unknown
  • 52 Burkina Faso
  • 49 Brazil
  • 44 Japan
  • 43 Israel
  • 40 Iran, Islamic Republic of
  • 39 Korea, Republic of
  • 36 Iraq
  • 30 Belgium
  • 30 Czech Republic
  • 30 Norway
  • 29 Denmark
  • 29 Hungary
  • 29 Ireland
  • 29 Romania
  • 28 Mexico
  • 25 Greece
  • 24 South Africa
  • 23 Pakistan
  • 22 Luxembourg
  • 22 United Arab Emirates
  • 21 Malaysia
  • 20 Turkey
  • 18 Finland
  • 17 Portugal
  • 14 Belize
  • 14 Egypt
  • 14 Indonesia
  • 14 Saudi Arabia
  • 14 Slovenia
  • 13 New Zealand
  • 13 Thailand
  • 12 Croatia
  • 12 Taiwan
  • 11 Switzerland
  • 10 Bulgaria

I don't know what this means, if anything, but I thought it was interesting.


Friday, March 26, 2010

Hate Speech

My friend Byron passes along an email from the left-wing group demanding that the Republican leadership disavow all hateful rhetoric and violent actions allegedly emanating from the right in the wake of the health care debate.

Now, to the extent that anyone on the right actually threatened anyone in Congress, it's certainly reprehensible. To the extent that some members of Congress were called names, it's disappointing. That said, these people at make me laugh. They were utterly silent when tea-partiers were being called "tea-baggers" (a sleazy sexual reference) over and over again on MSNBC and elsewhere, but now they're outraged that some tea-partier allegedly called Barney Frank a "fag." They were outraged that a protestor may have called John Lewis a "nigger" last Saturday (though nobody but Lewis seems to have heard it), but were utterly silent when two SEIU thugs called Kenneth Gladney a nigger, knocked him to the ground and kicked him, putting him in the hospital last summer. Gladney, a 130 pound diabetic, was simply handing out flags at a town hall meeting.

The crowd are beside themselves that congressmen are receiving hate mail and people are turning up outside their houses to protest their health care reform vote, but they uttered not a peep when Sarah Palin and George Bush were burned in effigy and when protestors were gathering outside the homes of AIG executives and menacing them and their families.

Nor did the Left have anything much to say when Alec Baldwin told a late-night television audience that they should all go to the home of the late pro-life Congressman Henry Hyde and stone him to death, him and his family. Nor was the Left moved to object when Julianne Malveux, a television personality, told her viewers that she hoped Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' wife would feed him lots of artery-clogging foods so that he'd have a heart attack and die.

Some of the mail our congresspersons are receiving is no doubt disgusting, but it's like being sent Valentine's cards compared to what people like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, et al. are subjected to every day, yet no one at MoveOn has done anything I'm aware of to persuade Democrats to disavow the hate directed at conservatives. Indeed, Chris Matthews once said on a morning news show that he'd like to see Rush Limbaugh blown to pieces like a character in a James Bond movie. Then there was the Nobel Peace Prize winner who told a class of school children that she could kill George Bush. What did have to say about that? Nothing that I remember. Our President even counts among his friends people who bombed buildings and, in the case of Bill Ayers' wife, Bernadine Dohrn, were implicated in terrorist murder. Yet MoveOn has never bestirred itself to demand that Mr. Obama disavow his violent friends.

MoveOn is indignant that some Democrats' campaign offices were vandalized, but they said nothing when John McCain's campaign offices were trashed. They're irate that a coffin was left in a congressman's yard, but the people who left it were actually conducting a prayer vigil for the congressman, and the coffin was used to symbolize the death of liberty. The Left is angry that people called Bart Stupak and wished he'd drown himself, but this happened before he caved on the health care bill's abortion language. The caller was apparently a Democrat angry that Stupak stood in the way of passing the bill.

I very much regret the turn that our public discourse has taken, but vitriolic attacks are almost exclusively a phenomenon of the Left going back to the Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. MoveOn itself has contributed to the degraded tenor of our discourse by sponsoring an ad two years ago that called General Petraeus a traitor to his country.

And now they're in a snit because someone in a crowd of demonstrators may have responded to what seemed to be a deliberate provocation by a group of black congressmen by casting a slur? They're incensed because one of the congressmen was apparently sprayed with spittle from an over-exuberant protestor shouting his demand that congress "kill the bill?" They're upset because a woman called a congressman and told him that a lot of people wish him ill? Talk about straining gnats and swallowing camels.

Go to Hot Air for more on the coffin and supposed spitting incidents. You can witness the heinous crime here at about the 1:30 mark:

What may be most disturbing about the over-the-line rhetoric afflicting our politics is that the liberal media and the Democrats seem to be sensitive to it only when it comes from the right. In defense of the media, though, perhaps there's a legitimate reason for that. Perhaps it's because it's so unusual to find people on the right acting poorly that it's startling and thus newsworthy when it happens. On the other hand, maybe the media simply expects such behavior from the Left and regards it as nothing unusual and thus not particularly worthy of comment.


Recognizing Design

David Coppedge places tongue in cheek and chides University of Kansas anthropologist John Hoopes for concluding that the stone spheres he's studying in Costa Rica were intelligently designed:

Coppedge writes:

An archaeologist has been studying stone spheres in Costa Rica and has concluded they were designed.

According to PhysOrg, he doesn't know who made the spheres, when they were made, or why they were made. Why is he jumping to a conclusion of intelligent design? He should be considering natural explanations. There are plenty of natural forces that can make a sphere and even simulate hammer marks. By concluding design, he has brought the scientific investigation of these stones to a standstill.

To be a scientist, you can't take the easy way out and assume design every time you see something you can't explain. Some designer, too; some of the stones are up to two inches out of round. Who is the designer? And who designed the designer? Science is supposed to be about natural explanations for natural phenomena. These stones are perfectly natural; they are not made up of some angelic material or something. If this professor doesn't have a good enough imagination to make up a naturalistic story, he doesn't belong in science.

Every sentence in Coppedge's little satire is taken from arguments that have been used by Darwinians against those who believe that the enormous complexity of the hundreds of molecular machines which perform incredibly sophisticated operations in living cells is the product of blind chance and natural forces. There is no justification, the Darwinian insists, for thinking that these biomachines are the product of an intelligent agent, but simple round rocks, on the other hand, well, they're obviously the work of purposeful artisans.

Pretty funny.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum*

Philosopher Michael Ruse offers a very odd argument on behalf of the proposition that we don't need God to have morality. Like Nietzsche's Zarathustra he announces that there is no God. He also proclaims that there are, therefore, no grounds for morality. Morality is an illusion, he avers, but, and here's where the argument begins to go seriously awry, he insists we should be "good" anyway. Why? Because natural selection commands it. This is, to say the very least, an unpersuasive claim.

Here's Ruse:

God is dead, so why should I be good? The answer is that there are no grounds whatsoever for being good. There is no celestial headmaster who is going to give you six (or six billion, billion, billion) of the best if you are bad. Morality is flimflam.

Does this mean that you can just go out and rape and pillage, behave like an ancient Roman grabbing Sabine women? Not at all.

Ruse here assumes that there actually is a "good" and a "bad," but what could they be? Perhaps it is good to promote human happiness, but then why is it bad to promote only my happiness? Why is it bad to be selfish? Is it bad because it hurts others? Well, why is hurting others bad? Is it bad because they don't like it? Why should anyone care what others like?

Ruse again:

Morality then is not something handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is something forged in the struggle for existence and reproduction, something fashioned by natural selection.

So morality has to come across as something that is more than emotion. It has to appear to be objective, even though really it is subjective. "Why should I be good? Why should you be good? Because that is what morality demands of us. It is bigger than the both of us. It is laid on us and we must accept it, just like we must accept that 2 + 2 = 4."

This has all the symptoms of a tautology. Ruse says in essence that we should be good because, well, we should be good. We should obey the demands of morality because morality demands that we obey them.

He goes on:

Am I now giving the game away? Now you know that morality is an illusion put in place by your genes to make you a social cooperator, what's to stop you behaving like an ancient Roman? Well, nothing in an objective sense. But you are still a human with your gene-based psychology working flat out to make you think you should be moral. It has been said that the truth will set you free. Don't believe it. David Hume knew the score. It doesn't matter how much philosophical reflection can show that your beliefs and behaviour have no rational foundation, your psychology will make sure you go on living in a normal, happy manner.

Ruse's argument seems to be that what people call moral behavior is a non-rational illusion but that we should go along with the illusion because it's psychologically satisfying. Well. What if my psychological impulses direct me to exterminate people unlike myself (a very Darwinian possibility), or what if my psychological yearnings induce me to rape, steal, and torture? If these behaviors are a product of my psychology how would Ruse judge them to be bad? Are all psychological inclinations worth following or just some? How do we discern which should be followed and which should not? Neither our psychology nor our genes tell us we should care about strangers. Indeed, they tell us over and over again in a myriad of ways that we should be selfish, so why should we not be?

In any case, Ruse's whole argument is based on a fallacy called the naturalistic fallacy. It's the error of trying to derive an "ought" from an "is." It's the error of saying that because nature is a certain way that therefore it should be that way. It's the error of saying that a behavior must be right if it's found in nature. Most atheists gave up trying to base morality on nature and nature's evolution a long time ago, but since they've nothing else to justify their moral judgments some of them, like Ruse, try every now and then to sneak it back in.

Ruse concludes with this:

God is dead. Morality has no foundation. Long live morality.

If God really is dead, Dostoyevsky reminds us, everything is permitted. There simply are no moral duties. Moral judgments are nothing more than statements about our likes and dislikes. To say that cruelty is wrong is to say only that I don't like cruelty. If morality is subjective, as Ruse claims, then right and wrong are just matters of personal taste. To assert that slaughtering whales is wrong is like asserting that liking anchovies on one's pizza is wrong. To insist that kindness is better than cruelty is like insisting that Coke is better than Pepsi.

Contra Ruse, if God is dead then so is the notion of moral obligation, moral good and bad, and moral judgment. The only way one can hold onto any meaningful morality, the only way one's moral judgments can have force, the only way the claim that some act is morally wrong can have any significance is if there is a transcendent moral authority who has established an objective moral law.

Ruse's essay affords us an excellent illustration of the futility of trying to have morality while rejecting it's only possible foundation.

* Concerning matters of taste there is no dispute.


Neither Is the Left Happy

Byron links us to an article by Chris Hedges, a leftist writer, who offers us an analysis of Obamacare from the perspective of the far-left. They're not happy campers and they shouldn't be. What the media is calling health care reform is, in Hedges' view, little more than a massively expensive pork barrel project that will wind up helping very few people:

The claims made by the proponents of the bill are the usual deceptive corporate advertising. The bill will not expand coverage to 30 million uninsured, especially since government subsidies will not take effect until 2014.

Families who cannot pay the high premiums, deductibles and co-payments, estimated to be between 15 and 18 percent of most family incomes, will have to default, increasing the number of uninsured. Insurance companies can unilaterally raise prices without ceilings or caps and monopolize local markets to shut out competitors. The $1.055 trillion spent over the next decade will add new layers of bureaucratic red tape to what is an unmanageable and ultimately unsustainable system.

The mendacity of the Democratic leadership in the face of this reality is staggering. Howard Dean, who is a doctor, said recently: "This is a vote about one thing: Are you for the insurance companies or are you for the American people?" Here is a man who once championed the public option and now has sold his soul. What is the point in supporting him or any of the other Democrats? How much more craven can they get?

As is sometimes the case the value of the Left is that they often make us aware of problems we might otherwise have overlooked. They were right to call our attention to the need to reform health care. The problem is that their solutions to the problems they diagnose are often awful. In this case Hedges' solution is total government control of health care, a solution which is crushingly expensive and which has worked well nowhere else in the world.

In order to pay for the current plan, Charles Krauthammer predicts, there will by next year be a massive effort to pass a national European-style sales tax. This, if it transpires, would violate another of President Obama's pledges to the American people, i.e. his promise that no one making less than $250,000 would see their taxes go up.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Premoderns and Postmoderns (Pt. III)

This is the third in the series of reflections on Joseph Bottum's essay titled Christians and Postmoderns. See here and here for the two previous posts on his essay.

Bottum writes that:

Believers should not become entangled in the defense of modern times. This is the key - the postmodern attack on modernity is right: without God, essences are the will to power. Without God, every attempt to call something true or beautiful or good is actually an attempt to compel other people to agree.

Of course believers are tempted, when they hear postmodern deconstructions of modernity, to argue in support of modernity. After all, believers share with modern nonbelievers a trust in the reality of truth. They affirm the efficacy of human action, the movement of history towards a goal, the possibility of moral and aesthetic judgments. But believers share with postmoderns the recognition that truth rests on a faith that has itself been the sole subject of the long attack of modern times. The most foolish thing believers could do is to make concessions now to a modernity that is already bankrupt (and that despises them anyway) and thus to make themselves subject to a second attack-the attack of the postmodern on the modern. Faithful believers are not responsible for the emptiness of modernity. They struggled against it for as long as they could, and they must not give in now. They must not, at this late date, become scientific, bureaucratic, and technological; skeptical, self-conscious, and self-mocking.

Premoderns are torn between modernity and postmodernity precisely because they share so much in common with both. They bristle at the withering assaults of the postmoderns on the modern belief in objective truth, particularly truth about morals. Yet they are in fundamental agreement with the postmodern critique of the futility of modernity's attempt to ground meaning and truth in the shifting sands of positivism, or the scientific method, or whatever. They recognize that modernity reduces man to a machine and thus robs him of his dignity and worth and inevitably his human rights.

We live in a tragically empty age, one in which the promises of secular reason to usher in a golden era of enlightenment and knowledge were dashed on the rocks of two world wars and the bloodiest century in human history. Postmoderns rightly ridicule the impotence of reason, it's utter inability to offer human beings meaning or to lead us into a humanist nirvana, but they offer nothing in its place other than subjectivity and nihilism.

We can't go back to the premodern era, of course, nor would many of us want to. Modernity, despite its failures and shortcomings, has made the physical burdens of life immeasurably easier to bear. Perhaps, though, we could, if we really set our minds to it, import the crucial assumptions of the premodern age about the necessity of a transcendent foundation for knowledge, meaning, morals and human nature into our present era.


How to Stop Obamacare

A number of strategists, including John Hawkins at Right Wing News, have laid out a simple plan Republicans could follow in 2011 to effectively neuter Obamacare without having to achieve a supermajority in the Senate. They would, though, have to recapture the House.

Here's Hawkins:

The problem with doing a full repeal of Obamacare is that it will take a majority in the House, the presidency, and 60 votes in the Senate.

Were I a betting man, I'd say condition one is very likely by 2012, condition 2 is definitely possible, but condition 3 is basically out of reach given that we only have 41 Senators right now. By 2014? Maybe, but under any circumstances, getting to 60 Senators is always extraordinarily difficult. Of course, we may be able to peel off some Democratic votes, but there's no guarantee that will happen.

So, how do we kill Obamacare?

The IRS might have to hire as many as 16,000 new employees to enforce all the new taxes and penalties the bill calls for! And that doesn't include all the other government jobs from the 159 new agencies, panels, commissions and departments this bill will create.

What does it take to fund all those government jobs, agencies, panels, and commissions? Tax dollars.

Now, who controls the purse strings? Congress. How many votes do we need via reconciliation to make budget changes? 51.

Hawkins suggests that if the GOP controls the House they could effectively end Obamacare even without a senate supermajority, and even with President Obama still in office, simply by refusing to fund the bureaucracy that sustains it. Read the rest at the link.

The most important thing, though, is to continue explaining to the American people exactly how this bill will harm Americans as it is implemented, and to convince them through clear, calm argument why it needs to be reversed, and to persuade them that they can help by voting for people in November who'll work to reverse it.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Restoring Faith in Politicians

I had a conversation with my neighbor the other day in which we both agreed that were it not for the fact that we each wanted to be able to vote in primary elections we'd be tempted to register as Independents. Even as I was agreeing with him, though, I was thinking that there really are a lot of good people in the party with which I'm affiliated (the GOP), people that I think are the future both of the party and of our nation, and that perhaps I shouldn't give up on the Republican party just yet.

One of these points of light is Congressman Paul Ryan who has been very impressive throughout the health care debate in arguing that the bill that has just been signed into law is an irresponsible, even disastrous, piece of legislation.

Here's Ryan making his case to Politico's Mike Allen:

Paul Ryan is a nightmare for the Democrats. He's bright and knows what he's talking about. Here's more of Politico's interview with him:

Like I said, he's an impressive guy. People like him are such a refreshing change from the sort of politician who's always walking right on the edge of ethical propriety, who's more concerned with winning than with doing what's right. If the American people ever have their faith restored in politicians it'll be because of men and women like Congressman Ryan.


Personally Opposed, But ...

You've doubtless heard politicians justify their support for an unlimited abortion license by saying something like this, "I'm personally opposed to abortion, but I wouldn't want to stand in the way of someone else who wanted to have one."

Robert P. George once did a clever riff on this rather odd rationalization. Here's what he wrote:

I am personally opposed to killing abortionists. However, inasmuch as my personal opposition to this practice is rooted in a sectarian (Catholic) religious belief in the sanctity of human life, I am unwilling to oppose it on others who may, as a matter of conscience, take a different view.

Of course I am entirely in favor of policies aimed at removing the root causes of violence against abortionists. Indeed, I would go so far as to support mandatory one-week waiting periods, and even non-judgmental counseling, for people who are contemplating the choice of killing an abortionist. I believe in policies that reduce the urgent need some people feel to kill abortionists while, at the same time, respecting the rights of conscience of my fellow citizens who believe that the killing of abortionists is sometimes a tragic necessity - not a good but a lesser evil.

In short I am moderately pro-choice.

So here's the exit question: If the "personally opposed but..." argument is adequate justification for allowing a woman to abort for whatever reason she chooses, why is it not also a justification for refusing to condemn the murder of abortion providers?

Just asking.


Premoderns and Postmoderns (Pt. II)

I'd like to continue our look at the First Things essay (Christians and Postmoderns) by Joseph Bottum that we began yesterday.

Bottum writes that:

[T]he massive scientific advance of modernity reveals how easy it is to discover facts, and modernity's collapse reveals how hard it is to hold knowledge. We have an apparatus for discovery unrivaled by the ages, yet every new fact means less than the previously discovered one, for we lack what turns facts to knowledge: the information of what the facts are for.

Precisely so. Modernity offers us no satisfying interpretive framework for assigning meaning to the facts discovered by science. It attempts to supply the need for such a framework by interpreting everything in terms of evolutionary development, but the view that each of us is just a meaningless cipher in the grand flow of time and evolution fails somehow to quench our deepest longings. According to the modern worldview there really is no purpose for the existence of anything. The facts discovered by science, as important as they may be for the furtherance of our technology, don't really have any metaphysical significance. Like everything else, they're just there.

And so "we must learn to live after truth," as a group of European academics wrote in After Truth: A Postmodern Manifesto. "Nothing is certain, not even this . . . The modern age opened with the destruction of God and religion. It is ending with the threatened destruction of all coherent thought." Nietzsche may have been the first to see this clearly .... But, even in the fundamental thinkers of high modernity, hints can be found that knowledge requires God: Descartes uses God in the Meditations in order to escape from the interiority where the cogito has stranded him; Kant uses God as a postulate of pure practical reason in order to hold on to the possibility of morality.

What believers have in common with postmoderns is a distrust of modern claims to knowledge. To be a believer, however, is to be subject to an attack that postmoderns, holding truthlessness to themselves like a lover, never have to face. The history of modernity in the West is in many ways nothing more than the effort to destroy medieval faith. It is a three-hundred-year attempt to demolish medieval (especially Catholic) claims to authority, and to substitute a structure of science and ethics based solely on human rationality.

But with the failure to discover any such rational structure-seen by the postmoderns-the only portion of the modern project still available to a modern is the destruction of faith. It should not surprise us that, in very recent times, attacks on what little is left of medieval belief have become more outrageous: resurgent anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic broadsides, vicious mockery of evangelical preaching, desecrations of the Host in Catholic masses. For modern men and women, nothing else remains of the high moral project of modernity: these attacks are the only good thing left to do. The attackers are convinced of the morality of their attack not by the certainty of their aims-who's to say what's right or wrong?-but by opposition from believers.

I take Bottum to be saying here that modernity, in its death throes, wishes only to finish the business of killing off God, or at least belief in God. Modernity has nothing else to offer. It cannot give answers to any of life's most gripping existential questions. Nowhere in the writings of the anti-theists at large today do we find an answer to any of the following: Why is the universe here? How did life come about? Why is the universe so magnificently fine-tuned for life? Where did human consciousness come from? Why do we feel joy when we encounter beauty? How can we prove that our reason is reliable without using reason to prove it? How can we account for our conviction that we have free will? What obligates us to care about others? Why do we feel guilt? Who do I refer to when I refer to myself? What gives human beings worth, dignity, and rights? If death is the end justice is unattainable, so why do we yearn for it? Why do we need meaning and purpose? What is our purpose?

Ask the Richard Dawkins' of the world those questions and all you'll get in reply is a shrug of the shoulders or a recitation of the historical crimes of the Church. They dodge the question because they have no answer. This is a bit ironic: Neither modern nor postmodern atheism has an answer to the most profound questions we can ask. The only possible answer lies in the God of the "premodern" and this is the one solution to man's existential emptiness that the modern and postmodern atheist simply cannot abide.

More tomorrow.


Monday, March 22, 2010

The Bright Side

"Longer wait times, fewer doctors, more bureaucracy, massive IRS expansion, explosive debt, the end of the Pax Americana, and global Armageddon. Must try to look on the bright side." Mark Steyn commenting at NRO on the consequences of passing Obamacare.

The bright side, if you can call it that, is that Americans got what they voted for in the last two elections. In choosing to reward Democrats with power we declared ourselves eager for higher taxes, higher spending, greater debt, bloated bureaucracy, a corrupt political process, and a weaker military. This is, of course, what the Democrat party has stood for ever since the sixties, but they've never had enough political clout to put their most radical ideas into practice. Now they do, and, unless the most recent incarnation of those ideas, Obamacare, is repealed, we'll be paying for it for the rest of our lives.

There've been lots of predictions over the last several weeks of a massive defeat of Democrats in the next two election cycles, given the ugly manner in which they passed an enormously unpopular bill. The party leadership demanded that the rank and file fall on their political swords for the sake of the cause, and many of them dutifully obliged. The voters, we've been assured, will hold them accountable:

Even so, I'm not so sure. A lot can happen in the next two years that may cause hostility toward the Democrats to wane. Here's my prediction, for the little that it's worth: If the economy turns around the Democrats will weather this current storm and their losses in November and in 2012 won't be quite as severe as they're being projected to be. If the economy doesn't improve, however, then resentments over Obamacare will exacerbate the electorate's distaste for Democrat policies, and the party will suffer major losses at the polls, especially this Fall.

In the meantime I think the town hall meetings will afford great entertainment this summer.


Premoderns and Postmoderns (Pt. I)

There are in the West three ways to look at the world, three worldviews which serve as lenses through which we interpret the experiences of our lives. Those three worldviews are essentially distinguished by their view of God, truth, and the era in which they were dominant among the cultural elite. We may, with some license, label these the premodern, modern, and postmodern. The premodern, lasting from ancient times until the Enlightenment (17th century), was essentially Christian. The modern, which lasted until roughly WWII, was essentially naturalistic and secular, and the postmodern, which has been with us now for a couple of generations, is hostile to the Enlightenment emphasis on Reason and objective truth.

I recently came across a wonderful treatment of the tension between these three "metanarratives" in an essay written by medieval scholar Joseph Bottum for First Things back in 1994. FT has recently reprinted his article in an anniversary issue (Bottum is now editor of the journal), and I thought it would be useful to touch on some of the highlights.

Bear in mind that although the terms premodern, modern and postmodern refer to historical eras there are people who exemplify the qualities of each of these in every era, including our own. Thus though we live in a postmodern age due to the dominance of postmodern assumptions among the shapers of contemporary thought, there are lots of premoderns and moderns around. Indeed, outside the academy I suspect most people are either premodern or modern in their outlook.

About a quarter of the way into his essay Bottum, writing on behalf of the Christian (premodern) worldview, says this:

We cannot revert to the premodern, we cannot return to the age of faith, for we were all of us raised as moderns.

And yet, though we cannot revert, we nonetheless have resources that may help us to advance beyond these late times. The modern project that attacked the Middle Ages has itself been under attack for some time. For some time, hyper-modern writers have brought to bear against their modern past the same sort of scarifying analysis that earlier modern writers brought against the premodern past. These later writers, supposing the modern destruction of God to be complete, have turned their postmodern attacks upon the modern project of Enlightenment rationality.

The postmodern project is, as Francois Lyotard put it, a suspicion of all metanarratives based on reason. It rejects the Enlightenment confidence that human reason can lead us to truth about the world, particularly truth about the important matters of meaning, religion and morality. Indeed, postmodern thinkers are skeptical of any claims to a "truth" beyond simple empirical facts.

Bottum continues:

In some sense, of course, these words premodern, modern, and postmodern are too slippery to mean much. Taken to refer to the history of ideas, they seem to name the periods before, during, and after the Enlightenment, but taken to refer to the history of events, they seem to name the period from creation to the rise of science, the period from the rise of science until World War II, and the period since the war. It is tempting to define the categories philosophically, rather than historically, around the recognition that knowledge depends upon the existence of God. But the better modern philosophers (e.g., Descartes and Kant, as opposed to, say, Voltaire) recognize that dependence in some way or another. Perhaps, though definitions based on intent are always weak, the best definition nonetheless involves intent: it is premodern to seek beyond rational knowledge for God; it is modern to desire to hold knowledge in the structures of human rationality (with or without God); it is postmodern to see the impossibility of such knowledge.

In other words, premoderns believe we can have knowledge of God through direct experience apart from reason. As Pascal put it, "The heart has reasons that reason can never know." Moderns believe that knowledge can only come through the exercise of our reason. Postmoderns hold that moderns are deluding themselves. None of us can separate our reason from our biases, prejudices, experiences and so on, all of which shape our perspective and color the lenses through which we view the world. For the postmodern there is no such thing as objective reason or truth.

Bottum again:

The premoderns said that without God, there would be no knowledge, and the postmoderns say we have no God and have no knowledge. The premoderns said that without the purposefulness of final causation, all things would be equally valueless, and the postmoderns say there is no purpose and no value. The premoderns said that without an identity of reality and the Good, there would be no right and wrong, and the postmoderns say there is neither Good nor right and wrong. Though they disagree on whether God exists, premoderns and postmoderns share the major premise that knowing requires His existence. Only for a brief period in the history of the West-the period of modern times-did anyone seriously suppose that human beings could hold knowledge without God.

Here is an interesting insight. Christians hold in common with modern atheists that there is objective truth, that there is meaning to life, and that there is moral right and wrong. At the same time they hold in common with postmodern atheists (not all postmoderns are atheists, it should be stressed) that none of those beliefs can be sustained unless there is a God. Does this, as Bottum alleges, put Christians closer to postmoderns than to moderns?

More tomorrow.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Re: Real School Reform

Our post last Wednesday on Real School Reform generated a lot of comment, much of it thoughtful. The responses tended to fall into two groups: Those who are taxpayers with children in school and those who are still pursuing an education degree with hopes of some day being a teacher. The former group tended to agree with the basic theme of the post, the latter group tended to be outraged by it. The former group were fairly uniform in saying that they don't want their child in a classroom where the teacher cannot teach. Those in the latter group generally expressed the view that disruptive students should be viewed as a challenge, that it would be reprehensible to just give up on them, and that any teacher who felt that such students should be expelled from school is not worthy of being in the classroom.

To the extent that this second group volunteered the information they were often elementary ed majors, and I certainly did not intend to suggest that I think elementary children should be expelled, unless they are very deeply troubled and a danger to their classmates. My post was directed, though, at a serious problem among high school students, a group with which I've had some experience.

What we need to do as a society, I guess, is have a conversation about what we want our schools to accomplish and what the order of priorities should be. Do we want our schools to be educational facilities? Do we want them to be athletic mills? Do we want them to be social rehabilitation centers? Whatever our highest priority is all else should be subordinated to that goal. If the priority is to give our young people the best education we can provide for them then we need to remove, to the extent we are able, everything that prevents us from achieving that goal.

Taxpayers are paying teachers to be educators, not to be social workers. When a student is chronically disruptive, disrespectful, violent, or threatening, he brings education to a grinding halt, he cheats his fellow students out of a better future, he robs taxpayers of their investment in the school, and he demoralizes good teachers who entered the profession excited about teaching. Such students are the biggest reason our schools have difficulty turning out academically accomplished graduates, and nothing else we do to reform education will make any significant difference until these barriers to academic success are removed from the classroom.

Understand, I'm not talking about a fourth grader who has trouble staying in his seat. I'm talking about the six foot thug who threatens to punch his 100 lb. teacher in her face if she doesn't get off his case. I'm talking about the one or two young men or women in a class who are consistently loud, rude, obscene and insulting to both their classmates and their teachers and who make it impossible for a teacher to present a lesson. I'm talking about the student who has remained unmoved by his teachers' best attempts to help and counsel him about how he can improve his chances at a decent future. I'm talking about the student who has already been suspended three or four times in a school year but whose unacceptable behavior remains unchanged.

When a teacher's day is spent constantly running around the classroom putting out fires that teacher is not teaching. When a teacher's stomach is churning throughout much of her day, when she wakes up every morning dreading her seventh period class, when she checks the absentee roster each morning in hopes that so-and-so is absent that day, she's not going to be nearly as effective as she could be, and her students are inevitably going to be cheated.

A number of readers suggested that teachers of very disruptive young people need to develop strategies for dealing with them. This is the sort of thing students learn to say in their teacher education courses. In real life young teachers quickly learn that very few, if any, of those strategies that sounded so good in their college ed classes actually work. The only strategies many teachers in too many of our schools can hope to develop are strategies for managing their stress and getting them through the day.

Sure, as many readers pointed out, difficult kids often come from dysfunctional homes and can't help being the way they are. That's no doubt true, but it's irrelevant.

One reader, however, responding to a different post said something that is relevant to our original post on school reform. He mentioned that a police chief of his acquaintance once told him that:

"There are three sets of people out in the world. The first is 85% of the population, who you don't really have to worry about, and if you do happen to have a run in with them, you just tell them what they did wrong, and they will never do it again. The second makes up 10% of the population, and these people need a little help with the law and fitting into society appropriately, so we're here just to guide them along. The final group makes up the last 5%. These people are the predators of the world who just need to be locked up behind bars. That is our mission, to find these animals and put them where they belong."

Except for calling them predators and animals (though a few of them certainly are) the same statistics pretty much hold for the population of many of our high schools. The good teachers can guide that 10% in useful directions, but few can do much with that 5%.

Even if one or two of them could be helped by school personnel the commitment of time and resources necessary to achieve even the most modest progress is so great that everyone else in the school suffers. That 1% to 5% of students are obstacles standing in the way of schools fulfilling their mandate, and they need to be removed if we're going to be serious about improving the quality of the education the vast majority of our students deserve.

Some readers seemed to think that showing incorrigible students the door was tantamount to condemning them to a lifetime of dysfunction, but why think that? Many people who were unmanageable while in school suddenly grow up when forced to make their own way in the work world or the military. In some cases, getting them out of the school environment is the best thing we can do for them.

If some other alternative can be found for these kids that the taxpayers are willing to underwrite then fine, but there's no reason to think we're doing anyone, including the problem students themselves, any favors by keeping them in school and constantly recycling them through the principal's office. They're not learning anything while they're in school, and they're preventing others from learning, so what's the point?


Hail Caesar

Dick Morris argues that Obamacare, which the House is expected to vote on tomorrow, would be fatal to Medicare and consequently to the careers of Democrats who vote for it:

If the House Democratic majority passes Obama's healthcare proposals, one of two things will happen by Election Day, 2010 - and neither one will be healthy for the Democrats seeking re-election.

Either the Medicare cuts will take effect or they will be postponed by a terrified Congress.

If they take effect, physicians' fees will be slashed 21 percent and hospital reimbursements for Medicare patients will be cut by $1.3 billion. Tens of thousands of doctors and thousands of healthcare institutions - hospitals, hospices, outpatient clinics and such - will refuse to treat Medicare patients.

Entire cities could be without one doctor in important specialties who will take care of the elderly on Medicare. Particularly in fields like arthritic and joint pain, doctors will simply refuse to accept the low reimbursement rates they are being offered and hospitals will refuse all but emergency care to Medicare patients.

In effect, the elderly could experience a doctors' strike against Medicare patients.

Obamacare would be very hard on the elderly who would, unless Congress acts to forestall the reimbursement cuts (and thus add to the cost of the bill), be forced to buy expensive medical insurance or go without many of the procedures and checkups that Medicare currently pays for. This is enormously ironic inasmuch as Democrats have been Medicare's biggest supporters ever since it was begun back in the 1960s. It's also ironic because killing Medicare is an act of political self-immolation.

The consensus among people who have studied the bill is that Obamacare will result in higher insurance premiums, less access to health care, lower quality health care, higher taxes, and a higher deficit. And none of this takes into account the crushing effect that the adminstration's plans to grant amnesty to twenty million illegal aliens would have on the system.

Morris, who was an advisor to President Clinton, predicts catastrophe in November's elections:

Either poison - the cuts or the deficit - will be enough to eradicate an entire generation of House and Senate Democrats.

If I were a political cartoonist I think I'd draw a picture of the Roman Coliseum with Congressional Democrats standing en masse in the middle of the arena just before the lions (the voters) are unleashed. The Dems face the emperor, Barack Obama, and with an outstretched arm shout Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant (Hail Caesar, we who are about to die salute you).


Friday, March 19, 2010

Plantinga and Theistic Materialism

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has offered several noted arguments against materialism, i.e. the belief that everything is reducible to matter. Materialism denies the existence of immaterial entities like mind or soul or God. Plantinga's argument here is with theists who embrace a kind of local materialism. They believe in God but they hold that everything in the created universe is ultimately material. Plantinga thinks that this is wrongheaded. He argues that if one is a theist one really should be a substance dualist, i.e. one who holds that everything is reducible to at least two fundamental "substances," matter and mind (or soul):

Elsewhere Plantinga has argued cogently against materialism using other arguments. We'll discuss some of those in a day or so. If you believe you are more than just your body, if you believe that something about you survives your body's death, or if you believe you have free will but don't know how that can be if physical matter is all there is, you'll be interested in what Plantinga says.


Assisting Suicide

Quinn passes along a Newsweek article that raises a host of difficult ethical questions about suicide. The article describes the work of Dr. Lawrence Egbert, the medical director of a group called Final Exit Network (FEN), a right to die organization. Dr. Egbert is facing criminal charges in two states for advising people with terminal illnesses or terrible pain how they can end their lives. Here's Newsweek's summary of the case which has the octogenarian Dr. Egbert facing over thirty years in prison:

In 2006 John Celmer's body began to break down. He was diagnosed with oral cancer and had to undergo surgery to remove the tumor and then radiation therapy to kill off any remaining malignant cells. The radiation ravaged his jawbone and the surrounding tissue, leaving a hole in his chin. Fluid leaked onto his clothes. His teeth began falling out. He had difficulty eating and speaking. As Celmer's jaw began severing from his face, doctors attempted moderate treatments, but all of them failed. So in 2008, they sought to reconstruct his chin and jaw using tissue from his chest and bone from his lower leg. The procedures appeared successful, but five days after the final operation, he was discovered dead in his Cumming, Ga., home.

At first everyone assumed he'd died of natural causes. Yet as Celmer's wife, Susan, sifted through his belongings, she discovered several things that puzzled her: a receipt for two helium tanks, a handwritten note referring to his need to acquire a "hood," an entry on his calendar (May 7, 2008: "Claire here @ 1:30") that mentioned someone she didn't know. Susan also found paperwork referencing something called Final Exit Network (FEN). As she later learned, it was an organization that counseled people with serious ailments on how to commit suicide. She shared her findings with police, who launched an investigation and eventually concluded that the group had helped Celmer kill himself. Susan was devastated-and enraged. What right did FEN have to help usher her husband to his death? "We are not the Creator," she told Newsweek. "We do not give life and don't have the option to take life."

Read the rest of the article and then reflect on the morality of advising suffering people with no real hope of cure, short of a miracle, how they can hasten their death. Here are a couple of questions to get you started:

Do you think Dr. Egbert should be imprisoned (Assuming there's not more to the story than what the article tells us)?

Do you think that people don't have the right to take their own life, under some circumstances? If not, why not? If they do, under what circumstances do they?

If you think people should be able to offer advice and assistance to those seeking to end their pain do you think there's a danger that more and more people will be encouraged to end their life for economic reasons rather than reasons of suffering?

If you oppose helping people end their life why do you think it's compassionate and merciful to have a suffering pet put down but not a suffering grandparent?


Shock Tv

Back in the 1960s there was a famous experiment in which people were encouraged to apply electric shock to a man if the man answered questions posed to him incorrectly. Those applying the electricity thought they really were administering extreme voltages to the "victim" but, in fact, the victim was an actor.

The point of the experiment was to show how easily people will suppress their moral reservations and submit to the will of an authority figure. Instead of refusing to participate many went along with it.

Now my friend Matt sends a video that shows that the French are turning the experiment into a television show:

Apparently, a lot of people think it's okay to cause another person pain as long as an authority figure tells them it's alright. It's no wonder Hitler and others have found it so easy to get the masses to go along with their cruelties. We really are just sheep.

Of course, if our sense of human sympathy is little more than the product of blind, impersonal forces and chance, if human beings are, as we've been told now for three generations, nothing but animals with no soul and answerable to no God, we shouldn't be surprised that our behavior fits that view. Ideas have consequences.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Grounding Morality

Over at Telic Thoughts commenter Allen MacNeill, a professor of biology at Cornell, criticizes (see comment at 4:22 p.m.) the claim made by Michael Ruse and other naturalists that morality is just an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to enable us to get along with each other. MacNeill writes that:

Ruse believes that moral/ethical principles can be directly derived from the findings of evolutionary biology. This, as several commentators have already pointed out, violates one of the most basic principles of ethical theory: that one cannot derive an "ought" from an "is." The attempt to do so constitutes what is known in ethical theory as the "naturalistic fallacy," and is one of the foundational principles of modern (i.e. post-17th century) ethical theory.

While it is the case that some evolutionary biologists (including Franz de Waal, Mark Hauser, and E. O. Wilson) commit the same fallacy as Ruse, this does not mean that doing so is either universal among evolutionary biologists nor in any way validated by the science of evolutionary biology. On the contrary, anyone with even a passing acquaintance with ethical philosophy would know that attempting to do what Ruse does in his commentary is both invalid and pernicious.

I have to say that I didn't read Ruse the way MacNeill did. I understood Ruse to be saying that morality is an illusion. There really isn't any such thing. MacNeill seems to be saying that Ruse is trying to ground morality in evolution. If this is indeed what Ruse is trying to do then I am in complete agreement with MacNeill that Ruse is engaged in a fool's errand. Unless there is a personal transcendent ground for morality there simply isn't any non-subjective, non-arbitrary basis for moral obligation or moral judgment. Certainly, as MacNeill asserts, evolution can't provide one. He and I part company, however, when he goes on to claim that:

That said, the very same thing can be said of those who try to ground moral and ethical codes in religion....any deity (including most versions of the Judeo-Christian god) is constrained to assert what is good by their nature as deities, rather than the other way around. That is, certain things are good in and of themselves, and not simply because God says so; God as God is constrained to proclaim what is good and abjure what is bad.

In sum: morality/ethics are justified sui generis, and any attempt to justify them via grounding in either science or religion is to commit the same fallacy: the "super/naturalistic fallacy."

This, in my opinion, is a misunderstanding of the attempt to ground morality in God. MacNeill seems to be saying that God is one thing and goodness is another. Some acts, he claims, are intrinsically good independently of God. In other words, God commands us to be kind, for example, because kindness is good in itself and would be good whether God commanded it or not, or indeed, whether God existed or not.

The problem for MacNeill, though, is that he's not coming to grips with the Christian concepts of God and goodness. Goodness, in the Christian view, is not "out there" in some Platonic realm of forms waiting to be accessed by God. Goodness is part of God's very essence. It's an aspect of His nature. It flows from Him like heat and light flow from the sun. Just as heat and light would not exist if the sun didn't exist, so, too, goodness would not exist if God didn't exist. Thus, when God enjoins us to be kind He's not pointing us to some independent form of the good and commanding us to partake of it. Rather He's pointing us to Himself and urging us to be like Him.

Just as logic is woven into the structure of the universe because logic is part of the essence of God, so, too, the moral law is woven into the structure of our hearts because goodness is part of the essence of God.


Western Civilization and the Irish

Millions of Americans, many of them descendents of Irish immigrants, celebrated their Irish heritage by observing St. Patrick's Day yesterday. We are indebted to Thomas Cahill and his best-selling book How The Irish Saved Civilization for explaining to us why Patrick's is a life worth commemorating. As improbable as his title may sound, Cahill weaves a fascinating and compelling tale of how the Irish in general, and Patrick and his spiritual heirs in particular, served as a tenuous but crucial cultural bridge from the classical world to the medieval age and, by so doing, made Western civilization possible.

Born a Roman citizen in 390 B.C., Patrick had been kidnapped as a boy of sixteen from his home on the coast of Britain and taken by Irish barbarians to Ireland. There he languished in slavery until he was able to escape six years later. Upon his homecoming he became a Christian, studied for the priesthood, and eventually returned to Ireland where he would spend the rest of his life laboring to persuade the Irish to accept the gospel and to abolish slavery. Patrick was the first person in history, in fact, to speak out unequivocally against slavery and, according to Cahill, the last person to do so until the 17th century.

Meanwhile, Roman control of Europe had begun to collapse. Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410 A.D. and barbarians were sweeping across the continent, forcing the Romans back to Italy, and plunging Europe into the Dark Ages. Throughout the continent unwashed, illiterate hordes descended on the once grand Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books. Learning ground to a halt and the literary heritage of the classical world was burned or moldered into dust. Almost all of it, Cahill claims, would surely have been lost if not for the Irish.

Having been converted to Christianity through the labors of Patrick, the Irish took with gusto to reading, writing and learning. They delighted in letters and bookmaking and painstakingly created indescribably beautiful Biblical manuscripts such as the Book of Kells which is on display today in the library of Trinity College in Dublin. Aware that the great works of the past were disappearing, they applied themselves assiduously to the daunting task of copying all surviving Western literature - everything they could lay their hands on. For a century after the fall of Rome, Irish monks sequestered themselves in cold, damp, cramped mud huts called scriptoria, so remote and isolated from the world that they were seldom threatened by the marauding pagans. Here these men spent their entire adult lives reproducing the old manuscripts and preserving literacy and learning for the time when people would be once again ready to receive them.

These scribes and their successors served as the conduits through which the Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the benighted tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruin of the civilization they had recently overwhelmed. Around the late 6th century, three generations after Patrick, Irish missionaries with names like Columcille, Aidan, and Columbanus began to venture out from their monasteries and refuges, clutching their precious books to their hearts, sailing to England and the continent, founding their own monasteries and schools among the barbarians and teaching them how to read, write and make books of their own. Absent the willingness of these courageous men to endure deprivations and hardships of every kind for the sake of the gospel and learning, Cahill argues, the world that came after them would have been completely different. It would likely have been a world without books. Europe almost certainly would have been illiterate, and it would probably have been unable to resist the Moslem incursions that arrived a few centuries later.

The Europeans, starved for knowledge, soaked up everything the Irish missionaries could give them. From such seeds as these modern Western civilization germinated. From the Greeks the descendents of the goths and vandals learned philosophy, from the Romans they learned about law, from the Bible they learned of the worth of the individual who, created and loved by God, is therefore significant and not merely a brutish aggregation of atoms. From the Bible, too, they learned that the universe was created by a rational Mind and was thus not capricious, random, or chaotic. It would yield its secrets to rational investigation. Out of these assumptions, once their implications were finally and fully developed, grew historically unprecedented views of the value of the individual and the flowering of modern science.

Our cultural heritage is thus, in a very important sense, a legacy from the Irish. A legacy from Patrick. It is worth pondering in the wake of St. Patrick's Day what the world would be like today had it not been for those early Irish scribes and missionaries thirteen centuries ago. Buiochas le Dia ar son na nGaeil (Thank God for the Irish), and I hope you had a happy St. Patrick's Day.

Note: This post was originally written as a guest column for the York Daily Record. It appeared on March 15th, 1998.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Real School Reform

Newsweek magazine argues, in an article by two of its staff writers, that we must fire bad teachers. I don't think anyone outside of the NEA and its affiliates would argue with that, but then Newsweek goes a step too far and lays educational failure in America pretty much entirely at the feet of bad teachers:

[I]n recent years researchers have discovered something that may seem obvious, but for many reasons was overlooked or denied. What really makes a difference, what matters more than the class size or the textbook, the teaching method or the technology, or even the curriculum, is the quality of the teacher. Much of the ability to teach is innate-an ability to inspire young minds as well as control unruly classrooms that some people instinctively possess (and some people definitely do not). Teaching can be taught, to some degree, but not the way many graduate schools of education do it, with a lot of insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy. In any case the research shows that within about five years, you can generally tell who is a good teacher and who is not.

So far, so obvious. We hardly needed research to tell us that good teachers can make a real difference for kids, or that the ability to teach is more of an innate talent, strongly correlated to personality, than a learned skill. But then the Newsweek writers say this:

Over time, inner-city schools, in particular, succumbed to a defeatist mindset. The problem is not the teachers, went the thinking-it's the parents (or absence of parents); it's society with all its distractions and pathologies; it's the kids themselves. Not much can be done, really, except to keep the assembly line moving through "social promotion," regardless of academic performance, and hope the students graduate (only about 60 percent of blacks and Hispanics finish high school). Or so went the conventional wisdom in school superintendents' offices from Newark to L.A. By 1992, "there was such a dramatic achievement gap in the United States, far larger than in other countries, between socioeconomic classes and races," says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. "It was a scandal of monumental proportions, that there were two distinct school systems in the U.S., one for the middle class and one for the poor."

Now surely, incompetent teachers are a problem in many of our schools, but they're not the chief problem, about which more below. I want to note first, though, that most bad teachers reveal themselves long before the five year point mentioned in the article. Many of them are known to be inadequate before they receive tenure, but for a variety of reasons administrators are often reluctant to simply let them go. In other words, to the extent that weak teachers are a problem in our schools it's due more to the failure of administrators who hire them and then afterward fail to cull them from the faculty before they attain tenure.

But the most formidable impediment to successful education, however, is not incompetent teachers. Nor is it lack of funding. It's disruptive, disrespectful students in the classroom. Anyone who wishes to get a glimpse of what it's like in many public schools today should rent the movie The Class. It's a foreign film set in France and subtitled, but teachers who watch it will nod their heads in recognition of the difficulties of teaching in modern urban settings. Others will be astonished that any teacher continues to show up for work in such an environment. Yet The Class captures pretty well the atmosphere that prevails in many classrooms all across this country.

Disruptive students bring learning for everyone in the class to a halt, and too many administrators simply refuse to do anything meaningful to get rid of them. Nor do our courts help this situation by demanding that a district which expels a student pay for alternative education elsewhere. Essentially, the student (I use the term in its loosest sense) squanders the taxpayers' money by making himself impervious to the efforts of his teachers and preventing his fellow students from learning anything, and then the courts and legislatures tell the taxpayers, when the school district has finally had enough, that they still have to foot the bill to place the kid in an alternative school.

The fact is that most teachers today are just as capable, if not moreso, as any who have ever taught in our schools, but they're working in a social milieu much different and much tougher than did their predecessors back in the 50s and 60s. The problems teachers faced two generations ago were not nearly as severe and as intractable as they are today. Moreover, those teachers had support from administrators, parents, communities, and courts that today's teacher can only envy. In many schools when teachers walk into a classroom they're pretty much on their own in dealing with chronically disruptive kids, and if they do try to enlist the aid of an administrator they're often asked, implicitly or explicitly, why they can't control their classrooms on their own.

The way our society dealt with troubled troublemakers in the 50s was to boot them out and let them find a job. The way we deal with them today is to hire a phalanx of teacher's aides, counsellors, police officers, etc., but none of this really solves the problem. The problem is that too many classes are wasted because too many students in too many schools simply don't belong in school, and they make it impossible for even good teachers to teach. When good teachers can't teach they get discouraged and frustrated and often leave the profession, leaving the less talented or less experienced teachers to staff the schools.

If we were really serious about making our schools better places for kids to learn we'd admit that we have a responsibility to teach the students who really want an education. We'd also admit that some students have clearly demonstrated that they don't care about an education and are a serious barrier to the success of those who do. These students should be given their unconditional release so that they can get on with their life's calling of being a burden on society and stop holding back those who want to be a benefit to it.