Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Prayer

I want to wish all our readers a safe and meaningful new year. It's my prayer that wherever you live, whatever your vocation in life, whatever your political and religious convictions, 2012 proves to be a year filled with peace, satisfying work and much joy.

God bless,

Accepting Bigoted Stereotypes at DOJ

It's hard to believe that our Justice Department, oblivious, or so it claims, to the Fast and Furious debacle which violated both U.S. and Mexican law, is now so on top of things that it espies a violation of the 1965 Civil Rights law in South Carolina.

South Carolina has passed a bill that would require photo ID at the voting booth, but this, Attorney General Holder argues, works a disproportionate hardship on black voters.

The Wall Street Journal provides the details:
In a letter to South Carolina's government, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez called the state law—which would require voters to present one of five forms of photo ID at the polls—a violation of Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Overall, he noted, 8.4% of the state's registered white voters lack photo ID, compared to 10% of nonwhite voters.

This is the yawning chasm the Justice Department is now using to justify the unprecedented federal intrusion into state election law, and the first denial of a "pre-clearance" Voting Rights request since 1994.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act was created to combat the systematic disenfranchisement of minorities, especially in Southern states with a history of discrimination. But the Justice position is a lead zeppelin, contradicting both the Supreme Court and the Department's own precedent. In 2005, Justice approved a Georgia law with the same provisions and protections of the one Mr. Holder nixed for South Carolina. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board that an Indiana law requiring photo ID did not present an undue burden on voters.

Civil-rights groups claim this Justice offensive is needed to counteract a voting environment in which little has changed since Jim Crow. But South Carolina's law, like Indiana's and Georgia's, explicitly addresses potential disenfranchisement by offering state-issued IDs free of charge. When civil-rights groups fretted about the ability of minority voters to get to the local Department of Motor Vehicles to pick up a free state-issued ID card, Governor Haley created an 800 number to offer free rides to anyone who couldn't afford the transportation. About 30 people called.

In October, the South Carolina Department of Elections reported that some 240,000 state voters lacked ID cards. The DMV now says more than 200,000 of those had allowed their IDs to expire, lived in other states or were dead.

The Voting Rights Act was once needed to counteract the gap between black and white voter registration. By 2009 the gap had narrowed to a few percentage points in some covered states while blacks out-registered whites in others. Yet Justice retains a federal veto on election-law changes no matter how innocuous or racially neutral. Section 5 has become a vehicle not to pursue equal access to the polls but to play the grossest kind of racial politics.
It's almost unfathomable that anyone involved enough in our social life to be a responsible voter would not already have a photo ID.

Mr. Holder evidently fails to see how insulting his stance is to blacks. Playing into the worst racial stereotypes, he's tacitly insisting that blacks are either too stupid to know how to get an ID or too lazy to get one.

What other plausible reason could he have for arguing that photo ID requirements are unfair to African Americans other than that he thinks those stereotypes are accurate?

How Liberalism Hurts the Poor

It seems to me that a compelling case can be made for the proposition that modern liberalism, under the guise of social justice and compassion for the poor, has actually done a great deal more to exacerbate the condition of the poor in this country than to help them. Since at least the 1960s liberal journalists, academics, politicians, and judges have promoted and imposed policies which have made life much harder for the poor, and to the rest of us, than it might otherwise have been.

Perhaps it doesn't overstate the case to say that in the last 50 years liberal sexual mores have devastated families, liberal educational theory has diminished learning, liberal penal theory resulted in soaring crime rates, liberal environmentalism has cost us innumerable jobs, liberal solutions to poverty have created a permanent underclass, and liberal tax and spend economic theory has put us in the economic morass we find ourselves in today. All of this has created more hardship for the poor, not less.

Yesterday's New York Times brings word of yet another way in which liberal attempts to establish social justice are going to hurt the poor. Laurie Goodstein reports that the state of Illinois has decided to cut off funding to Catholic Charities affiliates in the state because the Charities refuse to consider same-sex couples as potential foster-care or adoptive parents for the poor and neglected children to whom they minister. The loss of funding will make it impossible for these charitable organizations to continue:
Roman Catholic bishops in Illinois have shuttered most of the Catholic Charities affiliates in the state rather than comply with a new requirement that says they must consider same-sex couples as potential foster-care and adoptive parents if they want to receive state money. The charities have served for more than 40 years as a major link in the state’s social service network for poor and neglected children.
This comes on the heels of similar decisions in Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts. In Washington the Department of HHS cut funding to a Catholic charity that worked with girls victimized by sex-trafficking because the charity would not counsel the girls to get abortions.

Moreover, Obamacare will require that Catholic and other religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and charity groups cover contraception in their employees’ health plans on pain of having their funding cut. Appeals of this ruling have gone unanswered by the administration.
For the nation’s Catholic bishops, the Illinois requirement is a prime example of what they see as an escalating campaign by the government to trample on their religious freedom while expanding the rights of gay people. The idea that religious Americans are the victims of government-backed persecution is now a frequent theme not just for Catholic bishops, but also for Republican presidential candidates and conservative evangelicals.

“In the name of tolerance, we’re not being tolerated,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., a civil and canon lawyer who helped drive the church’s losing battle to retain its state contracts for foster care and adoption services.

The Illinois experience indicates that the bishops face formidable opponents who also claim to have justice and the Constitution on their side. They include not only gay rights advocates, but also many religious believers and churches that support gay equality (some Catholic legislators among them). They frame the issue as a matter of civil rights, saying that Catholic Charities was using taxpayer money to discriminate against same-sex couples.

Catholic Charities is one of the nation’s most extensive social service networks, serving more than 10 million poor adults and children of many faiths across the country. It is made up of local affiliates that answer to local bishops and dioceses, but much of its revenue comes from the government. Catholic Charities affiliates received a total of nearly $2.9 billion a year from the government in 2010, about 62 percent of its annual revenue of $4.67 billion. Only 3 percent came from churches in the diocese (the rest came from in-kind contributions, investments, program fees and community donations).

When the contracts came up for renewal in June, the state attorney general, along with the legal staff in the governor’s office and the Department of Children and Family Services, decided that the religious providers on state contracts would no longer be able to reject same-sex couples, said Kendall Marlowe, a spokesman for the department.

The Catholic providers offered to refer same-sex couples to other agencies (as they had been doing for unmarried couples), but that was not acceptable to the state, Mr. Marlowe said.
By forcing the church to choose between keeping their doors open to the poor and facilitating conduct they believe to be harmful to children, the state has managed to once again give the poor the back of its hand so that it can uphold its commitment to a liberal vision of a just society.

The Bible reminds us repeatedly of our primary obligation to care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. For many liberals, however, that obligation is secondary to the more important obligation to affirm the rights of gay couples to raise children.

Parenthetically, it'll be interesting to see how long it'll be before this same reasoning is applied to the tax-exempt status conferred upon churches. The logic of the Illinois decision seems to dictate that if a church takes a stand against same-sex marriage or abortion it should forfeit its tax exemption. This will force many churches to curtail programs that bring relief to the poor and in numerous other ways benefit their communities.

Do liberals want to make the case that churches which uphold traditional moral values should be forced to pay property taxes like everyone else and let the poor be damned? I don't see how, at least in states like Illinois where they control the legislature, they cannot.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Peregrines, Pigeons, and Mitt

While perusing John Hinderaker's reasons for endorsing Mitt Romney at Powerline I came across this BBC video on Peregrine falcons.

The Peregrine was close to being extirpated in North America - ostensibly by the softening of egg shells by DDT - in the 1960s but has since made a steady comeback. Their preferred habitat, before the advent of modern skyscrapers, was rocky ledges on steep cliffs. Today they can also be found nesting on ledges of tall buildings and bridges in almost every city of the country.

Since adopting urban life they've taken to feeding on the abundant supply of city pigeons, and that's what this video, though filmed in a rural setting, is about:

By the way, Hinderaker's endorsement of Romney is very persuasive.

Darwinian Blind Faith

Casey Luskin at Evolution News and Views calls our attention to an article in Science Daily which contains an odd, probably unintentional, admission.

The article is about some well-preserved pre-cambrian microfossils found in China that were originally thought to be of multicellular organisms (metazoans), but which, on further analysis, turned out to be of single-celled creatures like amoeba.

This is disappointing to evolutionists who've not been able to explain how all the major phyla came to appear with relative suddenness in the Cambrian rocks some 500 million years ago. This phenomenon has been called the "Cambrian explosion" because of the sudden appearance of the major taxa which are believed to have been evolving for millions of years before their appearance in the Cambrian rocks but for which no metazoan precursors have been found.

Science Daily summarizes the problem:
All life evolved from a single-celled universal common ancestor, and at various times in Earth history, single-celled organisms threw their lot in with each other to become larger and multicellular, resulting, for instance, in the riotous diversity of animals. However, fossil evidence of these major evolutionary transitions is extremely rare.
What's peculiar about this is that it's an acknowledgement that scientists hold a significant belief despite the lack of supporting empirical evidence. There appears to be little or no empirical warrant for believing that single-celled organisms evolved into multi-cellular organisms, yet the Science Daily writer asserts that they did as though it were a certainty.

Belief despite the lack of proof is faith. There's nothing wrong with faith, even in science, even though some scientists might deny this. However, belief despite the lack of evidence is blind faith, a trait often derided by those who think that only religious extremists manifest it. Scientists regard blind faith as an epistemological vice, a defect that should never be allowed to find its way into the laboratory.

Apparently, though, not a few scientists are pretty much like the religious people they anathematize, embracing a belief for which there is a paucity of evidence simply because they want that belief to be true.

Atheism and Consciousness

Atheist biologist Massimo Pigliucci is puzzled that so many of his fellow atheists deny the existence of consciousness. Here are a couple of excerpts:
For some time I have been noticing the emergence of a strange trinity of beliefs among my fellow skeptics and freethinkers: an increasing number of them, it seems, don’t believe that they can make decisions (the free will debate), don’t believe that they have moral responsibility (because they don’t have free will, or because morality is relative — take your pick), and they don’t even believe that they exist as conscious beings because, you know, consciousness is an illusion.

The oft-heard claim that consciousness is an illusion is an extraordinary one, as it relegates to an entirely epiphenomenal status what is arguably the most distinctive characteristic of human beings, the very thing that seems to shape and give meaning to our lives, and presumably one of the major outcome of millions of years of evolution pushing for a larger brain equipped with powerful frontal lobes capable to carry out reasoning and deliberation.

One more thing strikes me as strange from the point of view of the “consciousness is an illusion” school of thought. Its supporters have no account of why this illusion would evolve. If we take seriously the commonsensical idea that consciousness aids deliberative reasoning, then we see that it has a (important) biological function. But if it is just an illusion, what’s it for? .... [I]f a large amount of metabolic energy used up by the brain goes into maintaining the illusion of consciousness surely one wants an answer to the question of why did natural selection bring this situation about or ... why does it persist in the face of what should be strong selection against it.
So if consciousness is an illusion we have no idea why it would have evolved, but if consciousness is real, we have no idea how it would have evolved. Perhaps the problem isn't consciousness, perhaps it's atheism.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Israel v. Iran

Eli Lake writes an interesting piece at the Daily Beast describing Israeli preparations for an attack on Iran's nuclear weapons facilities. Here's an excerpt:
For much of the last decade, as Iran methodically built its nuclear program, Israel has been assembling a multibillion-dollar array of high-tech weapons that would allow it to jam, blind, and deafen Tehran's defenses in the case of a pre-emptive aerial strike.

A U.S. intelligence assessment this summer, described to The Daily Beast by current and former U.S. intelligence officials, concluded that any Israeli attack on hardened nuclear sites in Iran would go far beyond airstrikes from F-15 and F-16 fighter planes and likely include electronic warfare against Iran’s electric grid, Internet, cellphone network, and emergency frequencies for firemen and police officers.

For example, Israel has developed a weapon capable of mimicking a maintenance cellphone signal that commands a cell network to “sleep,” effectively stopping transmissions, officials confirmed. The Israelis also have jammers capable of creating interference within Iran’s emergency frequencies for first responders.

In a 2007 attack on a suspected nuclear site at al-Kibar, the Syrian military got a taste of this warfare when Israeli planes “spoofed” the country’s air-defense radars, at first making it appear that no jets were in the sky and then in an instant making the radar believe the sky was filled with hundreds of planes.

Israel also likely would exploit a vulnerability that U.S. officials detected two years ago in Iran's big-city electric grids, which are not “air-gapped”—meaning they are connected to the Internet and therefore vulnerable to a Stuxnet-style cyberattack—officials say.

A highly secretive research lab attached to the U.S. joint staff and combatant commands, known as the Joint Warfare Analysis Center (JWAC), discovered the weakness in Iran’s electrical grid in 2009, according to one retired senior military intelligence officer. This source also said the Israelis have the capability to bring a denial-of-service attack to nodes of Iran’s command and control system that rely on the Internet.

Tony Decarbo, the executive officer for JWAC, declined comment for this story. The likely delivery method for the electronic elements of this attack would be an unmanned aerial vehicle the size of a jumbo jet. An earlier version of the bird was called the Heron, the latest version is known as the Eitan. According to the Israeli press, the Eitan can fly for 20 straight hours and carry a payload of one ton. Another version of the drone, however, can fly up to 45 straight hours, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.
Lake has more at the link. Recent news reports have had the Israelis and the U.S. engaged in talks to coordinate efforts in the event that Iran crosses any of several "red lines" that will trigger an attack. Iran, for its part seems determined to see just how much resolve there is in the White House.

It's a dangerous game, but Iran simply cannot be allowed to obtain a nuclear device. It would set off an arms race in the Middle East that would almost certainly result in a proliferation of such devices and also make it extremely likely that one or more will be used, if not by a state entity then certainly by a group like Hezbollah, al Qaeda, or Hamas, any of which will doubtless find someone willing to supply them with a weapon.

Homeschooling and Liberals

David Mills grew up a child of the sixties and although he's no longer quite so liberal many of his friends and acquaintances are, and something about them puzzles him.

In his young adulthood to be countercultural was a badge of honor. To reject the establishment, uniformity, regimentation, and the homogenization of culture was an act of courageous resistance. To walk to the beat of a different drummer was authentic. To flout authority, particularly government authority, was liberating.

That was then. Now many of his leftist friends seem to have unwittingly abandoned those formerly-held convictions. Mills is made especially aware of this by their reaction when he informs them that he and his wife are home-schooling their two youngest children. He writes about his experience in a column at First Things.

Here's Mills:
Thus I was surprised some years later to find the kind of people with whom I’d grown up—the leftists, the intellectuals, the activists, the public-spirited—suddenly alarmed at the growth of homeschooling. (And I first experienced this surprise when we still expected to send our children to the public schools.)

The critics treated it as a threat to the social order and a source of sectarian divisions. Some expressed concern that homeschooled children would find themselves unable to function in a pluralistic society. Many also argued that they would get an inferior education, but that always seemed to be a secondary concern, and grimly amusing coming from advocates of the near-monopoly of a public school system whose failures were beginning to be lamented even by liberal observers.

The critics found themselves so alarmed, of course, because now politically, culturally, and religiously conservative parents were educating their children at home and rejecting the influence of a system in which the critics—so many of them former countercultural types themselves—were heavily invested, and from which, as a Marxist would note, so many of them drew their salaries.

The homeschoolers were no longer a few hippies and leftists, whose numbers were always going to be small and their influence marginal, and who were reliably leftist anyway. Now the homeschoolers were a growing number of average parents, whose countercultural commitments were of the conservative and not the leftist sort, whose numbers might well increase and their influence grow stronger, particularly if the establishment lost its control over the education of children, which happened to be its primary way of reducing parental influence in, to borrow a famous phrase from my youth, the battle for their hearts and minds.

People who have no obvious stake in the matter, like most of the people who have expressed dismay at my wife and my decision to homeschool our children, tend to side with the establishment against the parents. They’ve somehow absorbed the key elements of the ideology, like the concern for “socialization,” which is either a faux concern for the children’s well-being or a real concern for their being educated outside of and probably against the ideas public schools (with exceptions, of course) inculcate and impose.
Mills has more to say about this strange reaction of liberals to the idea of homeschooling in his essay. I know anecdotal evidence doesn't count for much, but I have to say that in the last seven years I have had dozens of home-schooled students in my classes. Many of them were still high school-aged kids taking college courses, and almost all of them were among the best students in the class. They were every bit as sociable, intelligent, and mature - often moreso - as their peers who had attended public schools. What's more, they often brought to class a level of background knowledge that their publicly educated peers lacked.

The idea that homeschooling is hurting kids is true only if by the word "hurting" one means that these students aren't being indoctrinated in the liberal orthodoxies and moral anomie that prevail in many of our public schools. It's ironic, though perhaps understandable, that liberals don't like, and even oppose, giving students a way to avoid those "benefits."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Philosopher and the Tyrant

Benjamin Wallace-Wells, a writer for New York Magazine, does a piece on the role played by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy in persuading the French to come to the aid of the Libyan rebels last spring.

The essay is amusing in its portrayal of Levy's ego and surprising in its revelation of the influence Levy had with President Sarkozy. Here's a sample quote from the article:

Wars are no longer supposed to begin like this. They are exercises in national interest and self-defense, not personal morality and valor. They are the product of military plans, not proddings from celebrity philosophers. And yet Libya — so far the most aggressive humanitarian intervention of the 21st century — depended not on any broad public movement nor any urgent security threat.

There was instead a chain of private conversations: Hillary Clinton moving Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy moving Dmitri Medvedev, and at the chain’s inception this romantic propagandist, Bernard-Henri Lévy. “I think this war was probably launched by two statesmen,” Lévy told me. “Hillary Clinton and Sarkozy. More modestly, me.”
Levy is a well-known celebrity in France, something of a Christopher Hitchens character, a public intellectual. Because of his personal flamboyance and sometimes quixotic causes, however, he's often the butt of ridicule in the media. The mockery leaves him unfazed:
“They have no effect on my narcissism,” Lévy wrote in 2008 of his critics. “In the face of assaults, my ego is fireproof, shatterproof.”
His high self-esteem is apparently matched by his naivete. Being Jewish he was convinced that once the world's Muslims saw what had been done by a Jew on behalf of fellow Muslims in Libya it would produce a rapprochement between the two groups. Wells writes:
He was convinced, he says, that a NATO campaign could help bring Muslims and Jews together—a project he calls a “battle of my life,” and one in which he spotted a role for himself. On the front lines, he told the rebels and jihadists of his religion, believing history might move because a Jewish writer “has given a hand and helped a Muslim country.” Since the sixties, he says, “I have dreamed of this reconciliation of the sons of Abraham. I will have achieved my duty of being a man, if I contribute.”
Anyway, the article is a very good read, offering interesting insights into the life of an interesting man. He reminds me a bit of the late congressman from Texas, Charlie Wilson, who, with only a couple of CIA agents, was able to equip the Afghanistan Mujahideen to defeat the Soviet Union back in the 1970s. A movie (Charlie Wilson's War starring Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julia Roberts) was made about Wilson's exploits in 2007.

Maybe they'll make a film about Levy as well. I think it would please him.

Got the Flu?

It might be some consolation as you suffer through the headaches, colds, and other miserable symptoms to know what it is that's happening in your body when a flu virus invades.

On the other hand, when you're really sick with flu you probably couldn't care less what's happening.

Anyway, for those who manage to retain their intellectual curiosity even when laid low by the insidious influenza bug there's this informative video:

Excellence Gap

Sol Stern has a piece in City Journal which highlights one of the problems with the No Child Left Behind Act and with educational thinking in general over the last twenty five years.

In a nutshell, Stern argues that we've become so concerned with educating the weakest students and bringing them up to "proficiency" that we've failed to do all we can for the elite students who will comprise the next generation of technological and scientific innovators and engineers.

Here's his lede:
If an out-of-control national debt weren’t reason enough to worry about America’s global competitiveness, here’s another. Virtually all education reformers recognize that America’s ability to remain an economic superpower depends to a significant degree on the number and quality of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians graduating from our colleges and universities — scientific innovation has generated as much as half of all U.S. economic growth over the past half-century, on some accounts. But the number of graduates in these fields has declined steadily for the past several decades.

A report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation concludes that “bachelor’s degrees in engineering granted to Americans peaked in 1985 and are now 23 percent below that level.” Further, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 6 percent of U.S. undergraduates currently major in engineering, compared with 12 percent in Europe and Israel and closer to 20 percent in Japan and South Korea.

In another recent study, conducted by the Conference Board of Canada, the U.S. scored near the bottom relative to major European countries, Canada, and Japan in the percentage of college graduates obtaining degrees in science, math, computer science, and engineering. It’s likely no coincidence that the World Economic Forum now ranks the U.S. fifth among industrialized countries in global competitiveness, down from first place in 2008.
As bleak as this sounds, it may not be as bad as Stern suggests. So many people go to college in the U.S. that a low percentage of engineers could still be a large number in absolute terms. Nevertheless, he's on the mark in the rest of his essay. For instance he notes this:
Making matters worse is mounting evidence that America’s best students — kids we’re counting on to become those engineers, scientists, and mathematicians — have had a drop-off in academic performance over the past decade. A recent Thomas B. Fordham Institute study finds that the country’s highest-performing students in the early grades are losing some of that advantage as they move through elementary school and into high school.

Ironically, one reason for their slipping performance is almost certainly the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, the most significant federal education-reform legislation of the past half-century....NCLB became law thanks to a rare bipartisan consensus that U.S. public schools were failing to turn out high school graduates who could flourish in a technology-based economy. Democrats and Republicans need to reunite and recognize that federal support for elite education — above all, in math and science — is essential for advancing America’s economic success.

No Child Left Behind was propelled by a moral imperative best expressed by President George W. Bush’s call to overcome the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” The new law’s “civil rights” component shaped some of its unique features, including holding states and school districts accountable for their success in narrowing racial achievement gaps.

Before NCLB, the federal government had sought to achieve some degree of educational equity through the Title I compensatory funding program, which sent nearly $200 billion to the nation’s highest-poverty schools over four decades. Title I yielded meager results, however, and suffered from lack of accountability. With NCLB, the federal government took a new, interventionist approach to education reform, requiring states and school districts to meet certain goals and mandates in return for Title I funds.

The states henceforth had to conduct annual tests in reading and math for all children in grades three through eight, with the results—broken down by race, sex, and socioeconomic status—made public.
The results, though better, are still pathetic. It's a dogma among education bureaucrats that "every child can learn," and though the dogma may even in some sense be true, so much effort and resources are expended in a futile attempt to demonstrate its truth that those who manifestly can learn don't get the nurture that we could and should be giving them.

The rest of Stern's article explains how this happens and the disadvantage it's putting us at in our competition with the rest of the world. If you're an educator or have kids in school you should read it.

At some point we have to recognize that, for whatever reason, there are large numbers of students who simply don't, won't, and don't want to, benefit from the educational largesse that is showered upon them and that it's a pointless waste of resources to spend billions of dollars in a vain attempt to raise their test scores by a few meager and meaningless points.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Destruction of the Indies

Perhaps it will seem like an odd choice for Christmas season reading, but then again, maybe not. This past week I took up Bartolome de Las Casas' An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies. If you're interested in history, either of the western hemisphere or of Christianity, it's an indispensible book.

Las Casas was a Dominican priest who recorded the atrocities committed by the Spaniards during the first fifty plus years of their colonization of the West Indies and surrounding regions. That behavior, if Las Casas is to be believed - and there's no reason to think, some exaggerated numbers aside, that he shouldn't be - is perhaps the most horrific account of man's inhumanity to man ever recorded in the entire course of human history. It rivals the Romans in cruelty and exceeds them in scope. It also exceeds the Nazi horror in sanguinary carnage if not in the scope of the genocide. Perhaps only the crimes of the Hutus in Rwanda and those of the Sudanese in Darfur surpass those Las Casas chronicles.

In any case, the slaughters, treacheries, torture, avarice, rapacity, and stark, numbing cruelty of the Spaniards is beyond comprehension. It can best be described, as Las Casas describes it, as demonic. Not even the Nazis at their sadistic worst equaled the viciousness of the Spaniards.

Against the hell inflicted on the Indians, whom Las Casas portrays as mostly innocent, trusting and ingenuous, stood a few Christian friars who were impotent to prevent the horrors. Cinematically, the book reads like a blend of The Mission and Avatar. Men, women, and children were slowly burned to death, dismembered, worked to death, trampled by horses, torn to pieces by dogs, starved, beaten, and subjected to every other torture the sick minds of their Spanish overlords could contrive. Although Las Casas puts the number of murdered Indians in the millions, a figure doubted by many historians, there seems no reason to think that it wasn't at least in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands.

Las Casas addresses his account around 1545 to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was largely ignorant of the crimes committed in his name. The hope was to persuade Charles to take action against the genocidal madness that was devastating the entire Caribbean basin.

Although the Spaniards in the Caribbean acted in the name of crown and Christ there was nothing Christian at all about their behavior, and indeed Las Casas has no trouble assuming that these men were headed straight to hell which, given the heinous nature of their crimes, was a fate far too good for them.

One Indian chief was asked by a priest as he was about to be burned to death if he wanted to be baptized and go to heaven. The chief asked the priest if there would be Christians in heaven, to which the priest answered in the affirmative. The chief replied - understandably since he believed that it was Christians who were perpetrating these terrible crimes upon him and his people - that in that case he'd rather go to hell.

Las Casas was himself partly inspired to fight on the Indians' behalf by a sermon given in 1511 in Santo Domingo by Antonio de Montesino, a fellow Dominican, which received wide circulation. Montesino was appalled at the mass murders of the Indians in what is today Haiti/Dominican Republic, and, at an Advent service 500 years ago this Christmas season, Montesino addressed the landowners and other powerful Spaniards in a prophetic voice that stated clearly the indictment against them.

Andrew Wilson writes about the sermon in the December issue of First Things (subscription required). Wilson's essay was what moved me to read the book. He says this:
As luck (or Providence) would have it, the season was Advent. The text assigned for the fourth Sunday was John the Baptist’s quintessential call to repentance: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” To “make straight the pathway of our Lord,” the Dominicans chose Antonio Montesino, not for his authority — he was not their leader — but because he was “an eloquent preacher, harsh in the reproaching of vice.” Further, lest the public presume that his message represented a minority opinion, the whole fellowship signed their spokesman’s text ahead of time.

They even advertised, calling on the island’s governor Diego Columbus (Christopher’s son), as well as all royal officials and certified jurists, informing them that Sunday’s message included a “certain thing” that they would want to hear. “The citizens conceded willingly: one for the great reverence and esteem that he had [for the friars] because of their virtue and the strictness in which they lived and the rigor of their religion; the other because each one really wanted to hear what it was that . . . would pertain to them.”

When the fateful Sunday arrived, the sermon began in no unusual fashion. In front, a well-trained mendicant preacher employed his highest rhetorical abilities to paint the frank severity of God’s judgment. Opposite, an expectant crowd of hardened sinners sat ready to be shaken from their laxity. It was classic hellfire and brimstone, and they gladly joined the ride to the emotional brink, enduring “stinging and terrifying words that made their flesh crawl.” Then, at last, Montesino revealed the mysterious “certain thing.” “All of you are in mortal sin and in it you are living and are dying because of the cruelty and tyranny with which you treat these innocent people,” he declared, and then said:
In order to make your sins known to you I have mounted this pulpit, I who am the voice of Christ crying in the wilderness of this island; and therefore it behooves you to listen to me, not with indifference but with all your heart and senses; for this voice will be the strongest, the harshest, the most terrifying that you have ever heard or expected to hear....

Tell me: With what right and with what justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? With what authority have you waged such detestable wars against a people who were so gentle and peaceful in your lands, where you have consumed uncountable numbers of them with death and unheard-of tortures? How do you possess them so oppressed and fatigued, without giving them anything to eat, nor curing them of their illnesses, which, due to the excessive work that you give them, they incur and then die — or to put it better, you kill them by taking and acquiring gold every day?

And what care do you take over who teaches them the faith, that they know their God and creator? Are baptized? Hear mass? Keep festival days and Sundays? These [Indians], are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obligated to love them as you love yourselves? Do you not understand this? Do you not feel this? How is it that you are in such a deep, lethargic sleep? You can be sure that in your state you are no more able to be saved than the Moors or Turks, who lack and don’t even want the faith of Jesus Christ.
Las Casas took up the baton from Montesino and wrote and labored indefatigably on behalf of the Indians from 1520 until his death in 1566. His book is an important illustration of the depravity of which human beings are capable when they ignore God.

Postmodern Pedophiles

Two weeks ago we did a post which discussed the growing movement toward "transgenerational intimacy." Now Anne Hendershot writing for The Public Discourse gives us a helpful overview of the attempt to normalize pedophilia, particularly pederasty. Here's part of her essay:
Meet the academics who try to redefine pedophilia as “intergenerational intimacy.”

The anger and disgust that most of us experienced when we learned of the allegations of sexual abuse of boys in the sports programs at Penn State and Syracuse University suggest that our cultural norms about the sexual abuse of minors are intact. Yet it was only a decade ago that a parallel movement had begun on some college campuses to redefine pedophilia as the more innocuous “intergenerational sexual intimacy.”

The publication of Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex promised readers a “radical, refreshing, and long overdue reassessment of how we think and act about children’s and teens’ sexuality.” The book was published by University of Minnesota Press in 2003 (with a foreword by Joycelyn Elders, who had been the U.S. Surgeon General in the Clinton administration), after which the author, Judith Levine, posted an interview on the university’s website decrying the fact that “there are people pushing a conservative religious agenda that would deny minors access to sexual expression,” and adding that “we do have to protect children from real dangers … but that doesn’t mean protecting some fantasy of their sexual innocence.”

This redefinition of childhood innocence as “fantasy” is key to the defining down of the deviance of pedophilia that permeated college campuses and beyond. Drawing upon the language of postmodern theory, those working to redefine pedophilia are first redefining childhood by claiming that “childhood” is not a biological given. Rather, it is socially constructed—an historically produced social object.

Such deconstruction has resulted from the efforts of a powerful advocacy community supported by university-affiliated scholars and a large number of writers, researchers, and publishers who were willing to question what most of us view as taboo behavior.

Postmodern theorists are primarily interested in writing that evokes the fragmentary nature of experience and the complexity of language. One of the most cited sources for this is the book Male Intergenerational Intimacy: Historical, Socio-Psychological and Legal Perspectives. This collection of writings by scholars, mostly European but some with U.S. university affiliations, provides a powerful argument for what they now call “intergenerational intimacy.”

Ken Plummer, one of the contributors, writes that “we can no longer assume that childhood is a time of innocence simply because of the chronological age of the child.” In fact, “a child of seven may have built an elaborate set of sexual understandings and codes which would baffle many adults.”

Claiming to draw upon the theoretical work of the social historians, the socialist-feminists, the Foucauldians, and the constructionist sociologists, Plummer promised to build a “new and fruitful approach to sexuality and children.” Within this perspective there is no assumption of linear sexual development and no real childhood, only an externally imposed definition.

Decrying “essentialist views of sexuality,” these writers attempt to remove the essentialist barriers of childhood. This opens the door for the postmodern pedophile to see such behavior as part of the politics of transgression. No longer deviants, they are simply postmodern “border crossers.”
There's more in Hendershott's article to depress and dismay those who believe that sexual relationships with children are a moral outrage that society tolerates only at its peril. Thankfully, the reaction to the Penn State and Syracuse cases shows that the champions of pedophilia haven't yet won the cultural battle.

The problem, of course, is that they're not giving up. They're doubtless aware that a society which has lost its moral compass, which can no longer draw limits around marriage, which is loath to find anything wrong with pornography, which regards almost any form of sexual expression as healthy, virtually invites the next step in the progression toward legitimizing the sort of thing Jerry Sandusky is accused of doing with young boys at Penn State.

Hendershott mentions, for example, a 1998 article from the American Psychological Association in which it was concluded that child sexual abuse does not cause harm. The authors recommended that pedophilia should instead be given a value-neutral term like “adult-child sex.” NAMBLA, the National Man-Boy Love Association quickly posted the “good news” on its website, stating that “the current war on boy-lovers has no basis in science.”

We find ourselves in a world that has cut its Judeo-Christian moral anchor and is adrift in a sea of subjectivism. Those who desire us all to dive into the cesspool they themselves wallow in have an agenda, and every person and every generation needs to be vigilant and educated about the threats that agenda poses to our children.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Does the Multiverse Support Atheism?

MIT's Alan Lightman has a very readable essay in Harpers titled The Accidental Universe: Science's Crisis of Faith in which he discusses the implications of the amazing fine-tuning of the cosmos.

He begins by pointing out that the history of science has been one of trying to show how all phenomena are explicable in terms of fundamental principles and physical causes, but now that's all in jeopardy with the discovery of the incredibly precise values of many of the fundamental cosmic parameters and forces:
Dramatic developments in cosmological findings and thought have led some of the world’s premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes with wildly varying properties, and that some of the most basic features of our particular universe are indeed mere accidents—a random throw of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining our universe’s features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.

It is perhaps impossible to say how far apart the different universes may be, or whether they exist simultaneously in time. Some may have stars and galaxies like ours. Some may not. Some may be finite in size. Some may be infinite. Physicists call the totality of universes the “multiverse.”
So why is the multiverse attractive to some scientists? Consider some highly improbable event like being dealt a royal flush in cards. The odds against it are very high, but if you're dealt enough hands eventually one of them will be a royal flush.

Likewise with universes. If a near infinite number of different universes are somehow generated, then all possible worlds, no matter how vanishingly improbable any particular world may be, will eventually be produced. Thus, although it is exceedingly unlikely that a single universe with the precision of ours would have just happened, if there are an infinite number of different worlds then one like ours becomes not only probable but inevitable:
...the multiverse idea does explain one aspect of our universe that has unsettled some scientists for years: according to various calculations, if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe were a little larger or a little smaller, life could not have arisen.

For example, if the nuclear force were a few percentage points stronger than it actually is, then all the hydrogen atoms in the infant universe would have fused with other hydrogen atoms to make helium, and there would be no hydrogen left. No hydrogen means no water....On the other hand, if the nuclear force were substantially weaker than what it actually is, then the complex atoms needed for biology could not hold together.

As another example, if the relationship between the strengths of the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force were not close to what it is, then the cosmos would not harbor any stars that explode and spew out life-supporting chemical elements into space or any other stars that form planets. Both kinds of stars are required for the emergence of life. The strengths of the basic forces and certain other fundamental parameters in our universe appear to be “fine-tuned” to allow the existence of life.

If such conclusions are correct, the great question, of course, is why these fundamental parameters happen to lie within the range needed for life. Does the universe care about life?
There are only two answers currently on the table: Either the universe was deliberately designed by an intelligent agent or there are an infinite number of different universes, a multiverse:
Intelligent design, however, is an answer to fine-tuning that does not appeal to most scientists. The multiverse offers another explanation. If there are countless different universes with different properties—for example, some with nuclear forces much stronger than in our universe and some with nuclear forces much weaker—then some of those universes will allow the emergence of life and some will not....

From the huge range of possible universes predicted by the theories, the fraction of universes with life is undoubtedly small. But that doesn’t matter. We live in one of the universes that permits life because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.
In other words, the multiverse is a hypothesis to which scientists resort so they don't have to accept the metaphysical implications of an intelligent design:
The multiverse offers an explanation to the fine-tuning conundrum that does not require the presence of a Designer. As Steven Weinberg says: “Over many centuries science has weakened the hold of religion, not by disproving the existence of God but by invalidating arguments for God based on what we observe in the natural world. The multiverse idea offers an explanation of why we find ourselves in a universe favorable to life that does not rely on the benevolence of a creator, and so if correct will leave still less support for religion.”
It's noteworthy, I think that in this entire essay Lightman never mentions how exquisitely precise the values of these cosmic parameters are. It's as if he realizes that if he did, it would only lend credence in his readers' minds to the designer hypothesis.
The most striking example of fine-tuning, and one that practically demands the multiverse to explain it, is the unexpected detection of what scientists call dark energy.
The dark energy is tuned to a value of something like one part in 10^120, an inconceivably fine tolerance (A stack of dimes reaching from the earth to the sun would consist of approximately 10^14 dimes). If the dark energy value were different from what it is by just one part in 10^120, the universe, if it existed at all, would be inhospitable to life.

But does the dark energy example "demand" the multiverse as Lightman claims? Only if one assumes a priori that no other explanation is correct, but such an assumption is hardly warranted, especially since the alternative, intelligent design, is discounted for no reason other than it's philosophically repugnant to atheistic naturalists.

Even so, for the naturalist who embraces the multiverse, there are numerous ironies lying about.

In the first place the multiverse hypothesis is metaphysics, not science. It's the consequence of the philosophical assumption that all phenomena are reducible to physical processes and forces and that there is no supernatural mind. This is emphatically not something that science has demonstrated, contrary to what Weinberg seems to think. Nor can science ever empirically demonstrate, even in principle, that there is a multiverse.

Secondly, the multiverse undercuts naturalists' objections to miracles. If every conceivable universe exists then there are universes in which, no matter how unlikely it may be, a man is born to a virgin. There are also universes in which water is changed to wine, and in which a man returns to life after being dead for three days. Indeed, there are worlds in which all of these highly improbable events are accomplished in the life of one man, and ours might well be one such world.

Thirdly, the multiverse makes the existence of a designer virtually inevitable. If every possible world exists then, since it's certainly possible that there's a world that's designed by an intelligent agent, there must in fact be at least one such world. Our world could be it, but whether it is or isn't the point is that a designer capable of creating universes must exist.

So, if atheists think they've escaped having to accept the existence of a cosmic designer by positing an infinite series of worlds they're deluding themselves. If there is no multiverse then there is an intelligent designer of the universe. If there is a multiverse then there is an intelligent designer of at least one universe.

Either way, there exists an extraordinarily intelligent, unimaginably powerful, transcendent agent. Who might such a being be?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Why Christians Celebrate Christmas

In this season of shopping and feasting it's easy to lose sight of why Christmas is a special day. The following allegory, which we've posted on Viewpoint several times in the past, is a modest attempt to put the season into perspective [Some readers have noted the similarity between this story and the movie Taken. The story of Michael first appeared on Viewpoint over a year before Taken was released so the similarities are purely coincidental.]:
Michael, a member of a top-secret anti-terrorism task force, was the father of a teenage daughter named Jennifer, and his duties had caused him to be away from home much of the time Jen was growing up. He was serving his country in a very important, very dangerous capacity that required his absence and a great deal of personal sacrifice. As a result, his daughter grew into her late teens pretty much without him. Indeed, his wife Judith had decided to leave him a couple of years previous and took the girl with her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, it was all over, finished.

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

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

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

A Very Strange Belief

Evolution News and Views posts this 2007 video as a response to those biologists who say that we shouldn't think of cell biology in terms of the coordination of molecular machines because, well, it makes people think that the cell was intelligently designed instead of resulting from purposeless, unguided processes.

The video shows how chromosomes in the nucleus are unwound and the DNA is transcribed into proteins. It's a bit fast-paced so those whose high school biology course was an event in the distant past might want to watch it twice.
It is, of course, not impossible that chance and electrostatic attractions somehow conspired to create this amazing assembly-line operation. There's doubtless some vanishingly small probability that it did indeed happen naturalistically, but the materialist concludes that because it's not impossible that therefore it happened. It's like insisting that because it's not impossible (at least not logically impossible) that I will win an Olympic gold metal in the 100 meter dash, that therefore I will win it.

The really odd thing about this is that anyone who makes this sort of argument has absolutely no grounds for disbelieving in miracles, yet not only do they disbelieve that, say, a man was born to a virgin, they ridicule those who do believe it. They have no trouble believing that the extraordinarily improbable processes depicted in this video "just happened," but they scoff at the notion that a man could rise from the dead, even though the probability of the latter is certainly no less than the probability of the former. It's all very strange.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

St. Nicholas

Theologian James Parker offers us a brief history of the original Santa Claus and how the myths around him grew.

Here's an excerpt:
Most people simply do not realize the rich ancient heritage behind the Santa Claus story. The secularized and sanitized contemporary version pales in comparison with the deeply Christian ethos and content of the original.

Much exaggerated legendary material is connected with his life and ministry, but if nothing else, the legends tell us what values and beliefs the church held as important as they were projected onto Nicholas. To the bare minimum of facts, legend has supplied intriguing details through such writers as St. Methodius (patriarch of Constantinople in the 850s) and the Greek writer Metaphrastes in the 10th century.

The story goes that Nicholas was born in A.D. 280 to pious and wealthy parents who raised him in the fear and admonition of the Lord and taught him "sacred books" from the age of 5. He was forced to grow up quickly upon the sudden death of his parents.

Inheriting his family's wealth, he was left rich and lonely, but he had the desire to use his wealth for good. The first opportunity to do this happened when he heard about a father who, through an unfortunate turn of events, was left destitute with three daughters. Without marriage dowry money, the daughters would be condemned to a life of singleness and prostitution, so Nicholas threw some small bags of gold coins into the window of the home (some traditions say down the chimney), thereby saving the children from a life of misery.

Later as a teenager, Nicholas made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine. Upon returning home he felt called to ministry and was subsequently ordained. He spent time at the Monastery of Holy Zion near Myra until an old priest had a vision that he was to be the new bishop.

The congregation overwhelmingly elected him bishop, and he became known for his holiness, passion for the Gospel and zeal. He challenged the old gods and paganism at the principal temple in his district (to the god Artemis), and it was said that the evil spirits "fled howling before him."
There's more to the story. Nicholas was imprisoned under Diocletian, savagely beaten, and later released under Constantine's Edict of Milan.
Those who survived Diocletian's purges were called "confessors" because they wouldn't renege on their confession of Jesus as Lord.

When Bishop Nicholas walked out of the prison, the crowds called to him: "Nicholas! Confessor!" He had been repeatedly beaten until he was raw, and his body was the color of vermilion. Bishop Nicholas was also said to have intervened on behalf of unjustly charged prisoners and actively sought to help his people survive when they had experienced two successive bad harvests.
Nicholas opposed Arianism, the belief that Jesus was a created being and not divine, and according to some perhaps apocryphal traditions, actually attended the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. where he got into a physical altercation with Arias himself.

Whether that's true or not, the story of St. Nicholas (Say Saint Nicholas fast with an Italian accent and you get Santa Claus) is a lot different, and much more interesting, than the popular mythology surrounding him. Read the whole thing at the link.

Microfinance on Christmas

Looking for a way to help the working poor this Christmas? Give microfinance a look. I'm partial to a group called Kiva, but there are dozens of similar organizations out there doing good work in third world countries. Let me use Kiva to illustrate how they work.

If you click on the link to Kiva it takes you to their home page. From there you select from hundreds of small entrepreneurs looking for a loan to help start or sustain a business. If you navigate around the site you'll see that you can select borrowers by country, type of business, etc.

You then click on the "Lend $25" button next to the person or group you've selected to receive your loan. That will take you to a page where you give your credit card and billing info.

You're now finished, and you've done something to actually help people help themselves.

The borrower eventually pays back the loan and the money is placed back in your account. You can reclaim it or lend it out again to someone else, adding each time to the principle if you wish. In effect, you become a no-interest bank.

Check it out. It's a wonderful gift to give someone on Christ's birthday.

Throw Them All Out

You know there's something wrong when people go to Washington, earn a salary of $174,000 a year for a dozen years or so and are suddenly worth millions. How does that happen? Peter Schweizer explains it with a calm lucidity that is an impressive display of self-control, given the injustice he documents in his book Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get rich Off Insider Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism That Would Send the Rest of Us to Prison.

The stories Schweizer recounts are infuriating and the worst of it is that, for the most part, what these people are doing is perfectly legal. It's corrupt, it's unfair, it's a betrayal of the trust of the American people, but it's legal because the people who make the laws and oversee the Congress are the same people who are profiting from he corruption.

Schweizer focuses in particular on three kinds of political venality: Insider trading, earmarks, and paybacks of taxpayer money to donors (cronyism). He never mentions the political party to which the thieves belong, but there are representatives of both parties discussed in the book. His prime examples on the Republican side are former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, and former Senator Judd Gregg. The Democrat rogues gallery includes Senator John Kerry, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and President Barack Obama.

There are, in addition, many others from both parties whose shenanigans he mentions, or could have mentioned, to illustrate the rampant corruption of what he calls the Permanent Political Class.

Some examples: During the debate over Medicare Part D in 2003, Senator Kerry made purchases of $5 million worth of stocks in pharmaceutical and health plan companies that he knew, by virtue of his position on his Senate committee, would profit from the legislation. He and his wife made millions from their advanced knowledge of the winners and losers. Kerry and others essentially bet on which companies would do well, knew in advance which companies these would be, and were in position to help those companies succeed.

It's not unlike a baseball player betting on games. It can get a baseball player thrown out of baseball - Pete Rose was banned from the Hall of Fame for it - but it's all legal when members of Congress do it.

Another example: In 2002 House Speaker Dennis Hastert inserted a $207 million dollar earmark into a federal highway bill that would facilitate construction of a road that just happened to run past his own property, raising the value of Hastert's acreage by 140%.

Nor is the President above it all. His graft is especially revolting since it involves direct giveaways of taxpayers' money to his donors and supporters. On pages 100 and 101 of the book Schweizer lists almost fifty of President Obama's bundlers, donors, and supporters who raised vast amounts of money for his campaign and who were rewarded for their efforts with millions, in some cases billions, of dollars of stimulus money.

Leucadia Energy had one employee and $120,000 in annual revenue, but it received billions of dollars in stimulus money because the CEO of its parent company, Leucadia National, was Ian Cumming who was a member of the president's 2008 National Finance Committee. The billions in stimulus created a net increase of three jobs for Leucadia.

A 35% stake in Solyndra, another green energy company, was held by an Oklahoma billionaire by the name of George Kaiser who raised at least $100,000 for the Obama campaign. As soon as the stimulus was passed Solyndra was awarded a government-backed loan of $573 million, despite widespread warnings that Solyndra was a poor financial risk. The company went bankrupt, as expected, and the taxpayers are left to pick up the tab. Kaiser didn't lose anything.

Schweizer closes his chapter on presidential cronyism with this:
Imagine for a minute that you are a corporate executive and you start using your companies assets to "invest" in projects that in turn benefit you directly. What would happen? You would be risking possible criminal charges for the misuse of those assets. But if it's taxpayer money? Suddenly it becomes legal. Even acceptable.

And for the billionaire who is looking to get a big return on his investment, there are few returns that can be higher than those resulting from campaign contributions. After all, how else can you turn half a million dollars from yourself and your friends into hundreds of millions of dollars after a single election?

Not surprisingly, many of those named here are raising money again for President Obama's 2012campaign. As a jobs program - the stated purpose - these billions in grants and loans were a failure. But as a method of transferring billions in taxpayer funds to friends, cronies, and supporters, they worked perfectly.
It makes you wonder why the Occupy Wall Street crowd is on Wall Street and not on the Capitol steps and the White House lawn.

This brief review is scarcely the tip of the iceberg that Schweizer uncovers for us. Every citizen, certainly every voter, should read this book. It'll make your blood boil and probably cause you to demand term limits for our elected kleptocrats. The problem, of course, is that the kleptocracy is the very group that has to legislate the limitations on how much time they have to make themselves rich. Fat chance that the fat cats will do that.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Winter Wanderers

Winter often brings rare avian vagrants to the Middle Atlantic states and the last couple of weeks have been especially kind to those of us who enjoy seeing these feathered vagabonds. Recently three unusual species have turned up in central Pennsylvania, two of them in the same location, Blue Marsh State Park near Reading, PA.

The first rarity was a female Rufous hummingbird, a western species. Rufous hummingbirds have made appearances at a half dozen spots around the state recently, one of which was close to my home in York County.

Rufous Hummingbird (female)
Hummingbirds are the smallest bird in the world and are found only in the western hemisphere and mostly in South America. They're the only avian species capable of backward flight (they can also fly sideways). Their wings beat so fast (70 times a second in normal flight, 200 times a second in a power dive) that they're only a blur to the eye, and they're so tiny they must consume up to 8 times their bodyweight in food in a day to stay alive. Go here for more fascinating facts about these birds.

The other two wanderers to make their way to Pennsylvania were both gulls. One is the Glaucous gull which is completely white. Most gulls show some black or gray, but the Glaucous, a species which breeds in the arctic, has only a black spot on the tip of its beak.

Glaucous Gull
The third visitor was another western species called a Franklin's gull. The Franklin's adult looks superficially like the Laughing gull common to the east coast of North America, but it's smaller and differs in a few details. The bird seen at Blue Marsh was a juvenile in winter plumage.

Franklin's Gull
All this and winter's just getting started.

Making Philosophy Matter

Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and a lecturer in philosophy at Simmons College, sounds the tocsin for his fellow philosophers, urging them to wake up to the fact that their discipline is in trouble. Universities looking for ways to tighten their budgetary belts have let their eyes fall upon their philosophy departments which are increasingly regarded as academic fat.

McIntyre laments the short-sightedness of such a view, but also blames his colleagues for not doing more to make philosophy relevant to the lives of their students and to our public debates.

Here's a sample from his essay:
In March administrators at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas announced that, because of budget cuts, the entire department of philosophy would be eliminated. Philosophers rallied, the administration flinched, and within a month the crisis was averted. So all is well, right?

Not so fast. Unless systemic changes are made within the profession of philosophy over the next several years, we can expect that within a few decades, the entire discipline may be threatened.

In November 2010, The Boston Globe reported that student interest in humanities courses has cratered in recent years. And long-term trends are troubling, too. When adjusted for total enrollment, numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics show a 20-percent drop in philosophy and religion majors from 1970 through 2009. Of course, none of that is news to anyone who has worked recently in an American philosophy department. There is anecdotal evidence aplenty that our students are disappearing.

And how have we responded? Do we design better courses? Try to attract more student interest? Some members of our profession do, but by and large our response has been pitiful. We collapse tenured positions as soon as their inhabitants retire. We hire more adjuncts. Instead of trying to figure out how to reach more people with philosophy, we cut back. But in doing so, we eat our seed corn. (Note that in saving philosophy at UNLV, the department agreed to slate all its junior faculty members for termination.)

Something should be done about the growing crisis in philosophy, but no one seems to be doing anything. Who is to blame?

We are. Philosophers. We did this to ourselves.
McIntyre goes on to explain exactly how philosophers have done it themselves. Everything he says rings true, but there's one thing he doesn't mention that's an interesting fact about the jeopardy philosophy finds itself in. It doesn't seem to be at all in trouble in religious schools, at least as far as I can tell. One reason, perhaps, is that the problems examined in philosophy courses are highly relevant and crucial to a thorough religious education.

Philosophy as taught by secularists in secular institutions always struck me as a dry, barren and tedious affair. Philosophy is most exciting, I think, to those who are interested in seeing how the ideas of the great thinkers bear on their own deepest convictions. Philosophers who teach courses on very narrow, abstruse topics are simply walling themselves off from a larger body of students who might otherwise be eager to think about ideas and issues that both challenge and reinforce their own convictions, particularly their metaphysical convictions.

McIntyre goes on to observe that unlike scholars in other disciplines, too many philosophers eschew writing for a popular audience:
We have painted ourselves into a corner of irrelevance so completely that at times I wonder whether most philosophical work is even very interesting to other philosophers. There is, of course, genuine value to pure research in philosophy, just as there is in other fields. But what seems problematic is the widespread philosopher's prejudice that we are somehow sullying our discipline any time we try to make a real-world connection.

Thus even when we have the chance to make a difference, philosophers often blow it. How many of us, when we teach ethics, have used the hypothetical example of whether torture is justified to get evidence in the face of a ticking bomb? But when a U.S. president actually endorsed the use of torture, there was mostly silence from the philosophical community, from both sides of the political spectrum.

Few op-eds in national newspapers. Little attempt to make use of our terrific critical-reasoning skills in the public arena to cut through the fallacies of the politicians or the blowhards on cable TV. Too many preferred instead to brag of their brave political convictions to the captive audience in their classrooms.
Quite so. Any discipline which can't show people how the subject it studies matters to them, how it relates to their life and their deepest yearnings, is by definition going to be culturally irrelevant. Philosophy is a rich and fascinating discipline, but when it's decoupled from the ultimate questions of life, or when it's presented to students by instructors who are themselves lost in the arid, empty wastelands of a naturalistic metaphysics, it often comes across as a dessicated exercise in pointless erudition.

Thanks to Byron for linking me to McIntyre's article.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Missing Bush

Syrian protestors, having seen thousands of their countrymen, including hundreds of children, massacred by their government in Damascus, express their nostalgia for a man who actually did something about such injustice.

Think what you will about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They weren't always well-executed - few large-scale undertakings ever are - and they've been extremely costly, but they freed a total of 50 million people from tyrannical oppression and horror. The world is certainly better off without Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in it, and is also better off with a diminished al Qaeda, and Taliban. Almost all of the credit for this improved state of affairs goes to the Bush administration.

Evidently, the Syrians would like to add Bashir Assad and his cronies to the list of people with whom the world is no longer afflicted, and they miss having someone in the White House they could have counted on to help.

Thanks to The Weekly Standard for the pic.

RNA Interference and Naturalistic Fideism

Here's a fascinating video which shows the incredible, breath-taking complexity of the chemical machinery of every living cell. What is being shown is very arcane and really doesn't matter (Those who wish to read more about it can find an explanation here).

Just watch the video and marvel at how wondrous it is that the Crea ... oops, I mean blind, unguided processes operating solely by chance - orchestrated the construction of such an amazing organization of molecular machines which, once in place, are capable of carrying on these processes completely autonomously without any intelligent input.
To be sure, it takes faith to believe that there's an intelligent mind responsible for the universe and for life, but it takes, in my view, a superhuman effort of the will to believe that something like what's depicted on this video could have all come about through random chance and the laws of chemistry. One has to simply not want to believe that there is a Mind behind it all in order to come to the conclusion that there isn't.

There are some religious believers who hold that we should have faith regardless of what our reason says, regardless of what the evidence is. This view is called fideism. Fideists maintain that when they encounter difficult evidence or experience doubt they should just believe and not waver. Naturalism, the belief that natural processes and forces can account for all the phenomena we observe in the universe, is, in my opinion, a kind of fideism.

Everywhere the naturalist looks he sees evidence of intelligent design, but, scrunching up his will, he repeats ten times, "Nature can do it."

He has no evidence of this, however. He's never seen nature create a cell nor create the information needed to operate a cell, even though everyday he sees minds perform such amazing feats.

Even so, his faith that there exists no Mind capable of creating universes is so great that he's impervious to the lack of evidence and the existence of contrary evidence. He's a fideist of the the first order.

Respecting Women

A couple of weeks ago Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed indignation over the fact that in Israel some Orthodox Jews object to men and women sitting together on busses. She said the treatment reminded her of Iran. This was an odd observation since Israel is the one place in the Middle East where women are treated as full citizens with the same legal rights as men. In Saudi Arabia they're not even allowed to drive. In most Muslim countries they are betrothed to whomever their families choose for them and can be killed if they do anything of which the family, particularly the father, disapproves.

Ms. Clinton has had little to say about those affronts to decency and civilization, choosing instead, seemingly, to pander to the anti-Israel elements on the Left by taking a shot at Israel.

If she had chosen to direct her criticism of the status of women where it really is atrocious she might have fired a volley or two at Egypt. Perhaps the most vivid recent display of how women are treated in much of the Middle East is the state-ordained violence seen in a video that was taken in Egypt two days ago.

During the Arab Spring protests the military remained somewhat neutral and largely refrained from serious use of force against the pro-democracy demonstrators. Now that Mubarak has been toppled, however, all that has gone by the boards, and we're witnessing the ghastly savagery of the Egyptian security forces as they have been unleashed against those protesting what they consider the dawdling pace of democratization.

The beatings and shootings, both of which are caught on this videotape, began on Friday and, so far, a dozen people have been killed.

Don't watch this if you're squeamish:
Those are women among those being beaten and stomped on. It's hard to imagine women being brutalized like that by any Western police force. The next time Ms. Clinton feels the need to condemn the treatment of women perhaps she'll have the good sense to turn her gaze to those parts of the world where it really is abominable.

Whatever eventually happens in Egypt it's doubtful that democracy will flourish. If the military holds on to power things will be very much as they were under Mubarak. If the military falls, the Islamists will almost certainly gain control and establish Sharia. Either way, real freedom is not likely to flower in Egyptian soil.

Neither will women finally be given the respect and courtesy they've enjoyed in the West for centuries.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Intuiting Evil

Matthew B. O’Brien is a post-doctoral fellow at Villanova University who has written a fine piece in The Public Discourse that deals with the role of God in our moral lives. He wants to argue that morality cannot be separated from the existence of a transcendent moral authority, an argument with which I'm very much in agreement, but along the way I think he perhaps makes a slightly confusing misstep.

Before I discuss that let me quote from his lede:
If you are going to make a moral argument, whether in the seminar room or in the public square, people today expect you to avoid invoking God. Atheists and theists alike share this expectation, with atheists eager to show that their moral knowledge and action are uncompromised by disbelief in God’s existence, and theists eager to establish the rational credentials of their moral convictions and protect themselves against charges of fideism.

This expectation is unwarranted, however, because God’s existence is directly relevant to moral knowledge and action: If appeals to God get ruled out, either by disbelief in His existence or reluctance to rely upon it, then it isn’t possible to demonstrate that there are moral absolutes.

A moral absolute is an exceptionless norm against choosing a certain type of action that is intrinsically bad. Recognizing a moral absolute therefore involves two stages of evaluation: first, seeing that some act, such as killing an innocent person, is intrinsically evil, and second, seeing that one ought never to do evil. My contention is that a demonstration of this second stage of evaluation will need to appeal to God’s legislation against doing evil that good may come.

This appeal of course assumes that God exists and that He legislates the moral law. Without this appeal, it remains logically possible for someone to think that there are intrinsically evil acts, and to think that virtuous people will habitually refuse to consider committing such acts, while yet refusing to infer that such acts must be avoided in every situation whatsoever.
My very minor quibble with O'Brien is that though he's technically correct that it's logically possible to believe that there are intrinsically evil acts that nevertheless might be warranted in some cases, I think the atheist has no grounds for believing that there are, in fact, intrinsically evil acts.

O'Brien continues:
It is instructive at this point to consider Aristotle. Aristotle thought that there were intrinsically bad actions that nobody ought to consider choosing, and although Aristotle was a theist, his conception of God was not as a providential creator or moral legislator. Aristotle’s example is noteworthy because it shows that it is possible to arrive at the conviction that intrinsically bad actions exist without appealing to God’s legislation. But Aristotle’s example is noteworthy also because of what he does not try to do, which is to demonstrate the truth of such absolute prohibitions by appealing to some more basic set of moral reasons.

For Aristotle...the grounds for absolute prohibitions bottom out in the perception of actions as base and shameless. Such intuitionism is as far as I think non-theological ethics can go. Receiving the correct upbringing will get you to see that certain acts are intrinsically bad, and you ought never to choose them; but in order to go further and demonstrate why this is true, you need to be able to appeal to God’s legislation of the moral law, which is what proves the reasonableness of forbearing from evil in the extreme tight-corner situation.
I think this is slightly askew, or at least the way O'Brien frames it is a bit unclear. Receiving the correct upbringing may help you to intuit that some acts are distasteful, and you may believe them to be intrinsically bad, but, for the atheist, that belief is non-rational. It's like the conviction that the color green exists in the grass rather than in one's brain. On atheism, evil is not inherent in an act any more than greenness is inherent in the grass. It's an illusion.

In order to rationally regard an act as intrinsically bad one must, as O'Brien correctly insists, be able to refer to a transcendent moral authority. Otherwise, no matter how horrific the act may be, it's not morally evil anymore than a shark attack on a child wading in the ocean is morally evil.

It's true, as O'Brien goes on to say, that most people don't realize this, but that's because most people don't think about it anymore than they think about where the color green is actually located. Even so, it needs to be pointed out to the atheist that his belief that he can make meaningful moral judgments is nonsense if God doesn't exist. Whenever he attempts such judgments he's piggy-backing on Christian (or, more generally, theistic) assumptions while at the same time denying that those assumptions are correct.

The moral opinions of non-theists are simply expressions of their subjective feelings and as such have no objective value or weight. They're irrelevant, or should be considered to be such, to our social life and discourse.

Readers interested in the topic should read O'Brien's piece. It's very good.

Vaclev Havel

Vaclev Havel passed away yesterday after a long battle with cancer and related illnesses.

Like every other human being Havel had his flaws, but he nevertheless deserves much admiration for what he endured and accomplished in the struggle for freedom against the tyranny of Marxist socialist totalitarianism. CBS gives us an overview of his life. Here's an excerpt:
His political activism began in earnest in January 1977, when he co-authored the human rights manifesto Charter 77, and the cause drew widening attention in the West.

Havel was detained countless times and spent four years in communist jails. His letters from prison to his wife became one of his best-known works. "Letters to Olga" blended deep philosophy with a stream of stern advice to the spouse he saw as his mentor and best friend, and who tolerated his reputed philandering and other foibles.

The events of August 1988 — the 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion — first suggested that Havel and his friends might one day replace the faceless apparatchiks who jailed them.

Thousands of mostly young people marched through central Prague, yelling Havel's name and that of the playwright's hero, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the philosopher who was Czechoslovakia's first president after it was founded in 1918.

Havel's arrest in January 1989 at another street protest and his subsequent trial generated anger at home and abroad. Pressure for change was so strong that the communists released him again in May.

That fall, communism began to collapse across Eastern Europe, and in November the Berlin Wall fell. Eight days later, communist police brutally broke up a demonstration by thousands of Prague students. It was the signal that Havel and his country had awaited. Within 48 hours, a broad new opposition movement was founded, and a day later, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets.

On Dec. 29, 1989, Havel was elected Czechoslovakia's president by the country's still-communist parliament. Three days later, he told the nation in a televised New Year's address: "Out of gifted and sovereign people, the regime made us little screws in a monstrously big, rattling and stinking machine."

In July 1992, it became clear that the Czechoslovak federation was heading for a split. Considering it a personal failure, Havel resigned as president, but he remained popular and was elected president of the new Czech Republic uncontested.

He was small, but his presence and wit could fill a room. Even late in life, he retained a certain impishness and boyish grin, shifting easily from philosophy to jokes or plain old Prague gossip.

In December 1996, just 11 months after his first wife, Olga Havlova, died of cancer, he lost a third of his right lung during surgery to remove a 15-millimeter (half-inch) malignant tumor....

Holding a post of immense prestige but little power, Havel's image suffered in the latter years as his people discovered the difficulties of transforming their society in the post-communist era.

His attempts to reconcile rival politicians were considered by many as unconstitutional intrusions, and his pleas for political leaders to build a "civic society" based on respect, tolerance and individual responsibility went largely unanswered.

Media criticism, once unthinkable, became unrelenting. Serious newspapers questioned his political visions; tabloids focused mainly on his private life and his flashy second wife.

Havel himself acknowledged that his handling of domestic issues never matched his flair for foreign affairs. But when the Czech Republic joined NATO in March 1999, and the European Union in May 2004, his dreams came true.
Hot Air notes the absurdity that Barack Obama, Al Gore, and Yassar Arafat were all awarded the Noble Peace Prize but Vaclev Havel was not. Perhaps if Havel had been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews, or had made a film about global warming, or been skilled at reading speeches off of teleprompters the Noble committee would have seen fit to bestow upon him the honor of their prize.

By coincidence the warden and chief executioner of the totalitarian prison that is North Korea, Kim Jong Il, also died yesterday. As Europeans mourn Havel's death, North Koreans - secretly, of course - mourn Kim's life.