Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cultural Superiority

Our post Different Strokes attracted a bit of disagreement from readers who took exception to my claim that the West is exceptional. What was particularly objected to were these graphs:
Even after all we've learned in the last couple of decades about how people in the rest of the world live their lives, there are still some liberal-minded folk who like to tell us that we in the West shouldn't think that our way of life is superior to that of people living elsewhere around the globe. All cultures and ways of life are equally worthy of celebration, the multiculturalists and cultural relativists insist, we're all patches in the brightly colored quilt of human expression and no patch is of better quality or more importance than another.

This sentiment makes for warm feelings in university faculty lounges and classrooms and may prompt us to break into a treacly chorus or two of Up with People or We Are the World, but it's an awfully hard belief to maintain once we start looking at how so many of the world's people actually live.
Since several readers wrote to say that indeed they don't think we should think Western culture is superior to that of people elsewhere around the globe I thought I should amplify a little bit.

What follows applies not just to cultures construed as different nations or global regions but also to sub-cultures within a country or region. Also, by the term "superior culture" I mean a way, or view, of life which promotes human flourishing to a greater extent than do other ways of life.

Thus, I want to insist that:
  • A culture which produces a Bach, a Shakespeare, or an Einstein is a superior culture to one that never has.
  • A culture which can invent and build jetliners is superior to a culture that can't build indoor plumbing.
  • A culture which values hard work and education is superior to one which fosters indolence and ignorance.
  • A culture which treats women with dignity and respect is superior to one which treats them as property and with contempt.
  • A culture which values basic human freedoms such as the freedom of speech, opinion, and religion is superior to one which kills those who deviate from orthodoxy.
  • A culture which values the rule of law and suppresses the resort to violence and individual vengeance is superior to one which doesn't.
  • A culture in which men are expected to nurture and provide for their families is superior to one in which they're seen as little more than sperm donors.
  • A culture which sends food, medicine, and people abroad to help others is superior to the culture to which they go.
  • A culture which develops pain-killers and cures for disease is superior to a culture which is helpless against pain and disease.
In short, a culture which produces great art, music, architecture, technology, and literature, a culture which can harness nature or at least mitigate the damage it wreaks, and which is animated by humanitarian impulses, is superior to a culture which cannot do, or does not choose to do, any of this.

No culture is perfect, of course, but some are much less perfect than others. Every culture has flaws, but to the extent a culture is flawed it's usually because its people have adopted one or more of the traits of inferior cultures.

For more on this I invite the interested reader to read In Defense of Elitism, a Viewpoint post from 2010 on a similar topic.

Friday, March 30, 2012


In a couple of recent posts on the Trayvon Martin killing I referred to the shooter as George Williams. His name is George Zimmerman. I regret the confusion it doubtless caused to see both names given to the same man in the same post.

I also thank those readers who took the trouble to point my error out to me.

Who's Happy?

Dennis Prager is a radio host who has written and lectured extensively on the subject of "happiness". In a recent column he talks about who the people who are most happy with their lives. He lists eleven traits of genuinely happy people and writes a sentence or two of explanation of each. Here's his list:
Happy people are people who:
  • control themselves.
  • are given little and earn what they have.
  • do not see themselves or their group as victims.
  • rarely complain.
  • have close friends.
  • are in a good marriage.
  • act happy.
  • aren't envious.
  • don't have high self-esteem.
  • have few expectations.
  • are grateful.
It really is worthwhile to go to the link and read Prager's discussion of these. He packs a lot of wisdom into just a few sentences.

Demographic Twilight

Japan is facing a demographic crisis and there doesn't seem to be much chance that it will be able to avoid it, argues Pat Buchanan in a recent column. The facts he amasses in support of his conclusion, if they are indeed facts, paint a pretty hopeless picture for the Land of the Rising Sun. Here are some excerpts:
A week before the anniversary of 3/11 [the date of the devastating earthquake/tsunami], buried in a story about Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s effort to rally support for a doubling of the 5 percent consumption tax, to preserve Japan’s social security system, was this startling statement: “We’re faced with an aging society and a declining birth rate unprecedented in the history of mankind.”

.....the prime minister’s statement is rooted in numbers that may fairly be called a demography of death.

By 2055, according to government data, 40 percent of the country’s population will be 65 or older. Just 8 percent will be younger than 15. According to U.N. figures, [although] Japan’s population [will] reach 127 million in 2010, the number of Japanese will shrink to just above 101 million by 2050. Every year between now and 2050, the number of deaths over births in Japan will average two-thirds of a million, with the population shrinkage accelerating each decade.

The median age of a Japanese, 22 years old in 1950, reached 45 in 2010 and will exceed 55 by mid-century. What kind of future can there be for a nation, even one with the high quality human capital of Japan, when there are two Japanese 65 years old or older for every Japanese 24 years of age or younger? When Japan became the world’s No. 2 economy in 1960, seizing the crown from Germany to hold for 40 years, Japanese 24 years old and younger outnumbered the population 65 or older eight to one.

Japan’s fertility rate, the number of births per woman, has been below zero population growth for 40 years and has plunged to where Japanese woman are having only two-thirds of the children needed to replace the present population. Not only has the birth rate per woman fallen, the percentage of Japanese women aged 15-49 — 56 percent in the 1960s — is expected to plunge to 31 by midcentury.

Every new Japanese generation is one-third to one-half smaller than the one that came before. Japan’s high school graduation class has fallen by more than one-third in just 30 years.
This is all pretty ominous and Buchanan has more to say about Japan's predicament, and what caused it, at the link, but it's not just Japan. Similar collapses are occurring across much of the globe. Russia, Europe, and, to a lesser extent, the United States are all facing crises of their own.

This raises two very urgent questions: How will these countries provide for their elderly when there are no longer enough workers to pay into the support system, and how will nations which have lost their economic and demographic dynamism stave off the masses of people languishing in the Muslim world, China, and much of the southern hemisphere who look with covetous eyes on the lands and resources to their north and west?

One hopes that more people than just Pat Buchanan are giving these questions serious attention.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

More on the Reason Rally

The atheist "Reason Rally" held last weekend in Washington, D.C. drew between 10,000 and 30,000 participants and was touted as an event whose purpose was not to bash belief or believers but to present a positive image of unbelief.

Unfortunately, some of the participants just couldn't help themselves, as Lashawn Barber notes in a column at Barber writes specifically about a speech given by über atheist Richard Dawkins:
Rather than trashing religion, the Reason Rally was supposed to be a “positive experience” to celebrate “secular values” and motivate atheists to “become more active.” While that might sound reasonable, if you listen to Dawkins’s speech, you’d get a different impression.

Dawkins called on atheists and agnostics to “ridicule and show contempt” for the religious and their doctrines. The example he used was the Roman Catholic belief that the bread and wine of communion turns into the actual body and blood of Christ. He encouraged atheists to mock and ridicule the religious in public.
Rabbi Moshe Averick observes that this sort of arrogance is fueled by a conviction that atheists are just smarter and more reasonable than are believers. He also thinks they're quite mistaken about that:
What fuels the hubris of writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers, etc. is their belief that Science unequivocally supports their godless view of reality. An honest, open-minded investigation will reveal, however, that Science offers close to nothing in support of atheism.

A prodigious leap of faith is required to believe such a notion; a leap that rivals any that might be demanded by a particular religion. At every critical point of contention between believers and non-believers, scientific evidence is at the very least, inconclusive, and at best, supports belief in God and the spiritual.
What sorts of evidence does the rabbi have in mind when he makes this claim? He offers three examples:
Origin of Life – Much to the chagrin of chemists and molecular biologists, the “dirty little secret” of origin of life research – as Dr. Eugene Koonin put it – is that Science has, until now, utterly failed in its quest to discover a plausible naturalistic explanation for the origin of the astoundingly complex molecular machinery and information systems found in the earliest life on our planet. It is these same super-sophisticated machines and genetic information systems that would allow Darwinian evolution – conceding its truth for argument’s sake – to take place. The origin of these systems is a complete mystery. Perhaps the reason is because there is no naturalistic explanation. Perhaps, Darwin forbid, there is a Creator.

Human Consciousness and our unique sense of Identity – Neuroscientists are absolutely baffled when asked to explain the phenomena of human consciousness and self-awareness. Dr. Jerry Fodor, a non-believing cognitive scientist, has put it this way: “Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious.” Nobel-Prize winning biologist George Wald has stated: “Consciousness seems wholly impervious to science.” Anyone ready to consider a non-material soul?

Man’s Relentless Search for Meaning and Abstract Moral Values – The Darwinian psychologist grasps at straws trying to understand why every other form of life on the planet does not seem to be bothered at all by the aforementioned issues and lives and thrives quite successfully without them, while human beings are obsessed with “meaning” and “moral values” and cannot live without them. The painful conundrum this raises in the atheist position is expressed by the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre: “That God does not exist I cannot deny, that my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.” Is there anyone out there open-minded enough to consider that perhaps human beings are radically and qualitatively different than all other forms of life?
He could have offered more, of course, but these three happen to coincide nicely with the argument that we've been making here at VP for eight years about the existential poverty of the naturalistic worldview and its impotence in trying to explain large swaths of human experience.

Averick concludes by saying that:
In my opinion, the most revealing moment of the “Reason Rally” was a headline performance by Australian entertainer, Tim Minchin. While the audience – many with young children in tow – clapped and bounced along with the rhythm, Mr. Minchin attempted to claim his place in the Guinness Book of Records by saying the word mother****er as many times as is humanly possible during a 3-minute “song.” The enthusiastic reaction of these “brights” to Mr. Minchin’s antics tells us much more about the true state of modern atheism than any science textbook ever will.
Actually, just as much as Minchin's squalid performance, the comment thread to Averick's post itself reveals a great deal about the state of modern atheism. Some of the commenters seem to believe that one wins an argument by lobbing more irrelevant invective at the other guy than he lobs back at you. It never seems to occur to them that they should be seeking to show that Averick is wrong, if they believe that he is, and not just be pounding him with lame insults.

The commenters make themselves sound like a bunch of high school kids. If that's what modern atheism looks like then no wonder it appeals to so few.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Do the Right Thing, Spike

What words can one use to describe Spike Lee, a wealthy filmmaker who, in his hubris, has no concern whatsoever for ordinary people?

In an attempt to avenge the death of Trayvon Martin Mr. Lee tweeted to his followers the address of the man he thought was the shooter, but it turns out he had the wrong address:
It was the address of an elderly Florida couple whose son... William George Zimmerman (no relation to shooter) - lived briefly there in 1995. Now the 70-year-old school cafeteria lunch lady with a heart condition and her 72-year-old husband have been forced to move out of danger into a hotel temporarily after receiving hate mail, threats, harassing visits from reporters and fearful inquiries from neighbors.

The woman’s other son Chip Humble told the Orlando Sentinel, "It's scary because there are people who aren't mentally right and will take this information and run with it. To endanger people who are innocent because people are angry is not the answer. That's not how we're going to heal. It's not [going] to help the Martin family for someone else to be hurt."

The O’Reilly Factor contacted Spike Lee’s production company “40 Acres and a Mule.” Instead of issuing a statement or an apology, the executive office told Factor producer Jesse Watters that Spike Lee had “no comment.” That’s it.
Apologize? When you're Spike Lee there's no need to apologize. If your irresponsible actions cause innocent people to have to flee their home why, that's just collateral damage in the war against white injustice. Lee's decision to tweet their address was reckless and unconscionable, and his subsequent refusal to apologize is odious.

Meanwhile, no word yet if any charges will be brought by the Department of Justice or the Florida State Attorney General against the New Black Panthers for offering a reward for the kidnapping of the real George Zimmerman and the forcible transfer of the man to the leaders of the NBP Party. How this cannot be illegal is beyond my ability to comprehend. That the Obama DOJ refuses to take action against the NBP despite their threat to Zimmerman's civil rights is deplorable.

UPDATE: Lee finally did the right thing and apologized to the elderly couple he made refugees from their own home.

Nothing New about Global Warming

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has argued that a period of warming that occurred between 500 and 1000 years ago, called the Medieval Warm Period (MWP), was a local phenomenon confined to Europe, and that the global temperature increases we’re experiencing now are man-made.

A new study just released throws all of that into question, however, by producing compelling evidence that the MWP was actually a world-wide event. The Daily Mail has the story. Here's an excerpt:
A team of scientists led by geochemist Zunli Lu from Syracuse University in New York state, has found that contrary to the ‘consensus’, the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ approximately 500 to 1,000 years ago wasn’t just confined to Europe. In fact, it extended all the way down to Antarctica – which means that the Earth has already experienced global warming without the aid of human CO2 emissions.

At present the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that the Medieval Warm Period was confined to Europe – and that therefore the warming we’re experiencing now is a man-made phenomenon. However, Professor Lu has shown that this isn’t true – and the evidence lies with a rare mineral called ikaite, which forms in cold waters.
The article goes on to describe how Lu and his team used ikaite to ascertain the temperatures which prevailed in Antarctica during the MWP. You can find the technical details at the link. The take home message, though, is that a severe period of global warming lasted for several centuries and then naturally diminished, and none of it was the result of human activity.

Perhaps the current upward trend in global temperatures is indeed caused by increased greenhouse gasses generated by human activity, but there appears to be historical precedent for temperature surges that are unrelated to industrialization and CO2 emissions so it would seem very premature to assume that something similar is not happening today.

Free Will and Determinism

Graham Lawton, deputy magazine editor at New Scientist offers a brief review of atheistic philosopher and materialist neuroscientist Sam Harris' new book on free will.

Harris argues that free will doesn't exist, a claim which, it seems to me, gets him entangled in a number snares, but I'll let Lawton explain:
Free will touches everything we value - law, politics, relationships, morality and more. And yet it is an illusion (according to Harris). We either live in a deterministic universe where the future is set, or an indeterminate one where thoughts and actions happen at random. Neither is compatible with free will.

Having laid this out, Harris tries to salvage something from the wreckage. In the process he ends up rowing back to a position not unlike the "compatibilists" who argue that free will can be reconciled with the laws of physics, a notion he has earlier attacked.

Harris starts his rescue mission by pointing out that, even in the absence of free will, there is still a distinction between voluntary action and mere accidents. Imagine, he says, that while he is writing his book somebody outside fires up a leaf blower. He ignores the sound by attending to his work. The decision feels like the exercise of free will, but isn't.

Even so, the choice still matters because it leads to outcomes in the real world. "If I had not decided to write this book, it would not have written itself." His choice "was unquestionably the cause of it coming into being". But that choice came out of the "darkness of prior causes" that Harris has no control over. As he puts it: "You can do what you decide to do, but you cannot decide what you will decide to do."

To me that sounds like a bit of sophistry. Harris shatters the illusion of free will and tries to numb the pain with an argument that it is all OK because our actions have consequences. But even if we can make choices that make a difference, does that make them any more our own? Does that take us anywhere new? I'm not sure.

Regardless, Harris presses on to explain how this version of not having free will plays out in the real world. At the very least, his argument provides a refreshing antidote to the nihilism that the debate tends to produce.
Yes, Harris chose to write the book, but the choice was determined for him, just as his belief in determinism was determined for him, by those dark prior causes. At least Harris himself must believe that, but that being so, why should anyone think that his belief in determinism is the product of rational reflection? Why should he think that the reader's rejection of his arguments has anything to do with the cogency of those arguments?

What we choose to believe, if determinism is actually the case, is the result of a host of factors most of which we are unaware of and none of which have anything much to do with what's reasonable or true. The belief in determinism, if determinism is true, is simply the inevitable consequence of millions of chance events throughout our lives and even before our lives, as well as the genetic endowment we've inherited from a long skein of ancestors.

Indeed, in a deterministic world I'm not even sure what it means to talk of a "reasonable" belief. Reason is just another illusion like free will.

Given all this, I don't know how Harris can possibly avoid nihilism, as Lawton suggests he does, without taking an irrational leap, i.e. choosing to live as if he were free when, in fact, he knows that he's not. People who do this should not, however, pat themselves on the back for being exemplars of rational living.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Something from Nothing

Lawrence Krauss is a well-known cosmologist and popular-science writer who apparently wishes to be numbered among the ranks of those who write science in order to disprove the existence of God. Krauss has a new book out in which he aspires to demonstrate that the universe could have arisen out of nothing, or almost nothing, and that a Creator isn't necessary to explain cosmogeny. The book is titled A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing and it received a rather derisory review in the New York Times from Columbia philosopher of science David Albert, author of Quantum Mechanics and Experience.

Krauss argues that the laws of quantum mechanics working in the quantum vacuum (Krauss' "nothing") could have produced a "fluctuation" that produced the universe. In this view, which is not particularly new, the universe is seen as the debris from an inopportune quantum belch, as it were. Albert, not to put too fine a point on it, thinks this is rather ridiculous:
Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? Krauss is more or less upfront, as it turns out, about not having a clue about that. He acknowledges (albeit in a parenthesis, and just a few pages before the end of the book) that every­thing he has been talking about simply takes the basic principles of quantum mechanics for granted.
So, there must have been something, the laws of quantum mechanics, which produced the universe, but where did these laws come from? Were they just floating about in .... in what? It couldn't have been space because space and time didn't exist before there was a universe so where exactly were the laws which generated the cosmos. The most likely candidate, the mind of God, is exactly what Krauss is trying to show didn't exist, so that's not a plausible option for him.

Albert explores for several paragraphs the cul de sac Krauss has constructed for himself. The problem is that what Krauss is calling "nothing" isn't really nothing. To argue that the universe's origin out of the quantum vacuum is an origin ex nihilo is like arguing that a fist popping into existence where no fist was before is the creation of a fist out of nothing:
Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields!

The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.
There's more to Albert's review of Krauss at the link. Put simply, Krauss wants to say that the universe could have come from nothing, but what he calls "nothing" is really not nothing in the sense that most people construe the word. And if that's true, if Krauss' "nothing" is really a vast congeries of forces, fields, and elementary particles with the inherent potential to burst into a space-time, mass-energy universe then where did all that "nothingness" come from?

Muslim Tolerance

Lawrence Haas wonders why, given the extraordinary levels of violence against Christians in the Muslim world, most of the major media outlets in the U.S. seem to have no interest in discussing it:
Did you read about Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, and his call this month to "destroy all the churches of the region?"

You might think that’s big news – big enough to garner some attention from America’s leading media – especially because the Grand Mufti is among the Muslim world’s leading authorities. He is President of the Supreme Council of Ulema [Islamic scholars] and Chairman of the Standing Committee for Scientific Research and Issuing of Fatwas, according to the Middle East Forum’s Raymond Ibrahim.

A Kuwaiti delegation had asked the Grand Mufti about a Kuwaiti parliament member’s call for the "removal" of churches in his country, later clarified to a ban on new ones. In response, the Grand Mufti called it "necessary to destroy all the churches of the region." He reportedly relied on the famous tradition, or "hadith," that the Prophet Mohammed ruled on his deathbed, "There are not to be two religions in the [Arabian] Peninsula."

But, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today apparently didn’t find it newsworthy. It was relegated to conservative media (e.g., Washington Times, FOX online), Muslim-focused websites, and lots of blogs.

However appalling, mainstream media reticence to cover that news is understandable in one sense. Its coverage would force public discussion of dicey issues that challenge the political correctness that all-too-often pervades our thinking about relations between the West and the Muslim world.

We’d have to ask the inconvenient question of whether the Grand Mufti’s call is but one element of a "war on Christians" across the Muslim world.

And if we did that, we’d have to ask whether such intolerance, and the violence against Christians that has swept Muslim-dominated nations in recent months, reflects a fringe element or more mainstream attitudes.
The murders and persecutions are so widespread it's hard to believe that they're just the work of fringe elements. The following is just a partial list of the crimes perpetrated against Christians by members of the religion of peace:
"Half of Iraq’s indigenous Christians are gone due to the unleashed forces of jihad," he wrote. Many fled to Syria where, alas, "Christians are experiencing a level of persecution unprecedented in the nation’s modern history."

Meanwhile, 100,000 Christian Copts have fled Egypt since Hosni Mubarak’s downfall unleashed Islamic forces, while 95 percent of Christians have left northern Nigeria where the Islamist group Boko Haram has been slaughtering them. The group announced recently that it’s planning a "war on Christians" in the coming weeks to, a spokesman said, "end the Christian presence in our push to have a proper Islamic state."

Elsewhere of late, a dozen armed Muslim men stormed a church in Pakistan, seriously wounding several Christians; armed men ransacked a church in Algeria after threatening and attacking the pastor and his wife repeatedly since 2007; and 50 Palestinian Muslims stoned Christian tourists on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

Muslims attacked one pastor with acid and shot another in Uganda; Al-Shababb Muslims beheaded a Muslim convert to Christianity in Somalia (marking the third such beheading there in recent months); and Iran sentenced a Christian convert to two years in prison, arrested as many as 10 others while they met to worship at a home, and is preparing to execute a pastor for refusing to renounce Christianity.
There's more at the link. When one looks at the sweep of Muslim history going back to Mohammed one would have to be an incarnation of Voltaire's character Candide to think that Islam isn't inherently intolerant and violent. It's tragic that so few voices in the West, either in the media or in the more moderate Muslim community, see fit to speak out against the barbarism.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Race and Justice in America

In case you haven't been keeping up there's a good summary of developments in the Trayvon Martin tragedy in the Orlando Sentinel. Here is some of the more pertinent info:
With a single punch, Trayvon Martin decked the Neighborhood Watch volunteer who eventually shot and killed the unarmed 17-year-old, then Trayvon climbed on top of George Zimmerman and slammed his head into the sidewalk several times, leaving him bloody and battered, authorities have revealed to the Orlando Sentinel.

That is the account Zimmerman gave police, and much of it has been corroborated by witnesses, authorities say.

Zimmerman has not spoken publicly about what happened, but that night, Feb. 26, and in later meetings he described and re-enacted for police what he says happened.

In his version of events, he had turned around and was walking back to his SUV when Trayvon approached him from behind, the two exchanged words then Trayvon punched him in the nose, sending him to the ground, and began beating him.

Zimmerman told police he shot the teenager in self-defense.

Civil rights leaders and thousands of others have demanded Zimmerman's arrest, calling Trayvon a victim of racial profiling and Zimmerman a vigilante.

Trayvon was an unarmed black teenager who had committed no crime, they say, who was gunned down while walking back from a 7-Eleven with nothing more sinister than a package of Skittles and can of Arizona iced tea.

Supporters have held rallies in Sanford, Miami, New York and Tallahassee, calling the case a tragic miscarriage of injustice.

Activist Al Sharpton headlined a rally in Sanford Thursday that drew an estimated 8,000 people. The Rev. Jesse Jackson yesterday spoke at an Eatonville church, where he called Trayvon a martyr.

Zimmerman has gone into hiding. A fringe group, the New Black Panthers, have offered a $10,000 reward for his capture.

Police have been reluctant to provide details about all their evidence, but this is what they've disclosed to the Sentinel:

Zimmerman was on his way to the grocery store when he spotted Trayvon walking through his gated community.

Trayvon was visiting his father's fiancée, who lived there. He had been suspended from school in Miami after being found with an empty marijuana baggie. Miami schools have a zero-tolerance policy for drug possession.

On Feb. 26, when Zimmerman first spotted Trayvon, he called police and reported a suspicious person, describing Trayvon as black, acting strangely and perhaps on drugs.

Zimmerman got out of his SUV to follow Trayvon on foot. When a dispatch employee asked Zimmerman if he was following the 17-year-old, Zimmerman said yes. The dispatcher told Zimmerman he did not need to do that.

There is about a one-minute gap during which police say they're not sure what happened.

Zimmerman told them he lost sight of Trayvon and was walking back to his SUV when Trayvon approached him from the left rear, and they exchanged words.

Trayvon asked Zimmerman if he had a problem. Zimmerman said no and reached for his cell phone, he told police.

Trayvon then said, "Well, you do now" or something similar and punched Zimmerman in the nose.

Zimmerman fell to the ground and Trayvon got on top of him and began slamming his head into the sidewalk, he told police. Zimmerman began yelling for help.

Several witnesses heard those cries, and there's been a dispute about from whom they came: Zimmerman or Trayvon. Lawyers for Trayvon's family say it was Trayvon, but police say their evidence indicates it was Zimmerman.

One witness, who has since talked to local television news reporters, told police he saw Zimmerman on the ground with Trayvon on top, pounding him and was unequivocal that it was Zimmerman who was crying for help.

Zimmerman then shot Trayvon once in the chest from very close range, according to authorities.

When police arrived less than two minutes later, Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose, had a swollen lip and had bloody lacerations to the back of his head. Paramedics gave him first aid, but he said no to going to the hospital. He got medical care the next day.

The Department of Justice last week opened a civil rights investigation into what happened, and Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor.

It's not clear whether the special prosecutor, Angela Corey, the state attorney for Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, will have Zimmerman arrested. She announced that there's not enough evidence to file a manslaughter charge or present evidence to a grand jury.
If - and I emphasize the if - this is all true then why is there a lynch mob out there waiting to string Zimmerman up both figuratively and literally? Why are people demanding that the police chief be fired and that Zimmerman be arrested? Since when is it a crime to shoot someone who's smashing your head against the pavement? Perhaps there's more to the story, but no one knows that, least of all Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

And since when does a private group of citizens, The New Black Panther Party in this case, have the right to put out a reward for the "capture" of another citizen who is not charged with a crime and who is not a fugitive? Try to imagine the KKK offering a reward for, say, O.J. Simpson to anyone willing to fetch him from the golf course where he was busily searching for his wife's "real" killers and drag him to the Klan's leaders. There would be national apoplexy. The Department of Justice would be beside itself, issuing summonses and arrest warrants faster than Mrs. Obama can pack for her next vacation, but our Department of Justice is run by perhaps the most incompetent individual ever to serve as Attorney General, and so nothing is said or done about this outrage.

I also wonder why the photo of Trayvon Martin that the media keep showing us appears to have been taken when he was about ten years old. He was 17 and 6'3" tall. Do the media not want us to know that?

Elsewhere in the news, three black men broke into the dorm room of a 21 year-old white Mississippi State student named John Sanderson over the weekend and shot him to death. Can we expect the New Black Panthers to post a reward for the apprehension of his killers? Will the Reverends Jackson and Sharpton be leading demonstrations and demanding justice for young Mr. Sanderson? Will President Obama be giving a statement to the press grieving for this student's murder?

I doubt it. The young man was the wrong color. Mr. Obama has empathy for shooting victims who look like him, but for those who don't, apparently, not so much.

Three Reasons to Ditch PPAC

The Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today pro et contra the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act sometimes known as Obamacare. Their ruling is expected to be released in June.

Reason TV's Nick Gillespie gives three quick reasons why we should hope that the Supreme Court overturns the act before it goes into effect.
For more commentary on the problems with PPAC read Ed Morrissey's comments at Hot Air. The short version is that should PPAC stand there will be nothing the government can't tell you you must do or must buy. It'll be the end of individual freedom in America. Read why at the link.

Freud and the Rabbi

Rabbi Moshe Averick takes on Sigmund Freud's claim that the chances of a normal, wholesome life are improved when one is freed from the constraints of religion. Here's the rabbi's opening:
The other day, while scrolling through a site for non-believers on Facebook, I came across a post which featured a picture of Sigmund Freud and the following quotation: “When man is freed of religion, he has a better chance to live a normal and wholesome life.” For any thinking person, such an assertion immediately raises a number of thorny questions: Which religion/s was Freud talking about? What parts of the religion? (“Love your neighbor as yourself?” “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan?”) What exactly is Freud’s definition of a “religion”?

Atheistic propagandist, Bill Maher once opined that the atheistic ideology of Communism was a “state religion.” Does that mean that any ideology, including atheism, is a type of religion? What exactly does Freud mean by a “normal and wholesome life?”
Of course Freud didn't expect that he'd actually have to answer these questions. He expected, I suppose, that he would be allowed to fire off a witty aphorism and his devoted fans would all sagely nod in agreement. Averick thinks differently. Here's his question for those who agree with Freud:
Sigmund Freud also wrote that “the moment a man questions the meaning and value of life he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence.” Human life then, in reality, has no meaning and no value; is that a good basis for a normal and wholesome life?
Hmmm. Good question. Many people who really believe that their life is meaningless and valueless suffer depression and a host of other ills. It's hard to imagine that the realization of the utter pointlessness of existence conduces to a "normal and wholesome life".

Averick goes on to point out that in a universe in which there's nothing other than material stuff there can be no objective meaning or value. He then mentions a reply to this claim. The respondent wrote:
Life has no objective meaning? How will I ever live a normal and wholesome life? Sorry, but some things are subjective. I don’t need to invent a sky daddy as an invisible means of support to deal with the fact that the meaning of life is one of them.
Averick points out the sheer silliness of this claim:
In other words, [the respondent] agreed with Freud and me on the essential point. There is no objective meaning to our existence and of course no objective value to life either. He then goes on to mock belief in God as an artificially manufactured solution to the problem of finding purpose and value in life: “I don’t need to invent a sky daddy…to deal with [this] fact...” What is most telling here is not only the glaring contradiction contained in his reply, but the inescapable absurdity that is reflected in every attempt to form some sort of worldview based on non-belief. Please allow me to elaborate.

“Sorry, but some things are subjective.” – This concept is echoed by humanistic philosopher Paul Kurtz: “Human life has no meaning independent of itself…the meaning of life is what we choose to give it.” Jean Paul Sartre follows suit: “Life has no meaning a’s up to you to give it meaning, and value is nothing else but the meaning you choose…” Before going any further it is instructive to define clearly what subjective means: “Proceeding from or taking place in a person’s mind rather than the external world…existing only within the experiencer’s mind…existing only in the mind, illusory.” (American Heritage Dictionary)

The idea of creating our own subjective meaning and purpose may sound very profound in the university lecture hall, but when stripped of its philosophical camouflage it really means the following: Make something up out of your own head that gives your life purpose and meaning and pretend that it’s real. In other words, create a comforting fiction to avoid getting “sick,” as Freud described it.

Well then, if we must create some illusory construct to give our lives meaning and value, what’s wrong with the “God construct” or “sky-daddy” as this gentleman called it; if it makes me feel good, why not? It’s no more artificial and illusory than say humanism, utilitarianism, communism, speciesism, etc., ad nauseum. This highlights the absurdity of the atheist position. On the one hand the atheistic philosopher bids us to create an illusory meaning and value for life and on the other hand mocks religion for being illusory.
You can read the rest of Averick's post at the link. It's ironic that the atheist wants to claim that belief in God is belief in an illusion even as he conjures up a host of illusions that he himself can believe in in order to avoid the despair that follows from rejecting belief in God. And then he insists that it's the believer who's being irrational.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rush to Judgment

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting much of the media joined the public outcry in the black community and beyond demanding that the shooter, a Hispanic named George Zimmerman, be arrested. The police, however, have not arrested the man and, not being a member of the media or the black community, I wondered why.

The simple-minded answer is that the cops are racist, but that strikes me as ridiculous. Even if it were true why would even a racist police force, in the face of such enormous public pressure, still not arrest the man if they knew he was guilty of a crime? To refuse to arrest a man who shot a teenager just because the teen was black goes beyond racism to professional suicide.

It seemed to me that there was more to the story, something that would give credence to Zimmerman's account of what happened, and it turns out that according to a Tampa news broadcast there is. Fox News Tampa Bay is reporting there was an eye-witness to part of the events that transpired that night and the witness' story corroborates Zimmerman's claim that he was assaulted by Martin. Here's an excerpt:
[O]ne man's testimony could be key for the police.

"The guy on the bottom who had a red sweater on was yelling to me: 'help, help…and I told him to stop and I was calling 911," he said.

Trayvon Martin was in a hoodie; Zimmerman was in red.

The witness only wanted to be identified as "John," and didn't not want to be shown on camera.

His statements to police were instrumental, because police backed up Zimmerman's claims, saying those screams on the 911 call are those of Zimmerman.

"When I got upstairs and looked down, the guy who was on top beating up the other guy, was the one laying in the grass, and I believe he was dead at that point," John said.

Zimmerman says the shooting was self defense. According to information released on the Sanford city website, Zimmerman said he was going back to his SUV when he was attacked by the teen.

Sanford police say Zimmerman was bloody in his face and head, and the back of his shirt was wet and had grass stains, indicating a struggle took place before the shooting.
I don't know how this episode is going to play out, but if it should happen that Zimmerman's story is at least largely true I hope those who've been demagoguing this tragedy will be as disgraced as they deserve to be. I also hope that the people in the media, especially some of the usual suspects at MSNBC will have enough class to admit that they were swept up in a mob-like rush to judgment and to resolve the next time something like this happens to wait until the evidence is all in and the police have explained themselves before they sound off about how the whole thing smacks of racism.

Normal People, Bullies, and Totalitarians

Philosopher Stephen J. Heaney draws some interesting and useful distinctions in a piece at The Public Discourse. On every issue, it seems, there are three types of people on a particular side - "normal" people, bullies, and totalitarians. Our public controversies and the will of the people are often thwarted, distorted, and vitiated by the fact that there are too many bullies and totalitarians and not enough normal people populating the public square and occupying positions of power in government.

Here's part of his essay:
The normal person who wants to use contraceptives is glad he can purchase them and use them without interference. The bully smears the name of those who oppose contraceptive use by impugning their moral integrity or calling their thinking outdated. The totalitarian insists that even people and institutions opposed in conscience to the use of contraceptives must purchase them.

The normal person who claims to be pro-choice is glad that abortion rights have been obtained. The bully rallies the troops to force charitable organizations to donate money to abortion providers, threatening the charity’s very existence if it does not comply. The totalitarian insists that every OB/GYN perform abortions, or get out of the profession.

The normal person who approves same-sex marriage is glad that same-sex marriage is available. The bully tries to silence his opponents by calling them bigots, and trying to shut down their businesses. The totalitarian insists that government officials, and ministers of various faiths who oppose same-sex marriage, must nonetheless open up their facilities to such ceremonies, and even perform these ceremonies, or face the consequences of the law.

The normal person who approves of same-sex marriage, or abortion, or contraceptive use is only too happy that, if he desires, he can provide charitable services to others in the manner he thinks best, and is content to let others provide those same services in the manner they think best. The bully will shut off funding to those who refuse, for moral reasons, to provide the full range of services he would like to see. The totalitarian will make it illegal to fail to provide this full range of services, even though far fewer people are now served, because many charitable providers have been driven out of business.
Heaney also distinguishes between "good" and "bad" totalitarians:
The typical totalitarian fails to make, or even disdains, certain distinctions concerning conscience. One such distinction is that between what I must (or must never) do, and what I may do but am not required to do.

Let us say, for example, that a law is put in place saying that no one may eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I like PBJs, and prefer to eat them occasionally, though I am not morally bound to eat them. We would probably say that this law is unreasonable, unfair, and a serious economic blow to the makers of peanut butter and jelly and all their related industries. However, it would make little sense to say that it violates my conscience.

If, on the other hand, my beliefs prohibit me from ever eating PBJs, then a law that demanded that I eat them would be a gross violation of my conscience.

The “bad” totalitarian is often acutely aware of the difference between these situations. In fact, he often knows that what he is doing is wrong, and is counting on getting others to do it as well, so as to cover for his own evil.

The “good” totalitarian, however, is unable or unwilling to make a distinction between these situations. All he sees is that I don’t want to do what he wants me to do. It makes no difference to him whether I don’t want to eat the sandwiches, or I don’t want to stop eating them.

The totalitarian apparently figures that, if it was reasonable for the law to stop him from doing what his conscience permitted — say, buying contraceptives — because his position was not reflected in the law, then it is equally reasonable for the law to make you do what your conscience does not permit — say, buying contraceptives — because he is in power. Since his position is so clearly good, he reasons, it must be accepted by all.
The totalitarian doesn't care about your conscience. He cares only about your compliance.
One conscience, one will: this is the demand of such a regime. The individual must become absolutely one with the totality. The normal person will respect your human rights. The bully will run roughshod over your human rights. The totalitarian needs you to repudiate your human rights.

Nor will such tactics end with one or two violations. Operatio sequitur esse: a thing can only act according to what it is. The totalitarians of this world are not petty thugs. They are intellectuals with a vision, and they will see their vision enacted, no matter who they have to run over, because they are certain it is good for you.
Read the rest of his column at the link. I leave it to the reader to decide where President Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius would fit in Heaney's taxonomy.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Different Strokes

Even after all we've learned in the last couple of decades about how people in the rest of the world live their lives, there are still some liberal-minded folk who like to tell us that we in the West shouldn't think that our way of life is superior to that of people living elsewhere around the globe. All cultures and ways of life are equally worthy of celebration, the multiculturalists and cultural relativists insist, we're all patches in the brightly colored quilt of human expression and no patch is of better quality or more importance than another.

This sentiment makes for warm feelings in university faculty lounges and classrooms and may prompt us to break into a treacly chorus or two of Up with People or We Are the World, but it's an awfully hard belief to maintain once we start looking at how so many of the world's people actually live.

We've spoken on numerous occasions here at Viewpoint, for instance, about honor killings, a practice that occurs throughout the Arab/Muslim world. Women who've in some way "dishonored" their families, usually by seeing men of whom the family disapproves, are murdered, often in brutal fashion and with the tacit consent of the community, by male relatives.

Recently Al Arabiya reported that there were almost 1000 such murders in Pakistan alone last year. This tally is up from almost 900 in 2010. Here are some "highlights" from the Al Arabiya story:
At least 943 Pakistani women and girls were murdered last year for allegedly defaming their family’s honor, the country’s leading human rights group said Thursday. The statistics highlight the growing scale of violence suffered by many women in conservative Muslim Pakistan, where they are frequently treated as second-class citizens and there is no law against domestic violence.

Despite progress on better protecting women’s rights, activists say the government needs to do more to prosecute murderers in cases largely dismissed by police as private, family affairs. “At least 943 women were killed in the name of honor, of which 93 were minors,” wrote the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in its annual report.

Seven Christian and two Hindu women were among the victims.

The Commission reported 791 “honor killings” in 2010. Around 595 of the women killed in 2011 were accused of having “illicit relations” and 219 of marrying without permission. Some victims were raped or gang raped before being killed. Most of the women were killed by their brothers and husbands.

Only 20 of 943 killed were reported to have been provided medical aid before they died.
Contra the multicultis, we need to affirm that in fact some ways of life really are better than others and some cultures are quite simply degenerate. A society which treats the rape, torture, and murder of its young women as nothing more than a private domestic squabble is, not to put too fine a point on it, depraved.

I urge anyone still in the grip of the multicultural fantasy to rent the movie The Stoning of Soroya M. which is based on a true story. Watch the film and then see if you still think it's all just a matter of "different strokes for different folks".

Botched Job

Sunday was the anniversary of the Obama administration's decision to intervene in Libya under the guise of protecting Libyan citizens from Col. Qaddafi's threats to destroy them. The anniversary passed with little comment from the president's spokespersons and for good reason, I suppose.

This intervention followed hard upon our political intervention in Egypt taking the side of those who wished to depose Hosni Mubarak. That intervention followed our refusal to intervene to help the pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran who were being shot in the streets by thugs loyal to Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. All of these preceded (still with me?) our refusal to intervene in Syria where yet another tyrant is slaughtering his people by the thousands.

Perhaps there's a coherent foreign policy here, but if so it's difficult to say what it might be. What are the principles which govern Mr. Obama's decisions about whom to help and whom to let die? Why did we have a "Responsibility to Protect" Libyan civilians but no such responsibility vis a vis Syrian civilians?

Where we did intervene, of course, we made a mess of things. Egypt is now being ruled by Islamists who are hostile to both their own Coptic Christians and the Israelis. They're merrily murdering the Copts, burning their churches, and threatening to murder the Israelis.

Libya is governed, if one can call it that, by rival militias who've smuggled guns and other weaponry to Islamic insurgents in Mali, a country on Libya's southern border which had been a firm ally of ours in the war on terror. Now the military has deposed the government in a coup, and soldiers and others are plundering the capital. A relatively stable African country is in chaos largely as a consequence of our intervention in Libya.

Remember how the Democrats derided George Bush for commending his FEMA director for a job well done in the wake of Hurricane Katrina when by all appearances the director had botched the job? The mockery went on for years. When will the Democrats start deriding the Obama administration for a feckless, helter skelter foreign policy that has botched North Africa far worse than anything FEMA ever did?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spring Break

I don't know if President Obama will win in November or not, but whichever turns out to be the case it doesn't look like he'll have a lock on the Spring Break college crowd this time around.
I hope the parents of these kids don't see this video. It'd be terribly depressing to consider how much money they're spending to send their offspring off to school to have them learn so little about the world.

The Bomb and the Bomber

This piece by Ari Shavit in the New York Times is perhaps the best concise explanation I've seen for why an Israeli attack on Iran would be perilous and why failure to attack would be calamitous.

Shavit starts out by stating that a nuclear Iran will change the world:
An Iranian atom bomb will force Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt to acquire their own atom bombs. Thus a multipolar nuclear arena will be established in the most volatile region on earth. Sooner or later, this unprecedented development will produce a nuclear event. The world we know will cease to be the world we know after Tehran, Riyadh, Cairo or Tel Aviv become the 21st century’s Hiroshima.

An Iranian bomb will bring about universal nuclear proliferation. Humanity’s greatest achievement since 1945 was controlling nuclear armament by limiting the number of members in the exclusive nuclear club. This unfair arrangement created a world order that guaranteed relative world peace.

But if Iran goes nuclear and the Middle East goes nuclear so will the Third World. If the ayatollahs are allowed to have Robert Oppenheimer’s deadly toy, every emerging power in Asia and Africa will be entitled to have it. The 60-year-old world order that guaranteed world peace will collapse.
Not only will every tyrant with enough cash on hand to buy a nuke on the black market obtain one, but in a world glutted with the things so will every Islamic terrorist organization. It will also give Iran hegemony over the entire Middle East, at least until other countries catch up.

Even so, an Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear weapons program will also change the world:
An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will create the most dramatic international crisis of the post-cold war era. As the Jewish state and the Shiite republic exchange blows, the Middle East will be rattled. Tensions will rise between pro-Iranian Russia, China and India and anti-Iranian United States, Britain, France and Germany. As oil prices soar higher (to $250-$300 a barrel), financial markets will panic and the world economy will experience a real setback.

An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will unleash a regional war whose consequences might be catastrophic. Iran will strike back with all it has: Hezbollah, Hamas, Shahab missiles, strategic surprises. Iran will block the Strait of Hormuz and call upon all Muslims to come to its rescue. Although most Arab regimes will be secretly supportive of the Israeli operation, the Arab masses might rise.

Throughout the world, millions of Muslims will see the attack on Iran as an attack on their own dignity and pride. The religious struggle provoked by the Israeli action might go on for decades.

An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities might drag the United States into war. Israel has limited air power. Israeli cities are threatened by 200,000 rockets. If an Iranian-led counteroffensive sets Tel Aviv ablaze and kills thousands of Israeli civilians, the U.S. will feel obliged to intervene. Rather than initiate a well-planned and internationally backed American surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear project, America will become captive of an Israeli-Iranian war spiraling out of control.
There's more to Shavit's analysis at the link.

United States' policy toward Iran has been until recently little more than a hope that the Iranians will come to their senses. It seems to have been predicated on the delusion that when the Iranians say they want to destroy Israel they don't really mean it. It turns out now that they apparently do mean it, and our response may well be too little too late to avert catastrophe.

At this point it seems that war is inevitable. The question is to what extent President Obama will involve us and whether Israel can by itself degrade Iran's nuclear program sufficiently to prevent them from obtaining the capacity to incinerate Tel Aviv.

China Coup?

Our Chinese readers (yes, we have some) are probably already aware of this, but others may also be interested in rumors coming out of Beijing of unusual police and military activity in the city suggesting a possible coup attempt. Here's the lede of the Washington Times' report:
U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring China’s Internet say that from March 14 to Wednesday bloggers circulated alarming reports of tanks entering Beijing and shots being fired in the city as part of what is said to have been a high-level political battle among party leaders - and even a possible military coup.

The Internet discussions included photos posted online of tanks and other military vehicles moving around Beijing.

The reports followed the ouster last week of senior Politburo member and Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who was linked to corruption, but who is said to remain close to China’s increasingly nationalistic military.

Chinese microblogging sites Sina Weibo, QQ Weibo, and the bulletin board of the search engine Baidu all reported “abnormalities” in Beijing on the night of March 19.

The comments included rumors of the downfall of the Shanghai leadership faction and a possible “military coup,” along with reports of gunfire on Beijing’s Changan Street. The reports were quickly removed by Chinese censors shortly after postings and could no longer be accessed by Wednesday.

The unusual postings included reports that military vehicles were sent to control Changan Street, along with plainclothes police officers and metal barriers. Another posting quoted internal sources as saying senior Communist Party leaders are divided over the ouster of Mr. Bo. The divide was said to pit Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and against party security forces and Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang.

Late Wednesday, another alarming indicator came when Beijing authorities ordered all levels of public-security and internal-security forces under Mr. Zhou to conduct nationwide study sessions, although Mr. Zhou’s name was not on the order - a sign his future may be in doubt.

Additional references on Chinese social media included vague mention of high-level party political struggles and related police activity in Beijing.

One posting referred to a mysterious atmosphere in Beijing and a reported shooting Tuesday night. The posting was quickly censored by authorities.
There's more at the link.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Hunger Games

I belong to a small group of men who meet monthly to discuss a book selected each month by a member of the group. The book selected for our most recent meeting was The Hunger Games by Susan Collins. It wasn't a book I would've picked, but after reading it I'm glad for a couple of reasons that I did. First, it's immensely popular with younger readers, and I like to stay in touch, when I can, with what young people are reading, and secondly, I think it offers, perhaps inadvertently, a very important and significant message.

There were two things about the story which jumped out at me. First, the society in which it takes place is one of horrific cruelty and savagery. Second, there's no evidence anywhere in the book of any trace of religious conviction. The two, in my opinion, are not unrelated.

Human nature is fundamentally brutal. That brutality, particularly in the West, has been mitigated to some extent by the belief that we are commanded by God to do justice and love our neighbor. Where that belief has had purchase on the hearts of people civilization has advanced and humankind's basest impulses have been sublimated. Wherever it has failed to gain a grip on the conscience, however, life has been nasty, brutish, bestial, and short.

Just as in ancient Rome where men had no reason to think that the gods cared at all about how they behaved, they behaved with shocking sadism and barbarism, so it has been, at least in the West, up to our own day. The twentieth century was the high water mark of philosophical materialism, and it was also the bloodiest, most inhumane century since the days of the Roman Coliseum. The legacy of atheism, whether in fascist Germany, communist Europe and Asia, or anywhere else in the modern world, is unparalleled for it's horrors and fascination with death.

The dystopia Collins envisions is nothing new. It's simply a somewhat futuristic version of ancient Rome. It's what men become when they no longer feel bound to the commands of a transcendent moral lawgiver. It might also be noted that nowhere in the tale Collins spins for us, at least so far as I can remember, does anyone express moral outrage at the injustice and depravity of the festival. It's as if no one in Panem thinks in terms of moral categories. They resent what's happening to them, of course, they hate the people responsible for their predicament, but they seem to accept the evil as the natural way of things.

No one voices the opinion that it's a moral abomination, and, of course, in a world that has lost a vision of the transcendent, of God, moral reticence makes perfect sense. If there's no moral authority then there's no moral right and wrong, no good or evil, just nature red in tooth and claw.

If you haven't read the book yet, I commend it, not as literature - it's not that - but as an allegory. Whether Collins intended it or not her book is an allegory of the degeneration of a civilization that has lost its belief that anything matters other than power and pleasure. It's a vivid picture of what the world becomes when God is shut out.

The movie, which I'm told is very faithful to the book, comes out this week:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Meaning and Beauty

Michael Baruzzini writing at First Things recalls the recent exchange between Richard Dawkins and Archbishop Rowan Williams in which Dawkins admitted that he was an agnostic about God, not, strictly speaking, an atheist. Much was made of the admission in the media despite the fact that it was a trivial distinction as Baruzzini explains:
This admission, though it caught the notice of the media, was not really anything new for Dawkins, who has made similar concessions in the past. Dawkins’ approach to all knowledge is strictly scientific. And since scientific knowledge is always technically tentative, so too must his ostensibly scientific opinion of the non-existence of God. Dawkins dismisses God because he finds no scientific evidence for God, but he must make allowances for the fact that scientific knowledge is always expanding.
Dawkins is still an atheist, after all, because agnosticism is simply a species of the genus atheism. Atheism is the lack of belief in a God and agnostics lack a belief in God. They are what might be called soft atheists because, unlike the hard atheist, they don't make the very strong and undemonstrable claim that God doesn't exist. They simply hold that the evidence is insufficient to justify believing that He does.

It was another comment that Dawkins made in the same discussion that I found much more interesting:
Speaking to his believing conversational companion, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Dawkins said, “What I can’t understand is why you can’t see the extraordinary beauty of the idea that life started from nothing—that is such a staggering, elegant, beautiful thing, why would you want to clutter it up with something so messy as a God?”
I don't think Dawkins is quite right about this. Beauty ultimately depends upon meaning. Meaningless form and color may please the senses, it may be pretty, but it doesn't rise to the level of beauty unless there's meaning to it. Just as a meaningless sexual experience, though it may afford some degree of pleasure, is hardly beautiful, a world full of things for which we've evolved an aesthetic appreciation may be intriguing, but it's ultimately beautiful because it exudes meaning from every nook, cranny, and pore.

Baruzzini puts the point somewhat differently:
The archbishop, rather than disputing, agreed with Dawkins about the beauty of the scientific description of the development of life. But he then explained that God was not an extra that was “shoehorned” onto the scientific explanation. Dawkins’ mistake, the archbishop attempted to show, was to suppose that the scientific explanation suffices, and the religious one is an unnecessary complication. The beauty that Dawkins finds in science is not challenged by belief in God; it presupposes it.

Beauty is something reasonable. The beauty of scientific explanation comes from seeing that the arrangement of things is so ordered to produce the phenomena we observe. The scientist begins with a mess of clues and an unfinished puzzle. He begins with a mystery. He seeks that moment when the pieces fall into place. Dawkins’ picture of scientific beauty comes from seeing just this arrangement in evolution, in the material development of the universe. But where creation presents a unified theme returning, finally, to reason, atheistic scientism must insist that at bottom [there] is only unreason.
If it all has no meaning, no purpose, if it's all simply the effluent of a cosmic belch, the beauty drains out of it.

Baruzzini goes on to make a further point about Dawkins' views that should be emphasized. He asserts that:
Dawkins supposes that the doctrine of creation requires a Divine Tinkerer, interfering with or co-opting the natural beauty present in the workings of the natural world. Whether or not God tinkered with creation in the manner envisioned by creationism or some versions of intelligent design, such tinkering is neither necessary to the doctrine of creation nor is it the source of the beauty seen by the believer.

To use an analogy previously developed by Stephen Barr, to ask whether God or evolution created life is like asking whether Shakespeare or Hamlet killed Polonius. If there is no Shakespeare, Hamlet’s act is meaningless. It is merely the accidental arrangement of ink on a page. If there is a Shakespeare, however, his existence as the creator of the literary Denmark does not obviate the drama of the play. It is rather a necessary prerequisite for it. Shakespeare, as a playwright, is not a competitor with the drama of the play.
There's more at the link, but I want to return for a moment to the matter of beauty: Philosophers going back to Plato have affirmed that the highest ideals are the Good, the Beautiful, and the True, but if the world is nothing more than atoms spinning in the void then there really is no Good, no Truth that matters, and no Beauty. The awe we feel when we look at mountains or a sunset or a galaxy is just the perturbations of chemicals in our brains triggered by a particular visual pattern.

It's only when we somehow see meaning in what we observe that we experience its beauty, but there can only be meaning if behind the experience there is a mind that has intentionally created it. Take away the author, the painter, the composer, the architect and there is no meaning and thus no beauty for us to enjoy. A novel filled with eloquently turned phrases and well-crafted sentences nevertheless lacks beauty if the story makes no sense.

The world and life are beautiful because they're filled by it's composer/author with deep, profound meaning.

What Is Philosophy?

Plato gives us perhaps the earliest definition of philosophy when he has Socrates say in The Republic that philosophy is the love of wisdom. Unfortunately, that definition doesn't shed much light on exactly what it is philosophers actually do.

Paul Pardi pitches in to help provide a fuller explanation and thereby does a service for introductory philosophy students everywhere by tackling the question of what philosophy is (and isn't) in a post at Philosophy News. He begins by explaining why philosophy is not science, psychology, linguistics, nor theology even though philosophers address issues common to those disciplines.

What philosophy is, Pardi writes, is a practical framework that leads to truth and which constitutes the foundation of all other subjects. This by itself might not help much, but in his post he explains in more detail what he means by this.

His explanation should be helpful to students trying to figure out what the heck it is they're supposed to be learning in philosophy class.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Reason Rally

Philosopher Edward Feser discusses the upcoming "Reason Rally" scheduled to be held on the Washington Mall on March 24th. It's to be a gathering of atheists out to demonstrate their profound wish to live life according to the dictates of Reason rather than embracing the spurious superstitions held by religious people.

Feser holds such gatherings in pretty low esteem for reasons he articulates in his post, but the most salient reason, perhaps, is that Reason is often the first casualty of mass demonstrations.

His post is amusing and witty, and he even manages to link the reader to some video that shows the Rally organizers practicing for one of their most popular Rally activities. Of course, Feser says he's just kidding, but given the vitriol on some atheistic web sites one has little trouble imagining a Two-Minutes Hate on the agenda.

Anyway, here's his lede:
I have always hated mobs. Thus I dislike mass demonstrations with their slogans and banners, marches and sit-ins, and all the rest of the obnoxious apparatus of modern protest. Usually the cause is bad, and the participants are ignorant yahoos. But I dislike such rallies even when the cause is good and the participants well-meaning. They may sometimes be necessary, but they are always regrettable and to be avoided if possible.

The reason is that reason is impossible with a crowd. Serious matters require calm reflection, sufficient background knowledge, careful distinctions, the give and take of objections and replies, and always the willingness to submit oneself to superior arguments and objective truth. But the thinking of a crowd is, in the best circumstances, dumbed down, slipshod, and banal; and at its worst there is no madness or evil to which a crowd might not descend. A crowd shouts, chants, emotes, and is always, always demanding this or that -- it is appetitive rather than cognitive.

In a crowd, the rational in rational animal is always in danger of giving way, leaving just the animal, indeed a herd of animals. The individual, or a small group of friends, can dispute with Socrates about the good, the true, and the beautiful. The crowd votes to execute him. The individual, or a small group of disciples, can have their hearts moved by Christ. The crowd shouts for His crucifixion.

How fitting, then, that the Counter-Religion that is the New Atheism has now decided to make of itself a mob. Something called the “Reason Rally” is scheduled for March 24 at the National Mall in Washington, D. C. and the Counter-Prophet Richard Dawkins is headlining as chief rouser of the “rationalist” rabble. The name alone exposes it for the farce that it is -- a “Reason Rally” being (for the reasons just given) somewhat akin to a “Chastity Orgy” or a “Temperance Kegger.” As always, the New Atheist satirizes himself before you can do it for him.
You'll have to read the rest at the link. Meanwhile, I've always been mystified by why atheists claim the banner of Reason, or, more precisely, how they're allowed to get away with it. What, for example is reasonable about:
  • embracing the completely untestable idea that there are an infinite number of universes simply to escape the conclusion that this exquisitely calibrated universe is the product of an intelligent agent.
  • believing that an enormous amount of biological information arose purely by the chance collocation of blind, unguided forces in the form of ancient living cells which then proliferated producing marvels like human consciousness when never in human experience have we ever seen complex specified information produced by anything other than minds.
  • affirming that life is meaningful on one hand while on the other insisting that we're just the accidental by-product of unthinking material forces and that death is the end of our existence.
  • thinking that our moral judgments actually mean something while at the same time asserting that morality is an illusion that has evolved over hundreds of millenia to help us get along.
  • promoting the notion that there are objective human rights which somehow really exist and are not just arbitrary make-believe constructs that we talk about but have no basis for believing in.
Maybe some speaker at the Reason Rally will be able to explain to the assembled unbelievers how they can be rational on the one hand while still believing any of these things on the other. If so, I look forward to hearing it.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why We Celebrate St. Patrick

Millions of Americans, many of them descendents of Irish immigrants, celebrate their Irish heritage by observing St. Patrick's Day today. 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 Muslim 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 matter.

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 on this 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 have a great St. Patrick's Day.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Mr. Obama's Misleading 2%

Mr. Obama has consistently argued that we cannot lower gas prices by increasing the oil supply, and that drilling new wells would not help us. But he's now reported to be considering opening the national petroleum reserve in order to increase the supply so gas prices will come down. There seems to be a contradiction in there somewhere.

The president has also stated that we use 20% of the world's oil but have only 2% of the world's reserves. This, it turns out, is very misleading. Here's an explanation from John Merline at Investor's Business Daily:
When he was running for the Oval Office four years ago amid $4-a-gallon gasoline prices, then-Sen. Barack Obama dismissed the idea of expanded oil production as a way to relieve the pain at the pump.

"Even if you opened up every square inch of our land and our coasts to drilling," he said. "America still has only 3% of the world's oil reserves." Which meant, he said, that the U.S. couldn't affect global oil prices.

It's the same rhetoric President Obama is using now, as gas prices hit $4 again, except now he puts the figure at 2%. "With only 2% of the world's oil reserves, we can't just drill our way to lower gas prices," he said. "Not when we consume 20% of the world's oil."

The claim makes it appear as though the U.S. is an oil-barren nation, perpetually dependent on foreign oil and high prices unless we can cut our own use and develop alternative energy sources like algae.

But the figure Obama uses — proved oil reserves — vastly undercounts how much oil the U.S. actually contains. In fact, far from being oil-poor, the country is awash in vast quantities — enough to meet all the country's oil needs for hundreds of years.

The U.S. has 22.3 billion barrels of proved reserves, a little less than 2% of the entire world's proved reserves, according to the Energy Information Administration. But as the EIA explains, proved reserves "are a small subset of recoverable resources," because they only count oil that companies are currently drilling for in existing fields.

When you look at the whole picture, it turns out that there are vast supplies of oil in the U.S., according to various government reports. Among them:
  • At least 86 billion barrels of oil in the Outer Continental Shelf yet to be discovered, according to the government's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
  • About 24 billion barrels in shale deposits in the lower 48 states, according to EIA.
  • Up to 2 billion barrels of oil in shale deposits in Alaska's North Slope, says the U.S. Geological Survey.
  • Up to 12 billion barrels in ANWR, according to the USGS.
  • As much as 19 billion barrels in the Utah tar sands, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
Then, there's the massive Green River Formation in Wyoming, which according to the USGS contains a stunning 1.4 trillion barrels of oil shale — a type of oil released from sedimentary rock after it's heated.

A separate Rand Corp. study found that about 800 billion barrels of oil shale in Wyoming and neighboring states is "technically recoverable," which means it could be extracted using existing technology. That's more than triple the known reserves in Saudi Arabia.

All told, the U.S. has access to 400 billion barrels of crude that could be recovered using existing drilling technologies, according to a 2006 Energy Department report.

When you include oil shale, the U.S. has 1.4 trillion barrels of technically recoverable oil, according to the Institute for Energy Research, enough to meet all U.S. oil needs for about the next 200 years, without any imports.

And even this number could be low, since such estimates tend to go up over time.
Merline goes on to explain why we're not utilizing these resources. There's a pyramid accompanying his article that shows all the domestic petroleum in the U.S., and the 2% the president refers to is the very tip of the pyramid:

One thing Merline doesn't mention but which should be pointed out is that when the president claims we're drilling more than ever what he omits is that the current drilling is occurring under leases granted by the Bush administration or is taking place on private land. Under Mr. Obama it has become extremely difficult to get drilling permits for federal lands where so much of the recoverable oil has been found.

The fact is that the Obama administration, despite protestations to the contrary, really does want higher gas prices because they want to force us toward acceptance of green energy alternatives. They know that if fuel is cheap green energy simply will not be economically attractive and will not be able to compete.

This is why Energy Secretary Steven Chu admitted that he wanted gas prices equal to those of Europe (about $9/gallon).

At least he was saying this until recently when he apparently got a memo from the White House to shut up about it.

Progressive Utopianism

Progressive leftists are fond of dreaming up ways to create utopian societies, but often the brave new worlds they conjure up turn out to be dystopic prisons.

The communist prison states of the twentieth and twenty first centuries were the product of leftist attempts to produce perfect societies. Even if the dreamers seem like a sweet, kind souls the future they envision is often a dehumanizing, totalitarian nightmare. B.F. Skinner's Walden II comes to mind as does Peter Singer's vision of a future in which mothers are free to kill their young children.

Now comes The Atlantic with an essay on the thoughts of an academic by the name of S. Matthew Liao, a professor of philosophy and bioethics at New York University. Mr. Liao believes that at least part of the solution to our pending environmental troubles is to re-engineer human beings so that they leave a diminished carbon footprint. Here's The Atlantic's lede:
The threat of global climate change has prompted us to redesign many of our technologies to be more energy-efficient. From lightweight hybrid cars to long-lasting LED's, engineers have made well-known products smaller and less wasteful. But tinkering with our tools will only get us so far, because however smart our technologies become, the human body has its own ecological footprint, and there are more of them than ever before.

So, some scholars are asking, what if we could engineer human beings to be more energy efficient? A new paper to be published in Ethics, Policy & Environment proposes a series of biomedical modifications that could help humans, themselves, consume less.

Some of the proposed modifications are simple and noninvasive. For instance, many people wish to give up meat for ecological reasons, but lack the willpower to do so on their own. The paper suggests that such individuals could take a pill that would trigger mild nausea upon the ingestion of meat, which would then lead to a lasting aversion to meat-eating.

Other techniques are bound to be more controversial. For instance, the paper suggests that parents could make use of genetic engineering or hormone therapy in order to birth smaller, less resource-intensive children.

Liao is keen to point out that the paper is not meant to advocate for any particular human modifications, or even human engineering generally; rather, it is only meant to introduce human engineering as one possible, partial solution to climate change.

He also emphasized the voluntary nature of the proposed modifications. Neither Liao or his co-authors, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache of Oxford, approve of any coercive human engineering; they favor modifications borne of individual choices, not technocratic mandates.
Of course. Brave new worlds always start out sounding reasonable and non-coercive, but it's not long until, as in Orwell's Animal Farm, it all turns ugly. When people choose not to genetically rejigger their children or to wear the meat patch the state will decide to do something "reasonable" like set limits to how much carbon you can consume, or they'll tell you they'll not provide insurance coverage for more than two child births, or they'll not provide health care for people over a certain bodyweight, etc.

In the end they won't tell you that you'll have to do the things Liao suggests, you'll be free to ignore the wise advice of the government planners and statists if you wish, but you won't be able to afford to. You'll have been coerced by Big Brother into participating in their dehumanized society without even realizing it was happening.

Here are some of the "options" Liao proposes:
  • A "meat patch" that makes you vomit when you eat meat.
  • Hormones that retard your children's growth.
  • Drugs that make you want to write checks (to charities, of course).
  • Genetically engineering humans to grow "cat eyes" so we don't need light bulbs.
It all sounds so reasonable. Just like Mephistopheles' bargain sounded so reasonable to Dr. Faustus.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Young Nihilists

Thomas Kidd at Patheos reviews a book by sociologist Christian Smith that should be of interest to every parent and future parent. Kidd writes:
Endless consumer choices, easy access to drugs and alcohol, and an increasing lack of taboos in sexuality, all make it critical that emerging adults have a moral framework for making wholesome choices. But Smith shows that this foundational framework is exactly what the majority of his interviewees do not have. Sixty percent of them said that morality was in the eye of the beholder, and about half subscribed, as best they understood it, to the concept of moral relativism.

When pushed, most would concede that some actions, like rape and murder, were wrong almost regardless of circumstances. Some were not even prepared to concede such absolutes, however. One interviewee said he did not know if you were ever obligated to help a person in need: "I don't ever stop when I see somebody on the side of the road," he said; "maybe if someone is burning in the car, you should try to pull them out, but, no, not really." One in three had no idea what made something right or wrong. Many of those interviewed simply could not understand questions about their sources of morality, no matter how the interviewer rephrased them.

Interviewees displayed distressingly high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as high-risk sexual behavior. About half of those studied had engaged in binge drinking within the past two weeks. Almost three quarters of the non-married emerging adults had experienced sexual intercourse a number of times with a variety of partners, typically beginning around age 16. Especially for women, this pattern of reckless sexuality has fostered deep regrets, insecurity, and trauma from abortions or sexually-transmitted diseases. Other emerging adults, especially some men, seem to sense no regrets whatsoever about their amorous escapades.
Smith's research is distressing but not surprising. Generation Xers have been variously described as morally adrift, nihilistic, lost in a sea of post-modern subjectivism, and so on, but why are they? When people have no categories for making moral judgments other than their own feelings, moral judgments quickly come to be seen as fluid, groundless, and arbitrary. It's an inevitable denouement in a culture that has cut itself free of the moorings of religion which has traditionally provided the only non-arbitrary, objective ground for moral standards and duties.

Check out the rest of Kidd's review at the link.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why Stop with Contraception?

Those who follow the news know that the left is upset over conservatives' unreasonable unwillingness to require insurance companies and private employers to cover birth control expenses and to, in effect, subsidize the sex lives of their employees. In the left's typically understated rhetoric, the Republican reluctance to jettison the First Amendment's guarantee of a freedom of religion from state interference is proof that they're waging a "War on Women".

Allysia Finley, in a humorous piece in the Wall Street Journal, thinks mandating birth control coverage is not going far enough, actually. There are many other things that the government should require stingy insurance companies and employers to cover for their employees. She presents her proposals in a witty, tongue-in-cheek letter to President Obama. Here's part of it:
Dear President Obama,

Can you believe the nerve of employers? Many of them still seem to think that they should be allowed to determine the benefits they offer. I guess they haven't read your 2,000-page health law. It's the government's job now.

That's a good thing, too. Employers for too long have been able to restrict our access to essential health services like contraception by making us pay some of the bill. Really, it's amazing that we aren't all dead. Now, thanks to you, we'll enjoy free and universal access to preventative care just like workers do in Cuba. Even so, there are still many essential benefits that the government must mandate to make the U.S. the freest country in the world.

Fitness club memberships. Most doctors agree that exercising is one of the best ways to prevent disease. However, gym memberships can run between $240 and $1,800 per year. Such high prices force us to choose between exercising and buying groceries. While we could walk or jog outside, many of us prefer not to. Therefore, employers should be required to pay for workers' gym memberships. Doing so might even reduce employers' health costs, which is why many companies already subsidize memberships. Those that don't are limiting our freedom to exercise.

Coffee. Studies show that coffee can ward off depression, Alzheimer's disease, type 2 diabetes and sleepiness—which makes it one of the most powerful preventive treatments. Workers who drink java are also more productive and pleasant. While many offices have coffee makers, some employers—most notably those affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—continue to deny workers this essential benefit. All employers should have to provide workers with freshly brewed coffee. Oh, and workers must also be able to choose the kind of coffee regardless of the price.

Republicans might argue that requiring Mormon charities to serve coffee is a violation of "religious liberty" since the Mormon church's doctrine proscribes coffee, but this argument is a red herring. Leading medical experts recommend drinking coffee. Moreover, 99% of adults have drunk coffee at one point in their lives (including most Mormons).
Finley has more amusing suggestions at the link. She argues, for instance, that insurance companies should be required to cover employee massage therapy and salad bars in the workplace. She recognizes, of course, that getting Republicans to go along with mandating these coverages would be difficult, but, she concludes, if the president can justify a mandate on individuals to buy health insurance what she's proposing should be "a piece of cake".