Friday, November 30, 2007

No More Charisma

Of the friends who heard me on "All Things Considered," all have mentioned the same favorite comment: "Something, something ...I will be contrarian here. I don't want a charismatic president. I want a guy who will just get to work."

This is not a new thought for me, but I found it an interesting contrast to a comment by one of the other participants. He allowed that for people of our age and older, the image of JFK was still the picture of the ideal president, even if you weren't a Democrat. I had to admit it was true. We look at the early 60's as a time when America was at her best, not in terms of what we had accomplished, but in what we thought we might accomplish. The Kennedy image embodies that feeling so well, even at this late date.

But it was in retrospect the time when we screwed things up most. Not only did we start out in South Vietnam under Kennedy, we thought it would be a good idea to have the CIA assassinate its ruler. We decided to uselessly go to the moon, instead of using the space program for pure research, military, or commercial purposes, any of which would have been better. We sponsored a coup in Iraq, installing the Baath Party. The Great Society ideas of Lyndon Johnson, including the increasing federal involvement in education, welfare, and medical care, were mostly New Frontier ideas that Kennedy had been unable to wrestle through the legislature.

Yet our image, even my image, of the era is that those were good times.

Charisma blinds us to reality. The conventional wisdom now is that Reagan was also charismatic. I am not so sure. I was a liberal then, so perhaps I couldn't see the full effect, but I thought of him then as the anti-charisma candidate. I admit, perhaps the anti-charisma of being just plain folk is in itself a type of charisma. But I saw him as an affable but rather boring sort of guy who had the two ideas of cutting taxes and fighting communism locked in his head, and otherwise just sort of wandered around. Looking back, that worked out pretty well.

I acknowledge that a certain aura of leadership and inspiration are necessary in a chief executive, and that there are times that the impression of such things are as important as the reality. Churchill's charisma saved western civilization, but he was not regarded as charismatic until well into WWII. Before that, he was regarded as rather a tiresome and bumbling pest who was always going on about preparing for the Nazi threat.

No more charisma. We want affable, boring leaders with limited agendas, not inspiring figures who make us believe we can do anything.

I would tell you who that means you should vote for in the Republican primary, but attaching the boring label to someone would do them more harm than good. Just keep the principle in mind: anyone who inspires you too much can convince you to do stupid things.

Henry Hyde on NPR

Listening intently to NPR, waiting to hear a segment with ME in it, I caught what they were reporting about the death of Henry Hyde. My first thoughts on hearing he’d died were Illinois…Speaker…prolife lion…Intelligence Committee. NPR’s comments were Moved to impeach Clinton about an alleged affair…had an affair himself years before.

First, it wasn’t an alleged affair – Clinton has admitted it. Second, the impeachment was about possible perjury.

I will say this again, in the strongest possible terms. Clinton’s impeachment was never about sex for conservatives. It was liberals who thought it was about sex. They were unable to get off that issue, and they still can't. They want to believe that myth so badly that no amount of contrary evidence affects them. They were unable to conceive of the issue in any other terms, and projected that onto conservatives. They proved this again yesterday, unable to think of Hyde except in terms of impeachment…sex…affair. They did go on to discuss Hyde’s prolife record, but not a whisper of foreign affairs, NATO, Intelligence.

Worse thought: whatever their protestations, they didn't hate Clinton for the affair - they admired it. I don't doubt there were some on the left, including some honest feminists, who were appalled. But the myths that people cling to say so much about what they want to be true. As time goes on, the solidifying of the myth in that direction suggests that far too many people thought sex with an intern was cute; cute enough to overlook perjury for it.

Giuliani and the Yankee Fan

Rudy Giuliani answering the Yankee fan at the debate made a comment that must look like an evasion to younger baseball fans, but which I understood. He was asked how he could root for the Red Sox in the World Series if he is a Yankee fan. Rudy’s basic response was “I’m an American League fan. After the series I go back to rooting for the Yankees.”

This is the way it used to be in my father’s generation. You don’t hear that sentiment much now, but older guys used to say that a lot when telling baseball stories. If you rooted for the Cardinals, you rooted for the National League team in the World Series. We see something similar with college leagues now, when fans are not only interested in the reputation of their team, but the entire Big East or Big 12. But it’s no longer a common idea among baseball fans. I don’t recall anyone even in my generation (I am 54) saying it.

It doesn’t mean that Giuliani was deceptive. It just means he’s old.

Note: My son Ben tells me there are still vestiges of the old way of looking at leagues, though he agrees it's more pronounced in other sports and at the college level. I think that's about right. People don't tend to use the words "I'm a National League fan," but they tend to favor the familiar teams that their own favorite has played. We had an interesting conversation about how isolated from other leagues fans were before television and sports magazines. Newspapers would carry only the box scores plus (maybe)a paragraph about any games but the home team's. Radio carried only the local team.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Recommended Romances From The New York Times

Physics prof Chad Orzel (via Kevin Drum and Glenn Reynolds) discovers that of the 100 Notable Books for 2007 according to the New York Times, none are about science. That's not the half of it. Religion & Philosophy, Business, Law, Economics, and Military works are also absent, showing up only tangentially, jumping-off points for the main categories of Biography (15 titles), Memoir (10), History (9), and Cultural Criticism/Politics (11).

Those four are not just the main categories. They are the only categories. Every non-fiction work falls into one of those four groups. Even the softer sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology show up only fuzzily, without any discipline or rigor. The memoirs and biographies loll about the heated pools of the social sciences, waggling a foot in the water from time to time or even plunging in for a refreshing dip, but no swimming.

Take a few moments to click through the link above (NYT registration required) and scroll down to the non-fiction section. The common thread is living vicariously through others' experiences. That is, these are essentially romance novels for people who like their romance poignant and bittersweet, who like their exotic locales to be politically correct, and who require that their heroes and especially their heroines be as socially unlike the usual characters of romances as possible. Romances which celebrate how free they are from romances.

There are exceptions. There is a history The Day of Battle about the Italian campaign of WWII. The military information is almost entirely inapplicable today, but it's something. A second book is about the theme of honor, using the literature read at West Point as its foundation. Science sort of sneaks onto the list with How Doctors Think, though much of that is cultural commentary, and The Invisible Cure, about the reduction of AIDS in Uganda. Religion makes cameo appearances in The Stillborn God, which traces the history of separation of church and state, and Easter Everywhere, a memoir of a minister's daughter who observes her own spiritual rootlessness.

Religion does get one unmixed title, A rabbi's account of How To Read The Bible. Of Business, nothing. Economics, nothing. Law, nothing.

The fiction titles only increase the impression that Times readers are seeking little more than Alternative Romance. Naughty girls and bittersweet sex, poignant gay sex, searches for peace with dead relatives, stories of suffering and oppression. Reflections on reflecting, and on the reflective life. Just the safe excitement of other people's interesting lives. Romances of a different brand.

Partly Snookered

Update: The piece aired at 4:40, and I think NPR covered us fairly. What came across in the segment was pretty much what occurred in the room.

I should have been more suspicious.

You might hear me briefly on "All Things Considered" on NPR between 4-6pm today. I participated in a discussion about the Republican youTube debate at a friend's house, run by NPR. They wanted the reactions of registered Republicans from NH who were undecided (independents were also encouraged). We discussed the debate for well over an hour after it was finished, but the comments will be edited down to a five-minute segment. So I may not make the final cut at all, or they may broadcast only the most inane thing I said, or they might splice it and package it to give a different impression than what I meant. But perhaps I will use up 30 seconds of my fifteen minutes of fame today.

It turns out that many of the questions from "regular folks" from youTube were in fact planted by people working for Democratic candidates or activist groups.

This irritates me on many levels.

Let me note at the outset that I don't fault NPR for any of this. Lord knows I have kicked NPR often enough (Nine examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9), but they operated in good faith. (Unless of course they just wanted me to think that, and the photographer was actually a nefarious operative from the Clinton campaign who is even now downloading my image into fancy face-recognition software...) The woman doing the interviewing, who I gather is well-known in NPR circles, seemed intelligent, pleasant, and evenhanded. She made some sotto voce comments during the debate, but fewer than I did, and not especially prejudicing.

CNN had an absolute responsibility to either weed out the questions from special-interest groups or make the connections plain. I thought it unfair when Grover Norquist got his question in, because he has a ready audience already, and this was supposed to be just regular folks. To me, Norquist took a slot that was "reserved" for everyday folks.

You will notice that the one connection to political groups that CNN felt it had to mention was the one conservative group. Fancy that. A sudden twinge of journalistic conscience when a conservative group might benefit, complete obliviousness when liberal groups do the same. Shameful. This is why you turn off your TV, throw away your newspapers and news magazines, and start your news-reading with Instapundit every day.

So Norquist was the least of the offenders.

My son points out that once an unfair question has been asked, we still very much want to hear a candidate's response to it. We want to see how he reacts under pressure, not so much to see how smooth he is, but to get a sense of "What does it take to throw this guy off?" and "What principles does he revert to when cornered?" We get immediately distracted from recognizing that the original question was stupid. Because the press won't be fair, and the other nations of the world won't be fair, it is useful to see how a potential president will react to an unfair question.

I did find myself wishing that candidates would start by saying "That's a false question." That is probably a campaign no-no, because too many people would see it as evasive, but it simply shows me that the candidate has the intelligence to recognize a false question. Yasmin's question was what a presidential candidate would do to repair relations with Moslems, now that America has done so much to make them worse. I don't accept the received wisdom that Muslims are angrier at us than they were a few years ago. Some Muslims clearly are. Some, notably in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan, like us better. Pretending that the Muslim opinion of the US is a monolithic bloc is simply untrue and Yasmin knows this. She may tell herself all the usual rationalizations that human beings are prone to, that all the "right" Muslims, or "real" Muslims, or "important" Muslims agree with her, but the Islamic organizations wouldn't devote so much energy to internal PR if they thought everyone agreed with them. Yasmin knows that there are large groups of Moslems who would disagree with her, but pretends otherwise. I wish a candidate had mentioned that.

The young man who indirectly claimed that Jesus would be against the death penalty also asked a false question. His might have been mere stupidity rather than dishonesty, but the result is the same. Jesus has no recorded opinions on the matter. He generally deflected questions about power and government back to questions of individual piety. His immediate followers made no comments on the issue, and the pertinent verses about loving one's enemies have varied application to social situations. Only by cherry-picking Bible quotes can one come to a firm conclusion of what Jesus "must have meant." Odd that it is the anti-fundamentalists who take such a fundamentalist approach to the Scriptures.

I am irritated at myself for not seeing through this. I went to the NPR event playing it straight. CNN presented the questions as being from the general population, and I took that at face value. More fool I. I didn't doubt that groups would try to hijack the system and sneak in their own questions, but I imagined, on the basis of no evidence, that someone at CNN knew how to use a search engine and that professional journalists would know how to smell a rat. What was I thinking? CNN has no interest in giving the people a voice - their dual interests are A)attracting viewers and B) making Republican candidates look stupid.

I'm pleased the candidates did as well as they did with the bad questions.

Consider an analogous situation: If Lyndon Johnson had taken questions at town meeting from the crowd, and it turned out that the moderator had called on a number of Nixon operatives without identifying them, we would think that Johnson had been a victim of dirty tricks. We would also know that the regular folks hadn't really had a chance to ask their questions.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Lott Resigns

A few months ago I offered a proposal for each party getting rid of its own dirtbags in a post Desperate Measures. Just a few months later, Trent Lott is resigning. Life improves.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Barbers Of Iraq

Today’s war news is brought to you by the barbers of Iraq. In fact, most war news is brought to you by the barbers of Iraq. Media critics have long complained that journalists are sheltered and isolated in Baghdad, seldom venturing out of their hotels, but I hadn’t realized how prominent hair-cutting was until I smelled a rat in the New York Times.

Background: this is not merely a conservative complaint about the MSM: Robert Fisk at Counterpunch has written
Rarely, if ever, has a war been covered by reporters in so distant and restricted a way. The New York Times correspondents live in Baghdad behind a massive stockade with four watchtowers, protected by locally hired, rifle-toting security men, complete with NYT T-shirts. America's NBC television chain are holed up in a hotel with an iron grille over their door, forbidden by their security advisers to visit the swimming pool or the restaurant "let alone the rest of Baghdad" lest they be attacked. Several Western journalists do not leave their rooms while on station in Baghdad.

And as Michael Fumento mentions, most journalists stay rather safe and sound near the Green Zone in Baghdad, rarely emerging from their comfortable hotel rooms there. Their practice to get the story of the day is to send Iraqi citizens, called "stringers," to go out and get the story. American journalists then slap their name upon the gathered "facts" for that all-important "from Baghdad" by line. With this practice, they could be here in the states filing their stories because they don't really do much reporting from the site of the real story.

So much has been known for years. But I hadn’t known it was the barbers. In the second “Q” of a “Q&A” with Damien Cove in the NYT, he mentions a barber. Barbers are ideal for journalists, as they seem to be just average Ahmeds, middle-class sons of toil who come in contact with lots of everyday people. I imagine it is also not lost on our enemies that barbers come in contact with lots of people. I’m just saying.

So I looked up these sources, and found that the Washington Bureau gets some of its information from a barber, as do Newsweek, the New Yorker, NPR, the McClatchey newspapers, and even the Chips Quinn journalism scholars. Maybe it’s even the same barber, for all I know.

Oh yeah, Afghanistan, too.

How many American barbers do we interview about world events?

Now that you’re in on the secret, scoot on over to the Damien Cove Q&A I mentioned above. The reality behind the writing jumps out at you. This is how bright college students write when they have few sources, little material, and are padding their term paper up to the required number of pages. It is a very, very well-done example, far better than any b.s. I ever wrote, and I was pretty good. But the sources are thin and the generalizations thick.
Q & A: Baghdad Correspondent on End of the Surge.

The same red flag should go up when you read the word "drivers," also.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Continuity of Symbolism

While researching a potentially dangerous armed cult that one of my patients belongs to, I was struck by how many of its positions were not especially conservative as I understand it, despite their True American rhetoric and embrace of conservative symbolism. I had noted this before in religious extremists, many of whom are vocal in support of causes tangential to their faiths.

I wondered if this inconsistency applied to leftist extremists as well. Do they also embrace some of the appearances of radicalism while holding views which, taken from a purely intellectual POV, are not especially liberal or might even be conservative? I immediately found examples of this among the environmentalists and antiglobalists, and propose the following understanding of extremist groups: they do not exhibit an intellectual consistency, but display a remarkable consistency in their symbolism. We should hardly be surprised. That sort of extremism is often an attempt to find (or invent) an identity, not follow an ideal. Contrast this with Ron Bailey's libertarian comment on life extension:
A long healthy life is a moral good. More life is better.
One might disagree with the argument or find it oversimple, but it is clearly an example of coming to a conclusion on the basis of a principle, not the feeling it gives you or the hipness of other people who support it. Paranoid groups do the opposite - everything is in the seeming and intuiting.

The waters are muddied around all the extremist groups on the issues of natural foods and alternative medicine. Left, right, religious, or social, there seems this gravitation to symbolic ideas of purity and rejection of modern technology. While we most rapidly associate organic food and new-agey approaches with leftists, there are in fact plenty of religious or right-wing groups which are vitaminoid, law-of-attraction, or Luddite types. One can certainly invent an immediate reason why those areas would particularly favored by those with a paranoid air. Human beings are quite reasonably concerned with the safety of their food, feel helpless in the face of disease, and are suspicious of technologies they do not fully understand.

Almost two years ago I suggested that the worry about toxins is a replacement for the concept of sin, and shortly after frowned when Christian and nutritional myths coincide.

Example: The tax protester movement tends strongly toward conservative symbolism. But Reno Gonzalez made it a point to join Cindy Sheehan's protests, Elaine Brown is a holistic dentist and master herbalist in a wind/solar home, and the group in general spills over into the 9/11 Truther and Bush/Fascist wings of the left. Sure they love guns and camo, and talking about the Constitution, but how different are their protests and rhetoric from the WTO protesters in Seattle? Just different costumes.

An additional disquieting piece: once a group gets good and paranoid, they work the Jews into it somehow. No matter where it starts off, paranoia seems to circle that drain eventually.

NH Republican Primary

People at work ask me who I'm supporting in the upcoming primary. This has seldom happened before. The few conservatives know me as someone who tends to follow events, and the friendlier liberals want to know what their one conservative friend thinks - which they will doubtless expand in their minds to encompass what "a lot of" conservatives are thinking.

My overriding opinion is that I have seen the Democrats, and the Republicans can just notify me who to vote for next November and I will be well-pleased. I don't require that my candidate be someone I am very excited about. I prefer, in fact, unexciting candidates. George Bush is not exciting, and I would vote for him a third time if I could. History will be kind to him. Those who claim he is a polarizing figure have labored mightily to make their own prophecy come true, but Bush is not polarizing. That someone moderately conservative was elected was what was polarizing, because progressives...

Well, never mind. I have been through that before. I will only add to my previous arguments the current campaign of the AARP. "Divided We Fall. Together We Can Do Anything." They are talking about health care. You will note that they did not say anything remotely like that about the GWOT. On the lips of progressives, being united does not carry the ordinary meaning of working toward commonalities we can all support. It means do things my way or you are divisive.

Fred Thompson is the most thoughtful of the nominees. While he can give a stirring speech - he is an actor, after all - his positions reflect a measured federalism. He proposes to steer things in a certain direction, not the usual overblown rhetoric of turning this country around. The missteps by his campaign, though not fatal, are a bit worrisome. Executive office requires that you find people more capable than yourself and persuade them to work for you. Being the smartest or most capable candidate is not sufficient. Thompson's campaign is showing signs of recovery, giving evidence that his people can adjust as they go, which is perhaps an even better quality.

Mike Huckabee has found fans in my family. My eldest is considering voting for him on the basis of this ad alone. I might have considered an actual libertarian running in the primaries, but that has little to do with Ron Paul (see Trade, Free.) I'm still irritated by McCain's leading the campaign finance reform debacle, but I can get over it. The objections I supposedly have to Romney and Giuliani because I am a bigoted, knuckle-dragging member of the Religious Right I don't find in myself even after extensive searching. I always expect that I will disagree with and disapprove of the eventual nominee in some areas. People who are devoted to their candidates on the basis of what they seem to symbolize rather than what they plan to accomplish are called Democrats, at least as far back as Kennedy. (And it is only fair here to single out Mike Dukakis as an exception here. He didn't propose to be someone, but to do something.) Okay, they are called Democrats, at best.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Clergy, Law, and Economics

I meant to post this two months ago, Ilya Somin's observation over at the lawblog Volokh Conspiracy that clergy often make pronouncements on matters of law or economics but have little understanding of them. With examples. See also my comments from a year ago about the usual religious left suspects, such as Campolo, Wallis, and every mainstream denominational office.

Sally Quinn and Religion

John Podhoretz skewers Sally Quinn's essay in celebration of the first anniversary of On Faith, a joint effort by Newsweek and the Washington Post to discuss religious issues. I hadn't know that the site existed, but it clearly will be good for some laughs. Quinn discusses her curiosity about faith:
Finally in March I took a trip around the world to study the Great Faiths. It was a private tour and we started in Rome. From there we went to Jerusalem in Israel and Bethlehem in Palestine, Kyoto, Japan; Chengdu, China; Lhasa, Tibet; Varanasi, New Delhi and Amritsar in India; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Cairo, Egypt; Armenia; and Istanbul, Turkey. When I told my friend, “On Faith” panelist and religion scholar Elaine Pagels, about the trip she asked how long I had spent. “Three weeks ‘”I replied.
I will note that is 12 religious destinations in 21 days. This seems to sum up the understanding of religion by Washington media types. Podhoretz is more clever than I, and comments:
It is like Augustine’s Confessions, if Augustine’s Confessions had been written by a combination of Helen Gurley Brown and Britney Spears.
Did I mention that she is the editor of this site?

Just for fun, there is also this comment by Arlo, under the heading You can worship anything you want at the Guthrie Center
“If there is a supreme being and they put all this together, what a cool thing."
The country will not right itself until my generation has died off.

How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization

Once again the advantage of the family custom of reading books before they are given as gifts pays off. I am buying the above title (by Thomas E. Woods, Jr., Ph.D.) for my father-in-law for Christmas, and I get first dibs.

The suspicion we always have with such titles is that it is going to be like the lessons our grandparents told us about our ethnic group. How A Swede Really Wrote The Constitution, or Ukrainian-American Scientists. There will be a special pleading, an unearthing of worthy but obscure figures who didn't get the credit they deserved, put forward in hagiographic fashion. "Did you know that Thomas Edison said that Radu Radulescu was a greater inventor than he was?"

The best send-up of this was National Lampoon's "White Studies" section "Did you know that Benjamin Franklin was a white man?" - circa 1973-74.

There is a whiff of that here, but not much. Woods makes the case that the Catholic church not only contributed to Western Civilization, but is the greater part of its foundation.

Since the writers calling themselves The Enlightenment rewrote history for their own purposes, inventing the Renaissance to contrast with the Dark Ages, their view of how Europe developed has been the framework on which all other historical information has been tacked. By their telling, Christianity in general and especially Catholicism was a rigid, oppressive structure which discouraged science, human rights, and thinking in general in order to maintain its control over Europe. Some grudging credit is given to monk copyists and the support of artists, but the overall picture is of a corrupt church resisting all change and improvements. The story of Galileo is trotted out. Most versions get the story wrong - almost backwards - and the critics are hard pressed to come up with another example, but the myth fits the required template.

When you send your kids to Baptist schools they get a considerable dose of this as well.

CS Lewis, who had the slight advantage of having actually studied the entirety of philosophy and literature of Europe covering a thousand-year period and more, usually in the original languages, rejected this view entirely. Over time, he has cured me of it as well. I am thus pretty sympathetic at the outset to scholars who challenge this prevailing view. It is worth noting the self-congratulatory aspects of the framework as a guide to why it is still attractive, as scientists (and even more, social scientists), artists, libertines, humanists, New Agers, extreme Protestants, and a dozen other groups can all congratulate themselves about how much wiser they are than those old Catholics. That is a powerful incentive to keep the Enlightenment framework.

Dr. Woods does not set out to explain why such a model is inadequate or oversimple; he stands the model on its head. The Roman Catholic Church did not advance agriculture, for example, by merely having some guys who happened to live in Catholic countries and grew apples and such. All agricultural advances in Europe came out of the network of monasteries sharing information. All. This devotion to improvement was intentional on the part of the monks, who studied stockbreeding, machinery, soil & fertilization, irrigation, preservation - all the arts of farming.

We lack a picture of how primitive Europe was before the arrival of Christianity. Justice meant not law and rights, but only revenge. Guilt was determined not by evidence and witnesses, but by ordeals of fire or boiling water. How pervasive these ideas were among the tribes the pitiful few preachers and monks lived among is evidenced by how long the customs persisted. In 1800 one could still find trials by ordeal in Europe, and duels to determine who was in the right. Cultures change but slowly. Odd that the Church, the only influence away from customs, should be blamed because its followers, also drawn from these cultures, were not changed quickly enough for our taste.

There was no reading and writing, save Ogham and scraps of runes. Even these reached their height only after the introduction of learning by the Church. There was no farming as we know it. People gathered and scattered a few types of grain, with no plowing and little scything. They fished in shallow areas. They hunted with spears, they wove no cloth. They kept a few sheep and chickens, and did know some metallurgy and small shipbuilding, knowledge acquired via predatory raids to the south.

Picture again what they had for architecture in Europe in the early centuries of the Common Era. Thatched huts; earthworks for defense; clusters of tiny stone houses half underground. The standing stones were all left over from earlier eras. What did they have of literature? Storytelling. Of music? Drums, animal horns. Even wood flutes and rudimentary harps did not come along until later.

Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins both have anti-religious books out recently. The idea is that the improvements we now hardly notice would have happened anyway; all those brilliant Bacons and da Vincis would have existed anyway and brought us forward. The church was at best a half-hearted encouragement to the improvements of earthly life, a mere accidental place holder. The structure and organization might have been helpful, and its folks were well-meaning enough to mitigate much of their intellectual harm. But religion has poisoned everything it touches, and we would have been better served if progress had been made another way.

Except that there was no other way. Europe started 2000 years behind the Levant, Egypt, & Persia, and an equivalent amount behind China, in every area of human endeavor, and in the space of a thousand years passed them all, taught by a relative handful of Christian monks. It is all very well to think how nice it might be if things had happened otherwise, but the point is they didn't. That much improvement at all levels in that short (yes, a millennium is short) amount of time has happened precisely once.

There is a parallel theme with my immediately preceding post linking to Grim's essay over at Blackfive. We forget how spectacularly primitive and violent most people have been at most times, and how very abnormal our normal lives are.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Blackfive's Comments

The idea that what we call PTSD is a normal response to an abnormal situation is not new. Blackfive takes it a step further, suggesting that it is the combat veterans who see a side of mankind as it is, and it is we at home who have the misperception. There is a great deal to that. Warfare, pain, danger, and evil have been the common lot of mankind, and we live in one of the few islands of time and place separated from them.

Please give the link all the circulation you can. I think it will do some good.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Flaming Pianos + Trebuchet = Very Cool Video

Via Maggie's Farm, we have this wonderful video from An Englishman's Castle. Great site, too.

Death Metrics

A remarkable report from the Mudville Gazette, a milblog from Iraq. Interspersed throughout the essay are repeated articles detailing the weapons caches found because of tips from Iraqi citizens. MG's central point is that it is these stories, not the list of the dead, which tell whether we will win or not. This should be obvious, but is nearly invisible in the legacy media. Deaths are the cost, not the measurement, of the war.
But I'm not a fan of death metrics. Up, down, and chaotic - an exceptionally low month means it will be quite easy for the next month to be higher - a helicopter crash could do it. And there are many possible reasons for this decrease, ranging from "neighborhood ethnic cleansing goals achieved" or "militias biding their time" to "Victory is ours!" And you'll hear them all from people pointing to the wrong numbers to support their claim: the numbers from the morgue.

But few people are paying attention to what those of us who are here fighting this war might have to say. Everyone is focused on the death metrics, and everyone is wrong. Call it "hearts and minds" or people fighting for their lives and futures who do not fear turning to us for help and helping us in return without fear of retribution from an enemy falling fast - these are the numbers that tell the tale. These are the numbers that indicate something worthwhile. These are the numbers that will drive the death metrics further down and keep them there.

Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Memoranda From The Devil and Howard Dean

Law professor Arthur Allen Leff's essay with the title above was excerpted by Glenn Reynolds. Leff adroitly handles the dilemma of the foundations of morality: if there is no God, then there is no foundation; but if there is God, then finding his foundation is all that matters. We humans live entirely in between these poles, unwilling to embrace either.

Leff crafts his answer speaking as the devil himself, a la CS Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, and with enormous wit. He does not quite close all the escapes from the dilemma, as alert readers of Lewis's Mere Christianity will note, but the professor does bound the problem quite neatly, clarifying a great deal. The few remaining escapes have their own cost.

Along the same lines, law prof Eugene Volokh notes a gaping logical hole in Howard Dean's recent comments on the theology of the Democratic Party. I don't think this is just a slip or an imprecision on Dean's part. I think this is a view behind the mask, and a deft demonstration that avoidance of dogma can lead to a theology more rigid than any creed or catechism.

Celtics Update

Is this a defense I see before me? Doc Shakespeare.

I keep worrying we're all going to pay for this later. Three feet of snow overnight. Tom Brady gets Mad Cow Disease. Ricky Davis or Antoine Walker gets traded back somehow.

One of the few close moments in this entire season, with the Celts up 56-52 in the middle of the 3rd quarter...Tony Allen and James Posey come in to play defense, and it's suddenly 68-54. Who is this team? Where did they come from?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Where Links Lead

I started at Maggie's Farm with an excellent quote from Georgetown professor Patrick Dineen's commentary on the attitudes underlying the welfare state (with reference to Rawls - that would be John, not Lou). This led in turn to the pseudonymous Dr. Joy Bliss and her essay on The Problem With Women.

That linked to Neo-neocon's two part series on marriage and divorce, also quite interesting. Neo links further to Dr. Helen's article about whether men should marry. The surprise in this is not that political questions often lead back to personal and social ones - that train runs both ways. Nor was I shocked at the comments at each of these places. There were the expected number of seething males describing how they had been screwed over, and earnest, somewhat moralising men explaining how marriage takes sacrifice and maturity.

What surprised me was the number of happily married, generally pro-marriage people, male and female, who were no longer certain they would recommend to young men that they get married. (There are many other interesting topics along the way - it's an excellent browse for reading what you like and scrolling past whatever does not interest you.)

Personal note: I think I have always just assumed that my two older sons would marry reasonably happily and well. They are wise and kind, and I just expected that they would marry wisely and be decent. (Yes, they have faults, but I won't go into those here.) Whatever difficulties and tragedies I feared they might face were drawn more from the pool of illness and catastrophe - that they or their families might be struck with injury or disease. That either might marry someone awful seems not to have occurred to me. That seems rather naive.

That worry applies more to my younger sons, who had a background of trauma and neglect up until they came to the Christian orphanage in Beius at 13 and 11, and to America at 16 and 14. I can imagine either of them choosing poorly, or being unable to adjust to a moderately bad situation. This worry is receding over time as they show increasing sense, but it still comes to me. Because being happily married seems to me the best life, I have wanted that best life for my sons. I don't think I quite calculated how badly things could go. Odd of me, coming from a divorced, then blended family myself - a source of irritation until a few years ago.

Update: NH blogger Raven, who must live fairly close to here, blogged on the same topic tonight.

Apple. Tree.

One of the Assistant Village Idiot's rules for working in mental health, and probably for life in general is "Never be so arrogant as to say that you have seen it all. God will punish you for this the next morning by sending you something you have never seen. And you will have deserved it."

Today's reminder was the family which came to visit who informed me that their son had been fine until the government implanted that chip in his head. Something in me deflates at such things, and I say to myself: not much I can contribute that will be helpful, is there?

There was a NH event which got some national attention over the last 6-9 months, which these people, mother and son, were connected with. I won't specify the event, but suffice it say that when a person who feels he is a victim of a Zionist Illuminati conspiracy finds your family too crazy and kicks you out, you are too flipping crazy.

Monday, November 12, 2007

I'll Make An Exception In This Case

I am neither a surfer nor a fan, but the photoset and videos from this year's largest waves are worth noting.

Teahupoo is in Tahiti, and is apparently legendary among surfers. I can see why.

The Barmen Declaration

The Theological Declaration of Barmen 1934 is a remarkable document.

Note the year. One year after the Nazis came to power, some Christians in Germany already knew what was up. It is very hard to understand events as they are happening, which suggests to me that Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others were led by the Holy Spirit in this. The document is a creed, perhaps as good as any of the others written in the early centuries of the Church. One might quibble with some of the overall theology of both men, but they got it right in the time they were called, which is rarer and more valuable.

To recreate how difficult it must have been for them to see clearly, consider the following:
1. A nation that was starving was now working, in one of the great positive-thinking scams of all time. If the German people will only stick together, they can become a great people again.

2. The ruling party had come to power by appealing to secular values which were more common in the church than out of it, such as high culture, tradition, and hard work. Their radical competitors, the communists and socialists, were largely antagonistic to Christianity.

3. Their theological opposition was drawn entirely from the people that they knew: their seminary professors and classmates, authorities in their respective denominations, authors of books. They liked many of these people, and knew them as well-meaning, intelligent people who made some valid points.

4. They had families to answer to and jobs to do, creating powerful incentives to shut up, go along, hope to change the system from within, etc. They had begun to suspect that opponents of this regime might not lose not only livelihoods, but lives. Several of the contributors to the declaration were in fact later executed by the Nazis.

Yet through this, the tone of the document is firm, but not angry. There is no flame-throwing as we see in our popular media and on the internet. Each of the six short sections begins with a verse of scripture and expands upon it in measured words. To the Deutsche Christen group which advocated a Positive Christianity consistent with the racial and nationalist philosophies drawn from Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Hegel, the Barmen Declaration replies:
1. I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6
I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. John 10:1,9

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation.

To answer both the evils of one's own era, yet also ages to come, impresses me greatly.

Worship. Service. Dessert.

We had a vision and mission-statement meeting at church yesterday. I hate those things, and was planning to go nap in the car, but got snookered in, thinking I was joining a brief meeting for the nominating committee.

The congregation was given this assignment by the management consultant team which is trying to help us figure out why we're not growing. I am hazarding a guess that such teams are usually made up of smart, well-meaning people who come from churches that grew because the area around them grew, or businesses that grew for similar reasons that they had little to do with. A collection of people who have experience in not screwing up growth, which is a good thing, but not necessarily the most useful for our purpose.

Of course, I should talk, right? Coming from a church that's not growing and all.

Because it was an assignment, a certain contingent of the congregation (predominantly female) wanted to complete the assignment as given. Another contingent (predominantly male) questioned whether this assignment was taking us where we wanted to go. Such a question clearly implies that the asker's answer is "No. This is going to make things worse." We broke into small groups to discuss active verbs for our mission statement, and I asked who wished to join a contrarian group. Two other men did. I should point out that we didn't agree with each other, either, and warned the group that they really didn't want to hear what our suggestions were. We couldn't have been clearer, but they encouraged us to share anyway, and dubbahdee broke down and listed some things. People found our varied suggestions irritating, which in turn irritated me. Mild unpleasantness ensued.

I can't imagine any use for a statement that begins We are a community which seeks... or any of the other formulations of that style. Mottoes strike me as things that work better, because people can remember them and apply generally to a large number of situations. Our current motto is "Where faith and life meet." I like that okay, and one of the contrarians thought we weren't likely to improve upon it. Google's motto is "Delight the Customer." That can give you considerable guidance in decision-making. Jesus said "Go into all the world and preach my gospel to every creature." A touch long, but boy that cuts through a lot of clutter, doesn't it? West Point has "Duty, Honor, Country." A motto tells you more about an organization than its painfully-wrought statements. Painfully-wrought statements need to be longer, like creeds, which try and cover the whole territory with some exactness.

I think that's the problem: mission statements are neither motto nor creed, but try to be something in-between, capturing both. Great idea, but in practice they capture neither.

I first ran across mission statements about 20-25 years ago from M. Scott Peck. Everyone at the conference oohed and aahed over the examples he gave. When human services people like a technique adopted from the business world, you can count on its being a fad.

I think the motto Worship. Service. Dessert. tells you exactly what our congregation is like, and attracts exactly the sort of people who would be edified in this community.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Why Would They Lie? Huh?

I have been seeing this pie chart a lot lately:

There is a truck made into this shape driving around Concord, NH, and the bumper-sticker is becoming common. Perhaps it is only big in NH because of the Presidential Primary, and the rest of the country isn't seeing much of this. But it irks me, so I'm reporting on it.

The chart above is intentionally misleading, i. e. lying. The real federal budget looks like this:

What accounts for the enormous discrepancy? The pie-chart on top, the so-called Pentagon Bloat chart, shows what an enormous percentage of the discretionary budget "The Pentagon" takes up. The impression they are trying to create is that military spending takes up over half of all the money the federal government spends. The weasel-word discretionary is slipped in there quietly, like they hope you won't notice. What is the difference between discretionary spending and just plain old government spending? Whatever they want it to be. We have legislated obligations for those large sections called Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment & Welfare, and Medicaid totaling 58% of the federal budget, plus another 9% in Debt Service, and a further 3% in Veteran's Benefits that isn't broken out in the "Pentagon" section of the upper graph. 70% of the federal budget, just ignored.

You might be a person who believes that the 17% spent for Defense is still too much. Fine, then. Next time publish the numbers honestly, and try to make your point honestly.

I should also mention that the seemingly small amount spent on Education is another mirage, as it only represents what the federal government spends on education. State, County, and Local governments do most of that spending, as they should. If I had my druthers, the federal budget for education would be even less. Having George Bush get behind Ted Kennedy's No Child Left Behind idea is exactly the sort of bipartisan cooperation we don't need. Give me gridlock over that any day.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

About Those Antiwar Films

Apparently, the reason that audiences aren't going to see antiwar movies is because they're against the war. Or something.

Inflatable Jesus

You know you want one.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Hillary Clinton is the Barry Bonds of politics. Everyone around her has been caught cheating. Her supporters' best argument is that "other people are cheating too," ignoring the obvious fact that she is cheating in a bloated, obvious way - and not everyone else is cheating, just some.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Emily Adelaide Wyman

born November 6, 2007 at 2:55pm. 18 days early, six pounds even.


Nana and Pops

Sunday, November 04, 2007


I am of course pleased with the Patriot victory over the Colts, but I still believe the possibility of a 16-0 season is less than 50%. The Steelers and Giants are both good teams, and the Eagles, Bills, and Ravens are all at least capable teams. There's a reason no one has gone undefeated since 1972: it's very difficult. That season, the Jets, Vikings, and Steelers all came close to beating Miami, and the 14-7 Super Bowl win over the Redskins was no blowout. The 1962 Packers and 1985 Bears are often listed among the greatest ever, but each had a midseason loss.

Increasing Instability

One of Taleb's general predictions in The Black Swan is that because of the interconnectedness of events, Black Swans - unpredictable events of large impact - will become increasingly common. As prediction becomes more difficult, the strategy of being nimble will be of more value than trying to anticipate and prepare for all outcomes. It is unsurprising that I relate this to theological speculations.

It will have an increasing political effect until we adjust to it. Politicians will see more and more events go astray from their planning, and opposition parties will try to get mileage out of that. Retrospective criticism should always be viewed with suspicion. Events look inevitable in retrospect, and our replays of "what would have happened" usually assume that all other events remain unchanged. Der Hahn has mentioned in the comments here (last heard from in September) that the single actor fallacy is often a part of this.

Taleb points out, quite justly, that war is enormously unstable, among the most unstable of human events, and that politicians don't appreciate that as they should. One sees him looking out the corner of his eye at Iraq at that, but he refrains from partisanship. I entirely agree with that observation. I mentioned in my last post that the war currently seems to be going well. That can change overnight.

In the face of that, how could a nation risk going to war at all? Why voluntarily enter in to an unstable situation?

Because wars tend to occur when the situation is already unstable, that's why. In an unstable situation, all actions might increase instability. Stepping up diplomacy, imposing sanctions, sitting on your hands, and taking a break for English muffins might all unleash events which are even more dangerous. Not going to war is an action with long-term consequences, and as PJ O'Rourke notes "Peace Kills." Morally, the situation has not changed from simpler times, though the consequences are more dire.

Still No News

I'm still intentionally out of the loop for news, but I'll put in my usual predictions and then check them.

The Iraq War is going well, because no one is talking about it. Yup. And yup.

The economy must be doing well, because no one is talking about it. Yup.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Conventional Wisdom Kicked To The Curb

Stephen Oppenheimer's genetic research, combined with new archaeological finds, is upsetting many of the human migration theories we learned in school and have been seeing in National Geographic for so long. An interactive website, on which you can dig into significant detail or just watch the cool graphics, maps out the human departure(s) from East Africa throughout the world. Native American migrations are not what we thought. The settling of Southeast Asia is not what we thought. The origins of the Europeans is only partly what we thought.

Oppenheimer's research leads into other fascinating areas for those of European ancestry: how little the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Normans contributed to the genetic stock of Great Britain; where the earliest surviving genetic lines are.

Brand new to me was the knowledge that the human population was reduced to about 10,000 people 74,000 years ago. The most powerful volcanic eruption in 2 million years came very near to wiping us out because of the deposited ash and ensuing cold.

A Simplified Map Of London

Via Strange Maps.