Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Alito Nomination Brings Out the Worst in the Daily Kos Left

It’s official. Samuel Alito is a Supreme Court justice. Only four Democrats voted yes on the confirmation.

But much more interesting is the fact that 19 Democrats voted for cloture. This means that 15 Democrats didn’t like Alito but were responsible and principled enough not to let this nomination descend into a farce that would have wasted the Senate’s time and further divided the nation.

Of course, not everyone sees it my way. The denizens at Daily Kos erupted in foul-mouthed rage and swore to take down all the Democrats who dared not support the filibuster. So vitriolic and foul was the response that numerous Centrist-leaning blogs couldn’t resist pointing it out (here, here and also here).

I point it out too because Daily Kos isn’t just a blog. It’s a rally point for the far left where senators like John Kerry and Ted Kennedy have guest-blogged and where party leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have been known to turn to for advice. And if Daily Kos represents the future of the Democratic party, the Democrats are in serious trouble. No party can thrive on that level of spite and nastiness. No party can win when the activists work to eradicate all those who don’t march in ideological lock-step.

And after the cloture vote passed and the Kos kids had their say? Big Pa Kos himself wrote a post reassuring everyone that it’ll be ok because Bob Woodruff and Jill Carroll were the day’s top stories and now, finally, the country is going to turn against Bush once and for all. The implication being that the injury to Woodruff and the travails of Carroll are going to finally convince us sheep that the war is wrong and Bush is evil.

Such ignorant celebration of tragedy coupled with the viciousness directed toward moderate Democrats convinces me that, if the far left succeeds in its takeover of the Dems, the party will die.

State of the Union Speech Sure to Bore

I’m not looking forward to President Bush’s State of the Union address. Why should I be excited about an overblown speech where purple-prose rhetoric sinks into laundry-list recitation, all of it incessantly punctuated with sports-yard applause from one side and sour faces from the other?

There’s always some common American strategically positioned in the balcony—their life story used to illustrate the necessity or success of some massive federal program. There’s always “new ideas” that have been carefully test-marketed and vetted. And there’s always some bipartisan moment where the entire Congress rises in applause, just to show us citizens back home that they really aren’t a bunch of children incapable of getting along.

It’s scripted, it’s predictable and it’s bad television.

In this mass-media age the President routinely fulfills his Constitutional duty to “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The President speaks constantly and his staff is in daily contact with the staffs of every congressman. It’s not 1800 anymore.

But the State of the Union is a tradition and traditions are important. So if we feel we have to keep the speech, maybe we can change it up a bit. Instead of the President standing on a podium as the Vice President and Speaker of the House try not to nod off behind him, how about turning it into an open forum where a bipartisan group from each congressional delegation may rise to ask a few questions. That too would have its tedium at times, but it would, on the whole, be a lot more interesting and a lot more useful to the Congress and the nation.

The President might not like it. But it would make the event worth watching again.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Should We Be Concerned by Exxon-Mobil's Record-Breaking Profit?

Today we learned that Exxon-Mobil posted the highest annual net income for any company in US history. $36.13 billion in profit. $36,130,000,000.

I would like to report that I did my full share in helping Exxon-Mobil reach this unheard of profit. I dutifully continued to use my car and heat my home even as energy prices skyrocketed.

I’m a big proponent of the free market and believe we should use the least amount of governmental regulation necessary to keep consumers safe and markets free from manipulation--but even I have to question the fundamental fairness of Exxon-Mobile's record-breaking profit while the rest of us pay back-breaking energy costs.

I don't know the full story here, so I won't condemn Exxon-Mobil just because they turned a big profit. After all, big profits are good. But I am generally wary of massive corporations. They have a habit of reducing competition to the point that consumers no longer enjoy the advantages of the free market. Choices decline and prices are artificially inflated. This problem is doubly bad when the product is a necessity because consumers don’t have the luxury of avoiding the product all-together.

As we continue to progress into a full-fledged global economy, we'd be wise to closely watch the biggest corporations. When the American economy matured at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, large monopolies formed and threatened to choke off American capitalism. Theodore Roosevelt and others busted the trusts and preserved the free market system.

I don't think anything that drastic will be necessary in the coming decades. But we'd be wise to remember that sometimes the greatest threat to capitalism are the hyper-powerful corporations. We need to keep an eye on Exxon-Mobil and other corporations of similar size and power.

Principled Opponents of Warrantless Wiretapping

Michael Reynolds over at The Mighty Middle points out that opponents of warrantless wiretapping are not all liberal pacifists with a pre-9/11 view of the world.

A number of GOP senators have questioned the program including Chuck Hagel, Lindsey Graham, Sam Brownback, Arlen Specter and John McCain.

Most of these guys are solidly pro-war conservatives who would never for a minute consider jeopardizing our national security. And yet they question the NSA program. It should make you think.

Cut Off Aid to the Hamas Government

It seems that both the European Union and the United States agree that aid should be cut off to the Palestinian government until Hamas denounces violence and rejects its earlier calls for Isreal’s destruction.

I don’t see what other option we have. Any foreign aid given to the Hamas government is tantamount to funding terrorism. Providing aid to the Fatah government was already a devil’s bargain. Doing the same with Hamas would be morally reprehensible.

If Hamas wants to be the government of the Palestinian Territories, they must unequivocally renounce violence against Israel and firmly denounce the armed terrorist wing of their party. If they care at all about the future of the Palestinian people, they will choose responsible leadership over terrorist mantras.

Unfortunately, I do not see a sudden change-of-heart for Hamas. This is a group that warred against Israel for many years and despite a year-long cease-fire is still an enemy of Israel. In fact, Hamas is an enemy of peace itself.

The next few months will not be pretty. I certainly do not know what path is best to walk. But I do know that it begins by cutting off aid.

Friday, January 27, 2006

When Partisans Attack: The Joel Stein Story

First, a confession: I like Joel Stein. I have laughed-out-loud at more than one of his columns. He’s kind of a Dave Barry meets South Park, although not nearly as brilliant as either. But when we wrote columns for Time I read them regularly and enjoyed them quite a lot.

So I was surprised earlier this week when Stein became the subject of a conservative cyber-lynching. What could Joel Stein have done to piss off the hordes of conservative bloggers and their acolytes?

He wrote this piece for the LA Times. In a nut shell, he said he thinks the Iraq war is immoral and the soldiers fighting the war shouldn’t be absolved from that immorality and, thus, he doesn’t support the troops.

He very clearly pointed out he was in no way advocating spitting on soldiers, he just doesn’t believes it’s silly to pretend like you support the troops when you think the war is terribly wrong.

For his honesty, Stein was hammered by the right wing blogosphere (for examples, see here and here and here and here … and many, many other places). For the record, I think what he had to say was flat-out wrong and I found his glib, snarky tone to be completely inappropriate and quite disrespectful to the men and women serving in this war and to the families of soldiers who’ve given their lives.

All in all, it was an uninformed, lazily written column. But Joel Stein is a humorist. I don’t expect him to be informed. And I certainly wouldn’t consider him influential. Yet the conservative blogosphere acted like someone of great importance had made those remarks. Why?

I think it’s because the Internet has facilitated a pack-like mentality among partisans. It used to be that the really hardcore ideologues were spread out across the nation and generally disconnected. Now, thanks to the Internet, they can come together and form packs capable of hunting down those who refuse to conform to their worldview. Both sides do it with equal viciousness.

It’s all well within free speech rights. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for our country. Having such spite for your fellow countrymen is not conducive to a healthy democracy. And verbally assaulting those you disagree with is not going to change minds but rather only lead to more militancy.

Joel Stein wrote a stupid column. But the uproar against him was equally as stupid. Aren’t their any adults in this country?

Priest on Trial for Saying Jesus Existed

You can't make something like that up. It's real and it's happening in Italy.

NSA's Warrantless Wiretapping is Wrong

It took me awhile to sort through all the facts and all the spin. But I simply can't support the NSA's warrantless wiretapping.

Find out why in my post at Donklephant.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Once Again It's Too Little, Too Late for Kerry

In another well-timed political move, Sen. John Kerry has announced he wants a filibuster against Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. Unfortunately, given that three Democratic senators have already announced their support for Alito (Byrd (WV) Johnson, (SD) and Nelson (NE)) and three others have announced their opposition to a filibuster (Landrieu (LA), Salazar (CO) and Feinstein(CA)), it would seem there aren’t the 41 votes needed to sustain a filibuster. This fact renders Kerry’s call meaningless at best and a brazen act of political pandering at worst.

Well-played Mr. Kerry. Well-played.

The Similarities Between Sinn Fein and Hamas

I received an interesting e-mail from William Jouris of Danville, CA:

The news reports suggest that Hamas has won a substantial portion, if not an absolute majority, of the seats in the Palestinian Parliament. In response, the Bush administration and Israel reiterate that Hamas is a terrorist organization and they will not deal with it until it renounces violence.

How fortunate then that Hamas did not actually win ANY seats. Rather its front party did. In this it is exactly like the Irish Republican Army, another terrorist organization which set up a front party (Sinn Fein) to participate in elections. Everybody knew Sinn Fein was a front party. Anybody who was paying attention knew that some of its members in the Northern Ireland Parliament had been active terrorists themselves. But governments simply ignored those inconvenient facts so they could deal with it.

The sensible course is to do the same with Hamas' front party. Heaven knows Fatah is totally corrupt and incapable of governing the Palestine Authority territory. At the least, getting Fatah out of government will give a chance for replacing the old guard with some new, and less corrupt, people. At best, Hamas' front party may be able to negotiate
agreements with Israel which the Israelis will be able to live with.

Hamas has been a lot more violent than the IRA ever was. And the IRA never proposed the destruction of Great Britain while eradicating Israel is a stated goal of Hamas.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Israel and its allies are going to have to work with Hamas. We can’t support democracy by refusing to communicate with a democratically elected government, no matter how much we may loathe their policies. Democracy is messy. But it's still the right path.

Keeping Sinn Fein in the political process resulted in very positive developments for Ireland, although it took many years of hard work to achieve such progress. The Sinn Fein model is at least worth considering in the case of Hamas.

It's All About the Corruption and Ineptitude

A lot of people are going to have a lot to say about the victory of Hamas over the Fatah party in the Palestinian elections. And I’m sure I’ll weigh in at one point or another, but right now I just want to note a trend.

By all accounts Hamas won not because of an ideological shift but because the Fatah party was corrupt and ineffectual.

That’s interesting, because the Conservatives in Canada just won the Canadian election because the ruling party was corrupt and ineffectual.

And, just last fall, the Christian Democrats won the German elections because the ruling Social Democrats were considered corrupt and ineffectual.

I think there’s a pattern here. In all three cases, ideological shifts played almost no part in the change of governments. The voters cast their ballots for the opposition because they were tired of corruption and ineptitude.

There is a lesson here for Democrats. A big, fat lesson just staring them in the face. The Republicans are brimming with corruption and have become increasingly ineffectual at managing our country. That should be the focus of the 2006 election. Forget the ideology and the pandering and tell us how you’re going to better manage this great nation.

I know it’s not always wise to draw lessons from foreign countries, but I’m pretty sure it’s plain human nature to want to toss out bad governments. Democrats have their in, but can they seize it?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

U.S. Joins With Iran, China and Cuba to Oppose Gay Groups

Currently this story is only being published by partisan media outlets, so I don’t know if we’re getting the all the facts, but it appears that the United States has voted against the inclusion of gay rights groups into the UN Economic and Social Council. The Council is the only means through which non-governmental organizations can participate in UN meetings. Over 3,000 NGOs are part of the council, so it’s not an exclusive group.

Joining us in rejecting admission to these groups were Iran, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Cuba and China. Yes, we sided with some of the most oppressive and brutal regimes in the world. What wonderful company for us to keep.

If true, this is disgraceful. What possible motivation would we have to deny gay rights groups a spot on a council that includes 3000 other groups? Is the current administration so hostile towards gays that it prefers to side with countries that execute homosexuals rather than allow gay groups to discuss issues important to them?

I hope this story has been misreported or misconstrued.

hat tip The American Moderate Party by way of Andrew Sullivan.

Spite is Easy

Life must be hard when you're so full of spite that you feel compelled to assemble a list of the 50 Most Loathsome People in America.

I dunno. I think the list is either meant to be humorous with a serious tone or serious with a humorous tone. Either way it comes off as obnoxiously juvenile.

It's so easy to cruelly mock someone. It's a lot harder to earnestly praise them. So many people spend all their time tearing down the things they hate but very little time uplifting the things they love.

But lifting things up takes a lot more energy than tearing them down. So we get these lists. That's too bad. I'd much rather read about who these guys admire. Then again, I'm not so sure guys like this admire anything.

hat tip: Moderate Voice.

The Morality of Doing Business in China

Over at Dean's World, Scott Kirwin has a great post about Google's decision to allow censorship of its content in China.

Google likes to think it's different from other companies. It has a liberal, Dotcom culture that is known throughout the industry. Google's founders are Left-wing, and the company spends lavishly on Left-wing causes. It is currently standing up to the US government, for example, refusing to release 1 weeks' collection of Search Terms. Google's principled position even earned it praise from many Libertarians.

But then the old Chinese Dream arises... And Google makes a deal to appease the real imperialists (in Tibet and threats to Taiwan) and real butchers (Tiananmen as well as recent riots in villages).

Free Tibet? Tiananmen Massacre? Sorry, this content is being blocked by devout Running Dog capitalists who have made a deal with the Butchers of Beijing.

Corporations are amoral. And the bigger the company, the easier it is for them to make choices that go against our better values. But there is room for condemnation of a company that refuses to allow its own government a glimpse of user search terms but has no problem letting a foreign government broadly censor content.

For Google, money apparently trumps values.

Then again, giving the Chinese people greater access to the Internet (even a censored one) can only lead to a broadening of knowledge. And knowledge is an important stepping stone on the path to freedom. But somehow I doubt that was Google's motivation.

U.S. Action is Not the Primary Reason for Jihad

In a New York Times editorial, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon argue that the terrorists are gaining ground.

Despite so much evidence that the jihadists are winning sympathy, America has provided no counter-story to their narrative. Rather, the president has repeatedly objected to the notion that the Iraq war is having a radicalizing effect by arguing that America was attacked before we ever stepped foot in Iraq.

This, of course, is a non sequitur - douse a guttering fire in gasoline and you will get a bigger fire. A movement that was staggering after the Taliban was toppled has come back with a vengeance. Realistically, we cannot deploy a counter-narrative - one that emphasizes that we are a benign superpower - so long as our troops are in Iraq.

Benjamin’s and Simon’s argument is itself a counter-narrative. The jihadist movement was indeed staggering after the Taliban was toppled, but it is just wild speculation to think it would have stayed down. The belief that, if not for Iraq, the jihadist movement would have stayed relatively docile is the product of a flawed worldview.

Individuals are not lured into jihad solely or even mainly by the actions of the United States. To believe such a thing is to drastically minimize the importance of personal choice. Have our actions in Iraq spurred some Muslims into jihad? Of course. Would they have become jihadists anyway even without the war? Many very well could have.

We are not going to end or even significantly reduce the jihadist threat by pulling out of Iraq because the jihadists have aims much bigger and much darker than merely fighting the United States. Those that embrace jihad are powder kegs. And if your house is full of explosives, simply trying not to jostle them is not enough. You have to remove them. Even if that means a few are going to explode along the way.

There’s a lot of room for debate on the Iraq War and on terrorism itself—but pretending like we’d all be safer if we just left Iraq is a false claim. We can never be “benign” enough to satisfy the jihadists. As such, it is best for now if we stay and fight.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Conservatives Want Condi in 2008

Over at The Mighty Middle, Michael Reynolds gives his take on a recent conservative blogger poll rating the most-desired Republican presidential candidate for 2008.

Surprisingly, Condi Rice won. Wouldn't that be a category-busting, stand-up-and-take notice Republican nominee? Michael thinks she's popular mainly because she's the anti-Hillary. That's part of it. But I think it goes deeper. Since most people assume Cheney won't run, conservatives are seeking the person most likely to continue the Bush legacy. A Rice win would validate the entire War on Terror and specifically the Iraq War.

So, a Rice candidacy would 1) be a victory for the Bushies and 2) neutralize the Hillary effect. Primary voters might consider #1 but I doubt they'd be so strategic as to consider #2. Rice may be religious but she's also said to be pro-choice. Could a single black pro-choice woman really make it through a Republican primary? I'd like to think the less-savory elements of the Republican party wouldn't raise their bigoted heads, but I imagine they would.

When given the choice between a single black pro-choice woman and a white male pro-lifer like George Allen, a fair number of Republican primary voters aren't going to pull the lever for Condi.

Nevertheless, I hope her current support motivates her to run. I would love to see her in the race. She's a brilliant and fascinating woman and while she's never held elected office, I think her time in the Bush Administration makes her just as qualified as any small-state Governor or big-city mayor would be.

I don't know if I'd vote for her, but I certainly wouldn't write her off until I heard a lot of what she had to say.

Wise Words on Abortion

Amba has posted part three of her ongoing examination of abortion.

I would post an excerpt but that would be doing a disservice to the breadth and depth of her thoughts. Read it for yourself. This is not a liberal or conservative take. This is something different. Something far better.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Finding My Religion While Keeping My Reason

Yesterday, both my wife and I were confirmed into the Episcopal Church. We said a few words, the Bishop said a lot of words and then he laid hands on us and proclaimed us members of the church.

The ceremony was simple. The journey was not.

I have always been a spiritual person. Even though my family did not belong to a church while I was growing up, we were believers. That God loves us and wants us to love others was the foundation of my moral upbringing. That Christ was the way, was also a given—but my parents did not teach us much of the Gospels or ask that we know our Biblical stories and lessons.

I had little textual knowledge on which to build my faith. Instead, I had only my inner feelings to guide my beliefs. I found comfort in prayer. I found meaning in the broad outlines of Christ’s story. But I was not religious. In fact, I was often contemptuous of organized religion. To me, personal spirituality grounded loosely in the Christian faith was enough.

Then one day I found myself in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. I was 23, new to the city, unemployed and just wandering the streets. Even to the most irreligious, St. Patty’s is a magnificent sight. To someone like me, a little lost, a lot lonely, it was a beacon.

So I knelt in a pew and prayed. While I had been to church sporadically throughout my life, I had never really prayed in church before. It seemed such an odd thing to do. But there in St. Patty’s, under the buttresses in the glow of stained glass, it felt right. And afterwards, knees a little soar, head swimming, it felt divine. And I do mean divine. That was the day I became not just spiritual, but religious.

The troubles I had when I walked through those giant doors did not disappear when I walked back out. But they did become more manageable. Life itself became more manageable as I came to understand that there is a greater purpose to all of this. That conflict and pain and tribulation are not here to make us despair but are here to be overcome. Through love, community and true hope in a better world we can overcome suffering and deliver the grace and mercy Jesus promised.

I believe this with all of my heart. And each Sunday I gather with others as we confirm our faith in the power of Christ’s words and deeds. And promise to carry His mission of mercy out into the world.

To many who do not practice a religion and only see Christianity through the rhetoric of the Christian Right and the antics of Pat Robertson, my choice to be confirmed into a church must seem like a decent into the abyss of absolutism and divisiveness—or at least as a retreat from reason. But let me assure you, I do not find the modern world or the sciences to be inhospitable to my beliefs. I do not damn people to hell for not sharing my exact values. And I sure as heck do not think the Republican party is any more moral or godly than the Democrats.

But I do prickle when secularists bash religion. And I do think there is some wiggle-room in the separation of church and state. And, yes, I enjoyed “The Passion of Christ.”

But mainly, I think the teachings of Christ are good for the world, even if some interpretations of His words are bad. In fact, I think faith in general is good for the world. I think the true hope for us lies not in abolishing religion (as some secularists desire) or in returning the world to old scriptural interpretations (as some fundamentalists desire), but in brining religion forward into the modern world.

That is, in many ways, what the Episcopal Church tries to do. Even as we keep the old ceremonial traditions intact, our scriptural interpretation focuses on what the teachings mean for us today, with all our modern knowledge and all our modern problems.

I believe we can be modern and religious. People of reason and people of faith. We don’t need to choose. I didn’t.

Government Spending is Out of Control

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, Patrick Chisolm points out that the leftist goal of massive redistribution of wealth continues unabated even as the Republicans control congress and the presidency. He has some interesting numbers, which I’d like to share.

From 2001-2006, nondefense discretionary spending has increased 27.9%
In Clinton’s first five years, it only increased 1.9%

In the 1960s, welfare and entitlements accounted for 33% of government spending
Now, they account for 60%
In a few decades, they will account for 75%

In the 1960s, Defense spending accounted for 45% of the budget.
Now, it’s 17%
Health and Human Services receives 25% of the budget (compared to 3% in the ‘60s)

What does all this mean? Well, for one, it didn’t take the Republicans long to completely abandon the notion of fiscal restraint. Since 2001, they been spending like Paris Hilton on a drunken night in Vegas.

For another, it’s clear that we as Americans love our entitlements. Oh we may not want to give our hard-earned money to someone else, but we’ll gladly take a government check of our own. That’s why the federal government is spending more and more of its time serving as the transporter of money from one group to another. Those who receive entitlements are apt to fight a lot harder to keep them than those who pay for the entitlements are apt to fight against them.

Problem is, it’s not sustainable. You don’t need an economics degree to see that. Unless we reign in our spending, we’re in for a lot of hurt. But we don’t need to look at this from an ideological point-of-view. Talking about the leftist desire to redistribute wealth might be intellectually engaging but it’s politically meaningless.

There’s no need to worry about abandoning entitlements and welfare. That would be impossible and not even all that well-advised. Instead, we just need to constrain spending. Ross Perot made fiscal restraint a salient issue just 14 years ago. Another smart, populist voice could do the same again.

In the meantime, those of us who care about fiscal responsibility need to keep harping on the issue. Only by keeping it in the public sphere of debate can we hope to stop the mad spending spree of our government.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

"Republicans have a post-9/11 view of the world. And Democrats have a pre-9/11 view of the world."

So said Karl Rove in a speech vowing to make national security the central issue in the 2006 elections.

Well, there’s a surprise. And here I thought Republicans would make ethics the central issue. Really, all the Republicans have left is the War on Terror. The tax cuts are passed. Social security reform is dead. Smaller government is abandoned. And running on “cleaning up congress” would be laughable.

Oh sure, there will be the usual demagogic rhetoric over homosexuals and abortion, but those are all hot air issues that mobilize the base during elections but are difficult if not impossible to craft legislation around. In any district or state where exciting the base isn’t enough, Republicans will have to win swing-voters. And swing-voters have an annoying habit of caring about substantive issues.

So, will the War on Terror be enough? It’s too early to tell, but if there is no attack on U.S. soil and if Iraq continues its slow march forward (perceived by many to be a quagmire), then national security might not be the top concern for swing voters. Instead, it could be healthcare or jobs or a desire to clean-up congress—all losers for Republicans. In fact, it’s hard to imagine an issue other than national security which would benefit Republicans.

Of course, the Democrats could screw it up. They could insist on focusing on the Iraq war and foreign affairs. Those are important issues to debate, but those are debates Republicans will win amongst most swing voters.

Democrats would do well to ignore whatever tricks Karl Rove pulls and instead craft a coherent narrative centered around domestic issues. The Republicans don’t have a lot to run on. Let’s see if the Democrats can take advantage.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Does the World Have the Will to Fight Iran?

See what I have to say over at Donklephant.

The Tragedy of John Walker Lindh

The parents of John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, are asking President Bush to grant clemency to their son.

I really don’t know if clemency is warranted. But I’ve always thought this story was terribly tragic—a tragedy that could have only been played out in a world too small for its own good.

Lindh’s parents are the very model of open parenting, letting their child find his own way, supporting his choices even when they must have found his conversion to Islam hard to understand. I can’t fault parents who choose to support their son’s unusual but seemingly harmless new convictions. I’m sure the Lindh’s thought Islam to be no more or less harmful than any other major religion. They could never have imagined their son’s conversion would lead down such a dark and horrible path.

There’s a bitter irony here. The liberal, open-minded parents whose tolerance allowed their son to join one of the most close-minded, intolerant regimes in the world. Had they said no, you can’t go study in Yemen and Pakistan and had they not so warmly embraced John’s new religion, he probably never would have discovered such a destructive form of Islam. He’d be free man now and perhaps well past his youthful infatuation with Islam.

John Walker Lindh was just a kid trying to find himself. Yet that journey was not the free-spirited, rules-breaking adventure many of us take. Instead, his was a walk into the heart of the world’s most hate-filled ideology. And he did not escape unscathed. In fact, it’s likely he was at least mildly tortured by his own countrymen. And now he languishes in prison.

What a price to pay.

I can’t muster a great deal of sympathy with someone who found appeal in the brutality of the Taliban. But neither can I ignore the very real tragedy of this uniquely modern story. Eventually, I think, John Walker Lindh deserves our mercy.

Centrist/Independent Blogs On the Rise

New York Sun columnist and author of Independent Nation, John Avlon has written a great column on the explosion of Centrist blogs.

Amid the media attention that has followed liberal and conservative blogs, the dramatic increase in the number of self-identified centrist blogs has been comparatively ignored. These are decidedly more difficult to pigeonhole - that's largely the point - but their rise indicates much the same thing as the 300% increase in the number of independent registered voters across the nation since 1994: There is an increased alienation from partisan politics as usual that the established parties have tried to ignore.

[The center is] a lively place to be on the political spectrum because centrists catch hell from both sides. It's an occupational hazard: Liberals think centrists are conservative, while conservatives think they're liberal. As Alan Carl, a founder of the Yellow Line blog, who now opines at Maverick Views, explains, "A lot of blog readers are ideological purists, and a centrist blogger can catch a lot of grief for not toeing a particular party line."

It's also important to appreciate that centrists do not at this time have any organizational think tanks or party apparatus to support them. This is a self-propelled grassroots movement, responding to what Mr. Carl calls "a real thirst out there for voices that exist outside the left-right echo chambers."

All this is indicative of a larger trend toward de-alignment - as opposed to re-alignment - that Democrats are confronting today. Despite the popular backlash against the excesses of congressional Republicans, Democrats have been unable so far to find increased public support. Instead, voters are increasingly opting out of the partisan policy straitjacket and deciding to run, register, or vote as an independent.

Yeah, I just quoted the part where Avlon quoted me. It saves me from having to repeat myself. And who doesn’t enjoy a little self-aggrandizement from time-to-time?

But seriously, if you’re reading this it’s probably because you have an interest in all us voices speaking from outside the left-right divide. Whether we’re witnessing a new phase of America politics or just the inevitable backlash against the putrid partisanship of our times, I don’t know. But there’s a lot of us refusing to play the partisan games. And that’s a good thing.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

France Would Consider Using Nukes in Response to Terrorism

French President Jacques Chirac has said France would consider responding to state-sponsored terrorism with a nuclear strike. While the remarks were not specifically aimed at Iran, one has to wonder if the purpose of this statement was to let Iran know that Europe is not going to roll over.

Unlike a lot of people these days, I still have a deep respect for the people of Western Europe and still believe that, if push came to shove, they'd have the will to use military force--even devastating force. No one wants a nuclear war, obviously. But nuclear weapons only work as a deterrent if your enemy believes you have the will to use them. Chirac, it would seem, just put Iran and those who support Iran on notice.

Campus Conservatives Should Toughen Up and Act Like Real Conservatives

A UCLA alumni group has been documenting the liberal outbursts of UCLA professors and then posting the professors’ names and profiles on a website. Apparently this is so the whole world can know what a bunch of radical lefties UCLA employs.

Clearly this group has a right to do this, even if there is something a little McCarthy-ist about the whole thing. But I’m much more interested in the greater cultural implications here. This alumni group is just part of a growing number of conservatives who believe our universities are hurting America by indoctrinating young minds into the liberal ideology while suppressing conservative beliefs.

Well, God knows that academia has its share of wild-eyed leftist loonies. And I certainly think any professor who doesn’t allow open discourse in his or her classroom should be reprimanded by university administrators. But the idea that there’s some sort of leftist indoctrination going on is just partisan politics played out in the world of academia. College students can think for themselves and it's pretty insulting to say that one or two professors, no matter how opinionated, are going to turn students into America-hating, Bush-bashing tree huggers.

If conservatives have such a problem with the preponderance of liberals on university faculties, I suggest they get their PhDs instead of their MBAs and go teach. And this idea that conservatives are being harassed might be anecdotally true, but it’s not a serious issue. And even if it were serious, aren’t conservatives the ones always telling other “victims” to toughen up and stop seeking special rights?

According to the UCLA alumni group, after reading their exposes on liberal professors, “[t]he need for an academic freedom movement that respects both the professor and the student should become clear.” So what they want is respect? Apparently the poor conservatives are getting their feelings hurt.

My suggestion: toughen up and be a real conservative that doesn’t back down and doesn’t whine when the world is unfair. Either that, or create a college course called “The Victimization of Campus Conservatives: A Comparative Study in Oppression.” That’ll show those liberals.

Thanks to Ann Althouse for alerting me to this story.

The Crunchy Conservatives

Crunchy conservatives are basically conservatives (pro national defense, pro guns, pro tax cuts, etc.) who live like rich liberals. They love organic foods, old homes, the arts and the environment.

You know, I just may be one of these crunchy cons.

Dennis Sanders' great new blog, neomugwump, has a lot more. Read it. It's fascinating.

Only Monsters Could Kill this Woman

Yesterday, the terrorists who kidnapped American freelance reporter Jill Carroll, broadcast her image on TV and threatened to kill her unless America releases all female prisoners in Iraq. Who are these monsters? And who do they think supports such inhumanity?

All feminism aside, the vast majority of people in this world consider killing an innocent woman to be one of the most barbaric acts imaginable. For reasons of sociology, psychology, evolution or culture, murdering a 28 year-old woman (who doesn’t look a day over 20) feels worse than murdering a 38-year old man.

What all this means is, should these terrorists carry through on their threat, most people will perceive this as one of the most horrific acts of evil perpetrated in this war. And, as much as we try to pull back and analyze the socio-politico reasons for this war, doesn’t it always come back to horrific evil?

September 11th. Bali. Madrid. London. All over Iraq. All over Israel (even today in Tel Aviv). Our enemy continues to perpetrate horrific evil.

There are those who think we (America, the West) are responsible for this war on terror—that our actions created and continue to fuel our enemy. But while we have never been perfect, we have never been evil. No where close. No where even close.

Meanwhile, our enemy thrives on evil, rejoicing in the slaughter of innocents. The difference between them and us is strikingly clear. You need look no further than the face of Jill Carroll

Lobbying Reform Won't Reform Congress

After being caught with their hand in the lobbying cookie jar, both parties are touting lobbying reform. Is it just me or is anyone else reminded of that scene in Finding Nemo where they run into three sharks who are trying to swear off meat? This lobbying reform movement is pretty much the same thing, except with congressmen and money rather than sharks and meat.

The truth is, you can’t keep money out of politics. No matter how many doors are shut, money will squirm its way in, if not through golf trips to Scotland, than through campaign fundraisers—that just happen to take place on Scottish golf courses.

Furthermore, we can’t forget that lobbying is a constitutional right. Petitioning the government is enshrined in the first amendment and so we have to be careful not to unduly restrain lobbyists.

Besides, lobbyists aren’t the real problem. It’s Congress that’s the problem. They can make a show of cutting the money off, but as long as they can be corrupted, someone will find a way to corrupt them. The only real way to stop the corruption is to scrutinize our elected officials more closely.

That’s why I think the most meaningful reform would be to create a system of much greater transparency. Every dime given to a congressman, whether it be a campaign contribution or a gift, should be clearly documented and published for the public to review. With all the bloggers and junior reporters wanting to find that next big story, I’m pretty sure the records will be closely reviewed and, if there’s anything fishy, we’ll find out about it.

Transparency won’t thwart those truly intent on being corrupt, but it would stem the kinds of casual corruption so common on the Hill. Ultimately though, it’s for the voters to decide whether a congressperson deserves his or her post. I heard an interview the other day with a voter in Bob Ney’s district. Upon hearing of Ney’s alleged misdeeds, the woman said, “That’s just awful. Something needs to be done about these corrupt politicians.”

Yeah. How about voting them out of office?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Democrats Should Continue to Ignore Cries for Bush's Impeachment

Writing for The LA Times, Max Boot argues that there is absolutely no reason to impeach President Bush over the warrantless domestic wiretapping he authorized. Those that want impeachment should study their history more closely, Boot says.

If you want to see real abuses of civil liberties, read Geoffrey R. Stone's 2004 book "Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism." It tells how John Adams jailed a congressman for criticizing his "continual grasp for power." How Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and had the army arrest up to 38,000 civilians suspected of undermining the Union cause. How Woodrow Wilson imprisoned Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs for opposing U.S. entry into World War I. And how Franklin D. Roosevelt consigned 120,000 Japanese Americans to detention camps.

A lot of conservatives love to use the 3rd-grade style argument: “but they were/are worse.” It’s the same line we hear from those who support torture (hey, the terrorists are worse, so it’s ok). Since when do we judge right and wrong based on the lowest measure available? Does it really matter what Lincoln or Roosevelt or Nixon did? If something’s wrong, it’s wrong—regardless of whether or not someone else did something worse.

Nevertheless, Boot is right. The warrantless wiretapping is not an impeachable offense. There’s simply too much grey area there. But, then again, who other than members of the far left are calling for impeachment? Maybe I missed it, but has any Democratic leader called for impeachment? And, even if they did, would calling for impeachment over domestic spying be any worse than impeaching Clinton over questionable perjury in a case having nothing to do with governing the nation?

Ah, but that’s making the same kind of fallacious argument I accused Boot of using. It doesn’t matter if Clinton’s impeachment was an utter farce, that doesn’t make a Bush impeachment any better.

And that’s a truth the Democratic party would be wise to remember, because Boot’s essay is a trick—it’s designed to make the reader think there’s a real impeachment movement afoot. There isn’t. But as long as the far left continues to scream for an impeachment, it’s going to be easier and easier for Boot and other conservatives to use the “movement” as a straw man.

What Democrats should do is renounce all calls for impeachment, instead of leaving the idea on the table. Yes, push forward on a Congressional investigation into the wiretapping, but do it without the forced (and false) drama. This is not the time to look unhinged. This is the time to address a serious matter with serious inquiry and debate. If the Democrats can’t do that and once again succumb to the seductions of the far left, then they deserve all the verbal whipping Boot and others can muster.

Unanimous Abortion Ruling? Yep.

It's true. All nine Supreme Court Justices signed onto the majority opinion dealing with New Hampshire's parental notification law.

What exactly did all the justices agree upon? Well, they all agreed that the entire law wasn't unconstitutional and sent it back to the lower court which had, in the Court’s opinion, needlessly invalidated the full regulation. But mainly the Supreme Court justices all agreed that they didn't want to jump in front of the abortion train this session.

That was a nice parting gift to Sandra Day O'Connor. And a nice show of solidarity with Samuel Alito, who certainly appreciates the high court refusing to make a controversial abortion ruling right before his confirmation comes up for a vote.

Nevertheless, I suspect this will be the last 9-0 abortion ruling we see for quite some time.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Benjamin Franklin Hits the Big 300

Benjamin Franklin was born 300 years ago today. I'd be remiss if I didn't wish my favorite founding father a happy 300th. We could use more men (and women, for that matter) like old Ben. The man loved life and he loved liberty. And he participated fully in both.

Of all the great quotes attributed to this great man, my favorite has always been:

"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

I'll be raising a toast to Ben tonight.

Assisted Suicide Ruling a Victory for Doctors

The Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government cannot prosecute doctors for prescribing lethal doses of medicines under Oregon’s assisted suicide law. Interestingly, it was the liberal block of justices who came down in favor of state’s rights and three conservatives (Thomas, Scalia and Roberts) who supported the forceful use of federal power.

Given that only last year, Thomas supported California’s medicinal marijuana law (as did O’Connor and Rehnquist) while the liberal block voted against California, I wouldn’t read too much into the Oregon case and what it portends for the future of the Court.

A cursory reading of this decision seems to reveal that the differences between the judges wasn’t so much states-rights vs. federal power as it was whether or not the federal government can directly control physicians. The dissenters said yes because the federal government controls pharmaceuticals and can thus prosecute doctors who prescribe drugs improperly. The majority said no because setting up rules and regulations for doctors has always been a state power and the federal government has no right to supersede that authority.

A lot of people are going to say this is a victory for individual rights. But I see it as a victory for doctors and for medicine in general. All states already well-regulate their doctors. We do not need and certainly do not want a secondary level of supervision coming from the federal government—particularly when said supervision is being controlled not by medical panels but by the Attorney General, President and other politicians and lawyers brimming with personal beliefs but devoid of medical training.

Had the dissenters in this case prevailed, the executive branch of the government would have been granted the power to prosecute doctors for writing prescriptions legal in their own state but which the Justice Department deems inappropriate. That’s giving the federal government far too much power. And that’s why the majority was right in this case.

As for assisted suicide, I’m not a big fan. But I admit the issue is a moral grey area and if the people of Oregon are comfortable with their law, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be allowed to remain on their books.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Living Wage is Not the Answer

Spurred by a New York Times Magazine article on the living wage movement, a couple of the better bloggers have been discussing the issue. Over at Donklephant, Justin Gardner strongly supports a living wage while Ambivablog is much more contemplative about the subject.

As a generally pro-free market type, my gut instinct is to oppose any sort of national implementation of a living wage. I have strong reservations about manipulating the economy in such a forceful manner. The unintended consequences of such a policy, were it ever to reach a national scale, could be quite harmful and could include inflation, unemployment and an increasingly unskilled workforce incapable of competing in the global marketplace.

Nevertheless, it is an interesting idea and it has resonance (many cities and some states have instituted a version of the “living wage”). And given that my instinct is not anything to base economic policy on, I did some research into the matter. The results were decidedly mixed and often reeked of partisan finagling. But here’s snippet of what I found:

The city of Chicago has considered requiring Big Box stores (those with over 7,500 square feet of retail and over 250 employees) to pay a living wage. A University of Illinois at Chicago impact study (PDF) of the proposed ordinance concluded that store prices would only need to increase by 2.1% to cover a $10.00 and hour wage plus $3.00 an hour in health benefits.

But the free-market proponent National Center for Policy Analysis says living wage laws do not help the poor in any substantial way and can even lead to increased unemployment among society’s most vulnerable. The American Legislative Exchange Council (a group of economically conservative legislators) agrees that living wage laws do more harm than good (PDF). Not surprisingly, the liberal group ACORN, refutes the naysayers and promises great economic boosts from the living wage.

The argument I found most convincing came from the Democrat Leadership Council’s site.
Writing for the DLC publication, Blueprint, Will Marshall argues that the so-called living wage is going too far, although he aggress something must be done.

If we want to affirm the dignity of labor, we can't ignore the reality that entry-level jobs don't pay enough to help families obtain what most Americans would consider a minimally decent living standard. Of course, we could simply legislate higher wages, but that would discourage many businesses from hiring people with scanty skills and work experience and result in higher prices that will disproportionately pinch the poor. The right answer is to index the federal minimum wage so that it keeps pace with inflation and to avoid job-destroying "living wage" campaigns. And we should make sure that public policy fills the gap between what jobs at the bottom of the labor market provide (in pay and benefits) and what working families need to live comfortably.

Indexing the minimum wage might not have a catchy name like the “living wage” but it sounds a lot more prudent. For one, the minimum wage would be dependent on inflation where the living wage would almost certainly cause inflation. For another, indexing the minimum wage does not come with the same negative social ramifications of the living wage.

I mean, do we really want to be a society where working the cash register at Best Buy is considered a career? Some jobs simply do not produce much value for their company or society. As a nation, we shouldn’t decide that such low-level jobs are good enough. Instead we should strive to create a society where those jobs are simply transitional, populated not with heads of households but with such workers as teenagers, spouses seeking to bring in a little more money for the family and retirees looking to augment their social security.

Impossible? Proponents of the living wage apparently think so. Otherwise, why not support the more modest idea of indexing the minimum wage to inflation? Meanwhile, we as a society should work towards building an economy where every full-time worker receives a living wage because of the value of their work and not because of a government regulation?

The living wage sounds nice. But the economic and social costs are simply too high.

Nagin Divines the Will of God

Today, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said hurricanes Katrina and Rita were signs that God is angry with us.

"Surely God is mad at America. He sent us hurricane after hurricane after hurricane, and it's destroyed and put stress on this country…Surely he doesn't approve of us being in Iraq under false pretenses. But surely he is upset at black America also. We're not taking care of ourselves.”

I never take issue with a public figure who acknowledges God and openly admits seeking the Lord’s wisdom. But I take great issue with any public figure who pretends he or she can divine the will of God. I don’t like it when Republicans do it and it’s no better when a Democrat like Nagin does it.

What Mayor Nagin should have said is that, while we do not know why the tragedies of Katrina and Rita struck, we have a pretty good idea of what God expects of us now. To pick up the pieces, to form the communities anew, to make ourselves stronger where we were weak and whole where we were divided. The reasons for such destruction are unknown and, frankly, unimportant. It's what we do now that truly matters.

That would be a statement I could support.

The Task Ahead for the Post-MLK Generation

As a white kid growing up in a predominantly white north Dallas suburb in the 80s, I viewed Martin Luther King Jr. as an almost mythical man, unquestionably divine but unimportant to my world. Such is the ignorance of youth. For the truth is, as part of the first generation to grow up in post-civil-rights-movement America, my life has been greatly influenced by King.

I never went to an all-white school or lived on an all-white street. I’ve never seen a whites-only drinking fountain. I’ve never received the unfair advantages of legally sanctioned segregation. The America I was born into was a more enlightened and more just nation. And this was in no small part thanks to King.

Within one generation we went from racial segregation being the accepted norm to it being an accepted wrong. That’s an amazing change. The civil rights movement did nothing less than alter the DNA of America. And while King was hardly alone in his crusade, he was the key catalyst. He deserves the unfaltering respect of all Americans.

But now, as those of us born in the 1970s progress into our 30s, it is a good time to reassess King’s message and the state of the civil rights movement. We are not a generation with firsthand knowledge of government sanctioned segregation, of widespread lynchings, of fire hoses and dogs. Our experience with racism is much more complex and the solutions harder to find.

What do we do now that overt racism has been all but expunged from our government, our businesses, our places of worship and our institutes of learning?

There are no quick fixes. But I firmly believe we must progress to a new phase of the movement. We do ourselves a great disservice when we pretend that there is still a coordinated, systematic effort to oppress minorities. We do ourselves a great disservice when we let the hyperbolic and out-dated voices of men like Al Sharpton define the debate. And we do ourselves a great disservice when we allow the choking gag of political correctness silence our most important conversations.

America is still a place of racial inequality. And yes, we as a society still have a moral obligation to end that inequality. But the causes of that inequality and the solutions we need to find have changed considerably since the 1960s. Unless we also change our outlook and approach, I fear all our future progress will be limited.

I do not know what King would tell us today. But I know what he told us back then. “With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

Can we revive our faith in this movement? Can we leave the paths of discord on which we now stumble and cut a new course? Where will my generation, the post-King generation take us? Closer to his vision, I hope. Closer to real brotherhood.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Democrat Leaders Should Read This

Over at Dean's World, Scott Kirwin has written a fascinating piece on why he left the Democrats in favor of the Republicans.

I don't fully agree with his assessment of what the Democratic Party now stands for, but his point is well made. Kirwin is clearly a man who would still be a happy Democrat if the party hadn't taken such a hard left turn since 2000. Democrats who wonder why they keep losing should read what he has to say.

Friday, January 13, 2006

A Leap in Quantum Computing

Researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a quantum computer chip. The chip, based on the theories of quantum mechanics, has a captured atom inside that can be controlled by electric signals. This could lead to a whole new generation of supercomputers.
As of yet, the technology is not applicable to typical desktop PCs or servers, but quantum computers are said to be promising because they can solve complicated problems using massively parallel computing.

That is accomplished by the quirky nature of quantum mechanics, said Christopher Monroe, a physics professor and the principal investigator and co-author of the paper "Ion Trap in a Semiconductor Chip." He explained that that chips can process multiple inputs at the same time in the same device.

"With quantum mechanics, an object can be in two places at the same time, as long as you don't look at it," he said. The quantum computer architecture can store quantum bits (qubits) of information, where each qubit can hold the numbers one or zero, or even both digits simultaneously.

Uh-huh. Yeah. Nothing makes me feel quite as stupid as does quantum mechanics. Frankly, the whole thing sounds like magic (and speaking of, isn’t qubit the game they play in Harry Potter?).

But it’s not magic. It’s real. And it looks like it has finally found a practical application. I can hardly imagine what the future in computing holds for us as a people. We are quite likely still in the bronze age of computing, the future as impossible for us to imagine as the airplane would have been to prehistoric man.

That could be overstating it, but somehow I doubt it.

My Grudging Support for Alito

Samuel Alito has completed his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I didn’t get a chance to view much of the hearings, but I read as much of the coverage as I could. And, at the end of it all, I just don’t see any compelling reasons to oppose Alito’s confirmation.

I have been pretty on-the-fence about this nominee. President Bush had promised to nominate a judge like Scalia and Thomas and after John Roberts proved to be less ideological than Bush’s preferred judges, I had to assume Alito would be more in the hard-right mold. I am wary of judges, whether liberal or conservative, who use their position to try to remake the nation as they see fit. Scalia and Thomas have a tendency to get activist and while I do agree with the two men from time to time, I am wary of their agendas.

So there was a decent chance that I’d end up opposing Alito. But there wasn’t enough there. Does he seem to have a preference for siding with those in power and against those without it? Yes. But that’s not always a bad thing. Is he, as some Democrats have clumsily tried to claim, a closet racist or sexist? There’s absolutely no proof of that. Does he have a personal agenda in the way that Scalia and Thomas seem to? That’s the million-dollar question and I have concluded no, he doesn’t have a driving agenda, even though he does have firm convictions.

In the end, I have to offer grudging support for Alito’s confirmation. He’s not a justice I would have chosen (I’d prefer someone more clearly in the O’Connor or Anthony Kennedy mold), but he is highly qualified, extremely intelligent and seemingly without an activist agenda. That’s enough for me.

Update: The always intelligent Charging RINO has a slightly different take that's well worth reading.

We Know What Kind of Judge Alito Will Be

Writing for Forbes, celebrity lawyer and legal pundit Alan Dershowitz claims it’s pretty easy to figure out what kind of Justice Alito will be.

Almost all justices vote almost all of the time in accordance with their own personal, political and religious views. That is the reality, especially on the Supreme Court, where precedent is not as binding, and where cases are less determined by specific facts than by broad principles.

Now that’s a welcome bit of candor. As much as I favor justices who use a consistent judicial philosophy to decide cases, I know that there’s never been a Supreme Court Justice whose personal views have not influenced the outcome of some if not most of their decisions. Anyone who’s read Supreme Court rulings knows that often both the majority and dissenting opinions are incredibly logical. So, if a case has more than one logical conclusion, doesn’t a Justice's ruling often come down to nothing more than his or her personal preference?

That’s why liberals believe in the intellectually valid living Constitution which tends to produce liberal outcomes while conservatives believe in the just-as-intellectually valid ideas of originalism and strict constructionism which tend to produce conservative outcomes. Our judicial philosophies don’t drive our personal views. It’s the other way around.

That’s not to say that Justices always rule based on personal preference, just that they have a predilection to do so. And knowing this truth, don’t we also know what kind of Justice Alito will be? Dershowitz thinks so.

Alito will generally favor big government, big corporations, big religions and big majorities over ordinary citizens, consumers, minorities, religious dissidents, immigrants, persons suspected of crime and disenfranchised voters. He will have a narrow view of civil rights, women's rights, disability rights and immigrants' rights, and he will have a broad view of presidential power and states' rights.

Dershowitz frames all those points from a liberal mindset, but I don’t think he’s wrong. He could just as easily have said, Alito will favor the rule of law, traditional society and the free market over those seeking to tear down our institutions. He will favor an even playing field and refuse to bow down to those seeking special rights. And he will allow the President to do his job and not be dangerously weakened.

So, yes, we know what kind of judge Alito will be. But just like deciding a case before the court, it’s personal preference that guides our support or disapproval.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Is This Art?

The urinal pictured here is a famous piece of art know as Duchamp’s Fountain. After it was recently damaged by a vandal, I thought the artwork would be an interesting subject for a post. Today, Dean Esmay beat me to the punch. That’s o.k., this piece of art is so fascinating that there is more than enough room for multiple discussions on its importance and artistic merits.

My initial reaction upon viewing this piece some years ago was a simple “that ain’t art.” Upon hearing that it was recently named by a panel of 500 art experts as the most influential artwork of the 20th century, I had to stop and reconsider my judgment. And my final conclusion? It ain’t art.

But it is important and undoubtedly influential. Marcel Duchamp was a leader in the Dada form of art which, for the most part, was an almost anarchic reaction to the staid culture of the early twentieth century. As a school of art, it has really only one rule: be weird. And calling a urinal art was certainly weird.

But the effect of Dadaism was greater than the individual works it produced. Until Duchamp and his fellow renegades stormed the scene, the accepted definition of art was the skillful combination of beauty with meaning. And by beauty I mean all things possessing that magical burst of emotion capable of bypassing the mind and heading straight to our heart. What the Dadaists did was effectively strip art of beauty by presenting things that were so common or so weird as to be devoid of any emotional connection.

Whether or not the Dadaists had a great purpose outside of simply shaking things up, their movement led to the intellectualization of art. Stroll through the MOMA and you’ll see countless works of art that have no clear or immediate effect on the viewer. What you’ll see is art as intellectual exercise. The point of these works is not to inspire a specific reaction in the viewer but to offer the viewer a chance to consider the meaning of the piece and even the meaning of “art” itself.

Some of these works are nothing more than pretentious displays of weirdness. While some, like much of Warhol’s work, is quite compelling.

But is it art? In my mind, no. To me, art should be more than an intellectual exercise. It has to have an emotional punch—it has to have beauty. Art makes us see the world differently, not just by engaging our minds, but by engaging our hearts as well. And while it is certainly true that what may be art for one is junk for another, great art should connect with a great many people.

In my opinion, Duchamp's Fountain is an extremely important work that is clearly deserving of its prominence. But it’s not great art. It’s not even art. There is much worth in being intellectually engaged. But intellectualism alone does not equal art.

Does Europe Have the Will to Use Military Force Against Iran?

Iran is ramping up development of a nuclear weapon and the European nations tasked with negotiating the matter are expected to end talks and refer the situation to the U.N. Security Council. Most likely, the Security Council will recommend sanctions.

Given that the Iranians have yet to enrich any uranium and won’t have the capacity to do so for quite some time, international sanctions would be the appropriate next step. But what if that isn’t enough and Iran continues forward? The U.N. is not exactly adept at resolving significant world crises (as the organization’s ineffectiveness in Kosovo proved and as their impotence in the face of the Darfur genocide is proving anew). If Iran refuses to cease uranium enrichment, it’s unlikely that the paralytically deliberative U.N. could solve the problem.

If sanctions don’t work, the only remaining action would be to threaten military strikes. The U.N. won’t do that, or at least won’t do that until the crisis has boiled over. Thus, the issue would fall back on the E.U. as they are the Western body charged with resolving the problem. But can the E.U. pose a credible military threat? Or would Iran take one look at Europe’s depleted military capabilities and pacifist inclinations and conclude that any military threat is meaningless?

The European powers are meeting in London this week where they are expected to refer the matter to the U.N. But I hope they will also discuss worse-case-scenarios and bolster their collective will so that they are prepared to take aggressive action should diplomacy and sanctions fail.

A nuclear Iran is a frightening possibility. The world would be well-served if the Europeans showed the resolve necessary to prevent such an eventuality. If they falter, the United States and Israel would certainly step in. But it would be good for our nation and the world if we didn’t have to take the lead.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Fake Memoir is No Surprise

By now, most of you have heard about author James Frey and his fake memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Now, the publisher Random House is offering refunds to anyone who bough the book straight from the publisher. Apparently, readers are pretty irritated that a fiction book was marketed and sold as non-fiction.

Well, apparently, a lot of readers haven’t been paying attention. The non-fiction novel has been around since Truman Capote penned In Cold Blood and the abuse of the term “non-fiction” has only escalated since then. Bestsellers like The Perfect Storm, Into Thin Air and Angela’s Ashes were all just novels based on historic events. But they were sold as non-fiction.

Why sell them as non-fiction? Because the non-fiction bestseller lists are MUCH easier to get on to than the fiction lists. A book that wouldn’t even be listed in the top 50 novels can break into the top 10 of non-fiction. That, I am sure, is why Frey decided to publish his reality-based novel as an earnest memoir.

As a former member of the editorial staff at a major publishing company, I am not the least bit surprised by the Frey scandal. As much as some editors still want the business to be about the artistic endeavor that is writing, the giant conglomerate media companies care only about profit. If lying about the veracity of a memoir gets an author on Oprah and sells books, that’s not such a bad deal—even if caught, a scandal almost always boosts sales even further.

Money. Money. Money. That is sadly the main and often only motivating force behind publishing. I remember countless editorial meetings where an editor would present a book for consideration and the question “is it good” would not even be asked. “Will it sell?” “Who’s the market?” “Is the author attractive?” Those were the key questions. I imagine it’s only gotten worse since I departed the industry in 1999.

The story of Frey is unfortunate. But the only thing surprising is that it took this long for a scandal like this to erupt.

For additional and excellent commentary on this, check out AmbivaBlog.

The Best Alito Coverage

...is not in the newspapers or from the usual pundits.

If you want truly informed and expertly analyzed coverage, take a moment to read the many posts written by law professor Ann Althouse at her eponymous blog, Althouse.

A Shift Away from Republicans is Not a Shift Towards the Left

Dick Morris believes the nation is becoming more liberal.

The evidence is clear: The generic party ballot for Congress, for example, has now swollen to a 13-point Democratic edge…

A big part of the reason is the success the Bush administration has had in solving and hence diminishing the importance of the Republican agenda. Taxes have been cut, we have not had a terror attack since Sept. 11 and trial lawyers are on the defensive. The issues that remain — energy, environment, healthcare and Social Security — usually are Democratic and liberal.

The drip-drip-drip of Iraqi casualties isn’t helping Bush any, and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has done more to hurt the GOP than any Democrat has, but the fundamental reason for the liberal drift is the salience of issues normally identified with the left.

Polls definitely show an increase in support for the Democrats, but I don’t think we should mistake a retreat from the Republicans as a national shift to the left. People want off the elephant and the only animal remaining in the stable is the donkey. That’s not a shift in ideology. That’s a shift in allegiance.

This is not a particularly liberal nation--not in the way liberalism has come to be defined. That's not to say the Democrats can't find success by leaning left, just that they can't sit back and offer up the same tractionless liberal plans that they’ve been peddling for years. And they certainly can't become more liberal and still hope to attract those who are leaving the Republican ranks.

The party that wins will be the party that has something new to say--particularly to those middle-of-the-road voters. As the party out of power, the Democrats have a great opportunity to (as we say in the marketing world) re-brand themselves.

I hope they do. But I’m not optimistic.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Salieri Complex

In a couple weeks, Austria will celebrate Mozart’s 250th birthday. Dignitaries from around the world, including Condi Rice, will be there to honor this rarest of geniuses.

Mozart deserves the praise. But I’ve always been more intrigued by Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s contemporary and a great composer in his own right who, nevertheless, was nowhere near as good as Mozart. That the two men were no friends is a fact of history. That Salieri obsessed over his inferiority—well, that may just be a construction by Peter Shaffer in his brilliant play, Amadeus.

But envy on the part of Salieri is highly believable. Having your greatness completely out-shown by a once-in-a-thousand-years genius cannot be easy to stomach. And that, I think, is what makes Salieri such a compelling historical and dramatic character. After all, aren’t we all far more like Salieri than Mozart? Isn’t there always someone clearly better than us at every endeavor we undertake?

Call it the Salieri complex. A lot of us have it. And it's worsening.

Back before the advent of mass communication, if you were the best tailor in town, you probably felt pretty good. You had little way of knowing that a tailor in Germany was far better than you. But now we are aware not only of our immediate competitors but of our global competitors as well. Is it really enough to be the best tailor (or let’s say best fashion designer) in San Antonio when you know there’s little chance you will ever make the New York or Paris runways?

I have seen this Salieri complex amongst many in my generation—those of us settling into our 30s, the first generation to truly grow up in the mass-communication culture. There is this sense that you aren’t successful until you are known. Many of my friends languished through their 20s, vainly trying to become “someone," depressed that they were "no one." And I admit that I too have often measured my success against the greatest of my profession. On that scale, I am nowhere near the top. That leaves me feeling rather mediocre.

Obviously this feeling is not new (it’s named after a guy who lived 250 years ago, after all), but it’s consuming more and more people. Forget all the therapy b.s. about being comfortable in our own skin, we measure our worth against other people—that’s just the way it is. And the more people we are aware of--the more people beamed into our homes over the TV and Internet--the more likely we are to feel as if we don’t measure up.

This could create a rather despondent people. Of course, it could also spur more people out of their mediocrity and onto greatness. Whatever the results, there is no doubt that mass communication is changing our culture. And it’s quite likely changing our minds as well. We’d do well to take note of that and prepare for the consequences. The world needs its Salieris.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Arabs Out of Africa?

Over at Booker Rising, Shay has an excellent editorial questioning why some Arabs and their supporters want the Jews out of Israel but have no problem with Arabs in Africa.

If Arabs and their diaspora (and their Iranian allies) can argue for a Jew-free Middle East, then black Africans and those of us who are part of the diaspora can argue for an Arab-free Africa. After all, Arabs have been occupying black land and committing massive atrocities against blacks - atrocities that far surpass anything Israel has done to the Palestinians - for 1,400 years. And while Jewish presence in the Middle East long precedes that of Islam and Jews are indigenous to that region, this is not the case for Arabs in Africa.

Shay is not seriously calling for the removal of Arabs from Africa. But she is seriously pointing out the duplicity of those who believe that the Jews have no right to Israel. The editorial is very well argued and well worth the read.

Bloggers, the MSM and Objective Truth

Last week, Franklin Foer wrote an editorial in The New Republic criticizing liberal bloggers for attacking the mainstream media. Foer’s basic point was that the MSM does a generally superb job and for liberals to pretend that they don’t is to play right into the hands of conservatives.

Foer sees the MSM as the protector of objective truth. Conservatives, he contends, work to tear down the MSM because objective truth is often counter to the subjective truths conservatives use to advance their causes. If liberals also choose to delegitimize the MSM, we’d be left with a battle of subjective truths—a battle for which Foer thinks conservatives are far better equipped and much more likely to win.

Unless I misunderstood Foer’s argument, he’s basically say that the truth is on the side of liberals. It’s not a liberal bias, it’s a truth bias. Bah. The truth doesn’t take sides and it’s no more on the side of liberals than it is on the side of conservatives. If liberal bloggers want to spend their time seeking out and ridiculing conservative media bias, that’s not such a poor service. Nor is it a poor service when conservatives point out liberal media bias.

For my part, I greatly appreciate the mainstream media. There are precious few bloggers who ever do their own reporting. Blogs, for the most part, are supplemental commentary. The best are adept at shining new light on current events and debates. The worst are just noise. But blogs are no substitute for our nation’s major news outlets.

Reporters and editors in the MSM would do well not to get uppity every time a blogger calls them out for a very real bias. But bloggers have little business feeling superior.

Judging Alito. It's All About Philosophy.

Today begins senate hearings on Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

So, let's cut to it. Should he be confirmed? I may lose my blogging license for this, but I don’t have an opinion yet. What I’ve read is mainly spin and I don’t expect a lot more illumination during the hearings. Democrats will try to break Alito with questions designed to make him look like a woman-hating, liberty-stealing racist while Republicans will praise his honesty and cooperation even as the cloud of obfuscation still hangs in the air.

Here’s what I want: a long and robust debate about judicial philosophy. I mean, the man is clearly qualified--he's brilliant of mind and bursting with experience. As Harriet Miers proved, unqualified candidates don’t even make it to hearings. So it’s not about Alito’s qualifications, is it? It’s about what kind of judge he will be and whether or not that’s the kind of judge we want.

But what should go into that decision?

A lot of people have claimed that since Alito is replacing the moderate Sandra Day O’Connor he should be moderate himself. Hogwash. Supreme Court seats aren’t reserved for particular ideologies anymore than they are reserved for specific genders, races or religions. The "moderate seat" idea needs to be left out of the debate.

A lot of people are also focusing on how he may rule on specific cases--abortion being the most important to both sides. This too should be left out of the equation. Why? Because it’s foolish to judge a man on one vote that he may or may not cast. Besides, what if Alito turns out to be a staunch opponent of abortion but also turns out to be a great defender of minorities, immigrants, homosexuals and other traditionally liberal causes? Would a liberal trade abortion for gay marriage? Would a conservative do the opposite?

No, I think the proper way to question this and every nominee is by delving deep into their judicial philosophy. What methods does he use to arrive at his decisions? What role should the original intent of an Article or Amendment play in decision making? What role should precedent play and when is it acceptable to overturn precedent?

Lawyers and judges and law students and laymen have these legal debates all the time. I’d love to hear Senators talk more about it too. A judicial philosophy is not a game. A good judge never decides how he or she wants to rule and then twists the reasoning to get there. A good judge follows patterns of consistent logic and philosophy.

Will Alito rule consistently, based on rigorous intellectual discipline or will he twist logic to fit desired outcomes? In my mind, that’s the real question. And that’s how I would decide if he should be confirmed.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Truthiness Defines 2005

A group of linguists has declared the word “truthiness” as the 2005 word of the year.

That seems to sum up the year perfectly. What truthiness means is believing that something is “true” regardless of whether or not it’s factual. And, as the always-on-top-of-it Ann Althouse notes it is a word invented by Comedy Central’s pseudo-pundit Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report, proving once again that the best comedians can see truthiness better than the rest of us.

Inspired by this new word, I will now offer my selections as the top truthiness beliefs of 2005—those heart-felt beliefs among certain members of our populace who have no need for facts in order to claim something true. These are in no particular order:

A persistent vegetative state is easily recovered from
George W. Bush lied us into war
The filibuster is a constitutional right
Gay marriage will destroy society
Revealing the identity of a CIA agent is no big deal
The Guantanamo Bay prison is like a Nazi camp
Global warming is a myth
There is a war against Christmas
Hugo Chavez is a noble leader worthy of admiration
Mike Brown did a heckuva job

I think we can expect a lot more truthiness in 2006.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Sorry Howard, No Money This Year

Yesterday I received a letter from Howard Dean asking me to renew my commitment to the Democratic Party. Apparently they never got my letter of resignation.

Dean’s letter is a pretty flat bit of writing but what’s interesting is the war is mentioned only once and only at the very end. Instead, the letter attacks Republicans for being corrupt, for being dishonest, for being money-grubbing, poor-people-hating, rich-get-richer, dark-hearted ninnies (I’m paraphrasing).

In general, it’s probably a great idea for the Democrats to focus on all the scandals engulfing the Republicans. When your opponent is weak, a kick to the knee can bring him down. But then what? Dean assures me that the Democrats “are building a permanent, grassroots-based Democratic Party that will win elections.” And, as laid out in three bullet points, they’re also recruiting strong candidates, providing financial support to Democrats and conducting effective voter outreach.

Wow. I’m moved.

To be fair, this is a letter that only went out to identified supporters who already know what the Democrats stand for. But do they really know? Non-supporters certainly don’t. I mean, outside of promising less corruption and a nudge-nudge, wink-wink reference to the ending the “ill-conceived war,” this letter leaves me with nothing.

Newt Gingrich promised to end corruption too. He then followed up with the Contract For America. Where’s the contract, Howard? You can’t just say you’re going to lead the country in a new direction. What’s that mean? Higher taxes? An abandonment of Iraq? More money thrown into the same old welfare programs? All done with less corruption?

Nope, sorry Howard, that’s not enough. This country could indeed use a reform movement and I certainly have no great infatuation with the Republicans--but until you can articulate something substantive, something that makes me stop and say “now that’s a good idea," I’m giving my money to charities where people really are working to make America and the world better.

Corrupt Republicans Have Gotta Go

This morning’s Wall Street Journal has the absolute right idea about the Jack Abramoff scandal. In an editorial entitled Banish the Abramoff Republicans, the Journal makes three important points.

1) This is a sleazy scandal but anyone who claims it is historic doesn’t know their congressional history very well.

2) The key is not to pass lobby reform. Lobby reform just reduces the people’s right to petition their government and insulates congress from blame.

3) Excommunicate those Republicans tied up in the Abramoff scandal. This crop of Republicans was elected to reduce the power of government and end the corruption. Only by returning to that mission can the Republicans hold on to their voters.

Yep. The old saying “power corrupts” is certainly apt. Delay and his bunch were supposed to be reducing the power of government. Instead they’ve gotten high on it. The only difference between the Delay Republicans and the Jim Wright Democrats is who’s getting the kickbacks.

The Democrats were too comfortable with their own corruption back in the early nineties. The Republicans would be wise not the make the same mistake barely ten years later.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Black Death Was Not What We Thought

This is not new news but it’s something I just learned and something I bet most people don’t know. Many scientists are pretty sure that the disease known as Black Death was not the bubonic plague as previously believed. The symptoms described by 14th century writers are not entirely consistent with the plague and there simply were not enough rats (almost 0 outside the cities) to account for such rapid and devastating spread of the disease.

Most likely, the Black Death was something else. Something much more horrific that killed quickly and spread even faster. It took only 6 months to spread across what is now Great Britain.

The culprit? No one knows but it was almost certainly transmitted human-to-human (rather than flea to human) and could have been a kind of hemorrhagic fever like Ebola, only with a longer incubation and contagious period.

This kind of thing fascinates me. For one, it shows that what we hold as “truth” is not necessarily true—even if that’s what we’ve been taught for 100 years. But it also shows the greatness of science, that grand inquisitiveness that leads people to keep looking, keep studying and keep testing truths to make sure they are actually true.

Truly fascinating.

The Embarassment That is Pat Robertson

Life-long blowhard Pat Robertson did not take long to embarass himself over the sad illness of Ariel Sharon. Robertson has decided that Sharon's stroke was the wrath of God, a divine punishment brought down because Sharon dared to divide God's land.

Why is it that whenever a tragic event happens in this world, Robertson must come out with inane statements that do nothing but make Christians look like dark-hearted fools. For a man who professes a devotion to the Bible, Robertson continually reveals almost no understanding of the Good Book's deeper meanings.

Sharon's illness should be mourned by all those who prefer true peace to continual suffering. If Christ taught us anything, it is that the greatest way a man can please God is to ease suffering. Sharon was walking that path and should be admired, not condemned.

Robertson is no spokesman for Christians. He is a fool who makes me think of 2 Corinthians 11:13-15. But that's probably giving him too much credit.

Sharon's Mission Must Continue

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is, as most of you know, gravely ill after suffering a stroke. The reports are not hopeful and, at this time, it appears that should Mr. Sharon survive, he will be greatly incapacitated.

Of all the world leaders, Sharon is one of the most complex. He is a war hero who swept into power on a right-wing platform promising harsh retribution against Palestinian terrorists. And, in his early tenure as Prime Minister, he did just that. But then he did something few politicians, let alone world leaders, ever do. He learned. He listened. And he grew as a man and a leader.

In the last few years, Sharon has matured into a statesman with the will to combat the extremists on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide. Even has he is rightly keeping a boot on the neck of the terrorists, he is also rightly confronting the settlers whose militancy added constant fuel to the fires. Sharon has become so committed to ending extremism, he broke away from his own party to form a Centrist party consisting of other Israeli politicians who know that Israeli can appease neither the terrorists nor the settlers and must instead cut a new path.

When Sharon became PM, I was wary of his harsh rhetoric and worried his tenure would only exacerbate the problems plaguing the area. But his toughness in the face of terrorism, when the rest of us still misunderstood the depth of the problem of Islamic extremism, proved to be the right instinct. And his new found toughness in the face of the militancy within his own people gave the world new hope that somehow, someway peace could be achieved.

But now what? What cruelty of fate would take down a man seemingly entering the height of his greatness? I pray his illness is not as bad as it seems and that he recovers. Or should this be his last moments, I pray that others will lift the sword and the olive branch he’s dropped and continue forward.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Is It Possible That South Park Went Too Far?

It appears that Comedy Central has capitulated to the wishes of a special-interest group and chosen not to re-air an episode of South Park that was profoundly offensive to Catholics (and most likely everyone else).

The Catholic League complained about an episode that dealt with a statue of the Virgin Mary and, well, let’s just say that the episode was called “Bloody Mary” and it was indeed incredibly offensive.

But South Park is always offensive. It’s a full-on equal-opportunity offender, adroitly (if rather disgustingly) exposing all of society’s many pretensions, falsehoods and pointless mores. South Park skewers everyone and anyone who dares to have a belief, culture, religion, race, creed, age or gender.

But what makes the “Bloody Mary” episode worth pulling? Nothing out of the South Park norm. Looks to me like Comedy Central blinked. They better watch out…if other humorless interest groups get wind of this, South Park will never air again.

A Selfish Society Will Not Survive

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a very long, quite fascinating essay by the conservative columnist Mark Steyn. The essay boldly predicts the coming end to Western Civilization as we know it. And the culprit? If you guessed liberals, then give yourself a point for knowing the rules of the modern sport of full-contact punditry.

Of all the lines of reasoning Steyn explores, his one big point is this: the welfare state combined with liberal ideology has made Europe and, to a great extent, America too weak and unprepared to combat the rising threat of Islam.

That's what the war's about: our lack of civilizational confidence. As a famous Arnold Toynbee quote puts it: "Civilizations die from suicide, not murder"--as can be seen throughout much of "the Western world" right now. The progressive agenda--lavish social welfare, abortion, secularism, multiculturalism--is collectively the real suicide bomb.

Conservatives of Steyn’s ilk are all too quick to blame liberals for every ill—as if we’d all be happy, prosperous and tan if it weren’t for the soul-sucking ideology of the left. It’s a narrative that works for them, but it’s annoyingly simplistic.

The great promises of modern capitalism are as much to blame for cultural “weakness” as is the over-protective welfare state. After hearing for decades that we can have what we want, when we want, how we want while never getting fat, poor or ugly, a society is going to become a little me-centric.

And that, in my reasoning, is the greatest threat. We Westerners have a tendency to be a selfish bunch. Sure, we give a lot in terms of monetary donations to charities. But how often do we give of ourselves, put down our desires and our ideologies and focus of the greater needs of society? Not often.

There are good reasons why Steyn goes after liberals. Liberalism, in its modern form, is a sickly ideology, hollowed out by the cancer of Marxism and left toothless by the decay of pacifism. But what has truly sent this once noble ideology to its deathbed is the same wasting illness that also infects conservatism: selfishness.

Just as liberals seem incapable of comprehending why it’s necessary to sacrifice on the battlefield, many conservatives seem incapable of sacrificing on the home front, preferring pork barrel spending and power games over making hard choices. We all want it our way and only our way and those who want something different are condemned as the devils of our day. Whatever oneness we experienced after 9/11 shattered in a barrage of self-interests, leaving us divided not only at home but with our allies as well.

Our culture is threatened. Our declining birthrates, as Steyn notes, would alone open us up to extinction. But combine that with a pervasive selfishness and we have a hard road ahead. Our enemy is willing to commit suicide to further their dark cause. Shouldn’t we at least be willing to lay down the swords of the red state/blue state conflict and call our countrymen our neighbors and our European allies our friends?

After all, we’re in this together.