The Director As Auteur? Or Hauteur?

This publication has registered its displeasure with the output of radio personality Dr. Michael Savage, but this time he has gotten it right: what possible advantage to our intelligence gathering and analysis or our overall safety can be achieved by appointing Mr. Negroponte, a veteran diplomat, to the umbrella role of Intelligence Director?

This is a classic example of the desperate need to “do something” metastasizing into doing something foolish and counterproductive. Is it rude of me to recall my immediate opposition to the idea?

What Happened to the Unions?

Yes, you all know it, I love the Lawrence Henry take on America. He’s knocked around, been a lot of places, and despite making his way down a bumpy road, he’s still here writing, thinking, and doing a little stock-investing. If you don’t read his column every week at American Spectator, you’re really missing out on the fun history of regular life in the U.S.

Check out his take on the big changes that killed the labor unions. Here’s a smidge:

Labor unions just plain missed it. Even if they hadn’t missed it, what were they supposed to do? What — or whom — were you supposed to organize? A bunch of geeks in a warehouse mainlining Coca-Cola? Which were the real businesses and which were the pipe dreams? If Wall Street couldn’t tell yet, and it couldn’t, not really, how were unions supposed to figure it out? By the time some sort of manufacturing lines came into existence, those lines were already changing so fast, it was hard to tell the difference between labor and management. Now, of course, the mass jobs, the low-skill jobs, have migrated overseas, and they’re just plain gone. Who wants guaranteed overtime? Everybody’s got guaranteed overtime. It comes with the territory. Now you want stock options. Now you want career advances. Now you want to strike out and do it for yourself. Pension? Tell me another one. I’ve got a 401(k) and deferred comp. Job security? There’s no such thing. Career types change jobs seven times in a lifetime nowadays.

A Thought Ontic

After recommending to Hunter that he include in his doctoral reading list The Lonely Man Of Faith by Joseph B. Soloveitzik (1903-1993), I picked up my own copy and scanned it a bit for insight and inspiration.

This I felt urged to share: “Western man… attends lectures on religion and appreciates the ceremonial, yet he is searching not for a faith in all its singularity and otherness, but for religious culture. He seeks not the greatness found in sacrificial action but the convenience one discovers in a comfortable, serene state of mind. He is desirous of an aesthetic experience rather than a covenantal one, of a social ethos rather than a divine imperative. In a word, he wants to find in faith that which he cannot find in his laboratory, or in the privacy of his luxurious home. His efforts are noble, yet he is not ready for a genuine faith experience which requires the giving of one’s self unreservedly to God, who demands unconditional commitment, sacrificial action, and retreat. Western man… insists on being successful. Alas, he wants to be successful even in his adventure with God. If he gives of himself to God, he expects reciprocity. In a primitive manner, he wants to trade ‘favors’ and exchange goods. The gesture of faith for him is a give-and-take affair and reflects the philosophy of Job which led to catastrophe – a philosophy which sees faith as a quid pro quo arrangement and expects compensation for each sacrifice one offers…”

The Ralph Reed Rumor Was Right On.

Ralph Reed is launching his own political career by running for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. Friends pretty deep in the Georgia political world have known this was coming. My guess is that Dr. Ralph is going to get what he wants. If Haley Barbour can do it in Mississippi, Ralph can do it in Georgia.

He’ll likely have primary opposition, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the party could match his name recognition and “powerful-strong” resume’. There are folks in the Georgia GOP who really hate Reed, but I suspect that’s true of most political figures in any party. Part of the problem is that he immediately became the biggest GOP fish when he came back to the state. I’ll make the prediction now. Ralph takes the Lt. Gov’s office with 53% of the vote.

You can check out his own statement of ambition and aspiration here.

A Musing Grace

The Miami-Dade School Board will hold a vote today to determine if the soda machines should be removed from all the local public schools to help prevent obesity in children.

We have all witnessed this galloping cultural phenomenon of the virtue of health being whittled into a cudgel with which to bludgeon the populace into a grim conformity.

Have we been correct in deeming it merely an amusing spectacle of the finicky badgering the carefree?

Or is this something more insidious, more perfidious, part of an ongoing cultural experiment of postmodern man trying to reconstruct some network of boundaries to replace those that were unwittingly dismantled in the adventure of deconstructing the social fabric? A fabric that was knit by the quest for godliness.

Blegging About Books . . .

Good people of ReformClub land, I am about to enter the post-coursework segment of my doctoral program in Religion, Politics, and Society at Baylor. At this point, we put together a list of 100 or so relevant books (Reformation, Church-State jurisprudence, sociology of religion, political liberalism, American religious history, the Puritans, etc) and study them for a year prior to taking comprehensive exams. I’m working on the list now and would love to benefit from recommendations of books from anyone who cares to Email me.

I have a particular interest in deists, by the way, if anyone knows something about them, all the better.

Mr. Karnick, I’m still waiting for yours!

Rafik Hariri’s Traffic Horror

Earlier this week I indicated that it might be valuable to write a full-length article on the history of Syrian domination in Lebanon. They took a long time serving the entree at the wedding I attended tonight, so I snuck home (fifteen minutes away), wrote the article, and got back to my table ahead of the prime rib (well-done and delicious).

Culture Watch—The Simpsons

In next Sunday’s episode of The Simpsons, the town of Springfield legalizes same-sex marriage, and one of the central characters of the series will take advantage of the opportunity. Who that character will turn out to be has been a matter of intense debate in some circles, and it will be even more interesting to see what kind of attitude the story takes toward the issue. It is interesting, for example, why the town decides to legalize the marriages: to increase money from tourism. Simpsons executive producer Al Jean was quoted in the Baltimore Sun as saying, “We don’t take a position as much as explore everybody’s positions.” We’ll find out next Sunday on Fox.

Shall It Be The Truth?

Those who share our interest in the portrayal of religious characters in fiction will want to read Wendy Shalit’s spirited response in today’s Jewish World Review to those who attacked her New York Times Book Review survey of books about observant Jews.

If you have not read the original article, never fear, today’s article offers you that link in its opening line. Please accept my strong recommendation; this is well worth your while.

The Retirement of Jerry Falwell . . .

I should say, “the much anticipated retirement of Jerry Falwell.” The man is not an effective spokesman for Christian conservatives. I think that much of what drove me to enter the world of Christian public policy and now Christian higher education was the feeling that Falwell and guys like him were failing us all. He can’t quit soon enough for me.

Today, I happened onto the Sean Hannity show on the radio. Jerry Falwell and Christian lefty Jim Wallis were going at it. Actually, I should say that Wallis was explaining his left-wing politics while affirming pro-life and pro-traditional marriage views. Falwell was all over him, simply refusing to have a conversation. He insisted that Wallis explain where he goes to church, what time they meet, the address of the church, you get the drift. It was just embarrassing. I’m even more disappointed that Hannity would choose Falwell as the counterpoint. Can’t blame that on the liberal media.

Falwell has been effectively taken down in Tucker Carlson’s book Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News. Carlson says cable news hosts desperately need guests who will drop anything, including a child’s birthday party to show up for even a few seconds of air time. He places Falwell in that camp and was disappointed to visit Falwell for an interview and find that instead of an interesting discussion about the growth of the religious right as a factor in American politics, he got a recitation of all the people in television Falwell knows.

You want an evangelical for television and radio? Get Hugh Hewitt. Get Mark Noll. Get George Marsden. Jerry Falwell has had more than enough.

Trouble Is Real

Since Israel -and my one-time residence there- has emerged as a theme today, I would like to address two events that relate to that region.

First, the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, and billionaire-at-large, Rafik Hariri, by a massive bomb that bespeaks a patron with deep pockets, large staging areas, and effective penetration. The prime suspect is, of course, Syria, a nominally separate country that is actually the suzerain of Lebanon. Hariri resigned his post last autumn because of a dispute with his Syrian bosses. This would seem to be the fallout from the fall falling-out.

Please permit me to recall to your memory the fact that the act which broke the back of independent Lebanese sovereignty was the bomb which killed Bashir Gemayel during the victory party the night he was elected (with Israel’s backing) Prime Minister in 1982. This led to the Sabra-and-Shatila massacre and a state of civil war which was only stopped, or at least contained, when Amin Gemayel, milquetoast brother of the charismatic Bashir, agreed to serve as Syria’s stooge and occupy his brother’s position with no real power.

Second, the report in the Jerusalem Post, not widely circulated here, that Abbas has agreed to unfreeze the bank accounts of Hamas in return for some undisclosed agreement of cooperation with his government. That is probably a development that bears close scrutiny.

Withdrawals From West Bank

The news from Israel, being distributed widely across the wire services, is that terrible death threats by West Bank and Gaza settlers against government ministers have compelled Ariel Sharon to issue a crackdown order. Having resided in Israel myself for a few years (while Sharon was Defense Minister), permit me to decipher this report.

First of all, please note that one government minister received one nasty letter calling him an Arab-lover and one had the tires on his car slashed. How absurd is it to issue a national police order based on one anonymous letter?

The answer is that this is the Israeli equivalent of the Gulf-of-Tonkin method. It has been used frequently in the Israeli government playbook.

This is a simple trick designed to open the door for the government to harass a few settlers so as to soften them up for the eventual evacuation order. Sharon is a general who likes to play offense and do a small preemptive strike to avoid larger confrontations later. Perhaps I’ll expand on this in an article later this week.

Getting Religion

In The American Scene, Ross Douthat has written a very insightful response to a “searing indictment of contemporary Christian mores,” as he characterizes it, recently published in Books and Culture.

The Books and Culture article, by theology professor Ronald J. Sider, which appears in the January/February issue of the magazine and is available online, is called “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience” and points out the great difference between what contemporary American evangelical Christians profess to believe and how they behave. Sider cites the now-familiar statistics about tithing, divorce, premarital sex, racism, etc. which show that American evangelical Christians are on the whole only slightly less sinful, according to evangelical doctrines, than other Americans. Sider observes that those churchgoers with the strongest Christian beliefs tend to live less sinful lives. Hence, the answer, Sider says, is to strengthen the faith of individual believers. Sider exhorts his fellow Christians to develop a “longing for holiness” and pray for a revival within the church that will strengthen individuals’ beliefs.

It is an interesting article and one well worth reading, but Douthat’s analysis of the piece goes to the heart of the matter: the Calvinist origins of American evangelicalism—

“In Protestantism [Douthat writes], and particularly among those churches with a Calvinist stamp, this reality of perptual fallen-ness has often clashed with the emphasis on a single ‘born-again’ moment, and with the expectation that once a Christian gains true faith, works will inevitably follow. The presence of sinfulness in a Christian community thus becomes an indictment of the community’s faithfulness — and this, in turn leads to what you might call the ‘cycle of Protestantism,’ in which purity-seeking believers are constantly founding new sects and religious colonies, which expand and thrive but also drift away from their original moral austerity, leading in turn to splinter movements and the founding of a newer, smaller, more austere communities (as New Haven was founded, for instance, as a refuge from the increasing worldliness of Puritan Boston).

“Or alternatively, the inevitable slide into moral laxity leads to a cycle of revivals, in which the community recommits itself to religious rigor for a time, only to drift away again eventually, setting the stage for another revival — and so on, ad infinitum. And through it all, as the sects and splinter movements multiply, there remains an unspoken belief among the Calvinistically-inclined — a belief, I might add, that permeates Sider’s article — that a more perfect community, a true and permanent ‘City on the Hill,’ is just another revival away.

“The Catholic Church, by contrast, takes a rather more tragic view of Christian imperfectability (a necessity, a Protestant might say snidely, given the Church’s long history of Grand Inquisitors and Borgia Popes). Catholicism has its saints, of course, but they are exceptions to the rule — the community of believers is understood to be a community of sinners, not a society of the perfected. The signs and signifiers of the divine reside not in the all-to[o]-human Catholics who show up (or don’t) at Mass on Sundays, but in the mystical materials of the Church itself — in doctrine, in scripture, and above all in the sacraments. There is an expectation that everyone will pray and strive for the sainthood that Sider urges on American Evangelicals, but it’s joined to an awareness that most people aren’t going to make it. (Hence Purgatory, incidentally . . .)

“The difficulty with the Catholic approach, though I think it’s the right one, is that a recognition of the pervasiveness and permanence of sin can easily be elided into a winking, ‘it’s-not-so-bad’ acceptance of sin. And we all know where that got us.”

Douthat is entirely correct in his observation that cause of the disjunction between American Christians’ beliefs and actions is to be found in evangelicalism’s Calvinist origins, and that the weakness of Sider’s case is his inability to get past that, which means that all he can do is call for more of the same, another revival within the church. The cycle must continue, if we follow Sider’s reasoning.

The moral problem of Calvinism is a theological problem, however, and it is this. All Christians agree that human beings are inherently sinful, and all agree that God is the source of all good things, and of all good works by human beings. Hence, sanctification—the process of cleansing a person and making them holy—follows salvation, not the other way around. (That is to say, a person is not made acceptable to God—holy, clean, sinless—and then saved by God. God saves a person and then begins the process of cleansing and purifying that will be perfected upon each individual’s death and entrance into Heaven.)

However, what I call the “magic moment” thesis of evangelical Christianity, in which a person participates in his own salvation in a sense, by “choosing” to “accept God into his life through faith in Christ” puts a huge amount of responsibility on the individual Christian. A Christian, according to Calvinism, must knowingly accept God. That sounds fine and sensible at first hearing, but if it is true, then inevitably a person is an active participant in his own salvation. If salvation requires both God’s will and an individual’s assent—even if we accept the premise, as Calvinists do, that assent will come only if God wishes it—the individual’s act is still an essential part of the process.

The situation with good works is the same. Calvinists, correctly believing that church membership is not a sufficient proof of one’s salvation, conclude that, as the apostle James noted, an individual’s works are the evidence of one’s relationship with God. Well and good. Unfortunately, the onus is then on each individual Christian to show the world that they are right with God. And here is the problem: given that the individual’s assent to God’s will is a central element in salvation, then it would seem that at least to some degree an individual’s struggles with sin are not entirely in God’s hands. After all, one must consent to being made holy. And if one is not entirely holy, who is at fault? Surely not God, who is all-powerful and perfectly good. The one who is at fault is the individual whose inherent depravity has caused him to resist God’s efforts to sanctify him.

That is indeed the truth about sin, as all Christians would agree. The problem, of course, is that there is no way out of this trap once one enters it. The individual is responsible for his or her own sins, and although God has already forgiven them (as a consequence of the magic moment), no amount of human effort can fully dislodge the sinful impulses from an individual and stop their evil consequences.

Catholicism, as Douthat notes, has an answer. I should say that God’s Word provides us with the answer, which Catholics and other pre-Calvin Christian denominations (such as Lutheranism) have not forgotten. It is this: the effectiveness of the Sacraments. Douthat notes that Catholics see God as working “in the mystical materials of the Church itself — in doctrine, in scripture, and above all in the sacraments,” but it is important to note that evangelicals accept the first two completely but have a distinctly different understanding of the sacraments. To them, the sacrament of baptism is an individual’s response to salvation, which happens during the moment in which he accepts Christ into his heart.

Communion, similarly, for Calvinist-influenced Christians is a Christian’s response to God: it is not a way for God to put something directly into the individual (specifically, the True Presence of the Lord in His body and blood), but rather a way for an individual to show God his personal devotion and witness to others that God is real and cares for each person, an act which God will reward by strengthening that person’s faith.

For Christians with pre-Calvinist assumptions, however, the sacraments are real. (We do differ on the number of the sacraments, but all agree on at least two: baptism and communion.) For pre-Calvinist Christians, as I shall call this group for short, God actually works His power in us through the sacraments.

In baptism, the Holy Spirit of God is placed in the individual, and he or she is stamped as a child of God. The individual is taken into the Church universal, the body of Christ, and is thereafter perfectly free to stay or leave. But the actual entry does not require any action on the part of the believer. No act of assent is necessary. Hence, in pre-Calvinist thinking, the Christian has truly had no part whatsoever in his or her salvation. No one can take any credit for being saved, nor for any good works they do, nor even for remaining in the Church.

Of course, as Ross noted, this can give people a tendency toward latitudinarianism, given that all is so easily forgiven.

However, that need not be so, because of the other major sacrament: communion.

In communion, the presence of Christ is in the bread and wine (consubstantiation), or the elements are turned into the real body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation), and when a sincerely penitent believer partakes of them, that strength of God is placed in them anew. Here, too, God is doing all the work. Yes, the believers must confess their sins (privately to a priest or publicly in the liturgy), but God is truly doing the work of renewal.

I recall that Flannery O’Connor once said of evangelicals’ idea about communion, “Well, if it’s just symbolic, then I don’t want no part of it!”

I can understand why, and in her charmingly tart way O’Connor set forth a crucial reason for the perennial laments about the Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience among evangelicals themselves. Evangelical theology places a huge amount of responsibility on the individual Christian, who is, after all, no more than a highly fallible human being who has been redeemed by God and remains always a work in progress. Pre-Calvinist Christians can proceed to the altar for refreshment and renewal, and need bring nothing to the table but their sincere repentance.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, after that “magic moment” in which they ask Christ to come into their life, are perpetually under the gun. Once saved, good works are supposed to follow inevitably, and every failure is a failure of the individual, certainly not of God.

All Christians agree that any sin is a consequence of human depravity, not a shortcoming of God’s power or mercy. For evangelicals, however, there is no supernatural recourse, as there is for pre-Calvinist Christians. One can only continue try to try harder. And as both Ronald Sider and Ross Duthout note, at some point such self-sanctification becomes too great a burden to bear.

Given that evangelicals do indeed believe in the supernatural, I would suggest that there is a viable alternative to their agonizing “cycle of Protestantism.” That is to recognize that there is true power in the sacraments. It will require a rethinking of very important doctrines, and it will surely subject both the individual and the Church to new hazards borne of human sin; but it will also, in the wonderfully paradoxical way that God often works, remove a great and unhappy impediment to Christians’ achievement of “the peace that passes all understanding.”

I’d consider that a trade well worth making.

North Korean Nukes

It is exceedingly tempting to dismiss the various bellicose statements of North Korea’s Kim government as just so much meaningless bluster, given the regularity of such emissions from Pyongyang.

I think, however, that what happened yesterday is very important, and specifically because the twofold announcement by Pyongyang seems to be based on a rational calculation of North Korea’s current situation and highly plausible, from their perspective, fears of imminent U.S. action there.

As I have noted in an article on National Review Online today, North Korea’s abrupt announcement yesterday that it has manufactured nuclear weapons and that it would not return to the U.S.-sponsored six-nation talks intended to prevent the isolated nation from developing such weapons is quite puzzling—at least initially.

Making one of the two announcements would have made great sense. But not both.

It would seem, after all, that the current negotiations need have no more effect than previous ones, if the North Koreans simply used them as a PR device and holding action while forging ahead with weapons development on the sly, as they have quite evidently done in the past. And if the North Koreans were to enter negotiations after announcing that they had developed working nuclear weapons, that would surely strengthen their hand. The talks would then become a conversation about what to do about the weapons, not whether to allow them to be developed.

Their action of yesterday fails to accomplish either of those things, and it isolates North Korea further from other nations. In particular, it is sure to infuriate the United States and Japan, two of the three major powers in the region. After hearing the statement by the North Korean Foreign Ministry, the governor of Tokyo scoffed and openly dared Pyongyang to fire a missile at Japan.

It seems unlikely, however, that it is a mere coincidence that North Korea should make this announcement and pull out of talks just a few days after the democratic elections in Iraq. (Feel free to put quotation marks around the word democratic if you wish.) In fact, it seems quite plausible that the Kim regime saw the recent comments by Secretary of State Rice as a warning that the United States was going to come after North Korea, and sooner than anyone might think.

The statement by the North Korean Foreign Ministry said Pyongyang has “manufactured nukes for self-defense to cope with the Bush administration’s undisguised policy to isolate and stifle” the nation. Thursday’s New York Times reported that Pyongyang’s statement “zeroed in in on Dr. Rice’s testimony last month in her Senate confirmation hearings, where she lumped North Korea with five other dictatorships, calling them ‘outposts of tyranny.’”

It seems plausible, then, that Pyongyang came to the conclusion that the United States and a coalition of other nations was about to do something that would ultimately lead to the fall of the Kim regime and a reunification of Korea on terms determined entirely by South Korea and its powerful allies. Yesterday’s statement, then, was Pyongyang’s way of forestalling such action by raising the stakes radically, in suggesting that any U.S. move to impose its will on North Korea would lead to the use, however inefficient and elementary, of nuclear weapons by Pyongyang.

It is not difficult to imagine what possible steps by a U.S.-led coalition North Korea was worried about—starting with economic sanctions and going on from there. In confirmation of this premise, note that today’s New York Tmes article on the subject reported, “North Korea has warned the world that it considers economic sanctions a declaration of war.”

And where did Pyongyang think China fit into this scenario? Evidently they envisioned Beijing protesting mightily but ultimately sitting on the sidelines, reluctant to endanger its enormous and lucrative foreign trade with the West by siding with North Korea.

If this is indeed something like the thought process that led to Thursday’s announcement, the implications for the U.S.-led response are murky indeed. America can ill afford to let this pass without some form of action. However, anything substantive, including measures as apparently mild as a call for economic sanctions, will only assure Pyongyang that their interpretation of recent U.S. statements has been exactly correct.

Hence, the United States must simultaneously assure Pyongyang that we have no intention whatever of bringing down their government and that if North Korea does not suspend development of nuclear weapons we will indeed bring down their government. Squaring that circle now becomes the first great test for President Bush’s second term and Condi Rice’s tenure as Secretary of State. If there is an answer short of eventual war, it is by no means clear at this point what it could be.

Utter Journalistic Incompetence . . .

As a scholar-in-training, I’ve noticed that one must do a tremendous amount of research and just plain “breathing the air” of a subject to really get it right. The process has made me terribly suspicious of anything journalists write unless they’ve focused closely on a specific subject throughout their careers. Powerline confirmed my judgment yesterday:

Very few people realize how often mainstream media sources say things that just aren’t true. Sometimes the reason is malice, more often it’s ignorance or prejudice. A fascinating example of a libel directed against the Catholic church–undoubtedly the world’s most frequently defamed institution–was brought to our attention by reader Matthew Kowalski. On New Year’s Day, the Washington Post published an article by Jose Antonio Vargas titled “Seeking the Hand of God in the Waters”. The article reported on various efforts to find theological meaning in the South Asian tsunami. The Post article included these paragraphs:

Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago, has written his 55th book, “When Faiths Collide,” which he says should land in bookstores this week.
“It’s only natural to repose yourself in the will of God,” he says. “If you’re a believer, then you must believe that God, somehow, is a presence in all of this. But God didn’t tell anybody that you go through life without disasters.”

Still, talk of religion’s role in the disaster irks Marty. Following the devastation in Lisbon in 1755, priests roamed the streets, hanging those they believed had incurred God’s wrath. That event “shook the modern world,” he notes, changing people’s idea of a benevolent, all-caring God.

The ludicrous assertion that priests had “roamed the streets” hanging people after the Lisbon earthquake was made by Vargas, and apparently passed by one or more editors at the Post without raising any questions. The claim was then picked up and repeated by a number of other news sources.

It struck at least one person odd, however: a woman named Theresa Carpinelli. In the Catholic Exchange, she tells the fascinating story of her effort to get to the bottom of this smear against her church. A casual reader of the paragraphs quoted above might attribute the “hanging” reference to Professor Marty. In fact, however, he was astonished to learn that the claim was being attributed to him. It appears that it may have originated in an unsourced, wholly imaginary Wikipedia entry. For reasons not yet explained, Vargas slipped it into his article in the midst of Professor Marty’s comments. Ms. Carpinelli has corresponded with Vargas and the hoax has been exposed, but as far as I can determine, the Post has not run a correction.

The moral of the story is that news sources that are considered reliable by many people, like the Washington Post, in fact make a great many errors–some innocent, others not. If an assertion sounds outlandish, like the claim that roving bands of 18th century Catholic priests went about hanging people, realize that it may very well be a fabrication. (Or, to take another example, the claim that a Secretary of the Interior expressed the view that environmental preservation is unnecessary in view of the imminent end of the world.) And bear in mind that false statements seem to be made more frequently about some people–Catholics, say, or Republicans–than about others.

An Exemplary Life

In the books section of the current issue of National Review is a look at Right Turns, the recently published autobiography of Michael Medved. Medved is a very accomplished and genteel individual whose evolving attitudes toward morality and society reflect important trends of recent decades. The review, written by the present author, is available only in the print and web-.pdf versions of the magazine, not online. Here are some excerpts which may whet your interest:

“If you want to understand how thoroughly the American elite moved from the right to the left in the 20th century, consider this: The most talked-about conversions are those that went the other way. Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, the neoconservatives, and the like are remembered not because their stories are so representative of the times, but because they are so unusual. . . .

“Like Ronald Reagan, who always said that he didn’t leave the Democratic party but rather that the party left him, Medved didn’t leave liberalism—liberalism left him.

“Medved makes that clear in his new memoir, Right Turns, while continuing to embrace the conservative label. During the early 1970s, Medved notes, he associated the term liberal with ‘positive values like compassion, generosity, enlightenment, and integrity.’ The American Left, however, though still called liberal, had moved away from those notions, and they were coming to be more commonly associated with the Right. As a result, leftism became exceedingly perverse and dangerous. . . .

“What makes Middle Americans so much more appealing to him than the liberal elite is their concern for individual moral choices—as opposed to mere words, which are notoriously easy to bestow. He says ‘one of the most depressing, dysfunctional aspects of contemporary culture’ is ‘the focus on faraway problems over which we have no control rather than achievable aims in our immediate surroundings.’

“. . . Medved notes that prosaic activities—such as his embarrassing daily habit of picking up trash off his neighborhood streets—are a very simple way we can all make the world better. ‘Despite the alarming pronouncements of big-government demagogues who want us to feel powerless and paralyzed without their grandiose new programs,’ he says, ‘we can make the private choices that determine destiny.’

“. . . Medved, an Orthodox Jew, writes that ‘on every significant challenge-whether it’s crime or poverty or family breakdown or drug addiction or educational inadequacy-serious Christianity represents part of the solution, not part of the problem.’”

Michael Medved is truly a good and generous man whose affection for bourgeois life, America, and decent, normal people is highly appealing. His life is an interesting and, as his book makes clear, instructive one.

About Those 10-Year Medicare Drug Cost Projections

The headlines are screaming. The politicos are concerned, deeply concerned. Brows are being furrowed, furrows are being browed, green eyeshades are all the rage, and the political class finds itself shocked, shocked that projections—looking out ten years!—of program costs have increased.

And all of this is because of the evil drug companies: We are talking about the budget projections for the new Medicare drug benefit, after all, and the drug companies have raised some of their prices. This particular charge is deeply amusing, in that it is being made largely by politicians who would sooner lose an arm than cut taxes.

In any event, it turns out that the charge—most prominently in today’s Washington Post—is not true. Yes, the ten-year projection made in 2003 was about $511 billion. Yes, the ten-year projection now is $723 billion. But those are two different ten-year periods—the former 2004-2013, the latter 2006-2015—a fact seemingly lost on the crack journalists from the Post, a group simultaneously ignorant, stupid, lazy, dishonest, biased, and arrogant. For the same ten-year period 2004-2013, the earlier projection was $511 billion, and the latter is $518 billion, a difference of about 1.4 percent. The difference in the two ten-year periods is crucial, because the earlier period includes two years before the program takes effect, and because the latter ten-year period includes more Medicare beneficiaries.

None of this says anything about whether the projections in the end will prove even remotely similar to the reality that emerges over time. But that is a different question. For now it is clear that the Post “reporters” are interested in engendering a political campaign in favor of involving the federal behemoth in the negotiation of drug prices. Since 1993, the feds have done that for childhood vaccines, and since 1993 there has been an endemic shortage of such vaccines and a monotonic decline in the number of producers. Any thoughts on why that might be?

Cost-Plus

Today’s New York Times reports, “The Bush administration offered a new estimate of the cost of the Medicare drug benefit on Tuesday, saying it would cost $720 billion in the next 10 years.”

The article quotes Judd Gregg (R-NH), the new chair of the Senate Budget Committee, as saying he wants to “put the brakes on the growth of entitlements” and take a close look at the new Medicare law.

“Since it was sold as a $400 billion program, that’s what we should keep it at,” Mr. Gregg said.

Well, good luck with that.

The pattern for these entitlements has been well established, and it’s clear how this one is destined to play out.

Let’s go back four years and move forward from there. Espying potential political gain, the two parties compete to buy the votes of a particular political constituency by simultaneously lauding the wonderful benefits of a new spending program while underestimating the costs. Then, when the true costs are coming to be known, the conservative party says, “Whoops! Better get those costs in line. Have to cut benefits and raise payroll taxes for this.” And the leftward party says, “Whoa, there, fellas! Peoples is counting on this money! If you cut them off, they’ll die!” The conservative party then loses nerve, and raises the ante, but not enough to please anybody. They lose votes. The leftward party gets credit for saving the lives of real, needy people from the evil, green-eyeshade-wearing, big-business-favoring, kickback-taking accounting geeks of the conservative party.

And in the next go-round and ever after, the discussion is never to be whether or why, but only how much?

I’m sure the prescription drug benefit helped President Bush win a few key states in the recent election. It’s surely worth it to him. But is it worth it to us?

Dean’s Abortion Profile

George Neumayr has a worthwhile piece up at American Spectator on Howard Dean’s ties with Planned Parenthood. Much has been made of Dem agonizing about how they can reconnect with voters motivated by their faith. I got news for you, naming Dr. Dean the party chair won’t help.

Here’s a nice excerpt:

At the very moment Democrats are claiming to distance themselves from abortion, they run back towards it by making Howard Dean — a former doctor for Planned Parenthood — their public face. Though the press almost never mentions it, Dean did an OB/GYN rotation for Planned Parenthood in the 1970s and later served as an executive board member of Planned Parenthood New England, meaning that he directly oversaw the largest abortion provider in the region. Were the Democrats sincerely moving to the middle on abortion, selecting a former overseer of abortion would have been the last thing to do.



Now they have managed to lash themselves to abortion even tighter by turning a Planned Parenthood alumnus and mascot — Dean received the organization’s Margaret Sanger award — into the party’s chief spokesman. Yes, like Hillary Clinton, Dean will try and call a few audibles on his old colleagues and friends at Planned Parenthood. But that won’t work. In politics, past is prologue and perception.



What the Democratic party doesn’t understand is that a tight relationship with Planned Parenthood nowadays is not good resume’ material. In an era when the womb has become more or less transparent, anybody with a conscience has become pretty uneasy with the idea of abortion.

Salty Christians

This piece will be to some extent a bit of inside politics for Christians, but I believe it may be of interest to all readers concerned about the nexus of politics and religion.

The conservative columnist and radio host Doug Giles had an interesting article on Christianity and culture on TownHall a couple of days ago. Giles takes Jesus’s statement that his followers are “the salt of the earth,” and expounds on what this means in regard to Christians’ relationship to the broader, secular society. Unfortunately, his position reflects a common misconception among Christians that has done a significant amount of damage to both the church and the culture.

Giles points out that the prophets written about in the Bible were “salty dogs” who were “raw and fiery” and “were not genteel placaters of the people.” He says that Jesus’s fiery statements make “the Dennis Miller Show look lame” by comparison. He chides contemporary Christians for not displaying this same sort of intensity, and strongly criticizes American Christians for the various ills that beset the nation today. Giles says,

I do not blame Playboy, Las Vegas, the gay agenda, Air America, or whomever for our societal tooth decay. I blame the ‘righteous’ ones who will not shamelessly proclaim truth in such a way that it is persuasive, provocative and preserving. Yes, churches that do not seriously stand for truth commit institutional suicide and effectively marginalize themselves, rather than being the salt-shaking organisms God has called them to be.”

I surmise that Giles is not referring to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson here, but to the nation’s mainline Protestant denominations and perhaps to many leaders in the Catholic Church. in America.

Giles certainly has a point, and his argument should be taken seriously, though I wonder whether one can truly be “persuasive” to the overall public while being extremely “provocative” and salty. Too much salt ruins a dish. After all, Jesus said that the world would hate those who followed him, and his judgment has proven quite accurate. (By the world, he meant unbelievers.)

Giles superbly represents the Puritan-derived position of today’s American evangelicals regarding how Christians should live in the world. In doing so, however, he also indicates the limitations of that view. It is a position that would be much more accurate and effective if fortified with greater attention to some important thoughts from pre-Calvinist Christianity. Specifically, a respect for the power of Original Sin.

I absolutely agree with Giles’s point about how the Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets, spoke, and I entirely disagree with his statement about the cause of the problems of the world.

Jesus was, if anything, even harsher in his language than Giles suggests. Jesus called clean-living church leaders a “brood of vipers,” referred to one of his own apostles as “Satan,” and told people that their father was the devil. However, it is important to note that Jesus did not use these words to condemn moral failings. He reserved these words for religious hypocrites who would prevent people from direct contact with God or who would impede the coming of Christ’s kingdom.

When dealing with moral failings, Jesus typically did not call people names, though he was always firm about telling people to stop their sinning. Thus Christ made his priorities clear: first one is redeemed by God, and then one’s behavior is sanctified; never the other way around. He told his followers to love God, and then to love their neighbors. The latter follows from and is made possible by the former.

Giles’s point that Jesus was by no means the meek and mild sufferer some people have portrayed him as, is quite good and valid.

However, I disagree strongly with Giles’s notion that the weakness of the Church is the reason for sin being so strong in the world. Sin is strong in the world because it is central in every human being’s heart. Jesus cane to liberate people from that enslavement, and he sent the Holy Spirit to work in people’s hearts to fight for us against our own sinful desires. That is the only way that people can be freed from sin. And insofar as the Church fails to proclaim the Gospel, it does fail in its duty to the world.

But, all told, the Church has not failed to proclaim the Gospel. Some sects and denominations have done a wretched job of it, certainly, at various times. They have indeed watered down Christ’s message into social, moral codes that Jesus would have condemned as a secondary matter that actually impedes God’s direct work of saving souls. As Paul said, the reason for the law is to point us toward the need for a Savior.

In the main, however, the Church does proclaim the Gospel very well. People have little doubt about what the Church stands for, who Jesus claimed to be, and what he came here to do. That message has certainly got out there.

Yes, the Church is far from perfect, riven with human jealousies, rivalries, arrogance, ignorance, and inanity, but in the main it has not failed to proclaim the Gospel while doing all those unnecessary and indeed counterproductive things. The world knows what Jesus said, why he said it, and what he meant by it. The Church has not failed in sending that message.

Yet people continue to resist, because they do not agree that the claims of Christ and His Church are true. This resistance is a direct product of the sin in people’s hearts, which veils the truth from their eyes. It is not attributable solely or even in great part to a failure to preach the Gospel. The reason sin remains so prevalent in the world is simply that the human heart is utterly inclined toward rebellion, according to Christian theology.

Hence, Giles is entirely incorrect when he says that Jesus, the prophets, and the Apostles were always “challenging people whose attitudes and actions were corrosive to the culture.” They were most assuredly not doing that. What they were doing was challenging people whose attitudes and actions were standing in the way of their own and their neighbors’ salvation, redemption, and sanctification. That was the central concern for the prophets and apostles, and it was and is always Jesus’s concern; and everything else follows from that.

As the twentieth century theologian Richard Niebuhr noted, in his excellent book Christ and Culture (1951), Jesus is not in, outside, above, or beyond culture–he transforms human cultures. He does so through the transformation of individual souls, which liberates them from our natural slavery to sin and blindness.

The Church’s duty, then, is exactly that of any individual: love God, love your neighbor. We all fail in that duty, utterly and tragically, every moment of every day. But that failure is not the reason there is so much sin in the world. There is so much sin in the world because sin is central to the human heart, and so many human hearts remain unredeemed.

Christians are not the cause of that. All we can do is love God, love our neighbors, and pray for the redemption of the world and Christ’s swift return. The culture will be transformed as individual souls are redeemed.

Like the Social Gospel preachers whom he so rightly criticizes, Giles places too much emphasis on transforming society and too little on transforming individuals. I am sure that he recognizes the essential importance of the latter concern, but the failure to translate that insight into a practical perspective that puts political matters in their proper, distinctly secondary position among concerns for the church harms both church and society.

A Fish Not Inter The Net

Out at sea… got scant moments at 55 cents a minute…

Had our first Barnes-storming session today, everything was made Kristol-clear, although the sea was pitching harder than Randy Johnson…

Wish you were here, guys… and congrats to Doc Zycher for his little debate with Stelzer in the last edition of Weekly Standard (the one with Disraeli on the cover)… my nickname for Disraeli is Dean Dizzy….

gotta run… or float…

Welcome Back, Mr. Karnick . . .

Might we take a moment to celebrate the return of one S.T. Karnick? I’m getting the sense you readers like his work, especially since traffic has an odd way of moving based on his presence or absence.

He has assured me he will return to regular posting, so you Karnickians stay tuned. Ditto for you Reynoldsites, Zycherons, Homnick-heads, and Bakercentrics (no matter how few, though incredibly bright, you may be).

Austen in Bollywood and Human Incompleteness

Gurinder Chadha, director of the excellent comedy film Bend It Like Beckham, has finished a new picture which will be released to U.S. movie theaters on February 25. It is called Bride and Prejudice, and as the title suggests, it is based on Jane Austen’s delightful and much-filmed 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice.

Chada’s version of the story will include some cross-cultural conflicts based in the central romance of a young Indian woman named Lalita and an American Darcy.

I’m greatly looking forward to seeing what Chadha will do with the story, and I found one quote from her in the Reuters article fascinating:

“‘What’s incredible about this is that even though Jane Austen was writing 200-odd years ago, she was writing at a time when women were not considered whole unless they were married,’ the Kenyan-born, British-raised Chadha said in an interview before the film’s U.S. debut.

“‘That is still very relevant to many places around the world, and particularly small town India,’ she said.”

What I find interesting about Chada’s comment is that she sees this attitude as so odd and antiquated. Perhaps a reason she sees it so strange is that she limits it to the female perspective. For I should say that neither a man nor a woman is complete without being married.

That is a very controversial thing to claim in these times, I understand, but it seems to me that history and art make it clear that it has been true for the overwhelming majority of people throughout human history.

To be incomplete, after all, simply means to be imperfect. Is Chada suggesting that all women are perfect before marriage? One would hardly think so, if only based on the evidence in Bend It Like Beckham.

It is quite silly, actually, to try to hide from the notion that one is incomplete. Surely, there is no unique shame in acknowledging one’s imperfection. Quite the contrary, in fact.

There is a great glory in acknowleding one’s incompleteness. Admitting our imperfections is the thing that makes it possible for us to become better, especially through the acceptance of the continuous love of another person. (The refusal to admit one’s imperfections is, in fact, what makes so many people unlovable. They refuse to be loved because they cannot bear to be seen as incomplete, as imperfect.) In addition, another person’s incompleteness makes it possible for us to do them the great good of improving their lot in life by loving them in return.

It is this, after all, that the young lovers in Austen’s novels seek, and which, to be honest, nearly all human beings desire. To view that beautiful, fine impulse as an unnecessary cultural flaw seems to me an utterly tragic and horrible choice.

Geo-Green Garbage

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman offered “The Geo-Green Alternative” on January 30:

“I am a geo-green. The geo-greens believe that, going forward, if we put all our focus on reducing the price of oil — by conservation, by developing renewable and alternative energies and by expanding nuclear power — we will force more reform than by any other strategy. You give me $18-a-barrel oil and I will give you political and economic reform from Algeria to Iran. . . . Shrink their oil revenue and they will have to open up their economies and their schools and liberate their women so that their people can compete. It’s that simple. By refusing to rein in US energy consumption, the Bush team is . . . depriving itself of the most effective lever for promoting internally driven reform in the Middle East.”

“Geo-Green” relies on economic illiteracy. If oil fell to $18, there would obviously be much less incentive to conserve oil or to develop expensive alternative energy sources, including nuclear. It is sheer fantasy to imagine the Bush team could somehow “rein in US energy consumption” enough to make a dent in the global oil price. Even if oil prices did fall by a buck or two as a result of some sort of mandatory US austerity scheme, the benefit would go to China and other countries who would gladly buy any cheaper oil we unloaded on the world market.

Mr. Friedman’s geo-whiz political forecast fares no better than his economics. The price of West Texas Intermediate crude was below $18 most of the time from February 1986 to June 1999 — falling as low as $11.28 at the end of 1998 and remaining below $20 at the end of 2001. So, why did we not see “political and economic reform from Algeria to Iran”? It’s that simple.

Molester With One-Tract Mind

This case in Springdale, Arkansas, has really fascinating elements, legally and otherwise.

A man bought a house in a new subdivision and shortly thereafter the police publicized that he is a registered sex offender. Now nobody wants to buy houses there and the people who have bought in want out.

Is that his problem, ethically? Assuming that he no longer engages in the behavior and has paid his debt to society, does he have to be bound by their fears? That’s Question #1.

The developers of the subdivision approached him and asked him to sell the house back. He said he would be glad to, if they pay him a quarter-million over his purchase price. They are indignant over this rank extortion.

Is he wrong to ask a premium for having to accept a scarlet-letter rejection from an entire community of people when he believes that he has worked his way past this particular temptation? Question #2.

The developers have now taken the further step of suing him for buying the house and suing the real-estate broker who brought him in as a purchaser without informing the developers of his background.

Do they have a case legally? Does a person not on parole have a legally quantifiable obligation to inform people around him that they might not want him as a neighbor? Question #3.