Monday, December 24, 2007

Chesterton and Dickens

Wikisource is a wonderful thing. Its better-known cousin may be the more addicting, but any site that gives you nearly the entire completed works of some of the masters of western thought (and then some) is worth perusing every now and then. Even when the one thing you're looking for has been inexplicably deleted, you're bound to run into something else worthwhile.

And so it was today with myself and the delightful G.K. Chesterton, whose "God in the Cave" chapter from The Everlasting Man I thought would make for wonderful Christmas reading. Alas, it was not to be -- but I was happily reminded, given my Yuletide Dickens kick, that Chesterton was something of a Dickens scholar himself.

Here, then, is the ever-so-timely "Dickens and Christmas," celebrating "that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday."

And here, of course, is Chesterton on Scrooge. No question he would have loved the Muppets:

Scrooge is not really inhuman at the beginning any more than he is at the end. There is a heartiness in his inhospitable sentiments that is akin to humour and therefore to humanity; he is only a crusty old bachelor, and had (I strongly suspect) given away turkeys secretly all his life. The beauty and the real blessing of the story do not lie in the mechanical plot of it, the repentance of Scrooge, probable or improbable; they lie in the great furnace of real happiness that glows through Scrooge and everything around him; that great furnace, the heart of Dickens. Whether the Christmas visions would or would not convert Scrooge, they convert us. Whether or no the visions were evoked by real Spirits of the Past, Present, and Future, they were evoked by that truly exalted order of angels who are correctly called High Spirits. They are impelled and sustained by a quality which our contemporary artists ignore or almost deny, but which in a life decently lived is as normal and attainable as sleep, positive, passionate, conscious joy. The story sings from end to end like a happy man going home; and, like a happy and good man, when it cannot sing it yells. It is lyric and exclamatory, from the first exclamatory words of it. It is strictly a Christmas carol.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Homeward bound

Merry Christmas everyone!

My deepest apologies for neglecting my blogging duties of late -- it's been a crazy few weeks at work, and I still lack any internet connection at home. When that changes, I'll be much more prolific, I'm sure -- much to the detriment of any social life I may or may not currently enjoy.

In the meantime, praise the Lord for free wifi at the JetBlue terminal at JFK airport, and for the less-than-hellish bus-to-subway-to-airtran commute that allowed me plenty of time to enjoy same. Six months in, I'm really starting to get a knack for this whole getting-around-NYC thing.

Which reminds me: I've been thinking about this blog a bit, and I've realized that what's currently sorely lacking are more stories about the city itself. I've been somewhat embarrassed in this regard by the Great Greg Gallagher, whose musings on his German adventures make for a delightful read. I may not have his eye for the absurd, but at least I've got a lot more material to work with.

But for now, back to the world of letters. I came across a fascinating article by Joseph Bottom (of Weekly Standard/First Things fame) last Christmas, and I've been waiting to blog it ever since.

The subject is that iconic Christmas favorite (certainly mine), Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." Bottom's argument, briefly, is that far too many critics -- and cinematic adaptations -- get the story completely wrong by playing it straight. In other words, by focusing so much on Scrooge's supposed "transformation," they neglect to see that the story is a merry comic farce from the very beginning. Scrooge doesn't so much undergo some dramatic darkness-to-light redemption as simply come into line with the Christmas cheer that pervades the entire tale -- and that he even participates in with his own amusing brand of grumpiness.

My only quibble with the piece is that Bottom completely neglects the one screen version of the story that really does get it. I speak, of course, of "The Muppet Christmas Carol" -- my pick for the best Christmas movie ever made. Who better than the Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat to provide exactly the kind of mirthful narrative voice Bottom longs for? It's damn near perfect, really.

But you're free to disagree. If you hate Christmas.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Guess who's blogging?

I just happened to stumble upon this treasure trove of wisdom the other day; it's the personal blog of none other than His Excellency, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

Okay, the Times helped. Turns out, Ahmadinejad's been blogging for quite some time now, though he's even lazier about it than I am.

What's there, though, is absolutely fascinating. Not that it's all that profound -- or even comically boisterous. It actually has a kind of whimsical sense to it, as if its author sees himself as a sort of deep thinker who only vows Israel's destruction to pay the rent.

The most recent post, for example, is a long series of extracts from a treatise by one of the first leaders of Islam, explaining the duties of a proper Muslim ruler.

He also says he takes 15 minutes a day to actually respond to the comments he gets. Anyone want to take him up on it? I say this partially in jest, of course. But I've gotta think that having an enemy who's so up-front about his aspirations and pretensions is really a great blessing. Not that President Bush (or Lee Bollinger, for that matter) should indulge his b.s., of course, but there must be room somewhere for a kind of kitchen debate on the proper role of reason and religion in politics. Anyone?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Mormons, Part II

Just watched Mitt Romney's "Faith in America" speech again. I was significantly more impressed the second time around, mostly because I made peace with the idea that its wooden style and staccato argumentation is just the way Romney talks. And then it didn't seem nearly as awkward.

Actually, it was quite good -- a fitting, if imperfect, response not only to evangelical Iowa voters who may be creeped out by Romney's Mormonism, but also to secular types who are especially wary of someone like Huckabee.

One hears the complaint more and more these days that there's too much religion in politics, a complaint driven not only by genteel horror that someone would act as if their religious beliefs actually influence their lives, but also by reasonable wariness of religion's power, and hence its power to pollute if corrupted. (Religious conservatives should always remember that the first modern mainstream presidential candidate to talk about his faith in the way we've come to expect nowadays was world-class scold Jimmy Carter -- a man I've heard invoked more than once in conversations about Mike Huckabee.)

And yet: It seems only commonsensical that (1) if one's religious convictions were a major part of one's life, one would seek a natural, honest way to talk about them with people who may not share them, and (2) to the extent to which those convictions govern one's actions and values, the voting public has every right to be interested in them.

Come to think of it, I'd be very interested to see whether the members of the NY Times editorial board -- in such top form as they berated the intolerant Iowa evangelical for daring to be curious about Romney's Mormonism -- would be completely neutral to a candidate who professed a religious conviction that, say, the earth is 6,000 years old.

But quite understandably, Romney had neither the time nor the inclination to convince voters that nothing in Mormon doctrine was the slightest bit antagonistic to either good sense or the American political order. A lot of people wanted him to give that speech, but it would have been a fool's errand from the beginning. For one, he'd have had to bring up a lot of the exotic things Mormons actually do believe.

By talking much more generally -- and with evident feeling -- about religion in America, however, he made a very strong argument along these lines: "Trust me." And he promised to return the favor:

"Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people. Americans do not respect believers of convenience."

I would only note that if Romney does lose the nomination, there will be plenty of explanations other than that Americans, in fact, do respect believers of convenience. But I digress.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Mormon thing -- open thread

I've been meaning to blog for a while now about this painfully awkward question at last week's CNN/YouTube Republican debate, but Mitt Romney's long-debated "Mormon" speech yesterday, I guess, kinda superceeds that at this point.

I'll have a few thoughts later today. For now, here's the speech (and the video). Everyone seems to have something to say about it. So a quick straw poll of my devoted readers: what do you think? Any impressions -- style, political substance, theological substance -- welcome.

And here's Richard John Neuhaus, Rich Lowry, Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks, E.J. Dionne Jr., Richard Cohen, Jonah Goldberg, Peggy Noonan, the gang at NRO, and the NY Times to help.

Be back later.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Muhammad the Teddy Bear

Gillian Gibbons must be wondering, "Where's Charles Gordon when I need him?"

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Quote of the week (c. 1897)

A bit of timeless -- and timely -- wisdom, from an old standby:

"We are at present in a transition stage, nor is the manner nor occasion of the end in sight. Still this is no time to despair. I have often noticed in these Afghan valleys, that they seem to be entirely surrounded by the hills, and to have no exit. But as the column has advanced, a gap gradually becomes visible and a pass appears. Sometimes it is steep and difficult, sometimes it is held by the enemy and must be forced, but I have never seen a valley that had not a way out. That way we shall ultimately find, if we march with the firm but prudent step of men who know the dangers; but, conscious of their skill and discipline, do not doubt their ability to deal with them as they shall arise."

So wrote the 23-year-old Winston Churchill at the end of his first book, "The Story of the Malakand Field Force," recounting his adventures subduing a religiously inspired tribal uprising in the Swat and Malakand Valleys on the northwest frontier of British India. You may have heard of these places.

Frankly, the book's pretty hard to read these days without seeing a whole lot of interesting parallels and contrasts -- both sobering and emboldening -- between his situation and ours. At least it good to know that someone's been there before.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Putting "Christ" back in... err, the day after Thanksgiving

Two things I love about today:

1. Leftovers
2. Guilt-free Christmas boosterism

For as long as I can remember, it's been a standard November ritual to complain about the encroachment of Christmas on Thanksgiving (and even Halloween) -- the grievance being that far too many businesses hang their decorations and launch their holiday advertising far too early, hoping to make that one extra buck off premature Christmas cheer. Like I said, I can't really remember when this wasn't the case, and as one who'd pay good money for extra Christmas cheer, I've never really minded it too much.

However, as proper conservatism obliges me to uphold the standards of an idealized and probably never-existent past, I've always looked forward to today as the day I can finally sing openly all the Christmas carols I've had stuck in my head for the last two weeks. Must keep up appearances, after all.

So have a happy Hanukkah, a far-out Winter Solstice, and/or a joyous and expectant Advent. Just one request, if I could: Mind that you don't judge too harshly those who are only trying to make an honest dollar at a time when people aren't even shopping for themselves. Yes, we all know that Christmas is in some sense "overcommercialized," but isn't there something a bit bah-humbug in whining about it too much? Between the ACLU, the IATSE, and the folks who go apoplectic whenever Target says "Happy Holidays," we already have enough Grinches this time of year.

Richard John Neuhaus, of course (scroll to the bottom), says it far better than I ever could.

And for desert, here's Jonah Goldberg and Peter Beinart arguing about which of them loves Thanksgiving more.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Yay, science!

This appears to be nothing short of amazing news: Teams of scientists working independently in Wisconsin and Japan have both discovered a way to make human skin cells act like embryonic stem cells.

In other words, all the adaptability that makes embryonic cells more promising than adult ones for things like tissue regeneration and disease research, without destroying embryos in the process. And cheaper, too!

I'll let the good folks at NRO say what needs to be said regarding the politics and bioethics of it. Certainly, President Bush doesn't come out looking too bad.

I commend the full New York Times piece to your reading -- it's rather long, but it lays out all the details and implications quite well. Also relevant are the (seemingly minor) hurdles still to be overcome, which don't get much ink in the understandably excited conservative press. The relevant part of the story:

"He and Dr. Yamanaka caution, though, that they still must confirm that the reprogrammed human skin cells really are the same as stem cells they get from embryos. And while those studies are under way, Dr. Thomson and others say, it would be premature to abandon research with stem cells taken from human embryos.

"Another caveat is that, so far, scientists use a type of virus, a retrovirus, to insert the genes into the cells’ chromosomes. Retroviruses slip genes into chromosomes at random, sometimes causing mutations that can make normal cells turn into cancers.

"One gene used by the Japanese scientists actually is a cancer gene.

"The cancer risk means that the resulting stem cells would not be suitable for replacement cells or tissues for patients with diseases, like diabetes, in which their own cells die. But they would be ideal for the sort of studies that many researchers say are the real promise of this endeavor — studying the causes and treatments of complex diseases.

"For example, researchers could make stem cells from a person with a disease like Alzheimer’s and turn the stem cells into nerve cells in a petri dish. Then they might learn what goes awry in the brain and how to prevent or treat the disease.

"But even the retrovirus drawback may be temporary, scientists say. Dr. Yamanaka and several other researchers are trying to get the same effect by adding chemicals or using more benign viruses to get the genes into cells. They say they are starting to see success."

Kick ass.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Turkey-pardoning, and other left-wing shenanigans

I realize I'm jumping the gun a bit. Whatever.

This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for Aaron Sorkin -- specifically for his Thanksgiving-themed West Wing episodes. Scoff if you must: The show's hopelessly romanticized, Sorkin's a coked-up bleeding-heart liberal, etc, etc. I don't care. "Shibboleth" is one of the most beautiful, clever, heartwarming hours of television you'll ever see.

This comes to mind only because I've had "We Gather Together," the hymn he uses to end the episode, stuck in my head all day. And since there's nothing more annoying than having a song stuck in your head without knowing all the words, I had to look it up:

"We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
he chastens and hastens his will to make known;
the wicked oppressing now cease from distressing:
sing praise to his Name, he forgets not his own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine;
so from the beginning the fight we were winning:
thou, Lord, wast at our side: all glory be thine!

We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant,
and pray that thou still our defender wilt be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation:
thy Name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!"

Here's the tune. A good friend pointed out the strange disconnect between the lighthearted, joyful melody and the gather-together, give-thanks theme on the one hand, and the particularly weighty lyrics -- chastening, tribulation, etc. -- on the other. Worth pondering.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Whoop-ass, prophet-style

Apropos of nothing in particular, I took a particular liking to the first reading from Wednesday's mass. Figured I'd share it. It's Wisdom 6:1-11:

"Hear, O Kings, and understand;
learn, you magistrates of the earth's expanse!
Hearken, you who are in power over the multitude
and lord it over throngs of peoples!
Because authority was given you by the Lord
and sovereignty by the Most High,
who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels.
Because, though you were ministers of his kingdom, you judged not rightly,
and did not keep the law,
nor walk according to the will of God,
Terribly and swiftly shall he come against you,
because judgment is stern for the exalted--
For the lowly may be pardoned out of mercy
but the mighty shall be mightily put to the test.
For the Lord of all shows no partiality,
nor does he fear greatness,
Because he himself made the great as well as the small,
and he provides for all alike;
but for those in power a rigorous scrutiny impends.
To you, therefore, O princes, are my words addressed
that you may learn wisdom and that you may not sin.
For those who keep the holy precepts hallowed shall be found holy,
and those learned in them will have ready a repose.
Desire therefore my words;
long for them and you shall be instructed."

Pretty cool, huh?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Big news on the home front

Dastardly desert despots, beware: Master at Arms Seaman Sarah Wilson, USN, deploys to the Persian Gulf today. Yes, that's my sister -- and I couldn't be prouder. Any and all thoughts and prayers greatly appreciated. Come to think of it, pray for Ahmadinejad & Co. as well -- that they realize very quickly that my sister is not the kind of sailor they want to mess with.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Popery for the People

It's official: Pope Benedict XVI will be coming to New York in April. On the itinerary: Addressing the U.N. (4/18), Mass at St. Patrick's (4/19), and an afternoon mass at Yankee Stadium (4/20 -- a Sunday, by the way).

Speaking of Yankee Stadium: It's been noticed that, while Benedict is visiting New York and Washington, he'll be skipping Boston. Some in the press have made the connection to Boston's status as the center of the recent sex-abuse scandals. This may be true, but I'm not convinced. It's been fairly strongly established, consider, that the Boston Red Sox are no longer playing under the Curse of the Bambino. My question: How did they get it lifted -- and is there something the Vatican knows that would make the Pope loathe to say mass at Fenway Park?

One minor disappointment: Benedict won't be saying mass in Central Park, as John Paul II did in 1995. Is Yankee Stadium really that much better of a venue? Or did the Church have to answer to an, um, higher power? Mayor Bloomberg, after all, is especially fond of grass.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Hitting the speaking circuit

Sorry it's been a while since my last post. I could claim busyness, but honestly, it's really just that the right topic hasn't popped into my head at the convenient time for a while. That said, I have had a fun and exciting week -- starting with a trip to Phoenix last weekend for the Collegiate Network's editors' conference. Consider it my first post-college speaking gig. They wanted me there to talk up the Eric Briendell Journalism Award, which I was of course happy to do. The talk went well, and I got to meet lots of interesting people, notably John J. Miller from National Review and Vic Matus from the Weekly Standard.

The theme of my remarks, such as they were, was how the pressures of a big-city newspaper puts the fever pitch of college campus "identity" activism in perspective. Appropriately enough, my next stop was back to my famed alma mater for a wonderfully exhausting day of catching up with old college buddies.

One piece of news to report: CMC is participating in what's called a "Campus Climate Challenge," the idea being to get students to conserve energy. All well and good, of course. But then President Gann had to go put her own spin on things. In her announcement email to students, I hear, she listed exactly two suggestions for how to reduce one's carbon footprint.

1) Turn off the lights when you leave your room.

2) Dry your clothes on a clothesline.

One doubts whether she thought that one out. Or whether the Admissions Office would be completely amenable to wet boxers strung across North Quad as tours pass by.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Reformation Day!

490 years ago today, a renegade German monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany. One can understand his frustration and admire his zeal without buying all his theological conclusions. One can also mourn the brutal divisions in the Body of Christ this act caused while simultaneously celebrating the constant progress presently being made toward the healing of those divisions.

Anyway, in comemoration of Herr Luther and his, um, chutzpah, here are a pair of reflections on the Reformation by two of the great Christian thinkers of the English language.

The first is G.K. Chesterton's final chapter of his wonderful biography of St. Thomas Aquinas. It's called "The Sequel to St. Thomas." Note his strong preference for the original.

Quoth he: "Perhaps, after all, it did begin with a quarrel of monks; but the Pope was yet to learn how quarrelsome a monk could be. For there was one particular monk in that Augustinian monastery in the German forests, who may be said to have had a single and special talent for emphasis; for emphasis and nothing except emphasis; for emphasis with the quality of earthquake."

The second is John Wesley, in what is probably the most moving and eloquent plea for ecumenism ever written. (Scroll down to the fourth letter: "To a Roman Catholic.") And to think, it only took the Catholic Church 213 years to respond!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Just noticing...

A pretty crappy weekend sportswise, for reasons I doubt I need to mention. But here's a bit of silver lining: My UCONN Football Huskies spanked the formerly 2nd-ranked South Florida on Saturday, putting them in serious contention for the Big East title. Already the fastest team to win a bowl game after turning Div. 1-A, they're now the second-fastest to be nationally ranked. 16th in the latest AP poll, to be exact.

And then there's the BCS standings: 13th. That school you may have spotted some six spots lower? USC.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Osama bin Laden, Uomo Fascista

Christopher Hitchens sounds off in today's (Wednesday's) Post on why "Islamo-Fascism" is an apt and descriptive moniker for fundamentalist Muslim jihadism.

It's a fairly good list of how the jihadism and fascism are bad in similar ways, but he completely misses the strongest case for the term out there. To wit: Osama bin Laden says so.

I refer to OBL's latest audio message to his al Qaeda underlings in Iraq, in which he scolds them for pursuing their own factional interests instead of uniting to chase out the infidels and blasphemers. This, apparently, is his explanation for why al Qaeda is getting it's ass kicked at the moment.

Unity, he says, is the answer: "O people, observe obedience and the group, for it is the rope of Allah to which He ordered us to cling."

And then there's this doozy: "Sticks refuse to break when banded together but if they come apart they break one by one."

It's a telling metaphor. Turns out, a bundle of sticks tied together is an ancient image dating back to Roman times. It's name? The fascis. As in, fascism.

There's no coincidence here. The fascis symbolizes "strength through unity," which is the slogan Benito Mussolini picked up early on to define his new political regime. He even used the fascis on his ministerial flag.

Nor, I would suggest, is bin Laden simply picking up on a helpful but isolated metaphor completely detached from his underlying ideology. Fascism has its intellectual roots, broadly speaking in German philosophical romanticism (Hegel, etc.), which postulated a unity of all things completely freed from the confines of Aristotelian logic. That "Unity" -- also called the "Ideal," the "Oversoul," etc -- was considered synonymous with "God."

The God of Islam, of course, is a much more concrete, meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. Kind of. Still, as I argue here (and Pope Benedict argues here), radical Islam retains a fairly troubled relationship with good, old-fashioned philosophical reason of the type that Hegel and his successors passionately reject. And that has troubling implications for the standing of the individual in both cases.

Note that I distinguish here between the jihadist, let's-blow-stuff-up strains of Islam and Islam broadly defined. Whether the clear philosophical problems with the former remain problems with Islam qua Islam, I'll leave up to them to decide.

Some might offer that in either case, the God of Islam isn't nearly as down-to-earth as he should be. But perhaps I digress.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Torre's out, the new CI, and the Times annoys again

The media here have been gushing for weeks about Joe Torre and what a class act he is, and that's sure to continue now that he's finally officially gone. His class was evident at his press conference today, where he, among other things, explained his decision to turn down a token $5 million, one-year contract. Torre came across as a guy who had done his job, realized the team (the management, at least) wanted to move on, and preferred to cherish the memories rather than go one more round of agonizing uncertainty with the Steinbrenners. He'll be missed.

On the supposed short list to replace Torre, meanwhile, is none other than Don Mattingly, the great baseball hero (along with Nolan Ryan) of my early childhood. I'd love to see it -- if only he wasn't cursed. My colleague Robert George explains.


In other news, the new issue of the Claremont Independent is out, and full, as usual, of worthwhile reading. In the lead, Elise Viebeck and Ilan Wurman aim their double-barreled shotgun of truth at CMC's Civ 10 program. Particularly interesting -- and outrageous -- is David Daleiden's well-crafted expose of how fresman orientation treated sexuality and mental illness. Utterly classless and disrespectful. Read it -- you'll see. Fellow concerned alumni: The dean of students' phone number is 909-621-8114.


The New York Times editorial board has a new blog -- and it's a doozy. You'll find the same patent refusal to make an actual argument as on their print-edition page -- only now, they're snippy about it. See here for a good example. Real cute, right? Because as we all know, journalists who oppose the Bush administration get assassinated too.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The News gets the noose

Much as I hate to credit a rival page, the Daily News' Stanley Crouch today has the best commentary so far on the recent (and unfolding) hate crimes craze at Columbia University. His take: take it easy.

If you haven't heard of the noose found last week on a black professor's door at Columbia, the article might explain why I've been getting some serious deja-vu recently. Not that I'm alleging, as Crouch hints, that anything Kerri-Dunnesque is going on here, but the "I'm being silenced" rhetoric and endless discussion groups naturally bring back strong memories for me.

And then there's this passage (Claremont historians, take note!):

"The reason I am skeptical of the Columbia incident is that when I taught at the Claremont Colleges from 1968 to 1975, it was not unusual for some black students to send racist mail to themselves to manipulate the administration when negotiations about campus racial policies were at a tipping point."

Well. The more things change...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Those classy NY Republicans

When I was briefly flirting with registering to vote as a Democrat (I didn't, by the way), I mentioned that of the 51 members of New York's City Council, only three were Republicans, and one of them had just been indicted for rape. Well, here's one of the others -- the minority leader, in fact -- reacting to a hapless Norwiegian Ali G wannable. It's worth watching -- as long as there aren't any children in the room.

UPDATE: My colleague Tom Elliott -- who, as you'll see, has some more personal experience with the good councilman -- puts a Churchillian spin on the outburst. I guess I should have thought of that in the first place, but I do appreciate the shout-out.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Blog Post on Strauss

Leo Strauss, that is -- the Godfather of CMC's Gov Department and political philosopher extraordinaire, whose essay "What is Political Philosophy" I've been perusing to supplement my strange new intellectual diet of gubernatorial scandals and waterfront development.

I make note of this only to direct your attention to some particularly juicy gems of wisdom I found. Among them:

"When [a positivist] says that democracy is a value which is not evidently superior to the opposite value, he does not mean that he is impressed by the alternative which he rejects, or that his heart or his mind is torn between alternatives which in themselves are equally attractive. His "ethical neutrality" is so far from being nihilism or a road to nihilism that it is not more than an alibi for thoughtlessness and vulgarity: by saying that democracy and truth are values, he says in effect that one does not have to think about the reasons why these things are good, and that he may bow as well as anyone else to the values that are adopted and respected by his society. Social science positivism fosters not so much nihilism as conformism and philistinism."

This, for anyone who wonders why Dostoevsky's stark "without God, all is lawful" warning doesn't always seem to compute in our friendly, live-and-let-live Western world. More later.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Friday thoughts

This is noteworthy: Dan Keating, the last surviving veteran of the 1919-1921 Irish War of Independence died on Wednesday. By all appearences, he never really gave up the fight, going so far as to participate in a 1939-1940 IRA bombing campaign of London -- and never accepting old-age benefits from the "illegitimate" Republic of Ireland.

I might update this post with a few more thoughts later. The old "Irish question" was really what got me interested in my senior thesis topic, Churchill & empire, in the first place. It's a fascinating bit of history.

In other news: As I first suspected last Friday, Peggy Noonan has a crush on Barack Obama.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Meanwhile, back in Claremont...

Big news at my famed Alma Mater: Billionaire alumnus/trustee Robert Day has just given $200 million to CMC for the creation of a Masters of Finance program. Here's the press release. Yes, thats $200 million -- the largest single donation ever to a liberal arts college.

Surprise, surprise, it's controversial -- and to my mind, rightly so. The Claremont Independent's Ilan Wurman reports that the Literature department has sent a strongly worded protest to President Gann, taking issue with the donation's exclusive focus on finance and related fields, like "leadership psychology." To my mind, this is a big concern, given that $200 million amounts to almost half of CMC's total endowment.

Money quote: "If Robert Day cannot be convinced to distribute some of his gift to other areas of the college, we believe it is because you are not showing enough leadership to convince him that it is worthwhile to do so."

I'll remain agnostic about the donation for now, confident that the intrepid (and well-trained) reporters at the CI will soon shed some, uh, Day-light on the controversy. For now, fellow alumni, feel free to sound off.

UPDATE: From President Gann: CMC's Economics Department is now "The Robert Day School of Economics and Finance at Claremont McKenna College."

Friday, September 28, 2007

More Mahmoud

Not sure what I think of this piece from Peggy Noonan. She remains one of my favorite writers, but I'm always a bit wary when she gets into scoldly/nostalgic mode. Especially when she sounds just like Barack Obama in the process.

She's on to something, however, in scolding Columbia President Lee Bolinger for "introducing" Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with an angry condemnation. Not that it wasn't deserved, but it gave A-jad his one legitimate point of the entire circus: "In my country, when you invite someone as a guest, you treat him with respect." A lot of people thought Bollinger redeemed himself by sticking it to A-jad. "He really stood up to the dictator" and all that. I thought the whole thing was unseemly -- if not plain dishonorable.

And William F. Buckley agrees with me. At least he did in 1962, as the folks at NRO's The Corner dug up a few days ago. This is worth reading. Money quote: "Fight the tyrants everywhere; but do not ask them to your quarters, merely to spit upon them: and do not ask them to your quarters if you cannot spit upon them."

More broadly: What's with the notion these days that sticking your tongue out at a bad guy constitutes some great act of courage? I got the same kind of feeling a few months ago, when A-jad released those captured British sailors, who went on to sign book deals as soon as they got home. The woman among them bragged about her real snappy comeback when A-jad asked her about her family during his "amnesty" ceremony. Not to minimize their travails, but that aspect was particularly lame.

A theory: Is it a matter of confusing the nature of evil? The belief that genocidal dictators can be embarrassed as if they were run-of-the-mill unscrupulous politicians? Say Bush = Hitler enough, and you'll get some seriously mistaken ideas about who Hitler was.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


The opener to this column is the reason George Will remains one of my favorite writers. The rest of the piece ain't bad, either.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

My first byline

I have a short op-ed in today's Post about Ahmadinejad's speech at Columbia. My basic thesis is that it was a lot more philosophical and rhetorically clever than he's given credit for -- and still dead wrong. Please forgive my lack of nuance. A millenium of philosophical and theological thinking on two continents is a lot to squeeze into 350 words.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Johann Tetzel rolls in his grave

Jokes about this story have been flying around the office all day.

For the record: (1) I like trees, and (2) Yes, JP2 has said some wonderful and nuanced things about the Christian duty to care for the environment, an idea I'm completely on board with.

But just for the sake of snarkiness: Who at the Council of Trent would have imagined that 500 years down the road, the Chuch would actually be buying indulgences?

Sola power, anyone?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I was a teenage supply-sider

Few know this about me now, but during my intellectually formative high-school years, my passion was economics. And not just plain economics, but specifically the supply-side theories of folks like Art Laffer, George Gilder, Jude Wanniski, and Larry Kudlow that formed the intellectual foundation for the Reagan and Bush 43 tax cuts. For my young and romantic mind, supply-side economics was sexy, sweeping, and (I still believe) fairly commonsensical.

I mention this because Jonathan Chait of The New Republic has a colorful survey of the movement's history in the latest New Republic. It's a shrill hit-piece, but it was still fun to read, given that I actually lived firsthand through some of the intellectual history he's narrating.

The piece itself is unimpressive. Its thesis is that this cabal of "economic crackpots" has hijacked the conservative movement--and American politics in general. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that someone's hijacked the conservative movement (it typically alternates between the neocons and the religious right, though)... I'd have quite a few nickels.

Chait also--while acknowledging that there's a grain of truth to it--wrongly minimizes the applicability of supply-side logic. The plain fact is that taxes affect economic behavior in all sorts of ways, and in that vein, Wanniski's The Way the World Works is a lot more nuanced than he gives it credit for in fleshing those out.

That said, he has some good points when he talks about the, umm... excesses in enthusiasm of the supply side crowd. I was there--and had them myself. In fact, as someone who subscribed to--and loved--The American Spectator when George Gilder ran the show, I can add a few more datapoints of my own.

Like Larry Kudlow's 2001 prediction that the Dow would hit 35,000 by the end of the decade.

Then--to show that the supply-side cabal hasn't completely taken over the conservative movement--there was the scoffing (pre 9/11) editorial about how Bill Kristol and the "national greatness" crowd at The Weekly Standard "would love another war."

Of course, once 9/11 hit, most of the supply-side crowd (with the exception of the oddball Wanniski) was pretty hawkish. Supply-side economics was never just about marginal tax rates, but about the societal and personal virtues cultivated by entrepreneurship and freedom. That a repudiation of all those things would appear in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, then, offered no ideological difficulty. And for folks like Kudlow and especially Michael Novak (both devout Catholics), free market entrepreneurship, done well, can even take on a great religious dignity. (John Paul II, too, has said as much.)

The lesson here for all those (mostly liberal) pundits predicting a crack-up of the conservative coalition, or its hijacking by one faction or another, is that on a fundamental level (and speaking very generally), conservative ideas on social, economic, and foreign policy actually fit together quite well.

Even on matters of war, however, supply-siders' particular and exaggerated ideological optimism was evident. Kudlow (whom I have enormous respect for, by the way) predicted that the Dow would jump 1,000 points the day Baghdad fell. Needless to say, that didn't quite happen.

Chait's other quasi-legitimate point is about deficits. Supply-siders have always been fairly dismissive of big budget deficits, at least on the federal level. The reasoning goes that 1) they won't be as big as predicted anyway, because tax-cut spurred economic growth will bring in more revenue, and 2) even when they're there, their negative effect on the economy isn't that big. This is essentially because tax-cut produced economic growth eats up the inflation deficits are supposed to produce.

This, say supply-siders, is why the huge deficits of the Reagan years were accompanied by an economic boom and low inflation (yes, yes, Volcker helped too)--and why the low deficits of the Carter years coincided with serious stagflation.

One of my favorite Reagan quotes, along these lines, is "I don't worry about the deficit; it's big enough to take care of itself." There's wisdom here. But going forward 20 years, you get Cheney's gloss on the principle: "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter." And that's a problem, at the very least on a moral level. Because when you have a government that automatically assumes it can spend more money than it takes in... well, you pretty much get Bush's domestic spending.

And that's all I have to say about that. Anyone looking for a more reasonable take on the virtues and follies of supply-siderism should check out Bruce Bartlett, one of the original crew, on why the entire term has overgrown its usefulness.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Green Jihad

Osama Bin Laden's got a new 'do and a new video, and my good friend Robert A. George has some thoughts about the mess he just stepped into.

I, however, found the following section the most revealing. Quoth Bin Laden:

"In fact, the life of all mankind is in danger because of the global warming resulting to a large degree from the emissions of the factories of the major corporations, yet despite that, the representative of these corporations in the White House insists on not observing the Kyoto accord."

In other news, Al Gore just started filming his latest documentary: "My Inconvenient Ally."

It also makes you wonder: Just how much could al Qaeda reduce its carbon footprint by, I don't know... not blowing things up?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Village surprise

One finds all kinds of wonderful things while wondering around New York. Take the following quote, from a monument in, of all places, Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park:

"Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the event is in the hands of God."

That's from George Washington, addressing the Consitutional Convention of which he was just made chairman. What I love about this quote is what one might call its steely hope. Any venture, no matter how well-intentioned, Washington says, may certainly fail, but this is no reason to sacrifice principle to convenience. It is possible to build something both noble and lasting, as the Founders were trying to do, and their hopes are founded upon the kind of people it can rally and inspire.

Or maybe those aren't the right words. I especially love Washington's use of the word "repair," which evokes images of rest or renewal. In other words, the standard Washington wants to raise is not just a cause for which the wise and honest can recognize, fight for, and get worn out, but a cause based on a principle that somehow refreshes the soul.

Worth pondering, for sure.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Will of God

Here's Richard John Neuhaus in particularly wise form on the question of discerning God's will for one's life.

His conclusion: You may never know for sure, and that's just fine.

I may have more comment on this later.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The state of the race

Here's some gripping, fearless commentary that puts the upcoming presidential election in its proper historical perspective. Enjoy.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Sex, Sharia, and Foucault

David Frum has a fascinating book review at NRO today about deconstructionist philosopher Michael Foucault's (figurative) love affair with Ayatollah Khomeni and the Iranian Revolution. Apparently Foucault, increasingly discouraged by Marxism's failure to catch on in the West, saw radical Islam as the last best hope of dismantling the old-guard Judeo-Christian/Enlightenment order he detested.

What's more, this book (Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism by Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson) asserts, the Revolution's subjugation of women was not incidental to Foucault's admiration.

Frum's money quote:

Indeed, as Afary and Anderson point out, at the moment of his deepest engagement with the Iranian revolution, Foucault was at work upon the books he regarded as his masterwork, his History of Sexuality – a history that treats the emancipation of women in the later Graeco-Roman period as a catastrophe that put an end to the happy classical period when reproductive sex was regarded as an unpleasant duty, with pleasure to be sought between men and boys.

For Foucault, sexual pleasure was intimately bound to rituals of domination and outright acts of brutality. The Judaeo-Christian attempt to separate sex from cruelty was the poisoned apple in his Garden of Eden. He recognized that the Graeco-Roman world had departed forever. But some part of him seems to have hoped that the Islamic revolution might offer a return.

My thought: a lot of slurs and accusations have been leveled against Christianity over the years, but the charge of separating sex from cruelty is one we should be able to own proudly.

There's a deeper point here, too, one that G.K. Chesterton makes at great length in The Everlasting Man. To wit: if one wants to assess the claims of Christianity, one must really look first at what it replaced. Because it has been so dominant for so long, however, its detractors need not even consider how much their worldview is based on assumptions that were once radically and explicitly Christian. That pederasty is wrong, for instance.

And this, I think, has something to do with why many serious Christian philosophers have actually welcomed the deconstructionism and postmodernism of Foucault and his ilk. It's fatal in large doses, but it does serve as a kind of philosophical diharretic, opening up an entire new language with which to express the thrilling claims of Christianity. And by rejecting en masse the traditions of both Christianity and the Enlightenment, it highlights just how much the latter depends on the former, and how lost we are without it.

UPDATE: I havent read it yet, but I hear that Tod Lindberg's The Political Teachings of Jesus is also excellent--and undoubtedly more scholarly than Chesterton--in parsing out the widespread assumptions of our day that come directly from the Gospels.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Name above [some] names

I hesitate to attempt any intelligent commentary on this story, if only because I don't want any thoughtful points I make to detract from its all-around creepiness.

So before I go on, please take a moment to read, shudder, and pray for my Church.

Thank you.

Now, can someone please explain to me how Catholics starting to call God "Allah" would do anything to promote religious understanding? True enough, the English word "God," apart from historical context and its distinctive capitalization, doesn't do much to specify Yahweh, the God of Israel, or the Trinity of Christian understanding, and "Al Lah" (The God) is basically its Arabic translation. So it would be only natural that Arabic-speaking (and sure, why not Indonesian) Christians would call God "Allah." (Do they? If I presume wrongly, someone please educate me.)

But I wonder whether Belgium's Islamic community would appreciate the gesture. I'm no expert on Islamic theology when it comes to the name of God, but the only Muslims I've ever discussed the issue with have insisted that the name "Allah" in their understanding refers exclusively to the God of Islam, and any similarity to pre-Islamic Arab words is incidental. (Again, I'd appreciate someone with more knowledge here speaking up.)

In any case, it's highly likely that any such effort would create far more confusion than understanding, and it makes one suspicious that this is simply another example of the term "interreligious understanding" being used as Newspeak for the minimization of crucial differences in belief.

If Bishop Muskens really wants to promote understanding, his energy would be better spent articulating Christian belief, clearly, rationally, and charitably, and expecting the same of other religious leaders.

And speaking of Christian belief, the good Bishop's notion that God doesn't care what he's called is shaky at best. See, for instance, the First Commandment: Thou shalt not take my name in vain. It's true that Christians don't generally call him "Yahweh" (or YHWH) anymore, and that God has many names throughout the Bible, but each one of those many names matters in that it communicates something essential about his character.

Like his revelation to Moses: "I am the God of Abraham, the God if Isaac, the God of Jacob... I AM," which both asserts his transcendent being and defines his identity in specific relationship to the history of Moses' people. Or Jesus' "Abba, Father," a bold assertion of intimacy.

All of which means that while the name "God" is nothing fancy (although, I think, descriptive in its simplicity), why we call him what we do still matters greatly.

And "interreligious understanding" just doesn't cut it.

UPDATE: Robert T. Miller at First Things makes some similar points at greater length.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Humility is harder than that

Gov. Spitzer delivered a strange speech last week on "The need for both passion and humility in politics."

It's rather long, but you can get a good sense of what he said from the relevant editorials in the NY Post and the Daily News.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Making an ass of myself

It's time to register to vote -- and that presents me with an unexpected dilemma.

It's no secret that I'm a fairly solid conservative, and nothing about living in New York for the past two months has done anything to change that. Nevertheless, I've received the strong suggestion from several sources recently that I consider registering as a Democrat.

The rationale is that New York City doesn't have much of a Republican Party to speak of. Of the 51 members of the City Council, only three are Republicans. Of those three, two represent Staten Island -- the small, residential, middle-class "forgotten borough" -- and the third was indicted last week on rape charges.

That means that the elections that matter are the Democratic primaries, which often feature mostly reasonable candidates running against demagogues and crazies for the right to rout whoever the Republicans put up in the general election. (Nothing, of course, would necessarily prevent me from voting for that Republican anyway.) Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things fame, for instance, is a Democrat for precisely this reason.

I haven't made any decision yet -- I'd have to weigh this against my desire to vote in the Republican presidential primary, among other things. But go ahead, let the jokes begin.

That said, for anyone who's curious, I figured out all my elected representatives this morning.

U.S. Congress: Democrat Carolyn Maloney, 14th district
N.Y. State Senate: Democrat George Onorato, 12th district
N.Y. State Assembly: Democrat Michael N. Gianaris, 36th district
New York City Council: Democrat Peter F. Vallone, Jr., 22th district


Friday, August 3, 2007

Big News

As of today, I officially have a full-time job and a kick-ass apartment.

First, the job. I'm staying on at The Post, basically doing the same thing I've been doing, except now I have health benefits and a sweet-sounding title: Associate Editorial Page Editor. Along with that, however, I suppose this is as good a place as any to state for the record that the opinions expressed on this blog are entirely my own. At least the ones that might reflect poorly on the page as a whole.

And now the place--a near-miracle really. Within a period of five hours yesterday evening, I found, visited, and secured a room in an amazing apartment. I'll be moving into a 3-bedroom apartment in the Astoria section of Queens. It's only a 30-minute commute (10 min. walk, 20 min. subway) from Midtown Manhattan, and it's plenty big, with lots of bright windows and access to a roof with a sweet view of the Manhattan skyline. And the roommates seem pretty cool too. I'll post pictures of the view when I can. But for now, here's an article from the indispensable City Journal about Queens in general, which is by all accounts a very nice place.

Thursday, August 2, 2007


A strange story from The Post's sister paper (tee-hee) today: The piano John Lennon used to compose "Imagine" is making a quiet tour of various American scenes of tragedy. It's been to Virginia Tech, New Orleans, and Waco, among other places. Columbine High School and Ford's Theater have turned it down.

I agree with one New Orleans woman's initial assessment: "creepy."

It's probably obvious, but there's little love lost between me and this song. Honestly, I can't think of any song that would be less comforting to me in a time of tragedy.

On the other hand, I think its send-up in Forrest Gump is absolutely hilarious. In the scene, Forrest is on the Jonny Carson show talking about his Chinese table tennis exploits, alongside guess-who:

Gump: In Communist China, they don't really have a lot of things.

John Lennon: No posessions?

Gump: And nobody goes to church there either.

Lennon: No religion, too?

Carson: Hard to imagine, isn't it?

Lennon: Oh, it's easy if you try.

A brilliant parody: cute, friendly, and absolutely brutal.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Hello out there?

Here's the deal:

I've been blogging semi-consistently for two months now, and it's time I got a good read on who's actually reading this thing. So here's your job: leave a comment on this post. Just let me know you stopped by--it will give me a better idea of whom, if anyone, I'm writing to.

This is important to me. I started this blog to keep in the practice of writing, to keep my friends informed of my exploits, and also because I thought I might have something interesting to say. So far, it's been a mixed experience. I realized very quickly that I had little interest in maintaining your standard minipundit outlet, consisting of frequent posts of interesting and newsworthy links followed by a paragraph or two of commentary. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's not something I'm especially excited about, and I found the prospect of keeping up with the proverbial Joneses tiresome.

Well, it's really been a tiring experience anyway, which is why I haven't posted as often as I would have liked. I'm doing more writing than I expected for The Post, and it takes a lot out of me.

What compounds this even further is that I have very little idea who's out there. I'm in a position where I sometimes feel like I'm just spewing thoughts into cyberspapce with little purpose or method, which is a very unhealthy thing. A writer needs an audience, and he needs to write for that audience, or else his writing is an exercise in narcissism. (Or, if you prefer, "self-liberation," but let's not go there.) And as someone who's so used to parsing his words very carefully, I don't think I like it.

So, since this is your blog (whoever you are), feel free as well to comment on what you've liked or disliked, and what you'd like to see more of. More deep philosophical discussions? Should I bother to finish up my Gatsby or my Peter musings? More New York stories? Spiritual reflections--maybe an occasional brief take on the day's mass readings? Or should I just get my act together and post more frequently on all of the above?

But if that doesn't suit your fancy, don't worry about it. Just tell me who you are, and I'll guess as best I can.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Good news on the home front

Support for the war in Iraq is going back up, the New York Times reported Wednesday. It's still low -- 42% of Americans now think the initial invasion was a good idea, up from 35% in May, and only 35% think the war is going "very badly," down from 45%. No victory parties yet. Still, if this is a trend -- and it's largely tracking with the facts on the ground -- it might be just enough for us to avoid an ugly surrender before Petraeus has a chance to do his thing.

My hope is that this means the country is climbing away from the second of two sillyheaded extremes we've passed through in the last few years. The first, of course, was Bush's democratic messianism -- "freedom is the desire of every human heart" and all that. Which may be true in some eschatological sense, but neglects the reality St. Paul pointed out 2,000 years ago, and which Bush should have known better -- that we're very very good at not doing that which, on a cosmic level, we probably really want.

Or, as Charles Kesler put it, the problem with neoconservatism is not that it thinks too highly of democracy, but that it doesn't think highly enough of it, minimizing its special genius by underestimating the level of virtue it actually requires of its citizens.

But as we learned that lesson the hard way by watching Iraq fall to pieces, a strange sort of cultural determinism set in. And along with a serious rethink of whether Islam is actually compatible with liberal democracy came the sentiment that, well, Sunnis and Shiites have been killing each other for a thousand years, and there's really nothing we can do about it.

Which is not quite true either. In the grand debate over whether politics influences culture or culture politics, the truth is a little of both. Certainly cultures can't be changed on the cheap, with a few quick elections and a truckload of Federalist Papers, but over the long term, major shifts can happen as a result of the way institutions are structured. Isn't that why we fight culture wars in the first place?

And it's also why, now that we've given up trying to push a strangely-deformed Iraqi democracy out of the nest and gotten down to the serious business of stopping violence our way, we've seen some significant fruit, and we can hope to see more. Stabilize more and more areas with an active troop presence, and we'll start to see a grassroots civil society emerge, which will do a lot more in the long run than any fragile political compromise we force together at the top.

There's no question that 3 years of American bungling is what got us into this mess, but I think we've finally bungled for long enough that our long-term strategic advantages are starting to emerge and the way forward (assuming we stay in) is becoming clearer. This is what often happens in war. Modern hawks like to compare everything that happens in this war to WWII, because it's recent and convenient. But I think an apter analogy might be Britain's situation during the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars. Basically, Britain suffered from political pettiness and division -- and hence poor military strategy -- far worse than ours as the Revolutionary armies kicked allied ass all over Europe. And then she got her act together. But that's a tangent for another time -- once I brush up on my Churchill.

In any case, our chief long-term strategic advantage -- and it's a huge one -- is that whether or not Islam is compatible with democracy, and despite all the dumb things we've done that Iraqis resent us for, it's becoming increasingly obvious that our aims and our methods are far better than anything else competing for dominance in Iraq. Let's keep working with that.


Until Iraq stops being Muslim, we will probably never see a real western-style liberal democracy there. As Richard John Neuhaus points out in his brilliant "America, Islam, and a Somewhat More Peaceful World," our language about "freedom" and such just doesn't jive with Muslim religious sensibilities. But, he continues,

It is more than conceivable that millions of Muslims desire to live under a government that can make a plausible claim to be Islamic and that is respectful of basic human rights... There are Muslim thinkers -- usually and somewhat misleadingly called moderates -- who believe that such a form of government is possible, and we should be listening to them.

In other words, Islam may not know what to do with "liberal democracy," but a Muslim can recognize a good government when he sees one. And if that government happens to keep the peace, uphold equal treatment under the law, and is to some extent determined through elections... is it that much of a stretch that Sunnis and Shiites might decide it's not worth it anymore to keep killing each other?

The caveat, of course, is that I know I'm speaking largely in general principles, and I have little clue whether certain inconvenient facts on the ground bely my musings. Like whether we have anywhere close to enough troops to keep this up. But facts need to be filtered through principles before they become meaningful analysis, and I think the pessimists' larger assumptions are off. And that gives me hope.

And now that I've written something a bit more controversial than "God loves us" or "Riverside Park is pretty," can I please get some comments?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Am I Cursed?

Something about me just seems to push governors over the edge. Consider my record:

August 2003: Start college in Claremont, CA.
October 2003: Gray Davis recalled.

May 2004: Return home to Connecticut for the summer.
June 2004: John Rowland resigns, sent to prison.

May-June 2006: Spend two weeks at my folks' house in Virginia. There for less than a week when George Allen (a former gov) goes macaca.

And now there's this. Needless to say, it's been a busy day at the office.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Gatsby, part 2

A quarrelsome comment on one of my earlier posts reminds me that I have yet to complete my thoughts on the great The Great Gatsby, and what on earth it has to do with Harvey Mansfield’s commentary on the role of literature in politics.

Here, by the way, is my first post on the subject.

First, though, to answer my good friend Andy Sinclair, who raises the standard for political science against Mansfield’s harsh assessment of its worthiness. My only reply is that I never meant to denigrate science, as I’m sure Mansfield didn’t as well. Working at a down-to-earth establishment like The Post has given me an even greater appreciation for the social sciences. You’re not going to make any headway in a debate about education or policing policy by constantly returning to first principles. Not only are people understandably suspicious of them, they also often have different ones. This may be unfortunate, but when your neighbors are getting shot, the best way to turn things around isn’t to convince your councilman of the wisdom of the Republic or the Summa.

Of course, that’s really not even the point. The point is that you need science and its method to figure out what’s going on and how to fix it. Good social science saved New York.

And I’m sure the same principle applies in the more specific realm of political science. The most charismatic candidate with the best ideas isn’t going anywhere without a grounded campaign apparatus, and even the most seasoned campaign managers rely on the meticulous study of the electoral landscape and the patterns of the past.

So, Andy, I swear on my high school math league trophies that just as you have nothing against literature and philosophy, I have nothing against math and science. If the debate comes down to what needs more emphasis in today's academy or politics, I suppose we'd both be partisans of our respective focuses. Or maybe not. My point (and I think Mansfield's as well) is not so much that there's too much science and not enough literature, but rather that we need to understand their proper relationship, and hope that this may ennoble both.

As Mansfield says, science is very good at telling us the what and the how, but not the who or the why. The problem occurs when science, perhaps absorbed by its method, claims metaphysical significance that it can't support. The most eggregious violator here was Karl Marx, an economist who thought that economics could explain everything. This presumption, of course, led to some very poor economics.

Today, the problem is not so much with scientifically-inspired dogmatic ideology as with scientifically-inspired dogmatic lack of ideology, or dogmatic agnosticism, if you will. Mansfield speaks of science's suspicion of anything that can't be counted, asserting that it's had terrible consequences for American political discourse. I think his diagnosis is spot-on, and I think the last 20 years of New York City politics proves it.

I promise I'll get to Gatsby. But first I need to explain what I mean. Next post.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Two for the Fourth

Here are two articles I've recently come across that I highly recommend.

"Iraq and the Neoconservatives" is by the brilliant scholar and rumored Presidential dark horse Charles Kesler. It's rather long, but absolutely worth it. It's about the evolution and internal debates within the neoconservative movement and how they're reflected in current thinking about the Iraq war. Prominent is the relationship between politics and culture, and the debate over which influences which.

This one
isn't quite as long or as refined, but it says what needs to be said.

Happy Independence Day!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Greyhound on the Hudson River line

It's time for another post. I know I've promised a discourse on the philosophical significance of The Great Gatsby, and I also still need to explain how my reflections on the end of John's gospel disprove the Protestant Reformation. But those are fairly weighty subjects, and I appreciate your patience.

For now, it's come to my attention that I haven't blogged at all yet about New York itself--this city that I've already come to love. I've had the opportunity this weekend to see a bit more of it, so this seems as good a time as any. The following observations have no particular unifying theme, and I promise that any prescient nuggets of sociological or philosophical wisdom that may emerge are completely accidental.

Riverside Park: Probably my favorite place in the city. My apartment is on the far west end of Manhattan island (around 63rd street), so I have a very nice view of the Hudson River when I stick my head out my window. I'm a short walk away from Riverside Park (the park along the river, if you haven't figured it out), which is a wonderful place to go for a stroll, especially around sunset. Stroll out on one of the piers, and you have a clean view of the George Washington Bridge to your right and downtown Manhattan to your left. It's just sweet.

Although maybe I misspoke. Riverside Park is best known as the place where all the beautiful liberal yuppies on the Upper West Side go to walk their dogs and push their strollers. It's a wonderful park, to be sure, but it technically only starts north of 72nd street. The area I'm more stricken with is the Hudson River Park, which stretches intermittently along the river from 72nd street down to lower Manhattan. I haven't explored the length of it, but at least the part near my place has a more, well, romantic quality to it. It's still pretty and safe (so far as I can tell), and there's lots of nice places to sit and look at the river, but there's also more of a gothic element. There's the waste treatment facility right next to the old creepy-looking parking garage, the basketball hoops and bike path directly underneath the raised highway, and a decaying wooden half-sunken structure of some sort sticking out into the water. I just wish the benches weren't so new.

Governor's Island: May give Riverside Park a run for its money. I just visited today for the first time. It's a national monument on the site of a former fort, military barracks and arsenal about 800 feet southeast of Manhattan island. It's also the best view you can find of the lower Manhattan skyline, the Brooklyn Heights skyline, the Jersey City skyline, and the Statue of Liberty. And it's completely free, including the ferry to get there.

Currently only the top half of the island is open to the public, but the city recently decided to develop the rest into some kind of recreation area. They've narrowed the proposals down to five, some of which look really weird.

A side note: even though I grew up in Connecticut, today was the first time I'd ever seen the Statue of Liberty. It actually gave me goosebumps. My only previous experience with Lady Liberty had been through movies about turn-of-the-century immigration, notably The Godfather, Part II and An American Tail. There's something both comforting and challenging in realizing that she's still there.

Speaking of which, here's an article by the beautiful Peggy Noonan on her family's immigrant experience. For all her weaknesses in straight punditry--or perhaps because of them--this is the kind of piece that Peggy can write as well as anyone else alive.

And speaking of the lower Manhattan skyline...

I've had a few opportunities to pass by ground zero in my comings and goings around the city. It's a strange place, and I think it would do me good to linger and pray there one of these days. Quite soon after it happened, I filed 9/11 away in my mind as a significant historical event, but it's hard to escape the physical reality of what happened when you're standing right next to a big pit. Hmmm. There used to be two giant towers here.

It's especially good perspective given what's been going on in Britain recently. I may be in the news business, but it's so much more that just news. This is a perspective I've sensed in some of the real New Yorkers I've gotten to know, especially at the Post editorial page, and it says something about journalism as a vocation. Perhaps more on that later.

Also relevant to the physical reality of ground zero is that it's still right in the middle of the downtown financial district, so there's thousands of people passing by every day just in the normal course of their own business. And there's finally construction going on there--and just in time, because downtown is booming and it needs more office space. Which seems appropriate, although I'm not going to pretend I can speak to how until I've lived here a lot longer.

But one final comment on ground zero. So far as I understand it, there's really no good reason why construction of the new tower couldn't have started years ago, and I've heard it suggested that the delays and all the fights about memorials and the new tower's design and such have gradually transformed ground zero from a monument to American heroism and toughness into a monument to American bureaucratic incompetence.

I don't know about that. I'm reminded of one of my many favorite lines from my favorite movie, Casablanca. The evil German Major Strausser and the unscrupulous Vichy French police chief Captain Renault are in Renault's office talking about Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine and the stolen letters of transit they know he has. Renault tells Strausser that Rick is far too clever to let him find the letters. Strausser disagrees: "You give too much credit to this Mousier Blaine. My impression is that he's just another blundering American."

"One musn't underestimate American blundering," Renault coolly replies. "I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918."

Casablanca is a movie about the American doing the right thing--after he's exhausted all the other options. And as frustrating as it may be to the rest of the world (as it has been in the past), there's something fundamental about the American character there. We may try our best to slink into ignobility, but we also refuse to let the sins of our past hold captive our aspirations to goodness and greatness. There's a persistent sense of youthful innocence about America, and that comes, I think, from an understanding of itself that transcends history.

Ground zero is being rebuilt, which is as fitting a monument as any to what happened there. Ten years from now, no one will care whether it was a few years late in coming.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Gray Lady flashes her colors

When I was soliciting advice a few weeks ago about my tentative decision to intern for the New York Post this summer, Professor Jack Pitney paid the Post a compliment that, like the best compliments, was meaningful because it was descriptive. Sure, he said, the Post may go for the flashy headline, but it's also "gritty" and "real." This, I'm learning, is what distinguishes it from certain other newspapers, which one can only describe as unreal.

Here's what I mean. I started my internship on Monday, and one of my main tasks for this week has been to read all the big New York newspapers--the Post, the Daily News, the Sun, the Times, and the Wall Street Journal--to get a feel for the style of each and for what's been going on around the city.

One of the big recent stories, I discovered, concerned two separate incidents in which police had detained members of the street gang called the Latin Kings. In the first, a large group of Kings were allegedly being disorderly on their way to a funeral for a slain comrade; in the second, a crowd wearing the Kings' gang colors was arrested at New York's Puerto Rico Day parade. There, the gang had been denied its request to participate, and the police were concerned that they would attempt to crash the party.

Clearly, there are lots of different angles to this story. A few bystander kids at the parade were detained simply because they happened to be wearing the wrong colors, raising the question of how broad police powers to preempt possible threats to public order should be, and to what extent they should employ various sorts of profiling. The Post, for its part, pointed out the disorderly behavior of the kids on the way to the funeral and argued that the various "community leaders" who praised these kids for "standing up for their civil rights" were simply enabling a PR-savvy group of street thugs.

The New York Times, however, determined that the story needed some, uh... broader perspective. Apparently "many New Yorkers" are under the impression that street gangs stopped existing when West Side Story left Broadway. Gang colors, the author helpfully explains, are just like Gucci "horse bits" or children's soccer referees' uniforms in Riverside Park--they help you express your identity.

Or maybe they're just like the uniforms of that other street gang, the NYPD. At least, so says "Almighty Sire," a member of the Kings that this reporter interviews for her story. Sure, she eventually gets around to talking to the police, who present a very different view of what the gangs are and what they do, but nothing in the story indicates that she takes them any more seriously than the Kings themselves.

I guess this reporter would tell you that she was just being "objective." If so, it's a mighty strong indication that "objective journalism" simply doesn't exist, or at least that it shouldn't exist. All journalists should be fair, which often involves admitting that there are things they either don't or can't know. But they should also acknowledge that even when the truth doesn't come down clearly on one side of an issue or the other, it comes down somewhere.

This "he said, she said" blather that passes for journalism at the New York Times, however, isn't fair or good. It may be "objective," but it's also a blatant shirking of a journalist's first responsibility, which is to figure out what's going on. Meanwhile, this reporter lets her own cultural background and biases shine through as if they were completely normal.

Read the two columns linked above, and then tell me what should be New York's "paper of record."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

On Loving God

The 21st chapter of John's gospel might very well be my favorite chapter of the entire Bible. It comes right at the end, and it recounts Jesus' post-resurrection appearance to his disciples, and particularly to Peter, along the Sea of Galilee. It's a deeply moving passage, and there's so much rich and various stuff that can be taken from it. I'm sure entire books could be written based on reflections from this chapter, and I'm sure they have.

But I'm not going to write a book here. (At least that's not my intention--you, reading the final version of this post have a better idea than I do of how long this is actually going to be. For me, promises of brevity tend to come at the beginning of especially long reflections.)

Anyway, one thing in particular has struck me about this passage over the past few days, and that's Peter's peculiar boldness. At this point in John's gospel, Peter has already seen the resurrected Jesus once before. Surely he shared in the joy of the rest of the disciples, but he played no prominent role in that first meeting. Now, as this passage opens, he's gone back to his old pre-Jesus occupation of fishing, and we can be sure that fresh in his mind is his three-time denial of Jesus the previous Friday.

If Peter is feeling ashamed of his denial, Jesus does nothing to ease the burden, at least at first. He calls him by his old name, "Simon, son of John," and he asks three times, "do you love me," mirroring the three times Peter had denied even knowing him. By the third time, John even tells us that Peter felt hurt by the questioning.

And this is where Peter's response is so interesting. He says not just "yes, Lord, I love you," but "you know that I love you."

"Really?" a less friendly Jesus might retort. "The evidence would indicate the contrary. Sure, you were my best friend when I was doing all sorts of miracles and the crowds thought I was great, but when times got rough, when I could have used a friend, you said you didn't even know me. Is that love? What separates you from the rest of the crowd that was praising me one day and demanding my death the next?"

Is this what was running through Peter's mind as Jesus asked him "do you love me?" the third time? Was Jesus just waiting for the right answer, that he clearly didn't? But Peter's third answer, even through all the hurt and the pathos, is even more emphatic: "Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you."

This passage has been on my mind because I've felt a lot like Peter in the past few weeks. It's not that I've denied my Lord recently, at least not directly. But having just graduated last month, and starting work next week (I started this post last week), I am in the middle of a big transition. My familiar roles and relationships and surroundings--the concrete, day-to-day stuff through which I sought to follow and came to know Christ--are gone, and they haven't been replaced by anything comparable yet. And not quite sure what to do with myself, the temptation is to go back to fishing, as it were--to entertain again all the old habits and ambitions and attitudes that defined me before I found my firm identity in Christ.

And this is where Peter's boldness is so striking. I think that in Christian life, the doubt we sometimes struggle with the most is not so much whether God loves us, but whether we love God. It's a dignifying doubt, because it means that we're not satisfied with being passive receptors of God's one-way love, and we realize that that's not what a true loving relationship looks like anyways. But it's also an especially difficult doubt, because like with Peter, an honest look at our lives will turn up mountains of evidence that we don't really love God all that much.

Sure, we can come to an understanding that God forgives us for this or that sin, but what does that look like practically? How do we sort through the ugly stuff our sin reveals to us about who we are?

If this is what Peter is wondering, then Jesus asks the perfect question. It's not, "are you very very sorry for what you've done?" or "do you promise never to do it again?" It's "do you love me?" framed in such a way as to make clear to Peter that his answer means everything.

And Peter says yes. Think about the implications of that for a minute. When we say "God loves me," we see ourselves as fortunate, grateful recipients of an amazing love that we could never merit on our own. This is all both true and wonderful. But it's never quite satisfied me--or at least, I've never felt like I understood the love I was receiving well enough if I just left it at that. But to say as well, "I love God" is another matter entirely. It's a plain and bold assertion of the self to presume that such a statement would even mean anything at all. We not only receive with gratitude but stake our claim as free beings to a part in the eternal plan of our creator.

What I'm missing, then, in thinking of myself as simply receiving from God is that sense of my own self, that what I do matters, and even that it matters eternally. This is also, I think, why I sometimes have such a hard time understanding God's forgiveness. How does one hear "you're forgiven" without hearing also, "it doesn't matter what you did--your actions don't have consequences"?

And so we return to Peter, and realize that while we may be free beings, we're broken ones as well. Peter has the boldness to say "I love you," but he's in no position to back up the claim with evidence of his own. As we've seen, the recent evidence largely points the other way. We may want to stake our claim to a place in God's eternal design, but it's plain that we have no business doing so.

But Peter doesn't just say "I love you" like he's entitled, or like he can back it up. He stakes his case of Jesus' knowledge. "You know everything. You know that I love you." The famously bumbling Peter has a knack for stumbling upon the exact right answer when it really matters, and here, he seems to intuit that despite the great evidence against his love, there is a deeper truth, firm within God's all-encompassing knowledge, that acquits him.

Because the truth is that Peter really does love Jesus. He wouldn't have followed him for three years or jumped out of the boat and swam to shore this last time if that weren't so. God knows this and counts it to our credit, even when we make a weak and poor show of expressing it, and even when we're tempted to doubt it ourselves.

This is not to say that in our love for God we somehow merit his response by our own power. Rather, God's interest is in accepting our weak love because he is the one who planted that love within us. And Peter can be so confident that Jesus knows his love because he recognizes Jesus as the source of that love. It was Jesus who called Peter, Jesus whose spirit inflamed and excited Peter's along the journey, and Jesus who returned to claim and regenerate Peter's love when Peter was tempted to return to his old ways.

There is amazing comfort in this passage, especially in times of spiritual dryness. To borrow from Reagan, it's often the case that in our Christian walks, we don't need to be taught nearly as much as we need to remember. So John 21 is a good passage to reflect on in times of uncertainty or self-doubt, because it reminds us that if we've ever felt God's love in our lives, or if the Gospel has ever excited our minds and our hearts, we can say with a boldness that isn't our own, "you know that I love you."


One final thought. It strikes me that this passage may have some significance, if only as a clarifier, in the theological debates that sprung from the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church has always adhered to the formula that we are saved through a combination of faith in Christ and good works, while Luther raised the banner for "faith alone." The Catholic formulation is founded in scripture--it comes from the injunction in James 2:14: "what good is it, brothers, if you say you have faith but do not have works?", arguing that such a faith is dead. Nevertheless, it can be a fairly misleading way of expressing the Catholic doctrine on justification, leading to the conclusion--played out in Catholic popular piety throughout the ages--that it is the works themselves that justify us before God.

A better and more theologically precise way of expressing Catholic doctrine would be to say that we are saved through faith and love. Of course, the wide majority of Protestants, taking James seriously as well, would say that intellectual assent to the statement "Jesus Christ is God" is not enough for salvation. Someone--the devil falls into this category--could theoretically believe this about Jesus and hate him for it. Loving God is essential for true faith to be present.

The real debate concerns what is called the "process of imputation." Both sides believe that ultimately, we are saved by God's grace. None of us can achieve a saving faith or a saving love by ourselves. The faith we need is itself a gift from God. But what does the process by which God instills in us faith in him and love for him look like? I think I'll leave that as a cliffhanger for now, because I kind of want to go for a walk down by the river, and this post is plenty long as it is. I'll wrap up my thoughts and tie it all back to Peter in my next (?) post.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

On Harvey Mansfield and Jay Gatsby

Last month, Harvey Mansfield, the great Harvard professor and East-Coast Straussian, delivered the 2007 Jefferson Lecture, which is the highest honor the U.S. government bestows for intellectual achievement in the humanities. It's an absolutely brilliant lecture, and you all should read it if you haven't already.

In the lecture, Mansfield argues for a renewed appreciation of importance of the humanities, and literature in particular, for politics. The problem with modern political science, he says, is that it is far too much of a science, with science's inherent distrust of anything that can't be counted or measured. Our modern thinking about politics, therefore, is too focused on "who gets what, when, and how," with the emphasis (mine added) on the process and the quantity of the getting, instead of on the nature of the who.

But "who is man?" is properly the central question at the foundation of politics, and it is a question to which science--including social science--can only present inadequate biologically-based assumptions as answers. Such agnosticism, Mansfield seems to imply, is what leads to the weak pragmatism that informs our debased and entitlement-heavy modern political discourse. He contends further--and more fundamentally--that our natural understanding of ourselves and our self-importance is something far beyond what science alone can tell us. The way he puts it is that we think in proper names, while science wants to reduce everything to common nouns.

And this is where literature comes in. Social science can help us categorize our behaviors, but it cannot adequately explain why we do what we do. Certainly, there may be evolutionary answers to things, but those answers do not take into account our thumos--our unique sense of self-importance, or the way in which our passions, unlike those of all other animals, are channeled by reason into a broader sense of justice.

Anyway, enough about Mansfield. I won't delve into all the wonderful things in his lecture that flow from his premise. I'll only offer, for those of you that read the lecture, that the deep wisdom of what he uncovers about the human condition through his classical/literary approach is a strong testament to the legitimacy and primacy of that approach.

What I find fascinating, rather, is the way he extracts political wisdom from literature that, for all we know, was never explicitly written to convey such and such a point. He's discussing the origins of justice, and boom!, there's Achilles in Homer's Iliad as the perfect example of what he's talking about. It reminds me of the "Shakespeare's Politics" independent study I did with Harry Jaffa several years ago, in which we would just sit in his office for an hour or two a week and talk about the political philosophy themes in Shakespeare's plays. There was so much interesting stuff that Jaffa was able to squeeze out of them that I half believed that Shakespeare had studied under Leo Strauss as well.

It goes without saying, of course, that Shakespeare had never heard of Strauss, who died in 1973. But I would contend that neither Jaffa nor Mansfield is guilty of anti-historical proof-texting, of tenuously imposing their ideas on the greats of the past. Instead, their expositions point to the power of great literature to express something fundamental about the human condition. Shakespeare may not have been a political philosopher, but he was nevertheless brilliant at observing and comprehending how people interact with themselves and each other, and equally brilliant at putting it all in verse. And if I may be so bold, it strikes me that when we as modern men and women relate on a gut level with Hamlet or Homer, we are adding supporting evidence for the hypothesis (I won't quite say we're proving it) that there exists some kind of distinct and timeless human nature.

But I digress. The reason we relate in the first place, as Mansfield says, is that literature, like ourselves and unlike science, uses proper names. We're relating not to man as a species or a sociological grouping, but to Achilles and Hamlet and Gatsby as individual people. And literature, again like ourselves and unlike science, has to take a stand. All good literature (I don't think I'm exaggerating) makes an implicit or explicit statement about some aspect of who we are. The statement may be surrounded by mystery or confusion (or both--Tolstoy comes to mind) but it's out there in the world of the book being lived.

So then. Science, for all the wonderful things it has given us, needs the special perspective found through literature to understand us fully. In my limited travels, I've found it to be a good maxim that you never really understand something until you understand how it understands itself. And when the object of study is ourselves, I would hope--in fact I would assert, and Mansfield would back me up--that our self-understanding has a strong connection to the truth of who we actually are. And this brings me to the specific piece of literature known as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and to a long conversation I've been having with a worthy companion about the nature of self-deception.

But alas, it's already 2 am, and I'm getting up at 7 to bring my car to the mechanic, so Gatsby must wait for another day--sometime soon, I promise. I also promise posts in the near future that aren't quite so long and obtuse.

I leave with only one closing thought. If the social sciences need the help of literature to reach their ends, might we also say the same about philosophy, or even theology. Friedrich Nietzsche (who, lest we forget, was as brilliant as he was nuts) once said that proper philosophy should be sung. One might respond that proper philosophy should be expected to make sense as well, but I wonder whether he wasn't on to something. Oh well. It was a promising thought when I had it, but now I'm too tired to remember where I was going with this. In any case, don't trust a philosopher who can't tell you his favorite novel. And for all my philosopher friends out there--what's yours?