Saturday, June 28, 2008
The bad news: It's only because they're about to capture a city of 3 million people.
FLASHBACK: The battle for Swat, a region some of us know all too well.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
This is from the front page of the Times this morning. Not sure what to think yet -- other than that (with the possible exception of the photo they put above the fold) it's one of the more blood-boiling things I've seen in quite a while.
It's the flip-side, I guess, of the mass exodus of Iraqi Christians since the rise of the insurgency: Those who have stayed have been forced to pay handsomely for the privilege -- with the protection money becoming a major source of funding for Al Qaeda & Co.
I've been trying for a while to imagine myself in the shoes of one of those Iraqi priests -- and increasingly longing for the stark moral clarity of a deny-Christ-or-be-eaten-by-lions type deal.
I hope I could say with a straight face that I wouldn't pay; cooperating with that kind of evil just doesn't seem to fall under the rubric of "rendering unto Caesar." As for those who did: There's a kind of humbling relief that such a decision wasn't my cross to bear -- just as it's now not my place to judge.
Still, I can't help but be struck by the model of Archbishop Rahho. Who knows whether he felt any of the shame for making the payments that comes through from the other Christians in the article -- but it certainly didn't stop him from denouncing them as soon as he saw his opening. Probably a lesson there.
May his martyrdom be a powerful one -- especially in a climate that tosses that word around far too often.
Rest in peace.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
For the record, I enjoyed the movie -- which is like some of the other M. Night Shyamalan films I've seen in that they often need to age a little while before you realize just how silly they are.
One of Shyamalan's more obnoxious tells is that whenever he wants the audience to know something of significance to the plot, he'll have one of his bit characters just come out and say it. Thus, he uses his own cameo in Signs to tell the Mel Gibson character -- without any indication as to how on earth he might have come across this knowledge -- that he thinks the scary alien invaders are allergic to water. Which, of course, turns out to be true.
So as soon as the creepy old botanist who's fleeing the yet-unknown phenomenon that's causing everyone along the eastern seaboard to kill themselves randomly tells Mark Wahlberg, "I think I know what's doing this. It's the plants." -- well, you know it's the plants.
Turns out, the entire northeastern flora has up and decided its finally time to punish humanity for their wicked, polluting ways -- or, in more scientific terms, rapidly evolve a chemical defense mechanism that attacks people's self-preservation instinct.
Anthony Sacramone over at First Things has some interesting and only half tongue-in-cheek thoughts as to why the film's message might not be entirely as eco-radical as meets the eye, before coming to the conclusion that it's best not to think too hard about all this.
Which is probably true, because what I picked up from the film was a sneaky and none-too-coherent attack on nuclear power.
The question gets raised from time to time throughout the movie: Why is this "happening" only happening in the northeastern United States? We never find out for sure. But during the split-second that Wahlberg flips on the radio in an abandoned truck he finds, Shyamalan makes sure the entire audience knows (see above rule) that the northeast contains the highest concentration of nuclear power plants in the country. Then there are those cooling towers ominously (and probably anachronistically) looming over our heroes as they flee through the hills of eastern Pennsylvania. And the very last scene -- after everything's supposedly returned to normal -- contains rumblings of a new attack in (of all places) France.
Though one wonders whether Shyamalan's killer flowers have really thought this out all the way. If its really nuclear power that's got them in such a tizzy -- as opposed to deforestation, or greenhouse gasses, or suburban sprawl -- do they really want to be killing off all the people who run the plants in the first place?
Friday, June 13, 2008
Okay, not quite -- but among the many adventures of my junket to Albany was a brief appearance on Post State Editor Fred Dicker's daily radio show, which he hosts every morning from his office on the third floor of the Capitol. I'd be remiss, I suppose, if I didn't at least confess to the existence of a recording -- and though I at least held my own, I can't say my appearance was all that impressive.
Some people, as they say, have the face for radio. I'm still working on it.
Had I had my wits about me, I might have observed that Albany is a city of paradoxes. The first is the state version of that old chestnut that everyone hates "Congress" but loves their own congressman. I really did enjoy most of the politicians I met -- with full knowledge that they wouldn't get many votes if they weren't good at leaving that impression. Their office also pleads their case: A people worthy of democracy must be capable of elevating at least some competent and honorable men and women to lead it.
Otherwise, "By their works you shall know them" -- though that's perhaps not as friendly a judgment. I recommend Fred's show for a taste of what all this actually looks like.
The other paradox is something akin to what G.K. Chesterton called the "entirely practical and prosaic statement" that "whoever will lose his life, the same shall save it" -- or perhaps to Merry the Hobbit's insight from Lord of the Rings: "The closer we are to danger, the farther we'll be from harm." In other words (Chesterton again) the paradox of courage.
Not that you see much courage up there, of course; it's rather that if you look with open eyes, you start to see with precision the otherwise obscure moments where courage, and justice, and temperance, and study are lacking -- and thus, the ennobling role the virtues can play in shaping politics, even where "three men in a room" is the law of the land.
And as far as inspiration goes, that sure beats another tired Obama stump speech. At least, once you learn how to breathe through the fumes.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
It's actually something my boss and I had been talking about for a while, but I just found out yesterday that he's sending me to Albany on Monday, this time for an entire week. The purpose: my continuing education in the utterly dysfunctional ways of New York government.
It should be useful. Next week's the second-to-last week of the legislative session, so its an especially happening time. Plus, I'll get to spend the week under the tutelage of the universally acknowledged "most feared reporter in Albany," Post state editor Fredric U. Dicker.
Just as long as I can decontaminate my soul when I get back.
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Monday, June 2, 2008
New York's illustrious state capital gets a bad rap from those city-folk forced to do business in it. It's small, far away, and there's nothing to do, they say. Personally, I don't see what all the fuss is about. Then again, I was only up there for one night.
The occasion was the annual Legislative Correspondents Association Dinner and Show, a black-tie affair where the Albany press corps gets to mock the state's powers that be -- largely to their faces. Let's just say they had a lot of material to work with this year. Video "rebuttals" were provided by Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco and Mayor Bloomberg (here and here, if you're at all curious). Perhaps more on this later.
But back to Albany. I'm something of a democrat when it comes to geography: every location has some hidden charm, whether we're talking about Willets Point or Staten Island. Albany is no exception. It's actually quite a pretty town in many respects. Plus it's right on the Hudson, and the train ride up from the city (a leisurely two-and-a-half hours) is absolutely gorgeous.
The centerpiece of all this is the Capitol building (above), a late-19th centure structure that (you can see) must be delightful to work in.
And then came Nelson Rockefeller. Here's the Capitol again, this time from the side. It's really the kind of building in which you can imagine big, important people like Teddy Roosevelt and Al Smith (for all their faults) doing big, important things:
Now here's what happens when you turn around:
And what on earth is this thing?
Thursday, May 22, 2008
And that Cory Booker is an impressive guy. The MI had the young mayor of Newark over this morning for a breakfast lecture, purportedly on his new prison-to-work program, but what ultimately became the general story of the city as he found it two years ago, and what he's been doing since.
The background story is better laid out here, but the cartoon summary is that when New York City had Rudy Giuliani, Newark got stuck with Sharpe James, who Booker finally unseated in 2006. Booker's a democrat, but a young, tough-on-crime, school-vouchers-believing one, for whom the sky's the limit politically if he can actually deliver as promised.
Which would be a very good thing, at least judging from the 45 min I got to hear him talk. He's been compared to Barack Obama (young, black, charismatic, community organizer type), but while there are other things to recommend him over Obama, he's not quite as smooth.
He's even got a bit of that Mike-Bloomberg-post-partisan-problem-solver vibe, which would be annoying -- the one cringe-inducing moment of the breakfast came when, searching briefly for the right turn of phrase, he came up with "inefficiencies of the human spirit" -- if the problems he was facing weren't of such a greater magnitude, and if he didn't have the serious street cred to back it up.
His success, of course, remains to be seen, but all signs still indicate that this guy is for real. It tells you something about a guy when he moves into the housing projects immediately upon being elected to the city council and stays there for 8 years -- camping out on the street, among other things, to protest the lack of police protection.
As mayor, not only has he seriously cut the city's crime rate already, he'll also quite frequently tag along with cops on their nightly patrols, sometimes -- sometimes -- chasing down criminals himself.
I'm not quite sure what to think of that last part. It reminds me a bit of Winston Churchill's stint as home secretary back before WWI, when he once famously insisted on commanding a police confrontation with a group of anarchists holed up inside their London hideout. There's a school of thought that says that the great man didn't exactly help matters with his presence.
Then again, it was all part of the same package: A leader who had a strong enough sense of himself and his purpose to think to do something like that as anything more than a PR stunt.
So yeah, press work has its perks.
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Thursday, May 15, 2008
One of the benefits of being away is that I've had occasion to think a bit about this blog -- what I like, what I don't like, and what I'd like to do more of. Some thoughts:
*Three-week vacations aside, this is my 88th post in just under a year. (Yes, it's been that long.) Considering the shelf-life of most comparable "random musings"-style blogs, that's not half bad. I congratulate myself.
*I said when I started this thing that I hoped it would be a good exercise in disciplining my writing. How disciplined I've been, of course, is open to debate, but I've grown to appreciate blogging as a way to preserve my own voice in the midst of a day job that has me writing in a very different style. That's something I want to keep up. To that end, I'm going to try to cut down on posts like these, which -- while fun -- don't really say anything. Not that I'll leave off-beat subjects completely alone, just that when I have something to say about them, I'll actually take the time to say it.
*I suppose I'd be kidding myself if I thought I could completely avoid blogging about the election in the next few months. Still, it's something I'd like to get away from as much as possible. One of the great failings of this blog, as I see it, has been my lack of effort in giving a good account of my life in the city -- which, if I'm honest with myself, probably speaks to my own lack of serious contemplation on that score. No more. Expect this blog to get somewhat more personal in nature, but always with an eye to presenting useful insights and observations in that context. I promise not to start navel-gazing on you.
*To that end, a couple of ideas I've been kicking around for a while: One is to post more about what I'm reading at the moment, whenever I come across something useful to say. This naturally includes interesting lectures I've been to or movies I've seen (of which there have been several lately). The second is to start a bit of travel journaling. One of my favorite things to do here remains to find some random area of the city I've yet to explore, then take an hour or two just walking around. I'll start bringing a camera, too. Though I suppose I should start with a bit of an ode to my own neighborhood, which I've become quite taken with. Stay tuned.
Friday, April 25, 2008
Pope Benedict's visit was obviously a wonderful, holy thing. But from a logistics standpoint, I'm made to understand from folks on the fringes of the storm, it was also something of a nightmare.
Kinda like you'd expect.
My experience with this was relatively minor. Saturday morning (as I started to describe in the post previous), I was one of a hundred-odd volunteers assisting at the Papal mass for clergy and religious at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Supposedly, our role was to meet the priests as they got off their busses and escort them to the rooms reserved at the Palace Hotel where they could change into their vestments. (No one, obviously, was allowed to get anywhere close to the Cathedral on their own initiative.) Thing was, the clergyfolk knew the drill already, so our job basically became to stand in line along the sidewalk corridor leading to the hotel and greet them as they passed by.
This was actually very cool. For one thing, I had no idea that nuns had so many different kinds of habits. Plus the weather was gorgeous. I was also standing right there as busses and busses of bishops unloaded for their procession, and again as the entire American delegation of cardinals filed out of the hotel.
Then there was lots of free food and plenty of downtime while the mass was going on. Problem was, no one was really around to explain to us where we needed to be next, or when. And we were the least of anyone's problems. There was the bus full of priests that broke down and couldn't get into the cathedral for security reasons until -- somehow this mattered -- the pope was already seated. There was the Secret Service deciding not to let through any more people who had special tickets to stand on the steps of the cathedral. A friend and I finally found a "volunteer coordinator" who had little more idea than we did as to what was next (not much, it turns out), but who told us all kinds of tales of woe from that morning -- most of them involving the Secret Service and the NYPD contradicting each other at every turn.
I found it hard to get frustrated at any of this. I was fine, it was a beautiful day, the pope was there and besides, don't these things tend to happen when four or five all-important institutions get together to coordinate a series of massive, max-security events in the busiest city on earth? Nothing more than a gentle lesson in human folly, poised in poetic contradistinction to the presence of the Vicar of Christ next door.
Or so I thought, until I found out that this very confusion was my chance for a much-coveted ticket to Yankee Stadium.
As it turned out, this volunteer coordinator was also working for the archdiocese on the papal visit, and she shared with us (as a variation on a theme) that there were still loads of tickets to the next day's mass that hadn't been given out. Again, this didn't surprise me greatly, given what I gathered was the intricate politics of distribution (with each parish and diocese just so) and the supposition that at least some people who had reserved tickets wouldn't show up to claim them.
But I didn't expect to be able to walk right into the official archdiocesan papal visit command center and ask for some.
Yet that's precisely what this woman suggested we do. Needless to say, we set out immediately (the offices were ten blocks away), and after a few minutes with a confused security guard, we were welcomed right upstairs.
The woman who greeted us was juggling ten other things -- "The governor's office is on the phone! They want to know about the photographer!" -- but she wasted little time handing us (at my friend's request) two tickets apiece.
Then she took them back. They were handicapped reserved. But out came two pairs of new ones, with the promising label "FIELD CHMP SEC 15, BX 59." Didn't know exactly what "field chmp" meant, but it sure sounded nice.
By now, it was becoming ever more apparent that they still had more tickets than they knew what to do with. So I went for it: "Can I have four?"
Moral of the story? Always ask.
I hesitated for a while to share this too broadly, lest anyone who missed out on tickets trying through the proper channels bemoan (understandably) the unfairness of it all. But as I think back on it (if you'll follow me for a second), that's precisely what made the whole thing kinda special.
There were any number of reasons the powers that be could have cited to turn away two brash young volunteers who showed up the day before the event. There was a system, after all -- as there needed to be, especially for something as big and important as the pope.
But there we were, and so were the tickets -- and as I'm sure the pope reminded us at some point during his visit, if everything were meted out by the standards of exacting justice, we'd all be goners anyway.
Besides, God wouldn't like it as much.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Saturday, April 19, 2008
But we did get to see the pope. Very briefly. After our "duties" (and breakfast) were over, about 70 of us kind of just filed through these metal detectors separating the hotel from, well, another gate separating us from Madison ave, where his motorcade passed on the way to the cathedral.
Anyway, still thinking about that UN address from yesterday. The tension that jumps right off the page, of course is the vast gulf of seriousness separating Benedict from the body that commands his "deepest respect" or whatever his precise wording was. There's more than a touch of absurdity in delivering a friendly, general-sounding lecture on the importance and foundation of human rights to a body that's elected Iran, Cuba and Saudi Arabia to its Human Rights Council.
And yet. Benedict was never going to give a public tongue-lashing to dictators. That's not his way -- and it probably wouldn't do much good anyway. But there's a few spots in his speech that give the distinct impression that he's up to something just as radical.
I don't know, for example, exactly what he was up to when he said:
"Every state has the primary responsibility to protect its own population from gross and sustained violations of human rights... If states are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the UN Charter and other international instruments."
-- But it's the kind of statement that makes the Bush doctrine seem downright isolationist. And I don't doubt he knows exactly how pathetic the UN has been in this regard for the entirety of its history.
Then he launches on a discourse as to how human rights require a foundation in the natural order of things -- that is, in a full understanding of the human person -- to be effective.
And he has this to say: "When faced with new and insistent challenges, it is a mistake to fall back on a pragmatic approach, limited to determining 'common ground,' minimal in content and weak in its effect."
Say what? Pragmatic, common-ground approaches to human-rights issues is what the UN was DESIGNED for. The soviet bloc and the West were never going to agree even as to what "human rights" consist of -- let alone how to promulgate them. But it was concievably a good thing to have a place for us to talk and vote about stuff before we started firing missiles.
Indeed, as I'm pretty sure I understand from the people who think about these things, the thrust of the post-WWII "human rights" project has remarkably little to do with discerning the true foundations of liberty -- to the extent that it doesn't reject the possibility of such a foundation explicitly. It's much more along the lines of: "What are the bad things that we can all get together and agree (for whatever reason) to call bad?" And the absence of each bad thing gets to be called a "human right."
Benedict would argue -- with ample evidence, if he chose to employ it -- that that approach doesn't quite work.
The question for us: What would the United Nations look like without it?
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Friday, April 18, 2008
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
As I understand it, Fr. Reese is presenting a fairly well-worn argument: The Vatican is too top-down authoritarian; that's not how it always was; and given the post-Vatican II embrace of modernity, the Church should finally adjust its governance to our democratic age.
By, among other things, returning the selection of bishops to a general election of the faithful. I'm hardly of the competence to comment on any of his other proposals, but this one strikes me as a seriously bad idea. And Reese basically makes the argument for me.
As he acknowledges, the centralization of power in the papacy in the first place was in part a response to meddling in Church affairs by secular powers. But then there's this remarkable specimen of comfortable, Western-style obliviousness: "But now that few kings or noblemen are in a position to meddle with the church," he says, "one could argue that such centralization is no longer necessary -- and that it is in fact counterproductive."
No position whatsoever -- as any good Catholic from China to Zimbabwe will gladly tell you.
I'm all for the Church embracing the modern world, but -- and I'm starting to believe that this is the fundamental divide between liberal and conservative Catholics -- there's still a huge open question as to what the modern world we're embracing consists of.
Is it the peaceful, tolerant, democratic world of liberal imagination -- or something a lot more complex? Because if, as both the persistence of tyranny and a strong dose of Christian realism attest, humanity has yet to reach its broad, sunlit uplands, we're going to need a strong and independent Church hierarchy for some time to come.
Contrast Reese's take on the demands modernity places on the Church to Pope Benedict's, from his speech at the White House on Wednesday. There's little doubt he's completely alive to the blessings of the modern world -- as he shows, for one, in his great love for the United States. But he has an equally good idea of what might be coming down the pike.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
"[People in economically struggling small-town Pennsylvania] get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Rich Lowry's got a good column here, taking what I'd consider the appropriate amount of umbrage. For me, it's not so much that Obama's some kind of closet Marxist (though I'm sure it's still in the water at Columbia and Harvard). It's not even that he's an "elitist" -- at least as the word should be defined. And yes, I know this kind of unthinking condescension should hardly surprise me. Still, what the hell?
Lowry hits it on the head: "Obama prides himself on his civility, but it has to go much deeper than dulcet rhetoric. A fundamental courtesy of political debate is to meet the other side on its own terms. If someone says he cares about gun rights, it’s rude to insist: 'No, you don’t. It’s the minimum wage that you really care about, and you’d know it if you were more self-aware.' "
In other words, what makes this kind of thing so interesting coming from Obama is that it reveals so strikingly the false promises of "hope" and "change" and "unity" so central to his campaign. (Harvey Mansfield, tangentially, has plenty to say about the kind of civility we really need in politics. Hint: It has nothing to do with "disagreeing without being disagreeable.")
Or think of it this way: What kind of hope does Obama really have in America if he thinks Americans' first reaction to economic hardship is to get "bitter"?
Friday, April 11, 2008
It just so happened this afternoon that my official duties required me to pick through something called Schedule C of the New York City Council's 2008 Adopted Expense Budget. For the layman, that's big stinking piles of municipal pork.
As I understand it, one activates this particular trough (there are others) by getting together with a few other council members and requesting money for a certain city-wide need, which can then get doled out to various favored non-profits.
In any case, I was hardly surprised (this is New York) to discover that one of these items lists Planned Parenthood as the recipient of a cool $50,000. My only question: Did they really need to fund it through the "Infant Mortality Reduction Initiative"?
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Apologies (once again) for the prolonged absence. Feel free to assume that I was off somewhere committing daring and heroic acts in the name of truth and justice. Or something like that.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
And yet. A friend just tipped me off to Anthony Cordesman's latest NY Times column. I know far too little about the war to endorse any particular analysis, but it looks to be a pretty comprehensive (and none-too-uplifting) run-through of all the accompanying political, um, difficulties. Plus, Cordesman's been to Basra recently -- which seems to be a lot more than most folks covering events there can say.
Well, we've been waiting for the next shoe to drop over there. This could -- could -- get a lot worse before it gets better.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
My father, he was Orange, and me mother, she was Green.
--Irish folk song
Sorry this is so late in coming, but hey, if the Catholic Church can change the date of St. Patrick's Day to avoid conflicting with Holy Week, then so can I.
**One of the fascinating things about New York City to me has always been not only how many Irish pubs there are, but how many still seem to be run -- or at least staffed -- by genuine Irish people. I'm fully aware of the extent of the Irish diaspora, but you'd think we would have assimilated by now. Did all these pubs just snatch up the last wave of pre-Celtic Tiger immigrants, or is there something more Disney/Epcot Center-y going on here? Does anybody know?
**Jeremy Grunert of CMC fame, now studying abroad in Belfast, has a fun blog documenting his adventures. Particularly interesting is this post, in which his Catholic Northern Irish roommates tell him the story of the "Troubles" of 1968-98 -- and teach him to stereotype the Orange-folk in the process.
**There were "Troubles," of course, long before the latest (last?) round began in '68, but it took my own visit to London two summers ago for me to realize just how fresh in everyone's memories they still are. I was staying with some Irish priests at the time, and, incidentally, reading Winston Churchill's World War II memoirs for leisure. Churchill relates his frustration, in the early war years, with the stubborn unhelpfulness of the neutral Irish government -- though thanks to the aforementioned diaspora, I was fascinated to learn, he typically went through Roosevelt to get whatever cooperation he could.
And yet, some of the names Churchill was using were unfamiliar to me. So I pulled aside one of the priests and asked in all innocence, "Fr. Martin, who was Eamon De Valera?" Two hours and several pints of cider later, I had my answer.
**It turns out that Churchill was heavily involved in negotiating a settlement for Irish Home Rule before and after WWI, too. In any case, as a Catholic anglophile with joint ancenstry and ecumenical tendencies (i.e., a mutt), I couldn't help but be fascinated with the history (I wound up devoting a good deal of my thesis to Churchill and the Irish question).
One short vignette: Churchill was a negotiator at the 1921 peace conference that laid the foundation for the Irish Free State. Opposite him was Michael Collins, the young and passionate IRA military commander, and soon to be De Valera's bitter enemy in the Irish Civil War. As Churchill tells it, the two of them were one night alone together in Churchill's London apartment, with Collins seething at all manner of past British injustice -- most presently, the 5,000-pound bounty on his head. Churchill responded by fetching a framed reward poster from his own days as an escaped prisoner of war in South Africa. The bounty: 25 pounds.
"He read the paper," Churchill later recounted, "and as he took it in he broke into a hearty laugh. All his irritation vanished. We had a really serviceable conversation, and thereafter…we never to the best of my belief lost the basis of a common understanding."
Lesson: There's nothing like the mutual experience of getting shot at to bring people together.
**Except for maybe a pitcher of cold green beer.
Friday, March 21, 2008
UPDATE: In all seriousness, I have had some occasion to reflect today -- and much along the lines of a poem a good friend turned me on to several years ago. It's called "Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward" by the English poet John Donne:
"...Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl'd by it.
Hence is't, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul's form bends to the East...
"Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
"...Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They're present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and Thou look'st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang'st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face."
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Folks who know me understand that I'm ideologically about as far from techno-utopianism as they come (I was less so then), but Clarke nonetheless had a flair for technological imagination -- i.e., exploring the effects that new discoveries might have on the fabric of human society -- that was quite enthralling to the curious adolescent mind. Plus, his work was delightfully free of the dour dystopian cynicism that pervaded most of the science fiction I was exposed to.
Then there were Clarke's religious opinions: religion is "a necessary evil in the childhood of our particular species," was about as charitable as he got. But even as most of his works set out from that perspective, it always struck me how many of his heroes were deeply religious in the traditional sense -- and how he always tiptoed around the central mysteries of faith. My sense, though it's only a guess, is that he had a begrudging respect for serious religious people whose sense of wonder and mystery were equal to the attitude he took in his contemplation of the future.
In any case, rest in peace.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
But as they say in my business, sometimes news happens.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Buckley was actually one of the first thinkers I knew -- far before I had any interest in what, exactly, made this thing called "conservatism" so great. I was seven, and my dad, impressed but not overwhelmed with my progress in reading, explained that I'd only know I was really getting smart when I could understand a George Will or Bill Buckley column without a dictionary.
Sad to say, The Hartford Courant didn't syndicate Buckley.
Fast forward. Much has been said in recent days about Buckley's penchant for long, elaborate words -- a penchant that the man who taught me to write, the esteemed Prof. Jack Pitney, most certainly didn't share.
Anyway, the Monday before the 2004 elections, Pitney strides into my "American Presidency" class and writes his prediction on the board:
Kerry wins. 50-49%; 291-247.
That didn't happen, though it seemed entirely possible at the time. (Pitney, incidentally, is also the author of the 1994 tome, "Congress' Permanent Minority? Republicans in the US House." Go figure.)
The day after the election, I'm perusing Buckley's column, which is fittingly enough about mistaken election predictions. He tells of two communiques he received in the leadup to election night:
"The first originated with a professor of government in California who, it was bruited, had always succeeded in predicting the outcome of presidential-year elections. The news was given in telegraphic idiom, no curlicues, embellishments, appoggiaturas: 'President: Kerry wins the popular vote 50-49. Kerry wins electoral vote 291-247. Senate: GOP has net gain of two, for a 53-47 majority. House: GOP has net gain of one, for a 230-205 majority.' That bulletin I disclosed to a few of my closest associates."
In telegraphic idiom, no curlicues, embellishments, appoggiaturas...
Buckley would say that about Pitney. And I smiled, as if the great man had made a joke just for me.
Friday, February 22, 2008
Saturday, February 16, 2008
First, my colleague Robert George notices something particularly "Catholic" in Obama's recent (and worth watching) speech at the Virginia Democrats' Jefferson-Jackson dinner. (My response: Catholics can't preach that well.) Then my friend Paul Snatchko says nice things about the way Obama talks about faith in public discourse. Now Kmiec. That's three times in a week. And that's a pattern.
There are other datapoints as well: Several friends of mine just joined the "we really really wish Barack Obama was pro-life" facebook group. (Sorry, guys.) The wonderful JPII memoirist Peggy Noonan, as I've noted before, seems quite taken with the guy. And is it really a coincidence that the perpetual Obama buzzword "hope" just happens to be the subject of Pope Benedict's latest encyclical? (Move over, Deval Patrick!)
Okay, so what gives?
Kmiec's policy oddities (really: if Mitt Romney had any other anti-war, open-borders, global-warming-worried advisers, he didn't tell us about them) only serve to emphasize his broader point: It's all about the rhetoric.
There's no question that Obama's a brilliant speaker, and Kmiec hints at the interesting point that his community-organizing roots have steeped him in a kind of social-justice rhetoric that's friendly toward religion generally and resonates with Catholics specifically.
Plus, he says, Obama has a kind of Reaganesque optimism too him, the kind that "makes America feel good about itself" -- and the kind that attracted the largely Catholic "Reagan Democrats" in the first place.
And that's where I get off. Kmiec may be right about the short-term politics of it all, and Obama's speeches certainly have an inspiring aura to them -- but it's not Reagan. I don't want to speak beyond my competence on this one, but it strikes me that Reagan's and Obama's optimisms come from two very different places.
Just take a look at what Obama's optimistic about: "Yes, we can"; "We are the change that we seek"; "We can build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth"; (yes, he said that). This is a contingent optimism, a hope in the future success of (Obama-led) collective political action.
That hope may -- may -- be well-founded, and it can still be inspiring; one of the appealing things about Obama's rhetoric is its constant invocation of American history (albeit, mostly the parts where collective political movements for "change" have succeeded).
But as Michelle Obama is quickly proving, that kind of "hope" can have an ugly flipside. "This is the first time in my adult life I've been proud of my country," quoth she.
I don't want to take this too far, but I think Mrs. Obama just distilled to its essence exactly what unsettles me about all this "change" stuff in the first place. My question is not so much, "change to what?" -- it's change from what? In other words, what does this cult of "change" ultimately say about the people who cluelessly let things get so bad in the first place?
Again, I'm dealing mostly in tendencies and temptations here, but it strikes me that Obama's brand of "hope" is a very different sort than Reagan's simple trust in the good sense of the American people -- which only needed to be unlocked by the kind of policies he was advocating, not beaten into them by an endless supply of lofty rhetoric.
Think of it another way: For all of Obama's rhetorical brilliance, could you really see him giving Reagan's "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" speech? Could he speak so naturally of an America that already was and is, of ageless values that have little to do with changing our way of doing politics, as important as that sometimes is?
I haven't seen it.
UPDATE: Okay, looks like Peggy Noonan (author of the above speech, incidentally) isn't quite so enamored with Obama after all. And as one would expect, she makes my point far better than I ever could.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
An Imperial Rescript
By Rudyard Kipling
Now this is the tale of the Council the German Kaiser decreed,
To ease the strong of their burden, to help the weak in their need,
He sent a word to the peoples, who struggle, and pant, and sweat,
That the straw might be counted fairly and the tally of bricks be set.
The Lords of Their Hands assembled; from the East and the West they drew —
Baltimore, Lille, and Essen, Brummagem, Clyde, and Crewe.
And some were black from the furnace, and some were brown from the soil,
And some were blue from the dye-vat; but all were wearied of toil.
And the young King said: — "I have found it, the road to the rest ye seek:
The strong shall wait for the weary, the hale shall halt for the weak;
With the even tramp of an army where no man breaks from the line,
Ye shall march to peace and plenty in the bond of brotherhood — sign!"
The paper lay on the table, the strong heads bowed thereby,
And a wail went up from the peoples: — "Ay, sign — give rest, for we die!"
A hand was stretched to the goose-quill, a fist was cramped to scrawl,
When — the laugh of a blue-eyed maiden ran clear through the council-hall.
And each one heard Her laughing as each one saw Her plain —
Saidie, Mimi, or Olga, Gretchen, or Mary Jane.
And the Spirit of Man that is in Him to the light of the vision woke;
And the men drew back from the paper, as a Yankee delegate spoke: —
"There's a girl in Jersey City who works on the telephone;
We're going to hitch our horses and dig for a house of our own,
With gas and water connections, and steam-heat through to the top;
And, W. Hohenzollern, I guess I shall work till I drop."
And an English delegate thundered: — "The weak an' the lame be blowed!
I've a berth in the Sou'-West workshops, a home in the Wandsworth Road;
And till the 'sociation has footed my buryin' bill,
I work for the kids an' the missus. Pull up? I be damned if I will!"
And over the German benches the bearded whisper ran: —
"Lager, der girls und der dollars, dey makes or dey breaks a man.
If Schmitt haf collared der dollars, he collars der girl deremit;
But if Schmitt bust in der pizness, we collars der girl from Schmitt."
They passed one resolution: — "Your sub-committee believe
You can lighten the curse of Adam when you've lightened the curse of Eve.
But till we are built like angels, with hammer and chisel and pen,
We will work for ourself and a woman, for ever and ever, amen."
Now this is the tale of the Council the German Kaiser held —
The day that they razored the Grindstone, the day that the Cat was belled,
The day of the Figs from Thistles, the day of the Twisted Sands,
The day that the laugh of a maiden made light of the Lords of Their Hands.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Yeah, like that's all it was good for.
It's not especially surprising he'd say something like that, given the racist newsletters written under his name that came to light last month. To be clear, I still don't think Paul is an actual racist; say what you want about hardcore libertarians, they take ideas like liberty and equality deadly serious -- at least in the abstract.
Paul's problem is instead that he's an ideologue. His singleminded libertarianism gives him such a narrow political and historical radar that he's got no sense of taboo -- no sense that it's not okay to say, "well David Duke and I may disagree on this, this, and this, but here's where we can find common ground." All that matters is finding some way to sell your libertarian ideas.
And so we come to Lincoln, scourge of neo-Confederates for trampling on "states' rights" and "limited government" and all those things that libertarians are supposed to love. And to an ideologue who can't see beyond the contours of today's political debates, that's really all that matters. Halting the spread of slavery? Ancient history -- if not simply a pretext for aggression.
Just to be clear, I have all the respect in the world for my thoughtful libertarian friends, including those who've decided to vote for Paul. But to my way of thinking, one's respect for what Lincoln accomplished is the litmus test seperating those with a genuine and mature love for liberty from the mere small-government fetishists.
Ron Paul fails.
Some passing thoughts:
I remember all the buzz and controversy over "V for Vendetta" and its "War on Terror = fascism" message when the movie first came out, but it still surprised me just how beat-you-over-the-head it is. It'd be a much more convincing and thought-provoking piece of art if it didn't feature every single leftist boogeyman at the same time. Enjoyable nonetheless; I find it hard to get worked up over a movie like this on political grounds. When Hollywood stops making movies warning us of creeping right-wing fascism, then I'll start to worry.
Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto," by contrast, was supposed to be -- in its critics' telling -- all about how brutal and benighted those ancient American civilizations were before the Europeans showed up. To which my response was always, "no doubt." In any case, I recommend it highly. It's very gory, but surprisingly tolerable in that regard (at least to me). It's also very long -- the final chase scene could have used a few fewer bad guys -- but it's so much fun by then that you hardly care.
It's also deeply moving to a level I wouldn't have expected. The basic plot is about this happy mesoamerican tribe that gets captured into slavery -- and human sacrifice -- by the Mayans in the last days of their empire. It's the kind of project that naturally invites charges of "cultural imperialism" (non-European civilizations can't be evil!), but that criticism falls flat. It's the more advanced civilization, after all, that's the brutal one in the story. The captivity scenes are powerful on a simply human level, prompting reflections not so much on the badness of Mayans but on the horrors of which humanity in general is capable. Given Gibson's previous controversial offerings, this was surely his intent.
It's not like we have to be reminded at every juncture that the white man did this stuff too -- I found it hard not to think about the particular sins of which this country has been guilty. Especially as today just happens to be Lincoln's birthday. So if you don't have a handy copy of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "Apocalypto" makes a fine stand-in for anyone who really wants to put some meat on the bones of Lincoln's second inaugural.
Especially this part: "Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
Friday, February 8, 2008
But before then, please do check out Yuval Levin's take on John McCain's peculiar brand of "honor politics." It may just be the most insightful thing I've read this season. A sample:
McCain has made the most of his unusual approach to politics throughout his
career, developing his own special brand of honor politics, which in practice is
often a form of anger politics. It makes him terribly prickly and
self-righteous, but also determined and often successful. The substance of his
crusades has turned off a lot of conservatives, and rightly so, but the tone can
be quite effective. And when it is directed to a cause conservatives share —
most notably the war — the Right can take real pleasure in his
More important, it’s all McCain has got, and he needs to make the most of
it, and not try to pretend he’s something he’s not. To both his credit and his
detriment, McCain just can’t pretend. Rather than attempt a feeble imitation of
Ronald Reagan (the ubiquitous mistake of this campaign) and try to paint the
grand conservative vision of things, McCain needs to train himself at least to
oppose the things conservatives oppose — paternalism that corrupts the roots of
personal initiative and self-reliance, a callous disregard for the lives of the
innocent unborn, hostility to our cultural traditions, cosmopolitanism that sees
nothing special in America — and so to channel his anger in politically (not to
mention substantively) healthy directions. That can be his way of building
bridges, and it can also be an effective way of organizing his campaign’s themes
By the by, here's McCain's speech at CPAC yesterday, which I thought was very good.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
In the end, my growing doubts about McCain's unsettling tendency to treat every single political dispute as a matter of deep personal honor -- or about the smallness of his "patriotism v. profit" attack on Romney during the last debate -- didn't quite sway me. Winston Churchill did.
If there's one dominant theme running throughout Churchill's vast historical corpus, it's that prosperous democracies, for all their advantages, are notoriously fickle when it comes to dealing with foreign threats. They can rise to meet them better than anyone once the threat becomes obviously existential, but as soon as it fades, they take their collective eye off the ball -- to the cost of a lot more blood and treasure a few years later.
This is something McCain, with his instinctual value for national honor, understands -- making him a needed candidate for a time when troop deaths in Iraq are down and a dubious National Intelligence Estimate has nudged Iran off the radar screen.
Romney, meanwhile, may be saying all the right things, but his manager's belief in "fixing" "problems" doesn't inspire confidence that he has the judgmental categories to fight a war, with its uncertain constantly changing jumble of human passions.
And while I've got my reasons to trust at least McCain's sincerity on judges and tax cuts, I've seen nothing to indicate that Romney would make the war a priority when push comes to shove. It's not where he's comfortable.
By the by, if there is such a thing as McCain Derangement Syndrome, this piece comes perilously close. McCarthy labels McCain a "multilateralist" for thinking that a president needs to be open to persuading our allies of the rightness of our actions.
Except that McCain's right. One of the great tragedies of 2003 was, in fact, Bush's indulgence of cheap -- though understandable -- anti-Europeanism. Old Europe, ultimately, was never going to come along on Iraq. But how much ill will could Bush have averted by simply going to Europe and reminding Europeans of our common struggles against tyranny? If McCain believes the best for the old Atlantic alliance, good for him; we may need it one day.
It shouldn't even need to be said that he would never bow to their sniping where he sees national security at stake. But a President McCain whose perceived "independence" could actually pull supporters back to our general FP viewpoint remains one of my big hopes -- especially if he picks a running mate who can talk a good game. Though I'm open to being disappointed.
Monday, February 4, 2008
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
And that got me thinking...
It's stuck me for some time that the current presidential race has a certain Shakespearian quality to it; if anything, it certainly has its fair share of potentially tragic heroes. There's McCain's Coriolanus-like "Straight Talk"; his ancient and noble warrior's disdain for the degree of pandering necessary (and appropriately so) in any democratic society. (Full disclosure: This is hyperbole -- I like McCain.)
Fred Thompson: The honorable Brutus-like senator poked and prodded into assuming a higher political role, only to be undone by his lack of ambition.
Ron Paul: Any number of crazy-like-a-fox fools.
Bill Clinton: Ever toeing that fine line between Prince Hal and King Lear.
Barack Obama: Come on, you were thinking the same thing.
But in all seriousness, it remains to be seen: MacDuff? Or Banquo?
As I see it, the only candidate Shakespeare wouldn't have any interest in is Mitt Romney. But I'm open to being proven wrong. Anyone?
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Just remember, Patriots fans: Lots of teams would kill to go 18-1.
UPDATE: I guess I just have an eye for obscure historical trivia. Turns out the last 4 NFC Championship games (04/05-07/08) comprise the first four-year stretch in NFC/old-NFL history -- going back to 1933 -- in which eight seperate teams have each played for a championship.
See for yourself. Doesn't quite work for the AFC, though: It happened there in 98-99 through 01-02.
UPDATE 2: Okay, as it actually turns out, I'm too clever by half. The real historical occurance is that we've now gone seven years in the NFC with seven different champions:
07-08, Giants; 06-07, Bears; 05-06, Seahawks; 04-05, Eagles; 03-04, Panthers; 02-03, Bucs; 01-02, Rams.
Talk about parity. This has never happened in the history of pro football -- in either league.
Actually, I take that back. It happened once before: last year. Had the Packers won this year, the streak actually would have gone to eight, given that it's the Giants who won it in the 00-01 season. So... doesn't that kinda make the Giants the dynasty of the NFC, if only by default?
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
I'll still have to think this through some more, but I'd say the greater problem with Romney's slickness is that it indicates not a fundamental lack of conviction, but rather a lack of political shame. He repackages himself far too easily -- even if it's the same Mitt inside -- which makes me suspect that he's got a businessman's impatience for the emotional pathos necessary for true statesmanship, especially in a time of war (notice the lack of nearly any reference to terrorism in his speech). Rich Lowry -- presumably a Romney guy himself; his magazine certainly is -- gives evidence (not online) in the latest issue of National Review.
Along those lines, Romney's constant denunciations of "Washington" this and "Washington" rubbed me the wrong way. One wonders whether "Washington" would fare any better at the hands of a 15-part PowerPoint presentation than with some Obama-esqe incantations of "hope" and "unity."
And then there's this line, by far the most awkward of the speech:
"I take my inspiration from Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush, who took their inspiration from the American people."
George Herbert Walker Bush? Nothing against the guy, but that's the first time I've heard him mentioned as a source of conservative inspiration. Unless Romney's very obviously trying to leave someone out.
Not that there's anything wrong with criticizing Dubya, either, but it strikes me that there's something deeply unserious about the way Romney does it. Bush isn't optimistic enough? Please.
To be fair, if Romney lacks pathos, McCain's fault probably lies at the other extreme, as John Podhoretz contends:
"Romney may not have won in Michigan so much as McCain lost it. And he lost it because of a characteristic tendency that makes him Romney’s opposite — political rigidity based on a sense of his own personal rectitude. Having said jobs in Michigan were not coming back, he went to Michigan and praised efforts to mandate an increase in fuel-mileage standards, which auto executives claim will raise the price of a car fully $6,000 — a job killer, in other words. And he spoke against drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, which is the only realistic way for the United States to increase its own domestic oil supply.
"McCain’s line is that he is a straight talker. But there are moments he seems to make a fetish of his own honesty, and asks others to support him solely because of it."
Hmm... Pathos plus Prudence -- anyone? I'm starting to think that Shakespeare would have a field day with the tragic flaws of the current field.
Only caught the final half-hour of the Democratic debate tonight, but was instantly impressed by how boring it seemed. The nice thing about still having a diverse jumbled Republican field is that it leaves room for serious and contentious policy debates -- many of which the current candidates still need to have. Clinton and Obama, by contrast, don't seem to have much more of anything to say. All the policies are on the table, with widespread similarities. All that remains is a contest of likability and tactics (i.e., hope v. experience). And as we're already seeing, that kind of race can get ugly real fast.
Monday, January 14, 2008
As I wrote, my central quibble with the book is in its lack of foreign-policy nuance. An explanation: Goldberg talks a lot about the Progressive echoes of fascist militarism, with various "crises" serving as convenient sparks for charismatic leaders to rally the country to some higher national purpose (and bigger government). But unfortunately missing is any discussion of how aspiring non-fascists should respond to real crises -- moments that may often require bold leadership and/or national unity.
It's a question both deeply philosophical and immediately pressing that Goldberg could have really given some ink to. Goldberg certainly has a sense of the difference between genuine statesmanship and neo-fascist blustering, but he gives precious little account for it.
As I wrote, an unfortunate ommission. Then again, as my brief forrays into professional idea-communication have already taught me, there's never room for everything.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
There's an old Onion article from back in 2004, I believe, that "covered" Republican efforts to turn out the vote in black neighborhoods. Teams of GOP operatives would canvas these areas, handing out literature reminding minority voters to turn up at the polls for "Big Wednesday."
If CNN is trying something similar with Times Square tourists (God knows why), they're doing a pretty crappy job of it. I'm just shocked no one's noticed yet.
I took the above photo this morning. It's the CNN news-ticker billboard at the intersection of 47th Street and Broadway in Times Square, which I pass every morning on my way to work. Notice the "countdown to election day on CNN" feature. Now notice the number. You may have realized by now that today is January 9, 2008, which puts 360 days hence somewhere in the neighborhood of January 3, 2009. Which is very much not election day.
And the strange thing is that that ticker, the face of an international media empire at the most traveled intersection on earth, has been consistently wrong for months now, if not longer. Go figure.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
My hope for an Obama-McCain general election (though that's still far to early to call; given this primary season, we could just as easily see Edwards-Thompson) would be that this precise dynamic -- similar general appeal, vastly different ideas -- could elevate the debate to a level we've been conditioned not to expect.
Especially on Iraq. If this election is going to be some kind of referendum on where we should go from here (it probably should be, though I'm far from convinced it actually will), what better two candidates than the guy who opposed the war from the beginning, and the guy who supported the surge three years before Bush did? Serious debate between likable guys, all at a distance from the visceral passions conjured by names like Clinton and Bush.
But we'll see. Pronouncements like this one still seem scandalously premature.
Friday, January 4, 2008
So that's where I was for caucus night: the 2nd floor of a crowded midtown Irish pub full of rowdy Democrats.
--Very few Biden or Dodd supporters (although I did meet one girl who liked Richardson). Which made a fun game of cheering loudly whenever their vote counts ticked up -- or in Dodd's case, when he got his one. Sad day.
--The Democrats' victory/concession speeches say droves about where they're headed. (Here's Obama, Edwards & Clinton.) Obama's was masterful on so many levels. Uplifting, even as if he was already running in the general (a friend pointed out), yet still with plenty to rally his volunteers into New Hampshire. Contrast that with Clinton, who could only gush about how happy she was that everyone voted for a Democrat. A guy at the party put it well: "Say I'm a volunteer in Iowa, working my ass off for the Clinton campaign. And I get that in return?" I've never been too much a fan of Obama's squishy "hope" message, but it looks a lot better coming against a Clinton campaign that doesn't even want to fight. Also compare Obama's seemless personal touches with Edwards' heavy-handed "example-example-example" of people suffering from evil corporate greed. If I hadn't sworn off predicting anything this election cycle, I'd say Obama wins the nomination.
--Obama and Huckabee. I think it'd make an interesting general election. Obama, the candidate of "hope," and Huckabee, the candidate of "faith." Throw in Ron Paul as a third-party candidate of "love," and you've got all your theological virtues covered. Now pick one.
--Still had a bit of a black eye, which prompted a fun guessing game. When someone asked about it, whose campaign do I say beat me up. Edwards was typically a safe bet.
--A good night for McCain, who I've been known to have leanings toward. But as it's important to recognize, he's not without risks. Rich Lowry sums them up forcefully. And Victor Davis Hanson doesn't care.
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
1. The N/W subway line in Astoria, Queens runs on an elevated track, which means that as I approach my customary stop (30th Ave and 31st St), I can typically see whether a train is coming with just enough lead time to sprint to the station and catch it.
2. I do this is willfull disregard of numerous helpful public service announcements placed around the station, warning that running for a train may result in dire consequences like tripping and falling.
Well, I didn't trip...
The N train did, however, have an unusually large jump on me Sunday afternoon as I was on my way into the city for church. Already late, and mindful of the N's often-spotty weekend service, I broke into a mad dash down the last remaining block to the station and made it to the platform just in time.
Unfortunately, the speed at which I bounded up the stairs greatly widened my turning radius as I attempted to dash through the still-open train doors, causing me to miss the doors entirely and instead bash my face on the side of the car.
That is, I ran face-first at full speed into the side of a motionless train. Which hurt.
I was a cause of general concern as I staggered, bleeding and increasingly dizzy, into the car, which I rode for four more stops before the conductor escorted me off and stayed with me on the platform until the medics came.
As did everyone else. For some reason, my medical "emergency" was grounds enough to clear the entire train and send it away empty. Someone actually announced over the intercom that all Manhattan-bound service was indefinitely suspended (this turned out not to be true). Fortunately, my throbbing headache helped numb the creeping social horror -- and gave me an excuse to keep my head down.
In actuality, though, something about my gaping head wound brought out the best in people. Two seperate people on the train offered me first a wad of paper towels for the bleeding, then a seat. When we all got off, a first-aid practitioner named Walter was there to make sure I didn't die, then ran to get me a bottle of water. The train conducter, meanwhile, regailed me with subway stories that put my adventure in proper perspective.
Good people, New Yorkers. Who says they aren't the salt of the earth?