August 31, 2005


It might seem from the posts below that my approach to the situation on the Gulf Coast and New Orleans is purely political or analytical.

Not so. The images and descriptions are overwhelming, and saddening beyond belief. There is always a touch of schadenfreude whenever there's a really dramatic disaster, and I confess to a touch of it. But there's a sense of horror, a tear in my eye, and great sorrow in my heart whenever I see or hear what's happening.

The Unmentionable Issue of Race

I haven't seen much of the coverage of the New Orleans situation deal with an obvious but apparently unmentionable issue: race. Race is never far from the surface in NOLA.

First, when the city was evacuated, from the pictures and from what I know of the economics of the place, a disproportionate number of the folks left behind were black. Why the city buses weren't mobilized to move people who didn't have cars out of town I don't know. It would have saved many lives and lots of money. Can't blame a "white" gummint, either--the city gov't in NOLA is largely dominated by black folks, although of a different class and often, hue, than the majority.

Second, the rescue effort and so on seems to be color-blind. One can't praise the Coast Guard and other responders too highly. They show what it means to be a man in the true sense of virtue (vir being Latin for "man").

Third, from the pictures, an overwhelming majority of the looters are black. Maybe that's just because of who's left in town, maybe it's because a "gangsta" ethos is prevalent among too many young people, or maybe it's just the inevitable jacquerie that occurs among the very poor when the gummint's gunslingers aren't around and emotions are high.

Shoot Them On Sight

I don't have much against people taking food or diapers in an emergency, even a change of clothing. In law, it's called the "defense of necessity" (of course, you're supposed to pay back later, of which in this case, fat chance).

But looters threatening a children's hospital? Or stealing televisions when there's no power?

I would announce a very simple policy, which should have been implemented in Baghdad: "Looters will be shot on sight." A concept that wonderfully concentrates the mind, as the old saying goes.

Rebuild Or Not?

I lived in New Orleans for a while.

Loved it in spite of many problems there.

But I wonder if it makes sense to rebuild it, at least in the previous form. We need a port there, and the French Quarter, which seems intact, is a treasure. But should the whole below-sea-level city be rebuilt as it was before?

Maybe not.

August 28, 2005

Is Picking At Scabs An Exit Strategy?

Frank Rich once again rants against the Iraq War. He believes the war is lost because poll numbers show a drop in public support, which he believes can never be reversed, and claims that few Iraqi forces have been trained to replace American troops.

Rich also resorts to the Vietnam analogy, although he fails to point out that the decay products of American communism, overindulged college students (among them, to my shame, yours truly), and a self-important press played a major role in the Vietname defeat. The Vietnam analogy also ignores
  • The comparatively small numbers of the enemy in Iraq.

  • The lack of nuclear-armed outside suppliers of weapons and other logistical items.

  • A far lower casualty rate.

  • The volunteer military.

  • The reality of an attack on American soil by the allies at least of the Islamist wing of the Iraq enemy.

  • Terrain that is far less favorable to the enemy than in Vietnam.
Frank's apparent glee at the impending defeat numbers him among those whose hatred for Bush overwhelms other considerations. No surprise there.

What's more interesting is that Frank makes some unexpected points, and like Samuel Johnson's dog on two legs, the fact that he is able to do it at all is interesting.
  • He believes Cindy Sheehan's 15 minutes are over, and admits she's been taken over by left-wing hacks and flacks.

  • He thinks the Democrats have missed the boat on the war, trying to criticize the President while not addressing the fact that in their great majority they voted to authorize the war. His example: Hillary Clinton staging an event about violent video games while violence flares in Baghdad and confrontation in Crawford.

  • His exception: Sen. Feingold, who called for targets but not deadlines for withdrawal. Rich seems to concede that setting a definite target date for withdrawal would be a mistake.

  • Rich finds the Democrats so feckless that he speculates that the solution to the war's difficulties may come from the Republican side.
What is missing in Rich's column, and the analysis of most war critics, is a balanced view of what has been achieved, what is yet to be achieved, and what has been lost. Also missing is a way forward.

For example, it would seem than anyone but a Ba'athist would regard deposing a thug like Saddam and setting the stage for his trial was an important achievement, whether the invasion was wise or not and whether or not there have been mistakes in strategy.

Also missing is any explicit thought about possible outcomes. The restoration of Ba'athist tyranny, or the creation of the first province of the Salafist Caliphate would be true disasters. Adoption of a federal constitution and establishment of a consensual government, even if sloppy and plagued by violence and corruption, would be a step forward, and indeed, the Iraq invasion has contributed to a bit of democratic fermet in Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon and Egypt. The partition of the country, although not Washington's hoped-for result, would not necessarily be a disaster. Kurdistan, for example, was a success story even before the invasion.

Most critics of the war who are not simply blinded by anti-Bush and anti-American setiment, recognize that the moving finger has written, and the present policy issue is not what was done three years ago, but the way forward. These questions are not easy. I suppose a reflexively liberal retired theater critic may not have all the answers. But if so, perhaps he should write about something else in the Newspaper of Record.

Things Get Tough In The Big Easy

The NOAA website maps have it that Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane, is headed for southeast Louisiana, and may strike New Orleans. The thread is sufficiently dire that the government is encouraging has ordered mandatory evacuation, and has turned all lanes of the Interstates in an outbound direction.

A. J. Liebling called New Orleans as more a Caribbean island than part of the mainland, and although concrete causeways cross the swamps and Lake Ponchartrain, so one need not take a boat or a plane to get to the Big Easy, there is truth in Liebling's picture.

In fact, New Orleans is more a bowl than an island. The entire city is below sea level, and is sheltered from the waters of the Mississippi by enormous levees, the only slopes in the area, other than an artificial hill built for the benefit of children's play in one of the parks. Heavy rain being frequent, the city is kept dry by enormous Dutch-built pumps, while the dead are protected from flooding, stored as some are in raised sepulchers.

The comprehensive pattern of levees has caused the Mississippi delta east and south of New Orleans to shrink, because it has prevented the fanning out of the sediment-laden waters. Thus what the levees give in protection, to some extent they take away.

If the storm hits slightly west of the city, or lingers over it, dropping huge quantities of rain, or sends a 25-foot storm surge up the river, there is a real danger that the bowl will flood, and then the levees that kept the water out will keep the rain and flood waters in. The city would be flooded by waters full of the wastes of the entire Mississippi Valley, and its own sewage and other detritus. The giant pumps, without power and totally immersed, would go silent, and radical measures, such as breaching the levees above the river's water level, would be required. It might take months and years to pump the city out, repair its infrastructure, dry out, repair and replace its buildings.

Meanwhile, the economy, which depends upon tourism and the Port of New Orleans, and hasn't been robust for decades, would founder.

The “sociology of disaster” is an arcane academic field. One of its findings is that there is an almost irresistible urge in disaster-struck places to rebuild what had been there before, rather than either learning from the disaster to avoid future risks, or to take advantage of the devastation to build something more efficient and lovelier.

One exception in recent years has been a policy of discouraging the rebuilding of river's-edge towns along flooded areas of the Midwest, in favor of rebuilding them on higher ground. This policy has not been followed in the case of construction on low-lying Atlantic barrier islands, which periodically are damaged or demolished by storms, and benefit from low-cost federal loans for reconstruction.

New Orleans, for all its legendary seediness and long-depressed economy, is a national treasure, possessing a unique culture that has contributed much, especially to our musical tradition.

If the worst happens, the country clearly has the resources, between private insurance and federal funds, to rebuild the city. Given the need for a port somewhere near the mouth of the Mississippi, there is little doubt that New Orleans would be rebuilt, although how and to what extent remains in doubt. The natural impulse, says the sociology of disaster, will be to replace what was there as closely as possible. Whether the natural impulse is sensible policy is another question.

Had it not been for the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Mississippi river would probably no longer flow so far east, and would instead reach the Gulf to the west, in the Atchafalaya region, as it has in the past. New Orleans would be isolated on what would become a sluggish bayou, and no doubt one or more new port cities, lacking New Orleans's history and seedy charm, would arise.

If global warming is real, and is not reversed by some unpredictable event such as the collapse of Arctic sea ice diverting the Gulf Stream south, we may face these issues the world over. Shall we use Dutch techniques, massive levees and pumps, to protect low-lying cities, farms and atolls, or shall we accept certain changes and relocate populations to higher ground? And if so, at whose expense?

Meanwhile, we can hope and pray that New Orleans, a city that has been extraordinarily lucky in the face of hurricanes, skates out of danger once again, and Katrina pounds and floods relatively unpopulated areas.

We shall see.

August 24, 2005

Who Knew?

A comment here from a woman who calls herself "Heidi" got me to thinking:
"[Y]es Canadians have tele[marketing calls] but I don't think it's as bad as the States..I hardly ever get calls in the evenings."
And here I thought Canadians lived outdoors, paddled their canoes along the rivers and lakes, or trudged in snowshoes through the forest, singing in bad French as they visited their beaver traps. And subsisted on boiled lichens.

And Heidi's telling me they have telephones?

Next she'll tell me that toilet paper and deodorant are available in France, and you can get a decent meal in England somewhere other than an Indian restaurant.

These last fantasies, of course, are truly absurd!

August 22, 2005

Infection, Genetics, and Mental Illness

A comment I had occasion to make made me want to post about the causes of mental illness. I hasten to add that I do this as a layman, not an expert.

There is a lot of data on the prevalence of mental illness in the population. Some of it is methodologically suspect, even a marketing ploy for the "helping professions." But there's no doubt that bipolar (formerly manic-depressive) illnesses and schizophrenias are quite widespread, the former in many people who are high achievers.

Although these diseases are increasingly seen to have biological and not just behavioral effects, their cause is still a mystery.

There's a suggestion that heredity plays a role, but it doesn't seem to be a simple Mendelian heredity. Now, if bipolar disorders are genetic, one would think they would lower the reproductive rate of those who suffer for them (greater difficulty in getting and staying married, tendency to suicide), and thus gradually vanish from the population. Yet these conditions are common, even flourishing.

One possibility is that there is an adaptive polymorphism at work. The classic exampleis sickle-cell anemia. In those with one gene for the condition, some resistance of falciparum malaria is conferred. The lower reproductive rate of those who have two genes and full-blown sickle-cell anemia balances the higher reproductive rate of those with one gene and no disease. In a region with no malaria, like the US, we would expect the gene to die out gradually because the one-gene carriers no longer have a reproductive advantage.

Bipolar disorder could be similar. People without the full-blown conditions, but some of the genetic inheritance might have a tendency to caution and deliberation on the one hand, or courage and innovation on the other (or even an alternation between the two but not past destructive limits). Or the condition might confer greater intelligence or creativity. The reproductive advantage of the only partially-expressed condition might balance the reproductive deficit of those with severe bipolar conditions.

An alternative explanation is that the disease is caused by an infectious agent of some kind, or an autoimmune reaction to such an agent. Just as in my childhood ulcers were thought to be a result of a certain kind of diet, and thus were treated with dietary restrictions, but were then found to be a product of heliobacter, a bacteria, it is likely that other conditions will be found to have infectious origins.

John Derbyshire Cochran-Ewald infection hypotheses of the origins of homosexuality, whose reasoning is similar to the above. You can find More on C-E here.

BTW, it's hard to see how any of this thinking could emerge without employing the principle of natural selection.

Update: Here's Paul Ewald's book.

August 21, 2005

A Riff on "Intelligent Design"

“Intelligent Design” (“ID”) is in play.

President Bush, no authority, and Sen. Bill Frist, who might be, have advocated the teaching of ID in the schools, not really endorsing it as such, but taking the view, plausible on the surface, that students should be exposed to all sides.

The seculars reacted with characteristic scorn, as in this piece by Henrik Hertzberg, who annoys me almost as much as Frank Rich, but has a better style.
Looked at one way, this colloquy is an occasion for national shame, albeit with a whiff of the risible: here is our country's leader, the champion-in-chief of educational standards, blandly equating natural science and supernatural supposition as “different schools of thought.”
The religious anti-evolutionists such as the Rev. Al Mohler were not far behind.
Professor Haught is upset with the statements made by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna [see previous posting] to the effect that the neo-Darwinian doctrine currently at the heart of evolutionary theory is incompatible with a Christian view of life. Haught, like so many others, wants to claim that evolutionary theory is compatible with Christian faith. In order to do so, he assumes an argument much like the late Stephen Jay Gould's concept of "non-overlapping magisteria." The problem with this concept is now clear -- these magisteria inevitably overlap.
Incidentally, unlike Hertzberg, Mohler both quotes from and links to people on both sides of the issue.

Analysis of the issue of whether ID should be taught in public schools, and if so, in science or social studies classes, begins with an evaluation of the relative merits of ID and Darwinian evolution.

ID is in a way, simply a modern version of the old Deist idea that the existence of God can be discerned from the orderliness of the Creation.
The spacious firmament on high,

With all the blue, ethereal sky,

And spangled heavens, a shining frame,

Their great Original proclaim.

Th’unwearied sun from day to day

Does his Creator’s power display,

And publishes to every land
The work of an almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail,

The moon takes up the wondrous tale;

And nightly to the listening earth

Repeats the story of her birth; 

What though in solemn silence all

Move round the dark terrestrial ball?

What though no real voice nor sound

Amid their radiant orbs be found?

In reason’s ear they all rejoice

And utter forth a glorious voice,

Forever singing as they shine,

"The hand that made us is divine."

-- Joseph Addison
When I attended liberal Protestant chapel in boarding school, this poem was sung, set to Haydn's “The Creation.” They knew how to move you (although today's church vogue is rock music, which doesn't do it for me).

The notion is that the complexity of nature, the universe, man (take your pick) bespeaks a Creator, though not necessarily the Creator of Genesis or John I in the literal sense, and mere chance cannot account for the glory, or at least the improbability, of the universe.

The usual scientific objection to this is not to deny it, but to point out, in the tradition of Karl Popper that the propositions of ID are not capable of being negated, and therefore as a scientific hypothesis, they are meaningless. What fact or observation or experiment would make it less or more likely that ID is true?

None comes readily to mind, and therefore we tempt neither God nor science with a scientific evaluation of the concept. Acceptance or rejection of ID, then, is decided in some way distinct from science. This view is not dissimilar from Stephen Jay Gould's, as described by Dr. Mohler in the quotation above.

The converse of this argument from non-negatablility also follows from this reasoning. Science has nothing to say about ID, and therefore the Hertzbergs who rail against it are not ranting based on validated scientific knowledge, but from atheistic faith.

The notion of an Intelligent Designer is no stranger than the latest iterations of string theory, which for the mathematically lame such as I, require just as much acceptance of “the evidence of things not seen” as does ID. On the other hand, an acceptance of ID tells us exactly nothing about how the Designer went about making this improbable universe happen, or whether D has made or will make myriad other universes, or is about to destroy this one out of boredom or anger at the maleficence of its inhabitants.

Nor is the evolution of life through the operation of chance so hard for me to accept. There is a fundamental principle of statistics that if one has enough trials, the happening of even a very improbable event—at least once—becomes more and more probable. If you flip a nickel five times in a row the chances of getting five heads in a row is fairly low (1 over 2 to the fifth power, or 1 out of 32 times). If you flip it five hundred times the occurrence of a run of five heads, sooner or later, becomes a virtual certainty. Thus from the age of the universe and the number of solar systems, the emergence of life somewhere, although dependent, perhaps, on many coincidences (the right combination of gravity, presence of water, temperature, mix of elements, absence of planetary collisions, and so on) becomes probable.

Applying Occam's Razor (“don't multiply entities needlessly,” paraphrased as, use no more concepts than you need to analyze things), I'm not convinced that the fundamental notion of ID—the arrangement of the universe and of life is so complex and elegant that its emergence by chance is impossible.

The bottom line is that ID isn't science, but science can't disprove it, either.

The unspoken agenda behind ID derives from Supreme Court decisions on the Establishment Clause. The courts have concluded that “Creation Science,” a predecessor of ID which was essentially an attempt to present the Genesis story as science so that teaching it would not run afoul of the Establishment Clause, did in fact constitute religious teaching constitutionally forbidden in a public school. The creationists have adopted ID with its scientific trappings and lack of explicit connection to Genesis's version of Intelligent Design, in the hope the Supreme Court will not find its teaching to be an establishment of religion. It's weak tea, compared to God's voice speaking to Job out of the whirlwind, but it has a purpose in our strange political-legal system.

Whether an unelected Supreme Court should be using the Constitution to impose élite views of what's scientifically true and what's not is another question. Ideally, perhaps, the government would subsidize education but not provide it, allowing parents to choose whatever schools they wanted, within limits, and the constitutional issue would go away.

Meanwhile, students should learn Darwinian concepts, which are fundamental to biological science. They should also learn the Bible, which is a fundamental text of our culture, but not, in public schools, as a source of religious truth. (I'm always surprised how little of the Bible fervent Christians and practicing Jews in fact know.) There's no prohibition on teaching about the Bible as long as no particular doctrine about it is imposed.

I also understand and sympathize with the Christian and Jewish view that the special creation of human beings by God is what endows them with worth, provides the basis for moral conduct, and offers them hope of eternal life. I'm equally skeptical that a secular culture, once it's spent the moral capital inherited from traditional belief and practice, and traditional families, can avoid moral degeneration. Hence the passion with which traditional believers hold to their beliefs and take offense at seeing them ignored and denigrated, is very real and quite understandable.

August 20, 2005

Three Cheers

For Bob Costas.

Justice Roberts and "Comparable Worth"

Hugh Hewitt has organized bloggers to analyze and post about the documents from Justice Roberts's tenure as an Associate White House Counsel under President Reagan. Here's a discussion of his writing on "comparable worth."

“Comparable worth” is a long-abandoned feminist concept.

Prediction: It will be revived as a club to box Justice Roberts about the ears.

The concept was that women aren't paid as much for doing traditionally female jobs as men are for doing traditionally male jobs that have just as much “worth.” Failure to correct this disparity, went the argument, is unlawful discrimination.

In a market economy, of course, it is the impersonal working of the market that determines what one worker or another is worth. Thus a writer like J.K.Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, makes more money than a “serious” writer like Joyce Carol Oates; Britney Spears makes more money than many a highly-trained opera singer; and my legal assistant in California, makes more than my son-in-law, a very erudite Ph.D art historian in a Texas university.

In the world of feminism 20 years ago, when such disparities supposedly reigned between predominantly male occupations and traditionally female ones, “comparable worth” was the notion that the disparity could and should be corrected by a three-step process:
  1. Experts would determine the relative worth of different occupations through “objective” criteria.

  2. Legislators would enact anti-discrimination measures to insure equal pay for jobs of “comparable worth.”

  3. Courts would decide whether the law was properly applied, and if not, order that certain workers be paid more, and assess damages against employers.
This particular box contains only a decision by Judge Jack E. Tanner of Tacoma, Washington.

The State of Washington had made the mistake of commissioning studies by social “scientists” of the comparable worth of various civil service jobs. Not surprisingly, the studies had concluded that based on their criteria (things like physical effort and training required), predominantly female civil servants were underpaid compared to male ones.

Unwilling to cut anyone's pay, and faced with a depressed economy and budget constraints, Washington didn't implement the recommended increases. The public employee union sued. Judge Tanner ruled in their favor, holding that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forabde not only “disparate treatment” (paying men in the same job more than women), but “disparate impact” (adopting policies that were neutral on their face but affected men and women differently).

Nothwithstanding the bad economy and the budget constraints, Judge Tanner ordered the State to make up the pay differences and proposed to appoing a Special Master to decide what employees would receive the court-mandated wage increases.

That's what's in this box. For those to whom such things matter, the case citation is American Federation v. State of Washington (1983) 578 F.Supp. 846.

It's hard to understand what this all has to do with the confirmation battle without looking into the next two boxes. At the time, Justice Roberts was a lawyer working in the bowels of the White House. It was obvious that the case was going up on appeal. The question was, what would the federal government do—stay out of the case, or make its views known before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, for one side or the other.

Three liberal republican congresswomen, including Connecticut's Nancy Johnson and Maine's Olympia Snowe, wrote to President Reagan in favor of comparable worth.

Lawyer Roberts was asked to comment, and as well-trained young lawyers do, he summarized the legal arguments on both sides succintly and in clearer prose than I've written here.

Even though “comparable worth” has largely been abandoned as an issue, even by feminists, Justice Roberts is likely to come under fire for his criticism of Judge Tanner's decision and the concept of comparable worth. As he points out, to put in judges' hands decisions that are made in the marketplace, or in the case of civil service pay, by the Legislatures (and lately, in collective bargaining), is inconsistent with a capitalist economy. It would amount to judicially managed socialism.

(This is less of a stretch than one would think. Court-appointed special masters have managed prisons, and have ordered legislatures how much to spend on public schools as recently in Kansas, etcetera etcetera and so forth).

In the event, it appears that the Justice Department did not intervene on either side, and in a burst of sanity, the Ninth Circuit reversed Judge Tanner. The citation is American Federation v. State of Washington (1985) 770 F.2d 1401. Two points in that decision are worthy of note:
  1. ”Disparate impact” analysis does not apply to broad policy decisions, only to decisions made as specific points in the employment process (like height requirements that might exclude women or Asians).

  2. States should not be bound by the results of employment studies they commission, because the effect would be to discourage them from making such studies.
The Ninth Circuit specifically held that
“[N]othing in the language of Title VII or its legislative history . . . abrogate[s] fundamental economic principles such as th laws of supply and demand or . . . prevent[s] employers from competing in the labor market.
”While the Washington legislature may have the discretion to enact a comparable woth plan if it chooses to do so, Title VII does not obligate it to eliminate an economic inequality which it did not create.”
This ruling was a paroxysm of common sense.

So not only was Justice Roberts right, the generally liberal Ninth Circuit agreed with him, and apparently that ended the matter.

Nevertheless, and in spite of the fact that comparable worth is no longer a live concept, this discussion is likely to be held up as proof that Justice Roberts is anti-woman, a mad right-winger, and out of the mainstream.

As we have seen, these documents prove no such thing. All they show is that he's a good legal writer and has a modicum of common sense.

UPDATE: Comparable Worth Boxes 2 and 3 were assigned to Crazy But Able. His very thorough and well-written analysis goes more deeply into Roberts's rôle in the discussion.

As CBA points out, this episode is being distorted in the press to paid Justice Roberts as anti-female. However, widespread application of comparable worth would require a judicially or bureaucratically administered economy. It's incompatible with our market economy. That doesn't mean countenancing paying people less for the same work because they're male or female, or excluding men or women from applying for certain jobs because of their sex. We can't reach a conclusion one way or the other about Justice Roberts's views or predispositions on sex discrimination in general from this episode.

August 18, 2005

YACSP (Yet Another Cindy Sheehan Post)

I had thought better of posting about Cindy Sheehan.

She's been getting well-deserved but overdone lumps from the center-right blogosphere and undeserved publicity from the August-bored MSM.

Hitchens got it right. Losing a son is horrible, but it doesn't make one wiser about strategy or foreign policy. If we took a vote of the Gold Star mothers (hardly a way to run a railroad, or a war) or Sheehan's relatives, we'd get a policy quite different from the one Sheehan proposes. That wouldn't change the mind of the vigilers, and it won't create an exit strategy.

I supported the war, because getting rid of Saddam seemed both prudent and morally justified. The political planning has been muddled, as it so often is. The failure to shoot looters on sight at the beginning, and the quick dissolving (rather than slow purging) of the Iraqi Army were critical mistakes.

As was the failure to do anything to create a mood of sacrifice on the home front. Lyndon Johnson made the same mistake.

That said, staying the course remains a wiser and juster course than pulling out precipitously.

The Wilsonian aspect of the war (creating an artificial democratic national state, a la Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia--or Iraq, for that matter) may go no better than it did after World War I. However, we got rid of Saddam, and if Iraq divides in two, or three, it's not the end of the world, provided we remain involved enough to prevent the emergence of a Baathist or Zarqawist terror center.

None of this matters to Sheehan and her ilk. They hate America, and whether they understand it or not, they are helping the enemy. (BTW, a lot of people are going to the rallies who don't share Sheehan's politics. They're just expressing frustration and their dislike of Bush. If they don't wake up, the left will run the Democratic party, they'll nominate another McGovern and elect another Republican).

I could natter on. And I will, later.

August 15, 2005

The Rivers of Babylon

Sunday was a day of mourning for traditional Jews, the Ninth of Av on the traditional (originally Babylonian) calendar. By tradition, both of the Jerusalem temples were destroyed on this day, and with them the freedom of the Jewish people, which was twice driven into exile with great violence. (See inset from the Roman Arch of Titus). Hence the 137th Psalm's “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

Traditional belief holds that some day, the Anointed One will come and miraculously restore the Temple, and convert the world to the worship of the One True God.

Now ancient ideas about religious practice are rather different from contemporary ones. The Temple was a giant abbatoir, where animals by the dozens and hundreds had their throats cut and parts of their bodies were burnt, all for the greater glory of God. Not so different from what pagans did around the world (just read Herodotus, to see the universality and normality of sacrifice).

After 70 AD, when the Romans smashed a great Jewish uprising and destroyed the Temple, both the Jews and the Christians moved away from physical sacrifice, the Jews substituting prayer and the domestic practice of ritual purity for the Temple cult, and the Christians opting for their own version of a ritual meal commemorating the sacrifice of their own Man-God, which did away with the need for animal sacrifice forever. Muslims, on the other had, still practice sacrifice in memory of Abraham's aborted sacrifice of his son, in the Muslim tradition the elder Ishmael, not the younger Isaac.

The deaths of thousands, enslavement and exile, loss of freedom, are surely to be mourned. The abolition of the Temple cult, perhaps not. It would be less than edifying, it seems to me, to see restored a priest-ridden Iowa Beef plant in the center of Jerusalem.

By some irony, or by plan, the evacuation of the Israeli settlements in Gaza also is being carried out just after the Ninth of Av. Gaza, of course, was not part of ancient Judea, but the land of the Philistines, heirs of the invading Sea Peoples. It was in Gaza that eyeless Samson brought down the temple upon the mocking Philistines and himself. A suicide bomber without explosives.

This is not the place to comment on the wisdom or likely outcome of Sharon's maneuver.

The exiled Jews could not sing the songs of Zion in a strange land, and the exiled Rastafarians cannot sing King Alfa's song in exile either.

And we are all in exile from Eden, so they tell us.

Get Ready, Me Hearties

National Talk Like a Pirate Day is September 19th!
T' me,
Yo, Ho, Yo, Ho,
It's "Talk Like A Pirate" Day!
That time in September when sea dogs remember
That grown-ups still know how ta play!
When wenches are curvy and dogs are all scurvy
And a soft-wear patch covers your eye,
Ta hell with our jobs, for one day we're all swabs
And buccaneers all till we die!

So hoist up the mainsails and shut down your brain cells,
They only would get in the way,
Avast there, me hearty, we're havin' a party,
It's "Talk Like A Pirate" Day!

Yo Ho!

August 12, 2005

Christopher Walken's Hat in the Ring.

Or perhaps his entire head.

He's running for President.

Maybe we need a creepy President. "If you attack us, I will devour the souls of your children!"

August 10, 2005

Morning for Troglodytes?

Cave Man CartoonThe Gray Lady comes out with a long piece about a local pol named Fernando Ferrer, who's embarking on his third run for Mayor of New York.

Aside from running on his ethnicity, a hallowed New York custom, Ferrer is running on socialist atavism:
For months, Mr. Ferrer has been going around the city, reaching far beyond his Bronx roots and seeking to draw in the middle-class voters who have proven key to winning city elections. His message - given at a backyard fund-raiser in an affluent Staten Island neighborhood one swampy night, or at an African Methodist Episcopal church in southeast Queens on another - strikes traditional Democratic themes in a city that has turned its back on the party, at least in selecting its mayors: that government can solve city ills through building more subsidized housing, by hiring more employees, by taxing Wall Street to improve its schools.

At the core of his candidacy is his belief that many New Yorkers face huge challenges merely trying to get by in the city, given rising housing costs, public schools that often fail to provide an adequate education, and a lack of attractive jobs for all but the elite. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, he argues, does not even recognize these concerns and panders only to business concerns and wealthier New Yorkers.
Ferrer is half right. Bloomberg wanted to use taxes for a massive subsidy for a football stadium on the Far West Side of Manhattan. He certainly qualifies as an advocate of welfare for the rich.

But Ferrer? He wants to revive all the nostrums of New York municipal socialism. Subsidized housing? Try Co-op City, the jerry-built disaster in the Bronx. More city employees? Can he really be serious? Tax Wall Street more? Financial services is the one area where New York City has held its own, job-wise. If he taxes Wall Street in an internet age, the back office jobs are moving to South Dakota, Nova Scotia, or Bangalore. Maybe the Rubins and Corzines of the world will stay in New York, but jobs will start to bleed.

The best way to help the housing situation in New York City:
  1. Get rid of rent control.

  2. Get rid of silly restrictions on the buildig industry.

  3. Get the corrupt officials, unions and gansters out of the construction business.
It ain't going to happen. And as long as New York City is dominated by liberals (read, socialists), the best its citizens can hope for is that occasionally they will get lucky, and some of their people will remain truly professional in spite of everything.

Anointing a liberal cave-dweller like Ferrer would be a disaster. Fortunately, fiscal constraints (no money) will limit the damage he can do if he wins.

August 9, 2005

A Spectatular Piece of Obsolete Technology

I watched the space shuttle land at Edwards Air Force Base. There is no doubt, even many years later, that this is a spectaculr piece of engineering -- essentially a computerized projectile carrying human beings.

Wildly more expensive (and completing many fewer voyages) than contemplated, and like the B-52, flying well beyond its planned life, the shuttle is also a contemporary version of a yacht, "a hole in the water into which one pours money."

The robotic space probes and Hubble telescope have produced far more science, and if the shuttle was planned to be the first step in a human space exploration program, that effort has been stalled.

I'm all for space exporation. The new private efforts are one promising approach. If we continue the public effort, we need to rethink the goals and the timetable, and to design a different vehicle.

But kudos to the crew and to NASA anyway -- it's still an amazing sight!

August 8, 2005

Idiotarianism Redux

This story describes crackpot religiouz zealotry at its worst.

Apparently not only does "God Hate Fags," according to the whacked-out Fred Phelps, he hates American soldiers, who must also be "fags."


August 6, 2005

Good News on Avian Flu

It appears from this story that a vaccine that's effective may have been developed, although for ethical reasons indirect evidence -- an increased immune response with increased dosage -- is used to measure effectiveness.

One problem, as the article says, is inadequate production facilities. This problem, it would seem, is one that money could help with. Given the general nature of the threat, this is something government should spend money on.

Even if, provided vaccination works, we'll never know the magnitude of the threat we averted.

More Food for Pessimism

Fred Iklé is a thinker about strategy, including the "unthinkable."

In this piece, he argues that the absence of a nuclear attack for the last 60 years, anywhere in the world, is partly a matter of luck.

If our luck is running out, the danger is abetted by incompetence. We aren't doing enough, again with known or achievable technologies, to do such things as detect smuggled nuclear devices in ship containers.

Although the anti-nuclear movement was largely part of the kooky left, it was right about one thing -- a nuclear attack or conflict would be incredibly horrible, and greater efforts to prevent one are urgently needed.

OK. Enough dark stuff. How's Britney's pregnancy going? Are Brad and Angelina an item or not?

If You Want Something to Worry About

I recently finished reading The Great Influenza, an account of the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Aside from considerable dirt on my favorite bête noire, Woodrow Wilson, the book describes the horrors of a world disease event that killed millions.

The Great Influenza is on point today because every sign is that we are very likely to be hit with another influenza epidemic, of one or more variants of the Avian or Bird Flu that is now spreading in domestic and wild populations of birds in Asia. Here's recent roundup on possible preventive measures.

Here is a legitimate rôle for government, and of course, not nearly enough is being done. We should be stockpiling Tamiflu, and increasing budgets for research on vaccines and antiviral agents, and epidemiology. The flu virus is a rapidly mutating and recombining virus. Given a sufficient number of trials the emergence of a virulent strain highly contagious in humans is likely. With globlization, the spread of such a virus before measures such as quarantine and mass Tamiflu treatment in the vicinity of an outbreak becomes more and more of a threat.

People who worry about leakage of nuclear radiation from Yucca Mountain 5,000 years from now, increases in emphysema cases from automobile emissions, or marginal increases in cancer rates from pesticide residues ought to refocus their priorities. Here is a massive threat of millions of deaths, not enough is being done, and our environmentalists and self-proclaimed public health watchdogs are silent.

This really is a big deal.

An Honorable Endorsement

Ken Karst was one of my favorite law professors.

A constitutional scholar, who also taught the much-feared "Federal Jurisdiction," known at Harvard as "Darkness at Noon," Karst is a liberal, but thoughtful and professional. Here's his take on Justice Roberts, in a letter to the American Bar Association:
Dear Mr. Marshall,

Thanks for your letter asking for my views on the nomination of Judge Roberts to the Supreme Court. Alas, I have nothing useful to say about his history. I don't know Judge Roberts, nor have I seen him in action as an attorney or a judge. All I know about him, I have read in the press.

However, ignorance rarely prevents one from having a view, and I do have one. I am one of those liberal law academics whom Justice Scalia sometimes blames for the Supreme Court's straying from the True Path. Even so, I believe the Senate should confirm Judge Roberts's nomination. By all accounts, he is a first-rate lawyer, who listens carefully to arguments, even when they go against his initial inclinations. He seems to me to be a true conservative, who sees the judicial role as one in which courts conserve. I don't expect to agree with all his decisions, even on matters of intense controversy. I should compare him to the second Justice Harlan--with whom I often disagreed, but whom I still consider an excellent Justice.

Even though I have nothing to offer except opinion, I am grateful that you had me on your list, and I wish you and your ABA colleagues well in your deliberations.


Ken Karst
When's the last time we've seen a thoughtful, civil comment like that from either side? (I hope he's right.)

Instead, we have the Gray Lady nosing about the adoption of Justice Roberts's children.

Civility is not dead, just moribund.

HT: Volokh.

Colo(u)r Illusions

These colo(u)r illusions are astounding, amazing, etc.

HT: The inimitable Eugene Volokh.

August 5, 2005

Light Blogging -- But No Valerie Plame!

My precious laptop croaked, and I'm fighting with Apple about it. And business is heating up.

Hence, light blogging, soon to be remedied, I hope.

At least you won't hear about the non-story of the century, the Valerie Plame-Joe Wilson-Bob Novak-Judith Miller foofaraw. The misguided notion of a Journalist's privilege might be worth a mention, but otherwise, my friends, it's a Yawn.