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Archive for April 2010



Palin Inc.

New York Magazine has a long profile of Sarah Palin up right now. Its focus is more publicity, personality and celebrity, than politics. The profile reduces my probability that Palin will make a serious run (as opposed to a pro forma one) for the highest office in 2012.* It also leaves me impressed by how quickly and efficiently she’s leveraged her celebrity and gone from moderately upper middle class** in income (and in serious debt due to legal bills after the 2008 campaign) to wealthy. Some Republicans are apparently worried about her becoming the “face of the party,” something that crops up now and then in the media, but it doesn’t seem like they really have to worry that much unless the party has no real substance and is rooted only in style and the need to get elected. As for Sarah Palin, whatever you think of her politics or personality, she’s offering a concrete product distributed through the private sector. The article mentions that her book was a major reason that Random House generated a profit last year! Whatever criticisms one might lodge, she’s not getting rich by being a rent-seeker, as so many of our public and private sector elites have become. In fact the article points to a whole industry of liberal critique which has emerged around her, so she’s not even capturing all the wealth that she’s responsible for (spillover effects).

I have always been relatively unimpressed by the arguments of those on the Left and Right who view her as a potentially transformative figure in American politics. I have too great of a faith in the power of elites to squelch populism on the whole (this doesn’t mean that populists don’t sometimes succeed, it just means that you have to generally bet against populism all things equal). As an empirical matter it does seem like that she’s becoming the conservative equivalent to Al Gore, someone beloved within their own partisan faction, and able to maintain their celebrity and have some influence, but ultimately constrained in their reach because of their polarizing personality.

* Serious as in will she expend all her capital, fiscal and personal, during her run, or will she have to balance her desire for the highest office with having to maintain her career in case she doesn’t succeed. In other words, I don’t think she’ll go “all in” because she will want to continue and maintain her future income generation possibilities, which have a large upside.

** Though socially and culturally I think one can make the argument that the Palins span the working & middle class, their incomes were well above the national average by the time she came to prominence.



Gray vs. Grayling

It’s worth spending some time on this devastating review by British philosopher John Gray of a new book by British philosopher A.C. Grayling. Neither man is a religious believer, but, after reading this review, it’s difficult not to think that Gray is not the greater skeptic.

This passage is key:

Reading Grayling, it is hard to resist the impression that he believes Western civilization would be much improved if it did not include the Judeo-Christian inheritance. Absurd as it is, there is nothing new in such a claim. It is one of the most venerable clichés of Enlightenment thinking, and Ideas that Matter is a compendium of such dated prejudices. When Grayling condemns religion on the grounds that “a theory that explains everything, and can be falsified by nothing, is empty,” he takes for granted that religions are primitive theories, now rendered obsolete by science. Such was the position of J. G. Frazer, the Victorian evangelist for positivism and author of the once-celebrated survey of myth, The Golden Bough (1890). In this view, religion is chiefly a product of intellectual error, and will fade away along with continuing scientific advance. But what if science were to show that religion serves needs that do not change with the growth of knowledge—the need for meaning, for example? In that case, it would not be religion and science that were at odds, but science and atheism. The upshot of scientific inquiry would be that religion is an ineradicable part of human life. Atheism—at least of the evangelical variety that Grayling promotes, which aims to convert humankind from religion—would be a supremely pointless exercise.


Indeed it would. At the same time, we should not overlook the irony implicit in the paradox that Gray seems to accept a little too casually. At its core “religion” is, more likely than not, based on nothing more than fantasy, but what if (as Gray plausibly suggests) that fantasy satisfies a basic need without which human society is unlikely to flourish? That awkward fact doesn’t make religion any more true, it just makes it useful. So what is a secular sort to do? The usually helpful conservative approach—“nothing”—is not really enough. A better starting point is to recognize that some religions (or variants thereof) are more helpful—and more benign—than others.

And speaking of faiths that are far from benign, Gray (not for the first time) falls into the error of seeing the monstrous twentieth century totalitarianisms as bastard descendants of the Enlightenment. In reality, they are better seen as a reversion (explicitly so in the case of the Nazis) to the irrationality that will always be a part of the human condition, the reality of which merits a more serious response than denial or, for that matter, blind faith in Progress.

In any event, read the whole thing.

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Bad News Bear

If Comedy Central ever had a reputation for being an “edgy” channel it has lost it now. The story of the channel’s decision to, uh, tinker with episode 201 of South Park ought to be well known to many who look at this blog, but some useful background can be found, courtesy of the New York Times here.

The story begins with episode 200:

On April 14 Comedy Central broadcast the 200th episode of “South Park,” a cartoon that Trey Parker and Matt Stone have produced for that channel since 1997. In honor of the occasion, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone populated the episode with nearly all the famous people their show has lampooned in its history, including celebrities like Tom Cruise and Barbra Streisand, as well as major religious figures, like Moses, Jesus and Buddha. Cognizant that Islam forbids the depiction of its holiest prophet, Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker showed their “South Park” characters agonizing over how to bring Muhammad to their fictional Colorado town. At first the character said to be Muhammad is confined to a U-Haul trailer, and is heard speaking but is not shown. Later in the episode the character is let out of the trailer, dressed in a bear costume.


That triggered an ominous comment from precisely one Muslim website, and here’s what happened next:

In a new episode of “South Park” broadcast Wednesday on Comedy Central, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone exercised a degree of self-censorship. In continuing the previous week’s story line about the Prophet Muhammad, that character was hidden underneath a “CENSORED” graphic, and an audio bleep was heard when his name was said. But in a message that appeared Thursday morning on, the Web site of Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker’s company, the studio said that Comedy Central had imposed further changes to the show. “After we delivered the show, and prior to broadcast, Comedy Central placed numerous additional audio bleeps throughout the episode,” the message said. It added that the network was not allowing the episode to be streamed on the Web site, where “South Park” shows generally appear after they are broadcast on Comedy Central.A spokesman for Comedy Central confirmed on Thursday that the network had added more bleeps to the episode than were in the version delivered by South Park Studios, and that it was not permitting the episode to be shown on the studio’s Web site.


That’s appalling. Nevertheless Comedy Central (a part of Viacom) is privately owned and it has the right not to show whatever it wants. That said, it would be interesting to know if Viacom will react in quite the same way to the now-inevitable complaints from other religious groups “offended” by the portrayal of one of their holy men in a future Comedy Central show. If it does not cave in to those complaints, it should attempt to defend the double standard – in all its humiliating detail. And if it does cave in, it will have provided yet another helpful example of just how corrosive to freedom of speech the fear of “giving offense” really is.

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Happy St. George’s (Yester)day!

For the most part, I’m no great fan of saints, a rum bunch of characters too often found teetering uneasily between insanity, hysteria and fable. England’s (and I use that national qualifier deliberately) St. George, however, is an exception, decent, brave, martial, thoroughly divorced from his original legend and transformed into an agreeable patriotic myth. He is, in short, everything that a saint should be. That Shakespeare died (and may also have been born) on St George’s Day only makes matters better.

I’m glad to say that England’s saint is making a bit of a comeback. The Daily Telegraph has a good roundup of photographs of yesterday’s celebrations here.

And, as tends to be the case with England’s still surviving, but generally understated, patriotism, it all comes (in this case courtesy of London mayor Boris Johnson at the 2009 celebrations) complete with a keen sense of self-mockery:



Pataki for 2012?

Pataki for Prez?. He needs to flip to being pro-life very soon if he wants to be viable. The only reason I point to this is to illustrate how many names are going to emerge from the woodwork before 2011. Another example, Haley Barbour. He does need to lose weight. We haven’t had a fat president since Harding.



Okey Dokey

Via AP:

LOUISVILLE, KY. (AP) – Sarah Palin spoke to a crowd of about 16,000 attending an evangelical Christian women’s conference in Louisville Friday night.

The Courier-Journal reports the 2008 Republican candidate for vice president mixed stories of personal struggles and calls for women to be good mothers and good citizens with criticism of President Barack Obama – although she did not mention him by name.

Palin asked the women to provide a “prayer shield” to strengthen her against what she said was “deception” in the media.

She asserted that America needs to get back to its Christian roots and rejected any notion that “God should be separated from the state.”



Natural-Born Supernaturalists?

This WSJ piece by Michael Shermer is well worth a look. Some key extracts:

According to Oxford University Press’s “World Christian Encyclopedia,” 84% of the world’s population belongs to some form of organized religion. That equals 5.7 billion people who belong to about 10,000 distinct religions, each of which may be further subdivided and classified. Christians, for example, may be apportioned among over 33,000 different denominations. Among the many binomial designations granted our species (Homo sapiens, Homo ludens, Homo economicus), a strong case could be made for Homo religiosus…
…belief in supernatural agents (God, angels, demons) and commitment to certain religious practices (church attendance, prayer, rituals) appears to reflect genetically based cognitive processes (inferring the existence of invisible agents) and personality traits (respect for authority, traditionalism).
Why did we inherit this tendency? Long, long ago, in a Paleolithic environment far, far away from the modern world, humans evolved to find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world, and infuse many of those patterns with intentional agency, some of which became animistic spirits and powerful gods. I call these two processes patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data) and agenticity (the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention and agency).


As neologisms go, “patternicity” and “agenticity” are not among the most elegant, but Shermer’s analysis of why the “God gene” came to be is intriguing. Whatever the correct explanation may ultimately prove to be (and I doubt that we will ever know for sure), we can, I think, be certain of one thing: religions will always be with us



Cato on Mitt Romney

I talked about this possibility before. Don’t know if it has legs to push into the 2012 primary season. If it doesn’t knock Romney out, I believe we can take this as evidence of the power of establishment Republicanism despite all the recent press given toward conservative populism.



The Wrong Lesson

Here’s a curious little sequence of video clips from BBC News.

They show us how education goes in Finland.

Then we get a clip of schooling in South Korea.

And then the BBC’s Matt Frei interviews Arne Duncan, our federal Secretary of Education, to discuss lessons for the U.S.A. from the South Korean and Finnish experiences.

Going by those experiences, it looks to me as though the main lesson is: If you seek educational excellence, be a small mono-ethnic country with near-zero levels of immigration.

(The reporter actually mentions the i-word near the very end of the Finland clip, but then drops it like a hot sauna rock.)

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From the Glass House

The effort by some, mainly Islamic, nations to use the United Nations in an attempt to muzzle what they refer to as “defamation” of religion on the pretense that it constitutes some sort of infringement of the rights of the faithful of all religions is as absurd as it is sinister. Beyond the preposterously unconvincing rhetoric, this is not about tolerance, mutual respect or, even, the sensitivities of all faiths. It is, at its root, clearly about one thing, and one thing only: stamping out criticism of Islam.
The Economist had some of the details on what has being going on in a good article it published on the topic a week or so ago. Here is an extract.

On March 25th the Human Rights Council (HRC), a Geneva-based UN agency which often exasperates its Western members, voted by 20 votes to 17, with eight abstentions, for a text that lists the “defamation of religion” as an infringement of liberty. Nothing amazing there: the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which groups 56 mainly Muslim states (plus Palestine), has been working to push resolutions of that kind through the General Assembly and other UN bodies since 2005. But the margin was the smallest ever, and opponents think there could be a good chance of defeating a “defamation” motion next time one comes around.
The OIC’s idea is to establish the principle that faiths need protection, just as individuals do. It denies any sinister intention (see article). And to some ears, the OIC’s effort sounds like harmless UN-speak, but nothing more. (The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressionally mandated body, has noted a logical flaw: defamation means harming the reputation of a living person or entity: that implies that one can’t defame an idea or a religious founder who is no longer, at least physically, alive on earth.)
But critics of the OIC campaign, who include atheists, Christians and indeed some Muslims, say the “defamation” idea is worse than hot air: far from protecting human rights, it emboldens countries that use blasphemy laws to criminalise dissent. What encourages these critics is that more countries seem to be coming around to their view. Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Zambia and South Korea voted against the latest resolution. Brazil criticised the text but abstained.


In a related story, the magazine also interviewed the OIC’s secretary-general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. The interview doesn’t reveal very much of interest, and contains, of course, the usual complaints about the “demonizing” of Islam in the west. One aspect, however, struck me as worth noting. The OIC turns out to be headquartered in Saudi Arabia. If it wants anyone to believe its (unbelievable) claim that its demands are no more than a call for mutual respect, doing so from the heart of a theocracy with little or no room for dissent within Islam, let alone the practice of other faiths, is not really the way to go

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