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Archive for December 2012



On the fifth day of Christmas . . .

. . . My true love gave to me a book on pop metaphysics.

Yes, I read Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? over the weekend.  It’s light stuff: A journalist ─ though a more-than-usually intelligent one ─ talks to philosophers and physicists with interesting opinions on the title question.

Precisely halfway through, though ─ pp. 150-153 ─ the author deftly inserts a personal story guaranteed to tug the heart-strings of dog lovers.  My wife, who is of that breed, and not the least bit interested in metaphysics, actually cried when I read it to her.  AND the dog story manages to include a curious theorem about prime numbers!

Altogether a pleasant holiday-weekend read.

So far as the title question is concerned, there is not much of a conclusion. How could there be?

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Liberty, Not So Much

birth-control-pillWe’ve heard a lot from the Roman Catholic church of late about how its “religious liberty” is supposedly infringed by the Obamacare “contraception mandate”. It’s a dodgy and unconvincing argument for any number of reasons (and hypocritical too, given the church’s earlier support for universal healthcare), to which one can now add this (via the National Catholic Register):

BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has voiced his support for over-the-counter access to birth control, a position that Church representatives say goes against Catholic teaching on contraception.

“The Archdiocese of New Orleans disagrees with Governor Jindal’s stance on this issue, as the use of birth control and contraceptives are against Catholic Church teaching,” Sarah Comiskey McDonald, communications director for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, told EWTN News Dec. 14. Robert Tasman, associate director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, also echoed the archdiocese’s statement.

Making the pill available OTC is a generally excellent idea, but Jindal is approaching it from the perspective of a (very) devout Roman Catholic. His cannily pragmatic argument is based on the idea that making the pill available OTC will remove much (all?) of the rationale for including it under the HHS rules, but even this still is not, apparently, good enough for the Archdiocese. Note that these clerics’ objection to Gov. Jindal’s proposal is based on religious, not medical grounds. That their opposition to contraception is not shared by many of their coreligionists, let alone by most Americans of other faiths—and none—is, apparently, an irrelevance. Their ideology must be imposed on everyone, and that’s it.

Remind me again why should we pay attention when this church starts talking about “religious liberty”. I must be missing something.

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“Sensible Proposals”

Heather, you wrote:

Anyone who was expecting Vice President Wayne LaPierre to break the NRA’s week-long silence after the Newtown massacre with an olive branch and some sensible proposals regarding better background checks, say, or restrictions on high-capacity ammo clips didn’t know his man.

Well, regardless of what we might think of Wayne LaPierre’s, uh, less than convincing performance, it’s worth acknowledging that one reason that individual gun rights have survived so long in the United States has been the refusal of those who have been most prominent in their defense to make any concessions that could be seen as somehow diluting the Second Amendment. The effect of that stubbornness is that the debate is presently focused on assault weapons, ammo clips and the like, rather than on attacking the core freedom that lies at the heart of that amendment.

In an earlier post on this topic, you noted that the “sounds of the machinery of the federal government cranking into gear must be terrifying to many a libertarian.” That’s very true, and not only for libertarians. One thing that such people have come to understand all too well is that when that machinery starts up, it frequently begins with steps that are indeed quite often genuinely sensible. The problem is that the ratchet rarely stops there. Once an inch has been conceded, the state will take a mile in carefully calibrated increments, each of which are ‘reasonable’ until, of course, the moment that they cease to be.

Paranoia? Let’s just say that it is telling that Mayor Bloomberg is leading the charge for tighter regulation. The epitome of the technocrat who believes that he always knows best, Bloomberg has repeatedly demonstrated that the demands of the state (defined, naturally, by him) trump the freedoms of the individual. His prominence in the current campaign is a guarantee that it will not stop with “sensible proposals”.

And that’s a shame.



Happy Christmas!

father christmas on marsHow to mark Christmas, grandest and jolliest and most syncretic of festivals, this year?

With this brief extract, I think, from The Exiles by Ray Bradbury, who, of course, died just a few months ago:

A door banged wide in a little hut by the shore. A thin short man, with flesh hanging from him in folds, stepped out and, paying no attention to the others, sat down and stared into his clenched fists.

“There’s the one I’m sorry for,” whispered Blackwood. “Look at him, dying away. He was once more real than we, who were men. They took him, a skeleton thought, and clothed him in centuries of pink flesh and snow beard and red velvet suit and black boot; made him reindeers, tinsel, holly. And after centuries of manufacturing him they drowned him in a vat of Lysol, you might say.”

The men were silent.

“What must it be on Earth?” wondered Poe. “Without Christmas? No hot chestnuts, no tree, no ornaments or drums or candles-nothing; nothing but the snow and wind and the lonely, factual people….”

They all looked at the thin little old man with the scraggly beard and faded red velvet suit.

“Have you heard his story?”

“I can imagine it. The glitter-eyed psychiatrist, the clever sociologist,the resentful, froth-mouthed educationalist, the antiseptic parents-“

You gotta love the NRA.  Anyone who was expecting Vice President Wayne LaPierre to break the NRA’s week-long silence after the Newtown massacre with an olive branch and some sensible proposals regarding better background checks, say, or restrictions on high-capacity ammo clips didn’t know his man.  The idea of putting an armed guard in every elementary school in the country strikes me as utter lunacy (sadly, lunacy already embraced by 20 percent of elementary schools and one third of all public schools generally, reports the New York Times).  But no one is more responsible for laying the predicate for LaPierre’s proposal than the gun control Left.   The Left (including the media: see, especially, NPR) has been hawking the notion that the Newtown school shootings represent a widespread threat in order to advance its own agenda.  It can not now protest that LaPierre’s idea is a ludicrous overreaction to an extraordinarily rare, horrific event with no precedent.  (And in fact some gun control advocates have decided that there is more advantage to be had in backing the schools-need-armed-guards idea than in demolishing it.)  So now both sides are staring at each other across a common false conceit, even as more school districts have already begun arming up and police departments have announced plans to patrol schools in another eruption of probability-free thinking.  For the moment, there may in fact be an elevated risk of copy cat attacks from the unhinged.  But that increased risk is over a baseline that is extremely low to begin with.  Perhaps there is no cost to such reflexive overreaction.  But in fact there always is a cost, since public resources are finite.  Money spent putting an armed guard in every school could be better spent targetted by risk.  There are many inner city neighborhoods and schools that could do with more police presence, for example, because their residents face a non-negligble chance of getting shot: The per capita shooting rate in Brownsville, Brooklyn, for instance , is a whopping 81 times higher than in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood.  Spreading police intervention equally across all neighborhoods in New York, regardless of their crime rate, would be a waste of resources–one that the New York Police Department’s Compstat system thankfully prevents.  In the present instance, however, we seemed doomed to an irrational, if inevitable, response.

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At what point do we declare that the near saturation media coverage of the Newton massacre, however understandable initially, has become not just politically opportunistic on the part of a nearly unanimous gun control bloc but also voyeuristic?   Perhaps any coverage of such a tragedy inevitably contains elements of voyeurism from the very start—humans compassionately grieve for and sympathize with the victims, but also are drawn to look upon  others’ suffering with a horrified fascination.  That fascination includes some element of “Phew, I’m glad that wasn’t me” (as well as: “Why him and not me?”).   The Greek tragedians understood the mesmerizing effect of other people’s travails.   The Newton coverage to me is starting to enter the realm of arguably gratuitous detail regarding matters best left to private sorrow. 

The media also have an interest in selling their wares, obviously, and so will symbiotically exploit their audiences’ voyeuristic tendencies as long as they can. 

 Part of the answer to how much coverage of the massacre is justified—and by extension, what the public policy response should be–requires precisely defining what happened there.   If we categorize it narrowly as belonging to the subset: schoolyard massacres, those are incredibly rare.  The New York Times reports:

Research on mass school killings shows that they are exceedingly rare. Amanda B. Nickerson, director of a center that studies school violence and abuse prevention at the University at Buffalo, said studies made clear that American schools were quite safe and that children were more likely to be killed outside of school.

How much should we change our laws to prevent an event that almost never happens, especially in comparison to the number of school days logged by American children each year?   Gun control advocates thus want to put the Newton massacre in a broader context of gun violence more generally.   I have almost no gun rights instincts, so my knee-jerk response to the tragedy was: “Enough is enough.  The NRA’s got some ‘splainin’ to do here.”   Nevertheless I well understand the substantial arguments of the gun lobby against further regulation.  Homicides have dropped enormously over the last thirty years, and not just because of better emergency care treatment.  Gun violence is not getting worse, it’s getting better.  And as Steven Pinker has shown, violence in general has plummeted over centuries.  Further restrictions on gun purchases will be greatly overinclusive, especially if we define the problem we are trying to avert as school massacres.  Almost no one buying semi-automatic weapons and ammo will go on to murder school children.   But the proportion of legal gun owners who go on to kill anyone is also very low. 

The extent to which one tolerates over-inclusion and under-inclusion in a law depends on your preexisting world view—if you’re already inclined towards gun regulation, for example,  you won’t care so much if the proposed solution would burden many innocent gun owners and would not necessarily have prevented the current tragedy.  Because I don’t personally value gun rights, I am easily prepared to support a potentially infinite range of further restrictions on ownership.  But I realize that such a position  is purely idiosyncratic, if not selfish.  Suggest something greatly overinclusive about something I do care about, and I will be much more insistent on a tight fit between the law and the alleged problem.  When Al Sharpton proposes to shut down proactive policing in New York City after an officer mistakenly shoots an unarmed man, for example, I do rebel, and will argue the utter rarity of such shootings compared to the tens of millions of officer-civilian contacts a year and the costs of further restricting officers’ ability to prevent crime. 

Short of disarming everyone, it’s hard to see how to prevent such unusual tragedies like we just experienced—especially where the gun user was not the lawful gun owner.  Perhaps I’ve missed something, but nothing seems to suggest that Adam Lanza was within the range of even greatly liberalized involuntary commitment laws, so the safe harbor of hoping that stricter mental health laws or even more treatment would have prevented Sandy Hook seems unavailable. 

Of course, the greatest victims of gun violence proportionally are blacks; there are more black homicide victims each year than white and Hispanic victims combined, even though blacks are only 12 percent of the population.  Even the liberal media doesn’t care much about them.  Blacks are also the greatest perpetrators of gun violence.  In New York City, blacks commit 80 percent of all shootings, though they are 23 percent of the population.  Whites commit 1.4 percent of all shootings, though they are 35 percent of the population.  Blacks are underrepresented among gun owners.  Policing, not gun laws, brought gun violence down in New York City since 1994.  The one root cause that I would go after to lower black crime would be illegitimacy.  But the New York Police Department managed to decrease homicides by 80 percent since 1993—twice the national average—without changing family structure one iota. 

Left to my own devices, however, and reacting purely emotionally, I swing back into the gun control camp.  There simply is no dispute that the U.S. is miles more violent than other advanced countries.  Are guns a symptom or a cause of that violence?  I don’t know.  But in any case, do we really need all those guns?  Taboo question in many circles, I know.  If something is question of rights, “need” does not come into the question.  And conservatives preach that we should be nonjudgmental about other consumer preferences.  I am not supposed to question whether you “need” five SUVs or 63 pairs of Jimmy Choo stilettos.  Still, I will not mourn if it gets harder to buy guns.  The sounds of the machinery of the federal government cranking into gear must be terrifying to many a libertarian, but is a federal response really so inappropriate?  I am agnostic on this.  Legislation serves a symbolic as well as a technocratic function.  

(However rare mass shootings are, Islamic terrorist shootings—or any kind of domestic Islamic terror event–are even rarer.  Conservatives have been just as quick to jump on the policy bandwagon to prevent Islamic terrorism, an exceedingly unusual occurrence, and in so doing to impose far greater costs and consequences, as liberals are with regards to highly publicized shootings.)

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Did you know opponents of Bork’s confirmation waged a whispering campaign against the conservative nominee in the South on the grounds that he wasn’t a religious believer? I explain in a New York Post op-ed out this morning. According to this article at Catholic World Report, Bork considered himself an atheist at the time of the Senate confirmation fight; later, he was to convert to Catholicism.

There are enough ironies here to satisfy anyone. Had Bork joined the Court — assuming the trajectory of his attraction toward religious belief would not itself have been altered by that fact — he might well have outflanked Scalia in bringing a jurisprudence infused by orthodox Catholicism to the Court. For both supporters and opponents, believers and non-, there are lessons here in humility about how far off base we can fall if we treat adversaries’ (or friends’) intellectual positions as fixed and immutable. More from Nick Gillespie at Reason.

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Social Justice and All That

BenedictThe Pope, writing in the Financial Times today:

Christians work for more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources out of a belief that, as stewards of God’s creation, we have a duty to care for the weakest and most vulnerable. Christians oppose greed and exploitation out of a conviction that generosity and selfless love, as taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth, are the way that leads to fullness of life. Christian belief in the transcendent destiny of every human being gives urgency to the task of promoting peace and justice for all.

The EUObserver today:

The Vatican has been handed a billion euro tax break after the EU ruled that it would be “absolutely impossible” to claw back unpaid property taxes. Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia had previously ruled that the Catholic church’s exemption from paying tax on over 4,700 buildings from 2006-2011 breached competition rules.



Sir Patrick Moore (1923-2012)

One of Britain’s television legends has just died.

His Daily Telegraph obituary can be found here. Some key extracts:

A genuine eccentric who never took himself too seriously, Moore played up to his image as a “mad professor”, and wrote more than 100 books — most of them about astronomy for a popular audience. Meanwhile, his monthly Sky at Night programme — launched on BBC Television in April 1957 — attracted millions of viewers.
On television Moore became celebrated for the thunderous fervour with which he would utter the words: “We just don’t know!” to emphasise that our comprehension of the universe is incomplete…

The Sky at Night started almost by accident. One day in 1957 the BBC broadcast a somewhat sensationalist programme about flying saucers. Producers wanted a counterview by a “thoroughly reactionary and sceptical astronomer who knew some science and could talk”. This turned out to be Moore. He little guessed that he was starting a series that would last for half a century….

He had as little sympathy either for the peddlers of what he considered pseudoscience. Astrology he declared “rubbish”. And he was deeply angered in the 1970s by a book co-written by the journalist John Gribbin called The Jupiter Effect, which predicted that in 1982 the planets would be so closely aligned that their combined gravitational fields would cause earthquakes all over the world… Both the data and the conclusion, Moore said, were nonsense. The planets were not in alignment, and even if they had been, they were much too small and too far away to cause the predicted earthquakes. Despite his efforts, Gribbin’s book became a bestseller and was the subject of a solemn presentation at the London Planetarium.

Moore was furious. A show at the Planetarium gives an idea scientific authority, and people who saw its treatment of the “Gribbin effect” were seriously alarmed. Moore campaigned successfully to have the Planetarium show taken off and afterwards presented a humorous Sky at Night programme showing the idea up as the nonsense he considered it to be.

Meanwhile, when some of the Moon astronauts apparently claimed that in space they had had visions of God, he was asked: “What do you think they really saw?”

“I think they saw the Moon…”

He was also a euroskeptic.




Learning the Lessons of Kerensky

Cross-posted on the Corner:

Jihad Al-Khazen writes in Al Arabiya:

I expected the worst as I watched on television one day the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed Badie, who was not elected by anyone, walking in front of President Mohammed Mursi.

The president is the first Egyptian, and must walk in front of everyone. But it is clear that Dr. Mursi continues to consider himself a member of the Guidance Bureau of the group, before being the president of Egypt. Therefore, he is attempting to impose on half of the Egyptians who did not vote for him his religious convictions, rather than a national policy that would accommodate all Egyptians.

I also expected the worst as I saw the draft constitution in the hands of religious groups, without there being a single woman in the drafting committee, as though women, half of the Egyptian people, are minors who need chaperons to hold their hands. In truth, I would have also expected the worst if the liberals, secularists and leftists had drafted the constitution without participation by the Islamists…

Half of the Egyptians took to the streets to protest the power grab, and I followed three major protests where no one was killed. Then when the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters came to confront the protesters, many people were killed or injured…

All of Egypt is paying the price for the Brotherhood’s tenacity, and I do not say the president. Indeed, Dr. Mursi could be just following orders from above, that is to say, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood who walks ahead of him….

The Muslim Brotherhood waited 80 years to reach power, and when they did, they could not believe it. Thus, the lust for power defeated prudence, and the Muslim Brotherhood sought from day one to mold Egypt in their image and their example, despite the abundance of evidence that half of Egyptians do not want that.

Democracy should be pluralistic, but the religious parties cannot accommodate others…

This should not be a surprise.


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