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Archive for January 2013



First Amendment, Second Amendment

The Economist picks up on this letter from 64 Roman Catholic theologians in favor of gun control.

With so much talk of late of the supposed attack on religious freedom represented by Obamacare’s contraception mandate, this passage caught my eye:

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently renewed their call for measures to address gun violence by echoing their 2000 statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice. Bishops have called for “measures that control the sale and use of firearms” and “sensible regulations of handguns.” The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in a 1994 document, “The International Arms Trade,” urges political leaders “to impose a strict control on the sale of handguns and small arms” and states that “limiting the purchase of such arms would certainly not infringe on the rights of anyone.”

Well, it’s good to know where people stand.

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More on Morsi

Muslim BrotherhoodCross-posted on the Corner:

Der Spiegel:

To comprehend the Egyptian president and grasp how the Muslim Brotherhood shapes its members, it helps to speak with men who knew Morsi during his time with the Islamist organization — and who also have the courage to speak openly about the group. Abdel-Jalil el-Sharnoubi, 38, talks about how dangerous this can be. Last October, after he had spoken about quitting the Brotherhood to Egyptian newspapers and in TV appearances, masked men opened fire on Sharnoubi’s car with submachine guns…

Sharnoubi assumes that cordial moves like the letter to Peres have only one goal: “To secure and expand the dominance of the Brotherhood.” Only recently, the president issued a decree that gave him absolute powers, and Morsi currently controls all three branches of government. “He has secured more power than his predecessor Mubarak ever had.”

Sharnoubi’s vision of a future Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood is horrifying. “They will infiltrate all areas of our society: government offices and ministries, schools and universities, as well as the police and the military. They will eliminate their enemies.”

Isn’t he exaggerating?

“Not in the least,” says Sharnoubi, noting that the Brotherhood is already infiltrating the security apparatus. “The Brotherhood will never give up its power without a fight.”

Not exactly surprising. Not exactly reassuring.

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History Rhymes

Burning BooksCross-posted on the Corner:

A number of people here have noted that yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Well, in Mali they were burning books.

The Christian Science Monitor reports:

Fleeing Islamist extremists torched a library containing historic manuscripts in Timbuktu, the mayor said Monday, as French and Malian forces closed in on Mali’s fabled desert city. Ousmane Halle said he heard about the burnings early Monday.

“It’s truly alarming that this has happened,” he told The Associated Press by telephone from Mali’s capital, Bamako, on Monday. “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.”

Heinrich Heine (1821):

…[D]ort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen (“Where they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn people”).




Making social engineering work

I tend to find the objection that having women in combat positions is a case of social engineering somewhat short-sighted. The military has long been a testing ground for social engineering. In the 1st century B.C. the Marian reforms helped transform the Roman legions from being the Roman nation at arms to a professional fighting force. It is a defensible position that those reforms were a major catalyst for the emergence of strongmen such as Sulla and Caesar, as professional soldiers looked to their generals to safeguard their rights, rather than the citizen soldiers who were safeguarding their nation and property. The issue then is not social engineering, but the shape and consequences of that engineering.

Women will now officially be in combat roles. My understanding is that over the past generation they have already been de facto in the “line of fire.” Conservatives, who are skeptical of change, have then to confront a very radical overturning of tradition. The likelihood of this being reversed is low. But, there are different trajectories that this policy could take. It seems that the primary issue that conservatives need to stand on is the fact that proportionality and ‘gender norming’ will not be guiding principles. There seems broad public acceptance of the idea that individual women who have the capacity to serve in combat roles  should be given that liberty, but there is no consensus that women should be equally represented in all arms of the military in direct proportion to their overall representation (15 percent).

It is notable to me that The New York Times, an organ of mainstream cultural liberalism, published a cautionary piece on women in combat in Israel, Looking to Israel for Clues on Women in Combat. Even after decades of having women in military roles there has not been an elimination of deep structural differences in males and females in terms of their typical roles. Why? Because males and females differ in bio-behavioral dispositions, and social and cultural mores may not be able to eliminate those differences (often, cultural changes only shift the differences in novel configurations).

Social conservatives who oppose these changes on principle will not be able to turn back the clock in the near term. The best case solution then is an alliance with libertarians who will be able to agree that the fitness of a soldier must be evaluated on an objective and universal set of individual criteria. If sex is no longer to be a bar on general service in combat, nor should it be a category which one uses to alter the rules of evaluation for fitness in that service.

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Academia as the liberal party at prayer

What’s the Meaning of the Moody’s Report?:

The new report from Moody’s Investors Service, casting doubt on the financial state of affairs in higher education, has provoked a good deal of anxiety.

The comments about tuition are potentially most alarming. Institutionally, the most significant change in higher education over the past generation has been the explosion of administrators’ positions, whose rate of growth has far exceeded that of full-time faculty. As any glance through FIRE’s website reveals, the emergence of administrators has had a pernicious effect: student life bureaucracies have a well-deserved reputation for both political correctness and a hostility to free exchange on campus

Moody’s finding regarding a diminution of state and (to a lesser extent) federal support seems likely even if the economy suddenly improves. Over the past generation, as politics have become increasingly polarized and partisan, higher education has moved consistently in one ideological and partisan direction. (At my home institution of CUNY, the faculty union is notorious for refusing even to reach out to Republican state legislators, even as the GOP controls the New York state Senate.) Universities are perfectly free, of course, to create race/class/gender-dominated faculty and adamantly commit themselves to “diversity” as their preeminent goal. But it should come as little surprise that colleges with such an agenda will tend to isolate themselves politically–meaning that, in hard economic times, as legislators have to make tough choices over what programs to fund, state governments will fund other, more politically popular, programs.

For various reasons it is likely that for the indefinite future the academia will lean Left, and, that public monies will be required to supplement tuition and fees (institutions with rich endowments may not fall into this class). But, there is I believe a disturbing trend of ‘sorting’ where some elements of the hyper-politicized professoriate lose all perspective as to the genuine distribution of ideological viewpoints in the broader population which supports them, at least in part. By this, I mean that in fields like sociology the typical ‘conservative’ may actually be a moderate Democrat, while the Left may consist of unreconstructed Marxists. When you perceive people on the political Right as engaged in “hate speech” by definition, that is going to create hostility from said Right. One’s opinion is one’ prerogative, but one can’t presume that the targets of one’s ire will be happy to fund that invective indefinitely. A liberal academia supported in part by an ideologically diverse tax base can persist. And it certainly did for decades. But, one has to draw a line when the perception begins to develop that academia is engaged in a hostile culture war against elements of the population, with the intent of delegitimizing that perspective as viable.

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The Dukhovnik

Kolomenskoye, Feb 91 (AS)Here’s a must-read in the FT that sheds yet more light on Putin’s relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church:

…Father Tikhon wields influence in the church far above his modest rank of Archimandrite, or abbot, due primarily to his contacts in the Kremlin. The story that travels with him, which he will neither confirm nor deny, is that he is the confessor to Vladimir Putin. The only details he gives is that Putin, sometime before he became president at the end of 1999 (most likely while he was head of Russia’s FSB security service from 1998 to 1999) appeared at the doors of the monastery one day. Since then, the two men have maintained a very public association, with Tikhon accompanying Putin on foreign and domestic trips, dealing with ecclesiastical problems. But according to persistent rumour, Tikhon ushered the former KGB colonel into the Orthodox faith and became his dukhovnik, or godfather.

Father Tikhon does appear to have a very intimate knowledge of Putin’s religious life: in 2001 he gave an intriguing interview to a Greek newspaper, saying Putin “really is an Orthodox Christian, and not just nominally, but a person who makes confession, takes communion and understands his responsibility before God for the high service entrusted to him and for his immortal soul”.

He also would appear to have influence – he has campaigned almost single-handedly for anti-alcohol legislation in Russia, and achieved surprising results: just before the New Year, Russia’s parliament banned alcohol sales after 11pm…

…A secular state according to its 1993 constitution, Russia recently flirted precariously with religious law in last year’s strange prosecution of punk band Pussy Riot, which transformed them into global martyrs after they were given two-year prison sentences (one has since been set free), guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.
Prosecution documents state that the laws broken by the three defendants – who performed “Blessed Virgin, throw Putin Out!” wearing Day-Glo balaclavas in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral – were articles 62 and 75 of the Quinisext Council, held under the emperor Justinian in the seventh century. According to these articles, access to the solea and pulpit of Orthodox churches is reserved for clergy. While the final sentence by the judge in the case dropped references to the Quinisext Council, it did cite as expert opinion the fourth-century Council of Laodicea, according to which: “The solea and ambon have special religious significance for believers.”

…“The Russian church created Russia,” says Father Tikhon. “Russia can sometimes be an obedient child, and sometimes a child that revolts against its parents. But the church always has felt responsibility for Russia.”

No wonder Pussy Riot headed for the cathedral…

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Just Another Foolish Priest

Red DeanA cleric talking nonsense is hardly news, but when it’s the right sort of nonsense, the Washington Post can be relied upon to gush:

Ambitious and outspoken, the new head of Washington National Cathedral has attracted more attention over the past few weeks than previous cathedral deans have for decades.

The Rev. Gary Hall’s announcement that the cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Church, would host same-sex weddings and his immediate embrace of gun control in the hours after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., have made him a regular on national television. On Thursday, Hall will be the only representative of the clergy speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference where Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) will introduce a bill that would ban dozens of assault weapons.

One recent morning, Hall zoomed around town to three television appearances in an hour, triggering stares in network studios as he sat in his priest’s collar getting his makeup done while the usual pundits and politicos came and went.
His sermon two days after the Newtown shootings — “The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby,” he said — got a rare standing ovation…

As leader of one of the country’s most prominent churches — and the site of Tuesday’s official inaugural prayer service, complete with the Obamas — Hall is being interviewed daily about measures he and a team of clergy leaders are promoting.

Ushers handed out 10,000 call-your-lawmaker cards to worshippers over the Christmas period. Hall and the Washington diocese’s bishop, Mariann Budde, traveled to Johns Hopkins University this week for a summit on gun control. They are soliciting criticism from gun-owning Episcopalians, hoping to broaden their pool of allies.

Hall is advocating for something striking to keep the subject on people’s minds. He likes the idea of wrapping the towering Gothic cathedral in black crepe in memory of gun violence victims. Or ringing its massive bells each morning to toll the number of deaths each day. Something that gets people’s attention.

“What I want to do is more like guerilla theater,” he said….

“He’s like the Joe Biden of the Episcopal Church. He has the personality and respect that can bring people together,” said the Rev. Susan Russell, a priest at All Saint’s Pasadena, a 4,000-member Los Angeles church where Hall worked for 11 years.

OK, I’ll admit it: that last bit made me laugh, but “the cross lobby”, good grief…

The spirit of Hewlett Johnson lives on, it seems.

But same-sex marriages in the cathedral are, I should add, just fine with me, not that I should have a vote on the matter: That’s something that ought to be up to each church to decide for itself.

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The Great Agnostic

RobertIngersollWriting in the Weekly Standard, here’s Katherine Mangu-Ward with an entertaining review of a new biography of Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic:

While today’s GOP is associated with public displays of faith, the Republican party of Ingersoll’s day was more likely to be the home of freethinkers, such as the churchless Abraham Lincoln. The American public wasn’t ready for overt atheism in elected or appointed office, but Ingersoll’s talent on the stump made his endorsement valuable. Jacoby persuasively argues that Ingersoll fits into the classical liberal tradition, a thread that remains visible, if controversial, in the fabric of the modern Republican party…

His speeches were studded with jokes that played to American sensibilities: While explaining Charles Darwin’s still-controversial theory of evolution, he speculated how tough it would be for blood-proud European aristocrats to learn they were descended from “the duke Orang Outang, or the princess Chimpanzee.” Far from finding the prospect of a godless universe depressing, Ingersoll considered the theory of evolution a desirable replacement for the story of the Fall.

“I would rather belong to that race that commenced a skull-less vertebrate and produced Shakespeare, a race that has before it an infinite future, with an angel of progress leaning from the far horizon, beckoning men forward, upward, and onward forever—I had rather belong to such a race .  .  . than to have sprung from a perfect pair upon which the Lord has lost money every moment from that day to this.”


Read the whole thing.

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Fascist Loot!

mussoJust a week or so after the latest Papal attack on the iniquities of greed, international finance and all the rest of it, the Guardian obliges with an entertaining piece of history:

Behind a disguised offshore company structure, the church’s international portfolio has been built up over the years, using cash originally handed over by Mussolini in return for papal recognition of the Italian fascist regime in 1929.

Since then the international value of Mussolini’s nest-egg has mounted until it now exceeds £500m. In 2006, at the height of the recent property bubble, the Vatican spent £15m of those funds to buy 30 St James’s Square. Other UK properties are at 168 New Bond Street and in the city of Coventry. It also owns blocks of flats in Paris and Switzerland.

The surprising aspect for some will be the lengths to which the Vatican has gone to preserve secrecy about the Mussolini millions. The St James’s Square office block was bought by a company called British Grolux Investments Ltd, which also holds the other UK properties. Published registers at Companies House do not disclose the company’s true ownership, nor make any mention of the Vatican….

While secrecy about the Fascist origins of the papacy’s wealth might have been understandable in wartime, what is less clear is why the Vatican subsequently continued to maintain secrecy about its holdings in Britain, even after its financial structure was reorganised in 1999.

The Guardian asked the Vatican’s representative in London, the papal nuncio, archbishop Antonio Mennini, why the papacy continued with such secrecy over the identity of its property investments in London. We also asked what the pope spent the income on. True to its tradition of silence on the subject, the Roman Catholic church’s spokesman said that the nuncio had no comment.

Not necessarily the most shocking story in the world, but it comes with enough ironies to make it worth repeating, not least this (also from the Guardian, back in 2008):

It is a message sent from on high to the world’s financial and political elite. The Roman Catholic Church is calling for the effective closure of secretive tax havens as a ‘necessary first step’ to restore the global economy to health.

In a policy paper from the Holy See, Pope Benedict pins the blame for the international financial crisis largely on ‘offshore centres’, many of which, such as the Channel Islands, are British dependencies.

‘They have given support to imprudent economic and financial practices and have also played a significant role in the imbalances of development, allowing a gigantic flight of capital linked to tax evasion,’ says the report. ‘Offshore markets could also be linked to the recycling of profits from illegal activities.’

And they have proved pretty handy for the Vatican too.

Not, of course, that Benedict knew that. He had no idea. None at all.

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Gun control versus terrorism control

The current meme on right wing talk radio regarding gun control is that there are some rare unforeseeable tragedies—such as the Newtown massacre—that just occur as part of the random awfulness of life.  Government cannot prevent every last bad outcome, counseled Rush Limbaugh yesterday.  Michael Medved deconstructed the various proposed gun measures and persuasively argued that none of them would have prevented Adam Lanza from gaining access to his guns; today Medved repeatedly asserted that pace the President, there is no “epidemic of gun violence”—gun violence is dropping, he rightly said (which begs the question of whether even if shootings are falling, the level of gun violence in the U.S. can rightly be characterized as an “epidemic”).

These are by and large wise words, even though as a purely instinctual matter, having no affinity for guns, I am readily prepared to accept tighter limits on high-powered weaponry, regardless of the inexact fit between the legislative goal and the desired outcome.  (I understand the arguments to the contrary, however, even if I do not resonate to them.)    The problem with this “don’t expect the government to protect you from every harm” argument is that conservatives flagrantly ignore it when it comes to Islamic terrorism.  If mass shootings are extremely rare, Islamist-inspired homicides on American soil are rarer still.  According to Michael Shermer, citing research by James Alan Fox, an average of 25 people are murdered with guns each day, or one an hour (a rate that if caused by influenza would clearly be deemed “epidemic”).  There are 20 mass shootings a year (defined as taking out at least four victims).  By contrast, we have had the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 9/11 attacks, and the Fort Hood shootings—three incidents over two decades.  And yet conservative opposition to the creation of an entire new federal department to fight terrorism was muted at best, and largely limited to issues of unionization.  As for the need for some sort of massive federal effort, not to mention a war, to protect Americans from terrorism, conservatives were nearly all on board.  We now have an entire multibillion dollar terrorism-industrial complex selling government ever more high-tech goodies to detect and guard against a largely hypothetical threat (especially regarding chemical and biological weaponry), and infantilizing airport security measures that cost billions in lost time and thus commerce. 

Many in the right-wing media world warn regularly about the unending threat of Islamic terrorism, and rail demagogically against Democratic politicians for not doing enough to protect us from the threat.  Yet garden variety gun violence takes out magnitudes more Americans each year than terrorism.

Gun rights advocates might respond that the difference is the Second Amendment.  But as Justice Scalia has pointed out, a right to bear arms does not rule out reasonable regulations on assault weapons, whose existence the Founders did not necessarily foresee.  And in any case, the issue is simply how one evaluates risk.  


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