Bad guests

To Insufferable Guests:

I notice all to my grief,
My vegan guests will not eat beef;
But if I roast them in beef's stead,
And boil their over-suffer'd heads
And place those heads upon the board
That other guests are so informed,
The menu-muttering shall cease,
And we at last shall have some peace.

A small offering at a gathering of friends, where was discussed a number of similar topics. Another such finding: "Dragon is more like veal than beef, given their habit of cloistering themselves in small caverns for centuries."

Given that I named my son "Beowulf," the composition of dragons cannot be a matter of no interest to me. I suspect it will interest, or at least amuse, some of you as well.

Poker Game

A Crazy Game of Poker:

I spent last night playing poker at the house of a former neighbor of mine, who is the groundskeeper at the local Catholic church. He is a devout Catholic and a proud Virginian, and had invited in addition to me his father -- a retired Chicago police officer, who now works at the Pentagon -- and also the priest, and also a couple of other people. Among those "couple of others" was a fellow I'd never met, whom we shall call Blondie.

Blondie had obviously come for the festivities instead of the poker, as he began drinking with several glasses of beer, and then began "fortifying" the beer with some sort of cheap rum. After several more glasses, he moved on to straight hard liquor.

Oh, and what liquor. The advertisement for Tarantula Tequila begins, "You wouldn't expect Tequila to be blended and bottled in Italy, but..."

So anyway, amid all of this some of us are trying to play poker. Blondie, meanwhile, is so drunk that he accidentally deals about half the cards face up on his deal, can't actually tell whether he has a hand or not so just bets heavily on everything and then lays his hand down at the end of the game to see if he won.

He won almost everything. Seriously -- he must have won two out of three of the hands, all night long. I think I broke even, but two of the other players lost everything they'd brought, and most of it ended up in Blondie's pockets.

I would suspect him of being a cheat, except that (a) I actually watched him drink all that stuff, all of which was provided by others, so I know it was all genuine liquor he was drinking; and (b) in my misspent youth I learned several good ways to cheat at cards, and he wasn't making use of any of them. Furthermore, every time he saw an ace in his hand he would burst out laughing and beating his hands on the table, which isn't much of a poker face.

Anyway, Blondie -- who while still sober had been playfully harrassing his Catholic hosts about the 'high church' aspects of the faith, such as robes and bells and saints -- by the end of the night was demanding to know the name of the patron saint of poker so he could perform some sort of ritual sacrifice in his honor.

I don't see anything quite like that on the internet lists of patron saints -- there are saints for "compulsive gamblers," which I don't think is quite the right idea, and for "playing card manufacturers," but again, not just right. Perhaps one of our Catholic readers could help us discover the right saint.

Anyway, there must be one, because he cleaned up. I shall be interested to see if he follows through on his oft-repeated, drunken claim that he was going to donate it to the local Catholic church ("It'shall goin' ta th' poor, boys," was the usual formulation of this promise.) Though I don't know if less devoted gamblers can also benefit from the veneration, some of you may wish to try it.

UPDATE: I knew I could rely on Southern Appeal, which even today linked to this piece:

I am pleased to announce that we have started a campaign to ask the Vatican to name patron saints for... Texas Hold 'Em[.]
That's the Catholic Church I know -- finding a need and filling it.


Global War:
(also posted at Wilde Karrde)

I seem to recall saying, shortly after the London Subway Bombings last July, that this is another reminder that the War on (Islamofascist) Terror isn't restricted to the Middle East.

It is a Global war.

A piece of evidence tying one side of that war to the other surfaced on Reuters today. (Thanks to Michelle Malkin for the pointer.)

It seems that the interrogators at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba have been asking questions of the detainees held there. Those detainees were, of course, rounded up during Coalition military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But some of those detainees have connections in London. Apparently, some useful information about Al-Qaeda related operations in London has surfaced during questioning, and been passed on to London investigative officials.

I am actually somewhat happy that the Reuters story doesn't go into specifics as to what information has been passed along. If the information was leaked, it would quickly become useless to law-enforcement and investigative teams in England, or elsewhere.

But the reminder is welcome. Al-Qaeda has friends and allies all over the globe. Every piece of the network that is dismantled is a victory. And the war against AQ, and against like-minded Islamofascist terrorists, is a global war.


Whiskey in the Jar:

The COUNTERCOLUMN reports on the EU and Irish ballads. Short version: apparently, you have to be in a union to sing at the pub. It costs about forty euros to pay your "fee," every time you perform. Also, you need a permit. And so does the pub.

Unlike the Captain, I'm not an acoustic musician; on the other hand, I know quite a few Irish ballads well enough to sing (well, OK, "roar" -- though Sovay kindly said I have a good singing voice) them by heart. My favorite is "The Old Orange Flute," a good Protestant tune you don't often hear in American Irish pubs. Still, it's got a great sense of humor, and some very clever rhymes. I can also sing plenty of Green songs, lest anyone suspect me of partisanship.

My only point of difference with the Captain is this: what's wrong with someone requesting 'the Wild Colonial Boy'? That's a great song.


Bin Laden offers truce.

Sorry... but I'll only accept their surrender... preferably at bayonet tip.

I especially loved the:

"We are a nation that God has forbidden to lie and cheat. So both sides can enjoy security and stability under this truce so we can build Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been destroyed in this war."

Aren't we the great satan?

The Whiskey Wars

"The Whiskey Wars" Are Finally Over:

Unconditional surrender has at last been achieved. Only took 131 years; but our cause was just.

Friction & Medicare

Medicare & "Friction"

I'm going to take another stab at saying what I was trying to say below. Sovay is furious because she is shocked and angry that the government's screwups are causing human suffering -- sickness and, perhaps, death, due to something that should have been avoidable. I am angry at the obvious corruption, but I'm not at all shocked, and so I can't muster the same level of outrage. I don't think the government could have done better than it did, because of the flaws native to giant Federal bureaucracies.

People often make the mistake of trying to point fingers at specific mistakes in cases like this. I don't doubt that we will soon see documentation that shows particular administration officials made particular mistakes; and it's easy, in the face of such data, to believe that the mistakes could and should have been avoided. The response I often get to this fatalistic attitude about government incompetence is, "How can you say the government couldn't have done better? Here's ten things it did wrong. If it had done those things right instead, there would have been a much better result." Obviously, that is true on its face: if the Bush administration officials hadn't made the mistakes we will soon be told that they did, things would have been better.

The problem is that it's not possible to run a giant Federal agency without making mistakes. Nor, in fact, am I convinced that the mistakes made at the top are more important than the compilation of mistakes made by the 99.5% of any Federal bureaucracy who aren't at the top -- the civil servant class, which doesn't change from administration to administration except through natural hiring and retirement.

A lot of the problems that appear that arise in these efforts come of that great force impeding human design: friction. I'm no expert on health care, although as you can see I have some opinions about it. I do know a thing or two about military science, and history, and it seems to me that there's a very useful concept we need to bring across to this kind of discussion.

Probably the single greatest military scientist was von Clausewitz; and among the things that earned him that title was the recognition of the problem of friction in war. Clausewitz wrote about "friction in war," but it is obvious that friction exists outside of war as well -- it is just that war exaggerates and worsens its effects. Part of the reason that armies make the mistakes they do is the pressure of blood and fire; but a large part of it is that they are also large bureaucracies, and much of friction arises from the failures that are natural to that form of social organization.

For example, Clausewitz speaks of generals bedeviled by "reports both true and false; by errors arising from fear or negligence or hastiness; by disobedience born of right or wrong interpretations, of ill will, of a proper or mistaken sense of duty, of laziness, or of exhaustion; and by accidents that nobody could have foreseen." Well, and so are bureaucrats; and not only the top level bureaucrats, but bureaucrats at every level. The top level are getting their reports from the field filtered through multiple lower levels, each one blurring the picture; the middle levels can hardly compile the next set of reports from the top level before new directives come down for additional reports, all the while those middle-level bureaucrats must also try to direct operations below them; and the people below are separated from the ones above by these multiple levels, so that they cannot really know what they should be preparing to do or when, or why, or how. No sooner do they think they understand the plan of action and start to prepare, then down filters a new report from on high that tells them that last plan was abandoned weeks ago, and they're only just finding out about the change now. So they must begin again; and the report begins to make its way back to the top that they have had to start preparations over, and so they are not nearly so far advanced along as previous reports had indicated.

This is the nature of bureaucracy. War makes them worse; but so do any matters of life and death, such as health care.

This is not to say that brilliance is impossible, or that no 'general' is capable of better results than another. We celebrate Ulysses S. Grant's Vicksburg campaign because it was brilliant -- but not because it was flawless. A general has to make do with the reality of friction.

I thus regard it as essentially inevitable that, of the 3.6 million new prescription drug beneficiaries, 2.6 million were signed up within the last 30 days. Of course they were. Everything is done at the last minute. That is the nature of things. The bureaucracy designed for day to day operations couldn't handle the surge of the sudden crisis caused by having to institute a major change; it never can.

Where the Bush administration is culpable (aside from their participation in the corruption attendant to the law-writing) is in not having realized that a crisis was inevitable, and prepared accordingly. They should have warned people that major disruptions in basic, life-sustaining services were all but inevitable, and to prepare themselves as best they could. They should have been ready to delay the roll-out until the crisis of late registrations could be minimized. They should have been had excesses of money set aside to address the inevitable collapse.

Really, they should never have done this at all. Yet they insisted. Well. Every major change in a massive Federal bureaucracy must be approached as if it were war: and that means expecting casualties. For major changes to a bureaucracy of any size are always a crisis, just like a battle is a crisis. If anyone's life depends on that bureaucracy, some people will die. That truth, the truth of friction, is a law of nature as immutable as gravity.

So no, I am not shocked, nor surprised, only sad to see it. It is somewhat like receiving news of a distant battle, and mourning the dead -- but we are not surprised that there were dead in a battle. Nor should we be surprised if dead come from this -- not surprised, nor given over to fervent belief that if only this or that mistake had not been made, if only someone better had been in charge...

No, probably not even then. Even Grant made mistakes, and he was a genius in his day.


The Medicare Disaster:

I've just had an enlightening conversation with dear Sovay, who is up in arms over the Medicare disaster. "What Medicare disaster?" you may be forgiven for asking if you, like me, have been paying no attention to the subject these last few months. But it's a big story, as you can see reading here and here, and also here, that last link being to Josh Marshall's blog. Marshall, as everyone knows, is given to monomaniacal focus -- which can be a useful trait in crisis situations, though it keeps me from reading him often -- and just now it's Medicare he's focused on.

I don't write to criticize except on one point, which is the corruption involved in (a) misleading everyone as to what this program would cost (i.e., the usual corruption involved in socialist welfare plans), and (b) allowing lobbyists so much influence in how the law was written. Both complaints are with the Congress as much as with the administration; they set out to pass this benefit for political gain among seniors, and apparently did whatever was necessary to achieve that goal. If that meant downplaying costs, as it always does when the government goes into health care, so be it; if that meant giving their corporate lobbyists access so as not to see a withering of financial support from them, so be it.

This is in fact corruption, of a predictable and sad, but pervasive type.

Sovay holds that I am "setting the bar too low" in not being outraged over the other aspects of this case, the most troubling of which is that people are going to die because of the government's rank mismanagement. As I've explained to her, people dying due to mismanagement is what I expect when the government is placed in charge of important matters. This is never more true than when it attempts to take over health care duties.

It's not that I don't care; it's that the political class and the seniors are absolutely insistent on the government doing this. As a result, these disasters are inevitable. Government is not competent to handle anything this important. There are some important things that have to be handled by government, because no one else can do it at all -- maintaining a functional blue-water navy, for example. That doesn't mean the government does it well, just that they're the only ones who can do it at all. Ask any squid what he thinks of Naval bureaucracy sometime. (If you really want to hear some griping, ask what he thinks of their health care.)

I have always been hostile to the idea of a prescription drug benefit, as I am always hostile to all government health care schemes. Mark Steyn has written a few pieces on this subject, including this one:

Making idle chitchat as his fingers felt his way around my fleshly delights, [Steyn's doctor] explained that "waiting" is built into the concept of a government health service: "If you need surgery," he said, "it's in my interest to get you in and operated on as soon as possible, because that's money for me. The faster it happens, the better my cash flow. But when the government runs the system, every time you get operated on it costs the government money. So it's in their interest to restrict or delay your access. When you look at the overall budgets--salaries, buildings--it's not hard to understand that the level of service you provide to the patient is one of your few discretionary costs. So the incentive is to reduce that."


A few years back, [Steyn's wife] felt herself beginning to miscarry. Nobody was at home so she called a cab and went to the emergency room at the Royal Victoria. Knowing what "emergency" means in the Quebec system, she grabbed a novel on the way out--an excellent choice, Mr. Standfast by John Buchan, our late Governor General. It's 304 pages, and my wife had the time to read every single one of them before any medical professional saw her. While she was reading, she was bleeding, all over the emergency room floor, the pool of large dark red around her growing bigger and bigger, until eventually a passing cleaner ran her mop over the small lake and delivered a small rebuke to my wife for having the impertinence not to cease bleeding.... Since my wife's experience, the average wait time in Montreal emergency rooms has apparently gone up to 48 hours. So don't pack an overnight bag, take two, and the complete works of John Buchan.
Steyn's wife didn't die, but in Montreal hospitals the death rate is four times the US average from an easily prevented infection that normally results from a lack of cleanliness. The government runs the janitorial services, too.

So now the government has taken it upon itself to provide for lifesaving drugs of millions more people than ever before. The short term consequence? Lots of those people will get very sick, and some of them will die, because the bureaucracy isn't up to the task.

Sovay asserts that any other administration -- Clinton, Bush I, Reagan -- would have handled this better. I honestly don't believe that. It's nothing in favor of Bush II, who certainly isn't the President that Reagan was. It's just that this is exactly what I expect from government, which is why I think we should keep it out of as many places as possible.

The other thing I think about it is that we should tend to push the required government "down" as much as we can, as local governments tend to be relatively more responsive. Sovay tells me that twelve or fourteen states are now providing lifesaving drugs on an emergency basis, since the Feds have totally failed to do so. Great, I say -- if they're succeeding where the Federal government has failed, let's have them do it instead. Block grant the money to them, and fire all these bureaucrats at the Federal level -- including the Bush appointees at the top, if you like. Fine with me. Then, if there is a problem, there's a chance the folks at the state level might really get it fixed.

I don't mind if Bush takes a political hit for this. He deserves one. But let's be clear on why he deserves it. It isn't because the program should have been managed better. It's because he should have known that this is how it would be managed.

This is what government does. It has no business being involved in health care, except -- perhaps -- in terms of block-granting money to the states to protect the poorest and the weakest who truly can't make market-based arrangements. Even those are far from perfect -- I get annoyed with my insurance company every time I think about them -- but they're far better than any government endeavor at the basic work of keeping patients alive, clean, and keeping the wait times short.

For those American citizens who really can't avail themselves of that better way of obtaining health care, I don't mind that we should look out for them. But let's do it at the state level, and restrict the Feds to providing the cash to poorer states if necessary.

Of course, we're not really going to do that. What we're going to do is muddle along with the bureaucracy in panic mode, with people growing sick and dying because they either trusted or were forced to trust the Feds to keep their promises and manage to run things in a good order.

Don't weary me with "experts" who say it could have been done better; if those experts think so, they can take the job at a government wage. They're obviously qualified. They'd rather work at their think tanks instead? Then they can shut up. They aren't interested in doing what it takes to fix the problem. They want to slam others for 'not caring enough,' but they care more about their cheery paycheck than about getting their hands dirty and making things right.

This is a disgrace. Congress, the President, and the whole health-care bureaucracy are equally damned by it. They ought to be ashamed of what they've wrought.

China e-Lobby: News of the Day (January 17)

Chinese Paramilitary Police:

In the comments to the "war games" post below, Eric mentions the Chinese and Russian responses to Iran. Russia obviously has a lot to lose from nuclear terrorism, but China is also concerned about it. It's just that they're more concerned about energy supplies.

China e-Lobby has (among very many interesting links, as always) a link to this story about Chinese plans to bolster their "People's Armed Police," which is to say, government paramilitary units in form somewhat like our SWAT teams. In form, I say; not in function.

In a November video presentation, the Ministry of Public Security identified several threats to national stability, according to Chinese academics, that are echoed in the article.

Among these were growing anger and angst among Chinese as social pressure ratchets up; clashes among domestic groups over corruption, land seizures and the growing gap between rich and poor; and conflicts involving groups Beijing identifies as enemies on its periphery. The latter includes those who advocate independence for Tibet, Taiwan and the far western province of Xinjiang, sometimes referred to as "East Turkestan," as well as members of the Falun Gong religious group and Tiananmen protesters who fled overseas.

Analysts said it has become increasingly difficult for local police to handle the growing number of conflicts, given limitations on their weapons and manpower, leading to calls for a stronger paramilitary force.
Fears of a "paramilitary police force" being used in this fashion is precisely why American libertarians (and, frequently, even some sorts of conservatives and liberals) harbor deep concerns about the militarization of the American police force. (See the post "Reasonable Men," below.) But in China those aren't concerns; it's the reality.

I added the emphasis on Xinjiang, or "East Turkestan." Xinjiang is a Mandarin word that means "New Frontier," which is how China views the lands of the Muslims they have annexed. Beijing has been enthusiastic in building railroads out there, and encouraging ethnic Han Chinese -- who are about 97% of the Chinese population, if memory serves -- to move out to the frontier. Speaking of what Chinese words mean, "Han" translates properly as "true man" or "hero." You can interpret that as you wish; probably almost all societies think of their type as the most heroic, but few are so up front in declaring other sorts of men to be lesser creatures. In any event, that understanding -- rooted in culture and language -- has had an effect on the settlement of the frontier, with the result that there is, ah, "unrest." Exactly how much is not clear, given the remoteness of the province and the short leash on which Chinese state media operates.

But it isn't only its ethnic minorities against which China plans to exercise paramilitary control. It's also unruly farmers, religious minorities, and especially democracy advocates:
"Compared to normal police, the paramilitary police are designed to safeguard social stability through the use of compelling force if necessary," said He Husheng, a professor of Communist Party history at Beijing's Renmin University. "We learned from Tiananmen what happened when we used the army, which was not proper."
The tanks made for bad footage, I guess.

Personal = Political

"The Personal Is Political"

See, I can actually understand why this guy wants to ban the ownership of guns by private families. Unfortunately for him, so can everyone else: "Brooks organized the protest at Rutgers University - 2,000 people were supposed to show up, and only 3 actually made it to the protest."

Maybe it's the messenger.

War Games

The Atlantic's War Games:

I've mentioned in the past my respect for Colonel Sam Gardiner, in spite of his attachment to conspiracy theories about US politics. Still, he used to be a top war game specialist at the National War College, and has done some impressive work over the years in modeling conflicts. Consider this old Wall St. Journal piece on India-Pakistan war games.

I saw this morning (via the excellent Arts & Letters Daily) that The Atlantic got Col. Gardiner to lead a war game on a US-Iran conflict. AEI's Reuel Marc Gerecht was involved as well. The article describes the results as "sobering," but I think they're wholly predictable. We all understand that a limited military strike would not be sufficient to derail Iranian nuclear development because they have spread out their resources and hardened them. We understand that a full-scale regime change would run into absolutely massive domestic and international political pressure -- the domestic pressure being the important part. The public seems to have the required patience to see through Iraq, but doesn't look likely to want to start fresh with another nasty insurgency.

This, the Atlantic team concludes, means that there is "no military option." I don't think that's right -- and indeed, a military option is absolutely necessary, so it has to be developed even if there weren't a 'regular' one on the table. As even the (Woodrow) Wilson Center recognizes, "it is as great a mistake to conduct diplomacy without considering military means as it is to wage war without diplomacy."

[S]tates that attempt to conduct complicated and dangerous diplomatic initiatives without the support of credible military options frequently fail to accomplish even their immediate goals—and sometimes create more severe long-term problems. The greatest danger lies neither in using force nor in avoiding it, but rather in failing to understand the intricate relationship between power and persuasion. Some rulers rely excessively upon the naked use of force, some upon unsupported diplomacy. History shows that the most successful of them skillfully integrate the two.
Yet there are some serious problems in the face of all the suggested military options here -- and additional concerns as well. "What if they move first to pre-empt us?" is a question that has to be asked -- with the probable answer, "As that becomes a serious risk, we have to move even faster." But move where?

This is not a rhetorical question. We've got some good military science thinkers on this board. What options do you see that aren't discussed here? What other thoughts do you have? Let's run our own war game, and see what we might come up with.

UPDATE: The Belmont Club points to an Army War College paper on the same subject. It is titled, "Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran."



I didn't have time to blog yesterday, so I missed these insightful comments from the Honorable Senator Clinton.

"When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run - it has been run like a plantation," she said. "You know what I'm talking about."
I really don't. Other than that she wished to invoke some extremely negative imagery, and stoke racial resentment by choosing images associated with slavery, I can't imagine what the analogy is supposed to be. At least when people compare Bush to a Nazi, they can point to the Reichstag fire and compare it to 9/11. It's a false comparison, but at least there's something for the conspiracy theorist to hang his hat on.

The New York Times version offers the next line in her quote, which clarifies the thrust of her argument without clarifying what the analogy is supposed to be:
"It has been run in a way so that nobody with a contrary point of view has had a chance to present legislation, to make an argument."
According to the clerk of the House, there were more than six hundred roll call votes in the last session. Glancing through a few of the pages recording them, I can see that a number of these votes passed, and a number failed. The existence of failed votes suggests that the majority, though it is not necessarily passing laws it disagrees with (why should it?) is letting such legislation come to a vote on a regular basis.

If you know anything at all about Congress, you know that no important vote occurs without endless debate, starting pre-committee and carrying on to the final vote. So, I would suggest that the Honorable Clinton is wrong to say that there is no chance to make an argumen, or to present legislation.

It is true, no doubt, that it's difficult to pass legislation when you are in the minority in both houses of Congress. That's rather different from being on a plantation, however, where there is no such thing as a vote at all. Indeed, even if you were not a slave but a cousin or child of the owners, there's no reason you should expect to get a vote in how things were run.

There is no obvious insight into the problem of being a minority party in a democratic republic that arises from this comparison. As such, I suppose it was only an expression of resentment and an attempt to stoke the same in the hearts of others. Yet, if your major means of influencing the system is through argument -- because you are a minority party, you have to persuade others to join your position -- this is a poor way to carry on with it. A little more thought, and a lot less bomb-throwing, would go a long way to easing the problem Sen. Clinton faces.


Reasonable Men:

I post two examples today of blessed reason in a highly charged debate. The first is from Kim du Toit, speaking of "infringement" and the Second Amendment. While I disagree with some of his underlying assumptions, that is not the point here. The point is that the Second Amendment is as near to his heart as a thing can be, and he comes to a set of conclusions that ought to be soothing to anyone who fears 2A advocates to be unreasonable.

You can (as I do) disagree with the particulars, while recognizing that this is the mark of a reasonable man. The Second Amendment's partisans are wary of 'compromise' only because the opposition openly uses compromise as a "Death by a Thousand Cuts" strategy. If met in good faith, however, a genuine compromise would be possible -- if we could all agree that the issue was settled, and leave it at that. Because every 'compromise' is met with immediate, renewed pushes for still more concessions, you end up with the hard line that has come to characterize the debate.

The second is a post from Geek with a .45, or rather, the comments to that post. The post is against the SWAT mentality that has overcome many law-enforcement agencies (for a defense of that mentality, see Man Sized Target). In the comments, a police sergeant ventures out, expecting to be roundly flamed -- not an unreasonable expectation, given the heat of the comments prefacing his entry to the debate.

Instead, he was met with great civility and respect. His point was an excellent one, and well made. No one drew a straw man around it to attack; no one made any use of flame-war rhetoric. That's the way debate should be conducted.


A Pair of Religious Articles:

Francis J. Beckwith has a review of a new book on the separation of church and state. I was not aware of the Ku Klux Klan's role in the move of that doctrine to the fore of American jurisprudence, as a result of anti-Catholic prejudce -- if the book is correct in its assertion, that is.

To some degree I am reminded of (former?) reader Robert M's repeated argument that the old and valuable law of Posse Comitatus should be set aside because it was passed out of anti-black sentiment among legislators. Most Americans are entirely satisfied with the notion of separation of church and state, even if we feel that the separation of "state" from church shouldn't mean that individuals who serve in the government should be banned from making decisions based on their religious principles. While it may be true that the KKK was behind this doctrine's rise, the doctrine points to something we have found to be useful and broadly beneficial when it is applied moderately.

We have read that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. It seems the reverse may also be true. A good idea, fielded in the service of a bad intent, can remain a good idea once the original advocates of it have passed away. Those who inherit the idea, being either unaware of or not interested in the bad intentions, keep what is good and discard what was bad. This points to a particular genius in the American system: not only do good ideas often rise to the top, but even bad intentions are often expressed as the cynical misapplication of what is a generally good idea. Once the bad intentions wear away, we are left with just another good idea.

I tend to think that the American courts have taken the doctrine of separation a bit too far, but also that the doctrine does point to a useful ideal. American society works best when religion is not used as a weapon against one's fellow citizens, but only as a weapon against one's self. Insofar as you wield the sword to strike down the evil in your own heart, you and your society benefit from it. The individual Senator or President can benefit from that practice as much as ordinary men or women, because of course they are nothing other than ordinary men or women.

This brings us to the second article, from the Wilson Quarterly, on an attempt to rejoin 'progressive' politics and religion. Or perhaps not religion, exactly...

A good sense of the continuing moral and political import of this American vocabulary of the spirit comes from Barack Obama, the recently elected Democratic senator from Illinois. Obama has said that, despite the results of the 2004 election, it “shouldn’t be hard” to reconnect progressive politics with religious vision: “Martin Luther King did it. The abolitionists did it. Dorothy Day did it. . . . We don’t have to start from scratch.”

Perhaps Obama’s most telling remark came in his observations about his mother’s faith: “My mother saw religion as an impediment to broader values, like tolerance and racial inclusivity. She remembered churchgoing folks who also called people nigger. But she was a deeply spiritual person, and when I moved to Chicago and worked with church-based community organizations, I kept hearing her values expressed.” Obama’s invocation of “spiritual” as an inclusive term, inextricably interwoven with the “broader values” of American democracy, is important and carefully chosen diction. It not only conjures up Whitman’s ghost but also suggests some of the poet’s own audacity.
The article also offers an interesting history of religion in American politics, from a different perspective. As this is MLK day (I am reminded by Sovay), it is probably a good idea to reflect on how he informed, and continues to inform, American politics.

One thing that is little known about the man is that he had a certain number of deacons who served as armed bodyguards. This fact may seem difficult to absorb, because of MLK's focus on nonviolence, and his personal willingness to be the target of violence as part of his method for bringing about change. He famously allowed violence and injustice to be visited upon him, in order that he might better spread his message.

Although this first seems odd, it should not be so difficult to understand: Jesus did the same thing. In Luke 22:36, Jesus bids his followers to sell their garments if necessary to buy a sword, knowing he will soon be taken by the authorities. But he will not allow his followers, though he bid them be armed, to defend him from being taken: that was to his purpose. In an age when people often ask "What would Jesus do?" it is worth noting that MLK actually did what Jesus would do: he exposed himself to violence that justice might arise from it, but he urged his followers to be prepared to defend themselves, and others of his flock, from the predations of the wicked.

MLK could follow in Jesus' footsteps because Jesus walked there first. Only because the message of Christianity lay underneath American society could American society be moved by an example of this type, just as Gandhi's example worked against the British in India. Nonviolence as a method of social change, I am far from the first person to note, relies upon an underlying morality in the society you're trying to change. American society was predisposed to justice, even though it was not yet capable of achieving and making real that justice.

That is why nonviolence worked. American society was shocked into making the hard changes necessary to achieve justice precisely because it hated seeing itself engaged in violence in the cause of injustice. America was not a wicked society, but only a society that was failing to live up to its ideals. The fact that it changed in response to MLK is proof of this: if it had been a wicked society, it would not have cared.

New Links

New Links:

I've added a couple more links to the sidebar. As usual, I don't get around to editing the template often enough, and so I forget things or let them go too long. If you feel like I ought to be adding your site to my list, send me an email or leave a comment.

The first is reader Dad29, who has some interesting things to say about local politics, and is a Calvin & Hobbes fan.

The second is Dr. Helen, who is surely my favorite psychologist. That isn't saying much, as longtime readers know all too well, so I should probably say something nicer about her than that. Much like the Geek with a .45, I enjoy and am impressed by her disdain for the orthodoxy of the "discipline" of psychology. But far more importantly than that, I respect her disdain for death.

There's an old story I recall hearing from a Zen Buddhist on the subject of a young man of the samurai class who came to a swordsmaster seeking teaching. He said that he knew nothing, but begged for instruction so that he might become a swordsman and not disgrace his family. At last the master admitted him to the school, and said, "Come here and let me see what you happen to know already." He took up a wooden practice sword, and the young fellow the same, and they took their guard and their eyes met.

The master watched his new student for a moment, and said, "You have lied to me. You are no student. You are a master."

"Not so!" the student replied. "I have never studied a day in my life."

"This cannot be," the master objected.

"Yet it is true," replied the student. "Though, there is one thing. I have never had the ability to study swordplay, but I did not wish to bring disgrace on my family through cowardice. So, for these last several years, I have practiced dilligently to eliminate the fear of death from my heart. But that is the only skill I have learned."

The master set aside his practice sword, and took up instead a pen. He wrote out a certificate of mastery for the student, and sent him away. "Go forth," he said. "There is nothing more I can teach you."

Is that true? Of course it is not. But there is a truth in it, all the same.


The Ruger "Alaskan"

Oh, yes. A .454 Casull fired out of a 2.5 inch barrel -- OOH-RAH! Gonna have to get one of these some time. I'll wait a few months, though, for the first set of folks who buy them to return them to the stores after they sprain their wrists. Should cut down on that hefty pricetag.

Still, looks about right to me. Yeah, it looks good.