Wednesday, January 26, 2005

More analysis of the Left

Here's John Powers on what the Left needs to do to redefine itself (hat tip: Instapundit). His four point program is for the Left to reclaim virtue, freedom, pleasure, and utopia and his vision is for "a dream bigger than hopes that the Democratic Party will come back into power four years from now".

You have to give Mr. Powers credit for ambitious thinking; even Karl Rove is looking for a mere political realignment instead of redefining civilization as we know it. But on a practical level, dreaming about getting the Democratic Party back in power four years from now has a lot more going for it. Even "promising more prescription drugs for seniors" is a pretty good election plan for candidates who are willing to put some serious effort into keeping that promise in their terms of office. Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" is a pretty good example. For all intents and purposes, it was really just a big list of what Newt thought a Republican Congress ought to be giving serious attention to doing. You might believe that every point on the list was a horrible idea, or that Newt was an evil, heartless bastard for proposing them, but you have to admit that as a tool for getting the Republicans running Congress for a decade, the Contract with America wasn't such a bad idea.

Of course, the drawback to taking a stand on what your party is for is that you might be taking your stand on an issue that's destined to lose. The flip side to Gingrich's "Contract with America" is Hillary Clinton's reform of the health care system. Health care reform was an issue that Bill Clinton had campaigned on, and it was an issue that he was willing to make a major legislative achievement of his first term in office. Unfortunately, as Hayes Johnson and David Broder illustrated in their book The System : The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point, Democratic Presidents going back to Woodrow Wilson have identified instituting a national health care system a bedrock principal of the Democratic party while damaging their Presidencies over and over again in their attempts to nationalize health care. If you've ever wondered why the Democratic party has only had 7 or 8 really good legislating years out of decades and decades of Congressional majorities, 20th century health care policy might be a good place to start researching.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Some thoughts about Dennis Prager's "Judeo-Christian Values: part III"

Dennis Prager is publishing a set of articles about Judeo-Christian values available at His latest is part III, a spirited defense of the Bible and/or God's moral instruction as the source of moral values, as opposed to reason. Evolution blog has a great response to one of the previous installments which covers a lot of the territory in part III, so I'm just going to hit a couple of obvious points here.

To begin, Mr. Prager contrasts the lofty ideals of the Age of Reason with the disasters in human affairs that followed, stating that
As it happened, the era following the decline of religion in Europe led not to unprecedented moral greatness, but to unprecedented cruelty, superstition, mass murder and genocide. But believers in reason without God remain unfazed. Secularists have ignored the vast amount of evidence showing that evil on a grand scale follows the decline of Judeo-Christian religion.
Obviously, either Mr. Prager has ignored the fact that cruelty, superstition, mass murder, and genocide also predate the decline of religion in Europe, or he dates his "decline of religion in Europe" to some era preceeding the year A.D. 1492. But then he goes on to admit that
There are four primary problems with reason divorced from God as a guide to morality.

The first is that reason is amoral. Reason is only a tool and, therefore, can just as easily argue for evil as for good.
If one accepts that reason is an amoral tool, then how can one blame reason for the great tidal waves of cruelty, superstition, etc. that followed the decline of Judeo-Christian religion in Europe? The best one can do along these lines is to say that reason may be a better tool for producing evil than the traditionally faith-based ones, thus the higher body count of the 20th century with respect to, say, the 12th century. Even this point is something that might be objectionable to Mr. Prager, since it suggests that reason might be a better instrument for achieving good ends than one might infer from the Bible or God's moral instruction. But this point that reason might be a better tool for achieving good ends seems self-evident to the 21st century secularist: reason ended up doing a much better job in controlling "the Black Death" than the faith-based alternative, prayer, ever did.

In another sense, Mr. Prager has his argument exactly backwards. Wouldn't most historians agree that the decline of Judeo-Christian religion in Europe in the latter half of the 20th century is an effect, not a cause, of the genocide and mass murder of the previous half?

Another assertion made by Mr. Prager that seems overblown is this one:
Third, the belief in reason alone is itself based on an irrational belief -- that people are basically good. You have to believe that people are basically good in order to believe that human reason will necessarily lead to moral conclusions.
For a conservative, that seems a rather bizzare statement, since the founding of the United States largely contradicts it. The Founding Fathers spent months assembled in a Constitutional convention arguing about the form of government for the united states, and the people of those states spent even more months publically debating that form of government. Futhermore, the Founding Fathers were obsessed with the notion that man was not basically good, and that even a largely virtuous people could not be trusted to be free from dangerous factions that might destroy any government that they could institute. The Constitution that they developed was designed with a near-paranoid fear of the type of revolutionary movement that consumed so many subsequent governments even if the Founding Fathers could not anticipate the exact form of the revolutionary movements that might arise. Let's face it, insofar as any government ever created was based on both reason and the belief that man is not basically good, it is the United States of America.

That's not to state that the Founding Fathers didn't have religious principles that they adhered to. But as even a cursory inspection of Russel Kirk's The Roots of American Order might inform you, the Founding Fathers were more interested in drawing their political ideas from pagan, republican Rome rather than Judeo-Christian Jerusalem.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The state and religion in the news

A news item about evolution in the New York Times that caught my attention was a ruling by a federal judge in Georgia that a sticker being attached to textbooks in schools by a Georgia country school board violated the First Amdendment. As you might have guessed, the sticker was only being attached to science textbooks and stated in part that "Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things."

Certainly there are those on the Right that are pissed about the ruling; one columnist has even suggested that the plaintiff's case was based on theophobia and suggested that the judge believed that (author's italics) "merely implying that there might be other theories to account for mankind's origins [establishes] a state-sponsored religion."

The decisive aspect of the case, in my mind, is mentioned in the New York Times article:
But [the judge] found that the effect of the sticker in singling out evolution, given the roots of the sticker and its language in religious challenges to evolution, was to convey a message of endorsement of religion. His 44-page order argued that any informed, reasonable person would know the religious controversy behind the sticker.
An insistence that theories be treated with scientific skepticism is certainly not an unreasonable position for a person to adopt. But this position of principled scientific skepticism about theory does not allow one to pick and choose those theories to which it can be applied, or the level of skepticism that is due to any given theory: either theory as such requires skepticism or some new distinction between theories must be given. Of course, one might argue that the theory of evolution deserves more critical examination than the mechanical theory of heat by virtue of less conclusive evidence being available to support the theory of evolutiom, but that goes beyond what the sticker in question states. Whether or not you believe that the sticker violates the First Amendment, don't be surprised that the judge picked up on this inconsistency as a basis for his ruling.

Another piece of news along a similar theme is athiest Michael Newdow's rejected lawsuit that a presidential inauguration prayer would be unconstitutional. I'm not sure that I would agree. As stated by the article, inauguration ceremonies have included Christain prayers since 1937, which is pretty much the definition of an "establishment" in the sense of a "settled arrangement". That is a pretty weak argument however, since a single instance of an atheist president opening his inauguration with the reading of a dramatic passage from "I, Robot" would eliminate this sense of inaugural prayer as an "establishment". The president also differs from other members of the government since he is invested with the executive power of the United States, which might include listening to a prayer every once in a while if that helps him do his job; the injunction that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" in the First Amendment might not be relevent in this case.

A simple philosophical question

A simple philosophical question has arisen on the OrangePhilosophy blog: Given the choice, would you prefer to eat chocolate-flavored poo or poo-flavored chocolate?

The comments section of the entry sketches out the philosopical ground relevant to the question, which isn't trivial if we use "poo" as a placeholder for any taboo food of choice (pork, for example). I base my answer to the question on utilitarian grounds. Eating the chocolate-flavored poo provides one with a transient pleasurable sensation coupled with the threat of years of painful mocking as "the person who eats poo" if the wrong people found out. On the other hand, eating poo-flavored chocolate provides one with a transient unpleasurable sensation followed by the possibility of enjoying a few well-deserved comments ("This chocolate tastes like poo!") addressed to the person who prepared the chocolate. Given the choices, I'd have to go with the poo-flavored chocolate on this one.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Does this remind you of something?

Skim over "Donner's" review of the movie Darkness and see if its nuclear family seems familiar to you. There's the father, who immediately starts going wacko when confronted by the supernatural, the son who also gets confronted by the supernatural but deals with it, the mother who just keeps on mothering pretending nothing is wrong, and the smarter daughter who suspects something, but nobody listens to her.

I guessed that this was a live-action version of a Simpson's Tree House of Horror special (with the absence of Maggie and a few other minor changes). Another possibility is that this was an attempt to cash in on the "wierd little boy" phenomenon of The Sixth Sense, Stir of Echoes, and The Ring. Or it could be a pastiche of various successful horror flicks of the past: Donner suggests The Amityville Horror while Bill DeLapp in the Syracuse New Times suggests a mixture of The Shining with "Malcolm in the Middle".

Thursday, January 06, 2005

A thought about the upcoming election in Iraq

This article in the New York Times reported that Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi affirms the January 30 date for the election. An enormous amount of pressure is being exerted on the Prime Minister to delay the election until the violence in Iraq can be reduced.

Isn't this exactly the opposite form of pressure that is typically exerted against Israel from a variety of sources?

In Iraq, the pressure is usually for the government to delay the election until the violence is reduced. In Israel, the pressure is for the government to not delay negotiations of a peace settlement even if the violence isn't being reduced.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The decline of Syracuse University football

First there was the betrayal of Syracuse University football when the University of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College ditched the Big East for the ACC. Next came the career-ending humiliation of Syracuse University head coach Paul Pasqualoni. Now, in a proposal for a college football playoff series, even the Right-wing is turning against Syracuse:
Notice that the Big East would no longer get an automatic bid, as it does in the BCS. Having lost its best football schools--Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College--it doesn't deserve one anymore.
Highlight of of the 2006-2007 Syracuse football season: Senator Hillary Clinton wears a Syracuse sports cap while campaigning Upstate.