Wonderful Wal-Mart

     I was wandering around my local Wal-Mart today thinking about how wonderful it is to have a place where people of limited means can buy high quality products (food, clothing, medicine, and just about anyting else you can think of) at very low prices. 

      So, why do so many people oppose having Wal-Marts in their neighborhoods?  I can understand the opposition from all those who own the overpriced businesses the Wal-Mart will put out of business, but why would any consumer be opposed to having such a terrific place to shop? 

     People talk about how local shops that give individual service will be put out of business.  But if these shops are actually providing a service that Wal-Mart does not, and people value that service, people will continue to shop in these smaller places and the shops will continue to thrive.   If they are forced out of business, it will be because their service wasn’t that valuable after all.

     I love having Wal-Marts near to me and shop in them every week.  How do you folks feel about them, and what has been your actual experience with them?  Anyone actually work there and can shed any light on the gender discrimination charges?  As to that last point, I speak in total ignorance, but suspect the charges are more trumped up than real.  But, I’d love to hear from folks who actually know something about the facts behind the charges.

Is Hate a Crime?

     Bookworm is taking the weekend off, so  I’m hoping in with one of my questions.  I’ve been thinking a lot about hate speech and hate crimes since the Imus nonsense and the whole idea puzzles me. 

     Is hate a crime?  Senators Kennedy and Smith are introducing a new hate crimes bill.   NOW is all excited.  But does it really matter whether, when a person commits a violence act against another person, the criminal is motivated by hate of an individual or a group?  Isn’t the violent act punishable enough?

     Colleges all over the country are trying to ban hate speech.   One would think that college campuses would be bastions of free speech of all kinds, even hate speech, but not so.  To its credit, even the ACLU opposes such bans.  What does it say about what our kids are learning that so many schools support such bans anyway? 

     While we’re at it, should Imus have lost his job?  I don’t think he necessarily should have lost his job simply for making a bad joke, however crude.  But, just as he has a right to his speech, his sponsors have a right to decide not to sponsor his speech.  And his bosses have a right to fire him, rather than lose revenues or listeners because of his speech.  And, by the way, I have no problem with people calling on him to be fired (or not fired).  They are only exercising their free speech rights as well. 

     Anyway, what do the readers of the Bookwormroom think about hate crimes and hate speech?  Is hate a crime?  Should it be?

Fighting back

I have too much on my plate today and too little time, but I just had to take a few minutes to follow-up on a theme that started with the British Marines and ended, so sadly, at VTech: passivity.

Two of the best writers out there have written about the fact that our Western culture has made a virtue out of passivity in the face of violence.  Mark Steyn views the problem as an infantilization of society that has us completely conditioned to wait for others to rescue us. After explaining his viewpoint, Steyn looks at a Canadian massacre of a few years back (and doesn’t Canada have gun control?) with some of the most frightening facts I’ve ever heard — not because of what the killer did, but because of what the male bystanders did (or, rather, didn’t do):

The cost of a “protected” society of eternal “children” is too high. Every December 6th, my own unmanned Dominion lowers its flags to half-mast and tries to saddle Canadian manhood in general with the blame for the “Montreal massacre,” the 14 female students of the Ecole Polytechnique murdered by Marc Lepine (born Gamil Gharbi, the son of an Algerian Muslim wife-beater, though you’d never know that from the press coverage). As I wrote up north a few years ago:

Yet the defining image of contemporary Canadian maleness is not M Lepine/Gharbi but the professors and the men in that classroom, who, ordered to leave by the lone gunman, meekly did so, and abandoned their female classmates to their fate — an act of abdication that would have been unthinkable in almost any other culture throughout human history. The “men” stood outside in the corridor and, even as they heard the first shots, they did nothing. And, when it was over and Gharbi walked out of the room and past them, they still did nothing. Whatever its other defects, Canadian manhood does not suffer from an excess of testosterone.

Apropos the men in Canada, I read somewhere on the blogosphere, and I can’t remember where, that when the Titantic sank, the men truly abided by the age-old adage of women and children first:

First of all, if you were a man, you were outta luck. The overall survival rate for men was 20%. For women, it was 74%, and for children, 52%. Yes, it was indeed “women and children first.”

The other post I read today on the same these was at Big Lizards, where Dafydd wrote about the peculiar virtue our Western culture has made of not fighting back:

I see the circumstances of the Virginia Tech shooting and of the British hostages as betraying the same very poignant — and dangerous — perspective: helplessness as a virtue.

But the two circumstances also differ in a way that at first appears vast, but upon reflection seems not so great after all. When a soldier, by inaction, renders himself helpless, we call it cowardice; but civilians do not seem to be under the same duty as a member of the military, one who has voluntarily assumed responsibility for protecting and preserving his society.

Surely, however, adult civilians are not completely bereft of any such responsibility; in fact, assuming personal responsibility for the lives and freedoms of others is, by my reckoning, exactly what separates the child from the adult. When a boy or a girl freely accepts that he has a certain duty towards his fellows, even when nobody will ever know whether he fulfilled it or not, that is when boy becomes man and girl becomes woman.

The epiphany is usually a series of small revelations that mount up over time, but it can also strike like the fangs of a diamondback in the dark night of the soul. Either way, dawn can begin at any age past puberty and can take a number of years, or a few short days… or else a lifetime can pass without the change completing.

The epiphany is this: Each one of us is a foot soldier for civilization; when evil threatens, we must do our utmost to thwart it.

Your utmost may be as simple as snitching on your best friend when you discover he has systematically looted the company you both work for… or as profound as Virginia Tech Engineering Professor Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor, who gave his last full measure blocking the doorway to his classroom, allowing his students time to escape out the window.

Steyn and Dafydd are both absolutely right about the way in which Western culture has emasculated itself.  It’s confused the cultural virtue of avoiding bullying (a good thing), with the cultural death knell of becoming helpless.

As for me, when I heard about the Marines being led onto waiting Iranian ships, and when I heard about the VTech students lined up to be shot, all I could think of was the Jews passively getting round up by the Nazis. When Israel says “never again,” she means that her citizens will never again allow themselves to be taken without a fight. What the country realized collectively is that, if you’re going to die anyway, take the others down with you — and you may discover that your death toll isn’t as great as you thought.  Professor Librescu, having survived the Holocaust, understood this and willingly sacrificed himself that others could live.  The passengers on United 93 understood this and, through their sacrifice, may have saved the Capitol.  Every member of the armed forces who fights a battle or goes on a rescue mission understands this.

And lest you think that this line of reasoning holds true only in extreme situations of battle or terrorism, it also applies in a microcosmic way to every assault or rape in this country — or so I was told during a long-ago self-defense class. The teacher said that studies about attempted rapes show that women who fight back are more likely to get hurt but (and here’s the kicker) less likely to get killed.

Feed the monster

Last week, when I paid my taxes, I had three thoughts jostling for primacy in my brain:  1.  I hate funding pork.  2.  I’m glad I live in a well-functioning country and my tax dollars help.  3.  Even though I’m scrupulous in obeying the law, I hope the IRS doesn’t hassle me.  Turns out I’m not alone in these thoughts.  Rick Moran, at Right Wing Nuthouse read an utterly fatuous Matt Stoller post about the joys of paying taxes (and the evil of those conservatives who rail against excessive taxes), and proceeded to savage Stoller’s thinking.  It makes for very good reading, as well as (yet another) compelling argument for tax reform.

Two wrongs can make a right

One of my clients made a very foolish mistake.  I was somewhat upset, although philosophical, because the consequences weren’t as bad as they could have been.  I learned yesterday that the opposing party made an even bigger mistake that completed negated what my client had done.  In twenty years, it has never happened before that something stupid on my side got wiped out by something more stupid on the other side.  What could be better?

The partial birth abortion decision

One doesn’t even have to read the Supreme Court’s partial birth abortion decision to know that it is entirely consistent with the Left’s beloved Roe v. Wade.  Contrary to most people’s assumptions about Roe v. Wade, that case does not create an unfettered right to abortion.  Instead, it does a balancing act, looking at the State’s interest versus the woman’s interest over the length of the pregnancy.  In the first trimester, when the fetus is not viable outside the womb, the balancing favors the woman’s right to choose how she wants to handle her pregnancy.  In the second trimester, as the fetus nears viability, the balance begins tipping in the State’s favor.  And, in the third trimester, when the fetus is viable, the State’s interests may triumph:

With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the “compelling” point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb. State regulation protective of fetal life after viability thus has both logical and biological justifications. If the State is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period, except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.

So, although today’s decision is being played as a landmark ruling in favor of conservatives (“The Supreme Court’s conservative majority handed anti-abortion forces a major victory Wednesday in a decision that bans a controversial abortion procedure and set the stage for further restrictions.”) it is, in practical fact, nothing more than a recycling of principles already articulated in Roe v. Wade — and I say all this not having read the opinion itself, but being in the enviable position of actually having read the seminal 1973 case.  So, no matter how Kennedy phrased the case (and I have no idea how he did phrase it), he didn’t take away any rights  already granted in Roe v. Wade, a case which more than 30 years ago ensured that, near the end of the pregnancy, the State’s interests, not the woman’s, can be given primacy.

By the way, I seem to have the advantage over Hillary, whose press release shows that she’s more influenced by popular perceptions than actual Constitutional law:

Washington, DC — “This decision marks a dramatic departure from four decades of Supreme Court rulings that upheld a woman’s right to choose and recognized the importance of women’s health. Today’s decision blatantly defies the Court’s recent decision in 2000 striking down a state partial-birth abortion law because of its failure to provide an exception for the health of the mother. As the Supreme Court recognized in Roe v. Wade in 1973, this issue is complex and highly personal; the rights and lives of women must be taken into account. It is precisely this erosion of our constitutional rights that I warned against when I opposed the nominations of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito.”

Just to make Hillary’s error clear, let me reiterate that, as the quotation from Roe v. Wade itself shows, there is no absolute Constitutional right to abortion in the third trimester.

The unintended consequences are beginning

At the Weekly Standard, Irwin Stelzer explains that, while we don’t know how deleterious global warming might be, we do know already how damaging, for the poor, efforts to stop global warming already are.  This is especially true for ethanol, which turns food crops into fuel.  Turns out the remedial steps might not just damage the poor either:

If ethanol ever gains widespread use as a clean alternative fuel to gasoline, people with respiratory illnesses may be in trouble.

A new study out of Stanford says pollution from ethanol could end up creating a worse health hazard than gasoline, especially for people with asthma and other respiratory diseases.

“Ethanol is being promoted as a clean and renewable fuel that will reduce global warming and air pollution,” Mark Z. Jacobson, the study’s author and an atmospheric scientist at Stanford, said in a statement. “But our results show that a high blend of ethanol poses an equal or greater risk to public health than gasoline, which already causes significant health damage.”

The study appears in today’s online edition of Environmental Science & Technology, a publication of the American Chemical Society. It comes at a time when the Bush administration is pushing plans to boost ethanol production and the nation’s automakers are required by 2012 to have half their vehicles run on flex fuel, allowing the use of either gasoline or ethanol.


Nice killers

Most of us envision mass killers as stone cold nut jobs, like Cho Seung Hui, who carried out Monday’s Virginia Tech carnage. By all accounts, he was an angry, lonely person, obsessed with violent death. Small wonder that, given the means and the opportunity, he would act out his vengeful fantasies. The same held true for the Columbine killers, boys whom their school mates could easily see in the terrible executioner’s role they’d assigned themselves.

So many killers aren’t actually like that. If they were, more of us could see them coming and avoid them. In other words, like some snakes, their rattles would give them away.

Robert Spencer is concerned with another type of killer, the happy one who kills not because he is crazy or even angry, but because he is ideologically driven. As he points out in the opening paragraphs of his article about nice killers, many of these killers (or their money men) are described as really nice guys, people who are friendly and happy. Nevertheless, they kill, and they kill in staggering numbers. As often as not, their niceness can be ascribed to the fact that they view their killings as a good thing that they’re doing for the greater good of humanity, a humanity that will benefit from their fascist, totalitarian view of the ideal society:

It was the Nazi genocide mastermind Heinrich Himmler who told a group of SS leaders: “Most of you know what it means to see a hundred corpses lying together, five hundred, or a thousand. To have gone through this and yet — apart from a few exceptions, examples of human weakness — to have remained decent fellows, this is what has made us hard. This is a glorious page in our history that has never been written and shall never be written…”

Were these SS mass murderers really decent fellows? To their friends and family, they probably were. After all, they weren’t interested in undifferentiated mayhem. They were adherents of a totalitarian, genocidal ideology that convinced them that the murders they were committing were for a good purpose. As far as they were concerned, their goals were rational and good, and the murders were a means to that goal. It was not just a noteworthy achievement, but a necessity, for them to remain “decent fellows,” for they were busy trying to build what they saw as a decent society. That their vision of a decent society included genocide and torture did not trouble them, for it was all for – in their view – a goal that remained good.

Today’s jihad terrorists are likewise the adherents of a totalitarian, genocidal ideology that teaches them that murders committed under certain circumstances are a good thing. And those murders, here again, are not committed for their own sake, but for the sake of a societal vision hardly less draconian and evil than that of Hitler, but one also that portrays itself as the exponent of all that is good – as the Taliban showed us. But the continued reference to such people as “terrorists” pure and simple, and the refusal of the media and most law enforcement officials to examine their ideology at all, only reinforces the idea that these people are raving maniacs, interested solely in chaos for its own sake. The society they want to build, and the means besides guns and bombs that they are using to build it, so far remain below the radar screen of most analysts. These people are just “terrorists,” interested only in “terror.” And so we’re continually surprised when they turn out to be nice guys after all. Decent fellows. Like the SS.

Obama exposes himself

Give Obama twenty years and, with his native intelligence, he may yet prove himself.  Right now, though, he’s callow.  How callow?  Read Richard Baehr’s analysis of Obama’s “official” comments in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy to see.  I wouldn’t trust as ill-formed as Obama with the job of leading our country.

Funnily enough, one of the most decent tributes I saw from someone who had a job to do was Jay Leno’s.  He opened Monday’s show by acknowledging the shooting, by talking about what a tragedy it was, and by offering his condolences to the victims’ families.  But, he said, the purpose of his show is so that, at the end of the day, people can come home and relax and laugh a bit.  He then gently swung into his stand-up and the humor went from there.  It was masterfully done, and Obama could learn from it.

Not sudden jihad — unless proven otherwise

News is coming that Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech killer, had written ISMAIL-AX on his arm, which may have been a reference to the story of Abraham’s son Ishmael who, in Muslim Arab mythology, is believed to be the progenitor of all Arabs.  While that may well be true, it will take a whole heck of a lot more to convince me that this was a sudden jihad syndrome killing. 

What’s much more likely, based on the news trickling in about how profoundly disturbed this young man was, is that his insanity reflects the angst of our time.  In the medieval era, delusional people thought they were possessed by the Devil; in the mid-20th Century, aliens possession took over as the delusion of choice.  It wouldn’t be surprising that, in this day and age, a delusional man with no connection to Islam nevertheless incorporates that cultural awareness into his insanity, and Islamic possession becomes his manifestation of a broken mind. 

Finally, the teachers and administrators have gotten something right

Little Bookworm used to leap out of bed every morning, anxious to go to school and work on whatever project was engaging her attention at the time.  After six months in public school, I struggle to wake her up as she pleads “Do I have to go to school today?”  It turns out that the one thing public schools teach children really well is how to hate learning. 

Turns out, too, that public school teachers and educators, although not realizing how complicit they are, have in fact figured out that a disproportionate number of students don’t want to learn:

More than a quarter of teachers in urban school districts across the country say they don’t believe their students are motivated to learn, according to a survey by the National School Boards Association.

Of the 4,700 teachers polled in 12 urban districts, including San Francisco, about 1 in 10 also don’t look forward to going to work each day.

(You can see a news report summarizing other survey results here.)

As I’ve been hammering away here, students don’t want to learn because the educational system has sucked the meaning out of learning.  Facts and skills are presented without any context.  So much of what children learn takes place in an informational vacuum — and facts without context are boring and meaningless.

I checked out two books from the library last week that were both reminiscences by former jeopardy champions:  Bob Harris’ Prisoner of Trebekistan : A Decade in Jeopardy and Ken Jenning’s Brainiac : Adventures in the Curious, Competitve, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs.  Both are delightful books that I can highly recommend, and both are books that deal with our ability to take in and retain information. 

And as to the latter point, both men absolutely concur that we learn best when we find the information engaging and can relate it to things we already know.  You can use brute force memorization for a lot of things, but the effortless, joyful learning comes when a fact triggers all sorts of little synapses, and makes us excited. 

That was one of the points of the Mission post I did yesterday.  My daughter learned about milk cartons, plaster of Paris and kidney beans, with a little time taken out for adobe brick composition and a random fact thrown in about Indian slaves.  She never got a story.  She never heard about adventurers, and warriors, and men of faith.  She never heard about God, and gold, and disease.  She never heard about the clash of two ancient cultures, one armed with arrows, and one equipped with horses, guns and germs.  She never heard about wide open spaces, and men of God creating lodgings for horseback travelers.  She got some facts, but learned nothing.  There was no joy, no interest, no curiosity.

Public school can be summed up into two question and answer cycles in our household.  In the evening, I ask “What did you learn?” and my kids, in one form or another, answer “Nothing.”  And in the morning, they ask “Do I have to go to school?” and I, reluctantly, answer “Yes.” 

The administrators and teachers have figured out that there’s a problem, but I’m betting that they’ll never figure out that they’re the cause.  Nor will they see that, by changing their mindset, by changing their fundamental lack of respect for children’s innate inquisitiveness and joy in the stories of our world, they could actually effectuate a solution.

The purpose and cost of terrorism

Ralph Peters has written a great, straightforward analysis about the purpose and costs to society of terrorism.  I don’t know that it says anything we don’t already know, but it ties the threads together so beautifully that I think it’s definitely worth reading.  Here’s the intro, which I hope will have you wanting to read the rest:

THE most important consumer good any government supplies to its citizens is security. Consequently, the universal terrorist strategy is to convince the people that their state can no longer protect them.

Thanks to their paramount weapon, the suicide bomber, our enemies have been making progress.

From the relentless attacks on Iraqi innocents, to last week’s blasts in Morocco and Algeria, terrorist masterminds seek to destroy the people’s confidence in their governments, to persuade them that safety lies only in submission to the extremists.

It’s a brilliant approach. Even where it ultimately fails – and terror usually does fail – it succeeds in doing two related things: It costs the victimized government a disproportionate amount of money to respond to could-be-anywhere threats, and it punishes those who decline to see the light.

Context, sympathy and empathy

The deaths at Virginia Tech are a staggering tragedy. Thirty-two people got up and began an ordinary day, only to be cut down with terrible savagery. All of us are shaken. “How did it happen?” “How can something like that happen?” We try desperately to imbue this violence with meaning, whether it’s to look at larger social issues (gun control) or heroic acts of personal bravery. It affects us deeply — as it should. But it also reminds us about the nature of context, about sympathy and empathy, about tribalism.

The fact is, our daily news, way too often, is filled with stories of ordinary people dying violent, senseless deaths. They die en mass in Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, Africa, India, Indonesia, Spain and more places than I can name off the top of my head. They die from bombs, earthquakes, airplane crashes, train wrecks, shipwrecks, and whatever other devices of death that man and nature can provide. With significant exceptions, such as the staggering death rate from Indonesian tsunami, we read of these deaths, feel a shudder of sympathy and, of necessity, move on.

Part of our ability to move on is, of course, compassion fatigue. Living in a wide world where bad stuff happens, we would become dysfunctional were every death in the world to be a wrenching emotional experience. However, if compassion fatigue were the whole answer, we wouldn’t be devastated by 32 deaths, on the other side of the continent, involving people we don’t actually know. That we are devastated is because we go beyond “mere” sympathy, into empathy. In Clinton-esque fashion, we feel these peoples’ pain.

But why do we feel their pain, when we feel only sad about, but don’t feel the pain of, 37 people killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad? I think it’s the nature of tribalism. We seem innately to divide the world into an “us” versus “them” pattern. Most people think of tribalism in warfare terms, in terms of the “us-es” fighting the “thems” for finite resources (or, at least, resources that one or both sides perceive as finite). We forget that this same binary thinking also works at the compassion level. People I know, or that I could know, people who live as I do, or almost as I do, are going to excite more sympathy from me, because I assume that, not only do they live as I do, but they feel as I do. Their loss, their pain, are exquisitely similar to mine.

Or, to put it differently, and more simply, when people die in Virginia, I feel “There but for the grace of God go I.” When people die in Iraq, I think “Thank God I’m an American, not an Iraqi.” The latter deaths I can place at an emotional distance, the former I cannot.

And so, selfishly or not, when someone dies on my soil, on American land, in a context intimately familiar to me, an American college, the fear and sadness I feel is immediate, not academic. It turns out, that in death, as in everything else, context matters.

UPDATE: Here’s James Taranto’s take on why incidents such as yesterday’s shooting at Virginia Tech are particularly hurtful and personal:

For those of us whose job it is to have opinions, an event like yesterday’s massacre at Virginia Tech is a bigger challenge than, say, a terrorist attack. The murder of 32 people by South Korea native Cho Seung-hui is no less evil than massacres carried out by suicide bombers or hijackers, but it is harder to comprehend. Terrorism is carried out by an organized enemy with a political agenda; we can rally to defeat the enemy. The Virginia Tech shooter seems to have been a lone nut. He murdered all those people only to render his own life a nullity by committing suicide in the end.

As is so often the case when he writes, I think he makes an excellent point.

UPDATE II: Speaking of context, here’s a low key headline that 127 people died in Iraq.  That’s 127 lives snuffed out, 127 people ripped apart on a sunny morning.  We note it in passing and, with sadness, we think “Thank God I’m in America, not in Iraq.” Nevertheless, we don’t spend an obsessive day repeatedly going back to the story for more information, we don’t talk about it over the water cooler, and it doesn’t dominate the news.  It’s sad, but it’s not our tribe.


My deepest condolences to the families of the 21 students killed at Virginia Tech.

UPDATE: The most complete updating I’ve seen on this story is at Hot Air. It’s also the most disturbing, insofar as it claims that 32 (!) people are dead, and that the killer, searching for his girlfriend, lined a bunch of people up so that he could kill them execution style.

As for the fact that a gun was used, Hot Air also notes that gun control people have already been speaking out. I have a couple of off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts. First, I’d be surprised if the shooter had the legal right to possess those guns, even if it is in fact legal in America to possess the ones he used. That’s a guess, of course, and I’m perfectly prepared to be proven wrong. Second, if others had guns, he would have been disabled much more quickly. As it was, he had the luxury of shooting fish in a barrel — unimpeded access to unarmed victims. It was only the appearance of policemen with guns that stopped him.

As someone who doesn’t like guns, and who spent her entire life on the gun control side of the spectrum, I can’t avoid an obvious fact, which is that bad guys have always been able to obtain weapons and do bad things with them. And because good guys obey the laws and, often, don’t like guns to begin with, they’re sitting ducks (or barrelled fish).

Gun technology is a Pandora’s box. We have the ability, and therefore do, make weapons of ever greater killing power and all the laws in the world don’t seem effective at keeping them out of the hands of those who want to use them to kill. Short of a Barnhouse effect, they’re not going away.

UPDATE II: Fox News definitely says it’s 32 dead.

UPDATE III: Here’s what happens when law abiding citizens have access to guns when bad guys are shooting. Recall, too, that, during the shootings in Salt Lake City, the matter was ended sooner because an off-duty cop, with gun, coincidentally happened to be present. I’m also trying to hunt down a story about a gunman who attacked NRA headquarters, only to be shot down within seconds of entering the building.

Greg would like a world without guns. So would I. But that’s not happening. The world is what it is, and that’s a world in which bad guys can get guns. (And, as Greg inadvertently demonstrates in his comment, they can get them even if they’re not supposed to under the law, as the Columbine shooters did.) The question then becomes how, in a world with guns, people maximize their own safety. The one thing I do know is that we probably don’t maximize our own safety by rendering ourselves helpless.

I would, of course, be interested in a study showing that there are people who, while they wouldn’t kill if they had to get an illegal gun or work hard to get a gun, would commit mass murder if they had easy access to guns. In that case, the better situation would definitely be the one we have now, where bad guys have to make a huge effort to arm themselves, weeding out all but the most malevolent, and putting a natural cap on the number of inevitable massacres. Because humans seem to have a killing instinct, and in some civilization does not weed out that instinct, we’re always going to have bad stuff happen, especially in our pluralist society. We need to figure out how to minimize the inevitable, recognizing, sadly, that it won’t go away altogether.

And please don’t give me the stuff about Sweden, specifically, or Europe, generally. When those cultures were very homogenous, it was easy to enforce normative behavior regarding guns, and their use. It’s getting harder. England, which has very stringent gun control laws, is having ever increasing amounts of violent crime, especially gun crime in London, where legal gun ownership has been barred. This almost certainly has a lot to do with the de-Anglification of England. It’s not the same people. Likewise, Sweden is becoming an increasingly crime ridden country as it becomes less Swedish. It’s still way behind America crime wise, but the sad fact is that it’s crime rates are increasing, not stagnant. With a wildly (or increasingly) diverse population, you can’t just tell people not to commit crimes, and then make those crimes go away — even in Europe!

UPDATE IV: It will be a while before we can figure out “who” and begin answering “why”: “They [police] also said that the shooter was not carrying identification and his head wounds were so severe that authorities could not immediately identify him.”

UPDATE VCurt, at Flopping Aces, has excellent information, with a lot of posts relaying information from people on the scene.  According to Curt’s data, it sounds as if the killer found his girlfriend in bed with another man, killed both and then started his insane rampage.

What did you learn?

Little Bookworm went off to school today with her “motor project.” It began a month ago, when she came home with a small motor — a small cylinder with two wires sticking out the bottom and a little spindle coming out of the top. If you press the wires to the two ends of a battery, the spindle spins.

Little Bookworm’s project was to glue something to the top of the spindle that would revolve when the wires were connected to the battery, then to place the “finished project” in a theme decorated shoe box. After umpteen hours of working on it — and my contribution of glue gun labor — Little Bookworm marched off to school with a shoe box that had a drawn on the back wall a ferris wheel and a wonderfully maze-like roller coaster. The motor was mounted on a block and, affixed to the top was a disc of paper which had attached to its edges strings, and on the bottom of those strings, little squares of paper representing passenger seats. The final result is very charming.

When it was finished, I asked Little Bookworm, “So, what did you learn about motors?” Her answer: “Nothing.” “Well, what did Ms. Teacher tell you about the project when she assigned it?” Answer: “Take it home and make a diorama showing the motor spinning.” “Did she explain how a motor works?” “No.” Lest this simply be Little Bookworm not paying attention, I asked the same questions of two other classmates in the neighborhood. They, too, saw this as an arts and crafts project, without having any idea about motors.

The motor project was a home project. There’s also been a lot of arts and crafts time in school, because of the “Mission project.” California 4th graders all study the Missions that the Spanish put in place between San Diego and Sonoma, beginning in the 18th Century.

Here’s what I can tell you about missions, based upon just my memories of my 4th grade public school studies 35 years ago: The missions were built by the Spanish, who “owned” California. The Catholic priests came out with the soldiers and traders, with the plan that they would convert the Indians to Christianity. The missions were built along a highway called “El Camino Real,” which still exists today. Each mission was built to be no further than one day’s horseback ride from the next mission, making them sort of like motels for Spanish travelers. The Indians did a lot of labor building the missions. They worked there, were schooled there and, when they died, were buried there. The missions were built of adobe brick, a combination of mud and straw. They had very thick walls, which helped keep them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. And on and on. I’ve since developed a more mature understanding of the missions (this kind of knowledge), of course, but it exists almost side by side with my original exposure.

At Little Bookworm’s school, they’ve been “building” missions from milk cartoons, plaster of Paris, kidney beans (for the tile roofs), fake grass and trees, etc. Done with a lot of parent help, they are arts and crafts marvels, and quite lovely to look at. So I asked Little Bookworm, “What did you learn about the missions?” “The priests built them using Indian slave labor.” Well, that’s a bit PC for the very complex relationship that existed between the priests and the Indians (since the former viewed the Indians as souls to be saved and raised up, not only as primitive laborers, while the Indians viewed the priests as powerful beings who were not felled by smallpox and who were accompanied by men with all powerful guns and horses), but it’s still an answer and accurate so far as it goes.

“What did they use to build them?” “Adobe, which is a mixture of manure, straw and mud.” (Good answer, and I’m so glad she didn’t say milk cartons and plaster of Paris.)

“Who were the priests?” “I don’t know.” That’s still okay, because I don’t really expect the school to teach them the nuances of 18th and 19th Century Spanish Catholicism.

“Where did the priests come from?” “Spain.” (Yes! She knows a hard core fact.)

“Why were the priests there?” “I don’t know.”

“Why were the Spanish in California?” “I don’t know.”

“How come California was Spanish and not American?” “I don’t know.”

“What purpose did the Missions serve?” “I don’t know.” (She was thrilled to learn about the motel and “one day’s ride” aspect.)

“How did the priests get the Indians to work on the Missions?” “I don’t know.” (A little explanation here about guns, disease and faith.)

And on and on. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind how little she knew if I didn’t know that she’s spent at least 20 classroom hours on this project. That means that, out of 20 classroom hours, the only hardcore information she’s taken away is that priests came from Spain, enslaved Indians, and built Missions out of adobe bricks made from clay, straw and manure. That strikes me as a very poor return on time spent.

I’m harping on this because it ties in to my constant gripe about what I see as the public school system’s profound misunderstanding of arts and crafts. Thirty or forty years ago, educationalists figured out the obvious, which is that not all people learn through words, but that some people are better visual or tactile learners. The logical thing to do, and the thing that you see in my beloved Montessori, is to focus on key issues related to any given subject, but to give kids the chance to study and express the information through the medium most natural to them. The schools, instead, simply abandoned the idea of conveying lots of information, or enabling the kids to learn lots of information, dumbed down lots of subjects so that they could be turned into giant arts and crafts projects. The Mission project is a perfect case in point.

To my mind, the best way to have taught the kids about the Missions would have been to get the kids excited about Missions. Tell about the great explorers casting out from Portugal and Spain. Explain about the discovery of the Americas. Tell about the Spanish greed for gold, silver, land and Christian souls. Tell of the brave explorers, the vile killers and the good (and bad) Fathers. Tell about the Indians’ first horrifying exposures to guns, horses and disease, three things that left many of the survivors believing that the Spaniards were either inherently superior or had tapped into a better religion. And so on. It doesn’t have to be a pretty story, but it’s not either the simplistic story of my youth (Spanish brought God) or the simplistic story of my kids’ youth (Spanish brought slavery). It’s a rich and exciting story of greed, faith, warfare, disease, innocence, etc. It’s a most exciting narrative if it’s not sucked of its life so as to support a milk carton infrastructure.

By the way, this is the type of story that can be read or told in a couple of mornings at school. Having piqued the kids’ interest, then tell them to do research and come back with a project that reflects a certain aspect of this era, or of the Missions specifically, or whatever. Depending on their skills, the children can write an essay, draw cartoon panels, make a diorama, write play, or do any other thing that enables them to take what they’ve learned and integrate that knowledge into a unified whole. I know kids can do this because I’ve seen them do it.

As it is, after 20 hours, my daughter learned almost nothing about the Spanish in California or about the Missions — but she learned a whole heck of a lot about milk carton construction techniques.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.  The war ended 62 years ago, and the vast majority of the survivors and perpetrators are dead.  Why do we still care?

Is it, as the Muslims want the world to believe, a Zionist ploy to garner the sympathy vote in world politics?  Aside from the fact that such a ploy, if it existed, is failing miserably, only someone utterly incapable of understanding the human condition would either advance or believe that kind of logic.

Is it so Jews can glory in their “special” victim status?  There may be an element of that, because Jews have been victimized for racial/ethnic/religious reasons in a way that is still unparalleled.  There have been other mass killings genocidal killings but either the numbers haven’t been as “impressive” (Armenians, Tutsis) or the other killings, while “boasting” way more impressive killing numbers, haven’t reflected a determinedly genocidal goal to stamp out an entire race of human beings (communist excesses, everywhere).  But I still don’t think that’s the answer.

So why do we still make a big deal of the Holocaust?  I think we do because it was the Germans who did it.  And I don’t mean by this that we should make Germans suffer to the third and fourth and umpteenth generation, no matter that these generations have no blood on their hands.  Modern Germans are no more culpable than modern Americans.

No.  That it was the Germans who did it matters because they were considered at the time, by themselves and by many others around the world, to be the world’s most civilized nation.  Their culture gave birth to unparalleled levels of cultural beauty and scientific knowledge.  They were friendly, organized, sophisticated, thoughtful, musical — you name it.  And they were the ones who came up with the idea to wipe out an entire race — not just to purge it from their geographic boundaries, as nations have done forever, but to hunt this race down at every point on the earth and destroy it.  And they bent their extraordinary capabilities to that task — their science, their organizational skills, everything.

And if the Germans, the sophisticated, charming Germans, could do that, any nation can.  Massacres are not reserved to decaying cultures and tribal people.  It can happen here.  So we remember — we refuse to forget — to make sure that it doesn’t happen here.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

As I already knew from my legal contacts, as to fired S.F. U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan, there was nothing nefarious going on.  He was simply a bad manager (which has nothing to do with whether he was a good lawyer) and needed to be replaced:

Newly released Justice Department documents on the firings of eight federal prosecutors include a scathing evaluation of former San Francisco U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan — whose district was labeled “one of the most fractured offices in the nation” — and reveal that the Bush administration was considering possible replacements more than a year before he was ousted.

The fact that replacements for Ryan and several other U.S. attorneys were being looked at months before they were fired appears to contradict testimony from a former top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that no such lists had been in the works.

The documents were among thousands of pages that the Justice Department released Friday to congressional committees looking into the dismissals in December of the eight U.S. attorneys, all originally appointed by President Bush. Gonzales, whose changing explanations of the firings have led top Democrats and some Republicans to call for his resignation, is scheduled to testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the issue Tuesday.

Ryan, a former Alameda County prosecutor and Superior Court judge in San Francisco, was named by Bush in August 2002 to succeed U.S. Attorney Robert Mueller, who became director of the FBI. Ryan officially left the job in February and has been hired by a San Francisco law firm.

Unlike several of the fired prosecutors, there has been no indication that Ryan was a target of political criticism by Republicans. Previously released documents have shown that Justice Department officials rated him highly for following Bush administration policies, and among the documents released Friday was one showing that he was the only one of the eight dismissed U.S. attorneys who once belonged to the Federalist Society, a conservative lawyers’ group.

But the newly disclosed documents contain the strongest public confirmation to date that Justice Department officials targeted Ryan for his management of the office, which handles federal prosecutions in coastal Northern California. Ryan’s term included some prominent cases, such as the BALCO steroids prosecutions and the nation’s first criminal charges involving stock options backdating, but it also was marked by the departure of many veteran prosecutors and reports of low office morale.

A memo dated March 5, from Monica Goodling, the Justice Department’s White House liaison who has since resigned, to Assistant Attorney General William Moschella in preparation for his congressional testimony included the following assessment of Ryan:

– “Significant management problems have manifested during his tenure.”

– “The district has become one of the most fractured offices in the nation.”

– “Morale has fallen to the point that it is harming our prosecutorial efforts.”

– “The USA (U.S. attorney) has lost the confidence of many of his career prosecutors.”

The memo noted that Justice Department auditors had conducted two evaluations of Ryan’s office, “which dictated the need for a change.”

Another memo, dated Feb. 12, contained handwritten notes referring to Ryan’s department audit: “terrible manager, bad morale.” The author of the notes wasn’t identified, but the Associated Press said Justice Department officials had confirmed that Goodling wrote them.

Read the rest here.

Worst argument of the week award

I’d never heard of ABC’s Terry Moran but, aside from now having learned that he’s a co-anchor on Nightline, I figured he must be someone, because they’ve given him his own blog page. (Wooo-ey!) The powers that be at ABC might have done him more of a favor if they hadn’t given him his own blog page because, as seems to happen occasionally when media people go off script, he exposes a part of his brain better left unseen.

Moran’s point today (hat tip: Drudge) is that the Duke LaCrosse players are not nice people, so they shouldn’t complain about having major criminal charges leveled against them, incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys fees, and becoming the subject of nationwide scorn and humiliation. Yup, that’s what he really says. Here, read it yourself:

But perhaps the outpouring of sympathy for Reade Seligman, Collin Finnerty and David Evans is just a bit misplaced. They got special treatment in the justice system–both negative and positive. The conduct of the lacrosse team of which they were members was not admirable on the night of the incident, to say the least. And there are so many other victims of prosecutorial misconduct in this country who never get the high-priced legal representation and the high-profile, high-minded vindication that it strikes me as just a bit unseemly to heap praise and sympathy on these particular men.

So as we rightly cover the vindication of these young men and focus on the genuine ordeal they have endured, let us also remember a few other things:

They were part of a team that collected $800 to purchase the time of two strippers.

Their team specifically requested at least one white stripper.

During the incident, racial epithets were hurled at the strippers.

Colin Finnerty was charged with assault in Washington, DC, in 2005.

The young men were able to retain a battery of top-flight attorneys, investigators and media strategists.

As students of Duke University or other elite institutions, these young men will get on with their privileged lives.

There’s more, but I think the stuff I quoted makes the point sufficiently well. Let me reiterate what he says: These men were charged with one of the worst crimes in America — gang rape. And not just gang rape, but racially motivated gang rape. It was apparent almost from the outset that the charges were unwarranted, and that they represented instead the perfect storm of a sociopathic, confabulating accuser, and a politically motivated, amoral prosecutor. The men were named in every media outlet in America, castigated as rapists and racists, dragged through the criminal justice system, and had their academic and athletic careers destroyed — all while it was manifestly obvious that they could not have done what they are alleged to have done. While it is true that they got more sympathy than the average defendant, they also got much, much, much more exposure. They can’t run and hide. Throughout America, not just in their community, they are the Duke rapists.

But heck, it’s all okay because they’re not nice people. You realize that this means that, from here on out, we’re justified in wrongly accusing and dragging through the justice system all Americans who watch strippers, who like strippers in a variety of colors, and who are in the company of people who make racial epithets (because you’ll notice that the not-so-bright Terry is still bright enough not to accuse the now-exonerated players of having voiced those same epithets). Also, you can smear anyone who was charged — not convicted, mind you, because we now know how much convictions are worth, but just charged — with assault. Oh, and by the way, here’s the kicker — anyone who goes to a fancy school is fair game. Clearly, Moran vaguely regrets that we didn’t just lynch them at the get-go for having the temerity to attend a nice college.

Of course, I’m sure you’ve realized by now that Moran is making precisely the same point Estrich belabors in the first 52 pages of her attempted take-down of Ann Coulter: People you don’t like have no rights. Moran makes clear that, in the identity politics game, one sociopathic, lying accuser trumps three innocuous college boys whose lives have gone through a sordid, public wringer, solely because she is poor and black, while they are, well, “rich” white college boys. In Moran’s view, the fact that they did nothing illegal, and were scapegoated for political opportunism, is totally okay because they are the wrong color, the wrong wealth, and they didn’t behave in the way Moran thinks they should have. Imagine this type of case in Mississippi, circa 1900, except switch the defendants a little bit: Moran still doesn’t care what they did, he just cares that they’re black, poor, and have the wrong attitude. It was a poisonous way of thinking then, it’s a poisonous way of thinking now.

UPDATE: Welcome, American Thinker readers. This is pretty much the post Thomas Lifson saw and commented upon. However, when I went back and read it, I found some grammar and typo problems that I corrected. (And I’m sure there are still legions that I haven’t corrected.)

UPDATE II: I didn’t realize it until I read it at American Thinker that Terry Moran is brother to Rick Moran, of Rightwing Nuthouse and American Thinker fame. As I noted in the opening paragraph, I’d never heard of Terry Moran. Respecting as I do Rick Moran’s thinking, I apologize for having personally insulted Terry’s intelligence, since I’m willing to bet that Terry shares Rick’s intelligence. (Those must be very interesting Thanksgiving dinners at the Moran home, though.) I do not apologize, though, for insulting Terry Moran’s ideas which, at least to the extent he expresses them vis a vis the lacrosse players, I think are dead wrong.

The Ann vs. Susan smackdown

This is a follow-up to my post a couple of days ago about my decision to read, in order, both Ann Coulter’s Godless : The Church of Liberalism and Susan Estrich’s Soulless : Ann Coulter and the Right Wing Church of Hate, with the latter meant to be a takedown of the former.

I galloped through Ann’s book. She writes the way one should write a good legal brief (although you’re supposed to put all the sarcasm in the first draft and edit it out before it goes to court): She states the premise she intends to prove, marshals the facts necessary for her argument, and then makes her argument, either convincing you or not. Ignoring the snarkiness, which can be alternately amusing or irritating, her arguments are solid. Most of the facts were within my own range of personal knowledge, because I remember the events about which she speaks, so the most I could challenge were her conclusions, not the evidence she adduced to support them. As it happened, I agreed with her ultimate conclusions, which flowed rather effortlessly from the evidence upon which she relied.

The only thing that was entirely new to me fact-wise was her attack on Evolution. From my point of view, that was both her strongest and her weakest argument. Strongest, because she finally explained to me why anti-evolutionists keep insisting that evolution is just a theory. I’d always blithely assumed that the fossil record supported Darwinism — that is, after all, the way it’s taught in our schools. Ann claims — and I don’t know here whether her facts are what she says they are — that the massive recent developments in the hard sciences (DNA studies, physics, etc.) and paleontology (the fossil record ) do not support Darwin’s predictions.

If Ann’s factual claim is correct, it means that Darwinism never morphed from the theory Darwin advanced in the 19th Century to the all-encompassing fact taught now. Ann’s argument is weak to me, though, because Ann takes that to mean Darwinism is wrong. I take it to mean that I’m back in agnostic territory, no longer able to rely on Darwin, but not ready to throw myself into the hands of Gods or aliens.

That I don’t go where Ann goes, though, doesn’t negate the fact that she does a very good job of showing that, despite evidence that exists outside of Evolution’s linear theory, the liberals refuse to acknowledge the existence of those facts. If Ann is correct, that’s shameful, and it is a flat-earth world view, just as bad as that which dominated during the Middle Ages.

Although the evolution section was the most challenging part of the book for me (especially because I have no independent corroboration of her factual claims), I know that the MSM savaged her book most for its section about the Jersey Girls, those 9/11 widows who used their increased visibility to attack the administration. Ann is indeed mean and scathing in her condemnation of these women, but there is context. Her point is that the Left hagiographizes (a made-up word, I admit) people who have achieved a PC victim status, and shrieks down the house when others attempt to challenge, not the victim status, but the ideas emanating from that victim.

It doesn’t take a long memory to remember Maureen Dowd’s fatuous conclusion that Cindy Sheehan spoke with “absolute moral authority” because her son died bravely in Iraq. Within days of that one, every conservative blog in the world had exposed its manifest logical failings. But I’m sure Dowd didn’t care because her point — and the point Ann understands — is that liberals don’t want their ideas challenged, and the most recently devised way to insulate those ideas from challenge is to have them emanate from people who have suffered. And Ann argues that, in the marketplace of ideas, those same ideas are always open to challenge, no matter who utters them. And then, being Ann, she goes utterly overboard and makes that excellent point in the crudest, most offensive way possible.

All of which gets me to Estrich’s book. I have to admit, that while I galloped through Ann’s book, which was factually solid and, for the most part, amusing, Estrich’s book is heavy-going, and I haven’t gotten very far. Part of the problem is one of expectations. Because it’s manifestly a book written in response to Godless (check out those covers), I expected Estrich to take on Ann’s arguments. Foolish me. Estrich did exactly what Ann would have predicted — so far, it’s left the arguments alone, but taken on Ann. I’m at page 52, and it’s been a sustained attack on Ann: Ann is obsessed with her looks; Ann is mean; Ann obviously has an eating disorder; Ann is mean; Ann is too blonde, making her generic; Ann is mean; I (Estrich) am personally nice to Ann; Ann is mean; Ann’s training as a lawyer doesn’t qualify her to argue things; Ann is mean; Ann dates different men every night; etc.

Along the way, Estrich breaks her “Ann is mean” rhythm to tell us that she (Estrich) is Jewish, which I sort of figured out already because of the the Magen David she wears in the cover photo. Estrich believes that this fact utterly refutes Ann’s claim that liberals are Godless. Had Estrich actually read Ann’s argument, while she might not have agreed with it, she wouldn’t have thought that all you need to do to refute it is to announce that you believe in God. Ann’s point is that a simple belief in God is the beginning but that real religion is living your life according to the moral precepts in the Bible — and that liberals, no matter how much they profess belief in a higher being, don’t. More than that, Ann makes the point that liberalism sets up an entirely alternative and comprehensive belief system, often antithetical to traditional religion, that is a religion in and of itself. As I discussed here, she’s got a point, although one that it’s almost impossible for liberals to recognize.

In the first 52 pages, Estrich also makes an almost funnily inept swipe at Ann’s Jersey Girls argument. After pointing out that Ann is mean (I got that bit), Estrich goes on to say that she’s been a victim and that her ideas have been attacked. That’s great. That means that, despite efforts to the contrary, freedom of speech, even mean speech, is still alive in America.

What Estrich totally misses, either accidentally or on purpose, is Ann’s point that, while such speech exists, the Left is working busily to shut it down as to liberal arguments, and that one of the ways the Left does it is to claim that one cannot challenge ideas emanating from sympathetic figures. The Left may not succeed in the shout-down, but that it engages in it in the first place shows a profound inability to separate ideas from identity (which loops back to the main problem with identity politics). That Estrich’s book has been, so far, a sustained attack on Ann personally, rather than her ideas, shows that Estrich cannot escape her own identity politics mindset. It’s all about who you are, not what you say. If you don’t like Ann’s ideas, insult Ann personally. If you have ideas that you want broadcast, shield them in a sympathetic character. Either way, whatever you do, don’t touch the ideas!

UPDATE: Let me clarify something. Regarding my very simplistic, and somewhat inchoate, evolution discussion, I was not trying to argue away evolution. I was just saying that Ann makes a compelling argument, if her facts are true, that there is a shut-down of debate about Darwin’s theory, rather than an expansion of that same debate, despite the availablity of facts that could not possibly be known to Darwin at the time he came up with his theory.

My understand is that it’s the essence of a good scientific debate that, having posited a theory, you expose it to facts — and perhaps adjust it too. My complaint is with the refusal to think beyond the theory, to expand it, modify it, whatever it, based on irrefutable (or at least changing) evidence. And while the hardcore scientists may be making these adjustments, the fact remains that the popular culture — most especially the children’s textbooks — are not.

Please don’t confuse me with those people, ably exposed in Bill Whittle’s essay, who find evidence intrusive and unnecessary for their world view. Rather than being, like me, someone who wants to test facts against theory and who wants to know what facts are out there, Whittle’s conspiracists are the people with their fingers in their ears, yelling “Nyah, nyah, nyah! I can’t hear you.”

UPDATE II: Here’s sort of what I was looking for in the fact area — a series of articles that challenge Ann’s scientific claims in the evolution vs. ID debate. What’s interesting about so many of these articles it is that, aside from actually taking on Ann’s factual claims, which is where I want to learn information and where I think the debate should be, they also insult her roundly; claim she’s advancing God, whereas I read her book as primarily an attack on the prevailing evolutionary zeitgeist informing those not “in the know” that evolution has all the answers to all the questions, going back to primordial ooze; and announce that evolution does in fact have all the answers.

Incidentally, Susan Estrich shies away entirely from the factual side of the debate, preferring instead to attack Ann’s motives, instead of her argument. If Ann’s science is as bad as they all claim, why don’t they attack her there, which is manifestly her weak spot? (Frankly, you should never let a lawyer argue science.)

Can I recognize a winner or what?

I’m pleased to say that, as to both winners in this week’s Watcher of Weasel’s contest (council and non-council) are posts I voted for. I thought that they were that good and so, apparently, did everyone else.

On the council side, the top two winners were Cheat-Seeking Missiles’ Don’t Know Your Enemy, a lucid, to-the-point analysis of Pelosi’s hopeless naiveté, never better exposed than when she dealt with the Saudis. Her conduct reminded me of Jay Leno’s characterization of her after she’d started on this trip: “Secretary of No Particular State.” He was wrong, of course. There’s no doubt in my mind but that she’s an official delegate of the State of Ignorance.

Also on the council side, second place went to Joshuapundit’s The Black Flag Flying: The Arabs and Iran Ally Against the West, which lives up to the billing in its title. The Arab League summit was held last week (or is it two weeks ago now?), and Joshuapundit explains in straightforward fashion why, though it was not a head-on contest, the US lost.

On the non-council side, first place, in a big win, was American Future’s Orwell, the Left, and 9/11, which explained Orwell’s deep understanding of Leftist thought, and the modern Left’s continued inability to understand the effect of its actions — although that last point goes for the masses. The leaders know and don’t care. Second place is a Huffington Post article entitled Iraq: A Place of Ambivalence. This post, written by a journalist returned from Iraq, has a most interesting paragraph stuck in the middle which, after attacking Bush supports, then goes on to say so much about the more thoughtful anti-War person’s understanding of her fellow anti-War people:

Don’t get me wrong. If I felt that this post were going to be read by a bunch of war apologists, I would take them angrily to task for the manifest, manifold failures in Iraq, and the criminally self-indulgent fictions on which those failures were based. But since this post is presumably being read mostly by war critics, I will devote it to challenging anti-war activists on their apparent belief that everything they say about Iraq is, always has been, and ever shall be true.

Okay, I know you’ve been waiting for it, so I’ll say what I always say at this point:  Those are the winners, but you really should read all of the nominations, because they are good and because they may end up taking your mind places it hasn’t been before.

(By the way, if you’re wondering, I came in absolutely dead center in the council pack.  Not bad.)

Absolutely beautiful photos of a country restored

Back in 1987, before the fall of Communism, I went to Czechoslovakia.  It was awful, something I would have realized then if I hadn’t been so hopelessly naive about the horrors of Communism.  Everything was shabby and dirty.  The food was vile.  The lodging was so primitive we stayed in one room with a dirt floor.  The people were incredibly hostile.  The trains ran on time, but that was scant consolation for three days of the worst traveling I’d ever had.  All the while, my mother, with whom I traveled, kept saying that her father, who traveled to Czechoslovakia in the late 20s and early 30s, always referred to it as the Crown Jewel of Eastern Europe.  She was even more disappointed than I, because her expectations had been so high.  If only we had waited a few years to go….

Fast forward 20 years, have more than a decade free of Communist control, and you get the really lovely Czechoslovakia that Gail (who blogs at Crossing the Rubicon) visited.  Gail’s photos are especially beautiful because she combines the area’s natural beauty with her own artistic eye. 

Anyway, here is what you’ll see if you visit Gail:

The oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Europe.  Because Prague capitulated so quickly, the Nazis elected to preserve the Jewish quarter, not out of respect, of course, but as a museum to who the lives of the Jewish vermin the Nazis so confidently expected to destroy completely.  What’s amazing about the cemetery — and what even Gail’s fine pictures can’t convey — is how packed it was.  Since the Jews were confined for centuries to a minute area of land, they crowded the dead to make more room for the living.  Colma this isn’t.

Medieval Prague.  Gail’s pictures highlight how beautiful it is.  I’m sure it was beautiful in 1987, too, because, just as the Nazis wanted the Jewish quarter as a sort of museum, so too did the Communists want all of Prague, unspoiled by WWII bombs, to be a sort of museum.  The atmosphere back then was just so grim, though, that it was hard to enjoy.

Theresienstadt, the starting point for so many deaths. This, of course,was the Nazis’ “model” concentration camp, the one where they took credulous Red Cross representatives to prove how “well” they treated the Jews. They liked to boast about the prison orchestra. They didn’t boast about the fact that, without exception, the inmates where shipped to the death camps, where they were almost all murdered.

Beautiful pictures of Budapest, a place I haven’t yet been.  Frankly, I hadn’t realized so much survived the war.  In the 1980s, when Mom and I were planning our trip, because we’re old building fanatics, we chose Prague over Budapest, because we’d heard that the latter had mostly been leveled.  We regretted this later because, in contrast to how grim Communist Prague was, we heard that Budapest was a very enjoyable place to visit.  If Gail’s pictures are any indication, it’s beautiful too.

And one post which jumbles together lovely pictures of both Prague and Budapest, including a Holocaust memorial wall that most certainly did not exist 20 years ago.

It  might be time for me to start thinking about traveling again….

Second guessing cops

I’ve taken a news story and put the facts in a different order.  The story essentially starts with the last point, and organizes the facts based on that point.  I’ve put the last point last, because it’s an after-the-fact conclusion that should not color the report.  I wonder if you’ll agree with my understand of the facts, and think that, at the very least, the reporter got ahead of himself with his upfront conclusion. 

What police knew:

[Richard] Desantis, who lived with his wife and two young children in a Santa Rosa, had fired about 10 pistol rounds into the ceiling of his home before Santa Rosa police officers showed up at his door at about 1:19 a.m.


Desantis’ wife, Patricia, had called the county’s 911 dispatch center and asked for help, saying that her husband had fired shots into the attic with his handgun because he thought he heard strangers’ voices. She said her husband was bipolar, and had stopped taking his medication.

Minutes later, police officers arrived and found the couple in the driveway — along with two young children.

Police said Desantis’ wife was holding her 2-year-old girl in her arms and yelling at the officers that this was a mental health problem. Officers ordered Richard Desantis to the ground.


Police investigators said Desantis also used methamphetamine.


According to the police, Soares used a nonlethal weapon to fire a 3-inch-long plastic projectile at Desantis’ lower body to stop his assault. The projectile apparently broke Desantis’ arm, but he continued charging at three of the officers. Celli, Mann and Menke each fired one round. Two bullets struck Desantis in the torso, stopping his advance.

An ambulance crew said Desantis was dead at the scene. Detectives later recovered one rifle and two handguns from inside the home, including the one used to shoot into the ceiling.  

What police may or may not have known:

“She had disarmed him before the cops were there,” [Eric] Safire [the wife's attorney] said. “She said, I got the gun, I got the gun. … I can’t say whether they heard her. He gets down on his knees with his hands up, then for some unknown reason advances toward them in some fashion.”   (Emphasis mine.)

What police are being accused of doing (per the opening paragraph in the news report):

A Santa Rosa ironworker was unarmed and in need of medication for bipolar disorder when he charged police and was shot dead early Monday in the driveway of his home, officials said Wednesday.

The death of Richard Desantis, 30, marks the second use of lethal force in four weeks by law enforcement officers in Sonoma County against a person with some form of mental illness.

In the earlier case, a 16-year-old Sebastopol boy was shot dead on March 12 by sheriff’s deputies who were called to his home after he threatened to kill his 6-year-old brother.

A lawyer representing Desantis’ widow asserted that both shootings were unjustified. “Evidently, the (police) training in Sonoma County is not effective,” said attorney Eric Safire of San Francisco.

It’s entirely possible that police may have overracted.  It’s just as likely though, that things played out another way.  Police knew as they approached the property that a deranged man was firing guns wildly, with young children nearby.  He was in front of the property when they arrived and, I have no doubt, they repeatedly yelled at him to get down.  Meanwhile, his wife was also screaming (and I bet the children were screaming, too).  The man partially complied, and then, this same man who had been reported as firing guns within his home, lunged at them.  He was undeterred by a warning, non-lethal shot.  So they shot again, and again.  In other words, based on the exact facts reported in this story under the opening opinion accusing the police of malfeasance, there’s very good evidence that, on the ground, without Monday morning quarterbacking, the police responded appropriate to a volatile and apparently dangerous situation.

As it is, it’s a terrible tragedy for a family whose mentally ill, drug abusing father was shot down in front of them.  That doesn’t mean, though, that it was the fault of the police that the situation ended as it did.

Burlingame superintendent does the right thing

There’s a big hoo-ha going on down in Burlingame, an affluent community south of San Francisco. It seems that 8th graders were reading a book that included descriptions of anal sex and, when a parent complained, the superintendent had the temerity, on moral grounds yet, to pull the book out of the classroom. He seemed utterly incapable of grasping that the book was meaningful. (And yes, the above shocked tone is tongue-in-cheek, because I believe the principle did the right thing.) Here’s the story:

Citing his concern for “the morals of our society,” Burlingame schools Superintendent Sonny Da Marto has stopped four eighth-grade classes from reading “Kaffir Boy,” an award-winning memoir of growing up in a South African ghetto during apartheid.

Da Marto had banned the book from the Burlingame Intermediate School late last month when the 13- and 14-year-old students were nearly halfway through it, said their English teacher, Amelia Ramos, who was required to take the books back from 116 students.

“The kids were angry,” Ramos said. “They were frustrated. They were appalled. And some were so upset that they couldn’t muster any type of verbal response. They were very quiet.”

A divided Burlingame Board of Education discussed the issue at a public meeting Tuesday night but declined to reverse Da Marto’s decision.

The book has been challenged frequently since its publication in 1986 because of two graphic paragraphs describing men preparing to engage in anal sex with young boys. Although Ramos taught “Kaffir Boy” last year without incident, a parent complained this year — and Da Marto agreed.

At the board meeting, Da Marto called “Kaffir Boy” an outstanding book, but said the paragraphs in question rendered it “inappropriate for this grade level.” He said he would allow an abridged version in which the controversial words were removed.

In “Kaffir Boy,” Mark Mathabane tells his brutal but ultimately triumphant story as one of nine children growing up in poverty during the 1960s and 1970s in a nation where the civil rights of black people were nonexistent. In South Africa, “kaffir” is a gross racial slur.


“Kaffir Boy has been taught in eighth grade and in many high schools across the United States,” Ramos said. “I wanted to challenge and motivate my students, to broaden their perspectives on life beyond the borders of Burlingame.”

That strategy worked last year, when Ramos freely taught the memoir after it was approved by the Burlingame School District’s “core literature committee” of parents, teachers, a librarian, a student and a school board member.

But in late March, Ramos received an e-mail from a parent complaining about the graphic scene.

On Page 72, readers find a description of child prostitution witnessed by Mathabane when he was younger than Ramos’ students.

He runs away rather than participate in the sex-for-food arrangement with migrant workers that his starving companions agree to — but not before he sees that “the boys, now completely naked, had begun lining up along the bunks.” In two paragraphs, Mathabane uses the words “anuses,” “Vaseline” and “penises” as he describes preparations for the worst.

Ramos forwarded the parent’s e-mail to her principal, Ted Barone, who sent it to Da Marto. That very day, Ramos said, the superintendent ordered the class to stop reading the book.

“I’m very concerned about the morals of our society and that children who don’t have support are not prepared emotionally to read it,” the superintendent said at Tuesday’s board meeting. “They’re already exposed to violence and sex. As a public agency, are we going to contribute to it?” An abridged version of the book has been ordered, Barone told him.


Parents have been vocal about the book on a Burlingame blog site, burlingamevoice.com. The first entry, on March 26, came from the parent of an eighth-grader objecting to the “graphic and detailed description of grown men raping young boys, as young as 5 years old.” The parent said the child was disturbed by the passages.

Some bloggers agreed, while others, including students, said they would read it no matter what. Some said that Ramos had sent a note to parents offering them the chance to opt their children out of reading the book. Some parents said they hadn’t seen the note.

But some school board members said the district’s discussion about removing the book hadn’t been frank at all.

Board member Liz Gindraux, who also sat on the core literature committee that approved “Kaffir Boy,” said the process had been “disrespected.”

“Two parents object, and the book is pulled without any discussion,” she said. “I feel we jumped the gun a little.”

Board Vice President Michael Barber said, “I don’t want to be the censor board.”

Parent Kerbey Altmann said the banning decision had “echoes of a police state.”

“I feel my right as a parent was usurped unceremoniously and quickly. There was not full disclosure,” he said.

His son, eighth-grader Tom Altmann, asked the board how “shielding us from the scene in the book will benefit us.”

No one spoke in favor of the ban.

I have no doubt but that the book is a fine book, that makes good points about child suffering under a terrible regime. That does not mean it is appropriate reading for 12 and 13 year olds! I’d like to be clever here, and make good analogies and larger points, but I can’t. It seems to me that the bottom line (pardon the pun, given the matter at issue here) is whether public schools should foist onto young children graphic descriptions of anal sex.

There are wonderful books about young people surviving repressive regimes. One of my favorites was A Girl Called Judith Strick, about a Jewish teenager who fought against the Nazis, got arrested by the Gestapo, was sent to a concentration camp, and survived to help found the State of Israel.  I’m sure you can all add to the list, with books about different places and times when young people overcame terrible odds to triumph.  I’m equally sure that the ones written for young adults don’t have graphic sexual descriptions, and that this absence of content does not impair the books’ messages.

Recognizing that there is another side to the coin

I’m reading Ann Coulter’s Godless : The Church of Liberalism. I actually didn’t intend to check it out of the library when I first saw it. I can take Ann in small doses, because I think she’s very clever, and her observations are often spot-on. I also think she’s very mean, so I always end up feeling both exhilarated and, well, dirty, after reading one of her books. (I’ve probably just described the porn movie experience, haven’t I?)

So, as I said, I wasn’t planning on reading that book, except for the fact that, immediately adjacent to it on the library shelf I saw Susan Estrich’s Soulless : Ann Coulter and the Right Wing Church of Hate. If you follow both the links I provided, you’ll see that the Estrich book is meant to look exactly like the Coulter book — same layout, same coloring, almost the same size. They’ve even dressed the brunette, pugnacious little Estrich in a blond wig and black dress, a la Coulter, and modeled her in Ann’s trademark pose.

I leafed through Estrich’s book because I do like to see what the critics have to say. The first few pages were just declarative statements about how mean and opinionated Ann is. I agree. She’s also right a lot of the time, sewing together facts — many of them that liberals would prefer to forget — to make a compelling argument. That you might not ultimately agree with her argument is entirely different from saying she’s too mean to be entitled to argue.

Anyway, I realized that the only way I could tell if Estrich’s book picked up steam and became a meaningful critique of Ann’s argument (as opposed to her argumentative style) was to read Ann’s book first. So I checked out both, and I’m reading them in order: Ann’s first.

As always, Ann makes a good point, all the while being as sarcastic and, sometimes, off-putting (as opposed to humorous) as possible. As you may have guessed from the title, and can certainly see from the reviews, Ann argues that liberalism is itself a faith, much as liberals would like to believe that it’s entirely grounded in reason, science and logic. As it happens, I used to attend the Church of Liberal and accepted its doctrine entirely. To me, it was a comprehensive universe and I, like a good medieval Catholic, could not comprehend the existence of alternative views. They were not equal, they were heretical and needed to be stamped out.

With this mindset, in the way back when, I was particularly baffled by the word “secularism,” which appeared as an Evangelical rallying phrase in the 1980s. What was this “secularism” they were all talking about? I knew that I was on the side of right, reason, logic and natural human progression; they represented everything dark. To me, secularism was a made-up concept that was simply intended to demonize everything that wasn’t fundamentalist Christianity.

And then, one day, it clicked. Sadly, I can’t remember what I read, but I do know it was a book about education. Whatever it was, reading it, I realized why the Evangelicals were so upset. I saw that, if you came from a home where the package deal was that marriage is sanctified, that abortion is wrong, that homosexual conduct is wrong, that America is a good place, that Communism is a bad thing, and that if your children were placed in a school that had as a package-deal a curriculum that didn’t just present the existence of opposing views, but that actively denigrated your views and preached a comprehensive and antithetical world view, then that school was teaching an opposing belief system. This is especially true where, as in public schools, the school system is advancing its belief system as ultimate facts, when it’s manifestly obvious that many of these facts are merely conclusions, to which believers retrofit supporting facts. As any good lawyer knows, you figure out your case first, and then find the facts to support it.

Further, if you are one of those traditionally religious people, a belief system opposing your belief system is, in fact, a religion. And since this oppositional religion slyly refuses to give itself a name, beyond pronouncing itself to be all that is right and good, you’re perfectly entitled to label it for your own convenience (perhaps selecting a name such as “secularism”), and to challenge it.

With this epiphany, the atheist (or am I an agnostic?) in me kicked in. If I’m not ready to believe in one belief system (traditional religion), why in the world am I so willing to believe wholesale in another belief system (secularism)?

Slowly, slowly, I started looking at the premises of my secular religion and not liking what I saw. I moved further and further away from it, the more I scrutinized my former unthinking faith.

Welfare as an unlimited right suddenly seemed like a pretty crude way to ensure that generations of poor people would remain poor, lacking all incentive to work. (An insight that was hastened when I learned that my Communist aunt, a believer ’til the day she died, lived in an East Berlin apartment with a broken sink for nine years, since no one had an incentive to fix it for her.)

To believe that America is a bad place importing its imperialism, as opposed to the purity of Communism, works only if one ignores the fact that Communism wherever tried has failed, not only because it fails economically, but because it can work only if people are reduced to absolute, unthinking servitude. Every one of my liberal shibboleths fell when I recognized the unthinking faith behind them, and looked beyond my faith-based blinders.

When I finally looked at the world as it was, and looked at people as they are (and as they should want to be), I didn’t want to be a liberal any more. And so I ended up amongst the conservatives, embracing their belief system, without embracing their beliefs. Funnily enough, although it should be an uneasy fit, it isn’t. This is so because one of the nicest things I’ve discovered is that, while my many conservative friends wish, for my own sake, that I could embrace faith, they don’t shun me, denigrate me, insult me, or harass me because I don’t. There’s a certain eternal patience here, as well as a willingness to accept that I’ve already made a pretty big intellectual journey in the past few years of my life.

UPDATEPatrick has been blogging about the difference between fear based view of our world and a reason driven view of it — and you’ll have to read it yourself to find out on which side traditionally religious people, and secularly religious people fall.

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