Archive for July, 2012

Today would have been Milton Friedman’s 100th birthday.  Those of us who favor a free society certainly miss his voice in the current debates.  He was one of the most articulate defenders of free markets and limited government.  He hasn’t yet been replaced and the cause of freedom has suffered for it.

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Ross Douhat quotes Michelle Obama saying,

Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday.  It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well … Jesus didn’t limit his ministry to the four walls of the church. He was out there fighting injustice and speaking truth to power every single day.

Apparently Michelle’s “faith journey” has little to do with actually studying the life of Jesus.  When, exactly, did Jesus either go about fighting injustice or speaking truth to power?

Remember, about the only remotely political thing Jesus said was “Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17).

As far as speaking truth unto power, when Jesus finally was brought before the authorities shortly before his crucifixion, his main comment was….nothing.

And the closest he got to “fighting” anything was when he tossed the moneychangers out of the temple, angry that his Father’s house was being defiled.

Jesus spent his time teaching and healing, often in small, private settings.  His tendency to hang out with the bottom rungs of society such as lepers or publicans sent a powerful message, as did his interactions with women.  But does this constitute “fighting injustice?”  Only in the sense that he tried to change hearts through his example and his words.  To say that he was about attacking existing power structures or explicitly encouraging others to do so is a huge interpretive stretch.  He mocked the hypocrisy of the local elites, but he did nothing to challenge their power.

Liberation theology and other variants of religious social liberalism have many followers.  I wouldn’t want to question their devotion or commitment.  Their desire to create a better world for the poor and downtrodden is admirable.  But alleviating poverty and suffering through the coercive power of the state is certainly not something Jesus taught.  In fact, his appreciation for worldly notions of injustice was not what people wanted to hear.  His message to those who were treated unjustly was to turn the other cheek and to love—not to demand fair treatment.

Jesus spoke a lot about righteousness and what it truly means to keep God’s commandments (not usually things that the left wants to talk about, I might add), but fighting injustice was not very high on his list of priorities, at least according to the scriptures.  What he did want was to turn people’s hearts unto God.  “And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).  Its very hard to pull out a “let’s storm the barricades” message out of those words or anything else he said or did.  Perhaps one who truly becomes a disciple of Christ becomes committed to fighting injustice, but the scriptures are largely silent on any political method for doing so, and Jesus seemed singularly uninterested in anything having to do with worldly power or injustice.  Sorry, Michelle.

The Obamas come from the “community organizing” tradition, which is essentially about rallying political power to take money from one group and give it to another.  Fine.  Let’s just leave Jesus out of it.

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The always insightful Peggy Noonan had some interesting observations this week.  If you have a WSJ subscription, read her whole column.  Here are some interesting paragraphs:

Did “The Dark Knight Rises” cause the Aurora shootings? No, of course not. One movie doesn’t have that kind of power, and we don’t even know if the shooter had seen it. But a million violent movies have the cumulative power to desensitize and destabilize, to make things worse, and that’s what we’ve been seeing the past quarter century or so, the million movies. Each ups the ante in terms of carnage.

Carl Cannon, in a thoughtful, deeply researched series on RealClearPolitics, this week gave a measured, tempered look at our entertainment culture and its role in the Aurora shootings: “A hundred studies have demonstrated conclusively that viewing violence on the screen increases aggression in those who watch it, particularly children.” Ignoring the problem hasn’t made it go away. He quoted Jenny McCartney of London’s Daily Telegraph, after she had seen 2008’s “The Dark Knight”: “The greatest surprise of all—even for me, after eight years working as a film critic—has been the sustained level of intensely sadistic brutality throughout the film.”

Mr. Cannon noted the different ways Hollywood executives have attempted to  rationalize and defend what they produce. At first they claimed TV and movies had  no impact on the actions of viewers. Then why, they were asked, have  commercials, and why have characters who don’t smoke? Next filmmakers claimed violent movies not only don’t increase violence, they probably decrease it by letting  audiences vicariously blow off steam. “Legions of social scientists lined up to test”  the catharsis theory, says Mr. Cannon. They discovered the opposite: “Violent  programming desensitized young people to violence, made them more likely to hit  other children, and often engendered copy-cat behavior.”

Some of the sadness and frustration following Aurora has to do with the fact that no one thinks anyone can, or will, do anything to make our culture better. The film industry isn’t going to change, the genie is long out of the bottle. The genie has a cabana at the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The movie market is increasingly international, and a major component is teenage boys and young men who want to see things explode, who want to see violence and sex. Political pressure has never worked. Politicians have been burned, and people who’ve started organizations have been spoofed and spurned as Puritans. When Tipper Gore came forward in 1985, as a responsible citizen protesting obscene rap lyrics, her senator husband felt he had to apologize to Democratic fund-raisers. If some dumb Republican congressman had a hearing to grill some filmmakers, it would look like the McCarthy hearings. There would be speeches about artistic freedom, and someone would have clever words about how Shakespeare, too, used violence. “Have you ever seen ‘Coriolanus?'”

A particularly devilish injustice is that many of the wealthy men and women of the filmmaking industry go to great lengths to protect their own children from the products they make. They’re able to have responsible nannies and tutors and private coaches and private lessons. They keep the kids busy. They don’t want them watching that garbage.

Artistic freedom is a crucially important part of any free society, so I’m not looking for any kind of clampdown by government on Hollywood.  But at the same time a free society can be threatened by cultural decay.  How to preserve the cultural strength that a free society needs to survive while at the same time maintaining robust freedom of expression is not an easy problem—even for libertarians.

After all, we don’t have Batman to rescue us.

I’ll have more to say later.

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Since the “You didn’t build that” comment a few days ago by the President, the mainstream media has developed a new truism, namely that Romney is taking the President’s words out of context.

That is true, in the narrow sense of the phrase, in that any brief quote is always out of context.   But that is only dishonest rhetoric if the quote has a different meaning by itself than it does within the context.  As many have pointed out, Obama’s message isn’t any more comforting in context than out of context.

What Obama and his defenders have been doing is what really constitutes dishonest rhetoric.  James Taranto makes an excellent point today:

The basic substantive problem with….[Obama’s] argument is that it blurs the distinction between an uncontroversial proposition (government is necessary) and a highly disputed one (government of its current size and scope is necessary and may even be insufficient). The ability to blur such distinction is a useful skill for a politician; the best way to accomplish something controversial is to persuade people you’re doing something uncontroversial.

The President and media are trying to pin on Romney the charge that he doesn’t think government is necessary, which is a ridiculous claim and one far more dishonest than Romney’s using the quote out of context.

Obama’s defenders want people not to focus on the thrust and primary motivation of Obama’s claim: those who have built small businesses should be paying even more in taxes and be subject to more regulations (the ACA being chief among them) than they currently are.

In short, the Obama strategy is to try to convince people that just because some government is necessary that we need more government than the (already outrageous) amount we already have.  And they want to paint their opponent as one who doesn’t recognize the value of government.

This type of logical fallacy probably has some official latin name.  For now, let’s just use a simple word: nonsense.

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Rationalizing madness is a fool’s errand.  There is no master narrative, no psychological Rosetta stone that can explain the madness of a James Holmes.  Maybe one day experts will put a label on his madness, but that is just to call it something else, not to explain it.

As the image of Holmes at his first court appearance hit the internet, my first reaction–and I bet lots of others thought the same thing–was that he looks like a villain in a Batman movie.  Wipe that dazed look off his face, and who wouldn’t believe that he was playing, in his mind, a sinister character in a Batman film?  I expect that his appearance was designed to give just that impression and that the timing of his onslaught at the opening of The Dark Knight Rises was very much a part of his sick plan.

I’ve never been a believer that media and art cause (by themselves, at least) violent urges.  But I think they do shape how those urges play out.  Naturally, the social and cultural environment influence the manner in which the violence takes place.  Gunning down innocents by a crazed madman in a theater seems, to me, culturally consistent.  We are appalled at the act, yet if the same scene took place on the screen instead of in the seats, we would simply call it entertainment.  And the more atrocious, the more tickets would be sold.

I doubt I will see the new Dark Knight.  The last one was disgusting enough.  I do not have a problem when filmmakers undertake a study of dark subject matter, including examining characters with violent mental illness.  The world has a lot of darkness and film, as well as other arts, can cast light into that darkness, or at least help us see it and know it.  Many stories, from the serious to the whimsical, center on a battle between good and evil.  Nothing new here.  But what Dark Knight did was revel in darkness.  It celebrated it.  That Batman is a hero set out to fight against evil is of little consequence against this backdrop.

The Dark Knight was well-crafted in every detail, including the masterful and disturbing performance of Heath Ledger.  But to what end?  Ultimately, people (especially testosterone-charged young men) flock to movies like this not for an escape to another world where good conquers evil, but to revel in that evil.  Most American boys are spending the better part of their free time immersed in the darkness and violence of video games.  They go to movies that stimulate those same pleasure centers.  The Aurora tragedy was sickening, but who can really find it surprising?

The most disturbing part of the Dark Knight franchise (and the countless similar movies that pursue the same ends, just less artfully) is not that the films induce violent urges, though perhaps they may.  Instead, what we should all fear is that they cause so much pleasure.

The night is dark, indeed.

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Some people are boycotting the food chain Chick-fil-A in its attempt to come to Boston because Chick-fil-A has given money to organizations opposing gay marriage and its ownership has publicly affirmed its support for “the biblical definition of the family unit.”

In a story about Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s position on this topic, the Boston Herald reports: “‘Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion,’ Menino told the Herald yesterday.”

I must be missing something, since it sure looks to me as if Mayor Menino is contradicting himself in those comments. Boston is “an open city,” “at the forefront of inclusion,” and will not tolerate discrimination—and yet at the same time will not be open to, include, or tolerate Chick-fil-A? 

Completely aside from the issue of gay marriage itself, is it not self-contradictory to claim, on the one hand, that one is inclusive and nondiscriminatory, and yet, on the other hand, that one is excluding organizations with views different from one’s own? It would seem that Chick-fil-A is attempting to exercise exactly the same freedom to associate (or dissociate) that Mayor Menino is claiming on his own behalf: Both of them wish not to associate with people with whom they disagree. The only difference is that Chick-fil-A is not claiming to be open, inclusive, and tolerant, while Mayor Menino—seemingly inconsistently—is. 

Or am I missing something?


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French philosopher Benjamin Constant on liberty in his enlightening “On The Liberty of the Ancients Compared to That of the Moderns” (1819):

First ask yourselves, Gentlemen, what an Englishman, a French-man, and a citizen of the United States of America understand today by the word ‘liberty’.  For each of them it is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals.  It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings.  It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.

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