Discussions on politics, foreign affairs, religion, and the state of American culture...oh, heck with it. It's an electronic soapbox where I get to spout off about all the idiocy that manifests itself in this day and age.
WHO IS THIS GUY?
Benjamin Kepple is a journalist in New Hampshire. He is a former reporter/writer for Investor's Business Daily,
Heterodoxy, and FrontPage Magazine. He has also been published in the Daily News of Los Angeles,
the Ottawa Citizen, AlbertaViews, and other publications. He was also a contributing editor for the 2nd edition of "Choosing the Right College," published by ISI Books.
Throughout his reporting career, Kepple has thrown questions at everyone from former presidential candidates and
major Washington lobbyists to ex-leftist militants and defenders of domestic terror groups. First as a magazine writer
and then as a hard-news reporter, Kepple has written on education, economics, cultural affairs, and politics --
as well as car accidents, police shootings, and school board meetings.
As a student at the University of Michigan, Kepple was prominently mentioned in a 1998 Detroit Free Press
article on race relations at the school's Ann Arbor campus. Also that year, Kepple briefly appeared as a student
panelist on "NewsHour" with Jim Lehrer. In 1999, he was a guest on The Mike Rosen Show (KOA, 850-AM, Denver)
regarding Boston College's Mary Daly controversy.
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Patior ut potiar
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Disturbing New Year's Thought You know, I was just thinking. Forget all this talk about the Raelian cult and its attempts at cloning. I'm wondering whether Dick Clark wasn't the first clone ever produced. Look at him, for God's sake, he's the same as he was back when he was hosting "American Bandstand!"
"There is Nothing to Eat." TIME reports that the position of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il may not be all that secure after all. Constant food shortages are causing problems, and rumors of potential coup d'etats are rife. The propaganda apparatus is no match for smuggled Western movies, mobile phones, and angry citizens. Meanwhile, the provinces suffer while the privileged have a not-so-bad existence in Pyongyang.
It is a sad story, but an encouraging sign as we're about to begin this New Year.
UPDATE: An unscientific TIME poll of 6500 on-line readers shows 75% think the North is bluffing.
The Sunshine Policy and a Gloomy Situation I was greatly pleased to see in my comments section that Micah Holmquist, a fellow whose name I knew back in Ann Arbor many years ago, has named my blog one of his favourites to read during the past year. Mr Holmquist's outlook on life is pretty much diametrically opposed to my own, so I especially value his acclaim. Of course, all acclaim is nice -- don't get me wrong! -- but when your ideological foes say you're not so bad, it's especially noteworthy.
However, after reading Mr Holmquist's blog for a while, I must say I found some of his thoughts on the North Korean situation troubling. So I shall close out the year with a measured response to them.
Mr Holmquist writes:
As regular readers of this blog know, just building nuclear weapons is not in and of itself an aggressive act and yet popular debate in the U.S. with regards to countries like Iraq and North Korea usually ignores history and assumes that any country that develops nuclear weapons which the U.S. does not like is going to use them immediately against the U.S. and/or its allies. “North Korea says it has nuclear weapons,” I wrote in October as the set-up to joke about this point. “If history has taught us anything, North Korea will now begin attacking the U.S. of A. with their nukes just like every other country that has ever come to posses nuclear weapons has done.”)
One cannot point to Iraq and North Korea as countries which are similar to the established nuclear powers. The Big Five -- the U.S., the then-U.S.S.R., China, Britain and France -- primarily built their arsenals as a deterrent against the agression of each other. The Soviet Union was not going to do anything with its nuclear arsenal because they knew it would result in their destruction as well as the destruction of the nation it was attacking. For Britain and France, their arsenal served as protection from Soviet aggression in addition to the American nuclear umbrella.
On the other hand, Iraq has shown a willingness to use weapons of mass destruction in an era when those weapons are universally condemned. Saddam Hussein has used chemical agents against both Iran and Iraq's Kurdish minority with an almost inhuman ruthlessness. There is nothing to suggest he would not use atomic weapons if he had them. Further, if he is able to secure a nuclear weapon, there will be nothing to stop him from using it against a strategic (i.e., civilian) target. That alone makes disarming him not merely a moral imperative, but a practical military necessity -- to say nothing of the geopolitical reasons for forcing Iraq to disarm. How we do it, and whether we go to war to do it, is a matter for debate; but let's not kid ourselves about the danger of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction.
North Korea, though, is a cipher. No civilian can say with authority what goes through the leadership's heads -- except, perhaps, North Korean defectors -- but we do know that the country has been in a bad way since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. We also know that North Korea has a history of sabre-rattling to get what it wants. If Pyongyang is able to construct nuclear weapons -- which I consider an unlikely scenario, but still possible -- there is no reason why it will not use them to get more of what it wants.
In both cases, the nations involved are using weapons of mass destruction as cards in a grand geopolitical game. It would be unwise to let them continue to do so.
-After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I was amazed at the number of Americans who were shocked at what had happened. It seemed to me, and still does seem to me, that any country that wages war as frequently as the U.S. does is going to be attacked is going to be attacked sooner or later by those seeking revenge. You may believe that such people are purely evil and that there is no justness in their cause but it is ludicrous to deny that they would feel that way and that some would act on their beliefs. Similarly, IMHO, naivety doesn’t even begin to describe the people who didn’t think that there was at least a possibility that North Korea would respond to being called “evil” by a President who is waging a war against “evil” by not bowing over but rather getting tough.
Well, maybe they were shocked because nothing like this had ever happened before, and because it was beyond the pale of any civilized mentality. Just a thought. Although perhaps Mr Holmquist can explain how exactly the U.S. wages war on a frequent basis. This is an assertion I don't understand.
From 1975 until the attacks on Sept. 11, the United States engaged in one major -- note that word, major -- military conflict: the Gulf War. But that was in response to a sovereign nation being crushed by its much larger and angrier neighbor. True, there were many smaller conflicts along the way, such as in Grenada, or if you want to stretch things, Nicaragua. Although strangely, people in Grenada and Nicaragua were (overall, at any rate) happy when the repressive tyrannies of Maurice Bishop and the Sandinistas were respectively forced out of the door. In Somalia, the people who fought off troops delivering humanitarian aidnow wish we would return. We even tried to uphold the rule of law in Haiti, and re-installed Aristide after the generals threw him out back in 1994. That was -- I guess -- the right thing to do.
I just don't see how a pattern liberating unfree nations from their oppressive overlords -- or, conversly, protecting semi-free nations from their even worse neighbors -- turns the United States into some sort of ruthless hegemon. Believe me, if we wanted to be a ruthless hegemon, we would have done things a lot differently over the years.
As for the terrorists -- yes, they are purely evil, and yes, they should be destroyed. With extreme prejudice. And North Korea's recent yammering is not because they were deemed part of the Axis of Evil -- they raised some criticism of that when Our President made his speech, and it was much milder. They're yammering because Our President cut off their relief shipments of heavy oil.
-War is in nobody’s interest, with the possible exception of the Bush Administration. The North Korean government would surely be defeated, many people from at least three countries –the North Korea, South Korea and the U.S.- would lose their lives and the damage done could be beyond tragic. The Bush Administration *might* be able to come out of a war looking strong but I wouldn’t bet on it and the costs involved aren’t worth that outcome to any decent person.
-If North Korea were to use weapons of mass destruction against South Korea -- and of course I don’t want that to happen -- many in the world, including South Koreans, are likely to blame the U.S. and say that the U.S. wants to wage war without end and that the real victims are the people of other countries, including those with governments that support the U.S. in the “war on terror.” The U.S. would likely be seen as no longer able to offer protection and people throughout the world might begin to demand that their governments ease, if not end, military alliances with the U.S. This could possibly increase the popularity of al Qaeda in Muslim countries due to the group being seen as one of the main forces willing to stand up to the U.S. None or some of this might not be fair but I wouldn’t be shocked to see any of it happen.
Well, actually, no; the South Koreans would probably blame the North Koreans -- you know, the people with their fingers on the trigger. Of course, the North does not need to use any nuclear capability to cause a significant amount of damage in the South. Remember where Seoul is in relation to the DMZ. The North's conventional arsenal, strung along that line, could inflict massive damage upon Seoul in mere minutes. Rest assured it would be almost as bad as detonating a crude nuclear weapon.
The key to such questions, though, is: what response would North Korea would expect to have from any action it takes? As the infamous 1976 DMZ tree-cutting incident has shown, North Korea will back down if the South and the United States make it clear that their response would be swift and painful. That's why it's important to show a bit of backbone -- so the DPRK will not use any nuclear capacity it might have.
There is something in the human spirit that doesn’t like the idea of negotiating with those you believe are evil. The U.S. government is certainly saying it won’t negotiate with such people. “We will not give in to blackmail,” said State Department Deputy Spokesman Philip T. Reeker on Monday. “The international community will not enter into dialogue in response to threats or broken commitments, and we're not going to bargain or offer inducements for North Korea to live up to the treaties and agreements that it has signed.” That’s all well and good in theory but more than a bit hypocritical coming from a government that deal with a government that regularly violates international treaties and agreements it is party to and cooperates with more than one brutal government in the “war on terror.” But most importantly, it denies reality. Are we to really believe that being able to say you did “not give in to blackmail” is more important than being attack (sic) with nuclear weapons and at least thousands of Americans dieing (sic)? In the near future lots of governments and groups that do not like the U.S. are going to have nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. At some point, in order to survive, the U.S. is going to have to accept this. ...
While there are probably some who love brutal dictatorships run by incompetent megalomaniacs, I think people of all other political stripes can agree that the government of Kim Jong Il needs to be overthrown.
Oh, we'll negotiate with them -- it's just that it's difficult to enter into negotiations with parties that don't keep their word. In the modern era, North Korea is a nation particularly bad at doing that. But the real crux of what Mr Holmquist is saying is that we should act like Chamberlain in Munich: if we give them what they want, they'll go away and leave us alone.
History has shown us that appeasement does not work. They will never leave us alone, and they will not stop. The only way to deal with such rogue states is to make it clear that they will not get what they want unless they hold to civilized norms of behaviour; and that failing to hold to those norms will result in punishment they will not soon forget. It is imperative that the West makes this clear to those Governments. Whether that is done with diplomats (the calls to negotiate) or "Daisy Cutters" is a question for another time and place. But giving in is no answer.
As for agreeing that North Korea's Government needs to be overthrown, I do share Mr Holmquist's thoughts that people of all political stripes wish for that Government to be removed from power. I would very much be interested in his ideas as to how we accomplish that.
"In the Event of War, I'm a Hostage."*
I can now point to evidence that I would not make a very good soldier.
This evening, I fired up the computer and began playing "Iron Storm," an enjoyable game I recently bought that smacks players into the First World War. It being a computer game, though, the designers of the program took some liberties with history. In this version of events, the Great War lasted a bit longer. Fifty years longer. As such, players get to experience all the thrills of World War I combat -- trench warfare, artillery shells, poison gas, and inept generals -- while they also use technology of a more recent vintage. Things like flamethrowers, automatic rifles, and, oh yeah, more artillery. About the only thing missing are the overgrown carnivorous rats, which would have proven a realistic touch.
Anyway, the game is a "first-person" shooter, which means YOU see the action as it happens around you, YOU fire the weapons, YOU get nauseous from the constant moving and jerking about. So, after I received my orders from the game's commanding officer, I left the safety of the third line and went forth to fight for decency and goodness.
I was promptly killed by a sniper, just two minutes out of the gate.
Grumbling, I tried again, this time remembering to duck. I lasted about two-and-a-half minutes this time around.
I tried again. Same result.
Finally, about twelve tries and 30 minutes later, I wised up. This time, the first thing I did after going into no-man's-land was hit the deck and crawl around the ruins where I had previously met my demise at the hands of the Boche. I stayed down, crawling over the muddy earth, until I reached my objective. Then I let those bastards have it, wasting an entire clip of ammunition in the process. Ah! Sweet success!
Then I got shot in the head.
Now, when I started out, I set the game to the "easy" level of difficulty. It did not matter. Instead, the game turned into a farce. I fumbled with the weapons. I couldn't hit anything, to save my life or otherwise. I couldn't keep up with my teammates. I was killed within seconds, if not minutes, of my arrival on the battlefield. In fact, I was so pathetic at the game I was half-expecting to learn my character had not died at the hands of the enemy, but rather had succumbed to dysentery or a bad can of tinned meat.
In short, it was exactly how things would have gone in real life.
It was an experience that, for me, helped reinforce how very difficult it is for our men and women in uniform during war time. Whether they're serving on the front lines in Afghanistan or stationed here at home, they're asked to do a lot of dangerous and unpleasant things -- things they may very well not survive to tell their kids about. So I would give a tip of my hat to our soliders for their bravery and courage in protecting us from our enemies, and I hope they're all able to come home soon.
Still, if an old-fashioned war should ever break out, I would ask that our Government assign me to something I could actually do well, such as being a battalion accountant, or operating a telex machine. I think it would work out better that way for all concerned.
That Hideous Strength The Raelian cult, which thinks that cloning is the key to eternal life, claims it has produced the first cloned human. The supposed clone, a baby girl, was reportedly born on 26 December, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. However, the ABC informs us that there has been no independent confirmation that the girl is, in fact, a clone. I also haven't seen any news reports on the question of whether this girl, as the New York Times has previously reported, is a clone of a dead ten-month old baby "reincarnated."
Personally, I don't buy it, not least because the people behind the idea are a bit ... well ... weird. The Raelians, as one can find out from visiting their Web site, don't appear to be the brightest bulbs in the lamp store. Leaving aside the UFO silliness to which they adhere, we can see that they subscribe to a variety of what I consider anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish beliefs. They also seem to think the United Nations is important, that the Christian dating system is religious-based oppression, and that the French Government is particularly nefarious. They're not too pleased with the idea of Sharia law either, but hey -- even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
Also, consider that WorldNetDaily describes Rael, nee Claude Vorilhon, as a "former French motoring journalist and racing car driver, who renamed himself Rael after supposedly being visited in 1973 by a member of the Elohim. He described his visitor as being about three feet tall with long black hair, almond-shaped eyes, olive skin and exuding 'harmony and humor.' "
Well, that's what it said. Don't look at me like that, I don't understand it either.
Anyway, the above may cause some to wonder why such a silly group is involved with human cloning. The reason is simple: Mr Vorilhon thinks cloning will lead to eternal life. No, really. Consider these telling quotes taken from the Web site of CLONAID(TM), the Raelian-backed firm conducting the cloning research:
"Once we can clone exact replicas of ourselves, the next step will be to transfer our memory and personality into our newly cloned brains, which will allow us to truly live forever. Since we will be able to remember all our past, we will be able to accumulate knowledge ad infinitum ... And as Raël says, don't be mistaken in thinking that this is 22nd-century science fiction. All this will happen within the next 20 years! This is a book written to prepare us for an unimaginably beautiful world, turned into a paradise, where no one needs work anymore!"
Say! This sounds familiar! Oh, yeah, Frank Herbert wrote about it in Dune. Of course, to my reading of that fantastic series of novels, Herbert had a more reasonable conclusion about cloning. This was that evil and blasphemous people would use the technology to further their own twisted and horrible schemes, or at the very least make a nice profit on the whole shebang. Unfortunate people (see Exhibit A, Duncan Idaho) were cloned again and again (and again), to be used as pawns in other people's twisted and horrible schemes. So much for the unimaginably beautiful world.
But wait! There's more from CLONAID(TM)!
Thus today, man's ultimate dream of eternal life, which past religions only promised after death in mythical paradise, becomes a scientific reality. Raël, with exceptional vision, allows us an extraordinary glimpse into an amazing future and explains how our nascent technology will revolutionize our world and transform our lives. For example, he describes how nanotechnology will make agriculture and heavy industry redundant, how super-artificial intelligence will quickly perform human intelligence, how eternal life in a computer will be possible whitout (sic) the need for any biological body, and much, much more.
You don't have to turn to Dune to find examples of how bad an idea this is -- you can see them in much, much earlier work. Specifically, you can see it in C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength, which was written in the Forties. To give you the gist, here's an excerpt:
"But it is very easy," said Filostrato. "We have found how to make a dead man live. He was a wise man even in his natural life. He lives now forever; he gets wiser. Later, we make them live better -- for at present, one must concede, this second life is probably not very agreeable to him who has it. You see? Later we make it pleasant for some -- perhaps not so pleasant for others. For we can make the dead live whether they wish it or not. He who shall be finally king of the universe can give this life to whom he pleases. They cannot refuse the little present."
"And so," said Straik, "the lessons you learned at your mother's knee return. God will have power to give eternal reward and eternal punishment."
"God?" said Mark. "How does He come into it? I don't believe in God."
"But, my friend," said Filostrato, "does it follow that because there was no God in the past mean that there will be no God also in the future?"
"Don't you see," said Straik, "that we are offering you the unspeakable glory of being present at the creation of the Almighty? Here, in this house, you shall meet the first sketch of the real God. It is a man -- or a being made by man -- who will finally ascend the throne of the universe. And rule forever."
"You will come with us?" said Filostrato. "He has sent for you!"
"Of course he will come," said Straik. "Does he think he could hold back and live?"
"And that little affair of the wife," added Filostrato. "You will not mention a triviality like that. You will do are you are told. One does not argue with the Head."
There are lines that mankind ought not cross; things that we should not do; yet in our pride and hubris we try to do them anyway. We tried to create the New Man in 1917, and those experiments left 100 million corpses in their wake as the years wore on. We can try it again with cloning, and open up a Pandora's Box of atrocities along with it. Or, we could nip this ethical nightmare, this eugenics-driven monstrosity, in the bud -- with a global ban on the practice. The second option seems far wiser -- for what would happen if we could really do it, eh?
"There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through Him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.
The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world knew Him not. He came to His own home, and His own people received Him not. But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. John bore witness to Him, and cried: 'This was He of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.'' And from His fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known."
Land of the Morning Hysterics You know things are getting serious when the Korean Central News Agency, the North's on-line propaganda arm, actually starts becoming interesting to read. No longer are its readers subjected only to riveting accounts of Kim Jong-il's visits to agricultural stations and military barracks; no longer do they weep at horribly-translated stories about Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun getting a fruit basket from college students in Kampala. Instead, they're starting to sound a bit angry.
The Guardian has given some coverage to this, although it incredibly takes the hysterics coming out of North Korea's media mouthpieces at face value:
The North Korean media has given Bush administration hardliners all the material they may want. The communist party's newspaper, the Workers' Daily, declared that "the army and people of the DPRK are fully ready to mercilessly strike the bulwark of US imperialist aggressors" - implying that they could hit targets in the US.
Some folks may wonder where the mass media gets all these reports about North Korea's thinking. They're definitely not in Pyongyang, which is not only hideously expensive for foreigners but nearly impossible to report from. Instead, the Internet makes it easy for journalists to simply go to the Korean Central News Agency and read up on the latest dispatches.
Hear That? That's the Pendulum Swinging Back A sexual-education teacher has written an standout essay on sex and the culture which appears in today's Washington Post. It starts with one eyebrow-raising news item: that a recent sexually-oriented advertisement for a popular children's doll has crossed the line, and has infuriated parents and teachers who have seen it. The writer, Deborah Roffman, then proceeds to lay out a damning case that Things Have Now Gone Too Far in terms of our culture's coarseness towards sexuality. She then tells parents to shape up:
Of all the lines that have been blurred in our culture over the past 10 years or so, none is more dangerous (and sad) than this one. And it would be equally dangerous to chalk up this concern, as some do, to prudery or "the generation gap" or encroaching conservatism. What's going on here is nothing less than the violation of our children's most fundamental rights and needs.
A sense of clear limits is not just "nice" for children and teens, it's almost as important to them as oxygen. Limits and boundaries -- those brackets we put around our children's lives to keep them safe and healthy -- do for them what they are not yet able to do for themselves. A culture that screams "There are no limits!" at every turn puts children in great peril.
As this opinion comes not from a think-tank, religious body, or a politician, but rather someone on the front lines of dealing with children, I think that makes it noteworthy all in itself. Here we have an intelligent yet seemingly typical American making the point that, just maybe, a sex-drenched culture isn't a great thing; and this same such person is helping to lead the charge against it. I won't go so far as to say this is evidence of a backlash at-large, but I do think that the pendulum may be swinging back a wee bit.
But Wait! There's More, Says Kepple
The really nice thing about Roffman's essay is that it strikes at the heart of the matter: parents, and not anybody else, are to blame for this whole mess. That's not to say that I agree with it in its entirety: I don't think she would turn the clock far back enough. But she makes an excellent point that:
If we're uncomfortable, we need to get over it. If we don't know what to say, or how and when to say it, we need to figure it out. If we're feeling overwhelmed in the face of an all-powerful popular and youth culture, we need to reach out and work with other parents to reassert our rightful authority and responsibility for our children's well-being. And we'll need to begin at younger ages than we ever may have dreamed.
"Reassert our rightful authority."
Boy! What a shame that we've come to a point where parents must do that -- because they've abdicated their authority through neglect or cluelessness, as Roffman rightly points out. But when you think about it, it makes you wonder: what the hell happpened? How did it get to that point -- where children, who should have little to no say in how things operate in this day and age, got to the point where they did get some say?
Oh No! It's Yet Another Installment of ...
CINEMA WITH BEN
Today's Films: Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; Die Another Day; Take the Money and Run
SOLON, Ohio -- Boy! It's amazing what a few days can do for a man's soul -- not to mention a man's movie-watching habits. I've spent a full seven hours over the last five days watching some wonderful films, and ...
What? What now?!
READER: Well, I couldn't help but notice the title of the entry. Isn't it normally "Bad Cinema With Ben?"
Well, yeah, but these were good films. I can't exactly call it "Bad Cinema With Ben" when none of the films were bad. I mean, they were actually good. Consider: not once did I shout obscenities at the screen because a stupid plot point or bad acting drove me into an insensible rage. Not once did I grow nauseous because some hideous dialogue made me want to vomit. Finally, not once did I complain about the ridiculously high price or pitiful quality of concession-stand snacks, even though a poorer man would have had to sell his own blood plasma to pay for that transaction. Six dollar popcorn my eye.
READER: SIX dollars for popcorn?
You think I liked it?
READER: Well, yeah. You didn't have to pay for it. Jesse did, and ...
OK! Moving on. Anyway, today we have three films in the dock: The Two Towers; Die Another Day; Take the Money and Run. We'll start off with The Two Towers.
I have to say I was really thrilled with how the second installment turned out. As those who've read Tolkein's masterwork know, The Two Towers is the toughest of the three books to get through (not that any of them are tough, but you know what I'm saying). So I was expecting that the second movie wouldn't compare to the other two installments. But the battle scenes were absolutely spectacular, the plot was moved along at a quick pace, and things were resolved even as a cliffhanger ending was set up. The best part about that cliffhanger was that it made people who hadn't read the books interested in how The Return of the King would start out, and it made those who had read them practically giddy with anticipation.
I remain impressed with how well the series sticks to the books, despite the seeming impossibility of doing so; and I'm really impressed how the movie seems to add to the books instead of taking away from them. It did a great job with the character of Gollum, for instance, when the temptation to turn him into an evil Jar-Jar Binks must have been rampant. It did a great job with lesser characters like Faramir and Eowyn and Wormtongue and all the rest. So God bless director Peter Jackson for keeping true to Tolkein's vision, and God speed the third installment along to theatres, preferably with an earlier release date than we've been told.
BEST THING ABOUT THE TWO TOWERS: Battle. Helm's Deep. Enough said.
WORST THING ABOUT THE TWO TOWERS: Not applicable.
UNEXPECTED UPSIDE: Strong doses of moral clarity, ideologically acceptable messages, and so on, that really come through. It's tough for a movie to pull that off and pull it off well.
UNEXPECTED DOWNSIDE: Again, not applicable.
Anyway, let's move on. Our next film is Die Another Day, the latest film in the James Bond series.
It's a good Bond film. It's certainly the best one Pierce Brosnan's ever done, and it's very timely -- I approve of any film which has North Korea as the enemy. But it was nice to see the trademark Bond-style dialogue done very well, and nice to see that things actually fit plot-wise.
That's not to say that things were perfect. There were a few howlers in the movie, such as when the Evil Tycoon demonstrated his sunlight-concentration ray in front of admiring onlookers, and yet no one in the entire world seemed to notice that something a bit odd was afoot. It was a classic sad case of inadequate belief-suspension. Had such a thing happened in real life, the environmentalists would have crucified the Evil Tycoon eons before Bond could have taken his revenge. As it was, the world's governments stood idle, only to find themselves running around helpless when the thing turns out to be a KILLER LASER. In SPACE.
Yes, that's right, the plot was recycled from Diamonds Are Forever, except in Diamonds they had a much better story line.
Still, there were enough surprises to keep things interesting, there was a lot of enjoyable banter, and things blew up en masse. Also, North Korea was the enemy. It's nice to see an Axis of Evil country begin to receive the notoriety it deserves.
BEST THING ABOUT DIE ANOTHER DAY: Halle Berry!
WORST THING ABOUT DIE ANOTHER DAY: That Madonna Theme Song. Hoooo boy, now that was a mistake. Talk about the absolute worst Bond theme ever. And what the hell do the lyrics mean, eh?
UNEXPECTED UPSIDE:That cute English girl who played the all-business-type double agent. Weirdly, though, she's three years younger than I am.
UNEXPECTED DOWNSIDE: I forgot how unGodly miscast Judi Dench is as "M."
I saw this tonight after I opened my Christmas presents here at home, and I have to say I found it a funny and kind of heart-warming movie. In short, Mr Allen plays Virgil Starkwell, a hopelessly uncapable criminal who tries to rob banks. He fails, and the results are hilarious. However, the catch to the whole movie is that it it's a faux-documentary, in which Starkwell's sordid life story is examined in detail. It's great, and a devil of a lot funnier than most comedies out there now.
Still, one thing that struck me about Take the Money and Run was its co-star, Janet Margolin. You see, one of the key parts to the movie is that Virgil meets this beautiful girl, they fall in love, she runs off with him, and so on. That said, it wasn't surprising that she was a fox -- I mean, really foxy -- but what did surprise me was that she seemed, I don't know, normal.
Maybe times have changed, but modern films don't seem to have many female leads like that. They're all abnormally thin and toned and under-dressed and give the impression they were manufactured in Van Nuys for the American People's Viewing Consumption. In this case, though, Ms Margolin had ... well ... hips, for one thing, but overall just a girl-next-door look. It was really kind of nice, and I thought it worth a mention -- another good thing about a very good movie. So if you're in the video store looking for a light-hearted film some night, consider this one. It'll be worth the price.
BEST THING ABOUT TAKE THE MONEY: The bank robbery scenes.
WORST THING ABOUT TAKE THE MONEY: It was a little too short, at 85 minutes, but that's about all that's negative about it.
UNEXPECTED UPSIDE: Janet Margolin.
UNEXPECTED DOWNSIDE: Didn't really see one here.
Well, that's it for my marathon film review. See you next time, when I'll be back on New Hampshire Time.
Back Home, at Long Last SOLON, Ohio-- Hello, blogosphere! How we doin' tonight? Anyone there from Cleveland? Oooh, we've got a few in the back there.
Question for you all. In the few years that I've been returning to the Greater Cleveland Area for regular visits with my family, I've always heard that Things Were Better. I've always been told that there was a Civic Renaissance of sorts underway, in which the city fathers had washed away the grime, made the necessary repairs, and cleaned things up. No longer did the Cuyahoga River ignite at random times; no longer did foulness permeate the atmosphere.
So why, as I entered the city last evening, was I hit with a blast of air so foul and putrid I nearly died? You know bloody well where I'm talking about too; off I-77, near East 9th Street. Gad. That's a winning ticket. I mean, there's nothing like the stench of rotting flesh to welcome visitors to downtown, especially when the source is right near Jacobs Field.
Actually, I'm being a bit too hard on My Home Town (Which is Not Really My Home Town, But it Suffices). I went into Cleveland tonight with my brother and my folks; saw a comedy show at a place called Pickwick and Frolic down on East 4th Street. I'm glad I didn't know the name before I went, because I would have thrown a fit. It's an incredibly stupid name for a nice restaurant; it reminds one of the dreadful English trend to rename their pubs with nonsense names, like "The Slug and Lettuce."
It's not something I can imagine would go over well in Manchester, my new home town, either.
ME:"Say, Ken! Want to go to Pickwick and Frolic's?"
KEN: "Oh, sure, candyass! Why don't we go down to The Dainty Pansy Doily while we're at it?"
ME: "Hey, wait a ..."
KEN: "Stupid Hollywood jerk. Go back to L.A.!"
But it was a nice place, it was a good show, and it was a really fun time.
That string of words "nice place -- good show -- fun time" pretty much summarizes my trip to the Greater Cleveland Area so far. It's been good to come back. It even feels rather odd, in a way. I suppose that's because things here are so different from my life in Manchester.
Here, at home, everything is peaceful, almost serene. The outside world has been thrown back, seemingly only entering this place when one wants it to enter. Things are always well-kept and orderly, and everything is bright and cheery. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I could see myself living out the rest of my days here, if I was much older and it was time for me to retire. I could enjoy the summer nights and the fall afternoons out in the yard, or watch a movie on a cold winter's day, or go for a good long walk around the neighborhood in the spring. I could go into the city when I wanted or needed, but I'd always have a refuge away from that congestion and crime.
That's not something I have in Manchester, at least not yet.
But that's not to criticize Manchester. I've actually started to grow fond of it over the past couple of years. It's a good place to live, with low taxes and low crime, and it's not all that congested -- at least not now.
Still, it's a hard place, in a hard part of the country. People there know what it's like when things all go to hell; because things did go to hell a few times over the years. Most recently in the early Nineties, when the economy collapsed. Criminy, the banks collapsed. (I wish I knew the whole story there, what the devil all that was about. I mean, this wasn't the Thirties).
The point, though, is that it's not a laid-back place: not like Los Angeles, not like Kalamazoo or Ann Arbor, Mich., not like Solon, Ohio. I suppose I'm still making the mental adjustment from the softer regions where I've lived to the tougher place I live now. While I continue to get used to it, it is nice to have a refuge to which I can come home.
Home, however, is one thing. The city in which that home exists is another thing entirely. We'll have more on that later, really, I promise. We'll also have pithy commentary about airport security, a rather odd health-care experience (nothing bad), and Good Cinema. See you tomorrow!
Clued In on Taxes OK, one quick post before I go catch my flight this morning.
There's been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over a Washington Post story which shows that Treasury Department officials are planning to recalculate figures showing what the poor and middle-class pay in income taxes. The agency's concern, the Post tells us, is that the poor and the middle-class are not paying a whole lot in income taxes, while the rich end up paying the vast majority of the nation's obligations. So they're going to tweak the numbers a bit to make that clear to the American People who haven't yet realized it. (How they do that tweaking is another economic policy argument entirely, but my flight leaves in four hours, people).
I'm not going to comment much on this, although I think it's interesting that the Government is taking a public stance on something everyone's known for decades. But I also find it interesting that there's such an outcry about the whole idea that tax policies may soon ensnare the poor and middle-class.
You remember the movie "Clue," right?
Remember that scene where the FBI agent poses as a evangelical preacher and walks into the foyer of the mansion, asking something to the effect of, "Don't you see Armageddon is at hand?" And the response given to him is, "I've got news for you, it's already here."
It's already here, everybody. It's been here for 32 years. Further, in 2010, it's going to really put a crimp in the wallets of about one-third of America's families. As time goes on, that number will grow.
I speak, of course, of the dreaded Alternative Minimum Tax. According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, this particularly ruthless levy was created in 1969 so that all of 155 Americans would actually pay taxes on their income, instead of being able to use the tax code's complexity in their favour. It's a pretty high rate too -- 26 percent for all income below $175,000; and 28 percent above it.
Sounds great, right? Soak those rich bastards who don't pay any taxes, right?
Did I mention that, according to a 1998 Investor's Business Daily story, "about 46 percent of those who will be subjected to the AMT [this year] will have incomes between $50,000 and $100,000 -- with people who own their own businesses, live in a high-tax state or have lots of incentive stock options particularly vulnerable?"
You see, the general deal with the AMT is that it's a different formula entirely for calculating taxes. If you've some income that's not old-fashioned income, or you earn a lot but you have a whole lot of deductions and such, the AMT takes away deductions and credits and all those fun middle-class tax cuts you previously enjoyed. Further, since only people who have a background in finance generally know about this thing, it can really be a nasty surprise. Don't think it wasn't for all those poor bastards in the high-tech field, who really got ruined when the IRS came calling about their now-worthless stock options. (Kep's Advice for the Day: Always, always, always sell enough of your options to pay for the taxes on them).
So while I can see the concern about having non-wealthy folks getting soaked with taxes ... it's something that should have been brought up rather a long time ago.
(Say! Look at this! Paul Martin, former Canadian Finance Minister and Liberal Party leadership candidate, has his own blog. In its first -- and thus far only -- entry, Mr Martin describes his views on the Kyoto Protocol with the same type of tough talk we've come to expect from him: "One thing’s for sure. Kyoto will be an ongoing challenge for all Canadians. As such, it will take a continued effort on the part of us all." Yep! It's a good thing to know that we can expect that kind of strong leadership when Mr Martin takes over the reins of the Party.
But what isn't known is that your humble correspondent has managed to get a hold of some secret, thus-far unpublished entries from Mr Martin's blog. They're either from prior to its Dec. 4 launch date, some deleted posts that his handlers caught, or those scheduled for future publication. As a public service to Liberal Party members, we present them as follows:)
Dec. 1, 2002 Good day, and welcome to Paul's blog! Is this thing working????????
Dec. 1, 2002 test. Test.
Dec. 2, 2002 Good day, and welcome to Paul's blog! To make sure every member of our Canadian family is included, I've included a French version -- Les Blogues de Paul -- so that our friends in Quebec and parts of the Maritimes can feel welcome. I got the idea when I ran into Jean earlier today. He heard about it from some friends and said -- at least I think he said -- "Ya know, dat's a nice blog dere." Or, maybe he said, "Dar iss non dax reref dis ear."
Come to think of it, I don't know what in hell that moron said. In any event, it's going to be sweet when I'm Prime Minister.
Dec. 3, 2002 Good day, and welcome to Paul's blog!
Well, it's a good thing this whole moron business has finally died down, eh? I've got to tell you, we here in Ottawa were pretty nervous when Jean wouldn't accept Frannie Ducros' resignation from the get go. Many Canadians didn't know it, but we had word that the Americans were revving up their infamous Humour Battalions to strike at our precious Canadian heritage. That's why Jean finally accepted her resignation, you know. Any more jokes about our dollar not being worth a dollar -- that's not my fault, by the way -- and about the fact Jean can't speak either of our two languages, and the next thing you'd know, we'd be back where we were in '95.
Dec. 11, 2002 Good day, and welcome to Paul's blog!
I just want to say that I hope my blog becomes as popular as Margo Kingston's. Geez, she's good, eh? Well, OK, you're right. She is kinda like Jean, isn't she?
Dec. 13, 2002 Good day, and welcome to Paul's blog!
I knew Friday the 13th was bad luck. I was reading the Globe and Mail today and I find out that hoser John Manley probably wants to be Prime Minister too. The jerk. He knows it's my turn! Everyone knows it's my turn!
Don't get me started about Allan Rock, either. Minister of Industry --- oooooooooh. Look at him -- he's taking credit for my tax cut! Dammit! That was my idea! He was screwing up Medicare when I was preserving the economy! Criminy!
They even mention Sheila Copps in this article. Sheila Copps? Oh, God. Yeah, like she's going to be able to deal effectively with softwood lumber and fishing issues. I can just see that. Everything would be going fine, and then some researcher in the White House will do a Google search with her name, and that'll be the end of everything. I mean, the Yanks don't like it when you get on their bad side, and she certainly has.
Dec. 17, 2002 Good day, and welcome to Paul's blog!
Oh, God. Saskatchewan. I had to go back to Saskatchewan.
Anyway, went campaigning around Moose Jaw -- I think it was Moose Jaw -- in the Free Trade Express today. OK, actually, it's just my old Crown Vic with one of those really big placards that says "VOTE MARTIN" on top of it, but it did really well when I took it down to Windsor last week. Anyway, folks in Saskatchewan were really glad to hear my speech about how important it was to preserve the Goods and Services Tax. It's taxation we can call our own, y'know!
I think they were glad, anyway. A lot of the folks at that Harvey's I stopped at seemed to have hearing aids. Just goes to show the importance of saving Canada's prairies. Folks know that these vast open spaces and bleak wintery vistas are things only proud Canadians can properly cherish.
Dec. 19, 2002 Good day, and welcome to Paul's blog.
This is not happening. I was driving back on the Trans-Canadian Highway, right, and the Crown Vic got a flat like 60 miles west of Winnipeg. I haven't seen a car in hours and it's getting colder all the time. Fortunately, I've hooked up the laptop to my wireless phone so I can blog. Thank God. Hey, here comes a car ...
Dang it! They just drove on by, laughing at me! Hosers! When I'm Prime Minister, I'll show 'em!
Anyway, I've got to conserve power, so I'll log off for now. Hopefully the RCMP will see the flares that I've put out on the side of the road here. In the meantime, I can use these leftover Canada Day blankets in the trunk to stay warm while I'm waiting to become Canada's next Prime Minister. So that's it for now. I should be back up and posting within a few days. Take it easy, and remember -- vote Paul Martin to be the next leader of the Liberal Party. Canada's depending on it.
(this parody produced by Benjamin Kepple's Daily Rant).
Posting Advisory Good morning! Due to circumstances beyond your control, posting will be light from Tuesday, Dec. 17 through Saturday, Dec. 21, as your humble correspondent travels home during this holiday season. However, posting will continue during that time, as I update from the site from the Command Center somewhere in the suburbs of beautiful Cleveland, Ohio.
NYC Transit Union Set to Ruin Christmas/ Cheapskate MTA Bosses Tell Union "No Raise for You"
As you can tell from the above headline, I've mixed feelings on the potential work stoppage that New York City's Transit Workers Union is threatening to pull tomorrow at midnight, when its contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority expires.
Will a strike happen? I think almost certainly. That said, I think it's a damnfool bargaining tactic.
It's very dangerous for the transit union to try a stunt like this two weeks before the Christmas holidays. As a union man, I can tell you that a key part of any major industrial action is to make sure that you've got the public on your side. That's an easy thing to accomplish when workers have gone ahead with their jobs, cheerfully and pleasantly, even though their contract expired six months ago and there are plenty of examples that management's proven unreasonable.
It's even easier when the workers have taken their own time to do informational picketing -- first in neutral ways, then in semi-embarrassing ways, then in really embarrassing situations -- or other job actions that fall short of an out-right strike. I haven't heard or seen any evidence of this happening, though, and I am shocked that the TWU hasn't implemented any of the "work-to-rule" tricks it undoubtedly has up its sleeve. Those tricks include pressure tactics, such as refusing to work any overtime hours. They don't need to stop the trains to make their point ... they just need to slow them down a bit.
Yet here we are, with less than 48 hours before the contract expires, and the TWU is screaming strike. This despite the fact a judge has since issued an injunction against the union, to prevent it from striking under New York's Taylor Law. This despite the economic damage the strike will do. This despite the fact that the public has almost no reason to support strikers.
This is a losing proposition all across the board.
Now, I can see where the union's coming from. Their point is to try and force management to agree to their pay package, or at least to get management to move a bit on it. The union's now pressing for 6 percent a year; or about 20 percent over three years -- the MTA still wants a guaranteed 0 percent. Both sides are being unreasonable, of course. But that's to be expected in contract negotiations. The union always asks for too much, in the hope that it will get it. Management always demands too little, in the hopes they'll get the union to accept it.
The eventual outcome is that they meet somewhere in the middle. In this case, that's somewhere around 9 or 10 percent over three years. That's a reasonable cost-of-living adjustment. There are those who might not agree with me on this, and I know the MTA is facing a deficit projected at just under $1 billion for the 2001-2002 cycle; but fares can be increased, expenses can be cut where necessary, and Albany can kick in a few extra dollars. The money's there; it just depends how you raise it and how you spend it.
But back to the topic at hand. Where do contract negotiations stand now? Let's look at the Post's coverage:
We are making progress in important areas. That's a fact," said Gary Dellaverson, the lead negotiator for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
But a senior official for the Transport Workers Union said there was little movement in meetings at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Midtown.
"There has been no progress," said Ed Watt, the TWU's secretary-treasurer, noting that the MTA is still rejecting the union's call for a 6 percent pay hike next year. "We stand at 6. They stand at 0," Watt told reporters.
So don't hold out any hope this will get resolved before the deadline at midnight Sunday. It's almost certainly not going to happen, because neither side is going to capitulate and give into the demands of their opponents.
But I don't think a strike is the right move at all for the union. It will infuriate commuters, who are the folks they need to enlist on their side. It will cause enormous amounts of bad blood between the union and management. And with the law firmly on management's side in this case, it could bankrupt the union. That won't do workers any amount of good in the long run.
Instead, the TWU can and must take other job actions first, whether that just means sticking to the contract in all certain areas ,or taking tougher steps such as refusing to work any overtime hours. If management still won't budge on the pay issue, then they're the ones who will look bad -- and that's when you take drastic action.
Besides, retro pay is kinda nice.
UPDATE: The New York Post has a great section on the transit woes: COUNTDOWN TO CHAOS.
As one might expect, the Media is blamed for this eventuality:
The survey data suggest that people form impressions of others on the basis of one-dimensional images created and communicated by the mass media. "Our studies show that many of the people who have negative impressions of evangelicals do not know what or who an evangelical is," commented George Barna, whose firm conducted the research. "People's impressions of others are often driven by incomplete, inaccurate or out-of-context information conveyed under the guise of objectivity when, in fact, there is a point-of-view being advanced by the information source. Too often, we develop mental images of others without knowing those people."
Now this is rich. The trouble with evangelicism has nothing to do with the media, but rather with how the evangelicals operate. Beating up on the Catholics day in and day out isn't going to win them many friends. Nor, for that matter, are their warnings about fire and brimstone going to do the trick, especially when many of those street preachers look like they've just come through fire and brimstone. We could go on, but it would grow tiresome -- all they need to remember is that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
Welcome to Manchester, And Good Day ...THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE CONTINUES THE WINTER STORM WARNING THROUGH NOON TODAY... ANY TRAVEL IS STRONGLY DISCOURAGED. IF YOU LEAVE THE SAFETY OF BEING INDOORS, YOU ARE PUTTING YOUR LIFE AT RISK.
Dear God. It is snowing outside and the roads are a nightmare and there are emergency sirens going off about once a minute. It COULD be worse, though. Massachusetts is being hit by a horrible wintry mix at this very moment. Heh, heh, heh.
We'll Give 'Em Back Their Heroes! Good news in this era of war and uncertainty! Everyone's favourite post-apocalyptic enforcer -- "Mad" Max Rockatansky -- will return for a fourth Mad Max movie, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.
One word sums up this important cultural development: sweet.
Tim Blair was the first to pick up on this announcement, and he writes: The Greens keep warning us about fossil fuel shortages. Ha! The first Mad Max movie was based on the same notion, as I recall, and now Mel Gibson is about to star in a fourth Max adventure. Will he drive an electric car? A Segway, maybe?
Well, yeah, the first Mad Max movie did have that as an important plot point, something the second and third movies used in more detail. But that was because the major powers were lobbing nukes at each other because of some great international incident that spun out of control. What's really important here is that Australia -- by way of the United States -- will again have a prominent hero that will stand for Law and Order, and Truth and Justice, and Cars with V-8 Engines. Super hot cars with V-8 engines, we might add.
Anyway, it'll be good to know that we can count on Mad Max to again play the hero role in a fourth installment of the cult series. We need all the heroes we can get nowadays.
(N.B. What would really be cool is if Max went back to civilization -- which did exist in the movies, on the more civilized coasts of Australia -- to see how it had changed. But only if he kicked the ass of outlaw biker gangs and other assorted ruffians along the way).
And Now, More Lunacy Police in Port St Lucie, Fla., have arrested and filed felony charges against two nine-year-olds for allegedly possessing a total of 15 bags of marijuana between them, CNN reports. The total street value of the mild narcotic, amount pegged at 16 grams (about half-an-ounce), was estimated at a whopping $75. As if that wasn't bad enough, the network reports that "the students were suspended for 10 days and have been recommended for expulsion under the school district's zero-tolerance policy for drugs."
Hell, one of the boys can't keep his story straight about where he found the stuff -- first he found it on the ground, then someone gave it to him to sell. This is to be expected, since he's nine years old.
Now look. A reasonable punishment would be to perhaps send the kids home for a day from class and giving them a stern lecture on Why Marijuana is Rather Bad. It is not reasonable to charge the kids with felonies -- felonies, for God's sake -- and begin the expulsion process against them. Aside from the plain injustice there, wouldn't doing that help lead the kids into a life of drugs and crime?
It's an Art, Not a Science I can assure you that as a journalist, my profession requires that I eat an inordinate amount of badly-prepared, bad-tasting food. Whether it's the flavourless and unfilling dietetic sandwiches I eat some days for lunch, the inexpertly-prepared hamburgers that I choke down on others, or the unpleasant offerings served up at canteens, convenience stores, or gas stations, I can honestly say that I eat more bad food than anyone should ever have to consume.
Not that I particularly mind this, though. Sure, this constantly miserable diet leaves me with the faint urge to vomit in the afternoons, but I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for this business. Besides, it instills in a man a true appreciation for expertly-prepared and sublime-tasting cuisine. I don't seem to get good food much these days, but when I do it makes me want to sing hymns of praise to God above for His generosity. Cookery is an art, not a science, and I have always admired those who can expertly prepare food.*
*As an aside, I am not one of those people. I cook like Benjamin "Lefty Guns" Ruggiero (as portrayed in "Donnie Brasco"), where he insists that his special recipe will work just fine yet he ends up setting off the smoke detector. I'm also not all that exact when it comes to cookery. Even worse, because I'm a bachelor, I have a tendency to use whatever stuff is in the kitchen to create an evening meal, no matter whether the foods go well together. Given what I like to eat, this can really turn out a bit odd: "Hmmmm ... lamb ... a potato ... kim chi ... curry paste ... well, I can make something out of this, can't I?"
(Actually, you can. You can curry the lamb and the potato and then heat up some rice and have at it with the kim chi, provided you like kim chi, which is really an acquired taste. The trick to making it work is drinking a lot in between courses. But for the love of God -- don't cook this way if you have a spouse, or kids, or a steady significant-other, or what have you).
And Now For Something Completely Different Looking at the posts I've written or responded to over the past few days, I realize that it's time we got back to discussing other key issues around here. Namely, issues such as whether East Coast bloggers can throw a better party than their West Coast counterparts.
Now, my own personal history is so convoluted that I could arguably throw down with either of the three options presented: East Coast, West Coast, or the Midwest (which some aggrieved respondent threw in). But to me, the answer is clear: the East Coast rules. East Coast blogger parties, as I know from experience, are enlightened and reasonable events in which bunches of smart people get together and talk about the issues of the day. West Coast blogger parties, from what I am told, are chi-chi fou-fou events in which bunches of smart people people get together and talk about the technical issues surrounding their blogs.
Rubush, who has attended both, promised me he'd blog about this, but he hasn't. So it's not like I have a lot to go on here, people.
Which, now that I think about it, really isn't an Eastern state. Florida's a Southern state which makes a dubious claim to Eastern status based on its strange makeup of residents ("It's a parallel New Jersey, for God's sake -- look at it!") and its physical location (odd, since everyone in Georgia would just die if folks started calling it an Eastern state). But for purposes of this exercise we will include them.
The announcement came as a surprise to top officials at Benjamin Kepple, Inc., The Rant's parent company and chief content source. Fearing that they would soon be barred from reaching the 1.2 billion reader market, officials with the firm scrambled to preserve the open link between the two nations. Unfortunately, technical problems at The Rant's headquarters prevented a message in Chinese, but a top company official said they'd try to make do.
"Quite frankly, we're appalled at the situation in China," said Benjamin Kepple, The Rant's chief executive officer. "Appalled, that is, that the Chinese people aren't taking Jiang Zemin's Theory of the Three Represents as the groundbreaking social platform it is! And these reports of mass ecological devastation and uprooting millions of people thanks to the Three Gorges Dam project -- well, that's just propaganda no one really believes! Isn't that right, fellas? I said, isn't that right?"
"Come on, guys," Kepple hissed. "Help me here."
According to tracking information at the site, though, The Rant has failed to reach even a handful of the 1.2 billion Chinese people. Reports show that only 10 unique visitors -- or 0.07 percent of The Rant's total readership -- hail from the Middle Kingdom. This puts the nation just above Italy and below France in terms of foreign visits to the New Hampshire-based site. Furthermore, statistics show that a full 80 percent of those Chinese visitors came to The Rant by mistake, with only 2 of them ever reloading the site's main page.
However, Kepple promised that The Rant would not cause any consternation for the incoming Chinese leadership, especially the inscrutable Hu Jintao.
"We'd never discuss Falun Gong, or the laogai camps, or the Uighur separatist movement, or anything else that would cast those aging bureaucrats -- I mean, wise elder statesmen -- in a negative light. No, sirree! We're a responsible outlet here at The Rant, whether the nations readers come from are enlightened democracies which respect the rule of law, or benighted despotisms with an unfortunate tendency to combine age-old Legalist philosophy with modern-day tools of repression!"
Technology and Pornography Oliver Willis' latest essay on pornography and society is a pretty good one, I think. In short, Mr Willis addresses the undeniable popularity of Internet-based pornography and argues that popularity results in pornography becoming more acceptable in the mainstream. Further, he says, isn't it better that people are "experiencing it through screens," as opposed to actually going out and having at it?
I don't agree with all of Mr Willis' points, but he does make some good ones -- as well as some where alternative views should be offered.
(As an aside, I should note that as of about 11 pm this evening, Mr Willis' article has received a link from Glenn Reynolds. Dr Reynolds approves of Mr Willis' argument, and this has led to the expected flood of visitors to Mr Willis' site. In addition, it's led to a secondary swamping of The Rant, which I don't think has ever seen this many readers on Saturday night. Sweet.)
But let's look at Mr Willis' argument in depth.
Porn is really easy to get. All someone has to do is boot up a computer, log in, jump to your search engine of choice and pick any of several hundred descriptive words and phrases. Even on the most precise search engine, the most innocent word can bring up results of a decidedly non-prurient nature. It wasn’t always like that. Now, it’s no big deal.
Aye, there's no denying that pornography -- ranging from so-called soft porn to the most detestable forms of deviancy -- is remarkably easy for anyone to get. Mr Willis devotes about three long and well-reasoned paragraphs to this phenomenon, and they're paragraphs with which I can't really argue. Since pornography was legalised -- back in the early Seventies, I think it was -- it is only natural that we have seen it growing in availability. However, the raunch-fests available to anyone still do not have the sort of respectability their producers crave. But let's move on.
Pornography’s influence extends into the mainstream. What was once the family hour on television is now the domain of regular riffs on all manner of male and female sexual function. Friends made some waves when the premature ejaculation of a character was joked about (David Schwimmer as Ross), a few years later when another character became pregnant due to a spur of the moment sexual encounter – the only ones making noise were extreme cultural conservatives like Bill O’Reilly and Concerned Women of America. The numbers show that they are woefully out of touch. But are they right? Is this a bad thing?
It's true that what was formerly the family hour on television has become more risque as time has gone on. Still, I would offer at least one example to show that such things tend to fade when people get tired of whatever shtick is being offered. That example will be "Ellen."
"Ellen," of course, was the situation-comedy vehicle for Ellen DeGeneres, a comedienne of some note. We all remember the controversy which erupted when Ellen's character (i.e., Ellen) suddenly announced that she was homosexual. Soon afterwards, though, the show was summarily canned. Why? Because the show, which in theory was a comedy, devoted all of its attention to the fact that the main character was a lesbian. What was a novel idea became tired and old-hat, and viewers stopped watching the programme.
That other shows found the need to push the envelope -- Friends, for instance -- also suggested that Hollywood was merely looking for the latest way to draw in an audience. However, lame-o attempts at throwing in coarse sexual humor into any TV sitcom are not going to save shows that suck because of uninspired writing or bad character development. Eventually, Hollywood is going to pick up on this. The end result will not be that sex is expunged from sitcoms as a topic of discussion, of course, but I do think it will become more moderate in its scope -- if it hasn't already.
As for whether such things are bad, the existence of shows such as "The Bachelor" and the Victoria's Secret fashion show cause me to lean toward answering that question in the affirmative. There's more on that here.
The button down ‘50s begat the loose and crazy ‘60s and ‘70s which led to the AIDS frenzied ‘80s. By that progression you would have assumed that the ‘90s and the 2000s would represent a turn back to more conservative eras. After all, wild sexual abandon is as good as suicide with the specter of AIDS and other diseases hanging nearby. But what the ‘90s brought about was that great placebo man has always looked to: technology. The Internet began its growth, video cameras got cheap, and instead of going out and risking their life for sex – people enjoyed it in the privacy of their own homes.
Well, thank God for small miracles.
All kidding aside, though, I think it's a good thing that technology has pushed this type of thing back behind closed doors, at least a little. Back in the Seventies and later, in the Eighties, pornography -- real pornography -- was more out in the open because the technology did not exist for citizens to view it at home. This led to such grotesque inventions as movie theatres which only showed the stuff non-stop (which I think any sane person would admit is pretty gross). Nowadays, though, people can download all the hard stuff they want on their computers. Is that a good thing? Well, yes, in the sense that it's private, and not forced upon anyone who doesn't want to be exposed to it; no, in the sense that pornography does have deleterious effects. But since there will be no getting rid of the stuff, we may as well do our best to keep it in the private sphere.
On the other hand, the cancerous proliferation of unwanted, sexually-charged e-mail is where technology (or our law) has failed miserably. It is appalling that anyone with an e-mail address, including minors who don't know any better, is unwillingly exposed to this type of thing. It is enough to make one want to keep the kids off the computer until they attain their majority. One would think this could be fixed so that spam e-mails -- which are "commercial speech" and thus don't have the same protections as other speech -- could be banned unless computer users agreed to opt-in for them. But until this happens, the few advantages that the digitization of pornography brings are pretty much washed out.
So what you have is a 1960s style attitude towards sex with 21st century technology keeping it safe. Much like how the ethos of the ‘60s was represented in the popular culture, so to for post-modern porn. When someone can order extreme pornography from the privacy of their own home, traditional media outlets know that they must compete for the valuable mindshare of the consumer. Hence, mainstream media slips closer to pornography in both content and production.
But has it, though? There's a limit, after all, to what traditional media outlets can pursue; and there's proof that while some media are moving closer to more risque topics, it's killing traditional pornography. The circulations of both Playboy and Penthouse have dropped precipitously since their historical highs two decades ago, while in recent years we have seen the rise of tamer men's magazines. This may very well suggest that, in the popular sphere, we are seeing a popular move away from outright pornography to a kind of weaker middle ground.
Is there anything wrong with this? Like anything else, over abuse can lead to harm. For your average American, pornography and its related media is no cause for alarm. Sex is one of the most basic activities a human being can engage in, and while that activity must capitulate to modern worries about health and well being – aren’t people better off experiencing it through screens?
True, but wouldn't people be better off if they were engaging in neither practice? That's not to say there isn't a time and a place for that type of thing; but I would make the argument that it is best done solely within the construct of marriage. I know it's incredibly old-fashioned to say that, but really.
History has often been a whitewash. What is often considered “depraved” sexual activity has been practiced almost since the first day man walked the earth. Revisionists often reference an age of chastity, in which sex was relegated to a necessary but utterly dirty duty whose only purpose was procreation. The problem is that people like to do it and watch it. These practices were always there, and by incorporating them in the world it allows human beings more freedom to be – human.
Well, I don't think that Mr Willis can whitewash the Victorian Age, which even I believe went too far in its proscription of coitus among respectable people. But, that said, I've never bought into this idea that the physical act is some wonderful and consequence-free thing that brings some sort of freedom to those who wantonly engage in it. Instead, I would argue that those who are able to overcome their instincts -- not that that's easy to do -- have achieved true freedom in that sphere.
For many years, Europe was ahead of America in pursuit of friction-free sexual stimulation. But with American based innovations in pornographic technology, the “gap” is being closed. It’s foolhardy to believe that future technology such as wireless internet, ubiquitous broadband, and tactile feedback will all come into their own in the arenas of industrial and scientific work and research. These technologies will all fail if they do not have some sex-based application.
I think that might be over-reaching a wee bit -- but I will only say that I'm not the type of person who thinks all that much of anything that's been "available in Europe for years!"
Porn is at America’s fingertips, and will soon become more ubiquitous. What is now outrageous will be commonplace in very little time. Hollywood and the tech industry do not have much of an agenda besides making money. Porn is where the eyeballs are, and there’s a ready and willing audience to pay for it and watch it – whether it is explicit or just below the surface. It’s part of the fabric of this nation, protected by our first legal documents, in the first amendment. The Emerging Pornographic Majority will continue to reject the repression of sexual ideas and beliefs. Americans have seen the dangers of extreme repression of the human libido in venues such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, and have utterly rejected it. In our country, people have the ability to make a choice – and they’ve chosen sex.
It's a fantasy to think that real, hard-core pornography will ever achieve the respectability its producers so desperately crave; and what is now outrageous will stay outrageous, just because it is generally so far beyond the pale that there is little chance of it ever joining the mainstream. The rash of sexually-charged programming we're seeing now will eventually fade as people get tired of it. That's not to say we'll be rid of it entirely, but I do think we'll see that America will choose sex provided it is in a milquetoast and generally mild form.
Heh, Heh, Heh "Would somebody shut these Jesus People up? What would Jesus do? What would Jesus drive? How would Jesus pick his nose? What do they think Jesus is, the Dr. Phil of the first century? First of all, we already know the answer to all these questions. What would he do? NOTHING THAT WE WOULD DO!"
Joe Bob Briggs gets out the shotgun, takes aim, and fires.
Faith, Logic, and Relativism It has come to my attention that The Raving Atheisthas posted a rather long -- 1,453 words long, to be exact -- response to my earlier post taking issue with a variety of theological arguments our atheist put forth. As our atheist fires back with an equal fervor, and in the process generating one if not two great quotes for the Hall of Reaction in the left-hand column, I offer my response as follows. (My posts are in plain text; our atheist's are in italics).
I write this having been transformed into a newt by this week's Godidiot, Wiccan Archpriest Pete "Pathfinder" Davis. But even my now pea-sized brain resists a conversion to the sort of Catholicism suggested by last week's winner, Benjamin Kepple.
Look at the bright side. He could have turned you into something far worse, like a slug, or a can of snuff, or Alec Baldwin.
Kepple starts out in the right direction, acknowledging "our atheist would agree that one cannot sustain a belief in God through logic alone." Indeed, as set forth and explained in my Basic Assumptions, I maintain something much stronger: that "all definitions of the word 'God' are either self-contradictory, incoherent, meaningless or refuted by empirical, scientific evidence." In short, logic affirmatively disproves the existence of every meaningfully-defined God.
Ah, yes, the Basic Assumptions. I admit that I had failed to notice the tiny link in the upper left-hand corner of our atheist’s site. In any event, the Basic Assumptions are clever but intellectually deficient.
For example, Assumption No. 5 -- God's omniscience conflicts with his disembodiedness, since a being without a body could not know how to drive, swim, or perform any activity associated with having a body -- is particularly silly. Omniscience means omniscience, and nothing but that; and omnipotence means that He could take on the form of a human being if He so wished, and He could create a Mercedes SL500. We would find He could not only drive it, but He could also create a street-parking space in Midtown Manhattan during the noon lunch hour.
Similarly, Assumption No. 7 -- God's omniscience and omnipotence conflict with his omnibenevolence, since a god who could prevent evil would do so unless he were unable to do so or unaware of the evil -- is also a bit silly. It was not God who introduced evil into the world, after all. Depending on one's theological view, one could say that it was Lucifer who did that; or, Man himself. In any event, one cannot explain away the concept of Free Will with a sentence. But we'll come back to this point shortly.
The original focus of our debate, however, was on a much simpler task. I was not seeking to refute every conceivable God, but only the limited one defined by the God Squad and Kepple as an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being who excludes or tortures those who fail to believe that He killed and resurrected His own son to save mankind. Logic certainly defeats that concept: Kepple openly concedes that it is not a logical belief, that it "may be arbitrary" and that he "may not have evidence to support [his] claim." Accordingly, Kepple doesn't bother to address any of the standard contradictions (linked to and identified in my Basic Assumptions) between the alleged divine attributes. Nor does he address the more specific conflict between the idea of omniscience and omnibenevolence, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Rube Goldberg-esque son-killing salvation scheme that is the centerpiece of Christianity.
If it takes actual physical evidence to convince our atheist that the Christian faith is the right one, then there are two routes we can follow. We can follow the historical route, firstly, which makes an awful lot of suggestions and outright statements that the things Christians believed actually happened. However, in doing so, our atheist could disclaim these things as not being evidence at all. The second route is to actually be here when the trumpets blast from the heavens and rather a lot of odd things start happening, at which point it is not going to matter. The end result of either plan is summed up as follows: Ye can lead a horse to water but ye canna' make 'im drink.
But one question which our atheist has not considered is this: what is it that drives a man either towards God or away from Him? Really, when one comes right down to it, is it God or ourselves who are making the fundamental decisions that move us in one way or another? For we are all thinking creatures; we all have free will, which God has given us. He may not want us to be evil, but certainly He has allowed us to take that road if we so choose.
Besides, as for our atheist's Assumption No. 6 -- God's omniscience conflicts with his omnibenevolence, since a morally perfect god could not have knowledge of feelings of hate, lust, or envy, or cruelty, etc. -- it is flawed as well. He knows full well what these things are like; He just chooses not to indulge in them. I may wish to browbeat the mailman for putting an important letter in my neighbor's mailbox, and write a spite-filled letter to his superior. But on the other hand, I may choose not to do so, because I realize the fellow's simply having a bad day.
One would think that the debate would end here, with the concession that the Godidiot argument is illogical, contradictory, and therefore, by definition, false. But (after a few diversions that I shall address shortly) Kepple asks "Why [is] faith . . . an invalid standard? Since "faith" is belief in something without, or contrary to, logic or proof, the question becomes "Why is it invalid to believe something not supported by logic or proof?"
It is a question that answers itself: by asking "Why," it calls for a response that is supported by logic or proof. If I were to reply that faith is an invalid means of knowledge because "blue grasshoppers hop quickly" or "1 + 1 = 13" or "t'was brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe" or "just because I believe faith is invalid," Kepple would certainly attack my explanation as false, unresponsive, irrelevant or incoherent. He would accuse me of employing an invalid standard. And it would be an invalid standard because it failed to employ, or was contradicted by, logic or proof -- which is precisely the failure of faith. Faith resolves absolutely nothing; certainly Kepple does not explain why the faith that leads him to Christianity leads others to belief Allah, Zeus, Wotan, unicorns, witches, or how, on the basis of faith, he could reject those alternate beliefs.
Well, there is nothing to say that Islam and Christianity, to take two examples, do not agree on some fundamental points; it is simply that I happen to believe that Christianity is the right road to take when all the angles are taken into account. I think Judaism is nearly as close, Islam a little less so; and so on down the line. But it is foolish to say that faith accounts for nothing. I could go down the line and demolish the Basic Assumptions; indeed, I think I did that for a few; but it will change nothing in terms of what our atheist believes, or why our atheist believes it. Faith is a difficult obstacle to overcome in such matters.
Insofar as Kepple does use logic to attack atheism, the arguments are simply bad. He first quotes C.S. Lewis' attempted refutation of a bad paraphrase of the problem of evil: "My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust . . . [b]ut how had I got this idea of just and unjust . . . [a] man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line." But the proposition in question is whether an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenelovent being exists. How do our feelings about justice, our ability to know crooked from straight, hot from cold (or other qualities from their opposites) remotely establish the existence of such a being? How do these abilities address the contradictions between the divine attributes? How does asking "where" these senses derive from lead to the conclusion that a God exists? And what does Kepple's observation that we all share the same sense of logic have to do with the existence of the almighty? Why not just say our sense of truth, logic and good are derived from square circles or crocodiles?
Lewis was only half-attempting to deal with the problem of evil in that paragraph, which suggests to me that our atheist may not have read Mere Christianity. The point to that paragraph, which our atheist seems unwilling to deal with, is that there are fundamental truths in this world, a fundamental base line from which we as people draw our beliefs about right and wrong. Then, as one must logically accept the idea that there is a Natural Law, one must go back and figure out how the Law came into existence in the first place. There's more on this below.
I also note that existence of a universal standard of good -- if it existed -- would count heavily against the God of Kepple and Lewis. If God's will is the measure of such a standard (which it would have to be if He is omnibenevolent), then torturing babies would be good if God commanded it to be. To argue that such conduct is not good, (or that God would not command it because it is not good), one must appeal to a standard of morality that is independent of God. And if there is such a standard, then God is not essential to morality. I have to say that I am surprised that Kepple relied on this particular argument of Lewis; after all, Kepple's original premise was that we are not in any position to judge the rationality of God's nutty salvation-through-Jesus-belief, not that we have some absolute sense of right and wrong. Indeed, Kepple's original premise was that "I don't claim to know the mind of God, what He thinks, how He chooses who gets in and who doesn't." This is about as far away from a roadmap for morality as one can get.
There is a difference between if and has, as our atheist well knows, and the last time I checked He did not sanction infant-torture. But of course a universal standard of good exists. Murder, for instance, is considered a universal wrong; there is not a society on earth in which I could legally kill my neighbor with impunity just because I happened to feel like it. The question is from where this hard-wiring in humanity comes. If you go back far enough, you find God at its roots. Besides, without universal standards of justice or logic or anything else, our atheist's argument falls flat, because there is no reason why our two sets of logic could not co-exist, each being correct. Obviously, we each think that the other's logic is deficient, which suggests that there's a universal standard out there someplace. And my point here was not to discuss the particular merits of Christianity, but rather those of theism.
I was cruel enough last time regarding the reasons for Kepple's conversion to Catholicism, so I won't post another picture. But I was rather surprised how everyone missed the point of the original illustration. The focus should have been on the corn-throwing Pope, not the pig-bodied-and-snouted Kepple. My point (apart from being mean) was that the niceness of the messenger is no guarantee of the truth of his beliefs; indeed, since under Kepple's theory belief in the "right" God trumps living a nice life, one should be as nasty as necessary to make sure the infidels get onto the right path.
I don't see why you should be surprised at all about folks missing the point of the original illustration; even your supporters construed it as an attack on me rather than on His Holiness John Paul II. Even gratuitous meanness has its flaws.
Kepple does now assert, however, that he was attracted to Catholicism not solely because of a nice friend, but because of the religion's "intellectual rigor, its strength in holding to its theological doctrines instead of bowing to the ever-changing tastes of the world-at-large, and its acceptance of reason while holding fast to its spirituality." I've addressed the issues of "reason" and "intellectual rigor" above, but will add that very few practicing Catholics are familiar with even the bad arguments that Kepple offers, or with their own Church's definition of omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence. The focus is rather upon on the anthropomorphized father, son and Mary, the familiar miracles and mysteries of the Bible, and the clever tricks performed by recently-deceased saint-wannabe's. I also note that Kepple studiously avoids any response to my attacks on the Pontiff and his delusions regarding Fatima, his suffering during the Year of the Family and other such matters. As to the Church's constancy and resistance to change -- hardly attributes that recommend it -- it's as fad-driven as another other religious institution. The Virgin Birth, the Immaculate Conception, the exalted status of Mary are all relatively recent non-Scriptural inventions. Its positions on anesthesia, capital punishment and evolution have also changed radically, for better or worse, in the last 100 years or so.
I do not see the need to defend the Holy Father or his Church on such matters for two reasons. The first is that I think the Church offers a fine defense on its own. The second is because all of these things -- even down to the Virgin Birth -- are not rock-solid to my own Christian faith. That's not to say that I don't believe in them; I do. But the beauty of Catholic theology is that marriage of faith and reason I spoke about earlier; it is not like a house of cards that falls if any of 1000 elements are suddenly ripped from or added to the picture. (Contrast that, for example, with the more fundamentalist Protestant viewpoint, which accepts its Bible as absolute truth). If the Virgin Birth were to somehow be disproved tomorrow -- which it won't, of course -- then it would not change my belief that the begotten son of Joseph and Mary was indeed the Son of God.
Also, as an aside, I would like to point out that my original post on this topic made note that my nice friend started me down the road to Catholicism; but, as I think I made clear, was not the reason for my conversion to Catholicism itself. I chose my words carefully for good reason, and to misrepresent them in this way is intellectually dishonest.
Finally, Kepple and others wonder why I do not tackle St. Augustine, Tertullian or Eusebius. The focus of this blog is how religion trivializes American law and politics, and the point of the Godidiot award is to humiliate those who do the trivializing. To the extent that my Godidiots rely on Augustinian, Tertullianian and Eusebiusian arguments I will address them, as I have with the arguments Kepple borrowed from C.S. Lewis. I seriously doubt, however, that the level of discourse would be particularly higher if I took on the old texts directly. For example, here's a bit of Tertullian:
And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried and rose again the fact is certain because it is impossible.
Even Kepple makes more sense than that.
When one considers that Tertullian was writing from the standpoint of a believing Christian and writing for other believing Christians, it actually makes perfect sense. He does not dispute the historical record that gives credence to the notion these things actually happened. Hence, the idea is that because these things happened, but are so far outside human knowledge or experience, they must be believed.
But I think the point that I (and others, apparently) were making was that it is one thing to get into a nice theological argument with people like me, who are not nearly as skilled as the true masters, but another thing entirely to take on the early Church fathers, who argued these points all day long for years. I will admit it would be dry to do a lot of that, though; about as fun as the idea for me of taking on Nietschze or O'Hair (see the entry below).
In any event, if the point of the Godidiot award is to humiliate people who won't shut up about their faith, then it is a miserable failure. Not only do I not feel humiliated, I feel vindicated -- if only because enough visitors to our atheist's site have an open enough mind to come visit my site, and see what some uncredentialed fellow has to say on these matters.