Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sunday Reflection: Politics in Perspective

As Christians read the news, we should not worry like those without hope. This morning, my pastor, preaching on Paul's Letter to Philemon, pointed out that the Apostle refers to himself as "a prisoner of Christ Jesus" (Philemon vv. 1, 9). Of course, Paul was in real chains, writing from Emperor Nero's prison in Rome. No matter. Paul knew that his life and days were in God's hands for God's purposes. Equally well, he knew that the cause of Christ is in no way threatened by anything men can do.

We may consider the Korean missionaries who are being held hostage by the Taliban who are threatening them with death. (Michelle Malkin has good coverage of this; Gypsy Scholar in S. Korea posts sober thoughts.) My pastor, noting of course how concerned he would be if his own children in that situation, remarked nonetheless that, though the Taliban think that they hold these lives in their hands, the missionaries actually have the Taliban just where they want them, even should they die. Pilate thought that he could decide our Lord's fate. "Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?" Jesus with confident equanimity responded, "You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above" (John 19:10-11 ESV). People thought they could smother the church in its cradle by suppressing news of the resurrection (Matthew 28:11-15) and by killing the witnesses (Acts 7:54-60, 12:1-2) and the church leaders (Acts 9:23). But "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church" (Tertullian, but there is some doubt about this source).

Even if Hillary Clinton is returned to the White House (would the republic survive?), God is nonetheless working out all things according to his good and glorious plan (which does not depend upon this republic surviving). "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (I John 5:21).

For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be glory forever. Amen. -- Romans 11:34-36

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Dignity Issue...and Courage

I didn't address the dignity issue behind this YouTube "debate" format, but Romney does, and does it nicely: "I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman."

The first question of the debate began, "Wassup?" It's easy to be disrespectful when addressing a home video camera in your parents' basement. This same guy asked, "Can you as politicians do something revolutionary and actually answer questions rather than beat around the bush?" Each of these candidates has been elected by the people, entrusted and invested with public authority for solemn purposes. They are vying before a watching world for an office that wields the power of life and death on a global scale. All of them, even Dennis Kucinich, should be shown proper respect.

Speaking of dignity, Obama missed his opportunity to assert his own dignity in response to the question whether he was "authentically black." He should have condemned the question, rejecting its very premise. He would have lost the voter but gained the electorate. Instead he accepted the premise and offered an argument for his being truly black.
"You know, when I'm catching a cab in Manhattan ... in the past, I think I've given my credentials." (Oddly, a New York example, not a Chicago one.) Is he afraid of losing the black vote? It could have been his Sista Souljah moment. It was no profile in courage.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Will the Republicans YouTube?

Presidential debates have a tendency these days toward the faddish. Remember the town hall meetings from the Perot era? And that Oprah style debate in which they subjected that fine gentleman, George Bush, to impertinence and humiliation in 1992? Now the YouTube debate. Well that was fun.

But now can we get serious? Let's not pretend that it was anything other than ratings oriented novelty and entertainment.

The day after the "debate," the pundits offered their obligatory cooing over how refreshing it was to see ordinary people just like us speaking directly with the candidates...unfiltered. Of course, it was filtered in a sense. The questions were not chosen by vote on YouTube. CNN chose the few questions out of the roughly 50,000 submitted. One analyst on the News Hour even spoke of the special closeness she felt with other voters during the evening. It was touching.

In democratic politics (that's not a typo; I'm talking about the popular, egalitarian character of our regime), there is a longing to see our prospective and current leaders commune directly with "the people." Oh, the political ecstasy! If the people could somehow see their general will directly codified and then executed with perfect fidelity, that would satisfy our democratic, moral longings. But let's face it, that's not going to happen.

Nor should it happen. We have the House of Representatives for that. Relatively small districts up for re-election every 2 years keep congressmen closely attuned to what the people are thinking and feeling. The senate and the president are supposed to be more removed from the popular will. The idea is that this is a modern republic, not simply a democracy. Republican institutions are intended to mediate and refine the will of the people, and in so doing they express not the people's fitful, passing will, but their considered will. For the classic expression of this theory which underlies our constitution read Federalist Papers #9, 10, 48 and 51.

Aside from pandering to that yearning for the sort of direct communion between leader and people that dictators always promise, this twist on the debate format provided the organizers a particularly luscious opportunity to select the questions best suited to embarrass whomever they wanted to embarrass. When a cancer sufferer pops off her wig in front of the national audience and asks, essentially, "Will you use the the federal government to lift me out of my pitiful condition?," it's hard to say no without looking like a brute, even though you are right to suggest other more effective and more legitimate avenues.

Actually, the town hall meeting is politically more awkward. When a video asks you a question, it is then over and you can turn to the audience and depersonalize it. But when someone asks you a question from a select gathering of "ordinary Americans," after the question has been posed, the person who posed it is still standing there in front of you. It remains insanely personal.

I say "insanely" because the YouTube and town hall formats distort the task of government. The beggar politics that they encourage -- one voter after another presenting his or her pitiful circumstance as though it were the business of government to relieve every individual of every personal trouble -- confuses the right to petition government and prayer.

Because this format lends itself too easily to politically awkward situations, and because it draws attention away from the candidates to the clever or shocking videos themselves, I do not expect that the Republicans will follow up with their own version of it. But I also do not think that we should expect either of the parties' nominees to resurrect it when they square off a year from now.

I liked Tyrrell's response in the New York Sun, "A Superficial Debate:...and Some Real Questions," though it is somewhat harsh toward the often exceedingly ordinary Americans who submitted their video questions. In the same paper on the previous day, Nicholas Wapshott's "Hillary and the Seven Dwarfs" insightfully sums up the lay of the land in the Democratic field. Richardson and Biden are running for Hillary's Secretary of State, Kucinich is running to enjoy national attention for a little while. Gravel is delusional. Dodd is henpecked by a delusional wife. And Obama, as I originally thought until he and I thought he might actually take off, is running for Hillary's veep. Based on the anything-can-happen-in-politics principle, or based on the Black Swan principle, we both also think that he might yet take the nomination (though beyond that point we part ways).

Poor Africa and What To Do About It

In Blood Diamond, starring Leo DiCaprio, the characters have a saying: "This is Africa," meaning that it is a violent, unstable place where people do not live in hope of enjoying long life. I recently reported Nicholas Kristof’s hope for Africa. Gregory Clark is less sanguine, but presents what hope requires (“How to Save Africa,” New York Sun, July 20-22).

Dr. Clark is professor of economics at UC Davis. His argument goes as follows. Africa’s problem is that it is caught in what he calls the “Malthusian Trap.” Essentially, it is this. Ours is an industrial economy. It grows. So we need a growing population to work it. High birth rates and low death rates are good things. Africa has largely a pre-industrial economy. It doesn’t grow. A growing population in Africa, therefore, means falling standards of living. In an agrarian economy with fixed land resources, plague, war and crib death are good for average incomes. (Historically, imperial expansion – taking other people’s land – has also been good. I add that myself.) What Africa needs is not handouts. That just feeds the problem. Rather, Africa needs the sort of industrialization that China has been experiencing.

Clark concludes: “There is no simple formula for industrialization that is appealing to many. But that is where the focus must be of the attempts to help Africa.”

All of this tells us that Africa’s problem is not fundamentally economic, but political. Africa’s answer must come from within and among African nations.

Prof. Clark's book is A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton, 2007). He is responding to Jeffrey Sach's proposal, endorsed by Bono, for ending world poverty by 2025, in his book, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (Penguin, 2006). Another good book on the economic damage that results from inserting large, well intentioned welfare payments into the Developing World is William Easterly's The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Penguin, 2006).

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Wartime means a Republican President

Yogi Berra once said, “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future” (or something like that; I can't find the original source). Political science purports to be a predictive science, but because the variables are innumerable the future is not ascertainable and fortune is ultimately unconquerable. "Black swans" will often confound our political expectations (See The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb or the review in The Economist).

Nonetheless (ah, the fool's word), it is such irresistible sport to predict elections.

People are saying that the unpopularity of the war in Iraq guarantees a Democratic victory in 2008. Rasmussen reports that 53% favor troop withdrawal within 120 days. The Democratic candidates favor early withdrawal, the Republicans do not. Next question please. But this is irrelevant.

Since 1964, Americans in times of war, including the Cold War, have elected Republicans in general and convincing commanders-in-chief in particular, to the executive office. In the 1964 election, Barry Goldwater, the Republican, came across as unstable and unfit to have his finger "on the button." In 1968, Lyndon Johnson had us deep into an unpopular war in Vietnam, and Nixon, the Republican, was a more convincing commander-in-chief than Humphrey. 1972, Nixon. No contest. In 1976, it took Watergate, Ford's pardon of Nixon and Ford's inexplicable assertion that "there is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe" to put the Democrat, Jimmy Carter, into the White House. It helped that Carter was a naval officer. Carter proved to be utterly incompetent. The "debacle in the desert" sealed his single term presidency. Reagan was the unflinching hawk: two terms followed by Bush. In 1988, Michael Dukakis broadcast his unfamiliarity and discomfort with military affairs by riding in a tank with his clownishly helmeted head peeping out of the top, accomplishing just the opposite of what he has hoped. In the 1992 and 1996, we were at peace, so the Democrat, Bill Clinton, was given charge. In 2000, we were still at peace, but George W. Bush won only on account of the electoral college system. Most voting Americans chose Al Gore, the Democrat (or thought they did). By 2004, we were back in a wartime situation and we chose the incumbent Republican candidate.

That brings us to 2008. In a Thompson-Obama race, Thompson wins because Obama has no foreign policy experience or even executive experience at the state level. He barely had time to find the bathrooms in the Senate building before he went off on the campaign trail. In a Giuliani-anyone race, Rudy wins. I wouldn't mess with him. Neither should Osama. In an anyone-Hillary race, anyone else will win. She is too widely perceived as being disingenuous, instinctively disinclined to support the measures necessary to prosecute the terror war (wire taps, firm handed interrogation techniques, etc.) and too willing to sacrifice national security for personal political gain. I don't know where they get these ideas.

Regardless of what people think of the Iraq situation, the terror threat still confronts us and Americans will not elect someone who is less than convincing as a defender of our national security. The one who takes the oath of office in 2009 will be the one whom Americans will have recognized as being a true or at least plausible commander-in-chief. That will be a Republican because the Democrats, with one eye on their far left base and another on the polls, are all playing the pacifist in one form or another. This outcome will be all the more certain if al Qaeda to blows up something or cut off a head at an appropriate moment.

But then there are always Black Swans.

Friday, July 6, 2007

FYI - Henninger on Rudy's Appeal

This is good. Read the whole thing. "It's Not the Economy, Stupid," by Daniel Henninger (The Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2007, p.A14).

It may well be that 9/11 made the Giuliani run possible, but I think the better political comparison isn't New York in September 2001 but New York in 1993, when Mr. Giuliani unseated Mayor David Dinkins. He described it to us:

"I was elected to reduce crime.That was the rationale for my being Mayor of New York. They weren't going to elect a Republican prosecutor in New York unless they were desperate. And they were desperate: It was, 'We'll even give him a chance to do it.'"

This was the period of screwing stacks of deadbolt locks onto apartment doors in New York. Amid this, Republican Giuliani defeated Democrat Dinkins by 49% to 46%. This means that a lot of New York liberals, beset by the loss of physical well-being, went into the voting booth, pulled the lever for Giuliani, and walked out to tell their friends, "I voted for Dinkins."

This isn't an endorsement for Rudy Giuliani. It's an explanation for why this candidate, despite the presumed baggage, has polled strongly for months.

FYI - SUNY Professor has Idea for Illegals

State University of New York professor of political science, Peter Salins, suggests a simple, inexpensive and, he claims, effective solution to our illegal immigration problem. ("Use Social Security to Seal the Border," The Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2007, p.A17). It is something like the "deal with it at the point of consumption" answer to the illegal drug problem.

Under current employment law, every legal permanent resident of the United States is required to have a Social Security number. Further, employers must register their employees' status and Social Security numbers with the Social Security Administration and make contributions to the system on their behalf. These two features together can serve as a dragnet for identifying all illegal workers. ... By directing the Social Security Administration to use its database to enforce our existing immigration laws, President Bush can do this now without waiting for Congress to pass a bill.

Read the the whole article, then call your senator and congressman.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Hotel Rwanda Hospitable Again

Have you seen Hotel Rwanda? See it. I make all my Introduction to Politics students watch it (or Schindler's List, The Killing Fields, or The Inner Circle) to dramatize the fact that the stakes involved in politics are deathly high. In 1994, in a genocidal rampage, Rwandans from the Hutu tribe slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis and Tutsi sympathizing Hutus.

Now, 13 years later, Nicholas Kristof reports in The New York Times ("Africa: Land of Hope," July 5, 2007): Rwanda "is clean, safe and enjoying economic growth more than twice as fast as the U.S. or Europe." After the transition of many African nations to independence, "Africa drove over a cliff. Of those countries with good data, one-third now have lower per capita incomes than they did at independence (typically about 1960), and the five worst-performing economies in the world from 1960 to 2001 were all in Africa. What went wrong? The two most important reasons were that Africa was terribly governed and that it was torn apart by wars."

It is academically unfashionable to suggest that individuals, even "great men," shape and direct history, but Kristof points to the presidency of Paul Kagame who is "honest, intelligent and capable. President Kagame reads Harvard Businesss Review...." Kagame is candid in recognizing that his country lacks "that culture of hard work, that culture of being ambitious and wanting to achieve. I believe that those values were in Africans, but I don't know what dampened it -- what killed it." Kristof suggests that "malaria, anemia, worms and misrule" explain a lot. Of course, the misrule explains a lot of the malaria, anemia and worms. Marxist sympathizing, U.S. Constitution despising American leftists should take note.

Africa is the one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. National independence, western educated leaders and an immense wealth of natural resources, yet devasting poverty, disease, despotism and bloodshed. Will the 21st century see the rise of Africa? Kristof sees hope: "when African countries have enjoyed stability and sound policies, they have often thrived. Indeed, the fastest growing country in the world from 1960 to 2001 was Botwana (South Korea was second, and Singapore and China tied for third). More and more African countries are now following the Botswana model of welcoming investors and obeying markets."

Hey, Mr. Kristof! Can you convince your friends in the Democratic party to show a similar respect for markets? (See The Wall Street Journal on the same day: "Trade Double-cross: House Democrats Go Protectionist," the lead editorial, and "Dodging the Guest-worker Bullet: the last thing our economy needed was the Senate's ham-handed attempt to regulate the flow of low-skilled labor," by Gordon H. Hanson, pp. A14-15.)

The words preached by Benjamin Colman in a 1730 sermon delivered in Boston are aptly noted here:

God hath set the world upon the gorvernments and rulers, whom he has made the pillars of it. ...[T]he peace, tranquility and flourishing of places are made to depend on the wisdom and fidelity of their rulers, in the good administration of the government. While the utmost misery and confusion defalls those places where the government is ill administered. The reason is given in the text [I Samuel 2:8], "God has set the World" on this foot; it can't stand on any other bottom. The virtue and religion of a people, their riches and trade, their power, honour and reputation; and the favour of God toward them, with his blessing on them; do greatly depend on the pious, righteous and faithful government which they are under." -- Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, Ellis Sandoz ed. (LibertyPress, 1991)

FYI - Denial is flowing into the Thames

This is the first in a stream of posts that simply brings to your attention useful information and insight that I glean from The New York Sun, The New York Times, The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist or some other news aor opinion source. I will give the source so that you can look up the original.

Denial is flowing into the Thames.

From "NHS Opened the Door" by Daniel Johnson (New York Sun, July 5, 2007) -- "Gordon Brown's new government has been eager to contrast itself with Tony Blair. To this end, it has excised three terms from the official vocabulary: "Muslim," "Islam," and "the war on terror." ... The new home secretary, Jacqui Smith, laid down the new doctrine: "Terrorists are criminal who come from all religious backgrounds." The terror problem is simply a domestic criminal problem and it seems that 80 year old Irish nuns are now recognized as being as serious a threat in Britain as they are seen to be in America.

Apparently, the Conservatives under David Cameron are even worse. Johnson reports: "...Mr. Cameron promoted Sayeeda Warsi to be a member of his shadow cabinet, with the title of 'community cohesion secretary.'" But it seems that the community cohesion is that of British Islamism. "She not only opposed the Iraq War, but also welcomed the election of Hamas. She opposed anti-terror laws and rejects the idea that extremism is a problem for British Muslims: 'When you say that this is something that the Muslim community needs to weed out, or deal with, that is a very dangerous step to take.' Mr. Cameron has taken a dangerous step by handing over his policy on Islam to a person who appears to be part of the problem."

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Religious Cleansing by Illiberal Liberals? Why Not?

Imagine that you are a Jew in Germany in the 1930s. You are going about your business as you always do, but you start to notice that some people are protesting very loudly that you and your kind are the embodiment of evil and a grave threat to civilization. We have been hearing such shouts this past year from a spate of anti-religious authors who are most beside themselves with rage when fulminating against Christianity and the biblical God.

If it were up to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and several others,* Christian religion as well as the thinking it engenders would be illegal and vigorously suppressed. That, at any rate, is where their rhetoric leads. As they describe religion in general and Christianity in particular, it is simply institutionalized hatred. It is easy to imagine the Supreme Court one day exempting Christianity from the protections of the first amendment with statements like, "This cannot be dignified with the name of religion. This is nothing other than organized hatred: hatred toward religion and atheism alike; hatred toward neighbor and children alike. These doctrines and ways do not merit the protection of law. Rather, law itself was instituted to protect the public against evils such as this." Any legal mind that can find constitutional protection for murdering babies as they are being born is capable of embracing this kind of legal "reasoning" as well. It's not a stretch.

Of course, these writers are only saying overtly what we see portrayed on television all the time. In "Backward atheist soldiers!" (WORLD June 30/July 7, 2007; pp. 58-60), Marvin Olasky reports a New York Times writer saying, "Harris writes what a sizable number of us think, but few are willing to say." But the liberal media elite say it all the time. Christians, especially evangelicals, are regularly depicted as Dawkins et al. describe them: greedy, hateful and utterly miserable people who are just itching to overthrow liberal democracy and establish a new Age of Darkness...something like a Taliban regime, but more universal and without the international charm.

Alister & Joanna McGrath, in The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (IVP), detect "a whiff of panic" in all of this. "Until recently, Western atheism has waited patiently, believing that belief in God would simply die out." Thomas Jefferson, who took the liberty of editing the New Testament to include only the true parts, thus excluding the virgin birth and the resurrection, expected that by the 19th century, religion would have become so enlightened and rationalistic that everyone would be a Unitarian. He was disappointed. The rampant atheism represented in these books goes beyond disappointment to loathing, fear and open warfare.

Every Christmas and Easter, the major news magazines faithfully produce their cover stories asking who Jesus "was" and telling us, on the basis of respectable liberal scholarship, that he was not who the Bible and our pastors tell us he "is." Why do they do this, and so consistently? After the 2000 presidential election, I noticed a sharp increase in media efforts to enlighten the public on the evils of Christian religion. Christians (along with the Supreme Court and the dark arts) put George W. Bush in the White House. George W. Bush is a mortal threat to liberty, enlightenment and world peace. Therefore Christians are a mortal threat to liberty, enlightenment and world peace. As if Ronald Reagan weren't enough! Will and Grace started playing almost continuously. Law and Order started portraying Christians as something like Nazis in a bad mood.

So what are we to make of this? And where does this lead?

The "religious cleansing," shall we call it, to which this demagoguery leads has precedent. There were various persecutions in the early centuries of the church's life.

1. Persecution under Nero (c. 64-68).
2. Persecution under Domitian (r. 81-96).
3. Persecution under Trajan (112-117). Christianity is outlawed, but Christians are not sought out.
4. Persecution under Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180).
5. Persecution under Septimus Severus (202-210).
6. Persecution under Decius (250-251). Christians are actively sought out by requiring public sacrifice. Could buy certificates (libelli) instead of sacrificing. Bishops of Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch are martyred.
7. Persecution under Valerian (257-59).
8. Persecution under Maximinus the Thracian (235-38).
9. Persecution under Aurelian (r. 270–275).
10. Severe persecution under Diocletian and Galerius (303-324). ( also writes: "Pliny, a Roman governor writing circa 110 AD, called Christianity a "superstition taken to extravagant lengths." Similarly, the Roman historian Tacitus called it "a deadly superstition." (Hitchens calls it poisonous.) Christians were accused of cannibalism (on account of the Eucharist) and sexual license (on the basis of rumor that they loved each other). They were also blamed for the fall of Rome, a charge in response to which Augustine of Hippo wrote his classic, The City of God.

But fear not little church!
1. We have the sovereign creator God on our side. His enemies may strike out in panic, but his children can respond with calm assurance of what we read in Psalm 2: "Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?... He who sits in the heavens laughs... Blessed are all who take refuge in him." (vv. 1, 4, 12; ESV)

2. We have reason on our side. God made the world a rational place (that's why the sun comes up each morning and why the light goes on when you flip the switch), and so, in public debate, honest inquiry is on our side. Despite all the talk about post-modernity, a good argument still carries weight.

3. Even if God were to allow persecution (real, boot-in-the-face, let-goods-and-kindred-go persecution), it would only purify and strengthen the church, as it has done in times past and still does in many parts of the world today.

4. But even short of such seemingly fictional times (though they don't seem to fictional in places where Christians are pillaged and killed for their faith, places like Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, North Korea and, recently, Turkey), these volleys open opportunities for public discussion of the gospel, it's claims and consequences. This is an apologetic opportunity. ("Apologetics," from the Greek apologia, are the rational, public defense of the faith.) Thus we see several books published in response to these. I have mentioned the McGrath book, but there is also Doug Wilson's Letter from a Christian Citizen (American Vision) along with several others like it. As the war on Christianity moves into this overt stage, Christians will seize this opportunity to expose the fallacies, correct the record and proclaim the good news. And because Christ is risen and reigning, we can do with arresting charity.

* Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin); Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great (Twelve); Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf); also Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press) and others.