Thursday, November 30, 2006

KY Republican signals surrender in minimum wage fight

Lest anyone were to get the mistaken impression that the national Republicans were now going to start standing up for conservative principles, the news came yesterday that they are giving up the fight on minimum wage before it has even begun. According to Kentucky Pol Watchers (The Herald-Leader), our own Mitch McConnell (now Senate Republican Minority Leader) is saying that he is fine with the minimum wage hike of about two dollars proposed by Democrats.

Sen. Chamberlai... er, McConnell described the Democrats opening agenda as "easy stuff". Whoever said surrender was hard?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Asking the wrong question about movies

Michael Billington at the Guardian asks "Have any unarguably great novels actually been improved by adaptation?" He is referring to adaptation to cinema or the theatre. This kind of question is asked all the time, and is one of the questions that comes up whenever some great (or simply popular) book comes to the screen or stage. How many times have you heard someone, perhaps yourself, say, "I don't think the movie was as good as the book"?

But if Billington's question is part of a discussion about whether a novel should be dramatized, then it's the wrong question to ask. Just because a story as it is portrayed in a movie is not as good as it is portrayed in print is irrellevant to the quality of the movie or whether it should have been dramatized in the first place.

The question is not whether a novel is improved by its dramatization, but whether dramatization is improved by having been based on a novel. What is important is not whether a novel is "improved by adaptation" (how could a novel be improved by anything other than the author rewriting it?), but whether a movie (and the same goes for a play play) is a better play for having been based on the story from a novel--as opposed, say, to having been written from scratch by a screen writer or playwright.

The question is not, for example, would I rather go and see the movie "Sense and Sensibility" or read Jane Austen's novel. I can do both and profit by it. The question is whether I would rather go see the movie "Sense and Sensibility" or some other movie based on a story by what is likely to be an inferior writer.

The comparisons between movies and books is seldom helpful. They are very different art forms, and should be judged by very different criteria. The purpose of a movie is not to be a good book, any more than the purpose of an apple is to be a good orange. Nor is the purpose of a movie to improve a book through adaptation.

The purpose of a good movie is to be a good movie, and that purpose is often served by adapting the story from a good book.

Milton Friedman, RIP

News today is that Milton Friedman has died. It makes you wonder if the looming prospect of the minimum wage being raised might have been the final straw.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Meet the New Atheism, Same as the Old Atheism: A review of Richard Dawkin's "The God Delusion"

Richard Dawkins believes in the resurrection. He believes in it so much, that he is leading a crusade to convince others of it, and, like the revivalists of old, he has hit the circuit looking for converts. The resurrection Dawkins believes in is not the Resurrection (the one with a capital 'R'), but another kind altogether. His faith is not faith in God, but faith in science--or rather, Science. It is not the Resurrection of Christ he is preaching, but the resurrection of a movement.

With his new book, The God Delusion, Dawkins places himself at the head of what one journalist has called the "New Atheism." His book is one of several released over the last year that have attempted to reverse the rise of evangelical Christianity, and, to a lesser extent, fundamentalist Islam. He is the first person in the new atheist trinity, which includes Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, both of whom have written similar anti-religious tracts, and both of whom, like Dawkins, are filled with the spirit, and shouting their message from the street corners.

Before Dawkins begins the business of calling hellfire and brimstone down on the believers, however, he points his finger at those who pretend to be standing on the sidelines in the debate over the truth of religion and the existence of God. He first goes after the agnostics. With the earlier and more eloquent atheist George Bernard Shaw, Dawkins charges agnostics with the sin of being atheists without the courage of their convictions.

Well, most of them anyway. He makes a distinction between the kind of agnostic who temporarily suspends judgement until he has more evidence one way or another, and the kind of agnostic who believes that the question of God's existence is unanswerable. The first are the sheep, the second the goats. The first he can abide, but for the second he has little but disdain. It is this second school of thought that Dawkins refers to when he talks about the "poverty of agnosticism." It is here where Dawkins parts company with many of his allies in the scientific establishment, and it is here where Dawkins distinguishes himself from the great atheistic philosophies of the 20th century, returning instead to the 19th.

Although the title of "New" has been placed on his brand of atheism, Dawkins is an atheist of the old school. He is preachy, condescending, and a bit of a scold. Apparently impatient with philosophical subtleties, he seems to have shirked off the more sophisticated criticisms of early 2oth century philosophy. Beginning with Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, skeptical philosophers began to argue that religion was neither true nor false, but simply meaningless. This view received its most articulate treatment in A. J. Ayer's 1928 book, Language, Truth, and Logic. The first chapter of Ayer's book, "The End of Metaphysics," remains one of the few persuasive attacks on religious belief, although Ayer himself later gave up on much of the views expressed in the book. This view has dominated higher level discussions of religious truth questions ever since.

Dawkin's approach, however, harkens back to days of Robert Ingersoll, Joseph McCabe, and Joseph Lewis. He is not quite their equal in severity and lack of a sense of humor, but he rivals them in fervor. Like these stern atheists of old, Dawkins prefers to face religion head on, and his contempt for less direct approaches is transparent.

Dawkins first takes on Stephen Jay Gould, now conveniently dead (as are many of Dawkin's chosen opponents). Gould, a Harvard paleontologist and popular science writer, believed that religious questions such as the existence of God are simply not scientific questions, and that science cannot therefore adjudicate them. It is a version of the Two Truths doctrine of the medieval Arab philosopher Averroes, who held that there are truths of reason and truths of faith, and that truths in one sphere may be falsehoods in the other.

"[T]o cite old cliches," Dawkins quotes Gould as saying, "science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven." Dawkins will have none of it: "What are these ultimate questions," he asks, "in whose presence religion is an honored guest and science must respectfully slink away?" Dawkins denies that there can be two truths, one for science and one for religion: "... a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?"

In fact, Dawkins castigates the American scientific establishment for assuming this Two Truths doctrine in their debate with the Intelligent Design movement, denouncing the National Center for Science Education and their ilk as the "Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists." On this question, ironically, Dawkins is on the side of the Intelligent Design movement--and Christianity in general. Religious truth claims make a difference in the world, but while Christianity maintains the claims are true, Dawkins pronounces them false.

Dawkins summarizes the argument of his book this way:
Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. a delusion; and, as later chapters show, a pernicious delusion.

There are several problems with his argument that ultimately make The God Delusion a great disappointment. The first is his tendency to avoid proving his own theses in favor of simply assuming them and hoping the reader will find the implications of them as attractive and self-evident as he does. The scientist in him wants to test the predictability of his theory, in this case with speculative theories of how things might have come about solely by virtue of material conditions. He uses this method in his discussion of the origin of religion and of morality, and it falls flat.

His entire discussion of the origin of religion requires you to have previously accepted his naturalistic world view. "Knowing that we are products of Darwinian evolution..." he begins, and then we are off to the races. "The proximate cause of religion might be hyperactivity in a particular node of the brain," he declares. But the ultimate cause, he thinks, lies in his theory that religion is "a byproduct of something else." He then launches into various theories of what religious belief may have been useful for, all of which are pure speculation.

Dawkin's whole discussion of the naturalistic explanation of religion assumes that such an explanation renders the beliefs thus explained illusory. But if a naturalistic explanation for a belief renders it illusory, and all beliefs can be explained naturalistically, then atheism too can be explained naturalistically, and is therefore illusory. He who lives by naturalistic explanations must die by them.

All of Dawkin's explanations seem stifled and contrived by his own ideological materialism. He uses his naturalistic world view as a Procrustean bed into which he tries to fit everything, however much he has to hack and stretch it to fit. And what a small bed it is.

The second problem with Dawkin's book is the condescending tone with which he dismisses the arguments of those with whom he disagrees. One religious argument is "amusing, if rather pathetic," another "a joke," another "silly," and another "a grotesque piece of reasoning." This glib attitude particularly plagues the section of the book dealing with the traditional arguments for Christianity.

St. Thomas's cosmological arguments for God's existence--that the universe requires an explanation--"are as vacuous." Anselm's ontological argument for God's existence is "infantile." And William Paley's design argument, he says, Charles Darwin "blows out of the water."

And where simple pejoratives won't do, and arguments actually employed, Dawkins fails to impress. In response to C. S. Lewis's trilemma--that Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or God Himself--Dawkins simply posits the possibility that Jesus was honestly mistaken, despite the fact that anyone familiar with the force of this argument knows that is certainly not a possibility. And besides, "historically it is complete nonsense." Dawkins asserts that there is no good historical evidence that Jesus thought he was divine, but his response to the wealth of evidence that he did is nowhere to be found. He questions the historical existence of Jesus, a belief that has few adherents outside its friendly home in liberal theological seminaries.

In the end, Dawkins admits that Jesus probably existed, but that the Biblical documents are unreliable, his only argument being that "reputable" Biblical scholars (undoubtedly defined as those with whom Dawkins agrees) question them.

Somehow it all seems too easy.

Even if you didn't recognize the lack of philosophical sophistication in Dawkin's attempted refutations, you notice immediately that Dawkins has trouble even conceiving how anyone could ever have been convinced by these arguments. This is not only an intellectual weakness in Dawkin's approach, but a rhetorical one. Somehow, you are more persuaded by the detractors of a position who appreciate the strength of their opponents positions than those, like Dawkins, who don't. You feel as if the person hasn't really confronted the power of the arguments against his own position, and you therefore wonder how it would affect his opinion if he did.

In too many cases in the book Dawkins is justified in his dismissiveness toward the arguments he takes on, but only because he has cherry picked the weakest arguments for theism. And this is the third great deficiency of the book.

Outside of a few places in the second section of the book, Dawkins boxes at shadows that seem a poor imitation of historic theism. A close inspection of the index reveals how little familiarity Dawkins has with modern Christian apologetics. He mentions only a small handful of great modern Christian thinkers. There is even a passing mention of G. K. Chesterton. But none of these are carefully considered.

He admits Lewis into his book briefly (and, as we said, dismissively), but where is J. Gresham Machan, Cornelius Van Til, and John Warwick Montgomery, or, more contemporaneously, Alvin Plantinga, J. P. Moreland, and Francis Beckwith? They are glaringly absent. Instead, Dawkins prefers to take on the likes of Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Jesse Helms, and Fred Phelps, the fundamentalist minister of Westboro Baptist Church who pickets funerals with signs saying that "fags" are "going to Hell". These names constitute a sort of religious bum-of-the-month club that allows Dawkins to avoid fighting the real contenders.

How convenient.

In his debate with the atheist philosopher C.E.M. Joad (who later became a Christian) in the first part of the 20th century, Catholic writer Arnold Lunn pointed out that a position must be judged on the basis of the strongest arguments for it, not the weakest ones you can find.

The God Delusion has received the usual plaudits from the expected sources. But criticism has come from places well outside the religious community. Two of the most stinging critiques have come from the philosopher Thomas Nagel, and literary critic Terry Eagleton. And indeed everything that Dawkin's attempts in The God Delusion has been done better in some other book. A reader interested in a naturalistic explanation of religion and a critical view of the historicity of Christianity will find it stated more convincingly in H. L. Mencken's Treatise on the Gods. Those who are looking for a philosophically sophisticated attack on theism would be better off with Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic. And, ironically, a much better argument against design in nature from an evolutionary perspective is Dawkin's own Blind Watchmaker.

And speaking of Mencken, atheism's last great popularizer, Dawkins seems clearly to be trying to emulate him, but to little affect. Mencken's attacks on religion were informed with a real wit that Dawkins sorely lacks. Mencken also had a poetic sense of the world that seems missing in Dawkins. Without the aesthetic appeal of Mencken, Dawkin's condescension sounds more akin to the more pedestrian likes of Madelaine Murray O'Hair. It wouldn't sound entirely out of place in this book to hear Dawkins utter an O'Hair line such as, "Jesus wasn't worthly to lick my boots."

Mencken was the last of the old school atheists, who openly declared their opinion that religion was absurd, and spared no effort in running it down. Mencken considered religious adherents to be boobs, largely because he considered most everyone to be boobs. Dawkins, however, is more selective in his disdain, choosing to scorn only the believers.

This refusal to take religious views seriously prevents Dawkins from convincingly dealing with them, and it is this consideration that prevents us from judging atheism on the basis of Dawkin's book. If we did, we would only be engaging in the very behavior that mars Dawkin's book itself: judging a position by something less than the best arguments for it.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Some bloggers need a license

Over at the Pharyngula blog, atheist P. Z. Meyers is in a dogmatic mood. In fact, we are not aware he is ever in any other kind of mood. Lately he has been on a tirade about raising standards for home schools. His most recent post advocates that parents without a teaching license be barred from homeschooling their children.

Has he checked to see what happens to children who are taught by people with teachers licenses recently?

He is apparently unaware of the large and growing disparity between how home schooled students perform on standardized tests and how public school students perform on the same tests. This is inexcusable.

Maybe blogs should only be operated by people with a license.

What are Republicans For? The 2006 Elections as a teachable moment

The most important thing about great defeats is the lessons you learn from them. And the nice thing about political defeats is that there are always plenty of people around to tell you what these lessons are. At the risk of adding to the already formidable volume of such advice, here are a few observations Republicans should keep in mind after Tuesday's defeat at the polls.

There are three essential rules of political success, all of which the Republicans either ignored or rendered themselves incapable of following:

Rule #1: Say what you're going to do: In the case of the Republican Party in the 2006 election, their lack of any coherent agenda left voters with only two things on their minds: Iraq and political corruption, neither of which they seemed too crazy about. In other words, Republicans didn't say what they were going to do, so voters cast their votes on the basis of something else, in this case, what others said they were going to do (i.e., the same old thing).

Rule #2: Do what you said you were going to do: The modern Republican Party is the party of Newt Gingrich. Gingrich brought the Republicans to prominence in Washington on the basis of a principled and clearly articulated agenda: The Contract with America. The Republicans were going to make government smaller, less intrusive, and more responsive to the voters. There was also the implicit understanding that values issues would receive the attention they deserved. As long as they stuck to this agenda, they succeeded. But two things happened that undermined the success of the party. The first was the fall of Gingrich. The second was the rise of Karl Rove.

Unlike Gingrich, who, though personally unpopular, understood the importance of principles in political strategy, Rove was pure Machiavellian. Rove calculated that if the Republicans co-opted the Democrats on two issues, education and health care, they could deprive the Democrats of a political agenda. The Gingrichless Republicans went along with the strategy. They passed the "No Child Left Behind Act" which dramatically expanded the role of the federal government in education, and they passed Medicare drug legislation that created another huge federal entitlement program. And although these actions did deprive the Democrats of an agenda, they went against the very principles on which the Republicans had been elected in the first place.

For the last half of their twelve-year reign, Republicans have been talking like Ronald Reagan and acting like Lyndon Johnson. Republicans need to learn that if they act like Democrats, they are likely to be replaced by them.

Rule #3: Clearly articulate how you did what you said you were going to do: Thanks to Karl Rove's strategy, the Republicans neutered the Democratic agenda, but, in the process, they neutered themselves. They rendered themselves incapable of telling voters that they had done anything they said they were going to do. This left voters in a position of having nothing to vote on except the War and political corruption, about which neither party had anything particularly compelling to say.

Karl Rove mistook good political strategy for good politics. Hopefully, he knows better now.

And this brings us to Rule #4: When disenchanted voters have no particular reason to vote for either party, they will vote for change: There comes a point when voters begin to think that the Devil they don't know might possibly be better than the Devil they do know. We could also call this the "What the heck" rule in politics. Neither party is particularly compelling, but all you know is you don't like how things are going, so, what the heck, let's try the other guys for while.

Today, the great national conservative governing coalition forged by Ronald Reagan and fashioned by Newt Gingrich lies in ruins. The party that once enjoyed a unified front of fiscal and social conservatives is dispirited, leaderless, and bereft of an agenda.

As the national Republican Party uses its time in the wilderness to ponder what went wrong, it needs to consider what it was that made it successful in the first place.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

A paean to hypocrisy

It's so tempting to pile on when someone like Ted Haggerty, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, falls from grace. Hypocrisy seems to be the only universally recognized sin left to us, and evangelicals, with their tendency towards personality cults, make themselves especially vulnerable to it.

I have noticed several interesting responses to Haggerty's alleged (but, I suspect, real) failings.

The first kind of response is self-righteousness from people who don't like evangelicals. According to Steve Manning at blog On the Right, "The sooner the GOP cleanses itself of these religious nuts and hypocrites the better!" Another species of this (if you can believe it) is blaming Bush. Here is Mark Nicholas's lucid observation at "Hey evangelicals, wake-up. You been Punk'd in the worst way by Bush, the GOP and their buddies."

Hmmm. Wonder what these people were saying during the Clinton scandals.

In fact the Clinton comparison is instructive. Both claimed to be Christian believers, and both, when caught (not quite literally, but almost) with their pants down, claimed not to have inhaled. But there is an important contrast as well. Haggerty apparently has some semblence of shame as evidenced by the fact that he stepped down from his position, whereas Clinton did not. Not that Haggerty doesn't sound more Clintonesque by the day.

And this brings us to the most interesting comment about the scandal, that by P. Z. Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota who runs the Pharyngula blog. Myers despises Haggerty, but is upset at the whole affair. Why? Because Haggerty is going down for the wrong reasons. Listen to his argument:

The bottom line in this business is that Haggard did nothing illegal. He may have cheated on his wife, which is deplorable, but it's an entirely personal issue, not one that we should be concerned about, and not one that should cause him to lose his job. Having sex with someone isn't a crime, and shouldn't be the cause of all of this outrage. Being a moralistic hypocrite is also not an actionable business.

I'm also not too thrilled with Democrats pointing fingers and using this and the Mark Foley case to accuse the Republican party of being a hotbed of corruption and iniquity. These are people (creepy, unpleasant people, perhaps) who had consensual sex with other adults. Stop acting as if this is a sin or an evil—that kind of narrow moral certitude is the other party's schtick! By playing that game, you've been coopted to serve the right-wing's social agenda, reinforcing that homosexuality is a damnable offense.

Why don't we instead see Haggard's sanctimonious lies, his authoritarian propriation of the church for the Republican party, or his ignorance, which he foists off on his congregation as wisdom, as the real crimes here? I really don't care what he does with his ******* in his private life, but that seems to be the major concern of everyone right now.
Well, there goes my theory about hypocrisy being the universally acknowledged sin. Seems even that must be set aside in order to make way for complete sexual license. This brings us to the old maxim that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. There can be no hypocrisy in Myer's world, because there is no virtue.
The presence of hypocrisy is a sign that virtue is still honored. When the consciousness of hypocrisy goes by the wayside, then we will know that we have abandoned virtue. I'll take hypocrisy with my virtue, thank you very much.
I suspect this is what National Review's David Frum was getting at in his post "Hypocrites?" when he compared a case like Haggerty's, in which there was a public profession of virtue and a private life of vice, and another, imaginary case in which the person openly professes his vice and wears his open profession as a virtue.

Frum says the first person is more moral than the second, since, in his hypocrisy, he at least pays his tribute to virtue. Myers would say that the second person is more moral than the first because he is honest, and, besides, the vice he professes is not really vice in the first place, because there is no virtue--except in the open admission of vice.

This recognition of virtue implicit in hypocrisy is the almost universal assumption in the Christian West, as articulated by Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3--thanks to Philip Klein at the American Specator's blog for pointing it out):
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.
Hypocrisy, like guilt, is necessarily attendant upon virtue. Woe be unto us if it should ever disappear.

Friday, November 03, 2006

More Prichard Committee Mischief

It appears that the Prichard Committee, one of the culprits behind the Kentucky Education Reform act boondoggle of the early 90's, has filed an amicus brief in support of the forced busing in Louisville. With friends like the Prichard Committee, education needs no enemies.

I think I am beginning to notice a pattern with Prichard: in both cases--KERA and forced busing, Prichard is in the position of supporting policies that drive more students into private schools. Busing led to a mass exodus in Jefferson County, and the enactment and implementation of KERA directly preceded a similar exodus on the statewide level.

As a private educator, I may have to reassess the Prichard Committee. Maybe it is on our side after all.

Are all indescretions in state judicial races treated equally?

For Immediate Release
November 3, 2006 A. D.

Contact: Martin Cothran
Phone: 859-329-1919

Are all indiscretions in judicial races treated equally, asks state family group?

LEXINGTON, KY —The state family group that successfully sued to overturn restrictions on the campaign statements of judicial candidates is asking whether a state committee set up to oversee the conduct of judicial candidates is treating all the candidates equally. Specifically, the Family Trust Foundation of Kentucky is asking why the Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee had criticized some judicial candidates for making statements betraying conservative beliefs while candidates in other judicial races, who have reportedly stated their more liberal views, had been ignored.

“According to one liberal activist group,” said Martin Cothran, spokesman for The Family Foundation, “judicial candidates answered a questionnaire committing themselves on gay and lesbian issues, yet, as far we know, nothing has ever been said by the Judicial Conduct Committee.

“It just seems to us that if candidates for the bench are going to be called on the carpet for committing themselves on issues they might be ruling on, it needs to be done even-handedly.”

Cothran pointed to the fact that the Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee had criticized Court of Appeals Judge Rick Johnson, who is running for the state Supreme Court in the 1st District against Judge Bill Cunningham. Johnson had indicated his support for traditional marriage and the death penalty and his opposition to abortion on demand and gun control. Yet several other candidates for judicial office have received endorsements from C*FAIR, the political action committee of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, on the basis of answers C*FAIR has said indicate they are “favorable to the lesbigaytrans community”.

The C*FAIR questionnaire asks candidates about their positions on several specific court cases having to do with abortion and gay rights, as well as about their views on whether sexual orientation should be included in discrimination laws. C*FAIR indicates on its website that it makes its endorsements based on the candidates’ answers. Based on their answers to these questions, C*FAIR has endorsed Justice William McAnulty for Kentucky Supreme Court, as well as Joan L. Byer, Joseph W. “Joe” O’Reilley, Donna Delahanty, Rebecca Swope Atkins, and Eleanor M. Garber for Family Court. It also endorsed Joan A. “Toni” Stringer for District Court.

“If Judge Johnson was wrong in indicating that he is conservative on social issues, then why doesn’t the Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee think it is wrong when candidates express their liberal views on the same subjects?” asked Cothran.

“We understand the importance of making sure judges remain impartial. But we also think those who have placed themselves in a position to monitor judicial races should themselves be impartial.”