The Personal and Political Ramblings of one guy in Texas.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Are we Really Rendering Unto Caesar? 

The first part of the famed Lemon Test states that the statute in question must have a "secular legislative purpose". Okay, fine. But how do we determine the level of secularism? And does the motivation of the group making the proposal matter?

I have always held that all laws are ultimately based upon moral judgments. People have tried to dissuade me from that viewpoint, because (IMO) they didn't much care for where it led, but even arguments which tried to base themselves on the needs of a ordered society forgot that desiring an ordered society is something of a moral judgment in and of itself.

A lot of people get their moral sense from their religion, so it can happen that laws that have a basically secular purpose can be strongly supported or opposed by people because of their religious beliefs. Take welfare. There are Christians, most notably the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who argue that the government should work to help the poor. The motivation for their stance is clearly based upon Christ's commands to help the poor. And generally people have no problem with this.

This same group strenuously opposes abortion (and, foolishly, all other forms of birth control) and people who have no issue with their support of poverty programs scream that they are imposing their moral beliefs on the law. One can argue that abortion laws have secular purpose (if you think murder is bad and you think abortion is murder, its a logical progression).

Okay, so people get hypocritical when it's their ox getting gored, this is nothing new. Some conservatives got all freaked out when some college wanted to have a course on the Koran, have balked at not having prayer at high school football games, and of course there was the idiot judge in Alabama.

Anyway, the point is, it can get messy when a person of conscience is trying to determine if what they are supporting has a purpose beyond their own religious belief agenda set. And people who disagree with your stance will play the separation of church and state card on you, whether its really applicable or not, so you can't look to the opposition for a useful clue. You're going to have to figure this out on your own.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Rendering Unto Caesar 

I've often thought a it would make a good Adult Sunday School class or three to discuss the difficult trick of dealing with religion and politics/government. It can be less straightforward than you think.

Teachers leading kids in prayers at school? Obviously, no (despite demagogues attempts by the Right to argue otherwise). But how about Pell Grants being used to study engineering at Texas Christian University? Arguing against abortion based upon religious conviction? Against the death penalty?

My next serious of posts will be trying to examine this issue. And I hope to work towards a set of guidelines that would help the sincerely religious figure out when something might be okay and when it might be going a too far (sort of like the Supreme Court's Lemon Test). And guidelines is the best one can hope for; this is an area that can get awfully gray-shaded in a hurry.

At the very least, the following issues are going to have to be examined: Morality and the law, what Caesar can be rendered (i.e., what sorts of things should the government be allowed to do or require of you), and practical accommodation.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Great Divide III 

Donald Sensing has a post up which deals with many of the issues I've been trying to look at over the last couple of days. In it he says You remember the old saying, "It's hard to remember that your job is to drain the swamp when you're up to your waist in alligators." The "it was a diversion" side wants to do nothing, really, except kill alligators, as long as they appear. The other side says that killing alligators must be done, but it's urgent to remove the gators' nesting places unless you want to fight alligators down to the fortieth generation.

While the comment refers to the Iraq war, I believe its basic premise can be applied to the anti-war argument. While I agree with the general thrust of his overall commentary, I think here he's giving the anti-war side a bit of short shrift (I said so in the comments, though not in a way complimentary to the anti, I must admit).

The antis want to drain the swamp, too. They simply have a very different idea of how to do it, and to a certain extent a different idea of whom the alligators are. For them, the problem starts with Israel, not with the idea of the Arab world being a set of failed or failing states (that's the Bernard Lewis argument). End the Israelis occupation of the West Bank, they say, and anti-Western hate will take a huge hit from which it might not recover.

Now personally, I think that the settlement policy of Israel was a huge mistake. But in my mind the antis ignore the long standing demand of the Arab hard-liners that Israel must be wiped out. For a brief moment after the first Gulf War, it looked like that Gordian knot had been cut. But it was not so, and plenty of blame exists to go around. But the fact is, there are too many people and governments who either from conviction (Iran's mullahs) or raw cynicism (Syria) want to keep that pot boiling. Put simply, I don't think a reasonably equitable two-state solution or even a one-state (read - ethnic cleansing of the Jews from the Mid-East) is going to even reduce the heat enough to make a sufficient difference.

What is the other prong of the anti argument? Well, oddly enough, it mirrors a prong of the prowar argument: a need for democracy in the Middle-East. And they argue that current American policy makes the prospect of peaceful change more remote. American unilateralism scares and angers people, increasing tacit acceptance of anti-American acts. It undermines support for anti-terror operations. Typically, Iran is cited as an example of this. Except its never explained precisely why the Mullahs of Iran might be interested in ceding power to an increasingly secular and decidedly un-hardline population just because they don't think the US is planning an invasion some time soon. The fact that in recent elections the mullahs were forced to engage in massive disqualifications of reformers pretty much proves the lie that they can use anti-American feelings to increase support for their policies.

Finally, there is a moral component; they argue we cannot complain about civilian deaths from terror acts while we are engaged in military responses that are inevitably going to kill civilians too, regardless of efforts to avoid such deaths.

I should say that while I disagree with the long-term view of the anti regarding the use of American power, I have to agree with them in the short term. In the short term, this sort of robust US action is going to incite more violence. Do we have the stomach for that?

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The Great Divide II 

Yesterday I tried to describe some very basic differences between people who regard the War on Terror as a "real" war and those who do not.

As I was thinking about how to proceed last night, it occurred to me that the question that should apply to the situation is not "Is this a war?" but "Should it be a war?" I can't say for certain, but I suspect for most folks in these camps (including myself), this was not a question that was ever asked. It was just assumed, in the hours and days following 9/11. Probably the vast majority went in for "this is war", though I also suspect that many of them did not stop to consider the potentially vast implications of that. If a nation considers itself at war with someone, they use a very different set of rules and a different cost-benefit calculus when decisions what might be a good idea.

Its all well and good to say you're going to shoot the terrorists wherever you find them, but do you bomb them or send in a CIA hit team? What if they are hiding in a corner of a country run by an less effective but otherwise friendly government, like in the Philippines? What if they are hiding in a country that is friendly but afraid or unwilling to deal with the problem itself, like Pakistan?

There is not, as of yet, any sort of generally accepted ground rules on what might be acceptable for a war on terror. Its not inconceivable that avoiding an "official" or even an "unofficial but understood" set of rules is a good thing. Forcing your enemies to keep guessing about how far you are willing to go can be useful. But it does make things harder on the people who need to make the decisions.

Afghanistan was easy. People were still angry, and it was pretty clear that the Taliban and Al-Queda were simpatico. But if you're in a WAR on terror and its enablers, where else is that going to lead you? Are you prepared to go there? Saudi Arabia has a lot of links to the purveyors of hate that helped create people willing to engage in this sort of thing. You ready to go there?

This is to say that simply being pro-war doesn't make you a "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" type. It also means that supporting going into Afghanistan and toppling the Taliban doesn't make you a war person either, if that's basically as far as you want to go.

As more-left leaning folks have grumbled, "terror" is a tactic, a concept. You can't really go to war against a tactic. On the other hand, at least one of the goals of WW2 was to crush militant fascism, and we certainly did, so I suppose that one can sometimes win a clear victory over at least a concept.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004


Had a triple-post going there for a while. I can see why I might have had an extra, but a double-extra? Interesting. Anyway, should be fixed now.

The Great Divide 

Forget Red vs. Blue. Since 9/11, the real great divide is between those people who feel that the struggle against fundamentalist Islamic terror is a war and those who do not. Certainly there are subdivisions (such as liberal hawks who agree that there is a war on, but that Bush is handling it badly -- the folks over at The New Republic fall in that camp), but lets stick to the big picture.

This post will probably not have a lot of information in it you don't already know. But bear with me please, I'm using it to help frame the discussion to come and organize my thoughts into a coherent strand. If nothing else, it will at least help you see my prejudices.

For those who believe it is a war, almost anything can be at least forgiven (if not enthusiastically permitted)so long as it is seen as part of that struggle. For those who do not, virtually nothing can be forgiven, and often it is seen as part of a further sinister plot to control the country/world.

These lenses color everything people see through. And they have important implications. Both groups have ideological reasons to declare war/not war.

Not War

Broadly speaking, the "not a war" people feel that in some way the USA itself is to blame for 9/11. America's policies created great anger and hate and had these policies been different, there would not be a pool of Islamists willing to kill and die. At worst, this pool would be much smaller, and the sorts of attacks they committed would be much smaller. They basically call for an increased law enforcement effort to get those directly responsible for various terror acts. Any military efforts should be quite small and tightly targeted. The more extreme of these are people who generally were against the Bosnian and Kossovo operations (the so-called Chomskyite Left), and thus might oppose almost any military operation.

Law enforcement, however, must also conform itself pretty strictly to the letter and spirit of the laws; nor should we expand law enforcement's powers in order to improve security.

What they really want is very different US foreign policy, especially regarding Israel. Iraq represents a colossal mistake at all levels, if not some sort of naked grab for power both home and abroad.


"It's a war" people don't precisely care why the Islamists hate us. The fact that they do enough to commit terrorist acts is ample proof of their depravity. Root causes are useful only insofar as they show a way to take the fight to the enemy. They see a place for law enforcement, but regard the prior policy of treating terror mostly as a law enforcement issue as a big mistake. They argue for the vigorous use of military force to go after terror groups in the countries where they reside. Its not entirely clear what would be going to far for the more extreme of these. Another serious terror attack within the US might cause them to call for nuking Mecca.

For these people, Israeli issues are a symptom of the disease, not a means to a cure, and Iraq represents an important and integral part of this struggle.

For these folks, law enforcement is going to have to worry more about stopping terror than legal niceties. Police agencies are going to need greater powers to snoop around than they had before.

Now remember, this is a big picture. I've left out some nuances on both sides in order to keep this post to a reasonable length. We'll be able to get into at least some of the details in the posts to come.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, etc. etc. 

Okay, its supposed to be spring break. I was supposed to be at the San Antonio Zoo. But yesterday I spent pretty much all day in bed with a killer of a virus. No gastrointestinal distress fortunately, but it didn't need any. I think the ear thermometer had me at 104.6 at one point. I also had chills, aches, a headache, and felt as if I'd been rode hard and put up wet.

My temp had slowly gone up over the course of the day, and that 104.6 convinced the wife-unit to run me by the emergency room. 4:30pm on a Tuesday looks like a good time to go to the ER, because there literally wasn't anyone waiting when we got there, but right after I got in it began to get busy.

There, they swabbed me for flu and strep (both negative) and did a chest x-ray for pneumonia (also negative). Since I wasn't showing any of the signs of meningitis, they suggested I go home and wait to see if I improved or got worse. Their thermometers also showed me at 102.something, which is a lot less worrisome. So, $75 plus the tests later, I got a 400mg tab of ibuprofen and went home.

In the end, the hospital visit only gave us some peace of mind, and not a lot of that because the ER doc necessarily had to be a bit hedgy and vague. The basic response was, if it gets worse, come back. But I suppose its nice knowing there are no obvious massive growths in my chest.

I went to bed at 9pm and awoke around 1am, feeling much different. My fever had clearly broken. I didn't sleep real well from 2am on, but I was definitely on the upswing. As of this writing my temp is 100.5F (down from reading even a couple hours before), and its weird because I feel a lot hotter and temperature uncomfortable than I did yesterday under the covers running 104.

So I'm stuck at home and they have gone to the zoo. Though I'm much much better, there's no way I can or should go anywhere today. Hopefully tomorrow I'll be all the way better and we can ALL do something fun.

Monday, March 15, 2004

It's Spring Break, People! 

So very light blogging this week.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Tangled Up in Me II 

I think my last post may have confused some people. At least, the 2-3 who commented on it, amongst the half-dozen or so of you that read this.

I'm not trying to defend the excesses (and there are many) of the Republicans. I'm just pointing out that all of my alternatives are frankly rather poor in terms of what matters to me. I'm really not sure how to make that more clear without going into a much longer post than I frankly have time for right now.

Ages ago, I attempted to write up a political platform for the Party of Jammer. I never finished it, and its now pretty dated. I think, looking back on it now, it was an attempt to define in modern terms a sort of Teddy Roosevelt-Republicanism. It was a recognition of the difficult balancing act that must be observed between liberty and license, caution and control.

There are those that argue the modern Democratic Party represents precisely that. Certainly it has its proponents in the Democratic Leadership Council. But the DLC is on the outs right now, and you can bet that the activists of the Democratic base (who are of course more left than the average Dem just as the activists of the Republican base are more right than the average Rep) are hoping that the no-show of Lieberman in the primaries has killed it off (can't find the link, but it was in The Nation).

TR style Republicanism has certainly taken a beating from Republicans themselves over the past several years, and I while I still have hope for a revival (younger people who identify as conservatives are a lot less het up over gay marriage than their parents, for example) the current leaderships is not going in the right direction.

I need to cut this short for now and run some errands. Perhaps I'll try and expand on it some more, assuming anyone is interested.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Tangled Up in Me 

I have a tendency to bash on the "Left" on this blog. I don't generally bash on the "Right" except on specific issues. So I'm more of a conservative than a liberal. Big deal, its not like there aren't quite a lot of conservatives around. What have you not seen me do? That's right, you haven't generally seen me actually boosting anyone.

Which is pretty ironic, since I generally don't have a lot of use for people who go around sniping at others without ever saying what should be done, as opposed to what shouldn't. But I find myself in a bad spot. As I complained once before, I don't feel very much at home in either political party. But I have tended to vote Republican. You see, to me liberty pretty much goes hand in hand with less government. Ergo, I tend to pull the lever for the GOP. You don't vote Democrat if you believe in less or minimal government. You might have plenty of good reasons, but size of government is not one of your concerns.

That is not always the case, of course. Sometimes more government does mean more liberty. Or at least fairness which can effectively be the same thing. However, I believe that the more government does for people, the less inclination people have to do for themselves about all sorts of things. And this tendency is a bad thing, in my opinion.

While thinking about this, it occurred to me what I see as the peculiar contradictions of modern American liberalism and conservatism. Liberalism, in general, assumes that people can be better, while at the same time espousing a governmental philosophy that places fewer and fewer demands upon them to do so. Conservatism states that people cannot be made better, yet espouses a philosophy that demands they be better in order to work.

Anyway, back to the not boosting. Thing is, I'm becoming worried that conservatism in the US has sort of gone off the rails. The whole gay marriage thing is an example. Too many Jerry Falwell-types have too much clout for me to be comfortable. Bush is allowing way too much pork-barrel spending, is playing footsie with bad science, and seems unwilling to ever admit a mistake of any sort.

But when I look to the Democrats, I see they've nominated John Kerry, a man who is completely, utterly incoherent on the subject of the Iraq War, clueless on the WoT, and pretty much devoted to the idea of spending gobs more money on a fistful of social programs. Oh, and he'd raise taxes to pay for them, forgetting that even with no Bush tax cuts whatsoever, we'd still have great big deficits, and they wouldn't be any smaller because he'd spend the money as opposed to simply not taking it in.

I cannot but moan in despair.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Too Much, so lets go with Haiti 

There's too much out there deserves some sort of a comment. The Democrats nuclear response to Bush's campaign ad, that has a few seconds of 9/11 imagery in it. The Hugo Chavez shenanigans under way in Venezuala. The snickers from those who see Bush's low poll numbers as proof of a Dem landslide. The continuing inability of the Left to understand that private companies get to have a say in what they transmit over the airwarves.

Then there's this odd article about Haiti. It's so badly written, its quite hard to tell what point it has, if any, except maybe that the United States government is bad and somehow to blame for everything that has gone wrong. Precisely how or why is a bit vague.

Let's pull out some quotes:

But the coup against Aristide, and by extension against the Haitian people, was prolonged, a chronic coup. It began when Aristide was first elected at the end of 1990 and continued right up until he was hustled aboard a plane...

Erm. We do know that the Clinton Administration intervened here and had Aristide re-instated...

One thing about coups: They don't just happen. In a country like Haiti, where the military has been disbanded for nearly a decade, soldiers don't simply emerge from the underbrush; they have to be reorganized, retrained and resupplied. And of course, for something to be organized, someone has to organize it.

Okay. The author then says it was largely the work of local elites, while including some weird non-sequitors about how Americans had helped arrange the first Hatian revolt -- in the 1800's, against the French.

The groundwork for this coup was laid during the months when Aristide was first re-establishing his government. When the Clinton Administration reinstated Aristide, it too brought in the Marines, ostensibly for nation-building but also to make sure the reinstalled president didn't get up to any populist shenanigans: Clinton knew he was bringing Aristide back against the will of the Haitian elite, and the US President feared both another coup by the elite against Aristide, and then revenge by Aristide's supporters. So the Marines secured the transition back to Aristide and then remained for about a year and a half, during which time they did not disarm the Haitian army or the remainder of the Duvaliers' feared Tontons Macoutes. It was clear at the time that the Americans wanted to make sure there would be arms floating around that could be used against the Haitian government if need be.

Okay, now we have a paragraph which appears to have a contradiction not only within it, but contradicts the earlier quote. Clinton brings Aristide back, worries about violence, but does not disarm the army or the Macoutes. Except we were told just above that the army had been disbanded for ten years. Oh, and why would Clinton want to be able to arrange a coup later anyway? The writer never says. I'm not kidding. The writer insinuates darkly throughout the piece, and then never says why the Americans would want Aristide gone.

We don't even really get why the Haitian elites wanted him gone. There's a line above that alludes to "populist shenanigans" (read "massive wealth redistribution") but no indication in the article that Aristide had, in fact tried any. Perhaps he did. But why any Admnistration would especially care about Haitian businesspeople is not really explained. Certainly the USA has a bad history on that sort of thing in Central America, but that was usually because of American businesspeople, not the locals.

Here's a real gem:

It would be nice if Aristide were a saint. It's comfortable to take the side of a saint. But he isn't one. Many people died under his government who shouldn't have, and very few indeed are those who have been brought to justice for those crimes. But he didn't start out to be a brutal dictator:
(emphasis added).

Okay, so he didn't start out as a brutal dictator. But that sort of suggests that he is one now, right? Or was, I guess, since he's not there anymore. Since when did the Left get all worried about popular coups getting rid of brutal dictators? When you can snark at the Bushies, I guess. Or maybe America? A lot of people on the Left get very riled up about insinuations that they don't really like the United States. But when you get ridiculous articles like this one, it gets very hard to believe that there are not in fact, quite a few people over on that side of the political fence that really don't like America, and that everything bad in the world is somehow the fault of America, especially when Republicans are in power.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004


A number of short takes...

From Dean Esmay, we find a link to an interesting take on the Passion controversy. The thesis: Liberals, and being a member of the media, I of course count myself among them, can be a pretty funny bunch. When we are sympathetic to a controversial work of pop culture, we invoke the artist's right to create in an climate of total freedom, whatever feelings of outrage the work may stoke among the ignorati. (That is: other people.) When we disapprove, we talk about his responsibility to the sensitivities and sensibilities of good people. (That is: us.)

Human hypocrisy is nothing new (and no respecter of political leanings), but this time its the people most used to demanding freedom of expression on the wrong side. Folks, if your argument is that the film is bad because people you don't like might think its good, you're not in a good place. Here's the money quote from that link:However much you might play at seeing his work as just another movie, Gibson has gone outside the normal bounds of show business and into the territory of America's religious absolutists: John Ashcroft having himself anointed with oil, gay-hating lawmakers attempting to write Leviticus into the Constitution, antiabortionists shooting to kill, generals declaring holy war against the Muslim infidel. Our country has a great, great many such people who do not consider their convictions to be open to discussion. They maintain a significant hold on political power; and since a lot of them have an antinomian streak, I doubt the rule of law would stand in their way, should we manage to loosen their grip. The ever-boyish and ingenuous Gibson, with his simple faith, has made The Passion of the Christ as a gift for these people. Thumbs down.

Case closed.

After cleaning up in the Super Tuesday primaries yesterday, it looks like Kerry is the man for the Democrats. They could have picked a worse candidate, a suppose (there are more than a few days I wish John McCain had won the Republican nomination in 2000). But they also could have done a whole lot better. I'm not sure who among the field of people who ran would have been better overall, every single one of them had their problems, but I think I'm with Mickey Kaus on his shortcomings. Economically, all we lack are good job numbers to end the single most worrisome domestic issue for Bush. Iraq could still go to hell (lefties would argue its already there), and that would sink Bush, but if it doesn't...

Gay marriage will be a non-issue in ten years of so. Why? Younger people simply aren't as wigged out by the idea of gay people as their parents are. See Andrew Sullivan's email of the day. Certainly this attitude isn't universal. But I think its a trend, and one that also shows no sign of slowing down, much less reversing. Once gay people are not seen as some strange other, then its hard not to grant them access to the same rights everyone else has. And you have to wonder how many gay people would persist in the sort of outrageous behavior that freaks some people out if they were allowed to be normal?

Finally, a housekeeping note. I still believe I should remove Southpaw and replace them with Client and Server, but whenever I try to change my blog template, it hoses my connection and nothing happens. I need to work with the Blogger people about it, but in the meantime, don't think I've changed my mind.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

You Say Pot - a - to, I say... 

I'm really taken with the vast gulf of disagreement over Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ". Andrew Sullivan regards it as basically pornographic, and anti-Semitic to boot. On the other hand, Robert Tagorda finds it deeply moving and not anti-Semitic at all. Roger Ebert, not noted for being terribly conservative, clearly found it a very powerful film, though he felt a few changes might have made it better and perhaps less problematic.

In some places, the exact same detail is used to make the person's point. The best example is the fact that it is Gibson's hands we see driving the nails into Jesus' hands and feet. For its detractors, this is a sign of Mel's meglomania and love of the violence. For its supporters, this is showing one of the important things that Christians need to remember: It wasn't the Romans or the Jews who killed Christ, it was all of us. We, by our sins, made Christ's death necessary.

I'm not going to argue who is right. I've not seen the movie, and the descriptions of the violence by both sides mean I'm not going to. But its amazing to me how two sets of people can see the exact same thing and come away with such different impressions. I'm familiar with the Rashamon effect. But this was a movie. This isn't some event that happened unexpectedly, where people weren't expecting to need to recall the details. People went in to this paying attention, making notes, etc. It's very controversial nature insured people were watching closely. This goes beyond the simple matter of whether or not it's a good movie.

We know how people spin things for their side, trying to minimize the damage when things go wrong and maximize the credit when they go right. I wonder if that is really what is happening here. Is it a matter of pre-conceived notions coloring what people think they've seen? That sort of thing does happen all the time. And what sort of motives might be people have for taking a particular line? I'm going to assume that everyone is being sincere in their opinions, and that any bias is basically unconscious (with the possible exception of this Nation review, where the review gives it a thumbs down, although he's not seen the flick. How surprising -- not).

I don't want to suggest some sort of secularist plot on the part of detractors, or sinister motives for the supporters. You think Andrew Sullivan is anti-Christian? Roger Ebert anti-Semitic? Yeah, right.

I don't really have a point here. I just wanted to make a note of this interesting phenomenon, that for once is not freighted with obvious political implications.

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