Playing the Indian Card

Monday, December 31, 2007

There is No Shortage of Priests

I have heard for some time of the crisis in Catholic vocations—that is, of a shortage of priests.

It seems to me that this shortage is purely conceptual. God is providing, as always. We simply have not twigged to the fact that we need fewer priests, in the modern developed world, than we once did.

In the Philippines, where my wife’s family still lives, there is a small roadside chapel every few kilometers throughout the countryside. Most people attend services there. Most do without a priest, except on special occasions—a lay minister reads the service, and distributes pre-consecrated hosts.

Why? Because Filipinos cannot afford cars. If they are to attend a mass, it must be within walking distance.

This used to be close to the case in Canada, even three generations ago. We all traveled by horse power; the famous Pony Express, trying for speed, managed 9 mph and had to switch horses every 25 miles. We also lived, half of us, widely scattered in homesteads out on the land. We now live, 85 percent of us, in the cities. Remember that next time you see a small rural church shuttered. Yes, there are not enough priests to keep it open. But there are also fewer parishioners, and less need for a church in that location.

The evangelical Protestant groups that are growing, in America and in the Third World, seem simply to have grasped this reality. Their churches are huge and centralized. There is even a big new Pentecostal church in my hometown, Gananoque; their old one was tiny. The new one, interestingly, is right by the turnoff from the highway.

Megachurches are simply more efficient. With a megachurch, and one big congregation, you need only one priest, where before you might have needed twenty. Yes, there are other things needed than consecrating the host—but these other things can be done by lay people.

Megachurches also serve an important social function, in our disjointed, rootless times. They create community. Families come on Sundays not just to worship, but to socialize, to eat, to learn, to be entertained. There is little enough to do in a typical suburb, and little enough contact with neighbours. Some fault this as insufficiently religious in spirit. I laud it as filling an essential need, the need for community. Especially in these times, when the wider culture can be hostile to traditional Christian or Catholic values, an all-embracing Christian community is very much called for. A place that has something always going on for children, young people, singles, married couples, and the elderly.

And, after all, what could be more Catholic than a megachurch? We’ve always had them. We invented the concept. They’re called cathedrals.

We still have cathedrals, of course. But somehow, over the years, we have lost part of the essence of the cathedral experience. They used to be far more what megachurches are today. Most old cathedrals in Europe were in the middle or at the head of a large open space, a plaza or piazza. This piazza was also the center of the city’s life. On Sundays, the whole town would be there, doing far more than just attending services. There was a lively market; there were live performances; there were places to dine. Just as in a modern Protestant megachurch, church and Sunday were a full-day experience. The same was true, incidentally, of other religious buildings, in other cultures. A large Buddhist temple would always feature a restaurant and a library, for example. A mosque would include a restaurant, a hospital and a hotel.

The evangelical Protestants have an advantage: their megachurches are new, and can be built from the ground up to reflect modern needs. Catholic cathedrals tend, for example, to lack needed parking. They do not usually tend to be near the highway. But with some awareness of the concept, much can probably be done in terms of retrofitting.

As it happens, I should soon have some personal experience of a Catholic megachurch. The government of this Muslim Emirate has permitted the construction of a new Catholic church to serve the entire country, due to open in about a month. That’s a congregation of 140,000 souls. The complex will, in megachurch style, include a conference center, bookstore, educational building, and café.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

It Must be My Fault

The December 26 posting on this site, “Saudi Apartheid,” which argued that women in Saudi Arabia are not really the victims of apartheid in the same sense as South African blacks, appeared also, in slightly amended version, in the letter columns of the National Post.

This prompted a response in the December 29 edition of that paper. The correspondent argued that no less august a body than Amnesty International had declared that Saudi women are oppressed.

An appeal to authority never a legitimate argument. But for my opinion of that particular authority, the reader might like to review the entry on this site titled “The Life Cycle of an Idealistic Organization,” and posted August 28, 2007.

The respondent also, inevitably, cited the recent case of a Shi’ite woman sentenced to 100 lashes as proof that women in Saudi Arabia are indeed discriminated against. (She does not note that the sentence was ultimately overturned; and does not realize that the men who raped her were not the man she was illicitly visiting.)

But this was not in fact a case of sexual discrimination at all, as I pointed out in the entry on this site titled “Saudi Lashings,” posted November 19, 2007.

The subtext here, I think, is a pervasive, almost unconscious assumption that women should not be held accountable for their own actions—the same attitude, indeed, that deems it proper to declare Saudi women “oppressed” for choosing to wear a hijab. If anything a woman does is somehow offensive to anyone, it must be the fault of the nearest man.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Benazir Bhutto Died for Our Sins

Perhaps it is just human nature to seek meaning in the meaningless, hope in the hopeless; but I hope some good may come of the sad and evil assassination of Benazir Bhutto. It is now pretty clear that Al Qaeda is responsible—they have publicly taken credit, and the Pakistani security services concur.

This may be the beginning of the end for Al Qaeda.

Having lived here in the Gulf for a few years, I think I now understand a little about Arab (not Muslim, but specifically Arab) culture. Arabs value courage and daring highly. They also value courtesy and gallantry.

Say what you will, there was courage and daring in blowing up the twin towers. Arabs tend to admire Hitler for the same reason. Evil, sure, sure, but the man had chutzpah, didn’t he?

But there is little gallantry in blowing up a woman.

Indeed, there were already signs the tide of public opinion had turned against the militants. It’s not just that violence is down in Iraq; there were photos at Christmas of midnight mass at Baghdad’s Christian churches, with the local Muslim clerics sitting in the front rows. The pope received a congratulatory Christmas message signed by Muslim religious leaders around the world. Considering how difficult it is to get Muslim religious leaders to agree on anything, this was quite remarkable—and it was the second such message he has received recently. It was as though the true religious authorities, were—some might say belatedly, but don’t discount the courage involved--deliberately and publicly disassociating themselves from any anti-Christian or anti-Western sentiments.

Here in the Gulf, I believe I have seen a similar attitude shift on the ground. This Christmas, for the first time, my own nearest shopping mall featured a large Christmas tree. Christmas decorations were everywhere; though the nation is officially Muslim, and it was illegal to attend a mass only a few years ago. A few years ago, there might have been a public uproar about this, suggesting it meant a decline in public piety. Instead, this year, the newspapers report that the “celebration of Christmas is catching on in the Emirate.” The same paper recently printed an article by a leading cleric explaining that Christians, as followers of a prophet and worshippers of the true God, went to heaven.

In sum, Al Qaeda may have already managed to give anti-Western and anti-Christian feelings a bad name, among the general public as well as among Muslim thinkers. It is one thing to contemplate them blowing up people of a different culture far away in New York City or London. But these days, Al Qaeda has been almost exclusively blowing up fellow Muslims. They are no longer a problem for America so much as for Iraq and Pakistan; it is quite a different thing to worry about yourself being blown up at the local souk or public park. This is bound to be less popular.

Does George Bush deserve some credit for this turnaround? Probably, yes. He may have been right: it is better to pin down the terrorists in the streets of Baghdad (or Rawalpindi) than let them take the fight to New York City. It shows the locals their true colours. It is also probably true that his relative forcefulness played well to an Arab gallery. The Americans responded to Al Qaeda’s daring attack with their own display of courage and daring. To have reacted less decisively might have earned contempt in the Arab world, where the martial virtues are still admired.

So Benazir Bhutto may well not have died in vain. I am hopeful she will be remembered by history as almost a saviour figure, oddly Christ-like, whose self-sacrificing death ultimately expunged an evil that had infected Dar-al-Islam.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Let's Talk Qualifications

Suppose, for a moment, that we picked political leaders the same way we might hire an employee. Wouldn’t that make some sense? After all, that is what our political leadres are--our employees. Why not, as voters, have a look at everyone’s resume, and then chose whomever is most qualified? That way, most times, we would get the best possible leader, wouldn’t we?

Oddly, we do not. Most people are barely aware of politicians’ resumes. We are swayed by their stands on various issues. I'm not sure why--the issues they will face as actual leaders are largely unpredictable, and the stance of a given candidate on a given issue tends to change with the polls. Seems a bit of a con. Why not go for pure competence?

For those who might want to do this, let me help. I thought I’d try the exercise with the current crop of US presidential contenders.

First, I went online and sketched out resumes as best I could. Then I awarded one point for each year of executive experience, one point for each year of government experience, one point for each year of higher education, and one extra point for each earned degree. All the candidates attended pretty creditable universities, so quality of education did not seem to be a big factor. Nevertheless, I gave an extra point to those who, like Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney, had attended Ivy League (Yale and Harvard, respectively). Then I gave extra points for extra distinctions that seemed relevant: Giuliani’s Time Man of the Year citation, McCain’s medals, Edwards’ “national award for public service,” given by the US Trial Lawyers’ association; or overall "significant success" in a job--like Romney's handling of the troubled Salt Lake City Olympics.

I then deducted one point for prominent family connections. I think this is a warranted handicap—someone coming from a poor or obscure family, and making a home run in life, has really done more than someone who was born on second base. This means, for example, that Hillary Clinton loses a point for being married to a former president; John McCain loses a point for having both a father and a grandfather who were admirals. Perhaps it should have been more.

Here are the standings I end up with:

John McCain: 54 points
Mitt Romney: 40 points
Rudy Giuliani: 39 points
Mike Huckabee: 34.5 points
Fred Thompson: 21 points
Barack Obama: 21 points
Hillary Clinton: 16 points
John Edwards: 16 points

So McCain ought to be our choice. Of course, he has a bit of an advantage—he is older than the other candidates, and so has had more years in which to earn his distinctions. This might be counterbalanced by a certain lack of vitality. Perhaps; I guess we can judge that by watching him on the campaign trail. If so, Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani become the standouts, with only a whisker between them.

It is also noticeable that the Democratic candidates are as a group less qualified than the Republicans. This may not be fair; the Republicans have been the majority party for the past few years, so it stands to reason that its adherents have had greater opportunities to acquire government experience.

Nevertheless, going for less experience and fewer qualifications has been a Democratic tendency for some time, including times when it was the majority party. Jimmy Carter had a relatively light resume; so did JFK; so did Harry Truman; so did Bill Clinton. A detractor might say Democrats have a weakness for a smooth talker and a pretty face; a supporter might argue that this shows Democrats have a preference for the underdog.

The one point on which the Democratic candidates tend to show well is on education. This may reflect the role of academe as a bastion of the left. Conversely, Republicans are much strounger on executive experience. This may reflect the role of the business world as a comparable bastion of the right.

For those not bored by this point, here are the fragmentary resumes I put together, plus the standings in the various evaluated categories:

John McCain:
US Naval Academy graduate.
In active naval service during Cuban missile crisis and blockade.
Requested combat duty in Vietnam.
Navy pilot in Vietnam War.
Injured in fire on USS Forrestal.
5.5 years as a POW; underwent torture. Refused release when offered.
Studied for one year at the National War College.
Became commanding officer of naval air squadron.
Served as US Navy liaison officer to US Senate; retired as captain.
Received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, the Purple Heart, and a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Four years as Congressman.
Twenty-one years as a Senator; served on Armed Services Committee, Indian Affairs Committee; chaired Commerce Committee.
Adopted disabled Bangladeshi child.

Mitt Romney:
BA, Brigham Young University.
JD, MBA, Harvard. Baker Scholar.
Co-founder, Bain Capital.
CEO, Bain & Company. Turned failing business around.
Amassed personal fortune of circa $200 million.
CEO, 2002 Winter Olympics. Turned around failing and scandal-ridden games, turned a profit.
Four years as governor of Massachusetts.

Rudy Giuliani:
Graduated from Manhattan College.
JD, New York University. Made law review.
US Attorney.
Associate Deputy Attorney General under Ford.
Associate Attorney General under Reagan.
Mayor of New York for 6 years.
Time Magazine Man of the Year, 2001.
Honourary knighthood from the UK.
Founder of Giuliani Partners.

Mike Huckabee:
BA, Ouachita Baptist University.
One year as a graduate student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Baptist pastor. President of a Christian TV station. President, Arkansas State Baptist Convention.
Three years as Lieutenant-Governor of Arkansas. Ten years as governor of Arkansas.

Fred Thompson:
BA, University of Memphis.
JD, Vanderbilt University, on scholarship.
Minority counsel, Senate Watergate Committee.
Special Counsel, Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Special Counsel, Senate Intelligence Committee.
Successful actor.
Seven years as a Senator; chaired Committee for Governmental Affairs, served on Finance Committee, the Intelligence Committee, and the National Security Working Group.

Barack Obama:
BA, Columbia University.
JD, Harvard University. President of Harvard Law Review.
Taught law at University of Chicago.
8 years in the Illinois State Senate.
Two years in the US Senate.
Served on Senate Committees for Foreign Relations; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; and Veterans' Affairs.

Hillary Clinton:
Graduated from Wellesley College.
JD, Yale Law School.
Further postgraduate study at Yale.
Taught law at University of Arkansas.
Named by the National Law Journal as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America.
Six years as a Senator; served on Armed Services Committee.

John Edwards:
BA, NC State University.
The Association of Trial Lawyers of America's national award for public service.
Six years in the US Senate. Served on Intelligence and Judiciary Committees.
Nominated by the Democratic Party as their VP candidate, 2004.

Government experience:
McCain: 25 years
Giuliani: 16 years (significant success)
Huckabee: 13 years
Thompson: 11 years
Obama: 10 years
Clinton: 6 years
Edwards: 6 years
Romney: 4 years

Executive experience:
Romney: 23 years (significant success)
McCain: 19 years (as Navy officer)
Huckabee: 16 years
Giuliani: 9 years (significant success)
Thompson: 0 years
Clinton: 0 years
Obama: 0 years
Edwards: 0 years

Educational background:
Romney: 8 years, 3 degrees; Harvard
Clinton: 8 years, 2 degrees; Yale
Obama: 7 years, 2 degrees; Columbia, Harvard
Giuliani: 7 years, 2 degrees
Thompson: 7 years, 2 degrees
Edwards: 7 years, 2 degrees
McCain: 5 years (undistinguished), plus pilot training, 1 degree
Huckabee: 4.5 years, 1 degree

Special distinctions noted:
McCain: 5 (military medals)
Giuliani: 3 (knighthood, Man of the Year, 9/11)
Romney: 1 (Salt Lake City Olympics)
Thompson: 1 (distinguished acting career)
Obama: 1 (Harvard Law Review President)
Edwards: 1 (award for public service)
Huckabee: 0
Clinton: 0

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Saudi Apartheid

Anne Applebaum, in yesterday’s National Post, asks, “Where is the outrage over Saudi gender apartheid?” (National Post, December 26). “In Saudi Arabia,” she advises us, “women still can’t vote, can’t drive, can’t leave the house without a male relative.” She wants a campaign on behalf of Saudi women comparable to the campaign against South African apartheid some years ago.

She misses, of course, a major difference between the Saudi treatment of women and the segregation of blacks in South Africa. The segregation of blacks was done in order to keep black and white lives apart. Women and men are ultimately not kept apart in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, they invariably share the same homes, the same families, the same bedrooms, even the same beds.

It is not, in other words, a matter of segregation of women. It is a matter of segregating non-relatives, of either sex. This is not oppression, unless unrestricted sex is a fundamental human right.

Applebaum oddly misses another important point. It was fairly clear that blacks in South Africa were not happy with the situation under apartheid. It is not so clear that Saudi women would prefer to live like Westerners. Perhaps feminists ought to allow them the dignity of asking them first?

Applebaum laments that Saudi women still cannot vote. True enough; they can’t. But she omits the important fact that Saudi men cannot vote either. Don’t men count?

She claims Saudi women cannot leave the house without a male relative. This is false: they cannot travel cross-country alone; but they are free to go out and about doing their shopping and visiting. The law, however ill-conceived, is intended for their safety.

Applebaum is correct, at least, that Saudi women are not allowed to drive. She might have cited other restrictions; but, to be fair, she should also have noted that Saudi women have rights not accorded to Saudi men. The legal right to be supported by their nearest male relative, for example.

As it happens, I live in the Saudi 'hood. I have experienced personally some of the discrimination against women here. Whenever there is a lineup for a service, for example, women are served before men. Most attractions have special days on which men cannot attend unless accompanied by a woman—women are free to go any time. Most parks are designated “for women and children only”; no dogs or men allowed. On the buses, the men must sit in the back; women sit where they like. Men must surrender their seats to women.

I have to tell you, in practice, it looks and feels a whole lot like discrimination against men.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Evil Legacy of European Colonialism

Dear Abbot:

The Third World is poor today because of the legacy of colonialism. While the charges of corruption and incompetence are, in many cases, true, let us not forget what created the conditions which gave rise to such regimes: subjugation and colonization by European governments.

Guilty White Liberal

Dear Guilty:

Certainly not because of a legacy of colonialism. Let’s look at that.

Suppose that European colonialism was purely exploitative, and not, as it was generally thought at the time, a type of foreign aid. Even so—when did it end? India gained independence in 1947. Qatar and the Gulf States gained independence in 1972. Let’s split the difference; say that the average former colony of Western Europe in the Third World achieved independence about 47 years ago, circa 1960.

Now, that does seem like a fair length of time to make good any lingering unwanted colonial legacy. That’s two generations of leadership.

Compare the postwar experience of Germany and Japan. They lost a total war, unconditionally. They were more or less reduced to rubble. Surely no colonial oppression, however severe, could have been more devastating.

Now count 47 years forward from this point: that’s 1992. Both were in fairly good shape by then, weren’t they? So is it reasonable to blame a claimed exploitation two generations ago in other cases?

Nor does the German and Japanese case seem to be an artifact of a particularly generous peace settlement. The same had been done before. Japan’s colonization of Korea was, by most accounts, one of the harshest of colonial regimes. It included an attempt to wipe out the Korean language, for example, and live medical experiments on Koreans. Nevertheless, wasn’t South Korea doing fairly well by 1992? France lost the Franco-Prussian War badly in 1871. Paris was starving, and France was charged a deliberately exploitative indemnity. Nevertheless, France pulled itself sufficiently together to stage two world expositions, erect the Eiffel Tower as the world’s tallest building, become the acknowledged center of world culture, and come back and defeat Germany, by 1918—47 years later. Germany, similarly crippled and stripped of its resources as a result of that war, in a notoriously rapacious peace settlement, came back to conquer France by 1940, and indeed made a serious bid to take over the world—21 years later.

Odd that these other tragically oppressed countries cannot manage the same. Note too, neither Germany, nor France, nor Japan, nor South Korea, are particularly rich in natural resources. Not nearly as rich as, say, the Philippines, Nigeria, Iran, or Zambia.

Now let’s compare culturally similar areas with different experiences of colonialism. Is Ethiopia, not colonized but for a brief period by Italy, doing so much better than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa? No: of the 195 nations tracked by NationMaster for GDP per capita, Ethiopia ranks 192nd. Most African countries, obviously, do better. Similarly, compare the experience of Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore, all former colonies, all ethnically and culturally Chinese, with that of Mainland China, which mostly avoided direct colonization. Singapore: nominal GDP per capita: $26,892. Hong Kong: $25,592. PR China: $1,712. Or, indeed, compare Canada, fully independent only in 1933 by the Statue of Westminster, with any given Latin American country—most having achieved full independence in the early 19th century. Is Canada really doing so much worse than Argentina? Or compare Saudi Arabia with the smaller Gulf States—Saudi achieved independence from Turkey in 1918; the others were held by Britain until the 1970s. Is Saudi in better shape? No; in terms of GDP per capita, it is doing worse, despite having far more oil. Saudi: $13,399 per capita; Qatar: $52,299; UAE, $28,611; Bahrain, $17,773; Kuwait, $31,860.

Frankly, while there were some cases of genuine exploitation, it looks as though most nations colonized by Western European powers last century actually have an advantage over those who were not. Nor should this be surprising. This is just what the European powers thought they were doing, and intended to do, for the most part: to bring peace, order, and good government, to mentor and educate, to facilitate trade, and to build infrastructure. All of this should have been to the benefit of the local population. Empires were commonly thought of not as moneymaking ventures, but as a drain upon the resources of the home country.

Yes, the colonial masters hoped at best to make a profit, but from expanding trade: a large empire was a large free trade area. Free trade is to the benefit of both parties. If it is exploitation, it is an exploitation the rich world has since embraced for themselves, in such new empires as the EU and NAFTA.

Reality check: if the European powers were really in the business of ruthless exploitation, why would Britain pull out of the Persian Gulf in the 1970s, precisely when their tiny charges, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, previously economic basket cases, became fantastically profitable? These are even today small, militarily puny countries. In purely military terms, Britain had it chosen so could still be sitting on the oil and gas reserves of Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the UAE. It would probably have been easier than clinging to the Falklands.

Finally, there was nothing new to most of the nations the Europeans colonized about the experience of colonialism. It is the norm of world history—the nation state is mostly a modern European creation, and itself part of Europe’s legacy to the Third World. Before Europe came, what Third World nations were unified, free and self-governing? Only a handful. China was held by the Manchus—the Manchurians. Hindu India was held by the Muslim Moghuls—the Mongols. The Arab Middle East was held by Turkey. Africa was primarily tribal, but with more powerful tribes often enslaving their neighbours. Consider the history of Israel in the Bible, and realize that it was typical of pre-modern nations generally. The only thing special about their experience of European colonialism is that it, uniquely, ended amicably with their complete freedom.

No—this continuing claim of harmful colonial legacy is a con perpetuated by corrupt ruling classes. It is a scapegoating of foreigners, no more plausible than, no more noble than, and more or less of a piece with Hitler’s scapegoating of the Jews. It is the traditional technique of a bad, oppressive government.


Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

For Christmas Eve, here is a link to images from the Bible as they might appear on Google Earth.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Princess and the Pea

In the official version of Stalin’s life story, his father was a drunkard who beat him regularly. In fact, according to Simon Rees, writing in Military History (“Historians are still trying to sort out the dark private life and strange death of Josef Stalin,” October, 2003, p. 18), “his home life as no worse than that of the other poor people of Gori.”

In the official version of Hitler’s life story, his father was a drunkard who beat him regularly. In fact, according to Karl Dietrich Bracher, in his detailed study The German Dictatorship (NY: Praeger, 1970, p. 58), “The father was not a chronic alcoholic, but, rather, a comparatively progressive man with a good job.”

Rather, there is reason to suppose that both Hitler and Stalin were pampered by their mothers. Stalin was an only child, his three older siblings all having died in infancy. One might expect he was especially valued by his mother for this reason. His father was largely absent during his childhood, having moved to another city for better work—leaving little counterbalance to an over-indulgent mother.

Hitler was supported by his mother throughout his early adulthood, with apparently no need to work for a living. “After the death of his father,” Bracher writes, “his mother afforded [him] … two-and-a-half years of idleness.” (p. 59). Bracher refers to her as “over-indulgent.”

Of course, no one can know for certain; but this may shed some light on the current naïve faith among social workers that the abused go on to abuse, and the bullied go on to bully. For such claims are always based on asking questions of current abusers, or of current bullies. If one has a fixed habit of blaming others for everything, and pushing one’s bad feelings off onto others, isn’t one likely to do exactly the same thing here? Isn’t a bully or a psychopath automatically going to claim to have been bullied or abused themselves?

Yet the truth is likely to be the opposite—when one is accustomed to being treated very well, one expects it. Receive anything less, and one is liable to consider oneself hard done by. The traditional fairy tale of the Princess and the Pea contains a great deal of folk wisdom. When one is pampered for long enough, any inevitable ill feeling is liable to be interpreted as oppression. The truly oppressed, on the other hand, are more likely to remain silent—through long habit.

This also explains feminism. Women have traditionally been pampered, not oppressed. Men have traditionally been told to buck up and shut up.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Mazel Tov!

Tony Blair has become a Catholic.

Giuliani Cleared

Apparently the New York Times--no friend of Rudu Giuliani--has done some good old-fashioned investigative reporting on the ex-mayor's accounting scandal. And found, as I suspected, that there was probably no wrongdoing.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Nasty, Brutish, and Short

Here's a link to a lecture by Stephen Pinker that, while off-base in some of its assumptions, explodes the common myth that the life of aboriginal people was idyllic.

Too many people confuse hunter-gatherer existence with the Garden of Eden.

I think more generally the idea of a past golden age is a psychological phenomenon. I think it really comes from projected memories of childhood. Note that the story of Genesis reports that people back in the days soon after the Creation were giants, and lived for a very long time. Exactly--in the eyes of a child.

I believe original sin, accordingly, is something that really happened in each of our childhoods. I think it is something inherent in coming into self-awareness; we decide, at some point, that we are ourselves the centre of the universe, "become as gods." This is why it is just that we are punished for it--it really is something we ourselves did, but it is also in a sense something inevitable.

Cain, meet Abel.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas is Coming; The Economist is Getting Fat

The Economist’s Lexington has the best line ever on Mitt Romney:

“Mr. Romney likes to claim that his views on topics such as gay rights and abortion have ‘evolved.’ But they have evolved in a direction that is strikingly convenient—perhaps through intelligent design. Can a party that mocked John Kerry really march into battle behind their very own Massachusetts flip-flopper?”

The Economist especially distinguishes itself in its use of charts and graphs. They currently feature a fascinating historical piece on the greatest charts and graphs ever made.

I can’t wait for my own copy of the Christmas edition. The year-end Economist is one of the great joys of Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Harper's Bizarre

I rarely read Harper’s. I find it dull and predictable—an ordinary mind’s idea of intellectualism. But the top headline on this month’s wraparound cover intrigued me: “American Heresy"; and the deck "Are Christians Evil?”

Somehow, I knew Harper’s answer would be “yes.”

But not only that. The surprisingly brief two-column piece inside draws an explicit parallel between Christians and Nazis. And guess what? Of the two, Christians are worse. We must not even be tolerant of the religious in our midst. If we are, we are evil too.

That’s how bad the anti-religious tone of the left has become. Welcome to the culture wars.

Written by Princeton philosophy professor David Lewis and Columbia philosophy professor Philip Kitcher, the Harper's piece’s argument goes as follows:

God created hell.
Hell is evil.
Therefore, God is evil.
Therefore, anyone who worships (or admires) God is evil.

Let us examine each of these contentions.

“God created hell”—even this much is not clear, at least according to Catholic teaching. Hell is not a place. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.’” Hell is apparently created by the sinner himself, by free will—it is a state of “self-exclusion.”

All evil is from man—a classic Catholic formulation.

“Hell is evil.”—The authors reach this conclusion by first defining evil as “suffering and sin.” Is that definition correct? No. To a Catholic, sin is necessarily evil; but not necessarily suffering. Suffering can be redemptive. Most obviously, the passion of the Christ was and is redemptive, not simply evil. But all suffering can be—it builds soul. After all, if suffering as such is evil, it would follow that ever scolding your child—or even giving your child a flu shot--is an evil deed.

It is not just that suffering, while evil, can sometimes be used for a greater purpose, either. No, something in us actually gives a positive value, at some level, to suffering—we can enjoy playing with a loose tooth, for example, or watching a tragedy or listening to a sad song. Seeing suffering as purely evil is far too simple a view of human experience.

So is missing the possibility that injustice is itself a form of evil—as surely it is. If so, wouldn't it be evil for there not to be a hell for unrepentant sinners?

Lewis and Kircher are even aware of this argument: “Of course, our friends do not see this as divine evil. Instead, they talk of divine justice…” But they do not respond; having originally omitted injustice from their definition of evil, they now simply gloss over it by saying “If Fritz [their imaginary Nazi] is clear about Hitler’s actual deeds, he will tend to use similar locutions.”

This is spurious. Anyone can say anything; this does not make it so. The point is whether Fritz and the Christian are equally right. If they are, killing Jews is as just as killing convicted murderers. I think most of us would see a difference. And if they are, any judge who sentences any criminal is criminal for doing so.

“Therefore, anyone who admires or worships God is evil.” --It is only a personal observation, but I find often that those who give the devil’s counsel end up quickly contradicting themselves. The devil confounds himself by his own words. Lewis and Kircher point out themselves that, if admiring or tolerating an evil God makes Christians evil, it follows that anyone admiring or tolerating Christians must be equally evil. This becomes their argument for suppressing all religion.

But what is left? The only way to ensure one is not doing so, and therefore evil, is to admire and tolerate no one. The authors themselves admit where this leads, without seeming to realize that it discredits their argument: “The only ones to escape [this evil] will be the committed misanthropes. Leaving aside those who find nothing admirable in humanity, everyone will be tainted with divine evil.”

So the only moral stand is to hate everyone?

By their fruits ye shall know them.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Republican Field

The US Republican candidates in snapshot, as they appear to me this December 18, moving up to the Iowa Caucuses:

Ron Paul

I’ve seen him interviewed a couple of times. I find him creepy. I saw a video interview with him in which, to a hostile audience including Whoopi Goldberg, he comes out against Roe v. Wade, and does it very well; so in theory I ought to warm to him. But then he ruins it by immediately trying to make me buy the contention that the US economy has been doing badly, and a stronger economy would solve the problem of illegal immigration. Similarly, lower taxes are going to restore manufacturing to the US that is now going to China. And, elsewhere, ending the war in Iraq is going to allow him to end income tax.

These are not solutions; these are slogans. He’s nothing but a snake-oil salesman.

Mike Huckabee

Huckabee is instantly likeable, and a talented, skilled, speaker; and that is an important qualification. But I cannot forgive him for what seem to have been anti-Mormon cracks against Romney; and for seeming to use his religion for political gain. If I am right in my impressions, that is the behaviour of a Pharisee.

As a Catholic, too, I wonder: if Mormons aren’t good enough for him, what about Catholics?

He also lacks foreign policy experience, which is probably the most vital experience for a president to have. His notion of abolishing the income tax is, again, snake oil, and makes me doubt his honesty.

As a tactical matter, too, I expect, if he were nominated by the Republicans, that he would be an easy target for the Democrats in a general election.

Mitt Romney

Romney radiates competence. He did an exceptional job in business, a fine job with the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and a fine job as governor of a non-Republican state. He seems to be doing a fine job with his campaign. So it seems likely he would do a fine job as president. He seems to be a good speaker, and it does not hurt to look presidential.

One thing that troubles me about Romney is that he comes from a political dynasty. We have seen too much of that lately, in the US and Canada, and it tends in an anti-democratic direction. This is a minor quibble, but it is there.

And then there is the issue of his political views changing as required by his ambitions …

Fred Thompson

People complain that he doesn’t seem to really want the presidency. This is entirely in his favour. Not wanting the job is a strong qualification. Wanting it too much is scary. It suggests an abnormal ego.

People complain that he is lazy. The same could have been said of Ronald Reagan, or Winston Churchill. It speaks in his favour that he is not always charged up; he may simply have a healthy sense of priorities. And this may also be the artistic temperament—like Reagan and Churchill, Thompson has genuine artistic talents. Like Reagan and Churchill, he may be the strongest, most effective man in the room when the chips are down.

Being a skilled actor is also, make no mistake, a strong qualification for the presidency. The US Presidency is mostly smoke and mirrors, a bully pulpit; being able to persuade large audiences is its strongest power.

He has been ill-served by his campaign; that may speak to his executive ability.

Rudy Giuliani

Even before 9/11, he performed apparent administrative miracles in New York: fixing the budget, cutting crime. One of the most impressive performances by any CEO anywhere, anywhen. That earns him serious consideration for the presidency; it is an executive position.

And he will be associated forever with 9/11—he has already become a national symbol. This would help him a great deal as president. It almost seems almost morally wrong, after 9/11, to consider anyone else.

There has been a whiff of scandal lately with the NY books—but to my ear, Giuliani’s explanation sounds completely plausible. Anyone who has ever worked for a government or quasi-government agency knows that this kind of shuffling of papers is commonly necessary to get anything done. I don’t think the “scandal” would matter if it did not remind everyone of Giuliani’s rather untidy personal life.

And as to that—I don’t care a flip. It is just not relevant. A public official’s private life is just that, private.

John McCain

McCain was right on Iraq, from the beginning. He stuck to his guns and took the heat when it cost him politically. He deserves to get the credit now. He’s proven himself an honest man, he’s proven himself a brave man, and he’s proven himself to understand foreign and defense policy better than anyone. These are probably the three most important qualifications for being president.

McCain, at the moment, would be my first choice for Republican nominee. Giuliani would be second; Thompson or Romney even up at third. Huckabee fourth; I could not support Paul.

Monday, December 17, 2007

This Article is Written by an Ex-Slave

An anonymous correspondent has stuck in my mail slot an article on The Gap being “caught using child labor in an Indian sweatshop.”

Actually, though widely reported this way, this is not strictly true. The Gap was not using child labor—one of its Indian suppliers was. When informed, The Gap cancelled the contract, and refused to sell the clothes in its stores. The Gap pointed out that it employs 90 fulltime inspectors to prevent just this sort of thing.

Was The Gap, nevertheless, somehow guilty of using child labour here? I don’t know. Can anyone reading the article be certain they have never bought an article of clothing made with child labor? Are they, like The Gap, employing 90 people in the effort? If not, they should probably pocket their stones.

But again, there is a deeper issue here: is child labor immoral? Is The Gap right to refuse to buy from suppliers who employ children?

My Filipina wife has no doubt. Along, apparently, with the Indian government, she believes the campaign against “child labour” in the Third World is simply a form of protectionism by the First. She sees it as the rich keeping other people poor.

“What else are the children supposed to do?” she asks.

Don’t suppose they have the alternative of going to school. There is no money for schools. Cast out of the factories, they will simply be on the street.

To be fair, the article stuffed in my mail slot anticipates this objection—sort of. “The core of the argument [for child labour],” it admits, “is that anyone who opposes child labor has not witnessed its opposite, which is child unemployment and idleness.” It goes on to mock this idea: “This is what jobless children do: They rub Crazy Glue into their siblings’ hair; they spill apple juice onto your keyboard…”

Right. This is on a level with “let them eat cake.” How many street children in Calcutta have ever seen Crazy Glue, let alone a computer keyboard?

To go back to my wife’s experience: her family was not poor, by local standards, and the Philippines is a middle-income, not a poor, country, by world standards. But she never owned a toy as a child. If there was any extra money at a birthday, food was more important. Apple juice? Never. She loves it now—to her, it is like champagne.

No; let’s be clear. The simple alternative for many of the kids thrown out of work by The Gap’s moral scruples is slow starvation.

Let’s even suppose there were schools for them to go to. Are we so sure this would even be better for them? Are they likely, ever, with more schooling, to find a better job than one in a factory?

Probably not. Factory jobs are the most prized in the Third World. They pay far more for much lighter work than agricultural labour. Factory workers can make more than teachers, doctors, or lawyers. They are something even a child, without much physical strength, can do. When a Japanese factory opened on an island elsewhere in the Southern Philippines, my wife, as a young woman, traveled over a day’s journey in hopes of landing a job there.

So how is more schooling going to be a priority for these children?

“I want to work here,” explains one thirteen-year-old interviewed by The Observer. “I have somewhere to sleep,” he says, looking furtively behind him. “The boss tells me I am learning. It is my duty to stay here. I'm learning to be a man and work. Eventually, I will make money and buy a house for my mother.”

To be fair, the clothing factory described by the present author seems to have been worse than most. According to the original article in Britain’s Observer, some of the children, when interviewed, claimed they were not paid for their work. They had been indentured by their families for a cash fee, and had to work this off during a period of “apprenticeship.” The article stuffed in my mail slot called this “slavery.”

Perhaps. But I have one question. No, three: How much do we pay kids to go to school? Do they have a choice? Do we expect them to do any work there?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Symposium on the Origin and Meaning of Human Equality: The Dessert

Dear Abbot:

Say what you will; I do not believe human rights are absolute. I have never been a believer in absolute truth.

Dr. Who

Dear Who:

Let’s take your statement just as it stands: “I have never been a believer in absolute truth.”

Never? That’s an absolute statement, isn’t it? Which means, you must not believe it. Which means it is not relatively true—it is absolutely false.


Dear Abbot:

The US Constitution is not religious in its essence, so neither is its doctrine of human equality. The US Constitution comes from "A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," which states:

“Article I. All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”

Notice the absence here of the word "Creator."

Dr. Sax

Dear Sax:

It is quite unlikely that the US Declaration of Independence (note: not the US Constitution) originated from the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Declaration of Independence was written in 1776. The Constitution of Massachusetts was written in 1780.

The latter, unlike the Declaration of Independence, lacks any clear reference to the source of these rights—so it is not relevant to our current discussion. It is illustrative, though, to note the preamble:

“We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe, in affording us, in the course of His providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud, violence or surprise, of entering into an original, explicit, and solemn compact with each other; and of forming a new constitution of civil government, for ourselves and posterity; and devoutly imploring His direction in so interesting a design, do agree upon, ordain and establish the following Declaration of Rights, and Frame of Government, as the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

So whom are they saying all their legislation ultimately originates from?

Note too Article II (you have quoted Article I):

"Article II: It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe…”

And then there’s Article III:

"Article III: As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon religion and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety and morality: Therefore, to promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic, or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God…”

So the functioning of a civil society “essentially depends” on religion and morality.

This sounds religious to me.

That, plus the obvious echoes of the Declaration of Independence, are suggestive.


Dear Abbot:

Your argument, that equality is a Christian concept, would offend Judaism and Islam, not to mention Hinduism or Buddhism.

Dr. Sax

Dear Sax:

If you feel that truth offends you, do you have the right to deny it? That would be a license to lie whenever it is to your advantage to do so.

I feel for my Jewish and Muslim brethren. But I cannot change history, nor the doctrines of their religions. If any Hindu, Jewish, or Muslim reader wishes to justify their own religion on this issue, they are welcome to comment.

As a matter of historical fact, the doctrine of human equality and inalienable human rights as we know it comes from Christianity and Christian theology. It can be traced back from Jefferson, through Locke, through the Jesuits of the Salamanca School, to St. Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps further.

Locke based his argument on Genesis—the point that we are all descendants of Adam, and all made in God’s image. That makes us all brothers, and all of equal, and inestimable, value.

As the Genesis creation story is shared verbatim with Judaism, and in essence with Islam, theoretically, these religions are equally committed to the concepts of human equality and human rights.

However, it would be a distortion not to note that the New Testament gives important boosts to this idea of equality—the Messiah as ordinary man, the parable of the Good Samaritan, the communal life of the early Christians, St. Paul’s dictum that there is “neither man nor woman, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free” in Christ; and, crucially, the idea that the divine covenant is now open to all men. Without this, the Jewish idea of a “chosen people” does tend in the opposite direction. Similarly, Islam seems stricter than Christianity in limiting equality to believers—albeit this “chosen people” is a larger group than in Judaism, and an easier one to join. It can be a bit harsh on “kaffirs” or “unbelievers.”

Now let’s look at Hinduism. The original Hindu story of the creation of man is from the Rg Veda. It explains that man was created, along with the rest of the world, from the dismemberment of the cosmic person, Purusa. But, unlike Genesis, there are four distinct types of men created at the outset:

“The Brahmin was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made. His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced.” (Rg Veda 10:90:12)

This leads to very different conclusions. The different classes or castes are, in this conception, no more similar to one another than they are to other species, or indeed to rocks and stones.

To be fair, Hinduism has several different creation stories. The later Laws of Manu and Puranas give a single creation, more like the Judeo-Christian Genesis, and like Genesis implying that all men are, ultimately, brothers, as descendants of Manu. But the Laws of Manu and the Puranas are, for Hinduism, less authoritative than the Vedas.

In classical Greece and Rome, ancient Egypt, China, or Japan—in polytheistic societies—it was common for royal houses to claim an independent creation, and a uniquely divine descent. This, of course, implied a radical inequality.


Dear Abbot:

If human equality is a religious concept, how to explain great tragedies brought about by religious warfare?

Dr. Sax

Dear Sax:

Not so hard. It’s the same question as “police brutality.” Yes, police forces are responsible for some violence. But would society be less violent without the police?

And, of course, many wars are fought for human equality and human rights—at least on one side.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Coyne on the Mulroney Case

Andrew Coyne demonstrates once again that he is a national treasure with his masterful summation of the Mulroney-schreiber affair.

It's Mulroney's bad luck that Coyne is on the case. He's not going to get lost in the complicated details, and he is not going to lose interest.

This is what journalism can be.

Friday, December 14, 2007

What is Equality, and from Whence Does It Come?

I have engaged on an email list in a discussion on the Slate article linked to here recently.

It seems to me the result reads a bit like a Socratic dialogue, and might be worth reproducing in paraphrase for others here.

The question on the table at this symposium was, what is human “equality,” and where does it come from?

The author of the Slate piece makes this important point:

"If this suggestion makes you angry-if you find the idea of genetic racial advantages outrageous, socially corrosive, and unthinkable-you're not the first to feel that way. Many Christians are going through a similar struggle over evolution. Their faith in human dignity rests on a literal belief in Genesis. To them, evolution isn't just another fact; it's a threat to their whole value system. As William Jennings Bryan put it during the Scopes trial, evolution meant elevating 'supposedly superior intellects,' 'eliminating the weak,' 'paralyzing the hope of reform,' jeopardizing 'the doctrine of brotherhood,' and undermining 'the sympathetic activities of a civilized society.'"

Just as this suggests, apparently Bryan's concerns over evolution have been widely misrepresented—what most of us know is the character in “Inherit the Wind,” not Bryan himself. And “Inherit the Wind” is fiction. Bryan objected to Darwin more as a liberal than as a Christian, feeling Darwin's ideas promoted class and race superiority and violated the doctrine of the equality of man.

And, historically, he proved right. The Nazis made much of Darwinian evolution in their race theories.

Indeed, as is often forgotten today, John Locke based his argument that men were equal not on any principle of science, but on the Book of Genesis. Chuck out Genesis, and the doctrines of liberal democracy are in trouble.

The Slate writer is wrong here, though:

"Evolution forced Christians to bend or break. They could insist on the Bible's literal truth and deny the facts, as Bryan did. Or they could seek a subtler account of creation and human dignity."

Nope. It was not the doctrines of Christianity that were in trouble. This was an issue only for a certain sort of Protestant. The Catholic Church had never believed in any special value to a "literal" reading of scripture, and did not see any fundamental conflict between its own views and Darwin's theory.

This conversation ensued:

Dear Abbot:
Men are not equal, but all men have equal value in human society. Some are better at one thing, some another -- but everyone, weak and strong, is human and therefore, "equal."

I do not see a conflict here with Darwin.

Dr. Sax

Dear Sax:
Okay, here it is: "value" in Darwinian terms is ability to survive and propagate—"survival of the fittest." Not all humans are equal in these terms—if they were, the Darwinian theory of evolution would not work. The Nazis logically extended this: survival, prosperity, and propagation of the race and species are best served by favouring the fit and getting rid of the unfit. As, indeed, they are.

You need therefore to define clearly what you mean by "value," when you say "all men have equal value." What is this value? As we have seen, it is obviously not value to the evolutionary process. It is obviously not economic value—ability to generate material wealth. It is obviously not intelligence, the enemies of Watson to the contrary—otherwise there could be no Mensa.

What is this "value"?

It is easy for one who accepts Genesis to answer this. But can you give a purely "scientific," let alone “Darwinian,” answer?


Dear Abbot:
I think speaking of “value” and “scientific” together is an oxymoron. Value by definition is subjective and depends on the domain in which it is used. Value would be whatever contributes to achieving commonly-held objectives within that domain.

Darwinian value would be to possess attributes that would aid in adaptation. Financial value would be to contribute to stable and increasing worth.

Dr. Who

Dear Who:
It seems to me you are reinforcing Bryan’s concern. If Darwin was right, it looks as though Hitler was right, too—survival of the species being a “commonly-held objective.”

I'm not sure what you mean by saying that "value by definition is subjective," but it does not look like you are going to a good place. Oxford defines "subjective" as "based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions." Do you think, then, that the value of a human life, say, is just a matter of taste or opinion? The value of human rights? Does truth or the value of truth differ depending on "domain"?


Dear Abbot:
Value is by definition something worth having. And we humans, regardless of religion or lack of it, have decided that equality is something worth having. Where is the confusion?

Dr. Sax

Dear Sax:
It's here: if value is simply a question of consensus, of “commonly-held objectives,” it follows that any other consensus would be as legitimate. So--lets imagine a different one, and see how it sounds. How about a consensus that life is of no value, and we are all free to murder? Or how about a consensus that we are free to kill a specific group--say, the Jews? Then it would be okay?

If so, of course, Hitler did nothing wrong, did he? But Oskar Schindler--he did. He did not follow the consensus--so he was acting immorally.


Dear Abbot:
I do not believe in absolute truth. When the state of Texas executes one of its citizens, do we have to conclude that Texans do not value human life?

I think we must understand the context. …

Dr. Who

Dear Who:
I don't think the argument over capital punishment is really a dispute over the value of human life, but rather over how best to defend it.

As to truth not being absolute, does that mean you believe that 2 + 2 only sometimes equals 4? That every now and then it may equal 5, or 47? That two parallel lines may cross every now and then?


Dear Abbot:
How about a consensus that we stop arguing about "this self-evident truth that all men are born equal" and simply hold this value dear to our heart.

Dr. Sax

Dear Sax:
Let's not lose the thread of the discussion here. I think we can assume that we all share the opinion that all humans are in some sense of equal value. That has never been in dispute. The question is, what is the nature of that “equality,” and where does it come from? Can it be derived from Darwin, or from "science"?

I take it you are now saying, with the US Declaration of Independence, that it is simply "self-evident" that all humans are equal. That lets Watson off the hook, in any case. But note the full sentence from which you are quoting:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created [not 'born'] equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." (italics mine)

That's the full contention--all of that is held as self-evident. Now, if you deny the creation and the Creator, deny the stated source of this equality and these inalienable rights, aren't the rights themselves similarly up for grabs?


Thursday, December 13, 2007

The $25,000 Dessert. Cockroaches Extra.

Some kind soul has anonymously stuffed printouts of several opinion pieces in my mailbox. My guess is this is in response to my blog. The pieces are left-wingy in tome—one is by Paul Krugman. I’m not sure if this is someone who agrees with my Clear Grit politics, and wants to hear my take on these, or someone who agrees with Paul Krugman, and wants to win me over. Either way, the material is appreciated. We read your mail. I’ll try to deal with each in turn over the next few days.

The first piece is on New York restaurant Serendipity 3, which was awarded an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for “world’s most expensive dessert”—a $25,000 US chocolate dish featuring 5 grams of edible gold. One week later, they were shut down by the NY Health Department, for a kitchen containing “a live mouse, mouse droppings… fruit flies, house flies, and more than 100 live cockroaches.”

The moral the article takes from this is that “the public sector is in bad decay,” because of those who have “lobbied against higher taxes and regulations on business.”

This seems an odd conclusion—after all, the Health Department closed the place down. How does this show it as powerless or lacking the necessary resources?

But what about the larger case—the case for government regulating business? The article suggests that this would somehow help the poor. It does not say how.

For good reason. Government regulation hurts the poor, and helps the rich.

First, it raises barriers to new players entering the market, and so protects those currently there—at the expense of consumers generally. Prices and profits are higher as a result. This is doubly true because new players entering a market, without an established reputation, usually compete on price.

Second, it provides from everyone’s taxes services that benefit established businesses, giving them for free what they would otherwise have to pay for. In the present case, if the government did not automatically certify the quality of restaurants, would there be no quality checks of any sort? No chance; restaurants competing on quality would necessarily want some evidence to present to consumers. Someone would provide a certification service privately; or an industry association would. Either way, this would be borne fully by the regulated businesses, and their relatively wealthy customers, instead of by all of us.

Meanwhile, the genuinely poor need food to be as cheap as possible; for them, quality is a secondary consideration. But, with government enforcing the same quality standards on everyone, they have no choice—they must pay higher prices plus higher taxes for something they don’t want or benefit from, for the sake of the rich.

The current writer, for from really caring about the poor, is apparently troubled by the quality of the goods at the “high-end food markets” near his home, which he planned to patronize to the exclusion of ever cooking for himself. The poor, of course, cannot contemplate such options.

But this, in itself, is fair enough. It is a legitimate task of a food reviewer, and the wealthy can pay for this information, by buying a newspaper or magazine, and choose service providers accordingly.

But I do mind the dishonesty and callousness of pretending it is all for the sake of the poor, who will be harmed by it; and of demanding that the poor should pay for the pleasures of the rich.

Next… child labour.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Global Warming Update

Some good comment on global warming from the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Hear, O Israel!

Have you ever wondered what you would have done had you lived in Nazi Germany, with the Holocaust ongoing? Would you have been a Good German, or an Oskar Schindler? Have you ever wondered how you might have measured up to living in the US South in times of slavery? Would you have worked on the Underground Railroad—or owned slaves yourself?

There is no need to wonder. You can know. Answer this question quite simply: What are you doing now?

Because we are living now in time of Holocaust. We are living now in time of slavery. No exaggeration—indeed, worse now in numbers than in the US South, or in Nazi Germany.

The contemporary Holocaust is best-known: abortion. The abortion rate in 1995 was estimated at 46 million per year, worldwide. That is four times the number Hitler killed in all his death camps over his twelve-year reign.

But at least there are some protests. The slavery is barely even noticed.

The president of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, Dr. Stephen Baskerville, has written, “If I have one urgent piece of practical advice for young men today, it is this: Do not marry and do not have children."

This is because the divorce courts, in Canada, the US, and the UK, effectively enslave divorced fathers and husbands. Baskerville, perhaps a little shrill, lists the following practices as widespread:

- incarcerations without trial or charge
- children asked to spy on parents
- parents being defamed to their own children
- parents forcibly and permanently separated from their children, though under no suspicion of legal wrongdoing
- parents stripped of the care, custody, and companionship of their children without explanation
- government agents entering homes, demanding and examining private papers and personal effects, and seizing the property of citizens under no suspicion of legal wrongdoing
- defendants denied the right to face their accusers
- bureaucrats authorized to issue subpoenas and arrest warrants against fathers, with no hearing and no due process
- parents forced to pay the private fees of court officials they have not hired and whose services they have not sought or used, on pain of incarceration
- parents suspected of no legal wrongdoing stripped of their property and income, and reduced to penury
- government officials using the mass media to vilify private citizens

To run through the issue in simple terms, as I understand it: any married woman can unilaterally get a divorce, and claim spousal or child abuse at the same time. If she does, she gets his children, and can prevent the father from seeing them again until they are adults. She automatically gets the house, generally representing more or less everything he owned. He gets thrown out in the middle of the night with nothing. She can then force him to pay to support both her and the children from then on; she often need never work again. The amount can be greater than his total income. This is not an obligation he can avoid by declaring bankruptcy. If he does not or cannot pay, he is thrown in prison. Even if he does pay, she can, if she chooses, get restraining orders limiting his freedom of movement, destroying his reputation, or having him imprisoned.

Yes, for much of this, she must allege “abuse.” But even if her allegations are proven false, she faces no punishment. Even if she herself later confesses they are false, the court will take no notice. The father is still punished as if they were true.

No, this is not the way the law reads. But this is how the system actually works. Not now and then, but almost always.

It fits, I submit, the classic definition of slave or slavery in detail. American Heritage: “The state of one bound in servitude as the property of a slaveholder or household.” Oxford: “A person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.” Encarta: “the practice of, or a system based on, using the enforced labor of other people.”

Most men will never see this happen—just as most slaves probably lived a fairly contented, comfortable life. But it is a matter of luck—their luck in having a partner who truly loves them; or at least, chooses to rule with a light touch. But it is entirely up to the will of the woman involved. This being true, whether or not they have been divorced, or threatened with divorce, in real terms, every man who is married and has children is already a slave. He always works, and lives, with a cocked gun at his head. It can go off at any time, should he stray out of line. All it takes is her picking up the phone.

But Dr. Baskerville is too naïve. He imagines a man can escape this simply by never marrying and having children. That is hardly enough. To begin with, he must certainly never have sex with a woman, in or out of wedlock, unless he has a vasectomy—the penalties are just as severe for a child born out of wedlock as for one born of marriage. He must never share an abode with a woman—any children she has then become his responsibility.

But this is not nearly enough. Suppose a woman wants to own him? She does not have to let him go free; he still has no choices. No problem—she can blackmail him into a relationship with the threat of a charge of sexual harassment.

She used to be able to claim rape. Even if he did not sleep with her, it would be a simply matter for her to sleep with someone else, to prove that sex had occurred. Then it’s his word against hers.

That particular avenue is no longer open, thanks to DNA testing. It is sobering to realize, though, that since DNA testing has been available, consistently, 25% of rape charges have been proven false on this ground alone.

And the man still has no defense if he actually did sleep with her. By consent.

But avoiding sex altogether is not going to work either. A sexual harassment charge is still available to her. She does not have to prove anything against him. Such charges go before Human Rights Tribunals and internal committees, Star Chambers where rules of evidence and due process need not be followed. I was at a talk recently at which a former school principal explained how it works. In the case of a charge of harassment, a Canadian principal has no choices and no decisions to make: “if a lady feels [i.e., claims] she has been harassed, she has been harassed.” Another former principal who was present agreed. There is no question of a man, once charged, being found not guilty, or getting off without some punishment. She described a fairly clear cut case in which an apparently entirely innocent gesture cost a young male teacher his job.

So any woman can still take down any man, for whatever reason, married, romantically involved, or just walking down the street.

For a man living in Canada, the US, Britain, or, I expect, most of the countries of Europe, there is only one solution, and Dr. Baskerville has not hit on it. It is the same solution available to Jews in Nazi Germany, or blacks in the USD South.

You must get out of the country. You must get out, and get out now. Once the worst happens, it will be too late. Once there is a support judgment against you, or your children have been taken, leaving the country will no longer help.

Even this will only work until the hegemony of modern feminism is complete worldwide—as it seeks aggressively to be.

Sadly, the unborn have no such option.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

South Korea's Mr. Toilet

This blog has long had a Freudian obsession with toilets. Accordingly, I could not pass up a link to this video, courtesy of the Globe and Mail.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Robert Pickton and al Qaeda

We learn in today’s newspapers that serial murder Robert Pickton claimed he was God’s chosen instrument. “I was brought in this world,” he writes, “to be hear today to change this world of there evil ways.” “You can be sure that no immoral, impure, or greedy person will in-herit the kingdom of God…” (sic- spelling as given).

This is from letters he apparently sent to a hobbyist who enjoys corresponding with serial murderers. Thomas Loudamy, his correspondent, says he has similar letters from 150 inmates, and the tone is not uncommon. “They [the killers] appear to suggest using religion to justify their actions.”

Indeed, Jack the Ripper claimed the same motivation:

“In the name of God hear me I swear I did not kill the female whose body was found at Whitehall. If she was an honest woman I will hunt down and destroy her murderer. If she was a whore God will bless the hand that slew her, for the women of Moab and Midian shall die and their blood shall mingle with the dust. I never harm any others or the Divine power that protects and helps me in my grand work would quit for ever. Do as I do and the light of glory shall shine upon you.”

So it is, apparently, with many murderers. Of course, it doesn’t have to be Christianity, either. New Age notions worked as well for Charlie Manson.

Doesn’t it all remind you of al Qaeda?

Exactly. It is the same thing entirely. And it is obviously unfair that, when a serial killing is done in the name of Islam, we blame Islam. But when a serial killing is done in the name of Christianity, or New Age, we are inclined to ignore the religious association.

Instead, we must consider two possibilities: either all religion, not just Islam, leads to violence—or else al Qaeda’s followers are not religious at all, just garden-variety mass murderers and serial killers seeking an alibi. No nobler, no more exotic, and no more principled than Jack the Ripper or Robert Pickton.

Of these two possibilities, the claim that religion leads to violence is prima facie absurd: religion teaches peace and tolerance. Religion gives us Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Albert Schweitzer, William Wilberforce, and Mother Theresa. Dismiss religion, and, at best, you throw out a large baby for the sake of a little bathwater.

And even if you did, would that end it? For, without religion, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Pol Pot found sufficient justification for murder in a political ideology, in the claim that they were doing eventual good for mankind. Indeed, up until the last decade or two, far more murders were committed in the name of leftist ideology than religion. Ban leftist ideology, and a Timothy McVeigh will kill in the name of Libertarianism.

And if we banned all beliefs whatsoever, and insisted on complete moral relativism? Even better. That’s how Ted Bundy reationalized his rape and murder of an estimated 100 women:

"Then I learned that all moral judgments are 'value judgments,' that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either 'right' or 'wrong.' I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself--what apparently the Chief Justice couldn't figure out for himself--that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any 'reason' to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring--the strength of character--to throw off its shackles...I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable 'value judgment' that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these 'others?' Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more than a hog's life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as 'moral' or 'good' and others as 'immoral' or 'bad'? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure that I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me--after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and inhibited self."--Ted Bundy, Quoted from Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, 5th edition, p.30

No, it is the second possibility that is obviously correct. Because all human beings are born with a conscience, it is always necessary, when one is doing great evil, to rationalize it as something else—ideally as the very opposite: Pickton, bin Laden, or Vlad the Impaler as doing God’s work. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, or Jim Jones in the name of supposedly redressing social injustices. Hitler or Mussolini in the name of advancing the evolution of mankind. Robespierre in the name of Liberty and Reason.

The people who blew up the twin towers were just mass murderers; just Robert Picktons. No more, no less. Don’t give them credit for being anything else.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

Slate has run an interesting recent series on the realities of race and IQ, in reaction to the recent general censure of James Watson.

Some striking hard facts:

Average IQ among Americans of European ancestry: 103
Average IQ among Americans of Asian ancestry: 106
Average IQ among Americans of Jewish ancestry: 113
Average IQ among Americans of African ancestry: 85
Average IQ among sub-Saharan Africans: 70
Average IQ among Japanese: 110

To give some perspective, I have heard it said that a difference in IQ of 15 points or more makes people’s thought processes mutually incomprehensible.

The author, William Saletan, also points out that IQ has been pretty stringly linked to brain size. This tends to scotch the argument that it is an arbitrary or culturally-biased measure.

A grim reality, perhaps, but reality is reality.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

KKKrap from the National Post

The National Post has been running a four-part series by American author Danielle Crittenden on what it is like wearing an abaya. A remarkably trivial matter, to those of us who live in the Gulf—they could have interviewed anyone on the street here for the same material. Perhaps they think it does not count unless it is a “white” woman doing it. No matter. I know many European or North American expatriates who have chosen to wear abayas in these parts.

Worse, Crittenden seems to have no background in the matter. It seems profane to have someone with so little understanding of Islam representing herself in public as a devout Muslim. This week, Crittenden makes the appallingly bigoted comment that

“If I had chosen to walk about Washington in a white hood and sheets, rather than black ones, I doubt I would have encountered such universal politeness. And yet, what the Klan outfit represents to someone of African-American descent is exactly what the burka should represent to every free women.”

Right. And how many women have been lynched so far by men wearing abayas?

Crittenden misses the most fundamental of differences: it is women, not men, who wear the burka--voluntarily. Men are not permitted to wear it. But it was whites, not blacks, who wore the sheets of the KKK. Blacks were not permitted. If the parallel is otherwise apt, it is men, not women, who are oppressed by the abaya.

As indeed, in a sense, they are. The point is to avoid showing the female form—something most men enjoy. Conversely, members of the KKK could probably not be accused of enjoying the sight of a black. No; they wore the hood to conceal themselves, because this gave them greater power.

Crittenden misses another critical point. In the quoted passage, she is complaining that, in wearing the abaya, people are treating her too politely. But this is exactly why women wear the abaya. It gives them greater dignity. This is just what women, European women, have found here in the Gulf—when you wear an abaya, people treat you with more respect.

It seems unlikely that the point of the KKK, by contrast, was to promote greater respect towards blacks.

No; the difference between the abaya and the hood of a Klansman is the difference between black and white.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Dylan's 12 Best Songs

There was a movement a few years ago to nominate Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

It would probably be a good choice, better than most in recent years. If the thought of Jim Morrison being “the best poet of his generation” is appalling, Dylan by contrast probably deserves that title.

His stuff is spotty, some of it wincy. He also lifts things wholesale; he is profoundly traditionalist, profoundly conservative, rather than an innovator. But the best is the best.

My personal, unordered selection of twelve favourite Dylan songs—an imaginary “greatest hits” album:

Gotta Serve Somebody - 1979

Relentless, hard driving, the soul of simplicity. It is the one Dylan song I most love to listen to, even though the lyrics are almost nothing at all. Though Dylan is most famous for his lyrics, here he shows that he doesn’t really even need them—he can do it all with one line and the music, if he chooses.

I Want You – 1966

Primal in the same way. Absolutely pitiless. What could be simpler?

“I want you,
I want you,
I want you
So bad”

Mr. Tambourine Man – 1965

Lovely terms like “the jingle-jangle morning.” It means nothing, and yet one immediately knows what it means. “Evening’s empire.” “The ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming.” It’s primal in another sense: it captures something essential about the nature of art. The Tambourine Man is the archetype of the artist, and this is what he does: he takes us

“Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.

... to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”

The saving power of art.

Visions of Johanna – 1966

Perhaps Dylan’s most poetic song. It captures the sense of lost love perfectly. Just get the opening line:

“Ain’t it just like the night,
to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?”

You can’t dislike it after that.

“Lights flicker from the opposite loft;
In this room the heat pipes just cough;
The country music station plays soft
But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off…”

“Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while…
But Mona Lisa musta’ had the highway blues--
You can tell by the way she smiles.”

Tomorrow is a Long Time – 1971

Again, just get the opening lines:

“If today was not an endless highway,
If tonight was not a crooked trail,
If tomorrow wasn't such a long time,
Then lonesome would mean nothing to me at all.”

The purest, the most perfect, of love songs.

You Ain’t Going Nowhere – 1971

Just wonderful nonsense verse:

“Genghis Khan and his brother Don,
They could not keep on keeping on;
We’ll cross that bridge after it’s gone…”

Absolutely none of it makes any sense—and the sense of that seems to be of being giddy with joy. Another feeling perfectly captured.

Blind Willie McTell – 1991

“Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, ‘This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem.’"

Like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” this one says something very deep about the nature of art; and also, in this case, about the nature of the world. I think, just because it was so powerful, Dylan was afraid to record it for many years. It came and comes too close to revelatory truth.

“Well, I heard the hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell.”

To Ramona – 1964

This is a remarkable love song that also manages to work as a piece of philosophy. That’s a very dangerous thing to try to do. Dylan pulls it off.

“The flowers of the city
Though breathlike, get deathlike at times.
And there's no use in trying
To deal with the dying,
Though I cannot explain that in lines.”

“I've heard you say many times
That you're better than no one
And no one is better than you.
If you really believe that,
You know you’ve got
Nothing to win and nothing to lose.”

It Ain’t Me, Babe – 1964
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright – 1963

These are a Dylan specialty—the anti-love song. Tinged with humour, extremely emotionally poised. Again, a very hard thing to do well, in poetry or song just as in life. Can anyone else but Dylan do this?

“I'm walking down that long, lonesome road, babe.
Where I'm bound, I can't tell;
But goodbye is too good a word, gal;
So I'll just say 'fare thee well.'
I ain't saying you treated me unkind;
You could have done better, but I don't mind.
You just kinda wasted my precious time;
But don't think twice, it's all right.”

Ballad of a Thin Man – 1965

This is theatre of the absurd as a song. And everything Jim Morrison and the Doors ever did can be taken from this one Dylan song.

“You raise up your head
And you ask, ‘Is this where it is?’
And somebody points to you and says
’It's his’
And you say, ‘What's mine?’
And somebody else says, ‘Well, what is?’
And you say, ‘Oh my God
Am I here all alone?’

Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?”

And the tune is, in the way of “I Want You,” relentless.

Just Like a Woman – 1966

You just can’t beat the refrain:

She takes just like a woman,
And she makes love just like a woman,
Then she aches just like a woman;
But she breaks just like a little girl.”

Yes, he is a poet—and a good enough one to deserve the Nobel Prize. It is only a bias against pop culture that prevents it. But, in America, pop culture is the culture; and that is a good thing. It comes with real democracy.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Christmas Tree

Everyone knows that the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol, right? Indeed, one web site notes “It is well recognized by all educated people today that the practice is purely and simply a retention of pagan doctrines in the Christian home.” Just like Hallowe’en…

Staring at the Christmas tree as a child, the symbolism of the night sky seemed obvious. And that’s what I always understood the tree to mean: the night sky over Bethlehem, with a big Star of Bethlehem decorating the top. The other flashing lights were the twinkling stars of the sky; the hanging balls were the planets; and the silver streamer spiraling down the tree was the Milky Way. The stern straight trunk of the fir tree was the North Pole, around which the heavens revolve, just as the branches of the tree radiate from it, in expanding orbits. One properly placed the nativity scene, the manger, as I understood it, at the foot of the tree. The infant Jesus appeared in the manger on Christmas Eve, after Midnight Mass.

I’ve never liked icicles on a Christmas tree, for the simple reason that they did not seem to fit with this symbolism.

It all seems to make good sense as purely Christian symbolism. So why resort to a pagan explanation?

It is true, of course, that the tree, and the evergreen tree, is a sacred symbol all over the world. Even in Japan, there is a tradition of pulling an evergreen indoors at winter solstice. But so what? This very universality means it is not “pagan”; its significance is universal. It might just as easily have developed independently among Christians, without similarities to pagan customs making it essentially pagan in origin. Or, even if it did not, its significance seems to go deeper than any one religious tradition. Why can’t Christianity adopt such symbols?

Sure, it is also obviously relevant to the time of the solstice—the tree representing the annual cycles of the seasons at the time of greatest dominance of the night. But that symbolism is obvious, and deliberate—Jesus’s appearance as savior of mankind is metaphorically the reappearance of the sun, of life and fertility, at the solstice. The fall of man is represented by the darkness, represented in turn by the tree. Salvation comes with the birth of Jesus at midnight, the solstice of the day.

It all works as a beautiful metaphor, and the symbolism of the solstice is just as appropriate for Christianity as for paganism. For European paganism was never, as it is commonly thought, a “religion of nature.” The pagans were somewhat less interested in nature than we Christians are.

Some, fundamentalist Protestants, insist it cannot be Christian, because it is not Biblical. But isn’t it? After all, there are some important trees in the Bible, aren’t there? The tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree of Jesse, the “tree” on which Jesus was crucified. Taken together, they make the image of a tree absolutely central to salvation history, as fundamental a Christian image as there could be. Why seek elsewhere for the meaning of a tree?

Indeed, while no clear link can be found between the modern Christmas tree and any pagan practice, the modern Christmas tree seems to have developed from a German custom of the 16th century, in which it plainly represented the Tree of Paradise. The occasion was not actually Christmas, but the Feast of Adam and Eve, held on December 24th. The tree was called the paradeisbaum—the “tree of paradise.” It was originally decorated, probably in reference to Eden, with apples.

And the trees pf paradise were indeed, like the Christmas fir, “evergreens”--they bore fruit in all seasons. The appropriation of a fir tree to represent this is no more anachronistic than appropriating the apple as the fruit of Eden; but we take the latter for granted.

So it all fits neatly, in the end: the tree represents the night sky, the night, the Fall; and at the same time the promise of redemption, the rebirth of the sun, the crucifixion and the redemption—the little bit of paradise that, thanks to Jesus, is within each of us, and in our Christian homes. It may be that the common conception of the tree as “pagan” is a folk memory that it represents, in the first instance, the Fall, and the state of man before the advent of Christianity.

Our tree is up. Is yours?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Good Thief

Luke 23:

39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" 40But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." 42And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 43And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

This passage strikes me as fundamentally important. It tells us exactly how, even though we are sinners, we can be saved—for St. Dismas, “The Good Thief,” is clearly a sinner, yet is saved.

Dismas, the second thief, so named in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, is often also called “The Penitent Thief.” But I don’t think that quite gets to the point of this little parable. Nowhere does Dismas actually say he is sorry for his deeds. Nor is it clear that the first thief is not. For all we can tell, the first thief was sorrier. He just did not want to be punished, which is something else again—and often a good reason to be sorry.

Nor is it that Dismas shows faith, in the usual Protestant sense; that he acknowledges Jesus as his personal savior. We can’t see that he does, he may conceivably see Jesus only as an innocent man, and be humouring him with talk of his kingdom. By contrast, the first thief genuinely does acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, in so many words, and asks for personal salvation—and he is apparently refused.

So what is it that earns St. Dismas the laurel?

It is that the first seeks to avoid punishment for his actions; while for Dismas, justice is more important than his own punishment. Possibly believing that Jesus could save him, he rejects the idea passionately, for the sake of justice. And for the same reason, a thirst for justice, it concerns him most that Jesus is punished as an innocent man.

Blessed are those who thirst after righteousness.

This is the essential requirement for salvation: not that we always avoid sin, nor that we happen to know Jesus personally, but that we endorse righteousness as an absolute value. This is the same as endorsing Jesus Christ himself, for this is what he is—the Way, the Truth, and the Light.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Future of Publishing

We are at a watershed in human history. Computerization is changing the world not just as dramatically as did the Industrial Revolution, but much more so—probably as dramatically as the invention of writing. For the computer is a greater advance in the handling of information than anything since the invention of writing itself. Information is now cheap, permanent, and infinitely interconnected.

What does this mean? I cannot begin to guess. For comparison, the invention of writing gave us such innovations as civilization, monotheism, the state, settled agriculture, and the division of labour.

And now, as part of this process, comes the new Amazon Kindle, an improved ebook reader. Certainly, something like it is inevitable; and the Kindle may be the product that crosses the barrier. We need this: a computerized book reader, allowing electronic texts to be read comfortably wherever we go.

For the inefficiencies of traditional publishing are staggering: all the reams of paper, the massive, hanger-sized Heidelberg printers, the big heavy physical blocks of pressed wood needed to convey something essentially mental in nature, the distribution chain with its repeated 100% markups and remainders, the need to come up with and market a dozen or a hundred essentially new products every season, the three month delay between writing and distribution—for something as perishable as information.

All this is gone with electronic books. All we need is a convenient reader, and the case for going electronic, it seems to me, is overwhelming.

Look at it this way: classically, when a book is published, the author’s royalties are 10% of the retail price. The Kindle eliminates almost everything else that goes into manufacturing a book; meaning it should be possible now to deliver books at one fifth to one tenth the former price. This could, in turn, expand the market for published books substantially. Meaning not just lots more books for readers, but lots more money for writers. An information economy.

I think one fifth is more realistic than one tenth, mind—there still will be a need for one or more big retailers, on the lines of Amazon, to serve as bookstores. There will also still be a need for editing, illustrating, picture research, advertising and promotion, and I expect for publishers who will put together packages including all of these.

But gone will be the bookstores. Gone will be the printers. Gone will be the pulp and paper mills. For years, people have been scoffing at the old idea of “the paperless office.” But it really is happening. The demand for newsprint is already going down year by year. Old habits die hard, but they are dying. I myself no longer subscribe to the newspapers and magazines I read on paper; I get them over the web.

It will also become vastly easier to self-publish—this is important, because freedom of the press is important. And the press is freer when everyone can afford to own one. Even without government censorship, the concentration of presses in only a few hands can lead to significant censorship of unpopular views, if only for business reasons. As a former editor, and former president of the Editors’Association of Canada, I can vouch that every editor in the business is expected by publishers to censor authors’ opinions for political reasons, and most editors take this for granted as part of their job. Most will do it without prompting. Similarly, a concentration of media ownership in Canada for many years restricted political discussion; certain views, even common views, were simply never permitted in print.

Now those days are gone—we have already seen it, in Canada and in the US, with online blogs. A comfortable ebook reader, which can also accommodate web content, will multiply their influence. Our politics may be changed dramatically as a result. Just as the printing press, by expanding the ability to publish, led to parliamentary democracy and liberalism.

Ebooks can also add some nice features print books do not have: the ability to search, for example, on any given keyword—even across volumes. That’s a massive advantage for any researcher. Photos, an expensive item in print, can be inserted in an ebook at will and at no extra cost. So can hyperlinks to the web, so that any book opens up onto the whole world. Accordingly, Ebooks can also be automatically, continually updated—reference books need never become obsolete. There will no longer be anything musty about books.

Perhaps less crucially—except for a few--ebooks can easily include a zoom feature, so that the sight-impaired can adjust the type to whatever size is comfortable. It would not be much more difficult to build in an electronic reading voice, so that even the blind could use an ebook. With such sound capabilities on board, books could also imbed sound files in their text—for illustration, information, or for ambience.

So—when am I going to buy one? I’m not sure. Amazon is currently sold out—a good indication this is an idea whose time has genuinely come. And even if they were in stock, they are not selling them outside the USA yet.

When I can, I will. You bet I will.