Saturday, December 26, 2009

Let's Roll 2

[Mark Steyn]
26 December 2009

This picture provided by J.P. Karas shows Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on the runway after arriving at Detroit Metropolitan Airport from Amsterdam on Friday, Dec. 25, 2009. A passenger aboard the plane set off firecrackers Friday, causing a commotion and some minor injuries, a Delta official said. Delta and Northwest have merged. (AP Photo/J.P. Karas) (J.P. Karas)

On September 11th 2001, the government's (1970s) security procedures all failed, and the only good news of the day came from self-reliant citizens (on Flight 93) using their own wits and a willingness to act.

On December 25th 2009, the government's (post-9/11) security procedures all failed, and the only good news came once again from alert individuals:

"Suddenly, we hear a bang. It sounded like a firecracker went off," said Jasper Schuringa, a film director who was traveling to the US to visit friends.

"When [it] went off, everybody panicked ... Then someone screamed, ‘Fire! Fire!’"

Schuringa, sitting in seat 20J, in the right-most section of the Airbus 330, looked to his left. "I saw smoke rising from a seat ... I didn’t hesitate. I just jumped," he said.

Schuringa dove over four passengers to reach Abdul Mutallab’s seat. The suspect had a blanket on his lap. "It was smoking and there were flames coming from beneath his legs."

"I searched on his body parts and he had his pants open. He had something strapped to his legs."

The unassuming hero ripped the flaming, molten object — which resembled a small, white shampoo bottle — off Abdul Mutallab’s left leg, near his crotch. He said he put out the fire with his bare hands.

Schuringa yelled for water, and members of the flight crew soon appeared with fire extinguishers. Then, he said, he hauled the suspect out of the seat.

If the facts remain broadly as outlined, this incident has serious implications for airline travel: A man is on the no-fly list but is allowed to board the plane. Everyone flying on an inbound long-haul flight to the United States is forced to hand over excessively large amounts of liquids and gels and put the small amounts permitted into separate plastic bags, yet the no-fly guy's material for bomb-making sails through undetected.

This time the last line of defense worked. Next time, the paradise-seeking jihadist might get lucky and find himself sitting next to, say, Charlie Sheen, too immersed in a lengthy treatise on how 9/11 was an inside job to notice the smoldering socks in the next seat; or to the same kind of nothing-to-see-here crowd who thought Major Hasan's e-mails were "consistent with his research interests".

As for the perpetrator:

The young man, who yesterday night attempted to ignite an explosive device aboard a Delta Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan in the United States has been identified as Abdul Farouk Umar Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old son of Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, former First Bank chairman. Mutallab, a former minister and prominent banker recently retired from the bank’s board...

The family home of the Mutallabs in Central London, is currently being searched by men of the Metropolitan Police. THISDAY checks reveal that the suspect, Abdulfarouk Umar Muttalab who is an engineering student at the University College, London had been noted for his extreme views on religion since his secondary school days at the British International School, Lome, Togo.

So once again we see the foolishness of complaceniks who drone the fatuous cliches about how "in this struggle, scholarships will be far more important than smart bombs". The men eager to self-detonate on infidel airliners are not goatherds from the caves of Waziristan but educated middle-class Muslims who have had the most exposure to the western world and could be pulling down six-figure salaries almost anywhere on the planet. And don't look to "assimilation" to work its magic, either. We're witnessing a process of generational de-assimilation: In this family, yet again, the dad is an entirely assimilated member of the transnational elite. His son wants a global caliphate run on Wahhabist lines.

12/26 02:22 PM

Cross the river, burn the bridge

The Orange County Register
2009-12-25 01:59:13

Last week, during a bit of banter on Fox News, my colleague Jonah Goldberg reminded me of something I’d all but forgotten. Last September, during his address to Congress on health care, Barack Obama declared:“I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.”

Dream on. The monstrous mountain of toxic pustules sprouting from greasy boils metastasizing from malign carbuncles that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve is not the last word in “health” “care” but the first. It ensures that this is all we’ll be talking about, now and forever.

Government can’t just annex “one-sixth of the US economy” (ie, the equivalent of annexing the entire British or French economy, or annexing the entire Indian economy twice over) and then just say: “Okay, what’s next? On to cap-and-trade…” Nations that governmentalize health care soon find themselves talking about little else.

In Canada, once the wait times for MRIs and hip surgery start creeping up over two years, the government distracts the citizenry with a Royal Commission appointed to study possible “reforms” which reports back a couple of years later usually with recommendations to “strengthen” the government’s “commitment” to every Canadian’s “right” to health care by renaming the Department of Health the Department of Health Services and abolishing the Agency of Health Administration and replacing it with a new Agency of Administrative Health Operations which would report to a reformed Council of Health Policy Administrative Coordination to be supervised by a streamlined Public Health Operations & Administration Assessment Bureau. This package of “reforms” would cost a mere 12.3 gazillion dollars and usually keeps the lid on the pot until the wait times for MRIs start creeping up over three years.

The other alternative is what the British did earlier this year: They created an exciting new “Patient’s Bill of Rights”, promising every Briton the “right” to hospital treatment within 18 weeks. Believe it or not, that distant deadline shimmering woozily in the languid desert haze can be oddly reassuring if you’ve ever visited a Scottish emergency room on a holiday weekend. And, if the four-and-a-half months go by and you still haven’t been treated, you get your (tax) money back? Ah, no. But there is a free helpline you can call which will give you continuously updated estimates on which month your operation has been rescheduled for.

I mention these not as a preview of the horrors to come, but because I’ve come to the bleak conclusion that U.S.-style “health” “reform” is going to be far worse. We were told we had to do it because of the however many millions of uninsured, yet this bill will leave some 25 million Americans uninsured. On the other hand, millions of young fit healthy Americans in their first jobs who currently take the entirely reasonable view that they do not require health insurance at this stage in their lives will be forced to pay for coverage they neither want nor need. On the other other hand, those Americans who’ve done the boring responsible grown-up thing and have health plans Harry Reid determines to be excessively “generous” will be subject to punitive taxes up to 40 per cent. On the other other other hand, if you’re the member of a union which enjoys privileged relations with Commissar Reid you’ll be exempt from that 40 per cent shakedown.

On the other other other other hand, if you’re already enjoying government health care, well, you’re 83 years old and, let’s face it, it’s hardly worth us giving you that surgery for the minimal contribution you make to society, so in the cause of extending government health care to millions of people who don’t currently get it we’re going to ration it for those currently entitled to it. Looking at the millions of Americans it leaves uninsured, and the millions it leaves with worse treatment and reduced access, and the millions it makes pay significantly more for their current health care, one can only marvel at Harry Reid’s genius: government health care turns out to be all government and no health care. Adding up the zillions of new taxes and bureaucracies and regulations it imposes on the citizenry, one might almost think that was the only point of the exercise.

That’s why I believe America’s belated embrace of government health care is going to be far more expensive and disastrous than the Euro-Canadian models. Whatever one’s philosophical objection to the Canadian health system, it is, broadly, fair: Unless you’re a cabinet minister or a bigtime hockey player, you’ll enjoy the same equality of crappiness and universal lack of access that everybody else does. But, even before it’s up-and-running, Pelosi-Reid-Obamacare is an impenetrable thicket of contradictory boondoggles, shameless payoffs and arbitrary shakedowns.

That’s why Nebraska’s grotesque zombie senator Ben Nelson is the perfect poster boy for the new arrangements, and not just another so-called Blue Dog Democrat spayed into compliance by a massive cash injection. There is no reason on earth why Nebraska should be the only state in this Union to have every dime of its increased Medicare tab picked up by the 49 others.
So either that privilege will be extended to all, or to favored others, or its asymmetry will be balanced by other precisely targeted lollipops hither and yon. Whatever happens, it’s a dagger at the heart of American federalism, just as the bill’s magisterial proclamation that the Independent Medicare Advisory Board can only be abolished by a two-thirds vote of the Senate strikes at one of the most basic principles of a free society – that no parliament can bind its successors.

These details are obnoxious not merely in and of themselves but because they tell us the truth about where we’re headed: Think of the way almost every Big Government project bursts its bodice and winds up bigger and more bloated than its creators allegedly foresaw. In this instance, the stays come pre-loosened, and studded with loopholes. Because the Democrat operators – the Nancy Pelosis and Barney Franks – know that what matters is to get something, anything across the river, and then burn the bridge behind you. My Republican friends often seem to miss the point in this debate: The so-called “public option” is not Page 3,079, Section (f), Clause VII. The entire bill is a public option – because that’s where it leads, remorselessly. The so-called “death panel” is not Page 2,721, Paragraph 19, Sub-section (d), but again the entire bill – because it inserts the power of the state between you and your doctor, and in effect assumes jurisdiction over your body. As the savvier Dems have always known, once you’ve crossed the Rubicon, you can endlessly re-reform your health reform until the end of time, and all the stuff you didn’t get this go-round will fall into place, and very quickly.

As I’ve been saying for over a year now, “health care” is the fast-track to a permanent left-of-center political culture. The unlovely Democrats on public display in the week before Christmas may seem like just a bunch of jelly-spined opportunists, grubby wardheelers and rapacious kleptocrats, but the smarter ones are showing great strategic clarity. Alas for the rest of us, Euro-style government on a Harry Reid/Chris Dodd/Ben Nelson scale will lead to ruin.


Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

By Robert Spencer
25 December 2009

The Byzantine icon above is the work of the 16th-century iconographer Theophanes the Cretan. There are many things that are un-Islamic about it:
1. It is an image of human beings, which violates the traditional Islamic prohibition of images;

2. It depicts Jesus not as a Muslim prophet but as the incarnate Son of God (his halo reads ο ων, the One Who Is, a title of divinity derived from the name of God that God gives to Moses in Exodus 3:14), in violation of the oft-repeated Qur'anic injunction that Allah has no Son (4:171; 9:30; 25:2; 39:4; 72:3; etc. etc.);

3. In line with #2, it depicts what Muslims would consider to be idolatry, as the holy child's mother kneels and adores him;

4. In the beam or spear coming from heaven down to the child in the cradle, it depicts the activity of the Divine in the world, assuming the doctrine of the Trinity, which is rejected somewhat imprecisely in Qur'an 4:171 and 5:116;

5. The cradle resembles a casket, foreshadowing the redemptive death of Christ, which is denied in Qur'an 4:157.

Now, whether you are a Christian or not, whether or not you believe all or any of these things, the question that is before us this Christmas and every Christmas these days is whether or not people should be allowed to believe these things if they think they are true. Nowhere in the Islamic world today do people who believe these things enjoy full equality of rights with Muslims. In Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere Christians are frequently victimized because, as I have tried to show above, some of their core beliefs are considered blasphemous in authoritative Islam.

And that assumption of blasphemy, since Islam is a political program as well as a set of religious beliefs, does not allow for live-and-let live tolerance of those with whom one disagrees. The blasphemers and those who insult Islam must be subjugated under the rule of the Muslims. We see this agenda being articulated every day; we see Christians and others victimized by it every day; and we see the world largely yawning and indifferent as all this goes on.

This Christmas, remember that the Islamic supremacist program has you on its list. You may not be a Christian. You may not be a Jew. You may not be a Hindu. But the jihad is universal. You are on the list.

So this Christmas, may all of us whose conversion, subjugation, or death is envisioned by the adherents of Sharia stand together. Let us stand together as Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, secularists, what have you, and stand up against those who would kill us or subject us to institutionalized discrimination because they find our beliefs offensive.
For be assured: if we do not stand together, they will prevail. And if they do, and all the rich expressions of the human spirit, from Theophanes the Cretan to the fashioners of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, from Aristotle to Oriana, will be trampled into the mud, destroyed, exploded, ruined, effaced. We will all be the poorer. Our children will be the poorer.

Merry Christmas to all Christian Jihad Watchers who celebrate the Feast on this day.

Posted by Robert on December 25, 2009 1:15 AM 93 Comments

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Tale - 1944

by Hans A. von Spakovsky
24 December 2009

This year, many Americans may not be able to have as bountiful a Christmas as they would like. But I know from my family’s journey to prosperity in America that just having your family together and food on the table in this land of liberty is something to be grateful for. As I sit down with my family for Christmas dinner this year, we will give thanks for that as we remember the dark Christmas and uncertain future my grandmother and mother faced at the end of World War II.

In late 1944 my mother was a teenager living in Breslau, the capital of Silesia in eastern Germany. She had already experienced the trauma of five years of unrelenting war .My grandparents were viewed with suspicion by the authorities because they had a Jewish-sounding name and had refused to join the Nazi Party. My mother had friends and colleagues killed in bombing raids, including a direct hit on the opera house in another city where she had been working as a ballerina. She feared the constant bombings and had quit performing only the month before to return to Breslau to be with her mother and sisters.

Breslau, 1945

As Christmas approached, my mother had no idea whether her father was even alive. Although he was fortunately too old to have been drafted into the Germany army, he had been conscripted into a civilian corps that dug people out of bombed buildings in other cities. There was no longer regular mail or telephone service between Breslau and other cities in Germany, and he had been out of contact for quite some time.

Christmas was a depressing time. There was no tree, no gifts, almost no food, and my mother was overwhelmed with concern over her father and her family’s uncertain future. She remembers it as one of the worst times she ever experienced. And in a city whose civilian population was slowly starving to death as the Russian troops advanced, the Nazis wouldn’t let the civilians leave.

Shortly after Christmas, as my mother came home from her forced job in a factory, her mother told her that all civilians had been ordered out of Breslau. It was one of the bitterest and coldest winters on record. The temperature was only five degrees, and the streets were covered in snow and ice. But my grandmother gathered her elderly parents and her children and tried to get to the train station.

The station and all the streets leading up to it were mobbed. Panic set in as the crowds tried to desperately get onto the last trains leaving Breslau -- trains already packed with refugees from other cities and towns further east. To my grandmother’s consternation, she couldn’t even get close to the main station. It was just as well; the crowd panicked when it became clear there weren’t enough trains to evacuate everyone, and 60 to 70 children were crushed to death.

My grandmother feared what would happen when the Russians arrived (with good reason, as anyone knows of the mass rape, murder and pillaging committed by Russian troops wherever they went). My grandmother was extremely upset that she had been unable to get her family onto a train. Their future seemed even darker than it had at Christmas, and the empty, hungry holiday seemed even more forlorn.

Staying in the city was not the worst thing that could have happened, however, even as the Russian army approached. Many other families who could not evacuate by train tried to walk out of Breslau in the frigid January weather. My grandmother did not because her parents were too frail. Later that spring when the weather thawed, 90,000 corpses of men, women and children who had frozen to death were found in ditches along the roads leading out of Breslau.

Those on the trains weren’t much luckier. Many were evacuated to Dresden, where on Feb. 13, 1945, less than a month later, the city was bombed by British and American planes with incendiaries, starting a firestorm. Thousands of the refugees from Breslau were among the more than 50,000 people killed.

My mother and her family and 140,000 other desperate civilians remained trapped in Breslau during the Russian siege that started in February. The city finally surrendered on May 6, 1945, a week after Hitler committed suicide and four days after Berlin had fallen.

Two thirds of the city was destroyed and 10,000 civilians were killed in the house-to-house fighting. At one point, the children in the city, including my mother and her younger sister, were forced to dig trenches on the outskirts of the city under Russian artillery fire. My mother was even arrested by the Gestapo while she was trying to find her grandparents. Her crime? Being in a part of the city where civilians were prohibited. But she survived and escaped, as did her sisters, and one of the major reasons was because of my grandmother.

Oma was one of the most resourceful and optimistic women I have ever known. She never gave up hope, no matter how desperate the circumstances she found herself in. One of my aunts once told me that when she thought of my grandmother, she always saw her as she had seen her during the war – pacing back and forth in the kitchen thinking about how to save her family from whatever terrible circumstances they faced at the moment. Because of her determination, she and all her children escaped from Breslau to the west after another hard year and another austere Christmas.

My grandmother always enjoyed Christmas -- not because of the gifts, but because her family was together and safe. She had learned to enjoy the time you have with the people you love. She also knew that no matter what the future brings, you can find your way out of almost anything if you don’t give up hope. And she was confident that her grandchildren would never experience in America what her family had endured in Nazi Germany.

My grandmother taught me by her example that determination and optimism can take you almost anywhere, no matter what obstacles you face. Even what appears to be a terrible blow can sometimes turn out for the best. As we celebrate a holiday that is about the birth of hope and salvation, I remember that lesson and am thankful that my family came to America, a nation of new beginnings. It has been a refuge for more than 200 years for immigrants fleeing the tyranny and darkness that pervades so many other places around the world. Merry Christmas!

Book Review: 'American Babylon' by Richard John Neuhaus

Books in Review

Seeking the Welfare of the City of Our Exile

By from the December 2009-January 2010 issue of The American Spectator

American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile
By Richard John Neuhaus
(Basic Books, 270 pages, $26.50)

The death of Father Richard John Neuhaus last January coincided with the posthumous publication of his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile, a short, dense meditation on what it means to live "our awkward duality of citizenship," as both Christians and Americans, with integrity.

Father Neuhaus spent a lifetime passionately debating issues of politics and culture as both a patriot and a faithful Christian. He tirelessly sustained his arguments through books, articles, speeches, media appearances, and, most remarkably, his monthly column "The Public Square," reliably 12,000 words in length, which appeared at the back of his journal of opinion, First Things.

First Things is an ecumenical, nonpartisan publication of intelligent, faithful, orthodox opinion, featuring the writings of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. It is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, another Neuhaus enterprise, which served as a forum and incubator of ideas "to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society."
Father Neuhaus's "The Public Square" offered in-depth commentary on the passing cultural, religious, and political scene as well as reviews of whatever stimulating books, magazines, or journal articles he was reading at the time -- it was always a tour de force. He would debate issues, settle scores, and engage intellectual adversaries, many of whom were friends, with vigor and civility. He displayed a breadth and depth of opinion and conversation to rival that of Boswell's Dr. Johnson.

American Babylon can be read as a kind of valedictory or summation of many of the intellectual arguments that have preoccupied Father Neuhaus in his previous writings. In The Naked Public Square (1984), he expressed the view that, at the very founding of America, religion was viewed as an integral part of the American political system and not its antithesis. Church and state are separate and distinct spheres, but the latter does not work to the exclusion of the former in shaping public policy. No religion or denomination is given a privileged place in America, but neither is religion to be banished from the public square in which citizens debate how a democratic society ought to govern itself.

There is a strong emphasis on eschatology -- the ultimate, last or final things -- in American Babylon, no doubt reflecting the author's heightened sense of mortality at this late stage of his life. Its title, which makes Neuhaus "somewhat uneasy," is not meant to convey a salacious image of a decadent America. Rather, America is a Babylon "by comparison with that radically new order sought by all who know love's grief in refusing to settle for a community of less than truth and justice uncompromised." In other words, America is our beloved home but not a utopia on earth. It is not the Kingdom of God, and as Christians we are always in exile in this and every other country on earth.

Neuhaus cites the prophet Jeremiah, writing in the sixth century BC. Given that the God of Israel had sent his people into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, Jeremiah counseled the Jews to "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." He also cites the First Letter of Peter, in which ancient Rome is viewed as the functional equivalent of Babylon, and Christians are described as "exiles of the Dispersion" and "aliens and exiles."

The Letter to the Hebrews also notes the tension between exile and citizenship: "For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come."

Neuhaus embraces the tension or dialectic since, for Christians and other believers, "All time is time toward home, the time toward our true home in the New Jerusalem." This places upon them "the burden of pilgrimage," which also brings with it the grace to bear it.

While embracing Abraham Lincoln's observation that America is "the last, best, hope of man-kind," Father Neuhaus is quick to recognize the error in a certain "strong current of Christian patriotism" in which "God and country are sometimes conflated in a single allegiance that permits no tension, never mind conflict, between the two."

Neuhaus writes, "To say that we are a nation under God is to say, first and most importantly, that we are a nation under transcendent judgment." "Judgment and promise are inseparable...America is, too, a Babylon."

And again, "Exaggerated patriotism is checked and tempered by the awareness that, while this is a homeland, it is, at the same time, a foreign country."

FATHERE NEUHAUS EXPLORES the fault lines of American religious and political thought, introducing the reader to the Puritans, Transcendentalists, "American Gnosticism" (Harold Bloom's term), and relatively recent Supreme Court decisions that built a wall of separation between not just church and state, but the public square and religion generally. He describes this as "the enforced privatization of religion and religiously informed morality," a concept totally foreign to the likes of John Locke, James Madison, George Washington, and the Founders.

American Babylon includes several chapters of vintage Neuhaus writing: one examines of the idea of moral, as opposed to technological, progress; one expounds Jesus's teaching that salvation is from the Jews; and another demolishes the thought of the late American philosopher Richard Rorty, academic purveyor of "liberal irony," relativism, and post-modernism. While some of these chapters depart somewhat from the theme of the book, all are well worth reading as freestanding essays, excellent contributions to the canon of American letters.

A most illuminating chapter bears the provocative title "Can an Atheist Be a Good Citizen?" There are atheists and then there are atheists. Father Neuhaus distinguishes between those who are "without God" (per the Greek, a-theos), i.e., those intellectually honest people who simply cannot prove or come to apprehend the existence of the Deity, and the "new atheists, who exult in publicly assaulting the religiously grounded foundations and aspirations" of the American political order.

This question of atheism is not without political ramifications. John Locke, the philosopher revered by the Founders, certainly argued for religious toleration but not for irreligion. "Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist," said Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). "The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all."

James Madison, in his Memorial and Remonstrance of 1785, opined that "It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society."

In a passage guaranteed to drive the ACLU over the edge, Madison pushes this point even further:

Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe; And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign.

Neuhaus believes that "an atheist can be a citizen, but he cannot be a good citizen" since citizenship is more than simply abiding by the laws.

A good citizen is able to give an account, a morally compelling account, of the regime of which he is a part -- and to do so in continuity with the constituting moment and subsequent history of that regime. He is able to justify its defense against its enemies, and to convincingly recommend its virtues to citizens of the next generation so that they, in turn, can transmit the order of government to citizens yet unborn. This regime of liberal democracy, of republican self-governance, is not self-evidently good and just. An account must be given. Reasons must be given. They must be reasons that draw authority from that which is higher than ourselves, from that which transcends us, from that to which we are precedently [sic], ultimately, obliged.

Believers "are now the most persuasive defenders...of the good reasons for this regime of ordered liberty" because "it makes a sharply limited claim upon the loyalty of its citizens," argues Father Neuhaus. "The ultimate allegiance of the faithful is not to the regime or to its constituting texts, but to the City of God and the sacred texts that guide our path toward that destination. We are dual citizens in a regime that, as Madison and others underscored, was designed for such duality."

THE PARAMOUNT POLITICAL question of our day, the one that illustrates, most vividly, the tension of being a Christian, citizen, and exile in American Babylon, relates to "what it means to be a human being." These "life questions" raise the matter of who is "a bearer of rights that we, as a society, are obliged to respect." It is "the dignity of the human person," the individual human person, in a society that claims to be a community, which vexes Americans today.

Says Neuhaus: "...the dignity of the human person is affirmed not in the assertion of autonomy but in attending to our duties to protect those who lack autonomy, or whose autonomy is gravely limited." Viewed from this perspective, the 1973 Supreme Court decisions, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, are "the most consequential political event of the past half-century in the United States." The key question is not about when human life begins. On that there is no dispute. "The crucial question is: At what point in its existence ought we, and for what reasons ought we, to recognize that a human life should be protected in law?"

Father Neuhaus believes the moral question of abortion and other life issues are unavoidably a political question: "If politics is deliberating how we ought to order our life together, there can hardly bea more basic question than this: Who belongs to the we?"

If a principle is established by which some indisputably human lives do not warrant the protections traditionally associated with the dignity of the human person -- because of their size, location, dependency, level of development, or burdensomeness to others -- it would seem that there are numerous candidates for the application of the principle, beginning with the radically handicapped, both physically and mentally, not to mention millions of aged and severely debilitated in our nation's nursing homes.

People of faith must continue to heed Jeremiah and "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." Father Neuhaus reminds us, consoles us, that we will only return from our exile in "the personal encounter and eternal dwelling with one who is no stranger, for we knew him in his humility and will then see him in his triumph."

G. Tracy Mehan, III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.

War Against the Wannabe Rich

Why attack the productive classes who want to be rich?

By Victor Davis Hanson
24 December 2009

There is class warfare going on in this country — but it’s not against the established rich. It’s against those who are trying to become wealthy.

President Obama has declared that those who make over $200,000 will pay higher income taxes. Caps on payroll taxes are supposed to come off as well for the upper class. Envisioned estate taxes will take 45 percent of individual inheritances valued over $3.5 million. Many states have also hiked their income taxes on the upper brackets.

Again, most of those targeted are not the already rich — a Warren Buffett or Bill Gates — but millions of the wannabe rich. They may have achieved larger-than-average annual incomes, but they’re not the multimillionaire speculators on Wall Street who nearly wrecked the American economy in search of huge bonuses and payoffs. Most are instead professionals and small-business owners who take enormous risks in hopes of being well-off and passing their wealth on to their children.

Oddly, much of the populist rhetoric about the need to gouge the newly affluent is voiced by the entrenched wealthy, who don’t have to care how high taxes go, given their own vast fortunes.

Take Bill Gates Sr., who is clamoring for higher estate taxes on inheritances. But such advocacy comes easy for him. After all, he is the father of the richest man in the world — someone who clearly needs no inheritance.

Billionaires also often set up charitable foundations to ensure their estates are channeled to their own preferences rather than simply given over to a needy U.S. Treasury. In contrast, moderately affluent business owners or farmers often leave enough property for their heirs to pay death taxes, but not enough to set up tax-exempt charitable foundations.

Warren Buffett also wants higher income taxes on the wealthy. He once confessed that thanks to all sorts of write-offs, he had paid only about 17 percent of his gross income in federal taxes, a lower rate than many employees in his office.

But Buffett, like Bill Gates Jr., is worth many billions of dollars. In truth, he has so much money that no amount of taxes would affect him much. A combined tax bite of 60 percent of his annual income would still leave Buffett each year with millions. Yet the same rate could cripple a business owner making $300,000 in annual income.

Often those in government claim that their tax-increase proposals are simply targeting the affluent like themselves — proof of their own selflessness. President Obama, for example, has complained that the well-off like himself could afford to pay more.

But unlike politicians in Washington, most upscale Americans in private enterprise do not receive free government perks and lavish pensions. Nor are they guaranteed lucrative post-political lobbying and speaking careers.

Focusing tax hikes on those who in some years make between $200,000 and $500,000 makes no sense in a recession for a variety of reasons. They are neither the speculators who caused the panic of 2008 nor the Washington politicians who are bankrupting the country.

Instead, most are small-business owners who hire the majority of the nation’s employees. But faced with the talk of higher taxes, more regulations, and hostile rhetoric, they will remain confused, and so retrench rather than expand.

With the proposed new income, payroll, and health-care tax rates, along with increased state and local taxes, many business owners fear that 60 percent to 70 percent of their income will go to the government. That does not seem a good way to convince small businesses to hire more workers in hopes of greater rewards.

Income is also not the only barometer of affluence. Two-hundred thousand dollars is quite a lot of annual money in Kansas, but does not always go so far in San Jose, where modest houses often cost well over half a million dollars. For those whose children do not qualify for need-based scholarships, a private liberal-arts education can easily set a parent back $200,000 per child over four years.

Why the war against the productive classes who want to be rich?

Maybe it is because they are not as numerous as the proverbial middle class. Perhaps they do not earn our empathy that is properly accorded to the poor. They surely lack the status and insider connections that accrue to the very rich.

Yet continue to punish and demonize them, and the country will grind to a halt — as we are seeing now.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal. © 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Beltway Christmas: Cash for Corruptocrats

By Michelle Malkin
December 22, 2009

The Democrats are right. Sleazy bribes and pork payoffs didn't start with their government health care takeover bill. They've been doling out taxpayer-funded goodies for votes all year.

Harry Reid's latest Cash for Cloture deals are the culmination of Washington's 2009 shopping spree at our expense.

Go back to January and February. The multitrillion-dollar stimulus bill was the mother of all legislative Christmas trees. The ruling party used the economic downturn to redistribute wealth from struggling Americans to favored congressional districts, phantom districts and special interests from golf-cart makers to fly-by-night beauty salons.

According to a new study by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Democratic districts have raked in nearly twice as much porkulus money as GOP districts—without regard to the actual economic suffering and job loss in those districts. In fact, the researchers found that far more stimulus money went to higher-income areas than to lower-income areas.

That includes Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's backyard—where a $54 million no-bid contract was awarded to a firm with little experience to relocate a luxury Bay Area wine train due to flood concerns.

And it includes Barack Obama's home state of Illinois, which reaped the single biggest earmark in the porkulus bill—$1 billion for the dubious FutureGen near-zero emissions "clean coal" plant earmark championed by disgraced Democrat and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin.

And it includes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's backyard—where he secured billions in high-speed rail stimulus earmarks from which he plans to fund a pie-in-the-sky public transportation line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

When taxpayers objected to business as usual masquerading as economic recovery, New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer sneered: "You lost." He jibed on the Senate floor while wagging a grabby finger, "And let me say this to all of the chattering class that so much focuses on those little, tiny, yes, porky amendments: The American people really don't care."

The "American people" Schumer was referring to, of course, were the privileged minority of stimulus beneficiaries—not the rest of us "chattering" dissenters stuck with the bill for those billions in "little, tiny, yes, porky amendments."

No legislation has been immune to congressional shakedown. After the Congressional Black Caucus balked loudly enough, Democratic Rep. Barney Frank—chairman of the House Financial Services Committee—larded up the majority's Wall Street regulatory "reform" bill with $4 billion in payoffs to minority special interests—including former failed Air America radio partner Inner City Broadcasting Corp.

The cash-strapped firm is run by Percy Sutton, a New York City crony of Charlie Rangel's and Al Sharpton's. The money will come out of the ever-morphing TARP bank bailout fund—which went from a toxic assets purchase plan to a capital injection plan, back to a toxic assets purchase plan, then to a life insurance company bailout and on to an auto-supplier bailout.

Leading the charge for the Cash for Cronies of Color drive: California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, who had already extracted $12 million in TARP funds for OneUnited, a a minority-owned bank that is one of her key campaign donors and a company in which both Waters and her husband own massive amounts of stock.

Which brings us to Demcare, the latest wealth redistribution scheme disguised as health care reform. In addition to the infamous $300 million "Louisiana Purchase" for Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and the (at least) $45 million "Cornhusker Kickback" for sellout Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Harry Reid threw around other, less-publicized gobs of cash for cloture votes to cut off debate and ram the bill through. He tossed in a Hospital Helper of $100 million to Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., whose re-election bid is in hot water.

There are bennies for insurance companies and hospitals in Michigan, and "frontier freebies" for hospitals in Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wyoming. There's a New England's Special Syrup for Vermont and Massachusetts—who will get similar (though less generous) special treatment by the feds to that of Nebraska in covering Medicaid expansion costs.
Combined with Nebraska's tab, the exclusive clique's payoffs will cost taxpayers at least $1.2 billion over 10 years.

There's also an ACORN/community organizer-friendly provision for minority health bureaucracies that was sought by Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., according to John McCormack of the Weekly Standard.

And there's a $10 billion socialized medicine sop to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for "community health clinics" serving in essence as universal health care satellite offices. "We are talking about a revolution," Sanders enthused during the Senate's sneaky Sunday session.

No, revolution will come when taxpayers have a chance to kick these reverse Santa Clauses posing as saviors out of office.

It can't happen a minute too soon.


- Michelle Malkin [email her] is the author of Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores. Click here for Peter Brimelow’s review. Click here for Michelle Malkin's website. Michelle Malkin is also author of Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild and the just-released Culture of Corruption: Obama and his Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks & Cronies.

The folly of a "right to health care"

There Ain’t No Such Thing As a Free Lumpectomy

December 23, 2009

This week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared that his chamber’s health care bill “demands for the first time in American history that good health will not depend on great wealth.” Reid said the legislation “acknowledges, finally, that health care is a fundamental right—a human right—and not just a privilege for the most fortunate.”

Since more than four-fifths of Americans already have medical insurance, and even those without “great wealth” have been known to enjoy “good health,” Reid was laying it on a little thick. But his premise, which is shared by President Obama, explains the moral urgency felt by supporters of the health care overhaul that is making its way through Congress. It also reveals a radical assault on the traditional American understanding of rights.

The Framers believed the Constitution recognized pre-existing rights, protecting them from violation by the government. The common law likewise developed as a way of protecting people from wrongful interference by their neighbors. If people have rights simply by virtue of being human, those rights can be violated (by theft or murder, for example) even in the absence of government.

By contrast, notwithstanding Reid’s claim that government-subsidized health care is a fundamental human right, it does not make much sense to say that it exists in a country too poor to afford such subsidies or at a time before modern medicine, let alone in the state of nature. Did Paleolithic hunter-gatherers have a right to the “affordable, comprehensive and high-quality medical care” that the Congressional Progressive Caucus says is a right of “every person”? If so, who was violating that right?

During his second presidential debate with Republican nominee John McCain, Obama said health care “should be a right for every American.” Why? “There's something fundamentally wrong,” he said, “in a country as wealthy as ours, for us to have people who are going bankrupt because they can't pay their medical bills.”

According to the president, people have a right to health care because it is wrong to charge them for medical services they can’t afford. Which is another way of saying they have a right to health care.

While liberty rights such as freedom of speech or freedom of contract require others to refrain from acting in certain ways, “welfare rights” such as the purported entitlement to health care (or to food, clothing, or shelter) require others to perform certain actions. They represent a legally enforceable claim on other people’s resources. Taxpayers must cover the cost of subsidies; insurers and medical professionals must provide their services on terms dictated by the government.

A right to health care thus requires the government to infringe on people’s liberty rights by commandeering their talents, labor, and earnings. And since new subsidies will only exacerbate the disconnect between payment and consumption that drives health care inflation, such interference is bound to increase as the government struggles to control ever-escalating spending. Rising costs will also encourage the government to repeatedly redefine the right to health care, deciding exactly which treatments it includes.

If health care is a fundamental right, equality under the law would seem to require that everyone have the same level of care, regardless of their resources. That principle was illustrated by the case of Debbie Hirst, a British woman with metastasized breast cancer who in 2007 was denied access to a commonly used drug on the grounds that it was too expensive.

When Hirst decided to raise money to pay for the drug on her own, she was told that doing so would make her ineligible for further treatment by the National Health Service. According to The New York Times, “Officials said that allowing Mrs. Hirst and others like her to pay for extra drugs to supplement government care would violate the philosophy of the health service by giving richer patients an unfair advantage over poorer ones.” The right to health care is so important, it seems, that it can nullify itself.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.
© Copyright 2009 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

Western Renaissance Man: Kit Carson at 200

By Bill Croke on 12.23.09 @ 6:07AM
The American Spectator

This is a bicentennial article about a man who occupies a prominent place in American history, and whose life is tinged by myth. This man was born in a Kentucky log cabin in 1809. He rose from an early hard frontier life to national prominence. Abe Lincoln, you say? No, it's Kit Carson.

Carson may have given the later mythmaker William F. Cody ideas about a life in the West as the stuff of legend. Compared to Carson, Buffalo Bill had a thin résumé, though he did a better job of marketing himself. Cody may have heard of or read an anecdote that appeared in Carson's dictated (Carson was a lifelong illiterate) Autobiography (1859).

In 1849, Carson guided an army detachment to rescue a white captive named Ann White (they failed, she was killed) from Apaches. As they buried her, someone in Carson's party found a book amidst her personal effects, a Dime Novel titled "Kit Carson: Prince of the Gold Hunters." Passages were read to the scout that told of a gallant Carson coming to the rescue of a wagon train attacked by Indians. In his Autobiography Carson states, "I have much regretted the failure to save the life of so esteemed a lady." So in an odd way the unlettered Carson bought into his own mythology. He truly felt guilty that he had let down the doomed woman by failing to appear in time to save the day. Though it was the considered opinion of many who knew him, such as John C. Fremont, that a similar feat wouldn't have been beyond Carson's abilities because Carson was a man who was "prompt, self sacrificing , and true" and possessed "great courage."

Christopher Houston Carson entered life in Madison County, Kentucky, on Christmas Eve, 1809. He was one of nine children born to Lindsey and Rebecca Carson. Lindsey Carson was a Revolutionary War veteran and a widower who had six children from a first marriage, fifteen in all. Carson's father was 64 when the famous scout was born.

Following the frontier, the Carsons moved to Franklin, Missouri Territory, when Kit was two. They bought farmland from two sons of Daniel Boone, the famous trailblazer himself living nearby in retirement. Here young Kit grew up, taking to the woods to learn hunting and trapping. He was apprenticed to a saddlemaker, a job that he detested, and he ran away in 1826 at sixteen.

Kit hired on as a laborer in the "Santa Fe trade"; his initial job was to tend to the livestock that accompanied the wagon caravans. In 1829, Carson accompanied the mountain man Ewing Young and a large trapping party to California, the place that would figure prominently in his life in a celebrity-making way. On this trip, in a skirmish with Apaches, Carson killed his first Indian, and scalped him. In the course of his life, Carson killed a number of people both Indian and Hispanic, mostly in the milieu of war or the violent background of the fur trade. In this he was a typically stoic man of his time. But the contemporary leftwing academic take on him as a genocidal monster is wrong.

By the 1830s Kit Carson was a first rate mountain man despite his diminutive stature (5 feet, 6 inches). Bernard DeVoto, in Across the Wide Missouri (1947), his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Rocky Mountain fur trade, calls Carson (along with Jim Bridger and Thomas Fitzpatrick) in his old-school bombastic style, "…the mountain man as master craftsman, partisan, explorer, conqueror, and maker and bequeather of the West."

In his trapping years Carson ranged from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of present New Mexico to the Northern Rockies. He attended a number of summer Rendezvous, those annual commercial bacchanals so important to the fur trade. As a member of a Rocky Mountain Fur Company brigade, he spent the winter of 1832-33 on the Salmon River of present Idaho with such mountain stalwarts as Bridger and Fitzpatrick. At the 1835 Green River Rendezvous in present western Wyoming, Carson fought a duel from horseback with a French-Canadian trapper named Joseph Chouinard over the affections of an Arapaho woman named "Singing Grass." Kit shot Chouinard's thumb off in the fight and sustained a flesh wound to his own head (historians disagree as to whether Carson then killed Chouinard), and afterwards married Singing Grass. She died in childbirth while delivering Carson's second daughter a few years later. And by 1840 the fur trade suffered the economic demise noted by history. But a new chapter in Carson's life was about to begin.

CARSON'S ASCENT INTO the national consciousness began after his 1842 introduction to John C. Fremont aboard a Missouri River steamboat. They were both unknown, but Fremont had recently married Jessie Benton, the politically savvy headstrong daughter of the powerful Missouri U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a progenitor of American Manifest Destiny and future enthusiastic proponent of the Mexican War. Fremont had great dreams about western exploration, and a new father-in-law who could aid in the realization of those dreams. Carson would participate in the first three of four future Fremont "expeditions." These government-sponsored epic wanderings took Fremont and Carson from the Great Plains to the Pacific.

Along with Carson, Fremont employed a number of "retired" (and most still relatively young) mountain men on different journeys, including Fitzpatrick, Alexis Godey, Basil Lejeunesse, and William Sherley "Old Bill" Williams. Fremont -- "The Pathfinder," as the eastern press dubbed him -- in his egotistical way always fancied himself an explorer in the Lewis and Clark mold. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The ex-mountain men in Fremont's employ had over the previous twenty years tramped through the same country that Fremont supposedly "discovered." For instance, the press hailed him as the discoverer of South Pass, while Fitzpatrick had been with the first party of American trappers to traverse that wide saddle in the Wyoming Rockies from the east in February, 1824. (It had actually been first crossed from the west by some of Wilson Price Hunt's returning "Astorians" in 1812.) Since then it had been a regularly traveled route in the mountain trade even by the first use of wagons bound for the 1836 Rendezvous. The idea of Fremont discovering a place that he was guided to by people who first saw it decades earlier is laughable, but Carson went along with the charade. To him it was a job. South Pass had for twenty years been an integral reference point for what Bernard DeVoto called "the mountain man mind." But the boss was certainly full of himself. DeVoto wrote extensively about Fremont in The Year of Decision: 1846, once playfully referring to him as "Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines."

The statue of Kit Carson on the Capitol grounds.
Nevada State Capitol - Carson City, NV

In the spring of 1842 the Fremont-Carson party went through South Pass and along the western slopes of the Wind River Mountains in present western Wyoming. Fremont insisted on climbing the 13,745 feet peak that bears his name today. He was convinced that it was the highest in the Rockies (so much for those 54 "Fourteeners" in present Colorado, and Fremont Peak isn't even the loftiest in "the Winds," Gannett Peak is at 13,804) and wanted to plant a American flag at the summit. The party accomplished this feat with some difficulty, so Captain Jinks could have his moment of glory. Carson might have thought him crazy, because his hard won experience had taught him to play it safe in rough country. It was dangerous not to. For years, he had roamed the western wilderness by well-worn Indian trails, broad river valleys, and through the lowest and most accessible mountain passes. Paradoxically, the mountain men were too smart to be mountaineers.

The second expedition in 1843 traveled through much of the Pacific Northwest and then proceeded to trespass in Mexican California. They returned east by a hard crossing of the Sierra Nevada in winter. Starvation threatened, and Carson saved the day by butchering some of the mules.

The third expedition beginning in 1845 is the one that catches the eye of historians. Fremont, Carson, and 55 men found themselves in California on the eve of the Mexican War. A credible historical conspiracy theory has Fremont as an agent provocateur in California with the blessing of his father-in-law, Senator Benton, and indeed of President James Polk himself.

Carson participated in a series of byzantine historical events beginning with Fremont's support of the short-lived Bear Flag Republic and culminating with brilliant scouting service for General Stephen Watts Kearney at the Battle of San Pasqual, which essentially ceded California to the United States by force of arms. After carrying official dispatches to Washington, Carson was now famous enough to enjoy dinner with President and Mrs. Polk. Other than that he hated the capital, and nursed special dislikes for prying newspaper reporters and the "city" clothes that made him yearn for comfortable buckskins.

CARSON HAD MARRIED a young woman named Josefa Jaramillo in 1843. She was of a prominent Taos, New Mexico family, and brought him some local respectability, further enhanced by his reception into the Roman Catholic Church. The union produced eight children. The scout now pursued the life of a prosperous rancher, with interludes away as a much-in-demand guide as the surge of American Manifest Destiny got underway following the Mexican War, the discovery of gold in California, and the agrarian settlement of Oregon. And being an expert on Indians, Carson proved useful to the U.S. government in negotiations with certain Western tribes. Despite his illiteracy (was it dyslexia?), Carson was a well-spoken man with a talent for languages, eight in all. He spoke fluent Spanish, Navajo, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Paiute, Shoshone and Ute. Through the 1850s one of Carson's sidelines was as a freelance U.S. government Indian agent for territorial New Mexico.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Carson supported the Union and was given a commission as a colonel in command of the First New Mexico Volunteers. Union forces there under Colonel Edward Canby were charged with defending the Southwest -- including California -- from Confederate incursions from Texas. In February 1862, Carson participated in the Battle of Valverde, America's western-most Civil War engagement, which was a Confederate victory. But the Rebels, under Brigadier General Henry Sibley, lacked a supply line stretching back to Texas, and after some further skirmishes were literally starved into abandoning New Mexico.

In 1864, Carson was selected to campaign against the restive Navajos, and his ensuing conduct makes for the most controversial aspect of his career. On the orders of Brigadier General James Carleton, he was charged with the task of resettling the Indians on a reservation at Bosque Redondo, but they proved resistant, and the army responded with brutal force. Carson led 500 troops to attack the Navajos, conducting a scorched earth policy of fighting and burning villages, while the harried tribe fled. The Navajos had cultivated beautiful peach orchards at Canyon de Chelly, and these Carson ordered cut down. He eventually forced 8,000 of the Navajos onto "The Long Walk," where over 300 died, and to this day is vilified by American Indians for these actions. He himself was home in Taos when the relocation actually occurred. His last military engagement was against hostile Indians (Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes) at the Battle of Adobe Walls in Texas in November, 1864. Ironically, near the end of his life, Carson told a reporter that he believed Indians should live on reservations in order to be better protected from the many-faceted depredations of whites.

Carson was decommissioned following the Civil War and retired to a new ranch in Colorado. He suffered ill health in the late 1860s, and died there in 1868 at the age of 58, a mere month after his wife Josefa's own passing. Their side-by-side graves in Taos, New Mexico are a tourist draw.

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Mark Steyn on Britain and Europe
Tuesday, 22 December 2009

from National Review

The Swiss minaret ban and the leaked climate e-mails are really the same story — or, more precisely, are symptoms of the same disease. In the Times of London, Oliver Kamm deplored the results of Switzerland’s referendum, consigned it to the garbage can of right-wing populism, and for good measure dismissed my analysis of Euro-demographics (“This is nonsense,” he pronounced magisterially). Instead, Mr. Kamm called for a “secularist and liberal defense of the principles of a pluralist society.”

That’s not the solution to the problem, but one of the causes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for liberalism and pluralism and whatnot. And, in the hands of a combative old bruiser like Christopher Hitchens, they’re powerful weapons. But most people are not like Mr. Hitchens. And so in much of the post-Christian West “a pluralist society” has subsided into a vast gaping nullity too weak to have any purchase on large numbers of the citizenry. In practice, the “secularist and liberal defense” is the vacuum in which a resurgent globalized Islam has incubated.

It is only human to wish to belong to something larger than oneself, and thereby give one’s life meaning. For most of history, this need was satisfied by tribe and then nation, and religion. But the Church is in steep decline in Europe, and the nation-state is all but wholly discredited as the font of racism, imperialism, and all the other ills. So some (not all) third-generation Britons of Pakistani descent look elsewhere for their identity, and find the new globalized Islam. And some (not all) 30th-generation Britons of old Anglo-Saxon stock also look elsewhere, and find global warming. “Think globally, act locally” works for environmentalism and jihad. Adherents of both causes are saving the planet from the same enemy — decadent capitalist infidels living empty consumerist lives. Both faiths claim their tenets are beyond discussion. Only another climate scientist can question the climate-science “consensus”: You busboys and waitresses and accountants and software designers and astronomers and physicists and meteorologists are unqualified to enter the debate. Likewise, on Islam, for an unbeliever to express a view is “Islamophobic.” As to which of these competing globalisms is less plausible, I leave it to readers: Barack Obama promises to lower the oceans; Hizb ut-Tahrir promises a global caliphate. The Guardian’s ecopalyptic Fred Pearce says Australia will be uninhabitable within a few years; Islam4UK says Britain will be under sharia within a few years. I’m not a betting man but if I had to choose . . .

“Think globally, act locally”: but, if you’re on the receiving end of globalized pathologies, it’s very hard to act locally. A conventional if tyrannical nation-state is free to act against both Islam and “the environment.” China is happy to stick it to the Uighurs and to turn the Yangtze into a frothing toxic cauldron. But these days non-tyrannical nation-states are barely nations at all, and certainly not to the extent of having anything so déclassé as a “national interest.” If the Swiss are indeed the raging right-wing populists Oliver Kamm says they are, their knuckle-dragging neofascism is a limp and effete strain. If you truly believe that Islam is the cuckoo in your clock, you might ban new mosque construction or even Muslim immigration. Instead, they have banned a symbolic architectural flourish, while the mosque-building and the immigration continue — which means that one day the minaret ban will be overturned. And were the country a member of the European Union, even this forlorn gesture would not be permitted.

In Switzerland’s defense, it was pointed out that Saudi Arabia prohibits not just church spires but churches. But this argument went nowhere, except to give detractors an opportunity to tut that the Swiss had chosen to become an Alpine Saudi. To progressive opinion, it’s taken as read that “multiculturalism” is a one-way street: It seems entirely reasonable for a Wahhabist to say an Anglican church in Riyadh would seem, gee, I dunno, just somehow kinda un-Saudi, whereas it is entirely unacceptable for Heidi’s grandfather to say a Deobandi mosque in Lucerne is un-Swiss. In contemporary Western discourse, a commitment to abstract virtues — secularism, pluralism — must trump any visceral sense of ethnocultural allegiance.

That’s a very shifting patch of sand to draw a line in. Recently, the writer Barbara Kay testified to the House of Commons in Ottawa about a Jewish teacher at a francophone school in Ontario. Around 2002 she began to encounter explicitly anti-Semitic speech from Muslim students: “Does someone smell a Jew? It stinks here.” “You are not human, you are a Jew.” Had Anglo-Saxon skinheads essayed such jests, Oliver Kamm’s warriors of secular pluralism would have crushed them like bugs. But when the teacher went to the principal, and the school board, and the local “hate-crimes unit,” they all looked the other way and advised her that it would be easier if she retired. Sixty out of 75 French teachers at the school opted to leave: A couple were Jewish, a few more practicing Catholics, and most of the rest were the liberal secularists on whom Oliver Kamm’s defense of the West rests. The francophone children withdrew, too. And now the principal and most of the students and faculty are Muslim.

Maybe it would have wound up like that anyway. But having nothing to stand in your way except liberal progressives certainly accelerated the process. And as it went at one schoolhouse, so will it go on the broader horizon: If you believe in everything, you’re unlikely to stand for something.

Black Education

by Walter E. Williams
22 December 2009

Detroit's (predominantly black) public schools are the worst in the nation and it takes some doing to be worse than Washington, D.C. Only 3 percent of Detroit's fourth-graders scored proficient on the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test, sometimes called "The Nation's Report Card." Twenty-eight percent scored basic and 69 percent below basic. "Below basic" is the NAEP category when students are unable to demonstrate even partial mastery of knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work at their grade level. It's the same story for Detroit's eighth-graders. Four percent scored proficient, 18 percent basic and 77 percent below basic.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the D.C.-based Council on Great City Schools, in an article appearing in Crain's Detroit Business, (12/8/09) titled, "Detroit's Public Schools Post Worst Scores on Record in National Assessment," said, "There is no jurisdiction of any kind, at any level, at any time in the 30-year history of NAEP that has ever registered such low numbers." The academic performance of black students in other large cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles is not much better than Detroit and Washington.

What's to be done about this tragic state of black education? The education establishment and politicians tell us that we need to spend more for higher teacher pay and smaller class size. The fact of business is higher teacher salaries and smaller class sizes mean little or nothing in terms of academic achievement. Washington, D.C., for example spends over $15,000 per student, has class sizes smaller than the nation's average, and with an average annual salary of $61,195, its teachers are the most highly paid in the nation.

What about role models? Standard psychobabble asserts a positive relationship between the race of teachers and administrators and student performance. That's nonsense. Black academic performance is the worst in the very cities where large percentages of teachers and administrators are black, and often the school superintendent is black, the mayor is black, most of the city council is black and very often the chief of police is black.

Black people have accepted hare-brained ideas that have made large percentages of black youngsters virtually useless in an increasingly technological economy. This destruction will continue until the day comes when black people are willing to turn their backs on liberals and the education establishment's agenda and confront issues that are both embarrassing and uncomfortable. To a lesser extent, this also applies to whites because the educational performance of many white kids is nothing to write home about; it's just not the disaster that black education is.

Many black students are alien and hostile to the education process. They have parents with little interest in their education. These students not only sabotage the education process, but make schools unsafe as well. These students should not be permitted to destroy the education chances of others. They should be removed or those students who want to learn should be provided with a mechanism to go to another school.

Another issue deemed too delicate to discuss is the overall quality of people teaching our children. Students who have chosen education as their major have the lowest SAT scores of any other major. Students who have an education degree earn lower scores than any other major on graduate school admission tests such as the GRE, MCAT or LSAT. Schools of education, either graduate or undergraduate, represent the academic slums of most any university. They are home to the least able students and professors. Schools of education should be shut down.

Yet another issue is the academic fraud committed by teachers and administrators. After all, what is it when a student is granted a diploma certifying a 12th grade level of achievement when in fact he can't perform at the sixth- or seventh-grade level?

Prospects for improvement in black education are not likely given the cozy relationship between black politicians, civil rights organizations and teacher unions.

- Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of More Liberty Means Less Government: Our Founders Knew This Well.

Religious Climate Rage

by Mark D. Tooley
22 December 2009

The international Religious Left is grieving over the Copenhagen climate summit’s failure to mandate sweeping restrictions on capitalism and massive global redistribution of wealth.
“With a lack of transparency, the agreement reached this past week by some countries was negotiated without consensus but rather in secret among the powerful nations of the world,” bewailed the World Council of Churches’s climate change spokesman. He further denounced the summit as a “strong strike against multilateralism and the democratic principles in the U.N. system.”

Hopes among the numerous religious activists in Copenhagen had been feverishly high. Global Warming alarmism combines so many of the Religious Left’s favored fetishes, hopes and fears: hostility to free markets and economic growth; cravings for wealth redistribution; Western guilt; veneration for the earth at the expense of humanity; and aspirations for global governance.

Most prominent among the religious prelates in Copenhagen were Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (pictured at left) and retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who solemnly told religious activists at a rally that an unidentified 300,000 people were “dying as a result of the poverty caused by all of the emissions coming from the rich countries.” Lest anyone misunderstand his target, Tutu pleaded: “Hello, rich people. Hello there, hello America.” Tutu did not mention how many hundreds of millions of people are alive and living with greater health and wealth because of Western industry.

At a candle light vigil, Tutu almost incoherently squealed:

“If you are responsible for most of the emissions, which are—look—look—look at the ozone layer. People are now suffering from all kinds of skin diseases, because we are thinning the ozone layer. Whoa! Whoa-ho!”

Getting more straight to the point, Tutu importuned the wealthy West to fork it over:

“For your own sakes, rich people, please, for your own sakes, for your children’s sakes, for the sake of our world, be nice. Be nice, and pay up. Pay up, please. Please, for your own sake.”

At an ecumenical church service attended by Denmark’s queen that was somewhat more decorous than the street rallies, Rowan Williams intoned: “We cannot show the right kind of love for our fellow humans unless we also work at keeping the Earth as a place that is a secure home for all people.” The Lutheran cathedral was adorned with a massive banner demanding: “Time for Climate Justice.”

As my colleague Jeff Walton reported, Williams apocalyptically sermonized against “a world of utterly chaotic and disruptive change, of devastation and desertification, of biological impoverishment and degradation.” He waned of a “downward spiral of the greedy, addictive, loveless behavior,” and worried that “we have not yet been able to embrace the cost of the decisions we know we must make. We are afraid because we don’t know how we can survive without the comforts of our existing lifestyle.”

Claiming that the Global South is poor because the West is rich is the constant refrain of the Religious Left, which rehashes the theme from the secular left and adorns it with sanctimonious guilt. “How shall we build international institutions that make sure the resources get where they are needed – that, for example, ‘green taxes’ will deliver more security for the disadvantaged, that transitions in economic patterns will not weigh most heavily on those least equipped to cope?” Williams asked. Naturally, the prospect of international “green taxes” excites the Religious Left almost to a quiver.

Much of the Religious Left inclines to at least a soft pantheism that venerates Mother Earth and bewails the traditional Christian and Jewish understanding that God created the world for the benefit of humanity. “We have a bad habit, a belief in a theology of dominance that humans rule over the earth,” averred Canadian church official Joy Kennedy, a climate change activist with the World Council of Churches (WCC). “Well, I have to tell you, sisters and brothers, it is past time that we confess that.”

Summoning sinners to the mourners’ bench, Kennedy continued her jeremiad.

“And if we believe the planet is just a natural resource bank, there to be exploited, excavated, extracted, dumped on, then we will treat it that way. But if we believe we are part of a sacred creation dependent on its gifts for our very survival and for life, then human activity requires responsibility and we will act differently because we love and serve and protect our home.”

She implored that “we need to find ways to replace greed with an economy of enough.”

Urging people of faith to deny themselves and live abstemiously would be laudable. But the WCC and other Religious Left climate activists are not so much interested in voluntary Christian asceticism as they are mammoth and coercive international regulation that would forcibly repress economic growth in the West while transferring enormous wealth to Third World kleptocratic elites. Meanwhile, the Third World’s poor would suffer further while forever deprived of Western style access to carbon-producing luxuries like electricity, lest they too become guilty of carbon sins and “dominance” over the Earth.

In a formal appeal to the Copenhagen summit, the WCC pleaded for “worldwide actions to save our planet from the catastrophic and suicidal consequences of climate change.” The WCC pleaded for a “global agreement” on carbon emissions that would supposedly transform the world. “Do not deceive us,” they warned. “It will be a sign of hope for the future, and it will bring peace on earth to people of good will, today and for the years to come. We are all members of one family living together, breathing together, and dreaming together.”

So naturally, the WCC and other Religious Left activists in Copenhagen were devastated when the summit yawningly agreed to unspecified carbon reductions and not the shut-down of global capitalism for which the WCC had been praying. Specifically, the WCC had wanted a draconian 40 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2020. “Copenhagen was a missed opportunity by the industrialized countries to lead by example” tut-tutted one WCC climate advocate. “Most of the industrialized countries didn’t show the needed commitment to lead the whole world in an effective way to address the challenges of climate change.”

Another WCC official promised that the “struggle continues” even though the WCC and the “whole civil society” had been “betrayed” by Copenhagen’s failures. “We need to build on the incredible mobilization by churches and the civil society over the next year, with prayers, bell ringing, and advocacy action, to reach a fair, ambitious and binding deal in Copenhagen which was not achieved because of the unwillingness of most of industrialized countries.”

The Religious Left can go on ringing the bells of its mostly empty churches. But no amount of religious noise pollution is likely to persuade most of the world to shut down its industries and quietly accede to perpetual poverty while relinquishing humanity’s “dominance” over a liberated Earth.

Ben Nelson: Legislator of the Year

This is beggar-my-nation legislating.

By Rich Lowry
December 22, 2009, 0:00 a.m.

Too bad Barack Obama hasn’t followed through on his promises of legislative transparency. Then we all could have watched Harry Reid live on C-SPAN handing an oversized Publishers Clearing House–style $100 million check to Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson.

The highest-profile Democratic hold-out on Obamacare, Nelson said last week, “My vote is not for sale.” He obviously meant that in the sense that he’d be righteously indignant at any suggestion that his vote could possibly be bought for anything less than the low nine digits.

Nelson got the feds to pick up forevermore 100 percent of the additional Medicaid spending that will be imposed on Nebraska by the bill. In stereotypically Orwellian fashion, the provision is called “Equitable Support for Certain States.” That, naturally enough, translates into special, inequitable support for three states, totaling $1.2 billion over ten years. Vermont and Massachusetts argue they are due the funds for prior expansions of Medicaid, but what’s Nebraska’s excuse?

By the standards of Washington, Nelson deserves to be named “legislator of the year,” with distinction in gross backroom dealing. His plunder perfectly encapsulates the current Democratic project in all its shameless audacity.

The Nebraskan is touted as a conservative Democrat. The Democratic leadership went out of its way to recruit Nelsonesque candidates in the 2006 and 2008 congressional races. These “majority makers” from Red States are supposed to represent the ideological diversity of the Democratic party, although they somehow always vote in numbers sufficient to enable Nancy Pelosi and Reid’s governmental adventurism.

Many of the Blue Dogs rely on a simple electoral formula: Sound moderate at election time, then vote with the liberal priorities of the national party, repeat as necessary. Obama hopes to replicate this strategy on a grand scale. He wants to pivot to portraying himself as a fierce fiscal hawk next year, despite all the debt he accumulated this year, notwithstanding all he said about fiscal restraint last year.

This is the larger dishonesty in which all the smaller subsidiary ones are embedded. Obama has maintained all along that the health bill doesn’t fund abortion. He accused those who maintained otherwise of bearing “false witness,” a deliberately fraught phrase.

Nelson’s resistance to this allegedly nonexistent abortion funding was at the core of his long-running objection to the bill. During the weekend, he signed off on a weak compromise denounced by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that still allows the bill’s subsidies to go to abortion coverage. In a Christmas miracle, Nelson’s principled opposition to the abortion-funding stream vanished precisely as the $100 million check arrived.

Governors across the country have inveighed against the bill’s expansion of Medicaid because, eventually, they will be left with part of the bill. Seized with the problem, Nelson crafted a farsighted legislative compromise of the sort Daniel Webster or Henry Clay might be proud — exempt Nebraska. This is beggar-my-nation legislating, and the health-care bill is shot through with it.

The New York Times reports that the bill cracks down on doctors referring Medicare patients to hospitals in which they have a financial interest. Not everywhere, though. The bill offers an exemption for certain doctor-owned hospitals, the deadline for which Reid extended to Aug. 1, 2010, specifically to include Bellevue Medical Center — in Bellevue, Neb.

Logrolling has always been with us. As Ronald Reagan said, politics is the second-oldest profession and closely related to the first. But, in keeping with the new scale of Obama-era spending, the price tag of the payoffs has grown. If a fence-sitting Democrat didn’t get a handout of a hundred million or more, he is a rank legislative incompetent. Mary Landrieu scored $300 million in Medicaid funding for Louisiana even before crunch time arrived.

The route to 60 Senate votes went through Harry Reid’s favor factory. Democrats will pass a new $2.5 trillion entitlement out of the Senate and will disgrace themselves doing it. Witness their pliable, self-interested legislator of the year.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. © 2009 by King Features Syndicate

Monday, December 21, 2009

Film Reviews: 'Avatar'

BY ROGER EBERT / December 11, 2009

"Avatar" is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that. It's a technical breakthrough. It has a flat-out Green and anti-war message. It is predestined to launch a cult. It contains such visual detailing that it would reward repeating viewings. It invents a new language, Na'vi, as "Lord of the Rings" did, although mercifully I doubt this one can be spoken by humans, even teenage humans. It creates new movie stars. It is an Event, one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation.

The story, set in the year 2154, involves a mission by U. S. Armed Forces to an earth-sized moon in orbit around a massive star. This new world, Pandora, is a rich source of a mineral Earth desperately needs. Pandora represents not even a remote threat to Earth, but we nevertheless send in the military to attack and conquer them. Gung-ho Marines employ machine guns and pilot armored hover ships on bombing runs. You are free to find this an allegory about contemporary politics. Cameron obviously does.

Pandora harbors a planetary forest inhabited peacefully by the Na'vi, a blue-skinned, golden-eyed race of slender giants, each one perhaps 12 feet tall. The atmosphere is not breathable by humans, and the landscape makes us pygmies. To venture out of our landing craft, we use avatars--Na'vi lookalikes grown organically and mind-controlled by humans who remain wired up in a trance-like state on the ship. While acting as avatars, they see, fear, taste and feel like Na'vi, and have all the same physical adeptness.

This last quality is liberating for the hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is a paraplegic. He's been recruited because he's a genetic match for a dead identical twin, who an expensive avatar was created for. In avatar state he can walk again, and as his payment for this duty he will be given a very expensive operation to restore movement to his legs. In theory he's in no danger, because if his avatar in destroyed, his human form remains untouched. In theory.

On Pandora, Jake begins as a good soldier and then goes native after his life is saved by the lithe and brave Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). He finds it is indeed true, as the aggressive Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) briefed them, that nearly every species of life here wants him for lunch. (Avatars are not be made of Na'vi flesh, but try explaining that to charging 30-ton rhino with a snout like a bullet head shark).

The Na'vi survive on this planet by knowing it well, living in harmony with nature, and being wise about the creatures they share with. In this and countless other ways they resemble Native Americans. Like them, they tame another species to carry them around--not horses, but graceful flying dragon-like creatures. The scene involving Jake capturing and taming one of these great beasts is one of the film's greats sequences.

Like "Star Wars" and "LOTR," "Avatar" employs a new generation of special effects. Cameron said it would, and many doubted him. It does. Pandora is bevy largely CGI. The Na'vi are embodied through motion capture techniques, convincingly. They look like specific, persuasive individuals, yet sidestep the eerie Uncanny Valley effect. And Cameron and his artists succeed at the difficult challenge of making Neytiri a blue-skinned giantess with golden eyes and a long, supple tail, and yet--I'll be damned. Sexy.

At 163 minutes, the film doesn't feel too long. It contains so much. The human stories. The Na'vi stories, for the Na'vi are also developed as individuals. The complexity of the planet, which harbors a global secret. The ultimate warfare, with Jake joining the resistance against his former comrades. Small graceful details like a floating creature that looks like a cross between a blowing dandelion seed and a drifting jellyfish, and embodies goodness. Or astonishing floating cloud-islands.

I've complained that many recent films abandon story telling in their third acts and go for wall-to-wall action. Cameron essentially does that here, but has invested well in establishing his characters so that it matters what they do in battle and how they do it. There are issues at stake greater than simply which side wins.

Cameron promised he'd unveil the next generation of 3-D in "Avatar." I'm a notorious skeptic about this process, a needless distraction from the perfect realism of movies in 2-D. Cameron's iteration is the best I've seen -- and more importantly, one of the most carefully-employed. The film never uses 3-D simply because it has it, and doesn't promiscuously violate the fourth wall. He also seems quite aware of 3-D's weakness for dimming the picture, and even with a film set largely in interiors and a rain forest, there's sufficient light. I saw the film in 3-D on a good screen at the AMC River East and was impressed. I might be awesome in True IMAX. Good luck in getting a ticket before February.

It takes a hell of a lot of nerve for a man to stand up at the Oscarcast and proclaim himself King of the World. James Cameron just got re-elected.

A New Eden, Both Cosmic and Cinematic

This movie has been designated a Critic's Pick by the film reviewers of The Times.

The New York Times
Published: December 18, 2009

With “Avatar” James Cameron has turned one man’s dream of the movies into a trippy joy ride about the end of life — our moviegoing life included — as we know it. Several decades in the dreaming and more than four years in the actual making, the movie is a song to the natural world that was largely produced with software, an Emersonian exploration of the invisible world of the spirit filled with Cameronian rock ’em, sock ’em pulpy action. Created to conquer hearts, minds, history books and box-office records, the movie — one of the most expensive in history, the jungle drums thump — is glorious and goofy and blissfully deranged.

The story behind the story, including a production budget estimated to top $230 million, and Mr. Cameron’s future-shock ambitions for the medium have already begun to settle into myth (a process partly driven by the publicity, certainly). Every filmmaker is something of a visionary, just by virtue of the medium. But Mr. Cameron, who directed the megamelodrama “Titanic” and, more notably, several of the most influential science-fiction films of the past few decades (“The Terminator,” “Aliens” and “The Abyss”), is a filmmaker whose ambitions transcend a single movie or mere stories to embrace cinema as an art, as a social experience and a shamanistic ritual, one still capable of producing the big WOW.

The scale of his new movie, which brings you into a meticulous and brilliantly colored alien world for a fast 2 hours 46 minutes, factors into that wow. Its scope is evident in an early scene on a spaceship (the year is 2154), where the passengers, including a paraplegic ex-Marine, Jake (Sam Worthington, a gruffly sensitive heartthrob), are being roused from a yearslong sleep before landing on a distant inhabited moon, Pandora. Jake is woken by an attendant floating in zero gravity, one of many such aides. As Jake himself glides through the bright cavernous space, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore, as someone soon quips (a nod to “The Wizard of Oz,” Mr. Cameron’s favorite film). You also know you’re not in the gloom of “The Matrix.”

Though it’s easy to pigeonhole Mr. Cameron as a gear head who’s more interested in cool tools (which here include 3-D), he is, with “Avatar,” also making a credible attempt to create a paradigm shift in science-fiction cinema. Since it was first released in 1999, “The Matrix,” which owes a large debt to Mr. Cameron’s own science-fiction films as well as the literary subgenre of cyberpunk, has hung heavily over both SF and action filmmaking. Most films that crib from “The Matrix” tend to borrow only its slo-mo death waltzes and leather fetishism, keeping its nihilism while ditching the intellectual inquiries. Although “Avatar” delivers a late kick to the gut that might be seen as nihilistic (and how!), it is strangely utopian.

It doesn’t take Jake long to feel the good vibes. Like Neo, the savior-hero of the “Matrix” series played by Keanu Reeves, Jake is himself an avatar because he’s both a special being and an embodiment of an idea, namely that of the hero’s journey. What initially makes Jake unusual is that he has been tapped to inhabit a part-alien, part-human body that he controls, like a puppeteer, from its head to its prehensile tail. Like the rest of the human visitors who’ve made camp on Pandora, he has signed on with a corporation that’s intent on extracting a valuable if mysterious substance from the moon called unobtainium, a great whatsit that is an emblem of humanity’s greed and folly. With his avatar, Jake will look just like one of the natives, the Na’vi, a new identity that gives the movie its plot turns and politics.

The first part of Jake’s voyage — for this is, above all, a boy’s rocking adventure, if one populated by the usual tough Cameron chicks — takes him from a wheelchair into a 10-foot, blue-skinned Na’vi body. At once familiar and pleasingly exotic, the humanoid Na’vi come with supermodel dimensions (slender hips, a miniature-apple rear); long articulated digits, the better to grip with; and the slanted eyes and twitchy ears of a cat. (The gently curved stripes that line their blue skin, the color of twilight, bring to mind the markings on mackerel tabby cats.) For Jake his avatar, which he hooks into through sensors while lying in a remote pod in a semiconscious state, is at first a giddy novelty and then a means to liberation.

Plugging into the avatar gives Jake an instant high, allowing him to run, leap and sift dirt through his toes, and freeing him from the constraints of his body. Although physically emancipated, he remains bound, contractually and existentially, to the base camp, where he works for the corporation’s top scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, amused and amusing), even while taking orders from its head of security, Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a military man turned warrior for hire. A cartoon of masculinity, Quaritch strides around barking orders like some intransigent representation of American military might (or a bossy movie director). It’s a favorite Cameron type, and Mr. Lang, who until this year had long been grievously underemployed, tears into the role like a starved man gorging on steak.

Mr. Cameron lays out the fundamentals of the narrative efficiently, grabbing you at once with one eye-popping detail after another and on occasion almost losing you with some of the comically broad dialogue. He’s a masterly storyteller if a rather less nimble prose writer. (He has sole script credit: this is personal filmmaking on an industrial scale.) Some of the clunkier lines (“Yeah, who’s bad,” Jake taunts a rhinolike creature he encounters) seem to have been written to placate those members of the Michael Bay demographic who might find themselves squirming at the story’s touchier, feelier elements, its ardent environmentalism and sincere love story, all of which kick in once Jake meets Neytiri, a female Na’vi (Zoë Saldana, seen only in slinky Na’vi form).

Mr. Cameron has said that he started thinking about the alien universe that became Pandora and its galactic environs in “Avatar” back in the 1970s. He wrote a treatment in 1996, but the technologies he needed to turn his ideas into images didn’t exist until recently. New digital technologies gave him the necessary tools, including performance capture, which translates an actor’s physical movements into a computer-generated image (CGI). Until now, by far the most plausible character created in this manner has been slithery Gollum from Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” cycle. The exotic creatures in “Avatar,” which include an astonishment of undulating, flying, twitching and galloping organisms, don’t just crawl through the underbrush; they thunder and shriek, yip and hiss, pointy teeth gleaming.

The most important of these are the Na’vi, and while their movements can bring to mind old-fashioned stop-motion animation, their faces are a triumph of tech innovation, with tremors and twitches that make them immediately appealing and empathetic. By the time Neytiri ushers Jake into her world of wonders — a lush dreamscape filled with kaleidoscopic and bioluminescent flora and fauna, with pink jellyfishlike creatures that hang in the air and pleated orange flowers that snap shut like parasols — you are deep in the Na’vi-land. It’s a world that looks as if it had been created by someone who’s watched a lot of Jacques Cousteau television or, like Mr. Cameron, done a lot of diving. It’s also familiar because, like John Smith in “The New World,” Terrence Malick’s retelling of the Pocahontas story, Jake has discovered Eden.

An Eden in three dimensions, that is. In keeping with his maximalist tendencies, Mr. Cameron has shot “Avatar” in 3-D (because many theaters are not equipped to show 3-D, the movie will also be shown in the usual 2), an experiment that serves his material beautifully. This isn’t the 3-D of the 1950s or even contemporary films, those flicks that try to give you a virtual poke in the eye with flying spears. Rather Mr. Cameron uses 3-D to amplify the immersive experience of spectacle cinema. Instead of bringing you into the movie with the customary tricks, with a widescreen or even Imax image filled with sweeping landscapes and big action, he uses 3-D seemingly to close the space between the audience and the screen. He brings the movie to you.

After a few minutes the novelty of people and objects hovering above the row in front of you wears off, and you tend not to notice the 3-D, which speaks to the subtlety of its use and potential future applications. Mr. Cameron might like to play with high-tech gadgets, but he’s an old-fashioned filmmaker at heart, and he wants us to get as lost in his fictional paradise as Jake eventually does. On the face of it there might seem something absurd about a movie that asks you to thrill to a natural world made almost entirely out of zeroes and ones (and that feeds you an anticorporate line in a corporately financed entertainment). But one of the pleasures of the movies is that they transport us, as Neytiri does with Jake, into imaginary realms, into Eden and over the rainbow to Oz.

If the story of a paradise found and potentially lost feels resonant, it’s because “Avatar” is as much about our Earth as the universe that Mr. Cameron has invented. But the movie’s truer meaning is in the audacity of its filmmaking.

Few films return us to the lost world of our first cinematic experiences, to that magical moment when movies really were bigger than life (instead of iPhone size), if only because we were children. Movies rarely carry us away, few even try. They entertain and instruct and sometimes enlighten. Some attempt to overwhelm us, but their efforts are usually a matter of volume. What’s often missing is awe, something Mr. Cameron has, after an absence from Hollywood, returned to the screen with a vengeance. He hasn’t changed cinema, but with blue people and pink blooms he has confirmed its wonder.

“Avatar” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Gun and explosive violence, death and despair.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Written and directed by James Cameron; director of photography, Mauro Fiore; edited by Mr. Cameron, John Refoua and Stephen Rivkin; music by James Horner; visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri; production designers, Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg; produced by Mr. Cameron and Jon Landau; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 2 hours 46 minutes.
WITH: Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoë Saldana (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Grace Augustine), Stephen Lang (Col. Miles Quaritch), Michelle Rodriguez (Trudy Chacon), Giovanni Ribisi (Carter Selfridge), Joel David Moore (Norm), C C H Pounder (Mo’at), Wes Studi (Eytukan) and Laz Alonso (Tsu’Tey).

REVIEW: Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ Is a Big, Dull, America-Hating, PC Revenge Fantasy

by John Nolte

Absent from the big screen for over a decade now, Oscar-winning director James Cameron returns armed with a reported half-billion dollars, a story he’s been desperate to tell for 15 years, and the very latest in cutting-edge visual technology. The result is “Avatar,” a sanctimonious thud of a movie so infested with one-dimensional characters and PC clichés that not a single plot turn – small or large – surprises. I call it the “liberal tell,” where the early and obvious politics of the film gives away the entire story before the second act begins, and “Avatar” might be the sorriest example of this yet. For all the time and money and technology that went into its making, the thing that matters most – character and story – are strictly Afterschool Special.

AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Mark Fellman

In this image released by 20th Century Fox, writer-director James Cameron, foreground right, reviews a scene with actors, from left, Sigourney Weaver, Joel David Moore and Sam Worthington during the filming of, "Avatar."

What a crushing disappointment from one of our most original and imaginative filmmakers.
Set in 2154, “Avatar” is a thinly disguised, heavy-handed and simplistic sci-fi fantasy/allegory critical of America from our founding straight through to the Iraq War. Sam Worthington is Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine Corporal sent to the planet Pandora after the untimely death of his brother. In a plot-thread built up to promise much that never pays off, Sully has none of the training his brother benefitted by: years of schooling in the Avatar Program to prepare him to infiltrate the indigenous species of Pandora called the Na’vi, who are the only things between Earth’s RDA (Resources Development Administration) and a precious energy resource “ironically” called Unobtainium.

Because the air on Pandora is toxic to humans, the RDA developed the Avatar Program to create clone-like avatars from both Na’vi and human DNA (which is why they need the untrained Sully) that allow for a human to transfer their consciousness into the 10-foot native blue beings and safely explore the planet. The scientists want to use the program to study Pandora, the military wants to conquer it, and the RDA wants to strip mine it. At first Sully’s unconcerned with these dueling tensions and agendas. Once a marine always a marine, and when his commanding officer, the beefed up genocide-happy Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), asks him to infiltrate the Na’vi and do recon for a probable attack, Jake is more than ready. Hoo-rah.

But before you can say I’ve seen this movie a thousand times before, Jake enters his Na’vi avatar and in a tired action scene straight out of the “Jurassic Park” trilogy, gets lost in the dangerous Pandoran forest only to be rescued by something else he’d like to enter, the beautiful (if you go for ten-foot tall gaudy blue females) Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) – a walking cliché of the tough, earthy, compassionate, oh-so wise love interest who can somehow speak English … but in that halting way that’s so gosh darned endearing.

And so begins the real Cliché-A-Thon…


Does Neytiri just happen to be the Chief’s daughter? Check! At first, does the tribe not trust Sully and want to kill him on the spot before Neytiri intervenes with wise explanations as to why it’s their tribal custom to take in strangers as one of their own? Chuh-eck! Is Sully then immersed in the native culture and put through a series of tests to prove his worthiness beginning with the sort of clumsiness that brings hoots of derisive laughter from the male warriors but endears him to Neytiri? Double check! Does Sully eventually become one of their strongest warriors and on the day he’s to be initiated as a full member of the tribe—GOD this movie’s tedious.

There’s nothing wrong with a simple, boilerplate plot. They’re boilerplate for a reason. But within that well worn template complicated characters involved in complicated and surprising relationships are an absolute necessity, and this is where “Avatar” fails miserably.

Within 15 minutes, the “liberal tell” spoils every story beat of Sully’s character arc. He’s as dull a protagonist as you’ll ever see. Sigourney Weaver plays a gruff-talking, cigarette smoking scientist with … wait for it, wait for it … a heart of gold. Giovanni Ribisi’s sweaty weasel of a corporate executive never moves beyond that and Col. Quaritch is all ‘roid rage, no humanity and his Big Speech about the necessity of “a pre-emptive attack to fight terror with terror” was as surprising as Cameron‘s use of a military “shock and awe” campaign to level the Na’Vi’s precious “Home Tree” as a tacky metaphor for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Oh yeah, he went there…

In supporting roles, Michelle Rodriguez and Joel Moore bring a whole lot more to their underwritten roles than the film deserves — you’d like to spend more time with them — but it’s always back to the film’s dullest characters: the one-dimensional Na’vi. You would think that with 15 years and a half-billion dollars, Cameron could come up an alien species that doesn’t drip with every Indian and African sacred-cow cliché imaginable. These are creatures who worship the Great Mother Eywa, have a sacred relationship with the earth, shoot bow and arrows, ride horse-like animals, whoop it up in battle, and talk like this: “It has only happened five times since the time of the first songs of our ancestors.”

The Na’vi also apologize to animals after killing but before butchering them. So I guess that’s okay. Maybe if Quaritch had gotten on the loudspeaker and spoken a little mumbo-jumbo before dropping a daisy cutter on Home Tree all would be forgiven.

On top of that, the Na’vi are an awfully stupid species. After years of dealing with the “Sky People,” for some reason they still haven’t figured out that arrows are useless against giant military aircraft. And is it okay to mention how hard it is to keep track of who’s who, because the Na’vi, uhm … all look alike? Twice I was sure Sully’s avatar had been killed. Twice I was disappointed.

Cameron’s brainchild tribe is boringly perfect and insufferably noble … I wanted to wipe them out.

Visually “Avatar” doesn’t break any new ground. It looks like a big-budget animated film with a garish color palette right off a hippie’s tie dye shirt. Never for a moment did I believe the Na’vi or the world of Pandora was something organic or real. The fairly pointless use of 3-D certainly doesn’t help, but Steven Spielberg’s sixteen year-old dinosaurs are light years ahead of “Avatar” in the reality department.

The one thing Cameron has always done well is to create busy, energetic, brilliantly choreographed action scenes that allow the audience to follow what’s going on. That’s not a small thing because it’s becoming a lost art in Hollywood as more and more filmmakers lazily trade coherence for the artless shaky-cam and hyper edits. And while none of Cameron’s big battle set-pieces is ever able to overcome the “liberal tells” pre-ordained outcome and create a sense of suspense or peril, at least you don’t get lost in the precious wonder of it all.

Think of “Avatar” as “Death Wish 5” for leftists. A simplistic, revisionist revenge fantasy where if you freakin’ hate the bad guys (America), you’re able to forgive the by-the-numbers predictability of it all and still get off watching them get what they got coming.

And if Cameron is able to make a profit spending a half-billion dollars on a little liberal bloodlust, more power to him.

UPDATE: More on “Avatar” vs. “Jurassic Park” here.

Crummy Script, Glorious Method

James Cameron has an artist’s eye. If only he had a sense of plot and dialogue!

By Frederica Mathewes-Green
December 23, 2009

In Avatar’s opening moments, hero-to-be Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is waking up on the planet Pandora after a cryogenic journey, and reflecting on the twists of fate. Here he is, a paraplegic Marine, filling in for the twin brother who actually trained for this mission. But right before Tommy was due to ship out, “a guy with a gun put an end to his journey, for the paper in his wallet.”

Sounds like a line from a Forties detective movie, doesn’t it? Or how about this one: Evil Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) barks at his troops, “You are not in Kansas any more, ladies and gentlemen. If there is a hell, you might want to go there for some R&R after a spell on Pandora.” (The colonel, you may be sure, has a trace of a Southern accent.) Later, he tells Jake, “You got some heart, kid, showing up in this neighborhood.”

Jake replies offhandedly, “I figured it was just another hellhole.”

I think you get the picture. In this film, though, there are two pictures. Later on, Jake walks among the Na’vi, the gentle people of Pandora, by means of an avatar — that is, a Na’vi body that was grown in a test tube, which he remote-controls from a high-tech pod at the base camp. His lovely tutor, Neytiri (excellently portrayed by Zoë Saldaña), explains that he, too, will one day ride the enormous mountain banshees — something like tie-dyed pterodactyls — which in the native lingo are called (I think) “eclans.” “You must choose your own eclan, and he must choose you,” says Neytiri.

“When?” Jake asks.

“When you are ready,” she replies.

Later, Neytiri watches approvingly as Jake goes through the ritual that accompanies killing for food. “I see you, brother,” Jake says as he delivers the final blow, “and I thank you. Your spirit will depart, and your body stay here to become part of the People.”

Sorry to put you through that, but there’s really no way to describe just how inane this dialogue is. The plot it is meant to sustain is every bit its equal. You see, humans have destroyed the earth’s ecology. (“You will find nothing green there,” Jake tells the Na’vi tribe. “They killed their mother.”) Now they seek the resources of other worlds, in particular the rich lode of a priceless mineral under Pandora’s crust.

This mineral is called “unobtainium.” It really, truly is. And the richest reserves of unobtainium lie beneath the giant, ancient tree where the Na’vi live. The bad colonel intends to get at it, one way or another (insert sound of knuckles cracking here). He tells Jake, “I need to find out how to force their cooperation, or hammer them hard if they don’t.”

Yet in presenting the apparently eternal conflict between gentle people with flowers in their hair and technology-crazed meanies, Avatar comes to us by means of the most advanced technology available. Director James Cameron took 14 years to make the movie, inventing a new process for 3-D in order to film it. He took the motion-capture technology that gave us Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and advanced it several major steps forward. This film was not made by folks who live in a giant tree.

And it’s unclear how this plaintive call to live in tune with nature is supposed to be implemented by the viewers who take it to heart. Should we demand that our popcorn be made over a campfire? Then hoof it home in a Fred Flintstone car?

I don’t need to tell you that, at 161 minutes, Avatar is far too long for material this thin. This story has been told plenty of times before, and better. You can also expect that a hectic, noisy battle scene is surely on the way, one that consumes great quantities of film in showing us what looks like a video game.

What I didn’t expect was the sheer beauty of the film. It won me over. I think it was the forests of Pandora that first broke through my grumpy attitude — the graceful trees, plants with enormous fan-like leaves, curious twisted ferns that shyly retract when touched. Everything is glowing in lavender, blue, and aqua; it could have been painted by Maxfield Parrish.

The highly anticipated 3-D process is most successful, I think, with the “seeds of the sacred tree,” a cross between a butterfly, a spider, and a dandelion puff. When these seeds begin drifting down, they really do seem to leave the screen and float over the heads of the audience.

Yet more beautiful were the Floating Mountains. These enormous floating rocks, crowned with trees and trailing vines, are truly awe-inspiring; they are worthy, I thought, of J. R. R. Tolkien.

So, yes, you need to see this movie, and see it while it’s in theaters, full-screen and in 3-D. Yes, you can take the kids, but only if they can handle some violent moments. The most graphic, I thought, came when a Na’vi spoke his last words with a shattered tree limb through his chest. There’s no nudity (though the cat-like Na’vis’ costumes are quite scanty) and the single love scene is swift and discreet.

Avatar is a perplexing mix of glorious method and crummy material, and it left me wondering why, in the hands of one artist, a familiar tale can move us even more profoundly because of those earlier links, and we call it a “classic” — while in the hands of another artist it seems derivative and stale. Why, in the hands of one artist, can a work express childlike wonder, while another’s reveals childish immaturity? The characters pushed around in this story seem like something thought up by a twelve-year-old. This is most ludicrous in the climactic battle, when bad Col. Quaritch survives a series of death-dealing blows that are increasingly hard to believe; at one point, his shoulder is literally on fire. I pictured Cameron killing Quaritch off with great satisfaction each day, then coming back the next day saying, “But I can’t let him die yet!”

Some artists remain in touch with the inspirations and enthusiasms of their twelve-year-old selves, and produce something fresh and moving. There’s no reason that this script had to be as flat as it is. But, oh, the beauty. James Cameron may have a tin ear for dialogue, but he indisputably has an artist’s eye. Go see it on the big screen, and let yourself be dazzled.

Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.