Saturday, May 24, 2014

Can Islamism Evolve?

It’s possible, but that’s not a rationale for collaboration or concessions. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Book Review: 'The Soul of the World' by Roger Scruton

A first kiss is more than the mating ritual of gene-perpetuating machines. It summons 'the consciousness of another in mutual gift.

May 15, 2014 7:03 p.m. ET
The English philosopher and writer Roger Scruton might receive more grudging admiration than any other living thinker. My aesthetics tutor at Oxford—a self-consciously Wildean character with long hair and puffy sleeves—once assigned a text by Scruton with a caveat: There is, he explained, a little known but valid form of argument called argumentum ad Scruton: "If Scruton says p, p is necessarily false." This "argument" has what currency it does because Scruton is defiantly conservative, and he wears that designation on his (decidedly unpuffy) sleeve. But to the irritation of bien-pensants everywhere, his philosophical work is simply too sharp and cogent to be ignored.
"The Soul of the World" is an example of what conservatism can be, at its best—a clear-eyed, affectionate defense of humanity and a well-reasoned plea to treat the long-loved with respect and care. This kind of conservatism comes into being when something good is threatened: Here Mr. Scruton aims to conserve "the sacred" in the face of threats from scientific reductionism, an ideology that asserts that all phenomena—including things like love, art, morality and religion—are most accurately described using the vocabulary of contemporary science.
Viewed through the lens of scientific reductionism, all existence is fundamentally the bouncing around of various material particles, some arranged in the form of gene-perpetuating machines we call humans. Mr. Scruton almost agrees—we are, in fact, gene-perpetuating machines, and the finer, higher aspects of human existence emerge from, and rest upon, biological machinery. As he points out, though, it's a long jump from this acknowledgment to the assertion that "this is all there is." The jump, according to Mr. Scruton, lands us in "a completely different world, and one in which we humans are not truly at home." A truly human outlook involves the intuition of intangible realities that find no place in even our most sensitive systems of biology, chemistry or physics.
Philosophers and theologians have traditionally understood that certain things transcend our abilities to fully perceive, comprehend and articulate them and that the way we incorporate those things into our lives is through the experience of the sacred—the irruption of the transcendent into our mundane reality. The sacred stands, as Mr. Scruton puts it, "at the horizon of our world, looking out to that which is not of this world" but also "looking into our world, so as to meet us face-to-face." While sacredness is most commonly associated with religious actions and artifacts—such as sacraments, scriptures and holy places—it is not limited to these. Mr. Scruton argues that our encounters with one another, and indeed with nature, are experiences of the sacred as well. He makes his case with bravado and sensitivity, exploring the role of the sacred in such realms as music, city planning and moral reasoning.

The Soul of the World

By Roger Scruton
(Princeton, 205 pages, $27.95)
Happily, it is entirely possible to embrace the findings of science without rejecting the older vocabulary of the sacred, even if one finds oneself (as Mr. Scruton does) unable to fully embrace the claims of any metaphysical doctrine, religious or otherwise. The reductionist leap is unnecessary, in the first instance, because the idea that "this is all there is" could never be substantiated by science. What experiment could possibly prove that there is no such thing as a soul or that God doesn't exist? But perhaps all science needs to do is present a complete explanation for reality that eliminates any need for nonmaterial explanations. This will not do, according to Mr. Scruton. Even if the guild of scientists produced a million-volume tome that comprehensively tracked the tortuous series of causes and effects that led from the pinpoint origin of material existence through the Big Bang and the earliest wrigglings of life, all the way to our own wedding vows and Pachelbel's Canon in D, we would still need more. We would need the sacred.
In making this case, Mr. Scruton employs the concept of Verstehen borrowed from the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (roughly, this means the kind of understanding that is the product of human interpretation and interaction rather than scientific measurement). To take an example, the moment of a first kiss is not experienced simply as the mating ritual of complex gene-perpetuating machines. To describe it thus would be to take leave of the human perspective. Our actual experience is better captured by more emotionally, spiritually freighted language. As Mr. Scruton writes, "the lips offered by one lover to another are replete with subjectivity: they are the avatars of I, summoning the consciousness of another in mutual gift."
The interface between I and You is, for Mr. Scruton, the defining human perspective. In terms of religion, he writes: "People who are looking for God are not looking for the proof of God's existence . . . but for a subject-to-subject encounter, which occurs in this life, but which also in some way reaches beyond this life." Myriad other examples abound. When we make a vow to our lover, we do not—or, Mr. Scruton says, we had better not—understand ourselves as signatories to a provisional, mutually beneficial contract but rather as willing parties to a binding, eternal, even transcendent pledge, something stronger and more substantial than our momentary desires.
Viewed through the lens of science, we may be the products of genes and chance. But viewed as people, we are free, responsible and creative—and kisses are richer phenomena than any scientific analysis can capture.
Mr. Corbin is a 2013 Novak Journalism Fellow and doctoral candidate at Boston College

Obama's talking points miss point on VA scandal

By John Kass
May 22, 2014

Political Cartoons by Bob Gorrell

After keeping his mouth shut on that growing Veterans Affairs scandal for weeks, President Barack Obama finally acted.
Not with deeds. But with words.
The scandal involves reports of secret admissions lists, falsified data and some 40 veterans dying while waiting for treatment.
So Obama did what he does best. He talked.
He didn't fire Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. Firing Shinseki would suggest he was actually taking responsibility, rather than just talking about taking responsibility.
So instead Obama did his thing with words.
He's a talker, this President Windsock from Chicago, first leaning this way, then that, considering everything, lecturing, talking, talking, talking.
As he talks, remember what Republican and Democratic presidents have ignored for years: the obligation of the nation to the veterans who put their bodies in harm's way.
Over the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, he'll talk some more. He'll talk of sacrifice and service.
But Obama told reporters Wednesday that if the allegations about the VA prove true, he won't put up with it anymore.
"It is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period," said the president, providing the proper sound bite.
He also said that he welcomed Congress getting involved, but added this:
"It is important that our veterans don't become another political football, especially when so many of them are receiving care right now," he said.
He dared lecture Congress about using veterans as political footballs? The president who closed national war memorials during the sequestration so he could use the anguish of aged veterans as a political weapon?
The man must be besotted by the sound of his own voice, since he forgot other words that belonged to him years ago, just as his messianic oratory began thrilling the hopium smokers in the media who carried him, uninspected and untested, to the White House.
He was Sen. Obama then, patting himself on the back as soldier politicians flocked to his candidacy and joined his cause.
"I'll be a president who ensures that America serves our men and women in uniform as well as they've served us, and that's why I'm proud to have the support of these veterans advising me on the issues facing our troops and veterans," Obama stated in a 2007 news release.
"After seven years of an administration that has stretched our military to the breaking point, ignored deplorable conditions at some VA hospitals, and neglected the planning and preparation necessary to care for our returning heroes, America's veterans deserve a president who will fight for them not just when it's easy or convenient, but every hour of every day for the next four years," Obama said.
Is that why you kept your mouth shut about the VA scandal for weeks until Wednesday?
Back in 2007, he was right about President George W. Bush. That Republican administration did stretch the military to the breaking point.
But if Obama meant what he said back then — which he clearly didn't — then how could this current VA scandal have happened?
Because humans and politics combine to make such stuff happen. And we're fools if we keep ignoring history and human nature.
Shoddy treatment, long waits, cooked books and corruption aren't reserved for the VA. These infect large government programs because such programs are run by human beings. And humans haven't changed much since the founders of this nation insisted on small, limited government.
If you know someone who can't reason this out, who can't see how what's infected the VA will by definition transfer into Obamacare, or the single-payer nationalized health care system Obamacare will ultimately evolve into, then give them some advice:
Tell them to smoke a few more bowls of hopium if they can find any. Or tell them to watch reality TV or to listen to the political echo chamber of their choice, so they might be soothed by familiar, tribal chants.
But please do them a favor and tell them not to try to think. Any more thinking might hurt their brains.
Those of you who've spent any time in Chicago, where Obama learned his politics, know how government works.
Especially large centralized government and how it responds to the individual taxpayer.
How long can you wait for a pothole to be fixed, or a tree to be trimmed? How long can you wait for a cop to respond to the burglary of your home?
Most people just wait and wait. Some write letters to the editor. Others tweet out anguish and despair. Most shut up and give up, which is also part of the Chicago Way.
But some know a guy.
And if you know a guy, meaning you know a political guy, then your tree gets trimmed. Or that pothole gets fixed.
Or your tax bill is reconsidered by a special panel, if you know a guy who can get you to the right political lawyer, who might also be the same fellow who elects the special tax panel.
Whatever you do, don't throw away that guy's phone number.
If you get sick, you might have to call that guy someday to get to a government doctor.
Or you can wait, like the dozens of veterans who didn't make it.
And while you're waiting, and hoping you're not on the wrong set of appointment books, you'll have plenty of time to remember Obama talking, talking and talking.
Twitter @John_Kass

Who made the pivot to Asia? Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands as they exchange documents after their talks in Moscow's Kremlin, Russia on March 22. (AP Photo)
On Wednesday, it finally happened — the pivot to Asia. No, not the United States. It was Russia that turned East.
In Shanghai, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a spectacular energy deal — $400 billion of Siberian natural gas to be exported to China over 30 years.
This is huge. By indelibly linking producer and consumer — the pipeline alone is a $70 billion infrastructure project — it deflates the post-Ukraine Western threat (mostly empty, but still very loud) to cut European imports of Russian gas. Putin has just defiantly demonstrated that he has other places to go.
The Russia-China deal also makes a mockery of U.S. boasts to have isolated Russia because of Ukraine. Not even Germany wants to risk a serious rupture with Russia (hence the absence of significant sanctions). And now Putin has just ostentatiously unveiled a signal 30-year energy partnership with the world’s second-largest economy. Some isolation.
The contrast with President Obama’s own vaunted pivot to Asia is embarrassing (to say nothing of the Keystone pipeline with Canada). He went to Japan last month also seeking a major trade agreement that would symbolize and cement a pivotal strategic alliance. He came home empty-handed.
Does the Obama foreign policy team even understand what is happening? For them, the Russia-China alliance is simply more retrograde, 19th-century, balance-of-power maneuvering by men of the past oblivious to the reality of a 21st century governed by law and norms. A place where, for example, one simply doesn’t annex a neighbor’s territory. Indeed, Obama scolds Russia and China for not living up to their obligations as major stakeholders in this new interdependent world.
The Chinese and Russians can only roll their eyes. These norms and rules mean nothing to them. Sure, they’ll join the World Trade Organization for the commercial advantages – then cheat like hell with cyberespionage and intellectual piracy. They see these alleged norms as forms of velvet-glove imperialism, clever extensions of a Western hegemony meant to keep Russia in its reduced post-Soviet condition and China contained by a dominant U.S. military.
Obama cites modern rules; Russia and China, animated by resurgent nationalism, are governed by ancient maps. Putin refers to eastern and southern Ukraine by the old czarist term of “New Russia.” And China’s foreign minister justifies vast territorial claims that violate maritime law by citing traditional (“nine-dash”) maps that grant China dominion over the East and South China seas.
Which makes this alignment of the world’s two leading anti-Western powers all the more significant. It marks a major alteration in the global balance of power.
Putin to Shanghai reprises Nixon to China. To be sure, it’s not the surprise that Henry Kissinger pulled off in secret. But it is the capstone of a gradual — now accelerated — Russia-China rapprochement that essentially undoes the Kissinger-Nixon achievement.
Their 1972 strategic coup fundamentally turned the geopolitical tables on Moscow. Putin has now turned the same tables on us. China and Russia together represent the core of a new coalition of anti-democratic autocracies challenging the Western-imposed, post-Cold War status quo. Their enhanced partnership marks the first emergence of a global coalition against American hegemony since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Indeed, at this week’s Asian cooperation conference, Xi proposed a brand-new continental security system to include Russia and Iran (lest anyone mistake its anti-imperialist essence) and exclude America. This is an open challenge to the post-Cold War, U.S.-dominated world that Obama inherited and then weakened beyond imagining.
If carried through, it would mark the end of a quarter-century of unipolarity. And herald a return to a form of bipolarity — two global coalitions: one free, one not — though, with communism dead, not as structurally rigid or ideologically dangerous as Cold War bipolarity. Not a fight to the finish, but a struggle nonetheless — for dominion and domination.
To which Obama, who once proclaimed that “no one nation can or should try to dominate another nation,” is passive, perhaps even oblivious. His pivot to Asia remains a dead letter. Yet his withdrawal from the Middle East — where from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, from Libya to Syria, U.S. influence is at its lowest ebb in 40 years — is a fait accompli .
The retreat is compounded by Obama’s proposed massive cuts in defense spending (down to below 3 percent of GDP by 2017) even as Russia is rearming and China is creating a sophisticated military soon capable of denying America access to the waters of the Pacific Rim.
Decline is not a condition. Decline is a choice. In this case, Obama’s choice. And it’s the one area where he can be said to be succeeding splendidly.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bryant lacrosse takes a chance on principle and tastes victory

The Providence Journal / Bob Thayer
Mike Pressler, head coach of lacrosse at Bryant University, with his players during a practice. A scandal tested two university presidents.

It was the kind of Cinderella victory that belongs in the pantheon of underdog moments.
The unranked Bryant lacrosse team beat mighty number-two Syracuse in the nationals — but something was in play that day that transcended sport.
The win was also a flash of redemption after a shameful American lynching known as the Duke lacrosse scandal. For at the helm of the Bryant team was the coach thrown to the wolves in 2006 by Duke’s president — then given his only comeback offer by the president of Bryant.
Coach Mike Pressler embraced that offer, stepping down from Olympus to take on a no-name college team in Smithfield, R.I., and eight years later, two weeks ago, for one triumphant moment, he brought it to the peak of the lacrosse world.
But perhaps the real heart of this story is how the scandal tested the character of two university presidents.
One was Richard Brodhead of Duke, considered the Ivy of the south. The other was Ron Machtley of the emerging but still regional Bryant University.
The behavior of Brodhead will forever stand as a profile in cowardice.
By contrast, Machtley was the only school leader in the nation to stand up for the falsely accused.
Pressler had spent 16 years building Duke into the top-ranked team it continues to be today. But in March of 2006, an exotic dancer was thrown out of an off-campus lacrosse party after an argument and told police she’d been sexually assaulted. Despite the “victim’s” questionable account, a district attorney running for reelection pounced on the volatile case and charged three lacrosse players with rape.
The DA was eventually disbarred for misconduct, and the charges dismissed. Today, the accuser is in prison for a murder she committed afterward.
But at the time, the case was so volatile that protesters demonstrated against the team. It left Brodhead with a choice. Would he do the hard thing and stand by his students as innocent until proven guilty? Or play to the angry crowd?
He chose the most pandering possible course. He canceled the entire lacrosse season. Then he handed one more body to the mob, forcing coach Pressler to resign.
The publicity left Pressler so radioactive that even high schools wouldn’t return his calls.
Only one institution made him an offer — Bryant.
Let it be said that President Machtley was not acting on virtue alone. He wanted to take Bryant’s middling Division-II lacrosse team to D-1 and saw a chance to get perhaps the best coach in the country.
But it was still an enormous risk. The North Carolina DA was out for blood. If he got rape convictions, any president who touched Pressler would be tarnished. So none did.
But Machtley looked into the case, talked to those involved and felt the team had been railroaded. So he took a chance. He brought Mike Pressler from North Carolina to Rhode Island.
He did so knowing it would be a long road for the program. Even with a top coach, Bryant didn’t have the reputation to lure the best recruits. Building a new D-1 lacrosse team takes time.
Which brings up how one other man’s character was tested. Pressler agreed to a five-year contract. By the time it ended in 2011, his image was rehabilitated. He got offers from the most prestigious lacrosse schools in the country.
Yet he couldn’t say “no” fast enough. Machtley, he says, gave him his life back, and he will never forget that. Mike Pressler is now in Year Eight at Bryant.
After the case against the Duke players collapsed, President Brodhead admitted he got things wrong, but said the facts were unclear at the time. It was a disingenuous apology. Pressler remembers that as he was forced out, Duke’s athletic director told him, “It’s not about the truth.” Indeed it wasn’t. It was about President Brodhead’s cowardice.
In certain mythical stories, a fearful king banishes a knight who returns years later to the castle gate at the head of a great army. Bryant’s lacrosse team was on track to face Duke this year in the national championships if both teams made it. Duke is still in it, but Bryant fell to powerful Maryland in the Elite Eight round.
Yet in beating second-ranked Syracuse two weeks ago, Pressler showed recruits everywhere that he now captains a formidable force.
Bryant has risen.
Because of a coach who persevered.
And a president who risked for principle.
While his counterpart at Duke bears the shame of having sided with the mob.
On Twitter:  @MarkPatinki

San Antonio Spurs Tribute - The Beautiful Game

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Book Review: 'Beowulf' translated by J.R.R. Tolkien

A newly published translation of Beowulf by JRR Tolkien shows how the epic poem inspired Lord of the Rings


Waving His Wand at ‘Beowulf’

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Translation of ‘Beowulf’ Is Published

By Ethan Gilsdorf
May 18, 2014
There’s more to J. R. R. Tolkien than wizards and hobbits. The author of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” was also an Oxford University professor specializing in languages like Old Norse and Old English.
“Beowulf” was an early love, and a kind of Rosetta Stone to his creative work. His study of the poem, which he called “this greatest of the surviving works of ancient English poetic art,” informed his thinking about myth and language.
But Tolkien was skeptical of converting this Old English poem into modern English. In a 1940 essay, “On Translating Beowulf,” he wrote that turning “Beowulf” into “plain prose” could be an “abuse.”
But he did it anyway. Tolkien completed a prose translation in 1926, while declaring it was “hardly to my liking.” Given his reputation as a perfectionist and his ideas about “Beowulf” and translation, his dissatisfaction is not surprising. Tolkien, then 34, filed his “Beowulf” away, and barely revisited it for the rest of his career.
Now, 88 years after its making, this abandoned translation is being published on Thursday as “Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary.” From its first word — “Lo!” — to the death of the dragon and Beowulf and the lighting of the funeral pyre, described as “a roaring flame ringed with weeping,” Tolkien’s translation of the poem comprises some 90 pages of the book. Selections from his notes about “Beowulf,” and a “Beowulf”-inspired story and poem, take up 320 pages more.
Advance buzz and some grumbling have been building since March, when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Tolkien’s American publisher, announced that this “Beowulf” was coming. Scholars and fans are eager to get their hands on another “lost” Tolkien relic. But some worry that his version may seem old-fashioned, while others grouse about the ethics of publishing something that Tolkien had not intended to see the light of day, at least in this form. In a statement, Tolkien’s son Christopher, 89, the editor of the translation, said, “He returned to it later to make hasty corrections, but seems never to have considered its publication.” (Neither the press-shy Mr. Tolkien nor the Tolkien estate, which handles Tolkien’s literary property, made themselves available for comment.)
Since Tolkien’s death in 1973, Christopher Tolkien has edited and published many of his father’s unfinished works. Why the long delay for “Beowulf”? Wayne G. Hammond, an author of the “The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide,” said that Christopher Tolkien “naturally concentrated” on first publishing long-promised books, like “The Silmarillion” and that “Tolkien’s own writings, especially his fiction, presumably took priority.”
Not all Tolkien scholars know “Beowulf,” but all “Beowulf” scholars know of Tolkien, whose influential 1936 paper “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” has been credited with restoring the poem’s value as a work of art. Tolkien was himself a poet and sometimes wrote imitations of the Anglo-Saxon meter in which “Beowulf” was composed.
“The formal rules of Old English poetry are very demanding,” said Daniel Donoghue, a professor of English at Harvard who edited the Norton Critical Edition of Seamus Heaney’s well-regarded “Beowulf: A Verse Translation.” “Tolkien knew this very well. This was part of his suspicion of translations in general.”
For this edition of “Beowulf,” Christopher Tolkien combined and edited three manuscripts of his father’s translation. Selections from Tolkien’s 1930s classroom lectures on “Beowulf” become the poem’s commentary. Notes by Christopher show the discrepancies between the versions. He recalls in the notes that his father sang “The Lay of Beowulf,” the poem included in the new book, to him when he was young.
That “Beowulf” influenced Tolkien is not news. From King Hrothgar’s mead-hall Heorot to a thief who steals a golden cup from a dragon, elements of “Beowulf” are echoed throughout Tolkien’s work. “Knowledge of his interest in and love for ‘Beowulf’ is essential to understanding ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ ” the Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland, wrote in an email. “Battles with monsters (Grendel, the dragon) are the heart of Beowulf, and reoccur in Tolkien’s work.”
John Garth, a British critic and the author of “Tolkien and the Great War,” who has read an advance copy of the Tolkien “Beowulf,” wrote in an email, “There is a great deal in this book to keep us busy.” He called the translation’s tone “distinctively Tolkienian” and its style “consciously archaic.”
But, Ms. Flieger said, whether Tolkien’s rendering will prove a significant work of translation “in the world of ‘Beowulf’ scholarship” remains to be seen.
Rather than considering Tolkien’s interpretation a work of art to take its place aside other respected translations — like the 1966 E. Talbot Donaldson version that was replaced by the Heaney in the “Norton Anthology of English Literature” — many scholars will mine it for Tolkien’s comments on “Beowulf” and glimpses into his decision-making as he waded into gray areas of translation.
For Tolkien fans, the new volume’s biggest reward may be the previously unpublished story, “Sellic Spell.” Written in the early 1940s, Tolkien described it as “an attempt to reconstruct the Anglo-Saxon tale that lies behind the folk-tale element in ‘Beowulf.’ ”
Still, some say that Tolkien would have protested his translation being published at all. “If Tolkien knew that was going to happen, he would have invented the shredder,” said the “Beowulf” authority Kevin Kiernan, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Kentucky. Most scholars of Anglo-Saxon try their hand at “Beowulf” translations to better understand the poem, he said, but that does not mean theirs, or Tolkien’s, deserves a wider audience.
“Publishing the translation is a disservice to him, to his memory and his achievement as an artist,” Mr. Kiernan added.
For others, the objection isn’t that Tolkien’s “Beowulf” is appearing in print, but that it’s not the version they had expected. Tolkien had also taken stabs at writing a faithful version that mimicked Old English prosody — no easy feat, and an undertaking he didn’t finish. Only a couple dozen lines of this alliterative version have been published, and they are reproduced in the introduction to the new book. Mr. Donoghue called Tolkien’s efforts “a kind of tour de force” but said he doubted that “even someone with Tolkien’s imaginative genius could sustain it over 3,000 lines.”
By publishing this “Beowulf,” his heirs and publisher may be seeking to further secure his literary and scholarly reputation. Or they may simply be accommodating what Ms. Flieger referred to as an audience “eager to read” any and all fragments from their beloved author. Or possibly both. As for Tolkien, displeased with his “Beowulf,” he would have surely wanted more time to edit, more time to revise. But he had other things to do.
“It’s like Gandalf says, ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,’ ” Mr. Kiernan said. “He decided he didn’t want to waste it on a translation. He worked on ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord the Rings’ instead.”