Saturday, April 29, 2006

Menu, April 30 - May 5, 2006

Pork Medallions in Dijon Cream Sauce
Apple Harvest Rice

Grilled Sausages
Roasted Vegetables

Spinach Squares
Mashed Potatoes

Tortellini with Roasted Vegetables
Italian bread

Italian Beef Cutlets
Fettucini with Butter-Parsley-Parmesan Sauce
Italian Bread

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Leadership Bowl: Post-Game Wrap

Thanks to everyone who commented on the Leadership Bowl post. Art Deco made some good comments, which I'll address here with some additional observations. That'll serve as the post-game wrap. Art's words in blue, mine in black.

1. Is there any evidence that Mr. Gore was aware that he was assigned a bodyguard?

There is no evidence that Mr. Gore thought the armed fellows who hovered around him were anything besides combat photographers who didn't use cameras.

2. Is it your contention that Mr. Gore should have been expected to be an enthusiast for patriotic sacrifice in combat given that at the time he entered the military the withdrawal of American troops for reasons-of-state ("getting out as a matter of policy and not as a matter of defeat" is how Henry Kissinger put it retrospectively) was the stated government policy?

No, that is not my contention.

3. Most of Mr. Kerry's compatriots in the Mekong Delta appear to have been unimpressed with him, there are indications that he was visibly upset at being told of this posting, the lily of his service may have been gilded, and he has likely lied about aspects of it in the telling, but he remains nevertheless one of a small minority (~3% perhaps) of those men born during the years running from 1939-54 who did spend time in a combat zone. Can we give him credit for that?

Yes, we can, because in my view he came out of the Vietnam era with far more moral credit than George Bush. At least John went to where the North Vietnamese army could shoot at him and where, in fact, they did shoot at him. The impression I got of John Kerry from the Swift Boat website is that he was a more timid, brass-plated version of Winston Churchill, who also used military exploits and connections to further his own career. But John Kerry didn't participate in one of the last cavalry charges in military history, and he didn't spend a year in or near the trenches commanding a regiment on the Western Front. And try as I might, I can't see John Kerry giving and understanding the "blood toil and tears" speech. So that's why I gave democracy the field goal, but not a touchdown.

4. If physical cowardice is one of Mr. Bush's faults, why would he volunteer for service in a National Guard unit where he would be learning to fly fighter planes (of a model with, by some accounts, a poor safety record) and of which some members were in fact posted to Indochina? (Please try to avoid stereotyped answers like, "because he was stupid").

To the contrary, Bush's choice (like all self-interested choices) was very shrewd. He had the lowest possible score on the aptitude test for pilot training. He rightly concluded that, as the son of a sitting Texas congressman, he would have a better chance of selection for pilot duty in the Texas Air National Guard ("TANG") than the U.S. Air Force. I note that TANG F-102 pilots could participate in a program that rotated them to fly in Vietnam. They needed 500 hours of flight experience. During his four years with the TANG, Bush accumulated over 600 hours of flight time -- but only 278 in the F-102. The 278-hour figure includes time spent in the F-102's training-seat variant. Bush joined the ANG because the alternatives were (a) a chance that he'd go straight to combat in Vietnam, or (b) having a record that shows strings were pulled to keep him from having a chance at going straight to combat in Vietnam.

The temptation at this point is to try changing the debate into whether Vietnam-era Guardsmen are cowards. It's a question I won't dignify with an answer (not that Art's asking it, but others might) because it's got nothing to do with the problem I have with George Bush. I know a few Vietnam-era guardsmen, and I'm related to one. Had I been 18 in 1966 I might have joined the Guard myself. I don't have problems with men who want to live in solidarity with a community which lets them remove, or greatly reduce, the chances of fighting in a terrible and witless war. But I would start having problems with them if they wanted to be War Chieftains, fighter-jock presidents doing a carrier landing under a banner that says "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" and doesn't say "BY OTHER GUYS AT SOME UNDETERMINED POINT IN THE FUTURE."

Yes, and Art's right to point it out, that the quotations from Bush, Kerry and Gore are my own inventions. They're like the last words famously attributed to the Old Guard at Waterloo. History records them as, "The Old Guard dies, but never surrenders!" In fact, the reply to Wellington's surrender offer was Merde!. But the reality and the invention convey the same meaning, and while I don't pretend to have a running transcript of Bush, Clinton, and Gore's speech during the years involved, I think there's enough accuracy in them to absolve me of slander. There is a common trait that binds these men, although it binds Kerry less than the others.

The common trait isn't what we usually mean by "physical cowardice." In my view, "physical cowardice" can refer to villainy, but it can also embrace the ordinary and healthy reaction of any human being to the prospect of fighting in a war. I should be very nervous and unhappy if, finding myself in a military unit, I realized that my commanding officer were incapable of experiencing any trepidation whatsoever at the prospect of injury or death, and wished only to cover himself and my corpse with glory. I should instead like my commanding officer to wish, with at least some sincerity, that he didn't have to issue orders requiring me or anyone else suffer or die before he goes ahead and issues those orders anyway because they are militarily necessary. In that regard, I would not expect to find that my officer was omniscient, or demand from him a guarantee of success, before obeying. War is fighting, fighting means killing, and killing means dying. Bush, Clinton and Gore aren't odious because they chose not to risk death on the battlefield.

The disturbing thing about their choices, the common trait, is not the existence of "physical cowardice." Each of them made the decision that their lives were too valuable, too full of prospect, to be submitted to the outrageous fortunes of combat. Fair enough, perhaps, for a private citizen in a modern state. But it would take a deliberately-enforced naivete to conclude that Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and George Bush were merely private citizens who intended to live quiet lives. They were set on political success, on advancement to positions of leadership, from their early adulthood. While Bill Clinton's ambition was the most obvious, Bush and Gore ran for congress within five years of leaving their military posts. I don't mind the desire for private life or ambition for public office. I mind the idea that a man following the first path should incur no greater risk of harm or suffering than a man who follows the second.

I have no quarrel with men who absent themselves from war, or combat in war, due to reasons of conscience clearly stated so long as they take their lumps in the public arena. That is crucial, for an individual conscience is worthy of respect only to the extent it's honestly directed at the right ordering of society. The acid test of that direction is a man's willingness to suffer at the hands of the community whose right ordering he supposedly desires. Christ took that test, and passed it, not least because He wanted to show us how necessary and expensive a conscience can be. So we should judge Eugene Debs an honorable man, whether or not we think he was right to oppose World War I, because Debs went to jail for opposing it.

Clinton, Gore, Bush -- they didn't take that test. From what I know of their lives, it seems they were oblivious to the whole matter or, at best, regarded it as a nuisance to be negotiated by dodges that would make a tax lawyer blush. And it is not right, it is not fitting, for men in government to have shaped their characters on the idea that service depends on the absence of risk and one's individual preferences. Bush and Gore didn't join merely to avoid serving in a war. They, like Kerry, also joined for the political eclat that comes with having served in wartime. Bush, Clinton and Gore wanted high office, they wanted to lead, but they wanted it cheap. These men didn't serve. They postured. Clinton, Gore and Bush are worse than other men, not because their souls blinked, but because they wanted to be chieftains without suffering for the people.

There are signs that the British are perilously close to the Gore/Bush mark. One of them is that bit of Clarence House nattering about the Prince's presence in combat creating "an additional risk to those he commands or himself." I don't know how many British soldiers want to "hold their manhoods cheap" but apparently someone at Clarence House thinks there are more than a few. Assuming the British won't degrade Prince Harry by a "photo op" tour of duty, he will be going where his countrymen are fighting, and dying, because the royal family must suffer for the people. That is a deep truth of human community and a law of leadership. Three of our last five presidential candidates neither learned nor obeyed it, although they didn't mind other men doing so in the Delta, Sarajevo, the Mog, and Fallujah.

So Democracy gets a field goal for Kerry. Put Bob Dole on the field and the score's 10-7 against monarchy. But the season of Dole's glory has been long over. Perhaps it will begin again, when the country can value the obedience and service of more recent veterans.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Leadership Bowl Results: Monarchy 7, Democracy 3

Prince Harry: "If I am not allowed to join my unit in a war zone, I will hand in my uniform."

Prince Andrew: "The funny part is, that if this works, the missle will hit me!

George Bush: "I ain't goin' to no war and git shot et."

John Kerry: "I wonder if I can hit the White House from here."

Al Gore: "Move a little to the right . . . no, don't look at my bodyguard . . . that's it, now say Cheese!"

Bill Clinton: "I am writing this too in the hope that . . . [it] will help you understand more clearly how so many fine people have come to find themselves . . . loathing the military . . .."

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Now the Green Blade Rises, Alleluia!

Now the green blade rises
from the buried gain,
wheat that in dark earth
many days has lain;
love lives again,
that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that springs up green.

In the grave they laid Him,
Love whom hate had slain,
thinking that never
He would wake again,
laid in the earth
like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again like wheat that springs up green.

Forth He came in quiet,
like the risen grain,
He that for three days
in the grave had lain,
quick from the dead
the risen Christ is seen:
Love is come again like wheat that springs up green.

When our hearts are wintry,
grieving, or in pain,
Christ's touch can call us
back to life again,
fields of our hearts
that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again like wheat that springs up green.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Justice of the Petard Sort

From today's headlines: Multimillion-selling author Dan Brown has won his court case against two authors who claim he copied their ideas. Well, of course he did. And that's only just.

Everyone knows that Brown was sued by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of the hack work Holy Blood, Holy Grail, who claimed Brown borrowed their ideas for his hack novel, The Davinci Code. Both hack jobs claim that Jesus didn't die and rise from the dead, that He shacked up with Mary Magdalene somewhere in Gaul (now France), and that the whole thing is being covered up by ominously-portrayed Catholic organizations like the Vatican, the Knights Templar and Opus Dei. If that's not funny enough, here's another . . . .

The main reason I think Baigent and Leigh lost is that they claimed to be telling the truth. In their wacked-out universe, Holy Blood, Holy Grail isn't an airport-rack potboiler, it's a monument to accuracy and diligent investigation. It's history. That's why they lost.

If Holy Blood, Holy Grail is history, that means The DaVinci Code is historical fiction. Baigent and Leigh don't have any more reason to sue Brown for plagiarism than Shelby Foote, who wrote a history of the War Between the States, would have had to sue Michael Shaara for his novel about Gettysburg.

Too bad Baigent and Leigh didn't admit Holy Blood, Holy Grail is really just a comic book without the pictures, a bad practical joke they played on everyone without a brain or the education required to use one. They might have scored some bucks. While an author like Brown can't plagiarize history, he can plagiarize a silly little made-up story. Pride goeth before a fall, or a goose-egg verdict, as the case may be.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Scientific Debunking of Biblical Truth: It's All About Eve

Courtesy of Amy Pawlak's blog, I read this story about scientists questioning the miracle of Jesus walking on water. It wasn't miraculous, just "a brief blast of frigid air" that freakishly "descended over the lake" and created a miniature ice floe for our Lord to walk upon.

First, there's the odd mental route by which scientific speculation on freak weather conditions instantly and logically leads to challenging the concept of divine intervention in human events. I have no quarrel with scientists studying "spring ice," as I have no quarrel with them studying ways to make Exxon another billion dollars. But is there a reason why the study of this natural phenomenon must suddenly, in what one must call a rather whimsical fashion, focus on the more sensational question of whether Jesus actually walked on water?

There are reasons, but I'm not sure they flow from the pure springs of scientific probity. If I were a scientist at a state university, I'd prefer the general (and tax-paying) public to think of my work in terms of startling blows against superstition rather than Nietzsche's proverbial scholar, who spends his entire life studying the brain structure of a leech. It's easy to understand why Dr. Nof wants to get his work next to Scripture. Like Eve Harrington and Margot Channing, proximity to a famous subject gets one a lot closer to the center of attention.

Sure enough, "this isn't the first time the FSU researcher has offered scientific explanations of watery miracles. As a recognized expert in the field of oceanography and limnology -- the study of freshwater, saline and brackish environments -- Nof made waves worldwide in 1992 with his oceanographic perspective on the parting of the Red Sea." Science loves patterns, and this is beginning to seem very scientific indeed. Would you like another martini, Miss Channing?

But showing off is a motive unworthy of scientists, whose stock in trade is the image of disinterested objectivity, not "ring and run" silliness. And so Dr. Nof finds himself dug into the last refuge of the academic, the notion of ideas without consequences:
"As natural scientists, we simply explain that unique freezing processes probably happened in that region only a handful of times during the last 12,000 years," Nof said. "We leave to others the question of whether or not our research explains the biblical account."
Let's not mention that the biblical account has Jesus walking on water "tossed with waves." (Matthew 14:24). That's got to be pretty thick ice, to form on a storm-tossed lake. But if Scripture is just a bunch of fairy tales, the detail need not delay us from fetching Miss Channing a cigarette.

"As scientists, we simply explain the unlikelihood of a child with blond hair being born into a family with dark hair. We leave to the child's father the question of whether his son is a bastard." Only people with a profound lack of respect for the subject of an opinion would consider such a trite explanation worthwhile. That this attitude would prevail on such an immense and varied phenomenon like Christianity suggests some unexamined and unworthy bias.

"As historians, we simply explain the evidence suggesting that what people call "the Holocaust" might have been an exaggerated outbreak of cholera. We leave to others the question of whether or not our research explains Anne Frank's Diary." Some subjects are simply beyond this type of flippancy.

When I wasn't a Christian, I knew lots of people who relegated Christianity to a light and flimsy place in human thought. Eventually it struck me that they behaved like people who live with a terrifying secret. They were ready, even eager, to accept any explanation so long as it kept them from opening that dreaded door. I found that "anti-witness" very intriguing.

In the large spectrum of American life, I noticed, one could be anything, anything at all, so long as one didn't subscribe to Christianity. If one did that, one was simultaneously cast as unethical and a mindless prude, a gullible nitwit and the instrument of malevolent genius, an oblivious fantasist and a scheming opportunist. There was no pejorative opinion that couldn't be applied to Christianity, and the fact that Christianity could get hippies and Nazis on the same side of an argument suggested more about their absurdity than the alleged foolishness of the Cross.

I also noticed the odd power of debunking exposes to persuade me in the opposite direction. "So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship: and they were afraid." John 6:19 (KJV). Dr. Nof posits something that happened "only a handful of times in the last 12,000 years" at the exact time Jesus decided to go out on the lake and meet the disciples. Not only that, but the freak ice managed to form in the exact spot lying between the shore where Jesus embarked and the point to which the disciples eventually rowed their boat. Further, the disciples had no idea where this ice floe ended -- they rowed to the spot before they saw Jesus. "Hey, guys, it's really stormy -- why don't we row toward the ice floe?"

Even the FSU publicist is forced to admit, "Such a perfect combination of conditions . . . might well seem miraculous." Until, that is, the press release tells us that Dr. Nof's research indicates our Lord was something of a one-man ice age:
In the last 120 centuries, Nof calculates the odds [of freak ice happening] as roughly once in 1,000 years. However, during the life of Jesus the prevailing climate may have favored the more frequent formation of springs ice -- about once in 30 to 160 years."
Those odds may qualify as boring to FSU researches, but they strike me as every bit as amazing as the longer figure.

Besides, why are we doing this in years? Dr. Nof doesn't say it takes years for freak ice to form. In fact, given his description of the event, I think it's safe to assume a six-hour window. Thirty years is 10,950 days. 10,950 days is 43,800 six-hour slots. A chance of one in 43,800? Throw in the timing of the ice to match the human choices involved (the disciples choosing to row, Jesus choosing to go out on the water) and the odds become considerably more than even the "long shot" figure of once per millennium.

Perhaps I didn't (and still don't) have enough theology to appreciate the concern, but arguments like that never persuaded me to think that Christianity was in danger of contradiction. If anything, they persuaded me in the opposite direction. When I encountered this kind of "debunking," I thought it would be tremendous if Someone was actually managing all that, and doing it rather effortlessly to boot: The records available to us don't mention anything about a "History Do-Over" button (although in fairness it should be noted that FSU's history department has yet to be heard from). If naturalistic speculations like these are true, the events they describe seem like an amazingly intricate, incredibly elegant dance of God, man, and creation, one set within a larger dance of human continuity that makes the event meaningful and significant today.

What are the odds of that "freak occurrence"? Before I believed, it seemed people who accepted the "completely random" perspective on the universe, as against the "intelligent design" perspective, eventually swallowed such an incredible number of "chances," and employed such a vast fund of "just-so stories" to shore it all up, as to make believing in the Virgin Birth seem like a humble exercise in common sense.

Some "naturalistic" explanations of Biblical miracles are just plain ridiculous. Others aren't. Assuming this is the latter kind, I don't mind if the world wants to go "hee hee" and give Dr. Nof the Sarah Siddons Award for Tweaking Christian Noses. You can't believe in God without thinking hard about things, and Dr. Nof's research is as good a place to start as any.