Friday, March 30, 2012

Friday miscellaneous (3/30)

The Democratic Party should soften its stance on abortion; or so says former President Jimmy Carter.

This week was all about healthcare. On Tuesday the Supreme Court heard argument for and against the individual mandate. SCOTUSblog has an excellent summary.

On a similar note, the individual mandate is often considered the cornerstone of Obama’s healthcare bill. But did you know that conceptually it was originally a conservative idea advocated by the Heritage Foundation? Now, to be fair, Heritage changed their mind before the Obama bill adopted the provision, but that’s still a fascinating story of how ideas shift between parties. (And it goes both ways. The PAC was designed in 1943 by labor unions to get around campaign finance restrictions and support FDR.)

Here is another story of a successful business breaking the mold by caring for its employees.

This article at FPR on Burke is worth reading. But for those who don’t click the link, here’s the gem.

This means that those who wish to redeem our politics right now should not be practicing politics, if by that term we mean to designate the holding of office, the deliberation of specific policies, the support of existing institutions – in short, participation in the civic life of America as presently constituted.  What they should be doing instead is the hard intellectual and spiritual work of reflection, raising their minds above the sordid state of affairs surrounding us and searching for a timeless understanding of our essential natures which will serve us in the work of social renewal.  Above all things, they should be turning to the study of literature and poetry, since, as I have argued before here at FPR and elsewhere, it is the study of these things which most effectively helps us to answer the ancient admonition, “know thyself.”

We’ve heard a lot about Romney and Santorum, and even a little about Gingrich. But whatever happened to Ron Paul?

The Paul Ryan budget gives Democrats a solution for the undertaxed rich. For some reason they’re not interested.

And thanks to Jeremiah for reminding me of this.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Let the games...never end

This is Part II of our review of the Hunger Games. Part I is available here.

Book 1 of The Hunger Games trilogy ends with Katniss returning home victorious in the games by virtue of her defiance toward the Capital. According to tradition, the winners remain celebrities in their home districts, where every need is provided for the rest of their lives.

But Collins, and by extension the Capital, couldn’t be that nice. Besides, after the success of the first book, a sequel needed to be written. So the next year, instead of picking new competitors as was typical, the Capital called two prior winners from each district back to compete against each other. Yes, this means Katniss is in the games again.

Unfortunately, Collins exhausted her supply of plot in the first book. So in book two (Catching Fire), once again we have the journey to the capital, the parading in front of ecstatic fans, and the fight to the death in a booby-trapped arena. This time, however, because the reader is attached to more characters, Collins must find a different way to cheat the ending. A previously unmentioned rebellion and deus ex machina (literally - a helicopter swoops down and rescues a group of contestants) achieves that goal.

Book three (Mockingjay) then follows Katniss’ involvement in the ensuing rebellion. Apparently, and previously unknown to her, she is some sort of a figurehead in the effort to overthrow the Capital. However, her former independent spirit and resourcefulness have largely disappeared and she is reduced to pawn in the rebellion. Intent on not being used by the Capital, she is instead used by the rebellion.

And, true to the formulaic pattern of the books, she again faces a booby trapped arena in the form of the Capital itself, which she must navigate street by street with a few loyal followers intent on killing the Capital's president out of revenge. This time, however, the brutal ending is not cheated. Many people are killed, and others disappear, as the Capital falls. By the end Katniss realizes that the rebellion she is fighting for is just as bloodthirsty as the Capital she helped overthrow. Only in the epilogue is she finally recovering--sort of. She returns to her original district and tries to piece a life back together.

So with that synopsis, let’s turn to the analysis.

First, as was probably evident from my intro, Collins’ second two books suffer from a severe lack of new story. And while a repetition model can sometimes work when it is clearly part of a larger plan (such as concentric plot circles, each level bigger to the previous one), that’s not the case here. Collins’ story is still highly engaging, and the reader is rushed along desperate to find out how it ends. But the reader also gets the sense that the author herself doesn’t know where she’s going, so she is simply circling back to kill time while she tries to find a satisfactory ending. Except that Collins has boxed herself into a corner that she is unable to write out of.

The second striking observation is Collins’ apparent increasing disillusionment with Katniss. While she is a strong character (even possibly a role model) in the first book, the second and third books are more about her fall than about the fall of the Capital. There are plenty of other engaging and sympathetic characters, but Katniss is not counted among them. Instead, most of the endearing qualities she had in the first book are shed as she becomes a drugged machine blindly set on revenge. Although the story is told from her perspective, she is increasingly detached and her judgement is clouded.

Which brings me to my next point. The love triangle. Yes, I neglected to mention it in my first post, but in books 2 and 3 it becomes a more central plot point as Katniss’ childhood friend/hunting buddy Gale and her co-competitor from the first games Peeta vie for her heart. In a way, they each represent a part of her dual personality. Gale matches her militant tomboy side, while Peeta reflects her desire for peace and a home. As Gale and Peeta become more and more defined, her personality traits also diverge, leaving her a psychological wreck. She must choose between the two of them, and how she chooses will affect who she is.

So what do we dowith the Hunger Games? In a way, as I argued in the first part of my review, they serve as a profound reflection upon today’s society and the direction it is heading. Book 1 especially made that point clear. But as she kept writing, Collins lost sight of that goal. Rather than critiquing that culture, she bought into its propaganda--pushing the spectacle further and further with more and more gratuitous and senseless deaths. She may be trying to object to a meaningless system of power, but she has nothing better with which to replace it.

Book one ended with Katniss defying the Capital and returning home. Book three also ends with Katniss at home, but this time she is trying to piece together what is left of her psyche and still playing games in her head.

The Hunger Games may be over. The Capital may have fallen.

But the games won.

Related articles:
Review of Hunger Games Book 1
Review of Hunger Games Movie

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

United Nations supports parental rights!

Or at least it did, in its own way, in 1948. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights addresses education:
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. 
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. 
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
Read section 3 again. “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” What does that mean? Exactly what it says. States should not compel public school attendance.

Johannes Morsink, professor or of Political Philosophy at Drew University, explains the history of that very provision in his book The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent.
Article 26 (on education) is one of the articles most clearly shaped by the experience of [WWII]. This article has three paragraphs, a nuts-and-bolts paragraph that is a standard constitutional item, a goal-and-purpose paragraph, and a paragraph that gives parents a prior right in deciding what kind of education their children shall have. The second and third paragraphs were put in the article as a way of condemning what Hitler had done to Germany’s youth and of making sure that it would never happen again…. 
The War Crimes Report that the Secretariat had drawn up for the Human Rights Commission explained to the delegates, as if they needed to be told, that “‘in order to make the German people amenable to their will and to prepare them psychologically for war,’ the Nazis reshaped the educational system and particularly the education and training of German youth, imposed a supervision of all cultural activities, and controlled dissemination of information and the expression of opinion within Germany as well as the movement of Intelligence of all kinds from and into Germany.” The second and third paragraphs of Article 26 were written in direct reaction and opposition to this Nazi abuse of state power. Paragraph 2 of the article states: “Education shall be directed to the full development of human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.” 
The first draft of Article 26, paragraph 2 was placed on the drafting table by Bienfiled of the World Jewish Congress because his organization felt that there was a need to spell out both the goals and the spirit of educational institutions so as to avoid all kind of brainwashing the Nazi state had engaged in. Article 26’s third paragraph was added for the same reasons. Both the Dutch and the Lebanese delegations submitted amendments about parental rights. It being the shortest one, the Lebanese amendment was adopted after a vigorous discussion. The defense again was that the Nazis had usurped the prerogative of parents when they demanded that all children enroll in poisoned state-controlled schools, the paragraph was especially necessary because the word “compulsory” had been used in the first paragraph. [internal citations omitted]
Now, of course, care must always be exercised when dealing with international documents of this nature. States are sovereign entities, and thus, are and ought to be wary of any international institution telling them how to treat their citizens. Recognizing that, the UN Declaration is not a treaty and is not directly binding international law. It was drafted and intended to be aspirational.

However, as a moral and aspirational document, the UNDHR carries great weight in our post WWII world. That it took the time to protect parents’ rights to select the education of their children, in direct and intentional response to a state forcing children into the public schools, is a huge statement.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Hunger Games Movie Review

I am one of the people who participated in making Hunger Games movie opening weekend the third highest grossing of all time (it might be higher when all the chips are in). So far according to BoxOffice Mojo it has brought in 155 million dollars.

Hunger Games is carried by great actors, solid effects, and a compelling story, yet it is limited by insufficient time to connect with the characters and a stupid audience. It is a loyal adaptation of the book (see our review here). It is PG-13 because of the heavy themes and violence. Hunger Games book is a cautionary tale about the dangers of desensitizing ourselves to violence and the shallowness of appearances. Furthermore it is a story of self-sacrifice for family and being willing to put the safety of the one you love before your own safety.

These themes come through in the film. When the main character Katniss sees her sister being forced to the front of the crowd as the “tribute” who must go to the Hunger Games, Katniss steps forward and volunteers to go instead.

The music cuts out, the world hurries by, and although you know what is going on around you, it is hard to believe it is happening. This scene captures the whirlwind feeling that one often experiences when life spins around you.

Another powerful scene is when one of the main characters admits that he loves someone and in the next breath why he will have to die for her. Once again they allow the moment to hang without music or effects and the sadness of the moment grips the viewer.

The acting, especially Stanley Tucci, was great. Tucci nailed the part of a news anchor and held the story together. Josh Hutcherson was almost typecast and fits the roll so well that I cannot imagine another actor taking that part. Both of them built an atmosphere that allows the viewer to engage the story for what it is and not be held back because of the foreign nature of the setting.

I was very disappointed in the audience and was reinforced in my belief that this is not a story for children. This is why: the children who were there showed their ignorance of the meaning. The story is about how horrible it is to have a society that embraces violence so much that it finds joy in kids killing kids. Twice during the film when a kid was killed they started applauding. I fear that in many ways Suzanne Collins’ world might very well be our own.

All told it is neither a great movie or a bad movie. It is powerful and deep. You may learn more about yourself watching it, or you may learn that our culture is not far removed from the culture of Panem. "Panem" is Latin for bread, a nod to the "bread and circuses" of the Roman empire. Depending on who is watching, Hunger Games is either a warning against building Colosseums or it is a Colosseum where you can watch the brutality of humanity while cheering and picking favorites.

Our culture hangs in the balance and the ods do not look like they are in our favor. 

Post by Jeremiah Lorrig

Related articles:

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday miscellaneous (3/23)

Orson Scott Card gives a good analysis of the transformation of stories from book to film. Sometimes it’s done well, often not. Here’s why.

The Colorado legislature’s Planned Parenthood resolution got crashed by an unexpected visitor.

Romney, unlike Santorum or Gingrich, is running a debt free campaign. That’s good. But then Romney’s Communications Director compared him to an etch-a-sketch. That’s bad.

One of our readers pointed to what he calls the “biggest non-article of the campaign cycle”. I think he’s right.

Dr. Mark Mitchell contrasts patriotism with exceptionalism.

This is an amazing story about President Obama’s friendship with pastor Joel Hunter.

In an age where bankers seem to be both running and undermining our economy, it’s refreshing to hear of banks actually focusing on helping their community rather than just expanding.

Nicholas Kristof responds to those attacking the Kony 2012 effort.

Edmund Burke, often called the father of conservatism, was a harsh critic of liberal democracy. Is his critique warranted?

Burke’s prime reason for objecting so strenuously to democracy is as plain as it is compelling: democratic governance represents for him the exaltation of will above reason.  That it is the people’s will rather than the monarch’s which is thus exalted does nothing to mitigate the arbitrariness of such rule.

In Texas, an atheist threatened to sue over a nativity display at the courthouse. That party of this story is not unique. The part that is, however, is what changed his mind.

And finally, I think we can all agree that Romney needs more lines like this. Especially if/when he runs against Obama.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Alexis de Tocqueville on modern liberalism and conservatism

Thought for the day from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.
I perceive virtuous and peaceful men whose pure mores, tranquil habits, ease, and enlightenment naturally place them at the head of the populations that surround them. Full of a sincere love of their native country, they are ready to make great sacrifices for it: nevertheless they are often found to be adversaries of civilization; they confuse its abuses with its benefits, and in their minds the idea of evil is indissolubly united with the idea of the new.
Nearby I see others who, in the name of progress, striving to make man into matter, want to find the useful without occupying themselves with the just, to find science far from beliefs, and well-being separated from virtue: these persons are said to be the champions of modern civilization, and they insolently put themselves at its head, usurping a place that has been abandoned to them, but from which they are held off by their unworthiness.
Where are we then?
Men of religion combat freedom, and the friends of freedom attack religions; noble and generous spirits vaunt slavery, and base and servile souls extol independence; honest and enlightened citizens are enemies of all progress, while men without patriotism and morality make themselves apostles of civilization and enlightenment!
Have all centuries, then, resembled ours? Has man, as in our day, always had before his eyes a world where nothing is linked, where virtue is without genius and genius without honor; where love of order is confused with a taste for tyrants and the holy cult of freedom with contempt for law; where conscience casts only a dubious light on human actions; where nothing seems any longer to be forbidden or permitted, or honest or shameful, or true or false?
Notice how he looks first to the conservatives, then the liberals, and finds both wanting. His conclusion, though, although written in 1835, still describes modern society.

War in Iraq

I am currently reading Condoleezza Rice's book, No Higher Honor. It is a fascinating view into how national security works and what happened on that side of things during the Bush years including the September 11th terrorist attacks.

It was today, March 20th, in 2003 that the United States and three other countries began military operations in Iraq in the early hours of the morning.

It is remarkable what has changed since. Specifically, that the highest profile world dictator has faced justice. Saddam Hussein was the most feared and brutal world leader in the last several decades. Now he is gone.

I remember before the war reading a British intelligence report about the horrors that Hussein committed. Even to this day, I cannot even bear to write them down because of the horrific nature of the eyewitness accounts against political prisoners, women, and anyone who fell into the disfavor of the tyrant.

Hussein was brought to justice because of the bravery and sacrifice of men and women in the United States Armed Forces.

There is a line in the Battle Hymn of the Republic that many of us have always song as follows:

"As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free!"

But that is not how it was originally written. It originally said:

"As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free!"

That is a huge part of what has made America great. Good people are willing to live and die for others. I am thankful for my brothers (one in the Army and one in the Air Force) for being examples to me of good men who stepped up to serve their country.

We like to use dates to mark important things. We remember people we love by marking their birthday. We celebrate holidays for the same reasons. Let us make use of this day as well.

Let us remember this anniversary in two ways:
1. Remember that the world is changed for the better without Saddam Hussein.
2. Remember those in uniform with a prayer and a hug (if you can).

By Jeremiah Lorrig

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Adventures of Tintin

It’s been some time since I saw a movie that told a really really good story. Indeed, with all the sequels and remakes, very few good original stories are coming out of Hollywood these days.

In fact, it’s been so long that I’d forgotten what a good, clean, engaging adventure looked like. Not one driven by special effects or action, or one that is so stereotypical that it is predictable. But one with well developed characters exploring the classic themes of honor, courage, and duty, tossed into an adventure story involving ships, pirates, hidden treasure, and--most of all--human character.

Forgotten, that is, until last night. When my wife and I watched just such a movie. I’m speaking of the new animated movie directed by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson: The Adventures of Tintin.

Tintin is a classically timeless character. Portrayed as a young journalist, he is mature beyond his years (even if he does miss some obvious clues). One day while out looking for his next story he purchases a model sailing ship. A three masted, 50 gun ship, to be precise.

It turns out that the model ship is a step in solving the mystery of the original, which was lost under mysterious circumstances. Rumor says it involved pirates, but no one is sure. Tintin, sensing a good story, begins to explore the history of the original ship and soon finds himself a participant story itself. And it is a story well told.

Tintin must use his resourcefulness, and that of his pet dog Snowy, as he joins up with a sea captain who is also part of the story. He is assisted along the way by two bumbling detectives, Thomson and Thompson (who mainly provide comic relief). Before the story is over, both Tintin and the sea captain learn the meaning of courage and determination.

And, best of all, unlike many animated “family” movies today, I noticed no bathroom or other base humor in the film (unless you count one plot-significant belch). The language, including that of the often drunk sea captain, never got worse than “blistering barnacles” or “great snakes.” And the captain himself, although a drunkard at the beginning, learns along the way that relying on alcohol is not the best approach to life. So I can say without hesitation that Tintin is not only an excellently told adventure story, but it is one that is fully appropriate for family viewing.

Click here for more movie reviews.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday miscellaneous (3/16)

We’ve reviewed the first book of The Hunger Games (more reviews coming). In the meantime, here’s another really good review.

Despite all the worries about money in politics, this GOP primary season has been less expensive than other primaries in recent years.

Romney has a tendency to try too hard to connect with voters. Santorum’s American Conservative Union was good, but he wasn’t the most conservative member in the senate.

How many of these eight myths about China have you fallen into? I know I’ve believed several.

When I enrolled at MSU college of law, it was ranked somewhere below the top 100 law schools in the country. Last year the rank raised to 95. This year we had even more good news, MSU Law is rose to a rank of 82 and tied both Catholic and Rutgers. That, combined with a number one rank for the West division of the NCAA basketball tournament, means it’s been a pretty good month here in East Lansing. (Except that apparently spring still has some people baffled.)

I found this discussion on boycotting fascinating, and am still trying to decide whether I agree with him.

And finally, you can’t believe everything you read in surveys.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Standing on the Foundations of History

Roman Ruins
On Monday when I walked into my office the realization that the world was small was once again underlined in my mind. The reason for that was the fact that I had been in Rome, Italy the the day before.

It is amazing that one can travel with such ease. It is amazing that with almost no preparation or planning one can go to another continent and see some of the most significant places in world history and the some of the most spectacular and renowned art.

Rome, unlike any other place I have ever been, is a place were history is folded up on itself and you will see ancient Roman ruins buttressed with Medieval columns transformed by Renaissance design and maintained with modern building codes. Huge parts of the city are literally ruins upon ruins. It is like the timeline of history doesn’t apply in Rome. All of history is the present.

Roman Hut. c. 700 b.c.
On one of my excursions I was able to climb Palatine Hill. It is the place where Romulus began to build Rome. Still on the hill, about a bow shot away from Emperor Caesar Augustus’ home, one can still see foundations of huts of early Rome. The Roman Republic and the Emperors kept those huts overlooking their greatest buildings below to remind them of their humble beginnings.

These huts made me think of how we sometimes need to remind ourselves of who we really are. Remember that all of us came into the world naked. All of us have problems and short comings. All of us can learn from those humble huts overlooking Rome.

History Piled On Top of History 
On the flip side. The Romans also built something that impacted the entire world. We need to also realize, like the Romans, that although we may have come from humble beginnings, that should not stop us from reaching for the stars. Everything is impossible until it is done for the first time. Rome conquered the world, and historians to this day are confounded how this little city rose above the rest of history and became the Eternal City.

Rome reminds us that we must never forget our roots and where we have come from, but also that we should not let our beginnings dictate our end.

Do you forget your beginnings or let your past hold you back? Where do you see yourself in your own history?

Post by Jeremiah Lorrig

Friday, March 9, 2012

Friday miscellaneous (3/9)

This is tragically sad.

The Occupy Wall Street movement brought attention to the 1%. This calculator can show where your family falls.

Considering the uncertainty of this primary cycle, Republicans may need to start looking to Bill Clinton for a strategy to defeat Obama.

If you do the math, Romney had a very good night on Tuesday even though he only narrowly won Ohio. Also, even if he weren’t splitting votes with Gingrich, Santorum would still have an uphill battle to get the nomination.

This is an amazing story. Some young activists and a van are offering help to pregnant women in front of abortion clinics. Not content to wait for a change in laws, they are working to change hearts.
What is the battle cry of the pro-abortion movement? “Choice!” It is their mantra. What do you constantly hear from abortion advocates? “These desperate women feel like they are out of options.”Right here, on four wheels, parked in front of the clinic, is another choice — one they might not even know they have. Inside that bus is an image of their baby waiting to be seen. Connected to that bus is a support system — in short, options.
Steven Hayword at PowerLine laments the lack of serious constitutional discussion among GOP candidates, including Ron Paul.

National Review pleads with conservative voters: drop the birth certificate conspiracy.

Republicans who have chosen to associate with the birthers have done their party and their country a disservice. And as Sheriff Arpaio settles comfortably into that political mental ward, the same must be said of those Republicans who choose to associate themselves with him more broadly. Those who cannot distinguish between the birthers’ flim-flam and the critical questions that face our nation in 2012 will not win and do not deserve to.
And this made me laugh.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sticky Red Tape

Scott Johnson over at PowerLine conducts an administrative law explanation of the HHS mandate controversy:

The whole idea of “administrative law” — regulations with the force of law promulgated by executive agencies pursuant to powers delegated by Congress — squares uneasily at best with the Constitution and its scheme of separated powers. Obamacare presents us with a case study that amounts to a reductio ad absurdum. The agencies promulgating Obamacare regulations will produce a code that rivals the United States Code in length and complexity. As we can see with the controversy over the “preventive services” regulation for women, these regulations will seriously impinge on constitutional liberties — as the Obamacare law itself does — only more so. God help us.

The whole thing is worth reading. However, it uses a lot of legalese. So, for those who have not taken courses in Administrative Law (I took one last fall, and it is even more confusing than the PowerLine post would indicate), here is how it works.

The idea of administrative law was largely a result of the progressive movement. I’ve written about this
before, but to recap, the progressives believed that social problems were more efficiently solved by administrative bodies than by deliberative bodies. This led to a preference for the executive branch over the legislative branch.

This concept is still at work today. Over and over again while in my Administrative Law class I marveled how both the professor and other students were aghast at the idea that political decisions should be made by the legislature (of course, they never put it that starkly, but that was the underlying position). No, they argued, the administration and interpretation of laws must be shielded from politics and left to the non-partisan experts who staff the agencies. They, not Congress, have the knowledge and experience to know what’s best for the nation.

As a result, we have entered an era where the legislature routinely delegates not just the enforcement, but the interpretation of statutes to the various branches of the executive branch. Rather than working out the details of a  bill, the Congress passes it in a half-baked form, unread and often internally conflicting, and leaves it to the agency to figure out what it means. That’s what Nancy Pelosi meant when she said we needed to pass the health care reform bill to find out what’s in it. No one really knew what it meant until the various agencies did the work to create a semi-sensible structure of of the statutory spaghetti.

If I sound sorry for the agencies, it’s because I am. I currently work in one and have had to decipher legislation that was poorly thought through and has conflicting provisions or missing definitions. It is the administrative branches that get the task of fixing the problem after the legislature has done the grandstanding. And if implementation goes wrong the politicians can conveniently pass blame to the “bureaucracy” and claim to not have voted for that outcome. The dirty secret is that the agencies have no more power than Congress gives them, and are bound by the statutory requirements Congress sets. The runaway bureaucracy is not the problem of the agencies so much as it is the fault of Congress.

But anyway, to return to the point, Congress has delegated to the agencies the authority to make rules to fill in the gaps in the healthcare legislation. To make rules, the agencies must comply with the Administrative Procedures Act (unless the statute in question specifically gives another process).

That is what HHS is doing with the contraception mandate. Under the APA, the most common form of rulemaking is what is called notice and comment rulemaking. This process generally requires that the agency publish a proposed rule, take comments from the general public on the rule, consider those comments, and then come to a determination regarding the rule. Any defect in this process, including the agency giving insufficient consideration to the comments, can result in a court tossing out the rule. Once a rule is approved, it has the force of law.

Here, the rule requiring contraception coverage was initially published last August for comment. After taking comments, HHS moved to finalize the rule in January. That’s when the controversy opened up, and President Obama announced his compromise position of only requiring insurance providers (rather than employers) to provide contraception coverage.

The problem? Obama’s “compromise” did nothing to the proposed rule. The rule itself had already gone through the notice and comment period, and HHS finalized it on the very same day Obama “modified” it. Thus, the original rule, which goes into effect in a year, has become administrative law without the announced “compromise.” Nor, as the PowerLine post notes, has Obama’s “compromise” even been proposed yet, which is the first step under the APA for an administrative rule to become law. So we don’t know if it resolves any issue.

So, to recap, the mandate itself is a federal requirement that a private company provide its product to the general public free of charge. Congress never passed that requirement, but delegated it to HHS. HHS, in turn, proposed highly controversial rules through the process required by the APA. To lesson the controversy, President Obama announced a “compromise” that was neither reflected in the final rule nor has been introduced to change the final rule. Right now, the original rule is the one on the books. HHS, independent of both Congress and the President, went ahead under its general rulemaking authority and made law governing the entire nation.

I try to be balanced toward President Obama. Unlike some, I don’t suspect he’s intentionally trying to destroy the country. But at moments like this, I suspect that his ego gets the better of him and he doesn’t realize that announcing something doesn’t make it so. Even the President needs to follow the rules.

We haven’t separated the administrative state and the political process that far yet.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Hunger Games, part 1

Based on popular request, Looking for Overland:YE Speak is beginning book reviews of young adult fiction. A poll on our Facebook fan page showed that The Hunger Games was by far the book receiving the most interest. Book one is reviewed here and the second two are reviewed together in a subsequent post.

Author Suzanne Collins has stated that she was prompted to write The Hunger Games, in part, after channel surfing one evening and finding footage of military conflict and reality TV on two neighboring channels. The resulting story, consistent with that juxtaposition, is torn between entertainment and horror; it serves as a sobering commentary on our current culture.

But Collins’ inspiration runs deeper. She was also inspired by the Greek myth of Theseus. According to legend, King Minos punished Athens by taking seven youths and seven maidens every seven years to be fed to the Minotaur. One year Theseus, whose sister was among those chosen, volunteered. He successfully navigates the labyrinth, kills the Minotaur, and rescues his sister.

Collins takes this basic plot and sets it in Panem, a post-apocalyptic North America divided into thirteen districts governed by a central decadent capital city. But this is no Percy Jackson retelling; it is much more grim. The story begins sometime after district thirteen rebelled and was destroyed. Ever since the rebellion the capital reasserts its authority by taking two children each year, one boy and one girl between 12 and 18, to compete in the Hunger Games - a nationally-televised fight to the death in a multi-acre deadly obstacle course. The competitors battle each other, the elements, and the arena itself, until only one remains alive. Should the games get to boring over their multi-day span, the game designers can always create a flood or rain down fire to get the excitement going again.

The story is told from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers for the games in place of her younger sister. She then must navigate the celebrity culture that comes with being a contestant, parading before people impatient to watch her kill or be killed. She is a commodity—a piece of entertainment to them. Once the games begin, the book transforms into a survival story. It is so well told that the reader can even forget that the entire arena is contrived. That is, until the game designers make changes—jarringly reminding the reader of the cruel reality. Katniss must constantly determine how far she will go with the games, and how even through her forced compliance she can expose them for the evil they are. Ultimately, in a final act of defiance, she is able to win the crowd and make even the game designers relax their last rule.

The storytelling itself is a gripping first-person narrative which readers have difficulty putting down. I think I read it in virtually one sitting, and I know I’m not the only one to do so. It’s fast-paced, engaging, and thrilling. Readers can’t help but sympathize with the children and hate those who force them to fight. But at the same time, Collins also develops a sympathy for the citizens of the capital, who cannot see what they are doing. While not classic literature, The Hunger Games weaves these various themes together into a compelling story.

But it is also haunting and disturbing, which makes it complicated to analyze. On the one hand, it’s a story of a young heroine overcoming great odds and defying an oppressive system. There is much to be commended in both Katniss’ selfless devotion to her sister and her unwillingness to play by the contrived rules. On the other, it’s child gladiatorial combat with its fair share of gruesome details.

I’ve determined that it’s best read as a satire of our culture: it appeals to both our search for heroism and our willingness to be entertained by others’ suffering. The Hunger Games exposes and bridges that gap. That, I think is the book’s greatest strength. Through Katniss’ eyes Collins makes the reader experience the horrific consequences of seeking entertainment above all else. And by drawing readers into the thrill of the games, rather than letting them remain passive observers, Collins is able to show rather than merely tell, the thrill of the games. The readers themselves participate in both the rebellion of Katniss and the guilty pleasure of the audience.

But this is also the greatest cause for concern because I fear that not all readers realize how drawn in to the story they become. They won’t realize that it is satire. Instead, much of the fan base seems to have been caught up in the games, just as the citizens of Panem were. Because of this, I would not recommend the book to pre-teens or young teens, however older more discerning teens may still benefit from reading it so long as they were able to see how it reflects our culture. As a rule of thumb for parents, if you would let your child read Lord of the Flies, they could handle The Hunger Games.

* * *

In less than a month, the movie rendition of the the first book is being released. Across North America, millions of people will gather together before a screen watching children fight and kill each other in gladiatorial combat on a contrived set. The lighting will be perfect. Their makeup will be pristine. The effects will be inspiring. We will vicariously participate in Katniss' protest while at the same time demanding that the show go on.

We are Panem.

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