Thursday, May 31, 2012

We have a nominee

Earlier this week Mitt Romney passed the magic number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican Party nomination. Back in February, when the race was still tight, I wrote this about Romney:

I am looking for a candidate who I believe can administer the executive branch of the Federal government. From budgets to bureaucracy and czars to cronyism, Obama has made a mess of the office. All the Republican candidates promise to clean up the mess and I think they all would try--but Romney actually has done it before. Under his leadership, Bain Capital got off the ground and turned a profit, Massachusetts balanced its budget, and the 2002 Olympics went from hundreds of millions in deficits and the risk of being canceled to coming out $100 million ahead. His record in Massachusetts, especially at the beginning of his term, is quite impressive. As the Club for Growth explains:

Governor Romney receives credit for reducing actual spending unilaterally in Fiscal Year FY2003, even though he entered office halfway into the fiscal year, because of the tremendous spending cuts he forced down the Legislature’s throat in January of 2003. Facing a $650 million deficit he inherited from the previous administration, Romney convinced the unfriendly State Legislature to grant him unilateral power to make budget cuts and unveiled $343 million in cuts to cities, healthcare, and state agencies. This fiscal discipline continued in 2004, in which Romney continued to slash “nearly every part of state government” to close a $3 billion deficit.

He was also able to nudge the state to the right in other ways, despite having to work with a Democrat legislature. And he did it all without raising taxes (although he did raise some fees and did close tax loopholes, making the effective tax rate higher for some). That’s the approach that needs to be taken federally and Romney has not only stated that he is willing, but also shown that he is able, to do it.

You can read the rest of my endorsement here.

In the meantime, Romney is already hitting Obama’s record hard.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lincoln’s Assassin

We all know that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln. What is less known is what happened next. A recent very well written book recounts that rollocking tale. In Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, James L. Swanson tells of the lively chase of the charismatic egotistical actor who took down the President.

Along the way we learn that Booth’s decision to assassinate Lincoln was very hastily put together. Resurrecting a prior plan to kidnap Lincoln, it only took Booth hours to throw together the plans to assassinate Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, Secretary of State Seward, and general Grant. And “thrown together” is the best word for it. Although Booth was successful in his role of assassinating Lincoln, the rest of the plan quickly unraveled. Seward’s assassin failed in his attempt, Johnson’s never even tried, and Grant avoided all threats by unexpectedly leaving town.

But that was only the beginning. Booth was an actor, not a director. And once he shot Lincoln, he needed to flee Washington DC. Unfortunately, that part of the plan had never been written. So he was left relying on Confederate spy networks for help.

And for 12 days that lack of a plan actually worked, partly due to to his pursuers following false leads and partly due to his own unpredictable route. With a broken leg, the most wanted man in the country first hid out in a forest for about a week trying to find a way to cross the Potomac into Virginia. Once he finally got a boat, he went the wrong direction and landed back in Maryland. But I’ve included enough spoilers, so you’ll have to read the book itself to find out how he was eventually tracked down.

Most striking about the story is its revelations about Booth himself. A passionate, good looking, and vain actor with a sense for the theoretical, he was not the best with details. He expected to be treated as a hero after shooting Lincoln, and never formed contingency escape plans or appreciated the danger he put his friends in. And Swanson is a good enough writer to capture the personalities of all the major characters involved, from Booth and his co-conspirators down to the soldiers who tracked him.

If there is one criticism, it is Swanson’s tendency to speculate about motives and thoughts of the characters. In this way, although I haven’t read anything indicating he is historically incorrect, he does at times go slightly beyond what the hard factual record gives us. But so long as that is recognized, Manhunt provides an excellent introduction to Booth and the events surrounding Lincoln’s death.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Can Romney Beat Obama?

Source NewHour
Ever since the early days of the 2012 GOP primary there has been a chorus of commentators who have said that Romney is the only person who could beat Obama in November. This claim was challenged by people on the far right who argue that Romney cannot inspire the base and will lose because of that like McCain.

In short the whole argument has centered around the question “Can Romney beat Obama?”

This is the wrong question.

Over the last several months I have been advocating a new theory. I imagine that I am setting myself up for criticism from both my friends in the GOP establishment and in the Tea Party (yes, I am leaving out my friends on the left because they don’t participate in Republican politics). This, however, is the way I see it. Here it is: Obama can’t be defeated. But don’t give up in despair!

My theory is that incumbents cannot be defeated -- they lose.

Think about it. Bush Sr., Carter, Hoover. They all lost their office not because someone else showed up with a better message. They didn’t lose because some “electable” candidate toppled them. They didn’t lose because the other side’s base showed up in droves. They lost because their first term was seen as a failure of leadership.

They did such a bad job that people showed up to vote against them.

What does that mean today? It means that the ball in in Obama’s court. No matter who the GOP ran against him that person would have been nothing more than what Romney is: the other guy.

I personally have a lot of hope that we will see new leadership in DC. I believe that Obama deserves to lose because he has been a failure of leadership. Unlike Clinton in the 90s, Obama hasn’t worked with the Democrats in the House and Senate (let alone the Republicans). He has made bold declarations about his beliefs, but has been unable to put those beliefs into practice.

Not a single Democrat voted for his “budget” because it was laughable. He has not walked across the aisle (like Clinton did) and worked with Republicans on a single issue. He has doubled the already huge national debt and has no believable plan to pay it off. Even if you agree with his ideas, he is a failure of a president. 

I hope that people will see that in November. Because Obama cannot be defeated, but he can lose.
Source:White House Flickr

Monday, May 28, 2012

In Memoriam

Today marks Memorial Day, the day set aside for nationwide remembrance of the soldiers who have fallen in our nation’s wars. We remember them at Arlington, where overlooking the rows of white tombstones sits the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We remember them at the DC memorials: World War II, Korea, Vietnam. And we remember them at our local cemeteries, where today their graves are shadowed by the flag they served.

At Gettysburg, President Lincoln reminded us that we cannot hallow their ground, they have already done so with their blood. “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”

To ensure that, we need to know our history, particularly our military history. And to pull an example from history, I’m going to turn for a moment to one of our little-known wars.

In 1898 Senator John Thurston wrote the introduction to a book on the recently concluded Spanish-American War. Describing the terrible conditions in Cuba as “exceed[ing] the scenes of the Inferno as painted by Dante,” he argued:

There were those who said the affairs of Cuba were not the affairs of the United States, who insisted that we could stand idly by and see that island devastated and depopulated, its business interests destroyed, its commercial intercourse with us cut off, its people starved, degraded, and enslaved. It might be the naked legal right of the United States to stand idly by. 
I have the legal right to pass along the street and see a helpless dog stamped into the earth under the heels of a ruffian. I can pass by and say that it is not my dog. I can sit in my comfortable parlor with my loved ones gathered about me, and through my plate-glass window see a fiend outraging a helpless woman near by, and I can legally say this is no affair of mine – it is not happening on my premises; and I can turn away . . . look up to the motto on the wall and read, “God bless our home.” 
But if I do I am a coward and a cur unfit to live, and, God knows, unfit to die. And yet I cannot protect the dog nor save the woman without the exercise of force. 
We could not intervene and save Cuba without the exercise of force, and force meant war; war meant blood. The lowly Nazarene on the shores of Galilee preached the divine doctrine of love, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” Not peace on earth at the expense of liberty and humanity. Not good will toward men who despoil, enslave, degrade, and starve to death their fellow men. I believe in the doctrine of Christ. I believe in the doctrine of peace; but men must have liberty before there can come abiding peace. 
Intervention meant force. Force meant war. War meant blood. But it would be God’s force. When has a battle for humanity and liberty ever been won except by force? What barricade of wrong, injustice, and oppression has ever been carried except by force? 
Force compelled the signature of unwilling royalty to the great Magna Charta; force put life into the Declaration of Independence, and made effective the Emancipation Proclamation; force beat with naked hands upon the iron gateway of the Bastille and made reprisal in one awful hour for centuries of kingly crime; force waved the flag of revolution over Bunker Hill, and marked the snows of Valley Forge with blood-stained feet; force held the broken line at Shiloh, climbed the flame-swept hill at Chattanooga, and stormed the clouds on Lookout heights; force marched with Sherman to the sea, rode with Sheridan in the valley of the Shenandoah, and gave Grant victory at Appomattox; force saved the Union, kept the stars in the flag, made “n[****]” men. The time for God’s force had come again. The impassioned lips of American patriots once more took up the song:
“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
For God is marching on.”
Others might hesitate, others might procrastinate, others might plead for further diplomatic negotiation, which meant delay. But for me, I was ready to act then, and for my action I was ready to answer to my conscience, my country, and my God.
We shy away from this sort of theological language today, and to a certain extent rightly so. The last ten years have shown us the how misguided religious militarism can be. But it should be humility that motivates this caution, not skepticism. We do right to not wrap God around our causes but rather to hope, as Lincoln did, that we are on God’s side.

But we still ought to honor those who gave their lives in service of their fellow man. Our wars, unlike those of history, are not fought for wealth or land. The only thing we request at the end is a place to bury our dead; dead that now span the globe. Around the world there are 24 burial grounds containing the bodies of over 120,000 US soldiers spread across Belgium, England, France, Italy, Luxemburg, Mexico, Netherlands Philippines, and Tunisia. They gave their lives in service to liberty, to “the proposition that all men are created equal,” and to the idea that some nations become illegitimate based on their treatment of their citizens. Our nation fought, and our soldiers died, to preserve the dignity of others.

We can continue the story that Thurston did not live to see. Force halted German expansion in the First World War; force liberated the concentration camps of the Second World War; the threat of force halted Soviet expansion in Europe; force kept communism at bay in Korea and Vietnam; and, more recently, force has toppled oppressive dictatorships in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is not force for the sake of force or conquest that has motivated these actions. Instead, as so eloquently stated by President Lincoln:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
The goal is a “just and lasting peace . . . with all nations;” not the false peace of totalitarianism, but the true peace of international equals. And today we honor those who have given their lives in pursuit of that dream.

But then how can we honor these dead? President James Garfield said:

There is nothing in all the earth that you and I can do for the Dead. They are past our help and past our praise. We can add to them no glory, we can give to them no immortality. They do not need us. But forever and forever more we need them.
He is right. The dead don’t need us nearly as much as we need them. Their sacrifice is what permits us to celebrate this day under our flag instead of under a foreign flag. And their dedication to the cause of freedom should show us how little we have sacrificed. Their deaths uphold and give sobering purpose to our lives.

They adopted an attitude of “my country, right or wrong.” It is up to us to ensure that their sacrifice was worth it; that their country remains right. Only then will they have not died in vain.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday miscellaneous (5/25)

Here's a site where you can test your speed reading abilities.

This week saw two more reviews of The Hunger Games. One, by N.D. Wilson, argues that it is flawed to the core because it doesn’t understand story. Mark Mitchell also finds the plot artificially shallow. Oddly enough, however, while Wilson critiques it for having the heroine participate in the slaughter Mitchell argues that her ability to stay above the fray was too neatly contrived.

And speaking of children in bad places, parents, be very very careful of the remedial “christian” camps you consider sending your kids to. Some can be beneficial. Others are, well, very much not.

This week Notre Dame University and other Catholic organization filed suit against HHS to protect their religious liberty. Mary Ann Glendon (also a Romney advisor for judicial matters) explains the suit. But the best statement comes from PowerLine:

It was only three years ago that the University of Notre Dame invited President Obama to appear as the speaker at its commencement ceremony. There is no need for us to ask how that hopey changey stuff is working’ out for Notre Dame and its sister Catholic institutions. The complaint definitively answers that question.

And speaking of Catholics, President Obama seems to be doing a pretty good job of alienating them, which isn’t good for him in an election year. He’s also losing ground in the tech world. And although running unopposed, that hasn’t kept him from losing significant votes to nobodies (or anybody else) in some primaries:

So far, Obama has had weak showings in Louisiana (76-24) and North Carolina (79-21), and squeakers in Oklahoma (57-43), West Virginia (59-41), Arkansas (59-41) and Kentucky (58-42). And Barack Obama had no credible opposition in any of these races. In some instances, his only opponent was an incarcerated felon!

Romney’s image, in contrast, appears to be on the rise despite the harsh primary season. And Philip Klein has advice for conservatives still worried about Romney as president:

Critics of Romney who argue that he’s really a liberal and boosters who claim that he’s a true conservative both err by attempting to understand Romney through an ideological prism. In reality, he’s a businessman who wants to apply his well-honed management skills to the public sector. If one is to be successful in the business world, the important thing is to satisfy customers and maximize profits.

If Romney is convinced that conservatives will enthusiastically support him no matter what, then he’ll make the calculation that he has room to migrate left during the general-election campaign and throughout a potential presidency. But if he feels uneasy about his support among conservatives, he’s much more likely to run and govern from the right.

And turning to culture, here’s an article taking theological issue with the art of Thomas Kinkade. Along the way the author makes worthwhile insights on christianity and the arts.

The world ended last May. Or at least it was supposed to. Apparently God doesn’t listen to Harold Camping. But what about all those who did? One journalist tracked several of them down.

Are we raising a generation that cannot learn?

They have never learned to listen to criticism, to recover from disappointment, or to slog through difficulties with no guarantee of success except commitment. The person who is never challenged is also never refined, never learns to cope with the setbacks that come on the way to high endeavor. And it is not only in the academic realm, of course, that they may be hampered: a full life outside of university also requires the ability to confront one’s weaknesses and recover from defeat. Despite the admittedly important emphasis on character formation in our schools — on tolerance, anti-racism, refusal of bullying, and so on — it seems that we have failed to show students what real achievement looks like and what it will require of them.

Eric Metaxas didn’t like Avengers: “For over two hours I stared at the screen and saw, well, nothing. I left the theater not knowing what to make of what I had just watched. There was nothing particularly offensive about the film. Nor were there any ideas that I needed to discuss with my daughter afterward. In fact, there were no ideas at all”

And finally, here's a unique use for the ipad I hadn't seen yet (this is a whole new level of fruit ninja). Apparently the question is something along the lines of "are you enjoying your new ipad?'

"The Avengers": An Unprecedented Moment in Film Series History

(Photo Courtesy of
The release of "Marvel's 'The Avengers'" (a title within a title) signals the culmination of a long gestating plan to redefine the way big budget franchises are made and take Hollywood back a step toward something resembling the old studio system. Marvel, a comic book company, has been heavily involved in the movie business since 2000, when Brian Singer's excellent "X-Men" film relaunched the comic book genre after it crashed and burned throughout the 90's. The genre had seemed like it would never recover after 1997's "Batman and Robin." Singer proved there was still gold to be mined there, however, and began the "superhero" film craze that swept the U.S. in the early- and mid-aughts, displacing the anticipated kings of the decade like the Star Wars prequels, Mission: Impossible and James Bond films (the latter two having made more recent comebacks after a little superhero fatigue).

But a line can be drawn between 2007 and 2008. 2007 saw the abysmal "Spiderman 3" and the end of an era as America collectively realized such films no longer held any value. 2008 saw the release of "Iron Man" a film that eschewed the usual "secret identity" tropes and allowed itself to revel in its own absurdity while never becoming truly absurd. In this film we were introduced to "Tony Stark," the perfect, sarcastic, wisecracking, and slightly amoral antihero custom built for modern America. Yet over the course of the film he learns the value of honor and courage and begins a transformation. Whether it was the fun, light tone, or the action, or the superb performance from Robert Downey Jr., America embraced the film without reservation, making it a bona fide hit.

Marvel must have anticipated this success, because they decided to include a post credit teaser that changed how we perceive comic book films. I have been told that the character of Nick Fury was originally a white guy, but was redesigned in the 90s to a template based on Samuel L. Jackson. So it was fitting to have Jackson play the character at the end of the film and to have him utter two words that would send comic book lovers into a tizzy: "Avengers Initiative."

Even I, ignorant of all Marvel comics and their back-story, knew that "The Avengers" was a group of super heroes, somewhat like the Justice League, and as I heard more I realized that it was made of all the superheroes that I assumed would never get modern movies. "Hulk" had already flopped, and I never thought that "Captain America" or especially "Thor" would be source material for films that would be embraced by the American public. I was wrong.

"Thor" and "Captain America" were very successful at the box office, with Thor playing especially well overseas. Perhaps anticipating this success, Walt Disney Studios decided to gamble on Marvel's groundbreaking concept and purchased the company for $4 billion in 2009. Their vote of confidence should have been an early warning sign that film and the entertainment industry was about to change.

Both "Thor" and "Captain America" were directed by filmmakers of great pedigree, yet to the unit intimated viewer (such as myself) both were slightly unsatisfying. Having seen "The Avengers," I went back and rewatched both films as well as Iron Man 2, and I realized that all my problems with the films had disappeared. In an odd way, starting with Iron Man 2, Marvel had been producing the prequels first. This meant that each film was slightly unsatisfying on its own, but it was as if they knew that once "The Avengers" had been released, the entire tapestry would make sense.

This sort of continuous storytelling has never been attempted before on screen. In the space of 4 years, Marvel has released and connected 6 films in continuity with each other. Few great franchises can claim this. It took Star Wars over 30 years, Star Trek 12, and most other franchises have been content with trilogies. But audiences love continuity in their media. Perhaps it compensates for the lack of real connection in our modern lives that we feel a need and desire to connect with and follow the lives of fictional characters.

Nonetheless, the Avengers and the series of films that spawned them have rejuvenated comic book films and ensured their survival into the next decade in several ways. They have transformed a genre known for repetitive hijinks into a science-fiction heavy epic that coincides along with our own history and reality (Captain America is a great example of this). They have created larger than life heroes who don't require secret identities or glasses or strange afflictions to exist in our world; regular characters simply accept the existence of giant green monitors or Asgard or super soldiers. Tony Stark ended the war on terror. By watching normal people on screen accept this, it allows us to accept it too.

But what really sells it and draws us in is the length and breadth of the material. Christopher Nolan created an immersive Batman series in 2005, and 7 years later we await installment 3. Marvel produced 6 movies in 4 years. None of which are anywhere near the masterpieces of Nolan, yet equally as successful and engaging. In a time when franchise films get harder and harder to produce, and release dates farther apart (a four year wait between sequels used to be an aberration; now it is an accepted necessity as filmmakers expect time to produce other films in the interim), it is refreshing to get a high quality series from a diverse pool of talent getting released at regular intervals. Perhaps the secret of getting people back to the movies again in a world of instant gratification is to make movies faster. We make them bigger, flashier, edgier, but we are making them slower. Technology should allow films to be made faster and cheaper. There is also a dearth of "accepted" filmmaking talent, created by the slowing pace of film production.

Filmed entertainment is here to stay; but it doesn't have to stay stale. "The Avengers Initiative" (what I'll call Marvel's great experiment), is a bold move that aims to challenge the status quo (casting largely b-list actors and making them stars is something that hasn't really been done since the 1970's) and promises great things for the future of the medium.

Note: you can read Jeremiah's review of The Avengers here.

Click here for more movie reviews.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

One Letter

On July 2, 1881, President James Garfield was shot. He lingered on for an additional 80 days, after which he succumbed to his wounds.

But this post is not about Garfield. He’s being saved for later.

Instead it’s about his Vice President, Chester Arthur. Or, to be more exact, a letter Vice-President Arthur received. I first heard about this story in Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (review forthcoming).

First some background. Although they were on a presidential ticket, Garfield and Arthur were not what we would consider a team. Quite the opposite. Garfield’s party at the time was fractured, and Arthur was put on the ticket at the convention to placate Garfield’s opponents.

Not that Arthur was much of a statesman anyway. He was a close friend and puppet of Roscoe Conkling, who was decidedly opposed to Garfield’s political reforms. Although having opposed Garfield, Arthur didn’t want the presidency himself. As the next in line for the office, there was also speculation at the time that Arthur was behind the shooting. He refused to act as president while Garfield was incapacitated, and rumor has it he was considering resigning.

But then he received a letter. It was written by a bedridden 31 year old woman named Julia Sand. He didn’t know her, but she encouraged him to overcome his hesitations and surprise everyone.

Your kindest opponents say ‘Arthur will try to do right’ – adding gloomily – ‘He won’t succeed though making a man President cannot change him.’ . . . But making a man President can change him! Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life. If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine. Faith in your better nature forces me to write to you – but not to beg you to resign. Do what is more difficult & brave. Reform! It is not proof of highest goodness never to have done wrong, but it is proof of it, sometimes in ones career, to pause & ponder, to recognize the evil, to recognize the evil, to turn resolutely against it…. Once in awhile there comes a crisis which renders miracles feasible. The great tidal wave of sorrow which has rolled over the country has swept you loose from your old moorings & set you on a mountaintop, alone.

* * *

You cannot slink back into obscurity, if you would. A hundred years hence, school boys will recite you name in the list of Presidents & tell of your administration. And what shall posterity say? It is for you to choose….

In all, Sand wrote 23 letters that we know about. Although he destroyed many of his more personal papers, President Arthur kept Sand’s, and they were eventually discovered after his death.

We don’t ultimately know how much of an effect Sand’s letters had on President Arthur. And do know that his actions as President coincided with her advice. Arthur severed all ties to Conkling and worked to reunify the Republican party. He refused to be anyone’s puppet, and instead became a strong advocate of continuing President Garfield’s civil service reforms. And we also know that in addition to keeping her letters, Arthur visited Sand at one point while he was President.

When Arthur left the White House, after having meticulously and beautifully renovated it, he was almost unrecognizable as the man who had been Garfield’s running mate and vice president. “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted,” the well-known journalist Alexander mcClure wrote, “and no one ever retired . . . more generally respected.” It was not until after Arthur had moved back to New York City that it became widely known that he was suffering from Bright’s disease, an excruciatingly painful and, at that time, fatal kidney disease, He died two years later, at the age of fifty-six. (Millard, 251-52)

What I like most about this story is it shows not just once, but twice, what someone who by all accounts is insignificant is truly capable of. Julia Sand had nothing to indicate she could change the course of a nation. She simply wrote some letters. And Chester Arthur had been written off by the political establishment as a puppet and by the populace as a political hack. Yet he overcame all their disbelief and served the remainder of Garfield’s term as a respected and admired President.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Historical Revisionists Strike Again

One thing I hope our readers know is that although conservative, I do my best to remain intellectually honest and not give free passes to my political allies. If anything, I’m actually stricter towards those I agree with. I greatly dislike finding out I was mislead.

So I’m calling foul on David Barton.

He has a new book out on Thomas Jefferson entitled The Jefferson Lies. (Which I have ordered from my library to look through and possibly review. However, I am not linking it because this is not an endorsement.)

According to the book description, this work is supposed to “correct the distorted image of a once-beloved founding father, Thomas Jefferson.”

Through Jefferson's own words and the eyewitness testimony of contemporaries, Barton repaints a portrait of the man from Monticello as a visionary, an innovator, a man who revered Jesus, a classical Renaissance man―and a man whose pioneering stand for liberty and God-given inalienable rights fostered a better world for this nation and its posterity. For America, the time to remember these truths again is now.

“A man who revered Jesus.” How does that square with Jefferson’s famous bible? Barton explains on his website: “What Jefferson did was to take the ‘red letter’ portions of the New Testament and publish these teachings in order to introduce the Indians to Christian morality.”

Christian morality maybe, but certainly not Christianity. Even if the part about evangelizing the Indians is true (and it’s historically dubious), Jefferson’s bible is certainly not merely a simplified edition. In a letter to Adams, Jefferson described it as a fixing of the historical record:

We must reduce our volume to the simple Evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphiboligisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his and which is as easily distinguished as diamonds in a dung-hill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages.

You can read the result for yourself. As it shows, the "amphiboligisms" "misconceptions" “dicta” and "dung-hill" cut out by Jefferson include all the miracles as well as the resurrection, reducing the gospels to a mere "code of morals." If Barton thinks that’s orthodox Christianity, he fails not only as a historian, but also as a theologian (ironically, his background is theology, not history, and we already knew he had difficulty distinguishing between Christianity and Mormonism.)

A review in the Wall Street Journal nails this point exactly:

Jefferson was "pro-Christian and pro-Jesus," [Barton] says, although he concedes that the president did have a few qualms about "specific Christian doctrines." The doctrines Jefferson rejected—the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, the Trinity—are what place him in the camp of the deists and Unitarians in the first place. It was Jefferson's difficulty with these doctrines that persuaded his close friends Benjamin Rush and Joseph Priestley that Jefferson's skepticism went beyond anything even these latitudinarian believers could endorse.

I don’t dispute that Jefferson was a very influential founder, or that he made immense contributions to the nation (although he was also a mass of contradictions). But to claim him as a devout evangelical Christian is to make Christianity subservient to political ideology. It is no different than the often complained about practice of liberals claiming Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, or Abraham Lincoln was homosexual. With claims such as these Barton has crossed a line that no Christian or historian should cross. He has redefined orthodox Christianity to exclude the divinity of Christ, and he has rewritten history to serve his political ends. Barton has done to Jefferson what Jefferson did to Christ - rewrote history to exclude the inconvenient parts and then justified it by claiming to “fix” the record.

The word for that is propaganda.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Thank You

A big thank you to our readers for making May 2012 our highest read month yet. And we still have 10 days to go!

We have over 2,800 pageviews so far this month. Our very first month (February 2011) we had 384.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Homeschool Fantasy: A Review of the Inheritance Cycle

Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle is a homeschooled kid’s fantasy. Yes, it has a youthful protagonist who stumbles upon an impossible yet predestined quest (stop the near invincible antagonist). Yes, it has swords and dragons and dragon lore. It has magic-wielding elves, fortune-telling herbalists, clans of dwarves, and even werecats. And in this four part epic story, there is also the fantastic fulfillment of an adolescent dream.

Paolini is hardly the first teenager, homeschooled or not, to write stories. Inspired by favorite stories or films, they concoct wild tales with less direction than finesse. If persistent, they construct outlines and draft a few tortured chapters. If bold, they share with family and friends. Their output, mercifully, is usually euthanized when the family computer expires and is replaced.

But Paolini was inspired, persistent, and bold. At an age when most kids are progressing from simple algebra to simple trigonometry he sketched a complete fantasy world, and with it the trajectory of the entire Inheritance Cycle. He then showed the draft of the first book, Eragon (with his parents, impressing them enough that they published it through their home business and launched a family book tour. The tour failed, but it did put Eragon in the hands of a published author, who passed it on to a big publishing house. After a full round of editing, Alfred A. Knopf re-published Eragon and turned it into a best seller.

Despite the success of Eragon (including a feature film) and the ensuing books, I found considerable criticism as I researched for this review. Some of it is justified; the writing is sophomoric at best and the storytelling suffers from this and other maladies of inexperience. My notes are laced with invective on these points. Since the author was indeed a sophomore when he did most of the writing, I decided not to share them.

Other reviewers complained that Paolini created his fantasy world by ripping off a dozen other authors, adding little to nothing of his own. This is a common complaint against even the greatest fantasy writers; only Tolkien seems to be sacrosanct when it comes to borrowing versus stealing. In this case, the charge sticks because the world he created is firmly standard fare. His elves are haughty, sylvan creatures who outdo humans in both physical and magical pursuits. His dwarves are suspicious metalworkers who build vast underground cities networked by tunnels. The boy Eragon develops predictably in line with the quest motif. But stock characters are what define genres. You can only do so much with an elf before he is no longer an elf. Few authors can transcend genre, especially in fantasy. Tolkien was ahead of his time and produced a revered classic. J.K. Rowling wrote something truly original that outgrew all the rest. And more recently, George R. R. Martin has used the genre to play a Hobbesian tune, reminding us that life is indeed nasty, brutish, and short.

For most authors, including Paolini, art begins with imitation. And most artists spend a lifetime with little progress. The best learn to combine the basic elements with some originality, or at least to put new twists on the techniques of their forerunners. Only the transcendent actually create something new - this is why Picassos only come along once or twice per generation. So to conclude Paolini’s defense, it is in fact remarkable that a boy of 15 could create such a robust story by applying imagination to imitation.

Despite the above complaints, the story itself is truly compelling. The quest motif may be formulaic, but that diminishes none of its appeal as a great element in human narrative. It is David against Goliath (except Eragon gets to ride a fire-breathing dragon and share her thoughts and powers). The reader rides along, with romantic and irrational love for the underdog suspending despair. Paolini treats one theme with a great deal of maturity, and that is the intersection of hope, fatalism, and prescience. Eragon knows that he must face the evil and powerful Galbatorix. He knows the odds. But he will not relent. He continues to search for ways to improve his skills and find some new advantage for himself and his dragon. As long as people maintain their belief that they can manipulate outcomes, hope springs eternal.

Eragon also discovers a tension he must navigate as his power increases. He finds he is not so different from young Galbatorix, whose power eventually consumed and corrupted him. Galbatorix is the product of unchecked nature; Eragon responds to nurture as the hour of need insists he become both a great man and a good man. This tension builds as the stakes increase. Early in the story, Eragon chastises his friend Murtagh for killing a brutish Urgal when it might have been avoided. By the end of the story, he routinely and dispassionately performs the cruel calculus of war to find the lesser evil. The power and responsibility harden him, making him more like the fiend he must defeat.

These are the strongest themes; otherwise, the series is quite ordinary. The action scenes and battles should be the strongest, but they are hamstrung by weak writing. The panoramic descriptions are likewise rich in precision but devoid of grandeur. Paolini fails to satisfyingly develop most of the major supporting characters, and he too often resolves conflicts between individuals and priorities with perfunctory arguments and tautological reasoning. When he tries to make profound observations on basic human problems, he sometimes succeeds, but other times falls flat. For example, when the rebel forces capture a key imperial city, Eragon glibly instructs them to give all the slaves a gold piece and set them free. There is no assimilation plan to back this noble sentiment, and it is never mentioned again. When the rebels move on two pages later, the slaves are left without vocations or any guarantee of safety, presumably at the mercy of their former masters. Any 8th grade student of American history knows that you cannot amend slavery in two sentences.

The Inheritance Cycle is best regarded as a few hours of light summer reading, exciting but not especially enriching. It is strictly a tale of adventure, imagination, and dragons. There is enough violence to deter the very squeamish (battles, physical suffering, even torture), but not enough romance to deter the young lads who will appreciate the story most (Eragon’s romantic pursuits are far less successful than his primary quest). As a young adult offering, it makes a great gateway from Tolkien, Lewis, and Pullman to the wider fantasy landscape. But although a gateway, it will not ultimately stand out much from the crowd. I could perhaps rank it in the top 12-15 fantasy series that I’ve read; it might drop to the 20s with enough introspection. (That is less an indictment of Eragon than a nod to how wide and densely populated that greater fantasy landscape is.) But as an introduction, it serves its purpose well. And with the Inheritance Cycle, Paolini begins what may be a very promising career as a writer.

By Daniel Archer. Daniel is a friend and former classmate of ours at Patrick Henry College.

For more of our reviews click here!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday miscellaneous (5/18)

Actor Will Smith doesn’t mind paying higher taxes because he’s wealthy. But he thinks 75% is too high. His face when he hears that number (which is being proposed in France) is priceless.

Wasn’t it Abraham Lincoln who famously said something about not being able to believe everything you read on the internet? Anyway, apparently Wikipedia is fighting off fake history.

Oh, and in unrelated news, the Obama Administration staff got caught rewriting the Presidential biographies on the White House website. Which prompted another website devoted to uncovering those other historical events President Obama was able to attend.

This week President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage. He may have just done Mitt Romney a huge favor.

And we all know President Obama doesn’t handle criticism well. But criticizing polls that don’t live up to his expectations may just be a sign of desperation. Although to be fair, he’s never faced a campaign as well organized as Romney’s.

You’ve seen The Avengers. But did you ever wonder what it cost to repair the damage to NY? One firm which seems to have practice in the field estimates $60-$70 Billion with secondary impacts of around $90 Billion. That’s the good news. The bad news?

Most insurance policies have special provisions for acts of war, civil unrest, or terrorism. Given the involvement of individuals considered deities in some cultures (Thor, Loki), there is even the potential to classify the event as an “Act of God”, although that designation would be subject to strenuous theological and legal debate. . . .

As a quasi-governmental organization, S.H.I.E.L.D. is in all likelihood protected from liability through sovereign immunity. While gratitude over repelling the invasion will persist in the short term, in the longer term the events leading up to the opening of the portal will in all likelihood be examined in detail,and that immunity probed for legal weakness (recall the regulatory and legal consequences to the Ghostbusters over the Gozer incident of 1984). In addition, there was considerable collateral damage of questionable necessity by at least one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives (Hulk).

A friend of ours wrote an excellent review of The Avengers, especially working out the cultural and personality differences between Captain America and Iron Man:

On the one hand, there is Captain America; defender of justice, defeater of tyranny, and denouncer of every lofty, selfish ambition. Pride of patriots, yet the relic of a bygone era. It is no coincidence that the strongest iteration of this philosophy was given by an old man only a little younger than the good cap'n himself- but the genius of Joss Whedon is that it was given by a German old man.
Stark is the New Virtue, Captain America's true contrast.

And finally, it appears that the empire’s reach is growing.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

O Budget, Where Art Thou?

Yesterday was a budget day in the Senate. Five different budgets were voted on, and all failed. Most notably, President Obama's budget lost by a vote of 0-99. That's better than it previously did in the House, where it lost by the even wider margin of 0-513. So its fortunes are improving. Maybe next time it will get at lest one vote.

Second most notable, not a single Democrat voted in favor of a single budget. So it's not true that the Democrats believe in expanding every government department they find. The Office of Management and Budget is a prime example of their restraint. In fact, it seems to be the most under used agency at this time. Politically savvy Democrats can join the cut-government bandwagon by starting a campaign to get rid of the incredibly wasteful and unnecessary OMB.

Ok, enough with the spin. This is just a hugely embarrassing leadership failure.

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