Less than the Least

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May 2008 Archives

May 1, 2008

More on the Prison Population--Stuntz

Thanks for the kind post, David.

Many of the comments to my last post took issue with the claim that America’s enormous prison is a serious social problem, and that “pretty much everyone familiar with the justice system” agrees with that sentiment. I shouldn’t have used those words; obviously, there are reasonable and decent people who disagree with that claim.

Here’s what I should have said in that opening paragraph.

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May 3, 2008

More on Evangelicals and Climate Change--Skeel

Three follow-up comments about evangelicals and climate change, inspired in large part by the comments to the earlier post:

1) Perhaps the biggest point of disagreement among evangelicals, which shows up in spades in the comments, can be traced to differing perceptions of the implications of accepting scientists’ warnings about climate change. For skeptics, the science is a Trojan horse paving the way for massive governmental intervention. Most envangelical environmentalists seem less worried that socialism is right around the corner. Mike Vandenbergh, a leading environmental law scholar and co-organizer of the Vanderbilt conference mentioned in the earlier post, pointed out to me that the divide among evangelicals echoes a fault-line among Americans generally: work by Dan Kahan at Yale suggests that people’s perception of the importance of climate change is closely tied to whether they think the societal response will be more governmental regulation. Those who believe that accepting the science is likely to mean lots more regulation are much less likely to credit the science.

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May 6, 2008

Oil Politics--Skeel

I’m not an economist and don’t even play one on TV, so I didn’t get quite as worked up as my economist friends on Sunday when Hillary Clinton said, in defense of the gas tax holiday first dreamed up by John McCain, that there’s no need to listen to all of the economists who think it’s a wretched idea. But the fact that two of the three remaining candidates have endorsed the idea is depressing, to say the least. As the economists point out (see the succinct explanation on Brad DeLong’s blog here), because the short term supply of oil is essentially fixed, and the suspension of the tax would increase demand, gas prices might well stay right where they are. And even if they dropped a little, encouraging people to buy gas is just about the last thing we need to be doing right now.

In my view, Barack Obama deserves the kudos he’s received for declining to pander on this issue, but his proposal (also endorsed by Clinton) to tax the oil companies’ on their “excess” profits isn’t the answer either.

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May 10, 2008

Nicolas Poussin and the New Morning in American Politics--Skeel

Making my way through the splendid “Poussin and Nature” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York yesterday, I kept thinking about a comment Jed Perl, the New Republic’s art critic, had made in his review of the show. “At a time when the world around us, political or economic or cultural, seems more disheartening than it has been in at least a generation,” he wrote, “there is something thrilling about Poussin’s conviction that the discipline of painting can make life a little easier to bear.” This statement stayed with me, for two reasons: I couldn’t disagree more about the current political environment, and I never would have thought of Poussin as a painter who would speak to our current condition. Having seen the paintings, I too found them oddly relevant, but I’m still inclined to see the political glass as half full.

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Living Weak--Stuntz

“Live strong” is a common slogan among cancer patients. I think I understand the slogan’s appeal, and I admire the spirit that lies behind it. But it doesn’t fit my experience, and I suspect I’m not alone.

Reduced life expectancy aside, the chief consequence of stage 4 cancers—even more, the chief consequence of their treatment—is weakness, not strength. Cancer and chemotherapy, taken together, are exhausting. Walking up a flight of stairs feels to me like running a couple of miles would feel to a typical out-of-shape 50-year-old, which is what I would be if I were healthy. All mental exercises are several times harder than they used to be. Concentrating takes real effort, and most of the time, I can’t pull it off—I have to read things twice (at least) in order to understand them once. My mind is two steps behind whatever conversation I’m in; I have to scramble to keep up. I feel half dead, as though a large fraction of whatever I was is gone, never to return.

In short, I can’t live strong, because there isn’t much strength left in me. But I can live weak.

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May 14, 2008

Nicolas Poussin, the Art-- Skeel

Two final stray thoughts on the Nicolas Poussin exhibit at the Met (now over, alas), without the attempt to link the art to current events:

1) According to the wall text, “Poussin studied nature less to imitate its surface effects than to understand its laws.” In the landscapes featured in the show, Poussin seems to take nature apart and reconstruct it. The landscapes and still-lifes of the post-impressionist French artist Paul Cezanne have a somewhat similar architectonic qualify, though he omits the mythological narratives. I wonder if this is part of what Cezanne meant when he said, more than two centuries after Poussin, that he intended “to do Poussin all over again from nature.”

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An Evangelical Manifesto--Skeel

The response to “An Evangelical Manifesto”-- which was released a week ago, with the endorsement of many prominent evangelicals, and is designed to “address the confusions and corruptions that attend the term Evangelical in the United States” and to describe the proper role of evangelicals in public life– seems to be a collective yawn. There have been yawns in the media (see Alan Jacobs’ excellent Wall Street Journal op-ed) and everyone I have queried personally has responded with an electronic yawn. But is everyone yawning for the same reason? I don’t think they are.

Many of those who would not call themselves evangelicals are likely to read the manifesto, if they do read it, to try to understand just who evangelicals are. The most obvious ways to define evangelical would be to develop a single theological definition that includes most of this jelly-like group, to attempt to identify the major subgroups of evangelicals, or both. “An Evangelical Manifesto” seems to adopt the first approach, providing a list of seven beliefs that evangelicals hold. Seven is already a bit on the cumbersome side– the best known definition, which is discussed in the first footnote of this article, has four.

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May 19, 2008

The (Invisible) Immigration Issue--Skeel

“So, whatever happened to immigration as a presidential campaign issue?,” Wall Street Journal editor Jason Riley asked in an interesting op-ed last week. He speculates that the candidates have been avoiding it because Americans are “basically pro-immigrant but conflicted about it,” and goes on to suggest that one reason many social conservatives want to seal the border is in reaction to multiculturalists who have attacked the traditional American ideal of assimilation.

The conventional wisdom about immigration is that it doesn’t decide elections, and I think the conventional wisdom will hold true this year, in part because Americans are conflicted generally, and in part because of the sharply opposed views of several of the particular constituencies McCain and Obama will be fighting over.

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May 26, 2008

The Iowa Immigration Raid--Skeel

The big immigration story over the weekend was the arrest and sentencing of 297 illegal immigrants for using false documents to work at an Iowa meat packing plant, as reported in this New York Times story. The raid is being construed as evidence of a Bush administration crackdown on illegal workers, since criminal charges had previously been quite uncommon in these cases. I personally have a lot more sympathy for the workers than for the company, which may also face charges and which seems to have an unsavory track record.

But I suspect that the raid foreshadows the future of immigration regulation in this country. The centerpiece of future regulation, for better and worse, is likely to be some kind national identification number that everyone will be required to have; and that employers will be responsible for checking and certifying for all of their employees.

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Memorial Day--Skeel

The Memorial Day tributes in the papers today reminded me of one of the few pleasant airline experiences I’ve had in recent months. Of the hundred or so passengers on a flight from Philadelphia to Atlanta, roughly a dozen were uniformed servicemen and women. Some or all were, I think, returning from tours of duty in the Middle East. After the plane touched down, and the flight attendant welcomed us to Atlanta and thanked us for flying, she made a point of saying what a privilege it was to have members of the armed forces, who do so much for the country, on the flight. At which point everyone spontaneously burst into applause.

May 31, 2008

Prophets and Non-Prophets--Skeel

An article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday described a celebration of the work of the late rabbi and scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote a famous book (“The Prophets”) about Biblical prophesy and was intensely involved in the Civil Rights Movement. According to the article, several of the speakers suggested that Barack Obama has prophetic qualities. I’m no expert on prophetic discourse, but it seems to me that the terms “prophet” and “prophetic” are almost always misused, often but not always by the evangelical left.

Oversimplifying radically, the Biblical prophets seem to me to have had three qualities. First, they called for a return to Godly behavior in their culture. “The prophet was an individual who said no to his society,” as Heschel put it, “condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism.” Second, they put themselves at great risk in proclaiming this message. Third, they predicted (often with specific prophesies) the consequences of a failure to correct the sinful patterns of the present.

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