Monday, October 31, 2005


“The Great Raid” portrays an America that no longer exists. More precisely, the cinematic recreation of the operation that rescued over 500 POWs from their Japanese captors in the Philippines presents a nation where military service and heroism were sincerely honored--a country where flag-waving patriotism was a sentiment that didn’t require a litany of lawyerly qualifications to fend off accusations of ethnocentricity. That attitude now characterizes only a subset of the population.

Triumphs of courage and military planning such as are celebrated in “The Great Raid” have doubtless occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last three years. But they are largely ignored by the mainstream media--or buried beneath an avalanche of criticism focused on strategic and diplomatic blunders. Faux “tributes to the fallen” replace reports that pay homage to heroism within a specific mission. Such commemorative moments rip acts of sacrifice from their military context in order to utilize that blood for political ends that most of the fallen would despise.

The unstated subtext of these honor-segments is that no military mission is really worth dying for. Why else would these “tributes” omit significant reference to the objectives for which these soldiers gave the last full measure of devotion? Why else would gripping stories of individual and unit heroism be shunned? Why else would like-minded groups protest government offers to engrave on cemetery markers the name of the fallen warrior’s military operation? The implication is clear: Promising lives were wasted in battles where, in Matthew Arnold’s words, “ignorant armies clash by night.”

Well-coifed journalists, actors, and scribblers are, of course, passionately devoted to worthy causes--but their causes are devoid of serious risk. Indeed, almost all translate into career enhancements. Only actors who praise martial achievements are likely to suffer reprisals within an industry whose grandees regularly belittle acts of heroism as moronic or delusional. Friends of the Earth, by contrast, need not fear incoming fire from petrol interests who favor drilling in ANWR. Nor are anti-tobacco militants endangered by foes who produce Philip Morris’s nicotine delivery systems. And animal rights activists stand in far less danger of physical harm than their adversaries who trade in furs or employ critters in medical tests.

By contrast, enemies in “The Great Raid” are real, powerful, and brutal. Engaging in combat with these foes required more than a savvy PR agent or a simplistic slogan. It required courage, training, and a willingness to risk everything for the sake of comrades and country. Moreover, the country in which these dedicated soldiers lived acknowledged these facts and didn’t transform monstrous enemy acts into occasions for sympathetic psychoanalysis.

Today’s armchair generals are unwilling to come to grips with this basic fact: Heroism is necessary for the survival of a democratic and just society. Consequently, they also fail to recognize that our foes are frequently implacable and powerful. They cherish, instead, the illusion that withdrawal, subsidies, apologies, and diplomacy can make dangerous people go away--that political correctness can substitute for courage. They have no understanding of what the commander of the Cabanatuan raid said to his troops before setting out on their mission--words about deeds that would define their understanding of themselves for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps these critics sense within themselves the absence of the stuff it takes to face death while accomplishing a great task. That deficiency is no crime. The crime is failing to honor what distinguishes the courageous few from the rest of us and pretending that heroic sacrifice is a needless waste--pretending, in fact, that we who live soft lives devoid of danger are the true guardians of freedom. The crime is in not acknowledging greatness of spirit when it stares us in the face.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


John Kenneth Galbraith once said that economics had never quite been able to shed its “dismal science” label because it was never quite undeserved. Despite a devil-may-care approach, Freakonomics does little to improve the discipline’s tarnished image. Indeed, the book’s macabre, cost-benefit abortion ratios vie with Thomas Malthus’s starvation-population equation for primacy in the economics Hall of Shame.

Authored by University of Chicago pop-economist Steven Levitt and writer Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics revels in eccentricity and seldom misses a chance to surprise readers with brash comparisons that, on reflection, are less impressive than advertised. Its first chapter juxtaposes sumo wrestlers and school teachers but produces the hardly stunning conclusion that both groups contain persons willing to cheat when stakes are high. Elsewhere, Levitt and Dubner link the Ku Klux Klan with real estate agents by noting that both have access to inside information. The operative principle in these “Who’d a thunk it” pairings is that any two things are remarkably alike--provided the analyst disregards the ways they aren’t alike.

The most explosive correlation in this scatter-shot compendium is the one that links recent reductions in the crime-rate to the nationwide legalization of abortion in 1973. By itself, this proposition isn’t stunning news since abortions occur disproportionately among demographic groups that produce more than their share of criminals. Thus, when those groups have fewer offspring, fewer criminals are the result. Put succinctly: more abortions, less crime. Freakonomics provides a cursory summary of statistical evidence to buttress the idea that some unspecified part of the recent drop in crime is due to the million-plus abortions performed annually in the U.S. since 1975. Booming incarceration rates and increased police numbers are two other factors the authors credit when explaining the recent crime bust.

Freakonomics stops short of putting a seal of approval on abortion as an effective crime-fighting technique--but just barely. The book repeatedly portrays women’s motives for receiving abortions in glowing terms. In an effusive eulogy to Roe v. Wade, Levitt and Dubner assert that “The Supreme Court gave voice to what mothers in Romania and Scandinavia ... had long known: when a woman does not want to have a child, she usually has good reason.” Later the authors expand this broad endorsement of motives and imply that most abortions have beneficial social consequences.

Not coincidentally, Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania is presented as the prime counter- example to America’s post-Roe, abortion-on-demand regime. The dictator’s abortion ban, it appears, produced a bumper crop of children more likely to engage in crime than their predecessors. Leaving aside the fact that, as usual, no details of this study are provided, one can’t help but wonder whether Communist Romania is the place where “other things being equal” comparisons are most prudently invoked.

Statements about abortion demographics provide a glaring example of scholarly lassitude. “One study,” the authors inform us, shows that these potential children would have been “50% more likely than average to live in poverty.” Another study says they would have been 60% more likely than average to grow up with one parent. Since these two factors, taken together, comprise the strongest predictors that children will have a criminal future, the authors offer the following conclusion to these widely-acknowledged premises: “...the very factors that drove millions of American women to have an abortion also seemed to predict that their children, had they been born, would have led unhappy and possibly criminal lives.”

Confusion arises, first of all, because the preceding statement blurs the distinction between all women who receive abortions and the much smaller subgroup of poor, single women who undergo the procedure. More blatant is the distortion created by substituting a sentence of universal despair (“their children...would have led unhappy and possibly criminal lives.”) for the possible criminality of some unstated fraction of these fetuses--certainly less than 20% of the high-risk cohort. Only blindered ideology, or a craven desire to mirror elite opinion, can explain this oversight that is repeated a second time (at least in spirit) at chapter’s end: “When the government gives a woman the opportunity to make a decision about abortion, she generally does a good job of figuring out if she is in a good position to raise the baby well.”

Even if one concedes that the crime-abortion link constitutes prima facie evidence of good decision-making, the authors present no evidence (and certainly no moral argument) to suggest that the overwhelming majority of women whose children would not become criminals did a “good job.” Perhaps this is the reason the elastic word “unhappy” was inserted into a statement whose precedents only concerned criminality. In any case, both summaries transform philosophically-grounded assessments of decisions made by a small fraction of women into empirically-buttressed validations of abortions had by all women.

The only thing positive about these acts of linguistic-statistical legerdemain is that they spare readers from being subjected to another utilitarian calculation that pits the potential happiness of 80 to 90% of aborted fetuses against the potential havoc wrought by the other 10 to 20%. This thought experiment would mirror one actually provided by the authors where a 100:1 fetus to human being ratio is employed to show abortion’s inutility as a serious murder-reduction strategy. (In this case a popular methodological observation is turned on its head. Insane means are used to attain a morally reasonable end.)

Amazingly, this allusive mixture of statistical data and careless rhetoric about the link between abortion and reduced crime rates takes place in scarcely more space than is devoted to the topic in this review. Curious readers are left to themselves to sift through a list of reference works that appear only at the back of the book and without extended annotation.

Ironically, Freakonomics says a good deal more about parenting than it does about abortion and crime. Not surprisingly, what it says is neither consistent nor compelling. At one point we are told that good parenting (what we do as opposed to what we are) doesn’t matter much (p.175). Elsewhere the authors assert that bad parenting “Clearly...matters a great deal” (p.153). Single-parent homes are said to be irrelevant when it comes to school performance (p.174), yet the same condition is dubbed a prime indicator of criminal behavior (p.138). On a related topic, data drawn from Chicago’s public schools are used to show that school choice, in itself, matters little (p.158). But a few pages later we are informed that the poor performance of blacks and their white classmates is caused by the abysmal quality of the schools they attend (p.165).

This lack of intellectual rigor is previewed in an introductory chapter where Levitt and Dubner assert that morality concerns the way people “would like the world to work”--as if wishes and moral obligations were the same thing. The authors then claim that economics, by contrast, deals with the way things “actually do work”--an assertion rooted either in disciplinary amnesia or, more likely, philosophical naiveté.

A dearth of moral gravitas is also communicated by observations such as the one that compares foot-soldiers in the crack cocaine “business” with “a McDonald’s burger flipper or a Wal-Mart shelfstocker.” Here and elsewhere an elitist disposition is evident--an attitude more interested in projecting an aura of trendy insouciance than in acknowledging the gulf that separates honest work from an occupation where the four-year chance of being killed is 25%. Of a piece with this cavalier attitude are the sleazy rumors that are casually dropped about CIA drug trafficking and More Guns, Less Crime author John Lott.

A final chapter devoted to children’s names provides more evidence that this book doesn’t take itself seriously. After concluding that names, in themselves, don’t impact a child’s future, a dozen more pages follow that contain comments about names that have been popular with upper and lower class parents--not, of course, that it really matters.

What Freakonomics highlights, more than anything, is an adolescent mentality that enjoys iconoclasm for its own sake. Investigations conducted in this frame of mind are relished more for their shock value than for any insight they provide into the human condition. Such an attitude breeds the careless rhetoric and cursory treatment that the authors exhibit when discussing the most sensitive issues. What Levitt and Dubner obviously don't appreciate is the price society pays for adopting a cost-benefit perspective that happily views forty million aborted fetuses as a successful crime-fighting effort.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Bernard Goldberg’s 100 PEOPLE WHO ARE SCREWING UP AMERICA provides a wealth of anecdotal evidence to bolster the belief that the country is going to hell in a hand-basket. From rappers to reporters, from shock jocks to political blowhards, the former CBS journalist offers a series of sketches about persons whose words and actions deserve special recognition in a cultural Hall of Shame.

Goldberg divides the landscape of contemporary destructiveness into a few large subdivisions--politicians, journalists, entertainers, businessmen, lawyers, and academics. Under the journalistic category, names of Goldberg’s former colleagues pop up frequently. Bill Moyers (34) and Dan Rather (12) are skewered for ideological bias, whereas Barbara Walters (46) and Diane Sawyer (56) are called on the carpet for their role in erasing the line between serious journalism and entertainment.

On the executive side, ABC’s David Westin (55) and NBC’s Neal Shapiro (54) are faulted for presiding over this merging of news and entertainment. Meanwhile, CBS news President Andrew Hayward (13) is excoriated for failing to take personal responsibility for Mary Mapes’s (14) “60 Minutes” hit-piece based on fraudulent National Guard documents that were obtained from an unstable Bush-hater. The most prominently vilified executive is publisher Arthur Sulzberger (2), whose legacy is that he turned the New York Times into a paper that now prints all the news that fits his bent.

Lesser journalistic lights like Ted Rall (15) and Jeff Danzinger (35) also make Goldberg’s list of cultural malefactors--the former for his despicable post-mortem editorial cartoon lampooning NFL player turned soldier, Pat Tillman, and the latter for a racist caricature of Condoleezza Rice.

On the political front Goldberg focuses most of his fire on leftist ideologues--but a smattering of right-wingers like David Duke (66) are also included in the mix. By my count, eight of the bottom twenty on Goldberg’s list are either Democrat pols like Howard Dean (20) and Al Gore (18) or operatives like People for the American Way lobbyist, Ralph Neas (10). That count, by the way, excludes the party’s chief financial backer in 2004, George Soros (19)--a man whose prominence arises not from deep policy insights but rather from very deep pockets. Another political sub-group includes “Racial Enforcers” like Al Sharpton (17) and Jesse Jackson (4).

When it comes to debased entertainment, Goldberg rounds up the usual suspects: Howard Stern (62), Jerry Springer (32), Maury Povich (31), and Eminem (58). Besides providing revoltingly specific examples of this bottomless vulgarity, the author also reveals the identity of a little-known figure who has provided much of the financial backing for the rap industry, Interscope’s Ted Field (57). Far from being a product of the ghetto, Mr. Field is a very white child of the sixties and heir to his father’s retail fortune. The younger Field has now made his own mark as the premier corrupter of American youngsters.

In addition to sleazemeisters, Goldberg notes the negative contributions that Hollywood types are making to political discourse. Because so many Tinseltown egos deserve recognition, the author lumps a number of “stars” like Janeane Garofalo and Alec Baldwin into three catch-all categories: The Dumb Celebrity (85), The Vicious Celebrity (84), and The Dumb and Vicious Celebrity (83). Of course some of the beautiful people spout inanities so frequently that they merit numbers of their own--like Barbra Streisand (91) and comedian turned talk-jock Al Franken (37).

Lawyers and corporate executives form other subgroups described as “American Jackels” and “White-Collar Thugs.” The legal grifter-in-chief is former tort lawyer, Senator, and Vice-presidential candidate John Edwards (16). Edwards’ pathetic courtroom channeling of a dead child is persuasive evidence of the way lawyers are fleecing the public rather than pursuing justice. The handsome North Carolinian’s pitch to a gullible jury secured a huge settlement apparently based on bogus notions that linked the mother’s C-section with her child’s cerebral palsy. On the other side of the bench, Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall (7), is given recognition for her redefinition of marriage by judicial fiat.

Enron President Ken Lay (45) and Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski (44) are prominent business executives on Goldberg’s top-100 list. The entry describing Koslowski’s birthday bash in Sardinia is one that economist Thorsten Veblen would have loved to employ as an example of conspicuous consumption. Other individuals singled out for their contributions to American decadence include Paul Eibler (43), President of the software corporation that gave us “Grand Theft Auto,” and Todd Goldman (97), an entrepreneur who has made good money selling shirts that insult boys.

Academia is another rich source of cultural pollutants. Indeed, ivory-tower dwellers constitute ten percent of Goldberg’s list. Ward Churchill (72), the faux Native American who used the term “little Eichmanns” to describe persons murdered in the Twin Towers, is the poster child for today’s America-bashers--folks whose most venerable icon is linguist-turned-naysayer, Noam Chomsky (11). Former University of Pennsylvania President, Sheldon Hackney (87), is among the spineless, politically correct administrators that Goldberg singles out for opprobrium. And in a more theoretical vein Princeton ethics professor Peter Singer (39) is cited for his avant-garde advocacy of infanticide.

Many of Goldberg’s names don’t fall clearly into any of the aforementioned categories but do serve to illustrate the rot that is consuming American culture. My personal “favorite” is Amy Richards (63), a thirty-four year old woman with academic and literary connections. She had been taking birth control pills but went off them because they made her "moody." In 2003 she became pregnant by her boyfriend of three years. Having a child out of wedlock wasn't a problem for Richards. The problem was that there wasn't just one baby-to-be in her womb. There were three--and three was just too many. The fearful scenario she envisioned for herself involved moving from Manhattan to Staten Island, shopping at Costco, and buying large jars of mayonnaise. Moreover, the multiple pregnancy would force here to forego her spring lecture income. Because she found this domestic script distasteful, she asked her obstetrician if she could "get rid of" one or two of the three fetuses in her womb.

It turns out that such a procedure is possible, and like all such acts it comes with a wonderfully clinical name--“selective reduction.” So selective reduction was the “choice” Amy Richards made. Since two of her three babies-to-be were twins and three days younger than the free-standing fetus, those two were the ones “selected” to receive shots of potassium chloride to the heart. The “successful” operation meant that Ms. Richards could raise her child by herself, stay in Manhattan, and lecture during the profitable spring months.

As a bonus, after the birth of her son, Ms. Richards put her writing talents to good use by composing an essay about her recent experience. The piece was called, "When One Is Enough," and was published in the Sunday New York Times Magazine on July 18, 2004. The article will doubtless be "interesting" reading for Richards' "non-selected" son. One can imagine the questions his mother's moral reasoning will one day prompt: "Why them and not me? What's all this talk about mayonnaise and Costco? Why tell the world about it?" To which questions the single answer is "Amy Richards."

Such is the country in which, by Goldberg’s calculus, Michael Moore ranks number one on the list of those who are leading us into a cultural abyss.