Wednesday, November 21, 2007


When was the last time you heard the phrase “scarce resources” used to describe the allocation of government funds or even to characterize a general state of affairs (apparently persistent) within the most affluent country the world has ever known?

This ubiquitous idiom for intellectually challenged journalists wasn’t employed much, if at all, during the recent wildfire relief efforts. Evidence of affluence and of the willingness of individuals to help each other was so obvious that even the media couldn’t put a dour spin on this outpouring of altruism.

The centerpiece of this display was Qualcomm Stadium, which was regularly portrayed as the anti-Superdome. Far from simply providing food and shelter, this San Diego venue boasted live music, massage therapy, Starbucks coffee, television, toys, pizza, magazines, and a Hyatt-catered buffet that included artichoke hearts, jambalaya, and shredded-beef empanadas.

An estimated 10,000 people at “the Q” received help from about as many volunteers—and much, if not all, of the materials and services at the stadium came from private citizens and corporations that were glad to part with their “scarce resources.” Indeed, this relief station accumulated so many items that an announcement was made asking folks to stop bringing donations to the site.

As 9/11 demonstrated, disasters put things in perspective—illuminating the difference between what is petty, what is important, and what is absolutely necessary. Among the things that are absolutely necessary is taking care of each other. And in the process of doing this, surplus wealth becomes as obvious as a garage jammed with yesterday’s stuff.

Beyond donating things, however, people also need to engage in activities of support—to extend helping hands that create a sense of community and family. This person-to-person aspect of charity is largely missing when assistance becomes an entitlement.

In the entitlement system, bureaucrats calculate whether clients qualify for aid dispensed from “resources” that have been taken, under penalty of law, from faceless taxpayers. No wonder the term “charity” (from the Latin word for “love”) has acquired, in recent decades, a negative connotation. Compassion that is compelled is no longer compassion. And gifts that are not freely given, aren’t gifts.

The community outpouring of benevolence during the San Diego wildfires shows that people are eager to assist when it is clear that their aid is going to provide tangible benefits to those in need. While government can provide resources on a scale that often (not always) dwarfs private efforts, one should keep in mind that most folks don’t pay taxes cheerfully. Nor are government funds distributed with a spirit of generosity and camaraderie—since distributors are doling out benefits coerced from others.

Bottom line: The more individuals are allowed to give of themselves and of their “abundant resources,” the better off we’ll all be—both those who give and those who receive. When this is the case, journalists and bureaucrats won’t need to employ that hackneyed phrase, “scarce resources,” that should be reserved for settings where the concept actually fits.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

TEN TORTURED WORDS by Stephen Mansfield

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” That’s the Constitutional clause around which Stephen Mansfield’s book, Ten Tortured Words, revolves. Specifically, the author explores what this succinct first amendment prohibition meant to its creators and how, in 1947, it came to mean something the Founders never envisioned—a radical rejection of religious expression in the public square.

Mansfield’s analysis begins by describing a stridently secular revolution that venerated a scantily clad goddess of Reason, seized church property, and compelled priests to swear allegiance to the new regime. That revolution (much to the chagrin of secularists in the U.S.) wasn’t the American Revolution. It was, instead, the French Revolution—shortly before the Reign of Terror. American attitudes toward religion were quite different. In the colonies clergymen bolstered revolutionary resistance to England and constituted a “black regiment” that struck fear in the heart of George III. Accordingly, a decade later Congress's Northwest Ordinance of 1787 linked “religion, morality, and knowledge” to the establishment of schools that were needed for “good government” in the Ohio territory.

With this background, Mansfield considers first amendment church-state proposals that were put forward in the Congress of 1789—proposals whose words belie revisionist portraits of Founders intent on creating a purely secular state. Indeed, Mansfield notes that two days before the House of Representatives approved its final “establishment of religion” language, it enacted a statute to compensate chaplains. And the day after approving its wording, the House passed a resolution recommending “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” to acknowledge “the many signal favors of Almighty God”—a resolution that President Washington eagerly accepted. In light of such evidence, Mansfield concludes that only the ignorant or intellectually dishonest could construe the first amendment words of these legislators as “a ban on government support for religion in general.”

The phrase that’s been superimposed over the Constitution’s establishment language is “separation of church and state”—or, more accurately, “a wall of separation between church and state.” These words, Mansfield observes, were part of a personal letter written twelve years after Congress debated the first amendment’s wording—and were penned by an individual, Thomas Jefferson, who was an ambassador in France when the debate was occurring. Moreover, Mansfield emphasizes, Jefferson never suggests in this letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut that his political metaphor applied to the states or demanded a national government devoid of religious expression.

Besides signed legislation supporting Christian missionary efforts among America’s tribal peoples, there is more tangible evidence of President Jefferson’s church-state position—namely, his faithful attendance at the Christian worship services that were held in the Capitol building during his presidency. Indeed, Mansfield notes that Jefferson first attended those services (which continued regularly from 1795 to 1866) only two days after writing his “wall of separation” letter.

Why a single phrase from an obscure Presidential letter should become a prominent standard for Constitutional interpretation is the focus of Mansfield’s third chapter, the central figure of which is Alabama’s Hugo Black. Mansfield’s sketch of the future Supreme Court Justice begins in 1921 with Black’s successful defense of the Reverend Edwin Stephenson for killing a Catholic priest. (Stephenson was incensed because the priest had married the reverend’s daughter to a Spanish suitor.) During the trial Black played to his Klan-packed jury by portraying the Spaniard as a Negro. And less than a year after the trial, Black himself joined the KKK, a move he renounced two years before his successful senatorial campaign in 1926. Eleven years later the loyal New-Dealer was nominated by FDR to the Supreme Court.

Mansfield observes that Black’s Supreme Court opinions were initially so embarrassing that Justice Harlan Stone asked Harvard’s Felix Frankfurter to tutor the new Justice. Yet even after Black found “his stride,” grave inconsistencies (possibly related his racist past) plagued Black’s judicial performance. Nowhere are those inconsistencies more apparent than in Everson v. Board of Education, “the single case upon which the role of religion in American public life turns.”

Decided in 1947, Everson challenged a New Jersey law by which the state paid for student transportation to religious schools. Writing the majority opinion in this case, Black cited Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists and observed that the Constitution erects a “high and impregnable” wall between church and state—a wall that does not admit “the slightest breach.” Based on this unprecedented reading of the establishment clause, the obvious conclusion would have been that New Jersey could not provide transportation to religious schools.

Black, however, ended his opinion by contradicting the entire thrust of his judicial reasoning. New Jersey’s funding of transportation to religious schools, Black ruled, did not violate the “high and impregnable” standard just posited. One practical reason for this about-face was the vast number of monuments and instances of religious expression that would have to be revised, dismantled or suspended if Black followed the logic of his reasoning. As Mansfield observes summarily, “the ruling is almost incomprehensible.”

The logical step that Black declined to take in 1947, was taken over the next decades by courts that found public invocations, crèches on public property, and even schoolchildren praying out loud over meals violated the Constitutional prohibition against Congress establishing a national church. In 1985, Justice William Rehnquist in his Wallace v. Jaffree dissent, responded to the Court’s capricious application of the Everson standard. This opinion, often called “The Anti-Everson” is included in Mansfield’s extensive appendix of cited documents. Rehnquist concludes as follows: “The ‘wall of separation between church and state’ is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.”

Far from being abandoned, however, the Everson standard continues to spawn an army of litigants eager to employ Black’s metaphor to purge all traces of religious expression from public life. The foremost litigant in “Everson’s army” is the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization whose founder, Roger Baldwin, is discussed at some length by Mansfield. Not surprisingly, given the ideology of its founder, the ACLU’s goals in church-state litigation have more in common with the Soviet Constitution of 1947 (which actually calls for a separation of church and state) than with the aims of the Founding Fathers. Other members of Everson’s brigade that are highlighted by Mansfield include People for the American Way (founded by Hollywood producer and ACLU officer, Norman Lear), the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Perversely, this secular army is regularly funded by taxpayers, thanks to the court’s bestowing public attorney status on litigants whose “rights” have been violated by public subsidies to Boy Scouts or by crosses employed as war memorials. Moreover, this “loser pay” arrangement, instituted to protect the civil rights of poor minorities, has become a mechanism by which the far-from-poor ACLU intimidates cash-strapped school districts and municipalities with the following dilemma: Either remove offending religious objects and practices or risk million-dollar litigation costs—both yours and ours. These rules of engagement, Mansfield notes, weight the law “in favor of secularism.”

In 1954, Senator Lyndon Johnson added a final legal burden to the free exercise of religion in the United States. That year the first-term Senator from Texas altered Internal Revenue Code language in order to deny tax-exempt status to organizations engaged in direct political activity. LBJ had in mind specific groups that opposed his reelection, but his 501 (c) (3) wording applied to all tax-exempt organizations—including churches. Based on this regulation, churches can now be stripped of their tax-exempt status for articulating their beliefs too explicitly in the political arena. As Mansfield illustrates, this law transforms both liberal and conservative religious groups into dissemblers and puts groups like Barry Lynn’s Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in charge of monitoring religious speech throughout the country.

Mansfield concludes his analysis by discussing Congressional proposals designed to lift the political restrictions now placed on religious speech and to restrict the federal courts from ruling on establishment clause cases. Sooner or later, the author suggests, the illegitimate and destructive wall that currently separates religion and politics—like the wall separating East and West Berlin—should fall, making possible “a nation that separates the institutions of religion and government but welcomes the riches of faith into the public square.”

Overall, Ten Tortured Words is a succinct tutorial on church-state jurisprudence and a handy resource for related documents. The book elucidates how the Court came, circuitously, to an understanding of the Constitution that is at odds with the history of the Republic and the intentions of the Founders. It also provides a moving example, in the persons of the Dorchester chaplains, of the way religion should influence public life.

In that tragic case, memorialized on windows at West Point and the Pentagon, four chaplains (two Protestant, one Catholic, and one Jewish) joined arms and together recited words of comfort from the three faiths to sailors who were struggling to survive a torpedo attack in the North Atlantic. The four continued their ecumenical ministry for twenty-seven minutes until the doomed ship “slipped beneath the waves.” “Private First Class William Bednar . . . later said, ‘Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.’”

Such heroic episodes, enshrined from the nation’s past, will only be part of its future if Mansfield’s “tear down this wall” legal message is taken to heart by the country and its leaders.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Useful Hollywood idiots. The Venezuelan dictator replaces the leftist love for the Soviet Union.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Had I been living in Poway, as I was in October of 2003, the recent wildfires would have been déjà vu all over again. In 2003 I evacuated the neighborhood where I lived and watched hour after hour of television coverage, frustrated beyond words by the lack of specific information in the occasional references to “Poway” that newscasters added to their running commentary about flames racing through Scripps Ranch.

I felt the same way that Escondido evacuee Dale Delmege felt about electronic coverage of the recent fire disaster. As Mr. Delmege observed in his community forum piece last week, what viewers need to know, “again and again is exactly where the fire is now and exactly what direction it is moving.” Also of importance to folks separated from their homes is as precise a description of affected areas as possible.

Obviously TV journalists can’t provide comprehensive lists of burned residences, like those published in this newspaper a day or two later. But one would think that in a spreading disaster, emphasis would be given (as in real estate decisions) to location, location, and location.

Instead, television coverage emphasized, as usual, pictures, pictures, and pictures. The video pièce de résistance of this “Gee whiz journalism” was the burned out home—live flames adding a dramatic touch to the breathless description of “incredible” sights provided by twenty-something girls in goggles.

Over the course of two hours this disaster template became as tiresome as it was unenlightening. Youngsters in yellow gushed effusively--visions of Emmys dancing in their heads. Meanwhile, the important questions languished: Where exactly is the fire? Where is it headed?

Throughout the coverage, tape-loops ran repeatedly as “live” coverage was juxtaposed with fire footage from who-knows-where and who-knows-when. Meanwhile, anchors approached the event as yet another exercise in competitive compassion—apparently ignorant of the fact that disasters don’t need dramatic embellishment. What they need is perspective and precision.

Folks can only absorb so many “oohs and aahs” and so many “burn to the ocean” scenarios before they shut down like a bug-eyed epicure who’s offered a chocolate éclair after having consumed a quart of rocky road.

The usually over-the-top KUSI weatherman, John Coleman, was one of the few broadcasters providing some directional perspective—pointing out that fires move where the wind takes them and that on-shore breezes pose a severe problem for “burn to the ocean” news-hype.

After a while anchors began to employ Thomas Brothers maps to shed a bit of geographical light on things, but by and large TV news did what it does best: emote and dramatize. Indeed, they dramatized so well that some folks outside the state thought all Southern California was ablaze.

Those who get most of their news from a business that mixes eye-candy and life-and-death information should ponder the implications of that volatile cocktail. If TV journalism can’t provide vital information about a disaster happening in its backyard, is it likely to provide a reasonable portrait of political and social complexities throughout the world?