Saturday, March 27, 2004

I see a comment on City Lights making fun of French courage again. Nobody appointed me apologist for France, but this stuff wears mighty thin. Under Napoleon, the French army held off the combined royalty of Europe for a dozen years, losing a 600,000-man army in Russia in 1812, another 350,000 or so in 1813-14 and yet another few hundred thousand in 1815. A standing joke during those years was that the leading natural cause of death among young French men was warfare.

Arguably, the French army has never been the same since, but the French still managed to pour 8.4 million troops into World War I (remember, this is a country the size of Texas). Of those, more than 6 million became casualties, including many thousands of children of wealth and privilege who had no opportunity to spend military service playing politics in Alabama. For several weeks during peak fighting at Verdun, the French lost a soldier every 45 seconds.

The French performed abysmally during World War II, but it wasn't because the soldiers were afraid to die for their country. In a few short months of war, the French suffered 210,000 combat deaths. By comparison, U.S. forces fighting on two fronts over four years lost 292,000 soldiers. We lost 58,000 soldiers in Vietnam (the French fought there, too) and were left militarily, psychologically and politically scarred for a couple of decades. What might the impact have been if we had lost 100 times that number?

If anybody out there has the guts to go tell a French war widow that her loved one died a coward, then have at it. Otherwise, kindly lay off.

Friday, March 26, 2004

I have a couple of free tickets to see Barenaked Ladies in Bozeman on Sunday night. If you're interested, leave a phone number here.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

This post by Jacob Levy makes somewhat the same point I make about the Pledge of Allegiance below, only better, damn it.
The Billings Blog does sports!
The real failure of President Bush's approach to the war on terror has less to do with the hearings going on about 9-11 this week than with the Israeli assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Despite Yassin's ties to terrorism, his death has aroused near universal condemnation, even while we continue to stalk Osama Bin Laden. Other countries say that the Israeli strike volated international law, and the heck of it is, they may be right.

If we ought to have accomplished anything so far in the war on terror, it ought to have been to work toward some sort of international agreement on how to handle terrorists. The months after 9-11 handed us an unprecedented opportunity to cut across ideological and geographical boundaries and agree that terrorism had to be stopped as a method of bringing about political change, regardless of the merits of the cause. That means we react the same way to a Basque bombing in Spain as we do to an Al Qaida bombing. The president squandered this opportunity, and I'm afraid it will take another disaster to get it back.
Setting aside the case against "under God" below, why is the government involved in the speech business anyway? Why should the government be urging, encouraging, coercing or mandating any sort of speech whatsoever?

When my daughter was in high school, she was on an Odyssey of the Mind team that had to go to the student council for funding to make a trip to the national finals. When the council stood to say the pledge, she declined. It didn't have anything to do with "under God." She was just mad at the government at the time and wasn't in the mood to pledge allegiance. Like her father, she is naturally disinclined to say things she can't say with sincerity and an open heart, which may be one reason we both tend to keep our mouths shut.

Anyway, the outraged student council voted against giving her team any money. Fortunately, the adviser stepped in and advised the student government that it might be provoking a First Amendment battle it didn't really want to have. But how can anyone say that kids aren't coerced into saying the pledge? And why would the government of a free country want to do that?

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Stories about the Pledge of Allegiance case in the New York Times and in Slate both indicate that Michael Newdow did a polished job staking out his position against "under God," even drawing applause from spectators. That's remarkable enough, but this statement from Justice Souter may be more remarkable: He wonders whether the "under God" phrase has become "so tepid, so diluted ... that it should be under the constitutional radar."

That, of course, is why good Christians ought to have opposed "under God" along. Hitching the name of the deity to a rote daily recitation to promote purely secular ends belittles and undermines God. The Christian right now claims that taking God out of the classroom destroys the nation's spiritual strength. The right has it exactly backward. Putting into the minds of children an interpretation of God broad enough and bland enough to suit all religions persuades them that God can't be very important or powerful.

You can't have it both ways: If instilling faith in God is so important that it must be part of classroom work in public schools, then the First Amendment has to go. If the concept of God envisioned in the Pledge is so tepid that it is constitutionally insignificant, then why should it matter whether anyone says the phrase or not?

Thursday, March 18, 2004

City Lights speculates on what kind of driver Jesus would have been. I was in Missoula last week and visited Matt Gibson, publisher of the Missoula Independent. He said that one reaction to his movie critic's critical review of Mel Gibson's movie about Jesus was from Jesus himself, and He wasn't pleased.

Jesus writes letters to the editors more often than you might think. Most don't get into print because it is damnably difficult to confirm authorship. I suggested Gibson adopt the test I use: Scour the letter for typos, grammatical errors and misspelled words. I don't claim to know much about what Jesus would do in most cases, but I think he would write very clean letters to the editor.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Kudos to President Bush for clearing this up.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Interesting Wal-Mart comment below from jr, who notes that many small retailers would like to offer health coverage to employees but can't afford to. By comparison, he contends, Wal-Mart isn't so bad.

Jr doesn't mention that one reason so many small retailers can't afford health insurance is because of price pressure from companies like Wal-Mart. The little guys aspire to do better but can't manage it. Which makes me wonder why Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, sets its aspirations so low. Surely it could do better.

The real point of my original post was that people who think they are saving money by shopping at Wal-Mart need to look at the full cost. For increasingly nonsensical reasons, America relies on private employers to provide a huge public good: health insurance. Employers that fail to pick up the cost can set prices lower, but that doesn't mean the cost goes away. It just gets absorbed, sooner or later, in one fashion or another, by taxpayers.

Of course, Wal-Mart shoppers can argue that they still come out ahead. They derive the full benefit of Wal-Mart's low prices while spreading the cost of healthcare for Wal-Mart employees among all taxpayers. Nice deal for them, but not necessarily good for the country.

UPDATE: More on Wal-Mart and health insurance here from (who else?) Jackie Corr.

Friday, March 05, 2004

I knew I had something in mind when I wrote about pain the other day, but I couldn't remember what it was -- probably another sign of encroaching age. Then it came to me: It was a review in the March Harper's magazine of "Flesh in the Age of Reason" by Roy Porter. Critic Terry Eagleton wrote, "Taking the British eighteenth century as his patch, Porter reminds us with a mixture of horror and hilarity of just what a sickly lot the intellectual luminaries of the age actually were. Samuel Johnson, blighted by scrofula, half-blind in one eye and half-deaf in one ear, may have twitched and gesticulated as convulsively as he did because of epilepsy, cerebral palsy, Tourette's symdrome, or St. Vitus's dance. He was certainly afflicated by clinical depression and terrified of death. Ridden with phobias and grotesque compulsions, the great lexicographer made clucking noises, obsessively fingered lampposts, and muttered violently under his breath. ... His biographer, James Boswell, suffered nineteen bouts of the clap. ... He also had a sizable drinking problem, which hastened his death. ... The great historian Edward Gibbon was crippled by gout, as well as afflicted with an enlargement of the scrotum that was embarrassingly visible to others. 'Have you never observed through my inexpressibles a large prominency circa genitalia?' he inquired with exquisite delicacy of a colleague."

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

I'm probably a wuss about pain. That may be because I've been so lucky all my life: no root canals, no wisdom teeh extractions, no bad tonsils, no appendix operations, not even a cavity. I've had a few bumps and bruises -- a broken thumb playing high school football, a bad sprain and a minor concussion from rugby -- but darn few of the painful experiences most people go through just by living, even during an age of modern medicine and great drugs.

My good fortune hasn't made me particularly grateful: Among humans, good health is always a short-term benefit. Now I guess it's my turn to suffer. Over the last year or two, I've several nasty flareups of a particularly painful inflammation -- probably gout, although it has never been diagnosed. It's bad enough in toes and feet, but a real bear when it settles in one knee or the other -- I have had it in both, although not, thank goodness, at the same time. At its worst, it feels like someone has pounded a strip of barbed wire into the fleshiest part of the knee. There have been moments when I quite literally was unsure whether I had the courage to take another step.

As pain goes, this is still relatively minor stuff. When I sit still, it mostly leaves me alone. Drugs, even just Ibuprofen, nearly always help. And, so far at least, it goes away after a couple of weeks.

But it sure makes me wonder what life must be like for people who play in the major leagues of pain: chronic, ongoing, unremitting pain that lasts for months or years with precious little relief. What's really startling is when you consider the extent to which that kind of pain must have been part of the standard human experience for thousands of years before decent drugs came along. Is it any wonder, then, that humans are so petty, vindictive, lowbrow and unproductive? The astonishing thing is that we manage to get as much done as we do.
From Jackie Corr, more on Wal-Mart: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports about a Georgia program for children of parents who can't afford health insurance. Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the state, with 42,000 workers, and more than 10,000 of the children who are covered under the program have a parent who works for Wal-Mart. That's a far worse ratio than the state's other big employers.

So, gee, maybe everyday low prices means everyday no insurance? And those who think they are saving money by shopping at Wal-Mart are bitching that their taxes keep going up to pay for other people's poor kids. Maybe it's worth thinking about how those kids got so poor in the first place.