Monday, February 16, 2015

Worth God's While

This morning, as every morning, I read from my favorite poet, G. M. Hopkins. Today, I opened my complete Hopkins at random, and my eye fell on the following passage, which I would like to share with you, for its beauty, and its spiritual uplift:

But what we have not done yet we can do now, what we have done badly hitherto we can do well henceforward, we can repent our sins and begin to give God glory. The moment we do this we reach the end of our being, we do and are what we were made for, we make it worth God's while to have created us. This is a comforting thought: we need not wait in fear till death; any day, any minute we bless God for our being or for anything, for food, for sunlight, we do and are what we were meant for, made for -- things that give and mean to give God glory. This is a thing to live for. Then make haste so to live.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Man in the Mirror

Well, no sooner had I written that denying that the Islamic terrorists are Muslims (as the president does), would be like denying that the Crusaders were Christians, than Mr. Obama uses the Crusades as a means of chastening us, declaring that we should not "get up on our high horse," because terrible things have been done in the name of Christianity.

In making this sophistic moral equivocation, the president does not realize that he has undercut his own position. If horrors were committed by the Crusaders in the name of Christ, then the Islamists' horrors are being committed in the name of Allah. And if the Crusaders were Christians, which he affirms, then the terrorists are Muslims, which he denies. He cannot have it both ways; of course, unless the media permits him to do so, which they have.

And now comes the latest embarrassment: the Man in the Mirror, stick-selfie episode. I could not at first understand what I was seeing -- I thought it was some kind of parody or joke. I did not realize that it had actually been done by the president; but when that was clear, though it came as little surprise, it was nonetheless shocking to me. Who advises this man? Who tells him that such stunts are acceptable, even cool? And what the hell was the president thinking? What does he think his job is? This is a man who does not have time to mourn the public murder of American journalists and aid workers, but has plenty of time for golf; a man who could not manage to attend the massive free speech rally in Paris, but permitted himself to be interviewed by a woman in fluorescent green lipstick who bathes in breakfast cereal; a man who has no time to meet with the Prime Minister of Israel, coming to warn us of the Iranian nuclear threat, but who does find time to play the fool in front of a mirror, before the entire world.

This is shameful, it is a disgrace. Leaving aside the impression that this spectacle must make on the minds of our enemies -- real people who really want to kills us -- it demeans the presidency in a way that should have been unthinkable. Not long ago, Bill O'Reilly was taken to task for his aggressive questioning of the president in an interview, on the grounds that he was disrespecting "the majesty of the office." Well, so much for the majesty of the office.

The only effort to defend Mr. Obama's buffoonery was the lame argument that he was trying to appeal to Millenials to sign up for his health care scheme. Which makes one wonder: Just how stupid and shallow does he think the current generation is? Does he, or do his advisers, really think that this kind of clownish behavior on the part of the President of the United States, will appeal to the younger generation? Any intelligent, informed young person would find it scandalous.

It is true that Franklin Roosevelt appeared jovial in many of his public appearances, and that Abraham Lincoln liked to tell jokes. But neither descended to this level of foolishness; neither demeaned the dignity of the office. That this president has done so at a time when the world is in such a dangerous state, when Islamo-fascists are burning, beheading, and crucifying innocents, and old-fashioned Russian imperialism has resurrected itself, when there are very serious people very seriously threatening our civilization, makes me question more than Mr. Obama's judgment; it makes me question his sanity.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


--This is 2015 AD, not 1015 AD. Yet much of our national conversation is taken up with such matters as torture, beheading, crucifixion, and burning at the stake, or in a cage as the case may be. I admit that I am puzzled, and dismayed. Does progress count for nothing? Does civilization count for nothing? Does evolution count for nothing? How have we, at this late date in human history, returned to the Dark Ages? In one corner of the Earth we have marvelous tools of science and technology, and in another, human beings crucified and burned in public. On the same stage we have Beauty and the Beast. How can the race generate and tolerate such contradictions? It is enough to make one believe in the religious concept of the End Times. The poet said, Surely some revelation is at hand. Yet I begin to feel that, Surely some annihilation is at hand. No species can long endure such dislocations in its behavior. Beauty or bestiality; progress or regress, hope or despair. As Lincoln said, We will become entirely one thing or the other.

--I could not bring myself to watch the video of the public immolation of the Jordanian pilot by ISIS. There are just some images you should not allow into your consciousness. But I listened to discussions of it at some length, saw the images of the young man and of his family, and lay awake last night wondering what it all meant for us as humans. I will tell you one sad spectacle I did watch: that of our President's milquetoast and mumbling comment on it, in which he said that "whatever ideology" was behind it is bankrupt. No ringing condemnation, no decisive course of action, not even a willingness to identify who the villains are and what they stand for. 

Who they are is Islamo-fascists, fanatical corrupters of one of the world's leading religions. And what they stand for is the annihilation of civilization in the name of a new Caliphate. Why the President cannot or will not admit this remains a puzzle, not just to me, but to nearly everyone who has commented on the fact. It would be as if we tried to deny that the Crusaders were Christians. Of course they were; a manifestation of a militant and vile view of Christianity which had nothing to do with the essential spirit of the religion. But nothing would be gained by denying that they were motivated by, and acted in the name of, Christianity. History would be distorted, its interpretation would be impossible. The President is a jihad-denier. And that is as dangerous as any form of historical denial. 

--I know something about the Crusades, or the first one, at least. I researched and wrote a book about it, read the contemporaneous accounts, as well as dozens of subsequent studies of it. The Crusaders, most of them, were religious zealots, though their leaders were as motivated by wealth, greed, and power as by religion. They armed themselves and spread across the known world, bringing bloodshed, rape, torture, massacre, beheading, burning, and even cannibalism into every land they conquered. And they did it all in the name of religion. Does that not sound horribly familiar? Yet that was 1000 years ago. I had thought the human race had progressed far beyond that point. Evidently, it has not. Somebody ought to tell the President.

--I have written before that I regard J. S. Bach as the greatest artist of our civilization, and I have commented that I think some of his keyboard work, such as the Italian Concerto and the French and English Suites are as close to perfection as one will ever get in this world. I could not help but think of them in these past few terrible weeks, and listen to them, and cling to them as to a lifeline. And that gave me some comfort, and some hope that perhaps we as a race may yet endure, in spite of everything.

--I have recently begun re-reading Somerset Maugham. I was hoping that my twelve-year-old, who has been reading through and enjoying Kurt Vonnegut, would take a liking to Maugham. He has not, and I can see why. I read Maugham in college, and loved his work; I have often said that every young man should read The Razor's Edge while he is still young. I think it a beautiful and thought-provoking novel. But in reading Maugham again, I realize that his prose is far too elegant, far too meticulous, and far too embedded in an extinct culture of manners and insouciance to catch the attention of even a very bright pre-teen. But I am enjoying him again. Gore Vidal said that no one writing in the Twentieth Century could avoid Maugham "because he is so there." It is charming to discover that, in my consciousness at least, he is still here.

--These have been ambling thoughts; the reason for which I began this blog several years ago. I wanted a forum in which I could record my thinking about... well, about just anything that crossed my mind. I have tried to do so as clearly and frankly as I could. My thinking has changed over those years, as one's thinking always must in time, and part of that change has been due to writing these posts, and going back and reading through them. This blog has been a sort of intellectual diary, and I have tried to do my best to keep it going, and keep it honest.

At the outset, I was faced with the question of whether or not I would allow comments to be published on my posts. I decided that I would, both out of curiosity, and in the expectation that my readers' comments would help me to clarify my thinking. I follow Lincoln's dictum: I will adopt new views as quickly as they shall be proved to be true views. Of my readers I asked only that their comments be to the point, that is, that they refer to the content of my posts, and that they be brief, and civil in tone.

Initially they were, and I enjoyed reading and responding to them. But when I wrote a film script about Tupac Shakur, that changed. I received so many ugly, obscene, and insulting comments from purported fans of Tupac that I was obliged to pre-screen all comments before publishing them. This I have done for the past three or four years. I have read all comments, and published and responded only to those which I felt were relevant to the posts, civil in tone, and to which I had not already responded in detail. 

In recent months, however, the tone of the comments has again turned ugly. Anonymous readers have been leaving comments filled with venom and vituperation so regularly that I was forced to decide that I would not publish any anonymous comment, and, more recently, that I would not even read them. To those anonymous individuals I say: If you so dislike what I write, then read someone else. If you are incapable of voicing your opinions in a civil and rational manner, then why should I or anyone else take you seriously? And if you are too cowardly to identify yourself with your views, why should I acknowledge you?

Also, I have found that some readers use the comments section of my blog to air their views in elaborate detail. I would remind those people that I started this blog in order to air my views, not those of others. If you wish to record your thoughts and opinions at length, do what I did: Start your own blog. But please do not malign me for refusing to allow my forum to be usurped by you.

Writing a blog has taught me many things. I have been reassured that there are people out there who appreciate frank and controversial views, and enjoy engaging in reasoned and apposite discussion. But I have also learned how many nasty, bloody-minded, and petty people there are in cyber space. It used to be that such people were restricted to ranting in the privacy of their homes, or venting to the few friends they had left, or just wandering the streets shouting at cars. Now, thanks to technology and the Internet, the whole world is their stage.

Well, I am sorry to have to tell you that my little corner of that stage will no longer be available to them. I have reluctantly decided to disable comments on this blog. There is simply too much ugliness in the world without my allowing my forum to add to it. I will continue to write, and I hope that you will continue to read. And I shall miss the input of those who have encouraged me and stimulated my thinking these many years.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Playing the Odds

I am going to begin and end this post with the same words, just so there is no misunderstanding: Get your children vaccinated.

That said, the recent outbreak of measles has prompted a national debate on the question of vaccination, and whether it should be mandatory. I was surprised to learn that about sixteen percent of parents choose not to vaccinate, and in some communities, like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, the rate is much higher. The primary reason for this reluctance to vaccinate is the concern of parents that vaccination may cause autism.

Now, there is, so far as I understand it, no scientific evidence linking vaccination and autism, though there is some anecdotal evidence. And anecdotal evidence, while it can be emotionally affecting, is virtually worthless in determining matters of public policy, and even of personal decision-making. I once had a young woman tell me that she needn't stop smoking because her grandmother smokes and is healthy and 80 years old. There is simply nothing to this kind of reasoning, and it should not be allowed to determine important decisions.

One of those important decisions is whether or not to vaccinate a child. The autism link that has moved many parents not to vaccinate seems to have been alleged in a published study of a very small sample of children. That study has been discredited, and its author, I learned today, has lost his medical license. Nonetheless, the idea has stuck with some people, usually fuzzy thinkers who believe that disease can be prevented by eating natural foods and practicing holistic medicine, which explains, I suppose, why the rate of non-vaccinators is so high on the West Side of Los Angeles.

(I was stunned this morning when I heard the chief political correspondent for the Huffington Post declare on MSNBC {Yes, I do watch it occasionally.}, that the Koch Brothers are responsible for the measles outbreak. His logic ran thus: Right-wing parents who mistrust the government opt out of vaccination because they think there is a government conspiracy to harm their children. They are, he said, the same kinds of people who deny climate change because they listen to media outlets funded by the Koch Brothers. So: Conservative activists, right-wing media, climate change denial, no vaccinations, measles outbreak in California. And Rachel Maddow just nodded and did not object, and thanked the man for his input. And so, the measles has, inevitably, become a divisive political matter, as does everything in America these days.)

I can remember vividly sitting in the pediatrician's office with my first son on my knee while she held the vaccination needle in her hand. I balked. Though he was very young, I could see that he had a remarkable brain, was highly intelligent, and I had heard the rumors about autism. I agonized over the possibility that he might have an allergic reaction to the vaccine which would damage that beautiful mind. And so I spent a lot of time talking to the doctor about it, before I finally agreed to go ahead. She vaccinated him, and nothing bad happened. He was the first of my vaccinated genius children.

But at least the pediatrician took the time to talk to me, and let me decide. And I made the right decision, primarily on the basis that there was a 99% probability that my son would have no adverse reaction to the vaccine.

Now this is the point I would like to make, and I hope that parents will listen to it. Every major decision you will make in your child's young life will involve risk of some kind. There are simply no guarantees in parenting. What you must do as a responsible parent is to play the best odds you can get. If, for example, you went to Vegas and were told that there was a 99% chance that you would win at a game, wouldn't you take those odds? Of course you would. That is what we as parents must do, especially in matters of our children's health and well-being.

There are now calls for legislation to require parents to vaccinate their children, and I am quite sure that such a bill will be introduced in Congress in the near future. And if the Congress can mandate that we buy health insurance whether we want to or not, what is to stop it from mandating that we vaccinate our children whether we want to or not? Imagine the spectacle: Parents who for whatever reason refuse vaccination are arrested, their children taken away by police, and a needle jabbed into their flesh against their parents' wishes. It would be the public health equivalent of Elian Gonzales.

We live in a putatively free society, and the children are ours. Not our property - our children; there is a difference. And we must have the freedom to raise them as we think best. Still, I have held for years that no parent has the right to volunteer his child to suffer for his beliefs, no matter how strongly he holds them. This is equally true in matters of religion and health. Thus, those parents who refuse vaccination on religious grounds are not taking a risk: they are volunteering their children to take that risk. And I believe it is wrong for them to do this.

If there is an overwhelming probability that vaccinating your child will mean he or she will never contract measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, typhoid, typhus, tetanus, polio, pneumonia and other diseases that have ravaged human history, you have a responsibility to play the odds and get the vaccine.

But that being said, the government should not be allowed to compel you to do so under penalty of law. This would only further intrude the power of government into our personal lives, narrowing our freedom of choice, and infringing our personal liberty. And that is too heavy a price to pay in response to 100 cases of measles. What then should be done?

If parents feel they have compelling reasons to refuse vaccination, and insist on doing so despite all the evidence to the contrary, and despite the overwhelming probability that nothing will bad will happen, and knowing what the consequence may be, then they must take the consequences on themselves. Their children will not be allowed to attend school, but must be home-schooled, or must attend a school with other non-vaccinated children. If a child becomes ill, the parents cannot insist that the rest of us pay for his treatment. If the child suffers serious or permanent damage (which, though unlikely, is possible), then they alone are responsible for paying the cost of care. In short: If you choose not to vaccinate, you, and you alone, are responsible for the consequences.

Of course, as I have said, it is not the parents who will suffer the most serious consequences of the decision not to vaccinate - it is the children who will. And because this is true, and because the children are our responsibility (not property), we must play the odds, which are overwhelmingly in our favor, and get our children vaccinated.