Monday, May 18, 2009

Bill Maher’s ridiculous conceit

Bill Maher should have taken a course in firing full-auto weapons at Front Sight before he made his anti-religion documentary Religulous, because his method of shooting is what the military likes to call “spray and pray.” Maher points his weapon — in this case a movie camera instead of an M-16 — in the general direction he thinks the enemy is then fires wildly. The problem is that as a documentarian Bill Maher ignores both weapons safety procedures and military rules of engagement. Bill Maher fails to correctly identify his targets before he puts his finger on the trigger and fires. So while he can be scored for some direct hits, he both creates a lot of collateral damage and leaves half the real enemy unscathed.

The premise of Religulous — defined by conflation of the two words for his title — is that religion is ridiculous. Maher has found no evidence that the existence of God is consistent with a rational perception of human existence; therefore he proceeds on the premise that religion is nothing but fraud and fanatical irrationalism used to promote war and man’s inhumanity to man.

If Bill Maher had made a documentary on that subject — fraud and fanatical irrationalism used to promote war and man’s inhumanity to man — much of what he shows us in Religulous would have been excellent evidence for it. Like many religious critics before him — including Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken — Bill Maher finds in religious circles no shortage of confidence men and country boobs to expose with harsh light.

But after a Twentieth Century in which megamurders were committed by atheists such as Stalin and Mao — and in which arguably the greatest enemy of his own family’s Judeo-Christian traditions was Hitler — his blaming the belief in God as the cause of war and genocide is just as ridiculous as anything Bill Maher shows in his movie. Nor does Bill Maher show us in his section on end-of-the-worlders how the nuclear Doomsday Clock, the Zero-Population-Growth movement, and Al Gore’s Global Warming scenarios are every bit as apocalyptic as Christianity’s Book of Revelation … and just as faith-based.

Toward the end of Religulous Bill Maher addresses the camera and declares as an affirmation of his own belief: “Since I don’t know that life after death exists, you can’t either.”

Really? Does Bill Maher truly think that no human ability exists in another human being that he doesn’t have in full? Would Bill Maher pick up a violin and play the Paganini Violin Concerto for me then? Can Bill Maher solve a quadratic equation? Pilot a Bell helicopter? Hold his breath underwater for seventeen minutes as David Blaine did on Oprah?

Or – while asleep in California — astral travel over a department store next to a freeway sign and the next morning — using Yahoo Yellow Pages and Google Maps — locate that store in an area of downtown St. Louis he’d never visited … as I once did? Shakespeare wrote, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

I have no problem with Bill Maher demanding reason and being skeptical when he doesn’t find it. But I do have a problem with Bill Maher being unable to imagine anyone being less of a blockhead than he is.


The British hunting ban: a dead law

Thank God for our sensible police forces. At a time when our parliament is in complete disarray, the Association of Chief Police Officers has announced that the ban on hunting is hard to enforce and chief constables have more pressing priorities.

To force the ban through, more than 700 hours of parliamentary time and the Parliament Act were used to introduce a ridiculous and badly drafted bill. Since then there have been eight prosecutions of hunts, of which only three have been successful. Tony Wright, a huntsman in Devon, was in 2006 found guilty of illegal hunting by a district judge at Barnstaple magistrates’ court in a private prosecution taken out by the League Against Cruel Sports. After 3½ years, his case ended up in the High Court and he was acquitted.

The judgment interpreted the muddled law in such a way that two other prosecutions were dropped. If the courts can’t decide how to deal with this law, how can the police be expected to do so? There have been scenes of high comedy, with packs of hounds, huntsmen, saboteurs and policemen chasing each other round England’s pastures green.

There are 325 registered hunts in England and Wales and, as a result of the publicity engendered by the ban, more people than ever before are today following them, on foot or on horses or in cars. The police know that 99.9% of them are decent, law-abiding citizens who hold no brief for cruelty to animals.

The truth is that when this law came about Tony Blair, then prime minister, and other middle-of-the-road new Labour bigwigs had no real interest in banning hunting. Indeed, I had always wondered if the £1.1m they received from animal rights organisations, including the Political Animal Lobby, influenced their policy. A hunting ban was a bone to be thrown to their tiresome backbench dogs, many of whom saw it as “a revenge for the miners”, assuming that everyone who followed hounds was a signed-up Tory toff who had cheered for Margaret Thatcher when she closed down the mines.

I went to Wales before the ban and met former miners who said their jobs had been taken away from them, they couldn’t afford to go on holiday, no leisure centres had been built for them and now the powers-that-be wanted to take away hunting, their only pastime and pleasure.

By contrast, the zealots of the animal rights movement were delighted when the ban came into effect. In the 1990s I helped to run an organisation called Leave Country Sports Alone which represented members and supporters of the Labour party who objected to the proposed bill. I received through the post not only razor blades stuck to the inside of an envelope, but also excrement – whether human or otherwise I didn’t care to investigate – which Terry, our poor postman, was required by law to deliver, even though the package had broken open en route. I also received anonymous letters with such messages as “I hope your balls drop off (if you have any) and your fannies shrivel and dry up” and “I hope you get cancer and die a slow and painful death. Yours sincerely a well wisher”.

Earlier this year a supporter of the Warwickshire hunt was killed by a gyrocopter that had been used by anti-hunt “monitors” to follow the hunt for some weeks. A man linked to a local animal rights group, Protect Our Wild Animals, has been charged with murder and is now awaiting trial.

Animal rights “monitors” must be instructed firmly that it is the role of the police, and no one else, to uphold the law. Activists cannot appoint themselves to police hunting any more than other citizens can appoint themselves to police any other law.

The Hunting Act has done nothing to improve animal welfare but has, in fact, harmed it. The rights and wrongs of hunting have been debated ad nauseam for decades. It has to be accepted that legislation cannot change the predatory instincts of foxes or the views of farmers who seek to protect their pigs, sheep and poultry. In places where there is now no hunting, such as over National Trust land, the fox population is contained by trapping or shooting or worse. It is an utter fallacy to believe that shooting involves less suffering for foxes than hunting. Many people argue that it would be better for the welfare of the fox if there were more hunting taking place than at present.

There are no reasonable arguments left for retaining the Hunting Act. Bad laws should be repealed and this is a very bad law. David Cameron said about it last year: “It’s quite clear it isn’t working. There are more people hunting than ever before. The law is being made to look an idiot and that isn’t a good situation to be in. We have a very clear position on this: there will be a free vote and if there is a vote to repeal the hunting ban, there will be a government bill in government time.”

For the sake of our overburdened policemen, trying to foil terrorist plots, solve knife crime and keep the traffic moving, let’s hope he is one politician who will stick to his word.


Hate-filled Leftist bigotry in Britain

Bigotry, like poverty, is always with us. It is not often in this country that you come across open, unselfconsciously brutal bigotry, but it is always there somewhere, lurking in the most respectable of places, and sometimes it drops its mask and bares its vicious teeth.

Twice last week I was astonished by glimpses of this vindictive grimace. I had begun to think this country was largely free of the ideological hatred and class war that so disfigured it in the 1960s and 1970s. Even the ban on foxhunting has failed. But now I realise that impression is all too superficial. Bigotry will out, and it wants to condemn, punish and control. It is the mindset of the totalitarian.

The Guardian published a column by Zoe Williams on Tuesday that ought to make any right-minded person gasp with shock, no matter what his or her political views. Quite a few Guardian readers were indeed shocked, to judge by their comments online. Williams was discussing the fact that many parents who would prefer to send their children to private schools – she calls them privateers – are obliged by the economic slump to send them to state schools. Her view is that the children of such privateers should be forced to the bottom of the waiting lists for state primary schools.

Never mind, she says, whether such children are “swamping” state primaries, or might do in the future, or not at all: this has nothing to do with the availability of school places and everything to do with ideology – such children must be put at the back of the queue. Her view, unpleasant though it is, might be worth rational discussion. But Williams’s tone is far from rational. It is frightening. She writes like an old-fashioned class warrior who believes children must be punished for the class guilt of their parents, and if that sounds vindictive, she admits she means it to. “Ha! Good,” she exclaims unselfconsciously.

Perhaps this is an opportune moment to point out that Williams was privately educated at the expensive and selective Godolphin and Latymer school in west London, which no doubt helped her to get a place at Oxford and a job at The Guardian; should she, too, be punished for the class crimes of her parents in educating her privately? Which queue should Williams be shoved to the back of to atone for her inherited class guilt?

What horrifies me more than her general approach is the totalitarian detail in which she indulges her class hatred. Her list of exclusion for privateers’ children is precisely graded. To the bottom she dispatches those who have been recently removed from private schools; “above them but below everybody else” should be children with siblings at private schools; and somewhere near them should be children whose parents’ first choice was a faith school.

It reminded me at once of the careful protocols of Nazi selection systems, or the elaborate plans put forward by Stalinists and Maoists; it reads like those chilling, heart-rending accounts of life in the USSR and communist China, from Solzhenitsyn to Jung Chang.

“There are other questions”, Williams goes on, apparently ignorant of similar interrogations during the worst of 20th-century totalitarianism, that “an admissions process could use to whittle out privateers. Do they have a 4x4? Can parents provide a letter from any local left-wing organisation attesting to their commitment to open-access state education? Did they go to any meetings? . . . come on, you lefties . . . what happened to your sharp elbows?” I rest my case. This is hate speech, class war and political bigotry of the most vicious sort. What is one to make of the suggestion that “local left-wing organisations” should stand in judgment on parents and their thoughts?

Just as astonishing was a comment made in a guide to adoption published by a state-funded national agency, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. Its new booklet, the Pink Guide to Adoption for Lesbians and Gay Men, describes people who oppose gay adoption as “retarded homophobes”. The association repeated this choice phrase on its Be My Parent website, although it has since been removed. This again was a shocking glimpse of the unmasked teeth of vicious bigotry, made even worse by unselfconscious hypocrisy.

“Retarded” is a word that no decent person would now use to describe another. It was a cruel and largely American expression for people with intellectual impairments. For years it has been considered inaccurate, ignorant and offensive and demeaning to people with learning disabilities.

I find it amazing that anyone would use it at all, let alone in public or in print, let alone the people in the adoption association, which is about as politically correct as an organisation can be, and still less in a booklet aimed at a minority that has good reason to notice and resent demeaning words. It seems the phrase was written by a contributor, not by the association, but that is no excuse – the word “retarded” should have leapt out at those responsible for producing the booklet.

And how much worse it is to use the word “retarded” as a conscious insult. How can any outfit subsidised by the taxpayer and run by the supposedly politically correct use any disability as an insult? And how much worse again it is to use such bizarre insults against people to discredit their arguments and their beliefs. Does the association think that people who disagree with it are, ipso facto, “retards”? Is disagreement with it a sign of cognitive impairment? Does it perhaps think that people who disagree are not merely mentally handicapped (in another old-fashioned expression) but mentally ill as well, in need of locking up in an insane asylum as in totalitarian countries?

Whether people who oppose gay adoption are right or wrong is not the point. I happen to think they are wrong, but it will not do to dismiss their arguments with insults – insults that are not only offensive to them but also even more insulting to innocent bystanders. I am glad, however, that these bigots have done so, because those who wrote these words and published them and publicised them on the internet have revealed themselves in their true colours.

For the same reason I am glad that Williams felt free to publish her spiteful rant and that The Guardian printed it. By their words shall ye know them. That is one of the great beauties of free speech. If we must have bigots and totalitarians in our midst, it is good to know who they are and what they think, so we can beware of them.


BOOK REVIEW of Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage by Jeff Benedict

Reviewed by Jeff Jacoby

On June 23, 2005, the US Supreme Court handed down one of the most reviled decisions in its history. By a vote of 5 to 4, the court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London that local governments may seize people's homes and businesses through eminent domain in order to make the land available to new owners for redevelopment. In so doing, the majority decided that the words "public use" in the Fifth Amendment -- "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation" -- did not mean what they said. Property could be confiscated for entirely private use, the court ruled, so long as the government expected some eventual public benefit, such as an expanded tax base or new jobs.

"Promoting economic development is a traditional and long-accepted function of government," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens, in a rather bloodless majority opinion joined by Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Anthony Kennedy. "[T]here is no basis for exempting economic development from our traditionally broad understanding of public purpose."

But as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor pointed out in a vigorous dissent, the Supreme Court had never held that economic development alone could justify the use of eminent domain. After all, she observed, practically any lawful use of private property will generate some incidental public benefit. If it takes no more than that to satisfy the Constitution's command that only land required "for public use" may be condemned, "then the words 'for public use' do not realistically exclude any takings, and thus do not exert any constraint on the eminent domain power."

O'Connor's dissent, in which Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined, put the bottom line starkly: Kelo meant that property owners could be stripped of their land whenever the government decided that some other owner -- some wealthier owner -- could use it to make more money or generate more business. "The specter of condemnation hangs over all property," warned the dissenters in a passage that was widely quoted and struck a chord with the public. "Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."

Even before Kelo, the use of eminent domain had expanded beyond the classic case in which private property is taken to make way for a highway or post office or other public facility. In the 1954 case of Berman v. Parker, the Supreme Court had unanimously permitted eminent domain to be deployed for what was then called "urban renewal." It upheld property takings within a blighted area of Washington, DC, where two-thirds of the housing was beyond repair; the property was then sold to new owners for redevelopment. The Public Use Clause encompassed "public purpose," Berman held -- and eliminating the harm caused by blight was a legitimate public purpose. Property owners could be forced to yield to a government seeking to clean up a dirty, dangerous, impoverished slum.

But Fort Trumbull -- the New London, Conn., neighborhood at the heart of the litigation in Kelo -- was no slum.

To be sure, it was no Greenwich, either, as I discovered in 2001, when I visited New London to learn more about the eminent-domain litigation that was just then getting underway. Home to an ill-smelling sewage plant, separated from the rest of New London by railroad tracks, Fort Trumbull was nobody's idea of chic. The Revolutionary-era fort that gave the neighborhood its name was neglected and overrun with weeds.

On the other hand, many of Fort Trumbull's families were conscientious about their properties, into which many had invested much sweat equity -- stripping and refinishing hardwood floors, putting in flowerbeds, installing new plumbing, replacing broken sidewalks. Matt Dery, a lifelong resident of Fort Trumbull, described to me how he had bought the house next to his parents' home, gutted it to the studs, and renovated it by hand, working on it every day for a year before getting married and moving into it with his bride. Susette Kelo bought a 110-year-old Victorian cottage overlooking the Thames River and researched 19th century building styles to find a historically-appropriate paint color; she settled on Odessa Rose, a shade of pink. Mike Cristofaro showed me the yews and fruit trees his parents had planted in their back yard on Goshen Street; they had transplanted them from their first house in New London -- a house the city had seized through eminent domain 30 years earlier.

In short, Fort Trumbull was like countless other working-class American neighborhoods -- homey but humble, cherished by its residents though not likely to inspire covetous glances from outsiders.

But everything changed when Pfizer, the giant pharmaceutical corporation, decided in 1998 to build its new research headquarters along the river just south of Fort Trumbull. City officials were thrilled to have landed a Fortune 100 company; at one point the mayor called it "the greatest thing that's ever happened to New London." To pave the way for Pfizer's arrival, the city charged the New London Development Corporation (NLDC) with clearing out the adjoining neighborhood and replacing its modest homes and shops with something more posh: offices, a conference center, upscale condominiums, a luxury hotel.

No public use was envisioned for the new construction. Nearly all of it was to be privately owned and operated. The NLDC's goal was to make Pfizer happy, and Pfizer executive George Milne put his company's wish list in writing. "Our New London expansion requires the world-class redevelopment planned for the adjacent 90 acres in … Fort Trumbull," he wrote in 1999, itemizing the amenities Pfizer was looking for: "a waterfront hotel with about 200 rooms, a conference center and physical-fitness area, extended-stay residential units, and 80 units of housing." Accommodating the families already living in Fort Trumbull, however, was not a part of the Pfizer/NLDC vision. As another Pfizer executive condescendingly told the Hartford Courant: "Pfizer wants a nice place to operate. We don't want to be surrounded by tenements."

Ruthlessly, the NLDC began to obliterate the old neighborhood. Property owners were pressed to sell their homes. If they refused, they were told, the city would condemn their property and acquire it by eminent domain. Most of the homeowners, many of them elderly, bowed to the pressure and left. A handful of holdouts, including Kelo, the Derys, and the Cristofaros, refused, and fought city hall all the way to the Supreme Court.

Little Pink House is the story of that fight, and it is told with verve and passion by journalist Jeff Benedict. Though not a neutral narrative -- Benedict doesn't hide his admiration for Kelo and the other property owners who battled to save their homes -- it is fair and deeply informed. To recreate the small-town political street fight that led to a notorious Supreme Court landmark, the author conducted hundreds of interviews over three years with nearly everyone who played a role in the case. He also reviewed a vast paper trail, from transcripts and government memos to private journals, letters, and e-mails.

Susette Kelo and her former home in New London

The result is a brisk and absorbing case study in how easily government and the politically well-connected can muscle past the rights of ordinary citizens. It is also a heartening reminder of how seriously Americans regard their liberties, and the grit with which they are capable of defending them.

At the heart of Little Pink House are two compelling women. One is Kelo, a fortysomething EMT-turned-nurse who had grown up in poverty and whose sole asset was the fixer-upper on the water she had fallen in love with at first sight. It was the only property she had ever owned and it meant the world to her. "I have never been happier in my life than I am now," she wrote on her first night in the house in 1997, "sitting on the porch rocker watching the water go by."

The other central figure is Claire Gaudiani, the flamboyant and hard-driving president of Connecticut College, who agreed to lead the NLDC and made it her aim to carry out the most sweeping redevelopment in New London's history. A highly accomplished Renaissance woman, Gaudiani tended to be imperious and relentless when pursuing a goal. She insisted that redeveloping Fort Trumbull would be a boon to New London's poor -- she compared her mission at the NLDC to those of Jesus and Martin Luther King -- yet she seemed oblivious to the price Fort Trumbull's homeowners were being asked to pay. "Anything that's working in our great nation," she blithely declared, "is working because somebody left skin on the sidewalk."

A key theme of Little Pink House is the social and economic inequality between those who wanted Fort Trumbull razed and rebuilt -- the powerful Pfizer Corporation, Connecticut Governor John Rowland (later convicted in an unrelated corruption scandal), the high-living Gaudiani -- and the far-from-wealthy property owners who went to court to save their homes. "They were largely a lunch-pail group," Benedict writes of the plaintiffs,

-- a carpenter, an auto mechanic, a nurse, a self-employed businessman, and some senior citizens hoping to spend their final days in the homes they had occupied for decades. Most of them had dirt under their nails at the end of the workday.

What they didn't have was the pull to prevent New London from dispossessing them for the sake of a powerful company and higher tax revenues. Such disparities are nearly always present when the eminent-domain power is abused -- a point that wasn't lost on the Kelo dissenters. "Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random," Justice O'Connor wrote.

The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.

More than 200 years before Kelo, Supreme Court Justice William Paterson characterized eminent domain as "the despotic power . . . of taking private property when state necessity requires." To seize private property absent such "state necessity" is worse than despotic, it is unconscionable. Unfortunately it is not uncommon; what happened in New London has happened innumerable times in recent years. In 2003, the Institute for Justice -- the libertarian public-interest law firm that represented the Kelo plaintiffs pro bono -- documented hundreds of examples of eminent domain being used to seize property for the benefit of politically favored businesses. The New London case was unusual only because it went to the Supreme Court.

But the court's execrable decision wasn't the last word. Its effective repeal of the Fifth Amendment's Public Use Clause sparked a nationwide backlash and, as Benedict observes in an epilogue, galvanized a movement for reform at the state level:

As of 2008, two state supreme courts have rejected the notion that the government can take private property to generate tax revenues or create jobs, and three others have cast doubt on its validity. . . . [S]even states have passed constitutional amendments to ban taking private property for economic development and 42 of the 50 states have passed legislation to protect property owners from abusive eminent domain practices.

Susette Kelo's little pink house still stands: It was moved last year to a new location in downtown New London, where it has been designated a historic landmark and has become the home of a local preservationist. The revival of Fort Trumbull, meanwhile, has yet to begin. Nearly four years after the Supreme Court allowed New London to confiscate homes and shops in the name of economic development, nothing has been built where the old neighborhood used to stand.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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