Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Lieberman, Alito and the Consensus

After much cogitation, U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman issued a press release detailing his reasons for voting against Supreme Court nominee Judge Sam Alito. Neither his reasons nor his vote may placate his critics on the left, many of whom are still smarting from his announced support for President George Bush’s Iraq policy.

Lieberman’s anti-Alito vote, one critic noted, is a safe political move that will not arouse antagonism within the pro-choice crowd: “Having the anti-war crowd upset is one thing but Lieberman would have set off a firestorm of anger in the state if he voted for the guy who will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.” Liberals called upon Lieberman to join in a filibuster recommended by former Vice President Al Gore, a truer test of the senator’s resolve since his vote could not block Alito’s confirmation in the senate.

According to Lieberman’s press release, Alito failed to pass a four point test. Lieberman gave Alito a star on three points -- intellect and ability, experience and character – but problems arose with the judge’s judicial philosophy. Lieberman’s doubts are anchored in Alito’s judicial judgments and not merely in his performance before the Judiciary Committee.

“Based on his personal statements during the 1980s when he was a government attorney, and particularly on his 15 years of judicial opinions,” Lieberman said, “I am left with profound concerns that Judge Alito would diminish the Supreme Court’s role as the ultimate guarantor of individual liberty in our country. This is not about a single issue but about an accumulation of his opinions that leads me to a preponderance of doubts.”

Lieberman’s principal objection to Alito revolved around his refusal to say that the 1965 Supreme Court decision in Rove v Wade was “settled law” – Alito said it was settled precedent -- though the judge had agreed that the 1965 decision of Griswold v Connecticut was settled law. Lieberman went on to say, “I personally believe that Roe achieved a just balance of rights and reflected a societal consensus that has continued and deepened in our country for more than three decades. I was left with serious concerns that Judge Alito would not uphold the basic tenets of Roe and that is a very troubling conclusion.”

Far from “reflecting a societal consensus,” Roe v Wade was a tinderbox decision that some legal scholars believe was poorly arrived at. Years after the decision, abortion remains a tinderbox issue, largely owing to the intervention of the court in a matter that, some scholars believe, should have been left to state legislatures. Even liberal scholars who support abortion quibble with the Roe v Wade decision.

The expression “settled law” is a phrase more ambiguous than it seems at first sight. Even as settled law, Roe v Wade need not present an obstacle to states that wish to upset the prevailing consensus among arch liberal senators that any and every form of abortion should be permitted. Roe v Wade certainly has not produced societal consensus within orthodox Catholicism or Judaism, and the excommunication in Oct. 2000 of Lieberman by a rabbinical court in Brooklyn – owing, in part, to Lieberman’s votes on partial birth abortion -- may be taken as an indication of the degree to which Roe v Wade is incapable of producing a societal consensus.

The slings and arrows directed at Supreme Court justices since Roe v Wade – ironically by senators – is directly related to court interventions that may not have been necessary had senators been courageous enough to pass legislation they now want courts to affirm through judicial decisions. These decisions cannot produce a consensus because in democracies the governed will not consent to be governed by autocratic judges. And governments that do not have the consent of the people are constitutionally illegitimate.

What one wants desperately in Supreme Court Justices is modesty combined with a settled judgment that the court must operate within the constraints of the constitution. In this regard, barring serious objections from Lieberman, the following statement by Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito is a hopeful portent: “Our constitutional system relies heavily on the judiciary to restrain itself. To do this, judges must engage in a continual process of self- questioning about the way in which they are performing the responsibilities of their offices," he continued. "Judges must also have faith that the cause of justice in the long run is best served if they scrupulously heed the limits of their role rather than transgressing those limits in an effort to achieve a desired result in a particular case."

Monday, January 30, 2006

Welcome Back Moody

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--
Almost, at times, the Fool
– The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Elliot

Lisa Moody’s prospects appear to be improving. She took a sound hit in the side but didn’t go down. For partisan Democrats, she will be treated as Governor Jodi Rell’s black eye. Because Moody attempted to muscle commissioners to contribute to Rell’s political campaign, we are supposed to conclude that Rell is at least as corrupt as her predecessor, the execrable John Rowland; that is what the Democrats want everyone to think. This tactic probably won’t work for a whole host of reasons.

First of all, there is the difficulty of the pot calling the kettle black. Muscling people to contribute to campaigns is not an unknown practice among ambitious Democrats. Both Democrat contenders for state governor have been known to indulge. And painting an opponent as corrupt is fraught with danger, because it is an invitation to scrutiny. One notices the blackness of the kettle when it calls the pot black. The state, well on its way to illegalizing once ubiquitous political practices, has not yet criminalized what Moody did, though it is illegal for commissioners to use their positions to solicit contributions from their underlings, multiple investigations are in process, and some hapless commissioner yet may be found to have broken a law. Moody committed a stupidity rather than a crime. But sometimes stupidities are more fatal in politics than illegal acts; the legislature, we all know, is awash in lawyers adept in steering large crafts through legal loopholes.

It has been said that Moody is a micro-manager with a short fuse, a kind of larval Karl Rove. Svengallis are everywhere in politics these days. The tactic of painting the chief executive as a puppet whose strings are jerked by a superior intelligence – which may allow opponents to claim mental defects in their target – has its downside, as may be seen in the case of President Bush, the most underestimated politician in recent memory. If Bush’s brain lies in Rove’s cranium, people are likely to credit Rove, rather than Bush, both with the successes and failures of his administration. Voters do not blame puppets for errors in judgment.

Moody and Rell click because they share a community of interests. In Vernon, Moody had a reputation of upstaging Democrats. But the Democrats were unruffled because they got most of what they wanted from her. In political parlance, giving the opposition half a loaf in hopes they will not devour the whole loaf, is wrongly called pragmatism: Real political pragmatism is the application of scientific methods to politics and does not require the abandonment of sound principles. Political partisans tend to view a corrupted pragmatism as treasonable. The long term effect of giving ground to your opponent is to allow him to achieve his objectives over a longer period of time; better to die at once, said the philosopher, than to be trampled to death by geese.

Within the Republican Party, whose core constituency still is awakened by calls for small and efficient government, the governor’s attempts to outflank Democrats through her support for initiatives that, prior to her administration, had been owned by the Democrat Party, looks very much like treason rather than co-option. The same holds true for Democrat Party stalwarts on the left: To them, the so called pragmatism of a Sen. Joe Lieberman smells very much like capitulation.

Slowly but surely, we are witnessing a politics of parties being replaced by a politics of personalities. Co-option and collegiality are the hallmarks of a politics of personalities. These changes occur when parties lose their centrifugal force and people are no longer drawn to them. Here in Connecticut, the Democrat Party has been captured by special interests: feminists, labor unions and professional political staffers, including expatriates from the fourth estate. The Republican Party hardly exists at all. Released from any obligation to parties, incumbents are free to plot their own courses; politics becomes a contest between the ins and outs; and important political decisions are made by interest groups gravitating around the shriveled rumps of the major parties. The rise of the independent voter and the political prominence of attendant lords such as Moody follow the same arc. Prufrockians, they are no Hamlets -- merely attendant lords, glad to be of use.

We cannot complain too loudly of them. In functioning democracies, people always deserve the politics they get.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Dodd, Kennedy, Lieberman and Alito

Of Connecticut’s two Democrat senators, U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd was first out of the gate in announcing he intended to vote against confirming Sam Alito as a Supreme Court justice. U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, under fire from liberals in his party for having cravenly supported President George Bush’s Iraq policy, played his cards close to the vest prior to a vote in the senate.

In detailing his reasons for voting against Alito, Dodd said the judge failed to show that he will be “independent, will respect the settled law of the land, and will be committed to the core principle of our law: equal justice for all.” Alito’s judicial philosophy, Dodd said, was “outside the mainstream" and "has caused him to support dramatic new powers for the government and fewer rights for ordinary citizens." Dodd feared that "the president would act with radical new powers - unchecked by either the Congress or the courts as envisioned by the framers of our Constitution," should Alito be seated on the court.

Respecting the “settled law of the land” is shorthand among Democrats for supporting and upholding Supreme Court decisions on abortion that, a little more than three decades ago, had radically changed the laws of the land. Had the principle of respect for settled law cited by Dodd been operative after the appointment to the court of justices who evidentially did not feel unnerved in upsetting long standing statutory apple carts, Roe v Wade could never have become the law of the land.

It was the U.S. Senate – certainly not the Supreme Court – that supported putative dramatic new powers for the Bush administration, which the president then deployed to make war in Iraq. Senators who have retrospectively regreted their votes augmenting presidential power are now fiercely backpedaling, with little success. The judgments that Alito might make as a Supreme Court Justice to redress what Dodd considers a possible imbalance of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches is a matter that might more aptly be handled by tea leaves readers than senators.

But Dodd at least did not go quite so far as U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy in his soothsaying.

Leaping over 15 years of carefully crafted judicial decisions, Kennedy reached back all the way to Alito’s college years for evidence that the judge who sat before him was bigoted towards minorities. After Kennedy asserted that Alito had not written “one single opinion on the merits in favor of a person of color alleging race discrimination on the job during his years on the bench,” one commentator produced twelve decisions made by Alito that clearly demonstrated an energetic support of minorities.

Another commentator pointed out that Alito’s college indiscretions were no match for the Chappaquiddick Kid. At Harvard, the senator had paid another student to take an exam for him, and he was a card carrying member of the now notorious Owl Club, a social club for Harvard alumni that bans women from membership. The prior discriminatory practices of the members of the Owl Club did not prevent the senator from renewing his membership to the club last September – though he recently quickly withdrew his membership after having been outted by conservatives -- nor did it restrain Kennedy’s righteous indignation.

The senator’s assault proved too much to bear for Alito’s wife, who presumably has a more intimate knowledge than Kennedy concerning her husband’s attitude towards women and retreated from the scene of the assault in tears.

It was partly the gaudy show put on by Judiciary Committee members that spurred Sen. Joe Biden to offer a sensible suggestion: Let’s do away with Judiciary Committee hearings, an embarrassment to everyone but those who are shameless, and allow debates from the senate floor, after which the senators may cast an up or down vote on prospective nominees for the Supreme Court.

Judiciary Committee hearings have now become political gladiatorial contests, replete with maulings by senatorial lions, hacked off limbs, and blood in the dust. The painful display of senatorial egotism typified by Kennedy recalls the pagan rituals described by Sir James George Frazier in The Golden Bough.

“As soon as the god was supposed to have entered the priest,” Frazier wrote, “the latter became violently agitated, and worked himself up to the highest pitch of apparent frenzy, the muscles of the limbs seemed convulsed, the body swelled, the countenance became terrific, the features distorted, and the eyes wild and strained.”

Dodd has not yet joined the priesthood of Democrat partisans, though he has on occasion bent the knee to the senator from Massachusetts. But no one should count Dodd out: The gaudy show on the floor of the senate has yet to unfold.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Michele Jacklin Crosses the Bar

The announcement that appeared in the Hartford Courant was brief and modest, a little less than 150 words, five famished paragraphs: Michele Jacklin, former reporter, columnist and editorial board member had left the paper and joined the gubernatorial campaign of current Bridgeport Mayor John DeStefano as Director of Policy and Research.

Other journalists have passed the bar dividing journalism and politics without damage to their careers. Pat Buchanan, initially connected with Richard Nixon, has passed over and under the bar several times; George Stephanopoulos moved effortlessly from Bill Clinton’s campaigns to become a television commentator; and closer to home, Charlie Morse, once the Courant’s chief political columnist, appropriately ended his career at the paper by joining the campaign of Lowell Weicker, an ideological soul mate.

Some political watchers were mildly stunned by Jacklin’s move; not because she had passed through the revolving door that connects journalism and politics, but because she did not end up as a staffer on rival Democrat Dan Malloy’s gubernatorial campaign

When DeStefano claimed that he was the stronger gubernatorial candidate because he had won re-election by a larger margin than Malloy, Jacklin, in one of her last Courant columns, rushed to Malloy’s defense: “To suggest as DeStefeno did,” that he's the stronger of the two because he won by a larger margin is preposterous. DeStefano's candicacy is headed for trouble if he persists in taking us, and Malloy, for fools.”

Let us pause for a moment and ask prayerfully: What is the import of the word “us” in Jacklin’s challenge to DeStefano?

Political columnists are not used to hiding their lights under baskets, and it was widely known among journalist insiders that Jacklin had in her column been supporting Malloy, whose campaign is top-heavy with staff that drifed into their jobs from Bill Curry’s previous attempts to make Connecticut safe for property tax reform. Jacklin would have been much at home among Roy Occhiogrosso, a campaign battle scarred barroom brawler associated with the Global Strategy Group. The group is a New York based company that maintains a pilot operation in Hartford. Occhiogrosso’s colleagues are Kathleen Curry, Bill Currry’s sister, former television journalists Duby McDowell, Curry’s 1994 campaign manager Betsy O’Neill and Global's New York-based founder and pollster Jefrey Pollock.

Like heaven, the Democrat Party has many mansions. Only on blog sites have the relevant questions been asked. Both DeStefano and Malloy would have been happy to provide Jacklin a safe harbor in the storm that appears to have overtaken the Courant. The paper, now a part of a large chain, has been under pressure to lighten its staff. Why then, since Jacklin’s sympathies seemed to lie with Malloy, did she accept a spot on the DeStefano campaign? And does the open door between journalism and politics present any problems at all?

Various answers to the first question are in circulation on some blog sites. Perhaps the DeStefano campaign made Jacklin a money offer that could not be met by the Malloy campaign. When companies throw their employees out of the plane, they do not often provide sufficient financial parachutes. Other more cynical heads think Jacklin may be a sapper, a friend of the friends of Malloy tunneling beneath the DeStefano campaign in an attempt to undermine it. Considering her communication skills, one frequently visited blogmeister noted, Jacklin might have performed better as a communications director, but then that slot might have raised questions in the journalistic community centering on the overarching question: What did DeStefano buy when he hired Jacklin?

He bought a lobbyist, one blog commentator noted. Just as business lobbyists serve as intermediaries between corporations and legislatures, so do hired journalists serve as liaisons between the journalistic community and political campaigns. The DeStefano campaign could not hire Jacklin as a press liaison because lobbying activity always occurs in the twilight. Connections must be indirect, subtle and nuanced. The unsubtle lobbyist who is identified purely and simply as a business agent is half undone. The effective lobbyists’ whole effort is directed at convincing legislators that he represents a broad non-partisan interest. That is also the mission of journalists who seek to conceal their partisanship.

On this view, Jacklin has made a wise career choice in joining the DeStefano campaign.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Lieberman Soldiers On

Some Connecticut liberals, unable to step off the Weapons of Mass Destruction dime, are grievously disappointed in Sen. Joe Lieberman. Over in Manchester -- the political bailiwick of Rep. John Larson, who sports a perfect liberal Americans for Democratic Action rating of 100 percent – the Democratic Town Committee produced a resolution a few weeks ago condemning Lieberman’s position on the Iraq war.

The resolution chided Lieberman, whose ADA rating is a reputable 75 percent, for “supporting President Bush in the handling of the Iraq conflict,” asked the senator to work “to help bring American troops home by the end of 2006 or sooner,” and asserted that actions undertaken by the president and his advisors “have served to galvanize the Arab world against the United States.” One attendee at the meeting, creator of www.DumpJoe.com Keith Crane, predicted “This is the beginning of a huge movement. I think this resolution will be used as the foundation for other resolutions throughout the state.”

Lieberman made an appearance before the Manchester Democratic Town Committee in the second week of the New Year to answer assertions made in the resolution, in the course of which he mollified some people and further irritated others.

Lieberman pointed out that his defense of Bush could not be considered “unconditional,” as stated in the resolution -- even with respect to his support for the Iraq war -- since he had previously and consistently criticized the president for not having sent sufficient troops to Iraq at its beginning to quell the insurgency. He condemned as “corrosive” the political left’s hatred of Bush, pointed out that the war on terror had promoted democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, spurred Lebanon to drive the Syrian military from its country after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and cautioned against allowing partisan politics to frustrate efforts to accomplish the democratization of the Middle East.

While the results of a Quinnipiac University survey issued on January 11 shows some slippage of support for Lieberman among liberal Democrats, the same poll shows that only 24 percent of voters would vote against Lieberman based on the Iraq war issue alone, and the resulting deficit disappears because Lieberman’s views have won strong support among Republican voters. At 62 percent, Lieberman’s approval rating is three points higher than that of Sen. Chris Dodd, whose position on the Iraq war has not been publicized in detail but is presumed to be more favorable to Democrat groups that oppose Lieberman.

The interpretation of any poll, which presumably offers a snapshot of the mind of the electorate, is an iffy proposition at best. Results may bear different interpretations. Is Lieberman’s support in Connecticut formidable because he is an incumbent, or because the Republican Party in Connecticut has been so weakened, some would say by its timidity, that it cannot offer serious resistance to determined Democrat incumbents, or because the war in Iraq has not yet become a tipping point issue for people who are not rabid partisans, or because voters tend to cast their ballots for or against people rather than issues? Lieberman’s personality, thoughtful and genial, is attractive to many people in these uncivil and contentious times. Probably all of these answers are in play in the poll’s results.

And Lieberman also is in play. This month the senator paid visits to both liberal and conservative media outlets. Even the Hartford Advocate remarked on his geniality, and in other venues the senator ably defended the position on the war he outlined in his Wall Street Journal opinion piece. The beef about Lieberman from leftist partisans is that his position on Iraq is too nuanced and centrist.

In some press interviews, Lieberman reminded home grown Democrats that their party is somewhat divided on the proper approach in Iraq. He praised Rep. John M. Murtha for having taken a “clear position” against the war, even as he articulated his disagreement with Murtha. "What I'm troubled about,” Lieberman said, “are people who are not prepared to take that position to get out, but still continually snipe at the war… That hurts the war effort, and it's not in our national interest…I'm talking about the corrosiveness of a political overlay, a partisan overlay, in matters of war," There are people on both side of the political barricades, Lieberman said, who sincerely believe that the United States should not pull out of Iraq “until the conditions on the ground allow us to.”

These are not the ravings of a blood thirsty partisan sitting in a ditch throwing mud balls at the opposition, and they are a strong indication that Lieberman feels at home under the broad umbrella of a centrist political vision.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Lieberman and the Anti-War Left

“To put it simply, screw Joe and don't feel sorry for him or give him a free pass this election year. He has always thought of no one but himself and his own image whenever he opens his mouth and has been a pain in the side of Democrats in Connecticut. This is an election year and the only time the voters of Connecticut hold Lieberman accountable for his actions. No Democrat should come to his defense or campaign for him if he is challenged by Weicker or another Democrat.” --

Principles are tethers that do not permit politicians to wander very far from their promises. The beef about the last two Connecticut governors is that they both threw off their tethers. To be a moderate – clever moderates will prefer he term “pragmatist” – is to shuck off binding restraints. Former governor and senator Lowell Weicker made a career of this; former Governor John Rowland’s elastic principles ferried him to prison. The first pragmatist was not William James but Ralph Waldo Emerson, who warned that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by statesmen, philosophers and divines.” Neither Emerson nor James, both broad minded philosophers, would fault a principled consistency.

It is important to bear these distinctions in mind when discussing Sen. Joe Lieberman’s position on the war in Iraq. Lieberman’s position is tied to certain principles that he cannot easily abandon; some have uncharitably supposed that Lieberman’s sole principle is the security and safety of Israel. Lieberman’s position on the war has jarred the sensibilities of liberals within his own party. The only question worth discussing at this point is: Whose principles are more foolishly consistent, Lieberman’s or the anti-Bush, anti Iraq war liberals within the Democrat Party?

Most anti-war liberals have been reluctant, so far, to move beyond the rhetorical barricades they have set up to protest the war. Except for a growing vanguard that now insists on a certain date for the withdrawal of troops, many on the left are content to reinforce the view that President Bush entered the war on false pretenses. Their operative assumption appears to be that since the reason for entering the war was fraudulent, the United States should withdraw its troops; the end must be aborted because the means were found wanting. To Lieberman and others, that principled position seems to be foolishly consistent, because it does not allow for the probable consequences of withdrawal.

The times, Lieberman has argued, have moved beyond the point when Bush decided to oust Saddam Hussein. “We are fighting on the side of the 27 million [Iraqis],” Lieberman wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “because the outcome of this war is critically important to the security and freedom of America. If the terrorists win, they will be emboldened to strike us directly again and to further undermine the growing stability and progress in the Middle East, which has long been a major American national and economic security priority.” Lieberman already has agreed that the entrée to the war, like the road to Hell, was paved with good intentions, some of which were rooted in false assumptions.

There are two legitimate reasons for engaging in war: The war must be 1) necessary and 2) winnable. The absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq does not necessarily mean that the Iraq war is unnecessary, and the continued insurgency does not necessarily mean that the struggle is unwinnable.

Bush’s operative assumption is that democracy in Iraq, which is not friendly towards totalitarian regimes, will soften the grosser pretensions of religious fascists intent on imposing in the Middle East a functioning caliphate that, given free reign, will destroy Israel and force the West to embrace Islam by means of terror and political chicanery. According to some on the Right, much of the West already has been fatally undermined. The hard and soft Left in the United States regards such talk as demonization. They view the insurgency in Iraq as a reaction against a foreign occupation; withdraw the troops, and conditions will revert to the status quo before Osama Bin Laden facilitated the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York.

Any honest debate on the war in Iraq – and at least one newspaper has promised a “debate” on the issue between Lieberman and his alter ego, Sen. Chris Dodd – should center on the question: Of the two views represented here, which is the more consistently foolish?

No one wants to make a fatal mistake.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

There's a Republican in my Soup

Since the retirement of the last Democrat governor, William O’Neill, aspiring Republican governors have not had inspiring role models. Former senator and governor Lowell Weicker should be considered a Republican, though he won office as an independent, since Weicker spent most of his political life toiling in Republican Party vineyards. Weicker, who likes to consider himself a Jacob Javitts moderate Republican, was a liberal perpetually at war with his surrounding environment.

Former Governor John Rowland entered his first term in office waving an “axe the tax” banner and at first seemed to harbor troublesome conservative tendencies, assuming one was willing to give heed to his broken campaign pledges. Wiser heads in Connecticut now advise caution in the matter of campaign promises – most especially when the candidate is a Republican. The transformation of putative conservative Republicans into raging bull liberals, once the frauds have attained office, occurs at the sped of light because, some have argued, there is no conservative support structure in the state. It does not pay to be a one term conservative officeholder when operating in a state that will hand you your head on a platter if you persist in arousing those who jealously guard the status quo.

Governor Jodi Rell, a moderate Republican, is refreshingly free of pretence. To vary a phrase of the Englishman who said to Thomas Carlyle, “Sir, I was born an Englishman, have lived as an Englishman and will die an Englishman,” Rell was born a Republican moderate, will live as a Republican moderate and will die a Republican moderate. Carlyle’s response to the patriotic Englishman rolls with a belly laugh down the ages: “Mon,” said Carlyle, “Have’ye no imagination?”

Imagination is the midwife of change, and change, once the child has grown up, can be a terror to the old guard. There are two kinds of changes: quantitative and qualitative. The guardians of the status quo, convinced that there can never be too much of what they consider to be a good thing, fear only qualitative changes. They will not resist, for example, higher pay for teachers, smaller classes or longer school days, because quantitative changes of this kind do not threaten to upset prevailing arrangements, even though the condition of education in urban public schools is by anyone’s measure an utter failure. But propose a qualitative change that may lift urban students out of the dark ages of public school education, and the old guard will pull the roof down about your head.

The Amistad Academy in New Haven, whose student population is 97 percent black and Hispanic, is one of the highest-performing middle schools in the state. The school’s pedagogical approach, modeled on a Knowledge Is Power Program, is grounded in an operative system of rewards and punishments that focuses the attention of its students on academic performance. Dress standards, pledges of attendance and the completion of homework assignments are written into contracts signed by teachers and parents. Essential core values -- respect and hard work -- are rigorously enforced. Admission to the school is by lottery and the curriculum is not dumbed down.

Last May, the Washington Post noted that in 2003, “81 percent of Amistad eighth-graders achieved ‘mastery’ in reading on the state test, compared with 31 percent of students in New Haven and 67 percent statewide. Two years earlier, in sixth grade, the same students had lagged behind their statewide counterparts by 38 percent to 64 percent.” It’s all been uphill since then.

In an undistorted market place, the undisputed success of The Amistad Academy would be replicated in every urban public school system in Connecticut, and schools that didn’t shape up would be out of business. Gradually, patterning themselves on successful pedagogical models, urban school systems would no longer abandon whole generations of school children to failure and despair.

This will not happen because the undertow of inertia is too powerful. Provided the successes of The Amistad Academy can be contained and limited, the state’s public education behemoth need not worry that its failures will inspire political concern. Political concern, -- the frank recognition that there is a problem, married with imagination and the will power to confront and overcome entrenched special interests -- occasionally lead to the implementation of practical solutions; but not here in Connecticut, which studies problems to death and soldiers on maintaining the status quo. Far from being a solution to the problem, moderate Republicans are part of the problem.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The New Puritans

H.L. Mencken both misunderstood and loathed Puritanism, which he defined as the dread suspicion that someone, somewhere was having a little fun. The new puritans, every bit as frowningly serious as the old, have changed their targets and methods, but scratch one with a pitchfork and you will see shining beneath the skin the same iron resolve. The new puritans have long since given up religion as a serious pursuit and are, however much they may protest the imputation, what Jacques Martian once called “practical atheists,” many of them clutching ACLU suits in their fists and railing about separation of church and state.

Of course it is always misleading to engage in stereotyping, but a partial list of new puritans might include Christians alienated from their church who have chucked Augustine and Aquinas for some exotic quasi-religious practice; devout readers of Dan Brown, an author who circulates in his fiction several ancient exploded heresies of the early Christian church; or Ann Rice, the Queen of Vampirism and author of several best selling books, the most popular of which is “Conversations with the Vampire.”

But hang on there a minute… In the new year, it will not be possible to include Rice in the upper echelons of the new puritans. The author has bidden goodbye to all that. "I will never write those kind of books again -- never," Rice has said, referring to her Vampire Chronicles series. Her previous books, revolving around witches and dark angels, Rice said, "were reflections of a world that didn't include redemption.” Rice has vowed,” I will never again write anything against the Lord.” Having been overcome by what she calls the beauty of faith, Rice has returned to her New Orleans Catholic roots and, however popular, may soon be expected to disappear down the media memory hole.

No matter, Rice has not returned from Hell with empty hands. Her latest book is called “Out of Egypt: Christ the Lord,” the sort of title likely to get an author uninvited to chic cocktail parties hosted by the Hollywood elite. Some of Rice’s previous books have been made into films. Her current book, the first in a planned trilogy, is a fictional account of the life of Jesus as a seven year old boy told from his perspective. It has passed through the hands of several bishops and is thought to be theologically correct.

But that is not what may make “Out of Egypt” the most dangerous read of the New Year. Theological precision has become synonymous in the popular imagination – fashioned in great part by Hollywood’s practical atheists -- with something dry, boring and hopelessly out of fashion. G.K. Chesterton, a convert to Catholicism, used to say that orthodoxy was both beautiful and revolutionary because it was orthodox and therefore intentionally set its face against the modern tendency to make idols of impermanent fads and fashions.

No, what will make “Out of Egypt” dangerous is its artistry. Rice is well known for what Oscar Wilde used to call “imaginative sympathy,” a talent that allows artists to insert themselves into a foreign time period and faithfully reproduce the mind of the era. Rice changed her usual gothic style into a spare, lean, Hemmingway-like style to reflect the plain poetic language used during Jesus’ time. “Out of Egypt” is a beautiful book. And it was the beauty of faith, Rice says, that occasioned her return to her Catholic roots.

Rice is living proof of Chesterton’s maxim that those who do not believe in God do not therefore believe in nothing; they believe in everything – including vampirism, Satanism and Brown’s hilarious notion that the Holy Grail, thought to be the vessel from which Jesus drank during the Last Supper with his apostles, really was a metaphor for the sacred linage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In Brown’s account, Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered a child named Sarah. After Jesus’ death, his wife moved to present day France. And if you believe all these ancient discredited fictions, Dan has a conspiracy theory, a lady’s book club romance novel, and a pseudo-scholarly book he wants to sell you -- soon to be a major motion picture.

If anyone supposes Hollywood honchos are hunkered down planning a release of Rice’s proposed trilogy, they know little of modern world and the role played in it practical atheists.

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