30 April 2008

Iranian Organ Market

This morning, I heard on the radio program, The Takeaway, a fascinating discussion about an apparently free organ market in Iran – most notably, a market for kidneys. According to the program, Iran is the only nation in the world that permits a person to sell one’s own kidney.

Two things about this stunned me. Most obviously, I was extremely surprised to hear that there is any semblance of a free market in Iran, never mind one that would permit organ sales. It’s a little hard to square this with a country that is so overtly contemptuous of Western ways – indeed, contemptuous of life itself. Nevertheless, it is apparently the case.

But also, I was surprised that the radio commentators did not dismiss the notion out of hand. Perhaps this represents progress. Previously, in the few times I have heard this topic brought up in mainstream channels, any hint of market principles pertaining to the distribution of organs has been met with shock and indignation, but on this program they seemed to treat an organ market as basically reasonable. (I must admit that I had trouble hearing the discussion fully because I was listening to it at work. However, I believe I got the gist of it accurately.) The commentators were rightly somewhat skeptical about any official news coming out of Iran, but they noted that Iran has reportedly “no waiting list for kidneys.”

Whether or not it is true, there is every reason to see that a free market would solve the organ shortage. While thousands of people in America die waiting helplessly for a kidney transplant to be bestowed upon them by an omnipotent bureaucrat, Iranians apparently live on, solving their problems the way civilized people do – as traders.

It is shameful for such a free market to be operating in Iran where it is not in the United States. If the story is even partially accurate, it represents another embarrassment to America. Like the Russian flat tax, it is an indication of the demise of liberty in this country that was once freedom’s greatest exponent.

(On a related note, I’m looking forward to
Scott Powell’s class tonight, which is going to cover Iran.)

23 April 2008

The Inquisition Visits the House That Ruth Built

I didn’t pay too much attention to the recent visit to America by Pope Benedict XVI, apart from feeling a slight disgust at the constant harping in the media upon the “priest sex scandal.”  (As appalling and deserving of punishment as the priests’ criminal behavior is, it is a distraction from the fundamental evil that the Church represents.)

However, I have to say that I found one thing to be particularly disturbing: the sight of Pope Benedict XVI in Yankee Stadium.  Any baseball park, especially one so storied and magnificent as this one, is a symbol of American freedom quite unlike any other.  Only in this land of freedom earned by our fathers could a game flourish like this.  The figure of the pope in Yankee Stadium is viscerally jarring to me.

Let us extend John Adams’ famous statement that, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.  My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy... in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music...”  So too, the Civil War generation inherited and preserved the freedom to invent this not-so-simple game of baseball, so that the next generation could turn it into a profession, and the following generations could refine and improve and profit from it.  It’s a uniquely American game, not only because it is a conspicuously for-profit enterprise (a single Yankee, Alex Rodriguez, makes more money than the whole Florida Marlins roster), but because it is grand entertainment, with heroes and villains, drama and rivalry, all cast in the most benevolent of settings.

Yankee Stadium is a place for 57,000 fans to bask in the glory of a game on a warm summer evening, to cheer in elation or groan in dismay - and above all, to experience pleasure.  

The pope simply does not belong here.

One of the hallmarks of an advanced civilization is that they play.  The play because they are free to play, because they have leisure to play, and because they are happy enough to play.  The ancient Minoans, the Greeks, and the Romans all had games.  I know of no such thing after the collapse of the Roman Empire, when Christianity and Islam dominated Europe.  Games (outside of royal courts) did not return until the Enlightenment.  Baseball is unimaginable in the Dark and Middle Ages.  How could anyone play when one had to work from dawn to dusk in order to hold off starvation for one more day?  How could one play when one was busy fighting religious wars or hanging witches?  How could one play when one was taught that suffering is the way to salvation, and that pleasure is sinful?

It is to rank medieval squalor that the pope belongs.  This man in these absurd sacerdotal vestments would be at home in a dark and solemn cathedral, with mourning plainchant droning in the background - not in a splendid arena that looks upon the New York City skyline.  

Or perhaps there is a setting more sinister than a cathedral that would be appropriate for him.  After all, before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Herr Ratzinger held the office of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  The lengthy name of this office is relatively new and is rather less direct than the more ominous name that it previously bore: the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

19 April 2008

Minute Man

There are some disadvantages to living in Massachusetts - Ted Kennedy and compulsory medical insurance come to mind - but one of the really nice things about living here is that I get to tread the same ground that did Paul Revere and the many nameless minutemen that drew first blood and suffered first blood in the American Revolution.  I have the good fortune to drive by the North Bridge every day.

LB and I went to the Lexington and Concord reenactment this morning.  Here are some pictures.

15 April 2008

Shaky Ground

It is instructive to observe one of the strategies that some people use to cling to faith.  They attempt to blur the distinction between faith and reason by using terms like “having faith in reason” or “believing in science.”  Author and physicist Paul Davies says “science has its own faith-based belief system” and dismisses the incontestable validity of reason with a shrug, saying, “so far this faith [in the order of the universe] has been justified.”  David Berlinski refers to science as “the single system of belief in which rational men and women might place their faith,” while conservative Doug Giles regards atheists not as people who don’t believe in God, but as people who “believe in not believing.”

The conflation of faith and reason has two sides to it, pulling in opposite directions but amounting to the same thing.  The first aspect is that by holding faith and reason side by side as if they were epistemological equals, faith is endowed with a prestige and validity that it does not deserve.  The second aspect is that by implying or explicitly stating that reason is just another form of faith, reason is discredited.  The one artificially boosts faith; the other unjustifiably diminishes reason.  It is the latter that I am focusing on in this post: the arguments that attempt to discredit reason by saying, in effect, reason is no better than faith.

There is an implicit confession in this attack, which astonished me when I first noticed it.  It reveals that some faithful apparently know that they are on shaky ground.  They go to great lengths to evade it, but at least on some level they know that reason is valid and faith is not.  This is indicated by the logic of their argument.

Let me explain.  For a religious person that is confident that faith is equal to or superior to reason, his arguments should follow this form: “Despite evidence to the contrary, I have faith that it is so.  Therefore, it is so.”  The conclusion is demonstrably wrong - something is not true simply because one believes it to be - but at least such a position represents a defense of faith on its own terms (i.e. as an arbitrary assertion resting on the absoluteness of faith).

However, what does it say about a religious person when he attempts to sully reason by giving it the characteristics of faith?  This is an astonishing position to take for somebody who allegedly holds faith on a par with or even superior to reason.  If a man is accused of cheating at cards and he knows he has not cheated, he will declare righteously, “I did not cheat!”  He does not leap up and say “Oh, yeah?  Well, you cheated, too!”  Such a reaction would imply guilt.

Similarly, it is very revealing to see religious people not even attempt to justify their faith, but instead say, in effect, “Oh yeah?  Well, your science and reason is just as bogus as my faith!”  It betrays a lack of confidence in the faith that they cling to.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.  Observe the strategy used by proponents of “intelligent design,” which despite protestations to the contrary, is essentially a creationist argument.  They generally frame the situation to seem like it is the academic institutions that hold Darwin’s works as infallible scripture, and any “skepticism” of creationists who put forth “reasonable” hypotheses of intelligent design is to be silenced as heresy.  The religionists accuse scientists of blindly defending a Darwinian “orthodoxy” that forbids questioning even in the face of alleged “evidence” of God’s fingerprints.  This is a deliberate distortion that flips the issue on its head.  The religious zealots are made to look like “scientists,” while the actual scientists are turned into popes, bishops, and inquisitors driven by blind faith.  

This is an astounding tack to take for the creationists: to attack science by casting it as an institutionalized religion, as if it were the scientists who are dogmatically adhering to a faith that brooks no questioning.  Do you see the implication here?  The nastiest insult that anti-Darwinists can think of hissing at scientists is to accuse them of being… religious!  But this position is intelligible only if the creationists themselves regard faith and religion as untenable.

For another example, take the Doug Giles’ quote that I mentioned above, in which he goes out of his way to distort the nature of what “atheist” means.  He refuses to believe that someone would not believe in God for rational reasons, insisting that an atheist is actually one who “believes in not believing in God.”  In other words, an atheist simply “has faith” that God does not exist, as opposed to knowing that God is an arbitrary construction.  

Putting aside how ludicrous this is, let’s ask: why would Doug Giles hurl “faith” as a insult?  Why would he strain to accuse non-believers of believing?  By Mr. Giles’ own faith-based standards, if the atheist believed (via faith) that there was no God, then would that not, for him, be a superior standard of knowledge than simply knowing (via reason) that supernatural entities don’t exist?  So what does it say about Mr. Giles that in his contempt for atheists, he ascribes faith to them?  Again, the accusation is intelligible only if Mr. Giles himself assumes as a premise that faith is ridiculous.  And since he is an explicit advocate of faith and religion, he must be capable of some extraordinary logical contortions and evasions to work it all out in his mind.

09 April 2008

Vote Democrat and Get Free Stuff

The New York Times published an article online called Young Obama Backers Twist Parents’ Arms.  This reminded of something I’ve noticed over the years: kids almost always root for Democrats.

This would be a fairly obvious and unremarkable observation, except that I think it says something about the Democratic platform in general.  Among the many more severe adjectives that can be applied, one that comes to mind for the welfare state mentality of Democrats is... childish.  

Think about it.  If you stuck a bunch of American kids together and asked them to devise a system of government, they would come up with something closely resembling today’s micro-managing, paternalistic, European-style government.  Everything they could think of would go on the list of government functions: free pizza and ice cream, iPods and cell phones distributed to all kids (plus unlimited text messages), longer recesses and better playgrounds in school, a bigger allowance every week, etc.  In addition to this, depending upon what their embittered teachers or favorite MTV stars happened to be jamming down their throats at the time, children would also demand things like the dismantling of tobacco companies, the impeachment of President Bush, the banning of land mines (whatever those are), the elimination of fossil fuels, the severe scolding of the mean people in Darfur (wherever that is), and capital punishment for people who do not recycle their empty milk jugs.

In short, children, left to their own devices to construct a government, would essentially come up with the Democratic Party platform.  

Of course, by “left to their own devices,” I do not mean that they are to be cast into a Lord of the Flies, deserted island scenario, in which everything must be started from scratch.  My thought experiment here is assuming that the kids are left in a familiar setting, the only one they’ve ever known, in which mommy and daddy are there to provide the pizza, iPods, allowance, and anything else they demand as usual.  After all, the resources for their government must come from somewhere.

This outlook was expressed very well by a certain 14-year old named Rebecca Tilsen, who according to the National Youth Rights Association, gave this testimony before a Minnesota House subcommittee, in defense of lowering the voting age to include children:

“If 16-year-olds are old enough to drink the water polluted by the industries that you regulate,… to breathe the air ruined by garbage burners that government built,… to walk on the streets made unsafe by terrible drugs and crime policies,… to live in poverty in the richest country in the world,…to get sick in a country with the worst public health-care programs in the world,… to attend school districts that you underfund, then 16-year olds are old enough to play a part in making them better [i.e. old enough to vote].”

In case it wasn’t clear, that’s the United States that she is speaking of, not Cuba or Venezuela.  Is there any doubt that kids in the twelve- to eighteen-year-old range would vote overwhelmingly for Democrats?  Miss Tilsen’s sentiment could hardly have been better expressed by Ted Kennedy himself - or by either of the two Democratic candidates for President.

06 April 2008

How Stimulating

Like millions of other Americans, I got a cheerful note from the IRS.  “Dear Taxpayer:  We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008... Under this new law, you may be entitled to a payment of up to $600...”

Oh, thank you, gracious IRS.  Permit me, with bowed head, to express my humble gratitude.  How generous of you to return, in this one-time gesture of your munificence, a tiny fraction of my own money that you seize every two weeks to pay for the bloated federal government and its regulatory apparatus.  It is my deepest honor to pay for my own alms.  Long live the IRS!

03 April 2008

Digging for Artifacts

In the fourth lecture of The Islamic Entanglement last night, Scott Powell fit Egypt into the picture, integrating its history into the story from the time of the Ottoman decline to the present.  (Let me interject a plug here; if you're not yet taking the class, I strongly recommend it!)  It is interesting to regard how important the idea of national sentiment is to the Egyptians, and to see how this plays into the deep resentment they must feel for being controlled by non-Egyptians for almost two-and-a-half millennia, from the Persians to the Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Europeans.

Of course, Egypt itself conjures lots of exotic and mysterious images: enormous pyramids, golden treasures and sarcophagi in dark, buried chambers, hieroglyphics giving tantalizing clues to ancient civilizations.  One of the first things that comes to my mind regarding Egypt, particularly early 20th century Egypt, is of huge excavations.  I picture hundreds of white-robed natives laboring with picks in merciless desert heat, chipping away at the parched earth, occasionally raising an arm to wipe the sweat off one's brow and to shield one's eyes from the blinding sun and sand.  Basically, if you've seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you will understand the scene I am imagining.  And of course, these excavations are devoted not to construction, but to archaeological digs.  These Egyptians move earth not for new buildings, but in search of artifacts that might prove that Egyptians once built long ago.

Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against archaeology.  In fact, I find it wonderful and fascinating.  But it struck me that this image of Egyptian archaeological digs serves as a metaphor - not a perfect metaphor, but one that captures a aspect of the cultural abyss in the Middle East.  Instead of building homes and skyscrapers for themselves, the Egyptians try to find burial chambers that were made thousands of years ago.  Instead of looking forward and trying to extract the best ideas from the "occupying" West - namely, liberty and capitalism - the nations of the Middle East (with the obvious exception of Israel and to some extent Turkey) seem to be clueless, experimenting pragmatically with socialism and nationalism, and wallowing in resentment and frustration.  It's a sad state of affairs if the best hope for finding pride and glory is to uncover evidence of some pharaoh of the Old Kingdom.