Friday, August 02, 2002


I like and respect Charles Colson. For the last 25 years, he has done valuable work bringing hope to thousands of prisoners through Prison Fellowship.

Having said that, his op-ed in Tuesday's Washington Post is full of ridiculous nonsense that he doesn't believe himself.

In the piece, titled "Law Isn't Enough" Colson attacks the idea that new laws or regulations might be needed to combat corporate corruption. The business world doesn't need laws and regulations, Colson argues, just good-hearted people with strong personal ethics:

What fools we are when we think we can legislate away human immorality. We certainly need laws, but I stand as living proof that the cure comes not from laws and statutes but from the transforming of the human heart -- the embracing of a moral code to which conscience is bound. The real hope for corporate America lies in cultivating conscience, a disposition to know and do what is right.

That little caveat -- "we certainly need laws, but ..." -- could have formed the basis of a nuanced and reasonable argument. Colson could have argued sensibly, that laws are necessary, but not sufficient. But that five-word hiccup can't correct for the overwhelming tilt of Colson's argument -- that laws and regulations will do nothing to stop corporate corruption, so we shouldn't pass more laws and regulations (and probably should scale back the regulations already on the books).

What Colson seems to be saying is "We certainly need laws, but not for corporate executives. All they need are unwritten codes of personal morality."

Mr. Colson -- a good evangelical Christian, famously born again -- is certainly right about the necessity of "the transforming of the human heart." But he seems to have forgotten where his spiritual transformation took place: in prison. The jailhouse convert Charles Colson does "stand as living proof," but what his story proves is that the revivalistic power of personal transformation works best within a context of just and effective laws.

Mr. Colson knows this. Prison Fellowship provides a valuable civic service (as well as helping build up the kingdom of God) by helping thousands of inmates turn their lives around. The personal, spiritual transformation this ministry brings about can be measured in the improved recidivism rates for inmates who have been active with Colson's group.

But I don't remember Colson ever arguing that America's blue-collar laws are superfluous. (Worth mentioning: The recent corporate scandals have involved almost exclusively, upper-class white guys. The people in prison for blue collar crimes are mostly not upper-class white guys.)

Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, offers an insightful and devastating rebuttal of the individualistic piety Colson is promoting. He notes that Colson is endorsing bad policy based on bad theology. Here's an extended chunk, but by all means click over to and read the entire essay:

... Blaming secularism, postmodernism and the academy ignores the biblical witness and shields Christianity from its own role in the current corporate scandals.

The biblical witness tells us repeatedly about marketplace corruption, injustice, greed, lying, deceit and hiding wrong behind the veil of religious piety. These sinful realities flourished in a theistic society, long before the emergence of secularism.

In addition to the prophetic tradition about right and wrong, justice, fairness and integrity, the Bible points out that Hebrew culture knew that social structures were required to protect the poor.

With such a compelling and consistent economic message in the Bible, why have we taken the wrong path?

For too long in many Christian quarters, the biblical message has been individualized and privatized, robbing it of its original social message. The individualization and privatization of Christianity keeps us off track. For example, when many Christians think about greed, they think about a greedy individual. They do not think in terms of a culture of corruption, a corporation based on deceit and an economic system that encourages and rewards greedy practices.

When we focus on the greedy individual, the solution is conversion—CEOs with better hearts. When we focus on the systemic problem, what Alan Greenspan called “infectious greed,” then the solution is social reform. ...

When Colson blames academia and opposes new corporate regulations, he misdiagnoses the problem and helps evangelicals stay aloof from the solution.

In theological terms, the problem is the sinful nature of the corporate structure, one of the powers and principalities of this age. The solution is far more than CEOs with pure hearts and absolute values. The solution is Christian realism—we need forces that counterbalance the power of corporations.

posted by Fred Clark 2:27 PM

Thursday, August 01, 2002


“Do We Still Need the Saudis?” Romesh Ratnesar asks in Time magazine. The answer: some, but not as much as we did.

The payoff is the last sentence: “As Sept. 11 showed, the security of the U.S. depends on more than cheap oil.”

An unnamed “U.S. Diplomat” is quoted in the piece as saying, "If we sort out Iraq and Detroit develops a hydrogen engine, Saudi Arabia will go back to being a fascinating, benighted part of the world that people don't visit."

Has this “diplomat” never heard of the Hajj? One of the five pillars of Islam – a religion that counts about a fifth of the world as its adherents – is that the faithful must make a pilgrimage to holy sites in Saudi Arabia during their lifetime. Millions make this pilgrimage every year. That’s hardly a “part of the world that people don’t visit.”

On the other hand, “benighted” -- while not the most diplomatic term -- seems an apt description of a country run by hypocritical, racist thugs posing as aristocracy.


I hope John Kerry reads Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo.

Marshall comes through again. He's posted a shamefully blunt memo from Laura J. Miller, a Bush appointee at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, in which Miller warns local and regional administrators to stop outreach efforts to veterans.

The idea is to save money. If you make sure no one tells veterans about the services available to them, they’re much less likely to request those services. Didn’t then-Governor Bush attempt to pull a similar sleazy trick with the Children’s Health Insurance Program in Texas?

Deceiving America’s veterans in order to finance tax-cuts for the wealthy is not patriotism. Veterans groups have to be steaming mad about this kind of shenanigans. If this hits the papers, I would advise President Bush to cancel any upcoming appointments with Bob Dole – he might find that pencil lodged somewhere uncomfortable.

Someone really ought to write a song about how America mistreats its veterans while hiding behind a smokescreen of flag-waving jingo-ism.

posted by Fred Clark 5:37 PM


Yesterday was a hectic one here in the 9-to-5 Cube, then after rush hour on I-95, spent a short-staffed night at the paper, scribbling headlines like "Motorists beaten to death by angry mob" and reading depressing stories like this and this. Not the best of Wednesdays.

But then, driving home, "This American Life" came through with a rebroadcast of the 1998 show "Music Lessons." Tuned in just in time to hear Anne Lamott reading "Knocking on Heaven's Door" (from the book Traveling Mercies) and a rendition of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" that seemed to cast grace down on motorists and mobs, stranded whales and victimized innocents. Sparrows fall, but at least someone is watching.
posted by Fred Clark 10:58 AM

Wednesday, July 31, 2002


I didn't see this story covered much in the mainstream press. This is understandable since it's not, after all, earth-shaking news. Crony-ism in the Bush administration -- even blatant, malodorous cronyism -- is a dog-bites-man, non-news affair.

One might wish that someone, somewhere in the White House had the good sense to realize that if not strictly unethical, it's at least imprudent to be awarding multi-million dollar defense contracts to the vice president's former company while that company and the vice president himself are under investigation for financial chicanery. But, as the president would say, there's "insufficient evidence" for a conviction, so it must be ethical.

Just for fun, though, let's play counter-factual:

Imagine that it's 1994 and President Clinton has established a secretive prison camp in Guantanamo for Serbian "detainees." Then, when the camp seeks to expand, it hires Al Gore's former company to a lucrative, multi-million-dollar contract.

Don't you think this would have played all over the headlines and cable news for weeks as "Veep-gate" or "Prison-gate" or something?

Granted, Al Gore didn't have a "former company." He was a senator, not a CEO. So for the sake of the counterfactual, imagine that before he was veep, Gore was CEO of some giant corporation.

Oh, and also imagine that the corporation was facing both civil lawsuits and an SEC investigation for cooking the books. And that it had a history of selling sensitive technology to places like Libya and Iraq.

Of course, if this scenario is really going to be useful for the sake of argument, you should also imagine that President Clinton had also been a CEO before he became governor of Arkansas. And that after crashing and burning at the helm of a couple of energy companies, Clinton had landed on the board of a company that drew up the blueprint for Enron-style corruption.

Yes, yes, I know -- it wouldn't make sense that someone from Clinton's background would be given a second and a third chance after establishing a dismal record of business failure. So for the sake of the counterfactual, assume that instead of being a scholarship kid from the wrong side of the tracks, imagine that Clinton had been a pampered, "legacy" student with a history of drinking too much and coasting on family connections.

Imagine, actually, that Roger Clinton was the president, and Bill was still just a governor. And that Roger had only been declared the president after the courts intervened in a narrow vote-count in Arkansas, where thousands of ballots were never tallied. And then imagine ...

Never mind. This is getting too complicated.
posted by Fred Clark 4:01 PM

Tuesday, July 30, 2002


"Americans will support those who want to spend more on anti-hunger programs," says a recent poll, according to yesterday's USA Today.

The poll, conducted by both Democratic and Republican pollsters, found:

* Voters say the issue is important. Almost half say it's ''very important.''
* More than 70% say the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have made them more likely to support world hunger aid.
* A majority, 56%, say the United States spends too little fighting hunger at home. More than a third, 35%, say not enough is spent worldwide.
* Voters support more federal funds for anti-hunger programs if the money doesn't go to corrupt regimes and helps recipients become self-reliant.
* Large majorities say aid should be spent on self-help programs. To best fight poverty in Africa, for example, 44% prefer helping farmers grow food; 31% prefer programs to push trade and economic development.

Americans have an incredibly skewed perception of how foreign humanitarian aid works. Polls conducted by the anti-hunger group Bread for the World have consistently shown that "most people think the U.S. gives 20 times more in foreign aid than it actually does." This is demonstrated repeatedly in vox-pop interviews, local news broadcasts and "town meetings" conducted by members of Congress, where people insist that budgets could be balanced, taxes could be cut or funding found for new programs if only the government would stop spending so much money feeding poor people in other countries.

If only it were so.

Foreign humanitarian aid represents much less than 1 percent of the federal budget. It's about as significant in terms of spending and balanced budgets as is the National Endowment for the Arts (another bugbear at town-hall meetings).

The new poll shows broad support for accountable foreign aid, underscoring Bread for the World's perennial contention that the American people -- if better informed -- would support a significant increase in funding for anti-hunger programs. Their arithmetical argument: if most people think current spending is 20 times what it actually is, and then worry that that's about twice as much as it should be, then the U.S. could spend 10 times what it spends now and people would be perfectly happy.

More from Bread:

We have the means. The financial costs to end hunger are relatively slight. The United Nations Development Program estimates that the basic health and nutrition needs of the world's poorest people could be met for an additional $13 billion a year.

The USA Today article notes that post-9/11 terrorism concerns have increased support for foreign humanitarian aid, warning that "a decimated, poverty-racked society such as Afghanistan can become a breeding ground for terrorism." One could also argue, somewhat persuasively, that $13 billion a year spent ensuring basic health and nutrition for the world's poorest might reap the U.S. some international good will or karma or P.R. that could decrease the likelihood for future attacks.

Or -- he said, with something like the naive optimism of an undergraduate -- we could just acknowledge that it's the right thing to do.

posted by Fred Clark 5:54 PM


David Brooks, in a recent breezy interview with Christianity Today's Dick Staub, described the moral outlook of "Bobos" (bohemian bourgeois, see the book):

Well, it tends to be good natured, good intentioned, but it's situational. Bobos actually really detest cruelty, and that's something noble about them. Anything that causes pain. But they're not real big on abstractions and abstract rules and universal truths.

I found in my reporting that they say, "Don't do anybody any harm, try not to cause pain." But on the other hand, it's not a very heroic morality, it's nothing to die for, nothing to sacrifice for, nothing that really transports your soul. It's sort of comfortable.

Bobo morality, in other words, can be summed up in the bumper-sticker: "Mean people suck."

As Brooks says, this isn't exactly a holistic moral worldview. It lacks the transcendent authority that would allow it to call for costly adherence -- or, as Maxim would have it, it's "affirmational rather than aspirational." It's more of a preference than a precept.

Yet, as he says, there's also "something noble" about it. When confronted with disturbing stories about cruelty to innocents, like this or this, you appreciate that nobility even more.

An interesting note from the sentencing of the kitten-torturing Charles Benoit, for whom bail was increased "due to outstanding charges of stealing, domestic assault and vandalism."

People who develop a capacity for cruelty to animals rarely stop there. Or, as Immanuel Kant put it, "He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals." In other words, if your neighbor is kicking his dog, you should also be worried about his wife and kids.

The Bobo's minimal baseline -- "do no harm," "don't be cruel," "mean people suck" -- looks better and better. It may not be the final word on morality, but it's not a bad place to start.

posted by Fred Clark 4:21 PM

Monday, July 29, 2002


"Maxim is affirmational, not aspirational ... we help our readers enjoy the world they're already living in, rather than showing them frustrating dream-glimpses into a very expensive one they will never see."
-- Maxim editor Keith Blanchard, in a speech titled "Maxim Saves Journalism" (via Doxagora)


"If people count as a recession one quarter of negative growth, God bless them. I don't care."
-- Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill on NBC-TV's "Meet The Press" (via the Washington Post)

posted by Fred Clark 2:56 PM



U.S. News’ John Leo is the latest to conflate the two sides of just war theory. As a result, his much-linked-to column is less about his discovery of blogdom than it is a defense for the killing of civilians. That defense is incorrect and immoral: You’re not allowed to kill civilians.

Mr. Leo offers telepathic insight into the New York Times’ motives for publishing:

“ ...a series of artistic photos of children wounded in the war, titled ‘A Legacy of Misery.’ This is the way the Times expresses its resistance to the war -- equating the liberation of Afghanistan with misery, pain, and dead civilians.”

The omniscient Mr. Leo demonstrates here the clairvoyant skills that elevate his column beyond mere journalism and into the paranormal realm of reading the hearts, souls and motives of other writers. But leaving aside the validity of extra-sensory argument, let’s assume that Mr. Leo is correct, that the Times is using photos of children wounded by American attacks in order to “express resistance to the war.”

The Times would be wrong, but not for the reasons Mr. Leo seems to think. In fact, they seem to be wrong in precisely the same way he is wrong. The Times, in Mr. Leo’s view, is making two assumptions:

A) The very fact of these wounded children implies that the war is not being conducted justly.
B) If the conduct of a war is not legitimate, then the war itself is not legitimate.

Neither of those assumptions is valid. Unintended, indirect civilian casualties may be unavoidable, so the fact of those casualties does not necessarily entail that the war is being conducted unjustly (we’ve talked about double-effect previously). In any case, unjust conduct does not prove that the cause itself is unjust.

It is not hard to think of examples. During World War II, the United States was at war with Japan. This war seems to have met all the jus ad bello (“justice toward war,” or just cause) criteria. But the justness and legitimacy of this cause did not mean the United States was free to atomize the civilian inhabitants of two Japanese cities. That was a direct and intentional attack on noncombatants, which violates the principles of jus in bello ("justice in war," just conduct).

In other words, yet again: You’re not allowed to kill civilians.

World War II was legitimate and just. The conduct of that war -- the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- was at times illegitimate and unjust. To say as much does not imply an “expression of resistance to the war,” only an expression of resistance to the idea that intentionally killing civilians is ever acceptable.

It is not. You’re not allowed to kill civilians.

Mr. Leo’s reasoning is a mirror-image of the Times’ alleged “resistance” argument. His argument goes something like this:

A) The war in Afghanistan* is legitimate and necessary.
B) Therefore, the conduct of that war is legitimate and necessary – whatever it takes.

That “therefore” does not follow. Cause does not sanctify conduct. When he imagines or intuits that someone questions the just conduct of the war in Afghanistan, Mr. Leo, like many of the warbloggers he has recently discovered, proclaims that the justness of the cause is beyond reproach. Such proclamations are beside the point. Unless Mr. Leo is suggesting, like ungentle Ben, that the ends justify any means.

The slacktivist lacks Mr. Leo’s psychic abilities, so I can’t tell you what the Times was thinking when they published those photos. Perhaps it was to express regret, rather than resistance. Would such an expression -- simple human regret over the “misery, pain and dead civilians” -- be acceptable to Mr. Leo and his newfound warblogger friends?

Here’s a test of your ESP: can you read my mind and guess what fundamental rule I’m thinking of that Mr. Leo seems to have forgotten?

Right again Carnac: You’re not allowed to kill civilians.

* P.S.: When did the "war on terror" turn into the "war for the liberation of Afghanistan"? I can't imagine what Leo and Andrew Sullivan are hoping to accomplish with this patently misleading euphemism. Why all of a sudden are conservatives talking more about "liberation" than Gustavo Gutierrez?

It seems an attempt to distance this war effort from any connection to September 11, which is bizarre. Is this an attempt to drum up support next for a "war for the liberation of Iraq"? The "liberation of Afghanistan" has certainly been a happy side-effect of the U.S.-led war on terror, but if the Taliban had handed over bin Laden and the al-Qaida membership on September 12, they would likely remain as oppressively secure and securely oppressive as, well, the Emir of Kuwait.

posted by Fred Clark 1:50 PM

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