Saturday, August 17

Site Update

So much for Serious Saturday—instead of blogging, I spent the day playing with my eight-month-old son, who was in a delightful mood almost all day. (It occurs to me that I haven't posted a picture of Noah here yet. I'll have to remedy that).

I'll save the serious stuff for Monday. In the meantime, I've tinkered with my blogroll once again to reflect a number of new discoveries plus some changes in my reading habits. I've discovered a number of new sites, two of which instantly became regular reads: Jeanne d'Arc's Body and Soul and Andrew Edwards's Sketch. I'm also adding two well-established blogs. Jane Galt's Live From the WTC is almost always thought-provoking, even though I frequently disagree with her. And Quasipundit offers an ongoing debate between conservative Will Vehrs and liberal Tony Adragna. Eric McErlain and I have discussed doing something like this (although neither of us has time right now); Tony and Will have already done an excellent job with the concept.

With the school year starting, I'm going to keep an eye on several blogs by law students. I've linked to John Branch, the Tarheel Pundit, for awhile; I'm now moving him to a new category on the blogroll. He's joined there by A Mad Tea-Party, which I discovered by way of Howard Bashman, and Garrett Moritz's gTexts, which I discovered by way of Meryl Yourish.

I've also created a new category of reciprocal links. I'm a little uneasy about doing so, because, although I don't mean to denigrate any of the blogs in this category, it may appear that I'm doing so by omitting them from the daily or regular reads. Some of these sites are new to me and seem interesting, but given my increasingly limited time I can't yet say how often I'll check them. One site that's linked to me for awhile, Catch a Fire, is largely a day-in-the-life blog, which isn't a genre I generally favor. I like the fact that its author is a baseball fan and appears to be a Vermonter, though, and home brewers will probably enjoy the blog's discussions of brewing.

I've also struck a couple of dormant blogs from the roll. Jeff Sackmann wrote his last entry on June 20, stating at that time that he expected to resume blogging in late July. As Jeff is about to begin graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, I think it's unlikely he'll be able to devote much time, if any, to his blog (I have never, at any point in my legal career, worked as hard as I did during my year of graduate history studies). I wish him well. And I think it's time to acknowledge that the World Cup is over by dropping Bill Davis's superb, but no longer topical, World Cup 2002 blog.

Friday, August 16

Oops

I was going to blog less this week, wasn't I?

I have two more posts in the works that I don't want to hold until Monday, so I may have to depart from my regular practice and declare tomorrow Serious Saturday.

Political Speech in Houses of Worship

Ann Salisbury (who notes that she ought to be working) points to an interesting bill, the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act, H.R. 2357. The bill apparently will bypass the committee process and be brought directly to the House floor for a vote in September. The message that Ann received about the bill described it as follows:

Crafted by attorneys from Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, H.R. 2357 would radically alter the tax code by allowing houses of worship to endorse political candidates, lobby for legislation, create political action committees (PACs) and funnel political donations to partisan political causes and candidates. Currently, houses of worship have an 'absolute prohibition' on partisan political activities.

I admit that I haven't tried to integrate the bill's text with the tax code (a body of law that immediately turns my brain to mush), but if this is indeed what the bill does, it strikes me as a bad idea. As Ann writes (and I'm glad I read this after I finished digesting lunch, thank you very much), "I like mixing religion and government about as much as I like mixing tuna fish and peanut butter. Some things just don't belong together."

Backed Into a Corner

As many bloggers have noted, opposition to the apparently-forthcoming war with Iraq now includes a number of high-profile Republicans, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and Senator Chuck Hagel. These individuals all agree that Saddam is evil, but question whether an attack in the near future would be productive, given international opposition and the administration's failure to make the case for urgent action. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Brent Scowcroft wrote:

But the central point is that any campaign against Iraq, whatever the strategy, cost and risks, is certain to divert us for some indefinite period from our war on terrorism. Worse, there is a virtual consensus in the world against an attack on Iraq at this time. So long as that sentiment persists, it would require the U.S. to pursue a virtual go-it-alone strategy against Iraq, making any military operations correspondingly more difficult and expensive. The most serious cost, however, would be to the war on terrorism. Ignoring that clear sentiment would result in a serious degradation in international cooperation with us against terrorism. And make no mistake, we simply cannot win that war without enthusiastic international cooperation, especially on intelligence.

(Quote courtesy of the Rittenhouse Review).

Those less certain than the administration and its backers of the wisdom of attacking Iraq have been raising questions like this for some time; some have had their patriotism questioned because of it. With prominent Republican voices now speaking against the manner in which the administration is proceeding, it would be nice to think that the questions would be taken more seriously by those eager for war.

But even if they were, it may be too late. As Jason Rylander argues in a compelling post today, the administration's anti-Saddam rhetoric has created a situation in which, to maintain any semblance of credibility, the administration must act against Saddam:

Overheated rhetoric early on in a conflict creates a sense of moral obligation.

Here's how it works. An administration usually starts off by calling a foreign regime "evil." This is followed by examples of the regime's evilness and irrationality. Having painted a picture of a regime as "evil," an administration will trot out some variation of the Edmund Burke quote: "All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." More references to despotism, dictatorship, and cruelty follow.

On this basis the administration begins to assert a moral imperitive. They will begin to compare the despot to other vanquished boogeymen from the past. Finally, someone will (as George H.W. Bush did in 1990) refer to the foreign enemy as "worse than Hitler." Just wait. You can see it coming in Rice's last statement about "dictators" who "should" have been "stopped in their tracks." Oh, and there's one more step. Having "established" the need to eliminate a new Hitler, the administration and its allies will next turn on those who oppose the action (no matter how good the reason) and characterize them as appeasers, regular Neville Chamberlains to the administration's Churchill.

Now the die is cast. Ironically, it is the administration that is now in a bind, not opponents of the war. For having painted a foreign leader as evil, despotic and Hitlerian, the administration now CANNOT morally do nothing, lest the president himself be seen as morally bankrupt or cowardly.

The problem here goes beyond what Jason notes. The administration's justification for action in the short term is that Saddam is busy acquiring and accumulating weapons of mass destruction, weapons with which he intends to threaten us and our allies. If that is truly good and sufficient reason for preemptive action, then the administration will have to act soon, because every day's delay will increase Saddam's stock of chemical weapons and bring him closer to acquiring nuclear weapons (and, given that the administration's announced goal is "regime change," it's likely that Saddam's efforts have taken on renewed urgency). Any delay would badly damage the administration's credibility, either by suggesting that the administration didn't believe its own rhetoric or by suggesting that, despite the danger, the administration lacked the will to act.

The administration, in short, finds itself backed into a corner, not by anything Saddam has done, but by its own rhetoric. At this point, the only alternatives seem to be either a military campaign or stand-down that would be humiliating, even if it would help advance other American interests. This is a terrible position to be in, and it's the administration's own fault.

Update: Jason points out Richard Perle's response to Brent Scowcroft's opposition, which clearly demonstrates that the administration, by its own words, has placed itself in a position in which it feels compelled to act:

"The failure to take on Saddam after what the president said would produce such a collapse of confidence in the president that it would set back the war on terrorism."
Longing for the Spotlight

Rob Humenik reports that the sharks are unhappy and eager to return to the front pages.

There I Am

So much for "you'll have to take my word for it": Howard Bashman reveals my not-so-secret identity at How Appealing.

By the way, Howard, if the folks in South Bend don't come through for you, there's always Valpo.

Goodbye, Shawn

Three-quarters of the way through the schedule, the Mets have given up on their failed season. Clear signs of surrender can be seen in their trade of starting pitcher Shawn Estes to Cincinnati for two minor leaguers. Estes, who signed for $6.2 million during the off-season, failed to live up to his promise during his stay in New York, compiling a 4-9 record with a 4.55 e.r.a. But Estes will always have a special place in the hearts of Mets fans, because of the game on June 15 in which he missed hitting Roger Clemens with a pitch, but clubbed a homerun and shut out the Yankees, allowing the Mets to extract revenge for Clemens's assaults on Met catcher Mike Piazza two years ago. If only there could have been more such moments.

Thursday, August 15

The Politics of Judging

Howard Bashman follows the judicial confirmation process closely at How Appealing. A recent post on the subject noted flaws in all three of the principal methods of judicial selection: election, appointment by the executive from a group of candidates recommended by a nonpartisan panel, and appointment by the executive with confirmation by the legislative branch. Reflecting on how the processes could be improved, Howard writes: "One way to improve the federal method is to restore federal judges to the traditional role of judging rather than forcing them to be arbiters of the most difficult social/legislative issues of the day."

I assume that by this Howard means something more than the standard call against "judicial activism." That phrase has come to represent, for people across the political spectrum, little more than the rendering of decisions with which they disagree. In the 1980s, charges of judicial activism were usually directed by right-leaning critics against left-leaning judges; nowadays, the charge is increasingly leveled by left-leaning critics against right-leaning judges. It's evident from Howard's post that he sees judicial activism in the actions of "the Florida Supreme Court that worked so diligently to install President Gore and Vice President Lieberman," whereas I see it in the unprecedented (and, depending on how you read the Court's per curiam opinion, non-precedential) intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court that ended the election controversy. Those conclusions say more about Howard's and my political sympathies than they do about our philosophies of judging.

So what does Howard mean? In support of his assertion, he cites an essay at law.com by Todd Gaziano of the Heritage Foundation. That essay focuses on changes in prevailing judicial philosophy, away from the notion prevalent in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that judges (in Gaziano's words) "can objectively discern what the law is, rather than what it should be," and toward a philosophy of "[l]egal realism, mingled with strains of pragmatism, relativism and deconstructionist thought" that "came to see law as just politics by another name" and "increasingly urged the courts to become instruments of social change in overtly political ways."

There's no doubt that changes in ways of thinking about the nature of the law have affected the ways that judges approach their tasks (although the notion that judges ever "objectively discern[ed] what the law is" strikes me as quite naïve). But I think that Gaziano's essay and Howard's post overlook an important reason why judges have become increasingly embroiled in what look like political controversies. The past seventy years have not merely seen the rise of legal realism and its successors; they have also seen a dramatic expansion in the scope of federal statutory law. Given the rise of public law and the regulatory state, it should surprise no one that federal judges now find themselves addressing questions that would have seemed foreign to their nineteenth-century predecessors.

Indeed, it could easily be argued that it's the rising activism of Congress and the executive branch that has caused the increasing politicization of the judiciary. This happens in several ways, but perhaps most importantly these: First, Congress frequently does a lousy job of writing legislation. More particularly, Congress frequently passes legislation designed to address social problems (and thus to please voters) without wanting to commit on the tough questions of how their legislation is to be implemented. The Americans With Disabilities Act is a prime example of this type of legislation: Congress, together with the first President Bush, wanted to do something about discrimination against individuals with disabilities (a worthy goal), but the political branches were either unable or unwilling to strike the necessary compromises to create a comprehensible law; instead, they left it to the judiciary to work out those compromises through the process of interpretation. The ADA is a prominent example of the problem, but it is far from the only one; the U.S. Code is riddled with messy statutes. As judges generally don't have the option of throwing up their hands and refusing to apply a law passed by Congress and signed by the president on the ground that the law is incoherent, they have little choice but to become entangled in what look like political decisions.

Second, the political branches sometimes take advantage of the process of judicial review to create laws that are patently unconstitutional but electorally popular based on transient political moods. In this way, they can appear to take actions to please their constituents, knowing full well that those laws will never take effect; they also gain the benefit of being able to deflect the public's frustration with the ultimate resolution of the problem from themselves onto the judiciary. The Communications Decency Act of 1996, which sought to regulate speech over the internet, is a prime example of this type of statute; in the 1997 case of Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court struck down the statute on First Amendment grounds. In this way, Congress and President Clinton were able to appear to act against indecency on the internet, knowing that because the Supreme Court would patrol the constitutional boundaries, they themselves did not have to consider seriously the constitutional issues.

Howard is ultimately correct that courts are far more political entities now than they used to be. But the fault is not solely, or even largely, the courts'. As long as the political branches continue to force the courts to address essentially political questions, the politicization of the judiciary is near inevitable.

[Note: following an email exchange with Howard, I have deleted the final portion of this post, which expressed some concerns about the direction of Howard's weblog based on a single post of his. Our exchange has convinced me that I misinterpreted Howard's intent, for which I apologize. Howard expressed an interest in responding to the principal point of my post but an understandable reluctance to link to the post in light of the final portion, which would have drawn him into a debate he did not want to have. In the interest of continuing the discussion of the politicization of the federal judiciary, and out of respect for Howard's fine work on How Appealing, I thought it best to amend my post.]

Interfaith Understanding

Dave Trowbridge comes late to the discussion of Abe Zelmanowitz on this site and others (see the links in this post). But his timing allows him to note, in a typically elegant post, Monday's release of a statement by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that suggests that the Catholic Church's position on the potential and nature of Jewish holiness is a bit more complicated than Mark Shea indicated. In a second post, Dave responds to comments.

Wednesday, August 14

Who Am I, Really?

Avedon Carol asks: "Is 'Jeff Cooper' his real name?"

Yes!

(But you'll have to take my word for it.)

Educational Accommodations

Michael Tinkler, the Cranky Professor, is back in the country, back at work, and cranky as ever, noting an NPR story about a Dartmouth student suffering from severe depression who, thanks to accommodations provided under the Americans With Disabilties Act, hopes to complete her undergraduate degree this fall after eight years of study. Among the accommodations this student received were some that apparently allowed her to miss class whenever her depression struck. Michael wonders about the extent to which these accommodations conflict with the university's (and the classroom teachers') educational mission.

Fair question. In law school (as in a number of other disciplines), a lot of the learning takes place not in reading the assigned materials but in following and participating in class discussions, and in discussing what happened in class with fellow students outside of class. At some point, accommodations that permit routine absences cease to be accommodations at all and instead interfere with essential nature of the educational program. The ADA does not require this. But the lines are so badly blurred that administrators and faculty members get very little guidance as to how far they must go.

Mudslinging

An unpleasant shouting match has developed on two blogs that I read regularly, MaxSpeak and Instapundit. Yesterday, reviewing a terrible directive within D.C. Emergency Medical Services that led several employees to feel compelled to undergo abortions in order to save their jobs, Glenn Reynolds wrote: "A lot of people in DC say that the District is essentially a colony. Well, if so I think it's a colony that's not ready for self-government." This was a fairly offensive thing to say. The right to self-government in this country is not dependent on an outsider's assessment of the quality of the choices made by the governed—if it were, there would be a major campaign to disenfranchise the voters in the Youngstown, Ohio district that kept returning James Traficant to Congress. Residents of the District are the only Americans who pay full federal taxes but have no voting representation in the bodies that impose those taxes. That's a real problem, regardless of what one might think about the elective choices those voters make. Moreover, given the composition of the D.C. population and the D.C. government, Glenn's comment could be read by those so inclined as having racial overtones. In sum, while Glenn identified a real problem within Emergency Medical Services (one that the D.C. government is taking steps to correct, albeit rather slowly), his comments on the problem were phrased unfortunately, and he deserved to be called on it.

Max Sawicky went overboard, however, using an ethnic slur to refer to Glenn. Max's post apparently was inspired in part by the results of a poll Max conducted, which suggested that his readers "want blood. You want Sully-on-a-stick and Slate de-Kaused. You want me to do the rhumba over InstaPundah. The people have spoken, and MaxSpeak is here to serve the people. Let the mayhem continue." Well, that may be why some people read MaxSpeak, but it's not my reason. I'm with Judah Ariel, who wrote in a comment to Max's poll results post, "Bummer. I always thought our side was above that. I really like this site because it makes complicated current economic issues accessible, not because it attacks Glenn Reynolds."

Glenn and Max have continued their exchange, the tenor of which is captured by the title of one of Max's posts: I Know You Are, But What Am I? Really, guys, you can do better than this. If I just wanted to read name-calling, I'd go to Free Republic and Salon's Table Talk. Bad marks to both of you; now let's move on.

Tuesday, August 13

The Mets' Owners Settle

As Eric McErlain notes, Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon, the co-owners of the Mets, have settled their federal litigation. Doubleday was contractually bound to sell his share of the Mets to Wilpon based on a value arrived at by an independent accountant, but when that assessment came back at a suspiciously low figure, Doubleday asserted a claim against Wilpon, alleging that Wilpon had conspired with the accountant and Commissioner Bud Selig to depress the value artificially. Doubleday's claim created the delicious possibility that the major league owners' books, so carefully guarded despite the owners' protestations of poverty, might actually be brought to light.

Of course, that couldn't be allowed to happen—especially not in the middle of a difficult set of labor negotiations. With the settlement, the books will not have to be revealed as part of discovery. The price that Doubleday agreed to accept in the settlement will be kept confidential, but no doubt it is rather higher than the price based on the original $391 million valuation.

Call me a cynic.

Wonderland

Madeleine Begun Kane, whose Bloggers' Rhapsody neatly described the experience of blogging, now nicely captures the spirit of political discussion within the blogosphere in her Weblog Wonderland.

Humility

Jason Rylander points out the central problem with the ongoing debate, in both the blogosphere and the general media, about the advisability of attacking Iraq: we are all operating from terribly incomplete and imperfect information. Jason quotes a Bruce Baugh post that neatly captures the unease I (and, I imagine, others) feel about the nature of the current debate:

I feel that a lot of the weblog traffic, pro and con, about the prospects of war with Iraq has a distinctly fanboyish whiff about it. One of the characteristics of some fandoms is that they encourage fans to feel that every important question has a uniquely correct answer, and that the fans can determine that answer, and that because there is a uniquely correct answer, the fools and villains who refuse to acknowledge it must be harangued until they surrender. But it's always appropriate to ask in response "How do you know?"

This lack of information, Jason suggests, should not prevent people from thinking or writing about the possibility of war with Iraq. But it does suggest that they should do so with humility and with recognition of their own limitations:

Readers of this site certainly know by now that I am skeptical of opening a new front in Iraq. Nonetheless, you will not see me state unequivocally that war against Iraq is either necessary or imprudent. I believe it may be imprudent, but alas, I do not know. I can argue war issues from a philosophical point of view--for example, whether a strike against Iraq given a particular set of facts and objectives is consistent with theological notions of "just war." I can argue from a legal perspective about whether a preemptive strike is consistent with the emerging body of international law on the conduct of war. I can speculate as to the geopolitical impact. I can raise questions about the cost in American lives and resources. Perhaps in debating these issues, I can help frame a context in which to view the morality, if not the efficacy, of a war effort.

What I cannot do is tell you whether it is a good idea.

Like Jason, I have reservations about the possibility of war with Iraq. I can imagine scenarios in which such a war would make sense; indeed, I can imagine scenarios in which such a war would be nearly essential. But I can also imagine scenarios in which such a war would be the height of folly, and I can imagine other scenarios that yield ambiguous answers at best. What I don't know, and what other bloggers who write so confidently on the subject don't know, is which of these scenarios most closely resembles reality.

Given the necessity of informed debate before taking what may well amount to an unprecedented action, I hope that the necessary information (or at least substantially more information than we have now) will be made available at some point, if not to the general public then at least to our elected representatives. In light of the administration's well-known penchant for secrecy, however, I am not optimistic.

Your Foreign Aid Dollars (and Euros) At Work

According to Israeli intelligence, Yasser Arafat's personal fortune amounts to roughly $1.3 billion.

(Link via Instapundit).

Olbermann's Anger

Eric McErlain thinks that former ESPN sportscaster and current Salon columnist Keith Olbermann has been a bit over-the-top in his criticisms of Cincinnati Reds general manager Jim Bowden and Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, the former for an absurd comparison between September 11 and the current baseball labor talks, the latter for appropriating the phrase "Let's Roll" as a rallying cry for his football team. Unlike others who have ripped Olbermann, however, Eric expresses understanding: Olbermann is a New Yorker, and the wound is still too raw.

I think Eric has it exactly right. I now live in Indiana. But I was born in Manhattan, and like Eric (and, apparently, like Olbermann), I grew up in a New York suburb. My father has worked in lower Manhattan for more than forty years and has called the Upper East Side home for more than a decade. I have numerous friends who live in New York (all of them thankfully accounted for), some of whom work very near where the World Trade Center stood. I passed through or by the World Trade Center scores of times and saw the towers hundreds, perhaps thousands of times; they formed part of my personal landscape. The attack on the World Trade Center was an attack on my world, and when an idiot like Jim Bowden trivializes that attack, or when an idiot like Ann Coulter suggests that Manhattan is not part of America, it hits me like a body blow. And if I'm affected this way, I can only imagine how those who were in the city at the time, who witnessed the events with their own eyes rather than on television, who lost friends and loved ones, must feel.

If Keith Olbermann still feels the need to rant occasionally, that's fine by me. People without connections to New York have no business telling New Yorkers to get over it.

Monday, August 12

End of Summer

It seems a strange thing to say on August 12, but summer is effectively over for me. Although classes do not begin for another nine days, the business of the school year has effectively begun: I spent this morning chairing a meeting of the committee that runs the campus-wide orientation for new faculty members (the event itself will occupy the full day on Thursday), and tomorrow I will meet with students, finalize my syllabi, prepare handouts for the first week of classes, and engage in the other mundane tasks that go into preparation for teaching.

All this will necessarily affect this weblog. I spent most of the afternoon contemplating the issues discussed in the post below (to very little effect, some might say), but I really can't afford to continue devoting the time to blogging that I have over the past three months. Cooped Up will continue—at least, that is my intention—but the quantity of posts (and certainly the quantity of words) will diminish.

I would be remiss if, as I marked the end of this site's third month, I did not thank those who have stopped by to read my words. The past three months have been a remarkable experience for me.

A Simple Jew

Joe Katzmann last week noted the remarkable story of Abe Avremel Zelmanowitz, who died on September 11 in the north tower of the World Trade Center because he stayed in his 27th-story office to care for a paraplegic colleague who was unable to leave. Ha'aretz offered a moving description of his funeral on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem last week:

"A few days before the terrorist attack," Yankel Zelmanowitz related Monday, "Avremel attended a Sabbath shiur [lesson]. The rabbi spoke about sacrificing oneself for the love of God. Avremel told the rabbi: 'You speak of the great historical heroes, like Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai, but how can a simple Jew like myself show his love of God?' The rabbi made some suggestions, but Avremel was not satisfied, so he asked the same question once again. The second reply didn't satisfy him either, nor did the third. But a few days later, he got the reply."

No one can doubt Abe Zelmanowitz's bravery and selflessness, and no one should doubt that that bravery and selflessness were the product of a sincere religious devotion. But what was the nature of that devotion? Mark Shea, a devout Catholic, considers Zelmanowitz's sacrifice thusly:
I'm saying that there is no satisfactory answer for the ability of a fallen human to sacrifice himself for love as Abe did except the grace of God. Since my Tradition teaches that all such grace comes to us through Christ, I can only conclude that that Abe's soul was under the influence of Christ, whether he realized it consciously or not.

Joe Katzmann applauds Mark's comments as "a shining example of interfaith understanding, without denying or glossing over the conflicting principles of either faith."

Lynn B., by conrast, writes that Mark's comments demonstrate no such understanding:

In our tradition, Mark, in our tradition, the ability to do good in the world comes from our God-given inner being, created in God’s image. We constantly struggle with the temptation to do evil (the "bad inclination") and, hopefully, the "good inclination" wins out, but the ultimate outcome is up to each and every one of us. This "grace of god" thing, this necessity of divine intervention to facilitate righteousness, is alien to Judaism.

Meryl Yourish further responds:

By insisting that Abe was under the influence of Christ without even knowing it, Mark manages to effectively say that Abe's entire life as an Orthodox Jew—which is an extremely difficult life to lead, by the way; I'm Conservative and that's tough enough—up to that time was a complete and utter waste of time, since he could only be saved by accepting Christ. It didn't matter that Abe's actions were the results of a lifetime of studying Jewish law, commentary, and philosophy, and it didn't matter that as an Orthodox Jew one of the defining pillars of his faith was that the Messiah has not yet arrived—it must have been Christ that influenced him to stay with his friend and ultimately sacrifice his life for him. This is the subtext of Mark's words, though he may not have meant them as such. And this is the key to what offends.

Joe attempts to bridge the gap today, writing:

the way to live in peace while retaining our own individual faiths starts with widespread recognition and acceptance of deep commonalty of values. "This is TRUE," we say, "which means it's true even if it's expressed differently. So let me explain to all of you how living their faith expresses our greatest ideals and spirit."

Joe's post (which is quite long, and which I recommend reading in full) suggests that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the three faiths he addresses directly) essentially represent separate paths to a single, overarching Truth. I have sympathy for this position, as I have trouble with the notion of a God who says to all humanity across all times: "You shall worship me in the following precise way and according to the following precise terms; otherwise (quite literally) to hell with you." And it's possible, I suppose, that what Joe posits is indeed what Mark meant. Mark's most recent post on the subject, however, is ambiguous. He denies that he meant to suggest that Abe Zelmanowitz was somehow a Christian. He then writes:

I was rather, saying that people who don't identify themselves as Christian are not thereby necessarily uninfluenced by the Spirit of Christ. Since my tradition teaches that it is only through Christ that we have salvation (since he is God incarnate) then I have to conclude that the obvious holiness of Abe's life is the fruit of some mysterious influence by the Holy Spirit that is outside the normal means of grace with which most Catholics are familiar. There is room for this in Catholic tradition ("We are bound by the sacraments, but God is not" is the normal formulation.) As Joe correctly points out, since I believe Jesus *is* God, to demand I not think this as an explanation for Abe's holiness is essentially to demand I abandon my faith. However, to think this is not to demand that any Jewish person abandon anything.

This is all rather heady stuff, and as a Jew struggling to overcome an entirely secular upbringing (and married to a Christian) I'm probably out of my depth in trying to comment on this. But it seems to me that Mark is trying to have it both ways, and that it won't work. I have no doubt that Mark meant well by what he wrote. His deep admiration of Abe Zelmanowitz's supreme sacrifice is apparent. But Mark does suggest that, although Abe Zelmanowitz was a pious Jew, his holiness was not, and could not be, the product of his Judaism but rather was the result of intervention by the Holy Spirit, a notion that Zelmanowitz himself surely would have rejected. Strictly speaking, this may not demand of Jews that they abandon anything, but it most certainly does seek to appropriate the holy act for a faith foreign to the actor and to deny any force to the actor's own deeply-held beliefs. It should be no surprise that Jews, who for centuries have been subject to Christian proselytizing, would find this offensive. As addressed to his fellow Catholics, Mark's comments are generous in that they acknowledge the possibility of a reward in the hereafter for one who is not of the Church. But as viewed by Lynn, Meryl, and myself (and by many other Jews as well, I suspect), his words amount to a rejection of Abe Zelmanowitz's own self-proclaimed identity as a "simple Jew" who sought to show his love of God.

Addendum: in compliance with Meryl's terms of use, I hereby declare that "Meryl is the kewlest person ever11! She rUlez, d00dz!1!11!"

Sunday, August 11

Wine of the Week
Ridge Vineyards Geyserville 1990

I drink a lot of zinfandel—less in the summer, when its concentration and comparatively high alcohol levels don't mesh well with the warm weather, but still a lot. Really good zinfandel has expansive blackberry flavors, and frequently a burst of pepper; it's terrific with red meat and stands up well to winter stews. With lighter summer fare, however, it can be a bit much. I therefore tend to stay away from it in the summer, but when I stumbled across a bottle of Ridge's 1990 Geyserville while rummaging around in my cellar, I calculated that the passage of time would have tamed the wine somewhat; I also figured that it would be a good opportunity to address once again the question of whether zinfandel can hold up to a decade or more of cellaring.

Before proceeding, it's worth noting that Geyserville is not a typical zinfandel. Ridge, together with Ravenswood, has long been regarded as a top producer of zinfandel; while a number of newer wineries have surpassed Ridge in trendiness (and concentration, and scores from Robert Parker, and price), Ridge remains a benchmark winery for the varietal. Except that several of its best-known zinfandels aren't actually sold as zinfandel. This Geyserville, for example, is a blend of 64 percent zinfandel, 18 percent petite sirah, and 18 percent carignane; because the zinfandel content is less than 75 percent, it cannot legally be labeled as zinfandel. The label therefore reads only "Ridge Vineyards California Geyserville," but zinfandel lovers know.

So, can zinfandel age? Based on this bottle (which echoes my experience with other ten-plus-year-old wines from Ridge, Ravenswood, and other top zinfandel makers), the answer is yes and no. Yes, this 1990 Geyserville has held up well to cellaring, so well in fact that the wine was better on the day after opening than it was when first opened (a sign that it had substantial vitality remaining). This is a wine I've had at least ten times over the years, and it still retains essentially the same flavor profile, all pure blackberry and boysenberry fruit. Time has mellowed the tannins, softened the edges, and lent a hint of ripe strawberry bottle age to the aromas, but other than that the wine hasn't changed all that much. On the other hand, it hasn't improved. In this regard, the wine differs from a top cabernet sauvignon or syrah/shiraz—those wines, like this one, lose some of the immediacy of their fruit, but they also undergo something of a transformation, with added nuance and complexity emerging over time. This wine has just softened a bit. In a sense, it's not surprising: while zinfandel can produce an intensely concentrated wine, it still tends to be rather light-bodied compared with top cabernet or syrah—it lacks the glycerin and heft that those wines can possess. And I suspect it's something about that heft, that stuffing, that allows those wines to blossom with age, while zinfandel merely ages. The 1990 Geyserville has done so gracefully, and, believe me, I'm more than happy to drink it, but despite that it was better when it retained more of its youthful vitality.

Signs

Warning: spoilers follow. M. Night Shyamalan's Signs is an odd movie: a science-fiction story virtually without special effects, a story of a global event told from a relentlessly local perspective. To call it Shyamalan's movie is no exaggeration: Shyamalan wrote, directed, and produced, and also gave himself a small but pivotal role in the movie. Shyamalan thus can take credit for the movie's strengths, which are considerable. But he also bears responsibility for its failings.

Signs is in many ways great fun to watch. Shyamalan successfully creates a truly creepy atmosphere, but offsets the air of foreboding with bursts of quirky humor. Like Bruce Willis's characters in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Mel Gibson's Graham Hess is a wounded and insular figure, but Gibson does a better job of bringing his role to life. The other principal actors—Joaquin Phoenix as Merrill, Rory Culkin as Morgan, and Abigail Breslin as Bo—are also terrific, and together they form a convincing, if quirky, family unit. Shyamalan has once again created compelling child characters, and the child actors' performances are excellent.

The characters reveal themselves only in bits and pieces—when Cherry Jones's police officer refers to Mel Gibson's farmer as "father," it's not immediately clear why, and when Shyamalan's character first appears, Merrill's question to Graham—"Was that him?"—receives the briefest of answers, making clear that the character is important without explaining why. Virtually every detail in the first half of the movie proves to have importance in the second, which invites the audience to pay careful attention.

That attention, however, ultimately proves to be the movie's undoing, because paying attention requires the audience to confront some truly massive plot holes (warning: here come the spoilers). Why, given the intense media interest in crop circles found in India, does no one notice or investigate crop circles located forty-five miles from Philadelphia, America's fifth-largest city? Even if Graham and the local police conspired to keep the circles' existence quiet, wouldn't someone notice them from the air? When the aliens finally make their move, wouldn't there be some kind of military response? If so, how do the aliens respond successfully to it if, as we're told, they won't use their advanced technology for fear of prompting a nuclear response that would render Earth useless to them? Even if the aliens forswear advanced technology, why are they so utterly defeated by blocked wooden doors? And how and when were Graham and Merrill planning to harvest all that seemingly-ripe corn, anyway?

These problems combine with Shyamalan's underlying desire to justify religious faith to produce a truly unsatisfying ending. Shyamalan poses for his characters, and us, the question: are you the kind of person who believes that there is a beneficent force behind events, and that we thus can live in hope, or the kind of person who believes that things just happen, by human agency or by chance, and that we thus are doomed to despair? Even if one accepts that this is a proper dichotomy, the resolution the movie provides is too pat, too flat, too easy. The aliens pack up and leave for reasons that are not given an even remotely acceptable explanation, although the obliquely reported discovery of the means of humanity's salvation in the biblical middle east is surely meant to be significant. And the family's defeat of an alien straggler suggests a God that micromanages on such a fine level as to justify those athletes who credit the Lord for their having hit a homerun or caught a touchdown pass.

The ending alienated a substantial portion of the audience with whom I saw the movie—there was a fair bit of angry and annoyed muttering as people departed the theater. And some viewers have been driven to fits of rage—see Diane E's devastating critique at Letter from Gotham, for example. Some of that reaction strikes me as a bit overwrought—I enjoyed large portions of the movie, and ultimately I'm glad I saw it despite the silly ending. But if Shyamalan really wants to make movies that invite so much attention from the audience—a trait that characterized The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable as well as Signs—he needs to do a much better job than this of ensuring that the details make sense.

Out of His Cave

N.Z. Bear is back from his break, with some rather pointed words for Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian.