Anne Wilson

 

 

This page is 

powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

 
Summer's upon us, and it's time for me to put the blog away for awhile. Gardening, the pool, chauffering to camps, house painting, and all the other accoutrements of real life beckon. I might update the movies & reading lists, but not much else.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

 
The gloves come off in the rhetorical battle over vouchers: The Chicago Sun-Times entitled its article, "Blame pain-in-the-neck unions for education bow-tie," but it really should have been called: "Blame Teacher's Unions and Suburban Parents for Voucher Failures." In one of the most egregious and outrageous mainstream press accusations, the Sun-Times claims:
Parents in the worst inner-city "sink schools" struggle to save their children from this mis-education by supporting various schemes for school choice--in particular, school vouchers. Until now, however, they have generally been defeated by a bizarre but understandable electoral alliance between the Teacher Trust and suburban parents.

Suburban parents--who have often spent large sums on housing so that their children can escape from a worse to a less worse education--are nervous that vouchers will mean an inner-city invasion of their treasured local schools.

Meanwhile, the teacher unions, in order to shore up their public school monopoly, spend vast sums on painting voucher advocates as dangerous "extremists" out to destroy public schools. These campaigns allow the suburban parents to vote on nearly racist grounds with a clear conscience.
There you have it. It's kind of like the Ignatian "spiritual exercise" where you're asked to imagine a plain with two opposing armies girding for battle. On one side you are supposed to envision the "Armies of God," and on the other the "Armies of the Devil."

Well, in this case, the proper vision would be of parents on one hand who have children out of wedlock, who drink to excess, who use drugs, who are sexually promiscuous, who abuse their children, who expose them to all sorts of poor conditions from the day they're conceived. These parents have children who needless to say, have difficulties both with learning the material at school, and becoming socialized to the school environment.

On the other hand, you have parents who get married before having their children, avoid situations involving drugs and crime, save money in the face of confiscatory taxes, and move to a neighborhood with good schools. Many of them even vote Republican.

But in this inverted vision of the armies on the plain, the former group of parents are cast as the innocent victims in need of yet another welfare program to help them out. The second group are evil "racists."

Somebody's got their priorities screwed up.

What is the point of abusing the mainstay of the Republican Party: married, white, suburban men and their wives? The net result of all this middle-class suburban bashing is going to become painfully obvious.


 
Foreshadowings of things to come: This Pakistani Christian website reports that two Christians were murdered in postwar Iraq in two separate incidents, as fundamentalist Shi'ite Muslims rush in to fill the power vacuum left behind after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

I don't know what they're smoking in Washington, DC. It should have been obvious from Day One that the Islamist Amen Corner was going to start blatting about a religious dictatorship the minute after the last bomb fell.

So much for a "free Iraq." Democracy and representative government do not work when the majority of the people want a brutal fundamentalist theocracy that's the equivalent of George Orwell's "jackboot stomping on a human face, forever."

Has anyone seen any country move from a fundamentalist, jihadi Islamic country to a truly free one?

So yesterday we went to "orange." Meanwhile, the Saudis are still our best friends (even after more and more signs point to higher-up involvement in the bombings of last week); Al-Qaeda is still out there, and we are still not taking steps to free ourselves from Middle Eastern (i.e. jihadi) oil.

I'd say that we have a long war on our hands; it is a "culture war," and it is indeed a "clash of civilizations."
 
A Magical Mystery Tour ... with a twist: These college students are motoring a vegetable-oil-driven bus across the United States. While it may not be the ultimate solution to achieving independence from Middle Eastern oil, it's a step in the right direction.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

 
The final sun setting over Britain? British Prime Minister Tony Blair may cede British sovereignity to a European Constitution that will accomplish what Philip II of Spain, Napoleon, and Adolf Hitler could not. Reportedly PM Blair will not even seek a referendum on the issue, which in effect will deliver sixty million Englishmen into virtual slavery to the EU - and without even a referendum. So who really won World War II?
 
Another example of how Socialized Medicine Kills: British cancer patients are going to be triaged for chemotherapy at Manchester's Christie Hospital, because administrators say the hospital doesn't have enough cash to treat them all - despite a 17% increase in budget from last year.

Head of chemotherapy Dr. Paul Hawkins said:
"A large proportion of patients needing chemotherapy have quite advanced cancers and could deteriorate and die quite rapidly."

Prof Hawkins said the waiting list was only a short-term remedy.

"The long-term solution is either treat fewer people or get more cash," he said.
What isn't mentioned here is that many of these advanced cancers probably were allowed to advance to such a state because of the poor quality of prevention and early treatment under British socialized medicine.

Meanwhile, a Welsh hospital stitched a toddler's tongue to her gums after "routine" baby tooth removal. What amazes me is that the mother didn't even look into the child's mouth for "several days," after noticing that she failed to speak or eat properly. I find that unimaginable - when our kids have had oral surgery, I'm right on top of it until that follow-up visit. But maybe under socialized medicine they don't do follow-ups. Takes too many resources, you know.

That's another aspect of socialized medicine - the people who are its victims take on an air of complete passivity. What are they going to do about it anyway? becomes the attitude.


 
Stop "aiding the enemy," Calgary Sun columnist Licia Corbella tells Canadian expats working for Saudi Arabian companies.
Saudi Arabia is a classic case of the master-slave relationship eventually reversing itself, as the master becomes more reliant on the slave's expertise than the slave on its master.

For years now the Saudi regime has blamed all bombings within its borders on westerners.

Indeed, Canadian bio-chemist Bill Sampson has been sentenced to death in clearly trumped-up charges relating to a car bombing in 2000 that killed a British engineer.

Naturally, the Canadian government is doing virtually nothing to help this man, who naively went over there and assumed his help would be appreciated and well compensated. Instead, he may end up paying with his life to cushion the ruling Saudis from embarrassment.
She ends by calling expat workers "traitors." The real tragedy is the complicity in both the Canadian and US governments with what is one of the most evil regimes on the face of the earth - even when their citizens murder Americans, Canadians, and Europeans with impunity.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

 
Oreo-hating lawyer drops suit because it was in essence a publicity stunt.
San Francisco attorney Stephen Joseph told The Associated Press he would not pursue the action any further, and only wanted to get the word out about the dangers of unlabeled fats contained in the popular black and white cookies.

"We have received thousands of e-mails expressing support for what we have done in advising the public of this problem," Joseph said. "But it's no longer necessary to continue the lawsuit because at the time the lawsuit was filed nobody knew about trans fat. Now everybody knows about trans fat."

He expressed no remorse for using California courts as a publicity tool.
I'm usually suspicious about calls for tort reform. In this case, it's essential. This lawyer should be slapped with a big bill for court costs, even if the suit didn't go very far.

 
Finally ... a good blog featuring a Christian perspective on film, art, and popular culture called Church of the Masses, written by Barbara Nicolosi, the director of Act One.

Act One teaches Christians how to write for the popular culture market, especially how to create interesting and saleable scripts and screenplays that incorporate a Christian perspective. From their website:
ACT ONE: Writing For Hollywood is a comprehensive training and mentorship program to form the next generation of Christian scriptwriters. Emphasizing excellence, artistry, professionalism and the writer's personal relationship with Christ, Act One prepares writers to be apostles through their lives and work in the heart of the entertainment industry. In addition to producing entertainment alternatives that will be redemptive and deepening for the whole human family, Act One students are encouraged to see their role in the industry as being 'the 'aroma of Christ' in writers rooms, on sets, and in studio and network offices.

The program of ACT ONE is a month-long intensive experience of the scriptwriter's life that includes skill training, study of the screen art form, mentorships with established industry professionals, and prayer and fellowship with other writers. The program curriculum covers everything a writer needs know to enter into the business of film and television in a professional and competitive way, while providing special tools for Christians concerned with creating entertainment that will foster in viewers an encounter with God, a sense of connection with others, and deeper knowledge of self.


They also sponsor the annual Los Angeles City of the Angels Film Festival. Just for fun, take their quiz on the "most revolutionary" films of the past century.

What makes Church of the Masses especially worthy is that it points out that not all Christian film, or art, or theater, or music has to be aimed "at fifteen-year old girls" (and especially sheltered ones, at that, to paraphrase Flannery O'Connor.)
 
Norman Ornstein's sky is falling ... again as the June Atlantic Monthly gives him a forum for his insistence that we have a real problem with Congressional succession in the event of a truly massive terrorist attack that would wipe out the majority of the House of Representatives.

The Constitution clearly outlines the Presidential succession, down to the heads of the various cabinets in the order in which the cabinet posts were created throughout our history. Senators can be replaced by the states' governors.

Why is this a problem for Congressmen? According to the US Constitution, only general elections within the state can replace them. With modern technology and sufficient motivation, an election in each state can be convened within weeks. In that time, while congressional elections were being held, the Constitution provides that the remaining Congressmen can function with a quorum. Ornstein clearly doesn't like this constitutional provision, but it's obvious: a quorum is a majority of the *remaining* Congressmen. Even if there are only 10 left, six makes a quorum.

There is one consideration not mentioned in this article. The problem comes in not with dead Congressmen, but with survivors incapable of showing up (for instance, because they're in intensive care.) They're still alive, still in office, but could make it impossible to form a quorum. But this isn't an issue of succession at all.

Ornstein's political bias makes itself plain when he threatens Atlantic Monthly readers with the prospect of John Ashcroft as a symbol for "martial law," and further attempts to scare the children with the thought of the six surviving Congressmen being conservatives, who would then elect a conservative Speaker - who would then come in line as a possible next President.

In short, what Ornstein fears that the surviving Congressmen would be "too conservative" and would probably readily support the President's willingness to military to pound into the pavement whoever was responsible.

The current constitutional provisions are fine. We don't have to ditch them because a nattering nanny fears too much conservative power. It's not as if we never had threats to our nation's capitol before this. It was burned to the ground in 1812 during a full-scale *invasion*, for crying out loud.

What we *really* ought to worry about is who our President appoints to Cabinet posts, since they're directly in line for the presidential succession. Norm Mineta for president? Now that's a frightening thought.
 
Newt Gingrich's comments on health care as a Republican issue in this article bear reading. Health care is going to play a critical role in the 2004 elections, and in 2008 it will be *the* domestic issue for the Republicans.

Republicans focused on schooling in 2000, because they wanted to attract crossover voters from the Hispanic & black communities (it wasn't too successful, as I recall.)

Meanwhile, as the dot-bomb was exploding through the ranks of the middle-class, laid-off middle class workers of middle age found themselves either paying $1000 a month for COBRA benefits, or found themselves uninsurable if they had any of the chronic diseases to which middle age is heir. By 2008 there will be just that many more of them - and they will be voting.

However, Gingrich is seeing the problem through rose-colored glasses if he thinks an aging population is going to need medical care "only when absolutely necessary" by the Boy Scout version of "be prepared" through preventive medicine. He should know that prevention is no guarantee of results. An aging population is going to be sicker, regardless of happy-crappy textbook pictures showing jogging seniors (as Diane Ravitch points out in her new book, The Language Police.)

I was at the pharmacist's yesterday, and she told me that many people are refusing their prescriptions when they discover how much they cost. She had mixed a preparation for me and then asked if I wanted it, given the cost. (I did.) Older, sicker people who refuse medication because of cost, and then wind up as emergency patients, or hospitalized because their untreated conditions became more severe do not represent a cost-effective way to run a health-care system. I have heard of elderly women no longer able to take Fosamax (the osteoporosis-preventing drug) because their HMOs no longer pay for non-generic medicines. This is crazy, because treating a broken hip and all its consequences costs more - at least until the person dies.

As I've said numerous times, socialized medicine isn't the answer. But neither is simply letting the elderly die off without treatment "so as to decrease the surplus population," to quote Scrooge.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

 
Sounds like Al-Qaeda may be responsible for the coordinated blasts that went off in a Saudi Arabian compound for foreign workers, in which at least seven Americans died and casualties were described as being "in the hundreds."

I don't wish to speak ill of the dead or to add to the survivors' burden of pain. But in reality, Saudi Arabia is in the middle of a war zone. There is an old saying, "There are no tourists in a war," and there isn't much room for guest workers either. It's reprehensible that it took until May of this year for the US State Department to *finally* warn Americans to stay out of Saudi Arabia, but I guess it's better late than never. Any American outside of military or diplomatic circles still in Saudi Arabia is showing terrible irresponsibility, and I would hate to see American soldiers put at risk to go fish them out.

The Saudis depend on foreign workers of all kinds to do their work for them, from the humblest jobs like cleaning toilets to high-tech work like keeping the oil flowing. With their oil wealth they pay top dollar for these services. While foreign domestic workers often live with the families they serve (often experiencing sexual and other abuse, including abduction for sex slavery), other workers, especially Americans, Canadians, and Europeans, live in special compounds where they can live a somewhat normal life away from the prying eyes of the religious police.

It was a group of these compounds that was attacked by what looks very possibly like Al-Qaeda terrorists.

A few things come to mind if this is indeed Al-Qaeda. First, that at least some of our security measures implemented since September 11 are indeed working, and Al-Qaeda is forced to strike American (and other civilized nation) targets in countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where they can move about more freely and have far more local support.

Second, it raises a very interesting question, especially in light of the President's subsequent remarks like "just ask the Taliban" how we deal with Al-Qaeda attacks against Americans. This isn't an attack in Pakistan, where a US military presence still keeps the restless wahhabi under control. This is an attack launched in the heart of the Mother Ship of Wahhabi Jihadism itself, Saudi Arabia.

What is our response going to be if the trail of the murderers leads right to the rotten and corrupt heart of the Magical Wahhabi Kingdom? Seven of the nine terrorists were Saudi. One of the dead attackers is the son of the deputy governor of Riyadh (also the owner of the bombed compound where Americans were killed.) It will be very interesting to know the connections of the other six Saudi attackers, and how deep the rot goes.
 
Did the movie X2 start a fashion? One enjoyable frisson of minor horror in X2 comes when a little boy sticks his tongue out at a little girl, and the tongue turns out to be blue-gray and forked.

Apparently some people aren't content to let such interesting variations remain only in the movies. Illinois lawmakers are on the verge of banning the personal mutilation practice called "tongue-splitting," and freedom-loving self-mutilators are up in arms. They even go so far as to drag out the old tired illegal abortion analogy, attempting to scare us with visions of "back alley tongue splitters" working out of dingy basements, because interfering lawmakers want to keep "safe, legal" tongue- splitting from the masses.

There are medical reasons to do certain kinds of plastic surgery. There are some kinds of plastic surgery that don't substantially change the look of the face (like ear piercing or a slight reduction of the nose - NOT Michael Jackson-type horrors.) But this produces a gross deformity, one that interferes with speech and in some cases even requires the person to learn to speak all over again. I don't see that tongue-splitting should be made illegal, but you wonder about what kind of "doctor" would actually do something like that to a person, not to mention what kind of disturbance leads a person to go through with it.
 
Speaking of tongues, the tongue of the realm prevails as young Hispanics of Mexican descent are growing up not knowing how to speak Spanish. From the tone of this article, you'd think it was the end of the world. What it actually means is that children of immigrants *are* being assimilated into American culture.

Of course, this is bad news for the "diversity pimps" who can't rest until everyone with a skin tone any darker than peach is a member of one or another Balkanized "minority" whining about their supposed victimhood.

It may be that someday having a Spanish surname and actually speaking Spanish is about as rare as having a German surname and speaking German. We can only hope.

Monday, May 12, 2003

 
Does Prozac work for off-the-charts paranoia? The Arab News, always alert to beacons of light piercing das Kultursmog, reports on an American Islamic group who apparently needs a truckload of it. Guess what - bad guy William Stryker in X2: X-Men United is supposed to be a Muslim. Right - and I'm actually a polygamous second wife living in a schismatic Mormon commune in Arizona.

In the film a momentary close-up of Stryker's ring apparently shows Arabic characters forming the name of "Allah." Considering that the DVD won't be out for months, and the ring is shown *very* briefly, how exactly does Project Islamic HOPE know this?

Project Islamic HOPE seems to be affiliated with the Bilal Islamic Center, a large Los Angeles Black Muslim mosque that has received funding from Saudi Arabia. According to this World Net Daily article from last year:
Bilal is just one of many black mosques funded by Saudi. Most of them, including Bilal, are associated with Imam W. Deen Mohammed, head of the Chicago-based Muslim American Society, or MAS, which has been credited with helping convert more than a million U.S. blacks to Islam.

A spokesman for the group said "hundreds of American mosques are associated with" MAS, explaining that each major city has "one main mosque and two or three smaller centers in the suburbs." The Chicago area, for example, has a MAS mosque and three related centers, he says.

Black converts make up the fastest-growing segment of the Muslim population in America.

An estimated 60 to 90 percent of all U.S. converts to Islam are black, Safa says.

"Eighty percent of these converts were raised in the church," he added.

Christianity Today predicts that if the conversion rates continue, Islam could become the dominant religion in black urban areas by 2020.
But never mind. It's all the fault of the Joooooz - because naturally X2 director Bryan Singer is ... a Jew. Horrors.



 
They're baaack... Those loveable monsters of Doom get resurrected with supposed movie-quality animation in Doom III. No doubt the howls of anguish from the "blame Columbine on id Software" crowd will echo down the corridors.

Maybe this is the shot in the arm the PC makers' stocks need. Apparently it won't run comfortably on most people's current systems. Can you spell u-p-g-r-a-d-e?

Screen shots here. (shiver...)
 
Food Nazis on the march: first they came for my Oreos... This decade will no doubt be renowned for unrelenting attacks on foods deemed "unhealthy." This particularly repugnant specimen of nattering nanny-ism wants to make it illegal in CA to sell Oreos to children. Yes, trans-fats are very, very bad for you, but this kind of interfering nosiness is worse.

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, nutrition Nazis panicked over fat are advocating a tax on junk and high-fat food.

Today it's junk food. Tomorrow it will be butter, whole milk, cheese, nuts, and meat. That house in the country with a cow might look mighty attractive if it's the only way you'll get a taste of the real article.

It's already increasingly difficult to find meat with a layer of fat around the outside (not necessarily "marbled," but simply with a rim of fat.) Has anyone else noticed how it's virtually impossible to buy a ham of that kind - you know, the kind that Mom used to cut cross-hatches in, slather with a mixture of pineapple juice and brown sugar, studded with cloves?

I don't deny that junk food has done much to make Americans obese beyond any other country in the world. The food industry has known for years that sugar, cheap starches, and hydrogenated fats are filling (in the short run) and get people coming back for more.

Americans eat fast food / junk food because it's cheaper in the long run than domestic servants; in essence, the crews at McDonalds *are* our "household servants." Many households don't have mothers at home anymore to cook for families; cooking, in fact, is a lost art. I suppose if it gets too expensive to eat out, or eat packaged food, it might make a comeback - but it's wrong to prod that comeback at the expense of individual liberties.
 
Sex ed in Catholic schools and vouchers: Domenico Bettinelli justly criticizes Boston Archdiocesan officials who tell parents unhappy with explicit sex ed in Catholic schools that "they aren't forced to keep their children in parochial school if they object to the program."

I posted the following question over in the comment section for that thread:
What happens when parents who receive vouchers decide they do want to opt their child out of sex education in a parochial school? What happens if those voucher recipients also happen to be parishioners?

What if the taxpayers in a certain state decide they don't *want* their tax dollars for vouchers going to explicit sex education programs, especially if it's in a state where state laws mandate that students' parents be able to remove them from sex education courses?
Your guess is as good as mine.
 
California secessionists discuss a possible California Republic. They feel "more aligned to France and Germany." I'd say good riddance and let them go, except the possibility of Chinese military bases (complete with nukes pointed at the rest of us) in the CR doesn't sound that comforting. You know they'd let them in, too.
 
A teacher friend writes in response to Frederick Hess's claim that "voucherites express puzzlement as to why many suburbanites don't share their enthusiasm for school choice."
It is because they LIKE their neighborhood school. So, why the voucherites so angry that people like their schools?? The reason is that such folks want to run those schools for a profit and happy parents are getting in the way of that.

What I cannot fathom is that conservatives, who allegedly stand for local control, are saying nothing as Bush federalizes the public school system.
It's because many conservatives have no problem with big government - the problem as they see it is that they're not running it themselves. They're oh so enlightened and could do oh so much better a job. At bottom it's the *same* country club set that's intent on destroying not only the public schools of the suburbs but the entire middle class as well.

The general "pro-business" and non-populist Republican mentality continues along this path at the expense of the party's most numerous base. They think homeschooling and for-profit private schools are going to solve this difficulties and make them a profit at the same time.

The plan to start for-profit private schools discovered that when you're not subsidized by a diocese or a parish, you really *do* have to charge $9000 a year tuition or more when you pay taxes, even when you stick a school in a dinky strip mall storefront. (Isn't *that* a nice environment.) They know they can't make it in the private school business without heavy tax subsidies. You can't get those without redistributing the wealth from the good suburban schools to the students in the "failing" ones.
 
Health care crisis coming round the bend: Today's Wall Street Journal has a front-page article on the plight of a retiree from the steel industry. He started working in in steel at age 18. In his early fifties he was diagnosed with heart problems, and retired with a full pension at the age of 55. For two years he had his medical insurance provided as part of the retirement package. Then the medical benefits were dropped as a consequence of some kind of restructuring. He is now 57 years old, 8 years away from Medicare.

His monthly premium for himself and his wife is $2800 a month. He has diabetes and congestive heart failure. They have a house but only about $35,000 saved.

I see this scenario multiplying enormously over the next 4-6 years (2004-2008) as the proverbial "pig in the python" of baby boomers enters the 50-64 year old age bracket.

What kinds of relief should there be, and will there be? Personally, I can't see medical savings accounts as a widespread remedy; for one thing, the amounts people would have to save would be phenomenal, and as more uninsured but sick people enter the insurance pool, the costs for insurance will just rise by that much more. While companies can't deny coverage to those who have had 18 months previous continuous coverage under COBRA after retirement, layoff, or losing their benefits for other reasons (like corporate sales, merger, bankruptcy, etc.), they *can* charge market value for the premiums. In the case of a chronically ill person, that's a hefty price as this article shows.

Is there any way to have modern medical care accessible to people? Our state just cut about 15,000 people off of Medicaid (the part that's not federally mandated) because of our severe budget deficit. What do we do about this, before the equivalent of the 1930s Social Security legislation comes before Congress, and Congress approves it in a panic, because there's a "national crisis" going on?

One "solution" (not desirable in the long run but which would pay off in the short run) is to essentially remove immigration controls, if only for Mexico; grant the Mexicans across the board citizenship, and immediately enroll the Mexicans - who are younger and still have children - into some kind of socialized medicine program. The only way pyramid schemes work is if there's a large enough base at the bottom. We stopped growing our own "base" back in the 1970s, when our national fertility rate took a nosedive to Great Depression levels of below 2.0 children per woman.

With the "pig in the python" entering that hot zone of 10 years before Medicare kicks in, and with so few younger people beneath to support the system, "imports" seem tempting as the only way to generate enough people to pay into *any* kind of pooled system, public or private. I wonder if this is the thought in the back of the mind of George Bush and others so accommodating to Mexico.

One other thought - everyone is waiting for the housing bubble to burst, but it hasn't yet (as a consequence of low interest rates.) A flood of homes on the market, as people cash in their assets to pay the insurance premiums, or spend their assets down so as to qualify for Medicaid, would be just the impetus needed to pop that particular bubble.

Friday, May 09, 2003

 
Thanks for the plug, Rod Dreher, for mentioning this humble real estate in The Corner of National Review Online. Welcome to readers of that august publication. I'm glad to see Rod's still writing for them even though he's in Dallas. I hope I don't besmirch his stellar conservative reputation when I stray off the plantation with my voucher views...

Also a good Corner discussion is going on today about crunchy, metropolitan, and other kinds of conservatives.
 
A Manhattan reader writes: Everything you say about "my kind" is right. No denying it.

The only thing I would point out to you, that you may not be aware of, is that in my universe...top drawer Manhattan private schools, country homes, friends moving to Greenwich CT where the STARTER homes are $1.25 million...there literally ARE no acceptable public schools.

The top NYC public schools are overcrowded and poorly staffed. The kids make 'em rock, not our Board of Ed. And even in drop dead burbs like Greenwich and New Canaan CT, the upper crusters send their kids to the local private scools.

The **idea** that someone who is white, conservative and Republican can be satisfied with their local public schooling is simply an alien concept.


These are good points. My personal experience probably provides more empathy than this writer realizes. My own family fled Manhattan after the infamous 1968 school strike. Before the strike, NYC had one of the best public school systems in the world. Afterwards, you wouldn't send a dog there, for fear of a cruelty to animals citation.

But believe it or not, out here in Red-land there really are good public schools - perhaps not at the level of the elite academies in some regards, but having their advantages in their own way. We certainly don't need to be "acclimatised" or weaned away from them because of a pro-voucher political agenda.
 
The Kind of Immigrant We Need Update: Iraqi lawyer Mohammed Al-Rehaief, who provided critical help and intelligence to the US military in the rescue of POW Jessica Lynch, will be settling with his family in the Washington, DC area. According to this article, he's been honored by the Delaware Bar Association and is working on a book about the rescue.

This is just heartwarming. If Congress hasn't already done it, Al-Rehaief needs to be formally recognized by that body as well.
 
Why Suburbanites Don't Like Vouchers: Voucher supporter and "education reformer" Frederick Hess shoots one across the bow in the April/May issue of American Enterprise.
Like the architects of LBJ's Great Society, voucherites express puzzlement as to why many suburbanites don't share their enthusiasm for school choice. Increasingly, I find myself in education reform meetings where voucher advocates end up quietly berating white suburban families for showing insufficient regard for the education of disadvantaged urban children.
I get to speak to this issue with authority because we've done it all - at one time or another we've done homeschooling, private schooling, and currently use the public schools.

The "white middle class" has been paying out taxes for the past 40 years to "help disadvantaged urban children" - and until welfare reform, it was money down the drain - because the *root causes* of all that "disadvantage" weren't being addressed. The #1 reason: an 80% out of wedlock birth rate. The #2 reason: drugs and general cultural degeneracy.

Now we are supposed to pay *more* in taxes for *private schooling* for these "disadvantaged children." What about *my* disadvantaged children, who can't even approach private education, and believe me, no $2500 voucher is going to pay for John Burroughs or Country Day in St. Louis. Even the Lutheran high schools are $7000 a year.

This writer inadvertently describes a particularly offensive breed of conservative, the Upper East Side conservative who lives in a $5 million co-op; has a nanny *and* an au pair, and the private school tuition bills to prove it. I don't think Upper East Side conservatives have a *clue* about what this issue means to Red Zone Republican voters with children in public schools. In fact, the Upper East Side conservative is probably aghast that Red Zoners even still have their children in public school. After all, any conservative worthy of the name would either be homeschooling or use private schools, right? Well, wrong.

Many people have made the choice to pay high property taxes and home values because of the quality of their local public school district. The "urban underclass" is not our highest educational priority. Instead, try the ridiculous weight of backpacks, no air conditioning in school buildings, and the looming, crushing impact of paying for college tuition when you're not considered "poor" enough to qualify for financial aid.

Why don't the Upper East Siders get it? It's about *our children first.* This is a perfectly natural expression of parenthood, to care about your children before other peoples'. If that makes us "uncompassionate" or "selfish," then so be it. The reason these children are "disadvantaged" is because someone didn't think about *their children first* before conceiving them out of wedlock, or taking drugs during pregnancy, or sexually or physically abusing them, etc.
The dominant wings of the voucher movement are free-marketers on the one hand, and urban minorities tired of waiting for public school improvement on the other. The result has been a sometimes awkward marriage that has permitted conservatives to claim the potent language of civil rights, and tempted Republicans into believing they could make political inroads with black and Latino voters.
Exactly. It's all about trolling for votes, at the expense of the *backbone* of the Republican Party.

However, he has failed to include the most vocal class of all - those private school /homeschool advocates with an *agenda* - most of whom would like to see public schools entirely de-funded and eliminated, like the Separation of School and State Alliance. These groups aren't content to live with and enjoy their own personal educational choices - they insist on destroying an option (good suburban middle-class schools) that they themselves don't even want in the first place. Talk about "dogs in the manger."

One of the most offensive sections of this article explores how white middle-class suburbanites can be manipulated through propaganda into accepting vouchers:
One approach would be to convince suburban voters that even their "better" schools are much worse than they think, and that the system-wide benefits from choice will create a rising tide that lifts all schools.
Yup, if the truth won't work, try the Big Lie. In other words, continue to treat the middle class like an endless cash cow for social engineering programs, and do it in the name of *conservatism.*
A second approach would be to compromise to mitigate possible negative side effects of choice plans. A favorite strategy so far has been to limit the area affected by school choice to urban districts, so as to immunize suburban voters from the change. The Milwaukee and Cleveland voucher programs stipulate that city students can only use their vouchers to attend suburban schools if the suburban districts approve (which they rarely do). Establishment of charter schools has also been limited in suburban communities.
In other words, everyone is to have a "choice" except the suburban districts (i.e. expressing the will of the suburban district voters), who obviously don't choose to participate.
Reformers have used gradual changes and half measures, like choice among existing public schools only, to acclimate parents to the idea that the longstanding link between where you live and the schools your children attend is gradually dissolving. Of course, this limits the speed and effectiveness of choice-based reform.
There. He said it, in black & white. The aim of "reform" is to essentially destroy good public schools in the suburbs, attended by middle-class children. What they are actually trying to do (with Every Child Left Behind and propaganda efforts like this) is destroy those districts, to make them unacceptable to middle-class suburban families.

Hess mentions "incentives," but there is *no* incentive (paid for, of course, by our tax dollars) that could be offered to substitute for good neighborhood schools with high quality programs. We already *have* the choices we want. Don't rob our schools (which we pay for almost entirely out of our own local property taxes) for some new pie-in-the-sky welfare program.

Last but not least, what on earth is "conservative" about a voucher discussion that mentions nothing about the tax increases that the middle class will pay in order to support these programs. Our state is cutting $230,000,000 out of elementary and secondary education this year alone. We are supposed to fund *voucher programs* with these kinds of severe cuts are on the table? We're supposed to pay for the destruction of our own local schools?

 
Big Al's campaign cranks up, even if clueless Michigan Republican state reps "don't get it." Twenty-eight protested Sharpton's address to a state Democratic Party black caucus. They *should* be cheering him on, because if the Michigan black Democrats want to shoot themselves in the foot, helpfully hand them the ammunition.

If it looks like the Big Guy has even a shot at winning a primary, I'll register as a Democrat just to vote for him over Gephardt. A serious Sharpton challenge would throw the national Democratic convention into a total ruckus. You could sell tickets to that one.
 
Zero Tolerance Idiocy Redux: A Boise, Idaho area school attempted to discipline an 11 year old who wore a t-shirt bearing the image of a US soldier hoisting a rifle. The patriotic image was banned because "pictures showing gangs or guns are not allowed in school." Fortunately the school saw reason and backed down.

I would love to comb through the history textbooks of these nervous nellie schools, and point out how difficult it is to illustrate any discussion of the history of warfare without showing weapons. That would make for a fun deposition, if a school was stupid enough to carry it to that point.

Thursday, May 08, 2003

 
"Nanny Republican" Tommy Thompson targets fast food: Now I've heard everything. What has happened to Republicans in the administration? Why are fast food places any more guilty of contributing to US obesity rates than, let's say, the Department of Agriculture with its subsidy of corn and decade-long love affair with high-fructose corn syrup? Thompson, who supposedly has been low-carbing it and has lost 15 pounds, should know better.

For decades the USDA and various "health" associations have been promoting high-carb diets, while failing to educate consumers on the sizeable differences between eating brown rice or lentils on one hand, and white-bread hamburger buns on the other - not to mention HFC-saturated soda and pseudo-"juice" that's really 90% HFC.

Don't get me started on fat, which has been another big government bugaboo right up there with red meat.

Let the US government clean up its own act first, before attacking the fast-food industry. Scrap the anti-fat, anti-meat, anti-whole dairy messages. Stop encouraging high-carb diets for everyone, regardless of genetics or body type. Stop subsidizing the farming of corn. Get some realistic food labels that include the glycemic index of carbohydrates. Slap a big fat tax on soda with HFC. But leave the anti-business demeanor to the Democrats.
 
We're "wobbly," says the US Secretary of the Treasury. Actually, we're about one more blow away from a double-digit recession, and as long as this administration remains deaf to the twin problems of uncontrolled illegal immigration, and destructive legal immigration like the H-1B program, we'll continue to wobble. Right now we're sustained on the Ponzi scheme of over-borrowing on first mortgages, and home equity loans on whatever equity people have been able to accumulate. Sooner or later the piper wants to be paid, however, and when all those loans come due - home equity, credit card, college loans - then watch the "wobbling" really begin.
 
Phyllis Schlafly rips H-1B visas: They *do* cost American jobs. Congress is being lobbied now to allow even more H-1B visa holders to work as engineers and programmers in the US - as if almost one million already wasn't enough. This flood of H-1Bs has substantially hurt American job-holders:
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment among American electronic engineers has soared to 7 percent, and among computer hardware engineers to 6.5 percent, both surpassing the national jobless rate of 5.8 percent. According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), electrical and electronic engineers lost 241,000 jobs in the past two years, and computer scientists and systems analysts lost 175,000 jobs.
Ironically, this is all being done in the name of "lowering the costs" of products like computers, PDAs and other electronic toys. No one seems to be able to explain how laid-off or underemployed engineers are supposed to be able to afford PDAs - much less food, house payments, and medical insurance.

There is no organized counter-lobby to the electronic industry associations and large corporations begging for more cheap foreign engineers. Engineers themselves, many a generation or two from blue-collar backgrounds, don't see themselves as a lobbying force. But representatives have to hear from out-of-work and underemployed engineers and programmers.
 
Deflation? What deflation? The Wall Street Journal needs to make up its mind. On the editorial page, they admonish Congress to listen to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's dire warnings on upcoming "deflation." But then on page D1, a more realistic article entitled "What Deflation? Why Your Bills are Rising" busts the bubble of mythical "deflation."

About the only prices deflating so far are those on cheap imported Chinese goods. From the WSJ article, take a look at how much some *essentials* have increased in cost over the past three years:

Natural gas - 21.4%
Cable TV - 9.1% (per month)
Health care - 8.0%
College tuition - 5.6% (private)
College tuition - 6.7% (public)
Car insurance - 7.6%

In general, the cost of services is expected to significantly increase as well, as rents, liability insurance, and labor costs all rise.

Local and state taxes are expected to rise too, as states desperately try to recoup budget losses from the "dot-bomb."

While the article doesn't mention the price of real estate, the "bubble" in that sector hasn't burst yet, either. I've been pricing it near my own home, and over the past three years houses in some municipalities have increased 20-30% in price - or more.

"Deflation" is beginning to sound like the Republican version of the Democrat's "global warming" - a bugaboo useful for frightening (some of) the children.

In reality, those who write the monthly checks know full well that there's no such thing as deflation when it comes to the critical necessities of a household, from a house in a decent neighborhood, to the insurance for it, for the utilities to run it. Those paying premiums for health care, or with kids in college, are paying through the nose.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

 
Thomas Sowell wishes he didn't have health insurance: Well, so do I, and so should you, because in reality very few Americans actually have real "health insurance" in the same way we have auto insurance. He likes the car insurance analogy and uses it freely.

Sowell rightfully criticizes any Democratic political movement toward socialized medicine. What he fails to take into account, though, is that the car insurance analogy breaks down very quickly when compared to medical insurance.

For starters, we pay our own car insurance bills. When there's a wreck or a car is totalled, the insurance company pays us a settlement, and it goes right into our hands.

Most people don't pay for their own medical insurance. It's provided for them by their employers, who get a tax break. Worse, many employers do not even pay premiums to insurance companies for their own employees' medical care. Many major employers have what are called "self-funded plans," where the company throws money into a pot and then pays an insurance company to *administer* the plan: in other words, to do the paperwork to handle the claims, make the payments, etc. It's not the insurance company's money that gets paid out when an employee has a claim: it's the company's.

So what happens when the company goes bankrupt or is sold or merges with another company? When the plan is "self-funded," then the money is gone. Even if you paid part of the premiums yourself; even if you paid those viciously expensive COBRA premiums; when the company cleans out the pot, then you aren't compensated for your medical care. You may have run up a $500,000 neonatal intensive care bill for your child in November of 2002, but if the company goes bankrupt in December 2002, and the claims weren't all submitted before the bankruptcy began, you will be dealing with the bankruptcy court to get your reimbursements - if ever.

This is the reality of "medical insurance" today for many people. It works this way because we give employers tax breaks for providing insurance for their employees, but Congress refuses to give it to individuals for providing medical insurance for themselves, either in the form of a tax credit or tax deduction.

So part of Sowell's objections could be met by entirely decoupling medical insurance from employment, and by allowing individuals to purchase their own medical insurance *with* tax relief.

However, there's another aspect that Sowell doesn't touch, and it's at the point where the car insurance analogy really breaks down.

Most people between the ages of 25 and 65 don't have that many car accidents. That's why car insurance *works* - because there are far more premiums paid in than there are claims paid out. However, people over the age of 45 or so begin to have all sorts of chronic illnesses, such that by age 55 or so most people have at least one chronic condition.

If people had as many accidents proportionately as there are older people with chronic diseases, car insurance would be far less affordable and accessible than it is now. As it is now, many people from 45-65 are disqualified from most health insurance entirely, because the companies *know* they are going to draw far more out than they are going to pay in. The way you make money in insurance is to collect premiums and *not* pay out. This simply doesn't work when people rightfully demand medical treatment for their illnesses.

This is the problem with Republican approaches to the health insurance crisis. Medical savings accounts and tax deductions/credits for insurance premiums will definitely help the young, healthy worker. They will do nothing for the older worker with chronic illnesses, because those workers will still not be able to get affordable health insurance - because their illnesses often make them by definition "uninsurable."

Of course they'll have even worse care under socialized medicine. But the Republicans need to acknowledge this problem, because the 45-65 year old age group is the "pig in the python" - the Boomer generation - whose votes may very well bring in socialized medicine.
 
Who's the parent here? These Michigan parents want the right to refuse brain surgery for their toddler and to use homeopathic treatments instead. Normally this would be an easy decision, except that in this case the surgery has a 70-80% chance of either killing the girl or leaving her in a vegetative state. The "mainstream" doctors insist the tumor will kill the girl in a few years without surgery. The parents insist the child is improving with remedies administered by a Montreal homeopath. (It is not clear whether the homeopath is also a physician, as many are.)

Even so, the state of Michigan has sent social workers to investigate the family and wants to take custody of the girl, forcing her to undergo the surgery.

A May 12 hearing is scheduled in Detroit to, among other things, examine results of a brain scan to determine whether the homepathic treatment is actually working.

In a way, homeopathy as well as parental rights will be on trial here. Many standard medical treatments take weeks or even months to show any effect. Why should homeopathy be expected to work instantaneously? Will the scans be evaluated also by at least one doctor not hostile to homeopathy?

Another fundamental question of medical ethics is at stake here. When a treatment has so little chance of producing an efficacious result, why is it necessary for the state to force a person to undergo it? Is the state going to pay for quality care for the child for the rest of her life, should she become vegetative? As in the immunization debate, is the state willing to accept the responsibility it rips away from the parents, or are the parents forced to live with the consequence of the state's decision?

In my view, when there is that small a chance of success, the parents should be left alone and allowed to obtain palliative and/or alternative care for the child. Anything else is a serious compromise of parental rights.
 
Should Muslim "charities" that receive federal funds be allowed to hire only Muslims that favor a rigid and traditionalist interpretation of Islam? Wonder if Congress will consider that question when it debates a "faith-based charities" bill that would allow religious discrimination on the part of charities that would receive federal job-training funds.
 
Thoughts on considering homeschooling: For those contemplating homeschooling, here's some musings from experience accumulated over the years.

Husband and wife should agree:I've talked to many mothers of younger children who say they want to homeschool, but their husbands are opposed. Over the years I've come to realize that if their husbands are opposed, it's generally not going to help the homeschool situation if the wife has to somehow manipulate her husband into homeschooling.

Tactics used by wives to "convince" their husbands run the gamut from carrots (keeping the house clean) to sticks (school horror stories.) But reluctant husbands have reasonable concerns, from academic ones to how homeschooling will "look to others." They also wonder how their wives will keep up with the housework, etc. While no husband should force his wife to homeschool, on the other hand, homeschooling without the enthusiastic blessing of the husband is probably best reconsidered.

Why? Because the husband is not only the head of the family; he's its "representative" to the outside world - to his co-workers, to those in their church, to extended family members. When a husband is highly in favor of homeschooling, he will convey that pride and enthusiasm not only to his wife and children, but also to all the others with whom he comes in contact in "the world."

Live somewhere where there are lots of homeschoolers: Obviously people can homeschool anywhere, but it's far easier when the family lives in a city where there are already lots of homeschoolers.

It helps to find a "niche." In my experience, homeschoolers tend to cluster based on certain beliefs, usually religious and personal, like "no TV" or "no video games." If you are someone who tends to color outside the lines; who doesn't quite "fit" into a pattern (devout Bible-believing evangelical; vegan nuts & berries eco-warrior, and so on), it may be difficult to find a compatible group when there are relatively few homeschoolers in town.

It also helps when one lives in a neighborhood or suburb with a larger homeschool population. Some communities have many; others have virtually none. I spent many years putting tens of thousands of miles driving to activities far from our home, because we don't live "where the homeschool action is."

Find a congenial church community: It is a real blessing to find a church community that is at minimum supportive of homeschooling (i.e. where the parents aren't pressured to enroll their children in the church's school), or at maximum has a vibrant homeschooling community and other acceptable activities aimed at children and youth. A good "church home" can go a long ways to providing the social and spiritual support families need. Homeschooling families also give back to the church community in their own ways as well, and a church with a lot of homeschooling families will probably also be active and alive.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

 
New in town, and already starting a firestorm: That's Rod Dreher, recently relocated to Dallas, TX, whose May 3, 2003 column in the Dallas Morning News ("Rome Should Take Second Look at Dallas Diocese") on local Catholic bishop Charles Grahmman and his soon-to-depart Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante produced this indignant spiel from diocesan house organ editor Bronson Havard.

(In the Episcopal Church we call them "co-agitating" bishops for a reason.)

What's interesting about Havard's column is how it's a collection of logical fallacies, one after another, most of them resoundingly parochial - not in the religious sense, but in the regionalism sense. Who cares if Bishop Grahmman is a "native Texan?" Sacrilege to Texans perhaps, but his performance (or lack of it) has nothing to do with his "native" status. So no one can criticize anything a "native Texan" does if he happens not to be one? (Does being married to one count, as it says in Dreher's Dallas Morning News online bio?)

That Dreher has been in Texas "only a month" doesn't invalidate his comments about the long-standing Dallas sex scandal. Anyone who can read the papers can comment on that, and there's been plenty to comment on. If Havard's comments were taken to the extreme, no one should move anywhere else, and no one could comment on anything outside the city of his birth. B-o-r-i-n-g.

Then there's this angle:
Mr. Dreher's latest attack on the Catholic Church, on Saturday's Viewpoints page, was against the bishops of the Dallas Diocese – indeed, the whole of the Catholic Church except for a bishop in a small Nebraska diocese. (Mr. Dreher attacked Pope John Paul II's leadership on The Wall Street Journal's opinion page in March.)
Excuse me, but since when is the entire Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (as referred to in the Book of Common Prayer) limited solely to the bishops of Roman Catholicism? Even within Roman Catholicism, the bishops alone are not "the Church." Where are the priests in this formula? The laity, of whom Catholic Cardinal Newman said, "The laity - yes, where would the Church be without them?" By this definition, Mr. Havard as a layman has written himself out of the picture as well.

Yes, Dreher "criticized the Pope." I suppose no one notices when groups like Call to Action, Catholics for a Free Choice, or We Are Church do it. They've produced more volumes of criticism of this Pope and former ones than any Catholic conservative could match in a lifetime. The point is, was the criticism *valid* or not? For that matter, were the specifics of Dreher's criticism of Charles Grahmman valid or not? Mr. Havard just throws down the gauntlet but fails to answer.
 
Americans will pay for cable over house payments: Or, at least some will. Even low mortgage rates aren't enough to ease Americans' financial worries, as Americans continue to rack up credit card debt, car payment debt, and fail to take into account the inevitable rise of taxes and insurance rates coming over the next few years as states and municipalities try to make up for severe budget shortfalls, and insurance companies try to stay solvent.

The key here is not to rely on low mortgage rates, but to *buy a cheaper house* to start with. Why buy a new car when you can get a low-mileage one- or two-year old (American) used car for 40-50% less? As for carrying credit card debt over into the next billing cycle, forget about it. That way lies madness. If you can't afford to pay it off in its entirety, either get a second job, or don't buy it.

One woman in the article complains that they might "have to do without." "Doing without," "making do," "using it up," "wearing it out" were all time-honored virtues and skills possessed by our grandmothers and beyond, all the way back to frontier days. Life without cable, newspapers, magazines, video games, video rentals, shopping at the mall, and even (gasp) the Internet is not only possible but can actually have its own rewards.

The solution to our economy's problems are not going to be found only in tax cuts, although I think tax cuts are necessary. Saving your tax cut rather than spending it isn't going to "jump-start the economy." We're in the sad situation where we believe that thrift and being out of debt "hurt" us and the economy as a whole, but in the long run they do not.

Given that there seems to be no end in sight to layoffs, out-sourcing overseas, floods of illegal immigrant and H-1B immigrant workers taking American jobs, and underemployment, learning thrift and forgoing indebtedness sounds like a rational strategy to me.
 
Am reading J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth, by Hillsdale College prof Bradley Birzer. Birzer's book reminds me of a recent visit to an Indian restaurant. The owner came out after dinner and asked us how everything was. We chatted for a few minutes, and then he said, "Now tell me something negative about the meal, so I will know how to improve."

Christian writers who pen hagiographic accounts of "greats" like C.S. Lewis and Tolkien miss the point when they don't find "something to improve." Obviously that no longer benefits the authors, but it certainly benefits those who attempt to follow in their footsteps in the genre.

One of Tolkien's greatest sticking points in the Middle Earth story was "the problem of the Elves." Birzer says:
As Christopher Tolkien has noted, his father spent the year prior to his death wrestling with the theological implications of Elvish immortality.
Actually, the Elves aren't a problem in and of themselves - they're a problem in their relations to Men.

Birzer insists that Middle Earth is "an internally consistent and believable secondary world that was still in line with theologically orthodox Christianity." The problem is that Middle Earth is post-Adamic (Men having arisen somewhere in the East after the creation of the Elves) but pre-Noahide. If Middle Earth *is* indeed "consistent," then at least some Men - Adam and his wife, and at least two of their children - directly communicated with God. By contrast, the other sentient beings of Middle Earth do not have direct correspondence with God; their encounters with the divine are indirect, through the Valar, the lesser Valar (the Maiar), and the Istari (incarnate angels sent by the Valar to aid Middle Earth.)

The direct experience of God - at least by the founding family of humanity - would naturally lead people into forms of worship from the very beginning of post-Edenic man. Yet outward and formal signs of worship are conspicuously absent from Middle Earth. Tolkien always insisted that God was "there" in his stories, but implicit in the story itself. But that's not how early people thought or acted, not even the Norsemen whose myths Tolkien and his friend and fellow fantasist CS Lewis admired so much. To people in early eras, *everything* was a god - trees, rocks, springs of water, animals, the elements themselves.

And yet Middle Earth and the regions "to the West," while full of demigods, agents of the All-Father, is bereft of "gods."

Now we come to the Elves. Tolkien has human beings arise "in the East," lands that symbolize wildness, crudity, and evil in his world. As humans move "more Westward," they become "better" and "more civilized." Ultimately some push the envelope as far West as they can possibly go, until they and their island are punished by being cast into the sea a la Atlantis. But those humans who go West very early on meet up with Elves.

The Elves are "naturally" immortal, although as a punishment for an earlier rebellion they can be killed. But left alone, they do not age and they do not die. Even so, they ar close enough to human beings that they can marry and have children. They look like humans, only more attractive, taller, better, and without sickness or aging.

It never occurred to me until reading Birzer's book - why don't humans worship the Elves? Or if not worshipping them, why do they not resent them? That is of course the ultimate fate of the men of Numenor, who do have both "pagan" worship and intense resentment of not only the Elves but the Valar.

However, any "theologically consistent" mythology has to take both human nature and human prehistory into account. The few obscure passages in Genesis about the "nephilim" and the consequent flood make more "sense" than a stable Middle Earth where fallen humans live amicably with Elves.

So Birzer's book, rather than bringing us "understanding" about Middle Earth, raises more questions than it provides understanding. Personally, I think Tolkien glossed over the problem of how pagan religions could in fact "pre-figure" the coming of Christ because he was afraid to tackle the problem of pagan religions artistically.

CS Lewis struggled with this problem too, and produced the novel Till We Have Faces. Rather than spin a pre-revelation world without any religion, he tackles primitive paganism in all its messy - and murderous - aspects, while showing that in many respects a primitive pagan is *closer* to understanding the revelation of Christ than a "rational," "classical" formerly-pagan skeptic.

Tolkien, I speculate, hesitated because he was extremely diffident in writing clearly and directly about evil. His "bad guys" deliberately are ciphers. Sauron is a bodiless entity. Melkor, the Lucifer analogue, appears only in The Silmarillion and not in Lord of the Rings. According to Birzer, Tolkien did this deliberately because he didn't want to portray evil too clearly. He criticized Lewis for taking the devil's voice in The Screwtape Letters, for instance.

However, in reality evil is never inchoate. It has a face, a voice, a personality, and often a highly attractive and compelling one. Even Tolkien has to admit that when Sauron seduces the men of Numenor he has a "pleasing form," although he doesn't describe it. So it's consistent with this diffidence about clearly drawing the "bad guys" that Tolkien could not also give his pre-Noah/pre-Abrahamic Mmen what they clearly would have had, being Men - a plethora of pagan religions, and either worship of the Elves, or attempts to exterminate them.

Ironically, this diffidence about religion was probably one factor that led to the enormous success of Lord of the Rings among college students and the US "counterculture" in the 1960s. At that time the idea was growing that "religion wasn't necessary," and that all one needed was a vague "spirituality." Both science fiction and fantasy both from the 1960s on denuded themselves of religion, especially outward religious observance, entirely. When we see it in a modern book (like Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead) or in a contemporary film (like a mutant in the new X-Men movie praying the rosary) it gives us a shock, because we're so used to the warm and fuzzy spiritual, religion-free fantasy / sci-fi universe: and Lord of the Rings inadvertently reinforced that literary / dramatic convention .
 
Go see X2: X-Men United, if only for Ian McKellan's phenomenal performance. He has one of the best "seduction scenes" ever in a movie, because he can convey more meaning in a glance and a few words than most actors can manage in floods of exposition.
 
The luckiest kids in the Western hemisphere are the children of the Suffolk, England dad who found some copies of the upcoming fifth Harry Potter book dumped in a field near his home. Apparently he has promised not to reveal plot points. I don't know about you, but there is very little that could keep the children & I from reading the book cover to cover before returning it to the publisher...