Homosexual Marriage: Clear Thinking on a Charged Issue


Me: "From now on, just call me 'doctor'."

You: "But you're not a doctor."

Me: "Yes, I know. But I want to be treated like I actually was a doctor."

You: "You mean, see patients and prescribe medicine?"

Me: "Of course; that's what being a doctor is."

You: "But you aren't a doctor! And acting like one is going to get people . . . well . . . killed!"

Me: "I don't care. I want to be a doctor. I want to be looked up to by the public, get the good parking spaces, and wear that white coat with that black thingy hanging around my neck that hears the heartbeat."

You: "Well, we can't allow you to do that. It would be too dangerous. The State has an obligation to prevent people from pretending to be doctors."

Me: "Why? It's none of the State's business. It's just me and my patients. The State has no right to interfere with our "union."

You: (exasperated) "The State has not only the right to interfere with you, it has an obligation to do so in order to protect society."

Me: "I don't care about society--I just want to be a doctor!"

* * *

You get the idea: The State has an interest in the traditional family, which has been the basic building block of civilization for over ten thousand years. Therefore, traditional families should be encouraged as much as possible because they are inarguably the best place to raise children, which results in a stable, constructive society. To that end, I also think we should outlaw "no fault" divorce; otherwise we're being hypocritical as not fully supporting the traditional, intact family with both a father and a mother present in the home.

All other rights between homosexual couples should accrue--no reasonable voice on the right is advocating anything less--but the traditional notion of marriage should be reserved for traditional unions, as a way of giving the imprimatur of the State to its most cherished and important pillar. Otherwise we're Rome apres Caligula.. . .

But I have nothing against gays being chiropractors!

Changing the Rules in Congress

CONGRESS, WITH AN APPROVAL RATING AT AN ALL-TIME LOW (9%), is a perennial source of dissatisfaction for Americans of all parties. Though the explanation is usually given as "gridlock," the real complaint is not that the parties are partisan. They are, after all, expressing opposite views that would require capitulation by one side for the other to prevail. Thus, partisanship is as much a part of a representative democracy as is tri-colored bunting at rallies.

The problem is not partisanship; it's ineffectiveness, and the electorate obviously believes the people in Washington are not about the country's business. Not that they aren't doing business back there; it's just not the country's business--it's each individual state's business: they are bringing back the pork (now called 'earmarks,' as if that makes it less offensive) to their constituents, and that makes those who elected them happy. But the other 99% of us are not, unless our own representative slakes our thirst with his dippings from the communal trough. So we complain about the Bridge to Nowhere, but what we're really unhappy about is that it isn't being built in our district, where it would provide (as it did in Alaska) jobs and income for thousands of people.

The popular solution to this conundrum is term limits, as if the answer was in preventing anyone in Washington from being there long enough to unravel the Byzantine rules of power and procedure. But the problem is not how much time a representative spends in Congress; it is what he or she does there.

And what they do is this: they outlast other representatives and in so doing, they get the plum assignments and the committee chairmanships, which are given out according to seniority. That is why Teddy Kennedy continues be elected by the otherwise intelligent voters of Massachusetts. Why serially elect a man guilty at least of negligent homicide and perhaps even murder? Because Kennedy is the senior Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He also serves on the Judiciary Committee, where he is the senior Democrat on the Immigration Subcommittee, and on the Armed Services Committee, where he is the senior Democrat on the Seapower Subcommittee. That's why.

And he got all those jobs because he's been in the Senate since 1962--forty six years! Indeed, the voters of Massachusetts are not stupid; they are smart. So long as Kennedy is in a position to use his power for their benefit, replacing him with a neophyte would be stupid.

And to be fair, it's also why Utahns re-elect Orrin Hatch every six years. Even by Utah's low requirements, Hatch is a poor public servant, but since he's the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he is a very important man when it comes to Supreme Court nominations. Thus, he is also returned time and time again to the Senate. He's been in office 32 years, and yet he is only the fourth most senior Republican! But has he served anyone, really? And, more importantly, is he the best person to chair the Judiciary Committee when the Republicans are in power? Who can know? So long as Senate seniority rules prevail, he will remain in office, for Utah voters are no less intelligent than their Massachusetts counterparts: without their seniority-rewarded representatives, who can doubt that neither Kennedy nor Hatch would be elected year after year?

So the answer is not term-limits, which punish representatives who have an important expertise they garnered prior to going to Washington and are willing to put in the time to learn how to navigate the halls of power. Seniority rules in both houses should be repealed, and committee members and chairs should be elected by the other members of their respective deliberative bodies. If you are a newly-elected senator who practiced medicine for twenty years, you might be a better choice to serve on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee than Teddy Kennedy. Imagine . . . if your pre-Washington credentials were impressive enough, you might even be elected across party lines. Under such a regime, senators and congressmen would serve where their talents would be best utilized, not suffer as underlings for decades to various fossilized Foghorn Leghorns until their own time for leadership comes, and when they, too, have become a laughable parody of a public servant.

The Law of Unintended Consequences applies. In 1978 California voters passed Prop. 13, which effectively froze property taxes, reducing the money available to a spendthrift legislature. But it didn't stop the spending. The legislature first stopped funding "ancillary" items like city parks, street cleanup, and high school marching bands, then started deficit spending. Which is why today, instead of throwing the bums out thirty years ago, California is begging the federal government for a bailout. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if there were people in the state legislature today who were there in 1978, and are still unchanged by the experience. Freezing property values in 1978 California was not the answer, nor are term limits today. Term limits would simply chase everyone out, no matter their capability or integrity, and no one in congress would know what they were doing. It's hard to imagine the whole shebang working worse than it does now, but just wait until term limits are the rule, not the exception.

No, change must come from within. The alcoholic must want to stop drinking, and the legislature must want to stop spending. So the answer is not term limits, but changes within the legislature to the rules by which committee assignments are given out. The process will begin only when we elect representatives who will pledge to eradicate these archaic seniority rules. Only then will our representatives truly represent us.

NEXT TIME: Solid logic behind the opposition to homosexual marriage.

Primary Madness: The Tyranny of the Few

THE SIMPLE REASON JOHN McCAIN LOST THE ELECTION is that, even with the nomination of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate, the Republican base was still not sufficiently energized to turn out in sufficient numbers (and to encourage others to do so) to elect the so-called maverick. In short, McCain was just not conservative on enough issues to win us--and the nation--over. His alignment with Democratic senators Feingold, Kennedy, and Lieberman on a series of wrong-headed legislation not only tarnished his claim to conservative credentials, but his claim to good judgment as well. So why did Republicans choose such a poor candidate as their standard-bearer in '08?

Because a few chaff-headed farmers in Iowa and a couple of tree-tapping saps in New Hampshire exerted a disproportional influence on the primary process. There may have been a time when these small state primaries made sense, but I cannot recall it. I cannot even formulate a good argument for its continuance today. So I have what I think is a better idea: A national primary.

Here's how it would work: As we have seen, the presidential election now takes almost two full years from start to finish. I don't like it, but as a believer in the Free Speech clause, I think we should not limit it. Let all the contenders speak, debate, and run ads to their hearts' content, and let them spend all the money, from whatever source, they wish--just require full disclosure of their donors' identities and donations, so the American people can judge who is owned by whom.

Then, we'll hold a national primary for each party in May. Anyone (Rep or Dem) could vote in either primary, but no one could vote in both. That way, in order for miscreants like Rush's ill-advised "Operation Chaos" mind-numbed robots (who effectively elected Obama, thank you) to cast ballots for the "weak horse" (as they thought Obama would be), they would have to sacrifice a vote for their own favorite candidate. I think most people would rather put their own candidate in office than disrupt the other party's nomination process.

This would not disenfranchise voters in Iowa; nor would it disenfrachize voters in California, Alabama, or Utah. Everyone would have a say in narrowing the field, say, to three on a side, who would then go to their respective nominating conventions.

Then, the real campaign would ensue, and it wouldn't be for president, either, but instead for delegates to the national party conventions. Instead of choosing electors based on insider-trading and political payback, each state delegation would be filled with people who run for the office. Their prime qualification would be their reasoning behind which of the three candidates they would support at the summer convention, where their votes would not be secret, but public, because they ran for elector based on their support for a certain candidate.

The nomination convention would then return to its first purpose: to select the best representative of the party in the final contest in the fall. Convention rules could permit a change of vote (after, say, the third tied ballot). In any case, it would be the will of the party overall that would select the best candidate, and not just a few insiders in obscure states.

Looking back at the recent Republican primary, I am certain that the candidate thus chosen would not have been the contrarian John McCain. Rather, if a whole nation of Republicans had an early voice in winnowing down the field of contestants, I believe it most likely that Mitt Romney, Rudy Guiliani, and Mike Huckabee would have entered the convention as final contenders, and people like the guy down my block who cares enough about Republican politics to run for elector and go to the convention on his own dime would then choose the best party representative for November. Thus, in voting for the elector, I would have a say at the national convention.

If both parties had chosen their candidate this way, I have no doubt that today we'd either have a president Guiliani or Clinton, both vast improvements over the faux-conservative McCain or the ultra-liberal Obama.

NEXT: Why Congress Doesn't Represent Us

Top Secret Memorandum from Senator John McCain


From: Sen. John McCain
To: Republican National Committee
Re: Proposed Arrangement

As per your request, I'm reducing to writing our agreement regarding my nomination as Republican candidate for the presidency. Though I eschew closed door arrangements, I understand your desire that our agreement be reduced to writing to protect the party's interests and insure the future thereof.

First, some straight talk: I'm well aware that I am not the party's first choice for its 2008 nominee. I recognize that my contrariness over the years has reduced much of my stature among the party faithful. In my defense, I've always tried to do what I thought best, though in retrospect it is now obvious that many of my attempts to cross the aisle in the Senate have resulted in bad law and even worse outcomes. McCain-Feingold, our feckless though good-hearted attempt to regulate political speech, was a major disaster, I'll admit. It just goes to show how hard it is to draft legislation; you try to foresee every contingency. Who would have predicted the free-for-all that resulted from the 527 organizations, both left and right?

I know, I know. You predicted it, and I now stand corrected. I think my position on border security was defensible, even now, though I admit I am in a shrinking minority in this. And me from Arizona! Yet, as I've said on the stump, the longest I've lived in any one place is the Hanoi Hilton. I hope I can be excused for not identifying sufficiently with my fellow border-staters. I will do better.

But what finally nearly sealed my changed views has been my stance on environmental issues. I truly believed Kyoto was a good idea; I believe in global warming (or cooling or whatever they're calling it this week). When the nomination was in sight but gas prices were not, I reluctantly signed on to off-shore drilling. I thought that would be enough to satisfy the base, but again, I misunderestimated (to coin a word) my own base. Two decades in Washington, D.C. have apparently done their mischief, even to me.

Now they're clamoring for ANWR drilling, which I still don't want to do. I know, I know, I haven't even been up there (not even to see Sarah), and I know the size of the site is equivalent to a postage stamp on a football field, but I hope you understand how hard it is for me to change from being a maverick to toeing the party line.

Ah, you say, but you co-opted BHO's rhetoric for change, so what's the problem? And you're right, you're right. I've got a few more "fine tunings of my position" left in me, to quote my prompter-dependent opponent, so ANWR is now on the chopping block. And I'll read that Crichton book about global warming that Karl sent over and try to have an open mind.

All this being said, I knew that my pick for Veep was crucial. I thought long and hard about it. My advisers wanted me to go with one of my primary opponents, to show I don't hold as hard a grudge as many allege. But Romney was too Mormon (and too young, tall, and good-looking, to be truthful). Huckabee gave me the creeps with his fundamentalist roots (I know you remember my regretful comments about JF being an "agent of intolerance") and physical transformation (how could a guy be fat for so long and then suddenly lose it all? Did he suddenly acquire self-control?). Rudy would have been good (he can melt ice with his disdainful sneer), but I can't help but feel there are bogeymen in his past he just couldn't let off the leash. Thompson (still my choice for SC, or if he wants it, SecState) apparently just didn't want it bad enough. If he'd had half as much energy in debates as he puts into his Townhall column, he'd have slayed me up there. Plus, people loved him in that Indiana Jones movie.

None of my challengers seemed quite right. So I stopped looking inside the beltway and began looking at my base and what they wanted. And it came to me like a revelation: Sarah Palin, the ultimate feminist/stay-at-home hockey mom who took on the oil companies in Alaska. I liked how she rejected the ultimate earmark, that stupid Bridge to Nowhere. Her selection, I reasoned, would solidify the maverick moniker I've fought so hard for (some say unwisely, but let's let that go), and she'd galvanize the base which was, to put it mildly, rather tepid about me.

And boy, was I pleasantly surprised! She did that and more. You folks at the RNC were tickled with her choice as VP and I saw more than one person nodding, mouthing the word "Reagan."

Well . . . I knew Ronald Reagan. I served with Ronald Reagan. And I know . . . I'm no Ronald Reagan.

So here's my offer: If the RNC will truly get behind my candidacy (I know you were soft-pedaling the entire project prior to my choice of Palin) and get out the vote for November, I'll promise you this:

1. I will continue to manage the war effort just as W has, with additional pressure on Pakistan to either deliver OBL or watch team after team of SEALS violate their border every night until we get him or his corpse.

2. I will continue my popular assault on earmarks. I'll use the presidential veto as never before and will, as I said publicly a few days ago, "make those who sponsor earmarks famous."

3. Just after the House reconvenes in October to vote on whether to maintain the off-shore drilling ban or let it lapse, I will announce that given the state of the economy, overwhelming public opinion, and the high cost of gas, I will fully support drilling in ANWR and let the caribou and polar bears sidle up to the pipeline for some much-needed warmth during the long Alaskan winter. I will also forget I ever heard of Kyoto. And I'll read that book. Hell, I'll even give time in one of my presidential debates for Crichton and Gore to square off. I'd like to emcee for a change; show my Jack Barry chops.

4. Supreme Court: More justices like Alito and Roberts. 'Nuff said.

5. I will bring Palin forward as the most involved VP in history. She'll be in every cabinet meeting, every NatSec meeting, and every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner (though with size of our combined families, I'm sure we'll all need an extended vacation afterwards!) because I know she represents not only the core of the Republican party, but its noble past and its hopeful future.

6. And after my term(s) (I can hope, can't I?) expire, I promise to shepherd Sarah Palin into the presidency. I know my time as leader of this party will be an aberration from what you folks at the RNC really want, but if I give you the justices you desire, keep America secure and taxes low, then the next generation (Palin, et al) can worry about reversing Roe, taking the culture back from the Hollywood miscreants, and further solidify the Court.

That's the deal. I know I'm not the guy you folks were hoping for. I even saw a "McWhatshisname/Palin" bumper sticker the other day, so I know exactly where I stand. I may have stood last in my class at Annapolis, but I stand behind no one when it comes to keeping my word. If you do your part, I'll do mine. Count on it.


John McCain

Proposal: Thorazine for the Liberal Mind

I DON'T KNOW WHEN IT HAPPENS. I don't know why it happens. I only know that it happens, but only to about half of the people. The other half seem immune from the disease. But those who are afflicted, who have apparently forgotten everything they were taught as children (and have even taught their own children), now see the world in a way that is, simply . . . crazy.

I'm talking about, of course, the shift from conservative to liberal. Make no mistake, we all start out conservative. As children, we hoard memories and marbles with equal zeal. We count the peas left on the plate that we must eat before Mom will let us up from the table. We count the minutes until our favorite TV program comes on. We count the pennies, nickels, and dimes in our piggy banks. We keep track of who cuts in front of us in line. We mow the lawn so we can borrow the car Friday night. We work for good grades so we can get into college. We do our best to romance the object of our affection. And when we have children, we teach them the same.

What I've just described is a conservative, someone who conserves time, money, relationships, grades, careers, homes, families, forests, nations, and the planet. A conservative simply applies time-honored principles to his own life. Most people never stray from these principles. They balance their checkbook, knowing that if they don't, they will not be able to buy the things they want and need.
What's amazing is that about half the population, while scrupulously balancing their own checkbooks, believes that government shouldn't have to balance theirs. They insure their own car, but aren't sure if others should be required to do so. They bring an I.D. with them to vote, but think it's racist to require others to do so. They conserve water by running the sprinklers at night; mow the grass to conserve its health; trim the tree branches to conserve the neighbor's roof. In short, they are conservatives . . . when it comes to their own yard.

Yet half of them vote liberal in elections. How can this be, when their own success results directly from conservative principles? If I balance my checkbook, why would I vote for someone who won't balance the federal budget? If I teach my children that they get their allowance after they've done their chores, why would I give money to a panhandler? If I lock my doors at night, why would I vote for anyone who would oppose a border fence? If I'm faithful to my spouse, why would I think anyone who is not faithful to theirs is honest?

In short, everything that works in the private sphere works in the public one. If we go to the gym, eat a good diet, and get enough sleep, we will generally be healthy. Sometimes bad things happen, but a conservative knows that the smoker dying of lung cancer is less worthy of his compassion (and limited resources) than someone born with cerebral palsy. A conservative (and a successful liberal) knows that you pay the mortgage first, put food in the fridge, and if there's money left over, maybe we'll have cable TV.

But liberals are nutty. They disconnect their own experience from the world they live in. While they balance their own checkbook, it's OK to let government spending spin out of control if it's for a "good" cause. Yet they don't give their mortgage money to panhandlers. Instead, they give a dollar and pretend they are both helping the beggar and being generous. They are Scrooges when it comes to their own kids' allowance because they know that teaching a child the value of money is one of the most important things they can do to insure that child's success later in life.

Conservative principles work on the macro level as well. We step in when bullies are beating up a defenseless child, but we also teach that child to defend himself in the future. The U.S. protected the defenseless a generation ago and we rebuilt the economies of our former enemies so that today they are our allies. This decade, we freed 40 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq, freeing them from bullies and are now teaching them how to live as free people. They will learn to balance budgets, govern themselves without corruption, and have peaceful relations with their neighbors. If we are successful, they will, like many of the former Soviet Union satellites, have conservative governments.

So why would anyone believe that the bedrock principles that made their own life successful (thrift, hard work, honesty, and fidelity) be any less indispensable to the success of any other person or country?
There is only one answer: Such a demented person thinks you are stupid and need their help. This is the unspoken, core truth of the looney left. And yet it was conservative principles that placed them in a position to "help" you. Why are they, notwithstanding their "superior" intellect, unable to recall their own conservative roots? Because they are no longer balancing their own checkbook. The checks they are writing, the ones with all the zeros, come from your checkbook.
It's human nature, I guess. Studies have shown that people use much more TP in public restrooms than they do at home. Someone else is paying for the TP, right? At home, we turn off the lights because we're paying for the electricity. But when people get into government, conservative principles often go out the window. Conservatives are not immune. They hear the siren song of "helping" the "helpless" and start throwing good money after bad, but their own moniker eventually reminds them of their folly. Liberals, on the other hand, not only think they are smarter than you, they also believe their compassion trumps your right to manage your own checkbook.

The result is a nation with a bloated, unbalanced budget, out-of-control spending, broken fences with our neighbors, and a populus, nearly half of which apparently doesn't know the difference between giving a child an allowance for helping around the house and tossing a quarter to a bum.

The drafters of the Constitution envisioned "citizen legislators" and a system of checks and balances (an apt economic metaphor) to constrain each branch of government to stay within reasonable bounds. Each branch naturally wants to extend its power. Adherents to the philosophy of a "living" Constitution currently hold sway in the judicial arena, often overriding legislation they deem to be insufficiently progressive. The legislature is too timid to make hard decisions (Roe v. Wade is one classic example of the judiciary stepping in when the legislative branch refused to act), and the President winds up doing the legislature's job via executive orders. And the fourth branch of government--you and me--seems more interested in American Idol than America, so we fail to hold any branch responsible. It's like we left an 8 year-old in charge of the baby while we went out to a movie. In a conservative world, such dereliction of parental duties would result in dire consequences.

Why we do not demand proportional punishment for those who ignore timeless conservative principles in the public square is beyond me. The liberals must be, simply . . . crazy.
May I suggest a Thorazine drip?

The American Dream: Not What You Thought

SINCE THE ARRIVAL of the Puritans at Plymouth Rock, America has been a dream, a hope, a possibility. It continues to be so today, except for many Americans themselves, who have instead adopted the very beliefs that drove our forebears from Europe to America, where they lived lives of privation, danger, and early death. Why would anyone leave the comfort and safety of Europe for the malaria-infested shores of a distant, uncivilized continent?

One reason alone: freedom. The Puritans were not so much headed for America as they were escaping oppressive European governments, which had limited their religious freedom, their right to assemble, and their right of self-determination--the very rights guaranteed two hundred years later in our own Constitution, but now largely forgotten by most Americans, judging from the polls. Important rights today seem to be the right to not be offended by another's views, the right to cradle-to-the-grave healthcare, and the right to 100+ cable channels and a 2000 calorie Whopper.

I do not make this charge lightly, for it has been my habit over the last twenty years, whenever I talk to someone who is disgusted with American foreign policy, to ask them what exactly does America stands for? What, precisely, is the "American dream"?

What I usually hear is a monetary version: "Home ownership," is the most common response, a kind of updated Depression-era "chicken in every pot" homily. But even 80 years ago the dream started to turn into a nightmare, reducing the core value of political, religious, and personal freedom to mere creature comforts. Back then it was a chicken dinner, in the post-war period it was home ownership, now it's universal health care, none of which satisfy the innate human need for freedom. Creature comforts merely make life more easier, not better. Interstate highways, better cars, 24-7 sports channels, 3-day weekends, safe consumer products--all this seems to be the goal of most Americans, but none of these is why America came into being, and none of them are why it should exist today. In short, America should not stand for the easy life--it should stand for a better one.

Except for tours of French museums and Mexican cruiseship dockings, most Americans have never really been in another country. In Rio, the world's worst slums lie less than a mile from Ipanema Beach, but no tourists go there. Calcutta squalor is seen through the viewfinder of a camera and dismissed just as easily. For two years I lived in Ecuador, one of the poorest countries in South America. I saw first-hand how hard life could be without the creature comforts I grew up with. Even getting water involved walking a mile to the common well. At first I was horrified by the sub-standard living conditions: In the tiny hamlet of Jipijapa there were no paved streets, no running water, very little electricity, and cockroaches as big as your fist. For many days after my arrival, I focused on what these people did not have, until I met a carpenter who dreamed of coming to the USA. "Life is better there, no?" he asked.

"It is," I said. "We have everything."

"Yes. You have freedom," he said simply.

I looked at him. Freedom? Well, sure, we had that. I'd never thought about it before.

"You can live your life as you please," he added. "Any way you choose."

Yes, that was also true. Then he began to tell me how Jipijapa was ruled by a jefe, a strongman owner of a coffee plantation, who paid the workers a pittance, fired them if they complained, and ran off or killed those who opposed him. He was a government that had never built a school or a post office.

"But the liquor is very cheap," said the carpenter, smiling ruefully. "It puts us to sleep."

At that moment I began to see how this simple man--who earned one dollar a day--saw the world, and I realized he was more informed about it than I was. Life was not about cheap liquor (or food or gas or homes or TV or you name it). It was about the freedom to choose one's own life, and this simple Ecuadorian carpenter believed in that dream because of the USA. Nothing in his world even remotely mimicked the freedoms we enjoy; but he'd seen Dallas on TV, and instead of being jealous at the incredible standard of living the characters on that show enjoyed, he saw a weekly morality play: good prevailed, wrongs were righted, and evil people were eventually punished. After all, J.R. was shot.

I returned to home to a different country than I had left. In truth, I was different, and I've never ceased to see the crucial connection between our standard of living and the freedom that underwrites it. But I fear many of my countrymen, who've never lived in another country, do not recognize that the foundation for our life is not capitalism; it is the freedom to choose how we live our lives.

So what does America stand for? Freedom. Freedom to fail, freedom to succeed. Now, with that in mind, where do you come down on the issues of the day? Should the government guarantee that no one ever stubs his toe? Should the government be blamed for every minor inconvenience we experience? Should everyone have the unlimited right to absolute personal safety?

Or should America merely be the level playing field where we get to see what we're made of? Will we win or lose? If I get injured, isn't that part of the game? If the other team scores, should they be required to let me score as well? If they have a star player, shouldn't he be required to play half the game for my team? When I'm tired, shouldn't the coach let me rest? And should I let the attractive cheerleaders divert my attention from the game?

When people say George Bush is the worst president ever, I just smile. Sure, as a conservative, there are many things I dislike about his administration--the unbridled growth of the federal government, to name just one--but for me, he will go down in history as a great president because of just one thing: he gave the freedom to choose to 40 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq. They may choose wrongly. Afghans may return to an opium poppy economy. Iraq may break up into a dozen warring provinces. But President Bush gave them the unprecedented freedom to choose. And that, in my book, not only makes him a great president, but it makes him a great president of a great country, because the freedom is what we stand for. It is our greatest export and the very reason for our existence.

So this Fourth of July I will bow my head and offer a prayer of thanks for those 4,000 Americans who freely gave their lives so that 40 million strangers could experience freedom. And the kind of person who would give his or her own life for another is the natural outgrowth of a nation "conceived in liberty."

God bless America, and may God bless Americans to remember what it means to be an American.

Seek And You Shall Find . . . Unfortunately

PERHAPS IT'S THE ELECTION YEAR or perhaps it's just the stage of my life, but I'm a little worried about our culture. Everywhere I look, I'm assaulted by images of people frantically searching for someone to follow, or by images of people seeking to lead. One would think that this would create a nice mix: the followers want a leader; the leader wants followers. Voila! A match made in heaven.

But what concerns me is the dynamic itself. There was a moment in my life, one I now recognize as the moment I became an adult, in which I realized there were no real leaders for me anymore. It happened in stages. During the Watergate and Vietnam episodes, like most young Americans I came to distrust the government (in addition to anyone over thirty.) At the end of the 1970s, when popular music basically died, I realized there would be no more Beatles. When Jimmy Stewart passed, I realized there were to be no more movie stars, either. I read one too many books about religion in general and mine in particular to believe in people with a hotline to God or who brunched with Jesus. My parents' foibles became excruciatingly apparent. Even my peers, those who I celebrated for their vision and courage, proved that they, too, had feet of clay.

All that was left was for me to realize that the time for following had ended. There were no experts, no professionals, no prophets, no gurus, no teachers of transcendence. Only people who were facing middle age as I was, as sadly unprepared as I was, and as afraid as I was, truth be told.

So I grew up. I quit listening to the "expert," who, my dad always said, was just "some guy from out of town with a briefcase." I started thinking for myself. Not just criticizing, rebelling, or being contrary, but actually thinking: considering the facts, weighing the arguments, coming to a conclusion, and putting it into practice. In that order.

And guess what? Life went on pretty much as it did before. I had my successes and failures, my ups and downs, and I became aware that I had made my life's decisions pretty much on my own. This is not to say I didn't benefit from the years when I had leaders and teachers and guides and parents, only that I took from them the wisdom and knowledge they had to share and then struck out on my own.

I became aware that the answers I came up with were pretty much as good (and once in a while better) than the generic, one-size-fits-all answers my "leaders" had always given me, answers that seemed, like any policy, to ill-fit almost everyone, even though they were designed for wide application. I came up with a quip: "Policy is what you come up with when you're tired of dealing with individuals."

So my life became a reasoned attempt to weigh the aphorisms and advice I'd received from my "leaders" with my own experience and wisdom. I became less interested in joining . . . anything. I found myself uncomfortable sitting in an audience while some "expert" spoke to me about things I already knew. I still saw the power of unified action, but most of the time when we sit at the feet of "leaders," we are passive and nothing much happens. I found sitting in such environments actually painful, even when the speaker or leader or expert was sincere. In terms of religion, I heard Jesus say, "Love one another." Because of the astonishing difficulty of actually putting this advice into practice, I found I had little time for the further nuances of religious differences, doctrine, or dogma. And since I believe we all have a personal relationship with God, and He knows us better than we know ourselves, how can another human being possibly teach and guide us better than He can? So, to quote a good friend: I "cut out the middle man."

I found that my life took on a wonderful new direction. I still made many mistakes and false starts, but at least they were my mistakes and false starts. As a proactive person, I no longer had the luxury of blaming others for my plight. If I didn't like my job, no one knew me as well as I did and could not possibly advise me better than I could advise myself as to the course of action I should take. If I was uncertain about an idea or philosophy, it was up to me to suss it out and discern a proper course of action. When elections rolled around, I almost reflexively shied away from the candidate who promised me anything. As an adult, I know there's no free lunch, so if this pol wants my vote, it's going to cost me something, usually my freedom. Ben Franklin said, "anyone who would trade freedom for security deserves neither." So I chose freedom.

Spiritual leaders, convinced of their own insider knowledge and wisdom, abound, but I eschew them all, because no one knows me better than God and He and I already have a relationship. I don't need anyone to tell me what God has in mind for me; I'm in the process of learning from Him what that is, though it's often slow going.

I worry about a country and culture where there are so many eager leaders and so many passive followers. What I wish there were more of were adults, those who are reluctant to join not only a rally or a party, but also a mob or a church. So long as we find ourselves in large groups, I do not see how we can discern what our individual purpose in this life is. No one, not even the most prescient prophet, can know that any better than the individual himself.

So the next time anyone tells you how it is (including me, I suppose), your first response should not be, "How many honorary degrees are appended to your name?" or "How big is your constituency?" or "How many books have you written and have you ever been on Oprah?" but perhaps, "I'm sorry, but I'm in a bit of a hurry... I'm busy living my life right now, but when I get done with it, then you can have it."

The Obama Benediction

BARACK OBAMA, seemingly destined to be the democratic candidate for president, has taken the country by storm and everyone wants to know why. How can this one-term senator with almost no legislative accomplishments or clear plan for the future be prepared for the presidency, and why do tens of thousands of people turn out for his rallies, chanting his name like he was the Messiah?

Because they think he is.

Here is why: As Shelby Steele points out in his book A Bound Man, Obama, the son of a white mother and an absentee black father and essentially raised by prosperous, white mid-westerners, faces the dilemma all blacks in America face: How to deal with the majority that wields power over the minority?

Steele calls the usual racial response, "masking," wherein blacks reinvent themselves through their strategic relations with whites. Masking generally demonstrates itself in one of two ways. The first is the bargaining mask, where blacks say to whites, "I will not use America's horrible history of white racism against you, if you will promise not to use my race against me." In other words, Steele says, bargainers grant whites the innocence and moral authority they need in return for their goodwill and generosity. Bargainers give before they ask, and they trust that reciprocity will prevail -- that goodwill will elicit good will. Bargaining is effective because it begins with magnanimity. Examples of successful bargainers are Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama.

The challenging mask, on the other hand, says, "Whites are incorrigibly racist until they do something to prove otherwise." This high ground as the historic victim of racism gives the challenger great moral power in the white community. In a society where the greatest shame has been white racism, the challenger has the power over the guilt and innocence of whites. This is why Don Imus, in penance for a racial aside on his show, did not seek absolution from Oprah Winfrey; instead, he went to one of the premiere challengers of the day: Al Sharpton. Imus did not go to see Colin Powell because Powell does not wield the racist stigma as his main source of power in American life; Sharpton does. And only a challenger can remove that stigma from whites whith finality, and then only when the challenger gets something in return: a public confession of racism, affirmative action, promises of diversity in hiring, etc.

But while challengers remain forever mired in racial conflict, bargainers can transcend those conflicts when the synergy of innocence given and gratitude received elevates them to an iconic status in the culture. Steele calls this the Iconic Negro, someone who embodies the highest and best longings of both races. Oprah Winfrey has achieved this status, as has Sidney Poitier. In dealing with them, whites can experience themselves shorn of racism, as people capable of complete human identification with a black person.

The drawback for both blacks and whites is that Oprah has obtained her iconic status through masking: she was a bargainer first. This is a tough position to be in: The Iconic Negro lives in that territory between the doubt they feel over the self-suppression they engage in in order to make things happen and the charge from their own group that their success proves them to be sellouts. But while they do not solve the country's race problem, they do nudge the culture in the right direction.

Barack Obama has become an Iconic Negro, which is why white women are swooning at his rallies. He offers racial absolution to a white populace weary of being accused of being racist. The problem for Obama, however, is in his own self-identification as black, rather than white. His bi-racialness makes him suspect to those wearing the challenger mask. Which is why Obama goes out of his way to downplay his privileged, white upbringing. After law school, instead of opting for Wall Street, he worked in the south Chicago projects and joined a black-themed church that essentially excludes whites. Even Obama was paying respects to the challenger mask.

But the real problem for Obama is not his race; it is the fact that he wears a mask at all. Both masks assume a fact not in existence: that no amount of black responsibility will lift the black race into parity with whites. Both masks are designed to deal with the white majority. So only transcendence from mask-wearing will raise the race, as it did a young Obama himself. But if black poverty and suffering are no longer automatically tied to white racism, then black uplift is dependent upon what blacks do. And if blacks are responsible for their fate, then whites no longer need to trade for their innocence with blacks, and mask-wearing blacks no longer have power to bestow racial absolution upon whites. Instead, they must be judged as individuals.

Can Obama achieve this worthy goal? Not so long as he wears a mask. Steele calls black responsibility the third rail of American race relations. If whites mention it, the stigma of racism falls upon them. If blacks mention it, they are Uncle Toms betraying their race by letting whites off the hook.

The only famous black who seems to have transcended race is Bill Cosby, who has recently become a great criticizer of the self-destructive aspects of black culture. He stages "call outs," where he challenges inner-city blacks to take charge of their families and raise their children with values and purpose. He brings on stage mothers of teenagers killed in gang violence, people who lost themselves to drugs, girls who all but destroyed their lives with teenage pregnancies. And, in a moment of great theater, he removed his Iconic Negro mask in public, when he said at the NAACP convention, "I don't care what white people think."

But it cost him. Bill Cosby is now something of a liability even to whites who privately admire his efforts. By refusing to wear any mask whatsoever, he is now a risk to white innocence, rather than a source of it. He no longer sells Jell-O, or anything else, on national television. But he has trancended race.

Cosby knows, and I believe, that only by seeking Martin Luther King's vision of America, where "a man will be judged, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character," can we truly heal the racial divide. And yet, to listen to an Obama speech, for the subtle racial nods in the interstices (the incessant calls for "unification"), or to hear Michelle Obama lament that only with Barack's ascendency has she "been really proud to be an American," one can see that they both continue to wear masks, albeit different ones. Obama is an Iconic Negro, his public face that of the bargainer; Michelle seems to have donned the challenger mask.

But so long as they wear masks at all, the voters will suspect something is amiss. Before reading Steele's book, I, too, suspected something wrong in the candidacy of Barack Obama. I suspected he was not who he said he was. And Steele's book has given definition to my unease. I don't support Obama because he is a nutty liberal, not because he's black. And I can't support him because he wears a mask that hides his true identiy, the one he was raised with: the truthfulness and awkwardness of individuality not tied to race. To get my vote, he would have to promise to defend the country, not parley with the madmen who wish to kill us. And beyond that, he would have to dispense with the expectation that white racism has anything to do with black responsiblity. He would have to take off his mask and cease offering me racial absolution, which I don't want or need and which he cannot truly give.

But can Barack Obama remove his mask? If so, he runs the risk of becoming an individual like Bill Cosby, and will probably lose political and racial capital, both with whites and blacks. He may survive such a move, but the messianic specialness will evaporate. White Americans will no longer see the possibility of their own racial innocence in him.

And white women will stop fainting at his rallies.

Nanny-State Healthcare: Something To Cry About

MORE THAN ANY ELECTION IN MEMORY, this time around the politicians are trying to impose upon me a relationship I do not want or need. I hear the term "What I'm going to do for you" more and more. But I just want to be left alone.

Remember the "soshes" in high school who ran for student body office? They were budding politicians then, promising the moon and, of course, delivering an empty, dark sky. Nothing has changed. Modern politics -- whether it's on the high school quad or in Washington -- has become someone promising to give me things I do not need and don't want and probably cannot afford. Cradle-to-grave healthcare, for example.

Pols of both stripes often bandy this "fact" around: Over 47 million Americans do not have health insurance! As if no health insurance meant no health care. Yet I am one of those 47 million and I'm just fine with it. The reason? Because health insurance is a scam designed to separate me from my money, and to put my money to work, not on my behalf, but to pay for unnecessary, expensive life-extending procedures, defend doctors and hospitals against frivilous lawsuits, and to pay for the burgeoning healthcare bureaucracy. This may sound troglodytic, but I don't want to live forever. I may not even want to live to be a hundred, as statistics routinely say I will. I live what most would call a risk-averse life: I don't smoke, exercise regularly, watch my weight, and drive the speed limit. The unpredictable and incurable Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS) killed my father, and the expensive and painful procedures he went through (including chemotherapy) merely extended a steadily-deteriorating life another eighteen months. And after all was said and done, he still died. It's been eighteen years now; frankly, what does it matter if it were nineteen and one half? He'd still be gone almost two decades.

So I have the minimum health insurance I can responsibly have. It covers only catastrophic illness, like cancer. For everything else, I'm footing the bill. I consider this a benefit, because I take care of myself and avoid risky behavior (I am one of the few boomers who did not bungee jump and now that that trend is over, how was my life impoverished?). I pay as I go. The ER is open to anyone, whether they can pay or not, and I've used it here and there throughout my life. And because I'm the one who pays, I have a financial incentive to stay healthy, so I do.

So, being generally a healthy guy, I've had very few brushes with the health care horror show. But I had one recently, and it was instructive: For a couple of years I've had a condition called a "trigger" finger, where the tendon on my right ring finger occasionally gets momentarily stuck in the pulley under the second knuckle, preventing me from straightening the finger. It can be manually straightened, so it's inconvenient but not life-threatening. More like life-irritating. So I went to a hand specialist who'd sewed me up before (a slip of a utility knife) and he gave me a reasonable bid for his services, if I paid cash. But the hospital surgery center where he worked wanted four times his charges for this simple procedure. "Why?" I asked.

The doctor shrugged. "Liability and staffing issues."

"Staffing issues?" I asked. "Who do we need beyond you, an anesthesiologist, and maybe a nurse to dab the sweat from your forehead?"

He smiled. "Oh, about seven people in all are required."

The lawyer in me sat up straighter. "Required. By law, you mean."

The doctor nodded. "By hospital experience currently being codified into law."

As our conversation continued, I was enlightened about how many people needed to be there when he made a half-inch incision in my palm and perforated the pulley restricting my tendon, just in case I went into cardiac arrest. Then he enlightened me further: "Why don't you shop around?" he said. "I know all the hand specialists in town. I'll give you a few names. Maybe you can find a better price."

"What?" I exclaimed, now sitting fully upright, forgetting my aching finger entirely. "Shop around?"

"Just ask them if they can maybe do it in office -- I'm not allowed to do that here -- and what it will cost. Bargain with them. You know, dicker a little."

I left this good doctor's office, my head spinning. And I did what he advised. I found a doctor who could do the procedure in his office -- using a syringe needle, no less, poking me through the skin and thereby perforating the restricted pulley, allowing the tendon to move freely without getting stuck. No incision, no stitches, no general anesthesia, as my first doctor was required to do.

And here's the kicker: it cost me 1/10th of what it would have cost me at the surgery center at my fave doc's hospital.

And it gets better: After the procedure I sat in the windowless payment office and chatted with the accountant. "If you pay today," she said, "we'll cut the price another twenty-five percent."

I immediately dug out my checkbook, my bandaged finger already feeling better.

Now, what will we get if the politicians, in a transparent attempt not only to curry our favor and votes, but to keep us infants on the government teat, mandate comprehensive health insurance be purchased for all Americans, including me? We'll get procedures that will require me to take the day off work, sign a stack of release forms, undergo general anesthesia, and have to return a week later to remove the stitches. And you, dear reader, will help pay for my little surgery, which won't be done for cash anymore. It will enter the insurance labyrinth, occupy a dozen or more people at least a half-day, and end up costing over $4000.

In short, when politicians treat us like babies, we get procedures we don't need, at costs we cannot afford.

Oh, and did I mention? When the accountant discovered I was a contractor, she asked me if I could come by her house and bid a job for her. Later that week, I went by and got the job, which put many times the amount the procedure cost in my pocket.

So my trigger finger turned out to be a money-maker. I owe no thanks to government or the medical establishment, but effusive gratitude to two great doctors who, despite straight-jacketing laws and procedures, still managed to give me appropriate and inexpensive health care. Just like in the old days, when your mom took you down to the doctor's office for your strep throat and he met you at the door, gently treated you, and gave you a sucker on your way out.

Now, if the nanny trend continues, you'll sit in a waiting room all morning, be treated indifferently by file clerks, see the doctor for two minutes, get a ridiculously-priced medication, and have to schlep to the drug store for your pills, where they will not be allowed to tell you about the generic drug costing half the amount of the name brand advertised all day on TV.

And guess what? You're the sucker.

Lights, Camera... Time Out!

HOLLYWOOD IS OFTEN ACCUSED of being about just one thing: money. Hollywood says it is just giving the public what it wants, and if that translates into money, so be it. Cultural conservatives fire back that no matter how much money flows into the entertainment barons' coffers, they should stop and consider that the product they make is not only over-priced, it is also dangerous. But Hollywood counters that it's only a movie and has no effect on the viewer; that it is merely reflecting society, not forming it.

These twin pylons framing the gate to the Magic Kingdom have stood a long time: On the left we have entertainment as public service; on the right we have entertainment as nothing more than a mirror with no deleterious effects.

In his book Hollywood Vs. America, film critic Michael Medved sets his sights on the pylon of entertainment as public service. Conservatives blast Hollywood, claiming that they would release tapes of the Manson murders (if there were any), if there was a buck to be made therefrom. While there there is ample evidence of this in Medved's book, he takes the argument a step further, stating that while Hollywood is no doubt about money, it's also about the power to re-make the world in its own image. To quote the Charlie Sheen character in Oliver Stone's Wall Street when he's chiding Michael Douglas for his apparently limitless greed: "How many yachts can you water-ski behind, Gordon?" Clearly, it was not merely money the Gekko character was after, it was power. And the power the left-leaning Hollywood lights desire is acceptance. Anyone who has ever auditioned for a play knows the feelings you get waiting for your turn with the casting director: inadequacy, the fear of losing out to someone not because they are better, but because they are better looking, of partisanship, cronyism, etcetera. Imagine this lowered self-esteem being the bedrock experience of your life and you begin to understand the kind of insecurities that plague most of the people in Hollywood. The hugely successful HBO series The Larry Sanders Show was about this very thing: a television talk-show host (Garry Shandling) who was so entirely cut off from his fellow man that he could only act "normal" when he was on the set.

The money that pours into entertainment coffers is seen by the denizens of tinsel town as a result of not only giving the audience what it wants, but as a vindication of their own insecurities and of the rightness of their views. Remember that most famous actors have minimal education and a narrow spectrum of life experience. Few have gone to college. Even fewer have served in the military or been successful in any business other than show. Almost none have any experience in public service beyond posing for an AIDS poster. This distorted person, however, has oodles of scratch, got it for being attractive or precociously imitative, and without a grownup's sense of perspective, thinks it's because they deserve it! No wonder they all sound like 7-year-olds when Larry King interviews them.

So money = power = a platform to expose your insecurities to the world. And the world, so starved for entertainment, will apparently take what it is given. If it's Saw IX, then so be it. 17-year olds take a Friday-night date to the multiplex, where they pack in to see an orgy of blood-letting, but their minds are really on the bump-and-grind in the back seat of the car after the show.

This tends to lend credence to filmmakers' defense of the other pylon: that what they purvey is merely entertainment, that no one is really watching it, that it's just two hours in the dark and doesn't really mean anything. Before I tackle that dubious defense, let's accept it for a moment: One the one hand, Mr. Producer, you believe your product is important enough to spend your life creating it; on the other hand, what you do is so unimportant that the audience will not remember it more than a couple of minutes after the credits roll. Oops! There goes your self-esteem again!

So what really allows these ego-bloated children to sleep at night is the belief that even though they're overpaid for what they do, what they do doesn't matter after all; they merely provide a non-fattening dessert to the main course of life: they can't be blamed for any weight gain in the body politic.

Conservatives shake their heads at such stupid arguments. Real life is full of the imitation of art. Every time such a connection is made: a Columbine, a Virginia Tech, etcetera, we shout to the Left Coast: "Look! They're "acting out"! They're copying your product! They're making pre-massacre videos, for crying out loud! They're looking for attention in the exact way and for the exact reasons you are! Don't you see it?

But the Alec Baldwins and Danny Glovers of the world just shrug and say there's no connection whatsoever. (Remember, you're talking to a 7-year-old here.) But a recent news headline seems to destroy their argument once and for all: in early December last, in Johnstown, Colorado, two teens were charged with the killing of the 7-year-old sister of one of them by beating her with imitations of moves from the "Mortal Kombat" videogame. Lamar Roberts, 17, and Heather Trujillo, 16, were baby-sitting Trujillo's half-sister, Zoe Garcia, while Zoe's mother was at work. Zoe lost consciousness and stopped beating after the teens hit, kicked, and body-slammed her, initiating moves used in the videogame. The autopsy showed she had a broken wrist, more than twenty bruises, swelling of the brain, and bleeding in her neck muscles and under her spine. Roberts admits to being drunk.

Now, to someone who can actually think, this is a perfect storm of parental abandonment, unsupervised children, alcohol, and the "entertainment" industry. Excise the entertainment portion and these same kids might have just gotten drunk and passed out while mom was at work. But now, turn on the tube, and an uninterrupted stream of anti-social behavior flows into the empty minds, hearts, and family rooms of emotionally and physically abandoned children, filling them with rage, hostility, and aggression. And who can they take it out on? The nearest victim of course: a child even younger than themselves.

When I learned of the story, I went online at CNN to look at the reader comments. All the posts expressed dismay about the murder, but few saw a connection between the videogame and the children's actions. I was dumbfounded: the accused children themselves admitted to trying out the moves in the videogame on little Zoe! How can there be a more direct connection? (Which only shows how effective Hollywood is at teaching values.)

One thing I have learned in life: do not waste your time arguing with a 7-year-old. The only solution is to send them to their room. I submit that Hollywood is just such a child. It denies that setting fire to the tablecloth will do any damage, and so I'm giving Hollywood a Time Out. There are many films I would like to see, and with my grownup sensibilities I can probably discern between the deleterious and the ennobling. But perhaps not. Perhaps we are all 7-year-olds inside; witness the wholesale destruction of our culture. The teenage girl who so blithely gives a grown man the finger from the safety of her car, the children who boldly smoke in front of adults outside convenience stores; the popularity of Brittney Spears... it all says children have taken over, abetted by their childish peers in Hollywood. They are running wild, drunk, destroying their own family room, setting fire to the kitchen, and now they are beating and killing each other.

I wonder if a Time Out is enough?