I. Sunday Reflection: The Problem with Suffering
Perhaps the most eternal question posited by theists and atheists alike is why a beneficent God would allow innocents to suffer, not to mention to be killed. The contemporary, that is to say, superficial gloss would provide little guidance, much less comfort.
But, the more dispassionate view is that there is an indelible, if latent value in suffering which our New Age world reflexively dismisses, preoccupied as it is with what is euphemestically called 'creature comforts.'
The question, for those concerned with the rapidly rising rate of intellectual attrition, is how best to account for this apparent affront to our modern sensibilities. Our historical religious paradigm stipulated a deterministic universe and, as such, there was little one could do to improve or degrade one's existence in the eyes of the Creator because one's fate was inherently pre-cast. In more presumably enlightened times and, in particular, in light of advances in scientific theory concerning causation, there is ample evidence of the vital role of human agency in the outcome of events.
Stipulating that our lowly planet Earth, one of a handlful in a nondescript solar system, at the edge of one of billions of galaxies, has any value in the eyes of the Almighty, the ability to choose good or evil is paramount. Which is to say that each moment of our lives provides the opportunity for enhancing or diminishing the role of good in our world. It's a decision not foreclosed until we actually make the decision.
Each decision creates a cascade of subsequent events, some inevitable others incidental, but all of which naturally accrue as a result of our actions. Therefore, the puzzling question is how to parse from the decidedly mixed outcome the notion that ours is a world, much less a universe, that a loving God oversees.
The answer inheres in the notion that the process is always more critical than the end, because, according to this polity, our role in that process as it's evolving demands the highest level of moral accountability. Critically, failures, accidents, and other unpredictable outcomes, provide invaluable lessons that we offer to the Almighty as a recompense that brings desperately needed but latently understood moral course corrections.
In short, despite our contemporary instinct to recoil against them, pain and suffering play a vital role in the development of our moral bearing. The fact that our culture finds them intolerable and an affront to the dream of heaven on earth is no reason to discount their value or relevancy.
II. The Death of String Theory?
Columbia University professor Peter Woit's new book, "Not Even Wrong," purportedly debunks string theory as "a disaster for physics." For those who have followed string theory since its initiation into the rarefied world of particle physics in 1984 there is no question that it achieved a rapid pre-eminence among the preponderance of university physicists. So why does Dr. Woit believe it's such a disaster?
First, some background. String theory's revolutionary premise is that elementary particles such as electrons are not points, as traditional physics held. Rather, they are vibrations of uni-dimensional strings 1/100 billion billionth the size of an atomic nucleus. A variation of vibrations supposedly creates all of the subatomic particles, from quarks to gluons. Beyond that abstruse background, the theory also stipulates the existence of 11 dimensions.
Perhaps most astounding, string theory's proponents argued that it reconciles the perennial dilemma between quantum mechanics and gravity. The reason it comes under withering attack from the likes of Dr. Woit is that the theory has failed as a predictive model. Further, its equations have innumerable solutions and those have all been made by other theories.
Its many adherents tend to interchange dimensions when cornered, asserting that if a given equation is non-performing in one dimension it surely performs in another.
Yet it survives in a field where the competition for ideas is incandescently hot. Perhaps the lack of more persuasive explanations for our subatomic world reflects its relative longevity, but if Dr. Woit has his way, string theory will loose its currency and the bright minds preoccupied with it will move on to more productive pursuits.
III. The Most Successful Generation?
In an unprecedented report, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics performed a longitudinal survey of consumer habits and living conditions, compiled in a report titled "100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending: Data for the Nation, New York City, and Boston."
Perusing the report one learns that in 1901 Americans spent 42.5% of their income on food, whereas in 2002-03 that figure was 13.1%. Home ownership at the turn of the 19th century was 19% and now it's 67%. Turning to the Holy Grail of Western civilization, average annual income in 1901 was $750, whereas today it's $50,302; restated in 1901 dollars, that's $2282, a three-fold increase.
Add to this mix the current omnipresence of cars, telephones, cell phones, computers, not to mention such relatively rare phenomena in 1901 as hot and cold running water and indoor bathrooms and you have a contrast that is truly remarkable. Only one conclusion is possible from this report: Americans enjoy an astronomically higher quality of life in all regards than they did in 1901. The only question it didn't answer is whether we're happier, less anxious, or--to take a real risk--wiser.
Clearly, that wasn't the charge or intent of the BLS's report, but it's a question that logically if obliquely arises as one reflects on the striking disparity. Happiness is difficult to gauge, wisdom even harder, but we'll wade briefly into those murky waters.
In our high speed culture where time is dear, work seems frustratingly demanding, and the future alarmingly ambiguous, it's natural to yearn for what appears to be a simpler time, and there is no question that, barring the horrors of WWI, the early decades of the 20th century were civically and culturally less complicated. However, average life expectancy in 1900 was only 42, childhood diseases were by no means conquered, and fundamentals such as a potable water supply were hit and miss.
But what is also clear is that the level of cultural distractions and faddish ephemera were less hostile to the common good and the nation shared a consensus of values conspicuous by their absence today. Again, in contrast to today, that cultural mantle that undergirded the nation provided a civic substructure that rendered the need to question our most fundamental values moot.
At the core of those values were notions of good and evil and people implicitly understood that both existed and that the battle between them was timeless. Further, indifference to incipient evil, whether in one's personal life or on the international stage, was correctly seen as an invitation to disaster. Understanding that we must confront presence of evil in our lives is a credible working definition of the word 'wisdom' and a legitimate touchstone against which to measure ourselves today.
By all available indices, we are suffering an advanced case of moral malaise in the form of a confusion concerning the very existence of good and evil, and it's a phenomenon that is infecting and undermining our capacity to confront evil across our entire civic spectrum, from our personal lives to our volatile international scene.
Disturbingly, there doesn't appear to be a ready-made solution, at least not one capable of producing a timely result. Indeed, since this problem didn't materialize overnight, it won't be resolved in that manner either.
A prudent beginning would include a candid recognition that its obvious faults notwithstanding, ours is a nation unparalleled in history for its system of governance. With its unique tripartite structure, rigorous defense of individual freedoms, and a deep respect for the rule of law, America is, as President Reagan asserted, "a shining city on the hill." And, despite the bitter differences between the political parties, we all share an unquestioned sense of patriotism, concern for those less fortunate, and a communal yearning for a brighter future for our children. That's not a panacea, but it's a meaningful start.
IV. President Bush in Vienna
The nascent unity that was in evidence during President Bush's trip to Vienna among the U.S., EU, and other nations, was a reassuring development during a time of fragile relationships.
It was marred only by a reporter's effete suggestion that the U.S. is more of a threat than those President Bush characterized as an "axis of evil." Mr. Bush responded appropriately, calling it "absurd," but it's really far more than that. It reflects the deepening sense of moral confusion on the world stage, the epicenter of which is the United Nations, that great apologist for corruption and dictators.
The phenomenon has its proponents here in America who fervently believe that the Bush Doctrine of seeding democratic principles and values in the hostile political ground of the Middle East as an antidote to seething Islamic hatred is misguided and, worse, is itself responsible for spawning evil.
This Janus-faced, chicken-egg confusion is remarkable in that the current plague of Islamic terrorism had its roots in developments that date to the 1970s. Those with pattern recognition deficits can be excused from this discussion but for the vast majority of Americans the progressively lethal series of attacks on the West and the Islamic terrorists' stated revanchist intents make clear which nations and people are the aggressors, and, in particular, which are in the thrall of evil--and, it is not America.
V. North Korea's Missile Test: Don't Worry, Be Happy
According to an Associated Press report, U.S. citizens in range of North Korea's Taepodong 2 missile aren't at all worried. While it is obviously the government's job to protect the nation, the notion that because the missile is in a test phase, that it's not nuclear-tipped, and that, to quote one San Franciscan, an earthquake is more of a concern, seem to ignore the more profound reality at hand.
That is, North Korea is on a glide path to being a truly lethal adversary in the region, and, subsequently, to the U.S. In the firm Stalinist grip of the unpredictable Kim Jong Il whose absolute disregard for the lives of his own citizens mirrors his hatred for the West, we must ask ourselves some difficult questions. Since he purportedly already has a nuclear capability all that's missing is the delivery system. The first missile test, in 1998, was the Taepodong 1, and his sworn avowal to proscribe future tests notwithstanding, we're now threatened with the second test, with a missile that more than doubles the potential range.
Of course we're pursuing the diplomatic solution but it's clearly a reflection of the U.S.'s feckless foreign policy for the past 15 years that Kim Jong Il feels there would be no meaningful consequences to a second and far more threatening test. That's precisely why we should make clear our intent to take defensive measures should they take the risky step of launching it.
Finally, it must be noted that our current anti-ballistic missile capabilities are in an unproven stage of development; we've had some successes and many failures. It's inarguable that we would have been further down the path to a seamless, effective defensive system had Congressional liberals not thwarted missile defense efforts during the 1990s.
In our age where nuclear weapons are fairly common and can be sold on the black market, one can't help being astonished at the misguided opposition of our brethren on the left to a defensive shield. Perhaps North Korea's latest irrational attempt to destabilize and traumatize the world will convince them that these threats are real and that President Bush's efforts to aggressively make the shield operational is prudent and worthy of pursuit.
VI. Hungary's 50th Anniversary Observed
In a speech in Hungary, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first uprising against totalitarian rule, President Bush compared its struggle for freedom with that of the Iraqis. Mr. Bush told the Hungarians that "Liberty can be delayed but it cannot be denied."
Predictably, the Chicago Tribune noted that Mr. Bush ignored the fact that the U.S. "stood by while the Soviet Union crushed the 1956 uprising." But students of history will recall that the United Nations debated the Hungarian uprising, and that the Security Council met in an emergency meeting. However, it failed to pass a resolution, in large part because Dr. Peter Koss, the permanent U.N. representative argued vehemently that it was an internal matter. France, Great Britain, and the U.S. conceded.
The political complexities of such situations aren't reducible to the attempts of contemporary sensibilities to cast them in such transparently naive and facile terms, but that has never prevented them from doing so, and the Tribune carries on that common, if inexcusable tradition.