Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Wednesday Quiz

When your children yell, "Mommy! Mommy! The toilet overflowed and the bathroom floor is wet!", the proper response is to:

A) immediately fetch the plunger, mop, and some towels and involve the children in the cleanup;

B) give a lecture on plumbing and the use of toilet paper;

C) stand in the doorway of the bathroom and sigh loudly;

D) say, "Alright, girls, go upstairs and I'll deal with it", and then once the kids are out of the way, sit down for some quiet time and a cup of tea;

E) write a blog post about the incident;

F) D and E

Have Social Conservatives Been Duped?

Christopher Blosser writes a detailed post taking on the meme that pro-life voters have been "duped" by the Republican party.

I've never really understood this claim -- perhaps in part because it's usually made by people with a vastly different set of political preferences from my own. Certainly, one can agree that Republicans have not achieved as much as one might have wished in regards to the pro-life agenda. However, to suggest that social conservatives are wasting their votes by supporting candidates who mostly support their agenda, in preference to candidates who militantly oppose their agenda, seems rather contradictory.

The claim also suggests to me a certain historical forgetfullness. It's worth remembering that when abortion first became a national political issue in the US, the pro-life movement did not have a clear home in either party. Indeed, early indications would have suggested a home with the Democrats, which had traditionally had a massive following among Catholic immigrants and other blue collar workers. Under Nixon, it was by no means clear that the pro-life movement was welcome in the GOP, and although Carter was somewhat pro-choice, he was sufficiently quiet about it not to chase off pro-life Democrats. It was not until 1980 with Reagan's election that it became clear that it was the GOP that would permanently take on social conservatives, and many socially conservative Democrats began to stream over to the GOP at that time.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Guareschi: How I Got Like This

A couple times in the past I've posted Don Camillo stories by Giovanni Guareschi. Now I find that all of the first collection, The Little World of Don Camillo, is available online in PDF.

What follows is the introduction to The Little World, in which Guareschi tells how he came to be the man who wrote the Don Camillo stories. Guareschi's history is in many ways a reflection of and counterpoint to Italy's history from the Great War through the 1960s. In a time during which Fascists, Communists, Socialists, Monarchists and Christian Democrats vied, sometimes violently, for control of Italy, Guareschi kept a critical, humane and humorous eye on all of them.
How I Got Like This
My life began on the 1st of May 1908, and between one thing and another, it still goes on.

When I was born my mother had been teaching in the elementary school for nine years and she continued to teach until the end of 1949. In recognition of her work, the parish priest of the village presented her with an alarm clock in the name of all the people, and after fifty years of teaching in schools where there was no electric light or water but, in compensation, an abundant supply of cockroaches, flies, and mosquitoes, my mother now passes her time waiting for the State to consider her request for a pension and listening to the tick-tock of the alarm clock given her by the village.

At the time when I was born, my father was interested in all kinds of machines, from harvesters to gramophones, and he possessed an enormous moustache, very similar to the one I wear under my nose. He still has the splendid moustache, but for some time he has not been interested in much of anything, and he passes his time reading the newspapers. He also reads what I write, but he does not like my way of writing and thinking.

In his day my father was a very brilliant man, and he travelled around by automobile at a time, in Italy, when entire populations went from one time to another in order to see that darned machine that ran by itself. The only memory I have of these ancient splendours is an old automobile horn - the kind with the rubber ball that you squeeze. My father screwed this to the head of his bed and he used to sound it every so often, especially in the summertime.

I also have a brother, but I had an argument with him two weeks ago and I prefer not to discuss him.

In addition to the above I have a motor-cycle with four cylinders, an automobile with six cylinders, and a wife and two children.

My parents had decided that I should become a naval engineer and so I ended up studying law and thus, in a short time, I became famous as a signboard artist and caricaturist. Since no one at school had ever made me study drawing, drawing naturally had a particular fascination for me and, after doing caricatures and public advertisements, I studied wood-carving and scenic design.

At the same time I kept busy as a doorman in a sugar refinery, a superintendant of a parking lot for bicycles, and since I knew nothing at all about music I began to give mandolin lessons to some friends. I had an excellent record as a census-taker. I was a teacher in a boarding school and then I got a job correcting proofs on a local newspaper. To supplement my modest salary I began to write stories about local events and since I had a free day on Sunday I took over the editorship of the weekly magazine which came out on Monday. In order to get it together as quickly as possible I wrote three-quarters of it.

One fine day I took a train and went to Milan, where I wormed my way into a humour magazine called Bertoldo. Here I was forced to stop writing, but I was allowed to draw. I took advantage of this by drawing in white on black paper, something which created vast depressed areas in the magazine.

I was born in Parma near the Po River; people born in this area have heads as hard as pig iron and I succeeded in becoming editor-in-chief of Bertoldo. This is the magazine in which Saul Steinberg, who at that time was studying architecture in Milan, published his first drawings and for which he worked until he left to go to America.

For reasons entirely beyond my control, the war broke out and one day in 1942 I went on a terrific drunk because my brother was lost in Russia and I couldn't find anything about him. That night I went up and down the streets of Milan shouting things which filled several sheets of legal-size paper - as I found out the next day when I was arrested by the political police. Then a lot of people worried about me and they finally got me released. However, the political police wanted me out of circulation and so had me called into the army, and on the 9th of September 1943, with the fall of Fascism, I was taken prisoner again, this time at Alessendria in Northern Italy by the Germans. Since I did not want to work for the Germans, I was sent to a Polish concentration camps. I was in various concentration camps until April 1945, when my camp was taken over by the English and after five months I was sent back to Italy.

The period I spent in prison was the most intensely active of my life. In fact I had to do everything to stay alive and succeeded almost completely by dedicating myself to a precise programme which is summarized in my slogan 'I will not die even they kill me'. (It is not easy to remain alive when one is reduced to sack of bones of which the total weight is one hundred pounds, and this includes lice, bedbugs, fleas, hunger, and melancholy.)

When I returned to Italy I found that many things were changed, especially the Italians, and I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out whether they had changed for the better or for the worse. In the end I discovered that they had not changed at all, and then I became so depressed that I shut myself in my house.
Shortly afterwards a new magazine called Candido was established in Milan and, in working for it, I found myself up to my eyes in politics, although I was then, and still am, an independant. Nevertheless, the magazine values my contributions very highly - perhaps because I am editor-in-chief.

A few months ago the leader of the Italian Communists Mr. Palmiro Togliatti, made a speech in which he lost his temper and called the Milanese journalist who invented the character with the triple nostrils 'a triple idiot'. The threefold idiot is me and this was for me the most prized recognition of my work as a political journalist. The man with three nostrils is now famous in Italy, and it was I who created him. I must admit that I am proud because to succeed in characterizing
a Communist with a stroke of the pen (that is, putting under the nose three, instead of two, nostrils) is not a bad idea, and it worked very well.

And why should I be modest? The other things that I wrote and drew during the days before the election also worked very well; to prove it I have in my attica sack full of newspaper clippings which malign me; whoever wants to know more can come and read them.

The stories in The Little World of Don Camillo were very successful in Italy, and this book, which collects the first series of these stories, is already in its seventh edition. Many people people have written long articles on The Little World of Don Camillo and many people have written me letters about this or that story, and so now I am a little confused, and I would find myself rather embarrassed if I had to make any judgement of The Little World of Don Camillo. The background of these stories is my home, Parma, the Emilian Plain along the Po where political passion often reaches a disturbing intensity, and yet these people are attractive and hospitable and generous and have a highly developed sense of humour. It must be the sun, a terrible sun which beats on their brains during the summer, or perhaps it is the fog, a heavy fog which oppresses them during the winter.

The people in these stories are true to life and the stories are so true that more that once, after I had written a story, the thing actually happened and one read it in the news.

In fact the truth surpasses the imagination. I once wrote a story about the Communist, Peppone, who was annoyed during a political meeting by an aeroplane which threw down pamphlets of the opposition. Peppone took up a machine-gun, but he could not bring himself to fire on the plane. When I wrote this I said to myself, 'This is too fantastic.' Some months later at Spilimberg not only did the Communists fire on an aeroplane that distributed anti-Communist pamphlets, but they shot it down.
I have nothing more to say about The Little World of Don Camillo. You can't expect that after a poor fellow has written a book he should also understand it.

I am 5 feet 10 inches high and I have written eight books in all. I have also done a movie which is called People Like This, now being distributed throughout Italy. Many people like the movie; others do not like it. As far as I am concerned, the movie leaves me indifferent. Many things in life me indifferent now, but that is not my fault. It is the fault of the war. The war destroyed a lot of things we had within us. We have seen too many dead and too many living. In addition to 5 feet 10 inches, I have all my hair.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Audacity of Naïveté

Chris Blosser has an excellent post up at Catholics In The Public Square in which he takes Gerald L. Campbell of Vox Nova to task for his excessive praise of Barack Obama.

In response to Catholics who had pressed concerns about Obama's positions on issues such as abortion, Campbell had responded that the pro-life movement had achieved nothing over the last forty years, while:
At bottom, the behavioral crisis facing this country — as reflected in homelessness, violence, substance abuse, gangs, abortion, family dynamics, and so forth — is a spiritual crisis. It is a function of the failure of the individual to realize intrinsic relationships, e.g., love, compassion, understanding, mercy, etc....

The logic inherent in the atomistic individual leads directly to wide-spread spiritual alienation. This alienation is the root cause of dysfunctional behavior. The formal cause of human behavior is always spiritual....

Watching Obama closely, one can already see such dynamics at work.... there are signs of a new political imperative appearing in the body politic. A new kind of politics is beginning to emerge, one that transcends the narrow and fragmenting dynamics of interest group politics. To be sure, we have been conditioned to believe that interest group politics is all there is. But it is not. There is also a politics that inclines individuals to noble purposes and thereby reduces the fragmentation and atomization of society.
Perhaps some will label me as cynical, but I don't think that an eddy of flowery words is all that is needed to cure the host of ills that besets our society. Obama has run a classy and high-minded campaign. I'll certainly give him that. The contrast between his level of discourse and Clinton's is pretty stark. But he is, so far as I can tell, a fairly standard liberal Democrat who simply speaks very well and tends towards the higher-minded variety of rhetoric.

Well and good, but the body politic does not live by rhetoric alone. While it's true that societal ills such as homelessness, violence and family breakdown have a spiritual root, our spirits are not healed simply because we watch on TV as some man in a suit give a speech about hope.

For some in the middle and upper classes who like to follow such things, perhaps it's easy to imagine that simply electing a man who gives speeches that make them glow with excitement will make the world better overnight. However, the concerns of those who really are in desperate straights tend to be much more concrete. Rhetoric may sound good on the TV, but it's less than filling at the dinner table.

Education for All

The Opinionated Homeschooler has a good set of thoughts springing off of an Atlantic Monthly piece entitled, "First, Kill All the School Boards". The Atlantic piece advocates setting national standards for academics and then putting all authority on how to meet those standards at the school level rather than the school board level. It's a solid piece, though my interest is limited by my determination never to have any of my offspring in the public schools at all.

Of more general interest is the Opinionated Homeschooler's advocacy for all students receiving an academic or classical high school level education, rather than shunting the non-college-bound off into career prep kind of classes. This, I think, is a very good point. One should be able to formulate a solidly academic high school level education which all students would benefit from far more than most of what goes on in modern public high schools.

One of the reasons, I think, that our "popular culture" (or lack thereof) holds such total sway is that we have failed utterly to make our real culture of the last 2000 years interesting enough to be anything other than a "subject" which is reluctantly studied at best, ignored at worst.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Book Meme

Well, it's Friday, and Matthew Lickona has tagged us on a book meme, so how about something light?

Book Meme Rules

1. Pick up the nearest book ( of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

Well, the nearest book is The Great Pyramid by John Romer. (I've been reading it while working on some Ancient Egypt stuff for the elementary Humanities Program.)

Page 123 is mostly one large illustration of the workers' settlement on the Giza plain, and the only text is a caption, so I find myself pushed onto the next page where the five sentences in we find:
"As had Petrie in the excavation of the 'workmen's barracks', Saleh found nothing in these buried buildings, neither texts nor pictures nor inscriptions, to fix the date of their construction. Their isolated position in the desert, however, makes them more appropriate to the work of making pyramids than any other occupation and, most significantly, the banks of chippings that had buried and protected them appeared to be the undisturbed products of an adjacent quarry that had supplied some of the building stone for Giza's third great pyramid, built for Khufu's grandson, Menkaure. This then serves to date the wall and its settlements with reasonable certainty to a time before the work on Menkaure's pyramid began; that is, to the reign of either Khufu or his son Khafre."
I'll tag only three, though anyone else who wants the thing is welcome to it: Julie, Jen and Lit-Chic.

The Kinder, Gentler Bill Gates?

Bill Gates has got up and told the World Economic Forum in Davos that there needs to be a more benevolent capitolism in order to help the world's poor. No word yet on whether this means Microsoft will in the future avoid violating contracts, establishing monopolies, or producing over-priced programs that crash all the time while spreading out the welcome mat for computer viruses.

Actually, Gates' commentary centers around a realization that cool new products which seem like they'd bring all sorts of good to the world often aren't affordable for the world's poor. (Who would have thought it.) He calls on companies to investigating producing products that the poor can afford. It will make their lives better, and there are so many poor it's a huge market!

For all that this sort of thing is easily mockable: there is some truth to this. However, I think it also serves to underline a blind spot that some people seem to have. Simply because one endorses an essentially capitalistic economy as a good economic structure does not mean that all activity must be capitalistic. So while, yes, it's a good idea to make products that the world's poor can use and afford, it's also not necessary to formulate charity in business terms. Real charity should be just that.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Diagramming and hamming

Postmodern Papist defends the diagramming of sentences:
Why is the study of grammar so important? It is because the rules of grammar, if not absolute and eternal, are nevertheless based upon the framework of reality--at least in so far as we understand reality. To be correct grammatically does not necessitate flawless understanding of reality, but real ignorance of and errors in grammar (not simply careless typos) will affect our understanding of reality. Grammar errors can mean errors in understanding.

...How does actual diagramming help? It trains the mind the recognize the parts of speech and other structures of language, making explicit and visual what is implicit and mental, and thus familiarizing the diagrammer with the structures of grammar, with the structures by which we understand reality. Knowing those structures well will help readers, especially in our hyper-visual age, to understand the meaning that is being expressed through language. It helps particularly with sentences written in less-than-familiar construction, such as "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York," a sentence a proficient diagrammer will see immediately as "The winter of our discontent is now made glorious summer by this sun of York."

Apropos of nothing, I was flipping through a cookbook this evening and came across the entry discussing a style of ham from Spain: jamon serrano, or mountain ham. In Spanish the adjective follows the noun, and I wondered idly if jamon serrano and serrano jamon had such disparate meanings as the corresponding English phrases. There's quite a difference between "mountain ham" and "ham mountain".

Capitalism & Virtue

Every so often (especially near election time) one hears talk about whether there need to be "programs to mitigate the harsher aspects of capitalism" and some assertions that, "a strictly capitalistic society is not a Christian society".

I try not to be one of those people who insists on using terminology in non-standard ways because "that's what the word really means" -- and yet I can't help feeling that when one hears this, one is experiencing a mis-use of the term "capitalism".

Capitalism is generally defined as that economic system in which "the means of production" are owned by individual (and corporations) rather than by the state or by society as a whole. People generally assume that if you own the means of production, there are therefore justified in setting the price of the goods produced, and so capitalism is also generally seen as involving goods and wages being at "market price" rather than at some agreed price decreed by the state or by society.

So, what exactly are the excesses of capitalism? Well, they're cases when the people or corporations who own resources use that power to treat over people badly. Or where people who own resources ignore the plight of others who are suffering. In other words, the excesses of capitalism consist of people sinning. Lack of charity.

In the end, it's not a defect of capitalism per se at all. It's a defect in people.

Capitalism itself is not a moral system. I don't mean by that that it is immoral, but that it doesn't touch on morality at all. It simply consists of people owning things, which leaves them free to either sin or not sin. Capitalism doesn't make people neglect the poor any more than evolution makes people let the "unfit" die.

So what of the alternatives to capitalism? Well, if the world's experience with capitalism underlines that people who own things often sin, the world's experience with collectivism underlines that people who don't own things sin as well. It also tends to underline that things are seldom really un-owned. Although no one may hold title to a factory or a farm, people determined to take advantage of others invariably find ways to do so.

What I think this ought to to help underline, in the end, is that we will never formulate a political or economic order that will force virtue. We do our best to minimize the ability of people to hurt others, to the extent possible without causing side effects worse than the original malady. But at root, people are the problem, and people will always be involved in any social or political reorganization. We can't achieve a utopia so long as people are in it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Coffee Without the Breaks

It occured to me the other day that although I drink coffee all day long, I never take coffee breaks.

Which is not to say I work all the time, but that usually I grab a cup of coffee and read or write blog stuff while taking 10-15 minutes off from whatever I'm doing. Or I grab another cup of coffee and drink it while I work.

I started making coffee at work because although my office building has a coffee bar out near the lobby, I'd go broke if I went and paid coffee bar prices two or three times a day. (Plus the coffee I buy is better than the Starbucks beans they use.) Yet making my own coffee also makes it easy to drink a good 3-4 cups a day, and doing it while at my desk, in front of my computer has the tendency to leave one with a mind-racing-yet-mind-tired feeling at the end of the day.

I'm not sure that I'm going to make any changes in these habbits at the moment, but it does occur to me that I'd probably actually be more productive if I wandered off and took a fifteen minute coffee break somewhere else, while talking with co-workers or playing a quick boardgame or reading a chapter from a book. Something that doesn't happen on an LCD screen.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"Choice" versus Reality

The LA Times provides Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice, and Kate Michelman, the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, with a soapbox on which to provide their assessment of "choice" on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Their assessment? Those damn "anti-choicers" are using reality against them:
Science facilitated the swing of the pendulum. Three-dimensional ultrasound images of babies in utero began to grace the family fridge. Fetuses underwent surgery. More premature babies survived and were healthier. They commanded our attention, and the question of what we owe them, if anything, could not be dismissed....

Advocates of choice have had a hard time dealing with the increased visibility of the fetus. The preferred strategy is still to ignore it and try to shift the conversation back to women. At times, this makes us appear insensitive, a bit too pragmatic in a world where the desire to live more communitarian and "life-affirming" lives is palpable. To some people, pro-choice values seem to have been unaffected by the desire to save the whales and the trees, to respect animal life and to end violence at all levels. Pope John Paul II got that, and coined the term "culture of life." President Bush adopted it, and the slogan, as much as it pains us to admit it, moved some hearts and minds. Supporting abortion is tough to fit into this package....

In recent years, the antiabortion movement successfully put the nitty-gritty details of abortion procedures on public display, increasing the belief that abortion is serious business and that some societal involvement is appropriate....
Well shoot. How unfair is it when even reality is against feminists?

Yea or Nay on the Teacher's Manual?

We've been going pretty light on the scheduled schoolwork. The girls are still quite young (5 and 4) and some days when I see them playing together nicely I just can't bring myself to break 'em up and make them sit at the table with their workbooks. Perhaps next year, when Eleanor is officially "first grade", we'll have more structure, but for now I don't see it as being particularly necessary.

The workbooks we do have (math, English, and handwriting) I use by themselves, without a teacher's manual. Part of this is being cost-conscious, but I also just don't feel I need a manual to tell me how many pages a day to assign or how to teach adding or verbs. I believe I have a sufficient grasp of these concepts to be able to impart them to the young, and I assess the young scholar's mood at the time in determining whether to push on to another page or assign every other problem or just quit for the day.

The two books I have that include detailed teacher's instructions (Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons and Saxon 2, which I don't intend to use) have begun to frustrate me a bit. At first I found the scripted approach of 100 Easy Lessons to be helpful; now I just find it a bit fussy. Especially with textbooks and workbooks for the early grades, shouldn't the material be clear enough that someone who already understands the concepts will be able to teach it without further elaboration? Or do teacher's manuals include enough references and tips to be worth the extra expense?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Unequal Pay for Equal Work

Postmodern Papist links to a post by ZippyCatholic on the Distributist website What's Wrong With The World entitled descriptively: "Single People and Women Should Receive Less Pay For Equivalent Work". The author argues that as one of the key elements of morality is treating people as people rather than objects towards one's own ends, that employers should take their employees' states in life in account, rather than simply their productivity and job descriptions. A husband should, he argues, be paid more than a single person, a father of five paid more than a father of two, etc. The argument is not that this should be the only factor. Job importance and performance would still be taken into account. But all other things being equal, those with greater family responsibilities would be paid more. (The comments thread is immense, and I haven't read all of it, but Zippy does develop his concept in some more detail in the first 40 or so that I've read. It's worth reading at least some to get more of a feel where he's going with it.)

Now, if you're like me, you may have an instant and highly negative reaction to this idea. However, as I thought about it, it's not strictly speaking the idea of "unequal pay for equal work" that I object to. "Work" is a rather difficult thing to pin down, in many cases, but even assuming two employees to be producing roughly equal results in equal roles within a company, there are a number of other factors which often are taken into account in their compensation. For instance, it's often that case that people who have been with the company longer receive extra consideration (in salary, bonuses, vacation, or all three) over those who are new, all other things being equal. This isn't just a perk. Long term employees carry a lot of institutional knowledge which is essential in ways that are not always obvious at first. And simply not having to train new employees all the time saves the company a lot of effort and lost productivity. Similarly, companies sometimes identify "development" employees that they actively want to keep for a long time, and compensate them accordingly in order to encourage loyalty.

So there are a number of ways in which people are paid for something other than just their "work" which are widely accepted. What, then, is wrong with Zippy's idea here?

Well, the desire here is to strengthen the traditional family by making sure that heads of household are paid a living wage, and more generally treating people as people rather than labor commodities by paying them according to their family situations. That's a laudable goal, but I think the danger here is in trying to support something through contrived means.

When it comes to supporting the traditional family, perhaps its best to start from the basics. What is the natural human condition, as we found it 5,000+ years ago as early fixed villages were first forming, and as continued for many people in the world until only a few centuries ago? Originally, one's ability to have one's own family was directly related to one's ability to provide enough food and shelter for a mate and offspring. Your main occupation was either raising food, or providing some sort of craft in return for which you were provided with food. From a Distributist point of view, I would assume this should be a fairly familiar, and indeed, attractive.

So in this natural state, how was it assured that a man could support a family? Well, generally speaking a man remained either attached to his father's occupation, or if he went off on his own, lived singly, until he felt (and could convince his potential wife and in-laws) that he was able to support a family. This was a commonly-enough discussed concern until the beginning of the 20th century. Could a man afford a wife? Could he afford a family? Was he able to offer his intended bride a good home?

Now obviously, things could go wrong: harvests could fail, houses could burn down, livestock could die. If after a man married his means of supporting the family failed, his first recourse would be to the two spouse's families, and after that to the wider local community. And indeed, people gave a lot of thought as to what sort of family they were marrying into.

Clearly, the fields and livestock could not be told, "I'm getting married now. You're expected to produce at least twice as much." A man's ability to support a family was predicated on his ability to produce food, or good exchangeable for food, on a scale to support a family -- and then go on doing so until his children were old enough to support him in their turn.

Many things have changed between that sort of essentially agrarian, subsistence society and our own. However, I think it is often the case that policies which most resemble that "natural state" for families and society will prove the healthiest for us even in the present. This is where I think Zippy's suggestions go astray.

I do not have any objections to removing any legal restrictions that might keep a small business owner from taking one of his employees aside and saying to him, "You've just got married, and you're probably thinking a lot about where you're going in the long term at the moment. We value your work here, and we want to make sure that you stay with our company in the years to come, so I'd like to take this opportunity to offer you a raise." However, I do strongly dislike the idea of having some sort of institutionalized system whereby there is some sort of family- size-and-responsibility-modifier on everyone's compensation plan. This seems to strip the breadwinner of his traditional dignity as a person responsible for finding a way to earn enough to have a family, and for to continue to support his family once he has one. Instead, the head of household now goes to his boss, hat in hand, and says, "Excuse me sir. My wife and I are expecting again, and so I wonder if perhaps I could make a little more." The breadwinner is no longer the head of his or her household -- the breadwinner's employer is.

Paying people according to how useful their work (and potential and knowledge) is to the company may not be a perfect system, but in many ways it continues to echo the ancient calculus that humans have had to perform ever since they were told, "By the sweat of your brow shall you earn your bread, Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken."

If someone isn't making enough, he can seek to find a way to do more work, or to do work that is more valued -- a few words to describe a process that can seem daunting if not nearly impossible at times. But then, the Biblical metaphor is itself pretty bleak. While I'm certainly in favor of humanizing the relationship between employer and employee, it seems to me essential that increased earnings be tied to increased productivity and/or responsibility -- not only because it keeps the economics whole, but because it ties in to the inherent dignity of earning one's living. vs. France

It seems there is a law (supported by the French booksellers' union) in France which makes it illegal to sell books at a discount of more than 5% off list price. Last December, the booksellers' union took Amazon to court, and it was ruled that Amazon's free shipping is illegal in France because it constitutes a discount of more than 5%.

Faced with a fine of €1,000 per day until they comply, Amazon has decided to pay the fine and keep offering free shipping, while gathering signatures on a petition to have the law changed. (So far they have over 120,000 signatures.)

Perhaps the theory is that if everyone has to sell books at list, then French shoppers will pick their bookshops by picturesque location and charming staff. Still, I find all my sympathies with Amazon on this one -- and the poor French public, who are stuck paying list price for all their books.

And Baby makes six

We are happy to announce here at DarwinCatholic that we will be expanding our little empire come September. Friends and family already have a betting pool going on whether we keep our girl streak or produce an heir. On the one hand, four daughters is a very literary concept. Think Little Women. Think the Ingalls sisters. On the other hand, a BOY!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Site Redesign in Progress

The blogroll will be back soon...

Friday, January 18, 2008

Pinker & Morality

Stephen Pinker graced last Sunday's New York Times Magazine with a lengthy article titled "The Moral Instinct". In it, he seeks to explain (and applaud) recent research by psychologists, "evolutionary psychologists" (a term I use with roughly the same appreciation as Stephen Jay Gould did) and neuroscientists into the origins of morality.

(Many thanks to the reader who sent the article along and went a couple rounds of discussion on it with me via email.)

Working from the basic assumption that morality consists of a set of emotional/psychological urgings and repugnances which find their origin in humanity's evolutionary past, those investigating the moral instinct have tried to classify sets of moral reactions and speculate on how these might have come to be. Though lengthy, Pinker keeps things spiced up with illustrations and dilemmas. However, many of these seem to assume a very un-reflected view of morality -- on where moral "thought" is basically a matter of gut urgings which one is at a loss to explain. For instance, when talking about taboos Pinkers provides the following examples:
Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?

A woman is cleaning out her closet and she finds her old American flag. She doesn’t want the flag anymore, so she cuts it up into pieces and uses the rags to clean her bathroom.

A family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cook it and eat it for dinner.

Most people immediately declare that these acts are wrong and then grope to justify why they are wrong. It’s not so easy. In the case of Julie and Mark, people raise the possibility of children with birth defects, but they are reminded that the couple were diligent about contraception. They suggest that the siblings will be emotionally hurt, but the story makes it clear that they weren’t. They submit that the act would offend the community, but then recall that it was kept a secret. Eventually many people admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.” People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.

Two things strike me in this set of examples:

First, Pinker assumes that any rationale behind moral prohibitions must be pragmatic. All possible reasons provided for disapproving of incest are pragmatic, and the example is formulated in order to foil these sorts of objections. From his overall tone, I think this reflects an assumption (indeed, probably a deeply held belief) on Pinker's part that moral objections to something must, at root, be pragmatic and physical in their repercussions. If he'd posed the incest question to me, my response would have been something along the lines of, "It was wrong because their action violated the inherent meanings both of the relationship between siblings and the meaning of sex/relationship between lovers." I have a feeling that Pinker would see that as just being a fancy way of saying, "I don't like it", but that simply serves to underscore the fact that we'd be talking about different things in regards to morality.

Second, he doesn't seem to take into account any difference between inherent meaning and cultural meaning. Using the flag as a dustcloth and eating the family pet are both violate senses of respect and meaning which are cultural in nature. The flag does not have an inherent meaning. However, using it as a dustrag is offensive because of certain cultural understandings both of what the flag means and what using a piece of cloth as a dustrag means. Similarly, the relationship of family to pet and the prohibition of eating pets are cultural. Incest and sex outside of marriage, however, violate inherent relationship types which cross cultural bounds. (This is not to say that all cultures necessarily share a prohibition against incest, though certainly most do, but rather that the relationship of "siblings" is something inherent to the human person, and that relationship inherently does not include "someone you have sex with".)

Pinker realizes he's playing with fire here, and concedes that many may see trying to develop an evolutionary understanding of morality as explaining it away:
And “morally corrosive” is exactly the term that some critics would apply to the new science of the moral sense. The attempt to dissect our moral intuitions can look like an attempt to debunk them. Evolutionary psychologists seem to want to unmask our noblest motives as ultimately self-interested — to show that our love for children, compassion for the unfortunate and sense of justice are just tactics in a Darwinian struggle to perpetuate our genes.

However, he goes on to try to argue that discerning the evolutionary origins of morality will in fact reveal certain very real norms:
In his classic 1971 article, Trivers, the biologist, showed how natural selection could push in the direction of true selflessness. The emergence of tit-for-tat reciprocity, which lets organisms trade favors without being cheated, is just a first step. A favor-giver not only has to avoid blatant cheaters (those who would accept a favor but not return it) but also prefer generous reciprocators (those who return the biggest favor they can afford) over stingy ones (those who return the smallest favor they can get away with). Since it’s good to be chosen as a recipient of favors, a competition arises to be the most generous partner around. More accurately, a competition arises to appear to be the most generous partner around, since the favor-giver can’t literally read minds or see into the future. A reputation for fairness and generosity becomes an asset.

He goes on to argue that both the necessity of cooperation suggested by the iterative variation of the prisoner's dilemma and the golden rule as a means to persuading others to treat you nicely are moral norms that have been hardwired into humanity by evolution.

Many may find that they want something a bit more, when it comes to morality. Sure, in a society with certain assumptions (notably an idea that people are inherently or functionally equal) it may be the case that most people will benefit most of the time by treating others as they want to be treated and cooperating rather than betraying, but "most people most of the time" is not exactly what the majority of people seek when they look to "morality".
Now, if the distinction between right and wrong is also a product of brain wiring, why should we believe it is any more real than the distinction between red and green? And if it is just a collective hallucination, how could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery are wrong for everyone, rather than just distasteful to us?

Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

This throws us back to wondering where those reasons could come from, if they are more than just figments of our brains. They certainly aren’t in the physical world like wavelength or mass. The only other option is that moral truths exist in some abstract Platonic realm, there for us to discover, perhaps in the same way that mathematical truths (according to most mathematicians) are there for us to discover. On this analogy, we are born with a rudimentary concept of number, but as soon as we build on it with formal mathematical reasoning, the nature of mathematical reality forces us to discover some truths and not others. (No one who understands the concept of two, the concept of four and the concept of addition can come to any conclusion but that 2 + 2 = 4.) Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.

Moral realism, as this idea is called, is too rich for many philosophers’ blood. Yet a diluted version of the idea — if not a list of cosmically inscribed Thou-Shalts, then at least a few If-Thens — is not crazy. Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction. And they could provide a benchmark for determining when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself.

Will all due respect, Pinker was sleeping through his Plato class. Plato didn't argue that morality couldn't come from God, rather he argued that "the Good" must always be singular. It can't simply be "what pleases the gods"; especially when you have a bunch of bickering gods who often do things ever their devotees regard as immoral. This is one of the reasons that Christians so readily embraced Plato, because they saw his singular "the Good" which remained untouched and eternal above the strife of the pagan deities as being a close approximation to the one, good and eternal God of Jewish/Christian revelation.

But sticking to the realm of human reason -- does he present a good reason for rejecting a Platonic approach to morality? Well, it's "too rich for many philosophers’ blood". Are we to take that as much of anything more than, "They don't like it"? This certainly seems to underline the idea that faith is an act of the will as much as the intellect.

Plato held that we often know truths without recognizing it, until those truths are drawn out of us. Pinker seems to be suffering from something of a lack of drawing out in his reactions to morality.

On the one hand, he wants to see morality as a biological/psychological phenomenon: a set of basic rules for how primates best get along together which has been programmed into us through countless generations of human social interaction. He boils these down to rules basic enough to be acceptable to modern culture "be fair to other people", "treat others as you want them to treat you", etc. But then in his closing he attempts to use this to make all sorts of absolute assertions: Being against human cloning is irrational. Homosexual relationships are okay. Racism is bad.

And yet, none of these can be conclusively derived from the rules which he has decided to keep. And indeed, nothing can be conclusively derived from them, since the very nature which he assigns to morality is one of "society functions best if most people do X" rather than "everyone must do X".

The fact is, Pinker himself is not comfortable with certain things he despises (racism, genocide, sexism, homophobia) being only wrong some of the time, or only wrong for some people, and yet in the end he cannot come up with an explanation of strictly psychological/biological morality which shows that it always and everywhere wrong to violate his preferred norms of behavior. The understanding of morality he puts forth allows him to discard those norms that he doesn't like, but it doesn't allow him to retain those that he does.

Privileged Meme

From What Privileges Do You Have?, based on an exercise about class and privilege developed by Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, Stacy Ploskonka at Illinois State University. If you participate in this blog game, they ask that you PLEASE acknowledge their copyright.)

Bold the true statements.

1. Father went to college
2. Father finished college
3. Mother went to college
4. Mother finished college
5. Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor
6. Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers. Not really applicable for homeschooling, I think.
7. Had more than 50 books in your childhood home.
8. Had more than 500 books in your childhood home.
9. Were read children's books by a parent
10. Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18 Piano lessons over the course of 12 years.
11. Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18
12. The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively
13. Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18
14. Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs
15. Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs One of my college loans in is my dad's name, but I'm paying it off.
16. Went to a private high school
17. Went to summer camp
18. Had a private tutor before you turned 18
19. Family vacations involved staying at hotels
20. Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18 Oh, I wish! Lotsa hand-me-downs and thrift shop finds.
21. Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
22. There was original art in your house when you were a child
23. You and your family lived in a single-family house On and off
24. Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home My dad bought his Victorian foursquare when I was a sophomore in college.
25. You had your own room as a child I had my own room on and off, depending on where we lived, but not until I was a teenager.
26. You had a phone in your room before you turned 18
27. Participated in a SAT/ACT prep course
28. Had your own TV in your room in high school
29. Owned a mutual fund or IRA in high school or college
30. Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16
31. Went on a cruise with your family
32. Went on more than one cruise with your family
33. Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up Not that often -- mostly as homeschooling field trips
34. You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family

14 out of 34 = 41% privileged

Borrowed from Entropy , who scored as 32% privileged.

Fiction for a Friday

(Fiction for a Friday (or whatever day) borrowed shamelessly from Video Meliora, who does it so well.)

They had left that morning, in a flurry of good-byes and parcels and promises of postcards, and she had the run of the place. The to-do list was hardly onerous : taking in the garbage cans; watering the plants; feeding the dog. After ticking off each item, she had slouched in front of the TV with a bowl of ice cream and spent several hours dozing through a Happy Days marathon. When she finally shook off her lethargy, the sun had set and the blue light of the television flickered on the walls and glinted off the windows.

The house, so full of life earlier, now stood somber and empty. She hesitated at the top of the stairs and considered whether she should close the door to the master bedroom. The room was shrouded in a gloomy twilight, and she felt a strange reluctance to reach in and grasp the doorknob. This is silly, she thought, shaking herself. There's nothing in there. It's just me and the house.

She strode to the door and slammed it shut. The walls shook and the crash reverberated after the silence of the day. That'll show 'em. I'm here. It's just me and the house.

Me and the house.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Book Review: The History of Our World Beyond the Wave

I re-read a book last week, one which deserves to be rather better known that it is. The History of Our World Beyond the Wave is a fantasy of sorts, and a first novel, by R. E. Klein. Though it was, as I recall, very well reviewed when it came out in 1998, it was not, so far as I can tell, a commercial success. Perhaps that's not surprising for something as blessedly unclassifiable as this book.

The History is a fantasy of sorts, based on a situation which many might consider science fictional: In the first chapter a giant wave wipes out civilization across the entire globe, and leaves much of the earth under water. What follows, however, is not what those used to genre SF or F would expect at all. What Klein is attempting is perhaps best conveyed by the following set of excepts:
I looked up from my beer.
"What happened to the world?"
He reached into a deck drawer and withdrew a massive briar pipe and a worn leather pouch. Courteously offering me another pipe from the drawer, which I courteously refused, he spoke while he filled his pipe, tamping the tobacco as if punctuating his sentences.
"What happened? Why the ocean reared up on its hind legs as it was bound to do. So much was locked in reserve, frozen north and south in colossal refrigerators. Maybe it was an earthquake. maybe this old planet shifted on its axis. Maybe the whole blessed continent just sank. Does it really matter?"
"Matter, I said. "All the people--"
"Yes, many must have died, as we will sooner or later."
"Civilization?" I asked.
"It wasn't really civil, was it? Do you miss it?"
I made a movement as to speak, but he continued.
"Things don't last." He brought his cane down on the wooden floor. "Everything ends. We've had our Bach, our Socrates, our Saint Francis. They did their part to keep us sane and wholesome. Do you miss your childhood?"
I took another sip of beer.
He paused to relight his pipe. "Have you noticed that time is aberrant?"
"I tried to estimate the days since the Wave. I couldn't do it," I said.
He shook his head. "At first I marked a calendar, till the action seemed so futile that the threw the silly thing away." He swallowed a large mouthful and wiped his lips. "Things rarely operate in isolation. We have experienced catastrophic physical change; be prepared for metaphysical change. Your silver raft mate is an instance of what I mean -- or your head crabs. Anticipate more of the same. Expect to see sights stranger than you've imagined."
"I've read a lot of encounters with the so-called supernatural," I said. "No one takes them seriously."
"No," he said, "no one takes them seriously. The world is full of foreshadowings, of adumbrations and premonitions, of ghostly haunts and visitations -- but no one takes them seriously. They're all pressed down, veneered, overlaid by the lightbulbs and broad paved highways and wires that talk and tell people that existence is the accumulation of artificial lights and concrete highways and wires tingling with electricity. And people believe and feel safe and live sterile lives and lose the ability to think beyond man-made trash. But a big wave comes and washes away all the paved roads and shatters the lightbulbs, and the wires are silent, and the people are drowned. And the veneer dissolves like paste, and all the ghostly underpinnings rise to the surface, and you can't dispel them with bright lights, because you haven't got any; and you can't outrun them on your highways, because the highways are under water; and you can't talk them away with copper wires, because the electricity is gone.
"Soon you realize that the old-fashioned eerie beliefs are the real things, and all our boastful contrivances so much rubbish, and that you and everyone else have been hiding behind them, not so much because of the ghouls and the ghosts and the whole entourage of the twilight, but because you have been most terribly afraid of God.
"Hear me, that precious wave of ours has scoured this planet to the lithosphere, rinsing away all the drift and drabble and nasty little headachy things that drive men mad. No more income tax, inflation, and nagging uncertainties. No more lawyers, social workers and corporate executives. Hereafter people will live in a big way."
And it is this metaphysical change that the book is about. As survivors of the great wave congregate and begin to build a new society, and as the hero of the tale (a former English professor named Paul Sant) travels the strange world left behind by the wave, what we find is much more an examination of what we are, and how we got here, than any sort of realistic portrayal of a post disaster world. Those expecting a more realistic treatment will be about as disappointed as someone expecting C. S. Lewis' space trilogy to describe what it would really be like to travel to other planets.

The book is relatively short, and the plot itself is fairly simply, more episodic than linear. The literary style is a delight to read, and the book is packed with fascinating and at times disturbing images: A bear glimpsed at night wrestling with a giant squid on the seashore, legions of crabs whose photoluminescant shells look like human skulls marching up from the sea, strange and fierce amphibians named Gugs, a lemur who becomes a man to bring cynicism back to society, and a floating yellow Volkswagen which contains something utterly terrifying.

I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Is College the New High School?

At the height of the Great Depression, my grandfather was once turned down for a job pumping gas at a service station. The reason? He was insufficiently qualified: They were only accepting applicants with a college degree. In a period when unemployment peaked at 25%, education was simply being used as an arbitrary way to reduce the applicant pool.

If you can manage to find a full service gas station (outside of the few states which require them by law), I don't think that pumping gas requires a college degree yet, but it's often been observed lately that a college degree is increasingly becoming an absolute requirement for a "good job".

I think this overlooks a fair number of jobs which require several years of journey-man style training, but not a college degree (plumber, car mechanic, etc.) but certainly, if you're looking for maximizing your starting earning potential at age 22-24 and guarantee the highest peak income around age 50, a college degree seems to way to go.

Last year, Charles Murray wrote a three part series on education in American, in the second of which he made the argument that too many people go to college. His argument was that most people are not cut out for high level academic achievement, and that what many people who go to college these days need is a couple years of professional training rather than a BA in some generic subject. College, he argues, should be for serious academic work, and flooding forty percent of the population into the college system only brings the level of college work down, and thus cheapens the actual value of a four year college degree.

Now, re-reading Murray's piece, one of the things that struck me was: Only 40% of Americans go to college?

It's often editorialized that practically everyone goes to college these days. Maybe among the set of people who editorialize, practically everyone does. But it seems that among Americans as a whole, only a minority actually go to college. According to the US Census Bureau stats on education, 86% of Americans age 25-35 have a high school degree or equivalent. 29% have a bachelor's degree or higher. And of Americans 18-24, 40% have taken at least some college classes.

So the overall picture seems to be, around 85% of Americans eventually graduate from high school or get a GED. 40% go on to take some college courses or get an AA, but only 29% actually get a bachelor's degree or higher by the time they're 34. (And in general, if you don't do it by 34, you're not going to.)

The percentage of Americans with a bachelors or better is the same for ages 35-44 and ages 45-64. So for all that wisdom about more Americans going to college than ever before, it appears that the same number are graduating as have for nearly forty years. (It may well be that the number that take some college but don't get a degree has increased.)

On the one hand, it's clear that higher levels of education bring huge economic advantages. The median income for Americans with a college degree is twice that of those with only a high school diploma or GED. (45k vs. 26k in 2006) And yet, watching people like my executive VP, who never went to college, it's clear that some people can do very well for themselves without spending four years at a university.

Personally, I would prefer to see college left to those with an interest in spending four years seriously studying math, science and the humanities. But in reality, a college degree is all too often simply a way to telling whether someone has the intelligence and discipline to stick it out through four more years of school and do well at it. And in all fairness, I'm not sure I can think of another way to provide the same filtering effect.

UPDATE: From where I sit, one of the trends I'm particularly unimpressed with is MBA madness. Increasingly, going off and blowing 20-40k on getting an MBA is seen as the way to show that you're one of the better people at the company. However, as the sort of person that MBA interns spend their summer following around: an MBA often seems like a way to simply inflate the ego just enough to make its owner not want to actually listen to others. About half out team is MBAed, and they're good folks at root, but mainly because they're put some time in and learned how to do things. "But in MBA school they always said..." is not a good way to start your argument.

There are some really good MBA programs out there, and there are people who really do benefit from them as they attain a certain level, but the tendency of people with almost no work experience to get one just to boost their earnings potential is simply degrading the value of the degree, in my opinion.

"...She Didn't. Move. A. Muscle."

Forget Marathon Man -- Bearing goes to the dentist, where the hygienist tells her a true horror story:
I actually work on a lot of people that it's the first time they ever had novocaine. Sometimes the first time they ever had dental work too. A lot of recent immigrants. People who don't speak much English. Makes it hard to communicate sometimes. I remember this one guy, he brought in his elderly father. After his shot, while we were working on him... well, I never saw anyone in the dentist's chair with such a big smile! The whole time we were working he had this big grin. The son was interpreting for him. They were from Ethiopia originally, I remember that. The son told me that his father thought it was magic that it didn't hurt. Can you imagine that? Magic.

But we don't let family members be interpreters anymore. We used to, but I brought it up in a staff meeting once and said it made me uncomfortable. And so now we use non-related interpreters. Ever since that staff meeting. It was after just about the worst day I ever had.

Read it and shudder.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Boy Toys

We have all these resolutions around here pertaining to living a non-materialistic lifestyle. And more to the point, Mommy and Daddy get angry when they find all sorts of plastic Made In China lying all over the play room floor. So we've worked the toy collection around here down to a minimum and kept it there. What we have is generally stuff like blocks, stuffed animals, wooden trains and dolls which can be played with in a free-form sort of way.

However, the girls were giving signs that a wider range of characters were needed. They've not yet reached the point where one endows a sweet looking stuffed bunny with evil will to power -- so a collection entirely of nice stuffed animals and baby and princess dolls was limiting the play. Plus whenever we had people with little boys over to play, the fooled around with the trains for about ten minutes and then announced they were bored.

Daddy contemplated the problem for a while, and realized that what we needed was boy toys. So as the after Christmas sales raged, daddy girded up his wallet and went in search of what was needed.

Who can truly be happy without a large, metal, yellow dump truck? No red-blooded American child, I immediately realized. Into the cart it went.

Every kid needs some toy dinosaurs, so a pair of those went in as well: a "big headed meat eater" and a "long necked plant eater" to use the terminology the girls have developed.

And a dragon, who can resist a big plastic Chinese dragon?

But the real find from Daddy's point of view was the toy knights. I'd had a number of Britains toy nights as a kid: great toy knights, but only about an inch tall, with removable weapons, and thus clearly not for the under 8 set. But these are about three inches tall, beautifully painted, but all in one piece with no removable parts. They're made by Schleich , a company in Germany, and I found them on clearance at Target: several knights and a princess dressed in pink with a fan. (It's all girls here except for Daddy, so a princess is an essential part of any game involving knights, dinosaurs and a dragon.)

That seemed like exactly what was needed: I bought one of each type that was on sale.

I'd considered a bucket of green army men, of the sort I spent so much time with as a child, but the cart was looking full, and they seemed a little too edible for the youngest. But there's some simply awesome stuff these days in the way of toy soldiers. There was a whole line of detailed, die-cast WW2 tanks along with men to go with them. Why didn't they have these when I was a kid?

So I took all the loot home (where it was well received) and informed MrsDarwin it's her job to get a boy on the scene post haste, lest I be forced to start getting all these great things to play with myself.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Finally, missing the TV

In general, we've been getting along fine without the boob tube. We'd already stopped watching LOST, and Masterpiece Theater wasn't showing anything interesting. We'd canceled the cable a while before the TV bit it. We never watched the news. If we have a yen to see a movie, we can either pop a DVD in the computer or watch videos upstairs on the little screen with the built-in VCR.

But now, now I'm wishing we had TV access. Masterpiece Theater has, at last, shaken off its lethargy and is broadcasting The Complete Jane Austen, starting tomorrow. All six novels dramatized, four in new productions. A movie about Jane's life (perhaps more critically successful than last year's Becoming Jane). And I'm going to miss it all.

Recently I re-read Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and had a great desire to see the Alfred Hitchcock movie, which won Best Picture in 1940. Netflix, usually such a useful resource in these cases, unhelpfully listed the DVD's availability as "unknown". Does that mean that they don't have it in stock? That there's only one copy being passed around the myriad Netflix subscribers and my turn isn't until 2010? Blockbuster doesn't carry Rebecca locally; nor does Hollywood Video. My public library doesn't list it in their catalog. To buy a new DVD on Amazon would run me about $90, though I could get a used VHS for much less. And for all this, a search at Turner Classic Movies reveals that they'll be showing Rebecca on Feb. 5 -- and I don't have a TV.

These are miniscule problems compared to homelessness or Peace In Our Time (or the cost of a new flat panel), but I would dearly love to spend a month of Sundays curled up in front of the TV watching the new Jane Austens or some good Hitchcock. Score one for the boob tube.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Concentrated Life

I've been asked to comment on the question of whether the Catholic Church teaches (and if so whether it is correct to do so) "that only the celibate can devote himself completely to God while this is not possible for marrieds because they have other responsibilities."

Consecrated virginity has always had a place in Christian spirituality. The most obvious discussion of it in the New Testament is probably 1 Corinthians chapter 7, where Paul discussions a number of concerns surrounding marriage and said famously:
I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.(1 Cor 7:32-34)
Paul's discussion makes it clear that some, including himself, remained single during Apostolic times in order to concentrate more fully on the Lord's work. In the coming centuries, the great traditions of Eastern and Western monasticism would spring up, many examples of which survive down to this very day.

Paul assures his readers several times that it is not sinful to marry, and advises any who don't feel up to celibacy to get married so that they won't find themselves tempted to more freewheeling solutions to their desires. But if people are serious about holiness, their question is not "is it sinful to marry" (and really, who could imagine that it was, given that the Church constantly uses the image of husband and wife for the love between Christ and the Church) but "is it less holy to be married than to be celibate" or perhaps more indignantly, "are you saying that I'm not holy just because I'm married?"

As with any good question, the correct answer is not necessarily pat. Obviously, being celibate does not itself make someone holy, though I don't deny that at certain times and places some people may have imagined such.

Still, family life, for all its blessings and channels to holiness, can make certain approaches to spirituality difficult. Case in point: a few months back I helped get a group off the ground in our parish that says Vespers four nights a week (M-Th) at a timeslot that's basically right after work. It's a very peaceful cap to what's often a rather crazy 10 hours of my day, so I've really been enjoying going down there, and feel like it's added a much needed spiritual pause in my schedule.

However, much though I love the Divine Office (and really admire the way it structure the whole day of monastic communities) things keep happening to underline the fact that is an element of spirituality which is not always a 100% fit with family life. For instance, at first, MrsDarwin and I were trying to go together. However, this meant taking the girls (ages 5, 4 and 1.5) and this proved such an abject failure that our associate pastor (fairly tactfully) requested that we avoid it in future. It's easy to take a kid out or hush her in the middle of mass. However, when half a dozen people are reciting psalms antiphonally in an otherwise silent chapel, you can't step away, and you can't hush the kids. Much though it annoys me when people act like children don't belong in church, I had to admit to myself after those first couple tries that you just can't take kids this young to Vespers. They don't understand it, and hushing them isn't practical.

As for the sort of schedule of all eight hours of the Office, daily mass, spiritual reading, etc. that monastics do: not only would it not fit well with family life, it would be an active abandonment of your vocation as a parent to try to live like a monk or nun. As parents, we participate in God's creative power by bringing new souls into the world, but accepting that vocation means accepting an active, not a contemplative, life.

Traditionally, the contemplative life has been seen as the highest form of Christian spirituality, on the theory that it is the most like heaven: the life to come. In the last fifty years, many people have come to frown on that view, seeing both active lives (whether parenting and working or ministries devoted to active service of others) and contemplative lives as "separate but equal" means of holiness.

Personally: I'm a fairly traditional kind of guy in a lot of ways. It does seem to me that the contemplative life is more similar to the life to come, and thus a powerful road toward holiness. However, I think that understanding needs to be balanced with an understanding that we are not currently in the world to come. We currently live in an earthly realm, and as such most of us need to spend most of our time focused on basic things like food, shelter and reproduction. We're meant to do that. That's why we have bodies.

So while I think that the contemplative life lived out by celibate monastics is more a window into heaven than my own, I'm not worried about it. All of us, in our different vocations, are living out parts of the Christian journey, and I don't think it's important to worry about "higher" and "better" paths so much as to live out the path you're on as well as possible.

Once upon a time, back in college, my roommate when to a Catholic "vocations fair" where numerous orders had come to get recruits. He saw a poster that said "Are you called to marriage, the priesthood, or the consecrated life" but misread the last as "concentrated life". Seeing this, he thought, "Well, you really can concentrate on things more if you're single. Maybe 'concentrated life' is a good phrase for being single." (The mis-reading, when discovered, was less interesting. But he eventually found a "pasty white blond" to marry and didn't have to worry about the issue anymore.)

A while back when MrsDarwin and the girls went off to visit relatives for two days, I got a taste of the "concentrated life". Wow. There is a lot of time if there's no one else in your house. It could be very peaceful. You could become very, very dedicated to and good at some hobby or duty in all that time. (Personally, I wasted it all on watching anime on the computer and drinking beer.)

I think this is why the use of consecrated virginity shows a lot of wisdom. You do have a lot more time to devote to God if you aren't dealing with a career and a family. However, you also have a lot of time to fall prey to laziness or gluttony or envy or whatever other collection of vices you're prone to. Celibacy gives you a rope, but it doesn't guarantee that you'll pull a wagon with it rather than just hanging yourself. And as with all things, the more you have, the more is expected of you.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Resolutions for the New Year

I suppose it's rather late in the year, already, for publishing resolutions. Most people have already moved on to breaking their resolutions, now that we're a full nine days into the near year.

Actually, I've never been much of a one for new year's resolutions. However, with the new year beginning, and two and a half years of blogging stretching out behind me, I a few minor changes needed in order to make sure that blogging remains something sustainable in the time to come.

I've been contemplating giving up blogging, from time to time over the last few months. However, I think I've definitely decided to keep it up. (Feel free to express your displeasure with this and reasons why I should quit in the comments!) But as other projects call, it seems that a little bit of moderation and prioritizing may be necessary.

I've tried over the last couple years to assure that something-or-other is posted on DarwinCatholic every weekday -- mostly because I myself prefer to read blogs which provide new content most days. At this point, however, I think I may be backing of that commitment just a little bit. I think I can promise at least 2-3 posts per week, and I'll make sure they're solid, substantive ones. But writing at least one solid post every day has the tendency to use up all my writing time for the day, and so I think a little backing off may be necessary.

In tandem with slightly reduced blogging volume on DarwinCatholic, I'll be getting back to regular writing at the Humanities Program. Expect fairly regular links to new content over there in coming months.

Watching all sorts of people put up lists of the books they read during 2007 has made me realize that I never keep any sort of track of this, so I think I'll add a block to the sidebar to track books for the year.

Also, finally, I'm starting to think dark thoughts of trying to write fiction again after about ten years. To that end, a fiction blog (with very occasional postings) will be making its appearance in the next month or two.

And now for a word from you: Is there any interest in a continuation of the Dante series this coming Lent? (Feel free to say "no" if that's the answer.)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Helping the Middle Class & A Question of Gratitude

Quin Hillyer wrote in the American Spectator blog in reference to the Iowa victories of Huckabee and Obama:
One other thing: It also shows that the American people have no idea how good their lives are. The strong response to economic grievance-mongering shows that people who are incredibly wealthy by every historical standard are somehow convinced they are barely making ends meet -- barely making ends meet while their families have two cars, three TVs, four cell phones, and untold numbers of other gadgets in homes they themselves own. There is a word for this: spoiled. Huckabee and Obama are smart enough to appeal to the spoiled Americans who have no idea what real hardship is.
Now, when I ran into this quote here, I was a bit surprised that it was met with universal derision. You'd think that Hillyer had just called for the surplus population to be reduced. It's true, if you go and read Hillyer's whole piece, he comes off as cranky. But his base point is something that's struck me increasingly for a while.

In every election, it seems, each party redoubles its commitment to "do something" for the middle class. Democrats don't make much noise any more about new programs to help the poorest in the nation, instead there's huge focus on issues that hit the broad span of the 30th to 75th percentile in incomes: people who rally and vote and donate and generally are good to have in your political coalition. Democrats have even joined Republicans in proposing "middle class tax cuts", arguing that the broad-based tax cuts of recent Republican administrations have disproportionately helped the rich.

But here's the catch: taxes have change since Reagan promised to improve things back in 1980. For all the rhetoric about "tax cuts for the rich" the tax cuts served up over the last 30 years by Republican administrations have got things to the point where the lower and even the mid-middle class pay virtually no income taxes. If you have three kids, a mortgage, tithe and make under 60k per year, you will get all your withholding back at the end of the year. At this point, the middle and lower classes pretty much only pay the two true sacred cows: social security and medicare. Goodness knows, I have no desire to see more of my hard-earned income swallowed by the every-hungry maw of Uncle Sam, but I'll admit it seems a little worrisome when the upper and upper-middle class constitute the entire tax base. Generally, if you pay for something, you own it...

I don't blame anyone for looking out for themselves to a reasonable extent. It's our job as informed voters to support fair taxation, policies that protect jobs, etc. So perhaps many would feel that I'm over-reacting.

But as I listen to political rhetoric, primarily on the "we're here to help" left but also on the "compassionate" right, it seems that a lot of what we're hearing is: "Life shouldn't be so hard."

On it's own, there's nothing wrong with that. Making people's lives easier is a worthy goal. But in trying to sell a plan to make people's lives easier, we all to often find pundits and politicians making it sound as if we have things incredibly hard. And yet we don't. Though some people in some places may have it somewhat harder now than 50 years ago, on the whole our modern American society has it so good compared to most of the world now and throughout history it's almost unimaginable.

A while back I was reading Wild Blue by Stephen Ambrose, which tells the story of the B-24 crews of World War II mainly through the eyes of the crew George McGovern commanded, earning himself a Distinguished Flying Cross during the course of 35 combat missions. (I'm not a fan of McGovern politically, but the book is very, very good, I recommend it.) As he's talking about the backgrounds of all the members of the crew, Ambrose talks about one of the airmen being amazed at the food available to men in the Army Air Corps. Growing up on a small family farm in the midwest, he'd grown up on a diet of corn meal, dairy, vegetables from the garden, and only the most occasional meat: Cornmeal mush for breakfast; cornbread for lunch, and cornbread as a staple of dinner as well, along with meat and vegetables when available.

That kind of minimal requirement monotony is almost unimaginable in modern America, yet for a Depression-era farm boys who made up McGovern's crew, it seems to have been fairly un-remarkable. (It reminded my of my own grandfather, who joined the Navy in 1945 out of a small New Mexico mining town. When asked what had been the biggest change for him going into the Navy he replied: "The food. You could go back and get seconds as many times as you wanted.")

Today, obesity is a major problem in the lower class. The massive food producing operations which put nearly all family farms out of business over the last fifty year mean that you can get food in the US for unimaginably low prices. You can make a filling meal for a family of five for the cost of 30 minutes work at minimum wage. Our housing prices are up, but out that's in part because our homes are now often 2000-3000 square feet, rather than the 1200-1500 of fifty years ago. The cost of college is spiralling up, but at the same time in two generations we have gone from a situation where only the economically and intellectually elite go to college, to a point where nearly everyone does. I could go on, but you get the idea.

In the end, it's a tone that's annoying me here. No, the middle class in our country is not sitting around eating bon bons. We work hard, we worry, we hope not to hit some piece of adversity that swamps us. But that's not something that sets us apart from the rest of humanity. That's one of the things that unites us with Chinese farmers and medieval peasants and paleolithic hunter-gatherers. We've always lived by the sweat of our brows, and found meaning and pride in our ability to do so. In almost every way, it's easier and more comfortable to do so in the modern US than at any other time or place in history. We should, I think, be conscious of that, and grateful for it. We don't live in a perfectly equitable society, and gratitude does not necessitate believing that, but if we fail to be grateful for what we have and where we are, we make ourselves profoundly disconnected from the rest of history and humanity.

Lickona is Back

For those wanting their Godsbody fix, Lickona is finally back, with more hair than ever, at the original Godsbody blog site.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Iowa: Economic Conservatives Feel the Pain

I headed over to the National Review blog last week for the first time in a couple months. I'd been sticking with the dead-tree edition of National Review for the last while, but I wanted to see what the reaction was to the Huckabee win in Iowa.

Total free fall.

I don't think I'd seen that National Review writers so mad since Bush nominated Miers to the Supreme Court.

Did we want the GOP to morph into a clone of the European Christian Democrat parties? Did no one care about economic and small government conservatism anymore? Was this a strictly sectarian vote of Evangelicals for a Baptist minister? WHAT THE HECK WAS GOING ON?

As things settled out, the basic conclusion seemed to be: Iowa is an unusual state, and the caucus system emphasizes that yet further. No need to worry, we'll get Romney or McCain -- or maybe Rudy at a long shot -- in the end.

That analysis may be basically right, but in what I could read about the sentiments being expressed in Iowa, I think there are two more things that people should take away from this:

1) All of us Christian conservatives who have been threatening to stay home or vote third party if Rudy is the nominee really are serious. After being told for months that Giuliani's pro-choice history didn't matter, Iowans turned out and voted for the most religiously vocal candidate available, and they did so pretty overwhelmingly. So for those who are now shouting, "Anyone but Huck," and wondering how to quiet the storm, the answer is: Throw Rudy overboard. There are much more conservative candidates out there than Rudy, and religious conservatives will be much more pliable once they're not being threatened with a pro-choice, anti-gun, cross-dressing New Yorker.

2) Even among registered Republicans, true intellectual conservatives are probably in the minority. We have a lot of tempermental conservatives: people who are pretty sure that most changes won't turn out for the good. We also have plenty of religious conservatives, who may not actually be all that conservative on size-of-government and economics, though those views are gradually rubbing off on them. But movement, intellectual conservatives are and probably always will be, a minority. So we shouldn't be shocked when it turns out that a lot of Republicans are actually quite open to a populist message combined with social conservatism and a proposal for a Fair Tax.

At the end of the day, I'm not crazy about Huckabee, though I'd vote for him in the unlikely event that he's actually the nominee. But the message I hope is getting through somewhere over in party headquarters is: If you totally ignore pro-life Republicans, things you don't like will start happening.

Friday, January 04, 2008

My Life Under the Dome

One of my most powerful memories from childhood is of sitting back in a large, old theater chair and looking up into the dome above as a planetarium projector (looking for all the world like a mutant ant on steroids) made the stars and planets wheel overhead.

My father was a planetarium lecturer. Not a very common trade: there are perhaps a hundred or two in the country, a thousand around the world. Dad ran the planetarium at Santa Monica College, and lectured part time at the Griffith Observatory for over twenty-five years.

A planetarium, for those unfamiliar with them, consists of a dome and a projector designed to be able to project up onto the dome the stars as they would appear at any given night within the last few thousand years -- or the next few thousand. You can see the stars as they would appear at any time, at any point on the world. A good, old fashioned star projector is a wonder of mechanical engineering. Star balls at each end contain a light source and thousands of carefully placed pin-pricks, focused by lenses, to project the stars in their correct place and brightness. Separate geared projectors show the planets as they follow their procession along the ecliptic, against the background stars.

The old lecturer's console up at Griffith (shown to the left, with the projector looming in the background) was a wonder of switches and dials encased in massive thirties-era woodwork. The lecturer, armed with a script, a dim reading light, and a laser pointer brought the lights down and summoned up the stars. There was always a brief "star talk" in which the lecturer pointed out the night constellations currently visible in the early evening, which planets were currently visible, and any upcoming astronomical events. Then the "feature" part of the show followed, which might cover anything from the anniversary of the moon landings, to the martian lander, to the set of conjunctions which may have been the "Star of Bethlehem."

These days, most planetariums used "canned shows". The movements of the projector and automated, and a pre-recorded voice gives exactly the same lecture every time. No wonder they're not very popular. As recorded entertainment goes, planetarium shows don't compete. But back then at least, Griffith shows were always life, with each lecturer giving the standard script his own flavor.

I wish I could claim that I'd retained more from those many afternoons and evenings under artificial skies. I can still identify a half dozen constellations and find Arcturus and generally know what planet I'm looking at in the early evening, but that's about it. Mostly, I have memories of bouncing in theater seats, looking at the ranks of dials, certain pieces of music that sound like stars coming out to me, and the tones of my father's voice as he walked the audience through the universe.

Réquiem ætérnam dona eis, Dómine. Et lux perpétua luceat eis.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Do We Need Morality?

My team at work tends to generate a lot of interesting lunchtime conversation (we go out for team lunch once a week) in part due to our Indian/US cultural split. We have two Hindus and one Jain on the Indian side and a Baptist, a Methodist, a "sort of spiritual" ex-Catholic and me on the American side, which certainly provides a variety of opinion. (The day our boss, the Baptist, was out, it turned out that all our Indians doubted reincarnation, while our Methodist and ex-Catholic both believed in it.)

One day our Jain team-member (he keeps all of Jainism's dietary requirements, but he says his beliefs are untraditional enough in regards to the gods that he upsets his mother) threw out a question that generated it's due share of controversy: Why do we have morality?

He contented that morality essentially set up a second and parallel set of laws, enacted by those without the political authority to control the legal system. Why have both religiously determined morality and legality? Why not just have a single authority with a single set of rules?

This struck me as an interesting question, because for the life of me I cannot imagine people not having ideas of morality that deviate (or may deviate) from whatever legal/societal restrictions they find themselves under.

Imagine for a moment a situation in which a priest/aristocrat class sets all laws and there is no religious our moral structure separate from that single set of leaders. It is announced, one day, that having a beard is a moral abomination and all men must shave daily or have their heads cut off. Everyone follows this lead but one man, as he lifts his razor in the morning, thinks to himself: "This is not right. I should be able to grow a beard if I want to. Cutting a man's head off because of his hair is wrong."

That man has just invented a personal moral system. So long as we are capable of receiving instruction from some other source and thinking, "No, that's not how it is. Things are actually this other way," we will have systems of morality which are separate from the law.

Now I should say, this line of argument did not win over my colleague. He argued that when someone looks at an precept that is given to him and thinks, "That is not right," he is simply wishing that he were in charge instead.

That really, is what leaves me most confused about the line of argument. I am frankly rather flummoxed as to how one could not see the holding of such a conviction as morality.