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

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation Breaks Partnership with Planned Parenthood

In a piece of very good news, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation has announced that they are breaking the partnership they have maintained for some years with Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood is miffed, calling the decision "deeply disturbing and disappointing." From The Hill (linked above):
The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation has broken off a partnership through which it provided cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood clinics, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. Planned Parenthood blamed the political controversy over abortion.

“We are alarmed and saddened that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation appears to have succumbed to political pressure. Our greatest desire is for Komen to reconsider this policy and recommit to the partnership on which so many women count,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Planned Parenthood said its clinics provided about 4 million screenings for breast cancer over the past five years, roughly 170,000 of which were supported by Komen grants.

Planned Parenthood said it has established an emergency fund to offset the loss of the Komen funds.

Komen told the AP that it ended its partnership with Planned Parenthood because of a congressional investigation into the organization. Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce committee have requested detailed financial records from Planned Parenthood.

This seems like an utterly obvious thing for Komen to do, and frankly it's surprising it's taken so long. Planned Parenthood is radioactive for a significant and vocal minority of the US population. There is no reason for an organization whose sole purpose is to promote cancer awareness and research to associate them with an organization so polarizing.

The Associated Press story features Planned Parenthood officials whining a good deal about the decision:
“We’re kind of reeling,” said Patrick Hurd, who is CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia — recipient of a 2010 grant from Komen — and whose wife, Betsi, is a veteran of several Komen fundraising races and is currently battling breast cancer.

“It sounds almost trite, going through this with Betsi, but cancer doesn’t care if you’re pro-choice, anti-choice, progressive, conservative,” Hurd said. “Victims of cancer could care less about people’s politics.”

Planned Parenthood said the Komen grants totaled roughly $680,000 last year and $580,000 the year before, going to at least 19 of its affiliates for breast-cancer screening and other breast-health services.

Komen spokeswoman Leslie Aun said the cutoff results from the charity’s newly adopted criteria barring grants to organizations that are under investigation by local, state or federal authorities. According to Komen, this applies to Planned Parenthood because it’s the focus of an inquiry launched by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., seeking to determine whether public money was improperly spent on abortions.

Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, has depicted Stearns’ probe as politically motivated and said she was dismayed that it had contributed to Komen’s decision to halt the grants to PPFA affiliates.

“It’s hard to understand how an organization with whom we share a mission of saving women’s lives could have bowed to this kind of bullying,” Richards told The Associated Press. “It’s really hurtful.”
It's unfortunate that it took a technicality such as Planned Parenthood being under Federal investigation in order to get this partnership broken off. One would hope that if the Komen Foundation is truly focused on cancer advocacy they would understand it can only hurt their cause to ally with a group involved in such incredibly controversial behavior as Planned Parenthood.

However, regardless of the inciting incident, one hopes that the Komen foundation will realize that Planned Parenthood is a group they should absolutely not get back into bed with.

Howard Zinn, Neo-Confederate

While I disagree with him on a host of political issues, I follow Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog at The Atlantic closely because of his consistently well written and fascinating posts on history and literature. Many of these are on the Civil War, which has in recent years become a topic of great interest to him.

There was a particularly interesting pair of these a couple weeks ago in which Coates and his commenters discussed (in the context of Ron Paul's repeated statements that the Civil War was unnecessary) the fact that left wing icon Howard Zinn actually peddles the several of the neo-confederate tropes: that the Civil War was fought for Northern economic domination and had little to do with slavery, and that a the Civil War clearly wasn't necessary in order to end slavery anyway. [First post on Ron Paul, Howard Zinn and the Civil War. Second, followup post.] The specific Howard Zinn text that they go after (because it's conveniently online) is a lecture he gave called Three Holy Wars, in which he tries to make a case for why people should not see the Revolutionary War, American Civil War or American involvement in World War II as moral or just -- something he argues is important because seeing any past wars as just allows people to justify other wars on analogy.

Zinn proceeds to run through most of the standard complaints against the "War of Northern Aggression":
It was really, really bad:
Slavery. Slavery, nothing worse. Slavery. And at the end of the Civil War, there’s no slavery. You can’t deny that. So, yeah, you have to put that on one side of the ledger, the end of slavery. On the other side, you have to put the human cost of the Civil War in lives: 600,000. I don’t know how many people know or learn or remember how many lives were lost in the Civil War, which was the bloodiest, most brutal, ugliest war in our history, from the point of view of dead and wounded and mutilated and blinded and crippled. Six hundred thousand dead in a country of 830 million. Think about that in relation today’s population; it’s as if we fought a civil war today, and five or six million people died in this civil war. Well, you might say, well, maybe that’s worth it, to end slavery. Maybe. Well, OK, I won’t argue that. Maybe. But at least you know what the cost is.
The Civil War didn't meaningfully free them anyway:
But you also have to think, the slaves were freed, and what happened after that? Were they really freed? Well, they were, actually — there was no more slavery — but the slaves, who had been given promises — you know, forty acres and a mule — they were promised, you know, a little land and some wherewithal so they could be independent, so they needn’t be slaves anymore. Well, they weren’t given anything. They were left without resources. And the result was they were still in the thrall, still under the control of the plantation owner. They were free, but they were not free. There have been a number of studies made of that, you know, in the last decade. Free, but not free. They were not slaves now. They were serfs. They were like serfs on a feudal estate.
And it wasn't about slavery anyway:
After all, when the war started, it wasn’t Lincoln’s intention to free the slaves. You know that. That was not his purpose in fighting the war. His purpose in fighting the war was to keep Southern territory within the grasp of the central government. You could almost say it was an imperial aim. It was a terrible thing to say, I know. But yeah, I mean, that’s what the war was fought for. Oh, it’s put in a nice way. We say we fought for the Union. You know, we don’t want anybody to secede. Yeah. Why no? What if they want to secede? We’re not going to let them secede. No, we want all that territory.

No, Lincoln’s objective was not to free the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation came. And by the way, it didn’t free slaves where they were enslaved.
And if we'd just waited, the problem probably would have gone away:
So, the Civil War and its aftermath, you know, have to be looked at in a longer perspective. And yes, the question needs to be asked also: yeah, is it possible if slavery could have been ended without 600,000 dead? We don’t know for sure. And when I mention these possibilities, you know, it’s very hard to imagine how it might have ended, except that we do know that slavery was ended in every other country in the western hemisphere. Slavery was ended in all these others places in the western hemisphere without a bloody civil war.
Zinn is trying to build the case against war in general, and so the arguments he finds most readily to hand are the arguments of defenders of secession. Ironically, this means that he uses exactly the same neo-confederate arguments which Coates and his readers (mostly progressive and strongly influenced by the school of historians such of James M. McPherson who did the research to show that the Civil War was the ultimate civil rights issue) have spent so much time and research rebutting.

There was a certain wistfulness I sensed in Coates and some of his commenters at finding someone some of them had seen as an icon, someone who in many cases was the first one to present a version of history which complicated the simple narrative they'd heard in school, at finding that Zinn had swallowed such a clearly problematic set of justifications in order to drive his overall pacifist historical agenda. I think this underlines one of the huge, huge dangers in ideologically driven history, whether that ideology is left or right, religious or secular. Often such writers do dig up "inconvenient facts" which serve to counter the prevailing narrative. (I remember having similar "aha!" moments reading Paul Johnson's Modern Times, a book which ultimately I found frustrating because of a similar, though less extreme, willingness to settle for simplistic answers that fit with ideological preferences.) But when writers come to history already knowing what happened and just needing to find the facts to support it -- which I think is quite clearly what Zinn was doing in this case -- they end up doing their readers a huge disservice even if they do achieve some consciousness raising in the near term, because at some point, if they really do create a fascination with the past in their readers, those readers will hit the realization of betrayal.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Don't Know Much About History: War of 1812

It's the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812! Contra the poor bewildered soldier here, Wikipedia actually does have a longish article on the subject.

[Hat Tip: Donald]

Till Death Do Us Part

I've been consistently impressed with Msgr. Charles Pope's contributions over at the Archdiocese of Washington blog. He's one of those priest bloggers who brings a strongly pastoral sensibility to his writing without ever compromising the necessity of presenting the truth as it is.

His post yesterday, responding to a Washington Post human interest story about a woman who supposedly "learns the true meaning of 'in sickness and in health'" by divorcing her now-disabled husband in order to remarry (while promising to continue to care for the disabled husband), is a great example of this.
Playing on the heart-strings does not always (or even usually) produce a good or proper melody. Such is the case of a recently published Washington Post Article entitled: A Family Learns the True Meaning of the Vow: ‘In Sickness and in Health.’ Actually, they do not. In fact they demonstrate the exact antithesis of what that vow means.

I want to be careful here, since this is a story about real human beings who have lived through a tragic situation. And while they have made decisions that I think are wrong from a biblical and faith perspective, I do not lack sympathy for them. There’s is a human struggle here and not all of us hold up perfectly in such struggles.

Yet, they themselves have decided to go public, in a national newspaper about their decision and, as a pastor of many, I am thus compelled to speak in a public way as well, lest others be misguided as to what a true Catholic and biblical response to this tragedy is.

The article and story is a very lengthy one. The full article is available above by click there in the title. I have also produced a summary here: A Story of Misguided Marital Vows. But the basic facts are these:

  1. Robert and Page Melton were married in 1995 and had two children.
  2. In 2003 Robert had a severe heart attack that left him with brain injuries. His motor skills were unimpaired but his memory was devastated. He remembered nothing of his wife and children and almost nothing of his earlier life.
  3. His behavior was also child-like and erratic which meant he needed to live in a nursing care facility.
  4. His wife visited him several times weekly and they developed a new sort of relationship. Though he came to know that he was her husband and the father of their daughters, he was not able to resume this role in any sort of substantial way.
  5. His wife Page was resigned to this, and still loved and cared for him as best as she was able.
  6. But then Page met an old friend, Allan who was divorced, and they fell in love.
  7. Allan also befriended Robert even as he was romancing Robert’s wife.
  8. Allan proposed marriage to Page.
  9. Page felt guilty, but wanted this new life. So she asked Robert.
  10. Robert said she should marry Allan, but wondered what would happen to himself.
  11. Page promised to continuing caring for Robert, but divorced him and married Allan.
  12. Robert continues today in her care and she is his legal guardian, but no longer his wife.
  13. The Post article assures us that everyone is blissfully happy, and will live happily ever after.
OK, a heart-wrencher to be sure. And the article is surely written to obtain our heartfelt consent by tugging at our heart-strings.
But be careful here, emotionally based reasoning is usually very blurry, and often quite wrong. And this is no exception. Lets look at some of the issues....
The rest is here.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Who's the Pharisee Here?

Continuing the theme of yesterday's post on "outcasts", Jake Tawney has a great post up discussing the Hildebrands' Morality and Situation Ethics and the nature of the behavior for which the pharisees were condemned. He quotes extensively from the book, including this section which particularly struck me:
“It must be stressed, however, that self-righteousness is often met with even among those people who believe themselves to be the protagonists in the fight against pharisaism. The very same people indulge in an indignation resembling that of self-righteous zealots when it comes to their hatred of mediocrity. They are prone to view every thrifty person as a potential miser and are always eager to detect a lack of heroism in their neighbors.

“It is very important to stress this type of self-righteousness because it is very widespread today. In their fight against bourgeois mediocrity and conventionalism, they feel themselves superior. They believe they are the sincere representatives of the true Christian spirit. They do not pretend to be correct, without sins. No, they pride themselves on being true Christians notwithstanding their sins, because, as they say, pharisees alone care much about not sinning. They not only feel superior, but like the self-righteous zealot, they gloat over their indignation about mediocre bourgeois and self-righteous Christians. When they rage about the self-righteousness of others, it makes them feel free, great, deprived of all pettiness and mediocrity. The kind of vices they generally suspect is characteristic. Whereas the self-righteous zealot prefers to be on the scent of sins against the sixth commandment, of dishonesty, of unreliability, this revolutionary type of self-righteous man everywhere suspects avariciousness, lack of charity, mediocrity, conventionalism, hypocrisy, and insincerity."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Jesus Sided With The Outcasts, Which Means People I Like

If there is one thing that virtually anyone can tell you about Jesus, it's that he sided with the outcasts and the oppressed. He was on the outs with the Pharisees and he hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes and Samaritans.

Simplistically applied, many people tend to take this to mean that Jesus would clearly have approved of any cause which is scorned by the wider society. Of course, we all want to imagine that Jesus is on our side, and people often feel criticism keenly, so the end result often seems to be that people consider whatever causes they consider to be important to be those which are scorned by society, and thus which Jesus would approve of.

Thus, for instance, I recall my youth group leaders back in high school explaining to us that "if Jesus were alive today" (a phrase which bugged me nearly as much as our catechist's tendency to declare that various things would cause Jesus to "spin in his grave" if only he knew about them) he would be marching in the Gay Pride parades and in favor of environmental causes. Why? Well, he was on the side of outcasts, and those movements are the outcasts. Ask someone else, and you'd get the precise opposite: mainstream society accepts gay rights and green causes, but pro-lifers and those who support traditional marriage are "the outcasts".

The big problem here, I think, is the simplistic attempt to identify outcasts and then assign virtue to whatever it is that they are considered outcasts for. However, although it's noted in the gospels that Jesus was derided for spending time with tax collectors, prostitutes and Samaritans, it's key to note that his message did not consist of telling people they should all go out and be prostitutes and tax collectors.

I think, actually, that the meaning of the "outcasts" theme has been entirely missed. In the gospels, we find Jesus spending time with a wide variety of people. There are outcasts such as prostitutes and tax collectors (which it's at least mildly interesting to note were outcasts for two reasons: they were collaborators with unpopular Roman rule, and tax collecting was a highly profitable business described in modern analysis as "tax farming" in which tax collectors tried to take as much money as they could off people and got to keep the balance between what they collected and what people actually owed). There are "foreigners" such such as the Samaritan woman, the Roman centurion and various soldiers (who may have been foreigners or collaborators). And there members of the Jewish elite like the Rich Young Man who says he's followed all the laws of Moses but balks at giving away all that he has and following Christ, or like Joseph of Arimathea who convinced Pilot to turn over Jesus' body to the disciples and gave his tomb for Jesus' burial. And then there are just ordinary folks (fishermen, relatives, women from his home town, etc.) What united the followers of Jesus was not a status as members of "outcast" groups, but rather their willingness to follow his calls to repentance and to "come and follow me".

Jesus didn't spend time only with "outcasts" nor did he spend time with them only because they were outcasts, but he was starkly different from many of the establishment religious authorities in that he saw those who were considered outcasts as being worth taking his message to in the first place. What was radical about his spending time with outcasts was not that he advocated in favor of what made them outcasts (Up with prostitution! Up with tax collecting!) but that he ignored their outcast status and preached to all -- the elites, the outcasts, and the in between -- considering all people as capable of receiving his message and being saved through his sacrifice.

This is why a focus on "Jesus spent time with outcasts" can end up leading one astray. Jesus didn't come to pick out a group of "good people" or even "interesting people to hang out with" on the basis of their being outcasts. Rather, Jesus came to present a message. He presented it to everyone, outcast or not, and he challenged everyone: Come and follow me.

How Thick is Your Bubble?

I know that many of our readers are concerned about whether they're out of touch with middle America, so here's a quiz to help you assess your engagement with the mainstream culture.

How Thick Is Your Bubble?

My results: On a scale from 0 to 20 points, where 20 signifies full engagement with mainstream American culture and 0 signifies deep cultural isolation within the new upper class bubble, you scored between 5 and 8.  In other words, you can see through your bubble, but you need to get out more.


1,2. I haven't worked on a factory floor, but when I was eighteen I took a year off between finishing school and going to college and did bindery work at a printing press. I was often on my feet all day, and I did ache at the end of the day from some of the repetitive motions. I also once caught my finger in the saddle stitcher, which was the machine that stapled envelopes into booklets. My fingernail grew back but I still have a small scar on the middle finger of my right hand. Every day at that job I would think, "This is why I'm going to college -- so I don't have to do this for the rest of my life."

6. I know some evangelical Christians fairly well, but most of my acquaintance are orthodox Catholics, which is a smaller sub-culture.

8. I am not a particularly political person. Like my parents before me I vote straight pro-life, and count on Darwin to keep me abreast of the developments of the day. Taking Facebook as an indicator, most of my friends, regardless of economic, educational, or social differences, have the same concern.

I know that I have deep political differences with aunts, uncles, and cousins (many of whom perhaps are the demographic for which this quiz was written), but I'm not especially close to any of them and I avoid those discussions. None of them have to ask about my political opinions; the number of children I have does the talking for me. Taking Facebook as an indicator, most of my friends, regardless of economic, educational, or social differences, have the same concern.

9. I have eaten at Applebee's in the past year, but frankly, I'd rather eat hot dogs at home than Applebee's food.

10. Neither Darwin or I have ever bought a pickup truck, but we've never needed one either.

11. Not only have I never attended a Kiwanis or Rotary meeting, I don't even know what they do. I don't know anyone who knows what they do. What do they do?

15. Of course I've never watched Oprah all the way through. Egad.

20. I don't know anyone who smokes, except some people who go to New Orleans.

h/t Siris

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Unwelcome Discount

A while back, after Jack had been in to the emergency room on two successive occasions for stitches, I got a medical bill that genuinely confused me, because I thought I'd already paid it. I called the medical billing number and the customer service rep explained very helpfully the source of the bill (the hospital and the doctor charged separately). She then offered, unprompted, to knock 15% off the bill if I paid it right there on the phone via credit card.

Well, thirty dollars is thirty dollars, so I paid by phone and figured a five minute call that saved me $30 was a good deal. But as soon as I thought about it, the whole thing started to make me a bit angry. After all, I'd just paid a whole bunch of medical bills (we hadn't hit our deductible for the year yet) and I hadn't though to call on them. Could I have got them to knock money off just for paying right away, which is what I was going to do regardless? Was I effectively paying a 15% "didn't bother to call" fee?

So now I find myself calling on every medical bill, asking for an explanation on it, and asking if I can get it reduced if I pay right away. Some places will, some won't. 15% seems to be the maximum. But although it saves money (and thus I feel like I can't avoid it) I find myself experiencing that frustrating feeling one ofter does after negotiating for a car: that if only one had been more clever one could have paid less, and that one was probably cheated somehow or other.

The Oft-Repeated Lie About Warren Buffet's Secretary's Tax Rate

For last night's State of the Union Address, President Obama invited Warren Buffet's secretary, Debbie Bosanek, to sit in the First Lady's box during the speech and specifically promised in that speech to support tax changes in order to mend the injustice Buffet claims occurs allowing him to pay the lowest tax rate of anyone in his office, including his secretary. This line of attack is doubtless partly designed to pave the way millionaire Barrack Obama to make populist attacks on multi-millionaire Mitt Romney during the upcoming presidential campaign. Romney is, after all, very, very rich, and his income comes primarily from investments.

David Leonhardt at the NY Times asks both right-leaning economist Greg Mankiw and the left leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to comment on this alleged tax injustice. Mankiw makes a fairly reasonable case that the reason capital gains are lower is that investment income is based on corporate profits and corporate profits have already been taxed. Companies would have more profits to pass on to investors (either as dividends or in the form of being worth more) if they didn't pay corporate taxes, and so the tax on investment income is set lower to avoid this "double taxation". Chuck Marr of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities must know the facts aren't on his side, because instead of answering the question he provides a canned response about income inequality and how tax rates are lower than in the '70s. The column is worth a read.

However, there's another issue here which I think is worth pointing out. Progressives writing on this issue usually act as if billionaire investors such as Warren Buffet are all paying right around 15% (the capital gains rate) in taxes -- Buffet claims that he pays 17.4% -- and that "middle class Americans" are paying the top marginal income tax rate of 35%. However, that top marginal income tax rate only applies to taxable income (for 2011) in excess of $379,150 a year of which "middle class" families by any reasonable definition have exactly none. If you think in terms of gross income, a lot of middle class families probably fall in the 25% bracket, which is applied to married couples with a combined income of $69,000 – $139,350. Many others fall in the 15% bracket, which is applied to married couples with a combined income of $17,000 – $69,000.

Even that, however, is not the whole story. That tax rate is applied to your adjusted taxable income. If you have kids, a mortgage, medical expenses, 401k contributions, student loans, etc., your taxable income can be significantly lower than your gross income, plus you may qualify for tax credits which apply directly against your tax liability.

So, to take one concrete example, although our total household income falls neatly in the middle of that 25% bracket range, by the time we took all deductions and tax credits into account last year I ended up paying actual taxes equal to 5% of my gross income. This is pretty typical. According to Congressional Budget Office numbers, the average effective income tax rate for all American households was 8.7% in 2005. Those in the bottom 40% of households got more money back then they paid (they had negative effective income tax rates) and those in the top 10% paid an effective income tax rate of 15.9% and those in the top 1% paid 19.7%. Even if you look at total federal taxes (including both the highly regressive payroll taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare and the corporate income taxes which tend to his only the more wealthy), the total federal effective tax rate is progressive all the way up the income stack, with the bottom 20% paying 4.3% and the top 1% paying 31.4%

I don't doubt that Warren Buffet pays tax lawyers a lot of money to make sure that he doesn't pay more taxes than he has to, and as a result he may well manage to pay a lower effective tax rate as a member of the top 0.000001% than a member of the top 0.01% would, but to claim that he is paying a lower total effective federal tax rate than members of the middle class is, to put it bluntly: a lie.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Reference that Sacrifice

I've never cared much for O. Henry's story The Gift of the Magi, so if Darwin and I were ever to make absurdly grandiose and mutually canceling sacrifices for each other, this is probably how it would shake out.

Understanding Both Sides of the Abortion Debate

Catholic Bibliophagist had up an outstanding review yesterday of Abby Johnson's book unPlanned. It's one of those books that I've heard a lot about but haven't had the chance to look at, but this review in particular is very well written and makes me interested to read the book in a way in which others I've read have not.

Confessions of a Reluctant Romney Supporter

I haven't written much of anything about the GOP primary contest, despite the fact I have been following it closely, in part because I found myself so incredibly dissatisfied with all the candidates. However, as the field narrows and appears to be actually competitive, and various people I respect line up behind candidates, it seemed like it was time to come out of the closet as something I'm not very enthusiastic about being: a Romney supporter.

This is not because I'm particularly fond of Romney. I don't trust him a great deal, I'm not clear how solid any of his principles are other than his conviction that he should be president, and I don't find him particularly inspiring. As various candidates have had their five minutes of popularity for the achievement of not being Romney, I kept hoping that one of them would manage to pull ahead and show some stature. I was particularly hopeful about Rick Perry, but he just didn't seem able to run a campaign.

So why support Romney?

I'll start with the positive. While I'm not enthusiastic about Romney, I think that most of what the GOP needs in order to oust Obama this year is simply a credible alternative who doesn't scare people too much. Given how bad the economy is and how unpopular some elements of his policy have been, "not Obama" can be a solidly popular candidate by that virtue alone. In this regard, I think Romney's blandness may actually be an asset -- especially as it's combined with very solid verbal abilities which should be able to stack up well against Obama on stage. Romney is also a company man. He is a consultant through and through, and since right now I actually trust the party more than I trust any of the candidates, I actually prefer the fact that Romney is likely to be guided fairly efficiently by the party establishment and the establishment advisers. I'd rather have a solid candidate, able to guide by his own vision, but lacking that I'd at least like to have an able executive willing to be guided by the right advisers.

That's about as positive as my feelings get. Now for the negative approach. There are at most four candidates at this point: Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Ron Paul. Ron Paul I consider wrong pretty much from beginning to end. Santorum actually strikes me as a strongly principled social conservative, and in some ways I do like him, but I just don't see him as having the executive presence to lead the nation or to succeed against Obama onstage. Maybe in a fairer world he would be a good candidate, but in the world we're in I just don't think he'd stand a chance of winning. I have some fond memories around Gingrich and the Contract With America, since that's a period when I was first enthusiastically tracking politics as a teenager. However, Gingrich himself flamed out badly and hurt the Republican party in the '90s. His personal life shows him as being even less trustworthy. He's got strong combative instincts, and at times it's fun to imagine him going head to head with Obama on stage, but his combative instincts also apply to opening fire on his own foot. Often. With Gingrich as the nominee, the GOP would be "living in interesting times" in the very worst sense of that ancient curse. And even if he could win, I wouldn't trust Gingrich any more as president of the US than the last GOP president to have come back from utter political defeat and exile: Richard M. Nixon.

It frustrates me no end that there aren't better candidates out there in a year in which Obama should be an easy target, and even at this late date if someone better came along than Romney I'd be happy to switch to someone better, but in the current state of the race Romney seems to me like the best one.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Oh No You Didn't...

Darwin (leaning over my shoulder while I'm on Facebook): Why does the ad for ultrasound tech training have an image of an elephant in utero?

Me: Maybe potential ultrasound techs think elephants are more interesting than humans.

Darwin: I guess it wouldn't be hard to find anything on that ultrasound. You know what they say about the elephant in the womb.

Me: ...

In Honor of the March for Life: The Annunciation and the Passion

I have never been on the March for Life, but I'm praying today for those who are walking in DC today.

Last night I came across a John Donne poem that seemed appropriate for a day on which we remember the death of millions of the very youngest humans, written in 1608 on the occasion of Good Friday falling on the feast of the Annunciation (March 25).

by John Donne

TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away. 
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ; 
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who's all ;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ; 
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she's seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ; 
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she's in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy. 
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th' abridgement of Christ's story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th' angels Ave, and Consummatum est
How well the Church, God's Court of Faculties,
Deals, in sometimes, and seldom joining these. 
As by the self-fix'd Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where th'other is, and which we say
—Because it strays not far—doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to him, we know,
And stand firm, if we by her motion go.
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar, doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud ; to one end both. 
This Church by letting those days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one ;
Or 'twas in Him the same humility,
That He would be a man, and leave to be ;
Or as creation He hath made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating spouse would join in one
Manhood's extremes ; He shall come, He is gone ;
Or as though one blood drop, which thence did fall,
Accepted, would have served, He yet shed all,
So though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords.
This treasure then, in gross, my soul, uplay,
And in my life retail it every day. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

"You Can Do Anything!"

I knew I was forgetting something in my video post. Here's Daniel Radcliffe demonstrating what happens when you go to a school with no grades. Nice American accent, Dan.

Friday Viewage

It's Friday, which means everyone wants to kick back and watch videos. Here at DarwinCatholic, we're always happy to provide some mind-numbing entertainment to go with the economic analysis and interminable posts about sex.

So first up, for Brandon and Matthew Lickona, the future of internet advertising is: CATS!

Pass me the Doritos.

Whenever I get a chance to catch up with my brother Will, we waste our valuable sibling time in syncing up on Saturday Night Live videos. Here's what we were laughing at the entire last week of December.

1920s Party

Darwin is probably going to throttle me if I say "Don't make me sing!" one more time.

And here's the sequel: 1920s Holiday Party

I love Jimmy Fallon when he can keep a straight face during a sketch.

Let's add some culture to the diet. Darwin and I saw the operetta The Merry Widow in Vienna when we were schlepping around Europe with backpacks. (I remember that we misread our tickets and sat in the wrong seats, and then it turned out that the right seats were high up in the very first box to the left of the stage and some of the action was cut off by the proscenium arch.) The production we saw was in German and set in the 1920s, and some of the action included characters rolling across the stage on wooden office chairs. We understood no German and the comic plot wasn't quite intelligible to us (though I do remember several characters exclaiming "Zwanzig millionen!", which referred to the amount of the widow's fortune).

The most memorable moment of the opera for me was the Vilja-lied, in which the merry widow sings of a legend from her native land about a man who falls in love with a nymph named Vilja. Here is Beverly Sills performing this aria very slowly but beautifully.

And this is what I sing to Diana now that she's learned to walk and is padding all around the house in her soft leather slippers: O Mistress Mine, where are you roaming? from Twelfth Night.

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear! your true-love's coming
O stay and hear! your true-love's coming
That can sing both high and low;
Trip no further, pretty sweeting, 
Journeys end in lovers' meeting—
Every wise man's son doth know. 

What is love? 'tis not hereafter; 
What is love? 'tis not hereafter; 
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty,—
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty, 
Youth's a stuff will not endure.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Educated Reader

I saw A.N. Wilson's Dante in Love, an overview of the world of Dante as it bears on the Divine Comedy, on the new books shelf at the library, and as I could summon up a vague memory of it being mentioned in the WSJ, I thought I'd pick it up. Here's what I encountered in the first pages.
The intelligent reader of the twenty-first century -- that is to say, you -- might or might not have a knowledge of classical mythology and Roman history. Dante expects you to remember who Briareus was, and who Cato, and how Arachne was transformed into a spider, and what was the fate of the Sabine women. On top of this, he expects you to share his knowledge of, and obsession with, contemporary Italian history and politics. Some translations and modern editions of his poem endeavour to 'help' you here by elaborate explanations of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, which soon have your head spinning. And on top of all that, there is the whole confusing business of medieval philosophy and theology -- what Thomas Aquinas owed to Averroes, or the significance of St Bernard of Clairvaux. 
No wonder that so many readers abandon their reading of Dante's three-part Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso) long before they get to Purgatory. No wonder that so many who manage to read as far as the Purgatorio find that very little of it has remained in their heads. Such readers are prepared to take on trust that Dante is a great poet, but the leave him as one of the great unreads. And in so doing, they leave unsavoured one of the supreme aesthetic, imaginative, emotional and intellectual experiences on offer. The are like people who have never attended a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni, or of King Lear, never heard a Beethoven symphony, never visited Paris. Quite definitely, they are missing out. 
If you belong to this category of Dante-reader, or non-reader, then this book is specifically designed for you.
Let's see how I stack up against Wilson's potential reader:

Briareus: not off the top of my head.
Cato: check
Arachne: check
Sabine women: check
Guelfs and Ghibellines: mostly check
Thomas Aquinas and Averroes: check, for the purposes of this discussion
St Bernard of Clairvaux: check
Read all of Purgatorio: check
Mozart's Don Giovanni: check
King Lear: not live, but I did see Ian McKellen's stage version on TV
Beethoven symphony: check
Visited Paris: check

Well, now I'm wondering if I should return this book to the library so it can benefit one of the educationally unwashed. I did nearly fall asleep during Don Giovanni, though, so I'm sure I'm in need of Wilson's benign tutelage.

Income Mobility Means Some People End Up Worse Off

Megan McArdle has a thought provoking piece on how income mobility is a popular concept, except that no one really wants their kids to be the ones who end up much worse off than their parents.
Many people apparently agree with me: the issue of income mobility has become more prominent in policy debates over the last few years. And yet I submit that this agreement is entirely theoretical. How many of the people reading this blog would actually tolerate a one-in-five chance that their children would end up poor?

Because that's what income mobility actually means. It doesn't just mean giving a lift to the folks at the bottom--superior health care, better K-12 education. Everyone in the country cannot be above average. For the poor to have a better shot at ending up in the top quintiles, the folks in the top few quintiles have to run the risk of ending up in the lowest.

Who among the parents fighting so hard to get their kids into a good school is going to volunteer to have their kid give up the slot in the upper middle class?
It strikes me that this becomes less of an issue if mobility is more an issue of reverting to the mean: people who are poor having a decent chance of their children doing better than them, people who are quite rich having a good chance their children will be middle class rather than wealthy. But, the thing is, most people live in moderately restricted social sets, so the falling half of the equation seems like "being poorer than everybody".

The piece itself is rather long and worth reading. I'm trying to make up my mind what I think about it. Certainly, the "American Dream" tends to be all about your children being better off than you -- not about half of your children being worse off so that half of someone else's can be better off. In this sense, the American Dream is highly dependent on the assumption that the country as a whole will become increasingly well off, and that that increase will be widely shared.

Thoughts? (Are you still out there, Joel? This one seems right up your alley.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ron Paul's Foreign Policy: Golden Rule or Relativism?

If you move about those regions of the internets in which righteous display their moral superiority by posting sixty second video clips showing just how bad their opponents are, you have probably seen headlines lately along the lines of "Christians Boo Jesus" or "Republicans Mock Golden Rule". Of course, one hardly needs to watch the clip, because in the dualism that is politicization, everyone already knows that they're right and their opponents are wrong. But after the fifth or sixth iteration, I had to go ahead watch Ron Paul (who else) present his Golden-Rule based foreign policy to boos. Here's the clip in question:

Or if, like me, you tend not to watch posted videos, here's the money quote:
"My point is, that if another country does to us what we do to others, we aren't going to like it very much. So I would say maybe we ought to consider a golden rule in foreign policy. We endlessly bomb these other countries and then we wonder why they get upset with us?"
Now, this sounds superficially high minded, and some people who really are high minded seem lured by it. Kyle, who has an genuine and expansive desire to understand "the other" has his dander up and says:
Last night, while listening to the latest debate, I heard the audience boo the suggestion that we ought to apply the Golden Rule to our dealings and relations with foreign powers and people. Ares forbid we treat strangers the way we want to be treated. Woe to those who put themselves in another’s place and consider the world from his or her perspective.
He links approvingly to Robert Wright over at The Atlantic, who quotes some of the other examples of Ron Paul's "moral imagination", which has made him the unlikely darling of the far left:
Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans....

After observing that Israel and America and China have nukes, he asks about Iranians, "Why wouldn't it be natural that they'd want a weapon? Internationally they'd be given more respect."

Can somebody explain to me why this is such a crazy conjecture about Iranian motivation? Wouldn't it be reasonable for Iranian leaders, having seen what happened to nukeless Saddam Hussein and nukeless Muammar Qaddafi, to conclude that maybe having a nuclear weapon would get them more respectful treatment?
A favorite Paul pedagogical device is to analogize foreign situations to American ones. A campaign ad promoted by a Paul-supporting super PAC begins by asking us to imagine Russian or Chinese troops in Texas. The point is that this is how our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan look to locals.
If you want to see that particular piece of imagination, here that is too:

The closing line here is actually a pretty good example of where this "imagination" breaks down, so although it's a minor detail I'll begin there: "The sad thing is, our foreign policy WILL change eventually, as Rome's did, when all budgetary and monetary tricks to fund it are exhausted."

This ties into one of our pervasive historical myths about the Roman era: That Rome was good and stable and virtuous so long as it remained a localized Republic, but that once it turned into an empire and got big, decay and debauchery soon set in and it fell. This misses out on the fact that the Roman Empire, from Augustus Caesar to Romulus Augustus, lasted some 450 years and was, for all its faults, generally more stable than the Republic had been. Moreover, it was primarily the imperial phase of Rome which provided Roman cultural to the entirety of the known world, a culture which has remained one of the foundational elements of Western Culture (and now global culture) ever since. When the Roman Empire gradually came apart, lapsing into "barbarian" successor kingdoms in the West and the Byzantine Empire in the East, this is generally seen as a bad thing, not an improvement. It's commonly called the "Dark Ages", and although there's some serious historical prejudice going on there, the period from 400 to 800 was indeed generally a lot dimmer than the period from 1 to 400. For whatever reason, however, libertarians of the Ron Paul persuasion seem to be on the side of collapse in regards to this type of history.

With that bit of historical perspective, let's think a little more deeply about Ron Paul's "moral imagination". Looked at a little more closely, I think we'll find that "moral equivocation" is a little more like it. Let's try a little moral imagination of our own:
Think on the lot of the gang leader. There he is, running a great business of selling crack on the street corners, extracting protection money, and pimping out hos, when what should happen but a bunch of cops show up pointing guns at his gangbangers, knocking down doors to his crack houses, arresting his homeboys. What can you expect him to think? If the cops have guns, he's going to want to have guns. If the cops knock down his door, he'll want to knock down their doors. If they lock up his people, he'll lock up their people. How can we go treating these gang members in ways that we don't want to be treated?
Now, as the basic level, this arguably does describe the logic of the gang leader. If he wants to keep doing what he's doing despite the pressure of law enforcement, he's going to resort to violence and intimidation in response to what he sees as violence and intimidation aimed at him. Does that mean, however, that the solution is simply to cede ownership of swathes of large cities to gang leaders because doing otherwise would involve an escalation in mutual violence between gangs and government authorities. Well, actually, with Ron Paul, he may mean that. But for those of us who are sane, there's a difference between the two side of this situation which this exercise in imagination fails to grasp: the gang leader is breaking the law of being destructive to the common good while the law enforcement is trying to enforce the law and protect the common good.

Is protecting the common good, occasionally by resort to force, a violation of the Golden Rule? Only if the Golden Rule is applied with complete moral relativism. Understood properly, arresting people who gun down their rival crack sellers or extract protection is money is compatible with the Golden Rule, because through their endorsement of the legal order those who enforce the law by arresting these lawbreakers also want to be arrested if they too break the law. They are enforcing the laws that all of us have chosen to live by, and in so doing we as a society are treating others as we want to be treated.

When we elide the moral context, we can make it look like enforcing any kind of justice or order is a violation of the Golden Rule, but as the above example shows, this is clearly not the case.

Having established this basic principle, it now remains to address Ron Paul's more specific points. After all, it might be that police enforcing the law against gang members is perfectly legitimate, but does that principle apply to the US having military bases in foreign countries, or to trying to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons? Aren't all countries, at least, basically equal and deserving of equal rights?

Let's think about Ron Paul's logic a bit here.
Wouldn't it be reasonable for Iranian leaders, having seen what happened to nukeless Saddam Hussein and nukeless Muammar Qaddafi, to conclude that maybe having a nuclear weapon would get them more respectful treatment?
Well, yes. It is logical for Iranian leaders to think this way. They're maintaining a moderately brutal dictatorship that many of their own people would like to see replaced with another form of government, and they're trying to exert greater power in the region after being moderately successful in fighting a low level proxy war against the US in the Shiite regions of Iraq. The other regional powers are Turkey and Israel, both of which have nuclear weapons, and if they could get their own nuclear weapons they would insulate themselves from outside attack (as North Korea has by acquiring nukes) while perhaps buying themselves some time from their own people if regional domination wins them benefits which can be shared around at home.

But what all that internal logic leaves aside is: Does that mean that we, as an outside power, should simply shrug and not mind if they acquire nukes with these aims?

After all, isn't it a generally good thing that Saddam Hussein's brutal Baathist dictatorship fell (as the citizens of the other Baathist dictatorship in the region, Syria, are dying in large numbers to achieve in their own country) and that Qaddafi's oppressive regime has also fallen? Isn't it generally a bad thing that the neo-Stalinist regime in North Korea has won added staying power (and the ability to continue killing tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of their own citizens every year through oppression and starvation) through acquiring nuclear weapons? Not to mention that it may yet turn out to be a very bad thing for some of North Korea's neighbors if the regime goes unstable and actually does launch nukes at South Korea or Japan?

Moral imagination can help us understand that many in the Soviet Union of the '30s really were convinced that "wreckers" were threatening the socialist paradise and needed to be stopped, that many in Wilhelmine Germany really did think that they needed to start a European war before Russia overtook them in economic and military power, and that many in the '30s really did think that "Judeo-Bolshevism" was the greatest threat to their freedom. It can also help us understand that which side of a war someone fights on (and what someone believes about the purpose of a war) often has a lot more to do with where that person was born than with any kind of cool consideration of the issues at stake.

But it does not mean that none of these issues matter, and that there is not a right and a wrong side to a dispute. (Or in the gray tones of the real world: a better and a worse side.) It's all very well to ask how people would feel if there were a Chinese or Russian military base in Texas. However, it would be most fruitful to ask people in Tibet whether they'd rather have an American military base in the area, that behave roughly the way the US military bases in Japan and South Korea do, or if they'd rather stick with the way the Chinese occupation treats them. Openmindedness is somewhat fetishized in our relativistic society, but the fact of the matter is that being "occupied" by the US is generally a much more healthy experience than being occupied by the Chinese or the Russians. This by no means should be taken to mean that the US never does anything wrong while acting as the world's policeman, but when you look at the other folks lining up to be world or regional policemen, it looks like a pretty attractive alternative.

The Christian approach is not found in pretending that there is no difference between viewpoints in disputes between nations, but in realizing that even when we are locked in combat with "the other", we must recall his humanity. C. S. Lewis, I believe, staked out the true Christian viewpoint on such issues when he said in Mere Christianity:
I have often thought to myself how it would have been if, when I served in the first world war, I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death. I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment. I think we might have laughed over it.

I imagine somebody will say, `Well, if one is allowed to condemn the enemy's acts, and punish him, and kill him, what difference is left between Christian morality and the ordinary view?' All the difference in the world. Remember, we Christians think man lives for ever.

Poetry Corner

The budding poetess, age 9 1/2, has been composing a book of poetry.

This book is the cause
Of the shake
That is said
To make
Your child
Run wild,
So preparations you make
Must awake
The banshee in style.
Give it clocks
And blocks
And your husband's best socks.
So education
Be the agent
Of the cure. 
Malcolm the dragon started to see
That he had never paid his fee.
But when he tried to pay his fee,
The man in there started to pee:
"You are too scary to pay your fee."
So Malcolm the dragon quite legally
Has never actually paid his fee.

Your interpretation is as good as mine.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Kiss Me, You Fool!

Heather King, who understands so well the joys and difficulties of lived Catholicism, meditates on a strict priest and the vibrant transformational power of the Eucharist:
What's sad, though, is that he had the "right" message but he delivered it in such a way that no-one in his or her right mind would want to follow it. By his or her right mind I mean vital, interested, questing, conflicted, on to one's own myriad defects and myriad gifts, preferably with a secret incendiary devotion to some doomed love/project/cause that promises to bear absolutely no fruit, compromises your physical/emotional health, and makes you look like a fool, loser and/or psychotic in the eyes of the world, and with a sense of humor. 
Anyway, I was reminded of a quote by contemplative monk Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis--now known as Brother Simeon--from Love’s Sacred Order: The Four Loves Revisited: 
“Léon Bloy…once said that if we receive the Eucharist and fail to practice charity, fail to allow the Eucharist to have in us the effects that by its very nature it must have, then ‘the sacred Host we have consumed, rather than nourishing us, will become within us like a bomb exploding our hypocrisy to high heaven.’” 
It will be like a bomb exploding our hypocrisy, and it will be like a bomb exploding our timidity and fear. 
Catholicism is not counter-cultural in that the world is liberal and Catholicism is conservative. It’s counter-cultural in that it is explosively, wildly, anarchically radical. Catholicism is our hearts, our bowels, our erotic energy, our lives! Catholicism is not some timid, rigid, dead set of rules. The whole purpose of the rules is to allow us to explode within them. To follow Christ, to be Catholic (or catholic-in-spirit) is to hover on the edge of metaphorical orgasm and to consent to continue to hover, indefinitely, in almost unbearable tension…which paradoxically allows us to break out in all kinds of other sublimely interesting, glorious directions and ways
However, I was nonplussed by the evil the priest chose to rail against from the pulpit.
What prompted the reflection is a Mass I attended on the Feast of the Holy Family (at a church that was new to me), at which, for a full half-hour, the priest took the congregation to task (most of whom had excellent posture, were shepherding several frighteningly well-behaved children, and were dressed like Puritans) about how the girls should hide their knees and do they really want to be an instrument of the devil and as soon as young people kiss he tells them they must never EVER see or talk to that person again because they have wrecked their chances for putting God first, and in general complaining, gossiping, carping, and looking down upon all the parents with spoiled, ill-behaved children who refuse to properly discipline [super creepy emphasis] them, the result being that, unlike a couple HE knows, they will not grow up to have their very first kiss at the altar. 

I hesitate to nitpick any of Heather's fine post, but the priest here does not have "the 'right' message but he delivered it in such a way that no-one in his or her right mind would want to follow it. " He is wrong. There are many actions that Catholicism forbids, but kissing before marriage is not one of them.  Boiled down to its essence, Theology of the Body (referenced not by Heather, but by her commenters) states that physical actions have a spiritual dimension. Sex is an action reserved for marriage not just because the reproductive aspects are most truly realized in a committed marital relationship, but because the physical action of intercourse also bonds a man and woman together spiritually. Since all actions have spiritual effects, a kiss also can form a bond, but it is not remotely the permanent bond formed by intercourse.

The definition of a kiss is "a touch with the lips to show affection" (this I remember from my younger  days of looking up salacious words in the dictionary). So in keeping with that middle-school tone, let me be clear: a kiss is not remotely the physical and spiritual equivalent of (avert your eyes!) a penis entering a vagina, no, not even a french kiss. Not even if it's an arousing kiss. A couple may choose, for mutual and prudential reasons, not to kiss before marriage, but that does not necessarily make them more virtuous or chaste than a couple who does. It makes them a couple who misses out on the joys of kissing.

... (Heather later says) The reason to save your first kiss till the altar, in other words, is not because you are so listless and etiolated and body-despising and intent on being a straight-A Catholic that you’ll suppress and deny your own God-given erotic urge, but because you are so vital, so juiced, so wild with longing, so crazy about your spouse-to-be that you want to make your wedding night a work of art. You want to offer your wedding night to the whole world.

This all sounds so delightful, and it's quite true in a sense: if a couple was to choose to save their first kiss for the altar, this would be a good reason to do so, though I think that a couple could feel this way about sex even after kissing. But perhaps a better way to describe the wedding night (even for a couple who was juiced and vital and crazy) would be the beginning of a work of art -- not the completed masterpiece. Long-time readers will be weary of my insistence that only practice makes perfect, but it's true. Just as the wedding isn't the marriage (nor even the high point of the marriage), the wedding night is only the first broad sketch for the whole married sex life, which is in turn only a portion of the magnum opus of marriage itself. Sketches can be works of art, but they don't have the full force of the whole finished work -- and that's fine, as long as one can be honest about it.

For those with less tender sensibilities than the stern padre, here's some pre-marital kissing to curl your hair.

ADDENDUM: In a comment on her post, Heather rightly points out that I'm not focusing on the main issue of the exquisite creativity that comes from living within the confines of the Church's teachings. She makes this point so elegantly that I don't think I have anything to add to it. But that leads to the issue of what, exactly, the rules are so that we may follow them. The reason that the priest's exhortation to save kissing for marriage is so antithetical to me is this: as Catholics, we are called -- no, commanded -- to wait until the blessing and seal of the sacrament of marriage to have sex. There is a serious moral component to the prohibition against sex before marriage, which gives that stricture its force and allows those living under it to live in joyful and painful expectation of consummation -- Heather reminds us that the original consummation was that of Calvary.

But kissing is not Sex Lite. What makes Catholicism come off as "some timid, rigid, dead set of rules" is when huge moral force is attached to actions that can't bear that weight. Our end is to be joined to Christ forever and to live in his love for eternity. Here on earth, to achieve the end of joining our lives to his, we have certain commandments and prohibitions. One of those, to preserve the integrity of sexual relationships between men and women and to preserve the rights of children, is that sex take place only within marriage. What strictures are applied to guide Catholics in this goal? Turning to the teachings of the Church, we find certain things condemned: masturbation, pornography. That leaves a lot of prudential leeway for couples trying to navigate their way to the wedding day.

Another issue is that there are levels of interaction that are appropriate for different ages and states in life. Humans rely on physical expression to bond relationships. In Love and Responsibility Pope John Paul II makes some excellent and pastoral observations about the necessity of a proper understanding of chastity in relationships.
We noted earlier that virtue means something more than merely curbing the promptings of bodily desire or sensual reactions by pushing their content down into the subconscious. Chastity does not consist in systematic depreciation of the value of "the body and sex" any more than it can be identified  with the morbid fear which they may inspire, sometimes as a reflex. Such reactions or symptoms not of inner strength but rather of weakness. Virtue can only come from spiritual strength. This strength derives in the last instance form the reason, which 'sees' the real truth about the values and puts the value of the person, and love, above the value of the person, and love, above the values of sex and above the enjoyment associated with them. But for this very reason chastity cannot consist in blind self-restraint. Continence, efficiency in curbing the lust of the body by the exercise of the will, the capacity for successful moderation of the sensations connected with sensual and even with emotional reactions, is the indispensable method of self-mastery, but it does not in itself amount to a full achievement of virtue.  (p. 197)
Later he speaks of the necessity of tenderness between a man and a woman even before the full sacramental bond of marriage, and here, I've found a reference to kissing:
Tenderness, then, springs from awareness of the inner state of another person (and indirectly of that person's external situation, which conditions his inner state)and whoever feels it actively seeks to communicate his feeling of close involvement with the other person and his situation. This closeness is the result of an emotional commitment... Hence also the need actively to communicate the feeling of closeness, so that tenderness shows itself in certain outward actions which of their very nature reflect this inner approximation to another "I". These actions all have the same inner significance, though outwardly they may look very different: pressing another person to one's breast, embracing him, putting one's arms around him (if this is only a form of physically assisting someone its meaning is quite different), certain forms of kissing. These are active displays of tenderness. (p. 202)
Though of course I skirt the danger of laying down my own unimportant moral precepts, I'm inclined to think that it is unjust for a couple, especially approaching marriage, to withhold this form of of physical affection from one another in an attempt to save as much sensual interaction as possible for the wedding night.

I feel ridiculous going on at such length about an issue which must only be an issue to a very few strangely principled people, and yet it touches a nerve to see something which is so emphatically not a stricture of the Faith held up as such.

Reading Hemingway

There's a sort of mantlepiece shelf in our library -- I say a sort of mantlepiece because it's over a sort-of fireplace: a fireplace-ish niche which lacks that essential element, a chimney, because once upon a time it contained a Victorian era ventless gas heater. This shelf I claimed, not long after we started unpacking books, as my aspiration shelf, the place where I line up all the books I intend to read. There they stand until I pull them down, read them, and return them to their appropriate shelf.

One night, for no particular reason other than I realized the aspiration shelf was short on fiction and because one of the gaps in my literary knowledge is that I'd never actually read anything by him, I added The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell To Arms to the aspiration shelf, and a couple nights ago while I was wandering about the library kibitzing MrsDarwin's novel revisions, I pulled The Sun Also Rises down and started reading it.

As I say, I'd never actually read any Hemingway before, though of course I'd heard roughly the same jokes and observations that anyone who hangs around book people will have soaked up about him. He writes in short sentences. Declarative sentences. And he's a masculine writer. Writing about war. And drinking. And bullfighting. And drinking. And blood. And drinking.

Somehow I'd got it into my head that reading Hemingway would be roughly as difficult a haul as reading Faulkner was a couple years ago, only with tortuously short sentences instead of tortuously long ones. As such, I was surprised to find Hemingway's prose to be almost completely transparent. Indeed, I wouldn't have noticed him to be any particular kind of prose stylist if I hadn't been assured ahead of time that he was known for his direct and vigorous prose. It just reads... normal. Thinking on this, it occurs to me that I normally associate a distinctive style either with some kind of dialect or effort to convey thought, or with the use of especially ornate or poetic diction while writing prose. Short, clear sentences that tell you what is going on just seem like the modern norm.

Though since Hemingway is so noted for his style, I now find myself wondering if rather than being a "typical example" of modern prose style he's something of the model of what has since become common.

Either way, I find myself quite enjoying The Sun Also Rises, and it even works as a lunch reading or bedtime reading book, in a way that Literature typically doesn't for me.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Brother Can You Spare a Drink?

With all budgets under severe reduction until the new boiler is paid off, luxuries are the first to go, which definitely includes expensive liquor. Scotch, my favored think these days, is an expensive habit, but Eric Felton had a great column a few years about on the topic of "recession Scotch": inexpensive blended Scotches that offer significant quality. If one has developed any kind of a taste for Scotch, many of the common inexpensive blends aren't even worth the low price tags. However there are some very pleasant exceptions.

Teachers Highland Cream was, apparently, one of the more popular blended Scotches back in the 50s and 60s. These days, it has a huge following in parts of the developing world -- an acquaintance from India tells me that is the most popular Scotch in India -- but it's unheard of in the US. It sells for around $15 for a 1L bottle, and is, to my mind, about as good a Scotch as you can generally pick up for under $40. The problem is, as I've discovered since moving to Ohio, that it isn't available in all states. It is definitely available in Texas, New Jersey, New York and Washington State, but it is not available in Ohio (though in this regard it's in good company as Ohio has a socialist approach to liquor in which all liquor is sold by the state, and the list of brands the state sells is about as consumer friendly as one would expect given that situation.) I'd gone without my bottom shelf favorite for a year, until my future sister-in-law bought me a jug in the family gift exchange. (Clearly a woman who will fit in well in the family.)

If you live in Ohio, or simply want to try another good recession Scotch, my fallback has become Ballentine's Finest, which if anything is slightly cheaper (around $14.99 for 750ml.) It's a slightly mild Scotch -- nice if you're a drinker of Irish whiskeys but lower on the caramel and iodine notes which make Scotch more appealing in my view. Still, it's a solidly good bottom shelf Scotch. And for the price, a fairly outstanding one.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

First Sentence Impressions

In my idle time, I've set upon the daunting task of revising my novel. The section that cries out most for rewriting is the very beginning, which was thrown together slapdash to meet the NaNoWriMo wordcounts before I discovered the muse of bourbon. My problems begin with the very first sentence:
In the summer of my twenty-second year, fresh from college with an elegant diploma in one hand and no job offers in the other, it was decided that I should become the companion to my Great-Aunt Emma. 
I feel a great mortification upon contemplating this line, not because my conception of the character become far less passive as the story progressed, but because the grammar doesn't match up. Who was "fresh from college?" It? How could I have made such a bizarre error?

One thing that has become clear to me, in retrospect, is that perhaps it was inadvisable for someone who'd never written fiction to jump in for the first time by writing a novel in thirty days. It's too late to change that now, but I'm trying to educate myself by reading up on the craft of writing fiction. One thing everyone seems to agree upon is that a first sentence should serve several purposes: to pull the reader into the story; to set the tone; to capture the attention of the editor or agent or whoever is going to buy your manuscript.

Here are a few first sentences of works I've pulled off my bookshelf.
Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov,a land owner well know in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. -- The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again. -- Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier 
"They made a silly mistake, though," the Professor of History said, and his smile, as Dixon watched, gradually sank beneath the surface of his features at the memory. -- Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis (a much funnier novel than the first sentence suggests) 
When I reached "C" Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning. -- Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. 
So. -- Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney
Two things strike me about this list. First, that many of these lines are (naturally) meant to be directly followed by other sentences, so that the first sentence need not stand on its own as a summation of the story. Second, that much of the literature on my shelf is at least fifty years old. For contrast, here are three opening sentences from novels I enjoyed, all published last year.
I have never much liked Shakespeare. -- The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips. 
It was the last night of 1937. -- Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles 
Today I'm five. -- Room, by Emma Donoghue
These are short, but informative: Arthur is chatty and informal; the narrator of Rules of Civility is reserved and is writing about her past; the child who narrates Room speaks in the present tense.

I have struggled in recent evenings with my first sentence. What information do I want to convey? What tone do I want to set? Since the narrative is in the first person, what do I want the reader to know about her at the outset?

The character had grown more assertive as I wrote, so I wanted to change the passive voice of the original. I liked the structure of the sentence (and so did Darwin). The first part carried crucial information about the character -- she's a recent graduate with no imminent job prospects -- so what needed to be rewritten was the second half. Oddly enough, though I found that while writing the draft I did better work when I typed, the best way for me to revise this sentence was to write by hand over and over again.
In the summer of my twenty-second year, fresh from college with an elegant diploma in one hand and no job offers in the other, I was elected to become companion to my Great-Aunt Emma. (still too passive) 
In the summer of my twenty-second year, fresh from college with an elegant diploma in one hand and no job offers in the other, I turned my back to the career path and became caregiver to my Great-Aunt Emma.  
...I detoured from the accepted career path... 
...I rejected the career path...  
In the summer of my twenty-second year, glowing with academic success if not with career enlightenment, I forsook that path to become caregiver to my Great-Aunt Emma. (at this point I was growing weary of the path image, which wasn't going anywhere) 
In the summer of my twenty-second year, fresh from college with an elegant diploma in one hand and no job offers in the other, I laid down any career ambitions and took on the role of caregiver to my Great-Aunt Emma. (closer, but too wordy)
Finally I found a formulation I liked well enough, which propelled me into what I would consider not a revision, but a new first draft.

In the summer of my twenty-second year, fresh from college with an elegant diploma in one hand and no job offers in the other, I laid aside career ambitions to become caregiver to my Great-Aunt Emma. Perhaps “ambitions” is too strong a word — I was neither lazy nor incapable, but I suffered no delusions that studying literature had prepared me for much other than the tired trifecta of writing, teaching, and applying to grad school. These held no interest for me. For that matter, neither did geriatrics, but the fact remained that Great-Aunt Emma could no longer live unaccompanied, and I was the most eligible companion by virtue of being the least employed member of the family. 
I was also Emma’s namesake, which was a veritable sign that my stewardship had been preordained. Various relatives made this point to me at the packing party my parents were throwing on the eve of their early retirement to Florida. My older sister Stacy was particularly pleased.  
“I’m glad Mom and Dad didn’t name me Emma,” she said, as she sat in the living room and stuffed newspaper into boxes. “You were always her favorite anyway, maybe because you liked being around all those stupid books. Any time I tried to touch one of them, I thought she’d kill me.” 
“Perhaps she likes me because I don’t call her books stupid.” 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Hell on Earth

Pity, oh pity, good souls, the poor suffering child whose parents pay exorbitant sums so she can be forced to take ballet class at the region's most prestigious schools. Consider, if you can bear the thought, the agony of the young girl betrayed by her own talent, leading her parents to conspire how best to torture her: "Let's sign her up for lessons because it will be so fun for us to drive 45 minutes each way every Saturday morning for a 90-minute class! And the best part is that our child will yell at us every Friday night!" Shed tears with this innocent maiden as she sobs, "Prestigious School is no fun! Mom and Dad are so mean! My class is hell!"

Ah, hell. Do you really want to tell me that doing drills at ballet class is comparable to eternal separation from God? You mean to say that you have the worst life in the whole world because your loving parents try to nurture your talent at a dance school that insists on a ballet bun? Let's talk, dear, about true suffering. Let's discuss the children whose parents beat them, the children who are starving, the children who are freezing on this cold cold night. Listen to Daddy tell the story of the man he knows whose father was a boy in Belgium when the Germans invaded, whose sister was shot dead on the morning of the invasion as she was walking to church with her family. Mommy assures you that you are so fortunate to grow up in a family with parents who love each other. My darling, there is suffering out there that is beyond your capacity to imagine right now. There are children whose life is almost literally hell on earth, who can only dream of the happy warm existence you have with your sisters and brother in this big house. Do not ever tell me again, please, that ballet class is "hell".

A pause, and fresh tears start. "I don't want to go to class! And why do I have to take a shower every Friday night?"

Time for bed.