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

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Single Parenting Without Single Malt

When you have sole charge of a 4 and 5 year old for three days while your wife flies out with the youngest to visit family, and you've given up alcohol for Lent, you might find yourself without recourse once everyone under four feet tall (at least of your own species) is safely in bed.

At times like that, it's helpful if you have Brahms' Symphony #4.

Not as inebriating as Scotch, but nearly as civilized and calming.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Is Fighting in an "Unjust War" Evil?

One thing one runs into a great deal among religious opponents of the war in Iraq (and I assume among non-religious ones as well -- it's just that the context within which I normally run into anti-war discussion is religious) is a fury that more soldiers have not gone AWOL or declared themselves conscientious objectors rather than go to Iraq.

Michael Iafrate of Vox Nova states:
The Church’s views on this war are well known, and less than 1% or Catholic soldiers have the ___s to do what is right. This statistic indicates to me that few soldiers take the Church’s teaching seriously.
[blanking is present in the original text]

Fellow Vox Nova author Henry Karlson concurred:
Here is a question. How many soldiers willingly said no to their commanders when Church officials said the Iraq war is not a just war? How many of them didn’t care and cared more for what their orders were? The truth of the matter is you find the soldier’s true master when they are pressed in such situations, and they go with the flow. This is the problem historically. It’s how the Nazis were able to get people to follow their evil. “Well, the Church is wrong. We are the authority.” And the thing is, people dare teach the Church moral law and argue with the Church on just wars, saying the Church has no authority to declare a war unjust. Viva nationalism.
Iafrate is the same author who some time back was deeply indignant that the pope had appointed a new archbishop to the US military archdiocese, saying among other things:
The Church has no trouble denying communion to those who are theoretically in favor of the unjust killing of persons through abortion, but follows persons who participate in unjust killing [in war] around with the ciborium!
Clearly, we're seeing a strong belief here that the only right choice for a Catholic soldier is to refuse to participate in any war which does not meet just war criteria. At first glance, this might seem to be an obvious conclusion. Given that people tend to think in dualities, one would at first think that any war that was not a "just war" was obviously an "unjust war", and that therefore it would be "unjust" and wrong to participate in any way.

Is that so?

This is not a new question. Shakespeare addresses it in Henry V, which remains one of the great meditations on war, leadership and soldiering in the English language:
...methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king's company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable.

That's more than we know.

Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at
such a place...
Shakespeare puts the moral weight of deciding if the war's cause be just upon the king, leaving the soldiers responsible only for their own personal conduct as they render their lives up unto Caesar.

We have no king. We live in a fairly democratic republic, and so in some sense all citizens bear the responsibility for the state's actions. And yet, this is not a direct democracy. No one imagined in November of 2000 that which candidate he voted for would determine whether and how two wars would be waged. Nor, indeed, do any of us have any idea what Gore would have done had he been in the Oval Office during those years (though I can't help suspecting we would have seen more of the alternating indecisiveness and high altitude bombing with which the Clinton White House dealt with foreign crises.) Thus, while we as a people chose the leaders who brought us through the last eight years, we did not in any direct sense choose the course of action that our country took.

So we find ourselves, I think, with two questions:
1) Is it in some cases true that soldiers are responsible only for obedience and their own personal conduct, while their rulers are responsible for the justice of the cause?
2) If the above is sometimes the case, is it still the case in a semi-democratic polity such as our own?

At this point I think it's appropriate to turn to specific Catholic teaching. The Catachism of the Catholic Church talks about Just War doctrine and about morality in regards to military service in its section on the Fifth Commandment, under the subheading Safeguarding Peace. The quote is a little bit long, but I think it's worth not snipping at all in order to avoid any appearance that I'm cherry-picking through the text:
2308 All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.

However, "as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed."105

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

- there must be serious prospects of success;

- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

2310 Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense.

Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.106

2311 Public authorities should make equitable provision for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms; these are nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way.107

2312 The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. "The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties."108

2313 Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.

Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out. Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.
Usually, small snippets of this section get quoted on their own, but I think it may be illuminating to look at the section as a whole. First we get the criteria that define a war as "just". We are then told that "evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good". Who are those who have responsibility for the common good? It seem to me that many different people and groups hold responsibility for it in different ways, but clearly a war can only be declared by the rulers of a country. And indeed, we hear more about their responsibilities in regards to war immediately: "Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense." And lest there should be any doubt whether these "obligations" include soldiering, we have: "Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace."

The catechism then moves from jus ad bellum (justice of a war) to jus in bello (justice in war) and reminds the faithful that war does not mean a suspension of the normal moral laws. Non-combatants, prisoners and the wounded must at all times be treated with fairness and compassion. It also states the limits of military obedience, "Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out." It goes on to specifically list obeying orders to commit genocide as being a mortal sin and always unacceptable. Although not specifically mentioned, the language seems to clearly say that other actions which are clearly against the laws of nations and the moral law (mistreating prisoners, refusing medical care to the wounded, intentionally targeting civilians, theft, rape, unnecessary destruction, etc.) must not be engaged in even under orders.

In this, it seems to me, the catechism is following in much the same line as Shakespeare: The rightness of the cause is the moral responsibility of a nation's leaders, while soldiers are responsible only for the rightness of their own actions.

Does this mean that it is morally right for a soldier to serve in any nation's military at any time, no matter what the purpose of the war it is engaged in, so long as he refuses to engage in the sort of personal immoral acts mentioned under jus in bello?

Perhaps not. It seems to me that there might be cases in which serving in a specific war or under a specific regime might in and of itself be considered to fall afoul of the statement about never following orders that command, "actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations." However, it seems that in many other cases, one might doubt whether one or more of the four points of just war criteria were met, and yet the cause could well be just enough that it would not be engaging in "actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations" for a soldier to obey his military oaths and go to war.

A consideration of the saints is often in order when looking at moral questions. In this case, I imagine one person who would be brought up is the recently beatified Franz Jagerstatter. Jagerstatter was executed by the Nazi regime for his principled refusal to serve in the Wehrmacht.
Jagerstatter was convicted in a military trial at which he explained that if he fought for the nationalist socialist state, he would be acting against his religious conscience. He had reached the conviction that as a believing Catholic he could not perform military service. Jagerstatter, however, offered to serve as a medical orderly. The court did not respond to his request.
It seems to me that Jagerstatter would be a clear case of thinking that fighting for a particular regime at all would constitute "actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations". And, as if working directly from the catechism which wouldn't come to be for another fifty years, he acknowledged that he was "nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way" by offering to serve as a medical orderly instead. (An offer which the Nazi regime unjustly refused.)

I would tend to be sympathetic towards those who were forcibly drafted into the Werhmacht and the Nazi state's various paramilitary organizations, but regardless of whether or not Jagerstatter's path was the only possible one that avoided grave sin, he clearly provides a heroic example of principled conscience.

William F. Buckley

It seems that William F. Buckley Jr. died this morning while at work in his study, at the age of 83 -- a staunch Catholic and a principled conservative. God rest his soul.

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

When Creationism, Faith and Reality Collide

Stephen Matheson of Quintessence of Dust has a thoughtful post up about the painful process that Christians raised with creationism as a central faith tenet often go through as they realize that the "evidence" for young earth creationism is false.

Sample a Yale Education

Yale apparently provides a service called Open Yale, which currently has seven full courses available in MP3, Flash and QuickTime format online. There's one class each in Astronomy, English, Philosophy, Physics, Political Science, Psychology and Religious Studies available.

The other day I listened to the first two lectures from the Religious Studies offering: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Very interesting, though clearly done from a Religious Studies not Christian of Jewish theology point of view.

Most of the classes look interesting to one extent or another. If you feel like dusting off our academics via iPod, check it out.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Lenten Meditations on Purgatorio: Wrath

Having left behind them the terrace of Envy, the poets are now confronted with the "whip" of Wrath: a set of images which exemplify wrath's opposite virtue, gentleness.

There it seemed that I was all at once
Caught up into an ecstatic vision
And saw a temple filled with crowds of people

And saw a woman there about to enter,
With a mother’s tender attitude,
Saying, "My son, why have you done this to us?

"See how your father and I have sought for you,
Sorrowing." And as she then was silent,
That which at first appeared there, disappeared.

Another woman then appeared to me,
With her cheeks drenched by water grief distills
When it arises out of deep resentment,

And she spoke, "If you are lord of the city
Whose naming was debated by the gods,
And which beams with all knowledge everywhere,

"Take your revenge against those brazen arms
Which embraced our daughter, O Pisistratus!"
And her lord seemed to me gentle and kind

In answering her with a temperate look,
"What shall we do to one who wants to hurt us
If we condemn someone who shows us love?"

Then I saw people fired up with anger
Stoning a young man to death, and loudly
Clamoring to each other, "Kill! Kill!"

And I saw him sink down, since death already
Weighed heavily upon him, toward the ground,
But ever he made his eyes gates for heaven,

Praying to the high Lord in such pain
That He show pardon to his persecutors,
With that look which unlocks true compassion.

When my mind turned again to outward things
Which, independent of it, still are real,
I recognized the truth within my errors.
(Purg. XV, 85-117)

The whip of Pride features sculpture, the whip of Envy, words. On the terrace of wrath, Dante experiences a sort of living dream in which he witnesses scenes of gentleness and restraint. In the second image, drawn from Athenian civic mythology, the tyrant Pisistratus (who was a ruler of Athens from the period before democracy) was reputed to have refused to use his civic power to punish a young man who (though Pisistratus had warned him against wooing her) was seen kissing his daughter.

The last stanza provides an interesting comment on reality and art. Caught up in the vision, Dante had for the duration of it taken what he saw to be reality. Now, his mind turns back to the things which exist beyond his experience of them: the "real world" outside him. And yet, while turning to the outside world, he recognizes as equally real the truths which his brief vision conveyed to him.

Proceeding along the terrace as the sun begins to set, the poets see before them a dark cloud of smoke. As they enter it, Dante finds it stings his eyes so intensely that he is forced to close them, and follow along with his hand on Virgil's shoulder like a blind man being led.

Voices I heard and each one seemed to pray
The Lamb of God who takes away our sins
To grant his mercy to us and his peace.

"Agnus Dei" their response began,
As if one word and measure were in all
So that full harmony appeared among them.

"Are those whom I am hearing, master, spirits?"
I asked. And he told me, "You grasp the truth,
And they go loosening the knot of anger."
(Purg. XVI, 16-24)

Each terrace in Purgatory has its own assigned prayer acclamation, and here it is the Agnus Dei. The souls call upon Christ by His title as the Lamb of God, conquering through gentleness. One of the souls among the smoke hears Dante speaking to Virgil and asks who he is and how he comes, while living, to be among the joyful sufferers in Purgatory. Dante explains his journey and asks the soul, who identifies himself as Marco of Lombardy (not a known historical figure outside the Commedia), something that has been troubling him: Why does the world (circa 1300) seem to be so nearly bereft of any virtue?

Marco first, as does every soul in Purgatory, asks Dante to remember him in his prayers, and then expounds at length on man's condition as a creature with free will, and but a dim understanding of the true good.

"If, then, the world today has gone astray,
In you the cause lies, in you it’s to be sought!
And now I’ll prove a true informant for you.

"From out the hands of Him who fondly loves her
Before she comes to be, there issues forth,
Like a child at play in tears and laughter,

"The simple soul without a shred of knowledge,
Except that, springing from a joyous Maker,
Willingly she turns to what delights her.

"With trifles she first satisfies her taste:
She is beguiled and gambols after them
Unless a guide or bridle bend her love.

"Therefore, law was needed as a curb,
And needed also was a king who could
Discern at least the tower of the true city.
(Purg. XVI, 82-96)

However, this guidance has been sadly lacking of late, Marco observes, with the papacy and many other clerics too much taken up with politics and power, and not enough with providing men with moral teaching. His own region in Lombardy, says Marco, is safe now for all men but good ones, due to the constant wars between the Papal States and Holy Roman Empire.

Leaving Marco behind, the poets soon emerge from the cloud of smoke, and blink for a moment in the light. The sun is just setting behind Mr. Purgatory, and yet its final rays are nearly blinding to the poets after being in the choking darkness for so long. Just then the three images of wrath which form the bridle of that vice come upon Dante:

The impious act of her who changed her form
Into the bird that most delights in singing
Appeared to shape in my imagining.

And here my mind was so withdrawn within
Upon itself that nothing from the outside
Could have come then to be admitted in it.

Then there rained down within my heightened fancy
A figure crucified, scornful and fierce
In his look, exactly as he died.

Around him stood the great Ahasuerus,
Esther his wife, and the just Mordecai
Who showed integrity in word and deed.

And as this image burst all by itself,
Just like a bubble when the water runs
Out from under where the film has formed,

There rose into my vision a young girl
Bitterly weeping, and she said, "O Queen,
Why in your anger did you slay yourself?

"You took your life to keep Lavinia:
Now you have lost me! I am one who mourns,
Mother, more for your ruin than another’s."

As sleep is broken when all of a sudden
New light strikes upon unopened eyes
And, broken, flickers before it fully dies,

So my imagining fell straight away
As soon as light, more intense by far
Than what we are inured to, struck my eyes.
(Purg. XVII, 19-45)

The first of these is Procne from Greek mythology. Procne was married to the king of Thrace, but her husband developed an overpowering lust for her sister, Philomela. He raped Philomela, and then cut out her tongue so that she could not tell what had been done to her. However, Philomela wove a tapestry which told her sister what had happened to her. Procne then flew into such a rage that she killed her son and served him to her husband in order to get revenge. It is this sort of blinding wrath (however justified by other evils) which the smoke on the terrace of wrath symbolizes. And it is, similarly, the blind intensity of such wrath which causes people to hurt others indiscriminately when they have been wronged -- as Procne killed her innocent son in order to avenge the wrong committed by her husband.

As these visions pass, they reach the angel who guards the passage to the next terrace, and another P is wiped from Dante's forehead as another acclamation is chanted: Beati pacifici, blessed are the peacemakers.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

Slips mothers make when they're tired

"Oh, I see you've taken off your diaper. Do you want to go sit on the couch... I mean! the potty?"

Friday, February 22, 2008

Don't Buy From the Poor!

I recall reading an article, some months ago, in the Wall Street Journal weekend edition, which profiled the effect that working in an affluent department store was having on the lives of three young men from poor backgrounds. India, with its booming tech economy sitting alongside desperate poverty of the sort seldom seen anywhere in the US, makes the inequalities of the US look like nearly nothing. The three young men in the article had landed jobs as retail clerks where they sold India's upper crust designer jeans and other expensive clothing. In many ways, this was the transition point for them and their families into a better world -- making two to three times what their fathers had made running small sales stalls or doing manual labor. They got used to speaking English much of the time instead of Hindi or their local dialects, and began to spend much of their spare time with other employees. One of the young men saved up his wages to buy a computer for his family -- selecting a model with a TV input jack in the back so that his mother and grandmother could watch TV during the day while he was working. He was proud of the computer, but it had to sit on the floor because there was no room for furniture in the 400sq/ft single room apartment where he lived with three generations of his family.

It was an interesting and very hopeful article, about hard work and people beginning to emerge from poverty into the "developed world". However, it struck me later that the same facts could have been turned into a very, very different article.

A little while ago I heard a very earnest and idealistic young woman bemoan that as she had looked through her closet she had realized that her clothes had all been made in places like Ecuador, Guatamala, Indonesia and China. She felt deeply guilty that she was supporting companies that paid people poverty-level wages in the third world, and wondered aloud where she could find clothes that were made by people paid a decent living wage.

I sympathize with the desire to make sure that one is not supporting companies who actively exploit their workers, but if that desire results in a decision to refuse to buy anything made in developing nations, how are those countries supposed to improve their lot?

Thinking about this, I realized that another author could have written a very different article about those three clerks in India: A tyrannical deparment store chain serves a rich clientelle while its employees live in crowded one room apartments. Young men from poor families are forced to smile and sell designer jeans they could never afford on their meagre paychecks. Even when one of these men saved up for a computer for his family, he had to put it on the floor because they all lived in such poverty. Boycott the store now!

How much is a fair wage? The young men in the story were thrilled to me making 2-3x what their families and peers had made in the past. They imagined they were on their way up. Yet others, I'm sure, would label them as suffering a great injustice by not making more.

One of the primary ways of competing for business is by offering a product of similar quality at a lower price. Say that Country A currently has an average textile manufacturing wage of $10/hr. Country B is across a major ocean from A and is much less developed, with an average wage of just $2/hr and many former agricultural laborers flocking into the cities looking for work. If a company sets up a shirt factory in Country B which pays $4/hr in order to get the best workers and still be able to sell shirts for less (after frieght) than the shirts made in Country B, are they taking advantage of their workers?

Perhaps a highly localist response would be: Country B's poverty is its own problem. They need to develop to the point where their workers also make an average of $10/hr before they are allowed to trade on a level playing field with Country A.

Others, who are not as localist but are very much concerned with a just wage, might say that the employer in Country B was exploiting its workers by paying less than half as much as workers in Country A make, and thus one should refuse to buy anything made in Country B.

But really, doesn't that amount to saying that it's not right to buy from the poor until they're not poor anymore? How are the workers in Country B supposed to work up to making enough to be judged a "fair wage" by observers in Country A?

This is not to say that there is not such thing as a "fair wage" or a "just wage", but it does seem to me that these things are almost certainly relative to general wages in an area and to the value of the result of the labor.

While it is right for people to be concerned about how the workers who produce the products we buy are treated, it may often be that the best way to help those living in poor developing nations rise out of poverty is to buy the products that they make.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Thoughts While Digging

The urge of the father to provide sustenance for his family is strong and instinctual, and although in practice the hours I spend with databases and spreadsheet are what put food on the table, one feels at times the urge to actually produce food. Thus it was that a couple weeks ago I resolved to cut down one of the trees in our back yard was wasn't growing well and put in a pair of apple trees as well. When visiting nurseries to look at apple trees, I came across the display of seeds and thought: I bet the kids would enjoy working on a vegetable garden too.

Now cutting down a 4" diameter tree and putting in a pair of eight-foot saplings is relatively easy, but digging out a 5'x25' area of Texas sod (ours is St. Augustine grass, which forms a thick and heavily interlaced mat) requires a mattock and a lot of hard work. Acquintances who had heard of my mad endeavor had recommended that I rent a gas-powered tiller, but given that I was working with such a small area, I was determined to do things manually.

It takes, I can now inform you, roughly six hours of labor to break and turn over 125 sq/ft of sod. This includes a few periods in which one stops and catches one's breath, but these can be minimized if you conform your mattock-swinging to the rhythm of a sea shanty or spiritual. Singing is a bit much, lest one run out of breath. But a sort of wordless rhythmic chant works well. My own preference is a sea shanty called "Haul away" (at least, that's the only title on it that appears on the mix CD someone gave me ages ago.) Our eldest daughter calls it my "piratey song".

Slogging away with a mattock, even to self-provided rhythmical accompaniment, leaves one's mind rather free and restless. I found myself thinking on how, in the history of the human species, this was a much more normal form of work that what I normally do "at work". Those of us who work behind desks and in other not-very-physically-demanding roles often take on hard labor of this sort from time to time as a sort of recreation. We feel there is a sort of basic dignity in producing something "by the sweat of our brow".

This respect for hard human work is perhaps exemplified best in American mythology by the story of John Henry and the steam hammer. The kids have a recording of Denzel Washington telling the story of John Henry which JulieD was kind enough to give to us -- a great piece off a series that NPR had going back in the day.

Our sympathies are naturally with John Henry and the steam drill seems like a dehumanizing force. There noble steel-driving men are about to find themselves displaced by a pile of steam driven metal designed by an over-paid engineer from back East. Spending a few hours swinging a mattock is enough to make you wonder how ennobling swinging a sledge hammer really was, however. Doing that kind of thing for an afternoon gives you a solid workout while efficiently removing all the skin from the your left thumb -- doing it for a living seems like a quick route to being broken and unemployed (or perhaps in John Henry's vein: dead) by forty or so.

We naturally respect hard work as honest work, and yet, if technology allows us to treat ourselves or others less like a draft animal, is that a loss?

The steam hammer that John Henry defeated put the remaining steel-driving men out of work. For men who didn't have another way to make a living other than swinging a hammer ten or twelve hours a day, being replaced by a machine meant a loss of the dignity of earning a living through work they had the strength and knowledge to do. And yet, did it, in the end, mark any loss of dignity for humanity no longer to have to consign people to living in work camps and driving steel spikes with sledge hammers?

Replacing the less skilled labor of many with the more skilled labor of a few invariably means taking away the living of people who at best will need time and help to find another way of providing for themselves. And yet -- "good old days" romanticism aside -- I can't help thinking that freeing people from the necessity of unskilled labor is, in the long run, a good and humanizing thing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lenten Meditations on Purgatorio: Envy

Having left behind the terrace of the proud, the poets now reach the terrace on which the sin of envy is purged away. At first they find themselves on an empty shelf of stone, with no visible carvings of paintings adorning this level of the mountain. Virgil turns and leads them on towards the right. (In Purgatory, the poets always ascend towards the right, while in Hell they descended while turning always towards the left, in a minor piece of symbolism, recalling Christ's parable of the sheep and the goats, who are separated out onto right and left.)

As they walk along the terrace, they hear a sound:

And flying toward us we heard but did not see
Spirits calling gracious invitations
To banquet at the table of love’s feast.

The first voice that flew past cried out aloud
"They have no wine!" and it sped on by us
Off to our rear, re-echoing the words.

And before it fully faded out of hearing
Distance, another voice passed with the cry,
"I am Orestes!" and also did not pause.

"Oh," I cried, "father, what are these voices?"
And just as I asked this, listen! a third
Exclaimed, "Love those who do you injury!"

And my kind master said, "This circle scourges
The sin of envy, and for this reason
The whip is fashioned with the cords of love.
(Purg. XIII, 25-39)

On the terrace of Pride, the examples of humility and pride were shown in sculpture, here they consist of quotes from the story of the Wedding at Cana, from a myth related by Cicero in which Pylades offers himself up to be killed in place of his friend Orestes, and Christ's words in the Beatitudes. The reason that this terrace's reminders of virtue and vice are heard rather than seen quickly becomes clear:

And when we went straight forward a short space,
I heard cried out " Mary, pray for us!"
And cried out "Michael" and "Peter" and "All saints."

I do not think there walks on earth today
A man so hard of heart he’d not be stabbed
By keen compassion at what I witnessed there,

For, when I came up close enough to them
That their condition became clear to me,
Tears of deep grief drained slowly from my eyes.


An iron thread pierces and sews up
All of their eyelids, as is done to falcons
Still so wild they recoil at keeping quiet.

I thought that I did wrong to walk about
Seeing others who could not see me
And so I turned to my wise counselor.
(Purg. XIII, 49-57; 70-75)

Virgil assures him there is no wrong in asking the souls here about their suffering, and so Dante asks if any among them are Italian and can tell him about how they came to be there. A noblewoman named Sapia speaks up and tells him how, as a Florentine army went out under the leadership of a rival political faction, she prayed to God that they would suffer a defeat, and rejoiced at it when they did. Their suffering in no way advanced her cause, she rejoiced in it simply because she wished them to enjoy no good. At the end of her tale, she asks:

"But who are you who come inquiring
Of our condition, with your eyes unsewn,
So I believe, and breathing when you talk?"

"My eyes," I said, "will here be taken from me,
But not for very long, because they rarely
Committed sin by casting looks of envy.

"Far greater is the fear that keeps my soul
Suspended, of the torment there below,
For even now that burden weighs me down."
(Purg. XIII, 130-138)

We can see in his answer Dante's growing self knowledge -- he knows that he is not fully innocent of this sin, and feels hard upon him the guilt for pride which is purged on the terrace below. In closing, Dante asks Sapia if she would like him to pray for her and mention her to other still alive, both of which offers she eagerly accepts.

Two more spirits, farther up the terrace, hear their conversation, and one of them asks Dante who he is and how he comes to travel through Purgatory while still alive. These prove to be two Italian noblemen, who catalog the evils of the current leading families throughout Italy. By the end of their discussion, the two lords are so overcome with sorrow for their homeland they say they must now return to shedding tears, and the poets move on.

Advancing down the terrace, they hear boom forth from above audible reminders of two characters who represent the vice of envy: Cain who killed his brother because Abel's sacrifice was better appreciated by God, and Aglauros, who in mythology was turned to stone because she envied her sister the love of the god Mercury.

They reach the angel who guards the passage to the next terrace, and Dante is overwhelmed by the brightness of him:

"Sweet father, what is that from which I cannot
Screen my eyes in any helpful way,"
I asked, "and which seems ever to approach us?"

"Do not marvel if the host of heaven
Still dazzles you," he answered me, "this is
The messenger who invites us to ascend.

"Soon it will be no burden to behold
These things, rather you will find delight
As deep as nature destines you to feel."

When we had come up to the blessed angel,
He said with a glad voice, "Enter here
To stairs that are less steep than were the others."

We left him there and we then climbed beyond,
Until "Blessed are the merciful" rang out
In song behind us, and "Conqueror, rejoice!"
(Purg. XV, 25-39)

Dante's nature is still too dimmed by sin to look without pain upon those who are truly of God's realm. As they leave the terrace, the souls upon it all cry out a prayer, as when a soul departs any of Purgatory's terraces. Souls may suffer here, but they are a members of one Body of Christ, and rejoice in each others' spiritual progress.

As they climb to the next terrace, the poets discuss how envy has its root in excessive love of earthly goods, which by their nature are diminished by sharing. When souls turn, instead, to the true good of loving charity, the more that it is shared, the greater it is.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

A Question of Preferences

It's been awefully busy in Darwin-land this week. We've got members of both sides of the family visiting, and at the same time things have gone nuts at work -- which had me in the office till 11pm on Monday.

There's a Dante post that's sitting half-finished in queue, and a couple substantive ones simmering on the back burner of my mind. But nothing is coming out till tonight at this rate. But I also find myself with a question, which I'd like to try to turn over to our readers.

I'm not sure how many committed liberal/progressive readers we have at this point (Are you still out there, Larry?) but to those who are, and anyone whom Google brings along, I've got a question for you: Are there, from a liberal/progressive perspective, any real policy differences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?

On the Republican side, we just came out of a fairly fierce internal fight over who was the "true conservative" candidate, and just about everyone agrees that the presumptive nominee isn't. So there was a great deal of argument about policy, and what was the right policy, and what were the most important policies as we went through out primaries.

From the outside, it looks like the contest between Obama and Clinton is almost strictly one of style: He represents hope. She represents being tough yet understanding.

Clearly, they both have a lot of policy differences with Republicans, but are there really any serious policy differences between the two of them, from an inside POV, or is it strictly style and tactics?

Some of the paeans to Obama that I've read go so far as to suggest that he transcends policy, and wouldn't even need policies because he'd just inspire everyone to be better -- but given that he's running for president rather than prophet I assume that policy (at least in regards to his differences with Republicans, if not between him and Hillary) but be a factor for his supporters.

So what's the Democratic race over: Style or substance?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Bill Clinton berates pro-life protesters

Received an email with a press release from Students for Life of America regarding Bill Clinton lashing out at pro-life students in Steubenville:

Bill Clinton Lashes Out at Pro-Life Students in Steubenville

Follows Outburst of Rage Earlier in Canton, Ohio at Obama Supporter

STEUBENVILLE, OHIO - Agitated after being greeted by over a hundred pro-life students at a rally in Steubenville tonight, Clinton lost his temper yet again after losing his cool at an Obama supporter in Canton, Ohio. This time, Clinton lashed out during his speech at the pro-life students:

"I gave you the answer. We disagree with you," Clinton said. "You wanna criminalize women and their doctors and we disagree. I reduced abortion. Tell the truth, tell the truth, If you were really pro-life, if you were really pro-life, you would want to put every doctor and every mother as an accessory to murder in prison. And you won't say you wanna do that because you know, that you wouldn't have a lick of political support. Now, the issue is who, the issue is, you can't name me anybody presently in politics that did more to introduce policies that reduce the number of real abortions instead of the hot air putting out to tear people up and make votes by dividing America. This is not your rally. I heard you. That's another thing you need is a president, somebody who will stick up for individual rights and not be pushed around, and she won't." See the outburst on YouTube here.

Clinton's heated response came after being questioned on his support of abortion-on-demand. The outburst is on YouTube and is also being reported by MSNBC.

"Perhaps pro-abortion politicians will finally realize that they can't hide their views from pro-life students," said Billy Valentine, one of the Franciscan University of Steubenville Students for Life members who helped organize the protest of over 100 students. "Our generation is pro-life. It is amazing that these pro-abortion politicians think that they can continuously support the killing of millions of unborn children and no one will express their dissatisfaction. They think they don't ever have to answer questions about their pro-abortion policies or the money they receive from pro-abortion lobbying organizations. This generation will no longer tolerate these types of politicians, their rhetoric, or their pro-death policies," said Kristan Hawkins, Executive Director of Students for Life of America.
This from the man who vetoed -- twice -- the Partial-Birth Abortion ban.

I seem to recall that Sen. Kerry made the mistake of scheduling a Steubenville campaign stop four years ago. You'd think by now there'd be a big black mark on the DNC map marking Steubenville a no-go zone. It's not a terribly political campus (in our day the College Republicans could seldom get anyone to show up for meetings) but if a pro-choice presidential candidate makes a campaign stop in town, you can count on at least 100 student protesters showing up.

Friday, February 15, 2008

How to Pay for Health Care, a Conservative Answer

When one expresses skepticism at instituting government run health care in the US, one is pretty quickly asked: "Well the current system is obviously broken. What do you think we should do about it?"

There is a temptation, for someone like me, to reply that the whole world is broken, and what is anyone going to do about that other than trying to treat those around him as well as he can? But questions are seldom totally without answers, so the question stuck in my head and simmered there for a while.

The result is not necessarily intended to be an enactable answer -- which is fine since no one has made me king. But it is intended to provide some sense of the sort of characteristics a good solution ought to move towards, at least according to the principles that I have in mind.

General Principles
  • Little though we enjoy it, it seems to me important that people pay for what they get. This can be done according to their means, and perhaps their means may be very small, but I think that our human dignity and our sense of responsibility for what we do both requires that we achieve things, as the story of Adam and Eve puts it: "with the sweat of our brows".

  • Big organizations almost always seem to turn into slow, beaurocratic, unresponsive organizations eventually.

  • If we have a moral duty to make sure that our fellow humans receive all reasonable medical treatment that they need in order to preserve life and dignity, it seems to me that moral duties are best carried out by small groups and individuals, not massive impersonal organizations.

Current Difficulties
  • Going to a government-run system creates the ultimate set of hidden costs. With paycheck witholding, we often have little visibility to how much we pay in taxes anyway. The same criticism can, to an extent, be leveled against employer-provided medical insurance, though at least there we have options.

  • In a world where people's behaviors can often be predicted by models that assume selfishness, it seems likely that a government paid system would result in a slowing in R&D and investments in new facilities. Assuming what I've read to be correct, the UK has a serious problem with aging medical infrastructure, and Canada's approach to keeping costs under control has been to announce to doctors that they are now paying less for the same work than they used to.

  • By its nature, employer provided actuarial insurance makes it the most expensive to get coverage for the people whose need is greatest, and makes it most difficult of all to insure those who cannot work through age or infirmity -- who often are also people who need medical care. Currently we deal with this through a government run system -- which is slated to become impossibly expensive very soon as the baby boom generation retires.

  • Compated to other elements, this is a rather pragmatic issue, but it seems to me that our malpractice lawsuit/insurance mess must add a huge additional load to our system, not only because some doctors have to pay over a quarter of a million dollars a year (per doctor) in malpractice insurance (and then pass that cost on to their patients in the form of higher fees) but also because the fear of malpractice suits results in lots of additional tests and procedures being done "just in case". I assume that any government-run healthcare system would shut down the malpractice industry (or at least cap it) and so it seems only fair to assume that the same should be done in any non-governmental solution.

It seems to me there has to be some sort of system for having the community as a whole help those who cannot afford all the medical care they need, yet at the same time a human and practical need to keep said community down to a small enough group that it remains a personal and human institution with minimal overhead. What I would thus propose is that households (probably defined in roughly the same way as they all for income tax) organize into independant groups -- let's call it a "medical community" if that doesn't sound too Orwellian. You'd need a minimum size of about 1000 households in a group and a maximum size of perhaps 5000. If a group got over that size, it would be required to split.

The medical community would charge a monthly fee per household (perhaps with a couple of levels for single vs. multi-person) which would go into the community pot to cover medical expenses. When you went to the doctor, got a presciption, etc. -- you would provide the information for your medical community and might also pay some sort of co-pay. (It seems to me that co-pays are important to incent behavior. For instance, in our current insurance we pay $25 at the doctor's office, $50 at the after hours care, and $250 at the emergency room. However little one may want to pay the $25 at the doctors office, the incentive to take care of things in a timely fashion rather than waiting and landing in the emergency room.) The rest would be covered entirely by the medical community.

Membership in a medical community would be mandatory, and communities would not be allowed to exclude members because of age or medical condition. Each community would have one or more full time administrators whose job would be to oversee the bill paying and provide reporting to the community memebers on a monthly basis. Each community would be able to formulate its own rules on what was covered and to what extent. In most ways it would work best if communities were regional, but I think it might also be important to have them based around culture or belief system as well. For instance, a specifically Catholic community might refuse to pay for abortions, sterilizations, birth control, etc. Being in a like-minded community would also help people from being under pressure that related to their beliefs -- say pressure not to have "too many kids".

At the end of the year, if there was money above a certain threshold left in the community coffers, each member would recieve a refund check. When there were unusually large expenses to help a certain member, others would be kept appraised, especially if an extra assessment were required. However, even with only 2000 families, some pretty expensive care becomes affordable. (Say two kids out of the community need special medical care that runs to a million dollars each -- that works out to $83/household/month for 12 months.)

There would be a difficult balance to maintaining a proper ownership sensibility. On the one hand, you want people not to get care they don't need, get generic drugs when possible, etc. in order to have money left and get a refund at the end of the year. On the other hand, you don't want people so hounded on these issues that they forgo needed care.

For those who are truly poor, I think the best approach (rather than throwing them into a vast government paid system) would be to have the government provide a credit to the community equal the to monthly dues for families unable to pay. There might also be a provision where if the head-of-household (or one of several) loses his/her job, that families fees are waved until they regain employment, and the community is able to get a credit from the government.

Another thing that might be a positive would be having "excessive cost" insurance that a community could buy from an insurance company, so that if one household in the community had medical costs of over a certain very large amount (say $250k) in one year, the excessive cost insurance would pay the rest. The rules on excessive cost insurance would have to state that the only factor in the rates would be number of people in the community.

Problems With The Solution
In many ways, I think a community-type solution like this would provide the most humane approach to making sure that all were able to receive needed medical care, while not centralizing health care so much that it stiffled competition and took the positive aspects of market forces out of American health care.

However, community also has downsides. While feeling like you own your money tends to make you more responsible with it, there are always those who take advantage of others and also those who week to keep others from getting what they need.

Also, while I think it's important to have a small enough institution so that you know where costs are going ("The Jones family was in a terrible car crash. Keep them in your prayers and have someone organize bringing meals to them for the next week." "Samir's son has been diagnosed with Leukemia -- we're going to see if we can get him into Children's hospital and we'll keep everyone up to date on how it's going.") small entities are often in danger of being badly run. Each community would need a competant board, and one or more competant (read well paid and professional) administrators -- despite anyone's instinct to cut costs by doing it themselves on the side.

I'm sure there are other things that I'm not thinking of as well which will jump right out to readers.

I'm curious as to the reaction to this kind of idea both from those who favor government health care and those who (like myself) are very much against it.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Lovey smoochy whatever

Oh yeesh, it's Valentine's Day again. This is a holiday so far off my radar that unless someone remarks upon the day, it passes by me like a ship in the night. Darwin and I aren't overt romantics (what, you hadn't noticed?), so it's not our style to mollify the little cupids by spending money to prove our undying love. I'll go out to dinner because I feel like going out to dinner, not because some winged beast keeps jabbing me with his undersized arrow.

But some people care about that sort of thing, so to them I say, "Happy Valentine's Day! Don't forget that the feast of St. Valentine has been removed from the Roman calendar, so now it's technically the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius! Two fine gentlemen, but a pair whose feast
day does not override your regular Lenten obligations! So if you've given up chocolate for Lent, you'll have to save that big box for Sunday! If your kids don't get into it first!"

And Speaking of Healthcare

TS of Video Meliora has a thoughtful post on the problems facing us at the moment.

The Border Between Prepared and Nutty

When I was growing up, we had Arrowhead drinking water delivered to the house every week in five gallon bottles. This was in part because in our aging house, the pipes had rusted a bit and the tap water had a iron-heavy, unpleasant taste to it. But since we had the water coming in every week anyway, my parents had decided to turn it into a preparedness tool as well, and so as we cycled bottles in and out we always had a store of 10-12 of the 5gal bottles in the house. Southern California is prone to earthquakes, and earthquakes are prone to breaking pipes.

The house wasn't large, and so the bottles tended to live in the entry way, sitting in a line along the wall where the delivery man plunked them down. Visitors tended to remark in loud tones, "Well, you're certainly ready for the 'big one' aren't you?"

Being overly prepared for unlikely eventualities is often looked on as a bit odd. It did, however, come in handy when the Northridge earthquake stuck (its epicenter was 2-3 miles from our house) and we were without running water for two weeks.

It strikes me every so often that Texas being an equally dry place, the Darwin family is not prepared for an unexpected two week period without water. On the bright side, we also have no tendency towards earthquakes and other major natural disasters. At most, we have the very occasional tornado, but that kind of disaster is concentrated and short lived.

Living as we do in large cities that rely entirely on transportation technology and city water and electric systems to make life sustainable, there is simply a limit to how prepared (for anything other than a world in which those things work) one may be. And generally, we compensate for that by thinking people who get themselves overly prepared for unlikely eventualities as a bit odd, or in extreme cases, crazy. Given that sanity is at least in part one's ability to address oneself to the situation at hand, perhaps the most extreme versions of preparedness are some sort of insanity by a certain standard.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ich woldst I had ywriten thys

While Geoff Chaucer is off scabbing it in Holy-Wood, Iowahawk steps up to the plate with The Tale of the Asse-Hatte, from the Archbishop of Canterbury Tales.

1 Whan in Februar, withe hise global warmynge

2 Midst unseasonabyl rain and stormynge

3 Gaia in hyr heat encourages

4 Englande folke to goon pilgrimages.

5 Frome everiches farme and shire

6 Frome London Towne and Lancanshire

7 The pilgryms toward Canterbury wended

8 Wyth fyve weke holiday leave extended

9 In hybryd Prius and Subaru

10 Off the Boughton Bypasse, east on M2.

11 Fouer and Twyntie theye came to seke

12 The Arche-Bishop, wyse and meke

13 Labouryte and hippye, Gaye and Greene

14 Anti-warre and libertyne

15 All sondry folke urbayne and progressyve

16 Vexed by Musselmans aggressyve.

17 Hie and thither to the Arche-Bishop's manse

18 The pilgryms ryde and fynde perchance

19 The hooly Bishop takynge tea

20 Whilste watching himselfe on BBC.

Read it all, and marvel.

Management Style

Those (me among them, I must confess) who have shifted much of their online reading to a rather heavily political diet over the last couple months may have heard that Hillary Clinton recently fired her campaign manager. An article by Joshua Green in The Atlantic gives a peek inside the Clinton campaign, and how this firing has been eight years in the offing.
Rather than punish Solis Doyle or raise questions about her fitness to lead, Clinton chose her to manage the presidential campaign for reasons that should now be obvious: above all, Clinton prizes loyalty and discipline, and Solis Doyle demonstrated both traits, if little else. This suggests to me that for all the emphasis Clinton has placed on executive leadership in this campaign, her own approach is a lot closer to the current president’s than her supporters might like to admit.
What's interesting to me is what one gleans from the article about the management style and general employee quality that apparently has reigned in "Hillaryland" (apparently a term coined and used by Hillary insiders) from her staff as First Lady starting in 1992 through the present.

And call me a babe in the woods, by why exactly does our government need to fund a staff for the First Lady, other than some cleaning help for the White House and perhaps (at the very most) a secretary to schedule events?

Diseases Make People Sick

I wonder if one can say with without sounding like some sort of complete Scrooge...

There's a turn of phrase which has been bothering me a lot lately, and given that many predict health care will be a big issue in the coming election, I suspect I'll be hearing it a lot more.

"I think there's something wrong with a world where parents have to watch their child get sick because they don't have health insurance."

I understand what people mean to say, but: Not having health insurance is not itself a health problem. Indeed, 95% of the time, not having health care is not a health problem. The trick is, the other 5% can really get you.

Most of the time people are healthy. Our kids haven't been to a doctor for anything other than yearly checkups and vaccinations in about a year and a half. (And the last time we actually did take a kid in, we were told, "Yep. Looks like a virus. Get her plenty of rest and fluids.")

Now, I don't deny that not having health insurance is scarry, and at times costly. When we first moved to Texas, we found ourselves between coverage for a couple of months, during which time everyone got massive cases of strep throat and sinus infections. Just that cleaned us out a good $500 worth of money we didn't have, though what had really worried me was what would happen if we got in a massive car wreck or something and racked up tens of thousands in medical bills. (On the flip side, the $500 in actual medical bills was about the same as I was having witheld every month from my check to pay for insurance at the job I'd left in California.)

So my point is not necessarily to say that not having health insurance is no big deal. But I do think that it represents an emotional and unhelpful way to discuss the problem to imagine that simply being without health insurance itself makes people sick or makes people die.

Health insurance is one way, in our modern world of powerful but expensive medical care, to pay for health care. And paying for medical care is sometimes necessary when someone is sick or injured. However, it's the medical care which is sometimes necessary to health, not the insurance. Thinking inside the box of, "Lack of insurance equals sickness and death" limits our collective ability to consider all possible solutions to the "health care crisis".

Insurance has never made anyone healthy, nor does lacking insurance make people sick. Insurance is just a method of paying for things.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Enviromentalists and Oligarchy

A pair of Australian professors have apparently written a book entitled The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, which they discuss in their online opinion piece. There thesis is that while democracy is pleasant to live under, it's simply not possible to get democracies to move fast enough to make the environmental changes they see as necessary. Instead, they praise the party dictatorship (and these days, effective oligarchy) of communist China:
China has become, or is just about to become, the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse emissions. Its economic growth suggests that it may soon emit as much as the rest of the world put together. Its environment is in a deplorable state, with heavily polluted rivers and drinking water, serious air pollution, both of which have a heavy burden of illness. Pollution and climate change are reducing productive land in the face of an increasing population which is compelled to import some of its foodstuffs. Its population centres will be candidates for early inundation by sea level rise and the melting of Himalayan glaciers will reduce its water supply.

All this suggests that the savvy Chinese rulers may be first out of the blocks to assuage greenhouse emissions and they will succeed by delivering orders. They will recognise that the alternative is famine and social disorder

Let us contrast this with the indecisiveness of the democracies which together produce approximately the other half of the world’s greenhouse emissions. It is perhaps reasonable to ask the reader a question. Taking into account the performance of the democracies in the reduction of emissions over the past decade, do you feel that the democracies are able and willing to reduce their emissions by 60-80 per cent this century or perhaps more importantly by approximately 10 per cent each decade?
Elitist opinion has often found oligarchic solutions to their pet causes attractive. Recall the attempt by wealthy elites to ram through strict eugenic controls at the beginning of the 20th century, with jurists such as Oliver Wendell Holmes arguing that "idiots" had been allowed to breed as they wished too long.

Beyond the vaguely 1960s feel of hearing academics endorse a communist dictatorship over the western democracy which makes their tenured rhuminating possible, it strikes me that environmental causes are perhaps the ideal route for a set of experts to demand long term control of a country. Under the Roman Republic, there was a provision to appoint a tyrant for one year to deal with a national emergency -- say, an invasion of the Catheginians into Italy.

These folks are not asking for a one year reign, though. Now only would the sort of environmental controls they are seeking require total control over the country's economy (and I suspect they'd want to regulate family size and internal migration and community structure as well) but it would take a century or more to know that their reforms were working -- or even that they were really required. Talk about job security or the oligarchs...

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Race to the Bottom

It's often considered that when an author begins comparing someone to Hitler or Stalin, the course of rational discourse has been abandoned. While this is perhaps not universally the case, it is certainly true that comparisons to famous dictators are almost invariably an attempt to martial an emotion reaction which closes down the conversation in one's favor.

It is, then, perhaps not surprising that several people had initial reactions ranging to skepticism to derision when Vox-Nova writer Henry Carlson posted the following "thought experiment" Saturday:
In 2012, two historical leaders have been brought back to life. Each one has found their political party of choice and has, somehow, become a candidate for President of the United States.

The Democrats have Adolf Hitler as their candidate. He wants to help the United States get out of its economic slump. He wants to make sure the poor are able to get better jobs, the health care they need, and a greater sense of personal dignity than they have had in the past. He wants the nation to feel proud of itself through a new cultural renaissance. However, he points out the problem with the US is that the Jews have hindered the nation, and the only way to make sure the nation is able to attain a new era of prosperity is if we get rid of all the Jews. Once and for all. The final solution must be put into effect.

The Republicans have chosen Joseph Stalin as their candidate. Because of his historical ability to oppose Hitler, he is their man. He wants the United States to be a military power with sufficient strength to oppose all threats to the nation, external or internal. He promises to make sure the United States takes indirect control over Mexico and Canada as satellite nations. He also wants the general populace to be more prosperous than they have been in the past. This, he says, will be done in part by reinforcing current laws and helping to re-establish a perfectly ordered state. But he thinks there is a major problem: there are too many enemies of the state within the nation. They are destroying the nation, making sure it cannot be as great as it should be. They are not the Jews. They are not of any one race. They are all over the nation. They must be removed. So he proposes that he will find them and put them in prison camps. He will force them to engage in extreme, even dehumanizing, manual labor which will quickly kill them off. But their labor will help create a better nation and provide material support for those not in the camps.

The Democrats point out that Stalin’s plans would result in far more deaths, over three times as many deaths as Hitler’s plan. And they also say he would bring us into an unprovoked war with Canada. The Republicans point out that the deaths are a sad but necessary evil.... And since it is not genocide, and the people are not being directly executed, it can’t be said that Stalin supports an intrinsic evil. Even if it is clear that he intends the deaths of more people than Hitler, what he is doing cannot be said to be murder because their death would only be indirectly accomplished by the state. Biological failure would be the primary cause of their death. Some people might even be able to survive and thrive in the camps.

Would you accept the Stalinist propaganda in these circumstances? Would you vote for him because his policy is the lesser of the two evils, and one must, after all, make sure Hitler doesn’t get into power?
The first several responses essentially expressed skepticism about the likelihood or applicability of such a choice being put before people, to which Henry responded repeatedly by saying that this was a thought experiment, and thus people must attempt to engage it despite the surface absurdity of the situation.

Now, I'm not necessarily a fan of "thought experiments" which seek to force you to make decisions based on a set of highly improbably circumstances. (Which is, for instance, why I think the Trolley Dilemma, is not worth wasting time on -- it's formulated to make you address a situation based on a flawed understanding of morality, consequences, and reality in general, which doesn't tend towards such binary choices.)

So I responded, "No, it's not a 'thought experiment', because it's not thoughtful."

To which the post author responded, "Darwin, If you can’t offer anything other than insults, please, go away."

Well, I know that I'm at times subject to a tendency to go for the snappy line rather than the conversational route, so I thought perhaps -- having already inserted myself into the conversation -- I owed him a real answer. I responded:
Sigh… If you think this is a question worth answering:

The correct answer is of course to support neither candidate and work actively against both.

Given the way you’ve laid it out, that’s not a bit surprising.

The good news is that in this situation a Buchanan/Keyes ticket running as a third party could sweep, because both would look wonderfully mainstream and reasonable.
Several hours later I came back to find that Henry had responded to my comment by asserting, in part:
Now take it to the current election. If both candidates support an intrinsic evil, would you vote third candidate, even if it meant Evil A or Evil B would get in power? Or would you go for “the evil I can accept better” even though it is an intrinsic evil? Or what?

The thing is — if you can see a situation where both candidates would support evil and you can’t vote for them, then the problem is — the situation is here and now.
At the same time, I noticed that the words of my first "not thoughtful" comment had been deleted and replaced with: "[post deleted because it was only a personal insult, and did not engage the discussion]"

Somewhat peeved, I responded:
See, this is exactly why my first reaction was to mock the "thought experiment", because I knew that as soon as one provided the answer that was so obviously built into the problem, you would then announce that this as actually exactly the same as the choice we're facing in the election here and now.

I'll say this much: If you honestly think that the choices before you in the current election are the equivalent of being asked to vote for either Hitler or Stalin, then I think you should either find a third party solution you support or, in all honestly more probably, leave the country. Given the people I've known whose families fled Nazi Germany and the Stalanist USSR, I can assure you that one is better off getting out of that sort of situation than staying in it.

But the mere fact that you think your example is so closely applicable to the current election shows that you may be looking at reality in rather hyperbolic terms.

Not to mention that the fact that you deleted my comment simply because it said your thought experiment was "not thoughtful" -- claiming in your deletion explanation that it was a personal insult -- shows that you're not exactly into discourse...
Fortunately, I copied the text of that comment into my clipboard before posting, because almost immediately it was deleted and replaced with, "[I said, if you want to insult, go away]"

All further comments of mine (both a two sentence, summary of the substantive points of the above and a request that if all my other comments be deleted, my one remaining comment be removed as well rather than used to further Henry's argument) were deleted without leaving a trace. (You can view all surviving comments on the thread here.)

At this point, I was rather annoyed. While one hardly expects comments on a blog to be recorded on stone tablets for all ages, seeing them deleted entirely or replaced with public accusations of making personal insults tends to rile the pride of any blogsphere citizen. However, the desire to bring a cool head to the situation (and a prior commitment to spend the weekend putting in two apple trees and a vegetable garden in the back yard) led me to pledge not to do anything about it until Monday.

Having done that (and if any readers have actually made it through this much verbage to care at all) I think the situation merits addressing in two fairly brief sections:

The Poorly-Thought Experiment
From what I can make out from the author's comments, the purpose of the thought experiment is to bring the reader to the realization that either:
a) He should break from the two party mold and not support either major party, or
b) Holding that there are certain "non-negotiable" moral evils which make it impossible to support a candidate is an untenable position.

I suspect that it's a), but his comments leave room to suggest he may mean b) instead or as well.

The difficulty in trying to make this point with such a far-fetched example is that few readers will find much in this hypothetical which correlates to reality. The author himself does not clarify if he imagines that his hypothetical bears some particular relationship to real issues (perhaps the Jews are intended to represent unborn while Stalin's selected enemies are supposed to be Iraqis or the poor or immigrants?) or if he simply means it to be an example of two highly undesirable candidates.

Why does this make the dilemma essentially not worth answering? It seems to me that any sensible moral understanding of voting in a republic takes the act of voting to be choosing which, of the available candidates, it would be most to the common good to have in a particular office. This is, by its nature, a highly contextual decision. One takes into account how likely the candidate is to be able to execute those parts of his agenda that one disagrees with, and also what sort of deeper understanding of the world (and thus likely reactions to as yet unforeseen events) are suggested by the candidate's positions. There may also be situations in which one finds oneself so repulsed by all available candidates that one simply does not vote.

However, the suggested scenario and the author's explication, "if you can see a situation where both candidates would support evil and you can’t vote for them, then the problem is — the situation is here and now" seem to suggest a check-box worldview: Candidate A supports something wrong. Candidate B supports something wrong. Okay, now it's morally impossible to vote for either one.

This line of thinking seems to take all evils as equal, which is not the case in Dante or in practical politics. Thus, it immediately jumps from disapproving of certain positions of each party to suggesting that we are currently in a situation where they've selected Hitler and Stalin as their nominees. While I'm hardly one to suggest that we invariably view our current situation in the US through rosy lenses (we have, without question, some vast and tragic moral and cultural problems which afflict us), it seems to me that this kind of if-it-ain't-good-it's-pure-evil thinking suggests more comfort with the world of fiction than with real life. While not seeking to exaggerate the virtues or vices of our own times, or of some of the most hideous regimes in the last 100 years, all real countries and situations come with a complex human face. (Which is why, fascinating though I find reading about real WW2 history, I think that images of the great evil empires of the last century are getting massively over-used as symbols.)

A Place For Everything, and Everything In It's Place
While I think an unbiased reader will agree that Henry was incorrectly stifling discussion on the post in question, the incident also caused me to re-assess my own behavior a bit.

For those who are not familiar with it, Vox Nova is a large group blog whose stated purpose is to provide commentary on Catholic Social Teaching from a variety of viewpoints. Some of their writers are very good; some I agree with very much -- your mileage may very as to how closely those sets overlap.

Their "About" page says in part:
Vox Nova is a response to the ecclesial mandate to promote the common good in every sphere of human existence. We come from varying backgrounds and carry diverse social outlooks, traversing a wide range of demographics and political sympathies. Vox Nova is free, to the furthest extent possible, from partisanship, nationalism and demagoguery, all of which banish intellectual honesty from rational discourse.
At it's best, Vox Nova achieves something along these lines, but at other (all too frequent) points it tends to be more of a Catholic political fight club. (I hope I would not be thought gravely uncharitable in putting the partisanship/demagoguery to rational discourse ration at roughly 3:1) And since it has a decent size readership and authorship, and comment threads not infrequently run to 50 or more, it has something of the addictive nature of a forum.

Nonetheless, it is at the end of the day a blog belonging to its authors, and thus it is (in part) Henry's living room, and not mine. Moreover, I have my own much smaller soap box to which I feel committed to providing interesting content on a fairly regular basis. So I think perhaps it would be best for the blood pressure of all if (while still keeping up with the Vox Nova postings of some of my favorite authors there) I swear off combox battles there and perhaps write some more posts on the intersection of politics, economics and morality here on my own turf.

Lenten Mediations on the Divine Comedy, Year Two

This year for Lent I'm bringing back the Meditations on Dante's Divine Comedy series from last year, in hopes of getting through Purgatory by Easter. Last year, I worked through the Inferno and the first eleven books of the Purgatorio up until the poets leave the terrace of Pride. I've reposted the last of those posts (Purgatorio: Pride) directly below this one for anyone who wants to refresh their minds on where we left off. The whole series of Commedia posts can be found here.

This post will provide a brief introduction (or re-introduction, for those who were reading a year ago) to the Commedia and its particular appropriateness to Lent.

Why read Dante for Lent? Why read Dante at all?

For far too many in the modern world, Dante is that medieval guy who wrote the poem about hell. The Inferno is by far the most read, and when it crops up in high school or college reading lists, it's often read quickly with an emphasis on some of the more horrific images involved and Dante's notorious propensity to put real characters (ranging from political enemies to recent popes) in hell. This is a shame, because in focusing on some of the more spectacular surface elements of the first third of the Commedia, one loses the real sense of what Dante was trying to achieve.

At root, the Divine Comedy is about the spiritual progress of the soul, from attachment to sin, through repentance and purgation, to virtue and salvation. At the beginning of the Inferno, Dante finds himself "midway through life's journey" in a gloomy wood. He is lost, and beset by threatening creatures who represent the different categories of vice by which he finds his progress towards the East hindered: lust, pride and greed.

Unable to make further progress on his own, Dante is sent help at the request of Beatrice (a good and saintly woman, now in heaven, for whom he had, while she was alive, had great love) in the form of the poet Virgil. Virgil will lead him back onto the road towards heaven, but only by first confronting vice and going through purgation via a guided trip through Hell and Purgatory.

Down they go into the underworld, where sinners of various descriptions suffer in concentric circles designed for the punishment of different sins, with the worst sins (betrayal) lurking in the deepest circles of hell near where Satan himself is sunk waist-deep in a frozen lake, eternally chewing on the souls of the three most notorious traitors: Judas, Brutus and Cassius.

As he descends hell, Dante at first finds himself, with his attachment to sin, entirely sympathetic to the suffering souls. How could the sins of these people merit sufferings so great? As he goes deeper, though, and interacts with the damned, Dante begins to see how these punishments merely make visible the ugliness of the sins to which these souls remain attached in death as they were in life. For instance, as the violent boil in a rive of blood, it is as much their own constant fighting and pulling each other under that keeps them in torment as their demonic overseers.

Reaching the bottom of the pit of hell, Dante and Virgil pass through the center of the earth and climb upwards to Mount Purgatory, a gigantic mountain standing on the opposite side of the globe from the known world. Here, coming into the light again, the begin to meet the souls of those who are destined for heaven, yet have much work to do in order to purge themselves of the sins to which they are attached. On the shores of the mountain they meet the late repentant, including some who died unshriven or in excommunication, who in the last moments of their lives reconciled themselves with God, yet must now through strenuous effort make up for the many years in which they refused to take advantage of the time that was given them to repent.

Right away we see a great difference between the souls of Purgatory and those of Hell. The damned were greatly turned in on themselves and on their sin, while these souls in waiting have a powerful sense of purpose, one which at first seems overwhelming to Dante, who himself is not yet strong enough in his drive away from vice and towards virtue.

Beginning to climb the mountain, Dante and Virgil come upon the proud, bent double under heavy burdens. At first, Dante is shocked by the sight, but he finds the souls cheerful in the knowledge of their progress towards salvation. He marvels at the fame of some of those he meets, but they correct him with reminders that earthly fame is fleeting.

The story of the Commedia is, thus, an allegory of spiritual progress. In the Inferno, Dante learns the nature of sin, while in the Purgatory he learns to strive to replace each sin with its opposing virtue. The Paradiso is, in turn, an allegory of prayer and the spiritual life culminating in the beatific vision of God surrounded by a "celestial rose" made of the angels and the ever-rejoicing saints.

In this sense, a prayerful reading of the Divine Comedy is most appropriate for Lent, when we seek to assure that we are on the long road that winds Eastward, and making progress towards our Maker.

Easter Meditations on Purgatorio: Pride

[Originally posted on May 2nd, 2007 -- re-posted to begin the 2008 Commedia series.]

Having gone through St. Peter's gate in to Purgatory proper, Dante climbs up a long narrow path, and onto the first terrace of purgatory, where the proud work to purge themselves of their attachment to that root of all sin. Here he sees that the inner wall of the terrace is made of beautiful white marble, on which are carved scenes of conspicuous humility.

From that spot we had yet to take a step
When I discerned that all the inner cliff-ring,
Which rose so steep there was no way to scale it,

Was pure white marble, and so decorated
With carvings that they would have put to shame
Not only Polycletus but nature too.

The angel who came down to earth decreeing
The peace which, deeply mourned for many years,
Has opened heaven from its long interdict

Appeared before us there so faithfully
Chiseled out in his soft-spoken bearing
That he did not seem to be a silent image:

One would have sworn that he was saying "Ave,"
Since she who turned the key to open up
Love on high was also imaged there,

And her attitude appeared stamped with the words:
"Behold the handmaid of the Lord," as sharply
As a figure is engraved on sealing wax.
(Purg. X, 28-45)

No where in hell was art ever to be seen, but here on the terraces of purgatory beautifully made works of art will consistently be used to give the repentant souls images of the virtues they must cultivate, and the vices they must reject. Purgatory is the place in which souls must purge away their attachment to the sins they loved on earth, and as such this is the appropriate place for sacred visual art. The souls are not yet ready to behold the wonders of heaven directly, but through beautiful images etched in the earth, they are preparing themselves for the heavenly vision.

Moving up the terrace from the carving of the Annunciation, they also view scenes of Kind David dancing before the ark of the covenant and the Emperor Trajan halting his army in order to administer justice on behalf of a poor widow. (This famous story of Trajan's compassion led to medieval myths that Trajan had secretly converted to Christianity -- or even that he had returned from the dead to be baptised by Pope Gregory the Great.)

Having viewed these examples of the virtue opposite to pride, Dante then catches site of the proud themselves, approaching slowly, bent double, carrying great rocks upon their backs. Dante is at first shocked and can barely look at them. But the souls themselves are hopeful, knowing that through their present suffering they are coming with each step closer to heaven, and shedding their attachment to sin that keeps them from it. As they walk they pray together:

"Our Father, who art in heaven, not bound there,
But dwelling in it for the greater love
Thou bearest toward thy firstborn works on high,

"Hallowed be thy name and be thy worthiness
Through every creature, as it is most fitting
To thank thee for the sweet breath of thy wisdom.

"Thy kingdom come to us in peacefulness,
Because we cannot reach it by ourselves,
Unless it come, for all our striving effort.

"And as the angels do thy will in heaven
By sacrificing theirs, singing hosanna,
So let the men on earth do with their wills.

"Give us this day our daily manna, since
Without it, through this bitter wilderness
He retreats who tries hardest to advance.

"And as we pardon all for the trespasses
That we have suffered, so in loving kindness
Forgive us: do not judge by our deserving.

"Our strength so easily fails: lead us not
Into temptation through our ancient foe,
But deliver us from the evil he provokes.

"This last petition, dearest Lord, we make
Not for our sake, since now we have no need,
But for those people who remain behind us."

This way the souls, praying godspeed for both
Themselves and us, trudged on beneath a burden
Like that one pictures sometimes in a dream,

Unequal in their anguish, all of them
Plodding wearily around the first terrace,
Purging away the black dross of the world.
(Purg. XI, 1-30)

Virgil addresses the penitents, asking them where they can find the stair by which they can ascend to the next level. One comes forward who identifies himself as Omberto Aldobrandesco, a powerful nobleman whose pride quite literally led to his downfall forty years before when he made war against Sienna and was killed in their retaliation. He tells his story and briefly sums it up:

"I am Omberto. And not only has pride
Damaged me but it has dragged down all
My kinsfolk with it into catastrophe.

"And for this sin I here must bear this weight
Until I give God satisfaction — since I
Gave none among the living — among the dead."
(Purg. XI, 67-72)

Dante also recognizes a painter of manuscript illuminations. The penitent acknowledges that he is the artist Dante recognizes, but responds with a meditation on the transitory nature of earthly fame:

"Oh," I cried out, "are you not Oderisi,
Honor of Gubbio, glory of that art
Which in Paris they call ‘illuminating’?"

"Brother," he said, "the pages painted by
Franco Bolognese smile more brightly:
All his the honor now — and partly mine.

"Certainly I would have been less courteous
While I was alive, through my vaulting zeal
For excellence to which my heart aspired.

"The price of pride like this is paid out here;
And still I’d not be here if it were not
That, capable of sin, I turned to God.

"Oh, the vainglory of our human powers!
How brief the time the green grows on the hilltop,
Unless the age that follows it is barren!

"Cimabue thought he held the field
In painting, but now the hue and cry is for
Giotto, and the other’s fame is dulled.
(Purg. XI, 79-96)

Yes, it's that Giotto, whom Oderisi is talking about. Giotto was two years younger than Dante and was at the height of his powers in 1300 when the Commedia takes place. His teacher Cimabue is still certainly regarded as a good artist, but his work is still very much rooted in a medieval sensibility, while Giotto brought a new expressiveness to his art which marked him in some ways as the father of Italian Renaissance in art.

Continuing on along the terrace, the poets see that in the rock on which they tread is carved another set of images in low relief. On the ground are the images of prominent examples of pride, from Lucifer and King Saul to Arachne and the ruins of once-lofty Troy.

Climbing on over these reminders of the sin that must be cast off, the poets come to the angel that guards the stair up out of the terrace of pride. The angel brushes his wing over Dante, who feels a great weight lifted off him as he climbs the stairs up to the next terrace. When he asks Virgil the cause of this, Virgil points out that one of the seven P's with which his forehead was marked is now gone. With the attachment of pride worked off, Dante's climb will now be all the easier.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.