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

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Kennedy Mystique

The past week has given me pause for thought on the Kennedy Mystique and what it means in Catholic circles today. I'd intended to remain silent on the topic of Senator Edward Kennedy, he wasn't someone I had much admiration for, but death is a great equalizer. While it certainly doesn't put someone beyond criticism, it's polite not to take the opportunity to attack someone while those who loved him are mourning. And yet, in the end I made some rather strong comments on the topic. Why?

Ted Kennedy isn't himself the sort of figure one would expect to arouse more than normal political feelings -- a sometimes boorish and boozy character, but a party loyalist able to bring a fair amount of rhetorical power to pushing his party's line and able to bring a self effacing charm into play (when he tried) which softened his partisan edges. Not the sort of person I'd tend to admire, but also not someone I'd feel called upon to rail against.

I think the issue is that the combination of the Kennedy name and the Democratic party-line positions holds a certain place in American Catholic history which causes strong reactions among various Catholics depending on how they reacted to that period in Catholic history in this country. JFK was elected at a point when it seemed Catholics had finally "arrived" in the US. They'd made it out of the ethnic ghettos, through college, and into mainstream American society. And while public schools were heavily Protestant, and Catholic "smells and bells" still looked very strange to WASP eyes, Catholicism had become a large and mainstream religion in the US complete with famous converts and Fulton Sheen as a major TV personality.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Just call me Auntie

My sister is going to have a baby in March! My biggest life ambition -- to be an aunt -- has been fulfilled. Thanks, sis.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Brideshead vs. RCIA

Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite novels, and unquestionably my favorite Catholic novel. (Spoiler warning for those who haven't read it -- this post has to do with events which take place at the very end.) Not only does Brideshead give powerful and beautiful expression to Catholic themes, but having read it in my late teens, not long before leaving home, it represents one of those crystallizing experiences for me through which Catholicism became not merely something I was brought up in, but something deeply my own and at the root of my understanding of the world.

And yet, there's a key element of the plot which clashes with the modern experience of joining the Church -- as I was reminded tonight when attending the opening RCIA meeting as a member of this year's team. Near the very end of the novel, Julia (a cradle, though intermittently lapsed, Catholic) tells the man she has been living with for several years (they're in the process of divorcing their estranged spouses so they can marry):
"...I can't marry you, Charles; I can't be with you ever again."
"I know."
"How can you know?"
"What will you do?"
"Just go on -- alone. How can I tell you what I shall do? You know the whole of me. You know I'm not one for a life of mourning. I've always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from his mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without him. One can only hope to see one step ahead. But I saw today there was one thing unforgivable -- like things in the school-room, so bad they were unpunishable, that only mummy could deal with -- the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I'm not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God's. Why should I be allowed to understand that and not you, Charles? It may be because of mummy, nanny, Cordelia, Sebastian -- perhaps Bridey and Mrs. Muspratt -- keeping my name in their prayers; or it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, he won't quite despair of me in the end. Now we shall both be alone, and I shall have no way of making you understand."

Brideshead is not an uplifting tale of good Catholics who have it all. It's mostly a story of bad Catholics whose faith at times seems only to make them miserable -- and yet at the same time gives them the strength to understand life's tragedies which would otherwise be truly pointless, gateways to bottomless despair. And yet, to my modern Catholic ears, a plot hole looms.

This will be my fourth year helping out with RCIA, though the years have not been consecutive. MrsD and I first worked with RCIA back in California just after getting married. It's an incredibly rewarding experience. Being around converts, and walking with them, to an extent, during their process of conversion is an inspiring experience that helps us recall that we are called, as Christians, to a process of constant conversion.

Converts come from a wide variety of life experiences. And among those experiences, almost invariably in this modern world, is divorce and remarriage. Of those being received into full union with the Church who are over 30, almost all seem to have been divorced and remarried in the past -- or were married in the past and are now seeking to come into the Church before marrying Catholics. Every RCIA team thus tends to have a marriage expert on the team, who is in charge of guiding candidates and catechumens through the process of getting past marriages annulled and current marriages blessed.

And so it struck me some time ago: It would of course be no problem for Charles and Julia to have their past marriages declared null and to get married in the Church. Lady Julia got married outside the Church, and to a man who had already been married and divorced, so that one is simple: invalid form used by a Catholic automatically results in no marriage. Charles had been an agnostic at the time of getting married, nominally a member of the Church of England, and it doubtless would be possible to have his marriage declared null because of a lack of Catholic understanding of the sacrament.

Of course, this fact is not just a modern innovation. Waugh would himself have been aware of it, having himself been married and divorced before becoming Catholic and having his second marriage blessed in the Church. And yet, somehow an ending in which Charles and Julia, stay together and get married in the Church would rob the novel of much of its meaning. Their relationship is one of the truer loves one sees in the novel -- it is begins as an explicitly adulterous liaison on an ocean liner, and continues with Charles' abandonment of his wife and children. In the novel, and as a novel, the ending of the relationship conveys an giving up of sin, and the pleasures of sin, in a way that annulments and a blessed marriage would not have. As a means of conveying truth, the tragic ending is the only way to go.

I don't think there's any question that the annulment process is at times abused in this day and age. Yet that's not what I'm trying to get at here. Perhaps this is an example of a case where a truth can be more clearly distilled in fiction than in reality. Our tragic sense in fiction can convey things which in life are lost in the details of particular circumstance.

Perhaps also this serves to underscore how much marriage has collapsed as a cultural institution in our modern world. Seventy years after Charles and Julia's time, the average non-Catholic (or indeed born but not well-catechized Catholic) has a concept of marriage little different from what the pagan culture encountered by the early Church held. Perhaps it's not inappropriate that the past marriages of those seeking to enter the Church are often dealt with by the Church in roughly the same way as non-Christian marriages were by the early Church.

I think the Church is right to deal with people as they come -- sorting out their past entanglements as best as possible without seeking to make becoming Catholic harder than necessary. The general approach of blessing the marriage that people are in when they approach the Church is probably right most of the time.

Yet somehow it bothers me at an artistic level that the situation which generates the falling action in Brideshead is not at all how the Church would deal with matters. It conveys truth so powerfully, it's hard to think that it's in any sense not.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Skipping Forward, and Reading Blind

Obligatory opening anecdote: Years ago, when it was still fresh on the pop-cultural scene, Darwin and I cringed through the dubious pleasures of the movie Meet the Parents with a group of friends. A wit, passing through the living room on his way to the kitchen, glanced at the screen and remarked, "Oh, I love this movie, especially the part at the end where the dog comes home." One of the girls in the viewing audience was convinced that the movie had been spoiled for her, and kept a vain watch throughout the rest of the movie for the dog whose entrance would explain the events of the film.

Yesterday my box from Amazon arrived, and inside was a fresh three-inch-thick tome: Kristin Lavransdatter. I hefted the book to peer inside. Placed temptingly at the fore were the introduction and the translator's note. Now, I'm a sucker for an intro and prefatory notes, and I nearly always read them when provided, pondering over the clues which they provide into the workings of an unfamiliar plot. Not this time. I'm going to force myself to start reading the actual text. I don't know nothin' about Kristin Lavransdatter, and I want to preserve my (mostly) tabula rasa so that I'm chewing on the author's words. Anyone ever read a forward or a summary and developed the wrong impression of a book and charge through the whole thing looking for some event or theme that didn't turn out to be there? Or had a book turn out to be completely different from the impression you'd formed of it -- while reading the introductory essay? Many readers whose opinion I respect have nothing but praise for Kristin Lavransdatter, so I'm prepared for excellence, which is in itself a pre-conception, but I won't spoil anything by reading the introduction.

I read Silence by Shusako Endo under the impression that somewhere in the book I was going to be subjected to a gory episode of torture because of some passing reference I'd read years ago. And so my reading of the whole was colored because I was constantly on the lookout, and shying away from, this imaginary torture scene. This heightened sensitivity colored my reading of several scenes and made my first reading a bit cursory, as I was anticipating plot points that, in fact, never occured. When I finished the book, I had to go back and read some chapters again in order to really pay attention to what was taking place in the scene.

Glancing at my bookshelf, I see several books that I read virtually "sight unseen". In one category are John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga (a three-part series) and two, Antic Hay and Point Counter Point, by Aldous Huxley. (All were picked up at thrift stores or library sales, and I bought mainly for the antiquity of the volumes and the British names of the authors, though I did find the title Antic Hay to be intriguing). The Forsyte Saga was interesting, but Galsworthy's oddly Victorian idea of loose morality left a bad taste in my mouth. (I did find Soames Forsyte, that great stiff man of business, to be easily the most enduring character of the piece -- all the other supposedly more sympathetic characters I found intolerable.) Antic Hay and Point Counterpoint were a wash. I remember almost nothing about them except that they were dull and vaguely dislikable. (Oddly enough, reading the summaries of these Huxley novels on Amazon does nothing to refresh my memory of the plot or the characters.) Huxley's fame as an author must be based solely upon Brave New World (unread by me, except for the first chapter or two), because his other stuff is absolutely forgettable.

Though, on the other hand, Darwin's brother sent me as a Christmas gift a collection of short stories by Gerald Durrell (an author previously completely unknown to me) called Fillets of Plaice. These turned out to be (mostly) side-splittingly funny, and I enjoyed them all the more for having no idea what what coming. The same brother, whose role it must be to introduce me to previously unknown literary delights, gave me Rumer Godden's China Court, which I started with interest and finished with devouring speed.

Perhaps the most significant blind read for me was the book Darwin gave me early in our college acquaintance: Brideshead Revisited. I pondered the pronunciation of the title (Bride Shed? Brides Head?) and floundered through the first military chapters, only to find myself delighted by a book that I've since re-read numerous times with increasing pleasure and insight.

So: I'm about to embark on Kristin Lavransdatter. And I do plan to read the introductory essay, but in its proper place, when it will make the most sense: after I've read the book.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Jesus is Not My Pal

One of the elements of modern (often Evangelical, but sometimes Catholic) spirituality that I find most foreign is when people talk about Christ as being "my best friend." It seems an even more familiar form of the relationship suggested by hopeful missionaries, "Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?"

It's possible to err in either direction on these things, and I make no representation that I am a perfect Christian, but I don't think of myself having a "personal relationship" with Christ, certainly in a "best friends" kind of way. The ways in which I would normally envision Christ are not guy-next-door, my-buddy-the-savior kind of images. Christ the King, enthroned in eternal splendor into union with whom all Christians wish to enter for life everlasting. Christ Crucified, pouring out his blood for the sins of the whole world. Christ Risen, triumphing over the reign of death which had doomed humanity since the Fall. Christ in the Eucharist, kneeling before the glittering monstrance in which the Body of Christ forms the center of a sunburst of golden rays, with the crucifix above and the tabernacle behind.

This is not to say that I see Christ as distant. But while not a sparrow falls without the Father knowing it, you can hardly expect a sparrow to understand God, much less consider himself God's friend. God knows us better than we know Him, because we are understandable to Him in a way that He is not to us. I wouldn't say that I feel distant from God. Indeed, the reality of God is as foundational to my ability to understand the world as are the non-material qualities of Good, Justice, Mercy and Beauty which spring from Him, and as basic to life as the physical laws and order of creation.

Though in many ways a classical liberal, in personal as in political life, suspicious of too much power concentrated in one person -- Christ is the king to which my knee bends eagerly, the perfection which deserves utter love and obedience, the authority which is at the same time absolute and freeing.

Certainly, all this represents a relationship between persons. Christ is one of the three persons of the Trinity; we are persons made in God's image. Yet I find it hard to think of it as a "personal relationship" in the sense that I take the phrase to be meant. And it certainly is not what I would think of as a "best friend" relationship. When I look for Christ, my gaze is naturally upward. I don't picture throwing my arm around His shoulders and asking, "How's it going, buddy?"

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

An Accident Waiting To Happen

The available industry-exclusive multi-contour driver’s and front passenger seats in Taurus SEL, Limited and SHO models feature six-way lumbar and subtle rolling-pattern massage to help make your ride more relaxing and help reduce driver fatigue.
"Boy, I've been driving forever, and I've really got some driver fatigue! I'll just turn on the seat massage feature and try to relax... relax... feels real nice... why are my eyes so heavy?"


I think someone ought to go back to the drawing board with this ad copy.

You know you're Catholic when...

You realize, while catching up on reading daily saints to your children, that St. Bartholomew's feast day was yesterday, and that means that you forgot your brother Nathanael's birthday. Happy 16th birthday, Nathanael!

Here's a family story: on the day Nathanael was born (at home, with tons of people watching from the doorway; Mom was a trooper), we kids called around and told people, as a joke, that he had been named Bartholomew Barabbas. Ha ha! Sorry about that, Nathanael! We all loved you then, and we love you now, you crazy kid.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Orphan Openings: Housework Edition

Women scope out other women's housework like men scope out women, and so when the children opened the door opened to her knock, the neighbor involuntarily glanced around the living room. Scraps of paper lay drifted like snow across the floor; toys radiated out from the area around the playpen; books were piled high on tables, on chests, on shelves, on the floor. The children, though dressed, had the kind of fine hair that always slips out of barrettes and clips and elastics. The place was not exactly filthy, but one would be hard-pressed to call it clean. The neighbor, having children herself, made allowances.

The lady of the house came jogging down the stairs with her baby on her hip, pausing to kick a pair of old tights under the desk. The neighbor explained her plight: the air conditioner was being repaired; could the kids spend the morning over here? The lady of the house was amenable; the kids charged shrieking upstairs to form a new club and exclude the little brother. The neighbor stepped out into the heat, torn between relief that someone else's house was messier than hers, and a twinge of guilt reminding her that at least she'd known in advance that someone was going to knock on her door this morning.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Obligatory Homeschool Post

The school year doth approach. Here's some of what we're looking at for this school year (scheduled to start 8/31):

Learning Language Arts Through Literature: The newer editions have workbooks and reading packages and what-have-you, but I like the older series because all you need is the book, paper and pencil. I dictate a passage or set it up as copywork, then we talk about the grammar and spelling rules found in our passage.

Journaling: This year I want my second-grader to start writing a journal entry once a week.

Miquon Math and MCP Workbooks: Last year I had both the girls working on the same level, which is convenient because they're so close together, but I think that this year we may need to break out a bit.

Spelling Power: One book for spelling from start to finish, and you can use it for all the kids! My kind of program. We took the placement test and the second-grader begged for more. (The first-grader won't do formal spelling this year.) We're using the third edition -- I don't know if there's a huge difference between the third and the fourth.

Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, and The New Saint Joseph First Communion Catechism: The gold standard. We have a first communicant this year, and though I'll be teaching her first communion class at the parish, I've seen the featherweight workbooks they use.

Faith and Life: Again, a gold standard for religion textbooks, and perfect for youngsters to read aloud.

Famous Americans: Left over from my brother's third-grade Calvert books. Just right for
independent reading and just short enough to narrate back in depth. We might make a timeline to go with this and other reading.

French: I've realized that although I think Latin is swell, at the moment the only language I'm set to teach is French. I might work with a friend who passed some of her youth in France to put together a once-a-week language session for our kids.

Italics: I just like the look of the Italics handwriting script. We have the alphabet chart taking up most of the "dining room" wall. (The quotation marks mean that the dining room is really just a corner of the kitchen.)

Drawing with Children: Art, once a week.

Science: We're going to learn about weather and geography, courtesy of the library's great bounty.

Various read-alouds: Right now we're working through By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Princess and the Goblin, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Witch Family (thanks to OH). I haven't planned out what to read next -- inspiration usually strikes before we're done with any particular book (hence the four at a time).

Who Says No

People at various points in the ideological spectrum have pointed out it's a little odd to see conservatives objecting to the idea of the government deciding what medical procedures ought not to be covered, when they're apparently okay with insurance companies deciding what procedures ought not be covered, or with people not being able to afford procedures because they lack good insurance. However, it strikes me this difference may actually make a fair amount of sense, both for some pragmatic reasons and some emotional/ideological ones.


There are lots of insurance companies, and when polled people often rate their own pretty high. So many people may not expect to ever have problems with their own insurance companies refusing to cover something vital. However, people (conservatives especially) don't tend to trust the government very much, and there's only one. So people who hear about insurance company problems can tell themselves (rightly or wrong) "It won't happen to me." But if the government decides to block something, everyone knows it will effect him.

With insurance companies paying for care, one can always try to use public shame (driving away customers) or lawsuits, or government regulation to make them provide some service you think they owe you -- however if the government is making those decisions people are probably more skeptical of their ability to appeal to the government to get the government to reverse its decision on something. (Most people have experienced this with disputing a cop's version of a traffic stop, or trying to get an appeal through the IRS. It's not easy.)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Equality, A False Assumption That We Need

[This is the first in a loose series of posts attempting to articulate the implications of inequality, of various sorts, in our society and economy. ]

It seems counter-intuitive to claim that we should hold something to be true when it isn't, but it seems to me that there are at least a few cases in which we should act as if something is true even if it is not. The example that I have in mind has to do with equality.

As Catholics we believe that all human beings are of equal dignity in the eyes of God. In the US, all people are equal in the eyes of the law. However, this does not necessarily mean that all people are of equal ability in regard to any specific quality. And indeed, it's readily apparent that people are indeed not equal in regards to ability. Some people have greater physical abilities than others. There is huge variation in mental ability, and among different kinds of mental ability. And there is a fair amount of evidence that much of this variation is either genetic, or determined by experiences so early in life as to be much more the result of your relatives choices than your own.

And yet, as I've written a couple times in discussing Charles Murray's ideas about education, most of us in American culture naturally rebel against making changes in how we educate children in our society based on "simple facts" such as Murray's:"Ability varies" and "Half of the children are below average". (If you want to test your sensibilities against this, read this 2007 WSJ piece on educating the bottom of the intelligence curve and see if you find yourself, like me, sputtering, "But, but... You can't say that.")

Some of this is just outraged sensibilities. We believe in equality, and so we rebel against hearing about a situation in which hard work and good mentoring can't make anything possible for anyone. And yet clearly, at a factual level, no matter how much we don't like it, it is not actually the case that anyone could go on to do anything. A lot of people simply don't have the abilities to "do anything". (Actually, no one has the ability to truly "do anything" -- but some people at least have the ability to truly excel in enough things that they don't worry about the rest.)

And yet, I think there may actually be a lot of good to our illusions in this case. Because while it's true that there are large differences in ability, I'm fairly skeptical of our ability to systematically identify those differences and provide people with education "suitable to their abilities" in some sort of organized fashion. There may be a certain amount of waste and heartbreak inherent in acting as if anyone could grow up to be president, or a CEO, or a concert pianist, but the risks of treating everyone as if they had great potential and then seeing who sifts out seem lower than trying to identify which people have potential, providing them with good educations, and then shunting everyone else off into some ability-appropriate program to turn them into good worker ants. There is a limit to how much money and time should be spent trying to achieve the unachievable, but going in the direction of a know-your-place, multi-track educational program such as is seen in Japan and parts of Europe seems to be an approach which would abandon something which is important and positive in the American psyche. And, perhaps because I participate in that American ideal, I find it easier to accept the idea of all people being offered opportunities, and many of them failing to reach the heights, than classifying people based on measurable ability and sending them onto an ability-appropriate track. The illusion of equality may be important here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Freak Show

Megan McArdle links to a Financial Times piece by Clive Cook which includes the following quote:
The gap between the right of the Republican party, which is providing the angriest critics of the reforms, and the left of the Democratic party, which thinks the proposals too timid, is unbridgeable. These groups do not merely disagree. They despise each other. Their differences are only secondarily about policy. They hold each other’s values in contempt.

These snarling extremes are nonetheless somewhat alike. They have an equal and opposite penchant for conspiracy theories. Almost a third of Republicans, according to a recent poll, believe the unsupported story that Mr Obama was not born in the US (in which case he would be disqualified from serving as president). But remember that more than a third of Democrats subscribe to the even more outlandish theory that the Bush administration knew about the attacks of September 2001 in advance.

One of the annoying qualities of national debate over the last several months (which seems to increase as Democrats become more desperate about their flagship legislation) is the attempt to find the very looniest possible elements of the right and portray them as being mainstream.

Blame the Neolithic

A brief article in The Economist relays some evidence a palaeoclimatologist has recently put forward that anthropogenic global warming began 5000-7000 years ago, as a result of slash-and-burn agriculture spreading throughout Europe and Asia. Or to be less exciting, ice core samples show that CO2 and methane levels started rising 5000-7000 years ago, and since it's known that agriculture was spreading widely at that time, Dr. William Ruddiman of UV Charlottesville (among others) argues that early agriculture may be to blame. Although the world population 5000 years ago was obviously much smaller, the efficiency of agriculture was so much lower (Ruddiman estimates per capita land use was 10x higher than in recent recorded history.

The idea of early societies causing heavy environmental tolls is not new. There's fairly wide support for the idea that deforestation and over-mining contributed to the collapse of the Bronze Age cultures in the Mediterranian. However, the idea that "global warming" started with the late neolithic is kind of charming. Please consider adopting a more hunter-gatherer lifestyle!

More practically, this strikes me as underlining that there is not some single, sacred, stability point which industrial civilization has destroyed. We humans and our planet have always had an effect on each other, and it's virtually impossible for us to avoid that. The course of wisdom lies in trying to avoid making more impact than necessary (while not setting unrealistic goals or stiffling development) and being prepared to deal with unwanted effects that may occur.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Orphan Openings: High School Vampire Edition

Amber stood staring at her mirror and wishing that she could see herself in it. She was certain that the bite mark on her neck, especially against her increasingly pale complexion, must be garishly obvious. She could feel a smooth, tender, barely healed patch of skin (if one could speak of "healing" with the undead) and in her imagination it was a livid, red, scarred patch. But with her inability either to cast a reflection or to twist her head into whatever contorted position would be necessary to see her own neck, she could not be sure, and it vexed her terribly.

A scarf, perhaps. But in the summer?

Perhaps this, she thought, explained the regrettable fashion instincts of female vampires in TV shows and movies -- a large, metal-studded dog collar would cover the problem, but changing her entire fashion ethic merely because she was now a vampire seemed horribly unfair.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Seven Quick Takes, Masculine Edition

Yes, once again it's time to bring some testosterone into the Seven Quick Takes tradition as sponsored by Jen at Conversion Diary.

1. Our daughters refer to hard liquor as "yucky water" and have no interest in wine or beer, but apparently they find the bottles fascinating. Without my knowledge, they'd been pulling bottles out of the recycle bin for some time and using them to stock the "kitchen" in their playhouse out back. MrsDarwin discovered this today when they pulled out two wine bottles and one from Bombay Sapphire while playing with the boy from down the street. What he made of this, I cannot say, but the bottles were neatly lined up on the grill (along with a discarded maple syrup bottle and a plastic tea kettle) when I got home.

2. It think it'd been a year or so since I'd had a chance to take a full hour of Eucharistic adoration, but last week I took MrsD's 2-3 AM slot (leaving her to get some sleep) at the First Friday adoration down at our parish. Waking up at 2 AM is, surprisingly, a lot easier than doing so at my usual 6:30, and it was an incredibly peaceful and fulfilling time - so much so I found myself over-staying by half an hour. Among other things, it occurred to me that (with laziness and early morning meetings having taken me off going to 7AM daily mass about a year ago) I seldom enter a church these days without four kids in tow -- which needless to say is not likely to help one encounter Christ with any calm.

3. I've been reading and very much enjoying The Battle: A New History of Waterloo by Alessandro Barbero. Reading a 300 page history book which covers a period of only 36 hours gives you a chance to gather a great deal of detail, and Barbero provides it in the form of many details, fascinating and sometimes harrowing. Take, for instance, the experiences of British cavalry officer Sir Frederick Ponsonby, who appears several times during the course of the book.
In combat with Jacquinot's lancers, he was wounded in both arms and lost control of his horse, which carried him into the midst of the enemy, one of whom finally felled him with a saber cut to the head. When he regained consciousness, he was lying in the mud, and he struggled to raise himself; a passing lancer saw him move and gave him a thrust through the back, crying out, "Tu n'es pas mort, conquin?" The steel point entered under his shoulder blade and punctured a lung. The colonel, who was only thirty-two years old, felt his mouth fill with blood and lost consciousness, convinced that the end had come.
Sir Frederick Ponsonby was an involuntary witness to this type of combat. When he regained consciousness, he found himself wounded and immobilized in a sector of the battlefield patrolled by enemy skirmishers. One of these threatened to kill him and demanded his money; Ponsonby let himself be searched, the man found what he was looking for, and he went away. A second skirmisher with the same intentions arrived on the scene but left disappointed after an even more meticulous search of the colonel's person. Finally, an officer passed his way at the head of a group of soldiers, gave Ponsonby a swallow of brandy, ordered one of his men to put a knapsack under the colonel's head, and then departed, apologizing for leaving him there: "We must follow the retreating English." Still later, another tirailleur came by and decided to use the immobile Ponsonby as a screen. He stayed for a long time, reloading and firing over the colonel's body again and again, "and conversing with great gaiety all the while." At last he went away, but not before assuring Ponsonby that he should not worry: "You'll be happy to hear that we're going to withdraw. Bon soir, mon ami."
When he finally came to his senses during the night, a dying British dragoon, having dragged himself to where Ponsonby lay, was crushing him with his weight and clutching his legs. Seized by convulsions, the dying man held on tight, gasping for breath, and all the while air hissed atrociously through the open wound in his side. The night was clear, and Prussian soldiers, bent on looting, were circulating all around; more than on approached and took a look at Sir Frederick, but they left him alone. finally, a British straggler passed that way and stopped to keep Ponsonby company, freeing him of the dying man and keeping scavengers at bay with a sword he had picked up off the ground, until morning came and the colonel could be loaded on a cart and carried away to the surgeons.
(pages 166-167, 171-172, 298)

4. We've been chuckling about this (and watching it whenever the kids aren't around) since la affaire Gates, and so I'll risk censure by putting it up, though of course as with any Chris Rock sketch, the word is LANGUAGE ADVISORY:

5. A brief history of British battle rifles:

6. I have few regrets about having been homeschooled in high school. At the time, I got cranky about the lack of social life (read: cute girls) but since high school is generally not the most wonderful time of life anyway (and I went on to have a very good time in college) I don't see that as a lack from this vantage point. However, one thing that I do regret about not having gone to the boys high school that I almost ended up at is that I wasn't forced to go through P.E. I wasn't totally out of shape during high school because I fenced (the appeal of a sport involving swords overcame my native inertia) but I wish that I'd had to do all the stuff that didn't interest me in that regard as well. It's easier to develop physical abilities when your body is younger, and you have more time on your hands. Somehow it stuck in my mind that one of the P.E. requirements at Crespi Boys Prep was being able to bench press your own weight. Fifteen years later, I'm gradually working my way there -- currently maxing out at three reps of 135lbs. I'm hoping I can work up another 45lbs by the end of the year, but I wish that I'd got there a long time ago.

7. As a parent, one has flashes of realization as to how one's own parents felt about things. The other day I had one of these when my oldest daughter lay sprawling half on, half off the couch and complained to me, "Daddy, I'm boooooooored." Daddy paused a moment to collect the full force of his indignation and then explained, "Do you know why it is that Daddy is not sympathetic when you say you are bored? Because there are lots and lots of things that Daddy would like to do if he didn't spend most of his time working or cleaning or dealing with children who poop their diapers and throw toys on the floor or sit around saying they're bored. Now go play or read a book or something or I'll give you something do to!"

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Whole Foods Health Care

Whole Foods is headquartered here in Austin, TX, and I know a fair number of people who've worked there. The general consensus seems to be that it's a good company to work for (so long as you're comfortable with the "crunchy" culture) with especially good benefits for a food retail chain. So I was interested to see a piece in yesterday's WSJ by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey advocating an approach to health care reform more similar to the benefits Whole Foods provides its employees. Although Whole Foods is seen as a progressive employer, Mackey's suggestions are more along the lines of what innovative libertarians and conservatives have suggested for health care reform. (If the GOP scores a tactical victory in staving off the many bad ideas in the current health care reform proposal, one hopes they will exert themselves to actually bring something to the table this time, perhaps along these lines.) Extracting his main proposals:
Here are eight reforms that would greatly lower the cost of health care for everyone:

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Witches, Essays, Agriculture and More

I was thinking of writing a lengthy piece over lunch, when I wrote up my task list and realized that "lunch" needed to be no more than twenty minutes long. So instead, I present a number of pieces that struck me as interesting lately, but which I don't have a whole post worth of things to say about.

InsideCatholic just reprinted a lengthy piece by medievalist Sandra Miesel discussing the realities of witch burning in the Middle Ages through "Age of Reason". It's an article well worth the time to read, avoiding both the slanders of anti-Catholics and the overly rosy rebuttals used by some apologists.

Entrepreneur Paul Graham has an interesting essay on what an essay should be, why people ought to write them, and how high school English classes do a pretty poor job of teaching people this skill. I've always thought it would be really cool to develop a 1-2 year high school course on the essay when our kids get closer to that age, and I find Graham's thinking on the topic fairly sound. He has quite a few online essays himself, and several others are interesting in the extreme. I'm hoping I get the chance to write about some of them later.

One a somewhat related note, the book editor of the LA Times writes about how the tempo of modern life trains one out of the habits necessary to immerse oneself in a book.

Farmer Blake Hurst has a response to the "agri-intellectuals" such as Michael Pollan, Rod Dreher and Mathew Scully. I follow some of the agri-intellectuals as far as the "one should eat real food most of the time" point, but have often found their economic views rather frustrating. Hurst expresses frustration that many of their practical views on farming are not all that based in experience either -- and also takes some affront at city-living non-farmers telling farmers how to be more "in touch" with the land.

The White House is apparently in a tug-of-war with a concerned physicians group pushing for vegan and vegetarian options in the National School Lunch Program. The group has put posters up in Union Station featuring the eight-year-old daughter of one of the activist with the line, "President Obama's daughters get healthy school lunches. Why don't I?" The White House (probably understandably) doesn't think using the president's daughters to score political points is acceptable. Clearly, I'm a heartless conservative, because my first thought was: A vegetarian lunch could be as simple as a peanut butter sandwich, an apple or banana, and carrot or celery sticks. Indeed, that's exactly what I used to carry in my lunch bag every day when I was going to school as an eight year old. Plus all those items are covered by WIC if you're low income. So while I get the "healthy lunch" push, how about pushing for parents to take five minutes to pack their kids some food?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tonight at Eight

Nobody try to call me tonight; I'm going to be watching TV with Dr. Boli.

Northern Broadcasting System: Stones of the City (crime drama). This latest entry in the vampire-building-inspector genre follows the adventures of Sam Ionescu, inspector for the city of Washington (Penna.). Tonight: When an article in the local weekly points him out as a suspected vampire, Sam finds himself mobbed by teenage girls wherever he goes.

Metromedia: Al ’n’ Me (comedy). The wacky adventures of best buddies Alexander and Hephaestion as they look for new worlds to conquer. Tonight: Hephaestion tries to sneak in a few conquests of his own on the side. But what will happen when Alexander finds out?

Who says there's nothing good on the tube?

I Really Hate This Part...

If I've seemed a bit reclusive on all the recent fuss over the health care bill, town hall meetings, etc., it's because the debate over the current reform package has now entered the phase of American politics that I really don't like. There's an early stage in which ideas are discussed and bills are drafted. People try to put coallitions together, compromises are discussed, and various groups push their policy recommendations. That's the realm I find interesting, and in my small corner of the blogsphere, I enjoy participating, in a strictly informal fashion, in the debate.

But then there's a point when an actual bill (or bills) are on the table, and the democratic melee is let loose. Over the last week I've been reading Alessandro Barbero's The Battle: A New History of Waterloo, and in light of that it strikes me that there's a certain Napoleonic-battle aspect to all this. A month or two ago we were staring at maps and discussing the merits of different formations, but now everything is shrouded in smoke while innumerable combatants in this democratic struggle (most of whom, on both sides, honestly have a fairly rudimentary understanding of the overall debate) slug it out until we find out which side will hold the field and which will break and run.

In a democratic republic, this is a necessary part of our political process.

Friday, August 07, 2009

On Girlwatching

Entropy is still thinking over something I said a while back, and since it ties in with a post title I've had sitting in my drafts bin for some time I thought I'd respond with a post, if that doesn't seem like making too much of a conversation. Hey, it's Friday, over 100 degrees, and it's been a long week. Not a bad time for some light topic matter.
I keep thinking about Darwin's explanation for why it's ok to check out women:
...she's probably making some sort of attempt to be ornamental -- at which point a strictly aesthetic appreciation is not necessarily out of order....
It sounds like a fancy way of saying she's asking for it. When you say it like that it brings up all sorts of nasty connotations.

I can't quit thinking about it because I think he's right, she is asking for it.

But I also think he's wrong. If she is dressing provocatively on purpose, that doesn't necessarily make it ok. Do two wrongs (if appreciating--ogling?--is a wrong) make a right?

Now, I hope Entropy won't think me rude to quote a post to which she's given the tag "more questions" but also "embarrassing myself", but this gives me a chance to talk about something which I think often underlies Catholic (and more generally Christian) discussions of modesty.

The starting question, I think, is what one means by "appreciating" or "ogling". I would tend to classify those two words as meaning rather different things: gentlemen may do the former, but only fellows like our lupine friend to the left do the latter.

Conflating the two is, I think, the source of a lot of talking at cross purposes in discussions about chastity and modesty, because I would maintain there is a moral difference between the two. I would think of ogling as being "looking lustfully" at a woman -- an act which is essentially one of trying to take from her, though without her knowledge. I am reminded of the one Beavis and Butthead cartoon I ever saw (someone in college thought I needed cultural broadening) in which the two anti-heroes get themselves beat up as a result of their herculean efforts to get a peek down the blouse of a busty hair stylist. It's a good example because an ogler who is trying to see a few extra square inches of breast by looking down a woman's shirt as she leans forward is trying to take something which is not offered -- and in a subtler sense, the man who is staring at a woman because he's mentally undressing her or because he finds staring at her actively arousing is deriving something from her which she is not (one hopes) trying to give. Even if she is trying to give such an effect (say, if she is the sort of young woman whose profession involves swinging about on a metal pole) a relationship between virtual strangers is not one which ought to involve providing arousal as one of its exchanges.

Now, where I think the more enthusiastic modesty advocates go off the track is in assuming that ogling (as defined above) is the only way in which a man can admire a beautiful woman. We have little doubt that people (male and female) can admire a work of art or a scenic vista without lusting to possess it. I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that one can do the same with an attractive person as well. A gentleman who admires a passing lady is not seeking to take anything from her with his gaze, or glimpse anything he's not meant to, but rather appreciating her for what she is.

Of course the difficulty is, the ogler and the admirer are physically doing my the same thing, looking at a woman who passes by, although mentally and morally they're behaving rather differently. This is, I would say, where the gentlemanly rule that you may look, but you many not be seen to be looking, comes from. If a woman sees you blatantly staring at her (and the more so if your eyes are focused too low to meet her gaze) she is likely to assume the worst, and since ogling is essentially a means of taking an unwanted intimacy with someone, she will naturally feel uncomfortable.

So I'm not here to defend any slack-jawed stare-ers, but at the same time I'd say that a man who doesn't find his attention focused on a beautiful woman as she crosses his field of vision is not so very much of a man -- and one who does is not necessarily a cad. So I would say that yes, when we dress attractively, we do "ask for" attention -- though so long one is "looking one's best" rather than "dressing provocatively" I don't see that as a problem. Indeed, there's a socially self-giving element of "looking one's best" for others, just as there's something mildly insulting to society when one purposefully looks slovenly. For instance, when a middle-aged man jiggles into a shop in a sea-side town wearing shorts, ancient deck shoes, and no shirt -- he's essentially telling everyone present: "Sure, this may be the worst sight you've seen all day, but I can't be troubled to put on decent clothes for the likes of you."

While I think it's important to observe the line which divides "attractive" from "seductive" or "provocative", I do at least want to stand up for the social virtue of being attractive to one another -- and for the gentlemen who notice, though hopefully unobtrusively, when that virtue is acted on.

Book Review: Valkyrie

Valkyrie, The Story of the Plot to Kill Hitler, by its Last Member is a fascinating book, though not primarily for reading about the Valkyrie plot itself. Other books have been written specifically about the plot, and I would imagine that from some of them you could find far more details about the plot itself. This book, a narrative of Philipp von Boeselager's wartime experiences as he told them to Florence Fehrenbach (herself the granddaughter of another of the Valkyrie conspirators) a year before his von Boeselager's death in 2008, is in many ways too close and personal a story to give the reader the most detailed possible understanding of the plot as a whole. So long as the reader understands this, Valkyrie is a fascinating window on the experiences of an honorable young man caught up in the Third Reich.

The son of an old Catholic family of minor nobility with a tradition of military service, Philipp credits his resistance to Nazi ideology in part to his school headmaster, Fr. Rodewyck, who had served as a German officer in the Great War before going into the Jesuits, and whom von Boeselager credits with having taught his young charges a German patriotism which was rooted in Christianity.

Philipp's nearest older brother Georg (there were nine von Boeselager children, of which Philipp was the fifth) went into the cavalry, and when it came time for Philipp to do the same in 1936, he followed his brother, in part on the advice of a relative who advised him that if he followed his first desire and entered the diplomatic service he would have to become a Nazi. Sheltered in the closed society of cavalry officer training, von Boeselager says he barely heard of Pius XI's Mit brennender Sorge and never read it, and although he and his fellow cadets where shocked at the newspaper accounts of Kristallnacht, they remained for some under the illusion that it was something "the authorities" would surely punish.

As the above demonstrates, Philipp and George were not at all political. Indeed, in many ways their reactions to the coming of war seem startlingly naive from our vantage point. Both young men are heavily focused on hunting and riding, with George in particular going going out hunting for a couple hours at dawn most mornings throughout the war. Something I found surprising reading the book was the extent of the use of cavalry in the Wehrmacht in World War II. I had known that despite their mechanized self (and public) image the German army in fact used horses much more heavily than the Allies for transport. I had not realized, however, that German cavalry were deployed in thousands both as reconnaissance and as mobile skirmishers, first on the Western Front against France, and then on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union. As the Eastern Front bogs down in rain and mud in 1941, the cavalry troops are some of the only ones able to cover large amounts of ground quickly.

At times one finds those small moments of quiet and humanity which remind us that the soldiers on both sides of a war are much alike, especially in wanting to live to see their families again. As the French surrender is nearing in 1940, Philipp is ordered to take a village occupied by French troops. Having heard rumors that France and Germany are about to announce a cease fire, Philipp goes forward and under a while flat and talks to the French commander, who knows nothing about a cease fire but says he has been ordered to hold the village until 7:00 PM and then retreat. Philipp agrees not to move his unit forward until the French has left, in order to avoid bloodshed -- going to far as to threaten to shoot the commander of another unit who comes up and wants to attack the village before the French leave.
The Lieutenant colonel exploded with anger. But seeing the pistol pointed at him, and seeing that I looked as though I was actually prepared to shoot him, he yielded. The French battalion was saved. Everything went as planned, without a drop of blood being shed. Few people knew what had happened, and we tried to keep it quiet. But we were unable to keep the news from circulating among the staffs. The story became almost a legend -- in some versions, I actually fired. Fortunately, as the anecdote spread and became distorted, the names of the two people involved were forgotten. In any case, until the end of the war Doege and I took care to avoid each other. (p. 34)

In 1941-1942 Philipp, now serving on the Eastern Front, already found himself turning against the Nazi regime, and had become acquinted with Achim Oster and Henning von Tresckow, the officer who would be the initiator of the assassination plan which came to its tragic end in June, 1944. However, Philipp marks his decisive turning point as coming in the summer of 1942 when, having been sounded and assigned to staff duties, he is given a report by an SS officer whose unit is operating in army territory. (The SS and the regular army did not get along well, and the activities of the SS were generally restricted to areas to the rear of the army, while their actions were supposed to be limited within army territory.) Mixed in with reports of actions against groups of armed partisans, von Boeselager finds the terse but sinister entry, "Special treatment for five Gypsies." He took his concerns to Field Marshal Kluge, for whom he was serving as an aide.
I was present at the discussion between Bach-Zelewski and Kluge. They talked first about the guerrillas: how to limit their range, how to eliminate them from the countryside, and especially how to secure the vital connections with Germany. A discreet reminder on my part, once the technical presentation was complete, caused Kluge rather abruptly to ask the SS officer, "Oh, by the way, I was about to forget: What do you mean in your report by 'special treatment'? You apparently gave 'special treatment' t five Gypsies."

"Those? We shot them!"

"What do you mean, shot them?! Following a trial before a military tribunal?"

"No, of course not! All the Jews and Gypsies we pick up are liquidated -- shot!"

The marshal and I were both taken aback. I felt the kind of internal dislocation and devastation that leads to panic. Obviously, we sensed that something was wrong. Kluge could not have been unaware that crimes, major crimes, had been committed in areas under his authority. Still, we had attributed them to the uncontrolled excesses of the SS. But here was Bach-Zelewski stating a doctrine of extermination as though it were perfectly natural. What we had taken for terrible blunders were, in reality, part of a coherent, premeditated plan.
Kluge was not a man to temporize. He immediately called General Franz Halder of the Army General Staff. Leaving aside pointless humanitarian and legal arguments, Kluge tried to prove the inanity of this enterprise, which stiffened resistance instead of breaking it. The only positive result of his energetic complains was that we no longer heard about Bach-Zelewski. Perhaps he simply stopped reporting his barbaric acts.

This incident changed my view of the war. I was disgusted and afraid. I had already had occasion to wonder about the meaning of this conflict, its strategic pertinence, and the Fuhrer's tactics. Through friends in my division's reserve battalion who had been sent t Stargard shortly after the invasion of Poland, I had heard rumors about the crimes committed byt eh SS in the conquered areas. We were surprised not so much by the rumors -- there were so many young men without morals in the SS units -- as by the perpetrators' complete impunity. We told ourselves that this could not go on for long; we considered these atrocities, which were probably but never proven, to be isolated events.

Henceforth, I had the proof of the abomination before my eyes.... (p79-81)

von Boeselager confided his new disgust with the regime to Tresckow, who proved to have turned to the resistance as a result of hearing about a much larger SS atrocity. Tresckow was now the center of one of several groups of mid and high ranking German officers who were disillusioned with the war, disgusted with the Nazis, and seeking some way to end the Fuhrer's life and the war. Philipp and George both found themselves in this circle, many of whom were from an aristocratic background and also practicing Christians.
It is difficult to describe a man's faith without descending into hagiographical platitudes. Henning von Tresckow was inhabited by an ardent piety that he was not afraid to express. For Christmas 1942, the general command of the Wehrmacht had forbidden any celebration. Nazi officers had been assigned to see to the observance of this injunction. Thus, it was more surprising when Tresckow came silently forward among his men, flanked by Georg Schulze-Buttger and Hans-Ulrich von Oertzen. The operations officer read the Christmas gospel just as he would have done amid his own family. I had informed Kluge of what Tresckow was going to do; thus the marshal had come to the junior officers' mess solely to provide cover for his subordinate. It was a true Christian Christmas, to the joy of the overwhelming majority. (p. 97)

In the spring of 1943 Tresckow's group, now including both Georg and Philipp von Boeselager made three attempts on Hitler's life, but all three were either called off at the last minute, or failed. A plan for several officers to shoot the Fuhrer at close range as he toured the mess hall was canceled because Himmler, originally traveling with Hitler, left, and the conspirators feared a civil war if Hitler was killed but Himmler survived. On another occasion, a crate full of explosives (prepared by Philipp) was smuggled into the cargo hold of Hitler's airplane, but failed to detonate at altitude.

In the fall of 1943, Georg and Philipp were both wounded, and spent much of the winter in and out of hospital. Conditions on the Eastern Front were deteriorating, and by the time the actual assassination attempt (with Stauffenberg's valise full of explosives which injured but did not kill Hitler) is made, the military situation is on the point of collapse. George and Philipp's cavalry units are sent rushing towards Berlin to help provide military backing to the coup planned to follow the assassination, and then have to turn and rush back towards the front lines (luckily masked by the chaos of the Russian advance) when word comes that Hitler was not killed in the attempt.
In the glum silence punctuated by the clip-clop of the horses' hooves, I had plenty of time for reflection. I was obsessed by one question; was it still really necessary to carry out this assassination? Stauffenberg had asked the same question of Tresckow a few days before the attempt. Why should one risk one's life, and especially that of dozens of other people, when the military situation suggested that in a few months the dictatorship would be over? Tresckow responded forthrightly, as usual: "The assassination has to take place, whatever the cost. Even if it doesn't succeed, we have to try. Now it is no longer the object of the assassination that matters, but rather to show the whole world, and history, that the German resistance movement dared to gamble everything, even at the risk of its own life. All the rest, in the end, is merely secondary." (p. 159-160)

A great many of the conspirators did pay with their lives for that place in history. Stauffenberg was executed by firing squad. A number of other conspirators were hanged. Tresckow and Field Marshal Kluge both took their own lives before the SS could do it for them. Georg was killed in action. The most unusual and fascinating fate of the one of the conspirators is as follows:
On August 17th, 1944, Fabian von Schlabrendorff was arrested. Tortured at length by the Gestapo, he did not give us away.... Under torture, his legal training came out. He raised procedural issues, and during a hearing he objected to the illegality of the treatment meted out to prisoners. Two of his ribs had been broken in interrogation; he created turmoil in the courtroom by displaying his injury. The prosecution was taken aback, and the trail had to be suspended. Then Schlabrendorff had a real stroke of luck: the courthouse was bombed, and his judicial dossier was lost in the ruins, along with the presiding judge, the infamous Roland Freisler, who had been carrying it. Asked afterward why he had been arrested and then interned, he replied that he was accused of "illegally slaughtering cattle." He was put in a concentration camp and then transferred, along with General Franz Halder and former French prime minister Leon Blum, to South Tyrol. After being freed by American troops, he returned to civilian life and resumed his work as a jurist; in 1967 he was appointed to the German constitutional court. He died in 1980. (p. 170-171)

However, somehow, word of Philipp's involvement in the plot never got out. He made it his business for the rest of the war to keep his cavalrymen out of action as much as possible and bring them home alive.

As a first person narrative, Valkyrie provides a unique glimpse into the experiences of a group of men who tried to follow the dictates of their honor and their faith in one of the most chaotic and horrific periods in the last century. It's a fairly quick read, and definitely a worthwhile one for those with an interest in the period.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Top Ten, I guess

The very local paper, delivered sporadically, announces the top ten bestsellers at the nearest Barnes and Noble:
  1. Glenn Beck's Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine by Glenn Beck
  2. The Shackby William Young
  3. Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Timeby Greg Mortenson
  4. The Time Traveler's Wifeby Audrey Niffenegger
  5. Eclipse (The Twilight Saga)by Stephenie Meyer
  6. Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Croniesby Michelle Malkin
  7. Breaking Dawn (The Twilight Saga, Book 4)by Stephenie Meyer
  8. Dean Koontz's Frankenstein: Dead and Alive: A Novelby Dean Koontz
  9. From Dead to Worse (Southern Vampire Mysteries, No. 8)by Charlaine Harris
  10. Fahrenheit 451by Ray Bradbury
I've never read any of these books, and with the exception of Fahrenheit 451, I can really take or leave the whole list. The political books seem to confirm that we are indeed in a red pocket of a blue area in a red state. I've always been of the opinion that most political books, regardless of authorial affiliation, should be published as big pamphlets: easily read, easily discarded. Why waste resources printing them in hardcover? Who buys a political diatribe as a keepsake?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Prudential Science

I ran into this quote going through an old EconTalk the other day, and thought it interesting:

As economists, we're specialists in prudence only.
That, as you say, is not what Adam Smith recommended. Not at all. I and a number of other people would like to get back to a Smithian economics, which although it didn't throw away the very numerous insights that we get from thinking of people as maximizers -- maximizers in this narrow sense -- acknowledges that temperence and justice and love and courage and hope and faith can change the way the economy works.

UIC Economist, Deirdre McCloskey

I'm trying to decide if I agree with it or not. I would certainly agree that economics basically only looks at certain prudential concerns, it doesn't consider humanistic or theological questions. However, I'm not sure if economics should acknowledge those concerns, or if it is more the case that economists (and others dealing with the field) should clearly acknowledge that there is much more to any question than the question of what is most economically efficient.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The renewal of your minds

Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. --Romans 12:2

I wish I could remember where I read about the Muslim converts to Christianity who, when asked what inspired them to convert, said that they had fallen in love with the person of Jesus. His gentleness and patience, His erudition and intelligence, His love -- Jesus Himself was the force that led them to break with Islam and take the dangerous step of converting. In Great Books, David Denby (who describes himself as a not that observant Jew) reads the Gospels and is struck by his first real encounter with Jesus. He is amazed at His vivid personality, His quick wit and self-possession, and how easy it is to love Him. Although he encounters other Christian thought in his re-reading of the Great Books of western civilization, they don't strike him with the same force as a direct encounter with Jesus.

A few months ago a dear friend observed to me, about the Catholic blogsphere, that she rarely saw any mention of Jesus. Plenty of internal doctrinal baseball; plenty of liturgical spats; some devotional stuff; some Marian reflections; but not much meditation on Jesus Himself. I don't know if anyone reading my writing would feel that he'd just had an encounter with Jesus. I feel certain that Joe Citizen, surfing the 'net, stumbling across Catholics arguing amongst themselves about politics or economics or liturgy, would not recognize that Jesus was there in their midst. Where is the "renewal of your minds"? Where is the sharp wit without cruelty or self-absorption? Where is Jesus?

I think there is a place for snark: writing without wit is thick porridge, and Jesus himself showed up the Pharisees on more than one occasion. Too often, though, snark devolves into fisking and point-scoring and one-upsmanship that ceases to serve any purpose than to salve the ego of the snarker. Without underlying charity, snark is no more than a "resounding gong or a clashing cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1), pure noise.

I particularly enjoyed the recent exchange between Pentimento, responding to a post about single mothers with charity and mercy, and Embrethelil, who illuminates her original posting without defensiveness or rancor. This kind of discussion, in which the principals enlarge and examine their positions with neither biting personal jabs nor mutual saccharine soppiness, is refreshing.

Another post I can't stop thinking about is Eric Brown's wrenching conversion story, in which he is drawn into the Church by Jesus Himself: "My focal interest was with the figure of our Lord, with Christology and soteriology—ecclesiology became an interest much later. I was obsessed with the Lord and I wanted to know everything about Him." Although he comes to accept the Church's authority to rule on matters of sexual morality and women's ordination, he writes that:
Strikingly, my comfort with dissent and the choice of others to dissent from church teaching not only assisted my conversion, it helped me to convert and ultimately become orthodox. If I had an inkling of suspicion that such matters were more than mere prevalent Christian opinions in a slowly evolving human world, but rather unchangeable teachings, I would not have been so content to focus my energies on other teachings—the ones that drew me in, which basically allowed me to come across everything I would need to know, so that when the time came, the teachings I did not want to accept, were acceptable because I would be able to see the relevance and the deep harmony of all the teachings with one another.
What drew him in was Love -- not the sharp, self-satisfied apologetics practiced on the internet.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Excessive Health Care Profits

In the health care reform debate, we often hear about how huge amounts of money that could be going to provide people with treatement is being sucked up by insurance company profits instead. This kind of thing always makes me wonder, since in my experience a competitive market place will usually drive profit margins down pretty low. So I thought it would be illustrative to look up how much money the top private insurance companies make, and then determine their profit margins and profits per enrollee.

The following information is publically available on Google Finance. Revenue figures are annual ones for the year ending 12-31-2008. The total revenue, income before tax and income after tax figures come directly from each companies public financial reports. The enrollee figures are potentially slightly more approximate, since there I googled for the most recent press release which showed total enrollment for each company.

It struck me as interesting that it was Humana, with the lowest profits per enrollee in 2008, which just posted a healthy profit increase for Q2. Wellpoint and Aetna have suffered membership declines in the last quarter.

In no case is the company making more than $100 per enrollee per year in profits. Given that most insurance plans cost a good $4000-$6000 per year, the amount of what we pay for insurance that goes to "lining insurance companies' pockets" would seem to be fairly small.

Catholic Health Care: Our Lady of Hope Clinic

As Catholics, and other Americans, continue the debate over national solutions to help the uninsured, Our Lady of Hope Clinic in Madison, Wisconsin is helping treat the uninsured one person at a time. Long time reader Steve Karlen is the development director for the clinic, which opened in April of this year. OLHC has a unique model, based on Dr. Kloess and Dr. Johnson's desire to provide outstanding primary care through a structure designed in accordance with Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.

Like the increasingly popular private practice or closed practice model, OLHC accepts up to a set number of patients, which due to OLHC's non profit model are called benefactors. The limit is set at 600, which has not yet been met, so the clinic is still accepting memberships. Benefactors receive unlimitted primary care through the clinic with no additional charges or co-pays beyond the annual benefactor fee -- which is set at a 1200 dollars with various discounts which can apply for couples, children, or younger patients. (This pricing is comparable to other closed practice/concierge-style doctor's offices.) Like a closed practice, benefactors can make same day appointments any time and have direct access to their doctors via phone and email. They are expected to carry insurance for specialist, prescription and hospital care -- however benefactors can often save money overall on health care by switching to a high deductible plan for care not covered by the clinic.