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

Monday, February 28, 2011

An Opera-tunity to Support the Arts

First, listen: "I'd Like To Go Away Alone", composed by Philip Koplow as part of the cantata "We Are Here!" The lyrics come from a poem by Alena Synkova, an inmate of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. This recording is from the world premiere on May 2, 2010, in Cincinnati.

I'd like to go away alone.
Where there are other, nicer people,
Somewhere into the far unknown,
There, where no one kills another.

Maybe more of us,
A thousand strong,
Will reach this goal
Before too long.

Now, meet the singer:

This is Anna Egan, a 20-year-old soprano studying Vocal Performance at Northern Kentucky University. She's taking that voice on the road, too: this May, she's heading to Salzburg, Austria for a six-week summer session in Opera, Music History, and all the other esoterica the young artist needs to be rounded. Though the program covers the cost of tuition, she has to raise more than $4000 for plane fare, room and board, meals, etc. And the first $1000 is due by March 15!

So if you've ever wanted to be a patron of the arts but didn't know where to begin, here's your chance: a real live starving artist!
There are approximately 51 meals that are not covered for the duration of our trip. That's a lot of food to make up for, so I need to call for reinforcements.

For 15$, you can sponsor a meal that I eat in Austria. You can even get a group together and sponsor multiple meals or just send a donation towards the total cost of my trip. (Either way you have my love and undying belief in your awesomeness, which I already have. ;) )

For 20$, you can sponsor an entire day, and any sight-seeing or activities that I do I will take photos of, especially for you!

For every meal or thing that you sponsor, I will send you a photo of that meal, as well as an anecdote of my time in a foreign culture and a progress update as to my studies and performances. You will have a direct impact on the life of a budding young artist, as well as a little "taste" of life in Europe.

Every little bit helps. Even a dollar adds up when there are many of them.
Read more about her trip here, including details of how to contribute.

(Full and honest disclosure: this is my little sister, guys. But the girl can sing.)

Does Giving Women a Year's Supply of The Pill Reduce Abortions?

A reader asked me to take a look at this study (abstract here) and see if it reaches a valid set of conclusions. The study was conducted in California among ~80,000 women who receive birth control pills paid for by the state as part of a program for low income women. Previously, women in the program have received a 1 or 3 months supply of birth control at a time, and then have to go in to the clinic in order to receive a refill. In the study, a portion of these women were given a full year's supply instead of one or three months, and state medical records were then used to see if this resulted in a change in the rate of unplanned pregnancy and abortion among the women who received a full year supply of birth control.
Researchers observed a 30 percent reduction in the odds of pregnancy and a 46 percent decrease in the odds of an abortion in women given a one-year supply of birth control pills at a clinic versus women who received the standard prescriptions for one – or three-month supplies.

The researchers speculate that a larger supply of oral contraceptive pills may allow more consistent use, since women need to make fewer visits to a clinic or pharmacy for their next supply.

"Women need to have contraceptives on hand so that their use is as automatic as using safety devices in cars, " said Diana Greene Foster, PhD, lead author and associate professor in the UCSF Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences. "Providing one cycle of oral contraceptives at a time is similar to asking people to visit a clinic or pharmacy to renew their seatbelts each month."
Oral contraceptive pills are the most commonly used method of reversible contraception in the United States, the team states. While highly effective when used correctly (three pregnancies per 1,000 women in the first year of use), approximately half of women regularly miss one or more pills per cycle, a practice associated with a much higher pregnancy rate (80 pregnancies per 1,000 women in the first year of use), according to the team. [source]
The details of that decrease are as follows:
Women who received a 1-year supply were less likely to have a pregnancy (1.2% compared with 3.3% of women getting three cycles of pills and 2.9% of women getting one cycle of pills). Dispensing a 1-year supply is associated with a 30% reduction in the odds of conceiving an unplanned pregnancy compared with dispensing just one or three packs (confidence interval [CI] 0.57–0.87) and a 46% reduction in the odds of an abortion (95% CI 0.32–0.93), controlling for age, race or ethnicity, and previous pill use.[source]
So, what should a Catholic pro-lifer make of this?

Well, there may or may not have been methodological issues with this study. I read several science news stories about it, but I can't get access to the full text, so I don't know for sure how they dealt with sample bias, etc. However, I have to admit, that from what I've read it makes sense to me that the study results are valid as far as they go. But they also give us a window into the contraceptive mentality which is at play in feeding into abortion in this culture.

The women in the study are receiving birth control so that they can have sex at will while not getting pregnant. Nevertheless, some percentage of them are getting pregnant (around 1% of those getting the year supply, around 3% of the rest) during any given year. The good news is that they are like the rest of California women in that in 80% of these cases, they are carrying these unexpected children to term. The bad news is that 20% of the time they choose an abortion instead.

But part of what's feeding this problem is not the quantity of birth control that's being given out at a time, but the sense in which people's actions are (for whatever reason) not fitting with their desires. One article on the study includes this telling quote:
“It's a cost-savings thing, but it's also a quality-of-care issue — and it's the right thing to do,” she says. “People don't stop having sex when their pills run out.”
So people are taking birth control pills in order to have sex while not getting pregnant, but if they run out of pills -- they don't stop having sex.

The study's proposed solution to this is "let's just make sure they always have lots of birth control on hand" and I suppose in the context of them taking birth control, I really don't have any strong feelings about whether they get a month's supply or a years supply at a time. But it seems to me that we're looking at the root of a much deeper issue when we hear someone conducting a study on this topic saying that people do not appear to stop having sex when they run out of birth control -- even if they know it's only the birth control that's keeping them from getting pregnant as a result of having sex.

All other things staying constant, if it's true (as the study appears to indicate) that some women on birth control are late in refilling their prescriptions and thus gap out for a few days, yet continue having sex as normal (or abstain during the couple days they don't have pills, but then go back to having sex as normal as soon as they start taking the pills again without realizing that the unexpected fertility might well come a week or two after the gap, not during it) then it's pretty logical that reducing the frequency with which women have the potential to experience that gap would reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies. And if we assume that the same percentage of unplanned pregnancies will always result in abortions, then necessarily reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies will reduce the number of abortions.

I think this does suggest that for those people who are in the business of dispensing birth control pills, it would be an obvious thing for them to dispense large prescriptions, and perhaps to look into some sort of automatic reminder or shipment in order to help women avoid these gaps. Women who are coming to them for birth control obviously don't want to get pregnant, and they will do a better job of fulfilling those women's wishes if they help them avoid those gaps.

I don't think we pro-lifers who have moral objections to birth control need to go out and become cheerleaders for the idea of handing out larger prescriptions of The Pill -- though in light of this study I think we shouldn't actively try to keep birth control dispensers from dispensing larger amounts at a time. The moral content of taking birth control is the same regardless of how much you pick up at a time and the larger prescription amounts seem to have, on the whole, positive results from everyone's point of view.

I think the role for us as pro-lifers is two fold:

First, either way, we believe that everyone will be better off if abortion is simply not on the table. (For those birth control enthusiasts, this might even result in some more conscientious pill taking.) This clearly makes no different in our fight to remove abortion from the set of legal medical options.

Second, our society is clearly both confused and dysfunctional when it comes to sex, if we have a lot of people who are taking birth control in order to avoid getting pregnant yet don't stop having sex if they run out of birth control. The birth control advocates who are the sources of this study are going to be no help in solving these problems, because their whole worldview is built around the idea that sex should be totally separate from reproduction. It is up to us to build the cultural understanding that sex results in new human life, and that even "protected" sex does some percentage of the time. If you are having sex, you had better be sure that it is with a person whom you are willing to have a child with -- even if you're taking measure to reduce the likelihood of that happening in any given year down to around 1%. One person out of a hundred is still a pretty significant group of people, and a number of years your chances of ending up with a child at some point only go up.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Elder Son

Some fiction for your Friday...

Yes, well. Of course you know the story, the story of my younger brother, in which I play the foil's part. Advanced inheritance; dissolution: wine, women, gambling, banquets, all the usual; money exhausted; the dramatic return; and his father's -- our father's -- joyful forgiveness. It's not a story, I realize, in which I come off well. I assure you I'm at least self aware enough to know that. I'm not here to make excuses. The grand emotional appeals have always been my brother's forte anyway. And at this remove, however much I may see myself as the hero of my own story, I know that it is my brother who holds a special appeal to people.

He, of course, is telling no stories now. He is in that eternal moment which needs no telling and is untellable. While I, always ahead and so always behind, am here to talk to you.

You will be thinking, by now, that I am "just" a fictional character. That would, I sometimes think in my still unperfected state, have been a comfort. Then I would have been "the elder son" and nothing more. But no. I am as real as any other invention of the divine mind. And so, naturally, my brother and I were followers of the Savior. Yes, me too. I could always be relied on to keep the accounts and purchase food to be distributed to the widows and orphans, to re-read the letters of the Apostles to the children or the catechumens and offer up my own -- perhaps over-smug -- thoughts on them. I was a linchpin, invaluable for my organizational skills, if I may so confess. And my brother. Well, he stole the money from the charitable purse -- no, not for the reason I've let you think, for a satisfying moment, by saying that. He stole the money and gave it all away at once. My weekly distributions were so orderly, but he gave it all away. I, on the other hand, worried about how we'd find the money to feed the widows the next week.

I clung to system and sense and frowned on those who were swept away by their feelings about the Savior -- in part because I have seldom been blessed with any such feelings myself. I could fast and give away my possessions with the best of them, but unlike the best of them I did so because I thought it was the right thing, not because I believed it was.

Thinking. Calculating. Reasoning. These were the things I was comfortable with. And the regularity of discipline. When the persecutions came, under Nero, I organized our community. I planned a new meeting place each week, secret passwords, people were not to go about in groups, no strangers to be admitted. I was determined not to lose a single one of those entrusted to my care. And my brother. He had a different determination. He was determined to preach the faith to the legionaries.

Well. That worked out. And if there's any single thing I can be proud of it's that when dragged before the governor I did not deny the Savior. Though I soiled myself while remaining silent. And bit my tongue quite viciously.

My brother prayed for our persecutors as we hung there. I cursed them, and shouted that the Romans had no business in Judea, that we were a free people and would always be such even if only in the freedom of death. His grand gesture was more in keeping with our maker than was mine. I'm sure that when he saw The Presence, he rushed forward, impulsive and childish as he always was. I held back, not turning away from that I longed for, but too proud to rush forward when I could have wished that someone, at last, would rush to me and say, "Welcome back, my favorite son."

And so here, neither coming nor going, I stay. Waiting. Trying to bend my will I thought so well-formed so that it will conform to the One which it loves imperfectly.

Perhaps, if you find time -- I can't say that I'm the most exciting project, I understand that there are far more who hold out hope for Judas or for Nero than for me, if only because so few know that I am something other than "a parable" -- dispatch a prayer or two for me. That some day I can overcome my wish that He would recognize how hard I've worked in my stolid way for him, and instead rush forward myself as my brother did so long ago and say, "Father, I have sinned."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Kasparov on the Significance of AI Playing Jeopardy!

Over at The Atlantic they have an interesting little exclusive with Garry Kasparov (who has a little experience with the man vs. machine thing) providing his reactions to IBM supercomputer Watson's victory in Jeopardy!:
  • A convincing victory under strict parameters, and if we stay within those limits Watson can be seen as an incremental advance in how well machines understand human language. But if you put the questions from the show into Google, you also get good answers, even better ones if you simplify the questions. To me, this means Watson is doing good job of breaking language down into points of data it can mine very quickly, and that it does it slightly better than Google does against the entire Internet.
  • Much like how computers play chess, reducing the algorithm into "crunchable" elements can simulate the way humans do things in the result even though the computer's method is entirely different. If the result—the chess move, the Jeopardy answer—is all that matters, it's a success. If how the result is achieved matters more, I'm not so sure. For example, Deep Blue had no real impact on chess or science despite the hype surrounding its sporting achievement in defeating me. If Watson's skills can be translated into something useful, something groundbreaking, that is the test. If all it can do is beat humans on a game show Watson is just a passing entertainment akin to the wind-up automata of the 18th century.
  • My concern about its utility, and I read they would like it to answer medical questions, is that Watson's performance reminded me of chess computers. They play fantastically well in maybe 90% of positions, but there is a selection of positions they do not understand at all. Worse, by definition they do not understand what they do not understand and so cannot avoid them. A strong human Jeopardy! player, or a human doctor, may get the answer wrong, but he is unlikely to make a huge blunder or category error—at least not without being aware of his own doubts. We are also good at judging our own level of certainty. A computer can simulate this by an artificial confidence measurement, but I would not like to be the patient who discovers the medical equivalent of answering "Toronto" in the "US Cities" category, as Watson did.
  • I would not like to downplay the Watson team's achievement, because clearly they did something most did not yet believe possible. And IBM can be lauded for these experiments. I would only like to wait and see if there is anything for Watson beyond Jeopardy!. These contests attract the popular imagination, but it is possible that by defining the goals so narrowly they are aiming too low and thereby limit the possibilities of their creations.
From all I can tell, the only really interesting technological advances indicated by Watson's victory are in the ability of a computer to discern a spoken question and it's approach to trying to ascertain the meaning of that question. In both cases, Watson's approach is utterly alien to human intelligence, and in many ways just underscores how different human thought and what a computer does are.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Links Round-up

1. If you're following the whole dispute throughout the Catholic blogsphere on the efficacy of lying (springing from Live Action's stings on Planned Parenthood clinics) Brandon at Siris has, for my money, the clearest writing on the situation.

UPDATE: A friend wrote me in a message:
"What struck me the most about the Lila Rose case was not the issue of whether it's okay to lie in certain cases, but the idea that it's okay to lie to certain people because they're scum, anyway. 'We're better than you, so it doesn't really matter if we treat you like crap.'"
Also, for the sophisticate who entertains, he offers Immanuel Kant's rules for a good dinner party.

2. The Manolo is also laying down some ground rules, in regards to beauty.

3. Bearing has up a fine post on what makes gluttony gluttony.

We've been over this before: we can be a glutton by eating too expensively, too daintily ("pickily"), too much, too soon, or too eagerly. This is a nice categorization because it expands the usual definition of gluttony, but it still leaves us asking: But Thomas, what do you mean by "too" anything? If one can eat "too" expensively, then surely one can eat "just expensively enough," and so forth. Where is the line? How do we know when we've crossed over from eating promptly, to eating "too soon?" Eating with relish, and eating "too eagerly?" Selecting good food and being a glutton of pickiness?

I think the answer is that gluttony, like most concupiscence, abhors restraint; what makes gluttony different from other vices, such as sloth or lust is that the restraints it abhors all have to do with food. Different people live under different sets of restraints, some more stringent than others; and different times call for different restraints; so the boundaries of gluttony cannot be defined clearly as a set of rules that are appropriate for everyone. And so eating quite a lot of food, or eating expensive food, or eating at odd times, isn't inherently gluttonous; what makes it gluttonous is if the eater is supposed to be exercising restraint, but isn't.

She's the best food writer I know.

4. Speaking of the good and the beautiful, I want to eat this tiramisu. Because one can only take so much dieting.

5. Jake Tawney at Roma Locuta Est writes about the teachers' union strikes in Wisconsin from the perspective of a Catholic teacher in a public school.
The result of this is that I am now an outsider on the inside. I am a non-union member in a profession that demands union membership. I don’t say this with regret, and I am certainly not looking for pity; I am well aware of having made my proverbial bed. Principled stands have consequences, and if I were to whine about the consequences of my actions, I would not be living up to the iconic ideal of my father. And believe me when I tell you that I desperately want to make my father as proud of me as I am of him. It doesn’t, however, change the objective fact that I am a scab, and moments like Senate Bill 5 make that abundantly clear.
I can’t tell you what I think of the bill, because quite frankly I don’t know. I know that the Catholic Church supports unions in principle, and out of obedience I abide by that teaching. I hardly think, though, that the Church approves of what unions have become in our country, which in part includes immoral political stances.
Those interested in the new translation of the Mass that's being implemented come Advent should be reading Jake's New Translation Monday series. This week he covers the first half of the Gloria.

6. The National Catholic Register has added a number of new bloggers lately. Don't miss Simcha Fisher on Why I Love My Ugly Little Liturgy or Jennifer Fulwiler writing about 4 Tips for Using Graphic Abortion Images Effectively.

7. Emily J. at Back Bay View shares eight practical tips for protecting your marriage. Emily's family is being posted to Guam, so she knows a thing or two about keeping your marriage strong during momentous life changes.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

In Praise of the Single Man

It's become fashionable lately to bash single guys as slacking, media-obsessed slobs who live in a haze of extended adolescence. These young men feel that the rise of the educated career woman who snuggles up with a good IVF treatment to get her maternal fix (because all the single guys out there are slacking, media-obsessed slobs unworthy of fatherhood) takes them off the hook for any kind of accelerated maturing process, and so they revel in their lack of commitment while drinking beer and developing bromances with their best buds.

Anyway, that seems to be the thesis of Kay Hymowitz's article in today's WSJ, entitled Where Have All the Good Men Gone?

What explains this puerile shallowness? I see it as an expression of our cultural uncertainty about the social role of men. It's been an almost universal rule of civilization that girls became women simply by reaching physical maturity, but boys had to pass a test. They needed to demonstrate courage, physical prowess or mastery of the necessary skills. The goal was to prove their competence as protectors and providers. Today, however, with women moving ahead in our advanced economy, husbands and fathers are now optional, and the qualities of character men once needed to play their roles—fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity—are obsolete, even a little embarrassing.

Today's pre-adult male is like an actor in a drama in which he only knows what he shouldn't say. He has to compete in a fierce job market, but he can't act too bossy or self-confident. He should be sensitive but not paternalistic, smart but not cocky. To deepen his predicament, because he is single, his advisers and confidants are generally undomesticated guys just like him.

Single men have never been civilization's most responsible actors; they continue to be more troubled and less successful than men who deliberately choose to become husbands and fathers. So we can be disgusted if some of them continue to live in rooms decorated with "Star Wars" posters and crushed beer cans and to treat women like disposable estrogen toys, but we shouldn't be surprised.

Relatively affluent, free of family responsibilities, and entertained by an array of media devoted to his every pleasure, the single young man can live in pig heaven—and often does. Women put up with him for a while, but then in fear and disgust either give up on any idea of a husband and kids or just go to a sperm bank and get the DNA without the troublesome man. But these rational choices on the part of women only serve to legitimize men's attachment to the sand box. Why should they grow up? No one needs them anyway. There's nothing they have to do.

I find this kind of blanket condemnation irritating. I will never deny that I live in a Catholic sub-culture, but I get out of the house every now and then, and I want to state for the record: I do not know these guys.

I know a quantity of single guys from various backgrounds. Some I knew in college, some are old friends, some I know through online connections, and some are my very own brothers. These guys aren't jerks or slackers -- they're some of the hardest-working people I know. (They party hard, too, but who exactly is going to begrudge that of someone who can get away with it? I myself would party more if I had the opportunity.) All of them are highly educated and gainfully employed. They're looking for the right girl, but they don't participate in any kind of hook-up culture. These men are intelligent and fairly pleasant to look at and generally free of complexes or issues.

Don't give me any of this "Why are they still single, then?" guff. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a high-school sweetheart or meet the right girl in college. Marriage isn't just an abstract concept -- it involves a particular other person. Education, employment, personality, and smarts make it more plausible that the right person will be attracted to the possessor of these virtues, but they can't conjure up a mate when no existing candidate is simpatico. These guys are single as Darwin or I might still be single if we hadn't happened to meet.

Incidentally, my single male friends are practicing Catholics, which likely puts them head and shoulders above the crowd in terms of responsibility, morality, and respect for women.

I'm sure that these slacker dudes exist -- Darwin notes that he knew some guys at his previous company, a big tech concern, who met some of Ms. Hymowitz's standards for pre-adulthood males. But I don't see it, and I'm tired of most unmarried males being lumped into this uber-jerk category. Just as I'm tired of the "women today are so educated and discriminating that they don't need guys" trope -- these easy stereotypes seem to be literary contrivances that don't address the cheapening of sexual standards which make it so hard for men and women to pursue and find true value in members of the opposite gender.

(And let's bust another myth: the lazy gamer single guy. The hard-core gamers I know are mostly married men whose wives are very tolerant. The single guys know that girls aren't impressed by a man who's glued to a game console, and act accordingly. Some of them are even that rara avis, a guy who doesn't game at all. Ladies, take note.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

This Issue's A Bust

Once in a while the political news circuit gets stuck on a topic so amazingly trivial and foolish that the spectacle of such a large tempest raging in such a small teapot makes it hard to look away. This week, the leading ladies of the right and left have decided to fight it out over breastfeeding.
I picked this for obvious reasons, but the parent in me says "No diaper and white dress: Watch Out!"
How, you might ask, could something like breastfeeding become a hot political issue? It seems that as part of her Let's Move program to reduce childhood obesity, Michelle Obama has decided to promote breastfeeding. A nurse-in at the White House? No, that might actually be interesting. Rather, the proposal is for the IRS to grant a tax deduction for breast pumps and other nursing supplies.

Seeing a chance to turn a phrase, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin have weighed in, saying that getting the government involved in breastfeeding is the ultimate in "nanny state" politics. And this has given political commentators on the left the chance to weigh in with "Palin attacks breastfeeding" and "Bachmann says government has no business telling women what choices to make about their bodies" type headlines.

Frankly, this strikes me as one of the silliest topics to have a political fight over, ever. The proposal itself is laughably ineffective. A quick glance down Amazon shows current prices for popular breast pumps ranging from $50 for the basic battery operated model to around $300 for the "Medela Pump In Style Advanced Breast Pump with Metro Bag".

Now, I'll be the first to agree that $300 would be a significant outlay for many working class moms having to go back to work while their babies are still nursing. But let's think for a moment about how a tax deduction works. You still have to shell out for the breast pump yourself. You save the receipt, and months later when you do your taxes you get to take that $300 off of your reported income. This doesn't lower the amount of tax you pay (or as people usually think of it: increase the amount you get back) by $300, though. It decreases your taxable income. The maximum amount you would "get back" months after the fact would be your top marginal tax rate times $300. If you're middle class or working class, that would be 15%. So you'd get $45 dollars back for the $300 you spent, but only months later.

Perhaps I'm overly skeptical, but I find it hard to imagine this would cause lots of working class mothers who would otherwise have given their kids formula instead of breastmilk once they returned to work to think, "Wow. I could really do this. And it comes with a 'metro bag' too. That will make it all work out!" (Not to discount the virtues of a metro bag. I mean, couldn't we all use a little more metro in our lives?)

The thing is, the main costs of breatfeeding your child are not monetary, especially for a mother who is having to work away from her child for a standard set of works hours. The main costs relate to time and trouble. And there's no way that a tax deduction can solve that problem.

So the proposal is, I think, pretty clearly so ineffective in achieving its purported aims as to be deeply silly. Which makes the attempt to grab headlines by opposing it also a quite silly. While I can agree with the desire to keep the tax code simpler, that's a horse that left the stable a long time ago and this sort of empty posturing is going to cost the government virtually nothing, since a truly minimal number of people will ever use it.

Now if Mrs. Obama really wants to generate awareness for breastfeeding, I think that nurse-in idea at the White House has some merits. Just picture a thousand nursing mothers on the White House lawn. Nurse for America!

At the very least, it would make for better pictures than that characteristic "anger shots" which reporters can't help illustrating their stories with when they write about the female public figures arguing. And after all:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Oddly Depressing

Time magazine waxes on about "The Singularity" in the credulous way that it is good at:
For Kurzweil, it's not so much about staying healthy as long as possible; it's about staying alive until the Singularity. It's an attempted handoff. Once hyper-intelligent artificial intelligences arise, armed with advanced nanotechnology, they'll really be able to wrestle with the vastly complex, systemic problems associated with aging in humans. Alternatively, by then we'll be able to transfer our minds to sturdier vessels such as computers and robots. He and many other Singularitarians take seriously the proposition that many people who are alive today will wind up being functionally immortal.
This somehow strikes me as a very depressing idea. I'm not sure I'm Classical enough to insist that previous generations were definitely better than the current one, but I think that functional immortality in this world would make any group of people far worse. Though it would probably be "solved" moderately quickly by the fact that:

a) Most people couldn't afford this kind of existence, whereas traditional biological existence is cheap
b) Imagining for the moment that "functional immortality" either through keeping the body alive via medical technology or via porting were even possible (which I rather doubt) I think most people who tried it would get tired of it after a while and go ahead and die
c) Someone who managed to maintain an interest in keeping up this "functional immortality" would probably become so divorced from real human existence as to be irrelevant -- rather like the minor deities and fay of pagan and Christian folklore.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Academia and Lifestyle Bias

The other week Megan McArdle wrote a post about political bias in academia, inspired by this anecdote about psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

"This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity," Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal.
This post generated a record number of comments, many of them explaining reasons why this disproportion among academics was the result of something other than academia being a hostile environment for conservatives, which McArdle summarizes in a followup post as follows:
* Smart people are almost always liberal
* Curiousity and interest in ideas is a liberal trait
* Conservatives are too rigid and authoritarian to maintain the open mind required of a professor
* Education erases false conservative ideas and turns people into liberals
* Conservatives don't want to be professors because they're more interested in something else (money, the military)
* Conservatives don't want to be professors because they're anti-intellectual
* Conservatives hold false beliefs that make them ineligible to be professors
Well, as you can see, there's an obvious lack of bias among the academics responding...

The follow-up post is quite long, and among other things does a good job of noting the ways in which bias could result in an increasingly liberal academy without people consciously saying, "That guy's a conservative, we better refuse to give him tenure." One of the ones that particularly struck me was:
Hidden tripwires Usually the dominant group doesn't even realize they are there. For example, the low pay (and increasing reliance on unpaid internships for entree) of journalism often excludes people who don't have, at the minimum, a family that could take them in and help cover the bills if disaster struck. It's not surprising that the profession is so predominantly white and affluent even though everyone talks a lot about diversity.

Now, I've done my share of thinking about academia over the years. Going on in History or Classics had a certain appeal to me. But aside from the standard worries of "I'd be surrounding myself with a whole lot of people who would strongly dislike me for being Catholic and conservative," the thing which made going into academia completely out of the question for me was that I planned to get married immediately after getting my BA and wanted to be able to support a family in the short term. One thing that was very, very clear to me, watching the friends I had who were in grad school or struggling to find tenure track positions, is that trying to make it in academia didn't fit well with getting married and having children young. So I made a pragmatic call which I don't regret: It was simply a much safer bet going into the business world than trying to make of go of it in academia, given our marriage and family plans. I would imagine that many others, in like circumstances, would do the same.

How does this relate to political bias in academia?

Well, there's a two-way relationship between lifestyle and politics. On the one had, people who are conservative and people who are religious are two groups that tend to marry and have more than the average number of children. If you're both conservative and religious, it's even more so.

On the flip side, different lifestyles end up reinforcing different political interests. If you're single and you move around frequently and have somewhat interrupted employment and use public transportation a lot and rely on the availability of grant and research money -- you have a whole lot of reasons to support a generally progressive political agenda. If you are working in the private sector and struggling to buy a home and pay your taxes and have your kids educated in a way that you are comfortable with -- you have a whole lot of reasons to support a generally conservative political agenda.

And, of course, this becomes self-reinforcing after a while. Once this (and other) selection factors and biases have resulted in the academy becoming populated mainly by strongly progressive people who plan to marry late and have few if any kids, there aren't a whole lot of people to complain about the fact that the process of trying to make it in academia is heavily biased against people who don't plan to marry late and have few if any kids. In fact, deviating from that norm starts to make it look like you're someone who isn't very serious about academia. And since you can count of people who are serious about academia, people whom you would want in your department, not to mind the kind of treatment that keeps them from feeling like they can marry and have kids while will in their 20s, you can of course allow it to get a little bit more extreme. Which will in turn make academia that much more unattractive to people who don't want to follow the dominant cultural lifestyle of that profession.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Risky Business

This post, my one nod to Valentine's Day, is dedicated to Enbrethiliel, to whom I promised I would write up an account of how Darwin and I met and matched.)

I am happy to report to the organizers of campus student socials that freshmen mixers work. Darwin and I met at a dance three weeks into our freshman year. I wore a bowler hat that I'd borrowed from someone on my floor, and a flannel shirt (it was 1997, after all). The swing dance revival was in full flower, and Darwin and I attempted the form with great vigor if less polish. This in itself was notable -- I was, and remained for years, agonizingly self-conscious about any public display of learned skill, and yet that evening I threw myself into the twirls and twists with abandon. Then we hung around until 3 am, talking of matters of great import to the freshman. The bowler hat (which belonged to Molly Johnson; thanks, Molly!) must have been a lucky charm.

That was Friday. On Monday, I sat pondering both Darwin and homework. I had been assigned, for Acting class, to Take a Risk and write about it in a journal. This made less than no sense to me -- for one thing, the professor had been less than clear about what a Risk was, and so I had a hazy sense that I was supposed to set the cafeteria on fire or moon my roommate. While kicking around these uninspiring options, I pushed around the papers on my desk, saw the index card on which Darwin had written his phone extension and box number, and thought, "Maybe I should call Darwin and see if he wants to go for a walk." Almost instantly my heart started racing and I broke out into a cold sweat, which I considered positive indicators that I'd found my Risk. For several moments I planned and scripted and jotted in my Acting journal and made sure that my voice wasn't too breathy, and then I seized the phone and dialed. He, of course, wasn't in. I left a message in studied tones and jotted in my journal that the stupid Risk had been pretty anticlimactic. Upon the instant the phone rang -- Darwin calling back to say that he'd meet me in five minutes. Five hours later, I returned to my room, upgraded my Risk assessment, and collapsed in bed.

My professor scribed an approving check on my journal entry and noted in the margins, "Take more risks."

The next week consisted of fitting in classes between all the time we spent together, talking and ever talking. The amount of free time in the schedule of the college freshmen four weeks into the semester is astounding, and Darwin consumed all of mine. We exulted over mutual interests, aligned our mental libraries, developed in-jokes, and began to sync up culturally and personally. Among other topics, we bonded over unlikely romantic prospects: he had been paying mild attention to an inoffensive girl who was revealing decidedly unintellectual tendencies, and I had left at home a vestigial boyfriend of the same bent. How did one relate to these mundanes? One day in the cafeteria, the girl headed toward our table, and as Darwin waved her over, I thought, "He doesn't smile at me like that." And then I knew I was in trouble, and in love.

Before going off to college, Darwin had read Brideshead Revisited, which had (perhaps unrealistically) colored his impression of the charm of the undergraduate education. In homage to Sebastian's teddy bear, he took up the affectation of going about campus in the company of a stuffed ferret named Ignatius. You must remember that we were freshmen and by definition foolish, but it is a fact that Ignatius was wildly popular with the ladies and spent the night in the rooms of several females. One Tuesday evening (a week and a half after the freshman mixer) after we'd shut down both the dorms (closing time: 1 am) and the student center (2 am), we stood outside my building, putting off saying good night. Darwin had Ignatius in his backpack, as usual, and as I was lingering halfway through the door, he offered, "Ignatius wants to know if he can kiss you goodnight."

I packed a lifetime of analysis into three seconds: the vestigial boyfriend, my acting professor expounding upon the Taking of Risks, complex variations and analysis of the scene before me and whether or not I could save face if I made the wrong gamble. Then, declining Ignatius's kind offer on the pretext of not caring for furry lips, I counter-offered, "But you can kiss me good night, if you want to."

Fourteen years later, he's still kissing me good night.

The old reprobate, fourteen years later. Looks like he's done pretty well for himself.

Friday, February 11, 2011

If I Weren't Catholic, I Would...

As a Catholic, one is sometimes accused of being so mindlessly doctrinaire that one "accepts anything the pope says without thinking". However, at other times, one is faced with the opposite challenge: Does your Catholic faith cause you to take any political or moral positions that you wouldn't take anyway?

Typically, both of these objections are leveled by people who don't like one's political or moral stances, but while in the one case it stems from a belief that one would obvious agree with the speaker if only one's head wasn't befuddled by religious notions, the other seems to stem from the idea that if only one really took one's faith seriously, one would agree with the speaker on the point at issue. (Or perhaps alternately, merely a skepticism as to whether anyone actually modifies his life at all due to religious beliefs.)

I think this is a pretty valid question, but if one attempts to think about it seriously, it is a very difficult question to answer, since it leaves one to try to puzzle out how much of one's beliefs and character are the result of one's faith, versus how much one picks one's faith based on beliefs or tendencies one already has.

This would, perhaps, be easier if I were not a "cradle Catholic" or if I had been away from the Church for some length of time as an adult. I could then at least say, "Well, when I wasn't Catholic I believed X, but now I believe Y." Though even then, I think someone could reasonably ask if it was becoming Catholic that caused one to adopt the belief in Y or if it was one's dawning belief in Y that caused one to become Catholic.

The difficulty, as I see it, is to attempt to separate by belief that Catholicism is a true from my other beliefs and tendencies. But really, when one pulls out such a major portion of my worldview, how is one to determine what is affected?

So, for instance, one of the beliefs which informs my politics and my understanding of history is that human nature is something which exists, is the same in everyone, and does not change over time. Thus, if people tended to do something in the past, they will tend to do it in the future unless some sufficient incentive or constraint prevents them. This is something which informs many of my more libertarian/conservative political beliefs, and as a Catholic I ground it in my understanding that we all have souls made in the image and likeness of God but which are "fallen" in nature. However, I tend to suspect that I would hold a similar belief that people tend to not change much over time even if I were an agnostic, since this is also something which is borne out by a materialistic and scientific approach to understanding humanity. So I think many of my views on economics, personal liberty, justice and culture would be the same even if I were not Catholic.

Two other beliefs I hold strongly are that there is an inherent dignity to every human person, which should be respected even when it would be more expedient for society to ignore that dignity, and also that certain human actions have an inherent moral purpose or value. These, I think, are views I would not hold as unconditionally if I were not Catholic.

Taking it that my tendency towards a strong view of justice and a non-changing view of human nature would persist if I were not Catholic (and thus fell back on an agnostic scientific materialism, which is the worldview I find next most persuasive to Catholicism) but would be less inclined to put aside expedience in favor of human dignity and less inclined to give moral actions universal moral value, I think I would probably list the likely differences resulting from stripping Catholicism out of my worldview as being:

- I would be more libertarian in my approach to issues of economics and personal freedom, and more inclined to give a Darwinian shrug of the shoulders if this hurt less fortunate classes or countries harder, unless this seemed likely to cause actual instability.
- I would be more inclined to accept violence or destruction as an unfortunate but acceptable side effect pursuing foreign policy.
- I would be less supportive of foreign aid.
- I would take a harsher approach to justice domestically -- more use of the death penalty, less worry about having a fair justice system, humane prison system, etc.
- I would not oppose same sex marriage.
- I would likely see abortion, euthanasia, etc. as an acceptable societal trade off in increasing freedom and reducing suffering.
- I would not have a moral issue with birth control, divorce, homosexual behavior, or pre-marital sex. And any issues I would have with adultery, pornography, prostitution, etc. would relate to their social evils, and thus any opposition to them would be non-absolute.

All of which is probably to say that I would overall look somewhat more like an average American of my level of education and general disposition. Not, perhaps, an earth-shattering conclusion. But there it is.

Grand Opening

My father is an editor of a devotional booklet called One Bread, One Body, which is based around the daily Mass readings. Here's his reflection for on today's readings, written back when my sister was engaged. It's the antidote to Darwin's Orphan Openings marital dystopia.

Friday, February 11, 2011, Our Lady of Lourdes

Genesis 3:1-8
Psalm 32:1-2, 5-7
Mark 7:31-37


"Then the eyes of both of them were opened." -Genesis 3:7, RNAB

My daughter is engaged. She and her fiance are preparing for marriage by taking counsel from the writings of the Popes and the wealth of the extraordinarily beautiful teachings of the Catholic Church on married life and human reproduction. Praise be to God for His glorious plan for man and woman!

The innocent eyes of Adam and Eve were opened to the world of sin and disobedience when they disobeyed God. Now in a sinful, secular world, which by its nature rebels against the will of God, married couples and those preparing for marriage desperately need to have their eyes opened (Gn 3:7) to the glory of God's beautiful plan for marriage. God's plan draws upon the original innocence and intimacy of man and woman before the fall. Yet God's plan far exceeds his original plan for Adam and Eve. It has been redeemed in Jesus to a new, risen, glorious innocence and intimacy of man and woman made into new creations in Jesus.

Married couples and those preparing for marriage, put your relationship in the hands of Jesus. Let Jesus touch your eyes and ears, and open them to hear God's will for your marriage. Jesus "has done everything well" (Mk 7:37), and He will make your relationship better than you could ever ask for or imagine (Eph 3:20).

Prayer: Father, may all men and women let Jesus open their eyes (Gn 3:7) and ears (Mk 7:35).

Promise: "You are my Shelter; from distress You will preserve me; with glad cries of freedom You will ring me round." -Ps 32:7

Praise: Pedro keeps a bottle of Lourdes water on his desk at work. It has started numerous conversations and has led to evangelistic opportunities in the workplace.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Orphan Openings: Decision Point

It was a Monday night when Kristen decided to be unhappy in her marriage.

The day was not, in other respects, an unusual one.  People at work, unhappy to be back in the office after the three day weekend, had as usual behaved as though she were being personally unreasonable when she reminded them at 2:15 that their slides were due for the Tuesday Ops deck by 3:00 PM.  Some day, she promised herself, she would leave them un-reminded and they could explain to the Senior Vice President how a deadline that arrived at precisely the same time every single week could be, every week, forgotten. 

Then at 4:56, as she was struggling to get the last of the slides together, the inevitable text had arrived from Ron, "Can u pick up kids?  Running late and have to finish."  She gritted her teeth, knowing that if she replied, "No." the response would be, "Please...?" 

She announced her entry of the other admin's cube with a can-you-believe-this sigh.  "Ron sends his text-pologies again.  I have to go get the kids before 5:30 or they start charging by the minute."  Jennifer rolled her eyes sympathetically.  "Todd and Kathy haven't sent their slides yet.  Can you put them in when they do?"

Jennifer could.  "Couch," she advised. 

James and Emily tussled loudly in the back seat and wailed when, as always, homework was ordered before television.  There was nothing faster than frozen pizza in the freezer, and the thought of carbs for dinner reminded her of the free cookies which had proved irresistible in breakroom that afternoon, making her doubly exasperated. 

Ron did not appear until after dinner.

"Sorry, hon," he announced himself, dumping his laptop case on the kitchen floor as he swung the fridge door open and grabbed a beer from the bottom shelf.  "Meetings.  Samir was out.  Code wouldn't compile."  Because, she almost thought she could hear him say.  I have an important job.  "Oh man, I'm tired..." he was saying.  As if this was some unique achievement of his, unexperienced by her. 

Steps sounded behind her, but she didn't turn.  Pop went the beer, just behind her.  "Oh hey, pizza."  He grabbed a piece.  "Down by twelve points already," he complained, vanishing into the living room.  A moment later the TV sounded.

She paused, savoring her frustrating and imagining the sympathetic nods that it would draw from Jennifer the next day when properly related.  "He always does this.  And didn't even sit down and ask how my day was."  Always. 

She rose and went to the door of the living room.  He had one foot on the coffee table, the pizza slice folded over in one hand, the beer in the other, leaning forward tensely -- the pizza sliced paused in it's trip to his mouth -- as he awaited the result of a play. 


She could hear in her mind the nattering advice of the pre-marriage counselor all those years ago.  "Never say, 'You always...'  That's fighting language.  Say, 'When you do that it makes me feel...'"

But after sixteen years of marriage, and in the middle of watching a game, "makes me feel" would elicit no more than an absent "Uh, huh..."  And all of a sudden the work of not being unhappy in her marriage seemed the one thing she did not have energy left for, however difficult being unhappy might later prove to be.  So thinking of how it would sound when related over coffee the next day, she started with, "You always do this.  You just don't care about my job, or dinner, or...  I don't know what you do care about."

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Considering American Exceptionalism

There has been discussion in the public square lately about American Exceptionalism.  The term is one of those which, it seems, causes visceral reactions in many people, either positive or negative.  Some immediately declare that the United States is one of the greatest nations that has ever existed.  Others insist either that the US is entirely un-exceptional (and its inhabitants delusional for thinking otherwise) or that it is exceptional only in that it has been an unusually bad influence upon the world. 

One of the problems is that there are a couple of different meanings one can assign to the term "American exceptionalism".  Some use the term to mean that 19th century Protestant idea that the United States is uniquely selected by God as a new Israel to play some pivotal role in the world.  This view strikes me as sufficiently wrong as to be uninteresting, so I won't discuss it further.  However, this does not necessarily leave us to conclude that the US is either unexceptional or evil. 

There are, I would propose, a small number of countries which have had an outside impact on the history of the world -- mostly for the good: Athens, Rome, Charlemagne's empire and its Holy Roman successors, the Spanish empire, the British empire, the United States, and (though this may get me drummed out of the conservative ranks) the French republics and empires.  All of these have had prodigious effects upon the history and culture of the world.  Having had such an impact, all have had, beyond question, quite a bit of negative impact as well as positive.  Rome is, after all, the military power that crushed many another regional kingdom, razed Jerusalem, persecuted the Christians, picked up the Persian practice of crucifixion and spread it throughout the world, etc.  Indeed, Rome was arguably what St. John described as the Whore of Babylon, crouched upon its seven hills, in the Book of Revelation.  Rome was far from being an unambiguously good force in the world, and caused its share of destruction and suffering. 

And yet, for all its faults, Rome was by any measure exceptional.  It was a major force on the world stage for over five hundred years.  It left a legacy of Latin language, Roman law, Roman architecture and classical art throughout the known world.  And, quite without the intention, originally, of its elite, it became the mechanism through which the Christian religion spread to every corner of the world.  The Church, which Rome did its best to wipe out through persecution, is now called the Roman Catholic Church.  Nor is it merely a historical accident that this occurred, a mere coincidence that the center of the Church remains in Rome.  Just as the Roman Empire because Christian, so to an extent the Church became Roman.  Through the Roman world we absorbed classical learning, we learned the Latin language, and we adopted traditions of Roman law.  The City of God learned much from the City of Man.

This is not to say that that one is better or more worthwhile because one is an ancient Roman, or a subject of the British Empire or a US citizen, nor that one should be ashamed for being from a country which is not among these greats.  There is a great deal to be proud of in the history of any country, and if some countries cannot claim to have had such widespread effects upon the world as a whole, they are spared blame as well as praise. 

But there is, I think, a very false balance in trying to explain away the exceptional place in history of these countries, or denying that the United States is the latest in that elite succession.  It is, unquestionably, exceptional.

Dinner with Roma Locuta Est

I don't know what you had for dinner on Saturday, but I bet it wasn't this good.

I have to say that we have never been disappointed or underwhelmed any time we've met our fellow bloggers. The Catholic blogsphere (or at least the portion of it that we read) seems to produce many genial people of taste and discernment and good humor -- and a fair proportion of people who got sucked into watching a season of the OC after American Idol. (Anyone else with this problem: the combox is open for confessions.)

Monday, February 07, 2011

The International Religious Climate, from the ground

Jennifer Fulwiler at Conversion Diary has put together a fascinating post, in which international readers respond to the following questions:
  1. Where do you live? (Or, if you’re not currently living there, what part of the world is it that you’re familiar with?)
  2. What is church attendance like in your area? Are there many churches? Do they seem to have active memberships?
  3. At a typical social event, how appropriate would it be if a person were to explicitly acknowledge in casual conversation that he or she is a believing Christian? For example, if someone at a party made a passing comment like, “We’ve been praying about that” or “I was reading the Bible the other day, and…”, would that seem normal or odd?
  4. What belief system do the politicians in your area claim to practice? For example, here in Texas almost all politicians at least claim to have some kind of belief in God, regardless of what they may think in private — to openly admit to being an atheist would be political suicide in most parts of the state. Is this the case in your area?
  5. How many families do you know who have more than two children? If a family with four children moved to your area, would their family size seem unusual? What about a family with six children?
  6. What seems to be the dominant belief system of the people in your area?
  7. Do you notice any trends? Do people seem to be becoming more or less religious?
As usual, Jennifer has started an interesting discussion, and the comments are necessary reading.

An Interconnected World

Jake over at Roma Locuta Est has been blogging about Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and has up an interesting post on how the telegraph changed the world.
With the telegraph, for the first time in human history, the communication of information was not limited by geographical distance:
“The new idea was that transportation and communication could be disengaged from each other, that space was not an inevitable constrain on the movement of information” (Postman 64).

This, as Postman shows, radically changed public discourse and the way that people came to think of communication in general. Quoting Henry David Thoreau,
“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Main to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. ... We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough” (quoted in Postman, 65).
The production of communication across vast distances introduced three negative changes in to public discourse: irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence. All three are made possible by the disassociation of content from context that is inherent to telegraphy. This is what Postman calls “context-free information”:
“[T]he value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a ‘thing’ that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning” (Postman, 65).
Once the partnership between the telegraph and the press was forged, things would never be the same:
“Only four years after Morse opened the nation’s first telegraph line on May 24, 1844, the Associated Press was founded, and news from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular, began to criss-cross the nation. Wars, crimes, crashes, fires, floods - much of it the social and political equivalent of Adelaide’s whooping cough - became the content of what people called ‘the news of the day’” (Postman, 67).
Thoreau, as it turn out, was a bit of a prophet, for telegraphy did make “relevance irrelevant.”
“A man in Main and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about. The telegraph may have made the country into ‘one neighborhood,’ but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other” (Postman, 67).
It strikes me that in a sense the critique of the sort of small-bite information from far away is primarily applicable to personal interaction. It is not of any immediate interest to me to know what some blogger or facebooker in Singapore is having for lunch and so if I read a great many posts and tweets and status updates from far away I am, in a sense, awash in information inapplicable to my life.

However, this becomes less the case when we turn to other types of information. For instance, one of the first things that the telegraph was put to use for was creating truly global commodity exchanges. Prior to the telegraph, it took the speed of surface transport to find out the prices of goods in far away places. So, for instance, Australia might be harvesting wheat, but grain buyers in London couldn't know the price of wheat in Australia until a ship from Australia actually arrived in England, but which point the situation in Australia would have changed.

With the advent of near instantaneous global communication via trans-oceanic telegraphs, a London commodity broker could find the current offered prices of commodities in North and South America, in South Africa, in India and in Australia, and he could make purchases from a distance by considering the cheapest sources versus the necessary transport time and costs.

In a sense, this made events far away far more relevant than they had been before. In the Middle Ages, people might tell stories about Prester John in the distant East, but such stories were necessarily of no practical impact to people's lives.

However, with the coming of the telegraph, and other, later forms of high speed communication, the personal details of people's lives far away might remain of interest only in terms of idle curiosity, but many events far away actually did come to have a huge impact of people's lives in a commercial and economic sense. If the crop was bad on the other side of the world, local prices would go up as farmers shipped their grain overseas to where it commanded the best price. If a bumper crop came in abroad, prices fell and farmers worried about their ability to make a profit at market. This global commodity economy, made possible by the telegraph, resulted in the UK getting the majority of its grain from overseas by 1900 -- from sources as various as Canada, the US, Argentina and Australia.

With addition of high speed transport we've arrived at a place in which a volcanic eruption in Iceland can empty grocery stores in the UK and put flower and vegetable pickers in Kenya out of work.

So while it's true that mass instant communication makes it possible for us to swim in a sea of information of little import to our real lives, it has at the same time actually made our lives far more intimately connected with what goes on far away.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Art Updates

During this whole moving process, I've neglected the whole Junior Humanities Program pretty shamefully, although I have been enjoying very much reading Grombrich's A Little History of the World to the kids in the evenings over the last month since we got into the house and started up school again.

Fortunately, my brother Tim has not been idle, and he's just posted five beautiful illustrations for the Egyptian Mythology story. Here are a couple:

Tim, incidentally, is an all around talented artist. He does the illustrations for the Humanities Program and also has some items up on Zazzle which may appeal to the geeky of heart.

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Death of "My" Love

Bear with the melodrama, and recall that though I'm not romantic by nature, I did study theater and hence enjoy analyzing and scripting out random situations.

"Jesus said to them, "The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise." Luke. 20:34-36

The other day, I was doing something mindless, like changing a diaper or washing dishes or any of the myriad other mundane but necessary tasks that consume my time, when I was struck by mortality. Particularly, mine. One day I will die, and that day could be tomorrow. Now it could be that if I died tomorrow, Darwin (after a suitable period of grieving) might meet and marry some forbearing lady who doesn't mind taking on five children. He and I have been married for almost ten years, but we're relatively young; if he married someone else they could be married two, three, four times as long as he and I have been. So, we all meet up one day in heaven; how does that work out? "Hi, hon, here's the new one. I know you and I shared something special, but she and I were married for forty years, and had a few more children, and were really in love. I know you'll like each other!" This woman may not even exist, and already I hate her.

This is stupid, I grant you, and I apologize in advance to Darwin's second wife (the bitch).

Brandon at Siris has a good post about the stupidity of many romantic conventions. And one of those conventions is the idea that lovers are soul mates who will belong to one another for all time. It's a comforting convention. I like the idea that the strong bond Darwin and I have now will persist into eternity. It's distressing to think that this rich personal relationship we have on earth won't last forever in its intimate exclusivity. The fact that my reaction approaches devastation at the idea that he won't be mine after death leads me to wonder if I'm making an idol out of my husband.

The only paradigm on earth for meeting someone married to your spouse is the ex-wife dynamic, which evokes other regions than the celestial realm. But there is no marriage in heaven. Darwin's soul doesn't belong to me, nor mine to him. Since in heaven our love will be perfected, we will love everyone perfectly and fully, though on earth we can only love one or two people in a way that approaches the divine charity. We can only be married because are imperfect, because we die. I hope Darwin and I lead each other toward heaven, but he can't get me there himself, nor can he take me with him.

Marriage is defined as being unitive and procreative, and in light of that I'm intrigued by Matt. 10:37-38: "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me." No mention of husbands or wives -- perhaps they're the "cross" to be borne? Do parental relationships last into eternal life while marital relationships end? I guess that makes sense. Marriage is bound up with mortality: "our" love may endure beyond time, but it won't be "ours" anymore, since it won't be exclusive. A love that binds one to only one other soul is of this earth, and has to stay here. By contrast, a parental love can expand to include as many souls as necessary, which in heaven will be every soul. Only the procreative part of love will last through eternity.

I don't know if I fully understand it. I don't know if I like it, just this moment. But I accept it, and I hope I won't have to come to terms with it for a long time.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Ask a Catechist

Dorian Speed of Scrutinies, who's done so much good writing lately for catechists, is starting a new feature: Ask a Catechist. She explains: "Each week, I will feature a different Guest Blogger to answer a question related to religious education, whether it be related to classroom management, lesson planning, spirituality, or general sanity."

This week's question: How do you approach the topic of marriage in a class where many of your students have divorced parents?

As part of the guest blogging team, Darwin and I will be sharing our vast catechetical wisdom with the masses sometime in the near future. Keep watching!

Ethnic Nationalism and the End of History

One of the ideas which has, perhaps more than any other, led to war and suffering in the modern age, is the idea that countries should have clear ethnic/national identities which define their borders. This is something that we in the the US, which has been heavily defined by immigration and thus lacks a distinct ethnic national identity, but it is something which comes into stark relief when we look at conflicts in other parts of the world.

Of these, the one that gets the most press is, of course, the conflict over the Holy Land, where different factions insist that the same ground should belong to either a Jewish State or a Palestinian State. This leads to strife because obviously if the state in a given area is specifically intended to belong to one ethnic or cultural group, then members of other groups must either leave or see themselves as living in someone else's country.

This would work very well if various ethnic groups had spontaneously generated from the soil of different regions, but this is not the case. (After all, if you trace it back far enough, we're all Africans.) Recorded history is one long story of migrations, conquests and assimilations. And so in most cases where two different ethnic or cultural groups claim the same territory, they are both right, they are just pointing to different periods in history. This is true not only when we look into the past, but also, unless we assume an end to history, as we look into the future.

Thus, for instance, those who oppose the state of Israel often point out that Jews were a minority in the Holy Land prior to 1948, as if the question of the ethnic make-up of the region at that particular moment in history should settle the question of who controls the land in perpetuity. But, of course, the history of nearly any region is the history various cultural and ethnic groups moving in, gaining dominance, and fading in their turn. England, for instance, was invaded by Romans, by the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, by the Danes, by the Normans. Greece and Asia Minor have a long history of back-and-forth stretching back into mythology with the Trojan War, and ending with the mutual expulsion by modern Greece and Turkey of each other's ethnic groups in the '20s -- ending at least 2800 years of Aegean polyglot history with the stroke of a modern border-drawing pen.

This idea that countries should be dominated by a single ethnic or cultural group resulted in a number of mass expulsions during the 20th century, of which the flight of Palestinians from Israel during the '48 was is certainly not the largest. The partition of India and Pakistan resulted in the displacement of over 12 million people, and estimates for the death toll range from range from "only" several hundred thousand up to a million. After World War II, East Prussia completely ceased to exist, ending it's 800 year history. A total of 12 million ethnic Germans were deported from other countries into Germany after World War II, some from areas in which they had lived for up to a millennium, in order to assure that the new Europe would be ethnically homogeneous enough to avoid future wars, with roughly half a million dying in the process. The history of the Balkans in the 20th century is practically one long history of attempts at ethnic cleansing based on this concept of ethnic and cultural nationalism.

The mildly depressing thing is that these actions are generally considered successful when massive dislocations achieve their objective of ethnically and culturally united countries (as with the largest dislocations, those in Europe and between India and Pakistan) and only remain well recognized tragedies when the region remains unstable, as with the Holy Land and the Balkans.

So long as this idea that each cultural and ethnic group deserves its own country, and that that country must be on a particular piece of ancestral ground remains dominant, we can continue to expect wars and dislocations to result from it. It is an idea which is at odds with history. Attempts by international organizations to broker these disputes in a sense only give them more legitimacy, with many international organizations now endorsing two incompatible ideas: That on the one hand groups with "national identities" deserve to have their own countries and to do so on their ancestral lands, and that on the other hand that people have a human right to immigrate where they want.

This is not to say that conflict could be avoided by dropping this idea of nationalism. Conflicts have always resulted as cultural and ethnic groups have expanded their territory or migrated, and people who find themselves pushed out of or out numbered in areas in which their ancestors have lived for generations have always resented it and sought to reverse the process. But the idea that people have an absolute right to expect expansions and migrations not to take place, and that international organizations will step in to stop such events for occurring or reverse them, does nothing but grant further length and strength to that natural conflict.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Looking at a Good Book

Some people may forsake the printed page for the Kindle or the Nook or the iPhone (agh), but I am a book lover. I like to hold a book, to turn pages, to mark my place, and to gaze at my favorites on the shelf. A book should not only contain art, but be art.

I have copies of many fine works of literature, but many of them are falling apart, and some, when I search for them, turn out to have been lost in one of our moves. I am sorely tempted to replace all my bedraggled favorites with the new Penguin Hardcover Editions. Already I've picked up two of them, Little Women and Jane Eyre. They are a delight for the senses as well as the mind -- clothbound covers with charming designs, a ribbon bookmark, and nice substantial paper. I'm reading Little Women to the girls now, and they enjoy holding the book as much as looking at it. Perhaps years from now, they'll not only remember the story of the four sisters, but our copy with the scissors on the cover.

The only quibble I have is that these editions are not signature-sewn, which means they won't last as long as the lesser but older books on my shelf. Perhaps there have been enough advances in glue technology that these editions will last to be passed on through the family -- I hope so.