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

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Plotting a Modernized Sense & Sensibility

MrsDarwin's post last week on the modern re-imagining of Sense & Sensibility being written by Joanna Trollope generated some interesting conversation on the blog. It also generated some interesting conversation around the house, as our dissatisfaction with the modernization of the novel's inciting situation created a drive to come up with a better one. As you may recall, Trollope's method of translating the situation in which Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters find themselves in reduced circumstances (with the late Mr. Dashwood's son by a previous marriage getting the estate and and making an informal promise to his dying father that he will take good care of the current wife and daughters, but the son's wife persuading him not to follow through on the promise) was to posit that the Dashwood girls are not legitimate:
She struggled to explain why the Dashwood sisters and their mother can't inherit the estate when their father dies (in Austen's original, the reason is simple: they're women). To make the disinheritance seem plausible, Ms. Trollope made Elinor and Marianne's parents fun-loving bohemians who never bothered to marry, making their daughters illegitimate heirs.
At the most basic level, this seems problematic in that it's really not that hard for illegitimate heirs to inherit in the modern world, and even in the absence of a will one could file a lawsuit and have a reasonable chance of getting some redress.

However, the deeper problem here is that it misses the point that in the world of 1800 England, marriage was not simply a personal relationship but a business institution. Entailing an estate exclusively to the oldest son may seem arbitrary, but it was a form of succession planning which kept financial and land assets together rather than having them dispersed through many heirs. Any period romance that fails to deal with the partly-business nature of marriage in that period ends up not coming off as realistic. And in this case, the failure to think of the family estate as a financial entity which needs a single clear successor is one of the things that makes Trollope's solution seem off.

We had so much fun going over how to convert the plot to the modern day, we thought it would be a fun exercise to share with you. As such, the remainder of the post is composed of two parts: a set of criteria that a modernization of Sense & Sensibility would have to meet, and a solution which we came up with. Please do pile on both with suggests as to the correct criteria and with your own suggestions as to how to update and set the story. (For convenience, I've kept the names, but of course if we wrote something like this we'd change the title and all the names so that only those who knew S&S well would realize it was an Austen homage.)

What Needs To Be Modernized

1) Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters (or two if you only want to keep the ones who play significant roles in the plot) find themselves suddenly reduced in circumstances because the primary source of their wealth passes to John Dashwood (the recently dead Mr. Dashwood's son from a first marriage.) The women find themselves with the same social status but with far less income and resources than before. In Austen's time this was because the whole estate would usually pass to one person, and that person was typically the oldest male descendent, and so Mrs. Dashwood's continued income was dependent on the goodwill of her stepson, which was influenced by his wife. To my mind, you need to come up with a reason why the source of income can't be divided or passed to Mr. Dashwood's wife, as would be standard now.

2) Elinor Dashwood meets Edward Ferrar (the brother of John Dashwood's wife) and they are attracted to one another, but for reasons that do not become clear for a while he makes no move to enter into a relationship with her. In the book, it is eventually revealed that this is because he long ago entered into a secret engagement with Lucy Steele. He knows that if he admits to the engagement, he'll be disowned by his mother which will impoverish him, and he's since fallen out of love with her (and realizes that she doesn't really love him) but he's too honorable to break off the engagement with her (because, the nature of marriage at the time having strong financial aspects, Lucy has staked her economic future on this offer), so he's unavailable but can't talk about it. Later, Lucy Steele meets Elinor and tells Elinor her own version of this history which, like most things Lucy does, is rather self-serving. In the end, Lucy confesses the connection to Fanny Dashwood (John Dashwood's wife and Edward's sister) who blows Lucy's cover and gets Edward disinherited. Lucy breaks the engagement after snagging the attention of Edward's younger brother (the new heir) and the disinherited Edward is then free to marry Elinor. In a modern setting, engagements are readily breakable and inheritance isn't such a big deal, so there clearly has to be another reason why Edward can't form a relationship with Elinor despite their attraction, another connection between Edward and Lucy, and some other way of getting out of it.

3) Marianne's plot line strikes me as not necessarily requiring so much modification as it's entirely personal and thus more universal: the older Colonel Brandon falls in love with Marianne, but she has fallen in love with Mr. Willoughby, who seems young and romantic. She and Willoughby seem so close that everyone assumes they are engaged. However, he suddenly throws her over in a very public way and instead becomes engaged to a very rich woman. It then comes out that Willoughby has, previously, got Colonel Brandon's young ward pregnant and abandoned her. Marianne eventually recovers and married Colonel Brandon. Aside from people not having wards these days, all of this could essentially be used in a modern version, though all sorts of modifications are possible.

The Darwins' Updated S&S

1) We both agree that in order to make the inheritance plotline work, this can't be a personal fortune that's inherited but rather an old family-owned business. Mr. Dashwood must have been the president and majority owner. On Mr. Dashwood's death, ownership of the company passes to various heirs: Mrs. Dashwood, John Dashwood, the daughters. However, the actual dividends/ownership dispersements from the company aren't necessarily huge. Much of the family income during Mr. Dashwood's life derived from the fact that everyone was, in some sense, on the payroll. Mr. Dashwood as president, Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne in some sort of fluff roles (community outreach, artist in residence, some sort of completely unnecessary roles.) Elinor did something actually functional.

On Mr. Dashwood's death, John Dashwood manages to rally a majority of the board behind him and brings in a highly efficient new president (Fanny) who proceeds to clean out all the deadwood. Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne are fired immediately and Elinor falls afoul of some sort of internal power struggle and is fired as well. This means that they are now all without their over-generous salaries and (unless they can find work -- which Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne in particular are not used to) are living on the much smaller income resulting from their ownership shares in the company.

One of the key things I think this achieves is it reproduces the social situation in which the women find themselves: Their income and status within society turns out to have been based on a connection rather than being inherent to themselves. They are conscious of being the same people, with the same history and expectations, but they are now much poorer and less recognized. And yet, not the same as other people at their income level, and without the coping skills that someone at that income level would have.

2) This, to me, is the really tricky one.

MrsDarwin suggested that perhaps Edward is married already, but separated from his wife, and unable to honestly pursue any relationship with Elinor until he's received a divorce and annulment. My objection was that except for a small portion of society, that wouldn't actually be any obstacle, and it's certainly not something that Edward would feel unable to mention.

My approach was more business focused, I wanted to come up with a reason why Edward could not ethically enter into a relationship with Elinor, and also couldn't tell her why. My solution is that Edward is a lawyer. He's been hired by Lucy Steele to investigate a possible legal action against the Dashwood company (intellectual property or something else fairly secrecy related such as that.) Edward has come to think that Lucy's case has no merit, but he's convinced that he'd be accused of a conflict of interest if he started a personal relationship with Elinor while still representing Lucy, while he's afraid that if he dropped Lucy and started a relationship with Elinor, she'd accuse him of violating confidentiality. Further, because of the nature of the case, he would compromise Lucy's case if he told Elinor the nature of his entanglement. So after an initial couple of interviews in which they hit it off (Edward has been sent to discover something or other about the company) Edward is staunchly not returning Elinor calls. At some later point, Lucy could then meet Elinor and let her know about the case in such a way as to make it sound as if Edward believes it has great merit (this would have to be because Lucy hopes to get something out of Elinor and aid her case.) Finally, Lucy could throw over her case in some self serving fashion leaving Elinor and Edward free.

3) As I said, I really think one can do whatever one wants with the Marianne plot thread, as it's far more universal than the other two segments in terms of relationship and economics.

So, in my telling, the novel would become a pair of romances which are frustrated by personal obstacles (in Marianne's case) and by business obstacles (in Elinor's) with a resolution which is allowed by clearing up the business/legal problems. (My theory is that in order to update some of the key motives, the constraints on the characters have to be business constraints rather than personal constraints.)

MrsDarwin's novel would be a more personal narrative incited by business events but not necessarily tied to business thereafter for its complications and resolution.

How would you meet the requirements of these plot points?

Chicken Little and the Library Ceiling

MrsDarwin here posting under Darwin's name, because Google finds it incredible that two people might use the same computer and write, under different accounts, on the same blog, and is making logging in difficult...

On Friday, I spent a lot of time pregnancy-napping on the couch in our library while the kids did math through Khan Academy, and when I would wake up, I would hear, through my haze of exhaustion, the whine of some large insect at the window. It sounded too large to be a ladybug (our current infestation) and the stinkbugs have all gone into hibernation (at last). On and off all day this buzzing continued. After a while it got under my skin, and so finally I got up and commenced a seek-and-destroy mission. Oddly enough I couldn't find any bugs in the room, so I tried to trace the noise. It was coming from one particular corner, up near the ceiling, and as I stared up, I realized that there was no bug. The plaster ceiling itself was groaning, and the ominous bulge we'd been remarking on for months was throwing more pronounced shadows.

Well, it turns out, after consultation with the handyman, that what seems to be the case is that the lathe and plaster have detached from the joists and are merely holding up through the surface tension of the plaster. It can be re-anchored -- an incredibly dusty process, apparently -- and either replastered or drywalled over, then repainted. Since the ceiling is going to be opened anyway, we're going to have the cloth-covered wiring replaced with something less fire-hazardous, and we will replace the awful chandelier (not the original fixture anyway) with something that will actually light up the room and not be actively ugly.

The universe seems to know when the trees need to be trimmed, the front porch repaved, a new van purchased, and a second child in need of braces, and to give, of its bounty, a little extra so that we can be grateful for the parts of the house that are not actively in the process of collapsing.

Just so's you know that some parts of the house can be fixed up on the cheap, here's the downstairs bathroom before:

We call this color "insanity green".
And after:

This was done last year for the cost of the paint. Darwin stripped and refinished the radiator cover (there's no radiator behind it, oddly enough) and I stained the table and did all the painting. Each of those squares on the tileboard was painstakingly taped off and given two coats of cobalt paint, giving them the effect of glazed tiles.

Of course, that was simply cosmetic and didn't involve the imminent possibility of gaping holes in the ceiling and plaster coming down on a good portion of our books.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Battle of the First Names

For your Monday morning: A map of most common name given to newborns by state over the last 60 years. One of the things that struck me is the way the visual shows the greater volatility of trends in girl names. Boy names slowly work back and forth across the country like a civil war battle line, while a new girl name frequently sweeps the country in one year. Both boy and girl names seem to become more trend driven over time.

One thing I've noticed while playing with most common name stats in the past: Names like TV channels have become more fragmented with time. A smaller percentage of babies are given the most common name now than thirty years ago (much less 100), and the percentage of babies accounted for by the 100 most common names has gone down over time.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Outraged Sense and Sensibility

Ah, tiresome writers who want to meddle with Austen we will always have with us.
For a British novelist writing about class, manners and marriage, there is probably no higher praise than being compared with Jane Austen. Best-selling novelist Joanna Trollope earned that badge 13 years ago, when a critic reviewing her novel "Marrying the Mistress" called her "a modern-day Austen."

Now Ms. Trollope has invited the comparison once again, much more explicitly. Her new novel, "Sense & Sensibility," takes the characters from Austen's 1811 novel and plops them in contemporary England. The Dashwood sisters—Elinor, Marianne and Margaret—are cast out of their family estate when their uncle dies and leaves the house to their half brother and his heartless wife. In Ms. Trollope's update, sensible Elinor is an architecture student, and the emotionally volatile Marianne is a guitarist. Over the course of the novel, the sisters fret about their meager inheritance and uncertain romantic futures. Ms. Trollope sticks to Austen's blueprint almost slavishly, recreating nearly every scene with modern flourishes: One of the Dashwood sisters sends her suitor text messages, for example, and when Marianne's boyfriend, John Willoughby, dumps her in public, the humiliating encounter is recorded and posted on YouTube. 
...A few critical plot points were hard to preserve in a modern context. She struggled to explain why the Dashwood sisters and their mother can't inherit the estate when their father dies (in Austen's original, the reason is simple: they're women). To make the disinheritance seem plausible, Ms. Trollope made Elinor and Marianne's parents fun-loving bohemians who never bothered to marry, making their daughters illegitimate heirs. And while Austen's heroines, even the middle-class ones, led lives of total leisure, Ms. Trollope felt that in 2013, the characters would need careers.  
Ms. Trollope's book marks the first release in a new series of contemporary remakes of Austen novels, which were commissioned by HarperFiction, an imprint of HarperCollins in the U.K. HarperCollins is a unit of News Corp, which also owns The Wall Street Journal. The books are being released by various U.S. publishers.

Future books in the series, called "The Austen Project," include a retelling of "Pride and Prejudice" by Curtis Sittenfeld, an update of "Emma" by Alexander McCall Smith, and a modernized "Northanger Abbey" by crime writer Val McDermid.
Well, that makes four of the six, but what about Persuasion and Mansfield Park?
The Austen updates aren't going over well in some corners of the fandom. When the Guardian's book blog asked readers to nominate contemporary authors to rewrite the remaining two Austen novels, "Mansfield Park" and "Persuasion," Austen lovers shot back with answers like "no one" and "leave her alone." Some called the project "vandalism" and "utter depravity."
And they're right! Who would be so gauche as to tamper with the classics? Any writer who wants to mess with Austen ought to have her manuscript die a slow, lingering death.

Seven Quick Takes

1. Baby Darwin is due in eight weeks, which means that Christmas is in less than nine weeks. ARE YOU READY, PEOPLE. This due date is going to mess with my usual paradigm of heading to the store on Christmas Eve and wondering why all these crazy people are clogging the aisles when I just want to pick up a last-minute present.

2. I've been running silent lately because does the world really need one more angsty blog post about pregnancy? Suffice it to say that baby is plenty fat and wiggly, and that he's head-down, for which I'm grateful even when he rotates that little head right in my hip joint in the middle of the night, and then I try to turn over, which takes about sixty seconds (what, does that sound brief to you? How long does it take you to roll over in bed?), and then I get my pillow all fixed again under my stomach and between my legs, and then he turns his head again and kicks me in the ribs for good measure.

3. A note on etiquette for parents: when you take your children trick-or-treating at the nursing home, have them dress as something easy recognizable and not ugly. Let me tell you that when you take three ballerinas, an explorer, and an airline pilot (complete with leather jacket, captain's hat, and tie) amid a full complement of ninjas, corpse brides, and zombies, not only will you make the residents of the nursing home extremely happy, but the kids will receive handfuls of candy in recompense for the courtesy of looking appropriate for those who would like to see children look appropriate. Also a courtesy: when you do not wear a mask at the nursing home, the residents can hear you more clearly, and that also pleases them.

4. Speaking of costume dramas, here: some clips from Metropolitan, featuring the height of debutante fashion in 1990:

5. Speaking of young people: Brandon on how to disorient the youth.
Sometimes people give as the aim for liberal arts education things like "to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to re-orient themselves." I think these sorts of things are truly ridiculous things to aim for in the context of any kind of college education, as I've argued, but suppose I were to take this as my goal in a philosophy course? What would I have to teach? What is the topic that has come up in my courses so far that has most consistently and most clearly had these effects? Neoplatonism. Nothing, nothing at all that I have ever taught, generates as much controversy and distress as Neoplatonism.
6. Today is St. Crispin's day! Get chills listening to Kenneth Branagh's beautiful voice over Patrick Doyle's stirring accompaniment.

Perhaps you would prefer Tom Hiddleston?

7. Crispin, Kenneth, and Thomas were all considered and rejected as middle names for this poor middle-nameless baby.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Reader in the Gaps

Neither of us will be participating in National Novel Writing Month this year. MrsDarwin is making slow but constant progress on wrapping up Stillwater, and hopefully you'll be seeing another post there in the not too distant future. (Whether the novel or the baby will be delivered first is now becoming an open question, but rest assured that it will get done.) Meanwhile, I'm working away at outlines and research for the Next Big Project, which will start publishing in August 2014.

However, the impending NaNoWriMo season has had me thinking about my project last summer If You Can Get It, which I do plan to go back and whip into some kind of a publishable form at some point, though that point may be a year or more off.

One of the things that I'd worried was a problem with the novel is that the main character seemed a bit of a woman without qualities. Sure, she cared about her job and staying in shape and she had some nice clothes (and got irritated by her younger sister's mess) but what did she do in her spare time? When I was coming up with the character, I mostly only had this figured out in negative terms: She wasn't a writer or any kind of artist, she wasn't a fan or indeed a big reader. In other words, I had decided that she wasn't like me as I am now or have been I the past in a couple key ways. (reading, writing, genre fan, etc.)

Having established that she wasn't like me in those ways, though, I ran up against the problem that I have very experience being Not Like Me, and so I wasn't sure what she did do in her spare time. This bothered me a lot, especially as a lot of people seemed to like her younger sister better (Katie, after all, did have some obvious interests: video games, cooking, etc.)

One of the things that I want to work on when I revise is making sure that I'm more clear on Kristy's personal and emotional arc, so that remains on the list of things I want to work on. However, at a certain point recently (while reading something else) I started to think that my concerns about knowing what my character does in her spare time might be misplaced.

What I was thinking about is: How is it that we come to see a character in a novel as a fully rounded person? We only see certain aspects of the character, those which the author sees fit to reveal to us. And yet, if it is well done, we see that character as a fully rounded person who exists in the round. I think I'd naturally assumed that this meant that the author needed to know everything about the character, that the character needed to exist in the round in the author's head, and that the author then revealed to us (the readers) what was relevant to the story. But the moment you press upon this assumption a bit and think about it, it become untenable. Of course the author cannot have thought of every detail which might exist. The author provides us with the important details, the aspects of that character which are (in the distilled version of a world which we see in a story) relevant, and if the author does a good job we as the readers fill in the remaining gaps with what we, as readers, assume such a person to be like.

In a sense, this isn't so unlike our experience of real life. We know that the people we interact with have fully rounded lives, but we only interact with them some of the time. The rest we will in with our assumptions.

With fiction, the key is that the bits we see must suggest a plausible whole -- what we're seeing a part of a fully rounded person rather than a plot place-holder which exists only to serve the author's purposes. If the author is successful in giving this impression of seeing the relevant pieces of a fully rounded person, we do the rest of the work ourselves.

Sometimes, we actually do it a bit too well. For instance, as I've been re-reading War & Peace, it's been striking me that I'd ignored a lot of briefly mentioned aspects of characters in order to form an image of the characters which was more like me, or more like the culture that I exist in. I was taking the major elements of Tolstoy's characters and filling them in with something familiar because the broad brushstrokes were something I liked enough that I wanted to identify with the characters and see them as like me.

Such identification can go too far when it makes you misrepresent a character to yourself, rather than seeing what the author is actually portraying, but within bounds it's a very useful tendency for the author. If the author can sketch out characters which the reader identifies with enough to want to fill in the rest with himself, the author has both made the characters come alive to the reader and has also successfully offloaded some of his work on the reader.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Vatican: Church Teaching On Divorce Not Changing

Among Catholics who hope (or fear) that Pope Francis's new style indicates that Church doctrine and practice are up for grabs, the announcement of a synod to be held next year to discuss marriage and the family, and particularly the pastoral care of divorced and remarried Catholics, caused some stir. However, a document put out by the head of the CDF makes is clear that the Church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage (and the inability of those living with someone they are not sacramentally married to to receive communion) will not be changed and indeed cannot be changed. If clarity is what you like in Church documents, Abp. Muller brings it in spades:
After the announcement of the extraordinary synod that will take place in October of 2014 on the pastoral care of families, some questions have been raised regarding the question of divorced and remarried members of the faithful and their relationship to the sacraments. In order to deepen understanding on this pressing subject so that clergy may accompany their flock more perfectly and instruct them in a manner consistent with the truth of Catholic Doctrine, we are publishing an extensive contribution from the Archbishop Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The problem concerning members of the faithful who have entered into a new civil union after a divorce is not new. The Church has always taken this question very seriously and with a view to helping the people who find themselves in this situation. Marriage is a sacrament that affects people particularly deeply in their personal, social and historical circumstances. Given the increasing number of persons affected in countries of ancient Christian tradition, this pastoral problem has taken on significant dimensions. Today even firm believers are seriously wondering: can the Church not admit the divorced and remarried to the sacraments under certain conditions? Are her hands permanently tied on this matter? Have theologians really explored all the implications and consequences?

These questions must be explored in a manner that is consistent with Catholic doctrine on marriage. A responsible pastoral approach presupposes a theology that offers “the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals, freely assenting to the truth revealed by him” (Dei Verbum 5). In order to make the Church’s authentic doctrine intelligible, we must begin with the word of God that is found in sacred Scripture, expounded in the Church’s Tradition and interpreted by the Magisterium in a binding way.
He then explains the basis of the Church teaching on marriage and divorce based on scripture, the early Church fathers, and in Church teaching up to the present day. One section that particularly jumped out at me as perhaps blunter than we would have seen under John Paul II or Benedict XVI was this one on the practice of allowing divorce and remarriage by the Orthodox.
In many regions, greater compromises emerged later, particularly as a result of the increasing interdependence of Church and State. In the East this development continued to evolve, and especially after the separation from the See of Peter, it moved towards an increasingly liberal praxis. In the Orthodox Churches today, there are a great many grounds for divorce, which are mostly justified in terms of oikonomia, or pastoral leniency in difficult individual cases, and they open the path to a second or third marriage marked by a penitential character. This practice cannot be reconciled with God’s will, as expressed unambiguously in Jesus’ sayings about the indissolubility of marriage. But it represents an ecumenical problem that is not to be underestimated.

In the West, the Gregorian reform countered these liberalizing tendencies and gave fresh impetus to the original understanding of Scripture and the Fathers. The Catholic Church defended the absolute indissolubility of marriage even at the cost of great sacrifice and suffering. The schism of a “Church of England” detached from the Successor of Peter came about not because of doctrinal differences, but because the Pope, out of obedience to the sayings of Jesus, could not accommodate the demands of King Henry VIII for the dissolution of his marriage.

The Council of Trent confirmed the doctrine of the indissolubility of sacramental marriage and explained that this corresponded to the teaching of the Gospel (cf. DH 1807). Sometimes it is maintained that the Church de facto tolerated the Eastern practice. But this is not correct. The canonists constantly referred to it as an abuse. And there is evidence that groups of Orthodox Christians on becoming Catholic had to subscribe to an express acknowledgment of the impossibility of second or third marriages.
Note also the placing of "Church of England" in quotes. I can't help wondering if, to the extent that Francis does not have a European a focus as John Paul and Benedict, there's less concern under his guidance about speaking clearly about the areas in which the Orthodox Churches and Protestant groups do not conform to Church teaching and practice.

Muller goes on to specifically reject several approaches to dealing with divorced and remarried couples which have been suggested of late by those hoping for change:
It is frequently suggested that remarried divorcees should be allowed to decide for themselves, according to their conscience, whether or not to present themselves for holy communion. This argument, based on a problematical concept of “conscience”, was rejected by a document of the CDF in 1994. Naturally, the faithful must consider every time they attend Mass whether it is possible to receive communion, and a grave unconfessed sin would always be an impediment. At the same time they have the duty to form their conscience and to align it with the truth. In so doing they listen also to the Church’s Magisterium, which helps them “not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it” (Veritatis Splendor, 64). If remarried divorcees are subjectively convinced in their conscience that a previous marriage was invalid, this must be proven objectively by the competent marriage tribunals. Marriage is not simply about the relationship of two people to God, it is also a reality of the Church, a sacrament, and it is not for the individuals concerned to decide on its validity, but rather for the Church, into which the individuals are incorporated by faith and baptism. “If the prior marriage of two divorced and remarried members of the faithful was valid, under no circumstances can their new union be considered lawful, and therefore reception of the sacraments is intrinsically impossible. The conscience of the individual is bound to this norm without exception” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “The Pastoral approach to marriage must be founded on truth” L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, 7 December 2011, p. 4)

The teaching on epikeia, too – according to which a law may be generally valid, but does not always apply to concrete human situations – may not be invoked here, because in the case of the indissolubility of sacramental marriage we are dealing with a divine norm that is not at the disposal of the Church. Nevertheless – as we see from the privilegium Paulinum – the Church does have the authority to clarify the conditions that must be fulfilled for an indissoluble marriage, as taught by Jesus, to come about. On this basis, the Church has established impediments to marriage, she has recognized grounds for annulment, and she has developed a detailed process for examining these.

A further case for the admission of remarried divorcees to the sacraments is argued in terms of mercy. Given that Jesus himself showed solidarity with the suffering and poured out his merciful love upon them, mercy is said to be a distinctive quality of true discipleship. This is correct, but it misses the mark when adopted as an argument in the field of sacramental theology. The entire sacramental economy is a work of divine mercy and it cannot simply be swept aside by an appeal to the same. An objectively false appeal to mercy also runs the risk of trivializing the image of God, by implying that God cannot do other than forgive. The mystery of God includes not only his mercy but also his holiness and his justice. If one were to suppress these characteristics of God and refuse to take sin seriously, ultimately it would not even be possible to bring God’s mercy to man. Jesus encountered the adulteress with great compassion, but he said to her “Go and do not sin again” (Jn 8:11). God’s mercy does not dispense us from following his commandments or the rules of the Church. Rather it supplies us with the grace and strength needed to fulfil them, to pick ourselves up after a fall, and to live life in its fullness according to the image of our heavenly Father. [emphasis added]
Muller then goes on to explain what real pastoral care in such situations consists of:
Even if there is no possibility of admitting remarried divorcees to the sacraments, in view of their intrinsic nature, it is all the more imperative to show pastoral concern for these members of the faithful, so as to point them clearly towards what the theology of revelation and the Magisterium have to say. The path indicated by the Church is not easy for those concerned. Yet they should know and sense that the Church as a community of salvation accompanies them on their journey. Insofar as the parties make an effort to understand the Church’s practice and to abstain from communion, they provide their own testimony to the indissolubility of marriage.

Clearly, the care of remarried divorcees must not be reduced to the question of receiving the Eucharist. It involves a much more wide-ranging pastoral approach, which seeks to do justice to to the different situations. It is important to realize that there are other ways, apart from sacramental communion, of being in fellowship with God. One can draw close to God by turning to him in faith, hope and charity, in repentance and prayer. God can grant his closeness and his salvation to people on different paths, even if they find themselves in a contradictory life situation. As recent documents of the Magisterium have emphasized, pastors and Christian communities are called to welcome people in irregular situations openly and sincerely, to stand by them sympathetically and helpfully, and to make them aware of the love of the Good Shepherd. If pastoral care is rooted in truth and love, it will discover the right paths and approaches in constantly new ways.
It goes without saying, the head of the CDF does not put out documents like this without due consultation with the pope. Anyone who hopes to assert that this is not in the "spirit of Francis" needs to remind himself: These words were undoubtedly read and approved by the pope.

Most People Weren't in the Resistance

I was struck by this piece which contrasts the movie 12 Years a Slave (which I'm eager to go see) with other depictions of struggling against slavery, or evil generally, in American movies.
Hollywood is in general uncomfortable with race, but it likes heroic masculinity. It's no surprise, then, that films about slavery often end up being about men becoming men. Django Unchained is a basic revenge story, with Django taking up the phallic gun to blast the evil forces that have held him down and captured his wife. Glory is a standard military parable, with the weak and undisciplined black troops learning to be a deadly fighting force even as their boyish white commanding officer proves himself. "We're men," Denzel Washington declares before the final battle, for all the world as if, before they joined the regiment, they were something else.

Remarkably and honorably, 12 Years a Slave, based on Solomon Northup's 1841 autobiographical narrative, has a different story to tell. When the film opens, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free musician, living in Saratoga, New York with his wife, son and daughter. He's a success and a grown-up; he doesn't need to learn to become a man. The narrative arc of the film isn't from powerlessness to power. It's the reverse.

Northup is courted by two men who promise him a touring gig, and then, after they've lured him to Washington, slip him a drug, knocking him unconscious. He wakes up in a cell, where he is viciously beaten on all fours while the slaver hits him with a stick from behind. Northup loses his former life, his dignity, even his self, as he is forced to take the name of a runaway slave, Platt. The entire sequence is a violation and unmanning—it's presented as a symbolic rape.

If we were working with the logic of Glory or Django, Northup would have to regain his manhood by standing up to his attackers and besting them in combat. That's not what happens here, though. Instead, Northup tries various ways to deal with the system. At first, he uses his education and skills to help his (very) relatively humane owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), with various engineering projects. Then, when he is harassed and attacked by Ford's overseer, he fights back, in a scene reminiscent of Frederick Douglass's autobiography, whipping the man who had intended to whip him. Where Douglass triumphed, though, Northup just ends up sold to a true sadist. As another slave, Eliza (Adepero Oduye), tells Northup, you can compromise yourself as you will, give the slave-owners your skills or your body. It doesn't matter. You're still a slave.
When Northup escapes, it's not through violence, but because a white Canadian working on the plantation agreed to get word to the north. Northup's ordeal ends as abruptly as it began when an old white friend pulls up at the plantation with the sheriff. There's no hail of gunfire, only a hail of legalese. Nor is this a happy ending. No one can give him back his lost years with his wife, or missing his children grow up. Patsey, and many others, are still enslaved. The men who kidnapped him are never brought to justice. Northup has no manly triumph.
Several things about the article strike me as a bit off base. Lumping Tarantino's revenge fantasy in with a good historical drama like Glory is deeply unfair to the latter, which is a well made movie about a set of events just as real as those which inspired 12 Years a Slave. Also, I'm not sure that it's precisely "masculinity" which is the issue here as the idea that when faced with some sort of massive evil all the "good people" will "do something" to overcome it.

For instance, consider the odd fact that the most famous American movie about the holocaust, an event in which over six million people were killed, is Schindler's List, a movie about how a few hundred people weren't killed. Some of this is just a matter of how we like our movies: We may like our pity and fear as much as the new Aristotelian, but we much prefer it if it closes with a healthy topping of hope. However, I think there's also a strong tendency to think that in terrible circumstance, the good people will stand up and fight back somehow.

Look at the massive over-prominence of "the resistance" in our stories about oppressive regimes. And yet in real historical circumstances, even most people who oppose an oppressive regime are not involved in active resistance. There are good reasons for this. Oppressive regimes do things like threatening to round up and kill ten random civilians from in retaliation for any one of their soldiers killed. Think about facing that in your neighborhood. Not only would be you unlikely to take pot shots at enemy soldiers, you might not think very well of anyone who did. Indeed, oppressive regimes have a way of generating very nasty resistance forces. One of the ways that Tito's partisans rose to prominence in Yugoslavia during World War 2 is they simply didn't care if killing German soldiers meant that the Germans would in turn kill large numbers of locals.

Similarly, as the article points out: Most slaves had no chance at rising up or escaping. We admire exceptional people, and we like a story with hope in it, so we tend to zero in on the stories of escape and resistance, but those stories are atypical, and the people who didn't succeed in beating the system were not inferior people or worse people. Indeed, in many ways, that majority of people, who find themselves in history's darker times having to fatalistically accept what happens to them and simply hope to somehow survive, are perhaps by their ordinariness the most like us.

Monday, October 21, 2013

There's Not Much To Learn In The Early Grades -- And That's Okay

One of the areas in which my thinking has developed in directions that I would not have expected, going from being a homeschooled student (in grades 6-12) to a homeschooling parent (with our oldest in grade 6) is coming to the realization that there's not actually that much that you learn in school, especially in the earlier grades.

Looking back with the perspective of an adult, there's very little content matter which I learned as a grade schooler that I now look back on and think, "That was important." Indeed, on the topics that I read about in depth as an adult, one of the main things that strikes me about most books written for young children is that they tend to be either wrong or so simplified as to be very close to wrong. History has become one of my main hobbies, but as you get deeper and deeper into a period the kind of storybook explanations of historical events that make for good children's history become hader and harder to make with any sense of honesty.

The things I learned as a student which stay with me are not knowledge, but skills, and they're the basics: Reading. Writing. Math. The instinct to "go look it up" if I don't know something.

The other thing I think stuck from that early period is an appreciation for good books -- though in the earlier grades when I was in parochial school this came much more from my family than from school. My dad, a lecturer by trade, was incredibly good at reading aloud. His narration was expressive and he provided characters with voices that remain memorable to me to this day. At any given time would have a book that he was reading aloud to us in installments at night. Some of these were classic sorts of things to read aloud to children: Treasure Island, The Hobbit, Journey to the Center of the Earth, A Christmas Carol Others were more unusual: He read us the books of Samuel and Kings from the Old Testament, which had the sort of blood-thirsty adventure which we enjoyed as kids. Other selections included Njal's Saga, Xenophon's Anabasis and Gregory of Tour's History of the Franks. Yet others were less arcane, but were not traditional children's literature. Dad was a big Trollope fan, and I remember him reading The Warden and Barchester Towers to us. In addition to all this reading aloud we were in general a very reading-centered family, and so I developed my own habits and preferences for reading as part of growing up in the environment.

Even there, though, what I gained from all that was more skills and affections, not "knowledge" in the sense of information gained. I recall incidents and impressions from the books that were read to me 20+ years ago, but mostly I remember the enjoyment of listening to my dad read to us.

As we've muddled through what works and what doesn't while homeschooling our own children, I've found this useful and comforting to recall. It would be claiming a little too much credit to say that we made a conscious decision to focus on the basics. It's more that, as various pressures have made it hard to get through everything, the things that get done are: math, reading, writing, religion, and read alouds. Yes, there's history and science and other topics, but it's more sporadic and project oriented. That will probably shift for the older kids in the next year or two, as they get old enough to start to handle something approaching real subject matter. But although nearly every conversation MrsDarwin and I have about homeschooling seems to circle back to, "Sheesh, are we doing enough? We should be doing more," I think that in the end getting the basics down is what matters.

Sure, they could be memorizing that elements or the kings of England or some such, and I'm sure that somewhere there's a Classical Homeschooling superhero of a parent who's pulling that off. But in the early grades I'm increasingly convinces that covering those basics and building in your children a love of knowledge and reading is really about all you really have to do.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Tolstoy and The Battle of the Will

On audiobook, I've been wrapping up re-reading War & Peace, while in print I've been reading David Herrmann's The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War, which is about the developments in military technology, army organization, tactics and the arms race in Europe during 1904-1914 and to what extent these led to the outbreak of World War One.

One of the things for which World War One is well known is that, at the opening, generals on both sides were deeply convinced that the essential means of winning a battle was the spirited attack. Making spirited attacks in the face of machine guns and rapid firing artillery could have deeply horrific results, and the resulting learning process has led, in retrospect, to the view of the Great War as being typified by useless slaughter.

French officer machine gunned down in a counterattack at Verdun - 1916
Bilderdienst Süddeutscher Verlag, Munich
Stepan, Photos that Changed the World, p. 31

The common wisdom is that in 1914 military leaders did not realize how much these new weapons had changed the modern battlefield. In actuality, staff colleges and military theorists had spent a great deal of time thinking about the impact of magazine fed rifles, quick firing artillery and machine guns on infantry tactics, but because there had not been a major European war since the wars of German unification in the 1860-70s, there was a great deal of difference of opinion as to what these changes would actually look like.

The American Civil War was nearly unstudied in Europe, partly because it was fought at almost exactly the same time as the very different Franco-Austrian, Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars, and partly because tacticians believed that the conditions in America (which lacked the universal conscription and large trained armies of Europe and had a theater of operations far more vast than Western Europe) would not apply in a European war. Based on the European wars of 40 years before and on the recent Russo-Japanese war, European military leaders were convinced that the key to victory on the modern battlefield was to have a well trained army imbued with sufficient national zeal to carryout a rapid attack even in the face of murderous fire, under which the natural human reaction was to hunker down under cover.

The Japanese suffered terrible casualties in 1904 and 1905, but ultimately their assaults went in to decide the day. Against the almost incomprehensible passivity of the Russian command, the Japanese won repeated victories with an aggressive strategy and a willingness to sacrifice men at decisive points. The victors throughout the second half of the nineteenth century had accomplished all this in spite of a continual increase in the lethality of weapons. The results tended to silence critics of the offensive, and to confirm the axiom that only the attack could bring victory.

Military theory provided a continuous accompaniment to this development. Not only did it enthrone the virtues of the offensive; it tended increasingly to transfer the debate from the realm of the material, technical considerations to that of morale, will, and the interaction between people. The wars of the French Revolution had shown what an influence popular enthusiasm and political ides could have, not only upon recruitment and mobilization of society for war, but also upon fighting effectiveness. Napoleon himself had said that in war the moral is to the material as three is to one, a maxim that his disciples never tired of quoting.... The visionary French officer, Charles Jean-Jacques Joseph Ardant du Picq, took up this theme in the 1860s, writing that a battle was more a contest of will than anything else, and that it was much less important to inflict material losses than to persuade the enemy that he was beaten. To achieve this, du Picq believe in sacrificing everything to the aw-inspiring momentum of an attack. Colmar von der Goltz, the influential German author of many works on strategy after the wars of unification, perpetuated these ideas. For him, to defend was to let the enemy decide where, when and how the battle would be fought. It was also to sacrifice the inestimable advantage in morale that an advancing army enjoyed over a retreating one. All of these ideas conformed well with those of popular nationalist writers in the Mazzinian and later Trietschkean traditions, who placed voluntarism and the power of feelings, especially experienced as a community, above mundane material constraints. The sociological, political and psychological theory of thinkers like Nietzsche, Sorel, Weber, Durkheim and Freud contributed to this preoccupation with will and emotion in a world that seemed to many by the turn of the century to have fallen prey to dehumanizing materialism.
The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War, pages 22-23
(If it seems disconnected from the everyday to cite Nietzsche in a discussion of battlefield tactics, here's an interesting fact I've run into: The second most frequently carried book, after the bible, by German soldiers in World War One was Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra.)

The day after reading this section, I read the following section in War & Peace, and suddenly all Tolstoy's criticisms of the "German rationalism" of Russia's generals back in 1812 fell into place. War & Peace was published in 1869, just as the thinking above was coming into currency. And to Tolstoy, the emphasis placed fifty years before on tactics and movement was absurdly theoretical and failed to realize that battle was primarily a contest of wills. Here is Prince Andre (in the online translation, Andrew) presenting what from the narration elsewhere seems clearly to be Tolstoy's view of how war works in Book 10, Chapter 25:
Pierre looked at him in surprise.

"And yet they say that war is like a game of chess?" he remarked.

"Yes," replied Prince Andrew, "but with this little difference, that in chess you may think over each move as long as you please and are not limited for time, and with this difference too, that a knight is always stronger than a pawn, and two pawns are always stronger than one, while in war a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division and sometimes weaker than a company. The relative strength of bodies of troops can never be known to anyone. Believe me," he went on, "if things depended on arrangements made by the staff, I should be there making arrangements, but instead of that I have the honor to serve here in the regiment with these gentlemen, and I consider that on us tomorrow's battle will depend and not on those others.... Success never depends, and never will depend, on position, or equipment, or even on numbers, and least of all on position."

"But on what then?"

"On the feeling that is in me and in him," he pointed to Timokhin, "and in each soldier."

Prince Andrew glanced at Timokhin, who looked at his commander in alarm and bewilderment. In contrast to his former reticent taciturnity Prince Andrew now seemed excited. He could apparently not refrain from expressing the thoughts that had suddenly occurred to him.

"A battle is won by those who firmly resolve to win it! Why did we lose the battle at Austerlitz? The French losses were almost equal to ours, but very early we said to ourselves that we were losing the battle, and we did lose it. And we said so because we had nothing to fight for there, we wanted to get away from the battlefield as soon as we could. 'We've lost, so let us run,' and we ran. If we had not said that till the evening, heaven knows what might not have happened. But tomorrow we shan't say it! You talk about our position, the left flank weak and the right flank too extended," he went on. "That's all nonsense, there's nothing of the kind. But what awaits us tomorrow? A hundred million most diverse chances which will be decided on the instant by the fact that our men or theirs run or do not run, and that this man or that man is killed, but all that is being done at present is only play. The fact is that those men with whom you have ridden round the position not only do not help matters, but hinder."
As with many a wrong theory, this is of course quite a bit of truth in this, the problem is in seeing it as the whole truth. Most certainly, morale matters in war. And yet, the will of an army, expressed in an aggressive charge, will seldom find itself winning out over machine guns and artillery barrage. Although it is battles such as Verdun and the Somme which provide the popular perception of World War One, the highest rate of casualties in the entire war was during the first four months, as both the French and the German armies attempted to fight mass battles of offensive maneuver in the battles of the Frontiers and Marne, before both dug in and trench warfare began. In those four months, the idea that modern battles could be won through nothing but offensive will died a horrifically bloody death. It was developments in tactics (the creeping barrage, attack and defense in depth, storm tactics) and in technology (tanks, motor transport, air supremacy) which ended up being the key to victory in the Great War.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Mass Hysteria

It's Friday, and that means things are pretty lax around here (just like Monday through Thursday, really). Today the kids decided to play Mass for religion. This is the sort of thing that demonstrates, to a parent, the deficiencies in your program of religious education.

Fr. Jack never read his own prayers and scarfed the communion hamburger bun on the sly. Acolyte Isabel acted up to such an extent that I had to step out of character and tell her that if she was actually interested in making her first communion this year, she'd better play Mass more reverently. Diana the cantor turned around and shushed Father and the servers, telling them, "No, it's my turn to sing now!" Julia the lector kept losing her place in the missalette. Eleanor the deacon spent most of the Mass scolding the priest (who needed it, by the end). I have a feeling that the bishop is not going to be consecrating St. Darwin's any time soon.

Diana sings "Alleluia" at a lectern made from a table taken out of the bathroom without permission.

On the plus side, everyone can sing the Latin mass parts, including the Mortem Tuam, and Eleanor chanted the psalm very creditably. People remembered that green was the liturgical color now. No one set her hair on fire. Diana walked her dolly to the back when she got noisy. The school room floor is now mostly clean (although most of the debris was shoved under the radiator). I managed to bite my tongue and not offer fussy input, which was probably the biggest accomplishment of all.

The gospel reading (from this coming Sunday's mass) was about the corrupt judge who renders a just decision not because it's just, but because he's tired of being importuned. I feel like that judge most days -- I'm tired of hearing my name called over and over, even when the request is basically sound, and I give answers not because I think the questions deserve them but because I'm weary of being asked. But perhaps that's okay. If we're supposed to be like the widow, then maybe God waits to answer until the twentieth time someone yells for him when he's in the upstairs bathroom, where people can't seem to hear him until he bellows, "WHAT?" loud enough to penetrate to the foot of the stairs where the petitioner is whining because she can't be bothered to climb up to knock on the door and ask in a reasonable tone.

I don't think the bishop would go for that analogy either.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Should We Boycott People We Disagree With?

This piece over at The American Conservative about the fuss surrounding Guido Barilla's statements about homosexuality and the traditional got me thinking about to what extent we should allow the opinions of company owners or management to influence our purchasing decisions. For those who didn't catch the flap:
Guido Barilla’s ... asserted that his company, now the largest supplier of pasta in both the United States and Italy, would continue to use only “traditional” families in its advertising and would “never” portray a “gay” family in its ads. His remarks led to worldwide efforts to boycott his company’s products to voice displeasure at the Barilla’s supposed bigotry.
We've seen this sort of drama play out before. Homosexual activists have repeatedly called for boycotts of Chick-fil-A because of the views and charitable contributions of its owners. On the flip side, a number of Christians called for people to refuse to own Starbucks stock or not buy coffee due to Starbucks' continued support for gay marriage initiatives.
The AC article goes on to quote John Stuart Mill, making the argument that social sanctions (such as not buying someone's product) because one does not like that person's opinions is actually a more effective mode of repression that the kind of judicial repression we would more often think of when hearing the word:
For it is this—it is the opinions men entertain, and the feelings they cherish, respecting those who disown the beliefs they deem important, which makes this country [England] not a place of mental freedom… It is [social] stigma which is really effective, and so effective is it, that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England, than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur risk of judicial punishment. In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread… But though we do not now inflict so much evil on those who think differently from us, as it was formerly our custom to do, it may be that we do ourselves as much evil as ever by our treatment of them. Socrates was put to death, but the Socratic philosophy rose like the sun in heaven… Christians were cast to the lions, but the Christian church grew up a stately and spreading tree… Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion… And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed… But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.”
– J.S. Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”
Arguably, Mill here is speaking in the tradition of Classical Liberalism (which is not the same as the progressivism which is what we normally call "liberalism" these days) in that I would take him to be saying that when one decides whether to buy from the baker, one should do so on the basis of how good a baker he is, not on the basis of his personal opinions.

I'm not an absolute classical liberal, but I'm enough of one to go with this most of the time. I frequently buy products from companies run by people whom I know to disagree with me on a host of issues which are important to me, but I do so because I consider myself to be buying the product, not voting on the validity of their beliefs. I can imagine a situation which might push me to refusing to buy from a company because I was convinced that their profits were being spent on something so heinous that I was unwilling to stick with this principle, but most of the time when people I agree with call for a boycott of something I ignore it.

And I too benefit from this classical liberalism. The companies that I've worked for over the years have often been run by people who disagree with me on various important issues, and so clearly I benefit from the fact that they're willing to employ me because I'm good at what I do, regardless of the fact that by so doing they're allowing an income to someone like me.

Another example of this has come to my attention lately which may perhaps add an additional facet to the question. Orson Scott Card's classic SF novel Ender's Game has finally been made into a movie which will be coming out this year. Although the book itself came out almost 30 years ago (now I feel old) in recent years Orson Scott Card has become somewhat known for his solid opposition to gay marriage. A group called GeeksOUT has apparently organized a boycott of the movie, on the theory that watching it would only enrich Card, whose views they consider hateful. Given that the world of SF/F fandom seems to be pretty incredibly liberal these days, there's some question as to whether unlike most movie boycott attempts this may actually succeed in hurting the movie.

[A few vague spoilers in regards to the book to follow.]

This is kind of interesting to me at a couple levels. One is that, authors being what they are, I've always pretty much taken it as a given that the authors of books I like may well not agree with me on important issues, but that the important thing is whether a book rings true in its view of the world. In that area, I would tend to think that Ender's Game would score pretty well with the folks who apparently want to boycott it. I was kind of surprised when Card came out as a conservative political essayist in that although I really liked Ender's Game, I never could manage to like any of his other novels. My more liberal friends, on the other hand, loved them. And even in Ender's Game, we have the sensitive kid who gets used by society because he happens to also be a really good warrior, and the idea that underneath it all the nasty insectoid aliens are just trying to understand us and be loved by us. (This is in part why I could never get into the sequels to Ender, and to be honest I wasn't huge on the "the Buggers left him a message because they wanted to be understood" element of the epilogue.)

So not only do we have the odd specter of a bunch of cultural liberals seeking to boycott a piece of art (which is something they're generally not down with) but it's a book which if anything seems to have a message that would be highly appealing to liberals. Except that it was, apparently, written by the wrong author.

I'm not prepared to say that it's wrong to boycott someone's work (artistic or practical) because you disagree with that person's beliefs. There are extreme cases where I'd definitely support a boycott. But to the extent which I support freedom and classical liberalism (which is a pretty great extent) I think that kind of boycott is a bad idea. If the product itself is something you object to, that's a whole other matter. There are plenty of offensive products that it's worthwhile to refuse to buy and to encourage people not to provide. But I'm not necessarily sure I like the idea of refusing to buy pasta or coffee because one doesn't like the views of the people who make it. In many ways I'd prefer a society in which basically everyone shared my deeply held convictions. But given that instead we live in a highly diverse society, it seems like letting people who disagree with us make a living and get on with their lives is far superior to embarking on some sort of constant economic civil war.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Being Christian and Being Pro-life Look The Same

There's been a certain amount of solemn nonsense going around about what it means to truly live a Christian live and evangelize. Are hot button issues talked about too much or not enough? Do we emphasize the message that Jesus came to save us, or is proselytizing not meeting people where they are? Is what we really need to do as Christians just serve those I need and let our actions speak for themselves, or is that turning the Church into an NGO rather than the conduit of Christ's gospel?

Myself, I don't think our new pope's messages have been that hard to follow if one reads them in context, but certainly there has been both a lot of worry and a lot of people attempting to rub other Catholics noses in things they image they won't like.

Francis is a concrete thinker, it seems to me, and perhaps it works best to point to a concrete example. I read this piece by Abby Johnson the other day and it seemed to me that it summed up how evangelizing, pro-life activity and serving those most in need are not competing interests, but one "seamless" package of what it means to live out the Christian message:
One night over dinner, a friend of mine told me that he had seen a very pregnant homeless woman on the corner of a busy Austin intersection. I knew the intersection he was referring to…there is a huge non-denominational church on the corner. I felt confident that she had probably received some assistance from them. Maybe they were in the process of trying to help her find resources.

One of the friends with us at dinner, Heather, is the executive director of the Austin Coalition for Life, a non-profit group who holds daily vigils outside of Austin’s four abortion clinics. Their goal is to connect abortion-minded women with pregnancy resources in the area to help them choose life for their child. I was about to deliver my own baby any day, so I was limited with what I could do to reach out to this woman. Heather said she would continue to go by the intersection until she found her.

After several days of unsuccessful attempts, Heather was finally able to connect with her. She explained that there were several pro-life agencies in town that could help her with housing both before and after her baby was born. They could also help with expenses, pre and post natal care, labor and delivery, food, clothing, and all of her other basic needs. She talked to her for a long time and found out that she was running from an abusive relationship and was trying to protect her unborn child from the father.

Heather’s next question was a pretty obvious one … had the megachurch a few hundred feet away offered to help her? Instead of asking the woman and putting her on the spot, Heather decided to go and ask the church if they knew anything about the woman. She was startled at the response. “Well, one of our members took her to the Target Café to share the Gospel with her.” So, no material assistance was offered for her or her baby? No resources offered for where she could receive assistance? No phone calls made to maternity homes or pro-life groups in the area? “No,” the woman responded. “Just the meeting at Target to talk about the Lord.”

Well, isn’t that fantastic. I’m sure the Gospel will help her find a hospital to deliver her baby in. I’m sure the Gospel will help her with food to nourish her body during the last few weeks of her pregnancy. I’m sure the Gospel will help keep her safe from harm as she sleeps outside night after night.

Their answer made me disgusted. How can we expect to nourish someone spiritually when their physical needs aren’t met? How can we expect someone to be receptive to the Gospel when they go physically hungry during the day? How can we expect someone to believe in the power of Christ when they don’t know if they will be forced to deliver their baby in alley somewhere? This is Christianity? This is how we treat those in need of help? Certainly not. That is not what faith is about. James clearly states that “faith without works is dead.” What is faith if we are not willing to step out of our comfort zone and get our hands dirty in service to Christ? We are called to be the “hands and feet of Christ,” right? That means service to those who need him … not just words … actions.
This is what it's all about. And I think it does a great job of underlining the way in which much of the great work that people in the pro-life movement do is helping those in need (both the unborn and their mother's) and is evangelization. This is not a focus on "small minded rules", and it is meeting people where they are.

I don't think that Pope Francis would ever suggest that these pro-life advocates were emphasizing the wrong things in their work. And they clearly are doing a better job of bringing Christ's love into people's lives than the folks who took a pregnant homeless woman out for Coffee to tell her about Jesus but didn't do anything to actually help her out. That is when proselytizing becomes "solemn nonsense".

The Last Days of Summer

We went out this weekend to help Betty Duffy celebrate her birthday in style at her parents' house in rural Indiana. The weather was perfect, cool and temperate, the breeze rustling the drying leaves as the children wandered barefoot near the house or in tall boots down to the creek in search of chub minnows. A pair of small white puppies tumbled around the porch, happily gnawing each other's faces, and though I admired them I steadfastly resisted all pressing to take one home with me. Puppies belong outside, at someone else's house, no matter how much pleading eleven-year-old daughters may bring to bear.

Almost as pleasant as being in good company was sitting in comfort. Standing around grows increasingly difficult for me, and will only get harder over the next ten weeks, so nestling down in a leather couch with my feet on an ottoman, drinking lemonade while non-gestating adults worked through several varieties of craft beer and homebrew was blissful. Solving all the internet's problems never felt so good, especially when the solutions involve more personal interaction and more beer.

I forget how dark it gets in the country. That night, as I turned off the lamp, I was suddenly blind. The darkness literally pressed against my eyes -- perhaps it was the result of straining to see anything, but the pressure of the blackness was palpable. Of course it wasn't really pitch-black, as I discovered when I closed my eyes long enough to acclimate to the dark. It was starlit. Real starlight, from glowing field of stars such as I haven't seen since I was a girl in rural Virginia. It was almost enough to make me want to up and move out to the country myself, except that then I might be expected to keep a dog.

In the morning the kids roasted marshmallows and ran through the sprinkler in whatever old swimsuits could be scrounged up from the catch-all chests. My maternal heart lurched to see these children hovering on the edge of adolescence: Betty's big handsome boys running around shirtless, and my tall girls, just developing, in their too snug borrowed suits, all still on this side of childhood, oblivious so far to each other's bodies, just out there to splash around and lob water balloons, all equals yet in mischief and partners in crime. I know this time will end, and soon, but I'm holding on gratefully to this innocence even as my two oldest are growing and changing and raiding my shoe closet because they keep growing out of their own pairs. Even as my own body is painfully distorted and swollen out of recognition by the demands of new life, my daughters are on the verge of their own physical blossoming. At 34, I'm even on the youngish side to have girls so grown-up, but we're matched in accelerated development: right now I feel older than my years, and they look older than theirs.

We experienced the less introspective side of bodies as well this weekend, when my 7-year-old wailed that she couldn't brush the spider off her tummy, and it turned out to be a tick burrowed head-deep. I was at a bit of a loss, not having confronted a tick since I was her age and pulling them out of my hair after my own romps in the tall grass, but Betty was equal to this and all situations and removed the thing like a pro. A flurry of hair and stomach checks followed while the kids gleefully faked each other out ("What's that on your back?"). Fortunately, all else was clear -- I'm a champion de-louser if it comes to that, but I don't really want to be pulling big swollen ticks off scalps.

And joy of joys, everyone fell asleep on the way home and left Darwin and me to three good hours of conversation not underscored by the current favorite music compilation. Funny how the joys of having a family are often deepened by having most of the family asleep. How good it is when sisters snooze in harmony, and how good it is to talk to adults, as adults, and how good it is to see the seasons on the cusp of change.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Did Jefferson Try to Abolish Slavery in the Declaration of Independence?

Sometimes an article includes such a jarring historical claim that I find myself immediately questioning everything in the piece. That was precisely my reaction when I read a Commonweal piece today which claimed that Thomas Jefferson had originally included language in the Declaration of Independence abolishing slavery:
Jefferson realized that it made no sense to base a new nation on the principle of “liberty and equality for all” as long as some its people were enslaved by others, so the first draft of the Declaration also renounced slavery. Jefferson accused King George of waging a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” Southern delegates representing the interests of slave-holders aligned with northern delegates representing the interests of slave-trading merchants, and together they succeeded in excluding Jefferson’s original language from the Declaration. Their motivation was obvious: eliminating slavery would diminish their wealth. They held up the vote for independence until they got their way.

But the phrase “all men are created equal” remained, and debate about its meaning has dominated American politics ever since.
The rest of the article is a piece of political hackery in which economics professor Charles Clark of St. John’s University goes on to lay out an interpretive framework for American history and the current political situation in which there is always a group of powerful elites which successfully dupes a portion of the ordinary people into supporting the elites' interests above their own.

The claim that Jefferson (himself a slave holder who never freed his slaves) sought to "renounce" slavery in the Declaration of Independence struck me as wholly implausible, so I researched the question further. The phrase Prof. Clark quotes was indeed in Jefferson's draft, but he leaves out the crucial second half of the quote:
[H]e is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
So the argument that Jefferson drafted out here is essentially: First King George enslaved people and sold them in America, and now, having tricked us into owning slaves, he's encouraging the slaves to rise up against us (their owners) by offering them freedom! How dare he?

Taken as a whole, the passage on the one hand condemns slavery as an evil, but on the other condemns the British offering freedom to slaves who rose up against their (rebel) masters. (Indeed, as the Revolutionary War went on, black freedmen fought on both sides, and both revolutionaries and tories offered freedom to slaves who ran away from owners belonging to the other side.) It most certainly does not unequivocally condemn slavery (otherwise, why the anger at slaves being offered freedom) and even had it been included in the Declaration, it would not have consisted of a renunciation of slavery by the fledgling United States.

One way to see Jefferson's abandoned passage is as a somewhat incoherent attempt to blame King George both coming and going, but it does at least convey the ambivalent opinions which were common at the time of the American Revolution about slavery, even among slave holders. While many of the Founders were slave owners, the opinion of the time was generally that slavery was an evil and an outdated one at that, which was destined to die out on its own. George Washington freed his slaves in his will, and in the early days of the country the northern states passed laws ending slavery. However, economic and cultural forces began to change opinions of slavery during the first half of the 19th century. The invention of the cotton gin made American cotton a commercially viable product, and the nature of cotton cultivation was sufficiently manually intensive that slavery suddenly became far more economically attractive than it had been in the late 18th century. Combined with this, the rise of "scientific racism" led to the development of a host of rationalizations which by the decade before the Civil War had slavery apologists insisting at times that slavery was a positive good, needed to tame the wild nature of the African.

The distortion of meaning involved in quoting only the first half of the deleted section is so severe, I at first found myself wondering, how did Clark think he could get away with this? However, it's possible the omission was made primarily through ignorance. Googling around on the passage, I noticed this NY times piece published this summer which also quotes only the first half of the passage:
The library’s copy of the Declaration of Independence, handwritten by Thomas Jefferson, includes a condemnation of slavery. King George III, Jefferson wrote, “has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither.” To appease delegates from Georgia and South Carolina, the denunciation was excised.
Clark quotes almost exactly the same amount of the passage (omitting the first two words quoted by the Times) and the explanation he provides of the passage's removal is fairly similar, though it adds a claim (which I have not been able to find made elsewhere) that northern representatives with the interest of slave traders at heart opposed the passage as well as southern representatives. So it's possible that Clark read the NY Times piece, drew his own conclusions on it, but never actually consulted the full draft. Though if so, that's rather sloppy work.

Professor Clark goes on to shoehorn the civil war into his dualistic view of American history:
Each time an elite, whose advantages often entail a disadvantage for someone else, promises to disrupt everything unless their interests are protected. This method of obstruction works only if the elite is able to persuade large numbers of the nonelite that their own well-being depends on preserving the elite's privileges. So the small landed aristocracy in the South convinced thousands to fight and die to preserve “their way of life” in the Civil War.
This kind of thinking underscores the serious weakness of trying to interpret history through the lens of innocent proles duped by fiendish elites. Aside from the fact that it's usually not hard to get people to join up in a war that they convince themselves is in protection of their homeland (the Civil War was, after all, though started by the South mostly fought on Southern territory), there was a sense in which the slave system was advantageous to all whites, even the majority who did not own slaves. Status means a lot to people, and so long as slavery and the whole system which saw blacks as clearly inferior remained in place, no white man could be truly at the bottom of society. Threats of social equality and especially of miscegenation were staples of anti-Union propaganda. Poor Confederate whites may look, to strictly economic eyes, as if they had nothing to lose in the abolition of slavery, but even laying aside the feelings of tribal and territorial pride that tied people to their states, the prospect of freeing the slaves, especially if true equality had actually resulted, was a major threat to the social standing of non-slave owners. After all, the rich landowners were likely to still be rich. But if being white no longer made one inherently superior, poor whites might suddenly find themselves with very few advantages over freedmen.

Clark goes on to show the weaknesses of this framework as he tries to apply it to modern politics as well, working from the certainty that conservatives can't possibly actually mean what they believe (unless they're rich).

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The Pope and the Chess Hoax

I've had to do a bit of research on Karol Wojytła lately (Pope John Paul II of blessed memory) for an article I'm writing, and though most of what I've been searching for is related to theater, I was fascinated to find that his name features prominently in a chess world hoax.

At the age of 18 Karol Józef enrolled in the University of Kraków to study philology, Polish language and literature, Russian and Old Church Slavonic. During his lifetime he mastered ten languages, including Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Ukrainian and English. Intensely interested in acting, he performed for an experimental theater troupe during his university days. 
It is from this and the following period that the story has arisen that Karol Wojytła was a chess enthusiast – an avid over-the-board player and a composer of chess problems and puzzles. In fact we have received a large number of letters since his passing, chiding us for not publishing a report on the subject. 
Unfortunately all of our research has failed to bring up credible evidence that the pope was a serious chess player, in spite of the imminent (and eminent) plausibility of the notion. The legend probably emanates from an entry in the third volume of the Quarterly for Chess History, which contains a game allegedly played by Karol Wojytła in 1946...
Here's the account by the Polish chess researcher who got to the bottom of the story. I've seen some claims that the story gained traction by claiming that Karol Wojytła's uncle was the notable Polish chess problem composer Marian Wróbel, but this is certainly not true, and I've found no reputable source that indicates any relationship between the two.

The Heavenly Choirs of Crickets

These guys sing better than you do.

Your moment of beauty for the day: the sound of crickets, slowed down. They sing in full ethereal harmony, with descant and basso profundo, and they rise and swell and have dynamics and sound like the music of the spheres. Glorious!

h/t Simcha Fisher.

Basically Good People: The Great Modern Heresy

There's an odd backwards moral reasoning to which our modern age seems particularly susceptible. Surely you've heard it:
Y does X. Y is a basically good person. Therefore, X must be okay.
You hear it from all sides of the cultural divide.

"Joe and Fred are married. They're good people. How can you say that that kind of relationship is wrong?"

"Cindy does that. She's a good person. So how can that be racist?"

Think back a bit, and you'll see that a huge number of the casually-made moral arguments one hears these days boil down to this.

There are a couple big problems.

For starters, what exactly is a "good person"? Often this seems to be a category with as little meaning as "someone I like" or "someone who's not obviously engaged in genocide or kitten torture at this moment". And yet, the way the argument is deployed, once someone is determined to be a "basically good person", every action that person takes in now "basically good". It is as if each person is now a good or evil deity, and all the actions of the good deities are necessarily good because good deities can not do evil.

But of course, each person performs many actions. Surely not all the actions of "bad people" are bad and of "good people" are good, if only because "good people" and "bad people" at times do the same things.

A bit of this ties in with the issue of moral fashions. Sins which are currently in fashion, things "basically good people" do, seem like they can't possibly be that bad. At the moment, you're much more likely to know someone who's had an abortion that someone who's killed someone in a duel. Does that mean that dueling is worse than abortion? Well, not necessarily. At another time, one might have been much more likely to know a duelist or a slave owner than someone who'd had abortion. Those sins seemed normal and excusable. "Basically good people" did them. But the sins themselves have not changed as social standards have. Standards of "basically good", of social acceptability, have changed, but moral laws have not. (And for those with an affection for the past: Just because dueling and slave owning were done in distant and more picturesque times does not mean that they weren't just as painful and evil as more modern sins.)

I think underlying much of the urge to identify "basically good people" and excuse their actions from being any serious kind of sin is that by "basically good people" we tend to mean "people like me". By ruling that the actions of "basically good people" can't be all that wrong, we implicitly say that our own actions can't be all that wrong. We restrict sin, you know, bad sin, to being something done by "people not like me". Like Nazis, everyone's favorite example of sin. We all know that's "evil". And if that's evil, and I'm not a Nazi, then surely whatever I do can't be evil, right?

What we need to realize is that people themselves are not good or evil. Actions are. You and I do evil things at times. People like us do evil things. Evil is not something foreign that only people in some other category from us do. It is something that all of us are tempted to and which we all must fight. Unless people realize that evil exists, and that people like them do it, they cannot successfully fight it.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Pope Francis and the Catholic God

Pope Francis's interview with atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari may not have grabbed secular headlines in the US the way that this interview with Jesuit publications did, but it has caused some stir in Catholics circles. I can certainly understand a certain amount of this. We've had two very intellectual popes who have lead the church for the last thirty years, taking it from a time in which even orthodox Catholics felt unsure and adrift into a new dynamism and evangelism. In addition to being towering intellects, John Paul II and Benedict XVI (Benedict even more so) were popes hailing from central/northern Europe. Encountering a Latin pope for the first time in my life (Francis is, after all, not just from Argentina but also the son of Italian immigrants, so he's at the confluence of two southern European cultures) and one who is not a theologian, I'm realizing how much the emotive and more casual aspects of southern Europe and South America (primarily colonized by southern Europe) are not mine. Culturally and intellectually, John Paul II and Benedict XVI are simply much more my style.

That said, I don't necessarily follow how it is that certain statements become points of controversy. One of these is from this "second interview" and it comes after Francis asks Scalfari what he believes in. Scalfari responds, "I believe in Being, that is in the tissue from which forms, bodies arise." And Francis says:
And I believe in God, not in a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God, there is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my pastor, but God, the Father, Abba, is the light and the Creator. This is my Being. Do you think we are very far apart?
(Scalfari says they are, and in the next interchange Francis pushes him to explain, if he believe in "Being" but doesn't believe in God, what does he mean.)

Now, apparently this has caused some unease in Catholic circles because of the phrase "not in a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God". Does this suggest some kind of indifferentism in which the Catholic understanding of God is no better than any other? A generic God without qualities that everyone has some insight into?


Actually, I think people are wrong to see this particular statement as problematic. There is, obviously, only one God. Or as Francis said, "[T]here is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation." We, as Catholics, recognize that the Church provides us with the most complete and accurate understanding of God's teachings available to us as human beings here on earth, and also with the body and blood of Christ through the Eucharist. But God Himself is not sectarian. He is not "the Catholic God" or "the Christian God" as if there were other gods or other ways of understanding God. He is simply God, and the Church is the way to understanding of and union with him.

We use the phrase "the Christian God" at times, as a shorthand to refer to the Christian understanding of God, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm sure that I've used the phrase plenty of times. But I think there's also a value, as Francis does here, in underlining that God is not some cordoned off thing relevant only to Christians or Catholics. There is the objective existence of God, and all our doctrines are simply an attempt to describe that existence. But God is primary and the Church is a response to Him, not vice versa.

This is not, clearly, something that orthodox Christians need to be reminded of. (Though perhaps flaky Christians of the sort likely to think of all religions as being true could use the reminder.) But it is, arguably, a point worth making with a non-Christian who is claiming that he believes in "Being". Our doctrines don't consist of believing in some restricted Being relevant only to us Christians. Rather, the teachings of the Church describe that Being, God, and His encounter with us through the Incarnation. The Church's teachings represent the completion, the end point, of any sense that God is out there somewhere. As Paul said, the unknown god is no longer unknown. We know him.