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

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Regarding the Pope's Tweet on Inequality

There was massive excitement on the Catholic Social Justice group that I kind of follow when the pope's twitter account put out the tweet:

"Inequality is the root of social evil."

I just kind of sigh about these things, but I felt as if I should have something more substantive to say. Now I've perhaps been relieved of that responsibility because Josiah Neeley has written a piece which expressed some very good thinking on the issue:
I confess that when Evangelii Gaudium came out, I was a little annoyed by it. Part of it was that the document seemed to be a bit casual with respect to the facts (suggesting that inequality was on the rise worldwide, when global inequality has fallen in recent decades). Just a few months prior to the release of the apostolic exhortation, U2 front-man Bono gave a speech where he noted that capitalism had lifted more people out of poverty than any other force in human history. And he’s right! In the last few decades alone hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in India, China, and elsewhere due to the forces of market globalization. Bono, like the Pope, doesn’t have any special training in economics, and by temperament is pretty left wing. Yet he seemed to have grasped an important truth about the world that has so far eluded Francis. I found myself thinking something very strange: why can’t the Pope be more like Bono?

It was particularly galling to me given that this Pope is from Argentina. A hundred years ago, Argentina was one of the richest nations in the world. Then a century’s worth of Peronist led autarky, welfarism, and right-wing socialism intervened, with the result that Argentina is now the world’s only “formerly developed” country. And yet the lesson Francis seems to have drawn from this is that Argentina’s problem was too much capitalism.

On the other hand, the Pope’s statements about inequality make a lot more sense when viewed in the context of his Argentine origins. As a conservative, free-market-loving American, when I hear about inequality my mind immediately envisions a creative entrepreneur who got rich by making people’s lives better. Inequality, in that case, seems like just a necessary byproduct of prosperity. But in much of the world, inequality has a very different character. Great fortunes are amassed and maintained not through improving people’s lives, but through connections, and government favors. For Latin America, the stereotypical rich guy is not Steve Jobs but Carlos Slim, who became one of the world’s richest men through a telephone monopoly in Mexico.

And if I’m honest about it, I’ve got to admit that even in the United States a lot of inequality is the result not of the heroic innovator but of government favoritism. I’m thinking here not just of the obvious examples like Goldman Sachs or Archer Daniels Midland, but even folks like doctors and lawyers, who benefit from overly restrictive licensing regimes.

This isn’t the sort of thing that is captured in inequality statistics. To my way of thinking, any measure that ranks Canada (which has a Gini of 32.6) alongside Egypt (30.8) and Bangladesh (32.1) is probably not a reliable indicator of societal well-being. Still, there clearly is a form of inequality that is socially toxic, and it’s more common than those of us who believe in the power of the free market might like to admit. It may be that, like cholesterol, there are good and bad types of inequality, and we need to focus more on combatting malignant inequalities, rather than just dismissing the issue out of hand.

Flannery O’Connor once said that “the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.” In the grand scheme of things, hearing the Pope say things about economics that make me cringe is not that great a form of suffering (whether this cringing is really my fault I will leave for God to judge). And if Pope Francis’ statements help me to think more deeply about how our society does or doesn’t live up to its own principles, then that’s a form of “suffering” I am more than willing to endure.

I quoted only the latter half, so go read the whole thing.

Something Other Than God

Late in 2006, right before election day, I wrote about how I was receiving get-out-the-vote robocalls from none other than Laura Bush and Rick Perry, and I got a comment from Jennifer F., a fellow Texan. Then it turned out that she was from Austin too, and then it turned out that we were practically neighbors.

Shortly afterward we met up at a tea shop, having read through each other's blog archives (which were much less extensive in those days), and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, eight years later, Jennifer Fulwiler's memoir, Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It, is finally in print and on shelves, and it was a pleasure to take that conversion journey with her again, hearing familiar anecdotes told in fresh ways and hearing backstory for the first time. Her blog, first titled The Reluctant Atheist, and then Et Tu Jen (which is now the popular Conversion Diary), was pivotal in her conversion, and I found it fascinating to read the blog from the other side, as it were, and see how conversations I remembered as a reader played out as part of Jen's daily life. (An example: Jen's comments on my post about suffering, written the day before we met, mirror her thoughts in Chapter 25.) Jen is a funny, honest writer, and the book is so readable and well-paced that I finished it in one sitting as the afternoon turned to evening and the living room grew so dark that I could barely see the last words. 

I'm delighted to say that Jen's husband Joe features prominently in the book, because Joe is a fantastic character in real life, but let me say how disappointed I was that my favorite Joe anecdote, the one that involved the guy in the clown suit at a bar telling him, "I didn't plan on having a throwdown tonight, but if you start something I've got your back," didn't make it through the editing process.

Just last week I met a lady who'd just entered the Church on Easter, who was telling me about her conversion story, and my immediate thought was, "I need to lend her Jen's book." I think that many people working their way through that same process of mental and spiritual realignment will start finding friends and mentors recommending this memoir for encouragement and companionship, and I think that her fellow seekers will find a good friend and a understanding guide in Jen.

Full disclosure: I make a brief cameo in the book, and since this is the first time my hair has been (justly) immortalized in print, I got it together with the book for a photo.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Saint John Paul II

The last couple days I've been trying to think my way through a post on the canonization of John Paul II. It's been difficult for me to think what to say about John Paul II because not only was he the only pope for most of my life (I was born shortly after he became pope and by his death I was married with two kids) but his reign had profound and pervasive effects on the Church during my youth.

John Paul II's combination of doctrinal orthodoxy, philosophical depth, profound optimism (captured by his oft repeated line "Be not afraid!"), and ability to capture the imagination of the public and the media meant that although growing up as a faithful Catholic in the '80s and '90s could be isolated, it never had the uncertainty which pervades the experiences described by Frank Sheed in his 1974 book The Church and I.

I remember, when I heard that John Paul II was on his deathbed, driving down to the Eucharistic Chapel at our parish to pray. Over the last six years, I'd confronted the mortality of my own father during cancer treatments, remission, and relapse -- he would outlive John Paul by less than a year. Although I'd seen the Holy Father only once in my life, and then from a distance and along with a large crowd of other visitors to Rome, his impending death too seemed deeply personal -- the loss of a spiritual father.

It has been only nine years since John Paul II's death -- a very short time for a canonization process. But perhaps it is unsurprising that in this case the time was as short as was at times the case in the early Church. John Paul II's teaching and personal holiness had an impact on a tremendous number of people over a long public life, and so the number of people who sought his intercession after his death was large.

In some ways, it is still hard for me to remember that he is not still pope. With the rest of the Church today, I am confident that he is watching over us to this day and praying for us.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Not Crushing the Crazies

One of the nice things about not having any kind of TV reception is that one misses out on the madness-of-the-moment kind of news stories that manage to eat up so much time in the twenty four hour news cycle. Thus, it wasn't until a couple days ago when a couple of the people in my news feed started going on-and-on about this Clive Bundy character and the stand-off that took place between his supporters and the Bureau of Land Management that I went and read up a bit about the whole thing.

The story itself appears to be one of these classic local versus national kind of conflicts. On the one hand we have local ranchers who have a way of life built around grazing cattle in this area. Bundy's family has apparently been grazing cattle on the land in question for the last 140 years, although they've never owned it. Twenty years ago, the Fed (who own the land in question) revoked or bought back grazing permits for the land because they wanted to keep cattle out of the habitat of a desert tortoise. Bundy and several other locals kept grazing their cattle there anyway, and things have been gradually escalating ever since.

It all frankly sounds pretty crazy to me. But then, you'd have to be just a bit crazy to be determined to make your living by grazing cattle in virtual desert. People who are sane by our modern societies standards go get office jobs and live in suburbs. We hear about tortoises on nature specials and see desert when we go hiking. And as someone who has lived in many houses and now resides more than a thousand miles from where I was born, the passion that someone might have about a way of life and area of land that one's family has been connected to for 140 years is pretty much impossible for me to imagine.

Earlier this month, the BLM decided to mount a million dollar operation to confiscate Bundy's trespassing cattle and sell them at auction. Bundy made a huge stink in the media that went national, and supporters came out of the woodwork to try to help him block the feds. The supporters were mostly of the anti-government crank type -- some of them members of "militias" and such. These aren't likable people, and Bundy himself has given some interviews that make it clear he's got some pretty loathesome views on issues such as race.

One of the things that has struck me is that the opinion pieces which originally brought the whole thing to my attention seem to fall into two camps. Sympathetic pieces described Bundy and his supporters as patriots holding off a tyrannical government which was out to crush people's occupations to help a reptile that probably didn't need helping. Those on the other side of the political spectrum have instead spilled a great deal of digital ink making it clear that Bundy and his supporters are not likable people.

It strikes me that both of these miss the point that it's not necessarily a good idea to crush people just because they're not likable. Who remembers this point is generally a matter of partisanship. Those of the left are often willing to call attention to the increasing militarization of police forces, and the left was similarly willing to be very protective of the rights of the Occupy movements -- despite the fact that by any reasonable societal yardstick the Occupy camps were pretty heavily populated by not-very-likable crazies. On the flip side, it was the political right which was willing to notice under the Clinton administration when confrontations between the federal government and crazy and unlikable people resulted in massively disproportionate violence in cases sush the Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidians.

While the partisan trappings of these fracases tend to shed far more heat than light, and crazy and unlikable people (especially from the other side of the political spectrum) are... well, crazy and unlikable, it's important to remember that if we value liberty and decency the fact that people are kind of crazy and unlikable is not sufficient justification for society to take away their livelihood or their lives.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Home Life

I was talking recently with someone who theorized that a possible explanation for the disjointed relationship of the adult siblings in the family was that growing up, the front rooms and the furniture had to be kept just so, which wasn't very conducive to bringing friends into the house. Consequently, the kids formed separate friendships and pursued separate interests outside the home, and sibling bonds seemed to be weaker as a result.

This was on my mind today as a neighborhood game of Mary and Laura was raging in my backyard. It's pretty free and easy at the Darwin household, and I'm a lenient mother and neighbor in many ways, but I did have to draw the line at seeing the neighbor girl tramping around dressed up in my boots (which were in my daughter's room because she took them over when I couldn't wear them during pregnancy). Sometimes I wonder if I've set the standards too low and if we'll ever have nice things again, or, more accurately, if nice things will ever be respected. Darwin bought a nice leather chair off of Craigslist, and several times a day I swat a cat or a boy off the back of it. The cat claws, the boy tumbles; a leather hide draped over the back deters the cat, but not much deters the boy in his excess of energy. One of the neighbor girls (we have a lot of girls in the neighborhood) will go into my bedroom and pick up the baby when he starts crying and bring him to me. I appreciate that, actually, and my bedroom is not a sacred parental retreat, but it is the repository of laundry in the house, and I'm aware that my room reflects the fact that I'm about the only person on the street who doesn't have a cleaning lady.

So we're not a showcase house by any means, and the furniture is, by and large, castoffs from the common rooms of the school of hard knocks, but on the other hand, I like having the action at my house because I can keep tabs on friendships and the temperature of neighborhood relations, and the neighbor kids like coming here because we have three times the kids of most families on the street, so even if the particular kid you're looking for isn't home, there's always someone to play with. And I'm glad to be a welcoming house, somewhere kids feel safe coming. A few years ago, the kids on the corner ran over here as the paramedics helped their mom into the ambulance while she was in labor. Recently the ten-year-old with fairly severe autism wandered off from the group walking a neighbor's dog, rang my doorbell, and then headed up to attic to dance a few steps before her sister ran over to fetch her. And that was okay, because it was good to know that she would choose to come to this house.

The various kids are closer to one friend or another, but all friendships are held in common here, as are most possessions and even the beds (though not my bed; I do draw the line there). Will it foster adult sibling relationships? I don't know, but I hope that we're forging bonds now that will hold later in life. Maybe by that time we'll get to have a nice couch.

The living room all cleaned up -- see the toys put away in our sophisticated storage system on our beautiful window seats. That's the bad couch on the right.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Jesus Dies on the Cross

Bl. Teresa of Calcutta was called a fraud and hypocrite by some because instead of using donations to establish big hospitals or fund general health care, she clung to her mission to care for the dying, to bring health to souls, not bodies. She understood the crucial importance of the decisive moments at the end of life, that the transition from life to death is the pivotal point of our existence.

The last mystery of the rosary skips past the nails and the words and gets right to the heart of Christ's life on earth: his death. Unlike us, he chose the precise moment of his death. "No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again" (John 10:18). First he said, "It is finished," and then, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." He could commend his spirit to the Father in utter confidence because he had so perfectly understood and lived the will of the Father that he could allow himself to die as soon as he had finished completing it.

For the rest of us, the Father's will for our death is a mystery sometimes unfathomable in its delay or its swiftness, which is why we strive to care for our souls, and, like Bl. Teresa, the souls of others, so that at the moment of death, each person can say with Jesus, "It is finished."

Jesus Carries His Cross

Not only was Jesus forced to carry his own cross, but he had no choice about where to carry it. Every step of his way was determined by guards prodding him and the crowd bounding him. He had no chance to make a break for it. The only place he could go with the cross was Calvary.

Sometimes our path in life has been determined for us, whether through our own choices or the choices of others. Sometimes earlier sins set us on a course from which we can't deviate later, even long after the sin has been repented. Sometimes the sins of other people force our lives into a different mold than we would have chosen. When we bear our heavy cross down a road not of our choosing, Jesus is with us every step of the way, carrying our burden and his own to the inevitable ending of the Cruxifixion -- and the Resurrection.

The Crowning With Thorns

A number of years ago, I said something to someone. I thought I was telling a few home truths, drawing on my great wisdom to set someone straight (thus proving that a little education can be a dangerous thing). Not long ago, this memory bobbed to the surface, and sharp slivers of shame and remorse bit at me. How could I have behaved so cruelly? How could I have been so wantonly unkind? I was so disgusted with myself that I had to confess this ancient sin, but the recollection still pricks.

Jesus never sinned, so he never felt the shame of remembered sin, the bitter bite of stale vice. But with the crown of thorns, he takes on the stabbing pain of our guilt. He knows, physically, the way sin gets into our minds and wounds us even long after the fact. He buries our worst memories in his own head. The soldiers wove his crown of thorns; we weave our own. But Jesus gladly removes our piercing crowns and wears them for our sake.

The Scourging at the Pillar

The Scourging at the Pillar is the hardest of all the mysteries to contemplate directly because it's so viscerally brutal. The sheer cruel bloodiness of it, the immensity of suffering, is almost incomprehensible. I find that I can best meditate on it in its Marian aspect -- standing outside the praetorium with Mary, hearing the sounds of the flogging, unable to do anything but suffer with her as she suffers with Jesus. Everyone has experienced the helplessness of watching a loved one suffer without being able to alleviate any of the pain. The feeling of impotence, of being entirely other and unable to take away or at least share some of the pain, can be almost worse than the original suffering.

Bl. Elisabeth Leseur speaks of the value, and the usefulness of suffering, either physical or spiritual, directly or on account of others:
The stoics used to say, 'Suffering is nothing,' and they were not telling the truth. But, more enlightened, we Christians say, 'Suffering is everything.' Suffering asks for and gets everything; because of suffering God consents to accomplishing all things; suffering helps the gentle Jesus to save the world. At times, when I feel overwhelmed by the immensity of my desires for those I love, by the importance of what I want to obtain for them, I turn toward suffering. I ask suffering to serve as the intermediary between God and them. Suffering is the complete form of prayer, the only infallible form of action.
The pain we feel on contemplating the Scourging is our offering of love to Christ, our way of participating in this mystery with Mary.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Agony in the Garden

The first sorrowful mystery is the one in which Jesus most clearly manifests his humanity. He know what's coming, and he's just plain scared. There are plenty of times in the Gospels when Jesus prays, but he's always been confident before. This time he does what we do -- he begs God to take this horrible choice away from him. This is waiting, yes, but not passive, dull waiting. He's waiting to be confronted with a moral choice, one in which the right answer is clear. The cup is not just the Passion as we usually think of it -- the grotesque physical suffering, the loneliness of desertion, the mockery and humiliation. The cup is also making the choice that will set the entire Passion in motion, the choice to "allow it for now" (Matt. 3:15).

But Jesus isn't just thinking of himself. The cup is also Judas's betrayal, and Jesus begs the Father to spare him that -- not because of the consequences, but because of the pain of seeing a friend betray him, and because of the effect it will have on Judas himself. Jesus has accepted the necessity of the Passion, but he pleads that it might come about some other way than having one of his trusted friends hand him over. The false kiss stings more than the whips.

Jesus, in the garden, is just like us. He is scared like us. His heart breaks over betrayal and lost friendships, just like ours do. He became like us in all things but sin, and that means being scared to death and sick with grief like us. Jesus isn't remote from our sufferings. He knows. And that makes him the perfect model of fortitude, of strength in weakness. "Power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). That isn't just comforting drivel for us failures. That's Jesus, in the garden, sweating blood from sheer terror, and choosing the cup anyway.

Reading Tale of Two Cities

I'm sorry to be largely absent from these pages of late. Many of the Darwin clan have been sick (and I sit upon the knife's edge, waiting to see if I'll fall into full illness or just keep feeling like I might the next day) and things have been busy at work too.

However, my trips to and from work have been enlivened with a new audiobook: I finally gave up on Ken Follet's Fall of Giants half way through and did what I've never done with an audiobook before -- quit half way through. I'd wanted a good sweeping historical novel, so the replacement I picked up was Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, which I'd never read before. Dickens is such a quintessentially English writer that it had never occurred to me to read his book dealing with France.

I'm a bit more than half way through right now, but one of the things that has been interesting to me (coming at it knowing nothing about the story except for the couple of lines which everyone has heard quoted) is that the novel has such a very English take on the French Revolution. Dickens is, on the one hand, writing about England of eighty years before his own time (it's drinking, its penal system, it's society) with a highly critical eye and at the same time is very clear that he finds English society far better and more balanced than that of France. He goes to great lengths to show what he sees as the wrongs committed both by the aristocrats and by the common people, and how the one feeds the other. Indeed, thus far I'd say that here you get more a sense of how the different levels of society corrupt each other in this novel than in his more contemporary novels in which the social criticism is often more one-sided.

And yet, for all that Dickens arguably has a bigger ideological ax to grind than Follet, he also writes far more interesting characters than Follet does. One wouldn't call Dickens' characterization deep, but it is far, far preferable to anything in Fall of Giants. (Did I mention I didn't like that one?)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Caplan on the Value of College

I've written a bit in the past on the question of whether college is "worth it" in the economic sense -- given the rapidly increasing cost of college balanced against the earnings gap between those with and without college degrees. Bearing also had an interesting series of posts on this topic a while back, which the above post was a response to.

Those interested in the topic may find this recent EconTalk episode interesting (the transcript is pretty good if you'd rather read than listen) in which Russ Roberts interviews fellow economist Bryan Caplan about the value of a college education. Caplan is a proponent of the signaling model of the value of a college degree. According to this model, the economic value assigned to a college degree (the extent to which employers require it or pay more to people who have one) is not primarily a matter of what you learn in college (the skills acquisition model) but rather a matter of signaling that you are the sort of person who can get into college and then stick with it and earn a degree. One of the things that Caplan points out in support of this view is that virtually no value is assigned to having completed most of college (say if you stop one course short of getting your degree) -- which in a skills acquisition model is not necessarily what you'd expect.

Here's a bit of the transcript where Caplan lays out how the signaling theory and the wage gap interact according to his thinking:
Bryan: So, in 2011, college graduates made 83% more than high school graduates. And high school graduates, mainly people who have gone to college not at all.

Russ: How has that amount changed over time?

Bryan: It's gone up quite a bit. So, maybe around 1970 it would have been only about 35 or 40%, so it's something like doubled over the last 40 years, during my lifetime.

Russ: And what are some of the standard explanations for why that's happened? So, why is college more productive for people who attend and have graduated?

Bryan: The usual story is that there has been a lot of psychological change in the economy, globalization as well, and that this has somehow made it more important to be a college graduate. And among most economists, they do tend to focus on the skills that you supposedly receive in school. And so they think of it as: it's more important to have general thinking ability and reasoning skills, as well as different technical skills you might learn in school; and that when the economy is more technologically complex, and also when you are competing in a global market where one person could mess up a big firm, it's more important to have these skills. I'd say that's probably the usual view.

Russ: And what do you think of that view?

Bryan: I think that there is some truth in it, but it's greatly exaggerated and there's a lot of other things that are going on that most people who study education would rather not talk about.

Russ: What are a few of those?

Bryan: Well, one of the main ones, strangely, for economists to ignore is--even though they do--is that people who go to college are not the same even when they start. So, the kind of person who goes to college is different at the beginning. And there are a lot of reasons to think that people who are different in the beginning would have made more money even if they hadn't gone to college. The most obvious one is that people who go to college are generally smarter. It's not popular to say it, but all of the evidence confirms it. And they were smarter before they started. Now, there's also a lot of evidence that--

Russ: We'll get into that later. But why would that have changed over time? This is the reason--this is an incredible change, right? I don't think there is any parallel development in the area of education over any other time period, 30, 40-year time period, a doubling of the returns to education. You are suggesting that--you started by saying that the standard answer, which is, well, the world is more complex, there's all this technology, and so college students are more valuable--you are not convinced of that. I'm not either, by the way. I used to be more sympathetic to that until I started reading you. So, I'm interested: Why would think that would change over time?

Bryan: Right. Well, again, there's an important distinction to make. You need to distinguish between college graduates being more valuable and college itself being more valuable. Those are two different things. So the main problem that I have with the usual view is that I take a look at what people actually study in school, and I see very little evidence that most students are acquiring any technical skills. And also, surprisingly, when I read educational psychology, there is a lot of question about whether college students are actually learning much in the way of thinking skills, either. So, a more reasonable story is not so much that the skills that college teaches are more valuable than they used to be, but rather the kind of people who go to college are more valuable than they used to be. Which is quite different.

EconTalk is a consistently very high quality interview show, and this one in particular is worth listening to if it's a topic that interests you.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Living Under Cover

One of the things that struck me about Brendan Eich being forced out as CEO of Mozilla is precisely that this is not a guy who is known as some kind of a political activist. Indeed, some of his long time fellow executives (who once they heard of the donation joined in the sentiment that he did not belong at Mozilla) expressed shock that Eich even held such views.
Baker said that she had not known about Eich’s views on gay marriage throughout most of their working relationship, until the donation came to light last year.

“That was shocking to me, because I never saw any kind of behavior or attitude from him that was not in line with Mozilla’s values of inclusiveness,” she said, noting that there was a long and public community process about what to do about it in which Eich, then CTO, participated. “But I overestimated that experience.”

Baker — who became emotional at one point during the interview — noted that she was “doing a fair amount of self-reflection and I am wondering how did I miss it that this would matter more when he was the CEO.” [source]
I don't know if I'd claim to be that far under cover. I have a pretty strict personal policy of not talking about politics or religion at work unless directly asked, but the pictures of six kids at work are probably a give-away that there's something not-quite-savory about me from a modern secular perspective. Still, I figure that at work my job is to do pricing analytics, and so I tend to stick to business and lead a fairly under-cover life. This is enabled by the fact that in the companies I've worked for, there seems to be a general consensus that this is how it's done. The cultural hot topics generally don't get discussed, and so getting along isn't a matter of cravenly denying one's beliefs as everyone simply agreeing to leave contentious topics outside the door. If I'm asked to do something that violates my beliefs, I'm prepared to take a stand at that point, but I'm willing to not discuss things (including my beliefs) that make people uncomfortable so long as I'm not asked to actively violate those quietly held beliefs.

A while back, at another company, I had a boss who was gay and lived with a long term partner. He knew that I had a lot of kids and that I was Catholic, so he may have guessed that I had moral objections to his lifestyle -- or he may have assumed that I was some more enlightened form of Catholic who didn't agree with the Church. He didn't ask, and I didn't tell.

Living under cover can be a bit wearing at times, and I find myself applying it (without any real reason) to other areas of my life as well that have nothing to do with culture war controversy. I have a policy of never connecting with anyone from work on Facebook or mentioning that I have a blog, which seems like a straightforward, common sense sort of precaution. But other things I usually don't mention I don't even have a good reason for: hobbies, books I'm reading, working on a novel. Anything that seems a trifle too distinctive my first reaction is to not bother mentioning unless it comes up. (When I do run into a co-worker who I realize shares my religious and cultural worldview, that immediately creates a much closer bond in that he or she becomes one of the few people I can talk unguardedly with.)

All this can be a little wearing, but I'd always assumed it was simply the natural cost of being a cultural and religious minority (which although most Americans profess some form of Christianity it what being an orthodox Catholic nonetheless makes one in modern society.)

As such, the Eich affair has been particularly chilling, since the message that it sends is: "How you behave at work is not enough. If you dare to have beliefs as a person which you act on (no matter how far away from work you are when you do so) we will hunt you down and drive you out."

That doesn't particularly make me feel like living more "out and proud" at work in relation to my beliefs. My reticence is habitual at this point. And some of it is simply personality. But it is a good reminder of what we're up against. No matter how willing I am to keep myself to myself while in the office, the feeling will not necessarily always be mutual. It's a realization the breeds detachment -- at any time all that you have may be taken from you -- but also a certain feeling of spoiling for a fight.

Friday Oddness: Tom Lehrer

Here's something for your Friday, a in depth article about the work and legacy of Tom Lehrer (surprisingly in depth and interesting for a buzzfeed article.)

When Lehrer entered graduate school in 1946 — at 18 — he found himself at the center of a group of friends who called themselves the “Graduate Gang.” They amused themselves with the quizzes, crossword puzzles, and math games they brought to their dinners in the Harvard dining hall. It was, in retrospect, a gilded circle: One member, Philip Warren Anderson, went on to win a Nobel Prize in physics; Lewis Branscomb served as the chief scientist of IBM; and Robinson was an executive director of the Carnegie Corporation.

“Tom was the intellectual leader in the sense that he was the funniest and he would come up with cuter problems,” Robinson said, adding that when Anderson wrote his 50th Anniversary Report for the Harvard class of ‘94, he’d recall: “When I was a student with Tom Lehrer…”
Within the year, though, his graduate group of friends had begun to trickle out of Cambridge, first the chemist, then the physicists, then the historians who took much longer to get a Ph.D. As a souvenir for them, Lehrer decided in 1953 to make a record of the songs he had written at Harvard. He recorded Songs by Tom Lehrer in one session at Trans Radio studios in Boston on a 10-inch LP. He wrote the liner notes himself, called upon the wife of Robinson’s boss to do the illustrations, and had the covers printed at Shea Brothers printers near Harvard Square, just up the street from where he and Robinson shared a room on the third floor of a house.
By 1954 — when he was trying to avoid the draft by working for a defense contractor — he had sold 10,000 records. He had also quickly dissolved Lehrer Music, of which he was president, in December for “various reasons,” among them: “Certain stockholders objected to the president’s face.” He gave up and shipped off to Fort Meade in 1955, an early officer in the National Security Agency. (He is believed, during that time, to have invented vodka Jell-O shots.) By the end of the decade, he had sold 370,000 records.
Yet despite his enormous success, global popularity, and the release of his second album, More Songs by Tom Lehrer that year, it was exactly at this time that Lehrer first told Robinson he wanted to stop performing. Lehrer has told friends and various interviewers that he didn’t enjoy “anonymous affection.” And while his work was widely enjoyed at the time, it was also something of a scandal — the clever songs about math and language were for everyone, but Lehrer’s clear-eyed contemplation of nuclear apocalypse was straightforwardly disturbing....

People would always ask him: “What do you want to do as a career?” Robinson said.
“What’s wrong with graduate school as a career?!” Lehrer would respond. He spent some 15 years working on and off on his dissertation, until he finally gave it up in 1965.
The space for one of the animating forces in Lehrer’s music, his liberal politics, was shrinking too. Lehrer was a hero of the anti-nuclear, civil rights left; he occupied the bleeding edge of the elite liberalism of the day. “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie” minces no words in its scorn for the industry of American nostalgia, and particularly for the American South: “I wanna talk with Southern gentlemen / And put my white sheet on again / I ain’t seen one good lynchin’ in years … The land of the boll weevil / Where the laws are medieval / Is callin’ me to come and nevermore roam.”
But his left was the square, suit-wearing, high-culture left. His circle at Harvard included Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the renowned historian, JFK biographer, and then-nominal chairman of the Cambridge chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. His political hero was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, the man whom Richard Nixon damagingly dismissed as an “egghead.”
Stevenson’s losing battle marked the end of a political tradition, and also the beginning of the end of a kind of Ivy League liberal intellectualism’s place atop the Democratic Party. What was coming was the New Left and the counterculture, something whose aesthetics Lehrer couldn’t stand, even if their politics weren’t necessarily at odds.
“It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffeehouse or a college auditorium and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against, like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on,” he deadpans in his introduction to the whiny “Folk Song Army” on That Was the Year That Was. “We are the folk song army / Everyone of us cares / We all hate poverty, war, and injustice / Unlike the rest of you squares.”
The New Left agreed with Lehrer on Vietnam. His last public performance, in fact, was on a fundraising tour for George McGovern in 1972. But the singer — who saw himself as “a liberal, one of the last” — felt less at home in the new Democratic Party. In the end, Stevenson’s party, and Lehrer’s, lost — and with it, at least to Lehrer’s mind, a prevailing sense of humor. “Things I once thought were funny are scary now,” he told People magazine in 1982. “I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.”
”The liberal consensus, which was the audience for this in my day, has splintered and fragmented in such a way that it’s hard to find an issue that would be comparable to, say, lynching,” he also told the New York Times in Purdum’s 2000 article, which was part of his last round of interviews to promote an anthology of his work. ”Everybody knows that lynching is bad. But affirmative action vs. quotas, feminism vs. pornography, Israel vs. the Arabs? I don’t know which side I’m on anymore. And you can’t write a funny song that uses, ‘On the other hand.”’

When I was young, my family had a copy of "An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer", and I used to listen to it often, belting out Poisoning Pigeons in the Park and The Masochism Tango in childish tones. I'd never particularly noticed Lehrer's politics, though as a kid and listening forty years after his heyday, that's hardly surprising.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Testing in Daily Life: The Efficient Traffic Hypothesis

Josiah Neeley has an utterly charming article at The Federalist on his attempt to test his "efficient traffic hypothesis":
Probably the most frustrating part of my commute is when traffic in my lane is at a stand-still, and I’m forced to watch cars in the next lane zip by on their way to freedom. When you’re in that situation, the obvious thing to do is to switch to the lane that’s moving faster. But somehow it seems like as soon as you do, traffic in that lane grinds to a halt, while the lane you were just in starts moving again.

After brooding on this topic for longer than I care to admit, I developed a theory I like to call the Efficient Traffic Hypothesis (ETH). ... [which] says that you can’t beat the traffic. If you see a lane that’s moving faster than the one you’re in, chances are lots of other people have noticed the same thing, so it won’t be long before that lane slows to accommodate all the lane switchers. If it seems like whatever lane you’re in is always the slowest, that’s probably just a statistical illusion.

The Efficient Market Hypothesis is controversial, and there have been numerous studies trying to test whether it is actually true. The Efficient Traffic Hypothesis is less controversial, mainly because I just made it up. But being a seeker after truth, I decided to try to test it myself.

Using the website RandomizeMe, I created my own Randomized Controlled Trial (the same sort of test used to determine the efficacy of new pharmaceuticals). Every morning before leaving for work I flip a coin to determine whether that morning’s group will be in the “control group” (where I trying to reduce my commute time by switching lanes when it seems advantageous) or the “left group” (where I stay in the leftmost lane for as much of my commute as possible). I then record the time at the beginning and end of the commute, along with any unusual features of the day (e.g. was it raining?)

The hardest part of the experiment is just sticking to it. When it’s a left hand lane only day, it’s often quite difficult to keep to the plan when my lane is going forward at a crawl. But then I remind myself that this is for Science, and I soldier on. Perhaps more importantly, I’ve noticed that my subjective sense of how bad the traffic is on a particular day doesn’t necessarily line up with the objective data. On many a day I feel like my drive has gone on forever, only to find that it wasn’t any longer than on previous days where it felt like I was flying down the highway.

After six weeks of observations, I am still months away from having a large enough sample to really test the theory. But I got curious, and so ran some preliminary numbers. It turns out that, excluding Fridays (which tend to have much lighter traffic), my average commute time when I stick to a single lane is 58 minutes and 36 seconds. By contrast, when I try to beat the traffic by switching lanes, my commute is reduced to an average of 58 minutes and 30 seconds.

I'm actually surprised that it's so even, though given the way Josiah frames it, I find it believable. During the year or so I had a 70 mile commute across the Los Angeles basin (which took an hour and a half in and a two hours back) I became convinced that it was actually the opposite: that by the time you notice that another lane is going fast and manage to switch into it, you've probably caught the point right before the peak of the "market" for speed in that lane and it's about to slow down from too many people switching in, so if you switch lanes all the time it will actually take you longer. However, I never tested my theory as Josiah is doing, and I find his results quite believable.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Sick Day Poetry by Annonimus

We're laid up nicely here, with various cold symptoms. The kids all have the cough and the sniffles, and I have the sinus headache and the full-body ache. But illness can't keep a good wordsmith down. Here is some poetry that Eleanor is attributing to the great poet Annonimus.


Mom your the best.
Oh mother I love you.
The mom is good.
How can the mom be good.
End of the mom is near.
Rise up mom and start the car! It's the end of the world.


Father we love you.
Always we seek you.
The cat eats father.
How will you meet a moose?
End of the dad is nearing.
Rotate your body to see your doom! The cat is hungery!?!


Boring boy how can you live?
Reading e-mail is faitil!
On end you fiddle with the mouse!
The keyboard is the spiders web!
His web traps you with games and music.
Eternaly you stare at lighted screen and vidio!
Regularly your eyes square up! The hours tick by your days are numberd! Get away from the screen!


Sinester girl you are a threat!
In silence you plot evil!
Sneakely your mind builds plans.
The gears in your head turn twords candy.
En route exactly to crime.
Rumor says you are plotting D-day. All figures tremble before you. Go brush your teeth!

I don't know what to call this sweet new style, but Annonimus certainly shares the zaniness of the Darwin children.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Hobby Lobby, Hypocrisy, Ethical Investing

Grant Gallicho of Commonweal believes that he's caught Hobby Lobby being inconsistent in their commitment to not supporting abortion. Citing a Mother Jones expose he notes that Hobby Lobby has a 401(k) retirement plan for its employees and that it provides matching contributions to that 401(k) (meaning that when employees contribute up to a certain percent of their incomes to the 401(k) savings plan, the company will provide additional contributions to the retirement plan, beyond that employee's normal earnings, to "match" the employee contribution.) This is actually pretty impressive for a retailer, and I would think that people who care about living wages and such would applaud such a step, but instead it has turned into a "gotcha". You see, Hobby Lobby's 401(k), like most others including the one I have at my employer, offers a short list of basic mutual funds between which employees can allocate their retirement funds. Research with the managers of these funds has revealed that some of these funds in turn invest in pharmaceutical companies which produce abortion drugs and implements.
These companies include Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, which makes Plan B and ParaGard, a copper IUD, and Actavis, which makes a generic version of Plan B and distributes Ella. Other stock holdings in the mutual funds selected by Hobby Lobby include Pfizer, the maker of Cytotec and Prostin E2, which are used to induce abortions; Bayer, which manufactures the hormonal IUDs Skyla and Mirena; AstraZeneca, which has an Indian subsidiary that manufactures Prostodin, Cerviprime, and Partocin, three drugs commonly used in abortions; and Forest Laboratories, which makes Cervidil, a drug used to induce abortions. Several funds in the Hobby Lobby retirement plan also invested in Aetna and Humana, two health insurance companies that cover surgical abortions, abortion drugs, and emergency contraception in many of the health care policies they sell. [source]
Gallicho seems to think this is some sort of damning proof that Hobby Lobby isn't being true to their claimed principles:
The problem for Hobby Lobby's argument is that investing in companies that manufacture drugs and devices that enable contraception and abortion is quite different from paying for insurance that enables an employee's choice to use services the Greens object to. Hobby Lobby selects the funds it invests in. As Redden points out, if the Greens wanted to, they could have chosen funds that screen out so-called sin stocks (they tend to perform as well as other funds). But they didn't. (Hobby Lobby's legal counsel, the Becket Fund, did not immediately reply to my request for comment.)

Hobby Lobby's employee health insurance used to include the contraception services the Greens don't want to cover anymore. Obamacare did the Greens the favor of waking them up to the realities of the health-insurance market, so before filing suit they canceled coverage of the services they consider morally objectionable. They seem not to have been so scrupulous with their investments--and investments are a different animal. The cooperation is more direct. Basically Hobby Lobby is saying to these funds: Here's our money. Make more of it for us doing what you do. From a moral-theological perspective, that brings Hobby Lobby significantly closer to the evil in question than would any premium payments that could allow employees to use contraceptive services. First, in the United States, benefits are considered part of an employee's compensation. Second, employees might not avail themselves of such services. Third, if the Greens decided to stop offering health coverage, employees would most likely end up buying plans that included contraception on the health-care exchanges. Obamacare doesn't require any employers to cover drugs designed to induce abortion.

What might last week's oral arguments have sounded like had this been reported earlier? Hard to say. But I wouldn't want to defend a plaintiff claiming that any role facilitating the use of potentially abortifacient drugs is inimical to its religious beliefs but can't be bothered to figure out whether the millions it invests annually directly supports the production of drugs that always cause abortions. One or two justices might start to wonder how sincerely Hobby Lobby holds those beliefs it says ought to exempt them from complying with the law.
I find this argument against Hobby Lobby unconvincing at two levels.

First, I think it's a reach to hold that someone is making a moral statement with their selection of a mutual fund. Mutual funds typically invest in a large number of companies, they change their portfolio relatively frequently, and the selection criteria, especially in the sort of funds offered in a typical 401(k), are often fairly rote: all stocks that are on a given index, for instance: all 500 stocks which are on the S&P 500 index. I do not think that you are any more morally endorsing the companies invested in by a mutual fund by investing in it via a 401(k) than you are endorsing every person and company which your bank makes loans to when you put money into a savings account and earn interest based on the success of the bank's loans. I can imagine some edge cases where this would not apply. For instance, if the selection criteria of a fund were specifically around some type of business activity that you object to morally (e.g. a fund specifically designed to invest in pornography, abortion providers and sweat shops) I think you would be considered to be violating your morals by investing in that fund. However, if the "Small Cap Index" fund turns out to include investments in a few companies you object to (simply because they fall within the market capitalization range the fund is designed to invest in) I don't think you're necessarily morally involving yourself in those companies activities. There are funds (such as Ave Maria Mutual Funds) which specifically seek to duplicate the criteria of other investment funds while leaving out companies involved in certain morally objectionable practices, and it might represent a conscientious choice for a company such as Hobby Lobby to choose a fund provider such as that instead, but I think Gallicho significantly over-estimates the moral involvement in a companies mission which an investor in a mutual fund has.

Second, and far more importantly, I think it's important to hold that if we believe in religious freedom at all, that religious freedom is not predicated on the consistency of the person seeking to assert his religious freedom. Let's think for a moment about what the idea of religious freedom is. I'd argue that it means that as a political society we believe that there is a value to not forcing people to violate their claimed religious/moral convictions, even if that means the rest of society having to incur some degree of inconvenience or inconsistency. (So, for example, the Amish requested and received an exemption to the Social Security system when it was instituted, because they believed that relying on a state run retirement plan violated the solidarity required of their communities.) As such, it seems to me that the granting of the leeway for religious freedom is very much dependent on what the believer claims is required by his beliefs -- not what outside observers think may be reasonable. Thus, the issue of whether Gallicho thinks it is consistent of the owners of Hobby Lobby to want to purchase health coverage that does not cover emergency contraception, while having standard mutual funds available in their company matched 401(k), really doesn't come into play. The key point is that the owners themselves assert that it would be a violation of their religious principles to purchase the health coverage in question.

One can imagine some interesting reverse examples of this. For instance, suppose that at some point in the future an "Ownership Society Retirement Act" is put in place, which requires all companies to offer a 401(k) with a minimum amount of matching, and specified certain index funds such as the S&P 500 which should be available in all such plans. Commonweal announces that they object to being forced to offer a retirement program which includes investments in petroleum companies and arms manufacturers. Should people who don't like the folks at Commonweal get to veto their claim by digging up some way in which Commonweal relies for its existence on the military and the conventional energy sector?

I would argue: No. Frankly, moral scruples can often look a bit odd to those who do not share them. I don't pretend to understand why the Amish are okay with some uses of modern technology and not okay with others, but I do think that it's important to not force them to violate the moral scruples which they say they have. Similarly, regardless of whether one thinks that Hobby Lobby ought to also change the investments available in their 401(k), I think that their religious objections to offering coverage for the morning after pill on their company health plan should be respected.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Gilded Ashes: a giveaway!

Fresh off the e-presses: Gilded Ashes, a new novella from Darwin's sister Rosamund Hodge!

A romantic reimagining of the classic Cinderella fairy tale, Gilded Ashes is a novella by Rosamund Hodge set in the same world as her debut novel, Cruel Beauty. 
Maia doesn't see the point of love when it only brings people pain: her dead mother haunts anyone who hurts Maia, and her stepsisters are desperate for their mother's approval, even though she despises them. Meanwhile, Anax, heir to the Duke of Sardis, doesn't believe in love either—not since he discovered that his childhood sweetheart was only using him for his noble title. But when Maia's and Anax's paths cross before the royal ball, they discover that love might not be the curse they once thought. And it might even be the one thing that can save them both.
This is short and gripping enough to be read in one sitting, as I can attest. Rose doesn't allow any of her characters to be one-dimensional, and her take on Cinderella gives the elements of the original story a jolt. Why is it that Cinderella never lashes out at her step-family for their cruel treatment of her? Because, in Gilded Ashes, Cinderella has to pretend to be happy all the time lest her mother's ghost do evil things to anyone who makes her little girl cry.

Two lucky commenters will get free copies when we pull names from the tasseled hat at 9 pm tonight. Don't want to wait that long? It's only $1.99, less than a cup of Starbucks and far more memorable.

UPDATE: Alrighty, to the commenters go the spoils! Kharking and Melanie, send us an email at darwincatholic (at) to start your evening's enjoyment.

Friday, April 04, 2014


The techie world has been rocked by a witch hunt in the name of tolerance over the last week, as gay rights activists have demanded that Mozilla (the non-profit organization which produces the FireFox web browser) fire its newly named CEO Brendan Eich, because six years ago he made a $1,000 personal donation to the political campaign for Proposition 8, the successful California ballot initiative to amend the California constitution to define marriage as only possible between one man and one woman. There have been previous cases of activists digging through the rolls of who provided donations to the Prop 8 campaign, and targeting people for their support of traditional marriage. Eich's donation apparently became known within the company and caused some controversy among employees about a year ago, and this then escalated to a wider campaign last week when he was named the new CEO. This campaign claimed its scalp yesterday as Eich resigned from both the CEO position and Mozilla's board.

Mozilla put up a blog post announcing the resignation and stating that employing Eich (who was a founder of the company and one of the original developers of JavaScript) was not in keeping with their values:
Mozilla prides itself on being held to a different standard and, this past week, we didn’t live up to it. We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves.

We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act. We didn’t move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We’re sorry. We must do better.

Brendan Eich has chosen to step down from his role as CEO. He’s made this decision for Mozilla and our community.

Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.

Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. We welcome contributions from everyone regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views. Mozilla supports equality for all.

We have employees with a wide diversity of views. Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public. This is meant to distinguish Mozilla from most organizations and hold us to a higher standard. But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community.
The wording of the last paragraph in particular, since Eich was forced out precisely for holding different views than the majority of Mozilla's employees and other vocal advocates in the tech community.

It seems to me that this serves as a key example of a new and increasingly strident intolerance, a deep illiberality, on the part of the "liberal" end of the political spectrum. One online commentator I read had this to say in justification of forcing Eich out of the company he helped found:
The only way to defend recently won liberties is to ensure that activists attempting to deprive people of said liberties are regarded (justly, in this and similar cases) as politically untouchable and deplorable. Gays had to spend millennia hiding in shadows, living secret lives in fear of blacklisting or, more likely, outright murder; making modern opponents of gay equality politically unpalatable in high-profile leadership positions doesn't even begin to compare.

Solidifying gains by destroying the political power of those who advocate retrogression is always necessary.

This attitude strikes me as destructive to any kind of democracy or pluralistic society. Democracy does not simply mean that the side with the most votes wins. Maintaining a democratic culture requires that the winning majority not immediately turn around and use their political and economic power to destroy the lives and livelihoods of those they have successfully defeated (this time.) That approach to democracy naturally leads to one party dictatorship or civil war. It is unstable. It is mob rule.

Fortunately, not even all gay advocates are on board with this scorched earth approach. Andrew Sullivan writes:
Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.
But I can't help thinking that on his side, Sullivan is in the minority.

It's tempting in this kind of situation to turn to bluster: What? They want to take it to the streets? Well, bring it! We'll see who wins that!

But while it's emotionally satisfying to revel in how bad the other side is (and don't get me wrong, I think that behavior of the people demanding that Eich be kicked out of his job is darkly totalitarian and says very bad things about where the "progressive" side of our culture is heading) what I want is not some kind of a tit-for-tat battle in which each side seeks to purge and destroy each other. I actually support a liberal society in which you do not fire someone because you disagree with his political and religious beliefs. But with each outrage like this, that moderation becomes harder to maintain.

I'm not among those who thinks we're heading for an actual civil war -- our country is far too prosperous and lazy for that -- but I do think this kind of thing represents a degradation of the political world similar to that which (in countries with far more people who believe they have nothing to lose and thus are willing to resort to civil violence) we see in countries getting ready to destroy their democratic cultures and resort to fighting over who gets to punish their opponents using the machinery of the economy and the state.

In this case, of course, what we see is people using cultural and economic power, not state power to hound their opponents. However, I'm not convinced there's necessarily a bright line of difference in terms of destroying the culture of democracy. Even those within Mozilla who profess themselves very glad of Eich's ouster admit that there is no evidence of his ever discriminating in the workplace -- indeed some express having been surprised when they first heard that the supported Prop 8 -- but merely working with someone who holds different political and moral views has become repugnant to them. That is not a good sign.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Celebrity Selfies, Bad Fashion, and Bulbs

I'm in a transitional period right now, so a lot of clothes don't look good on me (and I don't even have a lot of clothes), but I have this sweater that I've just realized is particularly unflattering. I am what could be described euphemistically as "buxom", and this characteristic is accentuated by the fact of actually nursing a baby. There is a cultural idea of filling out one's top as being "sexy", but I'm here to tell you that what it actually looks like is being fat, and wearing a certain kind of cardigan makes one look really fat, and until I saw myself in a photo last night I didn't recognize exactly how fat that was.

Which is all a long way of explaining why, in spite of the factor of awesomeness involved, I'm not posting my selfie with John Allen.

John Allen gave a talk last night at the Josephinium in Columbus on the topic of Pope Francis and Ecumenism, and I went with friend of Darwins and commenter Kelly. (The young nursling stayed at home, which was a good call as the crowd was, on average, about sixty times older than him.) Allen is a fantastically dynamic speaker and full of colorful anecdotes about popes past and present (my favorite was the one about the venerable cardinal who explained why he was wearing plain black clericals instead of his usual scarlet-and-lace: "With this pope, simple is the new chic"), and he laid out what he saw as the three pillars of Francis's year-old papacy:

1. Service as the hallmark of leadership.
2. The brilliant, crafty mind of the Jesuit that understands the effectiveness of his genuine modeling of simplicity and service.
3. Mercy, as exemplified in one of his most often repeated statements: "The Lord never tires of forgiving", and in his motto, "Choosing through the eyes of mercy."

In talking about ecumenism, Allen made several points about Francis's experience and ambitions:

1. In Argentina, which has traditionally been a Roman Catholic stronghold, the Pentecostals and Evangelicals are making extravagant inroads, poaching Catholics at the rate of 8000 a day. As archbishop, Jorge Bergoglio made a point of establishing good ecumenical relations with with the local Pentecostal and Evangelical leaders instead of being hostile. You don't stem a bleeding wound by constantly picking at the scab.

2. Under Francis, Judaism has regained pride of place as the paradigmatic relationship for Catholic/non-Christian interfaith dialogue, not Islam. Allen made the point that European cardinals must of necessity carry the heavy burdens of the past, distant and recent, in their interactions with Judaism, but Bergoglio, coming from the New World, is free to focus on what can be achieved in the present.

He also emphasized the commonality of Benedict and Francis, their warm friendship, and firmly contradicted the prevailing media narrative of "Francis good/Benedict bad".


Driving home I reveled in the positive luxury of driving Darwin's 17-year-old beat-up Toyota. My new ride is a van, a mammoth van, a brand-new Nissan twelve-seater which is just a bit smaller and easier to handle than a Mack truck. I cut my teeth driving a twelve-seater, but I must have lost the knack over the years, because this van terrifies me. I'm relearning how to park and calculate my blind spot and compensate for not being able to see out the rear-view mirror.

So I was pleasantly tooling up my street, eyeing someone's strange blue lantern light, when it struck me that the blue lantern was in front of my house. I rolled slowly into the driveway and stared at it. Had we always had a blue light bulb in that lantern? Why had it suddenly appeared now? What did it mean? And come to that, Darwin hadn't answered the phone the few times I'd tried to call him on my ride home. Was the blue light a signal? Was it a warning to me not to enter the house because God knows what I'd find?

But I did enter the house and found Darwin walking the baby, who drooled sullenly at me, and heard the obvious explanation of the blue light: the neighbor, who has a daughter with Autism, had brought us a blue bulb and asked if we'd put it in as an awareness-raiser for Autism Speaks, and Darwin, who didn't have the heart to deny anyone as sweet as the neighbor, put it in.

Unexpected blue bulbs and unflattering sweaters -- that's one of my six-word memoirs.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Rights Talk

Kyle has in interesting piece up over at Ordinary Gentlemen dealing with the question of what one can have a right to. He's responding to a Matt Walsh piece, and I'm not remotely a fan of Walsh, but I have the feeling that Walsh is hinting inarticulately at a fairly standard conservative idea about rights which Kyle is perhaps not encountering all that clearly. Walsh's original assertion is that, "You don’t have a right to a product that must be provided to you through governmental coercion of a third party." Kyle responds:
If Walsh meant that you don’t have a right to force other people to buy products for you, or that governmental coercion is a poor means of providing you with products, he phrased this sentence quite oddly. If, as he wrote, he meant to deny a right pertaining to a product, then he’s implying a questionable theory of rights.

What if a product can be provided to you without governmental coercion? Do you then have a right to the product? If so, what is the basis of that right? It can’t be your need for it or the possibility of satisfying it, because those conditions can be present where there’s governmental coercion.

With or without governmental coercion, you need water, food, clothing, shelter, and other life necessities, but according to Walsh, you don’t have a right to these goods if the government has to coerce someone into providing them to you. Your need for them and their availability to you do not establish your right to them. Or if either or both of these conditions do establish a right, the right vanishes under the condition that it must be provided to you through governmental coercion. Is your right to basic human needs so relative?

In general conservatives and libertarians hold what I'll call a negative view of rights rather than a positive view of rights.

Thus, the right to free exercise of religion is a right to be able to practice your religion just as you would have were there no other party to show up and order you around. The right to free speech is the right to say what you think to the same extent that you could were there no one to show up and order you not to. The right to free association is the right to form communities and groups in the same way you could were there not some bigger and badder group to show up and order you not to. The right to private property is the right to hold on to that which you make yourself or gain through free exchange with others -- just as if there were not someone else to show up and take it from you.

In other words, this view of rights holds that the state should not force itself into all aspects of your life. It should restrain itself from interfering in certain areas. In this sense, it applies to the state in a special way that it doesn't apply to others. So, for instance, the right to free speech means that you can express yourself in your own venue without being forcibly shut up, but it doesn't mean that some other private third party (say, a newspaper) is required to print your opinions. It just means that the state can't arrest you for speaking your mind, or show up and confiscate your printing press because they don't like what you printed.

Now, given that, it doesn't make much sense to talk about a "right to food" or a "right to water" or a "right to shelter" -- except to the extent that it is wrong for the state to show up and take away your food, your water, or your shelter. Someone holding to this negative vision of rights might hold that you have a right to pursue food, water and shelter (or separately that you have a moral duty to provide food, water and shelter to those around you who are in need of it but don't have the ability to provide it to themselves) but they wouldn't argue it's a right because it's not something you naturally have. If there's a famine and there is no food to be had, saying "I have a right to food!" won't make your plate fill. However, even if there's a famine and you're in the midst of dying, you can still say what's on your mind unless some other person shows up and tries to stop you.

The view of rights which produces a "right to food" or a "right to shelter" isn't based on the idea of "what dignities does a person naturally have unless someone shows up to take them away" but rather on "what things should the state commit to providing to its citizens." It is, I'd argue, a somewhat later vision of rights: a mid 19th century one rather than a late 18th century one. Which is perhaps why this positive view of rights (the right to something) is far more common in Europe, in which the major democracies date to the late 19th or the 20th century, while the earlier negative view of rights is more common among US conservatives who date their formative influence to the American Revolution.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Pope Resigns Due To Blogger Pressure

Spring is shaping up to be the big news season for the Vatican, as yet another surprise resignation rocks the Catholic world:
In a shock April 1, 2014 announcement the Vatican has stated that Pope Francis is resigning today and Pope Benedict will resume his duties as Pope.

Pope Francis is quoted as naming two factors in his decision for resigning: 1. The rich Italian cooking that could get him up to 400 pounds if he stayed in Rome; and 2. Criticisms from Catholic blogs, especially in America. Noting that his predecessor had warned him about reading the blogs, Pope Francis was disturbed by the divisions his election had caused. “I do not want to be the cause of acrimony among Catholic bloggers. If I stay as Pope it could be another 'torture debate', and I doubt if Western civilization could survive that.”

As for Pope Benedict, he is described as rested, fit and rearing to resume his duties as Pope. Father Lombardi, Vatican press spokesman, said that Pope Benedict feels 75 after months of sleeping all night and eating hearty monastery food. As for blogs, Pope Benedict stopped reading them after the condom flap, according to Father Lombardi, although he conceded that the Pope did sneak a peak at Eye of the Tiber for a laugh now and then.

Read the rest...

Reaction to the surprise move was mixed, with arch traditionalists saying this was yet another shocking move to undermine doctrine and that now they've thought about it they don't like Benedict XVI much either.